Saturday, March 26, 2011

Prof Cronan's fight is actually about workers' rights

If you haven't read about the attempt to use a state FOIA like law to silence Wisconsin University Professor William Cronan by the State GOP, please do so.  Or try Krugman for a much shorter recap.

In the comments to both pieces, I quickly found examples of the answer I expected to see:  Cronan has nothing to complain about, employees should always know they have no expectation of privacy for anything they do at work, so should never use a work resource for anything they wouldn't want revealed to others.

Cronan's write up focuses a great deal on the academic freedom aspect.  He makes good and valuable points which rely on the understanding that a University professor is not an "employee" in the usual sense.  The job requires someone to seek and publicize truth wherever they find it and however uncomfortable it is for others.  Providing the security and opportunity to do this is the whole point of things like tenure, and the general lack of a hierarchical structure for academics.  Very few other jobs compare at all to this. 

Part of the problem surely ties to the ongoing corporatization of universities from public interest institutions that adopted corporate structures and practices to improve their financial situation, and have morphed ever more into actual profit seeking businesses that keep a veneer of academic-ness because it's good for business.  In a purely for-profit private "university" - can one really distinguish a Professor from a regular corporate trainer?

But as the University of Wisconsin-Madison is a public institution, I think the larger shift here is about how the typical American worker has come to accept the employer's absolute right to snoop on nearly anything they do at or for work and often even beyond.  I suspect putting cameras in the toilet stalls or changing rooms is about the only currently culturally accepted limit to what US employers can do to spy on their employees (the actual legal picture is more complex, but in general it is safe to say the US is quite tilted in favour of the employer monitoring nearly anything under any means at the workplace or done with company assets).

This is simply accepted as some kind of inevitable feature of the employer-employee relationship, but it really doesn't have to be so.   Employment law regarding the employee's expectation of privacy varies significantly in other countries.  It's a complicated subject, but in Canada a number of precedents exist (and new ones still appearing) which limit what may be monitored, or what action an employer can take based on what they find with it.   I've heard from professionals in the field that laws in some European countries go much further, and there are also EU wide regulations providing a level of privacy protection beyond what employees in Canada or the US would experience.

The deeper point here is that if one's attitude is to treat Cronan as just another "state employee" and claim that everything he does at work is subject to inspection by his employer (the people of the State) then yes, Cronan's fight really becomes not about academic freedom, but again about simple employee rights.  That he is a public sector worker only increases the similarity to the fight of the public sector unions against the very same anti-employee forces of the right.  The balance between freedom of information style laws and various legitimate reasons for not disclosing any particular public record is an important one, but some notion of the general employee's fair expectation not to be subjected to absolutely capricious or even malicious investigations in order to contrive grounds for action against them should be in there.  Lawyers can wrangle about whether employers should have something like probable cause or reasonable suspicion to engage in particular investigations on employee behaviour, but I think "I don't like the stuff that guy is saying" shouldn't cover it. 

The law is what it is as it pertains to this particular case, but liberals should keep in mind it doesn't have to be this way and a better balance can be struck.  Academics have strong grounds for additional protections above the norm, but the norm for everyone else doesn't have to be so low either.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

No War in Libya

For what it's worth, I'm with Digby:

I used to think in these terms --- using our military power for good and all that rot. But as I've grown older I've come to the conclusion that wars are almost always the wrong choice. If Hitler is sweeping across Europe, committing genocide and declaring his intention to take over the world, I'm reluctantly in. But short of that I'm always going to be extremely skeptical of motives and interest about any of these military adventures. It's rare that this extreme form of violence is used for the reasons stated and far more often than not it creates more mayhem and instability than it stops. The law of unintended consequences is never more consequential.

The reasons being stated for this one are even more unconvincing than usual. Insulting, actually. Millions of people are suffering all over the world, even here in the US. And the money that's spent to protect oilfields and our "strategic interest" in keeping people drunk on scarce resources so that the already wealthy can get wealthier would go a long way toward alleviating it. Calling these oil field protection operations "humanitarian" is Orwellian and it prevents the American people from facing the real questions before them about their own futures and how to genuinely work toward a more peaceful, equitable and decent world.

I still hold out for the possibility of humanitarian intervention as Just cause for a Just War, but currently I just don't see the United States in practice as being capable of engaging in such a humanitarian intervention.  We've all watched the corporate grip on power tighten year by year to the point that even the most obvious, successful and necessary programs benefitting the common person are now deemed unaffordable by the elites.  If there was a President intent on waging war for purely humanitarian reasons to avert atrocity without ulterior financial motive on behalf of America's owners, it wouldn't be allowed to happen or at least there would be a lot more corporate and conservative opposition to it.  

Certainly it appears that some of the people that Gadhafi was likely going to liquidate will now survive, which is good for them, but that's a long way off from knowing Libya as a whole population will be better off for this.  Any good that comes out of these wars for oil is purely incidental.  As Digby points out we have the real live test case of Côte d'Ivoire where the electorally defeated President is creating a massive humanitarian crisis in his zeal to maintain power.  There isn't a peep about intervention there, nor was there any serious discussion of doing so in Darfur all these years.

Besides, my own read on this says that the conditions for classic Just War doctrine are not met.  Yes, stopping a tyrant from slaughtering his own people is a just motive, but for war to be justified there's all that other messy stuff about war being a last resort, likely to succeed and likely to save more lives than it ends.  I am far from convinced on the practical aspects of this, and my own belief is that if those things are in doubt, war cannot be consider justified.  It shouldn't be a big gamble.  Maybe the West will roll snake eyes and pull it off but that still wouldn't prove it was a good idea to start with.


Saturday, March 12, 2011

On nuclear accidents

As we wait and hope that Japan can get the damaged reactors back under control, I'm already seeing a lot of chatter about 3 Mile Island and of course, Chernobyl. 

Back in the 80s, in the wake of Chernobyl, CBC radio's program "Ideas" did a three part documentary called Counting the Costs on nuclear accidents.  In 2009, they re-aired them (which is where I first heard them).  This was a fanastic series that dramatically retells the stories of not just 3MI and Chernobyl, but a series of lesser known nuclear accidents through the 50s and 60s too.  It really feels like a throwback to the era of actual radio programs like The Shadow and personally I found it enthralling.  Particular to 3MI, the story includes not only the play-by-play of system failures and small oversights that lead to the crisis, but also includes the story of a federal nuclear regulator named Jim Creswell who spotted the very flaws that led to the accident ahead of time and was (of course) ignored.

You can start with any part, they're all good as standalone pieces, about 1 hour each.

Podcast part 1:  Early accidents at the dawn of the nuclear power era

Part 2:  Three Mile Island

Part 3:  Chernobyl

My own take away from the 3MI piece was that the complexity of the systems needed to run a nuclear reactor safely make design flaws unavoidable, and thus accidents, inevitable.  No great level of abject human incompetence is required.  The usual sort of errors that even experienced and trained experts will make from time to time are enough.  Well designed systems can survive a few of these errors, but not if they happen concurrently in ways that overwhelm the various safety margins built in. 

Japan's situation is arguably different given the "act of God" aspect, but then earthquakes do happen and happen often enough that nuclear plants designed to run for decades can't claim to be shocked when struck.  I'm hearing this is the 5th or 6th largest quake in "recorded history" - that's certainly big, but then we have records for even bigger quakes just in the decades we've been running seismographs.  I will wait for more investigation and facts to emerge by my starting position is that whatever went wrong here is a design flaw.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wisconsin: Dems lost well

As I come from a parliamentary system where the first-past-the-post electoral system has through most of my life resulted in majority governments both provincially and federally who can rule quite broadly for their terms, perhaps my perspective on the Wisconsin legislative outcome is somewhat less bleak than many US liberals I read.  Walker the state Republicans passed their desired bill completely on Republican votes against the most strenuous and unrelenting opposition that the minority party could muster.

They get their way, but now may face some blowback from voters at the earliest electoral opportunities.  The recall system allows those to be rather sooner than later for some of the people responsible, but in principle they will all at some point have to face the voters for this.

It would have been splendid had the Republicans relented under the storm of opposition, but I think I'm glad there wasn't a deal among "moderates" in the State senate.  Such deals tend to still be bad deals for workers, if slightly less odious than the initial demands and they leave the voters with no clear villain to blame.  This at least means the State Democrats have clean hands and clear consciences over the matter and for voters a bright line has been drawn that does not need any caveats about some Lieberman faction.

I lived through an extreme right wing government in Ontario and while some of the damage they did still hasn't been undone (hello privatized for a song toll highway 407) much of it has.  The nice thing about the union rights being stripped under the auspice of having "no fiscal impact" in order to elide the three-fifths quorum requirement is that those rights can be restored by majority vote too.

This is what liberals have repeated asked from Democrats at the national level, particularly when in opposition, make them pay a price for doing what they do. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Manning's nudity cannot be rationalized

In his write up on the issue of Pfc Bradley Manning being forced to stand naked for inspection and be without clothese every night on the supposed basis that he may harm himself with his prison clothing, Glenn asks:
There's no underwear that can be issued that is useless for killing oneself?  And if this is truly such a threat, why isn't he on "suicide watch" (the NYT article confirms he's not)?  And why is this restriction confined to the night; can't he also off himself using his briefs during the day? 
In fact there are such garments, I was easily able to find examples here and here.   I don't know if those undoubtedly uncomfortable smocks are the extent of suicide-proof clothing, but the point is such things do exist and are probably preferable to nudity for most people, particularly those who you believe are in a mental state to deliberably do themselves serious harm.  What better help for the suicidal than forced nudity?

Further, the US Army's correctional system is aware of these (page 56):

11–11. Suicide prevention
All correctional facilities will have a detailed suicide prevention plan that addresses each of the following components:
d. Housing and special clothing/bedding requirements. If applicable, a suicidal prisoner should be provided a suicide blanket and smock to wear.
I know Manning is actually being held in a Marine Corps facility, but the point here is that these things aren't new - suicidal inmates is a serious problem that prison systems civilian and military have been grappling with for decades.  Here's a World Health Organization paper on the subject from 2007.   Page 16 says:
Social and physical isolation and lack of accessible supportive resources intensify the risk of suicide. Therefore, an important element in suicide prevention in correctional settings is
meaningful social interaction.33
After 9 months of this treatment, I could see someone in Manning's position actually being suicidal.   It's a step beyond what Heller ever envisioned in Catch-22, maybe we should call it Catch-23.  Heller's characters were being driven insane as a by-product of what they were going through.  The more they "protect" Manning from harming himself, the more in need of such protection he becomes.  At least they've now decided what charges to pin on Clevinger Manning.  It would embarrassing if he wasn't convicted now that they've been punishing him for this long.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

China's anti-austerity program

Premier Wen Jiabao:
In a more than two-hour speech that is China's equivalent to a state-of-the-nation address, Premier Wen Jiabao vowed to boost assistance to working class, rural Chinese and pensioners, build more affordable housing, exempt lower-income citizens from taxes and raise spending on education and health insurance.

Along with increased social spending, Wen said pulling down inflation and closing the wide rich-poor gap were top priorities. He directly linked their urgent resolution to the need to keep people happy and stave off unrest while the government slows the breakneck growth of recent years to a more sustainable level.

"We must make improving the people's lives a pivot linking reform, development and stability ... and make sure people are content with their lives and jobs, society is tranquil and orderly and the country enjoys long-term peace and stability," Wen told the 2,923 delegates gathered in the Great Hall of the People for the opening of the national legislature's annual session.
The article goes on to discuss the pressure the government is on from protestors who may be inspired by events in the middle east to stage a similar mass protest movement in China.  So this could be a pre-emptive move to head off such things, which, if true would be yet another positive spin off effect of the whole chain of events starting with Wikileaks' release of the diplomatic cables.

It's also a reminder that if mighty China's decades old stable autocratic government can be moved by just the threat of protests, more of this can only be good in Europe and North America to achieve the same effect.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Warming Wednesdays: Lessons from climategate

New post up at the OL Survivors' site, the topic ends up nicely tying together analysis of conservative cultural phenomena and climate denial.

Warming Wednesdays: A carbon tax Down Under

This week, I found a couple pleasant suprises coming out of Australia, so the post is a primer on what I know of the climate fight there. 

First and most important was the announcement by Prime Minister Julia Gillard (Labor party, the centre-left big-tent party of Australia) that her government was going to pass a law implementing a national carbon tax:
Announcing details of the scheme today, Ms Gillard said the price on carbon would be fixed for a period of three to five years before moving to a cap-and-trade system.
"I'm determined to price carbon," Ms Gillard told a joint press conference with Greens leader Bob Brown and Senator Christine Milne well as independent MPs Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor.
Now I don't know what kind of details go into this, but on the whole it can only be considered good news.   Gillard leads a razor thin parliamentary minority government which required the support of the Green and a couple independent MPs in order to form the government after Labor's near loss in the 2010 federal election.  The previous Labor PM, Kevin Rudd led a healthy lower house majority and even passed a carbon trading plan through, but saw it defeated in the Senate (sound familiar?).  In fact it came quite close as the Liberal (the right wing big tent party) leader at the time indicated he would support the plan, and a caucus revolt saw him replaced with a proper conservative who would oppose the climate plan.  That person is the current opposition leader, Tony Abbott. 

A Word On Australia

Australia is worth watching for a few reasons.  It has a great deal in common with the United States and Canada.  It's part of the "rich" world, mostly English speaking, a former British colony and a federal system.  It's also a very big coal producer, which makes for a very wealthy and concerned interest that is predisposed to oppose action on (or acceptance of) climate change.  If Australia can enact a price on carbon, that may show us how it can be done in Canada and the US before it is too late to do any good.    This isn't Sweden, where the linguistic and cultural differences make their politics quite often incomprehensible or at least difficult to apply.  Australia has an economy very dependent on fossil fuels, lots of wingnuts who know it, and runs under an analogous political system.

Rudd's failed promise

Rudd actually could have pulled a special move that the Australian system allows and call a "double dissolution" election, where all members of both houses of parliament would face elections.  As polling still favoured Labor at time, this was likely to at least increase the number of Labor and Green senators for another run at the bill.  If that didn't enough friendly Senators to pass the bill, he would have been able to call a special joint session of parliament, and pass the bill through that (which effectively waters down the Senate by counting their votes equally with House members - it's a neat way to provide democracy a way to override the House of Lords). 

This is in fact how Australia got its system of universal health care over the unwavering opposition of the right wing opposition in the Senate back in the 70s.  Sadly, for whatever reason, Rudd backed off and the emissions trading plan fell by the wayside.

After this failure of one of his signature promises, Rudd's government floundered and his moment passed.  He was forced to resign by his own party and replaced by Gillard in 2010.  This was an amazing downfall for someone who arrived in Canberra on such a wave, after a very long drought out of power for Labor too.  It also means that both Gillard and Abbott got their jobs in similar ways largely attributable to the climate fight. 

Given all that, I find it remarkable that Gillard is taking another kick at this can.  Yes, the plan she's pursuing is different - a carbon tax that morphs into a cap and trade system over time, but as anyone who has followed the climate debate knows, the right opposes any and all attempts to price or limit carbon emissions through any mechanism you can name.

So unsurprisingly, Gillard's move has provoked the right wing "Coalition" opposition (called such because they are a coalition of Liberal and National party MPs) to declare war on Labor and the plan:
Mr Abbott had a simple message for the Coalition party room.

"This is a fight the Coalition can win and must win. We will oppose it in opposition and rescind it in government. We will have an overwhelming mandate to repeal the carbon tax."

This fight has heated up to the point of death threats being made against a particular independent MP, Tony Windsor.  Windsor's support was crucial to allowing Gillard to form the government, giving her a 76 to 74 vote majority in the House.  Windsor is a remarkable character as he is personally and historically conservative, and was even part of the further right National party early in his career.  He represents a rural district.  In America or Canada, he would almost certainly oppose pricing carbon and would likely be a climate denialist to boot.  In fact, action on climate change is a major issue for him, and appears to have been decisive in his choice to support Gillard over Abbott in the days after the 2010 election:

INDEPENDENT MP Tony Windsor says Tony Abbott "begged" him to back the coalition for minority government after 2010 election, pledging to do "anything" to gain power.  [...]
"One could draw a conclusion from that that if we pulled a tight rein and said `Well, you've got government if you put a carbon price on' he would agree with it - that was the inference from his statements."
Mr Windsor said he had made a "character judgment" about Mr Abbott after the discussions.
This is the second pleasant surprise I mentioned at the start.  It's so very rare for personality to factor in so vitally in world events and so nice to see them do so in a way that works to the greater good.  As I noted above, Abbott got his job because the previous Liberal leader was willing to accept a price on carbon, and here he is begging a normally insignificant back-bench independent MP to support him, and willing to promise to sell out his deepest principles to attain it.  It's no wonder the Australian tea baggers are threatening him, after this revelation.

All this makes Australia a place to watch in the climate fight over the next few months.  If Gillard can keep her 1 vote coaltion together in the House of Commons and pass her bill, it will go on to the Senate.  Currently it doesn't appear that Labor and the Greens have the votes to pass it, but on July 1st, the new Senators elected in 2010 take office giving Labor + Green a majority (and fortunately Australia has no filibuster).

Substantively it isn't clear yet what exactly Gillard's proposal will be and how much it will reduce Australia's emissions, and of course Australia's emissions are not some great fraction of the world total.  But it will be an important milestone for a major economy (Australia is in the G20) under heavy domestic opposition to have taken real steps to address the climate crisis.  

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Incompleteness proves deceit fallacy

One thing I have to give internet conservatives credit for is their ability craft and devise brand new species of logical fallacies.  I checked several different lists of logical fallacies, but didn't find one that addressed this form of argument:
Author: <article, essay or blog post on subject>
Critic: Oh, look how you've conveniently left out fact/argument X, this proves you're (a hack/wrong/biased)!
 It's a special form of ad-hominem, and the beauty part of it (for sophists anyway) is that since no essay or article can possible include every fact or argument relevant to a topic, you can always find something the author didn't mention or a counter argument not rebutted.  It's the ultimate moving goalpost. 

It probably doesn't belong purely on a list of logical fallacies since it can be a valid argument, where it is obvious the author has ignored something they could be expected to know about that undercuts their entire premise or shows some significant personal bias toward a desired conclusion and purposely avoids considering obvious plausible alternatives (for example villagers like David Brooks writing entire columns about the need to fix the deficit without even mentioning tax increases) but I see it used so regularly by conservative trolls, particularly against journalists I thought I would call it out. 

Hopefully it does have a name somewhere that I didn't find, as it is hard to search for concepts or logical structures on search engines.  If not, I've coined it per the title.