Friday, October 30, 2009

Has the whole world gone insane? (Gay marriage edition)

We're down to the wire on the gay marriage issue here in Maine. If referendum question one passes, the 2009 legislation to legalize gay marriage will not take effect. As a socially liberal conservative, I find myself on the opposing side of a lot of my allies and I find myself confused and annoyed by some of the weird arguments gay marriage foes are making.

Unexpectedly, the Bible has been left on the shelf for most of the campaign season. I like to tell myself that it's not conservatives who are opposing gay marriage, but Christians who happen to be conservatives, but I know that's not a realistic way to look at the situation. Both sides are willing to cite their religious views as inspiration.

What drives me bonkers is that the anti gay-marriage campaign has stolen their strategy from the liberal playbook by moving the issue away from the adults the law is made for, and instead focusing on how it will effect children. We hear that legalizing gay marriage will give public school teachers permission to talk about the gay lifestyle in class (News flash - that was already happening in the 1990's when I attended a Maine public school) and that children will be brought up in gay marriage households (That's the gay adoption issue, and Maine already has it).

Can there be anything more overtly disgusting that a supposedly conservative group cowering behind children for political gain? Their campaign logo is two parents holding hands with two children under the watch of a floating Maine - not a subtle reference to their "protect the children" arguments on what is clearly an issue about adults.

I confess to suspecting a lot of things about homosexuality, but only knowing two of them for sure: Gays exist, and they are not going to go away.

With those two points in mind, we need to make sure our laws coincide with reality. Right now in Maine there are thousands of romance stories between people of the same gender that will be here on Nov. 4 no matter what the outcome.

In social circles, gay marriage already exists in Maine - it just hasn't been legally certified. I've talked to a few liberal pastors in Maine and all of them said they will perform gay weddings if asked. The only difference is Augusta currently doesn't admit these romances exist, and the legal rights and responsibilities that come with marriage are not automatically included.

Stand for Marriage Maine has said that allowing gay marriage would infringe on religious freedom because gay couples would force unwilling churches to marry them. Can there be a more ignorant view on conservative principles?

According to Larry Iannaccone, economics professor at George Mason University, America owes its high religiosity to the free market on religious faiths. He said because America didn't establish an official church, it allows the public to choose the church they like best. Unpopular churches dry up and go away, and that is exactly what Stand for Marriage Maine is concerned with. Gays will just go to the churches that welcome them.

Some people, like the president, think "civil unions" are a good compromise. I do not. I think there is already too many obtuse, wordy pieces of legislation on the books that every citizen is expected to know and follow - from what renovations you are allowed to make at home to what you and an employee can agree on for a wage. Civil unions present further unnecessary complications and red tape for the sole purpose of preserving a mythical 1950's vision of what is and is not a marriage.

Legalizing gay marriage in Maine is not about redefining marriage, or endorsing the gay lifestyle in our society. Legislature follows the trends of the our society - not the other way around. This issue is about weakening the state's power to define marriage and letting the individual - not society - determine how one wishes to live one's own life.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Anti TABOR scare tactics

Next Tuesday in Maine there's a vote on the Tax Payer Bill of Rights, known as TABOR, which is currently in effect in Colorado. It's a system that would limit government spending increases based on inflation and population growth.

This morning I heard a laughable anti-TABOR radio ad. With a scary music playing over a series of "rural" sounding voices listing horrors like making the parents of student athletes pay for some of the equipment, or college students having less of their tuition subsidized; this gem stands out

I'm a Colorado physician and I can tell you that TABOR was a mistake... [then after a very rough edit jump] child immunization rates have plummeted.
Can you say post hoc ergo propter hoc? (Well, I can. Even with only one Latin class under my belt.) Maybe falling immunization rates have other causes, such as, I don't know, a growing pseudoscience movement specifically telling people not to vaccinate their kids.

You think?

From what I've seen, all of the anti-Tabor forces do is take any negative changes that occurred after TABOR was passed and blame it on TABOR. It's like getting a haircut, falling asleep at the wheel, and then suing your barber.

Maybe TABOR and immunizations are related, and maybe state funding is the culprit. Colorado's libertarian Independent Institute doesn't think so.

Detractors also claim that TABOR limits Colorado's health spending and that things are so bad that the state ranks last in childhood immunizations. These bogus claims are based on willful misinterpretation of the National Immunization Survey, a telephone survey of the immunization status of children under age 3. Estimates of coverage rates in states with relatively small populations are estimated from small samples and are subject to error. The Centers for Disease Control note this in the information they publish with the surveys. In 2002, the point estimate of coverage for Colorado for a couple of the vaccine series was lower than any other state. However, when the errors caused by small samples were considered, it was likely that Colorado had immunization rates that were similar to other states like it. As one would expect if mere statistical variation caused the low ranking, 2005 immunization data put Colorado nowhere near the bottom. (Thanks to for the link)
Another weird charge against TABOR is that sometimes "it got so bad voters suspended it." I'm sorry, but do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Letting voters suspend it is part of the TABOR experience - it was designed that way as a safety feature in case something remarkable comes up. It's like scolding a fighter jet manufacturer for a pilot ejecting from the cockpit. The ejection seat was a feature, the dogfight with a MIG was the real problem.

How's TABOR doing now in Colorado? Depends who you ask. A recent poll said the majority want it to change, but not go away altogether. In 2008 Colorado voter's rejected a chance to gut TABOR when they denied Amendment 59. It sounds like voters think it's not perfect, but a step in the right direction.


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reverse blog: 2012 edition

Is there one sane person who believes the world will end in 2012? I'm not looking for a brain surgeon, just one calm, well-adjusted person.

Enough well-informed, articulate people have already tackled this issue that I don't feel the need to get into it. I just want to know if there is one sane person, perhaps a member of the Mayan church, who is able to read one of these doomsday scenarios and say, "Yeah, that sounds reasonable."

Has anyone out there heard of one?


Thursday, October 15, 2009

The war between economists and localists

The Freakonomics blog just concluded it's three part anti-locavore series from guest writer James McWilliams.

Part one

Part two

Part three

Like all of the other anti "buy local" posts on the blog, the comment sections were immediately descending upon by "buy local" true believers.

I don't think enough has been said about "buy local" being just another pseudoscience.

The"buy local" argument contradicts what we learned from Adam Smith and David Ricardo about the creation of wealth through specialization and the division of labor. It's not that these well-intentioned people have an alternate view and wish to challenge these fundamental concepts - they simply don't understand them.

It's like Paul Krugman wrote in Pop Internationalism:

...We learn that the authors on my reading list do not base their disdain for academic economics on a superior or more subtle understanding. Rather, their views are startlingly crude and uniformed... [the view] is dominated by entirely ignorant men, who have managed to convinced themselves and everyone else who matters that they have deep insights, but are in fact unaware of the most basic principles of and facts about the world economy.

Like a lot of pseudosciences, the hyper-protectionist "localism" movement is dominated by die-hard activists who ignore their critics and continue to push woo - and the general public lacks the tools to digest their claims rationally.

I was skeptical when I first encountered the buy local claims a few years ago. It was nakedly a protectionist strategy and seems to break a lot of windows, in the metaphor of Henry Hazlitt. As I've researched it, I've found over and over again that economists are on my side. Always. I've tried my best to find an actual economist willing to support a buy local movement, but every web search just turns up more economists speaking against it.

This is another case of scientists versus creationists; just like biologists have creationists and psychologists have Scientologists, economists have "buy local" activists.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Some crimes do have explanations

A story about a small band of Florida juveniles setting another teen on fire because he owed one of them $40 set off a minor journalistic wince today. A county sheriff was quotes as saying:
"That's what this comes down to. It's retaliation. They deliberately sought him out, poured alcohol on him and set him on fire. I can tell you there's no way to explain it, no way to rationalize it."
The emphasis was added because it parallels something Benjamin Radford wrote in Media Myth Makers about a 10-year-old who burned down a church in Massachusetts.
Fire officials said that the boy admitted to excusing himself from Sunday school class to visit the bathroom, but instead set a fire in a wastebasket, then returned to class and waited, he said, "just to see what would happen."
Fire Chief Leonard Laporte was quoted as asking rhetorically, "What makes a 10-year-old do this? I don't know. Is it a craving for attention? Who knows?" Well the boy knew, and he openly explained it to the police and the fire department. Laporte, like many people, apparently refused to believe the very clear and simple explanations offered by the perpetrator himself.
Just like Radford wrote, there is a way to explain what those kids did in Florida - they tried to brutally murder another student because he couldn't or wouldn't pay them the money he owed them.

There is no reason to hang a large, rhetorical "Why?" over this like it's an unsolvable puzzle. The Florida sheriff officer had just finished chalking it up to retaliation. This certainly doesn't justify it, but it does explain it pretty clearly.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Capitalism doesn't mean loving big corporations

I love capitalism the way other New Englanders love the Red Sox.

I often hear anti-capitalist enthusiasts paint my side as cheerleaders for big corporations. While I do think big companies and the rich are unfairly portrayed in a villainous light, I've never looked at them as the focus. Instead, being for capitalism isn't about supporting the capitalists, it's about supporting the market.

The free market is a brutal, violent jungle - a Darwinian crucible that kills weak firms so that the strong ones may expand and be copied. The popular view is that this arena-style market is targeted and softened by left-wing activists and legislators that just screw things up by redistributing resources poorly. They intend to help "the little guy" compete, but end up launching leaky vessels into the sea - and a lot of these failing ships need to be rescued.

While this is correct, it's only part of the story.

The other threat to the market is the reigning champions - the big companies themselves. Frankly, they don't want to compete. They want to game the system. This involves a plethora of tactics; from regulations to keep competitors out, to bailouts when the company fails.

Capitalism is meant to be brutal, and the attempts to soften it come from both the apparent winners and the losers.


Friday, October 9, 2009

Really? REALLY?

It was just announced that President Barack Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples."

While I don't support most of Obama's policies, I don't automatically criticize everything he does. Still, even I think this is award is completely underserved. Simply put, Obama hasn't accomplished anything yet. A quote from the CNN article puts it into perspective, in a great example of a statement that both sides can agree with.
The committee wanted to be "far more daring" than in recent times and make an impact on global politics, said Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the International Peace Research Institute.
The Nobel Prize Committee wanted to "Make an impact on global politics" huh? Couldn't have said it better myself.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

An article free of gluten and serious questions

The Portland Press Herald started off this article wrong right from the subhead.

Gluten-free on the rise
An increasing number of Maine businesses are banking on the foods' growing popularity.

It's ambiguous enough to imply that gluten is becoming more popular, when in fact, it's irrational fear of gluten that's on the rise. In a similar spirit to chronic Lyme disease, glutenphobes blame a wide, vague and often contradictory list of symptoms on gluten. Who can't say they've had unexplained weight gain, weight loss, fatigue or a hangnail?

Is it any wonder the anti-gluten activists claim up to half the population is allergic to this protein?

The Press Herald story continued, but it didn't get much better.

The products were developed because of the Stefanos' need to remove gluten from the diet of their son Marco.

Five years ago, when he was 15, he started suffering from depression and anxiety. A cousin with similar issues had responded well when gluten was removed from his diet. The Stefanos followed suit and Marco's well-being improved.

The obvious question is, did Marco ever see a doctor and take a blood test for celiac disease? It certainly doesn't sound like it.

Celiac disease, where a person really is allergic to gluten, does exist. I'm not arguing that it doesn't. What I'm simply saying it sounds like the usual problems associated with someone diagnosing a medical illness after clicking through a quick, online quiz decorated with cute photos.

There was also a person in the article who sold gluten-free dog food.

He believes that some customers are motivated by their dogs' food allergies while others like supporting a Maine business that is supplied by Maine growers.

Sometimes customers turn to his dog biscuits because of their own health issues.

"In some instances, where it's not the dog that has the gluten intolerance, but the owner is celiac," he said, "they don't have to have a sock on their hand when they feed their dog a treat."

Psychosomatic anyone? Placebo effect? Post hoc ergo propter hoc? None of these concepts exist in the world of this story, although there is a quick shout out to the buy local crowd. Sometimes flawed minds do think alike.

Maybe it's not fair to single out the Press Herald on this one. The reporter and editorial team were probably never trained in reporting science or health issues and just winged it, and certainly most news teams would have handled this the same way. Still, when you put out a newspaper and you can't be bothered to learn to separate myth from reality, you're doing something wrong.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Just how greedy are health insurance companies?

I was talking to a friend about what's wrong with the America health insurance system after she presented a link to what I see as a ridiculous presentation about the greed of an insurance company.

In a sea of numbers, the article and accompanying video lamented that Wellpoint was suing the state of Maine to raise premiums b 18.5 percent. This number was stressed over and over, and for good reason - it's a scary number, that's almost a one-fifth increase.

But further down, after a lot of hot air about greed and rich CEO's, the important number came out; Wellpoint wants to keep a profit margin of 3 percent.

A mere 3 percent? That's a pathetic amount of money! The Maine Superintendent of Insurance even ruled 3 percent was "excessive and unfairly discriminatory." But 3 percent is peanuts. It's not even one-fourth of what non-profit groups embezzle.

Sure, the money adds up if you look at the total revenue generated, but the company has a lot invested - all of which is very much at risk to the whims of the market.

The entire greed-based explanation for our health care problems is ridiculous if you try to take it seriously.

That is, insurance companies knew they could always charge more, but decided to wait until now to rake in the money. Isn't it odd that they waited until the focus of the entire world was on them, and still decided to ratchet it up? Even with the government threatening to change the rules and cut their profits for this very reason? And if its such an easy way to make money, why are so many insurance companies leaving the marketplace?

One reason this view is so popular is that it's an emotionally satisfying explanation. Instead of a complicated list of what's wrong with our health care system, it's much easier to say that the bad people are hurting everyone and we can fix it by having the government take over.


Sunday, October 4, 2009

To some, only racism can explain opposition

In less than a year, disagreeing with the president has gone from a patriotic act to pure racism.

At least, that's what I keep hearing.

This weekend on Real Time with Bill Maher, actress Janeane Garofalo was the latest left-wing speaker to claim that the populist anti-Obama movements marauding across the country are motivated by racism.

Originally I considered this such a weak argument that I didn't consider it worthy of my time and effort. But it's coming from so many angles I really can't ignore it.

Surely there's a lot of things that motivate people to feel and act certain ways, so why should racism be the biggest one?

Consider this: Political activism made a huge comeback in the W. Bush years. I believe a big part of that can be attributed to the Internet. The Internet was dominated by tech-savvy young people, who tend to be liberal. They had a very powerful way to share information, as well as build political organizations, and this came out at the same time as a pretty serious social conservative took office for eight years.

I think both sides experienced a polarizing effect. Instead of using more general-interest news sources like in the past, people were able to turn to more overtly biased news sources like MSNBC and Fox News, as well as blatantly one-sided Internet news sites. This is a recipe for a powerful protest movement.

Enter Obama, and people on the right say, "me too," and do the same thing. Advances in technology, as well as its osmosis into our daily lives, allows this older batch of protesters to use the Internet to organize as well. Sadly, they are following the same tone as the previous protest culture - perhaps they think what happened over the last eight years gives them permission.

In addition, the anti-Bush movement didn't disband, but morphed into an Obama fan club.

So what we have is a hostile political atmosphere, with both sides glaring at the other with distrust, and claiming to know exactly what's right for America.

But what do politically-horny celebrities chalk it up to? Something more complex and well-thought out? Nope, just racism.

This brings us back to what I wrote before about false positives. The argument for opposition to Obama as motivated by racism is: There's a mostly-white movement opposing a black president, so therefore one causes the other.

Please. Can there be anything more intellectually lazy?