Conclusions of yesterday's Congress Drama

The House of Representatives eventually got around to passing the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012.  According to Wikipedia, as of right now it's not been signed:

The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (H.R. 8) was passed by the United States Congress on January 1, 2013, and is expected to be signed into law by President Barack Obama.

Late last night, I remembered hearing somewhere (regrettably I can't remember the source) that it was reasonable to expect that congress would pass the bill at the last second.  The reason is that while no congressperson had anything to gain by passing it (a recession isn't good for anyone, and everyone agreed that's what would happen), it was also true that no congressperson had anything to gain by compromising in advance.

In the video I posted by John Green yesterday, he points out that, due to gerrymandering, the only real competition most congresspeople face is from other members of their own party, who present themselves as more extreme, and therefore more loyal, in their adherence to party dogma.  So congresspeople who hope to keep their careers need to seem as uncooperative as possible, and congresspeople who also want to do their jobs have to walk a fine line, avoiding ever appearing to compromise while actually compromising as much as possible (compromise being the essential function of a smooth-running democratic process).

This all reminds me of the second paragraph of George Orwell's essay, Politics and the English Language:

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible.

I quote it, even though it's not quite as much about politics as it is about language, because Orwell expresses very clearly the point: that the American people have become polarized and unsophisticated, and the United States government has become polarized and unsophisticated.  The reason this has happened is complicated, and it can't be pinned down to one or the other group failing in their responsibility -- and there are other players, as well, including the failure of the media, of the courts, of academics, and so on.

But a polarized populace elects a polarized government, and a polarized government encourages a polarized populace.

But, as Orwell says, the point is that the process is reversible.  It really, honestly, comes down to a number of bad habits, which, when applied every day by every citizen and every politician to every decision, creates and perpetuates a failing state.

I encourage you to read Politics and the English Language, because lazy and ambiguous use of language is one of the bad habits that politicians, journalists, and people are particularly prone.  Read it, and think about words like terrorism, socialism, liberal, conservative, corrupt, and so on.  Here's the link again

Some of the other bad habits:  binary thinking, over-simplified economics, failure to engage with local politics, and  a fatalistic attitude towards large problems.  The biggest bad habit, though, is the attitude that politeness and compromise are forms of hypocrisy, which leads us to choose, frequently, worst-case scenarios over bad-but-not-awful scenarios.  I often see people argue in against any given system because they call it inefficient, or insufficient, or impractical.  Those criticisms are usually true.  But when the alternative is something even more inefficient, insufficient, and impractical, those criticisms are also entirely missing the point.

Hopefully, the next batch of congress we get will be a lot better at doing their goddamn jobs, but we can help by making an effort to be more reasonable and less extremist.

It would also really help if we could redraw the district borders for non-political divisions.

So I guess we're all doomed

In all the celebration last night, I forgot that one of the major features of the transition between 2012 and 2013 was the resolution -- or not -- of the issue of the Fiscal Cliff.  Fortunately, John Green reminded me in his Vlogbrothers video today.  The video was, tellingly, titled, Why Does Congress Suck?

I've been trying, for the last half hour or so, to figure out what's going on with our government right now.  It appears, according to an article on Politico updated at 7:08pm today, that the House of Representatives has failed to vote in the deal that the Senate passed last night, 89-8, meaning that -- right now -- we've gone over the fiscal cliff.

Er, update (not that I posted this before getting here) -- as of 7:37, according to businessinsider.com, the House Republicans have proposed an amendment, but they don't think they have the votes to get it through, and "Republican members are now saying that it looks like the ... bill will pass on an up-down vote."

I'll be keeping this window open tonight, because it's a live-blog, so I will hopefully get better information here than I'm getting frantically googling.  I'm going to post this now, but will continue updating.

UPDATE 7:53 in a super-exciting turn of events, Businessinsider quotes a GOP House aide arguing that the Senate bill will be passed:  "Members seem tired and ready to go home."  I know this isn't serious commentary, but I'm annoyed and feel like being pissy:  does it bother anyone else that the (at least short-term) fate of this country is hinging on a bunch of old people feeling tired?  I think the federal government should be required to stay up late sometimes if it's necessary to stop America from collapsing into a new depression.

UPDATE 8:03 I have a tweet!  This means I get to try out embedding a tweet!  It's via Dana Bash, who is a CNN reporter.  So it's pretty credible, I guess.

https://twitter.com/DanaBashCNN/status/286275958120529920

UPDATE 8:13 Loads of people are complaining about the fact that Hollywood gets tax incentives on Twitter.  I am frustrated by this.  Not that the government doesn't have a problematic relationship with Hollywood, but governments subsidize industries.  They do that.  All the time.  Subsidizing American entertainment means we get to sell our entertainment overseas, we get to influence the worldwide narrative, we get to pump ourselves up as a destination for tourism and economics.  Like most other industries, a healthy entertainment industry is good for America, so it makes sense to stabilize it against the clumsiness of the free market.

UPDATE 8:27 I've seen this link about 20 times on Twitter in the last half hour, so I'm going to talk about it.

STUNNING GRAPHIC SHOWS POSSIBLE REASON THE HOUSE GOP IS BALKING AT THE SENATE'S FISCAL CLIFF BILL

Did you look?  Pictured is a comically oversized graph showing the massive difference between the tax increases that the current bill suggests and the 2011 budget deficit.

a. The 2011 budget deficit isn't on the table.  It will never be on the table.  There is no way to negotiate out the current deal in such a way as will change how much money we spent in 2011.  Maybe it had something to do with the amount it went down this past year.  Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that there are spending cuts in the deal, too, meaning the deficit will be going down again.

b. I've mentioned this before, I think, but it's okay for a government to have a deficit.  It's practically required during a recession, because we need money to stimulate our economy, and (by definition) we don't have a lot of money.  Borrowing money is how you solve those problems.  Furthermore, most of our deficit is money borrowed from the American people, or other parts of the US government -- it's not the kind of debt you tend to think 'debt' means.  Finally, having loads of debt is, in my opinion, a good thing -- especially since other countries also owe us loads of money.  Being financially entangled puts us in the fantastic position of making it really inconvenient to go to war.  The more our economies are intertwined around the world, the more we have to get along with each other.  If you think that's bad, I think you are centuries out of date, politically.

UPDATE 5:34 businessinsider -- the vote is expected for around 9:30.

Petition to reclassify the Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group

Boing Boing reports on a Huffington Post report about three petitions on whitehouse.gov's "We The People" platform, which allows Americans to create petitions to the government.  The website's rules require the US government administration to promptly respond to the demands made by any petition that reaches 25 thousand signatures within 30 days. All three of the petitions in question have met that requirement -- though the website's FAQ points out that the administration may choose to write one response that covers the administration's position on multiple, similar petitions, so we can probably only expect one response about this issue.

The first petition in question, Legally recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group, is according to the Huffington Post the most popular petition in We The People's history, at over 275 thousand signatures at the time I'm writing.

The second, Revoke the tax exempt status of the Westboro Baptist Church & re-classify Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group, covers the overlap in ground between the other two petitions, asking for both terms to be met.  The petition points out that "By granting their tax exemption we are FUNDING THEIR HATE." (Capitalization copied from the source.)  As of writing, they are at over 60 thousand signatures.

The third, which is probably the least inflammatory, but easily the most genuinely threatening to the WBC, is called Remove the Westboro Baptist Church's 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, and make it retroactive.  It is at almost 45 thousand signatures.

I'm going to sign all three of these petitions.  I'm against tax exempt status for religions in general, but I don't think it's hypocritical to take the opportunity to support one particular removal from the exemption, especially one of the worst ones.  It's a foot in the door for the government to begin responding reasonably to the difference between allowing free speech and endorsing organized hate.  I hope the Obama Administration responds to this popular outcry by throwing everything they have at the WBC.

Ron Paul's pithy response to school shootings, and related problems

ThinkProgress reports on Libertarian/Republican Congressman Ron Paul's comments suggesting that armed guards in schools would create an Orwellian police state:

Furthermore, do we really want to live in a world of police checkpoints, surveillance cameras, metal detectors, X-ray scanners, and warrantless physical searches? We see this culture in our airports: witness the shabby spectacle of once proud, happy Americans shuffling through long lines while uniformed TSA agents bark orders. This is the world of government provided “security,” a world far too many Americans now seem to accept or even endorse. School shootings, no matter how horrific, do not justify creating an Orwellian surveillance state in America.

(Selection and emphasis by ThinkProgress)

This is an awesome point.  But ThinkProgress follows it up with many of the problems with Ron Paul's connected views -- which I think reflects the overall problems with Ron Paul's politics.  He's good at identifying major problems and standing up to them.  He's not so good at providing reasonable, evidence-based solutions to those problems.

Unfortunately, Paul also repeated several myths about guns in an attempt to equate calls for regulation of gun ownership with the NRA’s lunacy. His suggestion that “more guns equals less crime” is belied by the most recent research; the reverse is most likely true. Likewise, Paul’s claim that “private gun ownership prevents many shootings” is not supported by any real research. And the idea that gun control can’t work because “criminals don’t obey laws”misunderstands the several policy proposals on the table that would almost certainly save lives.

Paul appears to simply oppose any action to address gun murders, saying somewhat bizarrely that “our federal government has zero moral authority to legislate against violence.” His conclusion is the same as that of the editors of National Reviewmass murder is the price of freedom.

(Emphasis mine.)

Eff yeah France: free birth control for teenagers

Slate reports:

NPR reports that France is adopting a new regulation making contraception and contraception counseling free to girls 15 to 18, with an added provision that doctors must offer this care without notifying parents. Unlike here in the U.S., the free contraception is covered by the state and not a girl's insurance, giving her a further layer of privacy protections. The government hopes that by protecting young girls' privacy, it can increase contraception use and reduce the teen pregnancy rate.

So: Straightforward, almost boring health care policy story about a government taking sensible, cost-effective measures to curb a public health problem. But the story isn't really about health care policy—the underlying narrative here is that the French are yet again making American politicians look like a bunch of out of touch prudes. (Americans don't need the French to point this out: Just wander into an American abstinence-only classroom to hear sexually active kids being told that anything short of waiting the 15-plus years between puberty and the average age of first marriage to have sex is a ruinous choice that will end with the fornicator unable to feel love or dead from AIDS.)

Everybody sensible knows that American politics can't hold up its current bad decisions and wrong positions.  Eventually all the people who care about them will die, or America will slip below first-world status and we'll have a schism, or the NRA will shoot everyone.  Or we'll elect some sane people soon.  Don't want to rule that out.

It's nice to know that, while we flounder, the rest of the world continues to move forward.

Guns in the US

There was an ad before a YouTube video I watched earlier today,  unfortunately I didn't have the presence of mind to save the link -- I think it's safe to assume that they would have already paid for the advertising, that they didn't (a.) throw up the ad after hearing about the shooting this morning, or (b.) have the ability to pull it from airing for a respectful period of time.  My point isn't that the ad was in poor taste.  Just that it exists. It was an ad for a company in California, that sells kits to assemble guns at home.  The ad featured (in fact, entirely consisted of) a man explaining that it's not illegal to buy the parts of a gun, even if you can't buy the gun itself, how to machine those parts to create the gun they're parts of, and in what ways you can avoid registering the gun.  Apparently, registration has to happen at the point where the gun is sold, at least in California, so if you make it yourself, nobody has to know that you own it.

It's not hard to qualify for a gun in the United States.  But apparently, that's not enough -- there are also companies whose business is helping people who don't qualify get around the law with loopholes, so they can have guns without letting anyone know.

I'm angry.

I'm angry because I know how many times in the next few weeks I'm going to hear people say that this couldn't have been prevented.  And because I know I'm going to hear that, even if guns were substantially more controlled, this kid would have gotten them anyway.  Or that he would have done just as much damage if he had some other weapon.

After the Aurora, CO shooting, PolitiFact responded to Facebook claims that the United States has the most gun violence in the world:

According to data collected by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, several other countries had more gun homicides than the U.S., and perhaps 17 countries had a higher rate of gun homicides than the U.S. when population is factored in. However, when comparing the U.S. to its most direct equivalents -- affluent nations in Europe and Asia -- the U.S. has far more gun homicides than they do. We rated this one Half True.

Emphasis mine.

So, we have less violence than countries like Somalia.  We're outdone in gun violence per capita by the nation states who are constantly at war with themselves and each other.

And I'm angry that people will say "If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns."  First of all, because it reduces a complex legislative discussion to all-or-nothing, and secondly, because other developed countries clearly illustrate the reality that more gun control means less gun death.

The UK is widely acknowledged to have some of the strictest gun laws in the world.  Wikipedia has a list of world nations by firearm related death rate.  The United States is twelfth, at 9 deaths per 100,000 people annually (data 2008-2010).  The UK is sixty-fifth, at 0.22 deaths per 100,000 people annually (data 2009).  That is, eleventh from the bottom of the list.  That is, about 41 times more gun death in the US than the UK.

And to the point about people just finding other ways to kill people, the US rate of murders per 100,000 people is 4.2; the UK's is 1.2.  As for the discrepancy with the numbers, a lot of gun death in America is by suicide.  The American suicide rate per 100,000 annually is 12.  UK; 6.9.

Now, correlation does not prove causation.  But it offers a fracking big hint.  And this correlation absolutely disproves the premise that more gun laws = more gun violence.

Plenty of people will say that we shouldn't make this political.  That it's a tragedy.  That we have to wait a respectful amount of time before we start the argument about gun violence.  They said that after the Aurora shooting.  And the shooting before that.  And the shootings before that.

We didn't ever get around to changing the rules last time.  We won't, this time, either -- if we pretend that gun control legislation is somehow irreverent.  There may not be a sufficiently respectful amount of time after this shooting, before there's another one.

Since (and including) the Columbine shooting in April of 1999, there have been 31 mass shootings in America.  That's close to two and a half per year.

We're over the average so far in 2012, at 3, but there are less than 20 days left this year.  Is that a respectful amount of time?

Quinn Norton's eulogy for #Occupy

(via Boing Boing) Quinn Norton, a reporter who followed the #Occupy movement from near the beginning, living camp to camp with the protesters, has written a eulogy for the movement.  It's sad, kind of painful, and enlightening to read.  There are bright sides, here and there, but they're few and far between.  She's right -- obviously -- but I kept thinking, the whole way through, that #Occupy failing doesn't discredit the concepts -- that new kinds of social order fail because you try new things until one succeeds.

I cut out some of the pieces I thought were the most poignant, because it's a very long article and I understand if you don't want to read the whole thing.  But it's definitely worth reading.  It's one of the best pieces of journalism I've seen lately.

Here's the link.

Because the [General Assembly] had no way to reject force, over time it fell to force. Proposals won by intimidation; bullies carried the day. What began as a way to let people reform and remake themselves had no mechanism for dealing with them when they didn’t. It had no way to deal with parasites and predators. It became a diseased process, pushing out the weak and quiet it had meant to enfranchise until it finally collapsed when nothing was left but predators trying to rip out each other’s throats.

[...]

The police would quietly tell stories of their own to me. Never attributable, never usable in the normal course of journalism. They were the terrible things that go on in dark places in America, the things that hurt them, that turned their assumptions about other people so dark. They talked of picking up the same junkies again and again, of returning beaten girls to their tormentors, powerless to stop the sickening cycle of violence. One told me he’d covered up a disturbing sex crime. I looked at him questioningly, and he explained that the powerlessness of the victim meant the best he could do was let them escape into the night. We were both distressed, but him with a gun, and me with a pen, were both powerless.

[...]

As the camps became darker, the women mostly left, and those who remained were grateful to just be left alone. By my count Occupy had dropped from as high as 40 percent women to less then 10 percent, in an atmosphere of sexual violence, bare intimidation and hatred. By then for a certain kind of occupier, anything with breasts was a target in the camps, either for scorn or being too sexy or being insufficiently sexy. It was never the majority, but the majority did nothing to stop it. They had a progressive stack in the GA that purported to let women speak first, but no one talked about the comments, the groping, the rumors of rapes.

[...]

Less understood was the other part of Occupy — the part that was about the need for community. Occupiers came to the camps to care for others as much as they came to be cared for. People had to find a way to matter to each other in ways that weren’t mediated by the social services, the justice system, the institutions we stick each other into.

It was this need to serve each other, not any political message, that stocked the kitchens and filled the comfort barrels. It was that which kept volunteers up for days, taking care of drug addicts and neurotic students and old men with failing bodies.

By DC, the last eviction I wrote about, not even I could stay outside this need anymore. We all stood on the police line, cold and wet and sad, 12 hours into the rainy eviction. We took blows and kicks from riot police and SWAT rather than step on the people behind us that had slipped in the mud. We had relearned in each argument and every pitched tent that the fundamental job of humans is to care for one another, to keep each other whole and safe.

It was this drive which linked arms and quietly waited for violence in front of a thousand TV cameras the world over — this, and nothing more.

Fingers crossed that something better happens soon.

Slate on the Fiscal Cliff

Honestly, I don't really know how to follow this whole fiscal cliff thing.  It's big and complicated and I can't get a straight answer from anywhere about whether it's really likely to happen or if this is just chest-thumping. But Slate's coverage, if it's accurate, cleared at least one thing up for me.

Our government is run by fracking children.

 [...I]f there is ever going to be a deal, it will only happen if Boehner looks like he has dragged the president somewhere President Obama doesn’t want to go. Each time the speaker makes a public display, as he did today, it shows that he is fighting the good fight and holding the president's feet to the fire. Now, if there is a deal, he can say, "I beat on the president about cutting spending, and he gave in." Members are going to look closely at the math above the theatrics, but if Boehner were unable to point to moments of peril and stalemate, his rank-and-file will just assume he got rolled. Therefore, this statement that seems to be about frustration—which would suggest we're farther than ever from a deal—can actually be seen as a necessary prerequisite for a deal.

The one trick for Boehner is that he can’t appear to be too effective. He doesn’t want to stir his members into such a fevered pitch that they don’t accept any deal. Perhaps that’s why Boehner described his meeting with the president this weekend as “nice” and “cordial.”

Emphasis mine.

What the hell?  Why is it okay for our government to balance our economic stability on the possibility of bruised egos? It's like we elected a bunch of eight year olds, and a few of them have started to notice that they can't keep throwing tantrums without blowing everything up -- but now the atmosphere of the political dialogue is "I want my toys and my candy and I want to get to stay up late and I don't want to clean my room."

Eyewitness recognition

The New York Times has published an editorial about a court decision in Oregon to shift the burden of proof in an eyewitness identification to the prosecution:

The Oregon Supreme Court in a unanimous decision last week upended how eyewitness identification is to be used in criminal trials. The landmark ruling shifts the burden of proof to prosecutors to show that such identification is sufficiently reliable to be admissible as evidence at trial. Misidentification is the country’s leading cause of wrongful convictions. By altering the legal standard, Oregon has set an example that other states and the federal courts would be wise to follow.

[...]

In ruling that such evidence should be subject to stricter standards, the court took into account three decades of scientific research showing that memory and perception can be highly unreliable. “Because of the alterations to memory that suggestiveness can cause,” the court said, “it is incumbent on courts and law enforcement personnel to treat eyewitness memory just as carefully as they would other forms of trace evidence, like DNA, bloodstains, or fingerprints, the evidentiary value of which can be impaired or destroyed by contamination.”

Kids' soceoeconomic status and brain function

Children of low socioeconomic status work harder to filter out irrelevant environmental information than those from a high-income background because of learned differences in what they pay attention to, according to new research published in the open access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Hey, look!  More evidence that severe income inequality objectively handicaps poorer children.  This is from the recent EurekAlert article, Family's economic situation influences brain function in children.  It turns out, while wealthier kids' brains more actively respond to information they need to respond to positively, seeking opportunities, poorer kids' brains constantly scan for things to go wrong, and respond when they know they have to, when there doesn't seem to be any threat.

There were no significant differences between the two groups in the accuracy or reaction time during the task. The researchers did, however, observe differences in brain wave patterns between the two groups. Higher SES children exhibited far larger theta waves in response to sounds they attended to than to than those they should have ignored. In the lower SES children, however, this pattern was reversed – the theta waves evoked by the unattended sounds were much larger than those for the attended sounds.

[...]

The findings suggest that lower SES children have to exert more cognitive control to avoid attending to irrelevant stimuli than higher SES children, and that doing so therefore requires more mental effort. This may be because they live in more threatening environments, in which it might be advantageous to pay attention to a broad range of environmental stimuli which are not unambiguous distractions, and may turn out to be important for survival.

This is good science, but more importantly, isn't it kind of horrifying that some classes of American children are in such a more threatening environment that their brains end up wired completely differently?

The Patent Office Lies

(via Boing Boing) So apparently the guy in charge of the Patent office, thinks he's doing an awesome job.  He recently gave a speech defending the policies of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, arguing among other things that the ridiculous amount of patent litigation going on at the moment is evidence that patents are working -- that it's good that they spark so many lawsuits, because it means companies care about defending their patents.

Ars Technica tears this argument apart:

This argument ducks the central question in the software patent debate: do patents, in fact, provide a net incentive for innovation in the software industry? Many entrepreneurs say that just the opposite is true: that the disincentive to innovation created by the threat of patent litigation dwarfs any positive incentive effects created by the ability for a firm to get patents of its own.

Empirical evidence backs this up. For example, in a 2008 book, the researchers James Bessen and Michael Meurer found that for nonchemical patents, the costs of patent litigation began to exceed the benefits of holding patents in the 1990s. Software and business patents were particularly prone to litigation.

Earlier in their article, Ars quotes David Kappos, the aforementioned boss, saying "Our patent system is the envy of the world."  Which isn't true.  And it's symptomatic of the problems all over America right now -- we're not the worst country.  But we're not the best, and we're slipping further and further behind in every category trying to hang onto the belief that we're #1.

America is great at pioneering -- we had one of the first post-industrial economies.  We invented the assembly line.  We invented the nuke.  We invented the internet.  We're awesome at that stuff.  But we're really, really bad at being the best at stuff after it catches on everywhere else.  The rest of the world takes our ideas and improves and perfects them, and we rest on the laurels of whatever thing we last invented.

SkyScrapers in DC

I figured I was probably going to like any article with the headline Skyscrapers in DC would be good for America.  I was not mistaken.

The main issue is that DC area real estate is one of the primary "inputs" to the federal government. If housing in the DC area became cheaper, then in effect real compensation of DC-area federal employees would rise (allowing the government to attract better workers) at no cost to the taxpayer. Similarly, the federal government would just straightforwardly save money if it didn't need to pay such high rents for office space. And as well as being the most expensive office market in America, DC also has one of the most expensive hotel markets in the country which raises the cost of doing routine federal business which often requires federal workers based elsewhere to travel to agency headquarters' in the DC region.

I have occasional arguments with people about whether the US should be more urbanized. I think it should.  A lot of people think that living in the city is an occasionally necessary evil which everyone should avoid if they can.

According to the CIA world factbook, 85% of Americans lived in cities as of 2010, so making cities better is kind of a big deal.  And one of the problems with American urbanization is sprawl.  When I say "Bigger cities," I don't mean "More sprawl."  I don't mean that more of the empty space in America should be turned into two-to-three story tall fields of suburbs and strip malls.

Instead, I think we need to make the existing cities more friendly to increasing density. Skyscrapers are a great way to do this, and since DC is the most important city in American politics, it needs to be more open to access and development.

Heh, it turns out Texas can't secede

I've heard many times throughout my life that, when they became a state, Texas secured the right to secede whenever they liked.  I never had any particular reason to question it.  I mean, it was always a kind of nice-sounding idea; one less state with massive support of guns and Republicans, more progress for the rest of us on the federal level. It turns out, though, that that's just another element of puffery perpetuated, presumably, by Texans who want to feel special.

They do, apparently, have the right to split themselves up into 5 states within the US, without Congress's permission.  This would mean that Texas's total population would have five times as much representation in the Senate, though I believe that it wouldn't affect their representation in the House of Representatives.

After the 2008 election, recent mathematical superstar Nate Silver wrote up a theoretical breakdown of Texas into five sub-states, linked here, via this article on Slate.  That article also addresses Texas's only real shot at secession:

Could the current crop of Texas secessionists use the division clause in pursuit of their separatist goals? It would certainly be worth a shot. Naturally, it took the Machiavellian political mind of Texan Tom DeLay—the former House majority leader, currently out on bail while appealing a 2011 money-laundering conviction—to put the pieces of a tenable scheme together. The day after Perry blew his secessionist dog whistle to that reporter back in 2009, DeLay went on MSNBC's Hardball to cheerfully defend his governor's remarks. When host Chris Matthews insisted (correctly) that unilateral secession was illegal and couldn't take place, DeLay stopped his maniacal grinning for a moment and cited the division clause.

In a sign of just how much the two political parties' fortunes have shifted in Texas since the days when John Nance Garner represented the state in Congress, DeLay intimated that the threat of sending eight newly minted, and almost certainly Republican, senators to Washington might be the key to getting this whole secession ball rolling. Referring directly to the language of the joint resolution, he said, "If we invoke it, the United States Senate would kick us out ... because they're not going to allow 10 (sic) new Texas senators into the Senate. That's how you secede."

Changing the GOP

I've heard a lot lately about the GOP needing to change to remain competitive as a party.  I honestly think that it's more likely that we'll last at least four more years of blindly ignoring reality, but it's fun to see the conversation.  This article at Slate addresses a number of directions that reformation could go.

2. Illegal immigrants epitomize American values. If the Republican argument against illegal immigrants is that they “don't share our values,” Bret Stephens writes in the Wall Street Journal, “then religiosity, hard work, personal stoicism and the sense of family obligation expressed through billions of dollars in remittances aren't American values.” So get over your ethnic hang-ups and your English-only fixation. “What's so awful about Spanish?” Stephens asks. “It's a fine European language with an outstanding literary tradition—Cervantes, Borges, Paz, Vargas Llosa—and it would do you no harm to learn it. Bilingualism is an intellectual virtue.”

[...]

4. Gay marriage is a bourgeois triumph. “Public support for same-sex marriage has risen a lot, among young people especially, and the Republican Party will have to soften its opposition to it,” writes Bloomberg’s Ramesh Ponnuru. Will counsels that conservatives “need not endorse such policies, but neither need they despise those, such as young people, who favor them.” Gerson, looking at the same poll numbers, says “it is more advisable than ever to make public arguments about morality in aspirational rather than judgmental ways.” Stephens adds:

If gay people wish to lead conventionally bourgeois lives by getting married, that may be lunacy on their part but it's a credit to our values. Channeling passions that cannot be repressed toward socially productive ends is the genius of the American way. The alternative is the tapped foot and the wide stance.

That’s a neat fusion of conservative impulses: realism about human nature, skepticism toward naïve laws, attention to cultural consequences. You can see, in these reflections, how the GOP gradually reconciles itself to same-sex marriage.

I like these changes, not because I think they're reasonable or sane, but because the more the GOP compromises their own fringe beliefs, the further to the left the Overton Window slides.

The voting map is less red than it seems

(via Vondell Swain on Tumblr) I just reblogged this on Tumblr, but it deserves more attention, so I'm posting about it here, too.  Someone named Chris Howard on Facebook posted this image:

The map in the top middle is the one I saw on election night.  The map on the top left is the way it would look if you broke down the wins by county.  It actually kinda looks more red, doesn't it?  Over on the right, you have it in shades of purple based on the split -- most of the country looks pretty divided, and it seems to make sense that more of it skewed blue.  But it still might not look totally fair that the Democratic president gets to run this apparently very right-leaning country.

Then, the big map on the bottom, shows another level of overlay -- the counties are washed out based on population density.  Suddenly, it becomes apparent that those handfuls of counties that skew blue are where basically all of the people are.

A study on beliefs about climate change in Australia revealed some interesting trends: it seems like pretty much everyone underestimates the number of people who believe that climate change is happening, and everyone over-estimates the number of people who believe it isn't. John Timmer at ArsTechnica writes:

The false consensus effect became obvious when the researchers looked at what these people thought that everyone else believed. Here, the false consensus effect was obvious: every single group believed that their opinion represented the plurality view of the population. This was most dramatic among those who don't think that the climate is changing; even though they represent far less than 10 percent of the population, they believed that over 40 percent of Australians shared their views. Those who profess ignorance also believed they had lots of company, estimating that their view was shared by a quarter of the populace.

[...]

But there was also evidence of pluralistic ignorance. Every single group grossly overestimated the number of people who were unsure about climate change or convinced it wasn't occurring. Even those who were convinced that humans were changing the climate put 20 percent of Australians into each of these two groups.

The authors of the study suggest that this could be "a result of the media's tendency to always offer two opposing opinions, even on issues where one is a fringe belief."  (AT)  Hopefully, this research will give new tools to consciousness-raising efforts, so we can get closer to a consensus not just that climate change is happening, but that it's not hopeless to do something about it.

Best. Strike. Ever.

SourceFed reports on a push by labor organizers to get WalMart employees to strike on Black Friday.  I want this to happen so bad you have no idea.

According to the video, WalMart employees are kept at low enough wages and hours that, on average, costs the government $2.66 billion through assistance programs like food stamps.  So, I guess, never mind the arguments about poor people gaming the system so they don't have to work as hard as everyone else.  It turns out, it's major corporations gaming the system to get the government to subsidize employee pay and benefits.

Also, apparently, there's this:

The last straw for Walmart’s workers was the announcement that they were having their earliest opening for Black Friday ever – 8 pm on Thanksgiving Day. 

Again:  I want this to happen, so bad, you have no idea.

#walmartstrikers

"The People's Bailout"

I've seen this mentioned a few times, but I've only just gotten around to checking out what it is, via Cory Doctorow on Boing Boing.  It turns out, you can buy up outstanding debts -- this is what debt collectors do (I guess the idea is the original company figures they aren't getting paid, so they cut their losses selling the debt at a massive discount).  Those debt collectors, in David Rees's words, "hound debtors to their grave trying to collect." The People's Bailout is a variety show that's taking place this November in New York, raising money from the Rolling Jubilee, buys debt just like debt collectors, for pennies on the dollar.  That's it.  The debt collectors have a second step, extracting the money from suffering people.  The Rolling Jubilee just buys it up and abolishes it.  The debt goes away, forever.

They explain in a youtube video:

It's my understanding that the economic system we work in requires ever-expanding debt -- money is made, loaned to the government at interest, the government loans it to the people at interest, and the people loan it to each other at interest, and to cover all that accruing interest, we have to print more money...

It seems to me like there has to be some point where we just accept that not all the debts are getting paid -- and this seems like an awesome way to do it.  We can dial back the impact of debt on people's lives, and if we can bring down the costs that get those people into debt in the first place (cheaper education, available food, housing and healthcare, etc.) we can keep the civilization we seem all to want, without creating a self-destructing underclass (and, by extension, a self-destructing civilization.)

These people are on my list for potential future charity debt listings.  I'm looking forward to seeing where this goes.

Cool political maps

(via io9) Buzzfeed has a really cool set of maps that shows how this election would have broken down if the circumstances of various past points in American history had limited the voting populace (only white people, only men, etc.)  Here's one of them, how the election would have gone if only men (regardless of race) had been allowed to vote.

Check out the rest here.

A job coming back? Rumor about Foxconn coming to Detroit or LA

Via TechCrunch DigiTimes reports that Foxconn, the Chinese company that does a lot of Apple's manufacturing, is looking into setting up plants in the US, specifically "conducting evaluations in cities such as Detroit and Los Angeles".   I don't know much about DigiTimes's credibility, but TechCrunch doesn't appear to put a huge amount of stock in their predictions:

We can obviously take Digitimes with a grain of salt here, but the prospect of having a plant in Detroit could revitalize old plants that are currently rusting away at the city’s core.

Foxconn is possibly best known for having working conditions so horrible that they had to put nets outside their buildings to minimize employee suicide.

During the second debate, Romney talked about getting jobs back from China.  I wonder if these are the jobs he's talking about -- I prefer Obama's position, some of the jobs aren't coming back, and that's good, because they're terrible jobs and Americans should have better.