Saturday, November 5, 2011

Who Was That Masked Man?

Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot
But follow the calendar twenty-score years
And if you hold shy lady irony dear
Then you'll laugh as the free wear the mask of a man
Who would murder so king and the Pope should hold hands
Liberty is but a sweet breath of air
Tyranny's rule has been man's lot to share
Back when Rome fell, famine savaged the land
A thousand dark years strangled woman and man
As radicals cry, Equal Outcome, We need it
Know the past well, or you're doomed to repeat it

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Logic and a Recent Charlotte Observer Editorial or: Navigating the Unknown

Earlier this week, the Charlotte Observer ran an editorial entitled “There Should Be Nothing Sneaky About a Tax Hike” excoriating Mecklenburg Board of County Commission (BOCC) Chair Jennifer Roberts.

Monday night (4/4/11), in a meeting with a group of CMS parents organized by the grassroots MeckFUTURE campaign, Roberts said that keeping tax rates flat when property values increase is not the same thing as raising taxes. The Observer parried: It’s raising taxes and doing so sneakily because it’s, um, not cutting property tax rates.

Wait, that didn’t come out right. Let me rephrase. Between 2003 and 2011, property values in Mecklenburg County increased by 7% or so, on average. The county knows that because they just did a revaluation, which happens every eight years, statutorily. Because the value of real estate has increased, overall tax receipts will increase if the county keeps the property tax rate flat. Keeping tax rates flat is the very definition of a tax increase, you see. Yeah.

If this happens, then it will be a tax hike that is absolutely inconceivable. And the BOCC is sneaky, because the tax hike will opaque. Opaque? Yes, I say, opaque! As in the opposite of transparent! It’s obviously...What? You require an explanation? Okay, people can investigate how their property was revalued, and the county discloses the rate and how it comes to that decision, but other than that, the megahugegigantic tax EXPLOSION is dastardly and underhanded and secretive and ¡“sneaky”!



I have read the editorial all the way through enough times (i.e. at least once) to absorb its crystalline logic, and as far as I can tell, the Observer’s considered editorial position is due to sophistry, fatuity, or just plain intellectual laziness.

Note that at this point, I’m not addressing the merits and demerits of increased tax receipts, simply whether Commissioner Roberts was being “misleading”. From what I understand, she was alluding to a 2005 article by John Hood of the conservative John Locke Foundation: “A failure to enact a revenue-neutral tax rate after property revaluation does not constitute a tax increase.”

Friday, March 11, 2011

Zeno’s Paradox Revisited or: Your Vote Doesn’t Count, but It Can

Your Vote Does Not Count
Your vote does not count. You are one of hundreds of millions of people in the United States, and there is no way that your single vote actually makes a difference. Don’t vote. It’s a waste of time. There’s not that much difference between the two parties anyway.

A few months ago, as my libertarian leanings sputtered to a halt and I found myself comfortable in the more concrete world of mainstream conservatism, I read an article in The Freeman that really got on my nerves, because it advanced the idea above, and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it, but I knew intuitively that it wasn’t quite right.

Think of voting as sort of like the lottery, except that the ticket price is your time spent, and if your ticket is the winner (i.e. your vote is a tiebreaker), your grand prize isn’t a brand new car or a bazillion dollars. (By entering this contest, each entrant releases and discharges the State and any other party associated with the development or administration of this contest from any and all liability whatsoever in connection with said election lottery, including without limitation legal claims, costs, injuries, losses or damages, demands or actions of any kind. Prize to be rewarded in monthly installments of increasingly lower value, unless and until State declares bankruptcy or decides to change the rules. By accepting this prize, the winner grants to State the right to use the winners name, address and/or likeness for advertising and trade purposes without further compensation to or permission from the winner.)

No. Instead you get a lousy politician who is (if you’re lucky) marginally less bad than the alternative. Congratulations. Break out the bubbly, hire a stripper, and pretend that what happens in Vegas won’t follow you home like a cheap vodka hangover, a bad tattoo, and a raging case of the clap (actually, I don’t think that a metaphor is necessarily necessary here, so take that as literally as you like).

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Virgins, Psychics, Carnivores, and Conspiracies

Virgins, Psychics, Carnivores, and Conspiracies: confirmation bias and you
“It is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives.” -Francis Bacon
You and I share something with one another, with President Obama, with Rush Limbaugh, with the Dalai Lama, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with Sarah Palin, with Angela Merkel, and with every musician, movie star, plumber, prostitute, stamp collector, sergeant-at-arms, and unemployed underwater basket weaver in the world.

We all able to ascertain patterns, draw conclusions, and make predictions.

This pattern-finding ability is one of the distinguishing marks of humanity. Homo sapiens is man the thinker; perhaps we are, more accurately, Homo exemplum cupitor, man the pattern-seeker. (I am assuming that my decades-unused high school Latin skills are at least slightly accurate. If not, corrections are welcome.)

Pattern-seeking is one of the behaviors that makes humans, as a species, so successful, and it leads to the victories and the quirks that we, as individuals, manifest. It leads to the soaring success of some cultures and the unfortunate decline of others.

In this piece, I will be examining something called confirmation bias, which has given us protection from predators (and the corollary ability to be good ones), virgin sacrifices, psychics and spiritualists, conspiracy theories, and much more.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Necessary Good, or Leaving Lazy Libertarianism

”[When] men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them...there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” - Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

For years, I identified myself as a libertarian. I was even a Libertarian for a while. That is to say, I was a registered member of the Libertarian Party for about six months (Here is their platform). I’m not a Libertarian anymore, though, and I’m not really a libertarian either.

In the past, I’ve said that government should function, essentially, as a shell for society, arguing that things from medical research to local parks are a misuse of taxpayer money. I still advocate for limited, constitutional government, but there is a difference between the limits placed on the federal government by the Constitution and the limits placed on government at every level by libertarian ideology. Government, especially at a federal level, has the capacity to be destructive, but I think that there are many things that the government can provide better than anyone else and, for the sake of the civil society and healthy communities, should do so. (Parks, again, are the obvious example.)

At this point, there is a distinct possibility that you are groaning internally, because this may seem like a self-indulgent piece of philosophico-political puffery. For one thing, it is about libertarianism, a notoriously self-indulgent subject. For another, its author used a capital letter to distinguish between libertarianism and Libertarianism--in the first paragraph.

I hope that you’ll read on, however, if you’re interested in why I no longer buy into libertarianism or its ill-conceived, majuscular manifestations.

Libertarianism is an idiosyncratic and relatively new movement (between 40 and 60 years old, depending on where you start). It is based on the ideas of Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Milton Friedman (a hero of mine), F.A. Hayek (whom I admire), Leonard Read (author of the brilliant essay “I, Pencil”), Rose Wilder Lane (Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter and possibly the author of the Little House books), and a few others. Most of the thinkers whose ideas form the backbone of libertarianism were radicals of one stripe of another, and this may explain why it is likely to remain a fringe movement, except when its palatable, realistic ideas can be integrated into the Republican Party platform.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Touching Evil: Violent psychosis and the crimes of Jared Loughner

Midmorning on January 8, 2011, in Tucson, Arizona, Jared Lee Loughner, an unemployed 22-year-old, opened fire on a crowd in a Safeway parking lot, murdering six individuals and injuring over a dozen others.

In what appears to have been an assassination attempt, Loughner shot U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords in the head, point blank. As of this writing, Congresswoman Giffords has survived the attack, thanks to the expertise of her doctors and the extraordinary, manmade miracles that we regularly receive as a consequence of advances in medicine. Imagine if this had happened a century ago. Giffords, it is almost certain, would have died en route to a dirty hospital or very soon after her arrival. After all, penicillin, something so basic that we take it for granted, was discovered and made available during World War II, and it is hard for us today to understand just how far medicine has come since then.

Many people have asked why Loughner targeted Giffords and murdered six others. Clarence Dupnik, sheriff of Tucson’s Pima County, attributed it to intolerance and the tone on talk radio, asserting that, “[T]he vitriol that comes out of certain mouths, about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.” Loughner, according to this line of thinking, was an unbalanced person reacting to inflaming rhetoric. We’ll call this the media hypothesis.

Some members of the media immediately blamed the shooting on Sarah Palin and various tea party groups. According to this narrative, political conservatives, Governor Palin in particular, were responsible for the murders. Interestingly, Congresswoman Giffords was, herself, quite conservative by many standards (a “Blue Dog Democrat), and the pogressive website Daily Kos included her on a list of “targets” for political primaries). Let’s lump these together and call them the political hypothesis.

Loughner’s friends, however, have said that he wasn’t particularly political. He wasn’t an avid watcher of news programs and didn’t listen to talk radio, and they don’t believe that he was influenced by Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin. In fact, his favorite books (according to his YouTube account) were Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto. Some have said that Loughner used to be a pretty normal kid, but that his personality changed abruptly after a breakup with a high school girlfriend. Let’s call this the heartbreak hypothesis.

I’d like to offer an alternate hypothesis, one that it pretty obvious but unpopular with pundits and politicians, because it doesn’t have a solution and doesn’t offer the opportunity for a program that they can push: Jared Loughner is insane.