Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Why Doesn't Hamas Accept a Cease Fire? Because They Are Winning.

(Photo Source)

Another day of conflict between Hamas in Gaza and Israel, another day of pictures of dead and mangled tiny bodies blown apart by Israeli bombs.  Despite hundreds of dead Gazans as compared to one dead Israeli, Hamas continues to fire rockets at Israel.  Hamas has no hope of beating Israel militarily.  They have no hope of even significantly harming Israel.  On the other hand, the death toll in Gaza has only been as low as it has because of Israeli reserve.  If Israel wanted to it could wipe Gaza from the map in a matter of days.  So why does Hamas continue to fight, and why does Israel hold back?  Because Hamas is winning, and if Israel went all out they would lose.  Hamas is winning the public relations battle in the short term, and if a permanent settlement remains elusive long enough they can win everything.

In the short term Israel is losing the international public relations game.  The only stable, Western-style, liberal, pluralistic, rights-defending democracy in the Middle East is losing in public opinion to an Islamic Fundamentalist foe that primarily uses terrorism to promote its external goals.  How can that be?  Quite simply it is because of images like the one I posted above.

Let's rewind 11 years to 2003.  Back in 2003 we in the West were much more used to seeing images out of Israel/Palestine like this one:

This photo in particular lodged itself in my mind.  I was 22 when I saw the news about the Hebrew University Bombing on Mount Scopus.  I had listened to radio broadcasts, I had even seen TV news coverage of the conflict, but I had never seen an image that hit me as hard as this one.  Here was a young woman, my age, who was crying in shock and pain.  A girl who had been unfortunate enough to be eating lunch in the cafeteria at her school when Hamas set off a bomb that killed 9 and injured around 100.

Prior to this photo coming out I had been steadily feeling more sympathy for the Palestinians.  I kept hearing about Israeli brutality, and Israeli assassinations of Palestinian officials.  I didn't have very much knowledge about the conflict at the time.  All I had to go on was current news from the Seattle PI, and primarily the background that NPR provided.  There was always some context provided, but if you study this conflict long enough you realize the amount of context needed cannot be contained in a book, let alone an article.  Until Mount Scopus I really was only seeing the force imbalance between a powerful IDF and a rock throwing resistance made up of mostly teenage boys.  The image of the girl screaming in the aftermath of the Hebrew University Bombing made something clear to me that had not been clear before.  Israel was not fighting the rock chuckers in the street, they were fighting an enemy that considered the bombing of schools an appropriate tactic.

But it was hard to find the bombers, much easier to find the teenage boys who lived in poverty in an occupied territory.  Boys whose entire lives had been characterized by a grinding occupation.  Where their rights were disregarded at will by an enemy that had taken their lands and homes and followed up with a half century of oppression.  (I have a hard time imagining that if I had been raised Palestinian that I would not have been throwing rocks in a best case scenario, or blowing up schools in a worst case scenario.)  What was Israel supposed to do?  Simply allow an enemy that would settle for nothing less than the eradication of Israel to conduct terrorist bombings with impunity?  Israel fights back, as any nation facing a very real existential threat must.

But now we return to the present.  A month ago things were rocky, but hopeful.  There was peace talks going on, though they had little chance of success.  Fatah and Hamas were agreeing to work together.  But then three teenage Israeli boys went missing.  Then they were found dead.  If things had stopped there it would likely have led to an uptick in sympathy toward Israel, and there could have still been a chance of the peace process continuing.  But it didn't end there.  A Palestinian boy was kidnapped and murdered.  Then footage surfaced of Israeli Police beating the dead boys cousin.  Then Hamas started firing rockets.

Now, instead of a peace process and talk about the kind of situations that lead to the kidnapping and murdering of children the news is full of images of a helpless Gaza being battered by a massively more powerful Israel.  The boys that were murdered are forgotten in the ensuing wave of reprisal violence, and outright military violence.  It's not three dead Israeli boys anymore, it's Hundreds of dead Palestinians and Dozens of dead Palestinian children.  The events that led to this upsurge in violence are completely lost in the horror of one-sided ongoing slaughter of Palestinians.  True, Hamas does continue to fire rockets on Israel.  At the time I am writing this the balance of attacks is 1,147 Hamas attacks to 1,603 Israeli attacks.  But those numbers don't reflect the force imbalance, the casualties do.  At least 194 Gazans dead (this is the number from the NYTimes, most numbers are higher) to 1 Israeli killed by a Hamas rocket.

The Gaza strip is 28 miles long.  All of those Israeli attacks are hitting a very small target, a very crowded target.  No amount of precision could keep from striking civilians in that setting.  The Hamas attacks, launched from Gaza, have struck the span of Israel.  270 miles of area, and not a single place safe from attack.  The news can't show the Israeli casualties of an attack that rains explosives down over the entire country, because Israel has gotten very good at protecting itself from the constant threat.  But Gaza is another story.  Gaza can't protect itself.  Hamas can scare Israelis, but they cannot do anything to protect their own people.  What Hamas can do is have Israel slaughter Gazans.

As Israel beats and bloodies a defenseless Gaza the world sees children torn apart day after day.  Israel seems less and less legitimate.  How can an occupying force that kills civilians by the hundreds possibly be legitimate.  Palestinians in general and Gaza in particular gain sympathy, Hamas wins.  International pressure to end the violence builds on Israel, Hamas wins.  If Egypt reopens tunnels to Gaza, Hamas wins.  Hamas might face the world with impotent saber rattling, but internally it is a charitable organization.  Hamas runs schools, supplies food, does all the things that a functioning government is supposed to do.  They are the only people actually leading in Gaza, and they are the elected government.  Any external pressure against Israel benefits Hamas, and when relief supplies get into Gaza, Hamas wins.

So that's the short term.  That's why Hamas doesn't back down from a fight they cannot win, and allows their people to be slaughtered by an enemy they cannot destroy.  Because the more people Israel kills, the stronger Hamas becomes.

And let's be clear here.  I hear the term "genocide" thrown around a lot in reference to the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, but that is absolutely ridiculous.  If it was a genocide, the conflict would be over.  If the occupation was an attempted genocide it would be the most ineffective genocide in history.  Israel is not trying to perpetrate a genocide, while fighting against an enemy that wants to "push the Jews into the sea."  Israel is a country that could commit genocide against the Palestinians if they so desired, but doesn't want to.  Hamas wants to commit genocide (or at least says they do), but is incapable of doing so.  But when one side in a racial conflict is doing all the killing, it looks an awful lot like ethnic cleansing.  Which brings us to how Hamas might win it all.

Demographics.  The ethnic makeup of Israel and Palestine.  The Jewish population of Israel is not growing as fast as the Muslim Arab population.  But by itself that would not mean the end of Israel.  Within Israel proper the balance is overwhelmingly in favor of Jews.  Israel is 75% Jewish.  Even though the Arab population is growing faster, a time when Israeli Arabs outnumber Israeli Jews is so far off to be irrelevant.  But Israel does not just occupy Israel, it also occupies the Palestinian territories.  With those territories included the population is 50% Jewish and 47% Muslim Arab.  But Palestinians are not limited to the former British Mandate of Palestine.  There are 1.5 million Palestinian refugees living in camps in the surrounding countries.  If you include them the balance is 53% Muslim Arab Palestinians to 45% Israeli Jews.  Even if you take out the specter of the nations surrounding Israel which are committed to eliminating the Jewish state of Israel, the Palestinians still outnumber the Jews.

Now I want to pause for a second, and point out something.  1.5 MILLION Palestinians living in refugee camps in neighboring countries.  Where do these refugees come from?  Do they come from recent conflicts, or recent Israeli actions?  No, they come from 1947.  There was only half a million of them at the time, but in the 60 years since Israeli independence, the host countries have not so graciously kept those refugees in camps.  More than three generations of people born and raised in camps in countries where they are not citizens, can't vote, and can't own land.  Living in a country like the US where refugees are treated like human beings who have a right to live and make new lives it can be hard to realize that such is not the case for Palestinian "refugees."  Rather than helping Palestinians build new lives, their so-called allies ensure that they have no hope for living with dignity other than the destruction of Israel.  An old David Horsey political cartoon sums it up nicely:

Now, you might point out that it doesn't matter what the demographic makeup of a different country is.  But as people like Dennis Prager like to point out, there has never been a Palestinian state.  Palestinians are a people, and a "nation" in the sense that the Jews are a nation.  In the same sense that the Jews were a nation throughout their time in diaspora when there was no Jewish homeland or state.  The country that truly administers the Palestinian people is Israel.

You might think of Israel as a Jewish state.  In fact one of the main conditions that Israel sets for terms of a peace agreement is that the Palestinian authority acknowledge Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.  But Israel does not have a constitution.  Israel is not officially a Jewish state.  Israel, and its courts have functioned by ruling based on undefined "Jewish Principles."  In recent years those principles have led to the courts ruling increasingly in favor of Palestinians in the occupied territories as having rights.  The courts have increasingly been acknowledging that Israel is the de facto rulers of the Palestinian territories.  If things continue on their current trajectory Palestinians are likely to get the vote.  Meanwhile, it doesn't look likely that Israel will finally hammer out its constitution.  If that happens then Israel will likely cease to exist.

But that is only one possible ending.  But I have a hard time imagining other long term results that do not result in the destruction of Israel if peace is not found before in either a two-state or one-state solution.  All Hamas has to do to realize its goal of the destruction of Israel is keep peace from happening.  Long-term, Israel can win every battle, and stand strong against every military attempt to destroy it, and still lose the war.

So if you wonder why Hamas keeps the fight going when it's only their own people dying, it's because they're winning.

 P.S.  One last image

Thursday, July 10, 2014

You Live in a Purple Country: The Myth of Red States and Blue States

What if I told you that every electoral map you've ever seen on the news was a lie?  Not a lie in the sense that the results were faked, but a lie in the sense that the truth has been skewed to promote discord and strife.  The electoral maps that we watch during elections are not accurate representations of voting in this country.  Red States and Blue States are a lie, we live in a Purple country.

(This blog entry makes heavy use of the work of Mark Newman of the University of Michigan.  He has graciously made his work available for public use, and I am trying to avoid outright plagiarism, but you should really look at his work here.)

Here is the familiar electoral map of the 2004 election.  The map that inspired the kinda joking, kinda not, meme of the United States of Canada and Jesusland.

The News coverage after the second George W. Bush election made it seem clear that Bush had a mandate, and the divisions in the US were growing deeper.  Have you ever wondered what that election would have looked like if the results were shaded proportionately and showed county results?  Here is what the actual election results were:

Not so black and white after all, or should I say Red and Blue.  (Source for these two images)

We are all familiar with the dichotomy of Blue States and Red States.  Every election cycle we hear about the Blue/Red divide.  We hear about swing states.  The constant message is that there are two Americas fighting it out.  And each election only one America can win.

Lets look at the most recent presidential election.  Here is the familiar election results map.  Even though Obama won, and carried most of the swing states, there is a lot of Red.  It still looks as though there are two Americas, and huge portions are opposed to Obama.
But what would happen if we made the map proportionate to population?

Now we see Red America Squeezed.  Clearly there is a vast Blue America that dwarfs the Red States in terms of population.  But what would happen if we looked at county results in a dichotomous representation?
Now we really see that the states are not homogeneous.  There are not Red States and Blue States, there are archipelagos of Blue in a sea of Red.  When you look at this map it seems clear that the US is a Red Country, but it is being controlled by a leader that only represents isolated pockets of America.

But we've already seen that the geographical representation does not reflect the population data, so what happens if we adjust the sizes of the counties to reflect population?
I like to think of this image as the Red and Blue Eagle of Political Discord.  All of a sudden Red America becomes a Blue nation streaked with Red.

But we are still not seeing an accurate representation of the political landscape.  This image only shows who won the elections.  It does not show how people actually voted, there is no subtlety, no shades of grey, only the dichotomy of political division.  Lets look at a shaded map of the 2012 election.
Now we see the US, not as two nations, but as a single country that shades continuously from Blue-Purple to Red-Purple.  And what does this Purple America look like when adjusted for population?
I like to think of this as the Purple Eagle of Reality.  There are truly Red areas, and truly Blue areas, but those areas are the true archipelagos.  Islands of homogeneity in a sea of heterogeneity.

If you live in the US you do not live in a Red State or a Blue State.  With few exceptions, if you live in the US you do not even live in a Red Community or a Blue Community.  You live in a purple nation.  A nation where people disagree, but still manage to live in communities.

It can be easy to believe that there is a culture war going on when there are stark divides between major political divisions, but those stark divides are illusory.  It is important to realize that when you are talking about those people who disagree with you, you are not talking about people in a distant state.  You are talking about your neighbors.

P.S.  I just wanted to throw in one more image from Princeton because I am an Alaskan, and as and Alaskan it bugs me that Alaska and Hawaii are never included in these.  It is also the 2012 map, but it shows the non-contiguous states as well.  While Alaska is a reliably Republican voting state, you can see that it is actually a rich violet shade of purple.

P.P.S.  The colors of Purple America are still artificial.  The blue and red spectrum is an artifact of our two-party system.  I'm sure that if you could apply color values to the range of political values the country would actually just be a greyish-brown mess.  I strongly suggest that you click through here to view a gif of election maps from 1960 to 2012.  I especially would like you to note the 1992 map from when Ross Perot came the closest to being a viable third party candidate in the last half century.  The one time that we had a nationally viable third option the map was not purple, it was an indescribable purplish-greenish mess.  By accepting a Red and Blue dichotomy we are silencing the actual diversity of opinions in this country.

P.P.P.S  If you would like to read a more scholarly article on the idea of a Purple America you can find one here.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014


Genetically Modified Organisms.  Typically this discussion is debated in relation to foodstuffs.  I personally have no objection to GMO foods in general.  I have a hard time imagining how humanity is going to feed the growing population of humans on earth without GMO foods.  If studies have shown a food to be safe, then I do not oppose eating it.

But there is a lot of concern on this topic.  People are very scared of genetic modifications.  For myself, even as a child I loved the idea of genetics and genetic manipulation.  I fell in love with Punnett Squares when I was 12.  The science of genetic selection is fun and exciting to me.  I tend to assume that opposition to GMO foods just boils down to fear of science.

But I know a lot of intelligent people who are very concerned about GMO foods.  I would like people who are against GMO foods to comment here and tell me why.  If you can provide data against GMO's I would appreciate it.

I am biased to support GMO's until proven otherwise.  I think there should be discussion of them.  We need to make sure that GMO's are not doing things like killing bees.  We need to protect against genetic patents penalizing inadvertent cross pollination.  In fact I think there needs to be a serious discussion about the wisdom of allowing genetic patents.

I don't want to go on too long.  I want a discussion here, because I would like your help in forming a better more informed opinion.  What's your take?

Monday, July 7, 2014

In Defense of Kendall Jones

My Facebook wall has recently been fairly covered with images and rants (for and against) Kendall Jones.  If you are fortunate enough not to know who Kendall Jones is, she is a Texas Tech cheerleader who hunts big game.  She has generated a lot of controversy by posting pictures of her with her kills, and taking a combative position on her hunting.  There is a petition to bar her from traveling to Africa (that's a US petition to bar a US citizen from legally travelling to engage in legal activities on a different continent), and there are people literally calling for her to be killed.  Much of the outrage seems to stem from the mistaken belief that non-lethal eco-tourism is a better and more effective way to promote and effect conservation.  Many people who oppose hunting honestly believe that photographing wildlife does more to preserve species than killing them does.  It makes sense, it's logical, it's false.

According to National Geographic the 18,500 hunters that annually travel to Africa to hunt big game animals bring in 200 million dollars a year.  That averages out to US$ 10,810 per hunter.  That is just what they are paying to hunt.  That is not the cost of flights and accommodations.  How many eco-tourists could or would pay ten thousand dollars for a photo tour?

But let's take a look closer to home.  If you enjoy seeing wildlife, and you live in the lower 48, you should thank a hunter.  There were 12.5 million hunters in the US in 2006.  That was a drop of 1.6 million over the preceding period of 15 years.  That means that less than five percent of the population was hunting.  But that five percent accounted for 75% of the funding for state wildlife agencies.  And that does not factor in Federal Duck Stamps which can be thanked for 5.2 million preserved acres (National Geographic, November 2007).  The Fish and Wildlife Service has a little blurb about this.

In the US we have lots of numbers being tracked.  One number that the US Fish and Wildlife Service tracks is how many people are "wildlife watching participants."  Wildlife watching participants are the people who are out enjoying the wildlife and taking pictures.  Those people number 71 million, and comprise 30% of the population.  Six times as many people are engaging in non-hunting wilderness activities, but they provide only a fraction of the revenue from their actions.  It is nice to imagine that hiking and bird-watching do more to protect species than the slaughter of innocent animals, but it is a pretty lie.

On a personal level, I do not understand the desire to hunt predators.  I have not been an active hunter in recent years, though I hope to change that in the relatively near future.  I have killed a number of animals, but for food or to put them out of their misery.  I do not like killing animals.  Every time I have to kill something it is a psychic pain, and for me that pain is managed by knowing that the animal will be used respectfully, or will no longer be suffering.  When I do hunt I am happy to let someone else do the shooting and I'll do the skinning and cleaning.  For me the killing of animals is not fun, and that is true for many people.  That is not true for many hunters, and obviously not for Kendall Jones.

On a deep level I find safari style big game hunts unseemly.

While I do not understand the desire to hunt predators, I am glad that there are people who do along with laws to control their behaviors.  I understand that most people from the Lower 48 have grown up in a setting where the wilderness is contained and their ancestors wiped out most of the animals that would kill them and eat them.  When apex predators are not a part of your life it can be hard to remember that they are in fact dangerous.  It is seductive to believe that nature is naturally balanced and without human interference life simply moves along with all animals at stable levels.  The science does not support this however, animal populations fluctuate. During times of plentiful food prey animal populations rise.  This is followed by predator population rises.  Predators hunt the prey until populations drop to a point where the predators start to stave and die off.

For an example of the effect of predators on prey populations we can look at Yellowstone.  In 1995 the elk population had risen to over 19,000.  That year wolves were reintroduced.  In 2012 there were 4,174.  In 2013 there were 3,915.  If we want to keep a healthy elk population and wolf population we are going to need to control the wolf population.

But back to Kendall and her African safaris.  Is there a measurable benefit to allowing hunters to kill endangered animals?  According to National Geographic there is.  In the same article I linked to earlier National Geographic claims that regulated hunts can be thanked for bringing the white rhino population from 50 to over 11,000 because the hunts gave ranch owners an incentive to repopulate their properties.  This is where we get to the meat of what hunting does for species.

When people just want to take pictures of majestic animals they are not likely to be willing to pay thousands of dollars to take one picture.  Africa is not a continent sized game preserve.  It is a continent with dozens of countries and more than 1.03 billion people on it.  Those are 1.03 billion people who need to eat and don't want to be killed by animals.  If there is no economic incentive to keeping dangerous animals around, how are they going to be protected.  The animals that we like so much (lions, cheetahs, leopards, rhinos, hippos, elephants, etc) are threats to people who live with them.  A lion might be majestic, but the majesty of the lion might be tarnished in your eyes if it ate your children and livestock.  Why would you protect an animal that will only harm you?  If you could make a living off of the management of lions you would have an incentive to protect them.  Maybe you could then afford better housing and protection for your livestock.

Legal big game hunts are vital to the survival of endangered animals.  Maybe someday humanity will be evolved enough that we need no motivation beyond love of wilderness to create adequate protections for animals, but someday is not today.  Right now we still need incentives to live with violent and dangerous animals.

Still, I don't think that the vitriol aimed at Kendall Jones is based on rational thought about the welfare of species.  Kendall occupies a bizarre intersection of feminism and misogyny.  She is a stereotypically attractive young woman.  She has orange skin, lots of makeup, and she is thin; the American ideal.  She also has a bright smile that she flashes in her photos with dead animals.  You can find plenty of article claiming a feminist perspective that characterize her hunting as catering to misogynistic hunter goddess stereotypes.  You can also find plenty of articles that imply that her taking pleasure in the hunt is unwomanly and unseemly.

She also courts controversy.  She posts inflammatory statements.  She makes her hunts a political statement.  It should not be surprising that she has run afoul of a lot of feminists when she has positioned herself in opposition to many progressive values.  But I think it is a bit of hypocrisy to promote female equality and then excoriate a young woman for hunting.  But that is just my perspective.  I consider myself a feminist, but for me the goal of feminism is to make a world where my daughter can choose to live how she wants to live.  I do not want my daughter to feel forced to conform to a feminist ideal of how she should live her life any more than I want her forced to wear a burqua.  That said, I would be much more understanding if she wanted to be a vegetarian lesbian investment banker than if she wanted to wear a burqua...  But I like to think that I would try to give her space to make her choices (please Abby, no burquas).

Kendall Jones seems like a bit of a jerk to me.  I'm fine with her hunting, and helping conservation with her activities.  I'm fine with her pursuing atypical interests.  I'm even fine with her cynical courting of controversy.  But I do not like the conflation of fame and infamy.  But it is not Kendall's fault that being a jerk is just as good as having talent to achieve notoriety in our country.  She is not committing crimes, she is just riling people up.  And in our country riling people up is an effective way to get attention and support.  If you want Kendall Jones to go away, just shut up about her.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Equal Pay, Part II: Divisive Politics In Action

The second part in my series on Equal Pay is my personal analysis of why the Paycheck Fairness Act bill was voted down, and what will happen with the bill going forward.  This is not an analysis of the gender wage gap, or the bill itself, I am just looking at the way that legislation is used by lawmakers.  The bill was not brought to a vote in an attempt to pass a law, it was simply an attempt to create political ammunition.

To start with I will look at the political ammunition that was created for the Democrats (notice that this is not about Liberal or Conservative, this is about politics as a zero sum game):

My friend Meagan asked me if this was true.  Here was my response:

Short answer: Yes. (Every single Senate Republican)

Long Answer: No, the bill wouldn't have mandated equal pay, but it would have increased transparency and allowed people who felt that they were being discriminated against to sue. 
So, yes, kinda. 
Except it never would have passed the R dominated house in any case, so the bill was a political maneuver not a good faith attempt to pass a law. The Senate could have still passed the bill, but they would have had to tolerate a filibuster. Of course a filibuster is just someone talking for as long as they can so that people will get bored and leave. I guess the Senate Democrats didn't feel strongly enough about it to sit through some endless prattling by some Republican when the bill wouldn't have passed the house anyway. But it is a good bet that Republicans would have filibustered even though the bill wouldn't have passed because they would have been able to make political hay. So it may have been a tactical move on the part of the Democrats. The possibility of it being a tactical move is further supported by Harry Reid switching his vote to "No" so that the Democrats can bring the bill up for vote again. The bill will probably be back, but it probably still won't pass.

This kind of legislation is brought up to prove how bad the other side is.  The Democrats have the majority in the Senate, but not in the House.  Because it can be safely assumed that the Republican House would not have passed this legislation, it is hard to see the raising of this legislation as an honest attempt to pass a law.

The Democratic party has a majority in the Senate.  If they wanted to they could force the issue.  All they have to do is wait.  A filibuster simply prolongs debate, but if the majority refuses to add anything else to the agenda then a vote will happen.  That is how the Civil Rights Act passed.  A filibuster is a way to waste time and make a vote a pain in the ass.  If Senators are willing to tolerate the annoyance it is not an insurmountable obstacle.

The Democrats knew the Republicans could force a filibuster.  They brought up the bill, and Republicans threatened a filibuster, so the Democrats backed off.  But why would the Republican senators even filibuster?  The bill would not have passed the House.  The bill never had a chance, but the Republicans would have wasted time grandstanding anyway.

I would argue that the Democrats backed off because they didn't want to give the Republicans an opportunity to engage in grandstanding, plus the Democrats got what they wanted just by having the Republicans oppose the bill.  The Democrats got the opportunity to make claims like the one in the meme above.  This kind of claim is powerful.  It "proves" that Republicans hate women (though a glance at my Facebook wall indicates that there are a lot of Republican/Conservative women out there) without having to risk actually passing legislation.

But what is most important about this legislation is the way it was taken back by the Democrats.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) voted against the bill.  Remember, if the Democrats really thought this bill had a chance they could have pushed it.  But they didn't, because they knew it wasn't going anywhere.  By having Harry Reid vote against the bill though they put themselves in a position where they can bring the bill back up any time they want.

Democrats have established that the Republicans are going to oppose the bill, and have opposed the bill.  I'm pretty sure we'll be seeing this debate again, but much more dramatically as the elections approach.  the first time around was laying the groundwork.  Much more fiery rhetoric can be used at a more politically advantageous time, no reason to waste a lot of political acrimony during the early part of the year.

This is about winning, not good governance.  For both sides.  Lets be clear here, I don't want to paint the Republicans as good guys or honest in any way.  Both sides are fighting to beat the other side.  Defeating the opponent is more important than helping the country.  Democrats raise bills just to fire up the base, and then the Republicans threaten meaningless unnecessary filibusters on bills that aren't going to make it into law anyway.  And by engaging in these sorts of tactics both sides further entrench the partisan divisions in our society.

(Coming soon:  Equal Pay Part III:  But that is going to require quite a bit of research on my part.  My first entry on the topic showed me just how much more there is for me to know about the topic.  Also, Purple America: Red States and Blue States are a Lie. Don't believe me? It's true.)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Running Amok: An Article I Like

This post is really just me recommending an article from a few years ago that has stayed with me.  The article is from the Conservative news source, the National Review Online.  I'm not recommending the site, but I do recommend the article Running Amok from 2012.

The article is about mass killings.  It is not scientific or fact/stat based.  It is a look at some of the history of mass killings, and how they have been looked at by various cultures.  I like this article because it provides some context and depth for a seemingly insoluble problem.  It doesn't suggest solutions or place blame.  It is simply food for thought.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Equal Pay, Part I: Protecting Women and Businesses

This entry is the first in an intended series on equal pay.  This is typically cast as a women's rights issue.  I think the issue affects more than just women, but the issue is debated and acted on in our political system as a Women vs. Business issue.  In this first entry I am going to lay out a little of my views, and then start to take a look at the Paycheck Fairness Act.

I want to start this off by saying that I would not support a law requiring equal pay for men and women.  Not because I think that wage discrimination isn't real, it is real.  Not because wage discrimination is fair, because it is not.  I oppose the government interfering with private businesses ability to reward employees based on performance.  To assume that two individuals do equal work because they have equivalent titles is fallacious.

So I say no to telling companies what they can or cannot pay their employees.

But that does absolutely nothing to deal with a very real problem.  I am sure that some of the people who do read this article, or might have read the article, are going to be turned off by the title.  I know an awful lot of people think that we shouldn't be protecting businesses.  But we do need to protect businesses.  Without a functioning economy everybody is threatened.

(As an Aside:  I think that our economy is broken, I think that even though our system is routinely referred to as Capitalist, if you really look at the way that it is functioning today it is closer to Feudalistic.  But this is not the entry to go into depth about my economic ideas.)

Without profits, and growth, and enterprise we do not have jobs, a tax-base, or a functioning society.  Ideally we should be working toward a society where everyone has a real stake in our society.  Of course half of the people in society are female, so if we are trying to work toward a system where everyone has a stake in supporting and working on our society we need to be working toward fair treatment for women.

(As and Aside:  I avoid using the phrase "fair share" here deliberately.  I feel that the idea of the "fair share" is like a flag.  Anyone can drape it around any atrocity or injustice they care to perpetrate.  The idea of the "fair share" is too big to unpack here, but I will write about it.)

There was a recent Bill (which I will be writing more about) in the US Senate that failed to pass, the Paycheck Fairness Act.  The bill was not expected to pass, and really amounts to political grandstanding than an actual attempt to create change, but I think that the bill was a good one.

To quote Wikipedia: Fifty years after the [Equal Pay Act's] passage, a median wage gap still exists between men and women. According to U.S. News and World Report, the Paycheck Fairness Act is meant to close this gap by:
  • "making wages more transparent";
  • "requiring that employers prove that wage discrepancies are tied to legitimate business qualifications and not gender";
  • and "prohibiting companies from taking retaliatory action against employees who raise concerns about gender-based wage discrimination."[3]

As you can see, this act would not force companies to provide equal pay, but it would make it harder for them to discriminate based on gender.  But those three bullet points don't really capture how the law would work.  Among the things that the law would do is it would have opened companies up to civil law suits (Article).  And that is very important.

One of the arguments against the Paycheck Fairness Act is that it is already illegal to discriminate based on gender, so there is no need for this law.  And also that if this law were passed it would lead to an explosion of lawsuits.

Do you see the logical problem there?

It is illegal to discriminate in pay based on gender, and if this law passed there would be an explosion of lawsuits.  The opposition to the act is trying to have it both ways.  There is no problem, because discrimination is already illegal, but if this law passed then there would magically be an explosion of lawsuits, which would automatically be frivolous since there is no criminal activity...  I don't buy it.  All those lawsuits wouldn't just appear like magic, the problems are real and they already exist.  Even though pay discrimination is illegal it still goes on and can't be stopped because of the way that our legal system works.

We have a number of different kinds of courts.  The two that are most salient here are criminal courts and civil courts.  In criminal court the defendant is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  In civil court all that is usually needed is a preponderance of evidence.  In civil court the level of proof needed is not as high.  It is hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an individual was not paid an equal amount due to discrimination.  But it is pretty easy to show that large groups were being treated in a discriminatory fashion.

So if the passage of the act resulted in an explosion of successful lawsuits it would certainly indicate that crimes were being committed, but prosecution of the crimes was too difficult in criminal courts.

There is another thing to consider about the difference between criminal cases and civil cases.  In a civil case, if the plaintiff wins they are awarded damages.  In a criminal case the plaintiff doesn't get anything.  The courts may levy a fine, or take other punitive actions, but the woman who was the victim of pay discrimination would not get any money.

It is certainly true that an "explosion of lawsuits" would certainly harm businesses.  If businesses were sued for the damages caused by the past half-century of discriminatory activity it could destroy our economy.  In this case it would be hard to imagine a scenario where there would not be an explosion of lawsuits...  if the law worked retroactively.  But our laws do not work retroactively.  If businesses are only liable for current and future malfeasance then it is pretty easy to avoid being penalized for engaging in illegal activity, stop committing crimes.

There are a lot of problems with our legal system.  There are a lot of problems with our political system.  There are a lot of problems with our economic system.  But one strength of our legal system has been the civil court's ability to effect change in the way companies conduct business.  Our civil courts also create a lot of trouble, but right now lawsuits are the best weapon we have against corporate malfeasance.

The opposition to the Paycheck Fairness Act paints their opposition to the act as a defense of business.  It is important to protect business, it is in all our interest to ensure a healthy economy.  But from where I stand it looks like opposition to the Paycheck Fairness Act is defending businesses from paying the price for committing crimes.

(Coming Up:  Equal Pay, Part II:  Every Republican Senator voted against the Paycheck Fairness Act.  Was that because Republicans are just evil and Democrats have nothing but high-minded ideals that drove them to bring this bill to a vote?  Not so much.)

On Vaccines

In my suggested topics entry I took a very hard-line stance on vaccines:

5. Vaccines! LOL

People who do not vaccinate their children should be imprisoned and their kids taken from them.

Anti vaccine jerkoffs are endangering me, you, their children, our children, and everybody else because they have poor scientific literacy combined with a narcissistic belief that only their child matters.

To which I got a reasonable response:

The summary for vaccines seems a little hardlined, what about those people who do not vaccinate due to religious beliefs?
To which I gave a less reasonable response:

I guess they could be allowed to live in quarantine or in communities in remote areas. It's a public health issue as far as I am concerned. Anti-vaccination people are a danger to public health.

Religious anti-vaccers endanger the public, and are common sources of avoidable outbreaks.

People who can't have vaccines due to real health concerns (like compromised immune systems) have the right to benefit from herd immunity. People who deliberately endanger the public do not.

Yeah, I know, I am uncustomarily hardline on this topic. But I do not see any valid opposition to vaccinations. It's like Gay marriage, I just don't see a valid opposition. I try to see both sides, but if one side is "I'm too special to shoulder my share of the burden," then I don't view that as valid. I also do not view willful ignorance as a valid position.

To be clear, I do think that anti-vaccers are way off base.  I do think that the position is indefensible.  But I should probably try to be more diplomatic.  Also, I should probably be less flip when I talk about policy ideas.

Fortunately I am just a blogger with a reach of a couple dozen readers, so I feel like I can get away with periodically being a jerk.

Obviously persecution and transportation to ghettos and concentration camps is not good governance.  If I actually advocated what I described in my post and response a Hitler analogy would actually be appropriate.  

So I would like to say that I do not advocate imprisoning anti-vaccers, taking away their children, ghettoizing them, or transporting them to concentration camps.

But refusing vaccinations does really piss me off.  I am going to use an analogy to explain why:  

      Imagine you lived in a city, and in that city everyone owned a gun. Some people kept their guns in safes, and some people carried them around on their hips, and some jackasses randomly fired them into the air (for religious reasons or because they had a condition that made them unable to avoid occasional discharges).  In this imaginary scenario guns also get used on people.  Criminals shoot people and steal people's guns.  Even people who keep their guns in a safe sometimes get shot.  But at least most people agree that shooting your gun into the air is wrong.  
      Now imagine there is a growing group of people who have become convinced that there is a bogey man, and the only way to scare him off is by randomly firing guns into the air.  It doesn't matter to these people that the bogey man is not real, they believe in the bogey man and no amount of proof will convince them otherwise.  These people claim that they should have the right to defend themselves against the bogey man by firing their guns in the air.
     During the normal state of affairs people are pretty safe from randomly falling bullets.  Most people are responsible with their guns.  And even though bullets are dangerous they are also very small.  Most of the time the bullets will just fall to the ground or hit a roof.  Occasionally someone will get hit, but usually it isn't fatal, and this is just accepted as a fact of life.  And this stays true just as long as the number of people firing their guns in the air stays small.  Once greater numbers of people are firing into the air the relative safety is destroyed.
     In this analogy the gun that everybody has is your immune system.  The bullets are diseases.  The gun safes are vaccines and good hygiene.  The open carriers are people who just get vaccinations.  The criminals are non-vaccine preventable diseases.  And the people who shoot their guns in the air are people who do not vaccinate.

As far as I'm concerned refusing to vaccinate is the same as periodically firing a gun into the air.  I support your right to carry a gun, but not to fire it in the air in a populated area. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Suggested Topics

I asked for topics to discuss, and I got them.  Meagan gave me seven at once, so I am going to give quick responses to each, and if some discussion develops I may create longer posts on some of the individual topics.

1. How to really educate yourself about the world of politics?

Read as much as you can.  Back when I worked security this was actually very easy since I had hours of nothing to do but read newspapers and magazines like the New Yorker and The Economist.  These days with so much of the news I digest coming from online sources angling for clicks it seems harder to find reliable sources.

If you really want excellent coverage of US news and in depth educational coverage of political issues, I would suggest Al Jazeera's US Section.  I also strongly suggest watching some of the videos.  The Fault Lines series have been uniformly excellent when I have watched them.  Bear in mind, that while I consider Al Jazeera to be one of the more reliable sources, they do have biases.  Remember to check other sources and not rely too much on any one source.  

Except for when it comes to US elections.  When it comes to US elections, especially presidential elections Al Jazeera seems to be the only really worthwhile news source.  They accurately broke down the statistics that showed that there was no possibility of Romney winning long before the actual election.  They described what different candidates were talking about, and what economic theories they were espousing during the primaries.  They were doing all the things one would want a free press in a democratic country to be doing, but they aren't a free press and they aren't in a democratic country.  They are owned by the government of Qatar.  They are one of the best sources in the world at avoiding censorship, but don't forget that a government can exercise direct control over them.

Use Google and Wikipedia.  If a topic interests you google it.  Check the news on the topic.  When you read an article that either strongly confirms or conflicts with your opinion look up the source on Wikipedia.  Find out what the sources biases are.

I also use google news.  I have a google account, and so I customize my news feed to give me stories on topics that interest me.  This is far from a perfect system, but at least I get a lot of headlines. 

2. Should we be fracking?

I don't know.

I like methane more than petroleum, but it's a matter of degrees.  Fracking seems dangerous.

The best I can offer is a French song by a Quebecois band.  Le Diable et le Fermier.  It's a parable about fracking, but it's in French :/

3. Is Social Security the new welfare?

I don't understand the question.

Social Security is an entitlement that people earn, like Unemployment or VA benefits.

4. The war on drugs - is it working?

The war on drugs is working great!  It's working the same way that prohibitions against highly desired things always work.  It is empowering criminals, killing disadvantaged people, and creating more government jobs and bureaucracy, and has ruined countless lives by criminalizing an ineradicable behavior.  The war on drugs has worked so well that it's easier for school children to get their hands on illegal drugs than cigarettes or liquor.  This is great for drugs, because it is much easier to convince people with undeveloped critical thinking skills to engage in life destroying activities.

5. Vaccines! LOL

People who do not vaccinate their children should be imprisoned and their kids taken from them.

Anti vaccine jerkoffs are endangering me, you, their children, our children, and everybody else because they have poor scientific literacy combined with a narcissistic belief that only their child matters.

6. Why the US will go to "war" with Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries, but it won't do anything about the atrocities happening all over the African continent

Because dying Africans do not impact our national interests.

According to Wikipedia he US government spends 17.2 billion on military aid, 31.2 billion on economic aid, and US citizens contribute an additional 71.2 billion.  Much of that goes to Africa.  The US government uses the Peace Corps to do work to help people.  The US military uses troops and special forces to do humanitarian missions.

The US tends not to blow people up just because.  I don't see how killing lots of Africans would help them.  And the US does try to help.  We could also talk about how the US military keeps piracy levels low.

The US might not throw all of its resources into trying to fix other people's problems when those problems do not affect us, and the US acknowledges that other countries tend to not like a big bully telling them how to live their lives, but that doesn't mean the US does nothing for people in trouble.

7. Dirty politicians (like there's a clean kind!)

I think that politicians should be paid the median US income with the top 10% taken out; and their retirement income should be calculated the same way, but with the top 10% left in.  When politicians take federal office they should have to give up any net worth beyond the median net worth, but maybe they could be allowed to have their assets administered by Social Security until retirement as long as they forfeit the government retirement package.  Any raiding of Social Security would be taken out of the politicians administered assets first.