Jul 31, 2008

Obviously, I need to start posting boobs here

Life's a bitch. Google Analytics tells me that the most common Google search keywords by which people find this blog are "economic trivia". OK, I like economics, and I like trivia. And I write a little bit about both. But I hardly ever mix them, or at least I don't think I do. When I write about economics, I like to think what I write isn't trivial. And when I write about random facts, I believe my horizons extend beyond economics.

The next most helpful keywords are "Buck Ofama". I don't quite know what to think of that one. On one hand, I am glad that I am not pigeonholed in the Google universe as an Obama worshiper; OTOH, I can't help but think "WTF! With all the stuff I write, this is the second most common keyword by which people find me!?" And the most common specific one...

The only other keyword search that stands out is "wafers of mass destruction". OK, I'm kind of proud of that one. But third place? Sigh...

Jul 29, 2008

Facts should be reeducated

The most pernicious mass delusion in America is the delusion that the mainstream media have a liberal bias. The most recent instance is documented in a Gallup poll:
Americans are more than twice as likely to say media coverage of Obama is unfairly positive as to say it is unfairly negative. For McCain, the opposite is true, with many more seeing coverage of him as unfairly negative than as unfairly positive.

This is as absurd as believing that grizzly bears are harmless fuzzy friends who like to be petted, or that red hair is a sign of moral depravity. It is extremely well documented that the media have avoided challenging McCain's false statements or even cut his most preposterous gaffes out of interviews. There is no way to characterize the belief that the media are unfairly negative in their coverage of McCain as anything other than delusional.

But why are Americans so stupid? Why do they so readily embrace this ludicrous myth of the liberally-biased media? How is it possible for those who spread the lies to convince most people all the time? (Note that the belief is not limited to Republicans or conservatives or McCain supporters: a fifth of intended Obama voters also believe that the media coverage of McCain has been unfairly negative.)

I think it's the fault of those goddamn liberally-biased facts. For decades, the Republican candidates have consistently been so much dumber, meaner, and more dishonest than their Democratic counterparts that it is hard for most people to believe that such pervasive differences are real. Surely, God created the two parties equal, so the vast difference in quality must be an illusion created by the media.

This has an interesting corollary: the best way for the Right to perpetuate the myth is to support incompetent, cranky, and mendacious candidates. And if that's part of the plan, then all I can say is, they are getting more and more successful!

UPDATE: I just found this Daily Kos diary, which discusses the same issue and shows every step of the reasoning - user-friendly for the pedestrians.

Terrorism: right here, right now

Let's be clear: walking into a church with a shotgun and 76 cartridges, and shooting people because their congregation welcomes gays and because most people in it are liberal, is terrorism by any known definition of the word. There is no essential difference between Adkisson and a suicide bomber who blows himself up in a cafe because he believes the patrons' country shouldn't exist. That equivalence does not depend on Adkisson's sanity; many terrorists may be insane to various degrees.

So how do we fight this battle in the "War on Terror"? Do we send Rush Limbaugh to Guantanamo? Do we waterboard Ann Coulter? Do we listen to phone conversations of every subscriber to the National Review? The absurdity of those propositions is not out of line with current policies. The concept of a war against terrorism has always been absurd.

Terrorists are dangerous criminals and we need to approach them as such. At the same time, we also have to work on building a society that is not conducive to breeding and fostering terrorism. That's not a war, but a quest.

Jul 28, 2008

Orlando magic crackers: the saga continues

Wafers of Mass destruction aren't going away. Webster Cook, the student who "kidnapped Christ" is facing possible university disciplinary action, and his friend, whom he wanted to show the wafer, may be in trouble as well. Ed Brayton has the story and the link to the president of the University of Central Florida. I have sent my appeal for an immediate dismissal of all religion-based complaints, and I urge you to do the same.

Meanwhile, Freethought Radio has an interview with Cook (it starts about halfway through the segment). Cook, who is 19, sounds articulate, calm, and polite. The interviewers were rather provocative and snarky at times, but Cook kept his calm and stuck to recounting the events seriously and responsibly. If you suspect that he is a brat and an irresponsible prankster, listen to the interview and you'll probably change your mind.

Besides, he was introduced as a double major in Economics and Actuarial Science, which counts as a big plus here on Gnash Equilibrium.

Dog bites man: miles per gallon edition

A Duke University study, published in Science and reported in the Consumer Reports, found that miles per gallon are misleading and that consumers would make better decisions if fuel consumption were posted in gallons per mile.

Well, duh. Shouldn't that be obvious?

Is it any surprise that people calculate better with direct quantities than with inverses? Miles per gallon is an inverse measure of the cost of fuel, so one doesn't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that consumers will have more trouble making rational decisions based on that measure than based on a direct measure of fuel consumption, such as liters per 100 kilometers, which is used in Europe and pretty much the rest of the world.

Most people don't realize (at least not immediately) that driving 45 mph from Startington to Endington (distance: 60 miles) and 80 mph on the way back takes more time than driving 60 mph both ways. But they do realize that a 80-minute trip and a 45-minute trip together take longer than a two-hour trip. Similarly, people don't realize that going from 12 to 16 mpg is a greater saving than going from 24 to 32 mpg, but they would recognize immediately that going from 20 to 15 l/100 km is more significant than going from 10 to 7.5 l/100 km. Elementary, my dear Watson!

Jul 27, 2008

A Tale of Two Douglases

If I remember correctly, in my first microeconomics textbook, The Theory of Price by George Stigler, there was a box about Paul Douglas, whom most economists associate primarily with the Cobb-Douglas production (and later also utility) function. Never missing a chance to jab a liberal, Stigler described Douglas as an economist who was "later reduced to a U.S. Senator". Although I never agreed with Stigler's opinion, I've always found his way of expressing it quite amusing.

Unfortunately, we are now witnessing a reduction of another fine economist named Douglas. This time, however, Douglas is his first name, and he is being reduced not to an elected official, but to a campaign hack. And this case is not amusing, but sad. I know Douglas Holtz-Eakin, or at least knew him when he used to put professional and personal integrity before partisan politics. He used to say, I think only half in jest, that his job was to give honest advice to politicians who would ignore it. But since he became McCain's adviser, he's been more and more an expedient damage-control spokesman who couldn't care less about the truth.

Honesty is obviously overrated: it's a win-win situation for Holtz-Eakin. If his boss wins, he will probably be the next Secretary of the Treasury (and eventually probably hailed as one of the rare competent people in that administration), and otherwise he'll get a comfortable position in a conservative think tank.

Jul 25, 2008

Better than watching a stoning

Yesterday I went to a performance of Eric Idle's Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy). Highly recommended, but if you are a Monty Python fan, of course you already know that, and if you are not, you probably stopped reading after the first sentence. It seems eerily appropriate that I had this religious experience on the same day I learned of Pontius "PZ" Myers' nailing of the cracker-man-God to a very dead tree splattered with ink.

But I worry... What if PZ made a mistake and crucified the wrong cracker, one that's the Body of Brian? I don't care if Brian was a very naughty boy, but hasn't he had enough painful deaths already? Wouldn't it render PZ's sacrilege, like, pointless? Wouldn't it invite death threats from the Judean People's Front People's Front of Judea? Was it irresponsible of PZ not to think of such unintended consequences? (On the bright side, PZ would then be known as Biggus Dickus.)

That's why he doesn't wear a button!

Jesus' General made my day and built my barn.

And "Amish" is just another word for "gangsta". Just ask Weird Al.

Jul 24, 2008

Oh my Kenny! They killed God!

God is dead. PZ Myers killed him. The whole story was bananas from the beginning, so it is apt that it ends with a banana peel:
We have a confession, certainly enough to burn PZ at the stake:
I know some of you have proposed intricate plans for how to do horrible things to these crackers, but I repeat…it's just a cracker. I wasn't going to make any major investment of time, money, or effort in treating these dabs of unpleasantness as they deserve, because all they deserve is casual disposal. However, inspired by an old woodcut of Jews stabbing the host, I thought of a simple, quick thing to do: I pierced it with a rusty nail (I hope Jesus's tetanus shots are up to date). And then I simply threw it in the trash, followed by the classic, decorative items of trash cans everywhere, old coffeegrounds and a banana peel.

And what are those books there? I think the Qur'an is there by popular demand of self-proclaimed Christians who were urging PZ to desecrate the Muslim book instead. Let's hear PZ again:

By the way, I didn't want to single out just the cracker, so I nailed it to a few ripped-out pages from the Qur'an and The God Delusion. They are just paper. Nothing must be held sacred.

I hope PZ's next trash pickup is before the third day; I don't want a holey cracker to rise from his trash can and walk around his house. (Actually, there is no such risk, according to authoritative sources: If the Host has become moldy or the contents of the Chalice sour, Christ has discontinued His Presence therein. Undoubtedly, the cracker, wet from the coffee grounds, will soon catch mold, and then, ladies and gentlemen, Jesus has left the building.)

Hate is love. Ignorance is bliss.

What does a bunch of homophobic thugs do to a gay man?

They rape him.

What I'd like to know is how they achieved and maintained erection.

The antics of semantics

Political scientists need to be careful about using technical terms like the far left end of a distribution when they write for the general public. This post at the Monkey Cage and the discussion in the comments are highly instructive. Arguments from both sides are intelligent, but the main issue is how did the readers of the op-ed understand what was said.

Why centrist voters elect extreme politicians

Andrew Gelman notes that, on a one-dimensional scale of ideological positions,
elected representatives are generally more extreme than voters.

Moreover, geographic polarization of legislators is much more pronounced than that of the voters:

I am not sure what wisdom we are supposed to gain from those facts, but I see some serious problems with the analysis, even if we grant that measuring ideology on a one-dimensional scale is itself unproblematic.
How meaningful is a comparison between voters' survey responses and legislators' votes? I am not asserting a "words vs. deeds" distinction here; voting is a form of speech, especially votes are publicly known, as legislators' votes are. But legislators are actually held responsible for their votes and expected to be consistent. The public, regardless of ideology, tends to like people with strong principles and dislike "flip-floppers". As much as we sometimes think of them as stupid or ignorant, politicians are, on average, unquestionably better informed and have thought more thoroughly about issues than the general public. We should expect their views to be more consistent than voters' views.

Now, there are rarely consistent "moderate" or "centrist" positions on most issues. Political moderates usually hold "left" positions on some issues and "right" positions on others. In George Lakoff's words, they are biconceptuals:

The pressure to dissemble comes from certain commonplace myths about swing voters and the "center." So for starters, let's put to rest the notion of the political or ideological "center"---it doesn't exist. Instead, what we have are biconceptuals---of many kinds.

A more cynical view would be that the "centrists" are inconsistent, confused, or hypocritical. While it would probably be considered unfair to characterize an ordinary private citizen that way, most politicians would very quickly (and perhaps rightly) earn those labels if their voting patterns resembled the survey responses of "centrist" voters.

The next question is why a centrist electorate would elect a polarized legislature. An obvious explanation is the two-party system and electoral districts drawn to put most Congressional seats safely under control of one or the other party. I would agree that those features of our political system increase the polarization of Congress, but the graphs strongly suggest that such an explanation is woefully incomplete.

First, the Senate seems to be no less polarized than the House, and geographically even more so, which belies the safe districts part of the argument. Second, there seems to be very little difference between voters in "battleground states" and "Democratic states", but a vastly different distribution of elected officials, particularly senators. As the states are grouped by the results of Presidential elections, this observation is by no means tautological.

The graphs tell us that very similar electorates consistently elect ideologically very different politicians. A likely explanation is that the survey responses do not measure overall ideological positions accurately. Perhaps voters put significantly different weights on different issues, which makes them prefer different politicians despite having similar (unweighted) average survey responses? That's a conjecture, not a conclusion; the point is that the analysis presented so far is not satisfying and it generates more questions than it answers.

Jul 23, 2008

Attack of the Weathermen

It really pisses me off when a TV station interrupts regular program to tell us about bad weather. I don't mind weather alerts on the edges of the screen; I can deal with a smaller picture. And in a real emergency, say if a tornado was coming, it would be OK to interrupt the program just long enough to say what's necessary. "A cell is forming here and moving in this direction, so places X, Y and Z may be hit by a tornado." Thank you, we got the message. Now, if we live in X, Y or Z, we want to prepare for the approaching twister, and if we don't, we'd like to continue watching the show. You can still keep us informed on the margins.

So tonight a tornado was possibly forming about 20 miles west of where I live. But, instead of just giving us the necessary information, the station interrupted the regular program with almost 10 minutes of detailed explanations of observed weather patterns and how they conclude from those patterns that a tornado may be forming. Interesting stuff, if you wanted to see it; however, if you are seeing it, chances are you were trying to watch something else and would rather keep watching that. (More accurately, chances are you'd also like to wring the neck of the person responsible for the length of the interruption.) The unscheduled weather report is nothing but an intrusion.

No valuable public service is provided by a report that goes beyond necessary emergency information. Furthermore, it can't be good for business, as it will almost certainly annoy more viewers than it will keep glued to the TV waiting for updates. It may even have a negative net effect on public safety, as bored viewers surf away to channels not showing weather alerts. So why do TV stations do something so idiotic?

Jul 22, 2008

Rail grammar

The announcement at my commuter train stop yesterday:
Train 332 bound for Union Station is delayed 15 minutes due to heavy passenger travel.

I've seen some heavy passengers on the train, but I thought the engine was strong enough to haul them at normal speed.

How about some real support for the troops?

Via PZ Myers, a real vet's story:
A disabled vet has fought far too much already to have to continue to fight with their own government like this when they get home. In this case, it is the soldier who is looking to citizen for help with this fight.

That's just the bottom line. Read the whole thing.

Lesbians are from Lesbos... and everywhere else

Those activist librul judges:
ATHENS (Reuters) - A Greek court has dismissed a request by residents of the Aegean island of Lesbos to ban the use of the word lesbian to describe gay women, according to a court ruling made public on Tuesday.

This world must be going to Hell! What will they say next?

That residents of Czech Republic may not forbid socially unconventional people to call themselves "bohemian"?
That residents of India may not outlaw the name "Indian" for Native Americans?
That residents of Holland may not withhold the phrase "Dutch treat"?
That residents of Russia may not kill the phrase "Russian roulette"?
That residents of Germany may not stifle "German measles"?
That residents of France may not censor "French kiss"?
That residents of Thailand may not enjoin "Siamese twins"?
That residents of Scotland may not stick it to "Scotch tape"?
Even that residents of Turkey may not dicree what we gobble for Thanksgiving meal?

Now if only the Greeks realized that it is not their prerogative to tell another nation that it may not call itself "Macedonia"...

My daughter is 99 44/100 % pure, "She floats"

Digby has a classic post about the apparent surge in reclaiming girls as property.

Dear John

John McCain the liar is a lot like Nicholas Sparks the writer: he is very, very bad at it, but extremely prolific, and enough people will buy that crap anyway.

His new strained and feeble work of fiction is titled High Gas Prices Are Obama's Fault. You can buy it at 20% off if you sign up for the coming sequel, Your Mother-In-Law Is Obama's Fault.

New York Times rejects truth as too partisan (episode # 4809785)

Americans must not be informed about the Iraqi Prime Minister's opinions, because that would make Obama look too presidential, too statesmanlike, and too respected. How will McCain compete then, and how will we have a close and exciting election that brings advertisement revenues to the big news media!? Brad DeLong has an excellent summary.

Jul 20, 2008

After Rice - Rice?

Barack Obama's adviser on national security and foreign policy issues is Susan E. Rice.

Food for thought, Sun Tzu!

Glass 1/10 Full

McCain sees a silver lining:
Could I mention the presence of my friend, Congressman Steve Pearce, who I believe will be joining me in the United States Senate?

Jul 18, 2008

Mr. Jefferson, Tear Down This Wall!

Almost two years later, why does the teacher in this story still have his job?

And why does the principal still have his or her job?


McImus for President?

OK, people, here is the pronouncement from the Politically Incorrect Gods.

The Chelsea Clinton joke was actually funny. Tasteless, rude, and crude, but funny. And "Bomb Iran" would have been funny, too, with a little better delivery. Those are fine jokes to tell your close friends while smoking pot. They just aren't something you should be telling in public as a candidate for political office.

On the other hand, the marvelous ape "joke" isn't even a joke; it's a splattering of vomit. If he really said that, it might have been more considerate of him to just puke on the audience.

The Gods have spoken.

Jul 17, 2008

Associated Press Is An Absolute Disgrace

We are seriously screwed if our press consistently generates even worse bullshit than our politicians. McCain said preposterous things about Social Security, and now AP has done some, uh, investigative reporting. Their great discovery: the 71-year-old is receiving Social Security benefits! Imagine that... the next dirty secret they'll dig up will be that his hair is white. The premise of the article is that
Although Republican presidential candidate John McCain has called Social Security "a disgrace," he still cashes his own retirement check every month.

Juxtaposed like this, it suggests that there is something wrong, hypocritical about it. There are so many ways to criticize McCain, and they chose an unfair one!? Come on, whether he likes the system or not, he is still entitled to the checks. What he is not entitled to is to lie and get away with it. But look what the AP article does with the substance of his statement:

Asked last week by a young woman at a town-hall meeting in Portsmouth, Ohio, if she is likely to receive Social Security benefits one day, McCain said it is unlikely without fixing the system.

No, even he didn't make it that bad. He said she would "not have the Social Security benefits the present-day retirees have". That means she wouldn't have as much; the article presents it as saying she wouldn't have anything at all.

Now, as I explained, what McCain said was bad enough. AP made it worse. Did they do it to make it easier to debunk? That would be unfair, but the end result would turn out correct: McCain lied.

So it is going to be ugly, right? They'll make him really eat his words, right? Well, here is what they have to say:

Social Security benefits are projected to exceed the system's tax revenues in about nine years. The program's trustees have said the Social Security trust fund will be depleted by 2041 unless the system is changed.


Yes, that's all true, but irrelevant. The trust fund will have no money, but there will still be current taxes. Today, Social Security pays no benefits from its trust fund; it pays them all from current taxes, and then has some left over, which it puts in the trust fund. At no point in the future is the trust fund expected to supply as much as one-quarter of benefit payments. And, as the GDP and wages grow, the benefit payments will become significantly bigger than they are now.

A responsible journalist would explain all that to the readers, because to someone who doesn't understand the ins and outs of Social Security financing, the facts stated in the article may well look like a validation, not just of McCain's actual statement, but also of the even worse AP misinterpretation.

But AP is not in the business of responsible journalism any more. They are in the business of making howler monkey noises.

Satire 101

Tom the Dancing Bug gives a perfect lesson on what every satirist should understand:
A cartoon shouldn't rely on the context of its creator and publisher in order to successfully make its point.

Jul 16, 2008

What Is... Election?

Apparently, John McCain has one thing in common with Yours Truly: he was a Jeopardy! champion. I didn't know that when I noted the coincidence of Ahmadinejad gaffes and I wish he paralleled the show not just in errors, but also in getting things right 99% of the time. But I repeat myself... Anyway, when the 43-year old news came out, a friend of mine suggested (or should I say sujested) that
Hillary is kicking herself for not suggesting a winner-take-all J! game between herself, Obama, and McCain

I thought such a game might go something like this:

Hillary: I'll take Fashion for $200, Alex.
Alex Trebek: Ken Starr obtained a bodily-fluid-stained blue dress which had belonged to this woman... Hillary?
Hillary: [expletive] [female canine] [more expletives]
Alex: Sorry, "[expletive] [female canine] [more expletives]" is incorrect. John?
John: [female canine], hee hee. That was an excellent question!
Alex: Sorry, you are not in South Carolina. Behave yourself. Barack?
Barack: Let me say that I respect John McCain's service to this country...
Alex: OK, you said it and your time is up. Hillary, select again.
Hillary: Let's go to Rhymes with "Cheating" for $200, you sexist jerk.
Alex: Give "five" to this banker of S&L infamy... John?
John: I'm gonna break your [expletive] neck, you mother[expletive]...
Alex: I think the judges are signaling this is not quite right...
John: Damn activist judges! I'll appeal to Alito, he'll say I'm right!
Alex: Barack?
Barack: Let me say that I deeply respect John McCain's military record...
Alex: Can we leave that for the interview? Hillary?
Hillary: Thank you. It is obvious that I am so far ahead that I can't lose this game. I can take a nap, wake up and still say who is Charles Kea...
Alex: Sorry, your time is up. But you select again.
Hillary: Let's go to Biblical Prophets for $1000, just to show you how much I value my faith.
John and Barack (shouting at the same time): Meeee tooooo!
Alex: He was "Wright" when he lamented and warned that Bablyonians would conquer Jerusalem... John?
John (singing absently): Bomb bomb bomb, bomb Babylon...
Alex: Not bad for an old guy, but dead wrong. I see Barack is trying to ring in, but Hillary beat him to it.
Hillary: I don't know, I just wanted to say that the next time Babylonians get to Jerusalem, you need me to pick up the phone at 3 AM.
Alex: When I call someone at 3 AM, I don't think of anyone like you. OK, Barack, you gonna say something finally?
Barack: I reject the premise of this question. He wasn't right at all. I mean, who the hell is this Jeremiah to think he can spew such nonsense...
Alex: That is correct! "Who... is... Jeremiah" is correct. That brings you up to $600 and first place. Hillary and John both have negative 1400, and we'll have to say goodbye to them. So you will be alone in Final Jeopardy to deal with this category: Unfortunate Middle Names. Clue in a moment.

We've Become a Nation of Whino Comedians

Hard times are ahead: humorists and comedians are complaining that Obama is not buffoonish enough, so they can't come up with any funny jokes about him. Either that, or their audiences are too liberal:
When Mr. Stewart on “The Daily Show” recently tried to joke about Mr. Obama changing his position on campaign financing, for instance, he met with such obvious resistance from the audience, he said, “You know, you’re allowed to laugh at him.” Mr. Stewart said in a telephone interview on Monday, “People have a tendency to react as far as their ideology allows them.”
There is no doubt, several representatives of the late-night shows said, that so far their audiences (and at least some of the shows’ writers) seem to be favorably disposed toward Mr. Obama, to a degree that perhaps leaves them more resistant to jokes about him than those about most previous candidates.

Pathetic. Audiences are "resistant" to jokes. Translated to English: they don't laugh. Why would that be? In old times, before we knew better, we thought people didn't laugh when jokes weren't funny. But now we know it's because they are ideologically resistant. Somebody had better win the Nobel Prize for that discovery.

I've listened to the right-wing rants about "liberal media" for years, but this must be the first time the media complain that their audiences are too liberal. And those liberals just don't appreciate the hard work comedy writers have to do to chisel a joke out of such unfunny stone as Barack Hussein Obama. (Not even his name is funny...)

That's another way in which 8 years of GWB has weakened America: a whole generation of satirists has grown lazy, as the President has provided them with more-or-less finished products daily. And most other recent presidents were funny. Some were boring, but had idiot vice presidents; and in any case, humorists knew how to make jokes about someone being boring. Oh, right, but Obama is not boring, he is perfect, that's the problem...

Oh, really? I think the problem is that most comedians and comedy writers are so enthusiastic about Obama that they become inhibited when they try to joke about him. I can't blame them, I can't imagine how anybody in their right mind would vote for anyone else, but please! If you can't say something funny about the politician you like, find another career! And don't whine, for Phil Gramm's sake!

And what about that cover of theNew Yorker? People who made that are giving all morons a bad name. Of course, they'll say, "Ever heard of the table of contents? Look for it, and you'll find that the title of the ingenious and supremely funny cartoon is "The Politics of Fear". ROTFLMAO! You've got to read the words, son, not just look at the pictures!" To which I say, "Well, guess what. Your goddamn magazine is not sold in dark bags, so that only those who buy it (with proof of maturity) can look at the pictures and perhaps read the articles. If you didn't know, it's there, in plain view of shoppers looking for "People", who will never read your hidden caption."

As of this writing, the New Yorker editors seem convinced that those who don't get the joke or don't find it funny are stupid and irrelevant. I suppose those who didn't get Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" joke were stupid and irrelevant as well.

Jul 15, 2008

Wafers of Mass Destruction

There is a near-consensus among reasonable people that the people in the church and the Catholic League overreacted insanely in the cracker-kidnapping case. A lot of people, whether they like PZ Myers or not, agree that his job, let alone his physical well-being, should not be threatened because of his commentary of the case. But it seems to me that most people would still chide the student whose refusal to eat the Communion wafer started the incident. Several people with whom I talked or corresponded have described the student's action as unethical and disrespectful, and therefore deserving some condemnation, although not anywhere on the scale of threats and attacks to which he was subjected.

I think this is an important issue: was the student "wrong" at some level? Not wrong in the sense of violating the internal rules of his religion, which he obviously did, and for which the Catholic Church may discipline him (without breaking laws) however it wants, perhaps even excommunicate him. But was he ethically wrong from a secular point of view? Did he do anything harmful to people, rather than just to a god or gods? Let me go through a list of complaints people have typically raised over his actions:

1. He stole the wafer, and there has to be something wrong with that. No, he didn't. The wafer was already his when he "abused" it. It was given to him as part of the Eucharist and he was supposed to eat it, not return it. He couldn't steal it once it was his.

You may wonder if the Church, nevertheless, retains ownership of the wafers it hands out, as software manufacturers retain ownership of the programs you buy from them, whereby you only buy a license to do certain things with the software. But the software license agreement is a legal contract, and no such contract exists here. (Church rules may apply, but I've already disclaimed any discussion of internal church issues.) There is no property contract that complicates the case; no theft could have occurred. (If it had, I wonder what the value of the stolen item would have been. A nickel?)

2. He disrupted a solemn and peaceful ceremony. People have compared his action to yelling "Bullshit!" during church service or preaching about salvation through Jesus at a Wiccan gathering. I think those analogies fall flat. Yelling "Bullshit!" (or even "Hallelujah!", for that matter) while the rest of the congregation is praying or listening to a solemn sermon is objectively disruptive---the yeller temporarily prevents others from doing what they gathered to do, and they can't easily ignore his noise. But all the student did was take the wafer out of his mouth as he walked away from the altar. One would not expect others to even notice it, unless they are more interested in looking over and policing their fellow parishioners than in receiving the Body of Christ (or whatever other spiritual benefit they get from the Mass).

3. He acted disrespectfully toward a sacred object. Some people have compared it to defecating on the Bible or the Qur'an. Besides the analogy being grossly disproportional, I think it misses the point of deliberately offensive acts: they only mean something if somebody knows about them. A provocateur who uses the Qur'an as toilet paper will do it in such a way that somebody (a Muslim, he hopes) will notice: he'll probably use a public rest room, he might not flush, or he might leave a damaged copy on the rest room floor. If he does it secretly, it will not insult anyone and, consequently, it will be ethically irrelevant. "Desecration" of an object cannot be unethical in itself, but only through the anguish it brings to people who hold the object sacred. That brings us back to the previous point---disruptiveness. Provided that the student tried to save his wafer discreetly (which nobody seems to dispute), neither disruption nor desecration should be an issue.

4. He acted in bad faith by participating in the ritual if he knew he was going to break its rules. There are several versions of this argument. One---that he wasn't entitled to receive the Eucharist in the first place---is easy to dismiss. All parties agree that he is, in fact, a Roman Catholic and can take Communion. The reason he was saving the wafer was to show it to his non-Catholic friend who was curious about it, which also implies that the friend did not pose as a Catholic to get to the wafer. Perhaps they even considered the possibilities and decided that the way they eventually chose was more honest (or less risking to become disruptive)?

The version of the "bad faith" argument worth considering is that, while he was entitled to participate in the ritual, by such participation he implied a guarantee that he would complete the ritual properly. Put this way, it is not just about church rules, but about general trust. If I host a party at my house raising funds for Obama, and you show up, it is reasonable to assume that you will not try to persuade other guests to vote for McCain or Nader, and that you will not drive the guests away by some persistent misbehavior. This kind of trust is important because it enables us to deal with a lot more people than just our families and best friends, and not be constantly on a lookout for those who would take advantage of our hospitality or outreach. Therefore, a breach of trust by not following implicit agreements on behavior can be a secular ethical issue. But, before we conclude that it always is an ethical issue, does the breach need to be serious enough? Are perhaps some minor breaches immaterial?

In the fundraising party example, suppose a guest behaves fine, but doesn't give a contribution (or gives less than the suggested minimum)? If it was explicitly announced that contributions would be voluntary, but most people understand they are expected, would this be unethical behavior? What if a guest is boring and somewhat annoying, although not doing anything that can be identified as inappropriate? While I'd expect the guests to be helpful to the cause, I also shouldn't have unreasonable expectations. Or, what if the party is in a very backwards, redneck community (yes, there are redneck Democrats, and the candidate does not want them written off) and a guest shows up with his or her gay partner? At some point "trust" can degenerate into a community's intrusion into individuals' basic rights.

There is no doubt that the student did violate the trust of the Church when he went to take Communion. But was the breach material, and were the requirements for trust reasonable? I am not sure I can answer those questions until I ask informed Catholics to educate me. Here are some questions I have for Catholics:

1. Many people are only outwardly religious---they want to fit in their religious community, but don't actually believe in God. Should a person who is formally Catholic, but really a non-believer, take Communion? Is such person's partaking in the Eucharist a breach of trust?

2. How about Catholics who do believe in God, but don't believe in the real presence of the Christ in the Eucharist? I am sure that millions of Catholics think of the "Body of Christ" as a symbol, a metaphor, although that clearly contradicts the Church dogma. Are those people partaking in the Eucharist in bad faith and desecrating it?

As I said, I don't know the answers for sure, but I expect that the answers are that neither group should be taking Communion, that both are "cheating" the Church in doing so, and that they are, from the Catholic Church's point of view, at least not paying due respect to the sacrament, and probably desecrating it as well.

If it is so, then I would like to know how the student's "kidnapping" of the wafer is any different from those people's participation in the sacrament. And I wouldn't be surprised if those two groups made up half the people who were taking Communion together with the student. If bad faith was his only transgression, he probably has abundant company in every Mass.

If anything, his stated goal was more honest and socially useful: he was satisfying a friend's curiosity. Curiosity is a noble goal in itself, and a lack of curiosity should be considered an ethical failing. I would expect that most Christians whose churches have a regular Communion ritual do something to examine the Communion wafer at least once, presumably at a young age. It seems like a healthy child's or teenager's thing to do. Not exactly a behavior to be encouraged, but whom is it ever going to hurt? And satisfying a friend's curiosity ought to rank higher than satisfying one's own. Of course, in this case, the curiosity seems frivolous, and perhaps not age-appropriate, but even so it compares favorably to concealment of one's true beliefs.

Admittedly, the student almost certainly also belonged to one of the two "wrong belief" groups, otherwise he probably wouldn't have kept "God" in a Ziploc. So he double-cheated! But what is the difference? If either bad-faith issue meant he shouldn't have taken Communion, two of them have the exact same effect as one: he abused the trust and entered the ritual he wasn't supposed to. There is no further increase in harm from his second breach, the saving of the wafer.

So I would conclude that the student committed the same kind of unethical act that millions of Catholics commit weekly - a bad-faith partaking in the Eucharist. I can't see that the Church suffers any harm from those millions, so I doubt that this one caused any harm, either. That would make the unethical act minimal and negligible, barely deserving as much as a friendly admonishment.

He also may be guilty of clumsiness to the extent that he wasn't discreet enough and other parishioners saw him taking the wafer out of his mouth. From the news report it is only clear that one person saw him, and made a scene; other people might not have noticed anything without the ruckus. It is possible that his behavior was somewhat reckless and indiscreet, but I would need some evidence of that before jumping to such conclusions. In the article, there aren't even allegations of him flaunting his wafer or something like that.

OK, so much for his behavior during Mass, but what about the next several days? The student himself cited as one of the reasons for returning the wafer that he realized some people were upset, even pained, because he was holding on to the wafer. Doesn't this mean that what he was doing was causing pain to others, and was therefore unethical?

I think that such notions have to be firmly rejected. If we accepted that one person's "desecration" of the Eucharist was causing pain to other people because it offended their beliefs or their sense of sacred, and that the person's acts were therefore unethical, then we would also have to accept the same argument against abortions, homosexuality (with or without marriage), atheism, or even religious diversity. And that is just the beginning of the list. I know some people would be quite happy with that conclusion, but I would not want those people's ethical principles anywhere near me. In fact, I eat a lot of garlic to keep them away.

Jul 14, 2008

I Support PZ Myers

PZ Myers is an associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, and the author of the very popular Pharyngula blog. He is currently under attack by the Catholic League president Bill Donohue and his followers.

The case began with the news of a student in Orlando, FL, who attended Mass and took a communion wafer with him instead of swallowing it. He then received threatening messages, and the church filed an official complaint with the University of Central Florida against the student. The student also alleges he was physically attacked while trying to keep the uneaten wafer. The church's overreaction involved calling the student's act "hate crime" and "kidnapping" and procuring armed UCF police officers to stand guard during Mass to protect "the body of Christ".

PZ Myers, an outspoken critic of any belief in the supernatural, known especially for his criticism of religious excesses related to evolution, but also in other contexts, wrote a commentary on his blog in his characteristic sharp and provocative style, in which he exposed the hypocrisy and perverted moral priorities of those (including Donohue) who have made the incident into a high-profile national issue. He ended his post with a satirical request that the readers send him consecrated communion wafers, which he would then treat "with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse". That angered Donohue so much that he called his followers to write to the University of Minnesota (and even to the MN legislature) to demand Myers' resignation. Not surprisingly, Myers has also been receiving numerous threats of physical violence.

While Bill Donohue obviously doesn't speak for most Catholics, he is very influential among the extreme Catholic right, and he and his followers are very vocal and active, so I expect that the president of the University of Minnesota has been getting a deluge of angry letters and e-mails. PZ Myers has asked his readers to send polite messages of support to the president. Many other liberal bloggers (some of whom are known not to like Myers' style) are urging their readers to support Myers.

I wrote a letter to the president of the University of Minnesota, expressing support for Myers. Here it is:
President Robert H. Bruininks
202 Morrill Hall
100 Church Street S.E.
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, MN 55455

July 13, 2008

Dear President Bruininks,

I wish to express my support for Professor P. Z. Myers, whom I deeply respect for his tireless promotion of science, scientific education, and a scientific worldview.

I am concerned that Professor Myers is, apparently, being threatened by some overzealous individuals who accuse him of offending their religion. If I understand correctly, some of those individuals have written to you demanding that Professor Myers be disciplined or even fired. Those demands are terribly misguided and I respectfully urge you to reject them.

Professor Myers' blog post that angered those people was itself a reaction to the news reports of a student who was harassed, threatened, and possibly assaulted, all for his improper handling of a Communion wafer. Our society's civilization norms do not condone abuse of persons as retaliation for merely symbolic offenses, and Professor Myers was rightly indignant at the treatment to which the student was subjected. His commentary was an appropriate and fair criticism of the abusers and an expression of solidarity with the victim. While it is not surprising that those whom he criticized detested his writing, that cannot justify their attempts to silence him.

Professor Myers' writings for general public are thoughtful, engaging, and highly valuable. University of Minnesota should be proud to have him on its faculty.


If you are familiar with Myers' writings and comfortable with supporting him, feel free to copy as much as you like from my letter. If you are not familiar with him (or not enthusiastic about his style), please consider sending at least a brief e-mail message to Robert H, Bruininks, President of the University of Minnesota; his e-mail address is bruin001@umn.edu. Even a very brief message such as "I support Professor P.Z. Myers" or "I support Professor Myers' rights to free speech" can make a difference. As Mr. Bruininks is probably getting tons of e-mail, it would probably help to give the message a descriptive title, e.g., "Support for PZ Myers".

Jul 9, 2008

John McCain Is An Absolute Disgrace

So, John McCain thinks that the Social Security system is, and has been since its beginning, a disgrace. Moreover, he is lying: it is not true that

you will not have the Social Security benefits the present-day retirees have unless we fix it.

Even with the projected shortfall, after the trust fund is exhausted, real Social Security benefits are expected to be higher than they are today. Scheduled benefits increase with wage growth, which in the long run is at the rate of overall economic growth. With the economy growing, per capita, 1.6% faster than prices, 78% of scheduled benefits in 2041 is over 30% more (after adjustment for inflation) than the full scheduled benefits in 2008. John McCain ought to know that. If he doesn't, Douglas Holz-Eakin ought to tell him. Speaking this kind of nonsense is inexcusable.

Jul 6, 2008

SCOTUS Digression: Beating a Dead Horse

It seems that the army of brainwashed libertarians still can't accept the Kelo decision, although in a rational world there would be no discussion about it - it was one of the most clear-cut cases ever to be granted certiorari. Something is seriously wrong with the central nervous system of those who insist that the decision was wrong.

Let's quote the goddamn Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment:
...nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

That's as clear as any constitutional provision can be. The petitioner's argument was, essentially, that the Clause absolutely prohibits the government from taking private property for private use. A person who can speak English and follow simple logic cannot possibly reach such a conclusion.

First, the Takings Clause says nothing whatsoever about taking for private use. It says that, if the government wants to take your property for public use, it has to pay you "just compensation". It can take your property, it just has to pay you. (Whether "just compensation" is fair market price or something else, is a legitimate debate issue.) But it says nothing at all about "private use", and it is simply idiotic to conclude that anything in the Clause implies that such takings are forbidden.

Second, what would it even mean for the government to take property for private use? That's a contradiction in terms. The government is a public institution, and whenever it takes property, it is for public use. That doesn't preclude some private use: governments do sell (or give away) property to private individuals or businesses, just like they often outsource provisions of public services to private industry. But a government cannot, by definition, do anything that has no public purpose.

Suppose the local government takes your land (and your house on it), pays you just compensation (and assume, for the sake of argument, that everyone involved agrees that the compensation is just), holds it for 100 years as the idyllic Fifth Amendment Park, and then sells it to a private business that wants to build a shopping mall on it. Would this violate the Constitution? Would any of the dissenters in Kelo even think that it might violate the Constitution? If it did, then every sale of government property to private entities is unconstitutional. You cannot draw a distinction based on how the government acquired the property, because that would in effect give the original owner continued property rights - in other words, the taking would never be complete. But that would be absurd; not even the staunchest libertarian would argue that the government doesn't really own the property for which it paid full price.

Now change only one thing in the previous hypothetical example: instead of 100 years, the government holds the property for one minute. Can this change the constitutionality of the described actions? I challenge anyone to find anything in the Constitution - and feel free to search the penumbras as well - that would make this time interval relevant. There is nothing, and the example now resembles closely what happened to Susette Kelo. This is a no-brainer: no constitutional violation occurred. (There could have been a dispute over whether the compensation was just, but that was not the issue brought before the Court.)

What the city of New London did may well have been bad policy. The municipal and state laws that allowed it may well have been bad laws. While the Constitution doesn't forbid the kind of eminent domain exercise as happened there, it also doesn't prevent state and local governments from enacting laws that restrict takings and prevent commercial involvement, or simply impose an arbitrary time limit in the hypothetical examples above. But those are not constitutional issues; moreover, the most zealous critics of Kelo generally want to minimize federal government's powers and favor maximal freedom of state and local governments to run their affairs as they see fit. Yet in this case, they wanted the federal government - federal courts, no less - to invent a new concept in the Constitution and use it to tell every state and local government, for every property transaction they make, whether they are allowed to do so or not.

Jul 5, 2008

Bang Bang! Part 2

Continuing with the observations on the Heller decision... Scalia wrote (pp 19-20):
These experiences caused Englishmen to be extremely wary of concentrated military forces run by the state and to be jealous of their arms. They accordingly obtained an assurance from William and Mary, in the Declaration of Right (which was codified as the English Bill of Rights), that Protestants would never be disarmed: “That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defense suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.” (...) This right has long been understood to be the predecessor to our Second Amendment. (...) It was clearly an individual right, having nothing whatever to do with service in a militia.

(Emphasize added.) That is a wrong conclusion. All the historical facts Scalia quoted were about one social group (religious in this case) trying to dominate the other and the other being armed to defend itself. While I would agree that all rights are individual, this is about as collective as the exercise of rights can be. In Scalia's context, arms would be of no use to an individual Protestant, but only to a Protestant militia resisting a Catholic domination. Scalia is not helping his cause with this example.

Another instance where Scalia's historical facts don't help his interpretation is found on p. 25:

During the 1788 ratification debates, the fear that the federal government would disarm the people in order to impose rule through a standing army or select militia was pervasive in Antifederalist rhetoric. (...) John Smilie, for example, worried not only that Congress’s “command of the militia” could be used to create a “select militia,” or to have “no militia at all,” but also, as a separate concern, that “[w]hen a select militia is formed; the people in general may be disarmed.”

If anthing, this points to my preferred interpretation of the Second Amendment, which is that it codifies a right to serve in the armed forces (be part of the militia), a right that would be violated by a formation of a restricted military class of citizens, something that would have been reasonably perceived as a real risk in the late 18th century. But that is far from a right to own or carry weapons as a private citizen, unrelated to military or paramilitary service.

Scalia is on the verge of agreeing, but he doesn't like the result, so, after all this analysis, he declares the prefatory clause academic:

It is therefore entirely sensible that the Second Amendment’s prefatory clause announces the purpose for which the right was codified: to prevent elimination of the militia. The prefatory clause does not suggest that preserving the militia was the only reason Americans valued the ancient right; most undoubtedly thought it even more important for self-defense and hunting.

This logic would be palatable if Scalia were known as a supporter of unenumerated rights, but, that not being the case, he is strangely out of character. He gives all the importance to the right that, according to him, most Americans perceived to have at the time (a typical foundation for an unenumerated right), and none at all to the reasons this right was codified in the Constitution. He seems to argue that the operative clause of the Second Amendment is redundant, while the prefatory clause is irrelevant.

Scalia's interpretation of the analogous provisions in state constitutions adopted around the same time is extremely strained. While PA and VT clearly did guarantee private citizens a right to bear arms for self-defense, Scalia's ascribing the same meaning to the provisions in NC ("for the defence of the State"), GA (“for the security and defence of this province from internal dangers and insurrections”) and MA ("for the common defence") constitutions is arbitrary, to put it mildly. And again, the very nature of the argument is so un-Scalia, who would never find the right to privacy in various state constitutions relevant for the U. S. Constitution, nor would consider the significant minority of states that have abolished the death penalty to be a relevant factor in Eight Amendment cases.

Next time: Scalia vs. Miller and so on.

Jul 1, 2008

Buck Ofama!

I've been Obama's supporter since he announced he'd run for President, but if he continues to degenerate into a spineless wimp, I'll be tempted to cast a write-in vote for Wesley Clark.