20 September 2014

Bombing begins in 10 minutes

I do not shy away from the idea that occasionally military conflicts are inevitable or capable ways to quickly resolve dangerous international situations. But ISIS doesn't strike me as a problem that we can resolve in this way with military force. It is unclear to me what our goals are in intervention. It is unclear to me why our forces, or our interests are of higher concern than those of the regional players who may be threatened (Saudi Arabia, Iran) that we should react or act on their behalf, or why we should seek to prevent those regional players from acting and reacting (Iran), and it is pretty clear that we (the US/EU) are not actually threatened that we need to respond directly and promptly ourselves.

Several thoughts

The threat of "hundreds of members who hold Western passports" does not materialize to me as a conceptual threat that these members could turn around and conduct terrorist attacks on American or European soil with relative ease. Conducting and plotting terrorist attacks is difficult to carry off successfully. And more to the point, if we're aware they have these members, these individuals can be flagged as potentially dangerous and monitored and observed well before they could carry out any plot that is made. That's precisely why we have an NSA or CIA or FBI or MI-6, etc (it isn't for monitoring hundreds of millions of unsuspecting American citizens, but for monitoring much more suspicious potential threats like this, western pro-Islamist radicals willing to go train or fight in foreign insurgencies).

This is also one of the reasons most of the intelligence community doesn't appear to agree with the emerging public consensus that ISIS represents an imminent terrorist threat to Americans over the next several years. It can declare it wants to attack Americans or Brits all it wants, but actually doing it is very different from proclaiming itself to be hostile. That's mostly a PR stunt to attempt to recruit, not a statement of an ongoing mission planned and prepared. Al Qaeda was able to carry off its attacks over a decade ago largely because it had a long timeline to develop them and intelligence community coordination was poor in reaction or response. I'm not persuaded our intelligence community has learned much about how it should conduct its operations to identify potential terrorism threats, but it's possible that a rather public threat like this would command sufficient attention to be identifiable in the wake of the knowledge of what such threats could maybe eventually lead toward (eg, 9-11). This intelligence operation should be the focal point of any response to the idea that Americans might be endangered now or in the future, and not open-ended military campaigns conducted abroad in intractable political contests over power and religion in other countries.

In general, ISIS lacks power projection capabilities common to a large developed nation-state. It doesn't have an air force, navy, long-range missile capabilities. It largely consists of well-armed guerrilla and insurgent infantry forces (similar to the Taliban in Afghanistan). It will as a result have difficulty expanding, consolidating, and enforcing rule over areas of the Middle East that it does not already enjoy, for various sectarian religious and political reasons, a modest level of public support. That is to say: if it tries to expand or attack or agitate in areas that aren't mostly Sunni, and mostly irritated with Western or "pro-Western" governments, it won't get much done and will be resisted by any capable forces available. It can be an irritant in that area and represents a threat to the region and its relative stability (such as there is any), but it cannot control much of significant importance to American interests. People invoking Chamberlain "appeasement" and Godwin's Law comparisons have no idea what they are talking about and should be ignored. Germany was a powerful nation-state with a capable military for power projection and a burgeoning economy to support that machinery of war in the 1930s. ISIS is none of those things, and probably never will be (this was also true of the Iraqi state in the early 2000s). Such talk needs to be silenced and ignored as patently idiotic. What it can do is be annoying, and perhaps try to operate as a zone to attract and train militant fighters and/or terrorists. But it can't represent a major threat to American interests and safety. It bears keeping an eye on, not a preemptive military strike.

Bombing insurgents, or sending in special operations teams, might help in small doses where our regional allies require assistance, but the main line of resistance needs to be coordinated and conducted by those regional allies (Jordan, Kurds, Turkey), and by other regional players who might be endangered in some way (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Syria). They are the ones threatened by direct attack or occupation and in need of response to overturn the danger. If it were clear that our intervention was to buy time for these disparate entities to coordinate or develop a strategy to respond and crush this rebellious force militarily and also provide some political means of responding to the situations that allowed it to flourish (local repression by Syrian and Iraqi governments primarily), then perhaps such interventions over a brief time could be warranted. I am skeptical that the local powers can coordinate politically and militarily; (Iran and Saudi Arabia seem to hate each other for example. And as a result skeptical that they can respond to the political problems involved; Iraq and Syria were in some measure the cause of those problems, it seems unlikely they can help solve them. This situation will not be best resolved with a semi-permanent force of US power tied to the area with the need for bombings and assassinations.

Our interventions thereby exist in a strategic no-man's land. Since we are responsible in some measure for the political situation in Iraq, it seems unlikely we can help much on that front either. Interjecting ourselves into civil wars and sectarian strife with an intent to resolve them is unlikely to be a fair long-term use of our power and capabilities. This has been borne out in Israel-Palestine for decades, in Palestine internally for a decade, in the Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy conflict that we have allowed ourselves to be dragged into rather than selecting a sensible set of allies, ideally who share western values in some measure, to support ahead of time as a means of protecting and expanding our hegemonic power through soft and hard power projection, and so on. It is extremely unlikely that a campaign of bombing, or special operations, or military occupation, will successfully repress and destroy our purported enemy on its own without an overall COIN strategy that our allies can successfully execute to defuse the intractable political and sectarian conflicts that have brought this to our attention. Which leaves the prospect of intervention open-ended, without a position and goal of success to achieve that allows us to leave the situation behind at some future date. Given that we have had a history of this as well (Iraq under Hussein, Afghanistan under the Taliban/Karzai), this should tell us that this strategy lacks a degree of wisdom and smacks too much of a reaction to emotion rather than a reaction to a threat of grave concern.

12 September 2014

morality v religion

This should not be terribly surprising. There doesn't appear to be a big difference in reported moral behavior for the religious from non-religious populations.

What appears interesting out of it so far
1) Haidt's moral framework of distinct moral values and the ideological or religious faultlines over which are held in higher regard is rather clearly demonstrated in what people self-report as moral violations or achievements. Religious (conservative) people often identified different things as immoral than the secular (liberal) population. This probably explains a large measure of why non-religious persons are often regarded as "immoral" by religious people, because they do not identify much of their behavior as morally and ethically questionable where the religious person does. This does not mean that non-religious and secular persons have not considered these questions or that they avoid these moral quandaries in order to do things. Instead it usually means they don't find it very important to judge themselves or others on these questions and may regard them as matters of personal taste; Coke v Pepsi style or rap v country rather than intractable social questions.

2) People report hearing about immoral behavior much more often than moral behavior. This is the traditional transmission vector for morality, getting other people to gossip about your misdeeds. I suspect religious people are more vulnerable to negative gossip (from within "their" group). Most secular persons I am familiar with are vulnerable to negative gossip, but mostly because they may try to ignore it until it has already caused a problem for themselves. Paying attention to the opinions of others is tedious, and often a waste of time, but sometimes carries benefits.

3) Religious people experience more guilt or shame over moral questions. This does not appear to lead them to avoid these actions however. It means they feel worse about it. My off-the-cuff impression is that non-religious people experience less guilt mostly because the moral behaviors that religious persons identify are more common (purity or disgust violations) and easy to identify. Non-religious person's ethical codes are more likely to identify most behaviors that are non-harmful (to others) and consensual acts to be acceptable and experience little guilt over these versus other actions where other persons were harmed, which are less likely to occur or be observed in a daily or weekly pattern. If they feel guilty over drinking too much the night before, it's probably because of the hangover and not because they violated some decree, as an example.

10 September 2014

Quick Hits

1) I don't care that Apple thinks people still want a 16th century technology. Watches are stupid. Keeping track of time that closely is rarely important. If something needs to be done "soon", get it done as fast as you can. And don't worry about the time limits with precision.

2) Something that's come up often, and somehow managed to make it onto my social media feed: People who complain about white people getting killed by cops (or by minorities) somehow being ignored (by the media, or other people in their social circles).

The problem here is we're talking about two different things:
a Individual people getting killed. Which is bad. A problem (sometimes police violence, or crime). That kind of problem deserves attention and is terrible.
b People who are systematically oppressed, with a matchstick moment like an unarmed person from that community of people being killed (by police or whomever).
White people aren't oppressed (at least not in that way involving police brutality and racial profiling, etc). Crime against white people also isn't ignored by police or media. When there are protests surrounding a particular killing or beating of a minority victim, this isn't just to make a statement about the actual killing. It is to draw attention to the overall setup that helped lead to that killing. Large numbers of people are totally unaware of the deployment of SWAT teams into the Hispanic or African-American part of town, or the futility of stop and frisk searches as little more than racial discrimination under the supposed rubric of guns or drugs (which are almost never found). If the SWAT team is hitting a middle class white family, that gets attention, or if the police started frisking everyone in "your" neighborhood. And so on.

One of the consequences of all of this is that police and the citizens they police begin an adversarial relationship rather than a cooperative one. This all makes it much more likely that the tactics described above might be used, and that brutality and violence would occur, and thus shootings of unarmed citizens would be much more frequent. And much more likely to be ignored by the public at large, or passed over as supposedly "justified".

So. Yeah. If someone posts that kind of thing, you're going to get an angry note.

3) The NFL. I intend, as usual, to basically ignore football as a sport and watch as little of it as possible. I believe I watched a game last year involving 8-10 inches of snow on the field (Lions-Eagles). Because that was funny. But because football is a vastly popular media topic, it is impossible to ignore football in general as a topic. And what seems like the situation is that the NFL, if it wants to remain relevant in 15-20 years, probably needs to replace its commissioner as soon as possible. Because Goodell is basically running all the PR issues straight into the dirt rather than floating over them as problems. It confronts almost none of its major issues. Sexism -most teams are involved in long-standing fights over cheerleader treatment, pay, etc, and a variety of criminal charges involving domestic abuse and its players occur per year. No doubt it is not the only such league that has these, but its responses attract more attention, because they are often woefully inadequate. PEDs. Basically the league is ignoring these because faster and stronger players are more exciting (the NBA effectively does as well, and I don't particularly care that much about PEDs ethically). Concussions and brain trauma research, the league has tried to bury this, and took years to get around to addressing it at all. And so on. Football doesn't need to become a less violent sport to survive in relevance in America. But it does need to attend to these as issues. Parents (of both sexes), will see the risks of football as increasingly harsh environments (on and off the field) for placing their children into the sport and depriving it of vital talent and skilled play, a serious long-term risk to the health of the sport. And meanwhile women are a large and growing source of disposable income, and could be a large and growing fan base for professional sports. It should not take a violent video being leaked to disturb the conscience of league authorities relating to the off-field violence of one of its players and declare that it takes these concerns of how its players conduct themselves privately with a measure of seriousness.

08 September 2014

Another topic I tire of writing out opinion on

The Pledge. 

This comes up often in discussions with atheists. While I share some of the discomfort of other secularists in a ritual which implies an affirmation of belief in a deity, my main objections to the entire enterprise are more complex than simply finding "under god" offensive to those sensibilities, or more accurately, that lacking those affirmations makes one "unpatriotic". The pledge itself is more objectionable than the precise wording including a religious phrase to be uttered. Both to the notion of religious belief involved and to the associations of "patriotism" with "nationalism", in a profane exercise of confusing the two in the minds of (usually) impressionable children.

While it appears that if we ask a populace aware of the history of this pledge and ritual practice, and the changes of its language, far more recently in both its origins and current design, that that populace is more comfortable (but not popularly comfortable) abolishing the "under god" from the recited lines required, this is not the biggest problem I have had with the issues surrounding the pledge. I never felt that it was in some way requiring an affirmation of belief in a deity to mouth words. This is because the far bigger problem was the affirmation of a ritual requiring a declaration of patriotic duty in a particular way. The exercise of putting everyone in a room together to "support" or "respect" "our troops", as it was recently declared, and other affirmations of what is implied by one's patriotic responsibilities as a citizen is the offensive quality of the pledge. Patriotic duties are wide and varied, and the implication is not the same as blind nationalistic sentiments. The pledge is primarily about the latter. It is not a statement for the love and fostering of growth, prosperity, and peaceful development of a nation-state and its people, but obedience to its symbols, authority, and leaders that it is celebrating and developing.

We can see this in the manner that it is conducted, led by an authority figure (a teacher or school official), with a variety of methods of condemning or shaming those who do not comply. Among the student body, if not done by the teacher. We can see this in the number of complaints and court cases filed, not necessarily and not often by atheists who object to the language, but by co-religious figures who find the nature and coerced expression of patriotism offensive in its design. We can see this in the violence that was perpetrated against those who refused, out of a strongly held religious belief rather than its absence, not to accede to the standing and reciting of some words (even before those words included the sometimes objectionable phrase "under god").

A free society without room for disagreement and debate does not last long in a peaceful state with itself. A society that seeks to provide space for its people to decide how best, or even whether to, love and improve one's nation and the state of its people should not start the lives and days of its youth with the premise that its people and residents owe love to that country and its leaders. That would be earned out of the respect for the ideals of that society as they are practiced in providing that liberty, not out of a declared and recited oath of fealty to a nation that will strive, and not always succeed, to reach those ideals. Obedience is not a quality that should be enjoyed in a democratic society without it having been earned through a level of trust in the obedience of its people and leaders to protecting and fostering the values of a democratic society and it is definitely not a quality that should be enjoyed and fostered by rote and ritual presentation for children to participate in by fiat and requirement.

As a final, and perhaps more annoying note. The "under God" phrase itself is objectionable not merely for its religious elements. But because it is grammatically awkward. It was clearly inserted as a half-measure when it was done so in the 1950s and as a way to reference Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. But Lincoln's speech used the phrase in an entirely different way, something akin to a request say "god willing", that we might aspire to that goal of a unified and free nation (certainly in his time, and ours in many ways, still a very uncertain prospect). This does not appear to be the presentation of the words used in the pledge, which appear to be a purposeful inclusion of the sovereignty of a deity over the land. As opposed to the communists who opposed us when it was inserted. In order to make such a statement, the phrase is ill-suited.

The appropriate response of secularists, or people of a humanistic ethic generally, isn't really to demand the language be changed so they too can participate in this curious ritual. The appropriate response is to remain seated when the pledged is to be uttered. Do not participate in it at all. Submit to authority where it is warranted, not where it is only demanded.

05 September 2014

Empty shells of wordless speeches

Pages turned through the dust
Ink has spilled across the paper
Words. So they say.
To deeds never done
To speeches never made
Toasts of places never seen
and people never met

Stay a while and listen
Or fill the empty space
of others with nonsense
cleverness or viciousness
Attention. Hero at work
Nothing happened
No one needed saving
Indifferent possibilities abound

An empty shell out
for a stroll
Filled the bottle with
a dreadful need
a purposeful hatred
on a voyage to a horrid
place to visit
with no one to speak to
and a song that never ends
blasting on the radio




26 August 2014

ALS and ice

I've been trying to form some opinions on this for a while. It seems a complicated issue to talk about, for reasons that I wasn't quite sure of. I believe I figured out why people are annoyed to have an adult conversation about it, so I will say a few words.

I don't mind that people are suddenly giving money to this as a cause. I would think other causes will be trying to adapt it and will catch up. They will learn how to make viral and invasive messages about their own serious matters too. This was just one of the first to make it that way in the internet age (Susan Komen and others with the colored ribbons would be one of the first to make it that way in the pre-internet age).

I'm a little disturbed that it is inefficient. The utilitarian calculator in me is really annoyed that there are dozens of other things that would be less wasteful as a display of viral contests. Dumping clean water and ice on your head is a pretty obvious "first world" thing to do, and screams "look at me!", I care about X and will do something silly to prove it. That's a little irritating but not so much so that I find it necessary to object to it out of hand. It feels more like an itch brought on by extroverts and their need for attention and overt displays than actual narcissism.

There are also causes more likely to produce a considerable net positive social and global good by giving to them (malaria research, basic genetic research, clean water, or general cash donations to the poor). I think this is the general feeling of a lot of people who are mildly annoyed by this "contest" or challenge or whatever is an offense against other causes is being caused. And it is true that some, perhaps even most of the money is exclusive rather than freshly produced charity. Meaning that some other very worthy causes won't be getting as much money for research of cures or prevention or treatment of the sick, the infirm, or the otherwise at risk.

That point of view however has been expressed rather poorly and reacted to with enormous vitriol. As though anyone who says it is a) completely unaware and unconcerned of the suffering imposed by ALS or b) doesn't want it to be cured. If I thought these donations would reduce the suffering imposed by leading to a cure or prevention/treatment method, we'd be in some major hot water there. It's possible they will, but not very likely. It's much more likely giving someone in a third world country 100 dollars in start up capital will do something, or a 100 dollars of water or water cleaning research or technology to a town in Central Asia or Africa, etc. So I would rather do that.

I don't know why that PoV complaint should matter. If people, like me, are applying some utilitarian logic and are actually annoyed the money is going to ALS instead of something else conceived of as more productive, give the money to something else, and ask others to do the same. We are not required to obey to give money only to this one thing. This is the part that seems to be missing from commentary on the subject. If dumping ice on each other's heads is the transmission vector, dump ice on your head for some other reason and try to use what's working now for that cause instead. This isn't a legally binding requirement that once challenged, our money is locked into this donation. It's a blank check. Treat it as such.

Charitable giving and "awareness" generally are not inherently bad objects. It is desirable that we should be concerned with the suffering of others, even those unknown to us, and attempt to help them in indirect ways if necessary. We should avoid criticizing people for doing this, which I believe is one reason people are annoyed with anyone saying "eh" at their giving to ALS now is a perception of criticism.

Giving is often an excuse to do wasteful or immodest or even immoral things elsewhere in one's life though. Philanthropy isn't necessarily something corporations or the wealthy do simply to "be good". These actions are reputational adjustments they can point to when people complain about something else they are doing (which may actually be worse). Altruism isn't really a big thing for most of us. It is usually more important to be seen caring about something than to produce an effect on the problem we are proclaiming loudly to care about. This is what I think most pro-life/anti-choice people are doing, as an example, trying to express concern about abortion without working to make it less likely to occur. Because that would be too hard and require listening. This as a cause isn't quite in the same category. It isn't necessarily doing damage to us as a society to loudly express concern in this way about this thing instead of something else of deeper and more significant damage to our own society and well-being (say, the war on drugs, or expanding birth control accessibility, or dealing with miscarriages, or diabetes, and so on down our litany of woes). A few million dollars for this instead of a few other charities isn't a big deal in the scheme of things.

But it's in the same variety of action and could be twisted quickly to something that could be damaging. Which is a little worrisome. One of the biggest problems is that the point many use to justify is "awareness". Awareness is useful if it can be combined with something that we can do to mitigate. Awareness and understanding of depression is, for example, something we can act upon as an individual to be attentive and listen to others, or otherwise be present. Awareness of AIDs is something that allows us to try to prevent it from spreading and afflicting others. Awareness of police brutality or violence allows us to gather together to try to reform our system of oversight so that it might be punished accordingly or at least transparently. Awareness of ALS would be kind of like awareness of an impending alien invasion. There's not a whole lot we can do about it right now and it's been worked on for decades. Maybe these donations will have long term impact. I hope they do and I think most everyone involved hopes they do. They aren't being malicious by giving. But "raising awareness" isn't really a way to deal with a long-term problem like this. The reason is that once people feel "aware" of a problem, and maybe do something like dump ice buckets on their heads, they may feel they have absolved themselves of the responsibility to do much else about it, and passed it on to others to act. They have met their "I care" quota for the day and can let something slide. I have very little "I care" as a quota to go around, so I find that dispensing it in this way is not very effective in actually demonstrating whether I care about something or not. This is a serious problem. It deserves serious attention. It is difficult to do much about it though, so I find it is a better use of time and money and energy to go "care" about something else instead.

I find it curious that other people don't recognize that, but I don't think it is necessary to judge them for this decision. And I think much of the commentary has come off as a judgment that they are doing something wrongful by acting in this way. Which should justly make people mad.

22 August 2014

Missouri

I have consumed a large quantity of analysis and footage and news concerning the protests, riots, looting, shooting(s), and on and on down the litany of civil libertarian woe. My main reaction, which is typical to me, is to summon my cynicism. Not much appears likely to change. The police don't appear ready to dial down their rhetoric, equipment, or tactics. Even or perhaps especially in front of media. The public appears broadly indifferent outside of groups that were already closely following these kinds of issues (police militarization, racial profiling, police brutality/aggressiveness) with what does not appear to be a major shift beyond the slow drift away from paranoia that dominated the previous three decades.

Some thoughts.

1) It is not relevant empirically that the police killed this person instead of some other person (or some other person who was killed by police elsewhere). People should be outraged and demand transparent methods of evaluating the actions where ever police are involved in the death of a "civilian". We, the public, should view that as a failure. Even if, and I wish this were more obvious than it appears to be, the person killed was accused of or witnessed committing a crime. It's possible that the death may be later justified in self-defence, but it should always be transparently investigated. Preferably by a third party agency rather than the police itself. I would also press for this in cases of non-lethal violence (assaults, tasings, deployment of tear gas or pepper spray). Police generally are poorly trained in marksmanship, use of non-lethal weapons and tactics, and in the de-escalation of force from the evidence of these cases of death and injury, and one reason for this is the lack of a proper and transparent accountability to the public that is served by policing.

2) People complaining about these actions in Ferguson and elsewhere are not being "anti-cop" or "anti-police". Most people making such complaints, even the civil libertarian wing who has monitored the growth of militarized police forces and the expansive use of procedures like no-knock raids, asset forfeiture, and stop and frisk searches, mostly upon disfavored minorities, would acknowledge a role for police to serve the community in the pursuit of justice and law and order. The complaint is that the tactics, strategies, training, and activities of police are often inappropriate, possibly unconstitutional and certainly not respective and protective of individual civilian rights regardless of whether they are violating those rights, often well beyond the minimum level of force required to carry out their duties, and have developed legal structures and protections that make them both individually and as a whole unaccountable to the communities involved. And all the while the victims of these actions have limited voice to make a strong defense of their innocence, or the disproportionate nature of such activities.

The major change that makes this issue apparent, one hopes, isn't that our police have become more violent and hazardous to communities, but that our communities have more tools to realize and become aware that police are trying to avoid accountability and transparency (camera phones, video surveillance, body cameras on the cops themselves or in their squad cars, etc). The worry is that the problem is more endemic to the recruiting and training of police procedures, and that brutality and violence are as a result a preferred means of affecting law enforcement for some, if not many police officers. Removing such officers from the force will be increasingly difficult the more widespread the problem is. If it is cultural rather than "bad apples".

3) We do not have currently good transparent data to evaluate whether it is cultural or bad apples. Police do not generally disclose their use of aggressive search warrant tactics, the discharging of firearms, even the deaths or assaults of citizens or civilians caused by police actions (whether justified or not) are not well documented. No one keeps track of this data. Very few states require the collection and documentation of it and federal data collection is voluntary and relies upon self-reporting. Worse still, it is often difficult to document or track the "bad apples", if that is the problem, as they can shift between departments, or between districts and jurisdictions of large urban areas, without being disciplined, charged, or otherwise interfered with in the problems they are causing.

In Ferguson several years ago, there was a severe beating of an innocent man in police custody (arrested because his first and last name matched a warrant, but with a different middle name and social security number), evidence of a purported assault on an officer for which this beating supposedly occurred was destroyed or conveniently missing, and the police attempted to have him charged with "destruction of property" for bleeding on uniforms. A charge which they later retracted that had even occurred. No one was disciplined, and without there having been a legal deposition (during which they may have admitted to having offered false testimony to gain the charge in the first place), there would be no official record of who these officers were.

One possible option would be to start to use Yelp! style public reputation models for rating police interactions, such that "bad apples" who have a poor reputation in the community, whether from violence or other inappropriate actions, would be at least moderately easy to identify. I have myself mostly encountered police during traffic stops. And some of these were polite and efficient, if otherwise unpleasant, and others were unpleasant and borderline abusive. I would emphasize nothing as yet untoward has occurred to me (other than perhaps getting a ticket or two when I might have gotten off with a warning from a different cop). But there was a clear difference in the interactions that some were coming from a more authoritarian world than should be the case for police to seek to maintain while others recognized their duties to enforce the law with a minimum of disruption. If such a system were widely available, I would rate those second variety more highly and positively, and rate the former negatively.

4) One of the largest problems with policing isn't the heavy duty toys provided by the Pentagon. It is that the system of accountability makes it difficult to first recognize "bad apples" and second to properly or appropriately discipline them. The Pepper Spray cop, Lt John Pike, was found to be cleared of wrongful actions by the police's own investigation, which took months (during which time he was still being paid). Independent investigation documented insubordination (disobeying orders not to deploy with riot gear), lack of training on equipment selected for use (said riot gear, in particular the pepper spray, was not adequately trained with), escalation (showing up to a peaceful protest in riot gear), and brutal force (the actual spraying of pepper spray, incorrectly and indiscriminately), in much less time. He was only fired over the objections of the police investigation. Without the independent investigation and worldwide distribution of video documenting part of his activities, it is very likely he would still be an officer of the law today. Various other officers have committed similar actions, often on video, and remain employed and patrolling the streets of some city or town today. The FBI's internal investigations have found zero unjustified shootings out of the last 150, demonstrating that the problem of accountability may not be simply a local force and lower professional standards as causes.

These problems are not limited to use of force. Wrongful arrests, such as for people taking video or photographs of police activity, are a violation of basic civil rights. Such events typically can cost a city thousands of dollars in lawsuits and settlements. But most of the time nothing happens to the officers who actually created these violations.

5) Police militarization has occurred in large part through the war on drugs and war on terror formulations, whereupon large quantities of military hardware were gifted to police forces, large and small, urban and rural. The logic behind this is typically to proclaim a need for high value intervention forces, like SWAT teams. Most of the towns and cities which are receiving this, a) haven't had assaults, much less murders of police officers in decades if ever, and b) haven't even had many murders and shootings of "ordinary citizens" in decades. Violent crime rates have been falling, in some places fast, and in others barely, for over 20 years. You would not know this to hear it from police officers who speak of "war zones", and general danger and fear of the communities they police and work in. To be sure, they have a risky job which involves occasionally a very high danger to their personal safety. But the actual danger to police, the risk of death or injury, from assault or gunfire from suspected criminals, is extremely low. As is the actual danger in most instances of terrorism, or for mass shooting events and hostage scenarios. And almost none of these individual events requires that we arm police with sniper rifles, automatic machine guns, and armored personnel carriers. Very little of this equipment has been well trained with, or the personnel selected for advanced training rather than simply being a part of a small rural or suburban assault team.

6) The main use for these tactics and equipment is to conduct no-knock drug raids upon non-violent, mostly poor, mostly minority residents and property owners. The reason is fairly simple; in many cases the police can make seizures of a variety of assets during a drug bust, assuming the drug bust is of the correct home and finds drug paraphernalia. The incentives for doing what we would regard as ordinary police work are skewed by the "investigation" of vice crimes like drug distribution.

Taken altogether, as with many of my observations of the society around me I wonder something strange, one could wonder why there aren't people in the streets fighting with police more often in protest and/or riot formats. None of these are positive trends, and there is limited impetus to shift policy on virtually any of these designs (with the possible exception of legalizing marijuana).

One main reason: mostly these forms of mobile oppression are mostly imposed upon the poor and lower status minorities or immigrant communities. Middle class white people are then left mostly alone and see very little of these activities as commonplace. Further, they support these tactics even more when told who they are being used against. A large portion of the injustice of anti-terrorism surveillance is the singling out of Arab-American and Muslim-American communities and individuals. With little or nothing to show for it and at great expense to the taxpayer. People not only don't mind this, but prefer it. Ditto for criminal enforcement of African-American communities or their imprisonment, no matter how petty the legal infringements. Inconveniences of oppression are imagined to be much less inconvenient when they are imposed upon people "we" want oppressed anyway. Finally, most middle class white Americans do not know anyone who is of some minority, even to the extent of knowing few non-Christians. Which limits the knowledge and perspective such people might offer on the subject.

All of that means
1) Most Americans do not see a reason to be upset enough to demonstrate.
2) Most Americans see demonstrations as unusual and in need of repression rather than legitimate airing of grievances.
3) Which in turn means there's a social custom against demonstration, on this subject in particular.

It would be nice if there were more mainstream protests and movements to reform the conduct and supervision of police, or the legal incentives available to persecute, investigate, or detain and harass people for non-violent and especially consensual criminal acts like those involved in vice crime. But we're not there yet. I have been following these issues for several years with an increasing degree of annoyance. Posting about it feels at this point like a flat and useless "I told you so", but it seems no less important to keep talking about in the hope that there will be people listening.


12 August 2014

Mr Williams

Now batting.

One strange part is there are a lot of Dead Poet's Society references. He was good in the film. I have no issues there, and it's even a decent to good movie (although it becomes a bad Julia Roberts movie later). I enjoy the insurgent campaign of teaching being waged as a fan of the idea of teachers more as motivators who capture interest in a subject and spread it around as an infection to students rather than as instructors who drone on about mechanical processes that we must master. As much as the form of instructing poetry as an insurgent campaign appeals to me as a writer of bad poetry (sometimes), poetry is more complicated as an art to learn to appreciate than just getting the feeling down. There's a flow and lyricism to writing, of all kinds, that doesn't come easily for everyone and is harder to do than just through being "inspiring". The alternative stuff mode of teaching it was awful of course. But art is hard and a complicated subject to portray. Writing is more so because it lacks a visual component. Poetry, because it often relies so much on allusion and imagery can get around this (and because we so rarely engage with modern poets, they're all dead anyway as far as most of us are concerned. People rarely conceive of music as poetry, for some reason, possibly just not enough high quality rap is being consumed on a popular level). Even in the film, the principal measure of artistic expression in the plot is someone wanting to act. Not someone wanting to write poetry or music. That's a curious angle for a film to draw many references back to now; the apparent futility of an entire endeavor of human artistic expression. In spite of its many extolled values, it is treated like a hobby than a passion. That bothers me a bit as a reference point for his career. Whitman should stand on his own. He doesn't need people standing on desks to remind us of that. (Williams made a lot of references to Whitman in his films, probably for that reason).

I'm a little confused why Good Will Hunting isn't getting referenced as much in popular references I see. Maybe it wasn't as drop dead funny (neither was Dead Poets). Maybe it's too close to the subject matter of loss. But it's immediately where I went to. Maybe I just had a stronger connection to this film than that. He won an Oscar, and he was very good in it, and we're probably seeing why. The best performances of many actors/actresses are when they tap their own reality a little more instead of putting on a mask (that's not the "best acting", but the best performances).

The main issue with evaluating Williams as an actor or comedian (beyond the obvious that it limits our evaluation of someone as a complete person to look only at the body of work they produced for public consumption), is this: He would be the person who was probably the funniest person in any room. But it would be hard to translate the joke later to retell it and explain why it was funny. It's like every other bit was an inside joke that spawned from the moment. It might still be funny later. It will make "you" laugh later. But you won't be able to make someone else laugh unless they were there, or shared in it. The secret to that working is that all of us, I think, want to be funny like that. To make it look like a reflex, a reaction, but actually drive the situation and conversation forward and to say something that people look back on and remember. Even if they have a hard time explaining why they do.

And the darker secret to that working is that's exactly why we would want to do it; so nobody will pay that much attention to us for a while. They will laugh, they will enjoy, they will embrace, and they won't look that much harder. Somebody funny doesn't inspire us to ask "what's wrong with them?" versus somebody morose and sullen and even cynical. And yet the funny man often feels no differently, no less alone or confused, than the sullen one. He just provides a better mask that the rest of us can enjoy.

Unicorns

But they may not immediately see why "the State" that they can imagine is a unicorn. So, to help them, I propose what I (immodestly) call "the Munger test."  


  1. Go ahead, make your argument for what you want the State to do, and what you want the State to be in charge of.
  2. Then, go back and look at your statement. Everywhere you said "the State" delete that phrase and replace it with "politicians I actually know, running in electoral systems with voters and interest groups that actually exist."
  3. If you still believe your statement, then we have something to talk about.
This leads to loads of fun, believe me. When someone says, "The State should be in charge of hundreds of thousands of heavily armed troops, with the authority to use that coercive power," ask them to take out the unicorn ("The State") and replace it with George W. Bush. How do you like it now?
If someone says, "The State should be able to choose subsidies and taxes to change the incentives people face in deciding what energy sources to use," ask them to remove "The State" and replace it with "senators from states that rely on coal, oil, or corn ethanol for income." Still sound like a good idea?
How about, "The State should make rules for regulating sales of high performance electric cars." Now, the switch: "Representatives from Michigan and other states that produce parts for internal combustion engines should be in charge of regulating Tesla Motors." 
While I agree with these insights, and try to apply them fairly rigorously to things protected Constitutionally (such as free speech or freedom of conscience exercises), I think the explicit value of public choice theory is to be skeptical of the efforts of the state or those proclaiming the need for a state to intervene. And not to immediately and reflexively eliminate it. While that elimination may be desirable in its own ends, for a variety of public choice and private goods problems that are better left to markets to resolve (most forms of occupational licensure for example), I'm not convinced that this is an argument that libertarians should be advancing as the main goal when arguing with people who believe in unicorns. 
Here's a simpler argument to evaluate: 
1) Establish publicly what it is you hope to accomplish using state action. What is the actual problem we are hoping will be resolved or reduced. Presuming this is not Constitutionally restricted ("I want to shut up people with whom I disapprove or disagree!", "I want to require people to worship in the same way as I do"), we can proceed further. 
2) Describe why this cannot be resolved without the intervention of the state (why do we need a law for this instead of leaving people to their own devices?, or otherwise expressed as "is this actually a/the problem?") And also by what mechanism the state will do so. If it is unlikely the state will adopt the general outlines of the mechanics you desire, are you aware why this is so? 
3) Construct a mechanism that allows for the results to be evaluated, showing that it reduces problem X (or at least that problem X is being reduced). If people are unwilling to do this when they are discussing policy, they are not actually interested in doing #1 and we should require additional information as to their intentions (eg, this is where the "corn ethanol" subsidies come in, or the "WMDs" in Iraq.) Note: it is very difficult to separate state actions from those of the public or market responses in many cases. In some cases it is obvious what has done the lion share of work, in others the state's actions spawn public or market responses of their own that are "unintended" consequences. Nevertheless, we should want some method of evaluating simply whether the intentions of the policy are matching up with the effect, or whether the intentions have other goals in mind that are undeclared. 
A large portion of public policies proposed, enacted, or supported after the fact (by conservatives or liberals) fail on this sort of cost-benefit analysis to show they are achieving some putative goal. Drug use is pretty consistent. Abortions have been declining as a procedure for well over a decade despite being legal (suggesting bans have little effect), and declining more in states and legal regimes that are less restrictive on sex education and especially birth control than in states that are imposing onerous and wasteful regulatory burdens on the procedure (waiting periods, parental consent laws, ultrasounds, etc). Various gun control regulations constantly proposed have little or nothing to do with the underlying violence in our country and its cities and towns. Militarized police forces and deployment of equipment have little to do with the level of violence and its accompanying risk to police or the public safety within a given community. "Stop and frisk" searches don't find many guns. And so on. 
I noticed a lot of these philosophical problems during the lead up to the PPACA being enacted. We were told the problem was lots of uninsured people lacking access to quality health care. I am dubious this was the actual problem, for many reasons on its own merits; lots of uninsured people were transitory, many were "young invincibles" with limited need for health insurance, etc. But primarily I think it was a symptom rather than a causal agent. I saw two bigger problems at work; employers providing health care insurance instead of wages or other benefits (vacation time or family leave for instance), leading to the lack of an effective individual market for insurance, and rising health care costs owing to third party payment structures and an accompanying lack of transparent pricing. We sort of dealt with the latter problem and the rise of health care costs has started to slow over the last few years. It is unclear if this was achieved by legislation however and not simply a decline in incomes leading to substitution effects (for example, people self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, that prescription drug crisis didn't come out of nowhere) or people not consuming health care because of diminishing purchasing power from income stagnation or diminished savings, and so on. 
The former problem meanwhile reared its ugly head again in the form of contesting birth control mandates already. And more pressing, continues to be a problem for people in between jobs, or who have lower quality insurance provided and cannot get or afford better insurance they may desire, or who have insurance that is well above their demands or needs provided (which in turn leads to overconsumption of health care since those lost wages can only be consumed by taking health care as payment). 
I also encounter this frequently in calls for foreign interventions. I'm not sure what precise mechanics sending bombs and rockets and troops abroad establishes the goals that people proclaim (spread of democracy!, end to internecine conflicts caused by years of enmity and strife!). I'm skeptical that sanctions usually achieve much (see: embargo, Cuba). And so on down the line. What I am not saying is that we should do nothing, or that any and all diplomatic or military efforts will be fruitless and counterproductive, but I don't automatically agree we can do something about every problem on the globe and I do not automatically agree that since we "should do something", whatever someone proposes as a bold plan of action is that something. I'd like to know if it has some chance of success, or if it has a history of working, and so on. I apply that same skepticism to the public machinations of the state at home. Maybe the state can do something, if imagined "perfectly". If we have to imagine a perfect state to do it, it probably isn't going to get done though. What we need is things that can be imagined as "good enough", and if those are effective enough, easy to implement, transparent to evaluate, and do not cost exorbitant sums in taxation and relative individual autonomy, then they're probably fine. Markets at some level require and imply the existence of a state (who else may grant and enforce property rights and general laws in a less arbitrary way if not a third party?). Perhaps a much smaller one than the one we have, but a basic state is in there somewhere to grease the wheels of trust and transaction costs. What that does not imply is that anything and everything the state does is automatically legitimate and good. 

07 August 2014

discrimination abounds

I have two thoughts here
1) I'm not sure this is something that "should" require legal sanction and action to prevent someone from doing it. I can see an argument against it, but price discrimination doesn't necessarily raise a moral issue in a competitive business like a restaurant. If some place I feel is overcharging me because I'm not of their faith (or any faith in my case), I would stop going there as I would not feel welcomed and suitably entertained in my choice of dining to keep going. They must have great pie or BBQ pork or something if I felt compelled to complain.
I might have the same objection if they're offering a senior or military discount and the place is mostly frequented by seniors or active military personnel. Which is to say, it's not that likely to encourage a legal reaction versus a market response to abandon it in search of other options.
2) It's a terrible business practice anyway. Which is why I don't know that it should require legal sanctions.
People may complain if they aren't seen praying or could lie and claim they were to get a discount, it isn't really something the employees is necessarily trained to recognize (what routine counts here: out loud, bowed heads, clasped hands, etc, how do they tell the difference between someone who is "faking", or someone taking a nap in front of their soup or salad, and someone "actively" praying), and I'm not entirely sure it's a strong element of religious faiths to pray ostentatiously and "publicly" anyway (in a religious setting yes, a meal seems more like a maybe with different rules when at a restaurant versus at a home). So it may counter various social conventions of other Christians, much less other faiths or the lack thereof to suggest this as a method of providing a discount.
Plus, people may wonder, if you are able to give a 15% discount on what many local Christians may assume is virtually every meal, then that leaves the question of why the prices were that high that the diner can afford to surrender a 15% revenue reduction. Or whether that's now built into the prices charged, in the same way that the "free" chips or "free drink refills" at a Mexican place are built in the price of the burrito.

The economic reaction I have is to wonder how long this diner could stay open while using this practice, or how much they were ripping off their customers before instituting it. Meanwhile, the discrimination reaction I have is pretty minimal. Okay it's a form of price discrimination. Are they refusing to hire atheists? Are they refusing to serve atheists as customers? What of the other faiths besides Christianity? Did Buddhists get a discount for meditating in front of the salad? These are the mechanical questions that occur to me well before arriving at some idea that this is awful and should be legally stopped. It is dumb. People do dumb things all the time. I don't worry about people doing dumb things that aren't necessarily exclusionary. I worry about people doing dumb things that are necessarily exclusionary (like refusing to vote for atheist candidates, or not hiring job candidates, or refusing service entirely, refusing to allow children to date or marry atheists and so on). Yes this is a form of discrimination, but we have a long way to go yet before this is one of those front line battles. This is like bunting when a team is down to one of the last outs and needs a 3 run home run to win anyway. We're so far behind the eight-ball here that this is something barely visible on the radar as a fix.

More to the point, it seems like the reactions could be one of the following scenarios that this is ultimately counterproductive
1) Christians are annoyed by the threat of a lawsuit and reverse boycott, encouraging the practice to continue elsewhere
2) The business was aware of #1 and did it on purpose to attract local attention on the theory that any news is good news
3) Atheists portrayed themselves as aggrieved and petty (whether or not the grievance was legitimate, the visibility of the situation did them/us little favor in public perception). This was a pretty small form of discriminatory behavior.