2011-10-19

A list of seldom spoken truths: politics

Mitt Romney will win the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Michelle Bachman, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain are not serious candidates; even the Tea Party should know that, but I do hope that one of them is nominated because the resulting general election would be hilarious. After Romney, Ron Paul will most likely be second.

In the general election, Obama will win.

Ron Paul is the only potential Republican presidential candidate with honest, consistent, and coherent political positions. He also does not care about underprivileged people.

People who lie or mislead intentionally---even once---should not be elected. This is too common, particularly among potential Republican presidential nominees.

All political actions should be based on fact, not selfish agendas, not belief, and especially not religion. Anyone violating this should likewise not be elected.

President Obama, despite his failures and compromises, has been relatively consistent and productive throughout his term. The only gross misstep so far is the Solyndra debacle.

President Obama is pensive, patient, and sometimes indecisive---quite the opposite of G.W. Bush---which is a good thing.

Bill Clinton is smart. I did not realize this during his presidency.

Political and economic policy should not be purely relative. There is a "best" number or arrangement for taxes, social security, medicare, labor unions, corporate regulations. Let's find it instead of screaming "more" or "less" as an answer to every issue.

Corporations are not people. Corporations want money; people want a good life. It is not a tragedy if a corporation ceases to exist.

Money is not speech. This, like the previous statement, is often spoken, but it needs saying again.

We need laws and regulations that prevent lying, cheating, stealing, and harm to others in every aspect of life, and we need the ability to monitor related activities. Banks, hedge funds, political campaigns, politicians, media: I'm looking at you.

2011-06-06

The Dawkins Delusion

I used to think that Richard Dawkins was a guy who said that no god existed and who ridiculed unnecessarily all those who held unsubstantiated beliefs or faith. I used to think that Richard Dawkins was the figurehead of a recent anti-religion movement whose main goal was to force non- or dis-belief onto others, but then I read his book.

Just a few days ago, I finally finished Dawkins' The God Delusion, which I had been reading for several months now. I have a tough time with nonfiction; I can't read nearly as much nonfiction in one sitting---or one flight---as fiction, but that won't prevent me from saying that The God Delusion is one of the single most important books I've ever read. Politically, no book has affected me more, though Morris Berman's Dark Ages America comes a close second. Both books have convinced me that something is wrong, and both suggest ways to resist the wrongness.

It's not that The God Delusion changed my beliefs. I've always been an atheist, or an agnostic, or ignostic, or non-theist, or apatheist, or any of the labels you might care to paste on my forehead, but that is exactly the problem I had: the labels are there, the labels are misread, and the labels never fit. I didn't want to call myself an "atheist" because I thought that they thought that no god existed. I was called a "pussy agnostic" by a "Swedish atheist" for my disbelief in disbelief, and I knew something was wrong.

Here's the thing: I put Dawkins in the same boat as the Swedish atheist, along with nearly every other godless person I met or heard about. "How can you say there is no god?" I asked myself as a proxy for all of these atheists. The fact remains---see my other blog posts on atheism for more details---that no one can prove the non-existence of a generalized "higher power". That's a fact, and by definition it is not provable. QED.

So, as I looked through the table of contents of Dawkins' The God Delusion, I saw a chapter called, "Why There Almost Certainly is No God," and I immediately wanted to read it and find Dawkins' fallacy. I hadn't even started the book yet, and I was impatient to get to chapter 4. But, in the end, the chapter that convinced me---the one that put me on Dawkins' side---was the very first chapter. In it, Dawkins writes, "In the rest of this book, I am talking only about supernatural gods, of which the most familiar to the majority of my readers will be Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament."

Of course, it isn't immediately obvious what Dawkins means by "supernatural gods". However, reading the book makes it clear: a "supernatural god" is one that defies well-established natural laws. For instance, any god that directly causes a natural disaster, dictates a holy text, or answers the prayers of humans fits the definition. On the other hand, Dawkins is not referring to the "deist" or "pantheist" ideas that a higher power has created the natural physical laws as we know them, such that after creation these laws run like clockwork, indistinguishable from a purely physical system.

To be more specific, Dawkins wouldn't necessarily have a problem with the statement, "The universe was created by a higher power and then was left to run according to physical laws," or some such Einsteinian idea. (Though admittedly he doesn't like the confusion such statements cause when both believers and non-believers claim Einstein and others like him as their own.) Dawkins does, however, take offense at statements that proclaim the occurrence of highly unlikely events, according to modern science. For example: "The Earth is 6000 years old", "The statue began bleeding from its hands", or "Yesterday I prayed to God in heaven, and He answered me." These statements are indeed "almost certainly" not true, and thus a god who is said to participate in such activities likewise "almost certainly" does not exist.

It was with this argument that Dawkins convinced me, not because of the logic but because of the starting point. Prior to starting this book, I wrote a few blog posts focusing mainly on the fact that a belief in a god is not necessarily irrational. Vocal atheists seem to forget this fact often. Belief in a god that comprises all natural laws, known and unknown, is not irrational or illogical. I drew a line, however, between such intellectually coherent beliefs and fundamentalism, whereby believers allow their beliefs to supersede reason and knowledge. There is a difference, and I made it my goal to draw attention to this difference. Dawkins, however, begins on the "far" side of the line---irrational beliefs---and demonstrates that such beliefs are prevalent and that they do significant harm to society in general.

This might explain why, when I say that it is possible to believe in a god without being irrational, the most common response from atheists is, "But religion has caused the world so much harm!" It is obvious that this is not so much a counter-argument as a change of topic. These atheists assume, presumably, that I am defending all religion, which I of course am not doing. It's incredibly disheartening when atheists make sweeping generalizations and judgments of all believers and all religions and then subsequently claim to be a victim of religious prejudice themselves.

Luckily, Dawkins himself, possibly the most powerful atheist in the world, doesn't subscribe to such prejudice. He knows and admits that some beliefs are harmless, and that the true enemy of free thinking people is fundamentalism, not religion, though the two are often inseparable. Beliefs become toxic only when they persist even after encountering evidence to the contrary. Based on this book alone, Dawkins is not at all the tactless, offensive brute I thought he was. His arguments hold up incredibly well, and he provides plenty of citations.

My one qualm with The God Delusion stems from two sections of chapter 2 entitled "The Poverty of Agnosticism" and "NOMA". In these sections, Dawkins introduces several possible positions on the existence of gods. One is "permanent agnosticism in principle" (PAP) and another is "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA). Both of these positions rely on the idea that there are some truths that we don't know and that we can never know. Dawkins seems to despise these ideas, but provides no good argument for doing so. He correctly writes that PAP does not assign a 50% probability to the existence of a god (a common fallacy) but refuses to assign any probability at all, but he claims that PAP is not valid because it is possible or will one day be possible to find evidence for or against the existence of gods. Similarly, Dawkins rejects NOMA because he says it is impossible for the spiritual magisterium not to bleed into the physical magisterium. Strictly speaking, he is wrong. However, taking chapter 1 into account and that Dawkins addresses only those gods who meddle in everyday affairs of people in the physical world, his points make much more sense. Dawkins should have directly stated that PAP and NOMA are valid only for non-meddling gods, so that readers are better armed to confront the hypocrisy of believers who claim NOMA and a "personal god" simultaneously.

Speaking of confrontation, Dawkins does a great job of inciting people like me to action. Dawkins has convinced me to join the ranks of organized atheists based on three points:

(1) Fundamentalism is common, especially in the U.S., and causes vast political and social damage through strong organizations, media, and anti-scientific, anti-intellectual lobbying and regulating. It is an atrocity that the Bible is used in support of any legislation at all, including abortion and gay rights.

(2) The ability of fundamentalists to organize---and also the strength of their inherent structure---far exceeds that of their opponents. Anti-fundamentalists must deliberately organize themselves and take action in order to approach fundamentalists' level of political power.

(3) Most importantly---according to Dawkins and me---by far the worst effect that fundamentalism (including every major church in the Western world) has on society is that it teaches children that unquestioning faith is a virtue. Likewise, teaching some of the more psychologically harmful ideas (hell, for example) should be considered a form of child abuse.


Now, I find myself asking the question: so, where does that leave me? Before I started The God Delusion, I typically called myself an "agnostic", but rarely in conversation, if ever, did that word convey the meaning I intended. Last year I discovered the word "ignostic", which I like, but which very few people have ever seen or heard. I've never wanted to be called an "atheist", since for me and for many others, it implies that I actively disbelieve in gods. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the well-known physicist, calls himself a "passionate agnostic", but I can't be sure he gets a better reaction to that than I got with my plain vanilla agnosticism. According to Wikipedia, despite speaking often against religion, the comedian Bill Maher calls himself an "apatheist" and views religion as "not worth the bother". Presumably, he is apathetic only to the inner workings of religion, and not to the effects that religion has on society. I agree with that, so you can consider me now officially an apatheist: I don't care if there is a god or not, but I will not tolerate other peoples' gods messing up my life.

2011-05-09

Egoism, or: how many people are in the woodwork?

Quite often I find myself lulled into the belief that most people think like I do about social and political issues. This would probably happen to most people who---like me, recently---are open and vocal about their opinions, and who meet little ideological opposition on a daily basis. The vast majority of my friends and acquaintances are intelligent, rational, open-minded, considerate, and sympathetic individuals. It's hard to disagree with people like that.

Most people I know subscribe to science (as far as it takes us), and are generally religious agnostics or atheists, or are religious more out of tradition or symbolism than out of fundamentalist belief in the words of holy books. Most of them are compassionate towards other people, even people they don't know, and are tolerant of "alternative" sexualities, foreign cultures, and even of abortion in certain cases.

But then, every time I get comfortable with the fact that lots of people share my standpoints of patient reasoning, compassion, and measured action, there is an election or a major news event that jars me from my complacence.

Where are the people who vote to put religion or creationism in public school textbooks? Where are the people who oppose homosexual marriage? Where do I find any of the 1 in 2 registered Republicans who think that Barack Obama was not born in the United States? Or any of the 1 in 4 Austrians who voted for a nationalist party in the last general election? As loud as I talk, I rarely get a response from any of these guys. But then, at election time they come out of the woodwork in droves. The woodwork must be much larger than I expected, and there must be millions of people hidden in corners where I---and unbiased information---might never find them.

This phenomenon proved itself true again this past Monday. Some right-wingers would call me "anti-American" (whatever the hell that means), but the general reaction to the killing of Osama bin Laden scared me. Of course, I first heard the news on the drainage sewer of all news media, Facebook, so I guess I should have been prepared for unadulterated knee-jerk reactions. I don't know why it occurred to me to go to Facebook before any of the real news sites; it was a poor choice, I admit, but that doesn't change the fact that I encountered an enormous number over-excited status updates claiming, among other things, "victory for the United States of America" and "we got him". I wasn't sure if any or all of the "USA! USA!" posts were intended as sarcasm, and likewise about the posts of the YouTube video of Toby Keith's opportunistic post-9/11 ode to the kicking of terrorist ass.

I was immediately reminded of the second half of September 2001, when American flags and country songs mentioning American flags were not only a dime-a-dozen, as they say, but were also crammed down our throats. Back then, it felt like a punishable crime to say that we, as a country, shouldn't jump to conclusions, and that we should calm down and think about this before we act. Lots of such thoughts were branded un- or even anti-American. "We're probably going to do something really stupid," I said to a friend as I was in New York City three weeks after the WTC towers fell. It was hard to see anything but patriotism anywhere I looked. I'll preach solidarity and community as much as the next guy, but patriotism is just an untarnished brand of blind nationalism.

I'll go out on a limb here and admit it: I don't love my country nearly as much as I love the people in it. Call me un-American if you like, but that doesn't change the fact that a country is created by its people, and is by design an extension thereof. A flag and a name are merely symbols, and I love neither. I care for the people directly.

That being said, is there something unique about the American people that makes me more concerned about them than the others? Yes; I happened to be born among them, but that's it. Otherwise, they are fundamentally the same as everyone else on Earth, even if history has put the U.S. in a position of power and privilege. Once that power and privilege fade---and it will, as they always do---it will be more obvious than ever to Americans that people are people no matter where they are, what language they speak, what religion (if any) they practice, and how much stuff they possess.

So, yes, while the killing of Osama bin Laden was a victory of sorts, it wasn't first and foremost a victory for the United States of America or even a victory for justice. It was, above all, a victory for the defense of our safety as human beings. We can be happy and relieved that the world has been rid of a man who was once the greatest known immediate threat to human life.

We, as humans---and particularly for Americans, due to the target on our backs---can be happy to have reduced the threat of violence in our future, but to smile with the satisfaction of revenge is to ignore all of the steps that brought us to the current circumstance. Killing people is wrong, and can be justified perhaps only by weighing one life against many. Unfortunately, it seems that many people are rejoicing in the death itself, and they have forgotten that the only morally justifiable purpose of national defense is to prevent death and violence, even if death and violence themselves are the means to that end.

To all of you out there celebrating the revenge, I ask: under these or other circumstances, if the greater good demands it, are you able to, in fact, "turn the other cheek", as the saying goes?

2011-04-13

I don't want you to have what I don't have

People in Europe have been known to protest when they feel that the government is taking something away from them. They might storm the streets and burn cars, as in the case of the French government raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 in October 2010. I'll admit I've had a laugh at Europe's expense on several occasions, for this type of behavior. We Americans might roll our eyes at Europe even as we are just as extreme, but in the opposite direction. We strip public workers of their benefits and collective bargaining rights, and we defend the deed by saying they get paid way too much, using typical salary estimates of $50,000-$80,000, including benefits.

Europe says, "You're giving something to that guy that you're not giving to me; give it to me, too," while the U.S. says, "You're giving something to that guy that you're not giving to me; take it away from him." Which statement, in all its generality, is more selfish or naïve?

The result of the European view is social uprising, while the result of the American view is the widening of the gap between the upper and lower/middle classes. An article from MSNBC gives much more detail from an OECD study, including such statistics as: America's top 10% earners are #1 in the rankings while the bottom 10% are well below average, the U.S. is ranked ahead of only Mexico and Turkey for economic equality, and France is one of the few countries whose equality has improved over the past 20 years.

John Stewart and The Daily Show have demonstrated the selfish hypocrisy of related conservative politics in the U.S., whose most vocal members and media are dominated by people with a considerable amount of money (one says that an income of $250,000 is almost poverty):

2011-04-11

More on regressive labor politics in the U.S.

I'd like to expand [even] further on my [nearly-epic] last blog post that attempted to explain the huge differences between the level of job and social benefits in most of Europe and in the U.S.A. My thesis was that the differences arose because of varying fundamental perceptions of what is "normal", perceptions that are aided in large part by major media. The U.S. spent 40 years opposed to every aspect of communism, whereas Europe---living next to communism itself---could tell the good parts from the bad. Even this seemingly small difference in political sentiment, coupled with the deregulation of media in the 80s left the U.S. with lingering anti-socialist feelings and very few unbiased media to give the facts. The whole chain of events is very circumstantial---I know---but I think it played a part, if not a large one, in creating our current level of benefits and expectations of benefits.

I find it sad and scary that, as I mentioned in the last post, we in the U.S. not only have far fewer benefits for citizens than the EU---whose economy has trailed the U.S. in size, and whose per-capita GDP still trails the U.S.---but we also are going in the opposite direction. The strongest recent examples of this are in Wisconsin and Ohio, as well as other states where the governors are working hard to cut benefits for public employees and even to take away their collective bargaining rights. It seems to me that the right to negotiate---also as a group---is a basic right that should not be able to be removed, and I haven't yet found any good arguments for taking the rights away except (1) saving money and (2) giving more power to employers, possibly to create jobs.

Creating more jobs is almost always good. More people get paid and more people have money to spend, and so forth. But, it's as if Governors Walker (WI) and Kasich (OH), along with many other political conservatives, think that the cure for every personal economic ailment from poverty to lack of affordable health care is, "Get a job and call me in the morning." But, especially in a time when jobs are hard to find, and a good public job is even harder to find thanks to these two, it benefits us to take care of those people who are left out of the market. The vast majority of Americans have jobs; the vast majority of Americans have insurance, and a little bank account and a car and a computer, but what about those who don't? What if you didn't? What if your employer chose to cut costs and you along with it? I have the feeling that few employed people seriously consider this question before they vote.

I'm having trouble finding a good statistic for the percentage of people who are unemployed at some point in their lifetime, so I'll look at a hypothetical case here. Right now, the unemployment rate is close to 9%; historically it's been a bit lower, maybe 5-6%. That means that, on average, an American has a 1 in 10 to 1 in 20 chance of being unemployed at any given time. Right, you might think, most of these people are lazy and uneducated; I'm educated, so my chances are much lower. That's probably true, but how about this: assuming that the unemployment rate among educated, non-lazy people like you is only 1% for any given year, during a 40-year career you have a [1-0.99^40 = ] 33% chance of being unemployed during at least one of those years. If that theoretical rate rises to 2%, the chance is 55%. Wouldn't you like to know that you could survive that year (or longer) even if you're young and have very little savings, or if you're one of the usually older crowd who is "uninsurable" unless you are part of an employer health plan?

The chance is high that you---even as an intelligent, hard-working individual---at some point in your life will be stuck in a bad employment situation, be lacking adequate insurance, or be out of work with very little help from the economy that you helped for many years. These are problems that social benefits ease, whether through direct help or through regulation. To vote against an adequate safety net for unfortunate people is to be selfish, and not only selfish in the sense of not helping other people but now-selfish in the sense that you are not helping yourself (in a different time and place) if you are ever in need of help.

The point is that, in a country as developed as the U.S., a person's quality of life should not depend on them having a job every single month of the year. Even if some people cheat the system and take more benefits than they deserve, the rest of us can sleep easier knowing that if we get fired, or if we are in a horrible job situation and need to quit, we can survive the next few months without having to sell a house or make drastic changes to our lifestyle. Also, women should be allowed to have babies without fear of negative discrimination before or after the birth. Two weeks or less of vacation per year is just ridiculous (see my last post). Lastly and most relevant right now, a person who has done everything right---worked hard, saved money, etc---should not have to make major life decisions---employment, relocation, marriage, etc---based on available insurance or lack thereof. A job should not be the only affordable insurance policy for anyone who works hard or who is in retirement. The only natural connection a job has with insurance is that employees, when lumped together, simplify the actuarial calculations. It is sad---and to me unacceptable---that hard-working, self-employed people or small business owners have few affordable insurance options.

This is where the government is supposed to step in. The government should ensure that people are not being mistreated by corporations or held hostage by cheaper insurance plans. Women should be able to have babies and then return to their jobs without fear of being fired or demoted. Employees should have more than 4% of their weeks at their own leisure. Why are we heading back towards Industrial Age labor practices?

We all know the role of government is to help its people in one way or another. Government is not selfish; in fact, it is the opposite of selfish. It does for the people what the people could not do for themselves if acting individually. Therefore, as George Soros said in a lecture in October 2009 (see The Soros Lectures, 2009)

...people should separate their role as market participants from their role as political participants. As market participants we ought to pursue our self interest; as participants in the political process we ought to be guided by the public interest. The justification for this rule is also rather simple. In conditions close to perfect competition no single competitor can affect the outcome; therefore individual market decisions have no effect on social conditions, whether or not one cares about the common good. But political decisions do affect social conditions; therefore it makes all the difference whether or not they serve the public interest.

Of course, as Soros goes on to say, there is no objective "best" political decision, so the issue is not cut and dry. However, if everyone attempted to follow Soros' above rule, regardless of their political views, we would be doing much better than we are now. No more "pork-barrel", no more "earmarks", and no more rich people dominating campaign contributions, lobbying, and media broadcasting. That's something to think about the next time you're in the voting booth. If I might shamelessly twist the words of John F. Kennedy: vote not for something your country can do for you---voting unselfishly is something you can do for your country.

2011-04-04

Five weeks vacation: The European standard vs. The American Dream

I recently came across an interesting question on Twitter. I know: who'd have thought that there was something interesting to read on Twitter? But, a tweeter and blogger by the nickname of Hipstercrite asked why the U.S. doesn't generally have the same level of employee benefits---such as vacation time and maternity leave---as most European countries. Sure, this is an old question, but an interesting one nonetheless. And, now that I've spent over four years living in the heart of middle Europe, Vienna, and now that I'm paying a lot more attention to politics and economics on both sides of the Atlantic, I feel that I am more qualified than ever (if not actually qualified) to answer her question. Here goes:

First of all, just to make it clear that benefits are indeed different between Europe and the U.S.A., let me say that all EU countries have a minimum of four weeks (20 days) vacation per year, as mandated by the governments. A survey from a few years ago showed that Americans with 25 years of service didn't even have that much vacation, on average, and entry-level people have less than half of that (see [1]). Most Americans I know were impressed with the 13 days of vacation I got with my old government job. Here in Austria, everybody gets 25 days. Everybody. There are also pregnant-women-friendly laws for maternity leave, but I'm not as familiar with those. Suffice it to say that your employer has to let you stay at home for a period of a few months, has to take you back once that period is over, and can't fire you for any of these reasons. Unemployment benefits are also better "here in Europe" as far as I know.

In searching for the main causes of these differences, we could conclude that Europeans and Americans have different dispositions, but I think there are reasons for that, too, if that is indeed the case. The U.S.A. was, of course, settled and founded on the premise that every person should be able to determine his or her future---though this premise was refuted by the squashing of attempted secessions of the South and Texas, though to the U.S.A.'s defense, larger powers were at work. Thus, libertarianism seems to be a natural form of government for a people that rejoice in freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to bear arms. In a sense, this is the path that the U.S.A. has chosen. However, if I had a dime (better make it a dollar) for every time someone said to me, "Wow... five weeks of vacation. That must be nice," I'd have a lot more time to write blog posts. I have to ask myself this: why is it that everyone seems to want five weeks of vacation, etc., but in the U.S. no one has it? I know as if it were fact, that if we could somehow orchestrate a nationwide strike across all jobs, we could get five weeks of vacation for everyone within a week. That is, of course, impossible, and if we do ever so much vacation, it will be through slow and steady legislative advances. So, why aren't we headed in the right direction?

With regard to this issue, we live in an interesting time, as in the past few months we have seen not only that the American workplace is different from the European workplace, but that it is in fact going in the opposite direction altogether. The current (and new) governors of Wisconsin and Ohio---Scott Walker and John Kasich, respectively---among others have recently been stripping public workers of more basic rights and privileges, the foremost being the right to collectively bargain with employers. Disbanding public unions as they have done (though Walker hasn't been completely successful yet) takes away much of the powers workers could use to negotiate for such benefits as more vacation time and better maternity leave provisions. With collective bargaining rights gone, many other benefits will likely disappear also.

So, Wisconsin and Ohio show that, at least in some parts, the U.S.A. is increasingly unfriendly to workers when compared to similarly "developed" countries in Europe. That, I believe, is due to the heavy emphasis that American politics places on money. Both Walker and Kasich ran their 2010 campaigns nearly completely on a platform of budget reform and fear of budgetary problems as well as a promise to create jobs within their respective states. Basically, they were elected because they said they would (1) take better care of the state's money and (2) encourage employers to give money to more people. Perhaps they can achieve both of these goals; only time will tell. But, from the actions of both of these new governors, it's obvious that the money matters more than the people. It's obvious because they are hurting many people directly---by taking away a basic right to negotiate---while promising to help only indirectly---by coaxing businesses to create more jobs. Many people will argue that state budgets require such dramatic changes to avoid bankruptcy; if so, then why are tax increases completely out of the question?

But people voted for this, right? People voted for fiscal conservatism, even if many of them regret it now, and they will vote for it again in the future. So, we could conclude that money matters more to Americans than Europeans, even if it comes at the expense of social benefits such as job security, collective bargaining rights, vacation time, and whatnot. That is one possible explanation, but I've lived in Vienna long enough to believe that there's no fundamental difference between the ideals of Austrians and the ideals of Americans. It's hard to prove, and I'm relying more on subjective judgments than objective ones, but my view is supported by the Viennese people's renowned willingness to complain, something that happens quite often about money. I'll assume based on personal experience that Austrians (likewise Europeans in general) think and talk about money as often as and in the same manner as Americans.

The big difference, then, between Europeans and Americans, is not in how we think or what we believe is good, but in what we expect or what we believe to be normal. Americans, in general, believe that we are the most powerful country and have the largest economy, and that last century we beat communism, and socialism along with it (the beasts!), and Americans believe that democracy and freedom are the only righteous path into the future and that it is our duty to help those who can't help themselves. All of these may be true and good to some extent, but a lot of Americans---if not a majority---also believe that financial markets don't need regulatory or oversight changes despite the 2007-2008 worldwide problems, and that a public or semi-public health care system wouldn't benefit a large number of Americans, despite its success in almost all other developed countries [2]. Europeans believe neither of these things.

No matter what your political orientation, it is obvious that where you are born or where you live has a huge influence on what you perceive to be normal. The next question is: what causes these differences between countries or continents? Also regardless of political orientation, clearly American laws are in general much friendlier to [big] businesses than European laws. This is not to say they are less friendly to non-business entities, though that might be the case. (Also, note that "outsourcing" due to lower labor costs elsewhere doesn't contradict this.)

So, to summarize (this post is a lot longer than I expected it to be, but there's still a bit left): the main difference in this case is that American politics favors money and [big] business more than European politics, each side believes that this is normal, and this belief comes from the environment. There must be differences between the two environments.

Let's imagine two countries, one is "normal" and the other is different in the following ways: money and [big] businesses have a larger influence on the media, and thus on voters; money could buy more political power through lobbyists and indirect or even illegal bribes. Would these differences be enough to skew the law unfairly in favor of [big] business and people with money in that second country? Well, the U.S.A. is that second country.

In the case of bribes, lobbying, and illegal legislative practices, Americans need look no further than the cases of Jack Abramoff and Charlie Rangel, among others, though I admit there are also European politicians that are dishonest and selfish. But media is a different issue. The two major media conglomerates in Germany (ARD and ZDF) account for over 25% of viewers (see [3] below) and are public broadcasters. Government-sponsored media are popular all across Europe, but not in the U.S., where not even the Public Broadcasting Service is funded by public money. A timeline of regulation and subsequent de-regulation (starting in 1981) of media can be found in [4] below. Media in the U.S. is effectively unregulated, private, and controlled by people and businesses with lots of money. A significant proportion of the media in Europe, on the other hand, are partially controlled by the government, and are thus---when they are disjoint from the current administration---designed to serve the public interest for relatively unbiased reporting of information. When all news outlets are controlled entirely and directly by rich people and businesses, those media outlets are bound to promote the interests of rich people and businesses.

That's my explanation. That's why vacation time and maternity leave benefits aren't as good in the U.S. Our major media outlets are completely private and unregulated, and thus their owners, who are businesses with quite a bit of money, promote and lobby for laws that favor businesses over the misled average voter, who is likely voting against his own long-term interests because he is being misled.

It doesn't help that our foreign relations and media in the not-so-distant past were dominated by Cold-War-era sentiment such that capitalism such the victor, and communism and socialism became not only losers but also bad words. What's somewhat ironic and sad is that Americans are often the biggest fans of capitalism and market fundamentalism, mechanisms that, along with deregulation, guarantee that media will promote their own interests and gradually manipulate and mislead large portions of the public. (And, yes, portions of the public are easily misled. See [5] below.)

So, if the reason why work-related benefits are different between the U.S. and Europe are the different leanings of the voters, which are heavily influenced by the biased media, who fault is it that the media are biased? Well, to answer my own question for the last time, I believe that the reason the media are biased is either pure chance (events and administrations just happened to go that direction), because of the free-wheeling, self-determining ideals that Americans have held from the very beginning, or most likely because of the Cold War. I think we, as a country, did anything and everything not to be communist between the years of 1945 and 1990, and that meant free markets in nearly every sense of the term, including privatization of media.

It's hard to say what the solution to this problem---if this is indeed a problem---might be. Media regulation might be a good idea, at least a crackdown on the lying, intentional misleading, and exaggeration (see [6] and [7]) in the mainstream media. It's not that opinions shouldn't be allowed, but some of these "reporters"present it as if it were fact when it's obviously not. Another, more immediate solution is to consider all available information when making decisions, and to help others to do so. We have to acknowledge that our media are biased and try to separate the facts from the lies. It's sometimes difficult, but all that is required is a little effort and independent thinking. Reading some entries in [7] is a good start in learning to recognize bad journalism.


Sources:
[4] Timeline of major media regulation in the U.S.


Futher reading:

2011-03-28

The arena of armageddon: Pop Music

I've been meaning to write about this for a while now---and I've certainly talked about it enough to write a book---but since I recently read Nick Hornby's 31 Songs, I feel more more qualified than ever to pass judgement on pop music. Here goes:

During most of 2009, I thought pop music was in fine shape. There was the usual cadre of celebrity performers in flavors both comparably good (Katy Perry, Kanye West, Taylor Swift) and bad (Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, Pitbull). But then, upon returning to the U.S. in December of that year, I had what I now know to be a defining moment in my understanding of the pop music of our generation: I was riding in the car with a friend who knows his way around the radio stations, and a song came on the radio that I'd never heard before. Or, well, the tune I recognized, though it took me a few minutes to figure out that it was very similar to---but not exactly---Lady Gaga's Just Dance, particularly the refrain. I listened to the song for a little while, and the voice track in particular prompted me to ask my friend, "Is this some kind of radio competition or something?" I was sure that the radio station had posted the instrumental pop-electronic track on the internet and invited its listeners to record their own lyrics over it using their web-cam microphones. It turns out I was wrong. My friend laughed at me and said, "No, dude. That's Kesha."

Yes, he said, "Kesha", not, "Ke-dollarsign-ha". And that's when I realized that the frivolity of post-ironic amateur internet sensations was creeping into mainstream media. I call now it the YouTube Phenomenon, like a viral video but not just a video. It could be described as a selfish meme, one that knows nothing else except how, after a critical mass is met, to replicate itself on a massive scale. There are a million Ke$has out there, but the one we hear on the radio is the one who happened to be in the right place at the right time.

A couple of years ago, Ke$ha managed to get a demo recording to producer Dr. Luke, and according to the Wikipedia article on Kesha:

Two of the demos were described in a cover story for Billboard, the first "a gorgeously sung, self-penned country ballad" and the second "a gobsmackingly awful trip-hop track" where Kesha raps ad lib for a minute when she runs out of lyrics near the end. Dr. Luke stated in an interview for the story that it was the latter track that caught his attention, saying "[w]hen you're listening to 100 CDs, that kind of bravado and chutzpah stand out."

If Kesha can sing gorgeously, then why doesn't she do it? Why did Kesha and her producer choose to make "gobsmackingly awful trip-hop" instead of good music? And lastly, if submitting a horrible demo to a record company is production-worthy "chutzpah", then half of the contestants on American Idol should be making solo albums. I see no fundamental difference between Kesha and William Hung except for the extent to which they were played on the radio and television.

In case it's not obvious, I don't like Kesha's music. In fact, I am often tempted to say that it is the worst music I've ever heard on popular radio stations. The misspelled song that was my introduction to Kesha, Tik Tok, could have been made from a MIDI version of Just Dance, with the instruments changed, and lyrics written and recorded by a fifteen-year-old in fifteen minutes. Seriously, everyone at that record studio must have been smoking Jesus necklaces and eye glitter if none of them could think of a better idea than to sing this repeatedly in a monotone voice:

Don't stop, make it pop
DJ, blow my speakers up
Tonight, I'mma fight
'Til we see the sunlight
Tick tock on the clock
But the party don't stop, no

Every time I hear it, I'm reminded of the rap battles my friends and I had when we were in high school. The guy who usually won, if there was a winner, always ended one of the first few lines with "day" or "play" or "stay" so that he could tie it up a few seconds later by calling me "gay". That's basically the same as what Kesha is doing. Also, my friend, when rapping, used to fall into one of two particular rhythms no matter how hard he tried to make an original beat. The first was a standard---perhaps iambic or other standard poetic---beat with a few extra syllables here or there; the second was an emphatic staccato burst followed by a speedy waterfall of words, tone falling from high to low. Think Fresh Prince: "I.... pulled... up to a house about seven or eight and I yelled to the cabbie...", for example. Kesha falls into the same rhythms over and over on multiple songs in her recorded and produced albums almost exactly like my sixteen-year-old friend used to do during impromptu rap battles over a decade ago.

To go even further---and this may sound harsh---but I cannot think of another popular song as devoid of anything worthwhile as Tik Tok. I can usually find something of value in every song I hear, but I struggle with Kesha. Her music is "derivative" and her voice track juvenile, and the two don't fit together. I could compare the instrumental track with a hastily-made book of Mad Libs copied from an older book of Mad Libs, and then the voice track would be the word "fart" written in every blank. It's that bad, even if I admit that it's "catchy".

A few weeks after hearing Tik Tok for the first time, I continued to be baffled by Kesha's popularity. So, I decided to give her another chance by having a listen to her other works. I was immediately confronted by this gem:




The only possible explanation I have come up with so far is increasingly pervasive post-rationalist sensibilities, which eschew anything intelligent, sophisticated, or nuanced. Many people feel a separation between themselves and the purported elite, which could include highly-educated academics, scientific experts, classical musicians, theater actors, or anyone with a highly developed ability belonging traditionally to the upper or noble classes. Evidence can be found in Sarah Palin's popular idolization of "Joe the Plumber" or in the immense adult readership of children's' books such as the Harry Potter and Twilight series. In the above video, Kesha tries hard to replicate these anti-intellectual successes by having a large American flag on the stage and singing, "It only matters who I is." People listen because Kesha is basically the same as us, and her music sounds exactly like the music that we would make if we, too, were drunk and had no talent.

I could go on and about how bad I think these songs are, but I'll stop here. The only [slightly] redeeming bit of a song I've heard is part of the melody of the song We R Who We R, during the lyrics "I've got that glitter on my eyes/Stockings ripped all up the side/looking sick and sexified" (no points for lyrics). That one element of that one song was worth the time it took to write it; it's too bad the rest of the song sounds like a cheerleader chant.

I'm still harboring hope that Kesha knows how bad she is, and that she planned this whole pop-star charade as a social experiment or money-making scheme. I'm supported in this theory only by Kesha's official Twitter username: @keshasuxx. My fingers are still crossed, but until I have more evidence, I have to live m my life under the assumption that a new low point in popular music and popular culture has been reached.

We're lucky, then, that we also have a pop music savior to combat the anti-star that is Ke$ha. She is Lady Gaga. I know; it's ridiculous, right? But before you write me off as misguided or even as a hypocrite for liking Lady Gaga whilst despising Kesha, hear me out. In every measure by which Kesha fails---singing, song-writing, lyrics, originality---Lady Gaga succeeds. I'm not saying that Lady Gaga is head and shoulders above the rest of the pop world, but she's certainly the current queen of the hill.

Pop music itself is renowned for its un-originality. It's by definition a popularity contest and because of this, the winners usually end up being the least of many evils. In an area where "catchy" and "popular" are virtues, it is sometimes difficult to tell the fires from the flashes in the pan, and details can make a big difference. An artist who sings slightly better than another has a small advantage, and the same goes for the slightly better song-writers and performers, etc. A truly revolutionary artist is extremely rare. Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and the Rolling Stones come about only once every few decades. More often, someone comes along with a beautiful voice or a knack for performance---Whitney Houston and Britney Spears respectively come to mind---who must rely on others to fill in the gaps in their abilities. Lady Gaga may not be a revolutionary---though she may very well be---but she can and does do everything herself, the vast majority of it being above-average work.

From singing to song-writing to flamboyant performances and fashion idolatry, I am truly impressed with Lady Gaga, but it wasn't always so. I wrote off Pokerface after the twentieth time I'd heard it on the radio. It was cheesy, bubble-gum pop music like almost everything else I'd heard. Gaga inhabited the realm somewhere between Katy Perry and Cascada, both of whom do their job well but are not necessarily inspirational. I'd also heard Just Dance and Love Game and Paparazzi, all of which I found unannoying or pleasant at best despite the last having stolen a chunk of melody from Take My Breath Away by Berlin (and Top Gun). For some reason I found Disco Stick intriguing.

Some time after that, and after hearing a few of my friends excitedly include Lady Gaga songs on a mixtape (mix-iPod?), I came across a link that changed my opinion tremendously. The link led to a video---or a series of videos rather---showing that in addition to knowing her way around Top 40 charts, stages, and haute couture, Lady Gaga can tone it all down and produce something beautiful from raw talent alone. No recording, no post-production, and no one in the room except Lady Gaga and her keyboard. Having his much talent in its various forms is rare, especially among pop stars.

Upon re-examining Lady Gaga's music, this time with a more accepting ear, I found very little to complain about and often just the opposite. The same friend who introduced me to Kesha once upon a time once told me he'd like to dissect Bad Romance into all of its pieces because the song itself is so complex and layered. I tend to agree with him, but we both know complexity doesn't make it good. What makes the song---and others---good is that the layers, however many there are, fit together nicely and produce something more than a few instrumental tracks and a voice track glued together. Lady Gaga does not write Mad Lib music and then fill in the melody or the lyrics later; she sings music that sounds like it was planned to be a coherent, audibly-delivered feeling or idea that was then refined into an end product with meaning and intent. If you might allow me a metaphor, Lady Gaga designs her furniture herself---perhaps with some bits the scavenged from the junkyard---while Kesha just inserts tab A into slot C.

Before I leave you with the Lady Gaga videos that began to change my opinion of her, I'd like to make a prediction. In twenty or thirty years, TV shows will be snickering at the Ke$ha songs that were popular "back then" just like we laugh now at 80s hairdos, and at the same time they'll be talking about Lady Gaga's "early work" with some gravity. Tik Tok will become the butt of jokes as Bad Romance becomes a quintessential song of a pop generation. In my mind there really is no comparison between them---and no question which will stand the test of time---and it irks me a little that I felt I had to write this article, but I did.

Partially because of the following videos, I now think that Lady Gaga will eventually be bigger than Madonna. Even if you don't agree with me, if nothing else, I hope these performances provide examples of the passion, talent development, and dedication to which future [and current, Ke$ha,] pop stars can aspire. Here they are:







---------------------------------------

EDIT: Financial Disclaimer: I have no shares of stock or other financial interest in Ke$ha or Lady Gaga, though I was Justin Bieber for Halloween.

EDIT 2: As I first posted this article, I had no idea that today is Lady Gaga's birthday. My gift to you, Mother Monster. Happy 25th!

2011-03-21

A conservative libertarian silver lining

Rand Paul has been a popular character in recent political discourse, if not for his outspokenness then for his views, which are most often described as "conservative" and "libertarian". He recently appeared on The Daily Show to discuss his views with Jon Stewart. If the national news reports weren't enough, I grew up and lived most of my life only a short drive from the state in which Paul now holds a senatorial seat, and so even more news about him has floated across the Ohio river and indirectly into my eyes and ears. I rarely liked what I saw and heard, until now.

Before any liberals write me off as being as "crazy" as they call Rand Paul himself, let me justify my partial change in opinion. On March 8th, 2011, I wrote on twitter.com, "Rand Paul @thedailyshow is who I thought all Republicans were 10 years ago, when I generally favored them. I was wrong on two accounts." In 140 characters or less, I was forced to be somewhat cryptic, and I'm sure this could easily be misconstrued. Here's what I meant:

I was wrong, first of all, to favor the Republicans ten years ago. I was young and stupid, and I based my political decisions on economic policy because that was the only political topic with which I felt comfortable. Even then, I favored the economic goals as spoken by the Republicans over those of the Democrats with no regard to whether and how they could achieve those goals. Not that I'm a Democrat or even a liberal now---I don't like labels, as I don't usually fit neatly into them---but I now see that the Republicans' case for lower government spending and unregulated markets was extremely weak, particularly in the face of escalating expenditures of government money and time for national defense and socially conservative values such as "pro-life" and anti-gay-marriage legislation. The dangers of poorly-regulated markets---not to say over- or under-regulated---should have already been obvious, and would soon provide the best reason in 80 years for the government to prevent lying, cheating, and stealing by those in privileged financial, economic, and political positions. Even more, they refuse to prohibit dishonest practices as they pocket some of the dirty money themselves---though admittedly Republicans aren't the only ones. It's one thing to take an unfair advantage lawfully, and another thing to use political power to create more opportunities to do so. Regardless of the efficiency of free markets, it lies squarely within the duties of governments to try to prevent lying, cheating, and stealing, and any politician who participates in or even allows it on a broad and obvious scale is not doing his or her job.

My second mistake was to, in these past few months, count Rand Paul amongst the other conservatives, Republicans, or even Tea Party members. Many liberals have called him "crazy", in talking with Jon Stewart, Rand Paul provided a clear, rational, and logical stance on the nation's politics. Sure, Paul wants to cut taxes and spending in any way possible, and de-regulate just about everything, but he's open and honest about that. Other conservatives want to cut spending, but not the military, or they want to de-regulate the markets but regulate who can get married and who can have an abortion. I don't see much dishonesty in Rand Paul; I think he's an intelligent and honest politician, if I may be permitted this seeming oxymoron, who has definitely tap-danced his way around a few topics and minced his words, but who generally says what he means and does what he promises. He's a million times more respectable and easier to watch than that train wreck, Sarah Palin. It's too bad that Rand Paul is an asshole with absolutely no sympathy for underprivileged people, because the country sorely needs more politicians who govern for their voters instead of themselves.

It's funny for me to think that I have so much respect now for someone who holds almost diametrically opposite views in so many cases. Financial regulation, food regulation, energy regulation, taxes, and [child] labor laws are just a few. Even though it's hard for me to imagine the circumstance that would induce me to vote for the guy, Rand Paul does make me think hard about choosing between an honest enemy and a dishonest ally.

2011-03-15

Nuclear power: Safer than you are, dude.

The recent earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan on March 11th has most of the world staring at a few nuclear reactors in or near the Sendai area, hoping they don't cause even greater problems than the natural disaster itself. Some people are so afraid of the power plants and in fact nuclear power in general that they are proposing to ban them altogether. This is a very uninformed response, to say the least, with which its promoters ignore the data and jump to an undeserved conclusion.

Perhaps I'm over-reacting, and the anti-nuclear-power movement is confined mainly to my place of residence, Austria, which is only a stone's throw---over the invisible but still perceptible Iron Curtain---from the Czech Republic's Temelin Nuclear Power Station. Austria gave the Czech Republic problems in joining the EU because of disagreements over the station.

These Austrian protesters are wrong for three reasons. First (and least important) of all, The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is based in Vienna. These guys probably wouldn't allow an unsafe nuclear power plant to operate so close to where they spend most of their time. Second, the modern Czech Republic is not a primitive, fascist country who would slap together a nuclear reactor like the U.S.S.R. did in Chernobyl, Ukraine. That was careless, and not something a First World country would do. Lastly, and by far most importantly, even including the Chernobyl disaster, the safety record of nuclear power is far better than that of all of the other major power sources, including coal, oil, natural gas, hydro-electric, and wind.

According to a report by the World Nuclear Association, outside of Chernobyl, not a single person has ever been killed by radiation from a nuclear power plant. And Chernobyl was an exception in more ways than one. From the report:

An OECD expert report on it concluded that "the Chernobyl accident has not brought to light any new, previously unknown phenomena or safety issues that are not resolved or otherwise covered by current reactor safety programs for commercial power reactors in OECD Member countries. In other words, the concept of 'defence in depth' was conspicuous by its absence, and tragically shown to be vitally important."

That is to say, even at the time, no one except a fascist, careless government would have built such an unsafe reactor. No nuclear power plant built anywhere else in the world has ever killed anyone with radiation. If it's the radiation you're worried about, what more evidence do you need?

But, yes, people have been killed at nuclear power plants, if not by radiation. The bottom of the WNA report includes a table comparing deaths per terawatt-year (TWy) of energy produced from various fuels between the years of 1970 and 1992. Of coal, natural gas, hydro-electricity, and nuclear, hydro-electric plants are the most dangerous at 883 deaths/TWy. Coal is second worst with 342, and natural gas third with 85. Nuclear power is the safest, with only 8 deaths/TWy. The safety of nuclear power plants is an order of magnitude better than each of the other three, and nuclear technology is improving such that new reactors are orders of magnitudes safer than those built 20 or even 10 years ago.

If that's not enough, try this fact: under normal operation, a coal power plant releases 100 times as much radiation as a nuclear plant of the same wattage. [source]

Or, the world's worst industrial catastrophe was at a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India in 1984. It was far, far worse than Chernobyl.

I could go on and on pulling statistics from various sources that demonstrate that nuclear power is safer than other conventional fuels, not to mention that it's better for the environment and will be able to produce power long after the world has depleted its supplies of coal and oil. But, I'll stop here. I'd rather issue a challenge to all of those opposed to nuclear power plants: show me any data whatsoever indicating that a kilowatt-hour of nuclear power is less safe than the average kilowatt-hour from your favorite provider.

Let me start the opponents off: nuclear waste is of course much more dangerous than the same weight of waste from other fuels. However, the amount of such waste is far less. The average nuclear power plant produces 240-360 tons of radioactive waste per year [source], plus some other less toxic waste. New reactors such as the integral fast reactor would produce much less. Coal power plants, for example, produce about 240,000 tons of toxic waste per year [source]. Considering that most nuclear waste around the world can be reprocessed into safe or useful products and that radioactive waste is an extremely small portion of total waste, we would once again have to go to the data to see which is worse. I don't have more comprehensive data at the moment, but I'm happy to be pointed in the right direction.

It seems intuitively obvious to me that for us here on Earth, there is only one source of energy that can last from today until our planet becomes an icy space rock: the sun. Before power plants existed, it provided all the energy that was needed for life to live and then some. But, obviously we don't yet have the technology/money necessary to make the full transition to solar power, which could happen within a few decades if we make it a goal, or maybe in a century or two if we continue to generally ignore it. Until then, though, we have to make a careful decision about which fuel to use to power our homes and offices. Let's not jump to conclusions simply because a power-generating technology is closely related to a weapons technology, and it scares us. That's bad science and bad politics. Let the data speak.


More information:

2011-03-14

Choosing ignorance over information: the data are out there

Just now I realized the second major problem that arose as a a consequence of the Information Revolution, as it has been called by some, including me. The first problem is, of course, that there is so much information available freely on the Internet and other computer resources, that in many cases it is hard to determine what and which sources are reliable. I won't go as far to say that there is proportionally more unreliable information published today than 50 years ago---though this might be true---but there is certainly more published unreliable information, in absolute terms. If for no other reason, there is immensely more total information available, and in addition to that, the percentage of amateur (i.e. unpaid, untrained, unaccountable to a public organization) publishers whose work is widely available has increased dramatically. Thus, the problem of distinguishing the experts from the ignorant and from the snake oil salesmen requires some effort, but can usually be done.

The second problem, which is potentially much more dangerous, is that the sheer breadth of information sources a person has available gives the impression of being well informed, even if the vast majority of these sources are never consulted. One can often find and cite, say, ten sources that seem to confirm a statement, even if that statement is patently false. For example, many otherwise reputable-seeming people promoted the idea that Barack Obama is not legally an American citizen. A list of some of them can be found on this Wikipedia page. As a consequence, 51% of Republican primary voters believe Obama was born outside of the U.S.A. [article and link to poll]. Of course, the claim is false, as can be substantiated elsewhere on that same Wikipedia page.

Decades ago, citing ten such sources would have carried more weight, particularly if the sources had been published in a [semi-]permanent form such as a newspaper, magazine, or book. Today, Internet articles are permanent to the same extent as newspapers, and possibly even more so, and are much more ubiquitous. Instead of a few major newspapers per city, there are hundreds of web sites, all acting as journalistically honest as they can in order to convince their [prospective] readers. Surely it is easy to find ten of them that agree on promoting some falsehood, knowingly or not, whereas consulting ten newspapers in the 1950s would have almost without fail yielded at least two opposing arguments on a given controversial topic.

Furthermore, considering the way that publications with similar views and agendas promote and cite each other, web publishing enables and possibly even encourages readers never to leave their metaphorical street corner, though a large and diverse metropolis can be found only a few blocks away in any direction. Some people choose to stay and to learn new information from sources who only confirm what's already been said, what a person already believes to be true.

It's been obvious to me for a long time that people do not like to be wrong. They often prefer to perpetuate false beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence against it. They even attempt to convince others that they are right, as if two people with no evidence can somehow provide a better argument than one. Unfortunately, the Internet enables this. People get easily stuck in their nook or cranny of misinformation and find it hard to escape, even if they realize they should escape.

Don't get me wrong; the Internet and its accessories are great, but they give us a feeling of security in our opinions if our niche agrees with us. We have to venture off of the street corner and often directly into the hands of the opposition. It's only face-to-face that we can distinguish valid arguments from baseless propagandist horn-blowing. Remember, too, that others who refuse to leave their corners often know nothing except their own block.

2011-02-07

Improving television one show at a time

A friend of mine has watched all of the television there is to watch, and seems bored with the current offerings, so I proposed a few of my own ideas. I'd like to bring the rest of you in on the fun, too, so I've copied and pasted part of the email below (and I added a line or two after reading them again):

Let me propose a few new shows for the coming year's lineup. Most of them are right down your alley, with a twist:

"Slowlane" - Matlock (Andy Griffith) and Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) team up as two aging crime fighters who belong to a special division with unlimited access to cars older than them, microwaves they don't know how to operate, and those little pill cases with a compartment for each day of the week.

"Found" - The pilot opens as the passengers of a recently crashed plane find themselves on a seemingly deserted island. Soon, the Coast Guard pulls up and brings them all back home, where they decide to meet on a weekly basis to watch the now-defunct TV show "Lost". "This is retarded," says Charlie Sheen's character. "I'm glad this didn't happen to us," says James Franco or Patrick Dempsey. Someone from Grey's Anatomy says, "Let's watch that Kardashian show instead. It makes more sense."

"Unsurvivor" - Contestants are placed in strait-jackets in a padded room. He who dies first wins. Occasionally, all of them are administered poison, and they compete for immunity---i.e. the losers get the antidote. Each new season, a new, exotic location is chosen in which to place the underground, windowless, padded room. Hosted by Joe Rogan, or maybe Tyra Banks.

"Two and a Half Dudes, One Cup" - I'm not quite sure how this one is going to work out.

"Hu$tle 2: Ke$ha is Who She Is" - A series based on the true story of the greatest con ever played. Improving on Brian Warner's Marilyn Manson money-making scheme, a girl becomes unfathomably famous by writing the worst songs ever played on the radio that somehow pull on the heartstrings of americans who don't know any better.

Stay tuned!

Does anyone else have any other "good" ideas?

2011-01-28

Laments on current politics

It's never a good sign if our two major political parties are using pure, unabashed rhetoric when attacking the rhetoric of the opposing party.

It's also a bad sign that a politician, who has been---probably---consciously avoiding slogans and the counter-productive slogan-worship that is so prevalent in today's politics in favor of complex thought and deliberation, has his State of the Union address reduced by his own people to a not-very-good slogan, "win the future".

It's an even worse sign that one of the most thoughtful and reflective TV host/pundit-guys derided the bit of the State of the Union address in which our current president compared the present day to the time that President Kennedy challenged Americans to beat the Russians to the moon. It is "our generation's Sputnik moment," President Obama said, and listed several of current goals. Jon Stewart's reaction was that the goals were not big enough, or exciting enough, or inspiring enough, or some such. [See the video here; you can skip to about 2:55.] Why do our goals have to be exciting? Even in Kennedy's time, health care, energy, the economy, general scientific research, balancing the budget, and public transportation were much more important than getting to the moon, however inspiring the latter may be. Why can't we focus on and set reasonable, achievable goals for the boring problems? Those are the ones that will affect the most people in the biggest way.

I knew at the end of 2008 that Barack Obama's approval ratings would plummet within the year. He simply wasn't the Superman his election backers wanted him to be, but I never expected to arrive in the U.S. in the fall of 2010 and see many commercials trying to attack Democratic candidates for Congress or for governor for merely being associated with Obama. This would have been reasonable if instead of Obama, the commercials had featured Bernie Madoff, Osama Bin Laden, or anyone proven to be involved in lying, cheating, or stealing. But, no, President Obama had been vilified mainly for not fulfilling his promises, or---from the mouths of many conservatives---for fulfilling his promises. However amusing it may be, this Canadian commercial is not that far in spirit from many of the serious political attacks I've seen.

In a related matter, why is it that so many people are saying that President Obama hasn't accomplished much? Maybe these are just his opponents, people who never wanted him in office and simply don't like what he has accomplished. Maybe not, but certainly there are more people saying more loudly that Obama hasn't accomplished much than people saying that Obama is a thoughtful, effective leader. The latter is what we heard throughout 2008, but those voices have mysteriously disappeared. Has no one read articles like this or this? Or books like this? They say that, by any reasonable measure, President Obama has already accomplished---halfway though his term---most of what he said he would do. And, more importantly, they say that he has accomplished more than any president since Lyndon Johnson or Franklin D. Roosevelt. This, of course, ignores the issue of whether you agree with what he has done or how he has done it, but the fact remains that he has made progress in the direction he promised. What is wrong with that? If you need more convincing and you have an aversion to the long-ish articles and book linked above, here's a quippy website that can break it down into bite-sized pieces for you: whattheheckhasobamadonesofar.com .

Based on the political commercials I saw, politicized comments I see even among my friends, and general political dialogue, I now agree whole-heartedly with a quote from Bill Press in the second article linked above:

...there remains this huge disconnect between Obama's reputation and record, as reflected in the latest Washington Post–ABC poll – where 58 percent of Americans say they've lost faith in Obama. To me, that says more about us than it does about him. It says we are impatient, expecting miracles overnight. It says we are unrealistic, demanding a level of perfection no politician can deliver. And it says we are like spoiled children, not happy with just one piece of candy. We want the whole box. Now.

Keep in mind that I'm what many people call a "swing voter". I'm staunchly nothing, unless there's a party whose number one priority is critical thinking. The statement above is true regardless of your political opinions, yet fully 11% of Americans (47% voted for McCain in 2008) went from enchanted to disenchanted with Barack Obama despite superlative execution of his promises. Many Republicans even ran their 2010 elections on the same buzzword that Obama owned only two years before: "change". Is our collective memory that short?

I'm not telling you to like President Obama, or to vote for him, and I'm not even saying he's a great president. I am saying, though, that we should give credit where credit is due. He's doing his job, and he's doing it well.