I would say it's political satire, but in the Lone Star State, really, what's the difference?

15 August 2012


Let me apologize in advance for even broaching this “played out” subject—mainly because I hate to even dignify this non-argument with a response—but I simply cannot, in good conscience, let this pass without saying a word about it.

I think we’re all familiar enough here with the general premises involved in the pseudo-debate of late concerning the new voter ID laws cropping up around the country that I can skip the lengthy/thorough recap bit. Even if you aren’t familiar, all one need do is think about it for 5 seconds and the opposing positions become readily apparent: anti-voter fraud vs. demographical discrimination. That’s about all there is to it.

While a number of colleagues have taken to this latter interpretation, the verdict is by no means unanimous. And though she is certainly not alone in her line of reasoning, there is one dissenter in particular that has caught my attention this evening. Rather than merely voicing her opinion in isolation, she has instead chosen to do so in the form of a rebuttal to one of our peers, offering what I feel to be a rather thoughtless criticism—and a harsh one at that. You can find the original post by Mr. Kyle Pina here, along with Serena's rebuttal here.

The primary problem I have with Serena's reply isn’t so much the argument itself, per se, but the somewhat patronizing tone with which it is delivered. She makes it a point to explicitly state not once but twice, along with several other comments that suggest the same theme, that Kyle doesn't have an ID himself. Why she would draw this conclusion I'm not exactly sure, but she more of less uses this as justification for dismissing the previous argument: "I understand why Pina would oppose this, especially because he does not have a valid Texas ID, but. . ."

Perhaps I’ve missed something somewhere, and I do hope either she or he will correct me if I’m wrong here, but I don't believe he ever said that he didn't have an ID himself, only that he hadn't previously considered the concept of requiring one for voting purposes. And even if he had said what she claims he said, I see no reason that this would justify being totally dismissive of his position. If anything, it would only offer further support. It seems to me she has inadvertently illustrated the very essence of the counterargument by blatantly disregarding the subset of potential voters who would inevitably be adversely affected by such a law. But again, I don't think he ever said that. He's a student; he clearly has a valid photo ID of some sort, otherwise he wouldn't have been able to enroll in the first place.

As for this Fund chap she references to back up her claims: John Fund basically wrote one of Rush Limbaugh's books for him. . . .  Need I say more? Perhaps this is just the "slut" in me talking, but as far as I'm concerned, this fact alone effectively invalidates anything that has ever or will ever come out of the man's mouth. This is not to say that every argument made by Fund is necessarily and automatically bad, but surely there are countless credible resources available.

Now, as for the argument itself: Since we're apparently allowing overtly biased opinion to count as credible evidence and because he can state this far better than I, I'm going to let Jon Stewart make this argument for me, complete with an appearance from our man John Fund: The Wizards of ID and Leashes for Unicorns. (Sorry for not participating in the bootlegging culture and including embedded clip here; trust me, I'm not above that, I just couldn't find a version that included the parts I wanted. I blame YouTube.) The part you'll want to see starts about 30 seconds in. (Also, please enjoy the mandatory previewing Jack-in-the-box promo. You're welcome.)

In sum, I do have somewhat mixed feelings about the whole voter ID issue. That being said, though, I am inclined to think that this ultimately amounts to the voter's-box equivalent of Gerrymandering. Now, considering this unseemly and questionable practice has apparently gained the Supreme Court stamp of approval, it does indeed seem reasonable that we could perhaps have a debate about whether or not enacting voting laws can or should be used to achieve the same political purposes. But that isn't the conversation we're having. Before we can even begin to fairly assess the situation in its entirety, we must first call it what it actually is: votermandering. Or something like that.

03 August 2012

The Ramifications of Fiscal Fallacy

Dear Team America~

Listen up! This is an important announcement brought to you by the (semi-)public broadcasting crew here at Capitol Punishment. Red Alert. This is not a test. I repeat, this is NOT a test. . .

Yet many people seem to think it's a test, don't they? As if Mother Earth is nothing more than an understudy filling in for our collective dress rehearsal, with the real starlet waiting somewhere in the wings, ready to dive in at a moment's notice and switch out with our ill-equipped amateur once her modest talents have been thoroughly exhausted. . .  Aaaaaaand SCENE. That's a wrap, folks.  

Plastic wrap to be exact...

Blogging over at Texas Politics 2012, writer Shashank Desai offered his take this week on Austin's upcoming implementation of a new citywide ordinance, set to be in full effect by March 2013, which will ban the use of certain types of disposable shopping bags by retailers and customers alike. Though he misstates a few small details, it would seem he is correct in the general premise of the ordinance:
"Austin would be the first large city to enact such a ban. Millions plastic bags are used by the residents of Austin every year. These bags have to be cleaned up as litter and put in landfills by the city which costs lots of money to the city."
 (Note: Cited by Desai as a ban solely on plastic bags, the Austin City Council, NYT and multiple local news affiliates report the ordinance will include restriction of single-use paper bags as well.)

He then goes on to challenge the environmentally conscious motivations that inspired this proposal, and raises the possibility that this is perhaps not a wise move for Austin, with economic justification forming the basis of his argument.

While I do believe that Desai was genuinely sincere and perfectly justified in offering his criticisms that follow—indeed, all good citizens ought to look to public policy with a critical eye; for it is this type of inquiry that facilitates a functional, efficient democracy—I am also of the opinion that the particular criticisms offered are quite misguided.   
"Although the decision is taken towards the environmental issues, we should consider that there are many people involved in producing, recycling and transporting the bags though out the city. So, they would be unemployed since there would be no plastic bags in Austin."
And here we have our first logical leap. Though this isn't attributable only to Desai; he is merely restating the same argument presented to the Austin City Council by Mark Daniels, VP of Hilex, your friendly neighborhood plastic mogul. A loss of 9,000 jobs would surely be worthy of consideration, provided that it were true, but I've been unable to locate a single reference to back up any of his claims as presented. As a matter of fact, I found innumerable sources that seem to refute Daniels' claims at every stop.

First of all, this isn't a complete ban; it does carry exemptions. Among those excluded are all dry cleaners, meat markets, fresh produce suppliers, restaurants, and newspapers. These alone make up a sizable share of potential plastic revenues in Austin, so to say that the ordinance would lead to no bags is factually incorrect.

Second of all, this company, Hilex, that desperately plead their case to the Council—it's not even in Austin; Hell, it's not even in Texas... It's based out of South Carolina with 9 locations spread out across 7 states, one of which is in the heart of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Yet, losing little ol' Austin is enough to "potentially bankrupt" these people? What they apparently fail to realize is that they're square in the center of a Catch-22: the harder they lobby and the more desperately they portray their dependence on our city's trash production, the bigger it seems our problem must actually be for them to need us that much, and the stronger the argument thus becomes for making necessary changes, whatever the costs.

It is also worth noting here two other claims Mr. Daniels made to the City Council:
"[T]he bags pose no environmental threat because they are fully reusable and recyclable.
"There is also no evidence that plastic bags kill wildlife or are an exceptionally large source of litter."
One need not be an ecologist nor rocket scientist to easily see the absurdity of these claims, thus discrediting any and all other statements he might've made. But enough about this guy.

Back to Mr. Desai.

Again, you can read his piece in full here, but in the interest of brevity (if I can still call it that) let me try to break it down here with a hybrid of quotes and paraphrasing so I can get to the point:
  • Paper is more difficult and costly to produce and transport than plastic, so retailers overhead will increase. 
  • Plastic bags are more convenient to grocery store cashiers, and taking them away can only result in decreased productivity. 
  • Given loss of productivity and higher overhead, retailers will inevitably hike prices to offset losses, thus resulting in a two-fold expense incurred by the citizen consumers in the form of both money and time (due to to decreased cashier efficiency).
  • It is inconvenient for people to have to remember to bring their reusable bags with them to the store. 
  • So, yes, it's better for the environment, but it's costly, inconvenient and only creates more problems, and should therefore be reconsidered. 
Hopefully that's a fair representation. I trust Mr. Desai will correct me if I'm too far off there. Now, the problems with this are many. For starters, paper disposable bags are getting the kaibash, too, so that hardly seems relevant. We are talking about a switch to reusable bags, presumably paid for by the customer directly—but only once. Not the continual recurring costs under our current model. I see no way that works out to anything but net savings across the board.

And while cashiers are undoubtedly hard workers, ringing someone up slightly more slowly hardly constitutes "decreased productivity." But even if it did, what does that amount to? An extra minute or two in line? Is that not worth the million dollars we'll ultimately save—minimum—every year on litter control and landfill costs?

Which brings me now to the most glaringly obvious problem with this entire argument, that you might've noticed I have so far skirted around. The primary reason this argument fails to hold water, I think, isn't so much what it says as what it doesn't say. And I don't mean to pick on Mr. Desai here because he is by no means alone in making this type of argument; but it turns out there is no correlation between frequency of use and quality of content. In virtually every economy-based model I see used to perform such cost-benefit analyses as this, time and time and time again I find that by far the most valuable, irreplaceable, precious commodity in the entire schema has been all but forgotten: OUR PLANET. 


If we were to all wake up tomorrow and suddenly find ourselves in a life-or-death situation in which we had to literally bankrupt each and every country on the face of the Earth in order to rectify a dangerously unsustainable problem of our own creation immediately so that we may survive as a species, I somehow believe that Americans would still find a way to turn it into some sort of knock-down, drag-out, ridiculous partisan warfare with roughly half of the population arguing vehemently in favor of the "conservative" position, declaring that we just can't afford it. Am I the only one who thinks this is crazy??

We simply CANNOT continue this irrational compartmentalization of separating economy from environment as if they are mutually exclusive concepts; as if they are nothing more than separate line items on a budget which we have the luxury of choosing one or the other as the most important item of the day. The day that we poison the last living plankton is the day that we run out of oxygen to breathe and water to drink and that's a FACT. If and when we finally destroy this planet beyond repair—and believe me, we are well on our way—no amount of praying or politicking or pontificating is going to fix it. They are called "finite resources" for a reason, and the operative word there is "finite." And the day we run out of air to breathe or water to drink, it isn't going to make a DAMN bit of difference whether the DOW is up or down or what our unemployment rate happens to be.

So when I hear people say we can't afford to do x, y, or z for the good of the environment because we have P, Q, and R economic issues that are more pressing at the moment, I DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU PEOPLE ARE TALKING ABOUT.

Contrary to popular belief, fiscal responsibility entails a great deal more than finances and monetary policy alone—or at least it ought to ... because the buying and selling of such insidious fiscal fallacy carries grave ramifications we best hope we never see.

So please forgive me for feeling painfully underwhelmed and, frankly, somewhat infuriated when I read something like,  
"Most people in Austin would prefer using plastic bags over reusable bags. Yes, we are saving the environment and expenses . . . but . . . [it's] really inconvenient."  
News flash: A planet with no oxygen is pretty DAMN inconvenient, too. 

If you aren't sure why I keep talking about oxygen, have you ever wondered where all that plastic ends up? 

Though the next clip isn't about plastic, this is exactly what I had in mind when I suggested we expand our definition of "fiscal responsibility." Here is one way we can do that.

Last but certainly not least, I full realize that very few will, through sheer laziness, lack of interest, or impatience due to length, but should you ever find yourself with a little free time, read this. It is perhaps the single greatest explanation of how the oceanic ecosystem impacts absolutely everything, and it also happens to be my favorite article of all time - on any subject. It's definitely worth the read. To pique your curiosity a bit to further entice you to check it out, a riddle: 
Ever wonder why the ocean appears to be so many different and beautiful shades of blue from space?
Here's a hint: It isn't trash! . . . . (yet)

27 July 2012

SBOE=SOL | An Education System in Crisis

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) is an utter disgrace not only to our state but to our country. Every Texas citizen — indeed, every American citizen ought to be nothing short of furious with the currently abysmal state of affairs in which our public school system finds itself. We are desperately in need of a MAJOR overhaul in structure, organization and composition of the relevant governing bodies responsible for putting us where we are today. At the risk of sounding alarmist, we are on a collision course with disaster—some might say we're already there—and the longer we allow this broken runaway ship to continue forging full-speed ahead in the direction of the dark ages, the worse off we will all be as a result and the more difficult it will be to repair the damage. I don't feel it unreasonable to argue that education is easily the most pressing problem we face in Texas today, and our track record in recent decades for finding, funding and successfully implementing workable solutions is, at best, thoroughly disappointing and downright depressing. If this does not have you deeply, deeply concerned, well—it should. Our collective future depends on it. . .  

My father used to tell me growing up, "You are allowed to complain if—and only ifboth of the following conditions are met: (a) you can articulate the problem, and (b) you have solutions to offer." I always found these requirements terribly stifling, particularly in those teen years when one loves to complain about everything, but it turns out that was pretty good advice. So in honor of him, that's exactly what I plan to do here today.

The Problem

There are so very many problems with education in Texas, it is difficult to know where to begin. Just the size of it alone is pretty overwhelming. While the saying that everything is bigger here is clearly untrue, to which the intellectual capacity of our Governor will surely attest, it does seem to be the case with respect to our public school system. We house more schools than many small countries. But, perhaps surprisingly, size doesn't make my short list of contributing factors; even if it were a major factor, I see no realistic solution to unalterable geography, thus violating rule (b) above. Solutions. We're focused on solutions here. Besides, I do not have the time nor the patience nor the inclination to torture helpless readers by attempting to discuss every problematic feature here. So, I am going to discuss only one.

The biggest one. . . .


No, it's not teachers or standards or parents or funding or testing or students. It's not even Rick Perry (though he certainly isn't helping). In my estimation, easily the single biggest obstacle to improving our public school system is, ironically, the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE). . . . (<—and yes, I realize it isn't proper to capitalize the "O" in an acronym when it stands for "of," but this is how they do it and I haven't a clue why. My best guess would be either another agency called the SBE, or yet another point to add to my argument. But we'll get to that in a minute.) In case you're unfamiliar, don't worry—you aren't alone. It sometimes seems to be the best kept secret in Texas. Aside from the intermittent rounds of headlines that sweep the nation about them every decade or so when new textbook purchases are on the horizon, you don't often hear much about them — which I always find absolutely shocking given the substantial degree of power and influence they have over our schools.

But again, in case you're unfamiliar, here's a quick rundown: The SBOE consists of 15-member board elected on a district-wide basis to terms of four years; they meet a few times each year to discuss and decide upon public school matters concerning textbooks, curriculum, teaching standards, and oversight of the Permanent School Fund. You can find more about them on their website here. If you think that sounds like a mighty big job for 15 people, not to mention in only a few days each year, I agree; but that's a topic for another day. 

One would expect, or at least I do, that to be elected to a board that makes such crucial education decisions affecting nearly 5 million public school children, there would be some sort of criteria for candidates. Like a college education, for instance. However, one would be wrong. The sole criterion is simply this: get votes. Period. 

In sum, the SBOE consists of an overwhelming majority of radically conservative evangelical Christians, young-earth Creationists who are almost ALL devoutly anti-science, anti-sex-ed, anti-equality, and apparently, even anti-public education. Seriously. Which would all be well and good by me so long as they weren't proselytizing to my children and yours via public school textbooks. And so long as they weren't MANDATING that Texas teachers tell our children flat out lies and present them as "fact." 

But that is exactly what they are doing.

One writer puts it quite concisely here:
Don McLeroy, chairman of the Texas State Board of Education from 2007 to 2009, is a “young earth” creationist. He believes the earth is 6,000 years old, that human beings walked with dinosaurs, and that Noah’s Ark had a unique, multi-level construction that allowed it to house every species of animal, including the dinosaurs.
He has a right to his beliefs, but it’s his views on history that are problematic. McLeroy is part of a large and powerful movement determined to impose a thoroughly distorted, ultra-partisan, Christian nationalist version of US history on America’s public school students. And he has scored stunning successes.
If you missed what many have humorously (and sadly) dubbed the latest "casualties" in the "Texas Textbook Massacre" circa 2009-10, here's a quick review. Unlike most states who leave book selection up to individual districts, the SBOE requires that schools choose from a "board-approved" list; should a district decide to choose a book not on the list, they are entirely on their own in paying for them, and as we all know too well, those things aren't cheap.

So the textbook writers and publishers, well aware of our weirdly backward Texas system, know they have no choice but to write the books pandering to a very specific (and radical) subset of people in the first place. And that still is never good enough. A list of candidate books are first compiled in draft, and the board members put together what they call "a panel of experts" who make revisions, deletions and amendments however they see fit, then return the drafts to the board for final review and a vote, and publisher approval. Sounds legit, right? I wish it were. 

About this panel of "experts". . . Just last week the board considered the following three amendments, proposed by both Republicans and Democrats, and reported here by TFN, which outlines the bulk of the problem here: 
  • Reformers proposed that experts appointed to help them revise curriculum standards have at least a bachelor’s degree in a field related to the curriculum standards being revised. The current rule is that an expert need only have a bachelor’s degree in any field. A master’s or doctorate would be a better indicator of expertise, but surely it seems reasonable to expect that an “expert” in, for example, science have at least a bachelor’s degree in that field. But that was too much for the board’s creationists. “I don’t know why we’d want to limit ourselves,” said board member and evolution denier Terri Leo, R-Spring. The proposal failed on a tie vote.
  • Reformers then proposed that appointments to “expert” panels require at least a majority vote by the board. Board creationists, however, argued that the current rule — that appointment to an “expert” panel requires the consent of just two board members — “protects the rights of the minority.” “I don’t think we need to be in the business of vetting other people’s experts,” said board member David Bradley, R-Beaumont Buna. “It’s an uncomfortable situation.” Gail Lowe, R-Lampasas, even argued that requiring two board members to agree on a nominee was a sufficient check to stop “crazy people” from being appointed: “I can’t pick a crazy person because I’ve got to get another (board member) to agree.” The proposal for a majority vote for “experts” lost by one vote.
  • Reformers also wanted to rein in the board’s habit of making sometimes hundreds of amendments to proposed drafts of new curriculum standards late in the revision process without formal guidance from teachers, scholars or anyone else. But the board’s creationists defeated a motion requiring that proposed amendments to draft standards be filed at least 24 hours in advance so that all members would have a chance to study them and consult with scholars and other experts. Lowe and other creationists argued that such a requirement would “hamper” their work.
Is it just me or is this not, pardon my French, BAT-SHIT CRAZY?! We have a very tiny group of people, many of whom have prestigious credentials such as 'part-time copy editor' and 'college dropout' not just electing non-expert experts to panels, but actively editing, deleting, and amending textbooks unilaterally however they please. Excuse me for being "Elitist" (which is no doubt what they would call me), but I happen to think that a college dropout who calls evolution "hooey," says that pollution and global warming are "junk science," and who thinks all public schools are "evil" is maybe, just maybe, not the best guy we can find to take a red pen, sharpie and white-out to my child's biology textbook, which was originally written by a TEAM of actual biologists. . . or any other textbook for that matter, considering this kind of behavior:
His most dramatic rejection, however, was of an algebra textbook that he criticized for pictures, recipes (!), and references to women’s suffrage, biology and the Vietnam War. By law, the state board can reject textbooks only if they fail to cover established state curriculum standards, contain factual errors or do not meet manufacturing specifications. Knowing that his ideological bias was not a legally sufficient reason to reject the math textbook, Bradley tore the cover off (with some effort), stating, “Ladies and gentlemen, worthless binding. I reject this book.”(11)
To better illustrate the types of "amendments" and "revisions" we're talking about here, when reviewing social studies curriculum in 2010, the board voted to make changes such as removing Thomas Jefferson from the list of Enlightenment thinkers, removing any added emphasis on Mexican-American history, slavery and the separation of church and state, meanwhile "beefing up" the ideas that we were born a Christian nation, Ronald Reagan was a god, and the NRA has been a leading voice of reason working "solely for the public good." One board member suggested removing references to Martin Luther King, Jr., for Christ's sake...

As Gail Collins notes in her witty yet quietly disheartening book As Texas Goes... "Approval of textbooks was once held up over board concern that they were teaching children to be more loyal to their planet than to their country." Again, seriously. I couldn't make this up if I tried. (By the way, this book has an entire chapter devoted to the insider 4-1-1 on this issue, aptly titled "The Textbook Wars," in case anyone is interested. She's hilarious and it's a quick read, easily worth the purchase if only for this chapter.)

And now, I'll let some of the past and present Board members speak for themselves and make my argument for me, also courtesy of Gail Collins:
“One of the first real breaches of limited government was public education.”  — Don McLeroy, R-College Station, (BurkaBlog, Texas Monthly)
"What good does it do to put a Chinese story in an English book? So you really don't want Chinese books with a bunch of crazy Chinese words in them."         — Don McLeroy
"Sending children to public schools is like throwing them into the enemy's flames, even as the children of Israel threw their children to Moloch."                  — Cynthia Dunbar
Unfortunately, I could go on for days about this, but I think that's quite enough.

The Solutions


Solution #1.   For starters, in a state where everything from firefighter uniforms to fire hydrant color is decided upon by popular vote, why are we letting the SBOE members vote upon referendums aimed at regulating their wildly damaging, radically irrational behavior themselves? Is this not like rounding up all the bankers and asking them to vote on whether or not we should have fair banking regulation? These types of safeguards must come from outside of the SBOE. It's absurd to submit it directly to them for consideration. Let it be a matter for the Texas House or Senate or anyone besides the people it's meant to reign in. If that violates our Constitution, then let's amend it. We do that about twice a week anyway.

Solution #2.   Either change the term limits to two years rather than four, or keep them at four but stop staggering them so that they always coincide with presidential elections, since that is apparently the only time Texans get off their couches and into a voting booth.

Solution #3.   New Rule: If you do not have a degree in education, you cannot be elected to the Curriculum Committee.

Solution #4.   New Rule: If you do not have a degree in finance, you cannot be elected to the Education Finance Committee.

Solution #5.   New Rule: If you have ever said anything even remotely akin to "Public institutions of education are subtle tools of perversion implemented by the Devil to poison the minds of our children" (more awesomeness from former SBOE Chair Cynthia Dunbar) then you are not — I repeat NOT —allowed to serve on the State Board of [Public] Education.

Here's what the Texas Constitution has to say about it:  
"A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools."
Particularly in reference to the reasoning offered for Solution #5, the SBOE, as it stands, is in direct violation of the Constitution and not living up to its duties.

They do, however, align perfectly with their respective political base. Though many of us have known this for years, the Republican Party of Texas has recently taken the unusual step of formally and publicly announcing their continued commitment to irrationality and the decimation of our public school system by calling for the eradication of critical thought from public education. Again, SERIOUSLY. If you are in a state of disbelief that they would do such a thing, trust me —I am with you. But allow me to share with you a direct quote taken from the official 2012 GOP platform declaration in the section addressing education:
Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.
So, in case there were any prior misconceptions that the argument I've presented here is merely the product of "liberal bias" or "political spin," or that I have somehow misrepresented the reality of the situation in the interest of serving some personal, political or social agenda, I hope we can now safely put that false presumption to bed. The parallels drawn between the Republican base, their friends at the SBOE, and the deliberate denigration and degradation of the very institution of public education in Texas are not imagined and they have nothing whatsoever to do with partisan conjecture. These relationships are real, they are dangerous, and they must be acknowledged.

As I said before, if you do not find all of this deeply, deeply troubling—so much so that you are willing to actually do something about it—then, as far as I'm concerned, (a) you effectively forfeit your right to complain about it, or anything else that requires active citizen participation; and (b) you are part of the problem.

Incidentally, we have a very unique opportunity coming up in November. Because of last year's Census and subsequent redistricting to adjust for population changes, all 15 seats on the Board are up for grabs. And since it's a presidential election year, we'll at least have a better shot at getting something resembling a balance... It is still Texas, though, so it will undoubtedly have an artificial but heavy lean to the right (waaaaaay right), but I guess that's better than nothing. 

To those of you that are maybe just hearing about this for the first time and would like to keep up with what's happening, the Texas Freedom Network, started by ex-Gov. Ann Richards daughter specifically to combat the "crazy," does an amazing job of keeping up with SBOE happenings. They also have a tool to sign-up for e-mail reminders when Board elections are coming up, among other relevant and helpful things. You can find it here.

The nonprofit group Teach Them Science has by far the best breakdown of current Board members that I've found to date, listing detailed background info, beliefs, quotes, stats, pics, voting histories and various interesting tidbits about all 15 of the members, along with a neat little tool at the top of the page to type in your zip to see whose district you're in. Check it out here.

Whether of not you care to hear anymore about the SBOE anytime soon, I promise, you will. There is a blockbuster expose-style documentary about them coming soon to a theater near you. Here's a clip from that film below, followed by a pretty fantastic interview with Don McLeroy on the Colbert Report last month, in case you missed my inaugural post.

But before I go, let me reiterate that unlike this year, most SBOE elections happen in off-years and with little to no press coverage. They have the lowest voter turnout of any state-wide office — which means that if absolutely nowhere else, even a handful of votes matters. If you are reading my post now, odds are you are a fellow student; which tells me that even if you loathe politics and government, there is likely some part of you that does value a quality education. VOTE. It matters.

24 July 2012

The Conservative Conundrum

Greetings, you lucky devil, you! You're just in time. The moment everyone's been waiting for has finally arrived. Reporting live from the studios of Merriam-Webster et al. I now bring you the next exciting edition of . . . .(drum roll, please). . . . K's Word of the Day! 

co·nun·drum  /kə-ˈnən-drəm/  (noun.)  
1.     A confusing and difficult problem or question.
2.     A paradoxical, insoluble, or puzzling situation; a dilemma. 
3.     An issue or problem having only a conjectural answer.
              Synonyms:    riddle – enigma – paradox – mystery – the conservative position . . . 

 Perhaps you noticed something unusual there at the end. I noticed that too, but let’s be real here—who am I to question THE Merriam-Webster? Before we delve any deeper, I should perhaps also clarify number (3) from above with a follow-up definition, just in case any of my Jersey-Shore-watching friends happen to be reading along with us today and are in need of a “refresher”: 
con·jec·ture  /kən-ˈjək-chər/  (noun.)  
1.     An inference from defective or presumptive logic.
2.     An opinion or conclusion formed on the basis of incomplete information. 
              Synonyms:    guess – supposition – speculation – the conservative position.

Unusual again, you say? Odd, everything looks right to me… Fine, fine, I confess. I have taken the liberty (liberty!) of making a few minor adjustments. It’s true, the Merriam-Webster original didn’t say exactly every word as stated above; however, they would’ve been fully justified in doing so, as we will soon see. Let me explain . . . . 

The Issue

As I’m sure you are all well aware, there has been much media fuss of late and certainly no short supply of heated headlines concerning Gov. Rick Perry’s controversial decision to reject all federal funds being offered to the states for expansion of Medicaid and a handful of other services as provisioned by the newly-Supreme-Court-approved PPACA legislation typically referred to, be it hatefully of affectionately, as "Obamacare."(Dun-dun-dun...)

As someone who has worked in health care for many more years than I care to admit, with experience in both the private and public sectors, and a substantial portion of that time spent in the most underfunded area of medicine, mental health, it is reasonably safe to say that, naturally, I bring to this particular debate quite a bit of “baggage.” I’ve put in my 10,000 hours fully immersed in the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of health care. That being said, while I do feel that my experience affords me a great deal of insight into the situation, and lends credibility to whatever opinions I’ve come to hold, I am also rational and self-aware enough to understand that this might prove to be a double-edged sword, with my frame of reference potentially eliciting an emotional rather than reasoned evaluation.

So, I did what I always do when issues like this come up—an approach that is apparently unthinkable to the vast majority of the American public. Grit my teeth, grind my heels into the ground, and scream, “LOOK, PEOPLE - I KNOW WHAT’S BEST HERE BECAUSE I’M AN EXPERT, SO YOU ALL SHUTUP AND LISTEN TO ME!”…? In a word, NO. Absolutely not. That would be the American Way, but I like to think that my way is better. First, I begin actively seeking the very best arguments I can find against my position. I make a concerted effort to find any and all cases that oppose, contradict or refute my beliefs in any way; I read them, genuinely consider them, and weigh them carefully and honestly against whatever preconceived notions I might’ve held. Then—and only then—do I decide whether my original position is a valid one, worthy of defending, or if it would be wisest to instead amend or even completely abandon that view in light of new or better information. (Yo, Jersey, are you still here? You and a few others might want to back up and take notes here. You know who you are.) Anyway, in this spirit of challenging my beliefs and ongoing critical analysis, my search for conflicting views continues -- which now brings us to today’s topic.

TexasFred lost his head.

In what can only be described as a Fox News pundit’s wet dream – and a sane individual’s worst nightmare – conservative political blogger TexasFred has weighed in on the health care debate, enlightening readers everywhere with his seemingly infinite wisdom. And to your great fortune (torture?), I will now share his argument with you.

20 July 2012

On the Fallacy of the Self-Made Man

It often seems as if the Texas State Seal ought to be emblazoned with the byline, “Proud Home of the Self-Made Man.” Indeed, according to many, Rick Perry is the walking, talking embodiment of this concept. As the Houston Chronicle puts it, “In many ways, Gov. Rick Perry is the iconic Texan, a self-made man whose rugged individualism has come to define his public life, for better or worse.”

But what does it mean, really, to be “self-made”? This term the Chronicle has coupled with it, “rugged individualism,” seems to fit the stereotype quite nicely. I am inclined to think that the mental image that springs to my mind when I hear phrases like this is not terribly different from what most people envision—particularly my fellow Texans: A salt-of-the-earth, grassroots, tough-as-nails type of man; a man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and through nothing but hard work and individual merit, made something great of himself, in the face of considerable odds. A truly self-reliant, rugged individual, who never took a dime from anyone and doesn’t owe the world a dime. Perhaps even a pair of boots named Freedom and Liberty….

At least this is what I picture. And it does seem to be the very essence of the Great American Dream. If absolutely nothing else, it’s damn sure the Texan Dream, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to draw parallels between this ideal and the staunchly conservative position that typifies Texas politics, along with a substantial portion of the nation. And anyone that dares to challenge this glorious Texan/American Dream, may the Good Lord have mercy on their soul…

But challenge it he did, our beloved President, and the conservative talking heads roiled with unchecked rage. In a scathing article published in the Dallas Morning News yesterday, staff editorial writer Mike Hashimoto effectively attempts to crucify Obama for comments made last week to a crowd in Roanoke, Virginia; comments which Mr. Hashimoto apparently equates with sacrilegious desecration of the Great American Way. But I shall now let Mr. Hashimoto speak for himself: 
[Obama] slapped aside the efforts of business builders and owners in what’s supposed to be a free-enterprise system, was it a mistake or a mistaken revelation? As the news business goes, the quote has been reduced to this: “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.”
My answer would be to track back through his government-vs.-private-sector comments and his policy prescriptions over time. I think it’s pretty clear that this is a president — of the United States — who has little appreciation for the American way and certainly the American Dream. To his mind, if government doesn’t provide it, it’s not worth having.”
He goes on to argue against what he seems to view as the liberal apologist default position, attempting to invalidate various arguments made in defense of Obama’s comments. To better illustrate his own opinion of such arguments, he quotes Reason.com’s Tim Cavanaugh, who says the following:
The president’s supporters have a multipronged counterargument: Either he didn’t make those comments or they were taken out of context or even if they are in context they don’t matter because we should be reading between the lines.
As an example of the former type, he offers up a Tweet posted by Texas State Rep. Eric Johnson, a democrat from Dallas, who apparently posted on Twitter: “U know #POTUS comment is being taken completely out of context, so why perpetuate a lie? Integrity, bro.” To which Hashimoto replies, “Yeah, OK, bro. Clown question.” Um, seriously? Granted, Johnson’s comments weren’t the most eloquent the world has ever seen, but that was on Twitter… What’s Hashimoto’s excuse? Is this seriously a mainstream news Editorial, or are we reading a random Facebook rant?

Anyway. It isn’t until the end that he finally recounts the President’s actual statements in full:
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back.  They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.  You didn’t get there on your own.  I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.  There are a lot of smart people out there.  It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.  Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.  There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own.  I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service.  That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
The article author then closes with the following gem:
So, please, spare me the “roads and bridges” defense. You can wish he didn’t say what he said, but to pretend his words don’t mean exactly what they appear to mean falls far short of reasonable. “Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.” In Obama’s mind, obviously, that somebody is the government. And I think most Americans would reject the notion that this is a country where we are “allowed” to thrive by government.
Now, I’m going to refrain from taking cheap shots at the grossly substandard quality of writing offered here because, frankly, he did a mighty fine job of that himself. And why add insult to injury? Instead, let’s just focus on the disassembly of this appalling excuse for an argument—if one can even call it that.

Actually, despite his overt claims that he’s actually making one here, I cannot, in good conscious, even classify this as an argument. An argument requires, at a minimum, two things: Propositions/statements/evidence and a conclusion, which do all seem present here, but there’s a catch: to be an argument, the propositions have to actually offer support in some way to one’s conclusion, and inversely, the conclusion has to be supported in some way by the propositions offered. This is why they’re typically called “supporting statements.” All I see here is a conclusion: Obama is the Devil. I kid. But that isn’t too far from the truth. Hashimoto more or less tries to convince his readers that Obama has opened up a good ol’ fashioned can of Texas whoop-ass on our beloved “self-made” man; however, despite his painstaking efforts to present it as such, this rant amounts to nothing more than a randomly asserted belief—which, contrary to popular belief, is NOT an argument.

But considering how many people in our state and country would wholeheartedly buy into this random assertion, let’s play along and pretend that it is an argument for a moment, in the interest of exposing its inherent incoherency. If we were to break it down into formal logical structure, it might go something like this:

·       Obama said “If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that.”
·       Most Americans do believe they build their own businesses.
·       Building one’s own business is the American way.
·       Therefore, Obama must be wrong, because we believe in the American Way.

For starters, this pseudo-argument’s only offering of anything even resembling supportive evidence is that most Americans “believe” something. To use his words, Yeah, OK, bro… 47% of Americans don’t even know how long it takes for the Earth to orbit the Sun... Hell, 29% think that the Sun revolves around us. Forgive me for being cynical (realistic?) here, but I would be more than a little hesitant to trust anything the general public “believes,” simply because they believe it. And even if it were true, it’s a circular argument. Non-argument.  Whatever.

So what did we learn from all this? Absolutely nothing—which is kind of the point. The vast majority of arguments waged in this vein contain little to no worthwhile substance, and no matter how many times they might work in the term “argument,” that does not make it such. If you’re going to claim that you’re making an argument, then MAKE ONE. Convince me. Show me some evidence that refutes Obama’s claim that we effectively couldn’t do what we do or make what we make or become what we will become entirely independent of all external factors, namely, the federal government. I’ll give anybody a shot to convince me that’s not true; I’ll listen to whatever coherent case might be made, and I am not so stubborn or arrogant or pretentious that I’m incapable of changing my mind. But you may as well give up the empty noise and tired hand waving, because that is never going to cut it. And as it turns out, Obama happens to be in very good company on this one—with his strongest support coming from the last places one might expect….

A dear friend of mine, Lovelace Soirez, sent me a letter on this subject a while back titled “Taxes and the Myth of the Self-Made Man.” Because I feel that he states this position much more eloquently than I can, I’m going to quote a bit of what he wrote here, and I do hope that he won’t mind.
We can debate all day about whether or not our current form of government is the best way to address the myth of the self-made man, but what follows is the bare-minimum of what needs to be acknowledged when having this debate.  In my opinion, intellectual honesty demands that we acknowledge the role that society plays in shaping who we are.  It's the starting point. The commenter (at the very bottom) sums up nicely why this is so.  We all benefit significantly from public goods... much more so than libertarians are willing to admit.  Sorry there's so much here, but it's worth the read.
He goes on to cite numerous references that collectively serve to decimate this notion of the “self-made man" to the point of virtually irrefutable. I’ll admit I feel a bit guilty for piggy-backing off of his sources here, but I do so only because they are among the best I’ve yet to find. Time and space will not allow me to share them all with you (believe me, I am tempted), but I’ll try to hit the highlights. And like he did, I will apologize for length, along with wholehearted agreement that it’s certainly worth a read.

The first comes from this 2010 publication:
Some of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in North America say there is no such thing as the "self-made man." With more millionaires making, rather than inheriting, their wealth, there is a false belief that they made it on their own without help, a new report published by the Boston-based non-profit United For a Fair Economy, states. The group has signed more than 2,200 millionaires and billionaires to a petition to reform and keep the U.S. inheritance tax. The report says the myth of "self-made wealth is potentially destructive to the very infrastructure that enables wealth creation.”
The individuals profiled in the report believed they prospered in large part to things beyond their control and because of the support of others. Warren Buffet, the second richest man in the world said, "I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I've earned." Erick Schmidt, CEO of Google says, "Lots of people who are smart and work hard and play by the rules don't have a fraction of what I have. I realize that I don't have my wealth because I'm so brilliant."
Yes, you read that correctly. That was a few of those so-called self-made men—among the wealthiest, most successful businessmen in America—supporting precisely what Obama suggested and refuting the generally conservative counter-position.

And here is another obscenely wealthy media-empire heiress, Abigal Disney, discussing the many ways in which Disney could never have been possible for her grandfather in absence of . . . Guess who!

[M]y grandfather vowed never to let himself be taken advantage of again. He soon registered a copyright on a new character named Mickey Mouse. It was 1928, and it was neither the first nor the last time the Walt Disney Co. benefited from a federal system of protections, laws and taxes that created fertile ground for building a business empire.
In addition to the copyright protections for Mickey, the Federal Communications Commission regulated the airwaves that carried the Disneyland television series and, of course, the Mickey Mouse Club. The transportation and federal highway system built in the wake of World War II took millions of visitors to Disneyland. The Marshall Plan helped rebuild devastated European markets into which Disney poured its products, turning a quaint American company into a global brand.
Let’s read more, this time from The Economist:
DANA MILBANK wrote a snark-suffused piece in yesterday's Washington Post on a conference call by a group of millionaires who'd like to see their own taxes raised. The group is affiliated with United for a Fair Economy, which pushes for a more progressive tax code. The thrust of the meeting was that Barack Obama's plans to cancel an extension of the Bush tax cuts for people earning more than $250,000 a year are a good first step, but don't go far enough. Mr Milbank quotes fifth-generation paper mill heir Mike Lapham, who thinks he pays "obscenely low tax rates", and notes that the group has pledged to donate the money it saves under the Bush tax cuts to groups pushing for higher marginal taxes on the rich. . . .
 ….Here's the thing: taxes are not charity. It would be a bad idea for wealthy people who feel they should be paying more taxes to instead contribute large amounts of money voluntarily to reduce the national debt. The first, less important reason for this is that any individual's contributions would be meaninglessly small; they can make far more difference by using the same amount of money to advocate for higher taxes, as these millionaires are doing. But the second, more important reason is that even if a million millionaires got together and voluntarily donated money in such quantities that it made a measurable dent in the deficit, it would be even worse, because they would be giving license to other people to continue pay less than their fair share of taxes. It's an invitation to free-riding, with the public-minded rich subsidising the irresponsible and selfish.
If America did not have a severe and potentially catastrophic national debt problem, one could have a legitimate argument in which some people argued for higher taxes and more defense, health care, transportation, etc, while others argued for lower taxes and less defense, health care, transportation, etc. That is not the situation in which America finds itself. For 30 years, we have systematically collected much less in taxes than our government spends; the structural deficit used to be around 3% of GDP, but over the past two years it's leapt up due to the recession. Over the long term, we need to make painful choices to bring expenses and revenues back into line. There are two legitimate arguments one can make here. One is "I think we should raise taxes in the following ways." The other is "I think we should make the following massive cuts in defense, health care, transportation etc." It is not legitimate to say: "Hey, if you feel like paying more to reduce the debts we all incurred together, go ahead; as for me, I'll pass."
And I swear this is the last one, but these are just too great (and important) not to share:
Heimdall wrote:
Apr 9th 2010 3:02 GMT
I rarely see this point brought up, so I'll give it a shot.
A couple of things that you can say about people who are extremely wealthy are pretty non-controversial:
1) They have a lot of wealth.
2) They accumulated that wealth through some mechanism.
Here we get to the controversial part.
Most people who are wealthy credit their situation solely to their hard work, talent, etc. And they credit the situation of the poor solely to their lack of work ethic, talent, etc. Ergo, the wealthy are -- by definition -- deserving of whatever they desire and the poor are equally deserving of their squalor. I think of this as "the Ayn Rand" position.
I'd like to point out that a critical component in wealth accumulation -- possibly even greater than work ethic or talent -- is the infrastructure that the government provides to enable such accumulation: rule of law, the justice system, transportation infrastructure, education, national defense, etc.
Without this infrastructure our wealthy magnate is but a warlord in Afghanistan or Somalia. With them he is Bill Gates or she is Meg Whitman. This infrastructure is a lever by which people can magnify their work ethic and talent.
The wealthy have demonstrably used this lever to a much greater degree than the poor. The poor may get a pittance in food stamps, social security, etc. The wealthy accumulate millions if not billions of dollars by skillfully manipulating this lever.
Shouldn't people who use a thing pay more for that thing?
I submit that an objective measure of utilization of the lever of governmental infrastructure is the wealth that a person is able to accumulate. Thus, the percent of the tax "burden" shouldered by the wealthy should be proportional to the wealth they have accumulated.
Which is not to say that we should have a single "wealth tax". But it is to say that we should recalibrate a diversified revenue stream on occasion such that the top n% as measured by wealth pay approximately n% of taxes.
This is not "confiscation" as some like to say. It is payment for services received in direct proportion to the degree a person uses those services.
In case your typical frame of reference includes a combination of hand-waving pundits and the uneducated powers that be, what you’ve just seen above: these are what arguments are supposed to look like. And unless and until I see something at least comparable from the other side, I will remain of the position that if the “American Way” is synonymous with the “self-made man,” then the American Way is nothing more than a delusion of grandeur.

Unfortunately for those of us in Texas, it is this very myth that fuels the Perry & Co. fire and largely propagates this anti-tax/pro-business culture that the majority of our closest neighbors embrace. We have effectively arranged our state according to a business model based on principles that, so far as I can tell, do not exist. The educated, informed perspective seems to suggest that Rick Perry has it perfectly backwards when he argues that a low-tax/no-tax economic environment is the best recipe for future success. As former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously put it, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” And when it comes to civilized society, most unfortunately for those of us in Texas, we do get exactly what we pay for—with our education system being the prime example.  

So when Mr. Hashimoto said “I think most Americans would reject the notion that this is a country where we are ‘allowed’ to thrive by government,” I suspect he was likely correct; however, unlike Mr. Hashimoto, I also happen to think that most Americans have it wrong

And, again, to Lovelace: Thank younot just for allowing me to shamelessly restate your argument here, but mainly for your friendship and the wisdom that it brings. I am grateful.