Free Olbermann

Friday, November 5, 2010 \PM\.\Fri\.

I think that Keith Olbermann is one of the lowest of all media low-lifes — a rude, ignorant and bigoted opinionator posing as a journalist, but I am frankly flummoxed by MSNBC’s decision to suspend him indefinitely for making political donations to Democratic candidates. This is, apparently, a portion of their employee code of conduct, and so they are certainly within their rights to do so. But it makes no sense to me that they should suspend him for donating a could thousand dollars to a specific Democratic candidate, when he nightly performs the far more valuable service to the Democratic party of supporting them and attacking their opponents before hundreds of thousands of views. It would be an insult to sock puppetry to compare this charade of journalistic objectivity to such.

If MSNBC objects to the flagrant support of one party over the other, they should simply shut down. If not, they should leave Olbermann alone, and silently signing a check is doubles one of the less offensive ways that he has supported the Democrats in recent years.


Narrative Failure

Wednesday, November 3, 2010 \AM\.\Wed\.

There’s nothing more annoying that excessive crowing over an election, but I can’t help taking just a moment to observe that there’s something which doesn’t quite fit about the idea that the GOP (and in a number of cases, the Tea Party wing of the GOP) did so well yesterday because the electorate was outraged that Obama and congress didn’t tack harder left in the last two years. Yes, it’s true that it was moderate Democrats, in many cases, who lost, but that’s mainly because those moderate Democrats were elected in 2010 in districts which were to the right of them, districts which had previously been held by the GOP. But the fact that Pelosi was reelected while Driehaus lost doesn’t mean that the electorate as a whole wants people on the hard left — it’s because Pelosi’s district is in San Francisco while Driehaus’s was in Cincinnati.

What both rightists and leftists should keep in mind after elections like this one and 2008 as well is that elections in the US are decided by a swing bloc which might charitably be described as pragmatic/a-political (or uncharitably as generally ignorant of political ideology and policy.) Read the rest of this entry »


The Super Secret, Mystical Recession Cure

Tuesday, November 2, 2010 \PM\.\Tue\.

For some reason, I found myself reading through Paul Krugman’s recent NY Times material. Perhaps it was a desire for a little mental vaunting, what with the direction the elections seem to be taking, and if so I should have come away quite satisfied as Mr. Krugman is in full Chicken Little mode. A GOP takeover of congress will be a disaster, and we should all be very afraid. Stupid people are allowing their emotions to run away with them and will destroy the world economy through getting all moralistic about debt. And of course, the reason why the entire world doesn’t see things Krugman’s way is because macroeconomics is too hard for them to understand.

Well, I’m certainly prepared to admit that Krugman’s expertise in macroeconomics is greater than my own — and I’ll even stretch and say that my understanding probably goes farther than that of the average bear. Read the rest of this entry »


Abolish The Corporate Income Tax and Tax The Rich

Thursday, October 28, 2010 \PM\.\Thu\.

Atlantic columnist Megan McArdle makes the case for why abolishing the corporate income tax (and then taxing capital gains and dividends at the same rate as other income) is a proposal that both liberals and conservatives should be able to agree on:

The incidence of “corporate” taxes is not necessarily progressive. The “employer half” of the payroll tax, for example, is thought by most economists to fall pretty much entirely on the worker; corporations compensate for the extra cost by lowering the wages they offer. Taxes on corporate profits are exactly the same for middle class families who have some shares in a 401(k), and multi-millionaire heiresses.

If we get rid of the corporate income tax, we could eliminate the special treatment for dividends and capital gains. Read the rest of this entry »


NFP and Fasting

Tuesday, October 26, 2010 \AM\.\Tue\.

When trying to explain the Catholic understanding of sexuality to someone “outside”, I almost invariably find myself falling back on analogies relating to diet and gluttony.  It’s a natural comparison, and while modern society has lost any sense that it’s reasonable to have any less sex if you want to have fewer children, people are able to get more righteous then ever over the point that if you want to be fit you must, must, must eat moderately and exercise more. 

Indeed, diet and exercise may be the one thing relating to sexuality where modern culture understands a great deal of self denial.  After all, one of the motivations for all this diet and exercise is, I think one may honestly admit, to look better while naked.

Which leaves the obvious question: Why has a Church which finds itself swimming against a quickening current in regards to its teaching on birth control nearly totally abandoned any sort of severity in regards to fasting? 

Sure, we’re an “Easter people” and all that, but maybe some rigorous self denial for the sake of religion would help us with some rigorous self denial for the sake of our faith.  I’ve been pretty much as bad as the next fellow on this — doing the mental calculation of whether I can make one more cup of coffee and still make the hour fast before mass or falling to the “I’ll say some extra prayers tonight as a sacrifice instead” temptation on Fridays outside of Lent when meat is all that appears on the menu.  But this is, after all, part of the problem.  The constant NFP lament is “Look, we played by the rules all those years before we were married.  Why does there have to be frustration now too?” 

If virtue is a habit, perhaps it’s time to form some more habits around denial of appetite.


What Is This Wicked Capitalism?

Thursday, October 21, 2010 \PM\.\Thu\.

One of the difficulties that comes in discussing the many “isms” that populate the landscape of political discussion is that very often people use the same words without mean the same things, or indeed without having any clearly defined idea of what they do mean. While this is the case with nearly any ism (socialism, liberalism, libertarianism, conservatism, etc.) I’d like to address in this case the way in which opponents (particularly Christian opponents) of “capitalism” tend to address the object of their condemnation. This is in some ways a beautifully typical example of a Christian opponent of capitalism attempting to describe what it is he is condemning:

We must remember the capitalistic system we live in also is a materialistic ideology which runs contrary to the Christian faith, and it is a system which is used to create rival, and equally erroneous, forms of liberation theology. It is as atheistic as Marxism. It is founded upon a sin, greed. It promises utopia, telling us that if we allow capitalist systems to exist without regulation, everyone, including the poor, will end up being saved. The whole “if we allow the rich to be rich, they will give jobs to the poor” is just as much a failed ideology as Marxist collectivism.

Admittedly, this is a somewhat muddled set of statements, but I think we can draw out of it the following statements which the author, and many other self described critics of capitalism (in particular from a religious perspective) believe to be true:
-Capitalism is a system or ideology much as Communism is.
-Capitalism is based on greed or takes greed to be a virtue.
-Capitalism is a materialistic or atheistic philosophy/system.
-Capitalism could be summed up as the idea that “if we allow the rich to be rich, they will give jobs to the poor”
-Capitalism promises utopia if “capitalist systems” are allowed to exist without regulation.

While one approach to this is simply to throw out the term “capitalism” entirely, what I’d like to do is accept that claim that we live in a “capitalist” system and that this system is roughly what libertarians/conservatives advocate, and proceed to address the claims made about “capitalism” in that context.
Read the rest of this entry »


Is The US Destroying the Middle Class?

Monday, October 11, 2010 \PM\.\Mon\.

With a certain frequency, commentators see fit to worry as to the extinction of the US middle class. One among these, it seems, is one Edward Luce, who composed a piece on “The crisis of middle-class America” for the Financial Times. The piece profiles two families making about $70k/yr each, and worries as to the future of them and families like them. Both are, by coincidence, families of loyal Democrats, and the piece sports the requisite concerns about the potential dangers of tea party barbarians howling at the gates of the US order.

I feel myself in an odd position in regards to such stories. The particular definition of “middle class” picked for the story is a family income threshold which five years ago was frustratingly above our families income, and which now is embarrassingly below it. In this regard, I recognize myself to be uncharacteristically fortunate. However, having recently made a good deal less than this (and coming from a family which never exceeded such a total, even adjusting for inflation) I feel that I have some familiarity with the sort of middle class world being discussed — while I can’t escape the feeling that this seems a very squalid and foreign world to the Financial Times writer.

Added to this sense of class conflict is that Luce seeks to build up his story with juxtapositions of facts which sound like they mean more than they do. Read the rest of this entry »


There Is No Shire Party

Friday, October 1, 2010 \AM\.\Fri\.

If imitation is a form of flattery, it must be some sort of testament to a writer’s skill when partisans of both sides of an issue become intent upon placing each other as the villains of the same work of fiction. Some examples of this are, perhaps, unsurprising. The original Big Brother of George Orwell’s 1984 is such a wonderfully universal government baddie that it is little wonder that those on both the right and left see each other as being like it.

However, one of the odder (to me) manifestations of this trend is the tendency of those on both right and left who are of a certain SF/F geek stripe (and political and genre geekdom do seem to go together more often than one might imagine) to identify themselves with the Shire of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and to identify their opponent with the modernizing and destructive elements who take over the Shire under Lotho Sackville-Baggins and “Sharky” (Saruman) while Frodo and his friends are away, and who are driven out in the Scouring of the Shire.

For those less familiar with those aspects of the story that didn’t make the movie version: While Frodo and this three friends Sam, Merry and Pippin are off on the quest to destroy the One Ring, Frodo’s cousin Lotho uses the influence and affluence of belonging to one of the Shire’s leading families to run the Shire into a bit of a ditch. Most of the crops are exported, including nearly all the pipeweed, leaving Hobbits themselves with little left for themselves. Various “improvement” projects are undertaken, such as knocking down the picturesque old mill on the river in Hobbiton and putting up a large new brick structure which belches smoke and pollutes the river.

Read the rest of this entry »


Obama To Announce New Business Tax Cuts

Monday, September 6, 2010 \PM\.\Mon\.

President Obama will propose several new tax cuts and incentives for businesses on Wednesday, September 8th, including one which is billed as having a decidedly right-leaning flavor:

President Barack Obama, in one of his most dramatic gestures to business, will propose that companies be allowed to write off 100% of their new investment in plant and equipment through 2011, a plan that White House economists say would cut business taxes by nearly $200 billion over two years.

The proposal, to be laid out Wednesday in a speech in Cleveland, tops a raft of announcements, from a proposed expansion of the research and experimentation tax credit to $50 billion in additional spending on roads, railways and runways. But unlike those two ideas, both familiar from Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign, the investment incentive would embrace a long-held wish by conservative economists that had never won support from either Republican or Democratic administrations.
Read the rest of this entry »


German Economist: America Is Becoming Too European

Friday, September 3, 2010 \PM\.\Fri\.

I found this piece from the English-language edition of Der Spiegel by University of Hamburg economics professor Thomas Straughaar very interest, in part because it reads very much as written by someone who is looking at American history and culture from the outside, yet trying to understand it for what it is. A key passage from the second page:

This raises a crucial question: Is the US economy perhaps suffering less from an economic downturn and more from a serious structural problem? It seems plausible that the American economy has lost its belief in American principles. People no longer have confidence in the self-healing forces of the private sector, and the reliance on self-help and self-regulation to solve problems no longer exists.

The opposite strategy, one that seeks to treat the American patient with more government, is risky — because it does not fit in with America’s image of itself.

Read the rest of this entry »


Natural Does Not Equal Good

Wednesday, September 1, 2010 \AM\.\Wed\.

“Unnatural, mummy? You tell me, what’s nature’s way? If poison mushrooms grow and babies come with crooked backs, if goiters thrive and dogs go mad and wives kill husbands, what’s unnatural?”
Richard, The Lion in Winter

One of the claims to which people seem peculiarly susceptible at the moment is that if something is “natural”, it must be good. “Natural” foods are believed to be uniformly healthy. The finding that some particular behavior (say, polyamory) is found in nature is taken to be some sign that it is a good thing.

I think a fair amount of this results from our culture having lost a sense of tragic vision in regards to nature — we naturally assume that unless some active force comes along and makes things bad, that they will be good. This could not be farther from a traditional view of nature. While neo-pagans are sure that being “in tune” with nature would be a blissful and pleasant state, real pagans of the ancient world saw the natural forces that were bound up with their gods as capricious, sometimes cruel, and almost always unconcerned with the impact of their actions upon mortals.

Read the rest of this entry »


Proxy Morality: Advocacy and ‘Solidarity’

Thursday, August 26, 2010 \PM\.\Thu\.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post on how we sometimes impute excessive virtue to ourselves for being on the right side of historical conflicts, though a sort of proxy morality. I’d like to follow-up on the theme with the other area in which I think we often fall into a mentality of proxy morality: issue advocacy and solidarity with oppressed groups.

Let me start by trying to lay out a little bit more clearly what I think proxy morality is and why I think it is a danger to us. Proxy morality consists of drawing a strong sense of virtue or righteousness from identification with some cause or group. It is, I think, a dangerous tendency because it allows us to indulge in a great deal of pride and righteousness, while at the same time running of the risk of both excusing ourselves from taking any direct moral action in regards to the issues which we congratulate ourselves on due to proxy morality. Read the rest of this entry »


Just Build the Damn Thing

Monday, August 23, 2010 \PM\.\Mon\.

Travelling in the second half of last week, I had occasion to realize how pervasive the TV news coverage of the “ground zero mosque” has become — perhaps in part because it is doubtless a dream situation for TV news producers: All you have to do is draw 3-4 people into the studio and have them debate the question for twenty minutes, throw in a couple of commercial breaks, and voila! you have another 1/48th of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. I was reminded again of how glad I am to have cancelled the cable TV subscription and never put up an antenna.

As I think about it, this seems to me a made-for-TV controversy in more ways than one. For all the talk about this being the “ground zero mosque”, the location two blocks away will not be visible from the WTC monument itself, and is currently occupied by sacred precincts such as the offices of the University of Pheonix, Marty’s Shoes and the Dakota Roadhouse. This is New York, for goodness sake. A thirteen story building isn’t exactly going to stick out. And the visible symbols of religion closes to Ground Zero will remain St. Peter’s Catholic Church, St. Paul’s Episcopal, and John Street United Methodist. (If anything, it’s a little disappointing the plans for the mosque look rather like a vertical shoebox with abstract patters on it — no minarets here.)
Read the rest of this entry »


Diversity: Individual vs. Collective Good

Monday, August 16, 2010 \PM\.\Mon\.

The Wake County Board of Education is considering significantly modifying one of the largest remaining efforts at school busing for diversity — in this case, economic diversity, given that busing for racial diversity has been overturned legally.

Opponents of the planned change charge that this represents a return to segregation, but reading about the motivations of those pushing to reduce busing suggest it’s more a question of individual versus collective good.

When Rosemarie Wilson moved her family to a wealthy suburb of Raleigh a couple of years ago, the biggest attraction was the prestige of the local public schools. Then she started talking to neighbors.

Don’t believe the hype, they warned. Many were considering private schools. All pointed to an unusual desegregation policy, begun in 2000, in which some children from wealthy neighborhoods were bused to schools in poorer areas, and vice versa, to create economically diverse classrooms.

“Children from the 450 houses in our subdivision were being bused all across the city,” said Ms. Wilson, for whom the final affront was a proposal by the Wake County Board of Education to send her two daughters to schools 17 miles from home.

Now, it’s possible to read all sorts of dark racist or classist motives into these kind of conflicts, but it strikes me that the real difficult here is in reconciling private and public goods.
Read the rest of this entry »


Proxy Morality: Taking Sides in History

Tuesday, August 10, 2010 \AM\.\Tue\.

Generally speaking, I think we would say that moral behavior consists of choosing to do right in one’s actions. However, there are a number of instances in which we tend to think of ourselves as behaving virtuously despite not having actually undertaken any action. These are means by which we tell ourselves that we have demonstrated we are “good people” without the burden of actually doing good things.

There are several different ways we do this which I’d like to address under the description of “proxy morality”, by which I mean instances in which someone assigns virtue to himself through no more action than identifying himself with some good which is performed by someone else. The first of these, one which I think people of all ideological persuasions fall into at times, is that of taking sides in history.

It is by now an old saw that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and I think there is a good deal of truth in this. Further, it can be of some moral benefit for us to look to history for people and actions to admire. The moment in which we find ourselves suddenly faced with some difficult moral decision is typically not the moment at which are most un-biased or deliberative, and so having clear examples to follow, if they are well chosen, can be a significant benefit.
Read the rest of this entry »


Culture War

Thursday, August 5, 2010 \AM\.\Thu\.

People justly tire of the term “culture war” and find themselves asking, like the philosopher Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?”

And yet watching the disparate reactions to yesterday’s Federal Court ruling overturning California’s Proposition 8 (for now) it struck me that the culture war terminology is quite apt. What is termed the culture was is essentially a zero sum game over which of two roughly equally numerous groups will be allowed to define the dominant understandings of culture and society in our country. by taking this to the federal level, same sex marriage advocates have made it clear that no degree of regional acceptance is satisfactory — their understanding of the nature of marriage must be the single dominant understanding enforced throughout the country, and those with a traditional understanding of marriage must be the ones who find themselves aliens within their country. And, presumably, is same sex marriage advocates lose, they will in turn consider themselves aliens within the country. Given that it is the most basic units and purposes of society which are in dispute, it seems hard to see how it can be any other way. And while the dispute is to an extent regional, it is much more so philosophical and ideological, making the culture war more resemble the Spanish Civil War than the American. Every city and region has representatives of both sides.

Read the rest of this entry »


Privacy or Anonymity

Wednesday, August 4, 2010 \AM\.\Wed\.

The Wall Street Journal has been running a series on the business of online “spying” for marketing information about web browsers. From today’s installment:

You may not know a company called [x+1] Inc., but it may well know a lot about you.

From a single click on a web site, [x+1] correctly identified Carrie Isaac as a young Colorado Springs parent who lives on about $50,000 a year, shops at Wal-Mart and rents kids’ videos. The company deduced that Paul Boulifard, a Nashville architect, is childless, likes to travel and buys used cars. And [x+1] determined that Thomas Burney, a Colorado building contractor, is a skier with a college degree and looks like he has good credit.

Read the rest of this entry »


Scouting in a Fractured American Culture

Tuesday, August 3, 2010 \PM\.\Tue\.

The New York Times runs an article about how the national leaders of the Boy Scouts of America are seeking to address concerns about shrinking membership as they celebrate 100 years of boy scouting in the US. The number of boy scouts has declined 42% since it’s peak in 1978, with 2.8 million boys currently in the Scouts.

To judge from the commentariat at the Times, you would think this is entirely the result of the BSA remaining firm in their ban of gay scout leaders and statement that “homosexual conduct is inconsistent with obligations in the Scout Oath.” Not to mention saying that boys who refuse to recite the Scout Oath because of its references to God and reverence may simply not have a place in the program. Commenters claiming to be Eagle Scouts line up one after another in the comments to announce that no son of theirs will ever be a member of the Scouts while it remains homophobic and theocratic.

Read the rest of this entry »


A Story in Graphs

Wednesday, July 28, 2010 \PM\.\Wed\.

Once upon a time there was a country — it had its problems as any nation does, but it did well enough. Its people prided themselves on working hard, and they were comparatively well off: less so than the UK, more so than Spain and Italy.

They’d had the good fortune to have none of their infrastructure destroyed during World War II, and after the war they experienced a boom as an exporter. Things slowed, however, in the late 60s and early 70s. Some said this was because the rest of the world got better at growing their own food and manufacturing their own goods. Others said it was because they allowed too much immigration. Some said it was because the welfare programs they created in the 60s ate away at the motivation to work hard.  Others said it was because unions became weak. Whatever the reason, their average income in inflation adjusted terms grew much more slowly than it had, and there was a good deal of discontentment and disagreement as to what to do about it all and who was at fault. Here’s a graph of their average family income in inflation-adjusted US Dollars.

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Hobbesian Gun Control

Tuesday, July 27, 2010 \AM\.\Tue\.

I was struck by a passage out of this recent National Review piece by Keven D. Williamson in reference to gun control:

People have a visceral reaction to guns, which is why the reactions to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in McDonald v. City of Chicago have been so emotional. One extraordinarily telling reaction came from David Ignatius of the Washington Post, whose response was headlined: “The Supreme Court Gun Decision Moves Us Toward Anarchy.” Mr. Ignatius wrote: “My biggest worry with Monday’s Supreme Court decision is that by ruling, in effect, that every American can apply for a gun license, the justices will make gun ownership much more pervasive in a society that already has too many guns. After all, if I know that my neighbor is armed and preparing for Armageddon situations where law and order break down (as so many are — just read the right-wing blogs) then I have to think about protecting my family, too. That’s the state-of-nature, everyone for himself logic that prevails in places such as Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Mr. Ignatius here is remarkably forthcoming: Read the rest of this entry »


Real Sex vs. the Contraceptive Mentality (Part 4 & Conclusion)

Monday, July 26, 2010 \AM\.\Mon\.

[Continued from Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3]

NFP and the Contraceptive Mentality

In concluding this series, I’d like to address the question which originally set me on on this overly extended journey: Is it possible for users of Natural Family Planning to have a “contraceptive mentality” and if so what does that mean in the context of NFP?

I’ve described the contraceptive mentality as: The idea that having sex and reproducing are two activities with no necessary connection, that having sex in no way suggests a desire or willingness to have children with the person you are having sex with.

At root, I think that NFP is formulated in such a way as to be in direct opposition to the contraceptive mentality. According to an understanding of sexuality rooted in human instinct and biological reality, the way to avoid conceiving children is to not have sex. This is also the means of avoiding conception which is considered acceptable by the Church in the context of its understanding of the moral nature of sexuality. NFP is considered morally acceptable by the Church for the reason that it consists of avoiding pregnancy by not having sex, with the modern refinement of allowing the married couple to understand with a certain degree of confidence when it is that they need to avoid having sex in order to avoid conception. Rather than abstaining all the time in order to avoid pregnancy, the couple can abstain for between a quarter and half out of the woman’s cycle, and achieve the same result with relative certainty.
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Brother Can You Spare a Sign?

Friday, July 16, 2010 \PM\.\Fri\.

From the “you can’t make this stuff up” files, comes a story of those great champions of the American working man, unions. It can be tough to ask union workers to take time out of their busy days to picket businesses who hire non-union workers, but not to be deterred some unions have followed their arch nemeses in the business world into the realm of outsourcing: hiring non-union low-wage workers to do the protesting union members won’t do.

Billy Raye, a 51-year-old unemployed bike courier, is looking for work.

Fortunately for him, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters is seeking paid demonstrators to march and chant in its current picket line outside the McPherson Building, an office complex here where the council says work is being done with nonunion labor.

“For a lot of our members, it’s really difficult to have them come out, either because of parking or something else,” explains Vincente Garcia, a union representative who is supervising the picketing.

So instead, the union hires unemployed people at the minimum wage—$8.25 an hour—to walk picket lines. Mr. Raye says he’s grateful for the work, even though he’s not sure why he’s doing it. “I could care less,” he says. “I am being paid to march around and sound off.”

As it turns out, unions are just the most ironic example of a wider trend — long term joblessness allows well-funded political action groups to stage visible protests by hiring picketers where the enthusiasm of their supporters doesn’t extend to spending time holding signs. Read the rest of this entry »


The Romance of the Press

Thursday, July 1, 2010 \AM\.\Thu\.

It’s been interesting, though a bit odd, for me, watching the hand-wringing over the “death of the press” as some of the major newspapers struggle to figure out how to make their budgets work in a world in which fewer people read “dead tree” editions and advertisers can take advantage of more targeted advertising online and in specialty publications. There is, it seems, a level of reverence which many people seem to attach to “the press”, which does not seem well born out what it actually is.

Looked at historically and economically — newspapers exist as a delivery system for ads. They seek to provide stories that people want to read (whether “news”, human interest, comics, crosswords or recipes) in order to persuade people it’s worth parting with the artificially low newsstand or subscription price.

Read the rest of this entry »


Real Sex vs. the Contraceptive Mentality (Part 3)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010 \PM\.\Tue\.

[Continued from Part 1 and Part 2]

Enter Artificial Birth Control

In Part 2, I discussed the sense in which marriage customs and sexual morality can be seen as an adaptive response to controlling childbearing. I’d like now to turn to the question of artificial birth control.

In my first job out of college, a small chemical distribution company, I sat next to the customer service group, and thus found myself overhearing a lot of middle-aged “girl talk”. One anecdote I particularly remember was recounted by a woman who’d married in the late sixties. She told about how when she and her husband were still engaged, she’d gone with her mother to a wedding, and her mother had taken occasion to whisper to her that it was generally known that the bride had “had to get married.”

“I’m just so glad you’re a good girl and you’ll never need to get married quickly like that, my mother told me,” she said. “Of course, what she didn’t know is that I’d been on the pill for the last three years.”

I think this does a good job of underlining a massive shift in social structure and morality which the advent of plentiful and efficient birth control allowed. Read the rest of this entry »