Saturday, September 11, 2010

Return To Reality

I'm glad to pay those union dues, just don't judge me by my shoes.

King Harvest Has Surely Come

The Band

Richard Manuel's singing is heart breaking, Levon Helm's drum playing is the best I know of outside of jazz.

Should Physicists Be Exempt From Being Consistent? Should Scientists Allow Themselves Special Rules? [Anthony McCarthy]

Note: If you want to read an important, real world, post about this issue, I'd suggest you skip mine and read Suzie's below.

I hadn’t expected to spend so much time on this but someone who read my post from last Saturday, insisted that Sean Carroll’s video endorsement of Hawking’s great declaration would clinch their argument.

Not having been able to look at a copy of Stephen Hawking’s most recent book, my library doesn’t have a copy yet, I hadn’t realized last week just what “evidence” Hawking used to make those much touted, much cited, statements about the beginning of the universe, excusing God from that task.

Reading a bit more about it this week I was, frankly, shocked to find that he’d based what was widely taken as his absolute conclusions on some of the most unsettled and controversial branches of theoretical physics and cosmology. Controversial primarily because they are entirely theoretical, without any present physical evidence or prospect of being testable or observable. If you doubt that you should read what Sean Carroll had to say in defense of his favorite part of this new physics.

Carroll is a very smart guy and he does it with charm and grace but there is no getting around the fact that he’s excusing his work from some things that are inconveniently not available to it. That those things are exactly what used to be required in the validation of theories and is the constant demand made of people of faith is a huge hole in the ballyhoo over Hawking’s declaration. I’ll point out in passing that it is exactly the stuff that has turned evolution from a theory into the most documented phenomenon in science.

The criticisms of mutliverse and M-theory include that they are not based in observation, they aren’t based in, nor have they produced, experimental evidence or predictions. I’m the most outside of outside observers in this argument but it looks to me that it can be summed up in the observation that there is no evidence that the theories represent anything in reality other than that they seem to have some internal cohesion. And even that seems to not be entirely certain. This seems to have led Hawking to change the definition of what physics is all about. Peter Woit quotes Hawking:

We seem to be at a critical point in the history of science, in which we must alter our conception of goals and of what makes a physical theory acceptable. It appears that the fundamental numbers, and even the form, of the apparent laws of nature are not demanded by logic or physical principle. The parameters are free to take on many values and the laws to take on any form that leads to a self-consistent mathematical theory, and they do take on different values and different forms in different universes.

I didn’t intend to spend much of the week on this issue until someone who read what I wrote last week challenged me to watch Sean Carroll’s video endorsement of Hawking’s statement. I was a bit familiar with Carroll because I was a bit interested in the disagreement on the validity of the idea of multiverses, having read a bit of what Woit and others said from the opposing side. That’s why I was so shocked to see that Hawking had, as Woit said, given up on what used to be the basic requirements of physics, for it to have some evidentiary basis. As to Woit’s assertion that the theory used by Hawking satisfies none of Hawking’s stated requirements for a “good physical model”, (see the link to Woit's blog) from what I can see, that’s a valid point. But it’s that there is no physical evidence for it that is the basis of my point.

As seen in Richard Dawkins memes and his Just So stories of the entirely unobserved behavior of our very remote ancestors - including his and Dennett’s Just So Genesis of Religion - this dependence of their allegedly scientific refutation of religion on these areas of theoretical physics is entirely evidence free. As of this morning the theories they are using have absolutely no known basis in the material universe. None. They are not only 99 44/100 % evidence free, they are 100% evidence free.

Call me old fashioned but for the people who are always demanding evidence of the supernatural they seem to have exempted themselves from having any for their assertions about the natural universe. If they want to construct self-referenced, scholastic models of possible universes that’s their affair*, though as pointed out in Physics World if they want funding for it, that makes it everyone’s business.

But if they want to extend their speculations past physics and into religion, they either have to give up their demands for evidence from religious believers** or they have to put up their evidence relevant to the subject of religion. They’re not going to get to have it it both ways from anyone with a sense of fairness and integrity. That is one rule in real life that they are not going to get away with changing in their favor anymore. No more than I’d accept it by those claiming to be able to use science to confirm their supernatural beliefs.

I don’t fault science for not being able to dispose of God, it never having been the subject matter of science anymore than it is double-entry accounting to begin with. Hawking and the others should realize that they are relieved of that task and take the opportunity to look for that missing confirmation in the physical universe that they obviously so much want to have.

I got into a long argument about this at Carroll’s blog, which he apparently chose not to notice. It might be of some interest to some readers. You can watch his video there. You might notice that a question I posed three or four times, if there was a single object which phyiscs studied which was comprehensively and exhaustively know to them, hasn’t been answered by Carroll or any of the other physicists who blog with him or who read his blog. I’d think that the claims to complete understanding, a Theory of Everything, would find that a relevant issue.

* If I wanted to be cruel I would have pointed out that its complete lack of known usefulness might lead some to consider it a hobby.

** Especially from religious believers who don't make scientifically refutable claims about the physical universe because they know that their belief isn't for that. As I said in the argument, if someone believes that a god created the universe exactly as it really is, as opposed to how any group of people believe it to be at any given time, which would, of course, include physicists, then nothing you discover with science could conflict with the belief in that god. And, let me break this gently to you, I’ll bet if you put it to most religious people that way, they’d agree with the idea.

Update: Can the possibility be dismissed that physics divorced from the necessity of reference to physical reality could risk becoming entirely artificial without any basis in reality except possible vestigial and subconscious habits unremembered from experience? And if that is possible for physics, the physical science par excellence, if physics can become a self-contained scholastic system, what other areas of intellectual life couldn’t?

What would physics be like in that case? An analog of Freudian psychology written in mathematical symbolism, increasingly remote from the origin of even those, answerable only to its internal dialogue, eventually generating schisms over illusory differences about nothing real? Even more remote from reality than the most fantastic fiction? What would mathematics be like if it was cut loose from its subject matter?

If anyone has thought that out, I’d really like to know where it’s written down.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Mainstream Christianity in the White House (by Suzie)

An AOL reporter wrote last week that Obama has been a Christian “all of his adult life.” His press secretary called him a “mainstream Christian.” A guest minister at my Unitarian Universalist church criticized those who insist Obama is Muslim, saying Obama has “Christian roots.”

No, to the first statement. To the second: I have no doubt that he’s Christian, but I wonder what it means to be a mainstream Christian these days. The third statement ignores that he also has roots in UUism, Islam, atheism, agnosticism and humanism. It’s a shame that people feel the need to gloss over his background to counter the lies spread about him. This reductionism hurts those of us who want a more tolerant nation, in which people don’t have to insist they are mainstream Christians to avoid attacks.

Some dangerous demagogues like Glenn Beck will say anything they can to build their own following at the expense of others. Beck has called Obama a Muslim and then switched last week to say:
Obama is a guy who understands the world through liberation theology, which is oppressor-and-victim. … It's a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it.
But Beck doesn’t understand what liberation theology means, nor that its tenets are interwoven into many mainstream churches, as the Rev. James Martin explains. (Dar Williams’ “I Had No Right,” above, addresses social justice, not liberation theology directly, but I think it’s appropriate for this post. Another tangent: In 1992, I visited Nicaraguan villages that had embraced liberation theology, but I was disappointed by the failure to integrate a gender analysis – the same critique I had of the social justice practiced by two Obama mentors, the Revs. James Wright and Michael Pfleger.)

Beck, a Mormon, has been courting evangelical Christians, but it’s not an easy alliance. Felicia Sonmez of the Washington Post says:
While Mormons consider themselves to be Christians, key tenets of the Latter-day Saints church are disputed by mainstream Christian denominations – a disparity that critics say adds to the irony of Beck questioning another person's Christian faith.
In an interesting analysis, Sam Tanenhaus of the NYT talks about how early Obama supporters such as Andrew Sullivan thought Obama’s spiritual journey could heal ideological warfare. How could they not foresee the polarization to come?

Obama’s faith interests me because I’m a UU, and I wonder if he keeps quiet about his UU background for political reasons. The Rev. James Ford, a UU minister, has said:
I suspect first for a politician, and second for one who had been working out his own faith journey which eventually took him to the African American church, that UU connection was probably something he'd just as soon ignore. And he certainly has...
Conservatives have attacked this background because many UUs are liberal, if not radical. Obama welcomed the votes of progressives, but has distanced himself from them. Conservative Christians have noted with horror that UUs can identify as Pagans or atheists or with any number of different beliefs. Even when Unitarians and Universalists were all Christians, they did not hold mainstream beliefs.

Obama has Christian roots in the sense that his Kansan grandparents did. They settled in the Seattle area during his mother’s high-school years, and they attended a Unitarian church. In Hawaii, Obama attended a UU church for several years as a child. (See my post 3/20/09.) I’m guessing his grandfather brought him. In “Dreams of My Father,” Obama says that his grandfather was interested in UU churches because they draw “on the scriptures of all the world’s great religions.” He said his grandmother dissuaded her husband from UUism, and in the next sentence, Obama mentions his grandfather’s “outlandish views.” I don’t know if he means to include UUism in that or not. But he doesn’t mention it again in his book, nor in “The Audacity of Hope.”

If his grandmother disliked the UU church, I wonder why her memorial service was held there.

In his first book, he calls his mother "a lonely witness for secular humanism." In the second, he says she taught him about world religions with a “suitable respect, but with a suitable detachment as well.” Teaching about the world’s religions is so typical of UUs that it’s hard to imagine her attendance at a UU church made no mark on her at all.

In 2004, when Cathleen Falsani worked for the Chicago Sun-Times, she interviewed Obama about his religious beliefs. He told her that his mother was Christian.
My mother, who I think had as much influence on my values as anybody, was not someone who wore her religion on her sleeve. We'd go to church for Easter. She wasn't a church lady.
In a transcript, he says he thinks his grandparents had joined a Universalist church by the time he was born. (It was a Unitarian church that fell under the aegis of UUism.) In keeping with Universalist beliefs, he says he doesn’t believe people will go to hell just because they “haven’t embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior.”

Obama started attending Trinity United Church of Christ while working with black clergy in Chicago. He was advised that he would do better if he attended a church, and Trinity had advantages, as the Chicago Tribune has noted. He says he grew to appreciate the role of the black church in the lives of African Americans, and that led him to a personal relationship with Jesus. He answered an altar call in 1987 or '88. He joined Trinity after law school.

Recently, there were a few questions about famous quotations on a new rug in the Oval Office, including the Rev. Martin Luther King’s "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." King said he was inspired by the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, who wrote in 1853: "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one ... And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice." Press Secretary Robert Gibbs assured everyone that "what King said and what Parker said are not the same thing." The quote from Lincoln on the rug is: "Government of the people, by the people and for the people." Earlier, Parker had written about "a democracy -- that is a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people."

Media Matters calls the discussion of the rug ridiculous. But it's not so trivial to those of us who feel like we've been swept under it.
Edited to capitalize "Pagan."

Caroline Herring (By Suzie)

Caroline Herring's website mentions the years when she "paused to focus on marriage and motherhood as she continued to tour and play festivals ..."
I just got to the point where I knew I had to write songs again. Music is my life-blood, even as the career of the singer/songwriter is most unusual, especially in the South, where the jobs of women are often mother first, wife second. There's a line in one of my songs about a woman who lives in a backroom and begins to disappear. I didn't want that to be me.
That line is from "Heartbreak Tonight" on her 2008 CD "Lantana." I'm sure some of you can identify with it.

Friday bird blogging (by Suzie)

In the pond near my apartment, a Muscovy duck guides her young ducklings. So cute -- when young, at least -- but taking resources from the native birds.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Meanwhile, in China

Authorities are planning to relax the one-child policy. The current policy, combined with the 'preference for sons' (or the 'dislike towards daughters') has resulted in a skewed gender profile:

A study published in the British Medical Journal in 2009 found that China has some 32 million more boys than girls under the age of 20.

What are the consequences of a future with lots of 'excess' men? Here different articles appear to disagree. Some argue that those men just won't find wives:

The need for more children to care for parents, plus a gender imbalance that will leave tens of millions of men without wives, are two arguments for a relaxation of the one-child policy

Some expect a darker future for those scarce women:

"The sharp rise in the number of men of marriageable age who fail to find wives will become a big hazard," Tian Xueyuan, deputy director of the Population Association of China, told the China Daily newspaper.

"It will increase incidences of women being bought as wives, as well as abduction and trafficking, and prostitution and pornography," Xueyuan said.

This is one of those topics where gender-reversal really makes a difference. So let's flip the genders and think of some country where many more girls than boys are born. What would our concerns be in that situation?

Would we write about the girls not being able to find a husband when they grow up? Perhaps. But I'm pretty sure that we'd also write about the power this scarcity would have put in the hands of those boys when they grow up. They can pick and choose! They can set their own terms for marriage! They can take multiple wives!

Now go back to the original treatment and notice that neither article suggests any benefits to the scarce girls or women from this situation. Rather, they might be kidnapped! Women in general might be trafficked!

This reversal is useful because it opens our eyes (well, mine, at least) to the power imbalance which is mostly ignored in the kinds of discussions where economists, say, talk about the markets for marriage and who gets the best marriage contract. Those suggest that the scarcer partners will wield extra power.

That's not how reality turns out. Scarcity is not seen as conveying women more power.

What's going on here is pretty obvious. Yes, the Chinese have a 'preference' for sons, but most societies still look at the problem and its remedies through a male lens or monocle. This is not necessarily wrong, in terms of reality, but it serves to remind us that China is still a patriarchal country.

A Piece of Heaven

Paul Gonsalves. Tip from QuentinCompson.

And it smells of autumn today!

This Insane World

It is the Three-Ring-Circus, on most days, and people are far from rational. Ever since my return from vacation I have struggled with the meaning of this blog, whether it serves any useful purpose at all, whether I live too much in my head and too little in those other parts (gonads?) which appear to rule much of our public discourse and even international political events, whether I am wrong in picking the topics I pick, whether I'm just fighting the windmills while the sand in my hour-class keeps falling through.

None of that is exactly new, as those of you know who have followed my whining and griping over the years. But the long time off writing did give me a bit of a culture shock. I see more clearly what the hooks in popular stories are, what people want to discuss and which solutions do not work because they require some type of wider rationality, rationality over and above one's own little concerns, one's own fears of being ignored, one's own ambitions and needs.

Let me give you an example, other than the obvious Koran burning one: Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's trip to Europe, to see his old pal, Italy's Prime Silvio Berlusconi. The two have a lot in common. For instance, in a sane world neither of them would be running a country. And in a sane world they wouldn't be allowed closer than two miles from any young woman.

But we do not live in a sane world. Hence this:

Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi, who holds increasing sway in the Italian economy, upset some Italians by urging conversion to Islam during a three-day visit to the predominantly Roman Catholic country.

Col. Gadhafi held a series of private meetings on Sunday and Monday with some 800 Italian women and a small group of young men organized by a hostess agency and paid for by the Some women who took part in a meeting Sunday told reporters the Libyan leader lectured them on Islam, and then presided over a ceremony in which, they said, a handful of women converted to Islam. The attendees, who were paid to attend the meeting, left carrying bound copies of the Quran that they said were gifts from Col. Gadhafi.

The meetings have become a ritual accompanying Col. Gadhafi's frequent visits to Rome since the signing of a "friendship" accord in 2008. Rome then pledged €5 billion ($6.37 billion) to Tripoli as reparations for Italy's decadeslong occupation of Libya that ended in the 1930s.

It is unclear exactly what purpose the meetings with young women serve. The women are recruited by Rome-based casting agency Hostessweb, and are paid for by the Libyan government, said Alessandro Londero, the agency's president. Mr. Londero, who also attended the lectures, said the Libyan leader addressed the women "a bit like a prophet," urging them to convert to Islam.

Set aside the religion business which has been criticized elsewhere. Notice, instead, the way women are treated here. These are young women, based on the pictures I saw, and they were hired from a casting agency. Not just any woman could walk in! They had to be eye-candy! Such contempt for women is so familiar to us that our focus stays on Gadhafi's capers.

But Berlusconi treats women as his personal vagina collection, too. Is this something worth pointing out? And if I do point it out how does it make a difference? After all, Berlusconi and Gadhafi run countries!!! Yet they both confuse women with ice-cream cones or chocolate boxes and we gently slap their fingers for that while letting the underlying allowing continue.

Is it helpful to point that out, to dig under the surface in that way? Or am I the only person not pleased with just staying on the surface, discussing the Question Of The Day, the one that fires people up?

It's not that my approach is somehow better or that the Questions Of The Day weren't important. But what I have tried to do is not common, even among feminist writers, and now I wonder if it's me that is the insane one.

Reading Saletan

William Saletan is better known to me as the guy who really knows how many reproductive rights women should have so mostly I don't read him.

But his piece on the reactions to Terry Jones' plan to burn Korans and the response from various Muslims deserves some discussion. Saletan writes:

Two days ago, hundreds of Afghans gathered in Kabul to denounce the United States for burning the Quran. They torched American flags, chanted "Death to America," and carried signs calling for the death of President Obama. Some of them hurled rocks at U.S. troops. A student in the crowd said of the planned Quran burning: "We know this is not just the decision of a church. It is the decision of the president and the entire United States."

He's wrong, of course. The Quran burning is the brainchild of a Florida minister and his tiny fundamentalist church. It has been condemned by the White House, the State Department, the commanding U.S. general in Afghanistan, Christian organizations, and countless Americans. But when clerics in Egypt denounce the incendiary plan, we feel the heat. When thousands of Muslims rally against it in Indonesia, they do so outside our embassy. When an imam in Kabul threatens retaliation, he casts a shadow on all of us: "If they decide to burn the holy Quran, I will announce jihad against these Christians and infidels."

This is how it feels to be judged by the sins of others who destroy in the name of your faith. You're no more responsible for 30 Christian extremists in Florida than Muslims are for the 9/11 hijackers. Yet most of us, when polled, say that no Muslim house of worship should be built near the site of the 9/11 attacks. In saying this, we implicitly hold all Muslims accountable for the crime of the 9/11 hijackers.

The points he makes are both excellent and bad ones. The excellent bits are easy to see: What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. That may well be a very good lesson to learn, on both sides of this stupid religious warmongering debate.

What's bad about that post are two things: First, many of us have been neither geese nor ganders but perhaps ducks or gulls, some species of birds which was not inappropriately generalizing in the first place, in either direction. Saletan confuses the issue by ignoring that, preferring a plunge into false dualism.

Second, that false dualism becomes "them" vs. "us" in no time at all, even if his other message is about avoiding false generalizations. Check out Saletan's links. Only two of them can be interpreted as trying to pour oil over the roiling waters. He could have linked to many more dignitaries doing exactly that.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

A Heavy Dose Of Economics

1. I recommend this book review on the causes of the imploding financial markets worldwide. It can be heavy going at places but it's worth it. Think of it as your daily dose of bran and yogurt from feral goats. Good for you, ultimately, if you survive it.

Note that I might not agree with everything that review concludes, but it's a very good survey of many of the issues and it leaves us hanging, waiting for Part 2 with the solutions. Life does that, too. Leaves us hanging, waiting for the solutions.

2. This post is fascinating on the intersection of ethics and basic economics teachings and how the latter seem* to affect students who take only the prep levels of economics courses.

Sadly, the better stuff is in the later courses. Most introductory economics courses focus far too much on the competitive market model, the one with the Marshallian scissors of supply and demand, the one where all information is known to everybody, the one where very many sellers meet very many buyers exchanging money for some simple commodity which everyone can completely understand and evaluate.

It's very, very wrong to apply that model as a picture of reality. It's taught as a starting point (unless you are being taught by a wingnut), something to use as a basis for comparisons later on when the models get more realistic and less clear-cut.

Also note that the basic competitive model doesn't lend itself to the snow shovel example, either, because those sellers have market power, caused by the snow storm which makes getting an alternative and cheaper shovel harder. In thinking about the ethics of all this one should take into account that market power and not apply the normative rules (that the outcome is efficient) which are derived from the perfectly competitive model.

Both of these links are via Eschaton.
*I write "seem", because students may self-select to courses which reinforce their initial value judgments.

The Lowest Common Denominator

Terry Jones and his congregation of fifty in Florida are getting the limelight attention he so obviously craves by planning to burn Korans. And the world is willing to play along, pretending that this tiny, tiny group of hatemongers is somehow emblematic of the United States. Or maybe not, but he is big enough to cause a giant reaction:

The pastor of a tiny, fringe evangelical church in Florida on Tuesday rebuffed a plea for restraint from Gen. David H. Petraeus, who warned that a plan to burn the Muslim holy book could provoke violence against American troops and citizens overseas.

"Instead of possibly blaming us for what could happen, we put the blame where it belongs — on the people who would do it," Pastor Terry Jones of the 50-member Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., told the Associated Press. "We should address radical Islam and send a very clear warning that they are not to retaliate in any form."

Jones also said he was still praying over his decision and hinted that he might change his mind. "We understand the general's concerns and we are taking those into consideration," he told WOFL-TV in Orlando.

A coalition of Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders held a news conference in Washington on Tuesday to condemn Jones' statements and other slurs aimed at Muslims nationwide.

"The threatened burning of copies of the Holy Koran this Saturday is a particularly egregious offense that demands the strongest possible condemnation by all who value civility in public life and seek to honor the sacred memory of those who lost their lives on Sept. 11," said a statement by religious leaders organized by the Islamic Society of North America.

Religious leaders warned that Muslims overseas would interpret extremists like Jones as reflecting mainstream American attitudes toward Muslims. In Afghanistan on Monday, protesters made a point of wrapping an effigy of Jones in an American flag before burning both the effigy and the flag.

I understand the seriousness of the situation, I do.

What I don't understand why we can't all grow up, why nobody points out that this Terry Jones represents FIFTY people and not the United States of America, and why we can't have a conversation between cultures to explain that this guy is like one grain of sand on a very long beach and that religious extremists are NOT to be interpreted as representatives of mainstream opinions on either side.

Meanwhile, in Congo. May TRIGGER.

New evidence of the use of rape as a weapon of war has emerged. The details are disgusting:

The additional sexual attacks, in an area called Uvira and other regions of North and South Kivu, came to light during Khare's trip. He told council members he learned of 74 cases of sexual violence, including against 21 minors — all girls between the ages of 7 and 15 — and six men, in a village called Miki, in South Kivu. All the women in another village, Kiluma, may have been systematically raped, he said.

Khare said in a community called Katalukulu, 10 women were raped by Congolese soldiers, which he said must "maintain a much higher standard of discipline, good behavior and conduct, and observance of human rights."

Altogether, he detailed new reports of mass rapes on various communities that added up to at least 267.

So both the rebels AND the Congolese army gang-rape (mostly) women as "a weapon of war". How does this work, exactly? Presumably those women are not in the Congolese army and most likely the majority of the victims don't belong to the rebels, either. They would seem to be innocent bystanders whose rapes are then turned into "weapons of war."

But is it war if the victims are mostly civilians on neither side of the battle? I'd call it something else: hate crimes against women.

These rapes are in the news because the U.N. admitted to a failure in how it has handled the case:

The United Nations today admitted that it had "failed" to prevent the systematic rape of hundreds of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo this summer by rebel forces, and then failed to go public with the information on the mass atrocities committed over four days.

The U.N. said more than 500 systematic rapes were committed in eastern Congo since late July, more than double the number that had been previously reported.

"Our actions were not adequate, resulting in the unacceptable brutalization of the population of the villages in the area. We must do better," said Atul Khare, a senior official in the U.N. peacekeeping operations, which had troops as close as 10 miles from some of the assailed villages.

Well, yes. But surely the Congolese rebels and soldiers should do better, too?

Few topics make me as angry as this one, and here is why:

The top U.N. official to prevent sexual violence, Margaret Wallstrom, quoted one raped woman as describing that the victims had been "forced to live through something like never before."


Describing how common rape is in the country, Wallstrom said that some Congolese women have concluded that "being gang raped by many men is normal for a woman."

Sure. It's all in a day's work: Get up, fetch the water, start the fire, cook the meal, get gang-raped...

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

A Statistics Lesson. Or A Statistics Lesion?

Here's a survey which would make all dead statisticians turn over in their graves. It's a beauty! Horrible biased and leading questions.

That particular survey may not be of any great importance, but it serves to remind all of us To Check The Questions when we read about the astonishing findings of various polls given fancy names. Before swallowing their findings, that is.

On Raising The Retirement Age For Social Security

They are trying to do that over the pond, too, in France. The proposal there is to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. The French kinda take things differently, as these pictures from the demonstrations show.

Such demonstrations for such a reason would never happen here. The wingnuts say that it's because the socialist-islamofascist-French-surrender-monkeys are like that and, besides, Europe is dying out, what with all that leisure time spent in godless activities and the wimminz refusing to breed. That last bit about the uppity and selfish women is also the reason why the French need to raise the retirement age.

Which is a very sloppy way of saying that the wingnuts do control the conversation here to some extent and what they don't control the corporations and the protestant work ethic do. And the government budget concerns.

Those budget concerns are a very odd bird. It goes somewhere quietly nesting whenever Republicans are in power. You don't hear a peep from it, even if George Bush The Younger in fact sends money to Iraq by the truck load and that money just disappears. But when the Democrats are in power, the bird suddenly flies around all over the place, peeping and peeping, and so we all naturally must pay attention and tighten our belts and accept a higher retirement age and/or less pension money.

That is a remarkable trick!

Social Security now does seem endangered in its present form because both parties want to fix it. What those fixes are still varies. The Republicans want to privatize the accounts, in order to then disappear the system altogether.

They like the idea of the elderly begging on the streets. Remember that odd government budget bird? Any country in which that focus switch takes place so easily is not a country where enough people are capable of surfing the stock market competently with their own retirement funds. And I haven't even mentioned the recent problems in the financial markets and what those do to private retirement accounts.

President Obama has stated, very firmly, that he will not try to privatize Social Security. Instead, he will cut out bits here and there, to make it all solvent again. How odd it is that wars are not waged on that basis. We could decide to shorten the length of a war when the money runs out, kill fewer people, say, but no. Money for wars will always be found. What's harder to find (must turn pockets all the way inside out) is money for social services or education. Or the care of veterans after the wars.

All this is weird-and-wonderful. The proposed solutions to the Social Security "crisis" are also weird in that certain solutions simply are off the table, from the very beginning.

Removing the gap on the payroll taxes which finance the system is one of those. The current system of financing Social Security is regressive, loaded towards the lower earners. And note that it is only labor income which is taxed to cover the system. Income from investments and such is not taxed at all, which increases the overall regression on the financing side.

Another solution off the table is means-testing those who qualify for Social Security, despite the fact that several industrialized countries do exactly that to balance their books. If the point of Social Security is to serve as a safety net for the elderly, then only those who fall off the tightropes of capitalism really need it. From that standpoint means-testing would be a good idea to make the system cheaper. After all, when we pay insurance for our house or our car we don't demand all the insurance payments back if the house doesn't burn down or if the car doesn't get stolen.

The reason for picking out those two forgotten proposals: removing the payroll tax gap and introducing means-testing is not that they would be the ones I'd necessarily choose but to point out that they are off the table before the table is set, most likely because they share something that has to do with the hidden values underlying the U.S. politics on this question: The system must not begin to look like an income-transfer program between social classes, because such a program would not be supported by the voting part of the population.

But all the proposals on the table also affect the different social classes differently. Raising the retirement age will have much more serious effects on blue-collar workers and workers in the serving occupations where one stands all day long. The physical wear-and-tear in those jobs is greater. A longer working life is harder and more painful and any bout of unemployment is likely to become permanent. Add to that the effects of ageism which all older workers will face and you have something every bit as problematic as those other proposals.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Let Us Sing Of Labor

Today is, after all the day for labor in the United States, though the culture has managed to turn it into the last-day-to-go-to-the-beach-before-schools-start. If I were a suspicious goddess I'd wonder what conspiracy managed to erase any smell of work and workers from these celebrations.

But no conspiracy is needed, unless the American media is viewed as one gigantic conspiracy factory. I bet most American workers don't know that they have the shortest required vacations in the industrialized world, for instance, or one of the lowest unionization rates or the worst provisions of parental leave. Those things don't go very well with the-greatest-country-on-earth thinking.

It is the trade unions I wish to talk about today. They are a dying breed in this country* where the laws are geared towards the prevention of unionization and where the unions themselves have sometimes misbehaved in terms of crime and bigotry.

But the alternative of unionization is for every single worker to be a tiny, tiny fish in the ocean where the corporations act like sharks. The tiny fish could negotiate with a shark, sure! Let's just sit down and discuss better vacation conditions, an actual forty-hour week, more human and humane work places! The shark will understand and listen carefully, too, and then the sprat and the shark can write a labor contract and agree to arbitration in case any misunderstandings crop up later on.

Corporations are not necessarily sharks. But no market will function very well when the workers are tiny particles and the firms much larger ones. The point of the unions is to give workers more negotiating power. Without such collective action workers will get the absolute minimum the political system manages to get them.

Except that the U.S. political system is tied to money. The best democracy money can buy, goes the famous quip, and there's truth in it. The workers are not powerless but they must make up the edge money has by being far more numerous in their political efforts, more disciplined, more persistent. This is hard to do when employers have the upper hand and when even the Democratic Party is half-inclined to be the party of the corporations. Because politicians need money to run.

I sometimes think that what American workers need today is the kind of consciousness raising the second wave feminists practiced. Workers don't really see themselves as workers but as future capitalists, and the individual problems of individual workers are personalized. This leads to a search for purely individual solutions.

Such solutions have their place, but they will not increase the annual vacations of U.S. work force or offer better working conditions for all. For that we need collective action.

Happy Labor Day!
*Except for professional unions. Those are still strong. It may not be a coincidence that we don't think of, say, the American Medical Association when trade unions are mentioned.

Where Are The Wimminz?

Or: It's a few months to the midterm elections. Do you know where your base voters are?

A new Gallup poll suggests that large chunks of the base of the Democratic Party are not that into the midterm elections:

Earlier this year, President Obama identified women, blacks, and young voters among the groups he highlighted as critical to a voter mobilization effort designed to help the Democrats hold their congressional majority. These groups made up a good portion of the "new voters" who propelled Obama to victory in 2008. However, Gallup data suggest they are not poised to provide the same kind of boost for Democratic candidates this fall. As a result, and because of the extraordinarily keen interest in the elections that conservative Republicans currently display, Republicans overall currently enjoy a 54% to 30% lead over Democrats in "thought given to the election."

Mmm. Have a look at the tables in the original link. Note something weird? The interest levels of the groups "blacks" and "young adults" are lower than in 2010, but the relative gap in interest has almost always existed between "young adults" and "older adults" and between "blacks" and "non-Hispanic whites".

Something different is going on with the female-male interest gap: The interest in the midterm elections women show is quite a lot lower than the interest men show. But this is NOT a return to some pre-existing trend. It looks like something new:

Left-click on the graph to make it bigger.

What is going on here?

It could be that any poll done in late August would have shown a similar gender gap? Note that the earlier polls in that graph were all taken in October or November. Women might have more on their minds at the beginning of the school year than men, what with the former still being mostly responsible for the management of children. All the trend graphs suggest that general interest levels are lower in August, so it's not impossible that we may be just seeing some kind of a typical August gender gap here.

But perhaps not. It could be that the gender gap we see here is a brand new one and something the administration should seriously think about. The group "women" has lots of voters in it, and if those voters stay at home the Democratic goose is cooked even faster.

Finally, perhaps the gender gap is just an artifact of the gap between Republicans and Democrats in interest levels. Men are more likely to vote Republican than women, and Democrats, in general, are more down-in-the-dumps right now.

Either of the last two explanations should serve as a wake-up call for the Democratic Party.
P.S. These polls should include more detailed breakdowns. For instance, if the level of interest was given separately for women who have school-aged children we might be able to test the first guess I offer above. Likewise, a cross-tabulation of gender and political party membership would let us say something about the third guess.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

For Labor Day [Anthony McCarthy]

Been looking for the sequence from The People Speak when Marisa Tomei reads the words of Genora Dollinger and found it in this interview of Howard Zinn by Bill Moyers. The entire interview is well worth the time to listen to it but Marisa Tomei's performance begins about 4:45. It's thrilling. As is Christian Kirk's reading of Susan B. Anthony's refusal to pay the fine when she was convicted of trying to vote, at about 12:30.

Craigslist stops pimping under protest (by Suzie)

Craigslist has blocked its adult-services section with a black "censored" bar, with no comment from founder Craig Newmark or CEO Jim Buckmaster. No one's saying whether this is permanent, or just a publicity stunt to generate support. The ads can still be accessed outside the U.S., and Boston Channel reports that Craigslist seems to be "directing content from the old adult services section to the casual encounters section."

Attorneys general for 17 states wrote Buckmaster last month, asking him to remove the adult services. Nonprofits opposed to human trafficking also have protested. Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart sued last year. The AFP reported his news conference:
"Craigslist is the single largest source of prostitution in the nation. ... Missing children, runaways, abused women and women trafficked in from foreign countries are routinely forced to have sex with strangers because they're being pimped on Craigslist."
An FBI investigation found last year that more than 2,800 child prostitution ads had been posted on Craigslist and a recent nationwide sweep for child trafficking and prostitution netted hundreds of arrests, he added.
The section was called "erotic services" then. Authorities say that's where Philip Markoff met Julissa Brisman, whom he killed, as well as a woman he robbed and another he attacked. He committed suicide last month. On Friday, a man in D.C. pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting four women he met through "erotic services."

Craigslist promised to donate 100 percent of the proceeds of its erotic-services ads to charity. Although it wouldn't profit from the ads, authorities said, the ads still drove traffic to the site. Companies also donate to lower taxes and get good PR, of course. It no longer promised to donate profits after it renamed the section "adult services" and started to monitor it more closely last year. The AIM group reports:
Craigslist was on track to generate almost $45 million in revenue this year from its “adult services” section — thinly disguised ads for prostitutes.
Although the controversy is framed as the First Amendment vs. censors, pro-sex liberals vs. anti-sex prudes who want to control what women do with their bodies, the real issue is business. It just happens to play out on the bodies of women and girls.
Hazel Dickens

The Rebel Girl
Patti LaBelle

Cleaning Woman

From Working, based on the oral history by Studs Trukel

Equality Is The Essential Moral Issue of Democracy. It Can’t Be Both Equal and Unequal [Anthony McCarthy]

It was my intention to write a piece about Ken Mehlman’s official, official coming out, pointing out the fact that he has, actually been outed for most of the past decade. From what I hear, people who knew him, knew he was gay for much longer than that. There are discussions of that available online going back to at least 2004. One of the issues from that time period that interested me, in particular, was the cover up for one of the people in charge of the gay-bashing Bush II campaign, Mehlman, by the prominent gay paper, The Washington Blade. The Blade's editor Chris Crain who had been at Harvard Law school with Mehlman, quashed his own paper's scoop on it. Reporters at The Blade wanted to go with the story, Crain, prevented it. It was Crain who also hired the infamous rent-boy-“reporter”, James Guckert “Jeff Gannon” who had extraordinarily easy access to the Bush II White House and could be relied on to ask the right questions.

As I said, that was the idea, but it kept getting tied up in the various and outrageous attempts of the legitimate media to pretend they hadn’t known what was public knowlege at the time it was most convenient for the Republican Party, in the period when Mehlman was named head of the RNC by the gay bashing Bush administration after he had been head of the 2004 Bush campaign.

In view of the history it’s more than enraging to be told that we have to cut Mehlman some slack, as he tries to make an honest man of himself. Especially when we’re told that by people who were cutting him slack while he was stabbing lesbians and gay men in the back. That’s especially true because he’s clearly a part of the current Republican effort to soften the extremely disturbing images of the Republican hate campaigns of the past two years. As Rachel Maddow pointed out the other night, Haley Barbour’s blatant lying about his and his state’s jim crow past is another part of that effort to soften the image of the party of hate to get the votes of centrist independents who might find voting for the party of bigotry distasteful. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mehlman is providing the same cover for the party of anti-gay hatred, especially given his past activities.

Some of the calls in the mainstream media for understanding and compassion for Mehlman cite his turn around on a few gay issues, such as gay marriage. Some have cited Ted Olsen’s surprising role in the recent challenge in California as well. Speaking as a gay man who has never, in my adult life, hidden my sexual orientation, no, I don’t have to feel compassion for Mehlman, to date, because I understand him all too well. I have seen and known conservative gay men who have always wanted to have it both ways, to be a fully entitled member of the upper class while enjoying their sexual preferences. If he was sincere he wouldn’t be trying to promote the party of hate, the party that still has gay bashing as one of its central organizing tools. He would have left that party as a part of the recovery of his soul.

But there is a deeper, more fundamental reason for these attempts by editorial writers in major newspapers to rehabilitate Ken Mehlman to be rejected. Beneath all civil rights struggle, at the very base of all struggles for rights and democracy there is the core moral value of equality. And equality is not a partial or sometimes thing. You don’t get to carve out an island of privilege for yourself, your family, your social circle or your minority group and have a right to call for everyone to acknowledge that attempt to equalize yourself with a privileged group. There is nothing easier than to be for the civil rights that you and your group are denied as you ignore other inequity. While the Republican Party is using hatred of Latinos, Moslems, the poor the destitute and numerous other groups as their central organizing tactic, I reject the attempt by even the well-intentioned members of the elite to obtain that status for the Ken Mehlmans who they went to school with, who they socialize with and who has access to the centralized power of the political and corporate elite.

As merely a practical matter, associating gay rights with the privileges of the economic elite will make those rights less easy to obtain, they will make them less secure and the target of future right wing political use. It also ignores the fact that many lesbians and gay men are members of other groups at the low end of inequality. There have always been lesbians and gay men who have enjoyed an elite status, despite infrequent occasions when even the most elite members of targeted groups have been victimized. Believe me, poor members of those minorities get it a lot more often.

Equality is the absolutely essential moral value of a democratic government and society and democracy is the only legitimate form of government. Without that equality, as seen in ancient Athens, democracy is only a scheme by the members of favored classes of people to make sure they get theirs. Women, slaves, foreigners... none of them had equal rights under that frequently cited, relatively short-lived and unstable, form called democracy. The fact that it is cited as relevant to our democratic aspirations only shows how using a word to denote distinctly different things over long periods of history can hoodwink even rigorous thought about it.

Modern American democracy reached its apex in the 1960s a result of more equal income distribution and the passage of civil rights legislation . Since then it has been gradually transformed into that kind of phony democracy in which some people are more equal than others, some people are not equal at all. Some gay members of the upper class want to be accepted by other members of that class to which they belong, other gay people who share that attitude want to join the same elite. Some of those well off gay folks are sincerely dedicated to the ideal of real equality, in which everyone is really equal. Some aren’t. Mehlman is, clearly a member of the pro-privilege group or he would reject the Republican Party that is the foremost engine of bigotry and inequality today.

I don’t have any illusions about the moral status of granting privileges to my minority group based on class and the potential of partial equality to function as a privilege instead of a right. I don’t have any respect for people who want the gay members of their economic class to have equal rights as they conveniently ignore the inequality of other groups and within the larger lesbian and gay communities. I especially won’t let Ken Mehlman’s identity as a gay man blind me to his activities in the past or now. If Mehlman wants me to sympathize with him he will have to earn it by working hard to undo the damage to equality and rights that he has done as a member of the Republican establishment, he can’t do that while remaining a promoter of that bunch of thugs.