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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Please, Disagree With Me!

February 3, 2014 Leave a comment

ImageI write a semi-regular blog on the Skeptoid website, as well as post regular musings and ramblings on Twitter and Facebook. In these writings, I am usually inspired by some set of data. As a scientist, data is something that removes much of the bias we carry as humans. Even if the data analysis or the conclusions drawn are manipulated, the raw data is harder to manipulate. Yes, people can outright lie, or can use poor data collection or design a poor test, but that is usually revealed by the design itself, or data from someone else. So I always use this as my core in forming my beliefs and opinions.

Over the last year, I have had people unfollow me on Facebook and Twitter over my opinions. I do come across strong in my conclusions. If you don’t know that about me – please take this as your notice. It catches people off-guard at times. It can offend them. Please just know that is in almost every case not my intent. I want to learn new things. I post things because I want them to be challenged. I also am not going to simply accept your conclusion because you say it. I am going to need convincing. It needs to be logical. It needs to have supporting data. I don’t hate you nor do I mean to offend you. Let’s talk. And if we don’t agree – then we don’t. I bet on many other things we do agree.

I often get classified politically as a bad libertarian. It fits pretty well. The ideology of being libertarian makes the society as a whole stronger. But I also believe the weakest of the society would be left far behind if we followed those ideals perfectly. So to me I always fight the liberal part of me and the libertarian part of me. The hardest part is in many cases, we don’t have good data on what would work best, only economic theories which simply cannot account for all variations of real-life. So I’m a bad libertarian. I’m ok with that.

I have changed my opinion on many things over the years. I used to think we should punish drug users and sellers more. Now, after seeing the data and understanding the idea of personal freedom – I understand that drugs, while still harmful, should be legal. What should be illegal is putting others in a potentially harmful situation because of drugs (driving while under the influence for example). So I am for stopping this insane war on drugs. That’s a huge turn-around for me.  I used to think we should ban violent video games (we have plenty of data showing it doesn’t affect crime). I have a number of positions that have changed over the years – because I enjoy learning.

So yes, my mind can be changed. But it can’t be changed if you won’t talk about it. I can be swayed by good data. I can be swayed by good logic. It might take some time. If you really feel you need to unfollow me because we disagree – then that is your personal choice. I for one would love to have a reasonable conversation about our disagreement. We may not come to an agreement, but maybe we will better understand our own position. We can try again another day.

Oh – and I know I ramble sometimes. I hope you can like me for who I am. 

Honesty in political speak.

June 26, 2011 Leave a comment

The English language can be tricky. I’ve heard some interesting news stories the last few days that have me thinking about political speech. What gets me irritated about political speech is how words get so twisted, the politicians can deny lying or breaking their political promises by stretching the base meaning of a word far beyond its normal limits.

The first words I want to discuss are “deficit” and “cut.” In state politics, the word cut has come to mean we didn’t get exactly what we wanted. The word deficit means we planned on spending more than what we are going to take in for taxes. When a state sets a budget (such as in Minnesota or Wisconsin), they set spending every 2 years based on revenue projections from the various state agencies that take care of such things. Because most state constitutions require a balanced budget, each budget cycle can only spend what it is projected to take in. When these budgets are set, they also include a set of future projections based on economic forecasts and whatever other variables the state law dictates be calculated into the budget formula. Minnesota has a “deficit” for the next budget biennium because the last budget projected spending approximately $36 billion dollars, but as this year came into better focus the state was projected to collect approximately $34 billion dollars. In state politics, it’s called a deficit. But, if the actual dollar budget were set at the same level from 2 years ago, there is no budget shortfall. Is that a deficit?

On the word cut, it follows a similar vein. We call it a “cut” to a department (education, health and human services) when we don’t give as much money to the department as the expected. They could even get more money, but if it isn’t as much we call it a cut. Let’s say we expected to give education $10 billion dollars this biennium. Let’s say last biennium their budget was $8 billion. If we end up giving them $9 billion, they would call that a 10% cut. In reality, they got a 12.5% increase. If you are expecting a 20% raise from work and only get a 5% raise, did work “cut” your pay? By disguising funding under the word cut of a projected increase, we create dishonesty. It is important to know the real dollar amounts – because that then brings accountability.

“Economic Benefit” is another term that makes me crazy. The Vikings stadium continues to percolate to the top of Minnesota politics. We continue to stress the economic benefit. Who benefits? This one gets very complex, but look at a few aspects. If Minnesota/Hennepin County hadn’t helped build Target Field, what would have happened? Ticket prices go higher than they are? Players get paid less? After the stadium was completed, the Twins saw a 30% increase in their value (if sold to another owner). So was it worth it?

Education. Well, learning is good, so education must be good. We have to be careful here as well. We can probably all provide anecdotes of bad teachers, bad classes in college, or news stories we’ve come across about our standing in the world when it comes to education. Cutting education funding alone isn’t going to solve this problem. Neither is throwing more money at it. We spend almost $12,000 per student per year in K-12 in the United States. That is a 360% increase since 1960 according to the Department of Education. Are we getting what we pay for? Over 50% of student attending Minnesota State, Mankato have to take remedial math as a condition of enrollment. Over 50% have to take pre-algebra in college. K-12 isn’t working. In Minneapolis, the per pupil cost is over $16,000 per student per year, while in Edina the per pupil cost is $12,000 per year.

My point is more money alone isn’t going to help. In fact it might not be what is needed at all. I know Edina parents have more resources than Minneapolis parents on average. But $4,000 extra per student is alot of money, and yet students in Edina still perform better. We need a plan, then we can calculate the cost. We need to find a way to get students and parents to understand the value of education. One example, let’s stop gearing all of high school to college prep (see above, we can’t even do that well). Maybe it is time to bring the trades back into the schools. The average age of a labor force is now over 40 years old. We are going to need people skilled in trades. Maybe it is time to rethink college, reducing the liberal arts education and concentrating more on the needed skills. Perhaps a more integrated approach in college would be beneficial. Whatever the approach, we need to demand results for our tax dollars and not just hand out more money for more of the same.

My overall point here is stop for a moment when you hear political speech and don’t let words like “cut,” “education,” “health care,” etc. get you worked up. Instead, try your best to understand it. Look at what both parties are saying. Do some research. And make the best decision you can. Don’t jump to conclusions.

Logical Fallacies in Politics

June 1, 2011 Leave a comment

I am still seeing two issues come across the news and social media quite a bit in regards to Minnesota politics. One is the lack of a budget (vetoed by Gov. Dayton)/upcoming special session/tax rates. The other is the gay marriage amendment. My idea here today is to show how rampant the use of logical fallacies in defending each side, and to give a lesson on common logical fallacies so we can all spot them and make more informed decisions.

One of my favorite podcasts is The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. Their website carries a great explanation on what is a logical fallacy:

All arguments have the same basic structure: A therefore B. They begin with one or more premises (A), which is a fact or assumption upon which the argument is based. They then apply a logical principle (therefore) to arrive at a conclusion (B). An example of a logical principle is that of equivalence. For example, if you begin with the premises that A=B and B=C, you can apply the logical principle of equivalence to conclude that A=C. A logical fallacy is a false or incorrect logical principle. An argument that is based upon a logical fallacy is therefore not valid. It is important to note that if the logic of an argument is valid then the conclusion must also be valid, which means that if the premises are all true then the conclusion must also be true. Valid logic applied to one or more false premises, however, leads to an invalid argument. Also, if an argument is not valid the conclusion may, by chance, still be true.

Most of us will be guilty of using logical fallacies often. I am guilty of it myself, but for most of us it is done by accident. It takes reflection and discussion to uncover the fallacies and form a more sound, logical argument. Politicians are guilty of using logical fallacies purposely to advance their personal or party views.

Here is an egregious logic fallacy committed by AFSCME. The key statement here is this:

The Republican majorities are choosing to protect the richest 2 percent. They’re making sure these households – making $300,000 or more – don’t have to do their share to fix the state’s budget problems.

This claim falls under a few different categories. The first would be a False Dilemma. AFSCME’s assumption here is the only way to solve the state’s budget problems is to raise taxes on the rich. I haven’t looked at the budget in detail, but my understanding is the budget vetoed by Gov. Dayton was roughly a 6% increase in spending (with no tax increases). According to the BLS, inflation from 2010 was under 3%. If inflation stays at the same pace, then the 6% increase in dollars is a true increase in spending as well since the extra dollars should be able to buy more even when considering inflation. So is the state’s budget truly dire when we can increase spending without a tax increase? Yes, I know this could be construed as it’s own logical fallacy since government is only one sector of the economy and it is possible inflation in those sectors is much higher. The counter-argument to that is to then ask why is inflation higher in those sectors since the government is so heavily invested in those certain sectors of the economy, it could be partially due to their own doing.

The second fallacy of AFSCME’s statement is an example of an Appeal to Emotion, more specifically an Appeal to Spite. Saying the GOP is “protecting” the rich is a way of inciting an emotional class warfare. These people have way more than most people, and that “isn’t fair.” You could even say this is an Ad Hominem attack, saying the GOP’s position is wrong simply because they are protecting those people which most people hate.

Finally, AFSCME uses an Appeal to Belief that the rich don’t pay a fair share of taxes. Statistics on the federal level are readily available and reported. The top 1% of income earners pay 40% of federal income taxes and the top 5% of income earners pay 60% of federal income tax. The democrats want to tax the top 2% of Minnesota incomes on the premise that they don’t pay enough. Think of an analogous situation: If 100 people are in a bar and in total ring up a $5000 bar tab. 1 person in the bar pays $2000, 4 more people pay another $1000, leaving the rest of the people in the bar to pay just over $21, even though the average bar bill was $50. Did the first 5 people pay their fair share? Let’s say they each drove away in a Bentley, would you then feel cheated by how much of the bar bill they paid? Maybe you could make a moral argument that they should pay more, but claiming they didn’t even pay a fair share is simply a bad conclusion.

In the gay marriage amendment debate, I have heard 2 arguments for passing a gay marriage ban. The first one is the idea that being homosexual is biologically unnatural because it doesn’t lead to procreation and that it would be like saying “sand is food.” Human psychology and physiology is much more complex than simple procreation. While it is true that humans are animals and sex is mostly about procreation, Wikipedia has a great summary showing examples in other animals where sex is more than just a mechanism for procreation. To get very basic, it is unnatural for human males to be with only one partner in marriage. In many large mammal species, the biggest and strongest males get to breed with several females to best ensure the survival of the species. Another example where we go “against biology” is when men shave their face or women shave their legs. Biology intended that hair to be for warmth and protection. Should we ban shaving too because it is “biologically unnatural?”

Yes, that last question is a Straw Man argument, but I was employing it in this case as an exaggeration to prove a point that the “sand is food” argument is also the same type of argument. Homosexuality isn’t a biological “wrong” and cannot be explained that way. There are layers of biology, psychology, and other reasons beyond a simple “yes or no” explanation. So the “sand is food” argument doesn’t prove anything.

The other argument used is the past history of voting on this issue in the U.S. I haven’t looked at each vote and what was specifically addressed, but the claim is 34 votes banning gay marriage have taken place and all have had the outcome of supporting a ban. This is wrong based on both the Appeal to Popularity fallacy, as well as the Appeal to Common Practice fallacy. This is easy to explain. I am sure everyone remembers a parent saying to you, “If friend A and B jump off a bridge, are you going to as well?” Just because something is popular or has always been done doesn’t automatically make the position or action correct.

Both major parties are horrible at explaining their logic and presenting evidence for their positions on issues. Most usually want to ignore past data to support an idealistic position that is popular. For example, raising taxes on the rich sounds like a great idea in theory, but it never comes out in practice because we ignore the fact people will adjust their behavior to derive maximum benefit for the amount of work they do. It is human nature. If we taxed every dollar above $1 million at 95%, do you think many people are going to work much past that $1 million mark? Stated another way, if I make $1 million for working 6 months out of the year and make $2 million if I work 12 months, but I keep $500,000 if I work 6 months and keep $550,000 to work 12 months, how many months do you think I am going to work?

My example above doesn’t mean a tax increase isn’t warranted in this budget cycle. Maybe it does need to be part of the solution. But to say tax increases on the rich are always justified is wrong. It is also wrong to assume raising taxes will raise the revenue needed to solve the budget concerns.

If the GOP gets its budget passed in Minnesota, it does look like some people are going to lose their access to the social programs they rely on. That could affect them negatively in the short-term. However, we can’t simply look at the first layer of the consequences in a government policy and make our political decisions based on those outcomes. Taxing the rich gains us money in the short-term, but what if that change prompts a corporation to relocate? What if the rich work less or change their investments and the revenue doesn’t pan out to the projected amounts? What if a person dies due to lack of coverage?

As callous as it sounds, we do have to look at the cost/benefit in these decisions. People die more often because of the 70 MPH speed limit on the interstates in Minnesota than they would if the speed limit were 40 MPH. The higher speed limit saves everyone time (and time is money), thus costing less to transport goods, giving us more time for production, etc. We have chosen to set the speed limit at a reasonable human cost in balance with our own financial interest. Most insurance policies have a co-pay to prevent unnecessary trips to the doctor. Maybe someone skips going to the doctor because they think they just have a mild flu (rather than pay the $20) and end up dying when their infection quickly worsens. (Yes, this is more anecdotal because it is harder to quantify scientifically, but I thought it made some sense to discuss here).

Hopefully you are still reading and didn’t get too bored with some basic insights on logic. My point is to stress the importance of analyzing your political positions carefully, especially if you are perfectly aligned with the ideals of a particular political party. Be especially wary if your party or candidate uses an Ad Hominem Tu Quoque attack, where the attack is simply based on the fact the opponent changed their mind. Use your mind, think logically, discuss with a measured reason, and don’t be afraid to change your mind.

The ability to debate gay marriage.

May 22, 2011 1 comment

I was tweeting pretty heavily tonight, mostly trying to understand both sides of the gay marriage amendment here in Minnesota. Early this morning, the measure passed and will appear on the ballot in 2012. I once again want to point out how both sides have really failed to clearly define government’s role on this subject. I also want to point out the arguments for and against the amendment that I have yet to get an answer to.

Typically, this is an issue that falls along party lines. The Democrats in the Minnesota House gave passionate speeches, some shedding tears and talking about discrimination. It is not personal discrimination as I see it. A gay couple with some planning can enter into a contract with each other that would be able to mimic a marriage as the law in Minnesota treats it. The name of the contract is different (it couldn’t be called a marriage contract), but it would still act much like a marriage. So in reality, it is the definition that is taken away.

This is, however, is contract discrimination. Marriage is defined in Minnesota as, “Marriage, so far as its validity in law is concerned, is a civil contract between a man and a woman…” First, imagine if you inserted a race description before man and/or woman. Those races excluded from the law could still enter a contract as up above, but for the government to pick and choose what type of people can enter this specially defined “civil contract” is outside of the very essence of the United States Constitution which gives us the freedom to associate with who we wish. The argument that a gay couple could draw up a contract that mirrors marriage law cannot cover all things because other laws refer to marriage specifically. Also, if marriage law changes, the contract wouldn’t automatically adjust to those changes. The DFL in Minnesota should have argued it from this more specific point.

I also find the emotional outpouring from the Democrats a bit disingenuous. The law was modified in 1977 to include the phrase “between a man and a woman…” It was further modified in 1997 to add another phrase “ Lawful marriage may be contracted only between persons of the opposite sex…” If the democrats were so concerned about the rights for homosexual couples, why didn’t they do something to remove this language for the many sessions where they held a majority? It concerns me that their passion is a political points passion, and not a genuine concern for gay couples.

From the conservative side, I heard a few different arguments. A couple of Twitter users had civil discussions with me 140 characters at a time, but I found some of my questions went unanswered. The main argument was “let the voters of Minnesota decide.” That was probably the strongest argument. The issue I have is it is so specific and if the amendment fails, it doesn’t change the existing law nor does it prevent it from coming up again. This argument seems to really be an attempt to mask the religious motivation for proposing this amendment.

One Twitter user wrote, “The gay marriage crowd has it’s work cut out convincing people that sand is food,” referring to the assertion that homosexuality is “unnatural” biologically. This is what you might call a “straw man” argument. If one were to extend this idea, should we ban everything that is not biologically natural? Should it be illegal to eat sand? It is readily apparent that arguing from this position is silly. Homosexuality is very common in the animal kingdom. The only counter-argument I saw to this was that animals have also been known to advance on inanimate objects. While that fact is true, it doesn’t negate the occurrence in nature, including in humans long before Christianity. Humans have also come up with things such as the love doll. Do we ban those as well? My point here is that sex outside of procreation does exist. Note: I did use Wikipedia links here because they are good summaries of large subjects.

Another argument used studies showing kids do best when they have a mom and dad at home as parents. The studies are too many to link here, but those studies are very weak correlations and often done as surveys. We just don’t have enough good data to make a comparison between heterosexual couples and homosexual couples. Also, since kids of homosexual couples are often because of adoption (yes, there are a few surrogates, etc), are we not improving that child’s situation? Even if it could be proved a heterosexual couple was better, wouldn’t having a pair of loving parents still be an improvement over no parents? A recent study showed that kids of homosexual couples attend college at a higher rate and graduate at a higher rate than the general population. The protecting the kids argument is very weak at best.

One argument that bordered on offensive was using the rates of STDs in comparison to the general population. It does need to be addressed. My brief search didn’t turn up much for research, but some reading and general knowledge of psychology would lead me to this conclusion: The higher rate is partly due to the continued marginalization of homosexuality. When a person feels they need to hide something, they may not make rational decisions regarding the situation. It would be interesting to look at rates of STDs in countries where gay marriage is legal.

The last argument from conservatives I will address here is homosexual promiscuity. There are some survey studies that have been done that weakly conclude that homosexuals tend to have more partners and tend to be less committed than married couples. What isn’t addressed in this data is: 1) It is hard to get people to be completely truthful, even in an anonymous survey. Perhaps married people feel more shame about their previous partners or are afraid to share the information. And 2) How does not being allowed to marry affect commitment in a homosexual couple. Would married homosexual couples stay more committed knowing they have the contract between them and could lose 1/2 their stuff? The promiscuity argument is weak because the comparison is not equal.

I have a personal plea to make to Republican politicians. I’ve always voted DFL until recently. I voted for the most Republicans I ever have in the last election because I really thought the platform was focused on being fiscally responsible and minimizing government’s interference in our lives. This issue is not what I voted for, it is not high on the priority list, and it is not in the spirit of the Libertarian, non-intrusive government that many of you ran on during the campaign season. You are quickly losing my faith that you will take care of the things that really need to get done.

In my previous blog, I talk about the lack of logic used in this issue. If marriage is indeed a civil contract allowed between two people and a person can be in only one contract at a time, then that contract law needs to be applied equally. Some religious officials are OK with gay marriage. Some religions define marriage as only a man and a woman. We cannot choose which of these religious beliefs to follow, or to me it is in violation of the free exercise clause in the first amendment. The law might not always be fair (i.e. we don’t allow polygamy), but it should be applied equally.

2012 is going to be a very difficult vote. Right now, logic and reason seems to escape anyone in office. Without logic and reason, there is no debate – or at least no progress being made.

The end of unemployment benefits

December 2, 2010 1 comment

As promised, I am going to try to start putting most of my political and social thoughts on a blog and allow people to come here from the various social networks optionally.

Forgive me in advance for not citing all of my sources or having my facts 100% correct.  I will try to find resources as I can, but sometimes writing at 11pm makes one a bit lazy on the research front.  Just know I do listen to various liberal and conservative media shows on my way to and from school, so hopefully I have retained some of what I have learned.

Now for the actual subject matter: I wanted to share some brief thoughts on the end of unemployment benefits for those called “99 weekers.” These are people reaching the limit of the very extended benefits Congress has provided to allow more time for people to find jobs in this tough economy.  An initial extension was probably a good idea.  I don’t know what the ideal amount of time is to extend these benefits considering the slow recovery of unemployment the last couple of years.  However, I really do feel that at 99 weeks, we have reached an upper limit to these benefits.

Unemployment as it is set up by most states is a program that is supposed to be an insurance of sorts.  Employers and employees pay into the system, and in certain circumstances people are allowed to collect benefits for up to 26 weeks until either they find another job or are rehired by their previous employer.  States are actually supposed to stop paying benefits when the money runs out, which in this economy has happened almost everywhere.  The federal government has provided some funds for these extensions, but the money is coming from the states’ general funds as well.  This of course requires more deficit spending.  Unemployment benefits are also based on your income before your separation (with some cap).  This means if you make more money, your unemployment benefits are greater.  This makes sense because you paid more in and your lifestyle is based on your income, there has to be some sort of scale.

The issue with extended benefits is you are encouraging people to turn down lower paying jobs.  Several news organizations have provided anecdotal stories of people not looking for work outside their area or even turning down jobs because the money is better on unemployment.  This seems like a bad way to run this system.  This is also exacerbated by the fact that higher paying jobs are a much greater number of people on extended benefits.  Some states are paying people as much as $900/week for unemployment benefits.  I’ve been working for 18+ years and have never made that kind of money.

The real issue here is when do unemployment benefits become welfare payments.  If someone is laid off for an extended period of time, they need to start making lifestyle changes.  Maybe it is time to sell your house, downgrade your vehicle, or even consider more drastic measures like bankruptcy.  These are difficult decisions, and I wouldn’t take them lightly.  Yet, how long can you expect the government to support your lifestyle?  I am not saying we should help these people, but we also need them to understand their lifestyle needs to change.  We don’t want your or your kids to starve or be homeless, and I don’t think we will.  But maybe it is time to sell your house, rent a small apartment.  We can provide you with basic welfare assistance – but we can no longer afford to maintain status quo.

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, there was an extended slow down on the Iron Range of northern Minnesota.  Many of my friends will probably remember or at least have heard about it.  It was a tough time for all – some people lost their homes, home values fell, and people were in need.  Yet, the Iron Range survived.  President Reagan didn’t swoop in with extra benefits. Yet, Iron Rangers survived.

The same thing very well could happen in various pockets of the country if we start transitioning from lifestyle maintaining unemployment benefits to life sustaining welfare benefits.  What I would hope would happen is it would help flush out some more of the troubled mortgages.  Prices would fall.  Felling prices in housing can provide benefits too.  Housing becomes more affordable.  Property taxes go down for families.  Because those in homes are less likely to sell, they start treating their home more like a home and less like an investment.  These can be long-term good outcomes for communities.

There are some that say that there are no jobs.  I know things are slow.  But even in the worst month of the last few years where there was approximately 900,000 jobs lost – that number is a net number.  Roughly 4.8 million lost their jobs, but another 3.9 million were hired.  It may take longer to find a job when there is a net loss, but it shouldn’t be impossible either.

It is time we start calling these extended benefits what they are – welfare.  We need to encourage people to work.  Is it fair for someone to make $15+/hour to sit at home on the government tab while someone goes to work everyday for a minimum wage @ $7.25/hour?  I don’t want people to be on the street or starving, but we cannot afford to maintain everyone’s lifestyle forever.  I think the right decision has been made, and will benefit the communities as a whole in the long term.