Monday, June 29, 2015

Can Republicans amputate their opposition to same-sex marriage?

According to recent polling, a majority of Americans think same-sex marriage should be legal, while a majority of Republicans think it shouldn't. In a two-party system with primaries, 35% of the general population is just about where you want your opponents to be on any issue. At that percentage, Republican politicians will find that it's easier to win primaries if they oppose same-sex marriage, since opposition is the majority view among Republicans. And then those politicians will be in trouble against Democrats in the general election, where support is the majority view.

It's obviously much better for your party to have majority support among the public on issues, but in some ways it's okay if some issue position is favored by only 5% of voters, all of whom are in your party. Then there aren't enough of those voters to control your primaries, so your party can still nominate people who don't have massive disadvantages in the general election. You run the risk of losing that 5% if that's their only issue, but the hope is that you can make it up to them on other issues. They may also realize that their view is in the minority, and that more work needs to be done before they can expect a major party to push it forward. Being at 35%, meanwhile, just sets you up to nominate politicians with the unpopular view who then lose general elections. You can hope to appease general election voters with other stuff, but the unpopular view is going to be a constant liability, and your opponents will do whatever they can to raise its salience.

It'll be interesting to see whether the Republican Party can become a majority supporter of same-sex marriage, or at least make opposition a less powerful force. Maybe there's some way the party leadership can de-emphasize the issue in primaries. Or maybe the general demographic and cultural trends leading to increasing majorities in favor of same-sex marriage will soon lead to majority Republican support.

But this won't be easy. The contemporary Republican party isn't built for maneuverable abandonment of long-held and long-reinforced positions. There will be TV and radio hosts ready to castigate Republicans who break from party orthodoxy, and they've already developed a rich enough parallel worldview among their audience that reconnecting the party faithful with political realities is going to be hard. Until they solve this problem, Democrats will benefit.

The Republican Party's problem isn't a problem for gay and lesbian couples who want to get married. The Supreme Court has made same-sex marriage legal across America, and that isn't going to change. So the substantive question is settled, and for that it doesn't matter how long the Republican Party sticks with the losing position. The interesting political question is whether Republicans can quickly amputate their gangrenous appendage, or whether it'll keep hurting them in election after election.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Indigo Girls, "Closer to Fine" + Conclusion of Kennedy's same-sex marriage ruling

It's been a great week in America, with the Supreme Court upholding Obamacare and making gay marriage legal across the land. I posted my optimistic prediction about the Obamacare ruling a few days ago, and I'm happy to see that things worked out even better than expected! Thanks in particular are due to Anthony Kennedy, who joined the majority opinion on Obamacare and wrote the majority opinion on same-sex marriage.
The concluding section of Kennedy's same-sex marriage opinion is beautiful. I like how the lovely prose of the first paragraph supports the final sentences' commanding legal language. 
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. 
The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.
It is so ordered. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Supreme Court speculation: 90% chance of Obamacare being okay

Sometime in the coming weeks, the Supreme Court will hand down a decision on whether the Affordable Care Act can provide subsidies on state exchanges established by the federal government. Challengers claim that this wasn't the intention of Congress, but everybody who actually voted for the bill in Congress says they intended to provide subsidies on state exchanges. If the Court decides against the subsidies, millions of people lose their health insurance until Congress comes up with some kind of fix, which won't happen anytime soon because there's no support in the Republican Party for ACA subsidies. Probably there's more interest among Congressional Republicans in having an Obama-linked disaster as they go into the 2016 elections.

The left side of the court - Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor - is sure to support the ACA against the challenge. Scalia, Thomas, and Alito are nearly certain to side with the challenge against the ACA. So the decision rests with Roberts and Kennedy, one of whom has to side with the ACA in order for it to be upheld. I've been reading Scott Lemieux throughout this drama, and I'm probably more optimistic than he is. Only one of Roberts and Kennedy needs to vote for the subsidies. My guess is that there's about a 90% chance of state subsidies surviving.

I'd guess that there's about an 80% chance of Roberts voting in favor of ACA subsidies. He surprised everybody by casting the decisive pro-ACA vote last time. That challenge concerned the constitutionality of the individual mandate, which he upheld by claiming that it was an extension of the government's taxing power. That never struck me as a particularly plausible challenge to the constitutionality of the ACA, but this challenge is just plain weird in how it goes against every legislator's expressed intentions and most of the relevant text of the ACA. Why would Roberts defy his conservative friends' expectations by supporting the ACA against the more plausible challenge, only to abandon it against the completely implausible challenge? And why would he choose the most disruptive possible time to do so, when it would throw lots of people off of their health insurance? While Scalia is the sort to generate massive disruption to people's lives from the Supreme Court, Roberts doesn't seem to be that kind of guy. I suppose there's a possibility that he doesn't want to disappoint the conservatives again. In the 80% chance of him voting to keep the subsidies, I include him again writing some kind of concurring opinion that achieves a minor conservative goal while preserving the ACA.

I'd put Kennedy at 50%. He voted against the ACA last time, but his questions this time suggested openness to keeping the subsidies. Moreover, while the last case was about individual mandates (which are kind of odd and can displease romantic libertarians of his stripe) the relevant provisions of the ACA give states a lot of flexibility. That's the sort of thing he likes more than federal government power, making him less likely to strike them down. But he did vote against the subsidies previously. He's less likely than Roberts, as far as I can tell, to be moved by concerns like the fact that lots of people will suddenly lose their health insurance.

I've been treating their votes as non-correlated. Why might they be correlated? Perhaps because they're convinced by the same argument (unlikely) or because Roberts doesn't want to be the deciding vote again (good for the ACA since that he can only do that as part of a 6-3 pro-ACA decision). Why might they be anti-correlated? While they're both in the middle, they seem to care about somewhat opposed things, which is why I don't think they'll be convinced by the same argument. So let's split the difference and say they're non-correlated. We lose the ACA subsidies if they both vote against them, and I'm seeing the probability of that as 20% x 50% = 10%, with a 90% chance of everything being okay. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Happy Fathers' Day!

The grounding relation is sometimes analogized to causation, and Karen Bennett suggests that causation itself could be an instance of grounding. My mom and dad caused my existence. Does this mean that they grounded me for the rest of my life?

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Coup, "Laugh, Love, Fuck" + How Henry "Box" Brown Mailed Himself To Freedom

Here's some fun Marxist hip-hop from Boots Riley and the Coup.

One of the more delightful stories of slaves escaping to the North is that of Henry "Box" Brown, who got some money together, bought a box, and mailed himself to a Philadelphia abolitionist.
To get out of work the day he was to escape, Brown burned his hand to the bone with oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid). The box that Brown was shipped in was 3 feet long by 2 feet 8 inches deep by 2 feet wide and displayed the words "dry goods" on it. It was lined with baize, a coarse woollen cloth, and he carried only a small portion of water and a few biscuits. There was a single hole cut for air and it was nailed and tied with straps. Brown later wrote that his uncertain method of travel was worth the risk: "if you have never been deprived of your liberty, as I was, you cannot realize the power of that hope of freedom, which was to me indeed, an anchor to the soul both sure and steadfast."
During the trip, which began on March 29, 1849, Brown's box was transported by wagon, railroad, steamboat, wagon again, railroad, ferry, railroad, and finally delivery wagon, being completed in 27 hours. Despite the instructions on the box of "handle with care" and "this side up," several times carriers placed the box upside-down or handled it roughly. Brown remained still and avoided detection. 
The box was received by Williamson, McKim, William Still, and other members of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee on March 30, 1849, attesting to the improvements in express delivery services. When Brown was released, one of the men remembered his first words as "How do you do, gentlemen?" He sang a psalm from the Bible, which he had earlier chosen to celebrate his release into freedom.
The article goes on to discuss the role of the postal service in promoting freedom, both in this fashion and by allowing abolitionist pamphlets to get to the South. Apparently Frederick Douglass wanted Brown to keep quiet about his escape, so that more slaves could mail themselves to freedom, but Brown was a bit too eager to tell people about his unusual journey. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Hillary, Jeb, (Barack!) and why I'm not worrying about dynasties

Long before Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton officially announced their campaigns, my friends were cringing at the possibility of having yet another presidential election with a Bush or a Clinton or both on the ticket. I understand the distaste -- we hope that political power doesn't just track family connections, but instead goes to people with good ideas who are skilled at public administration. But distaste for dynasties isn't going to affect my vote. Much bigger things are at stake.

The bigger things include: whether the domestic policy initiatives coming out of the White House look like universal health care or Social Security privatization, whether Republican foreign policy advisors push America into another conflict as large and destructive as the Iraq War, whether our new Supreme Court justices respect individual rights, and whether America plays a constructive role to mitigate global threats like nuclear weapons and climate change. The substantive issues at stake in picking the most powerful person on earth are tremendous, and that's what we should think about when we vote. In general, I'm not interested in hearing much about candidates' family backgrounds except if they tell us something about what they'll do on these and other issues.

It would be bad news if Hillary was stuck to mid-1990s Clinton positions, but things aren't looking that way. We're seeing good signs on mass incarceration issues and expanding voting rights, and I hope there's more where that came from. You could see this as simple opportunism -- she has a Democratic primary to win, and while she's very likely to defeat Bernie Sanders, her most certain way of doing so involves moving left at this time. But her current positions invite those who agree to permeate her political organization, and implement them in her White House if she wins. If Mark Penn were among them, I'd probably be a committed Sanders supporter already, but thankfully it doesn't look like he'll be there to mess up her campaign and her administration. So I'm just waiting for the time being to see how things play out before declaring support for anybody. If Bernie Sanders is beating Scott Walker (my guess for likely Republican nominee) in head-to-head polls when January rolls around, he'll probably have my vote! Or if Hillary comes out in favor of universal basic income, she'll probably have mine. We'll see what happens.

In any event, Jeb's success is based on family connections much more so than Hillary's. He's a president's son, born shortly after his grandfather was elected to the Senate. Hillary, meanwhile, is as close to an equal partner in her husband's rise from humble origins to the presidency as any First Lady has ever been. While the post-2000 phase of her career involves dynasty-like family connections, everything before that for her and Bill involved succeeding without them.

If the possibility of having no choices outside of the Clinton and Bush families remains galling, I hope you'll appreciate our current president. He's as far from being the scion of a political dynasty as any President in American history, with a father born in Kenya and a mother who spent her later years writing a 1,043 page anthropology dissertation titled Peasant Blacksmithing in Indonesia. They were incredibly smart and capable people who produced a son like them, but they didn't hand him any significant wealth or Bush-like family connections. He rose to the presidency on his own abilities, defeating opponents whose names opened more doors than "Barack Hussein Obama".

Friday, June 12, 2015

Capercaillie, "God's Alibi" + how Ernie Chambers sued God

I like Capercaillie's Scottish traditional stuff a bit better than the slightly new-agey sound you get below. But when Sean Connery said that Karen Matheson's voice came from a "throat that is surely touched by God", I wouldn't have offered any counterarguments, and not just because he's Sean Connery.

That's all to set up the story of how Ernie Chambers sued God:
In the U.S. state of Nebraska, State Senator Ernie Chambers filed a suit in 2008 against God, seeking a permanent injunction against God's harmful activities, as an effort to publicize the issue of public access to the court system. The suit was dismissed because God could not be properly notified, not having an address. The Judge stated, "Given that this court finds that there can never be service effectuated on the named defendant this action will be dismissed with prejudice". The senator, assuming God to be singular and all-knowing, responded "The court itself acknowledges the existence of God. A consequence of that acknowledgement is a recognition of God's omniscience ... Since God knows everything, God has notice of this lawsuit." 
...a judge finally did throw out the case, saying the Almighty was not properly served due to his unlisted home address. As of 5 November 2008, Chambers filed an appeal to the Nebraska Supreme Court. The former state senator John DeCamp and E. O. Augustsson in Sweden, asked to represent God. Augustsson's letters, mentioning the Bjorn (cf. the Bjorn Socialist Republic) were stricken as "frivolous". The Appeals Court gave Chambers until February 24 to show that he notified DeCamp and Augustsson of his brief, which he did. The case was finally closed on February 25 when the Nebraska Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal and vacated the order of the district court. The court quoted cases according to which "[a] court decides real controversies and determines rights actually controverted, and does not address or dispose of abstract questions or issues that might arise in hypothetical or fictitious situation or setting".
I count at least five ontological categories in the last sentence. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Left-wing students don't get professors fired, but Republicans might

Last week, Vox published "I'm a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me". The actual facts in the article left me reassured that our jobs are safe from our left-wing students. I wish they were so safe from Republican state legislators.

The article begins by describing how its pseudonymous author received a formal complaint from a conservative student after noting that the financial crisis wasn't caused by overly generous lending to minorities. The student alleged "communistical sympathies", the professor wrote something about what had happened, and perhaps the administrators recalled Joe McCarthy before ignoring his ideological descendent's complaint. 

This had me bracing for a story about how complaints from the left had been taken more seriously. But no: "That was the first, and so far only, formal complaint a student has ever filed against me." There isn't a single concrete story of a professor losing a job due to left-wing student complaints anywhere in the article. There's nothing resembling the story of Steven Salaita, who lost a tenured appointment at Illinois for criticizing Israeli military policy on Twitter. I guess the article's headline is true -- the author is terrified of his students. He expresses his fears at length. But he never describes an actual case that makes such fear rational. 

Is the dismissed Title IX suit against Laura Kipnis supposed to be the sort of thing we're worried about? I think it shouldn't have been investigated in the first place, and I'm sure it was a scary and unpleasant hassle for Kipnis, but an instance of a complaint going a step too far before being dismissed isn't exactly chilling my blood. The explanation of why we need this form of Title IX enforcement by Josh Marshall's correspondent seems to basically answer Josh Marshall's argument-free invective against Justin Weinberg.

At worst, left-wing students can do some things that scare left-wing professors: make them feel bad, and scare away their friends. If conservatives called me "communistical", I'd laugh, and not just because it gets the little red dashes from the spell checker. I know that accusations of communism in America are generally ridiculous. You get them for supporting the economic policies of our NATO allies. But there's plenty of sexism and racism around (the implicit bias research suggests that it's in me too). I can't so easily brush off charges of that sort, and neither can others if they hear students making them against me. Even if the accusations were completely unfair, they could cost me well-meaning friends and they'd definitely make me feel bad. But I don't see any reason to think jobs are at risk. 

Fear of your right-wing state government makes more sense. In North Carolina, Republican state legislators have closed research centers on the environment, voting rights, and poverty -- the last of these after threatening the director with the closure of his center if he kept writing newspaper editorials. The right-wing think tank director who seems to be designing academic policy speaks negatively of "collectivism" and positively of Ayn Rand

In Wisconsin, proposals are moving through the legislature to allow the firing of tenured faculty “when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection.” If Scott Walker decides that Wisconsin requires program modification and Republican legislators agree, does tenure still count there? Gratuitous advertisement: philosophers in North Carolina and Wisconsin seeking more academic freedom may find it at the National University of Singapore.

We've had passionate left-wing students for a long time. Sometimes they're right and sometimes they're wrong, but either way the risk that you'll lose your job because of their political complaints is basically zero. Amanda Taub writes, "Students, after all, have been complaining about their professors and just about everything else since time immemorial." If left-wing students haven't gotten their professors fired in the past, why would it start now? But the rise of right-wing state governments trying to eliminate the politically troublesome aspects of their state universities is new. They have the formal power to make funding decisions and change policy, and they're just starting to use it.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Clancy Brothers, The Mermaid (better than Animal Planet on mermaids)

Our song for the day is "The Mermaid", by Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers. I don't have the lyrics memorized anymore, but it was one of my favorite Irish folk songs to sing:

Why is the narrator alive to tell the story after his ship sank to the bottom of the sea? I think it's because the mermaid rescued him.

While I'm fond of fictional works involving mermaids, I draw the line at cable channels trying to drive up ratings by claiming that mermaids actually exist. This is a problem with Animal Planet:
In May 2012, a Mermaids: The Body Found, a television docufiction aired on Animal Planet which centered around the experiences of former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists, showing a CGI recreation of amateur sound and video of a beached mermaid and discussing scientific theories involving the existence of mermaids. In July 2012 in response to public inquiries, and the possibility that some viewers may have mistaken the programme for a documentary, the National Ocean Service (a branch of NOAA) made the unusual declaration that "no evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found". 
A year later in May 2013, Animal Planet aired another docu-fiction titled Mermaids: The New Evidence featuring "previously unreleased video evidence", including what a former Iceland GeoSurvey scientist witnessed while diving off the coast of Greenland in an underwater submersible. The videos provide two different shots of what appears to be a humanoid creature approaching and touching their vehicle. NOAA once again released a statement saying "The person identified as a NOAA scientist was an actor." The actor is separately identified as David Evans of Ontario, Canada.
It appears that market incentives aren't set up to prevent for-profit TV channels from boosting ratings with mermaid pseudo-documentaries.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

I gave Jeff Merkley $5000. This could work out well for people and animals!

This is the fifth year that I've donated $5000 to Jeff Merkley, who represents Oregon in the US Senate. I do this because he has the right outlook on issues from global poverty to intellectual property to animal welfare, and he's a brilliant legislative strategist who can use my contributions to make the Democratic Party better on these and other issues. I've just spent a weekend with him and some staffers and supporters, and I'll have some information about that here too.

First, here's how the donations work: I give to his Leadership PAC, which is a fund from which he gives to other Democrats for their campaigns. This helps them get elected, and makes them more likely to do what he says later on. So contributing to his Leadership PAC gets more Democrats elected, and gets them following someone who will lead them in the right direction on a wide range of issues.

I suggest giving to Leadership PACs if you want to support a party and also support particular policy options and leaders within that party. You can also help your favorite candidates by directly donating to them through the internet, but your contribution might not move them in any particular direction on issues because they don't know what exactly you want them to do. Also, you might not be following Congress closely enough to suggest a clever plan to achieve your goals by voting a particular way on a particular procedural motion on a particular amendment. But Jeff is a Senator who's in a social and epistemic position to suggest highly detailed and specific plans. So I can get the party organized to act effectively on important issues by putting money in his hands.

A side benefit is that I get to hang out with Jeff, his staff, and some donors at a fundraiser every year. These events are usually set up to show off cool stuff in the Senator's home state. In Oregon that's Portland and the Oregon wine country, both of which are beautiful. One isn't supposed to talk to the media about these events, but I want to give my friends a bit of a taste for what goes on at these things, so what I say will be somewhat cryptic and involve silly nicknames for some people involved.

For the most part, I talk with people at fundraisers like I'm at a philosophy conference, asking them what they do, learning about their work, and telling them about my work if they're curious. Sometimes when they're working on an issue where I have an idea, I tell them about it (I try to chat with labor union folks about monetary policy, since they want more jobs and the Fed has tremendous power over total employment). Last year I showed some campaign staffers political science research on how to raise voter turnout. This year one of them told me that the Oregon Democratic Party had done some of the things that the research suggested! For a philosopher, that's an unusual level of immediate impact.

Early in the fundraiser is a nice dinner during which people stand up and introduce themselves and briefly say how they or their organization support the Senator. I explain that I'm a philosophy professor who cares about global poverty issues, and recount how Jeff won me over by clearly stating the case for third world debt relief during a conference call in 2008. I often get a round of applause, because people recognize the importance of reducing global poverty, even if they don't have any clear idea how to do it.

I got a great surprise when I was done talking this time -- Jeff got up and said that now that he's on the Senate Foreign Appropriations Committee, he'll be in good position to make progress on that! By the end of the fundraiser, I'd mentioned GiveWell to him as an excellent public source of quantitative information about how to reduce global poverty. At another point I was telling people about guinea worm while food was being served, and another donor understandably suggested that I talk about something else. But overall, I've been very impressed with the reception these issues get here and I hope Jeff's new committee assignment enables him to help very poor people on an epic scale.

I didn't expect to bring up animal welfare issues during this fundraiser, but at one point during dinner Jeff told me about work he'd done on the Agriculture Committee to prevent neonicotinoid pesticides from killing bees and other wildlife that pollinate plants. I couldn't resist expressing concern about the ag-gag bills that agribusiness is trying to pass to block people from recording and displaying brutal conditions in factory farms. If I have any ability to read Jeff's immediate enthusiastic nodding, having him as ranking Democrat on the Agriculture committee could be very good for animals.

I wish my friends who focus on police brutality issues could've seen my conversation with the Chief of Staff, who hails from one of the cities where a notorious shooting occurred. As we were talking about how Hillary Clinton and other Democrats approach these issues, he was laying out the gruesome details of the shooting and describing how one of the officers escaped punishment on a technicality. It was a sign that passion on these issues isn't limited to the Democratic grassroots, and that it's pervading the party as a whole.

One of my favorite perennial guests is someone I call Ancient Democratic Insider. On basically any issue (civil rights? science policy? financial regulation?) he's done some highly placed and helpful work over the past five decades. Shortly after I met him this time, he was telling another DC person about something that needed to be done quickly to outflank more Wall-Street-oriented Democrats and set up tougher financial regulation. I'm sure that plenty of Democratic insiders push the other way on these issues, but I'm glad to be supporting the Senator at whose fundraiser the conversations go this way. I also talked with him and the Chief of Staff about how to solve general problems Democrats are facing with congressional district maps, about which I'll probably put up a full-length post soon.

I'll close with a note on Jeff. I've described his legislative achievements a few times in past writing, so I won't add to those points here. But I've been meeting up with him for five years now, and I'm always sort of amazed by his lack of ego. In a business with lots of self-important people, he's a thoughtful, laid-back, modest guy whose sense of humor typically involves gentle understatement. Really this shouldn't matter too much to me -- I'd support a jerk if it were the best way to help poor people. But it feels better that I don't have to do that.