What’s all the Fuss About Todd Akin?

Especially from the Republican side.

1)  If you believe, as the Catholic church does and most conservatives do, that abortion is murder, then it is irrelevant whether a woman becomes pregnant through rape or through consensual sex.  At the moment of conception, there is a human being with human rights attached to it.  It really doesn’t matter if someone was raped.  Making an exception for rape makes no sense, and in fact undermines the current right-wing anti-abortion position.  For Republicans to proclaim that they are shocked, shocked by Akin shows that they lack the courage of their convictions.

2)  Akin might have had a better argument if, in response to the reporter’s question, he responded something like this: “Look, rape is horrific crime.  It’s a terrible tragedy for a woman if she is raped and then conceives.  But that doesn’t excuse killing the child.”  The only problem with that is that a reporter might have followed up: “well, then what do you expect that the government should do for the rape victim?”  The answer for most Republicans would be, “nothing.”  Stuff happens in life, and this is one of those things that happens.  Deal with it.  That’s essentially was the answer of the audience during the Republican debates when Wolf Blitzer asked what we should do with someone who doesn’t have health insurance and then gets in an accident or discovers that they have a terrible illness.

And that leads to the seam in modern Republican “thinking,” if it can be called that.  If you think that the government has a responsibility to help the rape victim, why not the victims of other terrible accidents or illnesses?  Why does the rape victim “deserve” help but the muscular dystrophy victim not deserve it?

So Akin tried to get out of the question, using the right-wing justification that as Mark points out has been there for a while in fever pits of Conservative America: if you get pregnant, then you must not have been raped.  See?  Everything works out okay!   Everyone is totally and completely responsible for their own condition.  There is no such thing as luck or the chains of circumstance.  The safety net, as St. Paul Ryan explained, is really just a hammock.

Do Republicans actually believe this?  I don’t know.  But their leaders seem to.  And they don’t want anyone to talk about situations when people’s lives are brutalized through no fault of their own.  The more that anyone does do this, it shows how ridiculous official Republican ideology is.

No wonder they want Akin out of the race.

A Friendly Debate with a Conservative Colleague

My friend and colleague Steve Bainbridge is out with a new article on “Corporate Lawyers as Gatekeepers,” which, if you are interested in corporate law, you should read (Steve is one of the country’s most distinguished scholars in the field).  But what piqued my interest when he sent it to me was his offhand remark that he is sending it out electronically to “reduce my carbon footprint.”

I couldn’t resist.  I responded, “Your CARBON footprint?  You pinko liberal fellow-travelling wimp!!  Resign your Republican Party membership now!”

And neither could he, responding:

It is possible to believe in anthropomorphic climate change AND believe that it is not an excuse for blowing up the size of government. To the contrary, it’s an argument for eliminating both the market AND the many regulatory distortions that mean people don’t pay a carbon price that includes all relevant externalities. Government’s role should be to eliminate any true externalities that rise to the evel of causing a market failure and then get out of the way and let the market solve the problem.

Here’s where it gets interesting.  Steve is completely right: it is indeed possible to have a coherent and realistic conservative policy on climate change.  (I wouldn’t agree, but that’s a different issue).  The problem is that the current Republican Party refuses to have one.  I wrote back:

That’s a totally fair position.  Now all you have to do is persuade a single member of the House Republican Conference or the Senate Republican Caucus, or any Republican power broker, of that…
And here’s where it gets really interesting.  Steve’s response:
When you convince any leading national Democratic politician that life begins at conception and that the law ought to at least take that into account in balancing the interests, I’ll take a crack at it.

Foul!  Belief in the existence of anthropogenic climate change and belief that human life begins at conception are two different categories.  I responded:

It seems to me that there is a fundamental difference between a scientific fact (anthropogenic climate change), and a philosophical position (human life invested with human rights begins at conception).  Now, you could say two things about this:

1) Scientific “fact” is itself a philosophical position, and that is true.  And if someone wants to take the view that scientific determinations concerning the natural world have no more reason to be called “facts” than any other philosophical position, then they can do that.  Postmodernists do that.  I don’t, and I would be very surprised, to put it mildly, that you do.

2) The better analogy, I would think, is for you to say, “I will take a crack at persuading a single member of the Republican Caucus that anthropogenic climate is true if you will take a crack at persuading any leading national Democratic politician to support a revenue-neutral carbon tax.” Your position is that there is such a thing as a genuinely conservative climate policy, and I agree.  But I think that I would win that one going away, because I could find lots more Democrats to support a revenue-neutral carbon tax than you could find Republicans to support the existence of anthropogenic climate change.

But Steve wasn’t buying it.  He counter-offered with another challenge:
How about this: You agree to try persuading Obama, Pelosi, and Reid to unconditionally support renewing the Bush tax cuts for people earning > $250K per year. No deals, no quid pro quo. And you only have to persuade 3.
This last one was something of a joke, obviously.  But it does point to a real problem for modern conservatism, and thoughtful conservatives like Steve.  Their party simply rejects the overwhelming scientific consensus on the greatest environmental problem that the planet has ever faced.  Nothing comes close to that.  And while there may be profound differences between the parties on philosophical issues, off the top of my head I can’t think of any issue, at least since the Second World War, where one major party has made it an article of faith that it simply rejects on principle such an overwhelming scientific consensus.  The only thing close is evolution, and once again, it represents the Republican position that as a matter of principle, it simply will not listen to scientists.  Note that I stacked it against myself: I offered that he could persuade any member of the House Republican Conference, and he could only counter with “any national prominent Democratic politician.”  And he still couldn’t do it.
The only things that Steve could respond with were, well, issues of moral belief: 1) human life invested human rights begins at conception; or 2) cutting taxes for people making more than a quarter of a million dollars a year is the right thing to do or will cause economic growth (the latter really being an article of faith: in my view, it’s really more a philosophical position concerning just distribution of social wealth).
Now, to be clear, like any intelligent person, Steve does believe in the existence of anthropogenic climate change.  But he could not respond with an example of equally anti-empirical belief from Democrats.  That tells you a whole lot about the differences between the parties.  No wonder Steve is such a curmudgeon.

Has Editors’ Abuse of Authors Fueled the Rise of Blogging?

Two years ago, a British newspaper editor emailed Mark Kleiman and me and asked us to write a short piece about crime and drugs. We dutifully did so and promptly sent it to him. But he didn’t respond. I rang him up a week later and asked if he had received it. He said “Oh Yes! I have it right here. I will read it right now and get back to you.”

Another week passed, during which Mark and I sent the editor a few emails to which he didn’t respond. I phoned him again and asked if he didn’t want the piece after all, because we could send it elsewhere if so. Oh no he very much wanted it, he indicated, why else would he have asked for it? He promised to get right back to us. We emailed him and left him voice mails a few more times in the coming weeks and then gave up, having never heard back from him. He never said our piece was good, he never said it was bad, he just solicited us to write it out of the blue and then blew us off.

Fast-forward to this week. I had helped a bright, friendly journalist from a national magazine on a story she was writing. Afterwards I got an email from the editor thanking me for helping the author and asking me to write a response to the article for the next issue. She gave me a word limit and a short time frame to produce the piece. It was a busy time, but my mother reads the magazine and I thought she would like seeing her son in print. I pulled the piece together with some help on drafts from friends and from my mother as well. The editor emailed me “thank you, very much, for this carefully considered response which we are delighted to have.”

Out came the magazine with a number of responses to the article, but mine was not among them. I had no note from the editor explaining why. I therefore emailed her and was informed that she didn’t have space for it. I told her this was most unkind, which beyond my mom and I cancelling our subscriptions is all I can do in response to such shabby treatment.

Mind you, I understand completely that editors receive an avalanche of unsolicited material. And when I send something unsolicited to a newspaper or magazine, I don’t expect any response at all if it isn’t what is wanted. But God, it galls me that editors contact strangers and ask them to write pieces on specific topics and then treat those authors like lepers for the sin of complying with the request.

Much has been written about why blogging has become popular, with decreasing technology costs, desire for self-expression, increasing individualism and the like being cited as plausible causes of the rise of medium. All of that seems reasonable to me, but I have to wonder if exasperation with editors isn’t also in the soup, at least for those bloggers who have experience publishing in print form. I have been edited by some real gems (Matt Seaton at The Guardian, Meredith White at San Francisco Chronicle), but when I see how some editors treat authors, it makes me more prone to cut out the abusive middleman and just go straight to on-line print.

A Reasonable Question and a Good Answer Regarding Parenthood

A colleague picked up his son at kindergarten. He watched him wave goodbye to some of the other children and said “You are making friends!”

“Yes” said his son happily. He then went quiet for 30 seconds, seemingly lost in thought.

He then asked “Are you my friend, Daddy?”.

A parent could answer this question in many ways, but my favorite comes from the book Beating the Odds, a study of highly academically successful young black men.

Whenever he had to discipline or set limits for his son, the father of one of the remarkable young men in the book would explain his role to his child as follows:

“I am your father first, and your friend second. Some day I will be your friend first and your father second. I will let you know when that day has come.”

It’s not just wisdom that comes with age

When I was a brand new baby lawyer in my twenties, I could not fathom sexual harassment.  I got the point that a law school diploma and an admission to the bar were meaningless in the face of my complete lack of knowledge about how the real work of lawyering was done.   I understood that the gladiatorial nature of litigation meant I was bound to take some body blows from seasoned lawyers.  Nonetheless, I could not for the life of me understand why the hostilities so often had a sexualized overtone.  What could be causing these men to remark on my appearance in between barbs and snark while standing in a filthy courthouse corridor arguing about discovery obligations in a surety case?  It made no sense.  A clerk once called into chambers to tell the judge that I had arrived, and said, “It’s either Ms. Heussler or a young Maureen O’Hara.”  What?  And who was this Maureen person anyway?

So, okay, I turned 50 last year and I now I get it.  Continue reading “It’s not just wisdom that comes with age”

Ethical Challenges in Child Mental Health

Every day physicians deal with patients who could improve their health by engaging in some behavior change, but want instead to be prescribed a pill. A patient might say for example “Yes, I know it would be good for my cardiovascular system if I lost 10 pounds, ate more fruits and vegetables and went for a brisk walk each evening. But I don’t feel like doing those things so give me the statins and the antihypertensives I heard about on that TV ad”.

There are a range of ethical issues for the care provider here, including balancing the need to take care of people while at the same time not enabling poor health behaviour, weighing the risk of side-effects with the benefits of medication, and recognizing that sometimes medications are best but if everyone refuses to change their health behaviour it puts more strain on already strained social programmes (e.g., Medicare), and so forth.

But what doesn’t arise is the “split decision” ethical problem common in child mental health treatment. By “split decision”, I mean when someone is faced with a choice not between changing their behaviour or taking a pill, but changing their behaviour or making someone else take one. Here are some examples of such conundrums: Continue reading “Ethical Challenges in Child Mental Health”

Playing with guns

To misquote Harold Hill’s line “I count the hours I spent with a gun in my hand as golden” overstates the situation greatly, but before I got bored with them, I played with firearms, and here are some of the things I shot at and one I didn’t:

I never in my life imagined it would be amusing to do this:

It’s necessary training for people whose jobs require that they be able to literally shoot people, and I want them to be good at it when circumstances so demand.  The ones I have known didn’t enjoy the fact or drool at the prospect.

Many amusements abstract killing other people into a game to a greater or lesser degree : chess, paintball fights, fencing; none of them activates my disgust center. Increasingly realistic computer games are another story, and I’d classify them with this unspeakable public behavior of a presidential candidate. Especially one who prattles about the value of every life and wallows in his devotion to a religion that condemns the death penalty. Never mind “pretend it’s Obama,”  those silhouettes are pretending to be people, as a tin can or concentric circles do not.

Wealth, virtue, and political status

Hedge fund managers vs. Obama: the clash isn’t about interests or even about status. It’s about values. The wealth fund managers think that capitalism is worthwhile because it allows the rise of people like them. Obama reminds them that they’re the only ones who think that.

Alec MacGillis’s article on why hedge fund managers have turned fiercely against President Obama has deservedly gotten a lot of attention (especially this thoughtful commentary from Rich Yeselson, to whom the hat tip). I take MacGillis’ main point to be that hedge fund managers’ fury is based more on self-image than on self-interest. It’s not just that the hedge fundis resent being asked to pay more taxes, though they do. It’s that they think that they themselves are grand and wise people by virtue of having created vast fortunes from modest beginnings, and the President has made clear that he doesn’t.

The vanity of the super-wealthy is not a new point. But the nature of that vanity deserves more attention. I think most of us fail to realize the extent to which hedge fund managers reverse the causal reasoning that most of us use to justify capitalism. For most people, the vast wealth of entrepreneurs is justified (if at all, or conditionally, or partially, or whatever) because their wealth drives a productive economy: it creates jobs, lifts people out of poverty, erodes distasteful ascriptive hierarchies. The few billionaires at the top, however, see it to a great extent the other way around: the capitalist system is to be praised because it makes possible fortunes like theirs.

Continue reading “Wealth, virtue, and political status”

The Bishops’ Seamless Garment Frays Some More: Cue Erich Ludendorff

Although I disagree with it on specifics, I have always respected the Roman Catholic Church’s position that its social teachings are a “seamless garment” — that is, it focuses on all aspects of its social teaching even if it does not fit neatly into political boxes. 

Well, it turns out that the garment’s got a lot of rips in it:

Internal Komen documents reviewed by Reuters reveal the complicated relationship between the Komen Foundation and the Catholic church, which simultaneously contributes to the breast cancer charity and receives grants from it. In recent years, Komen has allocated at least $17.6 million of the donations it receives to U.S. Catholic universities, hospitals and charities.

Church opposition reached dramatic new proportions in 2011, when the 11 bishops who represent Ohio’s 2.6 million Catholics announced a statewide policy banning church and parochial school donations to Komen.

Such pressure helped sway Komen’s leadership to cut funding to Planned Parenthood, according to current and former Komen officials….

The earliest signs of discord came in 2005, when South Carolina’s Catholic diocese pulled out of the local Komen fundraiser. It was followed over the next four years by individual dioceses in Arizona, Indiana, Florida, Missouri and other states, where bishops either spoke out against Komen or took steps to stem donations to the charity, mainly because of its Planned Parenthood link.

The momentum picked up in 2011 when top Ohio clerics met in Columbus. High on their agenda was the question of whether the state’s nine dioceses should participate in Komen fundraisers.

No Planned Parenthood clinics in Ohio receive Komen money. But the bishops decided that diocese funds should no longer benefit the charity, for fear that money sent from local Komen affiliates to the Dallas headquarters could wind up in Planned Parenthood’s coffers or help fund research on stem cells collected from human fetuses, according to church officials.

So — in a probable violation of the Thomist Doctrine of Double Effect, the bishops have decided to refuse all support for any women’s health promoted by Komen for fear that somewhere, somehow, some money might make it into some Planned Parenthood office.  And they went even further, telling all of their parishoners not to do anything to help, either.  It was, of course, interesting that they did nothing of the kind concerning Republican candidates who vowed to slash funding for programs for the poor, many of which also supported Catholic Charities.

High on the 2011 agenda, of course, was this issue.  It’s not clear from the story, but this seemed to be a much higher agenda issue than, say, the truly vicious cuts proposed by Paul Ryan, or John Kasich, or any other right-winger.  Some things, you see, are just more important than others.

One of the glories of contemporary religious thought is the Catholic social justice tradition, epitomized by the likes of Dorothy Day but also advanced by thousands of lay Catholics and individual priests throughout the world.  Everywhere from US streets to isolated villages in the Congo, Catholics are modeling themselves on Jesus’ life, ministering to the poor, fighting for justice, and bringing the Holy Spirit to earth.  They deserve better clerical leadership than what they are getting.

It thus reminds me of a (perhaps-apocryphal) conversation between German World War I generals Max Hoffmann and Erich Ludendorff, about the valiant British infantry cut down through the idiotic strategy of their generals:

Ludendorff:  The British fought like lions.

Hoffmann:  Yes; but they were led by donkeys.

Why Should You Pay For Someone Else to Have Sex?

At least that’s the way that Bill O’Reilly phrased it the other day.  His argument goes: 1) group insurance means that we are all paying for other people’s benefits; 2) this benefit is only accessed if someone gets sick or has some other health condition; 3) that means that some members of the group pay for other members’ benefits at certain time; 4) contraception is only useful because someone is having sex; and thus 5) some group members will pay for other group members’ benefits only because those other members insist on having sex.

Now, there are a whole lot of gaping holes in this theory (most importantly that contraception is only useful in terms of preventing pregnancy), but the basic thrust (so to speak) is clear, and deserves to be answered.  So:

1)  There is nothing wrong with people having sex.  Really.  It’s not something that is problematic.  If you have religious or moral objections to it, then don’t have sex.  For everyone else over the age of 18, it is legal as long as it is consensual.  Full stop.  End of story.  (Or actually, there’s more: consensual adult sex is also a constitutional right.).

Objection: But if you are having sex and are trying not to have children, then it is recreational, right?  Why should I pay for your recreation?

2)  Answer: well, what of it?  What if someone goes skiing, and breaks their leg?  Insurance would cover that.  That also means to some extent that insurance is paying for their recreational activity.  Big deal.  If someone hurts themselves sailing, the same thing applies. (And although I have no statistics to show this, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that skiing and sailing are tilted more toward the high end of the income ladder).

Objection: So then you just think that everyone should subsidize everyone’s else’s activities?

3)  Yes!  That’s what group insurance is.  We recognize that people have lives, where they do a lot of things, and fortunately, we do not do all of those things out of sheer desperation to maintain ourselves.  We drive cars, we take airplanes, we operate heavy machinery, we eat food, we engage in all sorts of recreational activities, and — and I realize that this is going to be a shock to Bill O’Reilly (or maybe not) — we have sex.  We have insurance to spread the risks of these activities: when someone else gets hurt, I and everyone pays a little, so that later on, if I get hurt, I and everyone else pays a little.  It’s better for everyone that way.  So to the extent that O’Reilly, or anyone else, really has an objection to this, then their actual position is that if someone gets hurt, or something bad happens to them, then too bad, and the devil take the hindmost.  This is known as Social Darwinism, and those who believe in it can vote Republican.  The rest of us should vote for President Obama.