Thursday, June 30, 2011

The oldest trick in the book

There has been a lot of disappointment with President Obama from the Left. I never really got that; to me it was obvious he was doing the best he could. But lately people have been talking about the possibility that he's playing "11 dimensional chess," and I'm starting to think they might be right.

The oldest trick in the tactical play-book is the feigned retreat. You have your guys run away in apparent fear: the sight is too enticing for the enemy, who break ranks and charge after you, eager for the slaughter. But wait! It was a trick - at the crucial moment your men turn and stand, in good order, and the enemy breaks over your formations like water on the beach.

This is a great trick. When it works, it almost always produces victory. However, it has a few prerequisites, chief among which are a stupid, undisciplined enemy and a stalwart army of your own. The greatest danger is that your men will become afraid for real and keep running.

Think about Obama's last 18 months in this context. Why has he been so quick to anger with criticism from the Left? Perhaps because he fears his own troops are not loyal enough to give him room to maneuver. Why has he appeared so weak and vacillating? Partly because he is weaker: he lost an election when the House went to the Right. But also, I think, because it's part of his plan.

Consider this: the country is facing a government shutdown. Who are people going to blame? Normally, you blame the party in power. But for 18 months the Right has crowed about winning their election and taking back the country, and Obama has let them. Because he knew all along that this debt limit vote would come up, and he knew the Right would choose that hill to die on. Just to make sure, he caved in to a few of their other demands, giving the impression that he could be pushed around. And golly gee whiz, look at that: the freshman Republicans are convinced that they can hold the country hostage until they get everything they want.

They are charging out of control. And Obama is now turning to fight. He's played Rope-A-Dope before. Remember when his nominees were being put on blanket holds? And they caught that one senator (whose name escapes me, sorry, dude, it sucks to be second) putting three holds on just to get some pork for his state. Obama didn't react. He waited. And sure enough the next week, Senator Shelby put a blanket hold on 70 nominees so he could get pork for his state that would also result in jobs going oversees.

Obama won that one, by waiting until his opponents painted themselves in a corner. And he's doing it again.

Normally, debt limits votes are clean. There's nothing attached to them but the simple and necessary fact of raising the debt limit. The Right screamed about spending cuts, so Obama (looking weak) gave them a few. Then the Left suggested a few truly innocuous tax modifications - closing loopholes, mostly. They could attach this to the bill because the Right had already muddied it. But the Freshmen were feeling brave. They defined the loophole closures as tax increases, and said no. And now they're stuck.

If they suddenly come to their senses and actually negotiate in a bipartisan way, then all their rhetoric is exposed as an empty sham. Obama can hardly be the Marxist-in-Chief if the Tea Party is making deals with him. Their own base will abandon them.

On the other hand, the debt limit has to be raised. If the Tea Party doesn't come around, then the established, senior Republicans will have to vote for it. This will split the party in half, exposing the establishment to the rabid attacks of the Tea Party. And we all know how that goes - it goes badly for the Republicans.

Either way, Obama wins. Half the Republicans take the blame for backstabbing the other half. And the debt limit? If all else fails, Obama raises it by executive fiat - there are already Constitutional scholars saying he has the legal right. Once again he is the grown-up doing what has to be done to make the country work. But this time he isn't just waiting for the rest of the country to notice. This time he's showing Republicans that their Tea Party caucus cannot deliver what it promised.

He doesn't even need to change their minds. He just needs to disillusion them, so they stay home. And then his party wins by default. You know, the same way the Republicans won when Democrats stayed home.

As in any fight, victory goes to the one who quits last.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

I have to stop telling people I came from this State

Iraq war veteran killed by Arizona SWAT team

Just so you know, Clarence Dupnik is the good sheriff. The evil sheriff is Joe Arpaio. So this is the work of the best law enforcement agency in Arizona.

I cannot even imagine what kept the paramedics out of the house for so long. (Edit: Probably it was because they knew he was dead before the medics got there - he was hit 20 times). Perhaps the police recognized the house was dangerous due to the huge number of heavily armed idiots surrounding it. 71 rounds fired? How was that ever necessary? Did these guys think they were in John Woo movie? (Edit: It couldn't have been a Woo movie because he didn't fire a round - he didn't even get his safety off.)

I googled "home invasion australia" and found this as the first relevant hit:

Knife and fork used in violent home invasion

Of course, the invaders in this case weren't the police, so they can't be expected to have the same level of firepower.

If the thought of being murdered in front of your wife and child by people who will never face a day in court for their actions doesn't make you want to move to a civilized country, well, that's good, because you can't. I'm already in the last country that will take Americans, and I'm telling them not to let any more of you psychotic goons in.

I bet you dollars to doughnuts Dupnik won't even lose his job over this. In case you're wondering how an elected official can keep his job after presiding over the murder of a war hero in his own home for no good reason, including denying him medical care until he bled out in front of his wife and son, well, the answer is simple. Look at the last name again. There you go.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Supply-side silliness

In Washington they're talking about cutting taxes to stimulate the economy. As if giving businesses more profit will create jobs. I've run a business, and I know there is only one thing that creates jobs:


If you want to stimulate your economy, you have to convince people to buy. It doesn't do any good to convince business to produce; stacking up inventory doesn't help the economy. How is this not obvious? If the supply of a good is too great, people just won't buy it; if it's too small, people will buy alternate goods (switching to wine instead of beer, say). Changing production has little change on consumption.

But if you change demand, then businesses will either hire so they can produce more, or fire so they produce less. The free market is really good at responding to changes in demand with rapid changes in production. In fact, that's the whole point of the free market: that local conditions can quickly propagate through the system - unlike in planned economies, where some bureaucracy has to digest changing data through its long paper ailmentary canal.

So why are Americans - the most commercial empire on the planet - and Republicans in particular - the alleged party of fiscal responsibility - so oblivious to this fact? It's not just the current financial crisis; it's the entire War on Drugs, where controlling the supply of various illicit chemicals is imagined to control the demand for psychotropic relief. The entire country seems to have bought into Reagan's fantasy, and I don't know when the nightmare will end.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Saturday Morning Paper

This is outrageous:

How low can taxes go?

A sober, clear-eyed discussion of American tax policy. In an Australian paper.

Can anybody point me to an equally cogent and frank article in an American paper?

I didn't think so.

Triple bonus points if you can find a discussion of Australian tax policy in an American paper. Or how about a discussion about the successful, cost-effective nationalized Australian health care system. In all the sturm and drang about Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare, you'd think somebody, somewhere would say, "Gee, how does an English-speaking democracy isolated on its own continent manage?"

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

More bad apologetics

Dear Doctor Miller,

I have to confess I was surprised to see that a Ph.D in Rhetoric would begin a serious article with tone-trolling and the No True Scotsman logical fallacy, but being currently engaged in re-writing the beginning of my next novel, I know that beginnings are hard. So let's just skip past the awkward, boring introduction and get right to the explosions and car-chases.

Unfortunately.... there isn't any there there. First you present a spirited defense of common sense, which is much appreciated. But then you move on to presenting examples of Jesus being logical. I don't quite follow. You've just argued that ordinary logic is common to everyday life; thus, nobody will be surprised that Jesus was capable of logic. Mohammed was certainly capable of logic as well, which the Koran no doubt amply testifies to.

Your goal is not to demonstrate that the character Jesus acted logically in some cases, or that the Bible represents historical truth in some cases. No one doubts that.

Your goal is to demonstrate that the central thesis of Christianity is logical. Really, nothing else matters. Show us logically compelling evidence that Jesus rose from the dead, and we simply won't care about Jonah and the whale.

Nor do we care that Jesus gave the Pharisees a rhetorical smack-down, particularly when you state that Jesus' winning argument was the threat of violence ("IF we say John's baptism was not from God, THEN the people will harm us"). Seriously? That's what you're going with? Jesus was a logician because the Pharisees were afraid of a mob?

I can see how a rhetorician might find that an impressive maneuver, but the rest of us, who are interested in truth rather than winning public debates with the implied threat of mob violence, are not amused.

What we care about is whether or not Jesus was God, defeated Death, purified us from Original Sin, and represents the one and only way to get to Heaven. Some of the more cynical among us also question whether Jesus existed at all, the morality of punishing the child for the sins of the father, and even the coherence of the idea of Heaven. These are the issues you need to be engaging. Not Jesus' back-alley gang fights.

Merely demonstrating that Jesus was logical and rational in many cases does not demonstrate that he was logical and rational in all cases. At best a history of correctness wins you a hearing; a man that has been proven right before will be listened to, even when he presents an unlikely proposition. But all of his past logical successes are irrelevant to the argument he is making today. His current argument will be considered on its own merits, and if he is a logician, he will expect - nay, demand! - no less.

It is, after all, a fundamental principle of logic. If Jesus were the superb logician you assert him to be, his only possible response to your argument would be: "Dude... start over. This is going nowhere."

( Edit: A link to the original might be helpful: Is Christianity Logical?)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

How has religion harmed you?

To all the people who have asked me this self-centered absurdity of a question,  and to all those in the future who will undoubtedly attempt to defend religious belief with this vapidity, I respond with this:
''The brothers and sisters were all together,'' he says. ''And then they started grabbing the girls away from their brothers. I can still hear the screams of these kids being separated. Some of them never saw their sisters again. I still have nightmares.''
 I can still hear the kids scream
Understand that this was not Nazi Germany. This was Australia, in 1946, in a Catholic orphanage. And the above paragraph is the gentlest part of the story.

Your religion may not have directly harmed me; your personal beliefs may not have contributed to the evil in the world. But religion has definitely caused harm, with such frequency and magnitude that the burden of proof lies on the practitioner. Don't ask me how faith has harmed me; show me how your faith has not.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The real terrorists

One thing I get really, really sick of is projection. It is cloying in its ubiquity: if a man on TV starts ranting about how bad teh gayz are, you know it's only a matter of time before he's outed. Don't any of these people own a mirror?

The Republican party seems particularly infected with this disease. For some time now they have been railing about the wickedness of the Left, and how it wants to destroy the American way of life. To that end they're fighting the terrible socialism of teacher's unions and Medicare to stop us from turning into Commies.

But here's the thing: the Right is the one destroying the American way. Republicans aren't shy about admitting that they don't want to just repeal Medicare and Social Security, they want to repeal the whole New Deal. But for the last three score and ten, the New Deal has been the face of American society. There are hardly any people alive today who were adults before the New Deal. So these culture warriors, these people hell-bent on "taking their country back," are in fact struggling to destroy everything we recognize as American in favor of something none of us actually know.

Nothing could demonstrate that more than the current budget fiasco. The Republicans, allegedly the party of fiscal responsibility, are forcing America into default. Never mind the havoc this will have on the global economy; any businessman worth a nickel has to understand that even the threat of default lowers your credit rating, which means you pay more for credit. Their shenanigans will actually raise the deficit, by raising the interest we have to pay. Given that knowledge, it is obvious that the fight over the debt limit is not about the deficit. They have taken the nation's credit rating hostage, and they will do more damage in the long run than Osama bin Laden ever could.

Health care is no better. You cannot possibly imagine how befuddling it is for me to listen to Republicans assert that twin claims that America cannot afford socialized medicine and that socializing medicine would destroy it. Having now experienced a socialized health care system, I know from personal experience that they are simply wrong. The Australian government spends less on public health care than the American government. The Australian people (everyone I know has private insurance, and Sara and I will be signing up for it soon) spend less on private health care than the American people. Yet everyone in Australia is covered, people like me can get private insurance (pre-existing conditions are only excluded for the first year) for $200 a month, and the quality of care is every bit as good as anything I got in America.

And even the classic response - that the American system generates all the discoveries and everybody else just follows - doesn't fly. Monash University, just down the road from here, invented IVF.

The Republicans love to extoll American Exceptionalism; but they seem oblivious to the fact that every other first-world nation on Earth can manage a universal health care system for half the cost. Are Republicans simply unaware of what goes on in the rest of the world? Yes, the French have unemployment that is as bad or worse as America, but they still manage to have universal health care. And their country isn't about to go into default!

The facts don't matter here. The realities about cost and care levels, the financial details about bond markets and interest rates, are simply not important. The Republican goal is not to reduce the deficit; it is to reduce the government and unravel the New Deal. For years they have warned us of Manchurian candidates who secretly work for shadowy powers that want to destroy the soul of America. And they were right. But it's not Muslims or the the Gay Agenda; it's billionaires calling the shots. The socialist threat was never real, but the fascist threat of a society where corporations are unregulated and politically dominant while individual rights are curtailed and constrained is becoming the reality. Even their libertarianism is a shell for fascism: Rand Paul claims to be for less government regulation, but he wants to regulate uteruses; he doesn't think the government should intrude on the contracts of private businesses to force them to serve minorities, but he does think the government should ban private marriage contracts between gays. The rush to block Sharia law is carried out hand-in-hand with the desire to tear down the wall between church and state, as long as the church is Christian, without even the slightest shred of irony.

We have met the enemy, and they are not new. They have been announcing themselves for years. For a while they pretended to preach the gospel of prosperity, but now even that veil has been dropped. They simply want to make sure that those who already have, keep, and... well, really, that's the entire limit of their ideology.

What they don't understand is that by trying to keep it all for themselves, they will inevitably lose it all for everyone. America became the greatest nation on Earth by being united. One for all and all for one. E pluribus unum. But in this overwhelming fear of the other, in this contempt for the weak and the different in our society, in the explicit rejection of social duty so pithily expressed in the phrase "taxes are theft," the Republicans have turned against the very essence of the American ideal.

(See Paul Krugman's great essay on the Rentier economy here)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Politics and atheists

Jerry Coyne points out the difference between there and here. Here, we have an atheist for a Prime Minister. There, being an atheist is the worst political crime you can commit, half again as bad as adultery, twice as bad as being Mormon or smoking dope.

Politics and atheists

There's some good news in the poll. Being black is a negative 3%, which is essentially in the noise level. I'm sure if the poll had included the question "Being human," at least 2% would have rated that as a negative. Being female is twice as bad, but 7% is still out in the crazy fringe and not to be taken seriously.

A surprising 14% realized that business executives make terrible politicians, which is good, although a full third of the nation thinks that running a for-profit venture qualifies a man to run a government.  It's true that the government is like a business owned by the taxpayers, but the goal of a CEO is to screw his customers over without them realizing it. And the taxpayers are the customers, too.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Willpower and poverty

 I've known this for years, but it's nice to see scientific evidence for it:

Willpower is a depletable resource

Essentially the article shows that if you make a hard decision now, then you're less capable of making a hard decision later. And if you're poor, every decision you make is hard. So pretty soon you're making a lot of bad decisions.

This isn't meant to excuse people for making bad decisions; it's meant to explain it. The difference is that an excuse means nothing changes, whereas an explanation implies you'll make changes so it won't happen again. We need to make some changes.

Oops. Sorry. I meant you need to make some changes. I already live in a society where the government doesn't view poverty as a genetic character flaw treatable only by death.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The decay of the rule of law


This looks like an amusing story about sticking it to the banks. A bank files to foreclose on a house, except the homeowners never had a mortgage, let alone one to this bank. So they sue, and win, but the bank doesn't pay for months. Finally, their attorney shows up with the sheriff and forecloses on the bank.

Ironic, yes. But also a really, really, bad sign. If a private citizen tried to steal someone's house by filing fraudulent documents, they would go to jail, because that's a criminal act, not an "error." But that's not even the bad part. The bad part is this:

After about an hour of being locked out of the bank, the bank manager handed the attorney a check for the legal fees.

They ignored a legal settlement and court order for five months, but an hour after the attorney showed up with a man with a gun, they got paid.

Which leads to a non-funny cartoon: A guy goes into a bank with a gun and a withdrawal slip. When the security guard confronts him, he says, "It's OK, I have account here. I just want my money today."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Why I believe in death

From the various comments on my last article (which, by the way, are much appreciated), it has become clear that I need to justify my belief in death.

The fundamental insight of our century is the discovery of the nature of consciousness. There remains much to learn, but we know the trick now; the mystery is gone, and it's just incomprehensible complexity. Not magic.

When I was in college, definitions were a big thing in my philosophy classes. People could do things, like identify horses, and nobody knew how. We'd come up with these definitions, like "a horse is brown animal with four legs." Somebody would point out that horses come in black, white, red, and gray, so we'd add that in; others would note that the common phrase "three-legged horse" (Google it - 195,000 results!) clearly indicated that horsehood did not require four legs.

On and on we'd go, until we had pages of exceptions and modifications. Just when we'd get close to actually generating a complete, fool-proof definition, somebody would bring in a four-year-old.

Four-year-old children can't read a five page definition, let alone remember it or even understand it. But they can still identify a three-legged horse.

It was a pickle. It kept philosophers busy for many years. And then one day, the gig was up: some mathematician discovered the neural network.

It turns out that if you show a neural network hundreds of pictures of horses, and then show it a picture of a horse painted blue with its legs cut off, it grinds away for a while and then says... "93.7 % PROBABILITY OF HORSE."

The way we identify things is just a math trick. Complicated, amazing, bizarre... but just a trick of math. Just an effect of the complex firmware embedded in our skulls.

When I say I believe in death, what I'm really saying is that I believe that consciousness is purely a function of the brain. It is a trick, like the math thing; we evolved a way to store and extrapolate information to hunt better. Along the way it became useful to have a focus for that information, a construct around which to organize the information to maximum effectiveness. That focus is us; our consciousness is nothing more than an accidental side-effect.

In sheer point of fact, we are never conscious; we only remember being conscious. If you ask people to push a button, and to tell you when they decided to push the button, you find a half-second gap. But the gap goes the wrong way; people report deciding to push the button after they have already pushed it. Consciousness is like the Secretary of Congress. After a day of debate, Congress votes on a policy, and the Secretary writes it down and makes it law. Then he goes to a bar, gets drunk, and brags to the hot lady sitting next to him, "Guess what law I made today?"

Our selves are physical phenomena. Alzheimer's proves that beyond the shadow of a doubt. Damage to the brain changes our personality, destroys our memories, sometimes even creates new memories. How we feel is influenced by what we ate or drank. Hormones make us fall in love, and seeing our loved ones releases hormones. There is no question about whether the presence of hormones causes love; the hormones are love. What we call love is a short-hand reference to complex phenomena, among which are the relationship between hormone levels and proximity to our lovers.

And this is why I believe in death: because I understand the scientific truth that life is a material, physical phenomenon. Once you accept that - once you accept that Alzheimer's is real - you cannot believe that personalty survives destruction of the body. Heck, it doesn't even survive dinner - our sense of self is constructed on the fly, minute to minute. Of course you don't feel that way, because your brain erases that feeling to create a sense of unity and uniqueness, which is part of creating self-identity.

Christianity - in any form, in any understanding of the resurrection - asserts that our conscious lives are not inextricably bound up with our physical brains. There is only one way to square that with the scientific knowledge we have now - but that way lies dualism.