Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Old Glory

Sunday, August 5th, 2012

In elementary school, we were (erroneously) taught that the red stripes on the American flag represent the blood that was shed defending our country, while the white represent peace.

I decided to run with that interpretation to make this graphic.

From top to bottom, every three pixels of the full size image correspond to one year of our country’s history. The relative intensity of the red stripes represents the number of conflicts we were engaged in at the time. The information is sourced from Wikipedia’s timeline of U.S. military operations.

The full size image can be found here, or by clicking on the image below.

Lest We Forget

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

I have a confession to make: in the 2004 election, I voted for George W. Bush.

At the time, I was mostly uninformed on economic issues, and everything seemed to be going OK. We were in two wars, and I felt an obligation to support a president in wartime. I believed in Jesus, that being gay was a choice, and that most of my taxes were going to lazy minorities who bred too much.

Yeah, it was that bad.

To demonstrate my commitment, when I left for college, I drove my lifted truck from San Diego to Santa Cruz, defiantly emblazoned with a Bush-Cheney sticker. I read Atlas Shrugged on the bus to and from class, and at parties, I took delight in seeing the look on people’s faces when I introduced myself as a Republican.

However, that all changed in 2008. After struggling to find a job for two years, going without healthcare, and realizing that we were duped into the war in Iraq, I had a massive change of heart and voted for Obama. Granted, I had already been softened on the social issues living in Santa Cruz and France (I guess that’s what happens when you meet people who are different from you), but the switch in party affiliation was a huge milestone in my adult development.

Now, if any of you have been following the things I post on my blog or on facebook, you probably think I’m just another firebrand liberal, but if you know me, this is only a recent development. While I used to take a lot of personal credit for this trasformation, lately I’ve realized I’m a much simpler animal than that. My political leanings are easily elucidated by the maxim “once bitten, twice shy,” and I got bitten pretty hard at the end of the Bush years.

That’s why, in 2010 when Republicans took control of the House, I remember being astonished that the rest of America hadn’t shared my deeply personal transformation; half of them still thought that conservatism was a viable option! Admittedly, since then I’ve learned a lot about ingroup loyalty, confirmation bias and selective amnesia, although I’m still surprised.

These days, I spend a lot of time listening to conservative talk radio, and it’s particularly surprising how myopic these pundits’ view on our economy is. Obama gets the brunt of the blame for everything from gas prices, to the national debt. At best, they blame him for an “anemic recovery” and at worst they fabricate lies that he’s “doubled the national debt.”

I want to use this blog post to put some of these claims in context. I’m sure these facts will be effortlessly deflected by the force-fields of cognitive bias that surround most of my conservative friends, but I have to try, since I’m living proof that the force-field is not impenetrable.

Claim #1: “Obama has made the economy worse.”

Jobs are slowly getting better:

Job Losses

Total Jobs

Qualitatively — in the second graph — the rate of jobs addition (tangent line) under Obama is similar to that under Bush. This, in spite of a Republican controlled House and a filibuster-happy Senate that have stonewalled the president at every turn. Do you remember the American Jobs Act? Neither do most people, because it died the death of a thousand cuts in Congress. This makes it hard to blame him for an “anemic recovery.”

The stock market, on the other hand, has made a speedy recovery (insofar as that’s an indicator of economic health)

Dow Jones

Claim #2: “Obama is responsible for the terrible gas prices.”

Meh, probably not. The cause of high gas prices is multifactorial. Lifting Obama’s moratorium on drilling wouldn’t have an effect for many years, and even if it did, it wouldn’t drop prices much here at home.

Slate has a really cool presentation on why, here. In it, they explain that gas is a commodity sold on a world market. So, even if we dramatically increased domestic production, it wouldn’t have that much of an effect on the going price of a barrel of oil, which is what primarily dictates what we pay at the pump.

Also, in the continuing theme of cognitive bias (perhaps Rosy Retrospection?), prices were worse at the end of the Bush presidency:

Gas Prices

Claim #3: “Obama is responsible for the skyrocketing debt.”

True and false, but mostly false. In four years, the Obama administration has overseen nearly a $5 trillion increase in the debt, amounting to a +45% change. Bush increased the debt by almost $5 trillion over the course of eight years, amounting to an +86% increase at the time. The total debt currently stands at $15.7 trillion. Without context, that doesn’t mean much, so here’s a graph of dollar amounts, which helps to visualize:

Debt Increases Since Reagan

Again, Obama’s increase happened over a shorter period of time, so it represents a more rapid accumulation of debt. This can be put into perspective by scaling debt to GDP:

Debt to GDP

However, it’s important to remember where this debt came from. The Congressional Budget Office reports that, since 2001, we’ve paid

$3.0 trillion for the Bush tax cuts
$3.6 trillion in reduced revenue (due to recessions)
$1.4 trillion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
$1.4 trillion for stimulus after 2008 crisis
$0.3 trillion in unfunded drug benefits                
$9.7 trillion attributable to Bush or his recessions

Given these numbers, it becomes unconscionably disingenuous to blame the debt on Obama. The same goes for the related criticisms about the deficit, as most of the budgetary shortfall is not due to Obama’s policies.

Growing up, I thought the media, courts, and places of higher learning were united in a conspiracy against conservatives, but over the the last few years this veil has been lifted. I realized what these edifices have in common is that they’re institutions concerned with facts, and — as Steven Colbert says — reality has a well-known liberal bias. Most of the facts are probably going to be ignored in this election, as the Right has been phenomenally successful in hanging the albatross ’round Obama’s neck.

Personally, I’m disappointed with Obama because he hasn’t closed Guantanamo, he’s stepped up federal marijuana raids, and he blew his political load on a shitty healthcare bill, but it’s tragic how soon people forget why he was elected with a mandate, and why his predecessor shafted us all.

3) Google Finance

Racist Scarecrows

Friday, March 16th, 2012

In the continuing theme of conservative racism, I present you with the following image which recently made the rounds:

Don't Re-Nig


This week, Rick Santorum told a Puerto Rican newspaper that English should be the commonwealth’s primary language if it is to be considered for statehood (notably, this was not a requirement for any of the currently recognized states). This is coming from a man who — earlier in the primary season — said “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.” He later went on to issue a correction … that he had actually paused to say “blah people.” But as retarded as that sounds, it didn’t sink him. He made it out of the situation relatively unscathed, and is now battling Romney fiercely for the title of front runner. Why? Because the people he is courting for nomination know what he meant, and his later retraction is all but a formality. In my mind, Santorum (and other conservatives) are like scarecrows filled with racist straw. Every time they bend in the wrong direction, it pops out, and they scramble to push it back into place.

These aren’t just unfortunate coincidences. Racist Freudian slips are a recurring problem for these people because their rhetorical strategy requires that they constantly flirt with overt disdain for minorities. Reagan coined the term “welfare queen,” whose plausibly deniable reference to impoverished black women is poorly concealed. In his defense of deeming President Obama the “food stamp president,” Newt Gingrich describes youths in “poor neighborhoods” who have no work ethic. These phrases don’t need to be delivered with a wink or elbow nudge to for their implications to become clear.

Today, it’s safe to say that not all right-wingers are racist, but most racists are right-wingers. A recent study shows that people of low cognitive ability tend to gravitate to conservative ideologies. This may seem unfair, but in the way the researchers frame it, it makes perfect sense: people who are seldom exposed to different groups and viewpoints are poorly socialized. Because of this, they’re less intellectually developed, and are attracted to belief structures that reinforce their prejudices. The same observations about racism are also true of homophobia … which is (quite unremarkably) another problem for the right-wingers in the US.

This is why — even if I was convinced of the virtues of the unfettered free market — I could not conscionably vote for Republicans. There’s too much icky baggage that comes with.

The Frothy Mixture Speaks

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

I guess I spend too much time listening to Dan Savage, because until recently, I thought Rick Santorum was just a boogeyman: a hyperbolic caricature whose name was merely invoked to illustrate the ridiculous extremes to which social conservatism can be taken. I thought that even among republicans he was a sort of pariah, too embarrassing to actually support.

Turns out I was tragically wrong. As his recent performance in the primaries has demonstrated, many people actually consider him a viable candidate for the presidency. To properly understand my shock and puzzlement, consider if Bill Ayers won three primaries in the 2016 election.

Anyway, here’s this farce of a man explaining how he reconciles his religious belief that health care is a human right with his political belief that the government shouldn’t provide it.

Rick Santorum is right. Even if we hold a deep-seated religious conviction that something is right, we shouldn’t ask the government for help effecting the necessary changes. The government only offers inefficient solutions that trample our personal liberties.

Which is why we have to immediately outlaw abortion, or in the least, make it as difficult to access as possible…

If Santorum actually went through the process of weighing rational solutions against biblical prescriptions — as he says he does — then he would have considered that the number of women seeking abortion does not change when the procedure is outlawed. He’d realize that providing birth control decreases the number of unwanted pregnancies, so it constitutes a much better means of prevention for “baby murder.” But it’s clear that he doesn’t actually think about the bible rationally. In fact, it’s clear he doesn’t even think about the bible. In December of 2011, he was taken aback when a student at Dordt College (a christian institution) asked him how we can care for our poor without our social programs. Santorum, visibly shocked that a Christian would be concerned with helping the poor, replied “You go to Dordt College and ask me that question?”

Evidently, Santorum believes charity should be limited to personal or church-mediated giving, but assuming his confusion was not simply feigned for the sake of his condescending retort, it’s frustrating that he wouldn’t have considered that many christians’ motivation for supporting social programs is due to their theological beliefs.

One more Santorum gem:

(Embedding disabled, so watch here)

Yeah, this is why all math majors just dogmatically believe that x0=1 … because if they didn’t, the liberal establishment would not have granted them membership to their elite, close-minded echo chamber.

Comparing Apples to Foreskins

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

In response to my post “Quick, let’s talk about my pee pee” commenter namae nanka provided a link to an article entitled “A Rose by Any Other Name? Rethinking the Similarities and Differences between Male and Female Genital Cutting.” I read the entire thing from start to finish, and all I can say is thank you. I found it extremely illuminating, and I implore anyone considering becoming a parent to read it through and thoughtfully examine your position on circumcision.

The article cogently addresses the main point of my previous post — the assertion that consistently drawing a comparison between FGM and MGM can be useful:

[Some researchers] criticize the fortresslike separation of male circumcision from FGM and suggest that the real issue in the debate is child protection: “Whether we should be subjecting any children to . . . procedures involving the excision of healthy tissue” (Fox and Thomson 2005a:467). In a further article, Fox and Thomson (2005b) develop these arguments and criticize medical and legal authorities for neglecting the rights of children and failing to undertake a full cost-benefit analysis of the effects that routine circumcision has on males.

From an ethics perspective, no coherent criticism of FGM on the basis of a child’s right to bodily integrity can be mounted without also being a criticism of MGM. I think that’s an extremely important point to grasp. The authors drive it home by observing that practitioners of FGM often point to MGM as an equivalent Western practice, saying that it’s hypocritical of us to decry FGM while routinely circumcising our infant males. And in America, you’re cutting boys!

The authors also make an interesting conjecture about Western studies addressing the cost/benefit of circumcision:

…[O]ne wonders whether it is culture or medical science that is really in the driver’s seat here. The evidence thought to show a “potential health benefit” for MGA may in fact be an artifact of its cultural acceptability and long history in U.S. society. By the same token, the absence of any culturally conditioned demand for FGA has discouraged researchers from seeking evidence of the potential advantages of such surgery. It is the cultural demand for MGA that generates the research that appears to implicate the foreskin in whatever disease is holding the public’s attention (Goldman 2004). In a culture that values science, medical (usually miscalled scientific) justifications for cultural rituals must be found, hence the numerous horror stories about the terrible risks of retaining normal human anatomy (Van Howe et al. 2005). As Lawrence Dritsas (2001) has eloquently argued, the cultural tail would appear to be wagging the scientific dog.


One final excerpt, because everyone loves an appeal to evolutionary biology :)

All mammals have foreskins; males are what they are because that is how they have evolved … Evolution, however, appears to be favoring ever-longer foreskins in males (Cold and McGrath 1999), suggesting that they improve survival chances and reproductive health rather than the reverse.

Definitely worth the read.

“Ground Zero” Mosque

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

Now that there’s been so much talk about the “Ground Zero” mosque, I figured it’s time I offer my two cents. Lots of good arguments have been made … entirely by those in support of the builders’ rights.

From the opponents’ side, I hear a lot of people asking “why does it have to be so close to Ground Zero?” That’s a question you’re free to ask yourself, or perhaps those who selected the site, but you cannot ground a serious objection in that question alone. Besides, what would you offer as a solution, to have a legally enforced radius around this hole in the ground where no Muslim edifice can be erected? Sounds constitutional to me …

I’ve also heard that it would be a “slap in the face” to the victims of 9/11. Well, I think that abandoning our nation’s principles is a greater affront to the memories of those killed in the attack than an “Islamic Cultural Center” ever could be. Not to mention the American Muslims who were in the towers when they were brought down; wouldn’t disallowing the construction of the Center be a slap in the face to them?

Which brings me to my next point: if there was ever any doubt in our minds that the Right is in the habit of systematically vilifying Islam and Arabs, that should by now be expunged. After all, these aren’t al-Qaeda operatives who want to build the Center, they’re Americans: that’s right the opponents are trying to deny Americans their right to worship wherever they want. Well, let them be reminded that the first line of the First Amendment reads

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”

Yes, let them be reminded that their bellyaching can never beget any legal instantiation, because it would violate one of the first rights guaranteed to us by the Constitution.

In the end, I think that the anti-”mosque” people’s idiocy speaks for itself. But I should say that, while I think their entire rhetoric is vile, I would happily die for their right to voice it, as should any American for the free speech of their brothers and sisters.

For your viewing pleasure:


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New Addition to US Arsenal: Jesus Rifles

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

The US Military has a $660 million contract with the Michigan company Trijicon, which manufactures rifle sights destined for use in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As it turns out, the company has been surreptitiously placing references to Bible verses on their sights. So much for this not being a holy war.

From the company’s mission statement on their website.

“We believe that America is great when its people are good,” says the Web site. “This goodness has been based on Biblical standards throughout our history, and we will strive to follow those morals.”

John 8:12 Prepare to eat lead, raghead.

John 8:12 "Prepare to eat lead, raghead."

Dear God. These people make me shudder.

“It allows the Mujahedeen, the Taliban, al Qaeda and the insurrectionists and jihadists to claim they’re being shot by Jesus rifles,” he said.

Weinstein, an attorney and former Air Force officer, said many members of his group who currently serve in the military have complained about the markings on the sights. He also claims they’ve told him that commanders have referred to weapons with the sights as “spiritually transformed firearm[s] of Jesus Christ.”

He said coded biblical inscriptions play into the hands of “those who are calling this a Crusade.”

That’s precisely how this looks to Muslims.

When imperial powers engage in this kind of religious warfare, things can get very nasty. The Sepoy Rebellion was instigated by the same kind of tactics in colonial India, when the British were accused of greasing their bullets with beef tallow and pig fat, which are ritually unclean to the native Hindus and Muslims respectively.

In order to load their rifles, the soldiers had to bite the cartridges. For Hindus, this meant they would lose their caste. For Muslims, it meant that if they were shot by such a ‘tainted’ bullet, they would die unclean and be excluded from paradise.

So they revolted. And much fun ensued.

(h/t Pharyngula)

A Revelation

Monday, November 30th, 2009

It’s been a while since I’ve posted to Sourapples (OK, about four months), and the shame of projects abandoned was putting distance between me and the blog I used to be so proud of. I thought I might never again have the courage to mount my online soapbox.

But lo and behold, last night I was given reason to return, thanks to my local news channel.

There, nestled in between the Black Friday consumer masturbation and the insufferable holiday football recap was a tiny little mention — couldn’t have been more than a couple sentences; I would have missed it if I had gone to open another beer — about the recent findings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

They concluded that in 2001, we had cornered Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan, but he escaped because we shifted our strategic attention to the nascent Iraq war.

There it was. The naked truth. The most important geopolitical factoid of the last decade, revealed non-chalantly in an momentary evening news aside. An ‘I-told-you-so’ bombshell a thousand times more powerful than Republicans’ ‘the surge worked,’ went off in my living room. And it barely made a sound.

Yet before my jaw could hit the floor, they moved on to the football scores.

Tiller the Baby Killer

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

It’s been a long time since I have posted to my blog, because things have been so busy at work and at home, but I feel I have to comment on this.

In case you haven’t been following the news, Dr. George Tiller, who was known for providing late term abortions, was killed this Sunday. He was shot to death while sitting in church.

Now, you may know my position on abortion, which is that it’s a necessary evil (there’s a clever little epigram that says conservatives need to recognize abortion is a necessary evil, liberals that it’s a necessary evil), so we should take steps to reduce the need for them. But I’m also committed to the stance that–for most cases outside of severe deformity of the fetus, or imminent danger to the mother’s life–the later the operation is performed, the more unconscionable it becomes. Still, he didn’t deserve to be killed.

Bill O’Reilly (whose word you should always take with a grain of salt, if not a whole salt lick) would have us believe that Tiller was killing babies right before their heads breached the birth canal, and was calling it “late term.”

I guarantee you he wasn’t. And for a guy who bills himself as ‘No-Spin,’ O’Reilly sure got people spun up over ‘Tiller the Baby Killer.’

Granted, O’Reilly wasn’t directly responsible for inciting the man to murder Tiller, but the baby-killing meme that he gives platform to is dangerous, and his singling out of Tiller is despicable.

Supercapitalism / An Argument for Socialized Medicine

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

As you may or may not have noticed from the little “Reading Desk” gadget I added to my sidebar, I have been reading a book called Supercapitalism, by Robert Reich. This book is outstanding, and it has drastically changed my perception of what’s wrong in our economy.

Anyway, below, I have reproduced an excerpt from the book, wherein Reich opines on employment linked healthcare. I typed it by hand, so please excuse any typos.

Finally, not only are corporations unfit to decide what is socially virtuous, but under supercapitalism they are often unable to deliver services that are inherently public. Pushing them to do so begs the question of whether the responsibilities would be better undertaken by the public sector. The campaign against Wal-Mart charged in full-page advertisements that “Wal-Mart’s low pay and meager employee benefits force tens of thousands of employees to resort to Medicaid, food stamps, and housing assistance. Call it the ‘Wal-Mart Tax.’ And it costs you $1.5 billion in federal tax dollars every year.” The problem with this logic is that America had already decided to provide Medicaid, food stamps, and housing assistance to the poor–even if the poor are also working. It seemed more efficient for these benefits to flow from government, and for employers to alert their low-income employees of the availability of them, than for the private sector to provide them as conditions of employment. If we wish to change the rules an require private employers to pay wages and provide health benefits sufficiently high that no employee has to rely on government largesse, we should seek to do that through the democratic process. But it makes little sense to chastise one employer–even one as large as Wal-Mart–for playing by the rules.

A major theme in the book is that corporations are money making machines; that’s their purpose, and that’s their design. It’s therefore foolish to rail against them when they engage in socially irresponsible behavior like cutting benefits and externalizing costs to the public at large–we shouldn’t expect anything different. The solution is to use our power as citizens of a democracy to impose social responsibility, through legislation, not market choices, as you’re about to see…

Should the rules be altered, as Wal-Mart’s critics advocate? What would be a worthy political debate, but we’re not having it. I, for one, think the minimum wage should be raised to be about half of the average worker’s hourly pay. That was the ratio in the Not Quite Golden Age[*], and it seems to me a reasonable compromise. But Wal-Mart’s critics also want Wal-Mart to provide employees with good health insurance coverage, which, in my opinion, is no longer a responsibility employers should take on.

Bear with me for a moment, because this is just the sort of issue the nation ought to be debating but that the focus on Wal-Mart obscures. The reason employers got into the business of providing their workers health insurance in the first place, remember, was because it is a form of payment that avoids being taxed. This made it attractive to both employers and employees in the Not Quite Golden Age, before medical costs skyrocketed and competition intensified. Even though employer-provided health care has diminished since then, in 2006 it still constituted the biggest tax break in the whole federal tax system. According to recent estimates, if health care benefits were considered taxable income, employees would be paying $126 billion a year more in income taxes than they do now. In other words, employer-provided heath care is a backdoor $126-billion-a-year government health insurance system that’s already up and running.

But it’s a crazy system. You’re not eligible for it when you and your family are likely to need it most–when you lose you job and you income plummets. And these days, as we’ve seen, no job is safe. Why add to family anxieties by ending eligibility for this backdoor government health insurance just when an employee is shown the front door? The system also distorts the labor market. It prevents lots of people from changing jobs for fear they’ll lose their health insurance, or won’t get the benefits they do now. And it invites employers to game the system by seeking young, healthy employees who pose low risks of ill health, while rejecting older ones who are likely to have more costly health needs. The system also encourages employers to try to push married employees onto their spouse’s health insurance plan so that the spouse’s employer bears the cost.

It’s also an upside down system. The lower your pay, the less coverage you’re likely to have. Even if Wal-Mart is pressured into providing more health insurance for its lowest-income workers, this wouldn’t change the overall pattern across America. Workers in the lowest-paying jobs don’t generally get any health insurance from their employers. The higher your pay, the more health coverage you get, with top executives and their families getting gold-plated plans guaranteeing top-notch medical attention for just about every health-risk imaginable. As a result, our current $126 billion backdoor government health insurance system mainly benefits upper income people.

[Emphasis added]

That seems like a knock down argument for socialized medicine to me; in a sense, we’re already paying for it! By making it an explicitly socialized structure, we’d only have things to gain. Direct oversight of the system would guarantee that we weren’t subsidizing care for the super rich, and we could be sure we were doling out coverage to those who need it most. Decoupling healthcare from employment would increase job mobility because employees would be more confident to switch jobs knowing they wouldn’t lose health coverage. Moreover, taking healthcare decisions out of the hands of sticky fingered business managers would make the system fairer, as well as free them up to do what they should be doing: running a business.

I highly recommend this book. It’s enlightening, and empowering, and it’s not that heavy.

*The Not Quite Golden Age is the name Reich uses to refer to the seeming boon times of the ’50s.