28 November 2011

Very incisive.

I like it. Especially the part about the more things stay the same.

I'd like to break down some points a little more.

1) ObamaCare. I've pretty well covered this back when it was an ongoing "debate". But basically my read on this is that
a) not much of importance actually changed under the bill. Either in terms of controlling health care costs or improving health care per dollar outcomes, or much of anything really.
b) repealing it would be fun. If, and only if, there were some actual intentions to seriously debate and reform health care systems in this country in order to better achieve either of those two goals.
Since it is pointed out that Republicans, both politicians and the conservative base, have long since caved on the points about providing medical care to people who cannot afford it, and also on a related point about pre-existing conditions, I think it is pretty clear that we are not actually interested in reforming health care systems or having space cleared out for intelligent debates in order to consider such debates. The in-the-weeds arguments that accepted both the need for some form of mandate and some form of public goods provision of health are a lot more interesting than the bullshit behavior that pretends that we don't need a public goods provision while overwhelmingly backing said public goods provision (and then refusing to fully fund it, or otherwise pretending that it doesn't cost money). Things like "France versus Singapore" models of health care present far more discussions and options, and at this point I would quite simply argue that both models are superior to ours. Either because health care outcomes are improved (there are sound arguments that there are diet and cultural reasons involved here too, but it's hard to argue that France or Singapore has a terrible health care delivery system either. The difference is largely in methods of financing) or because both models (will) cost less public money. Considerably less in the case of Singapore.

2/3. I'd agree that trade is a dead letter. There's still some residual anti-trade constituencies in the form of some protectionist displacement funding in "free" trade agreements, but overall we're far more accepting, finally, of (mostly) free trade. At least at the elite level. Early-post-NAFTA years were ugly and I've no wish to relive them. And I'm also in agreement that higher taxes are coming. But not so soon. If a super majority of Democratic Senators, Democratic House control, and Obama couldn't get the "Bush tax cuts" removed, at least on the rich, then I'd have to say they were never interested in doing so. All the rhetoric in the world about soaking the rich, by either side, doesn't make a lick of difference.

4) Immigration is very much an interesting topic, but I'd agree not much is happening on it. Unlike abortion, there are constituencies on both sides of the aisle that align their interests for or against immigration which prevent action. Note that I said for or against immigration, not just for or against "illegal immigration". I meant what I said. We have plenty of xenophobes who don't care if their silly and sloppy attempts to physically deport millions of people also oppresses, harasses, and defames millions more who have the misfortune to look like relatives (in many cases because they are), or who have the misfortune to live and work as Americans, legally, but look like Mexicans. Or Arabs. Or whoever. This suggests to me that these are people who are not merely anti-illegal immigrant, but anti-immigrant period. They do not want to share their states and towns with "non-Americans". Whatever that means. It's not a new story for our history. But it's always been a pathetic and sad one. Every. single. time. Since Franklin was railing about Germans, and the Prohibitionists were railing about Italians, and New Yorkers about the Irish, Californians about the Chinese (and later the Japanese or Koreans), and so on. It's gotten boring and tedious over the last 200+ years. If it weren't for human nature being what it is, good at forming in-group/out-group associations, I'd really wish we'd have grown out of our tiresome teenage spites against those people who have the temerity to listen to different music and eat or drink strange things and speak in some foreign tongue among themselves.

5) This line was the most incisive in the whole post. "A reversal of Roe vs. Wade, in my estimation, would destroy the pro-life movement. The chipping away strategy can work, but will happen regardless of who is in office." It points out several things at once. First. That liberals and in particular Democrats in office and in elite opinion circles are not defending abortion rights. Indeed, because the average person has a vague supposition that abortions are bad and to be avoided, the average voter has thus concluded that almost any restrictions designed to limit access to such actions are somehow innocuous and sensible. These two things do not automatically follow each logically, but the average voter is not presented with very many voices suggesting as much. With the exception of very extreme attempts to completely shut down access to abortions (as in South Dakota with explicit anti-abortion laws and with Mississippi and it's silly personhood amendment), most people do not get riled up enough to back Roe vs Wade. In either direction really. The second point is also extremely useful to consider. Let's say that Roe v Wade was somehow overturned (it won't be with this court, but suppose Kennedy were to retire, let's say, and was somehow replaced with a staunch conservative instead of a squishy quasi-libertarian conservative). What would be the result? A few hardline states would ban abortions through legislative initiatives. And most would not. This would be a confusing legal scenario and difficult to enforce. But the major point is that it would immediately defuse the primary rallying cry of pro-life groups (activist judges making legal abortions) and would confront them with the much larger task of convincing the general public that such actions should be made illegal more broadly. Without having a central flag to wave in order to curry favor and support (the federal court rulings). I'd agree this is a very unhappy result because it would not much advance the debate around abortions and birth control and other related topics, especially in states that seek to ban it. But it does have the delicious irony of resembling a dog chasing a car. If the dog succeeds, then what? The best pro-life groups can achieve by this is to ban abortions in their own states. They're not going to successfully ban it in most states. And definitely not in all states. Such a movement would deflate without a central point to organise around, with the comfortable successes of having established conservative enclaves. That sucks. But it's not the end of the world and it very likely ends up with abortion legal everywhere some generations hence as the argument turns back toward back alley illegal abortions and the costs born by teenage moms.

7) I disagree rather strongly I should think on whether the right in particular has learned any humbling lessons about its foreign policy adventurism. Indeed, I'm not even sure one could say that the Democrats have learned those lessons (given Libya as exhibit A, but older examples like Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sudan, would also do). One should hardly expect Republicans to have learned much if their opposition has advanced many of its arguments surrounding executive power and foreign policy, or surrounding arbitrary foreign adventures in regime change. And a cursory glance at the GOP foreign policy debates suggests that elite opinion must not have shifted much either. Hawkishness on Iran, from suggesting physical attacks on nuclear facilities (even my FP homeboy up there Huntsman did this, much to my chagrin) to suggesting that we should have encouraged "regime change" or interacted more strongly during the "Persian spring" (again, thanks for nothing Jon), do not impress upon me the idea that Republicans have been disabused from the notion that neoconservative policies do not work very well in practice. The advocacy surrounding torture isn't very promising either (at least he got this one right). Despite that. The conclusive point to draw would be that not much would likely change on foreign policy. And on that point I would agree. I'm just doubtful that "not much would change" would mean that we're going to be fighting fewer wars.

8) This point also was excellent. Reform of entitlements is a popular talking point. But it has no real constituencies. People my age are not agitating for it, and if anything want to see them continue to their own time of retirement. People our grandparents age are the closest to actually opposing current policies as unsustainable. At best we will be nibbling on the edges here for some time. Actual reforms will not be happening. Consider, as a related problem, the amount of fuss and annoyance that surrounds medical evidence suggesting lots of pre-cancerous screening to be at best counterproductive and worrying, or at worst, actively harmful to the general public. People still insist on these screens and tests even in the face of evidence that they are mostly just expensive ways to waste money and to generate useless worrying. If the general public is this ignorant of sound medical practices, it is not about to spend a lot of time fussing that it's public provisions of health care are actually delivering sound medical practices either. It is far more important to appear to be concerned than to actually improve people's lives. Far more.

10) "No one cares about the deficit". Correct. If they did, they would have been agitated about it under Bush. Or Reagan. And be more excited about Clinton in historical terms. More exercised about entitlements (see point 8). More interested in what the federal (or state) budget actually looks like... and so on.

11) Just depressing. I indeed find it unpleasant. And I indeed recognize it won't matter. Ron Paul or Gary Johnson aren't going to be candidates for President. Dennis Kucinich isn't either. Russ Feingold won't be. And this isn't because there aren't elites agitating against civil liberties abuses. It is because the general public so rarely cares about such issues. It needs more pepper spray it seems. Government agents fondling unwilling people at airports aside, this isn't a dog most people want to bark. They want the security theater. They want puppets telling them that they are vigilant against attacks and that the latest youtube video of a cop beating/tasing/pepper spraying a suspect, or shooting a dog, or of a TSA agent groping a woman or leaving "hilarious" notes about her, shall we say, personal effects contained in luggage, are either aberrations to be dealt with rather than systemic errors (as they are more likely) or were necessary for our safety and security. All while offering no evidence to this effect because they will not be required to produce said evidence. Let's just move on. I feel like I need to throw up.

12-13) Probably a little too optimistic on marijuana decriminalisation. Probably not optimistic enough about gay marriage. Demographic trends on that are highly favorable to be almost every state in 10 years though. Marijuana is a 50% issue over the longer term. It will need to be much higher to actually shift elite opinion, but it is getting there. Most likely a state will attempt (and pass) a law legalising pot within the next 2 election cycles. And that will force a court battle with the federal courts which eventually the feds will cave in from as more states pile on. That would make it de facto legal in a few states (as it already is in a few more). The sky won't fall, and then most will follow in some form. I don't see a path where large majorities of lots of states pass decriminalisation or legalisation reforms. Not yet anyway. If California couldn't pass one, we're not getting it through in most any other place.

22 November 2011


In lieu of my confusion over the pepper spray photo meme, in which I haven't decided whether or not to like the attempt to popularize police brutality for the use of 2 million scoville unit pepper spray onto the faces of peaceful protestors or not, I've also come across this.

I appreciate a nerdy joke as much as any. It is rather plainly written by a very left-leaning fellow from team "Blue" (particularly given the relatively positive approach taken to Ron Paul, other than the shot about his professional work, and the sort of annoyances taken toward Obama). Still, I saw nothing appreciably wrong with some of these depictions. Certainly the bulk of the GOP field is little more than a set of rolling punchlines (Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, and Perry in particular).

But I'd have to say the Koch brothers would hardly be impressed with Herman Cain, nor would they form some sort of deity to which he responds. He doesn't have their politics, nor does he articulate whatever politics he does have very well at all. If I were them, I would demand a better spokesperson for my views than Cain as a result. Of course, I find the sort of liberal-Democrat froth surrounding the Koch brothers befuddling already. Also there's a funny chart showing the political split over Godfather's Pizza since Cain joined the race. Democrats are suddenly not all that fond of it anymore. I couldn't remember the last time I had any to provide my own opinion, but my opinion of pizza chains generally is already rather low. I wouldn't have required Cain's candidacy to form a low opinion.

Regardless of whether the general public wants polyamory and homosexuality to be on the same moral and legal plane, they actually are more or less on the same moral plane. I happen to think this means both should be legal and tolerated because both mostly have to do with contract law and consenting adults' private sexual behaviors. There are good reasons in practice why polyamory should have a few sensible additional legal and moral elements associated with it that aren't necessary with ordinary monogamous heterosexual or homosexual partnerships, but conceptually it's perfectly fine. Naturally when someone brings up this comparison as though it is an absolute negative, I find it disturbing (I even found it necessary to write into a moral values survey about this distinction some months back. I wasn't terribly impressed with their reply either. They had several sloppily written questions like that).

Overall, I would agree Santorum is a highly bigoted buffoon too, and he flat out lacks the charisma to stake out the Huckabee type candidacy that he appears to be trying to do. But the sort of attitude taken to him here does reduce the comedic value. As in, it's not really that clever or funny to call someone a shitpile. Perhaps it is emotionally satisfying to the person doing the calling, if one doesn't particularly care for the target of such ill humors. But successful comedy isn't just about making yourself feel better. Your audience has to relate to the humor. Humor where objects are seen askew, funny. Humor where the objects become pitiful or enraging, not so much.

The government doesn't kill people, it neutralizes them.

Or depopulates the area.

This is a useful way to look at the impact of public policies, by looking at the consequences of their implementation. If a policy designed supposedly for safety's sake is instead resulting in hundreds of deaths then chances are excellent that it is a bad policy. Perhaps there are safety related regulations or rules that could have been imposed relating to air travel post 9-11 that actually would make people safer.

a) most of them were adopted almost immediately by either airlines, travelers, or the government as things like secured cockpits, more attentive passengers, and better (but not necessarily very good) filters over screening one-way visa travel.
b) we have no official mechanisms in place for determining the actual efficacy of things like harassing passengers at the gate, random searches, nude body scanners, and so on. Studies that are available suggest that either it's an extremely overboard system that wastes of a lot of energy and time and requires too much manpower to be effective, or that even the technical aspects involved (body scanners for instance) are inadequate to the supposed goals of detecting explosives or weapons.

So for right now, it looks like we're more interested in appearing to be safe but in fact letting more people die. They are likely to let us leave our shoes on soon. Maybe we should be thankful for that much at least. I think it's more like we call it "security" so we feel like we did something meaningful, maybe even patriotic. When it's really "take off your damn shoes you pathetic plebeian scum!". People being screwed with just because they can be arbitrary and petty with the application of power.


I'd be curious to know what's so nostalgic about an era where the teen birth rate is almost triple what it currently is.

But I'm a little more interested to see what's caused the decline. I would expect that broader understanding and use of birth control, especially the pill or various shot forms, and legal access to abortions help. Though not as much as the major cultural shifts associated with the pill and feminism. That's a huge drop-off starting in the 60s. Pre-Roe in other words. So it's not abortion that's causing it (which incidentally, abortion rates have been dropping anyway).

Also interesting why we're apparently not interested in decreasing it further (ie, by seeing fewer teens getting pregnant as in the Netherlands). I should think most Americans would be a little worried when they see a statistical comparison to Bulgaria coming up. It has been decreasing though. And that's presumably a good thing.

In a related topic, I've had a minor debate over feminism and gay rights, particularly relating to the military and the use there of. I'm quite happy to acknowledge that feminism has had a slow and steady contribution to the increasing pacific nature of the world and to egalitarian notions like tolerance and cooperation for which gay rights movements have much to owe. But I'm entirely unconvinced that it acts as a guarantee of tolerance and cooperation or as a measure granting pacific qualities to a society that lacks them. I think it can help. I don't think we'd live in an ever more peaceful world if it were run by women instead of men. Or that men and testosterone generally are a subsequent guarantee of violence and conflict and strife. Perhaps these conclusions are little more than assumptions. But there are contradictory pieces of evidence (Switzerland's FP since Napoleon for instance) that shoot these theories down to much weaker contributions than stronger claims that are often advanced in jest or by people misinterpreting theories and human biology. I'm equally unconvinced that feminism is alone in helping form broad and diverse cooperative societies. I think you'd have to also blame classical liberalism for both the ability to govern large and intellectually diverse populations, to provide legal protections leaning toward tolerance rather than hatred, and to both of these trends as means lessening violence in societies and between them. A generally pacific society that accepts division and differences, and debates them openly and freely, certainly seems like a healthy ideal. And I'm happy to accept anything that will help get us there.

I'm not so happy with arguments that we should have to somehow exclude men or women from the process. Or that arguments, however silly and hypocritical, relating to sexuality more broadly, are going to be won over by better abstract arguments. I see the average person as being very poor at "far" thinking, of the sort that governs broad diverse societies in codified laws. Especially those relating to tolerance. This is not necessarily their fault, but it is something that has to be contended with when attempting to advance arguments. Abstract "far" thinking isn't going to help very much in the long run. What will, it seems, is direct engagement. People who know a gay man or lesbian woman or a transgendered person, or someone who has had a sex change, or someone from an obscure faith/atheist, will tend to become more tolerant and accepting of such distinctions. Most people have the unfortunate tendency to construct complex schema based on personal experiences, and to protect those schema by isolating themselves from challenging experiences and discussions, or in particular by rejecting the ideas involved. I'm pretty sure this explains a large portion of religious belief and participation (social isolationism of a sort). I'm also pretty sure that this will be less and less possible in future. The rapid change of the world and interconnectedness means that hiding from uncomfortable notions and experiences will be less possible. Confrontation however need not be violent and unpleasant. It is not, strangely enough, the likelihood that merely meeting and talking with a gay man is going to turn a straight person gay. For example. The same logic behind confronting communism with capitalism, however flawed either were in practice, and coming away from discourse with outright socialists not converted to their cause, to tolerate the right of opinion and expression, is not quite analogous to private homosexual preferences. But I see no

Foreign policy is wacked out.

This is important.

One of the things often glazed over in the haste of politicians hacking away at foreign aid in their speeches and debates is how much of that aid is actually little more than military funding. We give a ton of such funding to Afghanistan and Iraq, for the obvious reason that we are occupying those countries and presumably "training" and arming their armed forces. But beyond that, we also give large sums to Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, and lesser amounts to other nations. Over half of our total foreign aid budget is consumed by these sorts of programmes. I doubt very much this is the sort of thing the average voter, when they are telling anyone in sight that foreign aid should be cut (to an amount more than we currently spend no less, because they don't actually know how much we spend on it and have no idea how big the federal budget is), has in mind as "foreign aid" for one. And second it is precisely the sort of aid programmes that neoconservative hacks who say they want to cut the foreign aid budget want to keep because it advances their silly nation-building/Christian Zionist foreign policy agendas. And as noted, it is thus precisely these kinds of foreign aid that aren't being cut. Indeed, they're precisely the sort that has been greatly expanded over the last decade.

Since I'd say neither of those are laudable goals for our foreign policy and national interests (helping a first world nation fund its military, Israel, or building for unstable third world countries larger and more capable armed forces without sound civilian institutions for stability of control, meaning the armed forces have outsized levels of control over the society and economy as in Pakistan), I'd be perfectly fine if this was the sort of foreign aid that gets gutted. I find no problem if the US wants to commit itself to helping defend Israel or leases out forces and equipment to provide a stable environment for the sale and transport of oil reserves in the Middle East (along with other goods). I have a much bigger problem if we're wasting money investing in pointless schemes that don't help accomplish those goals. We do little to help "defend" Israel if by providing it with money and technical expertise and equipment they feel emboldened to mistreat and abuse large portions of their residents and kick around their neighbours. And we do little to advance regional stability by attempting to build a nation-state out of Afghanistan and attempting to bribe Pakistan's military into helping us to do that when they have very real national interests in not doing so. So stuff like this is probably precisely the sort of waste, fraud, and abuse that people claim occupies huge portions of the federal budget.

Stuff like vaccines and AIDs funding in Africa, not so much really.

Everything is everything

I realize I haven't been very sympathetic to the complaints of these Occupy protesters. I share some of the diagnosis (crony capitalism is a real problem), but I disagree much on the potential solutions they offer (regulatory capture and public choice theory suggest that simply passing more rules in order to do something is stupid and bound to produce more problems than it would solve). For example, a protest in DC seized an abandoned school in the misguided notion that selling the school property to a private developer who wants to build a luxury hotel on the grounds would be less beneficial than building a homeless shelter on the same grounds. This would be true only if the city could not benefit from additional tax revenues from tourists and hotel fees (plus the cost of buying or leasing the property from the city) and use them to park a homeless shelter somewhere else (somewhere a private developer doesn't wish to buy the valuable land for hotel use). Or from the potential jobs created when the hotel opens meaning that there could be fewer homeless people in the first place. And so on. It can be an effective use of citizens to register and complain about developments in their neighbourhoods and cities, though I'd say we have much bigger fish to fry than the state selling off unused property and land to private owners (for instance eminent domain cases where the state SEIZES private property and then provides it to new private owners, as in Kelo or Brooklyn most famously).

All that said, this business has repeatedly cropped back up over and over in my attention and indeed the general public's not necessarily because they have a catchy message applicable to the nation or society as a whole, but because the authorities keep sending in the dogs. Keep sending in force to clear away peaceful demonstrations. They have some justification for wishing to clear these occupations and protests out because of time, place, and manner restrictions on the first amendment, so that's fine. But how is important. And so they keep trying to keep out the cameras when they do it. Precisely because they know very well what is liable to be on those cameras doesn't look very good and justified (pepper spray and tear gas on people sitting down).

This force has highlighted something which is tangentially related to the occupation's general complaints. Namely, the lack of accountability for authorities, especially on the issues relating to the use of force, and especially on the use of "non-lethal" force (tasers, pepper spray, tear gas, flashbang grenades, sound cannons etc). To date, the use of these has largely come up in dispersing more riotous crowds (at the WTO riots in Seattle or Pittsburgh, there was at least some violent demonstrators to justify use of force to disperse and arrest such) and more commonly in small organised raids on private property, usually against suspected drug dealers, or against single individuals, such as for non-compliance at traffic stops. Sometimes these make news. Tasing a grandmother isn't exactly the intended likely best use of a taser. Most of the time these incidents are explained away much as the statement after the now infamous UC-Davis scenario was. Police explain that they "feared for their safety", code words for "violent force was thereby justified", whether or not it actually was. For most people, these sorts of statements are sufficient justification without any further investigation warranted. I'd say that whenever the state and its agents decide to apply force against citizens, it should be clearly warranted. And when it is not, someone should pay an actual consequence (loss of job, arrest and criminal penalties, civil lawsuits, etc). Sometimes these uses of force do have legitimate causes and sometimes the legitimate purposes are less clear and the use of force justifications more vague. Some amount of leeway is appropriate because it can be difficult to assess complex situations in seconds as police often must. But the petty examples of casual puppycides, or even shootings of people during drug raids suggest that we've allowed a great deal of both militarization and callousness to infect the way we are policing entire neighbourhoods or for specific purposes. That these events are generally happening in tech-savvy student areas like campuses is really the only difference from what has happened for years in many neglected urban areas. We should be more than willing to ask why that is tolerated. Why if we appoint agents to use force on our behalf, for public safety or order, that we don't check up on how they're doing with that force and whether the public safety or order is being improved or endangered by these agents.

18 November 2011

Around the world in 10000 words

I've been busy lately.

But so has the world.

So... Occupy Wall Street has been invaded and closed down. I'd have to agree that the police crackdown that finally came was probably better for this movement than letting winter and boredom cull the herd so to speak. Indeed, one could make a case that it is the very actions of police that started the attention on it in the first place; the brutal pepper spray video and scenes of mass arrests at its outset. All that said, I still don't think I have a clear handle on what, if any, agenda was involved in cohering the protests. I think the closest is the "this is what democracy looks like" chant with the idea of a horizontal non-authoritarian power structure. And I'd have to second Mr. Sanchez's deconstruction of that as a woefully utopian view that can only exist if you are surrounded by a few hundred people who generally share the views and outlooks on politics that you do. It dies the moment you encounter irreconcilable differences in cultural outlook (eg, social conservativism vs social liberalism) and have to resort to more than chants to shout down your opponents. Or even, shudder, have to listen to them instead of pretending that they just don't understand you (which they almost certainly have a deformed opinion, but as do you of them).

I'd also agree the "we are the 99%" troupe was silly and useless. Yes it highlights wealth inequality but it offers, by itself, no discernible paths to resolving that inequality.

There's been a fuss over e-cigarettes finally. I'm not a smoker. I find the habit disgusting. That said, I've also opposed state-enforced bans on smoking in restaurants, bars, most public spaces, etc. I find it more or less concentrates smoking in a handful of places that carve out legal exceptions ("private clubs" for instance) and that the places that are actually effectively banned were probably on their way out for permitting smoking anyway and didn't need the architecture of the state to control for it (most restaurants for instance). Plus I think that lacking the social enforcement desirable in most restaurants, such a ban is legally unenforceable anyway. With this said, I also find that if people are going to smoke, or otherwise attempt to ingest nicotine, then we should aim for the safest, healthiest ways for them to do so with the least possible harms to others. Secondhand smoke looks to me like more of a nuisance than a public danger, but if we can eliminate it entirely, as e-cigarettes do, then I won't complain. I'm a little confused as to why it is that the usually harm reductive liberals are the ones campaigning most vigorously to oppose these things and (maintain the) ban e-cigarettes. Evidently there's some obsession concerning cigarettes and/or nicotine that doesn't arrive concerning cocaine... except that nicotine patches and gum are perfectly acceptable. Maybe it's just the social phenomenon of watching people light up and blow on something (as evidenced by the changes in movie ratings relating to smoking?). Again, I don't quite understand this. It would seem to me that a society should aim for allowing people to do marginally dangerous things to their own bodies by choice (tattoos, consuming alcohol/tobacco/narcotics), provided that these things aren't hazardous to others (eg, pollution). Why get worked up about some people puffing out water vapor from fake cigarettes? Especially when the alternative is these same people puffing out secondhand smoke from real cigarettes? It sounds like a "for the children!" problem relating to the old gateway drug theory. But again, these are purported harm reduction liberals. Gateway drugs isn't exactly a fashionable theory among such people. Or really anyone who understands drugs.

My best guess would be that there's a crazy alliance between tobacco farmers and companies, the FDA/DEA types who just want to ban everything, and some overzealous anti-smoking campaigners.

Concurrent to that. Apparently all the smart kids are druggies. Or something. Actually that's not quite right, but essentially, if you have a smart kid, expect them to be more experimental. So to speak. And don't expect them to listen to the usual bullshit lines concerning drugs, sex, etc. Speak to them like an adult and trust them to make sensible decisions based on reliable information. Speak to them like a child and they are going to ignore you. My own pet theory on why there's such a disparity between drug use among regular people and the smart ones is that smart people are much more likely to be part of any counter-cultural "radical" behavior. We make up the core of atheists. Of libertarians. Of anarchists. Of socialists. And so on. It's a lot easier for intelligent people to consume complex arguments and construct sensible ones of their own concerning such radical "anti-social" behavior. It's also a lot easier for smart kids to "get in trouble" and then get away with it. They'll think it through more. This encourages a little bit of playing with the boundaries.

This result has some immediate policy implications. For instance, to those idiotic notions of drug-testing welfare recipients. This flies in the face of the argument that only pathetic losers are using drugs (intelligence also correlates with relative success people in the workplace and academia as a means toward self-advancement also). There are related studies suggesting that it's largely white-middle class people out there buying and consuming narcotics, and then a much smaller collection of browner addicts who get busted for it. Combined with the actual results of such initiatives as Florida's (that is, that 98% of tests come back negative and the state must now pay for the drug testing as well as welfare benefits), it suggests that a) most drug users don't need welfare in the first place, b) most drug users who would aren't going to apply for welfare anyway (they have other problems). As a second problem, it helps explain why those stupid DARE programmes don't work. Showing intelligent children drugs isn't likely to garner their cooperation in turning in their parents (the real purpose of such programmes) and isn't likely to turn them aside from their use. Because now instead of scary words and chemical names, they just look like powder and leaves.

14 November 2011

Go go science

This is the sort of experiment involved in showing how organic life, even complex organic life, comes from a bunch of inorganic chemicals interacting. It's not very complicated to run or understand. It's been around for decades in one form or another.

The most interesting element though is defining "what is alive" in that vague area between "life" and "non-life". I'm not sure I agree entirely with those definitions of what is alive. But there's still room in that for self-replicating AIs, nano-machines, etc. And because of the "evolve" characteristic, it does get around the "fire" issue. So they're not terrible.

11 November 2011

Agree to disagree.

A quiz. Agree or disagree with the following:
1) Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable?

2) Mandatory licensing of professionals increases the prices of those services?

3) Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago?

4) Rent control leads to housing shortages?

5) A company with the largest market share is a monopoly? (I used to have a hard time wondering why this one in particular kept coming up... and there did not appear to be some ideological basis for it. Pretty much everybody is stuck on stupid with it and a monopoly isn't that technical an economic principle). 

6) Third World workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited?

7) Free trade leads to unemployment?

8) Minimum-wage laws raise unemployment?

(Pretty much all of those are no-brainers for me).

9) A dollar means more to a poor person than it does to a rich person?

10) Making abortion illegal would increase the number of black-market abortions?

11) Legalizing drugs would give more wealth and power to street gangs and organized crime?

12) Drug prohibition fails to reduce people’s access to drugs?

13) Gun-control laws fail to reduce people’s access to guns?

14) By participating in the marketplace in the United States, immigrants reduce the economic well-being of American citizens?

15) When a country goes to war, its citizens experience an improvement in economic well-being?

16) When two people complete a voluntary transaction, they both necessarily come away better off?

17) When two people complete a voluntary transaction, it is necessarily the case that everyone else is unaffected by their transaction?

The last two without the qualifiers "necessarily" are the only tricky questions in this second portion. The "necessarily" is being used to justify a lot more than interference in necessarily public concerns.

The moral of the story appears to be that no political group ideology is free from bias and no group assesses all political realities based on the actual real world impacts of their preferred policies, but rather based upon the signal that their preferred policy sends. Rent controls therefore "help" poor people and immigrants and/or the Chinese are "stealing our jobs". To my own tribe, libertarians, I'm disappointed that it's not understood that making something illegal constrains its availability (though in the case of drugs, it appears that it does so in a fairly small way). It is of course equally poorly understood on our opposite that making something illegal that people actually want will spawn black markets for it (as in the case of narcotics, alcohol, abortion, prostitution, etc) and won't just abolish the intended "vice", therefore creating costs for enforcement of laws, opportunities for corruption, and so on, all costs that must be associated with any perceived or actual benefits resulting from such constraints.

As a similar problem, because of the importance libertarians place on individual freedoms, we run into difficulties with those last two statements and the availability of voluntary transactions vis a vis the state's laws where the transaction occurs. It is true there are often externalities when a transaction occurs. Visiting a prostitute might carry venereal diseases back to a spouse or sexual partner. An addict purchasing narcotics (or alcohol) might be committing other crimes, or more commonly being abusive and damaging to their family (stealing items to pay for it, physically abusive, etc). Pollution from a factory or power plant can spoil the air and water around it, as a classic public goods problem with many "voluntary" parties involved. Traffic congestion is a similar problem. Gambling is pretty obviously a case where a voluntary transaction can leave one person worse off (assuming that the gamble was not merely recreational amusement for instance). There are plenty of opportunities for fraud even in voluntary transactions, or for informational asymmetries that cause further distortions and problems. The question for libertarians is something like "at what price freedom?". The most pragmatic response I can think of is to not restrict the action merely because the action is sometimes harmful but to come up with clearer and better incentives to avoid the negative consequences that we don't want (ie, by penalizing bad consequences or irresponsible actions, like fraud, theft, pollution, traffic, lack of condom use, domestic violence, etc). Here we have the satisfaction of leaving individuals enough freedom to do things, but still legally preventing them from actively harming others.

A strong corollary to this problem can be made with the global warming debate. In order to avoid what appears to be a very poor state level response (say, cap and trade on carbon), it becomes "necessary" to deny there is even a problem that the state/public must respond to with collective or even individual action. Libertarians on both fronts are essentially claiming that there is no problem with two people doing anything they want to each other in order to avoid the ham-fisted state level response of preventing everyone from doing similar but non-egregious things to each other. That's a serious overreach of ideology. There are obviously problems. The questions for us is something like the following a) are these problems solvable only through the architecture of the state? (often the answer is no, but sometimes it has a use) b) are the state's interventions likely to cause more problems than it solves? (very often this the reason the state is a poor choice for intervention) c) if this is the problem with the current state interventions, can a more sensible programme be designed and implemented to more strongly target the actual problem? (sometimes a more efficient government is possible, and sometimes not). I would argue that a carbon tax or gasoline tax is much more efficient than cap and trade. On carbon emissions at least. And I would argue that (effective) prevention/education programmes (which we do not have) and emphasis on treatment for addiction are much less costly (and effective) means of resolving the large scale social problems caused by addiction to substances than our current insistence on enforcement regimes and incarceration. But I would not argue that neither of these problems does not exist or does not matter in the first place. There are cases where some people will claim a harm, let's say gay marriage rights, and it really does not matter because we're talking about private contracts and the desired manner of family construction by private individuals that really do not have much public consequence and effect (empirically speaking). But quite obviously drug or alcohol addiction has public costs associated with it in the same way that smokestacks or a traffic jam does.

10 November 2011

Notes from the front

It found that in 1979, households in the bottom quintilereceived more than 50 percent of all transfer payments. In 2007,similar households received about 35 percent of transfers. “Theshift reflects the growth in spending for programs focused on theelderly population (such as Social Security and Medicare), in whichbenefits are not limited to low-income households,” the studyexplains. “As a result, government transfers reduced the dispersionof household income by less in 2007 than in 1979.”

1) In case anyone is wondering why I'm not happy with social security and medicare and want to see them seriously reformed and curtailed to their stated purpose of social safety net, this is one reason. There is no reason a country, even a very wealthy country like the United States, should undertake to redistribute significant wealth to people who are already wealthy. Keep in mind also that this study was measuring household income quartiles, not net worth quartiles, where the retiree population would make it look even worse. Indeed, net worth gaps between the elderly and the younger working generation, which are always substantial, have grown even faster than income gaps.

2) After that debacle last night, I seriously hope Rick Perry goes away for good. Seriously "oops?". Also, I could name off at least 8 or 10 cabinet positions or significant federal agencies that I'd want to see rolled down to nothing or their actually useful programmes rolled into other budget posts.
a) the Vice Presidency and associated bureaucracy. Obsolete requirements that we select strange people to be on a Presidential ticket with very minimal vetting in the event they end up ascending to the post of President is not a good idea to begin with. That there's a huge infrastructure around it is even less so.
b) Homeland Security.
c) DEA. Enough said on these two.
d) Department of Energy (most of the funding and programmes in it are actually related to the DoD or to foreign treaty compliance with the IAEA, the rest is largely useless subsidies to oil, coal and ethanol. Also I'd prefer to see CAFE standards go away and be replaced by a significant gasoline and carbon tax).
e) I'd like to see the Department of Agriculture and FDA combined and most of the USDA's functions eliminated.
f) Department of Education can be seriously curtailed or devolved to the states. The one qualifier I have there is that the states (or the fed) should make a serious effort to provide for school choice of the sort where money follows students. Even those "socialist" Europeans have a more capitalistic venture than we do when it comes to education, hence we're doing something wrong in the parlance of conservatives. SWEDEN "for pete's sake" has school choice systems and a superior educational model for what amounts to K-12. To say nothing of places like Finland which totally kick our ass at it. No child left behind would end also.
g) Commerce can go, its survey functions can be rolled into Treasury since most of them are economic data anyway (the census also could go in there). Labor is in a similar boat.
h) FCC
i) Cut the number of distinct financial regulatory boards to two or three, for starters.
j) Significant reforms to Medicare/aid and Social Security would presumably have some impact on HHS's budget. Eliminating Medicare Part D would be among these.
k) After removing the mortgage deduction and possibly introducing a negative income tax we could do away with HUD.
l) Cuts to defence would be in the 40-50% range if it were up to me. When including the two to four active wars that we don't need to be in, more like 60%
m) NASA would be privatized

And so on. It would not be hard for me to stand up and announce which ones were going away. I'd also be able to explain why rather than just have applause lines.

3) I haven't written about Cain's heinous off the field exploits. There are two reasons. First, I think it's a waste of time. The guy doesn't take running for President seriously to begin with as evidenced by his idiotic political positions on just about everything. He ought to be buried already without some sort of salacious sex scandal and isn't yet mostly because total ignorance is celebrated in the politics of the right today. It's also celebrated in the politics of the left, but they don't have a primary to demonstrate it where there are other options who might look smarter or dumber by comparison to Obama the way there are with Cain. Everybody but Perry and Bachmann on the platform looks smarter than he does (even Gingrich, which is saying something)...and the fact that all three are/were at points popular in polls is telling. Second, the amount of information we have on what he is accused of doing, much less what he actually did, is too poor for me to make any assessments. But from his bungled reactions to all this media attention, I think I can create a strong assumption that he's at least a scumbag like DSK. Whether that makes him guilty of a crime or just yet another case of men in powerful and prominent positions making all other men look like assholes to women generally, I don't know. If the stories and accusations leveled at him are true however, at the very least this is not a man who should be running for President, or should become President in the 21st century. But we knew that already before this story broke because of his statements on.. well just about everything else. Since usually I find American style sex scandals to be enormously tedious (except when they are evidence of hypocrisy, then they are amusing for about 20 seconds), I'm going to mostly ignore it until he finally goes away from one source or another.

08 November 2011

Advice for the day

Don't go vote today unless you have nothing better to do with your time. More than likely you won't know enough about what you'd be voting on to bother anyway.

There does seem to be more incentive to go vote on a local or statewide election than the national, because the policies can be more immediate. But since the average voter does not know or does not distinguish between the levels of the state and its various powers as arranged, I don't see what purpose is served having large numbers of people go and vote who will complain to the President if their property taxes go up when it was they themselves that either hiked it through various levies or who appointed local and state officials who then hiked it. People who do not know what their government does, or worse can do, are likely ill-favored choices for people to make selections on who should be in government. This is of course a very large percentage of the body politic on any given issue. Not merely the unwashed, uneducated mass of the poor (who already don't vote in large volumes), but most everybody else too considerably overestimates their civic knowledge and ability to gauge the common good resulting from their impressions and prejudices on these issues.

When in doubt, abstain. Don't vote. In fact, don't waste your time trying to study up enough to vote each year. Go forth and live your lives. Leave this sort of thing to people who have nothing better to do than learn and analyze various public policy choices.

I have some "faith" in the methods of democratic choices to produce consistent improvement in some types of social and economic outcomes (though it can just easily regress, and there are many economic outcomes for which it is much inferior to markets because of systemic bias and ignorance). I certainly don't believe that we should force people not to vote if they wish to do so or restrict the right of franchise in some measure of civic knowledge. But I don't think we should go around exhorting people as though it is some grand civic duty either. Even if it were such a duty, we would be better served expending large amounts of time and treasure attempting to educate the voting public on the various complex issues of the day than on encouraging their minimal civic engagements to the community to come in the form of a ballot with no systematic means of assessing the likely availability of knowledgeable voting behind it.

"I find, in other words, that this whole issue keeps directing my attention back towards a fundamental problem: I have to share my polity with large numbers of silly people who are not equipped to make reasonable decisions about political issues".  More or less sums it up. 

Let's assume that the problem is presented thusly "If you don't vote, you have no right to complain". This makes no sense. First off, we have Constitutional protections for free speech. Both voters and non-voters alike are protected in their "right to complain". Secondly, people who vote tacitly accept a system that produces results. Sometimes they will not like those results, sometimes not very much at all. But by participating in that structure, they've already acceded that they will abide by those results (even if they will then complain loudly about them or even agitate to overturn them at the earliest convenience). Third, the assumption seems to be that voting is a minor time suck. After all, all it takes is to walk into the ballot box and cast away. But in order to vote in a manner consistent with some ethical guidelines (ie, casting an informed ballot, even one that conforms to only your own preferences and not what might promote a better common good for the entire community), it's an incredible time suck. Considerable amounts of research are required on complex topics to understand them enough to form opinions around which even basic political positions can be founded, and then to apply those positions to existing candidates and issues up for decisions in any modestly accurate way. As an example of this problem: incredible numbers of voters do not know which major political party is generally "pro-life" and which is "pro-choice", and this with abortion being one of the simpler issues to comprehend and follow with fairly stark political distinctions between the two major parties. Anything more complicated and forget about it; almost nobody knows anything. Simply throwing your vote away on whatever flights of fancy strike you in the ballot box isn't likely promote your own limited version of desired social goods, much less anything more complex and noble as the "public good" as it applies to large diverse populations with competing interests and demands on society in general (much less the much smaller but expansive political society in which voters are participating). I'd much rather people were aware of that and it give them pause than give further comfort to this notion that non-voters have no right to complain. 

The problem for me isn't the results of voting. It's the demand that people vote without any forethought as to the consequences of their vote being cast poorly. Sit it out. Don't do it, do not give into the peer pressures. And get on with the business of being a human being. Ideally we would have a structure that allows such minimal engagement and celebrates it. We instead of a system of self-promotion that serves no purpose.

03 November 2011

On the death of the NBA season

Rational choices, yeah right. Good luck getting people to make them.

This lockout reminds me of the problem of the ultimatum game. Put two people in a room. Give one of them 100 dollars. Tell them that the two people there have to make a deal in order to get anything of that money. If either side rejects the proposed deal as made by the money holder, then nobody gets anything. Usually the deal arrived at is somewhere in between 33-40% at the low end (on average). Even though if you aren't the possessor of the money, any deal actually benefits you and so you should accept anything other than "I'll just keep it all for myself". (note, recent psychology studies in smaller societies like hunter-gatherer tribes in Brazil for example suggest that they are more willing to accept "unfair" deals than Americans/Westerners. But there aren't many former or current hunter-gatherer tribesmen in the NBA player's union).

In the NBA case, the players are the ones sitting out and owners the ones having the money. Deciding to sit out the season in order to "spite" the owners gains players nothing. Diehard basketball junkies like me will suffer through college basketball, a largely inferior product because of much lower skill level, until they return. Casual basketball fans will mostly do the same, but may hold a grudge for a period of some years, diminishing the size of the market pie to be divided further. So players have no leverage to demand more. What's more, holding out over 2.5% when that amount still guarantees to you HALF of the pie, seems a little insane, not just foolish. Certainly you can argue that players might deserve more than half based on their actual economic worth to the teams they play for by providing an entertaining service to fans. That's certainly possible, though you have to consider boring things like the licensing fees, marketing, and ownership/leasing of arenas to play in, plus a desire for profitability by management of any enterprise, even entertaining monopolies and not just the athletic achievements visible on the court. Certainly you can argue that it makes owners look greedy to fight on that line (though the same argument could easily be applied to players). But those are arguments that loom much smaller when one is dividing up and fighting over several hundreds of millions of dollars.

Sometimes when two parties fight, one party is completely in the wrong and has to compromise more to restore balance to the relationship. At other times, it isn't in the wrong, but if it wants to sustain a relationship with the other party it has to compromise anyway (and in this case, the players have no choice but to sustain the relationship, there is no competing league for most of them to go to). Paying a price to stand on principle does not net anything here. The rational choice is in fact to cave, at least on that issue.

But that's not going to happen. 

Wild worlds

SCOTUS is a weird world.

I'm reminded of the jury in 12 Angry Men. In it, a single juror manages to turn the jury from a pronouncement of guilt to innocence primarily by questioning shaky eyewitness testimony.

Trouble is that:
a) that was a movie, with a script. Not reality
b) the eyewitness was pretty shaky in that case. (an old woman looking at night for a mere flicker of an event)
c) that was 50 + years ago and despite that, people still believe the emotional power of eyewitness testimonies to be roughly infallible.

Which is, in the parlance of evidence, bullshit. Most of the time eyewitnesses are unreliable. Their stories don't match. Police behaviors and even common police techniques (lineups for instance) can manipulate their memories. Even after previous court rulings have aborted some of the most ridiculous manipulations by police. Most people don't have ironclad memory and details will shift over time (I have only recently discovered this as a problem by observing others. My memory seems to work differently, though not perfectly either). Details occurring in rapid succession for complex events like a robbery, rape or murder are often stashed as peripheral data anyway.

The court's position that other unreliable data points would be up for grabs is perhaps disconcerting for the amount of shift that would be required in our criminal justice system. But there's plenty of tactics and methods that are in fact, roughly useless. Drug dogs for instance give false positives at least 2/3s of the time. This isn't the dog's fault. It's the handler. This results in a lot of invasive searches being "justified" when all the justification amounts to is the officer handling the search simply thought the person was guilty, without any evidence to suggest it. As the court pointed out, there are plenty of "jailhouse snitches" testifying (Omar's appearance in the Wire is a classic). The reliability of such people can already be deemed questionable by many observers, though there are probably sensible reasons to regard it as more reliable than is commonly believed (snitching is  looked down upon enough in the criminal community that one has to have a pretty damned good reason to be willing to do it, this cuts both ways of course).

Now I would say that having people tell stories about what happened, from their point of view, is perfectly fine. I'm not sure that preventing witnesses from testifying makes sense. But clearly there needs to be much more rigor in how we allow it as admissible evidence. Do lots of people all ID the same person? Is there corroborating video or audio, or actual hard evidence (blood, DNA, fingerprints, ballistics, etc)? I'm inclined to agree with the Court that it's hard to keep it out. But we should also be more aware of just how bad, how very bad, such "evidence" is. It's effectively useless.

Ultimately, I'd say suspicion of guilt is justified on such things as "I saw that man, with these peculiar features, doing X to person/property X", certainly. I don't see how we should turn it into firm statements of conviction.

File under better late than never?

Nipplegate, legal.

It helped the anti-FCC side of the argument that the FCC had to ex post facto CBS in order to fine it because its rules had allowed fleeting nudity or obscenity, and were changed in response to the "event".

The whole range of laws and rules that are passed because a random "obviously" terrible thing happens, but which cannot be punished under these new rules and laws because they already happened, kind of depressing.