Sunday, December 30, 2012

Guns are good at killing people: Gun Control Discussion part 1

Since everyone in the pundit-o-sphere is talking about gun control, I thought I'd bring my ten-cent pistol to bear as well.  This is going to be a multi-part post.  Here's part 1.

First of all, let's all agree from the outset is that guns are excellently designed machines. And what they were designed to do is kill things effectively, at range, with minimal training and effort on the part of the wielder.  Obviously, marksmanship is a skill and to possess it requires a great deal of training and ability, but as a person who went to shooting range once and hit a bunch of stuff, I can attest to the shallowness of the "good enough to be dangerous" end of the learning curve.

This should have two consequences.  First of all, it should stop bullshit like this, in which we learn that a lot of murders are done with guns.  Well, duh.  If I wanted to kill a person, I would use the best tool available, and--as mentioned earlier--guns are pretty damn good at the whole killing thing.

There's a great meme along the lines of the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" theme that speaks to the second intended consequence of this realization:

And on one level, this is dead on.  Obviously guns don't have moral culpability in any killings for which they are used, but that's not at all to say that they don't contribute.  I've never heard anyone say that the killing of Bin Laden could have been done just as easily without any guns.  Which is just to say that we invented guns because we wanted a better way to kill people, and we did a good job.

Things like this Chinese tragedy make this kind of obvious.  A crazy person went into a school and attacked a bunch of children, stabbing 20.  However, since knives aren't as good at killing people as guns are, what they got was 20 injured children, instead of 20 dead children.  The US wasn't as lucky with our most recent mass assault tragedy, and the reason is pretty obvious: semi-automatic firearms are better at killing people than knives.

A lot of people are saying that poor mental health care is the root cause of these mass homicides, and I totally agree.  The US rates of suicide, homicide, and homelessness are all pretty deeply tied up in poor mental health care, but that sounds to me like an argument for universal health care including psychiatric care, not an argument against gun control.  

The "there are too many crazies" argument is kind of like saying that mental institutions should leave the sharp objects around and just do a better job of treating the violently insane.  No. The obvious answer (in a mental institute) is to do both, and to do the "keep the pointy things away" one first, because it is easier to do.  

I don't think the answer for the United States is nearly as obvious, but I think the fundamental framework should be kept in mind.  I'll evaluate (ridicule) policy proposals currently on the table as well as making my own suggestions in upcoming posts.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Are sinners allowed to adopt?

  1. The Catholic Church has long decried homosexual acts as sinful, and neither acknowledges nor condones homosexual marriages. 
  2. They also oppose legal marriage rights for gay couples and seem particularly vehement in their opposition to adoption. 

I just feel the need to point out that 2 by no means follows from 1.

Making claims about what is and is not sinful is standard issue; the Church has been at that for a long time, and wont be stopping any time soon.  Furthermore, it seems clear to me that it is within the rights of the Church to refuse the sacrament of marriage, or any sacrament for that matter, to anyone for failing to meet certain theologically determined criteria.  I don't find the Church's position on the sinfulness of homosexuality terribly compelling, but I'm willing to let the ongoing deliberation and prayer of the Church to sort out which of us is in the right.

However, 2 has no bearing on any of those things.  Legal rights are inherently secular, and to the extent that they are above and beyond the protections espoused by the church, seem to me to be beyond reproach.  This is especially true given the Church's theological commitment to freedom of religion: there are faiths that permit or even laud gay marriage.  If the church is committed to true religious freedom, it is imperative that other faiths be permitted to operate with the same legal capacities and protections as the Catholic Church.

All of that, however, is sideshow stuff compared to the Church's scandalous position on adoption by gays.  The Church has no massive public campaign objecting to adoption by remarried couples; to my knowledge it has no animosity at all to such adoptions.  But, from a Catholic theology perspective, such people are also publicly engaged in mortal sin.  For reasons that escape me, the Church has decided that it is more important to punish and restrict a particular class of sinners than it is to provide loving homes to orphans. I find myself disgusted by my Mother Church's insistence that it prefers keeping children in foster care and orphanages to permitting them to be loved, raised, and cared for by a sinning couple.  If any fellow Catholics have a thoughtful dissent to this sentiment, I'd love to hear it.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Debate thoughts

Romney promises that his tax reform wont raise taxes on middle class, increase the deficit, or lower taxes on the wealthy.  A promising change in policy.

I wish Obama had addressed the idea that small businesses need less taxes to hire more workers.  I'm pretty confident that businesses hire if demand is high, but if there's no demand, they wont hire more workers no matter how profitable.  Business profits are very high right now.

I wish they wouldn't talk past each other.  I actually like that Romney has been addressing points (somewhat).  Obama is really just making and expanding his economic stump speech. 

Bringing down rates while decreasing deductions is about incentive effects, not about budget effects; that's the whole point of revenue neutral reform.  So Romney's early point about businesses not having enough money to hire workers doesn't get fixed by his proposals.  I mean, I guess he can move that cost to someone else while being revenue neutral, but who? 

Romney: cuts through attrition based on the "is it worth borrowing from China for?" principle.   Borrowing money from China doesn't seem like a huge risk to me, I mean... are they going to come collect?  I'm pretty sure they only have one aircraft carrier.  That's not going to go well.

I think it's kind of unfair to hold Obama's pre-recession deficit promises against him.  Recessions cost money to fight, and they dramatically reduce tax revenue on account of no one has money to pay taxes.  Also, there are plenty of programs like unemployment that automatically grow.

Romney definitely has the best of the early energy policy exchange, albeit through conceding his early policy position.  I don't know how John Taylor would feel about discretionary rescues for failing state poverty programs.

I like that the debate is fairly respectful thus far.  That makes me not hate myself.

I hate how Romney presents interesting useful general principles without every being willing to instantiate them.  Why is Obama spending more time detailing Romney's proposals? Because Romney's proposals either violate his expressed general principles, or are super unpopular, or both.

Romney's "private plan better than medicare" argument is silly.  You can switch from medicare any time you want, so long as you can afford it.  Ditto for private plans.  They compete against one another.  Also, medicare is cheaper than private health insurance.

Appeals to authority are *really* annoying in this format, because they are completely contentless and hard to verify.

Always, Romney is avoiding details in favor of interesting but hilariously general problems.  Total lie about Dodd-Frank.  The "too big to fail" thing is all about setting up plans to put those banks through specialized bankruptcy procedures, not backstopping them.

Dealing with the cost of healthcare: all of the cheapest healthcares are socialized. Dear Mitt Romney, why are we ignoring that fact?

Every private insurance company is an unelected board that decides what they'll cover in insurance.

Why didn't Romneycare cause companies to get rid of insurance coverage?  It is the same as Obamacare.

Government is awesome at cost control. It just sets the prices and that's what they are.  It may be bad at providing equal quality on a given price point in the absence of market failures, but that's not what they're talking about.  And, for the record, healthcare is basically the definition of market failure.

Also, on every single point about healthcare, why do we never reference every single European nation--a group that has unanimously solved the universal healthcare problem in a variety of interesting ways?

Romney's preferred health care policy is that every state implement Romney care.  So Romney's preferred policy is Obamacare, but run by states?

Liberals think that supply side reforms are necessary for education and healthcare, I think.  Have to consider that more.  Not sure how I feel.

Romney seems to start every thing with agreeing with Obama, or discarding the accurate description of his prior policy positions provided by Obama.  I mean, fair enough.  

"trickle down government" is one of Mitt's "clever" phrases.  Emphasis on "", Mitt's, and phrases.

I'd like to just have Obama say "I will return to Clinton era policies: policies that coincided with the most prosperous time in our nation in recent years.  In what way is that radical or dangerous?"

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

About belief

Just a quick one from a conversation I had today.  When we're talking about persuasion, we're really talking about two very different tasks.

Sometimes we argue about how to do things, and normally in that discussion the relevant information is about the world and how it works.  The way we convince people in that context is by showing them evidence about the way the world works--facts, studies, that sort of thing.

The other thing we argue about is what we should care about. These sorts of arguments about first order beliefs--which we just take as given in the former class of argument--aren't at all amenable to facts, studies, and figures.  Persuasion on these points is essentially an act of conversion and is effected mostly through personal relationships if at all.

Now, first order beliefs are held with varying strengths, and sometimes things that should be higher order beliefs--empirically testable ideas about how the world works--are treated as first order.  But, I'd say that's more or less the structure of things.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Who do you side with?

I thought this was an interesting attempt at getting people to look at their politicians by the issues.  The choices were nice in that they gave additional options for a little more nuance, but the policy questions were high enough level that you could still pretty obviously pick the party-signalling choice, which probably isn't super useful for making people think twice about their preferred candidate.  Also, who the hell is Jill Stein?

Here's the quiz:

Here're my results:

ACA Ruling (part 1 - The One Man Majority)

The Supreme Court ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is, well, complicated.  One of its most interesting features is that the "majority opinion", or the opinion holding legal weight, is  held in its entirety only by one man--Chief Justice John Roberts.  In this post we'll focus exclusively on his opinion, which is as follows:

1. The Anti-Injunction Act does not impede the States' ability to bring suit against the ACA
2. The Individual Mandate cannot be upheld under the Commerce Clause or the Necessary and Proper Clause
3. The Individual Mandate, being functionally identical to a tax and enforced under the Tax Code, is within the taxing powers of congress and therefore Constitutional
4. The Federal government unduly coerces the states in its conditioning all medicaid funding on the ACA's expansion of medicaid, only new funding may be so conditioned

Basically the only thing the entire court agrees on is (1).  The Anti-Injunction Act is a law saying that people can't sue to avoid a tax until they've actually paid the damn thing.  Roberts says that congress explicitly said that the penalty associated with the Individual Mandate is not a tax, and therefore the Anti-Injunction Act doesn't apply. (This gets a little weird later on, when the Individual Mandate is determined to be a tax, but the takeaway is just that congress has the power to say what things are and aren't taxes for the purposes of the law, but not for the purposes of the constitution.  That actually makes a lot of sense, since otherwise the Feds could do anything, call it a tax, and have it be constitutional.)

Roberts joins the conservative dissent in stating (2) that the Individual Mandate is unsupported by the Commerce Clause because it regulates inactivity, rather than activity.  Frankly, I think this distinction is weird and stupid, but I'll put off arguments until after I've gone through the dissenting opinions.

Roberts, along with the liberal dissent, points out (3) that because the Individual Mandate is exercised through the IRS,  is governed by the laws governing taxation, is levied at least in part to provide revenue, and is not punitive (it never exceeds the value of purchasing insurance, and is usually substantially less), it is a form of tax for constitutional purposes, and, as such, is constitutional under the taxation powers of congress.

Finally, in agreement with a large block of both liberal and conservatives (though some Justices still dissent), Roberts rules (4).  I don't fully understand this argument, but it seems like the basic claim is that federal-state programs have to be looked at as contracts between the federal government and state government.  The medicaid expansion greatly exceeds the scope of changes the states could have reasonably expected when signing on to the program, therefore their original contracts must remain valid regardless of whether they decide to expand their programs to the new medicaid levels.  That's the theoretical justification, which I find weak.  The practical justification is much stronger.  Basically, the amount of money involved in medicaid amounts to 10% or more of most states' budgets.  Giving up that funding would be fiscal suicide for most states.  Therefore, the states have no real choice but to accept the changes to medicaid.  The Justice rightly points out that a similar tactic could be used to coerce the states to enact basically any law, even those that the federal government has no right to enact, which would pretty much defeat the purpose of Federalism.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Higgs Boson

I don't understand anything about how the Higgs Boson stuff works, what we're going to do with the new knowledge, or really anything about physics.  But! here's a cool thing to take away:  Science made a prediction with theory, well before we even had the capability to test that theory.  We then built the capability, and tested the prediction.  It was verified.

That simple story, and ones like it, are at the root of human achievement.  It's good to be human.