Monday, March 25, 2013

Something Jesus knew but Republicans forgot

Why the Rich don't give to charity
One of the most surprising, and perhaps confounding, facts of charity in America is that the people who can least afford to give are the ones who donate the greatest percentage of their income. In 2011, the wealthiest Americans—those with earnings in the top 20 percent—contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity. By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid—those in the bottom 20 percent—donated 3.2 percent of their income.
Does this surprise anyone but Republicans (and their condottieri, the Beltway punditry)? Because in that book which so many Republicans claim to love, we find:

Mark 12:41-44

41 And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much.
42 And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.
43 And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:
44 For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.
I swear, it's like they don't even read the thing.

I'm kidding a bit, of course. The article goes on to explain that rich people who are exposed to the problems of poverty are just as generous as the poor. So apparently it is not just being rich that makes you an asshole, but being isolated. Again, not news; but the point is that America's rich are increasingly isolated from the rest of the country, in where they live, work, and even in the media they use. And of course this goes a long way to explain the current Republican bubble; the problem with Fox is not so much that it is wrong so often, but rather that it is so isolated from the rest of society.

And again: Jared Diamond makes clear that one key to a society's ability to cope with environmental damage is making sure the decision makers suffer the effects of their decisions.

The echo chamber destroys everything human. This is because human beings are auto-calibrating feedback loops; they must have healthy input to generate healthy output. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, because absolute power operates in a vacuum: with no power to oppose it, with no useful feedback, every control circuit goes haywire.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Irony is dead

This is a long article on the moral issues of capitalism, a generally balanced article even it it is written by an essentially Conservative author. You can tell he's a Conservative because he so badly misrepresents the Liberal position. For example, he states:

The traditional liberal defense of redistribution, of course, is that a lot of what passes for economic success derives not only from hard work or ingenuity but also from good fortune — the good fortune to be born with the right genes and to the right parents, to grow up in the right community, to attend the right schools, to meet and be helped by the right people, or simply to be at the right place at the right time.

Notice what's missing here? The entire concept of redistribution as effective economic policy. In any market system that "thrives on unequal outcomes," you are going to get concentration of wealth. This concentration is, in and of itself, harmful to the market system, as he notes elsewhere in his article. Yet the simple conclusion - that redistribution is thus necessary for the health of the market system - completely escapes him. This is how you know you're reading a Conservative author: when simple conclusions are invisible because they contradict with ideology. Not just rejected, condemned, or argued against, but invisible.

He also states:

A useful debate about the morality of capitalism... should also acknowledge that there is no moral imperative to redistribute income and opportunity until everyone has secured a berth in a middle class free from economic worries.

There is, in fact, a strong moral imperative to free everyone from economic worries, starting with The Golden Rule and running straight through"If a man asks you for coat, give him your cloak as well," and "What you do for the least of those among you, you do for me." Yet another way you know you're reading a Conservative author: Jesus' moral imperatives are invisible.

But that's not what prompted this post. That's all par for the course. The sentence that prompted me to look out the window to verify that the sky was still blue, intact, and not full of aeronautic swine, was this:

How much income redistribution is enough? Must we keep redistributing until we reach the equality levels of the 1950s, which liberals seem to consider the golden years?

And there you have it. Conservativism has now reached the point of blasting Liberals for being too traditional.

Irony cannot exist without self-awareness; irony is dead.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

This is what evidence-based policy looks like

Following decriminalization, Portugal eventually found itself with the lowest rates of marijuana usage in people over 15 in the EU: about 10%. Compare this to the 40% of people over 12 who regularly smoke pot in the U.S., a country with some of the most punitive drugs laws in the developed world. Drug use of all kinds has declined in Portugal: Lifetime use among seventh to ninth graders fell from 14.01% to 10.6%. Lifetime heroin use among 16-18 year olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8%. And what about those horrific HIV infection rates that prompted the move in the first place? HIV infection rates among drug users fell by an incredible 17%, while drug related deaths were reduced by more than half. "There is no doubt that the phenomenon of addiction is in decline in Portugal," said Joao Goulao, President of the Institute of Drugs and Drugs Addiction, at a press conference to mark the 10th anniversary of the law. 
But to quote another famous philosopher:

What good are facts? With facts, you can prove anything that's even remotely true! - Homer Simpson
The point of the drug war, of course, is not to prevent drug use. It is to punish a certain class of people and marginalize them from civic life (and of course the political process). And how do we know this? Because if the goal of policy were to actually contain drug use, it would - like Portugal - be concerned with actual numbers.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

How to lose an argument with a two-year-old

As part of the inevitable going-out ritual for anyone who has a two-year-old, I was trying to convince Sophie to sit on the potty before we left.
"Go to the potty. The restaurant won't have a potty."
Her response was devastating, relying as it did on brute fact to destroy the premise of my argument:
"They have toilets."
And now my job is done. The next sixteen years are just polishing.