Monday, January 31, 2011

State of the Union Part 2

Here's a summary of the content of the state of the union:

The empty introduction part:
Sad about Giffords
America is Great
Stock Markets are good and companies make money but people still dont have any jobs
Working on that
Manufacturing is dead in america
China and India are better at early tech education than we are
America is Great
Some bullshit about the vacuous questions students answer instead of memorizing equations
Win the Future

The Goals Part:
Innovation is Important
America is Great (as told through anecdotes)
Stop paying big oil and use the money to invest in innovation
Hilariously distant and ambitious goal for clean energy
Education is Important
My Education plan is Great (as told through anecdotes)
Some actually sane stuff about immigrants and education
Infrastructure is Important

The "Footing the Bill" Part:
Sane corporate tax code
Increase exports
rationalize business regulation
keep obamacare
Austerity measures
Personal Tax Reform

Miscellaneous Posturing:
earmarks => veto idiocy

The Propaganda fade out bit:
America is Great
We're "winning" the "war against terror"
America is Great (in diplomacy too)
Us Politicians are folks just like you
America is Great

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

State of the Union (part 1)

So.  My first comment on the State of the Union:


Seriously, this is arguably the least interesting or engaging Obama speech I have ever seen.  Whoever he fired on his writing team needs to come back, or something.

Some other things that pop out at me:

Winning the Future! This may be the single worst piece of political rhetoric ever produced.  I will do Science later to find out for sure.

There was little to no agenda.  I think this has something to do with the "laundry list" that (apparently) every previous state of the union gave and this one wasn't going to.  I'm not sure when serious discussion of policy became a boring chore better replaced with bland feel good rhetoric, but whatever, okay.

The few concrete items addressed by Obama were hilariously awful ideas (HAIs from now on)

HAI 1:  Veto everything with an earmark

I used to think the awfulness of this idea was self evident, but it appears that I was incorrect about the base competence of America once more.  Here is why earmark's are good:  They are the only effective mechanism for compromise in Washington.  Essentially, elected officials are beholden to the people who elect them.  Those people have broad political views (Conservative, Liberal, Libertarian, Marxist, whatever), but they also have direct interests (local jobs, food on their tables, access to utilities, &c).  Earmarks allow elected officials to sacrifice the broad political views they generally espouse in favor of some direct benefit to their constituency.  That way, a centrist republican can get re-elected in a highly conservative district by doing well by his constituents and voting slightly left of them (obviously this works for any political configuration).  I can think of no better incitement to compromise.  Vetoing every bill with earmarks is akin to vetoing every bill with compromises.  Also, as my friend Andrew pointed out, promising to veto bills with earmarks is roughly akin to giving everyone a veto.  Get an earmark in and you kill the bill...

HAI 2: Magical extension of social security:

I have trouble imagining that anyone truly believes that the sentiment expressed here has any relationship with the realms of the possible, foreseeable, or even vaguely real.
To put us on solid ground, we should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations. And we must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.
Let's list the words and word combinations which are innately impossible.

1. bipartisan
2. Social Security + future
3. "without slashing benefits for future generations" + "without putting at risk current retirees"
4. "without putting at risk" + "the most vulnerable" (BY DEFINITION... come on people)
5. That bit implying that anything to do with money could be protected from the movement of the economy

I have to say, there are more stupid things in that paragraph than there are sentences.  I bet I could come up with more stupid things in it than there are independent clauses.  That is sad.

I'll do a more cogent summary tomorrow, and make some less snarky comments (maybe not that much less snarky), but for now let's call it a generally boring speech broken up with moments of intense awfulness.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Gay Marriage

I just saw this letter from the american catholic bishops .  Generally, I'm a fan of Catholic policy, and this statement rings right for me the majority of the time, but I can't help but feel that they're misstating (in line with this blog's policy of assuming that people when wrong are making mistakes and not being purposefully malicious) the case for state recognized marriage.  Here's what they say

  In close connection with our defense of all human life and particularly the most vulnerable among us, we stand firm in our support for marriage which is and can only be a faithful, exclusive, lifelong union of one man and one woman.  There is good reason why the law has always recognized this, and why it should continue to do so.  In a manner unlike any other relationship, marriage makes a unique and irreplaceable contribution to the common good of society, especially through the procreation and education of children.  Children need, deserve and yearn for a mother and a father.  All human societies in every era of history, differing greatly among themselves in many other ways, have understood this simple wisdom.  No other kinds of personal relationships can be justly made equivalent or analogous to the commitment of a husband and a wife in marriage, because no other relationship can connect children to the two people who brought them into the world.  For this reason, we will continue to vigorously support the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and strongly oppose legislative or executive measures that seek to redefine or erode the meaning of marriage.  We suggest Congressional oversight of executive actions that have the effect of undermining DOMA, such as the expansion of spousal benefits to two persons of the same sex, and the weak defense of DOMA in court against constitutional challenge.  We will seek to reflect respect for the family in every policy and program, to protect the rights of children, and to uphold the rights and responsibilities of mothers and fathers to care for their children.  We will also continue to monitor legislation and federal regulations that protect our children and families from the destructive repercussions of pornography, which degrades human sexuality and marital commitment.
So first of all, out of spite, let's talk about the factual inaccuracies.  Historically, in fact biblically, marriage was recognized as being neither exclusive nor lifelong, and certainly not between one man and one woman.  Old Testament marriage  traditionally recognized polygamous marriages as valid, and allowed for divorce pretty much any time.  Now, Christ reorganized a lot of the thinking about that with statements in the New Testament, but it's certainly untrue that "human societies in every era of history [...] have understood this simple wisdom".  The status of homosexual relationships in society has also varied greatly from time to time and culture to culture.  The bishops make a fair point regarding a possible unique benefit of marriage, but by no means do all marriages possess these characteristics.  It looks like America's divorce rate is roughly half of its marriage rate, which certainly aces the whole both parents with their children idea.  Anyway, if the states interest in marriage is exclusively with regards to stable child rearing, then it seems we should only provide marital benefits to families where both parents and their biological child are present.  I don't think the bishops want this, but if they admit it they might have to admit that they don't have a point.

Basically, I think people are worried about gay marriage because they feel like it imposes upon their concept of sacramental marriage.  Frankly, this is stupid.  Law historically recognized marriage for the purpose of simplifying family oriented legal issues, like inheritance and the divvying up of property following divorce.  Gay couples encounter the same problems, and should be given the same help working out those issues.  This state provided legal aid has nothing to do with sacramental marriage and shouldn't be considered along side it.  Personally, I vote that we abolish marriage as a legal concept, replace it uniformly with civil union, and permit any people entering into voluntary, permanent co-dependence and cohabitation to benefit from it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The DREAM act

So, over the course of my Christmas break I got into a few lively discussions regarding the DREAM act  and its moral, economic, and legal implications.  It seems to me that in order to discuss this I have to clean up some misconceptions that seem to have invaded the popular viewpoint.  (I'm choosing to believe that some of these myths have been perpetuated in good faith by lawmakers who have not had an opportunity to review each successive revision of the act, rather than purposeful misinformation.  I am fully aware that such a choice is naive to the point of complete idiocy)

Misconception #1:
This is a general amnesty for illegal immigrants:

This, and weaker forms (granting resident status to young illegal immigrants in perpetuity &c) is commonly bandied about, and is entirely untrue.  The bill (as it was when it failed to break through filibuster in the senate late last year) would have applied only to people who were between the ages of 15 and 30 at the time of enactment, and who had been brought into the country prior to the age of 15.  Further, it applied only to non-felon, high school degree or GED holders who agreed to enlist or were accepted into a four year educational institution.  There are a host of further limitations (as listed in the linked wikipedia article, and repeated in its references), but those are the most commonly overlooked.  Basically, no one who has not yet immigrated would benefit from this law.

Misconception #2:
This would burden states and/or the federal government by allocating federal and state funding to educational loans and grants for the children of illegal immigrants:

In an early form of the bill, a special provision of federal law explicitly preventing states from choosing to allow in state benefits to apply to the children of illegal immigrants would have been repealed.  Note that this would merely have permitted states to decide the issue themselves.  This clause was dropped in its entirety from several recent revisions.

Misconception #3:
This bill would change the lives of a huge number of people:

Okay, so this depends a little bit on your definitions, but the estimated pool of beneficiaries is 7,000–13,000 which in a country of 307 million people is vanishingly small.  Now, apparently, there are about 12 million illegal immigrants in america so even considering that pool alone, it's a small number of beneficiaries.

I think those are the big ones.  Anyway, as I'm sure you're guessing by now, I'm in favor of this legislation or something like it.  The basic reason for this is that no matter which way you stack the arguments, I have a hard time coming up to a version which gives a strong moral reason to exclude these people from the proposed benefits.  Let's look at some common arguments against:

1. Moral Hazard
The gist of this argument is that by passing this bill, we encourage future illegal immigration (which is assumed to be detrimental to our society and is, at the very least, against the law).  Now, Moral Hazard is a pretty strong argument in general.  We probably shouldn't do things that encourage people to misbehave.  If law is supposed to incentivize good behavior and disincentivize bad behavior then it seems obvious we need to consider issues of moral hazard when enacting legislation.  However, as stated in Misconception #1, this isn't a general amnesty.  There's no good reason to believe that the passing of this bill provides material incentive for additional illegal immigration.  New immigrants wouldn't benefit from it.

2. Personal Responsibility
Many people argue (and this is encouraged by the language around the debate) that this bill is giving benefits to wrongdoers.  Basically, it somehow shows favoritism to illegal immigrants over legal americans.  I want to consider this separately for the illegal immigrant parents and their children.

We tend to agree that you need to be choosing to do something in order for you to be criminally liable for an action.  The children of immigrants have about as much choice about coming to the country with their parents as kidnap victims do, so let's just drop the idea that they are criminals for entering the country.  So, they didn't commit a crime coming here.  In their current situation, they are denied things other non-crime-committing residents of the united states have access to.  Since the targets of the dream act are explicitly non-criminal, long term residents, with demonstrated commitment to programs deemed by the nation to be in its interests (higher education and military service) it seems pretty difficult to argue that the kids should be given different treatment.

UNLESS it helps the parents:
The parents are criminals.  They illegally entered the united states, and arguably, providing the kids with tuition benefits (or really any benefits) contributes materially to the well being (or at least peace of mind) of the criminal parents.  Or so the argument goes.  I actually concede that point, it does contribute to their well being, and they are criminals, but consider this: we provide the benefits (and by benefits we really mean nothing more than the basic rights afforded to any legal resident of the country) to the children of all felons murderers and rapists who had the fortune to be born here.  It seems that if the key word is "illegal" here, then we should really be denying citizenship rights to the progeny of all criminals, in order to avoid providing benefits to their progeny.  Now, I acknowledge there's a difference between a murderer and an illegal immigrant, in that the illegal immigrant might have committed their crime explicitly to better the lives of their children, whereas I suspect only a very small percentage of murders have the same motivation.  Perhaps the state has an interest in thwarting that aim.  But I would argue that it shouldn't thwart those aims at the expense of the innocents.  If a man steals food for his family, he may go to jail, but we don't cut off that family's food stamps as well.

This post is already rather long, so I think I'll end it now.  Hopefully it's of interest to some of you.

Diatribes and Discourse

Hi, I'm Rory.

I'm sure most of you know me already, but for those of you who don't, I'm a bioinformatician working at the University of Notre Dame.  My areas of (trained) expertise are Computer Science, Bioinformatics, and English (in no particular order).  My primary emotion is righteous indignation, but I try to temper it with open-mindedness (strictly after the point of confrontation) and an attempt to recognize and account for my own biases.  I think ideas get better the more you challenge them, which kind of leads me into the point of this blog.

This is meant to be a record of and expansion upon arguments, discussions, and diatribes in which I participate.  The point is to get down ideas about politics, policy, morality and ethics that I encounter or come up with in my day to day life, and maybe expand upon or comment on them.  Hopefully this will give me a chance to fess up to my friends and sparring partners when I get something wrong, and gloat when I get something super extra mega right.  It might even give me a chance to synthesize complicated ideas, and engage with things I encounter on the intarwebs.

So here's what to expect:  Arguments regarding policy and politics.  Supporting information for those arguments, and links to thought provoking materials.  I'd also like to see some spirited debate in the comments (which I will never moderate or censor, but in which I may be an active participant).

Hope you enjoy yourselves.