07 November 2012

General reactions to the defining moment of our times...

Which for me boiled down to a choice between flavors of ice cream rather than anything momentous and important. And probably will come down to it as equally bland in historical terms years from now also.

1) I think conservative skepticism of polling had some merit to the general arguments, but the problem was that they seemed interested in rejecting the entire trend line of polls, conducted by different agencies with different methodologies, etc, and accepting only information which conformed to the "Romney is going to win! Woot!" narrative rather than information which could be used to describe the political landscape as it existed in 2012. Liberals and Democrats have learned how to analyze polling data after Kerry was defeated in 2004 (and Gore in 2000), and then to use it to inform ways to motivate their base, or to target groups of swing votes. At some point conservatives may do the same. I'm not sure yet if that means most Republicans will.

2) From following various conservative pundits reactions, the likely step is going to be a double down strategy on the idea that Mitt wasn't conservative enough. I think this is politically stupid, but I also have nothing invested in Republicans per se either (the idea of conservativism is sensible enough in forming a basis for a governing party, but we seem to have lots of reactionaries rather than conservatives at the moment), so go right ahead. The basis of this presumption appears to be the maintenance of the House as somehow legitimatizing the Tea Party style operations. There are huge logical gaps in this. First, I don't think anyone thought Democrats could win the House back, perhaps even many who thought there would even be substantial gains. So predicating a victory on voters maintaining the status quo is rather faulty logic (I think the same applies to Obama's win also, though less in the Senate). Voters usually maintain the status quo as that's part of the voting bias. Second, from the information I am seeing, the Tea Party style operations seem to have cost Republicans the Senate, both in this election and in 2010. Running ridiculously unqualified people who say insane things (O'Donnell, Akin, Angle, Mourdock, Buck) is not an encouraging electoral strategy for achieving long-run victories. Democrats had some of the same painful lessons in the wake of the Iraq War (trying to get rid of Lieberman for example), but Republicans are having a lot of trouble absorbing the lessons and adjusting their electoral strategies.

Most of the Tea Party styled victors for Senate seats were in relatively safe states for Republicans (Utah, Kentucky, etc). So the effect has been to move the Republican caucus to the right (in some ways, not in others). There's a few contrasting cases (Wisconsin?) where they managed to find saner or competent seeming candidates that still had high base appeal. I'm not at all convinced this is a sustainable trend wherein the Republican establishment manages to find tame enough people capable of winning elections but also who can win over Tea Party voters in primaries. This plan might work okay in the House, but not for President or Senate. As a correlated problem, moving the caucus to the right allows liberals to paint mostly moderate Republicans with the same right-wing extremist brushes and cast them aside in more liberal states (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Illinois, etc) where they may otherwise stand a chance of winning. It assures that Republicans become less competitive in those states.

Finally, what seems to me the most significant source of power to maintain many House seats was the 2010 elections that granted Republicans considerable control over redistricting from the 2010 census changes. Ohio in particular has a cadre of pretty safe hard R seats out there now surrounding the liberal bastions of Columbus or Cleveland that are effectively conceded. While this may allow for some Republican control over relatively safe seats for another decade and hence insure some divided government gridlock, it doesn't say much about winning over the rest of the country to their agenda. And if last night's results were any indicator, it doesn't say much about assuring that those are safe seats. Allen West looks to have lost, Bachmann nearly so, and so on.

* A note: I consider the "tea party" to consist not just of a set of fiscal priorities. This is largely because conservatives tend not to agree on how best to resolve those priorities, or what they in fact are. Other than a general sense that deficits are bad, at least when run by Democrats or not caused by defense spending, and that the debt climbing is bad, I do not see much progress here on how to address these as problems. Where there is broader agreement among conservatives is on social policies. Which is precisely where they have made progress at the state level enacting their agenda. Moving away from these types of candidates, the types likely to say expansive and stupid things about female biology when discussing rape victims or to admit their come-to-Jesus moment involving witchcraft, or to include chickens as a viable form of currency, would be a big start. I do not think this is a likely result if they were to double down on the political figures involved in order to say, focus on Rand Paul or Tom Coburn or even Paul Ryan styled conservatives, with their intensity on budget matters and the tough choices involved therein. They're more likely to get DeMint or Bachmann styled conservatives in less safe districts and states who insist that social and fiscal conservativism are melded as one.

3) I don't think Republicans need to abandon a message of smaller government or conservative principles to win over voters to their cause. But they should be aware there's a lot of people who no longer resonate as clearly to mixing a message of fiscal restraint with expansionist foreign policy or moralising social policies, and that when they go off message and discuss these things or try to pass agendas based on them, many voters will find them unpalatable. Not just liberals. Keep in mind that while Romney lost, he didn't lose by very much (some tens of thousands of votes in various states). It would not take very much adaptation and moderation on some issues to go back to winning national elections moving forward. The question is whether Republicans are interested in analysis or rage. I suspect the latter.

4) I also think it would help a great deal to have a saner approach to fiscal restraint. Reaganomics had what successes it had in the 1980s economy because it was part of a broad set of reforms, from monetary policy under Volcker, to neo-Keynesian spending increases, to tax simplification and flattening of the tax code, and as an offshoot of some successful de-regulatory moves made under the Carter administration. Most of those specifics do little to translate to the current environment. Tax simplification while desirable has a lot of embittered constituencies who would fight for some of the complexity. Spending cuts do likewise. And both sides seem willing to talk about culling the excessively broad quantity and reach of regulatory power, but do little to curtail it while in power, even in relatively sane arenas where there are competing and patchwork laws. Instead of tackling these with sensible proposals, for the most part Republicans have offered soft messages like "balanced budget amendments", which if they stood a chance of passage would be accompanied by a constituency willing to make hard cuts, or insane messages like flirting with debt defaults while mostly ignoring entitlement spending, risking both the safety of that spending and the financial stability of the nation as a whole. To be sure, the Romney plan eventually provided some hard choices in tax reform specifically, and the Ryan budget plan is a good starting point for talking about entitlement reforms. But these fledgling signs of fiscal prudence are balanced by Romney's desire for tax cuts more broadly when we're at historically low levels of taxation and an insistence on defence spending, all while demagoguing Obamacare in part because of cuts it makes to entitlement spending. It's hard to know which part of that message to take most seriously, and an honest assessment of our political structures would tell us that only parts of it would ever pass into law in the first place. And probably not the good parts.

01 November 2012

Please. Everyone shut up and look in the mirror.

I've seen and heard multiple people insisting on a desire for political figures to "do what's right", or to "do something" rather than bicker and argue pointlessly. I maintain that there are many, many problems with this desired approach to government.

Firstly, "doing what's right" is a very uncertain phrase, wherein people would likely find that their elected political figures would be doing a lot of things they wouldn't like very much and replace them with people that will do what they want, rather than what is actually necessary and effective to do. The American public wants a lot of inconsistent demands, low taxes and expensive public (and federal) services for instance. Mitt Romney's entire political shtick seems to be based around delivering this magically flavored ice cream where both are possible. There's a reason it's successful. Promising people things that are not possible or are not wise (more or less anything he's said he will do regarding China), is politically popular.

Second. The impetus of requirement to "do something" is very troubling. Often doing nothing is a perfectly reasonable response to a problem. Indeed, the public seems content for the government do very little about problems like Syria or Iran (as it should, as I'm not sure there's very much we could effectively do in the first place). It only becomes a concern when it is OUR problem. A natural disaster occurs, somebody better be helping out. To be sure, one may concede that there are basically good Samaritan style reasons why we might want some public goods and charity dispensed in the wake of a wave of tornadoes or a hurricane, earthquake, volcano, tsunami, whatever. And while there are arguments why we might not want large scale public assistance (for example, to incentivize people to relocate to places that don't have these major disasters), we also need to acknowledge that these are otherwise desirable places for people to live (California's climate for example is excellent, coastal cities around the world are always high demand, etc) and that some measures are appropriate to protect the citizenry from the folly of such geographical stubbornness. But this is distinct from saying the government must do everything in such scenarios to assist, or, more concisely, to point out that just because a legitimate form of public goods may exist in disaster assistance, does not mean that a form of legitimate public goods or externalities also exist in some other realm of intervention and assistance. Medicare for example is distinct from the provision of public health. Same with public school monopolies and education (or hospital monopolies) or Social Security or the Post Office and so on down the line.

Finally, the reason that we have (basically) two political teams that fight and contest everything is that we (basically) have two Americas, sorted ideologically into combative teams. Both sides only claim victories not when they work together (and when they do work together, generally I am skeptical that it's beneficial anyway), but when they achieve something ideologically designed and can lord it over their enemies. The reason isn't just zero sum politics, but that the public perceives only these sorts of victories as desirable. The public wants it this way, we desire the incivility and contest. We desire the battle and the shedding of blood in our rivals; "their" defeats and "our" triumphs. We do not desire unsatisfying compromises about what kind of governance we shall appoint through reasoned debate over these mutually exclusive demands into some sort of utilitarian affected views where the public shall and shall not intervene into the private business and affairs of our countrymen to achieve stated ideological goals. Only boring policy wonks celebrate technocratic achievements of this kind. If we wanted effective conservatives, and effective liberals, we would elect them, support them, and recognize them. We do not.

We should blame ourselves and shut the hell up about these inconsistent desires for productive, effective governance and incivil electoral combat. You can't have both. This is your problem. Not the politicians.

04 October 2012

Things to miss

I skipped (most of) the debate. I had a lot of reasons. First, I really don't care very much about domestic policy debates between Presidents. Some amount of agenda setting is useful, but I doubt very much that the various positions between these two add up to substantially distinct agendas worth listening to them debate. Since I missed it, I read up on it instead. These were good ones from the live-blogging/tweet world.

"Continue to burn clean coal." I would like America also to continue to use cold fusion."
In general, people who proclaim a desire for "energy independence" are as reliable to do so and just as reliable to fail to realize that desire. While I think coal is going to be around for a while yet, I don't think we should kid ourselves that the technology is very clean and sound environmentally. In any case, while coal is a big issue in Ohio/WVa/PA, it seems like a dead issue with all the natural gas and fracking coming online instead. 

"Romney argues it's immoral to pass the burden of debt to younger generations. He says he'll cut any programme it's not worth borrowing money from China to pay for. I'm afraid unfunding Big Bird and Jim Lehrer is not going to help much."

The pleasant fiction that cutting things can be accomplished without changing entitlements, keeping taxes low, leaving most loopholes intact, and raising military spending, is persistent. But somebody needs to call bullshit on it. Maybe there's an argument for cutting PBS or foreign aid or art, or whatever, but those are small potatoes that don't impress me when someone says they'll cut it. Romney wasn't even willing to cut Education funding. That's a much larger chunk of change. 

"I suppose the deduction for corporate jets ought to depend on whether they have windows that open." - That joke is going to get a lot of mileage it seems. "Not giving subsidies to Exxon: Good. Corporate jet tax: meaningless. Not giving tax breaks to ship jobs overseas: worse than meaningless." - I'm not sure what, if any, substance comes up in these debates usually. I seem to recall they offered something once in a while. I don't think the "borrowing money from China" or "sending jobs to China" lines are true, relate to anything either would do in office, but they persist because the public believes it seems that China bashing is more fun than taking responsibility for their own failings. 

"He has proposed a tax plan that would inevitably add to the deficit, but claimed he would never pass a tax plan that would add to the deficit. He says he wouldn't bring down the deficit by raising revenue, but attacks Obama for not supporting a plan that would bring down the deficit by raising revenue. And it all sounds rather convincing." - This was vintage Romney. The amusing (or perhaps disturbing, depending on your perspective) part of the debates seems to have been that Obama wasn't calling these bluffs on things like Medicare, defence spending, tax cuts, etc. 

"I'm not sure if I'm learning anything from this debate, but I expect to learn a lot from the fact-checks that will inevitably follow." - Pretty much. Some of the fact-checks preceded it even. 

Since I had already decided who I would vote for, and it wasn't either of those jokers. 
I have the following wonders
1) In baseball, someone (Cabrera) won the Triple Crown for the first time in 45 years. This doesn't appear to be a big deal (it also wasn't his best season, so maybe that's the issue). Given that baseball is actually making quite a lot of money still and therefore must have fans somewhere, I'm not sure why this is. Because he was playing in Detroit? Because he's Latino? Because he was a fairly predictable case to win a TC (Pujols being another)? 
2) I'm still undecided on whether Homeland is a pro-war-on-terror show or anti. It's hard to tell. 
3) The movie Looper was incredibly predictable. It did not meet my expectations but was possibly a decent film anyway. 

13 September 2012

Wherefore a foreign policy debate? It ebbs and flows and then is heard no more.

Most people do not follow foreign relations. Fewer still follow these events abroad, and our interventions in them, with much serious interest. So for people who have the misfortune to follow me and see social network feeds jammed with IR related things (from time to time) during an election that's supposedly about economics (but isn't really), a word or two. 

I began writing in blog form back in 2006. At the time, I was disheartened by our international affairs, our conduct abroad, and to an extent our internal relations as they related to these. Dissent it seemed was not prized or debated but was viewed as treason. Dissent not merely from a foreign policy consensus that excluded pacific and realism perspectives, but also from the absurd lengths of our internal security measures and the expense paid in both blood and especially treasure to attain whatever it is we thought we were attaining. I titled a blog at that point after a famous IR realist (perhaps THE famous IR realist until Machiavelli and Clausewitz appear, and Bismarck puts much of it into practice) in part because I wanted to signal what views I felt needed airing. I have since had the disconcerting habit of butting my head in to think about other things, like economics or health care or anti-drug policy, but I am at heart greatly interested in how a nation plays the game of nations.These other matters, how it taxes, who it taxes, how it polices itself, what it polices, how it treats its poor, how it rewards its wealth, how it teaches its children, what it teaches, what infrastructure it has and wants, energy, climate policies, and so on. These are all concerns that can feed back into that "game" because they are ways we use our precise communal and individual resources and attentions, and how we may gain new resources for our collective and individual futures. Observing these trends may be helpful to gain insights into how a society and its people prepares for the mundane task of encouraging growth and prosperity, who it intends to grow and prosper (and who it does not), what sources of vibrancy in culture or innovation it seeks and which it condemns, how capably (or not) its government and officials disturb or cultivate these trends. By this we might hope to see how it might be prepared or not for larger tasks like major supply shocks, trade embargoes, unfriendly or aggressive actions by neighbours or rivals and so on.

Now. Back to this year. I've long since declared here and elsewhere that I'm essentially in the tank for Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico and libertarian candidate for President. I have many reasons where my views and his seem to align, often where his depart radically and preferrably in my view from the two party consensus on a number of important issues. Chief among these are foreign policy and civil liberties related issues. Johnson does not describe coherently an IR vision anymore than most candidates do, and perhaps less so than is typical owing to his third party status in a two party nation. But where he has opined about various matters international, he has expressed what seems to me like a liberal realist vision. If there can be such a thing, or neoliberal IR if not. The basic premise of a country in realist terms is to look to satisfy its interests. It can do so through aggression where it needs to and where that will succeed, but it often as not is possible to achieve desirable ends with diplomacy, both through cunning in the form of espionage and through allegiances and friendships of either value or convenience.  War is to be viewed as a non-trivial expense that can be avoided, with most conflicts to be won without ever having to fire a shot. This is also not the same as isolationism, nor an inherent desire for massive and extensive military cuts. A modestly powerful military with a defensive mindset in army and air power terms, and power projection in naval and air power terms with special operations branch for rapid global deployment would generally satisfy our needs below unlikely WW3 scenarios. Or the alien invasion/zombie apocalypse scenarios where our military usually gets to square off and triumph over in movies and books now days. 

It is perfectly possible for the American union to construct and maintain a powerful force for defensive purposes and to do things like combat international threats (like piracy or terrorism or aggressive foreign powers), while also doing things like nominally abide by international treaties we sign, cooperate with allies abroad in the satisfaction of their interests (where it is useful to us to assist or to maintain their allegiance) and so on. It is not, and was not, in the interests of this union to do things like expend valuable blood and treasure on matters of choice or where that expenditure served no interest and accomplished no valuable goals. Conquest and occupation of foreign countries that pose minimal international threats and through which we gain no value that isn't otherwise cheaply attained through trade and diplomacy are among the list of valueless goals for using force in my view.

I might be persuaded that we can deploy force abroad to stop people from aggression against their neighbours abroad. There are examples of such things, and it seems a prudent measure for our own long-term security to maintain a relative balancing of power on the globe, if not a hegemony of our own dominance. I might even, less likely, be persuaded that we can deploy force abroad successfully to stop people from aggression against their actual neighbours (the people living in the same country with them). I cannot be persuaded that either the post 2003 Afghanistan war or the invasion of Iraq occupied any of the above spheres of influence and interest to carry out and to extend and continue. I recognized this as a problem back in 2003, and was fed up with it by 2006. I saw little chance for the political figures involved from either major party to properly and rapidly extract themselves and indeed, observed their intentions to double down on these engagements with disdain.

Fast forwarding back to today. I have seen precious little debate and precious little evidence that Gov Romney even notices the rest of the world goes on. What evidence there is does little to suggest that either of our two party candidates have a firm grasp on a foreign policy vision, and disturbingly, little evidence emerges that they would do anything of substance with great distinction from the other. Running down the problems here.
1) Both have a very mixed, muddled strategy depicted in Afghanistan, alternately proposing that we keep troops there, diplomatically attempting to arrange such a status, and proposing that we leave or should have already left. These are incoherent visions mostly.
2) Both have a very mixed, muddled strategy depicted on Iraq. Again, alternately proposing we leave, we should have left, we should stay, we should have stayed, declaring that we have left when we haven't and so on.
3) Both have a strong pro-drug war stance which weakens and destablises at least one neighbouring country and causes some instability and danger directly on or very near our borders. Drug war deaths in Mexico alone are staggering over the past decade. Adding in Afghanistan or Colombia and the picture gets uglier. Currently also, both have advocated aggressive enforcement of immigration statutes, even if Mr Obama has recently decided for political purposes to stop prioritizing certain enforcement strategies, his administration is and was at a record pace for deporting people largely for the "crimes" of living and working. Mr Romney it seems endorses the idea that fixed fortifications would accelerate this process ignoring the obvious fact that the swiftness of voluntary deportations over the last 4-5 years has both made enforcement easier and pointed out that the principle motivation of migrants is employment and economic opportunities. Not the apparent laziness brought in by a too forgiving social welfare system, as he describes it. 
4) Both have advocated a mostly hostile approach toward Iran. Mr Obama took a more diplomatic tone in rhetoric but has still managed to walk through large-scale sanctions and penalties that his opposite endorsed (prior to them becoming policy). And both wink-nudge (our) approaches of espionage for sabotage and assassination of Iranian scientists and centrifuges. Neither has discarded the possibility or rhetoric of conflict despite an American public that is mostly arrayed against the idea of another open war.
5) Both have suggested and promoted defence budgets that grow. Gov Romney's proposal is larger than that of both his VP candidate (Rep Ryan) and President Obama's, but it is nonetheless bizarre that both parties want to increase defence spending. Neither is articulating a clear vision of what to do with those dollars, on what weapons systems we are apparently lacking, on what enemy we need be prepared to face. What little has emerged here is not encouraging, as it seems clear both parties want to be able to play whack-a-mole and drop bombs and drones and put some boots on the ground in mostly trivial countries for indefinite periods of time. This is a horribly expensive use of a military and a wasteful one for the things we expended vast sums of money on. Stealth aircraft and armored tanks are mostly useless for urban pacification. Pretending that we should perform both roles is likewise useless. We would have to train all service personnel for both roles (at least Army, National Guard units, and the Air Force, probably Marines as well). Which is wasteful use of specialisation gains and requires extended deployments in countries many troops will be scarcely more aware of as to the language and culture around them than we are. I will say it is more clear that Mr Obama has an interest in these as goals for liberal internationalist reasons. But that only calls into question for what uses Mr Romney might have in mind for his more extravagant military budget proposal and why he hasn't communicated such things.

What I'm left with in difference are generally only the most ridiculous and absurd statements made by either Messrs Obama or Romney, such as over this latest tragedy with the death of an ambassador in Libya and the apparent desire that this death be seen as part of a continuing right-wing trope about apologetics rather than recognizing that an ambassador in a foreign land which we helped to destabilise by bombing and weakening its previous ruler out of power (and to his death), is liable to be at least an unwelcoming environment requiring a modest attention to security of our personnel as they carry out their duties representing our interests. Or perhaps recognizing that it may not have been that wise or necessary to intercede when it produces a continuing level of violence and bloodshed both there and in the surrounding area (Mali), as Mr Obama did by committing our forces to assist in a civil war abroad alongside allies who had more compelling interests at stake and a more regional claim to do so.

It can be said that a large measure of the violence and demonstration over the last few days was no doubt affected by the attitudes of many foreigners to our stubborn (and well-intended) adherence to free speech codes that do not protect against offending religious displays nor against offending the views of those religious and thus permit the publication and distribution of ridiculous if not outright hateful statements and behavior on the part of some among us. Our first amendment is extremely hazardous to the sensibilities of others, including often enough ourselves (as in the recent cases like Citizens United or the WBC army funeral protests). We should neither apologize for this nor cease defending the capacity of some to say hideous things while exercising it. Instead, we can condemn and argue against such things said publicly and rebuke the attitudes that give rise to them. All without withdrawing the government's sanction to express feeling and opinion unrestrained. We can even do so with some amount of predictability as to the private sentiments and actions of our citizens most likely to draw offence abroad or from within, and design careful and thoughtful defences both of ourselves and appeals to our intentions and friendships among those offended, and indeed, even condemn and counsel against the response of violence taken up in the name of offence and insult. Nowhere in the condemnations and tin eared words of Mr Romney were these ideals cited and it was rare enough that the State Department and Mr Obama made any reference to it either as they burned the bridges with the local consulate who issued an ill-timed and poorly worded statement in a perhaps well-intentioned move to reduce local passions that obviously failed.

This is not the first time in this administration that I have seen the first amendment tested, and largely go undefended. The great Burlington Coat Factory Recreation Center fight in a meaningless series of talking points lo many months ago now only gave rise to Mayor Bloomberg of NYC, of all people, defending a free right of the people in the American tradition. No stirring defence or oration from the floor of the Senate, or from a White House press conference was to be heard. I take this, with the other great offences against protected rights (such as most TSA procedures, stop and frisk cop behavior, etc), to be a signal that such rights are not treated with dignity and confidence, and that they are no longer seen as the pillars of strength to be defended by either party that they should be. That they are of value for our abiding interest to create community out of diversity and thereby to offer a wealth of opinion, a wealth of conscience and viewpoint, and strengthen ourselves by the experience, and that we should abide by these limitations, recognize them, and offer up what value they generate to others that they may be drawn in and inspired if possible. It is not necessary to go in and bomb and maim to show our strength and dominance. It may be necessary to seek justice where others cannot or will not. But it is hardly our design to silence dissent and offence elsewhere any more than it would be here. And to expect and learn where that dissent is, to better understand it and learn to live with a certain reserved portion of it (non-violent expression) should be preferred to condemning it and denigrating others for their ill-conceived and directed anger and tempers. Nor is that a form of accommodating it, to be conceived as an assault on our values or as a formal expression of weakness. To recognize where we may err, to stray, and where others must abide us for our faults so that we may abide them theirs is a value worthy of some defence and recognition. It must be so not merely for ourselves, but that we may defend it in word or deed where needed abroad.

Do let us know when a political figure begins to seek or to strive to appeal to that, promises to strengthen rather than erode them in our policies and intentions here, and has shown a record and practised habit of doing so. This would also be someone likelier than not to be able to articulate a vision of the role we may take in the game of nations moving forward, and an understanding of both our strengths, as these may be conceived, and our limitations. 

06 September 2012

Moral politics

are different depending on what team you're on.

Motivated reasoning is a well described psychological behavior. It is not surprising that it would apply to political beliefs, even, or perhaps especially, on wrongly-held false beliefs.

I'm not sure where this is surprising that conservatives would be identified as more strongly motivated. Moral research shows two parts that weren't mentioned in the above.

1) Liberals may think they are more morally motivated, but they are only more morally motivated a particular strain of moral reasoning (such as harm reduction and fairness). Conservatives are more so on a variety of other moral basis (such as disgust or loyalty). This would mean that conservatives have a sector of moral beliefs that they are more motivated on than most people.

2) Liberals are usually identified as highly open to experience, which in turn means highly open to nuance and uncertainty of experiences. Conservatives are described opposite. A need for closure has a greater tendency to avoid trying to understand and cohere conflicting ideas, facts, and opinions into your own worldview.

I do think the "team" tribal affiliation that has consistently attacked university level research (along with media coverage) as having a liberal bias has called into question the validity of non-conservative sources of information. But I think that's probably more describing the mechanics of this disparity than its causes.

Totally unsurprising conclusion: libertarians are weird in that they don't moralise.

27 August 2012

Brain droppings of the weeks.

Now that the great Chicken War has ended, Americans have moved onto the next outrage. Apparently this is rape semantics. I'm not sure Akin's apology clarified much serving as an explanation of his views. As he did not withdraw the most abhorrent anti-scientific portion but merely the word "legitimate" to be replaced with "forcible" . To be honest, I don't much care about this controversy either. The idea that there's a solid cohort of Republicans who don't think that abortion should be acceptable even in conditions of rape or incest is not news, nor is it much of a problem (it's not even a majority of Republicans). The circumlocution that politicians must go through to achieve electable status in a country that for some reason has a modest "we shouldn't do this*" outlook on abortion but suddenly finds it acceptable when there are rape or incest complications (a logically inconsistent position but the one that the public polls on believing consistently) is an odd game of political jujitsu to be sure. But it's actually not that interesting to catch a politician espousing the views of the pro-life/anti-choice extreme right whereupon there's this odd game of trying to define away the possibility of rape such that the exemption for rape becomes less and less strident politically without having to make the unpopular moral framing of saying that a rape victim must carry to term a pregnancy. That they might slip once in a while and drop the pretenses is not news because I think it can be acknowledged this position makes no sense unless we view it from the perspective that only male concerns in pregnancy matter (that is: things like ensuring paternity lines). Which is an interesting framing, if stupid, to look at the case, but was not how Akin framed it (from the perspective that only "legitimate" or forcible rape is actually rape). That framing has some disturbing patriarchal baggage, but not as much as the general public's agreed compromise has. Either the public needs to get on board with the idea that a woman may decide against the public's wishes to terminate a pregnancy, especially at an early stage, or the pro-life portion of the public needs to start making more sense and just say outright that the rape exemption is meaningless morally to them and oppose it. Otherwise, this is not news either. It isn't even a new phase of the abortion debate.

What it is is just a Senate seat now probably staying Democratic when it could have been had. Republicans have been there before (Delaware). I think of it as just a cost of being in bed with the Tea Party if one is a Republican and wants a greater coalition of power. Perhaps this will show that cost more explicitly, or show that the Tea Party isn't just a bunch of deficit hawks who don't understand the economy and don't like Obama, but is basically just re-branded social conservatives.

(* That has no implications for whether or not the public thinks abortion should be illegal in non-rape related cases. Generally that it should be legal, a further curious note on the politics, and generally the public thinks that some forms of limitations are acceptable because the public isn't very knowledgeable about how they work, who they affect, and how, and sees such proposals as in line with their vague sense that abortions are wrong. To me that is where the problem and the debate is with abortion rights in this country. Not debating the anti-scientific wackos like Akin or Willke who appear to imagine how the female reproductive system operates rather than examining it and ignore substantial amounts of actual research on pregnancy, the sexual functions of the female body, and so on).

(Clarification #2. I don't think there's a strong reason to draw a distinction between violent sexual assaults and other legal forms of rape. I think the usual distinction pro-life types look at is statutory rape, but there's also a more noxious version that looks upon women as lying about rape, or their reported rapes for date rape, marital assaults, etc as some other version of widespread deception, something Akin's initial followup also hinted at being his ideas. This is repellent and also false. Even if there is a non-insubstantial quantity of reported rapes that are some variety of this, there are far more rapes that go unreported, including violent assaults of the variety they try to limit exemptions to legally and morally. They're far better off on message just ignoring the rape exemption altogether because they come off as total clowns who don't understand the violation of rape of any kind. Rape is rape. Move on.)

On to other matters. I've been observing the election and the policies and platforms as they unfold. I think the selection of Rep. Ryan may be a shrewd gambit if the economy becomes more sluggish instead of tepid as it is now but otherwise I don't see the upside (and in truth, if the economy goes down, it would be because of Europe's fiscal and monetary crisis, which wouldn't be pretty for us regardless of who became President). There are at least two major problems with this gambit.

1) Ryan isn't a foreign policy guy, and neither is Romney. There are many ways that can slice but the most logical conclusion for an independent to draw is that their foreign policy agenda will be set by the Republican establishment, at least initially (which, in case one is wondering, is not ideal for anyone not already a neoconservative hawk). The fact that they can't point to much that actually differs from the policies of President Obama here is not helpful (for either side in my view). A further issue herein is to essentially concede for most voters that Obama has done, as they see it, a capable job on foreign policy and to argue instead against him on other grounds (eg the economy, possibly some social issues if framed properly). Which may be more tactically fruitful, but rely heavily on factors outside of any American control. Which then can be spun to imply to voters they're precisely the sorts of things that foreign policy successes might be perceived to influence.

2) Ryan seems to have a far better grasp of the relevant fiscal policies they want to set than Romney does. The idea that the number 2 guy is the guy with the plan might be a problem for Romney moving forward. There are lots of problems here. The VP isn't a very good position for the ideas man (see Cheney, Dick) or for the country. It's also not been well-associated with clever and thoughtful people (see Quayle, Dan or Biden, Joe), suggesting that any ideas coming out of there might be best disregarded rather than followed (in fairness, Biden I think has had a far better view of an appropriate foreign policy agenda than Obama has had). Finally, Congress is where any such plan or vision must go to get implemented. The exact place where Ryan could have held a lot more influence over matters budgetary. I'm not even sure why Ryan took the offer as a result.

19 August 2012

Random insight of the week

I get the impression that human beings in rich countries spend so much money on health care not because it provides them with health, but because it alleviates their fear of death.

Following this logic, the foremost expenditures in health care are a) mostly preventable diseases that require interventions of surgery or constant life long treatment from pharmaceuticals (diabetes or heart disease, lung cancer, etc), that could be avoided entirely by patients taking some initiative on lifestyle choices with healthier diets and exercise and not smoking or drinking excessively, all of which no doubt their doctors will advise them of repeatedly over a lifetime or b) terminal illnesses or episodes that require extremely expensive interventions to extend life a few extra days or months in most cases.

Most of the latter expense could be removed if people took steps to understand the limits of modern medicine by talking with their doctors ahead of time, assembling a living will, and informing their loved ones (or at least their immediate family) of their wishes or the location of said living will in the event of a tragic illness or accident. The reason we don't do most of that is that people tend to avoid thinking of their mortality, or especially that of their friends and families. We instead expect medical professionals to spare us the pain of death in our lives.

To a certain extent this is an entirely reasonable reaction. Modern science and medicine has come up with vaccinations, antibiotics, and advanced surgical techniques (organ transplants for example), and large medical corporations will market these surgical departments and, especially, pharmaceutical treatments that can alleviate all manner of health concerns. Got high cholesterol, take this pill. And so on. The modern consumer sees that death is no longer a daily concern where it might have been much more present barely a hundred years ago with much higher rates of death during pregnancy or delivery, infant and child mortality, accident rates, and various dread diseases that were far more common. Plague used to be a common occurrence for some cities to have to manage. Now we get common colds that still spread around but, for the most part, epidemics are rare.

I think this suggests that human societies used religion far more extensively to deal with death and fear of such and may explain some of the decline or changes in religious purposes (such as prosperity gospels), but I also think it explains a chunk of the run up in health care expenses across the globe. If fear of death is an immediate and daily concept, religion is a far cheaper and immediate way to service those fears through its promises of immortality or reunification with loved ones, and its use of ritual to balance and order daily lives. If death is a distant, far away concept, then we will look to the things that appear to have caused that change (from the more frequent and thus "natural" state of man) to save us when it does occur.

There are a myriad of other causal explanations for health care expenses (third party payment, first dollar health care coverage, etc), but this one would be fascinating to examine.

13 August 2012

New blue eyes?

I'm not sure what the probable gain for Romney is to pick Ryan other than that it puts the Ryan style budget front and center and he now creates a further "technocrat" aura around his campaign. There are a lot of problems with this approach.

1) Ryan's Congressional record isn't very promising for technocratic budgetary sense. He voted for the whole mess of Bush-era bloat that increased deficits rather than decreased them. His justifications are partisan (I was being a team player), which are not reassuring for the supposed Romney-ish view of doing effective things instead of partisan things.

2) Some economists like some of the more important conservative annoyances (TARP or the auto bailouts) that are being overlooked by those same conservatives now and while I don't like the particulars in the Ryan budget proposals (for instance it hands-offs the defence budget from cuts and doesn't do much actual tax reform in favor of tax cuts), I do like having someone around who seems willing to approach the third rail topics of entitlements and long-term deficits.

2a) It makes more sense to leave a wonkish person like that in Congress, where they can help pass legislation being on a budget committee in the House and not in a useless ceremonial position as the VP.

3) There isn't a constituency for technocratic views or its counterpart of governing competence in evidence on the right and left-leaning voters motivated by such things are apt to be more skeptical of either Ryan or the GOP in general or live under the (somewhat) misguided notion that Obama cares about such things and is only being stymied by the GOP's obstructionist views. There is little crossover gain to be had here and little enough in terms of actual conservative rallying to be gained. Wonky views and complicated talking points aren't likely to inspire crowds of conservatives.

4) It might put Wisconsin in play for Romney now but I'm not sure Wisconsin is significant enough to matter to the general election this year. Most evidence suggests it was Ohio or Florida or Virginia that are the cornerstone states in play, with states like Colorado at interest and risk for Obama and for which Ryan does nothing to assist (he's a more ardent drug warrior for example on the Colorado problems for Democrats, he doesn't do anything for Florida, and Ohio's a weird place).

5) He is young and thus appealing on that front, but a young idealist with muddled Randian notions isn't likely to appeal to independent voters. It might appeal to some Paulite voters, but Ryan's civil libertarian views are so poor that this is unlikely. It's possible that his relative silence on his social conservative views will mean those issues could go ignored, but I doubt it. They've already been issues front and center throughout the campaign and Obama is a capable campaigner unlikely to ignore any issues that he might draw an advantage. Younger independent voters likely to respond to a fresh face (as they did with Obama), aren't socially conservative (for the most part) and are thus turned off by the impression of the GOP as such a party.

10 August 2012

The big trade, the sporting news

My first reactions stand upon further analysis. I think people are overvaluing the Howard acquisition by LA and ignoring the potential improvements by Philly and Denver here.

Here's where the teams are going
LA - Adds Dwight Howard. Throw-ins of Chris Duhon (backup point) and Earl Clark (NBDL)
      - Loses Andrew Bynum, potentially a mid to late first round pick, and a backup throw-in player (Vujecic). Update: Also Josh McRoberts, a backup forward, and another throw-in player (Eyenga)
The advantage here for them is mainly that Howard is historically healthier (much, much healthier really) and a little better defensively in exchange for being not very great on offense versus Bynum who is really good in the low post and a better foul shooter. The problem is they still have two low post players (now Howard and Gasol) and need to get Kobe to stop hogging the ball so Nash can run the game (especially in crunch time). I'm not sure this will happen. So I'm not convinced they're now a title contender in the role of Oklahoma City or Miami or maybe even Boston or Chicago. They will be improved next year but not by that much. Main gain is that they didn't give up much to do this.

Philly - Adds Andrew Bynum, Jason Richardson
         - Loses Andre Iguodala, Moe Harkess, mid to late first round pick.

Giving up Iggy is pretty steep, but they Harkess wasn't very good projected, and Richardson and Bynum give them the two things they were most in need of last year, a 3 point shooter who can run and a center (a very good one at that). Richardson isn't nearly as skilled a defender and ball-handler, but they now have a better offensive game to go to instead of relying solely on forcing turnovers. It also means more playing time for Evan Turner, new addition Dorell Wright, and playing Thad Young at a more natural position for him than power forward (if it means more playing time for Nick Young then they've got problems, and I'm still not sold on Jrue Holliday). I'm not sure they're much better either, but if they can keep Bynum, they should at least be contenders for a while with a young core. Maybe not title contenders, but at least Atlantic Division contenders. Boston can't play with their team forever and that's a lame division (Toronto sucks, Brooklyn and NY didn't get that much offseason wise. Brooklyn won't be terrible and will be a playoff team isn't the same as saying they're now a contender). Maybe not as a lame as Miami's division now that Atlanta and Orlando are dumping their players, but it's pretty ugly.

Denver  - Adds Andre Iguodala
             - Loses Aaron Afflalo, Al Harrington, mid-late first round pick.

These guys got a lot better. Afflalo is not a dynamic offense/defence player and Harrington is a high volume three point shooter in a power forward's body. Both were overpaid and neither fits well with how Denver likes to play. They could keep Iggy or let him go for cap room next year to pursue some other free agent. I like the move the best for them this next year, and definitely moving forward for the next couple years.

Orlando - Adds Afflalo, Harrington, Vucecic, 3 mid to late first round picks. Update: Also McRoberts and Eyenga.
              - Loses Howard, Duhon, Richardson, Clark.

To boot they traded away a better 3 point shooting power forward who actually gets rebounds (Ryan Anderson) earlier in the summer instead of Harrington who they now have instead. I guess they got something for a superstar who was about to depart, but it's hard to believe this is all they could have gotten. Even Bynum straight up for a year would have been better. In relieving Richardson's mildly crazy contract, they took on Afflalo's insane one, didn't get any likely lottery or unprotected draft picks to improve moving forward, and thus virtually guaranteed they will be a non-factor in the NBA for about the next decade (the length of time it took for them to go from the Shaq-Penny era to getting Howard and surrounding him with shooters to upset the Cavs a few years ago in route to losing in the Finals). Way to go.

06 August 2012

Olympic villages and such

The Olympics are an odd event for me.

I don't generally get into the whole "ra-ra-America! fuck yeah!" type rooting. If some Russian or Chinese gymnast or diver or swimmer is the best in the world, or Usain Bolt is running, I have no concern about country, I want to see something I haven't seen before done in a sporting event in front of millions of spectators around the globe. This is, for me, why people should watch and follow sports. The possibilities for some marginal achievement in athletic prowess and domination of an event flowing from years of training to focus on excellence of a single skill allow most of us to see what that would look like if we applied ourselves to some individual task or set of tasks for years of dedicated effort. I think most people follow these things for Cold War era nostalgia and expressions of "our team is better than yours", but they do at least see somebody doing something at a high level in their pursuit of this odd nationalistic quirk.

My thoughts so far
1) Team USA basketball still has not figured out how to stop a pick and roll, or at least didn't play the personnel that would have helped (Chandler or Davis, as a back line shot blocker). A team with hyper athletic basketball players should be running 4 guys around like crazy on the perimeter with one or two to help down low and ought to force turnovers like crazy as a result. They did force a lot of turnovers, but they didn't stop anyone from scoring the other night either. In general, I would say that that game ought to put to rest a lot of the "we could have beaten the Dream Team" trash. Lithuania is a very good basketball country, but they've not gotten much better over the last two decades either (in terms of raw talent). The 1992 team would have destroyed their squad, as they had the perimeter defenders and size and shot blockers to do it.

2) Usain Bolt is a freak of nature. Michael Phelps I guess is too, but I have to admit I find watching swimming incredibly dull. It's difficult to tell what is happening live without a ton of CGI glop on the screen and really all I'm watching is a lot of splashing water and some human shaped blobs moving along at what seems like a high rate of speed. I'm not saying that this means the achievements are less impressive, but it loses something in the translation to spectating that track does not lose for me. I have talked to people who used to swim competitively, and they seem to see things that interest them in those events, but that's not most of us. Watching a 100m race with 8 of the fastest human beings ever assembled. Where had one of them not pulled up lame all would have been sub-10 second times, and then watching Bolt blow right past that field, absolutely crush it, and still pull up short in the final steps with something extra in the tank, that's insane. I think it is apparent that an 80,000 seat arena for the track events (where over 2 million people applied to get tickets to the 100m final, and thousands were thus standing), versus the 20k for swimming venues, demonstrates that the general public consumes these events in roughly the same way I do here. Track has some events that follow the same confusing spectator roles as swimming (long jump seems that way), but by and large it is easy to follow; people are obviously moving rapidly or jumping far or throwing things far. Swimming only has that effect on much longer races. Which then take several minutes of suffering through watching people swimming. I'd rather watching diving as a result, where it can be pretty clear what is going on.

3) I have to admit also that I find gymnastics mostly uninteresting too. I think this has partly to do with the Cold War nostalgia factors that do not resonate for me (I don't care if "Romania" or "Russia" or "China" wins instead of "us"). I did however watch the vaults the other night, and it was, interesting, to see the favourite (the American) after a surprising fall, and her reaction. This was, I think, on the level of USA basketball losing in the gold medal game (something that's only happened once, and under suspicious circumstances) because she was so heavily favored. And you could read the disappointment and anger in her face afterward. That was an interesting taste of what it must be like to expect perfection as an ordinary event, and then realize one's human frailty in one quick swoop.

4) I find the arbitrary decisions in some sports (but not all) to exclude members of a national team from qualifying to a final on the basis of 2 or 3 person per country limits in the finals to be strange. I don't see a monetary basis. Most of the countries that could sweep a particular event are very large powerful countries that could sign very large TV rights (USA, China especially). Most of the sponsors of a particular event would also benefit from greater exposure, and more opportunities to sponsor the perceived successful athletes instead of less skilled athletes who get in on the basis of some kind of affirmative action by nation system. This rarely raises up as a significant issue that one country absolutely dominates some event. Table tennis is rather famously in this case because of limits put in for these games, such that China doesn't sweep the medals, and the USA (along with several others) could have had three competitors a piece in the finals for gymnastics all-arounds. I think I am spoiled because track certainly does not do this. I come to expect to see 3 Americans and Jamaicans in every sprinting final as a result because those are the sprinting powerhouses (right now, Trinidad used to be up there too). Fundamentally I don't understand the rule. The best athletes should be competing for a title. Period. And I'm not sure what the probable gains are to the Olympics and its board to do otherwise. Occasionally it means some random person from Italy or Brazil wins a medal or some random person qualifies to compete for a medal (and doesn't). Odd.

5) Watching Pistorius run the 400m with his prosthetic legs was a good story and I think he was somewhat disappointed in how he finished in the semis (he had already run well enough to be a considered as a possible finalist, but not medalist). What interests me in it moving forward are questions of transhumanism. I'd be fascinated to see how we would deal with a system where people might want to remove ordinary human legs (or arms) in favor of artificial ones to increase their speed or power or jumping ability. That's a different question than the status of performance enhancing substances, but mostly in form and extremes.

6) I really do not get the appeal of a tax break on Olympic medal winnings for US Olympians. It seems somewhat arbitrary to decide these people shall get a tax break for doing X. One supposition is that it is somehow a service to the country to do X. I'm not sure how true that is really. But as practical objections. There are already adequate incentives financial for Olympians to win or medal in events such that we don't need to give people more of them (sponsorships and commercials and publicity) and we already do way too many economic incentives for equally strange things (housing, health care insurance) through tax breaks.

29 July 2012

Chicken Little

I'm not really sure why the Chik-fil-A thing became news. But since I've been required to pay attention to it, here are some notes

1) They really hammed up the Henson-toy promotion pull on PR by claiming it was a safety issue. That's not helping their position in the slightest to do slimy things to former business partners who disagree with them. To be fair, the mayors of Boston or Chicago should not have come out and declared they might ban the opening of restaurants on this basis. Expressing displeasure as a public official speaking as a private citizen might be fine, but passing legal sanction to formally require everyone else to share in their private displeasure is not. 

2) I don't actually care if a corporation is run by former Nazis as long as they are complying with the  laws we have regarding discrimination. If Chik-fil-a as a rule, or even as an effect, was treating homosexual or progressive customers differently, I'd be far more concerned than with their political advocacy disagreeing with my views. I haven't even seen evidence of any problem where they might be refusing to hire anyone.
2a) This is a different order problem than the Jim Crow South where the laws imposed discrimination. I'm not entirely convinced that laws imposing non-segregation were unnecessary to help resolve that significant equality issue, but I do think a business that treats some people differently by preventing their business as consumers or labour as employees could be in deep trouble economically if other businesses would not be required to do likewise.

3) I think if people want to boycott a business over a political or public stance on some issue, go right ahead. I don't go there (or KFC) anyway so I'm not all that worked up about it. They aren't losing any  business if I declare that I am not going there in the future. I'm not impressed that boycotts typically work in this way however. It is different if it's a civil disobedience matter as with sit-ins in the South where people can be arrested for agitating for equal rights as opposed to an uncertain number of people not conducting direct business transactions. What seems to happen instead is that the announcement of a boycott kicks up support instead of equating always to reduced business. Maybe sometimes they'd work but usually nobody cares for long enough. Whole Foods isn't suffering so far as I know a continued backlash from their CEO's HSA backing op-ed 2 years ago. Perhaps this is different because the issue involved is gaining popular support and appears to be a significant issue for many, many people. Regardless, I'm not going to tell people not to try to express their displeasure with corporate or CEO behavior and statements through economics.

4) Wealthy, powerful, or otherwise successful people often present their personal beliefs and views to the public as an effect of their status and platform of access. We aren't required to agree with these as a matter of course and they are permitted to exercise their rights to speech to say what they want to say. What they should not expect is that people will agree with them and be silent if they do not agree. One way to exercise their disagreement is to stop doing business with their companies and businesses (or for other celebrity type figures, stop going to movies or buying their music, etc). For some companies and figures involved this is easier said than done.

As an example of this, I've been far less fond of the Spurs since discovering that their (now) best player (Tony Parker) was hanging around with "his friend" Chris Brown, a popular musician/asshole when he injured his eye recently in a bar fight. I will be less inclined to watch their games now as a consumer of NBA games. As a counter example, Chik-fil-a is a large corporation with franchised ownership, some of which very likely do not share their CEO's vision of so-called traditional marriage. These people will have much greater difficulty extracting themselves economically than say a random employee or customer but may still wish to differ on their views.

4a) Conservatives, or other people defending Cathy/Chik-fil-a in this, should not confuse the meaning of the 1st amendment protections to free speech to include protection from a) media criticism b) requirements that other people should shut up and be quiet if they don't like what he said, c) that people cannot be fired for what they say by a private entity. The government, as was (briefly) suggested in Boston, should not have much to say about it. That's what the 1st amendment means and protects is government restriction and action. It doesn't protect agreement, disunion, media attention, or even private business decisions and speech restrictions. If you say something that is unpopular, be prepared to be criticised for it, to lose friends or associates, possibly alienate family members, etc.

26 July 2012

I am weird. Thank you for noticing.

As yet one more example of my weirdness: I find guns and people's desire to carry them around everywhere a demonstrable sign of their own barbarism and incivility, as opposed to as they would see it as a response to perceived barbarism and incivility and on top of the actual barbarism and incivility demonstrated by gun-related violence. I would prefer a society where people do not feel a need to arm themselves and that they are not threatened by violence.

But I am still intensely skeptical of most gun laws and restrictions as a way to get people to stop doing this thing I disapprove of or as a means to get rid of gun violence.

Most significantly:
1) I see illicit markets surrounding many cities for the sale of vice and narcotics as a source of intense extra-legal competition for profits. Resulting violence is not unexpected and a resulting need for escalating armament is not unexpected in an environment already involving illicit products implying law violations. Much of this violence has decreased over the last couple of decades. In large part because the profitability of the goods of sale has decreased. (Note: this is not related to government success in interdiction. The problem is the goods are cheaper and easier to obtain and the only barrier to entry is that they are illegal to possess and distribute and that you risk personal safety or arrest). I'm not sure how one successfully disarms this kind of area if we wish to retain the illicit nature of the products. The motivation for force is pretty clear.

I also am aware that in most places, there's a clear delineation between people who have guns and people who do not. Gun sales are up, but they are to fewer and fewer people. I'm not entirely sure why someone would want 5 or 15 different weapons myself (preparation for zombieland or some other imagined hellscape?). But I'm not entirely sure why we would or should restrict these amounts either. Gun violence isn't inherently linked to people who have more guns that I'm aware of. It's linked to people who have guns period.

2) Prevention of mass shootings appears to be the core impetus of public sentiments. Concern over "routine" gun violence does not interest the average person who attends to political events through passive consumption of news and public will. Preventing mass shootings through most proposed forms of gun control is unlikely.
  • Mental disorders - People who are mentally disturbed are not actually a category that is more or less prone to violence than is common and people may purchase weapons at a time when they would not appear disturbed and own them for many years until they could become violently disturbed. Guns are a fairly durable good.
  • convicts/felons - I suppose this is reasonable, if it's confined to violent felons (a felony is actually fairly easy category of crime to get bumped up to, depending on your state laws and city ordinances it can be an absurdly minimal criminal action). Also many places already have it as an established control to be checked. It might be difficult to implement and control for private sales as a requirement but we could establish ease of access to a criminal database to encourage it. Were I to own a weapon or a stock of them, I might be concerned that my potential customers were not about to cause bloody mayhem the moment they walked off my property or out of a gun show.
  • Background checks on sale of ammunition. If someone can buy a gun after passing through a background check, why should they have to pass an ammo check? Maybe its something odd like armor piercing rounds or high caliber rounds? But none of those are associated inherently with mass violence.
  • Restricting magazine size manufacture - Again, while this could make sense as a restriction against mass violence, a magazine is a durable good. Millions of extended magazines are already out there. It also doesn't take that long to reload against an unarmed crowd such that it would save many lives on its own. I'm not sure how this is effective at saving lives. It doesn't take 40 bullets to kill someone. It just takes one and the real problem with gun violence is the sheer number of people killed, not mass murder media events. A mass shooting plan would not require someone to purchase at once a substantial amount of ammunition and thus attract legal attention. A smaller quantity limit for such a check would only tax government resources and attention. It's possible that this ought to be a higher priority for government attention sure. That is an argument. But we have a lot of other things we're asking it to do on top of that. Removing some other (useless or even harmful) priorities could be more effective than increasing the signal that one of them is more important in an already noisy environment of priorities.
  • Restricting sales for body armor - I have a hard time seeing how we could morally justify banning the sale of a defensive item even if it is then used in the commission of morally repugnant violence. And given the disturbing tendency and frequency of our police forces to invade homes of non-violent suspects (or their neighbours) with military grade gear on, it's a little strange to presume this is a necessary step to prevent some kind of arms race. In that case, I'm more worried about what the government is already doing than what some random and crazy citizen could do. Also. To me, this is akin to an argument that something can be used for nefarious ends therefore it should be abolished, while ignoring that it has the potential for positive ends. I don't think that analogy is necessarily strong. I have a hard time envisioning a desirable scenario where large numbers of private citizens are walking around wearing body armor. Nevertheless, I also don't see how it should be carefully restricted and controlled when it has few harmful capacities of its own. Any restriction on body armor sales is liable to be constructed out of the same objections as those on guns and we seem incapable of designing effective statutes there to deter or catch a typical mass killer before they act out a lethal intention. I'm not sure how it would help us to do the same to try to remove their armor.
  • Restricting sales for assault weapons - I am more sympathetic to this kind of claim in theory. But in practice it's rarely been applied to the actual mechanics of a weapon because there's not much functional difference between what is designed as a normal hunting rifle and a semi-automatic assault rifle. So what happens is the laws are constructed to ban less useful distinctions for those that "look like assault weapons" (whatever that is interpreted to mean). Which is basically like saying "I'm afraid of guns", rather than I care about safety. I am afraid of guns, but I'm not worried about what they look like.
3) I am in practice sympathetic to the aims of reducing violence and even gun ownership in our society. I'm not entirely sure how we get from here to there however by focusing solely on guns. I think a lot more attention needs to go on people and why there is violence, and that guns (or at least some kinds of guns, like handguns), certainly seem like a complicating factor in violent action. If not an impetus. What concerns and confuses me is that the messaging of for the most popular anti-gun campaigns is not very well focused on these issues and seems more focused on issues tangential to violence, like fear or discomfort around weapons.

My discomfort with people and their guns has less to do with the guns themselves and more to do with the type of people who would carry such things around all the time on their person. I would be reminded constantly of a needless fear in their presence; a presumed need or desire to be armed at all times as though they no longer live in a civil society governed by laws and they are endangered by powerful and violent others at any given moment. I find myself concerned that there are such badly deluded people in a world with diminishing crime and suburban or otherwise upper middle class lifestyles as opposed to people who might live in a much more dangerous environment, and recognize that this sort of threatened fight or fright response to imagined threats is just as liable to incite needless violence as a more combative situation. I am thereby much more activated by a fear of people who might commit violence than by the tools by which they choose to wield it.

I'm not sure how you construct laws to get people to abandon a sense of assault by "others" or to foster greater senses of cooperation and community in a diverse society. It might however be a sufficient start for people absent these fears to settle into communities that are less tolerant of weapons brandishing and display in public, or to shame those who feel need for arms to carry them around in concealment constantly, and to allow people who imagine their environments to be under siege to devolve into actual siege by continuing to waste precious resources and time on weapons.

Voting and fraud and other scary things.

So it sounds like that Pennsylvania law purporting to deal with voter fraud will either a) be struck down by the state courts as violating the state constitution or b) kick off a bunch of older (mostly white) voters, who tend to be more Republican voters. Which is kind of amusing. If you like that sort of thing.

What that all says is that voter fraud, as a purported issue, is
1) overblown. It's unlikely to affect seriously a large election. It's also unlikely to affect it, in my view, when these misguided laws are applied. That doesn't mean that the laws are okay. I oppose them philosophically in addition to their practical problems of not being very effective or useful. It just means the harm is usually not "someone won an election when they shouldn't have". At least in a modestly liberal democracy where there are avenues to challenge dumb and ineffective laws. If we were talking about Russia or Egypt, maybe we'd have to re-evaluate how that works.
2) a non-partisan issue because it's difficult, both constitutionally and politically, to craft the laws in a blatantly discriminatory way to exclude one sides' voters over the other.

Of the more interesting voter impacts is all the redistricting challenges that have gone on. In Ohio, there's a new ballot issue on appointing independent commissions for redistricting instead of the state-gerrymandering approach. I'm a little confused however at the purported goals of doing so or at least how they differ from gerrymandering as it usually works.

"Districts need to be competitive and they must keep communities together."

I concede "competitive" could be a laudable goal for elections. In theory. I don't see that it needs to be taken for granted that there must be competitive districts always. But it does at least offer the possibility of changing representation from time to time and imposing a non-arbitrary term limit (which is appealing because I think term limits are a limitation on voter freedom and are functionally useless for resolving special interest problems and "lame duck" issues). Still. It conflicts heavily with the ability and apparent interest of human beings to settle themselves in politically homogenous communities. Eg, Cleveland proper is going to vote "Democratic"most of the time, while some of its suburbs are not. What that means is that at least several districts are never going to be "competitive". Generally speaking, appealing to the public on the impressive nature of those goals is going to conflict with the ability to implement them because they are at times mutually exclusive. That means you'll end up gerrymandering in several places or you'll end up with communities that are split and mixed and muddled with others and your supposed end goal will not, and indeed cannot, actually be served. I absolutely detest such useless symbolism in legislation and law and public action to suggest the appearance of concern with a problem but in practice lack of a solution to it.

I personally do not care whether its Democrats or Republicans who can in theory control the state's Congressional caucus. I'd prefer neither. But since this is a fairly evenly divided ideological state on many issues (it's an old Rust Belt union-centered economic state but also a modestly socially conservative state on many issues as well, historically this is more true than now), I see no obvious reason that it cannot or should not redistrict in a way that risks "dividing communities". It's a divided swing state nationally, so we should expect division in its politics when we drill down into them. If this is so, perhaps there are other reasons that the current plan of redistricting might be unsound, but "gerrymandering" doesn't sound like one of them. And many of those reasons are likely as cynically political as those that motivated the redistricting in the first place (according to opposition to said plans). Which is not an encouraging device for attracting my support because it starts up my own cynically political interests in exchange.

If you want my help, throw in some non-winner take all representation and basic reforms to the election's system for third parties. Because I want another libertarian in Congress. Fuck you guys.

20 July 2012

The second of a set of two

Now that I've seen the entire Nolan arc, I would state that he's used Batman very effectively as a means to investigate, and in effect parody, the power that the nation-state uses in things like fighting terrorism.

A city in crisis essentially appoints one man to save them, to fight for them. That can work only because Bruce Wayne is an immortal icon, with incorruptible values, and exists with a power that isn't granted by his actual personal power directly but by assuming the guise of a theatrical legend. In real life, we have no such icons.

We have only men and women of normal values. Even Wayne struggles with these values.

He tortures Joker by beating him savagely in a moment of desperation. It doesn't work out as he expects. And he promptly goes off and invades the wrong country...err, rather he goes to the wrong building. He devises a system of super surveillance to catch this master criminal but even he doesn't trust himself with this power and leaves it to a subordinate in his mission, a man of wisdom and conscience greater than even himself. He allows a city to lie to itself and to apportion ridiculous and extraordinary powers of detention and thus subvert due process so that its people have a chance at hope, a path that can only backfire on itself spectacularly when the lie is exposed. (I always found the Platonic concept of a noble lie disturbing, even if I have rather less faith in human beings capacity for decency and a determined course of progressive advancement than many. I preferred Machievelli's satirical approach to governance and manipulation to Plato's cynical abuse of same.)

The message here: if even Batman can't walk the line between what is right and wrong without sometimes straying, without sometimes going too far in the pursuit of what is just and decent and good, even if he won't ever compromise on those values (for example he personally only "kills" Raz, and it can be argued a few faceless henchmen plus one important character, in the course of the trilogy and saves even the Joker), then what chance do the rest of us have with what we have to work with, petty, divided, and ambitious human beings of opportunity.

The first of a set of two

I've been watching the campaigns unfold and have mostly been silent because they're not very interesting. I've already long settled on voting for Gary Johnson, and most of what gets talked about in campaigns isn't very exciting prior to debates when candidates might (and I stress might), have to outline some actual plans with more flesh for our approval. Something they've largely avoided doing so far.

That said, I'm also living in Ohio, and Ohio, as most election observers will tell you, is one of the key battleground states in this (as in most) cycles. Along with Florida and Virginia and North Carolina, there are no states of greater importance to media coverage, and by extension, to campaign coverage and ad warfare. That means I get inundated by wacky campaign ads from PACs and committees and all sorts. And most of these ads offend my sense of intelligence by insulting it. "Outsourcing"? Really? That's a problem now? And so on with bad commercial after bad commercial.

And then, into that open maw of insanity, there's the Warren moment.

I'm having a hard time seeing how calling Republicans anarchists is at this point anything other than an insult to anarchists. I don't agree with their moral authority conclusions relating to governments of otherwise free societies, but I find they're at least consistent and intellectually sensible conclusions based on those moral judgments rather than partisan hacks who say one thing and do the other, more precisely who say one thing and then do the other when it becomes politically expedient to suddenly support or oppose it.

I'm also having a hard time seeing how these arguments are actually useful. Supporting basic public goods or resolving externality and free rider problems through central action of governments is not the same as saying "hey we should spend a lot of money on X", or "we should spend a lot of money on X at this level rather than at this level", or "we should force lots of people to pay for X through taxation", instead of some other means. Those are more complicated legal and moral arguments, to say nothing of economic objections that could be raised in some cases (light rail for instance). One would have to show that we need to use a government body to resolve X, that X is a public goods problem of some kind, that there's no other effective means to do X, and that a proposed plan Y actually does X, and then if we get through all of those steps with modestly positive results, then we might have something worth doing. Perhaps, it could be argued, that means that we don't tax people enough to pay for what we need to do through public action (though this is doubtful given that there are a lot of things we do that aren't public action problems or that we expend too much time and money on as public action problems relative to what we could do instead). That's a really strange way to set up an argument for higher taxes on mostly successful people with the presumption being that either a) their gains are ill-gotten from rigging the system say, or b) that they're not paying enough for public goods that ALL people could have used to their advantage to succeed. The proper line of attack is on A, not on B. That line of attack has allies on both the left and right, with public choice theorists and rent seeking economic analysis in the academic world, and then Austrian economists or outright socialists in some other world.

Maybe that line of attack prescribes a particular set of actions or maybe it does not, and maybe those actions are at one level of government versus another or one branch versus another, and so on, but at least that's the argument that we ought to be having. And not an argument that roads require taxation and government. Because very few people want to have that argument. And really, people pretending that that's the actual argument, that there's that much of a gap between "conservatives" and "liberals" just look stupid as a consequence when I'm well aware they're usually much smarter people than that (on both sides).

I suspect the only reason we're having this argument instead is that somehow a very small marginal income tax rate change has come to be defined as the difference between having socialism and a free economy. When that change will do very little, if anything, to alter the dynamics of our economic mode, will do nothing to alleviate the acquisition of wealth and inequality therein, will do nothing to resolve other social issues, nothing of consequence to resolve fiscal indiscipline, and so on. This means that taxes somehow become a core value structure, and other actual core values (say, free market economics instead of crony capitalism) are ignored.

Dark Knight Rises.. and the other matter.

Quick thoughts.
1) Bane is, well Bane. He isn't the Joker, it wasn't Heath Ledger.. but they did amazing things with a few lines delivered in a disturbing way, a legend, his fights and plotting, and especially his eyes. Joker had those creepy scars and crazy lip movements, like a serpent. Bane had a creepy mask and eyes that said everything when they decided to speak. I am a huge fan of movies using very clever use of silence. His fight with Batman (the first one), there's no messy dramatic music, and he doesn't say very much (at first). But it's obvious almost from the very beginning that he's in total control of the situation in a way that no other opponent has ever been. Joker and Ra's had dramatic schemes and a good deal of control, but not total power. He also has, like Ra's did, a curious touch of... I guess empathy you'd say.

1a) I do not get people/reviews complaining about his voice as supposed mumbling through the mask. I felt it was about as clear as Darth Vader's, and that, like Vader, he had a number of highly memorable lines. This might be a residual from earlier footage released for previews months ago and not a compliant relating to the final cut? I'm not sure but I found it pretty easy to hear personally. (In fairness, I have an excellent ear for voices. It plays well with my mimicking abilities). Overall Hardy did really well with it. He had utterly terrifying eyes and expressions and a demeanor of control or a dominating presence that was what we should have expected here.

2) The ending, and the twist to it, both flowed well into the movie, and both weren't that surprising. Surprises were in some of the things that the film had already showed us for the scope and epic nature (things like those bridge/football stadium explosions, which in the actual film are small things). I don't mind an ending that's predictable if you've been paying attention or which fits together with all the little clues. I really don't mind it if things that already seemed impressive in scope before seeing it all together are diminished by the grander scope made possible in the full film.

3) I liked Catwoman and she wasn't as campy as the Michelle Pfieffer version (but then again, neither is Batman or Joker). It was a solid choice because she's always a bit of a foil for Batman's sense of justice; something to remind you that a vigilante who can investigate and punish criminal action just outside of the law isn't quite right either and she blurs those lines well by pointing out where they are (if that makes sense). I don't know if it was a memorable character versus Bane or Joker or Raz or even Two-Face. But she was interesting in a unique way from those. Dent/Two-Face for example exists outside of the law only truly once he embraces his "two-faced" nature with a little help from madness and grief. He doesn't live there, he visits there for a short time and then goes from one side to very firmly standing on the other. Catwoman is the one villain/hero that exists very firmly perched on that borderline in a way that Batman, were we to think on it, and especially in the events of this film, also does. Between Hathaway's performance and her costume, I didn't see very much to complain about here.

4) Pace was a little off early. You got the sense that Bane was in motion, that people wanted to know what he was up to (even people helping him). In retrospect they set up a lot of later action, but at the time it seems slow. I have not decided yet whether it is better or worse than the other two films. Dark Knight had some jarring flaws (Rachel's character being one of the worst of them) but one really awesome and mysterious character and a series of intricate prisoners' dilemma plots based on the predictable nature of responses to danger by an organised society (the terror comes there from someone not playing by the rules). I think the problem is that the movie was probably intended to be another fifteen minutes to half hour or so longer (yes, longer) and the pace feels wrong in the middle (prior to Wayne taking back up the Batman mantle) as a result.

5) I get the impression a lot of people will twig to the film's 99% styled rhetoric and flourish. But, since Bane explains it, that is "hope", and hope he imagines is the recipe for despair. Bane isn't there to throw a revolution. He's there to burn the city to the ground, every soul, every one, everywhere. Period. The "revolution", the destruction of the powerful and the throwing open the doors to desperation to everyone, even the powerful, is a way of controlling the masses in order to keep them off of what he's actually doing there. I get the impression that people focusing on the disparity between his sort of nihilistic messiah messaging and the support of the people aren't noticing that a) they clearly explain there's no work for the desperate in Gotham and that some kid turns up dead in the sewers very early on in his search for work. This is, to some extent, part of what motivated the OWS crowd to begin with, the lack of promising future or present and in the Batman universe, "tasting desperate" is a valuable turn on the life of a criminal actor (from both the first movie investigating Batman's origins and Catwoman's origins in this film). Second, Bane has a fucking bomb that could kill them and the only way out (a false one) that he offers appears to be through him. If he wants to have a go at the rich and powerful of Gotham, they may as well get in on it. If he wants to liberate violent criminals because they were treated unjustly by an unjust law passed to idolize someone he tells them is a false idol, I don't know that everyone will just go along with it, but there's room for people who might see that "war on terror" as having been carried too far (Nolan likes the war on terror metaphors). (As a further problem, Bane himself was picked as a villain over two years ago, when lots of people were clamoring for the Riddler. Any knowledge of Bane's MO from the comics would show this isn't far out of character for him to mobilize the "mob" to run Batman down to the ground). The closest 99%/OWS representation in messaging is Catwoman (not Bane or Batman), and given how her plot arcs, I don't think it would be easy to view the film as though it's some sort of positively endorsed message for anarcho-syndicalism or some such.

5a) One other note on the film, it very clearly explores the "noble lie" motif from Plato-Aristotle. And it explodes it.

6) Somewhat jarringly, there was an assault by a gunman in Colorado at one of the midnight showings (which I attended out here in Ohio). In one way, I'm not surprised. There's no better way to try to get yourself some attention as a lone-gunman along the Columbine model than to do it at somewhere or some event that is spectacular and where people aren't likely to be fighting back, and also where there are children. A school or a movie theatre or maybe a mall or a public park/pool. I'm somewhat amazed that the "actual" terrorists haven't figured this one out, but I'm not going to complain that they haven't. There are a lot of conflicting details out there still and not much is yet known about the motives of the suspect in custody (he doesn't appear to be an Brevik type, but we don't know yet). So I will refrain from speculation.

As my own reactions, I expect some movie theaters will go overboard on security checks. This is stupid. The guy here kicked in an emergency exit from witness accounts. He wouldn't have gone through any security to do that and neither would anyone else wanting to strike such an event. Human beings being dumb will respond to security theater rather than any actual improvement in safety, but that doesn't mean I have to like the repression of basic decency and liberty. The correct response here is to recognize that millions of people go to movies and other public places every day where they could be shot at by gunmen, and never are. That we live in a pretty safe and secure place most of the time for most of us. Maybe there's some legal change to mental disorder purchases that will come down the pike. Maybe so, but I'm not convinced that will help us either. Most "crazy" people are not violently so, and usually such legislation is fairly blanketed by design instead of targeted intelligently. In addition, people's mental states can change often dramatically over the course of many months or years owning such weapons. Others will try perhaps to tie this violence into their own pet political causes (violent video games and movies for some, anti-drugs for some, anti-war messages for others, "pro"-evangelical messages for still others it seems). I admire the human capacity for reasoning and constructing arguments, but I can't say I admire every place that we do it or every place that reason can carry us, and keep us, and constructing an ideology here as though this is a cause of a unique design with a simple solution is nonsense.

That may include my own responses of course.

One other thing that I think we have to start acknowledging is that while people can become monsters, we have often made them that way along they way. WE bear some of the responsibility. We human beings can become cruel and inhuman and dismissive to others. Without becoming violent we are oppressive and repressive to the development and well-being of our fellow man. Occasionally that means that people who become outcasts by not belonging, by not trying to fit in or by not doing so as well as everyone else can, fall through the cracks. And falling through the cracks here is not a friendly place to be. Everyone has these moments and flashes of anguish and rage. But imagine an entire world eventually composed of it, and suppressing and controlling it over time, trying to gain some direction from what consumes you. Not everyone will direct it somewhere nice and productive unfortunately. None of that is to justify what happens; it does not one thing to explain it away to offer an explanation. I ask only that we try to understand where violence comes from and just how hard it can be to tow a line of civility, and that some amount of conflict, some amount of rebellion, and some amount of grim determination is a world where violence is possible. I think we must hope that it need not be inevitable.

These are really first world problems. We have the luxury as individuals not to have to depend greatly and directly and personally on others for our lives in food and protection from death and mayhem. We unfortunately have not progressed beyond petty tribalism and exclusivity as a means of encouraging those groups of necessity. Somewhere in between those gaps is the problem for us, where some people still do have to depend greatly on necessity (poverty, prisons, high crime zones), while others no longer do but still must struggle to find a place to fit in, to be loved, to express love, and so on.

In being something of a student of history, it occurs to me that always history is about being able to assume perspectives different from our own and try to see the world as it was, as the people living through it must have seen it. We're not really very good at this. Nobody thinks they'd be a Nazi or be involved in chattel slavery as an owner or overseer of some kind. Or that they would be someone shooting up random civilians in a terrifying incident. Fortunately this last event is rare but that makes it only harder to see how it happens. The crucial element is that we are not very good at understanding others, especially others who are different from how we imagine ourselves to be, from years of distinct experience, genetic distinguishing features, and so on. Understanding does not and can not justify tragedy and horror but it might help us to prevent the next one.

If we understand "how" maybe that makes it easier to come up with our own "why".