Recent Articles

Retired Justice Stevens: Add five words to the Second Amendment

| April 12, 2014 | 1 Reply

In recent years, court decisions concerning the Second Amendment have lost any attachment to the “militia,” making the mention of “militia” in the amendment superfluous. Justice Stevens, who retired from the United States Supreme Court in 2010 recommends that we reestablish that connection by adding five words to the Amendment:

As a result of the rulings in Heller and McDonald, the Second Amendment, which was adopted to protect the states from federal interference with their power to ensure that their militias were “well regulated,” has given federal judges the ultimate power to determine the validity of state regulations of both civilian and militia-related uses of arms. That anomalous result can be avoided by adding five words to the text of the Second Amendment to make it unambiguously conform to the original intent of its draftsmen. As so amended, it would read:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”

Emotional claims that the right to possess deadly weapons is so important that it is protected by the federal Constitution distort intelligent debate about the wisdom of particular aspects of proposed legislation designed to minimize the slaughter caused by the prevalence of guns in private hands. Those emotional arguments would be nullified by the adoption of my proposed amendment. The amendment certainly would not silence the powerful voice of the gun lobby; it would merely eliminate its ability to advance one mistaken argument.

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Conversing in a public library

| April 12, 2014 | Reply

Once a month I teach English as a Second Language at the St. Louis Public Library. I’m assigned a small corner of a big library and I teach English conversational skills to a group of up to eight adults at a time, people from all over the world. During this afternoon’s class, a group of talkative men sat 20 feet away from our table. They weren’t part of any group, just guys talking with each other. Those men made it somewhat difficult for my students to hear each other, forcing us to be louder than normal. Eventually the Library Security Guard briskly walked up to the table where I was teaching and told my class to stop talking. I told him I was teaching ESL, but he said he didn’t care. He told me to quit talking. I showed him the sign designating our space (see the photo – “Conversation Practice”) and told him “It is my JOB to converse with these students.” He said that if I didn’t stop talking he would throw all of us out of the library.

ESL sign

I found the librarian in charge, convincing him that the unauthorized loud talkers nearby should be quiet, so that we could continue with our class. Eventually, the librarian agreed while the security guard sulked. My English conversation lesson for the next 15 minutes was focused on making fun of the ignoramus security guard.

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David Koch’s 1980 Insane Libertarian Platform

| April 11, 2014 | Reply

When he ran for VP of the United States, David Koch wanted to outlaw mandatory seatbelts, and a whole lot more insanity.  This is free market fundamentalism at its absolute destructive worst.

Here are some more positions he took (this list is from the Office of Bernie Sanders):

Here are just a few excerpts of the Libertarian Party platform that David Koch ran on in 1980:
“We urge the repeal of federal campaign finance laws, and the immediate abolition of the despotic Federal Election Commission.”

“We favor the abolition of Medicare and Medicaid programs.”

“We oppose any compulsory insurance or tax-supported plan to provide health services, including those which finance abortion services.”

“We also favor the deregulation of the medical insurance industry.”

“We favor the repeal of the fraudulent, virtually bankrupt, and increasingly oppressive Social Security system. Pending that repeal, participation in Social Security should be made voluntary.”

“We propose the abolition of the governmental Postal Service. The present system, in addition to being inefficient, encourages governmental surveillance of private correspondence. Pending abolition, we call for an end to the monopoly system and for allowing free competition in all aspects of postal service.”

“We oppose all personal and corporate income taxation, including capital gains taxes.”

“We support the eventual repeal of all taxation.”

“As an interim measure, all criminal and civil sanctions against tax evasion should be terminated immediately.”

“We support repeal of all law which impede the ability of any person to find employment, such as minimum wage laws.”

“We advocate the complete separation of education and State. Government schools lead to the indoctrination of children and interfere with the free choice of individuals. Government ownership, operation, regulation, and subsidy of schools and colleges should be ended.”

“We condemn compulsory education laws … and we call for the immediate repeal of such laws.”

“We support the repeal of all taxes on the income or property of private schools, whether profit or non-profit.”

“We support the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency.”

“We support abolition of the Department of Energy.”

“We call for the dissolution of all government agencies concerned with transportation, including the Department of Transportation.”

“We demand the return of America’s railroad system to private ownership. We call for the privatization of the public roads and national highway system.”

“We specifically oppose laws requiring an individual to buy or use so-called “self-protection” equipment such as safety belts, air bags, or crash helmets.”

“We advocate the abolition of the Federal Aviation Administration.”

“We advocate the abolition of the Food and Drug Administration.”

“We support an end to all subsidies for child-bearing built into our present laws, including all welfare plans and the provision of tax-supported services for children.”

“We oppose all government welfare, relief projects, and ‘aid to the poor’ programs. All these government programs are privacy-invading, paternalistic, demeaning, and inefficient. The proper source of help for such persons is the voluntary efforts of private groups and individuals.”

“We call for the privatization of the inland waterways, and of the distribution system that brings water to industry, agriculture and households.”

“We call for the repeal of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.”

“We call for the abolition of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.”

“We support the repeal of all state usury laws.”

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New on PBS: Neil Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish.”

| April 10, 2014 | Reply

Back in 2008, I read Neil Shubin’s book, “Your Inner Fish.” I posted on it here. PBS has worked with Shubin to present a documentary that covers and expands on Shubin’s work. What a great compliment to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos. You won’t want to miss this. It’s a story about plasticity, about how your body is bursting with evidence of your animal ancestors.  Another reason to watch this: Shubin’s enthusiasm is contagious.

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Why atheists need (parts of) religions

| April 9, 2014 | Reply

According to Alain De Botton, Atheists should steal the best parts about religion and ignore the rest. If religions are, indeed, cultural products, things made by humans, then there is nothing wrong about atheists selecting the good things offered by each of religion and leaving the rest. “Pick and mix” without guilt as we do with any other creations of culture. “We naturally rifle through the buffet of cultures.” We can create our own cultural “playlist” and this can include some things offered by religions. At the 7 min mark, De Botton mentions that he likes the perspective of education that it is more than an attempt to feed the capitalist machine, but we also value it insofar that it makes us “better persons.” Check out the 10 minute mark, where he criticizes the common view that education can be narrowly construed because it is ASSUMED that we all know how to navigate the ethical dilemmas of life–he criticizes the view that proper university academics don’t soil themselves with the notion of how to live a good life. Religions take a very different view — that we are all broken creatures barely holding it together and we need constant help and guidance. Consider the notion of original sin, that we are all fragile and broken. DeBotton doesn’t agree with most of the advice religion offers regarding this fragility, but he agrees that we are all largely in the dark, struggling with what we should be doing with our lives, and it is important to recognize the human condition as such.

At 14:30, he touches on weakness of will, the fact that we are so often unwilling or unable to conform our behavior to what we know we should be doing. Religions recognize this as part of the human condition, and offer suggestions for strengthening the will. Secular approaches scoff at the repetition of moral lessons encouraged by religions, assuming that once you “learn” something there is no need to revisit it. But, as he points out, we are incredibly forgetful beings, and we need repetition. “Our minds are like sieves.” We totally forget the inspiring books and movies we read and see. Many of our ideas are “theoretical possibilities that get left along the wayside.”

Religions reinforce their central ideas through repetitive rituals. An example is the springtime ritual of Judaism, Zen Buddhism offer calmness in the form of an annual appointment whereby one is looks and celebrates the moon to put life in perspective.

Another mechanism for reinforcing is the repetitive oratory of religion, which often drives in the message deeply with an emotionally engaged audience, especially compared to the “dry oratory” of academia. (min 21).

I’m only at the 25 min mark, but I’m very much enjoying this presentation. De Botton offers many clearly expressed ideas delivered with humor and conviction.

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Asymmetrical tribal blindness

| April 8, 2014 | Reply

Paul Krugman writes:

[P]eople understand the world in ways that suit their tribal identities: in controlled experiments both conservatives and liberals systematically misread facts in a way that confirms their biases. And more information doesn’t help: people screen out or discount facts that don’t fit their worldview. Politics, as he says, makes us stupid. But here’s the thing: the lived experience is that this effect is not, in fact, symmetric between liberals and conservatives. Yes, liberals are sometimes subject to bouts of wishful thinking. But can anyone point to a liberal equivalent of conservative denial of climate change, or the “unskewing” mania late in the 2012 campaign, or the frantic efforts to deny that Obamacare is in fact covering a lot of previously uninsured Americans? I don’t mean liberals taking positions you personally disagree with — I mean examples of overwhelming rejection of something that shouldn’t even be in dispute.

At this point, I tend to agree with Krugman that more conservatives go way off the charts, but I also know many liberals that go way off the charts. Confirmation bias strikes people of all political stripes. When Obama engages in illegal wars, spies on Americans, prosecutes more people under the Espionage Act than all prior presidents combined, most liberals are silent, and even pissed to hear the criticism. I’ve also heard things like the following from liberals, with my own ears:

  • Extending benefits for the unemployed don’t disincentivize looking for work.
  • The fact that many women make less than many men is SOLELY because of gender discrimination.
  • People have “free will,” and the standard social science model (SSSM) is proven true.
  • That people NEVER choose homosexuality, that it is ALWAYS inborn.
  • That Jesus was born of a virgin.
  • That sentient beings from outer space are living on Earth.
  • That it presents no risk to the U.S. economy to borrow or print massive amounts of money.
  • That Hillary Clinton is without any faults.
  • That taking vacations on public transit (planes and trains) is not contributing to global warming.
  • That ALL men are at risk to commit rape.
  • That homeopathy and other health fads and supposed cures that have not passed double-blinds studies are “proven effective.”

You get the idea. I don’t hear these (and similar liberal silliness) as much as I hear conservative silliness, but I hear a lot of silliness out of the mouths people from all political persuasions. I will agree with Krugman, that conservatives are more prone to certain types of false statements, and his suggestions for why are intriguing:

One possible answer would be that liberals and conservatives are very different kinds of people — that liberalism goes along with a skeptical, doubting — even self-doubting — frame of mind; “a liberal is someone who won’t take his own side in an argument.” Another possible answer is that it’s institutional, that liberals don’t have the same kind of monolithic, oligarch-financed network of media organizations and think tanks as the right.

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Formula for Predicting case outcomes at the United States Supreme Court

| April 8, 2014 | Reply

At Truthout, Mike Lofgren concludes that the formula for predicting future case outcomes of the United States Supreme Court is simple and that references to the Constitution are merely smokescreen. Roberts is well aware of this bait and switch: “Roberts is wise enough to know that and is wise enough to conceal his hand with occasional strategic references to the free speech or free exercise clauses in the First Amendment.” Instead of really upholding constitutional rights, the Roberts court Lofgren states that the cases are results oriented; they are about upholding the superior political privileges of rich interests in society. The unspoken basis is “freedom of contract notion (without government restrictions), from which many subsequent pro-corporation decisions have flowed, the court’s majority was basing its decision on economic ideology rather than constitutional interpretation.”

The Court’s recent ultra-narrow definition of “corruption” is a case in point. [More . . . ]

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Time to Amend the Constitution to deal properly with Campaign Finance Reform

| April 7, 2014 | Reply

What can we do about Citizens United and its progeny (including McCutcheon)? Many are now thinking that there is no well-intentioned law that the United States Supreme Court won’t destroy given the majority’s allegiance to the Chamber of Commerce.   Constitutional scholar Larry Tribe has proposed this constitutional amendment:

Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to forbid Congress or the states from imposing content-neutral limitations on private campaign contributions or independent political campaign expenditures. Nor shall this Constitution prevent Congress or the states from enacting systems of public campaign financing, including those designed to restrict the influence of private wealth by offsetting campaign spending or independent expenditures with increased public funding.

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The myth of working one’s way through college

| April 6, 2014 | Reply

What does it take to earn one’s way through college? From the Atlantic, some stunning numbers:

[Olsen] added a linear regression analysis to extrapolate the stats for 1979-2013, and found that the average student in 1979 could work 182 hours (a part-time summer job) to pay for a year’s tuition. In 2013, it took 991 hours (a full-time job for half the year) to accomplish the same.

And this is only considering the cost of tuition, which is hardly an accurate representation of what students actually spend for college. According to the College Board, average room and board fees at public universities today exceed tuition costs by a little more than 100 percent. (For the current academic year, average tuition at 4-year public schools is $8,893, but with room and board, the total average cost comes to $18,391.)

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