The obligatory WTF post on T***p (pt 2)

In my last post I asked you to examine the scripts that have been challenged by this election. By now you’ve done this and have a nice, relaxed, open mind. (Right?)

OK, so T***p won the election. Now what?

I’ m in the camp that thinks the situation is potentially precarious. The Republicans control the presidency and Congress. If they manage to get out of their own way, they’ll be able to move policy far in a direction we don’t prefer. Personally, I’m most stupefied that climate deniers now control all levers of policy. I expect a snowball love-fest in Washington, D.C. There are many, many more policy implications, but this isn’t the time or place to list them.

Possibly of greatest concern are the racism, xenophobia, and sexism on display during the campaign. Perhaps T***p is actually much more tolerant than people say (like is argued here). Perhaps lots of what he said on the campaign trail was the hyperbolic talk of a New Yorker who doesn’t mean it literally. He might govern as a reasonable, practical man, who I might disagree with but who I can nonetheless respect.

I’m not holding my breath. The Financial Times puts it nicely “it is worth bearing in mind that when narcissists and demagogues with illiberal attitudes gain significant power, they usually become more, not less, unrestrained and therefore more dangerous.” For now, the burden of proof is on him. Barring any proof otherwise, I’ll take him at his word for all the promises of his campaign, like his promise to deport about 1% of the U.S. population (3 million undocumented immigrants – most of them druggies, criminals, and rapists, of course).

But my concern goes beyond T***p to the forces he unleashed. T***p has given voice and power to some dangerous forces. Read the comments on Breitbart! Holy shitballs! And remember that Steve Bannon, the architect of this online forum, is now his chief strategist. This is major leverage for what in terms of numbers should be a fringe organization.

Social forces, once mobilized, can prove tricky to control.  Social tipping points are impossible to predict and we best stay away from this one. Hopefully the system of checks and balances works as expected and this is nothing more than the usual ebb and flow between parties. This is the most probable outcome. But my eyes are open and my caution level is up a couple of notches. Neither moderation nor violent excess will surprise me. Other darker outcomes are possible and we shouldn’t be caught flat footed.

(It bears mention that some positives could come from this election. It’s possible that T***p’s isolationism will lead to fewer “humanitarian” military interventions. Better relations with Russia could be a stabilizing force. And in an ideal world T***p would actually help the people he promised to help, which would reverse decades of working class and rural communities getting the shaft from neo-liberal economic policies. Perhaps a little protectionism may not be all that bad. It’s not just me saying this; Bernie Sanders has outlined a number of T***p’s promises that he can support.)

But back to the negatives. What we need now is effective organizing and effective action to counter the policy and cultural implications of this election – both the unearthed realities that were there the whole time and the new possibilities opened up by the newly empowered forces. Effective action requires winning the hearts and minds of the middle of the electorate that swung T***p’s way. Rhetorical question here: which do you think will be more effective? Lashing out at an evil, uneducated basket of deplorables? Or understanding T***p supporters and appealing to their interests and motivations? No, I don’t think we can be one big, happy, kumbaya family. That’s silly. I’m arguing that any amount of persuasion requires understanding and appealing to the person you’re trying to persuade. Do you want to change hearts, minds, and policy? Or do you just want to vent your frustrations and find someone to blame?

Here, then, is my suggestion: Pity and anger will get us nowhere. Accept defeat, lick your wounds, shake it off, and get back in the fight.

I’m reminded of a verse by Octavia Butler in Parable of the Sower:

In order to rise from its own ashes
a Phoenix first must burn

We have a great opportunity here – a once in a generation opportunity. The established political order has been shattered on both sides of the aisle. There is a vacuum opening up and we need to fill it. But we need to do it right. This starts by dismantling our poor understanding of our fellow Americans. We need to let go of our misplaced sense of superiority (“uneducated” should be a statement of fact, not a judgement ). We need to learn to talk to people. Can you go into every interaction aiming to learn from others? Can you be the example of tolerance that you say you value? Can you seek to understand those who have unleashed T***p on the world? Can you drink a Bud Light without a sense of irony?

(But stay away from Swastika-carrying, neo-Nazi insanos, of course. Fuck them. But I promise that your neighbor who voted for T***p probably isn’t one of them. Then again, your neighbor may be an off-duty cop taunting people with a confederate flag. Major jerk, for sure, but I’d still be willing to bet this guy is an exception.)

So, like Tyler Durden in Fight Club, I’m now leaving you with a homework assignment: find a local T***p supporter and make conversation. Doesn’t have to be about politics, but it does have to be genuine. Don’t argue for anything. Listen, and try to like the person. Report back here on how it goes. Should be interesting.

Do this enough and you might start gaining proper understanding. This will lead to good strategy and effective action. Win enough hearts and minds and you may just manage to nudge things ever so slightly toward the world you want to see.


Posted in Government, Politics, Society | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The obligatory WTF post on T***p (pt 1)

Dear friends,

I’m reminded of the poem by Sufi poet Rumi:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

These days, you’re feeling some strange new feelings brought on by the unexpected election results. Appreciate them. Don’t attach to them the first explanation you can think of. Welcome them into your house, entertain them, and get to know them. If you believe that T***p presents a danger to this country, you’ll need to take effective action, and that requires first of all, and perhaps most importantly, diagnosing the situation correctly. And correct diagnosis requires us to shed away outdated ways of seeing the world.

I’ll share with you my state of mind. I never underestimated T***p’s ability to influence and persuade. The guy is a master. He read and used the zeitgeist like a seer (e.g., this). Over the last year I’ve been telling whoever would listen that he stood a much better chance than he got credit for, even teasing them with the (now unfortunately correct) phrase “President T***p”. I’ve scoffed at the media for repeated naivete. One vivid memory is when T***p blamed Obama for creating ISIS. The media excoriated him for the obvious untruth, apparently forgetting that the hyperbole is a time-honored rhetorical device. So childish! Time and time again, he played the media like the gullible dork on the playground. I also have no illusions about the level of enlightenment in American society. People are racist, sexist, and don’t particularly care for critical thought and fact-based argument. That they supported a guy spewing that kind of B.S. isn’t too much of a surprise. A practical problem, yes, but not a surprise.

Despite this healthy level of cynicism I still feel deeply perturbed about something. I feel like I did when I watched the scene of Ned Stark’s execution on Game of Thrones. The cinematography was brilliant; the disorientation was palpable. The execution was the antithesis of what should have occurred. And it was over much, much quicker than it would ever be possible to process the events cognitively. So was the election. Between the secure T***p defeat suggested by the polls to the moment when only irrational bargaining could keep hope alive, reality stopped matching my unconscious expectations. I clearly have at least one deeply seated, unexamined script that’s not working. But what is it?

I’m fine with people having different opinions than me, and I’m used to my opinions being in the minority. I understand that people could vote for T***p for sensible reasons: he’s the Republican nominee, the closest match to their preferred views, and Clinton was far from a viable option for them. Although T***p stoked and used some of the nastiest elements of American society, I know this isn’t representative of all his supporters (in the same way that “some Muslims are terrorists” does not imply that “all Muslims are terrorists”, “Some T***p supporters are raving bigots” does not imply that “all T***p supporters are raving bigots”; logic 101).

My failed paradigm has to do with the fact that the man demonstrated absolutely wretched character, poor factual knowledge, no desire to learn, no coherent philosophy, yet was still asking for a blank check to do what he wanted (“trust me, I’ll get it done”). He was just a guy with lots of loud opinions. The only reason he got them heard is because he’s wealthy and a reality TV star. Other than that, he’s just about as suited for the presidency as loud Uncle Donald who comes over every Thanksgiving and makes people kind of uncomfortable with his lack of tact and filter. But Americans are a  practical bunch and, I thought, reasonable enough to kick this nonsense to the curb. And I say this from a conservative point of view, not as a “hippie liberal”. I would never hire somebody like this to run my business, much less give this person carte blanche. Clearly, I grossly underestimated the extent to which people just wanted to fuck shit up. The majority of the electorate didn’t just reject, but actively wanted to be led by this buffoon. Wow! Completely blindsided by this. I am so out of touch that I simply thought that it was completely impossible for such a jackass to end up president. That so many people could think otherwise was simply unbelievable.

I was wrong.

I. Was. Wrong.

You should say that too. “I was wrong.” It’s liberating.

The scripts that you will find challenged are surely different. Whatever they are, I remind you that the country hardly changed from Monday to Wednesday, although your understanding of the country may have been shattered. Whatever country you lived in on Monday before election day, you still live in today.

Just sit with that for a while. Try it on for size and meditate on your outdated scripts.

Then we can get to effective responses.

To be continued

Posted in Government, Politics, Society | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The mad, mad world of homeownership

Like marriage and children, owning a home is one of those milestones that defines a good, wholesome, American adult. If you don’t do it, it’s one of those things that you’ll have to explain all the time. Why aren’t you married yet? Why are you a vegetarian? Why don’t you own your home? We fetishize homeownership.

There is no denying that there can be strong advantages to owing a home. A paid off home provides financial security in retirement. There are valuable tax incentives, and in the long term, a home is a reasonably safe place to protect your savings from inflation. For the less disciplined, it can also be a means of enforced savings. Putting aside these practical considerations, there is pride of ownership. It’s just nicer to own your space.

Nonetheless, owning a home is not always a sensible financial choice. In exploring this idea, it’s important to clarify the term “homeowner”. Few people actually “own a home”. Most “homeowners” are really “mortgagers”: parties to a legal contract whereby they can live in a home as long as they make regular payments to a lender. Mortgagers also have other expenses such as maintenance, insurance and property taxes. On the positive side, mortgagers earn some tax breaks. If a mortgager wishes to move, they must find another mortgager for the home. Depending on the market, this transaction will result in a gain or a loss, and in all cases will involve fees paid to real estate professionals to complete the transaction.

Similarly, renters are parties to a legal contract whereby they can live in a home as long as they make regular rent payments. Whatever they don’t pay in rent they can administer any way they want, including by saving and investing. Renters have no tax or maintenance to worry about, nor do they get tax breaks. If a renter wishes to get out of the legal contract, they must simply tell the landlord as stipulated in the rental agreement.

Viewed in this way, mortgaging and renting are just alternate ways of determining cash flows and making investment decisions. Mortgagers pay interest to the lender, renters pay rent to the landlord. Mortgagers put their savings toward principal. Renters, may save nothing at all or may save and invest aggressively. Renters pay no maintenance, insurance or tax for the property, nor do they get tax breaks associated with mortgaging. Renters have more flexibility to move on a moment’s notice. Mortgagers are tied into their property, especially if they have borrowed a large amount and the market is down.

Which option is better depends on many factors: relative property and rental prices, interest rates, expected appreciation in housing prices and yields in alternative investments, need for flexibility, tax breaks, expected maintenance, how much “pride of ownership” is worth, etc. All told, it is true that mortgaging is better in many cases (see here or here).

The problem is that it is not better in all cases, yet there is a subtle, pervasive pressure to buy, buy, buy. As just one example, consider how, even though it’s impolite to ask about others’ finances, it’s still perfectly normal to ask an acquaintance if they own or rent (and to express disinterest if the answer is “rent”). Pressures like these drive people to astronomic levels of silliness. Even in inflated markets in which the benefits of renting are far greater, we still see people tripping over themselves to outbid the other, while leveraging themselves to the hilt to do so. Put simply, people are competing fiercely to overpay for something that few of them can afford.

If this article is unromantic, if it kills the magic and excitement that surrounds buying a new home, then it’s been successful. Remind yourself that there are hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line, that emotion can do a great job clouding judgment, that a fool and his money are soon parted, and that no matter how extravagant your house, if the bank owns it, you’re not wealthy.

Posted in Economics, Society | Tagged , | 5 Comments

The MOOC takeover?

Massive, Open, Online Courses (or MOOCs) are the new big thing in higher education, making waves in the media, legislature, and the blogosphere (including two blogs that this blog follows: satyagraha and unemployedphilosopher). How will this disruptive innovation transform universities?

MOOCs (rhyme with “nukes”) are freely available online video lessons provided by big name universities (e.g., MIT OpenCourseWare), spinoffs from universities (e.g., Udacity), and outside entrepreneurs (e.g., Khan Academy). The content is available for anybody with internet access. MOOCs are free both in terms of access and cost (although some offer paid unit transfer to traditional universities).

With MOOCs, more people have better access to excellent lectures. They can repeat lectures, focusing only on those parts they still do not understand. Motivated people can learn outside the rigidly structured university, accessing relevant content on their own time and initiative. MOOCs will make it easier for working adults to stay current and for curious people to soak up information. The only limitation is the time and energy they have available.

Might MOOCs even become the new standard model of higher education for fresh high school graduates?

While it is impossible to predict the future, there are some significant barriers to the MOOC takeover. Few people can toil on their own initiative to complete years of study with little or no support from peers and professors. Universities bring together people who are enthusiastic to learn; peers exert pressure on each other to stay motivated. With MOOCs, there is no such support; the strongest influences are those (mostly non-academic influences) near the home. This puts many students, especially first-generation students, at greater risk of failing to get on a college education.

Even if students are sufficiently motivated, they seldom know what they need to study. A student could study for ten years and still not acquire the knowledge needed to do meaningful work in an area of study (but they might be good at trivia contests and cocktail parties!). MOOCs do offer some organization, but they still force the student to select the correct curriculum. This is like asking a child to choose a parenting  strategy. Privileged students may have the proper family background to work around this (or even to benefit from it), but many, especially first-generation college students, do not.

However, the most serious barrier to the MOOC takeover is that MOOCs are designed for imparting information, which is only a small part of education. It is necessary, but far from sufficient. MOOCs are very good at information transfer: they are well produced, lively, well-organized and vetted for accuracy. Nonetheless, lack of information is not the problem in higher education. The internet has vast resources. Even before the internet, libraries housed uncountable volumes of excellent information. Thus, while MOOCs may improve access or make information transfer more fun, they are not solving a crucial problem. What are graduates able to do with the information? Can they apply it? Can they assess it critically? Can they create with it? MOOCs do not address these issues, and any worthwhile education needs to do so.

Admittedly, traditional education can sometimes do a poor job of addressing the same aspects of education that MOOCS ignore. A lecture class with 1000 students is like a MOOC, but inferior. As with MOOCs, no meaningful learning can take place, just information transfer. Unlike MOOCs, the lectures are dry, often unrehearsed, more idiosyncratic, and unavailable for future playback. It is in this arena that MOOCs will play a valuable role. If a university administrator or professor believes that education is just information transfer, they will find it increasingly difficult to avoid being replaced by higher quality online videos. On the other hand, any administrator or professor who cares about learning should welcome the MOOC as one of many technological innovations that, used in the right way, will make the teaching and learning experience more valuable. MOOCs allow professors to move the rote information transfer out of the classroom to give time for meaningful engagement with the students and the material.

In closing, as we move forward in the MOOC debate, we most certainly should demand high quality universities that provide meaningful learning experiences. Yet, while some of our traditional universities may fail in this regard, MOOCs alone are no solution. We need to take a comprehensive approach higher education reform.

Posted in Higher Education | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

Be my athlete, I’ll be your coach (a letter to my students)

Last week, one of your classmates asked me to delay his final exam by a day. He just needed more time to study. “The customer is always right,” he pleaded, as if I were selling televisions. While I know that most of you wouldn’t go that far, the experience got me thinking about the nature of education, and I suspect that many of you agree that since you pay dearly for your education, we owe you the deference given a customer in any respectable business.

I completely reject that education is a service for hire, where the student, as the customer, gets to set the terms. Don’t get me wrong. You have every right to decide what to do with your life and you deserve universities and professors that meet your needs. No matter what you pay, your professors and staff should do their jobs well and contentiously. However, once you decide to pursue a particular field of study, the reality is that you are almost completely ignorant about what others in the field expect from you: the knowledge you need, the skills you must hone, and the attitudes that are important.

I’ll offer a personal analogy to explain further. I used to be a competitive athlete; I wasn’t great, but I was competitive enough to hire a coach. I was certainly the boss in one sense. If he didn’t give me a training plan or if he didn’t show up to lead the workouts, I would have stopped paying him and the arrangement would have been over. Yet, he was the boss in a more important regard. I hired him because I didn’t know what it took to excel at the sport. I had to listen to him. I had to do what he told me. If a workout hurt, I never said “aw, c’mon coach, ease up on the workout or I won’t pay you.” If he yelled at me to do more, I would do more, simple as that.

I’m your coach in exactly the same way. You have complete freedom to decide what major to pursue, but once you choose a major, you simply don’t know what it means to succeed in the major. If I require work of you, set limits, or otherwise seem to want to make your life disagreeable, it’s because it will make you better. I don’t prefer to make your life disagreeable, but just as empty praise and unrealistic expectations of success will not transform an athlete into an Olympian, the easy A will not make you competitive after graduation.

Even though I don’t see you as my customer, I do feel that I owe you a lot. I owe it to you no matter how much tuition you pay. I owe it to you because it’s what it means to be a good professor. My job is to bust my ass for you every day. My job is to listen to you to make sure that the curriculum is in line with your greater goals (but also my understanding of what you need to learn). My job is to hunt for the best approaches for you learn. My job to motivate you (although a minimum of motivation has to come from you). My job is to make you work hard, because hard work is the only way to get good. Lastly, my job is to be honest, praising you when you do well and telling you when you have failed.

With this in mind, I urge you to do some serious reflection. Why are you in the major? Does it match your life goals and ambitions. If it doesn’t, come talk to me so we can find something better for you to do (inside or outside of the university). If this is the right path for you, then let go. Trust that I have your best interest in mind and that I am dedicated to your success. I’m always open to hearing constructive criticism about my teaching and I’m always willing to explain why we need to do what we’re doing. I’m willing to be your advocate against mediocre faculty and staff (I know you face more of them than you should – I see them too). But I need you to do your part. Work hard, embrace challenge, and do all of what I ask you to do with the confidence that it will make you better.

Be my athlete. I’ll be your coach.

Posted in Higher Education | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

On Gun Control (Part III): The Numbers Behind Self-Defense

One of the main arguments against gun control is that people use guns defensively to fight crime, so guns offer a net benefit to society. Reducing or banning guns will actually increase crime. Let’s investigate the numbers surrounding this argument.

Violent crime rates: The violent crime rate in 2011 was 386.3 (all crime rates in this article are per 100,000 inhabitants) [1]. Despite the low probability, it adds up over time. In 70 years, this translates to a 24% chance of being a victim of violent crime [2]! As a point of comparison, consider vehicular fatalities, which are a good measure of our baseline tolerance for risk. Deaths in car crashes occur at a rate of 10.6 [3], over 100 times lower, resulting in a chance of death of less than 1% over a 70 year span.

Regarding guns specifically, according to some slightly older numbers (1993-2001), about 11% of violent crimes involved guns [4]. Using the average crime rate of 386.3, this suggests that the rate of violent crime involving handguns is about 42.

Defensive gun use: There is vast disagreement on rates of defensive gun use. Estimates range from 100,000 to 2.5 million per year [5]. With 313 million inhabitants in the US, this results in rates somewhere between 31.9 and almost 800! The high value may be inflated due to a number of reasons, including the following:

  • Poor survey design. One of many problems is “telescoping,” i.e., counting older events as having occurred recently.
  • Perceptual biases. Just because you think your gun prevented a crime, doesn’t mean a serious crime was ever going to occur. “Whether one is a defender (of oneself or others) or a perpetrator … may depend on perspective. Some reports of defensive gun use may involve illegal carrying and possession … and some uses against supposed criminals may legally amount to aggravated assault… Protecting oneself against possible or perceived harm may be different from protecting oneself while being victimized.” [6]
  • Poor definition of what defensive use even means. “Imagine, for example, measuring defensive gun use for a person who routinely carries a handgun in a visible holster. How many times has this person ‘used a handgun, even it was not fired, for self-protection?’ … In this regard, much of the debate on the number of defensive gun uses may stem from an ill-defined question…” [7]

Because of these and similar arguments, I am throwing out the upper limit and replacing it by 300,000 defensive gun uses per year (a rate of 95.6). I’ll discuss the implications shortly.

Imagine if there were no more guns: So what if, magically, there were no more guns? Guns would no longer be used in crimes. Whether this would have any effect on the crime rate is unclear. Many perpetrators would probably just choose a different weapon. We can expect the crime rate to drop anywhere from zero to 42 with perhaps a most likely value of 10. The benefit of defensive gun use would disappear. The range of increase is between 31.9 and 95.6 with a most likely value in the middle. I converted these ranges to probability curves and computed the possible change in crime rate. The result is shown in the two figures below.

Individual probabilities for changes in crime rate

Individual probability curves for changes in crime rate

Calculated increase in crime rate

Probability curve for increase in crime rate

Based on this calculation, the most probable change is an increase in crime rate of about 50. Thus, we conclude that, even throwing out the suspect value of 2.5 million defensive gun uses per year, and given the existing gun culture in the United States, a complete gun ban would probably result in a modest increase in violent crime rates.

Of course, guns will not really disappear overnight – what we are facing today is stricter laws on purchasing guns.  If stricter gun controls make no change on defensive gun use, but do remove the guns from criminals, the increase in crime rate may be much smaller. Furthermore, if the value of 2.5 million counts incidents that are actually criminal, then we should expect a noticeable decrease in crime rates. If, however, the value of 2.5 million is credible and real, then it would constitute a very strong case for allowing, even encouraging, widespread weapon ownership (by “law-abiding citizens” of course).

The conclusion, then? Given the strong disagreements in the rates of defensive gun use, the possible implications of those disagreements, and the importance of defensive gun use to determining changes in crime rate, it is impossible to draw any satisfying conclusion. The various sides will, of course, cherry pick facts to make their case, but this kid ain’t gonna believe them. He’s just waiting for the experts to offer a believable value for defensive gun use.

If there is any conclusion to draw it’s that this matter isn’t in the end all that important. There is no way that there will be a complete gun ban in the US any time soon. The strictest outcome might involve universal and strict background checks at all gun outlets with prohibition on some types of weapons and ammunition. None of this can be expected to hinder “law-abiding citizens” from using handguns defensively nor will it decrease crime much. As far as an argument for or against current gun control legislation, self-defense doesn’t provide a strong case for either side.

Notes and References:

  2. This number is oversimplified. Crime rates are nowhere close to uniform; they vary across ages, sex, and socioeconomic status. Most victims of violent crime are minority men between 18 and 24 ( Based on age-specific rates, if you are 40 years old your chance of being the victim of a crime in the future is only 8%. If you have never been the victim of violent crime, you probably belong to a demographic that has an even lower crime rate than the average for your age. Nonetheless, the chance of being the victim of a violent crime is sizeable, given the seriousness of the consequences. Self-defense is not a consideration that we can just ignore.
  4. Even though the figure is a bit outdated, it’s probably OK since the percentage has been fairly steady.
  5. National Research Council, Firearms and Violence, p 102,
  6. ibid, p 106
  7. ibid, p 108
Posted in Politics, Society | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Eggs and Animal Welfare

I was in the grocery store, befuddled. It was the eggs. I’d like to be conscious about animal welfare, but at the same time, I don’t prefer to pay good money for empty gestures. “Free Range”, “Cage Free”, “Organic”, and so on – do these actually mean anything? It turns out, after some quick internet research, that they don’t mean much in terms of animal welfare.

Just for context, let’s review the standard method of egg production (in the United States). Egg producers get chickens from hatcheries. These hatcheries consider male chicks to be an undesirable byproduct since they’re too small, hence uneconomical, to raise as food. The chicks are dumped into a grinder, gassed, or sucked through a vacuum system onto an electrified plate. After this, since chickens can get pretty rough when they’re closely confined, pecking at each other, sometimes to death, the chickens get their beaks clipped. It’s not clear how painful this is to the chicken, but the beak is thought to be a sensory organ of some use to the chicken. In the henhouse, chickens are then caged for the duration of their life. Caged birds cannot perform many of their natural actions and can become weak through lack of exercise and excessive egg production. All birds, caged or not, will eventually produce fewer eggs. When this happens, food can be withheld for up to 14 days to induce a molt, after which egg production picks up again (this practice is becoming less common). All birds eventually stop laying eggs at an economical rate – this happens after just 1-2 years (as compared to their natural life span of 5-8 years). When this happens, the chickens are destined to slaughter, with no great care to their wellbeing as they’re removed from the cage and transported to the slaughterhouse. Bones can break as the weakened bones are caught in the cages. Once at the slaughter house, the birds are put into a conveyor system in which they’re shackled by the feet upside down, sent through an electrified water bath (in the hopes of rendering then unconscious, although this regularly fails), past an automated blade that cuts their throat (the blade sometimes misses), and into a tank of scalding water.

This description is necessarily brief. You can read more from the humane society here and see the industry counterpoint here. The industry does make the important point that production conditions can vary from farm to farm and that it is important to visit egg production facilities to see for yourself (which I haven’t done).

So regarding egg carton labeling (read more here):

  • Most egg producers conform to the  United Egg Producer guidelines, which are better than nothing, but are not particularly inspiring. They make the process described above a bit less brutal. Starvation molting is prohibited.
  • Organic eggs are subject to enforceable regulations. The birds are uncaged (which may not be better than caged – even the United Egg Producers make this claim) and have “access to the outdoors”, which can mean no more than a large henhouse with a small opening to an outdoor porch that few birds ever find. To be fair, most Organic producers probably strive to do better than this. Starvation molting is not allowed.
  • There are a few third-party verification systems – some lax, others stringent, and none of which I’ve ever seen in stores, so they’re not too relevant to my decision-making.
  • All the rest of the terms have no official definition and are not regulated, meaning that they pretty much mean nothing if you haven’t visited the farm to see for yourself. Caveat emptor. “Cage free” can mean that the chickens are all crowded together on the henhouse floor – not caged, but not great. “Free-range” can mean that there is no more than a small opening in the henhouse to permit outdoor access. “Fertile” probably means that the chickens were free to roam enough to find themselves a rooster.

What does this mean for me? I’ll probably go for Organic eggs. There is some attention to animal welfare and there are other advantages in terms of what the chickens can eat. I’ll avoid any of the unenforceable labels – I don’t want to give my money away for nothing. Given that the Organic label still doesn’t mean all that much, I’ll reduce my consumption of eggs as much as is reasonable, but eggs are pretty darn nutritious, so I don’t think I can cut them completely. I should advocate for better Organic standards on the outdoor access, but to be honest I don’t know how to go about it. This stuff is difficult!

Posted in Society | Tagged , | 2 Comments

I lied in court today

I lied in court today. Under oath. I had no choice.

The judge asked us, potential jurors, to speak up if we had any misgivings with applying the law as the court gave it to us. I remained silent.

At issue was jury nullification: a jury’s ability to return a verdict of not guilty even if the defendant has clearly violated the law. While jury nullification has a long history and sounds honorable and good, such disregard for the law can go both ways. While a jury can acquit a defendant wrongfully charged by a vindictive state, a jury can also close ranks behind one of their own and refuse to convict (as happened when white juries refused to convict whites accused of murdering blacks). Juries should consider nullification, but only rarely and with genuine effort among all jurors to get to the bottom of a case.

From a personal point of view, would you as a jury member be willing to nullify if you believed a guilty verdict to go against your conscience. How do you define yourself? Are you above all a law-abiding citizen, who follows the law, right or wrong, because that is what you’re supposed to do? Or, when the law gets it wrong, do you believe that you owe it to yourself to follow your conscience in spite of the law?

I hope that when the situation demands, I can follow my conscience in spite of the law, and it was because of this, this that I had to lie to the court. I could have told the truth: “your honor, I believe in the right of jurors to disregard the law if it violates their conscience,” but this would have been a self-defeating speech act. The very act of uttering it would have gotten me thrown off the jury. The very act of uttering it would have meant that while I made a grand gesture to feel good and righteous, I was woefully inadequate at following my conscience. The only way to be true to myself was to lie to the court.

I was eventually selected to the jury, but the case never went to verdict. Even if it had, the issue of jury nullification would not have mattered. It was a common criminal case involving minor charges. Still, even the remote possibility forced me to take a position. Am I a loyal subject to the legal system? Or am I a person whose morality can live outside the law?

[Editorial Note: The series on gun control will be finished shortly. I just found myself needing a rest from the topic, which is surprisingly stressful to write about.]

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An Execution

How would you feel during the moments before your execution? What would you do? Would you stare into the crowd with a contorted look on your face? Would you lay your head on the executioner’s shoulder?

Two Iranian men about to be executed

This makes me nauseous. Nauseous that two asinine young men would be publicly executed for a non-lethal robbery. Nauseous that two rich young men would never find themselves in the same place. Nauseous at how easily images like this slither into our lives.

Nauseous from empathy.

What were they feeling?
What thoughts were they having?
How would you feel during the moments before your execution?

Click here for full news article.

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An Argument for Gun Control (Part II): Self-Defense

Opponents of gun control often argue that gun ownership is a right that follows from the right of self-defense. In this article I argue that this argument is logically tenuous. After this I examine effective self-defense and argue that while gun ownership can contribute to effective self-defense, gun ownership is not central to nor does it alone prepare one for effective self-defense. All told, guns and self-defense just aren’t as linked as some people would like to argue.

It’s hard if not impossible to argue against the right of self-defense. Few things are as fundamental as preservation of the self. Nonetheless, as with all rights, the right of self-defense also has its limits. To give just one example, imagine a would-be victim shooting an assailant with a shotgun and in the process killing two other uninvolved bystanders. This reckless act would violate others’ right to life. Without delving deeply into the details of this hypothetical situation, the example does show that there must be some limits to the right of self-defense, and these limits are related in part to the harm caused to people other than the assailant.

Relating this to gun control, we have an axiom that says, roughly, “There exists a right to self-defense. This right is limited to not causing undue harm to people other than the assailant.” Following from this is a proposition that says “If owning guns for self-defense causes undue harm to people other than the assailant, then owning guns for self-defense should be limited.” What is not allowed, logically speaking, is to argue from the right of self-defense directly to the ownership of guns. That just begs the question of whether guns are safe enough in the first place. In other words, we can talk theory until we’re blue in the face, but that just doesn’t suffice. As the cliché says, the devil is in the details.

The details depend in large part on the numbers: crime rates, firearm death rates, and use of firearms for self-defense. While these are of vital importance to the issue, I’ll postpone that until my next post to limit the size of this article. In this post I explore general considerations of interest to the issue.

Guns and crime: A common argument holds that more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens will curtail criminal activity [1]; the potential consequences to the criminal from armed defense will outweigh the benefits of the crime. This is certainly sensible, but there is another equally sensible argument. If the social drivers of crime remain unchanged, this would mean unchanged crime rates. If the would-be victims are now more heavily armed, this will only lead to more aggressive and heavily armed assailants and a vicious cycle of increasing weaponization, suspicion, and aggression. What actually happens is an empirical question and to my knowledge there is no basis for predicting one way or the other. Until we find data and statistics, these thought games are no argument one way or another. (What is certain is that many people will be unwilling to give up their guns. They may only be willing if they are certain that nobody else has any. In this country, that is unlikely to happen, making a total gun ban practically impossible.)

Effective Self-Defense: A second concern is with the unsophisticated view of self-defense that many people hold. Let’s be clear: owning a gun does not constitute self-defense. Using a gun effectively is a skill that requires hard work, practice, and discipline (this is part of the reason I don’t own a gun – I don’t have the time and energy to be responsible about it). To quote Sam Harris [2]:

…unlike my friends, I own several guns and train with them regularly. Every month or two, I spend a full day shooting with a highly qualified instructor. This is an expensive and time-consuming habit, but I view it as part of my responsibility as a gun owner.

Gun use requires real skill (especially in life-and-death situations in confined quarters). Additionally, guns are not central to self-defense. Instead, to quote Sam Harris again [3]:

This is the core principle of self-defense: Do whatever you can to avoid a physical confrontation, but the moment avoidance fails, attack explosively for the purposes of escape—not to mete out justice, or to teach a bully a lesson, or to apprehend a criminal. Your goal is to get away with minimum trauma (to you), while harming your attacker in any way that seems necessary to ensure your escape.

Owning a gun, if one has the skill and wherewithal to use it properly, may indeed be part of effective self-defence. However, using self-defense just as a rhetorical excuse for gun ownership is dishonest and reckless. I suspect that a more sensible approach to the issue of self-defense is not further liberalization of gun laws, rather tightened controls on lethal weapons combined with liberalization of self-defense weapons such as mace, pepper spray, and stun guns. Whether or not this is a good suggestions, the main argument is that most people are not experts in self-defense. Owning a gun will not suddenly make somebody an expert; it will just make them more reckless.

In conclusion, self-defense and guns aren’t all that closely linked, either logically or practically. Stricter gun regulations are not in conflict with the right of self-defense. Stricter gun regulations can confine the guns to those who can show the good judgement and skill to use a gun in self-defense without being reckless.

Next post: The numbers on crime and self-defense, and after that, guns and the tyrannical government.

[1] This division into law-abiding and criminal is problematic. It simplifies a complex reality into two broad categories: the good guys and the bad guys. This is highly subjective and ignores that due to circumstances all of us could suddenly find ourselves in the “criminal” category. In a heated argument between two neighbors, they will each think of the other as the bad guy. Of course, if somebody is entering your house wanting to kill you, the distinction is clear, but in many cases it isn’t. On top of all this, the categorization tends to hide any social drivers behind actions. Still, the terms are convenient and common, so I use them.
[3]  These two articles are both well argued, level-headed, factual, and bound to challenge anybody’s unexamined assumptions. If you haven’t read them yet, I recommend them.

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