Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Note on the Police

With Ferguson going on, a lot of people have said a lot about the cops lately. About the militarization of the American Police and the need for journalists and ordinary citizens to monitor the actions of the police.

When this sort of thing comes up, it is customary for someone to point out that there are a lot of good cops out there (most cops are good, nearly all cops are good, only a few of the apples are bad). This may be true. But it is beside the point.

Our republic is not built on the idea of trusting the good intentions and good judgment of those with power. It is built on constraining those in power, constraining them with the law. We subject them to the law and we subject them to the scrutiny needed to make sure that they abide by the law. Or at least, that is what we must do if we're going to keep up this whole liberal democracy thing going.

If cops were angels, we would need no rights.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Macroeconomics for Dragons

A conservative relative posted something on Facebook about the Federal Reserve recently.  It said that you could understand the Federal reserve by consulting the monopoly rulebook, roughly:

'Q:What happens when the bank runs out of money?'
A: The bank cannot run out of money.  If bills run out the banker will write amounts on pieces of paper and use these as money.'

Actually this is a pretty wonderfuly explanation of what the federal reserve does and why it's important: it makes sure that we have money so that we can play the game, IE buy and sell things.  It would be a miserable game of monopoly indeed if money could just run out, and in the real world the results are worse -- the Great Depression is a fabulous example.

But of course, my family member did not intend the above as a compliment to Ben Bernanke's efforts to inject more money into the economy.  And it makes me wonder -- what do you have to believe for this all to be a -bad- thing?  What do you have to believe to think that it's wrong to make sure that there is enough money in the economy?

Monday, October 7, 2013

You Should Take Responsibility So I Don't Have To

Whenever someone says 'personal responsibility' my eyes glaze over.  I've heard it said too much, and heard it say too little.

This phrase has become a magical incantation.  A spell people use to ward off the boogeymen -- moral relativism, people blaming society for their problems, the decline in American values.  Of course, these are boogeymen, not real problems but the invented crises of moral busybodies and superstitious fanatics who are concern-trolling our nation (I'm looking at you, Douthat).  The idea that invoking 'personal responsibility' does anything is laughable - young men do not turn to the corner because some NPR liberal said it wasn't their fault, and telling them that it's their fault is not going to make them stop.

But as laughable as it is, it is invoked again and again can be deployed against drug users, teen moms, teens that aren't moms, poor people on welfare, poor people not on welfare, black folks and many others.  And that's the sinister part.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Pride and Cruelty

The word 'cruelty' is often used as though it is synonymous with 'sadism.'  As though the only cruel people in the world were those who drowned cats for fun when they were kids and then graduated to doing even worse to their fellow human beings as adults.  The word cruel conjures up, for me, the lurid proceedings of police dramas (Luther is pretty good, but man, it's uncomfortable sometimes) and true crime stories; it's a word for serial killers and the psychopathic enforcers of drug gangs.  Certainly it seems to imply that someone is getting pleasure from someone's pain and death.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Dystopias are for Teenagers

I recently re-read Vasily Grossman's masterpiece, Life and Fate, which is about the Great Patriotic war and the respective horrors of Nazism and Stalinism, and about the effect that those authoritarian regimes had on all they touchedt.  It is a great novel, a self-conscious 20th century answer to War and Peace that can stand the comparison and not seem merely pretentious.  I published a brief review earlier this year

Reading it confirmed in my mind something I've thought before -- that whatever it's virtues, dystopian fiction is not the best tool to help us understand what life is like under authoritarianism.  If you want to find out about life under Stalin, read something by an actual Soviet, not by an English idealist who'd never set foot in the USSR.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Corporate Social Responsibility Doesn't Exist, Which is Why Government Regulation Should

This is a good summary of the problems of worker pay, wage stagnation and corporate versus societal responsibility.  It pretty much sums up my feelings on corporate America, which I'd like to expand.

Beginning in with Henry Ford and continuing through the New Deal and the 50's and 60's America has had a deal with its corporations.  We'd let them do what they wanted and they'd take care of their workers -- Unions would become domesticated, and even non-union workers would get nearly union-like benefits and tenure.  We built healthcare around employment, we built retirement around employment, all assuming that a) people would continue working at the Ford plant for their entire lives and b) a private equity firm would not buy the Ford plant for pennies and sell it for scrap.

This grand bargain between corporate America and the public was always a bum deal -- it gave us Love Canal, among other things.  But we were happy with it as long as companies held up their end of the bargain -- fairly stable employment, good benefits, high wages.

Then in the 80's the suits reneged on their half of the deal -- 'you don't really need that low deductible insurance plan, or that fixed-benefit retirment plan, do you?'  And then, of course, came the real kicker 'well you know our real responsibility is to our shareholders, not to you, our employees' and then the layoffs start.

But you know what?  The Corporations are right.  Their job is to make money.  We were the fools for ever thinking differently.  It's not so simple, of course.  Wall Street types will lay people off til the cows come home and then scream 'job creators' whenever you request that, since they've been making out like bandits, they give back more to the common pot.  So when that happens we just need to take what they say about profits and shareholder value and run with it.  They won't take care of people and they won't take care of the planet, so it's our job to do it for them (on their dime).  They will take as much as they can.  Our job is to stop them.  This is the way it is.  We are free of illusions, at least.

A note on ethics, why-do-I-bother edition

I should not comment on anything that Ross Douthat ever writes.  It's not a good practice to grant page views to misogynists with delusions of Thomistic philosophical chops.  But sometimes I can't help myself, because Douthat is typical of a sort of intellectual* conservative that dresses up religious dogma and prejudice in the clothing of concern about social cohesian and mores.

I nearly found myself agreeing with Douthat on the subject of almost as odious Stephen Pinker.  I agree that 'science' does not dictate any moral values (is versus ought, etc).  But then I thought about what Douthat had written, and I realized he was wrong (even if Pinker was as well) and that all was right with the world once again.