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.

25 July 2015

Not so quick hits

Hacking Ashley Madison

I'm not terribly sympathetic toward the people whose privacy is threatened here, but then legal cases and rights are typically bounded by cases that don't involve very sympathetic people. We shouldn't expect to be that sympathetic of other people's privacy when it is their privacy at stake rather than our own, but should work to be to a modest degree. The thing that seems less clear to me is why, if the beef is with the company/website, the hack intended to release the private information of possibly millions of customers (or former customers). Who would, by the logic of going after the site itself as some form of scam or immoral business (the motives are not entirely clear to me), be more like victims in this. It would seem to me that exposing that the site is not terrific at protecting identity theft or disclosure would be sufficient to discourage its use if that was the goal (to put it out of business). But this has already been done with other technical problems in the website's design. And yet it remains.

Which to me leads to some questions about the function of a website designed for people to have flings and affairs. Clearly there must be some amount of market for this, to at least look, or such a site wouldn't have sprang up. There have usually been gray markets of a sort designed to meet needs or desires of individuals that are not illegal (adultery is not illegal in the US), but which aren't exactly looked kindly upon for social reasons. People have been able to make private arrangements for affairs and sexual infidelities for centuries. This is not a new thing. The difference is the implied discretion of the internet overarching these arrangements or the easier manner with which the internet allows for arrangements (lowers transaction costs of searching for partners willing to indulge in an affair, etc).

But. This is the implied problem of such a site from a moral or social perspective: the idea is to do something in secret, without the consent of a monogamous partner (typically), for whom ordinarily someone has granted a great deal of trust, communication, and affection at some point. The purpose of discretion isn't so much to conceal that someone is a slimier character from others unknown, the usual character of the internet commerce, but from parties closely and intimately known. This is or should be troubling. It did not start with Ashley Madison, so blaming such a setup seems unlikely to produce much change in social conventions and intimate arrangements of human sexuality and expression. But the existence and sudden highlighting of such a convention, and the scope and scale with which it had expanded should indicate that some of these conversations and conventions of human sexuality are already being altered, or maybe have always been altered and simply weren't known to the degree by which they were.

I think in some sense, there was an unspoken degree by which marriage as an institution allowed for some amounts of infidelity, in secret, and without disclosing socially the amounts of people engaging in extramarital sex or relationships. What this variety of hack would disclose is that there are a fairly large number of people who are willing or desire to look for such activities. Since this seems to be the case anyway, I would propose these should be the social goals we should want to strive for.

1) Social disclosure is less important. It is not important to tell all of your friends and family you are having an affair. This kind of disclosure is not as essential to the underlying relationships or the social cache that is placed upon marriages. Our sexual histories or intentions thereof aren't usually objects we wish or need to be socially informed (to have others advise us on them) and socially disclosed (to make others aware of them).

2) Intimate disclosure, with any regular and typically monogamous or monogamous-desiring partner is vital. If people are going to be having or seeking to have affairs, they should communicate these desires to potential or current partners. It may be possible to head off some number of affairs by modifying or repairing (or ending) an existing relationship, by communicating and working through problems of say, sexual excitement and variety, or by simply being up front about this as a possible sexual interest that other people would be able to say they think they are okay with or not. One of the problems of consent discourse is that if a person is having multiple close emotional and sexual relationships this is not typically done openly with the consent of other partners. People probably don't need to communicate every one-night stand they do while dating. But they should communicate if they are having problems, or are jealous, or are otherwise troubled while married or engaged or in what are otherwise exclusive relationships where both partners are intent on remaining with this other person rather than seeking other partners at the same time.

3) All of that includes the other parties who should also be aware of what is going on as these other people will be human beings complete with their own emotional or physical interests and needs and not simply objects used for sexual gratification. There is some advantage in this setup through a website designed around the idea of helping people cheat on their spouse or other intimate partner in that the third party person can reasonably conclude they are with someone who is actually married, or who is actually engaged in extramarital sex or relations with them.

4) If some people are going to be in more open marriages, or other polyamorous arrangements, this is not in and of itself that troubling to me. It might be troubling to the parties involved that they attempt this and find it is not that easy to do (which it wouldn't be), or isn't as fun or satisfying as they expected it to be. There's probably some number of people who are willing to fantasize about a spouse being with another person, or themselves fantasizing about being with another person. Transferring this from the realm of sexual fantasies to a reality involves more messy human emotions and attachments (or detachments) than many people can deal with at one time. This is worth acknowledging. Indeed, it's one of the reasons I would suggest we move toward more open communication as many people in proceeding with an intent to have an affair may find that the consequences and any enjoyment of doing so are less desirable than they may have believed. They may find also it is perfectly enjoyable or fulfills some need or demand. But given that our ordinary monogamous sexual relationships are often hit or miss on our enjoyment, or complete with other varieties of work and management to maintain them, adding more such relationships may be too much for many people to handle adequately without risking damage to other partners that they hold in some esteem.

5) If you are in a relationship, or considering one, and the other party to it expresses interest in a more open or polyamorous arrangement, you can push back against this to reject it but persist in the relationship on a more monogamous framework, you can leave on the understanding that this other person is not someone whom you believe you could form or sustain a stable relationship, or you can go along with it and re-visit or place strict rules of communication and transparency. Simply providing some assent to this in theory is very different than approving of all its possible particulars. Just as consenting to any sexual act is not the same as consenting to have, say, anal sex as well, this is something that needs to be negotiated and examined throughout as a given consent rather than a blanket "sure, go ahead".

Drug testing welfare

I've written about this some before, but it's something I'd rather not have to, so this is one of these "I'll write something so I don't have to for a long time". This comes up periodically as different states or governments propose doing it. There are, unfortunately in my mind, broad bipartisan supports for this as an idea. Conservatives love the idea as it feeds into a notion of persistent poverty as caused by cultural artifacts of lazy stoned people. Meanwhile every state it has actually been tried it hasn't ensnared a lot of drugged up poor people to be kicked off of welfare, has been declared illegal (for reasons that will be examined in a moment), or just otherwise hasn't justified the intrusiveness and fiscal costs by materializing in substantial savings.

Here are the problems with it in theory and in practice

1) It includes an assumption of guilt before innocence, which offends our standard model of justice. People may object that this applies to random job drug testing as well. I would agree. I don't think that is a substantial moral objective in most professions that drug test presently either. For performance or safety reasons, I could conceive of a basis for drug testing. For most jobs that presently drug test randomly, I could not see this as a common problem however. Roughly a third of working people have to take such tests. These are themselves largely clustered in occupations that are lower working class (with a few exceptions), just as people who are on welfare might find as options instead of being on welfare.

2) It relies principally on a gross underestimate of how many people are on welfare programs (almost 40-50M, many of whom are children or otherwise not adults), who is on such programs, and how many poorer people use drugs regularly or addicts (and who are able to apply for social assistance programs), what restrictions already exist that are designed to delink drug use from welfare. Estimates made by people of the proportion of drug use among welfare recipients largely focus on observational evidence rather than rigorous study. It's very easy to see visible people who are not working strolling through a neighbourhood (not all of such people qualify for or are on welfare of course). It is not easy to see the many millions of people who are working (sometimes two jobs) and still qualify for many welfare programs. Because those people are at work.

In addition, there are constraints for housing assistance that are intended to prevent people who have drug convictions from getting it. This is at least punishing people who have been convicted of a criminal act (whether or not it should have been a criminal act is a different question), but it tends toward the notional penalties people are wishing to see applied here already in a more efficient and less intrusive manner. If the intention is to break drug use from welfare, the goal of a successful policy should be to do so as efficiently and unintrusively as possible.

3) It discards as appropriate other forms of tax assistance and subsidy that middle class and richer people receive. "My" money is fine but I don't want to give money to "those people" is what this sounds like as an argument. Medicare is effectively subsidized by poorer, younger, working people to pay for older, richer non-working people's health care. This looks very similar to welfare in some respects (taking money from other people to give to others who are "not contributing"), except the beneficiaries are seen as sympathetic. So few people complain. This also applies to housing subsidies in the form of mortgage interest deductions which largely favor banks, realtors, and wealthy people and inflate housing prices such that poorer people are priced out of some areas to try to live in.

From a moral and ethical standpoint, using taxes to be taking money from poorer people to give it to richer people should be seen as far more problematic than taking money from richer people and giving it to poorer people via taxation.

4) This also relies on a perception that poorer people are spending their money unwisely, on drugs and big screen TVs say, rather than on sensible things like education, food, clothing, and housing. On average, the average poorer person spends way more on food and housing as a percentage of their consumption habits than a middle class person. Something like 75% of spending is on basic needs, where this is much, much lower for someone of modest means, closer to 40-50%. And even lower for an upper middle class professional. They are not generally wastefully spending money in this way. There are other wasteful signaling problems in poorer communities, but this is not one of them. This basic sense of paternalism may have been useful if people were actually wasting money and not obtaining food and shelter as part of their basic needs. They are however getting precisely that.

5) Many of the complaints seem aimed more at the existence of the welfare state in the first place rather than the need to administer some form of tie-in to drug policy. There are many possible flaws in the existing programs that could be pointed out, or a preference for cash instead of transfer payments, or a general philosophical belief that safety nets could be provided in some other way besides taxation (this seems very unlikely, charities don't do that much that can be scaleable on a societal level). But this demand for a tie-in to drug consumption and addiction seems rather low on the rank of problems in any event. It is unlikely to substantially shrink the size of the welfare state, and would do so by adding new layers of bureaucracy and interference, growing the size of government. If the goal is to decrease the footprint of government, or reduce or abolish the welfare state, this is not the road to do so.

6) Other complaints, perhaps from more liberal perspectives, might be focusing on the efficiency of the program being in some way improved if people are more surely spending public money on food or housing instead of drugs. Or this in some way being an efficient way to curtail drug addiction and abuse/use of illegal narcotic substances. Neither seems likely to be true however. The cost of administering such programs to monitor and test drug use will in some way achieve some combination of the following: the state will be adding more bureaucracy and cost to existing welfare programs because not many people will be caught (this in part relies on some very flawed concepts of what constitutes "drug addiction" as well), some number of people will not be able to afford the additional upfront costs (even if they would be reimbursed) to apply for these programs and will not apply in the first place thus reducing the number of people who are aided by social welfare programs rather than increasing efficiency, some (additional) number of drug addicts or regular drug users would not apply for these programs and be further socially isolated and removed from possible sources of intervention or assistance beyond the legal system. Which the legal system is probably the least efficient means of dealing with the social problem of drug addiction of the available alternatives. None of this looks optimal as a way of improving either drug policy or the welfare state.

20 July 2015

"We only make peace with our enemies"

In the wake of the change in status in Cuba, the nuclear deal with Iran, and various political figures inveighing about China or Russia, I felt it might be useful to offer something like a primer on diplomatic relations.

1) "We only make peace with our enemies, that's why they call it making peace". - You generally don't have to ask your friends for stuff. They know you well enough to know what you might like, what you might need, and if they have it, sometimes they just give you something to keep you happy (in part in the expectation that you would do the same). But for people that you don't know, we usually have to give them money, or bargain or talk or otherwise arrange to get what we want. Over time, if you do this a lot, other people come to know and trust you and might offer things in a more casual way. The ideal position is to make them not hostile and friendly or receptive to your interests and agenda. There are many avenues to that point.

Rule: Diplomacy isn't as necessary with your allies and client states as a hegemonic power like the US. It is needed with your rivals or states you see as hostile to your interests and agenda.

2) By far the cheapest way to get what you want is to talk for it. Followed by bribing for it. Bombing people, as with beating people up, is not cheap and costless as it is often portrayed as "just another option". Lives are lost, people are angered and thrown into grief and despair, economies are mangled by all the destroyed infrastructure, homes are destroyed, placing thousands, if not millions, as potential refugees fleeing the violence rather than trying to rebuild. There are a lot of consequences. If you throw money into it and don't get what you wanted, all you have lost is money. Trade is also not the same as throwing money away. Even a trade deficit or outsourced labour is a potential avenue for diplomatic and human rights/economic advancement for both countries involved. If you throw talk at someone and get nothing useful in return all you have lost is time. Both time and money are valuable, but taking or losing lives is more expensive than both (it also costs both).

Rule here: Don't take lives or risk lives if you don't have to to get what you want.

3) If you talk and don't get what you want, try listening as well. Sometimes there is a deal there to be made if you pay attention to what the "other guy wants". There seems to be an assumption that asserting loudly what you want is the way to get it. I'm not aware of this working on an individual level usually. Maybe sometimes. It is not generally how international relations functions. Telling people off for not doing what you want tends to assure they won't do it. Maybe if they really want to avoid a war.

Basic rule: other countries have legitimate interests and needs for their country and populace to prosper. Being more aware of these may make it easier to achieve your own interests.

4) Belligerent talk is also ill-advised as it has to be backed up once in a while or you're just a loud-mouthed bully. It commits you to a course of action rather than retains it as a course of action. This also assumes that a war will gain you want you want. In the cases of Russia and China, both countries are nuclear armed. War could be very, very costly indeed.  In the case of Iran, it's very unclear if a war would gain us what we want (which seems to be a regime change in the case of hawks). I would say that it seems to me that the Green revolution was overblown as a source of political change and upheaval in Iran, just as various Russian orbit countries (like Ukraine or Georgia) experienced modestly democratic revolts in the breakup of the Soviet Union but little that should give us confidence that these are "reformed" nations (the Baltics may be a different case).

In the past 25 years, the only intervention of a sort I can think of that has "ended" positively thus far might be Serbia, and the intervention there that worked had more to do with the ICC than our bombing campaigns. Somalia, Kosovo, Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq (twice), Libya, Yemen, Colombia, Honduras, Afghanistan, Pakistan. None of these should be global locations that inspire confidence in the ability of the American military to establish or re-establish a peaceful and prosperous people in some other country or territory far afield. I don't think that's what it is for generally speaking. Too often even American diplomats think it is (see: Albright).

Bombing Iran weakens any internal opposition to the regime, not strengthens it. Talking about China's misdeeds on human rights in an overt and hostile/belligerent way via our diplomatic channels or our Presidential bully pulpit risks committing us to a longer-term strategy of rivalry and opposition. The current longer term strategy of trade and diplomacy does not, even if currently frustrates some number of people who harbor a degree of anti-China bias (it also opens us up to some similar charges, given the record of torture and imprisonment we have accumulated over the last decade plus and have not dealt with yet). Pushing the countries surrounding Russia into a pro-Western orbit of protection both prevents this from happening naturally and adds to the isolation and paranoia of Russian views that they are being threatened, increasing rather than decreasing the likelihood of events like those in Ukraine (or Georgia, though there much more was done by Georgia itself on the theory that it was already supposedly within this orbit of protection).

Takeaway: Remember that war is very costly and its gains, if any, are often uncertain and will be exaggerated by more hawkish forces within a country while costs are minimized or ignored.

5) All this talking and wheeling and dealing does not mean you don't keep an eye on your rivals to be wary of things they might do that are belligerent, hostile, or undesired. That's why we have a military and various intelligence agencies and intelligence gathering options. As unpleasant as it may be to talk to unsavory people and give them things, none of this means we cannot take it away. What it means is we reserve our ability to strike and gather information for the things we actually have to take away instead of mindlessly bombing everything that we "could" take away on the theory that this would help. Our goals for decisive, military interventions should remain very clear, very achieveable, and often with the understanding that military power is limited. Soft power is limited in some respects too, but in the manner that we often talk about the uses of military power (regime changes for instance), I would place more trust on diplomacy and trade and espionage getting us what we want and keeping things in check than repeated bombing campaigns.

6) It's much easier to amass soft power or to use military power when you have assembled allies. And those allies also have interests or limits on what they are willing or able to do with or for you. If our allies want or believe a deal with Iran or trade with Cuba is more sensible than our proposed alternatives, even if we believe they are wrong, it is generally smarter to go along with them than to try to enforce something by acting alone, particularly if it doesn't seem to matter very much to us. Only if something is essential to national interest and security does it matter to enforce it over objections. This was not the case with Cuba and the embargo, or the case with Iran. Or at least, not having a deal with some degree of intrusive monitoring of their nuclear program was not preferable to having such a deal if the goal is to reduce the likelihood of Iranian nuclear weapons. More to the point, the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon is at this point fairly minimal. Pakistani nuclear weapons represent more of a threat for international terrorism or world peace. Or Russia's still massive arsenal. Or even North Korea. All of these countries have had these arsenals for years, if not decades, without a serious incident (Cuban Missile Crisis and Able Archer 83 to the contrary). It is unclear how this arithmetic changes with Iran.

09 July 2015

The slippery slope argument

Most of this I disagree with. 

I do think there are sound strategic reasons for advocates of same sex marriage not to move on to this; namely that the status of same sex marriage is still going to need to be reinforced over the next decade or so in the US, and remains unrecognized in various moderate to liberal nation-states. That part I certainly agree with. The focus of advocates for same sex marriage need not begin to fracture into other causes in order to achieve these ends however.

Morally and legally, these are not persuasive arguments for the state to be involved in restrictions against polyamorous arrangements. Viewed in a utilitarian sense, I do not see this as a very strong case myself (as a semi-utilitarian, particularly in public policy views). I'm not sure why this is described as a "utilitarian" case against it: that it causes some number of people (who are not party to the arrangements) unpleasantness is not a case for government restriction on its own (it might be a case for coercive restraints of a sub-state nature). A similar and perhaps stronger utilitarian case could be made for any number of existing marriages that they will fail or be singularly unpleasant for one or both parties (or their children, should they have any) for the state to step in and prevent them from occurring in the first place if this is an argument for government intervention. Why this flaw of reasoning does not occur to people in rejecting pluralistic marriage arrangements is very strange to me.

The basic statement boils down to some sort of claim that every person must have equal possible sexual and intimate right to another person. Some people are assholes however. Not every person is easy to live with, or desires to make formal arrangements for their sexual partnerships. Simply because some men or women would be able to amass more partners via their popularity, sex appeal, etc seems like a flawed case for "some men or women would have no access to these partners". This suggests that they would be able to marry or even enter into an intimate relationship with these other men or women in the first place (those who are "closed off" by entering into multiple marriages). Perhaps this suggests some sort of trickle down effect where more eligible candidates for marriage are effectively destroyed because they are bound up in this other arrangement and this eventually screws some number of people. I do not follow that this is likely to be a significant effect.

It also implies that the marriages will be permanent effects. While the divorce rate has been going down (for various reasons), it's still a considerable weapon for marriage arrangements that are deemed unfair or unpleasant to be amended, or for people within those arrangements to revisit these concerns prior to breaking off their marriages, and so on.

Stability arguments at the end are the same gobbledegook that were thrown at homosexual "marriages" being less stable for many years, and in fact to me is and was an argument for recognizing and providing a method of stabilizing influence (a legal contract with social capital behind it, aka, marriage).

As for making extra demands for more people in the marriage arrangement, I'm not sure this is a case against polyamorous arrangements either. People already have the option of engaging in extramarital intimacy and sexuality. When confronted by this, people often find it to be pretty destabilizing to their existing relationships and marriages, often because it occurs without consent or permission or knowledge. This is not an argument against allowing people to try to do this openly or within the confines of marriage. Indeed, I would argue this would be a more healthy social outcome that people who wished to be monogamous could insist on this as a demand (rather than assume it to be the case at their own peril) and people who do not have this as a wish for their private relationships could choose among people who do not make such insistence to conduct their relationships.

The strongest arguments against such arrangements aren't utilitarian but are I think feminist or humanist concerns about consent to such arrangements being often unipolar or overly domination concerned rather than resulting from the active consideration of all parties will and desires for one another. Example: one man deciding on his own to have another wife than his existing partner consenting to this equally as a party to the arrangement, or even that both wives are actively consenting to marry this man in the first place is not clear. This lack of clear consent or equal party to contract is a significant problem ethically (even in a utilitarian sense as it is the source of harm). It is theoretically possible to construct such arrangements in a way that all parties have consented. But it will be difficult to conceive of arrangements for the government to determine this and regulate it (for that matter, the same arguments again apply to regular two-party marriages, as de Boer points out).

The complexity argument for regulating currently standard legal decisions is also a factor. Laws should be simple and easy to transparently enforce in my view. Two-party homosexual marriages are fairly easy to regulate as they're virtually identical in the legal sense to two-party heterosexual marriage in how the various rights and benefits could be conveyed. This is not some invincible argument against polyamory however. It is possible to construct legal rights and methods of conveyance that could account for this. It just requires more work.

06 July 2015

More on the T word

Or at least what there is of it. 

I will note there are major problems with the public debates surrounding terrorism.

Lots of things that probably aren't terrorism and some things that probably are don't get counted properly. We end up with a lot of fighting over what is and is not actually terrorism and not much acknowledgment that such attacks, in the US at least, are quite rare. To me this resembles the fighting over mass shooting incidents, which are pretty rare, and ignoring the hundreds of "ordinary" homicides (and suicides) per month from gunfire. Which seems to me to be a much bigger societal problem with more obvious causes and methods of ameliorating. If terrorism is pretty rare in the US, but is pretty common in other places (various Middle Eastern countries), one should be able to figure out why that is. As a hint, it doesn't really have much to do with the nature of Islam. That's an exacerbating factor fanned by religious zealotry, and probably not a causal factor. Terrorism has had pretty standard causes for generations and these are little different; asymmetric warfare against an occupying or perceived occupying/oppressive force, violence against political enemies and rivals in the contest for power in a political vacuum, etc.

We instead like to engage in a lot of pointless finger waving. Such arguments are exceedingly tedious in any forum for which they pop up (eg, Christians/atheists arguing about Hitler/Holocaust who to blame these on). The arguments over who is to blame probably have more to do with what sorts of penalties and processes we are willing to tolerate in the legal and international realm, but very little to do with actually reducing the incidence of violence. Many gun control debates end up in the same place, with pet causes trotted in rather than pragmatic effects debated. Nevertheless these tedious arguments over who is and who is not a terrorist or what is counted as an act of terrorism take up a considerable amount of the volume of the debate. I have previously advocated they should largely stop by making a classification of "terrorism" more rigorously empirical as a definition if possible (the definitions used by academics for instance) and not looking over every rock and cranny to find more sources of it through the public forum. As the public forum is very unlikely to have a firm grasp over what is or is not terrorism and is very likely to be exploited to graft more sources into it for political purposes.

"Extremists" is an even worse term that gets thrown around that we should be careful about. Political radicals have been both a necessary and sometimes unpleasant reality of US (and world) history in pushing for various kinds of change, including reactionary varieties like those tended to be pushed for by Islamic radicals or racists. The idea is to do so without violence however where possible. Since violence has a pretty low track record of working to institute such changes. There are many people who hold what are conceived of as abhorrent or unacceptable views. I probably hold some myself given the proper audience for my views as I can be fairly opinionated. This is not an argument for silencing such ideas, or broadly investigating those who hold them without suspicion that they are involved in acts of aggression and violence and advocating for such actions. This is a problem that afflicted investigation of right-wing groups in the 1990s, and Muslims over the last 15+ years in our general response to acts of violence is to see potential sources of danger everywhere where there is disagreement and unfamiliarity in our culture.

The actual events of terrorism in the US are exceedingly rare, and often include some rather spectacularly failed plots, indicating that not only is the impetus to commit acts of political/ideological violence pretty low, but that the wherewithal to carry them out is fairly limited in many cases. This goes unacknowledged often that the societal problem we are discussing is very, very rare. More to the point, isolating individual actors who a) have some sort of political/ideological grudge against the US and b) the ability to carry out acts of violence against mass innocents is pretty likely to be pretty easy to do in many cases. Where it succeeds in carrying out an attack, we are tending to overlook things. For instance, political right-wing fringe violence gets overlooked in a haste to look for any suspicious Muslim/minority, or leads from otherwise reliable sources go unfollowed up. For instance, clerics in American mosques used to report people to the FBI who advocated for violent extremism (they do not now because the FBI has effectively caused several plots to occur and themselves placed extremists in their midst, in basically a textbook case of how not to do police work and how to aggravate a community that you could get cooperation from. In several cases, a person who was reported to the FBI turned out to be someone paid by the government). Presumably some Christian religious organisations have done the same, and both often expel such people from peaceful religious gatherings. This suggests that there's a serious flaw in the direction of intelligence operations.

Which is probably a bigger problem than the actual terrorism is our public response to it. The intelligence community has seemed to demand a huge haystack to sort through and root through millions and millions of people's data, and so they are therefore at risk of not dedicating these "haystack" resources that could be used to actually collect information on suspicious people. The way we might with a typical criminal or intelligence operation go in and gather information on a specific target. The argument has been that this method of haystack gathering helps the US identify targets, but there's little or no evidence to support that assertion and by now plenty of misses to suggest it has zero utility for that purpose.

What this line of argument (my argument at least, not theirs) is suggesting is that we're spending a lot of time focusing attention on arguments about terrorism in order to justify very large and potentially invasive programs. Note that the NSA through the FISA court has defied a district court ruling AND a Congressional legal change suggesting its dragnet activities are illegal and not sanctioned by the government and is still doing them anyway. And nobody is getting punished for that decision, nor is it likely to be reversed in the near future. FISA interpreted that the NSA was given a few months extra to scale back by Congress, basically, instead of having to stop immediately if no law was passed or no time was given to do so. This was similar to when the NSA interpreted a Congressional change to the privacy of medical records to specifically exclude these from NSA searches without a warrant to indicate that the specificity of medical records in law now paradoxically allowed such searches without a warrant). It is largely unclear to me what use such programs and routes of investigation should have, particularly without warranted searches looking for specific named or at least roughly identified targets. I can imagine lots of nefarious purposes, but my main guess is that they don't have any better ideas that they think they can actually do. Conducting intelligence with the goal of a "zero terrorist incident" is impossible as a task. Simply reducing the net amount of terrorism would be a very difficult goal. So instead they seem to have selected a very large program on the theory that it will be easier to defend what they are doing. Paradoxically some of the "better" defenses of that program have involved the fact that it has identified that the potential for terrorism in the US is very small. Something that most people could have told you prior to 9-11 without invasive monitoring programs.

Some thoughts
1) Stop arguing so much over what is or is not terrorism, at least in the public sphere. Look for common causes if you can find them, but don't expect much. Radical fringe persons willing to engage in violence for political ends are unlikely to be closely tethered to many people in the US. I would hasten to add that people find political causes and ideas that are convenient to their ideological ends more so than that they hue to a particular ideological end. "States' rights" or the prospect of "jury nullification" are, like most political concepts, not inherently evil and vile things but have been used for some very vile political ends in the past (typically racism and racist violence). Not everyone who thinks they might be useful is likely to be inherently evil and vile in their intentions toward other people. Jury nullification and states' rights via federalism may be ways we end up with a winding down drug war, for example. I view that as a positive goal. Even if some states have moved to other extremes in how they prosecute the drug war, several have moved to legalise or regulate the distribution of various substances.

We should recognize that our societal problem to resolve is violence first. Not ideological conflicts. Ideological conflicts leading to violence is fairly rare, even on the international stage. Most of our violence problems as a country are pretty ordinary by comparison and may have pretty ordinary, if difficult, solutions.

2) Recognize that this thing we apparently fear is exceedingly rare and very unlikely to impact most of us. If we do not live in NY or DC in particular. Obviously since media hubs are in NY and DC, we should expect the media to get pretty excited about it. But we don't have to take them as seriously. CNN just wasted several minutes of time last week reporting on an "ISIS" flag in London during a gay pride parade. That was pretty obviously covered in dildos as a parody. When things like this happen, I should take it as a sign that the media believes it has an incentive to drum up cases of exciting violence and danger over and above actual reporting. Which means we want to believe there are cases of exciting violence and danger afflicting us. This is, generally speaking, false. There are specific people who may suffer threats and enhanced risks of violence in the US, but very little of that has to do with terrorism. Some small percentage of racists or other assorted forms of bigots, and some small percentage of anti-abortion advocacy focuses in this way, and small group of anti-corporate/"environmentalist" movements. As examples. Unfortunately we live in a society that overall believes crime is rising when crime has been falling steadily and rapidly in most parts of the country for over two decades, and virtually every crime story I see mentions this fact at some point. It may be difficult to convince significant numbers of people to stop taking terrorism that seriously. More dildo flags being taken way too seriously by supposedly serious newscasters as evidence of extremist violence at our doorstep and we might have a chance. Keep at it CNN. If we throw enough sex toys at the media problem at least it will be easier not to take this as seriously. At some point more people will take seriously the idea that zero tolerance of terrorism is an impossible goal and be willing to look for more pragmatic solutions to resolve the problem rather than just trusting whatever we are doing must be working.

This is one of the paradoxical problems of counter-terrorism policy (and actually it applies to criminal justice more broadly). If terrorism is pretty rare, the government can plausibly claim that whatever it is doing must be working. Since terrorism is pretty rare, this is what it does. But it also has a stake in hyping up threats, which then turn out to be more like duds or problems caused more by things it was already doing, otherwise the public takes a closer eye to the methods and equipment and decides, "hey, why do we need to be doing this again?". Which is the appropriate place to start when trying to alleviate fear (it would be better to start by recognizing the fear as unreasonable, but most people aren't going to do that). If it doesn't actually work, or doesn't actually help get rid of the sources of our fear, it's of no utility and is theatrical rather than needed.

29 June 2015

Some thoughts on public policy, global warming edition

I've been fairly well persuaded over the years that this is a) a serious problem for the flourishing and survival of future human generations, b) a serious problem for which human action is both responsible and possibly needed to ameliorate if not reduce or prevent it and c) a political problem.

What I am finding from discourse is that it often seems that many of the people capable of explaining and understanding the science involved very quickly assume that strong central government controls will be needed to resolve this, and that this agenda is often, let's say, poorly received and reflects upon the capacity of people to accept the underlying scientific information. One problem I think that's involved here is that many scientists are not public policy experts. They do not study economics. They do not study political movements. They just see a (very large) collective action problem and assume a certain set of policy interventions must be needed. It's possible they may be correct in some elements, but they've overlooked something: politics is messy. People disagree and rent seeking interests can easily prevail over disparate action needs. We ended up with corn ethanol subsidies and sugar import restrictions as a consequence of politics. Both of those are net contributors to the problem rather than sources of resolution. We could very well, by relying on the political process solely or largely, end up with something much worse, or much less efficient than what we have now even. I worry about this as a probable effect given what we have seen so far as a response at the policy level is often not encouraging.

But I'd also say that observing the more quasi-libertarian response, if it even takes this seriously as a problem (which is itself a problem), we aren't going to get very far that way either. Suppose we say that if we removed government and its distorting subsidies, we could get reasonably cheap and cleaner sugar-ethanol instead of burning corn, we could stop subsidizing coal and oil production and infrastructure production (more roads), or make it easier to set up smaller scale hydroelectric power or nuclear, or stop subsidizing water for agricultural production in what amounts to deserts (in California or Arizona or Nebraska), and push agriculture into more water friendly arable parts of the country (the SE for example). Many of the more-free market approaches have an undeniable appeal toward pushing toward cleaner energy production because there are still costs associated with fossil fuels (pollution for example) that aren't associated with wind or solar in the same way. But all of these approaches still rely on fixing the existing political process first or at least the political process associated with these interests. This seems unlikely. Popular support for agricultural subsidies is still overall around 50%, much less industry support with a concentrated political voice. We are not going to succeed in sweeping away these problems as theoretical concerns when the arrayed interests are against it. A cost needs to be imposed to make those interests less concentrated and action more possible.

Where I think we are probably better served as a model is, strangely enough, observing how the rights of homosexuals have dramatically and swiftly been altered. It was barely a decade ago that it was legal to criminalize private sexual behavior at the state level and to invasively police such conduct. Now not only is that legal, but the rights of consenting adults who wish to do so with an intimate partner can have this recognized if they wish to do so as marriage, complete with the variety of set rights available to "ordinary" marriages. This change did not in fact happen in just a decade. It happened over many decades. And it had a number of cultural markers and markets in which to compete over time to change hardened minds, make it easier for same sex couples to announce their affections to each other and to family and friends, no longer have this treated as a form of psychological deviancy, and so on. Almost none of those changes involved changes to underlying and easily available empirical information on the nature of homosexuality in human beings. Almost all of these changes were perception changes, and necessary steps to make other changes available later. They snowballed into an avalanche of social change to the point that a majority of the country now recognizes that civil same-sex marriage should just be "marriage", not a distinct civil institution. This culminated in a series of civil actions and court rulings recognizing this change, and a few ballot initiatives that were supportive in a very short period of time.

For global warming policy advocates, this suggests that there's a path forward for change, but it's unfortunately slower. That there are lot of individualist appeals to conservation and charity that should be made and which will appeal to many Americans but that people may have to learn to speak in a slightly different language to make what governmental changes are needed palatable and possible. Information should still be communicated, but also an understanding of what can be done at the local or personal level.

For more free-market advocates, what I think this highlights is the improbability of using the "get government out of the way" mantra as a club for defeating arguments of what government is or is not doing. For the case of marriage rights, a popular argument often circulated that "government should get out of marriage". At a practical level however, marriage doesn't exist without government. At least not as most people understand it with the complications of immigration status, medical visitation and living will rights, inheritance and tax policy, and so on. Each of these rights and benefits extended to marriage contracts by governments would have to be argued down and eliminated as a casual default benefit rather than a simple "get government out of it" arrangement as is commonly argued. The problem for such arguments in climate change policy is to say "there is a problem, and government isn't helping by making it worse", and to then focus attention on places where government policy should be abolished or diminished in making it worse. This is even easier if such policies have other distorting effects.

With that in mind I would propose a few policy and cultural priorities

1) Phase out the home mortgage interest deduction. This is heavily distorting to the housing market, mostly flows to upper-middle class incomes and realtors (by inflating housing prices), adds a level of decreased mobility to residents of cities and metropolitan areas alike, and is an inefficient way to help poorer people to provide themselves with either income mobility or housing, and even distorts K-12 education and policing strategies (more aggressive in poorer more isolated communities). That's before getting to the global warming problems: it is anti-densification (dense urban areas would be more efficient to power and provide with water and food than suburban and exurban sprawl promoted by the HMID), does not help public transit, helps fund inefficient highway construction, wastes time and fuel on commuting, increases production of automobiles needed for said commuting, and so on. There's not much support for this as a policy measure, but I'm not sure there isn't a more damaging environmental policy we conduct presently as Americans and it comes with a complete package of other fucked up effects. It must end as a result for us to continue to flourish as a country.

2) Push for more recycling or food waste collection methods. Ideally push for less waste generation (especially with food), but start with these. There are many otherwise cultural conservative people where this has a certain appeal, crunchy cons or granola conservatives so to speak, who accept the general notion of leaving the Earth in better or no worse condition for their children and grandchildren as a steward of the planet argument even if they don't accept the science of global warming. One problem here is waste disposal. In dense urban areas, probably the most efficient method available right now is incinerating garbage. This is probably not something we'd like people to be doing from an environmental perspective, but it's almost certainly better than the alternatives that are being used (trucking or shipping garbage hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to landfills in other states or countries). Convincing environmentalists to get people to accept marginal improvements rather than total scorched earth improvements is also a problem here as it is typically environmentalists that oppose building garbage incinerators on the theory that "people must recycle" instead. They could do both.

I'd also advise doing things like cleaning up the "Pacific garbage patch" (the massive floating island of garbage in the central Pacific Ocean). This is a collective action problem with a variety of solutions (including innovative technical research and private market actors) that will provide a good model for other more severe problems with the environment.

3) Avoid pushing mostly localvore solutions. These are typically less environmentally friendly than buying cheaply produced groceries from halfway around the world. Chief among some of the environmentalist movements problems is that it often gets wrapped up (by opponents) as anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist. If you want this to be resolved, you're not going to get there by alienating powerful elites who depend upon on globalisation and capitalism for wealth and prosperity. Where you have to annoy such people, it should be because the methods being promoted would actually improve the environmental situation unequivocally (such as by increasing the price of burning coal or gasoline, say). And not by doing things that make the situation worse by forcing agricultural production in less than productive areas of the globe. This would also mean endorsing and supporting at least some forms of GMO production for agriculture for similar reasons. This too is a too common environmentalist rant is to oppose scientific tinkering with the food supplies. "Organic" and "natural" are useful marketing terms but their automatic relevance and connection to environmentalist causes seems suspect at best. Gardening is a recreational hobby that can be encouraged, but large scale farming for local purpose seems unlikely to be a positive net gain for the environmental problems we are facing. GMOs offer another way out of that problem.

4) Push for broader immigration reforms. One of the problems is that we will probably encounter a number of amelioration needs even under optimal policy responses. Since we aren't getting optimal policy responses, more aggressive ameliorating methods will be needed. One of these will be the ability of people to flee countries where the effects of drought, flooding, coastal sea water rises, and general poverty or inability to respond to such problems are most severe. Providing aid and assistance if it will buy time and ease suffering in the meantime through charity and foreign aid is certainly advisable also. But some number of countries and their residents and citizens are basically fucked if we do nothing, or even if we do the barest minimum to help them in the meantime. They will have to be able to pick up and leave to go somewhere better off if they wish. This will be vastly cheaper than making them stay where they are because of a national boundary. The US in particular should be prepared to accept as many as 100 million immigrants over the next 50 years (~2M/year), if not more. EU should be in a similar circumstance, and Australia or Canada should probably look forward to potentially doubling its population. Developed countries have the resources to provide some levels of adaptation and accommodation with environmental problems that extremely poor countries do not. There are hundreds of millions of people at risk here therefore living in places that may not functionally exist as countries (much less landmass) in 100 years and something will need to be done about that. Ideally peacefully.

5) Allow for some amount of geo-engineering tests, particularly by the scientific community to examine these as options. These are potentially problematic in that they would produce their own negative effects and may conceal problems rather than solve them. But if they will help buy time until more effective policy and market solutions come online, and we may need time for such things to happen, we should endorse it as a short-term solution.

6) Push for phasing in a basic carbon/energy tax. This could be done in a "net zero" fashion to encourage both businesses and individuals to reduce coal or gasoline consumption and also make the price of solar or wind (or nuclear) power more attractive without distorting subsidies. I'd also favor doing this over regulatory schemes (which could be overturned by unfavorable court rulings or blocked by Congressional action, or receive inefficient carve-outs), a carbon trading scheme (sources of carbon are difficult to price in the way most industrial pollutants are and don't seem to produce a favorable reduction over general energy reforms), fuel efficiency standards for automobiles (fuel efficiency will rise if low efficiency cars are less popular because the costs of fuel are too high), and so on. This would also require more monitoring of things like fracking, to determine any leakage of carbon fuels for example.

7) Push for more market prices on water. A basic water allowance for living needs could be made, but this would increase the price of water use in agriculture, or lawn care, such that irrigation and water forcing to shift water hundreds of miles would be more and most costly and less and less profitable. There is no automatic reason that farmers and farming interests in California should be producing rice, cotton, almonds, broccoli and so on in large amounts. Parts of the state this may be more viable than others. Some parts however, not so much. There's similarly little reason that people living in West Texas or various parts of the American Southwest should demand lawns and pools and other extravagances. If they can afford them fine, but the price of water should reflect its relative scarcity. It would remain pretty cheap in the Eastern part of the country. It's pretty dry in much of the west however.

8) Take into account adverse regulatory effects. I do not mean just the cost of enforcing and complying with a regulation, though that may be a concern. I rather mean that if a state or local government applies a certain regulation, business or local concerns wishing to construct something will probably take their money (and pollution/energy/water demands) elsewhere rather than nowhere if it's otherwise a productive economic venture. If people want to build a lot of stuff in California to make cars or computer chips, or to live in homes there, let them, within reasonable strictures. California's mild climate is pretty good for that. West Texas or Arizona is not. Forcing people to move their interests into environmentally unfriendly or undesirable areas is not a good idea. I say "forcing" not because the regulatory compliance costs are too high, but because often there's a court ruling saying they can't build it there at all in NIMBY fashion, and a concern or housing development gets built somewhere else instead. Pyrrhic victories are not helping.

9) Make individual signaling about the environment more efficient. Example. People often buy solar panels and display them on the street side of their homes even if that does not receive much sunlight. Make it easier to signal that you are doing really cheap environmentally friendly things: installing insulation, designing a home that provides for good air circulation for heating and cooling, buying energy efficient appliances or automobiles, etc. One of the problems I think is that many individuals seem to be presuming that this is or has to be a collective action problem, but that the actions are mostly to be undertaken by other people. Make it easier for local communities to find ways to compete to reduce waste or energy consumption or suburban sprawl into forests or wetlands and signal and casually enforce these as communal values.

21 June 2015

Days to commemorate something

Over the last many days, my social media feed has been inundated with people celebrating. Birthdays. Graduations. Father's Day.

Most of these are perfectly valid reasons to have a party and gather friends and family.

I however don't (or at least didn't want to) celebrate any of these things. I've very rarely enjoyed being a center of attention for a birthday. Graduating from anything doesn't feel like an achievement where things were done that were of difficult note. It's more like an endurance test for putting up with other human beings long enough to get through high school or college. Celebrating one's parents would in large part require that one must first celebrate their own existence. And I'm fairly resolved by now having observed other tiny humans that the production of tiny humans is not something I wish to undertake, so no one else will be celebrating this feature in my honor either.

I wrote at some length about depression and social anxieties related therein last year. I would remark that not much has changed in circumstances or social position that my situation feels any different, better or worse. Some days are difficult. Some days are full of a minor but sufficient purpose (to complain about something, if nothing else suffices). I have however, in my powers of introspection noticed some elements.

Depression's primary attribute is to turn any feeling of triumph into immediate failure. As a minor social attempt, I have attended trivia gatherings with a small group of acquaintances (rarely would anyone carry a nomenclature of friendship, I think this number is never higher than about 5-8 people in my life. My last post should make clear that I'm really slow to apply labels to much of anything). I spend most of the downtime afterward fretting over those handful of questions I somehow missed rather than exulting that the group clearly finds my broad set of random knowledge of otherwise useless facts useful.

I write quite a lot of words on many topics. Some of this is that I know a little bit about many things. Some of this is that I feel compelled to comment in the effort to feel like I did something that day, or at least because the cause itself requires it. This is not however coming across to myself as a depiction of myself as a skilled writer and communicator. Some small number of people read things I write. Some number of those people receive from this a vague perspective into my odd notions of politics and reality, as best I am able with my tool set of communication skills to provide at least. I had at various points believed this writing task was something I am good enough at that it should be a modest form of living. This is not something I believe is likely today. I don't put in enough practice at it, and have a disdain for symbolism in my writing that makes anything symbolic difficult to do. Which makes it less clear for others and less likely to translate into entertaining forms of speech. But it's also difficult to see that anything I've written has had a significant impact on other people, their modes of thinking or appreciation for complex topics. Which makes it difficult to see as purposeful other than as "just something I need to do that day to get through the day".

Depression's main attribute also makes maintaining communication with other people more challenging. Other people, in my view, are always very far away. We know them, even in our most intimate relationships, only slowly and with great difficulty. We are complex beings. We get used to what other people might do or have to do with us, but the great swells of feeling, pain or pleasure, are difficult to share in. Lots of things that other person enjoyed or endured and how or why they did so remain undisclosed to us or only come out in very close friendships, and probably with a lot of mind-altering substances involved. When someone else dies, in our loss and grief we have to condense what is lost into a set of stories and memories we have about that person and our experiences with them. That is enough for our purposes to have a set of treasured memories (and sometimes some not so treasured), but it isn't a good and full depiction of who that person was. It's a piece of a puzzle that is now missing most of the pieces, some of which are carried by others who knew that person as a child, or as a student, or a teacher, or a friend, or a lover. Or an enemy or a rival or a bully. As such, maintaining close ties to people that care for you, or that you care for, are of a vital task for a lifetime project. You get to carry some of the pieces for someone else's life and represent to others that person and that person's impact on yourself and your experiences. That's a crucial and special thing in life. You help humanize other people. No matter how terrible others think they are or how wonderful others think they are. They are only people.

But it's a lot harder if you feel like your existence is an added task for them. A burden. Something they have to put up with rather than a full person to treat on equal footing. Essentially what you find is that all other people get to know is the depressed and incomplete version of yourself. Maybe there are other pieces in there, but they got swallowed up and might be missing. A lot of time and energy is spent searching for this missing "utility function". Because if it can be recovered even partially, it's kind of like a life boat in a storm. If other people still see value in your existence, why can't you? What are you missing? Or is it possible they're just confused, clinging to a memory of someone you used to be, that they used to know. And that person is gone? Introverts have this mask on already to deal with a world that is heavily social. This becomes a different level of one. Depression is a different identity. It's a mask that gets put on to disguise its existence at best. Or it is a darker and heavier presence that feels like it must be sucking the life out of all around it. It's also an identity that never fully goes away, unlike a mask that you could just take off (as with the introverted state of being, one can retire to their books and games in peace and tranquility, free of the demands of others for a while). It pursues constantly, looking for gaps in the often futile attempts to rid oneself of its weight and presence.

A third feature is that a large quantity of people simply don't expect this to be the state of being for other people, or worse, don't tolerate its existence as any sort of problem. There are moments where it must be shoved aside. Where the obvious pain and grief and suffering others is heavier and more important than your own. An acquaintance of mine, a friend of a friend, recently lost her teenage son. In what little I can do in the aftermath of this, I have made appearances to listen (mostly to my friend, but really anyone speaking), to (in small doses) help watch tiny people who remain active and rambunctious beasts in need of moderating tones (which I mostly do not provide, as an "uncle" it is my sworn duty to subvert parenting attempts and let kids be corrupted by the freedom of childhood), to eat food, to make beer runs, maybe make a few jokes, and generally keep track of objects that are placed down as people move about their homes or make mental lists for people whose minds are understandably more scattered than mine. I've mostly avoided discussing my somewhat odd notions of death, and my perhaps creepy comfort with death as a facet of life and existence, out of a somewhat reasonable concern that they're not something that may be necessarily helpful right now. None of this seems particularly important. That's the depression part.

And yet it is favorably compared to others who haven't made any appearance at all, or who have provided too many pushes that don't give room for grief to work its way out when needed. I observe that the patience we have as a society, as families or friends even, with what is actively and obviously a painful experience, losing a loved one, is very, very short. Some of this is our own discomfort with grief. Many people are not so comfortable in seeing death and they will not wish to be confronted with the knowledge that others are having to be more comfortable than they would wish.

But if our patience is this thin with death, where we will not let others pause to gather themselves when needed, what hope is there to have patience with those who are stricken with a bout of depression on a particularly grim-faced day? To whom should we be able to disclose this ill news? From whom is there aid and comfort? How can this oppressive sensation be dealt with if it is to be ignored or treated unseriously? Death is not so complicated and difficult to understand. The nasty business of living is the trickier part, and it includes among its resume the prospect of dealing with unpleasant experiences, with suffering, and the suffering of others. Sometimes at our own doing, sometimes through the hands of our friends or family or others of those closest to us, sometimes through events out of our own control. This is not unusual. It is common. But it isn't very likely to be talked about.

It is hardly something to be celebrated if one's existence consists mostly of providing small aids and comforts to others, spilling lots of ink onto pages and calling it words and writing, and knowing strange things and attempting, rather poorly, to convey this knowledge to others in the hopes they will be wiser from it. But it is a thin premise around which a life is formed. That is enough for most days.

Is it the T word?

While there's been quite a lot of air time wasted on Faux News attributing an obviously racially motivated attack to hammer into a narrative about otherwise non-existent violence against Christians in the US, there's a side debate of more interest going on. Whether the killings in Charleston were an act of terrorism. I've noticed several features to this debate

1) People who "refuse to call it terrorism" must be willfully blind/racist, largely because they're liable to identify some similar (or even some ineffectual act) when done by a Muslim, say, as terrorism. I myself am pretty slow to call much of anything "terrorism", when done by any persons of any racial or religious basis, for reasons that I'll examine in a moment. Meanwhile our broader culture, media culture, political culture and largely within mostly white segments of the population, throws this word around frequently to identify actions by groups of people they don't like (while excusing the actions of individuals similar to them as deranged lunatics or bigots rather than part of some common cause event). This dichotomy I find curious in its own way. Clearly I am using a very stringent definition of "terrorism" or others have lost all sensible purpose for the word.

2) There's some interest in identifying the action as racist or a hate crime. Which seems obvious and correct from the motivations expressed publicly by the killer and his victims. This is not necessarily the same thing as "terrorism". But it isn't mutually exclusive with it either.

What I think these two components mean is that after 9-11, our culture tended to take any activity less seriously unless it was in some way broadly related to an action like 9-11. Namely, that it was what we typically associate as "terrorism" (mass targeted killings of civilians for political, religious, or other ideological reasons, designed to inspire fear in a designated group of people, a country, race, religion, political movement, etc). If something could be described as "terrorism", it evoked for many people these images of destroyed skyscrapers and the violent deaths of hundreds or even thousands of people. Actions which aren't in this category could nevertheless be associated as more serious concerns for millions of Americans to consider as problems worthy of their time and attention.

Fear is a powerful motivator to get people to go along with whatever you can then claim must be useful for keeping people safe. And so the idea that there must be all kinds of terrorists and terrorism just around the corner from which we must be protected has proliferated. I think this is a lazy and overused political trick. As a result, I am very slow to identify much of any action as the actions of a terrorist, the cause and actions worthy of the political and legal penalties associated with that terminology. I've seen this phrase used to describe: fairly ordinary murders committed at least in part for unsavory reasons (bigotry, religious intolerance), organised campaigns to intimidate people involved in abortion clinics, pretty much any activity by a Muslim, the distribution and production of various narcotics, attempted plots to attack some target of people more or less set up by the FBI (rather than detected and foiled by them), attempted plots not detected by police and FBI which are carried out and kill or injury a large number of people, and so on. And of these, many are attempted, or succeed in publicly tying themselves to: atheists, Muslims, Christians, right-wing political movements, left-wing political movements, libertarians, individualists, mental-illness, weapons that aren't used in the commission of these actions of violence (or commonplace acts of violence like murder or assault).

And this brings me to the social problem with the legal and cultural definitions of terrorism. They're constrained by political considerations or the dominant/prevailing culture of a society rather than some empirical definition of what constitutes an attack which qualifies. They are inherently likely to spawn arguments about what is and what is not an act of terror, or who is and who is not a terrorist, and inherently likely to be wrong about what actions and what types of people end up on either side of those lines. And much of this will ignore what the appropriate responses for a society to take should be because we will be confusing one thing for another, or ignoring causes and agents that can be dealt with separately or distinctly, and so on.

There's a similar debate like this concerning "genocide" in international relations. Actions like the those of the Ottoman government against Armenians or USSR against rather a lot of people rather than a handful as we are discussing now, are often referred to variously as either acts of genocide or not acts of genocide. Rather than talking about what actually happened, who was killed, forcibly moved, or otherwise harmed and attacked by the actions of nation-states and the societies they nominally oversee, there's a lot of argument about whether it qualifies as some arbitrary definition. These are actions involving several hundreds of thousands of deaths at a minimum. In the USSR case, there's probably several million such deaths caused deliberately in the 1930-1950 period alone. These we would think would not lend toward ambiguity in a way that killing a dozen people, or trying to kill a couple of very specific people doesn't obviously seem like it must or must not be an act of "terrorism". And yet much of time when these subjects come up, it's in the context and contest over whether it is or is not some sort of international crime against humanity rather than stacking up what happened, or telling the story of the people(s) who were being slaughtered and annihilated.

When something awful happens, and some number of people are killed or maimed by heinous actions. I'm not very interested in what we call this action. I'm not even that interested in who does it. Because it rarely seems to be a repeatable set of circumstances that led to some violent being acting upon other human beings with malicious intentions toward a dozen or more people in some way that it could be very easily prevented without a lot of taxing effort on social or culture change. But I am interested in who was killed. And maybe why that happened is of notice and attention. Maybe, how they lived might be more interesting though. I wish we would cover this more often. Deaths caused by murder and mayhem are the ending of what are usually interesting lives to the people who loved and knew this person. They're full of mystery, intrigue, achievement, failure, familiar stories to all of us. One of the successful points to the Fruitvale Station film was that it didn't depict Oscar Grant as some sort of angel to be avenged. He was depicted as a human being, a screwed up person just like the rest of us. And his death was both unnecessary and tragic in spite of this supposed flaw of being a kind of problem child, as most of us are wont to do. When we are deprived of this fuller story that someone's life and lived experiences can tell us, that is a story we should seek out. The ending of that story isn't liable to be as interesting without pausing to see what came before it.

I would point out a few things at this point

1) I am quite certain the motivations of the Charleston killings were racial in nature. The attack coming as it does in a church seems quite incidental. If anything, the selection of a church depicts a level of familiarity with the culture the killer sought to attack, but it does not depict some level of hostility with religion.  Black churches were for a long time banned and burned to the ground throughout the antebellum South. This wasn't because racists and white supremacists of that time hated church. Church bombings in the 1960s occurred because that's where the human targets of hatred and oppression bound up in racist motives were most easily found clustered together and thus killed. So it is now.

2) "Guns in church" is a humorous Carlin bit, but it has little to do with the safety of pastors and worshipers. George had two words for you all who think it might: "Disgruntled worshiper". Pissed off and determined people with guns can cause all kinds of problems even if someone manages to shoot them down during or after the fact.

2a) Neither would most of the more popular proposed forms of gun controls be that helpful here. (Some might have helped, but not most).

3) I'm not sure there's anything wrong with referring to something like this, a racially motivated attack killing or attacking a large number of people, as an act of terrorism. Go ahead if it makes you happy. I don't actually disagree on this point. To me, the biggest question mark isn't what we call it. It's how we respond. Given that I feel how we've responded to terrorism is generally awful and horribly unproductive as a society up until now to establish a poor track record, I'd rather we call it something else just to avoid this clumsy overbearing response that isn't likely to produce a fruitful result. Racism for instance. We respond poorly and unproductively to that also, but it is a subject that is apt to produce slightly more thoughtful effort than people running and scurrying around in fear and in this instance, with the motives of the killer exposed for examination and publicly declared, and the actions so horrifying, there will be relatively few people prepared to declare that this was not a racist acting out the hateful and terrible conclusions to their beliefs. People aren't going to be able to successfully argue this comes into some grey territory.

4) South Carolina is liable to pursue (and get) the death penalty, to demonstrate they take the murders of some number of its citizens "very seriously", without reference to "hate crime legislation" or "terrorism" statutes. This is fairly easy to do because ordinary murders don't take the lives of a sitting state Representative or some number of church pastors, or even just a large number of people all at once. In truth, of late South Carolina has actually been a beacon of "racial progress" in so far as it has dealt swiftly and somewhat harshly with police brutality and violence toward its citizens on this basis of race based bias and violence (yes, that South Carolina).

A number of shootings in the state by police have had the officers fired or dismissed from the force, nearly immediately, and charged with various degrees of murder or assault (in the occasion that the unfortunate victims of these shootings did not die of their wounds). This is to be applauded relative to, say, Ohio and its local governance. Which all but ignored the John Crawford killing, which occurred a few miles from my home. And has done little to nothing with Tamir Rice's killer. It sends a pretty powerful symbol to the community that indiscriminate and inappropriate violence by anyone, even those charged with enforcing the law, is not to be tolerated when the state seeks to punish police officers for inappropriate and indiscriminate violence that takes the lives of its citizens, and an equally powerful symbol when that violence by police is ignored or papered over. Racism isn't border limited to former Confederate or slave owning states. It isn't even border limited to "the USA", for that matter.

4a) South Carolina can remind us of that fact in both directions. Take down that fucking flag. You lost the war that you started on extremely morally suspect grounds (to defend the ability to oppress large numbers of human beings by declaring them property, devoid of agency and ability that is not provided for them to do). Stop trying to pretend you're still fighting for this cause. Apparently some number of your citizens are convinced enough to take up arms, and a larger number are convinced enough that they think they're being oppressed. The latter somewhat reasonably.

15 June 2015

More GoT thoughts

1) The Cersei perp walk was well executed, especially the return of the smirk face at the end when she got to the Red Keep and Qyburn was there. But it was a bit more gratuitous than needed (though not that much really either). The best parts of the walk were the initial bit (it is important to know she's naked, but not so important to keep focusing on it), then the sequences of her face as people shouted and spat at her and throwing all manner of filth, food, etc, and her feet bleeding from the tiles and distance covered. One of the secrets of storytelling is less is more, letting people fill in the blanks. Same with acting I suspect. Game of Thrones has sometimes learned this lesson but this wasn't quite in that league. This season has been fairly uneven in this respect, trying to focus more on spectacles than stories. It's really unclear still how the Sparrows/Faith Militant are this powerful in King's Landing, or why nobody is that resistant.

2) The way the Dorne subplot for the season trickled out, and the way the Stannis subplot felt rushed (though good), I'm not very optimistic about future adaptations where the writers go off "script" as it were. They still have some of the same pacing problems that they've always had in adapting Martin's material (sprawling as it is). But where in Season 4 some of the off-book changes (Brienne and Sandor Cleagane fighting, Tywin's expanded role) were good, these were all rushed and felt forced.

Stannis had been built up as a devoted father, religious fanatic but pragmatic leader. People had started to finally like the character. Then they went and had him off his daughter in a human sacrifice... and then he fights a futile and losing battle, and then gets (presumably) killed in the aftermath of the rout. That's a plot that needed a couple more episodes to unfold. It doesn't feel paced out. We don't care about the outcome very much because the "wounds" from Shireen screaming in agony are still very fresh. That sacrifice feels rushed as well. Stannis has a reputation as being pretty stubborn, and it doesn't give the impression that he's that worried about the men he commands, which isn't very much like a noted field commanded that he's supposed to be either. In the books, he is very concerned because of the sellswords and possibly mutinous troops from Northern lands and this impacts his decisions in pragmatic ways. It's still likely Shireen is killed in the books (this hasn't happened yet), and that Selyse kills herself after. But for different reasons that either would "make more sense" than what appears to be a pretty incompetent command effort to retake a valuable city after Stannis has had several very competent military moves that only fail because of bad luck (Tyrells/Lannister army shows up for example).

The Dorne plot was just all around useless and terrible. The book plot had intrigue within the Dornish court as there were several plots afoot. Myrcella is attacked, then schemed to be placed as a rival queen to Tommen, there's no Bronn/Jaime around, the Sand Snakes are still arrested as being rebellious, but one of them (not in the show) is involved in trying to use Dorne's unusual gender politics within Westoros to their own advantage rather than just standing around and acting ridiculous in order to up the boob to screen time ratio. I don't get what all that fuss was about to deal with a threat to Myrcella, who then unceremoniously ends up dead. So Jaime could have 15 seconds of "dad time"? There wasn't even any hook on which Jaime could "rebel" against Cersei, such as it is (as he does in the books). The fighting, such as it was, for this plot stopped being well scripted and believable after Bronn/Jaime's fight on the beach and the entire ordeal was boring except for that one fight and Bronn's singing. If that's the productive value of future writing, then we may have a problem moving forward here.

If it's more like the Hardhome/Jon Snow sequences, then we're fine. (Though even there, it doesn't make sense for Thorne to let him in with hundreds of wildling refugees and then stab him afterward. Just kill him or leave him out there to freeze).

3) I was on board with the changes to Arya's plot line, but they've basically turned her into another psychopath with the last two episodes. Boring. She's a killer in the books and she's still "off-book" within the House of Black and White, but she's not a psycho. I'm hoping this can be repaired with more faceless assassin training. Even if it does often have the feel of "wax on, wax off" Mr Miyagi in sandals and a dirty robe telling her to sweep floors and poison people.

4) I'm unclear where the Sansa plot was supposed to go. It's great they condensed somewhat (rather than fake Arya, we get real Sansa, this is a fine choice for a TV show as you don't need to pay another actress to be a new character), but this too felt mishandled. So she escapes (or possibly kills herself, but more likely escapes), where is she heading? What allies does she think she has? Reek/Sansa as a buddy cop travel show is probably not going to go so well with Ramsay around either.

We don't know this from the books yet either based on the plot line they have borrowed. But there there's a possibility of "safety" with Stannis, or perhaps Jon.

5) Pretty much nobody believes Snow is actually dead in the books given the way it is depicted and the moving pieces available around him to keep him around as a character. I remain dubious of this in the show as well (again, moving pieces are available, though not as many). Either they think they can kill him off and have just created a major book spoiler, or they think they can keep scenes of Kit filming for Season 6 under wraps somehow. They have kept certain things secret, such as the Shireen sacrifice scene, or the White Walker reveal at the end of Hardhome (everyone who followed the show probably knew it was coming, but the way it was depicted...). But that's different than "hey here's this well recognized actor filming in a place where we have been shooting Game of Thrones episodes". *One possibility would be having a different actor play Snow in the future also. Although that could be odd. Another would be that they just decided to off one of the more popular show characters (in a divergence from Martin's plans for the character in the books?) But this isn't likely to generate the same level of interest from fans as a return they got from Ned's beheading and the Red Wedding episodes. And it writes them into a corner if so where they favored an event over the stories surrounding and driving that event.