Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ten Million Dollars a Day

Hey, remember a few weeks ago when President Obama made that trip to India? People were justifiably upset that, in these tough economic times, a president would spend so much taxpayer money on what amounted to a high-profile vacation. The most vocal advocates for restraint and accountability? Some rather well-known conservative commentators.

Rush Limbaugh:
You have a guy and a family who thinks this nation owes him.  And while they're in a position to, they are going to live off of this country as much as they can…15 airplanes, 1,000 people, 200 rooms in one hotel. And that's just one hotel. For a ten-day trip—Ten million a day!
Sean Hannity:
Look, I want the president to be secure, but 1,000 people? Ten million dollars?…He needs half the Taj Mahal Hotel? Why? What is the point of this?
Glenn Beck:
A dozen warships, possibly. I don't know. Ten million dollars a day while in India. I don't know. The president has blocked off 250 hotel rooms. Do we even know if he's traveling with 1,000 people? Do we know if that's true? No one knows any of the details of this trip, the real cost of the trip. One thing we can say for certain is it's going to be quite expensive.
If you can look past the usual mean-spiritedness, these are sincere, thought-provoking appeals for greater public awareness of an issue the public should absolutely be more aware of.

The best part is, the facts are presented fairly, rather than exaggerated to absurd extremes. Sure, some of the numbers are estimates, and some of them—as Beck freely admits—are guesses, but they're reasonable estimates and educated guesses. The information was obtained from reliable sources, and the fact that it's more or less in line with similar (and also extravagant) presidential trips in the recent past only adds to its credibility.

Liberals in the media begrudgingly sided with their enemies on this one, because how could they not? Limbaugh, Hannity, and Beck are spot-on. Obama made an excessively-costly overseas trip financed by us—the taxpayers—and conservatives rightly called him out on it. In the future, perhaps, politicians will think twice about treating our money like it's their own, lest they attract the same negative publicity.

Oh, right, none of that happened, because this is what they actually said:
You have a guy and a family who thinks this nation owes him. And while they're in a position to, they are going to live off of this country as much as they can…40 airplanes, 3,000 people, 500 rooms in one hotel. And that's just one hotel. For a 10 day trip—Two hundred million a day!
Look, I want the president to be secure, but 3,000 people? Two hundred million dollars?…He needs the whole Taj Mahal Hotel? Why? What is the point of this?
Thirty-four warships, possibly. I don't know. Two hundred million dollars a day while in India. I don't know. The president has blocked off 800 hotel rooms. Do we even know if he's traveling with 3,000 people? Do we know if that's true? No one knows any of the details of this trip, the real cost of the trip. One thing we can say for certain is it's going to be quite expensive.
A Google search for "cost of Obama's trip to India" brings up exactly two types of articles:
  1. Obama's trip to India costs $200 million PER DAY!!!
  2. How dumb do conservatives have to be to believe Obama's trip to India costs $200 million per day?
The first is stupid nonsense; the second is a sadly-necessary response to the first. Both are distracting and counter-productive. So great job, conservative media! Way to get people talking about wasteful government spending.[1]

1. Obviously, the Crazy Numbers made the story a much bigger deal than it would've been otherwise, which raises an interesting question: Would Limbaugh, Hannity, and Beck rather promote conservatism in a way that makes it sound reasonable, so as to win over as many non-conservatives as possible, or would they rather keep creating controversies like this one, which get their names in the news but win over approximately no one?
    All three would undoubtedly insist on the former, but the Two-Billion-Dollar-Trip-to-India debacle is a pretty strong argument for the latter.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sean Hannity Doesn't Care What You Think

A few months ago, my favorite Republican, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson,[1] was interviewed by one of my least favorite Republicans, cable news and talk radio blowhard Sean Hannity. From the transcript (though I've done some editing, because Hannity's is-it-my-turn-to-talk-again-yet interviewing style is about as fun to read as it is to watch):
Hannity: I agree with everything that you did and everything that you said. You support tax cuts, limited government, you've been critical of Obama spending. So you have a pretty strong platform in my mind. In almost every interview that I read about you, it always goes back to the issue that you want to legalize pot.
Johnson: And when I say legalize pot, it's never going to be legal to smoke pot, become impaired and get behind the wheel of a car.
Hannity: But you're ok with people smoking in the privacy of their home?
Johnson: Absolutely.

Hannity: You don't think it's a gateway drug?
Johnson: It's not, Sean. It's just not.
Hannity: I don't believe that.
Alright, looks like we're on the verge of a stimulating discussion! Two diametrically-opposed viewpoints, both professed in no uncertain terms. Somebody's got to be wrong, right? Let's proceed, preferably with one guy listening patiently—mentally composing a thoughtful rebuttal—as the other explains his reasoning.
Johnson: You know, I've got on my cell phone, and I'll show it to you after we're done here, the government itself admitting that it's not—
Hannity: I don't trust that.
Ugh. Nevermind.
Hannity: Would you want your kids to smoke pot?
Johnson: Well, no.
Hannity: Why don't you want your kids to smoke pot? Because you believe psychologically it would be detrimental to them, right?
Johnson: No. No.
Hannity: I do.
Johnson never really answers these questions, though he tries several times. Most of his attempts are hannitied [2] before they can be fully developed, but my educated guess is that he was trying to say something like this:

"Like any decent father, I don't want my kids to do things that are harmful or irresponsible, but I also know it's naïve to expect them to meet that standard 100% of the time. So, more than anything else, I want them to be reasonable. Maybe they'll decide to smoke, maybe they won't—I'm not sure there's much I can do about it either way—but reasonable people can smoke without harming themselves or others, which is what's really important."
Johnson: I find it funny, if you will, that Republicans would talk about the fact that this country stands for freedom, this country stands for liberty, this—and it's about the personal responsibility that goes along with that, but not when it comes to marijuana. And, Sean, if the government made drinking beer illegal tomorrow, would you continue to drink beer or would you stop drinking beer?
Hannity: I don't put it on the same level as drugs. I'm a little bit more afraid of drugs.
The most telling part of the interview. In Sean Hannity's reality, marijuana is a drug, but alcohol isn't. How did that happen? I can't think of a possible explanation that doesn't, at some level, stem from the fact that one is (more or less) legal and the other is (more or less) not.

I'll give Hannity the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is, in fact, aware that alcohol is a drug (as are caffeine, tobacco, aspirin, penicillin, etc.), and that he used the term colloquially to refer to illegal drugs. (And I'll also assume that, when he says a little later that he's not impaired after drinking "a beer, two beers, a glass of wine, two glasses of wine," the missing conjunction is or, not and.) But that almost makes it worse. We can't dismiss his naïveté as the expected result of an absolute lack of familiarity with the very concept of drugs. He uses drugs! He obviously knows, from personal experience, at least a few things about how they work, but he's drawn a mental line between legal and illegal, and he's unable (or unwilling) to allow any knowledge gained from experience to cross that line.
Hannity: I drink—I'm a lightweight. I don't drink a lot. But you can drink alcohol, a beer, two beers, a glass of wine, two glasses of wine, and you're not impaired. If you smoke marijuana you are impaired.
Now things are just getting silly. Does Hannity really think this way? My God, are there elected officials who think this way? "I can have a few drinks and I'm totally still good to drive, but marijuana, which I claim to have never tried? One toke and I'd be an unstoppable car-crashing, homicide-committing, society-menacing fiend, as seen in the harrowing 1938 film Reefer Madness, which is a documentary, right?"

To argue with them when they're like this is to drift dangerously close to "How can you condemn something you've never tried?" territory. That question, taken to a logical extreme (which has never not happened), leads to nonsense like, "Do you think murder is wrong? Have you ever killed anyone? By your logic, you can't say murder is wrong unless you go out and kill someone, can you?"

Alright, alright, fair enough. There's nothing inherently wrong with condemning something you've never tried. But you should, at the very least, make an effort to develop an accurate sense of what that thing is, and to understand why millions of people think you're ridiculous for condemning it.
Hannity: You admitted in your life when you smoked it, it took away your motivation. You were on the path to be a professional skier, so you were much slower, it impairs you.
I bet if you forced Hannity to re-watch this interview, then read this paragraph, then spend 10 seconds or so in quiet contemplation (and let me know how that goes!), he would agree that at this point in the interview he's not even talking about prohibition anymore. He's talking about whether, at the individual level, the sum total of marijuana's effects tend to be positive or negative. And, you know, that's a question with an interesting, complex answer—certainly a conversation worth having—but it's not a legal issue.

Soy sauce, a breathalyzer, a sword, a pre-approved credit card offer, a Mexican wrestling mask, a 13-foot escape ladder (bought for a suspiciously low price), and a television. It only took me about two minutes of looking around my apartment to identify seven things that seem more likely than not to have an overall negative effect on me. Is that a good reason to make those things illegal? Of course not.
Hannity: But if you run for president, how do you reconcile these controversial positions with social conservatives that are not in agreement with you in the Republican Party?
Johnson: Well, and let's just get back to the amount of money that we're spending. Half of what we're spending on law enforcement, the courts and the prisons is drug-related. About $70 billion a year. And to what end? We're arresting 1.8 million people a year in this country on drug-related crime. And the use of drugs has not gone down. So again, advocating the legalization of marijuana, I just suggest is going to create an environment where police will actually be able to go out and address the real crime.
Very sly, Gary Johnson. I like what he says, but his answer to Hannity's question is in what he doesn't say. Conservatives seem to want libertarians like Johnson to try to pick apart their arguments about the harmfulness of marijuana, and I'm sure he could—not that they'd listen—but he wants them to realize they're completely missing the point. His "controversial position" is not that marijuana is harmless, but that we should re-evaluate our approach to it, because what we're doing now is:
  1. Wasting money.
  2. Wasting police resources.
  3. Doing nothing to lessen its popularity.
Conservatives are more than welcome to argue with that, but they don't. Maybe, on some level, they know they can't. Instead, they change the subject to an argument they can win, or at least play to a draw: Drugs are bad for you.

I can't say I have much confidence in Gary Johnson's ability to re-focus the debate—especially if Sean Hannity is any indication (and it kind of seems like he is)—but at least he's trying.

1. Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson, Wisconsin Senator-elect Ron Johnson, Miami Vice star Don Johnson, overpaid Atlanta Hawks guard Joe Johnson, 17th President of the United States Andrew Johnson, The Economist's language blog: Johnson…I can barely keep it all straight. Chad Ochocinco looks more brilliant every day.
2. I don't even need to define that, do I? I hope it catches on—it could be useful in a wide variety of situations:
— "Sorry, what were you saying? I got distracted. Some jackass just hannitied me in traffic."
— "When Peterson broke into the secondary it looked like he had a clear path to the end zone, but he was hannitied just outside the 10-yard-line. What an outstanding defensive play."
— "Objection, your honor. Opposing counsel is hannitying the witness."
— "Dude, I was so close to hooking up with this chick last night, but her ex-boyfriend showed up and hannitied me!"

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Four-Down Football

If you don't know the story, you can read about it here. Or if you don't know the story and you're also a fan of hysterical overreactions, here. And if you'd rather just watch the damn video, here.

Basically, one year ago two days ago, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick found himself in a situation where the overwhelming majority of coaches wouldn't hesitate to zig. Belichick chose instead to zag, and a few minutes later the Patriots lost the game. I won't go (too far) into the pros and cons of the decision itself, because way too much has been said already, and also that's not the point. Suffice it to say, it was defensible. Maybe it was right, maybe it was wrong, but any reasonable person can recognize that neither option—punt, or go for the first down—was substantially preferable to the other.

Alas, those with strong opinions about decisions made by professional football coaches are not, by and large, reasonable people. The backlash was immediate, and it came from all corners. Sportswriters (like Jay Mariotti and Pete Prisco):
This was the most obvious decision a coach could make on any level, NFL to Pee Wee. Punt the friggin' ball.

Each and every week we see bad coaching decisions in the NFL, but never, and I mean never, have I seen one as dumb as the decision Patriots coach Bill Belichick made Sunday night.
Players (like Rodney Harrison and Trent Dilfer):
This was the worst coaching decision I have ever seen Bill Belichick make.

This decision was ludicrous…This is the coach who's always talking about making good decisions…well he needs to be held accountable.
Coaches (like Tony Dungy):
You have to punt the ball in that situation. As much as you might respect Peyton Manning, you have to play the percentages and punt the ball.
And the football-watching public:
Bellicheat is no genius! Bottom line...he blew the call last night and cost New England the game!

There is absolutely no way to support the call he made. None.

It was the WRONG call last night. PERIOD.
So, yeah, a lot of people thought it was a bad idea, but note the subtle variations in the reasoning. There's "everybody punts in this situation," "going for it was too risky," "he must not respect his defense," and on and on. I'm resisting the urge to identify and pick apart as many as I can,[1] because I want to focus on the one line of reasoning I find most disturbing. From Sports Illustrated's Peter King, the Indianapolis Star's Bob Kravitz, and the Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy:
I hated the call. It smacked of I'm-smarter-than-they-are hubris.

How did it come to pass that Belichick, a brilliant man, …eschew[ed] the obvious punt, arrogantly choosing to go for the first down?

[The] Patriots are saddled with a loss that will haunt them for the rest of the season. And Belichick gets the blame. Too smart for his own good this time. The sin of hubris.
While the "it was wrong for hazy and/or speculative tactical reasons" stuff was largely a product of the Patriots losing (because there's no faulty logic there), I'm not sure the "arrogant bastard!" crowd really cared who won—in fact, they might've been even more upset if the play had worked.

King, Kravitz, and Shaughnessy (who, by the way, are hardly alone here) sort of try to make tactics-based arguments, but you can tell their hearts aren't in it.[2] They're writing out of anger. I don't know why they're angry—maybe because Belichick is (by many accounts) a fairly unlikeable guy, maybe (in Shaughnessy's case) because the Patriots lost—but I suspect at least part of it is that a guy widely considered to be smarter than pretty much everyone, and thus probably smarter than each of them, had just made a decision they didn't understand, and that pretty much all the early support for that decision came from other smart people.

Now, some may say, "in this era of high unemployment, out-of-control spending, and the president being a communist or something, who cares what a bunch of sportswriters said about a play in a football game?" Well to them I say perhaps it's time to work on your microcosm-spotting technique, because, pardon the oxymoron, but this whole thing is a big-ass microcosm. (Also, thanks for reading!)

The same attitude shows up everywhere, including areas where it can actually be dangerous. For example, climate change, and the ongoing debate about whether humans have caused measurable harm to the environment, and the related debate about whether we're capable of reversing or mitigating whatever damage has been (or will be) done. To be clear, I'm a lot more comfortable talking about football than climate change, in large part because I don't know where to go for scientific data that isn't biased in some way or another (is there such a thing?), but I'm a big fan of what Bjørn Lomborg says here:
Common sense was an early loser in the scorching battle over the reality of man-made global warming. For nearly 20 years, one group of activists argued—in the face of ever-mounting evidence—that global warming was a fabrication. Their opponents, meanwhile, exaggerated the phenomenon's likely impact—and, as a consequence, dogmatically fixated on drastic, short-term carbon cuts as the only solution, despite overwhelming evidence that such cuts would be cripplingly expensive and woefully ineffective.

Acknowledging that man-made climate change is real, but arguing that carbon cuts are not the answer, amounts to staking out a middle ground in the global warming debate—which means being attacked from both sides. For so-called "alarmists," pointing out what's wrong with drastic carbon cuts is somehow tantamount to denying the reality of climate change, while so-called "deniers" lambast anyone who accepts the scientific evidence supporting this "mythical" problem.
Maybe he's right, maybe he's wrong, but any reasonable person can recognize this as a reasonable way of looking at things. At the very least, it's worth thinking about, right?

On the other hand, in the words—and I use that term more loosely than ever before in my life [3]—of everyone's favorite former Alaska governor:
Copenhgen=arrogance of man2think we can change nature's ways.MUST b good stewards of God's earth,but arrogant&naive2say man overpwers nature
Translation: "I simply cannot let the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit conclude without tweetin' my objection to what I perceive as the fundamental flaw of the event's underlying ethos. Namely, the notion that we, merely the humble children of our benevolent God, are capable of imposin' our will on forces—both natural and supernatural—beyond our full comprehension. To subscribe to this mentality is as arrogant as it is naïve, which is to say an excessive amount of both. That said, I do believe in treatin' the environment with respect, lest we do irreparable damage to this terrestrial home God has so graciously provided for us, and somehow I fail to realize that by qualifyin' the first thing I said I am, in fact, refudiatin' its logical foundation."

I don't think those sportswriters honestly believe going for the first down was indefensible, and I don't think Sarah Palin honestly believes there's nothing we can do to change the environment for the better. So, what's really going on?

It could be any number of things, I suppose, but, when a new idea challenges your worldview, it's a whole lot easier to attack the person who came up with it than the idea itself, because to attack the idea requires thought. So…that's my guess.

1. Alright, just one (this is why I love footnotes). From Bill Simmons:
Belichick did play the percentages…I am not disputing the numbers or the methods for achieving them.

In the biggest game of the regular season when a football coach tries something that…I cannot remember another team doing on the road in the last three minutes of a close game, that's not "gutsy." It's not a "gamble." It's not "believing we can get that two yards." It's not "revolutionary." It's not "statistically smart." It's reckless
No! Don't do things that give you a better chance of winning football games! That's reckless!
    I like Simmons, and I've obviously been subconsciously influenced by his writing style, and I really don't think he would've been one of the torch-wielding villagers in 17th-century Italy calling for Galileo's head, but that's what this makes me think of.
2. Peter King's half-hearted attempt is by far the silliest:
Let's place the odds of Brady getting two yards at 60, 65 percent. The odds of Manning going 72 yards to score a touchdown in less than two minutes…that's maybe 35 percent.
Ok, I'll play along. King says the Colts have a 35% chance of scoring after a punt, which means the chance of them not scoring is 65%—about the same as the odds he gives the Patriots of converting on fourth down. And, by the way, a failed conversion doesn't guarantee a Colts touchdown, nor does a Colts touchdown preclude the Patriots from re-taking the lead on their next possession, so New England's odds of winning would be somewhat higher than 60, 65%. Later, he adds:
[T]his would never have been a great call. Even it you think you've got a two-out-of-three chance to make two yards deep in your own territory, the cost of missing it is too great.
So going for it gives you a 66.7% chance of winning, and punting gives you a 65% chance of winning. Therefore, going for it is stupid and indefensible. Arrogant bastard!
    Peter King is trying to make an argument that only sounds reasonable if you justify it with made-up numbers, and he can't even do that right. It's mind-boggling. I blame the public schools.
3. Look, I realize Twitter's character limit creates a certain degree of difficulty, and I realize Palin likes to play up her folksiness, and I'm decidedly not a prescriptivist (I know I made some jokes above, but I'm more than willing to defend Palin on her gerunds and on the "refudiate" thing), but this is just awful. Even if I agreed with everything she said, I'm not sure I could ever vote for someone whose transcribed thoughts look like that.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Three-Down Football

Conservatism is more than just a political philosophy. It's a way of life, leaving its mark on practically every facet of society. And as a red-blooded American Southerner, there is exactly one facet of society I care about from September through January: Football.[1]

It's a perfect match, really, conservatism and football, because conservatives can't stand change. "We've been doing things a certain way for as long as we can remember," they say. "We're not just going to start doing something different on a whim." Not that I'm opposed to that mindset—if something works, and there isn't overwhelming evidence that something else would work better, it does seem a bit irresponsible to shake things up—but, every so often, a new idea turns out to be rather compelling. Meanwhile, the status quo—the best system given what we knew and believed at some non-specific time in the past—has taken on a life of its own, becoming this thing that must be protected because it's the status quo, as if that alone is proof of its superiority.

What was I talking about? Oh yeah, football, where the status quo is fanatically adhered-to all the hell over the place.

For those unfamiliar with the game, the team with the ball is given three plays, or "downs," to advance ten yards. This process repeats as many times as necessary until (1) the ball is advanced into the end zone for a touchdown, (2) the ball is stolen by the opposing team, (3) time expires, or (4) a play on the third and final down falls short of the ten-yard threshold. In the latter case, the team must either punt to the opposing team or attempt a field goal.

Or so it was commonly believed, until, in 2005, a professor at UC-Berkeley made a game-changing [2] discovery: In addition to the three widely-known downs, there was another, "fourth," down. It turns out that, by taking advantage of the new down, a team can make more attempts to advance the ball downfield than ever before—up to 33% more, by some estimates.

The implications are staggering. Could it really be true that Lombardi, Landry, Halas, and all the other legendary coaches were doing it wrong? It's a question that borders on heresy. The conventional wisdom, after all, is the sum total of more than a century of analysis, observation, and experimentation, dating back at least to 1906, when a St. Louis University student named Bradbury Robinson had the audacity to throw the ball forward. And yet, evidence continues to mount that—in terms of the crucial decision a coach must always make after a failed third down play—most have been, and continue to be, doing it wrong.

The football world, shockingly enough, doesn't want to hear it, because what could a bunch of number-crunching eggheads possibly know about football? "We'll just stick with punts and field goals," they say. "Fourth down attempts are risky." Well, of course they are. Risk/reward scenarios are the very essence of sports!

It's as if status quo-defenders are unaware that the more familiar options have risks of their own. A punt involves voluntarily giving up control of the ball without scoring points—not a sacrifice to be taken lightly, as the primary method of determining success or failure on a game-by-game basis is by comparison of cumulative point totals.[3] A field goal, at least, is worth a few points, though on average less than half that of a touchdown. And most fans need not be reminded that, from time to time, field goal attempts go awry.[4]

Obviously, it would be crazy to embrace fourth down with reckless abandon (except that maybe it isn't). The ideal approach is to seek an appropriate balance between caution and curiosity, but only a handful of coaches have been even that adventurous. Instead, most have planted themselves in a familiar, comfortable spot near the conservative extreme. Like an alien visitor to a three-downs-and-kick planet, fourth down is seen as strange and unwanted and probably dangerous. It's a threat to the status quo, and the best way to preserve the status quo is to refuse to question it.

Otherwise, you might find out the status quo isn't worth preserving, and that's a risk few are willing to take.

Coming up: A look at the events of one year ago today,[5] when an unconventional thinker did something unconventional, and received a lot of very conventional criticism. Basically, this article, but with more specifics and without all the condescending tongue-in-cheekiness. Well, not as much of it, anyway.

1. Ok, there's also politics, pretentious films, and, you know, friends and family and stuff. But mostly football.
2. Pun very much intended.
3. As noted above, most-points-scored is the preferred method of determining winners of individual games. It logically follows, then, that most-games-in-which-more-points-were-scored should be the preferred method of ranking multiple teams over the course of multiple games.
    This is the case in the NFL, but in college football that method is used in combination with countless others. To name a few: most-points-scored-against-hapless-opponents-who-never-had-a-chance, fans'-willingness-to-travel-and-spend-money-on-tickets-and-hotel-rooms, votes-held-by-a-team's-own-coach (up to a maximum of one, which doesn't sound like much, but it's a lot more than zero), and, of course, intangibles (having a contract with NBC, being last year's champion, not being from Idaho, having once employed Paul "Bear" Bryant, etc.). It's a staggeringly complex system, and yet, somehow, it seems to work. Sorry, I mistyped. It doesn't work at all.
4. Another good choice for that link: Wide Right, the band. Any guesses where they're from? Highlight the bracketed text (or just go to their site) for the answer: [Buffalo, New York—former home of NFL kicker Scott Norwood!]
5. "One year ago today?," you're probably thinking. "Why not post that article today, and this one a few days earlier?" Aren't you clever. Where were you this time last week, when I was blissfully unaware of the impending anniversary of the Patriots-Colts debacle?

Monday, November 8, 2010

James Madison Has a Few Things to Say to Rush Limbaugh

In 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court found a gay marriage ban unconstitutional, inspiring Rush Limbaugh to say the following:
I guarantee you, if we could go dig up James Madison and say, "Mr. Madison, did you intend for the Constitution to say people of the same sex could get married?" And I guarantee you he would have the reaction, "What are you talking about? Are you sure you're asking me about the Constitution?"
As luck would have it, I ran into James Madison just a few days ago. (How is that possible, you ask? I don't know, voodoo or something. Who cares?) Obviously, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to show President Madison what Limbaugh had said and ask for his thoughts. He was happy to oblige, so he caught himself up on the major legal and societal developments of the last two centuries and got back to me the next day. Here's what he said:[1]

"My first thoughts, I must admit, were precisely as Mr. Limbaugh predicted: 'What are you talking about? Are you sure you're asking me about the Constitution?' Research revealed that he was not, in fact, talking about the federal Constitution. The Iowa ruling was based on state law, so presumably he was talking about the Iowa Constitution, which I did not write. Perhaps he was thinking of James Grimes, the governor when their constitution was ratified in 1857. An understandable mistake—people used to confuse me with Monroe all the time.

"That said, I'm quite intrigued by his question: 'Did you intend for the Constitution to say people of the same sex could get married?' I'll pretend he's referring to the Constitution I wrote, because I see that a federal judge in California recently issued a similar ruling based on that Constitution, and also I don't give a shit about Iowa. But I'm still not clear on what, exactly, Mr. Limbaugh is asking. Does he want to know what my opinion would've been in 1789, or what it is in 2010?

"In 1789, we're talking about a society where slavery is legal and only male landowners can vote. So, yeah, I think gay marriage might've been unpopular in 1789. You know what else might've been unpopular in 1789? Every single thing the federal government has done since 1790.

"In 2010, we're talking about a society where everything I see is weird and scary and baffling. I mean, I'm sitting here looking around and I saw, like, none of this coming. Oh, wait, that's the one thing I did see coming—that the future would be unpredictable. And guess what? We freaking planned for it! We threw in an amendment procedure—and I see you guys have been using it. Virtually everything I've read about same-sex marriage as it relates to the federal Constitution—you know, the one I wrote—references the Fourteenth Amendment, which, like the Iowa Constitution, I did not write, in part because I was dead.

"As for same-sex marriage…I don't know. Sounds pretty out there. Marriage, as I understand it, is a sacred, life-long bond between one man and one or more women of the same race. And yet, according to an unfathomably thorough electronic encyclopaedia I just discovered and learned how to use, Mr. Limbaugh has been thrice divorced. Thrice! And remarried a fourth time! You know how many wives I had? Yeah, about three less than four. Now, interestingly enough, the same encyclopaedia reminds me that my own wife was, in fact, married twice. Because she get divorced? No, of course not—the first guy died of yellow fever. Nobody got divorced back then. Yellow fever was our divorce.

"Things, apparently, have changed. And to be honest, I'm torn as to whether things have changed for the better. On one hand—let's say, for no particular reason, the right hand—21st century America is terrifying. The federal government has grown about a million times larger than I could ever have foreseen, dangerous maniacs have access to deadly weapons, the many nations have entered into some sort of sinister union, and everywhere I look I see women walking around half-naked, like it's the most natural thing in the world.

"On the other hand—which, by default, would be the left—21st century America has a lot going for it. Even the lowliest workers have reasonable hours and decent pay, people are living longer than ever, different classes, cultures, and races co-exist in relative harmony, and everywhere I look I see women walking around half-naked, like it's the most natural thing in the world.

"In other words, there's a lot to digest. So I hope you'll forgive me if, for the time being, I refrain from making a judgment on same-sex marriage one way or the other.

"But that's not even the point. This is the point. I understand that I'm kind of a big deal around here, and, believe me, I'm humbled. Wait, no, I'm not humbled—I should be a big deal. I wrote the damn Constitution, for Christ's sake! So please, keep talking about me. Talk about my ideas, my principles, my vision for America. Talk about what I had in mind when I wrote the Constitution. That's what I want. Why do you think Hamilton, Jay, and I wrote the Federalist Papers? Our own amusement?

"But don't speak for me. I don't care if you're the host of a popular radio show or just, say, some guy in Florida with an obscure, albeit funny and insightful, web-log. Only one person knows where I stand on the constitutional questions facing 21st century America, and that is me. To claim otherwise—to claim to have some magical ability to know my views on something I've never even thought about—is as insulting as it is absurd.

"You don't know me, Mr. Limbaugh, you know yourself. You only talk about me because you want to tap into the respect and stature I worked so hard to earn, and use it to amplify the volume of your own opinions. You're using my name as nothing more than a megaphone, and I'd like you to stop.

"Anyway, I don't know why this didn't occur to me sooner, but why the hell is the government involved in licensing marriage in the first place?"

And with that, he was gone. Off to explore the modern world's many curiosities—Rush Limbaugh's nonsense suddenly the last thing on his mind. Thank you, President Madison, for your thoughts.

1. I can't emphasize enough how impressed I was with Madison's grasp of the language. Almost immediately, he picked up on my modern dialect and adapted his speech accordingly, saving you—the reader—the chore of trying to decipher an endless stream of odd-sounding sentence constructions and old-timey idioms.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Rational Majority

This week has been downright lousy with conservatives crowing about the election, and there's no respite in sight. It was a rebuke of big government, a triumph of common sense, a return to reason, a resounding victory for the American people, and so on. The Democrats, after all, have spent nearly two whole years tinkering with the economy and most of us aren't self-employed millionaires yet, so out with them! And since we refuse, for whatever reason, to allow ourselves to be represented in Washington by a truckload of inanimate carbon rods, the duty falls to the Republicans.

But despite my sarcastic skepticism (not to mention my skeptical sarcasm), I can't help being cautiously optimistic (that is, when I'm not being aggressively pessimistic about the election's implications for immigration reform, gay rights, marijuana legalization, and other issues I won't get into here). I give conservatives a hard time, but, when it comes down to it, I do sincerely believe this country would benefit from a government with more of a laissez faire approach to the economy. In the two-year-old words of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist George Will:[1]
Conservatives rightly think, or once did, that much, indeed most, government spreading of wealth is economically destructive and morally dubious—destructive because, by directing capital to suboptimum uses, it slows wealth creation; morally dubious because the wealth being spread belongs to those who created it, not government.
And yet, when it comes to the conservative movement itself—rather than the philosophy in the abstract—Will and I are no longer on the same page. A line in his most recent column nicely illustrates why (emphasis added):
This was the serious concern that percolated beneath the normal froth and nonsense of the elections: Is political power—are government commands and controls—superseding and suffocating the creativity of a market society's spontaneous order? On Tuesday, a rational and alarmed American majority said "yes."
So, if I've got this right, here's what George Will is saying:
  1. A free market economy is the smoothest road to prosperity.
  2. Therefore, it's rational to support free market economics.
  3. In this week's election, a vote for Republicans was a vote in support of free market economics.
  4. Therefore, Republican voters are rational.
Nope. Not how it works. Even giving him the benefit of the doubt on propositions 1, 2, and 3—as I'm inclined to do—there remains all kinds of room on the free market bandwagon for the least rational among us to jump aboard.[2] I'd be a lot more comfortable with proposition 4 if it looked something like this:
  1. Therefore, Republican voters may or may not be rational, because, while rational people support free market economics, irrational people support whatever the hell causes their semi-functional neurons to light up, including but not limited to Michael Bay movies, Scientology, bi-weekly Powerball drawings, the New York Mets, and, yes, free market economics.[3]
But still, flawed logic aside, who am I to say that Will isn't (accidentally) right about Republican voters? Maybe they are, indeed, (by sheer coincidence) uniformly rational. If that's the case, then it must've been a bunch of deceitful liberals—as Will points out, they'll stop at nothing to portray conservatives as angry, uninformed morons—who adorned his column with the following comments (edited for brevity, but, obviously, not for content):[4]
Leftist Lie: "Two never ending wars=republican"
Actual Truth: Iraq war is over.
Leftist Lie: "hate Muslims=republican"
Actual Truth: Republicans hate terrorists, leftists want to give them a safe haven.
Leftist Lie: "Hate gays=republican"
Actual Truth: Republicans value the tradition of marriage. Leftists want to destroy its meaning.
[Obama] is a pseudo intellectual who has been programmed by a series of communist and revolutionary associations. Collective Salvation is a key incite to his programming and whence it came. A perversion of Christianity by communists. Traditional Christians like POPES consider collective salvation as a political teaching as DEMONIC. There is no telling where an Unstable Obama will take us or what he will do. After he scolded us for going to Los Vegas he is taking a 2 billion dollar trip to India. Is the man sane?
We have a Communist sociopath as President.
[Obama] surrounds himself with Tax Cheats, Chicago thugs, incompetents, radical loony perverted Czars and has Democrat accomplices in congress that can't even READ the trillion dollar pork packages and Obama/Pelosi Government Crap Care they put their X on and inflict on Americans…
And now the investigations will begin. I can't wait for the one that Obama will try to explain how he is legally qualified to be president when he can't product a certified birth certificate and neither of his parent were qualifying US citizens.
Finally, my favorite (because really, you do need to be aware):
The intelligence of the Liberals is stunningly low.They lack the ability to see what Obama and the PROGRESSIVE DEMOCRATS are doing to this country…If you have money in the bank,you might want to pull it.Another piece of advice,watch GLENN BECK, THURSDAY,FRIDAY he has been warning for a year and a half about OBAMA ,everything he has said is happening.The man loves this country,he is warning us.The media,OBAMA,SOROS has been boycotting his show because he has been exposing them,WATCH,YOU NEED TO BE AWARE !!!!!
Alright, that's enough for now (check this article's comments for some more gems, if you're into that sort of thing). Internet commenters, as always, prove nothing, except that stupidity is ideologically-neutral.

So, are intelligent, thoughtful, and rational conservatives out there too? Sure—plenty of them. Is voting Republican, in and of itself, proof of intelligence, thoughtfulness, and rationality? No, of course not,[5] and if conservatives like George Will are as smart as they seem to think they are, they should understand that.

1. Also from the 2008 column (but not relevant to my point, which is why it's stashed away down here in this footnote):
Hyperbole is not harmless; careless language bewitches the speaker's intelligence. And falsely shouting "socialism!" in a crowded theater such as Washington causes an epidemic of yawning.
Well said.
2. I assume the Free Market Bandwagon, for the sake of comfort, fuel efficiency, and durability, would be a foreign model. Or, for the sake of irony, a GM.
3. Does that sound mean-spirited? I feel like it sounds a little mean-spirited. Oh well, I'm just trying to be funny. I really don't mean to offend Transformers fans, Scientologists, lottery players, capitalists, or…yeah, that's all.
4. For what it's worth, I tried to avoid picking out comments that are simply poorly-written. My intent is not to mock those with a shaky grasp on the language (or, to put it in PC terms, those with a "unique voice"), but to mock those who have proudly and openly severed ties with reality—though the latter is hardly a stranger to the former. Anyway, in the interest of fairness, here’s one of the good ones:
George, with all due respect, a wave of rational and concerned voters did not really come into it. You and I and a fairly small minority live in an informed and rational world, but the vast majority of the voting population votes purely from the hip. Happy? Yes – vote for incumbent, no – vote for challenger.
And one more, just because I like it:
We demand to see Boehner's birth certificate! He's orange. No human is orange. Is he American or Alien? Release his college records now! We want proof he attended college. We want our country back!
5. Is engaging in a Q&A with myself a lazy, overused stylistic device? Absolutely, but screw you—I'm doing it anyway.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Midterm Election Thoughts (Or Lack Thereof)

Here it is—the long-awaited (I assume) What I Think of the Tea Party article. Well, naturally, I think they're a bunch of racist homophobes who don't know what they're complaining about and don't have any real solutions.

Oh, wait—that's what the liberal media tells me I should think. Or maybe it's what the conservative media tells me the liberal media tells me I should think. I can't keep track anymore.

So what's left when you look past the mountain of nonsense about these people being hateful idiots, and the adjacent mountain of nonsense about them being patriotic freedom-fighters? I don't know—not much, as far as I can tell. They say a lot of the right things,[1] and they say a lot of the wrong things,[2] and I can't think of anything to say about them that hasn't been said elsewhere.

For all the reasons mentioned on this blog (and then some), I have little to no confidence in Republicans. Granted, these particular Republicans insist they'll do things differently, which is nice, but I'm not holding my breath.[3] Still, godspeed, you noble outsiders. I look forward to watching you find fascinating new ways to screw things up.

Meanwhile, I'll be voting for Side of Hash Browns:

1. Hope and change—keep it vague enough, and it's the perfect all-purpose political credo.
2. Virtually everything they've said about immigration, for example.
3. Like most humans, I lack the lung capacity to hold my breath for more than a few minutes, much less several months.