The thin polycotton line

Sometime in the last week our household passed a significant threshold. Claire had commented on several ocassions (and I think you know what I mean when I say ‘several’) that she didn’t have enough clothes. At the weekend, in part to rectify this, we hit the mall for a good Anglo-American shopping spree (i.e. low in price, high in volume). Thus it was, at the start of the week, that Claire complained that she didn’t know what to wear because she had too much to choose from.

I fear that the line between these two states is vanishingly small, in fact so small as to display quantum physics-like properties, in that the act of observation causes it to change. Certainly we have no way of knowing when we are at the line, only when we have passed it. Unfortunately I suspect it does not have one of the key characteristics of quantum physics, namely the quanta. While light can only present itself in discreet units, the demarcation line for too much or not enough is measured in fractions. For example, were we hovering on the insufficient side of the line, the purchase of a short-sleeved T-shirt may still leave us lagging our desired goal, while the accrual of the same T-shirt with long sleeves would push us beyond the mark. Staying with our physics theme, I suspect further that the apparel boundary exhibits signs of radioactive decay; what yesterday was a surfeit of choice becomes tomorrow’s barren wasteland of sartorial options.

Naturally I have a solution for this problem: The regular purchase of small quantities of extremely skimpy foundationwear. Allowing for very fine adjustments of our position (see the rich bounty of double entendres I leave for you to pick up!) relative to the feast/famine fashion line, but regular top-ups will help keep us there over time. You may easily think I have my own motives for such an arrangement, but I hope that reflection on the argument laid out above will convince you that I am thinking only of my dear spouse’s emotional wellbeing.

And I leave you with a new phrase for the fashion physicists out there: The Apparel Boundary, being that point at which one has sufficient clothing to make a suitable choice for all ocassions, while not so much as to overwhelm.

Within Reason

One of the many unpleasant ads running as the election season reaches a frenzy, a scant 7 months before the election, is one criticizing John Kerry’s support for a 50 cent per gallon federal gas tax increase. You can read the allegations from Bush, and the defense from Kerry. Unfortunately I couldn’t locate the ad itself, in part because the Bush website doesn’t have a section labeled ‘Attack Ads’.

Whatever the truth in this spat (which seem to revolve around the meaning of the word ‘support’), I was intrigued by the Bush ad’s description of the idea. I forget the exact word used, but it was something like ‘kooky’ or ‘wacky’ or ‘weird’ . Whatever, the implication was clearly that this was such a far-out, stupid idea that just thinking about it shows a deep character flaw or reckless stupidity.

So, is it really such an unthinkable idea? 300 million Europeans tolerate it, even if they’re not particularly happy with it. That doesn’t make it a great idea, and indeed it could even be a bad idea, but it’s not freakishly outlandish.

Perhaps it’s the size of the tax burden that would be created? The existing tax is 18.4 cents per gallon (a spuriously precise number, incidentally; presumably 18 cents was laughably inadequate, but 19 cents was an egregious burden?). Adding 50 cents would give us an average gas price at the moment of around $2.30, of which 68.4 cents, or a shade under 30%, is tax. A 30% tax rate is clearly higher than almost any basic sales tax throughout the world, but apart from being lower than the gas tax in many other countries, it’s also lower than the two higher tax bands in the US. If it’s so ridiculous to tax gas, a convenience, at that level, how much worse is it to tax income, the thing that provides food warmth and shelter, at even higher rates? Obviously the Republicans (and perhaps even the Democrats) don’t like those high rates, but they’re not actually risible.

The only thing left is the size of the increase, and this brings us to the crux of the argument. An increase of that size, in isolation, is a big deal. If anything gets increased four-fold, even a good thing (“I’m going to quadruple your allowance!”), we are naturally suspicious, because things don’t naturally change that much. And without context all we’re left with is that unnatural change.

The particular context of Kerry’s support is irrelevant; he could have supported it to pay for more teachers, or to cut income taxes, or even just to stick it to SUV drivers. The important thing is that it had a reason, and when a change has a reason it generally becomes, by definition, reasonable. Not necessarily a good idea, and perhaps even an awful idea, but at least worthy of debate.

Bush’s ad doesn’t provide that back story, and it’s not his job to do so. But its omission creates an easy target for him to attack, and for the voting masses to get incensed over, without ever having to think about what it means. Unfortunately the hundreds of millions of dollars the candidates will raise or have spent for them will be used largely to propagate just this kind of mindless, knee-jerk reaction; it doesn’t cost 200 million dollars per side to run a series of one-on-one debates. Both parties will be equally guilty of this (the Democratic side is running an ad with the tagline “Shouldn’t America be his top priority?”, which is every bit as dishonest as the Republican attacks). All that would be distressing enough, if it weren’t for the fact that so many of the people who aren’t already hard-wired to vote Republican or Democrat, come what may, will vote according to the ads, not the ideas.

Things that just are

Following up on an earlier comment from Nick, who suggested that “the definition of marriage should be removed entirely from any legal documents in any laws.” This is an idea that seems rather appealing to me, though with some hesitation that may take us on an interesting detour.

Let’s ignore for a moment what government is, and look instead at what we might like it to be. Clearly there are dozens of different issues we could argue about here, but I’m particularly interested in how decisions should be classified. Let’s say that government faces two kinds of issues; things that can be managed, and things that just are. Any issue can then be placed in to one of these two camps:

The sky is blue” – thing that just is
Homelessness” – thing that can be managed
Cheese” – thing that just is
Global Thermonuclear War” – thing that can be managed

See how easy that was? It seems fairly obvious, given this distinction, that government should deal with ‘things that can be managed’, and leave ‘things that just are’ alone. The problem with the current treatment of gay marriage (or rather, one of the problems) is that those involved portray marriage as something that just is, but want to legislate it as a thing that can be managed.

Putting aside their religious arguments for a moment (because that’s not what government is supposed to be about), proponents state that marriage is one of our most enduring and fundamental institutions. If that is the case then it’s ‘a thing that just is’, and shouldn’t be legislated on. This is in part the point that Nick makes. Not legislating in this area doesn’t mean the status quo, it means removing the 1,138 different benefits and protections that the government gives to married couples (no, that number isn’t made up, click here if you’re a Time subscriber for more info). We don’t provide benefits for the enduring union between a man and his dog, or a woman and her shoes, because those are ‘things that just are’. If marriage ‘just is’, then we should leave it alone.

That’s a very valid view (see this article from 7 years ago for more), but I actually prefer the alternative, which is that marriage is something that can be managed. But that alone isn’t enough to make it a thing that should be managed. For that, we need to show that there is a public interest to be served by intervening. For example, government could regulate the colour of your carpet, but it doesn’t because there isn’t a public interest inherent in your choice of floor covering. On the other hand, it does regulate the dyes used to create that colour, to prevent little Timmy from chewing on some unsavoury chemicals; a public interest served.

So to legislate marriage, we need to show why marriage is a matter of public interest. I don’t think that’s difficult to do in broad terms; children raised in a (happy) marriage tend to be more balanced, marriage increases longevity, etc. But we need to be more specific about these benefits. Are children raised in a (happy) marriage more balanced because of the stability that marriage provides, or because of the extra stuff 1,138 state benefits buys them? And by extension, are there forms of marriage (such as gay marriage) that should be excluded because they don’t bring such benefits. I suspect that it is possible to demonstrate that, in general, two parents are better than one regardless of the financial rewards of being married, but I’m struggling to understand how those two parents being of the same gender would nullify such benefits (let alone how it would destabilize society as a whole).

Once we are able to demonstrate that marriage is a benefit to society, and that this benefit is increased by providing 1,138 incentives, we should whip out the legislative pen with gusto, But until that point, trying to block some types of marriage because “we don’t do that” is both morally, and logically, wrong.