Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Haiku For Today

This is by Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827):

Writing shit about new snow
for the rich
is not art.


Friday, January 25, 2013


A list of some delicious things:

The velvety undersides of floppy dog ears.
The sudden shock of bright red berries against black branches and white snow.
Crunchy new words.
Music which you expect not to like but which takes you over.
The high after strenuous exercise.
The high after a migraine attack.
Lovely readers, smart readers.
The way little children's bodies smell.
Waking up and realizing that you still have an hour's worth of sleep left before having to get up.

Now tell me why that list turns me into a Hallmark card goddess?  What is it that makes me cynical of delights?  Being a born pessimist, always wondering what the future cost of each blissful moment might be?  Or is it something similar to Tolstoy's "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" in that it's much harder to write about happiness than about unhappiness because the former has less variety, gets repeated too often and ultimately begins to sound trite?

On the Paradox of Poor Southern Republicans

Is there something in the Bible about Jesus wanting us all to bear arms?  I've read through it a few times but can't recall anything of that sort.  Perhaps the eleventh commandment, only applicable in Murka?  Thou Shalt Be Armed.

The reason for those silly thoughts can be found in this article about Republican voters in the US South:

Jeri Bilbo would seem a natural supporter of the Democratic Party’s vow to protect the social safety net during the spending-cut debate in Washington.
Her husband gets disability payments and government-funded health care after leaving his dock-worker job in New Orleans because of rheumatoid arthritis. They live in a drafty farmhouse in southern Mississippi having lost their home to foreclosure.
“It will keep the rain off us, but it won’t keep the cold off,” said Bilbo, 60.
Yet Bilbo, who registered as a Republican to vote as a high school senior, said she’s stuck with the party out of tradition. She’s an example of the contrarian nature of U.S. politics, where people often vote against their economic self-interest because of family, culture or such issues as abortion and guns.
Poplarville and Picayune, the two largest cities in Pearl River County, are dotted with payday loan businesses and inexpensive retailers such as Family Dollar Stores.
Glenda Hebert, 74, a Poplarville resident, says she voted for Romney and has been a lifelong Republican, even with her dependence on government anti-poverty programs.
Asked why she’s a Republican, Hebert’s answer is succinct: “Because I’m a Christian.” She said she attends an Assembly of God church and blames Obama for “murdering all the babies with abortion” and worries that “pretty soon he’ll be taking the guns away.”

The question the article raises is whether people make rational decisions in politics.  Because I'm tired I won't go on the usual detours of discussing all the different concepts of rationality we might apply here.  Neither will I start exploring the question whether human beings ever make truly rational decisions.  But it's worth pointing out that the article seems to regard "rationality" as equal to very narrowly defined financial self-interest.  Or as voting your wallet. 

From that angle the Southern poor Republican voters are not rational, because their home states are net recipients of federal aid, and Democratic administrations are more likely to continue such aid than Republican administrations.  But the article argues that the same is true about some Democrats who vote for their own taxes to be higher:
People in the South tend to be concentrated in “donor” states, those that receive more federal tax dollars than they contribute, Heberlig said. “If you listen to the rhetoric, you’d think it’d be just the opposite,” he said. 
Democrats also vote at times against their own economic interests, since the representatives they send to Congress have generally been supportive of raising taxes. Among the 20 wealthiest congressional districts in the last Congress, 12 were represented by Democrats and eight by Republicans.

That definition of rationality is too narrow, an almost claustrophobic one.  For instance, I might vote for something that will increase my own tax burden even if I'm purely selfishly motivated if the proposal under consideration gives me greater overall benefits than the increase in my taxes.  Depending on the valuation mechanism I choose, those benefits could be some monetary equivalent of, say, a safer society, a better educated society or more direct benefits created by large construction projects bringing money into the community.

In a similar vein, that the poor Southern Republicans vote against their own financial self-interests doesn't necessarily make them irrational.  If Ms. Hebert, for instance, places a higher value for the banning of abortions and for her right to go about armed to the teeth, she may well be willing to give up the government support she lives on.  In other words, the benefits, for her, may outweigh the costs, for her.

What makes her case different are the answers she gives when asked why she is a Republican.  It is those answers which make me conclude that her choices are not rational.  President Obama does not go around "murdering babies with abortion" and is extremely unlikely to take all the guns away.  And neither of these two has much anything to do with the Christian Bible which never mentions abortion directly and most likely never says anything about the right to bear arms.

My guess is that many, many voters are not terribly rational in their choices.  This is partly because our time is limited, and those who work two jobs or one job with long hours and/or have the care of many others as their lot simply do not have the time to follow politics as keenly as, say, snake goddesses and other such leeches.  But sure, some people simply can't be bothered to learn much about our shared concerns.  It's easier to go by tradition and by the social pressure.  Not voting at all is even easier.

Still, I smell the fruits of much successful Republican propaganda in what Ms. Hebert said.   It is difficult to make careful political choices if the daily news media consist of right-wing talk shows, Fox news and the like, and if the churches preach on the evils of abortion while not saying very much about something the Bible talks about a lot:  The evils of greedy business people and human greed in general.  The same would be true (in a reverse political sense) if vast segments of the popular media were a Stalinist retraining program.  But that's not the case, whatever the conservatives say about the evil liberal media.

The question this raises in my mind is the following one:  Does anyone explain to the Ms. Heberts of this world what the costs and benefits of her choices are?  That were her party truly successful she might lose those government poverty benefits she relies on?  My impression is that many voters do not connect those dots, and the media doesn't try to reach out to them.


Thursday, January 24, 2013

And the Critics of Women in Combat Roles Speak!

Some reactions to the announcement that the ban on women in combat roles has been removed.  These are from one Eschaton thread but you should really compare them to my earlier post, to see how standard the arguments are and how much they are based on the assumption that war is unarmed hand-to-hand combat:

I hate to tell you this, Atrios, but women are generally smaller, weaker and slower than men. That's why even feminists don't bitch about sexually segregated sports tours. With rare exception, having women in combat means male soldiers will have to expend energy protecting women that they'd probably prefer using to defend themselves. What could possibly go wrong with that? Also, last I heard, combat was considered a hostile work environment.You know, Atrios, it must be so fun sanctimoniously denying reality like you do. You're really good at it. No wonder you consider so many other people to be assholes.



Among most mammal species, males are bigger and stronger because they fight more. Does this mean that males are better fighters and would that be a reason not to allow females to fight in armies?  Does the use of military weapons such as AR-15's negate the physical advantage of males and are females just as likely as males to use those weapons to kill the males/females of the hated foreign armies? Does Atrios - or anyone - know the answer to these questions? Anyway Atrios will apparently ignore the questions.

Skeptonomist Habilis

Here's what I wrote yesterday:

The older, and still prevalent, anti-feminist arguments about women in combat are that women are naturally and inherently incapable of the aggression that is required, that women are naturally and inherently slower, weaker and smaller than men and therefore will not be of value in military combat, and that men are (perhaps also naturally and inherently) always going to be chivalrous towards women so that female soldiers are a burden-to-be-protected in combat, not an asset.  The anti-feminists also don't think we can mix sexes in the military, and point out military rape as the unavoidable outcome.  How that goes with the chivalry argument is usually left unexplained.  Finally, the anti-feminists say that mixed-sex military troops cannot have the necessary bonding which only works among men.

Isn't all that precious?  By the way, I have no idea if most mammal species have bigger males than females because the males fight more.  I don't know if the males are bigger than the females in most mammal species and I'm not sure how "fighting" is interpreted in this context.  The predatory species don't leave the females at home when they go hunting for food, for instance, and I've read that it's the lionesses who do most of the hunting for the pride.

But if we took those arguments truly seriously, we'd only let into the military those men who are fast, big and strong.  We would never allow any slow men in, for example, and we would certainly kick out all those old generals who are no longer fast and strong.

The point is, of course, that once again the selection process should be about the individual applicant, not about some large group which contains much variation inside it.   The more important point is that warfare is no longer based on who is the physically strongest, fastest and largest but on the use of weaponry, tactics, strategies and financial resources.

Those comments I quoted are from the older anti-feminist arguments.  I'm not strong enough today to cruise the hate sites (and I'm out of bleach and barbed-wire shower brushes), so I can't tell you what the more modern MRA side says.

Just for fun:

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish. That would be Bobby Jindal, the Governor of Louisiana.

Governor Jindal:

NEW ORLEANS -- Starting Feb. 1 Louisiana will stop offering hospice care services to most patients on medicaid.
The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals is eliminating the service to families in the state due to state budget cuts.
Critics are up in arms.
The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals say the elimination of hospice care for medicaid patients will mean nearly $3.3 million in savings this year alone. In 2014, it'll mean $8.3 million in savings.
However, Burns believes the state will end up paying much more with terminally ill patients forced to turn to local hospitals.

Hospice care  is the palliative care of the terminally ill.  It is intended as a substitute for the kind of aggressive curative care which no longer works to keep the patient alive.  Hospice care may also provide additional benefits to the patients and their families in terms of psychological support and better pain relief.  The focus in hospice care is to improve the patient's quality of life in the last weeks of life. 

The "critics" referred to in that quote are people who think denying palliative care to dying people is cruel and callous and people who point out that this move is unlikely to produce any savings once we figure out what the alternative sources of care cost those patients will resort to.

I spent a little time looking for studies on the cost-effectiveness of hospice care for terminally ill people.  The majority of such studies show that hospice costs considerably less than the conventional care alternatives:

“Hospice is not just about managing death,” emphasizes Craig C. Earle, MD, MSc, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (Boston, Massachusetts). “High-quality palliative care can be of great benefit to a patient, and that benefit accrues over time.” Hospice is beneficial in several realms, including the patient's quality of life, patient and family satisfaction, and cost effectiveness.8–12 One study even indicated that hospice significantly extended survival for patients with lung, pancreatic, or colorectal cancer compared with patients who did not receive hospice care.13
The Medicare Payment Advisory Committee (MedPAC) has also noted that the opportunity for a comprehensive palliative care program increases with longer hospice stays.4 Researchers have found that services as bereavement counseling, palliative care, and respite for caregivers was experienced by patients and families who used hospice for at least 7 to 8 weeks12 and that the maximum benefit of hospice is achieved by a stay of 80 to 90 days.8
The cost savings of hospice has been documented in several studies. A meta-analysis published in 1996 indicated that the use of hospice saved as much as 40% of health care costs during the last month of life and 17% over the last 6 months.10 In a later study, the health care costs specifically for patients with cancer were 13% to 20% lower for those who had received hospice care than for those who had not.11 Similar findings were reported in 2007: hospice use was found to significantly reduce Medicare costs during the last year of life by an average of $2,309 per hospice user.12 In addition, Medicare costs were reduced further the longer an individual was enrolled in hospice. Cost savings were more pronounced for patients with cancer than for patients with other diagnoses, especially for longer stays.12

What will those terminally ill Louisiana patients do when they are denied coverage for hospice care?  Continue using the existing care framework, including expensive hospitalizations, I would think.  The most likely outcome is that this move will increase the overall costs of taking care of these patients. 

That's what makes Jindal penny-wise and pound-foolish.  Sure, abolishing hospice care will show savings in that column but those savings must be compared with the increased costs of conventional hospital care for the terminally ill.  Unless Jindal somehow plans to stop the terminally ill patients from receiving any care at all, the outcome of this proposal will be an increase in the costs of Louisiana Medicaid program.

It's not even necessary to discuss Jindal's possible callousness or cruelty here (though hospice care also has many non-monetary benefits which the proposal also ends).  The proposal doesn't even save resources.

Duh.  Now I read that Jindal has backed away from the plan and that hospice care will continue be funded for the Medicaid recipients in Louisiana.  That's good news.  But it means this post is outdated before it's even out!

I'm still going to publish it because the proposal is a perfect example of the "press-the-balloon" approaches to cost containment in health care.  When you press the balloon at one end to make it smaller it just expands at the other end, and this is exactly the way many health care cost cutting programs work.  As long as the costs in the two ends of the balloon fall on different parts of the system the cost cutting program might look like a great success.  But once all the relevant costs are counted,  the savings often turn out illusionary.

Annie, Get Your Gun. Removing The Combat Ban on Military Women.

If the sources have this right, Pentagon chief Leon Panetta is removing the ban on women serving in combat.  Is this progress that a feminist would want to see?

The answer depends on which feminist one asks.  My own reaction is complicated.  First, I would much prefer that we not have wars at all.  Wars kill people, wars leave people maimed in body and in mind, wars cause suffering many generations down the line.  That so many on the Internet seem to love the idea of wars as some type of Internet games or football matches makes me nauseous because the main tool of war is the ending of lives.

But if we are going to have wars anyway, should women be allowed to serve in combat?  This is the second point.  It's not the same as encouraging wars to continue if we let women explicitly participate in combat roles.  Wars will continue whether that happens or not, and to draw a line between those in actual combat roles and those who merely assist them, as far as the guilt for the actual killings go, seems hypocritical to me. 

In any case, the distinction between combat roles and other military roles has become blurred in modern warfare because the front can be everywhere at the same time.  American female soldiers have died in Iraq, in combat settings, when the helicopters they steer are shot down, when a roadside bomb explodes.

Thus, I don't think that removing the ban on women serving in combat makes women much more likely to be killed in modern wars or somehow more the "real killers."  The whole military machine enables the killing.

Third,  advancement in the military is diminished for those who cannot serve in combat.  From a purely labor market point of view, then, the ban on women participating in combat roles means that women are unable to advance as fast and as high as equally competent men, simply because of that ban.

How to judge those three points?  That's where things get complicated, because the three arguments are in very different places in my brain and because they are not actual tradeoffs, i.e, we don't stop wars by banning women from the military or from the combat roles.  We simply create a two-tiered system of professional killing.  So.

What's much easier for me to evaluate are the anti-feminist arguments about women in the military and women in combat roles, in particular.  Astonishingly, they are of two opposite types, and the Evil Enemy:  Feminism, is also of two exactly opposite types!

The older, and still prevalent, anti-feminist arguments about women in combat are that women are naturally and inherently incapable of the aggression that is required, that women are naturally and inherently slower, weaker and smaller than men and therefore will not be of value in military combat, and that men are (perhaps also naturally and inherently) always going to be chivalrous towards women so that female soldiers are a burden-to-be-protected in combat, not an asset.  The anti-feminists also don't think we can mix sexes in the military, and point out military rape as the unavoidable outcome.  How that goes with the chivalry argument is usually left unexplained.  Finally, the anti-feminists say that mixed-sex military troops cannot have the necessary bonding which only works among men.

Feminism, from this angle, is the sorely misguided attempt to force women on the military which would function much better without them.  Feminists are simply blinded to biological differences.

The more recent anti-feminist arguments come from certain subgroups of Men's Rights sites, and revolve around the idea that centuries of male warfare demonstrate discrimination against men and the lower value assigned to men's lives.  The logic varies somewhat, but mostly I read that feminists want to keep women out of the military, safe at home, handing men white feathers if they refuse to enlist during wartimes.   From this point of view, the ban on women serving in combat roles is discrimination against men and a sign of the greater value assigned to women's bodies. 

At the same time, very few of the rants I have read suggests that women should be allowed to serve in the military at all, not to mention in combat roles.  Rather, women should kowtow to men in general because other men are fighting wars or have died in wars.   The function of only-male military service is to explain why all men should have a higher standing in the society than any woman.

The old, traditional take is that feminists are pushing women into the military.  The new MRA take is that feminists work hard to keep women out of the military.  What fun.

Because the two sets of arguments are so different, they require different counterarguments.  The traditional anti-feminists ignore the character of modern warfare which is rarely unarmed combat between two individuals but an extremely technical and collaborative venture where the skills required have little to do with physical strength and body size.  They also ignore the fact that women entering the military are not a random scoop from the general population but individuals who are motivated in a particular manner and who then get the training the military requires.  Neither men nor women with low willingness or ability to fight are likely to enlist in a volunteer military force without gender-based combat bans.  In short, the proper level of analysis is of the enlisting individuals, not of the two genders.

The rest of the traditional anti-feminist arguments are really empirical in nature, i.e., the way to answer them is to watch what happens when military units become mixed-gender, always remembering that training can help in this field, too.  We already have some of that evidence, and while the military certainly has problems with sexual violence, the other concerns of traditional anti-feminists look to me to be relatively minor.  Note, also, that if bonding and cooperation were only feasible in a single-sex groups then almost all civilian workplaces should have failed by now, what with the mixing of genders in them.

The counterarguments to the new MRA views are both extremely simple and totally incapable of making a single dent in the opposition. 

If one points out that the reason why women have not fought in most wars is because they were not allowed to fight in them, one is told that this explicit ban is a sign of how much more women are valued than men.  If one points out that this valuation of women is similar to the valuation of an antique Chinese vase who has no say in how it is handled and that, traditionally, that valuation has not stopped from women dying in giving birth (or from dying as the final round of many traditional wars), one gets...crickets...and then a repeat of the beginning argument.  After several bouts of this, with variations,  the truly odd argument crops up:  It doesn't matter at all if laws have banned women from participating in a vast number of fields of activity.  We can simply assume that all such laws somehow benefited women-as-Chinese-vases, and burdened their owners with more-than-commensurate duties to keep them safe.

This odd argument crops up, because the function of most MRA rants is to defend the traditional status quo, not to change it.  These rants don't want to correct the handicaps attached to the male role.  For instance, an all-male military force is fine with them.  What's not fine is the loss of the privileges that comes with the male role in the traditional division of gendered tasks.

I wrote so much about the anti-feminist arguments to explain why the possible removal of the combat ban on women will be viewed as bad news in both anti-feminist camps. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Roe v. Wade. Forty Years.

I'm supposed to write about Roe v. Wade.  Others are doing it much better, noting that the decision was divisive, that the rights of pregnant women have certainly not improved in the last twenty-or-so years, noting that access to abortion increasingly depends on where a woman lives, how much money she has and what access she has to health care in general.  Because the latter correlate with race and ethnicity, access to abortion varies by income, race, ethnicity and geographical location.  Weirdly, so it did before Roe v. Wade.  For example, the rich women were always more able to get abortions than the rest of American women.

Then we also get musings of this sort, in the New York Times, of all places:

Somehow, motherhood had slyly changed us. We went from basking in the rights that feminism had afforded us to silently pledging never to exercise them. Nice mommies don’t talk about abortion — it is relegated to the dark and dirty corners of our conscious, only to emerge favorably in the voting booth. Yes, we believe in a woman’s right to choose. No, we don’t actually believe she should use it in the face of women choosing to have their children. This is the feminist mother’s greatest taboo.
The feminist mother's greatest taboo?  Based on the writer's own feelings, she makes a statistical assertion, the kind that usually requires a little bit of research.  I would think.

Why do I criticize this piece?  Partly because it's published as a click-magnet, but mostly because the level of analysis in it really is pretty low for an august place like the NYT.  The arguments slide very close to the idea (heard even from one Justice on the Supreme Court) that women must be protected from themselves because once they become mummies they no longer want abortions.  Of course the majority of women who have abortions already have children. and of course so do the two friends the writer gives out as examples to all readers.  Examples of bad feminist mummies?

That's what I mean by low-level analysis.  A piece which ignores facts, generalizes from a sample of one to all feminist mothers and so on, this piece gets published in the New York Times parenting blog.

Never mind.  What I really wanted to write is this:  I believe that Roe v. Wade started on the wrong foot by being based on privacy as the fundamental concept.  I get the reason for that, but the true reason for abortion rights from a feminist point of view is that they are an essential part of the rights of a woman to control her fertility, at least until we have no-fail-automatic-and-safe birth control for all. 

If women are not allowed to have that control, men and women can never be equal.  Anyone who has followed the extreme US forced-birth arguments in the last year knows that those folks want to make abortion unavailable for rape victims and many of them want to make the contraceptive pill unavailable for women in general.  In the kind of world the forced birthers want no woman could protect herself from an unwanted pregnancy, because rape wouldn't be a sufficient excuse for the termination of pregnancy and the list of contraceptives those folks frown upon include all the ones women control.  And in that world any fertile woman would have her life plans considerably restricted and influenced by others.

Thus, Roe v. Wade should have been based on equality of the sexes.  Because it is not, it can be chiseled away using arguments such as the personhood proposals for egg-Americans.  Because it is not, what one woman thinks of other women's choices is regarded as a valid argument to be presented on its fortieth anniversary.  And because it is not, women as actual or potential aquaria for embryos and fetuses is a valid argument in the debates about abortions and even about the kind of health care not-pregnant-but-fertile women should receive.

CEDAW And The Concerned Women For America

That's the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

What the actual powers of CEDAW are can be debated, given that the ratifiers include several countries with very bad records on the treatment of women.  But not ratifying this convention still gives an interesting message about the United States of America:

The seven UN member states that have not ratified or acceded to the convention are Iran, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Tonga, and the United States. The United States and Palau have signed it, but not yet ratified it.
I went looking for the reason the United States decided to agree with Iran on something! 

What I found comes from The Concerned Women for America, a group which seems to consist of the Aunties of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.  Their arguments are, first, that the US doesn't need the CEDAW because everything is already peachy for Murkan women who can be whatever they wish as long as they also take care of The Family, and, second, that if the US ratified the CEDAW then the UN would rule over this country.  

The Concerned Women for America are also worried about some uses of the CEDAW,  listed without  referencing their sources, including its use to kill Mother's Day.  This bit in the list of worrisome rulings (bolded by me below),  really does put The Concerned Women for America into weird company:

Ratifying CEDAW would lend the United States' prestige and credibility, not only to the treaty, but also to the CEDAW Committee's rulings. Here are snapshots of some of those rulings:
Told China to decriminalize prostitution.
Criticized Mexico for a "lack of access … to easy and swift abortion.
Criticized Ireland for the Catholic Church's influence of attitudes and state policy.
Told Libya to re-interpret the Koran in the light of CEDAW.

All the "snapshots" that are listed are viewed as bad, as far as I can tell.  This suggests that the Concerned Women for America are on the side of what their brethren-on-the-right call Islamofascists, right?

I don't mind reading about any of the possibly bad CEDAW rulings but I do mind reading about them when no links to them are provided.  Still, the stuff is fun to wade through and if I had a few more lives I'd fish for all the original sources.  But this is the conclusion of the Aunties:

CEDAW is fundamentally flawed. No reservations could protect our laws and culture from its skewed belief that there is no difference between men and women. The United States should not give our prestige, nor subject our citizens, to CEDAW.

Now that IS fun, because it's pretty much what Iran would argue, I think, though perhaps with a more explicit assertion of the rank-order the guy god(s) has given human beings. 

Still, I think the Concerned Women for America have fallen into some quicksand here.  What if the fundamental differences between men and women mean that women should be silent about matters such as CEDAW?  Leave public matters to men?  In other words, who decides what the relevant differences are?

Or if equality is only feasible when there are no differences at all between individuals, how could any distinguishable groups of human beings receive fair and equal treatment?  Men, for instance, vary quite a bit in temperament and talents and many other characteristics.  Should we ignore those individual differences but honor group differences?  And if the latter, why focus on only gender as the determinant of the relevant group?

In any case, the assertion that CEDAW is based on no difference between men and women is a red herring.  I bet you anything that CEDAW doesn't require that men becoming fathers give birth, for instance, or that women must have prostate examinations. 

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I'm not sure how influential CEDAW can really be.  But not ratifying it sends a message.
This post was inspired by some people suggesting that perhaps this would be a good time for the US to ratify CEDAW. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Today's Bad Poem

I've been traveling and haven't had time for any more careful thought than which lane to pick on the motorways/highways or how to survive on McDonald's food without eating corpses (heh, after all these years I went there, I did).  So you get an old bad pome, suitable for Martin Luther King day and other events taking place today:

Declaration of Independence

These are the rules
we must abide by:
Do not ask how,
do not ask why.

This is the land
of the free and the brave
where some stay free
from cradle to grave.

And others are brave
in their freedomless state
so that those who are free
have more on their plate.

These are the rules
for which we would die.
Do not doubt how,
do not doubt why.