Politics Archive

Friday, July 9, 2010

New Comments

Well, I don't have anything really substantive for this week. I did leave two decent comments, though, in response to visitors. First is a discussion of why humans should be considered apes. Second is a bit of politics in response to a guy who didn't like my response to Gary Hubbell's anti-liberal article.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Supreme Court Tells Christian Group to Follow the Same Rules as Everybody Else

A few weeks back, I blogged about a case going to the Supreme Court. To recap, the Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco had a policy that for any student group to be officially endorsed by the university and receive a small stipend, it couldn't restrict membership for any reason. One organization, the local Christian Legal Society (CLS), changed its rules to exclude homosexuals or those engaging in pre-marital sex from holding leadership positions or voting. The university enforced its policy, and revoked its official endorsement of the CLS. So, the CLS claimed discrimination, took the university to court, lost, and appealed to the Supreme Court.

In my original blog entry, I already explained why I thought the CLS was clearly wrong, so I wasn't surprised to read the headline, Justices Rule Against Group That Excludes Gay Students. What surprised me, perhaps because I'm still too politically naive, is how close the vote was: 5 to 4. Nearly half of the justices sided with the CLS.

Consider the following statement from Alito, who wrote the dissenting opinion, "I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that today's decision is a serious setback for freedom of expression in this country." To me, 'freedom of expression' means the ability to say something without interference. To Alito et al, 'freedom of expression' apparently means the ability to say something, get official government endorsement for that statement, and get taxpayer money to help you spread that statement. It's like words don't even have the same meaning to them. 'Freedom' and 'entitlement' are not the same thing.

I think Stevens put it best, saying "groups may exclude or mistreat Jews, Blacks and women or those who do not share their contempt for Jews, Blacks and women. A free society must tolerate such groups. It need not subsidize them, give them its official imprimatur, or grant them equal access to law school facilities."

The good news is that at least for now, a sensible decision was reached on this issue.

Let me just quote one section of the previous blog entry, to show why I think the CLS was so clearly wrong.

To be clear, the university did not ban the CLS from convening on campus, or ban students from joining the CLS, and did not even stop the CLS from using university facilities. They just didn't officially endorse the CLS and give it the stipend that official organizations receive.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Free Markets, Government Intervention in Health Care, or Why I'm Not a Libertarian

MoneyI know very few people personally who think a completely free market is a good thing (in fact, I don't think I know any), but there are some of the more extreme libertarian types who think that way. They believe that supply and demand will make everything turn out okay, and that government intervention will just make things worse. How much easier political debates would be if those people were correct.

The problem is that a free market works much the same way as evolution, optimizing companies for current conditions. Sure, the CEOs, boards, presidents, and others running companies may have their long term goals, meaning that business isn't as blind as natural selection, but day to day operations require that businesses are successful in the here and now, competing against other businesses. Response to global warming is a good example of this. A president of a company may have a sincere desire to cut down on his company's carbon emissions. But if the president of a second company doesn't give a damn about carbon emissions, then he can do business at a lower cost, putting the first company at a disadvantage. Even if the president of the first business knows that carbon regulations are coming down the pike, it doesn't do him any good to try to anticipate those regulations if it means losing out in the short term and going out of business.

The other problem is that a free market doesn't necessarily optimize businesses for what we as a society want - it optimizes businesses to out compete other businesses. A good concrete example has to do with health care - developing new antibiotic drugs. Antibiotics are a modern wonder; they've saved countless lives. Unfortunately, bacteria evolve. After enough exposure over enough generations, bacteria can develop resistance to antibiotics. This problem has been exacerbated by overuse and misuse of antibiotics, but the problem is still probably inevitable.

At first blush, this may seem like a ripe area for pharmaceutical companies. If bacteria evolve resistance to old antibiotics, there ought to be quite a market for new ones. Unfortunately, that's not the case. For one, in order to try to keep bacteria from evolving resistance to these new antibiotics as quickly, doctors are pretty conservative in using them. While the family practitioner may still give out penicillin for every runny nose, the doctor fighting a patient's MRSA infection is going to be very careful with the few remaining antibiotics that might be able to help. So, once the new antibiotic has been developed, there's only a limited return on investment. Even worse for the pharmaceutical companies (and us), bacteria don't stop evolving. Eventually, they'll develop resistance to new antibiotics, as well. So, aside from a limited initial return on investment, the product has a limited life.

Compare this to other drugs that pharmaceutical companies could develop - treatments for high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, impotence, etc. These are medicines that patients take for a lifetime, not just a week or two as with antibiotics. And our bodies don't evolve immunity to these medicines in the same manner that bacteria evolve antibiotic resistance, so a new drug can be used potentially forever. The return on investment for these types of drugs is much higher than for antibiotics.

Now consider further that pharmaceutical companies are working with finite resources. They only earn so much in profits that they can put back into research. And remember that pharmaceutical companies, despite all the good they do, are in business primarily to make money. Presented with the choice of where to spend research money, they're obviously going to favor drugs with the potential to earn them more profit, which means less research on antibiotics.

This isn't mere idle speculation on my part. A new study published in the May 1st issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases documented this very problem. I first heard about the study in a story on NPR, and found another good article here. To quote from that second article:

FDA approvals of new antibiotics declined 56 percent during the past 20 years (1998-2002 versus 1983-1987). Looking to the future, the researchers found only six new antibiotics in the R&D pipeline out of 506 drugs being developed.

And now is where the real political debate comes into play. Obviously, some type of government intervention is needed if we want new life saving antibiotics to be developed. The question is how. Regulations? Tax breaks? Direct investment of public funds? I don't know, but I think it's pretty clear that the free market doesn't always lead to outcomes that are best for society as a whole.

Update 2013-02-18: Looking over this entry again, I realize that I forgot to make the clarification I had in a similar follow-up entry, Another Example of the Free Market Failing Society. So, let me do so now. Do not take this entry to mean that I think the free market is a bad thing. I think there are many ways that the free market provides benefits to the public. But I'm not so naive as to think that it always produces the best outcomes. Some industries or services are best accomplished by being government run (the police force immediately comes to mind). And even private industry requires the proper amount of oversight and regulations. The trick is in determining the proper combination of those things. But we shouldn't argue for the extremes of either libertarianism or communism, because neither of those has a very good track record.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Republican 2010 Congressional District 'Census'

Republican ElephantAs far as party affiliation goes, I'm an independent who usually votes Democratic, but not exclusively. I've never voted a straight Democratic ticket. I always try to look at individual candidates to decide who to vote for. It's just that more often than not, the Democratic candidates match my views more closely than the Republicans (and I'm not about to throw my vote away on a third party candidate). In the last primary, it was actually a Republican race that I was most concerned with, so I voted in the Republican primary. Ever since I've been getting phone calls and junk mail from the Grand Old Party.

One of the bits of junk mail was a '2010 Congressional District Census'. If you want to see the actual cover letter and survey, I've made it available as a pdf here, but I've put the worst parts into the entry below.

Now, I can certainly understand a party wanting to know what its members think about political issues, but the way this survey was worded made it seem that it was more propaganda than a sincere attempt at understanding voters' views.

Let's start off with the name of the survey - '2010 Congressional District Census'. Was there really a reason to call this survey a 'census'? This seems a bit deceptive, playing on the current national census to try to get more people to look at this survey.

There was a cover letter accompanying the survey. The letter made it clear that this wasn't really sincere. One of the paragraphs read:

Because of your high level of political involvement and steadfast commitment to the Republican Party, your personal input on the questions presented in your Census Document is critical to our Party's future.

My 'steadfast commitment to the Republican Party'? Really? I know it's a secret ballot, so they don't know who I vote for in the elections, but I've never donated any money to the party nor volunteered at any Republican events, and this was the first time I've ever voted in a Republican primary. If that's steadfast commitment, I wonder how little affiliation you have to have for them to consider you an outsider.

There was also a bit of hyperbole that I'd expect from a political party.

Your completing and returning this Census today is central to our Party's ability to devise a winning Republican strategy in your area - especially as we take on the Democrats in the fight for the future of our nation. [emphasis mine]

Seems a bit over the top. I also find it a bit odd that they capitalized 'our Party', but not 'our nation'. In fact, the capitalization of 'Party' was consistent throughout the letter, so it wasn't just a typo.

Another section of the cover letter also seemed pretty slanted.

Barack Obama was barely in the White House a month when he dropped all pretense of "hope" and "change" and laid bare his real agenda of massive tax increases, government-run health care, amnesty for illegal aliens, and bigger, more intrusive government.

Okay, I've covered this before, but it bears repeating. Taxes haven't changed much under Obama. For many people, they were actually decreased, and for others, they've only increased slightly. For the most part, they're still lower than they were in the Reagan era.

And did the RNC really pay so little attention to Obama's campaigning that they didn't expect him to go after health care reform? Following up on campaign promises is pretty much the opposite of dropping all pretense.

The cover letter was only three pages long, but three times I was asked to give "a generous contribution of $25, $50, $100, $250 or even $500 in the enclosed postage-paid envelope." (Actually, the wording was slightly different each of the three times, but not by much.) So, it makes me wonder, just how much is the RNC really interested in my views, and how much are they just trying to get me worked up enough that I'll send them a donation?

Once I got to the 'census' itself, the wording definitely made me question their motives.

One question was, "From what media source do you regularly receive your political views?" But the options they gave were a bit limited. For TV, there was one box for 'NBC/CBS/ABC', another for 'CNN/MSNBC', and a third for 'Fox News'. For radio, there was only 'Radio', as if there's less variety on radio than there is on TV. If you're really interested in voter patterns, wouldn't you want to know if voters were listening to NPR vs. Rush Limbaugh?

Another question read, "Which political party do you feel is best able to handle each of the following issues?" It then had a list of issues (war, taxes, etc.) for which you could check off 'Republican', 'Democrat', or 'No Opinion' (what, no Libertarians or Tea Party Patriots?). The last one, though, was 'Protecting Traditional Values'. Now tell me, how is this a political issue? Are they honestly asking if people want the government to pass laws enforcing a strong work ethic, or not letting kids go on dates without chaperones, or outlawing miniskirts? How is it up to a political party to defend 'traditional values' unless you favor an intrusive government that takes away personal freedom? (Oh, I know what they really mean by traditional values, but if you think in plain English and not political speech, it sounds pretty silly.)

This following question was pretty bad.

Do you believe the huge, costly Democrat-passed stimulus bill has been effective in creating jobs or stimulating America's economy?

No hint of bias there, huh? But the question immediately following it was even worse.

Do you thick the record trillion dollar federal deficit the Democrats are creating with their out-of-control spending is going to have disastrous consequences for our nation?

If you're calling it 'out-of-control' right in the question, why are you even bothering to ask? For an actual answer, just look at the deficit spending in WWII that got the U.S. out of the Great Depression (which as a percentage of GDP was higher than the current deficit).

One of the biggest problems I currently have with the Republican party is their anti-science stance. Consider this question from the survey.

Do you believe that global warming is an issue that must be dealt with immediately?

Of course it is. There's really no point in even asking that question. If you're really concerned with solving our nation's problems, a better question might have been, 'Do you think a cap and trade system is an effective method of dealing with global warming without excessive impact on the economy?' Global warming is definitely happening, and we can be pretty sure that humans are causing it. The questions politicians should be asking are how to address it.

Here's another of their misleading questions.

Do you believe the Obama Administration is right in dramatically scaling back our nation's military?

Of course people would be upset if the administration 'dramatically' scaled back the military. But that hasn't happened. Obama proposed shifting funding from certain programs to certain other programs, but the overall military budget has stayed largely the same.

There was also a bit of fear mongering.

Do you trust the Democrats to take all steps necessary to keep our nation secure in this age where terrorists could strike our country at any moment? [emphasis mine]

Was that part that I italicized really necessary?

And then, a question that just doesn't really have a good answer.

Do you favor or oppose the Obama Administration's non-confrontational policies in dealing with radical leaders such as those now in control in Iran, North Korea and other countries?

Because we didn't learn our lesson in Iraq. Is the RNC seriously asking voters if they favor additional wars while we're still involved in Iraq & Afghanistan?

On the back of the survery, there was one more request for money, just in case you missed it the three times in the cover letter.

Enclosed please find my most generous contribution of: _$500 _$250 _$100 _$50 _$25 _Other $_______

So, after reading the whole survey, I think it's pretty clear what the Republican National Commitee was really up to. This isn't the way you pose questions if you want honest answers. This is how you pose questions if you want to play on peoples' emotions.

I have a bit of adivce to the leaders of the RNC*. If you want to win over independent voters like me, quit sending us propaganda meant to drum up your party faithful. Send us clear, rational, evidence based reasons for why we should support your party. When the RNC itself starts sending me letters of dubious accuracy that I'd normally expect in my Inbox after a long chain of forwards, it makes me question even more just what the Republicans stand for.

* This advice may apply equally to the Democrats, but I wouldn't know - they've never sent me any junk mail.

I'm not the first person to notice how biased and misleading this survey is.

Added 2010-05-05 - Looking through the survey, I saw another question that caught my eye.

If you vote in the 2010 elections, are you more likely to vote for the Republican or Democrat candidate?

First of all, 'Democrat' is a noun, not an adjective. When you say 'Democrat candidate' instead of 'Democratic candidate', it makes you sound uneducated. I would rather that the politicians representing me were educated.

I was also struck that they asked if I was more likely to vote for 'the ... candidate'. Is there only one race in 2010? Maybe that one's just a typo.

At least for this question, they gave an option of 'Other' in addition to 'Republican', 'Democrat', and 'Unsure'.

Updated 2010-05-05 - I moved the link to the pdf to the beginning of the entry.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Christian Group Going to Supreme Court for Right to Flout Rules

I heard a story on NPR on the way in to work this week. A case is being brought to the Supreme Court by a student group, the Christian Legal Society, against the Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. The university has had a long standing policy that in order to be officialy recognized by the university and receive public funding, student groups could not restrict membership on any basis. The local Christian Legal Society (CLS) at the university had for many years followed that policy, but in 2004, when it joined the National Christian Legal Society, it changed its rules to exclude homosexuals or those engaging in pre-marital sex. The university enforced its policy, and revoked its official endorsement of the CLS.

Well, the CLS didn't like that, so they're claiming discrimination. They want to be exempt from the rules because they claim that the rules infringe on their religious rights. To be clear, the university did not ban the CLS from convening on campus, or ban students from joining the CLS, and did not even stop the CLS from using university facilities. They just didn't officially endorse the CLS and give it the stipend that official organizations receive.

I see two issues here - receipt of public funds, and official recognition from the university. I don't see that the CLS has a leg to stand on concerning public funds, and I really don't see that they have much more of a case concerning official recognition. To be affiliated with a public institution, you have to follow the public rules. If you want a private club that excludes members for whatever reason, that's fine. Just don't expect to use my tax dollars to pay for your club, and don't whine when a university won't advertise for you.

(This reminds me of the whole brouhaha during the election season, when churches wanted to endorse candidates but keep their tax exempt status. You don't get to break the rules just by playing the religion card.)

Calvin and Hobbes Comic from Go Comics
Calvin and Hobbes on GoComics


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