Throwing the book at the problem of poverty

The concept of ‘spending money to make money’ seems to elude many people. When the stimulus came up in the United States (and to a lesser extent here in Canada), people were outraged. “Isn’t that just like a liberal to try and spend their way out of a problem? Spending is what got us in this problem to begin with!” Ignoring for a moment that the question of ‘spending on what‘ is rarely addressed (except by libertarians, to their credit), this complaint still suffers from a central flaw.

If you’re on a motorcycle 3/4 of the way down a ramp that faces a yawning chasm, you might be tempted to throw on the brakes. The problem with that strategy is that your momentum is likely to carry you over the edge of the precipice, where your lack of speed will kill you. Sometimes, paradoxically, you have to pick up speed to clear the gap. That’s when you can think about braking. It’s not a complicated concept, but it seems to elude many people.

What very rarely gets discussed, however, is the cost of not doing anything. To put a point on it – anyone reading my post this morning might have found the admonition to spend money on improving education and infrastructure to be nothing but bleeding heart liberal nonsense. “Where are you going to find the money?” say our ‘fiscal conservative’ friends. It’s a question that’s actually easier to answer than you think: [Read more...]

Banner vote reminder

If you haven’t yet, don’t forget to include your vote for the new banner. Some people are ranking them, others are giving 1 or 2 favourites. Whichever design gets the most support will become the new banner for this site. FYI – to the best of my knowledge, I can’t use more than one (but if that ever changes then I will certainly do that).

Go vote!

The inherent racism of “Tough on Crime”

I’ve talked about the need for diversity before, as a way of making policy more effective. When you have a plurality of voices articulating their position, you stand a better chance of hearing new ideas. Diverse groups may be more unwieldy, but they are far less limited in scope than homogenous groups because a variety of perspectives are providing input. There is another reason why diversity is important though: it makes us less stupid. Because any in-group is going to subject to its own biases and privilege, the inclusion of diverse voices helps safeguard a movement from being self-serving, or worse, inadvertently harming another group.

It is fairly clear, based on this response, that the Prime Minister’s Office did not have a particularly diverse group building their absolutely moronic crime bill:

A University of Toronto law professor says a new federal crime bill chips away at sentencing provisions that require judges to consider all reasonable alternatives to jail. This, said Kent Roach, will only increase the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system.

“We’re going to have a future where one in every four people in prison are aboriginal,” he said. “And we’re going to have a future where perhaps more aboriginal people are going to go to jail than to university.”

Nearly half of the inmates in some Canadian prisons are Aboriginal people. That’s despite the fact they make up less than three per cent of the general population.

So, funny story. It turns out that when you take away the ability of judges to… well… judge, they also lose the ability to factor in the causes of crime and the best interest of not only the criminal defendant, but society at large. Poverty and crime are inherently linked. Not all crimes, to be sure, are caused by poverty. One would have to stretch the definition of ‘poverty’ pretty thin to claim that Bernie Madoff was impoverished, but the types of violent and property crime that the omnibus crime bill are supposedly targeting is linked to poverty. [Read more...]

Warning: this story is full of win

Sometimes the stuff I blog about gets me pretty down. There’s a lot of ugliness in humanity, and a lot of things to despair about. The ever-persistent stain of racism, rampant and unabashed misogyny, the easy lies of conservatism… it’s enough to wring a tear from even my stony gaze, and I have to reach for my supply of otter pictures.

Then again, sometimes a story comes along and completely cheers me up:

Poland’s first transsexual member of parliament has been sworn in, in what has traditionally been a socially conservative country. Fifty-seven-year-old Anna Grodzka was previously a man, known as Krzysztof, before having surgery in Thailand.

Okay, that’s pretty cool. Poland has made a progressive milestone by electing someone who, no matter how qualified, would not have been able to serve in office a generation ago. That’s pretty cheering. But wait, there’s more… [Read more...]

Sunlight: the best disinfectant

When I started this blog, I wasn’t anti-police. I saw police as a necessary part of society, with individual officers being basically decent people who react badly when the chips are down, due to over-work and high-stress jobs. My view of individual officers hasn’t changed much, but as I learn more I have begun to see that there is much more to the picture.

The beautiful thing about science is the peer review process. I am not simply referring to the formal process that happens when you submit a manuscript for publication, but the climate of collegial over-shoulder-reading that is de rigeur for the discipline. Scientists do not research in a vacuum – we present our findings at conferences, we discuss them at professional meetings, and of course there are publications. In so doing, not only do we ensure that we learn from each other, but we stand a much better chance of catching each other’s mistakes.

Not so for police – the attitude from various police departments is one of insularity, croneyism and unflagging loyalty, regardless offense. This attitude is perhaps on no better display than in the following tragic story: [Read more...]

It’s a banner day!

There is a famous biblical passage that reads: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” Whether or not that’s true in general (spoilers: it isn’t), it is certainly true in the case of my request for a new banner for the blog. I have been overwhelmed with the level of creativity and generosity demonstrated by the readers here, and you have the most sincere thanks that I can muster from my godless, soulless core. I have boiled down the multitude of submissions to 5 of my favourites: [Read more...]

Crommunist joins a cult (part II)

In which our hero continues his narration of attending a workshop for a self-help program. Read Part 1.

What if everything you ever wanted… came in a ROCKET CAN? Okay, so this presentation wasn’t quite as entertaining as Powerthirst, but it amused me for the span of an evening. When we left off, the audience had just broken off into smaller groups to chat with the coaches.

What would you give?

The group discussion came back to the same central question that Mr. Vicente had kept posing, broken down into three (extremely leading) subquestions: 1) what would you like to achieve, 2) what would that accomplish for you, and 3) how much would you give up to achieve it? I call these leading questions because they prime you to accept that there is something on offer than can accomplish the transition from 1 to 2, in exchange for 3. [Read more...]

Skepticism in action: Crommunist joins a cult

Some times I have fun adventures. This is a story of one of them.

I have a friend (who I will call Valerie for the sake of clarity) who, although we get along quite well, I find to be a bit credulous. I’m sure if you asked her, she’d tell you that, although we get along well, she finds me simplistic and reductive and closed off to possibilities beyond what can be seen and heard. This is an unfair characterization, but rooted in a larger ignorance of skepticism that we are slowly resolving through good-natured chats whenever we get together.

Because I’m, well… me, Valerie calls from time to time to ask my opinion on various matters. Not because she thinks I’m particularly brilliant, but because I am in real life more or less how I am online – full of opinions. She also knows that, as a skeptic, I am quite adept at poking holes in things. It was in this spirit that she invited me to attend an open house at the life-coaching workshop she had been attending for a while. She thought that maybe I would learn something new, or that (more likely), I would sit like a curmudgeon and get into a fight with the speaker. I promised her that I would be open minded (which was a bit of a cheat, because she and I have very different definitions for that term).

And so it was that I found myself attending a workshop for the Executive Success Program, led by none other than director and film-maker Mark Vicente. Yes… that Mark Vicente.

Now I very rarely walk into a meeting like that without knowing anything about the speaker or the product being flogged, because part of my definition of being open minded is understanding what critics have said. Let’s just say that I almost changed my mind about going: [Read more...]

Oh, and there’s also this

I’m so forgetful. Sometimes I get so enamored of my own writing that important things slip my mind. The pragmatic argument is not the only reason I’m a feminist. There’s also the empirical one:

The SAT I is designed solely to predict students’ first year college grades. Yet, despite the fact that females earn higher grades throughout both high school and college, they consistently receive lower scores on the exam than do their male counterparts. In 2001, females averaged 35 points lower than males on the Math section of the test, and 3 points lower on the Verbal section. A gender gap favoring males persists across all other demographic characteristics, including family income, parental education, grade point average, course work, rank in class, size of high school, size of city, etc.

There are a number of pieces of evidence that suggest a systemic bias against women. I am familiar with dissecting these biases because they show up in the same kinds of places we find biases against black people. The pernicious thing about these kinds of non-obvious forms of sexism is that they have immense staying power. As the test causes women to underachieve, it means that fewer women are accepted into elite mathematics programs, which means fewer elite-level female mathematicians are produced, which means that math remains a “man’s field” for the next generation of students.

But it doesn’t simply stop at the SAT: [Read more...]