27 December 2015

GOP is dead, long live the GOP?

And other political observations for the new year.

Something I've noticed over the last year or so in politics is that Republican pundits seem to think their crop of candidates is a sign of political strength, and that this is a "deep field", with many good options.

There is a problem with that assumption. Actually a lot of problems.

1) Almost none of those people who were thought to be part of that "deep field" are winning polls or likely to do well. He who will not be named has been doing well and mocking the rest of the field. Cruz is a hated figure within his own party. Carson is a surgeon and not a particularly interesting candidate for President. Meanwhile, Jeb has floundered to the point of irrelevance despite raising a boatload of cash. Rand hasn't been able to get any traction on civil liberties and foreign policy as the Republican field has whipped itself into a frenzy declaring who they want to start a war with next. Rubio hasn't really run a good campaign thus far, suggesting he doesn't understand the political situation (perhaps not a good "retail politician", as it were). Christie has struggled to overcome a position of high disdain within his own party. Scott Walker, believed for some reason to be a plausible candidate, didn't even make it out of the summer. This is not an inspiring bunch if they cannot handle a bully, a blowhard, and an out of his depth doctor to overtake them in polls. There's still time of course, as the polling is early, but most of these candidates are probably going to remain irrelevant while these middling idiots run circles around them.

A deep field would imply such candidates would be keeping out the riffraff rather than the other way around.

2) There's very little in the way of major policy differences between the individual candidates at this point (other than the aforementioned Rand disparity on IR and the NSA). This too could change, but there have been several debates upon which to draw this out. That hasn't really happened yet. Some squabbling about immigration. Some squabbling about Putin and Syria. But all of them have endorsed some combination of being anti homosexual, anti choice, pro lower taxes, anti min wage hikes, etc (note: the entire platform jsnt intolerable, but the parts that are most commonly distinguishing from the left often are. Meanwhile. The "interesting" fault lines on immigration, Muslims, Syria, and entitlements, are mostly "interesting" because Republicans are mostly racing to take more and more extreme positions. Positions which are broadly intolerable to wide swaths of the country. The previous method of running for a general election was to stay somewhat near a tolerable center of the American polity. Lacking that center, the farther out one goes the less likely mildly associated voters will stick around, and the less likely partisan opponents might defect. This also has impacts downstream, upon House and Senate races, local and state elections, and so on. It may not be very pretty. (In fairness, several Democratic figures and tbeir positions have strayed far afield as well. The difference is that almost nobody believes a Clinton Presidency would do most of the things that are outside of a centrist orthodoxy, or that she would be capable of enacting all she wished anyway with a divided power structure. This seems likely in some of the Republican cases that they could get some of what they want into law or to adjust courts and other forms of oversight.

Here if there were much depth, we should expect to see fairly interesting arguments about how best to provide sensible answers, or even sensible ideas about what the most pressing questions are, and in so doing see some adjustment and rancor between the field itself. This has occurred on a few topics, but not many. This would instead imply most of their candidates are interchangeable rather than necessary focal points.

3) Clinton is not perceived to be a particularly strong candidate (for now), but virtually anyone doing well among Republicans (with the exception of Rubio, who hasn't gotten a full vetting yet) is much less popular than she is, and usually more despised as well. This is not a recipe for winning a national popularity contest. There may be more names who are believed to compete against her in a national election, but this says little about whether those names actually matter. Hostility toward both the Clintons and liberal policies in general is fairly high among conservatives and has been for many years. But instead of regathering their agenda in a functional way and trying to make sure they would have a candidate who will be capable of beating her, the party establishment seemed content to nominate another Bush. Who would be most likely incapable of doing so. This is not an encouraging sign that they either believed there was much depth, or that they had correctly determined their political problems coming in.

I'm not sure the party entirely survives this election cycle. Party elites, quasi libertarians, anti interventionists, pro big business types, and moderate Republicans (such a species sort of exists still), don't have much of a future where they are. Some of that has been true for decades, some is merely emerging as the conservative voter base becomes more frustrated with being unable to roll back agendas they see as encroaching on their values. I would be very surprised it doesn't partly implode and make very serious efforts to reform to avoid splintering entirely. At the risk of reducing their national footprint further in order to consolidate party power somehow.

4) Bernie Sanders fans remain the Ron Paul fans of this election cycle. Convinced their candidate winning meaningless polls means something, and convinced that his flaws are either an invention of media trying to tank for Clinton, or things that he would overcome if only media gave him the opportunity to reach out to voters who remain roughly unaware of him. As it is, his main problem in this campaign remains the same as it was months ago. He's talking about several issues which aren't as high on the radar for minority voters, and probably shouldn't be, and which they therefore do not fully trust him to handle. This results in polling which shows that he is moderately popular among liberals and Democrats, but has very much higher negatives and unknowns among the same group than Hillary.

This is not a recipe that suggests he will matter. Even on top of unprecedented high levels of establishment and party backing for Clinton, there isn't much he is doing that in any way suggests he is pushing past it and will overtake her in some way. This was never a realistic view. And yet it remains a view that I see pop up at least once a week on social media feeds that something the Paul campaign did also means something now, despite it having failed in conservative circles quite significantly (and repeatedly).

Completely random sportsball post

I haven't followed football at all this year. I am vaguely aware that the Panthers are undefeated in spite of this limitation, simply because football information is damn near inescapable in America. I was asked, as one often is when one is male at a larger social gathering, of an opinion for the quality of NFL prospects for winning the Super Bowl. One thing I do know, or at least think I know, is that the computer rankings of NFL teams tend to be much, much more reliable than raw records in forecasting performance. Records are mostly irrelevant because football teams do not play enough games, nor against the same quality of schedule to use it as even a casual basis for evaluation. Every year a few teams can and frequently will accumulate gaudy records against inferior competition, with limited skill of their own often by what amounts to sheer luck, and a few teams will struggle for the same reasons. By contrast, baseball, basketball, and hockey teams all play many more games, and against somewhat more even schedule qualities that a record can signify roughly the actual performance of a team (there is still some variance that can be examined and usually explained by things such as a higher or lower quality bullpen).

It was further assumed that home field advantages matter. They don't matter that much. Quality of opponents may matter as a route to a title game, and that can give advantages to higher ranked teams by record that they may get to play crummier teams in the playoffs, but higher quality teams will tend to win games where ever they are played, and seeding isn't a guarantee of playing lower quality teams.

The reason this came up is that when I replied with the relevant information I could look up quickly and form an opinion based around, the teams I said would worry about would be the Seahawks and Cardinals over the Panthers. These are teams rated ahead of Carolina in computer rankings (Seattle in fact is rated well ahead). Cardinals are at least the #2 seed in the conference, so most people would expect them to be a reasonable challenger. The Seahawks only clinched a playoff spot in the last week. Seattle may end up playing Carolina in the playoffs fairly early (assume that Seattle beats the NFC East winner, and Minnesota loses to Green Bay).

So why is a computer ranking system so sour on an undefeated team? They appear to have very poor quality special teams, and only an above average offense (not a good offense, just a little above average) to pair with an excellent defense. Their competition has very good offenses (Arizona #3, Seattle #2, both well ahead of Carolina at #8) paired with very good defenses (Arizona's is rated #3, Carolina is #2, Seattle is #5).

None of that means that I would think Carolina is a bad team, unlikely to compete for a title. Football playoffs can break oddly and unpreditcably more easily than most sports. And they are a good team this year. But that's also not what I was asked (something like who has the best chances was the question).

What sometimes happens when people ask me a question I find is that they expect a certain answer. And then don't get it. And get something somewhat unconventional instead. That can make for a very interesting conversation. Except I think many people ask questions on the expectations that some other person will affirm their beliefs and suspicions when they answer. This makes for more rapid conversation and less argument.

21 December 2015

Cultural notes, spoiler-y

Jessica Jones.

Marvel's Netflix foray continues to be pretty good. It's darker, much more clearly rated R material than the Avengers work. This was better than Daredevil in most every way (except the fight choreography in Daredevil is totally badass. It has several of the best fight sequences ever shot in my opinion). Jessica is more clearly conflicted than Murdock, she doesn't need to know how to fight most people (because she can intimidate them with raw strength), has a sometime sidekick or two, etc.

The main reason it works though is that the villain's evil genius power is Professor X crossed with the Joker. Near the center of the X-Men universe is a question that's rarely examined: what happens if someone can control minds, or influence people to do whatever they want? And further, what happens if what that person wants is petty, violent, and selfish? How do we stop them? How could we protect ourselves? Who could we trust? These are questions that cycle around continuously in the first several episodes of the season. Taken away from the comic book elements of direct mind control, there are serious philosophical and psychological questions about who is really calling the shots in our behavior and how much influence others have over us when we do things "we don't really want to", or even determining what it is we really want to do in the first place. This is referred to a few times within the series as some people almost expressing a kind of relief at not being responsible for the actions and will someone else had imposed upon them (Jessica notably does not do this, not really, but she encourages everyone around her to do so).

The show has gotten a lot of "feminist" buzz and aplomb. It's feminist in so far as they took roles for men (in one case, it was a male in the comic), and flipped it to cast a woman as the main character. They did some more extensive flipping than just casting however. Men are typically the "eye candy", in some state of undress. Women not so much (usually). Jessica's main relationship dynamic isn't with a male (Luke Cage), it's with her best friend (Trish) (In my experience, men are more likely to define a "best friend", and the person with whom they have the most dynamic relationship as someone they are also romantically attached to, although this is not universal and certainly is not the only way Hollywood tells stories, ala Kirk and Spock, Batman and Robin, etc). Her main problems, flaws within her past, are what may be regarded as more typically problems women would encounter than men (psychological abuse/control and rape, plus a super-creepy stalker), they are just amplified by superhero qualities. It's also a way of saying it doesn't matter how strong someone is (and she's very strong), someone can break into your life and do terrible things. Most importantly it says: this is not your fault that you were "too weak".

Jones' character is not particularly feminine or feminist, but she is a heroine. There are few such depictions as yet in TV or film for this generation in sci-fi or fantasy roles (Black Widow, eventually Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel, depending on how Civil War goes Scarlet Witch, Leia, another which I'll get to in a minute). Progress is occurring here, again, but it is complicated. Widow doesn't have a stand-alone franchise within the Avengers for example. So the series lets a lot of that air out that somehow a female hero doesn't carry a series or couldn't carry a movie.

There's a few choppier bits, and it seems clear the show wanted to introduce another villain arc for later on that feels like it interrupts the existing arc too much in the moment (and this is, at least tacitly, acknowledged by the show itself). But there's a lot of raw power in some of the moments where our hero is being isolated and broken down by her villainous opponent who is systematically trying to break her again, and she knows it and is fighting to find ways out of the traps.

Force Awakens.

I have more mixed reactions here.

Good:. Rey was fantastic (and is another in the lineage of superheroines listed above). Almost all of the "unanswered questions" surrounding the series coming up to the next one have to do with her, on top of her being a badass. The first sequence where Finn meets her is hilarious (she gets attacked and into a fight, he starts to run over to help, and the fight is over with them on the ground and her picking her stuff back up before he can make it a few steps).

Harrison Ford seemed to have actually pushed the "actor" button that has gone unpressed for about 20 years. He did a good turn as Solo. I think he was happy to get killed off finally. (oh right, that's the main spoiler: Han shot first. And now Han dies).

Effects are much better, it did not look like a CGI mess like the prequels. Several sequences are clearly in there just to show off. The one exception is the tentacle monsters on Han's cargo ship, I could have done without that whole sequence really.

The bar owner character was solid. I liked her as a semi-Yoda-ish channeler.

Middle: I'm not sure what to make yet of the villain. Ren wasn't terribly intimidating except in terms of raw rage. His opening sequence where he stops a blaster bolt mid-air is very impressive, but he fades down the stretch, particularly at the end when Rey easily bests him in a duel despite being mostly untrained. He therefore comes off almost like a whiny teenager. This is still a miles wide improvement over the young Vader/Anakin who came off like a block of wood for reciting terrible dialogue but it doesn't give me a clear idea where he is going next or what sort of conflict is actually going on within him. Luke was much more dynamic in this sense. There are a lot of directions Ren could go that would be interesting next. But Rey is by far more compelling in this work. A weak or bland villain is fairly common lately in film (Loki maybe one of the few good ones for comic book/sci fi purposes).

Isaac's character, Po, was okay. I could have used both more and less of him.

There were some nice moments of nostalgia. Way overdone, but some were good. The plot was lifted almost whole cloth from New Hope so it gets to be too much easily.

Max von Sydow's cameo felt totally wasted, though it was nice to see/hear him.

Poor: Dialogue can be choppy. There's at least one line that was repeated verbatim from New Hope that made absolutely no sense when it was used. It's like they edited it in at the wrong time.

Rebel/Resistance plan to take out the Star Killer base is pretty lame and not built up much. New Hope it makes more sense because they have to sneak out the droid to analyze the plans and try to destroy it based on those. The sneaking out of the droid here has to do with something else. They basically luck into the ability to attack this thing.

I'm extremely tired of watching the Rebels blow up planet destroying bases anyway. This is undoubtedly the reason Empire Strikes Back is so good is it moves on from the "we have to destroy this thing or everybody dies" plot device common to sci-fi/comic book films and centers the conflict within and between the major characters. This may have been necessary nostalgically to establish that this is in fact a Star Wars film. But it wasn't very interesting.

The first Star Killer attack doesn't really make sense or have much impact because the politics of this universe don't make much sense. Universe building failure here. Alderaan being destroyed made a lot of sense. This does not. Really the main thing Abrams seems to have done is rebuild the old Star Wars pre-prequel universe without really trying to a) understand it or b) show us something new and awesome or terrible within it. It feels more like the film wiped out the "Republic" simply to start over on the board, like the way Abrams "reset" the Star Trek universe with time travel and then moved the same old pieces around in a haphazard way without understanding the universe from which they were built.

The Stormtrooper commander (Phasma) was lame.

Finn wasn't very well scripted for my tastes, or the actor wasn't very good. I'm not sure which (or both). He ought to be the other interesting internal conflict because of his status as a defector/traitor to the First Order, but he mostly spends a lot of time running around being a plot device and generally acting like a goof.

18 December 2015


I don't take his chances at winning the nomination that seriously yet (much more so than Trump's, but not high end legitimacy, largely because if he gets picked, like with Trump, the GOP gets trounced. And they know it, at the top end at least).

What I did find interesting is that he tried, and mostly failed, to draw some kind of distinction on foreign policy in the last debate. This was supposed to be Rand's job, but he's been so irrelevant that nobody really bothers.

Here's the issue. The GOP's foreign policy over the last 15 years, really over the last 25 or so, has been mostly run by neoconservatives, many of whom tend to be among the most hawkish political figures imaginable and cartoonishly likely to press for military interventions abroad, often unilaterally with limited or non-existent diplomatic legwork. This has led to a number of major blunders in foreign policy through hasty and reckless interventions for anything from "humanitarian" purposes to "democracy promotion", to anti-communist regime changes back in the Cold War days. For the most part, this branch of the GOP's three-legged stool has been unrepentant in its ways, insisting that Iraq was fine until a Democrat got into office, things like that. It remains so now.

There was previously a Powell doctrine style approach to the use of military interventions, for clear strategic purposes that can be accomplished quickly and with a minimum of losses and destruction. This view was dominant in the First Gulf War, and it approaches a more realist foreign policy, of a sort which was once common as a method of waging the Cold War, through a mostly indirect style conflict. Among its elements was a capacity, though not always an eagerness, to work with strategic partners diplomatically, to limit engagements to strategic goals (like crushing military power projection abilities and protecting territorial sovereignty), and to work with strategic rivals for mutual gain or diplomatic purposes rather than to wage dangerous and pointless conflicts. Importantly, it was not a common event to hear Presidential candidates risking or calling for open war with a major state (say Russia or Iran), and it was common for American politics to tolerate some fairly nasty people abroad for strategic purposes of our own to be achieved through stability or (perhaps, though not always) the suppression of some other fairly nasty people.

Today, such an approach is described as "GOP hearts dictators forever." Such an approach might have left us with unsavory people in power in Iraq, Egypt, Libya. And as is still the case, Syria and countries such as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, but might have had the effect of weakening institutional groups seeking to overthrow those governments and conduct operations of aggression through international terrorism. This is not however a strategy which is widely accepted or promoted is the tolerance of unpleasant people like a Qaddafi or Hussein or Assad in the furtherance of some purported large strategic goal (the suppression or elimination of hostile Muslim radicals in the region). If this was something that Cruz was actually pushing into the light, it might have made for an interesting debate.

The problem with this vague notion being taken seriously is that it was paired with a very aggressive stance on virtually any other form of foreign policy. For example, to call for aggressive bombing of ISIS territory (including civilians). Or most notably (and confusingly) effectively stating that we are at war with Iran, or that we should be if not, for the purposes of regime change. In so far as there is a major state player elsewhere on the globe that is most likely to oppose both ISIS and al Qaeda, it is the Iranian state. So if the idea was to propose that we be strategically flexible in our partnerships, that made no sense to immediately demand we take out someone who might be a partnership worth looking into (they're also one of the most likely players to talk to in order to remove Assad, if that was also the goal). If the idea was to present some kind of basis for not being super-ultra-blood-thirsty in foreign policy, there wasn't anything presented as to what that would be, or what it would look like. Not doing "democracy promotion" and then turning around and saying we should be toppling another major state government to do... democracy promotion?

If we assume that a reasonable foreign policy goal should be the use of significant military power projection against non-state actors like ISIS or al Qaeda (or the Taliban, Boko Haram, etc), and if we assume this is a significant if not central foreign policy question is how we should respond to such actors, both of which I think are dubious assumptions, then the question becomes how best to use the forces available to do so. Including Russia and Iran and Syria. What seems more likely than some well-crafted geo-political response being tested out was that Cruz was throwing out some carefully prepared red meat for the conservative base.

Eg "I hates Iran/Russia forever, but don't really care what happens in Syria/Iraq/Libya as long as it stays in house." Things like that. So taking it seriously as a set of policy proscriptions is undoubtedly unwise. But given that belligerent talk toward possible allies or useful agents in the region is not liable to purchase us their cooperation, and given that there does not as yet appear to be the base of support for a wider operation involving significant ground troops and major air assaults (we're not conducting those either), it may not be worth tossing it out except as a cynical political statement. The sad part is that his minor two-step here aside from predictably Rand Paul's relative sanity within the party was considered an improvement over the outrageous belligerence and stupidity of the rest of the field (Rubio, Bush, and Christie in particular).

The reason this matters. Unless some major scandal occurs, or Hillary falls out of an airplane or some such related issue, she will be the Democratic nominee, and except for a couple of the GOP field who might be able to run effectively against her (Rubio for example), she will almost certainly become the next President. Without there being a genuine foreign policy debate within the GOP, I am quite certain what hers will look like, and it won't have much of a contrast with what they have to offer. Basically neoconservative with a little more talking involved, and a remaining excessive focus on the Middle East, fighting several undeclared wars with non-state actors in regimes of high instability, with at best a moderate indifference to the Pacific theater in geopolitical terms, and a continued high reliance on what appear to be dragnet style civil liberties abusing surveillance systems that serve little or no strategic purpose in our current troubles, such as they are in fact troubles. This is not a position I find I can endorse with much optimism as it is probable success in producing either improvement in our security nor our status and prosperity in a global sense. I should like to see someone capable of making cogent arguments against it running in a position of notice. I expect I shall be sorely disappointed.

As a side note, I'm really curious how, or even if, the GOP manages to remain a functional political party after this election. It seems like the main poles on the big tent have all wandered off in their own directions. It also seems like several factions of the conservative world believe they have a number of "promising" candidates. None of them so far have the ability to a) rally conservatives or b) rally anyone else, except out of despising them as insipid or bigoted. That does not suggest this is a well-populated field with many options. It suggests to me there's a lot of human beings running in the misguided belief they could become the next President. An additional defeat, after having put up nothing of note in 2012, putting up whatever they end up with here, presumably with a "moderately conservative" figure selected instead of something perceived as half-assed, will make the next two years very interesting to see if they can remain as a cohesive unit in political terms. 

17 December 2015

on human migration

Couple things I noticed

- The persistence of the analogy being made to "letting someone in my house/family" as a property right type analogue for allowing people to migrate within borders. In this case, it's also variously described as letting anyone grab the microphone at a radio station or anyone try to play point guard for the Knicks. (The latter situation might be warranted anyway.)

The stupidity of this argument could be applied to, say, Ohioans moving to Michigan or vice versa. Or the people of the town of Shelbyville restricting access to the people of Springfield nearby. What is actually happening is not the same thing as some sort of uninvited personal guest making unreasonable demands that we are acceding to in order to let them come here. This is a terrible analogy. It's more like "I now have a new neighbour to ignore". Nobody is forced to give them a job. We do a fair amount to acculturate refugees and help them succeed, but no one is required to help them (there is a fairly modest amount of tax money to initially settle them and help fund the charitable groups that do the work of resettlement, but this is easily recouped by the economic contributions of refugees, and the associated tax receipts they generate, on average within a short time frame, no more than a few years).

This I think gets at the heart of the problem more closely is to say that most people opposed to (more) immigration believe they won't or don't or couldn't like their new neighbours. They therefore think it unreasonable that they should have such neighbours, or that their very existence is a demand upon their well-being (given we have a long history of redlining and housing segregation throughout the country, this should not be a surprising feature to discover might apply to migrants from other countries). People in support of it either don't care, or will even enjoy the new cooking or music that's now made more accessible to them from a new cultural heritage placed at their doorstep.

- The salience and overwhelming power of the economics arguments for more open migration is nearly universally accepted, I don't really see anyone pushing against it in this piece, and it's practically non-existent in mainstream economic literature simply because it so easily passes a cost-benefit curve.

But that is not the primary argument individuals disposed to be against immigration use (see above). Which means "arguing" over it doesn't really improve the moral arguments for allowing refugees and immigrants to come here. It's already part of the bedrock because it's become inarguable. What needs to be argued against is questions of culture, national identity, and security, all of which I would argue are strongly improved by having a more open policy toward both refugees and immigrants, or even migrant labourers.

- The position however that "libertarian economists" are the only ones in favor of open borders, or more open borders, or that the nation-state would disappear if such a state existed is nonsense. It's pointed out directly in the bit that the US and UK both had for decades, if not centuries, fairly open borders allowing virtually anyone to come and live and work there. Both of these are countries typically regarded as some of the most successful world powers in world history and have a strong coherent national identity as nation-states, complete with distinct legal and moral traditions to which these historical flows of immigrants have often made powerful contributions.

16 November 2015


This happened several days ago. Any delay in composing my thoughts has a number of personal reasons (I had a lot going on), but it also has a lot to do with the general reactions I was observing. Indeed, it is those I wish to comment upon rather than upon the attacks and attackers and their victims themselves. I have a number of loosely connected thoughts, so bear with me if you wish.

Lots of people changed their social status via an app to show concern with a French flag overlaid on their profile. Or associated changes to lighting in various venues around the world. I respect this outpouring of sympathy as an avenue to feel like one has done something. It is well that some people are concerned about the well-being of complete strangers in other places they may never have been. I myself messaged a few of my friends when I first heard of these terrible incidents. I count about 10% of my social circle that has done this change. Most likely they have done other things as well, and some equal number have commented eloquently themselves with calls for help or for local attentiveness if help abroad seems too complicated and impossible.

But as usual with changes in colours on my status, I find the sort of signaling behavior involved unpleasant for my own behavior. It feels hollow and inadequate, and in this particular case, I was further annoyed that we received the ability to do this for attacks in France, but nothing happened for a large attack the day before in Beirut. Suggesting our concern was believed to be very specific. It undoubtedly was. This bothered me in some way. The scope of destruction and carnage may be a factor, but the loss of life via senseless violence anywhere in the world should be a cause for mourning, grief, and sympathy by other human beings, and demand our attention and response if we can. We attach more importance to the lives of those we may feel a degree of connection to, as is natural, and this leads many people who have traveled to Paris (or who wish to) to find sympathy an easy response. More work is required to get to the same level of attention for Lebanese who suffer, or Syrian refugees seeking to escape a much more intense version of violence still than that afflicted upon Paris.

I do not feel people who did much to react to Paris (and to some degree, only Paris) are to blame, or are terrible people if they did not react to news from Lebanon with equal concern. Far from it, as the violence in Syria or Iraq is now regarded as so routine it barely registers news coverage, even as it kills many thousands of people per month, and terrorist attacks in Lebanon used to be routine as well (they are not now and have not been for about 25 years). It is natural that our collective attention should be divided and incomplete to not hear of every event of suffering and horror elsewhere and respond instantly and correctly in all cases. It's just not the path I would choose in how sympathy and assistance should be rendered is to signal a specific cause. My concern is humans more broadly and how we should treat each other.

This is far afield however from some of the more typical reactions I saw as it at least begins with a place of sympathy and concern for the grief and needs of victims and those directly trying to help them. In many cases, people were, as happened after 9-11 here in America, out for blood. Calls for any captured assailants to be tortured, in some cases scarcely veiled. Demands for renewed vigor in attacking ISIS, despite this being unclear as a foreign policy goal that would achieve anything of use in providing security for the French people, or anyone else either. Demands for preventing many thousands of suffering people from reaching safety as refugees, even before any connection to refugees were made, and in spite of the fact that this was unlikely to be refugees fleeing that would be the source of the problem versus people who were familiar with French culture and society and could identify suitable targets for committing violent atrocities that would garner attention and then successfully plan and carry them out. People who had lived in France or at least Western Europe for example. All of this resembled more lashing out and a baser demand for vengeance rather than an appreciation for human suffering and the limits of our abilities to either prevent such suffering or accommodate those who are so afflicted. This too was natural, but I do not forgive it anywhere near as lightly or easily. Perhaps because I have little attachment to fear such incidents as likely to threaten my own existence, or those of friends, I do not see anger as an appropriate response.

One of the most annoying elements of writing at all about international relations and in particular about terrorism as an event within foreign policy is the nature of response tends to be perceived as diametric by the public and by many pundits within the field. We must either go all out to try to kill people using military forces or we are "doing nothing" or perhaps we "look weak" and obviously then "the terrorists win". This is nonsense masqueraded as grand strategy. To the extent that there are at times in history some very terrible people who perhaps may need to be sought out and fought and defeated on battlefields in foreign lands, I agree. That sometimes remains true in international relations that our own security as a nation and that of allies (such as France) depends upon this.

But even accepting this limited position leaves open a number of questions that are not answered by stating that there are threats abroad.

Whether it is ourselves that must do this, or whether someone else could do so? Someone with more local knowledge of the particular group, or more direct interest in the defeat of groups involved, such as in this case, Iran. Whether the use of air power and bombs is an effective measure of applying what amounts to counter-insurgency? I regard this as dubious at best. Are there no soft power measures which may be more helpful? For example, offering aid or refugee to Syrians/Iraqis in a war zone area? Do we even need to engage such forces with military force to defeat them at all, or at the very least, can we protect ourselves from perceived threats abroad with much less effort and achieve the same or even better return on our efforts? And finally, how big is the threat to ourselves really? Just how much should we really be worried about terrorists abroad as a danger to American society? Many seem to regard this as an existential conflict where the doom of America as a country and Western civilization as an ideal is at stake. I do not. Nor do I believe we have much to fear from terrorists that we must defeat them anywhere and everywhere on the globe versus other methods of interdiction to prevent them from making attacks like those carried out in Paris and Beirut last week.

In general, I find myself farther from most people on international relations. The vast majority of human beings have relatively peaceful and serene lives, much more so than at any point in human history, and our goal in such dealings should be the preservation and extension of that peaceful co-existence as much as possible, while preserving our own security and prosperity as best we can. There are specific hotspots on the globe that afflict tremendous violence to life and through destruction of infrastructure the quality and prosperity of those lives that remain (Syria, Eastern Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, as examples). These attract considerable attention and debate within American foreign policy discussions. It is well that they should as they represent some of the largest sources of human suffering on the globe and they are man-made in origin via violent armed conflict, suggesting man-made resolutions may be possible. Our thinking however is generally too narrow in response (use of force or do nothing) and this often limits our ability to make productive impacts.

What is less clear to me is how or even whether our military can help resolve these conflicts. This is not what they are trained and equipped to do in most cases, and such kinds of warfare can be of the most difficult to conduct properly and intractable to extricate ourselves from that they may not be wise conflicts to intercede directly into anyway as they would result mainly in the overextension of our forces and the diminished ability to prepare for and attend to larger geopolitical threats for which our considerable military forces (and those of our allies) are much better prepared and equipped to defend against.

There are ways to use a military force in what amounts to a soft power demonstration to help bring about local peace within divided factions warring abroad in a foreign land, but none of the fighting in these now unpleasant and terrible places abroad directly threaten our own security, and most even do little to damage neighbouring territory and peoples. They are self-contained bloodshed and can be contained further with military forces, both local and international. The best most military actions and interventions may do is perhaps minimize the abilities of (some) warring factions to directly attack one another by injecting another force of violence into the equation. This is unclear if it provides some benefits in many cases in compelling these factions to seek peace. Indeed, some of these factions seem intent on embittered warfare with their neighbours and rivals despite any limitations in their conventional abilities (ISIS for example has no navy or air power).

We can be gravely concerned with the humanitarian problems such conflicts create, and we can and should do much to ameliorate those. We can be concerned about the diplomatic status of allies nearby and their security near a conflict zone, or whether they may be drawn into such conflicts or feel it necessary to intercede, and we can offer them support and advice on how best to do so. None of that suggests that it is necessary to deploy American forces into these armed conflicts in order to preserve relative peace of billions of human beings, much less the incredibly secure lives of Americans from foreign threats. Nor does it imply that such deployments will in some way secure additional security for Americans, or improve the quality of lives for people on the ground in far flung places about which we often know very little. We can purchase our own security very cheaply, with intelligence gathering about major plots, and common sense measures of security (reinforced cockpit doors on airplanes for instance), without regarding millions of citizens with excessive suspicion, and without invading or bombing other countries and their people or leaders in these crises. That does not mean we have done nothing in response and does not mean we could not do more than we have, or do things differently.

To me it simply means our responses thus far have been unimpressive in their results, and often more damaging to our security or prosperity than they have been helpful for a variety of reasons. For example, discouraging air travel through heightened and excessive security at airports encourages people to drive more. Driving is more dangerous and less productive than flying. Excessively broad (and potentially illegal) surveillance potentially enmeshes hundreds of thousands of Americans in bureaucratic nightmares trying to travel and otherwise attracts unnecessary attention and resources of intelligence organisations trying to identify actual threats, the number of which is much smaller, or diverts resources to combat other dubious national interests that are dubiously related to threats of international terrorism (for instance, the drug war). Material support for police forces using military hardware is granted via concerns over "terrorism" that are extremely unlikely to ever materialize in the vast majority of American cities and towns, and predictably are diverted for other purposes. Invading or toppling unpleasant and horrible regimes in other countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya) provides an unstable power arrangement over which we exercise precious little influence and control and may as a result be as hazardous and destructive as the previous regimes to the lives of citizens of those nations, and from which we may feel a measure of responsibility and remain entrenched militarily and economically for decades at a time. Each of these measures may have limited points of usefulness. Surveillance and intelligence gathering of potential threats can be done with a warrant, or done without one over foreign nationals and people traveling into these war zones for dubious purposes for example, and at times, the destruction of vile regimes may serve some legitimate humanitarian goal. But these are difficult boundaries to tread over successfully and without considerable pitfalls. The breezy way that they are described as our only and best way forward is troublesome.

Finally. I wish to address the questions over Islam and Muslims that such actions and atrocities, when committed by Muslims (and not by some other agent, as often happens in the US at least and as used to happen with great frequency in France as well), naturally surface and engender. I am troubled here too by the breezy assurance that it is Islam itself that is a significant cause of these concerns, if not "the" cause of our concerns as regards terrorism. There are many, many problems with this line of analysis. To be sure, many organisations and many terrorists who commit acts of horrible violence identify with various statements which are religiously ordered and drawn from religious texts and decrees. I do not believe this is denied. Many billions more people do not commit acts of horrible violence, or even identify with those who carry those out supposedly in their name. This seems like it ought to factor heavily into our analysis.

One reason I suspect it is easy to think and believe otherwise, that any Muslim or at least specific persons of a Muslim country of origin may be a threat, is that we do not have many Muslims around, and they are often of a fairly invisible nature to Americans (many are fairly well acculturated and Westernized that live in the US). The considerable inconveniences we thus demand to impose upon them actually only impact some small number of people, a few million at most, while then "allowing" the rest of us to proceed unmolested in our daily lives. Such inconveniences are not trivial to individuals but on a societal level they may appear so. We are then left with the uncomfortable work of having to convince a mostly Christian country that these strange people of a "foreign" religion in their midst are not by default a threat and do not deserve to be treated as such with so grand a suspicious attitude. This work is then increased by the notion that many prominent secularists take a specific interest in the violence and extremism of some Muslims and accordingly share in some of these demands. I regard this quest as not rational as a response, and a serious error in logic and thinking, things which secularists ordinarily pride themselves upon. There are a series of problems with it.

It assumes a threat is posed by the doctrines of a particular faith without evaluating the behavior or even the practiced beliefs of those who describe themselves as adherents to it. As a comparison, my evaluation of most Christians is that they have only very limited association with the texts and theology of their beliefs (for better or worse). Muslims are likely little different in my experience as the availability of diverse scholarship in belief, practices of beliefs, and textual emphasis that results carries a similarly varied and otherwise iffy nature. This logic suggests some amount of wariness is appropriate given that we may be unfamiliar and perhaps underestimating the probability of having wacky and dangerous beliefs as opposed to holding fairly benign or even beneficial beliefs. But translating that wariness and unfamiliarity into severe limitations on civil liberties more broadly is not a sensible response. Even where if were a case that many American Muslims were conducting and advocating violent actions, it would be difficult to carry out, and relatively easy and more successful to identify such threats with far more minimal inconveniences made upon those many who did not wade into these waters than are often advocated and supported.

It assumes a threat posed by extremists requires treatment of anyone vaguely similar as a potential extremist. This is a poor use of intelligence and deterrence strategies, profiling of this kind is extremely unlikely to be an effective deterrent to thoughtful terror cells who can easily avoid such efforts, resulting in precisely the same kind of "prevent the last attack" mentality that appears to govern many of our security efforts right now but with the added "benefit" of taking poorly trained and selected bureaucrats and giving them powers to apply ethnic and racial animus with legal force, while generally ignoring anyone who might also pose a threat to security instead. All of this theory behind profiling relies upon assumptions of percentages of people who are like X being much higher than is likely the case. Even the NSA's broad casting of surveillance suggests that there are potentially very few people who are radicalized threats to other Americans living among us, of any kind.

This is also not a source of treatment which is applied to other groups who have violent extremists in their midst. Christians tend not to have to disassociate themselves publicly from the behavior of radical persons and can still call themselves Christians with fairly minimal assessments of hypocrisy and inconvenience of mental gymnastics being imposed upon them. There are not generally calls that people should stop being Christian, or at least that they should acknowledge that their own dogmatic beliefs must include violent actions toward others. As they can and sometimes do too. Similar issues apply with, say, right-wing ideological views that these are not seen as automatically disqualifying to the general public. Perhaps to some left-wing ideological travelers. This seems like a double standard at the very least, if not a sign that this is an incorrect way to response to the actions of radicals is to associate such radicals with everything else related to whatever they radicalized and have weaponized into violent behaviors. All of this should be a factor in our thinking.

Finally it assumes that a threat posed primarily in the form of violence done in unstable Muslim-majority countries is likely to translate to a fairly stable Western democracy with the same level of regularity and for the same reasons as a basis for our efforts as a source of risk (if we do "nothing"). This is extremely unlikely. The expenditure of vast amounts of capital and resources in interdiction of threats and the accompanying potential reductions in the liberty of citizens of all faiths and customs may be regarded as "worthwhile" if it were appreciably reducing the level of violence from one where major terrorist incidents like those of Paris, or Boston, or New York are not only infrequent to one every few years but instead might occur daily. They do not. Such actions are fairly difficult to organise recruit, fund, train, plan, and successfully carry out in a stable Western liberal society. This is one good reason they do not occur with the level of frequency and resulting destruction and mayhem that one finds in Palestine or Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria. Finding disaffected people willing to risk death to inflict death is fairly easy if life is unpleasant, suffering is significant, and it is believed that such actions will help others. In a modern state with a civil government and functioning society, this is not the case. Other options are available to redress grievances. Funding and assembling people to be trained to carry out complicated operations is also something that can be easily detected and tracked. While there are many counter-surveillance tactics and strategies that can make this more difficult, all it requires is one foolish error to attract attention. Meanwhile known sources of radicalism can be monitored and tracked.

Accordingly, this is also all happening in societies with relatively few Muslims living there. Even France is only about 10% Muslim by population. The US is barely over 1%. India may have the only Muslim minority population of note (around 20%) of a relatively modern state. We are thus dealing with societies that may find such people strange and suspicious by nature and thus attract more scrutiny from neighbours, co-workers, local police, and so on. The idea that this extra scrutiny requires official sanction and bureaucratic license strikes me as more dangerous than necessary. The idea that such a tiny percentage of the population can seriously jeopardize our system of jurisprudence, our general values for humanity, and the relative prosperity and well-being of significant numbers of citizens is highly dubious. They can manage to make attacks and even kill some number of people per year. Such actions however are extremely small in number relative to the numbers of Americans who kill themselves or each other in more prosaic ways. This suggests that we have other problems more worth worrying about and attending to as a concern of suffering of our own country than that of terrorism, radicalism, and Islam more broadly.

20 October 2015


"A woman’s lifetime risk of dying from breast cancer is 2.7 percent without screening. Kerlikowske calculates that a woman who follows the new USPSTF guidelines could drop that risk to 2.0 percent, and one who follows the ACS guidelines may reduce the risk a few decimal places more, to between 1.8 and 1.9 percent. To get these benefits, the USPSTF program requires 13 total mammograms in a woman’s lifetime, and the ACS regimen will result in 20 breast X-rays.

In exchange for these risk reductions, 61 percent of women who have annual mammograms and 42 percent of women who have biennial mammograms will be called back at least once for follow-up tests that reveal they do not have cancer, researchers write in an accompanying paper. The anxiety and stress of such a false alarm is the most common harm, but it’s not the only one.

In its own analysis, the USPSTF calculated that if 1,000 women follow its advice and have a mammogram every other year from age 50 to 74, 146 of them will be subjected to unnecessary breast biopsies and 18 of the 1,000 will be diagnosed and treated for a cancer that would have never harmed them (a problem called overdiagnosis and overtreatment). Women who have mammograms more often, as they would under the ACS guidelines, will experience more of these downsides."

- Notice this is roughly the number of women who are dying of breast cancer at all with this regimen. And the unnecessary treatment rate is way more than the number that are being treated successfully to avoid lethal developments. All of that treatment comes with its own complications and issues, and stress and fear associated with possible diagnosis (even before considering the enormous financial costs it burdens us with to deal with all these unnecessary procedures).

What does this mean "scientifically"?
- We need much better detection methods. Mammograms appear to be little better than junk science as they have way too high of a false positive rate and way too small of a detection rate. It's possible this is a problem of there being a fairly small risk, but the lifetime risk here is significant enough that we should be doing something. This feels a lot like a "this is something" solution rather than a very useful one. You might as well flip a coin if it's close to 50% false positive rates to decide whether your doctor thinks you might have something that needs checked out.

This is often over 50%. A coin flip might be a better option. The author's decision to just forgo them entirely may be the wiser course in the meantime. (I personally like Austria's recommendation of "whatever").

- It might also be that doctors don't have any idea how to use them, or more likely use the data they get in order to help patients making informed decisions about their care and health. This is a widespread problem in medicine and it likely encourages over use of procedures and treatment, particularly of scary things like cancer. Cancer is scary. Thinking you have it, or could get it, is scary. Therefore, as much medical treatment to prevent it as we can afford is what most people think is reasonable in response. This is not actually reasonable as a response to the actual risks of cancer that most women will be afflicted with. Doctors should have a better idea how to discuss this problem sensibly. Also they may need to have some incentive to do so. The incentive right now appears to be closer to "generate breast cancer patients" rather than "prevent/detect/treat actual breast cancer when it appears in my patients".

- Looks a little better at detection relative to false positives after age 50 (not into the "good at it" rates, but significantly better than what we do now). This is essentially when the rest of the developed world even starts bothering with these questions. What might be one reason why they delay is it reduces the excess costs of unnecessary treatment without significantly reducing the number of women who are put at risk (possibly 1/1000).

More comprehensive studies have pointed out that this does not account for the number of women dying of any cancer total. Which is effectively unchanged by mammograms or no mammograms. All the focus on breast cancer may be obscuring other cancers that need to be attended to for the health of women (cervical cancer for instance has similar problems with our current detection regimen).

Or it maybe obscured here because our actual treatment options are quite poor.

- The biggest problem here is that threads in response to these changes in guidelines are inherently based upon anecdotal evidence. "I found a lump and I was 32" is treated as a data point against changing the current system. There are potentially higher risk factors as well (genetics for example). Patients don't really understand these, usually (many women will, but not everyone on an open comment thread does). Doctors might, or at least should, and can screen based upon them. Usually the recommendations allow for these deviations. The political economy problem is that many people will then worry if insurers will pay for it if it is "not recommended".

08 October 2015

Don't just stand there do something.

I've noticed a common quotation for (some) libertarians. It comes from "Yes Minister." We must do something, this is something, lets do it".

One intended aspect of this position is to say that in times of crisis or suffering or peril, there is a strong compulsion to be seen to act on a problem (and presumably to take credit for having successfully solved that problem), whether or not those actions have anything to do with the causes of strife under which we are laboring. Libertarians, at least those concerned with public policy, are fond of deriding this variety of common and very public thinking I suspect because it implicitly suggests we are running around doing a lot of foolish things and probably not fixing things via the public policy routes that are often preferred. Sometimes this is undoubtedly true. It is one of the reasons libertarians are potentially quite useful to the political process is they can quickly point out where the system sucks, finding low-hanging fruits that need to be plucked out.

The impulse of this insight and thinking is pretty strong and there are often sound objections to a great many popular responses; from opposition to same sex marriage, to demands to drug test welfare recipients, to protectionism in borders or trade, to some forms of gun control, and so on. This does not make these objections automatically correct over and above potential gains, but it often helps clarify the proposed gains to be something other than the stated goals. So for instance, much complaining about immigration turns out not to have much to do about jobs, which are not really impacted anyway. But instead vague worries about culture. As though either a) historically "American culture" has dramatically changed via massive waves of immigration far larger than we have had in the last 3-5 decades and b) getting more "foreign" restaurants around is a bad thing, suggesting that if there are changes, they're likely to be pretty good things. This is one of those scenarios where the impulse is a very good one. Leave it alone at worst, and if anything, make it easier to get here and live here. If we must do something, doing the wrong thing is worse. Pushing against doing the wrong thing, restricting immigration further, is simply a nice side benefit.

One of the stronger logical basis for this kind of thinking is to point out not merely that the proposed idea may not do much about a problem, or will identify the wrong thing as a problem in the first place, as with the case of immigration reforms demanded by anti-immigration groups, but also to suggest that a proposed idea has "unintended" consequences that will be harmful and present themselves as substantial costs over and above what we are intending to do. Much anti-immigration policy would fall under this category. Much anti-trade policy likewise. Terrorism policy post 9-11 largely falls into this category as well.

More paranoid positions suggest that these "unintended" consequences are intended. I'm more of the opinion that they are often exploited by people who have their own agendas within the bureaucratic chain than that they are intended policy shifts. I don't think governments are fundamentally evil. But they're not fundamentally good and decent either.

A more challenging subject.

I've written quite about skeptically about gun control proposals. I have maintained relative agnosticism about background checks and their effectiveness. I think they are possibly helpful, but there are a lot of reforms I would propose within them. I'm not sure a felony conviction should be indicative of anything on its own as we have over-criminalized a lot of behavior that is not fundamentally violent (drug distribution for example). Many other popularly proposed ideas, I'm less positive on still even from this rather tepid position of endorsement of the status quo, or what amounts to it, to say that I'd rather do nothing than try them as they seem very much less tied to the proposed problem and very much more in the category of "we must do something" thinking that often leads to unintended consequences. "Assault weapons" seem more to do with cosmetic features of weapons than the causes of violence, as rifles in general are rarely used in the commission of violent crime and death and fundamentally a gun that propels a shaped fragment of metal at high speed and potentially into or through human tissue and bone in a lethal way isn't that different from any other type of weapon. Cosmetic adjustments aren't the issue. "Mental health" doesn't have much to do with anything we can put into policy either as it is too hard to determine who might be violent without reliance upon who has already been violent, which is probably a more reliable marker. Violent video games have been around for 20 years or more in mass markets, and that's precisely the same span that we have seen a large decline in violent crime (this is also true of pornography and rape). All this stuff always comes up and swirls around. Most of it smells like an awful backed-up bathroom toilet by now as it's been so heavily recycled and overused. It sucks up valuable attention and time to discuss these questions.

One of the problems with this system seems to be that it is frequently tied in public debate to the question of what to do about these horrible shootings we have that make national news for killing a handful of people at one time at a school or a church or some other public place. But it is not abundantly clear that backgrounds checks, the more popular suggestion of something to do about gun violence in general, have much of anything to do with helping us prevent these. People who become deranged or angry enough to want to try to casually kill possibly dozens of strangers don't have to have had any outward signs of mental disorder and distress beforehand. In part because not everyone has sought treatment, but also in part because I'm not convinced this is directly related. It's not a universal truth that everyone who kills other people in these events was determined to be some variety of what we have popularly termed as crazy. They don't have to have had a criminal record. They don't have to have had these as problems at the time they acquired the weapons perfectly legally, possibly years before.

We also don't have a very good model that most of these are things that would help us either. Mental illness is virtually impossible to note as having a direct link to violence and mayhem. If it has one, it's more likely as victims of violence and mayhem than as a causal agent itself and there doesn't appear to be any meaningful way we can screen out who is or is not a threat, leading a lot of misguided fear-based policies and potentially stripping millions of people of basic civil rights and decency if policies are not done very, very carefully. The types of policies that are unlikely to be crafted in the wake of major national news stories. As pointed out above, a criminal record doesn't have much either to suggest much in many cases that we will be dealing with a violent person who shouldn't be trusted around firearms. Finally, I'm not sure there's a good and safe way to go in and by some means of force remove someone's firearms they have purchased legally on the idea that they had developed some kind of noticeable mental defect that could lead to trouble. There are undoubtedly good ways to approach this as a problem, but they are less likely to do with requiring people to surrender weapons/property they have legally purchased in times of personal crisis en masse and more likely to do with people discussing their problems with a doctor and friends or family who could do things like help to secure such weapons privately (and voluntarily) while someone seeks help. That isn't something that is easily done through national policy. Which is to say: it might be that some one should do something about these as a terrible problem, but it might not be the politician who gets to take credit for it if it works. It would be ordinary people instead who stepped forward to help and they who achieved some successful change in society.

Spending a lot of time focusing a policy agenda upon these events seems like a rather poor use of the politicizing attention. Spending a lot of time focusing on that there's a whole huge mess of other gun violence that goes on (still), or that there are thousands of suicides with firearms every year. That seems like a better use of the time. Bring that up and talk about it. Spin it somewhere we can more effectively do something or discuss different political solutions. That's where the conversation on policy still has ground to cover for now.

Incomplete list of complicated things that get discussed with vaguely described solutions

1) Gun Control - "common sense gun control" means? So far I've heard this used to describe a lot of things, but mostly it gets used to mean "people shouldn't have guns". That's a sentiment I agree is preferable for a modern civilisation is that it not rely upon mass armament or fear of crime and that the general public can go about their business freely and safely without any concern for whether or not they are armed or not (a condition which I believe already exists in probably 90% of American towns and suburbs, and most major cities). I think we are going to disagree about what methods are appropriate for most people not to have guns. It helps to lay out a specific idea here and not just assume everyone knows what you mean. Strictly enforced and expanded background checks? Gun safety training? Gun buy-backs? What exactly are these common sense regulations everyone supposedly agrees we should do?

I wrote about this problem several years ago and unfortunately little has changed in the tenor and tone of the debate in any way, and very little of the debate focuses on the largest sources of problems (violence often related to black market drug distribution, and suicide) while an enormous amount focuses on these (still) fairly rare events that become national news. Enacting the sorts of policies that would significantly reduce the former problems will probably look very different than anything that would deal with the latter, if there is anything that can be done at the policy level. They look like very different issues at this point. But the former problem is way, way worse.

A brief addendum to the things I wrote before would be that the types of policies likely to impact gun violence in a meaningful way, in my view at least, would be things that would take some time to see some results. Alcohol taxes could be raised. Mental health training for police could be dramatically overhauled and mental health care improvements would probably start to cut into suicide rates. Various narcotic street markets could be priced out by providing safer and legal markets for the substances being traded. Background checks may take years before they began finding points of sale that in some way meaningfully restricted gun ownership and at considerable regulatory cost as the existing market and pool of available weapons is too high that transfers can be done privately without much monitoring. And so on. Even among the things that are far more radical in the American context and much less clearly common sense (assault weapons bans, gun buybacks, etc), we would probably not see much impact for many years, if at all.

We should not expect that if anything is done it will stop mass shootings from happening.The causes of those are likely to be all over the place that they will be difficult to respond to with single effective policies. For instance, many of these "common sense" reforms have had little to do with the actual shootings (background checks for example seem to have had mixed results, as one should expect). That is not by itself a reason not to do them. It is simply to say that the idea that we should tie policy responses to fairly rare events is probably a bad way to try to sell it as a good and necessary change (as we did with terrorism and as Obama explicitly tried to justify over a trillion dollars of spending to deal with terrorism over the last decade, which I disagree was money well-spent). We should expect that if anything is done we might see reductions in the rate of violent crime and suicide. That would be the yardstick I'd measure it against. Comparatively speaking, measuring the rates of violent crime in other countries is a more interesting study than looking at sensational events in smaller industrialized democratic countries and their responses. It's also very much like the "there are no giants here" theory, in that if we take a very rare situation and adopt often radical policies in response to it as a serious problem, and then nothing happens for a long time, we often hear "well see, we got rid of the giants, you don't see any around do you?" as though the cause of this absence was the radical policy shift. I think this is dubious in the case of terrorism. A more likely cause is that the number of people willing and capable of acting out terrorist deeds is extremely small. Just as the population of people willing to commit mass shootings is.

Shorter-term the change I would make to deal with mass shootings would be simply to have the media cover the shooter much less, cover the victims. The academics and police can poke into the shooter and their background to figure out what's going on there. I don't give a shit anymore who these people are. They don't seem that different from anyone else fundamentally that we have much of a pattern to identify who dangerous and disturbed people are beforehand and thereby make any effective policy change. So we could change the culture instead and start ignoring their deeds and focus on the effects for now. Maybe that will make it less likely someone shoots other people for attention. Maybe not. It's a better use of our time to remember people who lost their lives senselessly and their names than the people who took them. I'm not quite sure why Jack the Ripper is well known for example. Or Ted Kasinzski. Obviously it's not a new problem but it's one that I'd be quite happy to see a shift on.

2) Family Leave - "people should afford their own children" to me means "poor people shouldn't have children". That's not why people have children is a financial decision (if anything, there are relatively cheap things we could do that more poorer people could have fewer children if they wished, but also make it easier for people to have children if they do wish to).

This is barely disguised socially Darwinian thinking. It's very similar to the "we should drug test welfare recipients" idea that I routinely bash upon as idiotic and wasteful, not to mention morally reprehensible, particularly for self-described liberals. Speaking of which, yet another state has failed to materialize any savings or significant effect from doing that.

3) Syria. "Help the Syrians more actively, establish a stable regime" - That's a nice idea. I agree that would be awesome if Syria wasn't involved in a civil war and had a stable moderately democratic government. This would be a lot better for the Syrian people than the status quo of the last several years.

But. This is kind of like the underpants gnome plot as applied to international relations. Resolving multi-factional violence is a difficult problem on its own. It is not resolved easily by having us picking sides or trying to make friends in the midst of it. It is not clear to me that "taking an active role" (which is vaguely defined as "go bomb people we don't like") would be a significant improvement on the ground, particularly if it is not followed up with. Which is the more challenging part still than getting people to stop shooting each other. Often bribing them works pretty well on that front. Following up with that to establish some kind of peaceful resolution with inclusive governments forged from separatist factions that must work out their differences within a country is very hard. In fact, establishing any form of stable democratic regime in foreign countries is extremely hard as an international relations problem. To the point that I'm not entirely sure we have any idea how to do it. Japan might be the only successful example in the last century and that took a massive war against a world power with a fairly developed economy and the institutions to go with it that lasted, in one form or another, over a decade (going from Japan's fighting with China and the USSR), with another decade of military occupation (followed up by decades more of military "cooperation"). Point being we had moderately good conditions in which to forge and impose a democratic rule, a clear international sanction to do it, and it still took decades of work. We would have few of these building blocks in Syria (or Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen or Kosovo or Libya), and limited international support to do so. Which means we could very well end up right where we started. Basically what happened with Iraq.

I'm unsure why there is still much enthusiasm for this in the international relations policy elite. Yes it is a terrible problem. No it isn't clear to me you have proposed a plan that a) solves it and b) does so at an acceptable risk, for example how your solutions or interests should differ on this from other international relations concerns that might be far more damaging to American power and security (say, the Ukrainian crisis). I still hear people thinking we should have a no-fly-zone. When the Russians are now operating air strikes in country? Really? This is a good idea? Risking war with a nuclear power? To carry out a vaguely defined mission that has little impact upon American security concerns? If the concern is humanitarian, take in a million refugees. We could do that in a year. I'd frankly be even greedier and take in all of the refugees if they want to come here. All of them if necessary. We can do something about the suffering and condition of these people immediately and easily. We cannot do something about the underlying conditions that created that suffering very easily and immediately. That doesn't mean we cannot or should not. It means the vaguely defined missions and interests I've heard being bandied about aren't very compelling cases that the people who would be in charge of conducting such operations have a clear idea how to do it and would succeed, or at worst would not make things worse by running about. Until they sound much less like the Green Lantern theory of international politics or the underpants gnomes, I'm probably going to be very skeptical that someone has a handle on things and should run with it.

28 September 2015

A note on social media campaigns

I've previously noted my disdain for "awareness" campaigns, of most any type. They are usually harmless. For instance, a childhood cancer campaign involves changing profile photos to those of superheroes. This is fairly benign. Kids usually like superheroes (so do adults, obviously). And there isn't usually a way to do a lot of early detection and interdiction for children and cancers, so we're stuck trying to figure out how to treat it (or if we should, which is even more horrifying to contemplate). So any campaign "increasing awareness" is liable to fund useful research somewhat more rather than funding more "awareness campaigns".

They also are not typically that helpful. It is better that some number of young people are aware of the existence of Boko Haram or the LRA and their activities in Africa. But that has little to say about what we can or should do about those as problems. It was likewise amusing (if typically wasteful) that some number of people learned something about ALS through dumping buckets of ice water on themselves. Whether or not that will materialize into a substantive improvement in the well-being of the people afflicted with it, or future persons, is much less clear. I at least credit people their intentions may be good even if their efforts are shallow and unresponsive to the deeper issues at stake.

Where I see some more recent annoyances is the yearly campaigns involving weird status games on facebook and "breast cancer awareness". Firstly, the status games themselves can involve some insensitive and even harmful postings. Posting a fake pregnancy announcement, a fake sexuality announcement, a fake marriage announcement, and so on, these are not things sensible people should do. Whether or not they "have good intentions". These are potentially quite harmful and at least annoying to say: couples who have experienced infertility or miscarriages, couples that are no longer couples, and maybe people who are in the closet about their sexuality (or gender for that matter). I'm not saying you can't post it, but I am saying I'm going to look askance at the people who do as though they have a problem. Because it seems to me that they might need a few explanations about the nature of reality.

In general, few people are concerned with toilet-related mishaps that they should be shared either. While I'm sure a percentage of the public thought those were amusing, they weren't very interesting amusements. For instance, that video of the Massachusetts man freaking out at seeing a sunfish, that was indirectly interesting, on top of being a series of crazy accented speech and expressions that lends itself to being easily copied for more ordinary purposes than ocean going voyages and the encounters those lend themselves to. Despite these flaws, I do not think people are posting such things maliciously and with the intention to cause grievous harm or annoyance to people like me.

Where I think the biggest problem here is that "breast cancer awareness" is already well past the saturation point. Much of the empirical evidence on treatment and detection of breast cancer suggests that any benefit from "additional awareness" is getting cancelled out by unnecessarily worrying people and of course, the unpleasant varieties of treatment that we subject women to upon detection. We are all pretty aware by this point that women have breasts, and some women tend to get breast cancers. So this kind of awareness should not be a major concern for charitable work or social awareness campaigning and the like. Many of these public campaigns are effectively more about this "awareness" activity than they are about the treatment and detection of cancer.

What is of more pressing concern is likely research into better screening methodologies (genetic screening data for example seems promising), and research into better and more effective treatment for those cases that require treatment, in particular for advanced cases. These are not things that can be directly provided through "awareness", and in some cases are not really available or fully in use yet. What happens by increasing awareness, but without any accompanying campaign to donate to such research as would be needed to make our work in this area more effective, is that a lot more people are aware of what we already do and are presented with the social requirement to enter into it out of habit. Which isn't that helpful at all. Indeed, I think it may be quite harmful on balance. I'd say we could use much less awareness of mammograms and for many women breast cancer screening in general (possibly cancer screening of any kind for many is a waste of time and money).

The false positive rate is way too high to be a useful test for many women which we use it on. There are specific cases where it may be quite useful, but the general public isn't going to know that when they, as people have quite vigorously in the past when discussing the flaws of this processing during debates surrounding the ACA, will insist on receiving such treatment in spite of its general futility. The general practice of screening some millions of women in this way annually seems to be saving perhaps one life in a thousand and subjecting several dozen, perhaps as many as a hundred other women per thousand to the kinds of worrying and stress over medical matters that isn't provided by checking WebMD every time you have a medical problem and nearly as many women as those who die of breast cancer without treatment are subjected to unnecessary (and expensive, both in money and well-being) forms of treatment for no apparent reason what so ever. That seems like a tremendous waste of a general awareness campaign to expend vast amounts of human energy and effort upon. A more focused campaign rather than general call saying something like "hey what about breast cancer!" would be much more constructive.

As I said with the ALS ice bucket campaign, this is a serious problem. Some thousands of women will be afflicted by breast cancer every year. Some thousands will die of it. We should have some level of seriousness in our social response to this, even if there is some humor injected into it. It should also be less about demonstrations of awareness, which unlike ALS, I think we're quite well aware of this as a problem as a society, and more about direct demonstrations of concern and aid to the problem as it exists now.

22 September 2015

A few notes on the elections, next year

1) Walker and Perry bombing out wasn't a very big surprise. Perry probably wasn't to almost any observer. For some reason Walker was. I was surprised at how fast he flamed out (he was leading polls all the way back in July for some reason), but that he did so at all was not that disturbing or unpredictable and I was suggesting as much months ago. He was not a very skilled politician and very clearly did not have good instincts for national politics or foreign policy questions of the sort that do not trouble a Governor's campaign but will bedevil a Presidential campaign.

What he always reminded me of was Tim Pawlenty's failed run in 2012: he was a conservative governor from a state neighbouring Iowa. That's it. That was his selling point. That did not work out so well for Pawlenty. There was never much reason to think it would with Walker. Union-busting is a state issue. It doesn't have much relevance or resonance at the national level, even among conservative politicians and voters. Since that seems to be the only significant campaign story Walker felt he could run on, that isn't going to get him very far. Not surprisingly it flamed out and did not work.

2) Rubio still looks to me like the most likely GOP nominee. I would feel pretty confident betting on it at least. There is still a significant "anybody but a Bush" attitude that pervades the GOP base, in a strong way that was not the case with Romney 4 years ago. There is still ambiguity about the direction of the party and its ideological positioning on issues like immigration that I think there are risks. But those risks won't end up with Trump or Cruz or some such at the head of the class instead either. Unlike those two, Rubio actually has establishment support and will probably rally more of it with Walker out of the way. He also hasn't shriveled up, been incapable of answering questions, or seemed like a blithering idiot like most of his rivals (in particular Bush and Walker). I don't agree with very much of any of his policy agenda. But if I had to guess, that's still the guy I would bet would be the nominee next year.

3) Sanders percolates up now and again in my feed of social media still, in part because I know a lot of liberals it seems. I think I have identified why I just don't get him as being all that interesting.

a) a Presidential campaign that all but ignores foreign policy, to the point of being pretty actively dismissive of it as a topic in interviews, to me is really not a serious campaign. This is on top of Sanders' positions on trade being very retrograde (like dismissed 250 years ago, even though they keep popping up in far left political talks). I'd like to think Sanders has somewhat agreeable views on IR, but given how dismissive his campaign tends to be of the topic, I'm ambivalent that this is actually the case enough. A domestic centered agenda, particularly an economic one, just doesn't interest me as a voter because most of that will require action of Congress or the Supreme Court. And it seems extremely unlikely that Congress or the Supreme Court will be radically altered sufficiently to enact most or even any significant portion of a Sanders agenda. By contrast, US Presidents can do a lot on the foreign policy scene. I wish more Senators or voters took this as something worth considering, but if Sanders wants to run on a domestic agenda, he should really stay in the Senate. That's where he can do the most damage.

b) The biggest primary election problem Sanders has had is that non-white voters, which account for about half of the Democratic electorate nationally, aren't all that interested in him. It has always been possible he could fix this, but I do not think he's capable of it based on his primary election positions and campaign fervor. The main problem, which I tend to agree with, is that Sanders' explicitly addresses questions of inequality as in and of itself a problem which results in racism. Rather than racism being in and of itself a cause of inequality. Police officers are not beating up or shooting unarmed black kids because of inequality. There's a case that kids from poor neighborhoods cannot get through college because of inequality, but that case isn't resolved by making college free, which for whatever reason remains a popular campaign talking point for Sanders. That case is resolved by improving the K-12 environments in which many minorities are living, and also by resolving or addressing strongly the issues of criminal justice reform more broadly on which police brutality is merely the tip of several icebergs of our country's problems on these questions. Sanders, and importantly, many Sanders supporters, seem to want to focus on questions of economic inequality first as they impact the white middle class rather than deal with the lower end of the pie and why those slices are distributing oddly. This sort of focus can carry states like Vermont, New Hampshire, or Iowa. States where Democratic politics and the state as a whole are dominated by white middle class voters. It will do him no credit in Nevada or Colorado or Florida or South Carolina. These are separable problems, and they are problems which demand distinct attention if someone is going to address them. Feeling like the problems of non-white voters are second class status is not a way to interest those voters.

More to the point, most of the agenda of a movement like BLM can get reasonably far with the support of only a President, rather than a Congressional action being required, as they pertain to DoJ authority and various executive branch programs and agencies in some way. A President cannot and will not solve racism (or for that matter, economic inequality), but can do some things to hammer state and local police forces to behave by siccing lawyers and federal authorities and judges on them, conducting investigations, requiring reforms, and tying those reforms to federal dollars and funding that some local forces may rely upon. All of which are things liable to help the lives of people much, much sooner than long-term economic reforms with the problems many minorities experience when dealing with police and law enforcement in general. The lack of focus on this as an immediate priority to eliminate easy sources of human suffering and brutality and misconduct is not lost on those who are suffering. There are sound political reasons not to focus on these issues (eg, white middle class voters tend not to care about them), but that only makes the division worse and more evident.

c) Inequality in general is the main theme on which Sanders seems to dominate his focus. I don't share this focus, but if I did, I'm not sure I would diagnose what he has as methods to resolve it. Min wage law doesn't seem to have a significant impact in the empirical literature and if anything might actually be harmful. It could be helpful too, but in general probably won't do very much about the problem of "fat cats on Wall Street" or "greedy CEOs", which is where almost all of the inequality disparity in the US stems from, and won't do very much about the plight of the poor, or the income traps of the structure of our existing welfare and social safety nets (where marginal tax rates can exceed 100% and people on net lose money by making more). It is not a very exciting policy change to demand as a result. College education is largely still reasonably affordable, even as the cost has grown substantially (in part because of federal subsidies). Reforms to make it free to the public are largely a give away to the fairly well off people who privately gain from attaining a college education already and do little about the basis on which a college education has grown in importance over a mere high school diploma in the first place, namely that too many jobs have become credentialized and licensed to require one for no apparent reason, and that a K-12 education isn't seen as satisfactory for many jobs. One reason it is not is that it is sometimes not seen as satisfactory for many colleges either. And then the another focal point seems to have been campaign finance laws, with the suggestion being that rich people are buying elections. This may be true that rich people can spend somewhat more on elections, but one reason rich people are "buying" elections is that richer people will vote. A lot more often than poorer people. There are a lot of reasons for that. Most of them do not have to do with "rich people can buy elections" in general. That is not going to fix American democracy or voter turnout if those are perceived to be imperiled by the amount of money now being spent on national politics.

A generally middle class populist campaign that focuses on these, as well as some of the protectionist themes, marginally anti-rich/anti-capitalist rhetoric, etc is not likely to attract much interest from me in the first place. But if it comes away from a putative problem like inequality with bad solutions, or the wrong solutions, or solutions to problems we don't have, and so on, it is really not going to get my attention in a good way.

19 September 2015

Series of quick blurbs

Or maybe not so quick. We'll see.

1) Was the clock kid arrested/suspended because he brought a clock to school or because he was a Muslim kid who brought a clock to school.

Short answer is probably a bit of both, but mostly the latter. There's some, but not much, justification to question what it is that a kid has, but if they don't have it out, and show it to a teacher rather willingly and openly, that should be a sign it isn't intended as a prank and was intended to be something random and fun that they built and hoped would be appreciated. It wasn't. That ought to be have been the end point. It wasn't. So here we are. The key points though that suggest there's a racial/ethnic/religious dimension on top of the overzealous school safety considerations would be that the school never took any of those overzealous school safety considerations at the time. If it was thought at any time to be an actual bomb, the school (and the police) never behaved as though they thought it was. I would be suing the cops for wrongful arrest/detention as a violation of civil rights (they had no probable cause for an arrest) and I'd be at least changing schools pronto if I were his parents. Sounds like at least one of those is happening.

2) Will Kim Davis end up back in jail for fiddling with the state forms?

Short version: maybe. She probably shouldn't be. Most of the state officials seem to think the forms her office is issuing are legal or at least will be recognized as legal for their purposes, and that this point it appears to be a question of state law that would matter. But they're very clearly being issued in an defiant "fuck you" manner to the court that required the issuance of certificates. Which courts and judges don't tend to like very much.

3) Why is Sam Harris still talking about racial profiling (particular of Muslims at airports).

Short version: I have no idea. He seemed very clearly to have lost badly in public debates he himself posted online several years ago on this exact topic. But he seems to have ignored this rather glaring flaw of history of his engagement to the subject matter. It ties into the clock story and the Harris/Republican narrative that "Christianity is under attack", whatever that means, in so far as there's a lot of strange rhetoric based upon fear that isn't easily translated into effective and legal policy. Maybe Harris' underlying argument is that Muslims are the most likely source of threats to airplanes and airport security, which is perhaps a plausible case for now but hasn't always been true and isn't the best way to secure them even if they are to treat such people as we can identify as possibly Muslim as the only likely source of threat. How that translates into an effective security process from that assumption is a very big logical step that overlooks a lot of costs and difficulties. Secularists and liberals tend to want to govern processes of law by reasonable steps, such as cost-benefit analysis or effectiveness. Apparently not when fear is concerned. Then the arguments look very much like the same ones that conservatives make when telling us Davis was in jail for practicing her faith, rather than violating a court order.

04 September 2015

A short legal primer. Sort of

So. Kim Davis is a trendy topic. Those probably were not words most of us would think to write a couple of months ago.

Some explanations for people who haven't followed this closely or imagine themselves to agree or disagree with her.

1) County clerks in Kentucky are elected officials. They're still public officials charged with doing public duties, like providing marriage licenses. One result of this elected status though is that they cannot be fired by another public official (a Governor for example). They have to be removed from office via an election or a process of impeachment that is typically complicated and time-consuming.

2) States could decide they don't want to issue marriage licenses, which to me seems like an idea likely to be less popular than is being imagined by some Christians or anarchists and some number of libertarians, but until or unless they do so, some city or county official will be charged with providing these licenses officially. In this case, a county clerk's office was tasked with this duty. There may be other public officials in the county that can perform this legal duty but they have other duties often (judges for example). Since the state gives out marriage licenses on a fairly regular basis, it is not productive to have this task on an ad hoc basis rather than an appointed office handle the regular business of the state.

3) Court rulings based around the 14th amendment have decided, I believe rightly, that these licenses should be issued regardless of gender in the couples involved. This means that any Kentucky law preventing such licenses between same-sex couples from being issued is invalidated and that such laws are to be enforced as amended. So the licenses must be issued and the court's interest is in gaining compliance with its orders that the state officials no longer be violating the Constitution.

The relevant factor here is that it is the state of Kentucky, not Kim Davis, which is seen to be acting when it refuses to issue a marriage license. Kim Davis does not make or decide state laws as a clerk. She carries them out and as such represents the state in that capacity.

4) The judge who issued the order to provide the licenses lawfully a) wrote in the 6th circuit opinion that was overturned that he effectively did not agree with same-sex marriages and b) gave Davis several avenues to lawfully comply.

Most significantly, she was to be allowed to turn over the duties to another clerk in the office rather than issue licenses she disagreed with herself. She refused to allow another clerk in her office to comply whether they wanted to or not or agreed with her beliefs or not. She imposed her beliefs upon others in her employ. This is not a power any elected official possesses, whether they imagine themselves to or not. This is ultimately why she was found in contempt of court and jailed, not for practicing her own religious beliefs but refusing to allow others to live in accordance with their own interpretations of faith and law and imposing upon them a required action that was deemed to be illegal by the federal court system and out of step with directives issued by the sitting governor of the state to comply with those rulings.

One of the apparently forgotten aspects of Jim Crow was that it was a binding legal obligation upon all citizens to segregate, not merely the beliefs of racists but the laws of racists as well were in force and on display. There were ways around this, but it was officially sanctioned by the state to require certain private behaviors, whether people agreed with those laws or not. If people do not agree with allowing same sex couples to marry, they are allowed to disagree with this, to voice opposition, to protest, to attend church services that reinforce these beliefs, and so on. What they are not allowed to do is prevent this from occurring legally and prevent others in their employ from executing the required public duties of issuing a license.

4a) (Update) It appears her dispute is that her name has to be on it as though this is constituting a personal endorsement. It is extremely unlikely that federal courts and judges will decide to amend a state law as to whether her name has to appear on a public form from a county clerk's office as a basis for official documentation being deemed valid. Their concern will be the relevant constitutional status of marriage law enforcement more broadly and not the precise mechanics that the Commonwealth of Kentucky decides to use to provide those marriage licenses, who has to sign where, etc. State laws may provide some protection if she were to sue in state court that some accommodation could be imposed or the state could act to amend the statute to provide such accommodations as allowing a deputy clerks name to be valid, etc, though that's not guaranteed of course. And she hasn't done that anyway. Suggesting her legal arguments are less about seeking accommodation and more about something else, or that her legal team is not very good (also plausible). (update to that part, it looks to me unlikely that the state courts would grant some variety of exemption either as the relevant forms only require the endorsement of the "office of", and not the "person of").

5) The absurdity of claiming that people could drive 30 minutes away for a public service required by state law seems to be a point of order as well. What this suggests in logical terms is that Davis does not agree with same sex marriage, but will abide by such marriages as endorsed legally by others in the same official capacity as herself as long as she has nothing to do with it. Except that she won't do that in her own county.

This is very different from say, abortion providers and distance traveled questions and constraints. The state is not in the business of providing abortions. It does not have to mandate that its officials provide them in a reasonable fashion within a legal jurisdiction of a county or major city. The state is in the business of providing marriage certificates. Since the state is in that business, it is required to do so in a non-discriminatory way (roughly speaking, since the state can prevent you from marrying your cousin or sister or father, or an under age child), and more significantly to this question here, the public and elected officials are tasked to do so as well. If they are unable or unwilling to do so, the effective response is that they should be removed from office in order to gain compliance with the legal environment.

Those public officials are free in their private capacity to complain all they want so long as they comply with the law in a non-discriminatory way or make reasonable accommodations to do so. Not issuing licenses at all in a county, without the approval of other city, county, or state officials, and thus requiring people to go to another county to receive a public service they are entitled to legally is not a reasonable accommodation.

6) The wisdom of jailing her to assure compliance with the law has been frequently called into question. I suspect that the intention of her or her lawyers was for her to go to jail for violating the law and that this is why she refused other methods of compliance. This made it unlikely that other forms of compliance would have worked in the interim to prevent violations of Constitutional law and the state's basic obligations from being ignored in the meantime.

As a form of civil disobedience, this is fine. She was willing to pay the consequences. As a form of protest intent on amending the legal environment, I'm less clear on how this would redound to anyone's benefit if they oppose gay marriage and the change in the legal environment. Some are claiming this makes her a martyr. A martyr to an already activated minority is still a losing opinion on this matter. Her actions would have to in some way change people's minds rather than just fire up people who still agree with her. She is not a church, whose practices were not changed by the legal framework of the 14th amendment requirements to civil institutions, and she was being allowed not to perform the ceremonial tasks personally as a requirement of her official duties. I don't see where that changes people's minds in a meaningful way. If anything, more people being aware that what she was actually doing was refusing to let anyone else operate in an official capacity under her charge should suggest that this is not likely to be a very inspiring case.

7) This question of the intersection of religious liberty with gay marriage (both in the public sphere and in the private business sphere) will come up again with a more presentable case. The Supreme Court refused to hear this one on appeal because it was a terrible case easily dismissed on the merits, most likely being used to fund raise by the legal team rather than attempt to actually reform or repeal the legal environment.