Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Statistics Dropout

So this morning I'm reading this article about how former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin will not be running for the legislature again in the next (upcoming?) election. Instead, he's going to start working full time on improving aboriginal high school graduation rates.

"Something like 41 per cent of aboriginals between the ages of 25 to 34 have not completed high school, compared to 18 per cent in the rest of Canadian society," Martin said.

18% sounded shockingly high to me - so I did a check on US high school graduation rates for comparison. As it turns out, ours is roughly similar. According to the National Center for Education Statistics - well, the numbers are complicated (because what counts as a "dropout," really?), but taken on the whole we seem to have a dropout rate of 14-16% in any given year. (The numbers linked on the page will make it look more like 7-10%, but if you read carefully, there are two separate classifications of "dropout" - an "event" dropout being someone who formally withdrew from school in the year of data collection and a "status" dropout being someone who was already not attending school, for whatever reason. I suppose one could argue that this overcounts a bit - becuase "status" dropouts may later choose to attend school again. But I'm guessing Canada counts its number the same way, so this is a fair comparison.)

On the one hand, it's gratifying to know that we're doing (marginally) better than Canada keeping people in school. I'll file this in my copious list of examples that run contrary to popular Canadian stereotypes of the US. On the other hand - 14-16% is still high, i.e. nothing to be proud of. Assuming - I mean - that you think it's a good thing that people eventually go on to graduate from high school, which ideally, I don't necessarily. (People who are not academically inclined should feel free to enter the workforce early and get on with their lives. Ironically, as much as I complain about the low quality of what passes for education in the US, I also think there should be a little less "schooling" (as distinct from education, mind you) than there currently is. Long story.)

But I'm not a big proponent of government meddling, so I tend to think that the dropout rate simply is what it is. I don't advocate (or even have) any clever "solutions" to the "problem."

What I did get out of this, though, was another neat example of statistics-fixing. Take a look at this page on the same subject. It reports a whopping 29% dropout rate for the late 90s (!!!). So how did the numbers come out so different?

Check this out - in his own words:

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) finds a national high school completion rate of 86% for the class of 1998. The discrepancy between the NCES' finding and this report's finding of a 71% rate is largely caused by NCES' counting of General Educational Development (GED) graduates and others with alternative credentials as high school graduates, and by its reliance on a methodology that is likely to undercount dropouts.

In other words, this guy's report TOTALLY and DELIBERATELY misses the point of what the graduation rate is supposed to measure. "Graduation" only counts if it's from a traditional high school? Really? And an equivalent (or superior) education of the kind that you might get on your own (GED) or through alternative schooling (homeschool, etc.) just doesn't matter? In other words, it's "number of diplomas awarded at traditional graduation ceremony" that we're interested in and not "completion of secondary education or equivalent?"

What a boob.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Why I Love Funny Money - Or How You Can Engage the Local Community to Stick it to Big Brotha

A friend sends this interesting article about a local currency in some town in Massachussetts called "Berkshares."

"Inventor" Susan Witt explains it thusly:

"The Berkshares are pretty simple to operate," she said. "You walk into a local bank, put down $90 federal and get 100 Berkshares, and then those Berkshares are spent at full value at regional stores."

How the "regional stores" absorb the 10% discout rate (some of which the issuing banks and Susan Witt presumably skim off the top) isn't really explained in the article. Which leads me to think that this is really just a(n admittedly very clever) local shakedown operation - not unlike the way some towns and states turn a covert profit by hitting up passers-through for exorbitant speeding ticket fines. The way it would work is this: local businesses would have to raise prices slightly - and of course, prices are kept in federal dollars. Anyone paying in Bershares already has a 10% discount - so as long as the compensatory price increase is less than 10%, the stores make up their losses even as they placate loyal local shoppers (by saving them a bit over the long run). Berkshares operate essentially like coupons to protect locals from the price hike, and outsiders foot the bill in its entirety.

"We want to encourage everybody to do their business locally rather than going to a mall or shopping online," said Sharon Palma, executive director of the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce. "Using Berkshares, you have to do business locally, and the other really nice piece of that is it's face-to-face business."

And for this purpose, it's probably a good idea. I seriously doubt, of course, that the 10% discount is really enough to make up for the difference between local and online sticker prices - but once you figure in shipping and handling and also a general local preference for dealing with their own, I'm guessing it works. They claim to have printed over $800,000 worth of these things, after all.

But there's another alternative currency - the Liberty Dollar - that probably has over $20million in circulation. Unlike "Berkshares," however, the Liberty Dollar gets mostly bad press. (Here is another US Mint link actually claiming that circulation of Liberty Dollars is criminal.)

So what's the huge difference that makes Liberty Dollars "criminal" and Berkshares ABC's best buddy? Simple: Liberty Dollars are backed not by greenbacks but by commodities. In other words, Liberty Dollars are a stand-in for a government-independent barter economy, whereas Berkshares are essentially just an alternative notation of the official federal currency (actually, they're handshake-wink-wink local discount coupons, but never mind).

Now, in a sane world, BigGuv would have a problem with the latter and not the former.

After years of planning, Witt started printing her own money and spending it around town.

She is not a counterfeiter.

Ah, but in one sense she is, because her money is really just an alternative printing of dollars. There is nothing stopping her from overprinting her bills and trading them back in at the bank. Now don't get me wrong - I'm not advocating her arrest. Quite the contrary - more power to her! What annoys me is that BigGuv gets this so (deliberately) backward.

The truth is that neither the makers of Liberty Dollars nor Susan Witt are counterfeiters, but the government is looking for an excuse to bust up Liberty Dollars and not Berkshares. I can only believe that this is because Liberty Dollars are, in fact, real money, and the government knows it.

Consider - if Liberty Dollars went into general circulation and became a real competitor to the US Dollar (at least in the US), then the government would lose a lot of the power that it currently has to regulate the economy. It would, among other things, no longer be able to play with the inflation rate, the exchange rate, or the national lending rate (interest rates) - and I suspect, but can't prove, that this would also mean that insiders couldn't vote themselves clandestine profits as needed. But of course with Berkshares there is no such danger - since they depend on the continued existence of the national currency.

Conclusion: this is reason approximately 6,375 why the federal government SUCKS DONKEY BALLS and is made up of a bunch of JACKBOOTED FASCIST PRICKS and needs to LEAVE US THE HELL ALONE and let us RUN OUR OWN LIVES.

If people get together and work out a way to have solid money - so that they actually get to keep the portion of what they earn that the government doesn't steal in taxes to pay for crap like welfare, misguided national health insurance plans (please, NO!!!!), public funding for the arts (can ANYONE explain to me why this is a FEDERAL funding item????), etc. without losing it to government-caused (because there is no other kind) price inflation, then damnit they should be allowed to do so!

So - best of luck to the people running the clever Berkshares local shakedown operation. Not because I support their covert "foreigner tax" (indeed, thanks to this story I will never visit their region so as not to support their pricing fraud), but because if they can do it with impunity, the government has a harder time making its case against Liberty Dollars.

Thanks for the push, suckas!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Yet Another Reason to Open Fire

I didn't start out trying to hate gays, but it's getting harder and harder not to.

Before Congress, apparently, are yet more "gay rights" bills that place personal comfort over constitutional liberties. One of these, I think, is fairly harmless. It's a repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Honestly, that decision should be left up to the military. Of course, the danger is that this will be quickly followed by legislation about appropriate behavior toward gays in the military, which would be an epic mistake. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

The two that I have a problem with are (1) a so-called "hate crimes" bill that covers offenses motivated by gay-bashing, and (2) a measure outlawing workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. As for the first one - there is no such thing as a "hate crime." There are just crimes. Assault is no better or worse if prompted by discrimination than by, say, a profit motive (mugging), or jealous rage (domestic dispute), and it is inappropriate to have a bill suggesting otherwise. It will be argued that gays deserve some kind of special protection because they are "more likely" to be randomly beat up on the street. But come now, visibly wealthy people are also "more likely" to be mugged than people wearing rags. If you would not support a bill extending special protection to the wealthy from mugging, then you should likewise not support a bill extending special protection to gay people. We all take our chances, and we all (thank God!) still have Second Amendment proections that allow us to even the odds. As for the second, this is yet more intrusion by the federal government into our private lives. All of us are (or should be) well aware by this point that for every real instance of discrimination there are at least ten cases filed just because some dumb, lazy worthless employee who happens to belong to a federally protected group didn't get promoted as quickly as they would ideally have liked to be.

I grow increasingly tired of this crap, which means I have less and less patience with people who support this kind of government-sponsored bullying. And since, as far as I can tell, a minimum of 80% of gays support this legislation, it invariably means I end up hating them as a (political) group too. But what can I do? They're trying to police my opinions, and that ain't cool, folks.

Dear President Bush: now is a good opportunity for you to dust off that much-neglected veto pen again.

Friday, February 23, 2007

With Liberty and Safe Restrooms for All

Once again, unisex bathrooms are front page news in the paper. Apparently a professor in the Communication and Culture Department is upset that the new building doesn't have gender-neutral bathrooms, and so he(?) has circulated this petition to get them included. Except that - oops! - the building is already in post-production, so all this was done a little too late.

The petition is well-worded and makes the issue seem pefectly reasonable. What they're asking for is a (note the singular) single-occupancy unisex restroom for the building. They acknowledge that this would add cost to the building project, which is presumably why they're asking for only one.

However, some of the other stuff they say doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

For example:

Persons who are not easily legible as male or female often experience various forms of intimidation in these places. If a person in a gender-specific restroom is assumed to be the "wrong" gender, there may be real threats to that individual's comfort and safety.

I love the way wrong is in shock quotes, as though it were somehow proper for men to be in the women's restroom and vice versa. Look, if a restroom is allocated space for a specific gender, and you don't happen to be a member of that gender, then you are indeed the "wrong" gender if you're in the restroom in question. Very simple, nothing oppressive about it, no need for shock quotes.

Choosing a gender-coded restroom is one of the most frequently reported sources of anxiety in this community: often, transgender people will go far out of their way to gain access to bathrooms that are more private or comfortable.

You mean the way vegetarians will go far out of their way to find suitable food? I don't see a problem with asking a vanishingly small minority of the population to go out of their way to satisfy their specific and highly abnormal needs. No slight to transgender people is intended here - it just happens to be fact that the overwhelming majority of human society has a specific gender identity and is completely comfortable with that. That being the case, I don't see why there's any need for us to incur expense and inconvenience so that the approximately 4 people on IU's campus who meet the relevant description can have a more comfortable restroom experience?

Alright, I get it - some will complain that handicapped people are no different, and we make accomodations for them after all. But here's why this isn't the same: physically handicapped people are not capable of "passing" as normal. The gender-ambiguous definitely are. Further, in the case of handicapped people, there often isn't another way: it's physically impossible (or at least hugely effort-prohibitive) for someone in a wheelchair to climb stairs, for example. But there is no such barrier to a shemale using the boyz room. All they need do is be a little discrete if they want to avoid feeling "uncomfortable."

I don't know how things function in the girls' room, but in the boys' room we're all pretty much discrete anyway. People avoid eye contact, you don't generally strike up random conversations with the dude one urinal over, etc. Men are naturally a little uncomfortable in public restrooms to begin with. So it's really not hard to show up and go unnoticed. Maybe the girls get chatty and catty, I dunno - but I'm betting they're pretty much like we are.

I think what we have on our hands with this petition is a fairly typical attempt by the GLBT community to gain acceptance on the cheap - through official sanction rather than cultural engagement. The debate about "gay marriage" is similar, I think. If the marriage issue were really just about property rights (which I agree is an important issue), then (a) they would be satisfied with civil unions and (b) they would be inclusive of polygamists. But the gay rights lobby is neither, as a general rule. Civil unions aren't good enough, and they go out of their way to ensure the public that they are not advocating extending marriage to those nasty polygamists. But why not, one wonders? What is so special about gay people, who have never, until approximately last week, had a tradition of marriage in their community, that they are "oppressed" if not allowed to marry, but polygamists, who have a long tradition of marriage in their particular "community," are "clearly off limits?" It's a ridiculous position, and so I can only think that the real agenda is getting government-stamped pieces of paper that certify them "gay" to wave in people's faces. It's a backdoor to acceptance.

Well, gender-neutral restrooms on campus - that's a similar sort of strategy. The idea is that if the university adopts a policy requiring gender-neutral facilities the same way they set aside sufficient funds for handicapped-friendly facilities, then being a gender freak is, at least officially, on the same level as being physically handicapped. But that's just it - it's not clear at all to me or, I suspect, most people that this is true!!! In fact, it's pretty clear to me that a "gender handicap" and a physical handicap are completely different types of things. Now, granted, sometimes people are actually born hermaphroditic, in which case there is a (usually non-obvious) physical analogue. But for the most part, gender-identity "issues" are mental issues. A person in one type of body identifies with the social definition of the other, or whatever the current Highly Similar Explanation is.

(As an aside, it's always amused me to watch the Gender Studies people trip over themselves trying to explain this one. On the one hand, they want gender to be a "social construct." On the other, they want to believe that some people are born with a specified gender and a mismatched body. Of course, these two positions are incompatible. Either gender is a social construct that is assigned to people in a certain type of body (in which case, there shouldn't be such things as "transgendered" people, really, since everyone should be capable of adopting their "assigned" gender), or else there's something physical about it. I guess it's something like feature checking in Minimalist (Syntactic) Theory. You know, something has uninterpretable features that need to be checked against another that has interpretable features that need to be valued. So the social construct is uninterpretable, and the child, which is born with "interpretable" gender features, then gets them "valued" by being raised in a particular social situation? Heh. But I guess the Human Subjects Committee is unlikely in the extreme to let us do the kinds of experiments necessary to validate this view...)

Recognizing the importance of creating a safe space for our students, staff, and faculty, we call on the Office of Space Management to incorporate one single-occupancy, gender-neutral, and accessible bathroom in the design of the Communication and Culture, Human Biology, and Medical Sciences building and all future building construction.

OR, we could all be kept safe at lower cost by just refusing to accept such people at IU in the first place. I'm being facetious, of course. But once admitted, I don't see why gender-ambiguous people should feel they can leave their usual concerns at the door? It's not as though the real world is going to be more accepting of them just becuase they went to a university with convenient(ly nonlabeled) restrooms!

But let me finish this on the petition's most sensible note:

Of course, single-occupancy, gender-neutral bathrooms also serve breastfeeding moms, people with extensive medical needs, and families with children too young to use a gender- specific restroom unattended.

This, I think, is a good argument for supporting including one such restroom in all buildings. Notice that breastfeeding moms and parents with young children are GOOD arguments for this kind of restroom. They should, in fact, be the MAIN such arguments. And if our transgendered IU "community members" get a perk as a side-effect, who am I to complain?

What I object to, really, is the bending over backward to make every insignificant minority feel accomodated, whether or not any identifiable social or economic need is satisfied by doing so. It's clear to me that there is a social need for parents to have a place to take their kids to the bathroom attended, or to change their babies' diapers, or breastfeed, or whatever. It's not at all clear that there is a pressing need to make transgendered people feel "comfortable."

So no, I'm afraid I won't sign the petition, because it sneakily tries to get me to endorse an unreasonable position under the cover of promoting a reasonable one. I won't be baited. Give me a petition that identifies mothers and children at the top of its list and transgendered persons in the "Of course..." clause and I'll sign that one. Similarly: give me a petition advocating either (a) the replacement of federal marriage laws with a private contract system or (b) a general purpose civil unions option, and I'll sign it. I'm not endorsing any bills or petitions recognizing gay-specific marriage as a pressing social need, because it isn't one.

In general conclusion: the GLBT rights lobby needs to pack up and go home. Their side-causes are often just, but they frame their arguments in completely inappropriate ways. None of their overt goals are such that they can't be reached by other, more acceptable, avenues than the ones they pursue.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Heavy Metal Awareness Week

The paper today has all kinds of great stories on the front page. The Leader doesn't disappoint. "Under the Influence. Study: Women Play Drinking Games as Much as Men."


A recent study led by researchers at Loyola Marymount University indicates that both male and female college students participate in drinking games regularly, and that participation in drinking games leads to increased consumption of alcohol.

Gee, thanks! That really cuts through the fog.

But there's an even better one down the page. Expert Bakari Kitwana to discuss hip-hop's meaning, impact with the subtitle "Lecture part of Black History Month, Hip Hop Awareness Week."


What use could a hip-hop awareness week POSSIBLY be to anyone? Why would we want to hear a lecture about it?

I mean, to the extent that I am aware of hip-hop at all, I'm aware that I don't like it. Mostly what I know about it is that it swallows weak-minded, gullible people whole and spits them out as cavemen who wear ridiculous clothes, walk too slow and deliberately in the middle of the sidewalk so you can't get around them, talk like idiots, and are generally dropouts. Hip-hop fans are the new hippie, and their music is every bit as annoying as anything the Grateful Dead ever released. So what's there to be aware of? Traffic obstructions?

But this has been going on for seven years apparently.

The lecture will be co-sponsored by IU's Hip Hop Congress. This week is IU's seventh annual hip-hop awareness week.

IU has a Hip Hop Congress??? WHY?

But get this - the title of the talk is "Can Hip-Hop Make the Transition from Cultural Movement to Political Power?" I mean...I MEAN! I mean, yeah, to the extent that it stops being hip-hop. What self-respecting citizen would take it seriously as a political movement as it stands? What IS hip-hop's political purpose anyway? Play all you want, someone else will pay?

I almost wish I had time to go to this.

Anyway - here's something interesting. I did a Google search for "Hip-Hop Awareness Week" and got a metric butttload of hits. Seems that pretty much every university has one of these. Now do the same search for "Heavy Metal Awareness Week" and the first hit is about prostate cancer. The only real "metal" link (on the first page, anyway) is something about a benefit concert that Anthrax is doing to raise awareness about forced drugs.

So there you have it. Hip-hop is a cultural-political phenomenon and metal isn't. Personally, I would have gone with "they're both just pop music," but then that's me.

But alright, I'll play along. I'll celebrate hip-hop awareness week the same way I celebrate every week - by listening to a lot of music that's not hip-hop. I can't believe the Union Board is spending money on this. But then, given that they also paid Ann Coulter to come (and insult them and their security staff in front of everyone), I guess I should've known that the Union Board had funny ideas about what political commentary is.

[MILESTONE: this is post 250]

More Thoughts on National Healthcare

OK, yesterday Mr. Tweedy published a response to my last response clearing up several things. It seems (if I've read this right) that he's not necessarily advocating a European-style "comprehensive" national health insurance plan, but more just an expansion of the current system to cover more people and more types of treatment. I get the impression he would agree that the current system is not as well planned as it could be and probably needs to be cleaned up.

More importantly, his argument seems to place more emphasis on the fact that our spending priorities are in the wrong place rather than the idea that we need to expand the overall size of the federal government so as to include a national health insurance plan:

Being able to afford the Iraq war (or rather being able to swing it) isn't a justification for believing we can afford an equivalent health care increase every five years. But it does mean that we can afford a significant fraction of it. Throw in everything else that this country should be spending less money on, and eventually I'm convinced that the amount would add up to a significant health care budget.

In principle I have no problem with this. As a Libertarian, of course I would prefer to just jettison the welfare state and let markets handle funding for basic needs. But if we must have a welfare state, then I suppose funding for healthcare makes more sense than a lot of other places we could be spending our money.

But I said "in principle." In practice it's hard to see how merely shuffling money around in the federal budget will "add up to a significant health care budget."

Now, as I've discovered this morning, tracking down readable numbers on where federal spending goes is a little difficult - becuase you get radically different pictures depending on your source. As a case in point, first take a look at the charts on Mr. Tweedy's page. This one - for FY 2007 - shows the defense spending at 8% higher than combined healthcare spending (which is nevertheless the second-largest item on the budget). And this one shows Medicare in fourth place (behind Social Security, Defense and Debt Service). However, combined healthcare spending is actually the biggest item on this chart - as "Health" accounts for an addition 10.4% of the budget on top of "Medicare." But then this one wants to show that National Defense is a full 57% of the budget! (!!!) Of course, there's also one on this page that shows "Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid" as 40% of the budget compared with Defense's 20%. Naturally, I don't know how much of 40% is Social Security, but it seems reasonable that Medicare/Medicaid comes out higher. And then, I hate to cite Lew Rockwell on anything, but this column of his contains a 2007 outlays pie chart that shows Medicare/Medicaid as the largest single item at 25% to Defense's 16%. (It should be noted that Rockwell includes this only as an example of "official figures." He goes on to "conclude" that Defense spending is much, much higher in reality.) My overall point is that I can't really find a clear source to back up my earlier claim that Medicare/Medicaid is the largest single portion of the federal budget. The numbers for federal spending are available in great detail, of course, but neither I nor, I suspect, Mr. Tweedy really has the time to go through them with a fine-tooth comb. I think it's safe to say that Medicare/Medicaid is currently a hugely expensive portion of the federal budget. Whether or not it's number one I can no longer say, but taken as a whole all these charts show that it's at least in the top three.

That being the case, it's hard to see how simply shuffling money around is going to provide us with enough to fund the kind of healthcare system Mr. Tweedy wants. The specific things he names in particular:

(i) the cost of convening to discuss dozens of nitpicky issues that are nowhere within the constitutional right of the government to legislate

Yes, but this cost can't be that high, really. We're talking money in the tens of millions, which is peanuts compared to the roughly $1trillion we would need to fund any kind of comprehensive healthcare system. Ditto this next item:

(ii) welfare hand-outs after only assessing employment status, rather than evaluating their actual willingness to work

Again, Welfare isn't really that expensive, relatively speaking - at least, not compared to Medicare/Medicaid. Food and housing are cheap.

(iii) saturation of schools with standardized testing and other controls that just make our educational system even less efficient and drives away otherwise willing and able teachers... basically the whole "no child left behind" crock

This one's definitely a non-starter. Taking Mr. Tweedy's own charts as a guide, spending on education is only roughly 4% of national income. It's hard to believe that standardized testing accounts for most of that.

I'm not saying these aren't good ideas - I'm just saying that national healtcare systems positively DWARF these things in terms of cost. In order to pay for one by just shuffling money around, we'd end up having to make significant cuts to Defense spending and Social Security spending. And these are touchy sorts of things!

Now, I'm all for just junking Social Security. It was always a dumb idea. And if we've decided to throw more money at healthcare, probably we can agree that Social Security has become less of a priority (since most old people have taken care of their housing and day-to-day expense problems by that point in their lives - it's medical bills that crush their household budgets). But of course, there are obvious reasons why we can't "just junk it" out of hat - the main one being that some people are actually counting on it. And they paid the money in in payroll taxes when they were younger, after all.

As for Defense spending, that's an even bigger can of worms. Interestingly - defense spending and medicaid spending are two things frequently flagged by the GAO for being "danger spending." Which is to say, the GAO believes that overly large portions of spending on these things gets eaten up by corruption - politicians in charge of the spending overpay their friends in the private sector to supply various things, etc. We've all read press reports on this. So it might be that we can reclaim significant amounts of federal budget money just by waging an anti-corrpution campaign. And I guess Mr. Tweedy would agree with me that this is something we should, in fact, do. But aside from that - when you talk about cutting defense spending what you're really doing is raising questions about America's role in the world and what you think it should be. If we're going to maintain the kind of presence we have in the world today, it's pretty clear that we need big guns to back it up. Of course, it's a perfectly respectable opinion to say that we should withdraw from the world; I'm a big believer in that, in fact. I wouldn't mind cutting our defense budget roughly in half and simply removing all military presence (and foreign aid money) outside our borders and outposts. But that's obviously the kind of thing that can't be done overnight and without a radical shift in policy priorities. Furthermore, I definitely would NOT support such a move just so that we can fund free healthcare for people! It's only worthwhile to me if it ends up allowing us to drastically lower everyone's taxes - especially corporate taxes - as a side bonus.

So the overall point should be clear. It's not so easy to simply shift spending priorities and magically produce the money needed to fund comprehensive healthcare. In all likelihood, any healthcare system we end adopting will involve large tax increases. So while I can agree in principle that healthcare funding should be a higher priority (if we must have a welfare state at all, I mean), in practice it doesn't seem very likely that it will turn out to be merely a matter of rearranging priorities. After all, if the charts above show nothing else, what they all agree on is that healthcare already IS a huge national funding priority. Whether it's top of a given individual list or not, it's prominently in the top three on all the sources linked. It should be obvious that a national healthcare program - even of the kind Mr. Tweedy is talking about - would be an ENORMOUS expense. Essentially, what the "make it a priority" argument boils down to is an argument that it should be the number one spending priority of the American government. But that's hugely inappropriate because governments are, in the end, mainly supposed to be the police and the military.

What Mr. Tweedy actually says is:

But I can see a fraction of that amount succeeding in subsidizing care for individuals in slightly higher income brackets than those currently eligible for Medicaid in order to do exactly what it's not doing now: encourage people to stay on their feet.

It seems to me that this only pushes the problem up an income notch. OK, fine - we expand Medicaid to include not just the poor but also the lower middle class. Now people in the middle middle class have the same disincentive to produce more wealth than the lower middle class used to. I guess after that we'd want to notch it up to include parts of the middle class too, but this just shifts the disincentive yet again. Granted, at some point in the curve the financial rewards of pricing yourself out of elligibility would be great enough that it would stay worth it (probably, if I had to guess, around the $100+k/yr range). But by that point, of course, you'd essentially have a European-style system: guaranteed healthcare for all but the very wealthy. Not to mention, "free" or even subsidized access to healthcare services stimulates demand for those services - so this behemoth will just keep getting costlier. Of course, we could add a layer of oversight as to how people are spending their money - to make sure we're not funding "nonessential" services. But there you go again getting the government involved in our daily decision-making. Finally, all this interference distorts the economy in the end. Once the government is the biggest payer for medical services (which, if I'm not mistaken, it currently is), it gets to demand all sorts of things. Whether or not it actively seeks to influence prices, that is, in effect, what it will end up doing. And so we end up with a situation, as has happened so many times in history before, where the government's fantasies about what things should cost and how much of various items there should be ends up motivating production rather than the real measure of demand that a free economy provides. Worse still, this kind of government payment actually crowds out private insurance - which provides more generous coverage than the federal government, and also more choice. The more we go allowing for people in "slightly higher" income brackets to jump on the gravy train, the less private insurance, personal choice, and ready availability of services there is.

Where do you draw the line? When does it stop? When do we stop providing coverage for "slightly higher income brackets" than the ones we cover today? I appreciate that your intention is not to create a European-style socialized medical system, but over time that is exactly what will happen (is already happening).

I think if we're concerned about providing affordable healthcare for people what we need to do instead is privatize the mixed system we have. The government is already too involved in the system, and this is why people have trouble getting affordable coverage.

But alright - in principle I have no problem with saying that healthcare should be a bigger priority, given the existence of the welfare state. What's clear to me is that this isn't what Obama, Hillary et al are selling. It's nice to dream of a government that will just expand Medicaid into a nice system that continues to involve total personal choice and all the supply advantages of the free-market system in a completely reasonable way. But this isn't what the Democrats are going to give you with their proposals for national healthcare. That simply isn't the kind of healthcare plan they're talking about, and that will become abundantly clear over the course of the next year as we hear about it in the campaign. They want a single-payer system like the one that mismanages healthcare in Canada. They won't call it that, but they'll certainly talk about "guaranteed coverage" for all Americans - which will amount to more or less the same thing. I admit I haven't seen the details of Obama's healtcare plan, but something tells me it isn't going to be at all like the fairly reasonable cushion system that Mr. Tweedy is advocating.

Of course, I guess we'll have to wait and see to know for sure.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Response to Response to Response to Response

Ok, well, I didn't really expect a response to my response to Mr. Tweedy's post on Obama - but I got one. At the time of writing, it's the first item on Mr. Tweedy's blog.

Mostly it addresses my concerns, but there are one or two quick clarification-type things I think I should address, so here goes (the following probably won't make much sense if you haven't read the exchange to date, so click on the links, etc. etc.):

Mr. Tweedy writes:

...I'm going to stand by the point that, because several countries, including Finland, have relatively successful economies and still manage to provide free or cheap education and health care, it would be ridiculous to flat-out discount the possibility of providing universally affordable health care just because we're not them.

Interesting thing to say - considering no one was "discounting the possibility of providing universally affordable healthcare just because we're not them." All that was said was that you can't cherry-pick countries like Finland and expect their "success" to be duplicated in the US. You need a US-specific plan - and so far I haven't heard one. More than that, it's the "relatively" in "relatively successful economies" that matters here. By Mr. Tweedy's own figures, Finland - with a per capita GNI roughly $6000 less than ours - is 7% poorer than the US. That's not insignificant by ANY measure!!! You can't just say "well, Finland does it and stays relatively wealthy." The thing that's missing from the argument - as I pointed out in my last post, and which still hasn't been addressed in Mr. Tweedy's latest post - is how this stacks up to a cost-benefit analysis. At 7% poorer than the US (and this WITHOUT running a significant military budget, I should add), Finland's welfare state sounds very expensive indeed. You'll have to demonstrate that we're getting something for our 7% (or however much it turns out to be - could be more, could be less) pay cut that makes it all worthwhile.

(II) Can we afford it?
If we can afford the war in Iraq, then we can (or should have been able to) afford some minimal universal health care.

Well, not exactly, no. Just because you can afford one expensive thing doesn't mean you can afford similarly expensive things whenever you want. More to the point, wars end and spending goes back to normal. You can pay down the debts you accumulated. Healthcare is forever, and it only gets more expensive with time. But the real issue here, as I've said before, isn't whether we can pay for this, it's whether we want to. This is where that pesky cost-benefit thing comes in. Is there some reason to believe that a government-micromanaged healthcare system would be better than the one we have now - better to the tune of $2.4trillion a decade in extra budget expenses? I don't see any reason to believe such a thing. I'd much rather just pay my own insurance for the flawed, but generally superior to the rest of the world's, coverage we have now, thanks.

(I) Should it be done?
If it's the responsibility of the government to provide for the well-being of its citizens, then how could this basic need not be considered an important obligation?

Since when is it the responsibility of the government to provide for the well-being of its citizens? It is each individual citizen's responsibility to provide for his own well-being, no? I am not my brother's keeper. But more to the point, Mr. Tweedy seems to be unaware that our government already does provide basic healthcare for its citizens. It's called Medicare/Medicaid, and it's currently the biggest item on our federal budget - larger even than the military or the War in Iraq. This is a service for people who can't afford healthcare themselves. In other words, what he's arguing is that people who can afford to pay their own healthcare shouldn't have to - and I really don't see the basis for that argument? Isn't the point of welfare systems to provide a "safety net?" They're not there to give you a free ride - they're just there to help you pick yourself up when you're down. Well, if that's the case, then we're done. That already exists for healthcare in the US. Those people who can afford to pay their own way should do so. That's a general principle that I think we can all agree applies to everything. If you can pay your own rent, you shouldn't be in public housing. If you can pay your own grocery bill, you shouldn't be on the dole. If you can pay your own education, you shouldn't be getting need-based scholarships. How do we get from "those who can should provide for themselves" to "universal healthcare is a basic responsibility of government?"

We've spent $1.2 trillion dollars on the war in Iraq so far. Given that the current U.S. population is about 300,000,000, this means that we've spent over $600 per person per year on this war. That's $50 per month, which is about the cost of basic health insurance for a healthy individual. If you were to consolidate that $600 per person into a fund to offset costlier insurance rates or provide coverage for individuals who can't arrange for insurance at all (such as in cases of chronic illness), then we're talking thousands of dollars.

Well, again, yes, I've never disputed that the money is there. But please remember - we're having trouble paying for the War in Iraq. This isn't an easy level of expense to maintain. Furthermore, we only have to maintain this expense for the time being. National health insurance would go on forever - so it's a much bigger burden over the long run. Finally, the relevant question isn't so much whether we can afford it (we can) but whether it's a good buy for our money. All evidence indicates that it would be a pretty dumb investment decision to trade in the profitable system we have now for the kind of system that Finland et al have - ESPECIALLY at the pricetag that these systems generally come with.

If you're lucky enough to be wealthy, then don't whine about paying some extra taxes within the system in which you developed that wealth...

Lucky enough to be wealthy? Wealth never comes from effort, then? In other words, everyone who is wealthy is the moral equivalent of a lottery winner? None of them got wealthy by, oh, say, providing the public with something that it found useful? Please!

Why should these productive wealthy people, in addition to having already provided the public with some utility (the method by which they got wealthy in the first place) also have to give large amounts of their reward back? I mean, isn't it enough that they start companies and provide jobs for people, invent things that are useful to people, and in general are the ones who keep the economy running? It isn't the cashiers at McDonalds that make America the powerhouse that it is. It's the inventors, the CEOs, the industrialists. These people create wealth - and this benefits everyone. It's true that some people are wealthy through luck, but that's hardly the whole picture. It's not even a significant portion of the picture.

But as far as health care is concerned, a good work ethic doesn't eliminate cancer.

That's true. It's equally true that a good government doesn't eliminate cancer. The people who work to cure cancer should be properly rewarded for their efforts - not taxed to death and/or forced to provide their extremely valuable services at government-controlled costs. The cure for cancer will come faster if we pay these people well and let them get on with their jobs.

Again, this is all based on my personal assumption that trying to provide public health care options is a 'good' choice. And given that, I'm suggesting that we collectivize it and set up a socialized health care base (a base, mind you, not a replacement) to provide for the small number that need more than minimal-cost health insurance.

I think you'll be surprised how many more of these people there are than you think once you start footing their bills. The chronic problem with these kinds of government programs is that they always look to current demand levels to draw their plans. But of course, once the price for something comes down (as is the case when you subsidize it), demand goes up. This is, for example, what happened in the early 70s when Nixon tried to control the oil crisis by regulating the price of gas. Because gas was artificially cheap (that is, the price was low relative to the demand for it - which was considerable at the time due to the panic), people bought it up, and the crisis only got worse. This scenario has been repeatedly endlessly in history. You can see it going on right now in Venezuela. I think if you start "guaranteeing" people free money to pay for their healthcare you will find that two things happen: (1) there are more such people than you thought and (2) prices rise to adjust. It is, simply put, impossible to predict anything about the cost of a welfare program except that it will end up being more than you think. It sounds reasonable now - the way that Social Security sounded reasonable in the 30s. It quickly becomes an albatross. Finland, ironically, is a good case in point here. It has been privatizing its system over the last 15 years becuase it can't pay for it any more. I think you'll find this is generally true for all countries with socially planned healthcare systems - whether fully socialized (the UK, Canada, the Netherlands), merely heavily subsidized (Finland), or something in between (Germany).

Thursday, February 15, 2007

More on Obama: in response to Mr. Tweedy

Mr. Tweedy has an entry on Barack Obama which mentions my own entry on the subject several times. We have substantially different political opinions, so it's not really surprising to find that he disagrees with me on many points. But there are two in particular that I'd like to respond to - and not so much to Mr. Tweedy personally, but rather just because they raise general issues relevant to Obama's candidacy that need to be discussed.

The first of these concerns his race. Mr. Tweedy writes in his introduction:

Just the gimmick of a black president gives me the giggles because I think it would say something about how times have changed. But that in itself is no reason to elect one.

I'm not sure I would have used the word "giggles," but I largely agree with the sentiment here. It is indeed cool to have a serious black candidate for president. However, to quote a mediocre but highly entertaining movie - "these aren't the droids you're looking for."

Even indulging a fantasy about a black president (which Mr. Tweedy rightly says is not a good reason to elect anyone), I'm not sure that Obama is the real deal here.

First of all, I don't think the real barrier to electing a black president is us white people anymore. White America overcame its racism problem a long time ago, and everyone knows it. Give us a serious black candidate, and all other things being equal, he has a slight advantage with us. I'm not denying that America used to be a very racist place - far from it. But that was a generation ago. Flashforward to the present day, and what you find is that white Americans are willing - in fact eager - to hire qualified blacks, actively seek them out as friends, consume their culture arguably with more dedication than blacks themselves do, are very generous with tax money for funding race education, cultural development and general economic improvement programs, are extremely careful (probably too much so) to avoid being offensive both in public and private, are willing to take all kinds of verbal abuse from minorities, make endless excuses for the low achievement levels in the black community, and constantly apologize for the sins of their ancestors. Black America has no greater friend than White America - strange as that would have seemed 40 years ago. Are there white racists? Well sure, of course. And there always will be. The point is that this is a fringe opinion these days. I don't see any evidence that there is more white racism in America than in most other places in the world. Perhaps there is more racial violence here than in Western Europe - but there is more violence here in general than in Western Europe.

The barrier to a serious black presidential candidate - ironically enough - comes from the black lobby, which is on the whole not a serious political lobby. It clings to outdated perceptions of the "problem" (which largely no longer exists) and seriously outdated ideas for solutions. Mostly what black politicians seem to want is endless "education" about the non-existent "problem" and even more free money to (supposedly) deal with it. Racism is more a perceptual issue these days than an actual one. What I'm talking about here, of course, is the fact that (a) the Black Community doesn't seem very enthusiastic about Obama and (b) that anyone cares what any "community" thinks about a presidential candidate in the first place. But the truth is that black political opinion is heavily manipulated by race-baiting hucksters. Obama isn't in their union, and so the normal spin doctors aren't putting in overtime for him. It really is that simple.

A black president will "say something about how times have changed" - something meaningful about how times have changed - only then when he can win with just over half of the black vote - you know, roughly what he needs from white people to win. It's not a sign of progress AT ALL when a significant minority of the population will vote for someone just because he's "one of them," and measures how much "one of them" he is by how many handouts he's prepared to offer them.

Second, Obama isn't an "African American" in the standard use of that term anyway. He's rather the Hollywood elite's vision of the ideal black man. You know, no slave ancestors, more "African" than "American," oh yeah and has a white mom so he's not TOO black. In short, the kind of black dude that Liberals like. (Sorry, I guess that will offend some people, but I'm pretty convinced that the average Liberal is more likely to be racist than the average Conservative - Tinseltown stereotypes to the contrary.) Obama doesn't exactly trip the race radar of what white racists there are. If you're looking for a black symbol of "how times have changed," better he be from the South, dark-skinned, and not have any foreign-born parents. (However, foreign-born parents in a mixed-race marriage is a different, and probably better, symbol of "how times have changed.")

The other thing I wanted to talk about was the stuff Mr. Tweedy has to say about Big Guv-funded healthcare.

Same disclaimer as before: I realize that Mr. Tweedy isn't offering an actual argument for Big Guv Healthcare in his post - just rather noting that he supports it. It's to his credit that he wants details from Obama before jumping on the bandwagon. That said, there are a couple of standard weak arguments and perceptions in his post that, whether or not Mr. Tweedy is actually personally peddling them, will feature prominently in the upcoming (and probably unavoidable) rebirth of the debate over National Health Insurance and bear discussion on that basis.

Canada and most of Western Europe are able to pull it off and remain relatively wealthy.

This is a pretty piss-poor standard for supporting a public policy. The relevant question isn't whether we can do something and "remain relatively wealthy." In fact, the very fact that any argument is framed in these terms sort of betrays a mind already made up for other reasons. Look, we are able to maintain a hugely expensive armed forces and fight inefficient and costly wars in all corners of the globe and "still remain relatively wealthy." That's a wholly separate question from whether we should. "Still remain relatively wealthy" as good as admits that we're worried about bankrupting ourselves over this - and well we should be. Medicare - NOT the military - is currently the most expensive portion of our budget, the portion that is mostly likely to run our debt to unsustainable levels.

The REAL standard for public policy judgements should be the same as it is in business: does it pass a cost-benefit analysis? Is what we're buying with our proposed Socialist healthcare in some important way better than what we have now? It isn't AT ALL clear that it would be. THAT - establishing that it's a good idea in the first place, an improvement in the first place - is where this debate has to begin. Phrasing things in terms of "we can do it without completely bankrupting ourselves" sort of says to me that the person giving the argument has already bought into an unstated assumption that national healthcare is a "good" thing. Prove this please, THEN we'll haggle over costs (which, by the way, WILL be huge - and this in a country that can't pay its budgetary bills as they stand).

In fact, Finland pulls it off along with absolutely free (and impressive) secondary education and still has only a slightly lower GNI ($37,460) than the United States ($43,740).

This is even less convincing than the other one. America, it need hardly be pointed out, is not Finland. Not even remotely. What works for Finland says essentially nothing about what will work for the US. Even assuming this were an existence proof that functional national healthcare were possible (and it's not, by the way - Finland has recently come under criticism from the OECD for its healthcare system), you would still be a long way from proving that the Finland's "success" can be duplicated in the US.

To put a fine point on it - Finland also has the third-highest rate of firearms possession in the world (behind the US and Yemen), and yet gun crimes are virtually nonexistent in Finland but frequent here. Canada also has a very high rate of gun ownership - complete with the same kinds of lax restrictions on purchase that exist in the US - and regularly does pretty well on the criminality index. Direct comparisons of this kind don't work - at least not at this simplistic of a level. There are huge numbers of other variables that have to be controlled for.

If you want to know about public healthcare in general, it's not sufficient to cherry-pick a country you wish you lived in and assume that what works there will work for the US. What you need to do instead is look at public healthcare systems in general. Do they work in general? What is the big picture? And the big picture is pretty damn bleak.

Another respectable approach to the problem would be to look at countries with similar cultures and political histories. And again, this picture looks pretty bleak. The UK and Canada have notoriously awful public healthcare systems. Somehow I think we're more likely to end up looking like these places than like Germany or Finland.

But of course the most solid question to ask yourself is whether you trust the government you actually have (and not the Finnish government - which I shouldn't have to point out is a deeply foreign government) to manage your healthcare system. I don't see why anyone would trust the American government to manage their healthcare for them. I mean Christ - our government does such a shitty job managing everything else! You have to be a in a position to really use your imagination to think that it's all going to be better when it's - you know - healthcare as opposed to education, or prisons, or national energy policy. As Ronald Reagan once famously said:

A government can't control the economy without controlling people.

There is no way to dispute this - it's simply true. You can't control the economy without controlling people. The question you have to ask yourself is - are you willing to be controlled even more than you already are for the price of what will, in all likelihood, turn out to be a pretty crappy health insurance policy?

Now again, let me restate my disclaimer. Mr. Tweedy isn't actually offering these second-rate arguments for healthcare polcy. He supports national healthcare for what are, I assume, respectable reasons (that I'm sure I nevertheless disagree with) that he hasn't mentioned in his post. I'm just saying that these are the terms in which the debate always has been in the past and probably will be in the future framed. That is - "country x has a decent national healthcare system, we can too!" And "we can afford this" - without any mention of why we'd want it. These are approaches I frequently hear from Democrats and fully expect to hear from Edwards, Rodham-Clinton, and Obama in the 2008 Social Democracy Party - erm, Democractic Party Primary in 2008. I think it's important that The Distinguished Opposition draw attention to this shaky foundation and head it off so that we can have a substantive debate about national healtcare before we mortgage our future on yet another stupid welfare state experiment of the kind that history has amply demonstrated does NOT, in fact, function in reality.

A couple of closing words about Finland. Finland's healthcare system is not, as it turns out, financed primarily by the federal government. It's one of the more decentralized (and also least expensive) national healtcare systems in the world. Most of the funding is left up to municipalities, and a not-insignificant portion of it (roughly 26%) is privately paid - a much higher rate than in the "rest" of Scandinavia (yes, yes, Finland is not Scandinavian, I KNOW!), or in Canada (the country whose healthcare system we are most likely to emulate - and arguably the MOST socialized system in the developed world. Private funding in the Canadian system is 0% as it is illegal to get private healthcare in that basketcase of a country.). Finland charges significant "user fees" for health services and has been quietly privatizing for the past 15 or so years (since the economic crisis of the early 90s ended - and privatization had actually started before then and was rolled back because of the associated 20% unemployment rate.).

If we must have national healthcare (and I still need to see an argument that we must), we could do a lot worse than learn from Finland, I suppose. It seems to have done a pretty good job with this, as these things go. Unfortunately, I think it extremely unlikely that the Finnish system would be taken as a model here. Whatever opportunisitc pol ends up selling us on this crap will no doubt want to do lots of gimmicky things like issue "national health insurance cards" (probably with pictures of the flag and the Liberty Bell) "guaranteeing" that "every American is protected." That alone will require all sorts of federal meddling in the system. I should add that Finland, and indeed every other national health system in the world save probably the UK, socialized its medical system over a long period of time. I don't think any of the smooth talkers in the next election are willing to tiptoe into the water. They'll want it by tomorrow - and that's something to worry about.

Daily Dose of Irony

Alright, I admit that hypocrites are an easy target, but this particular brand of hypocrite gets my dander up more than most.

Ernst Zündel, it seems, has finally been tried and sentenced to the maximum (5 years) in Germany for Holocaust Denial. And here's what the Canadian Jewish Congress has to say about it:

"I think that they've given a strong message . . . to the world, that I believe will bring a tremendous amount of comfort to Holocaust survivors," said Bernie Farber, chief executive officer of the Canadian Jewish Congress.

Oh, for cryin' out loud! This man didn't perpetrate the Holocaust, Farber you moron! How can it possibly bring comfort to anyone to know that someone was given actual jail time for voicing his political opinions?

I fucking hate these people. The whole bleeding lesson of World War II, kids, is that governments shouldn't have the ability to arbitrarily cart off people they don't like or don't agree with. Instigating a Holocaust is an actual crime. If you can produce some evidence that Zündel actually hurt any Jews by, oh, say, imprisoning them or cremating them or performing horrific experiments on them (without consent), then I'll happily sign a petition to put him away for a lot longer than five years in the butt-rapinist place you can find. But if the best you can do is say that he published books you don't like, then fuck off already.

"I think a lot of us can take a very deep breath and move on to other things - other than thinking of Ernst Zundel anymore," Farber said in a telephone interview with The Canadian Press.

You could have done that even before he got arrested! There is nothing on God's Green Earth that made you pay attention to Zündel any more yesterday than you do today. It's a choice that you made to invest this much energy into this thing here.

I will never ever ever understand how people who have been victims of arbitrary opinion censorship themselves can then turn around and do the same to others.

Now, let me say a couple of things.

First - I'm sure Zündel isn't a very nice guy, and I'm not trying to defend his opinions. I'm just saying that a right to free speech isn't a right to free speech if you're only ever allowed to say things that aren't on the prohibited list.

Second - Germany is not a free country and cannot claim to be so long as it continues this crap. I know, because I've heard it many more times than I care to count from Germans, that they think Holocaust Denial Laws are some way to atone for their past. What the whole situation in fact proves is that Germany hasn't learned a damn thing from its past. All the terrible things that happened in the 30s happened because of this kind of thinking - the kind of thinking that allows a majority to strip a minority of its rights arbitrarily and with no rational public interest justification given. The most ridiculous part of the Wikipedia article linked is this part:

Once the certificate was upheld and Zundel was determined to be a national security risk he was deported to Germany and tried in the state court of Mannheim on outstanding charges of incitement for Holocaust denial dating from the early 1990s.

I love it! He's been under charges of incitement since the 90s, apparently just for publishing stuff. Tell me true, how many crimes has Zündel "incited?" Name even one hate crime that wouldn't have happened had Ernst Zündel never been born?

Third, and probably most importantly - Canada needs to do some thinking about why it sent him to Germany in the first place. Now, granted, it was pretty dumb of Zündel to stay in Canada after having twice been denied citizenship. He should have gone somewhere that would have accepted him, relieved him of the terrible burden of his German citizenship, and thus prevented this whole shady ordeal. But fine - I guess you don't get to be a professional Holocaust Denier by having a stellar IQ. Nevertheless, it's galling that Canada regularly accepts any number of Islamofascist radicals and has no problem letting them preach their hate, but somehow when Germany calls wanting to make an example of Zündel they forget themselves and happily oblige? I need hardly point out, I hope, that Zündel isn't actually dangerous to anyone!

It bugs me more than a bit that so many Jews behave the way this Farber guy does. There are any number of Jewish organizations that go scouring the press for unfavorable opinions of them and denouncing virtually any Jew who doesn't toe the party line as a "self-hating" Jew. The whole setup is fascist. And yet, Zündel is behind bars and they're not. How 'bout we try this one on for size? NOBODY goes to prison for OPINIONS. We only arrest people for violating the rights of others. Eh? Eh? How 'bout it?

Laughing About Rape

Today in the paper there is a staff editorial about this incident in which the opinion editor at Connecticut State University published an ill-considered bit of satire about rape.

You can read the article in all its sophopmoric (lack of) glory here(pdf - page 7). On the whole, it's just what you'd expect - some unfunny undergraduate shock-jocking in a blatant attention grab. Nothing we don't see daily in the IDS columns. The ONLY thing in the whole world that distinguishes this one from every other bit of student newspaper opinion writing is that it managed to actually elicit a reaction. It didn't get the IDS Editorial Staff's knickers in a twist for nuthin'!

So what's so awful about this that IDS feels the need to register an opinion? Apparently, rape is "off limits" for satire. They give two plausible reasons.

First, university newspapers are open publications and have to be sensitive to the feelings of their audience. It's one thing to make light of taboo subjects as a comedian in a closed venue. In an open publication, we have to be more careful.

OK - I'll buy that one.

Second, comedy about taboo subjects can only ever be funny/liberating if it comes from the victims. This, in other words, is why we need a black man like Dave Chappelle to actually deliver the jokes that his white, jewish writer comes up with. Making fun of blacks is funny when blacks do it, offensive when whites do it.

Fine - that's true enough. Probably as a society we need to do a little soul-searching here (as in, why CAN'T whites make fun of blacks? Blacks make fun of whites after all...) - but I can't really argue with the truth of the assertion. For whatever reason, it IS easier to relax and enjoy when it's not a member of the former oppressor group doing the joking.

All the same, I'm not sure I agree that rape per se should be off limits to satire.

Consider this line from the article linked above:

"Rape is a profound violation of body and spirit, and to make light of this, even in satire, is abhorrent,'' Miller said.

Weeeeelllll, sure. But c'mon - a good bit of what we make fun of is no different. I think of that brilliant scene in Pulp Fiction where they blow their kidnap victim's head off by accident while debating the spiritual merits of eating pork. That's a funny scene - and yet there's nothing funny about murder. ESPECIALLY not this kind of casual murder! I think it would be fair to say that blowing someone's head off is a "profound violation of body and spirit." And yet, laughing at murder isn't off limits. Neither, for that matter, is laughing at theft, infidelity, beating the shit out of someone (think Nordberg in the Naked Gun movies), stupidity, drug addiction, lying pathologically, retarted people, etc. etc. etc. In fact, when you think about it (and please don't do it often!), most comedy is offensive. I guess Garrison Keilor would qualify as non-offensive comedy, but is he funny? Not to me.

So sure, IDS is not wrong about its two main arguments. What it IS wrong about is that rape deserves some kind of special status in the ranks of taboo subjects. It does not.

Let me give a more serious example. About a year after I moved to Japan I read Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking - a book that recounts the Nanking Massacre - one of the more brutal examples of Japan's notoriously barbaric behavior in WWII. It's a horrific book to read. I read it out of fascination with Japan's utter inability to deal with its past. It was available for sale in English only in Japan at the time. The Japanese publisher refused to print it - and at the time I bought it, there was already a "refutation" in Japanese of the book that had yet to see publication. (Anyone who thinks Japan is not a police state...) Chang's book itself probably the best-documented account of the largely-ignored incident, drawing, as it does, heavily on the diaries of Nazi observers. Of course, it's controversial. Chang is a Chinese-American, and I think charges that she exaggerates her interpretation and generally toes the Chinese party line are not unfounded. (But let me not be misunderstood - it's a good book, and the real culprits on this subject are the Japanese, who are not to be trusted on ANY aspect of their war-era history.)

My point, though, is that what happened at Nanking was a massacre. So why is only "rape" in the title? The Japanese Army managed to kill several hundred thousand people in the space of months - which should be shocking enough. How to make it even more shocking? Mention rape, of course. Somehow that's worse.

But see - that's just it. I don't get why? It's not as though we're talking a clash of armies here. The Nationalists abandoned the city and indeed ordered it evacuated ahead of the Japanese invasion. So all the victims at Nanking were defenseless civilians. And Japanese attrocities include all kinds of truly horrible things - like throwing babies up in the air and impaling them on bayonets, or tying people to posts for live target practice. Why does "rape" make the A-list into the title?

Well, partly because it's a compact word I guess. "Baby-impalers" sounds gothic or something.

But more, I think, because it somehow does enjoy special taboo status. Somehow, we've got it into our collective heads that rape is worse than impaling babies or using people for live target practice. It's the big hairy daddy of all bad crimes.

So this particular undergraduate wannabe shock-jock just happened to read the culture a little better than the others. He knows what the entire collection of IDS columnists do not: that homosexuality, criticizing the president, admitting to recreational drug use - these things aren't really shocking. Rape is. REALLY shocking. For some reason...

IDS does make one point worth thinking about:

But rape victims? There's certainly not an open community of them, as there is of any given race. There's no communal bonding ground. The point is that, when executed by the right individuals, society has advanced to a point where humor can be found about racism, even on a mainstream level. Rape? There's just nothing there to laugh at.

I mean, I guess on one level this is a pretty moronic thing to say. Racist humor isn't the same as "rape humor" (alright, I guess there is no "rape humor" just yet - but there will be) at all, and Petroski certainly wasn't making fun of rape victims. On another level, though, I see the point. There aren't (many) self-identified rape victims, and if they don't feel comfortable talking about their experiences in public yet, then probably we shouldn't feel too comfortable joking about them.

Still, I can't help but see this as part of a vicious cycle. The main reason rape victims don't feel comfortable talking about their experiences (I suspect) is because society isn't comfortable with rape victims. And the fact that society isn't comfortable with rape victims in some way empowers the rapist. It's been argued - completely plausibly, I think - that rape is more about power than sex. It isn't simply sexual gratification the perpetrator is after - what he's looking to do, in most cases, is "violate." And it's just that much more fun for him if the whole experience is deeply shameful for the victim.

Keeping this taboo in place, to put it bluntly, probably encourages more rapes than it prevents. Imagine a world in which we could joke about rape. Would that make rape more common, then? I suppose it might. But I find it easier to imagine it the other way around - that a world in which you could joke about rape would be a safer world for women - because it would take away a lot of the motivation for the crime in the first place.

Humor and satire are difficult things. I guess there was a time in recent American history when racist humor was used as an excuse for racism more than to point out the absurdity of racism. There's always a fine line there - and there is with rape humor too. There's a fine line between excusing the rapist and making him look absurd. Just like with racial humor, we'll have to be sensitive about how we go about this. And yes, IDS has a point that the first steps here should probably be taken by victims.

But I feel the need to point out that this is exactly what humor is all about. It identifies points of tension and applies pressure on them - not unlike a massage. No pain no gain. So on the whole I think it's out of place for the IDS, or anyone, to talk about rape as though it's off limits to joking. It isn't - or at least, it shouldn't be. Getting unduly offended by the very mention of rape is the other - and equally psychotic - side of the same sick coin. The one isn't there without the other. Keeping the taboo in place isn't helping anyone.

As for Mr. Petroski's column - a simple read-through should be enough to make this point. It just isn't the kind of thing that deserves this amount of attention. Petroski's writing simply isn't good enough, penetrating enough, or insightful enough to have gotten everyone's feathers in such a ruff. This is what you might call masturbatory indignation. The people sounding off here are people who do it on command - not because they were actually provoked. At least, I find that explanation a lot more plausible than that this generally second-rate bit of writing could have drummed them all up on its merits. "Rape" as a word these days is like one of those horror films that has to resort to gore and people jumping out of closets to get to its audience because the subject matter just isn't fundamentally scary. More powerful than the n-bomb, I'm afraid.

Ah, but why? I'm not really sure. But I guess it has to do with getting us into some uncomfortable territory on the "sex war" front that we're not quite ready to deal with yet. If so, then the real irony here is that it isn't IDS that's being progressive by sympathizing with the victims - it's Petroski for writing his column in the first place. Not sure I want to give him personal credit for brilliance (since he doesn't seem to possess any) - so let's just say I'm glad he wrote it and leave it at that.

Friday, February 09, 2007

A Different Take on the Lastest Ostalgie Installment

Ok, some updated opinon on The Lives of Others - the latest "Ostalgie" film (although this one is actually anti-DDR from what I can tell, and by a westerner to boot). I was following links about it and ended up on the Amazon.de page for the original German version of the DVD. Most of the reviews were positive - but there was one that wasn't, and it made some really good points (and, more importantly, had me laughing out loud). I'm still interested to see the film, but I thought I would post an English translation of the review here. (If this turns out to be illegal I'll be happy to take this down.) It was called "James Bond in the DDR?" Text (or my sorry translation of same) follows:

The film "The Lives of Others" by Florian Henckel von Donnersmark is, from a cinematic point of view, a success. It has good pacing, attention to atmosphere, good camerawork, fantastic actors and doesn't seem nearly as long to watch as it actually is.

And yet it has a decided weakpoint: it's not credible. It begins with a dry, semi-documentary introduction about the function and work of the Stasi and then leads into a believable look at the examination and schooling of Stasi officer candidates. But immediately thereafter it descends into a cock-and-bull story about a system that never existed populated by citizens who never lived.

Culture Minister Hemf (Thomas Thieme) wants the author Georg Dreymann (Sebastian Kock) watched, so that he can get him out of the way and take his girlfriend Chista-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). But the Stasi Officer assigned to the case (Ulrich Muehe) develops a sympathy for his victim and protect him, without regard for his own risk.

This is a very touching story, which unfortunately can never have taken place in the real DDR. You don't have to have lived there to see that. You only have to try to use your head while you watch the film rather than just stuffing your face with popcorn.

Maybe Georg Dreymann is loyal to the system, fine. But his closest friends include people like theater director Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert), who is forbidden to work, and the journalist Hauser (Hans-Uwe Bauer), who has been arrested by the Stasi before. If Dreymann has these kinds of friends, why isn't he already being watched? Even if the Stasi really trusted him, they would really like to have known what sorts of things his friends talk about when they're over for a visit. But no, the shadowing has to start now.

And then comes the next problem. The whole action is top secret. But the Stasi sit there with a wagon full of grey men on the sunniest of days in front of the building and wait for Dreymann to leave to storm the apartment. And none of the neighbors notice anything?

Well, one, the neighbor across the hall sees it all through the judas hole. For this Wiesler threatens her that he'll take away her daughter's place at the university if she talks. But in a real police state he wouldn't have needed to say anything. Everything would have been clear to her. More likely, he would have invited her to an "informative talk" about her neighbor and made her a some kind of second-rate informant.

The actual installation of the microphone is also amusing. The whole time the grey Stasi people wear grey gloves. They can't leave any fingerprints behind now can they? Because if Dreymann notices something amiss and goes to the police, who lift some fingerprints and then arrest the Stasi agents ... HELLLOOOOOO, where the hell are we? That's not the DDR, that's a kindergarten! James Bond for the wannabe politically informed.

Later, as Dreymann decides he wants to write a text that's critical of the system, he "tests" his apartment while Hauser's uncle is on a visit from West Berlin: they shout all around their apartment that they're going to smuggle Hauser into the west in the trunk of his uncle's car. As the uncle goes over the border without being searched, they decide the apartment is safe. It seems that Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck thinks all DDR citizens are complete idiots. Does he really believe that a citizen of the DDR really thinks he can "test" his apartment so easily? And does he really believe that the Stasi would be so dumb to fall for such a ridiculous idea? And just what kind of horrible policestate is this, in which one only has to test his apartment to feel himself safe? Yeah, if it were that easy, then what was so terrible about the DDR?

But it gets even better: Dreymann gets a visit from a journalist from the West, who's going to publish his text. Wiesler's boss Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) tells him of a journalist whose car "was followed from the border to the Prenzlauer Berg and then lost." Wiesler protects Dreymann and says he knows nothing. Of course, it's unrealistic to "lose" a western auto in the DDR. Someone, the local ABV, a Stasi informant who lives in the street, an informant in a neighboring apartment, someone would have seen the car in front of Dreymann's house and reported.

In any case, no operation of this kind would ever have been left to a single operative, but would instead have been done by several organs with several workers each. Agents with bugs, but also the regular local police, informants that live in the next house or the one across the street (see above), "inconspicuous" agents who shadow on the street, etc... So that it can't happen that a single worker would suddenly develop a conscience, as happens in the film. In a police state everyone watches everyone - even those who do the watching.

And if you start reading and gathering information about how it really must have been in the DDR, you end up pulling out all your hair over just how far from reality this film lies. In no way does it show how things were in the DDR, but only how a west German director would have imagined things must have been.

Many say that "das Leben der Anderen" is only for fun, and so there's artistic license. That's true, but the problem is that many people seem to forget precisely this and come out with commentaries like: "Now I've seen life in East Germany" and "that's how it was with the Stasi." In effect, the film shamelessly renders harmless the real human relationships of a policestate. If you really want to learn something about the Stasi, you'd do better to watch films like Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," or Michael Anderson's "1984." They're science fiction, granted, but they do a 100-times better job capturing the situation in the DDR.

Here It Comes

Well, it looks like Barak Obama is running for president after all. The link goes to a "pre-"announcement. The real one will apparently be made in Illinois tomorrow.

I would just like to state for the record that I think Obama is a HORRIBLE choice for president, and I (strongly) suspect the only reason anyone is considering voting for him in the first place is white guilt (and/or black racism, depending on your race).

Let's consider the facts:

  1. Been in the Senate about 20min. Obama was sworn in in ... wait for it ... 2005. And this after an election in which he ran virtually unopposed - because of fortuitous scandals involving many of his primary opponents, and then his Republican opponent in the actual election. The immediately preceding election (for state senate) was actually unopposed. He was trounced in his first national election (61-30) - for the US House - in 2000. This isn't to say he doesn't have some high-profile supporters in Illinois (the police union, to name one), just that I'm not really sure he has the political experience to consider a presidential run.

  2. Supports gun control. This is a hugely touchy issue for me. I will not support candidates who support gun control. It's a vicious policy that leaves honest citizens defenseless. Statistics can be cherry-picked to push this argument either way. Taken as a whole, what they mostly indicate is that gun control policies do not really impact the overall crime rate one way or another. But that is hardly the point. The point is that when someone smashes in your window at night and the police can't be bothered to come, you have a right and indeed a duty to defend your life and property. It is the soul of evil that wants to take the basic tools for exercising this right away.

  3. Supports tarrifs. Obama fought hard to keep the tax on foreign ethanol in place, which is the worst example of a pork project currently alive in this country. Ethanol isn't even profitable as things stand. For most applications, it costs almost as much or more to produce it as it does to burn it. The least the government can do is allow some competition into this musty market! But no, there's a $0.54 tax on foreign ethanol, making compliance with any illconcieved government regulations promoting "clean fuel" more expensive than they have to be and already are.

  4. Wants universal health care by "the end of the next presidential term." To which I offer a heartfelt "fuck off." No doubt there are problems with our healthcare system. It's way too expensive, for starters. But this is not, repeat NOT due to a lack of government interference! It's due to entirely too much interference. Increasing the government's already substantial role in our healthcare system is about the worst thing we could do right now.

  5. Is religious. The one thing the Dems have going for them, really, is that they're credible on standing up to the religious right. And here comes Obama, talking about feeling God's power washing over him as he kneels before a cross. Christ, we already have a President who thinks he's on a mission from God! Do we really want a big-spending, New Deal-praising Democrat who thinks he's God's instrument??? Chavez in Amerikkka?

The scariest thing about Obama, though, is that he comes across as completely reasonable. All the normal attacks won't work. For one thing (and this is to his credit), he was actually opposed to the Iraq War from day one - not like most Democrats who supported it until election time, then suddenly decided to give peace a chance after all. So he can't be nailed as a flip-flopper on the War on Terror issue. Indeed, he comes at an opportune time: just when support for the Iraq Distraction is at an all-time low. For another thing, he has a way of mentioning the economy in all his social justice speeches in a way that lowers free-market supporters' defenses. Most Democrats will eventually say something that tips their hands as anti-industry economic incompetents who will spend us into European decline. Obama, however, is more careful about this. He always talks, plausibly to the uninitiated, about finding the right balance between government handouts and economic incentives. It's a dangerous rhetoric because it implies a kind of voodoo Laffer Curve-like magic about the whole industry of politics. You know, if we just tinker long enough, we'll get the alchemy right, and everyone will live happily ever after. Well sorry, kiddo, the real world ain't like that. Here in the real world, people are people, and not cogs in some machine that's yours to play with until it's functioning to your satisfaction! America isn't a building project. It's where we live - and more than anything in the world what we want is to be left the hell alone. Let us run our lives for a change!!! Quit searching for the magic formula because it just ain't there, sport.

In case it isn't clear, I really hate Barak Obama. And I hate him most of all because I believe he will be successful. He's the worst thing that could have happened to the movement for liberty and comes at one of the worst times. Just when we thought the 70s were behind us there's this convincing charlatan to sell us the same blue tonic all over again...

Another Ostalgie Must-see

The film I most wanted to see in 2007 opens today, but only in New York and LA. Damn!

It's called The Lives of Others(Das Leben der Anderen), and it's about a Stasi minder in East Germany in 1984 who has something of a change of heart about his job after he's assigned to watch an artist who is under suspicion (ironically) for having never criticized the regime. (Aparently we get a few shots of him in 1989 too, facing his uncertain future in reunited Germany).

I'm interested in this because the director says all the right things in this fascinating interview, in which the interviewer invites him to respond to all the specific criticisms the film has gotten. There aren't many, it turns out, but the two they discuss in depth struck a nerve with me. More or less, the idea is that the film is either (a) too sentimental or (b) puts too much of a human face on the secret police in a totalitarian regime.

I think this is a big issue for everyone. On the one hand, we have seen evil and know it's real - but on the other, pure examples are vanishingly rare. Putting a human face on the Stasi isn't exactly the same as saying they were nice guys. But whatever the flaws in it, it's certainly better than the alternative, which is just to write them off as thugs and never raise the question at all.

One of the critics discussed wonders what would happen if the movie were instead about an ex-Gestapo minder who, sometime in the early 60s, suddenly has a midlife crisis and realizes that everything he did in the Hitler years was wrong. The implication is supposed to be this tired old conservative cliche that Communism gets off the hook where Fascism never does. And like most cliches, this one happens to be true: it is a very strange thing, something I have never understood and probably will never understand, but somehow leftist thugs get more leeway than right-wing thugs. There's a greater tendency to humanize and forgive them. But also like all cliches, this one has a way of simplifying a complicated issue - so I would just say the following two things. First - what, indeed, would be wrong with a movie that humanized an old Gestapo minder? If we can believe it of the commies, then certainly we can believe it of the jackboots too! The way to fight leftist bias in Hollywood isn't just to demonize their heroes for them - it's also to insist that they humanize their demons, if you get my meaning. It would indeed be interesting to me to see a movie about a Gestapo man who has a change of heart - because I think that would essentially be the same story that's being told in The Lives of Others, and it would be every bit as believable and worthwhile. It isn't, after all, as though there are no examples from human history of a Nazi ever living to regret his support for what turned out to be an odious regime! And indeed, probably the most interesting part about the story in both cases - both in the Socialist case as well as the Fascist one - is that the person joins the regime with some kind of not-so-subconscious knowledge that his heroes aren't the good guys. It just takes a while for that realization to grow and to turn into action in a lot of people. Second, what is the point of making a movie about someone who's just bad? Who would want to watch such a movie? Why is it (supposedly) so much easier to believe in Stasi officers who are simply bad, end of story? We all live our lives in the free world, and we encountter people who are mostly nice and friendly. Is it really plausible to think that the Stasi recruiting apparatus is really so efficient that none of these ever slip through the cracks and put on the uniform? In any case, you don't have a story to tell if all you have is someone who simply hates people and joins the Stasi to bash in a few skulls. The much more interesting, and important, story is the man who joins the Stasi because he thinks he is defending Socialism - and then learns a thing or two about Socialism in the process...

As for the charge that the movie is "sentimental," I'll have to wait and see for myself. Netflix has it on backorder (it's not yet available on DVD), so I know that I will be able to see it eventually, even if not in the theater. I will just say, though, that I've long been aware that I have a somewhat different idea of "sentimental" than the mainstream press seems to have. Some of the schlockiest movies get passed off as profound (see The Piano for an example of a truly horrible film that somehow convinced people it was about something), while others are castigated for simply enjoying themselves (e.g. Labyrinth). Sometimes there is something to the charge that a movie is "sentimental," I'm just saying you have to be very careful which critics you listen to on this. Everyone has a different idea about where to draw the line between cheese and good fun. (I will say that the trailer - linked above - doesn't look too promising.)

The best point in the interview is this one:

I wanted it to begin pretty much from the beginning and for there to never be an actual turning point because that is something that all the books on screenwriting say: if there's any change in character, there has to be a clearly-identified turning point. Even the old Greeks would go on about that. But I think it's wrong because, unless there's divine intervention, I don't think that things happen like Saul who turns into St. Paul from one day to the next. This day I'm killing Christians and the next day I am one. It doesn't happen like that.

Right. Even though we get this in films and books all the time, and even though this is even a perception we have of our own lives, I think reality is that there generally isn't a clearly-identifiable "turning point" for most character shifts. They happen over time, and maybe people rewrite their memories so that there is some profound epiphany at some point, but more properly it's a process.

No one has the impression that, oh wow, the Stasi were actually the good guys. Quite the contrary. Why I am telling the story of The Lives Of Others is to show people how they could behave given such a situation. And these situations will arise again. You don't have to have an absolute dictatorial system. It can be within the confines of a school, or a hierarchical business organization, or whatever, that we will have the chance to display a similar kind of heroism to put it simply as [Wiesler] is displaying. It makes it too easy for people in criminal organizations like the Stasi or the Gestapo if you say that once you're a member of that group that's it, you've lost your humanity, you're morally dead, it's over, there's no possibility for you to redeem yourself. You can always change your ways.

Again, right. There isn't much point in art that depicts life as it actually is. Of course, there has to be some measure of realism; we have to be able to suspend our disbelief and participate as though the story were real. But I don't much see the use in recreating actual historical events - at least, not in doing so and calling it "art." Art is about life as it could and should be. A useful and uplifting story about the Stasi is this one. There wouldn't be a point in just telling us about some random spying that some random government agent did just to feed his random stomach in a random totalitarian regime!

But I admit, my main curiosity in this is what was alluded to above: that there is a kind of nostalgia (they called it Ostalgie - a portmanteau of "East" and "nostalgia" in German) about the East in Germany, and you just don't see that kind of thing about the Nazi regime. I would say that's because the Nazi years ended ... oh, how to put it ... rather badly for the general population, what with the firebombing and general chaos and carnage and all - but this exists in more than just Germany. One of my Russian friends in Korea told me she misses Communism, and certainly a Bulgarian friend talks the same way from time to time. More to the point, all the same old mistakes are happening again right now in Venezuela. The link goes to an article where a government official there denies that there is a meat shortage. The problem, apparently, is that people have been unwilling to sell it at the regulated price, with the consequence that there isn't any meat in the supermarkets. You know, because the lack of something is only a "shortage" if... Well, I don't know what he actually means - but even with this kind of bullshit spewing daily out of the mouths of its official spokemen, the Chavez regime enjoys a decent amount of support. Clearly - there is something to this Socialism-nostalgia stuff, and I really really would like to understand what it is. I know that a movie isn't the best way to get at it, but trying to imagine what the lives of people in East Germany were actually like - even (especially?) the lives of the jailors, is interesting for this reason all the same.