Monday, December 31, 2012

Books Read in 2012

Here are the books I read in 2012. Even when you take into account that many of these were slim Kindle Singles, given how busy I've been over the last year, I'm impressed by the numbers...

The Books
  1. Read This Before Our Next Meeting by Al Pittampalli
  2. A Feast of Crows by George R. R. Martin
  3. Dreadnought by Cherie Priest
  4. The Quantum Universe (Or Why Anything That Can Happen, Does) by Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw
  5. Lying by Sam Harris
  6. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  7. A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin
  8. A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing by Lawrence Krauss
  9. Triggers by Robert J. Sawyer
  10. The Flinch by Julien Smith
  11. Beyond the Hole in the Wall: Discover the Power of Self-Organized Learning by Sugata Mitra
  12. One Way Forward: The Outsider's Guide to Fixing the Republic by Lawrence Lessig
  13. Living Architecture: How Synthetic Biology Can Remake Our Cities and Reshape Our Lives by Rachel Armstrong
  14. Homo Evolutis: Please Meet the Next Human Species by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans
  15. Free Will by Sam Harris
  16. Thor Meets Captain America by David Brin
  17. What the Plus?: Google+ For the Rest of Us by Guy Kawasaki
  18. What's Killing Us: A Practical Guide to Understanding Our Biggest Global Health Problems by Alanna Shaikh
  19. Shadows in Flight by Orson Scott Card
  20. The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi
  21. The Executioness by Tobias S. Buckell
  22. Even Mystics Have Bills to Pay: Balancing a Spiritual Life and Earthly Living by Jim Rosemergy
  23. Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy by Bill Clinton
  24. The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy: Hogwarts for Muggles edited by Gregory Bassham
  25. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
  26. The Evolution of Faith by Philip Gulley
  27. Laches by Plato
  28. Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization by Parag Khanna and Ayesha Khanna
  29. The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School by Alexandra Robbins
  30. The Demise of Guys: Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It by Philip G. Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan
  31. Believe in America: Mitt Romney's Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth by Romney for America
  32. Beyond the Wall: Exploring George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, From A Game of Thrones to A Dance With Dragons edited by James Lowder
  33. It's Dangerous to Be Right When the Government is Wrong: The Case for Personal Freedom by Judge Andrew Napolitano
  34. The Void by Frank Close
  35. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
  36. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch
  37. Higgs Discovery: The Power of Empty Space by Lisa Randall
  38. Ruling Your World: Ancient Strategies for Modern Life by Sakyong Mipham
  39. Humanism as the Next Step by Lloyd & Mary Morain
  40. Why School?: How Education Must Change When Learning and Education Are Everywhere by Will Richardson 
  41. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain 
  42. We Are All Weird by Seth Godin
  43. Mind Amplifier: Can Our Digital Tools Make Us Smarter? by Howard Rheingold
  44. Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country by William F. Buckley, Jr.
  45. If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person by Philip Gulley & James Mulholland
  46. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt 
  47. If God Is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World by Philip Gulley & James Mulholland
  48. Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics by Jim Al-Khalili 
  49. The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World by Sean Carroll
  50. The Many Lives of Lilith Lane by E.V. Anderson
  51. Smile by Ron Gutman
  52. When I'm 164 by David Ewing Duncan
  53. The Happiness Manifesto by Nic Marks
  54. Beware Dangerism! by Gever Tulley
  55. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
  56. Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff 
  57. A Haystack Full of Needles: Cutting Through the Clutter of the Online World to Find a Place, Partner, or President by Jim Hornthal
  58. The Falling Machine (Society of Steam Book One) by Andrew P. Mayer
  59. Hearts of Smoke and Steam (Society of Steam Book Two) by Andrew P. Mayer
  60. Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World by Lisa Randall
  61. The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever edited by Christopher Hitchens
  62. Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier by Neil deGrasse Tyson
  63. Tell Them I Built This: Transforming Schools, Communities, and Lives with Design-Based Education by Emily Pilloton
  64. The Constant Art of Being a Writer: The Life, Art, and Business of Fiction by N.M. Kelby
  65. Energy For Future Presidents by Richard A. Muller
  66. Citizen Advocate: How to Get Government to Move Mountains and Change the World by Omar Ahmad
  67. Hacker Mom by Austen Rachlis
  68. Power Under Pressure (Society of Steam Book Three) by Andrew P. Mayer

  • Audiobooks: 8
  • Kindle: 42
    • Kindle Singles (mini-books/solo essays): 27
    • Kindle Serials: 2
    • Kindle Lending Library: 3
  • Google eBooks: 1
  • Dead tree books: 17
My number of audiobooks has dropped dramatically for two reasons: I no longer commute and I now listen to several podcasts, in place of my audiobook time. For those audiobooks I do listen to, I've begun using a lot, and some books that I've really enjoyed (mostly non-fiction), I've bought the book in both Audible and Kindle formats, so that I can synchronize between them using Amazon's Whispersynch for Voice, switching between listening and reading as time permits. (This also allows me to conveniently highlight passages even if I only have time to listen to the book on audiobook.)
  • Total Fiction: 18
    • Science Fiction: 9
    • Fantasy: 11
      • Epic Fantasy: 4
      • Young Adult: 2
      • Steampunk: 5
  • Non-Fiction: 51
    • Science: 26
      • Physics: 9
      • Psychology: 9
      • Biology: 4
      • Technology: 5
    • Religion: 8
    • History: 3
    • Politics: 7
    • Education: 6
    • Business: 6
    • Philosophy: 12
These numbers don't quite match up, because some books cover multiple areas. For example, I determined that Sam Harris' Free Will fell under both the Psychology and Philosophy headings and, frankly, I could have justified also counting it as a Religion book, while a book about Buddhism is classified as both Religion and Philosophy ... and could probably also be classified as Psychology!

The History

And for anyone who is interested in looking into the past to see some of my previous book lists...
Prior to 2008, I didn't keep a precise record, so they aren't listed anywhere.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Philosophical Christian: 5 Reasons Not to "Fear God"

Today I finally got back on Facebook for the first time since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I've been intentionally avoiding it. It's made my wife cry multiple times already and, since we don't have television, I was able to have a nice weekend without being confronted with the tragedy continuously.

When I finally did log on to Facebook, I was prepared for the assorted pro- and con-gun control/Second Amendment posts ... but I was not prepared for the bizarre religious trend to many posts. I was not prepared for the proclamation, from seemingly sane friends of mine, that this sort of thing happens because God is absent from schools.

And perhaps most bizarrely, I was not expecting the post which said the problem is that children are not taught to "Fear God." (The above picture isn't the one from Facebook, but you get the idea.)

The entire notion of "God-fearing" has never resonated with me, but to invoke it in the wake of this tragedy is absolutely perplexing to me on a number of levels. Specifically, I can think of 5 huge problems with it:

1. You Can't Love What You Fear - You cannot have a healthy, loving relationship with an entity that you fear. You can certainly have strong emotions, but if you love someone and fear them, then your relationship is dysfunctional. Most people who believe in God have a dysfunctional relationship with the notion of God because they hate and fear it at the same time. Unless you drop the notion of God entirely, the best approach I've seen is to let go of the fear part.

2. The Best Christians Don't Fear God - If you look at the Christians who are worthy of the name - including the big J.C. himself - you'll find very little "fearing" in relation to God going on. They exalt God, because they believe in a God who's worth exalting.

3. It's Blasphemy - The phrasing "Fear God" should be absolutely offensive to any God that's worth worshiping, and equally offensive to his followers. If you're going to use "fear" and "God" together, it should be as a negation, such as "Because I believe in God, I fear no evil" or something like that. If you believe in a God who relishes that those who believe in him fear him, I humbly submit that you worship a psychopathic bully.

4. God Didn't Do This - Specifically in the wake of these shootings, this comment to fear God is especially bizarre, because the implication is therefore that God was somehow behind the shootings. Or, at the very least, he removed his hand of protection from innocent children because of offenses committed by others. Most Christians would, I believe, find this highly offensive as well.

5. In conclusion, children (and the rest of us) certainly have enough to fear in this world. There's no need to add God to the list.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Election Day 2012 - Final Thoughts

Today is the final day in an election cycle that has gone on far too long. I began following things back in fall of 2011, when I was curious what the various Republican primary candidates had to say for themselves. I offered an open mind that perhaps they could sway me to vote for them. Now that we're on election day - and I genuinely have no idea who is going to win, with close polls on pretty much all sources - it seems like a good idea to collect my general thoughts on this election.

Here's the thing. I am a fan of Barack Obama's. I've read both of his books and voted for him in 2008. I genuinely like the guy. By and large, I agree with the policies that he's tried to implement, though I continue to be a little concerned about his expanded use of drones and assassinations, but no more concerned than I was about the previous administration's willingness to send troops into harm's way. There's no good way to conduct violent action against the nation's enemies.

The Republican Primaries

Still, just because I like Barack Obama, however, doesn't mean that I necessarily think he's done a bang-up job. He's certainly not the failure that the Republicans have painted him to be, but neither is he a particularly adept leader. He wasted his first two years trying to generate a consensus with Republicans, when it should have been extremely clear that they'd have none of it. There's nothing in his background which shows that he's got any particular skills at financial matters or general organization, and there are ample aspects of the way the government's run over the last four years that can legitimately be called into question.

So I began watching the Republican primary and it quickly became clear that only a couple of those lunatics had any chance of winning against Obama: either Mitt Romney or John Huntsman. Everyone else was just too extreme and would have no real chance of convincing moderates like me to vote for them. In fact, the extremism being displayed even prompted me to start the Vast Middle-Wing Conspiracy page on Facebook.

Romney himself recognized this, in the famous "47%" video that surfaced a while back and which I've discussed previously. In that video, he went on to talk about independents, in a way that demonstrated much more awareness of the realities of the electorate than the 47% part of the talk did:
Those people I told you—the 5 to 6 or 7 percent that we have to bring onto our side—they all voted for Barack Obama four years ago. So, and by the way, when you say to them, "Do you think Barack Obama is a failure?" they overwhelmingly say no. They like him. But when you say, "Are you disappointed that his policies haven't worked?" they say yes. And because they voted for him, they don't want to be told that they were wrong, that he's a bad guy, that he did bad things, that he's corrupt. Those people that we have to get, they want to believe they did the right thing, but he just wasn't up to the task. They love the phrase that he's "over his head." But if we're—but we, but you see, you and I, we spend our day with Republicans. We spend our days with people who agree with us. And these people are people who voted for him and don't agree with us. And so the things that animate us are not the things that animate them. And the best success I have at speaking with those people is saying, you know, the president has been a disappointment. 
So, basically, this tactic worked very early on with me. I conceded that Barack Obama was a bit of a disappointment and allowed the possibility of supporting a different candidate. And, thankfully, the Republicans offered up one of the two sane options from their primary. So now it became a case of asking whether Mitt was a better choice than Obama.

The Case for Either

First, let me get this prediction out of the way: Regardless of who is elected, I believe that the economy will do better in 2013 than it did in 2012. We are on an upswing. If Obama is re-elected, then he'll claim that his policies caused it. If Romney is elected, he'll claim that Obama's policies were a failure and it's his policies that caused the recovery.

In my view, the economy was so bad that it's bound to begin improving. The big question is not who will cause it to improve, but rather which policies are best to be in place when it does improve. Do you want a regulation-free, very corporation-friendly set of Republican policies in place or greater access to healthcare? A somewhat lukewarm relationship with Israel or a U.S. that seems willing to goad Israel into military conflict with Iran, somehow in the interests of "peace?"

On the single most important issue for me - American education policy - Republicans and Democrats are pretty much in lockstep these days, with a heavy emphasis on school choice in both camps.

The Case for Mr. Romney

Though I voted for Obama, I don't agree with many of his supporters that Romney is a rampaging conservative monstrosity that will destroy our country. As Newt Gingrich said during the Republican primaries, Romney is a "Massachusetts moderate" and that's his saving grace. Honestly, Romney is something of a geek. A money geek. A policy geek.

He himself seems to resent, on at least some level, the fact that he hasn't been able to focus on his intellectual policy arguments. In the leaked video from last spring, he said:
Well, I wrote a book that lays out my view for what has to happen in the country, and people who are fascinated by policy will read the book. We have a website that lays out white papers on a whole series of issues that I care about. I have to tell you, I don't think this will have a significant impact on my electability. I wish it did. I think our ads will have a much bigger impact. I think the debates will have a big impact…My dad used to say, "Being right early is not good in politics." And in a setting like this, a highly intellectual subject—discussion on a whole series of important topics typically doesn't win elections.
I didn't actually read Romney's book, but I did read his jobs plan. Though it over-simplifies things and places blame for dwindling jobs squarely on Obama's shoulders without providing the larger context of where the economy was at when Obama stepped in, the plan itself isn't half bad. Nor, frankly, is it that aggressively conservative. Despite the deeply anti-government rhetoric of the Republican primary and subsequent campaign, the jobs plan itself includes such near-socialist gems as:
Government has a role to play in innovation in the energy industry. History shows that the United States has moved forward in astonishing ways thanks to national investment in basic research and advanced technology.

There is a place for government investment when time horizons are too long, risks too high, and rewards too uncertain to attract private capital.
The above quotes make it clear that, at least in this policy statement, Romney understands the critical role government must play in scientific research. The emphasis of his plan is on "long-term" economic recovery, so if this understanding is genuine then we can expect a Romney administration to recognize these funding needs and to back them up with money.

Also, Romney implemented the Massachusetts healthcare plan. When repealing Obamacare, he can't just leave people without a replacement, so he's going to have to move forward on some sort of policies that will help insure people with pre-existing conditions are eligible at somewhat affordable rates. When he outlines the list of points that need to be included in his healthcare plan, it actually sounds remarkably like Obamacare.

In some ways, a moderate Romney has a lot of potential advantages. The Republicans would presumably cooperate with him more than they have with Obama, which means that Congress could return to actually doing something. Democrats don't quite have the backbone to completely hamstring a president for 4 years solid, to throw the entire country under the bus for political advantage, so they'll grouse a bit but will finally cooperate with a Romney administration as well. Honestly, just having a Congress that's able to do anything will be such a change that it might improve the morale of the country..

Of course, this argument is all founded on the idea that Romney is able to govern as a "Massachusetts moderate" ... but that's certainly not how he's campaigned. And that, ultimately, is why I voted against him.

The Case Against Mitt

Since I like Obama, Romney really had to make a pretty strong case to get me to switch support to him. I was still giving him the benefit of the doubt into the debates, although I was not impressed with much of what I'd seen.

For the last four years, I've watched the Republicans steamroll over the President of the United States. The President's biggest leadership failure has been his inability to win over any significant Republican cooperation on any issue. So the big question for me was whether Romney would be able to stand up to his own party.

Unfortunately, absolutely nothing during Romney's campaign showed me that this would happen. He chose Tea Party favorite Paul Ryan as his running mate. Better than Michelle Bachmann, to be sure, but still far too ideologically conservative for my tastes. When Rush Limbaugh called a college girl a "slut," Romney didn't condemn it, he just said he wouldn't have used those words. (Of course not, he's a Mormon!)

Time and time again, Romney has refused to stand up confidently against the extreme elements of his party. I have seen no evidence that a Romney administration would fight for anything that I value in the face of his party's interests.

There may well be a Mitt Romney somewhere in there who will be a great president, one that I will admire. So far, I haven't really seen it. If elected, though, I do hope he shows up to lead the nation.

If Romney is elected, I hope he does such a fine job that in 2016 there is no question about who I'm going to support.

And if Obama is re-elected ... then I really hope the 2016 primary season is a lot shorter than this one was, because I don't think I can deal with this level of crazy from both parties.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

I Am the 47%

I haven't been on Facebook yet today, but I can only imagine that the subject line of this blog post has become cliched even moments after I thought of it. Alas, there's nothing new under the sun.

And that includes Mitt Romney sticking his foot in it, which seems to be a pretty regular event. The latest kerfuffle is over his comments back at a spring fundraiser with wealthy donors, where he was caught on hidden camera saying:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax. 
[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
So let's do a little personal case study of someone who falls in this 47%, voted for Obama and, according to Romney, cannot be convinced to "take personal responsibility."

My 47% Street Cred

To be honest, it would be more appropriate to say "I was the 47%" because in 2011 I actually did pay 1.12% in federal income taxes, on top of the state income taxes (4.37%) and federal payroll taxes. However, for several years before that, I was not paying income taxes:
  • 2010: 0.00%
  • 2009: -0.85%
  • 2008: (can't find, but it was 0% or very near 0%)
  • 2007: 10.37%
So, what happened in 2008 that caused my taxes to drop so much? My income from my day job has increased every year. Well, there were actually several different factors that figured into the low tax rate, all of which can be traced back to 2008:
  • I got married.
  • I became a stepfather.
  • I began donating 10% of my income to charity and local churches (and itemizing deductions accordingly).
  • I became a landlord. (My wife's previous home became a rental property.)
  • I learned about the pro-business tax code and began intensely keeping records and making use of deductions to legitimately reduce my taxable business income from freelance writing.
  • My wife returned to college.
Oh, yes, a couple of other things happened in 2008 that should have raised my total income tax:
  • I started writing String Theory For Dummies, which resulted in a net income increase, so actually raised my gross business income for 2008 and 2009 both.
  • I received an greater-than-10% raise, due to restructuring at work and them realizing that they were seriously underpaying me.
Ah, yes, and I finished my Master's Degree, paid for by reimbursement from my company (so I couldn't deduct any significant amount of it). No real bearing on my tax situation ... although it might have some bearing on that whole "personal responsibility" line.

Who Made Me Dependent Upon the State?

So the driving forces behind my sudden drop in income tax liability were primarily the following (in no particular order, since I don't feel like looking through old tax forms to figure which benefited me most):
  • Small business tax deductions and credits
  • Married filing jointly status
  • Kid-related deductions and credits
  • Rental property depreciation deduction
  • Itemized deductions: Charitable (and church) donation and mortgage
  • Education deductions for my wife
A quick look at this list really makes one wonder which of these deductions Mitt Romney is planning to revoke or reduce in order to wean me off of my "entitlement" mentality.

In fact, aren't these precisely the sorts of things that Republicans typically argue should reduce your tax liability even more? Isn't it really the Republicans who have decreased taxability so severely that it took me 3 years of raises and working on my writing career to work my way up to 1% income tax? Does anyone else recall Mitt Romney re-affirming his right to reduce his tax liability to the legal limits, when it was released that he way paying 15% in taxes?

Note to the IRS:
I said "legal limits."
I am very careful with my deductions and record-keeping.
If a deduction is questionable, I don't take it.
So, really, it would be a waste of time to audit me.
A waste of my time and yours.
Keep up the good work, guys!

According to Mitt Romney, this places me in a very unenviable position. I am now counted among those "who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it."

I will concede that I am probably at the top of the 47% of which Mitt Romney speaks. While he doesn't care about most of them, he maybe cares a little bit about what I think. See, I'm one of these moderates who voted for Obama in 2008 and wishes his policies had done better. And I am giving Mitt Romney the chance to convince me that his policies will do better, so that I can vote for him today.

However, we've seen the results of his policies. His policies removed my tax liability. His policies have, apparently, turned me into a entitlement-seeking person, unable to take care of my own life, let alone the lives of the two children tragically entrusted to my care by the vagaries of fortune and chance! Those poor children! How will they suffer, to be raised by a father with so little self worth?

I dare ask, is there any solution?

Yes, I believe there is ...

I Need to Be Taxed More ... and So Do the 53% Above Me

It's totally absurd, with the amount of income I bring in, that I am paying only 1% income tax. I'm not wealthy, by any stretch of the imagination. (Well, unless you compare me to the 95% or so of the world that makes less income than I do ... in which case I'm doing alright.) I have to crimp and save just like anyone else, and there's never quite enough to do everything I want.

However, I also have two kids. I'm a member of a community and a nation. And we're overspending. To fix that, we need to do what any businessman in that room with Mitt Romney would do if faced with a tough personal or corporate budget. They would figure out how to:
  • Increase revenue
  • Cut expenses
We've let taxes drop too low and they need to go up a bit on the middle class. Not a lot, but at least a bit. Cap some deductions, such as the charitable deduction. Either an absolute cap or as a percentage of income. There are a lot of options here.

But to set the country on a course to fix the deficit, taxes have got to go up. Mitt Romney has made a pledge not to raise taxes. I'm hoping that he's a good enough businessman to know that he was lying when he made that pledge, because there's no way he can be serious about the deficit while clinging to it.

Of course, there is a third option that the businessmen in that room may be familiar with, especially if Trump was there. It's an option I unfortunately had to exercise in 2006. It's one that isn't fun and, as a patriotic American, it's one I hope we can avoid:


Sept. 26: I found out about the blog We Are the 47%, which shares open letters (ostensibly to Romney) about individual experiences within the 47%. Here's an overview of some of the people who have stepped forward through that website:
We have letters from a Pulitzer Prize-winner in fiction and a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, as well as an 82nd Airborne paratrooper, a recipient of a Purple Heart, the wife of a med student, a special education teacher, a union carpenter... We have letters from those who share Mitt Romney's faith, but disagree with his disregard for the 47 percent; and we have a letter from someone who, like Romney, graduated from Harvard Law School, but, unlike Romney, made the financial sacrifice to work as a public defender ...

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Corporations: People, Entities, or a Hybrid of Both?

Many liberals have made a lot out of the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, which they describe as saying "corporations are people." However, the Supreme Court ruling doesn't actually use this terminology, even if the spirit of the ruling does imply that .

Still, one of the major elements of the campaign is the degree to which corporations deserve special considerations and what types of considerations those are. While both political sides of the debate tackle this argument with a lot of preconceptions, I think it's possible to really look at the facts behind how corporations are formed to understand the degree to which a corporation, in general, can be viewed as equivalent to an individual.

Mitt Romney's Evolving View of Corporate Personhood

Mitt Romney did use these words on the campaign trail during the Republican primary, when he replied to a critic at an event, "Corporations are people, my friend." He has been very vocal about his strong beliefs regarding the importance of corporate rights. I'm in the process of reading Romney's jobs plan, Believe in America: Mitt Romney's Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth (available on the Kindle). In it, he (or his team, at least) says the following:
The truth is, as Mitt Romney likes to say, "corporations are people." They represent human beings acting cooperatively to be economically productive.
In the e-book, Scott McNealy, the founder and former CEO of Sun Microsystems, writes a piece about tax policy that delves even more deeply into the "corporations are people" narrative.
To the vast majority of Americans who have held real jobs in the real economy, often in corporations, the point made perfect sense. Indeed, it seemed a statement of the obvious. A corporation, after all, is nothing more than people who have joined together to work cooperatively. The word "corporation" itself means "body of people." And in fact, corporations consist of two groups of "people": employees and shareholders. The former work hard to make a profit and earn their salaries and benefits. The latter, now widely dispersed across the economy by means of mutual funds and retirement-plan investment portfolios, provide the capital and can reap the financial benefits while also assuming the financial risk.
However, today I was listening to the radio and heard an intriguing segment about the latest campaign kerfluffle. I've been busy with work (at a corporation) and haven't kept up with the news, so didn't know much about the outsourcing that Obama has been accusing Romney of. Apparently, Bain Capital is accused of outsourcing some jobs, and this seems to be during a nebulous time between 1999 (when Romney stepped aside at Bain to run the Salt Lake City Olympics) and 2002, when he was still listed as CEO, President, and sole owner of Bain Capital, but wasn't actively involved in the day-to-day operations. Apparently, in response, Romney said:
"Well, I was the owner of an entity that is filing that information, but I had no role whatsoever in the management of Bain Capital after February of 1999," he told CNN. "Not that that would have been a problem to have said that I was with the firm beyond that, but I simply wasn't."
Since I had just been reading the jobs plan, the use of the word "entity" struck me as odd. So which is it? Is a corporation a person or some other type of entity?

The Benefits of Incorporating

To really understand this question, we have to consider the reasons why people incorporate their businesses. For example, in addition to my day job, I am self-employed as a freelance writer. I am not incorporated, however, and file taxes on my business as a sole proprietor of a business, The Philosopher's Stone.

As a  sole proprietor, my business is treated as an extension of me as a person. Though I have an Employer Identification Number (EIN) to file payroll taxes (my wife is my salaried employee), I have not been able to us this EIN to gain business credit cards or financing. When I set up my business checking account, I tried to use my EIN and was told that since I wasn't incorporated, I needed to set it up with my Social Security Number. When I fill out W-9 forms, the documentation says that the IRS prefers sole proprietorships to use my Social Security Number instead of my EIN. Since I am not incorporated, the credit cards I use for business expenses are in my own name, not in the name of my business.

When you begin to investigate home-business tax savings, you do find that there are a number of reasons to incorporate.
  1. Credit Benefits:The first reason to incorporate, as hinted at above, is that you can now begin establishing lines of credit and bank accounts using your business' EIN instead of your personal Social Security Number. If your personal credit is poor - perhaps due to a failed business or personal bankruptcy in the past - this can be a crucial benefit to gain the necessary financing for your business venture.

  2. Liability Protection:Related to the access to credit, corporations also create a level of liability protection. If a sole proprietorship goes under, all of the debt is in your name, so your creditors are able to come after your individual assets. You could lose not only your business, but also your house, your savings, garnishments against future wages, and so on. When you incorporate, a very powerful legal wall is built between these two entities. This is how people like Donald Trump can have multiple major corporate bankruptcies while maintaining their personal wealth. Even if the corporation is sued for some sort of illegal business activity and loses, the fact that it's a corporation can sometimes still protect the individual from having their personal assets garnished ... or vice versa.

  3. Tax Benefits: And, of course, there are tax benefits to being a corporation. Even as a sole proprietorship, I'm in the advantageous situation where my business income is taxed after expenses, in contrast to my personal income, which is taxed before expenses. Corporations have all sorts of tax loopholes created (we hope) with the genuine desire to enhance the ability of these corporations to grow their business and become economically prosperous, thus generating overall more wealth (and, ultimately, tax revenue).
The exact nature and degree of the benefits change depending upon the type of incorporation, of course, and I'm sure that there are many other benefits beyond these. Still, one glance at these reasons makes it clear that the point of incorporating is to separate the business activity from the individual.

Are Corporations People?

Taking all of this into consideration really calls into question the "corporations are people" narrative, which Romney has chosen to officially embrace on the campaign trail and in his jobs plan. While it is certainly true to say that a corporation involves "human beings acting cooperatively to be economically productive," this description by itself isn't particularly helpful. For example, the mob, street gangs, and a team of bank robbers are all attempting to "act cooperatively to be economically productive" as well! Certainly corporations are something different.

No, saying that a corporation is " nothing more than people who have joined together to work cooperatively" (as Scott McNealy does) is a gross over-simplification. I think of it more like this:
A corporation is a group of people who have jointed together to work cooperatively for economic advantage and have then asked the government for special dispensation to treat their group activity as distinctly (and legally) different from their personal activity.
The whole point of incorporation is that it provides a powerful division between the business and the personal activities. Saying that "corporations are people" requires completely ignoring the legal meaning of a corporation ... and negating the validity of the legal protections that corporation-hood confers.

This is why as soon as Romney was called into question on the activity of his corporation, he fell back on the true definition of a corporation. A corporation was no longer a noble reflection of the people united for economic productivity, but instead just an "entity" that files paperwork. His name happened to be on the line that said he was CEO, but that doesn't mean anything at all.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Mutual Pledge of the Declaration of Independence

The most often-quoted part of the Declaration of Independence is, of course, the introductory part, up until the famous lines:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Many people rightly recognize this as a declaration of individual freedom. Since it was written, it was viewed in this light.

However, it is not true that the Declaration of Independence is just a statement of individual liberty. It is  also a statement of unity, a call to action of a diverse group of nation-states acting together. Nowhere is this better represented than in the closing line of the Declaration itself:
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Those who emphasize only the individual liberty aspect of the Declaration miss the point of it and of the entire American Revolution. If each individual founding father, or each individual colony, had clung fast to only its own interests, its own economic drivers, there could never have been the sort of unity needed for independence.

How many people today, on either the political left or the political right, are truly willing to pledge their "Lives, Fortunes, and sacred Honor" to protect the unalienable Rights of "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

I see a lot Americans with great fortunes who don't seem to give a care about the lives and happiness of others.

Many Americans are not willing to accept a slight inconvenience to their sense of entitlement, suffer even a slight disturbance in their happiness, in order to defend the rights of another.

On this Independence Day, I will be teaching my son that individual liberty is tied together with our responsibility to help others, especially those who are less fortunate than us.

As Benjamin Franklin said at the signing of the Declaration of Independence:
We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.
Sources and Related Information:

5 Patriotic Videos for Independence Day

For the past several years, my Fourth of July tradition has been to watch the 1972 musical 1776 (Amazon, BN), which recounts the events surrounding the writing and passage of the Declaration of Independence. This isn't the only film appropriate for this day, of course - GeekDad has a nice list (linked below). In that vein, I consider a handful of other films and videos that I've begun working into my Independence Day traditions.

1776 (AmazonBN)

This is a film adaptation of a stage musical which, were it not about America's independence, probably would not have gotten any traction beyond its initial limited release. As a musical it contains a few decent songs, but the real enjoyment comes from the vivid and charming portrayal of the founding fathers (particularly Howard Da Silva's Benjamin Franklin) and the trials they faced in uniting together to stand against the British. There are a number of historical inaccuracies, but the overall mood portrayed is spot on and helps to illustrate conflicts which are still taking place in American politics over two centuries later ... and over quarter century after 1776 was produced!

Liberty Kids (Amazon, BN)

This 2002 animated series outlines the events from the Boston Tea Party through to the writing of the Constitution, as seen from the point of view of a handful of teenagers in the service of Benjamin Franklin. What's nice about the show is that it focuses on a very diverse perspective of the revolution, rather than just presenting the straight historical account that most of us grew up with. Here are the main characters of the series:
  • James - An orphan who works as a reporter for Franklin's newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette.
  • Moses - A free black man who is Franklin's apprentice at the print shop and newspaper.
  • Sarah - A British citizen who is living in the colonies and becomes a journalist out of a desire to see that the British viewpoint is represented to the colonists.
  • Henri - A French boy who was transported to the colonies as an indentured servant.
  • Benjamin Franklin - Voiced by veteran newsman Walter Cronkite, Franklin is the perfect founding father to be at the center of a series which includes such a broad perspective on the revolutionary activities.
While being firmly rooted in the patriotic ideals that founded the nation, it doesn't gloss over the failings of those same colonists to recognize liberty for everyone, nor does it shy away from the reality that the British troops could at times be heroic and noble, even while being on the wrong side of the conflict.

The 6-disc series contains 40 episodes, plus a host of extra features that are great for teaching your kids history, including:
  • A full-sized poster of the main characters with a map of the colonies and major events on the back
  • A booklet containing descriptions of all episodes, plus a timeline of revolutionary events running from the Boston Massacre (1770) through to Washington assuming the Presidency (1789)
  • Benjamin Franklin's Newsbytes
  • Continental Cartoons
  • Now and Then feature
  • Mystery Guest Game
  • A Look Back at Liberty's Kids with the Creators

The Patriot (Amazon, BN)

Once upon a time, Mel Gibson was a good actor. The Patriot represents a period that was probably the apex of his career, before he became known as a man who goes off on drunken rants about the Jews (but does, afterward, give decent apologies).

This is one of the most ambitious feature films to depict the American revolution and certainly received the broadest popular reception. Gibson plays a military veteran of the French and Indian Wars (called "the wilderness campaigns" in the film) who is initially hesitant to take up arms against the British, though he himself does agree with the cause of liberty.

It also features a great performance by Heath Ledger as Gibson's son, a young idealist who enthusiastically joins the cause of liberty, not understanding why his father resists. The film vividly depicts the battles, making it clear that the American Revolution was not won through a sanitized process of debates (though the first two shows on this list make it clear that even the debate process wasn't particularly sanitized).

My Fellow Americans (Amazon, BN)

The only film on this list that isn't directly related to the founding fathers and their activities, this James Garner and Jack Lemmon comedy film nonetheless represents one of the most fun patriotic films out there. Two ex-presidents and intense political rivals discover a conspiracy that goes to the very highest levels of government. After escaping assassination, they travel America on the run in attempt to get proof and uncover the truth. In the process, they discover - in between sniping at each other - that their political differences are a lot less important than the things that unite them as Americans.

National Treasure (Amazon, BN)

Finally comes the most fantastic of the explorations of America's history, in which Nicolas Cage goes on a quest to discover a mysterious lost treasure of the ancients that the founding fathers hid, leaving clues throughout documents and locations that were central to the founding of America, including the very Constitution of the United States. With much more emphasis on action and adventure than historical accuracy, it's still a fun movie to watch that can help give some historical facts along the way.

Related Links:

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

15 Religion Quotes from George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire

Today is the launch date of Smart Pop BooksBeyond the Wall (Amazon, BN), a collection of essays  from a diverse set of authors and fans about George R. R. Martin's modern classic, the Song of Ice and Fire series ... known to most people from the HBO series Game of Thrones (Amazon, BN).

Authors from the anthology have joined together to create a sort of "Extras" sampling on their various blogs to help promote the book launch. In this "An Event of Ice and Fire." Smart Pop Books is doing their part by making available the wonderful introduction by editor James Lowder:

This blog post will get updated later in the day to include links to some of the other Event of Ice and Fire links, once they get posted. For now, on to my extra offering...

Martin's Religiosity

My contribution to the volume is the essay "Of Direwolves and Gods," in which I make the argument that the gods of Westeros are not the ones we usually expect in a fantasy series, but ... well, perhaps this quote from the essay best sums up the thesis:
"In fact, the religions portrayed in A Song of Ice and Fire are reflections of the religions in our own world. They require a leap of faith, because the effects of belief are so intangible. The religions of Westeros claim to dictate absolute, perfect truths through imprecise, flawed institutions and beings--just like the religions we encounter every day."
During the research for the essay, I was very pleased to stumble upon this great Entertainment Weekly interview with George R. R. Martin where he discussed his own religious views, or lack thereof. He identifies himself as a lapsed Catholic, an atheist or agnostic. Still, he says "I find religion and spirituality fascinating," and that fascination has surely manifested at the rich religious diversity that shows up in his series ... as well as the diversity of religious viewpoints that are presented.

Martin's Religion Quotes

In addition to the interview, I also read all 5 volumes of the series, specifically with an eye toward highlighting any reference to religion. As such, I feel fairly well qualified to present an authoritative list of the best religion quotes from the series. Perhaps ironically, most of them are made by Lannisters. Many of these quotes, with some swaps of nouns and titles, could well apply in our own world.

Here they are, in sequential order of how they appear in the series (so you can stop if you want to avoid spoilers from later books):
  1. Catelyn had more faith in a maester’s learning than a septon’s prayers. - A Game of Thrones

  2. "The Seven have never answered my prayers. Perhaps the old gods will." - Samwell Tarlys, A Game of Thrones

  3. “If I could pray with my cock, I’d be much more religious.” - Tyrion Lannister, A Game of Thrones

  4. Almost a prayer . . . but was it the god he was invoking, the Father Above whose towering gilded likeness glimmered in the candlelight across the sept? Or was he praying to the corpse that lay before him? Does it matter? They never listened, either one. - Jaime Lannister, A Feast for Crows

  5. "The septons sing of sweet surcease, of laying down our burdens and voyaging to a far sweet land where we may laugh and love and feast until the end of days . . . but what if there is no land of light and honey, only cold and dark and pain beyond the wall called death?" - Maester Aemon, A Feast for Crows

  6. Lancel Lannister: "Will you pray with me, Jaime?"
    Jaime Lannister: "If I pray nicely, will the Father give me a new hand?"
    Lancel: "No. But the Warrior will give you courage, the Smith will lend you strength, and the Crone will give you wisdom."
    Jaime: "It's a hand I need." - A Feast for Crows

  7. Lancel Lannister: “My faith is all the nourishment I need.”
    Jaime Lannister: “Faith is like porridge. Better with milk and honey.” - A Feast for Crows

  8. “Death should hold no fear for a man as old as me, but it does. Isn’t that silly? It is always dark where I am, so why should I fear the darkness? Yet I cannot help but wonder what will follow, when the last warmth leaves my body. Will I feast forever in the Father’s golden hall as the septons say? Will I talk with Egg again, find Dareon whole and happy, hear my sisters singing to their children? What if the horselords have the truth of it? Will I ride through the night sky forever on a stallion made of flame? Or must I return again to this vale of sorrow? Who can say, truly? Who has been beyond the wall of death to see? Only the wights, and we know what they are like. We know.” - Maester Aemon, A Feast for Crows

  9. "Gorghan of Old Ghis once wrote that a prophecy is like a treacherous woman. She takes your member in her mouth, and you moan with the pleasure of it and think, how sweet, how fine, how good this is . . . and then her teeth snap shut and your moans turn to screams. That is the nature of prophecy, said Gorghan. Prophecy will bite your prick off every time." - Marwyn, A Feast for Crows

  10. "My own gods are the old gods, the gods of the North, but you can keep the red god, or the Seven, or any other god who hears your prayers. It’s spears we need. Bows. Eyes along the Wall." - Jon Snow, A Dance with Dragons

  11. "Give me priests who are fat and corrupt and cynical., ... the sort who like to sit on soft satin cushions, nibble sweetmeats, and diddle little boys. It’s the ones who believe in gods who make the trouble." - Tyrion Lannister, A Dance with Dragons

  12. The gods are mad. - A Dance with Dragons

  13. "The gods are blind. And men see only what they wish." - Tyrion Lannister, A Dance with Dragons

  14. "Prophecy is like a half-trained mule.... It looks as though it might be useful, but the moment you trust in it, it kicks you in the head." - Tyrion Lannister, A Dance with Dragons

  15. The Drowned God did not answer. He seldom did. That was the trouble with gods. - A Dance with Dragons

Sunday, June 24, 2012

5 Lessons From Disney/Pixar's Brave

The new Disney/Pixar film Brave is a powerful film. The overall plotline has been masterfully unspoiled from the previews, though I was able to deduce much of it from the general marketing push (specifically some of the Subway restaurant tie-in materials), but the title alone indicates at least one theme that will be prevalent in the film. I've done a more comprehensive (though still spoiler-free) review of Brave over at Black Gate magazine, but I had some other thoughts that I decided were more appropriate to share here.

As I watched the film, I found myself wishing I had a daughter, so I could instill some of the values being shown in the movie into her. Alas, I have only the two sons, but still most of these values are important for them to understand as well.

1. A girl can be a hero

Disney has frequently had strong, courageous female characters over the years. Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana (The Princess and the Frog), and Rapunzel (Tangled) were all female leads, and certainly other films featured independent female characters who stood up to traditional gender stereotypes and roles, like Jasmine from Aladdin.

However, in all of these cases, these strong, independent women were tied closely to their male counterparts and romantic partners. (Mulan might be an exception, but I can't recall if there was a romantic subplot, because I haven't seen that film since it was in theaters.) The heroic climax is often one that is resolved primarily by the male character or, at best, jointly shared between the romantically-entangled couple. It is, after all, Prince Eric, not Ariel, who finally dispatches Ursula. It is the Beast, not Belle, who kills Gaston. (Belated spoiler alert ... but, honestly, if you haven't seen these movies, you shouldn't be reading this post.)

Brave completely throws that model out. The conflict that drives the entire film is that the princess Merida is supposed to get betrothed but doesn't want to. 

No, it's not just that she's unsatisfied with the suitors. 

No, she has not secretly fallen in love with a street rat peasant instead. 

She's just more interested in other things and wants to wait to find love later on in life. Basically, this is a girl who has more important shit to do than marry some guy ... like, you know, become a kick-ass archer and swordfighter!

The climax of the film rests squarely on Merida's shoulders. Well, okay, Merida does share some of the burden in the climax ... but it's with her mother, Queen Elinor, not with any of the male characters. In fact, Merida's father - the only significant male protagonist - is a major antagonist at that point in the film!

Hands down, it is Merida and Queen Elinor who are the heroes of Brave.

2. Legends are lessons that ring with truth

This is a line that gets repeated a couple of times throughout the film and I think has a lot of merit. It's not that legends are true, but that they have the ring of truth about them and they teach us something. For me, this resonates with my own view over the last few years, as I have begun to realize that spirituality contains certain valuable truths even though the legends surrounding spiritual traditions are not something I can lend any factual credibility to. Brave presents a third option, which is to respect the lesson of the legend without embracing it as fact.

Frankly, if the lesson is valid, then whether or not the original story is factual becomes somewhat unimportant.

Of course, the nice resonance of this quote is that it helps solidify Brave itself as a legend, since it is a lesson that rings with truth.

3. Loving parents are sometimes wrong

This is not to say that sometimes parents are evil or malicious. That lesson was taught in the stories of Snow White and Cinderella. (Yes, I know, they were step-parents, but still...)

No, in this film Queen Elinor (Merida's mother) loves Merida immensely, but she is also deeply wrong about the course upon which she believe her daughter should be travelling. She goes to great lengths to thwart and dismiss Merida's desires, to chastise her for even having desires in the first place, and really steps over the line by trying to destroy one of Merida's most prized possessions out of anger. As a parent, this is an extremely well-handled scene and resonates with frustration we've all felt, but it also sets Merida up for a very realistic rebellious response ... and another related lesson.

4. Rebellious teenagers are sometimes really wrong

In response to her mother, Merida seeks out a magical resolution to her problem ... and things go out of control. She acts out of anger and frustration without considering the consequences or getting a full understanding of the events that she's going to set in motion. She's a pissed off teenager looking to seize control of her own life and defy her mother by any means necessary. What could possibly go wrong with that plan? Well, I can't tell you without spoiling the film.

5. Reconciliation comes from setting aside pride, admitting your mistakes, and forgiving completely

The final lesson is general enough that I don't think I'm giving away anything about the plot by saying that this is the key lesson of the film. It is, in a sense, its own from of bravery, which ties it back into the film's title. The climactic scene, in which this lesson manifests, is entirely predictable from the moment you realize what's happening, but it's also incredibly emotional. The three adults in my group (including me) teared up during it, despite the fact that there really wasn't any question about how things were going to unfold! It was, in the words of my wife, a "classic."

It was, in short, a legend ... a tale of mothers and daughters, the battles they fight, both against each other and united together.

Related Articles:

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Why Conservatives Should Support Marital Equality

Social conservatives are absolutely right when they claim that marriage is a central institution in our society and deserves to be protected. Marriage is important. In fact, I argue that the decision of who to spend your life with is too important to be left to religions.

The case for marital equality is not about "legitimizing" a homosexual lifestyle, any more than accepting a Jewish marriage is about "legitimizing" a Jewish lifestyle. Even a conservative who believes that God has commanded against homosexuality should recognize that the issue isn't religious ... it's a case of individual liberty. Conservatives should embrace this draw-back of intrusive government power into one of the most personal of decisions.

My Secular Wedding

My fourth wedding anniversary is in one week. In 2008, I became a husband and father. The picture on the right is from that day, when we became a family.

That almost did not happen ... at least if certain religious people had their way.

We had two different top choices of ministers to marry us and neither of them would do it. One, a high-school friend of Amber's, refused because we were "living in sin" at the time. Our second choice was the lead pastor at the evangelical church that we attended semi-regularly. We didn't even bother to ask the minister there. Amber's first marriage, 5 years earlier, had been there and she knew the hoops that they'd had to jump through. This church only performed marriages if both people testified that they had been "baptized in the Holy Spirit" (whatever that means), and she knew that there was no way I'd say that I had been.

Based upon two separate religious definitions of marriage, our family didn't make the cut.

Imagine, for a moment, how that feels. How would it feel to have your own church decide that you were not fit to be married within it? To decide that your family cannot be formed, because you don't fit the nice formula that they have outlined for how families should come into existence?

For someone who was just at that moment beginning to have an affinity for living a religious life, who was transitioning somewhere on the spectrum from militant Agnostic to skeptical Seeker, this was enough to make me once again feel my old resentments against religious authority. For my wife, things were even worse, as she had been raised to love God and Jesus and to accept religious authority as absolute. The religious rejection turned her heart away from the church far more than mine. I expected the church to disappoint me; she expected it to save her.

Jesus was all about taking broken thing and making them whole. And, really, that's what marriage is, in a religious context ... taking two broken, imperfect individuals and making them into a whole that is greater than the sum of the individual parts (though still imperfect). Though I'm no Biblical scholar, I do have a hard time picturing a scenario where a couple come to Jesus and ask whether they should be married, whether they should bond their lives together in love, and he tells them no, because one or both of them hasn't lived up to his moral virtues.

Still, that's what happened to us.

Defending the Rejection

Now, let me be clear before I proceed: These two ministers absolutely had the right to set their own rules about who they will or will not marry. If a minister doesn't want to marry people who are living in sin, that's fine. No religious official should ever be forced or pressured into performing a marriage that they do not believe is sanctified by their religious office.

Nor, for that matter, do I believe that in either of these cases was the decision personal. From what I can tell, both of these ministers like me as a person and, whether or not they believe I'm going to Heaven or Hell, treat me with every measure of respect and dignity in every interaction with them. I consider them both to be friends.

But, the fact is that neither of their religious convictions would have allowed them to marry us.

Fortunately, that's where the government comes in ...

Government to the Rescue

It turns out that the government of the state of Indiana doesn't make religion the defining requirement for a marriage. No state does, in fact. (You might be surprised to learn that if you've been following the heated political discussions about the definition of marriage).

Rather than hunting around for a church that wasn't so picky, we decided to just go to the courthouse and get married. Amazingly, given much of the political rhetoric these days, the government actually performed a useful function.

And now we are married. In fact, I don't imagine that anyone would really argue with the definition, despite where the marriage were held. If, for example, I decided that I wanted to walk away from the marriage, I doubt that Amber's minister friend - the one who refused to sanctify our wedding - would suddenly say, "Well, you know, she doesn't deserve any portion of the house. You were living in sin at the time and got married by a judge. That doesn't count as a real marriage."

It turns out that marriage is, in fact, always a secular institution in the United States, unless the individuals involved choose to make it religious. And, in that case, the individuals involved are the ones who get to choose which religion they want to involve, along with all the rules that religion may bring along.

We're so used to thinking of marriage as a religious institution that this realization may take a while to sink in, but I can actually prove that marriage isn't about religion. Consider the following two examples:
A Hindu couple is married in a Buddhist ceremony and obtain a valid marriage certificate, raise a family together for thirty years until the wife dies of cancer with the husband at her side through the entire course of failed treatment.
A Christian couple is married by a minister, but no marriage license is filed, and they break up a week later.
From a legal standpoint, which of these couples is really married? Which one qualifies for spousal benefits? Which one honors the values that social conservatives claim to hold so dear?

We all know the answer: In the United States, a legal marriage does not have to follow a religious definition.

Equal Protection

Now comes the unfortunate part, at least for social conservatives. Since marriage is not inherently a religious institution, religious arguments about how to define it cannot be the entire parameters of the debate.We have to look at the secular document at the heart of our democracy: the Constitution of the United States.

The Constitution makes no explicit mention of marriage, though there is the Full Faith and Credit Clause in Article IV, Section 1:
Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof. 
When interracial marriage was forbidden by state law, this clause was never invoked to force a state to recognize a marriage that was forbidden by their laws, but some people believe that it could be interpreted that way. Lawyers defending the constitutionality of gay marriage would use this argument. If supported, it would mean that a state which doesn't allow gay marriage would have to recognize a gay marriage from another state. Thus far, this hasn't been fully decided at the Supreme Court level yet. Still, this concern was the basic reason that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was enacted ... to define marriage as between a man and a woman for the purposes of federal law.

The reason for this is that, despite being completely absent from the Constitution, the federal government gives a lot of rights to married couples. The instant that you get married, you gain 1,138 rights, privileges, and benefits that are dependent upon that marital status.

However, DOMA and gay marriage bans in general potentially run afoul of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which stipulates that:
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
This "Equal Protection Clause" is significant, for two main reasons:
  1. Individual rights are also protected from the State, not just the Federal government. In the words of Judge Andrew Napolitano, if the federal government can't do it, the state government can't either (from an interview on The Daily Show).
  2. All persons within a jurisdiction are to be given the "equal protection of the laws," which has been the basis for much anti-discrimination legislation
And this comes back to my situation.

A gay couple would be told that churches won't marry them. They could eventually find a church that would marry them, but it wouldn't be a legal marriage. They would never have the legal recourse of going to the courthouse to get married. The secular law that protects the consensual marriage between me and my wife does not extend equally to a consenting adult gay couple.

Religion and Heterosexism

This is a clear inequality in how the law is implemented, based solely on who an individual falls in love with and wishes to marry. The question of whether or not homosexuality is a choice is, in my opinion, completely irrelevant to this discussion.

However, the basis of religious liberty is that individuals do choose what religious faith they wish to embrace and in what way. Christians cannot choose what the Bible says about homosexuality, but they do choose how they deal with the reality of a homosexual in front of them, based on their reading of the Bible. Is the choice about how to act based in the love that Jesus preached for all mankind or the condemnation that Paul seemed to reserve specifically for homosexuals?

The clear bias among vocal Christians is to choose the path of condemnation. Even many people who don't have any problem with homosexuality itself - such as people who have close gay friends - still believe that marriage itself is a religious institution that shouldn't allow homosexuals. They casually adopt a heterosexist viewpoint (as opposed to a homophobic one) because they believe that's their only option as Christians.

But it's not, no more than the only option for Christians is to tell women to remain silent within Church. Each Christian has the ability to choose their interpretations for themselves, without giving up their right to be called a Christian.

As Pastor Benjamin Dixon writes:
"When did homosexuality become the number one enemy of the church? Sure, the Bible says it is a sin: an abomination even. But the amount of hatred and bigotry that foments to the surface of the Christian church in regards to gay rights is astonishing. I can speak to this first hand. I preached against homosexuality with the same amount of fire-and-brimstone energy as any other preachers. Then one day, I grew up." 
"No other issue brings the church together more than our opposition to homosexuality. We are divided on abortion rights. We are divided on social justice. We are divided on race issues. But homosexuality, we all agree to hate with biblical zealotry...."

It's time for Christian Americans to grow up and stand up for freedom of marital choice. Our laws should reflect the reality which is now clear to those who are willing to open their eyes and see it. Legal marriage is a secular institution that is invested with certain legal rights, and as such those rights must be extended equally to everyone. The religious element of marriage is completely outside of the government's right to legislate.

Let's consider one last couple and whether or not they qualify as married:
A gay couple is married in Unitarian-Universalist ceremony. They raise a family together for thirty years until one dies of cancer with their partner at their side through the entire course of failed treatment.
Social conservatives are right. Marriage does mean something. It is important. In fact, it's too important to let any religious person tell you that the couple described above is not married.

There are tough choices to be made in our society, to solve the very real problems facing America in the coming years ... but whether or not two loving people should have their union protected is not one of them.

Related Articles:

Mother Jones - N.C.'s Amendment 1 Doesn't Just Screw Over Gay People
Gallup Politics - Half of American's Support Legal Gay Marriage
The Coffee Party USA - Andrew Sullivan on Marriage Equality and Obama's Landmark Statement Affirming It (with a great, emotion-charged audio clip)
God Is Not a Republican - For Every Christian that Opposes Gay Marriage
Rachel Held Evans - How to win a culture war and lose a generation
LiveJournal - When Same-Sex Marriage was a Christian Rite (Disclaimer: I am not vouching for the validity of this one, just thought it was interesting. I don't have the historical background to know if any of this is true.)

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

National Day of Reason: 5 Reasonable Books to Read

With two young children, I don't get a ton of time to read. My library (both the Kindle library and the physical one) is growing much faster than I have any hope of keeping track of. Listening to the occasional TED talk or podcast helps keep me up to speed but, often as not, it just makes me ache for time to get into the meaty topics that I'm not able.

So, in honor of today, the National Day of Reason, I'd like to present the top five reason-themed books that I'd like to read next.

Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion 
by Alain de Botton (Amazon, B&N)

This one's been sitting around waiting for me for a few months, ever since I saw Alain de Botton give a great TED talk and then listened to him on the Philosophy Bites podcast. This book seeks to engage religious thought in a more civil discourse than the slate of "new atheist" tirades that have come out in recent years.

His central thesis seems to be that far from being useless and backward, religions have developed a refined understanding of how human beings form communities, how they learn, and how they are motivated. Atheist and other secularists, in trying to avoid the negative trappings of religion, have also abandoned all of the good stuff that religion has gotten right.

This strongly resonates with my own life. Until about age 30, I had absolutely no interest in religion, except for the consideration of its historical role. However, just a few years back, I began attending church and found that it spoke to my personal needs in a way that was very unexpected ... by me as much, if not more, than anyone else. Who knew that religion could serve a functional purpose?

I can't wait to see if any of Alain de Botton's insights on the utility of religion mesh with my own life experience.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion 
by Jonathan Haidt (Amazon, B&N)

Following in the footsteps of the previous book, Jonathan Haidt also tries to understand both sides of the political and religious divide and foster communication instead of squashing it. He, too, gave a great TED talk (plus another one a few year back, actually) and also a Point of Inquiry podcast interview, regarding the central themes of his book.

It's an absolute truth about the human condition that we seem hard-wired to believe certain sorts of religious ideas ... but some people embrace this tendency and others fight against it. Haidt studies the causes for these differences and has found that liberals and conservatives (loosely defined) have different types of brains and embrace different sets of values to different degrees.

In this book, he has done his best to quantify those results in a way that's accessible to the general public. For example, conservatives value loyalty far more than liberals, while liberals are far more concerned with equality. Both groups care deeply about justice, though they define the concept in somewhat different terms, leading to significant disagreement about how to implement public policy.

These and similar findings seem like they may be crucial in really understanding the split in human thinking that causes so much conflict in the world.

The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas 
by Jonah Goldberg (Amazon, B&N)

I just learned about this book this morning, when I heard Goldberg interviewed on NPR. Though I didn't agree with all of his conclusions, I did enjoy reading Goldberg's previous book, Liberal Fascism (Amazon, B&N), so am very interested to read this one as well.

In this newest book, he seems to focus on how liberals use cliches to stifle debate ... and dissects what he sees as some of the more pervasive cliches. As the title suggests, he feels that this is cheating, and that the debate should take place to actually figure out which ideas win out. He lays the central idea out in the NPR interview:
"What you have often in American political discourse are appeals to cliches that steal territory, steal terrain unearned by argument. And all I want is an argument."
The book would no doubt be far better if it focused on how both sides of political discourse invoke cliches and catchphrases as a means of shutting down debate on an issue, stealing terrain that they haven't actually proven, but Goldberg is a conservative author so he seems to be focusing his arguments primarily at the left wing ... which is his prerogative, of course. As a conservative, he no doubt feels that the right wing has earned their terrain.

And, as he points out in the interview, he doesn't feel that the conservative catchphrases are taught in schools and universities with the same level of infallibility as the liberal ones. This is probably a pretty valid complaint, although ignoring the fact that they're taught at home and through repeated mantras on Fox News seems a bit disingenuous. I think there are a fair number of young conservatives who have received conservative cliches through osmosis over their lifetime.

I personally consider myself a centrist, but I do tend to agree more with the moral ideology of the left. Or, at least, I tend to disagree with it less. I consider left-wing ideology annoying and simplistic, but right-wing ideology is typically abhorrent to me, making me often stuck on the left wing by default. I'll be interested to see if I agree or disagree with Goldberg's dissection of the left's debate-killing cliches. The interview, at least, raised concerns that I agree with ... and which seem to be in line with promoting reason.

Irrelevant Note: On Barnes & Noble, the audiobook version of this is $72! What the hell is up with that? Does the audiobook involve Jonah Goldberg coming to your house to narrate the book in person?

Attack of the Theocrats: How the Religious Right Harms Us All -- and What We Can Do About It 
by Sean Faircloth (Amazon, B&N)

Sean Faircloth is a former member of the Maine Legislature who has since become the director of strategy and policy for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. He's also written a book about the disproportionate and unrelenting influence that religious people and movements have upon political candidates, officials, and campaigns.

Like several of the other books, I learned about this author when listening to a Point of Inquiry podcast, in which Faircloth discussed his book. The basic theme is that the role of government is to remain completely objective, staying out of religious matters entirely (or, at least, as much as it possibly can). Their role should be strictly to make sure that individuals are able to practice their religion without impediment from others, including the government itself ... not to actively facilitate any particular religion or religious approach.

Instead, religious officials have inserted themselves firmly into the political landscape to a degree that is damaging to the free exercise of political power. The population at large subsidizes religious activity on a massive scale through tax breaks that give religious work a place of priority over and above other sorts of similar charitable work, such as running a non-profit organization that serves community needs.

Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson 
by Jennifer Michael Hecht (Amazon, B&N)

This is an older book that has come up in my recommendations and which, frankly, I just can't pass up. I did look and it turns out the author also did a Point of Inquiry podcast interview, although this was a few years back when the book came out and I haven't listened to it. Still, the very notion of a historical look at the phenomenon of doubt seems intimately appealing to me.

It seems to me that doubt is one of the most important motivators of progress in our history. You cannot move forward if you aren't willing to question authority and that is, ultimately, the central component of doubt. Doubt is the foundation of any application of reason, so understanding it is crucial.

Other books of interest: