Sunday, January 26, 2014

Short: Rand Paul's stupid logic

Let me try to understand this. Rand Paul is saying there's no GOP "War on Women" (a slogan that exaggerates) because Clinton had an affair. That's his argument? What an incredibly lame and stupid argument that is.

Here's why: That's not a defense of GOP policies. If he wants to defend GOP policies with regard to women, he should defend those policies. Bringing Bill Clinton's personal behavior from 15 years ago has NOTHING TO DO with GOP policies. Rand Paul, your argument is a giant logical FAIL.

He forgot to bring the sense this time.
Image: thedailysheeple.com

Denying Contraceptive Coverage is Slut-Shaming

First, I'm sorry that this topic is getting so many posts, but there is a good reason. This is one of the few issues where it's possible to nail down the logic and see it for what it is.

People who argue against contraceptive coverage fall into three categories:
  1. Those who are against ALL drug coverage, but make the mistake of focusing on contraceptives. 
  2. Those who don't want any of their money to go to subsidized contraceptives for parasites who are probably irresponsible sluts.
  3. Those who follow religious tenets against the use of contraceptives. 
I'm giving category #1 people the benefit of the doubt. It's easy to identify them. If you ask, why should contraceptives be any different from, say anti-cholesterol drugs, they readily agree that they shouldn't.

For category #3 people, I have to argue that their church's tenets are misguided and/or outdated in this age where we have over 7 billion people thronging the Earth. Also, they cannot and should not force their church teachings on employees. Do they make their employees swear religious oaths? No. So keep religion out of healthcare also.

But a lot of religion tenets come down to category #2, which is disapproval of sex. Often it's clothed as disapproval of wanton, irresponsible sex, but when you scratch the surface, it's a general disapproval of sex.

Image: politicalfun.blogspot.com

However, it makes no sense for this disapproval of wanton sex to apply also to contraceptives. These are used mostly by very responsible people for responsible purposes. Just because prostitutes and sexually adventurous people also use contraceptives, that doesn't make contraceptives evil. Prostitutes and the unchaste also drink water for the same reasons the rest of us do, but we don't have religious prohibitions against water.

So there's no logical reason to deny contraceptive coverage--unless I've missed some other argument. If that's the case, I apologize. However, I really doubt that there is any other argument.

Slut or responsible person?
Image: thebottomline.as.ucsb.edu


Update 1/31/14. Answer to O'Reilly's questions above: No, Bill, I want you to shove that money so far up your ass that it comes out your foul mouth. Plus, I hear you're quite a slut yourself.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The GOP in their contraceptive corner

OK folks, I hope this is the last thing I'll say about the GOP and contraceptives. These guys have really been idiots about contraception. Contraception is a good thing. It lets you have sex with your spouse (something you looked forward to for all or most of your adolescence) without fear of having way too many children that you can't afford. If you're not married, it lets you have sex without fear that you'll have to rush into marriage due to pregnancy or have that awkward child-sharing relationship fraught with disagreements, resentment, and discomfort, which will deeply harm your kid. Or you won't have to make that painful decision to have an abortion because you're not a selfless saint who can deal with pregnancy and giving up the kid. (Aside--who is the patron saint of unwed mothers? Was she an unwed mother, or is he or she another figure to make them feel ashamed.)

Image: east2west.org

So, that's the short version of my case for why CONTRACEPTION = GOOD.

Now, how did the GOP ever embrace the idea that contraception isn't good? I don't know, so I'm going to speculate. Contraception was traditionally outlawed because of some arcane reasons probably having to do with male control and women being in subservient positions. So maybe the GOP, being the party of traditional values, doesn't like the modernity of contraception.

They probably don't like that it gives people more freedom for sexual experimentation, though anyone who's realistic should still appreciate its usefulness for married couples. So perhaps the prudish side of the GOP has won out, and they disapprove of contraception because sluts use it.

Perhaps the GOP has decided to hate everything connected with Planned Parenthood, and that would include contraception. In the same vein, they may have decided to be against everything that the Democrats are for, thus they're against both contraception and Planned Parenthood.

Whatever the bizarre reason that the GOP became the party against contraception, they really need to stop this nonsense. Romney helped when he stated in a debate: "I don't know any state that wants to ban contraception, George." Unfortunately, that was the high point of GOP support for contraception. Weak sauce.

What the GOP needs to do now is to turn the tide and get a lot of prominent Republicans to say that they have indeed used contraception and it's great--it worked really well and they're happy with the results and they had the children when they wanted. Maybe that would remind the loony Republicans to just shut up. Furthermore, perhaps someone will take the loony Republicans into some back room and explain that slut-shaming over contraception might make them feel haughty and superior, but that it's downright stupid as elections go.

OK, yes, I want to be the person who tells the loony Republicans how stupid they are. Rant over... I hope.

(Not an actual quote.)
Image:  suyts.wordpress.com


Extra. Even when intelligent conservatives talk about this, they still end up getting it wrong. Many are against the landmark decision Griswold v. Connecticut, in which the Supreme Court told states to stay out of people's bedrooms. To many conservatives, this was a bad decision because it opened the door to legalization of abortion, gay sex, oral sex and other forms of sex previously called sodomy, and cohabitation. But Griswold v. Connecticut was decided rightly--the state should stay out of your bedroom. I think the majority of Americans strongly agree with that. 

The Controversy in My Medicine Cabinet

There shouldn't be a controversy in my medicine cabinet. It's my medicine cabinet. It's between me and my doctor what goes in there. There are all these HIPAA regulations that are supposed to protect the privacy of my medical information, presumably including what my doctor prescribes.

So why would anyone care if I have an anti-cholesterol drug in my medicine cabinet? Why should my employer care? Why the hell would my employer go out of his way to complain about me getting this drug, and that some tiny bit might be paid for by him. It's OK if I use my salary to pay for it, but horrible if it's part of my benefits package. Does that make any bloody sense? No, it doesn't.

I am so tired of some people thinking I'm a freeloader because my anti-cholesterol drug is covered in my health plan. Limbaugh thinks I'm some sort of slut because of it, and he demands I upload porno to him.

Now Mike Huckabee is saying something too. He seems to think that I should be offended that my health plan covers my anti-cholesterol drug, because that means they don't think I'm mature enough to handle it on my own, or some such nonsense. Hell, no, I'm glad that they cover the drug, like the rest of my medical needs. Why should I be 'outraged' as Huckabee suggests?

I'm supposed to be outraged at the Democrats for supporting coverage for this medicine, but that doesn't wash either. I don't see how Huckabee can contend that my health plan and the Dems think I'm sort of slut. All they're doing is supporting me when I say "I'm glad my health plan covers this medication."

It seems to me that it's the Republicans who think it's kind of slutty or dirty that I might have anti-cholesterol medication. It's certainly a pretty common med--lots of people use it. Since when did it become slutty?

So to all the Republicans and their dittohead army, would you please shut up about my anti-cholesterol med? You sound very creepy when you get that involved in my medicine cabinet.

Stay out of my medicine cabinet.
Image: laprogressive.com

Extras. Huckabee is raising funds based on this. Some pundit thinks the big problem is that Huckabee is hypocritical about the issue, not how intrusive he is. I disagree. And then there are the idiots who think Huckabee nailed it--that Dems do think I'm a slut. Wrong!

Monday, January 20, 2014

The nightmare future vision of the GOP

"American liberal strategists know that in five to eight years the post-1968 culture and its stances which they have long championed will attain absolute majority among American adults and voters. Very simply, the Silent Generationers and Boomers who form the bulk of the resistance to this in the electorate are dying off. Around 2020 the country will have tipped and begin to change very greatly." -- comment in The American Conservative
This explains why the establishment in the GOP (the GOPe) wants to stop with the culture wars and pass an emigration bill. They want to have some hope of pulling away some of the more conservative voters among Latinos and gay-friendly voters.

If they can't, they will be overwhelmed by rote Democratic voters. Elections will be decided by the smaller, hard-core primary voters, so the Democrats might become even more leftist. This certainly holds no appeal for me--I've depended on competition and obstruction to prevent the worst on both sides.

However, if this change is inevitable, does it matter what the GOP does now or in the next few years? Perhaps they can only hold off the Dem surge and all the changes it entails for a couple years, but that's only a delay. The ultimate outcome will be the same.

This catastrophic outlook assumes that American voters won't be able to see if or when the Democratic agenda starts doing real harm. I worry about this myself. Our electorate is pretty stupid, uninformed, and unquestioning. When swing voters no longer matter, politicians won't have to craft the best policies based on good analysis. Instead, they can follow the party line, which unfortunately so many are doing already. What happens when there are no independent voices, only partisan ones? Maybe we become just another banana republic. This isn't just a nightmare for the GOP. It should be a nightmare for all of us.

Welfare (party) line
Image: thekitchencabinet.us

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Harry Reid blew unemployment extensions and won't admit it

Dems have painted the Republicans in Congress as obstructionist, and that view certainly has a lot of facts behind it. However, there's no iron-clad law that says Dems can't or won't be obstructionist on some issues. The extension of unemployment benefits is a perfect example.

The Dems left this out of the budget deal, perhaps thinking that there was enough support among GOP senators from hard-hit states. Immediately with the new year, Dem senators started negotiating with moderate GOP senators and met them part-way: the Senate would consider a 3-month extension and also an 11-month version (the 3-month version having more GOP support). Also, the extra spending would be paid for with savings elsewhere in the budget. With those terms, 5-6 GOP senators joined the Dem caucus to overcome the first 60-vote choke point.

Then the negotiations feel apart. Harry Reid didn't allow these GOP senators to propose amendments, a nasty majority leader trick that isn't new but that Reid uses often. Do you suppose that would piss off the senators who had just helped on the recent vote? No surprise, it did.

The methods for "paying for" the extra spending were also a sticking point. Harry Reid offered mostly future money from 2024 to pay for the benefits--no current spending would be touched. This is a bad habit with the federal government--assuming future savings or economic growth will make budget fudges balance. I don't know if this ever worked.

So with these two big problems, the deal fell apart. What is the official word from the Democrats? According to Chuck Shumer, the second-ranking Dem in the Senate: "The bottom line is our Republican colleagues don’t seem to get it." That bit of drivel falls apart with one follow-up question: What was the sticking point on the deal?

Come on guys. No one is going to give an unconditional surrender. You have to negotiate! I worry that Harry Reid has an angle on this where he doesn't suffer at all, but he certainly should suffer at least a little.

Image: thepeoplescube.com

Extras.  Just a reminder, I'm not for endless extensions. One year is the maximum I support because 1) people have to adapt to the new reality. 2) Business need to have an endpoint on their contributions for laid-off workers if they're to do any new hiring.




Saturday, January 18, 2014

I'm tired of America

You should be able to guess from the title that this post will be a rant.

I'm so tired of all the political hate. It's getting harder and harder to have a reasonable online conversation. My favorite political blogger, Jonathan Bernstein, got a new job at Bloomberg. His posts are still good, but the comment sections are overrun with idiotic trolls who can't put together an argument so they live and breathe insults.

Over at National Review I'm attacked and down-voted for not being in lock-step with liberal-bashing when it's done in a petty way. "Thou shalt hate liberals" reigns at National Review.

Common Language - Gone

I also notice that the words conservative commenters use have different meanings from what I'm used to. Take the word 'Marxist.' To me, it means someone who wants to abolish private property, seize all wealth over, say, a few thousand dollars, seize all business assets, and generally do what the Soviets did in Russia. To most commenters over there, a Marxist is anyone who advocated higher tax on the wealthy. Maybe just supporting progressive tax rates, like we already have, makes you a Marxist.

If you talk about inequality, a very squishy topic, you're probably a Marxist. If you say that money should be spread around ... Marxist. If you say the middle class should be stronger and getting more money, maybe you aren't a Marxist, but how is that different from saying that money should be spread around?

Now I'm also having trouble with the word 'confiscation.' It's a favorite term there. To me, it means the government taking a sizable portion of a person's money or property, or taking any portion that it doesn't have a legal right to. To others, it's any taxation. I'm sorry, but I can't call any and all taxation 'confiscation.' It has to be excessive--beyond what has been normal for the past several decades. So I think a 70% income tax rate is confiscation, and taking of saved assets is confiscation, but a 25% to 35% taxation rate on income doesn't fit the definition.

General Respect - Gone

I'm having a hard time at the soft-left sites too. The problem there isn't the meaning of terms, but the idea that anyone intelligent could disagree with the standard leftist platform. To some, it makes no sense that someone would want smaller government instead of bigger government.

The partisanship and the hate is not abating--not with the most recent elections and not with the slight uptick in employment. If anything, it is becoming more entrenched. I suppose I'm glad that we don't have political street demonstrations where people are beaten up and killed, but it's happening metaphorically on the internet. People loathe each other, and don't give a damn what happens to someone on the other side.

Considering Other Viewpoints - LOL

They also loathe any different ideology. We used to have an ideal that this country is a forum where different ideologies can compete and be judged. I guess that is over, and each side thinks its ideology has been proven (yes, proven) superior. Anyone who doesn't agree is either a shill, corrupt, a rentier, a leech, or what-have-you.

Worst of all, I don't see any way that this situation is going to get better. The different political sides show no signs of rapprochement, and a buoyant economy isn't going to rush in and save us. We are stuck with all these people we hate, and nothing is going to fix it.

I wonder what we did last time this happened? Are there any good ideas from the past?

Image: thejimmyzshow.blogspot.com

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Tale of Two ...

It's inconvenient for Chris Christie that some conservatives have been calling Obama a thug for the past five years. That puts the term 'thug' in the front of people's minds. So when a few of Christie's staff and appointees conspired to jam up a city in New Jersey, the public is thinking: New Jersey, mob, payback, retribution, thug.

Of course to some people, Obama is a major thug. I'm not sure what they base that on. To me, he's a professorial type, which doesn't share much in common with my image of 'thug.' I guess some people have quite a different impression of Obama from mine.

I don't have many preconceived images for Christie, but I still find it egregious that Christie's people did this, but I started to wonder why. Is this worse than what Obama has done? Is it worse than Benghazi, Solyndra, Fast and Furious, or the IRS treatment of Tea Party groups?

Yes, something does seem worse about it. Benghazi, Solyndra, and Fast and Furious were mistakes in decision-making, but the intentions weren't evil. The IRS, if it was targeting of opposition for the full stricture of regulations, has something in common with what Christie's people did. But to me, it still doesn't feel as bad.

Comment here

It was hard to put my finger on why I felt the Christie scandal was worse. But perhaps I understand now. There's something awful in punishing the people of an entire city where the overwhelming majority are clearly innocent bystanders. Did Christie's staffers really hate that many people? Or maybe they just didn't give a damn. When these staffers valued their vendetta more than they valued the well-being of their citizens, they were clearly unfit to serve in government. Maybe there's a goon squad they can join.

Comment here

Monday, January 13, 2014

Unsurprising headlines: Welfare fraud by ...

'Octomom' Charged With Welfare Fraud in California


I was among the many who were horrified at the irresponsibility of this woman. I hated the publicity and accolades she got for the unnatural choice to aim for a huge number of babies.

 Image: justjared.com

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The New Year of Inequality

Welcome to another election year. Even though it's only a mid-term election, it's going to be nasty because all elections are nasty now.

The Dems have a major vulnerability in the various troubles of Obamacare, but that's not enough for an entire campaign season. It's too bad for the conservatives who thought they could run non-stop bashing Dems on Obamacare and Benghazi. Those really aren't enough for a campaign when the economy is weak and people need jobs. Somehow, when you or someone in your family needs a job, that trumps political talking points. Maybe because people do have a sense of the real priorities.

The Dems see this, or perhaps they desperately want to talk about something other than Obamacare. They decided that they're going to talk about inequality--the fact that some people are making millions in this economy while you or someone close to you struggle to find a job. The argument has a lot of potential, but also some risks, like "what can you (the Dems) do about it?"

Lies, Damned Lies, and Exaggeration

Before looking at what the Dems actually say on the issue, it's fun to look at how the GOP characterizes what the Dems really want:
  • Dems are just stoking envy, that most terrible of sins
  • This is class warfare, I tell you!
  • This is a prelude to confiscating wealth.
  • Well, maybe they won't seize wealth, but they'll end personal savings.
  • They'll nationalize healthcare, banks, the auto industry, and... No, wait, they already did. 
It never ceases to amaze me how conservatives shoot themselves in the foot with such exaggerations, and then do it again in the next election cycle too.

What do "they" really want?

So what are the Dems actually saying they'll do about inequality? To start, they want to extend unemployment benefits beyond the standard 20-some weeks. They want to maintain social programs like food stamps at the higher levels enacted as part of the stimulus. They want to enact higher minimum wages, both locally and nationally. They want to maintain healthcare for all, so you can still see a doctor even if you can't find a job. Maybe they still want universal pre-K, or perhaps that was just last year's failed social agenda item. I doubt they'll revive the half-trillion-dollar jobs program, which was 2011's failed agenda item.

The Dems aren't saying how they'll fund the programs that aren't already funded--that's a return to type for the Dems. One exception is the new progressive mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio. He wants to fund pre-K through a minuscule tax on the wealthy of NYC. The wealthy in NYC already pay higher federal taxes, higher state income taxes, and even city income tax. Why worry about taxing them even more? After all, INEQUALITY!!!!!!  (Rhymes with BENGHAZI!!!!!!)

Sorry for all the snark. Briefly, I support an increased minimum wage, healthcare for all rather than a return to the pre-Obamacare mess, but not a national pre-K program or maintaining the bonuses to social programs given out in the stimulus. I think one year of unemployment insurance is the maximum people should receive, not year after year.

From the Party of the 1%

Somehow, a few in the GOP realized that they might have some vulnerability on the inequality issue. It is hard to dismiss it purely as envy when what people want are jobs, not to throw the rich out of their mansions and behead them. Some in the GOP thought that Romney lost the presidential race over his 47% remark--I disagree, but it doesn't help when the billionaire Koch brothers are on one side of the GOP's internal war and the Chamber of Commerce and establishment/CEOs are on the other side. The GOP could stand to appear more compassionate, both for the 2014 election and the next general election (thanks, Atlantic Wire, for pointing this out).

So this was the week that the GOP trotted out their ideas for anti-poverty initiatives. They include no minimum wage increase, a reworked Earned Income Tax Credit (questionable whether it would be better), repeal of Obamacare (because it's part of every GOP domestic proposal), turning anti-poverty programs into block grants, and more school vouchers.

What We Need More Than Anti-Poverty Plans

Neither the Dem nor the Republican proposals sound very effective to me. A wage increase puts a bit more money in workers' pockets, unless it costs you your job, but that doesn't happen often. As for block-granting anti-poverty programs like food stamps, housing subsidies, etc., I don't care strongly. None of these programs seem to help people get out of poverty, they only help them endure it.

What's really needed are a lot of jobs with decent pay, but that is what our economy has been exporting for four decades. The Dems don't have a plan to change it, neither do the Republicans, and neither do I. When wages are so much lower in other countries, no one is going to have a good plan.

I wish we could be Germany or Sweden, having a mixed economy of high-margin, high-quality goods and good-paying jobs. But I don't think we can do that. That niche may not be large enough to accommodate a nation of 300 million. So I wonder whether we're actually on our way to being a middle-income country like Brazil.

Maybe we were always bound in that direction. When factory owners encouraged lots of immigration, they weren't trying to turn them all into middle-class consumers. No, they wanted cheap labor. So we accidentally became a rich country, but we've always had a large pool of cheap labor. If there weren't enough cheap American-born workers, we managed to bring cheap workers in, legally or illegally. So being part of a pool of cheap, excess labor is more our birthright than being a rich country. Ironically, they don't teach you that in school or say it on the campaign trail.

If we really want to be a rich country, we may have to change in fundamental ways, including ending our tradition as a nation of immigrants seeking the American dream. I don't think any of our candidates will get close to that particular discussion. It's probably political suicide to say the American dream is over.

Image: frumforum.com

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Still arguing about the stimulus

The stimulus of 2009 is still a point of argument on this blog. I've argued that the stimulus helped stop the unemployment spiral and that parts of the stimulus, such as support for state workers, were quite helpful in softening the downturn.

The general argument against the stimulus is that it doesn't do any good for the economy, increases the national debt, sucks money out of the private sector, and the economy would correct itself in the same timeframe without one.

Evidence for this viewpoint isn't generally provided by those making the argument. It's a hypothetical, not even close to proven. Part of the problem is that economies don't let you do controlled experiments, where you apply stimulus and measure the result, and then reset, don't apply stimulus, and look for the difference. This problem equally affects both sides of the argument.

So what evidence can there be for one side or another?

If the economy returns to normal soon without stimulus, that would be good evidence that stimulus wasn't necessary. We could also look at how dismal metrics like unemployment go, how long the job slump last, and other factors.

Here's a graph of estimated or measured unemployment since 1890:

Image: wikimedia.org

The Panic of 1893, which caused a spike in unemployment lasting until 1900, stands out, as does the Great Depression. Unemployment spikes since 1945 have been much milder, so we need a different scale for them. Here's a chart of the more recent recessions:

Image: calculatedriskblog.com

I thought it would be helpful to see the first derivative, or the rate of change, of unemployment. Here it is, the 4-week moving average of new unemployment claims:

Image: calculatedriskblog.com

Here's what I see in these graphs:
  • The middle graph shows that the peak of the 2009 unemployment was blunted--not as high or sharp as one might expect. It's impossible to be sure what shape the peak should have, but if it was blunted, that means that unemployment may not have peaked because of the stimulus.
  • The bottom graph shows that the rate of job losses were as severe as the 1982 recession. The recessions between 1982 and 2008 were considerably milder.
  • Since 1982, the period it takes for employment to recover is getting longer.

A commenter arguing against the 2009 stimulus said these things, which I believe are refuted:
  • It is entirely normal for the "leveling off" of employment to occur 24 months after the fall, the time period shown in your graph. My reply: It's not a slam-dunk that employment will stop falling in that short a period, as the 1893 and 1929 downturns show.
  • The fact that other sectors were not (net) creating jobs while the government was sucking an extra $800 million out of the economy is not evidence that that $800 million wouldn't have created at least as many jobs were it spent/invested in the private sector. My reply: This point ignores how much the private sector was contracting and how private businesses that had cash were sitting on it, not reinvesting it. [Not refuted in the charts, but in this post.]
Commenters who are against the stimulus often claim or imply that the economy would do better without the stimulus, yet they offer no evidence for that assertion. Again, clear evidence is difficult to find because you can't run controlled experiments on an economy. But it's been hard to glean whether proponents have any evidence for this view. It's a belief without evidence--meaning that it's a dogma. On the other hand, it would be particularly hard to find evidence against stimulus because the government has run stimulus programs during recession after recession, so we don't have good comparison cases without stimulus. 

There will probably not be definitive evidence for or against stimulus packages. It's not possible in the nature of economies and how governments respond. However, the dogma against stimulus goes further than healthy skepticism. It replaces a belief in stimulus (with marginal evidence) with a bias against stimulus based on ... what, exactly? That's the problem. It's turned into an article of faith despite having no foundation. 

Perhaps the animus against stimulus is part of the rejection and vilification of all things related to Obama. The idea of stimulus now carries Obama-taint. That's bad because it's hard to make a case against stimulus and the damage it can do (increased deficits, increased budget baselines forever after) if you're just reflexively against it, and you can't put together a coherent argument. 

It's not as though there isn't an argument to be made. Opponents of stimulus can point out that a stimulus may not be necessary in the short term since the economy can correct on its own. Also the deficit spending to support a stimulus may be harmful in the long term.

I suspect there's a good reason that the federal government rarely votes against a stimulus during a downturn. In harder economic times, those in power don't want to argue that they are ineffectual (unable to do anything), so "doing something" has the edge. "Doing something" is also supported by the people who will benefit from the stimulus.

The biggest problem with the Obama stimulus is not that it happened, or that it's unclear whether it was helpful, but that the spending is staying so high for so long. The following chart shows that GDP started improving in 2009 Q2 and returned to 2007 levels in 2010 Q3:

Image: businessinsider.com

Yet the expanded federal spending, which should have been tapered starting in 2010, continued to grow and became the defacto new baseline:

Image: downsizinggovernment.org

The spending reduction in 2012 occurred because the Tea Party pushed budget cuts--it wasn't part of the stimulus plan that spending levels dropped back down. In fact, the supporters of the stimulus, Obama and the Dems in Congress, resisted budget cuts.

So if the government is reluctant to back off increased spending as recovery strengthens, what should we do? Should we forfeit the possible benefits of stimulus due to the drawbacks? I'd like to see a lighter hand on stimulus with definite cool-down features enacted with the stimulus itself. There should be no long-term stimulus, which also means that any tax cuts enacted as stimulus must have expiration dates no more than a couple years away. I'm thinking in particular of the Bush tax cuts that were enacted as a stimulus, but were scheduled to last 10 years.

The severe recession starting in 2008 definitely warranted stimulus measures though many of those measures weren't targeted in effective ways. The stimulus was too large, lasted too long, included too much spending for favored political groups, and was an excuse for higher spending for the foreseeable future. However, complaints about the stimulus are scattershot and politically motivated rather than being analytical.

Extras. Long analysis of stimulus measures from a Koch-supported think tank. Lots of data and good questions. See especially the three hurdles on p. 54. Apply the questions raised to all stimulus programs, not just the Obama stimulus.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

How accurate is brain death?

This post will for those who share my scientific curiosity about the issues involved in the current case of Jahi McMath, the 13-year-old declared brain dead from complications after an operation. The hospital has declared her brain dead, and refuses to fit her with a tracheostomy or feeding tube into her stomach (G-tube). She's currently on a respirator.

These kinds of issues have come up before, including whether Terri Schiavo's G-tube could be disconnected so she would no longer passively receive nutrition and water. Terri Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state where she could breathe on her own but she didn't have voluntary movement. According to the hospital, Jahi requires a respirator and would cease breathing and all signs of life if detached from it.

Jahi is categorized as "brain dead," a new category that allows someone to be considered dead and have their organs removed by doctors for transplantation. Without this category, all breathing and circulation would have to cease before the organs could be taken and they would be in a degraded condition.

The medical profession has established criteria for brain death including the total absence of response in all cranial nerves. Furthermore, it can be confirmed by studies of blood flow in the brain, which have ceased in a brain dead patient, though this is not 100% accurate in confirming brain death.

It's questionable whether the criteria for declaring brain death are as rigorous as they should be or are followed rigorously. Several supposedly brain dead people have revived, but isn't supposed to be possible. Here's a case from Oklahoma of a man declared brain dead after an accident. His body was being prepared for organ removal when relatives noticed something and subsequent tests showed reflexes indicating greater than expected nerve response. He came out of coma 5 days later (with all his organs) and recovered much of his function. There was a similar case in Britain. This site lists several other cases.

One problem is that doctors are too hasty in declaring brain death after accidents. When there is injury to the head, the brain can swell to the point that most blood flow stops, causing deep coma and looking like brain death. However, in some people the swelling diminishes and the person lives, though with varying degrees of brain damage. Care must also be taken after drowning, exposure to cold, and drug overdose.

Jahi's case doesn't fit into this category, however. She suffered from blood loss, cessation of her heartbeat, and no oxygen to her brain. It doesn't seem to me that swelling was involved. None of the recovery cases occurred to someone in a situation similar to Jahi's.

Of course I don't have inside information about how long Jahi wasn't breathing, test results for brain function, or her response (or lack of response) to trial cessation of her respirator. There's a very good chance that she is indeed brain dead, especially since it's been over three weeks since she had any signs of neural function. However, the eagerness of some doctors to harvest organs for transplant has corrupted the practice of declaring brain death, at least to some extent. It is horrific that doctors should be so eager to take organs that they'd sacrifice lives in the process.

One of many complications
Image: papermasters.com

Update 1/7/14. She will probably die, or finish dying, soon.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Most evil: Atheists vs. Christians

I saved an article in National Review for reading post-Christmas, when I would have lots of time to mull it over. The thesis of the article has slipped from my steel-trap mind while reading the 900+ comments, but it was something about the West being post-Christian.

The real fascinating issues are debated in the comments. On one side you have the self-proclaimed Christians claiming that humanist/atheists/liberals are the scourge of humanity, and Christianity brought us the best society in the world--the American constitutional nation. According to the Christians: [my selection]
  1. It's Christian belief in the sacredness of the individual that brought about the Enlightenment and our constitution.
  2. Humanists are not part of the Enlightenment.
  3. Humanists wrongly believe that they can perfect mankind, and they perform all sorts of nastiness in their misguided attempts to do that. That nastiness includes genocide, bureaucracy, thought control, mass killings, and purges.
  4. Christians might have done these things too, but not when they were acting as true Christians. [See below for my quick responses to these assertions.]
Those contentions got an atheist really angry, and he must have written over 200 comments on the thread. I'm not sure who started the argument over whether the murders by Stalin/Hitler/Mao go into "the Atheists caused it" column or "the Christians caused it" column, but that was the largest point of contention. The atheist, named Heathen philosopher, claimed communism is an outgrowth of Christianity, as was fascism, so the huge 20th century death toll would go on the Christian column. Of course the Christians blame the atheists/humanists.

Heathen philosopher  (I'll call him the Atheist) makes the better arguments generally. He argues that the Christians aren't as clean as they claim since they have a shitload of massacres clearly in their column. He also does a decent job of refuting the contention that atheists/humanists deserve the demerits for the Stalin/Hitler massacres, since these occurred in cultures that were steeped in Christianity. He points out that Stalin and Hitler just followed from earlier models that flourished in explicitly Christian times.

The Atheist also avoids the pitfalls of labeling everything Christian as evil, noting a few merits of Christianity and demerits of some atheists too. It's not hard to avoid the pitfall of wildly exaggerating the evil of your opponent, yet so many commenters make this mistake.

The Christians put themselves in a poor position by not acknowledging the violent history of Christian countries. They also claim that all the improvements in societies since the 18th century were due to the West being steeped in Christianity, when not explicitly Christian. So the Christian side both rejects the "steepage" argument and uses it when convenient.

Who can claim the Enlightenment?

The Atheist also raises the issue of classical Greek philosophy and its contribution to the Enlightenment and our constitution. I'm a strong advocate of the Greek philosophers, particularly the Socratic method, so I don't need much convincing. The Christians don't address this issue much, perhaps because it ruins their dichotomy of the Christian vs. atheist/humanist.

The Christians try to defeat the arguments of the Atheist by imputing the worst of humanism onto him. According to them, he's a humanist so he believes the central humanist tenets that man is the measure of all things and is perfectable, rather than being fallen by nature and needing the ministrations of a merciful God. The Atheist denies believing that man is perfectable, as well he should because all evidence runs strongly against that belief.

Unfortunately, this argument doesn't settle a question that is more important than "who's the worst?" That question is "who's responsible for the Enlightenment and the constitution?" My first stab at this would be to guess that it's classical Greek philosophy, but I have to wonder what role Christianity played. The Greek philosophy seemed to need to percolate through centuries of Christianity before it bubbled up as the Enlightenment.

Utility/Futility

There is a futility in the blame game that each side plays, especially if you're only doing a body count. The blame game doesn't include any honest analysis of why the death toll was so high and how to prevent the violence. It's really about trying to score points, especially on the Christians' side. Perhaps that's a large part of the reason why their arguments fail--they aren't searching for truth, they're looking for a superficial win on points.

The big loser in the arguments, besides fair and honest discussion, is the idea that we can perfect our societies. Theocracies have a terrible record--the more they try to purge, the higher the death count goes with no real progress made to the perfect earthly society. Communist and fascist countries have major death tolls also. We in the US can't sit too high on our laurels either since there was plenty of genocide in our Indian wars, slavery, and racial and ethnic discrimination and killing, which hopefully we aren't still practicing. The hope of a society to purge its way to improvement is demonstrated as bloody awful and misguided many times over in history. Perhaps we (I) should be remembering that was we try to fight Islamic terrorists.

Image: continental-philosophy.org

Here are some of the highlights of the discussion for those who are interested but less dogged than me in reading all the comments:
  • Comments on whether the Enlightenment was good or not starting here.
  • Non-christian and non-religious systems of morality.
  • An unexpected in-depth discussion of Russian history starting here.
  • Sophie, a commenter, starts by saying all collectivism is left-wing, but eventually drops that to agree with the Atheist that humans aren't perfect.
  • Communists societies were atheist and evil, therefore atheism is evil. Not so fast.
  • One of the worst exchanges. The Atheist talks about being in foster care/orphan/ward of the state, and God didn't help him. An idiot replies that this young boy hated God and that's why God didn't come. Ugh.
  • complaint that there are no Protestants on the Supreme Court without any acknowledgement of the reasons. (The reason is polarization. Dem presidents have chosen reliable sympathic ethnic judges that are Jewish or Catholic. GOP presidents have chosen Catholics as a proxy for being anti-abortion.)
My reply to these pro-Christian assertions at the beginning of the post are:
  1. It's Christian belief in the sacredness of the individual that brought about the Enlightenment and our constitution. Plausible.
  2. Humanists are not part of the Enlightenment. Wrong. Humanists seem to be at the forefront of the Enlightenment. 
  3. Humanists wrongly believe that they can perfect mankind, and they perform all sorts of nastiness in their misguided attempts to do that. That nastiness includes genocide, bureaucracy, thought control, mass killings, and purges. This is a caricature of humanists by people with a grudge.
  4. Christians might have done these things too [genocide, purges], but not when they were acting as true Christians. This is a 'no true Scotsman' fallacy.