Sunday, October 25, 2009

This is What Censorship Looks Like

A female journalist in Saudi Arabia got 60 lashes, oddly enough, even after the charges being dismissed. And those charges? Her guests talked about sex on the air. Her guests didn't get off scot-free either.

This comes as no surprise in backward, medieval theocracy that's our ally only because we buy their oil (for now). This is why, in the civilized world, we keep church and state separate.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Thanks Jenny McCarthy: Anti-Vaccine Cult Taking Its Toll

If Bill Maher's or the Huffington Post's anti-science paranoia isn't irritating enough, how about John Kerry? Or Chris Dodd or Robert Kennedy? It's one thing when your David-Koresh look-alike neighbor is refusing to get his kids vaccinated, but when it's U.S. Senators? A parent's right to endanger his or her kid's health is anything but a clear moral right. How about their right to endanger your kid's health? That is clearly not their right.

Wired has a great (but infuriating) article about the anti-vaccine nutcases and a physician who's dedicated his life to eliminating lethal childhood diseases, only to be attacked by the anti-medicine fringe.

There are two contemptible things about the anti-medicine crowd. First is their stubborn inability to base their opinions on the actual data (or total lack thereof) - an important consideration, when it's the lives of children we're talking about. The second is their embarrassing inability to even begin to understand the business that they think is behind the conspiracy (big surprise there). As the article puts it, "...the suggestion that pharmaceutical companies make vaccines hoping to pocket huge profits is ludicrous to Offit. Vaccines, after all, are given once or twice or three times in a lifetime. Diabetes drugs, neurological drugs, Lipitor, Viagra, even Rogaine — stuff that a large number of people use every day — that’s where the money is."

What's most embarrassing about all this is that the nuttiness is contagious, and it's spread from the left to the conservative end of the political spectrum. At least, people who call themselves conservatives; time was when if you were a conservative, you were on the side of the facts and the cold hard science, not media talking heads and celebrity open mouths like Jenny McCarthy. As I write this, I'm imagining righteous emails from pretend-conservatives demanding "How dare you question (fill in name of Dr. Phil-clone)!"

For the anti-vaccine parents, I have my own theory about you: your argument boils down to nothing more than not being able to handle your kids crying when they get shots, and not wanting to have to explain to little Alec why it's still necessary. The anti-vaccine movement is bad parenting with spokespeople, period.

Unfortunately, no amount of reason or facts will change Ms. McCarthy's position - and why should they? A retired MTV hostess has gotten herself in a position where parents are ignoring expert physicians and listening to her. Backing down in the face of overwhelming evidence would cause her embarrassment and hurt feelings. And as we know, avoiding that - especially in a celebrity - is far more important than saving lives.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Curious Libertarian Taste in Oppression

Briefly: the unifying theme of libertarianism is that the basic unit of human beings is and must always be the individual; that groups are only associations of individuals; and that human society is fairest and works best when the rights of individuals are guaranteed, and the influence of group decisions on individuals is limited. There are assumptions which must be made to support this, and implications which fall out of this. E.g., respectively, that individuals are capable of acting in their rational self-interest, and that self-organizing individually-driven phenomena like capitalism are better than central authorities at encouraging happiness and allocating resources. That's why adherents of a political philosophy are in the (unexpected, when you think about it) position of more often reading works by economists than politicians, much like atheists often read biologists.

What's interesting to me as a libertarian is that my fellow travellers occasionally develop a clear and often unexamined preference for who they would rather have their rights as individuals oppressed by. In the U.S. this preference has traditionally expressed itself in terms of the legalisms surrounding State versus Federal powers. Kerry Howley's excellent piece in Reason widens the scope in pointing out libertarian blind spots: "I am disturbed by an inverse form of state worship I encounter among my fellow skeptics of government power. This is the belief that the only liberty worth caring about is liberty reclaimed from the state...As former Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints leader Warren Jeffs can tell you, it’s possible to be an anti-government zealot with no interest whatsoever in individual liberty. If authoritarian fundamentalist compounds are your bag, the words personal agency will hold no magic for you...Not every threat to liberty is backed by a government gun." To be sure, the State and Federal powers question is not one the Constitution or its interpreters have taken lightly, and rightly so. But legal documents do not establish morality, they reflect it, and they are inevitably incomplete.

That is why, if (for example) your child were enslaved, I doubt very much you would care whether it's the authority of the Federal government allowing them to be taken away in chains, or the great State of Mississippi, regardless of whether this had happened before or after the Thirteenth Amendment was passed. To give an example of a debate that actually does have some currency: I couldn't care less whether my kids were forced to face Mecca every morning in school by Barack Hussein Obama, or to pray to Jesus by the governor of Texas. Even Ron Paul falls prey to this fallacy. I respect his Constitutional literalism, but if I had come to the same interpretation as Dr. Paul, I wouldn't be so quick to throw up my hands at the Founders' oversight and concede a States' rights to oppress its residents. I would point out the problem and suggest a fix. I don't care whether it's the Feds or a city council that's treading upon my liberty, and if there's a legal document that gives them the authority to do so, then it needs to be corrected.

It's both a difficult and exciting time to be a libertarian, largely because some of the economic events of the past year have exposed some of our unquestioned assumptions. (What do you call a libertarian in favor of the bail-out? A Democrat. I disagree, but that's another post.) There were political games that had sent libertarians into the wilderness in the years previous, particularly - and let me get out my dead horse-beating stick - the Bush administration's dedication to States' rights and shrinking the power of Federal government. Except of course where spending and deficits were concerned. And medical marijuana. And education, gay marriage, stem cell research, and abortion. But on everything else, assuming there is anything else, we were assured they were pro-States' rights.

One of the newly exposed assumptions is the role of the financial sector in a stable economy. Let the banks and automakers fail, lots of libertarians (including me at the time) said - though many softer libertarians now ask their colleagues pointedly whether things didn't work out for the better, at least at the moment, as a result of the bailouts. The recognition here is that in our current system, large financial institutions have power, a capacity for a group to exert involuntary power over individuals. This is not an indictment of the free market or the financial system, but a recognition of the distorting power that such massive, centralized institutions hold. What puts this question in a category beyond that of State versus Federal oppression is that at least you can vote for governors and Presidents. This is not the case for Citibank unless you're a shareholder, and even then the representation is not one person, one vote.

I do not feel personally oppressed by the big players in the financial sector, but it's the height of naivete to think that such enormous not-publicly-accountable institutions are unable and unwilling to warp markets and poison the political process, making a whole generation of Americans worry that capitalism is broken. I'm often tempted to add disclaimers when I write critically of the role we've allowed large institutions to play in our economy, but just like no one cares whether it's California or the United States exercising eminent domain on their property, no one cares whether it's a hyperactive bureacracy or a huge private bank that grinds their economy to a halt. What's good for GM or Mississippi is not always what's good for the country or the individual. I do what I can to advance the cause of capitalism not for its own sake but because I think it's the system that materially and emotionally benefits me personally without being immoral to others, and fortunately it seems to have this effect for lots of other people. The very moment I reach a different conclusion and find a better system, I will start supporting the new system. Market fundamentalist rhetoric (i.e., market failure apologists) gets this exactly backward. We have to save capitalism from the capitalists, and for the people. Markets do not exist without lawful institutions (non-market commons) to support them, and arguing the we should allow private institutions to distort those is a legalistic, market-fundamentalist fallacy. Adam Smith and Hayek made this case bluntly and today Simon Johnson makes it in the context of developing-world financial sector patterns afflicting the U.S. Who cares who's taking away your liberty or the system that it depends on, whether it's a senator or a banker?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Anti-Vaccination Nuts

Bill Maher has been running his mouth lately about a shadowy conspiracy he thinks he sees between various shadowy forces in government and big business. Frankly this anxiety strikes me as the dressed-up adult version of "I don't wanna go to the doctor because I'm scared of needles!". It's the same excuse people make for not taking their blood pressure (or other) medicine: "I don't want to become dependent on it." (Translation: they're babies and they just don't like taking pills or can't remember, and they can't admit it.)

In brief, Maher (and many other nutcases) has watched too many science fiction movies with Evil Corporations, and thinks that the H1N1 vaccine being rushed to Americans right now is just a plot by the government, doctors, and the pharmaceutical industry to keep us sick for profit.

Fortunately, Michael Shermer has taken Maher to task, and the odd inconsistency in Maher's position boils down to this:

"...Bill, please consider the odd juxtaposition of your enthusiastic support for health care reform and government intervention into this aspect of our medical lives, with your skepticism that these same people—when it comes to vaccinations and disease prevention—suddenly lose their sense of morality along with their medical training. You excoriate the political right for not trusting the government with our health, and then in the next breath you inadvertently join their chorus when you denounce vaccinations, thereby adding fodder for their ideological cannons. Please remember that it’s the same people administrating both health care and vaccination programs."

In the interest of full disclosure, as a health care worker, I will be receiving the H1N1 vaccine in a few weeks. I wish I was getting it sooner.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Saudi Arabia wants compensation if the rest of the world succeeds in lowering their oil consumption, and they're trying to get the other oil-producers to sign onto their plan. This situation is best described with an acronym, "TFB" ("too bad").

For progressives: do you support such compensation? If not, why not?

For conservatives: does this make you any less dismissive of efforts to decrease foreign energy dependence?