Sunday, March 28, 2010

Gone Travelin'

I'll be on the road throughout the Kansai region of Japan over the next week or so with my friends Tom and Irene, so I won't be posting much if at all. There should be plenty of pics to post when I get back, however.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Why Did Paul Krugman Win A Nobel Prize Again?

It sure wasn't for his analytical chops as a newspaper columnist, that's for sure. Despite his credentials as an economist he more often than not functions as the go-to guy for sanctimonious and insubstantial lefty agitprop on the New York Times op-ed page, and he's written a lot of mediocre columns over the years. This one denouncing the GOP's "eliminationist rhetoric" might be among the worst, however. He is right that some Republicans have come a bit emotionally unhinged in the wake of the passage of the health care bill, and that a few have spoken of fighting back using military metaphors. Where he lapses into sheer idiocy is in concluding on the basis of these observations that the Republican party has been hijacked by right-wing extremists intent on instigating violence against their political opponents.

For one, it's absurd to claim that Democrats did not deploy equivalently overheated language when criticizing George W. Bush. I can't count the number of times I heard Democrats refer to Bush as a fascist, for example, or claim that measures like the USA PATRIOT Act (which as a civil libertarian I found deeply troublesome) were the first step on the road to an Orwellian police state, or imply that because Bush opposed gay marriage he wanted to turn the U.S. into an evangelical theocracy. As for violent imagery, well, I recall lots of jokes about sabotaging Dick Cheney's pacemaker, and somebody even published a novel about assassinating Bush. I'll grant that none of these people were party leaders, but really - it's patently absurd to claim that Democrats are all peace-loving, civilized souls who would never stoop to ugly political rhetoric.

Secondly, there's the fact that the supposed instances of incendiary rhetoric Krugman cites - House Minority Leader John Boehner calling the passage of the bill "Armageddon", the Republican National Committee putting out a memo with a picture of Nancy Pelosi surrounded by flames and the words "fire Pelosi", and a map released by Sarah Palin "targeting" vulnerable Democrats who had voted for the bill in the sites of a rifle - are, on even cursory examination, not really incendiary at all. Boehner's remark is a bit melodramatic, certainly, but it's not a threat, and it is a fairly commonly employed figure of speech. From his reaction to the RNC memo it appears that either Krugman is as thick as a brick despite his Nobel Prize and daytime gig as an Ivy League professor, or that he is deliberately ignoring the clearly more relevant meaning of the verb "to fire", i.e., to terminate someone's employment. As for the Palin map, well, it actually shows rifle sites imposed over the districts of the Democrats in question, not the Democrats themselves. Again, this is perfectly standard political discourse - people speak of "targeting" and "picking off" vulnerable members of the opposing party all the time when discussing strategy for political campaigns (which is itself a word derived from military usage). To conclude on this basis that this means Sarah Palin wishes violence on the representatives of these districts is libelous, and I say that as someone who's no great fan of hers.

There really are only three possible conclusions here - Krugman is 1.)fundamentally dishonest, 2.)monumentally obtuse, or 3.)too lazy to fact check his columns. Whichever is correct, he's beyond terrible as a journalist, and it's a flat embarrassment to the New York Times that they let trash like this appear in their newspaper.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Specific Predictions For Health Care Reform

Megan McArdle has been writing a lot recently about the effects that Obamacare will have on American medical and financial well-being, and one of the things she's been demanding is testable predictions from progressives about the positive impact of the bill. Progressives have been hammering the idea that lower U.S. life expectancies, as well as higher rates of morbidity and infant mortality, are clear indicators that we needed a universal health care system. If in fact our lagging statistics in those indicators were due largely to a lack of universal coverage, they ought to improve dramatically over the next 30 years. With few exceptions (e.g. Nicholas Kristof's absurd contention that there will be significant increases in life expectancy as a result of the passage of this bill), very few progressives seem willing to go out on a limb and actually make predictions.

I'll make a few (hey, unlike journalists and healthcare bloggers, I don't have professional credibility to worry about). In the long run confounding factors that make it hard to evaluate actual cause-and-effect on many metrics will have come into play, so I'll state them partially in the form of negations of predictions that won't happen.

1.)The bill will probably save a number of lives, but the number will not be high enough to make an appreciable difference in life expectancy. Unless, that is, it somehow has the unintended benefit of causing young people to stop dying due to accidents, substance abuse and violence in numbers that, compared to those of other developed countries, are disproportionately high. Although I don't think there's a way to measure it, I suspect that the bill may also cost us some lives due to unintended and unfortunate economic consequences.

2.)There will be no statistically significant increase in infant mortality figures. That is, unless we start writing off rather than trying to bring to term high-risk pregnancies, and deal with the disproportionately high rates of malnutrition, substance abuse among pregnant women, etc. among our economic underclass (doing so is a goal libertarians and progressives ought to be able to cooperate on in my opinion).

3.)There will be no statistically significant decrease in morbidity, or particularly in rates of chronic conditions associated with poor diet and exercise habits (i.e. heart disease, obesity, etc.) unless Americans stop washing down quadruple cheeseburgers with 32 oz. sodas and eating pop tarts for breakfast, and/or stop watching TV for three hours a day and actually start exercising.

4.)The number of bankruptcies caused by medical expenses will go down somewhat, perhaps even precipitously. This is a good thing. As McArdle points out in the linked piece, however, this could have been achieved much more easily and cheaply.

5.)The bill will not contain costs for individuals. Medical services will continue to increase rapidly in cost due to greater demand from an aging population and expensive new products hitting the market (the prices of which will be further inflated due to new taxes on medical devices and medium-sized businesses which are passed on to consumers). For people who are already insured the mandates will increase the rate of premium increases, if they have any effect at all.

6.)The true cost of the program to the U.S. government over 10 years is going to be $2 trillion or more, not the $940 billion that's being touted. When you factor in the so-called "doc fix" to Medicare reimbursement rates that was rumored to be the price of A.M.A. support for Obamacare, it's already well up over a trillion, so I have 95% confidence in this prediction. Whatever the benefits of the bill are (and you'd have to be either intellectually dishonest or obtuse to deny that there will be some, perhaps even significant ones), they are not going to be worth the price we pay for them.

7.)Liberals will engage in goalpost shifting that would make Iraq war apologists proud rather than admit they were wrong if predictions #1-#6 are born out.

Finally, A Sensible Political Development To Write About

With the health care debate sucking up most of the political oxygen, one positive development from the standpoint of personal freedom has gone a bit under the radar - in November, voters in California will get a chance to vote to legalize marijuana. No absurd fig leaves about medical use either - just straight legalization.

I am hoping this is an indication that America is finally ready to move in the direction of a saner drug policy. I'm not a big fan of pot myself, as I dislike anything that enters the body in the form of inhaled smoke, but I've never seen any evidence that it is any more dangerous or socially harmful than alcohol (in fact, what evidence there is appears to indicate just the opposite). As any Econ 101 student can tell you, banning a product which is relatively easy and cheap to produce and for which there is high demand is likely to result not in reduced demand for that product, but in a large black market for it, and you don't need to conduct field research to see that that's exactly what has happened in the case of marijuana. Anyone who's been to a music festival or a lived in a dorm room in the last twenty years can tell you.

Forcing this black market above ground will result in tangible benefits for California - firstly, it will undermine one of the major sources of revenue for the violent Mexican drug cartels that continue to terrorize the U.S.-Mexico border region, and secondly, it provides a major new potential revenue source for the state government, which God only knows is in need of some of those at the moment. At least as far as marijuana goes, I don't find the argument that legalization would encourage people to experiment more than they already do particularly persuasive, and even if it did, I don't think this would be particularly harmful, so these benefits are likely to come at very little tradeoff.

I remain uneasy with proposals to legalize harder drugs - heroin, methamphetamines, and the like are nasty, nasty chemicals with nasty, nasty effects on the human body and on society, and abstract arguments in favor of personal freedom do have to grapple with the fact that people who choose to use these drugs are likely to create huge societal problems by doing so. With marijuana, however, it's likely the most serious problem we'll have to contend with is a shortage of frozen pizzas. So Californians - pass the referendum, then if you so choose, pass the bong.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Is The Health Insurance Individual Mandate Constitutional?

I don't think so, and neither does Jacob Sullum of Reason Magazine, who pretty much states the case better than I could. Unfortunately, at this point the meaning of the phrase "interstate commerce" has been so warped by decades of successive court rulings expanding Federal power that I don't expect the Supreme Court to agree. A fellow can dream, though.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Oh, And About That Deficit...

Another problem with the Health Care Reform bill I forgot to mention in my earlier post - the fact that its likely cost overruns will put at further risk the U.S. government's already imperiled credit rating. If creditors become less willing to keep lending the Feds money without reservation, it will become that much more difficult to dig ourselves out of the financial hole we're in without drastically and painfully cutting entitlement benefits. The future is not looking pretty.

Fortunately the Onion has a solution.

Welcome to Obamacare

Well, as everyone knows by now, it passed. For better or worse, the U.S. has now joined the rest of the industrialized world in voting to allow the national government more-or-less run the health care sector. Will it have all the wonderful benefits progressives are insisting it will? Count me highly skeptical.

1.)I don't think it will have the magical effect on American life expectancy statistics that Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times anticipates. As Jonah Goldberg points out in this smart fisking, it appears that there are a number of factors that account for the (overstated) difference in life expectancy between the U.S. and other western democracies, and the presence of universal health coverage doesn't appear to be among the most important. If American life expectancies fail to leap upwards by five or more years as Kristof predicts, I expect him to acknowledge how wrong he was. On the other hand, maybe having health insurance will stop teenagers from dying in car crashes or gunfights and lowering the average American lifespan.

2.)I don't see any reason to expect it to control costs. It's economics 101 - you can't add a bunch of prohibitively expensive new beneficiaries to an insurance pool, and expect costs to go down for everyone. How anyone could be stupid enough to believe the Democrats when they claim this boggles my mind. Furthermore, given that accounting gimmicks can only produce savings on a balance sheet, not in the real world, I find the claim that this bill is going to be "deficit neutral" laughable on its face.

3.)I fully effect the bill to have deleterious effects on the rate of medical innovation and the willingness of doctors to continue practicing medicine. Since the bill actually taxes medical devices in addition to disincentivizing innovation, and does nothing to address the extraordinary cost of obtaining a medical license or the artificially restricted supply of practicing physicians, these effects will be even worse.

All this is leaves aside the, to be charitable shall we say, dubious, constitutionality of an act of Congress that will force private citizens to purchase a product from a private entity regardless of whether they want it or not. And the fact that the Democrats have just created a gigantic corporate-government nexus for waste, corruption and malfeasance that will give the military-industrial complex a run for its money on its worst day. While this legislation will have a few benefits - covering the uninsured and freeing individuals from healthcare-induced "job lock" - they are not remotely worth the astronomical costs we are going to pay, and could have been achieved with simpler, more market-friendly reforms. I hope to God I'm wrong, but I think that this legislation is going to be a colossally expensive failure.

I received an email from Barack Obama this morning thanking me for my support. I replied telling him to take me off his mailing list, because the candidate I voted for, the guy who seemed to understand how market economies and the Constitution and such actually work, and respect that those realities can't be changed by legislating them, is not the President I got, and I do not support the President I got. I will be voting for Republicans in the fall, for Senate and House. Hopefully Mr. Obama can be forced to lead from the center by the constraints of a divided government.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

You Stay Classy, Tea Partiers

As much as I may sympathize with their anxieties about unfunded government expansion, incidents like this make it very hard for me to find common cause with the so-called "Tea Partiers". It's certainly not true that all of Obama's political opponents are motivated on some level by racial animus, and shame on the more irresponsible liberals who suggest this - but one would have had to be exceedingly naive not to think it a factor in at least some cases, as this unfortunate occurrence reveals. I pray for the day when bigotry of this sort really is widely deemed as odd and irrational as prejudice against Poles or Italians now is.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Why Do People Use Missed Connections Ads?

Tyler Cowen, one of the sharpest, quirkiest, and most original thinkers I know of, muses on the question. My theory is that for the people that use them, these ads inject a little romance and serendipity into modern urban life, which is otherwise rather routinized and predictable. The idea that that fetching stranger on the subway platform might be one's soulmate provides a moment of pleasant diversion even from the routines of work, leisure, and socialization that dominate our days and can quickly become tedious in the face of our hunger for novel and exciting experience. Placing an ad is akin to buying a lottery ticket - it gives a person a chance to construct an appealing romantic fantasy, at a low cost.

Since I'd guess that most ads go unanswered, the fantasy is also more likely to remain intact, unalloyed by the mitigating complexities of human interaction that inevitably emerge in any real relationship. Furthermore, placing an ad enables people to express romantic interest without fear of failure - if no one answers the ad, it's not because one has been duly considered, judged wanting, and rejected, but merely because fate has declined to accommodate. That seems cold comfort to me - after all, one is still alone at the end of the exercise - but I suppose it at least saves people from beating themselves up for being unable to express their interest in others, in addition to beating themselves up for being alone.

Personally, I left this sort of romantic daydreaming behind a long time ago in favor of a more direct approach - when I felt an attraction, acting on it, no matter how awkward I felt about doing so. I asked out women I knew fairly well, sure, but also a waitress in a coffee shop I frequented, a fellow student to whom I'd never spoken, a woman who showed me an apartment, a girl I met on a train - whoever, however I met them, when I felt a spark. Certainly this approach has brought its fair share of rejection, failure, and romantic disappointment in addition to quite a few interactions that began and then dead-ended before much came of them. I think, however, that these experiences were valuable - from the rejections I learned not to fear rejection, and from the dead ends not to approach any potential relationship with unrealistic expectations. When I've had successes - well, from them I've learned that finding love is a problem that will crack if you take enough swings at it. I met my girlfriend, whom I've now been dating for fifteen months, under circumstances that very well might have turned into a missed connection had I not immediately acted on the spark I felt. The same was true of my previous girlfriend, with whom things ultimately didn't work out romantically but with whom I remain friendly. I think the way to find love is to dive into the water and take your lumps along the way, and that requires being proactive. If all someone wants to do is daydream about finding love, however, letting the moment slip and posting a Missed Connections ad serves perfectly well.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

At Least They Don't Say The Irish Are Drunks

Given the source I suspect that he very well may have meant it facetiously, but this post by National Review blogger William F. Gavin is ridiculous. "McCarthyism" is not a slur against people of Irish descent any more than "Stalinism" is a slur against Russians, or "Maoism" a slur against Chinese. It's a particular political phenomenon named after one of its early practictioners, who just happened to have an Irish name. It's a curious logic that would deduce that because McCarthy's name was Irish and his political tactics reprehensible, anybody who uses the term "McCarthyism" is implying that Irish are reprehensible, only possible if you adopt the (rather offensive) view that any given individual's actions or characteristics are representative of the ethnic group to which they belong. Either Gavin is subtly parodying the old left's obsessions with identity politics and group solidarity, or he's bought wholeheartedly into them. I really hope it's the latter.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Misreading The Polls From Both Directions

Pivoting off of what I wrote yesterday about the health care reform bill, I'd like to further examine the role of public opinion polling in the debate. Conservatives point to the fact that while the polls have fluctuated somewhat, a consistent majority of the public seems to be in opposition. Liberals (those that concede that the polling is valid, that is) counter that individual components of Obama's plan poll extremely well, and that the only reason people oppose the bill as a whole is because of Republican scaremongering and flim-flammery. Who's right?

In my view, both groups are interpreting the data somewhat self-servingly. While opposition is clearly significant, it has fluctuated wildly, and people with experience in polling know that widely divergent results can result from wording the same question in a poll two different ways. Furthermore, it's not clear that a majority of the public is even aware of what's in the bill, as the fact that at one point a majority of people favored a "public option" with a majority of those not even knowing what a "public option" was. Hence, Republican claims that public opposition is "overwhelming", "massive", or the like are very likely overstated.

However, of the two sides I have to conclude that it's the liberals who are being more disingenuous, perhaps because they're the party in power and they're attempting to shill their own policy. The claim that most provisions of Obamacare poll well is superficially true, but when you subject it to even mild scrutiny it becomes essentially meaningless. Sure, vast majorities of people favor extending coverage to the uninsured, reducing the number of medically-induced bankruptcies, preventing insurance companies from discrimanating against people with pre-existing conditions or dropping insurees who develop expensive medical problems for dubious reasons, etc. - when these things are asked about in a cost-free vacuum. In the real world, such measures cost money, and the parts of the bill that aim to offset those costs - the individual mandate, the tax on existing high-end plans, the Medicare cuts, etc. - happen to be the parts of the bill that are unpopular. I love chocolate chip cookies, and if you ask me if I am in favor of receiving one for dessert, sure, I'll say yes. Tell me I'll have to pay $50 for it, and I'll pass. The same appears to be true of a great segment of the public when it comes to the goodies in the healthcare bill. Furthermore, for all the Democrats' talk of "bending the cost curve", many voters remain rightly skeptical of the notion that a massive, expensive new entitlement is somehow going to end up costing taxpayers less money. Advocates for the bill have been claiming since the beginning that it will save money, completely ignoring the facts that their pricetag estimates assume that as-of-yet theoretical cost containment measures will work perfectly in practice, and that the decade-long window they chose to focus on includes a full ten years' worth of taxes but only six years' of payouts. The history of government entitlement spending, not just in the U.S. but everywhere, indicates that such programs almost never end up costing less than the sticker price, and often end up costing a lot, lot more, and of course the C.B.O., when they actually had some solid numbers to crunch, agreed. They still haven't released numbers on the newer version of the bill the House is attempting to pass on to the Senate for reconciliation, possibly because they're still trying to finesse the numbers to get a defensible score, and for voters alarmed about the size of the deficit, that's hardly reassuring. The fiscal aspects of this bill just can't be ignored or massaged away with fuzzy, highly speculative math, but that is overwhelmingly what liberals seem to want to do. In short, there are many components to this bill about which the public is either dubious or staunchly unenthusiastic, so it's not necessary to invoke the power of Republican messaging voodoo to explain why the public opposes it as a whole in spite of the popularity of several of the individual components. I suspect that a bill that would give everyone in the U.S. a free house, a new car, a private jet, and six months of vacation a year, but also mandate that everyone commit suicide on their 30th birthday, would be unlikely to be very popular even though "most" of the individual provisions would be. The same logic applies here.

Both sides are convinced that the public actually agrees with them, even when there is evidence to the contrary. I suppose if the bill passes, we'll find out in November.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Volunteering (Others) For A Suicide Mission

I usually enjoy William Saletan's take on things, but this piece makes a terrible, terrible argument. Saletan argues that wavering Democrats ought to vote for the health care bill that's currently on the table, even if their constituents have made it abundantly clear that they oppose it and will punish an affirmative vote at the polls this fall. Failure to do so, he claims, would be undemocratic:

Democracy isn't about doing what might sell in the next election. It's about
doing what you promised in the last one. If you're in Congress, and if you think
this bill is good for the country, vote for it. Even if it costs you your job.
This is, to put it delicately, pure poppycock. Firstly, it's easy for a pundit, who will still be employed regardless of whether this bill passes, to argue that embattled legislators ought to jump on an electoral grenade to pass it. It's easy to dismiss the importance of someone else's career when you view it as an obstacle to something you want, but the view of said legislators is likely justifiably different. Secondly, the assertion that ObamaCare as it is currently proposed is what the Democrats "promised" in the last election is absurd. To begin with, I see little persuasive evidence that the Democrats' 2008 victories were a sudden endorsement of the progressive platform rather than merely a repudiation of Bush-era Republicanism. Many of the so-called "blue dogs" won their seats by running as DINOs who distanced themselves as much as they reasonably could from the progressive agenda, including expensive entitlement expansions. Furthermore the health care reform Obama promised in his campaign is different from the bill that is actually on the table. For one, he opposed the (extremely unpopular) insurance mandate when he was elected, but has now come around to endorsing it, and the bill includes it. Even if one accepts the dubious proposition that the public elected Democrats because they want "health care reform", it's pretty clear the reform they want is not the reform they're being offered. Moderate democrats in swing districts, not being morons without a shred of political self-preservation instinct, are aware of this discrepancy. It appears Saletan is not.

Here's a historical analogy. In 1941, Jeannette Rankin of Montana was the only member of Congress to vote against declaring war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor, on the grounds of her pacifist, isolationist principles. When she was elected in 1940, the prevalent mood of the country, and of her constitutuents particularly, was similarly pacifistic and isolationist, and she was clearly voting on the promise she'd made during the 1940 campaign to keep America out of the war. In the interim, however, an attack by a foreign power had radically shifted the national mood, and her vote, while principled, could hardly be said to represent the will of the people. The healthcare debate presents a similar, though much less dramatic, situation. In 2008, people were voting on somewhat different issues. While the economy had already begun to crash, it hadn't been rattling along in a ditch for eighteen months already, the war in Iraq was a bigger concern, and "healthcare reform" was just a vague phrase that everyone was free to interpret as meaning "the specific changes in healthcare that I personally want". Those circumstances no longer hold, and legislators are responding to that.

Saletan concludes by saying this:
...this is too big a vote to cast on the basis of politics. Every so often, a
bill comes along that's bigger than anything your predecessor got to touch.
You're the lucky bastard who had your seat in 2010, when that bill reached the
floor. And here you are, worrying about your career, when the purpose of your
career is staring you in the face.

For a journalist who is unabashedly enthusiastic about ObamaCare, it's clear that passing it is the purpose of any Democratic legislator's career. Unfortunately for hesitant Democratic legislators themselves, that's more difficult to determine.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Love And Marriage, Love And Marriage...

I've commented before on the strange phenomenon of psychologists and other scientists who study human cognition and behavior reproducing in their findings truths about human nature which have been known to folk wisdom for centuries, and then reporting those results with breathless excitement as if they were new things, and this post on marriage by Wired editor Jonah Lehrer, though it does acknowledge received wisdom on the subject, is nevertheless of a piece with the trend. There's a difference between erotic passion and abiding love? Duh. Plato and company had that figured out 2,500 years ago, without the benefit of modern science. Furthermore, anybody who's been through the wringer of modern dating, and experienced the romantic dead ends, false starts and broken hearts that failure to observe the distinction between love and infatuation inevitably produces, ought to have learned it firsthand for themselves as well, if they're paying any attention at all. Physical attractiveness is no reliable predictor of kindness, patience, generosity, loyalty, or any of the myriad other character traits a good life partner must have? Color me shocked. I always thought that saying about beauty being only skin deep was a discarded Revlon advertising slogan, after all. And so on.

Like most people my age I talk about relationships with my friends all the time, and those of us nearing 30 are mostly in agreement that one of the most common culprits in the failed romances of our twenties was a tendency to rush headlong into things on the basis of desire/passion/attraction alone, without being prepared for the less attractive realities of real relationships. One of the markers of immaturity among some of the more callow people I know is that they haven't yet learned this lesson. But it's not some earth-shattering insight - it seems something that most people figure out sooner or later. Likewise, most people learn to appreciate appealing personal qualities more once they've had a few encounters with members of the opposite sex who are physically attractive but turn out to be shallow or unpleasant people. It doesn't take a genius to extrapolate from this realization that if the choice of whom to date ought to be carefully considered on grounds broader than mere physical attraction, the choice of whom to marry ought really to be so. And indeed caution and judgment are by-words when we do discuss the topic of marriage. I have no doubt that marrying too soon, without really knowing who one's partner is as a person, is a major reason marriages fail. But if my peers are an indication that many of us approach the institution with eyes as wide open as they can be for people our age, and some of us will still end up getting divorced anyway, I doubt that it is the only serious culprit.

My own hunch, uncolored by personal experience though it may be, is that it is futile to approach the question of what makes marriages work or not work via a priori generalizations about human psychology or data-crunching reductionism. Marriage may be a fundamental social, legal, and religious institution, but it is really only the skeleton of it that can be broadly defined as such. Individual marriages are as idiosyncratic as the individual personalities that compose them, perhaps even moreso given the added variable of how those personalities can interact with each other. I suspect it is likewise individual failed marriages. Divorced people report all sorts of reasons for the failures of their marriages - infidelity, abuse, sexual dissatisfaction, "growing apart" as people, etc. It may well be the case that there isn't any magic formula to be discovered by looking under the hood with the tools of psychology, neurology, and the like.

I suspect that loving successfully is something that's a bit of a tricky sail between Scylla and Charybdis. Approaching it without discernment and with no thought to anything other than the whims of passion is more likely than not to lead to heartbreak sooner or later. On the other hand, it's a feeling, not an exercise in formal logic, so pure rationality won't answer either. Balancing the two is probably the trick that the happily married have figured out, and everyone else hasn't.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Fool Me Twice?

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is being accused of sexual assault by a woman he met in an Atlanta nightclub, has admitted to police he had "sexual contact" with her, but denies assaulting her and claims the injuries she sustained were a result of falling and hitting her head. Given that this is not the first such incident for Roethlisberger - he's currently being sued by another woman in regard to a similar accusation - I'm left with only three possible conclusions:

1.)Ben Roethlisberger is extremely unlucky.
2.)Ben Roethlisberger is an idiot.
3.)Ben Roethlisberger is a serial rapist.

(1) seems rather unlikely. Yes, it's true that professional athletes garner a lot of attention from starstruck women, and many of them indulge themselves (just look at Tiger Woods), and yes, it's likewise true that in some cases these women undoubtedly have questionable motives. Nevertheless most athletes manage to go their entire careers without incurring a single allegation of sexual assault, much less two inside a single calendar year. There do seem to be grounds for doubt about the first allegation against Roethlisberger, but a second incident makes it seem somewhat less likely that he's merely had the misfortune of twice being targeted by gold-digging opportunists. This is particularly true since this second woman has filed criminal rather than civil charges and as things stand now does not stand to gain materially from her accusations. If she later attempts to profit from the situation, the calculus obviously changes, but as of right now, one must wonder why she's inclined to bring the police into it if all she did was hit her head on a bathroom stall partition.

(2) seems the most likely to me at this point. There is ample evidence that Roethlisberger is as dumb as a post - this is a guy who insisted he was going to continue to ride his motorcycle without a helmet, even after suffering serious injuries in a crash that could have very well ended his multimillion dollar gig as a star quarterback. So if there's anybody who'd recklessly get himself into a compromising situation with a woman when he's already being sued for sexual misconduct, it might very well be him. Perhaps it will turn out this woman really is after money or notoriety and Roethlisberger, unlike many of his fellow athletes, is too stupid to recognize and avoid such people. Conversely, maybe other celebrities do get themselves involved in such situations but are smart enough to pay up to keep them quiet, and Big Ben isn't. I suppose we'll find out.

(3) is the possibility nobody wants to think about. Obviously, the man is innocent until proven guilty, but having nasty rumors swirling around a high-profile player is a PR problem no professional sports league wants on its hands. It wouldn't surprise me a bit to see NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sanction Roethlisberger somehow, even if nothing comes of the criminal charges.

The whole mess makes me glad I'm not a Steelers fan. Rooting for Michael Vick was bad enough.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Put Your Hands On Your Head And Step Away From The Pale Ale...

Pennsylvania state police have raided three popular Philadelphia bars in order to seize sixty gallons of unlicensed beer - the bars, though they had purchased the beers legally and had paid all the necessary taxes on them, had failed to register them under their proper names with Pennsylvania's state Liquor Control Board. The fact that the bars were in possession of contraband suds became known to the police via a "citizen compaint". As it turns out, several of the beers were registered, albeit under somewhat different names than they were being sold under, and were mistakenly confiscated due to "clerical error" (read: bureaucratic incompetence); now their owners will have to go through a lengthy (six-to-eight month) process to prove that the beers actually are legal in order to get them back, by the completion of which the beer will have no doubt spoiled. There are a few key questions in this case, as I see it:

1.)How stupid and/or beholden to bureaucratic procedure are state employees if they can't tell that "Monk's Cafe Sour Flemish Red Ale" (the name under which one of the confiscated beers was being sold) just might be the same thing as "Monk's Cafe Ale" (the name under which it was registered with the PLCB)?

2.)As bar owner Leigh Maida asks, how can a government organ be responsible for regulating a product if it is not even aware of that product's actual name?

3.)Shouldn't these state troopers have been out writing traffic citations or doing something else of at least marginal benefit to the people of Pennyslvania? How does an amateur hour production of The Keystone Kops Meet The Untouchables "serve and protect" the citizens of the commonwealth?

4.)If it takes more than a dozen armed troopers to safely raid a couple of sedate, high-end Yuppie brewhouses, how many are necessary to secure, say, a crack den? A meth lab? A mob hideout?

5.)Given that these state troopers were not defraying the expense of their salaries by issuing revenue-enhancing fines to motorists, how much money did this operation cost the taxpayers of Pennsylvania?

6.)Who was responsible for the "citizen complaint" against the bars? Because whoever that person is, he or she really, really needs to be punched in the face, hard.

Have no fear, citizens of Pennsylvania. Your government can't necessarily protect you from crime, and they most certainly can't keep the roads you drive on in good repair or ensure your children a good education, but you can go to sleep at ease in the knowledge that they will never allow you to experience the horror of unknowingly ordering an unregistered microbrew when you go out to the bar. No doubt William Penn is looking down from heaven and smiling right now, knowing that the inhabitants of his land are able to live in such security.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Snow Days, Low Days

Sendai got hit by a huge snowstorm last night, which would be unusual even in the middle of winter but is exceptionally rare in March. I didn't take any measurements, but it looks like at least a foot of wet, heavy snow so far (it's still going as I write, though the pace has tapered off somewhat).

It struck me as odd that twenty years ago, when I was attending a school insteading of working in one, this would have been cause for celebration, as it surely would have meant a day off, to be spent sledding, throwing snowballs at the other kids in the neighborhood, and drinking hot chocolate. Nowadays, not so much. The Japanese take education far too seriously to cancel school just because of some slippery roads, even on a day when no classes were scheduled, and when I arrived this morning several students who'd come to school to take part in club activities were shoveling out the parking lot. And while Sendai looks pretty in the snow, it sure isn't much fun to commute through under those conditions, and all I could think about this morning was how the next few days are going to entail dodging slush banks and hidden puddles and probably arriving at work with wet feet anyway. Chalk another thing up amidst "lost delights of childhood".

Monday, March 8, 2010

Yeah, Great Idea

In an effort to close budget shortfalls, a small-but-growing number of school districts nationwide are apparently going to a four day week. This is so sad, and so indicative of serious problems in American society, that I simply don't know what to say. Research may not have been done on the question, but any teacher can tell you that the less time kids have to study something, the less they're going to learn, and American kids need more time in the classroom, not less. If they don't get it, it quite literally threatens the future of our country - you can't run a modern democracy with an ignorant populace, and you can't run a modern economy with an ill-educated workforce. If we're not willing to put money and effort into educating our children, that's what we're going to end up with.

I think that in many cases local authorities do do a better job of solving a community's problems than statewide or national ones, and I generally prefer on many issues decentralized power structures that devolve as much power as possible to that level. Events like this are enough to convince me that education is an exceptional case, however. If we cannot provide our children - all of them - with the opportunity to get the education they'll need to keep America up and running as a society when they reach adulthood, we are failing as a society, and there's no other way to put it.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

My Take On The Oscars

Sadly, I don't see nearly so many movies as I used to, since Japanese theaters tend to be pricey and short on foreign movies that aren't blockbusters in the vein of Avatar and 2012. Of this year's Best Picture nominees, the only ones I've seen are The Hurt Locker, Up, Inglourious Basterds, and District 9. Though Inglourious Basterds wasn't far behind, I think The Hurt Locker was the best film among those four, what a great war film should be - tense, well-drawn, and richly characterized rather than brash or showy, and illuminative of the difficult moral dilemmas of war without moralizing. I don't mean that as a dig at Tarantino's film - he does about as well as anybody can at making cinematic art out of B-grade pastiche, and Inglourious Basterds is no exception - but merely by virtue of its stylized pulpiness his movie compromises its ability to make a really impactful artistic statement. These two films were also the only two of those nominated for Best Director which I saw, and it's a really a hard call to say who did a better job there - the movies are so different that it's tough to compare them. The Hurt Locker was certainly a smaller, less ambitious piece, but Kathryn Bigelow carried it off near perfectly. Inglourious Basterds, on the other hand, was more of a mixed bag, feeling a bit overstuffed despite some absolutely exquisitely staged set pieces and Tarantino's usual crackerjack pacing. I can't say it would have been an injustice had Tarantino won, but Bigelow was certainly deserving.

I've also yet to see most of the performances that were nominated for the various acting categories. I'm happy to see that Christoph Waltz won for his performance in Inglourious Basterds however. Nazis on screen are at this point so old hat as villains that it's hard to play the type memorably - who can top Ralph Fiennes as Amon Göth in Schindler's List? - but Waltz's ruthless, suave, relentlessly manipulative sophisticate is as memorable as any.

Hopefully I'll get a chance to catch up on the movies I missed at some point.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

On Casual Sex

I find articles like this one mystifying. I'm as much in favor of gender equality as anyone of my generation, and on balance, I think the sexual revolution was a good thing. What I don't understand, however, is the need of some feminists and sexual liberation advocates to deny that there might be any tradeoffs whatsoever associated with greater sexual openness, or that sleeping around just because you can might not be the healthiest option for some women (or men). Indeed, arguing such in the wrong crowd may very well get one branded a moralist and a prude at best, a closet patriarchalist at worst. This dogmatic attitude is deeply unfortunate, both because, like the social conservatism it decries as overly enamored of female chastity, it treats a woman's sexual life as a sociopolitical football rather than a matter of individual choice, and because it ignores some very real problems with promiscuity.

While the author of this article claims that it's been proven that engaging in casual sex is not psychologially harmful, this does not accord either with my personal experiences or with how actual people seem to behave in the real world. I don't move in particularly conservative circles, and while I haven't polled them I'd venture to say that almost none of my female friends are intent on saving themselves for marriage or anything like that. Nevertheless, with only a few exceptions, they don't appear to be particularly interested in screwing around, as opposed to trying to find a boyfriend for at least the semi-longterm. When they have had engaged in casual sex, it's been either a.)because they were drunk, lonely, or otherwise impaired, and a matter of regret afterwards, or b.)because they really didn't realize it was casual (or convinced themselves it wasn't casual) at the time, and only found out afterwards that the partner of the day wasn't interested in anything more serious (many men I've known are somewhat less than decent human beings, and will take advantage of this, whereas as others are merely immature and self-centered, and don't think about hurt feelings and messy aftermaths tomorrow when they have a chance to get laid tonight.) The fallout I've observed in such incidents has ranged from bruised feelings and awkward, unpleasant vibes between the involved parties up to and including terminated friendships, but it has certainly been real. I'm not a woman, but my own personal experience was similar - in the aftermath of a painful breakup, I had an alcohol-lubed one-night stand with a female friend that left me feeling hollow, emotionally drained, and disappointed in myself. Growing up as I have in a culture in which men are lauded for engaging in casual sex, I can definitively say that these feelings didn't result from any kind of social censure - had I told any of the men I socialized with at that time about them, I suspect they would have told me (whether they believed it or not) that I was lucky, and wondered what the big deal was. But it was a big deal for me, because I was (and am) a romantic, and I always thought an act so intimate ought to mean more than a few minutes of fumbling pleasure, and the fact that I hadn't lived up to my own ideals left me depressed. If that's true for me, heterosexual male, who by cultural consensus ought stereotypically to revel in shallow and transitory sexual pleasures, I'm sure it's true of at least some women, who by a similar consensus stereotype are thought to want more. If someone finds an experience messy, complex, and hurtful, it seems presumptious to tell them they ought not to have those feelings because they don't accord with your ideology.

Then we have the famous problem of the sexual double standard - the so-called "virgin-whore" dichotomy. A lot of the men I know, even highly promiscuous ones - a voracious sexual appetite, it seems, is often incompatible with self-awareness or a functioning sense of irony - consider a lengthy sexual history a huge turn-off in potential long-term romantic partners. As patently unfair as this attitude is, it persists, and the more we know about human psychology, the less tenable the feminist position, that such attitudes are merely a relic of the patriarchal past and can be ironed out of the male psyche given sufficient enlightenment, seems. For my own part, I too for whatever reason share the preference for a relatively chaste mate. I don't levy any particular moral judgment against women who choose to sleep around - their bodies, their choices, etc. - but a learning a woman has a history of such behavior pretty much torpedoes any romantic interest I might have had in her. I don't know why. I can try to intellectualize it by saying I don't want to be just one more in a long procession of men, or that I think of myself as a special jewel that only a truly discerning woman will appreciate. I can chalk it up to experience, saying that in my dating life women too ready to sleep with me have often turned out to be carrying baggage that made them less-than-ideal girlfriend material (which is true). I suspect, however, that the reasons are deeper and more visceral than that - that given the choice between two otherwise completely identical women, one who'd had three previous partners and the other thirty, I'd choose the former - why, I'm not sure, but I would. I don't feel it's fair to hold a woman to a standard I couldn't live up to myself, and that's the other reason, besides my romantic temperament, that I haven't slept around even when I've had the opportunity to do so - four lifetime partners at the age of thirty, three of them women with whom I had real relationships. Nevertheless it appears for me, as well as many other men of my generation, that growing up in a post-feminist world has not eradicated the desire to marry a "good girl", and rooted as this preference may be in the evolution of the human mind, I doubt it ever will. I suspect women are highly aware of this phenomenon, and know that acquiring a reputation for promiscuity is a sure way to turn off potential long-term suitors. Hence, regret about actions that may lead to them acquiring such a reputation.

All of this is to say nothing of the fact that casual sex carries risks that, regardless of whether people desire to wish them away, can't be ignored. Sperm and eggs have proven stubbornly unwilling to observe the distinction we have decided as sentient beings to draw between sex-for-pleasure and sex-for-procreation, and unwanted pregnancy is pretty much always an ugly business. Then there's the issue of venereal disease. As much as modern medicine can do, it can't cure 'em all, and an unlucky person might find themselves debilitated for life by something they catch from someone they'll only seen once in their lives. And so on. If sex is analogous to other leisure activities, it is more analogous to skydiving or bungee-jumping or high altitude mountain-climbing than to watching t.v. or reading books - a thrilling activity that carries real dangers with it. To deny such, or even downplay it, is foolish.

Sex is a complicated subject, best treated by women (and men) as a matter of individual conscience and prerogative, not a means a pawn in the game of gender-politics chess. Some women may want to sleep around, or dance on a tabletop in ass-baring chaps a la Christina Aguilera, and more power to them, but for those don't, well - I have trouble reading that preference as a betrayal of feminism, or a sign that such women have been successfully slut-shamed into "re-domestication". I thought, after all, that feminism was about a woman having the right to do as she pleases.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Still Canada's Game

One of the most enjoyable things about the Olympics was the men's ice hockey tournament, which of course culminated in Canada besting the U.S. 3-2 in overtime on a Sidney Crosby wristshot for the gold medal. Disappointed as I was in the defeat of my countrymen (who had without much lead time turned themselves into a hard-working, close-knit, and formidable team), it hardly induced a feeling of crushing depression in me. Yet, this is what my Canadian friends would have faced had their team failed to claim gold in their national sport. As I have learned firsthand from the Canadians I've known, almost without exception nice people all who turn into raving, nationalistic lunatics when it comes to their hockey team, there is no analogous sporting passion to that which Canadians feel for hockey in American culture. Sure, baseball and basketball were both invented here, and we want to be the best at those, but losing to, say, Japan or the Dominican Republic in the former, or to Spain or Argentina in the latter, is not a matter of national shame. Nor is beating them a source of national pride. One is just something that happens and is disappointing, the other something that happens and is gratifying, and that's it. In Canada, with hockey, it's different.

As a result, in addition to disappointment, I also feel relief, that my friends will not have to deal with the kind of disappointment that is born of only that kind of frustrated passion. I really do hope they enjoy winning the gold medal, rather than merely treat it as something to be relieved about; they deserve it.