Friday, January 13, 2006

Letter from Oaxaca

This note is from an ex-student and friend of mine. She works for an election consulting/polling firm. The letter was sent home to their parents, but was also forwarded to me, as an ex-teacher. A nice story of innocents abroad, recovering nicely through the application twenty-something ironic detachment. Thanks to Taren Stinebrickner for permission to use the letter.....

We haven´t had as much time as we´d like to share our adventures with our dear friends and families, but we couldn´t resist sharing one recent episode. Where by recent, we mean in the last two hours. Enjoy!

Almost since beginning to explore Oaxaca on the 23rd, we have been seeing large, professional-looking posters all around town for a choral Christmas concert. The posters read:

"Navidad en Oaxaca
El Insituto Cultural de Oaxaca presenta sus tradicionales

Pastorales de Navidad

Tuna de Antequera
y el
Coral Aleluya

80 pesos"

with multiple performances daily for over a week.

So we thought, 80 pesos! That´s eight whole dollars! That must really be something special, considering that people have been trying to sell us scarves, tableclothes, their children, for less than THIRTY pesos! And the Hallelujah Chorus! performed by the Cultural Institute of Oaxaca! Must be a venerated Christmas tradition! And besides the cultural value, it will really feel like we´re back home, Taren at her family´s Christmas party, Emily listening to Kevin´s precious sound system... We know, we´ll go on Christmas Day! It´ll be GREAT!

So we looked forward to it all week long, getting more excited every time we saw a new giant poster. When we wondered to ourselves, what will we do on Christmas Day? Will anything be open? What if we run out of food and money? Will we die of thirst in the streets? We don´t know, but at least we can count on the Hallelujah Chorus!

This morning, as we wandered the streets trying to fill our time, our bellies, and our hearts until 8 p.m... OK, Taren´s lying, we were on our way to the Museum of Oaxacan Culture... we happened upon a free concert on the Zocalo (town square). It was a beautiful concert by the experienced, high-quality Music Band of the State of Oaxaca, who played such numbers as Prokofieff´s Peter and the Wolf and Gershwin´s Rhapsody in Blue with great aplomb. Wow, we said to ourselves, if this good of a concert is FREE in Oaxaca, imagine what you can get for 80 pesos!

We while away the day with growing anticipation (OK, Emily says I´m "exaggerating" again, but hey, poetic license and all...), even to the point of rushing through our five-star Christmas dinner (fried grasshoppers, mezcal martinis, and all!) in Oaxaca´s snazziest restaurant, Los Danzantes, to pacify Taren´s fears: "We should get there at 7:30--what if the church fills up?"

Our first clue was the guys in the maroon and gold jester outfits. Literally. Tunics, capes, pantaloons, and all. All they were missing were the hats. Our next was the median age of the non-jester-outfitted portion of the choir -- best estimate, 12 years old. But we courageously masked our growing anxiety. The whitewashed domes of the church, the cracks painted over with plaster, the fluorescent lighting, the metal folding chairs, and the creepy dead guys (presumably saints, but in retrospect I´m not quite as sure) notwithstanding, we were going to enjoy our Hallelujah Chorus, dammit!

The lights dimmed. And flickered. And changed color at random. The tambourine was struck. On every body part. With only a passing relationship to the tempo. The children danced and swayed (almost) in unison, though not always in the same direction. The choir´s voices rose to the heavens in perfect cacophany (though there were almost never clear attempts at harmonizing). They only repeated a song (by accident? intentionally? we may never know) once. Needless to say, the song that was repeated was NOT the Hallelujah Chorus. In fact, no Hallelujah chorus was sung this night.

Our favorite girl was in the front row on the right side. She was always swaying opposite everyone else, and never once moved her mouth. Our favorite boy was probably 4 years old, and so short we couldn´t see him until the time he ventured out into the aisle with our favorite tambourine player, who seemed to be possessed, writhing on the floor in a near-nauseating tambourine breakdance extravaganza, while the little boy marched up and down the aisle clapping. The little boy was in rhythm. The tambourine, not so much. (The audience, perhaps in desparation for SOMEONE to keep time, rose to its feet and clapped to the beat as well.)

Speaking of which, the audience. We should have been tipped off by the audience, which was predominantly... no, 90%... clueless old white people with hearing aids. Honestly. We sat next to an 80-year-old woman from Dallas who asked us where we were from, how much we had paid to make sure she hadn´t been ripped off (little did any of us know, at the point, the extent to which we had indeed been ripped off), and then asked us where we were from again.

Needless to say, we did not restrain ourselves from making snide comments throughout the performance. Luckily, due to the tambourines, the screechy whistles, and the median hearing ability of the audience, no one seemed to notice. We stayed until the bitter end, largely to fantasize about our plan to exit poll the audience:

"Would you say that you were very surprised, somewhat surprised, not too surprised, or not at all surprised that the Hallelujah Chorus was not sung?"

"Would you say this concert makes you much more likely, somewhat more likely, somewhat less likely, or much less likely to ever pay 80 pesos for a concert in Oaxaca again?"

"Which of the following comes closest to your point of view? (ROTATE STATEMENTS) Statement A: "$8! I could eat for a week on that much here!" Statement B: "$8! Hey, it´s less than the cover at the Black Cat." Statement C: "What´s that you say? Speak up! I can´t abide these soft-spoken young folk."

We forewent the opportunity to conduct this exit poll in favor of coming back to report to you, dear readers.

This, we have concluded, is the best church scam ever. They didn´t even lie, it turns out -- they merely misled. They may not have performed the Hallelujah Chorus, but it certainly isn´t lying to put the name of your choir -- El Coral "Aleluya" -- on your posters!

Much love,
Taren & Emily

Polygamy Unbound

In Canada, some professors once again prove how easy it is say amazingly dumb things if all you ever do is talk to other professors. As Keynes said, "It is astonishing what foolish things one can temporarily believe if one thinks too long alone."

The British Columbia government has long been considering whether to lay charges under Section 293. (RESTRICTIONS ON POLYGAMY)

But the project was also intended to provide the Liberal government with ammunition to help defend its same-sex marriage bill last spring.

Opponents claimed the bill, now law, was a slippery slope that would open the door to polygamy and even beastiality.

Another report for the project, also led by two Queen's University professors, dismisses the slippery-slope argument, saying that allowing same-sex marriages promotes equality while polygamous marriages are generally harmful to women's interests and would therefore promote inequality.

Liberal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler said he has seen only a summary of the research reports, but already rejects lifting the criminal ban on polygamy.

``At this point, the practice of polygamy, bigamy and incest are criminal offences in Canada and will continue to be,'' he said from Montreal.

``These reports will become part of the knowledge base on this issue and will be taken into account.''

The Bailey report, consistent with other research for the project, also concludes the courts might well rule that Canada's law banning polygamy is a violation of Canada's constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion.

But Section 293 would survive such a challenge because the harm to women and children in many polygamous marriages is well documented abuse, poverty, coercion, health problems and the limit to religious freedom would be considered ``reasonable,'' as allowed under Section 1 of the charter.


Here's the thing: I have exactly one wife. I feel that that current portfolio of wives goes back and forth between just enough (usually), and slightly too many. Having one, or more, additional, wives? Wow, that is a truly bad idea.

Cedric the Entertainer shows why this is true.

(Nod to GH, who bears no fault for this)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

All Roads Alito Roe v. Wade

There is an odd disconnect in the discussion of Judge Alito in general, and his views about abortion rights in particular.

I have seen it many places, but most recently in Aria Branch's January 12 column in the Duke Chronicle, "An Assessment of Alito." Specifically, she said: "The bottom line is that the majority of Americans embrace the fact that it is the decision of a woman to choose whether or not she wants to have an abortion. Judge Alito's views'are out of line with mainstream America." (A question: Then why do a majority favor confirmation?)

Roe v. Wade was a decision that blocked majoritarian restrictions on access to abortions, passed either through the U.S. Congress or the state legislatures. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, all that would happen is that democracy would break out. That is, the state legislatures would pass, or not pass abortion restrictions, depending on the views of majorities of citizens.

If Ms. Branch is right, and most Americans favor abortion rights, overturning Roe v. Wade would have no consequence whatever. The only circumstance where anyone could worry about Judge Alito, on abortion rights grounds, is if a majority opposes abortion rights. In her article, she says that if Alito is confirmed, "the government could have the power to take away what many would consider the most intimate decision some women make in their lives."

Well, no. The "government" can't take it away. That would be your fellow citizens, passing repressive laws by majority rule. We have met the government, and it is us.

On that, three observations:

(1) It is not clear a majority of Americans favor abortion rights. It depends how you ask the question. It is clear that most Americans favor at least SOME privacy rights in this area.
(2) Why is it that so many people who believe they favor democracy also favor Roe v. Wade, which prevents majorities from working their will? I am fine with this; as the hot chick over at Flying Hedgehogs says, "down with democracy."
(3) On the merits, I agree entirely with Ms. Branch: privacy rights, along with the fundamental rights spelled out in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, are all important. But it is precisely because they thwart the rule of the mob that those rights are important.

Unrestricted democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what's for lunch. We can't rely on democracy to protect privacy rights, almost by definition. The problem with Alito is not that a majority of Americans disagree with him. The problem is that they might.

UPDATE: Bush's position on R v. W is more ambivalent than many people think. He didn't care HOW people got out of New Orleans.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

BCRA is not working as well as it should

From my piece over on EconLib (with thanks to Russ Roberts, for letting me use his proprietary Bulls**t-to-English dictionary)

The American system of elections has long tilted toward incumbents. As public choice research has shown for decades, any "equal" limit on spending hurts challengers. Incumbents have so many nonmonetary advantages: franking privileges, free media access, committee powers, and so on. Hard money contributors are notoriously unwilling to contribute to a candidate unless that candidate is already very likely to win.

But BCRA makes it even harder for challengers to make headway against incumbents. Rather than merely regulating the source of contributions, BCRA goes much further, asserting in effect that there is too much unregulated speech. According to the BCRA, the most important time for speech to be regulated, and incredibly even outlawed entirely, is in the period 60 days before an election. Columnist George Will ("Litigating Freedom of Speech," Dec. 2, 2002, Washington Post) quotes a number of politicians who found the heat of a competitive campaign unpleasant. But rather than fight (or get out of the kitchen), incumbents preferred the BCRA solution of simply getting rid of annoying negative ads financed by soft money:

Sen. Cantwell, D-Wash.: BCRA "is about slowing political advertising and making sure the flow of negative ads by outside interest groups does not continue to permeate the airwaves."

Sen. Jeffords, I-Vt.: Issue ads "are obviously pointed at positions that are taken by you saying how horrible they are."

Sen. Daschle, D-S.D.: "Negative advertising is the crack cocaine of politics."

Sen. McCain, R-Ariz.: Negative ads "do little to further beneficial debate and a healthy political dialogue" and BCRA will "raise the tenor" of elections.

Will points out that "BCRA is government's—the political class'—assertion of a right to fine tune the 'tenor' of political speech, to make it 'healthy' and 'beneficial' by suppressing speech by 'outside interest groups.' "

What exactly is a "beneficial" debate? Any incumbent can give a simple answer: one the incumbent can win, or at least can dominate with superior spending power. Consider Ford, or IBM, or U.S. Steel. They would all love to have government make it harder for competitors to enter markets and challenge them to raise the quality of their products. In fact, firms make these kinds of requests all the time. Why should we be surprised that political incumbents have the same desires to be sheltered from competition?

The difference, and the problem, is that Ford doesn't get to decide what anti-trust laws it operates under. Congress does. BCRA is the evisceration of political anti-trust law, written to ensure that incumbent monopoly power over office-holding is protected. The "electioneering" BCRA outlaws within two months of an election is simply the cold, scolding wind of competition.