Idiocracy

2012-06-12 (Tuesday) § 5 Comments

I think maybe any attempt to prevent stupid people from having input in governance is an existential threat to democracy.  Everybody is supposed to have input whether they’re smart, stupid, good or evil.  That’s what I understand the fundamental doctrine of democracy to be, that all of us will be better off long-term if all of us get some say in governance.  As soon as we start trying to define some set of people out of the demos, we’ll have given up on that doctrine.  Barring some well-articulated intellectual stopwall, it’s a slippery slope from there to aristocracy, which after all means the doctrine that the “best” people should be in charge.

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Special interests according to Assemblymember Susan Bonilla

2012-06-12 (Tuesday) § Leave a comment

I got a call back today in response to an email I sent to my California State Assemblymember, Susan Bonilla.  I was asking what she understood by the term “special interests”.  I hear a lot of vague references by California politicians to “special interests” as an assumed public enemy, and I wonder what parties are included in that category.  The nice man who called from Bonilla’s office said he understood “special interest” to refer to any group that lobbies legislators for a particular policy that will have a general impact on the state.  So if I were to get together with my neighbors to contact Bonilla and ask for help with a local issue, that wouldn’t be a special interest.  But a statewide taxpayers’ group asking for X or Y change in tax policy would be.

I very much appreciated getting a direct, clear answer from my representative’s office.

What’s a special interest?

2012-05-22 (Tuesday) § Leave a comment

In the politics of California, my state, I often hear people refer pejoratively to “special interests”.  Most often it’s definite: “the special interests”.  Who’s that?  I understand the phrase to mean any interests other than general interests, i.e. ones that don’t belong to the entire population.  Not everyone is a parent, so wouldn’t that include the interests of parents?  Homeowners?  People who earn a wage?

I may be misunderstanding a coded reference here.  The definite article makes me think so.  Maybe it’s an understood term for a specific set of parties that are easy political hate magnets, like labor unions and big businesses.

[edit] I sent a message to my state assembly member, Susan Bonilla, to find out how she interprets the term “the special interests”.

A civil discourse site?

2012-05-21 (Monday) § Leave a comment

Would you visit a website devoted to user discussion of controversial issues if it required (and enforced by moderation) that all posts be aimed at either 1) convincing another user of your point of view on something, starting from premises they already accept, or 2) arriving at a point of agreement or a common goal with another user who you generally disagree with? Let’s say all these conversations would be readable by anybody.

Here’s an idea for how it would work. There’ll be a form you fill out to start a post with the fields “Topic” and “Assertion” (multiple fields). In the Topic field you describe the issue you’re trying to arrive at agreements about. In the Assertion fields you detail some premises your view starts from that you think you can get most people to agree with. You can connect some assertions to others with arrows to show that you think one follows from another. Lots of (unlimited?) links are allowed in the chain so created, so if you wanted, you could detail a whole argument from the most abstract of premises to the most concrete of conclusions.

You create the post. Your topic shows up in a list. When people click on the topic, they can see the assertions displayed with all their connecting arrows like flowchart objects. They can add comments on any of the assertions to explain what would have to change about that assertion for them to buy it, or why they don’t think it follows from what you say it follows from.

Above every input form (comments, post creation) is a reminder that your purpose in writing must be to arrive at agreement with another user on some particular point, and any input that obviously doesn’t aim at that goal will be removed.  In other words, anybody who isn’t interested in finding common ground with people they disagree with or reconsidering their existing views will not be interested in this site.  But people who are pursuing those goals will be able to pursue them more clearly and with a wider variety of people through this site.

Which principles of conscience should the law make exceptions for?

2012-02-15 (Wednesday) § 8 Comments

At first glance I was sympathetic to the position of the Catholic Church in this recent issue about requiring Catholic employers to include contraception among the benefits covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees. But on further thought it seems wrong to me that principles of religious conscience should be respected in this matter in a way that irreligious conscience wouldn’t be.

Furthermore, if there’s to be any force in the idea of government requirements on employers to include certain benefits among those covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees, then how can exceptions be made for the employers’ conscientious principles?

It seems to me that there are only the following possible positions to take on this:

  1. Government should be able to place requirements on employers to include certain benefits among those covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees.  No exceptions.  Catholic employers have to cover contraception if they cover anything.  This forces Catholic employers to choose between offering no medical benefits or subsidizing services that they consider immoral.
  2. Government should not be able to place any requirements on employers to include certain benefits among those covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees. Catholic employers don’t have to cover contraception.  This could have a lot of dangerous consequences by allowing employers to select what benefits they cover based on interests other than the medical needs of those covered.
  3. Government should be able to place requirements on employers to include certain benefits among those covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees.  Exceptions for benefits that violate the conscientious principles of the employers.  Any employer can refuse to cover anything on this basis.  So the requirements have force only insofar as a) the government can show that a given employer really doesn’t have the conscientious principles they say they have (burden of proof on the government), or b) the employer fails to show that they really have to the conscientious principles they say they have (burden of proof on the employer).  It might be pretty hard to come up with any reasonable way of showing either thing.
  4. Government should be able to place requirements on employers to include certain benefits among those covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees. Exceptions for benefits that violate the religious principles of the employers, but not for principles outside of religion.  This strikes me as a government endorsement of religion.  It implies that religious moral principles are more important than irreligious ones.  I’m definitely not okay with this on the basis of my own conception of how government should work, and I think it also violates the 1st Amendment as the Supreme Court has so far interpreted it.

Comparing the downsides of each of these, I’m inclined to go with #1.  Maybe #3 if a workable test could be devised.

Poll: What are your undemocratic principles?

2012-02-04 (Saturday) § 3 Comments

What laws or public policies do you want in your society even if a democratic majority opposes them?  I don’t have an answer yet.  Still thinking about it.

Keynes says you don’t know what’s about to hit you

2012-02-04 (Saturday) § Leave a comment

The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or be could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend. He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighboring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference. But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice.

from the introduction of The Economic Consequences of the Peace by John Maynard Keynes, describing the privileged lives of middle- and upper-class Londoners in the early 20th century.

Bold added.  Most of this excerpt at a glance strikes me as true of my own people today, Americans of the early 21st century.  I think, or I hope, that the bold part is untrue of at least a significant minority of us.  We have a considerable awareness of the influence of politics, military conflict and trade policy on our daily lives.  I’m not sure how much comfort that should be if it’s true, though.  It depends on what the dangers are.

This book is Keynes’ warning that the Treaty of Versailles would bring disaster on Europe, and WWII proved him right.  Maybe as I continue through the book I’ll find out that his reasons for thinking so don’t have parallels in my own country and time.  I’m pretty sure that even if the unwise actions of those Europeans do have parallels today, the dangers today will be different.  A global or even a continental war between great powers is hard to imagine today.  There are too many interests threatened by such a prospect and too few served.  Whatever dangers we face, they’re likely to be international in origin and not driven by a few specific governments.

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