Why I feel uneasy about the Kim Davis case

Motivated by the Nuremberg trials and the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichman, Stanley Milgram conducted a set of experiments to understand just how millions of individuals could have contributed in the holocaust.  How could ‘just following orders’ rationalize such heinous acts? In his experiments, he recruited random individuals to administer a ‘learning task’ on a confederate, pretending to be another volunteer.  With each successive mistake by the confederate, participants were instructed by the experimenter to give a progressively worse shock.  The shock would continue to until a lethal 450 volts.

Thankfully, the shocks were fake and the confederate was simply an actor, because 65% of the participants gave this final lethal shock. While all participants showed some hesitation as the voltage climbed, they were easily persuaded by the experimenter to continue.  The experiment has been conducted in numerous countries, with consistent and similar results in every society.

Jonathan Haidt, one of today’s leading experts on the psychology of human morality, has noted and demonstrated that there are two ways in which individuals and societies curb selfishness and promote cooperation.  One way is by focusing directly on the individual.  We all do this by caring about others, trying to minimize harm and by promoting justice.  The other way is by focusing on loyalty to the group; following laws and listening to authority.   This latter form of morality is vital for establishing structure and maintaining order but can also come with the dark-side that we saw in Milgram’s experiment.

This is why the argument against Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk, has left me somewhat uneasy.  Don’t get me wrong;  I think that Kim Davis should have be providing marriage licences to LGBT individuals and should lose her job for not doing so*.  But I also think she and all other clerks should have been providing those licences 20 years ago.  The change in the law does not change the morality of the action and it worries me that people are quick to condemn her for violating a rule but that we didn’t criticize her or any other individuals for the same action before the Supreme Court decision.  Note how strange it is that every other clerk is either currently violating  or now violating their own sense of what is right and that we expect people to simply fall in line and do what the law says. It is because of people challenging the law for last 40 years that we’ve seen movement for gay rights in the western world.   The Stonewall Inn and other meeting places for gay individuals are now lauded as vital to the promotion of the LGBT rights and yet at the time, what they were doing was illegal.

I do recognize that the “you should do your job” defense is in part, a rationalization of being morally outraged by the action.  If a clerk had somehow done the opposite; managed to legally marry two same-sex partners, before it was legal – we’d likely hear the same “do your job” arguments by those who are now supporting her; while those that are now outraged, would be applauding her as a hero.

But we should all realise that the same psychological processes that made Davis not do her job are, ironically, the same psychological processes that make us want her to do her job’  Just as we are appealing to the Supreme Court’s decision to determine what she ought to do, Davis, and those that support her are appealing to an even higher authority (to them) to determine what’s right and wrong.  This last point should make it abundantly clear that an appeal to authority for morality is never, in itself, a rational reason to do something.

The next decade will likely see some pretty vast changes to our justice system.  Whether it be the legalization of marijuana or of euthanasia , what’s now considered law will not be and things that are not considered illegal might be.  Actions can and must be judged as being more right or wrong based on the amount of harm it does to individuals (and animals).  Those judgments are not always easy to make but they should not rely on a dogmatic following of the law.  While it is undeniable that laws and rules help to maintain order, they should only be the consequence of ethical deliberation, not the antecedent for it.

*I think this problem/solution is more difficult than it appears on first glance.  Consider the case of euthanasia, which will be legal in Canada within the year and is already legal in some states.  What should we do about doctors, who don’t have it within them to assist in someone’s suicide?  I am 100% in favour of euthanasia, and yet I recognize the gut-level aversion to performing these actions – just as someone who eats beef might be fine with it but be averse with slaying the cow themselves.   Ideally, laws will be written so that not all doctors will not have to perform these actions, after-all, other doctors can surely step in.  But what-if the law states that all doctors must do it? Should we expect doctors, who trained extensively and did not expect this, to simply accept this as part of the new job description?  The parallel with this thought-experiment and Kim Davis case can be seen and anyone who feels uneasy about providing a doctor with the ultimatum ‘euthanasia or quit’ must also recognize the uneasiness in the Davis case.  (although it is unclear from the reports I’ve read, for how long Davis restricted her staff and how much of her job is about providing marriage licences – which may make Davis’ actions a bit more troublesome)


Hudak’s 100,000 job cuts is a terrible political move

Who is Hudak’s team of advisors? They should all be fired because anyone who lets a politician publicly state that they want to cut 100,000 jobs deserves to lose theirs.  I don’t even want to comment on whether or not it’s actually a good idea for Ontario (I’d argue it’s not), but let’s examine how dumb a political move it is.

For context, Hudak has suggested that he will create 1,000,000 jobs and part of this plan involves cutting 100,000.   Let’s ignore the fact that in Ontario there are only 560,000 people unemployed, so I’m not sure what or who the other 300,000 to 400,000 jobs are for.  Let’s just talk strategy.

There are 650,000 public sector works in Ontario.  That means that while 560,000 people might be motivated to vote for Tim Hudak, there are 650,000 motivated not to.  Sure only about 1/6 will lose their jobs, but who’d take their chance?  And Right there, we’re at a net loss of 90,000, and some multiplier more, if we also assume that close friends and relatives will have similar motivations.

Further, people have a tendency to prefer avoiding losses than they are to acquiring gains, which is exacerbated by the awareness that cuts are easy, creating jobs are hard.  This leaves the motivation, one-sided.    While many may be eager to have a more fiscally responsible government,, public service jobs serve the public (it’s right in the name).   People typically don’t want to give up their firefighters, police, teachers, nurses, etc.   Remember that loss-aversion problem!

Wynne has also done a good job exploiting that, citing cuts have consequences in response to Walkerton.  Although, one might argue that it’s a little disingenuous, as much of the fault lies with 2 managers, the Walkerton report explicitly lays out that lax regulatory oversight as a function of cuts was also a huge factor attributable in large part to the hasty budget cutbacks of the early Harris administration.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! 

But maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe people are really motivated to save that 2% and are persuaded by the fact that it will somehow help balance the books.  Rob Ford got elected on stopping that gravy train!

Thank You For Occupying

Thank You For Occupying

It’s been almost four months since the first Occupy Wall Street protests began and while to the involved/supporters the message has been loud and clear, to some there seems to be confusion over what exactly it is about.   It may be your first inkling to blame the protesters themselves for not making their complaints explicit, but in some ways that might be the point as Matt Taibbi  argues  “People don’t know exactly what they want…but they know one thing: [They] want something different…It’s about dropping out, if only for a moment, and trying something new, the same way that the civil rights movement of the 1960s strived to create a “beloved community” free of racial segregation”

However, labeling the movement as a hodgepodge of random complaints isn’t fair either.   There are serious complaints being made  and thought-out solutions being offered.  The purpose of this  ‘article’ will try to outline some of those complaints and solutions, but before I do that, let me state one valid criticism of the protests.

The protests began in the U.S.A. with good reason.   The problems being protested there are, if not solely applicable to the States, then at least a far greater concern then in many other countries in solidarity.     As a Canadian, many of the problems faced down south are not applicable to us currently because of stronger regulations, especially between our corporate and legislative worlds.   However, laws can change quickly, or worse, gradually – to the point that we don’t notice the changes as they are happening. It is important for citizens around the world to understand the issues being raised by OWS so that they can learn from it and hopefully prevent it.  This post is meant as thank you to the occupiers for bringing to light and redirecting the national and international discourse, that many of us felt, but never acted on!  Here are some of the main issues I’ve become more aware of because of these protests.

 Money in Politics

94% of elections in the states go the politician who raises the most money, and being a politician in the states (and elsewhere) is good living, so there is huge incentive to stay there.  While, the average senator or congressman makes a sizable but relatively appropriate income of 174,000, the ‘kickbacks’ of the corrupt system can be quite lucrative, for example being appointed a “strategist”  for 1.8 million dollars, or going from a member of the security and exchange committee to work for Goldman-Sachs.   The problems of this corruption is that on the other side, businesses are getting an excellent return on their investment, often getting regulations withdrawn, tax breaks, or government contracts.  The issue that occupiers have with money in politics is not that they are against capitalism, but that they are for it!  The system is rigged, with politicians regulating which businesses succeed and which flounder; and the ones that succeed are the ones that are already big enough to pay.    This affects the environment (e.g. oil subsidies), social problems (e.g increased imprisonment; many prisons are privatized in the states), banking regulations (or lack there of), tax income, and arguably foreign diplomacy (e.g. weapons contractors perpetuating wars).  As the occupiers have made clear, this has made the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, a problem known as income inequality.

Income Inequality

In an amazing Ted Talk Richard Wilkinson explains how economic inequality harms society.  I strongly suggest you watch that talk.  Coles Notes: Through excellent data, Dr. Wilkinson demonstrates that health, life expectancy, literacy, homicide, mental illness and crime are all negatively  correlated with economic inequality, in which the U.S. is the worst. Economic prosperity (e.g. GDP/GNP) has no affect.  One of the best lines of the talk (Spoiler*) is he shows that social mobility – the ability for an individual in one class to move up is also predicted by social inequality, leaving Dr. Wilkinson to conclude “if you want the American dream, you should move to Denmark.”  The harsh truth then, is that while capitalism may provide an excellent tool for competition and creativity, too few rules and the game becomes rigged.  I heard an interesting analogy, where markets were compared to football.  Too many rules and the game is bogged down, boring, low scoring, uninventive, too few rules and the game would be chaos, and some might get killed, (indeed that used to be the case).

Democracy? Don’t Blame me, I voted for Kodos!

Back when the Simpsons really pushed the envelope, they took an excellent jab at American politics.   In one Halloween special, two aliens (Kodos and Kang) take over the body of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole (the two nominees at the time).  Homer figures this out and when he finally exposes Kodos and Kang, they comment: “It’s true, we are aliens, but what are you going to do about it? It’s a two party system. You’ll have to vote for one of us!”. Another person stands up and says: “I believe I’ll vote for a third party candidate!”, at which point Kodos mockingly replies “Go ahead, throw your vote away!” , and then Ross Perot (the then third candidate) is shown ripping his own “Perot 96” hat.

The point of that lovely anecdote is that money in politics goes to both parties. There isn’t one corrupt and one non-corrupt party.  Obama, who ran on change, has continued the war in Afghanistan, stayed in Iraq until they kicked him out, kept the Bush tax cuts, and failed to set regulations on the bank.  In fact, in may cases it’s gotten worse (the recent NDAA for example), although in some cases it’s gotten better (DADT revoked, etc.).   Of course, it is not a one man show, but the change that so many voted for, has been lackluster, at best.


Getting rid of what I feel to be the biggest cause of the problems in the U.S. is easy: Eliminate money in politics.  Most countries use tax money to pay for their elections and whereas Canada allows for financial endorsements, they are relatively modest.  Money in politics has become an even greater problem, since the Supreme court’s decision or corporate personhood in the citizens united case.   Getting rid of the huge inequality will be a little harder.

Those of us around the world, can witness, record, and analyze how the U.S. went down this path; but for us in Canada, some of those first steps have been taken.  It is much easier to stop yourself from falling, then climbing all the way back up.  I hope we can learn the lessons that the occupy movement has taught us, and not make the same mistakes too.

CBS Discrimination?

Does Canadian Blood Services Discriminate or Just Not Want to Explore the Statistics?


This has been an issue that has been on my mind since I first heard it.  For those of you who don’t know the Canadian Blood Services (CBS) currently does not allow any male to donate blood, organs, or bone marrow who has had sex with another man (MSM) even once since 1977 (nor do the American,  U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Hong Kong equivalent bodies).   The reasoning they give is that MSM is a high risk for HIV activity.  Those  who have engaged in MSM account for 2-4% of the population, they make up about 40% of HIV cases in the past 25 years  (http://www.avert.org/canada-hiv.htm) and while the Canadian HIV rate is somewhere around .2%, the MSM rate is somewhere between 10-20%. A U.S. estimates put the prevalence at 44 to 86 times that of non-MSM and the Canadian statistics are very similar.  http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/topics/msm/index.htm

However, the CBS doesn’t just ban against MSM; they are very safe in other regards; banning anyone who has ever used an illegal needle, or if you’ve had sex with someone you don’t know in the past 6 months, or paid for a prostitute in 12 months. (see here for a list of exclusionary factors and here for a list of questions that are asked).

One common argument against the deferral of anyone giving blood is that all blood is tested.  While this is true, there are still false negatives (i.e. saying the blood is safe, when really it is not) and so it makes sense to exclude the highest risk people.

You may be asking yourself now that it seems like I am defending the CBS and other groups.   I do understand where their decision is coming from (although why it is only 6 months or 1 year for other high risk activity has never been clear, and I will come back to that), my problem is that they fail to really dive into the statistics.  Allow me to give you a few examples.

Approximately 23,400 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed this year.  That is, there is approxiamately a  0.08% or 1/1200 that YOU will develop breast cancer THIS YEAR.  Not too high, but enough to get concerned.  However, we know this isn’t accurate  If you are a male, you probably aren’t concerned at all. While men do get breast cancer, the chances are much lower, .00125% or about 190 men are diagnosed each year.  As a woman, you are probably a little more concerned,  as your chances are about twice that.  You could sleep a little easier, if you are under the age of 50, as your chances are cut in half.  and under the age of 40 you chances are cut by another 80%.   That being said, the chances for woman over the age of 60 is about 1/29 or 3.45%.    Amazing how the statistics change depending on the people you look at and how useless they are when everyone is grouped in together.  Imagine how much more in depth we could get if we looked at other factors like family history and genetic markers?

The statistics have never been done in such detail with MSM and they need to be because I would wager that those individuals have a much lower prevalence than those who have had a lot of condom free casual sex, especially anal, questions that aren’t asked or only asked up to 6 months or 1 year.

Thus it seems the outright ban of all MSM behaviour is caused by both a lack of actual statistical information and a lack of motivation to ask a few additional questions and dive into those statistics.

Nevertheless, the 1977 ban is pretty extreme.  Except for intravenous drug use, no other high risk activity results in a lifetime ban.    Even the Red Cross has explicitly stated  “that the current lifetime deferral for men who have had sex with other men is medically and scientifically unwarranted” and recommending that the deferral criteria “be modified and made comparable with criteria for other groups at increased risk for sexual transmission of transfusion-transmitted infections.”

So why the lifetime ban?  No organization has commented on what makes this group special.  Perhaps they are afraid of giving people gay blood or perhaps its just the way it has always been done? Nevertheless, the CBS and other organizations need to do their due diligence and get at the real risk factors.  Doing so may require a few ‘uncomfortable’ questions for nurses and donors, (i.e. did your MSM involve anal sex) but will also result in more blood donations and a less discriminating policy.  Until then, many safe and eager donors are feeling shunned by this government organization and you will still have a 1/1200 chance of getting breast cancer this year.

Macho Man Dies

Macho Man Dies but Does Anybody Really Care?


As I was creating the blog, I learned that Macho Man Randy Savage died through the wonderful world of Facebook.  Without really thinking I added to what would be dozens of my Facebook friends posts about his death. Within seconds I couldn’t help but think why did I do that?   I don’t post statuses when someone close to me dies, so it wasn’t to show my loss; in fact, I was almost completely unphased by it.  And it wasn’t because I was a huge fan of Macho Man, when was the last time I talked about him?

I’ve rationalized validation as my main motive , First, I was hoping to create some conversation by posting a humorous video of his song ‘Dig It’ with the (in retrospect) not so funny caption,  ‘RIP Macho Man, I don’t Dig it.’  The second was to share knowledge, I subsequently texted a friend who I knew was a WWE fan and my girlfriend who was at work and couldn’t get on Facebook there;  I wanted to be the person who told them.

That was my motivation and I’d imagine many other people’s too.  But that leads to another question.  I haven’t heard anyone talk about Macho Man in years, except to maybe make a quick joke about him.  Did anyone know he came out with a rap album in 2003 or that he got married a year before.  So if nobody really cared about his life, why do we think  anybody cares about his death?

It wasn’t that he had enriched the lives of many and I doubt that many of the people I’ve seen posting were actually fans of him. Please correct me if I’m wrong but seeing as he retired when in 1991, when most people I know were younger than 6 and  aren’t wrestling fans to begin with, I would wager they couldn’t name even one match he won.   Important researchers, politicians and athletes die every day and we hear nothing of them.

The only thing then that separates Macho Man from  the rest is simply the fact that he’s famous.  He was a charismatic individual with a name and a catch phrase that easily stuck, OOOH YEAH!.  He had a few roles in TV and movies, a rap album, and probably his most memorable role by my generation, the Slim Jim spokesperson. But he never used his money and fame for truly philanthropic reasons.  There is no macho man organization for those less fortunate.  A quick Google search turns up no hits for charitable donations.  I’m not saying he was a bad man, but by no means was he a hero.

Although a rant in itself, let me just say that the world has become obsessed with celebrities, to the point where we care about celebrities we don’t even care about.  We focus on the ups and downs of people we don’t know and will probably never meet, but fail to honour the lives saved by doctors and nurses, the inventions and discoveries by researchers and engineers or fights for justice  by lawyers and politicians.

We don’t care, and we know we don’t, so let’s stop pretending.  Like Gary Coleman and many others, a few days of ‘mourning’ will be followed by a few jokes and then finally he will be forgotten except for  the occasional oh yeah or to step into a Slim Jim.