In Which Sturgeon’s Law Explains Everything

In 1951 Theodore Sturgeon was giving a talk about science fiction when someone in the audience noted that “90% of science fiction writing was crap”. Sturgeon shot back that “90% of everything is crap”.

This observation came to be known as Sturgeon’s Law.

Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.

— Theodore Sturgeon

Sturgeon’s law is just as valuable when you are thinking about professionals as the old joke about doctors illustrates.

Q: What do you call a doctor who graduates at the bottom of his class?

A: Doctor

After years of pondering, I have come to believe that Sturgeon’s Law is more about the 10% that isn’t crap than the 90% that is. Forgetting the exact ratios for a moment, in every artform and every sporting contest, in every profession and every human endeavour, there is a distribution of quality in which a minority stands out as much better than the rest. We all know teachers who work that little bit harder to make their lessons interesting or the pharmacist who goes the extra mile to make sure that you understand your prescription. In my own profession—software engineering—only about 10% of engineers ever read a book about their craft once they leave college. This leads me to what I think is a more profound corollary to Sturgeon’s Law.

If you are a software engineer at the top of your game, you probably read books, attend conferences, study relentlessly to enhance your skills and engage in endless discussion on how to improve the state of the art of software craftsmanship.  Average software engineers do not do this but you are probably surrounded by the rare few who seek to be the best they can be. This is where the less obvious aspect of Sturgeon’s Law casts its insidious spell. When you meet people outside of your elite circle, they are more likely to be average than elite.

Most engineering managers have a similar disinclination to better themselves. The best of them are very good but most of them are not the best. Too many are merely average. When the very best of the software engineering profession looks at the competence of software engineering management, they sigh a little because most managers are not very good.

Oddly enough, the very best of software engineering managers have a symmetrical view of the engineers they manage. Most engineers are not very good either. This isn’t just true of software engineers and their managers; it’s true of QA engineers, product managers, and designers too. Most QA engineers think that most programmers suck at testing. It’s true. Most of them do. But most QA engineers suck at it too. To the best QA engineers, the average programmers seem like uncaring barbarians. And vice versa.

I should emphasize at this point that I am not suggesting that some people are better than others at everything. Even very great software engineers might suck at gardening or astronomy.

This corollary to Sturgeon’s Law pertains across so many domains where the best of folks surround themselves with other folks who are motivated to excel. The average person outside their circle contrasts poorly as a result. Consider a Kalenjin long distance runner from the Rift Valley in Kenya. He probably encounters other great runners almost every day of his life. Most of the people he runs with, eats with and loves with are also great runners. If our Kalenjin got on a plane to Helsinki, he’d probably be disappointed to find that most Finns are not great long-distance runners. Most of them are just average. Truth be told, most of the Kalenjin are probably average too but our guy doesn’t encounter them very often. He hangs with the elite when he is at home. Away from home he has less opportunity to be so picky. It was only when he went to Finland that he encountered so many people who were not elite runners. Finland has elite runners too of course (I fondly recall cheering for Lasse Virén at the Montreal Olympics) but you are not going to bump into them at the airport as you might when you are at the Kenyan School for Elite Runners.

It’s helpful at this point to remember that individuals are not statistics (The median is not the message in the memorable words of Stephen Gould). If you wanted to recruit a team of long-distance runners it wouldn’t be a great idea to fly off to the Rift Valley and round up the first 5 runners you came across. You’d probably have a very average running team. You’d be much better off choosing great runners wherever they hail from. Furthermore, if you had to choose between a Finnish runner and a Kenyan runner, there is no need to check their birth certificate or the colour of their skin when you decide which one should join your elite running team. You can actually race them and choose the one that runs the fastest. When you are dealing with individuals, you should concern yourself with their individual qualities, not with some arbitrary statistical correlation however accurate that may be. It might be true that the average Kenyan runs faster than the average Finn but—so what? You will never be in a situation where you have to choose between average individuals without some other evidence to inform your choice.

The insidious nature of statistical racism is magnified by confirmation bias. Once you have decided that Kenyans run faster than Finns, it’s all too easy to reinforce your prejudice by noticing all the data points that confirm your bias—Hey! There goes another fat, slow and lazy Finn!—and to overlook the occasions that contradict your instincts. There is a long, unfortunate history of people doing exactly this.

There’s a whole garden of isms that wither under Sturgeon’s steely gaze. My dentist (Hi, Dr Bobba!) has a lovely cartoon on the wall with a caption that says something like “Women will never make good dentists. Their wrists are too weak!”.

Put yourself in the perspective of a Victorian gentleman who just happens to be a very good dentist. All your friends are very good dentists. They all have a certain background in dentistry and very strong wrists. You probably have a quite distinct image of what a proper dentist looks like. The average woman of your acquaintance probably seems very un-dentist-like. She is probably very uninterested in dentistry and has very dainty wrists. If you had to choose a dentist based only on wrist strength, you’d be marginally better off choosing the dentist with the stronger wrists—in 1875. But in 2014, you can skip right past concerns about wrist strength and whether your dentist has the appropriate genitalia and just hire the one who is the best at dentistry. And Doctor Bobba *is* very good. Trust me on that.

More casually—in our everyday lives—we are surrounded at work by people who share a certain intellectual outlook on life. Maybe your colleagues are more interested in politics than the average citizen. Maybe your friends at the sports bar care an awful lot about the intricacies of the infield fly rule or exactly how many defenders need to be behind the ball before offside is called. They know more than the average Joe about sports and certainly more than the average wife. Does that mean that women don’t understand politics or sports? No, of course not. The median is not the message, remember? It means that the average wife—in fact, the average anyone—knows less about sports than the fanatics you hang out with at the sports bar.

Let’s try some more examples.

The average tourist who visits Paris from their friendly little town in Georgia will find most Parisians quite distant, abrupt and possibly rude. The literary Parisians that he encounters will surely conclude that tourists from Georgia know very little about French art and are quite uncultured.  If you repeat the experiment in the opposite direction and send a farmer to Atlanta from a little village in Provence I’ll wager the outcome will be identical. Repeat as necessary with Beijing, Nairobi, Melbourne and Rio.

The average kid who spent every evening of the 1970s browsing record stores for rare blues recordings is likely to be disappointed with the crap his kids listen to on The YouTube. And vice versa.

If you are really interested in US history, I bet you are disappointed with how little the kids of today know about your favourite topic. Guess what! They are disappointed in you too!

The average software developer who does not have a degree in computer science probably doesn’t know much about data structures and algorithms. Neither does the average CS graduate. Most of them slept through that class or forgot most of it the next day. More surprisingly, the average PhD is not very good at software engineering either unless they are working in their very narrow field of expertise. Of the best engineers I have ever worked with, only a few had a PhD or a Master’s degree in CS. Some had degrees in English or music and a good number had no degree at all. In fact, it’s quite amazing that many of the most famous people in software dropped out of college—or maybe that’s just my own confirmation bias playing tricks on me.

I expect the world would be a much happier place if people listened to their Uncle Sturgeon and relied on statistics and biases only when they prove useful. A statistical overview of a population can be helpful when you are deciding how to profitably market your new product or where to spend your campaign dollars or which college recruiting fair to attend. But if you are choosing an umpire for your baseball league or an anchor for your running team or a new hire for your software startup you’d do better to ignore the statistics and hire the individuals with the right skills for the job. To do otherwise is prejudice.

Acceptable Prejudice

Usual disclaimer: discrimination against atheists is pretty tame compared to the discrimination that blacks and jews and gays have historically faced. It’s not like atheists were ever persecuted or excluded from public office [er, you sure? -ed].

Why_Do_Atheists_Hate_America_billboard

This bloggingheads.tv vialog makes the claim that discrimination against atheists is different from other kinds of discrimination in that prejudice against atheists is still seen as acceptable or even desirable whereas, while there is still an awful lot of discrimination against jews, blacks, gays, moslems, fat people and the disabled, the balance of public opinion has passed a tipping point and polite society will condemn it rather than nodding in agreement.

This, from today’s Guardian, illustrates the point nicely.

Conservative anti-gay prejudice was under scrutiny again on Friday after the Welsh secretary, David Jones, was forced to backtrack on an assertion that gay couples “clearly” cannot provide a “warm and safe environment” in which to raise children.

The important part of the story is not that Jones is a homophobe. It’s that he recognizes that it is unacceptable in 2013 to be a homophobe and that he is obliged to circumscribe his prejudices to try to make them acceptable and to walk back any comments that betray what he really thinks.

He even summons his invisible gay friends to vouch for his good faith.

“I regard marriage as an institution that has developed over many centuries, essentially for the provision of a warm and safe environment for the upbringing of children, which is clearly something that two same-sex partners can’t do.

“Which is not to say that I’m in any sense opposed to stable and committed same-sex partnerships.”

He did not believe he was homophobic, insisting he had “people in my life who are important to me who are gay”.

This is big news. Jones’s real crime is to be about 10 years behind public opinion. Back in 2003 it was obvious to most right-thinking people that the gays couldn’t be trusted to bring up children. Now that everyone knows a gay couple who are doing a fine job as parents, those ancient attitudes seem silly.  By contrast, it’s still acceptable to think that atheists are morally inferior or that we need to protect children from them.

Here’s the vialog.

Unfortunately, as long as atheists remain a disparate group with few interests in common (ie. forever. Ricky Gervais says atheists are like a group of people whose hobby is not-skiing) this state of affairs is likely to continue.

Red states, blue states. Makers and takers.

Nate Silver’s column today was about how the tech industry overwhelmingly supported the Dems in the recent election. Obama won 84% of the vote in San Francisco and almost as much in Silicon Valley and the rest of the Bay Area.

Even more striking was the proportion of donations from tech companies that went to the Dems – not just in Silicon Valley but across the nation. The following table shows where donations from employees of the ten most admired tech companies went.

From 538 @ NY Times

Ron Paul received more money from Google employees than Romney did.

Nate Silver focussed on the possible link between donations by techies and the failure of Romney’s data systems, presumably because all the competent techies were working for Obama. It’s far more interesting to me to consider what this pattern of donations says about Romney’s musings on who are the makers and who are takers and how Obama bought his votes with bribes to an underclass of moochers.

Mitt Romney told his top donors Wednesday that his loss toPresident Obama was a disappointing result that neither he or his top aides had expected, but said he believed his team ran a “superb” campaign with “no drama,” and attributed his rival’s victory to “the gifts” the administration had given to blacks, Hispanics and young voters during Obama’s first term.

ThinkProgress

I often wonder how the Republicans explain away Silicon Valley’s and New York’s overwhelming support for the Democrats. Does it interfere with their they-want-to-punish-success explanation that the well-remunerated employees of the most successful companies in the country actually prefer their political opponents? Surely not all of those tech employees are minorities voting for bigger handouts or young women voting for free contraceptives? What does it say about the class warfare narrative when 44% of people earning more than $250,000, voted for the party that wants to raise their taxes? How do they deal with the cognitive dissonance?

While we are on the topic of cognitive dissonance, have the conservatives not noticed that federal spending overwhelmingly flows from blue states to red states?

According to The Economist,

New York transferred over $950 billion to the rest of America’s fiscal union from 1990 to 2009. But relative to the size of its economy, Delaware made the biggest contribution, equivalent to more than twice its 2009 GDP.

Do they not know that marriages are more stable in blue states? Or that rates of drug abuse, teen pregnancy, obesity, drunk driving, armed assaults and poverty are higher in red states than blue states (not to mention European states)? Remind me, which is the party of individual responsibility?

Jeffrey Frankel, Professor of Economics at Harvard (from whom I purloined many of my red state/blue state facts), thinks that the folks who eat most heartily from the federal trough have a gap in their awareness of which groups are the freeloaders and that their politicians help to widen that gap.

The people who suffer the biggest gap between their perceived and actual share of the federal pie are likely to be getting a disproportionate share and yet to believe the opposite. If they believe that others are getting more than they themselves are, they are more likely to buy into the angry belief that other social groups are freeriding on society, and the ideology that government spending is wasteful and needs to be cut back, without realising that this includes the benefits they themselves receive. Perhaps these people are more likely to vote for Republican politicians, who tell them what they want to hear.

I have often wondered, in an odd echo of Romney’s 47% speech, whether the federal system with blue states subsidizing the red states, provides cover for the failings of conservative policies. If the federal government stayed out of healthcare, education, social policies and social security like the tenth amendment says it should, the blue states could experiment with universal healthcare, gay marriage and gun control and the red states could ban abortion, teach abstinence only sex-ed and do away with social security without messing it up for the rest of us.

In the laboratory of democracy, which petri dish would you rather live in?

 

Fun with Guns

 

The first gun I ever fired was a Lee-Enfield, the mainstay of the British Empire for the first half of the 20th century and the weapon of choice of the Sea Cadets. Wikipedia says that our Lee-Enfields were modified to fire .22 rounds but, in my memory, they were the original .303s. Who knows? (Petty Officer Barker, are you out there?)

I have a bunch of medals for shooting. Our Sea Cadet unit (TS Caprice, Bexley SCC), used to compete in tournaments pretty much every other weekend – adventure training, rifle drill, orienteering, rowing, sailing, football. We won almost every time we competed and my medal drawer overfloweth. Shooting was my forte.

I was pretty good at shooting despite the fact that I was – and still am – very short-sighted and, as a self-conscious teenager, never wore my glasses. I won silver in the South-East London shooting contest and gold in the pentathlon (shooting, orienteering, assault course, shot putt and…er … <mumble> something else I don’t remember) and best of all, we got the silver medal twice in a row in the All London Adventure Training competition (codename: Chosin; named for the Battle of Chosin in the Korean War) where we, a team of six fifteen-year-olds, were dropped in the middle of snowy nowhere for a weekend of hiking, camping, shooting and various other activities related to survival in the wilderness.

I also had an air rifle that my godfather gave me. It was already ancient when I got hold of it and the barrel was rusted. It wouldn’t shoot the little pellet thingies but I had fun chewing up bits of paper and shooting them at my dartboard. Once, I wondered whether it would hurt to shoot myself in the foot with a bit of chewed up paper. The answer? Fuck yeah, it hurts! I got a massive blister on my big toe [One day I’ll tell you about my experiment with a super-powerful slingshot, a section of hot wheels track and a dart. Spoiler Alert: it hurt exquisitely and it took me several minutes to pull the dart out of my thumb.]

After I joined the Navy, we fired all the usual Navy weapons. Most of the time we shot the standard issue SLR (self-loading rifle) but we also fired more exotic weapons like LMGs (light-machine guns), SMGs (sub-machine guns) and, once, a 9mm Browning pistol (fun fact: a NAAFI manager with an LMG was credited with shooting down a Mirage with an LMG during the Falkland’s War).

My next gun was a twin-barrelled 30mm BMARC.

This gun was my constant companion for 6 months in 1984/85 while we sailed around and around the Falklands trying to keep the Argies from coming back. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (because I love saying it), the thrill of firing that gun is something I’ll never forget.

Alarm Aircraft! Green 9-0! Elevation 2-2! Starboard guns, engage! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! (20 times per second).

My next gun presented a different kind of thrill. I didn’t get to pull the trigger but I did get to load it. With one shell fired every 2.4 seconds and with two little 18-year-olds – weighing not much more than the 72lb shells that the gun fired – tasked with making sure the firing ring was never empty, you can imagine how much fun it was when the Captain announced

Naval Gunfire Support! 300 rounds. Engage!

I think I still have the bruises on my collar bone from pulling those shells down from the top shelf in the magazine and catching them on my shoulder. With a range of 30,000 yards, the 4.5in Mk8 was the most powerful gun I ever fired but I fired other weapons that were bigger. OK. I didn’t actually fire a torpedo, but I fired practice shots a hundred times and I sat next to a dude who fired one from HMS Revenge. Did you know they were wire-guided? Pretty cool, eh?

I missed out on firing the biggest weapon of all, the Polaris inter-continental ballistic missile, by a few months. My submarine, HMS Revenge, fired a practice missile a few months before I joined her but we fired an uncountable multitude of water shots on my one and only patrol and, each time, I fired a practice torpedo, the theory being that if you fire a polaris missile, every russian submarine within a few hundred miles will hear it and come to try to sink you.

I was the only crew member on HMS Revenge who was also a member of Greenpeace. When the Jimmy made his big speech about how everyone on board had to be totally committed to our mission, three of my messmates had to physically prevent me from going up to the control room to share my reservations about our nuclear deterrent with the captain.

[postscript: odd that my security clearance came up for review right after I joined Greenpeace].

So, despite my history with guns, nothing prepared me for the ongoing love affair that my adopted country has with weaponry of all kinds.

Everyone in the world knows how much Americans like their guns but you don’t really appreciate exactly how much they like them until you get here and talk to people. Otherwise-normal people have some really strange ideas about the appropriate role of guns in society.

The oddest idea is the one that a well-armed citizenry is the last bastion against tyranny. Even some of my most sensible friends believe that one — not just the crazies who think that Obama is a Kenyan, socialist muslim who wants to take their guns as step one in secret conspiracy to introduce Sharia Law and gulags. Even people who can speak in complete sentences.

Put aside, for a moment, the knowledge that the government has kept all the really good weapons for itself, the main flaw in the well-armed citizenry argument, for me, is an emotional one. When I close my eyes and try to imagine what tyranny looks like, the images that scare me the most are the ones that include well-armed citizens and which way they are pointing their guns (HINT: it’s not in the direction of the government). Think of Cambodia, Rwanda, Congo, Bosnia, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan… and picture the folks holding the weapons. Were they the good guys or the bad guys? Any reason to think it might be different in a future American dystopia?

I expect that the mythology concerning well-armed militias grew from a seed of truth planted in 1776 and nurtured by 200 years of 4th grade history. Generations of elementary school kids have been taught that the bad guys from England were repelled by the good guys using long guns hidden in their barns. Not until high school do kids learn that it’s not always so easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

According to Jill Lepore in The New Yorkerit wasn’t until quite recently that the Second Amendment was used to justify gun ownership.

In the two centuries following the adoption of the Bill of Rights, in 1791, no amendment received less attention in the courts than the Second, except the Third. As Adam Winkler, a constitutional-law scholar at U.C.L.A., demonstrates in a remarkably nuanced new book, “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed: Indiana (1820), Tennessee and Virginia (1838), Alabama (1839), and Ohio (1859). Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma.

The idea that the second amendment has something to do with self-defense is an even more recent innovation. A few years back, writer Jonathan Safran Foer wondered how a politician might justify gun ownership without relying on the Second Amendment.

…why, after the massacre at Virginia Tech — hours after — did Sen. John McCain proclaim, “I do believe in the constitutional right that everyone has, in the Second Amendment to the Constitution, to carry a weapon”? Just what is it, precisely, that he believes in? Is it the Constitution itself? (But surely he thinks it was wise to change the Constitution to abolish slavery, give women the vote, end Prohibition and so on?) Or is it the guns themselves that he believes in? It would be refreshing to have a politician try to defend guns without any reference to the Second Amendment, but on the merits of guns. What if, hours after the killings, McCain had stood at the podium and said instead, “Guns are good because . . . “

Why do Americans see guns as intrinsically good when the rest of the civilized world has such a different opinion?

In the rest of his article, Foer, explores a few potential arguments to his rhetorical question, like public safety, a favourite among my gun-toting companions.

Guns are good because they provide the ultimate self-defense? While I’m sure some people believe that having a gun at their bedside will make them safer, they are wrong. This is not my opinion, and it’s not a political or controversial statement. It is a fact. Guns kept in the home for self-protection are 43 times more likely to kill a family member, friend or acquaintance than to kill an intruder, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Guns on the street make us less safe. For every justifiable handgun homicide, there are more than 50 handgun murders, according to the FBI.

After a passionate fireside discussion with some pirates on this subject, I had occasion to look into the statistics regarding gun deaths in the USA. They really are appalling. Check out these stats summarized by NationMaster:

  British Crime stats   American Crime stats
Murders with firearms 14 9,369
DEFINITION: Total recorded intentional homicides committed with a firearm. Crime statistics are often better indicators of prevalence of law enforcement and willingness to report crime, than actual prevalence.
SOURCE: The Eighth United Nations Survey on Crime Trends and the Operations of Criminal Justice Systems (2002) (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Centre for International Crime Prevention)
Ranked 29th. Ranked 1st. 668 times more than United Kingdom
Murders committed by youths 139 8,226
DEFINITION: Homicide rates among youths aged 10–29 years by country or area: most recent year available (variable 1990–1999).
SOURCE: World Health Organization: World report on violence and health, 2002

The numbers are even more appalling when you factor in accidental deaths.

Foer again:

In 2004, more preschoolers than law enforcement officers were killed by firearms, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. The number of children killed by guns in the United States each year is about three times greater than the number of servicemen and women killed annually in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, more children — children– have been killed by guns in the past 25 years than the total number of American fatalities in all wars of the past five decades.

There are several theories for why America is the most violent country in the developed world. The most compelling is that democracy came too early to America. Steven Pinker’s   Better Angels of our Nature points to the state monopoly on violence as a major contributor to the persistent and dramatic decline in violence over the last several thousand years.

The central thesis of “Better Angels” is that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence. The decline in violence holds for violence in the family, in neighborhoods, between tribes and between states. People living now are less likely to meet a violent death, or to suffer from violence or cruelty at the hands of others, than people living in any previous century.

Book review of Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature in the New York Times.

Pinker documents in excruciating detail just how much more peaceful our century is than previous ones (if like me, you are wondering how Pinker explains away the Holocaust and World War I, go read the book. It will answer all your questions, I promise).

Homicide rates per 100,000 people in Europe.

One of the reasons for the decline in violence, as Pinker describes in this article, Why are States so Red and Blue, is that

All societies must deal with the dilemma famously pointed out by Hobbes: in the absence of government, people are tempted to attack one another out of greed, fear and vengeance. European societies, over the centuries, solved this problem as their kings imposed law and order on a medieval patchwork of fiefs ravaged by feuding knights. The happy result was a thirty-fivefold reduction in their homicide rate from the Middle Ages to the present. Once the monarchs pacified the people, the people then had to rein in the monarchs, who had been keeping the peace with arbitrary edicts and gruesome public torture-executions. Beginning in the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, governments were forced to implement democratic procedures, humanitarian reforms and the protection of human rights.

In America, the sequence of events was slightly different.

The historian Pieter Spierenburg has suggested that “democracy came too soon to America,” namely, before the government had disarmed its citizens. Since American governance was more or less democratic from the start, the people could choose not to cede to it the safeguarding of their personal safety but to keep it as their prerogative. The unhappy result of this vigilante justice is that American homicide rates are far higher than those of Europe, and those of the South higher than those of the North.

How much higher?

Quoting Democracy in America at The Economist,

Murder rates are about four times higher in America than in western Europe. And guns are not the only reason; murder by stabbing and clubbing is higher, too. The murder rate is higher among blacks, but American whites are more violent than European whites. The South is America’s most violent region; both blacks and whites in the South are more violent than those in the northeast. In other words, the murder rate is highest in those states that most disdain the sovereign (“government”) and champion self-reliance.

The outlook isn’t all bad though. Even though it seems like liberal politicians are getting ever more cowardly about gun control as the NRA gets ever more powerful, rates of gun ownership are actually falling…

The United States is the country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. (The second highest is Yemen, where the rate is nevertheless only half that of the U.S.) No civilian population is more powerfully armed. Most Americans do not, however, own guns, because three-quarters of people with guns own two or more. According to the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Policy Opinion Center at the University of Chicago, the prevalence of gun ownership has declined steadily in the past few decades. In 1973, there were guns in roughly one in two households in the United States; in 2010, one in three. In 1980, nearly one in three Americans owned a gun; in 2010, that figure had dropped to one in five.

The New Yorker

… and the opinions of gun-owners are diverging from the hard-line positions championed by the NRA.

Gun owners may be more supportive of gun-safety regulations than is the leadership of the N.R.A. According to a 2009 Luntz poll, for instance, requiring mandatory background checks on all purchasers at gun shows is favored not only by eighty-five per cent of gun owners who are not members of the N.R.A. but also by sixty-nine per cent of gun owners who are.

It’ll take a while but I am confident that Americans will eventually succumb to the same civilizing influences that have tamed Europeans’ violent urges.

Every country has, along with its core civilities and traditions, some kind of inner madness, a belief so irrational that even death and destruction cannot alter it. In Europe not long ago it was the belief that “honor” of the nation was so important that any insult to it had to be avenged by millions of lives. In America, it has been, for so long now, the belief that guns designed to kill people indifferently and in great numbers can be widely available and not have it end with people being killed, indifferently and in great numbers.

New Yorker, after the Aurora killings.

I expect that, part of the solution – the transition to a society with fewer guns, will result from the recognition that the second amendment, like all the other amendments, has limits.

From the Supreme Court’s judgment in District of Columbia vs Heller, written by Justice Scalia:

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. Miller’s holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those “in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.

Compassionate Conservatives

I wish it were possible to stay out of the culture wars. But then I go and read something like this:

Halfway through my pregnancy, I learned that my baby was ill. Profoundly so. My doctor gave us the news kindly, but still, my husband and I weren’t prepared. Just a few minutes earlier, we’d been smiling giddily at fellow expectant parents as we waited for the doctor to see us. In a sonography room smelling faintly of lemongrass, I’d just had gel rubbed on my stomach, just seen blots on the screen become tiny hands. For a brief, exultant moment, we’d seen our son—a brother for our 2-year-old girl.

When you vote for laws that restrict abortion, these are the women whose lives you are affecting.

Texas has a new law that requires women to have their baby described to them before they are allowed to have an abortion. Read on to hear what happens when politicians insert themselves between patients and their doctors.

“I’m so sorry that I have to do this,” the doctor told us, “but if I don’t, I can lose my license.” Before he could even start to describe our baby, I began to sob until I could barely breathe. Somewhere, a nurse cranked up the volume on a radio, allowing the inane pronouncements of a DJ to dull the doctor’s voice. Still, despite the noise, I heard him. His unwelcome words echoed off sterile walls while I, trapped on a bed, my feet in stirrups, twisted away from his voice.

“Here I see a well-developed diaphragm and here I see four healthy chambers of the heart…”

I closed my eyes and waited for it to end, as one waits for the car to stop rolling at the end of a terrible accident.

Divided We Fall

I hate the culture wars even or, perhaps, especially when my side is winning.

There are so many interesting points to make for and against a federal mandate that employers provide insurance coverage of contraception.

For example,

  • Using insurance to pay for an entirely predictable cost makes a nonsense of the idea of insurance.
  • Unplanned pregnancies create an economic and moral burden for the individuals involved and for society as a whole. It’s in society’s best interests to minimize that burden by making contraception freely available.
  • The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. The constitution mentions neither healthcare in general nor contraception in particular.
  • It’s empirically more effective and efficient for government to provide free healthcare. Countries that pay for healthcare centrally pay less than the United States pays.
  • It’s asinine that health coverage is tied to employment status.
  • It’s not fair that much of the cost of contraception falls on women.
  • It’s ridiculous that contraception requires a prescription.
  • The less regulations, the better (cetera paribas).

The least interesting point is that forcing employers that happen to be associated with religious institutions to follow the same rules as all other employers might violate the establishment clause.

I especially resent the suggestion that my opinions on all of the above points should align with the opinions of everyone else who wears the same colour tie as me but the main reason I hate the culture war is that it is used so effectively as a tool to divide us.

I don’t want us to be divided and I wish that congress had more of a tradition of allowing free votes on cultural issues the way the UK parliament does.

There are enough issues of substance related to the economy and foreign policy without turning every issue – whether the death penalty is effective or fair, whether it is appropriate to shove probes into vaginas before women are allowed to have abortions, whether we should ban people from marrying each other if they have incompatible parts, whether you are safer in a national park if everyone is packing heat and whether or not you like country music – into a red or a blue issue.

I’m not saying that politicians shouldn’t have an opinion on cultural issues; I’m saying that we shouldn’t pretend that their opinions on cultural issues should be determined by their opinions on the appropriate level of taxation or their views on invading foreign countries.

How Much Would You Pay for the Universe?

If you had asked me, six minutes ago, whether we should spend more money on NASA, I’d’ve said “No. Can’t afford it and it’s not a proper role for government.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s testimony to the Senate may have just changed my mind.

Actual testimony:

The empty seats at the committee table make me think that not many other people were persuaded. They were probably discussing whether mandating contraception coverage violates the establishment clause.

Essence of Republican

By the time I’ve finished this entry, the Iowa results will probably be in and my post will be already out of date. I’ll type quickly.

It seems to me that this year, more than any other time that I remember, the current field of GOP candidates accurately represents the many, many faces and special interests of the Republican party quite completely.  One by one, the republican grandees and commentators that – to me – make the best case for the republican party and conservative policies, are getting thrown out as RINOs and what’s left is pure, distilled essence of republican.  As a result, there is no (credible) candidate who I look at and say, well, I hope he wins. He wouldn’t be too bad. I don’t remember that ever happening before. Worse, each candidate seems to represent some kind of grotesque archetype – a liberal caricature of a GOP politician.

The front runner represents Big Money. In liberal propaganda, Big Money is the core constituency of the party – all the other constituencies were bolted on later to make up for the fact that the Big Money constituency is too small to be a powerful force… if they didn’t have all that money, anyway.

There is the edge-of-sanity libertarian. I personally find the basic ideas of libertarian thinking very appealing but, for some reason, the basic libertarian ideas aren’t good enough for people who make a career out of libertarian politics. The good ideas have to be rolled up in a big ball of crazy before they are ready to be rolled out on the national stage. The best thing you can say is that at least you can believe what he says – unlike the previous guy. I still don’t get why libertarians think they belong with the religious conservatives. I’m eager to see this riddle solved.

There is also the crony capitalist, the-object-of-power-is-power insider who seems (to this outsider) to be the antithesis of everything that republicans say they stand for. But, hey! He talks a good game and has proven – more than all the others – his partisan credentials. If a win-at-all-costs brawler is what you look for in a president, then this is your guy.

The apocalypse-is-nigh vote is actually split this year. One is just a straight-down-the-line religious conservative who genuinely seems to speak for the largest republican constituency: poor, uneducated white folks. The other just froths (and scares me a little). A win for one of these guys might finally resolve the What’s the Matter with Kansas? tension that has been bugging liberals for years.

Then there is the good old boy. When liberals close their eyes and imagine the face of the republican party, this is who they see – and they are a little bit afraid. Maybe those folks should be allowed to secede after all. They are not quite like us.

Last and, for once, least there is the guy who seems to stand for old-fashioned, sensible, conservative thinking which, of course, dooms him to obscurity.

I should probably also mention the fallen heroes of the race. There’s always one candidate who tries to be jes’ regular folks. They always fail spectacularly. Celebrity clowns are rarer.

I’m poorly qualified to comment on what republicans should be looking for in a presidential candidate and I’ve never really understood what makes libertarians find common ground with social conservatives and wall street types and the Christian right. I think this is the election where the republicans finally make up their mind. Are we for government intrusion into people’s private lives? Or are we against it? Are we serious about this deficit reduction thing? Or not? Do we really think massive cuts in entitlements (and taxes!) will make America a better place? Or is that just smoke and cover for rich-get-richer policies? Do we really care about the breakdown in family values or are we going to choose the serial adulterer? Will true believer Christians vote for a – erm – unorthodox believer? And, most fundamentally, do libertarians, social conservatives and big business belong together in the same party?

We are gonna learn the answers to all these questions and more soon, I hope. I’m excited (and just a little bit scared) to find out.

 

President of my Dreams

I’ve been reading a lot recently about how leftists are supposedly disappointed with Obama because he was not leftist enough and centrists are disappointed because he was not centrist enough. I’m disappointed, but none of that rings true with me, perhaps because I am neither a leftist nor a centrist and my criticism of Obama does not lie along that axis.

Most critics of the critics, like Chait in New York Magazine, rattle off a list of accomplishments that Obama achieved and that liberals should be grateful for. It’s the usual list of left-leaning wishes like health care reform and the draw-down in Iraq that allegedly could not have been achieved by anyone else but, still, none of that addresses my dissatisfaction.

In the centre, conservatives like David Brooks and Douthat claim that centrists are disappointed that Obama wasted his time on health care when he should’ve been focussing on the economy but, nope, that’s not it either.

Conor Friedersdorf comes closer with his continuing observations that Obama has institutionalized some of the Bush/Cheney excesses like starting wars without congressional approval (even wars that I, in principle, might approve of) and the detention and even assassination of american citizens without judicial or congressional oversight. That comes closer to the source of my discontent but it still misses the mark.

An insidious version of the we were dupes narrative says that we, fools all, projected our hopes and dreams on Obama who, like the Mirror of Erised, reflected them back at us. Instead of supporting Obama, we were supporting idealized versions of ourselves. Our disappointment was inevitable when we found that Obama fell short of our impossible aspirations. This narrative infuriates me but I struggle to explain why it does not apply in my case.

Until today, even I could not have articulated where Obama fell short of my expectations. You could’ve listed all the obvious accomplishments and advances and I would have nodded but said… yes……but….but…

Today, Friedersdorf hit the nail firmly on the head.

Here’s Obama circa 2008, via Lawrence Lessig, via Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic:

“If we do not change our politics — if we do not fundamentally change the way Washington works — then the problems we’ve been talking about for the last generation will be the same ones that haunt us for generations to come.”

“But let me be clear — this isn’t just about ending the failed policies of the Bush years; it’s about ending the failed system in Washington that produces those policies. For far too long, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, Washington has allowed Wall Street to use lobbyists and campaign contributions to rig the system and get its way, no matter what it costs ordinary Americans.”

“We are up against the belief that it’s all right for lobbyists to dominate our government–that they are just part of the system in Washington. But we know that the undue influence of lobbyists is part of the problem, and this election is our chance to say that we’re not going to let them stand in our way anymore. Unless we’re willing to challenge the broken system in Washington, and stop letting lobbyists use their clout to get their way, nothing else is going to change.”

“Unless we’re willing to challenge the broken system in Washington, and stop letting lobbyists use their clout to get their way, nothing else is going to change.”
“If we’re not willing to take up that fight, then real change–change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans–will keep getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo.”

And here’s Lessig’s version of Obama’s promise:

I was convinced by Obama. More than convinced: totally won over. It wasn’t just that I agreed with his policies. Indeed, I didn’t really agree with a bunch of his policies–he’s much more of a centrist on many issues than I. It was instead because I believed that he had a vision of what was wrong with our government, and a passion and commitment to fix it… In speech after speech, Obama described the problem of Washington just as I have, though with a style that is much more compelling.

This is it exactly.

When Obama took the throne he was overwhelmingly popular and he could’ve used some of that popularity to hold congress’s feet to the fire to bring about some change we could believe in. He didn’t.

Starting with the stimulus bill and continuing through the long-drawn out health care bill everything was passed with the usual scuzzy compromises – the special deals for the conservative democrats in the mountain states and the reach around for the public sector unions.

He campaigned heavily through the primaries and the general on ending the Bush tax cuts for those earning more than a quarter of a million dollars and on closing Guantanamo. On both those issues, it wasn’t the evil pubbies who did him in, it was the craven politicking in his own party. Either could’ve been a good moment to show that things would be different in Washington. He could’ve whipped out some soaring rhetoric on the presidential megaphone and marshalled some of his popularity into heat for Pelosi and Reid. Instead he played it safe and let the political wheels spin.

In the end his popularity just leached away. What a waste! Instead of investing his political capital in good causes, he hoarded it like a miser. If he had spent some of it to bring the changes he promised, he would have earned interest on his investment ten-fold. Instead he let it moulder in his safety deposit box where it eventually withered away.

The biggest tragedy of all was the way he let the pubbies win the war of words over health care reform. How on earth were the pubbies able to distort a message about controlling healthcare costs into a story about pulling the plug on grandma? Since when have republicans cared about grandmas? Leaving responsibility for selling health care reform in the mouths of Pelosi and Reid was negligence of the worst kind.

Still, if the economy picks up a bit over the next year, I expect he’ll be re-elected. This time around, instead of soaring rhetoric, I expect he’ll pull out the dirty tricks. People will still pull the lever for him with heavy sigh that at least he’s not as bad as the other guy.

/heavy sigh. Time to renew my green card.

“If we do not change our politics — if we do not fundamentally change the way Washington works — then the problems we’ve been talking about for the last generation will be the same ones that haunt us for generations to come.”

– Barack Obama, 2008