My Favorite MLK, jr. Quote

In today’s blog article, which I am writing on Martin Luther King, jr. Day of 2017, I’d like to take a moment to discuss my favorite MLK quote, which comes from the letter he wrote while serving time in a Birmingham jail for civil disobedience. Here’s the quote:

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.””

Full disclosure: I am one of the white moderates that Dr. King is targeting here. At various points in my life, I have considered myself to be post-racial (“I don’t see race!”), fully supportive of efforts to fight racism (while doing nothing active to help the cause), and even judgmental towards those that I saw as fighting racism the “wrong way”.

The quote speaks to me because I recognize myself in it, and I am ashamed by it. When Dr. King wrote this letter, he addressed it to the white ministers in the southern churches that saw themselves as allies in the fight for civil rights, but disagreed with the way that MLK was conducting the fight. They would scold him when he used civil disobedience, pointing out that it made African Americans appear to be lawless or disrespectful toward the social order. They promised that a time would come (eventually), when all races were treated as equals, but that it could not be rushed.

It’s a message we see again and again when people are fighting for civil rights. Just wait until the bigots are gone, and things will get better. We can create change by appealing to the youth, and once they are in charge, things will improve. Such messages are well intentioned but dangerously out of touch. First, there is evidence that racism does not go away, so much as it changes in various ways.  Certainly, today’s generations are less likely to be openly racist than people were in the 1960s, but that’s because people like Dr. King made it unacceptable to be blatantly bigoted. That’s a good thing, but it is far from the end goal of an equitable society.

But even if time could eventually solve such social injustices, the people who are living right now do not have the time to wait. At the time when Dr. King wrote his letter, many of the laws preventing interracial marriages were still on the books. That’s right—fifty years ago, when your parents or grandparents were of an age to be married, they would not have been allowed to do so if their partner had been born with different color skin. How long would you have people wait for the basic right to marry someone they love? How long should they wait to be able to attend good schools, or receive services at restaurants.

Waiting is a terrible response to injustice. We cannot sit out the fight for equality. We cannot pretend to support a cause by passive approval of its goals.

Dr. King was right, and he is still right. Those who openly hate people for how they were born are relatively easy to spot. The KKK still marches through the streets, often without their hoods, openly calling for racial purity. In some cases, they have come up with new names, like the “Alt-Right”, but the message is the same, and it disgusts the moral people in our society who see it as an anachronism from darker times. But what are we going to do  about it?

Why Repeal and Delay Approach to ACA is a Bad Idea

(image owned by Vox.com, used via Fair Use)

Republicans have a very tricky problem right now. A big part of their election platform revolved around the idea of repealing the PPACA (also known as ‘Obamacare’), a legislative act that has granted insurance to millions of Americans since it was enacted. The Affordable Care Act (ACA from here on) was and is a flawed piece of legislation. Its goal was to slow the tide of rising healthcare costs on America while largely maintaining the existing system of private insurers. In other words, it was trying to combine the best of parts of private and public healthcare, and as a result ended up creating a kind of Frankenstein’s Monster of ad hoc policies put together by various contingents in an attempt to get both Democrats and Republicans to pass the bill while also trying to accomplish its main objections. Put more simply—it’s a bit of a mess.

On the plus side, the ACA has ameliorated one of the biggest problems with private insurance—the fact that pre-existing conditions are often outright denied because there is no profit in covering them. Insurance companies are businesses, which means they need to make profits in order to continue to exist. If you know someone has an existing chronic health problem, then you know that this customer will only drain your company and not add anything of value. So, you can either raise your prices for that customer until this drain is balanced, or you can deny that customer coverage altogether. The ACA disallows companies to deny the customer altogether. The price increase approach is too complex to deal with in this blog, but suffice it to say that the ACA did not altogether eliminate this practice.

Now, if you are going to force companies to cover people that are known drains on the system, then you need to balance that in some way. This is where the Individual Mandate comes into play. The Mandate was an idea that was first proposed by a Conservative think tank (yes, Conservative) known as the Heritage Foundation, as far back as 1989. By forcing all people to buy insurance, you spread the risk across a more varied group of people, many of whom are perfectly healthy. These healthy customers help offset the loss that insurance companies face when forced to cover risky customers. It’s a very practical solution to the problem, and if we consider the issue purely economically, it makes a lot of sense.

But this is where things get really tricky. Many people believe the Individual Mandate is a violation of basic rights. The government, they argue, should not be able to force people to buy a product. In other words, these people do not object to the economics argument, but to the government interference that it represents. While some people have countered this concern by noting that car insurance is required in many states, objectors can counter that you don’t have to own a car, if you want to avoid paying for car insurance. But there is no way around the healthcare mandate (other than to pay the fine, which is its own issue).

This is not the only problem people see with the ACA. I saw someone post on Facebook once that he resented the part of the ACA that requires companies to cover certain women’s issues, since that means he is paying for things he’ll never use (yeah, well women have to cover your prostate cancer, jerk!). Others believe the ACA is actually raising prices (despite evidence that in most years since the ACA was enacted, price increases in healthcare have slowed compared to previous years). Interestingly, many people actually agree with most of the provisions of the ACA, when asked about them individually, and yet still object to “Obamacare”, if it is phrased that way.

Ok, that’s enough background. Whatever you think about the ACA, the fact is that the GOP promised to repeal it if they were put in power, and now they are tasked with carrying out that promise, despite the fact that many Americans are now entrenched in the new system.

Right now, the plan being floated about among Republican circles is known as ‘repeal and delay’. It rests on a very simple premise: we promised to repeal the ACA, but we don’t yet have a plan to replace it; so we need to delay its actual removal. What this would mean in practice is that Congress could repeal the ACA (or most of it, since there is talk of keeping certain provisions, which I’ll get to in a moment), but delay its removal for two years, while they come up with a new and better plan.

Vox has an excellent article up right now on why this is a problematic strategy. That’s where I got the image above this blog post, and it contains a longer, more detailed argument than I will give here. It’s well worth reading.

But here is the short version. The ACA relies largely on insurance companies offering plan through the ACA marketplace, so that Americans are able to take advantage of the subsidies that the ACA provides and receive “affordable” healthcare. Without those marketplaces and the subsidies that drive them, the ACA effectively disappears, at least for the millions of Americans who have gained insurance from it.

Now, suppose you are an insurance company who offers plans through the marketplace. You know you will get some risky customers among the people who sign up this way, because many are people who could not get insurance before. However, others are people who simply could not afford it, or who elected to go without coverage and take their chances. The ACA’s subsidies now allow these people to sign up for your insurance, and you are pretty sure about getting the money, because the government is providing some or most of it. There could be good reasons, then, to keep a plan or two on the marketplace.

But now, Congress repeals the ACA. It won’t really be gone for two years, but you know it is going away. You don’t know what will replace it, because that plan doesn’t yet exist. You’ve heard about some of the proposals, but they are all different, and none are certain to pass. All you know is that the current system is going away, and there will be no more subsidies, perhaps no more marketplace of this sort at all. Why would you keep putting plans on the marketplace? You wouldn’t. It doesn’t make good business sense at all. You would just pull out of the system altogether and wait to see what happens, while focusing on your more traditional business (employment-based insurance).

This is almost certainly what will happen in the case of repeal and delay, and many people already see it. Senator Rand Paul (more of an independent libertarian than a true Republican) warned about the disaster that repeal and delay would represent. He is convinced that the only responsible approach is to replace the current plan with a new plan that promises something better. He’s right! The problem is that such a plan does not yet exist.

And Republicans have a promise to keep…..

More on Grim Dawn

In my Halloween games post, I noted that people should be playing Grim Dawn, by Crate Entertainment. This was a game that I kickstarted because I really enjoyed Titan Quest, which is a Diablo clone style game that brought some interesting new elements to the genre. Sadly, TQ didn’t do enough to keep its development team together, even after a great add-on/expansion pack. It’s still available for cheap on Steam, and probably GOG. If you haven’t played it, go get it. The settings include Ancient Greece, Babylon, and China, and it’s just a fun game.

Grim Dawn picks up many of the best elements of Titan Quest, and then takes it all a bit further. Let’s start with class options. Like TQ, Grim Dawn has you choose a primary class at level 2. You do this by spending points to build up a base ability in the class itself, a bit like working on your character’s potential to perform in that class. This will allow you to purchase higher level skills within the class (using the same points; so you have to balance increasing potential with actually using that potential to buy skills or upgrade them!). This creates some intriguing decisions. Do you upgrade your favorite skill to make it more powerful, or build your potential so you can get another skill?

At level 10, you may choose a secondary class, allowing for different class combinations. Want to have a fire mage who can also wear heavy armor and swing a sword? You can do that. Put points into demolitionist and warrior. Want to have lots of pets helping you out? Be an occultist/shaman and grab all the pets. These are your choices, and if you are like me, you will have about 8 different characters, trying out different combos. Some will work better than others, but you’ll keep trying out new ones all the time.

Beyond the purchased skills, items can give you new skills as well. There are times where I find myself holding onto items that have inferior stats just because of the cool skill I’m allowed to keep as a result. While the actual item loot is varied and interesting, there are also add-on drops, which can be combined together in order to create cool additions to all of your items. For example, you might have a crossbow and add an item to it that increases your fire damage. Some of these add-ons also provide new skills. The possibilities appear to be practically endless, adding more decisions to your character development.

If all of that seems overwhelming, I guess sometimes it can be. But in general, the game does a good job of adding things slowly enough that you learn about them before you become confused. You’ll be making these decisions with a bit of agony, due to the opportunity costs, but rarely any pain due to confusion about what will happen if you try a particular item. There are plenty of stats on your character sheet that you can check as you swap out items. And yes, you can have alternate layouts on the same character and switch between them on the fly for different situations. I never use this option, but it’s there.

How about the setting? Well, this is a subjective taste thing, but it’s dark. It’s a desolate world, where undead wander what were once lush farmlands, and everyone is pretty much despairing that it’s the end of days. I’m not a huge fan of such settings, in general, to be honest. I play Fallout despite the setting, for example, not because of it. I like the quirky fifties nuke-punk stuff, but not the post apocalypse setting in general. Too dark for me. Grim Dark is similar, but a bit more gothic, I guess…for lack of a better word. Perhaps steam punk would be more accurate, since there are flintlocks and such. IDK…imagine a fantasy world set in the 1700s or 1800s, and you’ll be close to the feel of the world…well, if you add in an apocalyptic event!

Some people will love this setting, but even if you don’t, this is a game worth playing. It’s not expensive (on sale constantly for about $15), and it’s got a LOT of content to it. According to Steam, I’ve put in 122 hours (what? That can’t be right! Steam lies!!! Ok, that could be right….I find this game relaxing). I’m not near the end with any of my characters. So, it’s got a lot of playability to it.

Anyway, give this game a chance. It deserves it, and I want a sequel!

Thanksgiving Games?

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(image is from Assassin’s Creed III; used under Fair Use)

So, I did a post about Halloween Games, since Halloween is my favorite holiday. Seems only fair to have one about Thanksgiving games, especially since people usually get some time off for Thanksgiving and might be looking to play!

Let’s start with the one from the image. The Assassin’s Creed series is excellent for immersing yourself in historical time periods. I loved the second game in the series, which was set in Renaissance Italy. I wish I had been to Italy before playing it, but I have been since, which makes me want to play it again! Unfortunately, I have not played the third in the series, which takes place around the American Revolution. However, there are Native Americans in it, and they aren’t portrayed as savages. So that’s kind of Thanksgivingy, right?? I’ve heard the gameplay is weaker than other games in the series. For charm, 2 is amazing. For open world gameplay, 4 is probably the best choice, as it allows you to be a pirate on the high seas. This one happened between those games, so…..

Ok, continuing the theme of lackluster games around a holiday that doesn’t have much of a theme to begin with, other than “Food is good! Have it with your family!”, I’m going to recommend you play Madden 17. Like many other games in the Madden series, this one incrementally builds upon the previous games in the series. It lets you play football with real NFL teams!

What does this have to do with Thanksgiving? If you have to ask, then you aren’t a football fan. In that case, this game might not be for you. The rest of you already have this game. Play it after you eat turkey, during halftime of the real games.

Since Thanksgiving is all about food, how about playing Cooking Mama! The title is a bit ambiguous. You will not be cooking your mother in this game. You ARE a cooking mama! You cook, and you are a mama. Cooking. Mama. Here’s the android/google play version: Cooking Mama. But I recommend getting this for DS rather than your phone. Still, some families don’t like it when people are playing games on Thanksgiving, and the phone is still the best covert way to play games, at least until the Oculus Rift comes in handy contacts form!

My last recommendation is old school…way old school! Duck Hunt came with my original Nintendo Entertainment System, back in the 80s! That’s right. I’m super old! This is a game about hunting ducks with your dog. Turkeys are a kind of duck that can’t fly and have more meat. I think that’s right. So Duck Hunt is basically a harder version of Turkey Hunt, and you are a gamer, so you are hardcore. Hunt Ducks, not Turkeys! There are Deer Hunter games, of course, and they are harder still. But who eats deer on Thanksgiving? Everyone knows that deer is for Arbor Day.

Anyway, did you know you can now play Duck Hunt via Flash right in your browser? Now you do! So here is the link!

Well, that does it for my Thanksgiving recommendations. Did I miss any Thanksgiving classics??? Tell me in comments!

Is This Really about the Economy?

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(Image above belongs to the Wall Street Journal)

Based on my previous posts, I’m sure you can surmise that I’m disappointed with the election results. Thanks to the anachronism that is the Electoral College, a lower turnout among Democrats who previously voted for Obama, and the voting pattern of White Americans, Donald Trump is now President Elect. I have plenty to say about why this is scaring some people, and I hope that the people who voted for Trump realize that the protests, outrage, and overall atmosphere of fear is not because a Republican won, but because Trump himself basically made a list of people he didn’t like during the campaign, and now people in those groups are worried that he will actually do the things he said they would do. I may write about that later, when I’m feeling more capable of processing it without risking making inflammatory accusations that won’t really do anyone any good.

For this week, I want to focus on the economic implications of a Trump Presidency, mostly because the Trump supporters that I have directly talked to have told me that this was their main motivation. They fear the growing deficit; they don’t like the current state of the U.S. economy. They think American jobs are going away, or being sent to other countries. They are right about these things, to some extent. Where they are wrong, I think, is in believing that Trump can fix any of it. Based on his own plans, he will make all these things worse. And that’s why I sit here, baffled, writing a blog about people, who (in my opinion, which could easily be wrong!) have voted against their own interests.

I’m going to focus mostly on the deficit here, since that’s a big issue among some voters. The image at the top shows the deficit by year. Obama inherited a big deficit jump and then added to it with additional bailouts. You can see where Obamacare kicked in around 2010. It did not increase the deficit spending, which has been shrinking during his Presidency. Also, individual income tax revenues account for about half of the federal revenues (there are corporate taxes, estate tax (which is a VERY small part), etc.). So, there could be other ways to raise revenue, such as increasing taxes on corporations. I don’t think that will happen under the incoming administration. But I’m going to focus on just the income tax plan that Trump has proposed and assume other factors as equal for the purposes of the number crunching that follows.

Let me start by saying that I am personally likely to benefit from Trump’s tax proposals, and the things he says he will repeal in the Affordable Care Act will not directly affect me. In the short run, at least, Trump’s tax policy is supposed to give me somewhere between a 1-2% reduction in my federal taxes. That’s because my individual income (and household) is higher than the national medians. For those below those medians, they are unlikely to see any tax benefits from Trump’s plan, while those in the top 1% are likely to see a 10% or more decrease in their taxes. For more on Trump’s tax plan, see this post.

I am not personally opposed to making more money, of course! Greed is good, or whatever. But I do want to point out that this will result in a loss of federal income of between 2.5 and 4 trillion dollars over a ten year period. Clinton’s proposal would have increased federal revenues by about half a trillion dollars. Again, these numbers are explained in a previous post, but you should research it for yourself.

I really want to emphasize that last part. You have Google. Go research these figures for yourself. Check multiple analyses, and do not trust me or any other person who is not an economist or tax expert to tell you what will happen. I’m stressing this because of a very important observation. NONE OF THE PEOPLE I TALKED TO WHO VOTED FOR TRUMP AS A MEANS TO DECREASE THE FEDERAL DEFICIT KNEW ANYTHING ABOUT HIS TAX PLAN. They simply didn’t look it up. I don’t mean that they got bad data from somewhere. I mean that they just assumed that Trump’s plan, since he’s a businessman, would lower the deficit.

Of course, there are other ways to lower the deficit. Instead of raising revenue, you can lower costs. In fact, if Trump is going to lower the deficit, he will have to cut costs, given the loss of revenues noted above. He plans to do this in a few ways. First, he plans to freeze federal hiring, allowing attrition to lower the federal work force. That means fewer federal employees. If you are a current employee, this doesn’t mean you will be fired. It means that if you retire, your position will not be replaced. It will go away.

This is an odd plan. Imagine if your job did this as a way to cut its work force. Is your job important to the company in some way? I bet you like to think that it is, at least! Now imagine they said that they aren’t firing you, but that if you ever leave, they won’t hire someone else for your position. Very odd way to do business.

Another cost cutting move, I’m guessing, is that he plans to deregulate lots of things. For every new regulation, two others must be removed, according to the 100 day plan (same link as above). Fewer regulations mean less government interference, and enforcing regulations costs money in some cases. So this could cut spending. Similarly, he plans to fast track FDA approvals, which I guess means less work for the FDA, who can now stop testing things so much for safety. That will reduce costs, at least to the federal government. Risky drugs on the market could have other social costs, of course.

He could cut budget items, of course, too. More accurately, he can’t do that, but he could push Congress to do it, and since they are Republican run, they might listen. So what should they cut? A lot of Trump supporters want to cut so-called entitlement spending. This would mean things like TARP (food stamps), various welfare programs, perhaps Medicaid (though not Medicare!!! Never touch that!).

Here’s a link to the federal budget (which has 3.8 trillion to spend in a year, roughly). In order to offset the 2.5 trillion dollar shortfall Trump’s tax plan creates (going with the lower number here, for fairness), we need to cut this pie chart by 250 billion a year. Perhaps we could cut healthcare spending to accomplish this….by cutting ¼ of it. That’s a lot of people who suddenly don’t have healthcare, but OK. That gets us even again.

But the goal is to shrink the deficit. At 250 billion, all we’ve done is offset the tax losses. We need to cut MORE in order to balance the budget and then make up the deficit.

Here is a cool online game that allows you to try to fix the problem: Fix the Federal Budget . Keep in mind that you actually need to increase the funding shortfall, due to the tax losses. Right now, our budget is half a trillion dollars more than revenue. You’ll need to keep in mind that the shortfall will ¾ of a trillion dollars instead. That’s the optimistic version. If the losses are closer to 4 trillion, as estimates say they could be, then you need to find 9/10 of a trillion dollars instead. Almost forgot: the game is using 2014’s budget, which was 3.5 trillion, instead of the 3.8 trillion that I showed in my link to the 2015 budget. That extra 3/10 of a trillion is a big deal and adds to your goal. So, you’re probably looking at a need to cut a full trillion dollars out of the budget, or nearly ¼ of the current federal budget.

If you voted for Trump in order to fix the Federal Deficit, there’s your chance to find the solution. Once you find the correct way to cut spending, send it to Trump’s transition team. That might sound cynical, but I’m actually serious about this. If we are going to fix the federal deficit, these are the facts that have to be faced. If that is one of Trump’s goals, I hope he achieves it without hurting to many U.S. citizens in the process. So, if you have a way to do that, please help!

I just voted for a woman for President of the United States

Politics aside, and I get that people will disagree with my choice for political reasons, I don’t think I’ve ever felt the gravity of voting for U.S. President like I did in this election. I just voted for a woman to be the leader of the most powerful country in the world, and it’s been my first opportunity to do so. It’s 2016, and only now have we even had the option of voting for a woman for POTUS. That’s insane to me.

As I drove back from voting, I was talking to my partner about how historic this event really is. I said to her “You know, first I was able to vote for a black President, and now a woman. That’s two historic firsts, so close together!” Then I thought about other historic firsts, and there were none. Before Obama, every single POTUS was a white man, often older, but certainly mainstream. Every single one. No major candidate was black. None were women. Now, we get both, back to back! It’s an amazing time to alive.

What Games Should You Be Playing for Halloween? (PC version)

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Halloween is my favorite holiday. I’ve had a Baba Yaga wallpaper up for over a month, and my house is fully decorated! Last year, we threw a party for the occasion, but unfortunately, this year our jobs got in the way for various reasons. But that won’t stop me from watching scary shows/movies and playing creepy video games. So, I thought I would share some recommendations about games you could play this Halloween, if you prefer an interactive spooky experience! As an aside, if you prefer a haunted house, and live anywhere near Sandusky or Cleveland Ohio, I highly recommend visiting Elyria’s Hauntville. It’s one of the best haunted house experiences I’ve had because they let you go in with just the people you came in with (even if that means just two of you!). Personalized spooks! Now, on to the games….

(note: these are PC games, though some might be on console as well. Most links are to Steam, but Anchorhead is free to play online. Also, Steam puts games like this on sale for Halloween, most years.)

Grim Dawn– This is what I’m playing the most right now. Made by Crate Entertainment, which is made up of a bunch of the people who made the Titan Quest game, this is a fantastic action RPG in the Diablo mode. The setting is gri…..uhhh, dark. It’s otherworldly demons and zombies and mutated beasts, and it’s always nighttime, and gothic. It feels a lot like the first Diablo game, which in my opinion had the best atmosphere. The setting reminds me a bit of the Duskwood zone in World of Warcraft, if that gives you a reference. Gameplay is solid. These guys know how to make you feel like you are really hitting things. If you played Titan Quest, the gameplay and skill trees will feel familiar. The setting is very different, however, and it has some neat updates to the model. Highly recommended.

Anchorhead– This is an interactive text game, which means that it’s all reading and trying to solve a mystery by typing things like ‘get lantern’, ‘light lantern’, and ‘start crying’. These games can be difficult if you haven’t played one before. But if you gamed back in the 80s, you remember Zork, Hitchiker’s Guide, and a bunch of other great text-based games like this. Anchorhead is set in the Lovecraftian town of Anchorhead Maine, where your husband has inherited a new, creepy house from a distant relative….be careful! This is really well written; a great example of the genre, and a nice atmosphere for Halloween.

Vampire: Bloodlines– For a brief number of years, Troika was my favorite developer. Made up of former Black Isle members (Black Isle made the Icewind Dale games), Troika made Arcanum, Temple of Elemental Evil, and Vampire: Bloodlines. These were all very buggy at release, but also fantastic once fixed. All three hold up well, but Vampire takes the White Wolf tabletop RPG and turns it into one of the most atmospheric first person action RPGs you’ll ever play. Worth the price of admission for one scene in particular, which is famous among gamers and perfect for Halloween. Either way though, you’ll be playing as a vampire, tasked with walking the fine line between human and beast in a gothic modern day setting. GREAT music in this one (for example: Cain, by Tiamat).

Amnesia: Dark Descent– First person, atmospheric, survival horror game. This one is the most straight up scary game on this list, most likely. It’s meant to frighten you, though. That’s it’s whole job, and it does it well. Journey into the underground to solve a mystery. Turn off the lights for this one.

Dead Space– How about a similar game in space? Actually, Dead Space is more of a shooter than Amnesia is. You’ll be killing most of the monsters you find here. Plenty of jump scares and atmosphere though, as you find yourself on an abandoned space ship trying to figure out what happened. Not quite as good as System Shock 2, which has a similar premise, but it’s a newer game. SS2 is still well worth playing, especially if you use texture updates. But Dead Space does a pretty great job too! This one is available on consoles too, if you prefer. In fact, that’s how I played it, and it’s great on consoles.

System Shock 2– Since I mentioned it, I might as well list it. This is one of the best games of all time, regardless of theme or genre. It’s a fantastic experience that uses sound better than any game out there, in my opinion (the Thief games, which were made by the same company, come close though!). Definitely play this one….then play it again in a few years. Never gets old. The linked version has the updated textures.

Darkest Dungeon– Here’s an indy gem of a game. Part RPG and part management/survival game, DD is set in a Gothic, Victorian, Steampunk type world. Oooooozing with atmosphere and cynicism. Your characters go insane at the horrors they witness. The developers must love the Cthulhu game. This game has a ton of content for the price, too. High replayability, since it’s a bit of a rogue-like as well.

Well, that’s my list of games you should be playing for Halloween this year. It’s far from complete. You ought to look into the F.E.A.R series as well, especially if you like movies like The Ring, with creepy ghost girls turning your world upside down when you are just trying to engage in some paramilitary combat. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games are great for a feeling of desolation and exploration around Chernobyl. I hear Outlast is good, but I haven’t played it, so I can’t say. If you have some other recommendations, let me know! I love scary games.

Oh, if you like console games, give the Fatal Frame series a shot. All of them are great games in the survival horror genre and will help you reconnect to the feelings you had when playing the first Silent Hill game….hopeless terror. Enjoy!

Approaches to Liberty in the 2016 Presidential Election

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(image from scholastic.com, used from Fair Use, and to give you a pleasant side of both candidates!)

In the first part of this three part series on the types of liberty, I discussed the two broad categories of negative and positive liberty. In the second part, I showed how the two major U.S. political parties tend to fall with respect to these two versions of liberty. In this final installment, I will apply all of this to the current 2016 Presidential Election, as a way of helping people understand the options.

Before I break down Clinton and Trump, I want to address the two main alternative candidates this year: Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. I’ll be honest. I’m not a fan of either candidate for reasons that go beyond their parties’ platforms. In my opinion, neither is remotely qualified for the job of President. They have no political experience at all, and running companies or being a medical doctor is in no way related to what happens in politics. I understand why some people might want an outsider to come in and shake up the system, but doing this from the top down, by electing an unqualified POTUS, is a big mistake. Neither party has any foothold in Congress, or even state level political entities. That means none of their proposals can actually happen. If either party is serious about changing U.S. politics, they should get involved in local elections first, then state, and then show that they are elements for real, substantive changes. I personally think that both candidates are benefiting from a general cynicism about the two major political parties, and I understand that cynicism. But I don’t think people should let it get in the way of the practical realities that neither Johnson nor Stein can do any of the things they have promised. Nor are their plans well considered.

But this article isn’t about Third Party candidates. If you want to know my thoughts about them, ask, and I will write such an article, or tell you directly.

So, let’s turn to Clinton and Trump. In a very general sense, these candidates will line up with the approaches to liberty that I showed in the previous article. As a Democrat, Clinton will tend to support negative liberty approaches to social/moral issues, allowing people to pursue their own beliefs, while pushing for positive liberty by increasing social safety nets for Americans. As a Republican (loosely), Trump will tend to support negative liberty on economic issues, while trying to increase the feeling of safety in America through stronger immigration laws and policing powers, which is loosely positive liberty. As usual, however, the devil is in the details.

Let’s start with Clinton and look at a few proposals she has made. Clinton’s plan to help solve the growing deficit is to increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans to increase government revenue. According to the Tax Foundation (which is not at all a liberal organization), Clinton’s plan would increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans, including estate taxes (for estates worth over $1billion). All things being equal, this would lead to $1.4 trillion in government revenue over a ten-year period. Of course, things are not always equal, so the Tax Foundation accounted for the fact that increasing taxes on the wealthy could lower the GDP a bit. Once that is accounted for, the revenues are closer to $663 billion, which is still a sizable amount. There are many, unpredictable things that could increase or decrease that number in reality, but this is the closet prediction we are likely to get.

This increased revenue would presumably be used to increase social safety nets, or perhaps pay for the college plan I shall discuss next. Both would be increases in positive liberty for some Americans. However, even Clinton should admit that increasing these taxes will result in lower negative liberty for the people being taxed more. They are now forced to give up more of their money to the government, which means they are not free to spend that money. Any time government gets involved in trying to increase positive liberties, there are most likely going to be some costs in negative liberties. In this particular case, though, that cost only affects a very small number of Americans. Most Americans will see their taxes stay about the same, or lower slightly.

Clinton’s tax plan also increases various deductions (or adds credits) for people with children, including child care expenses. This should result in more negative liberties for those people to spend that money as they wish, rather than having it tied up in childcare. The estate tax exemption will be lowered a bit for individuals and couples, which will affect estates worth $3.5 million for individuals or $7 million for couples, resulting in a loss of negative liberty for such estates to distribute their wealth as they see fit. However, small businesses will see increased deductions and an expansion of ACA benefits, which will increase their negative liberty to spend funds and perhaps their positive liberty to provide healthcare for employees.

One thing that Clinton plans to do with the increased revenues is provide various support programs for people who need help going to college. Her plan does not go as far as Bernie Sanders’s plan to simply make college free, but that plan would have radically changed higher education in the U.S. in unforeseen ways. It also faced an almost impossible uphill battle in Congress. Clinton’s plan may face similar hurdles, but is more layered and nuance. You can view her plan on her website, but in general it is an attempt to use the tax plan above to provide positive liberty for more people to go to college.

Ok, let’s turn to Trump’s tax plan, again using the Tax Foundation website. Trump’s plan aims to stimulate the economy by reducing taxes, especially on the wealthy and corporations. The theory here, which is often called trickle-down economics, is that when wealthier individuals and the corporations they run pay less in taxes, they reinvest the money saved back into the economy. This, in turn grows the economy, which helps everyone, and can (in some cases) increase tax revenues through the greater GDP. Unfortunately, Trump’s plan will lead to a loss of revenue to the government of around $5 trillion, give or take a trillion. That’s if everything stayed equal, but as I noted above, things are not equal. His plan could increase GDP. Once that’s taken into account, the loss of revenues is between $2.6 and $3.9 trillion dollars. A reminder that the Tax Foundation is not favoring Clinton here. It’s just analyzing the plans as they are presented. The top 1% of Americans will see a 10% or more growth in their income.

As noted above, more income in pocket means more negative liberty spend your money as you wish. Arguably, it also means more positive freedoms, as those with more income can accomplish more. However, this is not the same as positive liberty, which is about government aiding people in achieving goals. In fact, Trump’s plan will lower tax revenues, which means government spending must be cut in order to avoid raising the deficit even more. Those cuts are likely to go to safety net spending, though he could reduce military spending to achieve the needed cuts. In any case, cutting government spending lowers positive liberty by definition, since the government can no longer provide the services that rely on that income. Whether that is a good or bad thing depends on your views on government.

Trump has argued that his plan will increase American jobs, which would be a big benefit, if true. You can read about this claim, and its skeptics in this PBS article. Trump has also said that he plans to eliminate some of the international trade deals that have been created in the last couple of decades, again in order to boost American businesses. Whether this will work depends on your view of the current global economy. Can the easy flow of international goods be constrained at this point in history? I’m personally skeptical that it could, or even that it should. However, I absolutely sympathize with Trump’s view that American companies are finding it hard to compete with the lower labor costs found in other countries. Whether a President can solve that problem through tariffs, embargoes, taxes, or whatever other methods Trump might intend to use (he’s often secretive about the specifics of his plans) is dubious, in my opinion. However, if he did pull this off, it would be an increase in job opportunities for Americans, which is an increase in positive liberties. Government policies would then be aiding Americans in finding meaningful work. I just don’t think it will work.

At this point, my own biases are probably pretty clear, but I want to note that I do not inherently disagree with the Republican view of economics through deregulation. Historically, we have good evidence that trickle-down economics doesn’t work, but I am sympathetic to the view, first posited by Adam Smith, that government interference in the economy often has unforeseen negative results. I’m skeptical because I don’t think Trump has ever read Smith, or any other economist, for that matter. I’m skeptical because I don’t think he is even listening to the GOP anymore, or his advisers, or anyone else. I’m skeptical because as far as I can tell, Trump has made a career off of false promises and cheating other people out of their money.

As a result, this particular entry in my three-part series is probably off the rails. I’ve tried to be balanced between the two candidates on these liberty issues, but I would find it a lot easier to be balanced if I were writing about Romney or McCain as the GOP candidate, because those candidates had viable plans that were grounded in reality. I might not have agreed with all of their plans (I don’t agree with all of Clinton’s, either), but I understood them. I don’t understand Trump’s plan (go to his website, and figure it out for yourself), and neither does the Tax Foundation, as far as I can tell. It’s baffling.

Applying the Two Concepts of Liberty to U.S. Political Parties

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In the previous article, I discussed the two concepts of liberty in a political context: negative liberty, which is when there are no political obstacles in the way of our choices, and positive liberty, which is when the state aids us in achieving our goals. Like any quick definition, I’m oversimplifying both concepts a bit, for the sake of clarity and concision. But the basic concept holds and shows the difference between being allowed to do something versus being able to do something.

As a quick reminder, then, most of the Bill of Rights are negative liberties, which tell us things the government cannot do. It cannot arrest us for speaking our minds; it cannot prevent us from bearing arms; it cannot force us to incriminate ourselves in court. Positive liberties in the U.S. also takes many forms: public education gives us the tools we need for a successful life; public roads give us ways to get places; federal grants and student loans help us go to college.

Unfortunately, some of these liberties may conflict, both with each other, and with other values that we hold dear in society. For example, you might feel that you have a right to keep your children from hearing certain viewpoints, with which you disagree, but those children also have a right to public education, which might include some of those viewpoints. A fairly recent example that is still causing controversy is freedom of religion versus tolerance of alternate lifestyles. On the one hand, people with deeply held religious convictions believe that the First Amendment should allow them to deny services to others on religious grounds (the obvious example is denying services to homosexual couples because of a religious belief that homosexuality is a sin). On the other hand, the people being denied these services see themselves as being discriminated against for something that is a critical part of their identity, something they cannot simply change.

Resolving these conflicts can be very difficult, because any compromise will involve one or both sides feeling that their liberties have been violated. Isaiah Berlin, whom I discussed in the previous post, believed that some of these conflicts cannot be resolved without loss. In other words, he thought that we are constantly making hard choices among our values in cases of conflict. Such decisions result in a tragedy of sorts; we cannot maximize all of our values at the same time. We must make sacrifices.

But those sacrifices become especially problematic, politically speaking, in cases where the conflict is not within a single person or group but between individuals and groups. And this is where political divide emerges. One political party promises support for one group, while the other sides with the other group.

We can see this pretty clearly in the case of religious freedom versus tolerance for homosexuality mentioned above. For the most part, the Republican Party has found itself on the religious freedom side of the debate, which pleases the Evangelical segment of its base. The Democrat Party has tended to side with the LGBTQ community in opposing legislation that allows discrimination based on religious belief.

If we put this debate into liberty terms, we can see that both sides are fighting for liberty, while accusing the other side of trying to deny liberties. And both sides are right about that….to an extent. Whatever decision we, as a society, reach here, some people will have their liberties reduced and others will see their liberties protected (or expanded).

So let’s look at a few key social issues that are happening in the U.S. right now and try to categorize how the parties view these issues in terms of negative and positive liberties. A few of these will be obvious, but others might surprise you (check the abortion one, for example). As always, these are my views/observations. In each case, I have tried to present the position from the perspective of that party. I am not saying the party is right or wrong; I am only putting their view into negative or positive liberty terms. You are free to disagree with my categorizations in the comments. Just explain why, please! (note that I included ‘Libertarians’ in order to get a third party involved; I chose them over the Green Party because they tend to get more of the vote and because they’ve named themselves after liberty!)

 

Issue Republicans Democrats Libertarians
Abortion Positive- seek to protect right of the unborn to become born (to live) Negative- seek to protect the right of women to choose whether to give birth Negative- could vary, but in general want govt. to stay out of it, and allow choice
Racial Equality Negative- believe the market should take care of this, and equality is up to those who want it. Positive- believe some minorities need extra aid to make up for disadvantage starting points Negative- again, want govt. to stay out of this.
Gun Control Negative- support the right to buy weapons with minimal restrictions Positive- support restrictions in order to protect people from gun violence Negative- seeing a trend here? Govt. go away!!!
Healthcare Negative- favors existing marketplace method, with private insurance Positive- favors public options to ensure that everyone gets access, regardless of wealth Negative- favors full marketplace approach, completely privatized in every way (in theory, no Medicaid/Medicare)
Gender Equality Negative- generally leaves this up to corporations, opposing govt. mandates and quotas Positive- promotes gender equality through various aid programs and restrictions against discrimination Negative- surprise! No govt. involvement at all; total merit based capitalism
Gay Marriage Positive- varies, but more likely to promote legal restrictions on gay marriage in order to protect sanctity of marriage Negative- govt. should allow any consenting adults to marry, regardless of sexual orientation (some include gender identity in this as well) Negative- similar to Democrats, but more likely to include gender identity as well; again, govt. shouldn’t decide this.
Marijuana Positive- favors restrictions in order to protect people from drug use, thus ensuring a better life Negative- varies a lot! More likely to promote loosened restrictions on certain drugs Negative- goes even further; would likely allow any and all drugs to be legal, but would still keep restrictions on DUI (at least Johnson would…his party is all over the place on this one)

Of course, couching all of these issues in terms of liberty, whether negative or positive liberty, is overly reductive. These are complex issues, with many facets. The chart above is meant to illustrate that each major party focuses on a mixture of what could be viewed as enhancing negative or positive liberty, depending on the issue. Libertarianism presents a nice contrast, because it’s a view that is focused almost solely on negative liberty. Basically, libertarians want the government to protect the country from external threats and protect citizens from direct domestic violence. Other than that, they want little or no government involvement.

If you disagree with how I have characterized any of these viewpoints, let me know. I am not asserting that any of these approaches is the correct approach to take. My goal is to help people understand the ways in which our politicians talk past each other and confuse issues by using the term ‘liberty’ in a very sloppy way. As Americans, we all value liberty; we just value it in different ways.

In Part 3 of this series, I’ll look at the specific issues that are happening in this year’s (2016) election. I know I can’t wait……..

 

There are Two Types of Liberty

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(image by historicphiladelphia.org)

As we near the November election and tensions continue to rise between the supporters of the two major U.S. political parties, one thing is increasingly clear. Most people do not fully understand what the term ‘liberty’ means. More importantly, most do not realize that there are different senses of the term. Many of the arguments I see online involve this basic confusion, and it was present in the first Presidential debate as well.

While many writers have discussed the nuances of the term ‘liberty’, the historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin, has probably done the best job of explaining why we must be very careful with this term. In a speech he gave upon receiving a professorship at Oxford, Berlin presented his “Two Concepts of Liberty”, which was later turned into an essay on the subject.

Berlin believes that the term is easily misused because people often use it to represent two different notions of liberty, neither one of which is more right than the other, but each of which would lead you to very different conclusions about the role of government. He labels these two approaches ‘negative liberty’ and ‘positive liberty’. Before I explain each approach, I should note that ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ in this context do not mean good or bad. As you will see, ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ more closely resemble something like passive versus active approaches to helping people enjoy freedom in their lives. Also, for this discussion, ‘liberty’ will refer to the ways in which government affects the freedom of citizens. In other words, ‘liberty’ is a political issue, while ‘freedom’ is what a person or group of persons experience.

Negative liberty is “the absence of obstacles to possible choices and activities” (Berlin Four Essays on Liberty pg. xxxix). In other words, we enjoy negative liberty in a civil society when nobody and nothing are standing in the way of our potential choices. The state (government) can enhance negative liberty by creating rights that prevent the government from interfering in certain aspects of our lives.

Many of the Constitutional amendments found in the Bill of Rights would fall under negative liberty. For example, the right to free speech means that the government will not impede (i.e. put obstacles in the way of) our ability to say what we wish to say. The right to bear arms means that the government will not prevent you from purchasing weapons. The Third Amendment means that the state cannot force you to let military personnel stay in your home (I guess this was a big problem once!). Each of these rights creates a space within which you are free from government interference.

Of course, there could be other issues that prevent you from fully enjoying these liberties. The government may not prevent you from speaking, but that doesn’t mean anyone will listen to what you say. It doesn’t guarantee that you will have an audience, or that you will speak well, or even that you, personally, will be able to speak at all. If you are rendered mute by birth or accident, the First Amendment does not mean that the government must pay for medical procedures to correct that issue. Similarly, the right to bear arms does not guarantee that you will have the money to purchase or gun, or the ability to shoot straight!

Negative liberties are labelled ‘negative’ because they are about the absence of interference. They tell us what the government may not do. In most cases, this requires no action on the part of the government. In fact, many of these liberties are guaranteeing you that the government will not act; think of it as a negation of action.

Positive liberty, on the other hand, is our ability actually to achieve our goals. Berlin associates it with the notion of self-mastery (very similar to Kant’s idea of ‘autonomy’, which is about self-control through following the rational will).

A civil state can increase positive liberty by providing citizens with various aids to help them achieve their goals in life. A great example of this in the U.S. is the public education system, which is meant to provide all citizens with the basic learning that is needed to function in our society and pursue a meaningful and productive life. Another example is roads, which allow us to get where we want to be more easily. More controversial examples would include things like welfare, social security, food stamps, etc. These safety nets and savings aids are meant to ensure that no American falls below a certain minimal state of living, since a complete lack of money, housing, or food makes achieving a decent life nearly impossible in our society.

If negative liberty can be thought of as non-interference by the state, then positive liberty can be thought of as those times when the state helps you achieve certain goals. In other words, providing positive liberty requires activity on the part of government. In most cases, this means it also requires tax dollars.

At this point, you are probably associating each approach to liberty with a particular political party. You might be thinking that Republicans tend to focus on negative liberty, while Democrats focus on positive liberty, especially since I presented welfare as an example of positive liberty. In many cases, that perception is not far off, but like any oversimplification, it is misleading.

Both negative and positive liberties are valued by pretty much all humans. We all want some degree of freedom to make our own decisions, but that freedom is pretty useless if we lack the means for carrying out those choices. The government isn’t stopping you from buying a home, but that doesn’t mean you have the money (or credit) to do so.

In practice, both Republicans and Democrats value both negative and positive liberty, just like their constituents do. However, they tend to focus on one or the other, depending on the particular issue. For example, Republicans tend to lean toward increasing negative liberties for businesses. They advocate for lower restrictions on businesses. Donald Trump, in the first Presidential debate, said that businesses are being stifled by government regulations, and he would remove many of those restrictions in order to facilitate a freer market.

On the flip side, Hillary Clinton emphasized the importance of economic equality, discussing ways in which government might help the less fortunate, such as inner city minorities, achieve their goals through education credits or other government aid. This is consistent with the view that Democrats lean toward positive liberty solutions to problems.

On the other hand, things get murky when we look at social issues. The issue of gay marriage is a great example for illustrating this. In general, Democrats have supported gay rights in recent years by arguing that members of the LGBTQ community should not be restricted in their rights to marry whomever they wish. That seems to be an increase in negative liberty. However, many conservative Republicans have argued that this violates freedom of religion, which is also a negative liberty. The question of marriage itself could be seen as a negative or positive liberty issue, depending on focus. Since the government gives certain tax breaks, and there are other social advantages to marriage, the ability to marry could be seen as a positive liberty, one that enables people to achieve certain goals, or as a negative liberty, where the government cannot tell citizens whom they may marry.

Whichever perspective you take on these matters, what remains true is that different people use the word ‘liberty’ to mean different things at different times. Both Republicans and Democrats believe in the value of liberty. It’s a concept that lies at the core of modern democratic thinking. But we need to understand how easily the term ‘liberty’ can fall into equivocation. Taxing one group of people to provide benefits for another group of people decreases the (negative) liberty of one group for the sake of the (positive) liberty of the other group. When the two senses of liberty come into conflict with each other, each side will accuse the other of devaluing liberty. However, in most such cases, each side is simply valuing a different type of liberty.

In the next installment of this three-part series on the two types of liberty and how it can help us understand this election, I’ll talk more about these conflicts, including how liberty can conflict with other values that we hold dear. I’ll also give more nuance to the different factions within the two major U.S. political parties and the ways that they view liberty. In the third installment, I plan to directly relate all of that to the policies being proposed by the major candidates, so that we can see which of elements of their platforms correspond to which approach to liberty and why. My goal is to help people understand the candidates in the election and what their approaches would mean for America, if implemented.