Sunday, October 28, 2012

Questions and answers

Early voting in Maryland began today!  I'm probably going to vote tomorrow.  I already blogged about Question 7 (and I'm still undecided - I might undervote on this one), so here are my thoughts on the other Maryland and Montgomery County ballot questions.  Obviously, I endorse Obama for president, and Democrats for all partisan races (with some very narrow exceptions which don't involve voting for or enabling Republicans - e.g., if I were voting in the DC at-large Council race, I'd probably vote for two independents, though I'm not sure which two).

Quick summary:  For 1-6 and A, against B, no endorsement on 7.

Questions 1, 2, and 3 are state constitutional amendments, passed by the General Assembly, which need to be ratified by the voters.

Questions 1 and 2:  These are very similar to Question 3 from 2010.  Every county has an Orphans' Court which deals with estates and guardianships (except Montgomery and Harford Counties, where these matters are handled by the regular Circuit Court).  Unlike other judges in Maryland, Orphans' Court judges are not required to be lawyers.  As I understand it, there is a divide between the more populous and less populous parts of the state:  in the less populous areas, the Orphans' Court doesn't get much business, so it's a part-time gig.  In the more populous areas, it's a full-time job, so it has been suggested that it makes more sense to require legal experience.  So in 2010, we amended the constitution to require that Baltimore City Orphans' Court judges be members of the Maryland bar.  Questions 1 and 2 would make the same amendments regarding Prince George's County and Baltimore County (respectively).

I don't have much of an opinion on the substance (and the general issue isn't relevant to my county).  But each of these amendments, in order to be ratified, has to get a majority of votes statewide and a majority of votes in the relevant county.  So I'll be voting FOR both of them, to give the people of Prince George's and Baltimore Counties the opportunity to make their own decisions.  I don't know what I'd do if I lived in one of those counties.

Question 3:  Currently, an elected official who is convicted of or pleads guilty to any felony, or a misdemeanor related to their official duties, is automatically removed from office.  However, this doesn't happen until the conviction becomes final; in the case of a guilty plea, they're not removed from office until after they're sentenced.  So you have cases like former Prince George's County Councilmember Leslie Johnson, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges (including destroying evidence by flushing checks down the toilet and hiding cash in her bra), but then kept her Council seat (and kept collecting her salary) until the sentencing.  This constitutional amendment would fix that, by removing the official from office immediately after a guilty plea.  This seems like an obvious FOR vote - I can't imagine there will be any significant opposition.

Questions 4, 5, and 6 are laws passed by the General Assembly that were forced to a referendum by voters collecting the required number of petition signatures.  If they pass, the laws will go into effect (or in the case of 5, remain in effect); if not, the laws are void.

Question 4:  This is the Maryland "Dream Act", which will enable undocumented immigrant students who graduated from Maryland high schools to attend Maryland state universities at the in-state tuition rate.  (Because the bill was watered down during the legislative process, they have to go to community college for two years before they can transfer to a four-year college.)  These students were brought to the United States as children, and may not remember any other country.  As President Obama said in June, "They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one:  on paper."  Question 4 gives them the opportunity to get a college education that many of them could not afford otherwise.  As a member of the University of Maryland community, I also support Question 4 because we want to be able to recruit the best students we can get, regardless of immigration status.

Of course, this doesn't solve the much larger issues.  But those will have to be solved at the federal level, since the federal government has jurisdiction over immigration and citizenship.  The federal DREAM Act (which would have provided a path to citizenship) died in the Senate in December 2010 due to a Republican filibuster.  In the meantime, until Congress can get its act together, states such as Maryland are doing what they can.

For more information and other reasons to vote FOR Question 4, see the FAQ from Jews United for Justice's Dream For Equality campaign.

Question 5:  In 2011, the General Assembly passed a congressional redistricting plan, as required to accommodate the population shifts in the 2010 Census.  This plan has been forced to a referendum, but whatever happens with Question 5, this map will be in effect for the 2012 election (i.e. they're not going to call a do-over election with new districts) and any special elections during the 113th Congress.  If Question 5 passes, this map will remain in effect until after the 2020 Census.  If Question 5 doesn't pass, the General Assembly will have to pass a new map for the 2014 election.  Nothing (except political pressure) would prevent them from passing the same map again or one substantially similar, and nothing (except organizer fatigue) would prevent that map from being forced to a referendum again.

Looking at the map, there's no denying the charge that its opponents make against it:  it is blatant partisan gerrymandering, with some of the most ridiculous-looking districts in the country.  Maryland's current House delegation is 6 Democrats and 2 Republicans, and under the new map, Maryland is expected to elect 7 Democrats and 1 Republican.  This is achieved by redrawing the currently Republican 6th District (western Maryland) so that it includes enough of Montgomery County to give it a Democratic majority.

Partisan gerrymandering is legal in most states (including Maryland) and has been upheld by the Supreme Court as constitutional.  The only national requirements are that districts be of equal population, and (per the Voting Rights Act) that they not have racially discriminatory effects.  (The 2011 Maryland map was upheld in federal court on those grounds.)  I would support federal legislation to ban or limit partisan gerrymandering across the country (either by changing the redistricting process or by, e.g., requiring that districts meet some standard of compactness).  But that's not what we're voting on - we're only voting on Maryland.  Given that Republicans are using the redistricting process to great advantage in much larger states such as Texas and Florida, I see no reason why a small blue state like Maryland (one of the few states where Democrats are benefiting from the post-2010 redistricting) should unilaterally disarm.

So I'm voting FOR 5 for partisan reasons:  I want to elect more Democrats to the House.  While procedural issues like how we draw districts are important, they're not more important than the substantive issues that Congress will face over the next 10 years, and it matters whether we have a Democratic House or a Republican House voting on those issues.

If Question 5 fails, I hope the General Assembly goes a step further and draws a map with Democratic majorities in all 8 districts.  This can be done by splitting up the Eastern Shore, and/or combining it with parts of Baltimore (contiguity over water!).

Question 6:  This will bring civil marriage equality to Maryland!  It also contains language guaranteeing that religious organizations don't have to perform marriages they don't want to (which is entirely superfluous, since that is already guaranteed by the First Amendment, but if this superfluous language brings people on board, I can't complain).  If Question 6 passes, Maryland will be the first state where marriage equality wins at the ballot box (along with Maine, where the polls close at the same time; sorry, Washington, but you're a few hours later).  FOR!

In Montgomery County, Question A is a charter amendment, and Question B is a law passed by the County Council that was petitioned to a referendum.

Question A:  The County Charter currently provides for a merit system for civil service employees.  This amendment would "allow the County to operate a program within the merit system to recruit and select qualified individuals with severe physical and mental disabilities on a noncompetitive basis".  The charter amendment contains no details about the program; the details would be left to the County Council.  I'm voting FOR Question A because it provides employment opportunities to (qualified) individuals with disabilities.

Question B:  This law would end "effects bargaining" for police employees, i.e. the right to collective bargaining to negotiate the effects on employees of certain management decisions.  Compared to some of the recent high-profile laws and initiatives limiting collective bargaining around the country, the effects of this would be relatively small, since collective bargaining would remain intact for negotiations about salaries, hours, etc.  However, in the current political climate, with everything that has been happening in Wisconsin, Ohio, etc., any new limits on collective bargaining are dangerous and must be opposed.

It infuriates me to see pro-Question B ads on the sides of buses, paid for by Montgomery County with public funds.   I understand the county's rationale (even if I don't agree with it): the County Council passed a law and is now defending it, in the same way that a federal, state, or local government would defend its laws if they were challenged in court.  But the inexcusable part is that these ads rely on anti-union rhetoric.  If even MONTGOMERY FRICKIN COUNTY is trying to turn its citizens against public employee unions, this is a clear sign that we're in a larger struggle and can't give even an inch.  Vote AGAINST Question B.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Lucky 7, or unlucky 7?

When it comes to the presidential election, I still don't get the whole "undecided voter" thing.  But I'm having an unusual experience of being an undecided voter myself this year for Maryland's Question 7, which expands commercial gambling (or "gaming").

Some background:  In 2008, Maryland voters passed a constitutional amendment that authorized the state to issue licenses for "video lottery terminals" (i.e. slot machines) to raise revenue for education, limited the number of licenses to five, in five enumerated locations (this was before I was living in the state, so I don't know the process by which these five were chosen), and required that any future expansion of commercial gaming be approved by referendum.  So Question 7 is the first such referendum, which the General Assembly passed in a special session in summer 2012 and sent on to the voters.

There are two major components to Question 7:  allowing for a sixth casino license, in southern Prince George's County (at National Harbor or vicinity), and allowing "table games" (blackjack, roulette, etc.).  There are also some minor pieces, e.g., allowing the casinos to stay open 24 hours (rather than the current restrictions of 8 am - 2 am on weekdays and 8 am - 4 am on weekends).

I've been getting lots of propaganda on both sides of the issue, from glossy mailings to Facebook ads to robocalls.  This is because both sides are well-funded:  "Vote For 7" is funded by the people who want to open the sixth casino, and "Vote Against 7" is funded by casino owners in neighboring states who don't want the competition.  Thus, both sides are sketchy, and neither's motives can be trusted.  As far as I can tell, the two sides aren't aligned with political parties; elected officials from both parties are on both sides of the issue.

To help sort out the competing arguments, I'm listing some of the pro/con arguments that I find convincing, and some arguments that I don't find convincing (and why).  But this categorization into "convincing" and "unconvincing" isn't necessarily stable.  Please continue the discussion in the comments (and help fill in missing information) - my vote is up for grabs, and other readers' votes may be too.

These arguments focus on whether or not to add a sixth casino in Prince George's County.  I don't see any reason to allow slot machines but no table games (and table games lead to marginally more jobs, since they require human dealers), so if table games were the only thing on the ballot, I would definitely vote for it.

Convincing Arguments For 7:
  • Jobs will be created.  At a very minimum, the jobs in constructing the new casino are jobs that wouldn't have otherwise existed.  It's possible that some of the jobs at the casino after it's finished would just be jobs taken away from other casinos (as customers shift to the new one), but I would expect the net to still be positive, since the number of casinos in Maryland hasn't reached its free-market equilibrium (it's been capped by law at 5).  And all of this hiring would be coming from the private sector, without having to use public funds (except to pay for the regulatory mechanism).  Even if the casinos are useless, this seems similar to Keynes's coalmine story, since corporations are sitting on piles of cash right now, and this regulatory change could get them to spend some of it and start hiring.
  • More money for education.  A percentage of the proceeds go into the Education Trust Fund.

Unconvincing Arguments For 7:
  • It keeps jobs and money in Maryland, rather than letting them go to other states.  Regulatory races to the bottom (where states compete to attract corporations by lowering taxes and weakening regulations) are a bad idea.  In the end, everyone loses (except the corporations).  This is only a good idea if it increases the total number of jobs and the total state revenue, not if it merely snatches jobs and tax revenue away from other states (which can then weaken their own regulations and snatch them back).

Convincing Arguments Against 7:
  • Gambling can be addictive, and closer proximity to a casino will be harmful to people with gambling problems.  This is an empirical question, and I'd be interested to know if there is data about how distance to a casino influences recidivism for problem gamblers (e.g. if someone who lives in Prince George's County would go to a casino near home but wouldn't travel to Baltimore).
  • Casinos are detrimental to local communities.  This is also empirical, so I'd be interested in data on the local impacts of new casinos.  If you can point me to information, it would be much appreciated.
(Note that because the anti-7 campaign is funded by other casino owners, these aren't the arguments they're making - they don't want the public to sour on casinos in general.  But if I vote against 7, these will be the reasons why.)

Unconvincing Arguments Against 7:
  • This isn't the most effective way to create jobs; we should do X instead.  Even if that's true (and I don't doubt that there are better things we could be doing), defeating 7 won't guarantee that X will happen, and passing 7 won't prevent doing X at the next opportunity.  Since 7 doesn't involve spending state money, there's not an issue of allocating limited resources.  (I would agree with this argument if state funds were involved.)
  • Money is fungible, so this won't necessarily lead to more money for education - they can just use what they would have spent on education for something else.  That doesn't bother me.  More money for education is good, but if the money is used instead to balance the budget and prevent other valuable state programs from being cut, that's good too.
  • It's a tax on the poor.  It's not like sales tax, where people have to pay an extra amount in taxes on top of the price of whatever they're buying.  Here, the level of taxation is invisible to the consumer -- people bet whatever they bet, and have whatever probability of winning, regardless of whether the casinos are taxed.  For example, in roulette, the house advantage for most bets is 5.3% (=2/38), and taxing the proceeds doesn't mean that casinos will add a 000 to the wheel to increase their cut.  So the taxes are coming out of the casinos' profits, not as an additional amount out of customers' wallets.  That's at least true for table games; I don't know about slot machines - whether the probabilities and payouts are adjusted as a result of taxes, or more generally how those probabilities and payouts are determined (and I suspect that most slots players are not operating with perfect information).
  • It's a tax cut for casinos.  In the law that was passed during the special session, it appears that most of the substantive provisions are split into Section 1 (which went into effect on October 1 and doesn't require a referendum) and Section 2 (which goes into effect iff Question 7 passes), and that the provisions dealing with taxes on the existing casinos are in Section 1. Therefore, if I'm reading it correctly, the tax breaks were a reason for the General Assembly not to pass the gaming law in the first place, but aren't a reason to vote against Question 7. Am I reading it correctly?
 Also, even if Question 7 gets a majority of votes statewide (and therefore table games and other provisions go into effect), the sixth gaming license will only be issued if Question 7 also gets a majority of votes in Prince George's County.  Since I don't live in Prince George's County, part of me wants to vote for 7, just to let the locals decide, particularly because the anti-7 arguments that I find most convincing are the ones about local impact.  (This is my approach to other similarly structured ballot questions regarding counties I don't live in, thanks to an anonymous commenter here.)   Does anyone know whether it is expected to have greater or lesser support in the county, relative to the state?

So that's where I'm at right now:  possible positive economic and fiscal impact vs. possible negative human and local impact.  I'm looking for guidance about the relative impacts and probabilities of each of these factors, and I'm going to avoid using a gambling metaphor in this sentence.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

בשעה טובה indeed

So I guess I haven't blogged here in almost 5 months.  There's a good excuse, but I suppose I owe the blog audience an explanation:  I've been taking care of a baby!  It's been going well, but as you probably realize, this is a pursuit that (especially when combined with a day job) leaves little time for blogging.

The timing of my son's birth was very on-point for this blog.  Mah Rabu has, in some years, blogged the omer, and he was born on the first night of the omer (ensuring that we kept track of his age in days for the first 7 weeks).  Mah Rabu has also featured an endless series of posts on 1-day vs. 2-day yom tov, and my son was born on a day that some considered yom tov and some didn't.  Mah Rabu ran several posts on birkat hachamah (back when it was in the news), and if my son had held out just a few minutes longer (and his mother is glad he didn't), he would have been born on April 8, ensuring that the first three birkot hachamah of his life would fall on his secular birthday.

So that's where I've been.  I won't make any promises right now about blogging in the immediate future -- I have a lot to say about parenting, but see above re: no time.  In the meantime, Segulah is doing Yom Kippur this year - will I see you there?

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The streak is broken!

Barack Obama is still in the race as of today's Maryland primary (and based on preliminary results, is poised to get more votes than all the Republican presidential candidates combined).  This means that my streak is over!

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Mitt does not play dice

Now that three different people have sent me today's New York Times oped on "A Quantum Theory of Mitt Romney", I suppose I ought to respond.

As a politically engaged physicist, I certainly found it an entertaining read, and appreciate seeing Feynman diagrams in the Times.  But on further reflection, I'm not sure I agree with the premise that Mitt Romney is a "quantum politician"; I think he's still classical (though not a point particle).

Parts of the quantum model presented in the article are appropriate.  Complementarity is very fitting, especially if we get beyond the imprecise popular formulation that "light is both a particle and a wave". When we get down to it, what do we really mean by "is"?  Both "particle" and "wave" are models that make predictions about the behavior of a system.  Under some circumstances, light will behave in the way predicted by the wave model, and under other circumstances it will behave in the way predicted by the particle model.  But what light "is" is something different from what those models (on their own) describe.

Similarly, it's not just that "Mitt Romney is both a moderate and a conservative".  Under some circumstances, Romney will behave as a moderate would, and under other circumstances, Romney will behave as a conservative would.  But the reality is neither of these:  around most issues, Romney has no principles, and therefore modeling him as either a moderate or a conservative misses the full picture.

However, the concept of complementarity is not exclusive to quantum mechanics; it can be generalized into a statement about any scientific modeling, like the story of the blind men and the elephant.  (Also, Figure 1 is a mixed metaphor.  Schrödinger's cat is about superposition of states, not about wave-particle duality.)

The discussion of probability and uncertainty is where the "quantum theory of Mitt Romney" starts to break down.  It is not true that "Mitt Romney’s political viewpoints can be expressed only in terms of likelihood, not certainty."  In fact, Romney's (professed) viewpoints are highly predictable and deterministic.  They can be best modeled not by the randomness of quantum mechanics, but by a hidden variable theory, where the "hidden" variable is whether he is campaigning for governor of Massachusetts or for the Republican presidential nomination in Alabama.  It is easy to predict that after he wins the nomination, he will attempt to shift his positions in the direction of the median voter, but will be impeded by other forces which are themselves deterministic and Newtonian.

So if Romney is classical (because measurements of his position are deterministic) but is not a point particle (because measurements of his position depend on the measurement apparatus), what is the best classical model to describe him?  Perhaps a polarized wave?  What do you think?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Yo voté

Before today, I had voted in three presidential elections.  Not only had I never voted for a primary candidate who won the nomination, I had an 0-for-3 record in voting for candidates in the primary who were still in the race at the time of my primary.

How is this possible?  In 2000 and 2008, I voted absentee, because I was in college and living outside the country (respectively).  When I mailed in my absentee ballots for Bill Bradley and John Edwards (I know, I know, but it was still the right choice based on the information we had at the time), they were still in the race.  Bradley dropped out on March 9, 2000, before the Illinois primary (in which I was voting) on March 21.  Edwards suspended his campaign on January 30, 2008, before the New York primary on February 5 (Super Tuesday).

In 2004, I actually voted in person (in New York) on primary day (Super Tuesday, March 2).  I had been supporting Howard Dean, who dropped out on February 18.  There was no question that I would support the eventual Democratic nominee in the general election, but I didn't feel like taking a stance just then on Kerry vs. Edwards, so I decided to vote for Dean anyway (who was still on the ballot), in the hope of sending more Dean delegates to the convention.  (Dean in fact won the Vermont primary that day.)

But my unbroken streak might be about to end.  (Not coincidentally, this year is the first time since I turned 18 that an incumbent Democratic president is running for reelection.)  Today I went to early voting and voted for Barack Obama in the Democratic primary.  If Obama doesn't drop out before the Maryland primary on April 3, the streak will be over!

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Hazon sinks deeper into the hall of shame

Hazon has numerous accomplishments to its name:  perhaps more than any other organization, it is responsible for bringing an environmental consciousness to the American Jewish community, from promoting bicycling as a green mode of transportation to making us think about where the food we eat comes from.  I have participated in a number of Hazon events (including the 2003 New York Jewish Environmental Bike Ride, when we biked the length of Long Island), and have been proud to support it financially in the past.  So it has been disappointing to see Hazon fall so far so fast, and adopt positions that resemble the epistemological stances of the anti-environmental forces.

Like all Jewish environmental organizations, Hazon does programming around the New Year of the Trees.  As recently as 2010, they correctly referred to this holiday as Tu Bishvat.  Then, in 2011, they altered their written communication across the board so that it read “Tu B’Shvat”.  (This blog has  explained why that is wrong, and why it is indefensible.)

So last year, I replied to one of Hazon's emails, asking them why they had switched away from the grammatically correct spelling (and linking to the earlier post).  I received the following reply from a Hazon staff member:

Great question. We went with Tu B'Shvat because "bishvat" is too easily read as "beeshvat" among those who are used to reading foreign languages online. There was some internal debate on this matter and I imagine it will change again in the future.

I'm also personally (that is, I'm no long speaking on behalf of the organization) that when transliterating, there is no correct spelling as it's a different character set.

First of all, WHAT?  "Beeshvat" is the correct reading!  That's the whole point!  We're not being pedantic about how to transliterate a given vowel, we're being pedantic about which vowel it is!

So it's disturbing that Hazon is entrusting policy decisions (even about admittedly small issues) to people who lack even the most basic understanding of the issue.  I compared the Tu Bishvat moral relativists to climate-change "skeptics", but this doesn't even reach the pseudo-intellectual level of climate-change denial.  This is a more fundamental confusion, akin to confusing weather with climate, and using winter as evidence that global warming isn't happening.  (Yes, I know that congressional Republicans and Fox News actually do this.  Hazon, is that who you want to be?)

Do I expect everyone who works for a Jewish organization to be a Hebrew grammar expert?  No, and I don't expect every politician or journalist to be a climate scientist either, but I expect them to know the limits of their own knowledge, and to defer as appropriate to those who understand the issue better.

That's just last year.  This year, Hazon has gone from clueless to brazen.  After I posted "The War on Tu Bishvat" (and emailed the link to Hazon, noting that they used to get it right), they linked to it and tweeted:

Man, this guy is REALLY upset about how we spell Tu B'Shvat

In other words, they're making it about "this guy", and personal emotions.  (Did they even read the post?)  In their apparent worldview, there is no objective truth, just differences of opinion.  "Shape of Earth: Views Differ."

A few days later, I received the following reply to my email from the same Hazon staff member mentioned above:
Thanks for linking to the Hazon website!

Tu B'Shvat Sameach,
[Name redacted]

This was sent from a email address, with an official Hazon sig at the bottom.  This is deeply unprofessional.  Rather than even attempting to explain their new policy, they are now openly giving Hebrew grammar (and those who defend it) the finger.

This attitude resembles nothing so much as the Republicans' decision to replace the biodegradable containers in the House of Representatives cafeteria (instituted under Speaker Pelosi in 2007) with styrofoam when they retook the majority.  It wasn't even about the styrofoam (which will last forever); it was about pissing off Democrats and environmentalists.  Again, Hazon, is that who you want to be?

Hazon needs to realize that it is not operating in a vacuum; it still commands a great deal of respect as a leader in the Jewish environmental movement, and its decisions have larger consequences.  Just today, a smaller Jewish environmental organization switched over from "Tu Bishvat" to "Tu B'Shvat", and explained this as follows:

The reason we chose to publicize it as "B'Shvat" is because we are basing our materials off of Hazon, and their organization spelled it as such.

Will Hazon start demonstrating leadership again?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Tu Bishvat Halls of Fame and Shame

(NOTE: This post will continue to update through the end of Tree Year 5771.)

Last week was D-Day in the War on Tu Bishvat.  This week, as the New Year of the Trees gets closer, it's time to publicize who is in the right and who is still committed to being wrong.

Here is Mah Rabu's 5772 Tu Bishvat...

Hall of Fame

They "shall be like a tree planted by waters, sending forth its roots by a stream:  it does not sense the coming of heat, its leaves are ever fresh; it has no care in a year of drought, it does not cease to yield fruit." (Jeremiah 17:8)

But then there's also the...

Hall of Shame

They "shall be like a bush in the desert, which does not sense the coming of good:  it is set in the scorched places of the wilderness, in a barren land without inhabitant." (Jeremiah 17:6)
  • Hazon, as a (once-)prominent voice of Jewish environmentalism, truly has no excuse, especially since they used to be on the right side of this issue.
  • Isabella Freedman ("in partnership with ... the many branches of the Jewish Environmental Movement") is also guilty of greenwashing.
  • If the Shalom Center is a "prophetic voice", then the message got garbled.
  • Aish probably actually denies climate change (they certainly deny evolution).
  • The people in the rabbanut who banned Häagen-Dazs were right about one thing:  the Orthodox Union is not kosher.
  • As for Canfei Nesharim, eagles aren't kosher either.
  • The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is shrinking.
  • Chabad worships a false messiah.
  • The Jewish Agency goes downhill fast after the URL and page title.
  • Hey Hillel:  Go and learn it.
  • Ritualwell is down the drain.
  • The Big Jewish Tent is missing some stakes.
  • The Rabbinical Assembly classifies holidays under "Jewish law"; what about the laws of grammar?
  • Finally, Hebcal has earned its way into a special division of the hall of shame, for messing up not only the English but the Hebrew too.  (I suspect this was the result of an automatic algorithm of the sort that used to bring us "You have 1 new messages", and shouldn't be too hard to fix.  RET points out that Shevat is the only month that begins with a sheva.)

Those who have found themselves in the hall of shame should remember that it's not too late to change, and the gates of repentance are always open.  Except, perhaps, to this guy, who spells it "Tu B'Shvas".  There, he asks "did my parents get their money’s worth on my yeshiva day school tuition?"  This question is left to the reader as an exercise.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The War on Tu Bishvat

It's less than three weeks away, and you've started getting emails about Tu Bishvat events. You're probably also getting emails about Tu B'Shvat and Tu B'Shevat, whatever those are.  This blog has previously explained why "Tu Bishvat" is correct, while "Tu B'Shvat" and "Tu B'Shevat" are WRONG WRONG WRONG.  Yet many of those who are wrong continue to persist in their wrongness, even after being corrected.  Not only that, but they come up with a range of defenses (from the simple to the epicycle-like) to justify their stance.  This post responds to those defenses, to show that they are utterly without merit.

(Note:  It has been brought to my attention that the sheva under the shin is a sheva meracheif:  an intermediate form between a sheva na and a sheva nach.  If it were a true sheva nach, the second bet would take a dageish kal, so it would be "Tu Bishbat".  For this reason, this post will not take a stance on whether the last part of the word is "--shvat", "--sh'vat", or "--shevat", since all of these have some justification, however weak.  Instead, we'll focus on the truly important issue:  the vowel under the first bet is a chirik, not a sheva.  It's "Bi-", not "B'-".)

Here are, in no particular order, the top five rationalizations for "B'Shvat"/"B'Shevat", and why they're wrong.

1. It's just transliteration!  There are so many different ways to transliterate any Hebrew word.  Just last month we had Hanukkah... or was it Chanuka?  Which transliteration scheme you prefer is an aesthetic judgment, but none of them is wrong.

No, it's not just transliteration.

Yes, there are at least eight valid ways to spell (C)hanuk(k)a(h).  The letter ח can be represented by "h" or "ch", or even "j" (for the Spanish speakers) or "hh", and that's just in ASCII.  A dageish chazak can be represented in the transliteration by doubling the letter ("kk"), or not ("k").  A ה at the end of the word can be transliterated ("ah") or not ("a").  These are indeed aesthetic choices about different transliteration schemes.

But that's not at all what is going on with the New Year of the Trees.  The vowel under the first bet is a chirik.  Yes, there are several different ways of transliterating a chirik:  it could be "i" or "ee".  But no one would ever transliterate a chirik with an apostrophe.  The origin of "B'Shvat" is in not knowing that the vowel is a chirik.  This isn't about making a different aesthetic choice about how to transliterate that vowel; it's about putting in the wrong vowel.  It is no more correct than "Boshvat" or "Bushvat" or "Bqshvat".

2. "Tu B'Shevat" is in common usage.  It's been spelled that way in print in such-and-such authoritative source.

All this means is that lots of other people (including some people you trust) have been wrong.  Appeal to authority doesn't change the rules of Hebrew grammar.

And if you're going to try to make the descriptive lexicography argument (i.e. the fact that so many people have spelled it this way makes it a valid spelling), that's a rather tortured argument to make in this case, because it rests on the dubious proposition that English-transliterated Hebrew has a life of its own as a language evolving independently of actual Hebrew, a claim that few if any would make during the other 11 months of the year.  Most would instead say that transliterated Hebrew is merely a representation of Hebrew itself.  Therefore, the descriptive lexicography argument holds water only if there are documented cases in modern vocalized Hebrew sources in which בשבט is written with two shevas in a row.

3. "B'-" represents how people actually pronounce it.  I've never heard anyone say "Bee-".

So English speakers commonly mispronounce the word.  But should that mispronunciation be reflected in the written form?  We still write "would have" and "going to", even if people pronounce them "would of" and "gonna".  Ok, we might write "gonna" if we were trying to produce a faithful transcription of spoken language (rather than using proper language) or if we were being cutesy and casual, but that doesn't apply to otherwise serious and formal settings such as titles of books and articles (where you might expect to see "Tu B'Shevat").

And while the idea that transliteration should be a phonetic transcription of non-native speakers' mispronunciations might be an argument (however tenuous) for "Tu B'Shvat", it completely fails to justify "Tu B'Shevat", because no one has ever pronounced the "e" in "B'Shevat" (or any other vowel in that position).  Whatever you're doing when you write "B'Shevat", you're doing something other than spelling the word the way people pronounce it.

4. The actual prefix is "B'-", so "B'Shevat" illustrates the grammatical structure more clearly than "Bishvat".

If you want to indicate that the word is a prefix followed by the name of a month (a proper name), there are ways of doing this typographically without changing the vowels:  "BiShvat", "Bi-Shvat", or even "Bi'Shvat".

Yet some would claim that "B'Shevat" is superior to any of these, because it shows that the prefix "B'" is added to the word "Shevat".  This idea, that a transliteration should represent the raw morphemes that make up a word without any regard to transformations that those morphemes undergo when combined, is another one of those exotic ideas that no one would even think of (much less argue for) for 11 months of the year.  To use another holiday as an example, the word סוכות is formed by adding the suffix "-ot" to the word "sukkah".  Does anyone transliterate the name of this holiday as "Sukkahot" or "Sukkah-ot"?  Why not?

Once again, you didn't know it was a chirik, you got corrected, and rather than admitting the mistake and fixing it, you doubled down.

5. Seriously, are we really wasting our time arguing about this?  This is the modern Jewish environmental holiday, when we should be worrying about much bigger things such as the mass destruction that climate change is wreaking on the planet, not something as insignificant as a Hebrew vowel.

I certainly agree that preventing the destruction of the planet is paramount.  But this isn't an either/or:  both struggles are fundamentally the same.

In the United States, a major obstacle to taking meaningful action against climate change is that a politically influential faction denies that climate change is even happening.  To promote this view among the public and stymie needed environmental regulation, they are fighting a war on epistemology.  In this war, they are aided and abetted by the media, which seeks to appear neutral and therefore reports any issue as if it has two equally valid sides, regardless of whether one side is objectively true (since pointing that out would be "partisan").

Those who try to claim that "Tu Bishvat" and "Tu B'Shevat" are equally valid, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, are aligning themselves epistemologically with climate change "skeptics" and their media enablers.  Is this really the company you want to keep?  By reducing everything to a difference of opinion, you are contributing to this toxic intellectual atmosphere.

Safeguarding the Earth's future requires being prepared to accept inconvenient truths, whether that means the dangerous effects we are having on the climate, or whether that means that the first vowel in "Bishvat" isn't the vowel you thought it was.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Shall the rich pay more?

As noted previously on this blog, I always try to file my taxes by Rosh Chodesh Adar.  This year, that means sending in the return before the National Havurah Committee Chesapeake Retreat (February 17-19, 2012, Presidents' Day weekend), which will be exploring the vital issues of taxation, regulation, and other wise restraints that make us free, as well as having lots of fun and networking grassroots Jewish communities from across the region.

Here's this year's blurb:

Join the National Havurah Committee, havurahs and minyans from across the Mid-Atlantic Region for the NHC Chesapeake Retreat!

In parashat Mishpatim, Moses receives law concerning fines, lending, and restitution. On Shabbat Shekalim, the haftarah defines a system of census and taxation, including that “the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less” than a half-shekel. In the midst of a presidential primary, with Wall Street recently occupied, and in the weeks before Passover, how do we perceive these laws? Does equal taxation promote or hinder equality? Do regulations and taxes represent an infringement on, or an enabler of, human freedom?

Take a weekend to examine these questions while experiencing the holiness of a community that learns, prays, and rests together. Individuals, families, and havurot of all ages will gather to sing, eat, study, dance, pray, debate, relax, and bond.

If you've thought about going to the NHC Summer Institute, but stayed home because it was too long, too far, or too expensive, the regional retreat is a great way to get a taste of the experience that is shorter, cheaper, and (if you're in the Mid-Atlantic region) closer.  There are activities for all ages, and courses on both the Mishpatim/Shekalim theme and other topics from Sephardi Passover songs to farming.  Registration is entirely online this year, and work-study and scholarship assistance is available.  Register by January 16 before the price goes up (speaking of taxes and regulations).  See you there!