Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Occupy movement

I've been back and forth on the Occupy movement. On the one hand I sympathize with their goals, as a liberal agree with many of the typical liberal stances. I see the people making 53% pictures bragging about working two jobs without having healthcare as if that's something that's desired. As if one needs to work 60 hours in order to be a hard worker, or one needs to go without healthcare in order to demonstrate self-reliance. These are horrible ideas, and it's a shame people genuinely are duped into believing them, and being proud of those beliefs. My sympathies overwhelmingly lie with the 99%/Occupy folks. But I have very serious misgivings about everything beyond their general goals, and any brevity in the objections I list below is more likely due to tiredness rather than running out of objections.

  • They've taken the admirable goal of equality and gone too far trying to achieve it
  • They try to obtain false meaningfulness using cheap tricks
  • They abandon facts-based reality when it suits their message
  • Everything has a pathological need to be recognized as smart/clever/original/valuable running through it

To begin with, they've taken a healthy fear of leadership co-opting the movement thereby not truly reflecting the interests of the participants and turned it into something plain silly. Any group has to express common things (otherwise why band together?) and they've constructed an elaborate system of working groups, spokes councils, and assemblies with participation via hand signals. As can be expected, some people have split and formed their own councils, groups, and assemblies. There are no leaders, there is no method to ensure cooperation, decisions can be reversed immediately, and no individual is accountable. They've taken a desire for equality to such an extreme that their decision-making process resembles a dysfunctional sociological classroom experiment.

The Guy Fawkes masks. I guess they feel that wearing them automatically renders one cool, or that by putting a piece of plastic on your face your message is automatically transformed into something deep and respectable. A person merely speaking? Rubbish! A person speaking while wearing a piece of plastic covering their face? They're transforming the nature of society! It makes no sense to me, it's a cheap ploy designed to carry the false impression of serious meaning and being an important person. It's an attempt to get something important without working for it, and that's the opposite of their overall message.

Pretending they're innocent bystanders being brutally attacked by Big [anything] via police officers. I get that police brutality exists, I get that we've given police officers special authority and they should be held to a higher standard, I get that some police officers abuse that authority. These are all things we agree on. But... they take that reality and exaggerate it beyond the facts. The Occupy movement often pretends that when you physically assault a police officer they won't protect themselves. There's a line as to how aggressive you should be able to get with the police. That isn't advocating that Statist Jack-Booted Thugs should be able to beat citizens – it's the reality of what a police force is.

Even if we dismiss all false allegations of police brutality, I still have issues with their legitimate allegations of police misconduct. The perfect example is the YouTube video where several female protesters were sprayed with mace. In my opinion, they shouldn't have been sprayed. They have my sympathy and support at that point. But... the protesters then drop to their knees and cry out with hands outstretched, they put on a performance. The non-protesters appear unaffected, the police officers appear unaffected, the only people suddenly putting on a false performance of agony are the people trying to spread the message of police brutality. Only the protesters were directly sprayed, but considering how close everyone else was – it was a crowd – it seems like a dishonest performance. It's that moment when they leave reality and begin twisting it to fit their ends that we disagree. Perhaps it's a personal shortcoming, but I believe in a facts-based reality. We can only have constructive discussions about the world if we agree on a facts-based reality, leaving that behind means constructive discussion is no longer possible.

The fact that any police officer or veteran who does or says something positive about Occupy is immediately held up as heroic. Either A) the action of being a police officer or veteran supporting Occupy is heroic, or B) it's a false assertion of heroism. Obviously A isn't true, so we should ask why B is true. My personal opinion is that it fits perfectly into the overall theme of cheaply trying to obtain a false status of being meaningful and important. One can either work to sway the opinions of police officers and veterans, or one can hold a handful up as a token symbol.

Admittedly the next one is somewhat an indictment of my generational peers, but it's particularly relevant to the Occupy movement. There is a pathological need to constantly demonstrate how clever, smart, and worthy of praise they are, and it manifests itself in childish displays. Wearing a mask popularized by a film is one aspect of it, but it's in everything they do. For example, the Denver mayor wanted representatives of the Occupy Denver movement to talk to city and state officials. One would think this is normal – we've developed a system of representatives for negotiations and discussions because you can't have a meaningful conversation with several hundred people at once. It's remarkably basic, and it's how groups can communicate effectively.

But representatives aren't very clever or original, so Occupy Denver elected a border collie to be their leader and claimed “[the dog] is closer to a person than any corporation: She can bleed, she can breed, and she can show emotion. Either Shelby is a person, or corporations aren’t people”. It's utterly stupid. It's misstating the concept of corporate personhood, it's not engaging in dialogue with the people who can do what you want, and it's referring to a statement that's actually true! When Mitt Romney used the phrase “corporations are people” he was making the point that raising taxes on corporations is effectively raising taxes on the shareholders because they will have less money coming in. Whatever the corporate tax rates are, whether we should raise or lower them, it is a factual statement describing reality. Leaving reality behind in an attempt to demonstrate how clever and right one is... it's stupid, and not something I can support.

Basically: I like the goals of the movement, but the movement is trying to reach those goals as if they were children unable to operate in an adult world. Until they begin behaving in an adult way I don't see any similarities between Occupy and myself.

Friday, November 4, 2011


I was recently part of a discussion about whether kidneys should be legally bought and sold in the US. It's worth noting that the discussion usually concerns body parts we can't readily notice rather than eyes, ears, hands, etc. The simple act of changing one word for another "should there be a market for the poor to have their eyes gouged out?" can shed light on the answer. But for the sake of argument, we can pretend the same people who want to buy kidneys have no interest whatsoever in buying anything else.

One of the main problems with allowing organs to be bought and sold is that the seller often can't afford not to sell - it's rarely a voluntary choice. Selling the kidney could mean: the difference between sending a child to a decent school or a poor one; the difference between healthcare or not; the difference between having a car to drive to a better job or staying at an old one; the difference between trying to find space in a homeless shelter or getting an apartment; the difference between eating that week or not. This is a market designed solely to exploit the poorest and most vulnerable members of our community - and it's designed so only the wealthy can benefit. Applying the typical "people behave towards their own self-interest and everyone benefits from voluntary choice" model does not work in a market like this. It produces an efficient market, but it produces a deeply unjust market. Exploiting the most vulnerable members of society should never be respected, and it certainly should never be allowed to masquerade as moral.

All men are created equal. When we take by coercion the bodies of the most vulnerable, we forget this basic tenant of humanity. We turn the most vulnerable into the least equal. When we take the poor and transform their bodies into commodities to be bought and sold, they lose their dignity and we lose our humanity.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Observations and Examples

So my economics professor has a tendency to run little social experiments on the class in an effort to get us to more fully understand the material. Like equating grades on an exam with wages earned, time spent studying with effort spent working, and talking about how a more equal distribution of grades results in less over all effort because of diminishing marginal returns (ie I'm not going to spend an additional 2 hours studying if the “reward” is going to someone else). And it's a neat way to connect the material with real life, so hopefully we understand the concepts in the class better.

There's a clique (about 1/3 of the class) who has all the same classes, all sit together, all economic majors, all really conservative, all homogeneous with their opinions on these experiments. Obviously I can't claim to know the political leanings of everyone in class, but for clarity I'll refer to this group as “the conservatives”. Their opinions are generally along the lines of “personal responsibility! I bear no duty to help others, in fact it's virtuous if there are no rules making us help each other. The rules are what they are, we all have an equal opportunity to do well”.

So in the “grades are wages” example, the professor used hypotheticals like “what if a student is a single parent, their child is sick, and they can't study?” or “what if a student is forced by his or her boss to work all night before the exam?” or other examples generally trying to say that sometimes doing poorly on an exam isn't indicative of laziness, it's indicative of chance or being exploited by an employer. So he was suggesting that the fair thing might be to re-appropriate the grades somehow (upper/lower limit, average, grading curves, etc). And the response from “the conservatives” was positive, until they realized it might mean they would have a lower grade with the re-appropriation than without it. At which point they took up the banner of personal responsibility: maybe he shouldn't be in school, maybe he's just using an excuse to be lazy, life isn't fair, it's an incentive for people to be lazy and that's bad, maybe he should just study sooner, etc. The gist was “it's not my problem, changing the rules to benefit someone else is unfair to everyone”.

We also had a discussion when “the conservatives” asked the professor to post the class notes online before class. The professor said that he was hesitant to because people would stop coming to class until right before the exam, they would do poorly, the entire vibe of the class would diminish. There would be less learning and lower grades. So he turned it into a class wide discussion, and the end result was “the conservatives” picking up their personal responsibility banner once more. They used arguments like “those people wouldn't learn anyway; those people wouldn't study anyway; we aren't forcing them to do anything; those people would do poorly anyway”. And because “the conservatives” felt that having the slides posted online before class would help them, they were advocating changing the rules to benefit them in a way that would hurt others – and they rationalized it by stereotyping, de-humanizing language, and absolute personal responsibility.

Nothing particularly eye-opening so far, but recently the date of an upcoming exam was close to another exam “the conservatives” had. So they loudly objected, and the professor ran another experiment asking the class if we should change the date of the exam. Personally, I couldn't care less. But some people wanted to keep the date the same, and about ¼ of the class wasn't in class. Those that were there said they had already formed their schedule around the date set, one said moving the exam to a Tuesday would mean two exams in one day, another said she works Sunday and Monday so a Thursday exam is really preferable to a Tuesday exam, etc.

But, and this is key, every objection raised by an individual in favor of keeping the exam date was met by “the conservatives” as a group explaining why that objection wasn't valid. Even when it was literally the word-for-word objection they were using themselves. They used this sort of bullying tactic of having an individual say “I don't want that” and then the group of ~10 people all loudly say why that individual is wrong. They used the same tactics as before: the people who disagree with us have invalid objections because they're lazy, the best thing for everyone is whatever is best for “the conservatives”, And it all led to advocating a change in the rules to benefit them at the expense of everyone else.

There's a clear pattern they've been showing all semester, and I think it's indicative of the pattern of behavior conservatives in general have been exhibiting:

  1. When a proposed change to the rules would benefit someone else: claim the others want the change so they can be lazy
  2. Claim personal responsibility is the best policy for everyone, changing the rules to benefit one group at the expense of another group isn't the role of [the government, the professor, etc]
  3. Therefore the proposed change designed to benefit someone (while appearing to be fair) is actually unfair to everyone
  4. Keep the original rules that benefit them, and claim we all have equal opportunity to succeed
    1. When a proposed change to the rules would benefit them: claim they want the change so the rules are fair
    2. Claim fair rules are the best policy for everyone, changing the rules to benefit one group at the expense of the other is just making fair rules
    3. Therefore the proposed change designed to benefit just them (while appearing to be unfair) is actually fair to everyone
    4. Change the rules to benefit them, and claim we all have equal opportunity to succeed
    It's possible, in the future, that they might claim a rule that's detrimental to them is fair, and a rule that benefits them is unfair. It's possible, in the future, that they use a metric other than self-interest to determine fairness and unfairness.

    It's unfair and untrue to claim that every conservative person uses the selfish metric for ethical claims. But that doesn't mean we can't study and judge their behavior as a group. Hopefully I've given an accurate example of how the meme of “personal responsibility and fair rules with equal chance at success” is often code for “I have no duty to help others, the rules should be set up to benefit me, any attempt to change those beneficial rules is unfair”.

    Ron Paul Quote

    I overheard this gem on CNN today from Ron Paul: "We got into this mess by spending money, taxing, and printing money. So (heh) how can we get out of it by spending money, taxing, or printing money?"

    Ron Paul 2012 - because the less you know the more confident you need to be

    Friday, September 23, 2011


    What does it say about the Republican Party that killing hundreds of prisoners is met with cheers? That the prospect of people dying without health insurance is met with cheers? There's an irrational bloodlust I can't understand. I'm not suggesting everyone throw flowers in the air and sing Kumbaya... but celebrate, crave, and reward leaders for enacting policies that lead to unnecessary death? I feel like a line has crossed at some point and no one noticed.

    It's seen as a badge of masculinity to enact "ultimate justice" which, by the way, is not only Perry's characterization of state mandated killing but also an actual comic book superhero gang. It's one thing for an ill-educated ignorant person to celebrate death publicly, it's another thing for him to be rewarded for it.

    With all of this, what is Perry criticized for? Allowing a student to pay the same tuition as his neighbor without comparing their parents immigration status. That's where the Republican Party is drawing the line. And that's what I can't understand.

    Thursday, June 9, 2011

    Texas Republican Platform - 2010

    I only made it through the first 4 pages before I got too much of a headache too continue. Enjoy

    Page 1:

    “Constitutional Citations on Legislation – We urge that all bills presented in Congress include citations to the authorizing constitutional provision, cost to implement, and impact on the family”

    I honestly don't understand the rationale for this statement. Not that it's a bad idea for laws to be constitutional, but because (SPOILER) laws already need to be constitutional. I know it's difficult to understand constitutional law though, so we should make it really simple by demanding straight citations. Although I'm totally in favor of bills including costs, so I propose we should establish a non-partisan Congressional Budget Office so we have an idea of the “cost to implement. Frankly I'm at a loss to how one summarizes “impact on the family” of every bill, I suspect it's a meaningless phrase that feels kinda nice.

    Page 2:

    “to eliminate aid to any nation threatening us or aiding terrorists or hostile nations
    ... and to publicly support other nations fighting terrorists”

    In a nice black and white world, this would be simple. It takes the most very basic understanding of any foreign policy to see that the world, and national relationships with terrorism, to see that the world is not in fact divided among countries with us or countries with terrorism. Off the top of my head, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq all fit into the gray area they ignore. It would be very nice if the world were divided cleanly among allies and enemies, among terrorists and allies, but it's not. It takes remarkable mental gymnastics to think that it does – and urge others that you're right.

    “to reasonably use profiling to protect us”

    This is unethical, un-American, and impractical. We simply cannot decide that America's policy is to suspect that all non-Christian, non-white people are terrorists. I don't really know how someone can say otherwise, so there's not much left I can say about this.

    “Elimination of Executive Orders – We demand elimination of presidential authority to issue executive orders and other mandates lacking congressional approval, as well as repeal of all previous executive orders and mandates.”

    There are two possible explanations. One is that a detailed study of constitutional law, effects of executive orders on society and the law in general, and careful considerations of the weight of powers between the President and Congress has led someone to believe that in sum we are better off without Executive Orders, and we should repeal them all. The second explanation is that we don't like the President doing stuff we don't trust, that's bad. Thus everything everrr done like this is bad.

    I've never seen a reasoned argument for eliminating and repealing Executive Orders, and I don't think there is a good one. It is important to keep in mind that if the people who endorse this statement had their way the following have this vision of America:

    Racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination in the defense industry would be OK

    Racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination in the military would be OK

    Discriminating against hiring people based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin would be OK

    Discriminating against people based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, handicap, age, or sexual orientation in the competitive service of the federal civilian workforce would be OK

    Political assassinations would be OK

    FEMA would not exist

    The Executive Department Centers for FaithBased and Community Initiatives would not exist

    The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives would not exist

    The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology would not exist

    The Office of Homeland Security would not exist

    Afghanistan and the airspace above would not be designated as a combat zone

    Streamlining intelligence information under Executive Order 13388? No more

    Eminent domain could be used with more latitude

    Torturing would be OK

    No more White House Office of Health Reform

    The PPACA (healthcare reform bill) wouldn't have abortion restrictions

    Proclaiming that you want all of these things gone, that you want to shake up the balance of Executive and Legislative power that has existed since the 1800's, that's a pretty big deal. And I've never heard an argument in favor of it, at least not one more reasoned or elegant than “it feels like the President shouldn't do that!”.

    “We also urge the Texas Legislature and the United States Congress to enact legislation prohibiting any jurisdiction from allowing any substitute or parallel system of Law, specifically, but not limited to, Sharia Law, to be recognized which is not in accordance with the Constitutions of Texas or of the United States of America.”

    Quite honestly if anyone thinks “Sharia Law” is a threat to America, they haven't read this far so I won't even bother.

    Page 3

    “Free Speech for the Clergy – We urge change of the Internal Revenue Code to allow a religious organization to address issues without fear of losing its tax-exempt status.”

    If an organization wants everyone else to pay their share of taxes, then it needs a good reason. Typically it's because the organization is a non-profit, charity, etc. The taxpayer partially subsidizes the museum down the road, or the homeless shelter, because it benefits all of society. One has to meet a really high bar to claim that others should pay your tax burden for you. When a church says A) you the taxpayer should pay my taxes, and B) we're going to endorse particular politicians and particular political parties, it's fundamentally unfair. If a church wants to pay taxes, then I have no problem with them endorsing any candidates they like, but the moment a church asks me to pay their taxes then they give up the right to endorse political candidates.

    “The state should have no power over licensing or training of clergy. The State should withdraw all imposed regulations”

    Again, a church can't claim they deserve secular government recognition, and yet also claim that secular government has no right to do things like license.

    “...Single Issue Legislation that prohibits the current practice of inserting into otherwise unrelated legitimate legislation funding for or federal regulations for special interest issues into virtually every piece of legislation”

    First, this has been tried countless times. Do you know why it fails? Because A) it's possible to link just about anything with anything else, and B) politicians are more concerned with whether something passes than whether their particular amendment was attached to a relevant bill. Secondly, the phrase “virtually every piece of legislation” just smacks of immaturity and passive aggressiveness. It's one thing to talk like that informally, but if you put out the platform for the entire Republican Party of Texas... one would think they'd avoid jabs that sound more at home in a school cafeteria.

    “Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) – We oppose this act through which the federal government would coerce religious business owners and employees to violate their own beliefs and principles by affirming what they consider to be sinful and sexually immoral behavior.”

    If one of your beliefs is that the employer should approve when, where, and with whom the employee has sex... If one of your principles is that the employer should determine which sexual positions the employee uses... It's ridiculous. A person has every right to hate blacks, Jews, women, gays, anybody you can possibly imagine! But you don't have a right to discriminate against them in hiring. I'm sorry this is still contentious in 2011. I'm more sorry every person supporting this Republican platform doesn't understand this very simple concept.

    Page 4:

    “Further, we urge Congress to withhold Supreme Court jurisdiction in cases involving abortion, religious freedom, and the Bill of Rights”

    Am I missing something? This seems so incredibly idiotic, I'm embarrassed for anyone (OK, anyone over 13 years old) who agrees with that statement.

    Some of these are totally idiotic, some confusing (and more to come), but the fact that this is an actual platform is truly vexing.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011

    Texas "Loser Pays" bill.

    This bill would discourage frivolous lawsuits, which everybody on earth agrees is good, but it accomplishes that goal by making it impossible for some people to seek justice in the legal system. There are already systems set in place where you can sue someone and if you lose, have to pay their attorney fees. If this passes, fewer people (specifically fewer poor people) will be able to sue.

    For example, say you're hit by a Microsoft employee driving a Microsoft company car during the course of his duties. It's basically 30 percent your fault and 70 percent his fault. You rack up 100K in repair bills and hospital and surgery costs. So your lawyer can estimate that you'll get 70K from Microsoft (assuming a 60/40 fee for the lawyer, you get 42,000$ after you pay him). Great, but there's a 10% chance you'll get nothing. That's OK, that's why the attorney works on a contingency basis - if you lose you don't pay him. The attorneys for both sides go to court (or settle or w/e) and the legal system provides justice.

    But, if this passes then it plays out this way: same accident, same everything. Except you know Microsoft is willing to spend 40K in their defense costs. Now, you have to wonder if you're willing to take a 10% chance that you'll be out 40K on top of everything else. It's a fact that fewer people will be willing to take that chance, and more people will settle for less. Which has the end result that Microsoft can injure people cheaper, and the poor will receive a less fair outcome since the process is stacked against them from the beginning.

    (not that people at Microsoft sit around a board table and plan to injure people, but they are profit-driven, thus the more expensive something is the more care they take to avoid it)

    There's a delicate balance between the injustice of a frivolous lawsuit damaging an innocent party and the injustice of legislating that fewer people will be allowed to sue, and those that can afford to will be willing to settle for less money.

    The bill fits neatly into the political philosophy (that many conservatives have) that large corporations shouldn't be held as responsible as they are now. They don't have anything against people, or poor people, but they think that society is best served when corporations are unfettered. If that means paying smaller penalties for injuring people, so be it. The bizarre part is that they sell this philosophy using fear to the very people they're injuring under the guise of "smaller government". I suppose that's not totally true, the most bizarre part is that people are allowing themselves to be scared into supporting this philosophy.

    In short, fewer frivolous lawsuits is a good goal, but it shouldn't be accomplished by denying justice to the most vulnerable in society. This bill clearly sacrifices the most vulnerable to "solve" a near non-existent problem by using legislation to pervert justice.

    Sunday, January 30, 2011

    An old presentation

    Speech Presentation

    The notes page isn't there, but you should be able to get a good idea of what they said. My favorite line was from page 9: "not so innocent and harmless anymore is he?".

    Saturday, January 22, 2011

    Texas Board of Education: no consensus on global warming

    "Both sides should be presented in order to provide a more balanced view". I can't tell you how wrong this is! Global warming isn't an opinion issue, it's not like we get to decide whether or not it's actually happening. It's happening! That's a fact, that's not something that depends on whether or not we "believe" it.

    There's been a clear consensus by scientists who study climate change for over 20 years that anthropogenic climate change is real and is happening. Bush Jr. took the White House in 01, and promptly decided that he didn't believe in anthropogenic global warming. So he appointed his own scientists to look into the IPCC's findings (link). And guess what? They found that the conclusions of the IPCC were totally correct.

    How someone has the arrogance to dismiss the conclusion of nearly every single scientist who studies climate change as "inconclusive" is beyond me. Yes, the average internet user can find forums and blog postings that have clever bullet points that appear to conclusively say global warming is a "hoax". Yes, the average internet user probably can't refute those bullet points.

    Guess what? That's why we ask the opinions of actual scientists who've actually made a career of studying the climate. And they nearly all agree: anthropogenic climate change is a reality, and it's harder to fix the longer we wait.

    What's the appropriate response in the face of overwhelming evidence and expert opinion? Laugh, get the snide smirk that the guy in the video does at 19 seconds, and dismiss reality as if that were an option.