Monday, October 18, 2010

Wait, They Can Do That?

Mother Jones' Mac McClelland, who has been on top of the oil spill story from Day One, tweeted about this article detailing the possibility that BP might refuse to pay damage claims beyond $75 million. Apparently this is due to something called the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which limits damages that can be awarded due to an oil spill to that amount plus cleanup costs.

This law is an obviously hideous idea - why anyone would want to protect someone who spilled shit-tons of oil from having to pay people whose property they fucked up is beyond me. It's like passing a law saying that if I burn down your house, I only have to pay you $50 plus whatever it costs to shovel the ashes off your lot. You say you lost $800,000 worth of assets in that fire? Sorry, dude, you get $50. Good luck with that other $799,950, though.

But beyond the stupidity and cravenness required to pass such a law in the first place, I'd just like to ask this question: how the hell can such a law possibly be constitutional?

Think about it this way. Say BP has been found liable for damage that results from the oil spill (not a horrible assumption here). The first ten people to sue each have $7.5 million of damage to their property. You're the 11th. Surprise - now you have no right to sue BP for destroying your property! No money left under the cap, see.

The right to a lawsuit is never enumerated - were I a judge I would presume it to exist under the Ninth Amendment, but there lies shaky ground - but thanks to the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause, you can't grant some group of wronged property owners the right to sue BP and not grant another group of wronged property owners the right to sue BP. If you're going to let some people collect damages from BP, you can't disallow others with legitimate claims from doing the same. So restricting the 11th person from suing when you let the first 10 sue strikes me as a violation of equal protection, and I see no compelling state interest (or rational basis even, though y'all know how I feel about that standard) in protecting a private corporation from their full liability under the common law.

So, legal eagles, how is that law justified under the Constitution?

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Question on Judicial Elections

Here's an interesting nugget for you. The Iowa Supreme Court is appointed, but Iowans vote every two years on whether or not they should remain in their seats. In the wake of its groundbreaking decision that the ban on same-sex marriage in that state violated its Constitution, several judges are in danger of losing that vote, which has basically never happened before.

That's interesting to me because I grew up in a state (Virginia) where judges are appointed (and never voted on) and currently live in a state where all judges are voted on (and never appointed). The process of electing/voting on judges really strikes me as bizarre, for reasons apparent in the Iowa vote - difficult, unpopular decisions to uphold the Constitution are often disadvantaged in favor of politically expedient decisions that may not follow the Constitution as faithfully. But appointments have their drawbacks too - it's remarkably difficult to get a runaway judge off the bench.

I mention this because there's a difficult appellate court election here in NC this year. Incumbent judge Ann Marie Calabria has done nothing particularly wrong - she's competent, reasonable, and not corrupt - but she's also a strident conservative and a judicial passivist. She is running against Jane Gray, who would make an good judge as well but whose judicial philosophy seems more in line with mine. In a sense, it's the mirror image of the choice facing Iowa voters.

So I have a question for you, dear readers. When is it appropriate for voters to fire an incumbent judge? When they make a decision you don't agree with? When they have a judicial philosophy you don't agree with? Or only in the case of misconduct or corruption? Or is there another standard?

Have at it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Another Failed Anti-Gay Marriage Argument

Out of all the controversial and difficult political issues out there, there's only one position I am absolutely unable to understand: opposition to gay marriage. I've mentioned before that I have yet to hear an argument that makes sense to me. Matt Novak has come closest, but his argument - that male-female relationships are different because they can produce children, and thus deserve special recognition - is still incomplete (there's a "why" missing there). But I'm open to reading new arguments. You're up, Katherine Kersten from Minneapolis, MN:
On Nov. 2, the family -- and marriage as we know it -- will be on the ballot in Minnesota.
Aw, Christ. Two sentences in and the rhetoric's already so overheated it could fry an egg.
Next year, Democrats will likely try to steamroll same-sex marriage through. If Dayton or Horner is elected, the governor will be on board -- perhaps even leading the charge.

Tom Emmer takes a different stance. He's the only gubernatorial candidate who supports marriage as the union of one man and one woman, as it has existed in Western civilization for 2,000 years.
Still overheated, but at least her facts aren't as specious as the "never before in human history" crap. Of course, marriage as an institution today would be all but unrecognizable to people from 2000 years ago.

But that's kinda ticky-tack, so I'll let it go. Continue:
Notice: Neither Dayton nor Horner mentions the stakeholders who have the most to win or lose in the marriage battle -- children.
Oh, this isn't gonna be pretty.
Though Dayton and Horner may be loath to admit it, marriage has been a male/female institution -- across the globe and throughout history -- for a simple reason, rooted in biology. Sex between men and women creates babies. It's the only kind of sex that does.
OK, wait. You're gonna get us all panicked about the demise of Western civilization and the certain torture of children just to make Novak's argument? Granted, she's the only person other than Novak that I've heard make this argument. Maybe it's a Minnesota thing.

Anyway, seems like a waste of a good outrage to get all worked up and then make a rather mundane argument. At least it's not crazy or idiotic, though.

Oh, hey, wait, there's another page:
Marriage is a "conjugal" concept, based on the sexual complementarity of men and women. It channels the powerful male/female sex drive to positive ends, to ensure that children will -- whenever possible -- have the love, support and guidance of both their mother and father. By linking fathers to their children, marriage strengthens an otherwise tenuous bond that is vital for both children's and society's well-being.
Aaaaaaand we're off the rails.

Hey, yo, Katherine. Single dad here. There's not a goddamn thing "tenuous" about the bond between me and my kid. I give my kid love, support, and guidance because I love her, not because of my marital status vis-a-vis her mom. And guess what? Her mother feels the same way. And there are parents of both genders who are married who could care less about their kids. The idea that the only reason men take care of kids is because they get to fuck the kids' mommy is colossally, unbelievably, and incredibly stupid.

Oh, and do you really think it's better for a kid to have a father who doesn't love them tied to the family by marriage? Seems to me that'd create a lot more problems than it'd solve.

But continue. Let's see how deep this rabbit hole runs.
First, they portray the purpose of marriage as being simply to encourage, and publicly affirm, adults' "love and commitment" -- Dayton's words. If we grant this premise, it becomes a denial of "equal rights" to withhold marriage from two men or two women who care for each other. "How will my same-sex marriage hurt your marriage?" gay-marriage supporters ask. They expect the answer to be "not at all."

But marriage is not primarily about affirming "love and commitment." Otherwise, government would regulate friendships as well as marriages. At its core, marriage is a social institution, whose public purpose is to structure male/female sexual relationships in a way that maximizes the next generation's well-being.
Well, actually, marriage is about two people agreeing to certain property-sharing, child custody, and mutual care arrangements through a legally binding ceremony. The reasons two people get married range from "we're meant for each other" to "we want to have a family together" to "really, we're just young and impulsive." But yeah, you just go ahead and tell us what it's all about.
But most traditional-marriage supporters don't "fear" or "hate" homosexuals. On the contrary, they invite gays to live as they please. They simply believe that every child needs and deserves a mother and a father. And they suspect that the radical redefinition of marriage will have damaging, unpredictable long-term consequences for all of society.
I'll wait for all the sociologists and anthropologists to stop laughing.

Still waiting.

OK, I think we're good. Other cultures survive despite the fact that their concept of the family is radically different from just "mother, father, kids." Hell, that was only true in our culture starting about 1950 or so. Kids need a strong, loving support structure, and it really doesn't matter whether the people providing that donated a sperm or an ovum to the process or not. Two men and two women can provide just as much support to a child as an opposite-sex couple. So can a mother and grandmother, for that matter. Or a father and grandfather. Or a father and uncle. Or a mother and uncle. Or two friends.

And as for the "damaging, unpredictable long-term consequences"? Munroe's Law.
I've got questions for Dayton and Horner:
This'll be good.
If we abandon the conjugal idea of marriage -- and redefine marriage as appropriate for any two caring adults -- on what grounds can we continue to limit the institution to two people? If love and commitment are sufficient for two, why not three or more? "How does my polygamous marriage hurt your marriage?" Same-sex marriage supporters have no logical answer.
Because you're not discriminating against anyone if you just say "this legal contract deals with property sharing between two people." There's a difference between telling some people "you can't have this contract" and limiting the number of parties that can take part in a contract, and if you don't get that difference... I can't help you.
And how can we logically limit marriage to people in a sexual relationship? If marriage is simply about caring adults, why shouldn't a grandmother and daughter raising a child together have its benefits? Going forward, on what grounds can we discriminate against people simply because they don't have sex together?
We don't discriminate against couples who don't have sex together now. You do realize that that's, like, 20 percent of married couples already, right? What would you prefer, a system where couples had to report each time they had sex to the government, and if it wasn't enough, their marriage would be dissolved?

Kids, this is proof that when your teacher says there are no such things as stupid questions, they're lying.

OK, what's the next question?
Really? That's it? That's all you got? Kinda thought there'd be more there.

So sorry, Ms. Kersten, you fail at arguing. Try again later, I'm sure you have it in you.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Real Connection Between Glenn Beck and Islam

Some weeks ago a nutter-butter right-winger named Byron Williams shot up a freeway in Oakland, California while ranting about wanting to destroy the ACLU and the nonprofit liberal-leaning Tides Foundation. He was likely influenced by conservative conspiracy theorists and had the altogether nutty idea that Obama and George Soros blew up the Deepwater Horizon oil rig intentionally so they could either make money or get cap-and-trade passed, or something. I dunno, it's tough to wade through that line of thought.

Sadly, the predictable attempts to turn this whole thing against Glenn Beck followed, most notably from Dana Milbank at the Washington Post. Milbank writes:
In August, I wrote that while it's not fair to blame Beck for violence committted by his fans, he would do well to stop encouraging extremists. Now, Williams has granted a pair of jailhouse interviews, one with the conservative and one to be published soon by the liberal group Media Matters. These recorded exchanges, which I have reviewed, show precisely why Beck is dangerous: because his is the one voice in the mass media that validates conspiracy theories held by the unstable.
Translation: I'm not blaming Beck, but really... I'm blaming Beck.

But something else occurs to me. Let's give Milbank's paragraph a little rewrite, eh?
In August, I wrote that while it's not fair to blame Islam for violence committed by its fans, Muslims would do well to stop encouraging extremists... These recorded exchanges, which I have reviewed, show precisely why Islam is dangerous: because it is the one religion in the mass culture that validates conspiracy theories held by the unstable.
I could have pulled that straight from Pam Geller's website.

Hey, this is fun! Let's see what Media Matters' Eric Boehlert has to say:
And thankfully, Williams wasn't able to take his place alongside a growing list of domestic, anti-government terrorists, such as the recent Pentagon shooter, the Holocaust Museum gunman, the kamikaze pilot who flew his plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, and the Pittsburgh cop-killer who set up an ambush because he was convinced Obama was going to take away his guns the Fort Hood shooter, the underpants bomber, and the Times Square bomber.

All the vigilante attacks appear to have been fueled by an almost pathological hatred for the U.S. government -- the same open hatred that right-wing bloggers, AM talk radio hosts, and Fox News' lineup of anti-government prophets Muslims have been frantically fueling for the last year, pushing doomsday warnings of America's democratic demise under President Obama attacks on Islam.

And the sad truth is we're going to see more like Byron Williams. We're going to see more attempts at vigilante violence during the Age of Obama simply because the right-wing media, lead by Beck,Muslims continue to gleefully (albeit irresponsibly) stoke dangerous fires with the kind of relentlessly incendiary rhetoric that has no match in terms of modern day, mainstream use in American politics or media.
Try it yourself, it's really quite entertaining.

And that is what I think we ought to remember. Blaming Beck and company (and by extension the entire populist right wing) for right-wing terrorism* is the same as blaming Islam or American Muslims for extremist Islamic terror attacks. In both cases, people seek to delegitimize an entire group because of the craziest actions of its craziest adherents. And both approaches are equally intellectually bankrupt.

My fellow lefties don't reach the same fever pitch as the conservatives do when they rant about Muslims - we're not going to be whining that Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina's campaign signs should be kept off that stretch of I-580 anytime soon, after all. But the line of reasoning is the same, and just as disgusting wherever it comes from or whoever it's aimed at.

*Let's be honest here, by any meaningful definition of the term Byron Williams is a terrorist, and a more successful one than either Faisal Shahzad or Captain Underpants since he actually did injure people.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Of Surveys and Religious Minorities

I'll get to the commentary, but first, a story.

A few years ago I was working for a state legislature campaign, and I was assigned to canvassing. My canvassing partner one day was a young woman from the Swift Creek neighborhood, which is a (proudly) unincorporated area just south of Raleigh. It was near one of the High Holidays, and so the fact came up that I was Jewish. The young woman was surprised - she had never actually met a Jew before, and knew absolutely nothing about my religion. She proceeded to ask a few questions ranging from simple theology (you don't believe in Jesus, right?) to the vaguely stereotypical (so are you all really tight with money?). But the point is: this young woman wasn't from East Bumblefuck - she had grown up in spitting distance of one of the most highly educated cities in America, and she knew nothing about Judaism.

Hold that thought.

Recently, the Pew Forum put out a survey of Americans' religious knowledge, and the result - that atheists and agnostics scored higher on it than anyone else - has led to predictable crowing from the atheist set. A sample, from Amanda Marcotte:
Turns out knowing more about the actual details of religion correlates more to rejecting. Religion reminds me of those insects that have showy, beautiful colorings. It seems really beautiful, but if you examine it up close, it’s actually a big, gross insect with hairy legs and overall creepy-crawliness.
It's a fascinating narrative, but it's not supported by the actual facts. First, the numbers - Pew reports that while atheists do have the highest score overall, at 20.9 out of 32 questions correct, Jews and Mormons are right there within statistical significance at 20.5 and 20.3, respectively. Non-LDS Christians all come in between 17.6 and 11.6, depending on the branch. Furthermore, Pew - in an epic example of "burying the lede," reports later that
[d]ata from the survey indicate that educational attainment – how much schooling an individual has completed – is the single best predictor of religious knowledge. College graduates get nearly eight more questions right on average than do people with a high school education or less. Having taken a religion course in college is also strongly associated with higher religious knowledge.
The more educated you are, the more knowledge you have about religions. That's so obvious that it's damn near tautological.

But I think there's something else at work here that separates atheists, Jews, and Mormons from the mainstream Christians. The three groups listed are the only three religious minorities surveyed by Pew (they missed Muslims for some reason). Out of 26 questions that Pew classified, 12 were on Christianity and the Bible, 11 were on other religions, and 4 were on religion's role in government. A test set up thus is going to be easier for minorities to succeed on, and here's why.

Recall my story. It's possible for a Christian in a fairly urbane area of the country to know absolutely nothing about Judaism, which is the "world religion" most known among Americans. But if you're Jewish and growing up in Raleigh, do you think there's any chance you'd grow up ignorant of the basic tenets of Christianity? Of course not. We live in a relatively Christianized culture (regardless of what blowhards like Bill O'Reilly would have you believe) where basic Christian beliefs are referenced almost daily. We basically learn about the belief in Jesus as the son of God, the story of his crucifixion, and the meaning of Christmas and Easter by osmosis by the time we reach adulthood. There's no way anyone living in America and participating fully in society would not know the basics of Christianity. Furthermore, being a religious minority makes you acutely aware of your religious identity. While most Christians have the luxury of not really thinking about religion as a differentiating tool (in the same way as white people can avoid thinking about race), Jews and atheists - and to some extent Mormons, who are Christian but often looked upon suspiciously by mainstream Christians - do not have that luxury. We're reminded that we're religious minorities every single day. As such, we're generally more keen to learn about religion since religious identity is such a huge part of the way other Americans see us.

The numbers demonstrate both of these trends. Pew reports that of the Christian questions, Mormons and white Evangelicals performed best (7.9 and 7.3 out of 11, respectively), but Jews and atheists knew as much as the average Christian. Jews got 6.3 and atheists got 6.7, and the average among all Christians was 6.2. However, on the world religion section, Jews and atheists outperformed everyone by a landslide - 7.9 and 7.5 out of 11, respectively, compared to a Christian average of 4.7. Ouch. Mormons lagged a bit, but were still the third-highest scorers on that section - they answered 5.6 correct. That's well enough to put them in the upper echelon when combined with their superior knowledge of Christianity.

In sum: Jews and atheists, forced every day to think about religions not their own, do better on questions about other religions. They do just as well as Christians on questions about Christianity because our culture is Christian and they learn it by default. Meanwhile, Christians, who have the luxury of being members of the dominant culture, don't do well when asked questions about religions they never have to think about unless they so desire. And this is surprising... how?