Saturday, May 27, 2006

Socio-Economic Inequality Is Inevitable. Discuss.

David Neiwert has an interesting piece up commenting on, among other things, the perennial concern amongst those on the right about being outbred by immigrants. Which got me thinking about another, closely related idea that I've never really seen debunked: differential birthrates ensure that there will always be socio-economic stratification. Start with the assumption that fertility decreases as education levels rise. This would seem to indicate that over time you'll end up with fewer educated people relative to their less-educated peers. But this ignores the ability of people to increase their education. So let's make another assumption, that the final education level of your parents is positively correlated with your final education level. That doesn't seem terribly daring, but it would tend to indicate that increasing education levels among the least-educate aren't sufficient to counter the differences in birth rates. You still end up with 1/x type of distribution, with the number of people decreasing as education increases. A final assumption is that education level is positively correlated with income level. Umm... yeah, duh. This just in, fire hot, water wet. But if you put it all together it points to the seeming inevitability of there being a small class of haves and a larger class of have-nots. As the have nots become haves their birthrate decreases, concentrating increasing wealth in fewer people. So what, if anything, is wrong with this model? Assuming its correct, how would you go about reducing social stratification? You'd either have to decrease the spread in education or decrease the correlation between income and education. The latter doesn't seem likely, so it would have to be the former. But you can only reduce the gap so much; not everyone is going to get a PhD or and MBA (or even a BS for that matter). Which makes it look like the best you can do is narrow the gap. This narrowing might even be substantial, but its hard to imagine that it would be enough to eliminate the problems that come from unequal income distribution.

The Enemy Of My Enemy Is On My Payroll

I was perusing an article about increasing nationalism in Russia and had an epiphany on reading the closing paragraph. Creating a political party to split the vote is hardly rocket science, and yet at the same time its so obvious I wonder if people have really ever tried to implement the idea. You'd have a hard time pulling this off for a major position (say, the Presidency), but for a lesser position (State Senate?, school board?) it seems like it would be a no-brainer. Its almost algorithmic in its simplicity:
  1. Identify a significant split in the constituency represented by your opponent.
  2. Identify your oponent's position on the issue.
  3. Identify a candidate with similar positions on most issues, but an opposite position on the wedge issue.
  4. Get that person on the ballot.
Obviously that's still a fair amount of work, but I would think that it wouldn't be unsurmountable for a seasoned professional. Which kind of makes you wonder if its happening now and we just don't know it.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Wanna Be Depressed?

Go read A Canticle for Leibowitz. Come away thinking that humanity can't possibly be doomed to repeat its mistakes as badly as that. Then go read TBogg's latest post. Then cry a little bit and drink yourself to sleep.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Defining Child Abuse

Here's an interesting question: what constitutes child abuse? Or, to put it another way, what kind of harm has to be inflicted on a child before we're willing to let the government step in?

I ask this because there's a post at Dispatches about an Arkansas bill that would make it illegal to smoke in a car if there is a child present. I concur with Ed that this seems to be particularly invasive, but at the same time I'm finding it hard to argue against it.

If you agree that secondhand smoke is dangerous (a big "if", but that's another discussion) then its hard to argue that its OK to expose children. Now its possible to argue that children spend a small fraction of their lives in cars and, as such, that exposure during car rides wouldn't be sufficient to pose a long-term danger to child. So lets get bolder, and propose a hypothetical law banning smoking in a private residence that is home to a minor.

The potential harm to the child (again, stipulating that secondhand smoke is dangerous) is substantial in this situation, since the child spends a majority of its early development at home. The public generally supports the government's right to intercede (at least with other peoples' kids) in the case of child abuse, so should be amenable removing children from such an environment. And yet if such a law were to pass there'd be no end to the uproar, because very few people would consider exposing a child to secondhand smoke to be child abuse. Why is that?

It could be the passive nature of the act. Do we have an expectation that abuse must consist of an overt act, like hitting a child? Yes, to some extent, but we do recognize child abuse of a more passive nature as well. Neglect, for instance, is abuse by omission rather than commission, and children are commonly removed from their homes in such circumstances.

A more important factor, I believe, is that the results of exposure to secondhand smoke are not immediately apparent. We have no problem calling is abuse when the result is a burn or a broken limb, but if the result is instead some sort of chronic health problem (which could be attributed to some other source) we're not inclined to draw such a conclusion. The irony here is that burns and breaks will heal, while chronic conditions are, well, chronic. Exposure to secondhand smoke has a far greater chance of affecting a child's long-term wellbeing than these common forms of physical abuse.

There's also the issue of mental/emotional trauma to consider. Does there have to be mental/emotional damage before we'll consider something to be abuse, a component which is absent the case of exposure to secondhand smoke? I'd argue that the answer here is "no", since physical signs of abuse are often sufficient to sustain such charges.

It would seem that exposure to second hand smoke meets the criteria for child abuse. If you believe that the government has a right (perhaps even a responsibility) to prevent child abuse then it follows that you've got to get on board with initiatives designed to reduce children's exposure to secondhand smoke. I don't see any clever way out of this one.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Missing The Point 101

Belle Waring seems to be missing the point regarding the ongoing discussion of nudity etc. at the Volokh Conspiracy. Nobody, certainly not Eugene, is suggesting that the assault on her sister has anything to do with involuntary sexual arousal. As he points out, there are a number of reasons why its important to understand why a rule exists, even if that rule seems to be of the "well, duh" variety.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Immorality of Hypocrisy

Inspired by Amanda's posts at Pandagon I thought I'd write a little bit about my take on the whole issue. Sometime awhile back I read something (maybe this article by Jonah Goldberg) by someone who was really wondering "Why all the fuss over hypocrisy?", which got me to thinking about why I put hypocrisy is on my short list of "really bad things". Amanda says that hypocrisy is bad because its anti-egalitarian. This would tend to imply that, in a more egalitarian time and place, hypocrisy would be less of an issue. I disagree with this assessment; hypocrisy gets an honored place on my short list because its an absolute transgression. The special nature of this particular sin makes it invariant across time and space. I recognize that this is a bold statement to make, but hear me out. I accept that many things, morality included, are contingent on the understandings of a particular place and time. So, I say to you, pick and arbitrary time and an arbitrary place, and let's see if my argument makes sense. The only thing that I ask is that you allow me a single stipulation, that in your time and your place there is a value placed on little-t truth, defined loosely as some kind of correlation with facts on the ground. Hypocrisy is not a sin, but rather a meta-sin. It's an assault its on little-t truth, on the superstructure that we use to judge things as right or wrong. It is, to borrow a metaphor, throwing sand in our eyes as week seek to determine the truth. This is why I say that hypocrisy is a universal transgression; the particulars of time and place don't really matter as long as people agree that the search for truth is a worthwhile endeavor. That's also why its an especially grave transgression; its an assault against society as a whole, not a particular individual or set of individuals. The ability to recognize the truth is a necessary precondition for reasoned discourse. Amanda is right that hypocrisy is anti-egalitarian, but its worse than that; in some sense hypocrisy is a theoretical analogue to shooting cops and judges. Amanda is right that hypocrisy is anti-egalitarian, but its

There's Arousal, And Then There's Arousal

Eugene Volokh has a post up at The Volokh Conspiracy arguing in favor of public bans on nudity and sex from a libertarian perspective. Item 2 argues that the arousal factor of such displays is sufficient to justify such a ban. I'm now going to proceed to dismiss (easily, in fact) this argument. This argument requires drawing a bright line between sexual arousal and other forms of physiological arousal. Sexual arousal may very well play with peoples hormones "in a way that's outside their conscious control", but does that make it sufficiently different from other potential external stimuli that it should be banned? Let's examine this subject using the ranting lunatic on a soapbox, a tool which should be familiar to Eugene. I'm walking down the street, and there's a lunatic, on a soapbox, spouting some sort of obnoxious drivel. He's going on at length about how people who watch Babylon 5 reruns need to get with it and recognize that everything after Captain Kirk is a pale, watery substance, suitable only for feeding to infants. Naturally this pisses me off, because I consider the characters in Babylon 5 to be much more well developed than anything from Star Trek and that its politics are much more sophisticated as well. I get angry, involuntarily, which triggers the physiological fight-or-flight response. Adrenaline, increased heart rate, trembling, sweating, the whole shebang. Here's the problem... I'm pretty sure that Eugene would support this lunatic's right to spout his obnoxious drivel. But, under the rubric he's set up above, his speech has triggered in me an involuntary physiological change, thus is vulnerable to regulation. Does the fact that I get red in the face rather than springing a stiffy make a difference? I would think not; I can't see any reason, especially from a libertarian perspective, to differentiate between these two arousal states. The fight-or-flight responsive can be just as "intrusive and troubling"; I personally find it much more so than plain sexual arousal. This is where Eugene's argument falls short; in order to be consistent you'd end up having to ban other acts which trigger involuntary physiological responses, sweeping up a wide variety of activities which everyone agrees should be permissible.

The Elusive Search For Universal Inclusivity

There's a post up at Feministe regarding representation and homogeneity, spurred by an observation that the contributors to Arianna Huffington's blog are a bunch of Whitey McWhitersons. This is true, but I'm not sure I buy the allegation that this is inherently racist, nor do I believe Eteraz's assertion, quoted in the post above, that the appearance of homogeneity is a problem in and of itself. I think piny's example with the Democratic party is telling. Suppose we start with the Democratic party, but we realize that its not sufficiently inclusive of homosexuals. So, as piny says, we "appoint scads of cisgendered and cissexual gays and lesbians to incredibly prestigious positions". But, as it is pointed out, this leadership is still not representative of transgendered persons. That's not a problem, we'll approach this issue in the same way that we approached the homosexual issue, by appointing scads of transgendered and transsexual individuals to incredibly prestigeous positions. Holy pigeon hole principle, Batman! I've only got so many prestigious positions to go around. Either I'm going to have to create more prestigious positions (thereby diluting the prestige of all), or I'm going to have to kick some of the homosexuals out to make room for the trans representatives. What's worse, I've got all these feminists waiting in the hall... And so on, and so on, and so on. Using this method you could eventually come up with a collection of individuals who are widely representative of the world at large. But, even in a body as large as the Democratic party, somebody is going to get left out. Let's run the checklist:
  • Women? Check
  • Men? Check
  • Trans? Check
  • Cis? Check
  • Abled? Check
  • Disabled? Check
  • ....
Somewhere you are going to have to make a cutoff, and then you're going to get screwed. Did you get a survivor of genocide? How about a displaced person? A practitioner of a non-traditional religion? All of these people have legitimate causes and legitimate concerns, but I guarantee that, at the end of the process, one or more will still be a "them", left out in the cold with no one to speak for them. Here's where I think that Eteraz is wrong, and that any attempt to make appearance a proxy for substance is ultimately going to fail. This hypothetical group which we've assembled looks, to the casual (and even not so casual) observer to be full to the brim with representative goodness. But this body, because it does not include representatives for every worthy cause, is still capable of "-ism". Granted, its less likely to do so than the folks that hang out with Arianna, but the problem is still there. And it gets worse. Again, even an institution as big as the Democratic party has finite resources, so a necessary prioritization of efforts is required. The problem is that, in doing so, it leaves itself open to accusations of marginalization and '-ism' from those people who find themselves at the bottom of the list. They could always skip the prioritization, but that leads to an organization with no goals and no directions, which is basically useless. Which brings me to the central critique of piny's post, which boils down to the following statement: "The appearance of '-ism' cannot be used to prove the existence of '-ism'". It's a good indicator, "where there's smoke there's fire" and all that jazz, but is not sufficient proof. Here's why: Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that Arianna and her gang aren't racists. We live in a de facto segregated society, and Arianna only knows white people, so that's who she invites to blog with her. This is the result of racism, but institutional and structural racism rather than racism on the part of Arianna and her friends. I would think its clear, in this case, that the label "racist" should not be applied to Arianna and co. Let us further suppose that we're operating under the assumption that the appearance of '-ism' is indicative of actual '-ism'. Poor Arianna isn't a racist, but how is she going to prove that? She can point to the 2 out of 55 bloggers (which is 3.6%, btw, not 0.3%; watch that decimal place) who aren't white, but we'd all agree that this doesn't really mean anything, it's just a variant of the "but I have black friends" defense. She might be able to point to explicitly anti-racist postings, but it's easy to argue that such postings are an institutional smokescreen to cover the racism that's obviously lurking behind the curtains. Its incredibly difficult to prove that you're not racist. I'd argue, however, that its a lot easier to prove that someone is racist. If you catch them at an Aryan Nation's rally or voting to put up a fence between the US and Mexico then that's solid proof that they're a racist. Which is why I believe that a more appropriate rule is as follows: "The appearance of '-ism' is insufficient to indicate the existence of '-ism'; it must be accompanied by positive acts indicative of '-sim' before such a charge is reasonable". Which is why I don't agree that Arianna and her people are racist, or that a charge of racism should be leveled against them in some fashion.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Fuck Me

Never in my life have I seen such carnage. We find (via Sadly, No!) the smoldering slag pile that used to be Christopher Hitchens. That's some mean shit, bringing up a brother's drinking problem and all that. This is why I read blogs...

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Eschew Obfuscation

I'm not sure what to make about the May Day protests and ensuing discussion. The pro-immigration crowd wants to further "immigrant's rights", which is such a loaded and ill-defined phrase that I think it needs to be banished from future discussion. What, exactly, does "immigrant's rights" mean? I suspect that, if you took a random survey of all the people who were marching yesterday and asked them what it meant (or what they were marching for) you'd get a number of different answers. Are they concerned about immigrants in general? Are they worried about the abuse of resident aliens? Or are they thinking about the unvoiced "illegal" in front of "immigrants"? I'm pretty sure its the latter. So the first problem is one of language; if you're worried about the treatment of illegal immigrants you need to come out and says "illegal immigrants". I was listening to the Diane Rehm Show this morning and one of the guests said that (I'm paraphrasing here) it wasn't right to refer to illegal immigrants as "illegal immigrants" because they come to this country and contribute value to the economy and contributing value isn't illegal. Yes, but they're still here in violation of US law; I think that this kind of rhetorical sleight of hand causes problems in the long run because it clouds the issue. Once you've recognized that immigrants are good people, but that they are here illegally, you can ask the question "Why are they illegal?". Which quickly gets to the heart of the matter, which is the generally fucked up immigration policy that the US has been pursuing. I'm convinced that the long term fix is not to push for better treatment of illegals, but to fix immigration policy so that people can come here legally. This would necessarily have to be done in conjunction with some kind of amnesty, but that's a smaller issue in comparison to fixing immigration policy.
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