Thursday, July 21, 2011

Taking a Break From Having Standards

Everything I post to this blog comes with an implicit guarantee that I've made a sincere effort to base my thoughts, observations, and opinions on reality, rather than the other way around. I like to ridicule politicians and commentators when they say or do ridiculous things, but I want to be fair about it—a well-founded argument isn't worth much if the hundred that preceded it were entirely unfounded. Of course, the fact that so many politicians and commentators take the opposite approach is the reason I have anything to write about in the first place. The world they inhabit is a depressing wasteland of logical fallacies, non sequiturs, and ad hominen attacks, and the more we pay attention to it the dumber we get.

It also looks like a lot of fun.

It's not like I've never been tempted. For every idea that grows into a half-decent article, there's another that was promising at first—interesting, novel, maybe a little controversial—but ultimately had to be abandoned. Upon further investigation it becomes clear that what I thought was something is, in fact, nothing. To make it work I'd have to omit a key detail, take a quote out of context, blow something out of proportion, or simply make things up, and that's not the kind of blog I want this to be. But who says I need to have standards all the time? Would Sean Hannity let a fundamental flaw in his argument stop him from making it? Would Keith Olbermann? Hell no, they wouldn't.

In that spirit I present, in somewhat abbreviated form, three of those discarded articles. And not the dull, respectable versions either, because starting now, and for the rest of this post,[1] I will make no effort whatsoever to be fair.


Fox News Ignored the Republican Primary Debate
These three screenshots were taken at exactly the same time (give or take 30 seconds) on June 13, 2011, about 20 minutes after the beginning of the Republican debate:

Doesn't it seem like something's missing from that last one? And I'm not selectively cropping, by the way—there was no mention of the debate anywhere on the main page. I also went to the "Politics" page, and there was hardly anything there either. Just a single video—kind of hidden away off to the side—in which a correspondent spends two and a half minutes previewing the debate and reporting some mathematically impossible poll results:

So why was Fox News ignoring the debate? I don't know, but my two-part guess is, first, they didn't want to promote a rival network (MSNBC, whose ratings coincidentally suck, apparently does not have that concern), and second, they were afraid the Republicans would embarrass themselves. The candidates were in hostile territory, after all—a debate hosted and televised by CNN. What if the questions didn't presuppose that Obama's economic and foreign policies are disastrous? What if they were forced to defend the non-sensical premise that every incremental increase in gay rights destroys America a little bit more? Or that building a wall on the border is a viable solution to anything?[2]


Sarah Palin Supports the Libyan Government
It makes perfect sense that I follow Sarah Palin on Twitter, because I find them both oddly fascinating for reasons I can't explain without using the phrases "oddly fascinating" and "reasons I can't explain".

In April, Palin posted a series of tweets criticizing Obama's policy in Libya:
Libya deteriorates, Obama vacillates. Campaigner-in-Chief needs to justify why we're there or we shouldn't be there. Need to send world the
message: we'll only intervene in anyone's business if we're dead serious:get in, hit hard, get out. Listen to McCain
At least on this 1, wish POTUS would hear McCain MT "@weeklystandard: Decries Timid Approach in Libya: B York reports:"
Yeah, yeah, I completely agree with her points about Libya, and I was about to not give it a second thought, but then I noticed the links to the article about McCain. (Only the second link works; she broke the first one by adding "US" to the end, presumably in a misguided act of patriotism.)

.LY looks like a country code domain, I thought to myself. But which country? Lyberia? Lychtynsteyn? Lynyrd Skyrgyzstan?

Oh, right, it's Libya. Talk about sending mixed messages. isn't a Libyan company, but their URL means they're indirectly doing business with the Libyan government, and that means every time Palin tweets a URL she's putting a few more dirhams in Qaddafi's pockets.[3]


Michelle Malkin is an Anchor Baby
That's right. The person who wrote this:
Clearly, the custom of granting automatic citizenship at birth to children of tourists and temporary workers such as Hamdi, tourists, and to countless "anchor babies" delivered by illegal aliens on American soil, undermines the integrity of citizenship -- not to mention national security. Originally intended to ensure the citizenship rights of newly freed slaves and their families after the Civil War, the citizenship clause has evolved into a magnet for alien lawbreakers and a shield for terrorist infiltrators and enemy combatants.

If the courts refuse to close the birthright citizenship loopholes, Congress must. Citizenship is too precious to squander on accidental Americans in Name Only.
…was born in the United States to Filipino parents who may or may not have had time to unpack between the airport and the delivery room. Really.

She's not a hypocrite, though, because she's not necessarily excluding herself from her own insulting rhetoric. Our jus soli policy "undermines the integrity of citizenship—not to mention national security", Malkin says. And given her long history of absurd fear-mongering and fact- and logic-impaired anti-immigrant screeds, I'd argue that Malkin has indeed done her part to undermine the integrity of citizenship—not to mention national security.[4]

1. Not including the footnotes.
2. I wasn't watching the debate when I took those screenshots, but I caught parts of it later, and, honestly, if Fox's position was that it wasn't newsworthy enough to make a big deal about, I can't argue. To borrow a phrase from Neal Boortz, the debate was little more than a joint news conference. Perhaps it wasn't entirely unnewsworthy—we learned, for example, that Rick Santorum prefers Jay Leno to Conan (of course he does), and that Michelle Bachmann can't decide between Elvis or Johnny Cash (the correct answer is Johnny Cash, the second-best answer is Elvis, the worst answer is "both")—but if the alternative to ignoring the debate is plastering it all over the main page like there was nothing else happening in the world, I vote for the former.
    And yeah, I'm sure Fox's coverage is a bit more expansive when they televise one of these debates, but they are a TV network, after all. And they hardly make it a secret that they want people to watch Fox News at all times—as you can see in the screenshot, any time you go to the main page there are little boxes at the top indicating what's currently on the air, what's coming up next, and how you can watch whatever you just missed.
    As for the screwy poll results, there's a perfectly logical explanation for that one, too. I checked out the original data (the relevant stuff is on p.23), and here's what seems to have happened: 13% of respondents said they haven't decided who they'll support, and 21% said they support a candidate outside the Romney/Giuliani/Paul/Palin/Bachmann top five. Fox lumped these two groups together under the label of "Undecided", because all those Cain/Gingrich/Huntsman/Johnson/Pawlenty/Roemer/Santorum/Someone Else supporters are really just kidding themselves. Then, they added 21 and 13 and got 76, because they're incompetent.
3. I'm having trouble even pretending to get worked up about this one. The people say they aren't sure how much of their money has made its way to the Libyan government, but it's somewhere south of $75, which is the registration fee they paid to the non-profit corporation that runs these things.
    Maybe it still makes sense to take your URL-shortening business elsewhere as a matter of principle, but that slope is awfully slippery. We can all agree that Libya sucks, but what about, say, Colombia? What about Montenegro? I don't even know anything about Montenegro. And before too long you'll find yourself making a qualitative comparison of Grenada, Tokelau, and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, at which point it's probably time to acknowledge that whatever principled statement you're trying to make is almost certainly not worth the trouble.
4. Yes, Malkin was born to non-citizen parents who had just stepped off the plane, but there's no indication her parents were here illegally, or that they came to the U.S. specifically so their daughter would be a citizen.
    Oh, did I forget to mention above that Malkin's parents may have had permanent visas? Sorry about that. She's said before that her dad obtained a green card due to his medical training, and she was born right in the middle of the brief window in the late '60s and early '70s when the government made it substantially easier for foreign doctors to get visas. A high proportion of these doctors were from the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries. Some came in on temporary work/study visas and later adjusted to permanent status, but most were issued green cards right off the bat.
    People who argue for doing away with birthright citizenship, including Malkin herself, are almost invariably talking about "illegals" and temporary visitors, not legal permanent residents (i.e. non-citizens with green cards)—they just don't always make the distinction with a whole lot of clarity. The premise that an "anchor baby" can help the parents obtain legal status, which is largely bullshit to begin with, isn't even relevant in the case of parents who are legal permanent residents already.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Incarceration Epidemic

John Hawkins, editor of Right Wing News ("one of the premier conservative blogs on the Internet", according to Right Wing News) recently posted an interesting reader-submitted question, and was thoughtful enough to answer it as well:
Question: The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. By a wide margin.

What do you think are the reasons and what kind of solutions do you see to this? Some people might say deporting illegal aliens within our prisons, others might say legalizing drugs, and I just wanted to know your take.

Thanks! — opchromiterok

Answer: As Thomas Sowell is wont to say, “There are no solutions, there are only trade-offs.” So, I’m a little leery of accepting the idea that the incarceration rate is, in and of itself, a problem we have to solve. That’s especially the case because not so long ago, we had much more of a crime problem in this country and putting a lot of people in jail was one of the trade-offs to effectively dealing with that problem.
Fair enough. America's current inmate population—2.3 million—sounds rather high, but who am I to say they don't all deserve to be locked up? And our ratio of 743 prisoners per 100,000 people may be the highest in the world right now, but it's not like we've set an all-time record—in the late 1930s roughly 800 of every 100,000 people in the USSR were being worked to death in some remote Gulag. So at least we haven't reached that level.[1] As of 2009.

Anyway, back to Hawkins:
That being said, if we’re looking for ways to reduce the prison population, I would be opposed to legalizing drugs. The last thing we need at this point is the increased societal deterioration that would cause.
Later, after a paragraph suggesting we can reduce crime by making it impossible for "illegals" to get jobs,[2] he adds a thought that strikes me as not-entirely-unrelated to the one quoted above:
The other thing that creates a lot of crime, and a lot of people hate to hear this even though it’s true, is single motherhood. I’m not picking on anybody, I’m not letting men off the hook, and I’m not saying single mothers are bad parents. However, what I am saying, is that the statistics on single parenthood are horrific.
This is why I roll my eyes when conservatives say they're the ones with the logical approach to problem-solving. Hawkins believes drug offenders should be in jail, because when they roam free they contribute to societal deterioration. He also believes—and on this one the stats appear to be on his side [3]—that children without a father around are more likely to commit crimes. But how many of those kids grow up without a father because their father's in jail? A lot, it turns out:
[Harvard sociologist Bruce] Western and [University of Washington sociologist Becky] Pettit note that 54 percent of inmates are parents with minor children, including more than 120,000 mothers and 1.1 million fathers. One in every 28 children has a parent incarcerated, up from 1 in 125 just 25 years ago. Two-thirds of these children’s parents were incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.
I'm not saying that explains everything, or even that it explains anything. There are any number of reasons a child might be raised by a single mother, but you can't talk about how our prisons are filled with the products of broken families without acknowledging the role prisons play in breaking families apart. (The least surprising statistic I encountered as I wrote this article is that people with family members who've spent time in prison are more likely to wind up there themselves.) That's what's so tricky about vicious cycles—it's just about impossible to distinguish between cause and effect.[4]

In other words, I'm not too impressed with Hawkins' answers to the original question, so I'll offer my own. Why is our incarceration rate the highest in the world? That's easy. Because we have so many damn criminals. How do we fix the problem? That's easy, too. All we have to do to reduce the number of criminals is change our definition of "criminal". And all we have to do to reduce the prison population is let a bunch of people out of prison.

Done. Problem solved.

Oh, and we'll have to add a clause to the First Amendment, right after the part that says "Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech":
…except in the case of (a) blowhard politicians who voted for mandatory minimum sentences, or restrictions on judicial discretion, or some other bullshit law just so they can go around claiming to be "tough on crime", and (b) blowhard politicians who wouldn't hesitate for even half a second before calling their opponents "soft on crime" if they don't vote for the aforementioned bullshit. They can still vote however they want, but Congress can abridge the hell out of their ability to talk about it.
Yeah, maybe that's unrealistic, but I don't know what else to do. So many of our most serious problems—crime, violence, broken families, overcrowded prisons, drug addiction, out-of-control spending, Nancy Grace, etc.—are exacerbated, if not created, by the fact that politicians are virtually guaranteed to gain votes by claiming to have done or promising to do any of the following:
  • Put more criminals in jail.
  • Keep criminals in jail longer.
  • Create new ways for people to become criminals (thereby combating some perceived threat).[5]
In conclusion…I don't really have a proper conclusion, so how about a bunch of links instead? Over the last few months the aptly-named has produced a small mountain of content about prisons and other criminal justice issues. One is quoted above; here are a few more that stood out:

1. The comparison isn't really as close as it seems. For one thing, the Gulag numbers are misleadingly low because the prisoners were constantly dying from exhaustion or malnutrition or being shot for no good reason. And I'm pretty sure we've never forced our prisoners to work long hours in uranium mines without bothering to protect them from exposure to deadly radiation, so that's another point for us. U-S-A! U-S-A!
2. Have we learned nothing from Les Misérables?
3. I realize the stats have been taken from an Ann Coulter book, and, honestly, I don't have the energy to deal with that. It seems like the numbers are probably accurate, if not the analysis, but I couldn't find an assessment of her book that's not clearly biased in one way or another. As a half-assed compromise, here's the least negative thing said about the book in the inevitable Media Matters critique: "Media Matters has examined a copy of Ann Coulter's new book."
4. In Soviet Russia, causes and effects within endless feedback loop are reversed. It's not any less difficult to tell which are which, though.
5. I wrote this line—and most of the rest of this article—before the Casey Anthony verdict, but the ensuing "Caylee's Law" nonsense is exactly the kind of thing I had in mind.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Libertarianism and Same-Sex Marriage

I'm a libertarian, and I'm a supporter of same-sex marriage rights. George Weigel of the National Review Online is neither, but that didn't stop him from politely explaining why I, along with every other libertarian, should oppose gay marriage:
“Gay marriage” in fact represents a vast expansion of state power: In this instance, the state of New York is declaring that it has the competence to redefine a basic human institution in order to satisfy the demands of an interest group looking for the kind of social acceptance that putatively comes from legal recognition. But as Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York and others argued during the days before the fateful vote on June 24, the state of New York does not have such competence, and the assertion that it does casts an ominous shadow over the future.

And that is an exercise of power that libertarians ought, in theory, to resist, not support.
Yeah, I'm not on board with that. See, among libertarians, there are generally two approaches to marriage:
  • The government has no business interfering with marriage.
  • The government has no business interfering with marriage, but that train left the station a long time ago, so how about we license marriage in a way that respects the rights of consenting adults to voluntarily enter into contracts with one another.
Weigel, however, is proposing a third approach:
  • The government has no business interfering with marriage any more or less than it currently does—at the moment the government is doing just the right amount of meddling, and should continue to meddle at the present level until the end of time.
I suppose it's consistent with their usual resistance to change that conservatives are so often willing to defend the status quo-level of government meddling, but that doesn't make it any less headache-inducing. Non-conservatives—libertarians, liberals, anarchists, Marxists, etc.—don't collectively agree on much, but if there's one thing they're almost always in agreement on, it's that the government is not doing the right amount of meddling.

Back to the article:
Marriage, as both religious and secular thinkers have acknowledged for millennia, is a social institution that is older than the state and that precedes the state. The task of a just state is to recognize and support this older, prior social institution; it is not to attempt its redefinition. To do the latter involves indulging the totalitarian temptation that lurks within all modern states: the temptation to remanufacture reality. The American civil-rights movement was a call to recognize moral reality; the call for gay marriage is a call to reinvent reality to fit an agenda of personal willfulness. The gay-marriage movement is thus not the heir of the civil-rights movement; it is the heir of Bull Connor and others who tried to impose their false idea of moral reality on others by coercive state power.

A humane society will find ample room in the law for accommodating a variety of human relationships in matters of custodial care, hospital visiting rights, and inheritance. But there is nothing humane about the long march toward the dictatorship of relativism, nor will there be anything humane about the destination of that march, should it be reached. The viciousness visited upon Archbishop Dolan and other defenders of marriage rightly understood during the weeks before the vote in Albany is yet another testimony to the totalitarian impulse that lurks beneath the gay marriage movement.

One might have thought libertarians understood this. But evidently some do not.
Wow, really? We're on a "long march toward the dictatorship of relativism"? Libertarianism is as anti-relativistic as it gets. He's the one arguing that the government should sanction one type of marriage and prohibit another, ignoring the question of how the government's involvement is justified at all.[1]

George Weigel is trying to impose an entirely new definition of libertarianism—one that involves acceptance of morally deviant behavior like licensing of private relationships and state-sanctioned discrimination. Such a radical re-definition would undoubtedly destroy the institution of libertarianism as we know it.

1. Speaking of slippery slopes, Weigel, as required under Rule 4.2 of the Bylaws of Conservative Rhetoric, adds the following:
[W]hy stop at marriage between two men or two women? Why not polyamory or polygamy? Why can’t any combination of men and women sharing financial resources and body parts declare itself a marriage, and then demand from the state a redress of its grievances and legal recognition of it as a family? On what principled ground is the New York state legislature, or any other state legislature, going to say “No” to that, once it has declared that Adam and Steve, or Eve and Evelyn, can in fact get married according to the laws of the state?
"On what principled ground…?" He asks rhetorically, as if the only permissible answer is a blank stare and a brain aneurysm. How about the ground that, while multiple state and federal courts have applied a heightened standard of review to laws that discriminate based on gender or sexual orientation, I'm aware of no court decision suggesting a similar standard should be applied to laws that discriminate based on numbers.
    Also, in compliance with Rule 1.1 of the Bylaws of Libertarian Rhetoric, I'll add that it should be none of the government's damn business if more than two consenting adults want to get married. If Weigel really understood libertarianism, he'd know that the whole "demand from the state a redress of its grievances" thing wouldn't be much of an issue.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Sympathy for the Undocumented

Michelle Malkin and Jose Antonio Vargas have more than a few things in common. They both come from Filipino families; they're both successful writers; they both have close personal connections to America's immigration system, and strong opinions about why it's fundamentally broken. That's where the similarities end.

Vargas came to the U.S. in 1993. He was 12 years old, sent by his mother to live with his grandparents in California. Two weeks ago he revealed to the world that no one had ever given him permission to do so:
One day when I was 16, I rode my bike to the nearby D.M.V. office to get my driver’s permit. Some of my friends already had their licenses, so I figured it was time. But when I handed the clerk my green card as proof of U.S. residency, she flipped it around, examining it. “This is fake,” she whispered. “Don’t come back here again.”

Confused and scared, I pedaled home and confronted Lolo. I remember him sitting in the garage, cutting coupons. I dropped my bike and ran over to him, showing him the green card. “Peke ba ito?” I asked in Tagalog. (“Is this fake?”) My grandparents were naturalized American citizens — he worked as a security guard, she as a food server — and they had begun supporting my mother and me financially when I was 3, after my father’s wandering eye and inability to properly provide for us led to my parents’ separation. Lolo was a proud man, and I saw the shame on his face as he told me he purchased the card, along with other fake documents, for me. “Don’t show it to other people,” he warned.

I decided then that I could never give anyone reason to doubt I was an American. I convinced myself that if I worked enough, if I achieved enough, I would be rewarded with citizenship. I felt I could earn it.
Malkin came to the U.S. in 1970. She came with her parents—she would've had to, as she was a developing fetus at the time—and became an American citizen the instant she was born.[1] Here's what she thinks about Vargas' sob story:
Vargas believes his sob story is an argument for giving up on immigration enforcement and passing a mass amnesty. It’s a sob story, all right. Homeland security officials across the country should be weeping at the open mockery Vargas and his enablers have made of the law.
Ok, first of all, to my knowledge Vargas hasn't argued for "giving up on immigration enforcement and passing a mass amnesty", and there's really no basis for saying he has.[2] More importantly, this is a kid who entered the US at age 12, fully under the impression that he had the necessary documents to be here legally. He learned the truth at age 16. He learned the truth while trying to get his driver's license, which, for what it's worth, was the only thing I cared about when I was 16.[3] And if the one thing I had to do to get a driver's license was to break a federal law—a strictly bureaucratic law, the breaking of which requires no violence or physical taking of something that's not mine, and there's a decent chance I won't get caught—I'm having trouble imagining a scenario where I'd hesitate for even a second. Now, at age 27, I'd be more rational, but 16-year-olds are stupid. That's my point.

And once Vargas started lying and using fake documents—which, again, happened at age 16—he limited his options to (a) continuing to lie, or (b) leaving the United States forever.[4] What's the most important decision you had to make at age 16?

Vargas' story should be the impetus for a serious conversation about the harshness of our immigration laws, and in more reasonable circles, it has been exactly that. But in the case of the loudest voices for hard-line anti-illegal-immigrant policies, the story reveals the laziness of their rhetoric.

To Michelle Malkin, it's a black-and-white distinction—either he's here legally and can stay, or he's not and he has to go. I don't think that's the right way to look at it, but whatever, it's a position that's not entirely without merit. But the thing with black-and-white distinctions is that from time to time they produce unjust results. That's the trade-off you have to accept when you take the side of rigid adherence to the rule of law—there are going to be sympathetic cases, but if we don't make everyone follow the same rules we'll eventually not have any rules at all.

But Malkin takes it a step further, treating the black-and-white distinction between legal and illegal as if it's also the line between honorable and dishonorable. As if every person who finds themselves on the wrong side of an immigration law is a deceitful scumbag, deserving only of our scorn and a one-way plane ticket.

That's not how laws work. There has never, in human history, been a perfect overlap between legal/illegal and honorable/dishonorable, and there never will be. To suggest otherwise—and to suggest that our immigration system, of all things, is where this perfect overlap exists—is asinine. Either ignorant or willfully disingenuous, if not a little of both.

1. Initially I tried to write the first part of this article in the style of one of Paul Harvey's "Rest of the Story" segments, but it wasn't working—mostly because I'm awful at imitating someone else's style, and it seemed like it would be more confusing and distracting than anything else—so I scrapped it. And now… you know . . . the rest of the story.
    Anyway, more on Malkin in an upcoming post, which will probably be rather different than you might imagine.
2. Except to the extent that the DREAM Act, which Vargas supports, has been unfairly characterized as a "mass amnesty".
3. My birthday is always within a few days of Thanksgiving, and in the year I turned 16 it was the day after. (This was in Georgia, where, officially, the day after Thanksgiving is Robert E. Lee's birthday. Robert E. Lee's actual birthday is January 19. I'm not making that up. I couldn't make that up.) The DMV was closed, and remained closed until Monday. I couldn't get my license until three days after my 16th birthday, which was so upsetting I still remember it 12 years later. My point, once again, is that 16-year-olds are stupid. I didn't even have a car.
4. More or less. If he want back to the Philippines before his 18th birthday or within six months afterward, he could've immediately applied for a visa. Once he missed that window, he faced a ten-year bar—that is, he has to leave, then he has to wait ten years before he can even start the process of "waiting in line" for a visa.
    Except that the ten-year bar might as well be a 100-year bar, because there's no line for Vargas to wait in. He has no qualifying relatives in the U.S., no real prospects for an employment visa, and he's not eligible to enter the diversity visa lottery—the federal government is satisfied with our current level of Filipinos. Oh, and the document fraud he confessed to committing may make him permanently ineligible anyway.