Monday, February 22, 2010

Our anti-gun president?

One of the things that I've noticed in the virulent anti-Obama rhetoric is the notion that, as a liberal, he wants to take away all of our guns.

I'm sure he's no NRA member and he probably does support gun control laws, but today I noticed that the first piece of gun-related legislation to pass and take effect under his administration expands gun rights by allowing loaded guns in national parks. Not exactly the action a rabid-anti-gun fanatic would take.

The thing that annoys me the most about partisan politics is the habit of starting from a conclusion and filtering facts based on that, rather than vice-versa. Nobody would ever mistake Obama for a conservative, but it's pretty clear that at least on some fronts (like gun rights), he's not the communist/socialist monster he's portrayed to be either.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Terrorism or not?

Today a guy crashed his single-engine plane into the IRS building in Austin Texas because he was angry with the government and its tax policies.

Horrible tragedy, and I worry that it will lead to more senseless and ineffective restrictions on our freedoms (particularly freedom to fly), but what caught my attention here was something more academic.

Officials took pains to stress that this was a criminal act and by and large studiously avoided the "T" word - "Terrorism." Interesting that they should do so. I wonder why? This looks and feels like domestic terrorism to me.

The word "terrorism" is notoriously difficult to define. I've always used as a basic sniff-test definition any act of violence that is specifically targeted against civilians or non-combatants for the purpose of making a political statement.

By that definition, I can't see any semantic distinction between what Joe Stack apparently did today and what 19 Saudis did on Sept 11 2001.

Perhaps my definition is inadequate? I've tried on a number of variations of the term, but I have found none that classifies 9/11 as "terrorism" yet excludes today's event and still works for other "obvious" examples of terrorism.

For example, if one insists on the presence of religion, which does distinguish 9/11 from today, then one must conclude that Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber were not terrorists.

Today's events do appear to be more out of personal revenge than to advance a broader cause, but even that feels more like a matter of degree, not a fundamental distinction. And after all, crashing a plane into a building with hundreds of people inside sends a very broad message of intimidation and fear regardless of whether that was explicitly intended.

I'm curious if any of my readers have a definition of terrorism that yields a positive match results for "obvious" terrorism cases like 9/11 or Timothy McVeigh, yet yields a negative for today's sad events.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Personal mandates to buy insurance

One of the many controversial pieces of the health care legislation being discussed in congress (perhaps ready to be eulogized?) is a requirement that people purchase health insurance. Some have raised a question as to whether this is constitutional, as it appears to be the first time the government has required a citizen to purchase a product simply for existing in the country.

Not being a lawyer, I have no idea whether or not this argument has legal merit. But I will offer the observation that we do have precedent for something like this in our requirement to educate our children. This obviously does not apply to every citizen, but to the citizens who choose to have kids, we tell them "you must get them educated."

We actually go a step further, in a way that is analogous to the healthcare bill: we offer a government "public option" (public school), which you can opt out of (private school or home school). In fact, the education scenario is actually harsher than the health-care scenario, since the health-care proposal doesn't have a public option. And with education, if you choose to send your kids to a private school, you still have to pay your pro-rata share of taxes towards public education.

There are actually other existing analogous mandates as well. We require drivers to wear seatbelts and to carry insurance because of the burden that an unbuckled and/or uninsured driver can place on society if they are in an accident. If we were willing to turn away uninsured drivers from emergency rooms after an accident (which we aren't), or had some way that the victims of accidents could be compensated without the driver carrying insurance, then it could make sense to relax these requirements. But until we do, the damage a driver can potentially do is sufficient to justify the imposition of a purchase requirement for insurance.

Health insurance is quite similar in this regard. If we were willing to say that only people who can pay out of pocket or who have insurance could get treated at the emergency room, then there'd be an argument against a personal insurance mandate. But as long as people can carry the risk of being a big health-care cost to the system, then it seems reasonable to require them to mitigate that risk by carrying insurance.

I don't mean this as an argument in favor of the health care bill, just as a reason that we shouldn't freak out about the notion of the government requiring citizens to purchase some form of insurance.

Are teachers professionals or auto workers?

Last night I saw a great talk by Geoffrey Canada, who is an educator who has spent his career trying to change the culture in Harlem to one where education is valued and where kids realize they have opportunities beyond the streets. It was a good talk, with something of a church revival feel (lots of people in the audience obviously were already true believers).

He had a few choice things to say about teachers, though. First was the obligatory point that if we want success in education, we need to treat them like the professionals that they are, and that it's hard to attract talented professionals if you don't pay them like professionals.

But then he made a number of points that I suspect would make many teachers - particularly unionized teachers - uncomfortable. For example, that they need to work really hard (i.e., he makes no apologies for the fact that his schools run from labor day to the first week in August). Or that they need to be open to change, to experimentation, to measurement. He decried how difficult it is to make change, and called out the unions as one (but by no means the only) source of this resistance.

It got me thinking: teachers need to make a decision. Are they professionals or are they blue-collar workers? While there are certainly some professional unions, most of them - and in particular the ones which tend to impose the most innovation-resisting work rules - tend to be the domain of the blue-collar space.

If they want to be treated as professionals, who must live and die by their merits, then perhaps unionized teachers should think about how to act like professionals.