Stifling Dissent?

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USA Today caught my eye this afternoon with a sub-headline that reads: “Leaving GOP, Specter gives Dems a boost in stifling dissent”-

From USA Today, 4/29/09

From USA Today, 4/29/09

Excuse me, but since when did having a filibuster proof, duly elected majority imply the “stifling” of “dissent”? Since when was parliamentary obstruction of the democratically elected majority’s will a matter of “dissent” at all? Dissent is something every American has a right to do, and should continue as long as there is disagreement over policy (that is: forever). But the majority must rule in a democracy, as long as it rules constitutionally. Want checks and balances when a single party rules both Congress and the Presidency? I’ve got three words for you: the Supreme Court. Don’t trust the court? I’ve got three more words for you: the next election.

An interesting question here is: why on earth would an editor at USA Today want to add that sub-headline? Perhaps out of some misbegotten impulse for “fairness”? There is no further mention of dissent in the story, which you can read here.

Punahou, Barack, and I

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With the “100-day” evaluations of President Obama starting to percolate through the mass media, I continue to hear remarks about how preternaturally calm and self-confident Barack seems to be. But very few commentators state the obvious explanation: growing up in Hawai’i, and getting a very special sort of education.

Barack and I were lucky enough to attend the same Honolulu school: Punahou. He was a fifth-grader when I was a senior, so we certainly never met. But I’m sure that his relaxed persona can be attributed in part to his having attended a school surrounded by an exquisite natural environment and replete with teachers and administrators with the motivation to give each student individual attention. And while Barack makes it clear in his book “Dreams From My Father” that he felt alienated from many of his more privileged classmates, in a recent speech on the Punahou campus he recognized the school’s positive influence on his life.

In my own case, Punahou had been a life-saver. Before entering the school in 1969, I’d spent two years at Kaimuki Intermediate School, a public school where the local culture was, well… different. It was certainly different than the small, racially segregated university town in north-central Florida (Gainesville – home of The Gators) where I’d spent my first 12 years. The students at Kaimuki were steeped in a long tradition of labyrinthine ethnic hostilities – Japanese against Chinese against Korean against Filipino against Hawaiian against Samoan, and all against Haole (white transplants from the mainland). “Kill Haole Day” was a much anticipated annual event, for it united all of the more local cultures against the easily recognizable pale-skins. That I managed to avoid being targeted on this hallowed day was due only to the tenuous ethnic camouflage my Semitic heritage afforded me. However, whenever I ventured down Waialae Avenue through the heart of Kaimuki as a scrawny 13-year-old, I would inevitably be “hijacked” for spare change by some equally scrawny local kid who convinced me that his big brother was right around the corner. That first year at Kaimuki Intermediate School I lived in a constant state of anxiety, punctuated only by a host of other negative emotions. Like Barack, I understood all too well the feeling of being socially isolated.

Kids, however, are notoriously adaptable. By the beginning of my second year at Kaimuki Intermediate, I’d figured out how to tell the wannabe bullies from the (few) really violent guys, and by standing up to them I started to recover some of my previous self-esteem. More importantly, my musical interests had allowed me to make friends with some of the more popular students there, and after performing with them at a 9th grade social, I was largely accepted. However, I was hardly flourishing, especially academically. My 9th grade history teacher suggested that I apply to Punahou for high school, and although I was somewhat reluctant to consider attending a “snob school” (as my local friends called it), I figured that, socially speaking, it couldn’t be much worse than what I had already encountered – and survived – at Kaimuki.

Well, it turned out to be a good move. Although ethnically it was not quite as diverse as the public schools, the student body still reflected all of the demographic variety of Hawai’i. The school’s micro-culture was a unique blend of respect for local tradition and a championing of every type of achievement: academic, athletic, and artistic. Whereas the students at Kaimuki were burdened by the low expectations of their teachers (many of whom were clearly burned out), students at Punahou were encouraged by enthusiastic teachers to dream big and develop all of their talents. Now, looking back at the stark contrast, I’m struck by how huge the inequities were. But I’ll rant about the public school system some other time.

My main point, to bring this little memoir back to our recently elected President, is that Barack’s laid-back demeanor is hardly preternatural to those who have grown up in the Islands. It’s just normal. But that other personality trait so many have commented on – his unabashed self-confidence… Well, although it might not have manifested itself until he was well out of high school, a large amount of credit for that must, I believe, go to Punahou.

Should Blackmail Be Decriminalized?

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In his thought-provoking paper “In Defense of Legalizing Blackmail”, presented yesterday at the Wisconsin Philosophical Association’s annual meeting, Tait Szabo of the University of Wisconsin-Washington County writes:

Generally, we ought to be legally permitted to keep secrets. Generally, we ought to be legally permitted to give our money to whomever we please. Generally we ought to be legally permitted to do both of these things at our own discretion. We are not, however, legally permitted to keep secrets on the condition of receiving money. On the face of it, this seems to require justification.

Szabo argues that there is no good justification for the illegality of at least certain cases of blackmail. The sort of case he has in mind is as follows. Suppose that I take a scenic photo in the park and then later notice that it included an image of someone I know kissing someone other than his wife. I am legally allowed to give the photo to his wife, and he is legally allowed to offer me money not to do so. But blackmail laws make it illegal for me initiate such a deal. This seems odd, Szabo thinks, particularly since there are many other cases in which it is not illegal to demand something in return for not doing something legal. For instance, in labor disputes workers can demand more pay in return for their not striking; consumers can demand that a corporation change some policy in return for their not boycotting it, and so on. Furthermore, there might be good social consequences for legally allowing (at least non-repeatable) blackmail: perhaps it would result in better behavior.

I’m not convinced, but it’s surprisingly hard to say just what is wrong with Szabo’s argument. Certainly his consequentialist assumption that legalizing blackmail might well result in better behavior seems doubtful to me, but that doesn’t get to the heart of my reservation. Rather, what seems morally objectionable about blackmail is the blackmailer’s exploitation of the “blackmailee’s” vulnerability – the opportunistic exploitation of a power asymmetry. In the case of labor negotiations, this seems less of an issue because the rationale for collective bargaining is that in most respects it is the employer that has the power advantage over the employees; labor unions use the threat of a strike to help balance their normal relative weakness. Similarly, boycott threats seem to only balance the normal power advantage that large corporations have over isolated consumers.

So Szabo’s argument may make sense only against the background of a social and economic system in which exploitation of power asymmetries is normal. Perhaps rather than causing us to question the illegality of blackmail, his argument should cause us to question the normality of such exploitation, and perhaps of the power asymmetries themselves.

Tom Waits: God’s Away On Business

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Here’s a demented video of a demented performance of an inspired song: Tom Waits’ “God’s Away On Business“.

Another inspired move was to place this song beneath the credits of “Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room” – a documentary of corporate greed and corruption whose effects pale in comparison to the current economic crisis. Is there a song – or any work of art – that could capture the mindset that led to our current situation?

I’d sell your heart to the junkman baby
For a buck, for a buck
If you’re looking for someone
To pull you out of that ditch
You’re out of luck, you’re out of luck

The ship is sinking
The ship is sinking
The ship is sinking
There’s leak, there’s leak,
In the boiler room
The poor, the lame, the blind
Who are the ones that we kept in charge?
Killers, thieves, and lawyers

God’s away, God’s away,
God’s away on Business. Business.
God’s away, God’s away,
God’s away on Business. Business.

Digging up the dead with
A shovel and a pick
It’s a job, it’s a job
Bloody moon rising with
A plague and a flood
Jain the mob, jain the mob
It’s all over, it’s all over, it’s all over
There’s a lick, there’s a lick,
In the boiler room
The poor, the lame, the blind
Who are the ones that we kept in charge?
Killers, thieves, and lawyers
God’s away, God’s away, God’s away
On Business. Business.
God’s away, God’s away,
On Business. Business.

Tax Day, Tea Parties, and How To End Poverty

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Today was the dreaded deadline to submit your tax forms or an extension form to the dearly beloved IRS, in case you somehow managed to forget about it. Cheryl and I have managed to ease the pain by intentionally overpaying a bit during the year, so that we can actually look forward to filing our tax returns… because we actually get returns.

Meanwhile Ron Paulians and other disgruntled citizens have been organizing “tea parties” all around the country to protest… I’m not quite sure what. It can’t be about their taxes, since most people in this country will be paying less in taxes this coming year than they did last year. The signs being held at these social events include phrases covering most right-wing complaints, from over-spending to illegal immigration. Some are quite general, including one that seems to be against tax collection per se: “You Are Not Entitled To What I Have Earned”. I imagine a counter-demonstrator holding a sign that says: “Unless You Pay Taxes, You Are Not Entitled To Drive On Our Interstate Freeways, To Visit Our National Parks, To Be Protected From Pirates On The High Seas, To Benefit From FDA Regulation Of Contaminated Food, To Have Your Individual Right To Protest Protected By Our Supreme Court…” and so on.

The over-spending issue is certainly one over which reasonable folks can disagree. Although I thought Ross Perot was a bit of a nut, I appreciated his concern about massive deficits, and as it turned out, he probably deserves credit for having split the opposition in 1992 and electing Clinton, who actually did balance the budget and accumulate a surplus. But while I don’t hold much stock in economists’ opinions these days (pun intended), there seems to be a widespread consensus that some over-spending at present is necessary to keep unemployment at bay. So I’m hoping that Obama and the Dems in Congress can ease the future deficits by dealing with future entitlement costs, particularly those associated with medicare and social security. Yawn.

On a more whimsical note (and more whimsical notes are needed more than ever these days), I think I’ve stumbled upon a cure for world poverty. The idea is very simple… far too simple to be accepted, of course. But it goes like this…

Since governments can obviously create money out of thin air, let’s just forgo the illusion that money represents anything real (including hard work, since those with the most money clearly work less hard than nearly everyone else). Let’s just create several trillion dollars (we can do this and still save the trees, since we can deposit all that money into banks simply by entering a few zeroes into the right databases), and require all of the banks to fairly distribute that money to those with the lowest balances – especially to those with no accounts at all. The idea is to make everyone presently living in poverty millionaires. Sorry, those of you who don’t quite qualify as impoverished: we can’t afford to undermine your motivation to work by sharing the wealth directly with you, because we need you to fulfill the pent up demand of the impoverished. We need you to make millions of (green) cars, build renewable energy plants, pave roads, and then produce the zillions of goods and services the nouveaux riches will be buying with their sudden good fortune. With the tax collections (sorry Ron Paulians), all governments with impoverished populations – including our own – will be able to build schools and hospitals, distribute effective birth control, and create new, self-sustaining industries. I guess we’d better make this a requirement of receiving the money in the first place. Then the next generation, raised in material comfort and with ample opportunities, can begin working productively, without a handout. (Oh, I almost forgot: there has to be a global freeze on prices so inflation is held in check… That should be easy enough to accomplish by printing up an extra billion or two to bribe the lawmakers). By then the multi-trillion dollar infusion will have been distributed throughout the world economy, and everyone will be much, much happier.

Pirates!

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Well, I’ve neglected posting for the last week or so, because what’s the point when the whole country is fixated on four pirates holding a brave American captive in a covered lifeboat off the coast of Somalia? Moreover, one that ends happily (unless you’re a family member of the pirates)? I’d say that, compared to the last few months, this has been a damn good week not to blog.

How To Get The Media’s Attention

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What’s wrong with this picture (from AP), taken during a protest of the G-20 meeting in London today?

Media Madness

Answer: if you focus on the background, you can make out what video of this event (which I saw on CNN) clearly reveals. This apparently spontaneous outburst of political anger is actually being carefully staged for the benefit of dozens of photographers who surround the protester in a complete semi-circle. Almost makes you nostalgic for the relative authenticity of the 1968 Chicago police riot at the Democratic National Convention (for those of you old enough to remember).

But, hey, what would a G-20 (or any other high-level multi-national economic) meeting be without a broken window or two? The media would be crestfallen…