Sunday, June 30, 2013

Movement Toward Gay Marriage and the Myth of Roe v. Wade

Although I rarely find Charles Krauthammer to make a meaningful contribution to a public discussion, and his column on the DOMA decision isn't really an exception, he is repeating some unimpressive arguments raised often enough that it may be worth attempting to push them back. Before I get to the current column, I'll travel back in time seven years to some of his prior musings on the subject. Back then, Krauthammer was pushing the anti-gay marriage canard that if you allow gay marriage it inevitably follows that you should legalize polygamy:
In an essay 10 years ago, I pointed out that it is utterly logical for polygamy rights to follow gay rights. After all, if traditional marriage is defined as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender, and if, as advocates of gay marriage insist, the gender requirement is nothing but prejudice, exclusion and an arbitrary denial of one's autonomous choices in love, then the first requirement -- the number restriction (two and only two) -- is a similarly arbitrary, discriminatory and indefensible denial of individual choice.
Right there, Krauthammer give us pretty much all the evidence we need that his thinking on this issue is weak, and that he doesn't understand the legal issues involved in the case. I don't want to assume to much, but I would hope that even Krauthammer would concede that to apply a similar argument to anti-miscegenation laws would be an "epic fail".
After all, if traditional marriage is defined as the union of (1) two people of (2) the same race, and if, as advocates of interracial marriage insist, the race requirement is nothing but prejudice, exclusion and an arbitrary denial of one's autonomous choices in love, then the first requirement -- the number restriction (two and only two) -- is a similarly arbitrary, discriminatory and indefensible denial of individual choice.
I know that opponents of marriage equality argue vociferously that "allowing gay marriage is completely different from allowing interracial marriage", but the reason that comparison comes up is because of arguments like Krauthammer's. By his "logic", there is no distinction - if you don't allow discrimination in which of two, unmarried adults can get married, you cannot defend restricting the institution of marriage to two unmarried adults.

The response of many opponents of gay marriage is that being gay is not a protected category - it's not on the short list of factors that the state is supposed to scrupulously avoid using to discriminate between citizens - and thus the reasoning behind Loving does not extend to gay marriage. That because the discrimination is not based upon a protected class such as race, religion, national origin, color, (in their opinion) sex, or another such category, that the courts should not concern themselves with the question. Krauthammer does not appear to be working from the "protected category" argument, because "married vs. unmarried" isn't on that list.

The language of DOMA permitted the Supreme Court to resolve the case from a different angle - that Congress intruded into an area of law traditionally left to the states (domestic relations) in order to impose restrictions and disabilities on a class of people, and thus ultimately violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government. What frightens opponents of marriage equality is that the court all but said that there is not even a rational basis for opposing gay marriage - that should the issue be squarely raised. Given that the two leading arguments against gay marriage (and you'll forgive me if I missed a third)1 are "tradition" and various forms of "gay sex is icky", it's not surprising that they are concerned that a future court might find there to be no rational basis for the continued state-level prohibition.

Perhaps Krauthammer accepts that the arguments against gay marriage are fundamentally weak. Perhaps, like many gay marriage opponents, he starts channeling Rick Santorum - never mind that the same "slippery slope" argument applies to anti-miscegenation laws (and were probably applied to that particular marriage equality argument in certain parts of the country). The slippery slope argument can be raised about any change, and its use is usually fallacious. In this particular instance, no surprise, it is fallacious.

We can start with this: When you have two unmarried individuals, the marriage contract is between them and them alone. If you then say, "We don't care if you're married already, you are free to marry an additional spouse," you risk infringing the rights of the existing spouse. And if you require that spouse's knowing consent to the new marriage - or should I say, all spouses - you're conceding a significant difference between the marriage of unmarried people and the marriage where one or more of the parties to the marriage is already married. Adding additional spouses is not, as Krauthammer blithely asserts an "individual choice" because the marriage already involves more than one individual. States have created bodies of law addressing the rights and duties of married couples, property division upon divorce, child custody upon separation or divorce, what property is part of the marital estate, pension and inheritance rights, access to health insurance benefits, taxes, housing laws, eligibility for social services.... When you add additional parties to the mix, every single one of those laws would need to be revisited and would become ridiculously complex.

There's a reason why the few nations that permit polygamy restrict that right to the male partner, and given him most of the rights within the marriage including in relation to assets and the children - because once you move toward an egalitarian arrangement it becomes extraordinarily difficult to create legal institutions around multi-partner marriages. In those cultures, the marriage is a constant that revolves around the man. Women can enter or leave the marriage. But if you attempt to create egalitarian multi-partner marriages you create a context in which the marriage can continue even after one or more partners leaves. You could end up with a marriage in which the original parties to the marriage are no longer involved, a 'divorce' that creates two or more new 'marriages' in its wake, and claims to custody or visitation from a wide assortment of moms and dads.

If you're not willing to directly address the weakness of the argument for proscribing gay marriage, perhaps it's not surprising that you've given even less thought to the weakness of the slippery slope argument you throw up as a shield. But whether or not you support polygamy, you cannot avoid the fact that there is a rational distinction between categorizing people as "married" versus "unmarried", and you cannot avoid acknowledging the complexity of rebuilding our nation's laws to accommodate marriages involving multiple parties.2

Krauthammer agrees that gay marriage poses no threat to "traditional marriage", so his argument really is one of fairness,
Posit a union of, say, three gay women all deeply devoted to each other. On what grounds would gay activists dismiss their union as mere activity rather than authentic love and self-expression?
That's a group choice, not, as he earlier posited, an individual choice. Here, Krauthammer is shifting the question from "is there a rational basis for the state to treat unmarried people differently from married people" to "If we allow gay marriage, is it unfair to people who want polygamous marriage." The "logic" here appears to be that it's better to be unfair to large numbers of people than it is to be unfair to smaller numbers of people, without regard to whether the distinction can be explained or justified - and that argument ultimately betrays the fact that Krauthammer's argument lacks a logical foundation. His argument boils down to, "It may be unfair to gay people to not allow them to marry, but allowing gay marriage would not end the unfairness to polygamists that they can't engage in multi-partner marriages, so we shouldn't do it.
As for gay marriage, I've come to a studied ambivalence. I think it is a mistake for society to make this ultimate declaration of indifference between gay and straight life, if only for reasons of pedagogy. On the other hand, I have gay friends and feel the pain of their inability to have the same level of social approbation and confirmation of their relationship with a loved one that I'm not about to go to anyone's barricade to deny them that. It is critical, however, that any such fundamental change in the very definition of marriage be enacted democratically and not (as in the disastrous case of abortion) by judicial fiat.
"...if only for reasons of pedagogy"? How... compelling. To me, that does not sound like an expression of "studied ambivalence" - it sounds like a preference for the status quo and the willingness to disregard the consequences of his policy preferences on any class of people who aren't Charles Krauthammer. As for the conclusion about judicial fiat... call it foreshadowing.

For a guy who wants us to see him as "ambivelent" on the subject of gay marriage, Krauthammer seems to have little conflict - beyond that one-time nod to the pain suffered by his "gay friends", but all of his arguments come down on the other side. For example, he imagines that gay marriage will lead to a "war on religion", picturing a religious college that is sued for denying a married, gay couple the opportunity to live in married student housing. Never mind that the school could avoid being a casualty of this imagined war simply by refusing federal money - a notion that I guess Krauthammer finds far more disturbing than discrimination against gay couples. Krauthammer complains, "It will be sued everywhere in the country if it’s declared to be a constitutional right, because it would imply that anybody who opposes it does it only out of bigotry, for no other reason". Given that the only other reasons for opposing gay marriage that Krauthammer has acknowledged are "pedagogy" and that "allowing gay marriage would be unfair to polygamists"... I suppose he makes a valid point. To assume that all marriage opponents are anti-gay bigots can be said to be making the mistake of attributing to malice something that at times will be better explained by ignorance.

Krauthammer's ambivelence is cast further into doubt by his recent column on the subject. Krauthammer proposes that there are only two possible grounds for holding DOMA to be unconstitutional, federalism and leaving the institution of marriage to the states, and equal protection. Krauthammer sees the two justifications as irreconcilable, and thus that it's inevitable that the Supreme Court will rule that all states must allow gay marriage. I'm not sure whether I should take that to mean that Krauthammer is implicitly conceding that there's no rational basis for laws prohibiting gay marriage, or if he's unable to fathom why the court does not find "reasons of pedagogy" to be an adequate basis for discrimination.

From a technical standpoint, Krauthammer is conflating a decision holding that the federal government cannot arbitrarily curb the rights of a group of people with an emphasis on interstate recognition of marriage, with state legislation that is entirely intrastate in nature. Krauthammer complains about equal protection,
In states with same-sex marriage, Washington must give the same federal benefits to gay couples as to straight couples because to do otherwise is to discriminate against the gay couples. After all, they are equally married in their states. For Washington to discriminate against them is to deny them equal protection of the laws. Such discrimination is nothing more than irrational animus — and therefore constitutionally inadmissible.
Except the Supreme Court was commenting not on state laws for or against gay marriage, but on a federal law that targeted married gay couples and stripped them of a basic legal protection - to have their lawful marriages respected by other states. As the Court put it, "The Act’s demonstrated purpose is to ensure that if any State decides to recognize same-sex marriages, those unions will be treated as second-class marriages for purposes of federal law." There's nothing inherent in the Windsor decision that removes from a state the right to forbid same sex marriages within its borders - but that state will no longer have a federal statute that it can point to as a justification for disregarding the validity of gay marriages lawfully entered in other states.

In other words, Krauthammer's argument only holds if he believes that there are no better arguments for opposing gay marriage than those proposed by the defenders of DOMA. I'm not sure if I should take this as an implicit abandonment of his notion that gay marriage can be forbidden "for reasons of pedagogy", but it's safe to infer that he does not expect the Supreme Court to find a law premised upon his position to have a rational basis.

As Krauthammer sees it, the problem with this decision is that it paves the way for a future decision that will require all states to permit gay marriage.
Which is exactly where the majority’s [equal protection] rationale leads — nationalizing gay marriage, the way Roe nationalized abortion. This is certainly why David Boies, the lead attorney in the companion Proposition 8 case, was so jubilant when he came out onto the courthouse steps after the ruling. He understood immediately that once the court finds it unconstitutional to discriminate between gay and straight couples, nationalizing gay marriage is just one step away.
I know there's a "conventional wisdom" that holds that but for the opinion in Roe v. Wade we would have had a national debate that would have led toward reproductive freedom across the country, and that the reason we have a continued debate over abortion rights is because the Supreme Court cut that debate short. The only problem with that argument is, well, everything. Roe v. Wade is controversial because it's at the center of the abortion rights debate, but despite decades of controversy and opprobrium it was, is, and remains consistent with public opinion. To the extent that Roe foreclosed part of a debate, it was not the part that would lead toward the expansion of reproductive freedoms for women, it was the effort to restrict and outlaw abortion procedures. Scott Lemieux argues,
In general, the comparison of abortion politics before and after Roe v. Wade is most consistent with the expectations held by skeptics of judicial exceptionalism. Clearly, the legitimation hypothesis is not applicable in the abortion case. The court’s intervention certainly did not resolve the abortion issue in any meaningful sense, and the public certainly did not accept the court’s verdict as the final word on the issue. On the other hand, there is also little evidence that the court’s action would have produced more countermobilization than a similar policy enacted by Congress or state legislatures. The pro-life movement was a powerful force before Roe, and the decision did not demonstrably change either the tone of abortion discourse or the distribution of public opinion on the issue. There is no evidence, specifically or generally, that policy-making by the courts is thought of as inherently illegitimate by the public. It should be re-emphasized that these empirical findings do not mean that there was no countermobilization against Roe.... Certainly, abortion politics are more salient at the level of presidential politics in 2003 than they were in 1972 when George McGovern declined to take a position on the issue. The comparison of abortion politics before and after Roe, however, compels the strong inference that it is the nationalization of abortion politics represented by Roe, and not the legalization of [abortion], that is the key variable in explaining this shift. Hypothetically, had Congress passed (and been constitutionally able) to pass legislation with similar policy content, there can be little question that abortion would have become a more salient issue in presidential politics as well.
Lemieux's argument, as exemplified by his reference to McGovern, is also consistent with the fact that it was not until the Reagan era, and its effort to turn the religious right into a permanent Republican voting bloc, that being "pro-life" became a litmus test in the Republican Party.

Krauthammer is not demonstrating concern that this theoretical cut-off of debate predicated by decisions like Roe or Windsor will prevent the development of abortion rights and gay marriage as national legal rights. For example, if he's truly concerned about federalism, why didn't he blow a gasket about DOMA, a law that allowed state legislatures to avoid trying to create laws and policies consistent with their own constitutions and the U.S. Constitution. What meaningful debate did we have in the decade after the passage of DOMA?

Krauthammer's selective focus on court decisions that lead toward gay marriage, and his (at best) disinterest in state and federal legislation and ballot initiatives that attempt to impede or prevent movement toward gay marriage, suggests that his opposition is to the expansion of rights and not to the means by which those rights are expanded or protected. In this specific case it seems less that Krauthammer's actual objection is to the fact that the Supreme court intervened, and is more to the fact that he is unable to articulate a single reason why the Court's decision was incorrect.
1. A third argument might be, "If gay marriage is allowed, the result will be to weaken the traditional institution of marriage." The primary problem with that argument is that there's no evidence to support it, not even from jurisdictions that permit gay marriage. If you don't care whether your argument is supported by evidence, you could as easily argue that gay marriage will bring on a Martian invasion. Either way, in the absence of evidence you're blowing smoke.

2. Krauthammer claimed, "This line of argument makes gay activists furious" - no, Charles, this is what "furious" looks like; odds are that was people pointing and laughing.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Obesity as a Disease

In the Washington Post, Esther J. Cepeda asks what to me seems to be an odd question about obesity:
Is obesity truly a disease that requires medical treatment and prevention, as the American Medical Association recently proclaimed? Or is it still more accurately a “condition” with too many variables and factors to shoehorn into a neat category?
Perhaps by "condition" Cepeda means "symptom"? Which would potentially put obesity in the same category as pneumonia - the cause may be a bacterial or viral infection, but you can start treating the pneumonia before you know the exact cause? Or is it because obesity has a behavioral health element, and the comment represents resistance to treating conditions with a significant psychological element as diseases? The author opines that it does not matter, "if a label with more gravitas is what it’ll take for obesity to be taken seriously, then let’s go with it", but at heart it does matter because if the public perception remains "Obesity results from a lack of willpower - if you have the strength to push away from the table it's nobody's fault but your own", the label the medical community uses has little relevance save perhaps as to determining whether and when treatment should be covered by insurance.

The author makes some good points about nutrition - most doctors know little about it, and too few doctors given any appreciable amount of counseling or information to their patients about weight.
In 1998, the National Institutes of Health recommended that health care professionals advise obese patients to lose weight. In 2011, research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that of participants in government health surveys, one-third of obese patients and 55 percent of overweight patients said a doctor had never told them they were overweight.
I know of doctors who believe that they fulfill the first duty by telling patients, "You should lose weight," which usually has all of the impact and relevance as, "You should stop smoking," or "You should exercise more." Making the statement isn't enough. As for the rest, yes, there are significant numbers of people in our society who are in deep denial about how they appear to other people, but I don't believe for a moment that the typical obese person is not aware that he or she carries more than a few extra pounds. For a typical obese person, being told "You're overweight" would be roughly as insightful as telling them, "Hey - you still have a pulse."

Something else to recall is that a big part of how we, as a society, perceive "overweight" has to do with societal standards of beauty, not whether or not a person has achieved a healthy weight. A copy of the Enquirer I saw yesterday at the supermarket checkout stand had a typical tabloid cover about which celebrities - as is usually the case, all women - had gained weight, and which had lost weight to the point of being skeletal, never mind that the celebrities that are "too skinny" may be starving themselves down to the size that allows them to obtain employment. Margaret Cho's account of how she was pressured to lose (too much) weight for her TV show is a couple of decades old, but remains illustrative.

Meanwhile, if you're inclined to pretend that "You should lose weight" is an easy answer, take a look at people you know - overweight, normal, skinny - and contemplate how many of them, in the absence of an illness or surgical procedure, experience or sustain a significant change in their weight. You may know somebody who lost weight and slowly (or quickly) gained it back, you may know somebody who put on weight during (for example) a pregnancy and didn't lose the weight afterward, you may see weight change associated with a physiological change (e.g., menopause), but most people remain relatively constant. From that short list, of those who lost weight and sustained that loss, take a look at how many of them gained the weight during adulthood (e.g., after a pregnancy) and were returning to baseline as opposed to having been overweight throughout their entire lives. Now contemplate the billions of dollars spent each year on diet plans, diet pills, diet supplements, and the like and ask yourself, "If that many people know that they are overweight and want to lose weight, why isn't it happening?"

It's easy enough to ridicule the diet industry as pitching easy answers. What the typical diet book or plan is really pitching, I think, is the notion that you can lose weight without being uncomfortable. The tried and true formula for losing weight is "eat less and exercise more", but people don't really want to hear that. It's not easy to do, and its not easy to sustain. Nebulous comments about "changing your lifestyle"... to include eating less and exercising more... are similarly unhelpful. I am of the opinion that the advice should be tailored to the patient, and should be concrete and case specific. Also, "eat less and exercise more" is not particularly useful advice to somebody whose level of activity will make it difficult for them to lose weight even if they're on an extremely low-calorie diet, or if their weight or other health conditions prevent them from engaging in significant physical activity.

The author suggests that part of the problem lies in "self-esteem",
Perhaps even worse: neither the medical community nor the patient population has figured out sensible, neutral ways to even approach the topic of obesity in the context of the doctor-patient relationship. Part of this can be blamed on Americans’ need to put self-esteem ahead of health, and some also rests on physicians’ bias and poor people skills.

A national survey published in a fall 2011 edition of the journal Pediatrics found that parents feel blamed and respond badly to words such as “fat,” “obese” and “extremely obese.” Parents said they’d feel more motivated if a doctor said their child had an “unhealthy weight,” a “weight problem,” or a “high BMI” (Body Mass Index).
And... we're back to the notion that most overweight people don't know that they're overweight, and that parents of overweight children don't understand that their children are overweight. Again, there are some people who live in a state of denial, but most people - adults and children - are acutely aware of their weight problems. If they're not, society is full of people who will happily draw it to their attention. If patients are more likely to respond when doctors approach the issue with a degree of sensitivity, odds are that's because of their history of acute awareness of their weight and involves the predictable human response to negative judgment on something they're ashamed of or that already caused them to experience a history of judgmental, perhaps abusive comments.

I hope that labeling obesity as a disease helps encourage a response to obesity that is focused less on surgical intervention and more on behavioral health, exercise and nutrition. I do know somebody who, after struggling with eating disorders, has stabilized for a couple of years at a healthy weight - but only after intensive psychological and nutritional counseling. To get that type of treatment you pretty much need to be starving yourself to the point that you need to be hospitalized - even if, prior to that particular manifestation of your psychological condition, you were previously "clinically obese".

Part of me thinks the entire focus is incorrect. The concept of BMI is predicated upon a somewhat average individual, and it becomes a useless measure when applied to bodybuilders. Why do we draw from that the notion that bodybuilders are the exception. We know that we can make poeple of any weight healthier by helping them engage in additional physical activity. I would not argue that we should refrain from offering nutritional advice, but during the broad range in which weight is primarily a cosmetic issue as opposed to an imminent health issue I think we should focus on trying to find people develop types and levels of physical activity that fit with their lifestyles, and which can help them avoid additional weight gain while improving their physical health and muscle tone - providing appropriate education about how the initial effect of exercise can be to increase appetite, and also to modestly increase weight as the person starts to add muscle mass. Put the focus on health, not weight.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Fake Presidential Scandals, Then and Now

Paul Krugman suggests an explanation for why the Clinton-era fake scandals kept on going, while similar efforts to build fake scandals involving the Obama Administration seem to be fizzling:
Maybe the news media have actually learned something; maybe they’re effectively disciplined, this time around, by the blogosphere. Anyway, the narrative of a scandal-ridden presidency seems to be evaporating as we speak.
I don't credit the media or blogosphere. I think there are two important distinctions, one relating to the Presidents themselves and the other relating to the scandals.

First, the Clintons had a history of engaging in activity that, although never determined to be anything but lawful, didn't always pass the smell test. The remarkable success of Hillary Clinton's one-type foray into commodities trading, for example, continues to strike me as the sort of investment opportunity that would not have been made available to her were she not the governor's wife. At the same time many of the accusations made against the Clintons were truly unfair, and one of Mike Huckabee's most tragic decisions as governor may have its roots in his acceptance of a ridiculous conspiracy theory.

I don't want to discount the role of public perception, or the media's role in building and perpetuating public perception. But in no small part Clinton himself fed the public perception that was willing to play fast and loose with the facts - his claim that he never broke the drug laws of the United States, that he did not have 'sexual relations' with 'that woman', "it depends on what the definition of 'is' is", etc. - so while "slick Willie" may have been something of a caricature Clinton himself kept throwing fuel on the fire.

In contrast, although various efforts have been made to suggest that Obama is guilty by association for his relationship with Tony Rezko, or "pals around with terrorists" because of his relationship with William Ayers, the overall picture is pretty clear: President Obama has spent his adult life conspicuously avoiding anything that smacks of corruption. While certain right-wing partisans nonetheless scream from the top of their lungs that the Obama Administration is "the most corrupt ever", the facts say pretty much the opposite.

In fairness, that distinction could affect the media - covering a fake Clinton scandal was likely to turn up a colorful character or two, a colorful statement from the President, and perhaps just enough smoke to justify the coverage. Some of the allegation were so absurd ("Clinton murdered Vince Foster") that, even if not taken seriously, they were frequently referenced by those who most hated Clinton (and thus did not particularly care if the allegation was credible) and his supporters (who could use that type of allegation to depict Clinton's attackers, sometimes quite accurately, as loonies). There's no excitement in chasing a typical fake Obama scandals. The only person who can maintain enthusiasm about trying to concoct a direct connection between the actions of some low-level IRS agents and the President seems to be Darrell Issa.

Second, as I just intimated, the Obama scandals are largely boring. The Republicans got quite a bit of mileage out of Benghazi because it involved conspicuous violence and some tragic deaths, but they've run out of "revelations" so the media and public are losing interest. Ken Starr knew how to build a rolling scandal - "Nothing to Whitewater? Then how about we look under these other stones to see what we find." That only works, though, if you find stones that you can turn over, and that scandal seems to be fresh out of stones.

The IRS non-scandal is boring. Complaining that the President was spying on Americans only goes so far when half of the Republican Party is asserting that the present NSA program is a vindication of Bush, and various fire-breathing Republicans (including Michele Bachmann, Steven King, Jeff Flake and Ted Cruz) as well as various Republican "older statesmen" (including Orrin Hatch, Lindsey Graham and Saxby Chambliss) knew exactly what was happening and did not lift a finger to stop the programs. While you do see somewhat comical statements from people like Jim Sensenbrenner ("Whodathunk the USA PATRIOT Act could be used to support this type of monitoring?") the Republicans are at a disadvantage - their most prominent spokespersons knew about the monitoring, did nothing to stop it, and even now have no intention of doing anything to significantly curtail it. "It's horrible that the Obama Administration did this thing that we knew about, didn't stop, and are allowing to continue."

Further, although it's easy enough to engage in fiery rhetoric about how the programs "were illegal" when you actually start looking into the law the discussion becomes rather arcane and the Administration's position starts to look like it was narrowly tailored to fit within established law and precedent. It's the sort of argument that only a lawyer could love, in part because it's somewhat arcane, and in part because if you're not a lawyer or a close follower of the Supreme Court you're unlikely to have the context to participate in a debate and (because you are likely to find it boring) even if you can find a media account that attempts to explain the background in understandable terms you're unlikely to read it. So it devolves into a series of exchanges in which each side pounds the table for a while, with anti-monitoring activists refusing to acknowledge the legal framework for the monitoring, and Administration defenders asserting the lawful nature of the program while avoiding the implications of such programs, until people lose interest.

There's a media angle to that, as well, in that the media wants to generate readers and viewers, and you don't draw an audience by boring them. But that's less a matter of having learned from past mistakes and becoming more disciplined, and more a matter of being less concerned with the story than with its appeal to the masses. A responsible media might bore us a bit with the legal stuff, then engage in a debate over the margins of privacy, how we can protect and value privacy in the modern era, and how to balance privacy and security. If you looked hard enough you could find that sort of discussion back in the Clinton era and you can find it now - but it's not the sort of information the mainstream media actively promotes so you can expect to have to work to find it.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Draft, National Service, and National Unity

A couple of days ago, Michael Gerson seemed to have one of those "the well is dry" moments when he had nothing much to say about contemporary events, and decided to join the ranks of those who believe that some form of "national service" would be a cure for some of our nation's (real or perceived) woes. Gerson draws inspiration from a book by the late William F. Buckley, Jr., in which Buckley waxes poetic about his WWII military service, which was served stateside.
The service movement has always had an element of nostalgia for the shared, unifying burdens of World War II, the United States’ epic of citizenship. In his slim, weighty volume, “Gratitude,” William F. Buckley recalled how his war experience has been a reminder of the “pulsation of consanguinity” that united the “Laramie cowboy” and the “Litterateur in Greenwich Village.” National service, he argued, can “ever so slightly elevate us from the trough of self-concern and self-devotion.”
I can't help but wonder if Buckley's perception might have been different had he, the "Litterateur in Greenwich Village", not graduated from Officer Candidate School, and had served as an enlisted man taking orders from his proverbial "Laramie cowboy", if he had been ordered to storm Omaha Beach, or if he had served in the Vietnam era. But at least he was speaking from the perspective of somebody who actually performed military service.

Gerson attempts some poeticism of his own,
The natural centrifugal forces of democracy have been augmented by geographical mobility and technologies that allow for the complete customization of little societies.

How then does a democracy cultivate civic responsibility and shared identity? Taxation allows us to fund common purposes, but it does not provide common experiences. A rite of passage in which young people — rich and poor, liberal and conservative, of every racial background — work side by side to address public problems would create, at least, a vivid, lifelong memory of shared national purpose.
Basically, Gerson sees changes in society as a bad thing, not surprising given that conservatism is inherently resistant to change and Gerson's conservatism seems primarily social in its nature, and fantasizes about a public service "melting pot" in which young people can forge bonds and embrace some sort of "national purpose". It seems fair to note that Gerson's resort to WWII, in which the military and parts of American society remained deeply segregated, and his avoidance of addressing the Vietnam experience, by which time the military and in large part American society were integrated, casts a shadow over his assumptions. Could it be that society as a whole coalesced around WWII and the common purpose of defeating Germany and Japan, while society's reaction to the Vietnam war created some significant social rifts? That in neither case was military / national service the driving force behind unity and disunity? Shouldn't we also acknowledge that different people draw different lessons from similar experiences? Or that some people forced into military service have very bad experiences that alienate them from their country or from certain groups of their fellow countrymen? Is that reality too dark to be allowed to interfere with such a happy dream?

Note also, Gerson's proposal cannot reasonably be described as involving shared experience:
Instead of giving 18-year-old males a meaningless (to them) Selective Service number, why not also give all 18-year-old men and women information on the five branches of the armed forces, along with the option of serving a year or more in a civilian service program? National service, while not legally mandatory, would be socially expected.
How many 18-year-olds are unaware of the armed forces, or of how they might enlist? How would "the option of serving a year or more in a civilian service program" represent some form of shared experience with members of the military? We're talking about roughly 4 million 18-year-olds per year, with the armed forces accepting roughly 180,000 enlisted personnel and 20,000 officers each year - while Gerson's plan might in theory result in a slightly larger pool of applicants, the military is exceeding its recruiting goals, so the net effect on society of providing "information on the five branches of the armed forces" is likely to be de minimis.

For the 3.8 million or so young people who Gerson wants to see pressured into performing civilian public service, what sort of work would his civilian programs perform? How would participants be housed, fed and otherwise supported during this program? How would we make the program more unifying than any other civilian job an 18-year-old might be able to get? How would we train and supervise participants? What sort of value could we reasonably expect to obtain from a year of service, with participants completing the program right around the time they might achieve some level of mastery of whatever it is they're assigned to do - or do we spend the hundreds of billions of dollars it would take to implement this experiment without concerning ourselves about whether the work performed benefits society in any way other than the anticipated cultivation of civic responsibility?

It's also fair to ask, how does Gerson explain his own commitment to civic responsibility, given that he has never performed anything approaching public service. When he argues that public service is necessary for today's young people, even if completely unnecessary for him, does he include his own children among those who won't form an adequate commitment to American society unless they join the military or perform a year of "public service" as part of this new, mammoth government program, or is he worried about other people's children? For that matter, does he want his children to participate in a "public service" program through which they learn and adopt the culture and beliefs of others, or does he anticipate that they'll be the good influences who help impress civic responsibility upon society's riff raff?

I don't want to sound unsympathetic to Gerson's concerns about society and social cohesion, although I expect that we have considerably different views in relation to what level of conformity is desirable in a society and about the identity of the populations where we should focus our efforts on improving social cohesion and conduct. I have a different concern than Gerson about college-aged kids - that many feel pushed into college, or to pick a career path, when they would benefit from taking a year or two between high school and college to learn more about themselves, what careers they might want to pursue, and ultimately whether college is the right choice for them.

I am not one to embrace the notion that there's something wrong with "kids these days", or to ignore the fact that the "kids these days" who are going to ruin society invariably grow up to be the next generation of workers and parents who share similar sentiments about the next generation of kids. The factions that most concern me are the ones I first met when I entered legal practice - the defendants who, after a night in jail, are yukking it up as they wait for their criminal cases to be called. The parent who can't understand why anybody would object to the "good old fashioned whupping" they gave to a small child, who was left with a massive bruise extending from the small of his back to the bottom of his thighs. The grown men who argue that they should not be incarcerated for statutory rape because their twelve-year-old victim "looked at least fourteen". The mother who, given a choice between losing custody of her children and staying with an abusive boyfriend, picks the boyfriend.

It's easy for somebody like Gerson to go through life blissfully unaware that this type of population exists, read paragraphs like this one and imagining that he understands what I'm talking about, or sidestepping the question of what groups most need help and how to help them by adding his "kids these days"/"national service will cure (most or) all that ails society" argument to the enormous stack of essays and editorials that say more or less the same thing. Never mind that history offers plenty of examples of the military draft and national service programs in dysfunctional nations, it's a much easier argument to make than to take a serious look at the actual rifts within our society and what might work to reduce them.

Here's an interesting alternative: How about the government creates a program that will provide two years of work at a reasonable wage, coupled with relocation to the job location, vocational training and tutoring to help any participant who has not graduated from high school achieve a GED, and effectively guarantee a job to any 18-year-old who does not want to attend college, or who would just as soon defer college but has not found a better employment alternative? If you want, you can move kids around the country so that they experience something different from the community in which they were raised, while also helping kids who want to escape an impoverished area the tools they need to get out and stay out. Given the realities of the job market, you won't need social pressure to get young people to sign up. Call the program "national service" so that conservatives like David Brooks and Gerson can get behind it without complaining about its cost.... Perhaps even better, start up a private "public service" venture, get some of the nation's billionaires to fund it, and run the experiment on private money.

I'm not sure that such a program would be workable, but if you want to push in that direction it seems much more likely to return the benefits Gerson hopes to achieve than the poorly defined concept he shares in his column.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Easiest (But Least Useful) Thing to Do About Syria is to Complain About Obama

These days, it's difficult to escape hearing lectures directed at the Obama Administration about what it should do in Syria. Many of the critiques, even by well-meaning and reasonably well-informed individuals, amount to little more than wishful thinking. And of course, there are the fire-breathing partisans who simply want to attack the Obama Administration. On Real Time last week, Niall Ferguson issued a frothy attack on the Obama Administration's record on conflicts in the Middle East while fastidiously ignoring the repeated question of what the Obama Administration should have done. I heard one critic claiming that a year or so ago it would have been possible to support a democratic revolution in Syria, but now the groups fighting Assad are all Islamist - which raises two obvious responses, the first being that if a democratic movement is that easy to squelch it didn't have much of a chance to begin with, and if we're talking about the same groups simply modifying their stated agenda in order to get support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia it's questionable whether they actually supported what we think of as democracy in the first place.

My eye was drawn for some reason to the latest anti-Obama harangue from Richard Cohen, a man who personifies the low-hanging fruit. It's almost embarrassing to pick apart his nonsense, like debating foreign policy with a kindergarten class, but... how to resist. Cohen sneers,
The president is the master of the muddle. He concocted a doozy in Afghanistan when he announced a surge and a date of withdrawal — a marriage and a divorce at the same time.
The think that Cohen should try to remember is that there's a difference between a policy that is "muddled" and one that he is not capable of understanding. Cohen is among those who don't understand that a "surge" is supposed to be a short-term escalation followed by withdrawal, not a long-term escalation with no end date. If you have no plan to end your "surge" then it's simply an escalation. Beyond that, why shouldn't the Obama Administration project an end-date for the longest war in American history, particularly when it seems clear that Afghan factions won't negotiate in good faith while the occupation continues. It may well be that things fall apart after we depart, but unless there's a reason to believe that prolonging the occupation will have a beneficial effect all we're doing is delaying the inevitable - at considerable cost. I understand that Cohen is not a man who cares about the cost of military action that he supports, whether in dollars or human cost, and that he may not even think about the cost, but those responsible for safeguarding the nation and ensuring that we have an effective military don't share his luxury of treating global conflict like an epic session of World of Warcraft, in which losses are measured in bits and pixels.

There's also something else Cohen doesn't seem to grasp about foreign occupation: people don't like it. Even if you can make the convincing case that your military intervention was a good thing, and liberated the people - and even if the people agree with that initial assessment - they want you gone. If it needs to be said, prolonged occupation is not good for relationships with the locals.

Cohen lectures,
For opponents of U.S. intervention in Syria, the instructive precedent is the Iraq fiasco. But that has so little in common with the Syrian situation they may as well cite the U.S. occupation of Nicaragua of early last century and the ultimate victory of the guerrilla leader Augusto Sandino. The more apt comparison is the 78-day NATO bombing campaign in 1999 that ended the bloodshed in Bosnia — and cost not a single American life. (Another apt comparison is Libya where, once again, no American boots were put on the ground and U.S. combat deaths were zero.)
And do you know why, to Cohen, the latter examples are instructive when the former are not? Because (a) he doesn't know spit about the conflicts he's describing (for starters, he's confusing the Kosovo and Bosnia interventions, and seems unaware of the military activity that occurred on the ground) and (b) he's cherry-picking examples that suggest that the U.S. can enter a civil war and achieve its objectives at a minimal cost - like we're playing a live action video game. Cohen doesn't explain why he believes that Bosnia is a better example, nor why the outcome in that region (century-old ethnic rivalries ignited, and a small nation shattered into several tiny nations) would be desirable in Syria. Or perhaps he imagines that a bombing campaign would somehow cause Syria's ethnic and tribal factions to unify? Cohen won't even hear about ethnic or tribal issues, sneering, "The weary recitation of all these ethnicities suggests a colonial-era mentality: those bloody people and their bloody behavior." As if dropping the word "colonial" somehow erases ethnic and tribal tensions from reality - and never mind that he, himself, made one of those "weary recitations" only a few days ago, "I have always recognized the difficulties of any intervention in Syria and the hideous ethnic complexities of the place".

Cohen huffs,
The operative philosophy is that you do what you can when you can. The United States has the muscle. There are few grander causes than the saving of human life.
Apparently our bombs don't kill people. Cohen has lectured his readers that it's "cold-hearted" not to... I guess it's "do something" in Syria, because there's a humanitarian need. And that would be great, if we knew up front that the cure wouldn't be worse than the disease. We helped the Afghan people liberate themselves from Mohammad Najibullah. They ended up with the Taliban. Cohen seems to think that all bloodshed will end the moment the civil war ends. Not to get all "colonial" about it, but there's good cause to believe that absent a significant outside military presence the civil war will be followed at best by ethnic cleansing and at worst by ugly reprisals of the sort he might recall from Lebanon... if he knew any history. Don't just take my word for it,
Mamoun al-Homsy, a former Syrian MP and one of the country’s opposition leaders, has reportedly recently distributed a recorded message to the Alawite community in Syria, in which he warns its members against supporting Assad.

In the message, al-Homsy called on the Alawites to immediately renounce Assad, warning them that if they do not do so, “Syria will become the graveyard of the Alawites.”

He also stressed that Syria’s Sunni Muslims “will not remain silent” over Assad’s crimes, adding that they intend to abide by the rule of “an eye for an eye” and will “teach you (Alawites) a lesson that you will not forget.”
Moving back to Cohen's opening paragraph,
I have written so many columns about the Syrian civil war they are like rings on a tree stump — a way of gauging Barack Obama’s steadfast inaction and what the cost has been. In one of my first columns about that war, I called on the administration to arm the rebels and impose a no-fly zone, grounding Bashar al-Assad’s attack helicopters and his airplanes. At that point — March 27, 2012 — the war had taken the lives of 10,000 Syrians.
For Cohen to relate the discussion back to his first demonstration of ignorance reveals little more than how wise the Obama Administration is to ignore him, even if it causes him to write an occasional angry missive about how they're not showing him the respect he deserves. Does Cohen understand that Syria built its air defenses using Russian technology to defend against an Israeli military? It's not that the U.S. cannot defeat Syrian air defenses - it's that doing so will involve considerable risk, and will necessarily involve bombing targets throughout the country, including in densely populated areas. Even Cohen must know better than to lecture, "Somebody like Assad would never endanger civilians by building air defenses that cannot be taken out without bombing civilian neighborhoods." But then, he seems to believe that bombs don't kill people, so... who knows what he thinks.

More than that, Cohen is ignorant of the fact that Syria is not dependent on aircraft and, just as in Libya, there's no reason to believe that a cumbersome, expensive no-fly zone would create a significant shift in favor of anti-Assad forces. Were Cohen aware of the history of U.S. actions in Libya, he would be aware that the Obama Administration rejected the simple imposition of a no-fly zone because they did not believe that it would result in Qadaffi's defeat. Cohen has incredible faith in no-fly zones because... he imagines them to have a much more impressive history of affecting the outcome of regional conflicts than history in fact indicates. The no-fly zone in Iraq was in effect for a decade and, while preserving the status quo, did not remove Hussein from power nor weaken his ability to maintain control without a full-scale U.S. invasion.

And this magic wish, "Let's arm the rebels" - if it were easy to find rebels worthy of being armed, it would be a no-brainer. As it's not, the only no-brainer in the discussion is again Richard Cohen. There's a reason Israel is fastidiously refusing to publicly take sides in the conflict, and it's not because they want Assad to win or because they don't care about the outcome. In the early column he references, Cohen purports that a rebel victory "would be a boon to Israel". If he's capable, perhaps Cohen should ponder for a while why Israel doesn't seem to share his opinion. Perhaps as part of that consideration, he can ponder the Pentagon estimate that it would take 75,000 ground troops to ensure that Syria's chemical weapons arsenal - which is highly portable and highly distributed - does not fall into the wrong hands.

Here's a thought that should be obvious, even to Cohen: If there were good, easy choices to be made to end this conflict, we wouldn't be wrestling with how to avoid turning an already big mess into a bigger mess. If the sort of magic solution that ends the conflict, replaces Assad's regime with a more forward-thinking, inclusive government, and prevents humanitarian catastrophe were easy, the world would have already implemented that solution. Instead, the only part of the conflict that's easy is to sit at the sidelines with little knowledge of the region, its history or the facts on the ground and complain, "The Administration's not doing things the way I would."

Thursday, June 13, 2013

John McCain's Thoughtless Militarism

I was reading about John McCain's views on whether or not we should intervene in Syria and couldn't help but note that he simultaneously wants to launch a massive military assault on Syria to remove the Assad regime, but without putting boots on the ground. Never mind that the Assad regime has distributed caches of chemical weapons throughout the nation, and to bomb them (assuming we can even locate them) would almost certainly involve the release of chemical clouds, causing deaths on top of those of the civilians who would be killed in the bombing raids themselves. I have no doubt that Assad has placed weapons caches in locations that all-but-ensure that a bombing raid would cause civilian deaths. I also suspect that Assad might take the opportunity to set off some explosions and chemical releases of his own, and blame them on a U.S. raid. And if we topple Assad, all those caches are up for grabs - and some very nasty weapons could end up in the hands of factions allied with Hezbollah or Al Qaeda in Iraq, among other anti-U.S. groups.

McCain's recent grandstanding, through his surprise trip to Syria, also highlights both his ignorance of the region and its actors - he wants the Obama Administration to arm "good" Syrian rebels, but didn't know the history of the factions he met with, and doesn't seem to understand that the majority of rebels want to create an Islamist state. He also doesn't seem to be aware, or perhaps doesn't care, that a rebel victory is almost certain to be followed by atrocities or (at best) ethnic cleansing of Alawites. It's also worth noting that the groups he wants to support are not uniformed forces - they're the type of forces he would eagerly label "unlawful combatants" if they were fighting the U.S. or its allies. I'm reminded of this:

I think McCain's heart is in the right place, which is to say that he's in the "peance freeance" faction of the Republican Party - those who think that the U.S. military takes the form of the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers and, once they defeat the evil overlords and their minions, peace and democracy will break out all over. The problem is, he has no apparent interest in non-military solutions, or at least doesn't seem to deem them worthy of consideration or discussion, nor does he have any particular interest in the region or its actors. Why does he confuse Sunni and Shia, why doesn't his staff ensure that he doesn't meet with factions that are opposed to U.S. goals and interests when he grandstands, why does he seem to think that if you decapitate a despotic regime the people will immediately clamor for Western-style democracy? Because, to the extent that the subject matter doesn't make things go "boom", he appears to have given very little thought to pretty much any significant foreign policy issue. His mistakes suggest that he's not even interested, even as he plays the elder statesman and lobbies for war. He shows no sign that he's willing or able to learn from our nation's history, no matter how recent and no matter what role he played in that history.

When I look back at the Bush Administration, and its colossal incompetence on foreign policy issues, I'm reminded of the opportunities George W. Bush squandered in the early months of his regime. That would have been a time to reach out to nations like Egypt (with its aging leader) and to Syria (with its new leader), to try to move the region toward democracy, encourage economic development, and push for the development of institutions and policies that would make those states less oppressive and better able to eventually transition to democracy (e.g., driving corruption out of the civil service, ensuring independent courts, pushing for better respect for human rights). But for all of the talk of Bush's "Freedom Agenda", his actions suggested something else. The "Freedom Agenda" was a cloak for realpolitik - leaders that the Bush Administration wanted to keep in place knew that they were safe, and Bush had no apparent interest in pushing for changes that might upset those leaders or in trying to create bridges to leaders of traditionally hostile nations. That is, when it involves serious diplomatic effort, developing an understanding of the region or its players, or getting up to your elbows in difficult, long-standing factional conflicts, neither Bush nor McCain have much visible interest in advancing democracy. But if you can drop some bombs and call it a "Freedom Agenda", the're all in.

Grandstanding over Syria isn't helpful, because there's no good path forward. If the U.S. intervenes and things don't improve - or worsen - it will be deemed necessary to escalate our involvement. Once we're in, we'll yet again be in a situation where our departure is all but certain to be followed by a civil war or atrocities, but those issues will likely be even harder to resolve than they were in Iraq. So we pour hundreds of billions of dollars, perhaps a trillion or more, into yet another war in the Middle East followed by another indefinite occupation. It's not enough to say "Let's do something, but not put boots on the ground", even if it plays well on Fox News. And it's never enough to view the entire world as a military target, because the only tool in your toolbox is the military. But it seems, that's about all McCain has to offer.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Michigan's Legislature vs. That Democracy Thing

One of Gov. Snyder's comments that caught my attention was, in essence, "I supported cramming a 'right to work' law through the legislature to punish unions for trying to put collective bargaining rights into the state constitution."
When asked about right to work, Snyder said he was never working on the legislation and it was not a top priority of his. He said he asked proponents of Proposition 2 not to continue their efforts and warned them right to work could be an issue if their ballot initiative failed.

“But when it comes down to it, if it’s controversial, you hired me to make decisions, and I’m not going to walk away from an issue that’s on the table,” he said.

“It was my view that it was clear, that this was the right thing. It’s about workers rights, it’s about standing up for workers… but we’ve made that decision so let’s put the issue behind us and move on to the next issues we have to work on.”
Obvious reactions include the obvious: Reducing the rights of workers is pretty close to the opposite of "standing up for workers" and, if you're going to tout the notion of running government like a business, making dramatic policy changes that you would not otherwise support in order to punish an outside group is about as far from what you would want a business (or a government) to do as you can get. But the greatest concern is the means by which Snyder helped cram the law through the legislature:
As virtually everyone knows, a bill making Michigan a Right-to-Work state was rammed through the legislature in a single day during a so-called lame-duck session last December.

Not only were there were no committee hearings and no real debate: The Capitol Building in Lansing was closed to the public for what were said to be “safety reasons.”

The way in which this bill was passed has sparked a great deal of outrage, not all of it from groups automatically opposed to right to work legislation. The law, by the way, outlaws the so-called union shop, and means no worker can be forced to join or pay a fee to be represented by a union, in any public or private industry....

The aim of Michigan’s Open Meetings Act is simple: To protect our right to know what government is doing by opening to full public view the processes by which both elected and non-elected officials make decisions for the people.

After all, we elected them, and they work for us. Korobkin says that didn’t happen here. He told me, as other people have, that the public galleries were deliberately packed that day with assistants to Republican officeholders to squeeze out the general public. The ACLU also says closing the Capitol building was outrageous.

Indeed, nobody can ever remember this happening on any other piece of legislation.
If you like democracy, you have to dislike the process that the legislature and governor followed.

Rick Snyder's Missing "C"

Gov. Snyder believes that the state needs to make an effort to attract talented workers to Michigan:
"There are three 'Cs' that are critically important. Collaboration, creation and connection. Collaboration is about working with the private sector to say 'what are your needs today and tomorrow?' The second 'C' is about creating talent, that's the education sector, about giving people the tools to be successful. Finally, connecting those tools."
First and foremost, in terms of attracting and keeping talent, Snyder is missing the most important "C" - compensation. Instead he substitutes determining the needs of the private sector - which I expect translates roughly into, "Getting whatever workers we need for the lowest possible compensation," the opposite of what attracts and retains talented workers. He draws on Econ 101, picturing the job of government as changing the point at which the supply curve (workers) crosses the demand curve (what employers want) - but doesn't really explain what he would do to change the point at which the two lines intersect beyond mentioning a state-run jobs bulletin board. I'm no economist, but here's a nice refresher course on supply, demand and market equilibrium, and the importance of price in eliminating a market shortfall.

Snyder comments on the jobs board, "we have over 60,000 open jobs... and these are good jobs". Not that it's a scientific test, but here's what I just found on that board:
Asparagus Harvester
Todd Greiner Farms Packing, Llc

Job Code Number: 4015674

Job Description: Involves hand-harvesting the asparagus crop while riding a self-propelled personnel carrier. Employer needs 5-7 workers per group. Asparagus harvest will begin around May 1st, and will continue through approximately mid-to-late June. Hours vary between 45-55 hours per week (based on weather and other occurrences beyond employers control). Wages: Piece rate= $0.14 p/lb. for processing and $0.16 p/lb for fresh market. Employer guarantees Michigan minimum wage or $7.40 p/hr. Some licensed housing is available depending on group size. No bonus.
Here's the thing: I didn't go searching through the jobs board for the worst job listed at the worst pay.1 That job was featured on the front page of the website, the very first job listing under the heading "Featured Jobs".

Other featured jobs include driving a truck for an apple orchard, working as a quality inspector (high school diploma or GED required) with no corresponding job listed through the opportunities section of the company's website, working contracts through a staffing company that sends workers to companies throughout the nation, working as a project manner for a technology company that has a broken job search function on its own website.... I ran a few searches, attempting to filter for the better jobs, but didn't see much that hinted at Michigan's future, let alone a large number of job openings that are unlikely to be filled if the employer is willing to pay the compensation the market demands.

Snyder came out of Gateway computers, so he should have a pretty good sense that even with the best "account management" or "collaboration", no government can save a company from itself. No doubt, Gateway could have used better talent in its later years - but in management, not on the assembly line. Snyder continued to serve on the Gateway board during its final decade of decline, prior to its acquisition by Acer, and briefly served as interim CEO during that period, so he should have a pretty good idea of what a poor job even talented, motivated managers and bean counters can do in terms of anticipating a company's future needs and turning around a declining company. When we talk about running government like a business I'm not sure what business we have in mind, but it's not Gateway.

It's also fair to ask, what can the state actually do in terms of boosting the education sector. Under Synder's tenure the primary "education" focus of the legislature has appeared to be, "How to weaken teacher's unions, reduce their compensation and benefits, and boost for-profit charter schools," which to me doesn't appear to reflect deep concern for the quality of public education. State colleges continue to feel a budget squeeze. If I look at his actions, the governor appears to share the philosophy of the state legislature. How will Michigan's present education policies create talent and, to the extent that it does, why would that talent want to stay in the state? Even if they can find a job on the job search board, many talented graduates going to do what Snyder did - chase the best job, even if it means moving to another state.

Snynder has not fully unveiled his plans, but he did say this:
“We have a number of action items that we’re still putting together and will be rolled out soon. Particularly we’re looking at working within regions at talent connection and making sure that skilled trades are an emphasis.”
That suggests to me that Snyder seeks Michigan's future as involving lower-paid factory jobs. That interpretation seems consistent with the actions of Snyder and the legislature, from its treatment of schools and teachers to the legislative shenanigans behind making Michigan a "right to work" state, but it's the sort of emphasis that seems likely to keep Michigan's most talented graduates looking for jobs in other states, and will keep the best-paying jobs in those other states.
1. Before you accuse me of cherry picking, I'll note - that job is listed as well, and it also guarantees no more than minimum wage. If you want me to cherry pick, we need to move up to the type of salary John McCain once suggested.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Hating the Haters is... So Cool!

Was somebody on the Internet mean to Stephen Marche?
The Internet has reached peak hate. It had to. At every other moment in history when there has been an explosion of text — whether through social change, like the birth of a religious movement, or technological change, like the advent of print — a period of nasty struggle ensued before the forces of civility reined it in. In the past few months alone, we've seen the catfishing of Manti Te'o, a professional tennis player quit because of trolling, and a rash of teenage suicides from cyberbullying alongside the by-now-standard Twitter hatestorms of various strengths and durations. The sheer bulk of the rage at the moment can seem overwhelming. But the fact that we recognize it and have acknowledged its unacceptability is a sign of the ancient process reasserting itself yet again. The Internet is in the process of being civilized.
Peak hate? Is that like "peak oil" - you think you've reached it, and then somebody finds a new source or finds a way to dig a deeper well?
Hate is a source of acknowledged pleasure. Hate-watching. Hate-listening. Hate-reading. These are all things that you, your friends, and your neighbors, not monsters, likely do. We deliberately expose ourselves to objects of contempt to stoke inner outrage in order to enjoy the release of fury. It's not just online, though the Internet is the most obvious theater of cruelty.
The Internet is "the most obvious theater of cruelty"? Seriously? I guess, perhaps, if the most dangerous thing you do is interview models and send tweets from your home office. But... seriously?

Marche then proceeds to imply that every mean thing said on the Internet is a form of cyberbullying, admits that he takes personal thrill in it, and suggests that we're headed down a road toward having anonymity legislated out of the Internet. He's a reporter, but I think he missed some foundational lessons on the First Amendment. Also, I don't think it's helpful to define bullying so broadly to encompass every mean thing posted on the Internet. Marche should take personal note here, given that when he argues that "Twitter and Web comments are really just new expressions of that oldest of monsters: the crowd", that "these hatestorms" against individuals on the Internet are a form of bullying, and "bullies and their victims both have a higher rate of mental illness for decades afterward", it's difficult to avoid the fact that he's describing his own conduct. I'll grant, he uses the term "we" a lot, but that seems largely to be a matter of projection.
Wildness is always followed by civilization, the root of civilization is civility, and the rules of civility have not meaningfully changed in two thousand years. Cicero outlined them in "On Duties": Speak clearly. Don't speak too much. Make sure everybody has a chance. Don't interrupt. Alternate topics so that everybody can talk about something of interest to them. Don't criticize people behind their backs. Don't be angry or lazy. These are the rules. You already know them. They've always been the rules. People are just going to start following them again.
Except the thing is, it's not as if human nature has changed over the past 2,000 years, and Marche himself admits that what he's describing is simply a manifestation of human nature, at times magnified by technology. Were Marche to look at the past 2,000 years of human history, he would quickly find that Cicero's rules are most often honored in the breach. That's not going to change, and the Internet is not going to be tamed by (imagined) legislation that requires you sign your real name to everything you post. If Marche wants to transform himself into a champion of online civility, a role model for us all, that would be great. If he thinks he can change others, or transform human nature through legislation, though, he has quite a bit to learn about the limits of his capacity.

Résumés? What's a Résumé?

Touching on the job-seeking post from a couple of days ago...
We've learned more details about Apple's new 'GPU Design Center' in Orlando, Florida, following our reporting from earlier this week.

Sources told MacRumors that the engineers Apple hired recently were not laid off from AMD, but were instead actively recruited -- largely via their LinkedIn profiles. Apple is said to have learned that many of AMD's 3D graphics patents were issued from its Orlando offices and targeted this area specifically. AMD has job listings for its Orlando offices to fill several of these recently vacated positions.
They probably didn't even know they were looking for jobs before the recruiter called.