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Healthy Forests Passes

I don't have time for a lot of posting, so I'll just point you to a nice little post by Matt Reading on the passage of the Senate's version of the Healthy Forests Initiative, which is a slightly better version of the House bill (providing such things as a requirement that half the thinning be done in the wildland-urban interface, which would limit the kind of backcountry logging that timber companies would like to do). Now we just have to count on the conference committee not to take the House's side. I'm pessimistic about that, which means that the Senate will be forced to make an up-or-down vote on the worse version, with the fact of the California fires and the threat of being accused of wanting to do nothing hanging over them.


Gotta Love Those Conference Committees

A couple stories of mischief by conference committees (the guys who reconcile differing House and Senate versions of a bill) have come to my attention lately. First, a post by MBW of Wampum brings this to my attention:

Indians Irate At Change Of Language In Spending Bill

Language inserted in an Interior Department spending bill may force lawmakers to choose between urgently needed funds to battle wildfires and delaying a federal court-ordered accounting of billions of trust fund dollars that American Indians say have been misplaced.

... opponents of such an accounting have pointed in part to studies showing it would cost taxpayers an estimated $9 billion to $12 billion to retrace and verify all the transactions for every account.

It is against this backdrop and the backdrop of catastrophic wildfires this year in California and Arizona that a Senate-House conference committee has quietly inserted the language into the Interior Department bill delaying the court-ordered accounting by a year, to Dec. 31, 2004.

(A slight tangent: If we can afford $87 billion to help the people whose country we invaded in 2003, surely we can find $9-12 billion to help the people whose country we invaded in 1607.)

The second incident relates to my commentary from this week, linked in the post below. When I wrote it, I was optimistic that the measure to essentially lift the ban on travel to Cuba (by denying the funds to enforce it) would pass Congress, since both the House and Senate had voted yes to a transportation funding bill that included the Cuba language. Then I encountered this report, which suggests that the conference committee will dump the Cuba measure to spare President Bush the embarassment of having to veto.

I'll admit to mixed feelings on the rules of legislative procedure. On the one hand, I know that laws are often more than the sum of their parts, and thus I'm skeptical about procedures (like the line-item veto) that would treat bills as just collections of clauses. On the other hand, I hate the strategy of attaching riders to unrelated bills. (Incidentally, I also hate the strategy of "repealing" a law by denying funding to enforce it. So the Cuba measure has two procedural strikes against it in my book despite achieving a worthwhile end.) So while I don't like artificially restraining conference committees from crafting a bill that works as a whole, surely there must be some standard about not dropping language passed by both houses, and not inserting entirely new language?


Fighting Fire With Rhetoric

This week's cartoon:

And my commentary: "Veto This? Cuba And Bush In 2004," with its cartoon.

Good Enough For Now

Leavitt Wins Approval as Head of EPA

The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, ending an effort by six senators to block the vote in protest of Bush administration environmental policies.

... Leavitt, who has governed Utah for 11 years, has earned a reputation even among some environmentalists as someone who can gather people of divergent views to work toward common environmental goals. He shares President Bush's preference for coaxing businesses to become partners in achieving pollution reduction objectives, rather than forcing them to comply with strict regulations.

... Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey said Leavitt had allowed one of the country's biggest polluters, Magnesium Corp. of America, to release 170 times the allowable amount of dioxins, one of the most dangerous toxins, for years.

Leavitt seems like he's about as good an EPA head as we could expect to be appointed by President Bush. Any Republican who's substantially more environmentalist than Leavitt would have to come from a marginal part of the party, and would anger a sizeable portion of the party's base -- not to mention being on a collision course with the rest of the administration. I certainly wouldn't want to subject myself to the arm-twisting that the President gives to the EPA (or the CIA, for that matter). I wouldn't be surprised if Leavitt, like Christie Whitman before him, ultimately resigns because he can't take the White House agenda anymore. On the other hand, he may become a sort of Colin Powell figure, loyal while disagreeing and being forced to compromise his integrity to keep up the administration's stance. Indeed, that may be exactly what Bush is hoping for -- someone who can sell the administration's policies to skeptical members of the public, because they've built a reputation for being one of the good Republicans. I think Leavitt also represents the best side of Bush's environmental philosophy, and does it better than Bush because he's not as compromised by his ideology on other, more important to him, topics.

I think my assessment is corroborated by the tone of the debate over Leavitt's nomination. We've seen plenty of heated nomination fights in which Democrats scrutinized the record of the nominee -- John Ashcroft, Miguel Estrada, etc. That didn't happen with Leavitt. The focus of the debate was always on what Bush had done to the environment. The nomination became a forum to criticize the federal government, not the Utah government. Leavitt was sort of a hostage, his approval held up as a desperate attempt by an out-of-power party to force the administration to cooperate more.

I'm disappointed that John Kerry -- whose stance on the environment I've praised -- and Joe Lieberman -- who seems to be pushing his environmental credentials as an antidote to the "too far right" charge -- missed the vote.


The Devil's Sidebar

According to The Gematriculator (link via Disputations), my main blog page is 35% evil. But when I feed it just the text of my posts, it says 28% evil. Hence my sidebar and stylesheet are more evil than my actual content. Make of that what you will. (Also note that "The Gematriculator uses Finnish alphabet, in which Y is a vowel." I blame my evil on the Finns.)


Sprawl And Fire

California's Fire Policies Feel Heat

The spate of fires that began leapfrogging across Southern California Saturday, fueled by unseasonably hot weather and scorching winds, once again spotlights the vulnerability of California's arid climate to quick-moving blazes.
As happened 10 years ago, when flames destroyed 265 homes in Laguna Beach and in 1991 when 400 homes were devoured in the residential hills of Oakland and Berkeley, debates on past lessons and new regulations are already swirling like the white ash now rising above San Bernardino's blackened foothills.

Those debates include how California home builders site their subdivisions amid the tree-lined canyons where lush undergrowth fed by winter rains become tinder-dry brush by summer and late fall. They include fresh assessments of how well homeowners are keeping the leafy growth trimmed back, whether or not bans on flammable building materials have been effective, and severe critique of neighborhood planning designs that should have prevented the flames from leaping from one residence to the next.

This article was a bit disappointing, as it didn't go into much more detail than you see in the quoted paragraphs. Nevertheless, they raise an important issue relevant to the human vs. natural causes thing I wrote about in the previous post. A fire hazard (or any hazard, really) is a combination of the magnitude of the event and the exposure of people and property. That exposure is a largely human-made phenomenon. Current development patterns greatly complicate fire management, because they increase the amount of edge area where a fire threatens to cross from wildlands -- where, broadly speaking, it can and should burn -- into the built landscape -- where it can't and shouldn't. This increases the need for resource-intensive treatments like mechanical thinning (chopping stuff down) and house protection, while requiring the cooperation of a much larger array of individuals (since homeowners need to fire-proof their property).


Whose Fault Is A Fire?

Bushfire Blame Pinned On Public

More than half the bushfires fought in recent months started on private property but escaped onto public land, according to a "blame sheet" of figures compiled by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.

... "While it is difficult to ascertain the causes of the fires which started on other tenures, national parks and reserves were certainly impacted by these fires."

... The president of the NSW Farmers Association, Mal Peters, said grazers and farmers knew best how to manage the land.

... He rejected the argument that drought, high summer temperatures and lightning strikes created ideal conditions for fires.

... Nine farmers [who have filed a lawsuit], whose properties adjoin Goobang National Park, north of Parkes, say that if the parks service had done more hazard reduction and fought the fire more aggressively it would not have escaped the park and damaged their land.

I've quoted a lot to give the context of the conflict, but what I found really interesting was the fourth paragraph above. The government position is a blend of social and natural explanation. They attribute the ignition of the fires that spread from private to public land to the human activity of prescribed burning, but they emphasize the role of nature -- specifically climatic conditions -- in making the resulting fires a serious hazard. The farmers, on the other hand, seem to be opting for a thoroughly social explanation.

The farmers' argument seems to be in part a strategy for rhetorically taking control of the environment. They can emphasize the ability of the members of their group to handle the land, while putting the government at fault. I suspect this is related to a fear of regulation -- in order to argue against interference in their land use practices (by the government), farmers need to be able to assert that their practices are responsible and sufficient for addressing any problems that may occur.

The government, meanwhile, is haunted by its lack of omnipotence. The social contract charges the government with taking care of society, and thus opens it to criticism when society is not taken care of. The problem can be dodged if the blame for the failure can be shifted to an outside factor, such as climate, that's beyond anyone's control. Thus, there's an incentive to play up the natural side of things -- and indeed, in most government reports on fires that I've read, the role of nature takes center stage.

How Did They Say "Quagmire" In Latin?

Exhibit: Romans Weren't Racially Prejudiced

The ancient Romans did not judge people based on ethnicity nor did it influence the status an individual could achieve within the Roman Empire, a new exhibit in England contends.

... Lindsay Allason-Jones, who organized the exhibit and is director of archaeological museums at the university, said very few Italians constructed and manned the wall [Hadrian's Wall, which defended Roman-occupied Britain]. Most were Spanish, Gallic, German and North African. She said soldiers could rise to senatorial status regardless of their color or country of origin, as long as they were loyal to the empire.

Allason-Jones told Discovery News that Emperor Hadrian himself was Spanish. Yet another famous Roman emperor, Septimius Severus, came from Libya. A number of governors of Roman Britain came from various parts of Africa. These leaders included Urbicus, Adventus, L. Alfensus Senecio, Clodius Albinus, L. Aemilius Salvianus and L. Minthonius Tertullus.

I don't mean to dispute the conclusion that race and ethnicity was a very different thing in Roman times. But the evidence I quoted above seems a pretty weak way of defending the conclusion that Romans weren't prejudiced. After all, consider American-occupied Iraq: there are plenty of black and Hispanic soldiers over there, and the person running the show -- Condoleeza Rice -- is likewise not white. Yet it would clearly be incorrect for the archaeologists of the future to infer from that that there's no racial or ethnic prejudice in the United States.

On a bit of a tangent, I wonder if anyone who actually knows something about ancient history has written an article comparing the American occupation of Iraq to the Roman occupation of Britain.

More On GM Externalities

This article contains some interesting information about the safety of organic versus GM food, and the history of opposition to changing agricultural technology. Unfortunately, it's framed as a screed against leftist intellectual snobbery. In so doing, it makes the most common mistake made by anti-organic/pro-GM arguments: focussing almost entirely on the inherent qualities of the food product, and thus missing the huge question of the externalities of the production process.

I'll grant that many opponents of GM do focus on the food itself, claiming that it's less nutritious and more dangerous to the eater. While I'm not conversant with all the agricultural science on the question, on this issue I tend to think the anti-GM side's claims are not strong enough to justify a regulatory, rather than individual choice, solution. One "inherent quality of the food" question that isn't raised in the article is taste. Anecdotally, I can report that one of the best pieces of fruit I ever ate was a bunch of organic grapes.

The tack that DeGregori (the author) takes is somewhat different from the typical "GM food is safe" argument. He opens by describing how the ability to mass-produce identically perfect goods has led to a search for imperfection and inferiority -- such as one sees in handcrafted goods -- as a mark of authenticity, prestige, and value (for those who can afford it). In doing so, he lays the groundwork for a critique of his argument.

On one level, I can agree that there's often something silly about the search for inferiority. But it's important to see what that search for inferiority is really seeking. It's not necessarily something inherent in the product. It's a recognition that the product has a history, that it came from somewhere and was worked on by someone. The very sameness and perfection of mass-produced goods makes them seem as if they appeared out of nowhere. In buying handcrafted items, people want to reconnect themselves with the production process, to think about all the externalities created in making what they buy. Since DeGregori can't see that in handcrafted items, it's no surprise he can't see it in organic food.

For example, DeGregori says:

It is another of the "inferior is superior" views that there is something inherently virtuous in farmers planting their own saved seeds ...

But the argument in favor of planting saved seed has nothing to do with the inherent virtues of the product. It's an argument about the political economy of agriculture. The problem is not with the qualities of the crop, it's with the farmers becoming dependent on agrobusiness corporations for their seed, which reduces the power and autonomy of the farmer.

Interestingly, DeGregori is able to see political economic conditions when they weigh against organic food. He expresses concern that because organic food (and other non-mass-produced goods) is more expensive than high-tech food, restricting the latter would affect the ability of the poor to get any food at all.


The Ethics Of Land Trusts

Land Trust Alliance Rewriting Its Ethics Standards

At its annual conference last weekend in Sacramento, the Washington-based Land Trust Alliance announced plans to add ethics training to its professional workshops, begin an ethics column in its quarterly magazine and develop regulations governing land-preservation techniques.

... The nation's 1,300 land trusts represent the fastest-growing arm of the environmental movement. The nonprofit organizations protect land by buying and holding real estate, and by accepting donations of conservation easements -- permanent deed restrictions that bar some types of intrusive development. The alliance said those methods have helped protect more than 6 million acres of open space in the United States.

The alliance's emphasis on ethics comes after a Washington Post investigation into the Arlington-based Nature Conservancy, the association's largest member and the world's wealthiest environmental group. The three-day Post series published in May reported that the conservancy had logged forests and drilled for oil under the last native breeding ground of an endangered bird species. The charity's governing board and advisory council included executives and directors from corporations that had paid millions in environmental fines, the series pointed out, and the conservancy had engaged in multimillion-dollar business deals with those executives and their companies. Other stories told how conservancy officials had extended low-interest loans to charity executives and sold scenic properties to conservancy employees and state trustees, who often built homes on the sites and reaped large tax breaks from the Internal Revenue Service.

A land trust is an interesting creature. Though it frames its mission in a social-benefit sort of way, it's a private organization. The problem is how to preserve that first element against the abuses that the second allows. The discussion of ethics seems focussed on shoring up the benevolence of the trusts. Trust managers simply need to be clearer on what the right thing to do is, and more committed to doing it. For example, Darby Bradley said:

Let me suggest that a land trust’s primary responsibility is to the Community At Large, and that because of this, we are obligated to think about the needs of that community which go far beyond land conservation. ... It is no longer ethical, in my view, to say that the job of a land trust is to conserve land, and that meeting all the other needs of the community is somebody else’s job. We must consider the larger big picture and the context within which we do our work. Back in the early days of the Land Trust Alliance, we could get away with thinking just about conserving land. The subject was so new to everybody, and our early efforts were so feeble (for the most part), that it didn’t really matter much what the context was.

What seems to be missing from this vision is a mechanism for ensuring that the ethical goals are met. External enforcement, such as the legal action that has prompted this ethical soul-searching, seem inadequate, particularly on a day-to-day basis. Some sort of internal checks and balances or incentives ought to be found that would inhibit trust managers from abusing the power that they attain as the owner of sorts of a large amount of land. The mission of a land trust means that the basic private property model, which is designed to enable one to do whatever one wants with one's property, is not enough.

There's also a problem of finding a mechanism for establishing the goals. The private decisionmaking model works well enough if the goal is strictly nature protection on the trust land. Nature can't effectively speak for itself, and so the role of a privileged interpreter, such as a land trust board with access to the latest ecological research, has a place. But if -- as Bradley argues, and I agree -- the role of trust land is broader, incorporating human needs and uses, as well as considering trust land in the context of the total landscape, things get trickier. There is a strong trend in the social sciences today away from the idea that any one actor, no matter how enlightened, is able to decide the proper land management regime. A broader participatory decisionmaking process (one that confers real power on community members) is necessary to make trust management more responsive to local needs, as well as giving the ultimate decision greater legitimacy.

On the other hand, the lack of this sort of broad participatory scheme is part of what makes land trusts effective at stopping development. To some degree it's the old dilemma of choosing between democracy and decisiveness. Beyond that, there's the problem that most people lack either the time, the energy, or the interest to do a good job of being in a participatory process. This means that such a process will not necessarily properly reflect the best interests of the community. Indeed, people often put land into trust specifically because they can't take care of it themselves, and thus they want to delegate that responsibility to a reliable institution. The point of the land trust is that it's given the responsibility to make decisions for the entrusters.


You Learn Something Every Day

A couple little linguistic tidbits I ran accross today:

  • An investigation of the urban legend that went around a little while ago claiming that "it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae." It turns out that the example sentence relies on a few extra tricks to make it work. What really caught my attention, though, were some of the foreign language ones. Finnish didn't work too well, in part because Finnish uses really long words instead of all the little un-jumble-able function words (like "by" and "and") that English has. On the other hand, I found the Spanish version to be just as readable as the English.

  • An answer to the origin of the racial term "Caucasian": apparently Johannes Blumenbach, the guy who invented it, thought Caucasians got their start when Noah's Ark ran aground in the Caucasus Mountains. This, of course, leads one to wonder where the other races got started, if they weren't on the Ark. I haven't been able to track down more information on Blumenbach's system. My best guess would be that, of Noah's three sons, two -- Japheth and Shem -- were thought at the time to be the ancestors of groups (Europeans and "Semitic" people, respectively) that would be classified as Caucasian. This means that the remaining four of Blumenbach's five (I'm guessing Negroid, Mongoloid, Australoid, and ... ?) split from Ham's descendants at a later date.


Catholic Church Kinda Sorta Maybe Supports Gay Rights

Church Open To Same-Sex Benefits Talk

Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Massachusetts yesterday told lawmakers that the state's bishops would "join the discussion" of granting domestic-partner benefits to same-sex couples, but that they remain opposed to legalizing gay marriage or civil unions.

... A spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese, the Rev. Christopher Coyne, echoed [Church lobbyist Daniel] Avila's position, saying the church is primarily interested in extending benefits that affect education and health matters in gay families with children. Such benefits would be unrelated to the institution of marriage, he said.

"I think what's actually being said is that the benefits that are necessary for the protection of children and families don't necessarily involve any kind of a redefinition of relationship or marital status," Coyne said.

What's interesting about this development is how the Massachusetts Church's position takes a different tack from most anti-gay-marriage arguments, including those made by Catholics. One very standard form of argument is to make a tight link between heterosexuality, the raising of children, and marriage -- usually in a form like "the only purpose of marriage is child-rearing, and only heterosexuals can have children, therefore only heterosexuals can get married."

As far as I can tell, given the confusion in what precisely the Church is advocating*, this article shows Catholics challenging both premises of the argument above. Their rejection of the idea that homosexual couples can't have children is obvious. And unlike many (including the Pope), they don't get around the problem by arguing that child rearing by homosexual couples is illegitimate. Whether because they've given up that fight as unwinnable, because they see that in most cases their ideal option of being raised by the biological mother and father isn't an option that's available to the children being raised by homosexual couples, or because they realize there's nothing wrong with being raised in a homosexual household, I can't say. But whatever their rationale, they've taken an important step in accepting homosexual parenthood as something that should be legitimized and supported by society and the state.

This position could easily lead one to support gay marriage, but the Church has attempted to get out of that conclusion by denying the other premise of the standard "marriage is for the children" argument: that child rearing is the sole purpose of marriage. In advocating the extension of only some of the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples, they seem to be saying "these are the elements of marriage that are about child rearing, and which -- for the sake of the children -- should be extended to any family." This implicitly identifies the other aspects of marriage, which they would deny to homosexual couples, as being about the married people rather than about the children. I'm a bit skeptical that the elements of marriage can be so neatly classified, and of course I don't see any reason to deny the non-child-related elements of marriage to homosexual couples. But what the Church has done here with its position is interesting.

*I don't know how much of this is the writer's fault and how much of it is the existence of dissent among members of the Catholic hierarchy, which can't be directly acknowledged due to the institutional and theological arrangements of the Church.


We Have To Do Something

One of the more popular rhetorical strategies used by Republicans lately is to accuse their opponents of not wanting to do anything. Opponents of the war in Iraq wanted to let Saddam do whatever he wants, opponents of the Healthy Forests Initiative want to let people's homes burn down, opponents of the PATRIOT Act want to tell al-Qaida "thank you sir, may I have another?"

On one level, this is an example of the logical fallacy of the false dilemma. The user of this fallacy offers two choices -- support the war or let Saddam off the hook, for example -- as if between them they exhausted the possibilities, when in fact they do not.

On another level, Republicans are able to make the false dilemma into a true one. They're able to do this because they're in power (and presumably the Democrats would do the same thing if they controlled both Congress and the White House). And they're able to do this because the policy debate takes place not only on the discursive level, but on the level of voting. Voting lacks the nuance of speech, particularly the ability to challenge the terms of the question and introduce alternatives. It's yes or no on the measure at hand. And the people in power -- the Republicans, at present -- have the ability to define what options are on the table. They're able to simplify the debate so that voting for Healthy Forests or doing nothing about wildfire do in fact exhaust the available courses of action. (Of course, the Democrats aren't totally powerless, so the situation right now is slightly less rigid than the pure case that I'm presenting for the sake of argumentative clarity.)

This is one reason to take those "report cards" that interest groups issue about voting records with a grain of salt. The groups issuing the card define one vote as doing something good about the environment/guns/abortion/whatever, and the other as not. This misses out on people who would like a third option and don't think the option on the table is good enough. Further, it conflates actual support for a measure with voting for a bad measure so as to look like you're on the right side or that you do want to do something about the issue. In one sense, this isn't so bad, since it's the votes that actually count, not what an official feels in his or her heart. But those votes are dependent on the power relations at the time of the vote. The Democrats would come off looking much more like they want to do something about terrorism if they had the power to define what something we were going to consider doing about terrorism.

Anyone who can make a false dilemma into a true one in this fashion is in a good position. They can smuggle quite a lot of objectionable (to their opponents) things into the "do something" option, trusting that the overall package is still better than doing nothing and that a better version can't be introduced into the choice. The side without power, meanwhile, is in an unenviable situation. The dilemma facing Congressional Democrats over the $87 billion request for Iraq is the most prominent example. They're stuck between not wanting to endorse the administration's adventure in Iraq, but also not wanting to do nothing for the people of Iraq or the American soldiers serving over there. While I would vote yes in this artificially de-falsified dilemma, I can understand others voting no.

Some Democratic leaders seem to have found a way that may alter the terms of the debate in situations like this. It's a solution that's dependent on the less-powerful party still having a sizeable chunk of power. What they're doing is making a credible threat to do nothing. The powerful party will, presumably, want something to be done. Faced with the possibility of getting nothing done, they may be convinced to alter the nature of the "do something" option, making it more palatable to partisans of a third option that has been taken out of the universe of possibility.

The threat to do nothing is most clear in the case of filibustering nominees. Both sides would like to see offices filled. The Republicans have tried to define the terms of the debate to be a righ-winger or nobody. By using the power of the filibuster -- siezing the "do nothing" option in the face of an undesirable "something" -- the Democrats hope to put the Republicans in the position of either nominating more moderate candidates, or doing nothing. The filibuster takes certain options out of the universe of possible courses of action. On the discursive level, anything is still fair game -- people can say they want an ideologue rather than a moderate or nobody. But on the practical level, that option has been taken out of play if the filibuster strategy is successful.


Ecuadorian Law

Ecuadoreans sue U.S. oil company over pollution in Amazon

A decade after Texaco pulled out of the Amazon jungle, the U.S. petroleum giant went on trial in a lawsuit filed on behalf of 30,000 poor Ecuadoreans who say the company's 20 years of drilling poisoned their homeland.

... The lawsuit alleges that Texaco took advantage of lax Ecuadorean environmental standards to cut costs by pouring wastewater brought to the surface by drilling into some 350 open pits instead of reinjecting it deep underground.

... ChevronTexaco has denied the allegations, saying it followed Ecuadorean environmental laws and spent $40 million under a clean-up agreement with the Ecuadorean government in 1995. The government certified the clean-up three years later.

The claim is that Ecuador's laws allowed Texaco to do something bad. And Texaco's defense is that the law allowed it to do what it did. I'm glad we can agree on the facts, then. I don't know much about the Ecuadorian justice system, but the way the article puts it makes it sound like the plaintiffs' case is weak on legal grounds. That's the tricky thing about the law system -- it explicitly defines the terms you're allowed to debate something on, so that it becomes difficult to go to court over something that was clearly wrong if there's no relevant law. In the abstract, this is a good thing -- it's beneficial to be able to know with some certainty what standards you'll be subject to, in order to plan your actions. But it's problematic when right and legal don't line up.

Rick Santorum Inadvertantly Supports Gay Marriage

Pass Protection

... Well, Gary Bauer, cover your eyes, but [Senator Rick] Santorum came frighteningly close to endorsing gay marriage. By the time he got to these two lines of his response, the force of the logic he was employing to escape the paradox of marriage promotion and marriage protection had acquired an intriguing momentum of its own: "And I'm not suggesting that single men -- heterosexual, homosexual -- [or] single women -- heterosexual, homosexual -- without children should get married. I mean that's -- if they want to get married, if that's the time of their life they want to do that, that's fine." So there you have it. Rick Santorum on gay marriage: "That's fine."

More support for my point that anti-gay people often make the best pro-gay arguments.

Blog Labels

It's interesting sometimes to notice where you wind up in a categorized blogroll. Take for example the link to me on two blogs I would consider progressive, Alas A Blog and Nathan Newman. Alas lists me under "To Alas' Right," which confused me, making me think that maybe Amp or bean had visited on a day I was being particularly contrarian, and thus got a skewed view of where I stand. Then I noticed two things: 1) There's an "Even further right" category, where all the actual conservatives live, and 2) I was in good company in "To Alas' Right," being listed with Matthew Yglesias and Calpundit, probably my two favorite political blogs. All this made me remember that Alas is a progressive/lefty blog, and so one could be quite liberal while still being to their right. Then I was re-confused by the fact that someone like skippy the bush kangaroo would be listed under "Blogs of a Feather," since (partisanship of our tone aside) I would have said that skippy and I agree on the substance of most issues. Indeed, I probably agreed more with skippy than with those of my category-mates whose blogs I knew well, since the latter were liberal hawks with last-minute regrets rather than opponents of the war all along.

For a while I thought there was something screwy with the TTLB Blogosphere Ecosystem, since it listed me as having a link from Nathan Newman that I couldn't find. Apparently the trick was that Ctrl-F is case sensitive, and Newman went ahead and capitalized my blog name*. Now that I've discovered that, I've found myself listed under "Progressive Blogs." This was a bit odd to me, since I don't identify with the term "progressive" (though perhaps my politics fit someone else's definition of "progressive" -- one professor once told me he admired my "unique brand of radicalism"). In this case, "progressive" seems to mean "left of center," since the category seems to be basically "other blogs that I don't read with any regularity, but which exist."

All this is not to accuse Alas or Newman of miscategorizing me. It's just an observation of how one's self-image can be called into question by how other people categorize you.

* I'm still not sure why I don't capitalize it. As my post titles and article headlines indicate, in general I prefer to err on the side of too much capitalization. But after two-plus years, I'm kind of attached to the lower-case title.


Something Frivolous

I just got a hit from somene searching for "aral tradition call and response mean." It just so happens that in my research I came across an ancient Central Asian chant. It goes something like this:

When I say Uzbek, you say Istan!
When I say Tajik, you say Istan!

Who Does A Gay-Straight Alliance Hurt?

Tex. Students Sue To Organize Gay Club At High School

... Now [Rene] Caudillo is embroiled in a lawsuit against Lubbock's public school system, the latest in a handful of disputes pitting gay teenagers who have organized gay student groups against school districts that have objected to the clubs.

... Lawyers for the school district argue that the Equal Access Act permits schools to override students' free speech rights and forbids clubs if they jeopardize students' well-being. In support of that argument, they cite a little-known section of the Texas Penal Code that prohibits gay activity between youths younger than 17. Allowing a Gay-Straight Alliance amounts to giving students license to break the law, said Ann Manning, an attorney for the school district.

I like how anti-gay lawyers sometimes make the best arguments for the pro-gay side. The article makes it pretty clear that not having a Gay-Straight Alliance is jeapordizing the well-being of the town's gay students, since they would then lack the support and community that they need to maintain their psychological, and perhaps even physical, health in an overtly homophobic environment.

UPDATE: I've added the end of the second paragraph quoted above, which clarifies how the school's lawyers think the "well-being" clause applies. The legal argument is not that homosexuality is bad (though I don't doubt they'll bring that up), but that for minors it's illegal. Not having a copy of the law in question on hand, I can't say whether it ought to be invalidated by the Lawrence decision -- it's plausible that it wouldn't be, since the rationale for legalizing sodomy tends to talk about "two consenting adults."

My thought following that was that maybe the club could work around the restriction, presuming that the "gay activity" prohibited by the law is simply gay sex, and not, say, displays of homosexual affection. A Gay-Straight Alliance would have its work cut out for it in terms of combatting homophobia and educating people, so it wouldn't need to talk about gay sex specifically, and certainly not in the context of minors doing it.

Then it occurred to me that there is a need for gay kids to be able to talk about gay sex. Children are typically expected to acquire reliable knowledge about sex from "the talk" with their parents, and sex ed in schools. In a place like Lubbock suspect that such knowledge is not forthcoming for gay students (except insofar as they can translate hetero sex ed into the homo sphere), since their parents and teachers are likely to be unable (because they lack personal experience with it) and unwilling (because of their conservative mores) to discuss responsible gay sex practices. This doesn't have to be the mission, or even a mission, of the Gay-Straight Alliance, but it strikes me as something that ought to be done somehow.

Kerry And The Environment

John Kerry has announced his environmental plan, and overall I give it high marks. It has a forward-looking tone, keeping the Bush-bashing to a minimum. And he denies (though perhaps not as vigorously as he could) the simplistic premise that the success of the environment and the economy are mutually exclusive.

Now I shall nitpick. His first of six points is a re-invigoration of the cleanup of local toxic sites (such as those treated under the Superfund program). His sub-points here are good, emphasizing the need for increased federal funding and the promotion of green spaces like parks. However, one important point is missing: the community. While he refers to the highest-priority sites as "Environmental Empowerment Zones," the overall thrust of his plan is a government-led top-down approach, in which cleanup is something that we do for affected communities, rather than with them. My own experiences in Palmerton suggest that there's a real danger in government programs coming in already knowing what needs to be done for a community. And even if the government is ultimately right in its analysis, the process of community involvement is still important. For example, the "Neighbor Helping Neighbor" lawn restoration program in Palmerton had benefits (in terms of reinforcing civil society and social relationships) that went beyond just getting grass growing in people's yards, and that would not accrue if we had simply hired some outside contractor to redo everyone's lawn. I have a suspicion that lack of community involvement is a major problem with the Superfund program. In doing some preliminary research for my job this semester, I was surprised to discover that only 71 sites had COmmunity Advisory Groups. Certainly there may be some sites where cleanup is so straightforward that no community input is needed, but I remain suspicious of how low that number is.

Point two is, again, good on the whole. I am especially pleased that his sub-points include:
1. Reinvest royalties obtained from extracting resources from public lands back into protecting our lands and special places; ...

3. Put new teeth into requirements that private companies and individuals who lease public lands return the land to its original state after completing energy development, grazing, or timber operations; ...

7. Modernize our mining laws and provide a fair return to the American people for mining operations on public lands.

I hope that sub-point 7 means that mining will be subject to the same sorts of restoration requirements (perhaps including posting a pre-development restoration bond so that if the company goes bottom-up, the country isn't stuck with the cleanup bill). I would also hope that the economic concerns woven in here mean that the government will stop subsidizing the overproduction of lumber on public lands.

Nevertheless, there is one big point that Kerry completely misses: fire. Catastrophic wildfires such as we've seen in the west the past few years (though this summer we dodged the bullet), as well as the unhealthy forests and rangelands that result from too much fire suppression, are one of the top threats to both our environment and the people that live and work in it. Much of the criticism of Bush's environmental policy has centered on the "Healthy Forests Initiative," which is ostensibly meant to reduce fire danger. Yet Kerry does not mention wildfire anywhere in his environmental plan. In his list of top ten environmental insults he makes "Healthy Forests" number five. Yet he focuses entirely on the way the plan will sell out our environment to timber companies. That's true, but as Bush's apologists remind us, we do need to address the issue of fire. It's not just a smokescreen cooked up to hide the logging giveaway, the way Bush's erroneous claims about environmental litigation are. Kerry needs a substantive policy on how we can change course from decades of fire suppression. I would suggest that a sensible plan would include changes in land use (such as limits on backcountry logging and zoning restrictions on development in fire-prone areas), the use of prescribed and natural burns, some mechanical thinning in buffer zones around settled areas, and public education on how fire works and what can be done about it.


Yum Yum Bumblebee, Bumblebee Tuna ...

No Cure For Songs Stuck In Your Head

... "Earworm" is the term coined by University of Cincinnati marketing professor James Kellaris for the usually unwelcome songs that get stuck in people's heads. Since beginning his research in 2000, Kellaris has heard from people all over the world requesting help, sharing anecdotes and offering solutions.

"I quickly learned that virtually everybody experiences earworms at one time or another," he said. "I think because it's experienced privately and not often a topic of conversation, maybe people really long for some social comparison. They want to know if other people experience what they experience."

-- via Dave Barry

Not often a topic of conversation? What kind of weirdos does he talk to?

Gays In The Military

Eugene Volokh has a post up about campuses barring the military from recruiting because it discriminates against gays. I think he is too accomodating to arguments that there's a rationale for excluding gay soldiers (though for the sake of argument he presumes that that rationale is insufficient), and looks too favorably on the overall role of the military (as if all they do is protect our freedoms, and the only downside is Don't Ask Don't Tell). Neverthelesss, he hits on two points I've made about the similar pro-gay rejection of the Boy Scouts -- reducing the possibility of change from within, and ignoring the benefits of the organization.


The Perils Of Efficiency

Largest Ever Study Finds GM Crops "Harm Wildlife"

The world's biggest scientific experiment into the environmental impact of genetically-modified crops, conducted on British farms, has shown that GM rapeseed and sugar beet are more harmful to wildlife than conventionally grown plants.

... Scientists unveiling the results at the Science Centre in London said some insect groups, such as bees in beet crops and butterflies in beet and spring rape, were recorded more frequently in and around conventional crops because there were more weeds to provide food and cover.

... Researchers stressed that the differences they found were not a direct result of the way in which the crops had been genetically modified. They arose because the GM crops gave farmers taking part in the trials new options for weed control.

The upshot of this seems to be that GM herbicide resistance works too well. The ideal of a modern farm is to have all crops of even quality, with no other organisms (such as pests and weeds) damaging or competing with the target crop species. Without modern agricultural technology, this ideal could only be roughly approximated. But advances -- most recently the development of GM -- have pushed us closer and closer.

Any ideal is a simplification and an abstraction. The real world is messy and complex. And to some degree I think the world depends on its messy complexity. Too perfect a realization of an ideal can undermine a system. For another crop-based example, take the genetic uniformity promoted by the use of high-tech hybrid and GM seed varieties. These even out the variable quality of more "natural" plants, pushing us closer to having the Form of the plant visible here in the cave. But that very variability becomes crucial when the crops are subject to stresses from climate or pests and diseases, and need the raw material for evolution. Perhaps the problem could be eliminated if we could realize our ideals across the entire universe, so that these idealized systems wouldn't be upset by their interface with the remaining messy parts of the world. But that degree of control is not in our power. So our idealized systems depend on their residual messiness to sustain themselves.

The model of genetic diversity doesn't entirely map on to the "weeds are good for wildlife" conclusion of the article I quoted. The article gives no indication that the wildlife are good for the farmer, presenting them instead as a worthwhile value in addition to farm productivity. One could retort "well, good riddance to that wildlife. It shouldn't be in the field in the first place." But it's also plausible that there is in fact such a connection (either directly or in a larger landscape health sense), in addition to the fact that one could argue that "farm productivity" and "wildlife" are both contributors to the larger goal of a good society.

This post is not an all-out attack on creating idealized systems (I don't think it's even a definitive statement that, on the basis of the study quoted, GM herbicide resistance is too idealized). Some degree of idealization is how people work, how we interact with our surroundings. It's often a very productive method. The key is to be cautious about going too far, and falling victim to the hubris of thinking we can get everything under control.


Goats versus fire

Goats Helping Cut Wildfire Risk

While forest officials looked for a way to stave off devastating wildfires this spring, hundreds of goats on the Navajo Reservation weren't getting enough to eat.

Thus a symbiotic relationship was born.

The Prescott National Forest has been using about 650 goats to eat chaparral and other brush as part of a six-month pilot project to provide a fire buffer around forest area homes.

This reminds me of a theory proposed by Tim Flannery about Australian fire. He claimed that Aboriginal burning began in earnest after the extinction of the marsupial megafauna. Fire was essentially a replacement for the megafauna, consuming vegetation and excreting nourishing ash. I disagree with Flannery's theory about the extinction of the megafauna -- he supports the blitzkreig overhunting theory, which I don't buy because (among other things) I believe the Aborigines arrived thousands of years earlier than Flannery thinks they did, thus weakening the ability to swiftly hunt the megafauna out before the Aborigines learned to live appropriately with their new environment. So I'm suspicious of his other megafauna-related theories, though I don't know that extinction due to hunting is necessary to make the "replacement by fire" theory work. There does seem to have been a change in the interaction of fire with the landscape, leading to greater alterations by human burning, around the time that the last megafauna went extinct, so it's plausible that there's a link between faunal change and fire behavior. On the other hand, the megafauna were hardly the only significant herbivores, so it's an open question how much impact their extinction had (especially since other animals could move into their niche as easily as fire could).

Comic and commentary from this week

This is sort of a second stab at the theme from the "God on the Dole" comic I did a couple weeks ago. I think this one turned out better, although I'm still not sure how best to make someone look scuffy and dirty (which I would have liked to do to the 3rd Century guy).

I wrote my commentary at the last minute to fill space, but it was something I'd had the idea for for a while : "Disillusioned With Howard Dean". It's got a hastily done cartoon as well. It took me a while to get the weasels to look like weasels.

More environmental good news

House Republicans are drafting a proposal that would end the federal ban on offshore oil and gas drilling, while giving states greater say on whether they want energy development in their coastal waters, congressional sources say.

... The Bush administration has said it has no intention of tampering with the OCS moratoria that were first imposed by Congress on a yearly basis in the 1980s, and in 1990 were extended for 10 years by the first President Bush. In 1998, President Clinton extended them again to 2012.

Good onya, George (for now). I suspect that this may be a question of soliarity with Republican governors who oppose oil drilling. Bush's new buddy Arnold Schwarzenegger is opposed to oil drilling in California, and I recall hearing (I can't find a link) that the First Brother, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, feels similarly. Both those states depend on coastal tourism, which could be threatened by oil drilling. This is in contrast to a state like Texas (which is not affected by the moratorium) or Alaska, which already have well-developed and important oil industries.

On the other hand, the revision makes provision for some states to retain moratoria if they so choose. I wouldn't be surprised if George ultimately takes this federalist sort of view, figuring that Jeb and Arnold don't need the national government's help to shore up their resistance to oil drilling, while letting other states have their oil operations.


Giving Bush the benefit of the doubt

I found this interesting article on George Bush's environmental record through the President's soulless campaign blog. The argument is that Democratic criticisms are way out of proportion, and that in fact Bush has been pretty good, environment-wise. The article points out some important things about the long-term trend of improving environmental quality in this country, as well as reminding us of a few unequivocally good environmental moves Bush has made, such as improved diesel and farm vehicle emissions standards. But Easterbrook (the author) goes too far in trying to give some of Bush's bad policies the benefit of the doubt. On the Healthy Forests Initiative, he says:

But hasn't the president imposed an evil new forest policy designed to encourage logging? First, it's not so clear that logging is a bad idea; it's one of the few endlessly sustainable industries. Also, Bush's new forest policy leaves most important decisions to local managers from the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Though they may abuse their new discretion, it's also possible they will use it wisely. For that reason the effect of Bush's forest policy is hard to project — but regardless, something had to be done to reduce the wildfires plaguing the West.

Logging as it's currently practiced is not necessarily endlessly sustainable -- it's possible to do long-term damage to an ecosystem through over-logging. Further, I'm always immediately suspicious of any "but we have to do something justification for any policy. Even if we set aside the non-fire-related impacts of Healthy Forests, it remains quite possible that Healthy Forests will be worse than doing nothing. Roads and logged areas are among the most susceptible areas to damaging fire. It's like shooting a person in a coma because we had to do something to try to revive them. I'm not willing to give Bush an "A" for effort.

Isn't the president engaged in a sinister plan to allow drilling on public lands? New White House rules do make it easier to drill for oil and natural gas on public lands. But you can't demand no oil drilling and also demand no mileage restrictions on SUVs. Until American voters are willing to make a serious commitment to energy conservation — and there is no sign of this — it's hypocritical to insist that oil and gas must be produced out of sight, out of mind.

What environmentalists has Easterbrook been talking to who don't want to demand reductions in fossil fuel use? Indeed, it seems that a tightening of the gas supply due to putting some oil fields off limits would be a nice incentive for conservation. American voters also want low taxes and high levels of government services, and have to be forced into making a tough choice by fiscal realities. The gas market works the same way. Then again, the amount of oil that the US can produce domestically is tiny. Perhaps Americans agree that that small increase in oil isn't worth the environmental destruction.

The church's moral leadership on gay rights

There's a bit of irony in the arguments against the Episcopal Church's acceptance of gays. On the one hand, the pro-gay stance is condemned as a capitulation to popular mores, sacrificing what's right for what's culturally convenient in an effort to reach out to religiously apathetic Americans. On the other hand, we're told that accepting homosexuality will hurt recruitment of Christians in conservative African countries, where people will reject the "gay religion" in favor of homophobic Islam. Apparently making doctrine by popular vote is only acceptable if the voters are from the Third World.

The critics are right that, while the church's style and language should be sensitive to cultural change in order to speak more effectively to people, its teachings should not be based on what worshippers want to hear. The church has a long tradition of providing moral leadership and telling people the tough truths they need, but don't want, to hear (as well as a shameful and perhaps longer tradition of doing the opposite). What they're wrong about is the idea that gay rights is a capitulation to popular culture. While I have high hopes that the mood of the country is changing, at present America is split evenly on the question of accepting gay relationships. Telling people that homosexuality should be treated no differently than heterosexuality is going to be a hard battle, especially among more religious people. Right or wrong (and since I'm not an Episcopalian, I won't venture a view about whether the Biblical justification for homosexuality is consistent with that church's exegetical principles), the liberal theologians who were recently victorious are attempting to lead their flock in a new direction and challenge the depth of their faith versus the depth of their commitment to a homophobic culture.

Opponents of Christian gay rights like to point out that the church thrives when it gives people clear philosophical principles and takes tough stands about right and wrong. The apparent capitulationism and wishy-washiness of some current Christian gay rights advocacy is an issue of style, not content (and it may even point out the difficulty of taking a pro-gay stance, since a weak style is often used to placate powerful enemies). As far as I'm concerned, a commitment to sexual equality is a clear principle that takes a tough stand about what's right. The conservatives just don't want their cultural comfort zone challenged.


Columbus Day

Matthew Yglesias gets snippy about President Bush's Columbus Day announcement. Based on Bush's remarks, Columbus day is only minimally about a Genoese captain who thought he could sail to the East Indies but wound up in the Caribbean. Instead, it's Italian-American* Pride Day with a less-PC-corny name. I agree that the change sounds dumb, but I think that all in all it's a better direction for the holiday to go in. Columbus isn't a man I much fancy celebrating, given his poor treatment of the people he mistakenly called "Indians," as well as the additional abusers who followed him to this side of the Atlantic. It could perhaps go the way of St. Patrick's Day. In its American manifestation, St. Patrick's Day has barely anything to do with St. Patrick, and has instead become an Irish Pride day. This then raises the problem of having the government make one nationality's day a federal holiday, while the others aren't. The solution, I think, is to drop Columbus Day from the law (though the President may continue to issue statements wishing everyone a happy one, as he does on St. Patrick's Day).

Here's an interesting twist to the ethnic holidays thing: Based on a search of, St. Patrick's Day does not appear to have any Congressional force behind it in the way that Columbus Day does. But Leif Erikson day -- which celebrates Scandinavian heritage -- does. But we still don't get a day off for it, which makes the official stamp close to negligible in importance. Perhaps Leif Erikson Day is an explorer's day that people concerned about Native American dispossession could feel more comfortable about. After all, the "Skraelings" managed to drive the Vikings out of America, and they didn't come back until after Columbus.

* This confused me a bit at first, because I tend to think of Columbus as a Spaniard, since his voyage was financed by Spain. It took me a while to remember that he was originally from a city that would much later become part of Italy.


All work and no blog make Homer something something ...

Posting will be sparse for the next few days, as I take some time for visiting and try to catch up on the work I should have been doing while visiting.

Time travel

A warning to users of @mail: Wesley Clark was right. Time travel is possible. I hit the "back" button while reading my mail, and apparently the @mail system took that literally. When I got to my inbox, it had all my mail listed as having arrived on December 31, 1969. Groovy.


Academic political bias

In discussing academic discrimination based on political views, Jacob Levy says:

The actual argument developed in a lecture is likely to be a serious matter, and not as likely to create the appearance of hostility to views other than the professor's own. (After all, it's an argument.) It's the little jokes, one-liners, casual asides, and obviously-everybody-knows comments that you've got to watch out for. This is a familiar point with regard to hostile environments against, e.g., women. But it's also true as regards whether the classroom is experienced as a place open to political disagreements. The more a prof's lecture is peppered with these little asides and dicta, the more the impression is created that views other than the prof's own won't be given a respectful hearing.

I've noticed a lot of these little asides this semester (more so than usual). My GIS professor likes to compare simple Ordered Weighted Average techniques to Reaganomics. My Geography of Fire professor refers to the President as "Georgie."* My Resource Geography professor opened class today by pointing out that the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger won the election in California proves that Americans are too stupid to govern themselves. On the one hand, these kind of things are probably not terribly discriminatory in effect simply because there are so few conservatives at Clark (and even fewer among the grad students), and both the liberals and the Marxists can agree that George Bush is a terrible president. But sometimes they even annoy me, and I agree with the sentiment behind them.

* This is one of my pet peeves: people disparagingly referring to public figures by mocking nicknames. The 2000 election was not between "albore" and "$hrub," and California's new governor is not "Ahnuld." If someone has to resort to such childish tactics, I begin to suspect they don't have a real argument.


Green houses

Little Solar Houses For You And Me

The most obvious clue to the larger picture -- a two-kilowatt BP Millenia thin-film solar system -- can be seen glinting on the rooftop of the home of Adam Indrajaya and Lina Kinandjar, a landscape worker and pastry decorator, respectively, who moved to Tennessee from Malaysia six years ago. The solar panels were provided by the Tennessee Valley Authority (the public electricity supplier throughout the seven-state region of the Southeast) and the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (located just miles away in Oak Ridge, Tenn.), which teamed up with Habitat for Humanity to build this experimental settlement.

Even more impressive than the rooftop installation is the Oak Ridge-designed technology beneath it: special insulated walls, windows, and floors; energy-efficient lighting, appliances, and ducting; and state-of-the-art systems for heating, air conditioning, and hot water. The laboratory also added more esoteric efficiency measures, such as a system that captures the heat from shower water after it goes down the drain, and even one that captures the warmth that comes off the coils behind the fridge.

... Yet the family consumes roughly 25 kilowatts of electricity a day -- less than half the 60-kilowatt average in the U.S. And whether they intend to or not, the couple may be setting a lifestyle precedent for thousands, and perhaps millions, of others nationwide. Oak Ridge is working with the DOE to come up with a prototype house that, by 2010, will cost the same to build as a conventional middle-class home while being 50 to 70 percent more efficient and functioning as a net-zero-energy home (meaning it can produce as much energy per year as it consumes). "Right now, all too frequently, the typical solar home is something akin to a customized Cadillac," said Jeff Christian, director of the Buildings Technology Center at Oak Ridge and the man in charge of the Habitat for Humanity project. "What we're trying to do is come up with the Volkswagen of net-zero-energy homes."

This all sounds great, but one thing that the article didn't really address was the issue of retrofitting existing houses. A couple years ago Professor Klepeis took us out to see his new house, which he built using a variety of green ideas (though it wasn't as fancy as the house in this article). He told us that he had thought about trying to green-up one of the existing houses in Hamilton, but concluded it wasn't within his budget.

Even setting aside qualms about suburban sprawl, since these houses seem to offer a technical fix for obvious environmental issues without requiring much of a lifestyle change, it's simply not feasible to build a high-tech new house for every person. Things like recycling, low-flow toilets, and more energy-efficient refrigerators worked because they could be slotted in to the existing building infrastructure. But getting some of the improvements the article describes might almost require rebuilding from scratch.

Greenpeace gets in trouble

Seeing Greenpeace

Specifically, [charity watchdog group] PIW accuses Washington-based Greenpeace of shifting tax-deductible donations from Greenpeace Fund — its reputedly educational, public-interest-oriented 501(c)(3) — to Greenpeace, Inc., a more directly political and activist unit. As such, the Internal Revenue Code designates the latter as a 501 (c)(4).

"Greenpeace has devised a system for diverting tax-exempt funds and using them for non-exempt — and oftentimes illegal — purposes," Hardiman said in unveiling the grievance. "It's a form of money laundering, plain and simple."

... If Greenpeace runs afoul of tax authorities, it will not be the first time. Revenue Canada withdrew the tax-free status of the Greenpeace Environmental Foundation in 1989. The Canadian federal tax unit ruled that tax-exempt organizations there had to provide some public benefit, and that Greenpeace did not.

"I do not think it can be assumed that remedying any and all forms of pollution always conveys a public benefit," wrote Carl Juneau, assistant director of the charities division, according to Stewart Bell's account in the June 5, 1999 National Post [story here]. "At the least, the possibility of countervailing detriment to the public has to be entertained and competing interests weighed. For example, closing down a polluting mill may make for a cleaner town and a healthier population, but it may also propel that population into poverty."

If PIW's charges are correct, Greenpeace seems to be in trouble. But it's a different kind of trouble than the trouble that they apparently encountered in Canada. The US challenge is based on the idea that money taken in by the non-profit arm of the organization was used for political activity, which is not allowed to be tax-exempt. The Canada challenge appears to have been based on a judgement that Greenpeace's activity was not beneficial to the public. The political versus nonpolitical activity distinction, while slippery and questionable, seems on the whole more neutral and less subjective than the benefits society versus doesn't benefit society distinction.

Perhaps it's just my ignorance of Canadian law, I'm a bit disconcerted by the idea that the government can revoke a charity's status based on whether it was benefitting the public. It seems like that's a determination that the charity's funders ought to be making, and enforcing according to whether they donate money or not. I'm a bit skeptical myself of whether Greenpeace's activities, on the whole, are beneficial to the public (it's a milder version of my complaint against direct-action tactics in the case of ELF). At best, the government can step in when an organization actively harms society in a substantial way -- that is, when it commits a crime. But civil society should have wide latitude to pursue different ideas of what benefits society.

On the other hand, preventing an organization from moving money about from fund to fund is necessary to make that private vote of dollars work. If I were to contribute money to Greenpeace's education fund, believing that those activities were beneficial to society, I'd be a bit upset if they were using that money to fund direct action that I see as detrimental to society.


They need me

Australia Burning To Learn Better Bushfire Science

Australia was crying out for sound science on bushfire management to help it fight fires and curb the debate over hazard reduction burning, fire experts were told yesterday.

Speaking at the third international wildland fire conference in Sydney, the Federal Science Minister, Peter McGauran, said there was a big split on bushfires, and people were now looking to scientists to "break the deadlock" between pro-burning and anti-burning special interest groups.

... Bob Alexander, of NSW Fire Brigades, told the conference that a survey of communities affected by the 2001-02 Black Christmas fires showed most residents had a poor understanding of the risk posed by bushfires and how to preserve their lives and property.

This is encouraging in a way, since I'm planning on researching Australian bushfire for my dissertation. Of course, ceteris paribus things would be better if people knew everything they needed to know about bushfire already. But if there are going to be gaps in our knowledge, I can't complain if those gaps are ones I'm interested in helping to fill. The article focuses mostly on the need for biophysical sorts of research about the best frequency of burns and so forth. But if people are as ill-informed about fire as the study cited in the third paragraph I quoted suggests, there may be plenty of room for what I'd like to do -- a study of the social mechanisms for how people acquire, process, and transmit information about fire and fire safety.

Dog on fire

While I'm on this "stories about animals" kick ...

Small Wildfire Started By Burning Dog

... Northern Idaho firefighters say they’ve never seen anything like this: A couple driving a van on Saturday ran out of gas and pulled off Highway 95 near Culdesac.

Fire Chief Gary Gilliam says the motorist tried to prime the van’s carburetor with starting fluid.

But the carburetor backfired, throwing fire into the cab and onto a dog sitting on the lap of a female passenger.

... The dog rolled onto the dry grass, starting a fire.


Something To Gnaw On

So you may have been unaware, especially if you keep a garden compost pile out back, that the world had a shortage of rats. And that scientists have been desperately trying to clone them in labs in Missouri and France. Growing more rats might strike some as akin to developing a new strain of herpes, a potentially interesting project on paper, but why? The rat group spent years on 875 unsuccessful tries before successfully cloning Ralph and three other rats.

Cloning herpes is like cloning newspaper editors with an inflated sense of their own funniness.

On a more serious note, the premise of the criticism is the popular idea that cloning is about cheaply mass-producing organisms. Maybe I'm shortsighted, but I don't see that as being the practical application of cloning. If we needed more rats, the sensible thing to do would be to let them breed. Cloning, no matter how cheap and easy (at the moment it's very expensive and very hard) offers no improvement, in volume and time terms, over breeding. The clone still has to grow up from an embryo. What cloning offers is a way to ensure that the organisms you produce have certain genetic characteristics. So we hope that, for example, investing the money in cloning lab animals will allow us to weed out genetic differences that could complicate tests. The much-feared army of a million Hitlers is worrisome not because there are so many of them -- it would be much easier to recruit, or even breed, a genetically diverse army -- but because they would include Hitler's genes, which would presumably incline them to be genocidal maniacs.


Pope vs. poodle sweaters

Owners Of Pampered Pets In The Doghouse

An authoritative magazine published by the Jesuits has lashed out at the culture of pampered pets, saying animals have no souls or rights.

The Roman Catholic magazine Civilta Cattolica, whose contents are approved by the Vatican, criticised the spending of "good money" on outlandish pet foods, calling the practice mad and "morally condemnatory".

Such money, it said, would be better spent on nobler causes, "such as the starving children of the Third World". "Animals don't have rights, because these belong to Man," it declared on Friday.

I'm a bit reluctant to comment on this since I don't know Italian and hence can't read the original article. But I'll presume that the Telegraph-via-Sydney Morning Herald version captures the essence of it.

Based on the summary, it looks like we're dealing with two separate propositions -- that money spent on pampering pets is better spent on needy humans, and that animals are not moral entities. The first proposition is framed as utilitarianism -- the philosophy that we should use our resources so as to maximize the benefits to all moral entities (typically including just humans). That's all we need so long as we're dealing with pampering. Pampering is care that goes beyond meeting needs. But an injunction to buy Meow Mix instead of Fancy Feast and give the savings to Oxfam could be produced by a hard-line animal rights view that makes animals moral entities on the same level as humans. The utilitarian consideration that not starving creates more happiness than wearing one of those little poodle sweaters is enough to do the work. At most, the soullessness of animals would direct where you spent the savings from not pampering anything -- the children of Kabul rather than the Kabul Zoo.

It would be helpful to know if the Jesuits would condemn, say, the Humane Society. Humane Society pets aren't pampered by any usual definition. Yet the Society does expend a great deal of money and time caring for them and finding homes for them. If animals are truly moral non-entities, the Humane Society's resources would be better spent feeding poor humans (and indeed some people will argue this). It's possible that if one denied all rights to animals, any care of an animal would seem to be a sort of pampering. The article does mention that humans are to care for nature and be good stewards, but it's not clear whether that simply means to abstain from wanton cruelty, or if it entails a positive duty to help suffering animals -- such as the strays the Humane Society takes in, or the denizens of the Kabul Zoo. If the latter, we once again get very close to the conclusions of an animal-rights utilitarianism.

It's interesting that the article saw animal rights as the underpinning for pampering of animals. Certainly, many people -- pamperers and non-pamperers -- tend to think of their pets as people (and are bemused by the fact that the pets seem to agree). But in my experience (admittedly anecdotal), people who articulate a strong animal rights view do not pamper their pets. Their concerns about animals are directed at those that are truly suffering (which the Jesuits may agree deserve our help, at least in cases of wanton cruelty or environmental destruction, though there's probably a divergence of feeling over the meat industry).

I suspect most people that pamper their pets do it for the owner's benefit. An analogy to spoiled children suggests that egregious pampering is probably not in the pet's long-term best interest. In this sense, pampering one's pet is little different from pampering oneself with fancy clothes and food, or being obsessive over the niceness of one's car or house. Thus, what the Jesuits ought to be aiming at is not animal rights, but selfishness.

"Calvin and Hobbes" criticisms

I am apparently result #10 for "'calvin and hobbes' criticisms" on Google. So let me take this opportunity to point out to the person who found me with this search request that the only valid criticism of Calvin and Hobbes is that the strip isn't being drawn anymore.


Where are all the communitarians?

Russell Arben Fox has a post from a few days ago lamenting the lack of voices from self-professed communitarians and authoritarians -- that is, people who believe that lassiez-faire is bad in both the economic and the cultural realm. A few thoughts occurred to me to explain this absence:

1. There are a lot of communitarians, but they lack the affluence to be blogging, and the education to be articulating sophisticated political theories. I'm thinking here of blue-collar social conservatives. This is the inverse of the well-known fact that libertarians (the opposite of communitarians) are over-represented in the blogosphere compared to their representation in the overall population. Take, as a more specific example, Christian environmentalism. There's a strong trend among many socially conservative Christians to support environmental policies that go against the libertarian economic policies of their allies in the Republican party.

2. Liberal cultural lassiez-faire is overestimated, by both liberals and conservatives. Liberals use a very strongly libertarian rhetoric when discussing cultural issues. To some degree, I think tolerance is the refuge of the disempowered. Liberals have been struggling for a long time against the particular cultural forms that conservatives defend. Thus, it's strategically advantageous to appeal to a lassiez-faire attitude, which gives liberal cultures space to survive and develop. But when liberal cultures become the majority view, they quite easily begin positioning themselves as dominant, through devices such as university speech codes. At this point it's the conservatives who cry for tolerance -- in part because they hope it will be effective at changing the minds of people whose cultural authoritarianism is built on a claim of "tolerance," and partly because they need a degree of lassiez-faire in order to survive.

Meanwhile, conservatives like to hype the cultural lassiez-faire of liberals, making us all out to be disciples of Derrida or Lyotard. I had a discussion with the pastor of my church about this issue a while back, and posted a version of the argument here. My basic point was that the apparent chaos of liberal culture is a transitional phase, and that a new set of cultural norms is coalescing (for example, the unacceptability of sexist attitudes in liberal circles, rather than the old requirement that women be domestic and subservient). I wrote a commentary on a similar theme, arguing that lassiez-faire about gay rights is not enough -- we need to create a culture supportive of gay relationships. I think these sorts of views are common, though disguised, in the culturally radical left.

This brings me to an issue that I have with the libertarian basis for the "political compass" quiz, which is the best-known example of the sort of framework Fox is using to divide up political ideologies (I tend to come out somewhere in the middle of the left-libertarian quadrant). In such systems, the only alternative to liberty is government coercion. On this basis, I'm fairly libertarian. This is consistent with the underlying principle of libertarianism that overtly coercive action is the prime sin. Yet it misses the distinction between full liberty and non-state social forces. For example, David Bernstein says that, while he disagrees with "hostile environment" laws that could be used to legally force a deli owner to get rid of an anti-Semitic mural, he is in favor of non-coercive measures such as boycotts and public shaming to enforce a cultural norm of not being anti-Semitic. This resembles my stance on speech codes -- I oppose making legal barriers to racist or homophobic remarks, but I find such remarks unacceptable and am in favor of non-coercive means to encourage people not to make them (while balancing that with the need for hearing a plurality of ideas and not simply driving bigotry underground. It's the complexity of the cultural negotiation that makes hard-and-fast rules of the legal-coercive type undesirable). I suspect that "pure" libertarians -- the kind who would say that there's nothing wrong with anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia, thus making non-coercive sanctions subject to the same limits as coercive ones -- are not as common as people with attitudes more like mine or Bernstein's. It's just that libertarian thinking tends to cast non-coercive communitarianism as a form of liberty.


The issue isn't personal

A coalition of social conservative groups have declared October 12-18 "Marriage Protection Week," and hope to get President Bush to endorse it. I'd like to hope it's no more effective than, say, National Tractor Tire Manufacturers' Week. I was looking over the week's website, and I found this in their description of the threat posed by gay marriage advocates:

Their efforts are intended to force, by law, 97% of Americans to bow down to the desires of the approximately 3% who are homosexuals.

This quote reflects a widespread idea about interest in political causes, one that's particularly salient in the case of gay rights. There's an assumption that people's stance on an issue is heavily determined by its effects on them personally. The quote presumes that the only people that want gay marriage are gay people (and, moreover, that we heterosexuals are not just indifferent, but opposed to the idea). When I was talking about my blog to one of the guys I work for, I mentioned that one of the issues I often comment on is gay rights. He immediately inquired whether I was gay. The assumption is also made by the pro-gay side. A frequent argument is to ask an anti-gay-marriage heterosexual how it hurts them if some gay people get married, with the assumption being that the answer will be in the negative, and thus the person should mind their own business (nb: this argument is fine insofar as the person is trying to claim that their marriage, or that of other heterosexuals, is in fact hurt by gay marriage). There's also a widespread belief that if homophobic people got to know gays, or learned that people close to them (such as family members) were gay, they would change their beliefs. Loyalty to friends and relatives would thus make gay marriage a personal issue for heterosexuals.

I won't deny that this personal-interest basis for an opinion is common, and can often add vehemence and energy to a belief that would otherwise be the same content-wise, but considered less important compared to other concerns. But it really jumps out at me in the case of gay rights because my feelings on gay rights are not based substantially on any personal interest. As I mentioned, I am not gay, or even bisexual. At the time my views on gay rights first formed (freshman year of college), I didn't know a single out-of-the-closet gay person. Since then, I have met a number of homo- and bisexual people, but they don't figure in my thinking on the issue. I don't think about gay marriage as something that will benefit, say, Avi and Matt, and I'm not motivated by the personal story of any of my gay friends or acquaintances. Is it so weird to base your politics on justice, rather than self-interest?

More on gay Scouts

Vitriol Sullies Boy Scouts' "Patriotic Rally"

[The Boy Scout fundraising event] wasn't Scouting as I knew it, and part of the change can no doubt be attributed to the gay-rights issue. The Boy Scouts today bans gays from membership or leadership, even to the point of kicking out gay Eagle Scouts with long records of service. That has made the organization a target of gay-rights groups, and the darling of conservatives.

... At the fund-raiser, [featured speaker Ann] Coulter addressed the issue with her usual tact, talking of gays as perverts wanting to lure little boys into the woods. [Oliver] North also noted that he found gay Americans "personally offensive."

-- via The Hamster

I find people who think gays are all pedophiles "personally offensive," so we're even.


God on the dole

My comic from this week's Scarlet:

I'm not entirely happy with this one. My general style is to use as few words as possible (sort of the opposite of the Tom Tomorrow talking-heads approach), so I don't like that I had to put in all those "From" tags. On top of that, they feel a bit forced. I agonized for a while over whether they should even be in there, but eventually I decided they were necessary to avoid making it look like God's current riches were paid for by past welfare checks. I wish I had been able to sneak in little jokes about the different denominations in terms of what object their tag was on, but I didn't have the time or knowledge of denominational stereotypes to do that effectively. I had to resort to a thinner pen on this one, so that the tiny writing would be legible (though I still had to clean it up a lot in Photoshop). All-in-all, not my best work. Artistically, I like the cartoon that went with my commentary, "Dem Candidates On The Defensive," better.

Two depressing articles

The Nation has a good (in the sense of well-written and informative) article on how anti-gay backlash will ensure a large supply of votes for the Republicans. The article describes the party's plan to appeal to homophobia as a sort of dirty trick, used to reward and energize the far right wing. The implicit comparison is to the "Southern Strategy," in which Republican leaders give a wink and a nod to neo-confederate racists. However, one important element of the Southern Strategy is that the overtly racist views of the voters it appeals to are not shared by a large proportion of the Republican base. Whatever you think of their opposition to affirmative action or tolerance for racial profiling, the average Republican does not want to re-institute segregation.

Yet in the course of describing the magnitude of the threat, the article presents data demonstrating that the Homophobia Strategy is not a bone thrown to the extreme right wing. Around half of Americans think homosexuality is wrong and that gay marriage should not be allowed, and the proportion is even higher in certain key states. This means that the Republicans are simply representing the views of their voters. That's how democracy works. The procedure can't distinguish between despicable and laudable views, relying instead on the hope that views' despicableness will be obvious enough that not very many people will hold them. The fault lies not with the devious machinations of the GOP, but with the voters who have decided that some people shouldn't have the opportunity to form secure and loving relationships. It would be nice to see politicians exercising leadership, attempting to sway voters to a different view (as Howard Dean did), but there's only so much that can be done when the message from voters is so clear.

The other depressing article I found today informs us that abuse isn't a big deal if the person being abused is gay:

Death By Bigotry

Eddie Hartman is a murderer and a gay man. These facts would not be connected had the prosecution not mentioned Hartman’s sexual orientation repeatedly during the penalty phase of his trial for murder. This was a blatant attempt to discourage the jury from considering Hartman’s abusive childhood in sentencing. It worked. Rather than sentencing Hartman to life in prison, the jury chose to ignore mitigating factors and send him to the execution chamber.

At a hearing on an appeal of the death sentence, the district attorney, David Beard, admitted he’d waved the pink flag before the jury in a deliberate appeal to homophobia. He wanted, he said, to minimize Hartman’s history of sexual abuse, which he claimed was "different for homosexuals." But this appeal was heard by the same district court that had convicted Hartman -- and by confirming the death sentence, the court ignored the taint to justice produced by this bizarre and specious argument.

... When Hartman’s mother begged for mercy for her son because of the abuse he suffered, the prosecutor asked her, "Is your son not a homosexual?"

This is an egregious breach of professional standards for Beard. And it's a really sad commentary on the state of America that the jury agreed.

What do Howard Dean, George W. Bush, and Bjorn Lomborg have in common?

I've recently been noticing references to a general type of political problem, which I think of as the "half-solution problem" (it probably has another name, given to it by people who actually know something about policymaking). Many policy proposals involve a combination of two elements, both of which are necessary. Take, for instance, President Bush's plan to shrink the federal government. This involves two parts -- reducing taxes, and reducing spending. Neither one of these is sufficient on its own, and may in fact be harmful (for example, if government services are cut, but people don't get a tax cut with which to buy their own education and roads and such). Often, one half of the solution is politically attractive, whereas the other is a tough pill to swallow. This tempts governments into implementing a half-solution. So right now, we have rising federal budget deficits because Bush had plenty of support on the "cutting taxes" portion of his plan, but much less (perhaps even in his own head) on the "reducing spending" problem.

Dick Gephardt's accusation that Howard Dean stood with Newt Gingrich on medicare reform is another example. Dean vehemently denounced Gingrich in general, and opposed the final plan that Gingrich came up with. Yet Gephardt is right that Dean agreed with Gingrich that the rate of medicare growth should be slowed. The problem is that slowing medicare growth was good in and of itself for Gingrich. But for Dean, it was only a half-solution. He wanted to invest the savings from the growth cut in other improvements in health care. So in the end, while one part of their plans matched up, Dean was able to recognize the Gingrich plan as a half-solution and oppose it.

Yesterday, John Quiggin called noted global warming skeptic Bjorn Lomborg "a hypocrite and a fraud" because he works for the Danish government. Lomborg's view is that instead of spending money on stopping global warming, we would get bigger and more certain benefits by investing that money in foreign aid. Quiggin points out that the Danish government has adopted the "cut greenhouse-prevention spending" portion of Lomborg's plan, yet has failed to carry out the "increased foreign aid" portion. Commenters on Quiggin's post have challenged the "hypocrite and fraud" designation on the basis that Lomborg has no influence over foreign aid. This raises the question of whether it's irresponsible to press for a half-solution when you know that the other half will not be forthcoming. This may not be quite such a big issue for Lomborg, because I suspect that he really thinks that reducing spending on global warming is a good thing in and of itself (only a suspicion because I haven't read his manifesto, The Skeptical Environmentalist). But it's a problem for anyone convinced by his utilitarian device of saying that we'd get more bang for our buck with foreign aid than with greenhouse prevention.