Thursday, June 28, 2007

Oops, I guess I should have asked, will they pass it?

I spoke too soon. I guess that's what I get for hoping that the Congressional leadership could actually get this done. I'm referring to what I wrote about in my last post, "Will he sign it?". You see, the bill wasn't quite passed. It had to go back to the House, and ultimately be reconciled by the two chambers. And certain House members (i.e. John Dingell, not surprisingly a representative from Michigan), are trying to strip the bill of the provisions that will require increases in fuel economy standards.

I admit, this bill is not the "holy grail" that will ween the U.S. from its dependence on foreign and domestic petroleum to fuel its automobiles. And it would inevitably include pork in the form of subsidies for alternative fuels like corn ethanol or coal-to-liquid in order to wrangle together enough votes for passage. But I believe that requiring the vehicles on the market in the future to have better fuel economy than the vehicles on the market today is a good first step.

I disagree with those who think this will have no effect on consumption, like Randy Salzman. Mr. Salzman's argument is partially based on the anecdotal evidence that when he purchased a more fuel efficient vehicle, he started driving more often than he was before that, offsetting some or all of the benefit of the increased fuel efficiency. However, he's not arguing that he miraculously found new places that he wanted or needed to go to. He acknowledges that he "...opted to commute as much as possible on [his] bicycle..." beforehand. Most people are not commuting on their bicycle as much as possible now, so most people would not see the increase in driving that Mr. Salzman experienced. He also cites David Greene's “Estimating the Fuel Economy Rebound Effect for Household Vehicles in the U.S.” which may provide an argument that is not based on anecdotal evidence. I admit to not having read it, so I can't evaluate it.

I don't disagree with Mr. Salzman's argument advocating an increase in the gas tax, the revenues of which he believes should be put to use creating alternative transportation options. That also seems to me to be a necessary, though not sufficient piece of the puzzle. There is evidence suggesting that high gas prices have had a limited impact on people's behavior, primarily affecting their most discretionary behavior, such as traveling for vacation. Indeed as the article indicates, "[a] recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that gasoline would have to reach $4.38 a gallon before Americans would significantly cut back on their driving." I have encountered similar polling data in the past, albeit with a lower number as the "tipping point," which suggests to me that we should consider alternatives to just increasing the cost of driving...for example, increasing the fuel efficiency of the vehicles we drive.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Will he sign it?

In President Bush's last State of the Union address, he stated his desire to increase fuel economy standards for passenger cars. The Senate just passed a bill that would accomplish that goal, though in a manner different than what the President had been proposing. The House has also committed to these changes (in fact it was a House bill that the Senate passed, although an amended version), so it seems that the President will have something on his desk sooner than later.

Another less discussed component of this issue, though perhaps as significant in many ways, was the overhaul of the fuel economy estimates by the EPA earlier this year. Since the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards that are to be raised by the bill are based on the EPA estimates, the accuracy of the estimates is critical to ensuring the bill has the intended effect. Admittedly, the new EPA estimates still aren't where they probably should be, but they are no doubt better, and they promise a more significant impact than there would have been if the old methodology had been maintained.

So the question I have is, will he sign it?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Looking in the mirror

I just finished reading Into the Wild today. It's about a man named Christopher McCandless who had an upper-middle class upbringing in suburban Virginia. After graduating from Emory University in 1990 with near-perfect grades, he donated thousands of dollars of savings to charity, cut off contact with his family, and embarked on a cross-country trip. A little more than two years later he was found dead, apparently having starved to death, in the Alaskan woods outside Denali National Park. I'm not really giving away the story, since most of what I've just written is expressed by the author in the opening pages.

What struck me most were the similarities between McCandless and myself, particularly in terms of the contradictions he struggled with. Some of these qualities are not uncommon to be sure (i.e. not wanting to be told what to do), but the characteristics we may have shared run deeper than that. Despite his fierce independence, he struggled with the desire to both be alone and not lose out on the benefits of sharing intimate time with others. He rejected, on philosophical grounds, many aspects of "American life," but simultaneously excelled, and at times seemed comfortable, within that same institutional framework.

Part of what the author conveyed in the book regarded correspondence he had received from people who read a magazine essay on McCandless that was the predecessor of Into the Wild. Many people were harshly critical of McCandless's behavior, calling him reckless and incompetent. However, I would surmise that many of them would probably see similarities between themselves and McCandless if they took the time to look. In fact, most have probably engaged in similarly risky behavior and were lucky enough not to suffer the potential consequences, or perhaps they weren't courageous enough to act on their convictions and desires in the first place.

I don't condone the fact that McCandless made some unnecessarily risky decisions (decisions that under different circumstances may have put others in harm's way, and undoubtedly led to emotional despair for his family), but in the end he was pursuing his dreams in a way that most of us never do, and only he paid the consequences for it.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Is something wrong with this picture?

As a component of a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, the following two questions were asked of 1,007 adults:

1. Do you think that evolution, that is, the idea that human beings evolved over millions of years from less advance forms of life is definitely true, probably true, definitely false, or probably false?

2. Do you think creationism, that is, the idea that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years is definitely true, probably true, definitely false, or probably false?

Fifty-three percent of respondents replied to the first question that it was definitely true or probably true. And 66% of respondents replied to the second question that it was definitely true or probably true. I found this startling, not because so many people believe in creationism (I've seen polling data in the past with similar results in that respect). I was surprised by the fact that 25% ignored the law of noncontradiction.

I am aware that some who want to simultaneously accept certain conceptions of evolution and creationism will tweak the definitions of those terms to make them compatible (i.e. the six days of creation are metaphorical "days"). However, the definitions promulgated in the polling questions are mutually exclusive.

I am also aware that there is a school of thought that rejects the law of noncontradiction. However, I don't think 25% of the population has pondered Hegel's dialectics, which itself is in dispute.

Whatever one believes about evolution vs. creationism, I just don't understand why one would reject the intuitive concept that the same thing cannot both be and not be. We even have cliche sayings about it -- you can't have your cake and eat it too and you can't have it both ways. Maybe it's just me...

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Antichrist, bird vomit, horse crap...?

A few days ago, I was browsing's book section to see what the presidential candidates have written. I came across Hillary Clinton's book Living History, which was written a few years ago. I noticed that Amazon has a feature that allows customers to "tag" items they sell with terms that among other things, aid other customers in finding that item through a site search. The tags for Senator Clinton's book were viciously derogatory, some of which I've listed in this post's title.

I'm not a strong Clinton partisan or opponent. I believe Senator Clinton is an intelligent person and capable politician, some of whose policy positions and actions I support, and some that I oppose. While I certainly can understand someone taking a stronger stance than I do in opposition to her political activities, or even her personal life, I don't understand what engenders such strong, apparent hatred.

I suppose the most reasonable explanation would be that her opponents are angered by her voting record, or her political position as a liberal Democrat generally. While Senator Clinton's political actions have not always fit the "liberal" mold, some non-partisan analyses have indicated she is one of the more liberal members of the Senate. So I checked another book, written by John Kerry, another presidential candidate who by the same analyses I linked to above was similar in his "liberalness" to Senator Clinton. A Call to Service: My Vision for a Better America had one common tag with Living History, "crap," clearly not eliciting the same level of negative response. Perhaps, it is because Senator Clinton is a female, liberal Democrat. So I looked at a book written by Nancy Pelosi, probably the next most prominent female, liberal Democrat at the moment, and it didn't receive any tags at all.

Obviously, the little analysis of Amazon book tags that I conducted has virtually no epistemic value, for many reasons, not the least of which is that Amazon book taggers are not a representative random group, but it does make me question the dynamic that exists to promote such an emotionally charged response to Senator Clinton. It should be noted that she won her last Senate race with 67% of the vote, almost 12% more than in the previous race, so her detractors may be fewer in number once they learn more about her. Also, depending on which poll one looks at, Senator Clinton would be competitive with any of her potential opponents in a general election race. However, some polling indicates that her ceiling of support may be lower than most other candidates at this point in a presidential campaign. Hopefully, if Senator Clinton does become the Democratic nominee, the discourse in the mainstream will not devolve to the point where her opponents are referring to her as an antichrist.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Political "dirty hands" and epistemic concerns for voters

As I follow the political activities of the presidential candidates, I wonder what sound conclusions I can draw from what I hear them say given the nature of the political arena, and its tendency towards creating an environment that promotes "dirty hands" decision-making. In this context, I'm referring to the possibility that politicians may promulgate a position they are morally opposed to in order to curry favor with a certain segment of the electorate, presumably rationalizing that their being elected will allow them to pursue a greater good.

The problem of "dirty hands" relies on certain assumptions and has been expounded by a variety of theorists, but the term itself seems to have originated with Sartre's play Les Mains Sales or The Dirty Hands. However, Laurie Calhoun, and perhaps others, believe its roots date back to Plato's Apology. In any case, the basic idea appears similar to a utilitarian calculation (however, as Calhoun points out, the "calculation" itself is difficult to make, even for someone who subscribes to a teleological moral philosophy) where sometimes it is necessary to decide between two moral wrongs in order to accomplish some end.

While the "dirty hands" scenarios I've seen most often involve political leaders faced with decisions of whether to go to war where innocents will be killed to stop a genocide or whether to torture suspects to attempt to acquire information that could save lives, I am speaking here of a different example, one less obvious, but perhaps ultimately not less important. As I stated above, politicians may be faced with a decision to forsake a position they believe is morally justified, for one they believe is not, based on the belief that they will not be elected to office otherwise, and will therefore be unable to pursue a greater moral goal.

I am more inclined than I once was to accept the necessity of politicians compromising their moral principles under certain circumstances (as Michael Walzer asserts, guilt is a necessary mental state for a politician to justify a "dirty hands" decision). As Hoederer exclaims to the idealist in Sartre's play, " invoke purity as your rationalization for doing nothing." To maintain all of one's moral principles absolutely as a presidential candidate would likely lead to defeat, and ultimately accomplish nothing (although Suzanne Dovi argues the politicians unwilling to compromise their morals are critically necessary).

Here I am more interested in exploring the problem voters have in forming beliefs about politicians who may be engaging in "dirty hands" decision-making. This may lead to the electorate believing that candidates represent positions that in reality their moral compasses, absent electoral concerns, would steer them away from. In response to this epistemic concern, I propose it is necessary for voters to base their decisions on more than what candidates say and write, and what is said and written by others about them, during their current campaigns.

Most presidential candidates have been engaged in public service for many years prior to their declaration to run for president. That provides a body of evidence regarding not just what they said they would do before having been elected or appointed to a prior public office, but also what they did once there. If, for example, a trend exists where there has been little or no change in candidates' policy positions over an extended period of time, I would surmise that regardless of what the candidates are currently stating, their long held position is likely the one they would take if elected. Conversely, if candidates have displayed a tendency to change positions regularly in response to then current public opinion, that type of behavior also will likely follow them into office.

Similarly, many political operatives that advise candidates throughout their campaigns have worked on prior political campaigns, or in other capacities that may expose their political beliefs. As such advisers often accompany candidates who win into office, their apparent ideologies could be indicative of the type of advice and information the president would receive. Since a president relies on advisers and deputies to analyze and convey an otherwise overwhelming amount of information, their espoused positions may be as enlightening as any other.

I am not suggesting that the expressed positions of candidates during the current campaign be ignored. To do so would assume much more than could be justified with the limited information we as voters have. However, I think the evidence is ample to suggest that the current crop of presidential candidates has engaged in some "dirty hands" decision-making that requires us as voters to do some digging to ensure as best we can the validity of our own decisions.