President Obama’s Climate Change Speech

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Amazingly, at least in my neck of the woods, only one cable news network covered President Obama’s full speech on climate change policy today: Fox Business, which immediately followed it with an interview of an electric company executive who is investing heavily in coal. Interestingly, even he had to be goaded by the hosts into criticizing the policies outlined in the speech. The other cable news providers, even MSNBC, had other stories that they deemed more important. So I’m linking to a video of the speech here, and I would urge everyone who has heard about it only second-hand to watch it. Although it’s not one of Obama’s best-delivered speeches, what with the heat in D.C. today (not a bad way of setting the scene, given the speech’s topic), the policies outlined in it are significant.

The President’s failure in the past to act more decisively and to speak more explicitly on the climate problem has disappointed me. I’m no longer disappointed.

A Tale Of Two Statistics

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These two figures nicely express the growing economic inequality in our society:

Average U.S. household’s net worth = $522,000
Median U.S. household’s net worth = $61,000

Averages are calculated by adding up a list of numbers and then dividing the sum by the number of numbers in the list. For instance, the average of this list of five numbers is 20: {1, 2, 3, 4, 90}, because their sum is 100, and 100/5=20. Medians, on the other hand, are by definition the middle numbers of such ordered lists; the median of our list is 3.

Now, if the list is linear and symmetrical, the average and the median will be the same, as it is in this list: {1, 2, 3, 4, 5}. Notice that the difference between the average here (3 – the same as the median) and the average in the previous list (20 – much higher than the median of 3) is due entirely to the highly irregular value of 90 at the end of the first list, versus the 5 at the end of second list.

An analogous explanation is available for the difference between Average and Median U.S. household’s net worth. The extreme, sharp increase of wealth near the top of the ordered list skews the average of the list much higher than its median.

These figures are given some interesting context in an AP story by Paul Wiseman, entitled “Rising wealth doesn’t generate spending“, which tries to explain why rising wealth of the U.S. as a whole (e.g., the rising average wealth) doesn’t result in more consumer spending-

The biggest gains in wealth are going to wealthy households that tend to save a big chunk of their incomes and spend a smaller proportion on basics such as food and clothing. “Those guys don’t spend much,” says economist Edward Wolff of New York University. The disparity shows up in numbers Wolff calculated. He found that the average U.S. household’s net worth rose this year to $522,000. But the average is skewed higher by the vast net worth of America’s wealthiest — Bill Gates’ $67 billion, for instance, according to Forbes magazine.

So Wolff looked at the net worth of the median U.S. household — those smack in the middle, where half of households earn more and half less. The median family’s net worth is far more modest than the average: $61,000, Wolff estimates. That is $50,800, or 47 percent, short of where it was in 2007.

One reason: The biggest gains have come from the rise in financial markets. And the benefits of the stock market’s surge have gone disproportionately to America’s wealthiest households. Wolff calculates that the wealthiest 10 percent of U.S. households own more than 80 percent of stocks, even including retirement accounts such as 401 (k) plans. “The recent stock market boom has really benefited just the top,” Wolff says.

Moral of the story: always discount reports of averages, or even reports of totals (e.g., GDP), when estimating how informative the given datum is. From such figures, very little can be inferred about how the economy is actually doing for most people. Reports of medians can also be misleading, of course, but they are generally more informative.

An Atheistic Conscientious Objector Wins Citizenship

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Finally, a win for reason against the age-old prejudice that moral conviction can only be justified by religious affiliation. As the Huffington Post reported:

Margaret Doughty, an atheist and legal resident whose application for U.S. citizenship was nearly rejected this month over her non-religious opposition to war, will become a naturalized citizen next week, the blog Divided Under God first reported on Thursday.

According to Divided Under God, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services decided to retract a demand that Doughty show proof “on official church stationery” that her stated conscientious objector status was a function of her being a “member in good standing” of a pacifist religious group. Here’s the text of a letter she received from her congressional Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), who intervened in the matter:

“This Service hereby withdraws the request for evidence (RFE) issued on June 7, 2013. This Service accepts your detailed statement in satisfaction of the information requested by the RFE. Your application for naturalization has been approved.”

Doughty, who has lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years, is set to be officially naturalized on June 26.

If Congressperson Blake Farenthold really was instrumental in convincing the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to reconsider its initial demand that Doughty join a church, he’s to be commended – particularly since he is otherwise quite clearly a very conservative Republican. Perhaps it was just his dislike of the federal bureaucracy that trumped his party’s extreme distaste for atheists, but at least the consequences were good in this case.

Free Pussy Riot!

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I’ve never much liked the punk-anarchistic aesthetic-ideology, mostly because it defines itself almost entirely negatively, in opposition to traditional norms of art and society, and so inadvertently comes to mirror the rigidity of the most overbearing applications of those norms. Punk music, for instance, is most easily identified by its adamant rejection – in contrast to mere ignorance – of traditional musical norms (related to melody, harmony, virtuosity, etc.), while its positive political agenda – when it has one – is, at best, vague, utopian, and intentionally unorganized. All of these weaknesses are clearly on display in the HBO documentary, airing this month, on the Russian feminist performance-art “collective” known as Pussy Riot. But watching “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” managed to convince me that, at least in some situations (such as Putin’s Russia), the punk aesthetic can be put to very good use. For, using a minimalist style almost devoid of commentary, the documentary effectively shows how Pussy Riot’s quickly aborted performance in a Russian Orthodox cathedral precipitated an incredible over-reaction, throwing into stark relief the repressive, authoritarian tendencies of the Putin administration – tendencies that unfortunately seem to be reflected in the post-Soviet society at large.

Two of Pussy Riot’s members – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina – are still serving 2-year sentences in penal colonies. No one, and no thing, was physically harmed by their performance; at worst, as their defense attorney suggests, they should have been charged with misdemeanors. Unfortunately, their chosen setting allowed them to be charged with a hate crime – even though they explicitly denied being motivated by hatred, apologized for offending anyone, and insisted that they are not even anti-religious, but were rather protesting the political connections between the Church and the Putin administration. Here’s the (very brief) trailer-

The repressive over-reaction continues. The BBC reported yesterday that the Russian Duma voted unanimously to criminalize providing information about “non-traditional sexual relations” to persons under 18, and the lower house also passed a bill criminalizing those who “offend religious believers”-

Russia’s lower house of parliament, the Duma, has passed a law imposing heavy fines for providing information about homosexuality to people under 18. The measure was passed unanimously and will become law when approved by the upper house and President Vladimir Putin, a virtual formality. … The lower house also passed a bill imposing up to three years in jail on those who offend religious believers. The law comes in the wake of the imprisoning of members of the punk band Pussy Riot for performing an anti-Putin protest in an Orthodox cathedral in February 2012. … The new law on “offending religious feelings of the faithful” will also take effect after approval by the upper house and the president.

Thank God – or at least The Founders – that we have free speech in this country. But Americans should bear in mind that the sorts of tendencies on display in Russia today are not that far removed from those displayed by some members of the religious right wing of the “Tea Party” movement right here at home.

Who Vouches For The Vouchers?

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As the Republicans put their finishing touches on Wisconsin’s next budget, including a modest but still significant expansion of the state’s school voucher program, The Oshkosh Northwestern today offers an article in which questions are raised about the credibility of a study purporting to show that schools financed by vouchers feature a higher graduation rate than public schools-

Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators are using research paid for by the same special interest groups that support many GOP candidates to push for a statewide expansion of the school voucher program, campaign finance reports show. The study cited by Republicans has come under fire by researchers who say it doesn’t meet academic standards or provide proof that the school voucher program provides a better learning experience for students. Republican lawmakers pushing the expansion have been citing research that claims students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program graduate and attend college at higher rates than their public school counterparts. The research conducted by the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas is paid for primarily by special interest groups that also donate to politicians pushing for the voucher expansion.

Now, if the article had only pointed out the funding connection, it would be committing an ad hominem fallacy, since pointing out that the researchers have a partisan funding source does not in itself constitute an objection to the study. But the article goes further, pointing out some of the study’s apparent flaws-

Critics say the study showing voucher students are 4 percent to 7 percent more likely to graduate is essentially useless because:

• More than 56 percent of students it tracked didn’t stay in the voucher program for the length of the four-year study;

• Wolf, the lead researcher for the school choice project, used looser statistical standards in some cases than commonly accepted for academic studies of this type;

• Students were matched on certain demographic data rather than randomly assigned, meaning researchers could have missed a key factor that could have significantly altered the study’s results.

For more details, read the whole article.

Even if the study’s conclusion turns out to be true, questions would remain about what such a fact might prove. For instance, suppose that children who spend several years in voucher schools do in fact graduate at higher rates. Would this show that the schools themselves are responsible for that fact? Not really. After all, parents who go to the trouble of enrolling their children in voucher schools might generally provide more educational support for their children. In other words, merely establishing that there is a difference in graduation rates does not explain the difference.

There are, of course, other, more ideological concerns with voucher programs. One is that public funding of private schools siphons money away from the public schools, resulting in their further deterioration. Of course, conservatives often push for voucher programs precisely because they want to diminish the public domain more generally; smaller public school systems result in less significant state and local governments. But the other conservative motivation for voucher schools is the fact that they can be directly affiliated with religions in a way that public schools constitutionally cannot be. This raises an important – and surprisingly unsettled – constitutionality question, as this article at the ADL site suggests-

Proponents of vouchers are asking Americans to do something contrary to the very ideals upon which this country was founded. Thomas Jefferson, one of the architects of religious freedom in America, said, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves… is sinful and tyrannical.” Yet voucher programs would do just that; they would force citizens — Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists — to pay for the religious indoctrination of school children at schools with narrow parochial agendas.

Of course, Wisconsin’s supreme court ruled in 1999 that vouchers are constitutional: “We conclude that the [voucher program] does not violate the Establishment Clause because it has a secular purpose, it will not have the primary effect of advancing religion, and it will not lead to excessive entanglement between the state and participating sectarian private schools,” Judge Donald Steinmetz wrote for the majority. The SCOTUS subsequently refused to review the case, allowing the Wisconsin ruling to stand (without explicitly endorsing it). But, as this helpful article at the Freedom Forum mentions, it’s far from obvious whether present and future voucher expansions in various states will, in the end, hold up to constitutionality challenges-

In 1992, Mary Ann Glendon, a constitutional scholar and professor at Harvard University, wrote that “the Supreme Court’s religion-clause case law has now reached the state where it is described on all sides, and even by the justices themselves, as hopelessly confused, inconsistent, and incoherent.”

Have such matters changed much at the highest levels of jurisprudence in the last 20 years? Given the ambivalence towards religion that founders like Thomas Jefferson quite clearly had, it would be surprising if they had.