Letter to the Editor: Rome Daily Sentinel

RomeSentinel.com Letter to the Editor: “Teachers are Dedicated Professionals.”

I’m still working on getting my story typed up and worked on, though I’m quite busy at work. In the interest of providing fresh content, let me share with you a letter to the editor I wrote to my local paper, which is a response to the letter linked above. It wasn’t published (as far as I know of), so I’ll just post it here. It does violate that rule of “keep it to 150 words,” but that’s because the paper in question regularly prints letters twice that size, so the rules are slightly different.

And suffice to say, we two writers have considerably different views on public educators.

My letter:

Mr. Paul Fitzpatrick wrote in a letter on March 17th that teachers are “extremely hard working and dedicated professionals” who work in an “honorable profession” and were unfairly denigrated by this paper in an editorial.

As a person who graduated from RFA*, received my bachelor’s degree, and now work in the nation’s capitol (where I can only periodically read this paper online), allow me to offer my experience. I had a math teacher told us while we were studying for the Regents that we were “failures” and should “drop out,” that we were worthless. I had another math teacher, when I asked her to explain a concept I did not understand, state that she had to “move on,” and never explained the topic. A home-ec teacher told me to “shut up and do your work” when I was trying to ask a question clarifying that work. And when bullies stole my stuff or continually harassed me, many teachers just told me to “talk it out”—apparently forgetting that bullies spoke with their fists

Not all teachers are bad. Many did an admirable job cramming twelve months of material into only eight and still having us understand it all. I respect them. However, there are more than enough who have cast doubt on it being an “honorable profession.”

Jeremy Kolassa, Washington DC

*My old high school. Long may it decay.

Idiot anti-smoking advocates are upset about ‘Rango.’

Idiot anti-smoking advocates are upset about ‘Rango.’.

Far better blog post on what the heck is wrong with all those dopes who got into a hissy fit over Rango. Certainly better than this weaksauce post by the otherwise extremely strong and intelligent Reason magazine, by far one of the best mags out there. Their post only says, more or less, “you have to think of context when the character is smoking.” They could have gone a lot farther. Like Mr. Filmdrunk, up there. (Bet he won’t be winning accolades from anybody in the no-smoking crowd.)

(I’m actually a little surprised at how weak the Reason one is. I really expected them to drop a sledgehammer on these guys. Oh well.)

The best comment about this all, though, comes from a comment on the Filmdrunk site:

Seriously. You wonder why films have become so commercialized – it’s because of groups like these who actually think movies are commercials instead of stories with characters who sometimes do naughty things.

And that pretty much sums up my disgust with these groups from a storyteller’s perspective.

More thoughts on stories and agendas

In my last post, I left out a pretty big thing: the considerations of story. I focused mostly on the social factors, which probably should be be left to someone more with more expertise than I. But story is something that I focus on relentlessly.

Simply put, nothing is superior to a story in a fictional tale. Nothing. The story is paramount. If the plot is sacrificed, if the characters are enslaved, if the setting is warped, if the tone is disrupted, if any of these and more are corrupted, the story dies. It can no longer work. If it still moves, it’s either a misshapen zombie, lumbering around without any heart or soul, or a caricature, something to be laughed at. (Anime is chock full of examples: Sailor Moon had two lesbian characters turned into cousins, with appropriately bemusing results, while old Gundam shows tried to remove handguns and replace them with “Disco Guns,” which just annoyed anybody. Yu-Gi-Oh decided to just drop the guns entirely and have guards point their fingers at interlopers, but since Yu-Gi-Oh is an execrable show anyways, I’m not sure that was its biggest concern.)

We can’t allow people like Cheryl Healton of the American Legacy Foundation to start imposing their own agendas on our stories, to force writers to sacrifice essential elements to please these political demagogues, lest all of our literature and fiction ends up as stale and dead as Soviet literature. (And if that happens, we’re fucked.) If they really want to make sure that films don’t have smoking in them, maybe they should go and write their own bloody stories. And see if anybody watches them.

The people at Legacy aren’t in the business of writing stories, and probably don’t have any idea how, since they aren’t writing them. If they did, maybe they would realize how bad it is to mess with them.

Anti-Smoking Crusaders Add MLB to Hit List – PRNewser

Anti-Smoking Crusaders Add MLB to Hit List – PRNewser.


Clicking through to the Wall Street Journal story, the scene in question is:

where Rango (the chameleon hero of the film)  swallows a cigar being smoked by another character (Bad Bill, a bullying gila monster) and then breathes/burps fire into Bill’s face.

Really? They want to go crazy over this movie for this?

As if tobacco is even a big thing anymore. Sure, some of my colleagues smoke, but not many, and most people are more interested in weed.

Smoking is not a controversial thing anymore, for any age group. Neither is drinking. (The Journal just ran an interesting article on parents allowing their underage kids drink at home, a plan I certainly approve of. Not that my parents let me drink, but when I had some communion wine when I was 10–whoo boy! Didn’t drink for almost ten years! Several of my friends have been drinking since they were 12.) Hell, neither is sex or cussing. How many boys by the time they’re sixteen have either lost their virginity or seen a considerable amount of porn through the interwebs? Let’s face it, a lot.

The organizations moving against this, I feel, are relics of a bygone age, an age that no longer exists. (Indeed, I would doubt if it ever existed.) How very appropriate that one of them is called “Legacy,” but what legacy are they trying to promote? The social conservative legacy? That’s what it sounds like to me, conserving a society that no longer exists.

Hey, Cheryl, here’s a concept–why don’t you stop babying kids and adapt to a new era when they’re already more independent? I think if one grants teenagers more independence along with more responsibility, they will fly to it like girls to a Twilight showing, and we’ll have both teenagers and future adults be better off. But that can’t happen unless people like Cheryl stop screaming and whining every time the image of a cigarette or a beer appear in a movie. That can’t happen unless we accept that these things exist and that ignoring them won’t go away.

Too bad ignoring groups like Legacy won’t make them go away.

Obfuscation on Budget

I didn’t post this in the past two days for two reasons: one, I was ill. Posting while ill is not really a good thing unless its a strictly personal blog and/or you’re Todd Seavey. The other reason was that I was wrangling with it, trying to find the right way to write about it–or even to write about it at all.

I grew first disturbed when I picked up a copy of express–a free paper published by the Washington Post Company, but mainly having stuff from the wire services–on the Metro Tuesday, and flipped to page 11 to the story with the ominous title “Cuts for All.” Flanking a big image of Obama at a podium with some sneaky looking bureaucrat in the background were two columns: on the left, in green, were programs that were “winners” in Obama’s new budget; the on the left, in red, were the “losers.” Yet I noticed immediately that there was a problem with the columns: the winners were described in percentages, while the losers were described in billions of dollars lost. I instantly thought “Aha! The Post“–for those columns were from the Post, I discovered–“is trying to hide something! Maybe those losers aren’t really that big after all!”

Yet when I went back to my room and did some math, converting the percentages into hard numbers and the hard numbers into percentages, I didn’t really see anything jump out at me. Most of the losers’ scores in percentages were around 8-11%, while the winners’ hard numbers were around $4-6 billion, and are offset by the relatively huge $78 billion drop in military spending. They more or less matched up.

One of the most interesting things I took away from my journalism major in college was the critical thinking aspect, where we read books whose only goal was to teach us how to get past the bull. There were many interesting books in this regard; two of the best are “Asking the Right Questions” by Browne & Keeley and “unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation” by Jackson and Jamieson, which has the great rule “If it’s scary, be wary.” What I learned from those books has remained in my head, always on guard, so when I noticed that the Post was using two different means to measure budget changes, it sent up red flags. But when I examine it, there really doesn’t seem to be anything there. So then why in the name of jumpin` Jehosophat did they decide to do that?

However, the headline and text is far easier to rail against. “Cuts for All,” hmm? That would be really interesting, both because Obama is a fairly liberal (read: social democratic) president, and because nobody has ever really cut the budget in the past, oh, let’s just say 60 years. (Probably more like a hundred at this point.) Problem is though, federal spending in the new budget has actually increased. Mainly this is because of entitlement programs–Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid–which are on autopilot, without any input or real oversight by Congress (not that they would give any decent oversight anyways.)

This is exactly why some bemoan the mainstream media for having a “liberal bias.” Here we have a news story going on about how people are going to get squeezed and taxes are going to go up, and how we’re all going to feel these cuts. But when overall spending is increasing, you cannot have everyone feeling a cut. The title is misleading, the article is polarized, and it’s just sloppy journalism. If they instead said “Cuts for Elderly and Students” it would be accurate and I would have no problem, since those programs are facing cuts. But putting it that way, they’re just trying to alarm the public. And journalism is not a primetime network drama–it’s intended to be factual information to help people make informed choices in their lives, as well as contribute to the essential civic discourse that is at the heart of every democracy. Not doing a good job there on that front.

But what really got my blood boiling is yesterday’s New York Times entitled “‘ editorial “Out of Control in the House.” The part that annoys me:

First Speaker John Boehner’s Republican leadership proposed cutting the rest of the 2011 budget by $32 billion. But that wasn’t enough for his fanatical freshmen, who demanded that it be cut by $61 billion, destroying vital government programs with gleeful abandon.

Even that wasn’t enough for leaders of the hard-line Republican Study Committee, which represents two-thirds of House Republicans. They proposed cutting another $20 billion, for a ludicrous total of $81 billion, all out of the next seven months of government operations.

“Ludicrous?” They actually used that word? Let’s think about this here for just a second; last year’s budget was $3.552 t-t-t-trillion dollars, and the deficit alone was $1.171 t-t-t-trillion dollars. $81 billion? That’s only 2.28% of the budget and only 6.91% of the deficit. Considering the budget (and I’m going to assume the deficit as well) is slightly larger this year, those percentages will likely be smaller, probably around 2.0% and 6.5% respectively. Now, I don’t what the Times considers to be ludicrous–indeed, I don’t even know what they consider to be reality anymore–but a <3% cut in our budget is hardly “ludicrous,” unless one says “ludicrously tiny.” I don’t think that’s the Times’ angle here. Could be wrong.

Look at the rest of their rhetoric: “fanatical freshmen?” “Gleeful abandon?” Or further down: “If the Republicans got their way, it would wreak havoc on Americans’ lives and national security.” (Emphasis mine.)

The Times is certainly allowed some leeway here, since this is an opinion piece (whereas the ostensible “news” piece in the express has no such excuse.) But still, I don’t think that leeway extends to such frothing-at-the-mouth absurdity. $81 billion would barely have an effect on the federal government; even the $500 billion proposed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is only a first step, not a comprehensive solution.

There are some good points in the editorial, namely the call for the House GOP to focus on entitlement spending, since that truly is the driver for bigger government growth, but that doesn’t mean that discretionary spending can’t be cut as well. Such bombastic rhetoric is over the top. What next, are they going to start calling the Congresscritters who call for cutting our funding to the UN “isolationist barbarians?”

I apologize for getting so political about this, but it just really disheartens me when I see our news media going nuts like this. They’re doing a disservice to their readers and themselves, and are only obfuscating what’s going on in our world today. Journalism is not meant to be entertainment–sure, it can have its fun parts, particularly the weird news section–but its not supposed to go crazy. That’s one of the first lessons drilled into us at j-school: “Yellow journalism bad, straightforward and thoughtful reportage good.” Maybe our journalist writers need to relearn that.

Being a Country

Life’s Little Mysteries has a post up on how the new Republic of South Sudan will become a country. It is apparently 3 “simple” steps: declare independence, gain recognition, and join the UN.

I disagree.

All that is really required to be a state is to have a monopoly on the use of force. As Murray Rothbard explains,

One method of the birth of a State may be illustrated as follows: in the hills of southern “Ruritania,” a bandit group manages to obtain physical control over the territory, and finally the bandit chieftain proclaims himself “King of the sovereign and independent government of South Ruritania”; and, if he and his men have the force to maintain this rule for a while, lo and behold! a new State has joined the “family of nations,” and the former bandit leaders have been transformed into the lawful nobility of the realm.

All that it really takes for a country to become a country is if it can hold on to its territory or not. If it can maintain territorial integrity, fight off aggressors, and police its populace (thus suppressing any domestic challenges to its rule) it is a state, a country. What does the diplomatic recognition of another country really mean? Did anyone formally “recognize” the Roman Empire? The United States does not recognize Taiwan as a country–preferring to instead give diplomatic recognition to the Chinese mainland, something I feel is a mistake–but do any Americans seriously think Taiwan is not a country and, say, a province of the People’s Republic of China? I think not.

With regards to the modern diplomatic system, yes, those three steps do count, but they actually have nothing to do with being a bona fide country or not. They just grant you membership into a certain club, one that is now so wide that everyone takes it for granted, but it doesn’t actually say whether you’re a state or not.

It all comes down to force (and money, which usually makes the force possible), that “monopoly on violence.” This doesn’t mean that I believe in or prefer the absolute monopoly of force–I believe there is a lot of room for personal defense and private security, more of the “relative” monopoly of force idea; as long as the state can keep out any violence it deems against its own order, it’s good to go. Now, some may bring up the violence rates in the United States and say “Oh, well by your argument the US isn’t a country either,” but let’s be honest here, violent crime has been steadily dropping for the past 20 years, and none of that violence is seriously challenging Washington’s order. If we had a non-negligible national revolution going on–a civil war–then there would be some question. During the Civil War, for instance, the CSA was an actual country, while the Union was only a country in the north, where it had actual control over its territory.

Why people continual to think in these contrived ways, rather than simply accept cold, hard reality, is something I will never understand. Unless they pick up one of my stories.

Finally, some real cuts

Politicians talk about tax cuts, usually, a symptom of supply-side economics which says that no one wants to hear about spending or program cuts, so don’t mention those. It’s only been in the past year or so that politicians–spurred on by the Tea Party movement–have finally started talking about spending cuts, but when they were pressed for specifics, they never really gave an answer. Boehner–who I call “Boner” because I feel we’re boned with him as speaker–infamously said “not off the top of my head” when asked what programs to cut.

Fortunately, all does not appear to be lost. Senator Rand Paul, son of Ron, named after Ayn Rand (who I really don’t think is that good of an author, but whatever) has put forward a plan that would save us $500 billion in a year–namely by cutting the Departments of Energy and Housing and Urban Development, as well as much of Education. This is actually not far from what Reason magazine was talking about, and it’s a good start particularly because none of these departments give us any bang for our money. Look at education costs; they’ve been spiraling upwards for years, mostly because of overly generous union contracts, but our grades have only gone into the gutter; Energy hasn’t done a damned thing to reduce our dependence on foreign oil nor improve our general energy efficiency; and HUD, well, yeah, it’s pretty much a failure in every respect.

And then the Republican Study Committee has unveiled a plan that it touts will generate “$2.5 trillion in spending cuts.” Now, here I must actually talk about writing and “politi-speak,” for once on a blog that’s actually allegedly about writing. (Terrible, terrible. I will certainly get to it this weekend.) It is not, actually, anywhere near that amount, although it does have some actual spending cuts. No, what the politicians are calling spending cuts are simply reductions in future spending levels. They expect to spend X amount of money in the year 2020 under Obama’s current plan, and under this one they will spend X-Y amount of money in 2020, and call that a spending cut. So it’s not a cut at all; yes, spending growth will be restricted, but it will still be higher in 2020 than it is in 2010, unless we enact some really serious and possibly draconian cuts, the likes of which nobody (other than the Pauls) are ready to talk about.

But it does cut a few hundred billion; Mish Shedlock, an awesome economics blogger, says it will probably cut “only” $250 billion. But that’s still a good start, and there are many good things in here. The most important is scrapping Davis-Bacon, an act that was originally made on racist premises and continued in order to prop up exceedingly high wages for government construction projects when there is no need, thus putting extra stress on taxpayers and sending us straight towards insolvency (among numerous other things.)

However, there is a serious problem with the RSC’s plan, and that is the plan completely ignores defense, homeland security, and veterans programs. For now, I will leave the last one aside, since I do believe that those who serve in our conflicts–particularly those who are wounded–should be compensated for their service. But for the others, come on. You cannot ignore defense spending when it comes to our fiscal solvency; even though it is still dwarfed by entitlement spending, it is still more massive than the defense spending of all other countries combined, and it actually makes us less safe, not more. And homeland security? Gone. Just gone. That entire department should be abolished and its agencies–other than the Coast Guard–abolished as well. Homeland security my behind.

Call me cautiously optimistic, but for once, it appears we have real, substantial government cuts on the way. Provided the Senate and the President go along with this, which I doubt, but it will just set things in motion for 2012.

Fringe: The Seen, and the Unseen

If you any taste in good television, you no doubt are a fan of Fringe. Ignore for a moment that its a product of J.J. Abrams, a man who wrote the most dizzyingly confusing plot for a previous show, and made a 21st century reboot of a savored franchise that made me want to claw my eyes out. Instead, relish in the humanity of the characters, the fact that it’s driven by them rather than some outside happenings, and is based entirely on good, substantial writing. Also, relish in the fact that you can watch it on Hulu for free, which is what I do because I don’t have a TV. (Thus, I always get it a day later than the broadcast, but that’s something I can live with.)

In a nutshell, Fringe is the story of a super-secret division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, aka “da Feds,” who are investigating the crossover between their universe and a parallel one. This includes many grisly crimes of a “scientific nature,” ranging from Frankensteins, teleportation, genetic warfare, and just about anything that involves messing with people’s minds (including a program that, once it infects your computer, makes anyone looking at the monitor have a seizure and then melts their brain.) It’s like X-Files, in a sense, only it’s more understandable, and in my opinion, better written, with the plot being firmly driven by the characters. I could expound at length on how good the writing of Fringe is, but today, my main goal is to analyze the latest episode, “The Firefly,” and how it relates to an old dead Frenchman by the name of Frederic Bastiat.

The most awesome Frenchman who ever lived.

“Who?” you’re probably saying. “Look, I’m pretty sure I know what Fringe is, but who the heck is this guy?”

Frederic Bastiat was a French economist who lived from 1801-1850, during the end of the Napoleanic Wars, the Bourbon Restoration, the July Monarchy, and the Second Republic. (If only the States went through so much political upheaval.) He was later elected to the assembly during the Second Republic, but it is not his political career that makes him famous; rather, it is his economic writings. Although The Law (La Loi) is perhaps his most famous, the one more relevant here is his essay What Is Seen and What is Not Seen.

The basic crux of Bastiat’s argument is that while we can see what is right in front of us, there are myriad more factors that come into play, but we cannot see them immediately. We only see them much farther down the road, after the action itself, and they are generally negative. No one can really predict them, although Bastiat does allow that one can possibly foresee them:

In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil.

Walter Bishop being ridiculous. Or in other words, himself.
I see the truth!

These are the first three paragraphs of Bastiat’s essay, getting straight to the point, instead of trying to make a lead in and then burying said point in mounds and mounds of meaningless words, as many modern columnists and writers do. (I profess to having no immunity to this disease.)

To give an example of what Bastiat is speaking of, let’s look to minimum wage laws. Many–not just economists–call for higher minimum wages, in order to better the poor. “Look at these people now!” they say. “They are so much wealthier than before! They can afford health care, food, and shelter! And they spend more, so they will better our economy!” Perhaps. This is easily the seen. But what these well-meaning but ultimately mistaken individuals fail to notice–or in some cases, just ignore–is the unseen: that, with higher labor costs, companies will hire fewer people, and thus, there will be more unemployed. So indeed, one has actually hurt the cause of the poor by putting more of them on the unemployment line. (And that certainly doesn’t better our economy.)

It’s not an easy thing for people to swallow. People like to be in control, they like to know that they understand what’s happening, and that when they set out to do something, their desired result will be the real result. It’s perfectly understandable, and its not something to really be ashamed of. (Although, in my case, cursing that my car will not go around a turn at full speed in GRID probably is something to be ashamed of.) The only bad part is that people refuse to learn from their mistakes, and thus we end up with the incalculably huge, puzzling, and nigh-intractable problems our society faces today.

Fortunately, our heroes on Fringe have the humility to learn. Well, sort of.

Note, I’m not going to worry about spoiling it, since the episode has already aired and you can easily watch it on Hulu, as I linked to it above. I’m also going to assume you know a little bit about the story behind Fringe; if you don’t, read up on Wikipedia and watch the latest five episodes (or rent a season on iTunes) in order to catch up. So here is basically what happened: when Walter returned with his son Peter, they fell in a frozen lake, but the Observer, Mr. September–who I’m assured is not F.A. “Baldy” Harper, despite my initial impressions–saved them from drowning. Unfortunately, as the Observer tells Bishop in the present, he could not have foreseen the consequences of saving a human life. Transcript excerpt taken from Fringepedia, the Fringe wiki:

OBSERVER: There are things that I know. But there are things that I do not. Various possible futures are happening simultaneously. I can tell you all of them, but I cannot tell you which one of them will come to pass. Because every action causes ripples, consequences both obvious and… unforeseen. For instance… after I pulled you and Peter from the icy lake, later that summer, Peter caught a firefly. I could not have known he would do that or that because he did a young girl three miles away would not. And so later that night, she would continue looking, trying to find another one. I could not have known that when she did not come home, her father would go out looking for her, driving in the rain, so that when the traffic light turned red, his truck skidded through the intersection at harvard yard, killing a pedestrian.

Wow. You could not have received a better form of Bastiat’s axiom for the modern audience if Bastiat himself came back to life, went to Hollywood, and wrote a screenplay about it. The seen…and the unseen, even to such a being as the Observer, whom we know is both not human and is far more powerful than one, as well as possessing some unique thought patterns; certainly, one LA Times blogger finds the Observer’s plans to be “inscrutable.” But then, realizing that LA is bankrupt appears to be “inscrutable” to the local mayor, so maybe it’s just something in the water.

Now one can’t really say that this makes Fringe a libertarian TV show. In fact, Fringe is fairly apolitical, other than the general “hey, authoritarianism and secrecy is like, bad, guys” that all shows have. And that’s okay. But I found the similarities between what the Observer was saying last Friday and what Bastiat was talking about a century and a half ago to be quite striking. (Was Frederic Bastiat visited by an Observer? I suppose we cannot rule it out.) But if you do feel a need for a concrete, libertarian connection, then you need look no further than the title of the episode. I’ll give you three guesses which libertarian show it reminds you of.