Politics Archive

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What Really Caused the Civil War?

Civil War SoldiersI remember being taught in my history classes back in my school days that the primary cause of the Civil War was slavery. But as I got older, I saw a lot more contrarian views that said it was about other issues, like states rights, tariffs, or other economic issues. This topic has come up a lot more recently with the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, and I even had a conversation with a friend who thinks the Civil War was mainly caused by tariffs. Looking at the survey results in a Pew article, Civil War at 150: Still Relevant, Still Divisive, nearly 48% of people think the war was primarily about states's rights, with only 38% thinking it was primarily about slavery.

Had I been misled all those years in history class? It wouldn't be the first time school had gotten something wrong. I decided to look into it, and what better source is there than the secession documents the states themselves wrote listing their justifications for seceding from the U.S. ? Below is a link to the full text of the secession documents from Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. These are the official reasons those states themselves gave for seceding.

Civil War Trust - The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States

If you go through and read those documents, there's one primary issue that jumps out as being repeated over and over - slavery. Even when the documents discuss states' rights, it's in the context of slave-holding vs. non-slave-holding states, or as a rationale of why the states should be allowed to secede. But if the seceding southerners themselves are to be believed, slavery was the primary reason for their secession.

Here are a few highlights from the various documents. First, here are the first two sentences from Georgia:

The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.

Here're the first two paragraphs from the Mississippi document:

In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin. That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.

South Carolina mentioned 'slaveholding States' in the first paragraph, but most of its introduction was about the states rights justification for being allowed to secede. But after that, all their reasons for wanting to leave are slavery related. Here's one of those paragraphs (note the way it callously refers to owning slaves as 'rights of property'):

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

The Texas document started off with a little background on Texas's admission into the U.S., and had a couple paragraphs about the federal government not providing sufficient security, but the bulk is about slavery. Here's an especially bad paragraph:

In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color-- a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.

The Virginia document was very short, without much justification given for why they were seceding. The first paragraph was about the extent of their justification. Note that it does specifically mention 'Southern Slaveholding States'.

The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in Convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under the said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression; and the Federal Government, having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.

Now, it's true that the full causes of the war are a little more complicated than that. While the north (i.e. the United States) was generally opposed to slavery, I'm not sure most people were so opposed that there was majority support to go to war over it. Many in the north supported the war to maintain the country. But it's rather clear that the primary cause for secession in the south was slavery.

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As an aside, I'll mention how I personally feel about this shameful aspect of our nation's history. Although I grew up in 'Yankee' states, I have ancestors from southern states, so I have heritage from both sides of the war. And while there are lots of aspects of my heritage I'm proud of, this certainly isn't one of them. When I see the Confederate flag, the feeling I get is what I'd imagine a German has when they see the Nazi flag. Slavery was a horrible, disgraceful institution, responsible for untold suffering through this country's history, culminating in a population of 4 million slaves at its peak. That slavery was ever practiced here is bad enough, but that it took a war to bring it to an end, that there were people willing to fight to the death to defend their right to own other human beings, is simply shameful.

We shouldn't necessarily demonize the people of the past, recognizing the Zeitgeist that permeated the culture ("no man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit"). But we definitely shouldn't celebrate that part of our history, with monuments and memorials to the leaders of that shameful period, nor by proudly displaying any symbols of the Confederacy. That's not to say those symbols should be hidden and forgotten about. They should be maintained in museums. Slavery and the Civil War are a part of our history, and like the concentration camps in Germany, they must be remembered to remind ourselves of what normal people are capable of in the wrong circumstances, guarding against similar atrocities in the future.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Friday, August 21, 2015

Why I Oppose Organic Food

Organics, Just Say NoOrganic food is becoming increasingly popular. The Market Analysis page of the Organic Trade Association describes how organic food sales were $39.1 billion in 2014, nearly 5% of total food sales in the U.S., and up 11.3% from the previous year. It seems that nearly every grocery store now carries organic foods. I can't even find non-organic fresh herbs in my local grocery store.

There are a lot of hyped up claims about the health benefits of organic foods without a whole lot of data to back up those claims. There's also a lot of misunderstanding about what it actually takes to get classified as 'organic' from the USDA. For example, many organic farmers till use pesticides - they're just naturally occurring chemicals as opposed to synthetic ones. You can read about a lot of these issues in a Scientific American article, Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture.

But most of that is just hype, and if people are willing to pay extra money for a product that doesn't live up to all its claims, I believe P.T. Barnum may have had something to say about that*. My major problem with organic foods is where they actively cause harm to the environment. A good discussion on organic and conventional crop yields can be found in the entry on the Jayson Lusk blog, Organic vs Conventional Crop Yields. As Lusk points out, most large scale literature reviews find that organic crops on average give yields around 20-25% lower than conventional techniques (there's a lot of variability in that discrepancy depending on the particular crop). And as Lusk further went on to point out, conventional farming will always have an upper hand on organic, because even if some organic techniques are found to be beneficial, conventional farming can always adopt those particular techniques while still having other options that aren't available to organic**.

So, 20-25% lower yieds means that roughly 20-25% more cropland is required. Or to put that a different way, it means 20-25% more habitat destruction. And that's a big deal. Here's an excerpt from the World Wildlife Fund page on Impact of habitat loss on species.

Habitat loss is probably the greatest threat to the variety of life on this planet today.

It is identified as a main threat to 85% of all species described in the IUCN's Red List (those species officially classified as "Threatened" and "Endangered").

Increasing food production is a major agent for the conversion of natural habitat into agricultural land.

I know global warming gets most of the attention now as far as environmental disasters, but habitat loss is arguably worse. There are 7 billion people on this planet right now, and that's likely to increase to around 10 billion in the future, if not more. All those people need food, and most of that food has to be grown on farms. We should be doing everything we can to make those farms as productive as possible, minimizing habitat destruction as much as possible. We shouldn't be pushing for farming techniques that make that production 25% worse.

Most people buy organic foods because they want to eat healthy or because they are concerned about the environment and think organics reduce environmental problems. But they've been misled. The health claims aren't backed up, and the environmental impact is far more negative than most people realize.


*Actually, I still do have a problem with it, the same way I do with all false advertising. Organic proponents are pushing claims that aren't backed up by evidence, which is pretty misleading, though they probably believe the claims themselves so it's not exactly dishonest. And the saying about a sucker born every minute wasn't actually made by PT Barnum, but I'm sure he still had something to say about making money off of suckers.

**It reminds me of the passage from Tim Minchin's poem, Storm, "You know what they call “alternative medicine” / That's been proved to work? / Medicine.”"

Friday, June 26, 2015

Supreme Court Clears the Way to Marriage Equality

Marriage Equality Logo from Human Rights CampaignThis is going to be posted all over every news site and many, many other blogs besides this one, but I just can't help but share in the good news. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of marriage equality. Here's a link to the article from MSNBC, Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality.

There were two questions before the court, whether states had to license same-sex marriages, and whether states had to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Happily, the court ruled yes to both questions.

The vote was closer than I would have liked to have seen. I'm not really surprised at Alito, Scalia, or Thomas, but I was hoping Roberts would have been on the right side. I know it might not have been the original intention of the 14th Amendment, but I don't see how someone from today could read that amendment and not think it mandates marriage equality. And to the people arguing that this decision overturns the will of the people - that's the whole point of this amendment and the Bill or Rights, to ensure that people's rights aren't trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Oh well, I'll leave it to other sites to analyze and discuss the decision in more detail. I'm just happy to share the good news.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons (Human Rights Campaign Marriage Equality Logo)

Friday, June 19, 2015

Wichita Falls Flood Wrap-Up: The Jesus Pandering

The big flood scare I blogged about a few weeks ago (Wichita Falls' Historic Drought Ended by Historic Flood and Wichita Falls Flood Information Resources) is over, and despite a minor scare this past week, it looks like we're in the clear for now. But, there were a few things about the reaction to the drought and flood that I still wanted to comment on.

On the weekend when the situation seemed most dire, and the National Weather Service was predicting a flood 3 ft higher than the previous record flood for the city, the city council held a special emergency meeting to inform the public. Being close to the area affected, I went to that meeting. For the most part, it was very informative, and I'm grateful to the city for all their efforts in this situation. Despite a few minor missteps, it was certainly handled better than the flood in 2007. However, there was one part of the meeting that rubbed me the wrong way. This isn't a major complaint on my part (I'm not going to contact the Freedom from Religion Foundation or anything), but it is a gripe.

You can watch a video of the meeting below. There's a half hour of just the news channel's logo before the video actually begins (it's from a live recording). The meeting starts at about 35:30, but the part that irritates me starts at 1:22:03.

The pastor of First Baptist Church, Dr. Robert McCartney, was in attendance (the doctorate is from a seminary). I don't know much about McCartney himself, but his church is the one that unleashed Robert Jeffress on the world, so he's already tainted a bit by association. Anyway, the mayor called him up to lead everyone in a prayer. I'm not visible in the video, but if they'd have panned to the back of the room, you'd have noticed a rather grumpy looking person who wasn't bowing their head like almost everyone else in attendance. This was a public meeting, run by the city government. On top of that, there was a real emergency going on, and the mayor decided to waste everyone's time listening to a minster. Actually, that's what bothered me the most when this happened. I normally say 'to each their own' and don't get that bothered by people praying. But this wasn't a token prayer before a meal. This was a real emergency, and people were turning to their super powerful imaginary friend for help. The mayor might was well have called up a witch doctor and had us all sit through a chicken sacrifice to appease the rain gods.

I understand that religious people will want to turn to their god(s) in times like these for comfort, and they have every right to do so. But do it on your own time. If you want to hear from the pastor, go to church. Don't bring the pastor in to a public meeting (not to mention the violation of the establishment clause).

McCartney's prayer was mostly what you'd expect - praising God, thanking him for ending the drought, and asking him not to flood the city. One part did stand out to me, though.

And God I pray, first of all, that you would stop this rain, from happening. Lord, we don't need any more, and we're asking you not to send this huge amount of rain that's being forecast.

Man, what arrogance. First of all, he's informing God that we don't need the rain, as if an omnipotent deity needed informing. Then, he's asking God to change his plans. I left a comment in a previous entry, What's the Point of Intercessory Prayer?, that sums up my opinion on this attitude:

I was a Christian for many years before I became an atheist, and long before I began questioning my faith I'd given up on intercessory prayers. It just seemed so conceited. There's a pretty famous line in the Lord's prayer about 'thy will be done.' There was also the story of Jesus praying on the Mount of Olives - "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done." And that was Jesus, God himself, praying (I'll admit, the trinity makes no sense). If even God the Son wouldn't ask God the Father to change his plans, how vain is it for a mere mortal to ask it?

The closing of McCartney's prayer also bothered me - not because it was anything out of the ordinary or unexpected from a Christian, but just because it was another reminder of a sectarian prayer taking place in a public meeting.

God, we pray now for our city. You have rescued us, as we said, from one crisis. Rescue us again Father, and we will give you glory forth. In Jesus name I pray. Amen.

And it wasn't a particularly short prayer, either. It was just over 2 ½ minutes long.

There was actually one funny part to the meeting that got a chuckle out of everyone there, and it was even related to religion. At around 1:21:15, one of the area residents commented:

Can you ask people to pull those Pray for Rain signs out of their yards?

If you read my previous entry, Wichita Falls - Pray for Rain, you might remember these signs:

Pray for Rain Sign

They popped up all over the city during the drought. Well, now that the drought's over, a new sign has been popping up:

Thank Jesus Sign

Actually, I don't have anything much to say about these signs. Sure, they bug me a little bit, mainly because they seem to be more of a command to others than thanksgiving themselves. But they're nowhwere near as bad as that prayer at a city meeting, and at least these signs are on private property. I'll note that there don't seem to be near as many of these signs as there were Pray for Rain signs, though.

Anyway, I'm glad the flood danger is over, and that the flood didn't turn out to be anywhere near as bad as it could have been. And I'm grateful to the city for all they did and for being on top of the situation this time around. I just wish that Jesus didn't infect everything in this city.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

How Big Is the National Debt?

Dollar SignI've talked with a few people who think the national debt is a huge, huge problem that's just growing exponentially and uncontrollably. And while it's true that it is a major issue, and that the debt is currently growing, I think that many people look at the issue a little too simply, exaggerating the true nature and magnitude of the problem.

For reference and due credit, all the graphs in this entry are from the site, USGovernmentRevenue.com/, with many of them from the specific page, US National Debt and Deficit History. And I guess that as a disclaimer, I should note that economics certainly isn't my specialty, but much of this seems pretty straight forward.

The following graph shows the way many people think of the national debt, where it looks like the debt is just growing uncontrollably:

Federal Debt History

But that's a simple plot, looking just at raw debt numbers. To account for inflation and the growth of the economy, it makes more sense to look at debt as a fraction of GDP:

Federal Debt History as a Percentage of GDP

And while debt is certainly high right now, it paints a different picture than the simpler graph above. For one, it hasn't been just non-stop growing and growing, but different periods of growth and reduction. For another, the growth is currently slowing down, and is projected to start decreasing in the next few years. (I'll be honest - I'm not sure exactly where this source got their projections for the future, but even just taking that graph up through 2015, it's clear that debt growth is slowing.) Thirdly, it shows that the current debt isn't unprecedented. While it's nearing historical highs, the debt was actually higher during WWII.

You'd expect the debt to have grown in recent years due to the two recent wars and the Great Recession. The problem is the debt was so high already before that, thanks mainly to the governments during the Reagan and Bush Sr. years. Prior to that, the debt had been steadily reducing since the WWII peak. After them, under Clinton, the government had actually gotten debt back under control and it was on its way back down again before Bush Jr. took office. Under Bush Jr., the debt began increasing even before 9/11 or the 2007 financial meltdown, and those events just exacerbated the growth. If the projections in the graph hold true, it looks like under Obama, the debt might begin decreasing again.

Moving past the debt to the deficit, here's a graph of that:

Federal Deficit History as a Percentage of GDP

The current levels are a little high, but not too unreasonable when you consider the wars and the recession. Further, the deficit has been decreasing since the peak in 2009. And in even starker contrast than overall debt, that peak deficit was much less than what it was during WWII.

Related to deficit, here are charts of spending and revenue:

Federal Spending History as a Percentage of GDP

Federal Revenue History as a Percentage of GDP

Current rates are in line with what they've been since the '40s (other than the huge spending spike for WWII). Recent spending peaked in 2009 and has generally decreased since then. Recent revenue was almost a mirror image, reaching a minimum in 2010, and steadily increasing since. Those responses are exactly what you expect for a recession - the government invests in the economy through deficit spending when tax revenues will be at their lowest, but slowly recoups the cost when tax revenues begin increasing as the economy picks back up.

I'm not saying the debt's not an issue, nor that we shouldn't try to balance the budget. I'm just saying that certain alarmists that only point to the raw numbers without considering them as a percentage of GDP are presenting a misleading image of the issue and exaggerating the problem, often times advocating 'solutions' that are more extreme than what's really called for.

Image Sources: I actually made that 3D dollar sign myself. As noted above, all graphs are from USGovernmentRevenue.com/.

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