Saturday, December 31, 2011

A note on the role of charity and religion

Catholic Charities is one of the nation’s most extensive social service networks, serving more than 10 million poor adults and children of many faiths across the country. It is made up of local affiliates that answer to local bishops and dioceses, but much of its revenue comes from the government. Catholic Charities affiliates received a total of nearly $2.9 billion a year from the government in 2010, about 62 percent of its annual revenue of $4.67 billion. Only 3 percent came from churches in the diocese (the rest came from in-kind contributions, investments, program fees and community donations).

I often get told that one of the good aspects of religion is charity. I usually respond by asserting that existence should be a civil right, not something given to you because another person judged you worthy by their arbitrary standards today.

But of course the charity of religion is, like the rest of it, smoke and mirrors. Not only do they not pay for it, but as soon as they can't use it to control people's behavior, they stop. Helping orphans find homes (or saving women's lives) is not as important as pushing God's word. Which I confess makes perfect theological sense; I just think the fact that it does is the best possible argument against theology.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Warren's Winds of Change

Normally I am not a fan of chain emails, but I recently received one that was different, insomuch as it was Liberal. I don't think I've ever seen a Lefty chain email before. Was it always a tactic of the Right that has now been co-opted, or did I just not have enough Lefties in my contact list?

Although, upon closer inspection, it turns out to be... kinda Right.

_*Congressional Reform Act of 2011*_

1. No Tenure / No Pension.

A Congressman/woman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they're out of office.

This is as terrible an idea as not paying Congressmen at all. What it does is says that only rich people can serve in office. Ordinary people can't spend 20 years serving their country because then they wouldn't have a retirement.

In a free market, you get what you pay for. Warren Buffet suggesting we should pay the managers of the Free World less is not really a free market sentiment. It's more of a "Let's make sure Congressmen can be more easily bought" sentiment.

2. Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security.

Congressmen have been paying into SS since 1984.

All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people. It may not be used for any other purpose.

I looked up the Congressional retirement fund. It's what we here in Australia call a "defined benefits" plan, in that you are guaranteed a fixed rate of return. A stinky sweet deal? Sure. Defined benefit plans are hard to come by these days; only the most prestigious companies and positions offer them. Part of the problem with Congress? Not by any stretch.

The dysfunctional nature of Congress is as obvious as the idea that changing their pay will fix it is absurd.

3. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.

Ordinary Americans "purchase" their retirement plan by going into careers that have good retirement plans. This is just another way of saying, "We want our best and brightest to do something else."

4. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise.  Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.

Congressional pay is set by law. Laws are passed by Congress. Passing a law that says that Congress isn't allowed to change a law is called a Constitutional Amendment.

Again, the problem with Congress is not how they are paid; it is how they are elected. Notice what is missing from this long list of pay reductions? Public financing of elections. You want to radically change who Congress responds to, change how they get elected.

How unexpectedly odd that Mr. Buffet doesn't want to change the staggering influence and access private election donations buys his social class, even while he is so eager to reduce the pay of a social class lower than his.

5. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.

And what about the other 8.5 million people in that health care plan? Congress' health care plan is used by many Federal employees. Corporations use their health care plans to attract top quality talent; why deny the government the same incentives?

Unless Buffet is asking for all corporate health care plans to be junked, and all Americans to participate in same health care system (a suggestion I completely support!), he is being a complete hypocrite here.

6. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.

This, on the other hand, can't come soon enough. There is no good reason Congress should be exempt from the laws it passes, such as OSHA standards and such.

7. All contracts with past and present Congressmen/women are void effective 1/1/12. The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen/women.

In what sense? We elected representatives, they passed laws, there you go.

But as long as we're allowing the government to renege on contracts, how about we renege on some of those contracts they made with the financier class? Like, for instance, Treasury Bonds. Let's just say that a few billion dollars of T-bills owned by Mr. Buffet are no longer contractually obligating. How about that?

Congressmen/women made all these contracts for themselves. Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career. The Founding Fathers envisioned citizen legislators, so ours should serve their term(s), then go home and back to work.

And yet another demand to cripple the government so it cannot effectively compete with corporations. News flash: we stopped pretending the Olympics were for amateurs years ago. Isn't it time we accepted that government is just a large private corporation which we all have one share in? Don't we want it able to compete with other corporations (particularly with the ones we don't own shares in)?

Can you imagine imposing these rules on Buffet's industry? Banks can't offer retirements, or attractive wages; and they have to roll over their top staff every few years. Just imagine what the banks would howl: "We'll lose our top talent! We won't be able to compete!"

Here is Mr. Buffet asking a corporation he competes with to voluntarily cripple itself using rules he would never agree to for his own corporations. I could swear that rings a bell; doesn't that kind of behavior have a name?

If each person contacts a minimum of twenty people then it will only take three days for most people (in the U.S.) to receive the message. Don't you think it's time?

If you wanted to fix America, you would contact every single person and make them look at the graph I put in my blog months ago: Graph.


This is how you cripple government so it can't compete with corporate power. I happen to live in a country with a functioning government (although the current Parliament is doing its best not to be, its still better on its worst day than Congress is on its best day). None of these suggestions were necessary, and none of them would be helpful

The actual way to fix Congress is to remove the problem. The problem is intransigence. The intransigence is coming from exactly one source: the Tea Party. The Tea Party politicians can afford to be intransigent because their elections are funded by billionaires. Elections are funded by billionaires because they're not funded by the people.

Fix Congress? Fix elections. Look, the interview process for the job already sucks; why make people suck up to billionaires as well?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Interpreting the dog whistle

There's a lot of talk about "dog-whistles" in American political speech. Given the subjective nature of secretly encoded messages, it's hard to pin down how much it really happens or if it happens at all. But here is a perfect example:

“Every barrel of oil that comes out of those sands in Canada is a barrel of oil that we don’t have to buy from a foreign source,” Mr. Perry said in Clarinda, earning a loud round of enthusiastic applause.

What moves Republican crowds in Iowa

Now this is clearly a slip of the tongue: Governor Perry, despite all appearances, is not actually confused about whether or not Canada is part of the United States. It's safe to assume he knows Canada is a foreign country. So what did he mean to say?

One obvious substitution for the word foreign is Arabic. Or non-Caucasian. Or, more charitably, just non-Western or perhaps non-democratic. But if all Perry meant was "we shouldn't buy oil from non-democratic societies," why not say so? He wouldn't get any flack from any side for that.

On the other hand, he would get flack, even from some on the Right, for saying "non-White." Which explains why he made the slip of the tongue. He was looking for a word that his audience would understand as "non-White," but also a word that would not paint him as obviously and openly racist. So his brain settled on a word that just made him look dumb.

Which is actually really smart. His audience understood him perfectly; no one in that crowd was cheering because Perry was declaring energy independence from the UK or Germany. And the voices on the right who would have to condemn naked racism now have an excuse to look the other way. The only people who will say anything are liberals, like me, and all we can do is point out how dumb Perry sounds. Which will, of course, erode our credibility with the Right even further, since he didn't sound dumb to them. Indeed, only an idiot could fail to understand what he meant.

Which is why it's called a dog whistle, and not a sophisticated literary allusion.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Merry Xmas!

I hope you all had a good Xmas. I got the three things I wanted most: a flyswatter, Lord of the Rings on BluRay, and best of all, a 3 day writing vacation. That is, the baby goes to Grandma's during the day while Sara and I write.

This morning we got off to a slow start as I had to first buy a new keyboard. My old one finally succumbed to an iced tea incident which was, surprisingly, not precipitated by the baby.

I wrote almost 3,000 words today of a new work, tentatively entitled Sirius. With two more days I should get a good solid beginning, which is always the hard part for me. After that it should progress pretty easily. It will be a short book so I hope to have it finished in a few months.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Good day, my lord Duke

Spent a few hours going through the fantasy novels and harmonizing my use of titles. It's hard to invent a whole new world, right down to the conventions of social address. Worse, if you do invent too much, you just confuse and annoy the reader. So you have to use the existing framework that everyone already knows  (which is itself difficult since they only know that framework from books) but change enough that readers don't question why your wizard is talking like a 17th century Frenchman.

But formal rules aren't enough; real people bend their language, twisting it to different ends: intimacy, hostility, flattery, contempt. I had to make charts listing each major character and how they address each other to keep it all straight.

I doubt any reader would consciously notice all this work, but I think subconsciously they do. When you spend enough time with a character, you expect them to behave and speak in a different way: the worst crime an author can commit is to rob his characters of their unique voice.

Fortunately, the craft of writing is mostly smoke and mirrors, and the author can get away with a lot. In the process of rewriting I've put speeches from one character into another character's mouth, only needing to change a few words to change the owner. The king of this technique is Peter Jackson, who transferred an entire speech, word for word, from one of the worst bad guys (Wormtongue) to one of the best good guys (Gandalf). But he had intonation to work with, changing the tone from sneering to pitying. My only tools are letters, blank spaces, and punctuation marks.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Ding dong, the Hitch is dead

Christopher Hitchens died yesterday. Mostly he is known as an irascible atheist, puncturing the faithful; but sometimes people forget he was also an irascible liberal, puncturing those faithful too. He was pretty much a puncturer.

The best things he ever did were provide a contrasting voice on the Iraq war and Mother Teresa. I happen to agree with him on both those counts; but even people who disagree must surely appreciate the value of his dissent. He did not just throw barbed quips (though he threw plenty of those); he also deployed logical and consistent arguments backed by evidence. This is the kind of dissent a free society requires to maintain its freedom: principled, evidential, and too sharp to ignore.

He will go down in history as one of the Four Horsemen; the gang who put atheism in the spotlight by the simple act of writing best-selling books about atheism. Dawkins, Dennet, Harris and Hitch; now down by one.

Since all of them are old white men, they won't last too much longer. Maybe we should recruit some young women to take their place, a Spice Girls of atheism. But then, Hitch was already working on it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The definition of clueless

When I talk about people being unable to recognize their own biases, I mean stuff like this:

Middle-class white man tells poor black kids how to succeed

Never mind the obvious stupidity of even considering writing such an article (this guy doesn't understand platform?), here is the money quote:

Many of these kids don’t have the brains to figure this out themselves – like my kids.  Except that my kids are just lucky enough to have parents and a well-funded school system around to push them in the right direction.

Technology can help these kids.  But only if the kids want to be helped.  Yes, there is much inequality.  But the opportunity is still there in this country for those that are smart enough to go for it.

See what he did there? First he identified with the poor and downtrodden. See, his kids aren't smart either, they're just lucky.

And then he excuses the entire system from blame by saying that people that don't succeed don't deserve too, because they aren't smart enough. He acknowledges the role of luck in success and then immediately asserts the role of moral character in failure.

Apparently, if you succeed it is luck; but if you fail, it is because you weren't good enough.

He doesn't seem to understand he has just stated that his own kids don't deserve to be equal.

And just what the hell does he think we should do about all those kids who aren't smart enough to succeed, and aren't lucky enough to be born rich? Nobody is even interested in talking about smart black kids who grow up poor; for dog's sake, one of them is President. The problem here is that there is an entire underclass of kids (black, brown, and white) who are doomed to poverty because they are a) normal, and b) unlucky. This is the issue. And this moron writes an entire column without even acknowledging the issue.

And he gets paid to write columns, presumably to educate and inform, rather than to defend an ideological position with incoherent propaganda.

It's not just this guy's kids that aren't smart enough for a middle-class existence.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Do people know what their religious concepts are?

This is an interesting question. In my experience the answer is definitely negative. I find that most people don't actually know what they believe (not just about religion, but about morality, philosophy, and all sorts of abstract things).
Do people know what their religious concepts are? This may seem an absurd question, but it is in fact an important question in the psychology of religion, whose true answer is probably in the negative. In most domains of mental activity, only a small part of what goes on in our brains is accessible to conscious inspection. For instance, we constantly produce grammatical sentences in our native tongue with impeccable pronunciation, often without any idea how this is done. Or we perceive the world around us as made up of three-dimensional objects, but we are certainly not aware of the ways in which our visual cortex transforms two retinal images into this rich impression of solid objects out there. The same goes for all our concepts and norms. We have some notion of what they are, but we certainly do not have full access to the way our minds create and sustain them. Most of the relevant mental machinery that sustains religious concepts is not consciously accessible.

Why Religion is natural
Even more interestingly, we are hard-wired not to admit we don't know. Patients with brain injuries have shown that when the brain doesn't know a fact about the self (for instance, they can't remember why they put on a sweater), it makes one up after the fact rather than admitting it doesn't know.

So it's not bad enough that people make decisions without understanding the assumptions and beliefs that go into those assumptions; they actively resist the knowledge that they don't know their underlying assumptions.

In other words, we evolved to be ignorant.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Why Obama has to win

The only hope for America is not just a Democratic win, but the complete destruction of today's Republican party.

Or at least, that's what former Reagan adviser Bruce Bartlett says:

Bruce Bartlett, a former Reagan adviser who is a harsh critic of the current Republican party explained why. 

“Basically we’re still stuck in the situation we were three years ago and we haven’t made any progress at all except that our problems are much worse because of political reasons, because we now have a crazy party in charge of one of the Houses of our Congress and they won’t allow anything to happen because it’s in their vested interest to make things worse,” Bartlett explained in his typically exasperated way. “Plus they have a theory that is completely nuts…. I’m very depressed. I’d love to see some program like this [paper] enacted. I see zero chance of it happening. The most we can hope for is that a complete crazy person like Newt Gingrich gets the Republican nomination, the Republicans lose so badly that they lose control of the House and don’t get control of the Senate and then maybe in a year we can finally talk about doing something rational such as what is discussed in this paper.”

It's rare to find me in agreement with anything a Reaganite says, but some things are just obvious.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Why Obama is going to win

Christian television and video maker Jason "Molotov" Mitchell, sums up his feelings pretty well with this quote: "I can’t stand Barack Obama, but at least he doesn’t trade in his wives like used cars."

The good news is, this shows there is a floor. Even the Right-Wing Christofascists do have a sense of decency, at long last.

Friday, December 9, 2011

One is a ship of fools; the other is a private yacht

Imagine a balance scale that measures wealth. On the left side you put the poorest 30% of Americans, some 90 million people. On the right side you put the Walton heirs... all six of them.

And the scales balance.

That's right. Six people own as much wealth as 90 million Americans. That's 6 to 90,000,000. And they earned it the old-fashioned way: by inheriting it.

If you still think an inheritance tax on estates over a million dollars is theft, if you still think rich people are job creators, if you still think that the money trickles down from the top, if you still think a perfectly fair tax rate as enjoyed by this country for over 50 years of unprecedented growth would hobble growth, then you probably think Newt Gingrinch is a man of integrity.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Both ships are full of fools

It's not just the Right that is operating in a fact-free environment. Here's a woman who just discovered that Obama isn't a complete failure:
'Obama care' to the rescue

It turns out that the ACA actually helps people. Who knew? Well, anyone with a basic understanding of policy and law. Which rules out most of the electorate.

The political environment has become so shrill that openly lying is now the new norm, history is less than 24 hours, and even victories are painted as defeat by the side that lost and the side that won because they didn't win big enough.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Another review of Sara's book

This one by Felicia Day, of "Buffy," "The Guild," and "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" fame.

Color me officially jealous.