Saturday, December 24, 2011

Learning How to Control Your Life

A friend on Facebook posted a link to an essay on Learned Helplessness.  And I liked the idea, as most people aren't really in control of their lives and assume that there is no way of controlling it.  Nothing works out like how they think it should, so they make excuses instead of figuring out how they can make things better.  Blaming your boss for being a dick is easy.  Figuring out how to make that dickie boss support you is difficult; but you'll never do it if you assume it's impossible.

While there might not always be a good solution for all your problems, that's absolutely no excuse to stop looking for one.  You should always try to find a better way of doing things.  Always.

Anyway, here's the response I gave to that essay.

While I agreed with the general point of that essay, I felt that it didn't really hit the nail on the head. For one thing, I don't think helplessness is learned, but rather, it's the default we start with. People aren't trained to accept shitty lives. It's that they were never trained in how to fix things in the first place. It's easy to just go with the flow, while very few people ever learn how to control their lives; including the "rebels" who imagine they're different because they do all the same things all the other "rebels" do. As if contrarianism somehow represented freewill.

Moreover, I think this phenomenon can be more generalized into saying that we can learn to get used to ANYTHING. It's how we cope. It's not just helplessness. Rich people get used to wealth and don't realize they're getting anything special, just as poor people get used to poverty and can't imagine anything different. A smelly room stops being smelly once your brain adjusts, while loud sounds stop being loud after awhile. Our ability to adapt is a key feature in the human brain which is generally a positive thing, though it can obviously lead to bad things, too.

And one glaring error in that essay was the idea that normal people externalize their failures while helpless people blame themselves. This is completely the opposite: Helpless people externalize their failures by believing things were out of their control, while normal people blame themselves and figure out what they could have done differently. It's easy to make excuses for why we fail, but it's hard to see what we could have done better. Even someone who thinks "I failed because I'm stupid" isn't really blaming themselves. They think their failure is outside of their control, and not really their fault because they didn't make themselves stupid. You only blame yourself when you accept that you could have done things differently, but didn't.

Another error was the belief that changing one's ringtones would somehow make one feel more confident in their ability to improve their lives. Again, it's the opposite: You search for superficial and meaningless change in your life because you don't know how to affect real change. Ringtones fix nothing. Learning how to work harder is a real improvement. Most people strive for the superficial because it's so much easier than fixing the real. That's why they're ultimately unhappy, because they've never learned how they can improve their lives for real. People in control of their lives don't spend much time rearranging furniture or changing ringtones. I know I never do.

Being Better Than Our Bodies

Over on Facebook, I've got a friend who keeps posting stuff about how we need to learn to accept our bodies and not be upset with what we look like.  And I'm sorry, but I think that's incredibly misguided.  While we are essentially stuck with who we are and can't all look like quarterbacks and super models, that's no excuse for just letting ourselves go and accepting whatever we look like.  

I myself suffered through that, as I once weighed sixty pounds more than I do now, and believed that I looked normal and complained to my wife on more than one occasion because I truly believed she was shrinking my clothes in the laundry.  Seriously.  Over time, I decided to not eat quite so much and to get a little exercise, and now I look at pictures of myself from ten years ago and I'm embarrassed that I ever accepted that.  Not that I looked bad, but wow, I look so much better now. 

And it wasn't that I had to go on some crazy diet or anything, as I wouldn't do that sort of thing.  I just realized that I was eating stupid and drinking too much, and learned to adjust.  Now I still eat fast food and drink, but not as much as before; and I look great.  While we should never expect ourselves to look like something we're not, that's no excuse to let ourselves go and do whatever we feel like. 

Anyway, here's what I posted as my comment.

I think it's dangerous to believe that we are our bodies. We are not. We are our minds and our bodies are stupid material things we are stuck with. If our bodies are unhealthy, it affects our minds and makes us unhealthy. In addition, when our bodies are unhealthy, it makes others treat us badly which makes things worse for ourselves.

It is wrong for someone in bad shape to think "My body sucks, so I suck." But it's equally wrong to think "My body sucks and I should accept it because that's who I am." The correct thing to think is "My body sucks and I'm better than it, so I'm going to fix it so it becomes what it should be." We are not our bodies. We are our minds.

To accept an unhealthy body is an excuse.  While there are many types of bodies, there is an ideal body for each of us. We should be our ideal body and fight to make sure we attain it. Not because we are our bodies, but because it makes who we are better. We should always strive to be our best selves, always. No excuses.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Defending Obama Against Fantasies

I'm in a debate on Facebook with someone attacking Obama, who finds it incomprehensible that I don't think a "smart savvy political thinker" could dislike Obama, but who has yet to explain why I should do so.  Instead, he's asked me what it'd take for me to realize that Obama is "corporate-owned scum like all the rest of them."  I haven't been posting much lately, so I figured I'd reprint my reply.
No, Jeffrey. I can't imagine any reason why a smart savvy political thinker might dislike Obama. I already said that. And your response was to imply that Obama is scum without specifying any reason whatsoever.

But to answer your second question, assuming you were expecting an answer: I would be convinced that Obama was a corporate-owned scum if he acted like one. But since he continues to do things that help working class people, including giving us better healthcare, extending unemployment benefits, and continuing the payroll tax cut he gave to all working Americans; I fail to see how this makes him a bad person.

Obama made sure that cancer patients can't have their policies rescinded when they get cancer, as well as making sure that babies born with birth defects get insured. You've done literally NOTHING that can compete with either of those things, and that's just the beginning of all the things he's done for us. So you can talk big all you want, but I know which person is fighting for me and who's just talking.

Words are cheap and it's easy to stand tall on principles that don't cost anything. I put my support behind the guy who has backed them up. Until you can protect us against a Republican president, you've got little ground to attack the man from. You might say that the system is rigged against someone like you winning the presidency, but it was rigged against him too, and he made it. And so he's had to accept compromise in order to get us what we want. That's what democracy is all about and the only reason you don't need to compromise is because you aren't in a position to win anything by compromise either.

Btw, Obama has personally saved me a few hundred dollars in overdraft fees thanks to his bank reform law in 2009. What have you done for me lately?
After wards, the guy responded back attacking the standard mistruths that Obama's critics on the left use against him, which you can figure out by reading my reply:
Ok, I'm glad you at least bothered saying why you're upset with him. Fortunately for us all, your list is incredibly flawed.

For NDAA, could you explain why that was a bad thing? As I already said, it didn't really change anything. I know people SAY that it allows the government to hold US citizens indefinitely and whatnot, but since that's not true, they're wrong. The law really didn't do much of anything, as it's still up to the courts to interpret what the law really is as it didn't really change anything from what we were doing already.

As for the American citizen he killed (I'm only aware of only one, so I'd like to hear of more if there are some), I fully agreed with that. That was done with the approval of many people within the government, using a legal argument that I find sensible. So I find nothing wrong with the one case I know of in which this happened. With Gitmo, he wants to close it. Congress won't let him. Have you some evidence that this isn't the case, or do you believe him to be a dictator who can close Gitmo without the approval of Congress?

The "sell out" over the Bush tax cuts got us many great things, including extended unemployment benefits, a payroll tax cut that saved people $1000 on average this year, a nuclear treaty with Russia, and the end of DADT; among many other things. And had he not agreed to it, he'd have gotten NOTHING. This is a democracy and Republicans do have power. Had he waited until January, they'd have had even more power. But he's stated repeatedly that the tax cut was dumb and that he'll be in a better position to fight this battle next year; and my political calculations say the same thing.

The stimulus package did have many tax cuts, though the majority of it went to low and middle class people. Of the $787 billion bill, only $51 billion went to businesses, so I'm confused as to why you think it went "mostly" to corporations. Btw, the experts say that the stimulus worked and that we'd be worse off without it, so I'm confused as to why you're listing this as a problem.

As for the "trillions" that went to secret bailouts, those were loans. Loans. Loans. They were loans. In many cases, we received stock ownership of these companies, like Citigroup, AIG, and GM; and they were expected to repay their debt to us, and largely have done so. And the "trillions" number is deceptive, as the group that claims that includes money that was borrowed, repaid, and borrowed again; only counting the borrowing and not repaying. So if a bank borrowed a $10 billion, repaid it, and then borrowed $10 billion again as a short term loan; that counted as $20 billion borrowed, even though it was the same $10 billion as before. And of course, much of this happened during the Bush Admin and NOT the Obama Admin. As a reminder, TARP happened in 2008, not 2009. Obama was merely a Senator then.

And look, this is why I don't think that a smart politically savvy person can disagree with Obama, as everything you wrote was incorrect, if not completely wrong. Not that I'm saying you're dumb, merely that you're looking for reasons to criticize Obama and not bothering to find out if it's true or not. I'm sorry, but there's nothing savvy in anything you wrote.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Why Romney's Campaign Sucks

One of Romney's biggest problems is that his campaign staff sucks and doesn't understand how politics really work.  They've obviously got a superficial understanding of politics that may have worked well in a pre-Clinton era and could even have competed well against the new elements of what Clinton brought to the table in terms of tactics and strategies. 

But Obama brought things to a whole new level with a smooth operation that was girded by a brass-knuckle understanding of politics that fought tough without being dirty and always stayed above the fray.  So while his opponents are swinging wildly at him, he can counter and jab while staying on message and outside the reach of his opponents.  Anyone upset that he doesn't sling mud doesn't know what they're talking about, as mud slingers get covered in mud; while Obama has retained a reputation as a likable guy.

Yet Romney's team doesn't really understand politics and keep making pointless mistakes.  Their most fundamental error was in not realizing that people have memories and his prior record couldn't just be wished away.  And so he needed a story that explained why he switched positions, rather than a straight-up denial that it never happened in hopes that everyone's too dumb to remember.  And so now his multiple personas have become part of the DNA of his narrative and it's too late to change that. 

Even people who don't know exactly what he's changed will still hear that he changed and there's nothing he can do to fix that now.  And the rule is: If you're not writing your narrative, your opponent is.  So you have to have a story for everything and it better be good.  Yet even now, Romney can't properly answer questions about his own record, even though he's had plenty of time to invent one.

Returning the Money

His latest mistake was in his attacks against Gingrich for accepting $1.6 million from Freddie Mac and then telling everyone what a problem Freddie was.  Gingrich too is working under the old style of politics and still seems unaware that we can remember things. 

And Romney's problem with using this attack is that he invested half a million in Fannie and Freddie.  And so it's kind of hard to attack Freddie Mac as being to blame when you clearly gave approval with your wallet.  Romney should have known this, but didn't.  But Gingrich being a lobbyist is still worse than Romney being an investor, so Gingrich still gets the worst of this issue.

But that's not the part I don't like about this.  The dumb part was how Romney staged the actual attack.
Mitt Romney said Monday that Newt Gingrich is part of a Washington culture that disgusts Americans, and called on the former House speaker to return the seven-figure sum he received from the government-backed lender Freddie Mac.  
Asked on Fox News if he thinks Gingrich should give back the $1.6 million that Freddie Mac paid him, Romney answered: “I sure do.”
And this was just dumb.  Why would he want Gingrich to return the money?  Does he want to give Gingrich an out, so that he's slightly tarnished but giving a mea culpa for accepting money he shouldn't have taken?  Or does he want to hang this around Gingrich's neck, to show that he deserved the money, and shouldn't be in the race because he was part of the problem?

How Tactics Work

They obviously haven't thought this one through and are just going with the standard "Return the Money" line that campaigns often use in these cases, even though it doesn't make sense.  Because sometimes you should use that line of attack, and sometimes you shouldn't; and if you don't know why you're doing something, you probably shouldn't do it.

When a radioactive group or individual associate with a campaign, you go with the "Return the Money" argument because you're using it as an excuse to tie them to the group and bring it into the news.  So the initial association is a news story, the "Return the Money" attack becomes a story, repeating it also generates a story, and if the money is returned, that's also a news story.  And because returning money is an admission of guilt, it becomes part of the campaign's DNA.  So one bad association that often isn't the candidate's fault turns into multiple damaging stories that puts the candidate on defense the whole time.  And best of all, your opponent lost the money and gained nothing from this.  That's tough politics, but not dirty at all.

But in Newt's case, he's already tied to the group, because he was essentially working for them.  And since lobbying was part of the problem, they need to show how Gingrich was also part of the problem.because he was a high priced lobbyist getting paid to make things easier for Freddie to do the bad things they did.  This isn't a case of a candidate accepting money from a tainted source.  This is a case of the candidate being tainted.  So what good does it do to demand for Gingrich to disassociate from them, when the association is already so much better for you? 

That's just dumb, and if Romney were smart, he'd be demanding to learn more of what Gingrich did for his money; not demanding that he disassociate from a group that he now regrets working for.  And Romney needs to tie that into a bigger narrative of Gingrich as an influence peddler who sold his name to whoever paid him.  And best of all, that's a fair attack on Gingrich.  Gingrich would be the Lobbyist-in-Chief and people need to know that about him.  He's not an outsider fighting the system; he's an insider who helped make it worse.  That's where this should have gone; not a stupid focus on the money.

Romney's team is obviously too incompetent to know how this works, and are just going through the motions they've seen other campaigns do.  As it turns out, their suits are just as empty as Romney's, and that's why he's having trouble fighting bozos and hasn't a chance against Obama if he somehow makes it through this alive. 

Friday, December 09, 2011

An Explanation of Obamacare

I'm in a debate with a dude on Facebook who insists that Obama's healthcare law was a rightwing policy that primarily helped the insurers.  And his evidence for this was that insurance mandates were originally a conservative idea, as if that somehow trumps all the good things it did. 

Because, of course, the original plan didn't include subsidies, more regulations, and tax hikes on the rich; as ACA does.  And it's as if we're still in 2009 and these people get to speculate about how bad it is, and refuse to learn what the law actually did.  After all, they keep reading from so many progressives about what a sell-out it is, so that must be true.

And while this is far from the definitive summary of this, here's a quickie recap of the plan I gave him, to counter his idea that the plan is "overpriced" and that subsidies wouldn't apply to most people.  I'll let you know if he posts a reply that refutes anything I wrote, as I acknowledge up front that I am NOT an expert on this.  I'm just someone who knows how to use the internet and likes to know what he's talking about.

And in case you're interested in learning more, here's a subsidy calculator that will show how much you'll pay in 2014 for insurance if you can't get it through your employer.  And here's Wikipedia's page on ACA, which covers everything and a PDF summary for those who don't have time to read everything at Wikipedia. 

This stuff has been out for awhile, so anyone who still doesn't know what it does really shouldn't talk about it at all, as ignorance is no excuse for making shit up.

ACA Recap

Here's an overview: Employers now have big incentives to offer insurance to their employees and the larger ones will be punished if they don't. And it has to be GOOD insurance, and not the crappy stuff McDonalds and Walmart are currently getting away with. So the majority of people will be covered this way, as they are already, but will have even better insurance than before.

For those who can't get employer insurance and make too much for the newly increased Medicaid limits, you'll go to your state's insurance exchange (which will include at least one non-profit) and the rates will be capped according to how much you make and you'll receive a subsidy.  Out-of-pocket expenses are also limited, and you'll get to choose which level of coverage you want, depending upon how much you want to pay.  But the more you pay, the more coverage you're guaranteed to get.

For example, a forty year old with a family of four who wants a "silver" plan who makes $55k will not pay more than $4135 in insurance premiums a year. And that same person making $33k a year will only pay $1143.  If he makes less than $30k he won't pay anything, while the subsidies go all the way up to those making $90k a year. And of course, they can't raise your rates without government approval, can't rescind your policy when you get sick, and can't deny you coverage for preexisting conditions.  And that's just the tip of the iceberg, as ACA does a TON more than this.

Does that really sound like a rightwing plan to you? This is WAAAAY better than what we had before, and while it has elements that were once approved by conservatives, it's also stocked with lots of goodies that make it an effective liberal policy that will certainly save lives.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Limited Powers of Media Spin

Jonathan Chait has a post about the limits of the Republican Elite's power in nominating their preferred candidate, writing:
The more important function of the debates is that they circumvent the party apparatus. Republicans are less dependent on tuning into the media – in this case, usually Party organs like Fox News – to learn who the leading candidates are. They can squeeze the merchandise themselves. Certainly debates have existed before this cycle, but now they seem more frequent and far more influential. Viral moments are spreading farther and wider.
Jonathan Bernstein counters by saying that the debates are being spun by Fox News and others in the rightwing media, writing:
Debates are far more mediated than ads or direct campaign contacts. And that means that to understand the effects of the debates, we need to know who is interpreting them and how.
And his evidence for this?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  Nor could he, because all evidence points to the contrary.  As Chait noted, Romney is surely the candidate the Republican Establishment wants, yet Newt now seems to be the front-runner; even though he's a terrible candidate.  And I've got to agree with that, as Newt is perhaps the worst candidate they've got; with the possible exception of Ron Paul and Rick Santorum.

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

So for Bernstein to refute Chait's argument, he needs to show how his theory explains what we're all obviously seeing.  But he doesn't, and instead basically goes with a Rightwing Media Works in Mysterious Ways sort of thing, which might work when applied to acts of God but isn't even satisfactory in that case.

Seriously, this is what he wrote:
we don’t really know exactly how what I call the GOP-aligned media works
So he admits that he doesn't know how they're doing it, yet he "knows" that it's happening, enough so that he can imagine he's refuting Chait's point without needing any evidence whatsoever to support his claim.

Sorry, but that's just not good enough.  Since reality seems to contradict Bernstein's claims, he needs to explain how this fits into his theory, yet he doesn't even attempt an explanation.  Instead, his argument is a mere assertion that this is true and leaves things at that.  And since Chait's describing a new phenomenon that changes the old dynamics, Bernstein really needs to show how the old dynamics are still in effect. 

Yet he ignores that part completely.  He started his post by asserting that Perry's brain fart about not remembering the three agencies he wanted to cut could have been spun either way, yet doesn't offer anything to support even that assertion; let alone explain any of the rest of this.

 My Rebuttal

The rest of this is the comment that I wrote on his post, which I'm just reposting here.

I'm sorry, but this is a ridiculous argument which is proven false by reality. Are we REALLY to imagine that Fox News had it in for Perry, even though he was at one time the Anointed One and the best chance the Republicans had at uniting the Tea Partiers behind a candidate that at least stood some chance of competing against Obama? That seems doubtful.

First off, the influence of the media has ALWAYS been vastly exaggerated, even before the internet became so pervasive in politics. One needs only to contrast the negative news coverage of Clinton with the high approval ratings he had to see that. But when you've got groups like Think Progress and TPM, as well as lots of conservatives posting these clips while the debates are still going on, it's a bit hard to imagine how Fox News is the one controlling all this.

Because NOBODY could spin the brain farts committed by Perry and Cain as being momentary lapses by knowledgeable people; primarily because neither of them had a reputation as someone who was knowledgeable. Instead, they had reps as being guys with a very superficial understanding of the issues and no amount of spin can fix that. Same goes for Palin. While spin does have some effect, those powers aren't infinite and can't turn a turd candidate into Obama just by waving a magic wand.

And seriously, are we to imagine that Fox WANTS all these candidates to look like boobs? Could they be so delusional as to imagine that a Gingrich nomination could be GOOD for the party? Or is it maybe that they're as powerless to create the New Reagan as anyone else?

There's a reason that Mitt Romney avoids media interviews and it's NOT because he's worried that Fox will destroy him for making smart comments. It's because he too has a superficial understanding of the issues, but is smart enough to realize that he's safer in controlled situations like advertisements and speeches than in debates and interviews. And even debates are safer for him than interviews, as he can at least hide behind talking points and not have to worry too much about follow-up questions.

And it shouldn't need to be said, but Chait's theory explains why Gingrich is beating Romney, even though Romney has GOT to be the one that the Republicans want; while this theory of all-powerful spin does NOT explain that. After all, Fox News HASN'T been hammering Romney for his debate performance, and yet he STILL lags in the polls. I'm sorry, but this alone completely contradicts this theory.

Gingrich is one of the worst candidates they've got, has a terrible campaign, was considered to be dead in the water by everyone including Fox earlier in the year; yet now seems to be the front runner. If your theory can't explain that, then you need to get a new theory.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

In Defense of Hate Crime Laws

Over on Facebook, one of my FB friends posted a link to an article criticizing hate crime laws, with the idea that it's a violation of free speech to punish someone for the reason why they committed the crime.  And the whole thing was just a rehash of the same debate we had during the 90's when the idea of punishing hate crimes first came up, by someone who seems to imagine they've found a novel argument against it.  You know, how it's thought policing and protecting special groups at the expense of white people.  That kind of thing.  But I don't post often enough, so I figured I'd post my response here.  Enjoy!

So...when the KKK puts a burning cross on someone's property, should that be punished the same as someone who starts a fire on that property to keep warm?  Or should the burning cross be taken as something more than a mere fire?

And when a Neo-Nazi paints a Swastika on a Jew's house, is that the same as someone tagging their name on the house as graffiti?  Or is there something more going on than just spraypaint?

And I'll admit to not being a lawyer, yet I'm of the understanding that criminal law DOES take the reason for our actions into consideration. For example, we have various levels of how to treat someone who kills someone else, depending upon the reasons and actions behind the killing; ranging from first degree murder down to manslaughter, and all the way down to self defense for people defending themselves.  So we clearly treat killers differently, depending upon their reasons for killing. 

Moreover, our punishments are different, depending upon the circumstances.  So someone convicted of first degree murder for shooting their wife with a gun is treated differently than someone who shoved their wife into a woodchipper.  Plus, someone who's killed before will be treated differently than someone who's never killed before, because it's assumed that the repeat killer is developing a pattern. 

Again, I'm not a lawyer, but it seems to me that we already treat the same actions differently depending upon the circumstances, which is why we have such leeway in how to prosecute people and what the punishment should be, because different circumstances deserve different punishments.  And so hate crimes would be an extension of that principle, as someone who goes around mugging for money is less dangerous than someone who only mugs white people because they hate them.

BTW, unless I'm mistaken, hate crimes can be committed against EVERY group, including whites; so the mention in the article that some groups are treated differently than others would be false.  It's not that there's a protected group of people.  It's that we're all protected against people who are specifically targeting us due to the group we're in.

And the overall point is that free speech is still free and you're still entitled to think whatever the hell you want to think; including hatred of others.  But as soon as you act upon those thoughts, it becomes an entirely different ballgame and you can be treated differently based upon the reasons why you did it.