Human Costs

And Maid in America joins the very short list of movies that have brought me to the verge of tears. Grave of the Fireflies is the only other movie I remember which has managed to do that. (There might be more such examples from my childhood, but those are the only two recent examples.) I mean, a lot of movies try to get you to empathize with the main characters, so it's not like those two movies are special in that regard. Perhaps the best way to put it is that those two really succeeded.

Immigration policy, of course, has become one of the particular wedge issues in American politics. There's a large contingent of politicians, mostly those on the right wing, who argue quite passionately that we can't let people "get away" with entering this country illegally, and oppose any hint of measures that would open our doors wider or recognize any of the undocumented immigrants in this country today.

Likewise, foreign policy is and will almost certainly remain a major point of contention. There are those who want to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons by any means necessary, including military action, and would happily engage us in yet another undeclared war on a foreign country in support of that end.

If there is one thing that never seems to enter the discussion, at least not from those people who support hard-line stances on immigration or foreign policy, it is the human cost of the policies they advocate. What those two movies did, and did well enough to drive me almost to tears, was to illustrate that human cost in a way that is impossible to ignore.

What I remember from watching Grave of the Fireflies is a picture of two kids caught up in the bombing of the city of Kobe, who lost their family and were forced to survive on their own in the end. What I saw today watching Maid in America was a picture of families torn apart and people struggling to do right by themselves and their children, confronted with a system which offers them no protection and indeed constantly threatens them.

I have my own opinions, on immigration policy and on foreign policy. I have my own opinions on World War II. But in the end, none of those are truly relevant here. Whether you think we should or should not offer amnesty, whether you think we should or should not have firebombed Japanese cities in the Second World War, we cannot ignore the fact that these decisions will affect millions of people.

Argue what you will, and I will agree or disagree as I choose. All I ask is that you do not ignore this one simple fact: that these policies and decisions carry their own human costs, and will have a real effect on actual people.


A Conversation on Capitalism (with the Tea Party)

I keep track of the movements of my school's Tea Party club, for two reasons. One, because it's good to know what the other side is actually arguing, so as to avoid making strawman arguments, and two because my appetite for political debate has been growing recently. As a result, I ended up finding this article on the Tea Party Tribute website, about the morality of free market capitalism. If you'd rather not read the whole article, I think this about sums it up:
Free market capitalism is morally good because of its respect for freedom, hard work, perseverance, and creativity, in addition to preserving the property rights that are so vital to individual freedom. As a philosophy that denies limits, a free market optimistically grows the individual power of success and liberty to the benefit of the entire world.
I tried to post a comment on the article, but the Tea Party Tribune admins have their site set up so that comments have to be approved before they appear publicly, and given the fact that my comment has since vanished from their site, I'm assuming that that approval was denied.

I bear them no grudge for that. Certainly, I cannot claim the right to control this space without also acknowledging their right to control theirs. Of course, as I do control this space, I can do things like post the comment I created here on my blog, so that people can judge for themselves whether or not it was worthy of deletion and possibly start a conversation on the merits and disadvantages of free market capitalism here, instead.

So, without further ado! Keeping in mind that the following text is a direct response to this article, so it might not make a whole lot of sense out of context. The last paragraph of my response (the one that starts with "in a more general sense") relies much less on that context, so you might want to skip to it if you haven't read the Tea Party Tribune article.
Your examples are an interesting commentary on capitalism's advantages versus disadvantages. Particularly, I find it highly interesting that you talk about transportation, especially given that railroads are a particular pet peeve of mine, and because I think transportation is a field in which capitalism is particularly ineffective and indeed potentially harmful. What happened in 1873 is one thing, and it makes the perfectly valid point that government-run systems are more vulnerable to waste (although, that doesn't mean they're always more wasteful).

If we look at the situation today, though, I would argue that capitalism is not going to be promoting any collective good as far as efficient and cheaper public transportation is concerned. What the U.S. railroad system needs today is damn near a complete overhaul - new tracks laid, among other things, to support the full effectiveness of a true high-speed system. Despite the public good that such a rail system could provide, I seriously doubt any private company would be able to provide one, given the massive amounts of start-up funding required and the lack of any immediate return. In this case, public funding is likely going to be necessary to at least kick-start that, just as public funding is necessary to maintain the highway system and the air traffic control grid.

In a more general sense, capitalism does not directly promote the benefit of the entire world. Capitalism rewards behavior that creates profit. When behavior that creates profit ends up benefiting the entire world, capitalism produces a positive result. When behavior that creates profit ends up harming the general good, though, or when behavior that promotes the general good doesn’t create profit (as I addressed above with transportation), capitalism ends up harming society as a whole. For that reason, I believe that capitalism is best when tempered by reasonable regulation and when accompanied by public programs that provide valuable public services that a purely capitalistic system would never support.


Framing the Health Care Debate

So Paul Krugman recently wrote about the health care reform enacted by Obama that's become such a major issue. Given that Krugman specializes in economics, of course, this particular editorial is more about the costs and the effectiveness of health care, both as it was and as it now is under the reform (for however long that lasts). Particularly, it addresses the inability of reform's opponents to make a solid economic case against the reform. I won't even bother quoting it, because you should just read the whole thing.

When I saw that on my Reader page, I was actually excited, particularly because of the timing. I had just gotten into an argument over health care reform over the weekend, and here's a Monday editorial on the issue, what luck! As I read the argument, though, I realized that it wasn't actually going to be of much help. You see, my earlier discussion on the matter hadn't framed it as an economic problem.

That is one way to frame the debate, of course - as a matter of economic policy, in terms of costs and benefits. That's the way a lot of issues have been framed lately by the right-wing, too: dear god, government spending is increasing so much! (It's actually not. As an aside.) And if that's how you want to discuss the matter, I direct you back to that editorial that I opened this post with; certainly I do not have the ability or the knowledge to competently make an argument on those terms.

Another way to frame the debate, though, and the version I encountered last weekend, is as a question of personal freedom. This is the genesis of the court cases making their way through the system, challenging the constitutionality of the individual mandate. This is the question that challenged me: don't I have the right not to buy health insurance? It was one that I was honestly unable to answer... well, until now anyway. We all know how it is about coming up with the perfect response long after the discussion's ended, right?

At any rate, my response is actually quite simple. Making it so that employers and insurance companies can deny certain types of coverage (or, as with the thankfully dead Blunt amendment, any coverage for any moral or religious reason) does not make me feel more free, it makes me feel more restrained. Making it so that I have to explain to employers why I need certain kinds of health care does not make me feel more free, it makes me feel more restrained. Making it so that I am at the mercy of insurance companies who can deny me coverage for whatever reason they damn well please does not make me feel more free, it makes me feel more restrained!

And the flip side? Telling me that I have to buy health insurance does not make me feel more restrained. It reassures me that, backed by the authority of the United States government, I will have health insurance, that I will be able to access those rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that I have been promised. It reassures me that the government is actually doing something about its charge to "promote the general welfare" instead of just punting the issue off to corporations that do not give a damn about my actual well-being, only the amount of money that I'm giving them.

In short? Perhaps there is a right not to buy health insurance. (It's worth noting that in the ACA, even though there is a fine for those who ignore the mandate, no criminal action or liens can be imposed on people who don't pay.) But there are no completely unrestricted rights. And the right not to buy health insurance cannot and should not take precedence when it will end up restricting others' access to the same.


A Weekend in the Old Republic

Since Star Wars: The Old Republic was running a free trial period over the weekend, I figured that there was very little for me to lose. Well, okay, there might be some financial cost involved if their marketing tactic does end up sucking me into the game, but that matters less than you might think. I mean, I played both KotOR games, and I'm actually kind of curious to see what exactly a story-driven MMO looks like.

Unfortunately for BioWare, the restrictions placed on the free trial are what I'm remembering right now. Could someone explain to me how I'm supposed to play a social game when I'm locked out of all the general chat channels and can only reply to other people's whispers rather than send my own?

I mean, there are specific quests that are designed to be undertaken by a group of people, which is kind of interesting. They could afford to make it a little clearer that "HEROIC 2+" means "group quest", because I feel like the game never bothered to try and explain that, but it wasn't too hard to determine. Thankfully I did so by realizing that the enemy corpses were higher level than I was (someone must have just recently cleared that area out), because if I had tried to fight it probably wouldn't have gone well.

Unfortunately, I then proceeded to turn around and ignore those quests for the rest of my time with the free trial. Mostly because I simply felt I had no way of effectively talking to people about possibly grouping up for those quests. I suppose "say" and "yell" weren't locked, but those are both location specific and not really used for group setup.

I mean, the game was fun. I like the conversation mechanics; obviously there are never enough options to precisely get across what I feel like my character wants to say, but that's always going to be a problem with this kind of game. As with any other Star Wars game, your choices affect your alignment as far as the light side or the dark side is concerned, although I think some of the choices are kind of strange.

It is possible to be light-aligned as an Empire player, and I presume the reverse (dark-aligned Republic) is also possible. Of course, this means that there have to be conversation options for that. In one quest, one character in particular appealed to me by saying that he was working for the Empire to ensure that they had sufficient medical supplies for the troops, in an effort to stop me from doing something, and I could tell him to screw it (dark side) or agree with him (light side). This presented a problem for my character, who is pretty strongly dark-aligned, but is that way because she believes in the Empire - she's patriotic, effectively. I found it interesting that the choice that would assist the Empire's military might - this is the Sith Empire, the evil horde of darkness we're talking about - ended up being tagged as a light side choice.

Anyway, combat itself was honestly nothing interesting. I've played MMOs before, and this didn't break any major ground there. It was interesting to have a cover mechanic that was pretty much central to the way my character fought, and it affected my actions mostly because I tried to sneak around and fight from cover... but in the end it boils down to slamming on the number keys as soon as abilities come off of cooldown.

Can't really say whether or not I'm going to buy into this or not, honestly. Since I stopped playing Dark Age of Camelot years ago, MMOs haven't really been a thing for me, and I think it's telling that the biggest lure for me in The Old Republic is the storyline - the one part of the game that relies the least on interacting with other players is what catches my attention. Everything that makes the game an MMO was either solidly average or effectively inaccessible to me... and if I want a single-player experience, there are plenty of options that don't involve handing money to BioWare every month.

It's a perfectly solid game, but with a game that I have to pay a monthly fee for, I don't know if that quite cuts it. We'll see whether or not being unable to play the game ends up being unendurable.


The Nature of Piracy

The link a few days ago to Jim C. Hines's blog was the closest I really wanted to come to saying something about the Oatmeal and that site's recent comic about pirating the Game of Thrones TV show. Then this happened. Particularly this one paragraph (emphasis mine):
Many of them based their retort on the fact that Game of Thrones would ship from Amazon on March 6th and I just needed to wait longer. Truth be told, the show started airing almost 40 weeks ago -- I just happened to publish my comic right around the corner from when it was being released on Blu-ray. 40 weeks is a long time to wait. The sentiment that we pirate because it's easier not because we're thieves still rings true; Game of Thrones just happened to be an untimely example.
To me, arguing that timing has anything to do with it is very much a specious course of argument. Yes, it's been the better part of a year since the show started airing, on April 17th, 2011. And yes, I can imagine that that kind of wait would factor into any decision that one would make. I know this in part because I've faced the same decision.

As I've mentioned, my favorite anime series is Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha. A movie, one that I had been almost intensely looking forward to, began airing in theaters on January 23rd, 2010. I was not in Japan at the time and had no ability to watch the movie, short of looking for pirated copies, until the (Japanese) DVD release on November 26th of that same year. To make a long story short, I did not watch the movie until the day of its DVD release, when I bought a copy of the DVD and watched that. (I was in Japan at the time. To date, there is no American DVD release of the movie, although the Japanese DVD has English subtitles.)

Or, take Puella Magi Madoka Magica, one of the best new magical girl shows. That began airing on the 6th of January, 2011, running until April 21st. (Its run was delayed slightly in the aftermath of the earthquake, as an aside.) The American DVDs are just now releasing - the first released on Valentine's Day this year, and the entire run won't be available on DVD until June, if I recall correctly. As of this moment, I still have not watched the entire series.

I bring up these examples not to denigrate the Oatmeal's choices, but to emphasize my own personal experience in similar situations. 40 weeks is a long time to wait, and it certainly would be easier for me to pirate these shows rather than continue to wait. I can respect that for many people, the primary factor in their decision does have to do with that ease of access - the idea that these people are mustache-twirling super-villains out to suck all of the money out of HBO's or Aniplex's coffers is ridiculous.

All the same, the defense doesn't ring true. Because regardless of the reasons behind it, choosing to pirate the series is in the end a choice to become a thief. Saying that you were acting as you did for the sake of easier access is a mitigating factor, but it is not a defense and does not change the fundamental facts of the situation. As a result, what I want to see from the Oatmeal and from the people that pirate shows is not this kind of evasion, not the "we're really not thieves, honest!" line of argument.

I direct you back to Jim C. Hines: Own. Your. Choice. Take responsibility for your decision, whether that decision was to wait or not to wait, to pirate or not to pirate. I will not outright condemn you for choosing either one, but I can have little respect for someone who refuses to admit to themselves the nature of their actions.


Consequences for LulzSec

Hey look, consequences!
According to the FBI, the head of LulzSec, known online as Sabu, is really Hector Xavier Monsegur, a 28-year-old father of two from New York. And apparently, as a report from Fox News states, he's been informing on LulzSec since being caught last June.
The Fox News report itself is here. If you would prefer news from the New York Times, that is also available.

Personally, I very strongly disapprove of actions like those from LulzSec and Anonymous. I mean, seriously, hacking into PBS's website because a program that the network aired was overly negative to Wikileaks? Setting aside the fact that reasonable people will probably still be able to disagree over the value and effectiveness of Wikileaks (we'll come back to that in a bit), and setting aside even the actual content of the program itself, there are ways to make that kind of displeasure known that don't involve committing illegal acts. Especially if you have ties to the communications network that is Anonymous, or the site designed to make information publicly available like Wikileaks!

This, of course, ignores any of the other LulzSec-led hacking attempts during its short time in the public eye, such as those against Sony, Nintendo, or BioWare. I don't even see a point to any of those. Is there one? Am I just not paying enough attention?

What annoys me most are the legions of people that rush to the defense of these groups; there are some examples in the comments on the New York Times piece. There are two closely related main threads to focus on: the "what about the government and/or Wall Street's crimes" angle and the "these people are heroes" angle. (Usually, they're heroes because they expose the depredations of the government or of Wall Street.)

For the former, I will repeat the same damned line that no one seems to fully understand yet: the existence of greater crimes does not mean that lesser ones vanish. Saying "but this is worse!" merely redirects the conversation, and in no way answers the question that started it.

The question that started it, then - are they heroes? No. Not even slightly. Hackers such as LulzSec are at best vigilantes, doing whatever they damn well please in defense of whatever morality they can justify themselves with. And as it stands, carrying out such actions - anything from hacking a corporation's server to revealing classified information - is illegal, and rightly so. I tend to believe that there are things the government keeps secret for a reason, after all.

If you disagree? By all means, reveal the secrets, take whatever action you believe is necessary in defense of information that the public needs to know about, and let the rest of the world judge for themselves whether you were right or not. Frankly, all you're doing is replacing the government's judgement with your own, and hoping that the rest of us will agree with you rather than said government. Regardless of who comes out on top, though, such action is and will remain illegal, and part of making the decision to reveal such information anyway should be accepting that there will be consequences for that action.

In short, as one of my favorite authors said in regards to piracy (which is in many ways a similar phenomenon): own your choice. Right now, LulzSec's leaders are facing the consequences for the decisions they've made. Had they not been willing to accept that when they carried out their first hacking operation, they never should have started it in the first place.


Transportation and Affordability

So it's kind of important that you be able to pay for the basic costs of living. And there are a lot of people out there that can't, as an aside - but problems of poverty aren't what I'm looking at today. You see, even if you take a family with a house and a steady job, we still need to be asking whether or not that family is able to afford that house and that lifestyle. And I just found a new website to play with that looks into some of those questions.

Particularly, it plays into my political pet peeve - transportation and infrastructure. Apparently, housing is considered affordable if it consumes less than 30% of a family's household budget. (I had not known this before.) That said, though, the next largest expenditure for most households is transportation. I can agree that most people don't really think about it - fill the car up with gas when it gets empty, and fix it if it breaks. Right?

Shockingly, that's surprisingly inefficient. It's quite educational to examine the maps they've created, adding transportation costs to housing costs and comparing that to 45% of a household budget. Taking transportation costs into account generally decreases the amount of area marked as "affordable", but oddly enough, there's usually a core of "affordable" territory in the inner city - this is true of Boston, D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, and New York at the very least. This despite the fact that housing usually costs more, not less, within the city as opposed to out in the suburbs. You don't think that this would have anything to do with intelligent city design (walkability) and access to effective public transportation such as subways and commuter rail lines, do you?

But surely we should keep building highways, upgrade our national air traffic control network, and spend money basically on everything except the things that make that affordable core possible. Never mind that trains (to a greater extent than almost anything else) rely on a large number of people using them to be cost-effective, and that we have to make them effective before people will use them in large numbers. Nope, we'll just keep building the U.S. so that you have to drive or fly anywhere you want to go, and complain that trains are getting special favors when anyone dares suggest trying to upgrade that aspect of our transportation network.

And maybe when that entire damn map is blue (that is to say, marked "not affordable"), we'll figure out that we've royally screwed over our national infrastructure.