The Sovereign Mind

Free thought on politics and real life

Archive for November 2008

The Death of Skepticism?

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…or is it just seriously ill?

A few days ago, the video of President Bush entering the stage at the G20 conference became viral. In case you haven’t seen it, here it is:

The media and bloggers fell over themselves to comment on how sad it was that Bush has lost so much credibility, or how arrogant the other leaders were.

I knew my position would be unpopular, but I went on record urging caution. I felt 10 seconds of video taken out of context were not enough to come to such sweeping conclusions about what was going on the minds of the word leaders or Bush. As I expected, the response to my comment was that it was “nonsense”.

My point is not to toot my own horn (OK, maybe it is partially. I’m not right all that often, so I need to milk it while I have the chance), but it turns out I was right to be skeptical:

I’m glad at least CNN had the integrity to correct their error, although I don’t think it will undo the damage and they should be ashamed of their previous coverage. And also kudos to Donklephant for actually posting a follow-up when it became clear the previous story was not accurate.

Now that that’s straightened out, we can get back to business as usual, right? Wrong. This is just a symptom of the problem. The media, bloggers, and even the public in general is forgetting the virtue of skepticism. And I believe this is a real problem. This is not the first time this has happened, although it can take on different forms.

The most glaring examples come from the latest presidential election. Why is it that politicians are so willing to make obviously false statements in order to promote their own candidacy? It’s because the public, including media, bloggers, and everyone else, won’t question them. This is why Obama got away (relatively) with accusing McCain of wanting to continue to war in Iraq for 100 years. Sure, there was some critique, but in my opinion this sort of misrepresentation is inexcusable. On the other hand, McCain got away, for the most part, with confusing Obama’s tax policy proposal. They had some grounds to criticize Obama on past votes or on the wisdom of raising taxes on the rich, but they implied that Obama was proposing to increase taxes on the middle class, which was false and inexcusable.

In my perfect world, these sorts of purposeful distortions of truth should cause a campaign to go down in flames. Instead, we give them a slap on the wrist and look the other way, and so they continue to use these tactics, knowing that 90% of the people that hear their words will not have the skepticism to do the research for themselves to find out that what they are saying is not exactly true. Is it because we think politicians are always truthful? Of course not, we all know politicians lie and distort. I think what it means is that we’ve become so accustomed to it that we are content to be lied to, as long as our political ideologies are in agreement. So I don’t only blame the politicians for the mud-slinging that happens. I also blame the media and the people for letting it happen and not holding them accountable.

But election coverage is only one example of the lack of skepticism. I’m also troubled by the assurance that people seem to have that they are right. Toward the end of the election, I heard numerous people say that they couldn’t see how anyone could be undecided unless they were uninformed. But there was another reason to be undecided other than ignorance: humility. I see many examples of people who are persuaded by one point of view and then fail to ever consider any counter-arguments. For example, I am generally a free-market advocate, but I see in other free-market advocates a sort of cult-like following. They refuse to see any down-sides to the free market, a few of which I’ve outlined before. Before we stake out a position on an issue, few people take the time to step back and say “I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.”

Saying “I don’t know” is seen as a sign of ignorance, but in reality it is the first step to wisdom.

So, dear reader, if you’ve made it this far, make it worth your time. Next time you hear a story, whether it supports your world-view or not, remember the virtue of skepticism. There might come a time for you to take a stand, but take the time to think and maybe do a little research. To those in the media, or those who have taken upon yourself to blog in the public sphere, this is a lesson I shouldn’t have to be teaching you.

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Written by Mike

November 23, 2008 at 10:07 am

Posted in politics, society

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When Protests Go To Far

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I’m working on a post on the gay marriage debate, trying to look at both sides objectively without regard to rhetoric. It is a very difficult issue with heated opinions on both sides, so I want to make sure I express myself well and have thought through my arguments well, which is why it’s not ready yet.

But, one thing I am ready to say: the protests against the passage of Proposition 8 have gone too far. I respect their right to protest, and have tried to give them the benefit of the doubt that most of them are peaceful. However, videos I’ve seen lately are hard to ignore. See this video and decide for yourself:

Written by Mike

November 12, 2008 at 10:34 pm

Posted in society

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Obama’s First Broken Promise?

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President-elect Barack Obama talked said today that fixing the economy is our highest priority. Jared Bernstein, Obama’s economic adviser, describes how he would use government spending to do it:

“Government is the most reliable source of short-term growth, the only part of GDP pulling out its wallet these days. There is a time for budget austerity – this ain’t it.”

I didn’t hear much from Obama or Bernstein today about what programs would be cut to pay for this spending, or how much taxes would need to be raised. I can only assume that they are talking about increasing deficit spending here. There are valid arguments to be made for increasing spending during an economic crisis, even it if means I higher deficit. So I’m not so much against this way of thinking.

However, we read this from Obama’s campaign website:

Obama and Biden believe that a critical step in restoring fiscal discipline is enforcing pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) budgeting rules which require new spending commitments or tax changes to be paid for by cuts to other programs or new revenue.

I can hear the spin now: “This is an unusual circumstance that calls for bending the rules” or “Obama was stating his guideline, but not making a firm promise.”

But the bottom line is that Obama said he would restore fiscal responsibility, and in fact railed against the Bush administration for increasing the national debt, and now it appears Obama might do the same. Obama could argue his deficit spending is justifiable, but then so could Bush, considering what he had to deal with.

However, since this was just a statement by Obama’s economic adviser, and not by Obama himself, I’m prepared to withhold my judgment for now. But it appears as though he is preparing to break one of the campaign promises I was actually hoping he would keep, and before the inauguration at that.

H/T to Donklephant.

Written by Mike

November 7, 2008 at 11:32 pm

A More Perfect Union?

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Like many Americans, I am very proud of what our nation was able to do on Tuesday. Even though I did not vote for him, I am aware that Obama’s election is a symbol of the great progress we have made toward a more equal society.

However, I worry that we may get carried away. Are we really “a more perfect union” than we were a few days ago? In Barack Obama’s acceptance speech, he eloquently reminded us that there is still much more work to be done:

This is our time, to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.

I heard one caller to a radio show today suggest that we should do away with Affirmative Action because Obama proved it was unnecessary. While there are good arguments for doing away with or reforming that policy, clearly Obama’s anecdotal success isn’t one of them.

So I ask the question: how close are we? How much work is to be done? I think both conservatives and liberals can agree that our ideal should be equality of opportunity for all, although we can disagree on how to get there. Has Barack Obama’s election shown that we are close to that ideal?

I hate to be the voice of cynicism during this time of hope, but my answer to that question is “No”.

For one thing, Obama’s background is not that of a typical inner-city African American. Please understand that I don’t say this at all to diminish what he has accomplished as a black man. However, it is important to note that he did not rise up out of the slums. He was raised in Hawaii, by his white grandparents and mother, and attended the Panauhou school. I don’t know much about the school, but this article certainly couldn’t be mistaken for a school in down-town Detroit.

But even so, certainly Obama’s roots are more humble than recent presidents. Some argue that if Obama can become president, than anyone can be successful. I agree. Even from the humblest of roots, success can be attained if one is highly intelligent, willing to work hard, and maybe a little lucky. While those of us from more affluent backgrounds can be successful by merely being mediocre. While that is better than many other nations, it is far from the ideal of equality of opportunity.

The achievement gap between white and black students remains, and has not improved in recent years. The drop-out rate in inner-city schools is around 50%. Read the account of this LA school and tell me that those kids have equal opportunity as others. Sure, they can be successful, but the odds are highly stacked against them. Would Obama be president if he went to that school?

Some argue that this is the price we pay for a free society. People are free to make bad decisions which will end up depriving their children of opportunity. Pure free market advocates would argue that this is part of the fuel that makes the free market work: people want to work hard to give their kids a good future–to live in an area with good schools, and to send them to college. Otherwise they will see their kids’ opportunities diminish. Thus, the free market encourages hard work. However, even though I am a free market advocate, I see this as one of its fundamental flaws. It is fundamentally unfair that children should be punished for the bad decisions of their parents, and goes against our society ideal of equality of opportunity for all.

So, the way I see it, we may have overcome most of our prejudices that have kept certain groups down, but we still have difficult obstacles to overcome if we desire to strive toward equality of opportunity–the most important being the inequalities of education.

So, in all of the excitement, which I share, over the election of our nations first black president, let us not lose sight of the important work that remains to be done. Conservatives and liberals have differing ideas on how to solve this problem, and I look forward to debating it, not with political ideologies, but with the interests of our children in mind.

Written by Mike

November 6, 2008 at 9:58 pm

What’s Next in the Gay Marriage Debate?

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With the passage of Proposition 8 in California, it is now against the state’s constitution for gay couples to marry. But does anyone really think this is the end of the issue?

The passage is just the latest of many similar state constitutional amendments passed around the nation. However the fight in California was perhaps the most important fight thus far, since it happened after gay marriage was legalized there.

So what’s next? The amendment is being challenged in court, but from what I understand that is a long-shot. The only viable course of action left for gay marriage activists is to bring their case to the United States Supreme Court. I fully expect a case to be brought before the court soon. My guess is it will happen shortly after Obama appoints a justice, which many believe he will have the opportunity to do. The case could be the most controversial since Roe vs. Wade prohibited states from banning abortion. Ironically, it could be the passage of Proposition 8 that hastens that outcome. SignOnSanDiego.com reports:

To the gay community, California – not Massachusetts – will push the national agenda for same-sex marriage, said Kerry Eleveld, political editor of The Advocate, a gay-oriented national publication. It was California, she noted, that struck down a ban on interracial marriage 60 years ago, paving the way for the U.S. Supreme Court to agree two decades later.

But, some have a word of caution:

Other lawsuits could follow, but gay rights groups have called on supporters not to file cases in federal court. They fear that a loss at the U.S. Supreme Court could set back the marriage movement decades.

“We think it is early to go into federal court and ask federal courts to say we have a federal right to marry,” Pizer said.

By “too early” I assume they mean they want to wait for some turnover on the court.

The only thing that would trump the U.S. Supreme Court decision would a national constitutional amendment, which is off the table due the fact that Democrats are now in charge.

In that case, the best that defenders of traditional marriage can hope for is that the U.S. Supreme Court will rule that states are within their rights to restrict gay marriage. That would allow some states to allow gay marriage and some to restrict it. But honestly, my prediction is that the U.S. Supreme court would hand down a decision analogous to Roe vs. Wade, and gay marriage will be legal everywhere much as abortion is.

So for those on either side of this issue, get ready for a wild ride. This is only the beginning.

Please note I’ve left my own opinion on the issue out of this for now. This is just my prediction, like it or not. If I’m right, they’ll be plenty of attention paid on a national level and plenty more discussion to be had.

Written by Mike

November 5, 2008 at 7:30 pm

Obama, Prove Me Wrong

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After nearly two years of campaigning, the 2008 election is almost over. I am looking forward to moving on. I’ve written a few posts defending the undecided, and explaining my own reasons for being undecided. Just to tie up loose ends, I should note that I have decided on McCain. In the end, it comes down to the fact that I just can’t trust Obama with a congress also controlled by liberals. So, I guess I was won over by the “divided government” argument.

But I’m not posting just to tell you how I’m going to vote, as if you cared.

What I hope we all remember is how fortunate we are to have a voice. There is a lot of cynicism about the corruption of government and the flaws of our political system. Our government was built on a system of checks and balances, and it is the people who have the ultimate check. No matter how much money is poured into a campaign, it can’t buy (at least literally) even one vote. It is the people who decide who our leaders will be. I think that we take that for granted. In many countries around the world, the people either don’t have a voice, or the democracy hangs on by a thread, which each election followed by violence. It really is remarkable that after all of this fighting between political factions within our country, after every election the democracy holds together after the dust settles. Why is this so? It is because we understand that above the labels of Republican and Democrat, we are all Americans.

So, whoever wins tomorrow, I look forward to a honest debate about policies, untainted by campaigning. I will not submit to partisan appeals. I will praise him when he is right and criticize when he is wrong. I will be voting for McCain, although he will almost surely lose. I want to believe that Obama will really be a great leader who will unite us and govern with a voice of reason against the political ideologies of both sides. But, in the end, I don’t believe it.

Obama, for the sake of our nation, prove me wrong.

Written by Mike

November 3, 2008 at 9:46 pm

For Sale to the Highest Bidder: My Vote

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I don’t believe in voting for self-interest. For one thing, it’s selfish. But for another, what’s in my self-interest is not always as simple to figure out as some try to make it. Some people can’t understanding why anyone in the middle class wouldn’t vote for Obama. Don’t they know they will get a tax break (assuming he does as he has promised, and ignoring the fact that he would not unilaterally write the laws)?

No, we don’t all exist in a vacuum. The poor do benefit, to some extent, from cutting taxes on the rich. After all, it does increase the chance of finding work. On the other hand, the rich do benefit from cutting taxes on the poor and middle class, since it gives the rich more customers. Clearly, our economic system is intertwined, so determining what is in my best interest (even if I were to vote that way) is not so easy to figure out and certainly involves more than a simple calculator.

But, as an experiment, I decided to suspend whatever intellectualism I have and determine how I would vote if I truly were to yield to my most primal instincts (give me more money!). I don’t wish to disclose the details of my financial situation to the world, but if is sufficient to say that I am doing pretty well. I am one (of the apparently few) that is actually better off than I was four years ago. But I am still solidly middle-class, and certainly not anywhere close to Obama’s definition of rich (which he says is $250,000).

So, with that in mind, I expected Obama to win my auctioned vote, given that he has championed the cause of the middle class, and has painted McCain as only caring about the rich. I had heard of a tax calculator on Obama’s website, so I checked it out. Sure enough, I would get 9 times more of a tax cut with Obama than McCain. Hmm… maybe there is something to this “vote for my own self-interest” after all.

But then of course, I couldn’t resist yielding to at least a little bit of intelligence in my decisions process. So I decided to see if there were any more independent calculators. I found this one which is promoting Obama, but at least claims to be based on independent numbers. I filled out the form and found out that apparently I will be getting even more with Obama than even Obama’s website claimed! Cha-ching! But…

…I would get even more with McCain.

Apparently I would get 14 times more under McCain than what Obama’s website told me I would. Let me repeat that: Obama misrepresented McCain’s tax cut by 14 times! Of course I shouldn’t be surprised by that, but it is appalling.

It’s bad enough that Obama tries to appeal to my selfish side by putting up a tax calculator. But to make matters worse, he blatantly lies about the tax cut I would see under McCain, in order to make his tax cut appear more appealing. In my opinion, this is more than just a typical politician who misrepresents the facts. He directly lied to me in order to persuade me to vote for him.

Beware, self-interested voters.

(By the way, I already know McCain frequent misrepresents Obama’s tax policy. I had given Obama the advantage in terms of honesty on tax policy. No longer.)

Written by Mike

November 1, 2008 at 10:18 pm