Crops and Taxes and Incentives

Planting stuff is hard work, especially for an urban gardener like me.  There are dozens and dozens of containers of dirt that my wife and I plant in each year.  There’s mulching, there’s watering (sigh…so much watering), there’s picking and drying and canning and, well, there’s a lot of work in trying to grow food for yourself.

But the upside is that once you’ve put in some work, it gets easier on the margins.  That is to say, if I have 6 tomato plants growing on a trellis and there’s room for one more, it’s pretty easy for me to put a 7th on there.  If I take the time to put in a raised bed one year, I have freed myself, to a great degree, of having to do the same work again.

Gardening is a great thing because the more you do it, the more rewarded you get.  Getting ready to plant your eight pea plants is much more financially rewarding than putting in the effort to plant pea number 1.

In fact, lots and lots of stuff is like this.  Most hobbies fall into this realm.  The better you get at crocheting, the more cost-effective and time-effective your crocheting is; you can create more, with better patters, with more reward for your investment.

Exercise and sports are good examples of this.  Getting in shape takes some steep initial investment, but once you’re in shape, you get to do some pretty impressive things with your body.

Now, it’s important to note that the return you get on these things isn’t infinitely increasing.  When I run out of good sunny area in back yard, it becomes really, really tough to find ways to grow more plants.  It’s pretty easy to get yourself into shape, but getting yourself into Olympic-athlete-shape takes levels of commitment almost nobody would think of (If a fat guy like me spends a year running and walking, I can probably halve my mile-run time.  Olympic Athletes spend a year trying to shave off a second from their time).

And so, when I run out of places easy for me to grow food, I might try to be a little inventive, but I’m not going to break my back going from pea #9 to pea #10 if pea#10 is going to be twice as much work as pea#9.

Similarly, I’m going to be happy putting in 30 to 60 minutes at the gym each night to get in shape, but I’m not going to shoot for Olympic athlete if it means I have to be in the gym 8 hours a day.

The return on investment just isn’t that good in these scenarios at the margins (i.e, once you’ve picked all the low-hanging fruit), and so it becomes really hard to convince oneself to do it.

I mention this as tax day is fast approaching.  This year my wife and I, both professionals, saw ourselves with an awful lot of our taxes in the 25% bracket from our jobs (she’s a manager, I’m a mathematician working in the bowels of the federal bureaucracy).

That’s not why I’m writing this though.

For the last two years, I’ve been teaching math at a local community college.  Now, I’m not the world’s greatest teacher, but I’m competent, and I try to approach teaching math from a “hey I use this every day in a real job, and here’s how you could use this in a real job, too” perspective, which I think serves the students better than “I’m a math teacher and you have to learn this because it’s in the book.”

I think my students generally benefit from having me in the class, and I know the college is happy they have someone competent and reliable in the classroom offering real-life examples of when math is useful.

I make about $1850 this semester, for teaching 16 3-hour classes.  Besides that, I spend about 3 hours the night before prepping for class, and about another 2 hours the night of the class making copies, grading, entering grades, helping students, or whatever.  This means I put in about 8 hours of work each week into the class.

My paycheck is about 230 every two weeks. About 27 comes out in non-tax deductions.  At 25%, I lose another $57.5, and so it ends up being right about 145 dollars that I clear every two weeks.  Or, at 16 hours of work, a little over 9 dollars an hour.

Now, in order to get into the 25% tax bracket, I’ll tell you that my wife and I aren’t working for 9 dollars an hour at our regular job, and me being tired two days a week because of my 9-dollar an hour job isn’t going over so well at my regular, lots-more-than-9-dollar job.

Now, I don’t mind that I don’t make a lot of money as an adjunct professor at a community college (It’s the motto on the business cards they pass out).  What I mind is that 25% of the little I do make gets taken in taxes.

And so, I think, this is going to be my last semester teaching at community college.  The tax disincentives for me working there are so discouraging that it outweighs the happiness I get from teaching.  In a lot of ways, I’d much rather be doing the whole thing for free than for 9 dollars an hour…

So here’s my question: would we intentionally disincentivize a gardener from growing more food?*  Does it benefit the gardener or her community to have less food around?

Does it benefit my community to have one less good-quality math professor around?

And does it ever think about the lost opportunities from the other people just like me realizing that the marginal costs of them working a second job are too high for them to bother doing that second job?

Or does it only think “Boo hoo, another rich guy complaining about his taxes” and never see the class that doesn’t get taught because there’re note enough teachers, or the engineer who has to delay graduation for a year waiting for the class to get run, or the bridge that doesn’t get built because that engineer is a year behind schedule?

Sadly, we both know the answer to that one.

[*Sigh.  Don’t get me started on the gross immorality of food subsidies.  One day God is going to be very angry at us and say something to the effect of “What?  I gave you all this great farmland and you just let it go to waste?  And then you burned some of the food as bad alternatives to the plentiful supplies of fossil fuels I provided you with? Argh! Smite! Smite!”]


Obamacare, and what it broke

Both my mother and brother were kicked off of their health plans as a result of the ACA being passed.  Both of them had health policies for around $250 a month.

My mother, recently widowed, received very heft premium discounts (around $500 a month) since she had very minimal income that year and ended up paying $250 a month for her new policy.  However, a few death benefits for my father sent her checks, which counted as income, and at the end of the year, my mother had a tax bill of $3000, based on repaying those premiums since her “income” had gone up.

So, my mom went from paying $250 a month on a plan that was fine for her, to paying $750 a month for an equivalent plan.  Moreover, even had the subsidies that she thought she was entitled to kicked in, someone(s) else would have paid an extra $500 a month for her to have coverage.

In essence, either way, the world was poorer $6000 because of what happened to my mother.  But in this case, it was specifically my widowed mother who was $6000 poorer.

The American people did not want the Affordable Care Act.  Lots of people in congress did not want the Affordable Care Act.  This makes it very different than other times when America governmentized parts of its collective life.

People wanted Social Security and were okay with governmentizing retirement (even though its a bad system).  People wanted Medicare and Medicaid and welfare checks and job training and food stamps and were okay with governmentizing charity (even though its a bad system).

These were giant, massive (and bad) programs started by the government to make citizens’ lives better.  But they were bipartisan.  They were politicians on both sides giving the people what they wanted.  Trying to unentangle America from Social Security, Medicaid, and the rest of the “security net” we’ve woven for ourselves is impossible.

The same will be true of Obamacare.  Regardless of repeal and replace plans, the genie is out of the bottle.  There’s no more going back to “26 year olds should be parents at that point, not still children” or “we can’t put you in the insurance pool because you have cancer already”.

It is a crazy, very slow, economic suicide that we’ve set ourselves upon.  Imagine if we did this with house insurance and let people buy policies after their homes were flooded.  For the price of a single premium, the other people in the insurance pool would have to cover their damages.  Or if a car owner could buy an insurance policy after he’s in a wreck.  It’s an insane way of running any kind of risk-management system.

But the economy is the least of what Obamacare broke.

Obamacare broke politics.

George W. Bush could still be the president who passed bipartisan education policy (NCLB), and a national, bipartisan drug entitlement.  He could even try to advance a very middle-of-the-road approach to immigration reform.

No president will ever be able to pass a bipartisan policy agenda ever again, because there is no more bipartisanship left.

Because Obamacare broke it.

You’ll forget, perhaps, when it broke.  It was at a meeting between Obama and some Republican lawmakers to discuss health care reform.  The Republicans had a list of things they wanted changed/added to the bill.  They weren’t going to stop it, they just wanted a hand in it (for pork or pet projects or whatever.  They’re politicians, not saints.  If 30 million Americans are going to get insurance, they want a say in how that happens or they can’t brag about it to their constituents).

And that’s when a very young Barak Obama looked at a very old war hero named John McCain, who was a very middle-of-the road Republican, and said “The election’s over.”

And that’s when politics in America broke.

There would be no compromise.  Democrats would not give an inch.  They would not seek to include Republicans on this.  They had won.  But not like Eisenhower or Kennedy had won, where there was a sense that winning didn’t mean powerlessness for the losers.

This new kind of winning was a “fuck you” kind of winning.  There would be no bridge building, no bipartisanship, because it was no longer a goal of legislating.  The goal was now to win an election and then do anything you can get away with, and screw the guys on the other side.  You won, you don’t have to listen to anything they say.

My dad used to tell a story about a kid he played sandlot baseball with when they were kids.  Because there were never any refs, this kid would never swing at any pitch he didn’t like, whether or not it was a good pitch and would have been in the strike zone.  “No ump!” he’d call out, and then wait for the frustrated pitcher to just send him up something soft to get the game moving.  There was nothing except human decency to keep the kid from doing this, but human decency isn’t really enforceable, and so this kid got to dictate the rules of the game.

It’s the same idea as not bringing a knife to a gun fight.  Both sides can agree on what they’re going to bring (like in West Side Story), but if one side unilaterally starts bringing pistols, the other side isn’t going to take the high road and stick to switch-blades.

The lowest, meanest, dirtiest guy sets the rules and drags everyone else in the fight down into the mud with him.

Obamacare wasn’t just about playing for victory, though.  It fundamentally changed the level of caution politicians required of themselves when changing the American compact. The really big changes to the role the government plays in people’s lives (income tax, social security, the welfare system) had always come from at least some confluence of the right, center, and left.  Even if there was disagreement from the fringes, the center held.  (And still holds.  There are virtually zero real national politicians who talk openly about eradicating the welfare state, instead merely discussing ways to improve its efficiency and solvency. These programs are overwhelming popular with the voting classes).

These, like the ACA, weren’t another law or regulation or statute like “no more BPA in plastic bottles,” which are nuisance laws, but don’t change the interplay between citizen and government.  The are un-reversable.  And for that reason, politicians had always cautiously sought to pass them with support from both sides.  The ACA was the first time this did not happen.

So politics is broke now.  The precedent is set.  There are no more decency standards Trump will be held to.  Executive orders?  Governing by pen and phone? Obama did it.  Governing without input from the minority party?  Claiming that the election results give you carte blanche? Obama did it.  Ramming whatever you can get away with down the throats of your enemies?  Cue Butters complaining.

The Republicans were the party of “no” for six years (it’s easy to forget that Obama had two years of Democrat control over both camera and the White House and that, if he’d wanted, immigration reform, entitlement reform, other bipartisan things could have happened then.  There were no TEA party members wearing vaginas on their heads at Obama’s first inauguration.).

And now the Democrats will be the part of “no” for the foreseeable future. Although Dems assure us that they are standing on principal and American values when they obstruct, unlike those filthy, racist Republicans who obstructed because of filthy racism.

It might not be Obama’s fault.  I don’t know if he knew what was going to happen because of those three words.  Maybe he was just the spark that lit off a powder keg after Clinton’s impeachment and the “Bush lied /people died” crowd had started infiltrating DC.

Reactions and Counter-reactions

Beloved friends,
Some of you have asked me my thoughts on recent political developments.
The short: I’m cautiously optimistic although I did not desire or predict this outcome.
The long: (All except number 2 are things that I learned while at my liberal arts college, whose motto is Veritas (“Truth”), although most of my classmates here seem to have though it to be Sensus (“Feeling”)…).
Here they are:
1. According to Yoda, fear leads to the dark side. If you, as a parent or teacher, are inculcating a culture of fear in your children or students in which they assume that going to college means they are going to be repeatedly raped, or that the gestapo is coming to kick them all the minorities out of the country or put them into internment camps or other foolishness, you are producing little Anikans whose only coping mechanism will be the murder of younglings. We live in the free-est, best-est, most tolerant-est pluralistic society in the history of the world. No other country has ever granted so much freedom and equality to people from so many different cultures and backgrounds (except maaaaaaaybe Rome). America is not perfect, but it is the only country in the world that even tries to be a melting pot, and that counts for a heck of a lot.
Politicians say things that are not true to help themselves get elected. Sometimes these things are “I’m gonna build a wall.” Sometimes these things are “He wants to put ya’ll back in chains.” All are meant to persuade people (usually through fear) that their opponent is going to eat your babies like a dingo. If you are an adult, and you believe what politicians say, I sentence you to watch the “I’m shocked–shocked to discover that there is gambling going on here!” scene from Casablanca until you understand that lots of times people say things that are not true.
2. According to Leave it to Beaver, it’s not right to do the things that you criticize other people for doing. If your concern about a Clinton victory was that Trump supporters would protest, and now you’re protesting because Trump won, I sentence you to 30 hours of MeTV viewing.
Would you be calling for an end to the electoral college if Trump had won the popular vote and Clinton won the presidency? Because if not, you’re a shitty person. Don’t be shitty. You can change.
3. According to Plato, when Socrates was sentenced to death via democratic vote, he was given the chance to escape prison and his sentence. He response was that he had lived in Athens his entire life. He knew how the justice system worked, and if he was unhappy with it, he could have left before. But, it would be wrong for him to leave simply because he didn’t like the way a vote went.
If you don’t like the fact that there are winners and losers in political races, I recommend Cuba, Venezuela, or China, where you will never have to worry about which side will win or lose an election.
4. When I took my first class on American Indian history, I walked in there feeling very sorry for Native Americans, who were so stupid and helpless and powerless that they lost an entire continent by trading it for magic beans or beads or something. Poor, stupid Indians.
Over the semester, I found out that Native Americans were not the racial equivalent of rescue dogs. They (this is a big, generalized “they”) made rational decisions about the choices they were faced with. Many of them were brave and noble–others were conniving and opportunistic. “They” did not have some kind of Sid Myers’-esque hivemind guiding their overall actions.
In short, they had agency (which is the social science term that means “They were capable of making choices and being responsible for them”).
Black people, Hispanics, Muslims, and our friends in the LGB community are not rescue dogs. They are not waiting for us to kiss their boo boos and make them feel better. They do not cower in their kennels soiling themselves. However, if I were an anthropologist studying facebook, I would estimate that the nearly universal estimate of Americans thought them to be on par with invalids and abused dachshunds (which they, in reality, are not).
They are fellow citizens who, like us, got shit to do and, for the most part, just need you to stay the hell out of their way. They do not need your “Oh, I’m so sorry that Trump got elected and that now you’re going to get deported”s. They don’t need your “I support you!” safety pins.
What they need is that if they’re carrying a heavy box, you hold the door open for them. They need low taxes, effective government, and the rule of law, and maybe someone to get their mail when they go out of town, same as the rest of us.
This is pretty easy, Tony Danza-level stuff “How do you treat a gay/black/hispanic/muslim person?”
“Like a person.”
5. As a member of Knox’s Student Senate, I once saw the feminist bloc torpedo a fundraiser for a women’s shelter because it was run by Catholic Charities. Politics, like monopoly, is a game mostly played by assholes (like me). Do not expect us to be angels or truthful. Expect us to try to win and burn as much stuff as we need to do so. We are not your friends. Try to insulate our game from your actual lives as much as possible.
6. I met my beautiful wife’s grandfather while at Knox. He died a few weeks ago. He was 94. By the time he died, he had buried both his parents, both his wives, his only brother, and both of his children. In the Great Depression, his family lost his farm. In WWII, he was part of the cleanup crew after the bombs were dropped in Japan.
My grandmother’s 105 birthday would have been a few days ago. She raised 10 children, the youngest of whom was born the first year of the Great Depression. She buried her husband while the youngest was still in high school. One time when she was young, she won a contest by catching a monkey in a basket.
Neither of them ever got/needed a safe space or ever got to say “I spent all day crying instead of doing my job because something I wanted to happen didn’t happen.”
I want you to think about what your grandparents or great-grandparents would think about your actions over the last few days. If you think they’d be proud of your sniveling in a corner terrified of phantasms inspired by political rhetoric, you are wrong.
You are an adult. By now, you should know that the world is usually a cold and unfeeling place. If you haven’t, you have no prudence or wisdom, and nobody in their right mind is going to let you govern the country.
7. If your political candidate of choice is a less-charismatic version of Emily Gilmore and a white guy with weird eyebrows, you picked bad candidates to try to keep together the Obama coalition. Live with it, and fix the problem. The Republican Party has spent, since 1994, its time building up solid Center-Right majorities across almost the entirety of the United States. Democrats have spent that same time retracting more and more into urban centers. In terms of land mass, the Democrat message is persuasive almost nowhere.
Fix this.
In Indiana, I voted for Republicans because I thought they would keep taxes and government spending low, eliminate waste, and in general, stay off my back. The Republican governing apparatus in Indiana does not view itself as a tick trying to suck as much blood from residents as possible before they die, which is the exact opposite of how the city of Chicago treated me.
When the Democrat party can plausibly make the case that they are for lower spending, less government intrusion into citizens’ lives, and a reasonable approach to law, expect them to revive.
While they continue to act like children, expect the map to not change.
8. If you have not read Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, do it. There’s an audiobook version of it.
9. The great strength of our government are the firewalls against democracy that are built into it, which means that if someone(s) you don’t agree with comes into office, it’s really hard for them to actually affect your life.
The president essentially can’t do shit except exercise veto power and operate the military. (unless, like, we spent the last 8 years establishing the dangerous precedent that because the president has a pen and phone, he can will laws into being).
Congress can’t enact a law unless the same party controls the presidency, the house, and 60% of the senate (unless, of course, one party was dumb and de-toothed the filibuster and established “reconciliation” as a reasonable way to get laws passed).
The Supreme Court, as the least democratic branch, is our final bulwark, since it has no function to not pass laws but rather to make sure that laws conform to the easily readable Constitution (unless, of course, one party has been trying to use the Court as a cudgel to enact legislation that can’t make it through the regular political process.)
The final, strength, of course, is that our country is a Federal Republic, which means that Donald Trump and the rest of the federal government have almost no control over the laws of the individual states, so people are free to move to whatever state best meets their social/cultural/fiscal needs.

Sympathy for the Devil

I don’t like Donald Trump.

I don’t like his politics, I don’t like his personality, I don’t like what he’s done to the Republican Party.

But, like, I can sympathize with parts of his movement.

Look, there are a lot of white nationalists, KKK-ers, and Alt-Righters who are deplorable human beings that have a natural home in Trumpville.  Screw those guys.

But there’re plenty of other people who are just sick of being told what bad people they are, when they aren’t.

Let’s define Gaslighting, first, though.

There was an old movie, called, I think, “Gaslight,” where a guy convinces his wife/girlfriend that she is going crazy by moving pictures, creating noises in a sealed attic, and adjusting the gaslights without her knowing he’s doing it.  When she tells him about these things, he tells her it’s her imagination, and she assumes she’s going crazy.

A similar fraud has been perpetrated against America over the last several decades.

Essentially, the Left has tried (and largely succeeded) to convince America that the reality that it sees is not the reality that exists.

Do you believe that people are equal and should be treated so?  Surprise! You’re a racist!

Wait, you don’t commit any acts of racism?  Surprise! You’re still racist because you engage in micro-aggressions!

You think that people who are genetically male or female are male or female?  Your ideas aren’t based in science or reality!  You’re a transphobe!  That human with a penis in the girl’s shower?  That’s a woman because ze zays zo!

What’s that you say?  You don’t care what they call themselves, as long as your teenage daughter doesn’t have to shower with girls with penises?  You’re still a transphobe because people should be allowed to do whatever the hell they want to, as long as Bruce Springsteen says so!

You notice that women don’t have as much muscle mass as men and so maybe we shouldn’t put them in hand to hand combat? Sexist!  You notice that old people get sick and maybe we shouldn’t ?  Sexist!  You noticed that women take more sick days than men do and that maybe they get promoted less because of it? Sexist!

Remember how you donated money to breast cancer research?  Remember how you wore red in support of women’s heart health?  Remember how women you knew got sick and died from diseases like that and you felt bad and tried to support their families?

Fuck you.  Don’t you know that the only time Republicans care about women’s health is when they’re talking about Hillary?  None of your support of those things counts because you want to not pay for Planned Parenthood to kill babies.  You hate women, reality be damned.

Reality be damned all around.  You’re actions and beliefs don’t define who you are.  The Left does.  And if the Left says that, in contrast to all your actual actions and beliefs, you are sexist, racist, anti-LGBT, then you must be.

Oh, also, the lady who says she wants to be in charge of the largest army the world has ever known and doesn’t want you to own any protection and whose husband was a rapist and she helped cover it up says that you’re “deplorable.”

So, yeah, I get the appeal of a guy who says “I don’t think you’re racist and sexist and anti-LGBT.”

Still not voting for Trump.


Scientia Contra Scientitatem (vel Fides et Sceientia, Manus in Manu)

Here’s an article titled Math is Racist, which is a misleading name.

Essentially  profiles a professional mathematician (sounds like a data analyst to me) who trucks with the Occupy Wallstreet crowd.  She claims that mathematics is being used to hurt poor people on loan applications, criminal sentencing, and so on.

A few thoughts:

1) It’s crazy easy to hurt poor people.  Want to not live by minorities?  Move somewhere with high property taxes.  Want to enmesh them in the criminal justice system and feel good about yourself at the same time?  Enact usurious vice taxes on things like cigarettes and alcohol and outlaw cheap vices like marijuana.  It’s not like you need to be a statistician to think of ways to hurt poor people.

2) One of the things they make you learn when you become a statistician is something called discriminant analysis, which is a fancy way for coming up with mathematical rules for separating things into groups.  The classic example is that you have a bunch of different flowers that look alike but are different flowers.  You create a mathematical model based on the size of the petals and sepals and it classifies them.

You don’t always get perfect rules to tell them apart, but you can do a lot better than random chance.  So, for example, if you had four types of flowers in a hat, picked one out and then randomly said it was one of the four types of flowers, you’d have a 25% chance of being correct.  Using discriminant analysis, you might be able to move that up to a much higher rate of accuracy (maybe 75 or 85%).

When talking heads talk about computer algorithms to predict our behavior, what they’re really talking about is discriminant analysis.  When you buy some stuff on Amazon, it uses discriminant analysis to figure out what “type” of person you are and then selects other stuff that your “type” might want to buy.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  But it’s not supposed to be perfect.  Amazon has an almost infinite number of products–if it randomly picked something to suggest, it would have a negligible chance of picking something you’d want.  But if it can improve that chance to even a few percentage points, it’s a success.

When you get turned down for a loan or face harsher penalties for crimes based on your zip code, credit score, and other things, that’s discriminant analysis.

3) My problem with the title of the article is that the profilee is clearly not anti-science.  She’s anti-a-particular-application-of-science, which is a very different thing.  She doesn’t not believe that discriminant analysis is a real mathematical tool, she believes that employing it in  loan applications or criminal sentencing is wrong.

A better way of looking at this is that she’s anti-scientism, which I’d define as the belief that “Science” and the scientific method is the only reliable guide for human understanding.

In a sense, anti-scientism is the entire underpinning of books like Frankenstein or Jurassic Park, which are essentially reframings of the question “Science tells us we can do this, but should we?”

4) We have a big problem politically (on both sides–but not with enlightened people like me who are moderates), wherein each claims that the other is “anti-science.”  (Liberal friends, you may not know that that conservatives think that you are the anti-science ones, but, like, it’s a thing. You need to read more NRO).

Sometimes the problem is legitimate dogmatic anti-scientism (opposition to an earth age in the billions of years or a belief that nuclear power is unsafe).  But that’s not really what we’re talking about here.  We’re talking about whether or not certain scientific methods or tools should be employed, which is a discussion of ethics.
Ultimately, ethics is something I have a hard time letting scientists police themselves on.  Scientifically, neuroscience can eventually tell us (maybe now?) which parts of the brain we could manipulate in order to create hordes of willing slaves, but nothing in the scientific method is gong to tell us whether or not we should.
I mean, heck, science tells us that H-bomb and mustard gas are super good ways of killing people, it tells us that forced chemical castration is possible, and that poor children are more likely to grow up to be societal drains.
But nothing in science or scientism can tell us not to gas the Southside of Chicago or chemically castrate the entire barrio population in Sao Paulo.
Instead, the woman from the article makes to me a very appropriate faith-based argument against using a scientific method to the detriment of people.
5) Faith is a funny thing, since it can be either deistic or non-deistic.  Lots of people believe in the golden rule because they think that a supernatural power wants them to.  Lots of others who are atheists believe in the golden rule because that’s the “right thing to do.”
But there’s nothing scientific about it.  It can’t be tested or created in a lab.  Sure, there can be studies on reciprocity in the natural world or game theory on outcome optimization and whatever, but nothing in the inductive scientific method could produce it.
Which means that believing that humans should obey the golden rule becomes a tautological “People should do this because people should do this.”  At this point, I’d argue, we’re talking about a belief that cannot be only rooted in logic or reason, which is another way of saying faith.
The great strength of science is answering the question “how?” and the great strength of faith is answering the question “should?”.
6) This implies, I think, that in order to utilize science to it’s best, we need faith to inform us (just as faith is best when it’s underpinned by rational and logical criticism).  Neither can exist in a vacuum.  Both are necessary for the survival of the other.

A Grammatical Reading of the Second Amendment

The second amendment is variously interpreted by those on the left to mean “Only the army has a right to have guns,” and by those on the right that “blah blah blah…people can own guns” or “we make up the militia that has a right to own guns.”

Both readings are wrong, and my junior year high school Latin class proves it.  There is, in fact, only one clear meaning to the amendment, which is “Because the government needs an army, the people need guns.”

Here’s the text:

“A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

The second clause is pretty straightforward grammatically (“the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”).  Here, “the people” means what it does anywhere else when used by the founding fathers: “we—the citizens.”  Any other reading of this second clause is wrong.

The first clause (“a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state”) has long been recognized as what grammarians call an absolute (in English, it’s in the nominative—or subjective—case, in Latin it’s in the ablative, in Greek it’s in the genitive.)

An absolute clause has three interesting features to it:

1)      It lacks a proper verb, instead getting by with just a participle.

2)      It has a semantic connection to the rest of the sentence (i.e. it shows cause or circumstance).

3)      It is grammatically absolute, meaning “untied” (from the Latin absolutus, which mean, well, “untied.”  It’s the same word that gives us the theological word absolution, in the sense of our sins being untied from us).  That is to say, it’s grammar pieces (subjects, verbs) are not connected to the grammar pieces in the rest of the sentence.

It’s the second and third points here that help to elucidate the Amendment.

The connection between an absolute and the rest of a sentence is always as a qualifier, showing an idea of “because [the absolute], then [the other clause]” or “when [the absolute], then [the other clause]”

For example, another absolute in English might be “The day being rainy, we played inside.”  We properly see a causal connection between the first and second parts of the sentence and understand it as “Because the day was rainy, we played inside,” and not as two separate ideas like “It was rainy.  In a completely unrelated event, we played inside.”

Absolutes always show this kind of kind of connection between the two clauses.  The absolute gives the circumstance or reason why the second clause happens.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but this causal connection has to be there.  It’s an essential part of what it means for something to be an absolute.

An absolute not connected causally wouldn’t make any sense, as in “Tigers being striped orange and black, there is tea in the pot.”  Our mind naturally tries to put a connection between the two, because that’s how English works, and when we can’t find the connection, we reject the sentence as nonsense.

So, then, what’s wrong with reading is as “Since a militia is necessary, we, the people who make up the militia, get to have guns” or “We, the militia, are necessary and so we need guns” or “The people who are part of the militia need guns”?

It’s the third feature of absolutes that tells us why.  Namely, an absolute is unconnected grammatically from the rest of the sentence, which means that the subject of the first part cannot be the subject of the second part.  This means that the “militia” in the first part cannot be referring to the same thing as “the people” in the second part.  They’re not interchangeable.

Again, this is an essential feature of the grammar.  Something like “The cat being tired, it took a nap” would have to be read as “Because the cat was tired, something besides the cat took a nap.”  Again, any other reading would be a misinterpretation of what the grammar says the sentence has to mean.

So if the militia is not the people, what is it?

It’s the army.  Which we need for our security.  Because sometimes the British or French or Indians, or whoever, shoot at us or invade our country or try to steal our land or whatever.  Accordingly, the government (the citizenry incorporate), need to put together an army for the defense of our freedom from time to time.

A posse might be good enough to hunt down Senor Bandito in a Western, but if we’re gonna stop the British, we need a legit, well-regulated fighting force at our disposal.

So what about the second part? And both parts together?

Well, what was the colonists experience with armies?  In the 1760’s, the British army had protected them from the French and (some) Indians.  But a decade later, it was shooting Crispus Attucks in Boston.  Armies were necessary, but there had to be some check on the government using them against the people.

(The teacher in me really hopes light bulbs just went on above your heads)

Therefore, since we need to have an army sometimes, but also because that army can both protect and threaten our liberty, we have to have a way to discourage the army (and the government) from using the army as a tool of oppression: namely, we arm ourselves, as a polite reminder to keep their guns pointing at our enemies and not us.

Accordingly, the only fair reading of the second amendment is, to paraphrase, “Because we have to have an army, the people that the army is supposed to be protecting need weapons, too.”

It was the Founders’ answer to quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  Who will guard our guards?  We will.

There are implications to this.  First, it gives a definitive answer to the “Why are we allowed to have guns?” question.  The answer is not hunting or even personal self-defense.  The raison d’etre for our right to arm ourselves is to protect us against the army that we need.

(I will lead it up to the reader to decide if cops in riot gear and armored cars constitute a well-regulated militia or not.  And whether or not the Founding Fathers, who went to war when an unarmed black man was shot by police in Boston in 1773, would like what we’ve got going on in our communities).

More importantly, though, it completely destroys the progressive idea that somehow, the writers of the Bill of Rights felt the need either to say “we can have an army” or alternately “our army can have guns,” which would have been akin to “we can have secretaries” or “our secretaries can use pens and their pen-using is so controversial that we will amend the very laws of our government to enshrine their pen-ability in perpetuity.”

And my Dad told me that majoring in Classics was a waste of time.

Real and Imaginary

So there’s an element of the unequal treatment of blacks by police officers that I’m not sure has achieved much attention.

Namely, the matter of feelings.

Here’s the set-up:  some asshole puts up a flag with a swastika on it in his front yard.  He’s disabled war vet, a little disheveled in the brain pan, but is not actually a direct danger to anyone.  He just likes to think of himself as part of the neo-Nazi community.  He’s a fanboy of Hitler, much like a Brony admires Twilight Sparkle.  There is no actual danger here.

His neighbor, a kindly Jewish woman, feels threatened by this and asks the man to take it down.  “Free speech, you wrinkled old hag” he responds, thinking the matter settled.  The woman calls the police, who approach the man, who is then charged with intimidation/terrorization/hate speech/whatever local ordinance covers this.

“Hooray!” responds progressives, “the racist is going to jail!”  No actual threat has been averted, no danger deactivated, however.  The woman felt threatened, even though no actual threat existed.  The same level of actual threat exists to her, even with the man gone.  That is to say, a threat exists outside of one’s own perceptions.  It is its own thing.

Now, we move locales.  A police officer, new to the job perhaps, pulls over a car with the music thumping.  He approaches the car and is greeted by a black man.  The police officer, due to bias, racism, nervousness, or whatever other feeling, thinks himself threatened by the black man.  No actual threat, but the officer’s feelings are no less real than the old Jewish woman’s.  He orders the to get out his ID, and so the black man reaches for his glove box.

Seeing an unexpected movement, the officer, already in a state of heightened fear, starts putting bullets into the car and into the man, killing him.

Did the officer fear for his life?  Did the old woman? Of course.  Was there any actual, tangible danger to either?  Had either actually been harmed? No.

But both were made to suffer fear, and in both cases, both the neo-Nazi and the black man ended up being victims in a scenario where neither intended to give offense.

College campuses today are filled with trigger warnings, speech codes, and safe spaces.  These are meant to protect the student not only from real threat, but also from perceived threat, which is another way of saying imagined threat.  The girl in college who demands that all men resembling her rapist be removed from the school is not proposing a solution to a real threat any more than the phantom fears of whites in the 1940’s that kept blacks (or Jews) out of certain neighborhoods.

The school movements that claim that the mere mention of slavery in a book should allow some students to be exempt from studying it are figments of the same imagination-indulgence that allows us to say that if a police officer feels threatened, he is justified in shooting.

If his feelings are, well, feelings, and not accurate appraisals of a situation, and his feelings end up killing someone, he’s a shitty cop.  Just as we demand evidence in a criminal trial, we need to demand actual things as justification for actions.

All of us have known teachers (either as co-workers or as students) who didn’t have the mental toughness to deal with unruly students, which is a fundamental part of the job.  If you can’t do the fundamental part of the job, you shouldn’t be doing that job.

A teacher who can’t control a classroom should be fired.  A cop who misreads a situation to the point where someone dies should be fired.  A doctor who messes up diagnoses to the point where people die.  People who are bad at their jobs should be fired.  A student who can’t study because of paranoia shouldn’t be in school.

These might not be criminal offenses, and an officer who panics and shoots an innocent man probably is not a criminal, but he certainly is a bad cop who should be fired.  Training is training, and the job is the job.  There will always be people-in any profession-who make it through the training but then can’t hack it in the real world.

Like any other kind of job negligence, the family should be compensated by the police department who put someone out into the streets with a gun who shouldn’t have been there and the offending officer fired (and probably blacklisted from law enforcement).

But we can’t have our cake and eat it too.  We can’t both say that a police officer has to deal with real things and not just his fears, but then also turn around and allow our students special exemptions from learning for the sake of their imaginations.

That is to say, we can’t fairly allow some members of society to impose their will on others based on the imaginary without allowing everyone to.  Everyone has to live in the real world.

Five Reasons Conservatives and Progressives Should Have Gardens

For Conservatives:

1)  Most of the time, the plants just grow by themselves without a lot of help, but sometimes you need to interfere to make sure that one or two of them thrive.  The plants don’t get to choose their soil, how much light they get, or if they get enough water.  Sometimes you need to get in there and give them a hand

2)  It’s easy to look at some plants and say “Grow faster!” and “Do better!” and “Why can’t you produce as much as the other guy next to you!”, but that isn’t going to help.

3)  In gardening, when you’ve grown enough for yourself, you give the rest away to friends and neighbors or else it just rots and stinks everything up.

4)  Every garden requires at least some planning beforehand.  Every garden requires at least some guidance.  The flowers are no less free to thrive because someone made sure they all had food and water.

5)  If all the plants in one part of the garden die, chances are pretty good that there’s a deeper reason than just “those are lazy plants.”

For Progressives:

1)  You have to get rid of the weeds.  Yes, technically they are still plants, but if you don’t get rid of them, nothing else can thrive.  If you want roses, you have to get rid of the weeds.  You can’t just try to convince the weeds to transform into roses.

2)  Gardening is the purest example of why Capitalism works.  You yourself pick which things to grow and invest the effort in growing them.  Useless raw material (dirt, sun, filthy water, and some little baby seeds) turn into finished goods and services.  Nobody wants someone telling them what they can and cannot do with their time and effort.

3)  Sometimes things need to be pruned.  Just because you have an established plant doesn’t mean that you just let it grow forever without further consideration.  Sometimes being in charge means you have to get rid of the useless parts of a plant to make sure the parts you really want stay healthy.

4) Some plants give you very predictable results.  Others have unintended consequences.  Don’t forget the thorns when you’re planting the roses.  If you put too much fertilizer on a plant, it dies.  Giving something too much help is just as bad as not giving it enough sometimes.

5)  If you get rid of the seeds, you are, in essence, getting rid of the plants.  The seeds are the plants.