Monday, December 31, 2012

Farewell to the 112th Congress

The 112th Congress was a very productive session.  Among its accomplishments were the Budget Control Act (which created the mess that is sequestration), the extension of warrantless wiretapping with no accountability, and an attempt to wreck the Iranian economy.  Good job, guys!

I kid, I kid...

Besides its historic lack of productivity, the 112th Congress is also one of the most polarized. Although this has been studied in various ways, it is illuminating to look at the historical change in ideological stance of the majority maker in the House, the person one would have to win over in order to reach the 218 threshold.  The DW Nominate scoring system, which evaluates all Senators and Representatives on a scale from -1.00 (most liberal) to 1.00 (most conservative) based on Roll Call votes, offers a useful framework for this.  With the DW Nominate Score, you can track how far from the center (either left or right) that the majority maker was in each congress.

Because this rating system includes all members, each rank ordering will contain duplicates for a district if a special election occurred during that session.  Nevertheless, we can get a rough idea of the ideological rating of the majority maker in each session.

The majority maker of the 112th Congress, according to DW Nominate, would be either Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO-08) or Frank Wolf (R-VA-10).  Emerson received a rating of 0.268 and Wolf 0.270.

Taking a span of the postwar era, majority makers whose rating were over 0.200 from the center point were quite rare, characteristic of only wave elections such as 1964 (LBJ's landslide victory), 1974 (post-Watergate), 2008 (Obama's victory amidst the economic crisis), and 2010.  However, in 1964, 1974, and 2008, the majority maker in the incoming House was always close to 0.200 from the center (even though slightly passing it).  The current Congress, however, pushes much further past that traditional outer bound, and despite the Democrats' gain in seats in the new Congress, the ideological rating of the majority maker is unlikely to shift much.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Why Libertarians and Social Democrats Should Support the Elimination of the Charitable Deduction

Although the charitable deduction is a popular policy, I will argue that it fails on both libertarian and social democratic grounds.

We should begin by establishing a definition of of charitable giving.  First, charitable giving is a private act; it refers to what an individual does with his/her own money in contrast to what a government does.  Second, the recipient of the money is doing work that the donor expects will advance his/her vision of a good society.  Third, charitable giving differs from investment in that the donor does not expect pecuniary return on the funds contributed.  So, taken together, charitable giving refers to the private contributions of individuals to institutions that they believe to be advancing the good of society and from which they expect no pecuniary return.

The charitable deduction as a part of a tax code enables an individual to subtract charitable donations from his/her total income, thus reducing the total amount of money on which s/he has to pay taxes.  The simplest justification for the charitable deduction would also be threefold: that private individuals know better how to spend their money to better society than the government does, that the government cannot by itself address the problems of society, and that the government should provide incentives for private individuals to contribute to the betterment of society.

Even though the first two justifications clearly echo a libertarian philosophy, the last justification runs against libertarian principles, specifically the central claim that the government should be blind to the economic, social, and political activities of its citizenry.  According to libertarians, the income tax is a violation of liberty first and foremost because it removes the blindness to individual economic actions and requires the release of information on economic gains for government oversight.  However, viewing the income tax as a given, it should  be as neutral to the economic activities of private individuals as possible.  Consequently, all tax credits and deductions are resolutely anti-libertarian because they consist of actions taken by the government to encourage or discourage private economic actions.  Why should the government's tax collector care whether an individual does or does not contribute to charity?  Additionally, why should the government have the right to know to which institutions an individual chose to allocate funds, especially in cases in which no economic gain will result? 

Moreover, by offering the charitable deduction, the government is, effectively, endorsing the decisions on what institutions to which an individual has chosen to contribute.  A hate group like the Ku Klux Klan, as it is a membership organization, is a 501(c)3 organization; the government, consequently, subsidizes all donations to the KKK. 

The social democratic argument against the charitable deduction stems from opposition primarily to the first justification provided for the charitable deduction and partially to the second justification. In other words, the social democrat does not agree with the claim that private individuals know how to allocate their funds better than the government can, and even though the social democrat acknowledges that the government cannot solve all problems, s/he still believes in the power and efficacy of the government as an actor for social betterment.  In this context, the charitable deduction is taking money away from the social services that the government provides, depriving it of the opportunity to shore up funding for existing programs or innovate with new ones. 

 "Yes, I understand both of your points.  But people won't donate to charity without the charitable deduction," you might respond.  To believe so is to have very little faith in human beings.  Are people so selfish and stingy that we need to dangle dollars in front of their face in order to break the viselike grip they have over their wallets?  Isn't the virtue of benevolence that one expects nothing in return?  Shouldn't the desire to contribute to the betterment of society as an individual be something inculcated in the young through parenting and schooling and, thus, need no financial incentive?  I would not be willing to say that charitable donations would not drop in the face of an elimination of the charitable deduction because I have no empirical proof either way, but I think it would be a sad reflection on human character if they did.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Liberals and the Book of Saint Reagan

Every now and again, you hear a liberal politician or pundit citing Ronald Reagan as a figure of moderation or good policy on points where he contrasts with the current Republican Party.

We have Bernie Sanders quoting Ronald Reagan's (accurate) statement that Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit.

We can see the Center for American Progress's blog ThinkProgress highlighting Ronald Reagan's statements on taxes here and here.  (TP has a very large number of Reagan citations of the sort.)  And we can see Obama embracing the same line here.

ThinkProgress also highlighted a quote in which Reagan called union organizing a "fundamental human right." But tell that to the air traffic controllers he warred against in his early presidency.  (TP spoke about Reagan's anti-unionism several months later.)

I've already seen Reagan mentioned several times in gun control articles because of his support for the Brady Bill.

Liberals seem to enjoy citing their points of agreement with Reagan to highlight the contradictions in the GOP hagiography of Saint Reagan.  However, who is the audience for this?  Since when did liberals start liking the president who ballooned the deficit through military spending while railing against "welfare queens"?  Hearkening back to Reagan as a time of GOP "moderation" seems hopelessly misguided; although he may have been willing to make deals with the Democratic House, he usurped power wherever he could--e.g. in his rather authoritarian handling of foreign policy.  Even if he raised taxes later on, he still drastically lowered marginal tax rates, creating a paradigm shift in taxation that will make it impossible to ever bring the top rate past 50%.  I can see no value in telling your liberal audience that a conservative President from three decades ago supported your policy du jour

However, if we agree that it doesn't make sense for liberals to praise Reagan to other liberals, then who is the real audience?  Certainly, there are not many Republicans--especially Tea Partiers--reading the ThinkProgress blog or looking at at the latest thing said by the social democrat in the Senate.  I can't see many Republicans suddenly thinking, "Oh, wow, I am going to scrap the ideology I've been holding for a while because you've told me that Reagan once said something that contradicts it."  The selective use of facts, quotes, and ideas that characterizes both political and religious hagiographies, and liberals are kidding themselves if they think anything other than that.  (You aren't going to convince a free market fundamentalist of the virtues of the welfare state just by citing the Sermon on the Mount or get a diehard social conservative to support marriage equality or tolerate abortion by highlighting the lack of prohibitions in the Bible.)  Such selective hagiography characterizes the liberal embrace of FDR as well. If I started hearing conservatives cite FDR for their own political aims, I'd be just as confused.

If anything, Reagan quoting  is a testament less less how far to the right the Republicans have moved than how far to the right the Democrats have moved-- that they need to cite Reagan as more liberal than not only the GOP Congress but also than the current Democratic president. 

(Image from

Thursday, December 20, 2012

On the Inherent Contradiction of the Belt-Tightening Metaphor

I find it interesting that "belt-tightening," a metaphor for austerity, is spoken of favorably when used, and Obama is quite fond of this metaphor. When you pull your belt tighter than normal, you will likely cause yourself some degree of pain, and if it is too tight, you could find it difficult to breathe or could even end up sick.  Tightening your belt does not make you thinner or healthier.  At best, it can provide an illusion of health or form--as a girdle does, a sacrifice of comfort and security for the sake of appearances.  Health is achieved through exercise; tightening a belt is little different from torture. If not a girdle, then the overly tight belt reeks of a medieval torture device.  

The failure of the belt metaphor reminds me of an earlier extended metaphor I drew between political ideology and body image/health.  You get in better shape, not by tightening your belt, but by expending the right amount and eating enough (not too little but not too much).  In other words, you have to raise sufficient tax revenue, and you need to invest it in strong programs.  That's how you get fiscal health.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Morality and the Hierarchy of Values

Last week, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt et al. came out with an article about how liberals and conservatives pre-judge each others' moral values.  In the corresponding study, self-identified liberals and self-identified conservatives were asked a series of questions to determine how they placed on scales for the five moral valences that Haidt acknowledges: fairness, care/protection from harm, in-group loyalty, deference to authority, and purity/sanctity.  After taking the test themselves, the subjects then had to take a survey answering as though they were a "typical liberal" or "typical conservative."  According to the study, extreme liberals were the most off-base with their predictions of the moral attitudes of both liberals and conservatives, and moderate conservatives were most accurate.

I have now seen several articles (including the one linked above) that emphasize the takeaway that "liberals stereotype more than conservatives."  An immediate problem with this claim is the definition of stereotype.  Moral stereotypes are not the same as racial stereotypes or ethnic stereotypes or religious stereotypes or gender stereotypes, etc., etc.  The phrasing itself implies something that the study does not.

However, to move into more substantive terrain, I will introduce the quote that demonstrates the issue I have with the interpretation of the findings:

"Liberals tended to stereotype conservatives as uncaring, rather than realize that conservatives’ genuine concerns about harm and fairness are tempered by other moral values that have less value to the left, such as loyalty and respect for authority." 

Prioritization is the foundation of morality, and for many conservatives (of either party), deference to authority trumps other values. Even if two people were to be rated at the same level for "fairness," if one placed "deference to authority" even higher, their moral codes would be completely different and, also, irreconcilable in many ways.   Deference to authority can often negate or override fairness because authority is not always just.  Likewise, feelings toward care can run up against in-group loyalty (the welfare state tampered by xenophobia and racism) or against deference to authority (be that authority the "market gods" or a fundamentalist God, neither of whom might want humans to rectify the pitiable state of their fellow beings).  You and I might feel just as much sympathy toward another person as each other, but if you are feel stronger in-group loyalty or deference to authority, you might not want to take any action to improve that person's well-being.  I might thus underestimate your sympathetic emotion, but that is because your hierarchy of values is fundamentally opposed to mine, demoting the values I see as most important.

Furthermore, I think that Haidt's model leaves out important aspects of morality. As noted above, he focuses on care (protection from harm), fairness, loyalty, obedience (deference to authority), and purity. However, he leaves out dignity ("I will be treated as a person"/"I will not be used."/"I will not be treated as a thing"), which is important to personal morality and social/political morality. Dignity, as I see it, lies at the foundation of fairness ("I will not be cheated"), purity but not sanctity ("I will not be sullied"), and protection from harm ("I will not be abused").   Each of those moral attitudes stems from an individual sentiment that becomes socialized by recognizing the dignity of other persons.  Dignity, socialized into respect for persons, lies at the foundation of those but also exists in its own right, and as I see it, democracy (a a form of political morality) rests on dignity (the equal dignity of all persons).  Dignity, when socialized and universalized, tempers the power of the moral attitudes of obedience and in-group loyalty because it encourages a sense of egalitarianism, and such respect for persons provides the vital step between sympathy and action.  I might pity you, but unless I view you as equal in dignity, in personhood, to myself, I may idle and stall and avoid action.  Social change comes from the translation of pity into respect, and that respect is born out of the socialization or universalization of dignity.

Religion and Some Musings on Non-Rational (as opposed to Irrational) Thinking

In a discussion I was having on religion recently, I thought that a good analogy with which to speak of religion would be the concept of love (in the sense of relationships, the romantic sense of the word). If two people claim to be in love, can we prove it to be true? We might be able to prove compatibility but not ‘love’ as a professed belief. Should we then scoff at those who claim to have ‘fallen in love’ because of their non-rational thinking? Now, such professions of being ‘in love’ can have both positive and negative effects on the person involved. Some people might end up becoming better human beings—more generous, more tolerant, more open-minded—because of the positive influence of the other person and the sentiment itself. Others, however, might become worse human beings—they may become abusive to themselves or others, co-dependent, reclusive, etc. Now, when people are in relationships that involve emotional and physical abuse or provoke cruel relations to friends and family, then we should challenge the person who claims to be ‘in love’; however, if the effects are positive, they benefit and others benefit.   

Let’s expand this further. You may say, ‘But religion has caused war and ethnic conflict.’ However, relationships have also provoked war and can provoke violence in the behavior of those involved in defense, jealousy, etc. You might say, ‘But religions are schemes to take people’s money on a large scale.’ And then I will ask you about how much money was spent last Valentine’s Day.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

On Framing the Discourse around Gun Violence

On Friday, Nate Silver had an article in the Times analyzing how the rhetoric around guns has changed over the past decades.

As you can see, whereas "gun control" was once the dominant framing of the debate, the use of that frame has dropped precipitously since 2000.  In its stead, the discourse around "gun rights" and "Second Amendment (rights)" has grown--even though neither or as dominant as "gun control" once was.

I noticed this rhetorical shift the other day when signing a petition, and as Sen. Pat Toomey's office always requires, I had to choose the subject of my comments.  I had to select "Gun Rights."

Framing the debate as a discussion of "rights" immediately cedes ground because legislation then becomes a form of stripping people's rights away--something that will be, of course, quite unpopular. This Times article from this morning used "gun rights" quite frequently, and in doing so, it recognize the right to an assault weapon.  By using the language of rights, you acknowledge that such a right can or should exist.  You have already lost part of the debate.

Think of the issue of abortion for example. Our dominant frame is not "pro-reproductive rights" and "anti-productive rights."  Rather, it is "pro-life" and "pro-choice."  Of course, both groups love being "pro" something, and "life" and "choice" are vague and universally popular words.  However, the anti-reproductive rights crowd changed the debate away from rights.  They are not taking away someone's rights, according to the nomenclature; rather, they do not recognize that such a right could have possibly ever existed.

I've seen several efforts in the past few days to re-frame the debate on gun violence.  HuffPo's Ryan Grimm used the term "anti-massacre activists." That term, however, will not achieve widespread media usage (It lacks the aura of "balance" that the media loves), and the word "massacre" omits smaller-scale shootings and, theoretically, would include genocide and war.  Yesterday, on Up with Chris Hayes, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) spoke of being "pro-gun safety."  I think that this term has more potential because (1) people like to be "pro" rather than "anti" something and (2) "safety" is more popular than "control."  "Pro-gun safety" says that the opponents of legislation are "anti-gun safety"--they are reckless and they are endangering the public.  "Anti-gun safety" does not seem like a descriptor one would want to embrace, and the policies of massacre profiteers should not be embraced either.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Polls and the Framing of Political Discourse

Earlier this week, Politico came out with a poll of the public's thoughts on the ongoing austerity debates.  Unsurprisingly (but perhaps surprisingly to some within the Beltway echo chamber), raising taxes on households earning more than $250,000 received strong majority support (60-38).  An even greater majority supported raising taxes on major corporations (64-33), which runs completely counter to the bipartisan consensus that corporate tax rates have to go down.  Although Romney's plutocratic leanings are well-known, Obama also proposed lowering corporate taxes during the campaign season and, specifically, during the second debate.  Clearly, neither candidate got the memo that the public was not on their side, but that, of course, could have been said for a number of issues.

However, what I found particularly interesting about the Politico poll was what it revealed about the power of framing policies and I will focus on three in particular.

(1) Proposal: "Reducing Medicare benefits for seniors with high incomes": 51% support -- 46% oppose

The key phrase in this proposal is "high incomes."  How high of an income are we discussing here?  If we reduced Medicare benefits for people making over $1 million (not even 1% of the population), we would hardly save any money.  For means testing to actually accomplish anything toward deficit reduction, then the threshold has to be pushed much lower.  If the proposal read "Reduce Medicare benefits for seniors with incomes over $77,000 (roughly the top quartile), it would likely be much less popular.  The question succeeds on a lack of specificity.

(2) Proposal: "Making significant cuts to the Defense Department budget" 38% support -- 59% oppose

As the definition of "high incomes" was essential to understanding the last proposal (and conveniently evaded), the meaning of "significant" adds the same subjectivity.  Speaking of "significant" cuts implies that one would be reducing the effectiveness of an organization; it connotes an "extreme" or "drastic" solution, neither of which have pleasant connotations.

However, what if the proposal were phrased in one of the following ways?

(a) "Reducing waste and fraud in the Pentagon."
(b) "Ending Cold War weapons programs"
(c) "Bringing our troops back from Afghanistan"
(d) "Reducing the number of military bases abroad"

I'm sure that all of these--especially (a)--would poll better because their key message is "efficient operations," something universally popular.

(3) Proposal: "Cutting government spending across the board" 75% support -- 23% oppose

This proposal reeks of the hollow rhetoric of "balance" that both parties love to use when speaking of budgetary issues.  "Everybody tightens their belt a little," this one says.  It seems "fair," right?  "Equal treatment before the budget axe."

However, let's look at this question a different way.  What if we offered this equivalent proposal?

"Making cuts to education, food safety, environmental protection, national parks, scientific research, and aid to children, the poor, and the disabled"

Doesn't sound quite so "fair" anymore, does it? 

People often view the government in the abstract, not realizing the valuable ways it supports their daily lives.  If you want to understand people's values, you have to give them actual programs to contemplate, not generalities

Friday, December 14, 2012

On the Inherent Politics of Tragedy

In response to the tragedy in Newtown, CT, today: 

I never understand the "don't politicize a tragedy" line. Why would we create laws if not for the tragedies that demonstrate to us their necessity? If we didn't respond to tragedies, we would never have environmental regulations (our response to loss of lives from air and water pollution), workplace safety protections (our response to the loss of lives from faulty machinery and lack of oversight),  food safety legislation (our response to the sickness and death caused by contaminated food), social insurance (our response to the poverty and early death of seniors), Medicaid (our response to the sufferings of the sick, the disabled, and the poor), veteran's benefits (our response to those who suffered injuries in wartime).....I could go on...

Do you remember that time when something funny happened and we made a law about it? You don't? WELL, NEITHER DO I.


If you say guns are not the problem, mental illness is, then you should be advocating for greater investment in mental health. If you say that guns are not the problem, culture is, then you should be working each day to build a more tolerant, affirming culture that rejects violence as habit, entertainment, or state policy. Yet if you oppose gun control legislation and oppose investment in mental health and insist on maintaining a cult of heroic violence as a societal ideal, then you are a hypocrite and are a large part of the problem.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Republican Santa...

Republican Santa does not give coal to naughty children. Republican Santa gives coal to all children because he loves coal and thinks it is a wonderful Christmas gift.

I was thinking about the political leanings of Santa--which I do every year, pretty much.  Although one might see Santa's strong emphasis on children's welfare as a sign that Santa is a Democrat, the welfare state imagined by Santa is quite lean--not only is it limited to children, but it is also limited to Christian children.  Santa does not invite Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or non-theist children into the fold of his benevolent community even though his outlook appears quite international, especially because of his humanitarianism and aggressive advocacy of free trade (Notice his forceful opening of markets every December).  I would lean to Santa's being a Rockefeller Republican--someone with a social conscience but with a traditionalist bent and preference for the ideals of charity to be enacted by the private decisions of the benevolent super-rich rather than the people embodied in the government.

Regardless of Santa's leaning on a liberal-conservative scale on economics, one must say that he is firmly authoritarian with the surveillance state he operates over the world's children.

Another key question to address is whether or not the elves are unionized.  Or, a a friend of mine noted, are they even natives to the North Pole?  Were they imported as slaves?  Are they acolytes to a quasi-religious cult of Santa?  Are they indentured servants?  Are they free laborers?  Are the factories in the North Pole democratically governed?  I would like to know that the elves making my Christmas presents are receiving family-sustaining wages and generous pensions.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Important Questions: Pop Culture Edition

Musing of the day: In Full House, the Tanner family house is so large that Jesse, Becky, and their two sons can comfortably live upstairs, Joey can comfortably live in the basement, and the Tanner girls can all have fairly large rooms (even if two have to share one of the large rooms). The downstairs of the house is also quite spacious. They live in San Francisco, which is (next to New York City) the most expensive city in the country. Neither Jesse nor Joey seems to bring that much money to the house (at least in the beginning) although Becky may contribute later. Regardless, how much would a house like that cost in actuality, and how the heck do they afford it?
Yes, this house in the city withe some of the largest property values in the country fits all of these people (minus Kimmy and DJ's boyfriend, but still....).
[Photo from website]

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Why Would They Want to Make Good Ads?

This past Tuesday, a federal judge ruled that tobacco companies have to fund a campaign informing the public of their decades-long effort to deceive the public about the health effects of smoking.

I like to see the tobacco industry lose money because, as I remember Henry Waxman saying at a lecture at the Historic Sixth & I Synagogue, cigarettes are currently the only legal product sold in the United States that used as intended will lead to disease and death.  However, one has to wonder whether or not this is an effective form of punitive or corrective damage.

First of all, why would the judge think that the tobacco companies would put the same advertising ingenuity into an anti-smoking campaign as they would in a campaign to boost sales? 

Second of all, many smokers know that smoking is bad for them but either (a) do not care or (b) engage in a mental dissociation that allows them to see themselves as the exception to the rule.  Consequently, one must wonder how effective such a campaign could even be.

However, most importantly, I believe that taxes are best when they seek to correct existing problems or inequities.  For all practical purposes, this ruling creates a tax on the tobacco industry.  The best use for funds from such a tax would be cancer research or medical care for those suffering from lung cancer, emphysema, etc. Even using a levy to contribute to Medicare could make sense--as a way of reducing the cost the state incurs by taking care of ex-smokers.  The companies should be forced to clean up their own mess, not preach about cleanliness.

Celebration of Actions vs. Celebration of States of Being

As there is now a movie out right now about the US-coordinated assassination of Osama bin Laden, I thought I would come back to what I found to be the problematic response of many Americans to the death of bin Laden.  When the news was announced, there was a rather morbid celebration in the US, creepily evocative of the video footage that we often use to show the anti-Americanism of the "Arab street."

It brings me to what I believe to be a vital distinction--that between celebrating an action versus celebrating a state of being.  One cannot help degrading oneself a bit when one chooses to celebrate such an assassination, even if that person were particularly terroristic or tyrannical.  The moral uneasiness stems from the fact that, when celebrating this, you are celebrating the act of murder.  (One can strengthen that further by highlighting that one is celebrating the act of murder in a case not tied to self-defense.) By doing so, you are then, whether intentionally or not, legitimizing the act of murder in cases not related to clear self-defense.

Celebrating the act does, however, differ from celebrating the state of being.  In other words, one could claim to be happy to live in a world in which Osama bin Laden no longer exists.  In that case, the reason for your contentment is divorced from the act itself--you are by no means condoning the act.  You are merely acknowledging the value of the non-existence of a threat to one's (or one's nation's) sense of safety and security.

I should probably flesh this out a bit more; regardless, I think it is an important moral point that is too frequently overlooked.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Quick Primer on US Politics

If you need to explain contemporary US political divides in a nutshell, here you go:

Liberals look at 1950s economic policy with nostalgia and 1950s social policy with horror. Conservatives look at 1950s social policy with nostalgia and 1950s economic policy with horror.

"Yes, dear, you were telling me about our 91% marginal tax rate?"

Friday, November 23, 2012

"All-of-the-Above" Strategy for a "Balanced Diet"

A few days ago, after signing one of many climate change-related petitions, I received a response from the White House.

The letter began with the following summary of the President's energy policy:

"My Administration’s all-of-the-above energy strategy is about developing every source of American energy—a strategy aimed at saving families and businesses money at the pump by reducing our reliance on foreign oil, expanding oil and gas production, and positioning the United States as the global leader in clean energy."

When I sign a petition related to climate change, clearly I am expressing my desire to hear you tout your expanded oil and gas production.

Continuing the rather cliched language:

"While developing new sources of energy is critical to our future, the hard truth is there are no overnight solutions to our energy challenges.  The only way to deal with this problem is through a sustained, serious, all-of-the-above approach"

I am so glad that the approach will be "serious."  That line just exudes the elite centrism that drives the Beltway consensus (and is embodied by Paul Krugman's term "Very Serious People.")

To fill me with further joy, the response continued to outline the wonders of fossil fuel production:

"Under my Administration, American oil production is at its highest level in 8 years, and we are now less reliant on foreign oil than in any of the past 16 years.  We have more working oil and gas rigs than the rest of the world combined, and we have opened up millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration where appropriate and where it can be done safely.  My Administration has also approved dozens of new pipelines to move oil around, including from Canada, which will help create jobs and encourage more energy production."

Oil production higher than it was under W?  Why, every environmentalist should be so happy right now!  I found the phrase "including from Canada" to be particularly disconcerting.  As of yet, the President has not signed off on the Keystone XL pipeline.  Regardless, I do not see why it would excite anyone to know that we now have oil from Canada as well.

Despite my arguments with the substance of the email (and the policy it reflects), one of my largest pet peeves remains the "all-of-the-above" language.  It sounds very focus group-tested and quite pseudo-serious but accomplishes nothing other than evading the actual problem.

It reminds me of the language that soda companies often embrace when campaigning against proposed soda taxes.  Soda, they say, can be a part of a "balanced diet" and is a wholesome, all-American diet.  We are not saying that soda should be the only thing that you consume, and we don't deny the value of more healthful foods and drinks; all we want is to highlight the "balance" that we all know is important and we all strive to embrace.  The "all-of-the-above" energy policy embraces the same empty and deceptive rhetoric.  Just as a body will be healthiest without soda, the environment will be healthiest without the consumption of fossil fuels.

Perhaps an even better comparison, though, would be to the "all-of-the-above" agricultural policy that the US has even though we don't use such language.  You want to have your food raised on a local, organic family farm? You can do that (depending on place, of course).  You want to have your food from monocropped GMO corn plantations run by Monsanto?  You can have that, too!  Although studies by the UN have shown that organic farming has the potential to meet the world's demand, Congress will continue to subsidize such monocropping, with crony capitalism for an added touch.  Of course, we act as though the outcome, i.e. the dominance of GMO, chemical-ridden food, is what the "free market" wants even though the government has been distorting the market in favor of the companies like Monsanto that already have monopolistic control.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Math? Why, That's What Servants are For!

Yesterday, the New York Times had an article that featured interviews with some rich people who seem completely innumerate (or at least illiterate in economics).

Take as an example this:

Kristina Collins, a chiropractor in McLean, Va., said she and her husband planned to closely monitor the business income from their joint practice to avoid crossing the income threshold for higher taxes outlined by President Obama on earnings above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples.
Ms. Collins said she felt torn by being near the cutoff line and disappointed that federal tax policy was providing a disincentive to keep expanding a business she founded in 1998.
“If we’re really close and it’s near the end-year, maybe we’ll just close down for a while and go on vacation,” she said.
 Kristina does not seem to understand that the tax increase would be only for income above (or over or in excess of, all the same thing) $250,000.  The reduced rates from the Bush tax cuts stay on that first $250,000.  The 39.6% marginal tax rate only applies to that first $0.01 earned above the $250,000 threshold.  The only way in which you would have lower take home pay despite earning more would be for the marginal tax rate to exceed 100%.  If it's at 100%, there's a maximum income (an income cap); all extra "work" would yield no more take home pay.  However, even then, your take home pay is not less than it was before; it just stagnates.  Once the marginal tax rate becomes 100.01%, then you will start to lose money by earning more.  But last I checked, no one is talking about raising the marginal tax rate to 100.01% or even 100%---or even, for that matter, 94%--the highest the marginal rate has ever been.

It is, of course, also hilarious to see the paranoid rich or conservative blowhards like Rush Limbaugh decry the return to Clinton-era marginal tax rates for income above $250,000 as (you guessed it) socialism, or even communism.  As we all know, Clinton was a rabid socialist who passed laws like TANF (or, the Make Low-Income Single Mothers Work Bill), NAFTA, and GLBA (the repeal of Glass-Steagall).  One would have though that Soviet economics came to the US right after it died in Russia!

Anyways, what also entertains me about such paranoid rants is that they often refer to increased tax rates as communism.  If the economy were fully socialized, then, obviously, the government (or the collective) would fully control the means of production and distribution.  Consequently, the idea of salaries, wages, and taxes lose their logical coherence.  How can there be taxes to pay if if your money only comes back to you in the form of allocated goods?  The purported no-tax utopia is a characteristic of anarchy (in which there is no state to tax) and communism (in which there is no private property to be taxed).

Monday, November 19, 2012

On Tragedy and Farce

In an article in The Guardian last Friday, Giles Fraser, reflecting on the situation in Gaza, concluded,

"Poets understand tragedy better than politicians. For what makes tragedy tragic is not that the situation is sad (there are other words for that) but that it is where the sloganising binaries of right and wrong no longer function as a useful guide. Which is why making peace means leaving the protected place where we are right."

A farce is where no one is fully right, and no one gets hurt.  A tragedy is where no one is fully right, but everyone gets hurt.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

An eye for an eye...and no more

It is important to remember that the biblical precept of "an eye for an eye" contained the implicit corollary of "and no more."  Although one may, from a modern perspective, view such retributive justice as crude, it was nevertheless a step in the direction of justice at its time, when blood-feuds prevailed.  The precept "an eye for an eye" demands that the punishment be commensurate to the crime, that the victim not seek to remedy the offense by exacting greater suffering from the offender, that the act of retribution be merely like the settling of debts, for to seek to inflict greater suffering, to demand a full body as compensation for the taken eye, would lead to a vicious cycle of retribution and pain with no conceivable end.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

This is What Happens When You Don't Teach Shapes in Kindergarten

 Hello friend, let's take a journey through the newly designed districts of Pennsylvania, the Keystone State.  I've decided to choose the most aesthetically and geometrically offensive districts for our little tour.

Starting West, let us begin with PA-12, the former home of Rep. Mark Critz (D) and soon-to-be home of Rep. Keith Rothfus (R).

PA's 12th congressional district is the pale yellow part of this map.  (Here's another hint for finding it:  It's marked with a 12).

Ultimate conclusion: A bird with a long, narrow neck sticking out of a nest with an unusually flat/sharp top

"But PA's 12th just looks so strange because it was just gerrymandered now," you might think.  You are wrong.  It is arguable that PA's 12th is less aesthetically offensive than it had been.

File:Pa12 109.gif

The district, with its new design, has moved slightly to the north and is, in fact, more compact.  When I tried to come up with a clever idea for what the old PA-12 resembled, I originally gave up.  But then I came to the conclusion that, if you tilt your head a bit to the left, PA-12 resembles a woman playing a grand piano standing up near the edge of a stage.  It's a stretch, but I think it will work.

Let's continue our journey through the beautiful PA's 7th, now home to Republican Rep. Pat Meehan. When I first saw PA-7, I could tell that it was awkwardly designed.  And then I noticed the piece of PA-7 in Montgomery County that falls between Allyson Schwartz's and Mike Fitzpatrick's district that makes PA-7 really push the definition of "contiguity."

It took me a little while to figure out what this travesty of a district resembles.

Ultimate conclusion: A woman with a strange hairstyle wearing rubber gloves while trying to clean up the body of a decapitated monkey

Oh, look, the 70+% African American city of Chester is conveniently not in the Republican rep's district and awkwardly linked up to Bob Brady's district in Philadelphia (which, of course, is a mess in its own right.)

Because of the cluster that is PA-7, PA-6, its neighbor to the North (home to Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach) is also a bright and shiny example of the failure of our elementary schools to teach drawing and shapes.

If you turn PA-6 upside down (bear with me here), then it looks like a large-nosed witch clenching one hand in a fist and extending her other arm, cloaked in the sleeve of her loose robe.

Moving up north a bit to PA-17, we find what is either a boat with a mini-stage on which a couple is dancing (the male dancer lifting up his female partner ballet-style) or a sleeping camel with several layers of blankets on its lower back and a feathered headpiece.

You can check out the rest of the geometric glory of the Keystone State here.