Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The many elephants in the room in Ferguson, Missouri

As long as I'm pointing out the obvious, I figure I should point out a few of the proverbial elephants in the living room in Ferguson, Missouri: the town is 70% black, but the government is overwhelmingly white.  There are only two possible reasons for this: either blacks think that having their town run by whites is just hunky dory, or blacks in Fergusson don't vote.  Unsurprisingly, the latter turns out to be the case.
According to a Washington Post analysis, an estimated 6% of blacks and 17% of whites turned out for the 2013 municipal elections in the township
I was shocked by these numbers.  It's not just that blacks don't vote, nobody votes in Ferguson!  Let's do the math: Ferguson has about 21,000 residents.  70% are black, 30% white.  So 21,000 x 0.7 x 0.06 = 880 black people voted, and 21,000 x 0.3 x 0.17 = 1070 white people voted.

As the mechanic who opened the hood of the non-function car only to find that the engine was gone said, "Well, there's yer problem right there."  It would only take an additional 250 black voters showing up to completely reverse the power dynamic in Ferguson.  That (and remember, this post is about pointing out the obvious) is far fewer than the number showing up to protest in the streets.

If there is a silver lining to Michael Brown's tragic death it is that Ferguson's black community might be finally driven out of their complacency.  There are renewed efforts to register black voters there.  And also unsurprisingly (pointing out the obvious again), Republicans are not happy about it:
In an interview with Breitbart News, Missouri RNC executive director Matt Wills expressed outrage about the reports [of efforts to register black voters].
“If that’s not fanning the political flames, I don’t know what is,” Wills said, “I think it’s not only disgusting but completely inappropriate.”
So black people registering to vote is "disgusting and inappropriate" according to the Republicans.  I'll say this for Matt Wills: at least he's willing to stand up for what he believes.  But as long as I'm pointing out the obvious, I will once again celebrate the fact that we live in a great country, where everyone has a right to express their views, no matter how repugnant.

Finally, no discussion of Ferguson and repugnant views would be complete without giving a shout-out to Professor Sunil Dutta, an ex-police officer who opined in the Washington Post that the best strategy for not getting shot dead by a police officer is to unquestioning obsequiousness.  Pointing out the obvious is starting the get a little old, so I'll leave it up to the fine folks at Reason.
If you have the attitude that you are owed deference and instant obedience by the people around you, and that you are justified in using violence against them if they don't comply, we already have a problem. That's especially true if official institutions back you up, which they do. 
If you really think that everybody else should "just do what I tell you," you're wearing the wrong uniform in the wrong country. And if you really can't function with some give and take—a few nasty names, a little argument—of the sort that people in all sorts of jobs put up with every damned day, do us all a favor: quit. 
The law enforcement problem in this country goes well beyond boys with toys. It's much deeper, and needs to be torn out by the roots.

This is what real religious persecution looks like, part 2

Religious persecution does not look like this.  It looks like this:
Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has asked the interior ministry to arrest several people for apostasy and atheism. 
The commission did not divulge the number of people whose arrest it requested, but it said that they insulted God and Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).
 And this:
In 13 countries around the world, all of them Muslim, people who openly espouse atheism or reject the official state religion of Islam face execution under the law, according to a detailed study issued on Tuesday. 
And beyond the Islamic nations, even some of the West's apparently most democratic governments at best discriminate against citizens who have no belief in a god and at worst can jail them for offenses dubbed blasphemy, it said.
And this:
Israeli police on Sunday blocked more than 200 far-right Israeli protesters from rushing guests at a wedding of a Jewish woman and Muslim man as they shouted "death to the Arabs" in a sign of tensions stoked by the Gaza war.
(The persecution in this case, of course, being perpetrated by the mob, not the police.)

There really is very little sport in finding examples of religious persecution around the world, but not in the U.S.  What you will find in the U.S. is a fair number of bigots whining about the decline of bigotry in polite society.  You'll also find people who think the earth is flat.  Some people are impervious to reason.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

What's wrong with this picture?

Here's a hint: Dick Durbin is not a Republican.

This is what real religious persecution looks like

Just in case your persecute-o-meter needs calibration:
National spokesman for Iraqi Christians and Chaldean-American businessman Mark Arabo said the "evil" being carried out by ISIS militants in Iraq now includes shocking beheadings of children...
I try to temper my criticism of religious people with empathy for the reason I believe they adhere to their faiths, but I feel driven to say that in the cold light of true religious persecution, the baseless whining of some American Christians really starts to look pretty reprehensible.

Are Christians persecuted in the United States?

The answer to the titular question is so clearly "no" that I would normally not dignify it with a response.  But commenter Publius, who otherwise seems to be reasonable and rational, presented some data to support the proposition that "finding Christian harassment in the past few years is like fishing with dynamite."  So I decided to take the time to investigate.  After all, it is important to keep an open mind.  You never know when one of your prejudices might turn out to be wrong.

Publius cites five primary examples, six secondary examples, and three examples that he characterizes as "vignettes".  I looked at every one of these and, unsurprisingly, they do not support the conclusion.  Of Publius's fourteen examples, only one is even a legitimate example of harassment of any sort.  That is this one:

Two tennagers assaulted by UCSB professor and suffer grand theft
Remember the University of California, Santa Barbara feminist studies professor who forcibly stole a graphic anti-abortion sign from two abortion protesters, then scratched and appeared to push one of the protesters (a 16-year-old girl), then destroyed the sign? 
She pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of grand theft, vandalism and battery on Thursday.
This is clearly a case of harassment (as even the perpetrator has now tacitly admitted).  But it is not a case of harassment of Christians.  We don't even know for certain that the victims were Christians, at least not from the account that Publius cites.  The word "Christian" does not even appear in that story.  It might be a good bet that they were Christians (because opponents of reproductive freedom often are) but we don't know that,  and it doesn't matter anyway.  Even if they were Christians it is clear that they were attacked not because of their religious beliefs but because of the political views they were espousing (not that this makes the attack any less reprehensible).  As you will see, this will prove to be a common theme.

The only other incident that involves violence is this one:

Hate crime: gay activists brutally beat christians in America
As revealed in the disturbing video, two Christian street preachers stood near a gay pride march, one holding a large sign and the other one clutching a Bible. 
The sign did not make any targeted, inflammatory statements against any particular group.
But several of the marchers did not care.
A heavy-set man and a woman broke off from the march to confront the preachers. The preacher in the “Trust Jesus” t-shirt tried to block the initial shoving with his Bible. 
Both preachers attempted to retreat from conflict.
A short man knocked down the preacher holding the sign, taking it away from him as the heavy-set man sucker punched the preacher in the head. 
The short man showed no mercy as he kicked the now-down preacher in the ribs.
This sounds pretty damning, and the violence is, again, reprehensible.  However, if you watch the video you will see a number of salient points that are not mentioned in the written account:

1.  The incident happened at a gay pride rally.

2.  The preachers were repeatedly warned verbally and in no uncertain terms that their presence was not welcome, and were advised, again in no uncertain terms, that they should leave.

3.  The inciting incident was not an attack on the preachers themselves, but the theft of one of their signs.  You can watch the video and judge for yourself who was attacking who, but the fact is that for most of the fracas, the preacher being "attacked" is on top of the putative "attacker."

So again, even if one grants that the preachers were attacked, they were not attacked because they were Christians, they were attacked because they were behaving like assholes.  Preaching that homosexuality is a sin at a gay pride rally is like walking into a church and preaching against God.  It's just rude.  Of course rudeness does not merit violence, but it does forfeit you the moral high ground.

Two down, twelve to go.  This is going to be a long slog, but I really want to definitively debunk this idea that Christians are the victims.

Brendan Eich resigns as CEO of Mozilla
The resignation of Mozilla's CEO amid outrage that he supported an anti-gay marriage campaign is prompting concerns about how Silicon Valley's strongly liberal culture might quash the very openness that is at the region's foundation. 
Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich stepped down Thursday as CEO, just days after his appointment. He left the nonprofit maker of the Firefox browser after furious attacks, largely on Twitter, over his $1,000 contribution to support of a now-overturned 2008 gay-marriage ban in California.
As with the case of the UCSB professor's victims, we have no evidence that Brendan Eich is a Christian.  Just as it is possible for a non-Christian to oppose abortion rights, it is also possible for a non-Christian to oppose marriage equality.  I myself wrote some harsh criticism of Brendan Eich and I have no idea if he's a Christian or not.  What I do know (because Brendan's actions provide conclusive evidence) is that he is an unrepentant bigot.  Personally, I have no problem with bigots being harassed for their bigotry.  I am not a moral relativist.  Bigotry is evil because it retards the advancement of ideas.  But that is another discussion.

Protests against Catholic and Morman churches for California Prop. 8 support
Protests against Proposition 8 supporters in California took place starting in November 2008. These included prominent protests against the Roman Catholic church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), which collaboratively campaigned in favor of California's Proposition 8 through volunteer and financial support for the measure.[1] The proposition was a voter referendum that amended the state constitution to recognize marriage only as being between one man and one woman, thus banning same-sex marriage, which was legal in the state following a May 2008 California Supreme Court case.
Same story, except that these protests are not harassment of any sort.  They are entirely legitimate political responses to political action.  They are a response to bigots who made themselves fair game by initiating political action to deprive other people of their rights.  That these particular bigots happen to be Mormon has nothing to do with the protests (except insofar as their Mormonism almost certainly motivated their bigotry).

Chick-fil-A faces protests after comments by COO Dan Cathy
American fast-food chain Chick-fil-A was the focus of controversy following a series of public comments made in June 2012 by chief operating officer Dan Cathy opposing same-sex marriage. This followed reports that Chick-fil-A's charitable endeavor, the S. Truett Cathy-family-operated WinShape Foundation, had made millions in donations to political organizations which oppose LGBT rights. LGBT rights activists called for protests and boycotts of the chain, while counter-protestors rallied in support by eating at the restaurants. National political figures both for and against the actions spoke out and some business partners severed ties with the chain. 
Chick-fil-A released a statement in July 2012 stating, "Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena."
Are you beginning to notice a pattern here?  Do I even need to explain this one?  Again, these protests were political, peaceful, and their motives had nothing to do with the subject of their protests being Christian and everything to do with their being politically active bigots.

Military priests face arrest for celebrating mass
According the Archdiocese for Military Services, GS and contract priests (who are paid by the federal government as independent contractors in places where there aren’t enough active-duty priests to meet the needs of Catholics in military service) are being forbidden from celebrating Mass, even on a volunteer basis. 
If they violate this restriction, they face possible arrest. FOR CELEBRATING MASS.
OK, this sounds more promising.  Being arrested for celebrating mass certainly sounds like a flagrant violation of the First Amendment.  But again, there is a salient fact that is not evident from these excerpts: this incident occurred during the government shutdown of October 2013.  In fact, Publius edited the headline to obscure this fact.  The original headline was "MILITARY PRIESTS FACE ARREST FOR CELEBRATING MASS IN DEFIANCE OF SHUTDOWN" (caps in original).  So again, the priests were not facing arrest because they were Christian, they were facing arrest because they were breaking the law.  During the shutdown (which, again, it is worth noting was precipitated by the intransigence of Congressional Republicans), many contractors were furloughed and hence barred from government facilities.  But were Christians specifically singled out?  Publius's next example is closely related:

The Obama administration is continuing to prohibit approximately 50 Catholic priests from saying Mass and administering other sacraments at U.S. military facilities around the world, according to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese for the Military Services. 
Father Ray Leonard, who is one of these priests, and who serves as the Catholic chaplain at Navel Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia, filed suit Monday against the Department of Defense, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the Department of the Navy and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. His suit—joined by Navy veteran Fred Naylor, who is a member of the Catholic congregation at Kings Bay--alleges that the administration is violating his and his congregation’s First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion, the freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly. 
DOD has been prohibiting Father Leonard and the other Catholic priests from administering the sacraments and providing other services to their congregations even though two weeks ago Congress passed, and President Barack Obama signed, a law that instructed DOD to maintain on the job and keep paying contract employees who were supporting the troops. 
DOD took this action because Hagel determined--after consulting with Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department--that civilian Catholic priests, working under contract as chaplains, did not, among other things, “contribute to the morale” and “well-being” of service personnel. 
"The Department of Defense consulted closely with the Department of Justice, which expressed its view that the law does not permit a blanket recall of all civilians," Hagel said in an Oct. 5 memorandum. "Under our current reading of the law, the standard of 'support to members of the Armed Forces' requires a focus on those employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities, and readiness of covered military members during the lapse of appropriations." 
Among the specific examples Hagel provided of civilian contractors whom he believes meet this standard are those working in secular "Family Support Programs and Activities," "Behavorial Health and Suicide Prevention Programs" and "Health Care Activities and Providers"--but not priests.
Wow, that really does sound bad.  But if you actually look at the Oct. 5 memorandum you will find that things are not exactly as they are portrayed in the CNS News account.  For one thing, the words "Catholic", "Christian" and "priest" do not appear in that memo.  What is really going on here, as the memo makes clear, is that Congress shut down the government and left it up to the executive branch in general, and the DoD in particular in this case, to figure out how to handle the resulting mess.  The DoD prioritized what it considered to be essential services (like supply chain management -- i.e. providing soldiers with food) and religious services didn't make the cut.  Even if you allow the English language to be sufficiently mangled as to allow the decision to prioritize food over organized religious services to be characterized as "harassment", this incident is still in no way harassment of Christians.  All religious services were suspended, not just Christian ones.  It's just that the Christians were the only ones who whined about it.

US Army defines Christian ministry as domestic hate group"
Several dozen U.S. Army active duty and reserve troops were told last week that the American Family Association, a well-respected Christian ministry, should be classified as a domestic hate group because the group advocates for traditional family values.
You should be able to guess that this account is stilted merely by the fact that the source is Fox News.  First, it was not "The U.S. Army", it was a single instructor at a single briefing.  And second, it is in fact defensible to call the American Family Association a hate group because they do in fact promulgate hateful ideas about gays.

Florida Teacher Suspended for Anti-Gay Marriage Posts on Personal Facebook Page
A former “Teacher of the Year” in Mount Dora, Fla. has been suspended and could lose his job after he voiced his objection to gay marriage on his personal Facebook page. 
Jerry Buell, a veteran American history teacher at Mount Dora High School, was removed from his teaching duties this week as school officials in Lake County investigate allegations that what he posted was biased towards homosexuals.
Yes, I know.  It's starting to get a little painful, isn't it?  Like Brendan Eich, this teacher was not fired for being a Christian, this teacher was fired for being a bigot.

We're nearly done.  Only one more "vignette" to go:

U.S. Airman punished for his faith
The shocking stories of religious hostility in our nation’s military continue, and now, Liberty Institute represents Senior Master Sergeant Phillip Monk, a 19-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force who was relieved of his duties because of his faith and moral convictions. 
Senior Master Sergeant Monk, who served as a First Sergeant at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, recently returned from deployment and found he had a new commander who was an open lesbian. 
“In one of our first meetings, she was talking about her promotion and she mentioned something about a benediction,” Monk told Fox News. “She said she wanted a chaplain but objected to one particular chaplain that she called a ‘bigot’ because he preached that homosexuality is a sin.” 
“She then said, ‘I don’t know what kind of people actually believe that kind of crap,’” Monk continued. “I knew I was going to have a rough time in this unit and I would have to be very careful about what I said.” 
Issues arose when Monk was asked to advise his commander on a disciplinary matter involving an Air Force instructor who was accused of making objectionable comments about gay marriage. After a thorough investigation, Monk determined the instructor meant no harm by his comments, and suggested that his commander could use the incident as a way to teach about tolerance and diversity. 
Monk, a devout evangelical Christian, says he was told that he wasn’t on the same page as the commander, and that if he didn’t get on the same page, they would find another place for him to work. 
Later, the commander ordered Monk to answer the question of whether people who object to gay marriage are discriminating. Monk responded that he could not answer the way his commander wanted and feared an honest response would put him in legal trouble. 
At that point, Monk was relieved of his duties.
It's hard to sort out exactly what happened in this case, but whatever it was it had nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with homophobia.  This is not to say that Monk's dismissal was appropriate.  People have a Constitutional right to be hold bigoted views, and a case might be made that homophobic bigots are being subject to unfair harassment.  But the evidence for harassment targeted at Christians is zero.  Zip.  Nada.

To see what systematic discrimination against a worldview looks like you have to look at atheism, because atheists are subject to systematic discrimination (which occasionally rises to the level of harassment) in the U.S.  For example, "Humanist" was not recognized as a religious affiliation by the military before April of this year.  As recently as June of last year, a proposal to fund Humanist chaplains in the military failed to pass.  Can you imagine the uproar if Catholics were specifically excluded from the chaplaincy?  And yet that is exactly the situation that non-theists in the military face.  Atheists are the last minority towards which systematic societal discrimination is still considered acceptable.
Discrimination against atheists in the United States occurs in legal, personal, social, and professional contexts. Some American atheists compare their situation to the discrimination faced by ethnic minorities, LGBT communities, and women.[42][43][44][45] "Americans still feel it's acceptable to discriminate against atheists in ways considered beyond the pale for other groups," asserted Fred Edwords of the American Humanist Association.[46] However, other atheists reject these comparisons, arguing that while atheists may face disapproval they have not faced significant oppression or discrimination.[47][48] 
In the United States, seven state constitutions include religious tests that would effectively prevent atheists from holding public office, and in some cases being a juror/witness... 
Respondents to a survey were less likely to support a kidney transplant for hypothetical atheists and agnostics needing it, than for Christian patients with similar medical needs.[59] 
Few politicians have been willing to identify as non-theists, since such revelations have been considered "political suicide".[64][65] In a landmark move, California Representative Pete Stark came out in 2007 as the first openly nontheistic member of Congress.[46] In 2009, City Councilman Cecil Bothwell of Asheville, North Carolina was called "unworthy of his seat" because of his open atheism.[66] Several polls have shown that about 50 percent of Americans would not vote for a qualified atheist for president.[67][68] A 2006 study found that 40% of respondents characterized atheists as a group that did "not at all agree with my vision of American society", and that 48% would not want their child to marry an atheist. In both studies, percentages of disapproval of atheists were above those for Muslims, African-Americans and homosexuals.[69] Many of the respondents associated atheism with immorality, including criminal behaviour, extreme materialism, and elitism.[70] Atheists and atheist organizations have alleged discrimination against atheists in the military,[71][72][73][74][75][76] and recently, with the development of the Army's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, atheists have alleged institutionalized discrimination.[77][78] In several child custody court rulings, atheist parents have been discriminated against, either directly or indirectly. As child custody laws in the United States are often based on the "best interests of the child" principle, they leave family court judges ample room to consider a parent’s ideology when settling a custody case. Atheism, lack of religious observation and regular church attendance, and the inability to prove one's willingness and capacity to attend to religion with his children, have been used to deny custody to non-religious parents.[79][80]
The constitutions of ... seven US states ban atheists from holding public office.
And here we come to the real nub of the matter.  Not only is it false that Christians are systematically discriminated against, in fact the exact opposite is true.  Christians are not the discriminatees, they are the discriminators.  They have in fact become so accustomed to their position of power and hegemony in American society that they perceive that power and hegemony as a basic right, as the natural order of things.

Well, it isn't.  Notwithstanding that the vast majority of Americans self-identify as Christians,  the United States is not a Christian nation.  It never was, and God willing it never will be.  It is a secular nation, areligious (but obviously not irreligious).  It welcomes Christians and non-Christians of all stripes.  It welcomes Catholics and Krishnas, Baptists and Buddhists, Methodists and Muslims, believers and non-believers.

What it does not welcome so much is intolerance.  If you believe that God wants you to impose (your view of) His will on others, then you do indeed have a problem, because the price of being free to worship as you see fit is to leave others free to do the same (or not) as they see fit.  So if you really feel persecuted here because you can't stand letting other people enjoy the same freedoms you possess, you might want to consider moving to, say, Cameroon.  We won't stop you.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

How to get my business

[Warning: emotional ranting ahead.  Proceed with caution.]

Apparently I was not the only who was annoyed to have received one of Restoration Hardware’s ridiculously over-the-top catalog collections.  This monstrosity weighed in at about three hundred and fifty thousand pounds, and it was all I could do in my advancing years to hoist it in to our recycling bin.  Which is where it went directly from our now sadly sagging mailbox.  It did not pass Go.  It did not collect $200.  In fact, in the wake of this display of hideously bad judgement I have vowed never to set foot in a Restoration Hardware store again.

Not that I ever set foot in a Restoration Hardware store before.

And this is the one encouraging thing about this incident: despite all the on-line tracking and sharing of personal information that goes on behind the scenes in modern commerce, the fact that Restoration Hardware could get it so horribly, horribly wrong with respect to me indicates that there is some hope of maintaining some privacy even in today's world.

Still, having to throw out seventeen tons of unwanted catalogs every year seems like a high price to pay, so I have a modest proposal for marketers on how to find out what I want: ask me.  I'd be happy to tell you.  In fact, Google and Amazon have already figured this out, which is why they are kicking everyone else's butt.  I (obviously) never get a catalog from either Amazon or Google, and yet I always go to one or the other when I want to buy anything nowadays besides groceries.  Why?  Precisely because they don't send me catalogs.  They are like old-school domestic servants, never speaking unless spoken too.  But when I want something they are always immediately available to give me exactly what I want, even in those cases where I don't know exactly what it is.

So listen up, marketers everywhere.  Here's how to get my business:

1.  First and foremost, leave me the fuck alone unless I solicit you!  Do not fill my mailbox -- either physical or email -- with catalogs or flyers, and especially do not try cheap (or, as the case may be, not so cheap) tricks like sending out monstrously huge catalogs or putting your ads inside envelopes that kinda sorta look like they were sent by overnight mail but obviously weren't.  The more you try to get my attention, the more I will resist you.

2.  When I do come to you (and I will) make it easy for me to find shit.  Yes, I get that this is a tall order.  There's a particular style of headboard that I've been looking for for years.  I know it exists because I saw one once, but I have never been able to find one since.  If you are a purveyor of headboards, all that stands between you and having me as a customer is figuring out how I can communicate to you what I want and then having you find it for me.  Yes, I get that this is not easy.  There are a zillion styles of headboards out there.  If it were easy, everybody would be doing it already.  But here's a suggestion: I have a photo of this headboard that I'm looking for.  I could send it to you, and you could unleash an army of mechanical turks to browse your inventory and find a match.  AFAIK no one does this.  But this is just to illustrate the aphorism that there are no problems, only business opportunities.

But even in the face of such challenges there is still a ton of low-lying fruit that isn't being picked.  For example, every now and then I buy a new digital camera.  Figuring what the current state of the art is in terms of features and price-performance is a nightmare.  It should be technically straightforward to build a site where I could enter what I'm looking for in a camera (good image quality and as much optical zoom as I can get in as small a form factor as possible) and have it figure out which models I should be looking at.  Same goes for cars.

Every single camera and car site I've ever seen gets this wrong.  The first question a car site asks me is invariably "What make of car are you interested in?"  I don't know, God dammit!  If I knew that, I'd be going straight to that manufacturer's site.  I'm a childless-by-choice male on the perpetual brink of a midlife crisis, so I want a small, sporty car with two doors, four seats, and a nice balance of performance and economy: not too pokey, but I don't need to break the world record for going zero to sixty either.  Oh, and I want it to be blue.  Or maybe red.  Yellow is nice too.

(Right now I drive a Hyundai Genesis Coupe, which is the perfect car for me except that the transmission is pretty awful. )

All this really boils down to one rule: I want to do business with vendors who treat me with respect instead of like a mark.  It really is that simple.

Here endeth the rant.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

We have a poltergeist named Oliver

It is not often that things happen that lead me to seriously question my world view.  The last time was about eleven years ago when a mysterious message appeared on our answering machine, but that only lasted about 30 minutes before we were able to solve the mystery.  The current situation I think is going to prove much less tractable.  Here's what happened.

We have a Netflix subscription of the sort that lets us have two discs at any one time.  We always keep those discs in the same place next to our television set.  I will call the two discs we had on hand the other day Movie A and Movie B.

Last Thursday we had cleaners in to tidy up the place.  We hire them from an agency and they come regularly, every three weeks or so.  We've been doing this for several years.  After they left we noticed that one of the two discs was missing, along with the red envelope that is used to return the disc to Netflix when we're done watching it.  Nancy and both did a very thorough search looking for the missing disc but it was nowhere to be found.  We both checked the place where we normally keep the discs (it's right on top of a credenza in full view) multiple times.  I even went so far as to search the trash to make sure it had not inadvertently gotten thrown out.  We were both 100% convinced: only Movie A was there.  Movie B was gone.

We contacted the cleaning agency to see if maybe the cleaners had put the disc somewhere but they said they hadn't touched it.  And we believed them.  Why on earth would anyone want to steal a Netflix DVD?  I even started to look into how much it would cost us when we eventually fessed up to Netflix that we had lost their disc, but I decided to wait a few more days before actually reporting it missing.

So tonight we decided to watch the remaining movie, which is to say, Movie A.  I took the disc out of its sleeve and loaded it in the DVD player, and we were both surprised to see that it was not Movie A, it was Movie B.  Wait, what??? Movie B was the one that had been missing for six days!  I went to the credenza to investigate, and there, right where they were supposed to be, were two red return envelopes, and the second disc, the one that had not gone missing.  But it was underneath Movie B.

We both sat there with our jaws on the floor for about ten minutes, completely at a loss.

We have actually one previous instance of a mysterious disappearance and subsequent reappearance, but this is the first one where both of us thoroughly witnessed both events.  The first time was a credit card receipt that vanished off Nancy's desk, so I was naturally a little skeptical of her account, but I'm a little less skeptical now.

I can certainly understand, dear reader, if you don't believe me.  I certainly wouldn't believe me.  I barely believe it now, and I actually experienced it.  It's easily the weirdest thing that has ever happened to me.

I can think of three possible explanations:

1.  Nancy is pulling one over on me.  This would be completely out of character for her.  In the twenty-plus years I have known her she has never played a practical joke on anyone.

2.  We were both suffering from some sort of shared delusion for six days.

3.  We have a poltergeist.

Theory 3 seems at least as plausible as the other two.  In fact, we even have a pretty good lead as to our poltergeist's identity.  When we cleared the brush from the hillside behind our house a few years ago we discovered a grave marker for a dog named Oliver P. Scaliwags, who had belonged to a previous owner of our property.  According to neighborhood lore, Ollie was quite the little prankster. Maybe he still is.

When our cat Purrcy died recently we bought a Thai spirit house to put in the back yard thinking that Purrcy and Oliver might both like to live in it and that would keep them out of our house.  Apparently, it's not working.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Are corporations people?

My earlier post on the Hobby Lobby decision sparked a lively discussion, so I went back and actually read the Court's opinion.  Not much there that I didn't already know, with one notable exception: I had believed that the Court invented the idea that corporations are people out of whole cloth, and that turns out not to be true.  It turns out that there is a law called the Dictionary Act,  enacted in 1871, which says:
the words “person” and “whoever” include corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals;
That would seem to make it pretty open-and-shut: according to the law, corporations are persons.  Right?


In 1897, the Indiana legislature almost passed a bill that would have defined the mathematical constant pi to be 3.  (The popular story that some state actually did pass such a law turns out to be a myth.)  But if the law had passed that would not in fact have changed the value of pi.  It would still be 3.14159265... notwithstanding what the law said.  And the fact of the matter, law or no law, is that corporations cannot hold religious beliefs because corporations are not conscious entities.

But even as a matter of law, relying on the Dictionary Act is questionable because the Act opens by saying, "In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, unless the context indicates otherwise—" [emphasis added].  And in this case, the context clearly indicates otherwise, as Justice Ginsberg makes clear in her dissent:
This reference, the Court submits, incorporates the definition of “person” found in the Dictionary Act, 1 U. S. C. §1, which extends to “corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals.” See ante, at 19–20. The Dictionary Act’s definition, however, controls only where “context” does not “indicat[e] otherwise.” §1. Here, context does so indicate. RFRA speaks of “a person’s exercise of religion.” 42 U. S. C. §2000bb–1(a) (emphasis added). See also §§2000bb–2(4), 2000cc–5(7)(a).12 Whether a corporation qualifies as a “person” capable of exercising religion is an inquiry one cannot answer without reference to the “full body” of pre-Smith “free-exercise caselaw.” Gilardi, 733 F. 3d, at 1212. There is in that case law no support for the notion that free exercise rights pertain to for-profit corporations. [Emphasis added.]

Until this litigation, no decision of this Court recognized a for-profit corporation’s qualification for a religious ex- emption from a generally applicable law, whether under the Free Exercise Clause or RFRA.13 The absence of such precedent is just what one would expect, for the exercise of religion is characteristic of natural persons, not artificial legal entities. As Chief Justice Marshall observed nearly two centuries ago, a corporation is “an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law.” Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 4 Wheat. 518, 636 (1819). Corporations, Justice Stevens more recently reminded, “have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires.” Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, 558 U. S. 310, 466 (2010) (opin- ion concurring in part and dissenting in part).
 But what about churches?  Read on:
The First Amendment’s free exercise protections, the Court has indeed recognized, shelter churches and other nonprofit religion-based organizations.14 “For many individuals, religious activity derives meaning in large meas- ure from participation in a larger religious community,” and “furtherance of the autonomy of religious organizations often furthers individual religious freedom as well.” Corporation of Presiding Bishop of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. Amos, 483 U. S. 327, 342 (1987) (Brennan, J., concurring in judgment). The Court’s “spe- cial solicitude to the rights of religious organizations,” Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U. S. ___, ___ (2012) (slip op., at 14), how- ever, is just that. No such solicitude is traditional for commercial organizations.15 Indeed, until today, religiousexemptions had never been extended to any entity operating in “the commercial, profit-making world.” Amos, 483 U. S., at 337.16

The reason why is hardly obscure. Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations. Workers who sustain the operations of those corporations commonly are not drawn from one religious community. Indeed, by law, no religion-based criterion can restrict the work force of for-profit corporations. See 42 U. S. C. §§2000e(b), 2000e–1(a), 2000e–2(a); cf. Trans World Air­ lines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U. S. 63, 80–81 (1977) (Title VII requires reasonable accommodation of an employee’s religious exercise, but such accommodation must not come “at the expense of other[ employees]”). The distinction between a community made up of believers in the same religion and one embracing persons of diverse beliefs, clear as it is, constantly escapes the Court’s attention.17 One can only wonder why the Court shuts this key difference from sight.
Commenter Publius asked:
What is the essence of business organization that eliminates religious rights?
The answer is right there in the question: it's a business organization, not a religious organization.   If a group of people get together for the express purpose of exercising a religious faith (as in a church) that reduces the possibility of religious conflict (thought it does not eliminate it entirely).  If a group of people get together to engage in commerce then it is all but inevitable that, if those people do not check their religion at the door then there will be conflict.  It is specifically illegal to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religious beliefs, and the chances that you will end up by chance with a group of employees whose religious beliefs align with those of the company's owners is indistinguishable from zero.  There are only two possible ways to resolve this inevitable conflict: 1) resolve it arbitrarily in favor of one group or another.  This is what the Supreme Court as done.  It has resolved the conflict arbitrarily in favor of owners at the expense of employees.  Or 2) do what the country has done successfully for over 200 years and keep commercial companies secular.

I vote for option 2.

With regards to my charge of hypocrisy because Hobby Lobby's 401k plan invests in companies that make contraceptives to which its owners claim to be morally opposed, Publius writes:
Claim 1: Hobby Lobby is an investor in drug makers that make the drugs they object to
Truth 1: The HL employee 401(k) plan is a separate trust, and is neither owned or controlled by Hobby Lobby.
Claim 2: Hobbly Lobby pays an insurance premium, which only indirectly enables others to make moral choices.
Truth 2: HL is self-insured, so it does not pay insurance premiums. It pays an insurance company a fee to administer the health plan, but all costs are paid by HL. There is not risk pooling, or comingling of funds - the cost of employee medical care comes directly from HL's income.
I must confess that I am not well versed in the subtleties of 401k law.  But this site says:
According to federal law, employers (known as "plan sponsors") are responsible for picking the 401k plan funds.
So HL, if they chose to, could offer only funds that do not invest in birth control companies (surely such funds exist).  That leaves open the possibility that (Publius again):
Hobby Lobby does not seek to control the moral choices of others.
That is not consistent with being Christian.  Seeking to control (at least indirectly) the moral choices of others is part and parcel of Christian doctrine, as Publius himself points out:
Some religions require participation in public life - say, Christianity, which has the Great Commission to go forth and spread the Good News to all nations.
Nonetheless, now that I've looked into it a little further it does seem that the preponderance of the evidence is that the Hobby Lobby folks actually are not trying to foist their beliefs on others.  So I withdraw and apologize for my earlier speculation that they are motivated by money and patriarchy.

I don't withdraw the charge of hypocrisy because, as I said, AFAICT Hobby Lobby could, if it chose to, constrain its 401k to not invest in birth control, but it doesn't.  They could also choose to not self-insure, which would put additional distance between themselves and the sinful behavior of their employees.  Whether or not this would be enough to satisfy them or their god I cannot know, which is exactly the problem.  No one can know that except the owners of Hobby Lobby.  Which is exactly why the best way to insure everyone's religious freedom is to keep it in the church, the home, and perhaps in the town square.  But not in the office.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Wow, LinkedIn as gone seriously evil

I don't know how long LinkedIn has been doing this because I hardly ever use my account, but today I accepted an invitation from someone and was taken to this screen:

It took me a moment to realize that LinkedIn was actually asking me, not for my LinkedIn password, but for my email password.  At the risk of stating what should be obvious, you should NEVER EVER give your email password to ANYONE.  Anyone who has your email password owns you.  They can, if they choose to, reset the password on any other account you have, including your on-line baking and brokerage accounts.

But, you may object, LinkedIn is a reputable company.  They would never do that.  Trying to break in to their customers' bank accounts would be incredibly stupid.  They'd be caught, and that would put them out of business.  And this is true.  But breaking in to your bank accounts is far from the only thing that someone with your email password can do.  They can also (again at the risk of stating the obvious) read your email.  And LinkedIn absolutely will do that.  How do I know?  By looking at the fine print of what they promise not to do: "We will not store your password or email anyone without your permission."  Even if we take them entirely at their word, they have just tacitly admitted that they are going to download everything in your inbox and store that.  In fact, the whole point of getting your email address is so they can download your contacts list, and the most effective way of getting that is to download all your email and see who you've already corresponded with.  And if they should happen to collect some additional data on you along the way that they might be able to sell to some marketing company, well, where's the harm, right?  I mean, those fine folks at LinkedIn need to make a living too, no?

What bothers me about this no so much that they are doing it, but the surreptitious way they are going about it.  If they were up-front about it, "Please give us your email password so we can log in to your account and collect your contacts list" (or, even better, "Please give us your password so we can break in to your account and rummage around in whatever we might happen to find there") that would be fine.  But LinkedIn obviously knows that no one would give them permission to do this if they knew what LinkedIn's real intentions were, so they have to be sneaky.

I'm starting to think that LinkedIn is an intelligence test: anyone who actually uses it has failed.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Divine Right of Business Owners

The fundamental problem with religion is that it is by definition impervious to reason, and hence there can be no hope of reasonable reconciliation of religious disputes.  The best we can accomplish is for people to agree to disagree.  The best way of achieving that is the First Law of Social Harmony: no one should attempt to impose their religious views on others without their consent.  A corollary to the First Law is that government, which is empowered to to use violence to enforce the law, should not attempt to impose any religious views on anyone.  This is the essence of the First Amendment, which until this week made the United States a vibrant, diverse, and religiously peaceful nation.  A violent sectarian struggle of the sort that happens regularly, maybe continuously, in the Middle East would have been unthinkable here.

The other problem with religion is that it is, again by definition, wholly unconstrained by reality.  Want to believe that Mohammed was carried up to heaven by a winged horse?  Or that humans speak different languages because God was afraid that we would build a tower tall enough to reach heaven?  No problem.  No problem, that is, until you decide to no longer adhere to the First Law.  Then it becomes a problem, to wit, that most religious views are, in point of material fact, false.  Sometimes this doesn't matter.  If you want to believe that there's an invisible pink unicorn watching over you that is probably not going to pose an existential threat to civilization.  But believing that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, with all that implies, might.

The Supreme Court has been gutting the First Law of Social Harmony for a while now.  They began when they decided to impose a religious view (or at least a false one) on the people of the United States without their consent, namely, that corporations are people.  Corporations are plainly not people, they are groups of people.  Moreover, they are groups of people organized in a particular way for a particular purpose, namely, in a hierarchical, occasionally feudal, but almost always non-democratic way for the purpose of engaging in commerce.  Corporations are a human invention, a technology, that we built for the purpose of organizing our activities to achieve a purpose.  They are not a part of the natural order of things, and they are plainly not persons.

The Court elaborated on this fiction this week when it decided that corporate non-persons can have religious beliefs which are protected by the First Amendment.  But, of course, in point of fact a corporation cannot have a religious belief because a corporation is not a person.  No corporation ever attended a church.  No corporation has ever been baptized.  No corporation has ever received God's grace.  Corporations do not go to the rainbow bridge when they go out of business.

The Court's hypocrisy is plainly laid out in its own rhetoric: corporate personhood for the purposes of religious protection extends only to closely held corporations.  In this constraint the Court tacitly acknowledges the manifest absurdity of corporations having religious views.  If the group of actual human persons running the corporation is small enough to have identifiable religious views, then that group of people may, under cover of the fiction of corporate personhood, impose their religious beliefs on their employees.  But, of course, that train only runs one way.

As is so often the case, it is hard to tell which is more disturbing: that certain wealthy individuals are being granted the power to impose their beliefs on others, or that this is being done in the name of religious freedom.


There is no sport in finding logical contradictions in religious views, but it really bothers me when religious leaders can't even get their own theology right.  I stumbled across this article written by Rabbi Daniel Brenner, arguing against the Hobby Lobby decision.  But the reasoning is such a mess:
Jewish ethics on contraceptive use are rooted in our earliest religious texts. If you can think back to your earliest childhood encounters with the Book of Genesis, you might recall the first divine command -- Genesis 9:1 -- "be fruitful and multiply!" The rabbinic sages of the fifth and sixth century looked closely at that passage and raised a compelling question, "Was the Holy One speaking only with the 'sons of Noah' or with women and men?" The conclusion of the great rabbis? Only men are commanded to be fruitful and multiply. Later rabbis clarified that being "fruitful" meant that men are obligated to have a male and a female child. The command to have a son and a daughter is a moment of indirect gender equity in a narrative that is often focused on gender difference and strict gender codes based on dress, religious duties, legal witnessing, and a host of other categories. 
The rabbis of the Talmud concluded that men were commanded to have children, so any man who engages in a sexual act with a woman and uses a type of birth control that prevents him from fulfilling this command is, according to the ancient rabbis, going against divine law. (Some contemporary rabbis have allowed and encouraged condom use to prevent disease -- but this is a relatively modern position.) The classic example from the Torah is the story of Onan -- who spills his seed on the floor rather than impregnate his wife. Medieval rabbis explained that his act was an act of vanity -- he was obsessed with his wife's thin body and thought that pregnancy would ruin her. Their comments prove that even 1,500 years ago rabbis were worried about the objectification of women by men. 
Since women are not, according to the rabbis, commanded to have children, then birth control, in some cases, is permitted by divine law.
Here's what the Bible has to say about it:
Ge1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. 
Ge1:28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
I don't see anything in there about the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply" being directed specifically at men.  And here's what the Bible says about Onan:
Ge38:7 And Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him.
Ge38:8 And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. 
Ge38:9 And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. 
Ge38:10 And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.
Again, not a word about "his wife's thin body."  To the contrary, the reason Onan doesn't want to impregnate his wife is because she is not his wife, she is his brother's wife!  The reason Onan needs to impregnate her is because his brother, Er, was killed by God and it is now his duty to impregnate her.

Again, none of this is problematic if it stays between a man and his god.  But when you give business owners the power to impose this kind of insanity on everyone it's a big, big problem.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Can I call 'em or what?

Three years ago I speculated that the true goal of the Republican party was to "pander to those who want to -- why mince words? -- get that f****** n***** out of the White House." I thought I was being at least a little hyperbolic (which is why I used asterisks) and that no one was actually depraved enough to say those words in public without irony.

I was wrong:
[Wolfeboro, New Hampshire police commissioner Robert] Copeland complained loudly in a local restaurant that he’s sick of television, because every time he watches he sees “that fucking n***r,” better known as the president of the United States. When a patron wrote a letter of complaint to the town manager and to all three members of Wolfeboro’s police commission, including Copeland, she got a letter back from Copeland himself: 
“While I believe the problems associated with minorities in this country are momentous, I am not phobic. My use of derogatory slang in reference to those among them undeserving of respect is no secret. It is the exercise of my 1st Amendment rights,” Copeland wrote. “I believe I did use the ‘N’ word in reference to the current occupant of the Whitehouse [sic]. For this I do not apologize – he meets and exceeds my criteria for such.”
I am not rendered speechless very easily, but that did it.

Friday, May 09, 2014

The FCC is (inadvertently) censoring my film

Between 2006 and 2010 I made a feature-length documentary about homeless people in Santa Monica, California.  It was entirely self-funded, and like many independent films, it never made any money.  It is, for the moment, available on iTunes, but it probably won't be for long.  It turns out that the FCC requires that any film ever shown on TV be closed captioned wherever it is shown, even when it is streamed over the internet.

Now, my little film has never been shown on TV, and most likely never will be.  But iTunes doesn't care.  It's too much bureaucratic and legal overhead to parse out which films have and have not been shown on TV, so some time in the very near future any movie that doesn't have closed captions will be pulled from iTunes.  And my film, along with thousands of other obscure titles whose production budgets have long since been exhausted, will be the collateral damage.

It's sad that a regulation meant to help those with disabilities will end up having the effect of censoring thousands of titles, but it's not surprising.  Closed-captioning is not a burden to large corporations with deep pockets, only to small independent filmmakers with tiny (by comparison) production budgets like me.  I have long mourned the slide of the United States into corporatism, but this is the first time I've been so directly affected by it.

It sucks.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Everything that is wrong with American capitalism, in one headline

Here it is, in the LA Times:

"Comcast, Charter reach $20-billion deal, would swap customers in L.A."

Cable companies Comcast Corp. and Charter Communications have agreed to a $20-billion deal that would exchange subscribers in numerous markets, including Los Angeles, should Comcast prevail in its bid to acquire Time Warner Cable.
Nearly 280,000 homes in Los Angeles that currently receive their cable service from Charter would be affected by provisions of the deal unveiled Monday. 
Those Charter subscribers, in such cities as Long Beach, Malibu, Burbank, Glendale and Alhambra, would eventually become Comcast customers -- perhaps as early as next year.
I'm not sure which is the more shocking, the headline (and the associated story) or the completely blasé and matter-of-fact way in which it is being reported.   This is not the way a free market is supposed to work.  At the risk of stating what should be obvious but apparently isn't, in a free market, the customer is supposed to select the supplier, not the other way around.  Suppliers are not supposed to be able to trade customers as if they were a commodity.  And yet, this is the situation we are in.

Not only is this the situation we are in, but we have somehow gotten here with only the feeblest of protests.  This should be an outrageous situation, but there is no outrage.  There is barely any indication that anyone thinks this situation is even remarkable or noteworthy, let alone outrageous.  And that is truly outrageous.

[UPDATE] A number of commenters have made the point that it's not capitalism that's the problem but politics.  I basically agree with this, and perhaps I should have chosen a different headline.  But the point I was trying to make is not so much about the exact nature of the problem but rather that the Charter/Comcast deal -- and, more to the point, people's (lack of) reaction to it -- is illustrative of the problem.

[UPDATE2] Lively discussion on Hacker News

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Evidence that religion is a drug

Five years ago I advanced the hypothesis that religion is essentially a drug that works through the placebo effect.  Today I happened to stumble across a data point to support the theory:

I've been feeling down enough that I considered suicide. But today the reverend said something that got to me "Easter takes you away from despair because you yourself are also resurrected with Jesus". That made me think that if I can now spiritually resurrect myself then I'd much rather do that than take my life, I'm feeling great right now.
Of course, the religion-as-a-drug theory predicts that this feeling of euphoria will wear off and he'll need another hit soon, but I can't think of a way to test that without being cruel.

Happy Easter, everyone.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Opposing gay marriage is no longer an acceptable position

I wrote my first blog post on gay marriage over ten years ago, and I'm proud of having written back then:
There are no tenable grounds for denying equal rights to homosexuals, just as there are no (and never were any) tenable grounds for denying equal rights to blacks. This one is a complete no-brainer. Why does it have to take so long for society to figure these things out?
Today, in the shadow of the debate of Brendan Eich's ouster from Mozilla, it is time to go one step further: opposing equal rights on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity should no longer be an acceptable position in civilized society, just as opposing equal rights for people according to the color of their skin is no longer an acceptable position.  Anyone who opposes gay marriage, or who opposed it in the past and does not repent, doesn't deserve to sit at the grown-up table any more.  Gay marriage is no longer an issue where reasonable people can agree to disagree.

Why now?  Because this year is the tenth anniversary of the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts.  Over the staunch objections of conservatives, we did the experiment, and the results are clear: none of the horrible things that conservatives predicted would happen if gay marriage were legalized have actually happened.  Children have not been "converted" into being gay.  They are not confused over gender roles.  Reproductive rates have not plummeted (alas).  There has not been a dramatic increase in child abuse.  In fact, the most egregious source of systemic child abuse in the last ten years has been the Catholic church, one of the staunchest opponents of gay marriage!

So, enough already.  This is no longer a theoretical debate.  Unless someone can come up with some actual evidence of harm caused by allowing gays to marry (and making bigots feel queasy doesn't count) this debate should be over.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Brendan Eich was not fired for his politics, he was fired for his morals

The difference between conservative hypocrisy and liberal hypocrisy is that conservatives employ hypocrisy in service of their goals, while liberals employ it to undermine theirs.  Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic, in a classic fit of liberal moral relativism, argues that Brendan Eich being fired as CEO of Mozilla for having supported Proposition 8 is a violation of the liberal values of tolerance and acceptance of other people's views.  And it's not just Conor, other self-identified liberals are wringing their hands about this as well.

All of which badly misses the point.  Gay marriage is not like other political issues.  Reasonable people can disagree about economic policy, industrial regulation, campaign finance reform.  Reasonable people cannot disagree about gay marriage.  Every single non-relgious argument ever put forth against gay marriage has been definitively debunked.  Allowing gays to marry does not destroy the fabric of society.  It is not bad for kids.  It does not deter heterosexual people from marrying and forming stable families (or not, as they choose).  It does *none* of these things.  The *only* negative consequence of allowing gays to marry is that it makes bigots feel queasy.

Brendan Eich was not fired for taking a political position, he was fired because his actions provide evidence that in his heart of hearts he is a bigot, that he has a broken moral code.  And while having a broken moral code is not necessarily a show-stopper for being a CEO (alas), it is not an unreasonable qualification for a company to choose to adopt.  There is nothing illiberal or unreasonable about it.  The world would probably be a better place if more companies did it.

But again, this is not really about gay marriage.  This is about liberal self-doubt.  Why is it so hard for liberals to stand up for their convictions?  Even if gay marriage were not so morally cut-and-dried, privately discriminating against Brendan for his political views is at least as morally justified as the public discrimination against gays that he once tried to have enshrined in law.  No matter how you slice it, there is no injustice here.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

The Supreme Court just killed American democracy

Imagine we play the following game: we each take out our wallets and place a stake on the table.  Whoever places the larger bet wins, and gets the whole pot plus half of whatever remains in the loser's wallet.  No cards, no dice, just strategy.  Would you play?  Would you play against David and Charles Koch?

In the aftermath of the latest Supreme Court decision you will have no choice.  Actually, you haven't had a choice but to play this game for a very long time now, ever since the Court gutted soft-money campaign contribution limits in the Citizens United decision.  The game is politics, and since Citizens United, politicians have been for sale to the highest bidder.  (The corruption is shockingly brazen.  I write checks that are big enough to get myself invited to personal meetings with senators and congressmen on a fairly regular basis.  These invitations literally come with price lists attached.  It's like ordering off a (very expensive) restaurant menu.)

But Citizens United still left in place an overall limit on direct contributions somewhere north of $100,000.  That is a substantial amount of money to be sure, but not entirely out of reach of small (100-1000 people) groups who really felt passionately about some issue or other.  (Such groups are sometimes pejoratively known as "special interest groups".  Note to Mitt Romney: special interest groups are people, my friend.)  This meant that non-billionaires, if they worked together, still had a shot at winning the political poker game that Citizens United has forced us all to play.

The latest decision, McCutcheon vs. FEC, removes the house limit on the stakes in the political poker game.  This magnifies the political power of those at the very top of the economic ladder, and accelerates the transformation of the united states into a fully fledged plutocracy.

Here's the really scary thing about the political poker game: to win the game, the super-wealthy don't actually have to write these enormous checks.  All they have to do to have undue influence over a politician is to make a credible threat to write an enormous check to their opponent in the next election.  Before McCutcheon, the law limited the magnitude of that threat.  Now that limit is gone.

As a result of McCutcheon, democracy is now fully dead in the United States of America, even though the show will go on for quite a while.  There will be campaigns, and there will be elections, and there will be lip service given to the will of the people.  But American politicians will henceforth have no choice but to do the bidding of the super-rich.  That will be the only way to keep their jobs.

UPDATE: Senator Bernie Sanders has proposed a Constitutional amendment to fix this problem.  I urge you to contact your senators and representatives and urge them to support this amendment.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Divine Right of Billionaires

When I was a young geek growing up in the back woods of Tennessee, Northern California seemed like the promised land.  It had everything: Beaches.  Redwoods.  Venture capitalists.  What made Silicon Valley more attractive than, say, Wall Street or Hollywood, was that the people who inhabited the place seemed more genuine.  New York is full of Gordon Gekko's trying to one-up each other in finding ways to game the system.  Los Angeles is full of actors who, by definition, try to make a living by pretending to be anyone other than themselves.  But Silicon Valley was just full of cool people who built cool shit and got fabulously wealthy as a result.

So I was dismayed to learn that one of the icons of Silicon Valley, Tom Perkins, co-founder of the legendary VC firm Kleiner-Perkins Caulfield and Byers, was -- how shall I put this? -- saying some things that did not fit with my vision of the Silicon Valley ethos.  His most recent rise to prominence began when he wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal in which he compared the currently fashionable vilification of the "one percent" to the Nazi atrocities against the Jews:
...I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its "one percent," namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the "rich."
From the Occupy movement to the demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent. There is outraged public reaction to the Google buses carrying technology workers from the city to the peninsula high-tech companies which employ them. We have outrage over the rising real-estate prices which these "techno geeks" can pay. We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel, alleging that she is a "snob" despite the millions she has spent on our city's homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.
This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant "progressive" radicalism unthinkable now?
This was met with understandable condemnation from all corners, and he eventually expressed some regret for using Kristallnacht as a metaphor.  But then he doubled down on the underlying theme in an hour-long interview  [transcript] at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club:
[Quoting Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse]: "[T]here is something to be said for his comparison of the politics at work in the two situations... Are you unemployed? The Jews have your jobs. Is your family mired in poverty? The Rothchilds have your money." ... I think the parallel holds. The typical German had never met a Jew, but some of the Jews were extremely wealthy. They owned the large department stores, and so forth and so forth. They were very prominent. I think it's a very good parallel and it holds.
The interview culminated with Perkins suggesting, with no hint of irony that I could discern, that we should abandon the democratic principle of one-person-one-vote in favor of one dollar one vote.

Now, you might be tempted (as I was) to say that this proposal doesn't even deserve the dignity of a response, that it is so outrageous that even taking it seriously enough to debunk it gives Perkins more credit than he deserves.  I think this is dangerous complacency.  His idea has garnered a lot of attention, not all of it negative, and the sad fact of the matter is that in the world we live in, all manner of crazy ideas require debunking.  So let us suspend disbelief for a moment and take Perkins at face value and assess the merits of his proposal on his own terms.

The core of Perkins's argument (as best I can make it out) is that the rich contribute more to society, and are therefore either more entitled or more able (or both) to decide how society is to be run.
I don't think anybody has any idea what the one percent is actually contributing to America. ... I'd like to take the Koch brothers. There are three of them. I know one of them, Bill, who has nothing to do with the other two that are highly political. They're all big contributors to charities and so forth. David Koch was on the board of New York Presbyterian Hospital. The hospital was going bankrupt, so David gave $100 million to the hospital.
So rich people give a lot of money to charity (but not as much as Tom Perkins would like to think).  And then:
The top one percent of taxpayers pays a greater share of the income tax burden than the bottom 90 percent combined, which totals more than 120 million taxpayers. In 2010, the top one percent of taxpayers, which totals roughly 1.4 million taxpayers, paid about 37 percent of all income taxes. This is a big jump from 1985, when the top one percent paid a quarter of all income taxes. Indeed, the income tax burden on the bottom 90 percent has dropped. The bottom 50 percent pays only 2.4 percent of the total taxes. The top 10 percent of taxpayers, the top 10 percent, pays 70.6 percent.
And that's it.  That is the sum total of his argument: The 1% give to charity, and pay a lot in taxes.  The tax burden on the 1% seems particularly to bother him.  He brings it up again and again:
I think that taxation, I wouldn't say it's a form of persecution, but the extreme progressivity of the tax rate is a form of persecution. 
[G]overnment is a giant beast that has to be fed and the only way to feed it is with taxes. Taxes will just go up, and up, and up.
Inevitably, the taxes will just rise, and rise, and rise, which I don't think does anybody any good, 99 percent, or 1 percent or whatever. 
I voted for Jerry Brown, which then he raised my taxes 30 percent. 
The fear is wealth tax, higher taxes, higher death taxes, just more taxes, until there is no more one percent.
There's more, but you get the idea.  So what, specifically, is the problem?
Let's just start with simple arithmetic. Let's say you're a successful author. Your income is taxed at a little over 50 percent if you live in California. On your death will be another roughly 50 percent tax. Out of the dollar you originally made, you kept 25 percent, 25 cents. You gave 75 percent of your lifetime's work in the form of taxes, not including property and other taxes.
My goodness, those poor rich people. It's amazing they have two nickels to rub together after all those taxes. But Perkins leaves out two very important facts:

1. Most rich people don't make their money from ordinary income.  Most of them (and Tom Perkins in particular) make their money from investments, and investments (at least long-term capital gains) are not taxed at 50%, they are taxed at 15%.  [UPDATE: Thanks to Wesley Darlington for pointing out that with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts in 2013 the top capital gains rate is now 20% rather than 15.  And if you live in California you pay 11% income tax on top of that.  But that still adds up to a lot less than 50%.  And anyone who finds the 11% California state income tax too burdensome is free to move to, say, Alaska, where the rate is only 7%.]

2.  The estate tax, obviously, doesn't kick in until after you die.  So it is not you who gives "75 percent of your lifetime's work in the form of taxes", you only give (at most) 50% (and if you're Tom Perkins its almost certainly less than 30%).  Your heirs give the rest.  (And the estate tax is not 50% either, but let's not quibble over details.)

Why does this matter?  Because Perkins believes that:
Silicon Valley is a meritocracy. It is simply a meritocracy.
And for the most part, he's right, which is one of the things that makes Silicon Valley such a great place to be.  But if Perkins has his way, Silicon Valley, along with the rest of the country, would cease to be a meritocracy and become instead a nation of dynastic wealth passed on from one generation to the next.

This is still a defensible position.  Passing wealth to your children is an old and venerable tradition in human civilization.  But this begins to undermine Perkins's position that the rich deserve a greater say in how society is run because they contribute more.  In a world of inherited wealth, the rich are not contributors, they are, more and more as time goes by, the descendants of contributors.

Aside from high taxes, Perkins has another theory about what is wrong with the U.S.:
Fifty years ago, Lyndon Johnson did two major things. He did the Civil Rights Act, which is marvelous, magnificent, and I think without criticism. He also did the war on poverty, which had wonderful aspirations, but which has been an absolute and total failure. It has caused all kinds of problems.
What kinds of problems?
First of all, there's more poverty more now than there ever has been.
Well, no, that's not true.  The poverty rate today is about 15%, which is considerably lower than it was in 1959 (21%).  At worst, the war on poverty has been a no-op.  The poverty rate today is a little lower than it was back when the Economic Opportunity Act was initiated, but not by much.

But Perkins, who cannot be bothered to look up even the most basic facts, is absolutely convinced that the EOA is the root of all evil.  Like taxes, he brings it up repeatedly:
There's 77 million Americans on food stamps. I think the biggest problem that Johnson unknowingly created was the destruction of the lower end of families in America. 
I'm drawing a straight line between the failed war on poverty and the increase of poverty, yes.
I think Johnson had absolutely no idea that what he was doing was wrong. It looked good and everybody approved it, but it had the result of destroying families. It just did. Then that destroyed the education of the children in those families and so forth, so it had a cascading effect. 
The rate of poverty is higher now than it ever has been in history. There are 77 million Americans on food stamps.
Finally, someone in the audience asked Perkins the obvious question:
Audience member: You cited Johnson's war on poverty as a disaster that led to more poverty and increased the number of children born out of wedlock. What should have been done back then that would have had a different outcome? 
Perkins: I think the answer to that is very, very long, and I'm not sure I have all those answers. We certainly did the wrong thing. What the right thing would have been, I'm not so sure.
Again, it's perfectly defensible not to want to second-guess Lyndon Johnson, but it is just a wee bit hypocritical to abdicate the responsibility to say what you would do differently in the same interview where you argue that you should be given a greater say in future policy decisions.

Towards the end of the interview Perkins runs completely off the rails. Having already argued that 1) taxes are too high, 2) the deficit is one of our most serious problems and that therefore 3) entitlements must be cut, he then goes on to say, "I think Medicare is great. Great. ... It's just underfunded."

Medicare is, of course, the single biggest entitlement program in the U.S. budget.  And according to Perkins it is underfunded.

So it is in the context of this completely incoherent set of positions that Perkins advocates handing even more control of our nation's affairs to people like him.

There was once a widespread political theory known as the divine right of kings which held that a monarch's right to rule came directly from God.  Today Tom Perkins, and others on the political right, seem to be advancing the divine right of billionaires.  On the merits, both theories deserve equal respect.

Nonetheless, there is an important lesson to be learned here:

When I was working on my Ph.D. one of my advisors told me that it's often instructive to examine incorrect arguments, especially when those arguments are advanced by smart people.  And make no mistake, Tom Perkins is no idiot.  He is a self-made man.  You don't get to where he got by being stupid.

So what's really behind this self-immolation?  Well, here are some clues.  Recall this example from Perkins's original letter to the Wall Street Journal:
We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel, alleging that she is a "snob" despite the millions she has spent on our city's homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.
Seems a bit odd, doesn't it?  Amongst demonstrations in the streets and people blockading Google busses that he should complain about the San Francisco Chronicle calling a novelist a snob?

Perkins explains in the interview:
[My] frustrations had been building up for a long time about what I see as the demonization of the rich. It was a particularly nasty attack [emphasis added] on my ex-wife, which triggered my response.
 And what was the nature of this "nasty attack", beyond calling her a snob?
Among one of the attacks is she's number-one bestseller usually on every book. "New York Times," number one. Obviously, her books are being read in San Francisco, but they're never reported in the "Chronicle," ever. Anyway, that is what started it all.

So, by his own admission, Perkins is acting on a vendetta against the San Francisco Chronicle because they don't review his ex-wife's books.

But the lesson here is not that Tom Perkins is a jerk.  The lesson here is that Tom Perkins is a human being.  He may have been a very good venture capitalist.  That doesn't necessarily make him a good politician.

The reason democracy works is that it provides the best system of checks and balances to prevent any one person's foibles from being amplified too much.  This is important because we all have our foibles, even rich people.

Tom Perkins is right about one thing, and that is that there is a legitimate lesson to be drawn from the experience of the 1930s that is applicable to today's world: a mechanism that prevents any one person -- or small group of people -- from amassing too much power should not be abandoned lightly.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Kansas legalizes discrimination against interracial couples

The state of Kansas is about to pass a law that will legalize discrimination against interracial couples:

[T]he new law will allow any individual, group, or private business to refuse to serve interracial couples if “it would be contrary to their sincerely held religious beliefs.” Private employers can continue to fire black employees with white spouses on account of their skin color. Stores may deny interracial couples goods and services because they are married to someone with different skin color. Hotels can eject interracial couples or deny them entry in the first place. Businesses that provide public accommodations—movie theaters, restaurants—can turn away interracial couples at the door. And if an interracial couple sues for discrimination, they won’t just lose; they’ll be forced to pay their opponent’s attorney’s fees.
Oh, sorry, my mistake: it's not interracial couples that the law allows people to discriminate against, it's gay couples.  I guess that makes it OK.

[UPDATE] The bill has been killed, but not before it passed in the Kansas House of Representatives.

[UPDATE2] Now Arizona seem to have picked up the ball that Kansas dropped.

And as long as I'm writing an update, here's an interesting theory: the whole thing (at least the Kansas version) may have been a cynical political maneuver by Kansas's governor to gain an edge in the coming election.