Sunday, August 7, 2011

Looking Forward

I was commenting on another blog, when it occurred to me that it would not take a lot for McCain to rack up an impressive electoral win. It is far from a certainty, as it is still a long time before we reach November, but the signs are there. In Obama's mishandling of crises, in the polls showing cross over voting by Hillary's supporters, in McCain's gains in groups traditionally voting Democrat, all of the signs are pointing toward a very strong showing for McCain.

Many will doubtless say that it is wishful thinking on my part and dismiss it. However, I remember that when I first started predicting Democrats would suffer an Obama hangover, many pointed to his enthusiastic following and rapidly rising numbers and saw only an inevitable victory. And when I said a McCain victory seemed inevitable, many,  seeing Bush's low numbers and the public's disappointment in the Republicans, doubted McCain had a chance. So, just because something seems unlikely to many, it does not mean it will not come to pass. Often the common belief of the moment is more informed by what happened in the recent past than what is happening now.

So, though at the moment it may seem unlikely, I think it would not take much for Obama to suffer a massive, Mondale sized defeat.

How do I come to this conclusion? Well, my reasons for predicting an Obama defeat have been well detailed elsewhere. If the Democrats are wedded to Obama as their candidate, I simply think that his appeal will be very small. Even among the Democratic faithful, I think his blatant elitism and recourse to racial grievance rhetoric has managed to alienate most of the blue collar vote, and even if he throws some bones to unions, I think McCain has enough centrist appeal to rob Obama of the union vote. Likewise, I think Obama's far left record may serve to alienate the Catholic vote. In fact, if recent polls are to be believed, McCain is gaining on Obama among the educated, the wealthy, women, and even in the Northeast, all core Democrat constituencies.

Which leaves us with an Obama candidacy relying on the black vote, a few extreme leftists and the "youth vote". As the young turn out in very small numbers in every election, and blacks do not form a majority anywhere but the district of Columbia, this leads me to imagine that Obama may see state after state go to McCain.

So, how do I come to the conclusion that Obama may be kept to the double digits in electoral votes? Well, let us look at the states and see which are likely to go for Obama, even after all his travails, and which have a chance of going for McCain if Obama is the nominee.

Obviously we have to give Obama the District of Columbia with its three electoral votes. No Republican has ever won there, and, to be honest, I think somewhere in Isaiah or Jeremiah there is a prediction that DC voting for a Republican heralds the end of the world. So, that gives us 3 for Obama.

Now, two states I think we can easily write off are Michigan and Florida. Michigan would seem hard going for Obama even without the party controversy over the primaries. he would obviously have a good outcome with the black vote in Detroit, but I think the labor vote would go against him, maybe cross over, and leave it a very tight race. Add to that the snub from the Democrats and I am calling Michigan for McCain. So that leaves Obama still at 3.

Events may prove me wrong, but I think Pennsylvania will go for McCain, and bring with it both New York and Maryland. The first two seem pretty good bets if Hillary's supporters go to McCain with an Obama nomination. Maryland is a bit more of a gamble, as the large black population makes it seem an Obama state, but I think McCain's growing influence with wealthier and female voters, as well as the labor vote which I think Obama is losing, make me call that for McCain as well. So, six of fifty one and Obama is still at 3.

Actually, I think having called New York, I should call all of New England. New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, I am calling all for McCain. None have been what anyone would call an Obama stronghold, and with McCain winning over the affluent and northeasterners in general, and my belief that labor will go for McCain rather than Obama, I think it is safe to call these for McCain as well. So, twelve of fifty one and still at 3 electoral votes for Obama.

As we are there, let us finish up the northeast and call Delaware and New Jersey for McCain as well. Delaware seems obvious as they have gone Democrat in recent years, but have still been rather conservative, making it an unlikely Obama state. And I think New Jersey will likely follow New York and Pennsylvania. So, fourteen states (if we call DC a state) and still 3 votes.

Let us turn to the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes, the area where I think Obama has his best chance. For the same reason I gave McCain Pennsylvania, I think he will take Ohio. Nor do I think it much of a stretch to give him Indiana and Kentucky. We already dealt with Michigan, so we are left with Wisconsin and Illinois. As almost every candidate carries his home state, I figure Obama will get Illinois' 21 electors, though that isn't a lock, he could still manage to blow even that state. I also think, as it tends to the left, Wisconsin may go for Obama and bring him another 10 electors. So we have now covered nineteen states and Obama has risen to 34 electors.

Turning to the south, I think McCain will do exceptionally well. The south has been a good region for the Republicans in most presidential elections, even taking home states of Democrat candidates, and I don't think Obama's black support will make enough of a difference to change that trend. Having checked several other polling sites, I can see both the south and the midwest are pretty much a sea of red with a few undecided states, so I don't think it is a stretch to call Virginia, West Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas for McCain. (We have already called Florida). So, after thirty states, Obama has 34 electors.

I think the midwest is a similar lock for McCain. Missouri and Minnesota are the only two about which I am not convinced, and given Obama's recent weak showings, I don't feel I am on shaky ground saying he will lose them. So we can hand McCain Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota. We might as well hand him the west at the same time. So we can add in North and South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Arizona. So, that makes forty six states and only 34 electors for Obama.

We are left with the last five states, Washington, Oregon, California, Hawaii and Alaska. I think it safe to say Hawaii may give its four electors to Obama as his other home state, and a Democrat leaning one at that. And I think it safe to call Alaska for McCain. So, after forty eight states Obama rises to 38 electors.

The last three are hard to call, as they are all three pretty evenly split between conservative and liberal regions. Even were Obama to get all three, it would not be enough to carry the election. But, somehow I just don't see him doing even that well. I think Oregon, without a strong minority vote, and with a relatively strong blue collar component to the Democrats there may follow Pennsylvania in going to McCain. Washington, on the other hand, always seemed bit more far-left, and so it the only remaining state I see going to Obama, raising his total to 49 electors. California is the hardest call, but I think Obama's appeal to black voters may actually work against him in the hispanic community. Combining that with the Hillary cross overs and the strong conservative presence in parts of the state, I think McCain may carry California as well.

So, at the end of the day, I can see a possible outcome where Obama ends up with just 49 electors to McCain's 489. It isn't quite a Mondale level defeat, but it definitely is not a great showing.

Of course, many will disagree, and even I can see that events could change and force me to draw different conclusions. But, right now, with Obama making such a poor showing, I think this lopsided outcome is a definite possibility. There is still a lot of time, and things are constantly changing, but were the election tomorrow, it is quite possible Obama could face a truly humiliating defeat.

Originally Posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/18.

NOTE: In the post itself, I confessed my predictions could easily prove wrong. For a discussion of why they did, please examine the links provided in the notes following  "I Almost Feel Sorry For Them".

Some Questions on Discrimination

Oh, boy, am I going to raise some hackles with this one. Well, guess I should stop putting it off and get down to it.

I have never quite understood integration lawsuits. Not the desire of black Americans for equality, that I understand. And I always got the Booker T. Washington school of thought, the "we will prove we're as good as anyone else or better, and then they will accept us" theory. What I don't understand are the lawsuit type of integrations, the national guard forcing their way into a school integration.

Now, don't get me wrong, I think those who judge others based on race are wrong, and I would be quite happy to live in a world where race mattered as little as eye color. But, as long as racism is a reality, at least is still a belief held by certain individuals, I just do not get the whole concept of forced integration.

Let me offer an example or two.

Let us suppose you are a black man seeking a job and you think a boss did not hire you because you are black, or a woman who was not hired because you are a woman. Whatever the discrimination, I just do not understand the motive in starting legal proceedings to force that person to employ you. Obviously, if this practice is taking place, not just the person doing the interview, but the company as a whole, is fine with discrimination. In addition, as the company must be doing well enough to be hiring new employees, it appears that whatever customers they deal with also have no objections to discrimination. So, if you should win your lawsuit, you would be putting yourself into an environment where no one wants you, with the added hostility generated by the knowledge that you are only there because of the lawsuit. I suppose some people may thrive in such environments, but I don't see it. I know I would be miserable were I to find myself in such a situation.

It gets even worse when you think of the suits that are not related to employment. Would anyone want to spend time at a country club where everyone hated you? Where you were only admitted because of legal intervention?

Obviously, such suits are not intended to achieve their stated purpose. No one would really want to work for the racist they are suing, or golf at the racist country club. These suits are filed simply to prove a point, to force those who hold the wrong ideas to act differently.

And that is my problem with such suits. They are based on finding those who hold the wrong beliefs and forcing them to change their behavior. That seems to be a concept alien to the nation envisioned in the Constitution. As I understand the Bill of Rights, it exists entirely to protect the right to hold such unpopular views. The freedom of speech, of assembly, of religion, these are all written in precisely to protect those who hold beliefs that the state or the majority of citizens find unacceptable. Yet, now, because "racism" or "sexism" have been deemed beyond the pale, such protections no longer apply.

I know I will make no friends saying it, but I believe that racists have the right to continue being racists. Of course everyone else has the right to shun and criticize them, but not to sue them. If a man wants to hire only men, or a club wants to admit only Catholics, or a woman wants to hire only left handed lesbians, all of those are fine with me, and should be perfectly legal. You would not say that the state has the right to tell you you need to date a diverse group, or diversify your dinner party, so why does the state have the right to meddle in your private affairs once they become "commercial"? Just because you don't charge people to come to your dinner party makes it in no way different from a restaurant. Both are your private assembly on your private party, and should be protected from state intervention.

Only when it comes to the state should racism, sexist, and all other irrelevant biases be outlawed. The state should be prohibited from taking cognizance of any factors other than those relevant to the matter at hand. But that is the only area where discrimination should be outlawed. In all private matters, it is the individual's right to associate as he chooses, regardless of whether anyone approves.

Now some will respond that what I am proposing would mean that racism would never end. And I guess, in a technical sense that is true, or possibly true. We may never be rid of a few individuals who espouse racism. But that is also true of the system we have now. No matter what we do, short of extermination of wrong thinkers, there may remain a few inveterate racists. And we should not worry about that, as there are a handful of people who believe in any crazy theory, we just cannot worry about every little gathering of cranks.

On the other hand, I think returning to respecting the rights of the individual, we may actually see more racial healing rather than less. Perhaps it would not have worked in the past, when racism was much stronger in some regions, but in today's climate, I think my suggestion will work better than today's system.

Why?

Most whites today are simply not racist. And most men are not sexist. Or at least not to a degree that matters. Whites may still have a few stereotypes about blacks, and men may make some assumptions about women, but that does not matter. What does matter is that most men will happily hire women, and most whites will happily employ blacks. Nor will most businesses reject customers based on race or sex. And, even more important, most people will not tolerate racism and sexism from others.

So, if we allow freedom in hiring, in renting, in choosing clients and customers, we will see that very little will change. Perhaps a few bigots will put their biased beliefs into practice, but they will learn quickly that the rest of the public does not agree. If a business develops a reputation of being racist or sexist, odds are good they will see a drop off in business rather rapidly.

But, even if they did not, simply by placing race or sex above the main focus of hiring the best employee, or getting the greatest number of customers, these businesses will slowly, but surely see their position weaken relative to their more tolerant competitors. Unless one is prepared to argue that women and blacks are so incompetent that excluding them will do no financial harm, it is inevitable that irrational discrimination in hiring will cause losses and eventually force either a repeal of the discriminatory policies, or eventually drive the company from business.

And what is the alternative? What happens if we continue with the policy we have today?

Today's policy does not really help. By creating tokenism and grievance driven lawsuits, it serves only to enshrine old grievances and create new ones.  Because of affirmative action, the credentials of every minority are suspect. It is impossible not to ask if a black or female was hired because of their qualifications or quotas, whether they graduated because of talent or quotas. And, on the other side, every time a white or male is denied a job or not admitted to college, he has to ask if he really didn't make the cut, or was excluded because of race or sex. The system simply keeps those questions alive. Once quotas are established, it is inevitable that these questions arise.

It is not so much a choice of which solution will best end racism, I do not think today's system can end racism. So long as we continue with quotas and discrimination suits we will have racism, and it will only get worse. If we want to end racism, we have to stop recognizing race.

But, questions of practicality aside, there is a much more simple and stronger argument for my position.

If we accept that the rights of free speech, assembly, religion, property, and all the other rights guaranteed int he Constitution can be waived to allow the state to fight for racial and sexual equality, then why not waive them for other compelling reasons? And, while some may agree, because they see the state fighting only for causes in which they believe, I would remind them we have an elective government. For all those who think we should waive protections to fight for gay rights, for example, I would remind them that someone else could waive them to create mandatory Christianity. The waiving of rights is a two-edged sword. And unless you are sure the one wielding that sword will always agree with you, we are better off not allowing it to be drawn at all.

Once we start allowing the state to ignore our rights, there is no end to it.

Originally Posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/18.

A Question

I have a question. I have noticed there is a group who spends a lot of time on Townhall criticizing those who express a literal belief in the Bible. And it raises a few questions.

Now, let me get this out of the way. I am, as I have said before, not a Christian, but I do believe that the Torah is divine in origin. I do believe that G-d tailored his message to his audience, so that things such as the six days of creation may be figurative language rather than literal truth. I believe that G-d understood shepherds and laborers recently escaped from slavery, likely unable to count beyond the limits of their flocks, might have a hard time with astrophysics and time lines of multiple billions of years.  Nor was that the only consideration. Had G-d given Moses the full physics of creation, does anyone believe the Hebrews would have accepted that as the word of G-d when Moses presented it? After centuries in bondage, surrounded by Egyptian mythology, it was necessary that the creation story be something familiar, meaning, of necessity it would be more of a fable than an accurate account. So, it is possible that, though of divine origin, the Torah is not entirely, literally accurate*.

But, regardless of my own beliefs, I have no argument with those who want to believe anything at all. So long as it is not imposed on me, someone can believe the bible is fiction, divinely inspire, accurate, inaccurate, allegorical, anything at all.  I do not have a problem with any of those positions.

What I wonder is why it matters so much to those who do not believe that others know and accept their beliefs? I understand Christians trying to persuade others, as their religion requires evangelism as part of belief. But for non-believers, I just don't get it. Why do they care if other people continue to believe in the Bible? Their insistence, and often outright hostility, puzzles me.

But my other question was the real reason I wrote this. What I am wondering is if these non-believers spend as much time attacking other faiths. Do they sit at home finding inconsistencies in the Vedas as well as the bible? Or is it simply Christianity (and Judaism) which attracts their attentions? I have yet to see anyone point out where the Hindu holy texts contradict modern science, yet those books have a huge number of believers and there are those who believe them to be literally true as well. Even closer to home, I don't see these atheist critics even taking on the Koran. It seems that only Christians upset them.

Well, just asking if any of my readers have thoughts on this subject. Atheist, believer or other I would be interested in what you think. I have told you what I believe, but I know I am in a very small minority, so don't worry about offending me. Give me your thoughts.

---------------------------------------------------

* And for those who claim this means I am calling G-d a liar, as I have said elsewhere, I do not think it a lie. If you do not give a full account of reproductive biology, genetics, and the mechanics of intercourse when your three year old asks where babies come from, you are not lying, you are just recognizing the limits of your audience.

----------------------------------------------------

POSTSCRIPT

I know I have written before about "smug arrogant atheists" who claim scientific disproof of G-d, but that is not necessarily the group about which I am writing. Yes, they are part of the group which feels compelled to criticize believers, but even some other non-believers, those who are reasonable individuals and treat others quite civilly, can't seem to refrain from poking holes in the Bible. It is a most peculiar phenomenon.

And, in the interest of full disclosure, I suppose I should confess that, when an arrogant teen, I too engaged in the popular intellectual pass time of mocking the believers. Both during my, thankfully short lived, leftist period in my late teens, and my longer, but also thankfully short lived, membership in the cult of Ayn Rand which followed, I was quite adept at finding Biblical "errors" and was not shy about pointing them out. Sadly, it is so long ago, I don't really recall why I did it. Which is part of the reason I am asking this question.

Originally Posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/18.

Reports About the Papal Visit

I have not really watched much news about the papal visit to Washington, as I have been rather busy this week, but I did catch a few local news reports about his arrival. I noticed a strange pattern to those reports, all of them spent far more time on the Pope's views on Iraq than anything else. A few reporters made a token nod to the Pope's agreement with the president on abortion and other matters before launching into their predictions about how the Pope planned to scold the president, but that was the bottom line in every report.

What is most interesting is the press' sudden respect for papal opinion. Of course they mention it whenever he makes a pronouncement on sin or abortion or genetic engineering. It usually runs near the end of the half hour, where the stories of quintuplets or talking dogs usually run, but they do take notice. But while they may take notice, they hardly show great deference to papal opinion in such matters.

So when did the press develop such respect for Papal opinion? They hardly seem as interested in his statements on abortion or on sin, but  for some reason, during this visit, the press is intensely interested in the Pope's opinions, at least his opinions on Iraq. Far be it from me to say the press is biased, but is it possible the Pope's opinion is actually getting some respect only because he is on "the right side" on the conflict in Iraq?

Originally Posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/18.

The Best Thing

James Taranto at Best of the Web has postulated that this election may mark the point where the word "racist" ceases to have any sting:

The Obama campaign has set in motion a fascinating dynamic. On the one hand, some of his fellow Democrats, especially Bill Clinton, have been willing to attack him in expressly racial terms. On the other hand, we have someone making the case in a semi-major newspaper that adjectives are the white man's tool of oppression and that anyone who modifies Obama is a racist. The Obama campaign may mark a turning point in the history of race relations in America: the point at which calling someone a "racist" comes to carry no more sting than calling him a "fascist."
Wouldn't it be ironic if Mr. Taranto's prediction proves true?

While Mr. Obama thought he would bring racial healing by being "above race" and adopting a "postracial" identity. Instead, his legacy of racial healing is to make the word "racist" meaningless, robbing it of all its meaning through overuse. Stopping all these meaningless charges of racism will probably help race relations more than anything Mr. Obama could do as president, but I have to think that he will not be happy to see white Americans no longer frightened of being branded with the dread scarlet "R".

Originally Posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/17.

The Founders

I think I have seen the silliest argument ever in the comments on a particular blog. I will not link to it, as the poster has been beaten up enough that he has even disabled comments, but the debate there is informative.

The owner of the blog is obvious a very devout Christian. He has written on several general topics from a Christian perspective and has a generally conservative Christian outlook. The one area in which he gets himself into trouble is history. While rightly deploring the revisionism of modern historians, he goes a bit overboard in finding Christian underpinnings for our society. (Don't get upset yet, read on.)

On the other hand, he appears to have attracted a few of those militant atheists who haunt Townhall and attack anyone who mentions Christianity and Thomas Jefferson in the same breath. They have badgered him quite mercilessly, picking apart not only his errors , but also those places where he is correct. Nor is their arrogance all that justified, as they have made some egregious errors of their own, such as claiming the first amendment creates a separation between church and state, or original applied to state as well as federal governments*.

The silliest part of this whole argument was a dispute I have also seen among supposedly intelligent people, people who should know better, the debate about whether the founders were Christian, and what that means.

This is simply a meaningless debate, and one no one should ever indulge. That even historians, who should know better, indulge in such debates is a bit embarrassing.

First, "the founders" did not believe anything, or they believed a lot of things, some of them contradictory. As they were a group of men, they held a variety of beliefs. Doubtless some were deists, some conventional Christians, some held other beliefs. Some saw America as fulfilling G-d's will, some saw it in secular terms, and others saw it in their own way. "The founders" did not hold a single belief, as any group, they held a wide array of beliefs.

Second, even taking just a single founder does not resolve this question. As with any human, the individual founders grew and changed with time, and their beliefs changed with them. It would be foolish to think Jefferson sprang from the womb, like Athena from Zeus' head, fully formed and with the Declaration of Independence already in draft form floating around in his mind. His thoughts changed over time as do all men's.

Finally, even if we limit ourselves to one member and one date, say Jefferson in 1776, we are still on shaky ground. We may have some writings from that time, but they rarely cover every possible view. So we have to rely on earlier and even later writings, which may not accurately reflect what he believed then. And, of course, there is always the possibility, more likely when dealing with politicians than others, that his public statements do not accurately reflect his real beliefs. Even journals are not entirely reliable, as many public figures know their journals will not remain private forever, and write them, to a degree, with an eye to posterity's opinion.

All of this should just be common sense. I think I learned this in freshman history, if not earlier. Yet we still hear supposedly educated adults arguing about whether the founders were Christian or deist, whether the United States was supposed to be a Christian or secular state, and other topics which will simply never be resolved.

Let me save everyone the effort. There will never be an answer.

Of course, some will now take my words and use it to argue against original intent, and, to a degree, they are right. It is worthless to look for original intent in the supposed beliefs of the founders. But that does not destroy the entire argument for strict construction. While we may never know why Jay or Hamilton wanted a specific line included or excluded, we don't need to know that. As far as understanding the Constitution is concerned, we have the Constitution itself, written in quite plain language. Yes, in some places there are a few items that are a bit less than clear, but those are rarely where the strict constructionist butt heads with the "living document" crowd. If we really need to clarify a point, the Federalist provides more than enough explication. To argue that uncertainty over the intent of the founders justifies finding emanations of penumbras is just absurd. We do not need absolute certainty over motives behind words in order to read those words with their obvious meaning**.

We may not ever know what any founder really thought, but we can certainly interpret the Constitution to mean what it pretty clearly states.

----------------------------------------------------

* In case any stop by who believe as they do, none of the articles in the Bill of Right applied to the states initially. The first ten amendments to the Constitution only applied tot he federal government until the 14th amendment was read as applying those protections with regard to state laws as well. Regarding the "separation of church and state", the first amendment's establishment clause was intended to do only that, prevent the establishment of a "Church of the United States" akin to the Church of England, run by the state and with membership required of all office holders.

** Yes, there are a few areas where we may need to refer to the common meaning of words at the time of writing, as is the case with the unfortunate "militia" subordinate clause. Then again, the fact that we did not see a federal gun control law of 1790 suggests that they had something else in mind when writing that amendment. I know it is not proof, but does common sense have no place in this debate?


Originally Posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/17.

The Death Penalty

It has to be the most absurd argument ever, the idea that somehow the Constitution prohibits execution. The simple fact that all thirteen colonies regularly executed criminals, in ways we would consider "inhumane" today, should be the most effective argument that the founders did not intend for the constitution to prohibit execution.

That does not mean that we should not debate the death penalty. I can even agree that the side arguing against the penalty has some valid arguments. My only complaint is with their tactics. Unless one believes in a hopeless protean "living" Constitution, I don't think anyone can argue that the Constitutional Convention wanted to end executions with the Constitution, because of the simple fact that executions continued without interruption. That should be the most obvious argument that nothing in the Bill of Rights was written with the intention of ending executions.

But that is a peculiarity of the modern political environment. Groups who are unable to press their cause through the legislature, and are unable to win over voters in elections, resort to the courts to try to impose their will on an unwilling electorate. That it results in a warping of the Constitution, and a hopelessly unpredictable environment* because of the novel doctrine of a "living" Constitution doe snot seem to bother them.

If we must debate the death penalty, let us leave the courts and debate it where such debates belong, in the legislatures and in elections. As I said, there are valid arguments against the death penalty, so why not present them to the voters and let the people decide? It would certainly be a better way to approach matters than this effort to twist the Constitution into something it was never intended to be.

Of course, years of fighting in courts has harmed the chances of the death penalty opponents in a public battle. In courts they had to rely on proving that the death penalty was cruel and unusual, and that argument will not do much for them in an election. Most voters are not particularly worried that a murderer, who had not thoughts about the suffering of those he killed, may suffer some pain during his execution.

But were the opponents to give up this endless court battle, and return to the valid arguments that the death penalty leaves no recourse in the case of mistakes, or that simple humanity asks that we give a chance to reform to even the worst criminals**, they might have a chance.

Might.

The one problem standing in the way of the opponents of the death penalty is one of their own making, or at least of their allies. Those on the left, among whose ranks most opponents of the death penalty are found, have also been quite vocal in arguing for lighter prison sentences and easier conditions for parole. So long as the possibility of parole (or release due to overcrowding) remains, the public will be quite reluctant to cut off the death penalty option, as the death penalty remains, in their minds, the one way to make sure the worst of killers are never released.

But if the opponents of the death penalty broke with those pushing lenient sentencing and called for true life without parole, and changed their arguments to those the public might endorse, they would have some chance of winning in the public arena. And even if they did not, fighting it out in elections will not do all the harm that these endless court battles have done.

I don't think they will get the public support they would need, but it would still be better for the nation. Trying to legislate through the judiciary, and impose one's will by winning over just 5 judges, will inevitably result in hard feelings and endless battles back and forth. It is far better to fight and lose in the public arena that turn the judiciary into a super-legislature.

---------------------------------------------

* I have long planned to write on the topic of how an unpredictable legal environment is a huge detriment to human activity, and that even bad laws, if consistent, are better than the best laws applied arbitrarily. Hopefully I will find time soon to actually write it, as this is either the second or third time I have mentioned this essay.

** I am not saying that I accept either of these arguments, just that they are plausible arguments. I can see the merit in arguing that the death penalty does not allow for errors, and, as a compassionate being, I can understand a desire to allow even the worst a second chance. On the other hand, I think there is a very strong argument against feeling too much compassion for the murderer, as I wrote before.


Originally Posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/17.

Those Other People

How many bad political ideas rest upon the idea of "those other people"?

Think about taxes. Democrats promise to make you rich by taxing "the rich". In other words, "those other people" will be paying for your government benefits.

Or medical assistance. The premise is that, while you are certainly capable of planning for your needs, there are "those other people" who are not capable, and so we need to provide for these stupid, incompetent people.

Or social security. While they would never question that you are mature enough to put away money for the future, there are "those other people" who would never plan and end up starving in the streets.

Or gun control. While proponents admit you may be a quite responsible gun owner, "those other people" will use guns to commit crimes, or may just shoot someone when they get upset, or may leave them lying around loaded in their baby's crib.

Leaving the subject of laws for a moment, it has even been offered as a defense of Obama's gaffe. He was not insulting any specific voter, his comments only apply to "those other people" who really fit his description.

I suppose, with so many of our laws based on the presumption of incompetence, it was inevitable we would invent "those other people". First, because politicians can't very well tell voters they think the voters are incompetent boobs. So they have to say "we need this law, not because of people like you, but those morons over there..." Otherwise they would have no hope of getting any votes. Who would support a law based on the premise that they are incompetent?

On top of that there is a second problem with the presumed incompetence implicit in laws. As I wrote a long time ago, if we assume people are so incompetent the government has to step in, then how is it that a government made up of people drawn from the incompetent masses, elected by the incompetent masses, suddenly becomes competent? "Those other people" solve that quandary. The politicians, and those who elect them, are from the competent group, the incompetents they need to protect are just "those other people".

There is one problem with this whole theory. Politicians are addressing their message to the nation as a whole. They are assuring everyone that they don't mean them. So, who are these "other people" then? The standard political speech on the need to protect "those other people" from themselves seems to imply that every listener is presumed competent. If every individual American is competent, then how do we become incompetent in the aggregate?

Of course, the truth is, to those politicians, they are the competent ones and everyone else is part of "those other people", but they would never dare say it. But the laws they pass once in office make it abundantly clear, whatever they say their faith in your competence is quite limited.

Originally Posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/17.

What a Smart Democrat Would Do

I have realized conditions are perfect for a smart Democrat to run a centrist Clinton-like campaign and win. Fortunately, we don't have smart candidates on the Democrat side, so we don't have to worry. But if we did, they could actually run on real, centrists promises, and not just promises, but promises they could keep.

How so?

Well, a Democrat could run on tax cuts. And not just tax cuts for the "working poor" or the "middle class", as most Americans know that means "no one I know". Everyone is aware that Democrats who promise tax cuts for a specific group mean they are going to create minute exceptions which apply to maybe four working poor families in the entire nation. No one believes a Democrat when he offers "targeted" cuts.

But this election, a Democrat could run offering a 10% cut in rates across the boards. He could say something along the lines of "I am not going to pick and choose who should benefit from a tax cut. I know a lot of my predecessors said they would tax the rich more heavily, but we already do that with our graduated system. So, I am not going to increase their burdens more just because they are successful. Instead, I am going to give everyone a bit of relief in these hard times." It would play well to everyone except the most die hard class envy warriors. And they certainly aren't defecting to the Republicans, so why bother appeasing them?

And why would a Democrat want to do this? Break with party tradition so drastically?

Three letters: A M T.

We are rapidly reaching the point where the AMT will start hitting the upper middle class in significant numbers. And, before too long, it will cover everyone who actually pays taxes. At that point, all the tax cuts in the world won't matter, as the AMT will govern taxes owed, not the schedules the candidate would be cutting. In other words, he can cut the normal schedule down to zero and still see the same revenues.

And the AMT offers two choices. First, the tax cutter can just let normal inflation take its course and satisfy the egalitarian wing of the party, as it will hit the rich first and then the middle class. Thus the middle class will benefit from the cuts while the rich pay the AMT. This gives the outcome Democrats want without having to actually raise taxes on the rich.

Or, if the candidate just wants the cash, after cutting taxes he can lean on the Fed to inflate like mad, or lean on banks to increase the credit they issue if the Fed won't play along, anything to increase the effective money supply and raise wages and prices. Once that is achieved, incomes will rise, the AMT will effect ever more people, and those tax cuts he promised will be meaningless, as the AMT will cover effectively all wage earners.

The AMT, with its lax of indexing for inflation, offers the perfect opportunity for a smart Democrat to run as a centrist tax cutter without having to either break his promises or suffer the reduced revenue tax cuts bring.

Once again, I have to say I am glad we do not have smart Democrats running.

Correction (04/23/2008): Throughout this essay I accidentally used ATM instead of AMT. I have now corrected that. (I freely admit to being "acronym impaired", I have trouble recalling what acronyms mean and often end up using the wrong one.)

Originally Posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/17.

A Simple Question

Did not Democrats tell us that it was irresponsible for Bush to cut taxes? And that it was the cause of countless economic woes? So, why are both Obama and Clinton now promising to reduce taxes?

Originally Posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/16.

The Problem

It is a bit off-topic, but I think I have stumbled on to something important, the main problem with political comedy. The more political they become, the less funny they are. And it is not just liberals, it works both ways.

Just think of pre-politics Dennis Miller, he was just more amusing. The more he takes sides in his political humor, the less funny he becomes. The same is true of George Carlin, who was always political and a bit too strident, but has become much less funny as he has started to preach more. Or take Michael Moore, now pretty much a maker of propaganda rather than comedy. It is hard to remember that he was once actually kind of funny. I remember watching TV Nation and thinking "It's kind of amusing, a bit too preachy at times, but funny." The same applies to Lenny Bruce and his persecution rants of his  later days or the period when Howard Stern obsessed about the FCC. They all suffered from adopting a strong political position.

Of course, humor is very subjective, so I am sure there are those who will disagree with my analysis, but I think my overall conclusion is accurate.

Just think about it this way, what is the least funny thing you can imagine? The jokes told by a religious figure. Has anyone ever heard a truly funny line from any priest, minister, pastor, rabbi, imam, or any other religious figure? I seriously doubt it.

And why not? Because these people have a very serious message to deliver, and it overshadows all else. Even their humor is subordinated to this message. That is why they have such trouble being funny.

Humor is a strange thing, but I think we can all agree things are generally amusing because they are absurd, or at least unexpected. From the unanticipated and inappropriate violence of slapstick, to the unexpectedly apropos words in puns, from the outright absurdism of Monty Python to the silly twists of knock knock jokes, all humor from the most childish tot he most mature rests on basically taking something familiar and adding the unanticipated.

That is why political humorists do so badly, and the same reason religious figures fail as well. The minute a minister opens his mouth, or a liberal or a conservative, we know what to expect. There is no chance he is going to deviate too far from his message. And that makes the chance for the unexpected much reduced, which, as I argued above, makes the chance for humor much reduced. And the more extreme one becomes in his political beliefs, the more predictable he becomes as well.

Perhaps some truly brilliant comedians can still find enough unexpected twists to make a joke, but it takes more and more skill as one becomes more political and, eventually, one's political views have become so narrow, and his statements so predictable, that humor is simply not possible any more.

It is no accident that we call dogmatic believers "humorless". I wish a few more comedians would take that lesson to heart.

--------------------------------------------

POSTSCRIPT

This entire essay was inspired by a retrospective on the work of editorial cartoonist Herblock. While I was looking through his drawings I started to wonder why editorial cartoons are simply never funny. At best they are witty, or sum up issues in a novel way, but no one ever laughs at them. I then recalled a conversation I had years ago about how Michael Moore stopped being funny when he dedicated himself more to politics than humor and a later one about how George Carlin's entire recent act could be summed up by shouting "damn Republicans!" for an hour. All of which eventually led to the essay above.

I know the subject really doesn't fit with my usual blog topics, but I found it interesting, so thought maybe some of my readers would too.


Originally Posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/16.

Memories of Jimmy

As I was reading the comments on Ben Shapiro's column, I realized that the left still thinks Jimmy Carter accomplished something desirable during his presidency. I have dealt with this before, several times, in fact, but allow me to revisit the topic and explain why Carter is such a detestable human being:

The Panama Canal

Now many Carter defenders will tell you that "the senate" gave away the canal (led partly by my one-time disgrace of a senator Paul Sarbanes), and that is technically true. The senate has the duty of ratifying all treaties. But that is kind of like saying the congress declared war on Germany in World War II. Yes, they had a vote on it, but the force pushing for it was still the president. And so we now have a major strategic asset, with both ends held by the People's Republic of China. I am not one given to paranoia about China, as I have shown before, but even I think this was a strategic blunder of the first order.

OPEC

If Carter is remembered for anything, it will be the oil crisis (or perhaps inflation), and the major beneficiaries of the oil crisis were the members of OPEC. Now, yes, Nixon played a major role in setting the stage for the oil crisis, but Carter's blame is much greater. Nixon was already mired in scandal and largely impotent when the first embargo hit, so he was in no position to correct anything. On the other hand, by the time of the second embargo, Carter had had two years in which he could have started an active search for oil within the US. Instead he continued Nixon's price controls, made very weak efforts at both conservation and alternative fuels, and generally did nothing while allowing domestic use of imported oil to rise incredibly. In short, he set the stage for OPEC to cripple the US. And, once they did, rather than take any sort of strong stand, he simply made speeches about doing more with less and generally told everyone to expect to lower their standard of living. A less inspiring figure one cannot imagine.

Iran

Carter did nothing to help our ally the Shah when the revolution came. Even once it was clear that the revolution was taking an overtly anti-American direction, Carter simply dithered. Even after US citizens, state department employees and military personnel, were taken hostage, Carter could do nothing and his eventual, belated attempt at a rescue was a joke. Now I do not know for a fact that support for the Shah or early pressure on the revolutionary government would have changed things, but I do know that by doing nothing Carter definitely emboldened the revolutionaries tot he point where they could take hostages with impunity. The way they fodled after Carter's loss gives evidence of this. It was clear they did not expect to get lucky enough to find an equally weak president in Reagan.

And for those who respond to this by bringing up Reagan's arms sales, I have two replies. First, of all, even assuming Reagan's arms sales were the epitome of evil, that does nothing to make Carter's acts any more laudable. As our nursery school teachers told us "two wrongs don't make a right."

Of course, there were a number of valid reasons to deal with the revolutionary government of Iran. At the time they had been installed for some time and were unlikely to be removed, the time to that would have been on Carter's watch. So, Reagan had to deal with them as a fact. If he had refused to deal with them, they would have likely turned more strongly to the Soviets, which was not acceptable at that time. Likewise, providing them with arms did not harm any US strategic interests, as the likely target was Iraq, which was not a US ally either. (Though later we did pragmatically support them to maintain a balance between Iraq and Iran to prevent any excessively powerful state from arising in the region.) Lastly, the fact that funds from such deals could be redirected to support the Contras whose funding had been cut off by pro-Sandinista congressmen was just an added benefit. In short, Reagan's actions were a triumph of pragmatic politics, while Carter's were simply inaction which led to a weakening of the US and a tarnishing of our image world-wide. I don't see how one can be compared to the other.

Inflation

Carter's inflation is legendary. The fact that he managed to combine, for the first time int he US, monetary and price inflation with a general economic slowdown led tot he creation of the term "stagflation". Of course this phenomenon is hardly new, nor is it as paradoxical as many of Carter's economic "experts" suggested. It is simply the next phase of hyperinflation.After the initial "boom" caused by the early stages of monetary inflation, investors realize that their returns are not going to keep up with inflation and they withdraw their funds from the economy, either hiding them in concrete objects, real estate, or in off-shore investments. This inevitably leads to an economic slowdown. That Carter was the first president to force the US to join the ranks of the Wiemar Republic and third world nations is disgraceful. Though, to be fair, he is not entirely to blame. Nixon did start the collapse with the Smithsonian Accords and the closing of the "gold window", but Carter's particularly inept handling took a bad situation and made it much, much worse.

Camp David

I will only make brief mention of this, as it is not an example of Carter doing harm. instead, this is an example of Carter taking credit for something that was going to happen anyway. As I said elsewhere, Israel and Egypt were both inclined to end their intermittent fighting. Israel lacked the resources to properly exploit what little benefit there was in holding the Sinai, so it was a small enough cost for a peace treaty. But, to argue that carter made this happen is absurd. As was the case with the de facto peace with Jordan around the same time,  Egypt no longer saw any advantage in demonizing Israel. In fact, as it fed into the claims of the dissident Moslem Brotherhood, they had a vested interest in toning down anti-Israel rhetoric. Had there been no Carter, the treaty may not have been formally signed (though I think a formal treaty would probably have existed even without him), but the results would have been much the same. Egypt just had no more reason to fight, and that is not because of anything Carter did.

Malaise

This is one of the areas where Carter gets the least blame, but did the most harm. Even when confronted with a bad situation, a great leader can inspire people, motivate them to rise above their bad circumstances. Even a poor speaker, a man with no charisma, can through his own steadfast resolve inspire his nation.

What did Carter do during the hard times of inflation and oil lines at home, hostages and terrorism abroad? He made speeches about malaise. He suggested we make do with less. He told us to lower the thermostat and put on a sweater. In short, when another leader would have called for the nation to come together and wait for the better times to come, Carter told us all that things would only get worse. Rather than a stirring call to action, again and again Carter's message was "shut up and take it, it only gets worse from here."

I am only amazed that we waited until 1980 to get rid of him. It is a testament to the law abiding nature of the American citizen that no one even suggested overthrowing such a somber, incompetent, and generally dismal government.

After Leaving Office

And after 1980, what did Carter do? Did he take actions to make amends for the dismal presidency he inflicted on the US?

He started by building homes for the homeless, which seemed a promising start. It was something honest, and accomplished real good. It may have been partly inspired by a belief that his successors did too little to help the poor, or by a desire to seem more "saintly", but if it was, Carter had the good sense to keep his mouth shut about it. And he kept saying little for a number of years, living the quiet life expected of former presidents.

And then that all ended. For some reason, Carter decided he wanted to become the face of the disloyal opposition. He started coddling dictators from Castro to Chavez, he accepted a Nobel prize intended to do nothing but snub our sitting president, and he started finding common cause with terrorists. It would have been unbecoming enough for any former politician to adopt such a militantly anti-American position, but for a former president to do so is unprecedented.  Even presidents who absolutely despised their successors, there has never been one who decided to actively attack his own nation in the way Carter did.

Of course I am sure there are a few Carter fans out there who will take me to task for my description, as they did Mr. Shapiro, but the facts speak for themselves. There really is very little, or nothing, I can find that would support an argument that Carter was even a mediocre president. I may be missing something small, but as far as I can recall, there was no major act during the Carter administration with which I agreed. And certainly there is nothing I find laudable in his recent behavior.

Originally Posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/16.

Why is Nancy Pelosi Free?

The recent articles about Carter's trip to visit Hamas has caused me to ask an obvious question, why is Nancy Pelosi not in jail? I know there is congressional immunity to many forms of prosecution, but I think an explicit violation of the Logan act should be enough to prosecute her, or at least begin impeachment proceedings, after which she can be indicted.

Now, let us be clear, Nancy's trip to Syria was not the normal "fact-finding" junket. The few of those which aren't just stealth vacations still do not involve making promises to foreign leaders, nor delivering specious "secret messages" from Israel. Nor was her trip one of those "cultural understanding" exercises, like those carried out by the Sandalistas swarming to Nicaragua in the 1980's, the hippies sneaking into Cuba in the 1960's, or the Quakers and others promoting the glories of Stalinist Russia in the 1930's.

Nancy was clearly engaged in unsanctioned diplomacy on her trip to Syria, every bit as much as John Kerry was when he met with the North Vietnamese in the 1970's, or as Carter will be when he meets with Hamas. All of them are clear violations of the Logan act, and prosecuting any one of them should be a slam dunk for any federal prosecutor.

So, why is nothing happening? Is the US so unconcerned with the enforcement of laws that we will just allow anyone with enough name recognition to carry out their own diplomatic missions?

Originally Posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/16.

Double Standards?

I meant to write about this earlier, but I have to ask, where are all the anti-Egyptian protests?

After all, Egypt is taking steps to secure its border with Gaza and prevent the Arabs some call "Palestinians" from moving from Gaza into Egypt. Whenever Israel does this, we hear about the heartless "blockade" and get hundreds of protesters in black and white scarves flying the Palestinian flag. There are countless stories of how horrible Gaza is and how keeping people there is unconscionable.

So, where are the anti-Egypt protesters?

Originally Posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/16.

Hilarious!

I thought I had seen everything, until I saw the newest attempt to rehabilitate the "bitter" comment.

First, let us be honest, as I have said several times, the fact is that liberalism is based on arrogance, and the "bitter" speech was just Obama playing to that arrogance. While denouncing "bitter" people who are afraid of people different from them, he was making San Fransiscans feel good by mocking people different from them. In short, he was telling his audience how wonderful they were because they are above such things, and, if only everyone were as enlightened as his audience, he would be having a coronation tomorrow.

Obama never even bothered to deny that this was his intent, he just regretted his wording.

But, now the true believers are riding to the rescue. And in a most amusing way. Assuming that most small town folk are as arrogant as San Fransisco liberals, they are trying to defend Obama by saying, in effect, "He wasn't talking about YOU, just those other people..."

It takes a few different forms, but that is the essence of their defense. Sometimes it may be worded as "Does anyone doubt there are SOME people who fit that description?" Or "Why would ALL small town people think he was talking about THEM?" But the message is the same: "Sure, Obama meant that about some people, but don't think he meant you."

It is a pretty sorry excuse for an argument. Effectively it is saying, there are people in this country who fit Obama's description, while saying to every specific individual, but that doesn't mean you. So, there is no individual who should feel insulted by Obama's description, yet the group he described still somehow exists.

The logic of this argument just boggles the mind.


Originally posted (with title misspelled as "Hillarious") in Random Notes on 2008/04/16.

A Quick Note

I just realized that yesterday was "No News Tuesday". As work was so busy, I completely forgot about it.

Of course, I also made one mistake. I did write several posts with no topical subject matter, but then ruined my "No News Tuesday" rule by publishing an article on April 15th.

However, as we who write on politics are obligated by union rules to write about taxes on April 15th, I am giving myself a pass on this one.

Which means my third "No News Tuesday" was yet another success. Even if I did forget that it was Tuesday. For the second week in a row.

Next week, I promise, I will remember my own rule all day long.

Originally Posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/16.

Ad Hominem

One of the most misused phrases on Townhall is "ad hominem". In the comments to a recent column I found a perfect example. While the phrase "ad hominem" was not actually used, the concept is there.

The author, Michele Malkin, called Obama "Snob-ama", which was perfectly relevant, if a bit childish*, as the entire article was about how Sen. Obama and others are elitists. A poster, apparently taking umbrage with the name, decided to respond by saying:


Hey Miss Slanty Eyes

The last time I called you this name, after you had given Obama a ridiculous a nickname, I was
flagged.

So I am going to try it again. I guess what is
good for the columnist is good for the poster,
don't you think.

Now, the logic here is pretty obvious, but also completely wrong. The author was "calling him a name" only in the sense that she was altering her name to something mocking, but it was completely consistent with the article's topic and quite relevant. The commenter's nickname is only comparable if he thinks "slanty eyes" is somehow a valid criticism. For example, if he thinks Asians are genetically inferior and incapable of making valid arguments. Otherwise, his name calling consists simply of pointing out a physical trait, which is irrelevant.

In other words, his comment is an ad hominem attack, while Mrs. Malkin's is not.

Which brings me to my point, what is an ad hominem attack and what is not. As this concept seems to elude many on Townhall, I will spend some time on the subject.

First we shall briefly define what an ad hominen argument is, then we will spend a lot of time on what is not an ad hominem argument. This second  seems to be the most important subject, as many accuse their critics of "ad hominem", when in reality they mere mean that it seems to be a personal criticism. Not all personal criticism is ad hominem, as we shall see. But that will come a bit later.

First, let us start with a definition. It will be easier to decide what is not an ad hominem criticism if we start out knowing what is. So, let us start with the most common (if incomplete) definitions.

We usually do not hear a formal definition of "ad hominem", instead those trying to define it usually start with the adage "if you can't attack the message, attack the messenger", which is fine as far as it goes, but manages to miss a few key points. Yes, an ad hominem is, at its heart, a substitution of criticism of the opponent for any substantive response, but that requires some clarification.

So, allow me to posit a definition, and see if we can agree that it works. An ad hominem argument is a criticism of someone presenting an argument when such criticism is totally irrelevant to the dispute. I know that is a bit vague, but perhaps we can clear it up some as we go along. Perhaps if we use ti to examine what is not an ad hominem, it will help make things a bit more clear.

Let us start with this position: if the subject of the argument is a person, then criticism of that person is perfectly valid, and in no way ad hominem. If we are discussing the character of Bill Clinton, bringing up Monica Lewinsky is not an "ad hominem" criticism, it is completely relevant to the argument. This is an important rule, as to define any "personal" criticism as "ad hominem" is to make some subjects simply off limits and some debates impossible. As this is a political site, arguments about character are not just inevitable, but are quite important as well, so excluding "personal attacks" is simply absurd. Thus, we need to exclude form ad hominem any criticism which is relevant to the debate.

A second, similar exclusion, are criticisms of the person presenting the argument if such criticisms are relevant. This is a bit more complicated,as it doesn't come up often. For example, if we are discussing taxation, and you say that you pay 45% marginal tax rate, it is not an "ad hominem" for me to present evidence that you have lied in the past. As you are making arguments based upon personal knowledge, your reliability is now a relevant questions, so criticizing your honesty is no longer out of bounds. Had you not presented such testimony, then, yes, such an argument would be an ad hominem, but once you offered up facts supported only by your own assertion that they were true, your honesty becomes subject to debate.

The third argument is the one which actually make a bit of a lie of my introduction, as well as my first example. You see, technically "ad hominem" applies only to a very specific situation. If A and B are arguing about politician X, it is an ad hominem argument for A to impugn the character of B, but not to impugn the character of X. Ad hominem, strictly defined, only means a personal attack on the opposing side, not the subject of your debate. In other words, my introduction (criticism of Obama) and my first example (criticism of Bill Clinton), are, strictly speaking, not ad hominem arguments unless I am debating with Obama or Clinton.

Of course, popular usage has broadened the phrase to include all irrelevant personal criticism, whether directed at the opposing side of the argument, the subject of the argument, or other parties**. Many people will use "ad hominem" to describe any irrelevant personal criticism, so many that I often assume that has become the common usage. It is common enough that I did not hesitate to use this broader definition to support both my introduction and my first example, where I presented situations which in no way fit the more strict definition.

But I will leave it up to my readers whether or not they wish to adopt the loose or strict definitions. I shall content myself with defining ad hominem thus "An ad hominem argument is a criticism of a person when such criticism is irrelevant to the subject in dispute". Whether you wish to limit it only to criticism of the opposing party or broaden it to cover any personal criticism is up to you.

What is not open to dispute is that it is not as broad as some make it. Ad hominem does not exclude all personal criticism from argument, just that which has no bearing on the debate.

----------------------------------------------------------------

* As the creator of the the term "Beelzebubba" to describe Bill Clinton, I plead guilty to having my childish moments as well. So I cannot fault Mrs. Malkin for hers.

** The impersonal nature of the internet makes the traditional definition harder to apply. If, as a comment on Mrs. Malkin's article someone posts "Malkin is an idiot", it is an ad hominem or not? If we assume he is debating Mrs. Malkin, it is a traditional ad hominem, if we assume he is debating other comment writers, it is not. Also,does it matter how it is worded? Does "You are an idiot" show his intent to debate Mrs. Malkin better than "Malkin is an idiot", making this more clearly a traditional ad hominem argument? I suppose a similar problem existed when argument was carried on in print or in correspondence, it is just much faster now.

Originally Posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/16.

Mandatory April 15th Post

I almost forgot about the union rule that requires I write something witty about taxation on April 15th. But as I saw all the posts making absurdly exaggerated claims for he fair tax, or decried our current system, or otherwise meditated on tax matters, I realized I would be remiss (and probably in violation of Pundits' Union bylaws) if I failed to write about taxation today.

As I complain about taxation all the time, I don't really see a need to make a special point of commenting on it today, but union rules are union rules, and anyone who writes political commentary must write on taxation on April 15th, the same way you can't say anything nasty on December 25th, or have to write about resolutions on January 1st.

So here is my contractual obligation piece on taxation.

First, I suppose I need to say that I think our current system of taxation is far from ideal. There are so many conflicting rules, contradictory incentives and disincentives, that it is simply a mess. It is engineered so that most payers do not realize how much they pay, and, thanks to withholding even tend to think of the state as the organization that sends them a check rather than that which steals up to a third of their income. In short, I am horrified by our current tax system.

On the other hand, before we make any change we need to be very sure that the change is much better than what we have. It is not a small undertaking to restructure a tax system, so we should not change lightly. If the new system is no better, or even just a slight improvement, it is hard to justify a wholesale change.

Which is why I am still standing by my opposition to the FairTax. I had thought this was a dead issue, but with the coming of April 15th I have seen more articles on this topic than I anticipated. So apparently the partisans remain, even if there is currently no high profile champion. Of course, thanks to their choice of bills, the current incarnation of the FairTax is a dead issue, as the present bill is so written that it will not take effect until the 16th amendment is repealed. Since there is no chance of that happening, even were the present bill to pass it would achieve nothing. Which means  the FairTax is effectively dead until new proponents draft a more realistic bill.

But even were the FairTax still an issue, I think it is less desirable than the other comprehensive alternative that made the rounds at the same time, the flat tax. I have written about this elsewhere, so no need to go into that again, but I will say that the flat tax just seems more equitable. Yes, it still has the "corruption problem" the FairTax supporters say is inherent in our system, but, as I pointed out before, there is a corruption problem with the FairTax that proponents fail to mention. In reality, no system will stop tax avoidance schemes, so that should not be a factor in judging a system. And, in my mind, if we are going to have a national tax scheme, I just think one that taxes based on your spending seems less fair, and less beneficial,  than one that taxes all income at a fixed percentage.

But you may disagree. I can see the arguments on the other side, they simply do not persuade me.

Then again, I am hardly a partisan for the flat tax either. I argue for it against the FairTax, but only because it is the better of two bad choices. In reality, I would much rather return to our original taxation scheme, where taxes are collected by the states, using whatever plans they please, and then proportional amounts are sent to fund the federal government. Not only will it mean that we can choose our taxation scheme by deciding where to live, but it will have the added benefit of making the states fight against federal spending, as every dollar spent by the federal government is a dollar they will have to give up.

Of course, returning to a federalist funding scheme would mean the end of out of control federal spending, as well as the demise of the omnipotent federal government. As neither one is going to be embraced by any of our current crop of politicians, or at least not by more than a handful, I doubt I will see this reform any time soon.

As that is the case, the best I can hope for in the next few years is the extension of the Bush tax cuts, and maybe, if I am lucky, the repeal of the ATM. It is sad that I can hope for no better, but I will take what I can get.

And with that, I have fulfilled my obligation to write a tax article, and I can forget about the topic until next year.


Originally Posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/15.

Knowing Our Limits

Have you ever realized we don't know why things fall down?

In earlier times, the philosophers who studied nature thought things "sought their own level", so that items which were made up mostly of earth sank to the lowest level, those things mostly water sank to a level slightly above that, and fiery and airy matter tended to rise. (I confess to not recalling if air or fire rose higher, I think it was air, but my medieval physics is a bit rusty.)

Obviously, we have long since grown beyond that level, and have developed the concept of gravity and made everything quite scientific.

Except that we still have no idea what "gravity" is. We can quantify the force it exerts, we can predict it with great accuracy, but we have no idea what gravity is. Currently most prefer either the space curvature or graviton particle theory. The problem is that both explain some facts, but neither works with the other. (I favor space curvature, but I have a real personal grudge against Heisenberg. Of course, I have almost as big a grudge against Einstein, so that probably doesn't explain everything. -- And don't ask me to explain this, as it is too silly for me to explain to anyone. Just accept that I have an irrational dislike for two of the big names of physics.)

But my point is, just like the medieval philosophers, we have an abundance of theory, and we have a fancy name, but we still have no idea why things fall down.

I am sure scientists will take exception to my description, but it is true. That we have theories and have confirmed some aspects with experimentation puts us not a whit ahead of the medieval philosophers, as they had theories and experiments as well. That their theories proved wrong is no mark against them, as doubtless one of our two theories, if not both, will be proved wrong some day as well. (As they are contradictory, at least one will inevitably prove wrong.)

My point here is not to insult scientists or denigrate modern science. I am quite a fan of science, even majored in physics for a time in college before some unrelated matters led to me changing universities, which necessitated changing majors1. So I have no interest in saying that science is not worthy of respect or admiration. My point is much more simple, that we must recognize that, as much as we know, there is even more we do not know. And that just because something is "scientific" does not mean that it has been fully explained.

I bring this up because, to a degree, I am seeing a revival of the early 20th century style fetish of science, the belief that science will eventually solve all problems and perfect everything. While this may be true, to a degree, in matters purely technical, it becomes absurd when wrongly applied. Or when it leads us to attribute excessive certainty to findings simply because of our faith in science.

Perhaps I should give some examples of where science should not be applied.

I wrote earlier of one example, the attempt to claim that science has "proved" there is no G-d. That is simply absurd arrogance on the part of atheists. No scientist worth the name would even make such a claim. Theology is inherently outside the scope of science. As the existence of G-d is not falsifiable, it cannot be tested scientifically, so no true scientist should make any claims about proving or disproving it. A scientist is free to express his personal opinion, but that does not make it any more valuable than the opinion of a layman.

I should probably add that I would be equally dismissive of any claims to have "scientifically" proved G-d's existence, but I am not aware of any modern claims of having done so. Perhaps on the very fringe of the ID movement someone has made some claims of having such proof, but I am unaware of them if they have been made. It seems most such claims, at least today, tend toward disproving rather than proving the divine. Should that change, then I will be every bit as vocal in denouncing claims from the other side of the argument. As I said, proof is impossible in either direction, at least as far as science is concerned.

Another example of applying "science" to the wrong matters is the belief that the economy can be scientifically managed. This has largely been debunked, except for our obsession with having a "managed" currency. But, as I have already written so much on this, I shall leave that alone for the moment. Suffice it to say, that economics, while subject to regular phenomena, is not a good field for the application of "technological solutions". Scientific management of the economy always proves a disaster.
 
And, if science is harmful when wrongly applied, it can do even more harm when properly applied, but granted too much credence. One lesson we must learn over and over again, is that the trappings of science do not guarantee that the results will be accurate. People can also use the appearance of science to lie.

A perfect example of this is in the realm of environmental policy. I wrote earlier about the unspoken motives of the environmental movement, and how they use a rather ill-defined set of beliefs to push an anti-human agenda, but that is not so relevant here. The motives are still the same, as all of their actions are still aimed at destroying modern technology, or, at the very least, reducing our standard of living, but the "scientific environmentalists" do not use the fuzzy "love of nature" rhetoric of the rest of the movement, they tend to use apparently pragmatic arguments to achieve the same goals.

The best example, of course, is anthropogenic global warming. Those pushing this theory do not say they are protecting nature or anything of that sort, instead they argue that by releasing carbon dioxide man is making the Earth uninhabitable. By disguising themselves as hard-headed pragmatists they largely avoid the impression most have of environmentalists as impractical and a bit peculiar. However, whatever their claims, the AGW supporters are no different from the rest of the environmental movement, as I suggested in my earlier essay. The fact that they are not pushing for nuclear power to reduce carbon emissions should be enough proof of that.

So, how does AGW fit into the rest of my essay? Quite simply. Though many of those pushing the party line that man's carbon dioxide emissions (and other gases as well) are causing the earth to warm are scientists, that does not mean what they are doing is actually science. For example, the computer models used to predict global warming a perfect example of using supposed "science" to cover up a lack of evidence. We simply do not know enough about the complex engine that causes global weather patterns, and our models reflect this. They have to be adjusted constantly just to predict the correct weather one day in advance, yet the AGW supporters present their predictions about future years as if it were proven. We simply do not know enough to predict accurately what the result of carbon dioxide will be, and an honest scientist would say so2.

And that is where our confusion over the limits of science get in our way. Having seen such an explosion in computer science, along with a slightly less rapid expansion in the physical sciences, we are quite willing to believe that scientists can write a computer model that accurately reflects every influence on the weather across the globe. 

While I have a lot of faith in science, I doubt that any such model could be developed anytime in the near future. First, it would either require a computer much larger than is currently possible, or else would require a massive simplification which would make it much less accurate. Second, even were the computer available on which to run it, we simply do not yet know enough to produce a reliable model. Not only do we have too little understanding of obvious things such as how ocean currents will change with increasing heat and how that will effect the heating of the earth, we simply do not yet know all of the  terrestrial phenomena which can have an effect on the weather. And, once we continue beyond the atmosphere, there are even more factors we do not completely understand, such as sun spot cycles, or variations in solar luminosity, which can clearly change the weather on earth. As I argued from the start, we simply do not know enough.

Now, were this any other field of science, the limits of our knowledge would be enough to prevent any researcher form making any but the most guarded statements. We would not be hearing "the end is nigh!" but would be hearing "some models show a tendency toward warming when greenhouse gases increase, but much more research is needed".

However, I am sure, there are some few readers who will disagree with me. They will argue that, yes the information may not be complete, but as the evidence shows warming may be possible, why should we not do everything in our power to stop it. After all, the consequences are so horrible that even a remote risk should be addressed.

But such a position is wrong for two related different reasons.

First, precautions only make sense if the cost to prevent it is less than the cost of  the negative outcome adjusted by the probability of failure. Admittedly, the cost of global warming is great3, but we have to adjust this by the probability of such an outcome. As the models are so very speculative, it is almost impossible to create a fair estimate of what the probability of such an outcome is, but, if we base our estimates of probability on how often such models provide accurate predictions of the immediate future, or correctly extrapolate from present conditions to past conditions, we have to assume the risk is almost zero. Thus, we would not be justified in taking action unless the cost were incredibly small. As the proposed solutions basically involve destroying our entire industrial economy, I can't see the probability of the model being right justifying the proposed solution.

Of course, even that argument is unnecessary. As the science on which the models are based is so very speculative, and as the models have proved so horribly flawed, basing any sort of ration risk assessment on them is just absurd. It is as if I wrote a computer model that predicted giant bunny attacks in five years and asked for funding to prevent it. As the weather models used to predict AGW cannot even extrapolate today's weather from that of last week, the predictions they produce do not even qualify as a possibility. Anything these models produce is simply speculation, and we cannot base economic decisions on simple speculation.

All of which is a much more wordy way of saying what I did at the start. We have very impressive science, but it also has limits. When we surpass those limits, it is the duty of responsible scientists to say so, whether the mistake is in applying science to improper matters or in claiming greater certainty than science can currently provide.

That pseudo-science, such as "scientific" denials of G-d, "scientific" management of currency4, or the "science" of AGW have remained in the public eye for so long, and have done so without being challenged, shows that our scientists are not doing their job.

--------------------------------------------------------

1. For those who insist on embarrassing revelations or who will be tempted to say I left the hard sciences due to some lack of aptitude here are the details. I had an adviser who was one of those people hired for research rather than teaching. He was on campus 2 hours a week and could never be found, as he seemed to find his students and those he advised burdensome. As I could not find him despite weeks of trying, I forged his signature rather than miss registration. Apparently, though he had no time for students, he had time to check his signature on registration forms, as I was caught in my misdeed, which led to me changing universities. As I ended up at a liberal arts and business school, I graduated in history rather than chemistry and physics which had been my major.

2.  I am leaving aside the actual deceptions, such as the "hockey stick" graph, which has been quite effectively debunked. For those interested in MUCH more thorough handling of the topic, I suggest junkscience.com the best site I have seen dealing with not just AGW but all manner of bogus environmental science (as well as other topics such as food scares).

3. Actually, the cost is great if we assume that global warming proceeds out of control. Should there only be an increase of a few degrees before reaching some sort of stable state, then global warming may be beneficial. Though some AGW proponents deny it, the earth was warmer in the early middle ages, and it appears that man did quite well under those slightly warmer conditions. So the cost is actually subject to other considerations, but you will never hear that from global warming advocates.

4. No, I do not think physicists should be telling us to return to the gold standard. By scientists, I mean economist in this context. Through their continued adherence to Keynesian and neo-Keynesian theory and belief in a "scientifically" managed currency, they are letting us down in this regard as much as the physical scientists are in allowing AGW advocates to continue misrepresenting science.

----------------------------------------------------------

NOTE (04/18/2008)

Reading this, I expect that someone will mock me for attributing gravitons to Heisenberg. I am aware of what Heisenberg did and did not do, but, as his theories are prominent in modern quantum theories, I tend to view all of those theories as being related to Heisenberg, as I view all later relativistic theories as being related to Einstein. I should really view all quantum theories as related to Planck, but I have no feelings either way about Planck, so quantum theories get tarred with my negative impression of Heisenberg instead. (I do actually have a few reservations about the uncertainty principle, as I do about general relativity [mainly concerning whether foreshortening is real of perceived], but this is not the place to go into those question.)

Also, I realize there are probably some recent theories which have supplanted gravitons in certain circles, but I do not follow physics that closely, so I am unaware of the most recent theories. As far I know gravitons, or some variant thereof, are the most widely accepted mechanism for explaining gravity which does not rely on space curvature. If I am wrong, I am sure someone will correct me.

Originally Posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/15.

Our View of Our Fellow Citizens

Imagine you were presented with the choice of planning for your own retirement or letting a bureaucrat do it for you, what would you decide? And if it was also stipulated that the second choice would pay lower returns and you would have no control over the amount you contributed, would that make it more appealing? How about if you were given the choice of providing your own health care or else paying just as much or more but getting waiting lists, rationing and substandard care, what would your decision be?

That is the irony of most liberal policies, that no one would choose them for themselves, yet many, in some cases a majority, continue to support them. If social security would be no one's first choice in retirement planning, why does it continue to exist? If socialized medicine would clearly be worse than the options most people now have available, how has it gained any support?

The answer is a combination of the best and the worst in human nature. While no one would think social security was good for them, they think that there are others out there who have not planned and, for those people, social security is better than nothing. Likewise, socialized medicine is viewed as a safety net for those who are unable or unwilling to provide for themselves.

And there we have the benevolent aspect of liberal policies, the support they receive due to people's charitable nature. Social security, socialized medicine, welfare, and others are embraced by many because the supporters think that they provide for those who have no other option. Rather than see people destitute, starving or dying of disease, they imagine that it is the obligation of the state to help those in need.

The uglier aspect comes out when they are asked why those few who are so utterly unprepared cannot rely on private charity. It then becomes clear that not only do they think there are "some" who need these safety nets, but that they think most people do. If it were just a handful of irresponsible people these massive safety nets would not be needed. The supporters of liberal programs do not embrace them because they think that there are a few in need, they embrace them because they think they are much smarter and better prepared than most of their fellows. In short, they arrogantly think that most people are not bright enough to prepare for the future and need the help of the enlightened few to survive.

That attitude is largely what divides conservative and liberal policies. Neither side wants to see their fellows suffer or live in poverty. The difference is that most conservatives think their fellow citizens are a lot like them, competent enough to prepare for the future on their own, and best left alone to pursue their own goals. Conservatives think that, as they would prefer the government leave them alone, most people would like the same. And in the case of those few who are unable to prepare, or the handful who are caught by some unexpected tragedy, private charity will be more than sufficient to provide for them*.

The difference is a basic one, how we view our fellows determines how we think things should be run. Liberals view themselves as better than the crowd, and the rest of society as children who need guidance, and their policies reflect that. Conservatives tend to see their fellows as equal to themselves,  and the policies they adopt are suitable for dealing with equals.

What is more interesting is when we look at the logical outcomes of these two philosophies.

The conservative philosophy is easy to understand. It is already at the end point. Once we assume that others are our equals, and that government should treat everyone the way we want to be treated, we end with something like the constitutional republic we once had. A limited government with a focus on defense against aggressors both internal and external. In other words, there is no logical extrapolation needed, the conservative position has already drawn the ultimate conclusions from the theory with which it started.

On the other hand, liberalism is but the first step along that road. If we start form the assumption that people are not capable of caring for themselves and need to be helped out by their betters, then we will not stop with simple nanny-state socialism. From the basic premises of liberalism, there are several inevitable conclusions.

First, the concept of representative government is not really compatible with those premises. Liberals may embrace them now, but if they are consistent in their beliefs, only a government limited to the best and the brightest makes sense, as why should those too incompetent to care for themselves have control of something as complex as a state? Taking the liberal beliefs seriously,not only should office be limited to the elite, but so should voting, as the proles are not clever enough to understand the issues confronting them. In fact, as some among the elite are probably smarter than others, the liberal hierarchy of competence suggests that some sort of meritocratic dictatorship is the best choice.  Liberals will deny this is the logical outcome of their theories, but if they believe those with foresight should care for the unprepared, against their will if necessary, then what argument could there be to establishing such a state? If the state can compel people to act in their own best interest, then should it not be led by those who know everyone's interests best? And why should they not have the power to compel obedience from everyone else as well? The logic is inherent in the liberal doctrine.

Which brings me to the second change liberalism requires, an absolute authoritarian state. At one time this would have sounded more absurd, as the liberals were known as the champions of free expression. As the liberals have begun to embrace hate crime laws and speech codes, this has become less absurd, and the left has started to show its true colors. Authoritarianism is the logical outcome of liberalism as well, as if one can be compelled to save for his retirement or to provide medical service at a price not of his choosing, what is the argument against compelling him to do anything. If we accept "the public good" as the standard which any act of compulsion must meet, then all acts of compulsion are eventually justifiable**.

I doubt my argument will persuade many liberals that their liberalism inevitably leads to authoritarian dictators, but that does not mean I am wrong. Most dictators started out with limited powers, and argued that some public good required their expansion, and, in almost every case, most could not believe that giving him "just a little more power" would lead where it inevitably did. Just because followers lacked foresight does not mean that the outcome was not foreseeable.

And, in the tenets of modern liberalism, even in something as simple as how they view their fellow citizens, are the seeds of dictatorship. Whether we choose to see them or not.

--------------------------------------------------------------

* It is not really within the scope of this essay, but it is interesting that most conservatives are willing to believe private charity will be able to provide for the destitute while most liberals think people will be too selfish to help out their fellows. Even more interesting are the repeated surveys that show conservatives give much more to charity than liberals. I may writ eon this later, so I will say little about it here, but I do have to say that the public outpouring of support following any disaster seems to support the conservative position.

** For those who will object that this theory means I endorse no compulsion, I would argue that I do accept that the state must be allowed to use force. The difference is that my standard requires the state must be acting to prevent or punish an act of force or fraud committed against a citizen. That very strictly delimits justifiable uses of state force and does not have the problem of being infinitely expanded the way nebulous ideal like "the common good" can be.

Originally Posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/15.