Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Day 38 of 2017: On reform Judaism

I like being a reform Jew, and essentially an atheist, and it's been hard not to think about the tensions and frequent lack thereof between those two statements lately. A quick story helps explain much of the lack of contradiction: at Temple Sinai, where we are members, one of the rabbis was talking to the parents as part of the open house for the School for Jewish Life and Learning (aka Hebrew School). I forget the exact context, but she basically said at one point "...God... [pause] ... or the spiritual force in your life as you yourself understand it ..." and went on to finish her point. In reform Judaism, we don't just believe in the separation of church and state, we believe in the separation of church and church, apparently. I know of at least one case where both the president of a synagogue (Hi, Mom!) and the chair of its Ritual Committee (Hi, Dad!) were both non-believers and no one really cared.

If you surveyed the approach to belief and faith in your average reform synagogue, I'm not sure if believers would really be in the majority most places. It's certainly not an overwhelming majority, and the median belief in some places probably falls somewhere in the agnostic/deistic part of the spectrum. I fall a bit more to the "faithless" part of the spectrum than that, sitting into the atheist camp with a non-trivial degree of curiosity for "God the programmer of the simulation in which we live" a la Elon Musk and techies throughout the ages [1]. Of course, mechanical theories like that don't really yield a useful theory of morality; rather, they explain why we might be here but not at all what we should do about that fact. To answer the obvious question with the obvious answer: yes, like all atheists forever, I try to hold fast to the Inverse Golden Rule, do NOT do unto others as you would have them NOT do unto you, while living up to the Golden Rule to the best of my abilities.

An aside: I realize the Golden Rule is more aspirational than realistic for the average person, but still, it bears repeating that people who claim religious beliefs really shouldn't act like assholes. Like, ever. This is not the kind of thing where you get to act like a schmuck and then claim backsies. Even if people annoy you, or have different beliefs, it's not your right as a person whose beliefs are grounded in most religious/ethical traditions to act out about it. If you do, it is not hypocrisy in the sense of simple inconsistency, it is hypocrisy in a fundamental sense that impugns your very character.

Anyway, if I am particularly comfortable as a reform Jew, the biggest reason is almost certainly because the values that they emphasize match up nicely with my own, with a particular focus on social justice as the centerpiece of reform Jewish identity [2]. In some cases, even I am skeptical if the religious justifications for some policies, e.g., Reform Judaism's embrace of LGBTQ equality, actually fit within the claimed textual framework that are used as references; of course, as a non-believer, I'm completely happy with the ends and don't really care overmuch what literature citations people use to get there [3].

Another aside: Whenever I organize my books, I always put my Tanakh (Old Testament) collection in the section I create for Jewish fiction. I find this joke amusing. I can't help it.

To the extent I have a disagreement with many (most?) reform Jews, especially the older half of the congregation, it's almost certainly my feelings towards Israel -- I have no problem with the idea that Israel has a right to exist, but I'm pretty extremely dovish, basically J Street and then some [4]. Luckily, I haven't been able to determine if Reform Judaism even has an official policy, and voices dissenting on the dovish side of the spectrum are certainly growing in number rapidly [5].

So, why the tension? The tricky spot is, of course, the kids. How do you properly teach children both ethics and skepticism? I have to admit, I still find this tricky. Our daughter is fully aware of my non-belief, and our son still believes that Star Wars and Batman might be documentaries, so we'll work more with him later. Basically, I've come around to discussing ethics as the central question now, and belief vs skepticism later. This might make me a bad New Atheist, but since it seems like moral beliefs and religious faith are essentially uncorrelated traits amongst the American population, and I suppose the world as well, I'd rather work on the former with my kids and let the latter sort itself out over time.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/oct/11/simulated-world-elon-musk-the-matrix

[2] http://www.reformjudaism.org/social-justice

[3] http://www.reformjudaism.org/practice/ask-rabbi/what-does-reform-judaism-say-about-homosexuality

[4] http://jstreet.org/

[5] http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2010/06/10/failure-american-jewish-establishment/

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Man's Best Friend Outside of a Dog: The decade in review

The best book I read from the past decade was a Great American Novel, in the all-caps sense, even though very few people seem to call it that just because the author is originally a Brit. Even though it fails to top my list, I see no need to insult Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, which topped The Million's best books of the decade list. It was very good, and written in the serious-story-about-a-troubled-family mode that invites being called a "Great American Novel", but it just doesn't top my list. No, my favorite book written in the past decade is undoubtably Neil Gaiman's America Gods, published in 2001.

Gaiman's story, which basically casts Norse mythology onto modern-day American society is a fantastic rea, as all Gaiman's books are. More importantly, the perspective he brings to American Society as an outsider seems to have leant him a much better understanding of what makes this country tick. America is big, and it's strange in a lot of places, and many towns in Illinois and the rest of the Midwest are a little depressing for reasons that are hard to name but involve some combination of flatness and economic stagnation. Gaiman manages to somehow make a comic book out of middle America without turning it into an out-and-out caricature, identifying the quirks of the culture and the fact that our values are often centered not so much upon the God who created us in his image but rather the gods that we created to transmit images. Part fantasy, part road novel, and part musing on the nature of modern identity, it captures the spirit of the contry right before the Bush era that could have easily served as an afterword to the novel.

Others deserving mention that I've read:

The Known World, by Edward P. Jones: Set in Virginia in the decade before the civil war, this story of a black slaveowning family is a slice of history about which I knew nothing. Fascinating, and the parallels to modern society aremore than thoughtprovoking.

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz: One of the best new writers out there, this tale of life in New Jersey and the Dominican Republic has a strong narrative voice and a real joy for language.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union, by Michael Chabon: Chabon is a much better writer when he writes about Jewish theme, and this counterfactual novel about a Jewish state set up in Alaska is his most complete work to date. His novella Gentlemen of the Road is also fantastic, for the same reasons.

The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri: Another novel in which seeing both India and America as an outsider has leant the author real insight into one's place in the world and the difficulty in establishing it. Her short story collections, Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth, show her mastery of the genre, too.

Radiance, by Carter Scholz: The best book about scientists I've read in possibly forever, this talk of bureaucratic malfeasance at a national lab does a great and frequently hilarious job of contrasting the big pictures we all dream of with the more humdrum aspects of modern life.

Just to clarify the quote, Grouho Marx quipped that "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."

Now playing: U2 - In God's Country
via FoxyTunes

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's assets

As a relatively recent homebuyer in Upstate New York, I'd like to think I'm pretty isolated from the worst of the housing bubble's bursting. Prices around here have been fairly flat for decades, failing to go up dramatically along with the rest of the country for the past 15 years, but also failing to drop much either. When looking for a mortgage, the most exotic option we considered was a 25-year fixed, but in the end the 30-year fixed just seemed like the better option.

Many people around the country were eiter not so fortunate, or not so wise. The government's efforts to help ease the crisis be encouraging banks to modify the interest rates on mortgages have been either ineffective or actively counterproductive, since, according to experts quoted by the NYTimes,
desperate homeowners have sent payments to banks in often-futile efforts to keep their homes, which some see as wasting dollars they could have saved in preparation for moving to cheaper rental residences.
Banks still have bad loans on their books, home prices are still being artificially inflated, and widespread foreclosures are damaging entire neighborhoods.

The solution popular among economists is to encourage banks to modify the principal amounts of mortgages gone bad, even if this is on the government dime. Needless to say, this is often unpopular, with frequent sentiments being echoed by CNBC's resident real estate blogger, Diana Olick:
The arguments are plain and simple: Bite the bullet to save the greater housing market or don't because the moral hazard is far too untenable. Anyone who's ever read this blog before knows where I stand. I would honestly rather see my home's value go down than see the guy next door (figurative: my neighbors are lovely and fiscally responsible) who made a poor/negligent financial decision get a mulligan at my expense.
She's really fond of blaming both banks and homeowners, but especially the homeowners:
I'm sorry, but I'm just getting a little sick of all the onus being laid on the banks. Sure, they deserve half of it, but what about the borrowers?? We seem to excuse all their responsibility because the possibility exists that they could lose their homes. But realistically, many borrowers are sitting in said homes, rent free, actively refusing to take the help being offered because they'd have to admit they lied.
Principal modifications have a lot of potential benefits, including lower payments for homeowners, and a higher chance for the bank that the borrower will keep repaying a loan. Becuae it instantly increases the borrower's equity stake, they become more mobile, able to seek out better job/life opportunities and increasing the chance that the house will pass on to a new buyer rather than into the hands of the bank. The problem is that even though banks and underwater homeowners are the responsible parties, we as a society end up getting stuck with the bill. It's not pleasant, but we're long since beyond pleasant. I get worried, at some point, by frequent moral hazard arguments that manage to basically exonerate corporate misbehavior while bringing down wrath on everyone else. The basic idea is that it's better to suffer a little oneself so long as those who were foolish suffer more. Is this really the best we can manage these days? While I appreciate that times are tough all over, it's stunning to see how much concern is paid to the idea that someone undeserving might get ahead in life. It underlies the affirmative action debate, the debates over welfare from the 80's onward, a good bit of the Teabagger/anti-tax crowd, and a shockingly large part of our political culture.

Seriously, why? Perhaps some of it is corporate culture, in that every tax dollar we are forced to contribute is a dollar that we can't spend on a new electronic gadget that will revolutionize our existence as we know it (damn those underwater homeowners, now I can't afford Rock Band: Glockenspiel!). A lot of it, though, is simple acceptance of the "backhanded tenth commandment", which basically states "I will not covet my neighbor's possessions so long as I ensure that I have more than he does." It probably helps explain why so many people are often so stressed, harried, and generally unhappy:
Psychologists at the University of Rochester evaluated survey responses from 147 recent graduates, noting their achievements and their level of happiness over a period of two years. People's goals were divided into two categories: extrinsic (things like wealth, fame and personal image) and intrinsic (for example, meaningful relationships, health and personal growth). Achieving intrinsic goals led to higher self-esteem and a greater sense of well-being, the researchers statistical analysis revealed. But, in a snub for the American dream, attaining the extrinsic goals of wealth and fame led to anxiety and unhappiness.
At some point, it would be good if the dominant political mindset of the chattering class, and perhaps that of the nation as a whole, was not that of a vengeful six-year old. As is nearly always true, the best advice comes from Raffi: "All I Really Need is a Song in my Heart, Food in my belly, and love in my Family" or, if you prefer a more stoned adult perspective, from Rusted Root: "All I need is food and creative love". Decrying the fact that your neighbors and fellow citizens are not losing their houses really won't help you achieve any of these.

Now playing: Rusted Root - Food & Creative Love
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Bang and Blame

Lord, please forgive Brit Hume, for he knows not what he does. The sanctimonious former Fox host made headlines a few days ago for suggesting that Tiger Woods come to Jesus:
He is said to be a Buddhist. I don't think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So, my message to Tiger is, 'Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.
Later, digging himself in deeper, he clarified to Bill O'Reilly:
Hume said that given Woods problems, he "needs something that Christianity, especially, provides, and gives and offers."
As Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly points out, such beliefs hardly helped Gov. Mark Sanford (Adulterer/Hiker-SC), Sen. John Ensign (Adulterer-NV), David Vitter (John-LA), Larry Craig ("Wide Stance"-ID), and a host of others. In a beautifully written post, Ta-Nehisi Coates puts into words how forgiveness and redemption truly work:
We like to think about redemption in terms of getting past a sin, but we don't really think about the process as teaching us something.

As someone who's done his share of sinning, I think the striking thing about a serious process of redemption is how it humbles you. It isn't simply a process of exoneration, or making amends, it's a fundamental questioning of bone-deep philosophy. You learn about the ignorance of your certainty. Having been deeply wrong before, you come to know that as a flawed thing, you are subject to being deeply wrong again.
What Hume fails to understand in the slightest is who needs to forgive whom here. If Tiger Woods needs forgiveness from those around him, or the public at large, in theory he should make amends to the former and start leading by example for the rest of us. This obviously doesn't have to involve JC. If Tiger Woods needs to humble himself, I think it is fair to suggest that any number of religions offer means for self-humility. Quoting the Dalai Lama for instance,
"The whole purpose of religion is to facilitate love and compassion, patience, tolerance, humility, and forgiveness."
Perhaps Brit Hume lacks the humility both to learn the first thing about Buddhism before bashing it on national TV, or perhaps he can't forgive Tiger Woods because he views him as a heathen, even though, to quote JC in Mark 11:25:
And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.
Why can't Brit Hume forgive Tiger Woods, and by his own internal projection, the rest of us forgive Tiger? At its heart lies one of the creeping sicknesses in American society.

In Judaism, to paraphrase, sins against God must be forgiven by God (Yom Kippur is the day of Atonement for this purpose), but sins against your fellow man require atonement from the aggrieved party. I don't fully understand the Christian policy as it varies from sect to sect, but it certainly seems as if God plays a potentially larger role in forgiving all of us. Because Christianity is faith-based to a larger degree than Judaism, faith is placed in a more central role for achieving forgiveness. Here is where we have to carefully follow the chain of giver and recipient:If person X has faith in God, defined in appropriately Christian terms, according to my best understanding of Christianity, then God will forgive their sins. This does not imply that for person X to forgive person Y, then person Y needs to have faith in JC. This is only a condition for God to grant forgiveness from God to person Y. Brit Hume and the others of his ilk seek to hold others to a standard they try to establish for themselves, and also take on the judgment role for others reserved for that higher authority. Their belief, even if they can't admit it to themselves, is that if person Y has faith in God, then they will forgive person Y. This is not an idle argument, as it has been suggested that Mike Huckabee essentially used this background logic for granting clemency while governor of Arkansas.

It is a dangerous game when people not only assume the role of a higher power in granting forgiveness, but also for passing divine judgment as well. George Bush, Tony Blair, Joe Lieberman, and a number of other religiously motivated folks seem to have a pretty good idea about who we should go about the world killing, and shockingly enough those on the receiving end always worship a different name of God. The group responsible for setting up the Death Penalty in the US recently "pronounced its project a failure and walked away from it." And yet, the death penalty is still widely popular, and even Obama supports its use in some cases. Why does the taste for blood run so deep? Why did 58% of people support torturing the underwear bomber in a recent survey, and why do we assume that torture should merely be limited to terorists? What about drug kingpins, child rapists, and billion-dollar embezzlers? It is because we embrace punishment, and relish it. We wish to inflict pain and suffering when it has been inflicted on us, the Golden Rule be damned.

In the end, forgiveness, to quote the Dalai Lama, comes from a sense of humility, and it is a bastardized version that emerges when we assume the divine mantle instead. Perhaps we are so used to being a hegemonic nation, a country blessed by the divine to lead the world, that we feel as citizens of the country that the divine rights fall to us all individually too. To quote a Bush advisor back in 2003:
"I think President Bush is God's man at this hour, and I say this with a great sense of humility."
They keep using that word, but I do not think it means what they think it means. As painful as it is, we should probably try to forgive them, regardless of our religiuous beliefs, even though we should also point out their deluded idiocy when appropriate. Without sarcasm, let me suggest that their understanding of their own morals is so clouded that they really no longer understand the words coming out of their own mouths. It may be a product of their own willful ignorance, but they know not what they do.

Now playing: R.E.M. - Bang And Blame
via FoxyTunes

Monday, January 4, 2010

I don't want the world, I just want your half

The strangest thing about US hegemony in the world isn't so much that some people support the idea, but rather that so few "respectable" people oppose it. Recent estimates of world military spending attribute over 40% of the world's total military spending to the US alone, and when you figure that it's pretty highly unlikely we'll get into a shooting war any time soon with the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan, the US easily outspends all countries with whom we have any rivalry or even fairly neutral relations. China, the number 2 spender, is a factor of 7 behind us, and needless to say we have something of a head start. At the risk of being uncouth, this is frickin' insane, really. We can defend ourselves from all nations in the world for a fraction of the cost, and it appears we'll never be able to afford the cost of putting a stable, reputable government in Iraq or Afghanistan until we decide to pay off the entire populace: ($150 billion per year/36 million people = $4000 per person = 4-5 times the annual per capita income in either country). Heck, we could bribe everyone in both countries, and still cut costs in the short run!

Speaking as a fairly eager recipient of government funds myself, it's worth noting that not every military dollar we spend goes to waste: military salaries keep people employed and the defense industry afloat. Still, with a price tag for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq approaching $1 trillion, it's hard to attribute that to salary, and I think it's fair to say a decent bit of that money has gone to transporting people and stuff back and forth and blowing a lot of shit up, with little to show for in terms of infrastructure improvements in its wake, certainly not a rate of return with which we should be pleased. For comparison sake, this is more than the entire health-care bill at the moment, and that even pays for itself by most estimates. It is also sufficient to basically cure world hunger, or eliminate a handful of nasty diseases. And yet, if one suggests that perhaps these are reasonable goals, rather than hegemonic power, it's basically like shouting out that you are a crazed leftist.

It's now to the point where we are spending on toys that can only be really used against our toys, since no one else will ever be able to get in the game. As Matt Yglesias points out, we are designing laser cannons to use against enemy planes, but no one even attempts to challenge our Air Force with their own, since doing so is a quick way to eliminate one's Air Force as a useful fighting force.

Respected senators, or at least those like Lieberman who seem to have the respect of their peers for unknown reasons, call for us to consider attacking Yemen... but what exactly are we supposed to attack? One might think yet another desert conflict in a failing/failed state without a clearly defined objective might raise warning signs, but he wasn't exactly laughed off the set of Fox News Sunday. After Afghanistan, Iraq, blowback into the tribal areas of Pakistan, the collapse of Somalia, the ongoing collapse in Yemen, etc., one might think to reconsider the real gains from our hegemonic spending, but no, we're discussing whether to attack Iran and Yemen as a serious conversation. Quoting Matt Yglesias again, this isn't going to end well:
Today America is worried about chaos in Afghanistan, but there are also indications that al Qa’eda has found safe haven in Somalia and Yemen. Broken states, alas, are not all that rare. To suggest that the United States could succeed in its mission to vastly improve governance in Afghanistan, given enough time and money and manpower, hardly provides evidence that the task could be repeated in Sudan and Nigeria and Chad. If it’s true that the world’s security depends on eradicating every pocket of instability on Earth, then we really are doomed.
Given all these problems, some of the cheaper options include not advertising quite so widely our overwhelming desire to torture people, since this really doesn't help our reputation overseas. It's been noted that the underpants bomber's father actually reported on him to US authorities, and that he might have had more qualms if he suspected we were going to torture his kid, seemingly just for the sake of inflicting pain given that it hasn't been reported that he's withholding important information from the authorities at the moment. Even cheaper, though, would be basically getting out of the game, or at least cutting back by about 75%, leaving us still hegemon but at least closer to the pack.

Consider Japan, if you will. Not perfect by any means, but they live longer than we do, spend considerably less on defense, and no one is attacking them on a regular basis! This includes al Qaeda, who currently rank between lightning strikes and roller skating accidents as a cause for death for Americans since 9/11, well behind falls in the bathroom and car crashes while texting. It also includes China, even though they are in the neighborhood and we spend 40% of the world's military budget defending against them.

The best test of an idea is often to bring it up out of context and ask if it stands in its own right or merely because it's always been the case. Imagine we were not the world's hegemon: how much would we as a nation wish to spend on the military? I have trouble that the answer is seven times as much as China and more than all the non-EU states in the world combined. The only reason it is considered reasonable is because we did it last year and the year before that and on backwards. It was almost certainly rather crazy back in the days of the Cold War, and it's only getting nuttier since.

Perhaps the problem is that we refer to it as the "defense" budget. Clue to those who haven't figured this one out: it doesn't cost this much to defend oneself. Many countries manage it for much cheaper. Who in the world is really going to attack us militarily at this point. The Navy and Air Force essntially own their respective domains, and the Army is unattackable. Why are we doing this? To the extent we are vulnerable, it is because of our hegemony, and the attackers are not states whom we can smash, but random people armed with explosives and hand-to-hand weapons. Throwing billions after billions isn't really getting us anywhere, maybe we could try spending a few billion less. After all, save a few billion here and a few billion there, and pretty soon we are talking real money...and healthcare...and an end to world hunger.

Now playing: They Might Be Giants - Ana Ng
via FoxyTunes

Sunday, January 3, 2010

I'm looking through you

I'm pretty sure that it's not the correct quote nor the meaning of the correct quote, but it is hard not to think these days that "the media is the message", in that many of the stories that they dwell upon endlessly are basically the stories that only they feel the need to dwell upon endlessly. The shoe bomber sequel is perhaps the most recent example, in that the media is in a panic, Republican operatives are having a field day making attacks that they themselves would have called treasonous way back when in 2001 when Richard Reid tried the same exact thing, and honestly I'm not sure if anyone else really cares. By this point, if you haven't figured out that much of airline security is theater designed to make us feel safe, learn to love Teh Google, as there are 63,000 hits that can basically go over the concept for us. No, I think we all realize to some extent that while the government is good at retroactively preventing attacks that have already been attempted, there is inevitably a chance that someone will come up with a new way to attack a plane.

Quick aside: Like Kevin Drum in the following link, I think it is true that the fact al Qaeda always attacks planes and/or buses is a sign of weakness. Since 9/11, Afghan militants, Filipino militants, several African generals, and a bunch of other groups have figured out clever ways to slaughter the innocent. Al Qaeda likes to attack planes using shoes and underpants. They've tried twice in a decade, and failed both times, with the gravest injury being to the crotch of the most recent attempted bomber. As Nate Silver points out, airline travel is not just safe, it's ridiculously safe:
Therefore, the odds of being on given departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade. By contrast, the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are about 1 in 500,000. This means that you could board 20 flights per year and still be less likely to be the subject of an attempted terrorist attack than to be struck by lightning.

If you are content leaving home without a lightning rod in your pocket, you should probably feel ok to fly. Honestly, I think people already know this, and the media freakout is basically an orchestrated show for the right wing to land free potshots and the hyperventilators to show how panicked all the rest of us should be. Remember during the past decade, of course, when across America the government and media hypervintilated about terrorism and New Yorkers, the people hit hardest and most likely tobe hit again, almost universally said "Al Qaeda? Fuhgeddaboutit. Fuck 'em." and managed to live life while small midwestern city governments built concrete fortifications around obscure county buildings.

The situation is so bad that David Brooks of the NYT is being held up as a voice of reason for his New Year's column. While agreeing in part with him, I think he misses a key point:

Resilient societies have a level-headed understanding of the risks inherent in this kind of warfare.

But, of course, this is not how the country has reacted over the past week. There have been outraged calls for Secretary Janet Napolitano of the Department of Homeland Security to resign, as if changing the leader of the bureaucracy would fix the flaws inherent in the bureaucracy. There have been demands for systemic reform — for more protocols, more layers and more review systems.

We do have a resilient society, by and large. The outraged calls and demands are a product of the media, by the media, and for the media. The rest of us were singing Auld Lang Syne badly, watching football, and other similar pursuits.

That said, while I think those calling for random insulting ways to racially profile Muslims really have no grasp of what drives a lot of the hatred of the US, I have to say that the proposal to put in many more full body scanners in airports doesn't really bother me. Even the two year old is starting to learn the names for various parts of herself, and I hope it comes as no surprise that there really aren't that many variations in all our parts. To put it mildly, even though many of us spend way to much time obsessing over penises and boobies, I'm pretty sure that after an airline scan technician looks at a few hundred, most of the prurient thrill will be gone. Your first glimpse of unobscured anatomy is a thrill, the thousandth, not so much. If this is what it takes to make a few people feel better, I can live with it, as the idea of just having everyone fly naked is hampered by sanitary and climate control issues. For those worried about privacy, the big threat is not a full-body scan, it's google if you've ever posted a single detail about your life on the internet, or if someone else has (hint: someone else has, trust me). Between google, facebook, and all the other easily searchable ways to find out info about people, our private lives are rarely private these days. If you haven't done so recently, try googling yourself. The only hope any of us has for anonymity these days is not a high level of privacy, but rather a common name. Matthew Smith, you are in luck. Me, somewhat, as there are a few of me and my googlegangers to obscure exactly who is who and who did what. In light of this, I just have trouble getting worked up about the idea of an airline screener staring at the outline of my genitalia for three seconds in a day full of body after same generic body.

Is such a step necessary to feel safe at the airport? Not at all! Driving in snow is a vastly bigger risk than a flight, and the biggest fear I have of air travel is having to sleep overnight in some of the country's lovely connecting airports after the restaurants have closed. Still, it's just not a big deal, and if it helps us as a society to get over some of our bizarre body issues, all the better. In the end, our genitals are our own, but they are basically like half of everyone else's too.

Now playing: The Beatles - I'm Looking Through You
via FoxyTunes

Saturday, January 2, 2010

I'm just a bill, yes I'm only a bill

An incredibly hostile FAQ about healthcare reform (aka, HCR):

What is the key issue to remember when discussing HCR? That Congress is broken, and to the extent it works, it's generally to funnel money to the lawmakers themselves.

Wait, what about HCR? We're getting there, hold on a sec...

OK, why is Congress so broken? Well, one party acts like we have a parliamentary system, where party discipline is king and there is no need to negotiate across the aisle, whereas the other is famously disorganized, full of corporate sellouts, and actually does take no steps to maintain party discipline, as Chairman Lieberman can attest. The House passes stuff, but is full of idiots from both parties who don't even understand the work of the committee they chair, speak loudly without saying anything, and needless to say the one nuclear scientist in the room must often feel like he's talking to the furniture.

Wait, if they are so useless how do they pass stuff? Two answers: Nancy Pelosi and lobbyists. In Pelosi's defense, her job is to pass decent legislation, and the house does do so. To go into more depth, congresspeople don't write legislation, they put their names on lobbyists' legislation. Their job is to choose which lobbyists get to write it. I'm pretty convinced lobbyists earn their money not by being evil, but rather by appealing in broad ways to the interests of sitting legislators and then working in sweet deals fro their clients at the margins of bills. I can say for darn sure that the average house member has no concept whatsoever of the content of an average bill, even if they wrote it. Think of it like a university research time. The legislator (professor) is busy with meetings and other important functions, so they hire a team of aides (postdocs) who do know their stuff, but can't handle all the volume of what they have to do, so much of the grunt work is done by lobbyists (grad students), who work for peanuts (large comissions) and scrape by (live comfortably) based on leftover free food (hefty payments by their clients). See, it's a nearly perfect analogy (not a perfect analogy).

Anyway, what about the Senate. How does it work? Bribery. Mary Landrieu was bought off for $100 million, which is pretty cheap considering that they really needed her vote. Ben Nelson got such a sweet deal that he's now actually embarassed by it. Lieberman is just a prick.

So the bill is a product of corruption and idiocy? Yes.

So we should hope it goes down to defeat, right? WRONG!

We should support it, because it is a product of corruption and idiocy? No, as we established, all Congressional bills are like this, but this one happens to help millions of Americans get health insurance.

Why shouldn't they blow up the current bill and start from scratch on a better one? Naive sucker, Congress. Congress, naive sucker. It never gets better, it's Congress. It only gets worse over time. To draw a historical analogy of which my wife is fond, Lincoln was attacked viciously during the civil war because the Emancipation Proclamation was seen as overly compromised, not freeing all slaves in the country. I think his judgment looks OK in hindsight, because it was better than not doing anything.

Why should we make people buy insurance with an individual mandate? Because that's how social contracts work, people. The whole point of insurance is to have the healthy pay for the sick, otherwise, we wouldn't need it. Something has to make the healthy overpay, on the chance they might become sick, or otherwise the sick have to pay the full amount, and that's really not a good thing.

What about the increase in the stock prices for the health insurance companies? They think it's a great deal for them... The stock market is driven by people not much more accurate than Jim Cramer over the long run. They basically put a finger to the wind and then say to buy if some idiot on CNBC says he has a hunch. It's also been pointed out that food stamps are a great boon to supermarket chains and the tycoons of companies like ADM, who are hardly liberal heroes, but that doesn't argue for cutting off food stamps.

I still want Medicare for all. Why can't I have it? Congress! How many times now? It takes $100 million to bribe a powerful senator, and much less for the average congresscritter. For any issue that could cost an industry more than several billion dollars, they will generally be able to bribe their way into getting what they want, since it is in their economic interest to act that way.

Medicare-for-all pretty please? Look, I agree with you, which is why they should have pushed for lowering the eligibility age over time down to 55, maybe by 1 year per year or two. They didn't, and instead the public option was basically stripped of all its power in the house, then killed completely by jackass centrists in the Senate, and then Lieberman poked a stick in everyone's eyeby pushing for, then against, the Medicare buy-in option.

I'm depressed, we should blow up the whole system and rebuild something better from the ashes... This was actually the argument of a popular post at Daily Kos, arguing that the "technocrats" like Ezra Klein (who along with Jon Cohn and Nate Silver are the three people everyone should consult on this issue on a daily basis) were wrong about Iraq, while the Dirty F'in Hippies were right, and the same split is playing out on the left over Health Care reform. Unfortunately, the argument is backwards. As a general rule, it is very worrisome when people agree to risk immediate harm to others in return for some greater good in the future. In Iraq, we were fighting for some sense of security in the future (read: oil profits) that was never really at risk (read: oil profits going to other countries instead!). Those many deaths were traded for the broken and illusory promise of a brighter future, which remains a moral stain on our nation and will continue to do so long into the future.

With healthcare, we have the chance to make a tangible gain now, admittedly one that falls far short of what many of us would have liked to see. Blowing that chance up for some possible future healthcare panacea is just as immoral in a priori terms, as there are real people who will suffer while we place our trust in the American healthcare system to break down and then Congress to step in and fix it. Needless to say, while the former is certainly decent bet, the latter is pure fantasy. While imperfect, the current bill helps a great number of people, an that is the true standard on which it needs to be judged.

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