Monday, February 28, 2005

Accelerated Serendipity

Genealogy requires a healthy amount of serendipity. In tracing one's family history, you start with what your living family already knows (or thinks they know!) and with the obvious records, but sooner or later you run into a brick wall and can't figure out how to get further. Every once in a while, you'll randomly come across some new resource or meet some new person who provides the missing puzzle piece and breaks through the wall. This will happen most often if you run into a distant cousin who is researching the same ancestors, or if you run into someone who is researching the same times and places (i.e., your ancestors moved in the same circles). Traditionally, this would be a slow process of serendipity, at best facilitated by genealogical or historical society newsletters. But today with the Internet, such serendipity is greatly accelerated. Online bulletin boards, organized by surname or geographically, allow researchers to easily post queries and discover those other researchers with common interests (and mutually helpful clues). The Internet is also increasingly a repository for source records, but there still remains the larger bulk of historical records that just don't exist in electronic form. Thus, at least for now, I think the greatest power of the Internet for genealogy is in facilitating networking and collaboration of researchers with similar interests. I have been tracing my roots in earnest less than a year, but have already had several such serendipitous meetings thanks to the power of the Internet. Just last week, I received an email from a Mark Chatt who asks if I'm related to the Chatts who came from Northumberland, England. He found me as a result of a query I had posted. And so I became acquainted with a 3rd cousin who had a great deal of research already accomplished. Mark has our family traced back to John Chatt, of Hexhamshire, born 1680!

Just a Number

Just back from a weekend up in the local mountains to celebrate my birthday. (As my still-young parents remind me, "it's just a number.") When I was younger, I'd get in many days of snowboarding each winter. I hate to admit it, but 2 years ago I only saw a single day of snow, and last year we didn't get up to the snow at all. So I thought getting back on the board would be a good way to celebrate my birthday. With all the rains we've had in southern California, the local mountains have a bounty of snow. I'm happy to say it was great to be back on the board again, and I still retained some of my youthful enthusiasm ("This lift is closing in 15 minutes? Okay, I can get 2 more runs in!"). I also have to admit that I was feeling it the next day. I think if George and I went for a full week of skiing again, every other day would be a "spa day". But I'm certainly content. We came home in time to have a birthday dinner with my family at a local Indian restaurant, and it's been another great birthday.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Justice is on the march

While we've been fretting about the marriage "backlash", an equally important issue has seen a quietly rising tide of positive momentum. This could be the year that we see the end of the ban on gays in the military. In the background, we have growing acceptance of gay colleagues in society at large and reflected in the military. In a University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Poll last year, 50% of junior enlisted men agreed that gays should be allowed to serve openly; this compares to only 16% agreement in 1992 when Clinton raised national attention on the issue. In addition, the majority of our NATO allies and others (notably Britain, Canada, and Israel) have proved that gays can serve openly and effectively in the military. A study released last year showed that American soldiers served effectively in joint combat operations with gay British and Australian allies, with no impact to unit cohesion or morale. Add to that an undercurrent of awareness that military personnel are in increasingly short supply, as evidenced by extended tours of duty and unprecedented call-up of reserves, which makes more and more people start to question the rationality of discharging anybody who is able and willing to serve. This irrationality is especially evident when those being dismissed have served successfully and often with distinction. And the irrationality is sharply apparent when those being dismissed have special skills and training that are critical to the war on terror. It is increasingly clear that the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy is undermining national security.

Against this background, some promising developments. In December, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) filed a new lawsuit in federal court that promises to be the test case on gays in the military. The suit represents a dozen gay and lesbian service members, with 65 years of service and five dozen awards, medals, and commendations among them, including several who served in direct support of operations in the Middle East. All seek to be returned to service. Read the profiles of these twelve heroes.

Today, we receive a double-header in the news. A new GAO report identifies the cost of "Don't Ask Don't Tell": Since 1993 when the ban was formally adopted by Congress, over 10,000 service members have been discharged, including 800 specialists with training in areas identified as "critical", including 322 linguists trained in Arabic, Farsi, and Korean. The cost of recruiting and training replacements has been estimated at $191 million (which does not include the cost of processing the discharges), and many of the lost specialists are yet to be replaced. Talk about friendly fire! Meanwhile, over on the Hill, Congressman Marty Meehan (D-MA), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has announced plans to introduce the Military Readiness Enhancement Act next week, which will repeal the ban and allow gays to serve openly. With the GAO cost figures, along with estimates that some 65,000 lesbians and gay men are currently serving, the connection between national security and dumping this "old chestnut" should be clear. Mainstream America may not be ready for gay marriages just yet, but for openly gay soldiers I believe the time has come.

[Disclosure: I am a longtime supporter of SLDN. They are an outstandingly focused, effective, and well-run operation, and I am proud to support them.]

Wednesday, February 23, 2005


Pont d'Avignon
Ambrose Bierce update for the new millenium:

pontiff, noun, a peculiar kind of bridge, revered for its miraculous provenance connected with saints, one end of the bridge is solidly anchored in its ancient history while the other end doesn't actually go anywhere. one famous example is found in Avignon, another may be found in Rome.

Old Ideology of Evil

According to a new book by Pope John Paul II, it seems that my husband and I may be part of "a new ideology of evil, perhaps more insidious and hidden, which attempts to pit human rights against the family and against man." I'm truly baffled as to where this hidden evil might lie in our lives. We both work hard at our jobs, keep our home and yard maintained, pay our taxes, attend church, keep close to our families, and generally try to set good examples for my godson, our nieces and nephews, and our younger cousins. In living out our wedding vows of lifelong loving commitment, we strive to follow the examples of our own parents (first marriages, still together, over 100 years of marriage between the two couples). Is it insidious that I would support George if he lost his job? Is it evil that George would take care of me if I became incapacitated? We believe in human rights, as we believe in family and believe in our fellow man, and fail to see the conflict.

Kevin Ray does a great job of diagnosing the problem with the Pope's view:
the view the Pope adheres to in these statements diminishes humanity, the family and marriage -- reducing all to mere biology, where marriage and family are naked husbandry and human nature is bestial at best. A less spiritual view of human nature and man's place in the world is difficult to conceive. If the Church is to remain true to its traditional view that individuals (including gay individuals) mirror the nature of God, this impoverished representation of man's nature must be rejected.

Moreover, this perversely narrow view of man's fulfillment in the world has consequences beyond a profound misunderstanding of homosexuality. This same narrow view that man's only purpose is "begatting" leads to a reckless absolute prohibition of birth control, with worldwide overpopulation and poverty as a result. This same medieval thinking precludes sane and effective methods for preventing the spread of disease. (Some within the church hierarchy have attempted to have a sane conversation about condoms and disease prevention, but have been sternly slapped down by the conservative defenders of doctrine.) To paraphrase the pontiff, I would suggest that it would be legitimate and necessary for the Pope to ask himself if this is not perhaps part of an old ideology of evil, of the most insidious kind (misguided benevolence), which attempts to pit an irrational dogma against the family and against man.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Mainstream Media

Ambrose Bierce update for the new millenium:

mainstream media, n.p., (often abbreviated MSM), refers generally to "old media" (e.g., newspapers) as opposed to "new media" (e.g., the blogosphere), but refers specifically to those newspapers, news magazines, and television news programs that have an allegedly liberal bias. The mainstream media includes the New York Times, the Washington Post, and ABC News, but does not include Fox News, the Washington Times, or any talk radio. Oddly, the term "mainstream media" is typically used by those who would consider the viewpoint of "mainstream media" to be "outside the mainstream".

Monday, February 21, 2005

Hopeful Headlines

I am ever the optimist, and always eager to find hopeful indications, but it's often hard to cull hope out of news headlines. Today was unusual, as it was easy to find hope. One of the first major stories I heard this morning was that Ariel Sharon's cabinet have ratified pulling out of Gaza. As Sharon said, it was a very difficult decision for him, but at the same time it will be a very important step toward peace in the region. In the wake of Arafat's death, there is a window of opportunity to initiate movement toward peace, but it will only come with each side making some significant moves of conciliation. For Sharon, this is a big one, and along with it, 500 Palestinian prisoners are being released. Of course those Palestinians determined to see the glass half empty will complain about Sharon's commitment to complete the "wall" in the West Bank, even along moderated borders, or that there are a lot more prisoners. But no one can deny that this is a significant move, and certainly one that is costing Sharon a fair amount of "political capital". I am hopeful that Sharon is turning out to be the right man at the right time to play the "Nixon going to China" role that is needed now.

As if that wasn't enough for one day, I then heard excerpts from Bush's speech in Brussels. Just Bush being in Brussels (in itself a gesture to Europe) to mend fences with the Europeans was encouraging. But his words held some hopeful surprises. While the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been unduly under-prioritized during Bush's first term, in this speech it was the leading topic, and characterized as "our greatest opportunity and immediate goal". In his comments that followed, he sketched out a very pragmatic vision that said that peace is achieveable if all parties meet their responsibilities. He chastened Arab neighbors to end incitement in their media, funding for terrorism, extremist education, and to recognize Israel. He challenged the Palestinians to dismantle terrorism, fight corruption, and embrace democracy and the free market, and he noted that a thriving Palestinian state should be Israel's goal as well. To Israel, he made the significant statement that a viable Palestinian state will require contiguous territory in the West Bank. (That was the significant stumbling block when Arafat balked at a previous proposed Israeli compromise.) These are really great and welcome words. I hope that we see some follow-through from all parties.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

ARTS: As You Like It

Sir Peter Hall has done a fine job of bringing to life Shakespeare's As You Like It at the Ahmanson Theatre, with his daughter Rebecca Hall starring as Rosalind. Although it may be argued that As You Like It was a rough draft of themes more finely honed in Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night's Dream, the classic Bard comedy elements (girl-dressed-as-boy falls in love with boy while another girl falls for the "boy"), with fantastical twists that make it all work out right in the end, are ever delightful. A signature element of this play is the contrast between courtly people and country folk, and though peasant shepherds are portrayed as a bit dim, they are all equals in love. Indeed, it is the shepherd boy Silvius who expounds on "what 'tis to love" as Phebe, Ganymede-Rosalind, and Orlando add only a chorus of "and I".

In this production, all of the characters are vivid and well-acted. Rebecca Hall as Rosalind and Dan Stevens as Orlando are charmingly fresh, earnest, and noble. Rebecca Callard as Celia acts the perfect "younger sister". The shepherd boy Silvius (David Birkin) is sweetly plaintive, while shepherd girls Phebe and Audrey are good physical comediennes. Michael Siberry as the fool Touchstone has the right cynical demeanor, but unfortunately talks out of the side of his mouth most of the time so you can't understand what he's saying. And Jaques is perfectly irrascible (but good with diction, especially important as he gets the famous "All the world's a stage" speech). Peter Hall's direction compliments the text with some meaningful visualization, with scenes such as Oliver's passing of bribe money to the wrestler, Orlando's first dumbstruck exchanges with Rosalind, Orlando putting love notes on all the trees, "Ganymede" sometimes forgetting "his" part, and Phebe's reluctant acquiescience to Silvius in the end. And his overall dressing of the usurping Duke Frederick in a paramilitary uniform gave an insightful impression of him as an arbitrary, controlling, and mildly paranoid dictator. The set was simple, but a few trees that blended seamlessly into a backdrop created a perfectly pastoral forest. All in all, it was delightful to pass an afternoon in the Forest of Arden with these characters.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Food for Thought

The ever-thought-provoking Anal Philosopher has another post that's really got me thinking. This time his topic is animal rights and the (im)morality of meat-eating. He argues that "if animal suffering has any weight on the moral scale (i.e., if it weighs more than nothing), it outweighs your taste preferences." Much as I would like to justify my carniverous diet, I am at a loss for any argument to respond to this as he has framed it.

My only response is to wonder about the full consequences and implications of such a moral theory, and whether it can be completely coherent. The first open question I'd want to pin down is what exactly constitutes suffering, and what sorts of creatures have the capacity for it. I do know people who are vegetarians on grounds of animal suffering, and later came to accept eating fish when they became convinced that fish did not suffer. And recently, such a claim has been specifically advanced about lobsters and crabs. Those at least have small brains, even if magnitudes fewer sensory neurons. Clams, oysters, and other molluscs have no brains at all. Does "suffering" require some kind of capacity to feel pain and not to like it? Does it matter whether the method of killing is quick and painless? Or is it the cutting short of the animal's life, denying it the living out of its natural life? If the latter has moral consequence, how far does it go? Should we be concerned with the cutting short of the natural life of insects? Of bacteria? Of plants? Where and how do we draw the lines?

I also wonder about how to square this moral theory with the natural occurrence of predation. If animal suffering and killing does matter, then it is clearly evil. Then do we not have some moral obligation to prevent evil from occurring where we can? Is it a sin of omission not to protect the gazelle from the lion? And if animal predation is somehow moral, then are we not entitled to play our role in the natural food chain?

If animal suffering matters in a consequentialist framework, are there not situations where killing animals quickly is more humane than the alternative? One example are creatures such as deer that if left unchecked could devastate some areas of plantlife and ultimately many deer would die of starvation. Human hunting of deer serves an arguably benevolent purpose in keeping their population in check. (Fox-hunting proponents raise similar arguments, though they become suspect when they are having too much fun at it.) I realize here that I am doing moral calculus in the aggregate, which we would never do with humans. But does this moral theory preclude such considerations for animals, or must we consider each deer as an individual? We have of course ventured into new questions where more than mere taste preferences are being piled onto the moral scales as weight against the animals' claims. But how do such counter-claims as damage to the environment or to our productivity get weighed? For instance, I freely admit I bear the deadliest of malice against the gopher that ravages my backyard garden.

I have heard that there are also interesting economic arguments to be made for vegetarianism, to the effect that meat may require something like 10 times the amount of resources to produce as an equivalent amount of vegetable nutrition. I don't know the exact role farm subsidies play in the meat industry, but I'm easily persuaded that the true full costs are not being fully externalized. (Not to mention that some of the mega-pig-sties and mega-chicken-coops add a whole new dimension of animal suffering.) Such an argument would certainly have a strong conservative appeal (in that our resources are something that ought to be conserved), and arguably has a moral dimension as well (if you believe, as I do, that there is a moral requirement for responsible stewardship of the earth's resources for future generations). This line of argument may not have the same absolute conclusion that we should never eat meat, but on such lines we ought to be eating a whole lot less of it. Personally, I would find such arguments more compelling.

In considering all this, it dawns on me that the Anal Philosopher has managed to pull me through the looking glass. There he is suggesting that we trust the lights of abstract rationality to justify abandoning a deeply ingrained human tradition that has been a human way of life since before recorded history, and that accords with natural law. And here I am, desperately clinging to the traditional way of life, despite having no rational basis better than hair-splitting rationalizations over what constitutes suffering. (Can we get Alberto Gonzales on this case?) Prof. Burgess-Jackson asserts that "there is more rationalization about meat-eating than any other topic". I daresay he's right, although gay issues are becoming a close second. I have to say it gives me a new appreciation about how it feels to be on the inside of a rationalization. In left-wing parlance, I suppose I'm the bigot on this issue. I'm not saying I'm persuaded yet, but I do have a dreadful inkling that I am the bigot on this one, and that I'm going to end up like Thomas Jefferson with his slaves, knowing full well the injustice of it, but not quite knowing how to let go.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Gas is too cheap by half

As I was driving home from work this evening, surveying the endless sea of tail lights in front of me, it became very clear to me. Gasoline is not nearly expensive enough. In the back of our minds, we all know that oil is a limited resource and we oughtn't guzzle so much. And we all know that all this gas combustion is not good for our air quality. And we all know that our national dependence on oil makes our relationship with our Middle East suppliers not unlike a crack addict's relationship with his dealer. A few of us are even starting to realize that the emergence of China and India as pre-eminent oil consumers is going to challenge our economy in profound ways. So why don't we do much about it? Because we're addicted to our cars, and for now, gas is reasonably (or perhaps unreasonably) cheap. This is one of those situations where the free market system fails to operate to our best interest. I forget the proper econ jargon, but it's something like "internal costs" that aren't being "externalized". The market price of gas does not reflect the cost of damaged air quality, the cost of using up a non-renewable resource, or the cost of being dependent on foreign regimes. Because these hidden costs are not priced in to our cheap gas, the consumer demand for cleaner air, renewable resources, and less foreign dependence is anemic. (One example: the average fuel economy of the new car fleet has fallen every year since 1986.) What we need is a serious tax on gasoline, to drive pump prices up to European levels and beyond, so that people might actually change their behavior. If we paid $5/gallon, I think we'd suddenly see more people car-pooling or taking public transport (and we'd certainly see fewer ridiculously outsized cars on the road). At least some of this revenue could be put into a vital energy program, with appropriate national attention and support, the likes of which we haven't seen since the Apollo space program. If we put that level of priority and resources into solving our energy problems, we would see some real progress in energy technology (not to mention the opportunity to establish American pre-eminence in a new technology area).

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Weekday Home-cooked Meals

I made a New Years resolution for 2003 that I am still sticking to (this may be a first). George and I had gotten into the habit of doing fast food and take-out for most of our weekday dinners, and my resolution was that we should have home-cooked meals. In the prior state of affairs, when the whim struck one of us to cook, it was usually too daunting because there were few staples on hand to work with, and so a prerequisite of any home cooking would be a trip to the store. That would often be enough to kill the whim, given the constraints of weeknights. There just isn't the time to do a lot of shopping during the week, and yet the notion of planning an entire week's menu out in advance seemed rather daunting too. The breakthrough revelation was that I didn't need to plan it all out. I could shop on Sunday to buy a good supply of produce, meats & fish, and other staples, without having to figure everything out, and then I could figure specific dinners out day by day, based on what we have on hand. It's been working out pretty well for 2 years and counting.

As you've probably gathered, I'm the cook in the household. (It's not that George can't cook, it's just become our division of labor. He does all the laundry and nearly all the gardening, and I do the cooking and the accounting.) When I started this in 2003, I had a job where I worked from home much of the time, so it was quite easy for me to do little bits of dinner preparation throughout the afternoon as needed, thawing any frozen things out early in the day, starting slow-simmer soups or stews in the late afternoon, that sort of thing. Now, I have a different job where I have need to be in an office roughly 8:30-5:30-ish Mon-Fri, about 40-90 minutes away, depending on traffic. I'm usually home between 6:45-7:15pm, and need to "hit the stove running" to get dinner on the table, ideally before 8pm. I can still make it work, but it takes a bit more planning ahead. Last year when I worked at home, dinner could get planned about 6 hours in advance. Now, I need to have the basic idea the night before (so any frozen things get thawing), then on my way out the door in the morning I take a quick scan of the vegetable bin, and then as I drive home I'm working out the plan in my head. George and I are the sort that like our routines, and now that we've got the routines adapted to the requirements of my new job, we continue to enjoy home-cooked meals. It definitely takes a bit more planning and effort, but it certainly saves money, and more importantly, we're happier and healthier for it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Supermajorities Rule

As the Iraqi election results are becoming known, many are relieved and pleased to see that the leading Shiite party received what appears to be about 48%, a strong plurality but not a majority. What this means is that no party will be able to completely dominate the proceedings, and inclusive compromises will need to be reached. (Some voice concerns that the top two parties -- the Shiites and the Kurds -- together have about 75%, and can forge an alliance of common convenience but lacking a deeply shared vision. Others are encouraged that the Shiites are talking about trying to be broadly inclusive.) Facing the possibility of strongly polarized contingents, and a possible Shiite majority, the interim constitution was explicitly designed with supermajority protections: a presidential triumvirate requires 2/3 election by the assembly, the triumvirate must act unanimously, and any new constitution requires approval in 16 of 18 provinces. The practical consequences of these supermajoritarian mechanisms are that broad agreement must be built across various constituencies in order to govern, protecting minority groups from the "tyranny of the majority".

Michael Rappaport of The Right Coast is especially attuned to the benefits of supermajoritarian mechanisms for the nascent Iraqi government. He and John McGinnis have written a paper suggesting supermajoritarianism as the central principle underlying the US Constitution. They note that this principle pervades the Constitution both explicitly (e.g., 2/3 Senate majority needed to ratify treaties) and implicitly (bi-cameral Congress plus Presidency required to enact laws). They explore the principle of supermajority, suggesting that it can improve the quality of legislation, particularly in certain situations. Such specific situations include:

  1. where special interests are pushing for legislation rather than opposing it (budget bills are a good example),
  2. where there is (a) strong partisanship and (b) the cost of doing the wrong thing is higher than the cost of not doing the right thing (e.g., impeachment),
  3. where decisions are difficult to undo (e.g., treaties or constitutional amendments),
  4. where consensus is beneficial to the decision-making

The authors are careful to note that supermajority mechanisms do not cure all ills, and may not be beneficial when those sorts of circumstances are not present.

I have always appreciated the supermajority concept and found this paper intriguing in its systematic analysis of it. It is interesting to see the concept in action, not only in Iraq, but closer to home. Here in California, a 2/3 vote of the legislature is required to pass a budget. This has been a contentious issue, and in the past several years, especially as the legislature has become increasingly polarized, budgets have been very difficult to pass. The Democrats, who control both houses with solid majorities but not a supermajority, have complained bitterly about "obstructionist" Republicans. And there have been suggestions floated to amend the state constitution to lighten the requirement to a simple majority for the budget. However, application of Rappaport and McGinnis' analysis would suggest that the supermajority requirement for the budget is a good idea, as the critical factors are present. A budget bill, as per their discussion, is the quintessential example of factor 1, where special interests are pushing for pet legislation. Supermajority requirements help defend against pork. Budgets also benefit from a consensus process (factor 4), since by its nature a budget is about reconciling competing interests (each of which may have merits on its own, but all of which must be balanced together). The only counter-argument I can see is that one might claim that the whole state suffers when the legislature fails to enact a budget on time (factor 2b - whether the cost of doing the wrong thing is higher than the cost of inaction), but I don't think the cost of inaction is critically high here. Granted, some are inconvenienced and some functions of the state shut down, but this has the good effect of significantly raising the pressure on the legislature to finally reach consensus. Overall, I think application of this theory would suggest that California has the right idea with its current 2/3 majority requirement for budget bills, and should not be receptive to proposed amendments to water it down.

The other place where we see the supermajority concept in action is the recently heated topic of Senate filibusters, particularly in regard to judicial appointments. The practical effect of the filibuster, a time-honored but contentious Senate tradition, is that 60 (of 100) votes are required to get things done. Some Republican partisans annoyed with Democratic "obstructionists" (and with too-short memories of when the Republicans were the minority "obstructionists") have suggested that the filibuster is unconstitutional (because it is not expressly authorized in the Constitution). This is plainly silly. The Senate is clearly free to set its own rules of procedure, which may include all sorts of details not included in the Constitution. Extra-constitutional does not mean un-constitutional. If the filibuster is unconstitutional, then so too is the two-party system. Now we have this analysis from Rappaport and McGinnis, we can see that the filibuster is well aligned with the guiding principle of the Constitution, and that the founding framers would have given it their wholehearted approval. In fact, with regard to judicial confirmations, I would argue that all four of the supermajoritarian success criteria are at work. In recent history, judicial appointments have been increasingly abused to appoint partisans favored by one special interest or another, so here is factor 1 and 2a. Since judges, once confirmed, serve for life, we clearly have factor 3 (the decision is difficult to undo), and arguably we have factor 2b as well: the cost of appointing a "bad" judge to a life term is surely higher than the "cost" of turning down the appointment of a "good" judge. And since we ought to want our judges to be broadly non-partisan, factor 4 is also present. (The paper also examines the potential costs of supermajority mechanisms. In the instance of judicial confirmations, the administrative and substitution costs are minimal.) Under this analysis, I think we have a good argument not only for preserving the filibuster, but even adding a higher supermajority requirement (e.g., 2/3) for judicial confirmations.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Thoughts on Valentine's Day

For years I have considered Valentine's Day an insidious plot, really for the benefit of greeting card and candy companies rather than people. The day is cruel for those who are single, it can be awkward for those who are just beginning to date, and it should be superfluous for those already in a long-term relationship. When I was single, I would make a point of sending Valentine's cards to my single friends. Now that I'm married, I give a card to my husband despite my philosophical misgivings, only because he does not share my misgivings and I honor his feelings. Commuting home tonight, I was delighted to hear the insightful commentary on the subject by philosopher/essayist Alain de Botton, who observes that Valentine's Day as it is celebrated is about the beginnings of love, but what most adults need is a celebration of the sustenance of love. He notes that so much of our culture focuses on the initiation of romantic relationships, and generally neglects to consider the real work of sustaining our relationships glossed over in the "happily ever after" of our stories. It's well worth a listen.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Saying "hasta la vista, baby" too hastily

Last Thursday, while I was composing my post about the value of California's state pensions as corporate watchdogs, Governor Schwarzenegger was composing a letter officially firing 4 of his appointees to the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS) board of directors. At a CalSTRS board meeting last week, the board rejected the Governor's proposal to shift from a defined-benefit pension plan to a 401K-style defined-contribution plan by a vote of 10-2, with all four of the Governor's appointees voting against the Governor's proposal. The board also rejected (by a vote of 11-0) a Schwarzenegger proposal to shift the pension contribution costs from the state to individual school districts. While I admire Governor Schwarzenegger's independence and welcome many of his ideas (such as independent redistricting), I think he is wrong on this issue. You would think that the Governor might pause to reconsider when his own appointees vote against his plan. There was no politics involved in their decision. It happens that of the 4 appointees, 2 are Republicans and 2 are Democrats. The 4 directors comprised a managing director of a capital management firm, a longtime banker with long board experience including appointments by the last 4 governors of California, a college economics professor, and the mayor of Santa Ana. I believe that these four were doing what they thought was best for the state pension and for the people that it serves. The Governor himself deemed these people worthy of appointment. He would do well to listen to the reasons that they voted against his recommendation, rather than impetuously firing them for their "disloyalty". In this case, saying "Hasta la vista, baby" to four responsible directors was not the right thing to do.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

FILM: The Aviator

Mostly what I knew about Howard Hughes was the impression planted in my 14-year-old mind when he died: that he was an incredibly wealthy old man, and a highly eccentric recluse who hadn't trimmed his beard or fingernails in years. The Scorsese film The Aviator does a great job of bringing this remarkable character to vivid life, in all his brilliance and all his eccentricity. DiCaprio's portrayal is outstanding, and Cate Blanchett as Kathryn Hepburn is all that. Scorsese does a good job of putting you inside Hughes' head in moments of paranoia, allowing the audience to see a "menacing" employee or a "threatening" piece of food as Hughes does. And overall, I think the film avoids the temptation to dwell on the eccentricities, instead striking a good balance between showing his moments of greatness and moments of deterioration, and presenting a complex character in all his complexity. My only initial complaint was that the movie just stopped rather than ended, although in thinking about it, it probably could not have carried the story any further while maintaining the balance. We get to see the trajectory of Hughes' life take flight and exceed expectations, and we get to see the engine start to fail. We already knew the ultimate trajectory ends in a crash, and we didn't really need to see the wreckage. So the film stops in just the right place after all.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Similarly situated, or When dogs can vote

The Anal Philosopher makes the provocative assertion that with regard to denying legal recognition for gay marriage, "the proper analogy is not to slavery, which is obviously unjust, but to not allowing dogs to vote, which is just." He cites a correct principle -- that "justice requires that likes be treated alike" -- and claims that heterosexual couples and homosexual couples are not "similarly situated" with regard to marriage. In deciding what counts as "similarly situated", it is useful to pursue casuistry -- the practice in philosophy of ethics where various cases and analogies are explored to better understand the underlying principles. Often extreme analogies or outrageous hypotheticals help to demonstrate a principle, which can then be extended to actual live controversies. The notion of canine suffrage is such an extreme analogy. Its very extremity provides a good starting point, because denying canine suffrage is something we can all agree upon, and casuistry must start from well-agreed cases. Thus, we recognize that even regarding fundamental rights such as voting or marriage, it is just and reasonable for the law to make some forms of classification, such as distinguishing species as humans and dogs. We will also generally accept that the law is right to classify persons as adult and minor persons, excluding minors from many of the rights of citizens, such as voting and marriage.

It is useful at this juncture to outline the principles of American jurisprudence on when it is appropriate to classify "unlike" situations. The law may classify based on a variety of personal attributes, such as age, citizenship, gender, and (as already noted) species. However, any classification is by default suspect in the law because of the principle of equal rights, treating likes alike. In considering whether some proposed classification is legal, one considers three things: (1) what is being denied, (2) who is being denied, and (3) for what purpose are some people being denied. In the first consideration -- what is being denied -- we must consider how important is the right that is being denied. Some rights, such as the right to vote or the right to marry, are considered to be fundamental rights, essential to our life and liberty, and thus we scrutinize more closely any infringements on these rights. Other rights, such as the right to park one's car overnight on a particular street, are not fundamental, and thus the law would reasonably tolerate some forms of discrimination in regard to such rights (e.g., only people who live on a street might get to park their cars overnight on that street) which would be intolerable for fundamental rights (e.g., it would be intolerable to say that people who lived on Elm Street could vote while people who live on Poplar Street could not). In the second consideration -- who is being denied -- we must consider the kind of discrimination being made. Is it based on age or gender or race or which street you live on? Here, certain kinds of discrimination are considered "suspect classes" (such as race or religion), or have explicit protections in the law (such as disabilities or veteran status). Discrimination on such characteristics has an extremely high presumption of being illegal, while other forms of discrimination (e.g., age or marital status) are not scrutinized quite as closely. In the third consideration -- the purpose of classification -- we examine what a proposed law is trying to accomplish by its classification, and how well the classification serves the purpose. Where fundamental rights are being abridged, or where suspect classes are being discriminated against, the principle is to apply "strict scrutiny" to see if there is a "compelling state interest" being served and whether the classification is required and narrowly tailored to serve that interest. In other cases, lesser scrutiny is applied to see whether there is some "rational basis" for the law, and whether the classification is in some way reasonably connected to the purpose. (There is always some scrutiny to be applied, since purely arbitrary discrimination by the law is never tolerable.)

Now let us return to marriage. In the first consideration -- what is being denied -- there is well-settled case law that marriage is a fundamental right. (In Zablocki v. Redhail, for example, a long summary of the case history is cited, showing that the US Supreme Court "has long recognized that freedom of personal choice in matters of marriage and family life is one of the liberties protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.") The second consideration -- who is being denied -- is where it becomes tricky to find the right analogy. Some have argued that prohibition of same-sex marriage amounts to gender-based discrimination. The claim is that male person A is being denied his right to marry male person B, solely because person A is male, and A would otherwise be allowed to marry B if A were female. Thus, the argument goes, person A is being classified based on gender. This argument was successfully made in the Hawaii Supreme Court decision in Baehr v. Levin, relying on the state's Equal Rights clause. (That decision was later overruled by an initiative amendment to the Hawaii constitution, which changed the law but does not invalidate the principle of the decision. In US Supreme Court case law, even though a federal Equal Rights Amendment has never been adopted, the Court views gender-based classification as requiring "heightened" or "intermediate" scrutiny, often nearly as strong as "strict scrutiny" but allowing that such classifications may be reasonable in some instances.)

Others counter-argue that the law does not discriminate by gender, in that both men and women are equally free to marry, and equally inhibited in marrying someone of the same sex. Thus goes this argument, the law treats everyone equally, and there is no discrimination at all. This line of argument is exactly analogous to those arguments made in defense of miscegenation statutes, i.e., that both whites and non-whites were equally free to marry, and equally inhibited in marrying someone of a different race, thus there was no unequal treatment. That line of thinking has been roundly discredited with regard to miscegenation, and it should be just as dubious with regard to same-sex marriage. (Note that some will try to argue that Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that finally eradicated anti-miscegenation, was based specifically and solely on race, but they would be mistaken. The Court specifically considered two lines of objection -- that of the suspect class of race, and that of the infringement of the fundamental right to marry -- and affirmed that either line of objection would be dispositive. As the Anal Philosopher would say, the Loving case was "over-determined".) It is important to note that the fundamental right is not just to be able to marry someone, but freedom of personal choice of whom to marry, and how to arrange one's home and family life. The miscegenation precedents are in fact very good analogies for the same-sex marriage issue, in that the Court found the right to marry so fundamental as to consciously go against strong public opinion, long-standing tradition, and natural law arguments embedded in prior case law. Anyone raising such concerns about tradition and natural law (and the accompanying jeremiads about "activist judges") needs to explain how they square their arguments against legal acknowledgement of same-sex marriage with recognition that the Court did the right thing in striking down miscegenation laws. (And they need to open their eyes to the very strong possibility that their views will someday be widely acknowledged as shamefully wrong.)

A third view of the classification involved in denying same-sex marriage is to say that the law is distinguishing between homosexuals and heterosexuals, and because homosexuality is immoral, it is entirely appropriate for the law to enact opprobrium against homosexuals. One can certainly mount a coherent, rational argument along those lines, but it won't carry much legal weight in this country. In Romer v. Evans, the Court found that mere animus against homosexuals failed to muster even a bare "rational basis", and dismissed the specious claims of opponents that homosexuals were seeking "special rights". Indeed, any theory of classification that tries to mask the actual anti-homosexual motivations turns out to be arbitrary, and moreover, it turns out that consciously embracing the anti-homosexual motivations, while intellectually honest, is also abritrary.

The only viable justification for opponents of same-sex marriage is to present a compelling state interest that is directly and narrowly served by the prohibition. Such arguments are generally made along the lines that marriage serves the purpose of raising children, that children are best raised by a mother and a father, and that the state has a compelling interest in fostering specifically heterosexual marriage for the benefit of the children. Many will find this a powerfully persuasive argument, especially as it dovetails with traditional instincts. However, I do not believe that it is sufficient if examined honestly and objectively. (Obviously, I have some explaining to do.) First, we need to clear up common conceptual confusions about childbearing vs childrearing. As I have explained elsewhere, marriage is primarily about childrearing, and childrearing is not intrinsically heterosexual. Before we get into whether heterosexuals might be better parents than homosexuals, we need to acknowledge that we are not looking at an absolute distinction, as in "children are always well-raised by opposite-sex parents and children are always harmed by same-sex parents". Anybody who asserts that is just being obtuse, as there are plenty of counterexamples to be seen. So, if heterosexuals made better parents than homosexuals, it would at most be a matter of averages and degree. (To go back to the miscegenation analogy for a moment, we should note that Virginia put forth a lot of psuedo-scientific argument about the dangers to society of the mixing of races. But fear, uncertainty, and doubt are not sufficient to overcome strict scrutiny when a fundamental right is being infringed.) Part of the process of strict scrutiny is to ask whether the means (prohibiting same-sex marriage) is the only means or the best means to accomplish the legitimate state interest (i.e., healthy childrearing). Here is where we get back to casuistry. If looking for the ideal situation in which to raise children, there are certainly many aspects that may enter into it. One might plausibly argue that wealthy people are better able to raise children than poor people. So would it be appropriate to put a minimum wealth requirement on getting married? One might also argue that educated people are better equipped to raise children, so might we require that at least one party to every marriage must have a college degree? Indeed, intelligent people probably do a better job, so perhaps there should be a minimum IQ requirement on at least one party to every marriage. (It should be noted that earlier Courts, swayed by popular notions of eugenics, have infamously held that being stupid or immoral were sufficient reasons for the state to impose involuntary sterilization on people. See Buck v. Bell, for instance, later repudiated.) Like giving dogs the vote, these are intentionally outrageous analogies (at least I hope they are outrageous) put forth to illustrate the crucial question: in what respect is prohibiting same-sex marriage for the sake of good childrearing substantially different from these other examples? (In fact, if scientific studies were done, I'd venture we would find that intelligence, education, and wealth may have more correlation to successful childrearing than the gender of the parents.) And in fact I think few would dispute the claims of the Heritage Foundation that the stability of a marriage is a strong correlator to happy healthy children, and that divorce is negatively correlated. Clearly there's a much stronger argument for outlawing divorce than prohibiting same-sex marriage, if the goal is to raise children well. Given all of these alternatives, it seems quite difficult to argue that prohibiting same-sex marriage is the only and most narrowly-tailored way of achieving the state's purpose.

Finally returning to analogies, clearly the canine suffrage analogy is way off base. I think the best analogy would be to say that opposing same-sex marriage is analogous to opposing marriage between two persons of the same handedness. Whether we are left or right-handed, like whether we are gay or straight, is something innate that we discover about ourselves as we grow. And left-handedness, like being gay, is something that can to some extent be bludgeoned out of our active behavior by a needlessly coercive society acting out of ignorance and superstition. (Note that none of the arguments I've made above hang on any issues of "essential" versus "chosen" traits.) One might argue that a left-handed child would be deprived being brought up by two right-handed parents (i.e., lacking a good left-handed role model), and thus marriage should be restricted to one right-handed and one left-handed person. But that would be silly, wouldn't it? Yes, that's exactly the right analogy.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Privatizing state pensions -- good for whom?

The debate over "privatizing" the California state pension funds raises some different issues than the national Social Security debate. In the wake of the Enron collapse, in which CalPERS suffered significant losses, the pension board has taken on a leading role in pushing for corporate governance reform. At approximately $180B in assets, the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) is the largest pension fund in the country. Unlike individual small shareholders, CalPERS can throw some weight around in the companies it invests in. It has used this influence to push the adoption of conflict-of-interest reforms, and has opposed over 2000 director candidates in corporate elections that have historically been little more than a rubber-stamp formality. It lead the calls for the resignation of the grossly overcompensated Richard Grasso, chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. Much of the positive reform in corporate governance has come as a result of the activism of CalPERS and other large pensions around the country. Without such aggregated shareholder power as these pensions can wield, there is little to stand in the way of corporate abuse. Though some have argued that this activism conflicts with CalPERS fiduciary duty to its pension investment, board activists rightly point out that improving corporate governance is in the best long-term interest of corporate investors. They are in fact aligned on their fiduciary duty to manage their pension.

Thus it is that some see Governor Schwarzenegger's drive to "privatize" CalPERS as really being an attempt to undercut this corporate activism. If the large pensions are transformed into individual 401K-style retirement accounts, the leverage over corporate accountability will be lost. Some, such as the California Chamber of Commerce, believe that would be a good thing. Others, such as State Treasurer Phil Angelides (one of "activist" board members of CalPERS), believe the Governor is being motivated by Washington Republicans and corporate interests. Such suspicions had been raised over a year ago when one of the leading CalPERS activists was ousted. Mr. Angelides is busy networking with other activist state pensions around the nation to counteract the "privatization" movement. Meanwhile, the San Jose Mercury News questions the Treasurer's reading of the Governor's motives. They point out that Governor Schwarzenegger has proven to be quite independent-minded (his proposals for sane redistricting are none too popular with the RNC). I certainly give our governor credit for his independence, but I think it would be a mistake to unduly dismantle our state pensions. Without their influence, individual 401K-style accounts would suffer lesser returns in the long run, with few remaining checks and balances on corporate malfeasance. They are doing a great service not only for their own pension-holders, but for all stock-holders.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

ARTS: Romeo et Juliette

As my friend Denny remarked at the end of this evening's Los Angeles Opera performance of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, I can't remember any other time when the audience so unanimously leaped to its feet in applause at the end. We were amazed that this rich, romantic opera -- chock-full of great arias, and with such a beautiful and beloved story -- is not performed more often. Of course, we were treated to two young and very talented stars who were perfect for their parts, and in top form this evening. Romeo was sung by the handsome Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon. (It was our first time seeing him, but we hope not the last!) His rich honeyed tone swelled and swept with passion, effortlessly going the distance for one aria after another in this 5-act opera. And Juliet was the beautiful Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, whom we saw at her big-house debut as Lyudmila in San Francisco in 1995 (when she must have been 15 years old). Her nimble voice fills the room with flights of ornamentation, and then places pure pianissimo notes that linger softly in the air. Both were excellent actors as well, and the chemistry between them was marvelous. It certainly doesn't hurt that they both looked every bit their part (and thus didn't require the same willing suspension of disbelief as other performances we've seen, like a rather senior soprano dropping the seven veils in Salome, or a Wagnerian-size soprano waddling around the stage as the supposedly young and beautiful Norma). It was great to see a young Romeo actually climb over a gate and scale walls to reach his Juliet, or to see some young smooth skin in their bedroom scene. (Both of them were tastefully but teasingly topless.) Leave it to an opera to take a powerful drama and dramatize it even further, but opera is about squeezing every last emotional drop out of a scene, and we love the excess. While much of the libretto follows the Shakespeare fairly closely and even quotes famous parts, the opera version of the tomb scene has Romeo's poison be slow-acting, so that he and Juliet get a chance to sing goodbye (but how could we begrudge this lovely couple one last beautiful aria?). When the curtain first rose on the erector-set scaffolding that made up the set, I had initial doubts about whether this production would be a visual feast (especially since Los Angeles Opera, with all the artistic talent in this town to draw on, often has some wonderful sets). Fortunately, those doubts were misplaced, as the scaffolding had just enough beaux arts elements -- an arch here, a pediment there -- to sketch the buildings, which when combined with creative lighting and filled with a chorus-full of period costumes, painted a rich and beautiful picture. There were a few minor oddities -- such as sword fights without swords (an odd combination of fists, daggers, and a pistol were used) and Juliet being strangely absent from the balcony when Romeo sings "soft what light from yonder window breaks" -- but these trifles are readily overlooked in what was overall a magnificent feast for the eyes, the ears, and the heart. Both Netrebko and Villazon were practically giddy at their curtain call, and it was clear from their reaction and the audience's reaction that tonight they really nailed it.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Hitting the Numbers

A couple of the day's headlines struck me as an ironic juxtaposition. In a New York courtroom, we have Worldcom former CFO Scott Sullivan testifying against his old boss CEO Bernard Ebbers. It seems that Ebbers refused to let facts get in the way of "making the numbers" for Wall Street. Receivables that you know will be defaulted? Add them in. Higher-than-expected expenses? Bury them in reserves accounting. Meanwhile, down in Washington, President Bush presents a budget which "shows we're on track to cutting the deficit in half by 2009." Apparently the President, like the erstwhile CEO, has numbers that he's so desperate to hit that no accounting trick is beneath question. $80B per year for the war magically just doesn't count (sort of like those "excluded one-time charges" that show up on financial statements year after year). Effect of proposed tax cuts? Not factored in. The huge cost of proposals to reform Social Security? That doesn't count either, although the current Social Security trust fund surpluses do get counted in, even as they're being replaced with farcical IOUs. And a bunch of program cuts are counted, even though nobody seriously expects all those cuts to pass in Congress (sort of like revenue you know you won't get, but one can always hope). (Business Week and Downtown Lad have the goods on the budget.) I leave it as an exercise to the reader to compare and contrast these two stories.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Privatizing the Risk

People who are conservative in their financial planning value traditional pensions, because these "defined benefit" plans will guarantee to pay a fixed amount for however long you live. This contrasts with 401K and IRA-style retirement plans, which are "defined contribution" plans where you have more control over your own investments, but the amount you'll have at retirement (and whether that will be enough to last your lifetime) is uncertain. In the ideal situation, having a traditional pension provides a secure baseline over above which an IRA or 401K can allow more risk to be taken for the chance of greater reward. But lately, the conservative attraction to traditional pensions seem to have become anathema to conservative politics. Republicans lead by President Bush are seeking to change the nature of Social Security from a "defined benefit" plan to a "defined contribution" plan. And in California, Governor Schwarzenegger is proposing to do the same for California's two giant public employee pensions (CalPERS and CalSTRS). President Bush wants to get Americans' investment in Social Security, currently sitting in a government trust fund (when it's not raided for the general fund), into the stock market where he argues it can get a better return. He promises safeguards so that people can only make relatively "conservative" choices to avoid the risk of lower returns or losses. For Governor Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, where the California retirement plans are already invested in the stock market, the goal is to eliminate the cost and risk of the current system. He fears that the state could be financially harmed by continuing to assume the risk of the current pension obligations. He notes that the state had to put only $160 million into the system in 2000 (buoyed by "bubble" returns in the stock market), but had to contribute $2.6 billion this year (after being stung by big losses in Enron and Worldcom). But if the stock market (prudently invested in) is a good choice for all Americans, as President Bush suggests, then why is Governor Schwarzenegger trying to get the State of California out of the market? And if the risk of providing a defined benefit based on market investments is too great for the nation or a large state to assume, where there's more capacity to carry risk, then how does it serve individual citizens to have that risk foisted on them individually?

Friday, February 04, 2005

Four Funerals and No Wedding

A recent conversation with GayPatriotWest got me thinking about the movie Longtime Companion, which I hadn't watched since I saw it in the moviehouse in 1990. I remember it was the summer I first really started dating men, and it was my first gay movie. First time seeing our real stories on the big screen, first time any of us saw two men really kiss in a movie, and the first time I'd seen gay committed loving relationships, of the kind I had hoped were possible, held up on screen for all to see. It was a powerful experience, and needless to say it was one of those movies that occupy a certain space in one's memory, as much for the time and place they were encountered as for the movie itself.

I found the old tape in the back of our VHS drawer, and cued it up, wondering how the movie had held up having aged 15 years. I'd say it's held up well. It really does a great job of capturing the experience and the zeitgeist of the 80's (at least for someone who lived through it -- I wonder what it would be like for someone younger who wouldn't have the same nostalgia). The film spans a decade, from the first rumors of an unidentified "gay cancer" to the retrenching of the gay community to seriously respond to the epidemic. It follows it through the lives (and deaths) of a group of friends whose very human and real responses comprise anxiety, sadness, anger, courage, and commitment. The way these characters support one another through the experience of that decade is both moving and admirable. The vow of lifelong love "in sickness and in health" was tested and met (by men who had no formal expression nor social recognition of that vow).

The film ends on a defiantly hopeful note, at the same time acknowledging that in 1990 we were marching forward on sheer determination that there would someday be light at the end of the tunnel. No light was visible then. Now 15 years later, we still haven't emerged from that tunnel, and it's hard to gauge the distance remaining, but there is a glimmer of light in that distance.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Bad Rhetorical Habits

I have written before about how so much of today's political discourse degenerates into practically meaningless labels. To listen to the rhetoric these days, one could easily conclude that America is indeed a divided nation, cleanly split into "blue" and "red", with each side believing itself to be locked in a good-vs-evil battle with the other. Fortunately, the assessment of uncommonly sensible political analysts like Matt Miller and Morris Fiorina is that this "culture war" is largely fictitious, and there is a lot of common "purple" ground among Americans. But all this polarizing rhetoric has got to have a corrosive effect on our society. How can we restore the nearly lost art of honest rational discourse (helped along by a healthy practice of the virtue of charity)? We should identify our bad rhetorical habits and try to break them.

Here is the piece of rhetoric that inspired me to this particular rant:

Liberals so hate President Bush that their values have been distorted. Ordinarily, liberals support humanitarian intervention, especially when United Nations resolutions have been flouted. Ordinarily, liberals celebrate the flowering of democracy. Ordinarily, liberals are happy to see women liberated. But if President Bush is involved in any of these events, they must be opposed. It’s not just sad; it’s sickening. Hatred is a vile, disgusting emotion. It is also one of the most powerful. Unless and until liberals escape its influence—and they show no sign of doing so—they will be politically impotent.
This is from Professor Keith Burgess-Jackson, who founded the excellent Conservative Philosopher blog, and who ought to know better than to write such things. The first bad habit exemplified here is undue generalization. Is the good professor so overwrought by Democrats not unequivocally cheering the elections in Iraq that his normally good color vision sees only red and blue? "Liberals so hate President Bush," he claims. All of them? Does he tar Senators Lieberman and Feinstein with the same brush as Senators Boxer and Kennedy? Is The New Republic indistinguishable from The Nation, or Andrew Sullivan from Robert Scheer? Are liberal philosophers as guilty as the Democratic leadership? Such broad-brush pronouncements are always highly suspect. While these statements may well be true of particular people or particular organizations, it does no service to rational discourse to leap to such sweeping generalizations.

The second bad habit shown here is psychologizing. (A discussion about pernicious psychologizing was raised in a thoughtful post by Jim Ryan.) There is no argument here, no discussion of any position on its merits, but merely an uncharitable analysis of the mental state of "liberals". By immediately psychologizing his opponents, he moves to discredit them without even allowing that they may have had reasons for being less than celebratory about the elections. (To his credit, he followed up his own post with a link to a stern rebuttal by the Liberal Avenger. Arianna Huffington also offers a panoply of reasons why one might not be so elated.) Psychologizing is particularly pernicious because it moves away from the merits of an issue, shifting the discourse from reasons to motives. It becomes personal, and the quality of the discourse only goes downhill, leaving behind any hope of thoughtful persuasion. To sustain a healthy and useful public debate, we should endeavor to remain charitable, giving others the benefit of the doubt about their motives.

The third bad habit shown here is imbalance. Before making such charges as these, the virtue of modesty would require that we consider that we might be wrong or inconsistent or hypocritical. Before throwing the first stone here, it would have been good to consider whether "liberals" have any monopoly on such hate, or "conservatives" might be just as guilty? Insofar as this generalizing and psychologizing has any truth to it, could not an equally true statement have been made about conservatives when President Clinton was in office?

Let's all endeavor to keep our arguments to specific merits and reasons, our claims honed to specific persons or organizations, and our practice of charity toward our fellow partners in this democratic republic.

Are Democrats for anything?

Having just blasted The Anal Philosopher for his bad rhetoric, I should concede that I find some kernel of truth in what he wrote. Sadly, I fear that there are those who so despise President Bush that they couldn't bring themselves to approve any action of his, even if he were to propose the Equal Rights Amendment, massively progressive tax reform, or reparations for slavery. (Likewise, there are those who are so partisan toward President Bush that they can brook no criticism of him nor admit any mistake. It runs both ways.)

The good professor makes a more substantive (less psychologizing) claim here:

Liberals no longer stand for anything. They stand against President Bush.
If I narrow his broad brush to interpret "liberals" as meaning more specifically the Democratic leadership, then the pablum offered by Minority Leaders Reid and Pelosi in the response to the State of the Union address would provide good evidence for this.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Marriage builds character

Here is one reason that marriage is good for society: marriage fosters the virtues of altruism and responsibility. This is not something I would have truly appreciated without having the actual experience of being married. When I was single, I was never required to consider anyone but myself when making decisions about the course of my day or the course of my life. Now that I'm married, there is always someone else to consider (and to involve), not only in the occasional big decisions (choosing jobs, choosing a home), but in daily mundane decisions: picking groceries and planning meals to fit two tastes (and allergies), deciding how late I can stay at work depending on my husband's work schedule, figuring out how to get dinner cooked by 7:30 (because one of us gets cranky if it's much later than that), deciding when to go to bed. In a dozen small ways each day, I'm thinking about someone besides myself. Many things that I do now, I do not for myself but for someone else.

Virtues are cultivated through practice, and by living in a marriage, spouses learn the habits of altruism and responsibility, which over time build character. With the habit of thinking beyond myself to my husband, it becomes that much more natural to think of others. By doing things for my husband, it becomes that much more natural to do things for others. This is not to say that single people can't be altruistic, or that married people can't be selfish. Persons vary. Of course we all generally understand that altruism is a virtue, and we should always strive to think of and do things for others, for the larger society. But the claim of the larger society, of "others" in general, is diffuse and seldom makes specific claims at specific times directed personally. Thus, only the more saintly among us could diligently make a firm habit of altruism just from the diffuse claims of humankind (even with the urging of our pastors and priests). But with the specific "claim" (and opportunity) presented in marriage, more of us can learn to become more altruistic and responsible. Marriage thus fosters these virtues, building character in its participants, which benefits all of society.


Today is the birthday of a great friend (who shall remain nameless and ageless) who has informed me that he has given up birthdays. He says he has resolved to eliminate things that do not improve his life, and he's decided that birthdays fall in that category. I'm not so sure. As my mother says on her birthday, "it's only a number." And another occasion for the whole family to get together, which is always a good thing. (Maybe my friend will rediscover that benefit when his little girls are old enough to celebrate Daddy's birthday.) For me, birthdays are always an occasion to reflect on the prior year of my life, with gratitude for all the good things in it, and to look forward hopefully to another. But for today, I'll just think fondly of my friend and wish him all the best on this day which is no longer his birthday. Happy Wednesday, amigo, and may you have 365 more good days for no particular reason!

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

NIH Cleans Up Its Act

I was delighted to read today that the National Institute of Health will be banning its staff scientists from taking any consulting fees or from holding stock holdings in pharma companies, eliminating what had been an invidious conflict of interest. We would be shocked if it came out that a judge had been providing consulting services to a plaintiff's attorney. What had been going on at NIH was just as egregious: government scientists with moonlighting payroll from the same pharma companies whose products they were evaluating. (Congrats to the LA Times, who provided the exemplary investigative journalism that provided the pressure needed to make this change, with a steady drumbeat on this for the last two years.)

It's good to see a firm ethical stand being made here. Now these are the sorts of values I'd like to see sweeping the nation.