Thursday, April 28, 2005

Ends and means

Yesterday I bemoaned the total lack of nuance in most of America's populace. In particular, I pointed out a company that applied a rule so uniformly as to cause me to abandon my freelance work for them. It's a classic case of forgetting the reason for a rule and making the rule itself the end they want to achieve. That isn't the way things should be; the rule or law should be a means to an end, not an end into itself.

Unfortunately, too many law enforcers and bureaucrats confuse the ends with the means, thus elevating the means (the law or rule) to the status of the ultimate goal. The HR bureaucrats at the company I used to do work for forgot that the reason for their new rule was to keep managers from firing employees and hiring them back the next day as full-time consultants; the rule wasn't designed to turn true freelancers into unwilling company employees. But once you have a rule, it's iron-clad. It exists, therefore they must enforce it.

It's the same way with many laws in this country. We create a law, and then the only thing we know how to do is enforce it. We forget why we created the law in the first place, and enforce the law even when it doesn't make sense.

Let's face it. Most laws are created to keep people from killing, hurting, or annoying other people. (And the precedence ideally falls into that exact order.) However, many laws only accomplish one of these goals under certain circumstances; the law must be enforced even when it doesn't accomplish the goal.

I like to use the example of a stop sign on a rural road at three in the morning. The reason we have stop signs and stoplights is to keep people from running into each other. Obviously, this is important when there's a lot of cars around to run into; you don't want people running stop signs and subsequently running into other motorists, hurting or killing them. So we put up stop signs, and we make it illegal to run them.

But what do you do when it's three in the morning on a rural road, with the nearest motorist miles away? The motorist who runs that lonely stop sign has broken a law, and gets arrested for it. (If there's a cop around, of course.) However, that motorist hasn't endangered anyone else -- he hasn't killed, hurt, or annoyed anyone. He hasn't risked running into anyone else, because there isn't anyone else around. So, given the goal of the law (the end, in our situation), it should be okay to run that rural stop sign at three in the morning. But because the law says running stop signs is illegal, whether there's anyone around to run into or not, it's the means we pay attention to -- completely ignoring or forgetting the original intent of the rule. The law has made the means paramount; it's running a stop sign that you're not supposed to do, when it should be running into other motorists that we should be avoiding. Once written into law, the means becomes the end.

This focus of rigidly enforcing a rule over thinking through a specific situation is endemic in our society. It's particularly onerous in the application of "three strike" and mandatory sentencing laws, which remove virtually all judgment from the judicial system. But blindly following a narrowly written rule is easy, so it appeals to the mental laziness that exists at all levels of our populace. What we need are not more laws and rules, but more thinking. Since thinking is harder than just following a rule, however, I don't hold much hope for progress.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Nuance (and the lack of)

There's something about people -- or about Americans in general -- or about people in my geographic area, in particular -- that betrays a total lack of nuance. People seem to lack an ability to see the gray areas in all matters; to these non-nuanced simpletons, life is a series of black and white observations and decisions, which is not at all what life is really like.

A few examples are warranted.

First, let it be known that I drive a fast car. It's an Audi S4 convertible and if you know anything about cars (and even if you don't), you realize that the big 4.2 liter V8 engine tucked under its unassuming little hood delivers a lot of power. When the average person realizes what this is all about, the very first question I get -- the question I always get -- is, "how fast does it go?" Now, this is a pretty stupid question, worth of a snappy answer such as "as fast as it needs to." That's because even a base Honda Accord can get up to 120 mph or so with little difficulty, which is for all practical purposes as fast as you're going to go on most roads. In addition, no matter how fast the Audi could go, it won't go past 130 or so because it has an automatic speed limiter, as most fast cars do today. So how fast it can go is an irrelevant question, and belies the questioner's lack of nuance. Lots of horses under the hood isn't important for speed, but rather for power and handling. It's not that I can go 130 mph, but rather that I can accelerate from 0 to 60 in five seconds flat. The power under the hood lets me pass other cars more quickly and safely, and gives me all sorts of options that a less-powerful car doesn't have. But the average American only cares about speed, not about driving subtlety, which misses the point entirely.

Along similar lines, one has the issue of amplifier power in a home theater system. My new home theater system is built around a B&K power amplifier that delivers 200 watts per channel. Of course, the question I get is always "how loud can it go?" I don't even try to answer this, and not just because the questioner probably doesn't know squat about sound pressure levels and decibels. No, it's because the system, in normal usage, doesn't sound any "louder" than a much less expensive system. What it sounds is better -- with a smoother sound quality, less noise and distortion, and enough reserve power to deliver shimmering highs and thundering lows without distorting or having the sound break up. But, again, the average American doesn't know from the subtleties of sound reproduction; all they care about is how loud it can go. It's the audio equivalent of the big engine problem.

I ran into this lack of gray thinking in my professional life last week. A website I write for came to me with a change in status dictated by their human resources department (and no doubt influenced by their legal beagles, as well). They wanted to convert all their freelance work-for-hire contractors into part-time employees. Forget the fact that I work for companies other than theirs, that I have no running contract with them, that I don't use their facilities, and that I only work a few hours every two weeks on their projects -- to the jokers in HR, I needed to be converted to part-time employee status. Now, would I benefit from this? Of course not; it would actually involve more work (filling in time sheets, for God's sake!) without any additional pay or benefits. And, truth to tell, I don't really want to be an employee of this or any other company; that's why I joined the ranks of the self-employed, several years ago. But this new rule is one that the company is applying to all their freelancers, whether they work 1 hour or 40 hours a week, so I got caught in the net.

The company's decision to fold in their freelancers stems from pressure applied by some state governments, who see many companies firing an employee one day and then hiring the employee back as a "consultant" the next, to do the exact same work. The company saves by not having to provide benefits to the newly freelanced employee; the state, however, is more concerned that about the employment taxes that are no longer automatically collected by the employer. (Of course, by law the self-employed freelancer has to declare and pay the exact same employment taxes, but I guess the state just assumes that individuals are more likely to cheat on their taxes than companies are; don't get me started on why I strive to behave honestly when the state assumes I'll be cheating...) In any case, I understand the logic of making so-called full-time freelancers actual employees of the company, but it doesn't make sense to do the same for those real freelancers who don't meet any reasonable standards of employeenocity. The problem is that this particular institution doesn't see the nuance; they have a new rule, and it's going to apply to everyone they deal with, no exceptions. They don't take the time to discern between a freelancer doing the same amount of work as a legitimate employee and a freelancer who does a little bit of this and a little bit of that for lots of different clients. It's black-and-white thinking at its worst, an extreme form of corporate laziness that's emblematic of the lack of nuance evident throughout our society.

My question is, just where does this lack of nuance come from? Is it simple human nature, a form of mental laziness? Is it a Western or American thing, symptomatic of our mentally undisciplined society? Or is it a symptom of our poor educational system, a large-scale variation on the old true/false test (no essays required)? I don't know, and to some degree I don't care. It doesn't take that much extra mental effort to think things through and look at each situation individually, not really. All I want is for people to use their best judgment, and not prejudge in black and white terms. A little nuance goes a long way.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

An unholy alliance?

The world as we know it is under attack by a growing alliance between religious extremists and libertarian extremists. The religious extremists (calling themselves "social conservatives") want to turn America into a Christian fundamentalist state, while the libertarian extremists want to undo sixty-odd years of social programs and government regulation. Put them together and you have a vision of America in the dark ages.

I've spoken before of the dangers posed by the religious right (who seldom are), but it's important to note how deeply they've infiltrated the Republican party and, by inference, the halls of government. As current party dictator Tom DeLay and potential presidential candidate Bill Frist continue to bind themselves to the extremist agenda, we are in very real danger of becoming the kind of fundamentalist religious state so common in the Middle East. It's worth repeating that while our country was founded on religious tolerance, fundamentalists tend to be extremely intolerant of all religious views except their own. If you value being able to believe as you believe -- if you value the religious freedom on which this country was founded -- you'll stand up to put these potential religious dictators in their place.

A less-known but growing threat is the group of libertarian extremists who worship at the alter of the "Constitution in Exile." In essence, these seemingly well-read and well-spoken nutjobs (compared to the religo-fascists, that is) want to declare unconstitutional virtually all the laws underpinning the creation of our current welfare state. That means doing away with social programs like Social Security, as well as all government regulatory agencies (and their resulting regulations). This would return us to the capitalistic free-for-all that was the first three decades of the twentieth century, and we all know where that led. It's a very scary movement, up until recently somewhat fringish, but gaining momentum thanks to some of the recidivist judicial nominees that President Bush keeps pushing on Congress. (Read more about the Constitution in Exile movement in this New York Times article -- subscription necessary, sorry.)

As I've said before, I'm that rare beast that might be called a libertarian socialist. I think there are far too many government regulations in some areas, and too few in others. (For example, I believe that air travel needs to be re-regulated, and I'm a big fan of taking the business out of the health care business.) I don't believe that the average American wants the last sixty-odd years of social progress negated and reversed by these religious and judicial despots. We have to do something to wake the people up so we can stand up to this growing threat to our liberties and our way of life. If these crazies have their way, the U.S. will be turned into the most backward nation in the civilized world -- just one step above third-world status, in terms of civil liberties and social services. These zealots must be stopped.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Fighting for the soul of the Republican party

Okay, I'm not a Republican, although I have voted for a few of them over the years, most notably Indiana Senator Richard Lugar (who, fortunately, grew out of his rap of "Nixon's favorite mayor" when he was Mayor of Indianapolis). But that doesn't preclude me from watching the Republicans, especially during these interesting times.

These times are interesting because the radical minority is running not only the Republican party, but also the entire country. The fringe right-wingnuts, most notably evangelical/fundamentalist crazies, have taken control of things in a way we never could have imagined just a few short years ago. Given their role (claimed if not actual) in Bush's recent reelection, they're now asking for their due rewards. These nutburgers are getting totally out of control, as witnessed during the recent Terri Schiavo affair, and the post-mortem cries to take action against so-called "activist" judges. (Most of whom, in the Schiavo case, were actually Republican appointees -- go figure.)

Now we're starting to see the Republicans start positioning themselves for the post-Bush world and the 2008 elections. Interestingly, some of the most popular Republicans nationwide -- Schwarzenegger, Giuliani, McCain -- are actually fairly moderate, especially on social issues. But they're not part of the current power base, so instead we're seeing the far-right crazies jockey for position -- most notably, Bill Frist and Newt Gingrich.

So what we have here is the run-up for a major-league battle between the moderate and crazy-conservative wings of the Republican party. Already Frist and his ilk are dissing McCain for being too moderate on the anti-filibuster blustering surrounding some stalled judicial nominations in the Senate. McCain is being quite rational -- in his words, "we won't always be in the majority" and thus have to act sensibly. But that's being a pansy, as far as Frist is concerned. The right-wingnuts want blood, and lots of it. It's a religious war they want; they're damned scary.

And what's even more scary is that these demagogues represent less than 20% of their base. That's less than 20% of Republicans. Put 'em at about 10% of the total populace. But they're the crazies that are in control, and they'd like to stay that way.

Here's hoping that the more level-headed Republicans like McCain can take back control of their party. Most Americans are not anywhere near as rabid as Frist and the other right-wingnuts. We need moderation to rule, not extremism. Frist and his pals have to be beaten down; we cannot continue to accept rule of the party or of the nation by a radical minority.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

I'm not dead yet...

Sorry for taking so long between posts. I've been buried in multiple book projects, and in what spare time I've had, I've been busy setting up all the components of a new home theater system. Given the choice of writing annoying blog entries or playing with the new home theater system, the choice was easy.

(BTW, if you're interested, you can follow the progress of the new home theater system in my Home Theater Diary entries in Informit's Digital Lifestyles weblog. It's an interesting project.)

One component of the new system is a Media Center PC with 800GB of hard disk storage. I'm using this beast to store my entire CD collection, digitally. So one of the chores I've been doing is ripping all of my 900 or so CDs to hard disk. (As of this morning, I'm past the Beatles and up to disc #125, Sympatico by Suzy Bogguss and Chet Atkins.) While it's somewhat boring to insert and remove this many CDs, it's fun to give a new listen to old music -- in some cases, CDs I haven't heard in a decade or more. Of course, that's one of the reasons to go to a digital music server like this; it'll provide more exposure for my entire collection.

Anyway, that's what I've been busy doing (plus the writing thing, of course), but I promise to get back to my usual rants and raves on a somewhat regular schedule. There are certainly more than enough things to complain about, these days.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Paying for sports stadiums

I live, unfortunately, in central Indiana, home of the Indianapolis Colts. I'm not a big sports fan, I don't follow football, I don't give a damn about the Colts, so there's that out of the way right up front. What steams me is the threats of multi-millionaire Jim Irsay, the team's owner and probably the richest citizen of our little burb, to move the team elsewhere if the city doesn't build him a new stadium. It's not that the Colts aren't making money -- they are -- but that they're not making enough money. So Jimmy Boy isn't quite as rich as some of his pals in the NFL. That must give him a huge inferiority complex.

Anyway, to keep the Colts in town, local officials want to build Jimmy Boy a new stadium. A new stadium will have more luxury seats, so Jimmy Boy can charge more for tickets and make even more money per game than he's making now. Remember, Jimmy Boy isn't operating the team at a loss; he just wants to get even richer than he currently is, and the way to do that is with the new stadium and higher ticket prices.

So to fund the stadium, our locally elected officials have been kicking around several different options. The first, proposed by Indy Mayor Bart "Eat My Shorts" Peterson, was to turn downtown Indianapolis into the Las Vegas of the midwest, with slot machines and gambling and the like. Fortunately, this proposal was shot down. (I'm not a big supporter of government-sponsored gambling, although the politicians seem to think it's the next best thing to pulling money out of thin air.)

The most recent proposal, and the one most likely to pass (because it was proposed by our new Governor, former Bush administration hack Mitch "The Slasher" Daniels), is to enact a new 1% restaurant tax. (Here's a link to the story.) This new tax would apply to all restaurant and fast food purchases not just in Marion County (Indianapolis proper), but in all surrounding counties. So, even though I don't give a damn about the Colts and will never set foot inside this new stadium and really don't want to contribute to Jim Irsay's retirement fund, I'll have to pony up an extra 1% any time I eat out -- which is every damned meal. This sucks.

And it sucks not just because I have to pay for something I'll never use -- as will hundreds of thousands of other residents, some of whom can afford it less than I. No, what really sucks is that the government -- that's you and me, folks -- will be paying $625 million for something that benefits one person, the local rich kid. We're essentially giving $625 million to a guy that's already richer than God, a guy who could fund the stadium himself out of his own petty cash. We are making a really rich guy richer, while at the same time we can't afford basic local services, such as teachers and policemen and decent bus service. Think of what that $625 million could fund. Hell, we could build houses for all the homeless people in town -- really nice ones. Instead, we're using community funds to make a private citizen even richer than he was before.

I've said before that I have Libertarian leanings, and I'm all for realizing the fruits of capitalism, but on this one too much is too much. There's no way in hell our tax dollars should be funding this little private enterprise, and there's no reason I can think of that rich-kid Irsay needs to make any more money than he's already making. If Jimmy Boy wants a new stadium for his team, let him build it himself. And instead of raising taxes on us poor working schlubs, let's increase the tax rate that the rich boys pay. What would Jimmy Boy think of us taxing him an extra $625 million to pay for some much-needed public works? Screw the bastard, is what I say.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.