30 December 2014

Quick notes on the football

1) Seattle and New England look like the most impressive teams coming in statistically. If I had to bet on it, Seattle repeating wouldn't surprise me. But they're about as good of odds statistically as a typical dominating NCAA title favorite in basketball. So it's not that sure of a thing.

2) Denver has slacked off and Green Bay has a typically mediocre defense to go with their ridiculous offense. Dallas has an even worse defense than Green Bay. Pittsburgh's D is worse than both. I'm not sure I'd go with any of these teams. Don't sleep on Baltimore would be my gut reaction to looking at the rest of the top tier of the field.

3) Arizona and Carolina are the two worst teams in the field. Both are in the bottom third of the league. Arizona at least has a decent D. Actually other than Seattle and Green Bay, nobody looks that great in the NFC. Detroit has a good defense, but not much offense.

4) AFC wise, Cincinnati has the same mediocre offense but also has a mediocre defense to go with it. Indy is in the same boat. This is unlikely to be a good playoff combination.

20 December 2014

Why I am a political weirdo

Recent discussions have indicated that lots of people expend a lot of time describing how awful and terrible other people's political beliefs are, and if only more people were like themselves how wonderful the world would be. Or let me rephrase that: ALL people expend their political opinions bloviating about how wonderful their views are and how terrible their opponents are. Or at least how wonderful they imagine their views to be and how terrible they have imagined their opponents to be.

Sometimes, as with the torture debate, it seems fairly clear that there are some awful people on one side. We can imagine, charitably, that they believed they had a good sound motive (protect the nation! national security!) for allowing the programme to go forward, while putting in place incompetent management and poor oversight or safeguards... Actually no. I can't imagine that wasn't on purpose.

In the case of libertarians and expressions therein I very often hear reactions, usually from progressives, as something like one of the following:
1) I can get behind abolishing the drug war/war on terror/police militarization and I'm not fond of all these bombs we are dropping on other countries, but your economic views are horrible.
2) Your economic views are horrible, therefore everything else you say is horrible (and I will disagree with it even if it ordinarily fits my worldview). Also you're probably a racist or some kind of Christian homeschooling nutjob or you have a shrine to Ayn Rand. This is also known as the straw man approach.

There are several possible reactions to this I have found.
1) Continue to pragmatically stress the positions that progressives do find palatable and hope they will work to further legislation diminishing the power of the state in these areas.
2) Bring up economics anyway to annoy people who probably never studied economics.
3) Bash Ayn Rand to demonstrate that you're not "one of those libertarians", whatever that means. Sometimes I get lucky and someone has actually read Adam Smith (rather than claimed to have read it) or heard of JS Mill.
4) Demonstrate that the "Tea Party" factually has almost nothing in common with libertarian philosophy. Also true of most Republicans.

One of the major problems I find is that economics, being a relative soft science is rather more malleable than physics or biology. People mold it to fit their views very often or accept and read studies that reinforce those views. Minimum wage studies are all over the place, both in methodology and conclusion. So it becomes a case of find your own oyster pearls. Economists tend to have much more "libertarian" perspectives than the average Joe/Jane over a variety of issues (they also tend to have much more "liberal" perspectives too), and this is also true of fairly well educated people, people with professional or graduate degrees of almost any type, so while there isn't a universal consensus, the purported experts seem to point in a general direction at least.

Still there isn't actually very strong evidence that markets "work" in all of these cases. There is sometimes good evidence that particular solutions attempted by governments do not work, or that markets will tend to work better than those solutions. But they don't always and inevitably work better than anything a government could try to do. Many libertarians seem to operate from an a priori conclusion that the government will fail, or will screw it up worse than a potential market failure. This is a central insight of the philosophy and psychology of a libertarian that allows us/them to be skeptical of proposed solutions coming from a centrally planned authority or regulator. But "skepticism" isn't the same thing as "denialism". If it works, or it works well enough that it isn't causing a huge fuss and mess of things, there's plenty of low hanging fruit of governments doing incredibly destructive or harmful things to large numbers of human beings for which our attention can be pointed in the meantime before coming back to these more marginal improvements to human freedom and autonomy.

This then brings to the central reasons I think libertarians are unpopular.
1) We spend a lot of time pointing out that something, usually something the state is doing, doesn't work. People don't like naysayers very much rather than more constructive criticisms. There often isn't a good story that can be told about how an open market operates to provide opportunities to people versus "this public official helped me in some way because of this program". Usually instead people have a story about an evil villain CEO working for some (often heavily government backed) corporation taking away their job and sending it overseas, or something in that vein as a basis for how the market has failed.

2) Very often public policies, constructed and conceived by both conservatives or progressives, are based around the assumptions that appearing to do something is important. Appearing to care about something means "we should do something, this is something, let's do it". Without much concern to the question of "hey, does that something actually do anything about your purported concerns for which you proposed doing something in the first place?" Or as a libertarian would object: "is that something actually a problem for which we need a public policy solution, or can we expect that people will eventually figure it out with solutions on their own?" Someone who runs around pointing out not only that some policy doesn't work very well, but also that it's a policy which is designed mostly to make it look like something was done, papering over that something possibly cannot be done, is going to be really, really unpopular.

An an example: I am extremely sensitive to the problems of racial disparities and injustices from studying the criminal justice system and I can go down a list of things that I'd rather see us up end and abolish because of the massive negative impacts they have for the lived experiences and opportunities of minorities or immigrants. But I'm also skeptical that say, affirmative action in college acceptances or job promotions is a good way to help us resolve racial disparities in opportunities. I don't think it's impossible it could be helping, but I'd rather abolish or at least severely limit the drug war or return many economic and political rights to ex-felons, or abolish many occupational licensing requirements, or improve our K-12 inner city educational experiences (including our disciplinary structure), and on and on down the line. Most of those are things I can conceive immediate benefits. They are low-hanging fruit that would probably benefit minorities most of all and they are things for which I've had a long history of supporting us as a country or state or town putting forward some legislative and legal action on suppressing our currently destructive habits of governance. Affirmative action meanwhile has a mixed economic record, doesn't seem to have done much about racial disparity in this country as a whole, and seems to concentrate its benefits among people who are, if not in need of some assistance to overcome a substantial social problem like racism, also may not be that poor or under served in education and other public and private resources. Maybe this is because of poor design, which is a common problem in many social welfare programmes in this country and others. Maybe there's a lot of economic noise that makes it harder to see large scale benefits. Or maybe it's just not that helpful. It isn't an enormous cost to society to try to promote people of a distinct ethnic background, and one can readily understand there may be potential benefits for people to try to do so anyway through intellectual and creative diversity that accrues from the likely diverse life experiences (and the same applies to having women promoted into higher positions of employment). But there's still those other things we are doing which have enormous costs and preclude enormous benefits and it should seem strange to people that we can do this more or less symbolic thing to help and not those things.

Something that should occur to anyone reading though is that actually the questions involved about how best to help the poor or the suffering, the sick, the elderly, how to provide public goods and solve questions of externalities are not generally rejected by libertarians (some do). There's a wide disagreement even amongst libertarians on how to resolve these, or whether they are within the scope of a small state to do, and a wide gulf between that and how the typical person finds it appropriate to do so via the usually larger and more robust state they envision. There are some cartoon libertarians who put forward the "screw the poor" foot. There are people who do not have a firm grasp upon what the term means and apply it because maybe they think it sounds cool. There are people are libertarian-ish (which is probably where I come in), there are left-leaning libertarians (again, also me, where I could describe myself as "a liberal who likes markets"), civil libertarians (again, me) and so on through the litany of woe available for ideological selections.

Generally what divides "libertarians" from "everyone else" is two things:

1) A very strong and often narrow moral preference for providing liberty and autonomy to individuals and thus for removing the state as an oppressive agent (this used to be defined as "liberalism"). This preference is present at turns for other people but isn't as intense, and many people provide exemptions for their pet causes to reduce autonomy or liberty in others (narcotics, abortion, large sodas, tobacco, etc).

In general the libertarian is likely to be libertine about using the power of the state to police our objections in the behavior of others that is not obviously harmful to others in a live and let live manner. So don't pollute your neighbour's property, or kill your neighbour, or steal his things or commit some manner of fraud in your dealings with him, or sexually assault anyone, or we the public will be compelled to act and respond with criminal sanctions via the instrument of the state. But if you want to complain about your neighbour's musical choices or offensive and bigoted statements or dietary habits or sexual promiscuity go right ahead. Just don't expect the rest of us to be compelled to act upon it.

2) A much stronger skepticism that a particular intervention by the state is either needed at all or a means of improving the plight of some particular set of individuals. This is to say, among other varieties of objections: that we are skeptical that either the state can resolve an issue via a proposed and particular means of action, or more generally that the state will contain itself to those proposed means or use those proposed powers only for this approved upon issue. Or as a specific objection, to say that whether or not the state could do something, it's unlikely to work out better and sooner than letting things run their course through the normal operation of markets and thus unnecessary for the state to intercede. This is usually described as "having faith in markets" and often people point to specific instances where markets have failed, but often not engaging that in many of those cases, we were not dealing with free and open markets but strictly controlled and tightly regulated markets where the exercise of state power favored and protected the abusive firms seen as at fault. One way this manifests is to say that libertarians are skeptical that complex and extensive regulatory states will not be captured and used by the entities they mean to control and that they differ widely on the proposed solution to this as a problem being "more regulation" or "more regulators" to be more like simpler and smoother and more transparent regulatory states.

The division is not "we hate poor people" or "we worship rich people". This is an amusing straw man. The division is also not "we'd like there to be total anarchy so that the powerful could establish their own versions of oppression" as is often implied in the "you're a libertarian, why don't you go move to Somalia" idiocy. These divisions are common probably because libertarians aren't very good at story telling in part, relying on a somewhat impersonal process of millions of market based decisions to result in positive outcomes. But they're also common because it's preferable to try to publicly dismiss ideological opponents by providing them the worst possible motives. "They're trying to destroy the country" or "they are bigots". And so on. This preference is mostly lazy thinking. It doesn't require engagement or skepticism about politics. And most of us don't want to put in the engagement or skepticism required to understand carefully complicated issues at hand in most political policy questions anyway. We're much better at taking out our privately held stock of strawmen.

11 December 2014

More important things I've written about before, torture version

So there was a report that came out. Not much new was actually learned. I think I could summarize my information from skimming through it and various stories thusly in the following three points.

1) Hummus is for eating, not for anal insertion. I may have to cut back on hummus consumption for a time as I'm actually mildly grossed out by that particular detail. That does not happen easily. The story in Training Day where a suspected thief gets off with a lighter sentence by licking peanut butter off his fingers from a stash of it inside his buttocks was funny (also because there's no way that would happen). This however was depraved. I cannot bring myself to marvel at our capacity of creativity when applied to destructive arts.

2) CIA lied to itself and high public officials. I'm not sure I find this a plausible truth really to accept at face value.

What seems more likely is one of two things happened:
a) the high public officials of both parties and up to and including the President/Vice President and Department of Justice all authorized it and then said "I don't want you to tell me exactly what's going on, so if asked, I don't have to lie". They were then only informed of what was going on around the time the Abu Ghraib story broke, probably because they were mildly alarmed and disgusted about what was going on there and were concerned about what else might come out later when the press got onto the the actual torture story.

b) Another possibility is that high public officials of both parties were informed and are now covering up when they knew what was going on in a sort of "we'll get you for this" treatment, trying to burn the idiots at the CIA who ran the thing without getting caught on fire themselves. Since the Bush team was in office administering the programme, they would get more blame as an added bonus for Democrats to release the story. They can also claim some variety of "bi-partisanship" because John McCain has been an avid anti-torture figure from the right and because several of now President Obama's current officials, including the CIA director, are implicated in the scandal. It's a win-win for them.

3) The main revelation was how the programme was administered and started in practical terms (legal terms we already knew years ago because of the release of the DoJ's and White House memos from Yoo and Bybee). What appears to have happened is the crack team selected to run it was paid a large sum of money and had no previous interrogation experience. Then didn't run any kind of background checks on their guards and interrogators, leading to a number of problems of depraved and sometimes sexual behavior well outside the grounds that were supposedly approved by the legal team. This was in conjunction with a sweep for "terrorists" that not only incarcerated hundreds of totally innocent people but apparently allowed dozens of them to be tortured, one of which to death.

That fact is hardly surprising, but given that again, we were told the use was restricted to high value targets with actionable intelligence (a dubious and questionable choice already), it should be very alarming that there doesn't appear to have been much work done to confirm the identities of the persons held in custody, and their status as potential terrorists with hazardous information. What that suggests, foremost, is that no attempt was even made to conduct regular interrogations on many of these individuals. They went straight to the torture chamber. And this happened without any clear and confirmed association that these might have been persons in possession of immediate information, of the classic 24-style "ticking time bomb" scenario so often depicted in Hollywood films. It is hardly surprising that it should not resemble in the slightest the actual practice. Script writers take pains to define our evil foes, their prospective acts of wanton destruction and to provide moral certainty of our actions by having them succeed in saving the day (there are exceptions). Actual intelligence is messy and uncertain and typically involves a lot of errors and educated guesses.

What most of these facts in #3 align with is not that torture as an approved and sanctioned program was a necessary and proper process with strict controls. But rather that torture was a systematic concept that easily ran amok once allowed into the system of intelligence and national defence at all (as one would predict, and as a reason why it is banned by international treaties to which we are signatories as Americans). It was haphazardly run and overseen. There were complaints from within the infrastructure about the value of information produced and toward the effect of these types of interrogations upon morale and sanity of interrogators themselves. The conduct of such practices quickly and extensively warped beyond the supposedly strict confines of manoeuvres designed to give the veneer of legality, as would be expected once the door was opened to allow it.

It is not relevant in legal terms that we either sought to justify these actions or even that should they have produced anything of value at all. They are strictly banned under any circumstances and for any reason, whether a country was directly assaulted, at war, or not. Which is why for many years public officials involved or defending the practice have taken pains to describe them with the Orwellian (and originally German) descriptor of "enhanced interrogation" rather than applying the title of torture to them as we have done in the past when conducted by others. Presumably less noble others than anointed Americans charged with the defence of freedom and decency (eg, our enemies the Chinese or Vietnamese or Soviets or Nazis, etc). The charge that they produced effective results should be weighted against the costs; which we are seeing now in the charges of international condemnation and public opinion upon the disclosure of these secrets. They can also be weighted against the alternatives of regular and approved forms of interrogation and manipulation of prisoners and suspects. Many of which appear to have been all but ignored in the haste to "break" these captive men.

Torture's primary historical utility is in getting people to tell you what you wanted to hear (ie, propaganda), such that the torture may cease, and not things that you do not already know and wished to learn (ie, intelligence gathering). Thus in any strategic sense, torture has historically offered little or no value to provide information and presents considerable risks and harms to torturers should it be discovered that captives were tortured and abused for intelligence purposes. Particularly when undertaken in a systematic way, under orders or instructions from commanders and leaders, rather than as some kind of one-off scenario that could be "excused" and dealt with (as was done with Abu Ghraib officers and personnel). It is also providing risk and harm when it is not condemned, when people are accepting of the offering of retributive violence against unarmed captives, including innocents who posed us no threat of harm in the first place and all on the pretext of acquiring information. And a risk where the officials involved face no repercussions and indeed are welcomed to offer their opinion freely. Not only to dissemble on this issue of what they had done and for which we might expect them to wish to try to defend themselves but on all manner of other topics as to our foreign relations they are granted respectability and gravitas rather than greeted with deafening silence and indifference where they wish to express themselves; to be shunned and stripped of social rank and titles rather than welcomed. These harms should have been much more carefully considered, in spite of any imagined or perceived threats to the security and serenity of the citizens of the nation, and the whatever propriety hard-earned over the history of the nation as it conducted itself abroad should not have been tossed aside in the need for vengeful assaults on human decency. That our enemies are brutal and presumed to be savage in the destruction of innocent lives is not an excuse for depravity, nor a call to conduct ourselves as savages. Standing back up taller in a moment of weakness should be seen as discouraging attack, by making us appear stronger and more formidable to our allies and enemies alike. Slinking lower to a moral standard makes us appear weaker and desperate, capable of abandoning our standards at the slightest push. Such an approach may win battles, but will lose many wars.

The reason it offers risk and harm for our public and political class to react so to these stories is that it presents the firm possibility that we would do it again, and continue our depraved status as a nation of torturers at risk to any moral standing we have as an ally and friend of those nations in search of establishing justice and peace. If but there were no restraints cast on us by our current leaders, we would do it again is the implicit promise of our reaction. Or that we would cooperate with allies who might do so at our behest rather than condemn such practices universally and unequivocally. It is not enough to place words upon paper and sign them. We have to practice the ideals behind those words. Those ideals carry meaning and value only so long as we wish to uphold them, and they lose value and credibility when we stray grievously from our established acceptable practices. They are not reinforced by pointing to lesser exemplars for their own brutality and abdication of human rights or decency. They are only reinforced by making ourselves strive to be ever stronger examples of such things.

Minor things I've written about before

Daily Show came around to the story about the diner in North Carolina. 

I was unpersuaded by the take of many atheists that this a serious problem, or that the type of problem it presented was in somewhat analogous to much more serious forms of discrimination (such as genocidal practices, or really even hiring and firing decisions of companies based on religious non-belief). One can readily acknowledge that it is discriminatory legally. But given that restaurants practice many types of price discrimination already (for the elderly, for college students, for military or police/fire departments and so on), it is not a particularly egregious outrage that they might effectively overcharge everyone for food and then decide to offer a discount for something religious like praying over the meal. It also appears the diner amended its practices slightly in the wake of criticism to allow for non-religious expressions, whatever that implies.

I do think the Daily Show's piece was unfair in its depiction of FFRF and Barker specifically, but my impression has been that the expressions of the FFRF and Barker aren't always all that flattering anyway. They can do enough work digging the holes without help. What struck me first and foremost about the story when I first was presented with it months ago was that it didn't make sound business sense to offer the discount at all. And not that it demanded a very public and in-your-face response for it to be abolished. There was a cheap and simple and much more private way to handle this, such as a personal phone call or meeting with the owner/manager to determine the contours of the discount, accepted practices for receiving it, training or discretion offered to the crew to provide it, and so on. Such a meeting or call probably would have sufficed to show the owner this was a foolish idea, and at least that it came from a highly privileged Christian majority position and that a more generally inclusive or respectful attitude to the population of potential diners and customers might be wiser. Indeed, my impression and understanding of religious practices was that public displays of religious faith by other Christians might have been frowned upon as discriminatory even before atheists as exclusionary, and that other Christians are commonly allies in pointing out these forms of religious exclusion. The piece and previous reporting did not illuminate if this more subtle and personal approach was tried and failed, and a more public and direct response was then used instead to achieve a more desirable result. The Daily Show piece and previous stories on this issue strongly implies that it was not attempted to mediate and explain, so I would submit this is unlikely.

What seems to have been more important was to attract attention to it as an example of discriminatory practices excluding atheists. Of which there are many and many of which can have considerable impact upon the lives of atheists in this country and others and for which the resources of atheists can be leveled and concentrated upon improving and reducing the barriers and boundaries that a still distrustful modern Western society like that of the United States places upon us. But for something like this, effectively burning the bridge in order to draw attention to it struck me less as a well-calculated solution which educated the local diner operator and more as a Streisand effect, demonstrating to the Christian majority the lengths to which atheists may go to exclude religion from public life and resulting in a portrayal of atheists as "dicks" even by fellow secularists such as the Daily Show writers and correspondents for cheap laughs.

That portrayal, which is sometimes accurate and deserved as it is for any group of humans, is hardly the necessary means to make an approach of acceptance and tolerance in broad society which includes a vast quantity of religious adherents. We atheists don't need to be dicks and neither do we need to be nice and lay down all the time. But we should be pragmatic. We are outnumbered and should pick our fury where it is actually raised and a the thing should not stand without resistance. We should also be willing to say, yes, that behavior on the part of another atheist was inappropriate or ineffective as a means of achieving a general goal of acceptance and promotion of tolerance toward atheists and secularists in society. This happens often with Dawkins and remarks on sexism or feminism as an example. Whether or not he intends them as such, they are often offensive and counterproductive to a cause of atheism and secularism that is too easily and frequently depicted as an all-white-male boys only club which is ill-attuned to the social problems of others owing to race or gender.

As such. It does not offend me deeply as an atheist that I would not receive a modest discount for my breakfast at this location because I could go somewhere else that I might find a more accommodating business practice or better eggs and bacon. It would offend me deeply if I were refused service entirely were I to refuse to pray over my meal. Or if to work at such a location, I were required to adorn myself with some religious symbols of the owner's choice and practice of faith. This distinction of the scale and scope of the offense should be factored into our reply. Discrimination is discrimination, but discrimination of this type, economic discrimination through prices, is not like genocide or racial exclusion laws. It scales. It would be entirely appropriate to boisterously and immediately and publicly complain and to demand restitution if an atheist is not given a raise on that basis of non-religious affiliation, or denied employment or service from a company or public official.

I do not even say it is necessary that we pick our battles and that a scorched earth approach to any and all forms of discrimination by businesses cannot be deployed. And thus that this should have been ignored as a "nice old lady" doing something weird. Rather, I am saying that the way the battle is fought sometimes matters to the outcome of the war. Winning ugly is still winning yes, but it often costs later on. We are in the middle of a very long road still with a large portion of the public expressing views of hate or intolerance, and many more expressing indifference to the problems of atheists in America. Atheists will require allies and compassion from others as a minority status in a Christian dominated society, allies who will help fight on issues of church and state separation and forms of discrimination that afflict atheists, or on science education policy and other matters which interest atheists in particular at times. Potentially alienating such allies is foolish. That should be considered when picking out the weapons of choice and against who they are wielded.

10 December 2014

Into the valley

A river divided grains of sand
Hour upon hour, slipping through veins
Upon a beach the sunset crumbled
Moons rising in the eddy and tide
Water gurgles drinking in the shadow

Each day is pulled deeper at sea
Each night drowned by company
A legion of waves passed over
Bobbing up and over
The drain wrenched free and the water runs red
every morning.

Washed upon a strange new land
The discovery, a world fossilized
Between a great mountain and the drowning sea
Darkened by endless trees
On fire, the pyre a pillar
Provider of ticklish rages
Reminders from choking gasps of air gusting by
Burning. Escape on foot. Alone.

Climbers slip, falling back
upon the riverbed, desperately thirsty
refreshment from the desert valley
Cruel tricks, illusions. Oasis
Never make it there
Carried back in circles among the dunes

A Shadow that chases shadows
Casting longer to the canyon
Trapping light and screams, echos
every shriek and laugh ignored

The bones escaped long ago
chattering against the wind
Guardians of the peak
Restless rocks flung down
Relentless for the barren slope
Watchful No rescue

Sheepish grin of confusion
exasperating tides whisper
through wind and star lights
Only this mountain will remain
if only the valley can tremble no more

The peak of snow exploded
a gruesome spire approaches
falling blackness, pitch
blind and dizzy
The up is down, down up
Now is soon, then is not

fall upon the riverbed
Hidden in the valley
Everything burns, documented
Calmly nothing to see here.
nothing but this. Looking up
a world on fire tugs and stretches
over the screen, forever

Looking back and the page disappears
Gone, never touched or seen again
Lost in the valley. Forgotten
when the river runs again
Buried by the wave

Crime pays

For many of my gripes with Kleiman, he wrote a book on this topic a few years ago (When Brute Force Fails). Some of the same conclusions are involved. Example. For minor infractions like parole or probation violations instead of sending people to prison to serve out a lengthy term, they might go to jail immediately for some smaller period of time (a few days to a month), and then are released.

A crucial element that wasn't mentioned in the piece is that one of the major aspects of "successful" punishment is that it usually is not the length or severity that matters for people to get the point that they did something wrong and deter others from doing the same. Rather it is having available swift and sure possibilities for penalties to occur in the first place. In many cases prison sentences are increased because we don't have very sure or swift penalties for the criminal acts involved and it is assumed that the only way to provide deterrence is a stiffer penalty. People can commit these kinds of crimes with relative impunity. As a result we might also want to look at which crimes we could better deter with different police patrol patterns, more community involvement, a better focus on the use of our investigative resources to solve these crimes doing the most damage, etc.

People don't tend to randomly kidnap children in the US versus other many countries because it's extremely hard to pull off without getting caught (or at least this is the belief among many criminals, it's also pretty low on the totem pole of prison hierarchies to do pretty much anything to kids, which adds another wrinkle). It's almost always a family member in this country for that reason that abducts a child. Someone who probably doesn't care if they get caught because they're not rational involving their own children. This attitude of deterrence through the surety of penalties could be applied to any number of criminal acts (murder, robbery, fraud, etc) and should provide much more deterrent value than longer sentences. There will still be murders, but they'd be more and more acts of "passion"; sudden events that escalate to violence and less and less random acts of violence committed against strangers.

I think there's also a large sum of currently designated criminal behavior that isn't described or studied here that doesn't cost as much in the form of social damage (drug use/possession and distribution being one source), or where there is damage, using the prison system to deal with it probably isn't appropriate and is wasteful and costly versus the alternatives. This would also apply to many mental health problems. It sounds like this was a study or set of them that looked too linearly at the costs of prison itself rather than also including the costs of policing or the costs of basic health care, and the benefits of same, and so on. I find that many of our policy approaches are not "3-D", taking into account alternatives from outside the context of a narrow policy view. For instance, drug addiction (actual drug or alcohol addiction, not mere use of drugs that we find are socially disapproved) or mental health disorders could be treated as a medical problem rather than a criminal one. The narrow focus on the costs of these in criminal activity often precludes people from assessing how they might be dealt with more efficiently elsewhere. It is useful to know that X criminal act potentially costs us this much in social damage, and imprisoning a person for doing so costs Y dollars, but it is useful to know that because we can then evaluate it against other alternatives and also see if we will come away with fewer of X criminal acts in the first place using those alternatives, or if those alternatives have other positive benefits (better mental health for instance allows people to hold down regular employment easier, narrow policing focus allows police to push criminal activity into smaller and smaller spaces, thus making any remaining criminal activity less likely).

07 December 2014

List of standard disclaimers that probably should not be used

1) "Support the troops" - This is typically used when someone opposes a military deployment (a war). When someone opposes a war, that person should say that no, they don't support the troops. Because the troops are doing something they oppose. They mostly, and more properly oppose the political and policy decisions that resulted in someone demanding the troops do something they felt was inappropriate, destructive, or generally foolish and not helpful to American interests and security. But basically we should not say blandly "I support the troops". Because that implies we support the mission they are deployed for.

2) "I regret offending people" style non-apology apologies. If what you said or did was what you wanted to say or do, you don't actually regret that someone was pissed off by it. What you regret if it offended people and that reaction upset you was that you said or did something stupid (and were caught doing so). In most cases, this is not actually a regret people are experiencing that others were offended. They just want people to shut up about it and move on. I appreciate that these public displays of passive aggression in response to accumulated grievances are sometimes amusing and even warranted as a way of getting back at such complaints, but if you didn't want to apologize, it may be better to just not acknowledge it at all than to make an insincere attempt to mollify some people. If you really do want to apologize, then find a way to say it that acknowledges you may have actually been striving to learn and understand the complaints of others rather than stating the mere existence that there are complaints and grievances against some statement or action. Which you apparently either don't care about or understand.

3) "If you don't have something nice to say don't say anything at all" - Almost nobody actually follows this. Our primary form of moral reinforcement as a species is dishing dirt on other people or complaining about other people. This is far, far more common than hearing about something awesome someone else did as an exemplar. We should admit this hypocrisy and instead of telling people what not to do in as far as not saying bad things, we should strive to pay more compliments to balance out our tendency to try to do violence to other people's reputations in the trading of gossip and information on the flaws and peccadilloes of others. (Our own flaws are a different variety of currency).

Addendum point to 3: This also infects superhero movies. Where it is far more common for such movies to tell us "this person is a hero" than to actually attempt to demonstrate it as an example to hold up toward. Batman in some respects may be the exception and GotG also had elements of this. Superman movies have not (at least not for a while). The most "heroic" character was typically Jor-El, and not Superman. One reason for this is that movies that involve self-sacrifice, or acts of devotion to and protection of others, probably won't involve as many explosions. Science fiction movies have struggled with this also since probably Empire Strikes Back and some of the earlier Star Trek films (since the Borg, it's been lackluster there too). What's typically portrayed instead of acts of heroism is acts of recklessness that because of the deus ex machina and plot armor effects, are pulled off. Showing exemplars in media is apparently very hard to do, and I would bet this is because we don't spend very much of our time and energy talking about and holding up exemplary behavior in others.

4) "Some of my best friends are.." First. They're not some of your best friends. Everyone knows that in most cases except the person saying it who is holding them up as a token talisman that somehow excuses something else (using another person to protect yourself is not typically viewed an act of friendship). Second, it's irrelevant as the topic is typically either some nonsensical statement Person A has made that doesn't involve or impact their "good friend" Person B or the topic is some variety of public policy position which is informed not by a random sampling of people potentially impacted by the policy but by Person B style friends who have become so by not saying anything inoffensive to which you would disagree (in your presence). Most of us do not select diverse grouping of friends so that we can say "some of my best friends are". We select actually fairly homogeneous groups of friends who affirm our pre-existing beliefs rather than challenge them. What happens when we befriend people who are often of different and distinct beliefs and views is we may adopt portions of their views or moderate some of our own more extreme views (this is typical of people who suddenly realize they have an atheist or gay friend). Most people do not however set out to meet people for the purpose of having a set of friends that includes "person from stereotypical group B", and "person from stereotypical group X, which is very different from our group C", this is an accident of our lives and is not a defence of having said anything about any other group of people.

5) "Police have a difficult job, etc". This might be partially true in the same way the "support the troops" mantra has a grain of truth to it, but there are several problems with it. First it obscures that one of the reasons police have a "difficult job" is that current laws are often expansive, covering a great deal of human activity, and as such allow a great deal of leeway for police to detain and arrest people, where if laws were not as expansive police would have less latitude in who they arrest and detain. But police also have a great deal of discretion not to arrest and detain people by that same token and are therefore choosing to arrest and detain people, or choosing which people they wish to arrest and detain and which they will ignore. Some of that exercise in prejudice will be fueled by actual biases and animus toward others. Second some of the same laws should protect police already if they do things which are appropriate in the context of their duties. Self-defence law for instance should allow for an officer to have killed someone in certain contexts, which are mostly the same contexts that would permit any ordinary citizen to do so. Police are also often further insulated by law and by contracts and training in the language of the law from penalties for making inappropriate arrests or a variety of citizen complaints about their work on top of the disturbing lack of penalties for acts of violence and brutality. Third police themselves have made their jobs much harder by accommodating some of the poor incentives to enforce some laws (vice crimes and a variety of discretionary crimes that typically issue fines) by tending to come off as an occupying force in many neighbourhoods and towns across the country in the methods and tactics they use to enforce the law. "Good officers" deserve little public sympathy if they typically try to not only protect these other officers for indecent behaviors but reward it.

04 December 2014


Honestly at this point I don't care if half the country gets burned to the ground and we have to start over. Nobody seems inclined to take seriously suggestions of how we get from here to there, where there is somewhere a decent people should want to go.

The Brown-Wilson case was mishandled at crucial points but there's little chance that would have gone to a conviction. The end result would have been the same; Wilson resigning. That entire case basically turns on what witnesses you believe or don't believe concerning what happened after Brown had moved away from the car and those last several shots being justified or not. All of which is enough for reasonable doubt in a court room. Of course, whether police usually receive reasonable doubt from juries when normal citizens often do not could be discussed at that point. How all of it was handled from there was an outrage, but that's a different sort of outrage than the actual death itself (leaving the body in the street for hours, running over memorials to the deceased, mistreatment of protesters and media in the aftermath, total lack of communication between protesters and security forces, deployment of military equipment for which police were not trained for use against a non-military grade threat to officer safety, PR battles which often had limited value, calling anyone who opposed police action "thugs" or furthering a "pro-thug" agenda, with all the attending racial-loaded implications of that language in the modern era, etc).

This case.... there was all kinds of evidence involved however. Police procedures were not followed. The arrest had no such import as a prospective assault/robbery suspect (however unjustified killing such a suspect was, the criminal acts for which the deceased were being accosted were miles apart in the importance of effecting arrests). The man clearly had medical issues induced from police action, and still they persisted. Heads should have rolled. Excuses piled up instead and nothing happens. The Crawford case was in the same boat, and one expects that the Rice case in Cleveland will fall under the same hand at this point.

This has to stop, but it won't.

The only way that happens, the only way we can begin to examine this corpse of our society and its presentation of justice and what may ultimately destroy us, is if we start to acknowledge we have a police problem. We have an institutional problem with the way we police, and how we look the other way when violence is meted out to those we deem unworthy of basic decent legal and moral protection. And the main reason we have such people upon which to permit, if not demand, such institutional violence is we have a race problem. Still.

It isn't just a race problem. Poverty, the drug war, media coverage of crime and criminal justice, military-grade hardware distributed like candy to police forces large and small, and the expansion of police powers and broad and vague legal codes all contribute. And it isn't just a police problem; a media climate of fear is perpetuating the feeling of a society under attack from what are largely mythical criminal acts and as a result the general public carries many of the same biases and prejudices in private and public encounters with people who do not look like us. Many of these situations would not have happened at all if someone with suspicion formed (primarily) on the basis of skin colour did not call the authorities to alert them of something that could have been handled with a simple question or conversation at the scene. The animus doesn't require the police. The fault is not in any stars. It is from ourselves.

When we put these problems together though, the explosives are made more deadly and more corrosive to the nature required of us in forming a functional and prosperous society. Where all people feel reasonably safe in their homes and neighbourhoods not just from criminals, but from the authorities as well. Where all people feel that the provision of law is not a means or tool for oppression of basic dignity, but rather a weapon for preventing that oppression of dignity. These should be our aspirations in crafting the laws, and the methods of enforcing and arbitrating violations of laws. We may never perfect the methods and means of obtaining these lofty goals. But we should at least act like we care that these are our preferences. Or we should admit that they are not our aspirations at all.

When we have one law for those who enforce and craft laws, and another set of laws for others, we cannot present a place for basic dignity. We enable those who would hide behind their position to inflict injustice where they should be in the service of justice. We can have room in our society for difficult decisions, for actions taken in self-defence or in defence of others, and we have legal codes which allow for this. Nor should we want police officers to fear for their safety anymore than we should ourselves live in fear. But this impunity before the law must end.

01 December 2014

A few narrow points

The conclusions don't necessarily create the idea that conservatives have figured out how to address the concerns of women (or single mothers in particular). But there were a few morsels of ideas and concessions in here (of course, Frum isn't widely considered a conservative by other conservatives). 

"the pro-life movement really does seem to have changed American minds about the morality of abortion. Only about one-fifth of Americans wish to see abortion outlawed—a proportion that has remained steady since the mid-1970s. But the proportion that thinks abortion is wrong has edged up over the past 15 years: Only 38 percent of Americans now describe abortion as “morally acceptable.”"

- This trend explains much of the strategy behind most abortion restrictions as if most people seem to think what is being done is wrong, but aren't willing to ban it outright, the restrictions will sound like sensible methods of "getting people to think again" while ignoring the actual impact of the restrictions. It's also why I think that if Roe were ever overturned, pro-lifers are screwed as they have to defend the idea that not only is it "wrong", but it should be illegal. A prospect which is not a clear line for crafting jurisprudence, as evidenced by our fraught history waging the drug war, or Prohibition before that, among other examples. It seems even less likely to lend itself to clear jurisprudence where metaphysical assessments of the origins and meaning of human life are concerned, and these become intertwined in a variety of scientific or natural phenomenon (such as miscarriages).

The major problem with the trend is that it does two things.

1) Confuses the population's terminology and labels. "Pro-life" is more broadly interpreted than "someone who wants to ban abortion". "Pro-choice" is mostly becoming limited to people who don't want to describe themselves as "pro-life". The popularity of both labels gives the basic impression that the ardent pro-life position, or the ardent pro-choice position, are more popular than they really are. The vast majority of people are instead in a fuzzy zone and have few strong opinions other than that "it seems wrong", or something to that effect (the famous Clinton formulation of "safe and legal but rare"). Neither position should have much dominance if popular will is sufficient to argue the legal merits of abortion (I do not believe it should, and possibly even pro-life persons would agree with me on that point when they recognize that they do not stand before the majority).

2) In truth, both labels are functionally meaningless. By acknowledging that neither position does hold sway, we should be able to acknowledge properly that most other people are not in some carefully thought out and fervently advocated position on this issue and will hold neither "pro-life" or "pro-choice" politics as a result. If most people seem on simple reflection to agree that we should have fewer abortions because they are "wrong", then the actual disagreement is over what methods would best produce that outcome of fewer abortions, and not so much over the labels we use to argue to that result.

Frum's piece points out, without actually refuting, the standard pro-choice liberal narratives. Access to birth control and various restrictions on abortion account for example for why Europeans have fewer abortions than Americans (often much fewer), or for why the teen pregnancy rate has been falling as a source of decreased demand.

In addition, regardless of whether these factors decrease abortions significantly or not they may have positive effects on these concerns about the "traditional family", such as by allowing women (or potential husbands brought on by "shotgun weddings") to attend college or university and get a degree or decent job instead of attempting to raise a child on a lower-income education and salary. And increased use of birth control has beneficial effects within families, as indicated large numbers of abortions are to women who already have children, indicating unplanned or undesirable pregnancies possibly from inadequate birth control or lack of use, or by decreasing the spread of sexually transmitted disease. We might say those are positive externalities brought on by the use and accessibility of both birth control and to a lesser extent abortion.

Frum's basic argument seems to be that the problem is that in the narrow focus on abortion, social conservatives have confused away the arguments for marriage (and in a related story, also did so by trying to argue against same-sex marriage, and have mostly lost or conceded that fight). In theory such an argument does not actively offend anything. It seems unnecessary in theory to press an active social case for women to be married, whether to men or women, in order to raise children versus the legal and political arguments. In practice there may be merits to it as the "marriage" crisis, such as it is, is largely a problem of the lower socio-economic class who either do not get married or may marry younger and get divorced sooner, and is also less likely to use birth control (but not abortion), and as a result, creates a significant population of mostly poorer and poorly educated single mothers. The upper-socio-economic class gets married later, typically after educations and careers are well-in-hand, and tends to not have children prior to that point. We are also likely to see these as cyclical effects for single-parent homes to produce children who receive poorer educations and thus poorer economic opportunities (among other possible difficulties in childhood).

Having diagnosed this as a potential social ill worthy of attention however, Frum's solutions are more to fret over how we may encourage marriage or to experiment with incentive structures rather than regard the economic and educational choices of people within these single-parenting problems as problems worthy of solution in their own right prior to advancing the agenda of "get more people married" as a second order problem that may help resolve these struggles but which may be considerably more difficult without addressing these structural problems underlying the decisions not to marry for many. These problems can be innumerated thusly:

1) Social welfare safety nets often scale poorly, providing bad incentives to improve the economic state at the marginal position of poverty. Foremost among these with a poor structure is typically state subsidies for day care. Food stamps typically phase out more smoothly. Housing and childhood assistance does not. This can impact household structure by limiting the total household size. This can have the effect of preventing marriages because the marginal assistance from the state declines much more than the amount of additional income provided from a second parent, or failing that, it can have the effect of preventing one or both parents from working at various points during a year to avoid a loss of subsidies.

2) Time management in parenting is a tremendous problem with the attending demands of raising small people into adults. This was previously resolved by two-parent households where one parent (almost always the mother) stayed home to handle most of the home and parenting duties. This is neither as straightforward an option as it was in the 1950s imagination land of conservatives (because often women may have better educational or employment options than the fathers of children), nor something that is always possible even in two parent households today (requiring both incomes for sustainable lifestyles). The solutions here are fairly well known; access to day care (many ways to achieve this), access to flexible scheduling in more occupations (so that parents can take time to deal with home concerns), and some variety of parental or family leave time (whether paid for by employers or the government). With other possible assistance measures like moving back the start of the school day added in for good measure.

3) Because of poor time management flexibility, attaining an education or license for a better occupation can itself be a considerable stretch of this valuable resource (time). We have attempted to resolve this by subsidizing college education costs, but this typically has resulted in ballooning education costs and more student loans rather than more practical outcomes; like well-trained professional skills accruing to graduates. Additionally, since the focal problem is dealing with under-educated poorer people with limited time, such a focus on providing access to college educations is ridiculous as a solution. Most such people, whether from ignorance or time constraints, will not succeed in obtaining a degree no matter how much money is thrown at the problem (within reason). The fix for that requires addressing disparities in K-12 education, not in trying to repair the damage much later, after the fact.

Instead of this focus on college education, fewer jobs or professions should require occupational licenses, along with any accompanying educational requirements, from the state. If they do require licensing from an employer, or there is a potential market benefit to advertise having achieved special training in the craft or art involved, that should be a separate matter. But with the state providing a clear hurdle to entry of various professions, this prevents many people from starting competing or side businesses that they could in fact do things like time management (by largely working from home for example) or to use the profits to fund an education for themselves or their children.