Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The last refuge

In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit it is the first.
-- Ambrose Bierce 
I know the words and the tune, and I can sing it well.  I always stand, put my hand over my heart, face the flag, and sing along even if no one else around me is.  When I hear it played or sung, it stirs my heart.  I am truly humbled by the circumstances of my life that allowed me to be born here, to be born a citizen, and to enjoy all of the privileges that pertain.

I recite the Pledge of Allegiance when the opportunity arises.  Since I was in junior high school, I have skipped over two words, pronouncing this "one nation indivisible," with no pause or Red Scare-era religious interlopings.  But I recite it, and it has meaning to me.

I do these things because I believe in this country.  I believe in the framework set forth in our Constitution.  I believe that we have been and can continue to be a beacon to the world, not because we are ordained to speciality, but because we chose to be special.

I believe in human beings.  I believe that the moral imperative common to all of the world's great religions and to all great ethical systems—that we should help each other—is the principal reason why we have survived as a species.  I also believe that the best method of implementing that moral imperative is to balance our incentives by rewarding individual initiative, within reason, and common cause, within reason.  And I believe that the United States of America has come the closest of all nations to striking that balance.

Lately, some people are confused about patriotism and about what it means to love your country.  They believe that only those who believe in "my country—right or wrong" are patriots, that patriotism means accepting and applauding everything your country does. 

They are wrong.

"'My country, right or wrong,'" wrote the English writer G.K. Chesterton in 1901, "is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, 'My mother, drunk or sober.'"

I am not a patriot because I believe that this nation is perfect.  To believe it is would require me to ignore the many ways in which it is imperfect.  Rather, I am a patriot because I believe that we have the will and the structure to become better.  The men who conceived, wrote, advocated for, and established the Constitution lived in a gloriously imperfect society.  Slavery was legal and enshrined in that document.  Slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person.  Women had no say in politics and would not gain the vote anywhere in America for nearly a hundred years.  We were a frontier nation, governed in the small instances as much by force as by law.  But they understood that it was necessary to begin somewhere, and they wrote with the understanding that while absolute perfection is impossible in any human society, if we can set up a few fixed stars of a just society, we can navigate toward greater and greater fulfillment of our promise.

For that reason, I have always believed that our best days as a nation lie ahead of us.  We face enormous challenges.  In many ways, there exist two Americas, one for middle- and upper-class white folks, who don't generally have to worry about things like getting arrested, beaten, or murdered by law enforcement officers; and one for poor whites and all minorities, who suffer thousands of wrongs, some slight, some major.  People of color in particular have yet to experience the same kind of freedom that I, as a relatively well-off white man, can easily take for granted.  

For example, I have never had a negative interaction with a police officer.  I've been pulled over a couple of times, once because I was speeding (71 in a 60, for which I received a ticket), and once because my tag was expired (I was on my way to the repair shop to get an inspection, and the officer simply told me to keep going).  When I go somewhere, nobody questions my right to be there.  When I walk in a bank, I can open an account without much fuss, and I can feel confident that my loan application will be judged on the merits rather than on my skin color.

These are things that people of color cannot take for granted, no matter how well off they might be.

We have a serious, abiding, and embarrassing problem, in that law enforcement officers in many jurisdictions can mistreat people of color, up to and including cold-bloodedly murdering them, and 24 out of 25 of the few who are charged escape any conviction at all.  This is not the mark of a society that values "liberty and justice for all."

So, what is the patriot's imperative?  What do those words mean, "one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all"?  To what do we pledge allegiance:  Blind acceptance of injustice, or a demand that our nation actually be just?

Because I love my country, I desperately and earnestly want for it to be better.  It cannot get better without protest, without criticism, without Americans standing up against injustice and racism and white supremacism.

When I sing the Anthem, or pledge my allegiance to our beautiful flag, it means that I am, as an American, dedicating my energies and efforts to making this a place worthy of the world's respect.

When Colin Kaepernick knelt respectfully during the playing of the Anthem, he did so not to protest our nation, to seek the violent overthrow of the government, nor to urge that we abandon our high principles. He did so to remind those of us who cared to understand that we have not yet met the standard to which we committed ourselves long ago.  He did so because he loves this country even as he hates some of the things we allow this country to do.

After all, if he didn't care about this country, he could easily go elsewhere.  He is a man of means.  He could settle elsewhere and live out his days in comfort.  He is more a patriot than any of the pretenders who bang away on their keyboards or shout on the neverending parade of political talk shows, condemning him and the many other NFL players who joined his protest on Sunday.

Those pretenders claim to love America, but they hate Americans.

They claim to respect the flag, but many of them glorify the Confederacy.

They claim to love the troops, but they don't care about the damage that endless war causes them--the PTSD, the traumatic brain injuries, the lost limbs, the deaths--and they are more than happy to politicize the military in service of their views.

Most of all, they can't see beyond the narrow range of their own zone of comfort.  They see a black man, wearing an Afro, making politically divisive clothing choices, and refusing to go along with their displays of empty patriotism, and suddenly that black man is "disrespecting the flag and the nation and the troops."  They don't realize—or maybe they do—that by opposing that protest, they are siding with the white supremacists who believe that a proper role of law enforcement is to beat down minorities.

I have known many people who served in the military.  I don't know anyone who joined, fought, or died for the right to force people to stand for the national anthem.  Most of the ones I've spoken to about this issue echo the sentiment expressed by Gen. Michael Hayden, a four-star general and former CIA and NSA director, who in an op-ed yesterday wrote:
As a 39-year military veteran, I think I know something about the flag, the anthem, patriotism, and I think I know why we fight. It’s not to allow the president to divide us by wrapping himself in the national banner. I never imagined myself saying this before Friday, but if now forced to choose in this dispute, put me down with Kaepernick.
The lines here are ever more sharply drawn, and I know which side I'm on.  I'm on the side of the real patriots.  Put me down with Kaepernick, too.

Monday, July 3, 2017

30 days to a new life

Taking a break from politics to mark a personal milestone.

If I were to tell you how much I used to weigh, you would probably be shocked.

If I were to tell you how much I weigh now, which is officially 80 pounds lighter than my highest point, you would also probably be shocked.

It's not information I'm ready to share.  Maybe someday.  But you don't need that information to understand my post today.

I have always been heavy.  There isn't a time I can remember where I wasn't the biggest person in my cohort.  Despite that, I was in relatively good health and decent shape through the middle part of my 30s, when things began to break down.

My life has consisted mostly of long periods of gradual weight gain, punctuated by the occasional drop of 30-50 pounds or more, precipitated by a diet commitment that eventually wears off.  I have been rather consistently disappointed in myself for that reason.  I've never quite been able to get over the hump by transforming a short-term effort to lose weight into a long-term pattern.

Over the years, aside from the obvious issue of weight, I've developed bad knees.  With the intervention of Synvisc (an injection of fluid into my "bad" knee every six months), cortisone, NSAIDs, gabapentin, physical therapy, and ice, I've been able to deal with those knees.  But I have seen my ability to move around diminish significantly.

About 7 or 8 months ago, however, something changed.  I started spending time with the 13-year-old son of a good friend.  Eli and I hit it off sort of immediately.  We have similar interests, like sports and science and politics.  He's really smart, and observant when he wants to be.  He's got an amazing memory—better than mine, and my memory is semi-photographic even though it's not quite what it used to be.  We get along like old friends, even though he's not old enough to be anyone's old friend.

Unlike me, however, he's in tremendous shape, and he likes to move around.  So he would cajole me into playing football with him.  We started by throwing the ball to each other, and that's progressed to more physically demanding play, like running actual plays.  We have a game where he runs a route, catches a pass from me, then turns around and tries to get around me.  The first time we played this game, it was rough:  My task was to tackle him.  We played this without pads, and I nearly fell on him and crushed him.  So we modified it to something more than touch football, but less than tackle—my task is to wrap him up without tackling him.  It works, and it's very strenuous, at least for me.

Suddenly I have had a motivation I've never had before—the motivation to be in shape enough to move to make my "tackles," for bragging rights.  Lately I've been able to get him about 50% of the time.  I'm not sure if he's taking it easy on me or not, and I don't care.  I know that at 41 I have no business being able to keep up with a fit 13-year-old for a couple of hours of football, but I am perfectly willing to try, and to pretend that I can, and if he is pretending, too, I can live with that.

Mostly I value the time we spend together.  But being able to get up off the couch and do these things, whether it's the heat of the day, or raining, or close to dark—that's what enables me to spend time with him.

I don't have kids, of course.  We haven't entirely closed the door on that, but being with Eli has made me realize that there is a part of life that I had been missing.  I'm not his parent and don't pretend to be (except for a couple of times when it was just easier than explaining things), but playing with him has reminded me of when I was his age.  Much of my interaction with my own father was through sports, and I cannot help but think that his commitment to be there for me in that way was one of the most important influences in my life.  If I can pass that on to Eli, that will be a good thing, I think.

*   *   *   *   *

A bit over thirty days ago, I agreed to help Eli train for football this fall.  I'm not sure if he asked outright or just hinted.  For various reasons, he didn't get to play in 7th grade, so I knew he would need a leg up if he wanted to get any playing time as an 8th grader.  On Sunday, June 4, the day before the first Monday of his summer vacation, we played football for a couple of hours in the park and made plans to find a gym to work out in. I wasn't sure of his commitment, so we decided to take advantage of a free 5-day workout at a local health club.

I mark that day, the long day of football, as the first workout of my new regime.  Monday came, and I got us signed up for the free trial.  Eli wanted to learn how to lift weights, so we headed to the free weight area.  We spent a couple of hours there the first day as I showed him the proper form for lifting and began to teach him the principles of building muscle in a balanced, methodical way.  I knew that if he started out by pushing himself, he would get frustrated and probably quit.  He likes science, so I took the scientific approach to our workout, explaining to him how motions plus weight affect the various muscle groups.  I introduced him to the concept of progressive microdamage, through which muscles are repeatedly damaged (slightly) so that the body can repair them and strengthen them in the process. I taught him to listen to his body for pain, soreness, and fatigue, and to respond appropriately.  We have talked about nutrition and the roles that protein, carbohydrate, and water play in an effective bodybuilding regime.  And through all of this I began to remember it for myself.

*   *   *   *   *

That first day, Michelle decided she wanted to train, too, so she and I went a second time.  And we've kept going.  Sometimes it's just Eli and me, sometimes Michelle and me, and sometimes all three of us.  And somewhere along the way I realized that it had become a habit.  I was enjoying myself despite the exercise.  I began to see changes in my body:  I exchanged a good part of my "moobs" for actual pectoral muscles that hadn't been seen since I was a teenager, if at all.  (For a few days, I couldn't do anything but beg people to touch my pecs. It was weird, but I'm not ashamed.)  My biceps grew and puffed out all the way to the crook of my elbow.  My abs became hardened.

For the first time in many tries, I have managed to string together 30 days of consistent workouts.

At first I didn't understand what had changed.  This was by far not the first time I've joined a gym.  I'd been a member of the YMCA in Charlotte; of Planet Fitness in Concord, NC; and of the Jim Dailey Center in Little Rock.  In none of those instances had my commitment to get in shape lasted more than a few days.  Every time I went, I was filled with dread.  I literally hated exercise and would use any excuse not to go.  And now I look forward to going to the gym every day.  How can this be?

It's probably a combination of factors.  Being there to train Eli has helped, but because he gets a hard workout four days a week in football camp, we only train together 2-3 times a week at the gym.  Seeing Michelle enjoy herself on the Nautilus machines or exercising in the pool helps as well, and having her motivate me to get up early to go to the gym has been a major factor, too—in fact, probably more significant than Eli's role.

But the tipping point was something different.  Every time I've joined a gym in the past, I have headed to the treadmill, the elliptical runner, or the stationary bike for cardiovascular exercise.  My theory was that to get in shape, I needed to lose weight.  After all, nobody my size could possibly be an athlete, right?  And cardio is best for weight loss.

And as it turns out, that's just wrong for me.  I hate the mindless activity that cardio represents.  Some people can put on a playlist and lose themselves in the music and put mile after mile behind them.  I just can't do that.  And in the last 30 days, I've spent 10 minutes on a treadmill, none on the elliptical, and maybe 1000 spins on the stationary bike.  I have added pool walking a couple of days a week (I'm up to 1500 yards), which is sort of mindless exercise, but it's tolerable because it's in the water, which I love enough to counteract the drudgery.  (My favorite technique is to imagine myself installing computer software and seeing the progress bar...1/30, 2/30, 3/30, etc.)  If I set a goal for myself in terms of the number of laps or the speed, I can do that.

This time around, most of my exercise--apart from football--has been focused on weightlifting:  bench press, shoulder press, rowing under load, crunches under load, leg press, curls, squats, hip adductor (I can't quite fit in the hip abductor machine, but that's ok).  The variations are endless.  And I can do a light weight and many repetitions, or I can max out, or anything in between.  It's fun, and the results are dramatic.

*   *   *   *   *

No one would call me Adonis.  I don't have a perfect body, or even a good body.  When, on a break during a hot day of football, I take off my shirt in front of him, Eli begs me to put it back on.  Although I don't hear snickers in the locker room, I'm sure there have been side-eye glances from other, more fit guys, wondering what I'm doing in there.

And it's only been 30 days.  Perhaps we should see if this routine sticks more firmly before we rate it 10/10.

But I have confidence that this time it's different.  After all, the hour before a workout isn't filled with dread, or with my inner angel pleading for me to go against the inner devil that tells me to stay in bed. I actually want to go.  And when, at the end of my workout, I've showered and dressed and I'm walking out to my car, and the guy at the front desk wishes me a good day, I'm already thinking about what the next time will be like.

And smiling like never before.

*   *   *   *   *

Am I obsessed?  Maybe.  But it's a positive obsession, I think.

*   *   *   *   *

I'd like to think that I have the heart of a teacher, but most of my qualifications in this sphere come from doing the wrong thing consistently.  If there is a lesson to be learned here, however, I think it's this:  If you are unhappy with your life, you have to change it.  You have to change something about the way you do things.  You can't do the same thing again and again and expect a different result.  I've known that rule for a long time, but it took me far to long to apply it to this situation.

I might yet fail.  I'm in uncharted territory, a stream full of unseen shoals, a place of many perils both visible and invisible.  But I have already gone farther than even I expected, and it has given me confidence that I can keep going for whatever piece of forever I have left.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Political felony murder

In the laws of 46 states, there is a provision known as the "felony-murder rule." Essentially, the way it works is this: If an offender commits a dangerous felony, and a person dies during the commission of the felony, the offender can be charged with murder, even if the act would not otherwise be considered murder.

The classic example of this is the person who robs a bank by sticking a gun in the face of a teller, who dies of a heart attack as a result of the stress brought on by the situation.

In about half the states, felony murder is a capital offense--an offense for which the death penalty may be imposed.

The concept of felony-murder is older than the history of the common law. The rule was in place in England before the 12th century. Although it has been abolished in the UK and Canada, and although it is subject to certain limitations in the U.S., felony-murder has survived for more than 9 centuries because it reflects something that most humans understand intuitively: If you choose to act in a certain way, and there are negative consequences for another person as a result of your choice, you bear at least a moral responsibility for those consequences.

I have been thinking about this concept a great deal in recent days because of the GOP's attempts to repeal or otherwise undermine the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, commonly known as "Obamacare." The Republicans have been complaining about Obamacare since before it was passed, and they have made numerous efforts to undermine it through the court system. The GOP-led House has voted more than 50 times to repeal the law entirely, although it has never managed to get the Republican-led Senate to agree.

In recent days, the Senate has come up with a revision to the law, not an outright repeal, which it has euphemistically named the "Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017." Some people are referring to the collective efforts to modify Obamacare as "Trumpcare," but, consistent with my refusal in most instances to use the name of the buffoon who occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue these days, I have adopted the name "Buffooncare" for these efforts. I encourage the use of "Buffoon" anywhere you might use the buffoon's name, as it is the most apt and complete description of that guy that I can imagine.

On Monday, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released a report on the effects of Buffooncare. A few of the notable highlights (or perhaps lowlights) of that report and of the law:

  • By 2026, more than 22 million people will be uninsured who would otherwise be insured under the current law. In the nearer term, the effect is rather stark: 15 million would lose their coverage in 2018.
  • Medicaid spending would be cut by $772 billion over 10 years, and benefits would be capped.
  • Premium subsidies under Obamacare would be cut by $408 billion over 10 years.
  • Taxes associated with Obamacare, which primarily hit businesses and high-income individuals, would be reduced by $751 billion over 10 years. Most of the cuts would favor individuals who make more than $1 million a year, and virtually no one who makes less than $200,000 per year would receive a tax cut.
  • Anyone with a gap in insurance coverage would face a 6-month waiting period for coverage for any pre-existing condition (under the current law, coverage is immediate, even for pre-existing conditions).
  • Premiums for older individuals could be rated at 5 times the premium charged to the youngest, healthiest individuals (the current law allows 3 times higher premiums).
  • Insurers would be able to sell plans that do not include the 10 essential coverages required for Obamacare plans to qualify as insurance.
  • Insurers could impose lifetime caps on benefits, which they cannot do under Obamacare.

The health aspects of this proposed law are genuinely atrocious. Buffooncare would insure fewer people; it would cut benefits for lower-income Americans who rely on Medicaid; it would cut the subsidies available for those who make too much to qualify for Medicaid; it would cause premiums and deductibles to rise for virtually everyone; it would remove key protections for people who live with pre-existing conditions; and it would allow insurers to impose lifetime benefit caps that effectively render some people with serious, chronic, expensive health conditions unable to obtain care.

For many years, I assumed that the GOP's principal motivation against Obamacare was to destroy the achievements of a black man they couldn't beat at the ballot box, who was generally very popular and who avoided the hint of scandal for 8 years. After all, Obamacare is essentially the same plan that Mitt Romney implemented in Massachusetts several years before and that the conservative Heritage Foundation designed in the 1990s. It is in many respects the conservative ideal: It accomplishes a beneficial societal goal (greater health insurance coverage) by leveraging the private sector to provide that coverage. And they were willing to destroy it because it came from a Democrat.

(From a progressive standpoint, it is a disaster because it's unwieldy and demonstrably less efficient than a single-payer system--even if you were to implement an optional single-payer system that allows people to buy insurance from the government or from the private sector, the "public option" that I advocated for in other spaces for several years before Obamacare was proposed. Even though it is a disaster in that sense, Obamacare is a wildly successful improvement over the previous largely unregulated system. The problems should be fixed as best they can be, or it should be replaced with some flavor of single-payer.)

But the details of Buffooncare have made it clear that the GOP's motivation isn't about destroying Obama's legacy. Whatever complaints the Republicans have about Obamacare, this bill is mostly lacking in any attempt to address those complaints. As per usual, Buffooncare is instead mostly about putting more money in the pockets of wealthy people. In the process, the GOP is perfectly willing to destroy as many lives as are necessary to enrich their donor base.

Which brings me around to the concept discussed at the outset, felony-murder. Follow along with me:
  1. If the Senate version of Buffooncare becomes law, next year, 15 million people who currently have health insurance will lose their health insurance outright, and millions more will see significant reductions in coverage or increased deductibles that render their insurance nearly worthless.
  2. Some fraction of those 15 million people will have life-threatening illnesses that are treatable but not eligible for mandatory treatment at an emergency room (cancer being the most obvious, but hardly the only one).
  3. Without insurance, those people will be unable to get care.
  4. Without care, many of them will die. Those who don't die will almost certainly encounter severe, lasting effects that will significantly shorten their lives and reduce their quality of life.
These are foreseeable effects of taking health insurance away from people who have it, with no plan to replace it.

It is difficult to believe that even the GOP would be so craven as to trade these people's lives for a tax cut for wealthy people. I would love to believe that they have some grand plan that would make this all make sense. But I'm just not seeing it. It looks for all the world like Mitch McConnell and his crew lust so heartily to create and support an aristocracy that they genuinely don't care whom they kill in the process.

Perhaps it is impolitic to say it, but this looks one hell of a lot like murder—maybe not legally, but certainly on a moral level. I doubt very much that the GOP wants the victims of its plan to die, per se. Rather, it's more of a depraved indifference as to whether these people live or die. And that's still murder.

All for a tax cut.

Exactly how does this create that "culture of life" the Republicans are so fond of advocating for?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Due process on campus

In 2016, Thomas Klocke was a business student at the University of Texas at Arlington.  On May 19 of that year, Klocke found himself seated next to Nick Watson, a fellow student, in one of the last classes Klocke needed to take to earn his degree.

What happened that day is in dispute.

According to Klocke's account, Watson told Klocke that he thought Klocke was beautiful.  Using his open laptop, Klocke says he typed "Stop it--I'm straight."  Watson responded on his laptop, "I'm gay."  As the class proceeded, Watson allegedly continued to glance at Klocke, who rebuffed the advances, asked Watson to leave, and eventually took another seat across the room. 

Watson's account differs significantly.  He claims that after he made a comment about privilege in today's society, Klocke opened his laptop and typed "gays should die" into the browser bar.  Watson then responded with "I'm gay."  He claims that Klocke then feigned a yawn, then stated, "well, then you're a faggot."  Watson says that he asked Klocke to leave, and that Klocke responded by saying "you should consider killing yourself."

Watson complained, first to the professor, then to a staff member in the UTA student services office.  Student Services responded by banning Klocke from attending the remaining sessions of the class and from contacting the professor or any student in the class, which resulted in his failing the final exam and the class, and in turn prevented him from graduating on schedule.  Klocke was not afforded a hearing before he was disciplined, nor any accommodation for his class attendance such as videotaping of the lectures.

Faced with academic and potential financial ruin, Klocke killed himself two weeks after the incident.

His estate is suing UTA for civil rights violations and Watson for defamation.  A copy of the complaint can be found here.

I have no dog in this fight.  I have no connection to UTA.  I didn't know Thomas Klocke or Nick Watson.  I'm not a college administrator.  I don't even have kids.  But something about this story bothers me on a deep level.

It's difficult to know what went on that day.  It's possible that Klocke harbored extreme animosity toward homosexuals.  It's also possible that Watson felt jilted by a boy he liked and decided to do what he could to ruin that boy's life.  I don't know what's true, and I'm not sure that it matters to what I'm writing about.

We are engaged in an increasingly politicized struggle over how colleges manage the interpersonal relationships of their students--not merely sexual matters, but also political conflict, free speech issues, and the discomfort that arises when young people encounter views that challenge them.  Free speech in particular is a core value of the traditional university culture, but as our society has become more polarized, and as conservatives in particular have become more radical in both the messages they push and the icons they uplift, there has been a backlash against certain types of speech that are deemed hateful, misogynistic, or otherwise not in keeping with other values that universities wish to uphold.

Sexual harassment (together with more aggressive forms of sexual violence, up to and including rape) is a hot-button issue on campuses these days.  A series of incidents of sexual violence allegedly perpetrated by male athletes at Baylor University came to head last year and cost the popular and successful head football coach, Art Briles, and the prominent university president, Kenneth Starr, their jobs.  By contrast, allegations in a 2014 Rolling Stone article regarding fraternity rape culture at the University of Virginia had to be retracted when they turned out to be based on a fabrication.

When a person accuses another person of sexual misconduct, be it harassment or rape or anything in between, the allegations should be taken seriously.  Steps should be taken to protect people from sexual violence or harassment.  Colleges and universities have a special obligation to intervene to provide this kind of protection because even though their students are adults, physically and chronologically, they often lack sufficient experience and emotional maturity to take steps to protect themselves.

But because these matters can often turn on issues of credibility in a he-said, she-said (or he-said, he-said, as in the case of Watson and Klocke) scenario, when either party could be lying, how can we responsibly administer discipline or other countermeasures to protect victims, when those countermeasures can have the effect of damaging the academic, financial, or emotional standing of the alleged perpetrator?

There are no easy answers--or, at least, the easy answers are unsatisfying.  In a macro sense, sexual violence on campus is intolerably prevalent.  But in particular cases it can be difficult to know whether a specific rape actually occurred.  While I am unapologetically feminist in my outlook, I do not think it does women any favors when a man has his life destroyed by a false allegation, acted on capriciously by a university that's desperate to be seen as being tough on sexual violence.  (I also don't think it does men any favors when a woman has her life destroyed by the double victimization of rape in the first instance and a justice system, be it criminal or university-based, that devalues her.)  We need both:  more vigorous efforts to control and eliminate campus sexual violence, and a greater degree of certainty of guilt before discipline is imposed.  These concepts work at cross-purposes to some extent because in most cases we can't have perfect knowledge.

Nevertheless, I believe that what happened at UTA can teach us something important about how to deal with these situations.  It seems unlikely that what happened was the sole cause of Klocke's suicide; suicide is rarely the result of a single negative cause, and there were almost certainly underlying factors in this case that cause Klocke to end his life.

But the imposition of discipline without a hearing, particularly by a state-run institution, is troubling at best.  And the failure to provide Klocke with accommodations that would allow him to finish out the class seems extremely short-sighted and indicative of an effort to punish Klocke for expressing an unpopular, even hateful, view.  As abhorrent as I find his casual, cutting use of a sexual slur and his suggestion that Watson should kill himself to be (if he even said those things), I also believe that the remedy for speech you don't like is speech that you do like.  Disciplining Klocke under those circumstances seems arbitrary and well outside the bounds of appropriate handling by the university.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

His judgment Comeyth, and that right soon

Shortly before the 2016 presidential election, after then-FBI director James Comey announced that he was "reopening" the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails, I suggested that if I were President Obama, I would be firing Comey on the morning of November 9 (the day after the election) for an egregious violation of the FBI's policy of noninterference with elections.

Such a firing would have been fully justified under the circumstances.

Given the narrow margins that allowed Buffoon* to slip in with an Electoral College majority despite a wide popular-vote victory for Clinton, it is easy to see how Comey's interference in the election turned the tide.  That's not to say there weren't other factors, of course.

* - For the record, I have decided to refuse to use the name of the current occupant of the White House, and instead refer to him by the word that most aptly describes him, "Buffoon."

Comey's unprecedented and unnecessary public comments in July and October were designed to cause damage to Clinton without charging her with a crime for which he knew no conviction was possible.  That he did not instinctually understand why an independent FBI cannot interfere with the electoral process illustrates why he made a poor director of that agency.

Obama decided not to fire him, and Buffoon kept him on with a public vote of confidence shortly after the inauguration.

There remain substantial questions about the interference of Russian agents in the election, as well as possible coordination between members of the Buffoon campaign (if not Buffoon himself) with those agents.  Buffoon's business dealings with and potential indebtedness to Russian interests remain fully opaque because we lack an effective mechanism to force a presidential candidate to disclose such information. One might look to the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution as providing that authority, but it requires some organ of the government, probably either the Justice Department or a Congressional committee, to investigate that sort of thing.

Investigations are proceeding with all deliberate speed--to quote Chief Justice Warren--which is to say that they are moving slowly.  The House and Senate Intelligence Committees each have a pending investigation, and the Justice Department began an investigation as well, shortly after Buffoon took office.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced to recuse himself from the investigation, however, because it turned out that he bald-faced lied during his confirmation hearing when Senator Al Franken asked him if he'd had contact with Russian officials during the campaign.**  He said no, but he met at least twice with the Russian ambassador during the campaign.  Normally, lying under oath would be grounds for discharge from the position as well as potential disbarment as an attorney.  (On that latter point, several grievances have been filed with the Alabama Bar, where Sessions has his license, but that's a process that takes a lot of time, and I don't have a lot of confidence in the Alabama Bar to act in the public interest on this one.)

** - Neo-Confederate Sessions was an early supporter of Buffoon and was deeply involved in the Buffoon campaign. I suspect he was attracted to Buffoon because of the tacit promise to "make America white again."

So Buffoon turned to Comey, the FBI director, to head up the investigation.  

There has been no suggestion that Comey's handling of the investigation was anything but above-board.  In fact, all indications are that Comey's efforts have been aimed at ferreting out the truth, wherever the trail might lead, and whatever that truth might be.  For example, Comey refused to confirm Buffoon's ridiculous allegation that Obama had ordered the "wires tapped" in Buffoon Tower.  

Whatever Comey's transgressions were with respect to the election, it appeared that he was handling this investigation as an independent investigator would.

And then he was fired, so abruptly that he found out about it while watching television.

I have said several times, in different ways, that Buffoon is not a smart person, but a caricature of what a stupid person thinks a smart person is.  Buffoon was no great shakes academically. He was handed a small fortune and turned it into something less than a large fortune (simply investing in an index fund would have produced a much better return).  His grammar and spelling are atrocious. He has difficulty speaking in complete sentences.  He's mercurial, brash, and uncouth.  

But for many people, wealth is a close proxy for merit.  That is, if you have money, you must have something special in you that entitled you to that wealth.

The problem with thinking that way is that a lot of people who have a lot of money were born on third base. They didn't do anything to get there--they didn't hit a triple.  There are brilliant billionaires, but for every Bill Gates or Warren Buffet that built their fortunes on intelligence and innovation, there's an Alice Walton or Jacqueline Mars whose fortunes came from inertia. Buffoon plainly falls into the latter category.

And as a result of that, he will be easily outsmarted by the smartest guys in the room.  His many failed business dealings are proof of that.

Buffoon reportedly thought that he would have broad bipartisan support for firing Comey.  After all, Democrats are carrying a grudge with him, and enough of the GOP will usually fall lockstep behind Buffoon, such that Buffoon thought he could easily get away with it.

He didn't count on the Democrats (and some Republicans) seeing through the charade.  Sure, we have a beef with Comey about the election. But we strongly suspect there's something deeper going on. Whatever problems we might have with Comey, he was at least in position to investigate, and he was showing signs that he would not stop until the truth was out.

It doesn't take much to see that Buffoon saw Comey on the same trail, and he panicked.

And that's how we know where the trail leads.  Whatever Buffoon's ties to Russia might be, and no matter how opaque they are to the general public, Buffoon knows.  And he just told us all that when the truth is out, he's not going to look very good.

Where do we go from here?  The next step in this investigation needs to be the appointment of a special prosecutor--someone with the authority, independence, and motivation needed to get to the bottom of this. We get that by gumming up the works.  Democrats lack control over any branch of the government, but with the assistance of the handful of principled Senate Republicans who are rightly alarmed by this development, we can make the business of the Senate very slow and painful for everyone.  This will put pressure on Buffoon to name a real special prosecutor and to grant him or her the authority to follow the trail, wherever it leads.

If he has nothing to hide, he will welcome an independent review.

I'm not holding my breath.  But we can force this to happen.

Friday, May 5, 2017

The siren song of tax cuts

Probably the most persistent and pernicious economic lie of the last 40 years is that tax cuts aimed at upper-income people and businesses will "pay for themselves through economic growth."
There are circumstances under which the net effect of a tax cut is so stimulative of the economy that tax receipts actually increase. As usual, however, the devil is in the details, and those details are a lot more complex than can be understood in the amount of time most people have time to learn about and consider them.But we can try, anyway.
The aggregate health of our economy is best understood in terms of the total number of dollars that are spent for goods and services in the country by all actors in the economy. This is similar to, but not the same as, the "gross domestic product," which is a measure instead of the goods and services produced. Production is important to the economy, but merely producing a thing does not mean that it is an economic good unless there is someone willing and able to buy it. For example, we produce a lot of garbage, but that doesn't mean an economy devoted to producing garbage would be a healthy one.
What matters is spending, because an exchange--the fundamental unit of economic activity--can only take place when there are willing, able purchasers for goods and services.
One way to induce more spending is to put more discretionary dollars in the hands of people and entities. One way of putting more discretionary dollars in people's hands is to reduce taxation. It's superficially easy to assume, then, that any tax cut will result in more spending.
It's also wrong.

Some tax cuts will result in more spending, and some will not. To understand why, a couple of scenarios:
Scenario 1:
Imagine for a moment that your income over the last few years has been such that you've been able to live the lifestyle you want to live, buying all of the things that you want to buy, and in the process you've been able to set aside another $500,000 in savings for retirement, emergencies, and so forth. (Perhaps you don't have to imagine it.) Imagine also that your job is reasonably secure.
(This puts you in perhaps the top 2% of incomes, by the way.)

Then, one day, Congress passes a revision to the tax code that results in a year-over-year cut in your taxes of $50,000. What will you do with that extra money?
Scenario 2:
Imagine, now, that your income over the last few years has lagged well behind the pace of inflation, and you're living from paycheck to paycheck and carrying fairly heavy credit card debt, and it's a struggle to get by most of the time. You live in constant fear of losing your job or having your hours cut. It's been years since you took a real vacation. Your retirement fund is a joke.
Then, one day, Congress passes a revision to the tax code that results in a year-over-year cut in your taxes of $1,000. What will you do with the extra money?
Now, these two scenarios are very different in terms of how the protagonist views his financial position and even the value of money. I don't think we can say with certainty that Person 1 will behave in one way and Person 2 will behave in another way, because people don't always make choices that conform with our expectations.But, in the aggregate, we can make some generalizations that are fairly likely to hold true over time.

Person 1 might spend some of that money, but let's don't forget that Person 1 already has enough current income to buy everything he wants to buy. An extra $50,000 in that person's hands is much more likely to go into savings, because it doesn't give that person a license to spend something he wouldn't have spent previously. And the thing about savings is that while it's a good thing to have on a private level, it doesn't necessarily do anything for the economy. In fact, if that money goes into a tax-deferred retirement fund that's invested in the stock market, it will probably only work to drive up stock prices a bit--not to stimulate any other spending. In other words, there will not be any beneficial exchanges made possible by that tax cut. It's certainly not going to increase tax revenue--certainly not by the amount of the cut.

By contrast, Person 2 is likely to spend every bit of that $1,000, because an extra $1,000 in the hands of someone who is struggling is going to be used to alleviate some of that struggle. Perhaps it will go for a new refrigerator or washer-dryer to replace the one that's broken down. Maybe they'll take a small vacation to try to relax and recharge from years of constant work. Maybe they'll buy new clothes to replace the ones that have been worn hard for several years and are starting to show more than a little wear. It's also possible that they will pay down a credit card, or put the money in an emergency fund. Those activities aren't the kinds of economic exchanges that we're looking to stimulate--but they do facilitate later exchanges, and those later exchanges are much more likely to occur. After all, people who are in a marginal financial condition are much more likely to need to dip into savings or re-borrow on credit cards in a financial emergency.

Over the last 40 years, we've been sold this lie, that tax cuts always result in more spending that stimulates the economy. In fact, whether tax cuts stimulate spending or not is highly dependent upon the initial conditions, and we're not in a set of conditions where a tax cut directed at upper incomes would stimulate the economy.
For example, in 1961, the top marginal personal income tax rate stood at 91%. (Yes, it was really that high.) When the top rate is that high, people whose incomes are high enough to reach that rate lose a significant part of the incentive to make more money--or, at least, they will put their effort into making and spending money in ways that avoid taxation at that rate. The tendency was to lock up that money in investments that would not produce taxable income--and it happened at a rate that was significant enough that the economy had stagnated because of a lack of capital available for use in ways that would produce taxable income. So JFK proposed--and got Congress to agree--to reduce the top rate to 70%. That stimulated people with money to move their investments into new vehicles that would produce greater economic activity and greater tax receipts, and the result was that the new tax receipts offset the loss to the Treasury from the tax cut.

Today, however, the top rate isn't 91% or even 70%. It's actually 39%. And at that rate, taxes are not a disincentive to invest in income-producing activities. Cutting taxes on high incomes today is very unlikely to stimulate growth. It will simply stuff more money into the retirement accounts and savings of wealthy individuals. And with income inequality at historical highs, the credit markets are very tight, so even the availability of cash to lend doesn't mean we can rely on consumer borrowing for stimulus.
Cutting taxes on high incomes today isn't going to stimulate the economy. It will simply exacerbate the difference between the haves and the have-nots--and that is the fundamental economic problem facing the country today.

If you want to stimulate the economy, create jobs, and raise incomes, you need to put more money in the hands of the people who are closer to Scenario 2 above, who will likely spend it. And, frankly, we need to increase tax rates on top incomes. If I were in charge, I would impose a top rate of 50% on family incomes above $250,000; I would also tax dividends and capital gains as regular income. Finally, I would establish a Universal Basic Income--we would end all forms of welfare and replace it with a monthly check sent to every American, regardless of income, equal at least to the amount of the federal poverty line. More on that in a later post.

Friday, April 21, 2017

A culture of life

Recently my home state, Arkansas, has been in the news for trying to kill people on a deadline.

(The place where I hang my hat these days, Texas, is no slouch when it comes to killing people, but the squeaky wheel is getting greased at the moment.)


Arkansas's law-and-order governor signed eight death warrants recently, ordering death row inmates to be killed across a ten-day period between April 17 and April 27.  What created the urgency--until last night, the state hadn't executed anyone in 12 years--is that the state's supply of one of the drugs used to carry out the executions by lethal injection is set to expire at the end of April.  


Like many states, Arkansas uses three drugs to carry out executions:  midazolam (which anesthetizes the prisoner), vecuronium bromide (which paralyzes the prisoner's lungs), and potassium chloride (which stops the heart).  The impending expiration of the state's supply of midazolam is what's driving the push to put these men to death, but it should be noted that there are problems with the other drugs as well.


You might be wondering, "Hey, if the midazolam is going to expire, just throw it out and buy some more, right?"  The problem with that is that the makers of midazolam all refuse to sell it for use in executions anymore.  Likewise for vecuronium bromide--and McKesson, the maker of the supply of that drug that Arkansas possesses, has sued the state for deceiving it in order to purchase the drug for executions.  (Potassium chloride is easily synthesized and cheaply available from many sources, so it is not difficult to obtain.)


The whole process has been fraught with difficulties.  The state supreme court has stayed a couple of the executions, and a federal district judge issued a stay of the remaining six, only to have that stay dissolved by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.  For Ledell Lee, the appeals ran out yesterday, and he was executed shortly before midnight.


When it comes to the death penalty, I'm mostly a pragmatist:

  • The death penalty is expensive to administer because the due process of law requires multiple levels of review.  We can't streamline that process because that's one of the things that keeps us from executing innocent people (mostly).  Considering that 158 death-row inmates have been exonerated since 1973, due process is not a luxury we can afford to dispense with.  For the cost of a single death penalty case, we could keep the prisoner locked up for 120 years--longer than the verified lifespan of every human being whoever lived except one (Jeanne Calment died at 122).  
  • The death penalty is rarely administered (as opposed to imposing a long prison sentence), and its frequency has gone down steadily since the high-water mark of 98 executions in 1999 (there were only 20 in 2016).  Meanwhile, the murder and violent crime rate has gone down significantly over that time.*
* - Why?  My money is on the removal of lead from our environment in the 1970s.  Most everyone is aware that children are often rendered slow by exposure to lead from eating old paint chips or drinking tap water in Republican-controlled areas like Flint, Michigan, but long-term low-level lead exposure has less obvious but still significant effects and appears to be a significant driver of antisocial behaviors like violent crime.
  • The penalty is also racially discriminatory in its application.  76% of defendants in death penalty cases are white, but only 56% of people executed are white.  A black person is roughly twice as likely to be executed than a similarly situated white person.  And even though only about 50% of murder victims are white, about 75% of the victims in cases where there is an execution are white.
  • It's also not a deterrent.  States that have the death penalty have murder rates that are significantly higher than states that lack it.  Southern states are responsible for 80% of the executions in the modern era and have the highest regional murder rate (6.7 per 100,000, versus 5.6 per 100,000 nationally and only 4.2 per 100,000 in the Northeast).  In the Northeast, only New Hampshire (0 executions) and Pennsylvania (3 executions) have the death penalty; Maryland (5 executions) used to have it but abolished it, while New York had it briefly but never executed anyone before it was declared unconstitutional under the state constitution. 
There are lots of reasons to oppose capital punishment, and I don't see any good reasons to support it. But on social media over the last few days, I've seen a couple of people make arguments in its favor. What they boil down to, mostly, is a belief in "an eye for an eye," a concept that is traceable to the Code of Hammurabi (though, interestingly, not to the older Code of Ur-Nammu, which specified pecuniary penalties for most crimes). Its presence in the Hebrew Talmud is almost certainly more significant to its currency today. More on that in a moment.

The other argument in favor of capital punishment is more nuanced but of a color with lex talionis, the law of (legal) retaliation, the formal name for the eye-for-eye concept. Essentially, the argument is that these murderers gave their victims no consideration, choice, or comfort as they were being murdered, so we are under no obligation to do any better when executing the criminal.

It's easy to see why these arguments have failed to garner my support. The idea of "an eye for an eye" is perhaps more accurately stated as "two wrongs make a right." Even grade-school children understand the fallacy there. If that's a little too on-the-nose for you, consider the words of Martin Luther King: "The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind."

I recognize that it's difficult to expect people to make rational choices when it comes to emotional topics like murder. It is perhaps a fundamentally human reaction to desire retaliation when something terrible is done to a family member. The idea of someone I love being tortured, raped, murdered is too terrible to contemplate. I would most likely be out of my ever-loving mind if something like that happened, and desperate for retaliation.

The problem with that is that these killings are being carried out not by a bereaved and distraught family member, but by the cold, sober hand of a government of and by the people. We do not have the luxury of giving in to our deeper emotions when it comes to the actions of the government. We require more of ourselves--rational, even-handed, reasonable action. The lust for blood has no place in guiding how our government carries out our interests.

Even so, it is none of this that makes me uncomfortable. I will argue these points all day with anyone who cares to discuss them, and if you come to the discussion honestly, I feel confident that I can convince you.

As usual, my main problem with this is one of hypocrisy.

The people of my home state are, in large part, deeply religious, and almost all of them profess Christianity. When you meet a new people upon moving to a new place there, you are as likely as anything to be asked, at some point, "So, have y'all found a new church home yet?" When I moved back to Little Rock in 2012, in looking for a new doctor, I was startled to find that every single doctor I reviewed included church membership in his or her online biography. That did not especially inspire confidence in a science-based humanist like myself.

Now, I have noticed that most of the people who claim to be Christians are either not very well informed about what Jesus actually said in the Bible or more inclined to follow Paul. On the latter point, I tend to regard Paul as a Jesus impressionist, sort of like a Biblical Frank Caliendo. Sure, he sort of sounds like Jesus, just like Caliendo sounds like John Madden, but he's kind of doing a caricature. I mean, I do think that listening to Paul is sort of important for Christians, but if you are going to ignore Jesus or Paul, it's better to ignore Paul.

Where this comes in is in the famous Pauline verse, in Romans 6:23: "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." I have seen well-meaning folks cite that as proof that the death penalty is God-endorsed. The problem with this is twofold. First, you have to consider the context of that verse. Paul isn't discussing how we should handle criminal acts, but rather how the "proper" penalty for sin is death after death (condemnation to hell). In other words, if you commit a sin, what you earn is condemnation. Paul's point, however, is that Jesus's death on the Cross and subsequent Resurrection is payment for that sin, so that all believers can have eternal life in heaven.**

** - I think it's important at this point to note that while none of that makes any sense to me at all on any level, it is nevertheless an accurate accounting of what Christians believe--and, perhaps, the most fundamental tenet of Christianity.

I can see how, in the absence of other guidance, a Christian might be inclined to use that statement to discern what God's will is with regard to earthly justice. The problem, of course, is that there are actual words and actions of Jesus*** that are much more directly on point.

*** - According to the account provided in the Bible, as translated into English. The original is all Greek to me.
Matthew 5:38-39 (from the Sermon on the Mount): 

"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."

Luke 6:27-28 (from the Sermon on the Plain): 

 "But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you."

Even so, these passages aren't exactly on point. After all, you might construe them as guides for private conduct rather than what the government ought to do to evildoers. I would then counter that because we are, rather explicitly, a government of the people, by the people, for the people, there is not really any difference between private conduct and public conduct. We have control over what the punishment should be for crimes. And we could go around and around, never reaching the heart of the matter.

And then there is John.

The Gospel according to John is different from the other Gospels. Unlike the other Gospels, it does not contain an account of Jesus's early life. It is solely focused upon establishing the divinity of Jesus and the validity of his ministry. And in John, specifically in the first 11 verses of chapter 8, there is an account of a group of Pharisees,
1 But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Now early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them. 3 Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, 4 they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” 6 This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. 7 So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” 8 And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. 10 When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.”And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
Here we have a situation in which the law specified the death penalty for the crime, and the political authority enforcing the law--the Pharisees, who were the Jewish political leaders in Roman Judea at the time--sought Jesus's counsel on how to best to enforce the law.  Jesus's instructions--that the penalty was a valid one, but that its enforcement was left to people who are sinners themselves and thus unworthy of enforcing the law--could not be more clear on this subject.

Now, I am the last person who would advocate for the imposition of lawmaking and law enforcement based on the Bible.  But that's not the point.  I have seen many purported Christians in Arkansas who in one breath condemn abortion and homosexuality; who condemn atheists and agnostics as unfit to teach school or testify in court or hold political office; who fight hard to prevent children from learning about healthy sexual behaviors and contraception; and who voted to prohibit homosexuals from adopting children; all on the basis of their belief in the primacy of the Bible in proper conduct.  In the next breath, they call for the death penalty to be enforced with great frequency and efficiency, even though their principal religious text says to do otherwise.  A large number of Arkansas Christians have been in an utter panic over the last few weeks, worried that they might not get to kill these people.

Perhaps it is too much to expect of people who view forced prayer in their public schools as a good thing, despite Jesus's instructions to pray only privately.

But it is a disgusting hypocrisy, and for it, the supporters of this terrible act have forfeited any claim they have to work toward a "culture of life."

One day, we will come to recognize that the death penalty simply isn't worth it.  That day will come too late for Ledell Lee, whom the State of Arkansas murdered last night in cold blood.  It may come too late for the remainder of the men who have been scheduled to die this month.  But it will come.