26 August 2014

ALS and ice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 August 2014


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

Some thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 August 2014

Mr Williams

Now batting.

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

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

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

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


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

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

07 August 2014

discrimination abounds

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

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

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

01 August 2014


1) Comes in about around Iron Man 1 for me. Behind Avengers and Captain America 2 among the Marvel set of films. Maybe X2 and of course the first two Nolan Batman films are ahead after that among the superhero set generally.

2) Script is a little sloppy plotwise, kind of like Thor 2 was. They made up for it by being way funnier (Thor 2 did well to have little touches of this, so they're clearly learning not to take it that seriously). Avengers had a much tighter script and Cap had a much tighter plot and for a "comic book" movie an usually serious theme (similar to Nolan's Batman work or the first two X-Men films). This has a serious theme (dealing with loss), but it isn't as cleverly pulled off as Avengers or Batman Begins, say.

3) Marvel has really poor villains outside of the X-Men set and Loki it seems like (eventually Thanos). Ronan was a badass yes, but like the Winter Soldier or Kursed we have no idea who he is really and what or where his motivations of hatred come from (comic book fans do, but sometimes it needs to be spelled out in films). At least the Dark Elves and Hydra we got a brief and solid back story. Winter Soldier they get around to it, very late in the film. Ronan they do not. It is just assumed, correctly, his intentions are to destroy people and planets.

4) Did I mention it was funny? Other than Gamora, they all have plenty of funny bits (although she gets a random Kevin Bacon reference, so there's that). Including Groot. The sociopathic raccoon (Rocket) worked very well.

5) There are a lot of easter eggs at the Collector's.

6) I don't think the stinger scene at the end of the credits was worth much. It's very funny. But I don't see it developing into a film or more than a set of cameos like the persistent Stan Lee gag.

7) Update: This point occurred to me later, and probably shouldn't have. The film spent a surprising amount of time being actually concerned that people were dying in their quest to save a planet/city. Not merely saying "lots of people are going to die", but the "this actually concerned me that some random non-canon character Y was killed". Some of the other Avengers films have had this in some measure (Avengers touched on it a few times in NYC). But not quite to this degree. Considering the blockbuster action film of the modern era typically flattens half of a city (and presumably kills or maims thousands, if not tens of thousands), this was refreshing. It stood in stark relief to the terrible Man of Steel Superman film in that it actually felt like these guys cared what they were doing and we weren't just told they are "heroes". Show, not tell.

15 July 2014

More words, in furious languor.

There appears to be much going on signifying sound and fury in the world of late. But it is mostly empty.

We have an "immigration" crisis. Except we've had an immigration problem that needed to be addressed for 90 years. Ever since we started closing off our borders to foreign populations and placing onerous restrictions on how and when someone may become a citizen if they wished to live here and raise a family and do the things that human beings tend to do when they live and work and play in a place for a long time. They want to call it home. Like some relentless wheel, this just cycles around again and again as a new crop of nativist biases that either do not make a coherent philosophical point or are factually wrong. Fortunately, it appears there isn't actually a strong support for kicking millions of people out of the country who want to stay here somehow. Unfortunately nobody in Congress appears to be paying attention to that because there's a very loud and politically active group of people wandering around pretending we are being invaded and who does want to kick people out, and which nobody else wants to antagonize but doesn't want to be seen talking to either. Which leaves us within a middle ground position that even fewer people want (things like guest worker programmes).

All this tells me is that we haven't bothered to fix the existing immigration system, and what bills have been proposed primarily don't either. They focus entirely too much on borders and how people get in. That's not the "problem". The issue is how people can stay, if they would like to, and how difficult or onerous we make it to become a citizen, a problem for which I have seen no bill address in a serious way. Huge numbers of people who are residents illegally in the country came here in a perfectly legal way, as students, tourists, or workers and no amount of "border control" is likely to create an environment which catches them and restricts their presence. Large numbers more of people abroad probably would come here and stay if we had a simple system for allowing people to emigrate from their homes. The demands for armed troops on the borders have little resemblance to a solution to the problem. If anything that only amplifies the humanitarian problems by increasing the price and danger of migration across borders, and makes it more difficult for people to leave when they do come here for a temporary basis, thus further discouraging such behavior as say, seasonal labourers who migrate across borders following available work.

I am not all that impressed with liberal solutions either. They can't do very much without Congress acting, but I keep hearing "decriminalizing drugs" coming up. The likely reason for that term is that there's little or no public support for the legalisation of drugs other than marijuana. Decriminalizing, say, heroin does not destroy black markets of the drug, as a major flaw in this arrangement. That does construct the legal arrangement so the users of drugs are not punished (or sellers with small quantities), or at least are not sent to jail and prison, which is a great social victory in its own right. But it does nothing about the establishing of legal markets where sellers of these products can use the legal system for protection of property rights and to arbitrate grievances peacefully through the courts and other forms of mediation. Without that option, the violence remains a significant and sometimes essential component of the existing black markets for goods that are merely "decriminalized". Decriminalization would be better than arresting thousands of people for consensual vices, but it would not solve this problem of an illicit market with artificially inflated profit margins and through which there are considerable issues of gang violence in foreign countries (like the countries the current wave of children are fleeing). Legalisation of marijuana likewise may help some, if it occurs on a broader scale, but will not remove the problem. Consider that some clever Central American drug cartels have branched out into protection rackets for farms, for ordinary domestic crops as limes or avocados and this becomes an even more elaborate problem to disentangle than how our legal system treats the recreational ingestion of mind-altering chemicals as a means to reduce the violence.

And now for something completely different.
A brief digression to rant about (other) silly things.
- This would all be much easier, apparently, if we publicly expended time discussing genital naming conventions from 90 years ago. Fortunately, "Jerry" had already taken on a somewhat darker turn from a cheeky British affiliation as a nickname for evil Nazis or we could be at risk of a wave of named phallic features, similar to the wave of names from characters of popular fantasy novels (Khaleesi, Katniss, etc). Let's just move on. Penis jokes are not too hard.

- If someone else makes a movie about how humans only use 10% of their brains, we may want to consider an investigation if this is an actual problem that there are people employed in Hollywood who somehow only use 10% of their brains. I like science fiction, but the prospect of someone getting suddenly smarter relies on some tricks about consciousness that we don't yet have solid neuroscience to explain, or a mental disorder that is treated (depression being a common example). Honestly all being able to access 100% would mean (probably) isn't that someone would get instantly superhuman powers, but that they'd be aware of ordinarily sub-conscious processes like breathing or sensory perceptions that we filter out most of the time. Maybe memory recall would be better. And that in turn risks a lot of solipsism rather than someone running amok with god-like powers. I realize that people with superior mental recall and eidetic memories are perceived as "superhuman", or that people with very good perceptive abilities (excellent eyesight or distinguishing palettes for foods) are. But we don't need to make a superhero/supervillain movie to sell those and it probably isn't because they "use more of their brain."

A note on writing
- All writers are writing about themselves. A very good writer is writing in such a way that, while their reader will know this, has constructed an imaginative reality in which the reader may escape, or clever and well-supported arguments in which they may engage and nod or shake the head vigorously in agreement or anger. But writers are really writing to put down the words about themselves. What I believe a very good writer possesses is not necessarily a command of the language in which they compose words (though the well-placed 5 dollar word helps at times). Instead it is a command of perspective-taking that is possessed. Writers see things as best they can as someone else, be they a character or an interlocutor, and can better convince us that these others are the ones speaking to us on the page and not the man behind the curtains.

This is not the same as "If I were in his/her place". That's a weak sauce to pour over the question of what someone else would or should think. Anyone can do that and it requires no imagination. It is "If I were them in his/her place" that we're after. Assuming a new identity for a brief while, not presuming an identity for ourselves. History as a field of study requires this practice when done properly. It is this skill that it should instruct and impart and not the memorization of trivial dates and names assembled into the proper order.

03 July 2014

Since you mentioned it

Somehow in the context of the varied debates on Hobby Lobby and corporations are bad mkay, the question of low-information or poorly informed voting emerged but attached to the problem of low voter turnout, as it often is (which I find curious, probably because most people are poorly informed about who votes and how, ironically enough).

I am skeptical this is a meaningfully identified problem. And since I am now a go-to person for the "people should really not bother voting" claim, I will explain why here so I can just link to it whenever it comes up again.

1) Marginal utility of voting is extremely low. The likelihood of individual votes changing a voting outcome is astronomically low. The likelihood is even lower that a voter changes an election outcome if more people vote. The incentive of people who vote should be to have lower participation so they have more control over the outcome. People who vote should not complain that much about the fact that other people do not vote. This matters a great deal in the next portion. (there's also a distinction here I will discuss in a moment between people who choose not to vote or don't care to and people who can not vote or are prevented from voting)

2) High information voters vote at much higher rates. These would be people who make more money, or have higher educational attainment on average. These are not perfectly correlated, but on average higher income or especially higher education correlates with higher voting participation and with higher political knowledge. Not all of these people vote mind you (and some cannot for legal reasons, immigration status, etc), but many more of them vote than low information voters percentage wise and there are a lot of them. There is not a problem of high information voters sitting at home forgetting to vote. This is not the issue in voter turnout. Most of the people who don't vote are low information voters who have little interest in politics. Most of the people who do vote are motivated by some issue or another and at least believe themselves to be well-informed on those issues. They tend to possess more information at any rate (whether or not it is accurate).

Encouraging more people to vote is generally encouraging more people who don't know very much about the relevant topics to vote and not gathering in some mysterious clutch of smart and reasonable people who would push the electorate over the top. In general, "smart and reasonable" people on some given topic either disagree (reasonably if possible), are just as poorly informed as the general public, or have their own biases that push them to be misinformed as well. There are few matters that "smart and reasonable" people make up a large voting bloc, a correct and reasoned opinion on what the vote should be, and that they would push an issue forward or prevent one from passing. The theory that they do matter significantly relies on the assumption that uninformed or misinformed voters break randomly and could be overwhelmed by enough smart people. They do not. They break based upon biases that push their voting preferences in particular and predictable directions (nativism for instance). These biases can easily overwhelm expert opinion, or the expert opinion is easily co-opted to serve those biases and interests. The solution to that problem is not to encourage more low information people to show up as a result and not to complain about low voter turnout as if fewer people vote, the likelihood is better that higher information voters will comprise most of the electorate. Misinformation is a separate problem from voter turnout as a result.

3) If the problem is limited to "misinformed" voters, that may be a description which applies to almost all voters on some issue or candidate or another. VERY VERY few people study politics and elections carefully all the way through every time. I am probably a very high information voter in that I try to look into local and state matters as best I can and I still would consider myself poorly or even potentially misinformed by biases and priors and assumptions in many instances. I would admit to having this weakness, and it sometimes leads me to ignore certain issues or races in casting a ballot by refraining out of ignorance. If more people who do vote would do this voluntarily however, the misinformed voter problem only gets worse. I would probably be voting randomly if I did vote under those circumstances, or at least looking out for my worst possible options to exclude those. The average voter does not do this but enters with a preconceived judgment and uses heuristics to assess their unknown priors (such as party affiliations). The average voter also does not know they possess misinformation. Indeed, they are often much more convinced they possess accurate and true information than someone who is skeptical. This can happen on a specific issue, while maintaining wisdom elsewhere or a broad set of them can produce delusions. Diagnosing and countering the misinformation problem is tricky at best as a result.

4) If the problem is "misinformation", who determines this? The misinformed voting public? The people they elected? Some third party? Who would agree on that third party and how would that be done? And then, finally, how after all of that would be deemed fair to exclude anyone who was considered "misinformed" from voting. Complaining that the other guy thinks and believes and votes based something that you think is wacky is not evidence of misinformation that should exclude their vote. All of us really are in that boat. I'd rather not start launching stones over it with the idea that if only we could get these people not to vote, all of our problems would be solved. I realize there's a huge voter bias problem on a lot of economic questions, among many others where there's a big divergence from expert opinion and the general public. I do not think that means we should just start in with the technocracy and forget about the voters.

What does this all mean?
Here is what I would propose as solutions to the voting problem

1) Stop encouraging people just "to vote". Instead, encourage more people to engage in friendly debate about politics, to listen to people they disagree with (although this is distasteful and sometimes demonstrates their ignorance more than it helps, it is important now and again to confront the strongest arguments of our opponents by being aware they exist), and to do some research on the events going on in legislation or judicial rulings and so on. If people will do those things, they will probably vote anyway. If they don't want to do those things, they probably aren't interested in voting and we don't need to require and exhort them to show up as some social calling. They either will or they won't.

The advantage of friendly engagement is that it allows us to make and form friendships or acquaintances with people we might not otherwise listen to. I find I have a subset of people who will pushback on some given issue even if I think they are ill-informed or wrong and I prefer that they do (though I find that I have a low tolerance for ad hominem tactics of argument, which is not friendly and should probably not be tolerated). This advantage should not be underestimated. Even if we do not agree with "those people", we will know some of them and it will be much harder to inspire strong partisan feelings that they are always wrong about everything and can be dismissed and ignored, or more concerning, they should be dismissed and ignored on everything because they are "those people" and not because they are wrong about this or that thing.

Libertarians run into this all the time because of the "crazy" beliefs like heroin should be legal or the federal reserve rantings of Austrians. That doesn't make them wrong on whether marijuana should be legal or whether free speech should be respected, or the NSA surveillance, and so on. We should be willing to form these alliances of convenience when people have different opinions on many things but shared opinions on these things here. (as a note though, I usually worry when there is a "bipartisan consensus" on some issue in DC. Most of those are establishmentarian rather than based upon a shared coherent ideological goal, which I am not in favor of things simply because it is good for the status quo power struggle).

2) Don't prevent people from voting. In fact, make it easier to vote, not harder. The problem of voter fraud does exist, but it is very small relative to the massive number of people who are legally prevented from voting for no apparent reason (felons who have already served time for instance in many states, as one example). Some of these would be people who are highly motivated to vote on a particular issue (as a result of their encounter with the state up close and personal) and they deserve to cast their opinion on those matters. The likelihood that an election could turn based on the ex-con vote is small too, but it is much more significant than the probability that an election could be stolen or rigged based on including people who can't vote, and so on.

3) Stop complaining about misinformed voters. Go inform them, or delegate someone to do so, or perhaps just go and talk to them. You may find sometimes it is YOU are who are misinformed. This will be an unpleasant but necessary and humbling experience.

4) Stop worrying about voter turnout rates. These are not necessarily symptomatic of any problem. Worry more about information distribution than the voter distribution.

5) Stop only really encouraging people to vote during Presidential cycles. Important matters can happen and be decided every year.

The reason this happens is that many people vote via party affiliation. Parties have a strong interest in promoting turnout during Presidential cycles, because they place a lot of signalling importance on who is President. They place some importance on other matters. You may find you would prefer to place more importance on those matters that are of local or state control, or who your Congressional representative is. Particularly if you follow the separation of powers and the precise powers available and used by the officials we elect.

Presidents for example are essentially irrelevant (unless they're terrible) on anything other than international relations/foreign policy, and the dialogue and scope of civil liberties protections or abuses, via their court appointments if necessary. Their economic policies have to be enacted by Congress to carry any meaning and weight. Their foreign policy or court picks usually are just signed off on by Congress (even though they're supposed to have more authority there). These are also very removed from the average voter as concerns (on average). That means that you should probably care a lot more about who your Senator is, or who your governor is, or who your school board is.

6) Over time, seek to reduce the number of things and issues which are determined politically and as a matter of law. But be free to use the political process to make those reductions and to argue over which are to be so determined.

7) As a corollary to all of this, be aware that many matters occur and can be lobbied for or against in between elections and that using elections as a time to weigh in on those decisions is probably less adequate a safeguard of democratic representation than is being aware of the motions and bills that are moving forward on issues of concern to you or your friends or family.

This is largely why I did and still do not worry about Citizens United. Putting more money and attention into elections potentially moves it away from the lobbying and legislative end. There is far more heat and light right now on the election end of the process and biases introduced by powerful agents are easier to recognize and combat there as a result.

30 June 2014

Hobby Lobby

Silver linings. Maybe a toilet bowl lined with shiny things. But still. Shiny things.

1) It seems, as with Citizens United, to have pissed off the left-wing base that increasingly is the agitating energy for the Democrats. Citizens United, I don't think they are correct on most any sensible legal theory. This one I think was more questionable.

2) It does not appear to have actually denied anyone any access to birth control measures. There's a work around that the government used for non-profit entities that will be applied.

2a) We should really stop pretending in our society that "denying access", eg "banning" things is at all the same as "reducing the accessibility or affordability of" whatever it is. The second is still often bad, and may have bad consequences, or unequal consequences, but it is not (usually) the same as "criminal and civil penalties for". When many abortion restrictions are considered by states, those are effectively doing both. Where this decision was concerned, it did neither. The semantics are important here because people talking about actual denial of access when what we have is an increase in risk to accessibility in actual terms (because of money usually) are confusing the best practices of solutions. If the problem is people (women) cannot afford it, that's very different from people putting up actual roadblocks via regulations, like these: "you need a prescription, so you must go see your doctor first", or "the pharmacist won't fill those prescriptions for religious reasons", or "you must wait 48 hours", or "the clinic needs admitting privileges".

We're talking about accessibility in economic terms and there's ways to resolve that, via public policy if we choose (subsidies that phase out based upon income and need would have been far, far better than insurer mandates). If we're talking about accessibility in legal terms, then we have a very different problem, one that almost entirely depends upon public policy decisions. We should not be conflating the two kinds of problems. Stop it. Just don't. They can sometimes overlap in practical terms, but the fix for either is usually different. (This is probably why debates about freedom of speech in the wake of McCullen also annoy me, in that they fail to distinguish action, which is regulated or restricted, from speech, which should not be).

3) It is a fairly narrow reading of religion or religious beliefs. Which is amusing. I've seen it referred to as all of religion comes down to in the eyes of the conservative wing of the court is "unapproved fucking".

The first amendment protection of free speech restrains the government from doing very much about speech (which is why for Citizens United, I'm not sure what the corporate personhood element had to say or why people started running around complaining about a very long jurisprudence decision that "corporations are people" in legal terms). The first amendment protection of freedom of religion does likewise, but I'm not sure how this was squared with this decision. It did not permit other religious objections under the free exercise clause. Just this one part. It puts the court or the government in the unusual position of deciding which exercises of religion are acceptable within this context of employer/employee and thus regulating those. That was a very bad idea really. Either it means there will be many more cases of the same variety or the government will eventually say, nope only these sorts of objections are okay.

It's probably further evidence that employer provided health care plans are an incredibly stupid way to go. But it's mostly evidence that freedom of religion is poorly understood.

4) Of all the aspects of the ruling that are annoying, probably most annoying is why it was that this narrow religious objection was singled out as acceptable in the first place. The belief turns largely on a metaphysical belief about the nature of personhood as applied to fertilized human eggs (but not yet actually conceived via the scientific definition of conception as there isn't one simply because the term has no unified meaning) and thus what this means about the utility of certain kinds of birth control measures. Considering a vast number of fertilized eggs fail to implant in the uterine wall and thus become "conceived", and a further vast number are implanted but fail to develop for whatever reason and are miscarried, applying such a definition is based upon a flawed understanding of the nature of human reproduction. A definition that should be considered flawed enough as to carry little weight in the decisions to mandate certain kinds of birth control be carried under a company insurance policy because it is too fungible and arbitrary to be fairly used in legal terms. It would be like judging that it is okay that only people who believe the earth is flat can have unemployment insurance at this company. Not only is the belief wrong, it is functionally meaningless to the performance and benefits of the employees.

There were far better practical and legal objections to that mandate that had nothing to do with birth control. The fact that it was singled out suggests a focus by the right upon the aforementioned "unapproved fucking" of its own that may have merited the decision of the court to narrowly tailor the ruling to that one element of religious doctrinal thinking.

5) The other annoying part is the "closely held corporation" exception. While this is not the same as large publicly traded corporations, I'm not sure why this was somehow a right that should only apply narrowly to "smaller" corporate entities, controlled by few people.

6) Some of the decision turns on the question not of the size or scope of ownership, but on the profit motives of the companies involved. Which to me seems to have little or no bearing on what restrictions of these type may be applied, and in any case, which the government seems already to have accorded non-profit companies with special accommodations for religious liberty (however absurd in this case). Why it should not also do so with for-profit corporations is not something that I think is easily established, or why the government could not also perform a similar accommodation.

7) Another aspect of the decision itself has focused on the intentions of Congress and then subsequent interpretations of those intentions by the appropriate regulatory body. With the implication that HHS in promulgating regulations exceeded its authority. While this is debatable in this case, this reading of the case suggests yet another separation of powers battle, one of several over the last year, with the basic impact and import to be to rebuke the (bloated) expansion of the executive that took place especially over the last decade. I'm not sure this was necessary in this instance, but as a general matter, this is a laudable goal. Where it fails specifically is that Congress attempted to deal with this precise question and voted down the objection of religious practices.

8) Ginsburg's dissent is a mishmash of things I find agreeable and things I do not, much as the ruling itself is. The main thrust of the argument that I find of note and interest is the general practices of a law, if everyone must comply with a given law or regulation, religious exemptions are of little importance to them, and likewise if targeting the particular religious expressions are not the interest of the state in forming the law or regulation, as it was not in this case, then the law should stand. Again, I find this interesting in a general sense, but the specific law, requiring a private actor to buy something, as well as dictating the terms under which that something must exist, seems to be the wrong hill on which to fight that battle. It further becomes muddy because of the existence of exemptions for similar, but not same, formats of companies, exemptions which came into form primarily (but not wholly) because of religious exemptions. I do not find the logic that it in some way damages the accessibility of the contentious forms of birth control persuasive, because it is plain that there are already existing methods available to substitute to assure the interest of accessibility was maintained.

9) The main appealing quality (for me) of Ginsburg's dissent is where it remains tightly focused on first amendment free exercise readings, simply because for me this was largely a question of whether a particular belief was being infringed upon, and that in this instance, the particular belief was absurd. The problem there is that there are legal statutes in place that intend the courts not to challenge whether a belief is central and essential, regardless of its absurdity. And there does not appear to be case law in either direction suggesting that corporate entities, in their function as economic devices controlled by people, do or do not have access to those exercise rights of religious beliefs. The conclusion that they should is inferred from example. The conclusion that they should not is largely inferred by absence. This is not as clear and settled a matter as a result as it appears in dissent.

29 June 2014

The appeal of thinking apocalyptically

There seems to be no limitation to the ability of humans to conceive of ways that their own generation will be the last generation of humans to exist and flourish. I can conceive myself of a myriad of destructive forces that could signal the end of modern civilization. I am not certain that most of them pose us a grave risk in our lifetimes. This does not mean that investment in multi generational solutions is not worthwhile; it simply means that our imagination of time is far too limited. Studies of history would rather quickly show us that many things we take easily for granted are very recent, and that (positive or negative) social changes can happen more rapidly than we anticipate. Studies of other cultures would rather quickly show us some people still don't know of their benefits at all and live at a much more marginal subsistence level. We ourselves often as not have already developed such specialised economies surrounding these benefits that most of us could not replicate them outside of that society of specialisation as we lack any of the required training or aptitude.

Of these world ending scenarios I can think of perhaps four that are worthy of our concern.

1) Asteroids or other large deep space objects colliding with the Earth (or the Moon if they were big enough). - There's a lot of stuff out there and the Earth is a fairly large gravitational influence to pull in objects that pass very close to us. The easiest way to start on this project is to set out to assure we can detect random space particles of asteroids or comets that may pass nearby. And then from there figure out what we would need to do to repel, divert, or even destroy those that pose a greater threat of damaging our environment or potentially impacting near a population center.

2) Nuclear warfare, particularly on a large scale. - There's still enough nuclear firepower in even some of the tertiary nuclear armed countries to annihilate most of human civilisation in minutes. This is to say nothing of the American or Russian arsenals that could (still) do so several times over. The easy way here is to reduce the size of those arsenals overall. That is unlikely for political reasons beyond a certain point. One good incentive of doing so though is the materials used to detonate a large city can also be repurposed to power a large city relatively cleanly, with at least much less of a footprint environmentally than a coal power plant. More countries will occasionally consider this an acceptable possibility.

3) Biological pandemic. - I do not think we're about to have a zombie plague breakout at all, but it is very possible for a virus to wipe out large numbers of people and create a social panic far exceeding the absurd levels of panic we generated over a few religious fanatics and their rejection of modern society via terrorism. We have various methods of response already available to research and cure or treat some diseases. Probably the biggest problem is actually identifying when something is a serious risk of becoming an international pandemic capable of killing or incapacitating tens or even hundreds of millions of people. Even something that could kill a million people a year is a serious problem (and there are diseases that do so right now, but they generally don't have a transmission vector that poses a serious risk to developed societies like the US, so nobody really gives a shit). The tricky bit there is then to do so before it ever reaches that point. And then actually being able to show the counterfactual of mass chaos and biological devastation was true instead of a false alarm.

I think this is somewhat less likely than is historically the case to be a serious concern. Humans live in somewhat more removed circumstances from livestock/poultry (not everywhere), which were the pathogenic sources for killer diseases like smallpox in our past. We also live in a more connected society which means that most of us have been exposed to more varied diseases and developed a broader immune spectrum. Smallpox was still potentially lethal to Europeans but vastly more so to aboriginal peoples in North and South America precisely because these peoples had had no exposure to it and no time to develop it (and in not a few cases, because the Europeans accelerated the plague by spreading it deliberately). Something generally ignored is that the introduction of small pox to the western hemisphere is estimated to have killed off millions of people in less than a century and certainly tens of thousands were dead within a few short years. This is far, far more destructive than AIDS, or Ebola, or even the famous influenza outbreak during the WW1 era as a matter of perspective. Whole villages or towns were wiped out or ceased to function. In order to repeat this, we would most likely require a viral or bacterial agent that acts lethally, spreads easily, and for which humans have no current immunities (meaning it would be unlike other infectious agents). That can happen. Viruses and bacterium can mutate and adapt, and our overuse of antibiotics as a society is not helping by potentially forcing such mutations forward faster than we can adapt our medical knowledge.

4) Global warming. - Of the four of these, this is probably the only one that actually requires amendment of human behavior in any way. It's also probable that unless it generates very catastrophic results (possible), that mostly richer countries could adapt to climate changes and circumstances without a major impact on well-being and lifestyle for most of their citizens even as climate is shifting. The problem isn't the billion or 3 people living in the rich or near rich world. It's the other 3-4 billion who are living in societies that are closer to subsistence levels or abject poverty. Their lives can be ended, their countries destroyed or chaotic, and so on. I regard that as a very serious matter that people of Bangladesh would be impacted and it does not seem sensible that we should do nothing as a society or individually in response. But that leads to the actual and more sensible debate, "so, what do we do about it now?"

I've seen or encountered a lot of arguments and they come from both the local, individual level, and the societal, governmental level.

  • Stop burning coal. Easier said than done, but I agree. Coal is the most bad option here to power a modern society used in large amounts. To do so you'd have to change the price of burning coal to be less profitable ALL over the globe, not just here, where coal use is actually going down already, or change the price of alternative fuel sources (natural gas for example) to be cheaper options. 
  • Use and fund alternative energy projects. I suspect a far stronger argument could be to stop funding "dirty" energy projects or fuel use with substantial subsidies first rather than trying to redress this balance by funding yet more energy projects. 
  • Apply some kind of externality (as "net zero" income tax) onto existing fossil fuel consumption and sale. For the most part if we could pass a pretty clean bill to do this, and the tax wasn't used to build new infrastructure (unless it is upgrading existing infrastructure or a distribution system for new or cleaner fuels), this would be my favored approach at the policy level. I have little confidence such a bill would be clean and that there would be all manner of carve outs. The basis for this working would be that most people could avoid the tax by reducing their individual energy footprint, which in turn should make it easier to pay for any consequences of climate shifts as they may be reduced (and thus less tax would need to be raised). 
  • Localvore food consumption. For the most part I think this is a silly idea and that it may even be counterproductive environmentally. Maybe not on climate change but on water pollution from agricultural run-off of nitrates or disease vectors from using manure. Which in turn requires feeding and care of large animals, who themselves are a considerable source of pollution. I think this argument rests on several concerns; that trade from elsewhere is somehow inefficient, which is usually false, I see no problem if I have to buy my grapes from California or Chile and I am greatly improved as an individual to have a large array of possible produce and meat to sample and enjoy in my daily meals. We are all also greatly improved to buy things from other people by selling them things that we are ourselves effectively producing rather than trying to consume them all ourselves. Trade works and is almost always a good in improving our lives to let things be grown or produced in places that can do so far more effectively than we can ourselves. The major flaw of that argument is it dramatically underestimates that the environmental impact of modern agriculture is almost entirely at the production stage (especially for meat), and not at the shipment, storage, and distribution stage. Which is pretty small for most things. Even if it is not zero, it is the act of large scale farming (even local farming) that does most of the work. It is generally more efficient and much less damaging to have a large farm, even a local one, going out and fertilizing and producing food and flora and fauna for sale than to have lots of people gardening. The reason people should garden should not be that they believe they can save the planet. The reason should be that it is something they enjoy doing or enjoy the (literal) fruits of. As related concerns, many people have gone into buying things that are "organic" or "natural", with similar environmental justifications that are usually equally flawed. The reason human beings should consume these things in their diet has little to do with the environment and more to do with the fulfillment they receive from production of the food stuffs and the overall reliability of the food chain if they feel they know where something came from rather than an impersonal package of meat or vegetables. If the environmental impact is, as I think it is, actually somewhat negative, it's fairly negligible at the individual level to have a garden versus trying to buy local produce from farms that can be grown half way around the world for a quarter of the environmental cost. 
  • At an individual level many people may seek to reduce their energy use, or to use alternative sources of energy themselves. Unfortunately there appears to be a large signaling effect at play rather than an effective result. People and companies sometimes install wind turbines that have to be powered to spin because there is inadequate wind to turn them most of the time, and then wastefully power them anyway. Solar panels are more frequently deployed on the side of the house or business facing the street, regardless of whether that is the side which would generate the most electrical power. Recycling rates are far more likely in the US to be reasonably high if the collection of recyclable goods and materials is public. People who own more fuel efficient cars on average drive them more often which leads to larger traffic snarls and jams, which in turn leads to more pollution and higher energy consumption rates, for not only themselves but for other drivers. Governments respond to this last by building more roads, which paradoxically can increase traffic and energy use further by providing more routes, if not also more destinations. 
  • By far the most significant thing at an individual level (here at any rate) that could be done is to do away with the home mortgage interest deductions in the US (actually this is government having to do something, but it would change individual behavior significantly). This would help to encourage urban density instead of suburban life; which nobody seems to actually want so much as they may find the cities unpleasant right now. We would need some governmental actions to reduce rent controls or property constraints such that more people could live vertically, thereby reducing commuting and concentrating our energy demands, densifying populations and destinations to make public transit much more viable, and so on. 
  • Tax congestion on roads by instituting variable tolls on controlled access roads (highways). 
  • We may want to combine that with an effort to allow for more telecommuting work and flexible scheduling. 
  • Another strong individual level constraint would be to have more energy efficient objects, put in insulation, design homes and offices to be heat/cooling efficient, unplug things more often, compost food waste, and so on. Most of this is invisible and inconspicuous consumption. That makes it difficult to signal. Which implies that maybe we need conspicuous signs that we've done it that come along with these projects and maybe more people would investigate these options. 
  • Geo-engineering experiments to alter weather or sunlight absorption patterns. These are uncertain, but in my view are at this rate the most likely options to proceed forward and be carried out, somewhere, by someone. 
The individual arguments arise primarily out of frustration that the societal level few things are being done. I find that there are two basic attitudes to really any large scale societal issue.
1) Most people expect someone else to do all the work of fixing it. This may be a consequence of specialisation. Climate modeling or weather and climate analysis and geological histories are complicated subjects and can involve a great deal of the dreaded "math". It is assumed that because this is a "science" problem, that scientists will solve it for us. In repeated polls I think the average American expects that whether we are faced with a plague or widespread drought and heat waves/cold snaps from climate shifts, we would have smart people somewhere stashed working on solving the problem and they would invent something that wouldn't require us, as individuals, to really fundamentally alter how we live in a "negative" way. Innovation must be a part of our problems and their solutions, but innovation sometimes requires that we will eat some vegetables for a while before it gets into the wild as a tamed beast with applications ready to go. It is not as clean and tidy as is believed, and it often involves an iterative process of fits, starts, failures, and restarts. And then even if it is ready to get something off the ground and working, someone could try to squash it politically anyway. 

2) Everyone else then basically expects that somehow nobody will ever do anything about a major problem at a large enough scale and that preparation for imminent disaster and societal collapse is an immediate priority. Or if not taken on that scale, that we should adopt fairly radical and often ineffectual behaviors to moderate our worst and most destructive impulses, without properly and empirically seeking out a way of identifying what those are. In other words, "we should all do what I say, because I don't like X." Whether or not X is actually a problem or not or whether solution Y is itself any more desirable is not important to discuss. The important thing is to be seen as "doing something" about the problem, and often as a corollary to loudly proclaim that whatever that something is, it's probably what you are doing about it.

The advantages of both of these systems is that it allows the measure of blame to be mostly shifted away. And for complex scenarios for which the individual's merit and demerit is very small, elections, pollution, water or antibiotic overuse, etc, it is in fact the case there isn't much incentive to making significant changes in your own behavior.

The question mark is what happens when the cumulative incentives are bad such that little or no change is made, in an area something must be changed or calamities are at risk of occurring. The best bet is to look for a way to change the game and rig the incentives. But if we think we're about to destroy the world and no longer have the incentive of "future generations" toward which we are abstractly connected through children or grandchildren, nobody has any incentive to change the game. They actually have a strong incentive to hold out for a better deal to do what they want. Apocalyptic thinking is the self-important way to examine the situation, the flexibility of the status quo, and determine (or pre-ordain really) that the world probably won't spin on without me and my kind in it anyway, so why should I care what happens to it now.

This is a reality based outgrowth of my disdain for the common belief in supernatural afterlives. The world is here, now. We have some responsibility to do things with the people in it, and to interact and attempt, if often poorly, to share their concerns and affections. The thinking that the world won't be here tomorrow, or that there's some better world out there instead, destroys these moral obligations to one another in the face of potential catastrophes. It may accelerate their comings and goings rather than give us breaks and stops on that path.