29 July 2016

An incomplete list of dumb ideas

An incomplete list of political positions Trump has taken that are morally reprehensible or stupid. More importantly, this list all contradicts common public perceptions. For example that he is "isolationist", "non-interventionist", "realist" on foreign policy. Or that the more common perception that he is "softer" on social issues than his Republican counterparts. How this is relevant when he is still far to the right of Democrats or libertarians is not clear. 
One can agree with some or any of these as policy agendas, but one should not be able to examine a list like this and come away with the interpretation that these are positions compatible with the above views. This should not also be taken as a complete list of Trump's dumb ideas (in my view) but rather a list which refutes certain common narratives which I see frequently expressed. His views on immigration more broadly and any number of other issues I take to be quite awful as well, but I would prefer to focus on stuff people haven't paid as much attention to or might take to be false if they have casually involved themselves on the subjects at hand. 
1 - Mercantilism motivates most of his trade and foreign policy positions. This was a discredited economic perspective over 200 years ago, involving zero sum competition and tariffs/protectionism rather than mutual cooperation and trade (a position which allows for more economic and social growth). Global trade and competition does involve winners and losers, but the "losers" are easily predictable ahead of time and could be accommodated through domestic policies. 
2- Colonialism motivates the remainder of foreign policy perspectives, the idea of taking over the strategically valuable territory or resources of a country if it is attacked or invaded. This is idiotic. Such resources are used or sold on open markets. So long as the country attacked or invaded is not attempting to impose export tariffs on the goods or resources it is capable of distributing abroad, it's virtually irrelevant to consumers where such things will come from. On economic grounds. People may have moral concerns about the government or non-state actors, but that's different from the economic viability of trade. In either event, naked conquest for the purpose of resource extraction or tribute extraction is an idea which was last common in the 19th century as European powers conquered Africa and SE Asia. 
3 - Opposes 14th amendment guarantee of birthright citizenship. This is not merely a statement about opposing "illegal immigration" but an effort to reduce legal migration and immigration by adding an additional step to provide for the guarantee of citizenship rights. There is a minority legal position that in any way the 14th amendment does not provide for birthright citizenship, but it does not appear to be held in mainstream legal theories or have clear legal precedence that could make this likely to be overturned. In fact most of his legal views are inscrutably bad, suggesting he has little or no familiarity with the legal and judicial system, or otherwise no idea what he is talking about where Constitutional concerns would arise. 
4 - Supported a government shutdown attempt over Planned Parenthood funding (last year). His views on abortion may have "evolved" but the belief that they are more socially liberal is based upon positions he held almost 2 decades ago. I would prefer to evaluate someone on the basis of what they now hold to be the case rather than what they implied when I was still in high school. 
5 - Stated women who receive abortions should have legal penalties. It was his first instinct to respond with the most aggressive possible legal sanctions. This was walked back, slowly. 
6 - Stated he would attempt to appoint justices who would overturn Roe v Wade. The list of judges that was leaked was viewed favorably by anti-choice groups for the likelihood of doing so.
7 - Buys into the "War on Christmas" narrative.
8 - Wants to abolish IRS rules on religious organisations and political campaigning.
9 - Supported NC House Bill 2, a bill removing LGBT anti-discrimination protections enacted by local governments. (He did change his mind on this, but he now supports it).
10 - Expressed same position on same sex marriage for over two decades. Which is that he does not support it. His supreme court short list included a number of anti-LGBT judges and he suggested after Obergefell that he would seek to overturn it.
11 - Suggests having the DoJ investigate Black Lives Matter protesters and organisations. In addition to other first amendment violations regarding freedom of the press; somehow expanding libel laws, attempting to bar disfavored reporters or media organs from covering his events, etc. 
12 - Mocked a reporter with a visible disability during a speech, suggesting no sympathy for people with physical maladies and disabilities. 
13 - Supports using stop and frisk searches (a highly questionable and probably unconstitutional practice of searching people without a clear Terry basis for a stop).
14 - Supports torture and capital punishment.
15 - Opposes legalisation of marijuana, and supports increasing enforcement efforts in the drug war
16 - Supported Iraq war and Libya, and generally supports the same policies as Clinton for Syria, and her pre-treaty positions for Iran. All of which are quite hawkish positions.
17 - Long history of deploying racist or fearmongering propaganda where it concerns Native Americans.
18 - Is fine with nuclear proliferation, which increases risks of very damaging military conflicts, which may or may not involve us, or nuclear terrorism (a fear which I would tend to ignore under ordinary circumstances). This is not a favorable non-interventionist position if it increases the danger or risk coming from foreign powers to an unacceptable degree. The purpose of non-interventionism is to get along with other nations on a neutral but friendly basis and thus reinforce acceptable international norms (things like "you don't need nuclear weapons" being among them). The point is not to increase the mayhem and chaos of the world but to engage with the world in a responsible manner. 
19 - Generally gives favorable approval of "strongman" behavior (Turkey's post-coup behaviors for example). This does not indicate interventionism, but it reinforces the probability that he might wish to govern in an aggressively anti-democratic way. 
20 - Can't make up his mind about Ukraine, but seems to be demanding we become more involved or makes demands that NATO become more involved. 
21 - Wishes to maintain very close ties to Israel, while putting forward positions on NATO/West Pac that are favorably viewed by rivals or hostile states in those regions (Russia/DPRK/China). As a general strategic view of the world, this is very unusual. Israel alone requires military aid without qualifications? Even though it has already a stronger and more advanced military and economy than any of its neighbours/rivals? As a theory of politics it suggests we should only help those who don't need it by being already strong. 

19 July 2016

Stateless actors

One of the key elements in "fighting terrorism" I have noted is a reliance upon occupation and bombing campaigns of other places in a theory that fighting terrorism abroad means we won't have to deal with it here. This sort of logic lay under a lot of late 20th century foreign policy, through offshoring and other proxy fights with communist rulers across the globe on a theory that preventing the spread of communism to new countries would prevent it from spreading here. A more sensible understanding was that communism was never going to be that fertile in the US anyway, and much of Western Europe and other allies either and that all that was necessary was containment while the ideology destroyed itself. The mythology that Reagan won the Cold War has some pieces of merit, but at no point did he directly confront the USSR militarily in battle either (indirectly in Afghanistan and other places, yes). This should be instructive to understanding the limitations of the fighting abroad logic.

But what is really demonstrative is comparing the chaos caused by terrorism now to that of the 19th century anarchists (and some communists). This period spawned shootings, bombings, and political assassinations all over the world for several decades. The common cause was ideological, sometimes vaguely, and this inspired individual actors with guns and bombs to mayhem and violence. There was no other country to go invade or bomb to put a stop to it, as there is not really today either. The problem was growing and incubating within each country itself. It came from an idea, not a border. The problem now resembles this far more than the Cold War rubric that seems to dominate strategic action or what passes for strategic thought today. There is a "state" in the form of ISIS, which functions in a bureaucratic sense to administer territory, but the relevant feature of that state is not its ability to threaten us, or even its neighbours, with invasion and devastation in military conflict. It cannot do any such thing. It is the ability of this state's ideology to inspire action abroad to make small scale isolated attacks in an attempt to terrorize or at least annoy their perceived enemies. When or if it is crushed as an illegitimate state force, this result will be largely irrelevant. Other groups carry similar ideological beliefs (al Qaeda, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, etc), and have inspired or carried out large scale attacks of their own. Conflict in military arenas is not the appropriate strategic realm on which to fight this problem in the first place, but appears to be the only dominant method we have considered executing.

It flows nicely from the "we must do something, this is something, let's do it" logic that I suspect pervades much public action. What we "know how do to do" is bomb locations or targets, and defeat enemies militarily with logistics, stealth, and firepower. Therefore that's what we're going to do by Jove. But almost all of which is useless against ideas. And typically involves a very expensive method of attempting with violence and force, and mostly failing, to stablize regions and governments that might spread and sponsor such ideas. This should be recognized as a dysfunctional method of response. Or at best, only a part of a response.

It is by now a common set of wisdom however that if they hit us, we hit them back. This is not a solution to most problems at the age of 4 or 5 in observing the play of children. It is hardly a solution to most problems for adults. Much less nation-states. A better analogy might work something like this. It is reasonable to take steps to deter a mosquito bite, to try to prevent mosquitoes from approaching you or an outdoor patio when one is in a summer or spring repose taking in the day. It is even reasonable to slap and kill the mosquito when it should bite you. It is not reasonable to decide after such a bite that you shall endeavour to exterminate any insects of any kind near you, most of which have done and will do nothing so remarkable even as to provide a small itchy patch of skin. This is generally what our responses look more like than the more limited "slap the mosquito" response.

In a foreign policy or national security explanation, we should be attempting to gather intelligence. On suspected terrorists, not on everyone, with a more strict limitation on what constitutes "terrorism". We should be taking reasonable but not onerous and super-expensive security steps. So some minor security screening to get on airplanes, with those having secured cockpits and alert but not paranoid passengers. And not rigorous and endless lines involving the removal of shoes and belts and toothpaste at great expense of time and energy (and lives) for little or no gain in actual security or deterrence of threats. We should be operating intelligence along the outer rim of groups that are deemed at risk of violent action (white supremacists, Islamic radicals, anti-choice radicals, etc), to try to identify and deter possible violence before it happens. But we should not be treating anyone with a generic Muslim heritage, members of biker gangs, or anyone using vaguely anti-government rhetoric as a potential terrorist either. Same with mental health issues and on down the line as subjects we have highlighted for prejudicial assessment in this way. We should not be deploying weapons of war to our own local and state police forces. These are of little use for most towns and cities in the project of anti-terrorism. They are of great use in the oppression of citizens local rights instead. And we should not be seeking to conduct bombing campaigns aggressively in other countries in the hopes of possibly killing "terrorists". Who are often insurgents, at least in parts of Iraq and Afghanistan, and no thus no threat to us here.

Violence that we would prefer to avoid is in this sense a disease. It is not solved by spreading it to more people than those who are already afflicted by it. Or afflicting yet more violence upon those already at risk of it.

05 July 2016

Thoughts on the email/Clinton scandal

I have generally been meh in reaction to this as a scandal. In so far as I agree it is a scandal, there is that. But it also does not present much useful information for me. There were a number of reasons I was not very moved for or against Clinton.

It was always to my mind extremely unlikely she would be prosecuted or charged with a crime. High government officials are rarely held legally accountable for their behavior. David Petraeus essentially did the same thing. He in fact deliberately leaked information, something which would be hard to prove in Clinton's case, and only got probation and a fine. There were numerous scandals and public officials under investigation during the Reagan administration. Very few of them went to jail; one was a cabinet official convicted of bribery involving public housing projects and building contractors. Agnew was convicted of tax evasion, but Nixon was pardoned for Watergate. Albert Fall was the first cabinet official ever convicted of a crime while in office and that took until the Harding administration and Teapot Dome. And so on. This makes no statement of whether the legal system should be more involved in the accountability of public officials in the executive branch. It's a statement that they usually aren't charged and convicted when something sketchy legally occurs, and that any expectation that would happen here should be tempered by the knowledge that it hasn't happened very often. As to why it does not happen more often.
a) It can be really hard to prove an actual crime was committed deliberately. Bribery for example has to usually show there was some significant political favor purchased with the bribes. It isn't as simple as showing that money moved from point A to point B. These are rarely cases involving direct physical evidence like a murder or robbery that can be examined separate from the case itself.
b) Justice department officials and public executive officials, like local police and prosecutors, more or less have to work with each other and have strong incentives not to rock the boat too much where it concerns a high official who if they screw up the prosecution and gets off, then is likely to still be The Boss. And probably will not be very happy with whomever tried to grind an axe and failed.

Without a legal charge, there was little probability that it would have a major impact on the campaign. As a scandal it largely fit the processing of how many people already saw the Clintons (both Bill and Hillary). This is more a statement about us than it is about her. If people already saw her as hypocritical or duplicitous, then behavior which appears hypocritical or duplicitous simply reinforces the existing narrative. Many people already held this view of the Clintons and of Hillary in particular. This was not changed or altered in some fundamental way such that it actually matters in campaign horse race terms. I generally see coverage to the contrary as media attempting to get attention for something rather than reporting on something new and interesting. Such as any policy shifts she has made, and proposed to make, and whether those will be good for the country/world or not.

As a statement about her judgment it says very little. A more concerning feature of judgment is her assessments of waging war in Libya. Without a probable long-term campaign to re-stabilize the country after deposing a ruler, or risking any long-term diplomatic strategy for getting China and Russia on board if a more significant foreign government/dictator actually needed to be deposed, like, say, Assad in Syria. The Benghazi "scandal" has largely ignored this question during investigation, most likely because many elite Republicans favored intervention in Libya, much as they favored intervention in Iraq (as she did too). The email scandal meanwhile has occasionally been linked into questions over her support for NSA metadata collection, opposition to publicly available encryption, continued processing of far too many government documents as classified or other attempts to keep them from public view, and so on.

These to me are the far more important questions of her judgment being in error as these potentially negatively impact the civil liberties of millions of American citizens and residents, something a President has enormous power and sway to do. Likewise pushing for an ill-advised bombing campaign for the purpose of regime change in an unstable area without likely stability in the form of new leadership (which is judged in some way morally superior), seems like a poor judgment. The bigger picture seems more important than whether or not some sensitive documents were hacked because they were improperly handled. That's more or less par for the course right now, in my estimation, because that's kind of how the internet works right now. Documents will be hacked if someone wants to hack them. Or leaked if someone wants to leak them.

08 May 2016

Civil War

I had other thoughts on the quality of the film (it was good, but not at the level of Winter Soldier or Avengers). This isn't about that. (spoilers anyway though).

One thing that has emerged in the aftermath is people seem to have trouble understanding what Captain America/Steve Rogers basis for "rebellion" against the authorities even is. This is much more clearly spelled out in the comic, but the component parts are all present in the film itself. The problem is they aren't very clear; the movie seems very clearly to be hammering upon questions of revenge instead of the geopolitics that underlie the comic that spawned the film in the first place.

So here's what it breaks into.

1) Cap does not trust the agendas of potential oversight. He has good reason not to from the events of Winter Soldier, to be suspicious of other people telling him what they are up to and for what purpose. The comic was written at the height of the Iraq War's unpopularity. The gist both there and to an admittedly less clear but still present extent in the film is that people in charge often demand weapons and violence be pointed at the "wrong" targets, and this still results in the terrible results they are seeking to prevent by enacting rules of oversight (such as collateral damage). It is an important distinction that the agendas of "ordinary" men are going to differ, perhaps wildly, from what may be objectively found to be good or best possible alternatives. The results may not always be terribly different, but if we're looking for "extraordinary" people to set these agendas, it's possible they may do so more capably and with less damage by not attacking the wrong places deliberately. Winter Soldier sets this up pretty strongly as a concern within the series of films.

2) The film portrays the oversight as coming from the UN via a broad international agreement. But anyone familiar with the UN will be aware it is often dysfunctional and will probably prevent many actions for political reasons ("agendas" as Rogers calls them). "Movie UN" is always a really powerful and cohesive group for some reason. I suppose it wouldn't be very amusing in movie terms to see the UN deadlocking on a vote or Russia or China or the US vetoing deployment of the Avengers to go deal with a raging supermonster/supervillain somewhere on the globe. The question of whether they will be sent somewhere they don't want to go (to do something they shouldn't), or won't be allowed to go somewhere they need to, is a viable concern if what they are doing is dealing with potential threats all over the globe which potentially threaten millions of lives. This is also an argument that many neoconservatives make of course. We are seeing that the threats the Avengers deal with are usually "real"; this is not the case of the US or other nation-states and their agendas.

But. It should be pretty clear that the UN/accords governments ignore the input of the superfriends team of Avengers almost immediately (Ross ignores Stark's file of evidence on Bucky) and that they would end up likely being a huge red tape working on shutting them down rather than using them as a superfriends team to do some good.

3) He does not generally trust the methods of others; again, seeing WS, he presents a very strong civil libertarian case against what SHIELD/Hydra are up to. "This isn't freedom, this is fear". And of course, this being a movie, his fears of what is going on turned out to be quite justified. He has a good degree of trust in the abilities of people he works and trains with closely, and that they are just as concerned that they work carefully to save lives/protect people. He does not trust others to get the job done as often and as well, that there won't be more lives lost. Or that they won't turn out to be weapons that can be turned against the innocent deliberately (as in WS). There's an argument to be made that a team of superheroes with considerable abilities and being well-equipped and trained to use those abilities together will be able to limit the possibility of damage far more than anyone else. Or may be the only ones who can stop certain plots from occurring at all (say some enormous alien invasion of NYC, or cleaning up Stark's mess from creating a psychotic AI, or unraveling and stopping nefarious plots by international bad guys bent on world domination, or whatever).

This is not a great argument in real life. But in the context of the Marvel universe, it probably makes more sense not to attach too much red tape to their activities and to give them the tip of the spear/sword/shield and decide how to use it themselves instead of someone else telling them where they can and cannot go. They aren't just a band of superpowered thugs roaming around blowing things up for kicks. They have spies and computer hackers to help them pick the right targets as best as they can.

The counterargument is strengthened by Stark's screw-ups (with his company selling weapons under the table that he had to clean up, and later himself creating Ultron, but also Vision), which is why that makes a compelling argument to him, but not to Cap. The comic also strengthens this argument in that there are bands of lesser superheroes who cause problems because they are not as skilled or admired or otherwise legitimate, and ultimately this causes more collateral damage.

4) One of the major points in the comic, and which may be obscured by the more personal nature of the film, is that one of Cap's key concerns is that he will be sent after people who do not sign on the dotted line to agree to the rules. And most likely sent after them to kill them, because these are potentially very dangerous people that inspire fear (whether deserved or not). Or at best these would be people who would be imprisoned indefinitely. This point does get made, but very subtly. In the film, Cap was about to sign the accord, until Tony brought up that Wanda was still effectively imprisoned until he signed (plus obviously Falcon and himself). This does not go over well, predictably. Wanda later makes a key point that people are going to be afraid of her no matter what she does. It doesn't actually mean much that she signs a piece of paper (or that Cap signs it for her, essentially).

5) I felt the best argument that was made in the political sense was Widow's "we still will have one hand on the wheel and we have to use it earn back their trust". But, because of the plot of the film in hunting down what ultimately ends up being the wrong man, she sees this isn't going to play out in a way they would have control or influence over what they are to be doing either and bails on it.

26 April 2016

Inequality and voting

Bernie Sanders made a hilariously poorly framed statement. Effectively blaming the lack of poor people voting for why his campaign has faired relatively poorly (or at least, isn't winning). One obvious problem with this is that Sanders has not done any better among those voters who are poor and have shown up to vote. There are reasons for that.

I propose that this was a fundamental flaw all along with his campaign. That it was unlikely to appeal to many people who are among the poorest Americans. The reason, to me, was that he was not running a campaign based on the issues that matter to such people. He was running a campaign based on issues that matter to relatively well off white middle class voters. Of the sort one encounters in Vermont.

For example. Most of the poorest Americans live in fairly awful school districts for K-12 primary education. A campaign which promises free college tuition is meaningless to most of these people as their children would not be provided with basic skills and knowledge necessary to be modestly successful at navigating through college and graduating in the first place. The problem of inequality as it relates to college is that a high school diploma has become economically useless, and the reason is that the perception is that most such schools are poorly qualified at providing useful skills to employers. There are lots of ways to try to fix that, some of which may even help and work to improve education and even the possibility of college and a decent living for hundreds of thousands of children. Paying for the college educations of legions of already reasonably well educated suburban children isn't one of these. It is not surprising that it is popular (among recent college graduates, and some professors). But it has little relevance to the problems of the majority of Americans suffering from poverty. It should not be surprising it doesn't catch on as a special message for the poor.

This problem continues throughout. Sanders has made considerable claims about the fairness of campaign funding. But the actual problem for poorer Americans is liable to be ballot access. They can't take off work to go vote (on a Tuesday). If they even can vote (if they have been removed from registration, or have a criminal record, for example). Various states have made it more and more difficult to vote early, or to vote by mail, or even to register to vote. Politicians may certainly be swayed by money and influence, but they're mainly swayed by votes, on the theory that they would like to remain in office. If legions of poorer voters were to show up or be able to show up and vote, one expects this may influence the behavior of some political figures. Middle class voters may wish to feel like their smaller sums may fund better campaigns, but the actual and immediate problem is ballot access, not influence access.

Meanwhile there is not much evidence that more people voting or more access on campaign funding via semi public methods or funds matches has any noticeable effect on the progressivism of governance voters receive. Maine does some of the stuff Sanders seems to like. Maine also has one of the few people in America possibly more insane than Drumpf as its elected and currently serving governor. There may be other good reasons to amend how elections and lobbying are funded. But the formation of some kind of "progressive revolution" is not one of them. Voters who don't vote aren't very progressive (except on economics, where they are often socialistic), and are apt to endorse all manner of biases and prejudices that we probably don't want or will have to fight in court. This is the messy business of democracies is that voters have wacky ideas. Some of them are wrong via prejudices or at best woefully misinformed. This is not necessarily their fault (in some cases), as they have little reason to become well-informed. Non-voters are typically even worse on this score, as they have had even less reason to become well-informed. We should not expect that merely getting more people to vote will have mainly predictable and beneficial outcomes for our society and its civic virtues. This is a silly belief in the rationality of voters toward voting in their self-interest. Something many of them do not in fact try to do. Many people vote out of a sense of civic virtue and simply do not agree on what would best create a better and more prosperous society. Often resulting in what we have as governance. This is not fixed by encouraging more people to vote and having to resolve more of these disagreeable notions.

Railing about bankers and the rich as Sanders often does has its amusing charm I'm sure, but it offers little sustaining fuel for what comes next, and it often rejects things bankers and rich people want on the grounds that it is bankers and rich people who want it. This is not sensible. But it also isn't the variety of inequality which seems to preoccupy most people. Most people have no idea how Bill Gates lives. Or Jamie Diamond. Etc. This does not violate some sense of fairness or attainable goals as a result. They do have some idea how their friends and neighbours and former classmates and co-workers live. The sort of inequality which dominates most people's time and attention and energy is "am I keeping up with my peers"? "Am I able to live in accordance with my perceived shared values?" This is difficult to make into a policy, much less a stump speech. But I suspect it occupies more of daily concern and thought for most people. There's clearly some sense that the game is being rigged, but it is many millions of miles away from our lived experiences in many cases. It is an abstraction, often involving complex legal and regulatory schemes. Our friends, or some random people we know across town doing much better than us, or seeming to via facebook, is a much more accessible emotional problem. I don't understand this variety of envy as naturally sensible, and it obviously affords little comfort in the form of government intervention. But I also don't understand concern over extremely wealthy people necessarily either. Unless we have clear evidence that they are gaining that wealth through misbegotten strategies and tactics at the expense of others, and there are cases that this would be (US sugar or corn farmers for example), I'm not really concerned that some people are outrageously successful. This is not by and large something that deeply disturbs many Americans that some people can get very rich, even among people who are pretty poor. For Sanders, it appears to be. This is not likely to be a connection people will make readily as a result.

A final problem. Perhaps the main one ultimately. Sanders has had difficulty making inroads with minorities, particularly African-Americans. I have read more times than I can count over the last few months that his policies would be of tremendous benefit to such people and why don't they like them or vote for him, as a disturbing example of whitesplaining I suppose. There are a litany of problems with this variety of statement, but a simple objection suffices: the things Sanders and his fans seem most animated about aren't the priority of this community to fix and address. The priority might be something like "we want a police force that doesn't brutalize and kill us and feel like an occupying army in our neighbourhoods". Or "we want the ability to start a business and get a fair loan to do so". "We want our children to be able to go to a decent school to prepare them for their future". There are basic forms of survival and prosperity which have gone unmet and are in need of serious improvement, and these problems cut beyond some version of class warfare that Sanders believes is necessary; they have ethnic and historical roots that are not merely the behavior and intentions of rich people to put in place and accost people for. The prejudices are deeper and broader than that. These issues are as a result often very disconnected from the types of policies and politics which Sanders and his supporters have put forward most often and most readily. Certainly it seems unclear that Clinton offers policies that may adjust these situations in a positive way. She has not endorsed many Black Lives Matter positions as part of her platform, and has a track record that is sketchy at best where race and criminal justice are involved. But neither does Sanders offer some version of an improvement on many of these questions (a possible exception is the drug war, which he seems slightly less enthusiastic about continuing to wage). In that instance, people may go with the devil they know.

One way to look at these questions however is to say that often inequality as a political issue does not seem well connected to inequality as a social issue. It therefore does not resonate the way a political figure believes it will when they talk about it. The reason is fairly simple. Most political figures do not know very many poor people. Or many people from ethnic or religious minorities. This makes it more complicated for them to connect their message in a way that actually feels like it would impact the plight of people who are marginalized and not well off economically. Much policy is then crafted almost entirely in the absence of asking how it would actually impact the people involved, or whether it actually addresses their needs and concerns. A paternalistic "we know better than they what they need/want" attitude also pervades these conversations with notions of "people voting against their self-interest" and the like. Little of this probably feels like it relates to the lived experiences of actual people who are poor.

A note on bathrooms

Much fussiness has arisen over who gets to use which bathroom. This seems incredibly paranoid and silly at best, but mainly doesn't seem like something that requires laws. Which is to say: transgendered persons have been using bathrooms of their choice and intention for years without much in the way of public complaint or incident. Nobody really noticed or cared. Why this arises now? Most probably because anti-gay bigotry is less popular to express, but some version of it still demands expression. This is as close as some people can get. Laws restricting the behavior of homosexuality are unenforceable and unlikely to pass muster in courts. Trans persons are a relative unknown, very few people know much about the biology involved (and people's eyes will glaze over when you try to explain the available neuroscience to them), and they represent an even smaller minority that is thus easier to pick on. Any legal fight is still perceived as uncertain.

What we are seeing is that there is a strong cultural fight ongoing, where businesses and liberals and progressives are (generally) allies, social conservatives are off on a strange island, and there is some number of people in the middle who don't yet know what to think of any of this and perhaps harbor vaguely creepy and uninformed notions about who or what transgender means in society and as a set of behaviors. As with abortion, this physical and moral uncertainty (and even fear) can sometimes privilege very restrictive legal actions that are inappropriate or unnecessary, even as an intention to alleviate some alleged social or health related problem. To be clear, I feel I know very little about this subject myself. I've written about it before with some circumspection. What I do know suggests very little of the public debate has had anything to do with the behavior of transgendered persons, the reasons for it, the norms enforcing that behavior, or really much of anything with respect to the actual fears of people involved.

There are pretty strong norms about bathroom use; that someone going into the women's restroom should look like they belong in that space for example. But even these allow for some things like a parent taking small children into the "wrong" bathroom, or women using the men's room stalls at large events (sports or concerts), and so on. Creating laws which might rigidly define who can use what bathroom seems typically unnecessary. Social conventions are quite capable of handling this question in a "common sense" way without messily involving the law and its blunt instruments of gender assignments. And the implication of law is that somehow we must be enforcing these restrictions. Using what methods? This is a question generally left unexamined. Would we punish women who look insufficiently feminine for using the "wrong bathroom"? How would we even tell someone who has had sex reassignment therapy or surgery is in the "wrong space"? Is someone going to be assigned to check IDs? Or check people's bits? Again, social norms will tend to enforce these conventional situations more than adequately without these mixed up scenarios.

The creepy "men will get dressed up as women to watch women peeing" or some such narrative pushed by many men on this point makes no sense in relation to this subject. Men can already do this. They generally don't. In large part because social norms and (yes) laws will punish such behavior. And in any case, there's plenty of this rather odd sexual fetish available relatively freely on the internet (presumably including varieties where men have dressed up as women). Mostly this suggests something is wrong with the person making this argument, that they think this is something people would suddenly start to do that they somehow cannot right now. It has little to do with what makes someone transgendered that someone "decides" to use a "different" bathroom, much less for the purpose of creepily staring at women or children. Such a conversation is like speaking a different language with an alien species and rarely amounts to productive conclusions.

There isn't in fact very much danger in public restrooms for sexual abuse. Upon women or children. Think about what this argument suggests for a moment. A random stranger, someone totally unknown to a woman or child, will sneak into an inappropriate bathroom where there may be an unknown quantity of persons within, often doing so in full view of store security or video surveillance, and most likely with a guardian, friend, or parent nearby to the person they wished to target for abuse, who then will have ample opportunity to resist and to call for help in a public location where other human beings might hear them and assist. There are many reasons that sexual abuse is nearly always perpetrated by someone known to the victim (for children, the percentage of known abusers approaches 95%. Random assaults or even kidnappings are vanishingly rare). But these are all pretty strong arguments against the fear of random strangers in public bathrooms, not arguments in favor of laws relating to who can use what restroom. We are imagining a fear that doesn't actually exist, and not creating a new scenario that didn't already exist by allowing people to use the bathroom in which they are personally most comfortable. More to the point, rates of sexual assault itself have been declining. The actual danger being identified, a risk of something untoward happening while someone is in the vulnerable position of relieving their body of physical waste, is already unlikely, and is in a category of crime that is itself less and less likely.

One problem I have been seeing is that comparisons are being made to demand laws or stronger social efforts to punish sexual offenders (instead of these kinds of silly laws regarding restrictions on transgendered bathroom selection). We already have a vast infrastructure of laws punishing all manner of lewd and inappropriate behaviors, sometimes severely, in addition to laws punishing sexual assault and rape and other more morally reprehensible crimes. Thousands of people are required in most US states to register as sex offenders, to be restricted on where they may live, contact with family members is often heavily restrained (assuming their offense was not involving such, family is often a key method of reintegration to society as it provides a basis of support), to have social stigma attached to them from neighbours who often wrongly infer their actions make them a threat to their children, job restrictions on where they can work or what kind of work they can do, and so on. The vast majority of these people did not go around molesting children, raping women, or other heinous actions of sexual predators. Therefore I would submit that the idea that we should punish sexual offenses more severely or more readily is already an idea we have taken to heart and practiced as a society. We already do it at a prodigious rate.

To be sure, there are still problems in how many people, including some police and prosecutors and judges, perceive rape and sexual assault, and the methods of adjudicating claims thereof are still often fraught with he-said-she-said difficulties, and problems in how swiftly and readily evidence is processed for criminal convictions (or as proof of innocence). And there are serious questions of sexual consent (and communication regarding sexuality in general) that are still awkwardly worked out for many young people in a way that disadvantages them from the healthy and consensual enjoyment of the human form. But our eagerness to punish sexual misbehavior reaches far beyond these questions and often ends up vigorously criminalizing (generally natural) sexual exploration by teens, drunken stupidity like public urination, and on down the list. This is where we go when we want to punish sexual misconduct as a society. And not toward more violent and non-consensual criminal actions. We should be careful to look at an imaginary danger, some vast looming threat posed uniquely by transgendered persons using the "wrong" bathrooms in public, and not replace it with other imaginary dangers in the effort to dismiss the former.

20 April 2016


Sadly. This is not a post about the virtues of not having to wear socks for months at a time.

During a digression on sexism and politics, one of the constant refrains that emerged as a "factual issue" of concern and note was the concept that a politician's word on some issue cannot be held to trust and account because they have changed their position on some given issue. Sometimes in the last week. Sometimes from a position they held 20 years ago.

Leaving aside for a moment whether this is indeed a salient feature of how to evaluate specific political figures (I do not think it is very useful at all), the nature and presentation of it itself proceeded along the same sexist lines. One political figure who has so famously flip-flopped so often that Colbert does a late-night segment where he debates himself (as a formidable opponent no doubt), is described as "honest" and receives a pass (Trump). Trump "changed his mind" on abortion only a few weeks ago about 5 times in one weekend. Some things he's changed his mind on in the same press appearance. Clinton meanwhile, received no such pass for views that have "evolved" over several decades. If one is going to apply this as some form of rigorous standard, that politicians should mean what they say and explain their evolutions to us when they occur that they have to change their minds, one should do so "fairly", without a prism of sexism to blind people to one form of doing so as excused or ignored, and painting a huge target on someone else for doing the same thing.

The question then becomes whether this is a useful metric for measuring the probable performance of someone in public office. This is I think much more mixed. There are a number of problems with holding it up as a high end value assessment. Pretty much everyone changes their minds at least some of the time. Especially in politics. This is, in most walks of life, a virtuous element of their character, that people apportion their beliefs to evidence and values that have changed and adapt accordingly. "New shit has come to light, man", and one should naturally follow along to see where it goes. Politician's difficulty is typically in explaining why, not the what, in a way that satisfies their partisan fellow travelers and opponents alike (this is not often possible). But we should expect political figures to have changed their positions on a number of topics over a career in public service, even within the last few days or weeks. What exactly we are holding them to account for is not that they have changed their minds, but something else.

People who don't change their minds in politics based upon changing conditions, values, and evidence, are typically called ideologues. And they are usually dangerous people when given public office and public powers. Or at least, they tend not to perform an executive office very well. This is because such people are too confident in their own mental faculties and too unwilling to rely upon the advice of others on the probability that they might be wrong. Someone like Sanders comes up obviously to this view, that he seems very unwilling to respect points of view indicating he might be wrong in either his diagnosis of a problem or his probable solutions. Someone like Trump comes to this problem from a different perspective, but the same effect: poor quality advice is likely to occur because the only advice he will want is what he already wants to hear. These are the risks of people who don't appear to change their minds, or people who rely too closely on their own minds to make their assessments of what they should or should not do in public office. It is not simply the case that we should want "honest" and steady figures, because such figures do not historically have a track record of providing quality governance and provide glaring flaws as to why this might be the case.

This does not mean that public officials changing their minds is of no consequence. What we are actually assessing is something about their method of making judgments. Someone who appears too quick to jump ship may be of concern to people with particular ideological and policy issue commitments they wish to see fulfilled. This would require people to be pretty activist and informed about some particular policy issue. Which is not the case for most people that they are deeply committed to a platform of ideological goals and aware of the policy levers that are being pulled or ignored that could help further those. Most people therefore aren't making this complaint when they complain about flip-flopping. Someone who appears unwilling to stick to a decision might be a concern in a crisis (this is a common argument made against FDR's first two terms and his handling of the Depression, with a lot of meddling going in different, sometimes contradictory and counterproductive directions. I honestly don't think he would be regarded as a great President without the third term and "The War" to rescue his reputation). This might be closer to the truth of the matter that we would want to know there is a level head trying to make decisions in terrible situations, someone who won't panic or make poor decisions. I still think it grants too much to the motives of voters however for why this occurs as an issue in politics.

We are trying to assess how and why someone has changed their minds. This will not always be clear, as any change would be internal. We can assume it will be for craven political calculus, for example to follow the national mood on some issue or another, being for or against something because it is politically expedient. This appears to be what many do. Cynically I am inclined to agree this is often a feature for why political figures decide one day to stand up, when they usually remain seated, but this does not explain our behavior that well as voters standing in judgment. It does not explain why we fix on some candidates over others for this flaw. We can assume it will be because they have become personally moved on this issue. In many cases I am willing to grant this may be the case, simply because politicians are often as ignorant of the many subjects on which they are often called upon to legislate as we are in the general public. But many others are not so forgiving. This would all be acceptable behavior. If it went on that often. What most people seem to do instead of these options however is cognitive dissonance of a partisan or tribalistic nature. They ignore or minimize changes to positions for their favored candidates. And they highlight those of candidates they are not disposed to like (people from the other party, or the other candidate in a primary cycle). This then is actually why we are doing it: "Our team is noble and pure. And the other people are all hypocrites."

As someone who has observed from the outsider status the nature of politics and political arguments, who doesn't much like any of the tribes involved (even the one I am nominally leaned toward on some policy grounds), I am here to say "you are all full of shit". That's an amusing game I'm sure, but it isn't very satisfying or convincing that any of you are right about what you want, what policies we should or should not pursue, even about what political figures can best advance or deter such policies. Calling people out for lying is something you can do as a political counting game, perhaps to encourage an honest and fair accounting of the achievements and goals of political figures when we try to decide which ones to elect or not. I do some of it myself where there is little clear goal or purpose behind a particular agenda (re: the recent wave of attempts to pass anti-transgender laws and the often creepy and ignorant statements by political figures in support of them). But it does little good when people aren't willing to look in the mirror, ever, to call this an imposition of honesty. Honesty is not part of this game. It never has been. It never will be. The essential point of politics as government should be something on the order of: "what are our goals and how can we best serve them". Deception is a part of that. People don't sit down at a poker table and only play the hands they get and expect to have won money when they get up. Same thing in politics. I expect the political figures involved to learn how to bluff better, to avoid sounding like they are prevaricating or if they are uncertain, to simply say they are uncertain and that they are seeking more information. And while that's a flaw that some political figures (Clinton for example) have had difficulty escaping (she is not a natural politician, her husband was a very gifted figure in this regard), it's not one that tells me they are bad at every other facet of the game we are asking of them. It isn't very informative. It offers little advice on policy what we should expect. If someone has a bad poker face, but always has drawn good cards, why should we care? We should focus our attention there instead. Do they even have good cards? Do they offer good and effective policies? Have they a decent understanding of the scale and scope of our problems as a nation (or a planet in the case of foreign policy, or climate change)?

If we aren't asking those questions, we can't really evaluate whether or not they are being honest in the first place because we don't have any idea why we should care if they are or not. Maybe because you have some goal you really care about, bully for you if so. Maybe because you don't like someone and are searching for a better sounding answer than "I don't like her attitude". And so on.

19 April 2016

NBA awards season

I have to confess a considerable amount of confusion at one award in particular (so far): 6th man.

For some reason it went to Jamal Crawford. This was a defensible (if flawed) pick two years ago. It is insane this season. He's no higher than 20th in any metric of analysis for overall quality of a bench player in the entire league, not even close to what should be given consideration as an award. He's a respectable volume scorer who doesn't play defense.

Examining the options for how this happened:

1) Voters pick someone who scores a lot off the bench. Will Barton scored more (and got rebounds and steals) and shot more effectively to score that much. Ryan Anderson scored more in fewer games. So there are better options available as "player who scores points off bench".

2) Voters pick someone "who scores a lot off the bench for a good team". Assuming that Denver and New Orleans had their bench players excluded because their teams were awful this season, that then leaves playoff quality reserve players. Which then means Enos Kanter is an option from Oklahoma City. And a superior one, well to Crawford at any rate. Since he actually gets rebounds alongside scoring points, and he shoots at a far more effective clip (as one should expect closer to the basket). He still fulfills the "doesn't play defense" requirement to boot. Kanter finished third in the vote, suggesting voters were aware of his existence as a suitable alternative.

3) Voters ignore someone who doesn't score. Tristan Thompson appears to have had the best season off the bench (he started a chunk of games but came off the bench for a majority). This is because he's a rebounding machine and a monster on the offensive glass. But he does not score points himself at a noticeable rate. Ed Davis on Portland seems to have suffered the same fate. This theory does not work because Iguodala finished second in the vote. And he doesn't score either. He's mainly a glue guy/defensive stopper in his role on the Warriors now.

4) Nobody really stood out so voters simply picked whoever's name was familiar and readily at hand and appeared to have a decent season (on a good team).

28 March 2016

Thoughts on Drumpf

"For one thing, what’s wrong with a lot of what he says isn’t about truth or falsity but moral repugnance. If you are an adult and you don’t know why it’s insane for Trump to mock prisoners of war or call for intentionally killing innocent family members of terrorists there’s nothing the media can tell you to change that. The government already spent twelve years paying to educate these people for eight hours a day five days a week and for many that apparently didn’t work. I’m not sure how an hour of Anderson Cooper every night is going to accomplish much." I've been looking at this narrative for a while, several months really; that the problem is that the media covered him too much. Except that at the outset, the media more or less chose to ignore him. Various entities have tried to boycott or block him. The whole thing is a mess. There's also been a lot of work involved in this idea that dismisses the behavior and ideas of his followers. I don't think that's necessary at all. This sort of thing was an ugly possibility anywhere. The US has never quite embraced it. Not for decades at least. Some of the uglier Progressive era policies (which accounts for most of the stuff Wilson and Hoover did), maybe? The campaign involved in Prohibition often resembles this. Jim Crow does also. Huey Long got shot before anything came up there. Father Coughlin went off the air (because of the war). Andrew Jackson might be the last populist to succeed in American politics at this level and he won a major battle in a war that was already technically over to allow him to pretend to be a war hero (incidentally, he was also a POW). Trump doesn't have even this kind of faux credibility. (To be clear, Jackson was probably one of the worst Presidents in US history, and this is largely why). So even this modest possibility of capturing a nomination of a major political party suggests an institutional problem has occurred in the country to create this. I would put forward the proposition that the media did not do this. They didn't create several million people willing to vote for this idiot. Though they certainly haven't helped (bending over backward to talk to him, and thus giving him free airtime instead of making him pay for his primary campaign in order to get publicity and attention, not the best idea in the world). That means WE are the problem. The public. The populace has to be in a position to embrace a populist. We created this. Expecting the media to mediate it, to reduce it, or to push us away from what (some of) the public tends to be, when it tends to endorse as darker and more craven impulses, that's not going to work. We have had a series of curious moral failures. Large numbers of the public believe torture is morally acceptable. Huge numbers of Republicans do, but that there are not acceptably large numbers of liberals and Democrats who reject such a policy, and indeed who do not insist on the treaty agreements that were put into place by Ronald Reagan (of all people), that we should prosecute violations of torture and human rights ordered by or carried out by our government officials, is suggestive this is a deeper problem than merely red state politics running off the deep end. We shouldn't have to waste time explaining why these are not things Americans should do; torturing captives. Bombing civilians deliberately. Murdering families. Excluding thousands of suffering people from emigrating away from their homes because of their religious prayers referencing Allah instead of Jesus. Vast numbers of people apparently believe these are acceptable behaviors now. How did that happen? Who is to blame? Fear? Maybe. Rage? More likely. Ours has historically been an optimistic culture. Even as it recognizes that it fails miserable to live up to that promise of opportunity, freedom, fairness, justice. A certain amount of idealised nonsense pervades what constitutes patriotic fervor at any time, a certain amount of blindness is necessary to pretend this is a great thing. "A noble experiment." It seems clear that there is among us a certain subset of people who perhaps felt that experiment was fine so long as they believed that experiment was rigged to favor people like themselves. This belief has collapsed for some number of people. Trump does better (if not his best) in counties that voted heavily for George Wallace. That was nearly 50 years ago. Entire generations of families have been raised and grown old since. These counties apparently have had nothing better to do than to harbor and protect resentments. Few of them have changed substantially, apparently. I can't in good conscience defend such people and their views, to shield them by giving them the excuse that it "was not their fault". These views, given form in a public figure, are morally repulsive. As are the people who hold them. We were supposed to conclude in 2008, I felt erroneously, that racism had been destroyed. That our resentments were no more. I think it is clear from events since that this is not the case. We were to conclude that the death of Osama bin Laden meant that the "war on terror" was over. Cynically, I was aware this would not be the case. And that fear remains a powerful weapon to exploit. But that fear existed before most of these people had ever heard of OBL. If it is fear that these people are engaged with, and wrestling with, I am not the best messenger for overcoming it. I do not recognize most of these as valid fears ("race wars", fear of other religious beliefs, fear of terrorism, fear of immigrants). Indeed, I find there is no evidence in support of any of these to be generalized as policies, or carried out in our names. Such fears are unreasonable and best suffered and indulged alone and in private than as a public recrimination. But if it is rage that drives us, and in turn hatred and not merely fear. That is something else entirely.

22 March 2016

Quick pot odds projects

These will be premised not on the likelihood of an upset statistically, but on the relative nature of how many people are likely to pick it compared to that statistical probability. (bold is the post-first weekend reactions)

1) Champ
Avoid Kansas or Michigan St. Michigan St would be currently my favored pick if I had to pick someone, but there's a big drop-off and they have been heavily hyped it appears.

There's about an 8 or 9 team draw that makes the most sense to pull from as a title shot.
(In no particular order) Kansas, Michigan St, Oklahoma, Virginia, Carolina, Kentucky, and Villanova, with West Virginia and Purdue being the outside shots (although Virginia playing so slow doesn't help). Of these, Kansas, Michigan State, Carolina and Villanova seem the strongest. Oklahoma's offense isn't as great, Virginia plays too slowly, and Kentucky's defense is pretty meh (they have the top rated offense). (of these teams, 4 are gone, but two were outside shots anyway, only two of the top 7 are, and I avoided Michigan St on account of lots of people had picked them).

2) South Region

Best odds for improvement on the Final Four pick would be to take Villanova or Arizona.

Best odds for upsets:
Arizona losing in the first round - this is mostly the public not liking the play-in game winners. Also the winner of that game (Arizona/Wichita/Vandy) over Miami. (partly right)
Iowa to hold off Temple - this is not an upset, it's just undervalued because Iowa hasn't played well in the Big Ten.

3) West Region

Best odds for Final Four
Most teams here are about priced in correctly. The public seems to have figured out that Oregon was overrated. Oregon may actually be the best "bet", but Oklahoma still seems to be the favorite. Oregon's main weakness is an average defense.

VCU. Oregon St is pretty meh. For some reason this isn't being taken like crazy as a gimme. (duh)
Yale over Baylor - Yale is pretty good. Baylor is a little low for a 5 seed. Yale also looks promising as a rare pick versus Duke (Baylor only looks okay for an upset there). Neither Duke or Baylor has a good defense. (huzzah)
Texas advancing deeper in the field - Elite 8 for example. Northern Iowa is a reasonable upset chance in the first round, but about priced in correctly. After that, Texas is a little underrated. (fortunately didn't take my own advice)

4) East Region

Final Four
Indiana actually looks slightly favorable here, but mainly taking West Virginia would be useful. (ouch)

Notre Dame losing to Michigan or Tulsa. Notre Dame cannot play defense. (struggled against SFA even)
Pitt or Wisconsin over Xavier. (huzzah)

5) Midwest Region

Final Four
Virginia or Purdue. Avoid Michigan State if possible

Gonzaga over Seton Hall (and Utah) (huzzah)