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Trying To Stay Afloat

It's really sad that I'm wishing I had a Democratic Senator so that writing to her/him would make some sort of difference. I wrote to Arlen Specter this morning telling him to vote against Alberto Gonzales. I tried to flatter him about being independent-minded and needing to help keep his party on the straight and narrow, but realistically speaking his vote is a foregone conclusion. Writing to Rick Santorum about it is a waste of the time it takes to conceive of the idea. On the other hand, if I were a Massachusetts citizen, it might do some good to write to John Kerry, since he (like most Democrats) could potentially be swayed to go either way.

It should be the other way around. I should be able to count on the Democrats to be lined up on the side of good, so that I can take advantage of living in a red-Senate state to try to push Specter to the left. But it's hard to aim the cannons at the enemy when all hands are needed to bail water on our own ship.


A Pet Peeve

Can we stop appending "neo" to every mention of conservatives? If you want to refer to conservatives, we already have a word for that ("conservative") that's three letters shorter than "neoconservative." I realize the "neo" makes your rant sound more sophisticated and ominous, but it also usually makes it inaccurate.

The Costs Of Firefighting

Should Landowners Or Taxpayers Pay Wildfire Costs?

A new bill in the Oregon Legislature requires taxpayers to cover more of the costs of fighting forest fires on private land.

Right now, timber companies and homeowners whose houses are placed among the trees pay the biggest fees.

... Supporters say the additional public subsidy is justified because taxpayers benefit from using private forest land. Also, statistics show the public causes about one-third of forest fires.

I don't have a clearcut position on exactly what proportion of firefighting costs should be paid by the public versus the landowner. Certainly there's a role for public aid, since wildfire doesn't respect property boundaries. But I think the second argument offered in support of increasing the proportion of costs paid by the public takes a bit of a narrow view of fire. It harkens back to the Smokey the Bear ideology, in which the problem of wildfire is a problem of too many ignitions. Certainly ignitions play a role, and there's no excuse for carelessness or arson. But the damage done by a fire, and the difficulty (and hence cost) of fighting it is going to be much more shaped by land use decisions on the affected land. These range from fuel reduction, to providing accessibility for equipment, to the layout of structures and other valuables (e.g. a cluster of buildings is easier to protect than scattered ones). For this reason, states like California, Arizona and Colorado that have the public cover the full costs seem to be taking the wrong approach, removing an incentive for landowners to make firefighting as efficient as possible.


Illiberal Sweden

Swede's Sermon On Gays: Bigotry Or Free Speech?

One Sunday in the summer of 2003, the Rev. Ake Green, a Pentecostal pastor, stepped into the pulpit of his small church in the southern Swedish village of Borgholm. There, the 63-year-old clergyman delivered a sermon denouncing homosexuality as "a deep cancerous tumor in the entire society" and condemning Sweden's plan to allow gays to form legally recognized partnerships.

... With these words, which the local newspaper published at his request, Green ran afoul of Sweden's strict laws against hate speech. He was indicted, convicted and sentenced to 30 days in jail. He remains free pending appeal.

... U.S. gay rights groups "are not interested in forcing any churches to do anything they don't want to do theologically," [Lambda Legal executive director Katherine] Cathcart said. Evangelical Christians who think Green's case is what the future holds for them "may be right," he said, "but only if they move to Sweden."

The hand-washing response from Lambda, which seems more focused on dismissing US conservatives' concerns than staking out a clear position on Sweden's policy (which is desired by some in the US) is disappointing.

The law can be an important tool for safeguarding the rights of minorities. But there are certain issues on which the law is an inappropriate tool, and speech is the foremost example of that territory. I'll skip over the moral issue, as you've all heard the quote from Voltaire. Pragmatically, a ban on anti-gay speech seems to feed the anti-gay movement. Conservative Christians have constructed an ideology of persecution, telling themselves that they are under assault by both the culture and law of modern society. Laws restricting free speech justify their fears that the "homosexual agenda" is being forced on them. It makes it that much harder to win someone over with arguments when you seem willing to resort to the law not only to enforce the consequences of your belief (e.g. non-discrimination policies) but also to enforce the holding and spreading of your belief. It shows a lack of trust in your arguments and a lack of respect for the rules of discourse.

It's especially strange that Sweden has banned anti-gay speech before it has even instituted full legal equality for homosexuals. It's understandable (though wrongheaded) to ban people from questioning the status quo, as is the case with European bans on pro-Nazi speech. But it's quite another thing to ban speech that would weigh against a proposed reform.


Fire Experience

I don't have time for much of a comment on this, but I thought these remarks by fire ecologist Phil Cheney on the importance of tacit environmental knowledge were worth quoting:

I haven't talked in any detail to the guys that investigated the Eyre Peninsula [site of a recent deadly fire], but what I understand from them is that most of the situations were ones that shouldn't have happened, if people had applied what we already know.

Here we have, you know, continual turnover of people coming increasingly from the cities and going out into the bush, and really not understanding the environment that they're going out into and not preparing themselves adequately for that.

... [Education] would have a terrific impact if they went about it the right way. But one of the problems with teaching people about fire is the practical exposure to demonstrate what you're teaching, and I found this when I was lecturing in fire control at university. People could come up with all the right answers, but they didn't understand the relativities of the problem and what really mattered.


Mary Douglas, Hierarchist

In an earlier post I engaged in a bit of speculative meta-Cultural Theory. I observed that Aaron Wildavsky -- one of the founders of Cultural Theory -- and Virginia Postrel -- who invented a system quite like Cultural Theory -- would both fall into the "individualist" cultural camp, and wondered whether Cultural Theory itself might not be especially appealing to individualists. After all, it does envision a competition among visions of the world that is consonant with individualists' love of the market. Sadly, it seems the situation is more complex. Today I came across a passage (in Risk and Blame) in which Mary Douglas, the central figure in Cultural Theory, asserts herself to be a hierarchist.

A Proposal On CEO Salaries

One often-overlooked outrage of our modern society is the growing gap between the earnings of the upper management of corporations and those of the workers. Shareholder activism has led to a few prominent victories, but it's difficult to organize that kind of action. The incestuous nature of the upper management class leads to endemic back-scratching at the expense of the workers, and even of the solvency of the corporation.

But what if control of CEO pay was held by the workers? Out of a simple sense of fairness the workers would be disinclined to lavish the big bucks on their supervisors, especially given the lack of a correlation between pay and performance (i.e. you don't need to offer a huge salary to attract a good manager). This would further give management an incentive to raise workers' pay and benefits, since generosity is more likely to be repaid with generosity. If they want to cut pay and benefits, they'd have to go to the workers and make a convincing case that it's the only way to keep the company afloat, or risk their own benefits being cut. It would also rein in outsourcing, as CEOs planning to move operations overseas would still be subject to the control of their American employees, who would be understandably unhappy.



I've hit another blogging milestone. I'm now able to write one of those "go vote for the best entry *wink**wink**nudge**nudge* in this blog awards thing that I've been nominated for" posts. The awards thing in question is the first annual UU blog awards. The nominees are selected from a pretty small set of blogs, as evidenced by the fact that I was nominated in three categories -- Best Non-UU-Themed Blog by a UU, Best Design, and Best Review or Cultural Commentary for this post. I don't know the other nominees for Best Non-UU-Themed Blog well enough to vote in that category, but my personal picks are Cáliz Azul for Best Design and Life in Privatopia I and II for Cultural Commentary.

Mistaken Obituaries

I finally got around to reading the infamous Death of Environmentalism paper, and I have to say that I don't get what the big fuss is. The authors, Shellenberger and Nordhaus, argue in the specific case of environmentalism what every left-leaning pundit (and many right-leaning ones) has argued about the Democratic party, and liberalism in general, since November 3. The problem is an excess of piecemeal wonkery, and the solution is a grand vision.

The title is somewhat misleading, because the picture Shellenberger and Nordhaus paint of the environmental movement is not of a movement that is dead and whose ultimate goals must be abandoned. Rather, they argue that the movement is stagnant and ineffective as it is currently constituted. And while harshly critical of the narrowness of environmentalism as we know it, they strongly urge a reformulation of vision as part of a revived progressive coalition -- and even point to some examples of current initiatives that are moving in the right direction.


Natural Criminals

I'm avoiding making any general comments on the Larry Summers controversy (quick summary: Harvard president says one of the reasons there are hardly any women science professors is that females are genetically less likely to be math geniuses). But I did want to make a note on one line in a Summers-defending article linked and quoted by Eugene Volokh:

It's a claim that the distribution of male scores is more spread out than the distribution of female scores—a greater percentage at both the bottom and the top. Nobody bats an eye at the overrepresentation of men in prison. But suggest that the excess might go both ways, and you're a pig.

I think people would bat eyes (the same people batting their eyes over the claim about science professors) if you suggested that the overrepresentation of men in prison is a genetic male trait. Most people take one of two positions on the male prison population -- either men are naturally inclined to crime, and thus there's nothing eye-bat-worthy about that claim, or social factors push men disproportionately into crime. If one were to prominently argue for the first position, holders of the second would not be pleased. Indeed, there would be enough echoes of 19th century social Darwinism and notions of a "criminal class" in the first position (or at least in the way it would be repeated among holders of the second) to generate some righteous outrage.


Tropical Drugs

Newspapers and science blogs write a lot about the big new studies that come out in big-name fields like biology and physics, but you rarely hear about the work of geographers. So I thought I'd discuss an interesting article from the latest Annals of the Association of American Geographers that hits on a favorite topic of mine -- the wilderness idea.

Robert A. Voeks writes about the popular idea that tropical rainforests contain plants that could produce miracle cures for a variety of ailments. Despite some harsh words for the "drugs will solve all our problems" theory of medicine, he admits that the sheer biodiversity of the tropics means that if there are miracle cures out there, they'll be found in the tropics. What's interesting is where in the tropics.

The idea of tropical miracle cures has been an effective support for environmentalist campaigns to save the rainforest. People too selfish to care about nature for its own sake and too shortsighted to buy arguments about the importance of ecosystem functions can at least appreciate the possibility that a tropical plant might cure their heart disease. This idea rests, however, on a certain idea of what it means to preserve nature. The tropical rainforest is conceptualized as a primeval wilderness which should be preserved free of human touch.

Yet Voeks argues that it is in disturbed areas that useful drugs are most likely to be found. One reason is biological. Bioactive compounds of the type that make good drugs are more common in fast-growing annuals, which are in turn found more often in disturbed areas, such as along farm fields and around houses.

The other reason is that tne crucial avenue to finding these tropical drugs is talking to the people who have been living in these environments, and thus have already done the grunt work of fining many bioactive compounds. (This has in turn spawned a new crisis in the eyes of more radical environmentalists, who see nature being increasingly commodified and indigenous knowledge being stolen and even patented by transnational pharmaceutical companies.) These indigenous people are more likely to discover drugs in disturbed areas, since that's where they spend most of their time. More interestingly, Voeks compares the medical knowledge of hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists. If medicinal plants were common in undisturbed nature but are wiped out by human intervention, we would expect hunter-gatherers -- who disturb their environments less -- to have a wider pharmacopeia. But in fact the opposite is true. Farmers know more medicinal plants because their activities encourage them to grow right next door.

This is emphatically not an argument that we can go ahead and chop down the rainforest. The problem with wilderness ideology is that it collapses all human disturbances into a single "bad" category. Indigenous farming is a far cry from creating pasture to take advantage of tax incentives. The larger point here is that conservation must incorporate both disturbance and human presence. It's too easy to say "just get the people out and let nature do its thing."

Zeno's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

Edward_ reminds us of the tragedy (he provocatively, but not altogether inaccurately, decribes it as treason) of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" depriving our military of skilled personnel -- most notably the 20 desperately needed Arabic translators fired since 1998 because they were gay. In the comments, Katherine points out a poll showing that public support for gays serving openly has risen to 74%. (It's even higher in the younger age groups from which most soliders are drawn, though men are marginally less gay-friendly.) She hypothesizes that this surge in support is due to the prominence of gay marriage on the national agenda. Next to same-sex couples marrying, letting gays serve in the military seems moderate and reasonable.

This relates to a larger problem with the modern Democratic party -- or at least the Bill Clinton/John Kerry/Tom Daschle wing that holds the balance of power. Motivated by a desire to do whatever will win votes in the short run, and rationalized by an ideology of grass-roots agenda-setting, they make the mistake of taking the median voter theorem seriously. The median voter theorem states that you'll get the most votes if you take the position at the center of the spectrum of voter opinion. The problem is that the median voter theorem assumes that voter opinions are determined exogenously -- they make up their minds, then look to see what candidate matches their views. But in reality, the positions staked out by politicians are an integral part of the public disourse that helps voters choose their opinions. In a two-party system, the positions of the two parties help to establish what most voters -- particularly those not very interested in an issue -- see as the reasonable range of opinions. They then locate themselves within that scale. Chasing the median voter puts you in a sort of Zeno's paradox* as the positions to your extreme side are abandoned as outside the mainstream.

Thus Gavin Newsom made John Kerry possible. By setting up a firm and visible left border to the range of opinions on gay rights, people like Newsom made Kerry's stance seem like a comforting wishy-washy middle ground. Part of what now feels like the middle is the once-radical idea of openly gay soliders.

*I exaggerate a bit, since the parties' positions are not the sole determinant of voter opinion.


The Perils Of A Privacy Amendment

Morat suggests that a Constitutional amendment explicitly enshrining the right to privacy would be a good, bipartisan legislative project. I'm favorable to the idea of having privacy protection in the Constitution, but I see a couple problems with the idea.

First, I beg to differ on the potential for Republican support of the measure. Yes, conservatives want to, as Morat says, "Get the damn government out of my life!" However, I think the bulk of conservative small-government ideology is not primarily concerned with privacy. High taxes and burdensome environmental and safety regulation are not first and foremost privacy violations (though certainly some creative conservative lawyers would try to use the amendment against these laws). They're property and autonomy violations. Now, there are some conservative complaints that could be addressed with an explicit right to privacy -- gun registration springs to mind, since the conservative argument is that it's dangerous for the government to know who has a gun. But I think those gains would be outweighed by knowing what the left planned to use the amendment for. On the one hand, it would give a more solid undergirding to the sexual revolution advances (like legalizing birth control and homosexuality) that are currently buttressed by the implicit right to privacy. On the other hand, it would potentially put the Patriot Act in jeopardy. I doubt many conservatives would be too keen on risking those changes in order to shore up a cause that already has an amendment.

There's also reason for liberals to worry. The argument here runs something like the counter-argument to Kevin Drum's suggestion that Congress shut up the "we don't technically have to pay taxes" crowd by passing a law unambiguously stating that taxes are mandatory. Passing such a law implies that previous law did not require paying taxes -- otherwise we wouldn't need a new law. In the case of privacy, there are a good number of important court decisions resting on the idea that the Constitution as it stands contains an implicit right to privacy. Passing an amendment making that right explicit would seem to imply that there was no implicit right. One might try to get around that by making the amendment go above and beyond the privacy protections that have been asserted to already exist, but a more far-reaching amendment would be even harder to gain political support for. Now, if the amendment passes, that retroactive undermining would be a minor issue -- it would screw up some court cases about pre-amendment events and give rhetorical fodder to conservative commentators, but from henceforward the right to privacy would be secure. However, if the amendment were to fail -- which my previous paragraph establishes as likely -- it would accomplish that undermining without the compensating benefit. The failed amendment would have no legal standing, but advocates would find it hard to get their voices heard (certainly in the public discourse, and perhaps also in court) when they said "well, there was a right to privacy in the Constitution all along."


Two Unlikely Proposals

1. Steroids. I can't speak for other sports, but I think a simple rule change could solve the steroid problem in baseball. Declare that a ball hit out of the park is an out (or at least a foul ball). This would bring baseball in line with pretty much every other sport, where removing the ball from the field of play is a bad thing. Without the possibility of an out-of-the-park home run, players would be forced to develop control and finesse in their hitting, rather than focusing on raw power. So rather than needing extensive and intrusive enforcement, we could remove the incentive to take steroids. Of course, the prevalence of the home run mythos will make all real baseball fans unwilling to consider this suggestion.

2. DC Statehood. With Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, advocates of giving Washington voting representation in Congress are understandably pessimistic. After all, DC would be the bluest of the blue states. But what if we took a suggestion from the founding fathers (Republicans love the founding fathers)? In the early days of the USA, slave and free states were admitted to the union in pairs so as not to upset the balance of power. Now, conservatives often half-jokingly suggest that we should make use of the clause in the Texas constitution that allows it to be split into several states. I say we offer to approve splitting Texas in two (gerrymandered to make sure they're both solidly red -- much as I'd love to cut out Austin as a little blue Lesotho) if DC can become a state. This proposal would be more fair to the people of Texas, too, since living in a big state means they're underrepresented vis-a-vis Wyoming or Rhode Island in the Senate. Of course, Texas pride would not stand for dividing the Lone Star State into Lone Half Stars.


"The Only Rational Name The School Should Have"

Local newspapers can be interesting to those of us used to reading about weighty issues like tsunamis and wars in the big-time papers. Riding the Metro this weekend I happened upon a copy of the Falls Church News-Press, where the big issue tearing the community apart is the naming of an elementary school. A recent letter to the editor gives a flavor of the importance of this issue:
While I am a strong supporter of the Falls Church News-Press and of its strong pro-Falls Church and "pro-American as part of the world not apart from the world" philosophical- and reality-based stance, I feel compelled to just as strongly take exception with its editorial stance on the naming of the new Middle School.

Evolution's Purview, and The Devil's Tsunami

Here's a letter from today's Morning Call that raises a couple of interesting issues:

No Justification To Teach Evolution

If you are going to teach evolution in schools, then will you please explain how nothing can be made out of nothing? I find it extremely difficult not to believe in a most high intelligence and power.

The recent tsunami brings the wrath of God to mind. How does evolution explain the wrath of God? It's impossible.

V.M. Dotter
Whitehall Township

The first thing to note is the mistaken parallelism that Dotter, like many creationists, draws between religion and evolution. They take their own philosophical viewpoint as a template for their opponents' viewpoint. Religion is an all-encompassing theory of everything. Evolution, on the other hand, is a theory that deals only with a specific subset of events in the world -- the development of one species into others. The origin of the universe and the cause of tsunamis are outside evolution's purview, so it's no wonder it has nothing to say about them. Further, the absolutist and integrated nature of a Biblical literalist worldview (though it's possible this writer is a non-literalist creationist) is susceptible to being completely destroyed by the falsification of any one of its parts. On the other hand, scientific theories are more loosely connected. So even if we were to disprove the secular scientific theories of the origin of the universe and plate tectonics, that would not necessarily say anything about the validity of evolution.

The second thing to note is the use Dotter attempts to make of describing the tsunami as the wrath of God. Debates over religion usually set atheism against religion, with the question being whether God exists. In so doing, they tend to beg the question of God's nature, specifically whether God deserves love and worship. There is often an assumption -- which I criticized before -- that if God exists, he must be the loving God of the Christian tradition. Indeed, it's sometimes implied that if God can be shown to be a disreputable character, that's proof that he doesn't exist. Yet I think it's a quite plausible position to say that God exists, but he's a bad guy. (Note that "God is a bad guy" is not a position I actually hold.)

Attributing the tsunami to God seems to me to support the "God is a bad guy" theory. I'm not interested in worshipping (except perhaps in an insincere way in order to stay out of hell) a God who is so callous and ham-handed in dealing out punishment. Yet it's interesting, in reading about religious perspectives on the tsunami, that there are only two basic positions. Either God had nothing to do with it and it was the product of blind geophysical forces (a view I agree with), or it was an act of justice by God. Nobody seems willing to say it was an act of justice by God, or an act of the devil (since the existence of an evil deity does not preclude the existence of a good deity, or vice versa). Partly this may be a reluctance to attribute so much power to the devil. The Zoroastrian-style view of balanced good and evil powers is much less common than the Christian-style view that God is supreme (particularly in the natural world) and the devil only nibbles around the edges.