Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Question for Ted Cruz and Rick Perry

"Q: The 2014 Platform of the Republican Party of Texas says, 'Homosexuality is a chosen behavior that is contrary to the fundamental unchanging truths that have been ordained by God in the Bible, recognized by our nation’s founders, and shared by the majority of Texans.... ' Do you agree with this statement?"

At that, the statement represents a degree of moderation from the 2010 platform, which says, "We believe that the practice of homosexuality tears at the fabric of society, contributes to the breakdown of the family unit, and leads to the spread of dangerous, communicable diseases." It then goes on to talk about the fundamental unchanging truths, etc. I always hoped that someone would ask Ron Paul about this in 2012.

By the way, does anyone know where they're getting this stuff about our nation's founders?

If you start looking the 2014 platform, though, you can find all kinds of statements that a national Presidential candidate would probably prefer not to deal with, at least during the general election:

"We support eliminating bureaucratic prohibitions on corporal discipline and home schooling in foster homes."

"We support an immediate and orderly transition to a system of private pensions based on the concept of individual retirement accounts, and gradually phasing out the Social Security tax."

"We urge the legislature to end censorship of discussion of religion in our founding documents and encourage discussing those documents, including the Bible as their basis. Students and district personnel have the right to display Christian items on school property."

"We oppose any sex education other than the biology of reproduction and abstinence until marriage."

But why go on? This is the full right-wing-crank stuff. Supporting those positions probably wouldn't damage Cruz or Perry at all in the Republican primaries. But that's interesting in itself, no?

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Myth of the "Ten Commandments"

The Ten Commandments have been in the news again; the Christian right has been saying silly things in their effort to convince people that the Founders intended the U.S. to be a Christian nation. There is, for example, the Texas school textbook that says the Constitution was influenced by the Ten Commandments. This is like saying that my Honda owner's manual was influenced by "Hamlet"; there is simply no overlap between the two. Put the two documents side by side and see if you can find any resemblance.

But that brought up another question: Why do Christians attach such importance to the Ten Commandments? It seems awfully, shall we say, Old Testament. Out of all the Old Testament, why is this the part that Christians want to carve into two-ton sculptures?

Actually, not everyone believes that Christians need to follow the Ten Commandments; some hold out for faith alone. But among those who do think they must be followed, many sources, including the Catechism of the Catholic Church, cite this passage from Matthew 19:

16And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 

17And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 

18He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Christians conclude that "Keep the commandments" means "Follow the Ten Commandments." But that raises questions. First, "Which ones?" Really? Ten is too many? Second, why does Jesus put in that sixth item, about loving your neighbor? The usual explanation is that this is a sort of summary of the others. But it's certainly not a summary of the missing ones, which include not worshiping idols and observing the Sabbath.

To an observant Jew (I'm not one, but seemingly Jesus was) this is all way off the mark, a misunderstanding. Any observant Jew knows what "Keep the commandments" means. It refers to the 613 commandments (mitzvot) in the Five Books of Moses. So the question "Which ones?" makes perfect sense. How important is eating matzoh on Passover? Not mixing wool and linen? Wearing fringes on your garments? Jesus then lists six that he considers important. The sixth is not his own invention; it's another one of the 613 mitzvot, found in Leviticus 19:18.

In fact, Jesus could not have been talking about those ten things written on the two stone tablets, because in Hebrew they are not even called "the Ten Commandments." They're called something like the Ten Words or the Ten Utterances (hence the Greek Decalogue).  Jews consider the first one to be "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt," so only the remaining nine are actual commandments.

The Ten Utterances are considered to be God's covenant with Israel. Remember "Raiders of the Lost Ark"? The box in which the Israelites carried the two stone tablets was called the Ark of the Covenant, not the Ark of the Commandments. And Jews believe that only some of the commandments in the covenant are binding on non-Jews. Notice that in the First Utterance, God says "...who brought you out of the land of Egypt." Brought whom out of the land of Egypt? You're off the hook, Christians.

Things I don't understand, o my Christian brethren:

(1) Christians are quite emphatic that Jesus gave them a New Covenant to supplant the Old Covenant that Jews had with God. So why would you adopt the Old Covenant in its entirety?

(2) A man asks the central figure in Christianity--the Son of God--what laws to follow. The man is given a list of six laws. Christians do not respond by writing them on the walls of their churches. Instead, they put aside the sixth one, and add five others that Jesus doesn't mention. Why?

Well, for whatever reason, that's what the Christians did. And so the Ten Commandments became "the very cornerstone of Western Civilization, and the basis of our legal system here in America." Surely no one can dispute that.

I do dispute it. Take a look at our nation's prisons.  You will find no one convicted of Sabbath-breaking, adultery, making graven images, coveting, or giving their parents lip. The Puritans, certainly, might have locked up such people, but that's never been part of "our legal system here in America." (Yes, I know, Massachusetts used to have blue laws.) The only Commandments whose violation is a felony in America are those against murder, theft, and perjury, and probably those were felonies in Ming Dynasty China and Egypt under the Pharaohs. Conversely, we managed to come up with laws against rape, sale of narcotics, child molestation, prostitution, and many other things not mentioned in Ten Commandments.

So there you have it. If I were a believing Christian, I'd just try to follow the Six Commandments. And I'd object vociferously if anyone tried to tell me the Ten Commandments are the basis for American law.


Thursday, April 30, 2015

"Dzhokhar Tsarnaev"

The trial is now in the penalty phase, and I can't think of anything to say. So I'll talk about linguistics and orthography.

Looking at his name, you can tell he's from a country in the former Soviet Union. First, it's obviously a non-Russian name, but it has the ov/ev ending common in Russian names. The president of Kazakhstan is Nursultan Nazarbayev, and the president of Uzbekistan is Islam Karimov. I don't know whether the intent was to seem Russian or just to make it fit into Russian grammar better.

The real giveaway, though, is the first name. Like many languages, Russian does not have the English "j" sound as in joy, jam, Juliet. But it does have a "zh" sound, like the "s" in "pleasure" or the "z" in "azure." So it transliterates the "j" sound as "dzh." Try saying it. (Incidentally, "dzh" doesn't look quite as awkward in Cyrillic, where it's only two letters:  дж)

In French, as you may know, the letter j is pronounced "zh". They transliterate our "j" sound as "dj". Thus we get Django Reinhardt, who was born in Belgium. Quentin Tarantino notwithstanding, I'm certain that there never was an American slave named Django; Americans would have spelled it Jango.

Djibouti is only one of the many places where French orthography has left its scar on the map of Africa. My favorite is Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, which under the British Empire would've been called Wagadugu. Other than that, I don't know whether Africans were worse off under the French or the British, though apparently the Belgians were the worst.

Another sound French lacks is the English "ch" sound in "cheese," which it writes "tch" ("ch" is pronounced "sh"). Chad managed to escape calling itself Tchad, which is what it's called in French. But poor Tchaikovsky somehow ended up that way in English, instead of Chaikovsky

Oh, and the "kh" in "Dzhokhar" is of course the German "ch" sound. For Americans, he pronounced that as an "h".

On second thought, I do have one comment about the trial. There may be good arguments for putting Tsarnaev to death. That he gave the finger to the camera in his cell is not one of them. The prosecution is being shamelessly manipulative, and not very truthful. This is a serious business. Take it seriously, Department of Justice.

Monday, April 20, 2015

On the Question "When Does Human Life Begin?"

When does an oak tree's life begin? I am not asking this frivolously.

I would say: An oak tree begins life as an acorn.

But an acorn is not the same thing as an oak tree. Then when does an oak tree become an oak tree? That's a much harder question.

The question is not, When does human life begin? That's easy: at conception. The question is, When does a human become a human? That's a much harder question.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Israeli Elections II: Bibi's Last Rabbit?

Benjamin Netanyahu used to be known in Israel as "The Magician," and there did seem to be something paranormal about how he saved himself in last month's election. Trailing by four seats in the polls four days before the election, his Likud party ended up on top by six seats, for a big increase over the previous election. Here's that chart from Wikipedia again:


PartyVotes%Seats+/–
Likud985,40823.4030+12
Zionist Union786,31318.6724+3
Joint List446,58310.6113+2
Yesh Atid371,6028.8211–8
Kulanu315,3607.4910New
The Jewish Home283,9106.748–4
Shas241,6135.747–4
Yisrael Beiteinu214,9065.106–7
United Torah Judaism210,1434.996–1
Meretz165,5293.935–1

So how did he do it? Did Israel suddenly shift to the right?

Not noticeably. Here's the above chart, as recalculated by me:

Votes %
Seats
+/–
Right 1,484,224 35.2% 44 +1
Center 686,962 16.3% 21 +2
Left 1,150,937 27.3% 29 +2
Ultra-Orth. 451,756 10.7% 13 -5
Arab 446,583 10.6% 13 +2

Looked at this way, there's been almost no change. What Netanyahu apparently managed to do was scare people enough that they deserted the other right-wing parties and voted for Likud. That made Likud the biggest party, giving them the first chance to put together a coalition. But overall, there wasn't much change in the proportion voting for each group.*

If not for the shift to Likud from other right-wing parties, the Zionist Union would have won; then it can easily put together a center-left coalition that, with passive support from the Arabs, could get a majority of more than 60.**  But Bibi pulls out the win!

The question now is what the cost will be to Netanyahu in the long run. Certainly his Election Day appearance on Facebook, warning that Arabs were coming out to vote "in droves," and were being bused in by leftist organizations, did not make a favorable impression among Americans, who quickly translate it to: "Come out and vote, because liberals are driving busloads of blacks to the polls!"  Polarized though American politics has become, that hasn't been a conceivable statement by an American  politician in at least forty years. (Netanyahu later apologized, but I don't think anyone was mollified.)

More problematic still was Netanyahu's statement that there wouldn't be a Palestinian state on his watch, followed after the election with a "Ha, ha, just kidding!" This was about the last straw for the Obama administration, which seems to feel liberated now that it is no longer obliged to believe that Netanyahu is sincere. I think it's possible that Bibi's bag of tricks is now empty.


* In fact, probably less than appears-- one of the ultra-Orthodox parties didn't make the new higher cutoff and so is not counted above, resulting in a small gain in seats for everyone else.

** You can't get over 60 with the ultra-Orthodox parties instead, because then you lose one of the centrist parties.





Friday, April 10, 2015

How To Solve the California Water Crisis

The California water crisis is all over the national news, thanks to Gov. Jerry Brown's imposition last week of mandatory cuts in urban water use averaging 25%. This has resulted in a lot of finger-pointing, as people blame their pet peeves.

For example, we're told that, in the middle of a drought, fracking (the controversial new technique for oil and gas extraction) used up 70 million gallons of water last year. But when you do the math, this turns out to be about five millionths of California's water use. Then there's the attack on Nestlé for bottling and selling California's water. You can say, with some justification, that bottled water is a waste of money, plastic, and energy. What you can't say is that it's a waste of water-- I mean, people are drinking it. (OK, Nestlé may be shipping some of it out of state.)

To my surprise, though, a lot of the finger-pointing this time has focused on the real issue: Brown's restrictions apply only to urban water use, but that represents just 20% of California's water use (around 10% to households and 10% to business and industry). The other 80% goes to agriculture. So a 25% reduction in urban use, a pretty drastic reduction, saves about the same amount of water as a 6% reduction in agricultural use.

And the fingers are pointing pretty hard. Ten percent of California's water goes to almond farming-- in other words, as much as goes to all household use. A hundred billion gallons a year goes to alfalfa exported to China.

Here we come to the fork in the road that divides most people from people with some background in economics. The former say, "That's outrageous! Maybe we should ban almond growing in California. Maybe we should make people aware of how much water is going into those almonds they're eating." The latter say, "Boy, the farmers really aren't paying enough for water."

Enter the famous "miracle of the market." We don't need to decide whether growing almonds is worth it, where they should be grown instead,  and what crops, if any, should replace them. We raise the price farmers pay for water, charging them a price comparable to the wholesale price of water in Los Angeles, and let farmers figure that out. Maybe they should continue growing almonds but not alfalfa, or vice versa. Maybe they should raise vegetables. Maybe they should install more efficient irrigation systems. Maybe they should pack it in and move to Palm Springs. In any case, consumers don't have to decide whether or not to feel guilty about eating almonds.

Unfortunately, this particular miracle of the market leaves quite a bit of damage in its wake. Many farmers probably go out of business, and the ones who don't are a lot poorer than they used to be. A lot of people may not like that result, especially the farmers themselves. What then?

Suppose we keep the price of water to farmers where it is, but allow them to wholesale some of their water (or water rights) to the cities. What happens? Clearly the farmers are no worse off; they can always decide not to sell.  But now, for every gallon (or million gallons, or acre-foot) wasted through inefficient irrigation or overly thirsty crops, the farmer loses the opportunity to make serious money. Now farmers have the same incentive to conserve as if they had to pay a higher price, without being impoverished. Maybe they grow almonds, maybe alfalfa, maybe something else, maybe it's off to Palm Springs (which they'll now be able to afford). End of problem.

Of course it's a little trickier than that. To allow farmers to sell their water means untangling the complexities of Western water law, under which, for example, you can lose your right to water if you don't use it, and some farmers have rights that are senior to other farmers'. But most of this is state law, so California could fix it if the pressure gets intense enough. Also, you need a good regulatory system for groundwater, which California is just putting into place; otherwise farmers just pump the aquifers dry and sell the water. But basically, end of problem.

Wait! say the Greens. What about all those huge lawns in Los Angeles? Actually, per capita use in LA has been going down, as people install more low-flow bathroom fixtures, xeriscape their yards, and fill their pools with Pinot Grigio (well, in Beverly Hills). But maybe even with the farmers using less, we still need to cut back on urban use.

So we could go the Jerry Brown route and impose a mandatory cut, making everyone use only 75% as much as they do now. Or... consider this: Suppose we make the first 50% free. Then we triple the price of every gallon thereafter. Now people who use 75% pay the same as they would have with the mandatory cut. But those who feel they've just gotta have more water for their pet beluga whale can do it, at a steep price. And perhaps more important, people have an incentive to conserve below 75% if they can, because it saves them a lot of money. Those people come out ahead financially. In particular, poor people probably come out ahead.

It's remarkable how many problems can be fixed by getting the prices right. Like global warming. But let's not get into that.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Israeli Elections I: What's With the Arabs?

Israeli Arabs were pretty excited about this election, but not because there were unusual issues. A change in the election law had raised the vote threshold for representation in the Knesset (Israel's parliament), threatening the elimination of the three small Arab parties. The result was that they overcame their differences and ran on the same ticket, which they called the Joint List. Arab voters were excited because for the first time it it seemed possible that there would be a large Arab party in the Knesset.

And so it turned out. Here's a chart from Wikipedia:

PartyVotes%Seats+/–
Likud985,40823.4030+12
Zionist Union786,31318.6724+3
Joint List446,58310.6113+2
Yesh Atid371,6028.8211–8
Kulanu315,3607.4910New
The Jewish Home283,9106.748–4
Shas241,6135.747–4
Yisrael Beiteinu214,9065.106–7
United Torah Judaism210,1434.996–1
Meretz165,5293.935–1

The Joint List ended up the third-largest group, with 13 seats out of 120. In testimony to the enthusiasm of the Arab electorate, they got two more seats than all three combined had in the last election.

So with this new big party, how much power will the Arabs have in the new Knesset? 

Well, basically... none.

You see, the right-wing Likud won the election, and now should be able to put together a coalition of the right and the ultra-Orthodox (everyone from Kulanu through United Torah Judaism in the chart above). As long as the coalition holds together, it doesn't need the Arabs. And the coalition includes some pretty anti-Arab people. As for a Palestinian state, forget it. 

Now let's imagine a different scenario: suppose all the Arabs vote for the Zionist Union. The ZU ends up with, conservatively, 35 seats. It has no trouble putting together 61 seats for a coalition. Arabs represent about a third of the votes for the largest party in the Knesset. Under which condition do Arabs have more power, that or the actual one?

So why didn't they do that? What's with them? First, in Israel there doesn't seem to be much concept of power within an existing party. Rather, if you have a political agenda, you form your own party. As a former colleague of mine at Haifa put it, Israel doesn't have interest groups, it has interest parties. If U.S. politics were like Israeli politics, we would have a party for Hispanics, a party for evangelical Christians, and so on.

Second, and probably more important, Arab leaders seem to prefer principles to power. The Arabs are against the idea of a Jewish state; they want "a state of all its citizens." The Arabs (or the Arab elite) are so attached this principle that they could never vote for any Zionist party, let alone one with "Zionist" in the name.

Indeed, the quest for purity of principle goes further than this: the Joint List said before the election that if the left won, they would support it, but wouldn't accept a cabinet position. One might think that if your goal is to improve the conditions of Israeli Arabs, it would be helpful to have a member of your party as, say, Minister of Housing and Construction. Or at least to have a vote at cabinet meetings. But no; apparently that would be too craven a compromise with the system.

Arabs are certainly entitled to try for a non-Jewish state if they want. They won't get it, because the overwhelming majority of Jews are against it, but they can try. The question is, does refusing to taint themselves with governing make it more likely that they will succeed? Not that I can see. It just makes them powerless in the meantime.


Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Thirdworldization of America Continues

As I remarked some time ago, the Republican vision for America seems to be to make it the world's richest Third World country. Consider, I said, these frequent characteristics of Third World countries:
  • Life is extremely pleasant for the rich, and extremely difficult for everyone else.
  • Economic growth is hampered by poor transportation systems and crumbling infrastructure.
  • Environmental regulation is minimal.
  • The only widely respected public institution is the military.
Now, it appears, we can add one more item to the Republican wish list:
  • The government tortures people.


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Dept. of Naming Things: Inequality

A story in today's New York Times about how people have lost faith in the American Dream has this interesting passage:
“I don’t know what you mean by an unequal distribution of wealth,” said Robert Monti, a 74-year-old retired social studies teacher from Niagara Falls, N.Y., who identified himself as “a registered Democrat but haven’t voted Democrat in years.” 
 He said, “It’s a proven fact that everybody can’t make the same amount of money, and it’s a ridiculous assumption that they can. You’ll never have economic equality. Ever.”
Well, he's got a point. If inequality is the problem, surely what we want is equality. And practically nobody believes in equality of wealth or income.

So people should stop talking about economic inequality as the problem. The problem is really (choose one or more):
  • the concentration of wealth and income at the top
  • the fact that wealth and income are so skewed
  • economic inequity
  • economic unfairness
  • the redistribution of income from the 99% to the 1%
There is one kind of equality, though, that Americans do believe in: political equality. Political inequality--the fact that the rich have so much political power--is at least as great a concern to Americans as the increasing concentration of wealth and income. And, of course, it will be hard to do much about the unfair income distribution without doing something about political inequality.

But the latter requires the Democrats to make a serious effort toward campaign finance reform.  So far, they've lacked the ganas for that. Or maybe the cojones.


Friday, December 12, 2014

Republicans Parody Themselves

If you're a Republican politician, what's the stereotype you struggle against? That Republicans are out of touch with ordinary people and only care about rich people and corporations.

So when Republicans won control of the Senate, what are the two issues where future majority leader Mitch McConnell says they may be able to work with Democrats? (a) The Keystone XL pipeline and (b) repealing the medical-devices tax. Yes, Mitch, that's definitely what American voters gave you a mandate to do. The people who care about these things are (a) the Koch brothers, and (b) medical-device manufacturers.

And with the recent fight in the House over the government spending bill, what were the key issues? Republicans wanted to (a) extend government insurance to cover the riskiest trades made by banks, and (b) allow the rich to give more money to political parties. Just what the public was demanding, another bailout for the banks and more money in politics.

If the Republicans are willing to be this naked about their priorities, Democrats should make them pay for it. They need a Mocker-in-Chief. Normally that's a good role for the Vice President. Unfortunately, this time he was busy lobbying for the bill.