Saturday, December 31, 2011

A note on the role of charity and religion

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

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

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

Friday, December 30, 2011

Warren's Winds of Change

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

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

_*Congressional Reform Act of 2011*_

1. No Tenure / No Pension.

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

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

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

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

Congressmen have been paying into SS since 1984.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Interpreting the dog whistle

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

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

What moves Republican crowds in Iowa

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Merry Xmas!

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

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

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

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Good day, my lord Duke

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Ding dong, the Hitch is dead

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The definition of clueless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Do people know what their religious concepts are?

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

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

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

In other words, we evolved to be ignorant.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Why Obama has to win

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Why Obama is going to win

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

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

Friday, December 9, 2011

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

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

And the scales balance.

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

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

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Both ships are full of fools

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

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

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

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Another review of Sara's book

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

Color me officially jealous.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The most popular man in America

A polling firm polled several famous names to test their favorable/unfavorable ratings. Turns out the most popular man in America is Abraham Lincoln (at 91/2), which puts him well ahead of George Washington (86/3). Apparently old George (who owned slaves) didn't poll as well with African Americans as old Abe (who freed them).

Jesus came in second (90/3), but among Republicans he had a 0 unfavorable rating. And Santa Claus was way down the list (67/13). 13% unfavorable? Who hates Santa?

But among Republicans, Santa got a 75 favorable rating (among Dems it was only 61). Think about that for a second. An old bearded, white man with magical powers who gives away free presents to "good" people is more popular with Republicans. I can't even think of any other parallels. Really, I can't...

Nor does this unearned largesse comport with Libertarianism. You would expect the Tea Party to throw Santa's presents in the trash: how else to teach kids that success is something you earn through your own merits, not an entitlement from distant and powerful forces? It's almost like they aren't really into the whole "do-it-yourself" thing, but more into "suck up to the rich and powerful." Go figure.

In other polling news, here's another reason I like being in Australia: Only 50% of Australians are religious. And half of them admit to not practicing it. It's almost like Scandinavia! Except for the snow.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The dumbing of America

Another study has confirmed it: watching Fox news makes you dumber. People who watch Fox are less informed about world events than people who don't watch any news at all.

Watching Fox News makes you dumber

I really hate sounding so partisan, so let me point out nobody says this about The National Review or The Wall Street Journal. Those are partisan, right-wing hack jobs, but they're not actively making their readers dumber.

This isn't just a statistical study. I got an email today from someone who puts "Dr." in front of their name, and yet has not managed to get a single fact right in any of our correspondence. It is not that this person is naturally stupid; it is that the requirements of adhering to their chosen orthodoxy forces them to deny self-evident facts to the point that they lose their way.

In an important sense, the history of the human race is the story of people choosing make-believe over reality. Let us hope that is not its epitaph.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The gaffe heard round the world

Three Australians at work have asked me if I heard Perry's campaign-ending "Oops."

You gotta fumble pretty hard to have it heard on the other side of the planet.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Batteries of the future

Here's an article on a new battery technology. It's as cheap as lead-acid, but completely non-toxic, made from common materials, and lasts at least 10 times longer. The chief application is giving power companies a way to store power produced at non-peak times, and then release that power during peak times.

Which means it's great for solar power. I have a vision of tanker trucks driving from the solar power plants of Arizona to New York City, where the ion-charged water is dumped into the power grid. Although I can't do the math to figure out if moving tons of weight would be more energy efficient than pumping it through high-voltage wires.

But then, why not just pump the ion-charged water? A cross-country pipeline that delivers power stored in water. I've read before that 100 square miles of Arizona desert would power the entire nation. All we need is a way to store and deliver the power. And, of course, the political will to give up the oil addiction. A carbon tax would be a good way to do that.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A ray of hope

Ireland closes its embassy to the Vatican

About time. Now if they can just see their way to throwing the bastards in jail.

Who knows? Once we start locking up priests, maybe banksters will lose their immunity!

Monday, October 31, 2011

What Occupy Wall Street wants

Matt Taibbi says it better than I can:

Wall Street isn't winning, they're cheating

When was the last time the government stepped into help you "avoid losses you might otherwise suffer?" But that's the reality we live in. When Joe Homeowner bought too much house, essentially betting that home prices would go up, and losing his bet when they dropped, he was an irresponsible putz who shouldn’t whine about being put on the street.

But when banks bet billions on a firm like AIG that was heavily invested in mortgages, they were making the same bet that Joe Homeowner made, leaving themselves hugely exposed to a sudden drop in home prices. But instead of being asked to "suck it in and cope" when that bet failed, the banks instead went straight to Washington for a bailout -- and got it.

The short version: The top 1% own 40% of everything. They didn't use to. WTF is going on, and how do we go back to the way it was?

All OWS is trying to do is get people to talk; to challenge the sacred assumption that wealth is metaphysically a result of hard work and genius, and poverty is metaphysically a result of laziness and stupidity. Because it manifestly isn't.

No one is suggesting that lazy people should live in luxury, but food and medical care are not luxuries. No one is suggesting that successful people should be robbed of the products of their labors, but going from 36% to 39% top marginal tax rate is not robbery. And as Elizabeth Warren recently said, nobody got rich on their own. Nobody.

This bullshit libertarian vibe has been spreading through our society ever since Reagan attacked the dire threat of welfare queens. Our entire economy has been restructured to reward financial speculation instead of production. Not merely reward, but enable: the banks are too big to fail. This means that when they make a profit, they keep it, but when they make a loss, we all bail them out.

And the worst part of it all: the average voter in America doesn't know. The average voter thinks we have the  wealth distribution of Sweden, when in fact we look like Brazil.

OWS "wins" if all it does is make the public aware of the facts.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


I spent the day weeding the back garden. A steady flood of little beasties fled before my trowel; ants, crickets, spiders, flies, worms, and other things I did not recognize. The ground is thick, black mud which stains everything it touches.

It wasn't like this in Arizona. Nothing lived in that sandy clay. Usually not even plants. It was great!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Signs of doom

I read in Scientific American today that a poll of 1,500 American parents showed 25% of them thought vaccines could cause autism.

Think about that. One crooked doctor fakes a medical study for money, one D-list movie star gloms onto the idea to assuage her misplaced guilt, and a decade later one quarter of American parents are misinformed.

That's all it takes. Misinformation is that easy to spread in our society. The Republicans, of course, have been taking advantage of this for decades now - the latest is Paul Ryan sending out a fund-raising letter citing his concerns that "the safety net for the poor is coming apart at the seams and no one in Washington seems to care." Of course, Paul Ryan is one of the chief reasons that net is being destroyed, but it simply doesn't matter. As Mitt Romney is demonstrating, a politician can say literally opposing things on opposing days and it just doesn't matter.

Ironically, I think this weakness doesn't stem from the conservative elements of our culture. I think it is the final, potentially fatal, symptoms of New Age culture. In the New Age movement, you can say any silly thing you want, as long as you never say someone else is wrong.

Political Correctness has come to this: everyone is entitled to their opinion, which means no one is ever wrong about anything. You can make up evidence and logic for as absurd of a theory as you like; what you cannot do is present evidence, no matter how self-evident, that makes someone else wrong. You can get as high as you want, but you can't harsh anyone else's buzz.

We started this nonsense with the best of intentions: people have different religious ideas, and religious ideas are generally considered unprovable, so let's all just play nice and get along. We trained our news agents, our commentators, and our dinner parties to this standard. But then people started saying really stupid things, and when they got called on it, they claimed it was their "religion." And society allowed them to get away with - society had to allow it. Because, fundamentally, religious claims are not unprovable: even the most tenuous, vague, sophisticated theology makes at least one claim about the real world.

And having done so, immediately becomes subject to the rules of logic, reason, and science. Herein lies the rub: society was faced with the fundamental unworkability of the compromise between science and religion - has been faced with it ever since Darwin (Gould's "separate magesteria" was dead even before he named it). There were two options: 1) abandon religion to its own devices and allow rationality to box it into a corner until it died, or 2) abandon rationality and let religion off the hook. You can see which one we chose.

In no case did anyone ever say, "I want to live in an irrational society." What they said was, "I want my particular irrationality to be safe." But because we are human, we seek fairness, and the idea that other people should be allowed to have the same escape clause is hard to object to.

Now we have a society in which the gatekeepers against the spread of un-metered nonsense are religious fundamentalists; they are the only people sufficiently ballsy to say, "I want my irrationality, but I don't want you to have yours." Of course this used to be the rule; certain religions were deemed acceptable, and everything else was simply superstition. Religious tolerance degraded those invisible boundaries, and now the rest of our generally liberal society finds itself bound by politeness to let anyone spout any nonsense. And of course nonsense, once spouted, cannot be put back in the bottle. No idea, however idiotic, has ever been removed from the social consciousness, and the internet gives stupid ideas both an immortal home and a means to spread, to find each and every particular idiot dumb enough to believe that idiotic idea. The true lesson of the internet scam, of course, is that all of us are idiots about something; and now the power of the computer will relentlessly bombard us until it finds our weakness.

If we cannot find a way to separate the wheat from the chaff; if the public does not accept its civic duty to apply reason and logic to the claims of politicians, corporations, and institutions, then democracy is dead. This is not hyperbole: the Greeks understood that democracy presumes that the individual can govern himself. When our individual citizens can no longer stand up to nonsense at a dinner party, then they certainly can't do it at the ballot box, and the first charlatan with pretty hair and a convincing voice will lead us all to ruin.

Ronald Reagan was that avatar of doom. Reagan's genius was that he was a Hollywood actor; he was, at his core, a woo. He was the perfect marriage between conservatism and the New Age, and he gave his people a way to endorse woo without surrendering their conservative religious views. He made nonsense in economics respectable. And look at us now.

Reagan's followers have expanded on his gift, adding climate science and evolution (and birth certificates!) to the list of things it's socially OK to believe nonsense about.  The Tea Party embraces insensibility at its ultimate expression, simultaneously arguing for and against government intervention in society, without so much as a blink in-between (as in the immortal cry of "Keep your government hands off of my Social Security"). The Left, while subdued these days (no more Communism, at least), is still insane: Trutherism and Anti-Vaccism are generally liberal diseases.

Perhaps this explains why atheists have been writing best-selling books. Some people, at least, are beginning to see that if we can't have a tamed, controlled religious delusion, we're better off having none at all. It's not that we actively want to destroy all the joy and comfort people take from their religion; it's just that we can't afford the price. Just like drinking and driving don't mix, non-empiricism and the ballot box don't work well together.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The war on slavery isn't over

When you read these stories of women being abused and controlled, their spirits crushed through psychological trauma until they are nothing but slaves... try to remember that it's happening in 21st century America.

If there were no other crimes at all; if the Crusades and the Inquisitions and all of that had never, ever happened; even so, these tales of grief would be sufficient to indict the cult of obedience as the worst plague to ever strike mankind.

No Longer Quivering

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The worst thing Rush Limbaugh has ever said

I know is this a week old, and I realize that Rush Limbaugh has said so many truly offensive things as to make picking a lifetime peak a rather chancy operation, but I cannot get over the sight of Rush embracing The Lord's Resistance Army apparently on the sole strength of it having the word "Lord" in it's name:

Rush Limbaugh defends the LRA

How it was possible for Rush to research this group enough to uncover their statement of principles, without apparently discovering that they are worse than Nazis, is beyond comprehension. Even a single-minded partisan hack high on pain-killers and seeking to tar Obama with any brush imaginable, could not possibly overlook the horrific facts.

It really defies belief; except in one context: clearly Rush has lost all respect for his audience, and is literally just phoning it in. He'll say anything that comes to mind; the filter between his brain and his mouth has been completely obliterated. How is it this blowhard has any credibility left, even with his own group? How many times can you overlook blatant, sloppy, absurd lying and still count him as a credible source?

Actually, I have that question about almost every pundit on the Right. It's not so much that I disagree with them, as that they disagree with the facts, repeatedly, with impunity. When Michael Moore started playing fast and loose with the facts, I stopped listening to him, and discounted everything I had heard from him. How has that not happened to Rush?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Cheeseburgers in Paradise

I've had a nasty cold for the last week, and finally went to the doctor, primarily because I had a bunch of symptoms I've never had before. Swollen lymph nodes that only responded to regular doses of Ibuprofen (I think I've taken more Ibuprofen in the last week than in my entire previous existence) and having to blow my eyes instead of my nose.

Apparently this is a fairly common Australian virus. It makes me think of the great scene in Ursula Le Guin's Rhocannon's World where the space invaders, after several generations, finally begin to catch local diseases. Now I am a true Aussie!

On the way to the doctor's we stopped at Makker's (McDonald's, in the local parlance) and I ordered a cheeseburger, ketchup and mayo only. What I got was two buns, a soup can's worth of red and white sauce, and a slice of cheese. No burger. Seriously.

I took it back, and the shift manager had to ask me three times what I wanted. When I saw the receipt, I understood; the cashier had filled out an order for a cheeseburger sans everything, then added cheese, tomato sauce, and McChicken sauce (what they call mayo). Oddly there appears to be a key on the cash register for subtracting the patty, which shaves 90 cents off the price of the burger. Considering the mayo costs 40 cents, you have to wonder about the relative economics of their ingredients.

I think the problem was not just that the cashier was Asian and apparently had a bad grasp of English, but also that she had a bad grasp of burger culture. To her, a burger without meat was probably no stranger than a burger with cheese. How is she supposed to know what these crazy people consider normal?

I realize that this post, coming as it does on the heels of my paen to multiculturalism, might be construed as ironic, but it's not; it's just coincidental.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The horrors of the wrong kind of theocracy (as if there were any right kind)

More drivel from The American Thinker: Sharia uber Alles.

Not to discount the problems of Muslims integrating (or not) into their new home, or the fierceness of the Islamicists, but the fear of a Sharia takeover is completely unreasonable. Muslims are a tiny minority of American society; how could they possibly have any more influence than we let them? What all this Sharia panic really reveals is a lack of faith in democracy. Essentially these people view the government as an occupying force, unresponsive to the wishes of the majority, and therefore fear that a minority will be able to enforce radically unpopular, extreme, and un-Constitutional laws on the majority.

On the face of it, this is absurd. Sharia law cannot trump the Constitution. Period. Case closed. Either the panickers are unaware of the basics of law, or they are afraid that Muslims will eventually have the 2/3 majority required to amend the Constitution. In which case their real fear has nothing to do with law, and everything to do with culture. This is a cultural group that fears extinction. Of course, this is even more absurd. What is happening to white, Christian society in America (and Australia) is not extinction, but rather, the end of absolute unquestioned total dominance. It used to be that people were Christian of course, and that it was a given that virtually every political, social, and economic leader would be white, male, and Christian. Christian holidays would dominate the calender (including shutting down alcohol sales on Sundays), Christian themes would decorate the courthouses, Christian theology would be taken as true while other religions were classed under "mythology." And all of this would be done without anyone so much as making a peep about it. Sure, there would be occasional exceptions (Sammy Davis, Jr.), and tolerance would be extended to the exotic minorities, but the agar of culture would Christianity.

Now secularism has taken a deep root, and Christianity finds itself just one of many competing traditions. This loss of privilege has been greeted with cries of persecution, and perhaps those alarms are not as illogical as first appearances suggest. After all, these are the people who have been running things for a long time. Perhaps they have little faith in democracy because they know just how undemocratic their own rule has been. Perhaps they are aware of how a tiny, dedicated, well-financed minority can flout the Constitution, as they have repeatedly with Creationism, abortion restrictions, Ten Commandments displays, and school prayers. Perhaps they fear having religion imposed on them in the same unthinking, unrelenting manner as they have imposed it on everyone else.

The answer is not to raise panic over Sharia, or strive to reimpose Christian traditionalism. The answer is to embrace secularism. A solid regard for Constitutional rights, a recognition that secular morality is all that is necessary or appropriate for public policy, a focus on individual freedoms as opposed to tribal conformance, would all serve to create a future in which no religious tradition would dominate the public sphere. But of course, that is precisely the future they fear.

Fundamentally, the authors at The American Thinker do not trust in, or believe in, democracy. They see their vision of a theocractic society being usurped by a more vibrant, dedicated, committed group (ordinary people would probably use the terms "more fanatic, delusional, and crazy"). Those of us committed to secular society, however, see no reason to fear. Hollywood will absorb and ultimately hollow out the faith of the Islamicists, just like it did every other invading culture.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What I don't miss about America

22% of children live in families that subsist on less than $22,000 per year for a family of 4.  9% of American children starve on less than $11,000 per year for a family of 4.

Fighting for the Other 22%

To be fair, I looked up Australia, and its poverty rate is 15%. But the poverty line here is $26,000 a year. More importantly, the number is going down, not up.

Of course, Norway came in with 3%. I asked Sara if we could move there, but she made a face and said they speak funny. This from the woman who says "bat-trees!"

Saturday, October 8, 2011

As the website Newser reported, the researchers “pitted a group of stockbrokers against a group of actual psychopaths in various computer simulations and intelligence tests and found that the money men were significantly more reckless, competitive and manipulative.” Even more striking, the researchers note that achieving overall success was less important to the stock speculators than the sadistic drive “to damage their opponents.”

How to stop the political insanity

And remember, I am a defender of capitalism. I like stockbrokers as a class. But these people are looting the planet, and they aren't even particularly motivated by wealth. They can't be reasoned with; explaining that we would all be richer if they gave up a little would not address their primary goal to "damage their opponents."

We have turned over the reins to psychopaths, and we need to take them back. What does taking the reins back look like. Two words: "government" and  "regulation." Keep that in mind the next time somebody tells how government regulation limits freedom. It does. It limits the psychopath's freedom. The rest of us, who are too poor to afford our own army of lawyers, already have plenty of limits on our freedom.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Unclear on the concept

It is not often you can deduce a philosophical error from a website name. In this case, however, the website "Atheism is False" lives up to its promise.

On the page outlining the problem, Stone explicitly states:

Atheism is false, and atheistic books fail to provide the justification for atheistic belief.

But of course this is absurd. No one believes in atheism; rather, one is an atheist because one does not believe in theism. Atheism can't be proven false; rather, one proves that a given theistic belief system is true.

Even if you could prove that atheism was false, how would that help? You still have to prove which of the many competing theistic believes is true. And once you prove that a given theistic belief is true, you've already defeated atheism, without any extra work.

So the goal is to prove a religion true. But true to form, Stone operates from within a false dichotomy. The only options he considers are a) atheism, and b) his particular form of theism. He takes it for granted that if one is convinced to believe, one will naturally choose his belief. He is worried about the tens of millions of atheists in America, but apparently utterly unaware of the hundreds of millions of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists in the world.

Should we tell him? Or would that just be mean?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

From here, it looks like Cairo

Protestors in the streets day after day; their numbers growing; clashes with police; the high and mighty drinking champagne from balconies... Why does the news from America look like the news from Egypt?

The only thing missing is an ideology. Can you imagine if Communism actually worked? Just think what these protests would be like - just imagine the energy that would drive these revolutions if people thought there was an actual, functioning method to create social justice.

That's what it must have been like, back in the day. Now, people are occupying Wall Street for the sole goal of reducing the amount the banksters steal. They want to go back to the levels of theft found in the 80's. That's all.

Thin gruel to sustain a revolutionary movement. Wouldn't it be easier to convince your neighbors to stop voting for the political party that openly, nakedly preaches "I got mine, so screw you!". Apparently not.

Update: Here's a great article that lays it out in full: Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%. The top 1% now have 25% of the income, 40% of the wealth, and all of the growth of the last 10 years. As the article points out, this is poisonous even to the 1%. The idea that the top 1% somehow deserve their fantastic wealth because they produce more or are smarter than the rest of us should be clearly refuted by history: the most recent economic collapse was entirely the product of their genius. The recession was self-imposed, by the smartest financial minds we have.

Just one quote from that two-page article:

the chances of a poor citizen, or even a middle-class citizen, making it to the top in America are smaller than in many countries of Europe.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

More true faces

Charles Koch and Social Security

The summary: Friedrich Hayek is one of the prophets of Libertarianism, writing books on how social insurance (such as Social Security) is bad, wicked, and wrong.

Charles Koch is one of his adherents, a billionaire who funds the Tea Party and other right-wing attacks on Social Security.

In 1973, however, when Koch wanted Hayek to come teach at his think tank, Hayek declined. He had a preexisting medical condition, and thus could not get health insurance in America. Therefore, he preferred to stay in Austria, where the State provides free healthcare.

Koch convinced him to come to the USA anyway, by pointing out that Hayek could recieve Medicaid and Social Security (he even went so far as to send Hayek a SS brochure and encourage him to draw on it while living overseas).

So when a Libertarian tells you he's against government handouts, what he really means his he is against government handouts for you. Because every single Libertarian has his hand in the cookie jar up to the elbow. Even Ayn Rand, patron saint of self-centered narcissists, relied on Social Security in the end.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

True faces

The mask keeps slipping:

BBC: Can you pin down exactly what would keep investors happy, make them feel more confident?

TRADER: That's a tough one.  Personally, it doesn't matter. I'm a trader.  I dont' care about that stuff... We don't really care how they're gonna fix the economy, how they're gonna fix the situation.  Our job is to make money from it.  And personally, I've been dreaming of this moment for three years.  I have a confession, which is, I go to bed every night, I dream of another recession, I dream of another moment like this.

BBC: Why?

TRADER: Because, people don't seem to maybe remember, the 30s Depression, the Depression in the 30s, wasn't just about a market crash.  There were some people who were prepared to make money from that crash.  And I think anybody can do that.  It isn't just for some people in the elite.  Anybody can make money, it's an opportunity.

BBC: If you could see the people around me, jaws have collectively dropped at what you just said.
London trader dreaming of another recession

He's only saying what his colleagues believe. By some reports the Koch brothers doubled their wealth in the last year. By all reports the top 10% took all the gains in income for the last 20 years.

Americans are not completely unaware of this. Right now support for the Buffet rule - the idea that rich people should pay the same percentage of taxes that working people pay - is huget:  73% of the electorate supports it, and only 16% oppose it (11% aren't sure, which makes you wonder what they are sure about). 73% of people making over $100,000 support it; 66% of self-identified Republicans support it; 59% of self-identified Tea Partiers support it.

But have you seen a single Republican official go against Grover Norquist and come out in favor of any kind of tax? Do you expect to?

And yet, Republicans are still leading in polls and winning elections. What motivates these people to vote against their own economic interests? I would like to think it's simple racism, because as ugly as that answer is, it's better than thinking Americans are just that ignorant. A populace that supports racism is evil, but at least coherent; a populace that doesn't know how to support what it wants is the death of democracy.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Reality check

If you're watching the current self-inflicted economic disaster, caused by a failure to learn anything from the last self-inflected Great Depression; or if you're looking at the current crop of Republican candidates for loser in Nov 2012, and wondering when people will finally learn from the past, here's a depressing reality check:

"The universe is infinite because it has not been produced by a creator. The causes of what now exists had no beginning."

"There is an infinite number of worlds of different sizes: some are larger than ours, some have no sun or moon, others have suns or moons that are bigger than ours. Some have many suns and moons. Worlds are spaced at differing distances from each other; in some parts of the universe there are more worlds, in other parts fewer. In some areas they are growing, in other parts, decreasing. They are destroyed by collision with one another. There are some worlds with no living creatures, plants, or moisture."

"The material cause of all things that exist is the coming together of atoms and void. Atoms are too small to be perceived by the senses. They are eternal and have many different shapes, and they can cluster together to create things that are perceivable. Differences in shape, arrangement, and position of atoms produce different things. By aggregation they provide bulky objects that we can perceive with our sight and other senses."

"By convention sweet, by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention color: but in reality atoms and void."
- Democritus, 5th century BCE

That's right. Over 2,500 years ago a Greek philosopher laid out the basics of empiricism. And yet Heaven is for real recently made the NYT Bestseller list.

So, reality check: progress is measured by the fact that only 98% of the populace believes in nonsense, instead of 99%.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The only people worse than the Republican debate candidates

are the Republican debate audiences.

First they cheered Perry's 234 executions. Then they cheered Ron Paul's "let 'em die." And now they booed an active duty soldier simply for being gay.

It is a sad day when you realize that a corrupt, stupid weasel like Rick Perry is actually better than his typical constituent.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Progressive case in three paragraphs

“I hear all this, you know, ‘Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever,’” she said. “No. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.

“You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.

“Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Elizabeth Warren

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A nation of slackers

Here's Rep. Steve King asserting that the economic recession is due solely to Americans being lazy:
We can't have a nation of slackers and then have me have to sit in the Judiciary Committee listening to them argue that there's work that Americans won't do
And he's right, in a way. There are lots of jobs that have been exported overseas because Americans are unwilling to do dangerous, soul-crushing jobs for pennies an hour. Give the Republicans credit: if we enacted their program and eliminated all workplace safety regulations, minimum wages, and unions, there really would be plenty of work for everyone.

This is a great test. Anybody who thinks that creating full unemployment via the above strategy is a good thing is literally too stupid to vote. If you found yourself thinking, "Ya, maybe we should do that, and get everyone back to work" - tear up your voter registration. For your own good, you can't allow yourself to make public policy decisions, because you are retarded.

Unless you're a billionaire. Then, of course, the idea of employing people for less than 25 cents an hour, 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, with absolutely no government oversight, sounds like Heaven. Or more accurately, 1930's America.

A young worker's plea

While President Franklin Roosevelt was in Bedford, Mass., campaigning for reelection, a young girl tried to pass him an envelope. But a policeman threw her back into the crowd. Roosevelt told an aide, "Get the note from the girl." Her note read,
I wish you could do something to help us girls....We have been working in a sewing factory,... and up to a few months ago we were getting our minimum pay of $11 a week... Today the 200 of us girls have been cut down to $4 and $5 and $6 a week.

This is the kind of story that warms a job creator's heart. This is the America they want to go back to. This is where the Tea Party is going, whether they know it or not.

Here is the principle that should be self-evident: as long as you embrace No work, No pay, you will always have Will Work for Food. Given an employee a choice between starvation and labor, and they will always choose labor.  Give an employer a choice between lower wages and lowest wages, and they will always choose lowest wages. They have to - the power of the free market compels them to. If they don't, their competition will undercut them and force them out of business. By allowing the free market to set the wage for labor, you guarantee that the most efficient price of labor will be set: which is to say, subsistence wages. Because efficiency is measured by corporate profits, not by social goods like psychological happiness, lower crime rates, or better health care outcomes.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A year in Oz

Well, I survived my first year in Oz. To celebrate I had a Whopper at Hungry Jack's, which is what they call Burger King out here. It was just as lousy as the real American deal.

So what penetrating insight do I have on this august occasion? Well, two of them:

1) There's a lot more movies shown on TV. Late at night, several stations broadcast full-length movies. We've got District 9, Pitch Black, and Star Trek on the DVR now. Also, I've watched sub-titled French and Spanish flicks.

2) They show full frontal nudity on broadcast TV here. After 9:00 PM, it's presumed adults are watching, and are therefore capable of not only seeing graphic senseless violence (just like in America) but the occasional thematically appropriate nudity.

Everything you need to know about Republicans in two links

While Republicans say this:
“Job creators in America are essentially on strike,” Mr. Boehner said, according to excerpts released by the Speaker’s office. “The problem is not confusion about the policies. The problem is the policies.”
Job creators are on strike.

Wall Street economists say this:
Michael Cembalest, the chief investment officer of JPMorgan Chase, wrote in July of this year (in a clients-only newsletter obtained by Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson) that “profit margins have reached levels not seen in decades,” and “reductions in wages and benefits explain the majority of the net improvement.” “US labor compensation,” he explained, “is now at a 50-year low relative to both company sales and US GDP.”

Wall Street discovers income inequality.

To be fair to the job creators, they're not hiring because there's no demand. To be fair to the truth, there's no demand because the laissez-faire policies of Reaganomis have killed the economy.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Addicted to failure

Here are two incidents:

Shutting down the government for attention is fun

Fox puts words in Perry's mouth

There are, of course, many more where those came from. What they all have in common is failure.

The Republicans in Congress have become so used to obstruction that they don't know how to stop. Even when the leadership realizes it's gone too far, they can't reign in all the rogue elements. This is, of course, the danger of using rogue elements and relentless obstructionism in the first place.

Fox news has been telling increasingly brazen lies for so long they've forgotten how to stop. Now they are putting words in Republican's mouths. This is, of course, the danger of a culture that winks at dishonesty.

And yet, people continue to vote Republican and watch Fox news. The tilting has been gradual enough that people have time to adjust their bearings in between, and so they haven't noticed how far in absolute terms the tilt has gone. Like lobsters on the boil. Is there any point at which people wake up, look at the last 20 years, and say, "Where are we, and how did we get here from there?"

If President Obama loses the 2012 election, it's not just the end of  his career. It is the beginning of the end of democracy for the entire the world. When minority parties realize they can seize power simply by wrecking the economy because the electorate isn't paying attention, then every minority party in turn will repeatedly sabotage their own government in a death spiral to the bottom. You know, like Rome did.

If a democratic electorate cannot see past the economic numbers and the faux news, then it's over. The electorate no longer possesses the ability to govern itself, and soon enough, it will lose the privilege. This process will be repeated in every democracy of any consequence; as the vultures flee the self-imposed collapse of American society, they will take their money and tactics elsewhere. So even if a nation were inclined to exercise its civic duty, it won't have a chance. The rats from our sinking ship will sink theirs. I already see signs of Americanization in the Australian insurance and housing industry. And of course Murdoch is Australian.

There was a reason we adhered to strict empirical standards of truth and accountability, even when it cost us our political victories or jobs. Because not doing so costs us everything.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ronald Reagan, incomptent socialist

Not content to cheer the mass execution of Americans, a Tea Party crowd is now cheering to let people die. The columnist draws the correct conclusion:

What it clarified, however, was less the cruelty of the Tea Party crowd than the absurdity of the health-care positions of all of the Republican candidates. 

This article makes perfectly clear what I have been telling conservatives for years: we already have socialzed medicine, just the worst possible way to pay for it:
hospitals are required to treat the urgently ill without regard for their ability to pay, thanks to a bill signed by Ronald Reagan in 1986

So everyone gets medical care, once their condition becomes the most life-threatening - and expensive -  it can be. In true Republican fashion, the problem of people dying in hospital waiting rooms was resolved by an unfunded mandate that hospitals provide care out of their own pocket; meanwhile, the cost of this care would not only be unpaid, but unacknowledged by Republicans who would continue to object to forcing people to spend money on other people.

The unfunded mandate forced on hospitals is effectively a poll tax; everyone winds up paying it at the same rate. This is the definition of a regressive tax, which is to say, a tax that hits poor people harder than rich people. Ever since Reagan, the only consistent platform in the Republican party has been, "Tax cuts for the rich."

And yet poor and middle class people keep voting for them. Truly, we get the government we deserve.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

When bank runs affect entire continents

Paul Krugman is warning that the Euro might collapse in a matter of days.

The problem is that Europe put itself at the mercy of the financiers. All governments borrow; it is a fact of life. When they can't borrow, they run into trouble. When they run into trouble, they can't borrow.

Somebody put out a rumor that Spain might default. So the interest rates on Spain's borrowing starting going up. The higher the rates go, the riskier Spain's debt looks, so... the higher the rates go. So now, Spain might actually go bankrupt, due to a run on their national treasury, just like even the good banks in the Great Depression went under.

This can't happen to America. We can always print money to pay off our old bonds. Sure, it would piss people off and cause inflation, but the solution only has to be temporary. Once it's clear we aren't going to default, the pressure drops, and we can stop printing money. Since the financiers don't want us to print money, that stability point will come pretty quickly. So, we're protected: despite the best efforts of the lunatics who want to abandon fiat money (and thus leave us completely at the mercy of anyone who can corner the gold market), America is still safe.

But Europe isn't. Whole governments will fall, people will suffer, but the financiers will win. They'll make money speculating on the collapse, and then they'll buy national assets for pennies. And then they'll do it all again.

And we worried about Islamic terrorists...

Monday, September 12, 2011

Intellectual pornography

Sometimes you come across a piece of writing that is so partisan, so indifferent to ordinary standards of truth, that it isn't even propaganda. It's not attempting to convince other people, or even to strengthen and bolster the faithful. It only exists to excite the believer, in the crudest possible way; it plays to arguments so shallow they can only occur in the privacy of one's own head without mortifying embarrassment. In other words, the intellectual version of pornography.

American Thinker is such a rag. As a perfect example, here's an article so feckless with the truth that I'm not even sure what its goal was. It looks like Accommodationism, that auto-masochistic hobby wherein atheists flagellate other atheists for being too atheistic. But it contains sops to every conceivable audience, sort of the same way porns have at least one scene for every perversion (how democratic!).

At first we have the "atheist admiring religion" shtick:

it is high time for a non-believing scientist to express my love and admiration for the great religious traditions.

OK, fair enough. But in the next paragraph, we run into a problem:

It (Religion) is how civilized morals and values have been taught from one generation to the next for the last 6,000 years of recorded history, and probably for 100,000 years before that.

Um. Just a moment. Isn't one of the great religious traditions that history is only 6,000 years old? In fact, isn't Biologos (the premiere science and religion compatibilist organization) currently imploding over the dueling facts of a) science proves humans are not descended from one couple, and b) without Adam and Eve's fall, there is no original sin, hence no redemption, hence no Christ, hence no Christianity?

For a guy who's all into revering great traditions, Mr. Lewis doesn't object to just stomping on one of them right out of the gate.

Nor does he bother to mention that not all religious traditions are good. Genocide, slavery, witch-burning, polygamy - what about these grand traditions? And that's just Christian tradition. With Islam we get marriageable nine-year-olds; with Hinduism a racism so stringent it applies to social classes; and of course the old pagan stand-by of sacrificing virgins to volcanoes. Really, how much more traditional than that can you get?

But perhaps it is supposed to be evident from context that Mr. Lewis only approves of good Christian traditions. Like a porno flick, the question of why the plumber is there when the housewife is in the shower isn't even supposed to be asked. This stuff doesn't work if you analyze it too much!

It is possible to make an argument that religion served (or serves) a necessary role in expanding communities from tribes to nation-states. If Mr. Lewis were making such an argument, it would be possible for me to make a counter-argument. However, Mr. Lewis is not making an argument. He is simply throwing out vacuous talking points that the reader can construct into whatever fantasy meets his or her needs. You know... like pornography.

Mind you, this is just the first two paragraphs. The rest of the article is worse. He staggers from one poorly-constructed scene to the next: a bit about the World Heritage sites being mostly religious simply ignores the fact that religiously dominated societies of course produce monuments through religious labor and themes, that often those sites were constructed with slave labor to honor gods that Americans would find horrific, and he includes cave paintings on the list. Has every magic ritual now been classified as religious? Why, yes, it has, as he makes clear later on when he writes:

Such panpsychic experiences are reported by mystics throughout human history.

Painting with a bit of a broad brush, aren't we? Are the readers of the American Thinker really prepared to grant the validity of all supernatural claims and experiences? Or do they just fast-forward past this part, the way viewers fast-forward past the scenes that indulge perversions they aren't interested in.

Next comes a series of encounters with literature. Honestly, people, the only time you can cite literature as evidence for your theory is if you are doing literary theory. It's one thing to point out that great novels use religious themes; it's something else to point out that in great novels, scientists are often religious, and therefore we can conclude that scientists were often religious!

But of course my favorite paragraph has to be this one:

Today's crusading atheism is a fanatical cult that desperately needs to make converts, to silence its own inner qualms. Intolerance is progressive, see?

Followed by the usual conclusion which asserts that liberals are intolerant, and therefore bad. Yes, once again we have an article reeking of intolerance complaining that other people are intolerant. Never mind the factual distortions of the above paragraph; many, many religions today are evangelical. Catholics and Protestants each strive to convert the other, and both claim the other are bound for Hell and damnation. So if atheism really were just another religion trying to make converts by criticizing other denominations, why would that be bad? Didn't Mr. Lewis just argue that we should tolerate that kind of behavior from every other religion? Why single out one particular religious viewpoint for denigration in an article asserting that only crass philistines denigrate religious viewpoints?

Why does the plumber have KY Jelly in his toolbox? Once again, stop asking those pesky questions! I'm trying to enjoy myself here. If you know what I mean.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sometimes people make me sick

I am not opposed to the death penalty; I can make a pretty good argument for why it is both moral and necessary (even though I can also a pretty good argument for why it isn't). However, I cannot imagine, under any circumstance, cheering about it:

Debate audience cheers Perry's execution record

I didn't object to a few celebrations about Osama bin Laden's death. People are only human, after all; payback for a vicious mass-murderer who had eluded justice for ten years is going to provoke emotions. But the executions of your own citizens, under sometimes questionable circumstances - Perry almost certainly presided over the death of at least one innocent man, and almost did so for at least one other - are a different matter.

Are we to believe applause for a body count represents the American electorate?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Arizona in the news again

A single worker's error led to a massive power outage that swept across Arizona, Southern California and Mexico, left millions of people in the dark and brought major West Coast cities to a standstill, according to a local power company.

One Electrical Worker Blamed for Leaving Millions Without Power in California, Arizona and Mexico

The real story here, however, is that this is only the beginning. Experts have been warning about crumbling infrastructure for years; this is what they were talking about. Expect this to happen more and more frequently, with worse and worse outcomes.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The price of health care

Regular readers of my blog - all three of you - will already know how much I've complained about prices in Australia. Everything costs twice as much. Except used cars, which oddly seem to cost the same as in the USA, even though new cars cost twice as much.

Well, I went to the dentist today for a cleaning and check-up. The total bill was $102. In America I would pay $230 for the same service, at the hands of a dental hygienist instead of an actual dentist.

Other health care services, such as hospital stays, are also cheaper. When I tell people what the bill for Sophie was, they can't believe it. Here it would have cost 1/4 as much. Now you might argue that is because the government subsidizes health care; the actual out of pocket expenses for a hospital birth here with public care are probably similar to America with insurance.

But dental care isn't subsidized by the government at all. So why is it so much more affordable?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Another view of the direction of the Right

For another view of where the Right wants to go, I strongly recommend this article, by a 16-year veteran GOP staffer on the House and Senate Budget committee. Read all of it, even the footnotes; here are some highlights:

As Hannah Arendt observed, a disciplined minority of totalitarians can use the instruments of democratic government to undermine democracy itself...

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner...

Undermining Americans' belief in their own institutions of self-government remains a prime GOP electoral strategy...

All of these half truths and outright lies have seeped into popular culture via the corporate-owned business press. Just listen to CNBC for a few hours and you will hear most of them in one form or another.  More important politically, Republicans' myths about taxation have been internalized by millions of economically downscale "values voters,"...

There is no fundamental disagreement on which direction the two factions want to take the country, merely how far in that direction they want to take it. The plutocrats would drag us back to the Gilded Age, the theocrats to the Salem witch trials...

Goodbye to all that: Reflections of a GOP operative who left the cult

He asserts that the GOP has only three platforms: protect the rich, wage wars, and pander to religion. He makes a compelling argument that the latter - the politicization of religion - is both the worst and the source of all other evils. Democracies only function when dissent is noble; but under monotheistic religions, dissent is diabolic. You can't mix religion and politics without destroying both.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

In case you weren't already sick of it

The 5 percent of Americans with the highest incomes now account for 37 percent of all consumer purchases...

A limping Middle Class

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Why can't the Right go back to this?

"Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

President Abraham Lincoln, first annual message to Congress, December 3, 1861
Funny how the Republican obsession with returning to the past doesn't include returning to the Republican's past.

Edit: Oh, look. here's a former Boehner staffer explaining where they do want to go back to:

Former Boehner Staffer Suggests Rick Perry Would Be Happier With the Confederate Constitution

Monday, September 5, 2011

Another table of doom

You don't have to read the text if you understand this table:
Higher top tax rate
Lower top tax rate
95th 2.11%               1.62%              
60th 2.22%               0.97%              
20th 1.96%               0.58%              

When top tax rates were higher, the middle class was actually holding its own against the folks at the top, and the poor were moving up at roughly the same rate as the rest of the nation. When tax rates were cut at the top, there was a radical change. Under the low taxes on the wealthy regime, middle class growth was cut in half. Growth of income for the poor was cut to less than a third of the previous pace.

Why? Because cutting taxes at the top does exactly what the conservatives have always advertised—it encourages the wealthy to make more money. However, personal taxes aren't paid on the revenues of a company. They're paid on how much you take home. Cutting taxes at the top encouraged the wealthy to put more cash into their own pockets and hold back pay that otherwise would have gone to middle class employees and the working poor...

When taxes drop so far that they cease to be a consideration, the best move is to simply grab all the money while it's available. Why tempt fate in the marketplace, why risk unforeseen circumstances, why do all that boring old work if you can simply pocket the profits and run?

The current system provides no incentive to build companies and systems that can stand the test of time, companies built around valuable and educated workers who have a stake in the success of the company, community, and society. We've built a system that's tottering on the edge of terminal instability, and those calling for still lower taxes are likely to knock out the last supports holding up the floor.

Serfs up: how coddling the rich is destroying the American dream

So, to be fair to rich people, they're not actually any stupider than the rest of the population. They voted for Reaganomics because it was in their own short-term best interest. Presumably the rest of the working class Republicans thought it was in their interest, too.

But they were wrong. And we know that now. The empirical data is there, the history is told. But it requires understanding, and that requires honesty. One dishonest way to look at the past is to smear it all together; to lump the two categories in the table above into one. Then the dismal performance of the last 25 years erases the good performance of the previous period, and so the conclusion becomes that we have to roll back the whole thing. This is what a lack of nuance does.

In fact, the Republicans are using this strategy right now, claiming that Obama is responsible for the economy that Bush built. (They've even convinced some people that Obama created the TARP act!) No wonder they think nuance is a dirty word.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Where the Right wants to go

Perry would like to return the country to an idealized past—a time when government was an invisible presence. When he appeared on “The Daily Show” last year, to promote his book “Fed Up: Our Fight to Save America from Washington,” Jon Stewart asked him when Washington had gone “off the rails.” “About a century ago,” Perry said. He blamed Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive movement, which promoted the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment, sanctioning a federal income tax, and the Seventeenth Amendment, mandating direct election of U.S. senators rather than their selection by state legislators.

“There are very few people that, I think, would go back to a pre-1920 United States, because that movement didn’t arise out of nothing,” Stewart observed. “Children worked in factories. Women were not allowed to vote.”

“I get that,” Perry said, amiably, although he and Stewart were clearly talking past each other—to audiences in two Americas who are no longer within shouting distance of each other.

Assessing Rick Perry

And there you have it, right from the horse's mouth: where the Tea Party wants to go is 1910. That's their destination. And it's a great place to be, if you're a Gatsby.

But if you're black, or gay, or non-Christian, or female, or poor, it's not a good place. I don't understand the people who think the 1940's were some kind of paradise. They confuse me with their historical rose-colored glasses. But surely no person paid by the hour thinks that 1910 would be better for them.

And, of course, Perry wants to go back to the world that directly led to WWI and then WWII. How much more empirical evidence for the utter failure of government policy can you ask for than that? You know, that whole 1910 thing, we tried it; and it lead to two world wars. So... can we learn anything here?

If nothing else, you'd think that the rich would remember what they didn't like about 1910. Back then, the popular solution to the problems of social inequality was Communism. Communism doesn't work; it's hideous and savage and leads to great misery. But lots of people chose it anyway, because the life they were leading was worse. We only avoided a Communist revolution in this country because the rich decided to ease up and turn to socialism, out of fear of said revolt. And now here the banksters are, with both hands in the cookie jar. It's as if the absence of a credible threat by an irrational, oppressive system empowers them to act irrationally. It's as if disproving the existence of Hell turned Christians into sociopathic monsters.

Which it doesn't; the vast majority of Christians who lose their fear of Hell remain generally good and decent people (in sheer point of fact, religious doctrine of any stripe seems utterly uncorrelated with personal morality). So what this proves is that the rich really are different than you and me; they're irredeemably stupid.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Where the Right has gone

I realize the American Thinker is a right-wing rag, and does not speak for all (or even a majority of) Republicans, but the mere fact that they could post an article like this:

Registering the poor to vote is Un-American
It is profoundly antisocial and un-American to empower the nonproductive segments of the population to destroy the country -- which is precisely why Barack Obama zealously supports registering welfare recipients to vote.

This same author would be the first to tell you how much he reveres the Constitution - even while he advocates eviscerating it.

Anyway, the good news is, they're finally coming right out and admitting their real objectives. So, props for honesty, at least.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The United States of Delusion

During my recent trip to America, I noticed something that has taken me a while to put into words. Ironically, David Brooks, mostly famous for being the most fatuously irrelevant and dense columnist to hold a slot in a major newspaper, expressed it perfectly:

(Rick Perry) does very well with the alternative-reality right — those who don’t believe in global warming, evolution or that Obama was born in the U.S.

Here in Australia, people still believe in stupid things. "Chinese" medicine is ubiquitous; astrology, homeopathy, etc. are still out there. But the amount of delusion is muted. I don't see psychic palm reading shops every few blocks, or ads for psychic readings on late-night TV. That, in itself, is not that remarkable. The difference lies not so much in New Age silliness as alternate history.

In America, perfectly reasonable people believe in facts so orthagonal to reality that they must come from some other planet. I have met wonderful, good, intelligent people who believe any or all of the following:

Social Security is unnecessary. Because apparently, in the good old days, churches and local communities took care of the indigent. Apparently in this alternate reality there were no Hoovervilles.

Taxes are theft. The concept of paying for the government services you receive does not impact this view, because in most American's minds they receive nothing from the government. They hold this view while driving on publicly funded roads, fueled by subsidized oil, paid for by a stable currency that is the envy of the world, in cars that are ten times safer than they used to be thanks to federal regulations. Literally like fish, they spend so much time enveloped by the benefits of the government that they don't know they exist.

Global warming isn't real. Or if it is, man's activities have nothing to do with it. The planet spent hundreds of millions of years sequestering carbon in the form of fossil fuels; we've spent decades releasing it back into the environment. But somehow that simple basic formula of 1,000,000 to 1 doesn't matter?

Evolution isn't real. Mind you, these same people are perfectly capable of holding an informed discussion on how antibiotics are having difficulty coping with newer strains of disease.

Obama wasn't born in the USA. This from a Democrat!

Giving tax breaks to the rich create jobs. Despite, you know, thirty years of evidence. And rich people like Warren Buffet saying, "No, it doesn't."

Government regulations are bad. Asbestos apparently never existed in this time-line. Nor did the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.

Welfare queens are bankrupting the nation. Note that no one who worries about welfare queens ever, ever, complains about: the bloated, inefficient Defense industry, the wholesale theft carried out by Wall Street, or the fact that catching the welfare cheats that do escape the system would cost more than ignoring them.

Vaccinations are bad. Not just that they cause autism, but they are unhelpful and unnecessary. Because... I don't even know. Seriously, this is such a complete repudiation of the last hundred years of scientific medicine that I can't even guess what the hell they're talking about. Just look at an epidemiology chart. Any of them.

Obama is a: Socialist, Muslim, Atheist, Republican... I believe you could quite literally add any adjective to Obama's name, and find someone who believes it. Note that this delusion is not solely a feature of the Right: the Left has plenty of people who deduce the slightest nuances of Obama's character based on legislation passed by the Republican House. People project the most amazing conclusions, and the fact that they contradict each other (often at the same time!) has no more bearing than the fact that they contradict observed reality.

Again, I'm not talking about the ordinary issues of differing belief, like religion, UFOs, psychic powers, etc. I'm talking about history. Americans just seem more influenced by, and more certain of, histories that never happened. We're not arguing over the uncertain or the unknowable; we're arguing over recent history. Did polio retreat in the face of massive vaccinations? Did Bush or Obama pass TARP? Did Reagan raise taxes? These are things you can look up in a history book. Hell, most of these are things people lived through. And yet, their actuality seems fluid: their truth is either denied or declared irrelevant in the face of the desired narrative.

Invariably, I find that confronting these narratives with actual facts leads to argument, followed by silence. And the next day, I overhear the very same person reciting the very same narrative to someone else. The vitality of these alternate histories, their utter immunity to fact, is matched only by their convenience. Invariably the alternate history supports the conclusions of the speaker. This is standard psuedo-science nonsense, as practiced by every woo ever. The difference is that now it is practiced by ordinary citizens, on national politics.

Debt, war, racial tension, natural disaster: America can overcome all of those, in fact has done so repeatedly. But this? I don't know. This isn't a disease of the body politic, or poison, or traumatic injury; it is addiction.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Stay classy, Chris Clarke

I wound up at blog called Coyote Crossing (great name, huh?) via a link from DailyKos, I think. The post was titled "Why I'm not voting for Obama in 2010." It was the usual litany of magical thinking and "I didn't get my pony" whining.

But some of the comments were pretty good, pointing out that if Obama did nothing else, he legitimized the aspirations of young black people. Of course this, and DADT, and all the other things Obama accomplished, aren't good enough for our dear Chris Clarke.

So I added a comment supporting the intelligent posters. For me, it was remarkably non-vitrolic. (You can read it here, if you care - Coyote Crossing, but you'll have to scroll down to find my comments). Chris responded with "your comment is pretty much composed entirely of fact-free condescension" and "So you’re willing to vote for a torturer to be pragmatic," to which I responded with, "Yes, if my option were a murder. And so would you."

Chris then responded with "We welcome disagreement here, but only that of the honest sort," told me I didn't know what deontology meant, and then... banned me. But not before one of his followers got in this:

Yahzi,  Apparently you know the theory of everything but the context and value of ‘NOTHING!’.  Have you been running into walls lately?  As in head first?  Huffing gasoline perhaps?  Or perhaps it’s congenital?  Mommy had to many post-preggers drinky-poos?

So I've been banned and mocked for suggesting that voting for Obama instead of a theocrat is the right thing to do. On a liberal blog.

Maybe Rick Perry has a shot after all.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Warren Buffet speaks

If you won't believe it from me, believe it from this guy:
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, tax rates for the rich were far higher, and my percentage rate was in the middle of the pack. According to a theory I sometimes hear, I should have thrown a fit and refused to invest because of the elevated tax rates on capital gains and dividends.

I didn’t refuse, nor did others. I have worked with investors for 60 years and I have yet to see anyone — not even when capital gains rates were 39.9 percent in 1976-77 — shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate on the potential gain. People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off. And to those who argue that higher rates hurt job creation, I would note that a net of nearly 40 million jobs were added between 1980 and 2000. You know what’s happened since then: lower tax rates and far lower job creation.

Stop coddling the super-rich
When even the billionaires are complaining that their taxes are too low, their taxes are too low. Republicans in Congress are objecting to extending the Payroll tax holiday even while they demand permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts, because the first one helps working people and the second one helps investing people.

Seriously. At what point do working people wake up and see what the Republican party stands for?