I was thinking about privacy recently. The NSA has been reading a lot more than they let on. And there are starting to be organized responses and protests as many people are angered and concerned over the invasion of the government into our privacy. It is troubling to think that everything you do is being observed and monitored and evaluated. But some people aren’t troubled at all by this. And I started to speculate as to what leads people to be differentially concerned. I don’t think it easily splits down partisan lines – the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement are both equally disturbed by government invasion of privacy. There are probably individual personality differences in desire for privacy, or paranoia, that influence people’s responses.

But it also occurred to me that- many people who believe in an omniscient deity believe that they are always being watched and evaluated by a higher power. That higher power is perceived to be benevolent, which is possibly but not necessarily true of the government. Nonetheless the feeling of chronic surveillance may be less disturbing to people who are religious and are used to feeling as though their actions are always noted, than to folks who are used to believing that actions taken in private are in fact private. This possibility is entirely speculative with no data whatsoever to back it up, but it would have interesting political ramifications were it true.

The harm of the shutdown

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Oct 102013
 

I oppose Obamacare.

It shifts the cost burden of medicine towards the demographic with the lowest disposable income (the young). Despite the fact that it increases coverage, it does little to control costs. There are serious questions about its effect on small business, and the individual mandate runs counter to American ideals of liberty. There are people who will be helped by Obamacare, but on the whole, I believe it does more harm than good for this country.

But the harm that Obamacare might do pales in comparison to the harm the Republicans in the House are inflicting upon this country with their current obstinacy tactics. I’m not talking about the harm they’re doing to the 800,000 government workers who are currently without pay, or the millions of Americans who are not able to receive government services. I’m not talking about the harm they are doing to our international reputation. I’m not even talking about the 2 billion dollars that it will cost to close government offices and then (hopefully soon) open them again.

I’m talking about the fundamental harm to the institution of American Democracy. Lets take a moment and think about why democracy works. On average, democracies outperform other forms of government on every measure of well-being that has ever been measured: crime rates, education, health outcomes, sanitation, wealth, and so on. Why is it that Democracies are so much more effective than it’s rivals?

There are many reasons, but one of the primary ones is that in Democracy, when a faction loses, they have ways of expressing their displeasure and working to affect their desired changes on society that don’t involve harming the country. In Syria, people unhappy with the Assad regime take to the streets, shut down the economy, burn down hospitals, and cause the country to erupt into civil war. In the U.K., people unhappy with the Cameron administration raise money, make speeches, and prepare to vote him out of office when the next election comes about. The former destroys infrastructure and prevents growth and progress, harming the country immensely. The latter does not. This allows democracies to function even in times of stress and turmoil. In other words: the effectiveness of democracy is partly due to the incentives for the opposition party to work towards achieving power in ways that don’t cripple the country.

The House Republicans are undermining this principle. They lost a battle, and they seem intent on taking the country down with them.

Note that this doesn’t have to be the case. When the Supreme Court ruled against the Democrats in the 2000 Florida election, the democrats complained about the unfairness of the decision (and continue to do so to this day) but they didn’t shut down the government by refusing to pass a budget until Gore was instated as president. And in the past, the GOP has lost battles on abortion, on unions, and on environmental protection without shutting down the government. The current extremist wing of the GOP is holding the country hostage, and in doing so is destroying one of the pillars that holds up American Democracy. They are not only hurting the country now, but they’re setting a precedent that this is acceptable as a means of expressing your displeasure with electoral outcomes. If people out of power start undermining society to try and get their way, then one of he primary reasons that democracies are so successful will no longer be operating.

I share the GOP’s distaste for Obamacare – but the tactics that they are engaging in to combat it are causing exponentially more harm than the bill itself will.

(And lets not even start on self-fulfilling prophecies and the notion of legitimacy.)

NCAA Profiting off of athletes

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Sep 062013
 

There has been a lot of media attention recently to the fact that the NCAA makes money off of merchandise that bears the names/likenesses of NCAA athletes, but the athletes themselves are not allowed to.   Proponents of the NCAA say this is essential because it maintains the integrity of the sport – otherwise boosters would have a back door way to pay athletes to go to a particular college.  Opponents of the NCAA liken it to indentured labor, and claim that it allows the NCAA to exploit and make a profit off of the athletes while maintaining a monopoly on merchandise.

So here’s an idea – continue to require that all sales of jerseys, autographs, etc. to go through the NCAA.  But for every sale of an athletes jersey/authograph/likeness hold some percentage of the profits in a trust fund for that athlete… which the athlete only receives once he/she graduates.  Because the athletes aren’t receiving money directly, boosters can’t use it as a backdoor to circumvent recruitment rules.  The NCAA would also maintain its monopoly on such merchandise.   But the players would now directly gain from the profits that they helped produce, so it would be much less exploitative.  Moreover, it would provide an incentive for players to actually finish college and graduate – possibly improving some of the dismal graduation rates for college athletes in football and basketball.

I acknowledge that this idea has some problems.  For one, there are questions about the legality.  And there would be a lot of details to work out.  But most ideas are rough in their first iteration.  It seems like a more nuanced version of this approach would be a dominant policy over the one currently in place.

Syria Solution

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Sep 042013
 

I do not believe that we should intervene in Syria. There are many reasons for this, largely based on the fact that I see no benefits whatsoever to doing so. I don’t need to outline all the reasons against intervention – it has been done many other places quite elegantly, including by Mike here on Leftfielder.

But there seems to be a perception among the political brass that U.S. credibility is at stake. The U.S. drew a line in the sand regarding the use of chemical weapons and chemical weapons were used (although whether Assad was the one who used them is still contentious). If we don’t follow through with our threat then nobody will take our threats seriously in the future – or so the argument goes. And that argument seems, somehow, to be winning. The senate just moved a bill forward to authorize force, and everybody seems resigned to bombing a foreign country, against the auspices of the United Nations.

So, let me propose a counter: The senate could authorize the president to bomb if and only if Assad uses chemical weapons again.

To reiterate, I would prefer a “don’t bomb Syria” solution, but since that doesn’t seem to be in the cards, this is the next best thing. If Assad was, in fact, responsible for the first chemical attack, there is a chance that he would decide not to do it again – especially given that there was no reason for him to do it in the first place (he was winning without chemical weapons) and this threat would be much more credible since authority to bomb would already have been given. If it was the rebels who were trying to frame Assad, there would be a chance that they either wouldn’t be able to access chemical weapons again, or that some intelligence agency (US, UK, France, Russia, etc.) could catch the rebels in the act since intelligence services would be looking for it. In other words it creates a plausible deterrent, maintains our credibility for future threats, and reduces our likelihood of bombing from ‘near certain’ to ‘possibly not’.

I see this as a dominant option to authorizing bombing flat out. The former commits us, the latter gives us a chance of not bombing. The only downside is that it does allow for the possibility of one more chemical weapons attack. While this would be tragic, right now people are dying from more traditional weapons, and that is just as tragic. And a bombing campaign would only increase that tragedy, both in terms of prolonging the war, and in the deaths it directly causes.

Please congress, don’t send us to war. Give us a way out.

 

The year was 1996, and I was a freshman in college. It was just weeks since I’d arrived on campus, and I was very excited about getting involved in research in what I thought was my passion: bio-chemistry. I met with some professors and offered to clean test tubes, enter data, make photocopies – anything to be involved in the lab. I was told to come back when I’d taken organic chemistry at the end of my sophomore year. I was crushed; I didn’t want to wait two years to start doing research. As I sat, downcast in the dining hall pondering my future, a cheery older gentleman asked me what was wrong. When I told him what had happened, he said “Well, I have a lab in the psychology department, and if you’d like you can start working with me today”. 17 years, a PhD in psychology, and a tenured faculty position later, I look back on that day as one that changed my life forever. That gentleman was John Brelsford, and today I, along with so many other students whose lives he enriched and changed for the better, mourn his passing.

I have so many fond memories of John. One story comes to mind in particular. When taking an independent study at Rice, students and mentors filled out contracts to ensure that they were on the same page about workload and expectations. John and I had been working together for several semesters, and had always used the same contract. So he didn’t even read the contract with me anymore before signing them. So as a prank, one year I modified the contract to include the phrase “the professor will bake the student brownies twice during the course of the term”. Sure enough, John signed it, at which point I asked for my brownies. Ever the good sport, he actually delivered. And being John, he also allowed me to include that phrase (and gave me brownies) in subsequent semesters as an inside joke that we shared.

Between classes, I’d often stop by his office – his door was always open if he wasn’t teaching. We’d chat about psychology and the latest project I was running, of course. But we’d also talk about life in general. He was a mentor in the truest sense of the word: he cared not just about my growth as a scholar, but also my growth as a person. And he mentored not just through his words, but through his example. John’s health was never good, but he’d never complain. Even in my senior year when he had heart surgery and I visited him in the hospital, he focused the discussion around my research, how grad school applications were going, and generally kept on mentoring even from the hospital bed.

So John, thank you. Thank you for helping me find my passion and a career that I love. Thank you for all the guidance, for all the support, for all the laughs, and for all the time you spent with me. Thank you for giving me the confidence to pursue research questions that aren’t popular (yet). Thank you for treating me like a colleague even from the getgo. Thank you for teaching me how to be a mentor to the many students that I have worked with in my career (and the many more who will come). Thank you for being a role model. Thank you for being my friend. I will miss you. Rest in peace.

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