Thursday, January 7, 2010

Early Years of Sarah Palin

Going Rogue, Ch. 1 § 1-7

Palin's writing is not as stilted as I expected it to be. There have been a few howlers along the way--ludicrous folksy dribble that has no place on the printed page--and the occasional informality that I would have asked her to take out if I had been her editor at Harper. But overall, it's not such a horrendous read. I certainly write more fluently than I speak, and the same could easily be true of Palin.

Palin's life is far less interesting than that of her father, Chuck Heath. She does a decent job of depicting the man as a hardworking, generous and upright person. By his daughter's account, Heath was a dedicated educator and coach as well as a highly talented athlete. I'm from a blue-collar family, and I appreciate her stories about her parents' hard work and frugality. What bothers me is when Palin suggests that her small-town upbringing makes her morally superior to others. My parents have toiled away to provide for me, and they raised me to live responsibly and to make good decisions. They did this without instilling me with some sense that we are extraordinary or especially praiseworthy.

They also managed to turn me into a functional adult without a pervasive Christian faith. Palin's sanctimonious discussion of her attempt to fill the "God-shaped vaccuum" in her soul is the most difficult material to get through.


Palin has a sister name Heather Heath. I hate people who give their children stupid names. Plenty more of that to come.


"[Patriotism] stirred in me as my class read the Pledge of Allegiance. I felt proud and tall as we pledged on our hearts every morning." p. 15

The Pledge of Allegiance never gave me a warm feeling in my heart. It never seemed like anything other than a hollow exercise to me, and that was reinforced in 2002 when the state legislature tried to make it mandatory that all public school students say the Pledge every day. None of the kids in any of my classes--even in highly Republican central Pennsylvania--ever showed any enthusiasm for the words in the Pledge. The more history I learned, the more obvious it became to me that the words in the Pledge were hypocritical. It painted America as a country that didn't keep its promises.


"I developed a love of reading and writing early on." p. 15

I was utterly astounded when I read this. I can't force myself to believe that the young Sarah Heath was a bibliophile. The idea that that women enjoys poetry or literature is totally baffling.


"The downside [of the economic development spurred by the completion of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline] was the concurrent spike in social problems. Without the law enforcement resources to keep things in check, prostitution, gambling and illegal drugs proliferated in the growing population, especially in the pipeline towns like Fairbanks." p. 21

Shouldn't someone who glorifies the frontier lifestyle be a little more accepting of prostitution, gambling and substance abuse? Those activities are hallmarks the American frontier. It is precisely because law enforcement has better things to do that these things are the last priority in frontier areas. Palin earlier complained about being pulled over on a snowmachine and wondering whether the officer involved didn't have better things to do. I think someone who rides a snowmachine where it doesn't belong is--depending on where exactly the incident happened, which Palin didn't specify--a much bigger threat to public safety than someone who gambles or buys a hooker.

I count Palin's complaint about being pulled over as her first indication that she thinks the rules don't apply to her. Everyone who gets pulled over sneers that the police have better things to do than enforce traffic regulations. But she doesn't seem to have any problem with state resources being used to police victimless activities like gambling and drug use.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Going Rogue

At long last I have purchased and begun reading Sarah Palin's memoir Going Rogue. I will be blogging my thoughts about the tome as I work through it.

My inaugural comment about Palin's book is that I find it impossible to respect anyone who uses a ghostwriter. If you're smart enough to hold high office, you're smart enough to write your own book. Good writers and mediocre writers alike rely on editors. Only abysmally bad writers can't cobble together a draft to send to their editor without a coauthor holding their hand every step of the way.

Chapter 1, § I

The stilted writing hits you from the very start. Palin recounts on page 2 that a constituent at the 2008 Alaska State Fair told her:

"Price of energy's pretty high, Governor. When are they gonna ramp up drilling?"

I don't know how people talk in Alaska, but I honestly doubt that anyone said something substantially like that quote to then-Gov. Palin's face. That's a pretty transparent attempt to insert one of Palin's pet issues into what is ostensibly a biographical section of her book. She's trying to push the idea that, to folks in Alaska, it's just common sense to support drilling for oil. No doubt the breakdown among Alaskans on the issue of domestic oil drilling is different than it is in the rest of the country, but the way Palin drops that in there without comment is pretty self-serving.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Spreading the wealth around

Why do global warming deniers complain about the redistribution of wealth? Opponents of responsible climate change policy often complain, as Rick Santorum did recently, about the supposed desire to redistribute wealth from developed countries to poor countries that supposedly underlies proposals designed to fight global warming.

To be intellectually honest, they should say that they are worried about arresting the redistribution of wealth from poor countries to rich countries. The international economy is well-designed to allow American and other Western corporations to exploit the cheap labor and natural resources of non-Western countries. That's the baseline we have to start from when we have this conversation.

What's more, Santorum and his school clearly don't understand climate policy the way I do. Strict limits on carbon emissions will impede the economic growth of poor countries and stanch the flow of trillions of dollars of wealth from rich oil importers to oil-producing countries. I don' t see that as some great scheme to tax advanced countries and hand money out to the global poor.

This debate is couched in Santorum's whining about evil dogmatic scientists suppressing all the evidence that contradicts evolution. This is as baseless as it always is. According to Santorum:

'[T]he scientific "community" claims there is no controversy, and that debate should be banned.'

That's a blatant straw man. Scientists will tell you there is no legitimate scientific dispute over the theory of evolution. There are controversies about details, and those details are debated frequently. But when scientists saw that it should not be legal to teach anti-scientific nonsense in sciences classes, this is not the same as trying to ban debate. Rick Santorum can have a debate about evolution any day of the year. What he would not be able to do, were he still a sitting legislator, is force science teachers to put his religious ideas into their curricula.

Turning to climate change, Santorum appeals to the ersatz 'climate-gate' scandal, which he says revealed 'gross misconduct' by climate scientists. Says Santorum:

'Yet we all know that the world has been both much hotter and much colder than it is today, and that temperatures have changed dramatically over the millennia for a multitude of reasons.'

But how does Santorum know that? Why is it that when climate scientists say there was an Ice Age 40,000 years ago, he never doubts them, but when they say with no less evidence that human activity is drastically changing the Earth's climate, they're part of a conspiracy? Furthermore, I'm surprised that Santorum even knows that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old. When geologists say that the Earth is billions of years old, Santorum takes their claim at face value. When they say that the fossil record displays an obvious development of complex organisms from less complex ancestors, they must be lying. Okay.

It's too late at night for me to address the slew of scientific howlers at the end of Santorum's column. Maybe I'll hit them in the morning.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Birther theory

Just for my own amusement, I'm going to post a brief summary of the Birther conspiracy theory positing that President Obama is not a natural-born citizen of the United States. There are ample records showing that Obama's parents were both students at the University of Hawaii during the year before their marriage and his birth, that a birth certificate was issued in Hawaii for his birth, and that the Department of Health made birth announcements for the future president in two local Honolulu newspapers.

As I understand it, the story goes like this: A young Kenyan student named Barack Hussein Obama decided in the late 1950s that he wanted to destroy the United States from within. His plan was as follows: Earn a scholarship to study in the United States, go to the University of Hawaii and enroll as the first black student there. Set up contacts in the state's Department of Health in order to fabricate documents, then marry a white woman and have a child. Shortly before the child's birth, fly away to Kenya and deliver the baby there. Then get your contacts with the Department of Health to produce not only a false birth certificate, to establish your son (or daughter) as a natural born citizen and therefore elligible to be president, but also to publish a number false birth announcements in local papers. Pay off airline officials so that they ignore regulations barring newborns from flying on international flights, and return to the United States. Continue your studies at the university, but eventually abandon the child and rely on him or her to become the first African American president, and possibly also the first female president. Also rely on him or her, through no influence of your own, to become a radical Marxist who shares your goal of destroying the United States from within.

Friday, June 5, 2009


I decided today to engage myself with two long-term projects. I plan to run the Philadelphia Marathon Nov. 22, which will take a lot of training over the next 24 weeks. Since no one reads this blog anyway, it doesn't matter, but I'm going to post occasionally on my progress as a form of motivation. Hopefully.

My other project is to read the Koran. I've read some of Sura 2 in the past, and I didn't enjoy it. But I'm starting over. Here goes.

Sura 1 is a short devotional statement known as Al-Fatiha. This sura is only seven verses long, and says some nice things about God:

"Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds, the Benificent, the Merciful, Thee alone we worship, Thee alone we ask for help." (1:3-5)

It finishes up by expressing the hope that those who recite the prayer will not be led astray. As we'll see in the next Sura, the Koran doesn't waste any time in condemning non-believers. This little doxology here doesn't mean much to me. I hope that I never become a Muslim just as strongly as any Muslim hopes not to someday become an apostate.

It should be noted that Bismillah is the first word of the Koran.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Mexico City on the Supreme Court?

In the discussion of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, President Barack Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court, commentators have pointed out that there is no strong evidence on her stance on abortion, which is generally speaking the litmus test issue for Supreme Court nominees. People who are concerned about the ideological composition of the Court are primarily worried about the possibility that a change in the Court's lineup will result in the overturn of 1973's Roe v. Wade decision, which struck down abortion bans across the country.

Many people on the far left, people who are not fans of the Democratic Party, pointed out last year that Barack Obama would be likely to appoint very different Supreme Court justices than his opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). McCain pledged to appoint judges in the mold of Chief Justice John Roberts or Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito, President George Bush's two appointees to the Court. It was clear at that time that this president would make at least two nominations to the Court, and the left wanted those justices to be pro-choice as much as the Republican base wanted additional pro-life justices sitting on the Court.

There is an unspoken premise here that the Court will treat abortion the same way the executive branch does. The model here is the Mexico City Policy, which was enunciated by Ronald Reagan in 1984. It has been upheld by Republican presidents and revoked by Democrats since that time. The policy barred federal agencies from giving funding to foreign organizations that advocate or fund abortions. Court-watchers usually assume that justices will treat abortion in the same way politicians do. As Justice Antonin Scalia pointed out in his dissenting opinion to the 1992 abortion case Planned Parenthood v. Casey (and no doubt on countless other occasions), the Supreme Court is not supposed to be motivated by policy preferences. The Court deals with matters of law, and is tasked with making rulings based on what the Constitution does or does not say.

We usually assume not only that presidents will enforce their preferences on abortion through their Supreme Court nominations, but that that is a desirable way for politics to operate. I find that troubling, and I won't endorse that as I make my point about Sotomayor and the effect she'll have on the issue.

The Court directly addressed the precedent of Roe in the aforementioned Casey decision. There have been four changes in the composition of the Court since that time.

  • Byron White, who voted to overturn Roe in 1992, was shortly replaced by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a supporter of abortion rights and presumably a justice who would vote to uphold Roe if it was challenged. Ginsburg voted to strike down laws against partial-birth abortion in 2000's Stenberg v. Carhart.
  • Harry Blackmun, the author of the Roe decision, was replaced by Steven Breyer. Breyer is consistently liberal and wrote for the majority in Carhart. This is presumably not a change in the Court's ideological composition.
  • The late Chief Justice William Rehnquist was replaced by John G. Roberts in 2005. Rehnquist voted to overturn Roe, and Roberts would likely do the same.
  • Sandra Day O'Connor, the author of the Casey decision, retired in 2005 and was replaced by Samuel A. Alito, who was promoted from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Alito had been the dissenting vote on Casey at the appellate level, meaning that he voted to uphold the abortion restrictions eventually struck down by the Supreme Court. Alito would most likely vote to strike down Roe.
  • Scalia and Clarence Thomas, both of whom voted to overturn Roe, remain on the Court, as do Anthony Kennedy, John Paul Stevens and David Souter, who voted to uphold it.
Granting the assumptions listed above, the net impact of these changes would be that if the Court was to rule on Roe today, it would be a 5-4 decision to uphold, as it was 17 years ago. Clearly, though, there will be at least one change to the Court before a major abortion decision is rendered. Souter is retiring, and Sotomayor has been nominated to replace him. Ginsburg and Stevens are both aged, and Ginsburg is ill. It is exspected that both will retire soon. Kennedy and Scalia are also possible retirees. The only person on the Casey Court who is likely to remain for any length of time is Thomas, who was appointed in 1991 at the age of 43.

Since Obama is considered a strong supporter of abortion rights, and since conservatives decried Sotomayor as an activist even before it was known whom Obama would support, one would expect Sotomayor to be a stauch supporter of the Roe decision, but we have no evidence to support that as yet. There are a handful of cases dealing tangentially with abortion that have come before her on the 2nd Circuit Court, but none have dealt with the fundamental issues involved in Roe.

In a 2002 case, Center for Reproductive Law and Policy vs. Bush, the 2nd Circuit upheld the Mexico City Policy against a challenge from a pro-abortion right group. The group claimed the policy violated their rights to free speech, due process and equal protection. Sotomayor and the 2nd Circuit denied all three claims on various grounds and in keeping with a nearly identical case before the same court some years earlier.

When Sotomayor comes before the Senate for confirmation, no doubt this question will be watched carefully.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Richard Dawkins is wrong

I've been reading Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, and I've come across a passage that betrays a very common misconception in microeconomics. Chapter 8, "Battle of the Generations," talks about the evolutionary pressures promoting kin altruism, or behaviors that lead animals to aid others that are likely to carry the same genes as they do (i.e. their kin.) Dawkins talks about favoritism, or a genetic tendency which leads an animal to favor one of its offspring over another. He has just pointed out that some animals neglect or kill runts in order to devote more resources to other members of a litter. There are situations in which sacrificing one offspring will ultimately lead to more surviving grandchildren, which is in a sense the ultimate goal of reproduction. After bringing up the case of runts, Dawkins continues:

"We can make some more general predictions about how a mother's tendency to invest in a child might be affected by his age. If she has a straight choice between saving the life of one child or saving the life of another, and if the one she does not save is bound to die, she should prefer the older one. This is because she stands to lose a higher proportion of her life's parental investment if he dies than if his little brother dies. Perhaps a better way to put this is that if she saves the little brother she will still have to invest some costly resources in him just to get him up to the age of the big brother." -- The Selfish Gene, p. 125
It should be noted that "Parental Investment" or P.I. is a hypothetical resource used in abstract discussions of of the behavior of parent animals. It refers to all the resources an animal has at its disposal to aid the survival of a member of it species, be it a child, another relative, or itself.

The whole discussion relies on talk of what a mother "should" do, which is a shorthand for describing which behavior will lead to more of her genes living on in the bodies of her offspring. There is, of course, no moral judgment made anywhere in this discussion. It is merely a description of the mechanism of natural selection.

The problem with Dawkins's explanation lies within the last two sentences:
"This is because she stands to lose a higher proportion of her life's parental investment if he dies than if his little brother dies. Perhaps a better way to put this is that if she saves the little brother she will still have to invest some costly resources in him just to get him up to the age of the big brother." These two statements are not equivalent, and the first one is flatly incorrect.

The amount of P.I. previously invested is
what economists refer to as "sunk costs." There is nothing a mother animal can do to retrieve the calories, nutrients, time and other resources she has expended in raising her children up the day on which we find her.
In making investment decisions, people often consider the investments they have already made in the past, which is irrational.

If you've already invested $100,000 in a factory, but no level of output from that factory will allow you to meet your break-even point, you are best served by shutting down the factory. You surely want to recoup your investment on the factory, but if you will lose money by producing things at there, then opening the factory is not the way to go about it.
Dawkins is talking about genes, which are perfectly rational in the sense that they do not make conscious decisions. Genes exist in the population based on how their expression affected the reproduction of previous generations. Therefore past investment is not a factor in the "decision" made by the genes in his scenario. The tableau constructed in the quoted paragraph presents two "choices":

A.) Save the older child, leading to the death of the younger.
B.) Save the younger child, leading to the death of the older.

The prior levels of investment of P.I. have absolutely no bearing on whether a gene happens to promote option A or option B. Therefore past investment is not a consideration. To illustrate this further, let's instead assume that the older child is not the offspring of the animal in question but instead its sibling, which also shares 50 percent of its genes with the decision-maker. Let's assume, though, that that sibling has entailed zero previous investment by the decision-maker, but that it will be under the care of the decision-maker from now on. In this case, it is still the right choice, genetically speaking, to save the older child, for the reason Dawkins explained in the final sentence of the paragraph.

What matters is the future investment necessary to see the child pass on its genes, half of which are the same genes as those in the adult decision-maker's body. The decision that leads to that outcome with the least expenditure from the decision-maker going forward is the one which will be adaptive, all else equal.Under my scenario, saving your brother is more adaptive than saving one's son, if the brother is significantly older than the son.

UPDATE: Having read further in Dawkins, he points out precisely this fallacy in the next chapter. He continues to make statements about the waste of past investment, but he does say explicitly that, strictly speaking, past investment doesn't effect future decisions. In fact, he published a paper on this theme in response to the work by R.L. Trivers, who did the pioneering work on this subject and apparently made this mistake.