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?

No.

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.

Postscript:

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.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Does it matter if the sum of all integers is -1/12?

In response to yesterday's post about the sum of all integers being -1/12 (or not), John Rimmer posted this comment:
"A grave disservice to numerical literacy" Good grief, do you think you could sound any more absurdly pompous if you tried? Most people's numerical literacy doesn't extend past high school mathematics, and doesn't need to. They certainly won't be harmed by having a confused understanding of infinite series. Given the amount of debate this video has generated, I'm not convinced mathematicians themselves understand infinite series.
Prompted by this comment I looked up the definition of "pompous". It means "affectedly and irritatingly grand, solemn, or self-important." But I stand by both the spirit and the letter of my original statement. I think the stakes are much higher than most people appreciate. In my opinion, this is not just a trivial geek quibble over math. This is a symptom of the general decline of critical thinking in our society.

Phil Plait, the Slate correspondent who wrote the original article that I was complaining about, posted a followup today.  It's not bad, but I still take issue with this bit:
The method used in the video to write out some series and manipulate them algebraically is actually not a great way to figure this problem out. It uses a trick that’s against the rules, so strictly speaking it doesn’t work. It’s a nice demo to show some fun things, but its utility is questionable at best.
Saying that "its utility is questionable at best" implies that manipulating non-convergent infinite series by standard algebraic rules might have some utility.  It doesn't.  It's simply wrong, full stop.  The reason that it's wrong is that it is inconsistent.  It leads to contradictory results, and from a contradiction you can conclude anything.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the whole point of reasoning is to distinguish true statements from false ones (relative to some set of assumptions of course).  But once you admit a contradiction into your thinking you can no longer make such a distinction (because you can prove anything).  Contradictions are much, much worse than simply being "of questionable utility."  They poison everything.

My real issue with the video, and Phil Plait's original uncritical endorsement, is that it endorses, and hence encourages people to accept, unsound reasoning.  The fact that the unsound reasoning in this particular case led to a conclusion that superficially resembles a conclusion that can also be arrived at by sound reasoning just makes it that much worse.  It encourages people to think: because this mode of reasoning led to a "correct" conclusion in that case, then it will probably lead to correct conclusions in other cases.

If the problem were confined to mathematics I might not make such a big deal out of it, but it's not.  The problem of people uncritically accepting conclusions drawn by unsound methods of reasoning pervades our society and causes real damage.  The best current examples are climate-change denialism and creationism, but there are many, many others.  (An example from the left side of the political spectrum: guns are bad, therefore the second amendment doesn't mean what it says.)

The real problem, as I see it, is that people put a lot more stock into the question of whether something is true than why it is true.  It doesn't so much matter that the sum of all the integers is -1/12 .  What matters is that it is possible to define the concept of an analytic continuation of a function, and under this definition (which does not lead to contradictions), the sum of all the integers is -1/12.

It is important to understand this sort of thing even if you don't understand what an analytic continuation is because it helps you detect bullshit.  Digging down through an argument to find the basic assumptions on which that argument rests is a crucial skill in today's society.  Without that skill you are an open invitation to demagoguery and flim-flammery, and it can cost you and your family dearly.

So, John Rimmer, if you don't think that concern is warranted about doing "a grave disservice to numerical literacy" I say you have not appreciated the gravity of the situation.

Friday, January 17, 2014

No, the sum of all the positive integers is not -1/12

I haven't been blogging recently because my new startup is taking up all my time, but someone needs to stand up and say the emperor has no clothes so it might as well be me.  About a week ago, two British mathematicians named Tony Padilla and Ed Copeland, who produce a video blog called Numberphile, posted a video that purports to prove that the sum of all the positive integers is -1/12.  It was making the usual geek rounds where I would have been content to let it circulate, but today the story was picked up by a naive and credulous reporter at Slate, where the story stands to do some real damage if not challenged.

(Aside for mathematicians: yes, I am aware that the claim is true under Ramanujan summation.  That is not the point.)

Let me start by recapping the argument.  Finding the flaw in the reasoning makes a nice puzzle:

Step 1: Let S1 = 1 - 1 + 1 - 1 ...

Then S1 + S1 = (1 - 1 + 1 - 1 ...) + (1 - 1 + 1 - 1 ...)

 = (1 - 1 + 1 - 1 ...) +
   (0 + 1 - 1 + 1 - 1 ...)

 = (1 + 0) + (1 - 1) + (1 - 1) ....

 = 1 + 0 + 0 ... = 1

So 2xS1 = 1.  So S1 must equal 1/2.

Step 2: Let S2 = 1 - 2 + 3 - 4 + 5 ...

So S2 + S2 = (1 - 2 + 3 - 4 + 5 ...) + (1 - 2 + 3 - 4 + 5 ...)

 = (1 - 2 + 3 - 4 + 5 ...) +
   (0 + 1 - 2 + 3 - 4 + 5 ...)

 = (1 + 0) + (1 - 2) + (3 - 2) + (3 - 4) + (5 - 4) + ...
 = 1 - 1 + 1 - 1 + 1...
 = S1 = 1/2

So S2=1/4.

Step 3: Let S = 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 ...

So S - S2 = (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 ...) - (1 - 2 + 3 - 4 + 5 ...)

 = (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 ...) -
   (1 - 2 + 3 - 4 + 5 ...)

 = (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 ...) +
  (-1 + 2 - 3 + 4 - 5 ...)

 =  0 + 4 + 0 + 8 + 0 + ...

 = 4 x (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 ...)

 = 4S

So S - S2 = 4S.  But S2 = 1/4.  So:

S - 1/4 = 4S
3S = -1/4
S = -1/12

Seems like an ironclad argument, doesn't it?  Like I said, finding the flaw in the reasoning (and there most assuredly is one) makes an interesting puzzle.  Here's a clue:

Let S3 = 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 ...

So S3 - S3 = (1 + 1 + 1 + 1 ...) - (1 + 1 + 1 + 1 ...)
 = (1 + 1 + 1 + 1 ...) - (0 + 1 + 1 + 1 ...)
 = (1 - 0) + (1 - 1) + (1 - 1) + ...
 = 1 + 0 + 0 + 0 ...
 = 1

But S3 - S3 must also equal 0, so we have just proven that 0=1.

The flaw in both cases is the same: the algebraic rules that apply to regular numbers do not apply to infinity.  Actually, it's more general than that: the algebraic rules that apply to regular numbers do not apply to non-converging infinite sums.  All of the sums above are non-converging infinite sums, so regular algebraic rules do not apply.  It is no different from using regular algebra when dividing by zero.  It doesn't work.

Now, there are ways to define the sums of non-converging infinite series so that they do not lead to contradictions.  The one that leads legitimately to the conclusion that 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 ... = -1/12 is called Ramanujan summation, which in turn is based on something called an analytic continuation.  But the problem is that the Numberphile video makes no mention of this.  They present the result as if it is legitimately derivable using high school algebra, and it isn't.  Telling people that it is does a grave disservice to the cause of numerical literacy.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The coolest thing ever

Saturn.  From above.


If this doesn't blow your mind, nothing will:
[N]ote how you can faintly see the dark side of Saturn, to the left. The clouds on that side of the planet are not being lit by the Sun, but by the reflected light from the rings themselves! In the same way our own Moon can be bright enough to read by, Saturn's rings illuminate its night. Imagine: Saturn, by ringshine.
Go check out the high-resolution original.

Friday, October 04, 2013

More from the hypocrisy files

The Ramblings have been quiet lately because I'm working on a new startup which is taking up most of my time nowadays.  But I could not let the time pass without noting that Republican hypocrisy is in full flower during the government shutdown.  My three favorite examples:

North Carolina Republican Congresswoman Renee Elmers said in an interview with a local ABC television affiliate,  "I need my paycheck. That is the bottom line."

Texas Republican Congressman Randy Neugebauer told a U.S. National Park ranger that "The Park Service should be ashamed of themselves" -- not for violating the law and allowing World War II veterans into the nominally closed World War II Memorial, but for obeying the law and keeping everyone else out.

And my absolute favorite: Indiana Republican Congressman Marlin Stutzman, in a mind-boggling display of candor, said, "We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”  [Emphasis added.]

So the Republican position is, essentially, this: notwithstanding that Obamacare is the law of the land, duly passed by Congress, signed by the president, and ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court, the provision of health insurance to the people presents such a clear and present danger to the United States of America that it must be stopped by any means necessary.  We cannot even afford to wait for the next election to roll back this law, it has to be done right now.  They don't have the votes to repeal the law through the normal democratic process, so the only option they have at their disposal is to use their power to obstruct in order to inflict as much economic pain as possible on as many innocent people as possible for as long as possible in the hopes that the majority will capitulate to their demands.

However, Republicans are not going to share in the sacrifice.  Oh no.  While they are willing to make you go without your paycheck, Renee Chalmers isn't willing to go without hers because, well, she needs it.  The lack of empathy is staggering, bordering on sociopathy.

More than that, they are not even willing to stand up proudly and take credit for fighting the good fight.  Marlin Stutzman tries to fob off responsibility for the pain he is causing onto a park ranger for crying out loud!  (One has to wonder if he would have been so brazen about it if the ranger had been a man instead of a woman.)  No, they are slinking into the shadows and trying to blame the democrats, the park service, anyone except themselves.

And then, to top it off, they actually admit that they are wrong, that they know they're wrong, and that they've lost/  But they are going to keep tightening the screws anyway until they are allowed to salvage something from the train wreck they have caused.  What do they want to salvage?  They don't even know!  But it has to be something.

Finally, let us not lose sight of what this fight is about: it's about health care.  And it's about conducting an experiment.  The Republicans are desperate, not just to repeal Obamacare, but to repeal it right now, before the next election, before it has had a chance to go into effect.  Why the urgency?  Can fifteen months of Obamacare really cause that much more damage to the country than a government shutdown or (shudder) a debt default (because that fight is heading down the pike)?

Of course not.  The Republican nightmare scenario is not that Obamacare will fail, but that it will succeed, that people will realize that they like having affordable health insurance that can't be denied because of pre-existing conditions, that they like not having to worry about going bankrupt because of an unexpected medical contingency, like the rest of the civilized world.

So the bottom line is that Republicans are using their power to inflict as much pain as they can on innocent civilians in order to stop a law that even they think will probably make people's lives better.  Other than the fact that the pain is inflicted through laws rather than with guns and bombs, I don't see much to distinguish what the Republicans are doing from garden-variety terrorism.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Ooh, this is not good

The CSM is reporting that Russian warships are sailing toward Syria.

This could easily become a replay of the Cuban missile crisis, except this time we are the ones on the Russian's back door.  I wonder if either Obama or Kerry has a contingency plan for dislodging Putin from the moral high ground of preventing an unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation  by an imperialistic superpower.  Given how badly they have botched this game of geopolitical chess so far, I'd give long odds against.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Well, of course if you build a parabolic reflector in the middle of town it's going to cause problems

A new building in downtown London has a concave mirrored surface as one of its sides.  Predictably, it is causing problems:
A British property developer said Tuesday it was investigating after sun rays reflected from its half-finished London skyscraper melted parts of several cars, including a luxury Jaguar. ... Local businessman Martin Lindsay said he was distraught when he returned to his parked Jaguar XJ near the glassy tower in London's financial district to find the car's panels had warped along one side, while the wing mirror and Jaguar emblem on the front of the car had melted. ... He "could not believe" the extent of the damage...
But this bit really made me laugh:
The developers said the phenomenon was caused by "the current elevation of the sun in the sky", and that as Britain heads into autumn the problem should disappear.
These guys really should have paid more attention in high school physics class.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The worst possible reason to bomb Syria

Although I strongly oppose initiating any kind of military action against Syria, I do concede that there is an argument to be made for it.  But this ain't it:
A failure to take action over Syria's use of chemical weapons would damage the credibility America's pledge to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress on Tuesday. 
"A refusal to act would undermine the credibility of America's other security commitments - including the president's commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon," Hagel told a Senate hearing, according to prepared remarks. 
"The word of the United States must mean something."
Here's the thing: the United States never committed to any action in Syria.  The president of the United States shot his mouth off in an ill-considered comment that he clearly did not think through.  But the president of the United States is not the same thing as the United States.  Equating a nation with its chief executive is the very definition of a dictatorship, and the United States is not (yet) a dictatorship.

As long as I'm on this topic, have you noticed how Obama takes great pains never to accuse Assad of violating international law, only international "norms"?  This is because Obama knows that as long as Assad has Putin in his corner the U.N. will never approve military action against Syria.  So Obama is hanging his hat on the international "norms" peg precisely because it's not a well defined term, and so Obama can apply Humpty Dumpty's theory of semantics and make the word mean whatever he wants.  (You know, bombing sovereign nations that have not aggressed against you and pose no security risk to you is also arguably a violation of international "norms.")

But this leaves Obama with a very serious problem: our allies have (wisely IMO) abandoned him. The U.N. is paralyzed by Russia, so his only remaining option is unilateral action.  But think about this: if he orders an attack on a sovereign nation for no reason other than that its leader violated international norms (whatever that might mean), what exactly remains to distinguish Barack Obama from Osama bin Laden, other than that Obama has a better PR department and a bigger arsenal?  Here's the thing everyone tends to forget about the so-called "terrorists": they don't think of themselves as the bad guys.  They think they're fighting the good fight just as much as we do (maybe more).  The only claim we have to any moral high ground in this conflict is that we adhere to the rule of law and they don't.  If Obama bombs Syria on his own initiative, not because Assad broke the law but merely because he violated norms, then Obama alone will have to bear the terrible consequences of that decision.  And I think that in his heart of hearts Obama knows that he has screwed the pooch, and he's not willing to go further out on this limb by himself.

I think this is the reason he decided to go to Congress, to provide himself with butt cover.  He wants to be able to share the blame in case this thing goes south (which is not at all unlikely -- we have an exceptionally poor track record when we try to meddle in the Middle East).  And he doesn't want to go down in history as the man who cut down the last law to go after the devil.  Not even George Bush ever went that far.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Against war (again)

Last Thursday I labeled Obama and Biden hypocrites for threatening war against Syria without Congressional approval, which they had both opposed when they were senators.  Yessterday, Obama announced that he is planning to seek Congressional approval, so for the  moment I withdraw my charge of hypocrisy (at least with regards to Syria -- the NSA thing is another matter).  The reason my withdrawal is tentative is that it remains to be seen what Obama will do if Congress turns him down, which seems likely given the fact that the Republicans control the House, and popular opinion seems to be running strongly against entering yet another war in the Middle East.

It probably goes without saying, particularly for anyone who reads my blog regularly, that I oppose bombing Syria. just as I opposed invading Iraq back in 2003, and for the same reason.  The parallels between then and now are truly extraordinary.  The rhetoric is almost exactly the same, only the names have changed.  Instead of Secretary of State Colin Powell saying we need to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein gassed his own people we now have Secretary of State John Kerry saying we need to bomb Syria because Bashar al Assad gassed his own people.  Because everyone seems to be once again reading from the same script, I'll follow suit and quote what I wrote back in 2003:
Yes, Saddam Hussein is an evil man. Yes, the world will be better off without him. But Saddam is hardly unique in this regard, and solving this problem by starting a war sets a horrible precedent. What is to stop any country from launching a war against anyone that they judge to be evil?
Indeed, the horrible precedent has been set.  Someone in the world does something evil (and make no mistake, launching a Sarin attack is evil), so the U.S. bombs them.  And I get it: it's really hard to watch innocent civilians suffer while you stand by and do nothing, particularly if you like to fancy yourself as the Good Guys.  So we have to do something, but we don't have the stomach (and maybe not even the ability) to put boots on the ground.  So we send in the drones and the cruise missiles instead, because that's clean and easy (though a tad pricey) and we don't get American kids coming home in body bags.

But here's the problem: in a situation like this, cruise missiles and drones won't do any good.  Whatever infrastructure we manage to destroy, they will simply rebuild with the help of their Russian sponsors, and then we'll be right back where we started, except that we will once again have set the precedent that, when the chips are down, the world is not governed by the rule of law but by the rule of power.  It's OK for us to bomb Syria -- but, of course, not OK for Syria to return the favor -- because, well, because we can.

So we bomb Syria, and they rebuild.  Then what, Mr. President?  Then what?

Friday, August 30, 2013

I want one!

An outfit called Liberty Maniacs designed a brilliant T-shirt:



But the NSA says I can't have one.  Apparently, the folks at the NSA haven't read the First Amendment either.  (It's quite clear they never read the Fourth.)

The NSA issued this statement:
The NSA seal is protected by Public Law 86-36, which states that it is not permitted for “…any person to use the initials ‘NSA,’ the words ‘National Security Agency’ and the NSA seal without first acquiring written permission from the Director of NSA.”
Well, no, that is not actually what Public Law 86-36 says.  Here's what it does say:
Sec. 15. (a) No person may, except with the written permission of the Director of the National Security Agency, knowingly use the words 'National Security Agency', the initials 'NSA', the seal of the National Security Agency, or any colorable imitation of such words, initials, or seal in connection with any merchandise, impersonation, solicitation, or commercial activity in a manner reasonably calculated to convey the impression that such use is approved, endorsed, or authorized by the National Security Agency.  [Emphasis added.]
That this T-shirt was not approved, endorsed, or authorized by the NSA could not possibly be any clearer, so the NSA's efforts to censor this T-shirt constitute bald-faced intimidation in an effort to muzzle political dissent.  A clearer violation of the First Amendment is hard to imagine.

Seriously, NSA, fuck you.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Obama and Biden's hypocrisy comes full circle

When they were senators, both of them took the position that the president does not have the Constitutional authority to wage war without the consent of Congress.  Biden even went so far as to say it was an impeachable offense.  And so political hypocrisy will truly come full-circle if Obama bombs Syria without Congressional authority.  At that point there will not remain a single substantive policy distinction between Obama and George W. Bush.  OK, Obama is a little less hostile to reproductive rights.  But seriously, is there anything else?  In terms of rhetoric, I really can't tell them apart any more.  The Obama administration is literally reading from the same script.  "We have to bomb Saddam/Assad because he gassed his own people."  Ye gods, the two names are almost anagrams of each other!

You know, if Obama really does bomb Syria without Congressional authorization, I hope they do impeach him, not so much because I want to see him impeached, but because I want to see if watching Republicans impeach Obama for doing what George Bush did is enough to finally get the American people angry about the stampeding bald-faced hypocrisy on both sides of the aisle.  I'll give long odds against.  Either way, it will be fun to watch.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

CNN is paid by foreign and domestic Government agencies for specific content

Not that this should come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention, but it turns out that CNN takes money from the government in exchange for editorial control of content.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Everything you need to know about the hyperloop in 25 words or less

It won't work.

The reason it won't work is that the tube has to be 1) straight (so that a capsule can move through it safely at 700 miles per hour) 2) sealed (so that a partial vacuum can be maintained) and 3) hundreds of miles long (so that you can travel useful distances).  A tube that is is straight, sealed, and hundreds of miles long will undergo thermal expansion that will amount to hundreds of feet of movement at either end.  Until and unless this problem is solved, the hyperloop won't fly.  (This is far from the only show-stopper, but it's the easiest one to explain.)

If you aren't outraged by now you have not been paying attention

Glenn Greenwald's partner was detained by British authorities for nine hours today.
[A]ny journalist passing through London’s Heathrow has now been warned: do not take any documents with you. Britain is now a police state when it comes to journalists, just like Russia is.
Good coverage over at Slate too, with this hopeful quote from Greenwald:
They obviously had zero suspicion that David was associated with a terrorist organization or involved in any terrorist plot. Instead, they spent their time interrogating him about the NSA reporting which Laura Poitras, the Guardian and I are doing, as well the content of the electronic products he was carrying. They completely abused their own terrorism law for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism: a potent reminder of how often governments lie when they claim that they need powers to stop "the terrorists", and how dangerous it is to vest unchecked power with political officials in its name. 
This is obviously a rather profound escalation of their attacks on the news-gathering process and journalism. It's bad enough to prosecute and imprison sources. It's worse still to imprison journalists who report the truth. But to start detaining the family members and loved ones of journalists is simply despotic. Even the Mafia had ethical rules against targeting the family members of people they feel threatened by. But the UK puppets and their owners in the US national security state obviously are unconstrained by even those minimal scruples. 
If the UK and US governments believe that tactics like this are going to deter or intimidate us in any way from continuing to report aggressively on what these documents reveal, they are beyond deluded. If anything, it will have only the opposite effect: to embolden us even further.
Or, of course, you can go straight to the source (so to speak).

Thank God for Glenn Greenwald.  If the dream of freedom dies in my lifetime (and I very much fear that it might) it won't be for want of Glenn's efforts.


Saturday, August 17, 2013

Dropping like flies

There was another high-profile jet crash last week, a UPS cargo plane this time, flown by American (or at least non-Korean) pilots.  Details are very sketchy (no civilian casualties means light news coverage in today's world) but superficially the crash looks an awful lot like Asiana 214.  Both planes crashed short of the runway with (apparently) no mechanical problems.  Both times pilots received warnings of impending doom seconds before the crash.

Nonetheless, I contend (tentatively, subject to new information coming to light of course) that the crashes are not comparable.  The Asiana crash happened under ideal conditions: a visual approach in perfect weather to a nice long runway.  The Birmingham crash, by contrast, happened (apparently) in bad weather in the dark.  I say "apparently" because the reporting on this crash has been absolutely abysmal.  Whoever is writing these stories clearly doesn't have the first clue about flying.  For example, here's an excerpt from the Christian Science Monitor (normally a very good source of news):
... a combination of weather (low clouds and raining), time of day (before dawn), and a tricky visual approach [emphasis added] over hills to the airport’s shorter runway because the much longer, more familiar runway – the one that provided glide slope as well as direction information to approaching pilots – was closed for maintenance.
A visual approach by definition is one where you can see the runway.  If there were low clouds and rain then the pilots were not doing a visual approach.

Here's another example, from ABC News:
National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt ... said the aircraft went down during its first landing attempt. Sumwalt said investigators have not found any problems with the runway's lights or navigation system, which typically provides pilots with information about their lateral position but not about their altitude, unlike those on runways where pilots can land using only instruments [emphasis added].
This reporter is confused in so many ways it's hard to know where to begin to deconstruct this.  What the reporter (almost certainly) meant to say was that the UPS plane was landing on a runway that only had a so-called non-precision instrument approach procedure, which provides no vertical guidance.  But not having vertical guidance provided as part of the approach procedure is not even remotely the same thing as not having information about the plane's altitude.  Pilots always know their altitude, at least if they're doing their job right.  The difference is that in a non-precision approach the pilot has to manually cross-reference the plane's location against the chart to figure out at what altitude the plane should be, whereas in a precision approach there's a little needle on the panel constantly telling you whether you are too high or too low.

No matter what kind of approach you are flying, at some point you must be able to see the runway in order to land (with one very rare exception called a Category III ILS, which was not available at Birmingham on any runway).  The difference between a precision and non-precision approach is not that one lets you land using only instruments, but simply that a precision approach lets you descend lower before you have to either be able to see the runway or abort the approach.

Non-precision approaches are harder to fly.  On a precision approach you just "fly the needle" (or have the autopilot do it for you).  On a non-precision approach you must constantly cross-reference your position against a chart, and manually control the plane's altitude so that it is close to -- but never lower than -- the minimum altitude allowed for the particular segment of the approach you are flying.  It is one of the most challenging operations a pilot is ever called on to perform, and it is what the pilots of the UPS plane were doing when they crashed.

The approach to runway 18 at BHM is particularly tricky because the approach procedure has unusually low margins for error.  The last waypoint on the approach has a minimum altitude of 1380 feet. The runway altitude is 650 feet.  Between the final waypoint and the runway there is a hill that is 915 feet high.  The minimum descent altitude before you must be able to see the runway is 1200 feet, less than 300 feet above the hill.  The official weather report said there were "few" (which is FAA-speak for scattered) clouds at 1100 feet.  And it was dark.

The "normal" margin of error in maintaining altitude when flying under instruments is 200 feet.  Deviating by more than that is considered a serious mistake, but it is actually not that uncommon, especially among pilots who don't fly very often (ahem).  That was obviously not the case here, but the point is that even under normal circumstances any pilot who flies this approach is one mistake away from death.  That is unusual.  Normally you have to make two or three pretty serious mistakes in a row to actually kill yourself in an airplane.  Not here.

So this accident, like Asiana 214, looks like it was very likely pilot error.  But I would say the two situations are not comparable.  Asiana was pilot error under ideal circumstances, a situation that any pilot should have been able to handle with ease.  The UPS crash was pilot error under some of the most demanding circumstances possible short of an actual emergency.  No less tragic, and no less of an error, but not nearly as indicative of a systemic failure as Asiana 214.