Friday, December 31, 2010

My exchange on a climate change blog

This blog, called The Intersection,written by Chris Mooney, deals with science, primarily climate change. His recent post is why people reject climate change despite overwhelming evidence. This is the entire post. I posted and then got a reply from someone who missed the point. I point out that climate denial is simply the confirmation bias at work; if you think it's real you'll find evidence for it, if you don't you'll find evidence against it. I got criticized by a poster who pointed out that expert opinion was in favor of climate change and that the evidence for it was of much better quality than that of the evidence against it. True, but irrelevant to my argument. My response:

Jon, your reply to me was well-reasoned but missed my point. By the way,if I left the impression I’m a climate denier, that was a miscommunication on my part. My argument was more about psychology than the truth of climate change. I agree it would be wonderful if people approached the subject the way you want them to do, with thoughtful analysis of the evidence, but they simply don’t. You’re appealing to rationality, but my argument is that reason/logic has little to do with how people approach this issue (and most other issues for that matter).

Arguments that climate scientists overwhelmingly accept g.w., while true, don’t matter to deniers. Psychologists know that people only value expert opinion if they agree with the expert’s point of view.( I heard a podcast from Psychology Today saying this, this isn’t a wild theory I just made up.) My family, for the most part, rejects climate change, and they don’t care about the opinion of climate scientists. They say those people are frauds out to get government grants (one family member actually said this to me a week ago, this isn’t a strawman argument).

My challenge to you is: send your links to all the climate deniers you know and tell me how many change their views. My prediction: you will get zero converts. As my favorite scientist, Scott Atran, said once: it doesn’t do much good when dealing with the basic fact of human irrationality to say that things ought to be rational and evidence-based.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Another tendentious op-ed from WSJ

The Wall Street Journal has many positive attributes, but clear thinking on health care issues isn't one of them. Today they printed an op-ed warning of the dangers of government rationing: by David Rifkin and Elizabeth Foley. Both authors are lawyers; neither has any background in health care. This paragraph was typical of the conservative/libertarian argument that there is a meaningful distinction between good private rationing and bad public rationing.

There's an enormous difference between government-imposed rationing and treatment decisions in the private sector. When insurance companies deny coverage—for example, on grounds that treatment is "experimental" or not "medically necessary"—they do so based on contract language agreed to in advance by subscribers. If you don't like what a particular insurer offers, you're free to shop around. Moreover, you and your doctor have extensive rights to appeal the insurer's denial, and wealthy patients can pay for the care out of their own pockets.

I have to confess I don't follow the logic of the arguments here. Only a lawyer could argue that it's OK to deny care because of contract language in a health plan (which no one I know reads), but let's leave that aside for a moment. I love the "You're free to shop around," point--there's nothing insurance companies love more than paying for expensive medications for sick clients. And when people are really sick, there really isn't a lot of time for waiting on the company to respond to appeals. And don't conservatives generally argue (correctly, in my opinion) that our resources are not unlimited and we need to restrain spending? How can health care costs ever be managed if any time a 3rd party objects to a treatment it is considered "rationing" and evil? Should we provide unlimited health care to everyone? If we should do that, why not unlimited food and drinks? Is it not rationing to only pay a thousand or so a month for social security? I mean at a million dollars a month seniors could have anything they want. Senior poverty would be eliminated. (Actually, no, people could still scream about rationing, because even at a million dollars a month there's a few things people can't afford).

I've posted it before,but this column by libertarian Steve Chapman explains well why the cry of rationing and death panels is demagoguery. These two paragraphs sum it up well:

No matter how we "reform" health insurance, there will still be close calls, where it's not clear that a costly procedure will actually do any good. There will have to be someone, either in government or in the private sector, to decide which operations and treatments should be covered and which should not.

What left and right have in common is the delusion that when it comes to medicine, nothing succeeds like excess. But no health care measure can alter the fact that our resources are not unlimited. We may not want to hear it, but no matter what kind of insurance system you have, sometimes someone has to say "no."

We don't have unlmited resources! What a bizarre concept! Like me, this guy probably just hates old people.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Government run health care bad, private insurance good

The Wall Street Journal editorial page trots out its familiar government is rationing care alarmist message: this is the link here.

Under highly centralized national health care, the government inevitably makes cost-minded judgments about what types of care are "best" for society at large, and the standardized treatments it prescribes inevitably steal life-saving options from individual patients. This is precisely why many liberals like former White House budget director Peter Orszag support government-run health care to control costs: Technocrats in government can then decide who gets Avastin for cancer, say, and who doesn't.

I'm not sure how the Journal editorial staff thinks private insurance works. Are they unaware that health insurance companies routinely deny care to save money? I fail to see the moral distinction between denial of care by government vs. the denial of care by the private sector. As the libertarian columnist Steven Chapman, no fan of the health care law, points out: Any time a third party pays for patients' care, that party will make the decisions in its interests, not in the patients' interests. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Our resources are limited, and unfortunately every patient cannot receive any treatment he wants. That is the cold truth, and all the hysteria over "death panels" and "rationing" doesn't change the reality of the situation.

I might also point out that the editorial's criticism of Orsazg seems inconsistent with the general conservative message of the last few years, i.e. liberals are fiscally irresponsible and are bankrupting us. Apparently, now liberals are too concerned with saving money! Some people are just never satisfied.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Finally someone agrees with me!

For years I have been proposing abolishing the charitable deduction in the income tax code, and I usually get stares that combine incredulity at my heartlessness with a pity for my foolishness. I mean, what kind of a human being is against charity? Well, economist Richard Thaler agrees with me. Fortunately for this post, The New York Times will actually publish his op-eds, so we can evaluate his argument See his column here. These two paragraphs explain it beautifully:

Consider this scenario: Having decided that charitable giving is a worthy cause, the government subsidizes charitable gifts from certain households, and for those chosen to be part of the plan, every dollar donated to a charity is increased by a specified percentage. To qualify, taxpayers must have a substantial home mortgage; the subsidy rate increases with taxable income. Low-income taxpayers receive no subsidy, but donations from qualified high-income taxpayers are subsidized by as much as 40 percent — or more.

You can deduct charitable contributions only if you itemize rather than take the standard deduction, and the most common way a household collects enough deductions to make itemizing worthwhile is to have a big mortgage(emphasis added).

In other words, the public, including renters, are subsidizing contributions made by homeowners, who generally have a lot more money. This isn't fair. His solution is right on the money: make it a refundable credit that anyone can take (refundable meaning you can receive money from the government if your deduction is large enough).

I would make a further point, at the risk of being accused of being anti-religous--many "charitable" contributions to churches and other religious institutions are nothing of the sort. Many churches use money to fund political campaigns, such as the Mormon Church funding Prop 8 (there's a video on this available at Please don't misunderstand, churches have the First Amendment right to support causes they deem worthy. But they do not have the right to a government subsidy for their financial support of these causes.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

My letter to a Tea Party leader

The woman's name is Dana Loesch, she appeared on Parker & Spitzer and spouted off more of the usual cliches. This is my e-mail, not answered:

I rarely get the chance to talk to a Tea Partier, as they tend to get really annoyed at me when I question them. Maybe you're different. I hope you'll do me the favor of answering a few questions.

I was just wondering about the claim you made that tax reductions increase revenue. That leads to a few questions: 1.Who/whatis your source for this belief? 2.Why would we need to reduce spending at all then, couldn't we just slash tax rates to 1% and watch the revenue flow in? 3.Could you name a single economist at any American university who supports the notion that tax reductions at the current rates will bring in more revenue? 4.Aren't conservatives generally against the concept of a free lunch?

You said anything not authorized by Art I, Sec 8 should be terminated. Is this politically realistic, short of a armed libertarian invasion and occupation of Washington D.C.? (Yes, I know armed libertarianism is an oxymoron. I'm making a point here) Should I expect the repeal of Medicare and Social Security once John Boehner becomes speaker? How many members of Congress are going to remove all programs not authorized by Sections 8, and how many would get reelected if they did? (The answers: no, no, zero, zero).

You described big business as a "bogeyman." Do you deny business interests influence our politicians? Is simply removing government going to bring utopia to America? Are there any circumstances you would support regulation of corporations, or is that ipso facto an evil?

Many liberal friends of mine say the Tea Party is racist. I always disagree. Racism isn't the problem with the movement; oversimplification of the world is the problem. Slogans do not lead to effective government.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

I'm shocked, shocked!

Dog bites man story:

"Jarrod Massey (casino lobbyist) has admitted that he bribed members of the Alabama state Legislature in exchange for their votes in favor of electronic bingo gambling legislation," Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lanny Breuer said.

What kind of a world are we living in when casino lobbyists have such loose morals? If you can trust anyone, it should be a casino lobbyist. Other than maybe used car salesmen, I can't think of a more ethical group.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Climate follies deja vu

Here we go again. Every winter we're subjected to another would-be climate Christopher Columbus saying the cold weather disproves climate change. This column by libertarian Doug Bandow is a typical, if tedious, take on this issue. The argument goes: It's real cold in ___, so (by some logic) global warming is a hoax.

I guess people like Bandow assume climate scientists should just find another job after every winter storm, as they're obviously wasting time and money. But here's what libertarians/conservatives miss: yes, there have been record lows even in a warming world. But--and this is huge, so pay attention--there have been far more record highs. A warming of a little over a degree is not going to eliminate cold weather.

I should point out, as to not be tendentious, that people who accept climate change as real often make silly statements as well. I've heard "the snowstorm proves global warming," which is not a good argument. Nor is every weather event on Earth tied into global warming; there is still a lively debate among scientists as to whether hurricanes have increased in frequency because of climate change, for instance.

I will use a sports analogy, as most deniers are men: if LeBron James goes 2 for 13 a few times, it doesn't make him a bad player. It's not statistically significant. Over the course of the season and his career, James will have a lot more good games than bad.

Maybe I should care, but I don't

I feel guilty somehow for not caring about the following issues: abortion, the estate tax, DADT, The Dream Act, indicting Dick Cheney, etc... Maybe I should care. I just don't.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Activist judge invalidates individual mandate

A federal judge, Henry Hudson, has has invalidated the individual mandate ,a major part of the health care law. See this article from The New York Times for more details. The article discusses the decision at some length:

In a 42-page opinion issued in Richmond, Va., Judge Hudson wrote that the law’s central requirement that most Americans obtain health insurance exceeds the regulatory authority granted to Congress under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. The insurance mandate is central to the law’s mission of covering more than 30 million uninsured because insurers argue that only by requiring healthy people to have policies can they afford to treat those with expensive chronic conditions.

The judge wrote that his survey of case law “yielded no reported decisions from any federal appellate courts extending the Commerce Clause or General Welfare Clause to encompass regulation of a person’s decision not to purchase a product, not withstanding its effect on interstate commerce or role in a global regulatory scheme.”

I don't agree with this decision. I see Hudson an activist judge who invalidated a law he disagreed with and found weak constitutional arguments to support his case. Now,I should I don't support the law on its merits; I don't think it was fair to require individuals to carry insurance without a public option. But a bad law--and this is a point a lot of people miss in this discussion--is not the same as an unconstitutional law. E.g. I oppose the death penalty, but don't think there's any evidence it's unconstitutional; I am generally pro-choice but think Roe v. Wade was constitutionally dubious. I just read a biography of William Brennan, a liberal activist judge who often made his own preferences part of the Constitution. This is what we're seeing here. Conservative judges can be judicial activists, too.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Another analysis of the budget deal

Thoughts on the budget deal from one of my favorite economists, Greg Mankiw. He actually thinks Obama got more from the deal than the Republicans did.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

And you mean what exactly?

"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that. [Emphasis added.] ” Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, 1964.

With no disrespect to the late Justice Stewart, "I know it when I see it" is a pretty weak argument. Recent economic comments from both liberals and conservatives are on this same pseudo-intellectual level. Liberals constantly blast tax cuts for the "rich." What income level makes one "rich" is never defined. I eagerly await for a numerical threshold where one becomes rich. Of course, since living costs are not equal across the country, there may have to be thousands of income levels, varying from county to county.

But let's not be tendentious--conservatives are equally guilty of vagueness to in this argument. I constantly hear "socialism" and "Marxism" invoked to describe Democratic politicians. I eagerly await a definition of these terms, but suspect there isn't going to be one. It's much easier to simply resort to labels than to make a coherent argument.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Labels don't matter sometimes

Libertarian Congressman Ron Paul has recently called Fed chairman Ben Bernanke a socialist. A letter writer to The Los Angeles Times objects , saying Bernanke is a fascist, not a socialist. I would argue that this disagreement is irrelevant. These words, along with the term racist, have become so overused as to be meaningless. I notice that there is never a definition given to them when they are used—forcing me to the conclusion that the people using them have no actual idea what they mean. My proposal: a moratorium on these emotionally charged words. Let's discuss the issues on their merits, not on whether they fit some dubious label.

Friday, November 26, 2010

My health care 101 lecture to a conservative letter writer

I respond to another of the tired and tedious "Obama's health care is socialism " conservative letters. The writer had compared Obama's health care plan with that of Britain's.
My response:

Valerie Wanket's letter on Nov. 18 said the recent health care law would mirror Britain's system if not repealed. This is a typical, but misguided, conservative analysis of the health care bill. Actually, the two systems have almost nothing in common.

The recent law passed in America provides for an expansion of private insurance through subsidies and an individual mandate requiring Americans to carry private health insurance. It is very different than the British system, which provides universal coverage through government control of doctors, drug companies and hospitals. There is no role for private insurance companies in this system. Such a system has almost no chance of becoming law in America, for good or bad, due to the influence of the insurance and drug companies in our political campaigns.

Ms. Wanket and her fellow conservative letter writers can breathe easy — American health insurance companies are doing fine, even after the passage of the supposedly socialistic "Obamacare." Aetna said its third-quarter net income jumped 53 percent over the same period last year, to $497.6 million. See "Health insurers sit pretty at their customers' expense," by David Lazarus, Nov. 9,, for more good news for the insurance industry. (I personally don't understand why conservatives and libertarians are so concerned about their welfare, but I'll leave that question for another time).

Jack Davis

Her paragraph that I objected to:

If the health care bill is not repealed, it will mirror the United Kingdom's health care and all of its problems. Be assured President Obama, Pelosi and Harry Reid will not have the same care. When Obama said in one of his speeches that he preferred a single-payer plan, was Ms. Landis listening?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Are we on the road to socialism? My two cents

That's a frequent question asked by Tea Party members, many of whom are family members. I can give them some comfort in this answer: absolutely not. See page 5 from The Wall Street Journal, November 24: Company Profits Rise to Record Annual Rate. Not long ago, The Los Angeles Times reported that health insurance companies are making more money now than ever before. Let's also not forget that the Supreme Court not too long ago allowed unlimited corporate expenditures on political campaigns. If President Obama wants to turn America into a socialist country (which I do not believe) he's failing pretty miserably.

In fact, I would argue the opposite: America is moving to the right (granted nowhere as far as some Tea Party members would like). The recently created bipartisan debt commission is calling for tax reform that would simplify the tax code and lower the top rate to 23%. Whatever one thinks of this proposal (I favor it with some misgivings), this is probably not what Karl Marx had in mind when he wrote the Communist Manifesto. The Federal Reserve is getting heat from conservatives and even a few liberals on their recent QE actions. (I'm too lazy to explain in any more detail). Ben Bernanke and the Fed will be questioned like never before when Ron Paul becomes a subcommittee chairman. It's hard to see how America is on the verge of socialism, let alone Communism.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

You can't do this, but I understand the sentiment

A quote from Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) caught my attention:

There's a little bug inside of me which wants to get the FCC to say to Fox and to MSNBC, "Out. Off. End. Goodbye." It would be a big favor to political discourse, to our ability to do our work here in Congress and to the American people, to be able to talk with each other and have some faith in their government and, more importantly, in their future.

I know, The First Amendment, free speech, blah, blah,blah. No, the FCC can't and shouldn't ban FOX and MSNBC. But I can sympathize with Rockefeller's thinking. Those channels add nothing of value to American political discourse. They exist simply because of the psychological principle called the confirmation bias. That says that people value information that agrees with their preconceived notions of the world much more than information from another side. For example, liberals watch Keith Olbermann because he agrees with them on every issue; conservatives like Sean Hannity because he agrees with them on every issue.

This principle came up in a recent conversation. A conservative family member who loves FOX tried to convince me she watchs it because she wants the truth. My response: "No you don't. No one watches Sean Hannity for the truth. You watch it because it reflects your view of the world." Political ideologues, like all fundamentalists, don't really want to know the truth. As Jack Nicholson says in a great scene from the movie A Few Good Men: You can't handle the truth!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

My (rare)defense of Fox News

Every five years or so, I feel obligated to defend Fox News. I'm not sure why. Don't expect it too often! But Rachel Maddow made such an inaccurate statement in her interview of Jon Stewart, I feel obliged to speak up. She said "Fox never criticized George Bush." That's manifestly untrue. On Fox, Bush was criticized for his support of "amnesty" for illegal aliens, for his attempted nomination of the unquailifed Harriet Miers, and even (less often) on his conduct of the Iraq war.

On a slightly related note, Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank made a good point on Howard Kurtz's show today. He said that it's ok for MSNBC and Fox to have a partisan or ideological agenda, but that they should come clean about it. I agree 100%. It drives me crazy that those networks continue to pretend to be objective. They're not. Disclosure is always a good thing in politics.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Where Jon Stewart goes wrong

Jon Stewart's interview Thursday night with liberal talk show host Rachel Maddow of MSNBC went on a little too long, but there was some interesting dialogue. As I see it, Stewart made two main arguments:

1. There is as much unfairness and irresponsibility on the left as on the right, and

2. The real division in the country is not between left and right but between sense and nonsense, or extremism and moderation.

Point No.1 is hard to prove either way. It's almost impossible to quantify irresponsible behavior. I'll remain undecided on that point and focus on argument No.2, which I think is (mostly) wrong.

Stewart says early in the interview that left/right disputes are really irrelevant, and blames this division of the 24 hour media cycle. He's a thoughtful,intelligent man but I think he's way off here. There's a lot of things about the media that I don't like, but they did not create ideological divisions among the American population. There are issues such as health care, abortion, affirmative action, etc.. that liberals and conservatives sincerely disagree on. Those divisions would continue even if CNN, FOX, and MSNBC went off the air tomorrow. Stewart would like to ignore these disagreements and call for a restoration of "sanity" or "moderation." To be sure, Stewart has a legitimate point when he says we should not demonize people who disagree with us, and he's certainly right that there's been a lot of overheated rhetoric on both sides on the political spectrum.

However, there remains a huge problem with his argument. His call for "sanity" or "moderation" really doesn't mean anything coherent. It's meaningless, feel-good rhetoric. Who's running for office in 2012 on a platform of insanity.I'm curious, John: What is the "sane" position on health care? What is the "sane" position on climate change? For most Americans, it's the position we personally hold. Sanity and moderation are in the eyes of the beholder. Many of you may remember the platform of Steve Forbes for President in 1996? He was for "hope, growth, and opportunity!" Of course—who could be against hope and growth? Stewart's movement is at the same level of discourse. Empty slogans make for poor arguments.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Creative accounting

"It's not a lie if you believe it"—George Costanza in Seinfeld.

In the past I've heard the phrase "creative accounting," usually used to describe crooked corporate practices. Now the government of my state of California is getting very creative. This article makes the point well:

Two-thirds of the budget solutions expected to be signed soon by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are based on one-time or temporary money ---- some of which may never materialize. The article later quotes a California Congressman as saying " It's full of false assumptions and failed gimmicks."

Wishful thinking or outright dishonesty? I'm going with the latter.

She's a maniac,maniac

New York Times columnist Gail Collins addresses the question of which state has the worst election here. I agree with her conclusion—the "winner" is Nevada. To slightly oversimplify the issue, it's a hack v. a lunatic.

I especially liked these two paragraphs:

Angle did make an appearance last week at a rally of Tea Party supporters in Mesquite, where she responded to a question about “Muslims wanting to take over the United States” by decrying the fact that Dearborn, Mich., and Frankford, Tex., were governed under Islamic law, called Sharia. Which, of course, they are not.

The Associated Press, which reported on this event, noted that while Dearborn does at least have “a thriving Muslim community,” it was not clear why Angle picked on Frankford, Tex., which did not seem to have many Muslims, and also went out of existence around 1975. (emphasis added).

If I lived in Nevada, I would reluctantly vote for Reid, although I wouldn't blame anyone who voted for a third party.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Thomas Friedman is so right

I rarely say this, but Thomas Friedman has a terrific column in The New York Times Sunday. One line especially is right on target:

“We basically have two bankrupt parties bankrupting the country.”—Larry Diamond, political scientist.

That's Political Science 101; the rest is prologue.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The anti-business hedge fund manager?

Constantly, we hear about the anti-business bias of the Obama administration. To some degree it's probably true, but the left-wing group Fairness and Accuracy in Media makes a great point here. They rightly point out that outgoing economic adviser Larry Summers was somewhat short of a Marxist:

Prior to joining the administration he was working as a managing director at DE Shaw, a gigantic hedge fund that paid him $5.2 million for his services in 2008. In the same year, he collected $2.7 million in consulting fees from other financial firms, including Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch. Clearly Wall Street was not turned off by his "anti-business" attitudes.

This is by no means the entire left-wing argument against Summers, of course. He was responsible for pushing Bill Clinton into deregulating derivatives back in 2000. It's safe to say he isn't a left-wing radical.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Religion of peace? Depends.

An often asked question today, especially in the wake of the near Ground Zero mosque, is whether Islam is a religion of peace. I don't think this question has a yes or no answer. The physicist Steven Weinberg explains it well:

Statements about what “Islam is” make little sense. Islam, like all other religions, was created by people, and there are potentially as many different versions of Islam as there are people who profess to be Muslims. I don’t know on what ground one can say that a peaceable well-intentioned person like Abdus Salam (Nobel Prize winning scientist) was any more a true Muslim than the murderous holy warriors of Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, the clerics throughout the world of Islam who incite hatred and violence, and those Muslims who demonstrate against supposed insults to their faith, but not against the atrocities committed in its name.

To take a similiar, analogous question: Is Catholicism a religion of life? The Catholic Church's official position is that all human life is sacred—abortion and birth control are prohibited. Obviously, many Catholics, even very faithful ones, do not strictly follow this dogma. And there are other issues Catholics disagree on: the Pope in 2003 opposed the Iraq war on religious grounds, but many other Catholics supported the war. On capital punishment, most American Catholics opposed their leader's position. Obviously, it's impossible to really say what Catholicism is, and by implication it's impossible to say whether Islam is a religion of peace.

A judicious view of government

David Brooks of The New York Times, a moderate conservative, is right on the money with this column (September 14). He makes a great metaphor:

Throughout American history, in other words, there have been leaders who regarded government like fire (emphasis added)— a useful tool when used judiciously and a dangerous menace when it gets out of control. They didn’t build their political philosophy on whether government was big or not. Government is a means, not an end. They built their philosophy on making America virtuous, dynamic and great. They supported government action when it furthered those ends and opposed it when it didn’t.

(Brooks may not be aware of this, but George Washington used the government as fire metaphor, so he's in good company).

This is exactly my viewpoint, which is why I can't support the tea party movement. The libertarian right considers government inherently bad. Like Brooks, I do not share this view. Government can do good things (e.g. protect the environment, kill terrorists,etc..) and it can do bad things.

This inherent neutrality is not only true for government, but for other institutions, such as religion. Whle I am a nonbeliever, I do not share the Richard Dawkins/Christopher Hitchens negative view of religion. (Hitchens, accurately, refers to himself as an "antitheist.") There are good and bad outcomes from religious belief— Mother Theresa and Osama bin Laden are both "religious." The anthropologist Scott Atran, who has studied religion for many years, has described religion as a "neutral vessel, with nothing intrinsic for the good or bad." See this video at about 3:10 for his thoughts on this subject.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Good to hear, my career

According to this article in The New Republic, the new chairman of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers is committed to "what works." That's good to know. I would hate for an economist to be committed to what doesn't work.

On a more serious note, the article mentions two of Goolsbee's controversial ideas:

One pet interest of Goolsbee’s is performance pay for government employees (an idea that sometimes drives unions to distraction). Another is a policy-innovation he’s dubbed the “automatic tax return.” Under Goolsbee’s proposal, the IRS would send a filled-out tax return to everyone with straight-forward finances. If the taxpayer agreed with the government’s accounting, they could just sign it and send it back. (If not, they’d be free to prepare their taxes independently.) Goolsbee has estimated that this change could save Americans billions in tax-preparation fees each year.

I like both of these ideas. Even though the automatic tax return would cost me money (I plan to work as a tax preparer this season), I still support it. It would save Americans millions of dollars in tax preparation fees. There would be far less audits—it would be really hard for the government to accuse you of dishonesty when they filled out the return.

I'll probably have to find a new career, alas, but there are always winners and losers in everything.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

LA Times is on the money

I strongly agree with this Los Angeles Times editorial.

The opening paragraph puts it well:

We don't like Proposition 8, and neither does California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown or Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But there's a difference between opinion journalists and the state's constitutional officers. California's top public lawyer and its chief executive have an obligation to defend the laws of the state whether they like them or not — and that should include the ban on same-sex marriage.

For the record, I don't like Prop 8, either,but much as I hate to admit it, my personal preferences are not always the same as the requirements of the laws of the state of California.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Why we haven't found aliens—global warming

I found the most unusual (and possibly insane) explanation the on the question of life elsewhere in the universe. Read the first two sentences of this post from a commenter at Andrew Revkin's environment blog at The New York Times: (The rest of the paragraph is kind of amusing, too.)

Why do you suppose SETI has come up blank so far? My take is that E.T. exterminated himself with Global Warming. (emphasis added) Intelligence may be a very bad thing at the level we are at now. There is a threshold we have to get across in order to get to the next level. We have to exhibit enough intelligence to stop Global Warming before Global Warming kills us. It is a gradual thing until it is too late. Money is driving the denial machine, but money is psychopathic. Corporations and some people are psychopaths as well. We need journalists and news media that understand the science, not journalists who act like stenographers.

We haven't found life on other planets because of global warming! I can't believe I didn't think of this. The word alarmist is somewhat overused, but I think this person qualifies.

Dog bites man!

From The Wall Street Journal, August 26: (should be in The Onion)

Disabled Face Sharply Higher Jobless Rate

The government's first detailed look at disabled workers' employment shows they are far more likely than the overall work force to be older, working part-time or jobless. (Really!)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Birthright citizenship debate--interesting but irrelevant

The Washington Post makes a thoughful take on the issue of abolishing birthright citizenship in this editorial. Just like on same sex marriage, there's bad arguments on both sides. I'll quote a few sentences:

Some on the right argue that the Constitution should be changed to prevent U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants from gaining automatic citizenship, in part to prevent these "anchor babies" from being used to legitimize their parents' presence in the country.

Those on the left charge that the talk about changing birthright citizenship is evidence of deep-seated xenophobia; one activist argued that it puts the United States "on the brink of legalizing apartheid."

Neither of these arguments is valid.

The great majority of undocumented immigrants come to this country looking for opportunities, just as generations of immigrants have done. According to a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center, the new migrants tend to be younger and of child-bearing age. Although abuses occur, in the vast majority of cases the birth of a child is a natural happenstance and not an attempt to manipulate the system. The attacks from the left, meanwhile, ignore or downplay the challenges posed by illegal migration and unfairly ascribe hateful motives to all who raise questions about possible fixes. (My comment:Assigning hateful motives to one's opponents is becoming too common in all these political debates).

I agree with the Post's assessment, but I would add another more important point. This proposed change to the 14th Amendment will never happen, making discussion on this subject irrelevant. For that to happen, 2/3rds of each house of Congress and 3/4 of the the states would have to agree on the change. As the song years ago said, never gonna get it. James Madison and his friends made it very hard to amend the Constitution, for good or bad. So let's leave the subject and move on to something else.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

New fallacy

From an op-ed in TheLos Angeles Times there comes a common but flawed argument:

Americans view Social Security as a central component of the nation's social contract. It is probably the most popular federal government program. Not surprisingly, when President George W. Bush tried to privatize Social Security — essentially asking Americans to put the security of their future in the stock market — the people considered it a preposterous idea, especially after they had watched thousands of Enron investors lose their savings and saw the stock market lose 38% of its value between January 2000 and October 2002. (emphasis added).

I call it the argumentem ad Enronem—any debate over privatization of Social Security ends up with someone referring to Enron. No one on the pro-privatization side suggested or suggests people invest all of their money in one stock. I'm not advocating privatization; there are legitimate arguments against it. I would argue, though, that using Enron as a debate stopper is unfair.

The rest of the article was awful as well—name calling "zealots", motive hunting, etc..

More Prop 8 nonsense

Last Friday, I discussed the judge's irrelevant attack on the Prop 8 campaign's motives. Now the opponents of his decision are resorting to the same weak arguments. The judge, some critics point out, is a homosexual, therefore his decision is biased. I don't quite understand this argument. If a homosexual judge is ipso facto biased, wouldn't a heterosexual judge also be biased? We've reached the reductio ad absurdem of the motive fallacy. Short of finding someone asexual, we can't ever find an impartial judge.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

An "Intellectual" says a lot of nonsense

Fouad Ajami (a professor, no less) writes the following in The Wall Street Journal: If public opinion displayed no enthusiasm for the overhaul of the nation's health-care system, the administration would push on. The public would adjust in due time.

The nation may be ill at ease with an immigration reform bill that would provide some 12 million illegal immigrants a path toward citizenship, but the administration would still insist on the primacy of its own judgment. It would take Arizona to court, even though the public let it be known that it understood Arizona's immigration law as an expression of that state's frustration with the federal government's abdication of its responsibility over border security.

This is poor reasoning, especially disappointing from a professor at a major university. To briefly analyze:

1.He assumes that policy is strictly a matter of watching the polls and doing what a majority of voters want at a specific time. If we we agree with this position (I don't),then the logical conclusion is to abolish our form of government. No more Congressmen, Senators, or Presidents; we'll just do an electronic poll on every issue and majority rules. It would be impossible to carry out this policy. How often would the polls be sent out? What if popular opinion on an issue changed from one month to another. Would we pass a bill in March that has a majority, repeal it in April if public opinion turned against it, but repass it in May if the voters (polltakers?) changed their minds again?

As for the Arizona law, I shouldn't have to explain this to a Ph.D, but a majority vote for a bill does not mean it's constitutional. The federal government may be wrong in saying it's unconstitutional, but it is absurd to say that no popular measure may ever be challenged in court. How would Professor Ajami feel if New York passed legislation fining academics who write silly op-eds? (Sorry, a cheap shot, but I couldn't resist).

And, to make it worse, Professor Ajami's position on immigration reform isn't even factually correct. According to The Washington Post:

The same Pew survey that found backing for Arizona also showed that more than two-thirds of Americans (68 percent) support a path to citizenship for illegal migrants who pass background checks, pay fines and have jobs. That's not much different than other Pew surveys going back before the recession.

There's actually much more nonsense in the op-ed (it's at, you may need a subscription), but I think the point is made. Professor Ajami is a hack.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Prop 8 supporters:They're bad, therefore wrong?

I just love this Prop 8 discussion, because you get bad arguments from both sides.
According to this article in the New York Timesby law professor Andrew Koppelman, Judge Walker's "findings of fact" includes this (supposed) fact: The campaign for Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriage in California, relied on prejudice and vicious anti-gay stereotypes, such as the idea that gay people are dangerous to children.

My response to this point by Judge Walker is simply to wonder why it's relevant. Political campaigns are rarely run by Mother Theresa types; is the constitutional fate of every ballot initiative in this state (and elsewhere) going to depend on the morality of their proponents? As for hateful stereotypes, there was plenty of anti-Mormon prejudice by Prop 8 opponents—surely Judge Walker is aware of this fact. This conclusion seems to me to be an instance of the attacking the motive fallacy, see this website for a detailed discussion of the motive fallacy. (Conveniently, the site mentions an anti-Prop 8 ad as committing the fallacy).

Furthermore, I don't see that a majority of Californians were influenced by this alleged whipping up of anti-gay stereotypes. I don't recall a lot of people who voted for Prop 8 (I was not one of them, for what it's worth) basing their decision on gays' threats to children. The issue was not whether gays should be allowed to raise children. Does Judge Walker have such little opinion of the California voting population that he thinks they would be robotically swayed by an allegedly bigoted campaign?

More to come tomorrow on this subject, but I need a break.

Spurious argument

Letter to LA Times on gay marriage:

After 54 years of marriage to the same woman, I must be near the top of the list of people who have credentials to talk about this subject. I don't want to hear anyone who has not been married for at least half a century to the same person talk about how sacred or meaningful the institution of marriage is. That would reduce the noise level to a whisper.

Charles Weisenberg

Beverly Hills

Sorry, Mr.Weisenberg, it doesn't work that way. While I congratulate you on your long marriage, it doesn't give you any extra authority on whether gay marriage is right or wrong—it certainly doesn't give you any authority on whether it's constitutional (the issue that was before the court). There are no "credentials" needed to have an opinion on the issue.A lifelong bachelor has as much right to comment on the subject as does Mr.Weisenberg.

Taking Mr.Weisenberg's argument to its logical conclusion, no non-veteran can discuss the war in Afghanistan, no one who hasn't played baseball can weigh in on whether it should have instant replay, and no man can have an opinion on abortion (actually a common argument, sadly enough).

I'd love to ask Mr.Weisenberg a question: how many years would one have to be married to earn "credentials" to discuss the subject? 10, 20, 25,30? Now we're really getting into the realm of absurdity.

Hiroshima: some facts

Were the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki necessary? According to a veteran quoted in the local paper, they saved a million lives. Many people believe that, but there is actually not much evidence that that statement is true. (Only a million—why not 5 or 10 million?) This issue arises every year on this day, so I'm going to put my two cents in. I base my belief that the bom bs were unnecessary primarily on the following 5 points from the physicist Freeman Dyson's essay on the wonderful website (scroll down a little to see it).

1. Members of the Supreme Council, which customarily met with the Emperor to take important decisions, learned of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945. Although Foreign Minister Togo asked for a meeting, no meeting was held for three days.

2. A surviving diary records a conversation of Navy Minister Yonai, who was a member of the Supreme Council, with his deputy on August 8. The Hiroshima bombing is mentioned only incidentally. More attention is given to the fact that the rice ration in Tokyo is to be reduced by ten percent.

3. On the morning of August 9, Soviet troops invaded Manchuria. Six hours after hearing this news, the Supreme Council was in session. News of the Nagasaki bombing, which happened the same morning, only reached the Council after the session started.

4. The August 9 session of the Supreme Council resulted in the decision to surrender.

5. The Emperor, in his rescript to the military forces ordering their surrender, does not mention the nuclear bombs but emphasizes the historical analogy between the situation in 1945 and the situation at the end of the Sino-Japanese war in 1895. In 1895 Japan had defeated China, but accepted a humiliating peace when European powers led by Russia moved into Manchuria and the Russians occupied Port Arthur. By making peace, the emperor Meiji had kept the Russians out of Japan. Emperor Hirohito had this analogy in his mind when he ordered the surrender.

Dyson's essay is itself based on the work of one Ward Wilson, whose essay is entitled The Winning Weapon? Rethinking Nuclear Weapons in the Light of Hiroshima. Wilson makes a devastating point in his essay: before Hiroshima the U.S. had bombed Japanese cities almost indiscriminately, killing hundreds of thousands. Why did these bombings not make Japan surrender?

And, of course (as always), a logical fallacy is at work here. As Wilson points out, the bomb was dropped on August 6, and on August 10 the Japanese signaled their intention to negotiate a surrender. It would have been easy to be fooled by the proximity of the two events. But this is a fallacy known as the post hoc propter ergo hoc (since B followed A, therefore A caused B).

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Right conclusion, but faulty logic

A man named Doug Bell sends in this letter:

Some recent letters by regular contributors recycle the myth that illegal immigrants pay taxes. Of course illegal immigrants pay taxes, but not in the same sense that U.S. taxpayers do, and the writers should know that.

At least that’s the view of Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman (emphasis added)who, in a 2006 column (“North of the border,”, wrote that “ ... serious, nonpartisan research reveals some uncomfortable facts about the economics of modern immigration. ...

I think Krugman and Bell are factually right in their conclusion. However, Mr. Bell's argument is still logically flawed. It is an appeal to authority, known as the ad verucundiam, and is not a good argument. Yes, Krugman is a Nobel Laureate, but brilliant economists disagree on immigration policy (and many other issues). Simply quoting Krugman does not prove Mr.Bell's contention.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Red herrings on Prop 8

I'm not sure what to think about the recent overturning of Prop 8, but this paragraph troubles me:

The plaintiffs in the California case presented 18 witnesses. Academic experts testified about topics ranging from the fitness of gay parents and religious views on homosexuality to the historical meaning of marriage and the political influence of the gay rights movement.

My queston: what does any of this have to do with the constitutionality of Prop 8? The issue the court was given to decide is not whether gay marriage is good or bad for society–that's a philosophical question, not a constitutional question. All of this testimony is irrelevant to the issue. In logic textbooks, such distractions are known as red herrings. Either the state of Caifornia had the authority to prohibit gay marriage under the state Constitution, or it didn't. That is the only question before the Court. To take one example of a red herring, the argument of a Prop 8 supporter—that kids do better when they are raised with a mother and a father in the house is irrelevant and should not have affected the judge's decision. (I have no doubt that is a true statement, but it is still irrelevant).

Friday, July 30, 2010

Non sequitur

A letter to my paper by one Gary Walker makes this statement on behalf of Glenn Beck makes this point:

For boldly exposing corruption/evil and telling the truth, Beck (says he) has so many serious death threats against him and his family that he has to have the equivalent of a private security SWAT team around him at all times.

Put aside for a moment the point that this is not a verified fact, merely Beck's self-serving statement. The fact that Beck receives lots of death threats is utterly irrelevant to the merits of anything he says or does. It is an absolute non sequitur. It does not follow from the "fact" that Beck has had death threats against him that he is therefore a noble warrior in the battle against evil. Obama has had more death threats against him than any other President in history; that hardly proves he's a great or even adequate President.

To illustrate the absurdity of Mr.Walker's argument, let's use a controversial issue–global warming. Both advocates and deniers of global warming have received death threats. They both can't be right, of course, but by Mr.Walker's argument they would have to be. We've reached a logical absurdity.

You know, I bet Hitler got a few death threats in the 1930s...

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Cliches are not good arguments

A letter writer in the paper criticizes my attack on the Arizona law, and concludes "Illegal is illegal." Hmmm.. that sounds plausible, I suppose. If 1=1, then illegal should =illegal, right? Well, no, actually it's absurd. Illegal is illegal is a great bumper sticker, but it's not much of a legal or moral principle. Is a parking ticket equal to first-degree murder?

The Arizona law makes unauthorized entry into America, which is a civil offense under federal law, into a state crime. Yes, unauthorized immigration is illegal, but illegal does not automatically mean a criminal offense.

Friday, July 23, 2010

And we care because...

From the why do we care department:

LA Times 7-22-2010:

If approved (Tani) Cantil-Sakauye would be the state's first Asian-American chief justice and would give women a majority on the court for the first time.

Wow. This is really significant. Well, not really. In fact, not at all.

Moving on, I believe the Arizona immigration law is unconstitutional. There are a number of reasons, which I spell out here in my recent letter to the local paper:

The controversial Arizona immigration law is unconstitutional. Contrary to the claims of its defenders, it does not simply mirror federal law.

As the nonpartisan site points out (, section 5A of the law makes it illegal for a driver to stop and attempt to hire or to hire and pick up passengers, if that action impedes traffic; for a person to get into someone's vehicle in order to be hired; or for an illegal alien to apply for work or solicit work publicly in the state. None of these restrictions (and a few others Arizona added) are part of federal immigration law.

Immigration law has always been a power assigned to the federal government by the Constitution — see Article 1, Section 8, which gives Congress the power to establish a uniform rule of naturalization. The states have no legal right to establish their own immigration policies. With a number of other states considering making their own immigration laws, the federal government's lawsuit is absolutely justified.

I think it is a dangerous trend for states to start making their immigration laws. Do we really want 50 different immigration laws in America? (This isn't hypothetical; 21 states are planning to follow Arizona's lead).

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Change? Not so much

My (Facebook) friend Chris Mooney wrote a 2005 book, The Republican War on Science. Mooney and others pointed out that the Bush administartion had censored scientists, altered scientific reports, and put bogus "facts" (e.g. abortion causes cancer) on government websites. Barack Obama ran as a friend of science, promising to restore it to its "rightful place". But, according to this story in the Los Angeles Times, things aren't getting any better.

From the Union of Concerned Scientists, a liberal advocacy group:

"Many of the frustrations scientists had with the last administration continue currently," said Francesca Grifo, the organization's director of scientific integrity.

For example, Grifo said, one biologist with a federal agency in Maryland complained that his study of public health data was purposefully disregarded by a manager who is not a scientist. The biologist, Grifo said, feared expressing his concerns inside and outside the agency.

Change we can believe in? Maybe in 2013. No, I take that back. Never happen.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Logical fallacy from MSNBC

In this clip from Media Matters MSNBC host Ed Schultz responds to Bill O'Reilly's charge that MSNBC lies with clips of Fox personalities lying. Schultz is committing the logical fallacy known as the ad hominem tu quoque. None of the clips falsify O'Reilly's statement. All they show is that Fox is dishonest, but how can that possibly prove MSNBC isn't? Let's use a religious analogy. If a Christian says Islam is false, would it be much of a defense of Islam for a Muslim to point out the same thing about Christianity?

My own intuition, not liking either network much, is to believe they're about equally dishonest. I am not certain about this—if a reputable study shows otherwise I'll retract this immediately.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Stewie for President!

Answering an essay question today on the merits of a flat tax, I turned to a debate between two intellectuals a few years ago:

Brian Griffin: You are really gonna sit there with a straight face and tell me a flat tax doesn't favor the wealthy.
Stewie Griffin: Not one bit. And it saves millions of man hours that the complexity of the current tax code wastes, which you would realize if you weren't retarded.

While Brian isn't retarded, I think he's wrong and Stewie's right. So tired...

Sunday, June 27, 2010


I've quoted him before, and will again: "There's hot air on both ends of the spectrum,"–Neil de Grasse Tyson, astrophysicist. Let's take one widely repeated accusation on the right—President Obama has refused foreign assistance in the oil spill fiasco. This is a common claim, but it is simply false. I advise you to see Fact, one of my favorite websites, for proof this is a lie. Fact Check and Politifact are two of the few reliable websites for political information. Don't believe anything on Fox, MSNBC, the right-wing blogosphere, or the left-wing blogosphere. None of them care about the truth; they will lie shamelessly to advance their agenda.

Slightly different subject: Here's a few science organizations who are apparently in on the global warming "hoax": The National Academy of Sciences, The American Geophysical Union, The American Meteorological Society. There's a very extensive list at 0:52 of this presentation of other organizations in on the "hoax."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Some new political laws–according to me

Davis' Law 1: Don't pay attention to what politicians say, pay attention to what they do— E.g., Woodrow Wilson "he kept us out of war", FDR "your boys will not be sent to war", Lyndon Johnson "American boys will not do the fighting Asian boys should be doing", and George W. Bush "humble foreign policy." (Yes, Roosevelt was right to lie, but that doesn't invalidate my point). It's not just war: Bill Clinton promised the most ethical administration ever; Bush said the fundamentals of our economy were fine in 2007, ad nauseam. So when Glenn Beck tries to find sinister Marxism behind ever Obama utterance, ignore him. It doesn't matter what Obama or any other politican says—as the cliche goes, talk is cheap.

Davis' Law 2: People who follow a rigid party line—on either the right or left— are shallow thinkers at best, and at worst just plain dumb. Then again, party line thinking can lead to lots of fame and money–e.g. Olbermann, Limbaugh, Hannity, Maddow, etc.., so maybe stupidity isn't always the reason.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Orwellian nonsense

This contradictory argument comes from an op-ed by Gerald O'Driscoll Jr. from the Cato Institute. It was published in the Wall Street Journal Monday June 14(subscription required):

Government regulation is intended to protect the public interest against bad or irresponsible behavior by private parties. In the case of offshore drilling, the federal government has assumed the role of solving a collective action problem. Potentially all Americans benefit from the drilling, but those living in coastal areas suffer disproportionate harm from mishaps. The government theoretically negotiates on their behalf and establishes rules to protect them.

The Gulf oil spill and the global financial crisis both demonstrate the failings of big government.
Obviously, regulation failed. By all accounts, MMS operated as a rubber stamp for BP. It is a striking example of regulatory capture: Agencies tasked with protecting the public interest come to identify with the regulated industry and protect its interests against that of the public. The result: Government fails to protect the public. That conclusion is precisely the same for the financial services industry.

His conclusion is what you would expect of a free market ideologue: since regulation was ineffective in the BP case, let's get rid of all regulation. It doesn't work anyway. Let's take that argument to its reductio ad absurdem:

1. People die from bad food and drugs despite the FDA. Let's abolish it.
2. There's still pollution despite the Clean Air Act. It should go ASAP.
3. Some people go to the Cato Institute website and don't embrace libertarianism. The website might as well be shut down.
4. All this spending on the military and there's all these evil guys in North Korea, Iran, etc.. Time to privatize the armed forces.

Another question... what exactly is meant by "big" government. How is that label determined? Is it the amount of agencies, the size of the budget, what exactly?

Monday, June 07, 2010

More nonsense from a TP member

In a discussion group on Facebook, a tea party member actually said "Government has failed at everything it's done other than killing people." Fully conceding the government does bad and counterproductive things, I reject this statement. I will quote the esteemed physicist Lawrence Krauss:

“The increasingly blatant nature of the nonsense uttered with impunity in public discourse is chilling. Our democratic society is imperiled as much by this as any other single threat, regardless of whether the origins of the nonsense are religious fanaticism, simple ignorance or personal gain.”

Here's a few things government hasn't failed at (besides war, which even most of the TP members, if not Ron and Rand Paul recognize): cleaner air and water, funding scientific innovations, safer food and drugs, and the voting rights act. The TP movement, as I have said before, is not a conservative movement. It is a radical libertarian utopian movement. Like all utopian movements, it allows no dissent from the orthodoxy. I've been removed from Facebook pages and discussion boards for merely questioning their premises. No heretics allowed!

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

He pitched a perfect game

This isn't a sports blog, but I'll make an exception today. Detroit Tiger pitcher Armando Galarraga lost a perfect game to a bad call with one out to go. The umpire admitted he blew the call. So the question I raise is simple: why not declare to be true what actually happened? He deserves the perfect game and MLB should officially declare the blown call null and void. As a side note: this is a damn good argument for instant replay.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day thoughts

I've seen and heard ,repeatedly, the statement that the military protects our freedoms. That's a popular saying, but it's not really true. I'm not a pacifist by any means--I fully accept we need a strong military. But what the armed forces do (sometimes) is protect our physical safety, not our freedoms. The Taliban, as horrible as they are, are not going to conquer America and make our women wear headscarves. Even the most passionate advocate of the Iraq war in 2003 didn't argue that Saddam was a threat to the 2nd Amendment.

In fact, most wars lead to a drastic reduction of freedom. To list just a few examples:

1. Lincoln arrested thousands of anti-war Northerners and shut down hundreds of papers during the Civil War.

2.During World War I (please read Walter Karp's The Politics of War for a great analysis) numerous measures were passed by the government restricting freedoms, such as the Espionage Act.

3.FDR had his Japanese relocation scandal during World War

4.The aftermath of Korea led to the rise of witchhunts against "subversives" who perhaps wanted the Communists to win the war.

Friday, May 28, 2010

What Russell Kirk would say today

The rantings of the Tea Party crowd (to take one of many potential examples, a woman on a facebook page compared Obama to Hitler) makes me long for some common sense on the right. For those who do not know much about conservative history, allow me to introduce the late conservative intellectual Russell Kirk, who despised radical libertarians. He wrote a great essay titled A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians in 1988. I will quote a few of his statements from that essay:

The Constitution of the United States distinctly is not an exercise of libertarianism. It was drawn up by an aristocratic body of men who sought "a more perfect union." The delegates to the Constitutional Convention had a wholesome dread of the libertarians of 1786-1787, as represented by the rebels who followed Daniel Shays in Massachusetts. What the Constitution established was a higher degree of order and prosperity, not an anarchists' paradise.

The libertarian asserts that the state is the great oppressor. But the conservative finds that the state is natural and necessary for the fulfillment of human nature and the growth of civilization; it cannot be abolished unless humanity is abolished, it is ordained for our very existence.

But the libertarians, rashly hurrying to the opposite extreme from the welfare state, would deprive government of effective power to conduct the common defense, to restrain the unjust and the passionate, or indeed to carry on a variety of undertakings clearly important to the general welfare.

Most damning and relevant was a quote from Dostoevesky: "To begin with unlimited freedom is to end with unlimited despotism."

The TP would call this guy a socialist, for sure.

Friday, May 21, 2010

I am discriminated against, I just know it

There is much less than meets the eye in this poll.

Who's discriminated against in America? More people say Hispanics than blacks or women, and it's not just Hispanics who feel that way.

An Associated Press-Univision Poll found that 61 percent of people overall said Hispanics face significant discrimination, compared with 52 percent who said blacks do and 50 percent who said women.

(My comment): This poll is worthless. The respondents never define what they mean by discrimination. And this sentence really shows how meaningless the poll is:

"I see it in people's faces, in the way they react," said Raymond Angulo, 66, a Mexican-born U.S. citizen and retiree from Pico Rivera, Calif. "It's gotten somewhat better, but it's still there. I feel like it's never going away.

Wow, who can argue with that? One person's semi-paranoid reaction is proof that blatant prejudice is out there. With aplogies to Descartes, I think discrimination, therefore I am discriminated against.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Excellent analysis of the dishonesty behind pro-illegal arguments

This was a terrific letter on the subject of illegal immigration, published in the North County Times, May 14--the author explains exactly how the law defines the words "illegal alien."

Editorial license and political correctness

I would like to correct the editor or employee of the North County Times who took editorial license with my Community Forum of May 7 ("Unlicensed drivers, police and checkpoints"). My wording of "illegal alien" was changed to "illegal immigrant." ...

"Illegal immigrant" is not a legal term, but used to somehow minimize the criminality, illegality and deportability of the millions of aliens in the United States. The term "alien" means any person not a citizen or national of the united states. The term "illegal alien" means any person not inspected or admitted by an immigration officer. Every alien who has entered the country in such a manner is an "illegal alien," the legal term.

In addition, an immigrant must apply for a visa at a U.S. Consular office issued by the State Department, be pre-screened and subsequently (if approved and issued a visa), apply for admission and inspection by an immigration officer at a port of entry into the United States. The overwhelming majority of the illegal aliens in the United States were not and are not even eligible for the issuance of an immigrant visa, therefore, the constant push for amnesty.

As a retired immigration officer (special agent, U.S. Border Patrol, anti-smuggling), I would suggest that you reference the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Dan Maccaskill

Link is here.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

She'll need a ride to the courthouse

Is a Supreme Court nominee's ability at all relevant? See this column from Media Matters. Apparently, Elena Kagan can't drive, and at least one conservative is bothered by that.

Monday, May 03, 2010

The more things change, the more they stay the same

This website is really sharp, I wish I had seen it earlier. They show how Obama is just repeating Bush's cliches on immigration:

Bush in 2004:If you can make fifty cents in the interior of Mexico and five dollars in the interior of the United States, you're comin' for the five bucks

And, here's Obama yesterday:

The fact is if folks are making $2 a day back home, and they can make $10 an hour here, they’re going to come here

Apparently there was a COLA increase, or something.

The last line is hilarious. Great website.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

More illogic on the abortion issue

Continuing on the theme from my last post--I read some of the comments at the author's Facebook page. Few were impressive in their logical structure, but this one really made me wince: "I would never force my beliefs on other people." This statement is utterly nonsensical. In fact, it would lead to absolute anarchy, as all law is to a degree forcing our beliefs on others. For example, laws against shoplifting are forcing a belief that shoplifting is wrong on shoplifters. I don't think at all the poster is an anarchist, but I think she is guilty of really lazy thinking. Someone once said that thinking is hard work, which is why so few do it. I completely agree.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Absurd logic from New York Times reporter

Charles Blow of The New York Times, makes a common but nonsensical argument in this column. He approvingly quotes a female state legislator who says (on the subject of abortion), "stand down if you don’t have ovaries.” Let's take this argument to the reductio ad absurdem. I propose that no Representative or Senator be allowed to vote on war matters if they are not eligible for military service. I also urge a revote of Prop 8 in California, the gay marriage initiative. Only gays should have been allowed to vote. If men cannot vote on abortion, surely they should not be allowed to vote on breast cancer funding, either. Also, no female legislator can vote on prostate cancer funding.

In fact, maybe only the fetus should vote on the abortion issue. They're the one most affected. OK, I'm being a little absurd now.

Second thoughts about the Arizona law

I'm suddenly agnostic on the Arizona immigration law; my last post was done without enough thought. This op-ed from a law professor makes a strong argument that the law is constitutional.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Why the Arizona immigration law is a bad idea

Fred Barnes makes a strong case here against the Arizona law. The bill makes police officers into federal immigration agents, which is not their job. It will require anyone whom police suspect of being in the country illegally to produce "an alien registration document," such as a green card or other proof of citizenship, such as a passport or Arizona driver's license. I make no claims to be a constitutional scholar, but this bill seems to violate the 14th Amendment's guarantee that states may not "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

We distort, you decide

This video says all about Fox News we need to know. A conservative Republican Senator calls them out. Yes, MSNBC is bad, too, I know. I've picked on Keith Olbermann before, so I can't be accused of tendentiousness.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Why I do not support the Tea Party movement

"Men of intemperate mind never can be free. Their passions forge their fetters."—
Edmund Burke on the French revolutionaries

There was a massive Tea Party protest April 15 near where I live, but I did not attend. It's not that I totally disagree with them, or consider them racists, or a harbor a deep love for Barack Obama (or any politician for that matter). I have two concerns, one minor and one major. The minor one is simple: where were they when a white Republican president was spending recklessly and a running up the debt? There were no demonstrators in the street, for example, after Bush signed a pork-laden highway bill costing hundreds of billions of dollars (2005). But that is not the main problem. The major issue for me is that their view of the world is simplistic and potentially dangerous.

The Tea Party movement is not a conservative movement. It is radically libertarian. Government spending is bad, taxes are bad, government regulation is bad, by some law of nature. Their view of government is similiar to Richard Dawkins' view of religion: all evil, no good. I don't share this view. Government, like many other things, is neither inherently good or inherently bad. They can do bad things (send people to jail for smoking pot) and they can do good things (kill terrorists, clean the air and water, etc..) The Tea Partiers never seem to acknowledge this distinction. I wrote a letter to the editor of my local paper saying "James Madison, one of the creators of the Constitution, would be considered a liberal by the Tea Party movement if he lived today. He famously said: If men were angels, no government would be necessary." Many supporters of the Tea Party movement claim to venerate the founders, but have forgotten this statement.

Another issue debated in the media is whether the protesters are racists. I'm unsure, but here's a way we can find out: A white Republican, say Mitt Romney, wins the 2012 presidential election and continues Obama's big spending ways. If the Tea Partiers stop protesting, that's conclusive proof that race is motivating their actions. But the charge of racism right now is unfair and irrelevant. It is enough that their view of the world is wrong; their motivations are irrelevant.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Cominsky Park?

This is not something I normally post, but it's so funny. See this video of Obama at a baseball game on YouTube. Go to 1:00 for the real misstatement. If you were a real White Sox fan, Mr.President,you would know it's Comiskey Park, not Cominsky Park.

Next post will be on a serious subject, I promise.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

5 books that have most influenced me

Apparently a number of bloggers are compiling a list of their most influential books, so I'm going to join the club.

No chronological order, I should point out:

1. Indispensable Enemies by Walter Karp. This is a deeply cynical view of politics that everyone who follows politics should read. He also wrote a great book called The Politics of War.

2. The End of Faith by Sam Harris. While I don't agree with everything he says about religion, (only the bad not the good are discussed) it did put me on the path that would make me a nonbeliever soon afterwards.

3. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris. This has ignited a sudden interest in psychology; since reading this I have read numerous other books on the subjects and taken some classes in school.

4. When Markets Fail by John Cassidy. A convincing attack on market fundamentalism. There's also a great book by Joseph Stiglitz on the same subject called Freefall.

5. A Many Colored Glass by Freeman Dyson. He is my favorite scientist to read. He explains scientific concepts such as climate change better than anyone I have read.

I wanted to get 10, but for now this will do.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Fallacious argument on climate change

The New York Times today discussed the growing controversy over global warming in American schools. This caught my attention:

In South Dakota, a resolution calling for the “balanced teaching of global warming in public schools” passed the Legislature this week.

“Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant,” the resolution said, “but rather a highly beneficial ingredient for all plant life.”

I assume the authors are arguing that because CO2 is not a poison, growing CO2 emissions are no danger to the world. This argument is a non sequitur, meaning the conclusion does not follow from the premises. The statement is absolutely true--CO2 is not a pollutant; in fact it's essential to life on earth. Nevertheless, their argument is utterly fallacious. Scientists and politicians who are calling for reduction in CO2 emissions are arguing that too much of CO2 is dangerous to life on Earth, not that CO2 is per se a poison. Food analogy: I like chocolate cake, too, but 8 slices will make me sick. But I would not be tempted to argue chocolate cake was a poison.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Free market fundamentalism

In this column Steven Chapman makes a typical libertarian argument against health care reform: interference with the free market is always bad. It is a quasi-religion to some people; their god is the market. But the market isn't working real well in health insurance. Many other companies are raising health insurance premiums, so it's simply not a matter of finding competitors in the marketplace. As I argued in a previous post, it's not that the insurance companies are evil; it's that the structure of the system is in need of reform. The current system leaves many people forced to buy insurance on the individual market, whose prices are skyrocketing. The solution is simple in theory: get every American into a common insurance pool. The premiums of the healthy and young will subsidize the sick and old. For a great analysis of the health care issue, see Healthcare Guaranteed by Ezekiel Emanuel. (Yes, the brother of Obama's chief of staff, but a much calmer thinker).

Friday, February 19, 2010

Krugman's half right

I'm not a big fan of Paul Krugman, the Nobel-Prize winning economist and New York Times columnist, but he makes a valid point in this column. The recent proposed huge increases in premiums by insurance companies do show the need for health care reform. But he's wrong to say they justify the need to pass the Senate bill. That bill would not reduce costs--see my previous posts for good arguments against it. Krugman's columns are usually rendered weaker by his extreme partisanship. One would hope a Nobel laureate would be less tendentious.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Harry Reid: Dog bites man

This is an actual quote from the Senate minority leader: "Greedy insurance companies care about more about profits than people." Has there ever been a more banal statement from a public figure? Corporations always seek to maximize profits to satisfy their shareholders; what else should we expect? To talk of corporate "greed" is redundant; it reminds me of someone who told me in June it would be a hot summer. It is known in logic as a tautology–a statement that needlessly repeats an idea. (Example: politician X lies because he so seldom tells the truth).

The constant demonization of the insurance companies is a failure to understand a common principle in pychology known as the fundamental attribution error. According to this concept, people tend to wrongly blame bad behavior on a person or organization rather than to the situation or circumstances. (Go to 36:49 on this video for an excellent explanation). As the speaker points out, the structure of our health care system encourages the insurance companies to act they way they do. Insurance companies in Europe that are regulated differently do not act irresponsibly, because the system encourages responsible behavior. This is what politicians should be discussing, but it's much easier intellectually to resort to meaningless statements like "greedy health insurance companies."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

e-mail I sent to LA Times columnist

I sent this to Jonah Goldberg, a conservative columnist for the LA Times. Original column: can be seen here.

You mentioned the snowstorm in Eastern U.S.A.; I assume we're supposed to draw the conclusion that climate change/global warming is a hoax. I see this argument on Fox News all the time, so it seems to be a conservative/ Republican talking point. I don't mean to be rude, but why don't conservatives understand the difference b/w weather and climate? (To be fair, Al Gore often exploits hot weather to prove g.w., but conservatives seem to make this specious argument more often than liberals.) But what about the record hot temperatures this summer throughout the U.S.A., or even a record high in the Northwest for January? I would hate to accuse you of cherry-picking. There were a number of deaths in Brazil today from intense heat--why doesn't that prove global warming is a legitimate threat?

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Supreme Court's campaign finance decision

Reproducing my letter to editor, because I'm too lazy to write anything new:

A number of letters on Jan. 26 denounced the recent Supreme Court decision on campaign finance reform in strident, near-hysterical terms. Apparently, democracy in the U.S. is dead for all time, to be replaced by an all-powerful corporate-run government.

What the writers had in passion, though, they lacked in reason. The Court's decision simply upheld the right of organizations to influence the political process, which is the heart of the Bill of Rights. I have a question for the people upset by this decision: Are you aware that 28 states already allow what the Supreme Court just legalized — independent expenditures by corporations? Are these states less democratic than the more regulated ones? The sky is not falling.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

More illogic from the WSJ editorial page

There was an editorial in The Wall Street Journal a few days ago, talking about antitrust and the NFL, that takes a cheap shot at Drew Brees. He wrote a column in the The Washington Post that the Journal editorial board disagrees with. The editorial refers to Brees,sarcastically, as a "renowned antitrust expert." True, Brees is no antitrust expert. But to be fair, neither are the Journal editorialists, none of which are antitrust lawyers. Why should I listen to them anymore than Brees? They have no more expertise in the subject than he does.

Since only expert opinion is valid, I call for the Journal to stop writing editorials on climate change, health care, economics,and any other issue they have no expertise in. It's nothing personal against the Journal, in fact they're on the few papers that publish my letters. All I'm asking for here is some consistency.

(See last post for more illogic from the Journal).

Thursday, January 07, 2010

235 years....

A completely ridiculous argument by the Wall Street Journal editorial page (in criticizing new licensing requirements for tax preparers):

The U.S. has survived for 235 years with an unregulated tax prep industry, but the Obama crowd can hardly resist grabbing one more corner of the private economy it doesn't control.

This is complete nonsense, for three reasons:

1. We haven't had the income tax for 235 years; the Sixteenth Amendment legalizing the direct income tax was passed only in 1913.

2. As someone who has done tax preparing before, I can say it is just not true that the industry is unregulated. In California, you must be licensed and bonded before preparing tax returns.

3. "We've survived for 235 years with an unregulated tax industry" is just a horribly illogical argument. The fact a country can survive with something doesn't mean that thing is beneficial. We "survived" for 200+ years with slavery, but I don't think the Journal would argue that it was wrong to abolish slavery. We certainly survived the 1950s with a 91% top tax rate, but I won't hold my breath waiting for the Journal to call for a return to that rate.

Global warming disproved?

Well, no, but a lot of people are saying the recent frost across the eastern U.S. disproves man-induced climate change. This article shows why that is a bogus argument. In fact, record highs were reported in Washington state and Alaska. (Which does not prove global warming, by the way). It is simply an onrush of Artic air that is causing the cold snap. It is not a sign of a cooling planet, as many on the right would have you believe.

Yes, I have blogged about this subject before, but there's more misunderstanding on this issue than any other.