Archive for February, 2010

Secular Government Criticized for Meeting Secular Group

February 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Conservative religious groups criticized the Obama Administration for meeting with the Secular Coalition for America.

Some conservative commentators are accusing the Obama administration of inviting “hate groups” into the White House by holding a meeting with a coalition of secularist and atheist groups.

(my emphasis)

I certainly welcome the the administration’s decision.  I’m not sure I support giving nonbelievers special protections.

Johnson [the American Atheists vice president] called on the Obama administration to make non-theists “a protected class throughout the Armed Services on par with the protections afforded to women, minorities, and those belonging to minority faith groups.”

I don’t support offering any groups special protections – it reenforces divisions in society, violates the spirit of “equal protection,” and punishes people for thought-crime.  If you commit a crime against any person that should be reason enough to prosecute the offender.  

South Park’s Politics

February 26, 2010 2 comments

Matt and Trey aren’t on your side.  

“It was just lame, that’s exactly what we’re talking about–people trying to claim the show,” said Matt, who in 2005 announced “I hate conservatives, but I really fucking hate liberals.” When I asked him about the quote, Trey responded, “It’s all based on saying the shocking thing. We used to have a great time going to Hollywood parties and saying ‘I think George Bush is doing a great job.’ We’d clear out the room. I used to love it.

Both men were adamant that the show has no political affiliation. “I would never want the show to be a Democrat show or Republican show, because for us the show’s more important than that. It isn’t for everybody else in the world, but it is for us. We don’t want you to come to it thinking, ‘These guys are going to bash liberals,'” Matt explained.

They are almost certainly libertarians personally (even if they don’t like the label) but I believe they’re being honest when they say the show doesn’t take political sides.  They’re looking for the laugh and looking to skewer anyone who needs it.  

Neither Stone nor Parker will delineate his political views, and both contend that the libertarian label, which has been applied to them in recent years, is not entirely appropriate.

Categories: Politics, South Park

Singing about Science

February 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Pretty cheesy, but still fun.

Categories: Music, Science Tags: ,

Paul Ryan on Budget Gimmickry

February 25, 2010 Leave a comment

He makes a lot of fair points.  It’d be more helpful if he called out Republican fiscal recklessness as well (or atone for his own support for Medicare Advantage)

What Are Schools For?

February 23, 2010 Leave a comment

I often find it helpful to look at fundamental questions – it forces us to keep our bearings when thinking about public policy.  So, for one of my favorite topics – educational policy – I’d like to ask the question:

What are schools for?

Partly, this question was prompted from me watching Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk about how schools kill creativity.  It is the most favorited video currently at TED and I certainly enjoyed it.

Although, I’m not sure I entirely agreed with its premises.  But he does make some great points along the way.  Robinson argues that since we don’t even know what the world will look like in 5 years, it is futile to try to educate children for specific industries that may not be there when they finish schooling. From that he argues that it is necessary to promote creativity in schools (fully agree).  Also, he’s certainly right that instilling the idea that making a mistake is the worst possible thing isn’t conducive to creativity.

Despite what Robinson claims, do our schools crush creativity?  At least compared to Japan’s schools, America seems to be in much better shape. I don’t think that creativity is necessary going to be best promoted by focusing more on art and dance in schools (for the record: I loved my theatre and music classes) – at least it might not be the proper role of a school.  We have to recognize that schools can’t teach everything.

But no matter how valuable a subject may be, there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and a decision to teach one subject is also a decision not to teach another one. The question is not whether trigonometry is important, but whether it is more important than statistics; not whether an educated person should know the classics, but whether it is more important for an educated person to know the classics than to know elementary economics. In a world whose complexities are constantly challenging our intuitions, these tradeoffs cannot responsibly be avoided.

I’ve referenced this before but Steven Pinker also makes that enlightening argument that schools should promote subjects that are unintuitive to humans.

The goal of education should be to provide students with the cognitive tools that are most important for grasping the modern world and that are most unlike the cognitive tools they are born with.

Those subjects might be more necessary for schools to step in and teach since students aren’t likely to learn them without special instruction, but need them to better navigate our modern world.  Subjects like economics, finance, and statistics aren’t likely to become obsolete either as Robinson worries about other areas of study. In order to determine what schools are for do we need to just list the subjects of highest priority?  Highest priority for what?  It seems that is straying a bit away from my original question.  Bertrand Russell can help get back to the core issue, he writes in his essay, “The Aims of Education:”

Before considering how to educate, it is well to be clear as to the sort of result which we wish to achieve.  Dr Arnold wanted ‘humbleness of mind’, a quality not possessed by Aristotle’s ‘magnanimous man’. Neitzche’s ideal is not that of Christianity. No more is Kant’s: for while Christ enjoins love, Kant teaches that no action of which love is the motive can be truly virtuous. And even people who agree as to the ingredients of a good character may differ as to their relative importance. One man will emphasize courage, another learning, another kindliness, and another rectitude. One man, like the elder Brutus, will put duty to the State above family affection; another, like Confucious, will put family affection first. All these divergences will produce differences as to education. We must have some concept of the kind of person we wish to produce, before we can have any definite opinion as to the education which we consider best.

So school’s purpose is derived from what we want our students to become as people. Further in the essay, Russell argues that students should be looked at as ends, not means.  It seems important to educate not for the sake of creating citizens that can serve the state, for example, but to give them the tools necessary to live their lives how they as individuals see fit.  After all, as I learn from wikipedia

Etymologically the word education contains educarae (latin) “bring up” which is related to educere “bring out”, “bring forth what is within”, “bring out potential” and ducere “to lead”.

Yet, clearly if we think of education as a public good, we want some sort of specific “means” goals from students, don’t we?  Providing them with a proper finance and economic background clearly helps them as individuals, but the additional externalities on society aren’t insignificant.  The question isn’t easily answered.  I’ll be sure to follow up on this topic in the future.  Feel free to offer your answer to the question: What are schools for?

Yglesias on Polarization

February 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Yglesias, dissenting from my view, points to research that suggests that gerrymandering’s effect on political polarization is weak.  Here is one specific paper he references.  The abstract:

Both pundits and scholars have blamed increasing levels of partisan conflict and polarization in Congress on the effects of partisan gerrymandering. We assess whether there is a strong causal relationship between congressional districting and polarization. We find very little evidence for such a link. First, we show that congressional polarization is primarily a function of the differences in how Democrats and Republicans represent the same districts rather than a function of which districts each party represents or the distribution of constituency preferences. Second, we conduct simulations to gauge the level of polarization under various “neutral” districting procedures. We find that the actual levels of polarization are not much higher than those produced by the simulations. We do find that gerrymandering has increased the Republican seat share in the House; this increase is not an important source of polarization.

[update]: I found a better link to that paper.

So I might have been wrong about redistricting’s effect on political polarization but I appear to be vindicated about my concern over its effect on electoral competition.

And redistricting does appear to have a negative impact on electoral competition.  There are many reasons to do something about gerrymandering.  But reducing polarization is not one of them.   

 Of course, I want to look more into this. Another paper which I haven’t been able to access yet seems to suggest that redistricting has modest effect on polarization.

Our results show that although there is an overall trend of increasing polarization, districts that have undergone significant changes as a result of redistricting have become even more polarized. Although the effect is relatively modest, it suggests that redistricting is one among other factors that produce party polarization in the House and may help to explain the elevated levels of polarization in the House relative to the Senate.

Either way it seems redistricting – no matter how unseemly – isn’t the main culprit behind our polarized politics.  

Taxing the Wrong Thing

February 23, 2010 Leave a comment

The Pigovian insight on taxes is that placing a tax on an activity with negative externalities will reduce that activity and, importantly, the negative externality with it.  More generally it becomes obvious taxes affect incentives – want less of an activity, tax it.  I know the economists in the Obama administration realize this.  So, I’m disappointed that the President’s healthcare plan shifts more of the tax burden to the wealthy’s unearned income instead of taxing “Cadillac health plans.”  As Greg Mankiw points out,

The tax on so-called Cadillac health plans made sense as a way to reduce the existing tax incentive toward excessively generous health insurance, which in turn encourages excessive use of healthcare. That reform is, apparently, now gone.  Instead, the current administration proposal is to increase the tax on capital income, reducing the incentive for saving and investment.   

In other words, the new proposal would do less to bend the curve of rising healthcare costs and more to impede long-run economic growth. 

I’m glad the Obama administration recognizes that if we want something (e.g. more coverage) it needs to be paid for.  They just need to realize that the way we pay for something is just as important as the something we get.  I still support the overall direction of the healthcare proposal but my disappointments are piling up.    

Paul Ryan Outlines His Plan

February 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Rep. Ryan argues in Newsweek for his “Roadmap.”

Both Republicans and Democrats share the blame for failing to be candid about the difficult choices we face and for continuing to make promises that cannot be kept.


Critics say that any attempt to cut entitlements is tantamount to political suicide. Nonsense. Most Americans see such reforms as common sense. It makes sense to gradually increase the eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare—Americans are living decades longer than when these programs were first enacted. It also makes sense to tie benefits to income so that those with fewer resources receive more support.

Categories: Newsweek, Paul Ryan

Making America Drug-Free, 6 Dead Dogs at a Time

February 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Police killed 6 pit bulls during a bust of a marijuana grow house.

When the dogs began attacking officers and one another, police shot six of them to death and trapped the other 15.

Alejandro Campos-Rivera, 37, who lived at the home, was charged with unlawful production of cannabis plants and animal cruelty. His bail was set at $750,000 Saturday morning.

(h/t: Dan Savage)

The dogs were likely being trained for dog fighting.  I’m all for stopping dog fighting, but murdering them is a funny way to help.  This story reminds me of this CATO article by Radley Balko I read way back. 

One of the most appalling cases occurred in Maricopa County, Arizona, the home of Joe Arpaio, self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America.” In 2004 one of Arpaio’s SWAT teams conducted a bumbling raid in a Phoenix suburb. Among other weapons, it used tear gas and an armored personnel carrier that later rolled down the street and smashed into a car. The operation ended with the targeted home in flames and exactly one suspect in custody—for outstanding traffic violations. 

But for all that, the image that sticks in your head, as described by John Dougherty in the alternative weekly Phoenix New Times, is that of a puppy trying to escape the fire and a SWAT officer chasing him back into the burning building with puffs from a fire extinguisher. The dog burned to death.

I’d Rather Cut Government

February 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Public health officials are again trying to push new food guidelines on businesses and Americans.  John Tierney looks at some of the potential problems with their new plan to reduce America’s salt intake.

That’s the beauty of the salt debate: there’s so little reliable evidence that you can imagine just about any outcome. For all the talk about the growing menace of sodium in packaged foods, experts aren’t even sure that Americans today are eating more salt than they used to.

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