The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Month: May 2009 Page 1 of 3

One Third of All Late Term Abortion Doctors Killed Today

Dr. Tiller, whose Wichita clinic performed late term abortions, was shot dead in front of his church today. A lot of the focus is going to be on right wing terrorism, and the culture of hate created by folks who call abortion murder, setting up the justification for these sorts of murders.

Tiller was one of only three doctors in the US who performed these sorts of abortions.  That’s not because they’re illegal, it’s because the level of physical and legal harassment they and their staffs face is horrific, and it never, ever ends. It takes a very brave man or woman, and one who has decided to dedicate their life to the cause, to put up with constant threats, vandalism, legal harassment and the very real possibility of being murdered.

Tiller was incredibly brave and dedicated to do what he did.  It’s highly unlikely that anyone will step up to replace him.

A theoretical right which cannot be practically accessed is not really a right.  The right to abortion, both late and early term, has been under constant assault for decades.   Unless other doctors step up, and start providing for that right (and even early term abortions are hard to get in many States) then what happened today is, in fact, a tragic loss for the right for women to be able to have abortions when they need.

In the meantime, I mourn Dr. Tiller.  People as brave and dedicated as he was are so rare, that, well, there were only three of them in the entire United States.  A lot of women will suffer, and yes, die, because he was murdered today.

Rest in peace Doctor Tiller.  Hopefully someone will pick up the torch which fell from your hand today.

The Next Bailout: Guaranteeing Municipal Bonds

Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee is apparently putting together a bill to guarantee municipal bonds. In particular, variable rate demand obligations (VRDOs), which make up a little under one-seventh of the muni-bond market, have been imploding, with their interest rates jumping to higher rates, costing municipalities a great deal of money when they can least afford it.

Debt guarantees are one of the main ways the Feds have dealt with the crisis.  The Feds have promised that if a raft of banks default on their loans, the Feds will make it up.  With such promises, the banks (among others) have been able to borrow money at lower rates than they otherwise could have, and in some cases borrow money when they normally couldn’t have at all.

The problem with debt guarantees is that the Fed is on the hook.  That is to say, you, the taxpayer, is on the hook for what are essentially no different than credit default swaps (CDS), in which a private entity promises to pay up if a loan or bond defaults.  CDSs are the business which destroyed AIG.

Moreover, as with CDSs, rather than decreasing risk, debt guarantees increase them.  If you know that you’re going to get paid whether the borrower defaults or not, you’ll be willing to lend money even to folks who probably will default.  Heads you get the money, tails the taxpayer will give you the money.  This sort of systemic risk transfer is one of the major causes of the current financial crisis.

So if the government goes ahead and guarantees muni-bonds, expect defaults to increase, not decrease, as municipalities borrow even more money they can’t afford to pay back and investors lend it to them knowing they’re covered no matter what.  Then you, personally, as a taxpayer, will eventually pay for it.

Now that’s not to say that guarantees are necessarily always a bad idea.  The advantages of not having municipalities go bankrupt right now may outweigh the disadvantages.  But at the least some protections need to be added in.

First: New issues of VRDOs need to not be guaranteed.  Perhaps guarantee the old ones, on the condition that once guaranteed interest rates drop, since default chances have dropped, but not new ones.  Such bonds are inherently risky, and municipalities shouldn’t be playing in that market.

Second: new bonds guaranteed must be vanilla bonds.  Fixed rate, fixed curation, no fancy features.

Third: the municipality must have a reasonable shot at repaying its debt load.  The worst of the housing crash is not over, there is a wave of defaults yet to move through the system.  Housing prices, and thus housing taxes, will not recover to pre-crash levels for many years, probably not for over a decade, at best.  Municipal revenue projections and budgets which assume otherwise are unrealistic, and guarantees made to such municipalities will default.  That’s not insurance, that’s giving municipalities money.  So just give them the money if you want to, instead of making guarantees you know will fail.

In general, just giving municipalities the money they need is the smarter way to go.  There is going to have to be a new round of stimulus, since the last one wasn’t large enough.  One of the focuses will have to be local government.  Debt guarantees are much more problematic, due to the way they actually increase systematic risk, because of how they encourage municipalites to borrow money they may not have the capacity to pay back, and because they increase rather than decrease certainty about the final cost of the intervention.

Understanding Through Empathy

Having read Lance Mannion on empathy, I want to talk about what it is, and why people fear it. Empathy just means you understand what another feels.  (Or, as modern brain science and ancient common sense tells us that you “feel” what others feel.)  It’s morally neutral, but without empathy it’s very probably you can’t make it to sympathy.  Empathy is the quality that lets you “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”.

It can be used for good or evil, but it tends towards good.  Usually, if we feel someone’s pain, we don’t want to add to it, since doing so will add to our pain.  However, there’s no question that in some cases, and for some people, the pain of others is pleasurable.

Also understanding someone else is the best first step to defeating them or hurting them horribly, which is one reason why those who know us best are the ones who can hurt us the most, because they know where the tender spots and the vulnerabilities are.  The best martial artists often talk about becoming one with the person they fight and competitive athletes use empathy to crush their opponents, as do good generals.

There is no deep understanding without empathy.  If you cannot walk in another’s shoes; if you cannot feel their pains and their joys, then you do not understand them.  Period.

People fear empathy because most people can’t avoid going from empathy to sympathy and because they think that if they feel even an echo they become that person.  They think “if I understand, if I feel what a terrorist/murderer/rapist/other bad person feels, if I know why they do what they do, I am like them”. And they believe that if they feel what a bad person felt, then they will feel sympathy for that person, and they only want to feel sympathy for good people, and for victims, not for those who have done evil.  Who perhaps are evil.

They don’t want to recognize, among other things, the evil in themselves and what they have in common with those who have done evil.

Likewise empathy requires the ability to forget about yourself for a time, to lose yourself and become someone else.  That loss of self, temporary as it is, is frightening to many.

But when you fail to empathize with those you disagree with you fail to understand them.  Instead of understanding them you label them–you give them a name you think covers what they are.  So you call them a terrorist, or you call them evil, or you call them a liberal or a conservative or a nazi.  Nothing wrong with any of those words, they describe things in the world.  But if you don’t understand people you may apply the wrong word to them, or you may apply a word that covers only part of what they are.  And then they will act in ways that surprise you, because you’ve only labeled them, not understood them.

Sometimes that doesn’t matter, because they’re too weak to matter or they are too remote from you for your opinion to be of any concern.  But sometimes it does matter.  If you think all Iraqis are sand niggers who only understand force, for example, well you’re going to treat them in a certain way, aren’t you?  And if they aren’t just sand niggers who only understand force, well, maybe that’s going to backfire.  If you think a Presidential candidate is a liberal and a progressive, and give him money, time and your vote, and he isn’t, well, that has consequences, doesn’t it?  If you think that an organization as complex as Hezbollah are “just terrorists”, well, you’re going to be surprised when they don’t act like “just terrorists” most of the time and you get your ass handed to you by them.


Empathy isn’t a fuzzy virtue.  It isn’t even a virtue at all, it is an ability.  It can be used for good, or for evil.  Once you understand someone you can use that understanding to help them, to heal them, to hurt them or to destroy them.  Reject empathy and you reject understanding your fellow humans as well as you otherwise could.  In war, that can lead to defeat; in justice that can lead to injustice; and in relationships that kills love.

The Arrogance of Atheism

Lately I’ve been amusing myself by spending time with the social site reddit.  One of the prominent sub-reddits, is atheism, and it’s managed to remind me why I find radical atheists almost as offensive as fundamentalists.  (Almost, since they don’t tell other people how to live, they just sneer at other people for their beliefs).  So let me respond to fire with fire, atheism is, ultimately, intellectually disreputable.

You cannot know with certainty that there is no god, in the sense of a creator of the universe, for example.  It is impossible.  You can assert that it is unnecessary, but that is not the same thing as impossible.  Certainly you can say “there’s no reason to believe God created the universe in 7 days, 4,000 odd years ago”, but who cares?  If Biblical literacy is your target, it’s just about shooting fish in a barrel, isn’t it?

The fact is that we don’t know.  Arguably, we can’t know.  We can say “God as described literally in the bible cannot exist”, but we cannot say “God does not exist”.

Which is why, at the end of the day, I stick with agnosticism.  I don’t know if there’s a god, or an afterlife, or a soul.  (I have opinions, but I am aware they are opinions, not facts).  As such I know that I don’t know, and I don’t presume to tell people that I do know.  I don’t dismiss out of hand, say, children born speaking languages they have no exposure to, or near-death experiences, or mystical experiences.  At the same time, I know there may be a simple materialistic explanation for them.

Likewise I remember always that there’s no reason for anything to exist, that the biggest absurdity of existence is existence.  Humbled by this fact, I feel no need to spout off and say “I KNOW”.

I don’t know.

And neither do you.

Sotomayor – Nothing Special, But Not Awful

So, Obama has made his decision, and it’s Sotomayor.  While my Hispanic acquaintances are all thrilled to bits, the fact of the matter is that she’s not much of a liberal.  Like Obama, she’s a centrist.  She will stand up for programs like affirmative action and will vote to keep Roe, which is good, but she won’t be anything special.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.   Repubicans will go on about how she’s the “most liberal” of the possibilities, but the really liberal judges were eliminated from consideration by the Obama team.

Can’t get very worked up over this.  Barring some revelations of personal issues, I expect she’ll pass, and that’s good, but liberals shouldn’t be getting very excited.  As with the election of Obama, this is a triumph of social identity markers over actual liberalism.

plus ca change

Star Trek

Saw the movie today.  Every friend whose seen it has liked it, so my expectation were high, but the movie met them.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say it may be the best Star Trek movie.  I was never a Star Trek geek, and I never liked any of the series after the original, so take it for what it’s worth.

What was striking about the movie, to me, is that it was primarily about the relationship between Spock and Kirk.  Now, of course, that was the central relationship in the original series, but what I mean is the movie was about the relationship, not about saving the world.  Oh sure, Spock and Kirk have to save the world (and, er, not a spoiler) and of course they do, but the core of the move is the emotional relationship between the two men, and how they have to learn to both like and respect each other.  In particular, Spock has to learn his own weaknesses (something which, I think, needs to be done for Kirk in a sequel).

(Actual spoilers below)

In Memoriam

black-angel-by-sy-parrishIt’s Memorial Day.  I gather for many it’s just another long weekend, but I know that for many it’s what Remembrance Day is for Canadians like myself: a day to remember those who have died in war.  I won’t say “died to protect our freedom” or any such trite BS, because with few exceptions, most wars had nothing to do with protecting anyone’s freedom, but they did die, nonetheless, for us.

Their blood is on our hands, sticky and wet, and it will never dry. Why?

Because we live in democracies.  Because we elected the leaders who sent them to war.  Whether you think those wars are justified, or not, at the end of the day, we bear the collective guilt of their deaths.  They died due to the decisions we made, the society we live in.

Oh, we can say “I did everything I could to oppose the war”, whether that’s Iraq or Vietnam, or some other war.  But even if that’s true, well, you failed, didn’t you?  (Didn’t I?)   And so off went the young men and women, and they died, or they were maimed, or their brain case got knocked around and they came back shaking, and they wake up screaming at night, and they can’t control their emotions and they’ll never be the same again.

It’s one of the ironies of democracy that we’re all responsible, collectively, and yet each of us, individually, can say “but not me, I voted against him” or “I protested against that policy”.  And because it’s true, each of us can feel, in the end, that the deaths and suffering caused by the society, whether in war, or through a horrific medical system, or through abuses in the penal system, aren’t our fault.

But is it true?  Or is it true instead, that we failed, that we support the system with both our consent and our tax dollars, and that we are therefor complicit in what it does?

I don’t know.  But I do know this, on this Memorial day, even if it’s not a Canadian holiday, I’m thinking of those who died, both soldiers and civilian.

And at the very least, I know I failed.

Glenn Greenwald Hammers Preventative Detention

And no, it’s not like holding POWs for the duration of a normal war.  Go read.

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