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Big Oil Price Gouging 22 May 2007

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Environment, Law/Courts, Politics.
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Moveon.org is reporting on a bill up for voting in the Congress to make petroleum price gouging a federal offense. I don’t mind having higher gas prices (we have incredibly cheap fuel in the U.S.), but I’d rather have the prices be because of taxes that go for maintaining roads and for research into alternative energies, etc., like other more civilized democracies. However, in the U.S., oil companies continue to increase prices for no good market reason other than that they can. Price gouging has been a common practice, and for an industry that has been making record profits for two years running, a bit of a mystery. This is why I can never be an economic libertarian: Some markets simply dont’ function on idealized supply-demand models, because the supply is controled by monopolies or because there is a captive demand. The oligopoly that controls petrol in the U.S. needs outside restriction to ensure fair market prices.

My preference would be for alternative, cleaner energy sources; but in the meantime, we need a regulation to prevent consumer gouging, which is already against the law in other areas, so why not oil too?

Here’s the text from the Moveon.org campaign letter, with references at the end:

As of yesterday, gas prices are the highest in U.S. history—we just passed the 1981 record, even adjusted for inflation.1 Prices could reach $4.00 per gallon in parts of the country, just in time to crimp summer vacation plans. As consumers suffer, the oil industry continues to reap the windfall—breaking profit records on an almost quarterly basis. It’s outrageous!

Enough is enough. Hearings start today on H.R. 1252, a House bill that would make gas price gouging a federal crime, punishable by 10 years in prison. Speaker Pelosi has said she’ll move the bill to a vote this week—if there’s the two-thirds majority required to fast track the bill through the process.2

Oil company lobbyists are frantically trying to stop the bill. Your representative needs to hear from you today. Will you sign our petition asking Congress to pass the price-gouging bill—and then send it to your friends?

“Gasoline price gouging should be made a federal crime before the summer price increases hurt more American families.”

Sign the petition:
http://pol.moveon.org/stoppricegouging/?rc=oil_petition&id=10387-7015053-oeq6HW&t=4
Rep Bart Stupak (D-MI), sponsor of the House bill said this of his motivation to introduce the legislation:

“In April … crude oil was $7 a barrel cheaper than last year (but) gas prices were almost 50 cents a gallon higher. Clearly there’s more at play than simply the world crude oil market.”3

In April, more than two-thirds of Americans reported that their gas bills were causing financial crunches, with a full third saying it was having a “serious” impact on their families.4

That same month, the top two US companies, Exxon-Mobil and Chevron-Texaco, announced a combined $14 billion in first quarter profits.5

It seems like even the oil industry has gone too far this time, and it’s time to balance the scales. The Senate passed a price-gouging measure out of committee last week, and the House bill now has over 100 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle.

The oil industry is nervous. They’ve sent their lobbyists to the Hill in full force to stop—or at least weaken—these bills, and they’re pulling out all the stops. The American Petroleum Institute, an industry front group of more than 400 oil and gas companies, even threatened that new laws could increase gas prices more.6

Enough is enough. This summer, we can stop Big Oil from profiting at the expense of American families. Can you sign the petition to ask your representative to make gasoline a price gouging a federal crime now?

Sign the petition:
http://pol.moveon.org/stoppricegouging/?rc=oil_petition&id=10387-7015053-oeq6HW&t=5
Don’t forget to pass it on to your friends—this week is an historic opportunity to send Big Oil a message that we’ve had enough.

Thanks for all you do.

–Ilyse, Natalie, Eli, Tom, and the MoveOn.org Political Action Team
Tuesday, May 22nd, 2007

Sources:

1. “U.S. gas prices jump more than 11 cents,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 21, 2007
http://www.moveon.org/r?r=2595&id=10387-7015053-oeq6HW&t=6

2. “Debate on [H.R. 1252], offered by Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak, D-Mich., will kick off Tuesday with a hearing in Stupak’s subcommittee. It is possible that an Energy and Commerce markup will follow. But Democratic leaders might opt to bring the bill up to the floor under suspension of House rules by Wednesday.”
Excerpted from National Journal’s Congress Daily, Monday, May 21, 2007

3. “Lawmaker Links Gas Prices to Investments,” Houston Chronicle, May 16, 2007 http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/ap/fn/4810598.html

4. “As Gas Prices Rise Again, Democrats Blame Big Oil,” Washington Post, May 11, 2007 http://www.moveon.org/r?r=2591&id=10387-7015053-oeq6HW&t=7

5. “Lawmaker Links Gas Prices to Investments,” Houston Chronicle, May 16, 2007 http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/ap/fn/4810598.html

6. “Lawmakers’ blood pressure rises with prices at the pump,” TheHill.com, May 17, 2007 http://www.moveon.org/r?r=2586&id=10387-7015053-oeq6HW&t=8

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The Stupity of Sex Laws in Texas 21 May 2007

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Democratic Theory, Law/Courts, Queer Theory, Sexuality.
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The world will never be the same without Molly Ivins. Watch, laugh, weep.

Hat tip to Ed Brayton.

Reclaim Your Right to Criticize Religion 15 May 2007

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Democracy, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Islam, Journalism, Religion.
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When will we get past this notion that public critique of religion is somehow discrimination or an abridgment of rights?  A religion’s truth claims are legitimate targets of inquiry and even ridicule. A religion’s actions are legitimate targets of judgment and moral critique. Are we really saying that the right to practice whatever religion you want to means that you are protected from being offended by people who disagree with you?

If free speech means anything, it must mean the right to vet the cultural practices, including religious, of those around us. Tufts university’s recent ruling on a newspaper ad criticizing Islam reveals the utter depravity of the misguided notion that religions must be protected in their practice and beliefs from outside criticism.

Meaning of Life, cont. 11 May 2007

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Biology, Cognitive Science, Modernity and Modernism, Mormonism/LDS Church.
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[A cyber-aquaintence posted some questions to my meaning of life post, and I thought it might be interesting to others who read my blog.]

What are examples of adaptive, maladaptive and spandrel meanings?

Well, it’s probably easier to speak in generalities, but here’s the skinny:

1) Humans are social animals, and like all social animals, our behaviors (or mode of interacting with the environment) are necessarily also always social.

2) Meaning must be understood as much more than the cognitive-linguistic explanation of something. We tend to think of “meaning” in terms of the dictionary: a discursive, linguistic representation of an idea. However, in social-behavioristic terms, language is merely a kind of behavior: so meaning becomes the whole set of circumstances, postures, consequences of a given behavior in a particular environment. We learn what something “means” not merely by hearing a dictionary definition of the thing, but by doing, observing, experiencing the thing. [Side note: Language is very cool because it allows us to experience something vicariously and abstractly, but the brain responses are the same as if we were directly experiencing it, which is why, for example, you get butterflies watching someone else jump out of a plane.]

so 3) adaptive meanings are those which, within a given environment (which remember is both physical and social) enable survival. There are some beliefs that only peripherally relate to the physical environment, but are key to survival in the social environment. Part of survival for a social species is successful interdependence in the social group.

Maladaptive meanings are those which inhibit survival and/or reproduction in the environment. And a spandrel is a meaning that is adaptively neutral.

Think of meanings as a kind of adaptation that persist or desist in the same dynamics as physical characteristics. If the environment changes, the meanings must adapt to the new enviornment. Adaptive could become maladaptive; a spandrel could become adaptive; etc.

There are a couple professors at UC Davis who have done a series of mathematical studies and have shown that human cultures have a balance of conservative and innovative thinkers within them. If the culture is too conservative, its members will fail to adapt to a changing environment; if a culture is too innovative, its members will adopt possibly maladaptive meanings in the wrong times and places. Cognitive scientists are finding that individuals tend to lean to one side or the other, and that both sides are necessary for survival. Evolution seems to favor slightly conservation, because our lifespan is so short and because when we evolved our environments were changing so slowly, that being more or less conservative culturally ensured survival: Once you find what works, you keep it.

Also remember a key part of evolutionary theory, which seems to also apply to culture/meanings: adaptation does not select for the best possible answer. Rather, it selects for the merely good enough. This seems to be true both biologically and socially.

And what’s the reader’s digest version of how you make that evaluation? Is it simply a matter of whether it’s constructive or destructive?

John Dewey argued that you make the evaluation based on outcomes. What is the consequence of believing such a thing (or doing such a thing) and is that the outcome you want? Then there’s the meta-level where you have to argue about what you *should* want in the first place (what kind of society/physical environment do we want to establish or maintain)? That, in simple terms, is the method of evaluation.

Finally, for Joseph Smith and True Believin Mormons nowadays (and I understand those are 2 vastly different mindsets from a social scientific or any other perspective) is the “meaning” of the plan of salvation simply an adaptive meaning to give “purpose” to life and give us comfort knowing that things are fucked up on earth but everything will be perfect in the next life (if you follow the rules of course)?

To answer this question, I would stand back and think about this scientifically. JS lived in a particular time and place in America, where there were many open questions and huge problems in the environment. The U.S. was still quite young, and it was not at all clear what it would mean to be free, what a democracy was, who was a citizen, who had power and who not, etc. Further, the older folk magic of the agrarian peoples (i.e., Smith’s magic hunting) was coming into direct conflict with the explosive 2nd Great Awakening and the increasingly influential Moral reform movements; so people all over rural America were unsure about their cultures, because there was conflict within the social environment. On a broad scale, the industrial revolution was causing major disruption to the social and economic lifeways of the entire nation, displacing 10s of 1000s of people and forcing them to radically change the way they lived their lives. I cannot understate the upheaval this caused during the first 100 years of America’s existence as a nation. Finally, even though it had been 200 years since the Euroepans had started colonizing north america, the question as yet had not been answered: Where does America fit in spiritually? is it the “city upon the hill” as the Puritans thought? And if so, what exactly does that mean? Combine all this with the growing ideas of manifest destiny and westward expansion, and you have a social and cultural environment rife with the need to be explained.

JS’s ever-changing mode of understanding Christianity and his place in it was both one man’s efforts to become powerful, and an entire people’s efforts to make sense of that world. JS was an innovator, in the terms I laid out above.

As it happens, mormonism was so outside the bounds of the environment as it was, they were harried to and fro for 75 years.

I think that contemporary mormons have carried into the present all those beliefs that still manage to fill in the wholes in the environments they live in, but it’s more complicated now: Mormons today have to survive in both the American social environment (they’re no longer isolated) and among each other. And all of these meanings are circulating again in a time of great upheaval, primarily in the form of massive technological changes and globalization, which have thrown into question every fundamental belief of every culture on the planet. TBMs reactions and retrenchments now are on the conservative side (although they are adapting at break-neck speed, as we see in the major doctrinal changes occuring in the past 25 years). Mormon belief systems are pretty adaptive in our current social environment: TBMs function mostly well in society, gain prominence in general (although not the presidency), are economically stable and reproduce at an alarming rate, both sexually and proselytically.

Naturalism and the Meaning of Life 11 May 2007

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Biology, Cognitive Science, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Religion.
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Many people who lose their religion or who through education have to radically change their world view find that they are afloat without mooring. The cognitive dissonance leads to a time of searching for something new. I read recently (can’t find the original, sorry) where a theologian said something to the effect that even if we know scientifically that there is no god, it doesn’t change the experiences that make us look for a god in the first place. We still experience awe, wonder, confusion, love in the face of our daily lives. What do those experiences mean?

One of the things that cognitive scientists always insist on is that we can scientifically understand the how and why of qualia (the phenomenological experience of sensing, thinking, feeling), but it doesn’t change the fact that they are qualia. In other words, we still have to figure out (because we have overly large brains) what the qualia *mean*. (I like Antonio D’Amasio on this point.)

I’m not an anti-reductionist, and I do not argue that the meaning discussions are or should be separate from the scientific ones. My social science is naturalistic (which is that social theory and research must account for the research and theory of other sciences (I would also argue the inverse, but since I’m not an ethologist, i have less of a stake in the inverse debate). But naturalism actually leaves us with that pesky problem of meaning:

The need for meaning is generated by our evolved brains and is an evolutionary adaptation that has made us the most successful (and dangerous) species on the planet. [Some argue that our need for cognitive meaning is an unintentional side effect (an evolutionary spandrel) of our cognitive, problem-solving, time-projecting brains).  So scientifically, we are beginning to understand why our brains need meaning and how our brains produce meaning; and social scientifically I can even explain why a particular individual or a group produces a particular meaning in a particular time and place. Combining social science with biology (biologists here need to take social science more seriously), I can even evaluate whether or not a particular meaning is adaptive, maladaptive, or a spandrel (i.e., neutral).

But I can’t use science to tell me what it *should* mean. On the other hand, I believe that scientific mindset can/must be used in our cultural conversations about what meanings we chose. In other words, we should be asking ourselves, what kind of world and society do we create when we believe X or Y? We have the ability as humans to evaluate our meanings and reject, modify or change them out. We need to do so more carefully. Since we know, for example, the general geological history of the planet and where it came from, our discussions of “god” must necessarily change. Etc.

Discussing the meaning of life is a defining characteristic of being human. Most of us settle on an answer early, usually adopted from our parents and society, and cling to it throughout our lives. The modern world, at least in industrialized societies, makes that incredibly difficult. Evolutionarily, it looks like our brains are designed to figure out what “works” in our environment and stick to it; changing world views is difficult, becuase having a world view that “works” in a given environment is adaptive.

The trick is finding the new meaning or adapting our old ones to our new knowledge of the world as it is, as that knowledge develops, in such a way that our lives still feel meaningful and fulfilling.

Brainwashing: Children and Religion 6 May 2007

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Democratic Theory, Documentary Film, Teaching.
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After watching the documentary Jesus Camp this afternoon, I was thinking about my strong emotional reaction to what I saw. Given what I’d read about the film and friends’ reactions, I had expected to be offended and disgusted. And indeed, I was actually embarassed by the weirdness of some of these people (the older woman with the cutout of Pres. Bush speaking in tongues was beyond freakish). But mostly I felt violated.

There’s a scene early in the movie with a young girl, around 7 or 8 years old, who is bowling with friends and family. As she tries to hit the pins, she prays to god to make it a good strike, and she “commands” the ball to do her will. Seeing this twisted my stomach in nots. I have vivid memories of believing that I had that kind of power, because I had faith.

The teachers used likely techniques to indoctrinate the children and to get them to believe: emotional activities designed to excite feelings, music and dancing, object lessons, rhythmic chanting, telling the kids that they are chosen and important, encouraging the children to profess their faith (not to mention to speak in tongues and heal), showing the kids models (inaccurate ones) of fetuses. But mostly it was the content of the teachings that disturbed me–a blatant manipulation of the emotions of a child.

Richard Dawkins has taken a lot of heat over the past year about the claim in his book The God Delusion that indoctrinating children into religion is a form of child abuse. It is hard to watch these kids talk about Americans as sinners who need chastening, or about how they are sinful for wanting to watch Harry Potter, just because it’s so silly. Or even more, the little bowling girl goes up to evangelize a woman at the bowling lanes, it’s painful to see the brainwashing in practice. But taken as a whole, the kids taling about why evolution is evil, and global warming isn’t true, and how they have to redeem america from Satan…it’s hard not to see this is child abuse.

I suppose it is my own discomfort with my own childhood, and the degree to which I had believed what I was taught. I realize mormonism is a different kind of religion from Evangelicalism, but many of the processes were the same. I have to wonder if my long, difficult journey to reshape my own world view and perspective would have taken so long had I not been indoctrinated in the way I was.

For me, the film raises again the question that may very well be at the center of democratic freedom: what rights do children have? Do they have the right to be raised free from their parents’ superstition? Is the kind of emotional, pyschological, and intellectual damage inflicted on children not a form of abuse? I believe that these parents are sincere in their beliefs and they truly want what is best for their kids. But is sincerity enough to justify what religion does to children?

Happy May Day 1 May 2007

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Democratic Theory.
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In the 21st century, the fight for justice in a capitalist labor market continues for the vast majority of the world’s people.

Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman

The Pullman Strike

The Pullman Strike

Haymarket Riot

The Haymarket Riots

Eugene Debs

Eugene Debs

Mother Jones

Mother Jones