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Know What To Think About L.A.’s Minimum Wage Increase? Liar, Nobody Does

Posted by tobymuresianu on May 21, 2015 in Politics, Thoughts

LA’s new $15 minimum wage is a really big deal and it will be fascinating to see the results.

Giving more cash to more people could make their lives better and potentially spur economic growth (since lower wage workers spend more of their money locally, having less opportunity to do fancy things like “save”)

LA has mostly service industry jobs that can’t be easily moved to other cities (we only really produce American Apparel and life coaches)

On the other hand…it could push housing prices up even further, as people move here for work and have more $ to spend (if you want to give a progressive pause, tell them their rent will go up)

It could disproportionately cause small businesses to close or cut hours/positions.

It could push some businesses from LA to the suburbs.

And it could spur the creation of many of the unpaid internships we all love, increasing the hurdle to get into the paid labor force in the entertainment industry (which until now had been super easy).

Most likely it will have all of these results, and unforeseen ones, to some extent. The questions is more what proportions they’ll occur in.

It’s a complex problem and even economists who support the increase can’t predict what’s going to happen.

At first I wasn’t gonna post anything because I didn’t have a particular solution…but it’s reassuring to know that nobody does.

And it strikes me that one problem with getting your news from Facebook (where I also posted this – add me!) is the stuff that blows up in your news feed is the stuff that’s easy to have an opinion on, not necessarily the stuff that’s most important.

And maybe that’s why we feel so polarized, because it’s the strong opinions that get shared (and shared again). But “I don’t know” is a totally valid opinion and in many cases the most truthful and accurate one.

What I’m saying is that I have nothing to say, but it’s for the best.

But hopefully the increase is successful and I look forward to, if nothing else, seeing the results of the grand experiment.

 
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Listen to others. For real, though.

Posted by tobymuresianu on May 14, 2015 in Politics, Thoughts

Last week as I watched the results of the UK election reverberate through my news feed, many of my friends posted how they couldn’t imagine why someone could ever vote conservative, or ridiculed or said they were hiding those who did.

There’s recently been a lot of talk of “news bubbles” – where people on Facebook get news only from people whose viewpoints reaffirm their own.

While it’s tempting to think of polarization as an internet phenomenon, it shares the characteristics of a well documented psychological basis: Groupthink.

Groupthink is a phenomenon where people in a group “reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints, by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.”

The 8 key symptoms are:

Stereotyped views of out-groups – often as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid.
Pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
Self-censorship, where deviations from the perceived consensus are left unsaid.
Self-appointed members who protect the group from information that could hurt consensus.
An illusion of unanimity, where silence is assumed to mean agreement.
An illusion of invulnerability that encourages high-risk solutions to problems.
Collective rationalization of warnings.
Belief in the inherent morality of their group, and that as a “wise and good group,” “any means we decide to use must be good.”

I know, I never see it online either.

It does remind me a little of computer camp, where kids favorite pastime was talking about how much cooler they were than the “rival” computer camp, and I didn’t know how to say that we were all the same, completely uncool, kids. But I digress.

A topic being controversial makes it more important to reach better conclusions, not less; and alternative perspectives are an important part of that. At the very least, it may help demystify the disconnect between your news feed and an election result.

If you want to understand why people might believe differently than you, it’s just not enough to construct a strawman or point to some internet rando’s ill-advised tweet and present them as being representative of the other side.

Once in awhile I’ll post something that I know most of my friends disagree with. I don’t post more of them because for one, I agree with my friends on a majority of issues, and for two, because I honestly hate doing it. I hate thinking I’ll offend someone or lose a friend and never know it. I hate worrying that I’ll be wrong or I’m crazy for not seeing something the same way my friends seem to. It is easier not to take the risk.

But in truth everyone is wrong about a lot of things – I certainly am. And people who are overconfident in their own abilities may be the most likely to be, if they ignore contrary evidence as a result.

I think discussing politics is important and the best way is not to have a dialogue driven by fear or believing the worst in people. It is to listen to all kinds of opinions, and when you have them, be willing to express them politely. Someone disagreeing with you should be a cue to look into their argument, not to look for ways to dismiss it.

And I’ve generally found that when I do post something controversial
that most of my facebook friends, even those who disagree, are pretty smart and understanding (aside from the occasional person I did an open mic with five years ago who feels the need to post 10 misspelled, all-caps replies in five minutes). The perception of conflict, since we see so much of it online, is sometimes worse than the reality – so it is important not to let that stifle discussion. So I’m going to try to speak up more, and I hope others feel empowered too, so that the dialogue moves in a direction where people talk in good faith instead of bad.

But again, I could be wrong about all this. The best approach could be to loudly and publicly dismiss and belittle all who disagree with you. So if this approach doesn’t work, I fully reserve the right to try that next.

(links: About.com Psychology, Wikipedia: Groupthink, Psychologists for social responsibility)

 
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Agitating for housing, not against tech, is the solution to San Francisco’s housing crisis

Posted by tobymuresianu on Apr 8, 2014 in Politics, Tech, Thoughts, Travel

Housing prices in San Francisco are insane, and it’s become a large problem. Yet the root cause is that San Francisco is great, and one of the side effects is that people want to move there. As problems for cities go, this is a good one to have.

Where it gets hairy, though, is that while 75,000 people have moved in in the last 10 years, only 17,000 new housing units have been built in the same time. Supply and demand being a phenomenon not unique to San Francisco, the result has been skyrocketing rents, and longtime residents (longtime in San Francisco meaning more than 3 years) getting displaced.

To put it in perspective; when I lived in the city as a semi-professional comedian and app developer (or if you prefer to say it, marginally employed person) in 2009, I paid $800/month for a room at 17th and Dolores that, based on craigslist, now fetches closer to $2000. I won’t tell you how many casino lounges you have to perform in to make that, but it’s a lot.

But I’m a bad financial example (sorry, Mom and Dad). My friend has a decently paying tech job that she’s been at for a few years. She was told that the rent in her shared single-family home in a non-central neighborhood would go from $3500 to $5600. With apartments on craigslist getting hundreds of replies, costing thousands, or charging $250 to live an hour away and sleep with the landlord, she may have to move to a different city. This would be a loss for her and the San Francisco (not to mention the landlord). Not only has she built a life here while being financially responsible, she also runs popular comedy shows and volunteers. Her roommates are similarly financially stable and do things that help make San Francisco an interesting and attractive place to live, but are now struggling to live there themselves. It would be a shame if San Francisco stopped being a diverse and vibrant place, but instead a San Francsico-style theme park where you can kind of experience what the culture was like while paying $6 for a (fair-trade) soda.

Everyone agrees action is needed. What’s been disappointing to me, though, that most of the ire I’ve seen has been focused on the most recent arrivals in the city – tech workers who are able to afford the increased rent.

They are an easy target (we’re dorks), but it’s an unfortunate approach for a number of reasons. One, because it ignores the root of the problem – an artificially constrained housing supply. Two, it at times takes the tone of a simple anti-immigration platform that undermines the tolerance that San Francisco supposedly embodies. And three, if it by some miracle stopgap measures succeed in curbing the growth of the city, it will be at the expense of an opportunity for San Francisco to become a greater than it already is.

First, why is housing construction artificially restrained? For starters, it often takes 10 years for new housing to be approved in San Francisco, and it can be arbitrarily altered by a diverse rainbow of public hearings and planning commissions, with the result being housing policy “based not so much on our city’s dire housing needs but on who can turn out the most people at a public hearing”. In addition to this slowing the supply to a trickle, it also increases the expenses developers take on to build new buildings, which will inevitably result in higher prices when/if the buildings are actually built. The situation is exacerbated by an elevated rate of vacant housing stock whether due to regulations or other reasons but a lack of physical supply is still the greatest long-term cause.

New construction is always something that people moan and clamor about and then forget about after they are actually built. In fact, these housing restrictions have been in place since the 1980s and originated with resistance to skyscrapers that now make up downtown on the grounds they’d spoil the view, though these are now completely accepted if not iconic parts of the skyline.

The good news here is that because the situation with housing permits is so subject to public opinion, if San Francisco activists were advocating for increased construction, they would be able to change things for the better. Unfortunately, they haven’t been. I think this is for two reasons – a deeply intellectual assumption that rich people must be the source of all problems, and because new transplants to the city are simply an easier target than the parts of their own community who are resisting the necessary changes.

So instead activists have focused energy on undermining the Google Bus on dubious environmental grounds (because obviously mass transit is terrible for the environment) and harassing its founder by ripping off Fight Club in order to try and make the city less hospitable for tech workers. Being anti-immigration is the last sentiment you’d expect from San Franciscians. Yet stereotyping the tech community, lamenting how they are taking over neighborhoods and how the “real” San Francisco is getting lost are all sentiments that seem at home in any anti-immigration campaign.

Ignored is are the facts that we as citizens have the freedom to move wherever we want and the basic hypocrisy that all San Francisco residents immigrated at some point, often over economically-rooted anti-immigrant sentiment. Also, this protectionism diminishes the very real contributions of the tech community to San Francisco – where it has lead to world-class technologies, and where many are interesting members of society who also bring money into the city that helps fund social programs and small businesses. Most cities bend over backwards to attract well-paying jobs and citizens who hold them for the money they bring into the community and public coffers. It’s surprising how many San Franciscans best case take them for granted and worst case treat them with suspicion.

Finally, resisting construction robs San Francisco of an opportunity to become greater than it is. San Francisco is a case study for why liberal capitalism can work. You have educated people who move to a city, create successful businesses, and are willing to pay high taxes and create a good social support network. Despite right-wing talk nationally of cutting taxes and social programs to boost the economy, SF has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. If it was allowed to grow, with fair and standardized requirements for mixed income or eco-friendly construction, it could be even more of an example for other cities to emulate. And if you think San Francisco is a great city – as I do – isn’t it selfish to keep it for yourself, rather than wanting other people to move there and enjoy it, simply because you moved there first?

Further, while the specter of inequality features prominently in much writing about the housing situation, a construction boom would bring with it lots of construction jobs that would benefit the working class and the businesses they support. If the goal is honestly to help the working class, and not just try to appropriate them as moral justification, a curb in construction that pushes rent prices higher for cosmetic purposes does much more harm than good. I know it’s shocking to think that people who dress up in lycra circus suits to block the Google Bus might not actually be that connected to the working class, but I have my suspicions.

It is not manifest destiny for San Francisco activists to complain about inequality and then when the city becomes increasingly gentrified anyway blame the powerful while ignoring the fact they could have prevented it. The truth is that construction is beneficial and vilification of tech workers isn’t. It’s my hope that sooner rather than later consensus becomes that allowing the city to grow is the best solution to the housing crunch, and that not only is gentrification reduced because of it, but hostility and inequality are as well.

And you know what? People can still make fun of tech workers. As people who grew up on math team, we’re used to it.

 
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The Duck Dynasty Succession Crisis

Posted by tobymuresianu on Dec 22, 2013 in Politics, Thoughts

Phil Robertson’s comments were ignorant and his sermons were hateful. But causing his show to be cancelled does more harm than good. The best option would be for Robertson to go on TV with people from the groups he insulted – and have them actually explain their opinions. Here’s why.

(First, read the interview if you haven’t already. It’s very surprising how many people took the time to express their opinion online who have never read the original article. I think part of the reason we are so polarized is because we are getting our news from opinion pieces based on opinion pieces instead of reading the original story and drawing our own conclusions.)

Two things surprised me in the interview:

1. The original remarks about vaginas and anuses – which seem like moronic but typical shock jock stuff – are like the third most offensive thing in the article. The remarks implying black people were happier before civil rights and implying that Japanese and Muslims started wars because they didn’t believe in Christ are much worse. I think the fact they only “surfaced” a few days after the original furor points to how many people didn’t read the original piece.

2. The remarks are a small percentage of the article. Most of it, written from the perspective of the author, an NYC hipster type – portrays Phil in a positive light, mentioning his work helping quit drugs, adopting a biracial child and promoting adoption. Some conservatives have described the piece as a “hit job” but it isn’t, at all. On the other hand, it explains why some people like him so much. It also raises the questions of when we should be able to look past crazy religious and political beliefs when they don’t affect our relationship with someone, and whether it’s appropriate to treat him as a simple villain.

That said, the sermons that have come to light are more odious than anything that’s said in the article.

So, if he’s said awful things, why shouldn’t he be kicked off his show as a consequence?

First, it’s not a first amendment issue, legally speaking. I do think, though, that “free speech” is a cultural value that we have and is worth preserving. It’s somewhat ironic that for all the past worry about government censorship, we are now censoring ourselves – private party retaliation and outrage is the biggest impediment to speaking one’s beliefs. And while I think there’s a difference between expressing your every day beliefs and those that are hateful when you have a public role, the fact that his beliefs are not outside the norm for many people – in addition to being troubling on its face – makes reprisal seem more like censorship. Is it okay to suspend someone for repeating, when asked, a belief that a sizable portion of the US population believes?

But free speech aside, the larger reason he shouldn’t remain suspended is that no goals are accomplished by this, beyond a fleeting sense of justice being served. If the reason we don’t want public figures espousing hateful views is that they will spread, canceling the show and making him a martyr for his beliefs doesn’t stop it. Addressing the substance of his remarks is the best way to.

After all, the consequences of the show being cancelled (or suspending Phil indefinitely, which will lead to the show being cancelled) will be:

1) Right wingers will continue to feel persecuted, and that there is a double standard for liberal and conservative “free speech” in America. I don’t think Phil Robertson is the best example for this, but I do think there’s a grain of truth in other cases, with Alec Baldwin, Dan Savage and others getting passes right-wingers don’t get.

2) Duck Dynasty will be picked up by another network – it’s already had offers – and possibly become more conservative/political than before.

3) People who love Duck Dynasty – and there are a lot of them – will continue to be angry at the show they love being cancelled. It’s easy to write this off if you’re liberal, since liberals don’t watch or care about the show. But a lot of people really, really do. Imagine if Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad had said the same thing Phil did before its last season. Would liberals be as quick to write the show off? Or would they remember that there are all kinds of horrendous people in Hollywood – from Walt Disney to Jenny McCarthy to Tom Cruise – where people have largely looked the other way?

If the goal is to stop prejudice and hatred towards homosexuals and minorities, the best way isn’t to have them blamed for taking away something that people love. The best way is to show that they are regular, decent, reasonable people – to Duck Dynasty viewers, not so different from the Phil. It’s also important to address Phil’s idiotic opinions head on – for example, by mentioning that rather than black people “not singing the blues” before civil rights, they invented the blues. And that far from his assertions that Christian countries did not start wars, obscure historical events like World War 1, the American Civil War, the American Revolution, the Spanish-American War, and the Crusades all happened.

And no, I don’t think that Phil will repent and change his mind. But some viewers might change theirs – or at least harbor less antipathy towards liberals/gays/minorities if they understand their point of view, see them being willing to talk, and see Phil shaking hands with them.

Sure, it’s not perfect, and there are ways it could go wrong. But I think it’s the best option, and in any case it’s better to do the right thing and risk it being wrong than to not take the chance at all.

 
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Which arguments about Healthcare.gov are wrong

Posted by tobymuresianu on Oct 25, 2013 in Politics, Tech, Thoughts

For the record, as an engineer with (an unfortunate amount of) experience with delayed software projects:

Using a “tech surge” to fix the problems with HealthCare.gov is a terrible idea, and every time I read about them “shipping some of the best and brightest minds” to Washington to fix these problems I cringe.

The more significant reason it’s a terrible idea is that you can’t solve software problems by adding more people or money. This is most famously illustrated by tech industry gospel The Mythical Man Month – a book describing the phenomenon of how adding people to a delayed project makes it more delayed.

Basically, what ends up happening is that you pull programmers who are building the product off and have them “bring up to speed” people that have just been brought in. They spend time training them, and then fixing the problems that the new people create, rather than working on the actual delayed product. The more people you add, the more overhead, and the less efficiently the project goes.

That said – I’m sure the experts brought in to fix the problem are aware of this phenomenon – and hopefully will be able to work around it, or maybe it’s all a bunch of hoopla to buy the developers time. At the end of the day – this product is just a website. It should not take that long to build. Obviously there’s important back-end stuff happening, but apparently that’s been functioning okay as the state exchanges have been using it.

You’ll hear excuses like “tech projects are often delayed” and “many websites have glitches” or “the traffic was more than what was estimated.” These are all ridiculous. Yes, tech projects are often delayed and time costs poorly estimated. However, this project is cost $170 million. $170 million. For a website. A website. $170 million. And Sebelius told the Wall Street Journal that ideally they should have had five years to work on the website. If every website took five years and $170 million to develop, there would be like three of them. No, designing an enterprise-class website is not easy, but the truth his that thousands of enterprises do more complicated things every day and manage to pull it off. As did the 14 states that managed to build their exchanges correctly.

People are saying Sebilius should be fired. I don’t know how responsible she is personally or not. It’s so easy to point fingers and I don’t think you should fire people just for vengeance.

I can’t say what the particular causes are – people are citing things like late requirement changes, which are the bane of many a software engineer, but in a well managed project should be prevented from happening.

But at the end of the day people are responsible for this. Anyone who didn’t raise alarm bells at a $170 million price-tag for developing a website should be fired, twice if possible. Obama and Sebilius both should have been told, if they weren’t, about the current status and risk associated with the project before launch and given the chance to delay it; and if they weren’t, whoever was responsible for not telling them should be held responsible. People who are bad at their jobs should not be given the chance to do new ones. I want to say that CGI Federal should not get more government contracts, but regardless after this debacle I’m not sure government agencies will be lining up to get some of that sweet HealthCare.gov magic.

Anyway, just wanted to share some thoughts I had – I had a little time to kill while I was trying to buy health insurance.

 
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Start Me Up

Posted by tobymuresianu on Oct 18, 2013 in Politics, Thoughts

So the government shutdown is over, and it’s a relief that the two parties were able to finally come together and agree to do it again in three months. Or maybe not. Maybe they have finally learned that there are limits to what unyielding antagonism can accomplish in a democracy. Or maybe not. Sometimes I wonder if Obama’s alarm clock plays “I got you babe” like in Groundhog Day.

So much has been said about the shutdown and I don’t want to beat a dead horse. I’d just like to express two thoughts:

1. The Republican Party should be two parties. They essentially are (how often does part of one party use the name of a different party to describe itself?) as the two wings represent very different sets of values. It would be great if the debt ceiling debacle yielded a split.

As has been widely reported, one core problem Congress has built for itself is that many of the districts are safe – gerrymandered so that one party has a safe majority, and threats to the incumbent come from within their own party in the primary system, causing the extreme wing to have disproportionate influence. But the will to correct gerrymandered districts hasn’t come from the people in power who drew them that way.

If the Tea Party and Republican party were separate, it could make these existing districts competitive again by allowing moderate Republicans to draw votes from either side in a general election, rather than having to draw them only from one side of their party in a primary. This would benefit democracy in these areas and encourage participation amongst voters who aren’t Republican and currently have no real voice in choosing the representatives of their gerrymandered districts.

2. If no split happens, hopefully this is where the Tea Party jumps the shark (Nominations for the moment? Green Eggs and Ham?). I used to feel like I could at least somewhat where they were coming from from a libertarian perspective even if I didn’t agree with them. But they’re so myopic and melodramatic that their actions aren’t even in line with the values they bluster for days about not compromising.

They hate inefficient government and wasteful spending, so they shut the government down and supported continuing to pay the workers. They believe that the will of the people is being abridged, so they address it by having their small minority dictate the agenda for the vast majority of Americans who voted for non-Tea-Party candidates. Even their core belief in free markets is suspect. To borrow a tweet from Josh Barro: “A conservative is someone who believes all markets are efficient except the bond market.” While it’s a stretch to say conservatives, tea partiers vocally advocate a view that deifies markets and vilifies people in government who think they know better than markets. Yet US Government Bonds have been priced by markets as the safest investment you can make, indicating markets themselves don’t see reason to be concerned about government taking on the debt that Tea Partiers obsess over. So it’s fairly ironic that the Tea Party people in government resolve this conflict by deciding they know better than the markets.

Anyway, that’s all for now. Go back to enjoying your national monuments.

 
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Caring is not a zero-sum game

Posted by tobymuresianu on Apr 16, 2013 in Politics, Thoughts

It’s nice how people come together and show support on social networks in the wake of a tragedy like the one that happened in Boston. When your faith in the world is shaken, it is nice to see a lot of people post messages of hope and positivity. It’s easy to say it’s just a Facebook message, but it does have an emotional impact.

There were also a few people who posted messages that pointed out that there were tragedies going on all over the world, and that Boston’s wasn’t special. Examples:

 

“oh my god! horrible tragedy today. my thoughts go out to the 25,000 people who died of starvation around the world.”

“This really isn’t to cause shit, what happened in Boston is terrible, but would just like to put things in perspective. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/middle-east-live/2013/apr/15/syria-conflict-shelling-in-damascus-suburbs-live-updates”

“Americans are so vain. The people in Boston now might know what it’s like to live in Iraq, or Niger or any other unprivileged place…”

 

If you didn’t see anyone who posted something like this, congratulations, you have better friends than I do.

But it would be disingenuous to write it off; I’ll admit I have instinctively thought it about other tragedies with small casualty figures. When you are used to seeing news articles like “30 dead, 200 injured in Peshawar” is it just egotism that makes us care so much about 3 people dying and 100 or so being injured in one of our cities?

I think there’s a few reasons why it’s not.

First, I think it’s natural to feel more intensely about places to which you have a connection – whether having visited, lived there, studied there, or have friends or relatives living there – and Boston is a city many people have such a connection to. Is it analytically wrong to care more about things you are closer to? Maybe, but you also have more ability to help them, and humans are emotional beings. We feel worse about our friends dying than about two strangers dying half a world away – and that’s true of all people whether they live in the US, Canada or Peshawar.

Second, caring is not a zero sum game. We can care about Boston and care about the third world as well, and despite the stereotypes, many Americans do. it’s particularly silly to imply otherwise when the event in question was a marathon that many people run for charity, which draws participants from all over the world, and is held in Boston – one of the most educated and liberal (if that matters to you) cities anywhere.

Another reason we take Boston more personally because it is more of an attack on us personally. Whoever did it wanted to target people simply because they were there. If I’d been standing next to that garbage can (as I may have many times, having grown up there) they would have been just as happy to have killed me – forgive me if I find that particularly disturbing. I don’t know if there were bombs going off in their neighborhoods whether these posters would be strolling around saying “well, this is nothing compared to the situation in the Central African Republic,” but I suspect not.

Nobody is saying that violence in the third world is less terrible than violence here. All I’m saying is that the reason we are more upset about it right now is completely normal and to imply that it’s due to being egotistical or use it to confirm your pre-existing anti-Americanism is ridiculous.

And what are those posters complaining about exactly? Are they angry that the Boston story is getting front page coverage rather than other conflicts? If so, I’d like to remind them that the Syrian conflict is 2 years old, and ask what paper have they been looking at where it has not consistently been on the front page since then — as well as what world it was published in.

Are they angry that people are posting messages of support on Facebook for Boston rather than the third world today? It’s worth noting that a) they’re not generally posting daily messages of support for the third world, either and b) when events in Syria, Iraq, etc. first happened, many of the same people posting about Boston now were posting messages of support for them, too.

What particularly irks me is how often people who post this stuff act like they are big thinkers for it. They aren’t being thoughtful. They are using knee-jerk anti-Americanism as a substitute for intellectualism, and trying to show off that they read the news as though nobody else possibly could. I don’t mean to start anything. I’d just like to, you know, put things in perspective.

 
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I support gay marriage, but it’s not a human rights issue.

Posted by tobymuresianu on Mar 26, 2013 in Politics, Thoughts

I support gay marriage. I think it should be legal, and I hope the supreme court rules in favor of it. But people have taken to calling it a human rights issue, and it’s not.

Human rights are fundamental rights we all deserve simply for being human. Timeless, fundamental freedoms like the ability to speak your mind, worship whatever god you choose, or have children. Let’s not forget that gay marriage only became an issue after Bush made it one. Is it really a human right if nobody even thought about it until 15 years ago?

But isn’t being able to marry the person you love a fundamental human right? Sure. But gay people can already get married, and have for decades. Here’s how: by saying they were married. Nobody will stop you. That’s all it takes to be married in the eyes of your god or if you’re an athiest like me, in the eyes of each other – which is the most important thing.

What we’re talking about is the right to have your state use the word “marriage” to describe your partnership, and in some cases (though not California’s) having the commensurate tax advantages and benefits like visitation rights in the hospital. Which, again, I completely support. I just don’t think it’s a human rights issue.

But isn’t equality a human right? Shouldn’t the state treat everyone equally?

If I were disabled, I would get money from the state. There are many ways in which it treats people unequally.

Most directly, I’m single and while I’d love to have a long term relationship, I don’t believe in marriage. If I have a 15 year relationship with a girlfriend, we don’t get the rights of a married couple. Doesn’t it make me unequal in the eyes of the state because religiously based legislation deems our lifestyle less valid? Sure, I could see it that way. But to say I felt my human rights are being violated would trivialize the term by equating it to violent religious persecution in Syria or detentions in Tiananmen Square. It would be part of a broader trend where people claim things like anti-Semitism, racism or class warfare at slight provocations because they feel it lends legitimacy to their argument. But really they just water down the terms and fan the flames of passion that have caused our political debates to become so divisive.

This isn’t a post about terminology. It’s about how to have a productive conversation. If our conversation becomes not about “human rights” but instead a conversation about the merits of tax benefits for married couples regardless of sexual orientation, maybe we would end with a superior and fairer solution for everyone. For example, abolishing tax benefits for all married couples because they don’t actually make sense. And rather than have visitation rights be restricted to a spouse of any gender, simply allowing me to specify which people who can visit me in the hospital, be they my gay spouse, girlfriend, lawyer or golfing buddy. And when benefits are equalized, we might see that whatever word a bunch of silly voters decide your state should use to call your partnership has zero effect on your life or what word you use, so it isn’t worth wasting your breath on when there are so many larger challenges to confront.

If you want to disagree with me about this being the best way to run things, sure, we can have that conversation. I just promise not to say it’s one about human rights.

 
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Cognitive Psychology and why the Sequester is not all bad

Posted by tobymuresianu on Mar 1, 2013 in Politics, Thoughts

Many people have commented that American politicians are acting like fighting children. It does feel similar.

“Johnny doesn’t pay enough taxes!” “Barry’s being greedy!”

Eventually, most parents in that situation would snap, and arrive at the same solution:

“If you don’t learn to cooperate, nobody gets what they want!”

“But that’s not fair!” both children would reply.

Sometimes, though, fair doesn’t matter.

The difficulty of cutting things has become a key problem with our democracy. If you propose to cut one program, its patrons line up to defend it and point fingers at other people’s wasteful programs. And it works – cuts are often avoided.

In cognitive psychology you often hear the term “losses loom larger than gains”. People are much more averse to parting what they already have than they are to gaining something of equivalent value. For example, if you offer to sell someone a coffee cup, they won’t be willing to buy it for more than a dollar or two. But give them the same coffee cup and a week later offer to buy the same cup back, and they won’t part with it for less than five or six.

While people know we need to make big cuts in general, the cost of fighting over specific cuts is too great to make whittling down to a budget a good approach. A better way is to make larger general cuts that people agree to in principle and then add back what you really need. If we’re going to endlessly argue about our national priorities, let’s do it from a position of fiscal solvency first.

It’s also telling that the cuts are not always as dire as we imagine that as soon as losses in funding become a reality, the heads of the programs change their tune from defending all their programs to prioritization.

“That’s not fair,” says the military. “We are risking American lives. We should be cutting low-value, expensive programs instead.”

Where were these low-value, expensive programs during previous budget discussions?

“This is ridiculous!” say social programs. “We have to furlough all our employees instead of just laying off underperforming and inefficient ones!”

Why did you have underperforming, inefficient employees still working there?

“The timing of the cuts is terrible!” say various sources.

But has there ever been a time that people described as good for cuts?

Much is being said about how this is a self-inflicted wound. Let’s not ignore the biggest self-inflicted wound – the much harder eventual economic collapse that results after years of spiraling deficits.

Every time there’s an economic crisis – take the housing crisis, for example – people afterwards ask “how could the people in charge not have seen this coming?”. And when you look closer, you find people who thought things like “it’ll be fine” or “we’re different” or looked the other way because they were benefiting financially and it was easier to keep doing what they were doing. The national debt is a crisis everyone sees coming, but nobody’s done anything about, and there’s no shortage of people saying “it’ll be fine” because – well – we’re all benefitting financially and it’s easier to keep doing what we’re doing than bear psychologically painful short term cuts.

But no matter how politicians spin it or explain that the US is different, when political expedience runs into the brick wall of economic truth, economics will win every time. Spending far beyond your means for years catches up with everyone eventually, and we are no exception.

The sequester is tough medicine. But let’s not forget that the scale of the cuts is not massive – it’s a reasonable cut in the overall budget. Now there are petitions for programs being cut to be allowed to adjust how they want the cuts to be made – I hope these bear fruit. But either way, hopefully it will be a wake up call to politicians and programs to make more intelligent sacrifices earlier, because they know that if they act like children forever, nobody – including them – will get what they want.

 
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3 things the NRA has right

Posted by tobymuresianu on Dec 28, 2012 in Politics, Thoughts

The other week, I wrote a post suggesting measures to make schools safer that could be agreed on without politics.

They were having armed guards in schools, and reducing violence in the media.

It didn’t turn out exactly how I’d hoped.

A few days later, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre gave a press conference where he called for armed guards in schools, and blamed the media for violence.

There was a minor backlash.

It was funny – I actually thought I was being apolitical, and nobody had accused me of being a gun nut (which I’m not; I support gun control). Was I way off base? Or were liberals vilifying the NRA, cause, well, it’s the NRA and they’re villain-y?

Out of curiosity, I watched Wayne LaPierre’s press conference.

It would be easy to create a laundry list of how crazy and hypocritical the NRA is, and many people have.

They deride politics when they are political lobbyists. They criticize the media for dramatizing violence, then create a fear-driven narrative of a world populated by monsters who can only be stopped by “good guys with guns” – a narrative which draws more from Dirty Harry and email forwards than reality. They have zero self-awareness over the fact that someone who believed everything they said was killed by the guns she loved and enabled the entire massacre.

But packaged in the basket of crazy are a few perfectly legitimate points. Maybe they stumbled upon them by accident, and it would be easy to write them off. But if our goal is to genuinely protect kids and not just win an argument, we shouldn’t.

1) The media doesn’t know anything about guns.

I would expand the media to include “most people on facebook and twitter.” All abound with confusion over what terms like semi-automatic or .223 mean, or feature calls to ban “military-style assault rifles” – a vague and unhelpful term. As one relative put it, “is it okay to have non-military style assault rifles?”. Even the legal definition of “assault rifle” includes characteristics like bayonet lugs and pistol grips, which do nothing to affect their deadliness – barring any recent mass bayonetings or pistol whippings I’m unaware of.

It’s hard to imagine an effective weapons ban when the people advocating it don’t understand what weapons they want to ban. This was the case with the previous ban, and the result was that dangerous-sounding guns such as the AK-47 were banned, but guns like the WASR-10, which is a type of AK-47, weren’t.

Romanian WASR-10

Good thing this isn’t an AK-47, those things are dangerous

For the record – “semi-automatic” basically means it fires once every time you pull the trigger. Automatic weapons (meaning they fire three times when you pull the trigger, or continuously if you hold down the trigger) have been restricted to police/military use for years. .223 is a common size of ammunition used in everything from hunting rifles to military ones. If there’s one topic we should bring ourselves to admit the NRA knows more about than liberals, it’s how guns work.

And the practical definition of assault rifle for the purposes of a new ban that restricted the most dangerous class of weapons should be “a semi-automatic rifle with a high capacity magazine”.

2) The media – including video games – encourage violence.

Obviously, it doesn’t do so to a dangerous extent with the overall population, but for a vulnerable, alienated segment of the population violent media and video games are dangerous. Just like, you might say, guns.

Again, nobody has actually suggested ways for reforming the media, and I believe it’s irresponsible to point the finger at them without recognizing the role we all play in supporting it. Also, we have a thing called a first amendment. If there is to be a change in the culture or the media, it won’t come from legislation; it has to come from us as individuals avoiding gratuitously violent media and creating an environment in which it is no longer socially acceptable.

3) Armed guards are the only preventative measure that will take effect right now.

Nobody disputes that gun control legislation will take months and guns will still be circulating for years. Better mental health care will be a long time coming as well, will not fix people who are crazy right now, and will not ensure at any point that people with mental health problems use it.

I’m hearing two common arguments against security guards in schools.

a) There was a security guard at Columbine, and he didn’t do anything!

This is true. He fired at the attackers from 60 yards away (a laughable distance with a handgun), got shot at, retreated and called police. Here’s why: he was a shitty security guard.

I hate that the gun control debate is so driven by anecdotes – whether it’s the Columbine example or gun rights advocates bringing up one-off cases of a grandmother killing a mugger – which don’t exemplify what happens in most cases. This is a big country, and everything is going to happen a certain amount of times.

Someday, I would like to hear gun rights and gun control avocates argue about how to play roulette. “You know, in this one case, Jane Harrison placed her money on 32 black and won. Would you have had her not win that jackpot?”

b) It’s not right for teachers to have guns! We need less guns, not more!

I dislike this argument because it’s purely emotional reasoning. A related argument is that armed guards “send the wrong message about the role of a school,” which smacks of “it does not fit my mental image of the school I went into, so therefore it is wrong.” Would people saying this also argue that in the 1/3 of American schools that already have armed security, those personnel should be taken away?

Also, nobody is suggesting all teachers be issued handguns. But if a teacher has completed training and wishes for their own safety and that of their kids to have, say, a handgun locked in their drawer or in the principal’s office, is it really helpful to tell them that they can’t? When did teachers go from being saints who could do no wrong and always deserved to be paid more to authority figures who couldn’t be trusted with such decisions?

On the other hand, there is one great argument for not having guns in schools – we don’t need it. This argument comes courtesy of Josh Barro at Bloomberg, who points out that schools are still overall the safest place for our children to be (though I do disagree with his arguments that guns “sending the wrong message on education” for the reasons above).

It’s surprising this argument isn’t made more, but after a catastrophe the pressure is so strong to “do something” that sometimes it’s hard to make the case that we don’t need to.

On the other hand – there is a good argument for armed guards even if they are not cost-effective. As with terrorism, the damage done by school shootings isn’t in terms of casualty numbers alone. The damage is largely mental – in the national anguish and atmosphere of fear it can create.

We need to balance the pain of not having an armed guard there to defend against the next school shooting (which will happen, at some point, even if it is hopefully later due to gun control or other means) against the savings of not having them there. The side consequences and benefits of gun-related accidents and prevention of other crimes should also be in the equation.

Considering those things and determining the right thing to do is a difficult question. But it is an honest one, as opposed to slogans or blanket arguments which do not alleviate the problem.

It’s my personally still my belief that we should encourage guards in schools – because when the next shooting occurs, we will either stop it, or be able to say we did all we could to – even if it wasn’t our idea.

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