May I? or Can I?

In discussing the legal debate over gay marriage, Michael W. Hannon cites an important, but generally ignored distinction:

Think back to the embarrassing and obnoxious response your teacher used to give when a student would ask, “Can I go to the bathroom?” “I don’t know,” she would say, “Can you?” The child’s mistake lay in confusing “Can I?”—an interrogative dealing with possibility—with “May I?”—which pertains rather to permissibility. Instead of asking whether he was allowed to go to the bathroom, the confused pupil accidentally asked if he was capable of that feat at all. Yet childhood errors have a way of coming back to haunt us, and that is precisely what has happened in the debate over redefining marriage.

Olson, Boies, and their allies have systematically confused a debate about metaphysical possibility with one about political permissibility. They are arguing that our government ought to let same-sex couples marry, and they are convinced that their opponents are arguing over the same point, just on the other side of the issue.

But that is a gross mischaracterization of the disagreement. For our position is not that the government should refuse to let such couples marry, but rather that the government is utterly impotent with regard to this question. Our response to same-sex couples desirous of marriage is not “You may not,” but rather, “You cannot.” We do not seek to bar anyone from marriage; we just believe marriage is a union that is necessarily and by its very nature heterosexual. Maybe we are right, or maybe Olson and Boies are. But regardless, the question to be settled in this debate is not whether to bring a latent potency into actuality, but whether there is in fact any potency present in the first place.

Framing the issue as a “May I?” dispute allows the superlawyers their stirring rhetoric about prejudice and civil rights. But, more perniciously, this mischaracterization also allows them to conceal the circularity of their argument for those discrimination claims.

Boies and Olson’s underlying judgment is that, because same-sex couples could get married if only the government would let them, marriage is therefore not necessarily a heterosexual institution. And at that point, the pair understandably concludes that there remains no principled reason to oppose the legal redefinition of marriage, since they have established that sexual difference has no bearing on the nature of marriage at all. In Yoshino’s words, they think that, shorn of any principled objections, the adversaries to their policy must be motivated merely by “pride, prejudice, and fear.”

But their argument presumes exactly what it was meant to prove. If you begin by saying that it is within the government’s power to extend marriage to same-sex couples, then of course sexual difference is not an essential feature of marriage. If you frame this as a “May I?” disagreement, then you necessarily treat the “Can I?” question as already settled. But that line of thinking fatally begs the question, because the “Can I?” question is not settled at all.

For if those of us who oppose the legal enshrinement of so-called “same-sex marriage” are correct, then the government can no more make same-sex couples married than it can make pi equal to three. In other words, no judicial or legislative fiat can make two men married if marriage is by its very nature heterosexual. And since that is the true point of contention in this debate, presuming that the government has the power to extend marriage to same-sex couples cannot serve as the starting point for discussion.

via The Abolition of Man-and-Woman: On Marriage, Grammar, and Legal Strategy | Public Discourse.

Farewell to Hostess

Hostess Brands is dissolving the company.  The refusal of union workers to take a pay cut was the last straw, but the company was already in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Losing their jobs will be 18,500 employees at 33 factories and 500 stores. But at least they didn’t have to take a pay cut!

Hostess made products that became icons of American culture:  Twinkies, Wonder Bread, Snow Balls, Ding Dongs, Ho-Hos, and (my favorite) Hostess Cupcakes.   Other Hostess brands include Nature’s Pride, Butternut, Drake’s, Home Pride, and (my favorite) Dolly Madison.  (No more of those white powdered donuts?)

Remember the “Twinkie Defense,” in which an accused murderer pleaded that he was not responsible for his actions because he ate too much junk-food, being in a state of sugar intoxication when he killed his victim?  That didn’t work.  For other examples of Twinkies in American culture, read this.

Apparently, America has been giving up that soft, pillowy, white bread in favor of hard, wheaty, textured bread, and cutting back on sugary treats with cream filling in favor of healthy, locally-grown snacks.  (Well, that part’s unlikely.  So what happened to these products?)

They were certainly fixtures of my childhood.  I remember pondering how Hostess got that filling into the cakes!  And how can I have Thanksgiving without turkey leftovers on that soft Wonderbread?

A petition has been started asking the White House to bail-out the company.  Hostess is too delicious to fail!  Meanwhile, Twinkie hoarding has begun.  A box of ten is going for as much as $229.99 at E-bay.

But surely, for the sake of America and all that is sweet and soft and gooey, as Hostess liquidates and sells its assets, surely  some other company will buy the rights to the Hostess icons.

Twinkie maker Hostess moves to wind down operations, lay off its 18,500 workers – The Washington Post.

Baseball post-mortem

I was glad to see that the Washington Nationals’ Davey Johnson won the National League’s manager of the year.  He also won the award for the American League back in 1997 when he managed  the Baltimore Orioles.  On the same day that reward was announced for getting the Orioles into the post-season for the first time in decades, he got fired.  That won’t happen this time, as the 70-year-old agreed to come back to Washington for one more year before he retires for good.  He took a bad, hapless, hopeless team and turned it, virtually overnight, into the winningness team in baseball.

And, along that line, going from old to young, the National’s Bryce Harper won Rookie of the Year.  He was 19 for most of the season and his infectious energy, as well as his penchant for getting on base and then stealing them, contributed greatly to the team’s successful season.

I was hoping for a trifecta for the Nationals, the home team I’m now following in my new home, but the team’s ace, Gio Gonzalez (not Stephen Strasburg, great young pitcher that he is) finished third in the NL Cy Young.  Usually winning more games than anyone, going 21-8, having 207 strikeouts, and a 2.89 ERA is enough to get you a Cy Young, but this year’s award went to the Met’s kuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who went 20-6.  Since the Mets were a losing team, I can see that this was a greater feat.   race despite having

Gonzalez led the Major Leagues with 21 victories, led the team in strikeouts with 207 and had a 2.89 ERA in 32 games. However, Dickey, who went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA, led the NL in starts, complete games, shutouts and innings pitched. The Dodger’s Clayton Kershaw came in second, despite his lowlier 14-9 record, because he came out so well in the sophisticated number crunching of sabremetrics.


Balance of powers vs. balance of parties

In his column on attempts to the reform the filibuster, Ezra Klein points out that the Founders built into the Constitution a balance of competing arms of the government that would check and balance each other.  What we have now, however, is a system of competing political parties that check and balance each other.

It’s true the Founding Fathers wanted to make legislating hard. That’s why they divided power among three branches. It’s why senators used to be directly appointed by state legislatures. It’s why the House, the Senate and the president have staggered elections, so it usually takes a big win in two or more consecutive elections for a party to secure control of all three branches.

But the Founders didn’t want it to be this hard. They considered requiring a supermajority to pass legislation and rejected the idea. “Its real operation,” Alexander Hamilton wrote of such a requirement, “is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of government and to substitute the pleasure, caprice or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent or corrupt junta, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority.” Sound familiar?

The Founders also opposed political parties — though they went on to start a couple — and couldn’t have foreseen how highly disciplined parties would subvert the political system they designed. Instead of the branches competing against one another, as they envisioned, we now have two parties competing uniformly across all branches.

via Is this the end for the filibuster?.

Parliamentary systems require political parties.  The leader of the majority party becomes the Prime Minister.  Such forms of government work best when there are a number of parties that can then form coalitions and alliances.  I suppose our political parties were copied from those of England.

America’s constitution, however, does not require parties, and our national founders warned against them.

What would happen if we were to abolish all political parties?  As it is, the role of parties in elections has shrunk considerably with SuperPacs and independent campaign fundraising.  Why not turn that into a virtue?

Individual candidates and politicians would still form factions, caucuses, and interest-groups.  But these alliances would be fluid, varying from issue to issue.  There would still be individuals who ran as conservatives, liberals, and other ideologies in the legislature, and there might be organizations that supported them.  But a  Senator with libertarian sympathies could vote with  liberal colleagues on drug laws and conservative colleagues on free market issues.  Pro-life coalitions could include both religious conservatives and social-justice liberals.

I know it will be said, political parties are inevitable.  And, arguably, they once were.  But what do political parties do now in the age of the internet, political action committees, open primaries, and grass roots activism?  They serve as the gatekeepers of who gets to be on the ballot in the presidential campaigns.  But their political conventions have become mostly irrelevant.  Surely another mechanism could be put into place, such as a series of primary elections, beginning on the local level and continuing onto the state, regional, and national levels.  Couldn’t this re-vitalize our democracy and our representative form of government?

How shale is sparking an American industrial revival

You want some good economic news?  Technology to extract natural gas from shale formations has created an abundance of cheap energy that is bringing back manufacturing, attracting overseas investment, and solving our energy problems.  From Washington Post journalist Steven Mufson

The shale gas revolution is firing up an old-fashioned American industrial revival, breathing life into businesses such as petrochemicals and glass, steel and toys.

Methanex Corp., which closed its last U.S. chemical plant in 1999, is spending more than half a billion dollars to dismantle a methanol plant in Chile and move it to the parish.

Nearby, a petrochemical company, Williams, is spending $400 million to expand an ethylene plant. And on Nov. 1, CF Industries unveiled a $2.1 billion expansion of its nitrogen fertilizer manufacturing complex, aiming to displace imports that now make up half of U.S. nitrogen fertilizer sales.

These companies all rely heavily on natural gas. And across the country, companies like them are crediting the sudden abundance of cheap natural gas for revving up their U.S. operations. Thanks to new applications of drilling technology to unlock natural gas trapped in shale rock, the nation’s output has surged and energy experts almost unanimously forecast that prices will remain low or moderate for a generation. The International Energy Agency says that by 2015, the United States will overtake Russia as the world’s biggest gas producer.

via The new boom: Shale gas fueling an American industrial revival – The Washington Post.

The rest of the article gives more details of what the natural gas boom is doing for the economy.  Of course, some people want to stop it.

Here is the Hobbit soundtrack

The soundtrack for the upcoming Hobbit movie has been posted online, for free. Listen to it here:  Hobbit.

Bilbo Baggins is being played by Martin Freeman, who plays Dr. Watson in BBC’s excellent modern-day update of the Sherlock Holmes saga, Sherlock.  And the actor who plays said Sherlock, who has the splendid name of Benedict Cumberbatch, has a part in the Hobbit, playing the Necromancer.  (I believe that’s the mysteriously sinister figure who turns out to be Sauron in the Lord of the Rings.)  By the way, Sherlock is many times better than the American attempt at the same scenario Elementary.  Wouldn’t you say?