16 November 2015


This happened several days ago. Any delay in composing my thoughts has a number of personal reasons (I had a lot going on), but it also has a lot to do with the general reactions I was observing. Indeed, it is those I wish to comment upon rather than upon the attacks and attackers and their victims themselves. I have a number of loosely connected thoughts, so bear with me if you wish.

Lots of people changed their social status via an app to show concern with a French flag overlaid on their profile. Or associated changes to lighting in various venues around the world. I respect this outpouring of sympathy as an avenue to feel like one has done something. It is well that some people are concerned about the well-being of complete strangers in other places they may never have been. I myself messaged a few of my friends when I first heard of these terrible incidents. I count about 10% of my social circle that has done this change. Most likely they have done other things as well, and some equal number have commented eloquently themselves with calls for help or for local attentiveness if help abroad seems too complicated and impossible.

But as usual with changes in colours on my status, I find the sort of signaling behavior involved unpleasant for my own behavior. It feels hollow and inadequate, and in this particular case, I was further annoyed that we received the ability to do this for attacks in France, but nothing happened for a large attack the day before in Beirut. Suggesting our concern was believed to be very specific. It undoubtedly was. This bothered me in some way. The scope of destruction and carnage may be a factor, but the loss of life via senseless violence anywhere in the world should be a cause for mourning, grief, and sympathy by other human beings, and demand our attention and response if we can. We attach more importance to the lives of those we may feel a degree of connection to, as is natural, and this leads many people who have traveled to Paris (or who wish to) to find sympathy an easy response. More work is required to get to the same level of attention for Lebanese who suffer, or Syrian refugees seeking to escape a much more intense version of violence still than that afflicted upon Paris.

I do not feel people who did much to react to Paris (and to some degree, only Paris) are to blame, or are terrible people if they did not react to news from Lebanon with equal concern. Far from it, as the violence in Syria or Iraq is now regarded as so routine it barely registers news coverage, even as it kills many thousands of people per month, and terrorist attacks in Lebanon used to be routine as well (they are not now and have not been for about 25 years). It is natural that our collective attention should be divided and incomplete to not hear of every event of suffering and horror elsewhere and respond instantly and correctly in all cases. It's just not the path I would choose in how sympathy and assistance should be rendered is to signal a specific cause. My concern is humans more broadly and how we should treat each other.

This is far afield however from some of the more typical reactions I saw as it at least begins with a place of sympathy and concern for the grief and needs of victims and those directly trying to help them. In many cases, people were, as happened after 9-11 here in America, out for blood. Calls for any captured assailants to be tortured, in some cases scarcely veiled. Demands for renewed vigor in attacking ISIS, despite this being unclear as a foreign policy goal that would achieve anything of use in providing security for the French people, or anyone else either. Demands for preventing many thousands of suffering people from reaching safety as refugees, even before any connection to refugees were made, and in spite of the fact that this was unlikely to be refugees fleeing that would be the source of the problem versus people who were familiar with French culture and society and could identify suitable targets for committing violent atrocities that would garner attention and then successfully plan and carry them out. People who had lived in France or at least Western Europe for example. All of this resembled more lashing out and a baser demand for vengeance rather than an appreciation for human suffering and the limits of our abilities to either prevent such suffering or accommodate those who are so afflicted. This too was natural, but I do not forgive it anywhere near as lightly or easily. Perhaps because I have little attachment to fear such incidents as likely to threaten my own existence, or those of friends, I do not see anger as an appropriate response.

One of the most annoying elements of writing at all about international relations and in particular about terrorism as an event within foreign policy is the nature of response tends to be perceived as diametric by the public and by many pundits within the field. We must either go all out to try to kill people using military forces or we are "doing nothing" or perhaps we "look weak" and obviously then "the terrorists win". This is nonsense masqueraded as grand strategy. To the extent that there are at times in history some very terrible people who perhaps may need to be sought out and fought and defeated on battlefields in foreign lands, I agree. That sometimes remains true in international relations that our own security as a nation and that of allies (such as France) depends upon this.

But even accepting this limited position leaves open a number of questions that are not answered by stating that there are threats abroad.

Whether it is ourselves that must do this, or whether someone else could do so? Someone with more local knowledge of the particular group, or more direct interest in the defeat of groups involved, such as in this case, Iran. Whether the use of air power and bombs is an effective measure of applying what amounts to counter-insurgency? I regard this as dubious at best. Are there no soft power measures which may be more helpful? For example, offering aid or refugee to Syrians/Iraqis in a war zone area? Do we even need to engage such forces with military force to defeat them at all, or at the very least, can we protect ourselves from perceived threats abroad with much less effort and achieve the same or even better return on our efforts? And finally, how big is the threat to ourselves really? Just how much should we really be worried about terrorists abroad as a danger to American society? Many seem to regard this as an existential conflict where the doom of America as a country and Western civilization as an ideal is at stake. I do not. Nor do I believe we have much to fear from terrorists that we must defeat them anywhere and everywhere on the globe versus other methods of interdiction to prevent them from making attacks like those carried out in Paris and Beirut last week.

In general, I find myself farther from most people on international relations. The vast majority of human beings have relatively peaceful and serene lives, much more so than at any point in human history, and our goal in such dealings should be the preservation and extension of that peaceful co-existence as much as possible, while preserving our own security and prosperity as best we can. There are specific hotspots on the globe that afflict tremendous violence to life and through destruction of infrastructure the quality and prosperity of those lives that remain (Syria, Eastern Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, as examples). These attract considerable attention and debate within American foreign policy discussions. It is well that they should as they represent some of the largest sources of human suffering on the globe and they are man-made in origin via violent armed conflict, suggesting man-made resolutions may be possible. Our thinking however is generally too narrow in response (use of force or do nothing) and this often limits our ability to make productive impacts.

What is less clear to me is how or even whether our military can help resolve these conflicts. This is not what they are trained and equipped to do in most cases, and such kinds of warfare can be of the most difficult to conduct properly and intractable to extricate ourselves from that they may not be wise conflicts to intercede directly into anyway as they would result mainly in the overextension of our forces and the diminished ability to prepare for and attend to larger geopolitical threats for which our considerable military forces (and those of our allies) are much better prepared and equipped to defend against.

There are ways to use a military force in what amounts to a soft power demonstration to help bring about local peace within divided factions warring abroad in a foreign land, but none of the fighting in these now unpleasant and terrible places abroad directly threaten our own security, and most even do little to damage neighbouring territory and peoples. They are self-contained bloodshed and can be contained further with military forces, both local and international. The best most military actions and interventions may do is perhaps minimize the abilities of (some) warring factions to directly attack one another by injecting another force of violence into the equation. This is unclear if it provides some benefits in many cases in compelling these factions to seek peace. Indeed, some of these factions seem intent on embittered warfare with their neighbours and rivals despite any limitations in their conventional abilities (ISIS for example has no navy or air power).

We can be gravely concerned with the humanitarian problems such conflicts create, and we can and should do much to ameliorate those. We can be concerned about the diplomatic status of allies nearby and their security near a conflict zone, or whether they may be drawn into such conflicts or feel it necessary to intercede, and we can offer them support and advice on how best to do so. None of that suggests that it is necessary to deploy American forces into these armed conflicts in order to preserve relative peace of billions of human beings, much less the incredibly secure lives of Americans from foreign threats. Nor does it imply that such deployments will in some way secure additional security for Americans, or improve the quality of lives for people on the ground in far flung places about which we often know very little. We can purchase our own security very cheaply, with intelligence gathering about major plots, and common sense measures of security (reinforced cockpit doors on airplanes for instance), without regarding millions of citizens with excessive suspicion, and without invading or bombing other countries and their people or leaders in these crises. That does not mean we have done nothing in response and does not mean we could not do more than we have, or do things differently.

To me it simply means our responses thus far have been unimpressive in their results, and often more damaging to our security or prosperity than they have been helpful for a variety of reasons. For example, discouraging air travel through heightened and excessive security at airports encourages people to drive more. Driving is more dangerous and less productive than flying. Excessively broad (and potentially illegal) surveillance potentially enmeshes hundreds of thousands of Americans in bureaucratic nightmares trying to travel and otherwise attracts unnecessary attention and resources of intelligence organisations trying to identify actual threats, the number of which is much smaller, or diverts resources to combat other dubious national interests that are dubiously related to threats of international terrorism (for instance, the drug war). Material support for police forces using military hardware is granted via concerns over "terrorism" that are extremely unlikely to ever materialize in the vast majority of American cities and towns, and predictably are diverted for other purposes. Invading or toppling unpleasant and horrible regimes in other countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya) provides an unstable power arrangement over which we exercise precious little influence and control and may as a result be as hazardous and destructive as the previous regimes to the lives of citizens of those nations, and from which we may feel a measure of responsibility and remain entrenched militarily and economically for decades at a time. Each of these measures may have limited points of usefulness. Surveillance and intelligence gathering of potential threats can be done with a warrant, or done without one over foreign nationals and people traveling into these war zones for dubious purposes for example, and at times, the destruction of vile regimes may serve some legitimate humanitarian goal. But these are difficult boundaries to tread over successfully and without considerable pitfalls. The breezy way that they are described as our only and best way forward is troublesome.

Finally. I wish to address the questions over Islam and Muslims that such actions and atrocities, when committed by Muslims (and not by some other agent, as often happens in the US at least and as used to happen with great frequency in France as well), naturally surface and engender. I am troubled here too by the breezy assurance that it is Islam itself that is a significant cause of these concerns, if not "the" cause of our concerns as regards terrorism. There are many, many problems with this line of analysis. To be sure, many organisations and many terrorists who commit acts of horrible violence identify with various statements which are religiously ordered and drawn from religious texts and decrees. I do not believe this is denied. Many billions more people do not commit acts of horrible violence, or even identify with those who carry those out supposedly in their name. This seems like it ought to factor heavily into our analysis.

One reason I suspect it is easy to think and believe otherwise, that any Muslim or at least specific persons of a Muslim country of origin may be a threat, is that we do not have many Muslims around, and they are often of a fairly invisible nature to Americans (many are fairly well acculturated and Westernized that live in the US). The considerable inconveniences we thus demand to impose upon them actually only impact some small number of people, a few million at most, while then "allowing" the rest of us to proceed unmolested in our daily lives. Such inconveniences are not trivial to individuals but on a societal level they may appear so. We are then left with the uncomfortable work of having to convince a mostly Christian country that these strange people of a "foreign" religion in their midst are not by default a threat and do not deserve to be treated as such with so grand a suspicious attitude. This work is then increased by the notion that many prominent secularists take a specific interest in the violence and extremism of some Muslims and accordingly share in some of these demands. I regard this quest as not rational as a response, and a serious error in logic and thinking, things which secularists ordinarily pride themselves upon. There are a series of problems with it.

It assumes a threat is posed by the doctrines of a particular faith without evaluating the behavior or even the practiced beliefs of those who describe themselves as adherents to it. As a comparison, my evaluation of most Christians is that they have only very limited association with the texts and theology of their beliefs (for better or worse). Muslims are likely little different in my experience as the availability of diverse scholarship in belief, practices of beliefs, and textual emphasis that results carries a similarly varied and otherwise iffy nature. This logic suggests some amount of wariness is appropriate given that we may be unfamiliar and perhaps underestimating the probability of having wacky and dangerous beliefs as opposed to holding fairly benign or even beneficial beliefs. But translating that wariness and unfamiliarity into severe limitations on civil liberties more broadly is not a sensible response. Even where if were a case that many American Muslims were conducting and advocating violent actions, it would be difficult to carry out, and relatively easy and more successful to identify such threats with far more minimal inconveniences made upon those many who did not wade into these waters than are often advocated and supported.

It assumes a threat posed by extremists requires treatment of anyone vaguely similar as a potential extremist. This is a poor use of intelligence and deterrence strategies, profiling of this kind is extremely unlikely to be an effective deterrent to thoughtful terror cells who can easily avoid such efforts, resulting in precisely the same kind of "prevent the last attack" mentality that appears to govern many of our security efforts right now but with the added "benefit" of taking poorly trained and selected bureaucrats and giving them powers to apply ethnic and racial animus with legal force, while generally ignoring anyone who might also pose a threat to security instead. All of this theory behind profiling relies upon assumptions of percentages of people who are like X being much higher than is likely the case. Even the NSA's broad casting of surveillance suggests that there are potentially very few people who are radicalized threats to other Americans living among us, of any kind.

This is also not a source of treatment which is applied to other groups who have violent extremists in their midst. Christians tend not to have to disassociate themselves publicly from the behavior of radical persons and can still call themselves Christians with fairly minimal assessments of hypocrisy and inconvenience of mental gymnastics being imposed upon them. There are not generally calls that people should stop being Christian, or at least that they should acknowledge that their own dogmatic beliefs must include violent actions toward others. As they can and sometimes do too. Similar issues apply with, say, right-wing ideological views that these are not seen as automatically disqualifying to the general public. Perhaps to some left-wing ideological travelers. This seems like a double standard at the very least, if not a sign that this is an incorrect way to response to the actions of radicals is to associate such radicals with everything else related to whatever they radicalized and have weaponized into violent behaviors. All of this should be a factor in our thinking.

Finally it assumes that a threat posed primarily in the form of violence done in unstable Muslim-majority countries is likely to translate to a fairly stable Western democracy with the same level of regularity and for the same reasons as a basis for our efforts as a source of risk (if we do "nothing"). This is extremely unlikely. The expenditure of vast amounts of capital and resources in interdiction of threats and the accompanying potential reductions in the liberty of citizens of all faiths and customs may be regarded as "worthwhile" if it were appreciably reducing the level of violence from one where major terrorist incidents like those of Paris, or Boston, or New York are not only infrequent to one every few years but instead might occur daily. They do not. Such actions are fairly difficult to organise recruit, fund, train, plan, and successfully carry out in a stable Western liberal society. This is one good reason they do not occur with the level of frequency and resulting destruction and mayhem that one finds in Palestine or Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria. Finding disaffected people willing to risk death to inflict death is fairly easy if life is unpleasant, suffering is significant, and it is believed that such actions will help others. In a modern state with a civil government and functioning society, this is not the case. Other options are available to redress grievances. Funding and assembling people to be trained to carry out complicated operations is also something that can be easily detected and tracked. While there are many counter-surveillance tactics and strategies that can make this more difficult, all it requires is one foolish error to attract attention. Meanwhile known sources of radicalism can be monitored and tracked.

Accordingly, this is also all happening in societies with relatively few Muslims living there. Even France is only about 10% Muslim by population. The US is barely over 1%. India may have the only Muslim minority population of note (around 20%) of a relatively modern state. We are thus dealing with societies that may find such people strange and suspicious by nature and thus attract more scrutiny from neighbours, co-workers, local police, and so on. The idea that this extra scrutiny requires official sanction and bureaucratic license strikes me as more dangerous than necessary. The idea that such a tiny percentage of the population can seriously jeopardize our system of jurisprudence, our general values for humanity, and the relative prosperity and well-being of significant numbers of citizens is highly dubious. They can manage to make attacks and even kill some number of people per year. Such actions however are extremely small in number relative to the numbers of Americans who kill themselves or each other in more prosaic ways. This suggests that we have other problems more worth worrying about and attending to as a concern of suffering of our own country than that of terrorism, radicalism, and Islam more broadly.

20 October 2015


"A woman’s lifetime risk of dying from breast cancer is 2.7 percent without screening. Kerlikowske calculates that a woman who follows the new USPSTF guidelines could drop that risk to 2.0 percent, and one who follows the ACS guidelines may reduce the risk a few decimal places more, to between 1.8 and 1.9 percent. To get these benefits, the USPSTF program requires 13 total mammograms in a woman’s lifetime, and the ACS regimen will result in 20 breast X-rays.

In exchange for these risk reductions, 61 percent of women who have annual mammograms and 42 percent of women who have biennial mammograms will be called back at least once for follow-up tests that reveal they do not have cancer, researchers write in an accompanying paper. The anxiety and stress of such a false alarm is the most common harm, but it’s not the only one.

In its own analysis, the USPSTF calculated that if 1,000 women follow its advice and have a mammogram every other year from age 50 to 74, 146 of them will be subjected to unnecessary breast biopsies and 18 of the 1,000 will be diagnosed and treated for a cancer that would have never harmed them (a problem called overdiagnosis and overtreatment). Women who have mammograms more often, as they would under the ACS guidelines, will experience more of these downsides."

- Notice this is roughly the number of women who are dying of breast cancer at all with this regimen. And the unnecessary treatment rate is way more than the number that are being treated successfully to avoid lethal developments. All of that treatment comes with its own complications and issues, and stress and fear associated with possible diagnosis (even before considering the enormous financial costs it burdens us with to deal with all these unnecessary procedures).

What does this mean "scientifically"?
- We need much better detection methods. Mammograms appear to be little better than junk science as they have way too high of a false positive rate and way too small of a detection rate. It's possible this is a problem of there being a fairly small risk, but the lifetime risk here is significant enough that we should be doing something. This feels a lot like a "this is something" solution rather than a very useful one. You might as well flip a coin if it's close to 50% false positive rates to decide whether your doctor thinks you might have something that needs checked out.

This is often over 50%. A coin flip might be a better option. The author's decision to just forgo them entirely may be the wiser course in the meantime. (I personally like Austria's recommendation of "whatever").

- It might also be that doctors don't have any idea how to use them, or more likely use the data they get in order to help patients making informed decisions about their care and health. This is a widespread problem in medicine and it likely encourages over use of procedures and treatment, particularly of scary things like cancer. Cancer is scary. Thinking you have it, or could get it, is scary. Therefore, as much medical treatment to prevent it as we can afford is what most people think is reasonable in response. This is not actually reasonable as a response to the actual risks of cancer that most women will be afflicted with. Doctors should have a better idea how to discuss this problem sensibly. Also they may need to have some incentive to do so. The incentive right now appears to be closer to "generate breast cancer patients" rather than "prevent/detect/treat actual breast cancer when it appears in my patients".

- Looks a little better at detection relative to false positives after age 50 (not into the "good at it" rates, but significantly better than what we do now). This is essentially when the rest of the developed world even starts bothering with these questions. What might be one reason why they delay is it reduces the excess costs of unnecessary treatment without significantly reducing the number of women who are put at risk (possibly 1/1000).

More comprehensive studies have pointed out that this does not account for the number of women dying of any cancer total. Which is effectively unchanged by mammograms or no mammograms. All the focus on breast cancer may be obscuring other cancers that need to be attended to for the health of women (cervical cancer for instance has similar problems with our current detection regimen).

Or it maybe obscured here because our actual treatment options are quite poor.

- The biggest problem here is that threads in response to these changes in guidelines are inherently based upon anecdotal evidence. "I found a lump and I was 32" is treated as a data point against changing the current system. There are potentially higher risk factors as well (genetics for example). Patients don't really understand these, usually (many women will, but not everyone on an open comment thread does). Doctors might, or at least should, and can screen based upon them. Usually the recommendations allow for these deviations. The political economy problem is that many people will then worry if insurers will pay for it if it is "not recommended".

08 October 2015

Don't just stand there do something.

I've noticed a common quotation for (some) libertarians. It comes from "Yes Minister." We must do something, this is something, lets do it".

One intended aspect of this position is to say that in times of crisis or suffering or peril, there is a strong compulsion to be seen to act on a problem (and presumably to take credit for having successfully solved that problem), whether or not those actions have anything to do with the causes of strife under which we are laboring. Libertarians, at least those concerned with public policy, are fond of deriding this variety of common and very public thinking I suspect because it implicitly suggests we are running around doing a lot of foolish things and probably not fixing things via the public policy routes that are often preferred. Sometimes this is undoubtedly true. It is one of the reasons libertarians are potentially quite useful to the political process is they can quickly point out where the system sucks, finding low-hanging fruits that need to be plucked out.

The impulse of this insight and thinking is pretty strong and there are often sound objections to a great many popular responses; from opposition to same sex marriage, to demands to drug test welfare recipients, to protectionism in borders or trade, to some forms of gun control, and so on. This does not make these objections automatically correct over and above potential gains, but it often helps clarify the proposed gains to be something other than the stated goals. So for instance, much complaining about immigration turns out not to have much to do about jobs, which are not really impacted anyway. But instead vague worries about culture. As though either a) historically "American culture" has dramatically changed via massive waves of immigration far larger than we have had in the last 3-5 decades and b) getting more "foreign" restaurants around is a bad thing, suggesting that if there are changes, they're likely to be pretty good things. This is one of those scenarios where the impulse is a very good one. Leave it alone at worst, and if anything, make it easier to get here and live here. If we must do something, doing the wrong thing is worse. Pushing against doing the wrong thing, restricting immigration further, is simply a nice side benefit.

One of the stronger logical basis for this kind of thinking is to point out not merely that the proposed idea may not do much about a problem, or will identify the wrong thing as a problem in the first place, as with the case of immigration reforms demanded by anti-immigration groups, but also to suggest that a proposed idea has "unintended" consequences that will be harmful and present themselves as substantial costs over and above what we are intending to do. Much anti-immigration policy would fall under this category. Much anti-trade policy likewise. Terrorism policy post 9-11 largely falls into this category as well.

More paranoid positions suggest that these "unintended" consequences are intended. I'm more of the opinion that they are often exploited by people who have their own agendas within the bureaucratic chain than that they are intended policy shifts. I don't think governments are fundamentally evil. But they're not fundamentally good and decent either.

A more challenging subject.

I've written quite about skeptically about gun control proposals. I have maintained relative agnosticism about background checks and their effectiveness. I think they are possibly helpful, but there are a lot of reforms I would propose within them. I'm not sure a felony conviction should be indicative of anything on its own as we have over-criminalized a lot of behavior that is not fundamentally violent (drug distribution for example). Many other popularly proposed ideas, I'm less positive on still even from this rather tepid position of endorsement of the status quo, or what amounts to it, to say that I'd rather do nothing than try them as they seem very much less tied to the proposed problem and very much more in the category of "we must do something" thinking that often leads to unintended consequences. "Assault weapons" seem more to do with cosmetic features of weapons than the causes of violence, as rifles in general are rarely used in the commission of violent crime and death and fundamentally a gun that propels a shaped fragment of metal at high speed and potentially into or through human tissue and bone in a lethal way isn't that different from any other type of weapon. Cosmetic adjustments aren't the issue. "Mental health" doesn't have much to do with anything we can put into policy either as it is too hard to determine who might be violent without reliance upon who has already been violent, which is probably a more reliable marker. Violent video games have been around for 20 years or more in mass markets, and that's precisely the same span that we have seen a large decline in violent crime (this is also true of pornography and rape). All this stuff always comes up and swirls around. Most of it smells like an awful backed-up bathroom toilet by now as it's been so heavily recycled and overused. It sucks up valuable attention and time to discuss these questions.

One of the problems with this system seems to be that it is frequently tied in public debate to the question of what to do about these horrible shootings we have that make national news for killing a handful of people at one time at a school or a church or some other public place. But it is not abundantly clear that backgrounds checks, the more popular suggestion of something to do about gun violence in general, have much of anything to do with helping us prevent these. People who become deranged or angry enough to want to try to casually kill possibly dozens of strangers don't have to have had any outward signs of mental disorder and distress beforehand. In part because not everyone has sought treatment, but also in part because I'm not convinced this is directly related. It's not a universal truth that everyone who kills other people in these events was determined to be some variety of what we have popularly termed as crazy. They don't have to have had a criminal record. They don't have to have had these as problems at the time they acquired the weapons perfectly legally, possibly years before.

We also don't have a very good model that most of these are things that would help us either. Mental illness is virtually impossible to note as having a direct link to violence and mayhem. If it has one, it's more likely as victims of violence and mayhem than as a causal agent itself and there doesn't appear to be any meaningful way we can screen out who is or is not a threat, leading a lot of misguided fear-based policies and potentially stripping millions of people of basic civil rights and decency if policies are not done very, very carefully. The types of policies that are unlikely to be crafted in the wake of major national news stories. As pointed out above, a criminal record doesn't have much either to suggest much in many cases that we will be dealing with a violent person who shouldn't be trusted around firearms. Finally, I'm not sure there's a good and safe way to go in and by some means of force remove someone's firearms they have purchased legally on the idea that they had developed some kind of noticeable mental defect that could lead to trouble. There are undoubtedly good ways to approach this as a problem, but they are less likely to do with requiring people to surrender weapons/property they have legally purchased in times of personal crisis en masse and more likely to do with people discussing their problems with a doctor and friends or family who could do things like help to secure such weapons privately (and voluntarily) while someone seeks help. That isn't something that is easily done through national policy. Which is to say: it might be that some one should do something about these as a terrible problem, but it might not be the politician who gets to take credit for it if it works. It would be ordinary people instead who stepped forward to help and they who achieved some successful change in society.

Spending a lot of time focusing a policy agenda upon these events seems like a rather poor use of the politicizing attention. Spending a lot of time focusing on that there's a whole huge mess of other gun violence that goes on (still), or that there are thousands of suicides with firearms every year. That seems like a better use of the time. Bring that up and talk about it. Spin it somewhere we can more effectively do something or discuss different political solutions. That's where the conversation on policy still has ground to cover for now.

Incomplete list of complicated things that get discussed with vaguely described solutions

1) Gun Control - "common sense gun control" means? So far I've heard this used to describe a lot of things, but mostly it gets used to mean "people shouldn't have guns". That's a sentiment I agree is preferable for a modern civilisation is that it not rely upon mass armament or fear of crime and that the general public can go about their business freely and safely without any concern for whether or not they are armed or not (a condition which I believe already exists in probably 90% of American towns and suburbs, and most major cities). I think we are going to disagree about what methods are appropriate for most people not to have guns. It helps to lay out a specific idea here and not just assume everyone knows what you mean. Strictly enforced and expanded background checks? Gun safety training? Gun buy-backs? What exactly are these common sense regulations everyone supposedly agrees we should do?

I wrote about this problem several years ago and unfortunately little has changed in the tenor and tone of the debate in any way, and very little of the debate focuses on the largest sources of problems (violence often related to black market drug distribution, and suicide) while an enormous amount focuses on these (still) fairly rare events that become national news. Enacting the sorts of policies that would significantly reduce the former problems will probably look very different than anything that would deal with the latter, if there is anything that can be done at the policy level. They look like very different issues at this point. But the former problem is way, way worse.

A brief addendum to the things I wrote before would be that the types of policies likely to impact gun violence in a meaningful way, in my view at least, would be things that would take some time to see some results. Alcohol taxes could be raised. Mental health training for police could be dramatically overhauled and mental health care improvements would probably start to cut into suicide rates. Various narcotic street markets could be priced out by providing safer and legal markets for the substances being traded. Background checks may take years before they began finding points of sale that in some way meaningfully restricted gun ownership and at considerable regulatory cost as the existing market and pool of available weapons is too high that transfers can be done privately without much monitoring. And so on. Even among the things that are far more radical in the American context and much less clearly common sense (assault weapons bans, gun buybacks, etc), we would probably not see much impact for many years, if at all.

We should not expect that if anything is done it will stop mass shootings from happening.The causes of those are likely to be all over the place that they will be difficult to respond to with single effective policies. For instance, many of these "common sense" reforms have had little to do with the actual shootings (background checks for example seem to have had mixed results, as one should expect). That is not by itself a reason not to do them. It is simply to say that the idea that we should tie policy responses to fairly rare events is probably a bad way to try to sell it as a good and necessary change (as we did with terrorism and as Obama explicitly tried to justify over a trillion dollars of spending to deal with terrorism over the last decade, which I disagree was money well-spent). We should expect that if anything is done we might see reductions in the rate of violent crime and suicide. That would be the yardstick I'd measure it against. Comparatively speaking, measuring the rates of violent crime in other countries is a more interesting study than looking at sensational events in smaller industrialized democratic countries and their responses. It's also very much like the "there are no giants here" theory, in that if we take a very rare situation and adopt often radical policies in response to it as a serious problem, and then nothing happens for a long time, we often hear "well see, we got rid of the giants, you don't see any around do you?" as though the cause of this absence was the radical policy shift. I think this is dubious in the case of terrorism. A more likely cause is that the number of people willing and capable of acting out terrorist deeds is extremely small. Just as the population of people willing to commit mass shootings is.

Shorter-term the change I would make to deal with mass shootings would be simply to have the media cover the shooter much less, cover the victims. The academics and police can poke into the shooter and their background to figure out what's going on there. I don't give a shit anymore who these people are. They don't seem that different from anyone else fundamentally that we have much of a pattern to identify who dangerous and disturbed people are beforehand and thereby make any effective policy change. So we could change the culture instead and start ignoring their deeds and focus on the effects for now. Maybe that will make it less likely someone shoots other people for attention. Maybe not. It's a better use of our time to remember people who lost their lives senselessly and their names than the people who took them. I'm not quite sure why Jack the Ripper is well known for example. Or Ted Kasinzski. Obviously it's not a new problem but it's one that I'd be quite happy to see a shift on.

2) Family Leave - "people should afford their own children" to me means "poor people shouldn't have children". That's not why people have children is a financial decision (if anything, there are relatively cheap things we could do that more poorer people could have fewer children if they wished, but also make it easier for people to have children if they do wish to).

This is barely disguised socially Darwinian thinking. It's very similar to the "we should drug test welfare recipients" idea that I routinely bash upon as idiotic and wasteful, not to mention morally reprehensible, particularly for self-described liberals. Speaking of which, yet another state has failed to materialize any savings or significant effect from doing that.

3) Syria. "Help the Syrians more actively, establish a stable regime" - That's a nice idea. I agree that would be awesome if Syria wasn't involved in a civil war and had a stable moderately democratic government. This would be a lot better for the Syrian people than the status quo of the last several years.

But. This is kind of like the underpants gnome plot as applied to international relations. Resolving multi-factional violence is a difficult problem on its own. It is not resolved easily by having us picking sides or trying to make friends in the midst of it. It is not clear to me that "taking an active role" (which is vaguely defined as "go bomb people we don't like") would be a significant improvement on the ground, particularly if it is not followed up with. Which is the more challenging part still than getting people to stop shooting each other. Often bribing them works pretty well on that front. Following up with that to establish some kind of peaceful resolution with inclusive governments forged from separatist factions that must work out their differences within a country is very hard. In fact, establishing any form of stable democratic regime in foreign countries is extremely hard as an international relations problem. To the point that I'm not entirely sure we have any idea how to do it. Japan might be the only successful example in the last century and that took a massive war against a world power with a fairly developed economy and the institutions to go with it that lasted, in one form or another, over a decade (going from Japan's fighting with China and the USSR), with another decade of military occupation (followed up by decades more of military "cooperation"). Point being we had moderately good conditions in which to forge and impose a democratic rule, a clear international sanction to do it, and it still took decades of work. We would have few of these building blocks in Syria (or Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen or Kosovo or Libya), and limited international support to do so. Which means we could very well end up right where we started. Basically what happened with Iraq.

I'm unsure why there is still much enthusiasm for this in the international relations policy elite. Yes it is a terrible problem. No it isn't clear to me you have proposed a plan that a) solves it and b) does so at an acceptable risk, for example how your solutions or interests should differ on this from other international relations concerns that might be far more damaging to American power and security (say, the Ukrainian crisis). I still hear people thinking we should have a no-fly-zone. When the Russians are now operating air strikes in country? Really? This is a good idea? Risking war with a nuclear power? To carry out a vaguely defined mission that has little impact upon American security concerns? If the concern is humanitarian, take in a million refugees. We could do that in a year. I'd frankly be even greedier and take in all of the refugees if they want to come here. All of them if necessary. We can do something about the suffering and condition of these people immediately and easily. We cannot do something about the underlying conditions that created that suffering very easily and immediately. That doesn't mean we cannot or should not. It means the vaguely defined missions and interests I've heard being bandied about aren't very compelling cases that the people who would be in charge of conducting such operations have a clear idea how to do it and would succeed, or at worst would not make things worse by running about. Until they sound much less like the Green Lantern theory of international politics or the underpants gnomes, I'm probably going to be very skeptical that someone has a handle on things and should run with it.

28 September 2015

A note on social media campaigns

I've previously noted my disdain for "awareness" campaigns, of most any type. They are usually harmless. For instance, a childhood cancer campaign involves changing profile photos to those of superheroes. This is fairly benign. Kids usually like superheroes (so do adults, obviously). And there isn't usually a way to do a lot of early detection and interdiction for children and cancers, so we're stuck trying to figure out how to treat it (or if we should, which is even more horrifying to contemplate). So any campaign "increasing awareness" is liable to fund useful research somewhat more rather than funding more "awareness campaigns".

They also are not typically that helpful. It is better that some number of young people are aware of the existence of Boko Haram or the LRA and their activities in Africa. But that has little to say about what we can or should do about those as problems. It was likewise amusing (if typically wasteful) that some number of people learned something about ALS through dumping buckets of ice water on themselves. Whether or not that will materialize into a substantive improvement in the well-being of the people afflicted with it, or future persons, is much less clear. I at least credit people their intentions may be good even if their efforts are shallow and unresponsive to the deeper issues at stake.

Where I see some more recent annoyances is the yearly campaigns involving weird status games on facebook and "breast cancer awareness". Firstly, the status games themselves can involve some insensitive and even harmful postings. Posting a fake pregnancy announcement, a fake sexuality announcement, a fake marriage announcement, and so on, these are not things sensible people should do. Whether or not they "have good intentions". These are potentially quite harmful and at least annoying to say: couples who have experienced infertility or miscarriages, couples that are no longer couples, and maybe people who are in the closet about their sexuality (or gender for that matter). I'm not saying you can't post it, but I am saying I'm going to look askance at the people who do as though they have a problem. Because it seems to me that they might need a few explanations about the nature of reality.

In general, few people are concerned with toilet-related mishaps that they should be shared either. While I'm sure a percentage of the public thought those were amusing, they weren't very interesting amusements. For instance, that video of the Massachusetts man freaking out at seeing a sunfish, that was indirectly interesting, on top of being a series of crazy accented speech and expressions that lends itself to being easily copied for more ordinary purposes than ocean going voyages and the encounters those lend themselves to. Despite these flaws, I do not think people are posting such things maliciously and with the intention to cause grievous harm or annoyance to people like me.

Where I think the biggest problem here is that "breast cancer awareness" is already well past the saturation point. Much of the empirical evidence on treatment and detection of breast cancer suggests that any benefit from "additional awareness" is getting cancelled out by unnecessarily worrying people and of course, the unpleasant varieties of treatment that we subject women to upon detection. We are all pretty aware by this point that women have breasts, and some women tend to get breast cancers. So this kind of awareness should not be a major concern for charitable work or social awareness campaigning and the like. Many of these public campaigns are effectively more about this "awareness" activity than they are about the treatment and detection of cancer.

What is of more pressing concern is likely research into better screening methodologies (genetic screening data for example seems promising), and research into better and more effective treatment for those cases that require treatment, in particular for advanced cases. These are not things that can be directly provided through "awareness", and in some cases are not really available or fully in use yet. What happens by increasing awareness, but without any accompanying campaign to donate to such research as would be needed to make our work in this area more effective, is that a lot more people are aware of what we already do and are presented with the social requirement to enter into it out of habit. Which isn't that helpful at all. Indeed, I think it may be quite harmful on balance. I'd say we could use much less awareness of mammograms and for many women breast cancer screening in general (possibly cancer screening of any kind for many is a waste of time and money).

The false positive rate is way too high to be a useful test for many women which we use it on. There are specific cases where it may be quite useful, but the general public isn't going to know that when they, as people have quite vigorously in the past when discussing the flaws of this processing during debates surrounding the ACA, will insist on receiving such treatment in spite of its general futility. The general practice of screening some millions of women in this way annually seems to be saving perhaps one life in a thousand and subjecting several dozen, perhaps as many as a hundred other women per thousand to the kinds of worrying and stress over medical matters that isn't provided by checking WebMD every time you have a medical problem and nearly as many women as those who die of breast cancer without treatment are subjected to unnecessary (and expensive, both in money and well-being) forms of treatment for no apparent reason what so ever. That seems like a tremendous waste of a general awareness campaign to expend vast amounts of human energy and effort upon. A more focused campaign rather than general call saying something like "hey what about breast cancer!" would be much more constructive.

As I said with the ALS ice bucket campaign, this is a serious problem. Some thousands of women will be afflicted by breast cancer every year. Some thousands will die of it. We should have some level of seriousness in our social response to this, even if there is some humor injected into it. It should also be less about demonstrations of awareness, which unlike ALS, I think we're quite well aware of this as a problem as a society, and more about direct demonstrations of concern and aid to the problem as it exists now.

22 September 2015

A few notes on the elections, next year

1) Walker and Perry bombing out wasn't a very big surprise. Perry probably wasn't to almost any observer. For some reason Walker was. I was surprised at how fast he flamed out (he was leading polls all the way back in July for some reason), but that he did so at all was not that disturbing or unpredictable and I was suggesting as much months ago. He was not a very skilled politician and very clearly did not have good instincts for national politics or foreign policy questions of the sort that do not trouble a Governor's campaign but will bedevil a Presidential campaign.

What he always reminded me of was Tim Pawlenty's failed run in 2012: he was a conservative governor from a state neighbouring Iowa. That's it. That was his selling point. That did not work out so well for Pawlenty. There was never much reason to think it would with Walker. Union-busting is a state issue. It doesn't have much relevance or resonance at the national level, even among conservative politicians and voters. Since that seems to be the only significant campaign story Walker felt he could run on, that isn't going to get him very far. Not surprisingly it flamed out and did not work.

2) Rubio still looks to me like the most likely GOP nominee. I would feel pretty confident betting on it at least. There is still a significant "anybody but a Bush" attitude that pervades the GOP base, in a strong way that was not the case with Romney 4 years ago. There is still ambiguity about the direction of the party and its ideological positioning on issues like immigration that I think there are risks. But those risks won't end up with Trump or Cruz or some such at the head of the class instead either. Unlike those two, Rubio actually has establishment support and will probably rally more of it with Walker out of the way. He also hasn't shriveled up, been incapable of answering questions, or seemed like a blithering idiot like most of his rivals (in particular Bush and Walker). I don't agree with very much of any of his policy agenda. But if I had to guess, that's still the guy I would bet would be the nominee next year.

3) Sanders percolates up now and again in my feed of social media still, in part because I know a lot of liberals it seems. I think I have identified why I just don't get him as being all that interesting.

a) a Presidential campaign that all but ignores foreign policy, to the point of being pretty actively dismissive of it as a topic in interviews, to me is really not a serious campaign. This is on top of Sanders' positions on trade being very retrograde (like dismissed 250 years ago, even though they keep popping up in far left political talks). I'd like to think Sanders has somewhat agreeable views on IR, but given how dismissive his campaign tends to be of the topic, I'm ambivalent that this is actually the case enough. A domestic centered agenda, particularly an economic one, just doesn't interest me as a voter because most of that will require action of Congress or the Supreme Court. And it seems extremely unlikely that Congress or the Supreme Court will be radically altered sufficiently to enact most or even any significant portion of a Sanders agenda. By contrast, US Presidents can do a lot on the foreign policy scene. I wish more Senators or voters took this as something worth considering, but if Sanders wants to run on a domestic agenda, he should really stay in the Senate. That's where he can do the most damage.

b) The biggest primary election problem Sanders has had is that non-white voters, which account for about half of the Democratic electorate nationally, aren't all that interested in him. It has always been possible he could fix this, but I do not think he's capable of it based on his primary election positions and campaign fervor. The main problem, which I tend to agree with, is that Sanders' explicitly addresses questions of inequality as in and of itself a problem which results in racism. Rather than racism being in and of itself a cause of inequality. Police officers are not beating up or shooting unarmed black kids because of inequality. There's a case that kids from poor neighborhoods cannot get through college because of inequality, but that case isn't resolved by making college free, which for whatever reason remains a popular campaign talking point for Sanders. That case is resolved by improving the K-12 environments in which many minorities are living, and also by resolving or addressing strongly the issues of criminal justice reform more broadly on which police brutality is merely the tip of several icebergs of our country's problems on these questions. Sanders, and importantly, many Sanders supporters, seem to want to focus on questions of economic inequality first as they impact the white middle class rather than deal with the lower end of the pie and why those slices are distributing oddly. This sort of focus can carry states like Vermont, New Hampshire, or Iowa. States where Democratic politics and the state as a whole are dominated by white middle class voters. It will do him no credit in Nevada or Colorado or Florida or South Carolina. These are separable problems, and they are problems which demand distinct attention if someone is going to address them. Feeling like the problems of non-white voters are second class status is not a way to interest those voters.

More to the point, most of the agenda of a movement like BLM can get reasonably far with the support of only a President, rather than a Congressional action being required, as they pertain to DoJ authority and various executive branch programs and agencies in some way. A President cannot and will not solve racism (or for that matter, economic inequality), but can do some things to hammer state and local police forces to behave by siccing lawyers and federal authorities and judges on them, conducting investigations, requiring reforms, and tying those reforms to federal dollars and funding that some local forces may rely upon. All of which are things liable to help the lives of people much, much sooner than long-term economic reforms with the problems many minorities experience when dealing with police and law enforcement in general. The lack of focus on this as an immediate priority to eliminate easy sources of human suffering and brutality and misconduct is not lost on those who are suffering. There are sound political reasons not to focus on these issues (eg, white middle class voters tend not to care about them), but that only makes the division worse and more evident.

c) Inequality in general is the main theme on which Sanders seems to dominate his focus. I don't share this focus, but if I did, I'm not sure I would diagnose what he has as methods to resolve it. Min wage law doesn't seem to have a significant impact in the empirical literature and if anything might actually be harmful. It could be helpful too, but in general probably won't do very much about the problem of "fat cats on Wall Street" or "greedy CEOs", which is where almost all of the inequality disparity in the US stems from, and won't do very much about the plight of the poor, or the income traps of the structure of our existing welfare and social safety nets (where marginal tax rates can exceed 100% and people on net lose money by making more). It is not a very exciting policy change to demand as a result. College education is largely still reasonably affordable, even as the cost has grown substantially (in part because of federal subsidies). Reforms to make it free to the public are largely a give away to the fairly well off people who privately gain from attaining a college education already and do little about the basis on which a college education has grown in importance over a mere high school diploma in the first place, namely that too many jobs have become credentialized and licensed to require one for no apparent reason, and that a K-12 education isn't seen as satisfactory for many jobs. One reason it is not is that it is sometimes not seen as satisfactory for many colleges either. And then the another focal point seems to have been campaign finance laws, with the suggestion being that rich people are buying elections. This may be true that rich people can spend somewhat more on elections, but one reason rich people are "buying" elections is that richer people will vote. A lot more often than poorer people. There are a lot of reasons for that. Most of them do not have to do with "rich people can buy elections" in general. That is not going to fix American democracy or voter turnout if those are perceived to be imperiled by the amount of money now being spent on national politics.

A generally middle class populist campaign that focuses on these, as well as some of the protectionist themes, marginally anti-rich/anti-capitalist rhetoric, etc is not likely to attract much interest from me in the first place. But if it comes away from a putative problem like inequality with bad solutions, or the wrong solutions, or solutions to problems we don't have, and so on, it is really not going to get my attention in a good way.

19 September 2015

Series of quick blurbs

Or maybe not so quick. We'll see.

1) Was the clock kid arrested/suspended because he brought a clock to school or because he was a Muslim kid who brought a clock to school.

Short answer is probably a bit of both, but mostly the latter. There's some, but not much, justification to question what it is that a kid has, but if they don't have it out, and show it to a teacher rather willingly and openly, that should be a sign it isn't intended as a prank and was intended to be something random and fun that they built and hoped would be appreciated. It wasn't. That ought to be have been the end point. It wasn't. So here we are. The key points though that suggest there's a racial/ethnic/religious dimension on top of the overzealous school safety considerations would be that the school never took any of those overzealous school safety considerations at the time. If it was thought at any time to be an actual bomb, the school (and the police) never behaved as though they thought it was. I would be suing the cops for wrongful arrest/detention as a violation of civil rights (they had no probable cause for an arrest) and I'd be at least changing schools pronto if I were his parents. Sounds like at least one of those is happening.

2) Will Kim Davis end up back in jail for fiddling with the state forms?

Short version: maybe. She probably shouldn't be. Most of the state officials seem to think the forms her office is issuing are legal or at least will be recognized as legal for their purposes, and that this point it appears to be a question of state law that would matter. But they're very clearly being issued in an defiant "fuck you" manner to the court that required the issuance of certificates. Which courts and judges don't tend to like very much.

3) Why is Sam Harris still talking about racial profiling (particular of Muslims at airports).

Short version: I have no idea. He seemed very clearly to have lost badly in public debates he himself posted online several years ago on this exact topic. But he seems to have ignored this rather glaring flaw of history of his engagement to the subject matter. It ties into the clock story and the Harris/Republican narrative that "Christianity is under attack", whatever that means, in so far as there's a lot of strange rhetoric based upon fear that isn't easily translated into effective and legal policy. Maybe Harris' underlying argument is that Muslims are the most likely source of threats to airplanes and airport security, which is perhaps a plausible case for now but hasn't always been true and isn't the best way to secure them even if they are to treat such people as we can identify as possibly Muslim as the only likely source of threat. How that translates into an effective security process from that assumption is a very big logical step that overlooks a lot of costs and difficulties. Secularists and liberals tend to want to govern processes of law by reasonable steps, such as cost-benefit analysis or effectiveness. Apparently not when fear is concerned. Then the arguments look very much like the same ones that conservatives make when telling us Davis was in jail for practicing her faith, rather than violating a court order.

04 September 2015

A short legal primer. Sort of

So. Kim Davis is a trendy topic. Those probably were not words most of us would think to write a couple of months ago.

Some explanations for people who haven't followed this closely or imagine themselves to agree or disagree with her.

1) County clerks in Kentucky are elected officials. They're still public officials charged with doing public duties, like providing marriage licenses. One result of this elected status though is that they cannot be fired by another public official (a Governor for example). They have to be removed from office via an election or a process of impeachment that is typically complicated and time-consuming.

2) States could decide they don't want to issue marriage licenses, which to me seems like an idea likely to be less popular than is being imagined by some Christians or anarchists and some number of libertarians, but until or unless they do so, some city or county official will be charged with providing these licenses officially. In this case, a county clerk's office was tasked with this duty. There may be other public officials in the county that can perform this legal duty but they have other duties often (judges for example). Since the state gives out marriage licenses on a fairly regular basis, it is not productive to have this task on an ad hoc basis rather than an appointed office handle the regular business of the state.

3) Court rulings based around the 14th amendment have decided, I believe rightly, that these licenses should be issued regardless of gender in the couples involved. This means that any Kentucky law preventing such licenses between same-sex couples from being issued is invalidated and that such laws are to be enforced as amended. So the licenses must be issued and the court's interest is in gaining compliance with its orders that the state officials no longer be violating the Constitution.

The relevant factor here is that it is the state of Kentucky, not Kim Davis, which is seen to be acting when it refuses to issue a marriage license. Kim Davis does not make or decide state laws as a clerk. She carries them out and as such represents the state in that capacity.

4) The judge who issued the order to provide the licenses lawfully a) wrote in the 6th circuit opinion that was overturned that he effectively did not agree with same-sex marriages and b) gave Davis several avenues to lawfully comply.

Most significantly, she was to be allowed to turn over the duties to another clerk in the office rather than issue licenses she disagreed with herself. She refused to allow another clerk in her office to comply whether they wanted to or not or agreed with her beliefs or not. She imposed her beliefs upon others in her employ. This is not a power any elected official possesses, whether they imagine themselves to or not. This is ultimately why she was found in contempt of court and jailed, not for practicing her own religious beliefs but refusing to allow others to live in accordance with their own interpretations of faith and law and imposing upon them a required action that was deemed to be illegal by the federal court system and out of step with directives issued by the sitting governor of the state to comply with those rulings.

One of the apparently forgotten aspects of Jim Crow was that it was a binding legal obligation upon all citizens to segregate, not merely the beliefs of racists but the laws of racists as well were in force and on display. There were ways around this, but it was officially sanctioned by the state to require certain private behaviors, whether people agreed with those laws or not. If people do not agree with allowing same sex couples to marry, they are allowed to disagree with this, to voice opposition, to protest, to attend church services that reinforce these beliefs, and so on. What they are not allowed to do is prevent this from occurring legally and prevent others in their employ from executing the required public duties of issuing a license.

4a) (Update) It appears her dispute is that her name has to be on it as though this is constituting a personal endorsement. It is extremely unlikely that federal courts and judges will decide to amend a state law as to whether her name has to appear on a public form from a county clerk's office as a basis for official documentation being deemed valid. Their concern will be the relevant constitutional status of marriage law enforcement more broadly and not the precise mechanics that the Commonwealth of Kentucky decides to use to provide those marriage licenses, who has to sign where, etc. State laws may provide some protection if she were to sue in state court that some accommodation could be imposed or the state could act to amend the statute to provide such accommodations as allowing a deputy clerks name to be valid, etc, though that's not guaranteed of course. And she hasn't done that anyway. Suggesting her legal arguments are less about seeking accommodation and more about something else, or that her legal team is not very good (also plausible). (update to that part, it looks to me unlikely that the state courts would grant some variety of exemption either as the relevant forms only require the endorsement of the "office of", and not the "person of").

5) The absurdity of claiming that people could drive 30 minutes away for a public service required by state law seems to be a point of order as well. What this suggests in logical terms is that Davis does not agree with same sex marriage, but will abide by such marriages as endorsed legally by others in the same official capacity as herself as long as she has nothing to do with it. Except that she won't do that in her own county.

This is very different from say, abortion providers and distance traveled questions and constraints. The state is not in the business of providing abortions. It does not have to mandate that its officials provide them in a reasonable fashion within a legal jurisdiction of a county or major city. The state is in the business of providing marriage certificates. Since the state is in that business, it is required to do so in a non-discriminatory way (roughly speaking, since the state can prevent you from marrying your cousin or sister or father, or an under age child), and more significantly to this question here, the public and elected officials are tasked to do so as well. If they are unable or unwilling to do so, the effective response is that they should be removed from office in order to gain compliance with the legal environment.

Those public officials are free in their private capacity to complain all they want so long as they comply with the law in a non-discriminatory way or make reasonable accommodations to do so. Not issuing licenses at all in a county, without the approval of other city, county, or state officials, and thus requiring people to go to another county to receive a public service they are entitled to legally is not a reasonable accommodation.

6) The wisdom of jailing her to assure compliance with the law has been frequently called into question. I suspect that the intention of her or her lawyers was for her to go to jail for violating the law and that this is why she refused other methods of compliance. This made it unlikely that other forms of compliance would have worked in the interim to prevent violations of Constitutional law and the state's basic obligations from being ignored in the meantime.

As a form of civil disobedience, this is fine. She was willing to pay the consequences. As a form of protest intent on amending the legal environment, I'm less clear on how this would redound to anyone's benefit if they oppose gay marriage and the change in the legal environment. Some are claiming this makes her a martyr. A martyr to an already activated minority is still a losing opinion on this matter. Her actions would have to in some way change people's minds rather than just fire up people who still agree with her. She is not a church, whose practices were not changed by the legal framework of the 14th amendment requirements to civil institutions, and she was being allowed not to perform the ceremonial tasks personally as a requirement of her official duties. I don't see where that changes people's minds in a meaningful way. If anything, more people being aware that what she was actually doing was refusing to let anyone else operate in an official capacity under her charge should suggest that this is not likely to be a very inspiring case.

7) This question of the intersection of religious liberty with gay marriage (both in the public sphere and in the private business sphere) will come up again with a more presentable case. The Supreme Court refused to hear this one on appeal because it was a terrible case easily dismissed on the merits, most likely being used to fund raise by the legal team rather than attempt to actually reform or repeal the legal environment.

06 August 2015

Another annoyance

There's a story floating around about a police shooting that supposedly went ignored because the victim was white and that this implicates the "alllivesmatter" movement.

First of all. It wasn't ignored. It crossed my news feed in at least three different sources that typically cover police shootings and violence/oppressive police strategies. Police misconduct might be an unusual beat relative to mainstream coverage, but it doesn't focus only on minorities being killed or wrongfully treated. The reason it appears that way might be because minorities are more commonly assaulted or killed (or at least disproportionately so).

But ultimately this framing is sort of like "why don't Muslims/atheists/etc disavow some action". When they almost always already have, and that this was ignored in order to complain that somehow, someway, white people are being discriminated against.

Meanwhile various shootings (both by police or by ordinary citizens) that did occur did go ignored in the general public. Possibly because the victims were not white.

A second and perhaps more important point. "alllivesmatter" isn't a movement. It is a bullshit twitter response to an actual movement (blacklivesmatter) and actual problem specifically targeted by an original movement because we would rather pretend we are not still a racist society populated by largely racist people and thus who are demanding a fairly racist policing strategy. Indeed, some of the criticism of the lack of response by this "movement" focuses explicitly on the silly assumptions people have been using about the nature of policing in the country that it is in some way fair and useful when it oppresses people for particular things (like making drug arrests as in this case).

The problem of police reforms has often focused specifically on particular forms of oppressive policing used primarily on minorities (and in particular African-Americans, or in some parts of the countries, Latinos). That movement didn't use the alllives nomenclature for a very good reason. It was targeting a specific set of policy problems related to race and police and the way in which shootings and deaths, to say nothing of wrongful arrests or harassment and general abuse, are washed away as procedure or appropriate protocol and training. There are more systemic problems related to race and policing that do not apply in the same ways to everyone else (stop and frisk, racial profiling, etc). They apply in some intersecting issues, such as through poverty or the enforcement of drug laws, but these are often tangential effects rather than intentional policy or arbitrary use of force. This is distinguished from the manner in which police are armed, trained, instructed, or otherwise prepared on the appropriate use of force and the methods available to avoid it. It is a more general problem in the way it allows for the arbitrary and casual enforcement and interference by police of whole communities beyond the application of lethal violence, it's most devastating and visible effect. Ferguson didn't erupt into demonstrations and violence because a young black man was shot under what were deemed suspect circumstances. It erupted because the police as a whole had been undertaking oppressive strategies of policing and policy enforcement and where young man was killed, and the manner the police undertook to respond to both that death and the resulting demonstrations, this was seen as a natural extension of those oppressive policies. This was a last straw and the only one which became visible. Even today the broad and condemning DoJ reports on the conduct and policies of Ferguson and other related communities is typically ignored in the way these issues are discussed in the popular imagination.

The case of violence against anyone in particular is certainly equally offensive in all cases where it is not justified, but the frivolity of legal arbitrary penalties and procedures falls in a very unequal and distinctive way. That this then results in a distinctive pattern of death or abuse at the hands of police should hardly be surprising either, but it has as its roots differences in cause. It is true in the blandest sense that police violence, brutality, or the arbitrary nature of many authoritarian policies could impact anyone and many of the victims of these assaults are what we might optimistically think of as ordinary people. But these aggressive escalation tactics used commonly by police are a means of policing much more likely to be tolerated and even endorsed when they are applied to "other people", people not like ourselves (immigrants/Latinos, as in Maricopa county, blacks in NYC or Chicago or really anywhere, and likewise people who are mentally ill, or generally people who sell or possess illegal drugs). We see that this is so when one examines where, on a map, aggressive SWAT raids are deployed to drug interdiction missions and related activities, or where stop and frisk was typically used in NYC, and so on. It is helpful as a philosophical exercise that some people imagine the problem could be roughly equal and impact themselves too in as far as it influences the support for overall police reforms that are badly needed to correct for systematic injustice inflicted by police and criminal justice, but it won't or doesn't actually apply in the same way and for the same reasons.

Consider the petty nature of the initial infractions that led to these deaths (legally open carrying an airsoft gun, busted taillight, not using a turn signal, selling loose cigarettes, running away, no front license plate) versus this one (someone shot in the middle of a drug bust under admittedly highly suspicious circumstances). None of these cases should be cause for violence of police to enforce these, and none seems to be a case where said violence was justified from popular description, but the rapid escalation of violence for minor and trivial crimes is far more likely in the former set of cases and poses a different form of disturbance in how we must think of our society and what it seeks to enforce by applying the force of law. The solutions that reduce the problem of the former issues, the general problem of police aggression and abuses (to say nothing of prosecutorial discretion or the rubber stamping of search warrants and deference to police by judges), where the problems could in theory impact everyone, are different from solutions to the problems of implicit and explicit bias on the part of police and popular support for police policies and how we could limit or provide outlets for dealing with this. It is natural that there should need to be different causes and distinct movements for dealing with them and that these causes and movements would have distinct concerns that they focus their attention upon. The ACLU is going to respond very differently than people involved in the blacklivesmatter protest group.

I've written about this in various forms. So it should not be surprising that this annoys me that it persists as a thing.

28 July 2015

Vox populi

Mostly didn't hear very good answers. I see a couple points of agreement (carbon tax is simpler and better than cap and trade, but difficult to implement, GBI was good but he seems to be talking in multiple directions on that point that don't have much to do with basic income provisions that it's not focused enough to make sense to someone what that would involve).

He worries me on two points if I'm to define these, from what came up in the interview (there's a third point that I've been hammering on that didn't even come up, which I'm not sure if that's Sanders problem or Klein's or both).

1) IR. When he says "we are all realists", this to me says he doesn't know enough or care enough about the topic to discuss it seriously or rigorously. Realism is a specific IR school of thought*.  That's why Klein asked about it. If I'm voting for Presidential candidates, my number one concern is foreign policy and what sort of crazy and potentially damaging things this person might want to do or at least what kinds of basis they might have for doing something crazy. If they have little or no grounding for their positions on this, then they're likelier to give over control of the IR state to the existing interventionist bipartisan consensus (this is sort of what happened to Obama as his IR diagnosis seemed limited to "Iraq was bad", which was true, but wasn't a total critique of our current models of interventions by military force or a plan to use diplomatic efforts to get what you want done instead, etc). His answer does not give me some idea what his basis for interventions or warfare actually is, or what sorts of diplomatic engagement he would prefer, and his lack of seriousness with the question suggests he doesn't have one. Sanders doesn't strike me as crazy as most of the GOP candidates, but the fact that he doesn't seem to care much about IR bothers me.

This is by far the most power a President possesses under our current legal frame. Most of a President's domestic agenda relies on Congress, or even state and city governments, to get something done, while Congress has effectively abdicated its war powers in most respects. Sanders will have fairly limited, if any, power to enact most of what he suggests he wants to do as an overall agenda. Except on this question. And I don't have some idea what he thinks we should do here. That's not helpful.

*The initial reason I picked Sun Tzu as a nom de plume is my affinity for that school and its decline in American IR over the last 50 years or so I saw as a substantial problem causing us considerable dismay in reckless militarism and interventions without a clear and convincing strategic goal, with predictable results in disastrous and ineffectual wars and national security policies that resemble theater rather than structured responses to real (or imagined) problems. That Sanders dismissed it so casually I see as further evidence of this trend and a knock against him. He can dismiss it in the normative terms it has come to be used in public (for people who are generally neoconservatives) but the academic tree at its roots is still around and easily accessible and someone like Klein isn't asking about it in this way for his health. Klein's a smart cookie and could have pushed back against that kind of flippant response more than "I don't think they are".

2) It seems more important to demagogue the rich in his rhetoric than to describe policies that would deal with inequality or help the poor. That he brings up the boogeyman of the Kochs rather quickly was amusing but not enlightening. He doesn't seem to have any idea what policies the Koch's even support on immigration, and would rather describe more open borders policies as though they are a Koch brothers position as if this is a bad thing in and of itself. Paying people from Sub-Saharan Africa even this meager 2-3 dollars per hour he describes would be a massive boon to their economic welfare and probably more effective than sending millions of dollars of foreign aid. I'm not sure I see the same downside he does there and there are ways around this as a policy problem if it is one, such as guaranteed basic incomes. Nevertheless, I'm not sure I've seen the Kochs endorse an open borders policy in the first place or that it is a "right wing" position even if they had. Libertarians are pretty scattered on immigration but right-wingers are not in favor of it, even legal immigration. Bernie's position of having a pretty restrictive immigration system is probably more in line with "right-wingers" than he thinks it is based on this. "Getting jobs for people" isn't really a government policy for the most part. So I'm more than a little confused by this line of rhetoric.

Sometimes the rich deserve some scorn, but I'm rather less happy about someone who doesn't seem to have another note to play than someone who points out something more difficult to describe than "rich people are evil". Describing the Nordic/Western European welfare states as an ideal is all well and good as they have some interesting policies. But it leaves out that most of those countries possess a strong market ethos (people can start businesses pretty easily for example, easier than here, and school choice has been reasonably popular in Sweden or the UK). Denmark is routinely rated as "more free" economically than the United States despite having a large welfare state even by the pro-market groups that do such ratings. Most of the others are not far behind. More to the point, most of these countries have scaled back or reformed some elements of their welfare state over the last couple of decades. Suggesting that the sustainability of these as policies is dependent on the public's willingness to pay for them in some respect. Most European states actually have less progressive systems of taxation than the US wherein the middle class actually pays quite a lot. This is tolerated because they receive quite a bit back in the form of services offered or benefits (such as generous paid family leave policies). It's possible that is a bargain Americans are willing to make, but it is not clear that anyone offers it. Few people mention that Medicare currently pays out about 3 dollars to every one it takes in so the public believes it is getting what it paid for rather than getting what someone else has paid for. In Europe, the model is probably closer to cost-benefit where many people are getting what they themselves have paid for.

There are also demographic reasons why such states have supported these policies. Other than Germany they're all pretty small. In most cases they have fewer people living there than live in the Chicago metropolitan area. Netherlands is the only country that might fall out of this category. Iceland has fewer people than the area I live in. This means that normative behavior is generally easier to enforce and scale into policy than it can be for a country of 300 million (plus). Most of the European countries have a fairly homogeneous population ethnically as well. It does not seem to be a big deal for people to give assistance and aid to other people who they assume are very much like them for physical and cultural reasons. When it comes to giving aid and assistance to other people who are, in appearance or customs, not like them, most people say "not so much", even these supposedly enlightened Europeans. This is a difficult impediment for getting Americans to go along with a more robust welfare state. Indeed, I'm fairly sure it's a basis point for the ill-fated "drug test people on welfare" idea I discussed the other day. Americans would rather make welfare harder to access based on this logic rather than increase its stability or simplify the processes of providing assistance to the poor because it is perceived, by a substantial majority of people, as giving money to undeserving "others". This is not a casual problem that can be dismissed and the policies implemented anyway over these objections. The racism implied in it is quite real.

European democratic socialists also often possess different political systems (again, Germany might be an exception), where the central governments are often not as limited by jurisprudence and Constitutional law. So ultimately what this doesn't tell me is pretty vast. It doesn't tell me how such policies would be implemented here, rather than how they are used over there, who would carry them out (at what level of governance), and which ideas are or are not good from markets. His response to this question "What is the underlying principle there? What are the situations where you look at a given area of the economy and say, "That's something we should turn over to the market," or, 'That's something we should possibly federalize'?" wasn't helpful as he didn't offer some softball things that could be turned over to markets (because the model countries he likes did so). All he did was point to things on the other end of the lever which I'm not all that fond of. This doesn't offer a model for what he thinks markets are good for, just what he thinks they are ill-disposed for. I'm not necessarily opposed to these ideas, for example I think a universal health care system would have been better than what we have or what the ACA provided. I'm not just not sure I follow why these are big deals or why they would have to be implemented in the way he seems to be describing and how they would help us fight inequality as a social ill. Health care alone as a universal system has a number of options ranging from the UK to Switzerland to Singapore. It doesn't have to be just the one way he seems to prefer.

I'm really not clear on how or why "free college" is a good and necessary reform. College educations still generally pay for themselves, and are generally pursued by people who are coming from relatively well-off socioeconomic status already. While the cost and debt load has risen (the cost in particular), the benefit in post-graduated income and access to the job market readily pays it off such that it's basically like having a really expensive car loan that you can pay off in the time it takes to pay off a house, with income that generally does so. The skill sets are pretty specific and specialised in most cases, which feeds further into a career path that benefits the person paying for it. This means that most of the benefit accrues privately, whereas a K-12 education is intended to provide both a basis for people to jump off to go to college and a set of basic skill sets that everyone benefits from by having a moderately educated population (or workforce). The debt involved is more like individual capital investment (that usually pays off). There are ways we could alleviate this debt load or provide alternative methods of paying it off well before "everyone can go for free" that would resolve this as an economic problem and free up college educated persons to make alternative career decisions to improve economic mobility further. In any case making it "free" doesn't do anything about the basic reasons American colleges have risen in the tuition costs on its own, just as Medicare did not do much about the cost of health care, meaning it potentially adds a substantial cost to the taxpayer without a clear social benefit that accrues to the taxpayers. It looks more like rent seeking behavior to pander to the recent college graduate class (younger and mostly white voters) than a sensible economic proposal as a result. I'm not seeing this as a major social reform that is needed.

Despite college being "free", Germans still graduate fewer people from college than the US does. Suggesting they're doing something else instead to provide for the economic welfare of people than sending more people to college, as "free college" should have to imply to be a good policy (otherwise it is just a handout to relatively well off and well educated people). What seems a better question of higher priority is why our K-12 education doesn't pay for itself anymore as that's where the college pay gap has emerged. "College" pay hasn't risen so much as graduating high school has collapsed as being economically viable on its own. Or perhaps look at what the Germans do that provides for people who don't get into college (eg, better use of apprenticeships, fewer occupational license laws, somewhat more unionization, etc). Another better question might be what we could do to raise the college graduation rates, or look at why or how students wash out, or what we could do to provide for people who must work while attending school to help pay for it with more generous loans or other social welfare changes that have less to do with college, or do things like expand access to accredited online resources or local community colleges that offer (only) basic courses such that students moving on to a four year program or degree can take these basic courses cheaply and then proceed on to these more rigorous demands that only a more specialized program supposedly could offer.

One of the basic questions of economics to me is "why are there people who are prosperous" as the natural state of human beings is scarcity and poverty. Sanders seems to have implicitly answered this question in a way that doesn't interest me very much. To me the answer to that question is not something like a zero sum game where the rich are taking something from everyone else. The model Sanders proposes is the system of economics for capitalist or market society, and which I admit does exist on some level in the US in the form of crony capitalism or rent seeking behavior, is not a model for sustained prosperity (the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and the ongoing struggles in Russia or Greece should demonstrate a reason why, and if you think the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia were about something other than poverty and economic structures of cronyism enriching the few, I'm here to tell you are completely wrong). I think it is possible there are kernels of what Sanders says on these questions that move toward an idea that is not zero sum and is a way that the perceived imbalances of worker and corporation can be redressed in the political sphere if not the economic one, but most of the policies he seems to prefer are either not likely to be enacted or not likely to do much about it (indeed, I see the "free college" idea as suggestive of something moving away from this ideal he envisions rather than toward it). The basic problem of the "use government to solve the problem of markets behaving badly" is that it requires governments behave correctly too, and that it may be easy for governments to become co-opted by these nefarious forces they are intended to be policing. That doesn't mean it cannot be done, but it does suggest there is a rather substantial obstacle to dismantling and reforming the structures of power that Sanders believes are impediments to growth and prosperity, much less in the directions he proposes doing so. If something as a agenda is impractical and doesn't seem to be addressing the problems, I'm likely to be not interested and dismiss it as populist nonsense. As I generally have done with Sanders.

3) He barely touches on race or racism as a problem. Klein sort of asks about it, but mostly softballs it. This has been a major problem with his campaign is that the types of policies he talks the most about, for the most part, do not generally help poor minorities in the same way they might help lower middle class or working class whites. The needs of minorities in policy terms are more concrete and immediate, such as better relations with police, or because of this commonly poor relationship, access to job markets that are either which can more easily ignore (often unjust) criminal records. For instance occupational licensing often prevents people from obtaining a license and starting a business or just getting a job. This intersects poorly with the forms of unionization that Sanders tends to want to promote as it is often police unions and police union reps standing up loudly to thwart reforms in the criminal justice system or opposing and reversing penalties for bad apple cops who have done egregious things to people in the communities they work in (it is also often the largely white governing bodies of cities that oppose criminal justice reforms, but not every city or jurisdiction is controlled by majority white governments, and there are emerging trends for reform supported on certain issues regardless, like mandatory minimums or winding down portions of the drug war). Or it is unions that have helped enacted occupational licensing laws in the first place, to obstruct competition or to collude with businesses that provide themselves (but not others) employment. The idea that unions are inherently good market actors that do not rent seek at the expense of the public or even that they are good social actors is not a necessary truth and includes a rather ugly racial history that I suspect some minority voters are not all that happy about still. His positions on immigration and trade likewise have struck too often at poor people in Malaysia or Mexico in a way that is not likely to appeal to minorities either, even if his intention was to complain about rich business owners supposedly exploiting cheap labor.

I suspect he has downplayed this as a problem too much because it interferes with the economic populism message he wants to run with instead. It would have been interesting if Klein had pointed at this harder to see how he would have responded.