Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Of Comments, Congress and Tea Parties

Although I moderate comments, I generally post most of them unless they are spam or unless the commenter continues to refuse to read plain English. This latter characteristic is the one that caused me to decide to moderate my comments in the first place. I wrote some blog entries last spring (Don't Call It Science, The Annointed and the Benighted, All Those Wasted Years, Feeding the Trolls) that received comments from several people who 1) refused to comprehend what I wrote and 2) continued to make assertions based on what they wanted to think I wrote. It was all quite entertaining for a few go-rounds, but quickly became wearisome to the point of . . . well, moderation.

Sometimes, a commenter has something to say that I believe warrants a more thoughtful discussion, and sometimes one will say something that needs a wider refutation. And sometimes, I just want to be snarky.

The other day, in the middle of my mourning for Zoey (she was such a good dog), I got a comment that fulfills (at least) the last two aforementioned criteria. It was in response to this post about the disgraceful machinations used to pass the so-called stimulus bill. Anonymous wrote:

'If you guys knew anything about politics you would know that the bill was read by congress and many committees, and the presidents administration was present when the bill was made."

First, the snark. Notice how this person did not want to put his name or link on the comment? It's a sort of drive-by insult, as evidenced by the the snotty "if you guys knew anything about politics . . ." Of course we have no way of knowing whether or not Anonymous knows anything about politics, but we do know that he knows nothing about the limitations on human reading speed.

FYI, the upper reading speed limit in humans is approximately 900 words per minute. Speeds higher than that would require super-human eye-tracking speeds. Then there are limitations on comprehension speed that are set by the speed at which electrical signals travel along axons, and are transduced into chemical signals at the synapses. All of these things take time. Although in the normal course of events, these processes are speedy enough that we do not even notice them, microseconds and milliseconds do add up over the course of a long document.

And then there's the attention factor. According to Levin's Law, the ability to pay attention to a text is directly proportional to the number of words in plain English and inversely proportional to the number of terms presented in legalese. This text was therefore likely to be in the red zone for sleep-inducing boredom.

Anonymous has clearly not done his homework about the neuropsychology of reading. Nor has he taken into account the fact that the attention factor was enhanced by the time of day (after midnight) that the Congress was supposed to read the final form of the bill.

The fact is that no person was likely to be able to read the final form of the bill, including wording changes hand-written in the margins, between the time it was accessible and the time Nancy Pelosi's plane for Rome took off that evening. And that is assuming that the person is simply decoding English and Legalese (these are two different languages); real comprehension--which includes establishing an internal dialogue with the text--of a bill this fat would have taken days.

So Anonymous, you should do your homework. It is likely that those "many committees" contributed more words and more pork to an already wordy bill. But I doubt that they read the whole and complete bill. Of course, this begs the question: Can a committee read? Especially one made up of pols? If Chicago pols can't walk and chew gum at the same time, and since at least one member of Congress is a Chicago pol, as are several members of the Executive Branch (including POTUS), one could convincingly argue that such committees do not have the physical coordination necessary to read.

That the presidents administration (sic) was present when the bill was written is also likely an unfounded assertion. Perhaps certain members of the adminstration were present during the writing of certain portions of the bill, but again, a bill this fat is likely an unredacted hodge-podge from different authors. The time factor alone would be good evidence that this is the likely case.

So much for Anonymous' argument.

Going beyond the argument, however, I can't help but wonder about Anonymous' purpose in making this comment. If he knows more about politics than we "guys" do, then why would he defend such a shoddy and ineffective process? Why would he want Congress to pass bills that are so large that they cannot even be read before a vote, let alone actually (gasp!) debated?

From my perspective, the machinations of the party-in-power were made precisely to prevent anyone from knowing what was in the bill and to prevent any reasonable debate.

By way of contrast, let us consider The Declaration of Independence. When placed in a word program with 12 point font, it covers ~3.25 pages; it is comprised of 1,328 words, including the title, but excluding signatures. It took the Continental Congress from June 28th to July 4, 1776 to discuss and debate the document and to make text revisions. (Although Congress declared American independence on July 2, 1776, as the British fleet under Admiral Howe was sailing into New York Harbor, it did not adopt the Declaration of Independence until July 4). The discussion and debate was substantive and dealt with important implications of what was stated in the document. The debate was heated and partisan (the southern colonies actually walked out at one point), and no attempt was made to stifle opposition. This is a real-world example of how Congress ought to proceed in doing the work of our Republic.

However, this Congress did no such thing. This bill was nearly a thousand pages long, and was seven inches thick. No one person or even one committee could have possibly known all that was in the Bill. When the final form came before the house, they were given 90 minutes for debate on it. The opposition, though not stifled, was accused of being partisan (as if this were a bad thing) when some members protested about the way in which the bill was brought to the floor, and the lack of time for substantive debate. This is a real-world example of how not to do the work of our Republic.

I do not know if Anonymous is trying to make my protest into a partisan issue, however, I am not a member of either major party. I made the same kinds of arguments against the Patriot Act as I have against this bill. Although I do not like the provisions in either of these two bills, my protest is directed against the way that Congress works. No bill needs to be that long. And no bill should be passed without substantive debate.

The hurry to get the bill passed was irresponsible, even if the bill itself had been about "stimulating the economy." This phrase begs another question: Can government stimulate an economy? When considered empirically, by testing what happens to the stock market whenever an administration official makes an economic pronouncement, it is likely that the answer is yes. The government can stimulate the economy by keeping the pie-hole shut. What we need is "mouth shut" economics. Hmmm. How does one say that in French?

But this bill was not really about stimulating the economy. It was about spending money the government doesn't have on the agendas of politicians at the taxpayer's expense. And that is why it was passed in the way it was. Why debate the issues and possibly lose, when you can just hide them in an emergency spending bill? That this is taxation without effective representation doesn't appear to bother the pols of either party.
Which is why we need a party of our own. America's Tea Party.


Connie said...

Excellent points, well-expressed. Let me emphasize that although the legislators might have read AND ANALYZED the entire bill before conference (not likely), it is during conference that the majority of pork gets inserted. In addition, changes to the bill may be major -- language added that did not appear in either the House or the Senate version, and language that appeared in both struck. The final version of a bill can and often looks drastically different from the versions going into conference. Reading the final version is absolutely necessary for a congressman to vote WITH INTEGRITY.

Apparently, however, the not reading of entire bills before voting is a common practice in our legislature. That's why I like the sign that showed up at a tea party: NO TAXATION WITHOUT DELIBERATION!

Amie said...

I'm just blown away that there is actually somebody who would defend that bill and how it was passed. Wow.