Friday, December 14, 2007

The Santa Dilemma

With Christmas approaching, I've been giving some thought to Santa Claus. Having young children, and being surrounded with friends who have young children, I am looking at the Santa Claus story in a new light... and it is disturbing to me.

First, let me set the stage a bit. I cannot remember a time when I believed in Santa. I grew up surrounded by older siblings (eleven of them), so I was filled in on the real situation very early on. I can't remember ever sitting on the lap of a mall Santa, and if I did I certainly knew that it was a silly farce. I never wrote a gift list for Santa, even in pretend... I wrote my list for my parents. So, I have never personally had the experience of believing in Santa that most American kids seem to have.

I have also chosen not to sell the Santa story to my kids as a reality. They know about Santa, they know that Santa isn't real, and we incorporate the Santa story as little as possible in our holiday celebrations. So, I have never had the experience of watching my kids believe in Santa.

A close friend of mine also has young children close to the ages of my children. He fondly remembers believing in Santa as a child, and loves perpetuating the story with his children. He loves to see the excitement in their eyes and the joy they experience thinking about Santa. As he describes it, giving up Santa would be to give up the "magic" of Christmas.

I don't know the experience of that feeling of "magic", but the more I think about the Santa story, the less I want to share it with my kids. I have a few reasons.

* If I sell my kids a lie at this age, if I am adamant that Santa is real and go to lengths to deceive them into thinking that Santa is real... but later they inevitably learn that it's all just a society-wide deception (just as they're entering their years of growing intellectual independence)... then why would they stop there? Why would they trust me about the other things I'm trying to teach them that they can't see, touch, and feel? Why would they think my religious views have any credibility? Why would they believe me when I say that immoral behavior will have negative consequences down the road? It seems that it would throw my credibility out the window.

* Much of the Santa story seems like a gimmick to trick kids into good behavior. As parents, relying on gimmicks like this is a cop-out that doesn't serve us or our kids well. We need to do the hard work of teaching our kids to care about others, and to live well for the right reasons. I hope I never use the "Santa's watching" line (or similar gimmicks) to get my kids to behave.

* Santa's role in Christmas (as it is currently understood in American folklore) encourages kids to be intensely selfish and materialistic. They can make long lists of stuff they want, and expect to get most of it. If they behave because of the Santa story, it will be in order that they can get more stuff. The highlight of Christmas day is seeing what stuff they got. Nobody GIVES gifts to Santa... it's not an exchange. You only GET. It seems to me we're training our kids through the Santa story to care far more about what they can get than what they can give.

* This may seem silly, but the Santa story really undermines teaching fiscal responsibility. How? The stuff kids get from "Santa" is from some magical source that has no cost, and requires no sacrifice (from the kid's perspective). Kids don't see the after-Christmas credit card bills... until they grow up and become parents. There is a sense of entitlement, that if you want something you will somehow be able to get it (wthout working for it), that seems to carry over into much of the rest of American society. (Which is the chicken, which is the egg? Who knows.)

I don't begrudge anyone the fun they have with Santa. I work hard with my kids to make sure that they don't spill the beans about Santa to their Santa-believing friends. And, really, I have a feeling I must be missing something important. I'm hoping someone here can help me understand. What is the value of the Santa story? What is the "magic" that makes it worth while? If you have (or have had) young kids, how do (or did) you handle the Santa story with them?


Monday, November 19, 2007

Are All "Families" Created Equal? When it Comes to Child Abuse, No.

This article hit home for me, given that I have two cousins who were raped by stepfathers. I'm admittadly a bit biased, when I say that divorce and remarriage sucks. Funny today, how the divorce rate among "born again Christians" is the same as for the rest of society. Sometimes you wonder if Jesus and the early church had an opinion on that.


Monday, November 05, 2007

Medical Competition

Continuing the debate on capitalism to the field of medicine, the question was raised, why has the free market failed to reduce costs in the US health care industry?

That is a large question, but I think John Stossel makes a compelling argument that the current health care system can, in some respects, occlude and stifle the free market in his brief article Control Your Own Health Care and the follow-up Medical Competition Works for Patients.

The first article describes consumer driven health care and mentions Whole Foods's use of Health Savings Accounts.

John Goodman, the ostensive "Father of Health Savings Accounts", provides a brief rundown of his views on our current political options in Grading the Candidates.

Back in February 2007, Mark raised encompassing issues in more detail that also compares plans and discusses practical difficulties: Universal Health Care and Health Care: What's the Current State?

Some deliberations on this topic couple government charity with mandating a more static market, but I wonder if this is necessary or if it's possible to consider these aspects more independently. Is it feasible for the government to be a source of charity while also maintaining a free market?

Of course, the free market is not a simple panacea. I think it is often easier to imagine, particularly in specific cases, that a government edict fixing prices could do a better job -- especially better than the patchwork we have now. The simple rule of such universal health care is attractive because it is so encompassing and absolute, and it seems to most directly match our morality. But its failures may not be so readily apparent and accounted for -- failures of wasted time, resources, innovation, responsibility, health and lives that might actually amount to a poorer system.

What do you think?


Update 11/7: N. Gregory Mankiw wrote an interesting NYT article on 3 common health care statistics which are factual but misleading. Thanks to Jonathan Adler:

1. The United States has lower life expectancy and higher infant mortality than Canada, which has national health insurance.
2. Some 47 million Americans do not have health insurance.
3. Health costs are eating up an ever increasing share of American incomes.

According to Mankiw, these statements are "dangerous" because they are true, yet "don’t mean what people think they mean."

Update 1/1/08: MB provided an excellent summary of HSAs. The comments which follow the summary are also very educational. Thanks, MB!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Owning Water

Capitalism and its alternatives are vast topics that Sarah and I have been discussing and which I hope to continue in this thread and open for wider discussion.

One particular example that Sarah raised was the Bolivian government's 1999 $2.5 billion, 40-year concession of the water supply in the city of Cochabamba to Aguas de Tunari (AdT), a consortium which was the sole bidder and wherein Bechtel was the controlling partner. Such privatization is part of the conditions of loans from the World Bank, which Bolivia had turned to since its economic difficulties in the 1980s. In accordance with World Bank policies, Bolivia privatized railways, telephone systems, national airlines, tin mines, and in this case Cochabamba's water supply.

The contract guaranteed Aguas de Tunari a minimum 15% return on investment for providing water, sanitation, irrigation, electric generation, completion of the stalled Misicuni dam, and for paying down the $30 million in debt accumulated by Cochabamba's previous municipal water supply SEMAPA. It was legally affirmed by Bolivia's Law 2029 which ostensibly gave AdT a broad monopoly over all water resources in the city, potentially even including those which were independently built and not part of SEMAPA. The breadth of Law 2029 may have even included the collection of rainwater.

Aguas de Tunari quickly imposed a large rate increase averaging 35% (potentially as much as 30% of the minimum wage) and massive protests erupted in 2000, including a general strike that halted Cochabamba's economy for four straight days. Martial law was declared amidst violent conflict between protestors and police. Bolivia eventually withdrew the contract, repealed Law 2029, was sued by and settled with Bechtel, et al., for 30 cents, and the water supply returned to local SEMAPA control. Rates returned to their pre-2000 levels but as of 2005, service remained poor and intermittent.

My first reaction is that this case might be more aptly compared to a government mandated monopoly rather than a good example of capitalism in general. Nevertheless, it is ostensibly a failed attempt to foster a more capitalistic system based upon the loan requirements of the World Bank.

Of course, capitalism exists within some "regulatory" legal framework that protects property and human rights. Sarah points to the illegality of human trafficking and asks, if another human cannot be owned, "Can rain water be private property, owned by a foreign company? Is it ethical? Can the genome of thoroughbreds be patented? Can biological life be patented and become private property?"

I don't think the government should have the right to sell the rain or seize private wells as Law 2029 may have mandated. I also don't think it is immoral to own and sell water, whether it be by individuals, corporations, or cooperatives.

What do you think? Should the essentials of life, such as water, be government owned? If so, how should Cochabamba solve their water crisis?

What lessons should be learned from Cochabamba? Is this exceptional or typical of globalization? Is it an indictment of globalization? of capitalism? of government control?

Beyond water, what should be the moral bounds of capitalism? Should the patent system encompass the creation of genomes?


UPDATE: In May 2006, Gary Becker and Richard Posner provided some broader context and brief (and perhaps loose) analysis on Latin America that I found interesting. In particular, Becker makes the sensible distinction between "crony capitalism" and "competitive capitalism".

(1) Moving Left in South America-BECKER
(2) The Left's Resurgence in Latin America--Posner's Comment
(3) Response on Moving Left in Latin America-BECKER

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Exposing Yourself On The Net

Privacy is an important and imposing topic with an overwhelming scope.

The sub-topic of volunteering too much information is touched upon in Sarah's recent Word To The Wise post that originates from a post by Dan at Cerulean Sanctum which considers the ramifications of comments placed on the net.

Of course, we are pretty open here and fearless of negative repercussions. I think Mr. C, Mr. Boy, Mrs. Kangaroo, and Mr. Pinhead can back me up on that. :)

Apparently, we've given this some thought and, despite the dangers, it seems we've found value in keeping our discussions public, both in the respectful dialectic and in the associated friends we could not have otherwise made.

Nevertheless, there is an unknown risk. I think using pseudonyms and anonymizing personal details is a good first step. I often consider becoming more anonymous myself. By the same token, I want to be proud of what I write, so I try to be careful and respectful.

Humor can be disastrous. Woe to he who judges me by my failed attempts at humor! :) Of course, if it's funny or good, I want the credit. My bad comments do not define me, only my good ones do.

When considering privacy in general, some make the argument, "if you aren't doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to hide." I think Dan exhibits the flaws in that argument and highlights the value of pseudo- and ano- nymity. The comments in reply to Dan's post are also fascinating as they contend for the proper balance.

What do you guys think? Any additional thoughts on the risks of blogging? on the balance between privacy and publicity or secrecy and honesty? on the business aspect? on the emerging culture of totally open lives?


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sarah on Parenting

As my way of welcoming Sarah to this discussion of ours, I figured I'd link to an excellent discussion she started on her own blog. The nature of good parenting, and in particular what part discipline should play in that parenting, has been an active discussion in my own household for a few months now. Sarah frames the question well, and has already generated some interesting discussion.

Welcome, Sarah! We're glad to have you around.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

Depression Rates and Career Choices

A study came out ranking jobs by depression rates. At the top of the list (of fully employed people) were people in personal care fields like child care and care for the elderly. Second were food service workers and third were health care workers. The bottom of the list was occupied by engineers and architects.

I'm particularly interested in why engineers and architects have such lower depression rates, seeing as I fall in that category myself. Why is this? Is this because we are much less emotional overall? Is it because our jobs do not require much empathy for others? This would seem to correlate well with the personal care workers and health care workers being at positions 1 and 3, but I'm not sure food service workers need to have that much more empathy than engineers or health care workers. Having never worked in food service, though, perhaps that impression is way off base. I doubt it is correlated too strongly with intelligence or education level, since health care workers tend to be a bright lot, though perhaps doctors and the like are a small minority in the overall field. This study reminds me of studies Mark has blogged about in the past that looked at traits which are associated with human happiness. Overall, it is a fascinating field. It would be interesting to see the actual study and not just an AP article.


Saturday, October 13, 2007

What We Can Learn From Lap Dancers

I doubt learning that lap dancers make less when menstruating comes as much of a surprise to folks, but lap dancers making 40% money more during the fertile phase of the cycle vs. the luteal phase is quite a difference. I doubt they need the money more then. I remember seeing a study in which men were asked to rank women's attractiveness in pictures and this was correlated with their time of the month. Women who were around the fertile time came out ahead. Maybe I'm just weird, but this stuff fascinates me, mostly because it is so subtle and seemingly unnoticeable. Ask 10 guys to tell you if a given woman off the street is fertile and they will look at you like you are off your rocker (at least I would). Yet, the effect of a woman's seemingly hidden fertility is measurable in such an amazingly dramatic fashion. Somehow men must subconsciously know this. My guess is that somehow women are subconsciously communicating this information as well. Bizarre.


PS: I wonder if there are any wise old matchmakers out there who have known this for eons and kept all of us technologically advanced and culturally disconnected societies in the dark.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Importing Poverty

The Washington Post had an article last month which provided an interesting perspective on a fairly stagnant poverty rate: Importing Poverty.

Thanks to Citizen Pamphleteer which has some additional commentary. I find the idea of a dynamic rather than stagnant poor to be appealing, and perhaps ideal if there truly is an irreducible minimum for poverty within a free system.


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

When Information Isn't Informative: Plus Some Notes on Demographics

Does anybody see a problem with the graph on the left?

Here is another graph of the same information (with a few extra years tacked on at the end and the US population added as reference). Do they look at all similar?

The first graph is terribly misleading because the abscissa/x-axis is nonuniformly scaled. I'm not sure more than two consecutive tick marks have the same scale. I've redone this graph using a uniformly scaled abscissa to show true trend. China for some reason cuts their graph off just before their population is projected to begin shrinking. Maybe its just that I'm an engineer, but this sort of wacky scaling drives me up the wall. The benefit of a graph is that it can convey alot of information intuitively. For that reason, if people aren't careful, uneven scaling can be very misleading. This above graph almost makes it look like China had a lull in population growth that has started to pick up again at a rather dramatic pace. This is not the case at all, as the second figure shows. It doesn't take very long to look this information up and create one's own graph. You would think that a reporter would be educated enough to do something like this, especially when they are working for the BBC and not merely some local rag.

Update/Supplementary Material
The question came up as to why there is such a lag between when fertility rates drop below replacement levels and when population begins declining. Because population growth is the sum of fertility rates and death rates, there is a lag due to the human lifespan. However, this lag is exacerbated because factors associated with more rapidly declining fertility rates are also associated with increased lifespans, namely increased urbanization and development.

The typical age/sex population distribution for an undeveloped country looks like a pyramid. There are lots of children and relatively few adults. However, as fertility rates decline and lifespans increase, the pyramid begins to morph into a rectangle. Zimbabwe, like most underdeveloped countries has recently begun to reduce its population quite dramatically. One can see that 25 years ago, population was still growing exponentially, but great reductions in fertility rates have come since then. One thing that has surprised demographers over the last 25 years is the rapid pace at which fertility rates have declined in the developing world. They have declined much more quickly than they did in the developed world. Now, the population distribution histograms of even underdeveloped countries like Zimbabwe are starting to morph into the rectangle shape indicative of stable population.

Italy is an example of a country that has experienced the transition from increasing population to decreasing population. Instead of transitioning to a rectangle, they are in the process of transitioning to an inverted pyramid. Not only is population growth an exponential function, but population decline is exponential as well. Unless they can reverse this trend in fertility rates or increase their immigration rates, their population will decrease exponentially to a fraction of what it is today.

The US and China are both countries that are in between the pyramid and rectangle stages. The difference between the US and China is that China has experienced more drastic fertility rate reductions and is beginning to transition into the inverted pyramid stage like Italy. However, the US is beginning to look more like the rectangle with a relatively stable population distribution by age and sex. These plots are also interesting, because they can highlight the sex ratio disparities in countries like China and India.

These plots become even more fascinating when one compares one country today to the same country +/-50 years. I think a short course in demograhics should be required for policy makers dealing with plans like social security and medicare, that take from today's worker to pay for today's retirees benefits instead of investing the money.

One last note because the figures ended up being rather small. The horizontal axis is population with zero in the middle and female population in blue increasing to the left and male population in red increasing to the right. Each horizontal red and blue line represents a histogram of the population for a specific age category. The age categories are 5 year age spans proceeding from 0-5 years old on up to 95-100 years old. I'm sure there's a much simpler way to explain this, but I'm tired and it escapes me right now.





Source for my Population Graphs: Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision and World Urbanization Prospects: The 2005 Revision,, Wednesday, September 26, 2007;

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

May the Souls of the Faithfully Departed, Through the Mercy of God, Rest in Peace. Amen.

But when are they departed? What is death? Is it simply when one is brain dead, as indicated by "fixed and dilated pupils, lack of eye movement and the absence of respiratory reflexes." Can a pregnant woman be dead. When should the harvesting of organs begin? Would knowing that 1 in 1000 "dead" people survives after life support has been switched off affect your decision to harvest the organs? Interesting questions about death and its diagnosis are raised by Dr. Kellehear in this BBC article.

I remember being in middle school and reading similar questions being raised by Dr. C. Everett Koop. It all seemed like science fiction at the time, especially when I later read an article in the paper about a guy in a body bag waking up and giving a fright to the mortician who promptly got him to the doctor. I'm not sure what the answers to the questions above are, but it isn't reassuring that doctors seem to have have their own debates without (for the most part) informing patients of them.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

New Holiday: Day of Conception

Get a free vacation day September 12 to tango with your spouse and be entered in a contest to win thousands of dollars in cash or even a car if you are successful!! When will this idea catch on in the US? I'd sign up. :-) Perhaps, it would take similar cultural circumstances being replicated in the US; circumstances like our abortion rate topping 50%, and our population being predicted to potentially decline by 25-30% over the next 50 years instead of the predicted 50%+ increase. In the US, that would be the equivalent of our population decreasing from the current 300 million to 210/225 million over the next 50 years instead of increasing to over 400 million. Talk about a social security/medicare nightmare. On the other hand, think of all the great deals on real estate that could be had in such a climate! I think I'd have more confidence in my children being able to afford a house in 20 years than I do now. The hitch is, I have this very strong suspicion that population decline of that magnitude indicates a fundamental lack of hope in society and an unchecked march toward cultural suicide.

I guess I don't need a vacation day that badly. My wife and I just might be able to pull of procreating without a government holiday complete with bribes (oops, prizes).

Random thought for the day (only tangentially related). Conception Day and Russia Day are 9 months apart on the calendar. The only other holidays that I can think of that are specifically 9 months apart are Christmas and the Feast of the Annunciation. Can anybody else think of another pair of holidays/holy days with specific 9 month spacing? The valuable prize being offered for winning this contest to to lay claim to the esteemed title of "calendar wonk."


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

It's the End of the World as We Know It, and I Don't Care

Actually, it's not the end of the world. Just Anglicanism... and we don't know it's the end of Anglicanism as we know it, it's just a distinct possibility. And, come to think of it, I do care. So to heck with the title.

Anglicanism has some tough days ahead. Will they stay together or fracture into little pieces? Anybody care to prophesy about this one? I sure won't, but I do hope they can pull this off and stay together.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


Forward/disclaimer: I don’t currently have internet access at home, so I am writing this from work, and it will have a pronounced lack of documentation. I’m sure others have done more research on this and can add some sources at their leisure. As a result, this will also have a more personal flair than I would prefer for something medical in nature.

To give some history, someone inquired about me starting a discussion on vaccines, so I thought I’d jot down some thoughts off the cuff. Much thought has gone into this, but I’m time limits me here to summarizing my opinions and experiences. I had thought this was discussed previously on this blog or my old one, but couldn’t find anywhere.

First, are vaccines good for society and our children? Though others would disagree, the answer seems to me to be a resounding, “Yes!” They have helped eliminate or nearly eliminate several formerly common deadly diseases. There are still risks with this medical procedure, as with any. I know my grandparents both got terribly ill from the flu shot a decade or so ago. However, undoubtedly, on the whole the flu shot and other vaccines save many lives each year.

That said, are there any concerns regarding vaccines? This is where the discussion gets more nuanced and much more interesting.

Several people (I know one family in particular) blame vaccinations on their child’s development of autism. Personally, I don’t think the evidence supports this, but I’m not ready to completely rule it out. Even without the autism link, it just makes sense to me to avoid putting a known toxin such as mercury into a young infants system. My family avoids vaccines with thimerisol and pharmaceutical companies have realized that they can sell lots more vaccines without it so alternatives are readily available.

Is the Schedule Healthy?
Studies years ago showed that people quit taking their kids to the doctor for regular checkups after they got past their toddler years (sometimes before). This left a very large percentage of the population unvaccinated. Part of the solution, doctors decided, was to vaccinate kids earlier while they were still receiving regular checkups in order to inoculate as much of the population as possible. However, is it really in the best interest of the child to vaccinate for say Hepititus B at so early an age? Many doctors will readily admit that they don’t really need this vaccine at a young age and if made to choose between Hep B and other vaccines will recommend that it be delayed until the cycles (including boosters) for other more important vaccines are completed.

Are all the vaccines the best way to acquire immunity?
Personally, I’d rather have my young kids get chickenpox than get vaccinated, and we’ve done that. The median age for chickenpox has risen dramatically in recent years, since the original decision to only give one shot has left numerous vaccinated people with insufficient immunity to resist the disease. They are vaccinated, but not inoculated. It’s a personal decision, but given the ethical considerations later posted, this is a rather easy decision for me. More immunity and no ethical issues. We’ll take the real disease, thank you very much. Comparing my kids experience with chickenpox (even when covered and at their itchiest) with my friends’ experience with an extremely upset infant who was sick and couldn’t sleep the day after being vaccinated (on our shared vacation at a cabin in Colorado), I’ll take chickenpox any day.

Are all vaccines ethically produced?
Sadly, no. Some are produced using cell lines from aborted fetuses. This is a very contentious issue and most doctors will tell you it isn’t true. EVERY single doctor we’ve ever visited has told us it isn’t true. My wife and I have been told that you can’t believe everything you read on the internet (even on the CDC’s website?), that they know so and so who lectures around the world about vaccines and this isn’t true, they are grown in chicken embryos (true for some, not all vaccines) and many other things. The reaction has been quite varied when we have stuck to our story and brought in proof. Some Doctors have accepted the evidence without bluster. Others have been offended. This always amazes me, since in my profession as an engineer, people are much more open to being given new information by a customer. In fact, it is most often greatly appreciated. After this, we’ve been told that alternatives to chickenpox and MMR are unavailable (only partly true, since measles and mumps are available separately from Rubella and alternatives to Rubella using ethical production methods are only available in Europe and Japan). The latest response has been that we will need to pay for a whole shitload of the stuff, since they buy it in bulk and insurance won’t pay for an order of only one or two dosages. We’re currently waiting out our pediatrician on this one and seeing if how much would need to be ordered. After giving us an original response that only one was available, she was very vague on the actual cost and number of dosages (hundreds of dollars, I think was all she said). We’ll see if we can get more specific information out of her. We know a few other people in our shoes and might be able to pull together enough folks to make a bulk order and get the measles and mumps vaccines separately.

Is there a moral obligation to avoid vaccines with manufactured with aborted fetus tissue?
Would there be a moral obligation to avoid vaccines manufactured using martyred Christians or Jewish victims of the holocaust? I don’t think there necessarily would, though to ignore the problem and not seek ethical alternatives would surely be an ethical problem to a pro-life person. The reasoning of my wife and I has run something along these lines. A) Our medical system is run entirely by profits. The pharmaceutical companies will only change if there is a large enough market to make it such change profitable. Ethical alternatives exist. All we need is a large enough market to make pushing them through the FDA approval process profitable. B) Because most people are completely ignorant on the issue as it stands, the pharmaceutical companies have figured that they can get away with this at will and are developing new vaccines using aborted cell lines. This type of research will continue, unless the companies realize that they won’t be able to sell to a significant enough portion of the population to make taking other tracks profitable. C) There is so much ignorance on the issue this is the most effective means of education I know of for informing people about the problem, especially doctors. In my experience, doctors don’t listen to engineers unless that person is their patient and their patient’s care is affected by this idea. It’s the only way I know of to educate doctors, honestly. The pharmaceutical companies certainly haven’t been doing too great a job with this issue.

Resources for vaccines using cell lines from aborted fetuses.

Coriell Cell Repository. Are you a member of a research institution/related commercial company and want to buy your own aborted fetus cell lines? Step right up and give them the cash.

Children of God for Life. I think their response is too strident, but I’ve yet to find a mistake in their documentation. Best summary out there of *which* vaccines use aborted fetus tissue in their production. Using this website and the sources they reference, I’ve figured out in 5 minutes what my doctor’s staff couldn’t figure out after “much research.”

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

NASA Climate Calculation Error

My brother sent me this week a copy of an article in the NY Sun that was hard for me to believe. It seemed incredible, and I figured there must be some mistake. So I looked it up. And, there appears to be no mistake.

First, the article, titled An Inconvenient Truth. Seems that NASA climate research department publishes temperature data, and has been for the last few years pointing out that each year in the 2000's has been very hot in the US in comparison to the last millennium. This was big news in January of this year, when they reported that 2006 had been the hottest year in the US of the previous 112 years (see, for example, this Washington Post article).

Turns out that the numbers were wrong. Earlier this month, Steve McIntyre, a climate researcher in Toronto, got suspicious about the numbers because of some peculiar anomalies that showed up out of the blue in 2000. He did some checking, some reverse engineering, and determined that the US numbers had been significantly off since 2000 (which, in some way that I don't understand, affects previous numbers as well). About a week later, NASA acknowledged the change and quietly adjusted their numbers.

I've been digging into this this morning to find more detailed information, and I'll pass along what I've discovered.

Anthony Watts has the best technical summary of the situation I've found. (Steve McIntyre's site is down, possibly because of a DOS attack.)

Roger Pielke also has a writeup, and the comments section has quite a bit of opinion and links to other information.

If you're interested in the raw data, here's an archived copy of the data before the update, and a direct link to the updated data. Note that you won't find any mention of the update on the NASA site itself.

The RealClimate blog has a post from Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at NASA, arguing that the differences are statistically insignificant and not worth mentioning.

So, what do I think?

Well, in the first place, it seems that the bulk of the comments on the Watts and Pielke blogs are taking this form: "See, global warming is disproven, because temperatures aren't rising! No hockey stick!" Well, not really. I mean, it's not like before this adjustment, NASA was saying that 1998 or 2006 were huge amounts hotter than 1934. They were pretty much in a dead heat even then. So, this doesn't seem to "disprove" anything.

On the other hand, there a number of responses that take this form: "If they can't see this type of problem, how reliable is the rest of their data"? I think there's some validity there. This isn't the first time that McIntyre has found data and calculation problems in widely-accepted (and widely propagandized) climate numbers. Every time something like this happens, my confidence in the reliability of the scientific research drops a bit.

I'm not convinced by Gavin Schmidt. I agree with him that the change in 1998 is statistically insignificant. However, it seems to me that the changes from 2000-2006 are much more noticeable. Quoting Gavin: "The net effect of the change was to reduce mean US anomalies by about 0.15 ÂșC for the years 2000-2006." Over a tenth of a degree is extremely significant for short-term climate change. Those sorts of changes have been used very recently (as I pointed out in my Washington Post example) to raise concerns of accelerating changes and impending doom. More than a tenth of a degree difference? That changes the picture in a big way.

It is worth mentioning that these are only US numbers, and they don't seem to make any significant difference in the global numbers.

But I would feel quite a bit better about the scientific honesty of the NASA scientists if they would publicly and prominently acknowledge this flaw in their numbers, and try to explain how they could make such a ridiculous mistake and not catch it for 7 years. Their dismissive attitude makes sense to me only from a political perspective, trying to control the media presentation of the information... and that does not make me confident about the impartiality of their science.

It also surprises me that the purportedly ultra-effective Bush administration politics-overriding-science machine wasn't able to catch this one and use it. Strangely, it seems that NASA (which, I believe, is part of the Bush administration) isn't taking the correct conservative political line here. Interesting.


Immigration Enforcement... is it Progress?

Earlier this year, Bush worked very hard to broker a compromise solution with Congress to pass broad legislation that would rework the way we approach the problem of illegal immigration on a number of different fronts. That effort failed... regretfully, in my opinion.

In discussions about that bill, more than one conservative of my acquaintance said that we simply needed to enforce the laws already on the books, rather than coming up with new laws to ignore.

It appears that the Bush administration has decided to take precisely that approach. According to this AP story, the National Guard troops and increased border resources are having a significant impact on illegal immigration. Deportations are up, and fewer illegals are attempting to get in.

(Side note: that story includes one of my pet peeves in this whole discussion... referring to illegal immigrants simply as "immigrants". "Migrants also say they feel Americans are increasingly hostile toward immigrants." No, we're not hostile toward immigrants who follow the rules!)

In general, I think this is good news. On the other hand, this part of the story gives me pause:

While some migrants try to set up new lives, others are caught between two worlds. Salvador Perez still has a pregnant wife and three small children in Bakersfield, Calif., where he worked on a pistachio ranch before he was deported. He's tried to cross the rocky, snake-infested mountains near Tecate three times this summer to get back to them, but failed each time.

I hate the idea of separating families like that. Yet, I don't think we can simply make "get married and have a kid" the automatic no-deportation card. I'm not sure how best to handle that situation. I think Bush's plan was a solid step in the right direction, and was probably better than simpy enforcing the law as it stands... but I figure enforcing the law is better than pretending it doesn't exist.

President Bush is now implementing another step of his enforcement plan, one that is allowed by current law. He was hoping for an upgrade to the ID system used by our immigration department, but lawmakers didn't approve that. So, in the interim, he is going to start enforcing valid Social Security numbers. It's possible to get a forged SS number, but it's much more easy to just make one up and hope nobody notices. It appears nobody has been bothering to notice. Now, Bush is intending to use that enforcement power to put pressure on employers to find legal workers.

I will be very interested to see how effective that is. If it is truly able to cut off much of the financial incentive for illegal immigration by making jobs for illegals harder to come by, that could be the most powerful step in preventing illegal immigration that we've seen yet.

And, when American employers who have been happily utilizing cheap illegal labor find themselves in a serious pinch, there might be a little more political will directed toward implementing a much-needed temporary worker program, so that those workers can come to America legally, and get paid for their work above-board.

These seem like positive developments to me. What do you think?


Monday, August 13, 2007

Child Custody Criteria

Eugene Volokh (somewhat) recently made a series of posts on the use of beliefs and speech as criteria in child custody trials which I found interesting.

In "Want Custody of Your Quarter-Korean Seven-Year-Old? Better Enroll Her in Martial Arts Class", Eugene criticizes the implicit use of "connection to ethnic heritage" as a criteria, and subsequently addresses whether judicial discussion of facts are an endorsement of their relevance.

The case where a mother's open paganism was treated as one of the reasons to deny her custody is followed by a hypothetical in which the discrimination is against Christianity: "To Those Who Defend Family Court Decisions That Discriminate Based on Parents' Religion".

Eugene then posts about an actual case related to his previous hypothetical: "Make Sure That There Is Nothing in the Religious Upbringing or Teaching That the Minor Child Is Exposed to That Can Be Considered Homophobic":

A Christian mother is appealing a judge's decision that prohibits her from teaching her daughter that homosexuality is wrong.

Cheryl Clark, who left a lesbian relationship in 2000 after converting to Christianity, was ordered by Denver County Circuit Judge John Coughlin to "make sure that there is nothing in the religious upbringing or teaching that the minor child is exposed to that can be considered homophobic."
That order was reversed on appeal with the caveat that it could be reimposed if "the child's emotional development [would be] significantly impaired". The post ends by considering racist beliefs and speech.

Eugene summarizes his position in Child Custody Decisions and the Constitution, and provides greater detail in his May 2006 NYU article: "Parent-Child Speech And Child Custody Speech Restrictions (pdf)", part of which he condensed into a blog post: Why Parents in Split Families Shouldn't Lose Their First Amendment Rights To Talk to Their Children.

As I understand it, Eugene argues that Constitutionally protected speech and beliefs should not be considered in custody battles, and that there is not sufficient cause to treat a split family differently in that regard than one that is intact. He admits that cases exist where this may be less than ideal for the child, but argues that, as in some non-custody cases, maintaining our freedoms is worth that risk, and that serious and imminent harm to the child can still be avoided.

There's a lot of material there (including some interesting comments) and I certainly don't expect you to wade through it all (I haven't), but I'm curious what your thoughts are regarding court judgements on better or worse speech, beliefs, religions, and even sexual behavior, as it relates to child rearing, morality training, and custody battles.

To me, these criteria can be relevant, but the variability in our culture makes me wonder whether judges should be trusted to employ them at their own discretion, or even whether it would be feasible or Constitutional to compromise and codify some agreeable framework for judicial use.

What do you think?


Update (Aug 21): Eugene continues with: Wife's "Anti-American Sentiments" (and Perhaps Anti-Semitic Sentiments), which considers a custody case involving a wife's Muslim extremism. He also refers back to a previous post about a judge who gave an order prohibiting a paroled father from discussing with his child any issues pertaining to his religion: Parent-Child Jihadist Speech.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Power of Marketing

While reading sports news today, I came across a post on a blog called Playbooks & Profits that covers issues related to sports marketing. The post was highlighting an AP piece that relates to the power of marketing, particularly on very young children. I found it... frightening.

Basically, researchers took a bunch of preschoolers and gave them a taste test. They bought some McDonald's food and some other food (carrots, milk), and gave each child the same food item on two sides. One side had McDonald's packaging, the other side did not. The kids were asked which food tasted better. The McDonald's-packaged food won resoundingly... even on baby carrots!

Being a parent of three 6-and-under children myself, this is a shocking reminder of the power of marketing on young minds. I'm glad that I don't let my kids watch TV commercials. They watch videos (we skip the previews), and sometimes the local public broadcasting station. The very few occasions when we have watched a kid's show on the networks, I mute the commercials (in spite of their loud complaints).

Good marketing, I think, has more power than we (or at least I) tend to give it credit for.


Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Kill Vick

I was glad to read somebody else commenting on the hypocrisy of Vick's treatment by the media/society at large, relative to how we treat those who raise hogs and other farm animals.

Regarding the history of blood sport and animals, cockfighting was outlawed in my state just this last year. There are those who are suing saying this is a violation of the Treaty of Hidalgo. While I'm not sure about that, there is a definite difference in how blood sport is treated in hispanic culture vs. the US culture (e.g., bull fighting). There is still one state where cockfighting is legal. Is a chicken somehow less worthy of "humane" treatment than a dog?

My family is considering getting a market goat. I will likely butcher it myself if we do. The standard method of dispatch for a goat or pig: shooting it in the head with a gun. If I did that to my dog, I would be in violation of local laws. Ridiculous. When my dog got injured and the vet quotes were outrageous for making him better, local vets quoted me nearly $100 to put him down. The pound will do it for free, but then I can't adopt for several years. It shouldn't be this complicated to kill a sick/injured animal.

I won't go into too much detail regarding animal rights, mostly because I'm still learning and working through what I think about all this. It just seems to me that society is replete with hypocrisy regarding the treatment of animals. It should be clear to anybody that dogs and cats get treated far better than market animals. As a society, we do things every day to market animals that are illegal to do to pets. When I say we do them, I don't necessarily mean that any given individual interacts with animals. If we had to raise and butcher our own meat, societal attitudes would drastically change regarding animal treatment. However, nearly everybody buys meat at the supermarket that is grown on a farm somewhere where these illegal-if-it-were-a-pet actions take place.


Monday, August 06, 2007

Candidate Trait Bias

The NY Times's July 22, 2007 "Week In Review" focused on the relationship between religion and politics, and particularly Mitt Romney's Mormonism, in an article by Michael Luo titled "God ’08: Whose, and How Much, Will Voters Accept?".

Mrs. Van Steenis wanted Mr. Romney to say where the Book of Mormon would figure in his decision making as president.

“Where would the Bible be?” she asked. “Would it be above the Book of the Mormon, or would it be beneath it?”

Although the Constitution bars any religious test for office, if polls are to be believed, Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, faces a serious obstacle to winning the presidency because of his faith. Surveys show a substantial percentage of Americans would be less likely to vote for a Mormon, or for that matter a Muslim or an atheist. But how rigid is that sentiment?
I found the article to be particularly fascinating because it includes a chart summarizing a Pew Research Center survey which asked respondents whether they were more or less likely to support a candidate based upon individual traits, such as: Doesn't believe in God, Never held elected office, In his/her 70s, Homosexual, Muslim, No college education, Used drugs in past, Had extramarital affair, Taken antidepressants, Mormon, Has been a minister, Smokes cigarettes, Long-time Washington politician, Hispanic, etc.

For example, I find it interesting that there is 60% net support for belief in God, but 10% net opposition to having been a minister. Similarly, the article highlights belief in God but, considering the ranking of Muslim and Mormon, it actually seems to be a rather weak trait by itself and perhaps only significant by association with other more relevant qualities.

I think the chart is also a bit deceptive, which the last question in the blockquote above highlights. How much weight do we give each of these traits? I'd be interested to learn if there's a survey in which respondents attempt the difficult task of weighting them.

Does the fact that the "Constitution bars any religious test for office" imply a broader moral imperative for voters to ignore religion in evaluating a candidate? Do you think the article suggests this?

More generally, do you think the trait biases evident in the survey are justifiable or are they representative of the unjust prejudices in our society? For example, how much of the support (4%) and opposition (14%) to a Hispanic candidate represents racism versus, for example, the expectation of a correlation between being Hispanic and specific views on immigration? Or does the latter count as racism as well?

(hat tip to Andrew Jackson at RedBlueChristian)

God's Politics

Last month, Mark Daniels made a pledge at RedBlueChristian and at his own blog, "A Pledge I Wish Every Christian Leader Would Make":

I promise not to endorse any political candidate, platform, or party in the 2008 election cycle. I promise instead to use my influence and my recognized position of leader to pursue the mission of the Church, making disciples for Jesus Christ.
I left some questions at RedBlueChristian in the hope of gaining a better understanding of Daniels's position. Essentially, I can see why Christian leaders might not want to opine on various matters, particularly as it impacts their scope of appeal and their responsibility to faithfully represent God, but I disputed the idea that all Christian leaders should not publicly voice political opinions.

Daniels states that "When we hold Jesus captive to particular philosophies, parties, or candidates, we're really guilty of a kind of idolatry in which we make Jesus over into our image." But how should we separate this kind of "idolatry" from other divergent understandings of God's will, Biblical interpretations, and moral applications in general?

Daniels also advises that "By all means, Christians should be involved in the political process. We should also pray that God will show us how we should behave and believe politically." But Christians just shouldn't look to their pastors for moral guidance on this particular subject?

A blogger named Pastor_Jeff joins in the pledge, though I wonder by his later comments whether he isn't admiting a public political philosophy but falling short of endorsing a candidate or party.

David M. Smith, a Christian blogger I've enjoyed reading recently, questions the slogan employed by Daniels that "God is not a Democrat or a Republican". In "God is not...or is He?", David comments upon the central issue of morality in religion and politics.

Back in July 2006, MarkC also posted about "Obama on Religion in Politics", in which Obama eloquently addressed this issue concerning separating Church and State in light of their shared moral core.

What do you think? How should religious leaders treat the moral issues in politics, and why?

Monday, July 02, 2007

Racial Discrimination in Education

This past Thursday June 28, 2007, in "Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1," the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 (Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Alito) to 4 (Breyer, Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg) that public schools may not use race as the sole determining factor for assigning students to schools, but that race-conscious objectives to achieve a diverse school environment are acceptable.

I get the impression that Roberts is somewhat evasive, but that he ultimately leans away from any racial discrimination, stating, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."

Despite Kennedy's concurrence with most of Roberts' opinion, he rejects the idea that race should never be a factor:

"A compelling interest exists in avoiding racial isolation, an interest that a school district, in its discretion and expertise, may choose to pursue. Likewise, a district may consider it a compelling interest to achieve a diverse student population. Race may be one component of that diversity, but other demographic factors, plus special talents and needs, should also be considered."
Stevens and Breyer were greatly displeased with the majority. Stevens wrote,
"The Court has changed significantly since it decided School Comm. of Boston in 1968. It was then more faithful to Brown and more respectful of our precedent than it is today. It is my firm conviction that no Member of the Court that I joined in 1975 would have agreed with today’s decision."
And Breyer said, regarding the Court's decision: "It is not often in the law that so few have so quickly changed so much."

The NY Times looks at its effect on schools, and concludes:
"In light of the court ruling, school officials are already emphasizing newer efforts to promote diversity with the indirect emphasis on race they believe the court will tolerate. They include placing appealing academic programs in schools that have particularly heavy minority populations in an effort to attract more white students and possibly redrawing enrollment boundaries around economically diverse neighborhoods to bring a broader mix of students to certain schools."
What do you think? Was it a good decision? Or was it judicial activism?

Is there a compelling interest or moral imperative to maintain racial diversity? Does this extend to group diversity of other qualities by which we otherwise should not judge individuals? How should we determine the proper balance of such diversity?

Do you think this ruling is indicative of the Court's opinion on Affirmative Action? or on Racial Profiling?

More generally, what do you think about this Court? A lot is being made about this new "conservative" Court and how it is reshaping precedent. Is the new Court more influenced by an originalist view of the Constitution or simply their own conservative politics?


Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Wager

MissionTerritory as an interesting post on embryonic stem cell research. Unlike most people talking about the subject, he is a biochemist who actually understands many of the details from a technical point of view. Honestly, the most interesting part of his post to me was the reference to the violinist argument and the contrast of certain differences between abortion and stem cell research.


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Cosmological Why

A few months ago I wrote a post on The Limits of Science which spawned a lively and vibrant discussion. One of the main points I raised in that post was the "fine-tuning" observation about our universe... the fact that our universe (as we currently understand it) is governed by a number of apparently-arbitrary constants, and if any of them were significantly different than they are, life would not be able to exist. I argued, in my post, that Intelligent Design was at least as good an explanation for that observation as any naturalistic explanation that had been proposed.

Today, I came across an article which tackles this very question, written by Robert Kuhn in the Skeptic magazine (a publication of the Skeptics Society), titled Why This Universe? It lays out the scientific dilemma in more detail than I had previously encountered it, then presents a wide variety of possible explanations. Kuhn groups the explanations into four broad categories:

* One Universe Models
Basically, these fall into "it just is the way it is" or "we'll understand it later" groups.

* Multiple Universe Models
We observe a universe compatible with life, of course, because a universe compatible with life is the only one we could exist in! All the other universes have existed or will exist, but we'll never know about them, because they won't be conducive to our existence.

* Nonphysical Causes
Religious explanations, for the most part.

* Illusions
Maybe The Matrix was more right than we thought!

Kuhn doesn't pick any favorites in this contest for explanation. He seems to suggest that these categories are in pretty much a dead heat given our current understanding of the universe. But, he is optimistic that clarification may yet come in the future as we learn more.

It's a very thought-provoking article, and a short, easy read. I recommend it.


Saturday, June 23, 2007

Utilitarian vs. Principled Ethical Thinking

The RedBlueChristian blog recently had an interesting post about different ways of approaching ethical questions (specifically related to the upcoming Presidential election). The discussion centers around James Dobson, who has said that he could not in good conscience vote for a pro-abortion candidate such as Rudy Giuliani, but would simply choose not to vote if he had no other choice.

The blog (following the candidacies of those running for President in 2008) faced a similar issue when reporting that Sam Brownback, though adamantly opposed to abortion, said he would support Rudy Giuliani if he was the Republican candidate. The author of the blog criticized Brownback for his stance, but I commented that Brownback seemed correct (and at least morally consistent) to me.

Who do you think is right? The utilitarian ethicist, picking the best candidate under the circumstances, even if you strongly disagree with them? Or the principled ethicist, choosing to make a statement or to protect your conscience through withholding your vote? Is there any issue that would push you to be a principled voter (or non-voter) rather than a utilitarian, even if it's not an ethical issue per se?


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Protestantism and Contraception

Not too long ago Touchstone ran an interesting article on the history of Protestantism and contraception, tracing historical positions on contraception and relating them to the life of the Protestant pastor. It is an interesting article to me, not leastwise because growing up I had no idea that there had ever been Protestant opposition to contraception. It seemed that nearly everybody I knew did it, and even the "full quiver" types I knew who didn't appear to practice contraception didn't say contraception was itself immoral. It wasn't uncommon for folks I knew getting married to find condoms on the seat of their "getaway" vehicle. Since the vast majority of my family and friends were Protestant, it took the intervention of a friend who understood a wee bit about Catholicism for me to avoid finding rubbers in my own getaway car. Apparently, many Protestants don't even know that faithful Catholics oppose contraception.

Also of interest was information on Southern Baptists (including a convention statement) embracing abortion in certain circumstances back in the 1970's. Until recently, I didn't know that many Protestants (even of the evangelical stripe) had embraced Roe vs. Wade early on.


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Muslim/Christian Priest?

I came across an interesting story today in the Seattle Times. Apparently, a local Episcopal priest named Ann Holmes Redding has recently become a Muslim. However, she did not convert to Islam... she just added it to what I guess could only be called her repertoire of religious affiliations. I don't know how else to put it. The article is fascinating.

Redding does not have a problem being both Christian and Muslim. She worships and serves in her Episcopal church, and she prays five times a day to Allah, attending a local mosque on Fridays.

However, this does not come without difficulties for her (and I'm not speaking about interpersonal difficulties). Her appropriation was made easier by the fact that she has long rejected the deity of Jesus, the doctrine of original sin, and the redemptive nature of Jesus' death and resurrection... all central to any concept of historical Christianity. A conflict remains in that she does believe that Jesus died and was raised again, a fact that the Qur'an specifically denies... and according to Islam, one can't simply pick and choose what parts of the Qur'an to believe. As Redding says, "That's something I'll find a challenge the rest of my life."

No Muslim leader was quoted in the article saying that Redding's beliefs were acceptable. However, she is welcomed at the local mosque. Various Christian leaders were quoted in the article giving various perspectives, but the most interesting is the fact that her Episcopal bishop supports her multi-religiosity and considers her a "bridge" person, whatever that means.

I once knew some Christian missionaries living in a fiercely Muslim Middle Eastern country. Any activity designed to make Muslims leave Islam is strictly forbidden in those countries, so enterprising missionaries tend to get creative with their methods. These individuals decided that the word "Islam" literally means simply "Submitted to God", so they would call themselves Muslims. They prayed five times a day (nobody's against praying, right?); they gave the required tithes (giving money is a certainly a Christian thing to do); they wore the required garments (Christianity doesn't say what we should or shouldn't wear). And, as they mingled with their Muslim friends who considered them Muslim converts, they tried to convince them to become Jesus-following Muslims... of course, in the process, those true Muslims would have to turn against fundamental tenets of Islam. In the end, it seemed more than a little deceptive to me.

This all connects back to a point we discussed in our recent What Do You Believe? thread. How flexible can a word like "Christian" or "Muslim" be? "Christian" can be literally read as "Christ-follower", and can therefore be appropriated by anyone who follows a Christ. "Muslim" literally means "submitted to God", and can therefore be appropriated by anyone who submits to a God. But, if we interpret the words that broadly, they lose all meaning. To then begin to differentiate between various groups (which is, after all, the point of giving them labels in the first place), we need to come up with different words.

In Redding's case, she seems to interpret the words "Christian" and "Muslim" as words of affiliation and practice, not of belief. She is a Christian because she performs Christian practices and is affiliated with Christianity and feels like a Christian... not because of any particular beliefs that she holds. The same with Islam... she did not become a Muslim, nor does she consider herself now to be a Muslim, because of anything about Islam that she believes. No, she is a Muslim because she feels called to Islam, because she affiliates herself with Islam, and because she performs Muslim devotional practices.

So, is it possible to be a Christian and a Muslim at the same time? Nowadays, it seems that you need to define your terms more carefully before you can answer the question.

Is it possible to be a practicing Christian and a practicing Muslim at the same time? Is it possible to feel kinship with Christianity and Islam at the same time? Is it possible to be affiliated with Christianity and with Islam at the same time? Yes, Yes, and Yes.

Is it possible to believe core historical Christian doctrines and historically-defined Muslim doctrines at the same time? Emphatically, no.

There is a counter-argument that can be presented here. There are groups, both Christian groups and Muslim groups, that are generally allowed to use the term "Christian" and "Muslim" even though they hold certain doctrines that are historically at odds with the respective belief systems. Sufi Muslims, for instance, are considered heretics by more traditional Muslims... yet they still are able to call themselves Muslims. Lots of Christian teachers and fringe Christian groups exist that hold to doctrines that are not historically orthodox, but they are still allowed to appropriate the word Christian.

Given that, how can such words be used meaningfully?

And, if this isn't too personal a question... how would you answer if someone asked you: "What religion are you?" For me, it depends on the context. Sometimes I will simply answer "Christian", but most of the time I will add some sort of qualifier, something that I think will create the right mental impression in the listener. "Evangelical Christian" sometimes, or "Protestant" if speaking to a Catholic, or "non-denominational Christian", or one of my more recent favorites, "community-church Christian". But, it's a hard question for me, and each of those answers gives a distinctly different impression to different listeners. To a more theologically educated listener, I could give a three-sentence answer that would much more accurately describe what I believe and what I live... but I haven't been able to find a name that I'm comfortable with as a label for my beliefs.

Any thoughts?


Sunday, June 03, 2007

Immigration Reform Act of 2007

Since Mark's May 2006 post on the President's speech, the illegal immigration debate has been revived in the form of the "Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act of 2007".

Opinions range from it being an important first step, to it being a dangerous amnesty that could give Democrats a permanent majority (though some are already voting), to it being too much of a burden on both illegal immigrants and employers.

The bill itself is 300+ pages. The American Immigration Lawyers Association has a helpful section-by-section summary. Most of the analysis I've found has been from conservatives opposed to the bill, such as Hugh Hewitt's analysis (summary) and politics FAQ.

The White House's "Fact Sheet" presents a positive view of the bill, though it omits some of the details which provoke contention. It does, however, hint at some peculiar aspects, such as the requirement for would-be-citizens to "touchback" (i.e. return to their home country to file their green card application), and a merit system which prefers higher skills and education in spite of the ostensive need for unskilled workers.

Solid statistics on this issue would be helpful, but they are hard to come by, in part due to policies in "sanctuary cities" which prohibit asking for or reporting a person's immigration status (and, in some cases, even cooperating with federal immigration officials). Apparently, this includes criminals. Such willful ignorance of illegality encapsulates the limbo, contradiction, and inefficacy of present legislation and enforcement.

Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman offered an amendment to this bill which would give law enforcement officers the ability to make such inquiry and report, but it was defeated. And so, we are left with approximations for the foreseeable future.

One major question about the bill is whether it will be tantamount to amnesty. i.e. it might not technically be "amnesty", but the contention is that the effect will be similar. At issue is the renewable for-fee "Z visa" which is available only to illegal immigrant workers and has probationary benefits after 24 hours even before the applications are formally approved, as well as concerns over continuing the lack of enforcement, and the sense of how illegal immigrants would fair relative to legal immigrants (i.e. rewarding lawbreakers), etc.

Is this bill a step in the right direction? Which aspects of the bill do you agree or disagree with? Which aspects will be effective? Will the bill and related laws be enforced?


Update (June 7): Michelle Malkin has been liveblogging Senate debate today, including amendments and a few failed attempts at cloture, regarding: S.1348 - A bill to provide for comprehensive immigration reform and for other purposes.

The Washington Post has a nice table summarizing the amendment votes on this bill.

Also, Senator Sessions's List of 20 Loopholes in the Senate Immigration Bill.

Update (June 28): Another vote for cloture in the Senate failed. The clarion call of the bill's opposition is that a vote for cloture is a vote for the bill, since cloture requires 60 votes to proceed, while the final vote only requires a simple majority which already exists.

Thus, some crafty Senators could vote for cloture and against the bill, to the effect of voting for the bill while still being able to tell your constituents you voted against it. The wonders of politics.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Bush, This is Beneath You

At the end of a speech recently supporting his immigration compromise, President Bush said this:

Those determined to find fault with this [immigration] bill will always be able to look at a narrow slice of it and find something they don't like. If you want to kill the bill, if you don't want to do what's right for America, you can pick one little aspect out of it, you can use it to frighten people.
One phrase there strikes me: "if you don't want to do what's right for America". It sounds to me like Bush is saying, "people who disagree with me on this have some other priority than the good of America". And that really bothers me.

We need to be able to disagree with people without attacking their motives. A President, of all people, should be able to do this well.

From Bush in particular this bothers me because, especially back in 2000, I was struck by his respectfulness toward his political opponents. That was one of the strongest factors influencing my desire to support his candidacy. He had a track record of working with political opponents, and he refused to attack the motives of his opponents. I can't find the quote online, but I remember him saying that Democrats and Republicans both had the same goals and desires for our country, but just disagreed about the methods of getting there.

Now, to his credit, this is a compromise bill that he has helped put together with both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. So, from that perspective, he is continuing to fulfill that impression that I had of him in the beginning.

But, his language toward opponents is getting more and more strident, it seems, and I find it highly disappointing.


(Thanks to Volokh Conspiracy for directing me to this information)

The Rise of the Bottom Fifth

The WA Post had another good article. This time about the success fo welfare reform enacted under the GOP congress when Clinton was in office.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Selective Reduction

Liz Mundy of the Washington Post recently wrote one of the most honest and unbiased portrayals of abortion I've ever read. She writes about abortion in the context of assistive reproductive technologies like IVF and makes it no secret that she is in favor of such technologies. Her views on abortion in this context are complex. She makes it no secret that she is uncomfortable with some aspects of selective reduction (e.g., gender selection), but at the same time she says to another couple experiencing doubt about their past decision, "clearly, you made the best, most responsible choice that you could."

I would highly recommend reading the entire article and follow-on Q&A forum.
If these don't work try searching for "selective reduction" on the washington post website and don't forget if you're in a rush and they ask for a username/password.

Most interesting aspects of the article for me.
1) The role of gender selection in many of the abortions
2) The role of apparent coercion in one of the stories. This was especially poignant to me given the role of parental coercion in the abortion of someone I know.
3) The discomfort of many radically pro-abortion people when faced with this procedure in their own lives vs. abortion in the case of unwanted pregancies.
4) The potential psychological side effects when it comes to bonding with the remaining 'chosen' children
5) The denial by the nurse assisting the doctor that what they were doing was really an abortion and her insistence that she could never assist at real abortions.
6) The reactions of one lady in particular when she realized the reality of fetal development. I'll post a bit of it here as a teaser.

"Oh, my God, I can really see it!" the patient cried. "Oh, my God! I can see the fingers!"

"Okay!" she said, abruptly, gesturing for the screen to be turned away. She began sobbing. There were no tissues in the room, so her husband gave her a paper towel, which she crumpled to her face. The patient spent the rest of the procedure with her hospital gown over her face, so she would not see any more of what was happening.

Even though she had this reaction, she went through with the real procedure the next day.

Like I said earlier, it is a fascinating and amazingly honest look at selective reduction from a big IVF proponent.


Monday, May 14, 2007

Pathology and Eugenics

In following tangents related to purple_kangaroo's Defining Marriage thread, I came across the article: "Creationism and the problem of homosexual behaviour by Dr Jerry Bergman", wherein "The evolutionist view of the origin of homosexuality in contrast to the creationist explanation is reviewed." It provides a scientific argument for a pathological view of homosexuality.

Of course, "pathology" indicates a disease to be remedied and implicitly makes a moral judgement about the condition, which others may contest. For example, since 1973, the American Psychiatric Association no longer classifies homosexuality as a psychopathology ("Facts About Homosexuality and Mental Health"), though apparently, there is still a defiant minority.

But more generally, is the moral judgement of any pathology or disease warranted? Or is it merely relative to a person's subjective response to a condition?

For example, in 2002, one deaf couple intentionally 'chose' to have a deaf baby. The lesbian couple, "both in their 30s, are part of a growing movement in the US which sees deafness as a cultural identity, not as a disability. Many oppose surgery to correct deafness."

In "Deaf lesbians, 'designer disability,' and the future of medicine", Julian Savulescu discusses some pertinent arguments and concludes that preventing such reproductive choices is tantamount to the Nazi eugenic program and that a "child is harmed by being selected to exist only if his or her life is so bad it is not worth living".

But how do we determine whether a life is "worth living"? Treatment of a "disease" seems rightfully ground in our individual freedoms, but making this decision for a baby disturbs me. Yet it does seem right to me that parents should be the ultimate caretakers of their child, and not doctors or society.

On the other hand, we clearly would not permit a more developed baby (or fetus?) to be intentionally disabled in order for its parents to form the child they desire. Incest has likewise been forbidden out of concern for creating disabled children.

Do such parental decisions sufficiently impact society for the government to intervene? Can this be compared to, for example, a parent's decision not to have their child vaccinated?


Friday, May 04, 2007

Vocabulary Impacts Perception

I've long been intrigued by the power that words have over thoughts. The more words we know (and know well), the better we are able to think. Without words, I am convinced, we are not able to think coherently. That's the way our brains seem to be wired.

Today I saw an interesting study (referenced on the Volokh Conspiracy blog). It seems that in Russian, they have one extra primary color. Just as English has "red" and "pink", Russian has "blue" and "light-blue" as distinct and separate colors. Both colors are lumped under the same word category in English... both are considered "blue", even if the particular shades have different names.

In the study, English speakers and Russian speakers were shown three colored squares. Two squares had the same shade of blue, one had a different shade. Russian speakers were consistently better able to determine which square was different when the shades were in the separate vocabulary categories of "blue" and "light-blue". English speakers had consistent perceptions.

In other words... the way simple objects are attached to words (especially in our childhood, I'd imagine) strongly affects our ability to perceive and discriminate those objects throughout life.

I find that fascinating.


Thursday, May 03, 2007

Hate Crimes Legislation

The House of Representatives voted today to pass the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007. The Senate is soon likely to pass the bill as well. The president, on the other hand, is suggesting a possible veto.

Conservative organizations such as Focus on the Family Action are up in arms about the bill. Here's a quote from their call to petition Congress to reject the bill:

Gary Schneeberger, senior media director of government and public policy at Focus on the Family Action, said such “a two-tiered justice system” could erode freedom of speech – and ultimately lead to pastors being arrested “for 'inciting violence' simply for saying what the Bible says about homosexuality."
Liberal organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign are thrilled about the bill. Here's a quote from their article lauding the bill's passage:

"This is a historic day that moves all Americans closer to safety from the scourge of hate violence," said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese. “Today, legislators sided with the 73 percent of the American people who support the expansion of hate crimes laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Basically, the bill accomplishes three things:
  • It empowers the federal government to provide special financial assistance to local law enforcement to prosecute "hate crimes".
  • It empowers the federal government to directly prosecute hate crimes, regardless of when or where or how they were carried out (previous laws restricted jurisdiction to areas where the federal government would have criminal jurisidiction anyway; this law makes a special exception for any "hate crime", allowing the federal government to prosecute regardless.)
  • It expands the definition of "hate crime" to include sexual orientation and "disability" (whatever that means specifically... it isn't defined).

The Focus on the Family Action statement seems ridiculous to me. We've had federal and state "hate crimes" legislation on the books for years, and they haven't proven to be any threat to free speech. Various white supremacist groups are still allowed to exist, and to put out their racist literature, without being arrested for "thought crimes". I see no reason why this should start anything different.

This bill, in itself, clearly retains free speech protections. The bill only comes into play when there is a violent crime. At that point, the federal justice department can determine (in connection with local law enforcement, generally) whether it can reasonably be surmised that the motive for the crime was "hate" against a protected group of people. If so, then the extra protections in this bill come into effect.

There is not, for example, a provision in the bill to punish the speech of someone who is claimed to have motivated a hate crime from somebody else. There's no indirection prosecution of speech, and no sign that it is forthcoming.

Just to be extra clear on this point, the bill has a provision that reads:

Nothing in this Act, or the amendments made by this Act, shall be construed to prohibit any expressive conduct protected from legal prohibition by, or any activities protected by the free speech or free exercise clauses of, the First Amendment to the Constitution.

For all those reasons, I consider that objection raised by various conservative groups to be specious. The more often they raise baseless fear-mongering objections to bills like this, the less I trust their opinions on other matters.

On the other hand, I don't think this bill does much to "move all Americans closer to safety from the scourge of hate violence", either. Hate-motivated violence is, in the end, still violence. The majority of hate-motivated violence can be prosecuted equally well as simply violence. This bill does not make any activity criminal that was not previously criminal. It does not apply significant penalties to any activity that was not already subject to significant penalties. So, in that way, it does not provide any additional deterrent to someone who might carry out a hate-motivated violent crime. It provides some assistance for local law enforcement in prosecuting these crimes; and it lets the federal government step in if local law enforcement is (in the federal government's view) corruptly refusing to prosecute. I don't see how any of that brings anybody "closer to safety".

There are some significant concerns about the bill which have nothing to do with the "thought crimes" fear-mongering of certain conservative groups. Those concerns are best laid out in this post on the Volokh Conspiracy blog, and an earlier post that goes into more detail.

Many of the objections can be summed up by saying that there is no evidence that the law is necessary, or that it will be effective. If the law isn't necessary or effective, then it is at best a symbolic gesture, and at worst may have unintended consequences.

The objection that makes the most sense to me is given by the author of the earlier post:

The column argues that in some cases local jurisdictions lack the resources to prosecute hate crimes, citing the Matthew Shepard case as an example of the high expense involved. Lack of resources is a common complaint of law enforcement authorities at every level — from prevention to investigation to prosecution. But there is no evidence that this claimed lack of resources is a problem unique to hate crimes, or to crimes against gays. Perhaps there should be a general federal local law enforcement assistance act, but why give special assistance to one class of crimes that seem no more costly to law enforcement than another?

A general law enabling the federal government to assist local law enforcement (upon request, and upon approval) with resources and/or finances would make some sense to me. A specific law allowing this only for "hate crimes" seems peculiar. The HRC article refers to the "extraordinary expenses involved in hate crime cases", but it's not clear to me that hate crime cases as a rule have extraordinary expenses. The HRC article gives one example of an expensive case, expensive largely because it was high-profile... but there are plenty of other expensive high-profile cases that have nothing to do with hate against a group of people. Why shouldn't the federal government be allowed to help out with those cases as well, if necessary?

It seems that the sense of necessity of the law is largely built on anecdotal evidence, and that it's purpose is more symbolic than efficacious.

And, there's a larger concern, from a legal Constitutional standpoint. For more details than I can give here, see points (4) and (7) in the earlier Volokh Conspiracy post. But, it seems likely that this law is an unconstitutional intrusion of the federal government on areas where states have sole authority. The text of the bill itself goes to great lengths to try to alleviate this restriction by pointing out how it is related to "interstate commerce" which the federal government can constitutionally regulate. But, you can tell it is stretching when one of the hooks in the bill connecting it to "interstate commerce" reads that a crime can be federally prosecuted if:
the defendant employs a firearm, explosive or incendiary device, or other weapon that has traveled in interstate or foreign commerce
Yeah, you read that right. If the gun or knife or whatever was bought 10 years ago in Texas, but the crime was committed in Oklahoma, then AHA!... this crime affects "interstate commerce" and therefore has federal jurisdiction. I think (and the much more erudite legal minds at Volokh Conspiracy seem to think) that that level of justification goes beyond even the broadest interpretations of the Commerce Clause that our courts have adopted in recent decades.

To its credit, the statement from the White House announcing the possibility of a veto lists these legal and evidentiary concerns, and ignores the "thought crime" concerns that seem to have no basis in reality. But it seems odd to me that the concerns listed in that document (and that I have listed here) are sufficiently grave to warrant a veto, or even the threat of one. If the bill is largely symbolic, and will probably be rejected as unconstitutional anyway, why veto it?

The only reason I can think of is a political one, shoring up support among core constituencies. Unfortunately, there are a great many conservatives, mostly religious, who do not understand the legal ramifications of the Commerce Clause; who are easily persuaded by a news release from an organization such as Focus on the Family Action; and who have no exposure to information from sources that contradict their accepted views. If Bush doesn't veto this bill, they will be convinced that he has willingly opened the doors to prosecution of Christians for "thought crimes" and the end of religious freedom for Christians in America.

Avoiding that ire among a core constituency is the only sensible reason I can think of to veto the bill. It seems to me it would be better to let the bill pass, serve its symbolic purpose, and be invalidated by the courts the first time it is actually put into use. In the end, maybe that's what Bush will decide to do.