Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Fractured Expectations

The whole Left/Right political dichotomy leads people to believe some pretty strange things about each other, particularly when they listen ONLY to their own party's propaganda. It's amazing to me how many people do that, by the way. I can't count the number of times people have told me that they "can't stand to listen to ______"... so they don't. It doesn't matter what ______ said. There is the pre-conception that everything they say is a lie, so there's the perception that there's no need to listen to any of it. One of these days I'll have to post a quiz where you have to identify quotes as having been spoken by Rush Limbaugh or Bill Maher. I bet it's harder than you think. But I digress.

Here's one. Capitalists, and particularly, Republicans, just hate the environment. If you were to watch the old Captain Planet cartoons from Ted Turner, you'd see the pig-like "Hoggish Greedly" (I'm not kidding) polluting because... well, because that's what he does. He builds gas-guzzling cars and pollutes. This bit of propaganda is aimed directly at kids.

The thing is, it's false. Republicans don't hate the environment, and never have. Republican President Theodore Roosevelt was an avid outdoorsman, naturalist, and conservationist. He established 5 national parks and 150 national forests. Republican President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act of 1970 (read the link. Do it.), the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (think dolphin-safe tuna), the Safe Water Drinking Act of 1974 (which requires us to protect drinking water at its source),  the Endangered Species Act (once called "the Magna Carta of the environmental movement"). He had no intention of "living like a damned animal", but left an enduring legacy. Republican President Ronald Reagan was famously a rugged outdoorsman. On his watch the MMPA was amended to guard against the depletion of species, and to require positive action to improve their numbers. George Bush's house in Crawford, Texas is an environmentalist's dream, whereas Al Gore's Nashville mansion... not so much. (here's the Snopes on that one).  Nevertheless, while the Sierra Club once consisted of mostly "middle aged Republicans", Democrats today feel as if they exclusively 'own' environmental issues.

Where I live (upstate South Carolina, near the edge of the Sumter National Forest), we have more than our fair share of hunters and woodsmen, and we are overwhelmingly conservative. The folks here know that if you want to hunt tomorrow, you need a thriving community of wildlife today. That means clean air, clean streams, spacious forests. I don't know of anyone who would advocate dirty air and poisonous water... and yet, that's commonly expected of us by Liberals who frankly should know better.

...or maybe not. Liberals tend to congregate in urban areas, so it's not entirely surprising that as a group they hold some unrealistic, if reasonable, assumptions about the environment. They can be forgiven for thinking that hunting causes extinctions. Over-hunting and over-fishing can do that, but so can under-hunting. I've seen deer strip trees bare. If the population isn't managed, they'll easily over-populate an area and starve. If we refuse to allow wolves and other predators to roam free, then we must take their place. And it's counter-intuitive -- but largely true -- that the most successful survival strategy a species can evolve is "being useful to humans". Those that are tend to thrive, with a few notable exceptions. Handbags and meat aren't the only measure of utility in the animal kingdom. We humans form emotional and aesthetic connections as well. Thus, symbolic utility can save a species such as the bald eagle. You should never forget that those who "cling to their guns and religion" are starkly aware of the Biblical charge to not only have dominion, but to "replenish the earth" (Genesis 1:28)

One thing that's gotten press lately is that "energy efficiency" has been dropped from the Republican platform. It's perhaps a little more puzzling since Romney has an record of aggressively pursuing energy efficiency policies and legislation. It is absolutely true that Republicans want energy independence, and this entails more exploration and drilling for domestic oil. But supply is only half the story. Energy independence isn't quickly achieved merely by increasing supply, but by becoming more efficient as well. (I like the term "energy efficient". I don't much like "green". Besides being too slogan-like for me, as we're about to discuss, "green" isn't always energy efficient.)

First... why oil? Why not the gobs of other alternative means of energy production?  The answer to that is simple. Nobody's AGAINST alternative means of energy so long as they make sense and they actually work. The Left would take nuclear power and hydroelectric power off the table; but the fact is those are two clean energy sources that actually do work. Nuclear fuel doesn't magically appear... it's dug out of the ground, and we take the radiation with it. And dams create new habitats; they're transformative; not merely disruptive. Many of the other alternative forms we find are not as successful.

Ethanol, for example, is less efficient, more expensive and more corrosive than gasoline. Ethanol produces less CO2 per gallon than gasoline, but it's also less efficient... the end result being that ethanol produces 19% more CO2 for the same amount of energy liberated compared to gasoline, and results in lower vehicle fuel efficiency (25% lower on the average). Its primary advantages are that it is particulate-free and renewable. However, it requires a great deal of surface land to grow corn for the purpose. There's a judgement call to be made as to whether that ecological impact should go to fuel production or food production. Tacos or fuel tanks, that's the choice.

The best uses of solar energy are local and don't involve electricity. Passive lighting, water heating, HVAC systems are good examples. Photovoltaics, on the other hand, aren't so good at replacing conventional power generation. They're simply expensive and inefficient. The graph shown is purely that of power generation. However, when you factor in all the ecological impacts, we still find that not everything's green for solar.  Photovoltaics require batteries for storage and power regulation, and these pose difficulties for capacity and safe disposal. They also become less efficient over time. Also, solar panels require the use of rare-earth metals that are expensive and are found outside of the U.S. While this can be a decent supplemental energy source for local use, it's not so good for industrial generation and lessening trade dependence. Solar concentrators (that heat water used to power traditional generators) are better, but they still require a LOT of land and a LOT of sunlight. Unlike nuclear and hydro plants, they can't produce energy around the clock. Again, while it's sustainable, it's not terribly eco-friendly.

The same is true for wind and geothermal... good locally; not-so-good industrially, and if you're going to exclude the only items that actually work and are economical (nuclear and hydroelectric) as the far Left would like, then you're basically pursuing an energy policy of sweet dreams and nothing of substance.

The point here isn't about any particular form of alternative energy; it's that the Conservatives really aren't interested in any form of alternative energy that flat-out doesn't do the job. But when it DOES do the job, you'd better get out of the way.  Co.exist reports that Republicans are about 6% more likely to make 'green' home improvements than Democrats. Red states are more likely to be invested in 'green' energy (PDF). The reasons are economic. And you might think, "oh, well, sure... that's just the Republicans being greedy again!" except that the Democrats have these very same economic opportunities in front of them along with professed ideological motivations... yet on the average they still don't implement as much real, measurable, effective change.

And that's a fractured expectation.

Now, what Co.exist doesn't consider is that there is another ideological reason in play. Conservatives don't like independence in whatever form. To a conservative, if you can lower your country's dependence on foreign oil, that's good. If you can lower your family's dependence on the power company, that's even better. If you can do both while actually saving real cash, that's a trifecta.

(note: edited to add the word "don't" in the last paragraph. After 4 years, I just noticed the omission. Whoops. But that's OK... after 4 years, I'm also shown to have been right all along.)

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Importance of Nagging

Today I'm posting a little advice for someone who is close to me. If it sounds a little cryptic or strange to you, then it's not for you, though I hope it's useful anyway.

Simply by living a long time and paying attention you tend to learn a few things. Some of these things are universally accepted and become clich├ęs. Others sneak up on you. Think about this one:
No beneficial change has ever been initiated by someone who is satisfied with the way things are.
Every invention, social change, and Great Idea was born in the mind of someone who is dissatisfied. If necessity is the mother of invention, then dissatisfaction is the father. Somebody was dissatisfied, and decided to make things better. Voila! Things get better. The bigger the dissatisfaction, the bigger the change, and the principle applies to everything from the invention of can openers to political revolutions.

But that's a little broad. Let's bring this a bit closer to home. There's a saying that, "behind every good man there is a great woman... nagging him on". There's more than a little truth to that bit of humor. Wives and girlfriends have had a reputation for nagging. And to be honest in my stereotypes, we guys do tend to be easily satisfied. So if you expect us to make things better around the house, or in our lives, you have to make things just a little uncomfortable for us. Not so much that we take off, but just enough that we have a strong desire to shut you up by giving you whatever it is you're nagging us for.

Now get this... even though we are perfectly content -- for ourselves -- to sit at home in our shorts, drinking beer and watching football, we will move mountains to give you what you want. We will dig ditches. We will plant flowers we're allergic to. We will invent. We will do odd jobs, work two jobs, and create NEW jobs, all because YOU are unhappy. We men don't have much in the way of instinct, but the desire to make you happy is alive and well. In a perfect world, you'd find the guy who just naturally does that without any prodding from you. But here in Reality we often need to find someone who's close, and then make a few tweaks.

But if a guy is sitting around the house, waking up at noon, with no job and no steady income... if he's getting his meals provided to him, and his bills paid for him... and if you fawn over him and tell him how great he is... and this is going on for months in a town where jobs are available (and they are)... do NOT expect any of this to change. Ever. And if he gets mad when this is pointed out to him, then understand that the situation is toxic, and I mean toxic for YOU.

It's said that love is caring for another person more than you care for yourself. You will find that this is only sustainable if it's true for both partners. Otherwise you will find yourself giving and giving until you're emotionally depleted and your love turns to resentment. That resentment may even turn to hate. You certainly don't want to start off in a relationship where that's likely to happen, and I'd like to help you avoid it.

Now, this may sound old-fashioned and a more than a little sexist, but it's ABSOLUTELY TRUE... he's young and able-bodied, and HE should be doing for YOU. HE should be doing whatever it takes to capture and hold your attention, and win YOU as a mate. And if that's not happening, then YOU have some responsibilities, too... your second responsibility is to nag.

TELL him he's under-performing, TELL him he's not doing enough, and when push comes to shove, TELL him to go home -- HIS home -- and try again when he's got his act together. Then HOLD HIM TO THAT. If he can make those improvements, then both of your lives will be better for it. You will no longer be dependent on other people for your basic necessities. When your parents someday die (and they will), then you will be the responsible adults that other people look to for comfort and support. And you can stop nagging. Life's pretty good. And he will have learned that he is a better man for having you in his life than he would have been without you.

If he cannot or will not improve, then you have learned something about relationships: it is possible to love someone who is not good for you; who will keep you dependent; who will sap your strength instead of adding to it. You do not need this. You do not want this. But you will HAVE this if you keep him complacent and satisfied with sitting around the house being told how wonderful you think he is anyway. So your third responsibility is to reject him. Because you love him, tell him why, but reject him nevertheless.

Because your first responsibility is to yourself.

And then look for the person who will take the steps necessary to look out for you and secure your future. If you want that person you will find that person, but not if you're taking care of some other woman's grown baby.

Sunday, September 09, 2012


Much of the rhetoric this campaign circles around tax "loopholes" for the rich. Rarely in a speech is it actually said what these "loopholes" are. Most of the people in the audience don't know jack about taxes other than they copy down numbers from a W2 onto a 1040 and add, subtract, multiply and divide where the form tells them. They don't know a loophole from a posthole; the term "loophole" is often being used for the sole effect of implying that there is illegal activity going on.

Wikipedia describes a loophole as "an ambiguity in a system, such as a law or security, which can be used to circumvent or otherwise avoid the intent, implied or explicitly stated, of the system." 

The first thing to note about a loophole is that it is not a sign of illegality. Rather, it is a strict and literal adherence to legality (otherwise it's known as a "crime"). It means a law was written in such a way that strictly adhering to the letter of it leads to a consequence that was not intended by the lawmaker. For instance, my town has an ordinance requiring steps be built to exacting specifications for any entrance to a residence. This could be expensive for property owners when required even for entrances that aren't used. I once saw a landlord screw a sliding glass door shut and hang a sign on it reading, "this is a window". The intent of the law was code-compliant stairs at every working door. The result was one less working door. This is "exploiting a loophole".

The second thing to note is that many of the "loopholes" being talked about aren't even loopholes. They're intentional. For instance, a wealthy person pays a lower tax rate on income than a middle-class person. This isn't a loophole. This is because there is an intentional distinction in the tax law between "investment income" and "earned income". The government wants to encourage investment, so income from investments is taxed at a lower rate. Rich people are the ones with money to invest. Keep in mind that this money, if it just sat in a vault, would earn zero taxes for the government, because it would then be savings, not income! So the wealthy person invests his money, just as he's actively encouraged to do by the government, and then he's castigated by people (many of whom did the encouraging!) for "exploiting a loophole"!

So we hear scare stories that that the very wealthy (including President Obama, btw), pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries. Except, for the very wealthy, very little of their money comes from "earned income". Most of their money comes from investment income. If you're filthy rich you don't have to invest it. You can just put it in a vault, live off of it, and pay pretty much nothing for the rest of your life. We want that money in circulation where it can spur business and pay employees.

Getting that lower tax rate isn't shady business on the part of the investor... but crying about it is certainly shady business on the part of the politician. It's like raising the taxes on a carton of cigarettes to discourage smoking, then bitching at people who quit smoking "to avoid the tax". Or railing at people who put in solar panels because they get tax breaks for it. If you no longer want to encourage investments, then by all means raise those taxes, but don't blame investors for doing what you wanted them to do in the first place.

Of the ones that ARE actual loopholes, most rarely get talked about, because they're head-scratchingly complex. Like this one, reported in the Wall Street Journal.  In my opinion, the best way to close all manner of loopholes is to keep the tax code simple. All the myriad if-then clauses in the tax code add up to an incomprehensible mess that's relatively easily circumvented. Simple, unambiguous rules are harder to avoid.

Personally, I have no problem with pinning the minimum tax rate of the super-wealthy at something higher than what the middle-class pays for earned income. (It would be best to do this tax-raising when the economy is booming, though. Don't let class envy allow you to shoot down the economic recovery. Ask your local economist.)

But please, if you're in conversation with me, before you bandy about the scary L-word in scary all caps, make sure that what you're talking about is an actual loophole, or better yet, piss off. You getting upset about government-encouraged behavior simply makes you look foolish. And decrying the exploitation of loopholes as if it were a criminal act will get you limited sympathy; being limited to unemotional agreement that the loophole should be closed, with zero agreement whatsoever as to the moral or legal culpability of those who followed the letter of the law to its exacting conclusion. The Congress is full of lawyers; if they can't write a better law than this, vote them out. I already agree that loopholes (unintended consequences) should be closed, and you don't need to make yourself look silly to get my agreement on that non-argument.

Government Spending has DROPPED under Obama? Yep.

Talking Points Memo (TPM) reports on "The Gobsmacking Drop In Government Spending Under Obama". In it we're told that the conventional wisdom that Obama is for big government "faces perhaps its starkest rebuttal in new figures that reveal the sharpest decline of the last half-century in real federal, state and local spending during this presidency."  Here's the graph:

This is true, as reported. But the devil, as they say, is in the details. The piece makes the mistake of glossing over some very important points in order to maintain its leftward lean. The first of these is that apples and oranges are being packaged together here. The Federal budget is a very different thing from state and local governments, subject to different pressures and different demands. The fact is that the majority of these spending cuts attributed to Obama were done at the state and local level.

A weak economic recovery is the reason. The Federal government is in a unique position. It literally cannot run out of money. At any time it needs more money it can simply issue Treasury bonds which must be bid on by primary banks and if not bought by them, must be purchased by the Federal Reserve Bank using money that is literally created out of thin air. The effect of this is that the Federal government simply asks for money and it gets it. Of course this is inflationary, but it's just a fact that the Federal government doesn't run out of money, despite political posturing to the contrary.

It's different for states and localities. They can't print their own money, and any borrowing they do isn't the borrowing of money created ex nihilo, it's from people that expect to get repaid. Many have balanced budget requirements which are inflexible. So if their means decrease, so do their expenditures. The fact that they have continued to cut jobs is simply an indication that their means have decreased. And for States (who cannot perform deficit spending, remember, unless they draw on savings), this means that tax income has decreased.

In a normal post-recession economic recovery, jobs in the public sector increase. This is because a recovery is typically strong, and the increasing prosperity leads to higher tax revenues, leading to the spending of those revenues by the states and localities that receive them. This is why you'll find that in times of economic recovery, government spending increases regardless of the party in power. This is typical of the charts that illustrate this:

Govt. Jobs growth. The spike in the red line is due to temporary census hiring.

The problem here is the misinterpretation of the chart. Some folks will hold it up as "proof" that Obama is for smaller government. This is a false proof. ANY president is looking for moderate gains here. Remember, increased tax revenue is what drives state and local government spending (the major component of these trend lines). This is only due to economic growth. You can get there by tax cuts or by deficit spending, and the results are largely the same. The Obama trend line illustrates poor economic growth.

Other folks argue that increased government hiring results in a stronger economy and that "if only" we hadn't laid off all those teachers and firemen we'd be in great shape today. Sadly, this is tail wagging the dog. They forget that states and localities are constrained to balance their budgets. They simply cannot go out and hire people they cannot afford. These trends, therefore, CANNOT be interpreted that way. Hiring follows recovery, not the other way around.

Chad Stone, chief economist for the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, has this to say:
“That saps demand still further aggravating a downturn and inhibiting a recovery. State fiscal assistance in the 2009 recovery act was largely gone by 2011 and state spending cutbacks continued due to pressures for budget austerity in many states and at the federal level.”
The goal of that state fiscal assistance he's referencing was to hang on to state government jobs until the recovery kicked in. Of course that didn't happen, and austerity measures HAD to take place in accordance with numerous state constitutions. This is WHY the graph at the top of this page shows that the spending cuts occurred AFTER the stimulus ENDED. The big factor isn't that Obama's cutting away at waste (though there may be some of that going on); it's that state governors, county administrators, and mayors have necessarily tightened their belts.

Personally, I don't think that's anything I'd be crowing about if I had the choice. But in an election year you have to spin what you've got, and Obama's campaign is doing their best to make lemonade out of a ton of lemons. They're hoping that you won't notice the sleight of hand.

Related: FactCheck.org - Obama's Economic Sleight of Hand.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Gun Control Conspiracy Theory in a Nutshell

I'm going to start this out by stating flat-out that I don't subscribe to conspiracy theories. But I've done quite a bit of research on the nature of them over the last several years. I can admire a well-constructed one without believing it. Here are some simple ones I know to be false:
  • The Jews control everything. Actually, they're just people wanting to live their lives without getting shot, burned, or gassed.
  • Freemasons control everything. Actually, they provide free healthcare for children, and look out for each others' widows and orphans.
  • Republicans want to starve your children. Actually, they want you to feed your children.
  • Democrats want to undermine marriage. Actually, they don't care who you want to marry, and think you should extend others the same courtesy.
A lot of conspiracy theories are loony even at first glance. So there is a general tendency of those who would disprove a conspiracy to dismiss the theorists as "nuts" or simply idiots. If you really think that, then it must be frustrating as all Hell to be stymied by an idiot. And that happens a lot. That attitude results in complacency, inattention to detail, and failure in a debate.

The truth is that conspiracy theorists aren't necessarily stupid. Distrustful, yes. Quick to draw conclusions from weak correlations (as opposed to causes), yes. But not stupid. It's their intelligence that allows them to recognize these correlations and knit them into a tapestry illustrating a plausible story.

There's also a general tendency to believe that facts disprove a conspiracy theory. Far from it. A 'good' conspiracy theory always incorporates facts into it. In my experience, the theorists are often better armed with facts than their critics. They depend on facts. Facts are the poles; the conspiracy is the tent. A conspiracy deals with motivations, ideology, and power. You have as much chance of disproving a good conspiracy theory as you have of disproving the existence of God to the Pope.

Let's look at one current one: Operation Fast and Furious as a gun control scheme. I'm not advocating the theory... this is an illustration.  Please keep that in mind if you want to get crazy in the comments.

The basic background of Operation Fast and Furious (and its Bush-era predecessor, Operation Wide Receiver) is given in Wikipedia. I may edit in a sidebar with other links, but they're not really necessary to this discussion.

The basic proposition of the theory is this:
President Obama's administration supplied guns to Mexican drug cartels in order to frighten the American citizenry into supporting strict gun control laws. 
There are variants involving greater or lesser involvement by the President himself, but that's the basic premise. This conspiracy would implement the following stages:
  1. Make Second Amendment defenders complacent by relaxing gun regulations.
  2. Provide guns to Mexican drug cartels.
  3. Wait for an increase in violent gun crimes committed with American-sourced weapons.
  4. Use the crimes as a reason to pass stricter gun legislation in Obama's second term.
The theorists argue that the first three phases have in fact occurred, therefore the third is imminent. Since this is scheduled for Obama's SECOND term, it is a rallying point to not re-elect Obama, in a bid to retain the full rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment.

THIS IS A GREAT THEORY. I'm not saying it's true... but it's a brilliant theory on aesthetic and logical grounds.
  • It's simple. At its core, this is a classic fake-out. Anybody can understand it. It's like sacrificing the Knight in Chess to capture a Queen in return.
  • It sounds plausible. Three out of four points are objectively true. To a casual listener that sounds compelling. At the introduction the details don't matter. If it sounds plausible then the listener will stay for the details. And once that's done the theorist has control of how the details are presented. He can weave his tapestry.
  • It's non-disprovable. Since the coup de grace occurs in Obama's second term, in the future, then it's nearly impervious to counter-arguments. If the Administration relaxes gun control, it's part of the plot. If they increase it, it's because they hate guns, just like the theorists believe, and don't have all their eggs in one basket. They're damned if they do and damned if they don't.
  • It's shifty. The theory has some logical judo built in. The President doesn't have to have personal involvement. There can be increases or decreases in gun control. etc. This enhances its non-disprovability. And there's plenty of room for irrelevancies. Correlations don't have to strong if there is a mountain of them. The more stuff you cover a theory with, then the easier it is to defend. This doesn't make the theory more complex, though... it's like chaff thrown from an aircraft to confuse enemy radar.
  • It's OLD.  One of the best things that can happen to a conspiracy theory is longevity. For instance, Robert Farago floated the theory a year ago in his blog. In April 2011. Without mentioning Operation Fast and Furious (news that was just breaking at the time),  John Boulton spoke to the NRA about Administration plans to save gun control for Obama's second term. Age enhances plausibility. The theorists can say, "Hey, look, before this was news, we knew about these kinds of plans. And Fast and Furious fits right into place! We thought they were using existing violence as an excuse, but it turns out to be a even more widespread!" They can point to Fast and Furious as the iceberg of which their original suspicions were just the tip. 
A little history
The origins of this theory go back to April 12, 2009, when Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) was interviewed by Leslie Stahl on CBS' 60 Minutes after the 1994 assault weapons ban expired. Feinstein didn't think that the time was right for gun control and stated "I will pick the time and the place, no question about that"  Here's the full story. The relevant quote is at 2:38, but view the whole thing:

This lead to speculation that the "time and place" would be Obama's second term. So you're looking at a three-year old conspiracy theory, embellished through time. Although Obama's track record indicates a dislike for guns and strong gun-control tendencies as a senator, this 60 Minutes piece clearly indicates why he would steer clear of the subject as a first term President.

Its longevity and organic construction make it a very difficult theory to argue against. It started small and evolved, and each new piece fit the rest neatly:
  • The Left want to ban assault guns.
  • BUT the time is not right -->; April 2009 Pelosi says "I'll pick the time" --> speculation that this will be Obama's second term.
  • BUT public sentiment is against the Left -->; change public sentiment
  • Mexican violence exists 
  • AND Operation Fast and Furious is started in October 2009, shortly after Pelosi state's she'll "pick the time".
  • AND Operation Fast and Furious gives American assault weapons to drug cartels.
  • THEREFORE The Left is behind Mexican violence. And the circle is closed.
You start putting printing this stuff out, putting it up on a corkboard, and thumb-tacking red yarn all over the place, and you've got a very coherent picture. At all times the subsequent information fuels the earlier speculation. At all times the focus is clearly on assault weapons. The desire for an assault weapon ban by the Left is incontestable. Obama's reticence to do so is the thing that the theorist finds unusual and needing explanation, given Obama's own voting record.

And so the conspiracy grows.

How to argue against it.

Well, first you don't waste time on the ways that won't work.
  1. Claiming Obama hasn't pushed gun control, therefore he won't. This is an absolutely doomed argument. As you can see from the 60 Minutes video, there are good political reasons why gun control was left alone, and it's not due to preference. It's political poison. 
  2. Claiming that it makes "no sense" for Obama to delay gun control. As the 60 Minutes story shows, it does. So by this false appeal to logic, you're giving the theorist a free pass in this and future arguments. He can accept it, and then claim that his theory doesn't need to make sense because you personally have pointed out a strategy, factually confirmed by the then-Speaker-of-the-House on national television, that "makes no sense."
  3. Claiming Obama's past actions as President indicate his future actions. Again, doomed, for the same reason. The political pressures of a first-term President include re-election. That pressure is lifted for the second term. Obama's past actions pre-date his Presidency, and that includes exceptionally strong advocacy of gun control. Plus, Pelosi undermined the credibility of this argument with her "I'll pick the time and the place" quote.
  4. Blaming Bush. It's irrelevant, and therefore doomed. The salient points of the conspiracy theory have nothing whatsoever to do with losing control of arms. According to the theory, this is by design. So saying that Bush had a similar program -- even saying that it also lost weapons -- proves absolutely nothing. The counter-argument is that the Obama Administration used it as a model because it fit the need and because it provided plausible deniability.
  5. Focusing on details of the Operation Fast and Furious investigation. Doomed because it misses the point. The investigation isn't the conspiracy. It's not even about this conspiracy, either. It's about a cover-up... a completely separate animal. Even if you were to convince someone to halt the investigation, you've still wasted your time with respect to the gun-control theory, because the theory incorporates the motives behind Operation Fast and Furious, which are not addressed by the investigation. And even though the publicly stated motive has always been to track down drug lords, the theorist will hold to the hidden motive of gun control, which remains completely untouched.
  6. Focusing on other gun-control conspiracies. For instance, the United Nations gun control treaty that Dick Morris describes here. This is another doomed tactic. Presumably the purpose of bringing it up would be to paint the theorist as a fear-monger jumping at shadows. It doesn't work. All you're doing is adding yarn to his corkboard. For one thing, he may not be aware of the other conspiracy theories you're bringing up, and this undermines your implication that he was influenced by them. But worse, it is likely to be interpreted by the theorist as evidence of a multi-pronged effort to get a gun ban enacted. The theorist will reply that the conspirators are too intelligent to trust everything to a single plan. 
What does work?

Before you can answer that, you have to recognize that a conspiracy theory is about motives, ideology, and power; not facts.  In every case, there are facts and speculation. Bad theories speculate about facts. Strong theories present facts and speculate about motives. And the motives are always negative. There's never a conspiracy to cure cancer, for example. The same actions can be interpreted completely differently, depending on the quality of your tin foil hat. For example:
  • Scenario A: Mr. Jones closed his unprofitable plant in Duluth because he's obsessed with profit. He doesn't care about the workers. He destroyed 200 jobs.
  • Scenario B: Mr. Jones closed his unprofitable plant in Duluth because if he didn't the company would go bankrupt, forcing closure of five other plants. He feels an obligation to save what jobs he can. He saved 1,000 jobs.
The facts are not in dispute. Mr. Jones closed an unprofitable plant. Only his motive is in question. Whether it's a conspiracy theory is determined by whether many people are thought to be involved in the "plot". Whether it's a nut case depends on whether the ascribed motive matches the actual motive, and we can't necessarily get that from Mr. Jones, as he may be lying. Just remember, the facts are rarely in dispute, so arguing them is largely pointless. You have to go to motive.

Then you have to remember that any motive you give is already matched by a counter motive (as in our Jones example). So your motives must be simpler and more believable than that of the theorist. For Operation Fast and Furious, for example, here's an example that's better than a conspiracy theory (and why it's better):
Law Enforcement wanted to catch drug lords. (positive!) So they implemented a strategy that was useful in the past (positive) But they got too ambitious (still positive... at least they were trying) and screwed up. (believable!) It was a mistake.
"I screwed up" is always effective because conspirators rarely expect it. It's way too honest for them to anticipate.

But Operation Fast and Furious is only one point of a much larger conspiracy theory, as we've seen. To get rid of the larger theory, you have to do this at every node, offering positive, believable alternate motives that fit the facts of every case, and show that the links between cases are correlation, not causation. Cut every single strand of yarn. And then you have to be prepared for the derisive criticism, "You have an answer for everything, don't you!"

In other words, it may still not work. At some point you have to recognize that you're arguing religion with the Pope, and just shrug and go play Jenga instead.

"If this theory is so good...

...why don't I subscribe to it?" Yeah, I knew you'd ask that.

First of all, when I say it's a "good conspiracy theory", I simply mean it's effective. It convinces a lot of people. I'm not making a value judgement on it.

I don't subscribe to it because I see too much correlation and not enough causation. Although there is a lot of motivation and plotting listed, there is a lack of hard evidence that actually links that motivation to actions. Remember, a conspiracy theory is about motives, not facts. If you can ascribe other motives that fit the facts there's no compelling reason to believe in the theory. Also, I subscribe to Hanlon's Razor:
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. - Robert J. Hanlon
Sometimes "stupidity" replaced with "incompetence". The point is, it's extremely tough for the Administration to pull off such a well-orchestrated, visionary plan. When you look at all the high-profile things that they've botched, it becomes difficult to believe they'd be successful, and highly unlikely that they'd even try. Also, in order to believe the conspiracy you have to accept that people are working in secret for nefarious motives. I don't believe that anybody gets into politics because they're some diabolical mastermind. They do it because they sincerely want to make a change for the better. Diabolical motives are a bright red flag that a theory is likely to be false (there's an exception to that, which I'll save for another post). People believe that the other guy is evil simply because they think they have the best solution; and the other guy is working on something other than the best solution. Because of their differing perspectives, each side sees the other's attempts as countermanding "good"; and therefore declare them "evil".

And because I don't believe in the conspiracy, and I "have no dog in this race" I'm not concerned with either defending or crucifying the President; so I have no really good motivation to pursue it further. I'm certainly not inclined to play "whack-a-mole" with fanatics.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Did Obama Base His Campaign on a Comic Book?

I was going through some back issues of "The Adventures of Superman", and came across some interesting issues (#619 and #620) from 2003. What intrigued me were some parallels with the 2008 election between Barack Obama and John McCain. Though I was aware (vaguely) of the story arc, I didn't make the connection then. Keep in mind that at two issues this was a very short arc.

So here's the deal. Out of nowhere, an extremely charismatic figure shows up and announces his candidacy for President of the United States. As you apparently can in the comics, he does this without disclosing his real name, billing himself only as "The Candidate".  

So what is the platform? Well... there is none, really. At least no significant policy platform. He does, however, run on slogans involving hope, change, and distrust of the current administration (and since Lex Luthor is the incumbent President in this reality, it's not that hard to be distrustful).



Rhetoric over Policy

Now, the parallel isn't perfect. It hardly could be. This was published five years before the 2008 elections. "The Candidate" is the stereotypical whitebread Arian minister-type in a white suit, while Obama delivered the same message format from a Black pulpit. But it's uncanny all the same. And the parallel doesn't need to be exact to illustrate my point... I'm not suggesting that DC comics was prognosticating. Rather, I'm wondering -- given the indisputable facts that this hugely popular comic came first and illustrated a very similar campaign strategy for the most recent previous election cycle -- whether someone influential on Obama's campaign team read it, thought it could work, and adopted it. Whether it was done consciously or not really doesn't matter. I think a solid argument can be made that  the 2008 campaign was based on a comic book!

Distrust the incumbent!
Not hard... the incumbent is Lex Luthor!
Who does he think he is, anyway?
"...a light will shine down from somewhere. It will light upon you.
You will experience an epiphany.
And you will say to yourself, 'I have to vote for Barack.'"
-- Barack Obama, Jan 7, 2008

The Next Effort... a little background, and a conspiracy

So what about the latest campaign? Could we conceivably see more of the same?  Well, let's look at those DC comics issues again, shall we? And be warned that in this section I'm going to float a conspiracy theory, not because I believe it, but purely because it was fun cooking it up based on a comic book juxtaposed against current events. You can build a conspiracy theory on just about anything... it's not particularly difficult.

In the news feed we have a lot of recent activity regarding Operation Fast and Furious, a scheme in which illegal firearms were knowingly sold to puppets of Mexican drug cartels, in the hopes of somehow tracking the weapons (presumably through magic) to the cartels themselves, and leading to their arrest. Instead, in a twist that surprised no one but the Justice Department, the guns were used in crimes, and resulted the deaths of many innocent people and two border patrol agents. Now, Operation Fast and Furious was an Obama administration continuation of a similarly stupid Bush administration plan, Project Gunrunner (same link). It should have been pretty simple to kill the project rather than rename it and continue it. But because it was renamed and continued, I'm afraid the current administration doesn't get to blame this one on the previous crew (as they very well could have done IF they had just killed it).

But who to blame is not the intriguing and relevant part of this.

Today we saw Barack Obama invoke executive privilege regarding papers that were subpoenaed by Congress from the Attorney General's office. Now the safe, sane, political approach to this would simply be to find out who was responsible for this mishegoss and rightly toss his ass under a bus. Whoever it is belongs under the bus, so that's not even a moral dilemma. But instead, the Attorney General has stonewalled Congress for months, and now the President assumes responsibility of the problem by declaring executive privilege.

"Assumes responsibility?" you gasp. Well, yes. The precedent is clear. In 1972, Richard Nixon did not break into the Watergate hotel. He didn't order anyone to do it, either, and at no time did anyone indict him of that. He did, however, attempt to cover it up after the fact, invoking executive privilege to do so, and that's what lead to his resignation (contrary to popular belief he was not impeached).  It was Nixon injecting himself into the situation, protecting those who did wrong on his behalf, that took him out.

Because of the Watergate scandal, the Supreme Court was asked to rule on the subject of executive privilege, ruling in United States v Nixon (1974) that the privilege could only be invoked when involving communications of his own office, and then for specific causes, which could in fact be over-ruled, as in the case of Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

So again, the sane political approach is to prosecute wrongdoers, not protect them. This leaves precious few reasons to legitimately invoke executive privilege. One is because there are ongoing national security concerns, military or otherwise. Another is because of diplomatic concerns. A third is because you personally were involved in the conversations (and even then it's limited, as we saw with Clinton). Now, it would be the easy course for my fictional conspiracy to be due to the President's involvement in Operation Fast and Furious. Too easy. No, here I'm imagining the President to be completely innocent... squeaky clean... and injecting himself for a fourth reason, one that's more in keeping with the tone of our comic-book conspiracy and which keeps us on topic.

In "The Adventures of Superman" issue #619, we're told that "The Candidate" is the target of an assassination plot.  In issue #620, it's revealed that the hit man (in this case an alien, but hey, it's the comics) was hired by none other than "The Candidate" himself! Why? Because in casting himself as a martyr... a victim... he secures his popularity and his legacy. 

So in our imaginary Glenn Beck-inspired almost-Earth, Barack Obama injects himself into the issue because he wants to be investigated. He wants to be a victim and to be persecuted. He can pick any reason to blame it on... racism, demagoguery, just plain "mean-oldness"... it doesn't matter. The end result is that he can say to the public, "Hey, I've got your back, now I need you to have mine!" In a campaign end-game it gives him an emotional string to pull to replace the worn-out and increasingly ineffectual one of Bush-hatred.

The very best part of it is, when it turns out that the President really is squeaky-clean, and his exertion of executive privilege is for no apparent reason at all, everyone else loses. He still gets to assert that in his assessment, national security was at stake. Your assessment may differ, but that's an 'honest' disagreement. He still gets to assert that he's the victim of a witch-hunt, despite any reasonable doubts raised by continued stone-walling of Congress. In this scenario, inserting his innocent self into this scenario is an exercise of the old adage, "there's no such thing as bad publicity." And he still gets to play an emotional wild-card on the electorate, even if it be one of his own manufacture.

Of course, that's the sort of thing that could only happen in a comic book.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Scotty or La Forge?

Jules Sherred asked the question, "Scotty or La Forge? Why?"

Well, the answer is obviously, "Scotty". I started listing reasons, and it's now become something of a mini-meme for me. So here are a few, and feel free to add yours in comments.

  1. They actually did appear together, and even though 75 years out of the loop, Scotty STILL took Geordi's butt to school on transporter, impulse engine AND deflector shield theory.
  2. Scotty's a miracle worker.
  3. Geordi quoted impulse engine specs. Scotty wrote them.
  4. Scotty could sport a kilt with nary a trace of embarrassment.
  5. Scotty rocked the bagpipes.
  6. Scotty could rule the Center Seat as easily as he ruled Engineering
  7. Scotty was a badass. 
    1. Quote: "Diplomats! The best diplomat I know is a fully activated phaser bank." ( A Taste of Armageddon)
    2. Quote: "The Enterprise takes no orders, except those of Captain Kirk. And if you make any attempt to board or commandeer the Enterprise, it will be blown to bits along with as many of you as we can take with us." (The Enterprise Incident)  
    3. Quote: "You mind your place, mister, or you'll be wearing concrete galoshes." (A Piece of the Action)
  8. Never once in his career did La Forge utter something as cool as, "there be whales here!"
  9. Geordi drank "synthahol" (ugh). Scotty drank whiskey.
  10. Scotty could drink an Andromedan under the table (and did!)
  11. Scotty managed to drink the hard stuff without ever going blind.
  12. Scotty started a bare-fisted barroom brawl with Klingons rather than allow the name of his Enterprise to be besmirched.
  13. Geordi started out as a navigator: Scotty was born an engineer.
  14. The first thing the infant Scotty did was bypass the flow regulators on his mother's teats.
  15. Scotty dated flesh-and-blood women and risked his life for them (romantic!): Geordi fell in love with a program (pathetic!)
  16. Scotty faced off with a god. (Who Mourns for Adonis)
  17. Step out of line and Scotty will beam your ass into space. Wide dispersal.
  18. Scotty invented transwarp beaming. Trust me, it's cool: "The notion of transwarp beaming is like trying to hit a bullet with a smaller bullet, whilst wearing a blindfold, riding a horse." Yet, he does it.
  19. Scotty canna break the laws of physics... but he's found a few new ones to play with.
  20. Scotty keeps the formula for transparent aluminum in his head.
  21. Scotty can beam a life-form from one planet to another... and someday they'll find that beagle and prove it!
  22. Sybok couldn't take Scotty's pain... because Scotty doesn't feel any.
  23. The Enterprise-D took five minutes to get stuck in an alien Dyson sphere... it took Scotty to get them out.

Friday, March 23, 2012

On "Giving Back"

I’ve written before about how wealth is created. Regardless of how you earn your living -- whether you sell products, knowledge, opportunities, or labor -- you are engaging in a trade. The labor I'm do is worth so much per hour: I give you my work, you give me the money. The opportunities I provide through investment have value. Every individual transaction, fairly traded, is a zero-sum transaction. Something of value is traded for like value. Even in a profit-making situation every trade is value-for-value. Though I bought a product for less and sell it for more, the sale is to someone who values it more. I've added value by realizing an opportunity. I inject expertise or convenience into the equation, and that's where the added value comes from. There is a limited supply of labor and resources in the world, but a never-ending font of knowledge and creativity and effort. This is why the total value in the world far exceeds what can be calculated from all the mining and logging and manufacturing ever done. Every idea you have creates value. You add to the value of the world by having ideas. Note that I'm talking about a purely idealistic capitalistic society here, in which everyone is providing value for what they consume.

I've been amused by the phrase "giving back to the community". Lately that amusement has given way to annoyance at the way it's typically used. If you understand the above paragraph, and you work or trade for a living, then you realize that you cannot possibly give back to a community that never actually gave you anything to begin with. Every transaction is value-for-value. You can't "give back" that which you were never “given”.

But you CAN “give”. This isn't a subtle difference. Giving is a charity, giving is a virtue, giving is an expression of selflessness and concern. Giving is an expression of love.

“Giving back” is an onus, a responsibility. You have too much and you got it without providing fair value. You have to give it back. It is an expression of guilt, and a response to class envy. It's not yours, you don't deserve it. Give it back. (Keep in mind here that I'm not talking about “giving back” when used by an individual in the sense of voluntary giving. My complain is about the phrase when imposed.)

“Giving back” is one of the greatest success stories ever achieved by those who would pervert a healthy social system through ill-conceived good intentions. It's so successful that I'd be willing to bet that many of the people reading this are already offended by what I’ve written. They actually feel anger, and are thinking to themselves, “Wait! No! It's not like that at all!”
Well, YES. It is. It's EXACTLY like that.
You've been told a lie. You've been told you can achieve too much, can do too much, can be too successful. Rather than being encouraged to engage in a selfless expression of love, you've been guilt-tripped into paying extortion. You may even have believed it, and repeated it, and thought yourself socially progressive for it. The truth is that you can achieve whatever your imagination, talents, and adventurous spirit will allow, without limit. You don't owe anyone for the privilege of having worked hard, been creative, and achieved your dreams. Charity is still a virtue: it is not a ball and chain.

Nevertheless, you have willingly accepted that ball and chain by those who tell you incessantly how unworthy you are to keep that which you produced. I find it sad that people can be hoodwinked into taking such satisfaction from being so terribly destructive.

We don't live in a capitalistic ideal, and never will. There are people who are pure consumers. Some of them are by choice; others not by choice. Those people who can ONLY take can, in fact “give back”. They're the only ones who can, as they've incurred a debt to society through one-sided consumerism. We can even put exact monetary figures on that debt.

Criminals in prison literally owe a debt. A criminal, released from prison, may say, “I’ve paid my debt to society.” Well, not really. Such a phrase is a convenient legal fiction. Yes, he was stripped of his freedom for a time. And he was fed, and clothed, and housed, and taught. All of this accrues a continuing debt to society, which is only paid by his getting a job and not landing himself back in jail. For that small corrective action the debt is forgiven. Not repaid... forgiven. The debts incurred by criminals aren't just monetary, and some can never be repaid: there is no penance great enough. But they can be forgiven.

Technically, those on welfare incur a debt. We call welfare programs "entitlements", but they're really not. No one should ever be “entitled” to stop doing their best to contribute to society within the limits of their ability. No one should ever be “entitled” to live for free on someone else’s dime. Not everyone who's on welfare gives up, but some do, and they're not entitled to do so. On the other hand, anybody could find themselves in a position where they need help, and human beings have a responsibility to each other. We should provide welfare to those who can’t work not because they’re “entitled” to it, but because it’s the decent thing to do.

It's time to tell the Emperor he's naked. I don't care if the entire kingdom applauds his new clothes, he's still naked, and I'll say it. Only criminals give back, and honest success is not a crime. People who are successful should be charitable to a degree according to their success. Those who are very successful should be philanthropists. It is a privilege and a virtue and a moral responsibility[*] to give freely and unreservedly. Those who are pure consumers should respond with that measure of gratitude which common decency demands. You are not entitled. No one is. So a “thank you” and an attempt to better your own condition is in order. That’s all that should be demanded of you, and it’s not too much. It is never, never, ever demeaning to show gratitude for that which you’re given.

What bothers me most about the prevalent spin on social values is that it strips us of charity and love and gratitude, and replaces these honest virtues with theft and entitlement and greed masquerading as virtues. The difference is profound. A person who is robbed responds with resentment, and by securing his remaining assets, leading to miserly behavior. A person who is entitled responds by taking without gratitude and without incentive for improvement, leading to stagnation. On both sides, this approach results in a loss of civility.

So do not expect me to characterize charity as “giving back”. It’s with joy and love and enthusiasm that we should give, and not because it's "owed" to any person.

[*] There's a word in Hebrew: "mitzvah". This means a commandment from God, but it also means "a good deed" or "a blessing". How is a commandment a blessing? Because it is a supreme honor to be commanded by God, and the greatest, most profound privilege to perform that command. A mitzvah is never onerous. It is never a chore. It is often a very difficult thing for non-religious people to understand. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Some Thoughts on Copyright

Note: this is a long article. A lot of folks will just say "TL;DNR" and move on. Frankly, I don't care if you read it or not. It needed to be said, and in one place. If you like any part of it and want to pass on the thought, fine. It's licensed under Creative Commons, Non-Commercial, Attribution. Leave a comment to request any other use.

The RIAA, the MPAA, and other "industry associations" such as the BSA describe copyright infringement as "theft", "piracy", "plagiarism", and describe it as destructive of the original author's work. This applies to music, motion pictures, books, articles and news stories, and software.
"It’s commonly known as “piracy,” but that’s too benign of a term to adequately describe the toll that music theft takes on the enormous cast of industry players working behind the scenes to bring music to your ears. That cast includes songwriters, recording artists, audio engineers, computer technicians, talent scouts and marketing specialists, producers, publishers and countless others."
At best this is hyperbole, and at worst an outright lie. So let's look at those claims.
  • Is it theft?
  • Is it piracy?
  • Is it plagiarism?
  • Is it destructive of the original author's work?

Is Copying theft?

No. Nina Paley (of QuestionCopyright.org) has illustrated this clearly with a simple one-minute animation:

Kindly note that this video does NOT state that copyright infringement is OK. If you interpret that to be the message, then you don't understand the issue at all. Keep reading. The message is quite clearly, copying is not theft. And it's not.

Copyright infringement is clearly distinct from theft. Furthermore, only some copying is copyright infringement. Here are some cases where it's not.

There is no infringement when the work is fairly used. Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 allows Fair Use for a number of reasons, including commentary, parody, educational purposes, and citation.

There is a vast body of work in the Public Domain. These ideas have no owner, as their copyright has lapsed (or never existed). Included in these are the Grimm Fairy Tales upon which Walt Disney based his vast entertainment empire. Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty... every single one of these were re-tellings of stories that were written by other people.

Likewise, there is a vast body of work that is in the Creative Commons. This means that the authors have explicitly allowed their use for exactly the purposes that the RIAA and the MPAA would claim are destructive. Why would an author do that? Because free play increases sales, despite what the RIAA say. More about that in a bit. The plain fact is that copying Creative Commons works is not and by definition cannot be theft.

But what about what the RIAA says about taking money from the songwriters and engineers, etc.? Doesn't copyright infringement have the same end effect as theft? Isn't it stealing from them?

No, it's not. My opinion is that it is the RIAA that is stealing from them. Follow the links in this previous post to see exactly how they do it. It's not my opinion alone. Courtney Love famously "Did the math" in this Salon article.  Film studios engage in similar "creative accounting" that asserts that the Harry Potter films have lost money, and ensures that any deal involving net profits is a sucker bet.

Is Copying Piracy?

Not in any of the senses where it's not theft.

The RIAA, et al. use the term "piracy" in order to evoke its common meaning, that of "robbery or criminal violence at sea". As we've already seen, it's not theft (robbery). That leaves violence. Nope, not piracy. Case closed.

Or it would be if this weren't common usage. The usage goes back to 1603, for copyright infringement. Just don't imagine black flags and cutlasses, and remember that mere copying -- minus infringement -- is not piracy.

Is Copying Plagiarism?

No. Plagiarism is passing off someone else's work as your own. Neither verbatim copying nor copyright infringement meet this description. In academia it's pretty clear: copying without attribution is plagiarism; copying with attribution is a citation. Plagiarism is forbidden; citations are required. Those who advocate Open Source software and Creative Commons works are very careful to promote proper and grateful attribution of the works that enrich the Creative Commons.

Here's an example, again by Nina Paley:

I can't stress enough that the Creative Commons community is intensely respectful of copyright. The purest expression of that deep respect is to say to someone, "if you will not share then I will not steal your product. I will not buy it, either. I will not read it in the library. I will grant you the anonymity you have demanded, and deserve. Instead, I will support independent artists, authors, and musicians."  Commercial copyright holders do their best to promote piracy by instilling a strong desire to obtain products that are over-priced. It is through exercise of will and conviction, and not by any assistance from the commercial interests, that the Creative Commons community respects their rights.

Not that the commercial interests are too concerned with returning the favor. It is a solid iron-clad fact that the Creative Commons community depend on copyright law to keep commercial ventures from stealing from humanity and claiming ownership of and profiteering from things that were not written by the corporations. Commercial interests that do not understand the difference between this and public domain often fall foul of their own rules.  Examples:

Outside the realm of software, the RIAA claims that they have "the right" to collect "royalties" for Internet radio use of music for nonmembers as well as members, even when no royalties are due, as in the case of Creative Commons. I am one of those nonmember composers. My songs, poor though they may be, have been repeatedly played on Internet Radio. This is not theft. Royalties are not due. And the RIAA and SoundExchange have no right whatsoever to steal from anyone who plays my songs. And what they would like to do isn't something that can merely be "considered theft"... in my view, it IS theft, and it IS plagiarism when the RIAA claims ownership over that which they did not write and for which no rights were transferred to them by the legitimate owner. Is it possible that this practice makes the RIAA the single biggest copyright infringer on this planet? Think about it.

Is Copying Destructive?

I'm going to refer you back to Nina's video. Really.

It's obvious that the original remains unchanged. In the case of re-mixing and derivative works, the worst you can say is that the original author doesn't like the changes. That's pretty much ALWAYS the case, even with licensed works. Alan Moore won't even look at what Hollywood did to The Watchmen. And I'm pretty sure that if Hans Christian Andersen were alive he'd look down his nose at the mess Disney made of his Little Mermaid.

What is Copying, then?

Copying is exactly what it says... making a copy. If you're looking for illegality, sorry to disappoint.

Copyright infringement is the violation of a specific set of laws dealing with the temporary grant of exclusivity to the works of certain authors. It is illegal, and there are certain penalties for infringing. However, infringement is not robbery, it is not violence, and as we've seen, shady accounting allows record labels to appropriate far more from artists than they pretend to save through "championship". When stripped of hyperbole the urgency disappears. That's why the hyperbole is used.

Some History About Infringement, and Other Thoughts...

Public domain is the "natural state" of any intellectual work. Intellectual works are simply ideas, and once communicated, they are incapable of being retracted, unlike physical property. This is a very basic logical fact, very well understood until very recently. The freedom of information was held in such high regard in ancient Egypt that Ptolemy ordered that visiting ships be searched for books that were copied by scribes. The originals were returned to their owners, and the copies placed in the Library of Alexandria. Throughout history it was the common practice of monks to exchange books between monasteries so that they might be copies, shared, and disseminated.

Only recently, through misinformation, has this attitude changed. But the truth remains: you have no natural right to control the use of an idea that you have communicated to another person. Go back and read that again, because it's a very fundamental fact of life. You have no right to control what another person, of free will, does with information that is in his possession. Merely thinking a thought does not make you a slavemaster. If you wanted to control the information entirely, then you should have kept it to yourself. This is known as a trade secret. Trade secrets are commonplace.

Learning from their environment is what humans do. It's what makes us human. Using what we've learned is not theft. Not now, not ever. However, our founding fathers were aware of a paradox: information is only valuable to society as long as it is shared; but when shared it loses value to the originator that his monopoly would have granted him. In other words, most processes would be trade secrets if the inventor were not given some incentive to share them for the larger benefit of society. So the U.S. Constitution states in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 that one of the powers of Congress is:
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
There are three important concepts here:
  1. The intent is to promote the progress of science and the useful arts.
  2. Congress grants this right (it is not a natural right),
  3. It is granted only for a limited time
Note particularly hat if a copyright law does not promote progress, it's not working as intended; If it asserts that there is such a thing as "intellectual property" to which someone can claim ownership other than as granted by in accordance with the Constitution, then it is wrong; and that if it has permanence, it is unconstitutional.

Congress originally granted a limited term of 28 years to copyright as a compromise to the the natural state of not existing at all. Today the law is so perverted that the default copyright for an individual work is the entire lifetime of the author + 70 years. For all intents and purposes, this is unlimited... for anything I write, it's my entire lifetime, plus another 70 years. There are plenty who would play word games with the Constitution and declare that "forever less one day" satisfies the Constitution. Really. 
"Actually, Sonny wanted the term of copyright protection to last forever. I am informed by staff that such a change would violate the Constitution. ... As you know, there is also [then-MPAA president] Jack Valenti's proposal for term to last forever less one day. Perhaps the Committee may look at that next Congress.
So not only can they not do proper accounting, they also can't do proper math. To them, infinity minus one is less than infinity.

The RIAA uses their perverted notion of copyright to ensure that a controlled work is not "stolen" into the Public Domain... not even by copyright expiration if possible.

Nevertheless, the recording industry has release works for free since before the RIAA existed, and continues to do so today. They do it through radio, through licensing to clubs, and through television outlets like VH1.

If they did not do this, then no one would know the songs existed. People have always bought records because they heard the song for free from somewhere else. Before radio, "song pluggers" were employed by stores to play the sheet music so customers could get a free preview. The music industry claimed that radio would kill music sales because no one would need to buy music. They were wrong. When tape recorders were invented, the music industry claimed that it would kill song sales. They were wrong. Likewise, the MPAA declared that VCRs would kill cinema attendance. They were wrong, too. They have always been wrong, and continue to be wrong with regard to file sharing, according to an independent study. At least they're consistent.

The same core impetus for music sales remains unchanged... getting it out there so people can hear it, for free, without risk. If they like it, they'll buy it. Not everybody who likes it will buy it; but then again, that has never happened historically either. The recording industry would like to charge you for every listen of every song, and declare radio to be piracy, even though they have been known to pay radio stations to play their songs, thus inflating record sales. They make ridiculous demands because they can... at least they could. They're finding it harder to make their case.

Album sales have plummeted. But the reason is obvious to anyone who actually buys music. We bought albums because we pretty much had to. When vinyl singles were sold, they were incredibly popular at about a buck a disk. But singles disappeared with the advent of cassette and CD, because they weren't cost effective. Digital outlets like iTunes restored the supply of what people actually wanted... the single. No more did you have to buy 11 songs you didn't want to get the one you did. And revenues dropped accordingly, because you're now paying 99 cents for the single instead of $12.99 for the album you didn't want.

For that matter, no more do you have to buy music at all. For many years, the recording industry perpetuated a fiction that decent music was produced by only a smattering of people with Big Resources and Big Talent, and you could only get it through the Big Labels. Fiction indeed. There are plenty more artists where they came from, and with the technology available today, nobody needs to go through the big record labels. Not artists; not consumers. As a result, nobody with a brain wants to work for the big labels, and the talent they've offered as steadily declined as a result.

Many talented artists like Jonathan Coulton have begun to publish independently, and have found that they can make a living at it.  He publishes music for free, and people like it and give him money in return. Do they have to? No. But against everything the RIAA et al. will tell you, they do.

The same holds true for books. Authors like Corey Doctorow come to mind.

Likewise for software. Linus Torvalds, the author of the immensely popular Linux operating system, gives the software away. He'll never reach Bill Gates' net worth, but he's making $10 million a year, with a net worth of $150 million.

The Creative Commons is a way for artists to ensure that for the length of copyright a work cannot be "stolen" from the Public Domain. The author retains his copyright, but grants a license so that the work can be freely copied only so long as you agree to do likewise.

So forget piracy. Adopt the Zen philosophy of not desiring that which you cannot have, and allow the RIAA to fall kicking and screaming into the abyss. Stick with Creative Commons and copy with impunity.