Thursday, April 21, 2011

Pornography, abuse, and free speech

This started out as a post for my online library school class, but it got way too long. So I'm going to use it for a blog post:

Principles are always difficult to follow in real life, because principles are abstractions, and real life is messy and complicated. It’s not possible to draw up a principle that will account for all situations. That being said, my ethical approach to free speech has to do with the distinction between ideas and actions. Ideas that are “offensive” should be protected. Actions that harm actual people should not be protected, even if those actions are connected to the creation of ideas. (This standard certainly isn’t original with me, but I can’t remember the Supreme Court case that established it.) I’m going to limit my discussion to the subject of pornography and sexual abuse.
When Wendy Kaminer argues that simulations of child sexual abuse should be permitted, darn it, I’m gagging as I say this, but I think she’s right. (Now, I have to tell you that I have no idea how realistic these simulations are. If there’s any question, I think the burden of proof should fall on the defendant to prove that no actual children were harmed in the making of the film.)  If I’m reading Kaminer correctly, when she defends portrayals of cruelty to animals, she doesn’t differentiate between simulations and the use of real animals. In that case, I disagree with her. Animal abuse that would be illegal if you did it in your back yard shouldn’t be protected just because you made a movie out of it.
            This article about banning sexual offenders from the library has similar gray areas. It’s not clear how, in Attleboro, Mass., a Class II or Class III sexual offender is determined. But I think it’s defensible to ban people from the library who’ve been convicted of sexual or physical assault. The library needs to be a place where patrons can be physically safe. If I have a reasonable fear that my physical safety is endangered when I enter the library, my freedom to access information has been compromised. The nature of libraries is to have lots of secluded nooks and crannies (think rows of book stacks) that could be dangerous. Banning people who have committed assaults seems like less of a civil liberties encroachment than installing surveillance cameras.
            Back in the 1980s when Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin proposed a model anti-pornography law, I thought they were taking the wrong approach. Pornography, I said, is a form of hate speech, and as such is constitutionally protected. (I was using the particular radical feminist approach that erotica is egalitarian, and pornography is sexist.) In retrospect, I think my condemnation of the model ordinance might have been too simplistic. The law didn’t create any criminal penalties for producing pornography, but allowed people who had been harmed by pornography to sue its creators. It’s similar to laws which allow someone who has been shot by a criminal to sue the gun manufacturer. In theory, the pornography industry could be using consenting adults to create sexually explicit videos for consenting adults, but the reality is much different.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

This is a test... which I am demonstrating to a friend how to take a picture from her camera, put it on her computer, and upload it to a web site...

This was more fun than a trip to the vet.

A poor standard

Yesterday, the rating agency Standard and Poor's issued a warning about a possible future downgrade of the US government's credit rating. This was meant to underscore the supposedly precarious position our federal debt and deficit put us in. Dave Lindorff at This Can't Be Happening  has a useful analysis of this announcement and the debt situation in general:
At least one economist burst out laughing on hearing about the S&P announcement. “They did what?” exclaimed James Galbraith, a professor of economics at the University of Texas in Austin, who formerly served as executive director of the Congressional Joint Economic Committee. “This is remarkable! It certainly will confirm the suspicions of those who have questioned S&P’s competence after its performance on the mortgage debacle.”

S&P, as well as the other two big ratings firms, all notoriously failed completely to spot the looming disaster of the banking collapse and financial crisis, and famously issued A ratings to mortgage-backed securities that later proved to be virtually worthless paper, as well as to the banks that had loaded up on the financial dreck.

As Galbraith explains it, “US debt consists of bonds issued in US dollars, which I assume the S&P analysts know. How can the US possibly default on its own currency? The obligation is in nominal dollars, which is to say when the bond retires, the US issues a check in dollars to cover it.”

Since the US prints its own currency (or actually just issues electronic payments to create new money) whenever it needs it, as Galbraith puts it, “As long as there is diesel fuel to power up the back-up generators that run the government’s computers, they will have the money to back their own bonds.”
Hat tip to Common Dreams, where I first found this article.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Deficit attention disorder

Over on AlterNet, Joshua Holland calls out President Obama for giving a deficit speech that was long on "flowery talk" and short on substance:
The reality is that while our private profit-driven health-care system is unsustainably expensive, the U.S. spends less on the public sector than almost every other developed country. We're running large deficits because we're maintaining costly military operations in several countries and the federal government collected less tax revenue in 2010 than in any year since 1961.

Progressives will no doubt celebrate Obama's deft dissection of the GOP's budget gimmicks and his full-throated defense of the welfare state. But it was ultimately some thin political gruel with unemployment remaining at 9 percent and the foreclosure crisis continuing unabated. When Obama's on, as he was today, it's easy to forget that our biggest national debate is little more than a distraction from the real issues plaguing our economy.
The big question on my mind is, how much, in the end, will Obama going to cave in to the extreme budget agenda of House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan. Dean Baker explains exactly how bad Ryan's budget proposal is. It will "leave the vast majority of future retirees without decent health care by ending Medicare as we know it. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis, most middle-income retirees would have to pay almost half of their income to purchase a Medicare equivalent insurance package by 2030." Baker also notes that:
he ostensible rationale for this attack is the country's huge budget deficit. This is garbage. As all the pundits know, the country has a huge deficit today because the Wall Street boys drove the economy off a cliff. If the government deficit were not propping up the economy, we would be looking at 11 or 12 percent unemployment, rather than 8.9 percent. Spending creates jobs, and at this point, it is not coming from the private sector, so the government must fill the hole.

Over the longer term, the projections of huge deficits are driven by the projected explosion in health care costs. President Obama's health care reform took steps toward constraining these costs, although probably not enough. Remarkably, Ryan's plan abandons these cost control measures, virtually guaranteeing that quality health care becomes unaffordable for all but a small elite.
Finally, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich points out how expanding Medicare could actually lower both health care costs and the federal deficit:
For starters, allow anyone at any age to join Medicare. Medicare’s administrative costs are in the range of 3 percent. That’s well below the 5 to 10 percent costs borne by large companies that self-insure. It’s even further below the administrative costs of companies in the small-group market (amounting to 25 to 27 percent of premiums). And it’s way, way lower than the administrative costs of individual insurance (40 percent). It’s even far below the 11 percent costs of private plans under Medicare Advantage, the current private-insurance option under Medicare.

In addition, allow Medicare – and its poor cousin Medicaid – to use their huge bargaining leverage to negotiate lower rates with hospitals, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies. This would help move health care from a fee-for-the-most-costly-service system into one designed to get the highest-quality outcomes most cheaply.

Estimates of how much would be saved by extending Medicare to cover the entire population range from $58 billion to $400 billion a year. More Americans would get quality health care, and the long-term budget crisis would be sharply reduced.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Home and Garden TV...

...sounds like the place to find a surprising amount of diversity on television. Or that's what they say on NPR.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Last week...

...was not a quiet week in Oklahoma City.

First, populist candidate Ed Shadid defeated bank officer Charlie Swinton in the runoff election for the Ward 2 City Council seat.Doug Dawgz Blog has the complete story.

Then there were the fires out by Spencer. Sadly, several peoples lost homes due to these blazes. Happily, no one got hurt seriously. I have some good friends who live out there who came through okay with their house and outbuildings intact. But it was a stressful and exhausting few days for them.

On Thursday night I took off my eyeglasses, picked up a shovel and a bucket, and did my best to help out by mopping up some hot spots. (I can sort of see without glasses, and fine ash can destroy a pair of plastic lenses very fast.) The shovel did a pretty good job, but I kept wishing for something to cut branches out of my way and something to break apart burning logs. In other words, I kept wishing I had a pulaski. When I described this to my friends afterward, they were baffled. You might have thought I was asking for a mythical contraption like a left-handed smoke shifter. But no, it's a wildland firefighting tool invented by the renowned fire boss Ed Pulaski, whose experiences in the great 1910 fire also brought about worker's compensation insurance. The firefighting tool he invented combines an axe with a grubbing hoe. You can see a picture here.

Being not only a former wildland firefighter, but also a former Girl Scout, I decided I wanted to be prepared for future occasions. After much searching, I was able to find what I needed at a chain home improvement store. They called it a "landscape axe." I would like to hope that this purchase would work to prevent my needing to use this tool in the future--a form of magic sort of like rolling down the car windows to bring on a rain storm. But I'm not optimistic. Maybe one dry spring doesn't prove anything, but I'm thinking this climate change thing is for real.

Below is a photo from back in the day. That's me on the right:

Monday, April 11, 2011

High technology reconsidered in a leisurely way

A while back--on April 1, to be exact--National Public Radio inspired much interest and controversy with a story about the Slow Internet Movement. The idea was presented as being similar to the Slow Food Movement. Going back to dial-up Internet access could have as many positive effects as going back to preparing and eating food in a leisurely fashion.

Yes, of course it was an April Fool's joke. But at least one blogger confessed to wishing that the movement was real. In a way, the proprietor of Joy and Wonder might have her wish. Blogging pioneer Rebecca Blood discussed the concept in a post in June 2010. The idea is not to use slower technology (like dial-up modems) to access the Web. The idea is for bloggers to create posts in a slower and more thoughtful fashion:
The Slow Web would be more like a book, retaining many of the elements of the Popular Web, but unhurried, re-considered, additive. Research would no longer be restricted to rapid responders. Conclusions would be intentionally postponed until sufficiently noodled-with. Writers could budget sufficient dream-time before setting pixel to page. Fresh thinking would no longer have to happen in real time.

I love the Fast Web, and I value the work that is done there. But no matter how informed, intelligent, and talented a writer may be, an idea that has been returned to and then turned away from, repeatedly, is simply different from one that is formed in a few hours, based on that afternoon's best available facts. (via @ebertchigago)
Of course, anyone who has broadband Internet access knows that it isn't always fast. And dial-up Internet access was not always slow. The trick to making it work at an acceptable speed was to use text-based tools such as the Lynx web browser. Ten years ago, a very large part of the Web was still mostly text. Using the Internet has indeed become a richer experience because of the widespread sharing of audio and video files. But for someone who is in love with the written word, the text-based Internet had its virtues.

The newest and fastest technology isn't necessarily the best. Which reminds me of the original reason for this post, which was a story from April 7 that I found on Foreign Policy in Focus. Mark Engler contemplates the history of the Luddites. Engler notes that those who demonstrate in favor of global economic justice are often accused of being "Luddites," of wishing to destroy beneficial new technology in order to bring back a bygone day. But that's not what the global justice movement is trying to do, and it's not what the Luddites were trying to do, either:
This argument was ridiculous from the start. Global justice protesters never opposed modernity; they merely had the gall to ask whether a global society should be managed by and for multinational corporations. As part of a fundamentally transnational movement—linking environmentalists, unionists, indigenous rights, and other activists across borders—they proposed a very different type of internationalism than the one favored by the U.S. Treasury Department and the International Monetary Fund.

As the historians among us will already know, the Luddites have been similarly slandered. They did not oppose technology per se, but rather asked some important questions about the ends to which new technological discoveries were being used and who in society would benefit from them.
Engler's entire post is well worth reading. And it's worth remembering that while the conventional wisdom is indeed conventional, it isn't always wise.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Why federal budget cuts will hurt women most

Katha Pollit of I The Nation explains why women will be hurt the most by proposed cuts to the federal budget. I thought her analysis of the differential treatment by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker of predominately male and predominately female public employees union was especially insightful:
Governor Scott Walker sparked widespread outrage for limiting the bargaining rights of public sector unions to wages. Less noted was the curious fact that public safety workers—cops, firefighters and security officers—were exempted from his ire. The obvious, cynical reason is that unions representing teachers, nurses and social workers tend to support Democrats, while public safety workers are solid for Republicans. (That also explains why right-wingers like Walker feel free to bash teachers as incompetent, lazy freeloaders but never allude to the well-known romance between cops and doughnuts, let alone their generous retirement packages.) But is it entirely an accident that the workers deemed unworthy of full bargaining rights are overwhelmingly women, engaged in stereotypically female caring work, and that those whose rights are sacrosanct are men? In a statement on the budget, the University of Wisconsin System women’s studies consortium notes that union membership is crucial for a working woman’s advancement: it not only raises her wages by as much as a year of college but improves her chances of having healthcare even more than earning a college degree would have done, and gives her a measure of job security and a voice in the conditions of her work. Apparently Governor Walker thinks only men deserve those things. After all, this is a man who wants to repeal the state law requiring health insurers to cover birth control, eliminate the Title V family planning program, cut funding for sexual assault victims services and even reduce funding for a pregnant women’s smoking cessation program—oh, and eliminate Badgercare, the state healthcare plan, for 55,000 families a bit over the poverty line.
Meanwhile, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research explains some of the other shortcomings of the House Republicans budget cutting plan, which steals from the poor and gives to the rich. And this CEPR report gives a brief but cogent analysis of the budget deficit issue.