Private lives in public bathrooms

I found this Atlantic essay about how we approach public bathrooms absolutely fascinating.  Especially since back in the day I used to struggle a decent bit with paruresis (I’ll never forget the HS band trip to Florida where I would not use the bathroom on the bus and had to hold it in great discomfort for hours and hours– I made sure to dehydrate myself before the return trip).  Also, hits on topics I’ve always found fascinating like proper spacing at men’s urinals as well as talking in the restroom (not a big fan while activities are taking place).

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Tax-a-palooza

I really enjoyed Jon Cohn’s paean to taxes yesterday.  Sure everybody likes money, but the fact that we all contribute through taxes (very, very few people fail to contribute over the long term and there’s always sales and property taxes) is what makes effective self government possible.  Cohn:

Sure, there are plenty of principled, intellectually honest reasons to think taxes should be lower. But one reason for the rage against them—and the perception that they are larcenously high—is that the act of paying them is so divorced from the act of receiving the benefits that they finance. You might not like paying a lot for groceries, clothing, a car, or a house. But it feels a lot better because, once you’re done with the transaction, you know what you’re getting for it. You’ve taken care of a basic need—there’s food on your plate, a roof over your head, and, if you’re lucky and can afford it, a Camaro in your driveway.

Taxes do the same thing. That payroll tax taken out of everybody’s check? It’s buying you Medicare and Social Security, which means a more secure retirement free of crippling medical bills. Your federal income tax? Its effects are a lot more diffuse. But chances are pretty good that you’ve already used some infrastructure today—whether it was a road or railway you took to work, or maybe the information technology connections you’re using to read this article. Federal, state, and local taxes helped pay for that. Is your water and air clean? Are you safe from threats, domestic and foreign? Then you’re getting something valuable from the Environment Protection Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Defense. Your tax dollars paid for those, too.

Sometimes, of course, your tax dollars pay for supports and services you won’t use. And you might resent that. But even taxes that pay for someone else’s benefits can benefit you. Why does the U.S. not have the massive underclass that characterizes many third-world countries—or the incipient danger of violent upheaval that accompanies it? The safety net your taxes purchased, tattered as it is, buys a degree of social harmony, too.

On a mostly unrelated note, it’s depressing, disturbing, and sadly unsurprising to learn how TurboTax is actually making it harder for us to pay our taxes because that helps their business model.  Ugh.  Any why are politicians listening and preventing an obviously better system?  Mostly, it’s client politics– a narrow interest serves to hugely benefit, so they fight like hell for it, whereas the rest of us pay the costs, but they are not all that great and spread across all taxpayers.  A more sensible system would directly benefit a great many of us and save the federal government a bit of money, but alas, the narrow, moneyed interest has won the day.  And, it doesn’t help that anti-tax zealots like Grover Norquist want to make taxes as painful as possible.  Just another sad story of how American politics really works.

Photo of the day

My very first favorite former student (back from Texas Tech) works a the Tampa International Airport and grabbed this amazing shot yesterday.

Kenneth Strickland

Gerrymander two-fer

Vox gives us some nice visuals on the 5-most gerrymandered states (the top 4 are Republican gerrymanders).  Here’s North Carolina:

Nc_gerry

Screen_shot_2014-04-09_at_5

That sprawling beast spreading tentacles in search of Democratic voters, NC-4, that’s me!

Usefully, Vox also gives us the example of the Canadian truly non-partisan solution to gerrymandering (apparently the non-political redistricting commissions in the US are typically bi-partisan rather than non-partisan):

So is it possible to end gerrymandering? Well, the country just north of us managed to pull it off. “Canadian reapportionment was highly partisan from the beginning until the 1960s,” writes Charles Paul Hoffman in the Manitoba Law Journal. This “led to frequent denunciations by the media and opposition parties. Every ten years, editorial writers would condemn the crass gerrymanders that had resulted.” Sound familiar?

Eventually, in 1955, one province — Manitoba — decided to experiment, and handed over the redistricting process to an independent commission. Its members were the province’s chief justice, its chief electoral officer, and the University of Manitoba president. The new policy became popular, and within a decade, it was backed by both major national parties, and signed into law.

Independent commissions now handle the redistricting in every province. “Today, most Canadian ridings [districts] are simple and uncontroversial, chunky and geometric, and usually conform to the vague borders of some existing geographic / civic region knowable to the average citizen who lives there,” writes JJ McCullough. “Of the many matters Canadians have cause to grieve their government for, corrupt redistricting is not one of them.” Hoffman concurs, writing, “The commissions have been largely successful since their implementation.” …

Only six US states use commissions to do their redistricting, but none of them have fully embraced the Canadian solution. The key difference is that Canada’s commission members are all nonpartisan — they’re mostly judges, political scientists, or retired civil servants. But our states with redistricting commissions, like California and New Jersey, reserve many seats for members of political parties. “There are no truly nonpartisan redistricting commissions in the United States,” political scientist Bruce Cain of Stanford University told me. Iowa uses a nonpartisan agency that’s not permitted to take party registration into account, but it still gives final say to the governor and legislature…

Replacing gerrymandering with independent commissions won’t solve all our problems. But 50 years of Canadian experience shows that it can make elections more fair — and that it’s possible to make one of the worst features of our politics a thing of the past.

I would so love to see reform like this.  At this point, though, I see little reason to be optimistic.

Yeah science!

Great Tom Tomorrow (bigger version here).

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