24 February 2015

Focus points for secularists?

In the wake of some of the "anti-theist" business and any sniff of this being tied to violence, I thought it useful to outline some social focus points of atheists and secularists as they might apply to the lived experiences. That is: does this form of demonstration of faith actually conform to a form of oppression that demands a response, or is this form of demonstration of faith causing a form of oppression upon other people (eg, not necessarily atheists/secularists) and demand a response. And if these are in conflict, where should priorities or loyalties lie.

Some groundwork or disclosures may be of use here though first.

1) I have pretty much always been an atheist or secularist. I did not de-convert, as it were, as I was never compelled to believe in any deity. I find the concept frankly baffling that other people have had to or expend much time and energy discussing the merits of the demands of such entities (as though they could be interpreted in declarative manner anyway), or would expend much time and energy having to convince other people the entire edifice is absurd, or would expend much time and energy on the portion of life where they did share in these beliefs. This is an important distinction I expect in the level of animosity and annoyance toward the religiously inclined that I feel and the practicability of the goals as set out.

2) I also have been finding that reading many secularists or atheists I am frequently at odds with what I perceive as their projected ends, their methods, or their conclusions of truth in that they too often resemble a similar level of certainty to that brought by their adversaries and subsequently expend precious resources and time fighting relatively meaningless battles that seem to do little to advance a secular cause, or at least a humanist one. Even if we assume the goal is to make more people secularly inclined, I do not think much of this activity in punching down on religions necessarily does this and has mixed results as far as making more people inclined to so identify if they are already broadly in agreement. It may be emotionally satisfying as a project but most probably does less than we think to advance any practical and effective objections to the projects and intentions of religious groups and peoples. It tends to resemble either "group therapy" of a self congratulatory variety or picking on the dumb kid a little too often to serve any broader purpose.

If people are merely looking for the most obvious tie-ins to how people might become more secularly inclined I would suggest the following:
a) raise children who aren't explicitly brought up in, or prevented from being exposed to religious ideas. They will seek out ideas on their own, including religious concepts from theology and secular concepts from science or philosophy. Curious minds are open to questioning and looking at uncertainty as opportunity to try to learn.

b) raise children who read and have an interest in multiple faith traditions. Comparative faith exercises is unlikely to make people into affirmative believers to any particular faith tradition at the very least, and may establish a degree of tolerance.

c) most obviously start with mythology also. The stories of the Greeks and their pantheon of gods had a strong anthropological influence on whether to accept the stories of the Hebrews or the Arabs as anything distinctive. I typically find it amusing that fundamentalist Christians complain about prayer being taken out of school or trying to remove the theory of evolution and don't spend time trying to take Greek mythology out. Darwin's theory is elegant and has a variety of complicated factors owing to the multiple lines of evidence for it marshaled to support its basic claims. Most children, even teenagers, are not going to take away from it very much even if they get a decent primary education. Most children can take away from reading about Zeus that this isn't something people take seriously anymore and that religion is sort of like a comic book story. The way they start to treat the concept of Santa as they get older. And that this has implications for other religious traditions.

d) possibly read a good deal of fantasy or science fiction growing up (or watch TV/movies of same).

e) failing all of that, raise children in an explicitly and literal fundamentalist religious tradition and take your chances that any of those beliefs will survive long on contact with reality. Evidence suggests that it certainly might, depending on a level of cultural isolationism, but is much more likely to crumble than a more liberal and interpretative religious tradition. A more liberal, interpretative faith is more amorphous and vague, and undoubtedly more annoying to argue with but by those lights is also flexible enough to incorporate many secular ideals and attempt to gloss over or entirely concede areas of disagreement to work together to deal with issues of suffering, for example (in this way, it is similar to ideological disagreements).

The advantage of the more liberal, interpretative version is that it leaves room for doubt and mysteries that can be made more compatible with the empirical processes of science and the examples of human history. The more literal version requires a degree of certainty that ultimately requires rejecting far too much of reality, or deliberate attempts to seclude from its effects, to survive.

One of the first and most obvious breaks I would find is that I do not think it is worth a great deal of time arguing with religious people over theology, or attempting to de-convert people away from religious belief. I do not argue that this project has no merit, but that it has very little chance of resulting in a very broad population of people who are now rendered "faithless" and also has very little chance of replacing a Christian or Buddhist or Muslim set of ethics with something workable in a diverse and secular community. If it has any impact of generating disaffection with religion, it mostly results in a lot of people who are pissed off at organized religion instead of productively engaged in a project of moral and social exploration. To the extent I find organized religions repellent and often socially harmful, that's fine. But it's not like religion is going anywhere as a social feature of its own and the best we can do in the meantime is seek to mitigate its most destructive features instead. The project of investigating why other people are religious is interesting as an intellectual exercise and most religious people are reasonably happy to oblige in such a discussion, but suggestions that it will on its own have much impact on the minds of the involved parties are unlikely to achieve much. The argument is best used as a vehicle for others to observe the ideas or back and forth and decide, but has potentially little value to the participants themselves to illuminate errors or falsifications they are making.

Secondly. I expect this is more controversial and difficult to articulate, but the main goal and project as I see a secular ethic of requiring of an individual is in discovering what a secular ethic should or might be in the first place. Abandoning the simple world where all things are black and white and complete with moral certitude and all things are decreed as in or out of bounds by received wisdom or authority compels people to determine for themselves the utility or damage of their deeds and intentions. Aristotle's line "I have gained this from philosophy: that I do without being commanded what others do only from fear of the law." should be instructive here that we should be constantly seeking to understand how these oughts and is's are actually working, and what is demanded of us not merely in the negative sense of doing a thing because there are penalties to our non-compliance (don't kill people because you could go to jail), but advantages to a society where people do not do a thing (don't kill people because a society where people do not have to worry about being randomly killed is much more prosperous and capable of achieving a variety of ends instead of dedicating an infinite quantity of finite resources to security). I am aware there are a wide variety of secular and humanist persons, and religious persons to boot, who engage in this as a process. What I do not see is this being undertaken as a particularly public project versus making emotionally satisfying attacks on those ridiculous faithful people. The majority of attention on these concerns of how to live as a social question seems to go elsewhere, into these less useful enterprises. 

Thirdly, pick and choose battles more wisely. The black and white "this is wrong" may be true, that a behavior may be discriminatory, but is it aggressive proselytizing, or does it compel an overall social policy goal that is at odds with a secular and inclusive or diverse society. I do not much care about a diner offering a discount for prayers not because it isn't discriminatory, but because I do not see it as a sustainable business practice. I similarly do not worry very much about the question of whether a variety of discrimination should be bound up with automatic legal penalties (be they fines or other objects). I do not oppose such a project automatically either, but I find it more productive to convince more people that what they are doing is wrongful in the first place through discourse and then failing a resolution, to move toward a variety of other civil society actions (economic boycotts for instance, or publicizing the dispute, etc). Changing laws is a less flexible or adaptive approach to amending behavior that I would prefer remain reserved for the most egregious and most harmful behaviors. 

I see a strong undercurrent of people in a recent story demanding what seems like blood involving a doctor refusing her own services (but not that of the practice entirely) to a lesbian couple and their child; that the license to practice medicine should be stripped out for instance. We are in a society that is only recently shifted to a position of dominance for the practice of tolerance or acceptance toward homosexuals and the families they may (now) seek to create as adults. We can perhaps afford to be relatively charitable in how people who are still uncertain or intolerant should be treated in how they come to terms with that society. This is hardly an atypical story within secular circles for how many react to it, with demands for heads on spikes. I see such a reaction as sometimes overblown and sometimes necessary and there does not appear to be as much flexibility in how we choose which principles must be applied with rigidity and force (state action if necessary) and which can be achieved through other methods of persuasion, or at least much less force. Much of living in a diverse society is learning how to deal with people who will ultimately disagree about something. That something may be very important, say whether a country should go to war against a perceived enemy or how criminals should be punished for serious crimes, or even what constitutes a serious crime, or it may be moderately important, say an appropriate tax policy or set of reforms, or it may be fairly trivial, as in which sporting team is best and what kinds of foods we enjoy. 

What becomes visible in noting that people disagree is that they also disagree over what sets of things are or should be prioritized. Vegetarians may or may not place great importance on whether other people share in this practice, for example, and internal divisions between say, vegans and vegetarians can become visible over these as priorities. Environmentalists likewise may have a variety of views that to oppose makes one no longer a presentable member of the group, expelled from that society for not appropriately being concerned with nuclear power or GMOs or fracking and by this favoring a set of policy proposals. Similarly religious organizations and traditions have a long history of disposing themselves in the process of declaring other groups to be heretics. The issue is not necessarily that such groups divest some portion of time and efforts on defining what the parameters of membership within their groups are, but that the visible and ugly process of disagreement over what the parameters of membership often becomes a means of dissuading others to join in shared goals and no longer makes identification with a group palatable, either because the group appears to demand (but usually not actually demand) a certain set of fealty to a certain set of ideas in an unreasonable way. This is one reason I do not worry very much about ISIS since it spends an enormous quantity of its time killing other Muslims for these putative heresies in acts of brutal tribalism. This is appalling morally but a self-limiting and self-defeating principle for advancing any of its other aims to control territory outside of a limited base of support that declarations of it as a threat to national security seem obviously overblown. Or else because the group spends too much time engaging in this project of self-cleansing itself of heathens and their radical ideas to actually advance any of the plausibly useful and interesting notions it claims to actually support of its own (modern Republicans/conservatives and their agendas versus say, libertarians with a variety of civil rights concerns). 

"Atheist" in a similar fashion has been expending a lot of energy as a movement at times debasing itself in public by having prominent members who are often too inflexible and averse to nuance in public statements, and by this weakness often evincing a level of incuriousness toward questions of oppression or subjugation of other groups, such as say, women or minorities, both within the greater society and even within the community, such as it is, of like-minded atheists and secularists. Other atheists even commonly argue that these are not required projects for atheists to concern themselves with, or that a project of humanism does not require us to distinguish these as unusual problems to proliferate our work toward alleviating. To an extent this is true. The problems identified in feminism or racism in society are a human problem, but to gloss over these as effectively unimportant or unworthy of effort, perhaps because there are bigger fish to fry elsewhere or because we believe there might be more important matters is not an effective solution either. The problem does not disappear because we may want to close our eyes to it. It clings on to us then as a situation we may ignore until it is dangerously myopic in what we have instead focused upon. Civil societies have often attempted to set aside such issues as slavery, racism or religious intolerance, the status of women, of homosexuals, or even more basic concerns as the issues of economic opportunity generally to young people, or the care of the elderly and infirm, or the conduct of the justice system and its agents, and so on only to find that these issues again and again become too pressing to ignore. The situation now in Iraq comes about in part because a government there sought to repress a religious group and the religious group sought affirmation in agents that were willing to fight back. By any means necessary. 

This is not to say that we as a society or as a subset within it with distinctive cultural goals should be automatically attentive to any and all claims of complaint and grievance by others, or raised by other members internal to our aims. Rather, that we should not so easily become dismissive to say "well that's not a real problem" or "that's not worth my time". Sometimes it will not be, sometimes it most definitely is. Not all of these claims will be legitimate and need to be respected as such or not always will we be in a position to help. Even if our goal and wish is only to advance concerns of our own that others do not (yet) share it can be beneficial to take up other interests that we could or might share with others that we may otherwise disagree. As a human being, these are often worthy debates to plunge into and try to understand, as it may be shown with the questions of what motivates religious belief above. It may not emerge from that understanding that a thing can be done, or at least that the things that others think are necessary can be done or will resolve our concerns. But without at least some attention, human beings can be perceived as callous and indifferent to the sufferings of others. Libertarians or economic conservatives are often so-labeled where a question on say, an economic inequality arises. It is in fact, incumbent on interested people to identify this question as a situation of note, and whether or not it requires particular solutions then becomes an experimental or empirical question on whether those solutions would resolve it and at what cost or whether some other concept would work better, and then a values question on whether that resolution is worth the cost or whether the solution is needed. One of the weaknesses I see commonly committed is a degree not merely of indifference and incuriousness to these concerns of others, forgivable if sometimes regrettable, but active intolerance toward the idea that such and such a problem is even worth any attention at all by anyone at all. Other people have taken up these issues as their concerns. We may be able to convince them that their concerns are invalidated by evidence (unlikely), or at least convince others that these concerns are wacky and foolish, but we are not at liberty to decide these are concerns that are out of bounds. 

To take a more extreme example. I do not agree with pro-life advocates who protest at clinics and their behaviors or claims should be met by others who disagree. But I also recognize they have firm convictions on which they think their claims rest and for which they are willing to do a great manner of sometimes ridiculous things. There are all manner of arenas in life for which other people have decided "this thing really matters to me". So we have arguments over children and child-rearing. We have arguments over cooking or ethical farming. Over trade, over taxes, over carbon emissions, and on and on. Some of these arguments are based upon incomplete or ineffective reasoning and data, or made out of understandable but misplaced fears. Some are based upon quite reasonable fears but out of ideological malice toward specific outcomes. The point is not that all of these arguments possess a truth making them of equal merit for our speculation and attention. The point is that we don't really get to declare that they are of no merit to anyone at all. We don't care about it and are not persuaded by others that we should, and maybe we can offer up what might convince us that we should at worst to occupy time and attention instead of some other thing, or what might convince us ourselves not to concern ourselves overly with that other thing. For a secularist in a society of religious persons and the influence of religion still being quite expansive upon laws and what things are determined by laws, these are questions that should concern us I would think from a strategic perspective. Is it really worth spending that much time trying to get Christians to stop putting up a display at Christmas (despite the obvious legal and moral implications of the state doing so if it goes up at a public building, where this issue is concentrated), maybe, maybe not is a big deal. It seems more pertinent that we have a justice system built upon concepts of retribution rather than rehabilitation and is thus overly punitive (even by the assessment of its people), or a set of laws that punish consensual behaviors (vice laws), but perhaps those are not actually projects that should concern a secular people to amend. I would argue most secularists and indeed most members of a civil society should be concerned with those things, but this isn't surprising. Those are things I care quite a lot about already. 

It is the effects of having a large quantity of Christians in a society practicing their perspective of what Christian ideas and dogma are that concern me more than the insidious ways that they attempt to legitimize a position of state recognition. If their religious beliefs were not harmful in the impact on public policy, I wouldn't care very much if they try to promote them. As such I care more about what precisely they are trying to promote than that they are promoting it or attempting to. As with most things, I am concerned much more with what the effects of the story are than that there was a story being told. If a thing doesn't work, the utilitarian calculus I feel that public policy demands us to make when assessing these various goals and interests in governing how society is run and by what rules it abides suggests we throw it out and find something that does. In observing the behavior of many, but by no means most or all, atheists and secularists, I find myself often concerned that these are often a people not very concerned with what actually results from not being too concerned with the story that attempting to do something projects, a valid concern for political questions when trying to convince disinterested parties to get involved also, and also not being too concerned with whether attempting to do something actually has the intended impact, a valid concern for political questions when trying to make a functional society. 

That to me leads to me to question what it is that other atheists and secularists are concerned about in the first place if they're apparently not concerned with outcomes and they're not concerned with process. 

What if we had a war and nobody came

Significant aspects of this piece I tend to agree with.

A draft is a terrible idea. Such a program has little or no predictive value for whether the public will oppose foolish misadventures abroad or not on top of the ethical problems of compelling military service out of a putatively free people. Pay troops more or just do more propaganda if we need to encourage enlistment; don't demand service by force. Note I would oppose some form of compulsory national service in a non-military capacity too, the military angle is not the most offensive aspect of such a project. If the process is intended to establish a common cause or to work toward large national projects then making them compulsory is not a way to achieve this versus more active choices, is not morally acceptable for a free people to practice, nor is it likely to provide the best avenues of national advancement and prosperity to create centrally controlled methods of inspiring common feeling. This is the main reason I find the Pledge of Allegiance objectionable. If you want people to do things for others because of nationality, make the nationality worth doing things for without demanding that people do so by force. At least provide positive incentives, not just the sticks.

A more general involvement and interest in IR overall by the part of the public would be useful, but is not likely when the foe is amorphous sub-state actors like ISIS or al-Qaeda rather than "Russia" or "Nazis/Japanese". We keep publicly referring to a war "in Afghanistan" rather than a war "against Afghanistan/Taliban forces". I think that is revealing as to the nature of the conflict and the difficulty the public has in understanding it or the issues involved. It is as though we are playing a contest in a stadium but don't announce who we are opposed by, or what we're fighting for, what we win if we prevail, what is at stake as a basis for engagement or lack of engagement, and so on. This is all likely quite deliberate that no one can tell what we're doing and no one wants to talk about what we are doing or how.

The simpler explanation for why the public is broadly opposed to continued operations of these types is also in there: bin Laden's dead. We put a face up on the board as "the enemy" and that guy is gone now. That news when it occurred was immensely satisfying to many Americans (and Westerners of many other stripes) and was quickly glorified in film and documentaries by the invested parties in that operation to try to cover up the variety of failures, both strategic and moral, that led to that one momentary success many years later. And of course the wars and the massive systems of surveillance and state power ground on anyway. Indeed, it was barely even questioned that they would at the time persist on and on. Fighting every other battle in this that we threw up by trying to get him, or by taking unnecessary detours, doesn't interest the public because we didn't think the goal was to quell every spot of bad news on the planet but to get the guy who attacked us. It would help if more people had read the AUMF or we had called it a declaration of war, which it was. But nevertheless the public I suspect understood this as a more simple conflict because it does not have the time or patience to understand nation-building projects as a proper use for military forces (we, the public, barely support our foreign aid budgets as it is, given that it is typically a grossly inflated feature of the government's duties and a highly favored budget cut as a result).

The one part I would strongly disagree with is this: "But if we accept the premise that there’s no definition of winning, then there’s no definition of losing, either, and we forfeit the right to use either word. You can’t “lose” a race that has no finish line." - This is ludicrous logic. There are such things as no win scenarios for one. We could argue there was a definition of "winning"; kill certain people and come home by declaring victory. Most egregiously though, a war which involves massive destruction, chaos, and expense in blood and treasure ALWAYS has losers to it, even if nobody wins. This glib presumption is offensive on its face to the cost in lives and devastation to the foreign lands that we invaded and operated in, and to the cost of lives and injuries to our own troops and civilians who were dispatched to conduct those wars. These are losses in a strategic or geopolitical sense. The analogy is not even to a race. It is more like thinking you are running a race when the other person is playing hide and seek and not even understanding that the game and its rules are not what was thought, and that this is common place as a failure where a clear military or strategic objective is not laid out in advance and the methods of achieving it are vague and uncertain. It is hardly surprising that we should lose if we don't even know what game we are playing when we agreed to the game.

Committing troops and equipment and "credibility" to battle risks much, and should have a clear goal in mind when doing so for which effort may be focused. The effective conquest and unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan (and Italy) during WW2 is very clear. The annihilation of Hussein's forces in Kuwait and the restoration of Kuwaiti sovereignty is very clear. Even clarity of purpose is not necessarily a basis for deployment of military force, but it helps establish a point by which those forces can work toward and help achieve. The similarity of both Vietnam and Afghanistan (and of course Iraq) is that it lacks this clarity of goals in the defeat of particularized enemies, or that the clarity of goal has long since been achieved and its place more amorphous and insubstantial goals stand in to perpetuate a fight that serves little purpose and stands a limited chance of success or stands to do little to improve both the lived experiences of the people living in these countries or the safety and prosperity and security of our own.

20 February 2015

2015 NCAA rankings

1) Kentucky 18-0

2) Wisconsin 14-1-1
3) Virginia 15-1
4) Arizona 11-2-1
5) Gonzaga 10-1
6) Utah 8-4
7) Duke 16-3
8) Villanova 15-2

9) Oklahoma 10-8
10) Kansas 15-5

11) Ohio St 7-7
12) North Carolina 10-8
13) Louisville 9-6
13) Iowa St 12-5-1
15) Wichita St 5-3
16) Baylor 11-7

17) Notre Dame 12-4
18) N. Iowa 7-1-1
19) Texas 6-9
20) Michigan St 7-6-2
21) Butler 10-7
22) Georgetown 10-8
23) Xavier 11-7-3

24) Arkansas 10-5
24) West Virginia 8-6
26) San Diego St 6-5-1

Ranked Teams
35) Maryland 10-5
29) SMU 5-5
27) VCU 10-5-1

All records are top 100 opponents only (losses against sub 100 teams are the third number if any). I don't count games outside the top 100 mostly because such teams very rarely win and very rarely play many NCAA tournament games. Florida Gulf Coast won two a couple of years ago, but they were also barely outside the top 100. Such teams are typically 14-16 seeds, so wins are rare.

These rankings aren't a reflection of how good I think each team is, as many have pretty mediocre records or have played very poorly in road games that I wouldn't be confident in their performance.

Kentucky's comfortably above the next tier of teams. I think they should be undefeated going into the NCAA tournament. They're statistically looking like the best team in the last 15 years or so. The closest would be Kansas' national title team (that beat Memphis), and Louisville a couple years ago (also a champion). The "second tier" teams are actually looking a little better than the usual suspects also, but Kentucky looks just that much better. The main key is they have the best defense over that span. Their offense is solid, but not as dominating.

The only "surprise" team in the top 16, (teams that get a favorable early round location usually) would probably be Ohio State (instead of Maryland). They've played really poorly on the road so I would not anticipate them staying up there.

Weakest Teams on the "Bubble"
45) Miami 6-8-1
48) Texas AM 6-7
49) Cincinnati 6-6-3
52) UCLA 5-8-355) Boise St 6-3-4
57) Colorado St 5-2-3
58) Temple 6-6-2
NR) Oregon
NR) Tulsa
I don't track teams that are in the 75-100 range unless they are likely to win a low quality conference, so assume Oregon and Tulsa are roughly ranked 80th.

Best Teams out
30) BYU 3-8 (needs more wins)
34) Florida 2-11-2 (way too many losses)
39) Davidson 5-4-2

Syracuse is ineligible and comes in at 46 (they would barely make it)

So far I'm not sure there's a team that is likely to be screwed by not getting a bid. BYU has a case there, but needs to start winning meaningful games.

Best small conference teams
56) Stephen F Austin
59) Valparaiso
60) Green Bay (same conference as Valpo)
78) Murray St.

There aren't any minor powers that will deserve an at-large bid if they lose a conference tournament right now.

14 February 2015

"Quick" hits

1) There was an atheist who killed some Muslims in North Carolina, for what appears to have been a parking dispute. For some reason this became a widely circulated presentation that atheists a) want to kill people or b) want to kill Muslims in particular. I think it may be prudent to investigate other possible motives, but unfortunately human beings often kill one another or seek violent means of resolution over pretty ordinary things. Or at least we often quarrel over very silly things. We may be more prone to do so with violence where the offending parties are "other" in some manner (race, religion, type of music listened to, accent, etc). But I'm not sure this rises to a level of hate crime so much as a general animus that all of us tend to have for people we're not familiar with, and who are engaged with us in something moderately annoying. Muslims are not generally familiar to ordinary Americans. I've pointed this out in various forms, but basically our association is "Middle Eastern, terrorists, oil, hates women, women wear funny clothes", and almost none of those describes the ordinary Muslim on the planet, particularly in the US. More to the point, if we are to pick out 30 American residents at random, the likelihood that even one of them will be a Muslim is small. So most of us know almost nothing anyway. Not enough even that we can form animus toward individuals that we come to interact with on a semi-daily basis. Probably enough that we as a society can form animus toward unknowns.

There are other problems with how this story has circulated. For instance, it follows the usual protocol of "minority group must disavow any knowledge". I, like most people in minority groups, don't presume to have an ideological association that says "it's okay to kill people from some other group for no good apparent reason". Which then makes it pretty strange that most of us should have to disavow anything at all whenever a story like this appears; atheists, Muslims, Catholics, whatever. I rarely make the association that it was this aspect of their character that provided a violent nature. Sometimes it does, but often there are any number of other beliefs and mental schema that could be blamed besides the racial or religious overtones. It reminds me of the shell games that are played over Hitler's religious affiliations and affectations as though this was an essential element of his genocidal plans. People who share passing characteristics are constantly being called upon to deny that they share other characteristics, particularly whenever something bad happens by someone who shares those characteristics and particularly when these characteristics are somewhat rare and therefore unknown. Something that should perhaps be concluded by human beings is that other people are more complicated than the one or two things we know about them to infer reasonably almost anything else about them, much less to do so to dismiss them or remove them from any discourse as we often do. This also applies to the "he is crazy" mantra that describes "deranged lunatics" as a one-off rather than someone who was in any way representative of a belief structure. This also is dismissive. We usually have no evidence suggesting this to be the case other than that several people are now dead. One can assume this is from some variety of mental imbalance, but it's not actually a very safe assumption. People are frequently killed in domestic or friendly disputes that do not require the perpetrator to be a deeply demented and psychopathic character. They usually just require anger and a weapon close at hand, possibly a substance of mind-altering capacity at worst (alcohol most commonly). There can be sometimes detailed evidence of a bizarre or warped psychology provided and there are undoubtedly many Americans who think merely being an atheist is evidence of such, but this is not a given whenever someone kills or plots to kill other human beings.

Second problem: Obama is asked to comment on it, principally by other world leaders. To the extent there may be any civil rights related issue; that it is in any way some variety of "hate crime", fine. That's something the President can comment on and has on occasion given issues like possibly racially motivated police shooting or killing other citizens. That's a clear governmental issue since the problem, whether one agrees with it or not, is agents of the government are in situations that result in the deaths of citizens they are intended to serve and protect and this should be regarded as a failure of government whenever it happens. Even if the shooting was "justified". But there are, apparently unlike in other countries, thousands of murders and other violent crimes in the US every year. Asking and demanding the President take time to comment on all of them seems trivial and stupid versus asking and demanding the President take time to try to implement or push for a societal change that improves safety and security for many more people. Obama's remarks seem mostly framed in the former paragraph design. Which to the extent he should have any remarks at all, would be the only reason to have commented. Except we haven't established there need be any reason to comment yet. Ordinary murders happen all the time.

2) Freakonomics did a podcast on an upcoming anti-terrorism summit. I found several obvious flaws in the comments that were made by the various players they sought comment from.

Levitt makes a case that economists are probably going to be pretty good at thinking up incentives and ways that terrorists could attack in a more "scary" or damaging way to devastate the opposing society. Unlike Levitt, I actually think that makes them more suited to appear at a summit to make up part of a "red team" style approach to thinking through the problems and how we could better prepare as a society. They're more apt to look for vulnerabilities that are overlooked. It also means that they may be better suited to identify the incentives for terrorist cells based on what their financial backers seem to think works as well. For instance, other countries have had several armed gunmen running around causing mayhem at hotels or media establishments as a terrorist attack. This has happened in the US too, but it's typically an ordinary crime by some "random lunatic" rather than some foreign backed attack. Or as we might otherwise call it: "a Saturday night". One reason that say, the DC sniper isn't being replicated at shopping malls or hotels in the US is that these backers and planners may worry about the crime being too ordinary, or be concerned about the notion that there may be some idiot packing a 45 who would stop the whole thing, or whatever. The return on investment is too risky and too low versus bombings or other relatively cheap styles of attack (but not as cheap as arming several people with guns). So they keep trying to hijack or bomb airplanes or something like that instead.

Some of those vulnerabilities are being described as "terrorism" probably more because they may be under-proportioned resource wise by government or society in general, but not because we are at any grave risk of a terrorist actually doing something to us in that way. Bio-terrorism for instance is much more likely to pose a problem as a pandemic or from anti-vaccination pockets or from overuse of antibiotics causing resistant strains and not from biologically engineered viral or bacterial cells by terrorists. Similarly "cyber-terrorism" isn't actually likely from some terrorist cell, but from ordinary hackers taking out identity and credit card information from unsecured points in the business architecture. Neither of these is likely to be part of some ideological attempt to destroy America or meddle with our IR incentives and projects where it appears as a problem in society. But because planting "terrorism" in it makes it sound more important right now, they get tossed in the same boat.

I would tend to agree that terrorism isn't a very likely threat to daily life anywhere in America. It may be somewhat more likely in DC or NYC, but that still doesn't make it a significant concern. I've seen a number of articles complaining about say, 50 Shades of Grey as a major social problem. I'm not inclined to say it is a significant problem either, but if someone is hyperbolically comparing it to ISIS (and some people have), from an American perspective, I don't know that this is actually a significant difference in actual danger and harm being posed. Mis-representing BDSM or generally kinky sex, roleplaying, and the communications and trust involved in these is probably doing a little harm at least for those people who are consuming this as media. ISIS is only doing damage to Americans to the extent that we are still engaging them directly in Iraq and Syria rather than leaving it to regional players like Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Turkey to work out how to respond and that our engagement internationally in direct physical combat has costs.

09 February 2015

Presumed free

I do not generally subscribe to a natural rights theory of humanity, but the "presumption of liberty" is still a sufficient guideline for most of the examples given that policing powers should be restricted to areas of significant importance because of the actual damage they could maintain. Basic health, safety, fraud, and environmental regulations all can fall into these categories, and likewise we should avoid regulations and laws providing power to governments in areas that are effectively arbitrary, narrowly beneficial/prejudicial (rent seeking or targets of oppression), or, and this is a big objection for me usually, ineffective at achieving the presumed ends.

All of that generally means that if governments want to pass some rule, at any level of governance, it needs to pass two basic tests for me to find it beneficial to have a rule rather than the absence.

1) What goal is this law seeking to achieve, and is that goal a necessary end of the state to police (or can it be done in some other way)? In some cases, I will part from ordinary libertarians on questions of social welfare or social justice because I am not persuaded there are good options available in the society at large for resolving these questions and a large free rider or externality problem. In many cases of legal questions, this differs from the ordinary interpretation (by liberals and conservatives) to say that the idea that we need a law to do X is possibly an illegitimate aim for the state to impose controls over. My guiding assumption is to say that if there isn't a rule saying the government can't do it that isn't a license to say governments can or should do it, and that it needs a very good reason to intercede. This used to be a fairly uncontroversial assumption for how the American government operated from what I could tell that if it wanted to do something limiting individual rights severely, it needed a constitutional amendment (eg, the 18th). Indeed, it seems to have been a basis for passing the 14th amendment in the first place as a fairly radical amendment limiting the scope of government to the protection and guarantee of existing rights such as the freedom of conscience or speech or the protection against unreasonable searches by government agents, and the enforcement of generally applicable laws (eg, murder, theft, fraud, rape, etc). This is no longer the dominant theory governing American politics and the power of the 14th amendment is often much more limited in restraining political (and commercial) authority from doing unreasonable things.

2) Does the proposed rule/law have a good mechanic for achieving that goal? This is typically a big problem. I often see very little evidence that a proposed law will work, or may even be counterproductive, or that it has even much to do with achieving a purported goal and is instead about something else (such as rent seeking behavior in public choice theory).

The danger of Barnett's theory is that courts do not always subscribe to a protection of liberty in the first place and that courts have often expanded radically the scope of government operations to allow things that not only libertarians but many others may find to be illegitimate, ineffective, or inappropriate operations of government. Courts do not have to abide by a limited interpretation of governmental power (at any level) or can choose to defer to legislatures or executives in both the intended premise and the intended execution of a law.

07 February 2015

A series of things that are pissing me off

Or at least mildly annoying.

1) Bad metaphors. I have decided that someone should step forward and police the use of terms that have nothing to do with the metaphorical analogies being made. "Double-edged sword" is a term deployed for something that has two dangerous sides to it in its origins. For reasons unknown to me, someone decided it should refer to something that has one good side and one dangerous side, as if it were a sword that cut someone on one side and healed them on the other. This is idiotic. It must stop.

2) Misuse of philosophical terms. "Slippery slope" tends to refer to a set of arguments that are related to one another in some clear but abstract way, and which are clearly a progression of worsening objects. In most cases, this is not however much of a slope that it is being used to describe. Rather, it tends to describe circumstances that aren't clearly related logically (one thing may be worse, but has nothing to do with the other objects), or aren't related in a "sloped" fashion, where one thing isn't clearly worse, but is related. This argument is deployed to say something different; that the person involved thinks or believes that a path is being opened and set upon by the society or group that ultimately leads to something they don't like, but more commonly because the first object on that set is already objectionable to the person involved (eg, gay marriage leading to polygamy if one is a social conservative or various forms of surveillance leading to tyrannical dictatorships if one is a civil libertarian). But. If the first object is objectionable on its own merits, it shouldn't need additional help in dissuading doing it, and if those other things are more objectionable the argument becomes that they are things we should avoid instead, which may be easier and has the effect of doing nothing about the thing one is possibly objecting to.

3) Poorly defined and broadly used terms put forward as talismans in discussions as a statement of one's position rather than a statement of one's position. "Conservative/liberal/socialist/capitalist" "Free speech" "God" "Spirituality" and so on. These are effectively meaningless statements of one's position that one can infer very little. "Free speech" has been taken to mean things other than the political philosophical term of "government does not police speech, until or unless it incites immediate action" in the manner of "I am for free speech but..." with anything from hate speech, blasphemy, micro-aggressions, "swear words", or just plain old "things I don't like to hear" thrown in there as things that should be policed and prevented by the state and its agencies. Rather than things that are maybe annoying particular people and should be responded to with speech (or ignored). It's also been taken to mean not just things that aren't policed by government but also things that other people said about what I said I did not like and said as much in some fashion ("they called me a racist/bigot/homophobe"). If people go through the exercise of defining what they mean by a term, they should gain a better understanding of what that term means to them, and that it doesn't mean that to other people.

06 February 2015

A frustration

One of the central dynamics involved in studying economics as it relates to human behavior is that human beings will respond to incentives. And one of the frustrating aspects of political decisions as they relate to economics is that these decisions to implement policy rarely take these into account when they are formed and enacted. Almost nowhere does this appear more evident than the politics surrounding environmentalism.

A variety of problems occur which should be evident and obvious. A law or regulation is passed which mandates higher energy efficiency standards or fuel economy. The result is that people use more energy or drive more. People will often have in mind a relative fixed budget for energy expenses and when they are below it, it is possible that they will seek to consume the rest of that budget than to seek to save it. Or they may also think that their more efficient vehicle or appliances entitles them to use these devices more often because they will be doing so more effectively than their neighbours. While this may be perfectly reasonable from an individual experience, it has rather unpleasant ramifications if it applied at a social level. Wherein it allows us to claim victories on environmental policies without having actually achieved them. This is not unusual where a policy is passed with the explicit claims of victory over some vast social ill, and then very little is done to assure that indeed that policy did achieve those aims. But since environmental policies and responses relating to climate change could have rather more significant consequences than say, abortion policy, we may want to be sure we are getting something useful for our buck and make sure we are getting something at all.

Suppose we mandate that fuel efficiency standards are high. Many people buy more efficient cars as they need a new vehicle. In theory this should reduce energy consumption. In practice, people then drive them more often (on average). This increases traffic and congestion costs for everyone, including the people who have less efficient vehicles. Traffic and congestion are clear costs to productivity and time, but these costs are not paid by the people imposing them. If you are in a traffic jam, you are part of the problem, but it does not seem obvious that this is true because there are hundreds of others also involved in being part of the problem. None of these people will have good incentives to seek to reduce these costs because they can point to all of those people instead. An economic solution would be to impose congestion-adjusted tolls on controlled access roads (highways), which would assure that when there is high volumes of traffic, the costs will be paid by those accessing the road and it may deter people from driving when they otherwise would. This idea is of course unpopular. Or it could instead be the idea to reduce the incentives for housing to be located away from denser urban areas such that fewer people must commute by car and can commute instead by buses or trains (or even walk to work). Again, this is unpopular.

There are a couple of obvious possible reactions to this. 1) The ideas of economists must not very good solutions; otherwise they would be more popular. 2) The reason they are not popular is they are not pushed forward by other elites (scientists or politicians say), and the rather simple story as to why they are more effective than mandating somebody else pay the cost also provides a clear incentive to individual people (use less energy by driving around less, or at different times, and you will pay less). Economic solutions tend not to get very much airplay and explanation for the general public to discuss and digest them, and this is in part because where environmental policies are concerned, economic solutions require individual people, both as businesses and households, to pay something rather than expecting someone else to do all the heavy lifting. Regardless of who does the lifting however, or even if nobody does any lifting, individual people are paying the costs. Be it in the form of increasingly unpleasant weather conditions or traffic congestion or in not recouping long-term investment costs for energy efficient adjustments to a home or property.

Another example. Suppose we encourage individual people through social coercion or some tax incentive to place solar paneling on their homes as part of a way to avoid using carbon based energy to power their homes (not coal or natural gas). What inevitably happens is that many people respond to that social coercion as the incentive rather than the underlying environmentalist demand that created it. That is: they may ostentatiously display these panels by putting them on the side of the home facing a street to show everyone they did it (and yay for me!). And not placing them on the most beneficial side of the home facing the sun during the core part of the day. This also means that a variety of energy efficient modifications that are not visible, but which may have much higher returns than using current solar technology in most parts of the country, are not used. Such as by well-insulating the property or using a variety of heating and cooling design setups and materials when the home is renovated or constructed. Very rarely is this allowing people to obviously demonstrate their environmentalist concerns in a way that a solar panel does, despite the fact that it may have much better benefits for the environment. If we want a coercive social demand or incentive to work, it should target the actual interest that we want to coerce people into doing and do so fairly directly. A carbon tax does this pretty easily as it directly discourages the consumption of energy produced by burning carbon-based fuels. People might then seek to ameliorate this cost, while still consuming a comfortable energy demand for their homes, by placing solar panels up effectively or by adjusting the design of properties under construction or just by properly insulating a building.

Consider a final point about incentives. One thing that is not often taken into consideration is the demand to do something. If there are not restrictions preventing a project (a business or set of homes) from being built anywhere, they will be built somewhere. It would seem logical for environmental policy that we want these projects and homes built in places where it is efficient for people to live in; that is where the climate is relatively stable and reasonably warm, where there is access to sufficient supplies of clean fresh water, and so on. So, we would prefer that most people probably live in portions of the Midwest or along coastal areas and rivers than in the American Southwest (West Texas, Nevada, Arizona, etc) which is hot and dry, and that we accordingly can place projects to encourage people to live and work in those areas. But if we have rules and regulations that only account for the potential environmental damage of a project going into one place, and not where it will be built instead if it is diverted away from that place, we are failing to account for the potential damage and may end up needlessly restricting construction in one way rather than another. A fairly recent example of this is the Keystone XL pipeline. There are potentially very good economic reasons to object to it, and some philosophical arguments relating to property rights and so on that may be quite good at providing objections. But there aren't actually very great environmental reasons not to simply because it seems clear that human beings (or at least Canadians) are intent on supplying and refining the oil from tar sands projects and a pipeline represents a safer and cleaner alternative to transportation of the materials involved than trains or trucks. The actual source of the damage is not the pipeline itself. It's the continued use of oil as a fuel. If we wish to stop that, then the basis point would be to discourage the use of oil as a fuel (through carbon taxes or higher gasoline taxes at least) or provide better alternatives (cleaner fuels).