Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Comments on the Democratic Debate in Miami

This was truly the most bizarre debate I've ever seen. The level of questioning from the three interviewers, two from Univision, a Spanish-language network, and one from the Washington Post, was beyond belief.

Here are some samples:

Where did you fail last night in Michigan? followed by What went wrong in Michigan? What went wrong in Michigan? What failed in Michigan specifically?

She has 1,221 delegates, including superdelegates, and you have 571. What is your pathway to make up the deficit, and can you realistically catch up?

So who specifically gave you permission to operate your email system as you did? Was it President Barack Obama? And would you drop out of the race if you get indicted? followed by Secretary Clinton, the questions were, who gave you permission to cooperate? Was it President Obama? and If you get indicted would you going to drop out?

Secretary Clinton, is Donald Trump a racist?....Senator Sanders, do you think it's fair to call Donald Trump a racist?

And then, believe it or not, a question about Benghazi, which included a video clip:

Hillary and Obama and Panetta and Biden and all of -- and Susan Rice, all told me it was a video, when they knew it was not the video. And they said that they would call me and let me know what the outcome was.

followed by:

Secretary Clinton, did you lie to them?

And there was much, much more. What were they thinking? Is this their idea of hard-hitting questioning? I looked for pundits remarking on this, but the only things I saw were people commenting on how Univision showed it could be "tough on both sides." The only critical coverage I saw was from the left-snarky news site Wonkette, which headlined its story Dear Univision: Show Us On The Doll Where Hillary And Bernie Hurt You, with the subhead what the hell did we just watch?!

All that aside, I as a Clinton supporter was depressed by Hillary's performance, particularly her persistent failure to push back on the issue of her supposed corruption. Don't her advisers know what a big issue this is? At one point, Sanders accused her of saying that the big banks were her constituents, and she let it slide, instead of saying something like this:

"I certainly never thought big banks were my constituents, and I think you may have misunderstood me. Here's what I was trying to say: I was a senator from New York. There are almost 400,000 people in New York who work in the financial industry. Those people were my constituents. Some of them are Democrats, some Republicans. But if any one of them gives me money, Senator Sanders will say, 'Aha! You're taking money from Wall Street!' If you look at a list of my contributors, you will see the names of some banks with some big sums of money beside them. But those banks didn't give me that money. Almost all of it is from individuals who work for those banks. Some of them may be trying to influence me, but a lot of them are just supporting my campaign, like people who give money to Senator Sanders.

"If you want to see whether I'm in the pocket of the big banks, here are two tests. First, look at what the banks want. What the banks really badly want is the repeal of Dodd-Frank. They have literally hundreds of lobbyists working on it. All the Republican candidates have promised it. I'm against the repeal of Dodd-Frank. It's made the banking system a lot safer, and it's actually starting to make some banks smaller. Senator Sanders thinks it's not important, but all the money the banks are spending says otherwise.

"The second test is to ask who the billionaires are afraid of. Senator Sanders thinks it must be him. Maybe, but I haven't seen any sign of it.  All the Republican Super PAC spending has been against me, except for this latest ad that praises Senator Sanders. I don't think the Koch brothers really want Senator Sanders to be President, but they certainly want him to be the Democratic nominee." 

Granted, it's not clear that the moderators would've let her say all that.

I'm writing this before the results of today's primary are in. We'll see how much difference any of this made.

Update: Evidently, not much. Perhaps those of us watching from afar underestimate how much difference actual campaigning makes. In any case, I think Hillary still needs to deal with the campaign-finance issue if she wants to win over Bernie voters for the general.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Why I'm Voting for Hillary, and Why I'm Not Voting For Bernie

Why I'm Voting For Hillary

The reasons to vote for Hillary are pretty clear, once you get through all the supposed reasons to vote against her. She has a long record of supporting progressive causes; she is also clearly the most qualified candidate in either party, with experience in the White House, in Congress, and in managing a large bureaucracy. I would have much more confidence in her ability to get things done than in Bernie Sanders's.

But what about her Super PAC? What about all those ties to Wall Street?

There are two reasons people give money to candidates: to buy influence, or to help someone get elected. The second is the reason most people give money, and most rich people too. The Koch brothers and their friends will probably give hundreds of millions of dollars to Super PACs this year, and I doubt they care much about buying influence. They do it because they want Republicans to be elected. They're not buying politicians; they're buying elections. That's the real problem with Citizens United, and with Super PACs. That's why Clinton has been against them from the beginning.

But here they are, and the Koch brothers and their friends are doing their best to buy the 2016 election. That being so, should Democrats accept large contributions from the few Democratic billionaires there are (like the $7 million the pro-Clinton Super PAC got from George Soros)? Why on earth not? I don't see how it's a sign of progressive virtue to say that only Republican billionaires will be allowed to make huge contributions.

Here are the top contributors to Hillary's Super PAC. Topping the list is Soros, who is hated by the right for his support of liberal causes. Also included: the Operating Engineers Union, the Plumbers/Pipefitters Union, and the Laborers International Union, at $2 million each, the Carpenters and Joiners Union, at $1.5 million, and the American Federation of Teachers at $1 million. This does not strike me as a sellout of progressive values.

As for the ties to Wall Street, Clinton was a senator from New York. The finance industry employs more than 300,000 people in New York. (Many fewer, I imagine, in Vermont.) Some of those people have contributed to Hillary-- not to her Super PAC, but to the campaign committee, with its $2,700 limit. This does not make Hillary a corrupt tool of Wall Street. If you want to see what a tool of Wall Street would do, look at where Wall Street firms are spending their lobbying money. They are all fighting tooth and nail for the repeal of the oversight law known as Dodd-Frank. Hillary supports Dodd-Frank. The Republican candidates have vowed to repeal it. Bernie seems to regard it as an irrelevance.

Then we have the rest of the cats and dogs. What about all the skeletons in her closet? Friends, the Republicans have spent two decades, and considerable resources, trying to find skeletons in Hillary's closet. Remember Whitewater? Remember Benghazi? They haven't found anything. Possibly, though, they have succeeded in creating a vague sense of unease that there must be something there. But she's a liar! Well, no, she isn't; she's pretty good for a politician. By one imperfect measure, she's comparable to Bernie, and much better than any of the Republicans.

Why I'm Not Voting for Bernie

My Bernie problem started with his supporters, the people I call the Bernistas. I was, and am, stunned by the rage and vitriol they direct at Hillary. As someone who remembers the nineties, and who occasionally reads crazed right-wing websites, I couldn't help but wonder why they seem to have adopted Republican language: She's a liar! She's corrupt!  Oh, and by the way, she's not a real feminist! (Presumably, they were born too late to know about this.)

And my problem with the cult of St. Bernard doesn't end with their attitude toward Hillary. Anyone who disagrees with them--Paul Krugman, for example--is assumed to be in the pay of the banks, or at least, to be afraid of losing their privileges when the Revolution inevitably comes.

Well, OK, maybe they get carried away. But surely Bernie himself is waging a high-minded campaign about the issues. Right?

Actually, I'm not so impressed. True, the Democratic debates have been more substantive than the circuses on the Republican side. But a lot of the Clinton/Sanders conflict has not been over policy, or even personal history, but over Hillary's supposed ties to Wall Street, and her use of a super PAC for fundraising. "I do not know a progressive," said Bernie at a town hall, "who has a super PAC and takes $15 million from Wall Street."

But as we have seen, the contributors to Hillary's Super PAC are progressive by any standard. And no, she didn't go to an ATM marked "Wall Street" and take out $15 million. These are donations from individuals, former constituents, who may be trying to influence her, or may just be Democrats. Number 3 on the list of big donors to her campaign committee is the University of California. How can a public university make political contributions? It can't, of course. What that represents is donations from individuals who work at the university. And by the way, where does that $15 million figure come from? I can't find it anywhere.

The latest from Bernie is an ad singling out Goldman Sachs by name. "How does Wall Street get away with it?" the ad asks. "Millions in campaign contributions and speaking fees." Not mentioning any names there, of course. Exactly how Hillary's speaking fees contributed to Goldman Sachs getting away with it is not specified. The whole thing strikes me as a bit sleazy. I'm really starting to dislike Bernie.

What About Policy?

But what about policy? There are some things I like better about Bernie. I think free public college education for all is a good idea, for the same reason I think it would be a bad idea to make Social Security means-tested: programs that are universal are politically stronger and don't stigmatize people. Hillary's argument that this will permit children of billionaires to get free education is a bit disingenuous: billionaires are unlikely to send their kids to state universities, and in any case there aren't very many of them.

I also prefer Bernie on taxes. Hillary raises taxes on the rich by quite a bit, but she could go a lot higher. On the estate tax, her top rate rate of 45% strikes me as timid; even Bernie's rate of 65% strikes me as timid. If we want to strike a blow against aristocracy, estates over, say, $100 million should be taxed at 90%. (That's not very onerous; the Koch brothers could still leave their heirs several billion dollars. Each.)

On single-payer health insurance I'm a lot more troubled. I don't think Bernie has been terribly honest about the costs or what it would be like. There has been a lot of criticism that the numbers don't add up. Even more disturbing, the campaign responded to one such study by calling it a "hatchet job," the kind of thing one would expect from the Bernistas.

Finally, if you scroll down this, you will find Bernie's views on the Federal Reserve, which are alarmingly crankish. Here's a sample: When Wall Street was on the verge of collapse, the Federal Reserve acted with a fierce sense of urgency to save the financial system. We need the Fed to act with the same boldness to combat unemployment and low wages. Um, Bernie, they didn't just save the financial system; they saved the whole economy from going into another Great Depression, with a lot of opposition from Republicans. Fighting unemployment  is part of the Fed's statutory mandate, and they did about the best they could without any help from Congress. It is alarming to see a Presidential candidate with such a confused idea about such an economically central institution.

One last point: what is it with Bernie and Wall Street, anyway? Yes, they're an easy target, because they did in fact crash the economy. But they're far from the only culprit in inequality. They're about 8% of the economy. We've still got McDonald's and Walmart and GM and Verizon. What are we doing about them? Wall Street is not single-handedly responsible for the fact the median wage has stagnated.

So I'll be voting for Hillary tomorrow. Good luck with that whole revolution thing.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Good News About the Good News: It's Real

If you're not a regular reader of The New York Times, you may have missed this column by Nicholas Kristof. It makes a startling point: The world has gotten dramatically better, and most Americans don't know it. For example, the number of people living in extreme poverty has "fallen by more than half, from 35 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 2011." But 95 percent of Americans think the number has either gone up or remained the same.

I began to wonder, though, about that poverty statistic. I knew that China's industrialization had reduced poverty there by a lot. And China, as you may know, has a very large population. How much of the reduction was just China pulling down the average? Is this a real phenomenon in other parts of the world ?

I went to the World Bank data set that Kristof used, and looked at results broken down by region. Here are some (in evenly spaced years):

Percentage in extreme poverty ($1.25/day or less)
E Asia Eur, Ctl Asia Lat Am, Carib. M East, N Afr S Asia Sub-S Afr Total
1984 65.6 2.3 13.4 6.6 57.7 56.3 47.5
1990 57.0 1.5 12.6 5.8 54.1 56.8 43.4
1996 38.3 4.2 10.6 4.8 48.6 59.7 35.9
2002 27.3 2.1 10.2 3.8 44.1 57.2 30.5
2008 13.7 0.5 5.4 2.1 34.1 49.7 21.9
2011 7.9 0.5 4.6 1.7 24.5 46.9 17.0

Yes, this looks pretty real. The decline in East Asia is the most dramatic, a reduction of 88% over the period shown. But poverty in South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc) has fallen by more than half, and in Latin America by two-thirds.

And what about within East Asia? Surely that must be just the effect of China. Actually, no. There are huge reductions in Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam. There is a smaller but still dramatic reduction in the Philippines.

Does this just mean that there are a lot of people making $1.30/day? No, worldwide the number of people making $2/day or less has fallen by almost half. It's real.

Kristof, unfortunately, says nothing about what brought this about. But if China is representative, globalization, the shifting of production to the Third World, played a big role in raising Third World incomes. This is a rather uncomfortable conclusion for liberals; one has to ask, "Are decades of wage stagnation for the middle class in the developed world too high a price to pay for lifting billions of people out of extreme poverty?"  (If the answer is that it's not too high a price, of course, we can still do better about asking the rich to bear some of the burden.)

Finally, it is disturbing that progress has been so slow in sub-Saharan Africa. Undoubtedly, a big part of the explanation is war: Extreme poverty is at 97 percent in Congo, for example, and 95 percent in Liberia.  And a part of that, in turn, is the resource curse.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Southern Crybabies Start War; Slaughter Ensues

As you may have noticed, there has been a lot of public discussion of the Civil War recently. One point that has been made often is that yes, the cause the South was fighting for really was slavery (and not, say, "states' rights"), and that this is quite evident when we read the states' Declarations of Secession.

So I was looking at South Carolina's Declaration of Secession. It was the first in the nation, and South Carolina is the state that fired the first shot of the Civil War. South Carolina is also the state that's been the focus of the recent news.

Now, recall that this was the bloodiest war in U.S. history, killing about 620,000 people (the equivalent of around 6 million today), ending slavery, and permanently impoverishing the South. You would think, then, that they would not make this decision lightly.

You'd be wrong. What is most striking about South Carolina's reasons for secession is how trivial they are. They complain at great length that Northern states are not returning fugitive slaves, as the Constitution requires:

In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution...In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. 

Annoying, of course, if you're a slaveowner--but annoying enough to start a war? Surely not. And how exactly is secession going to make things better? One would think, in fact, that being a separate nation makes the  problem worse; for instance, you might not be allowed even to enter the neighboring state. (Notice, by the way, that the secession was actually a revolt against states' rights. The association of the Civil War with states' rights, like the public display of the Confederate battle flag, dates to the era of school desegregation.)

So you're seceding over this? Oh no, there's much more:

Those States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions..they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; 

Ma! Jimmy's calling me sinful!

...they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

Again, annoying; but how is secession supposed to help? (By the way, great oxymoron: "servile insurrection.")

And finally, we get to the nub

A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

So the trigger for South Carolina's secession is, in fact, the election of Lincoln.  Mind you, Lincoln hasn't even been inaugurated yet, let alone done anything against slavery. But he is "hostile" to it. The slaveowners feel unloved.

Those are their reasons for starting a war. In fairness, they probably never imagined that because of them, one American in fifty (or, I suppose, one American male in 25) would die.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Police Killings and Racial Bias

The Guardian newspaper, which has been keeping count, announced Wednesday that fatal shootings by police in the U.S. in 2015 had reached 500, and that's only through the end of May. That seems like a shockingly large number.

The article points out that a disproportionate number of African-Americans were killed, using statistics that I've put into this table:

Police killings US population
White 49.6% 64.2%
Black 28.2% 13.2%
Hispanic 14.8% 17.1%

Yes, clearly, a disproportionate number of African-Americans are killed. But is that evidence of discrimination by police? After all, there are more arrests of African-Americans, and if there are more arrests, then surely we would expect more gunplay:

Police killings  Arrests
White 49.6% 68.9%
Black 28.2% 28.3%
Hispanic 14.8% 16.6%

The numbers in the right column add to more than 100, because "Hispanic" is not considered a separate racial category in government statistics. But if we assume that 90-95% of Hispanics are white, and reduce the totals for "white" and "black" in the second column accordingly, then the number of shootings seems roughly in line with the number of arrests.

But that just pushes the question back a step. Why are more African-Americans arrested? Is it because they commit more crimes, or is the statistic itself a sign of police bias? There were complaints in New York City, for example, that blacks were arrested more than whites for marijuana possession, not because they were more likely to smoke marijuana, but because of discriminatory use of "stop-and-frisk" searches.

This, however, doesn't seem to be true for arrests in general. African-Americans make up 30% of all drug arrests, and 26% of all vandalism arrests, but 52% of all murder arrests. It seems unlikely that discriminatory enforcement is more common in murder cases than in drug cases.

So far, the facts don't seem to bear out a claim of police bias. But wait... here's an odd thing.

More than one in every five people killed so far in 2015 – 108, or 21.6% – were unarmed. A significant disparity in the proportion of black and white people killed who were unarmed, which was reported last week by the Guardian, has since narrowed slightly. While 30.5% of white people killed were unarmed, 16.1% of black people killed had no weapon.

Apparently, whites were a lot more likely than blacks to be unarmed when they were killed. Does that mean whites were more likely to be killed when they were unarmed? That would be surprising.

I decided to take look at The Guardian's data set. The data set is actually quite admirable. In addition to demographic information, it has a brief narrative and often a photo for each case. And it will provide counts using various filters, including race of victim and how they were  armed.

The first thing I discovered is that they got the numbers reversed: it's actually 30% of blacks and 16% of whites who were unarmed when they were killed. [Update: The webpage linked above now notes and corrects this error.] Playing just a little more with the data, I find that The Guardian has kind of missed the big story here. Rather than presenting the data as in the first table above, they should have presented this:

Police killings:
Armed people Unarmed people
White 53.5% 36.7%
Black 26.9% 40.4%
Hispanic 15.3% 15.6%

Let's recap. Blacks are disproportionately likely to be arrested. Probably that's mostly because they commit more crimes. While racism undoubtedly is part of the ultimate explanation for that, racism on the part of the police doesn't seem to explain why blacks are arrested more. And if you're armed, your chances of being killed appear about the same for blacks and whites.

But if you're unarmed, the chance of being killed is much greater for blacks than for whites. That does start to look like racism. It needn't mean that the police hate blacks; it could mean they're more likely to perceive blacks as threatening. But of course, that's not much consolation to the familes.

"Hands up, don't shoot" indeed.

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, there's the  man's question "Which ones?" Seriously? 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 hundreds of 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 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:

Zionist Union786,31318.6724+3
Joint List446,58310.6113+2
Yesh Atid371,6028.8211–8
The Jewish Home283,9106.748–4
Yisrael Beiteinu214,9065.106–7
United Torah Judaism210,1434.996–1

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 %
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.