28 July 2015

Vox populi

Mostly didn't hear very good answers. I see a couple points of agreement (carbon tax is simpler and better than cap and trade, but difficult to implement, GBI was good but he seems to be talking in multiple directions on that point that don't have much to do with basic income provisions that it's not focused enough to make sense to someone what that would involve).

He worries me on two points if I'm to define these, from what came up in the interview (there's a third point that I've been hammering on that didn't even come up, which I'm not sure if that's Sanders problem or Klein's or both).

1) IR. When he says "we are all realists", this to me says he doesn't know enough or care enough about the topic to discuss it seriously or rigorously. Realism is a specific IR school of thought*.  That's why Klein asked about it. If I'm voting for Presidential candidates, my number one concern is foreign policy and what sort of crazy and potentially damaging things this person might want to do or at least what kinds of basis they might have for doing something crazy. If they have little or no grounding for their positions on this, then they're likelier to give over control of the IR state to the existing interventionist bipartisan consensus (this is sort of what happened to Obama as his IR diagnosis seemed limited to "Iraq was bad", which was true, but wasn't a total critique of our current models of interventions by military force or a plan to use diplomatic efforts to get what you want done instead, etc). His answer does not give me some idea what his basis for interventions or warfare actually is, or what sorts of diplomatic engagement he would prefer, and his lack of seriousness with the question suggests he doesn't have one. Sanders doesn't strike me as crazy as most of the GOP candidates, but the fact that he doesn't seem to care much about IR bothers me.

This is by far the most power a President possesses under our current legal frame. Most of a President's domestic agenda relies on Congress, or even state and city governments, to get something done, while Congress has effectively abdicated its war powers in most respects. Sanders will have fairly limited, if any, power to enact most of what he suggests he wants to do as an overall agenda. Except on this question. And I don't have some idea what he thinks we should do here. That's not helpful.

*The initial reason I picked Sun Tzu as a nom de plume is my affinity for that school and its decline in American IR over the last 50 years or so I saw as a substantial problem causing us considerable dismay in reckless militarism and interventions without a clear and convincing strategic goal, with predictable results in disastrous and ineffectual wars and national security policies that resemble theater rather than structured responses to real (or imagined) problems. That Sanders dismissed it so casually I see as further evidence of this trend and a knock against him. He can dismiss it in the normative terms it has come to be used in public (for people who are generally neoconservatives) but the academic tree at its roots is still around and easily accessible and someone like Klein isn't asking about it in this way for his health. Klein's a smart cookie and could have pushed back against that kind of flippant response more than "I don't think they are".

2) It seems more important to demagogue the rich in his rhetoric than to describe policies that would deal with inequality or help the poor. That he brings up the boogeyman of the Kochs rather quickly was amusing but not enlightening. He doesn't seem to have any idea what policies the Koch's even support on immigration, and would rather describe more open borders policies as though they are a Koch brothers position as if this is a bad thing in and of itself. Paying people from Sub-Saharan Africa even this meager 2-3 dollars per hour he describes would be a massive boon to their economic welfare and probably more effective than sending millions of dollars of foreign aid. I'm not sure I see the same downside he does there and there are ways around this as a policy problem if it is one, such as guaranteed basic incomes. Nevertheless, I'm not sure I've seen the Kochs endorse an open borders policy in the first place or that it is a "right wing" position even if they had. Libertarians are pretty scattered on immigration but right-wingers are not in favor of it, even legal immigration. Bernie's position of having a pretty restrictive immigration system is probably more in line with "right-wingers" than he thinks it is based on this. "Getting jobs for people" isn't really a government policy for the most part. So I'm more than a little confused by this line of rhetoric.

Sometimes the rich deserve some scorn, but I'm rather less happy about someone who doesn't seem to have another note to play than someone who points out something more difficult to describe than "rich people are evil". Describing the Nordic/Western European welfare states as an ideal is all well and good as they have some interesting policies. But it leaves out that most of those countries possess a strong market ethos (people can start businesses pretty easily for example, easier than here, and school choice has been reasonably popular in Sweden or the UK). Denmark is routinely rated as "more free" economically than the United States despite having a large welfare state even by the pro-market groups that do such ratings. Most of the others are not far behind. More to the point, most of these countries have scaled back or reformed some elements of their welfare state over the last couple of decades. Suggesting that the sustainability of these as policies is dependent on the public's willingness to pay for them in some respect. Most European states actually have less progressive systems of taxation than the US wherein the middle class actually pays quite a lot. This is tolerated because they receive quite a bit back in the form of services offered or benefits (such as generous paid family leave policies). It's possible that is a bargain Americans are willing to make, but it is not clear that anyone offers it. Few people mention that Medicare currently pays out about 3 dollars to every one it takes in so the public believes it is getting what it paid for rather than getting what someone else has paid for. In Europe, the model is probably closer to cost-benefit where many people are getting what they themselves have paid for.

There are also demographic reasons why such states have supported these policies. Other than Germany they're all pretty small. In most cases they have fewer people living there than live in the Chicago metropolitan area. Netherlands is the only country that might fall out of this category. Iceland has fewer people than the area I live in. This means that normative behavior is generally easier to enforce and scale into policy than it can be for a country of 300 million (plus). Most of the European countries have a fairly homogeneous population ethnically as well. It does not seem to be a big deal for people to give assistance and aid to other people who they assume are very much like them for physical and cultural reasons. When it comes to giving aid and assistance to other people who are, in appearance or customs, not like them, most people say "not so much", even these supposedly enlightened Europeans. This is a difficult impediment for getting Americans to go along with a more robust welfare state. Indeed, I'm fairly sure it's a basis point for the ill-fated "drug test people on welfare" idea I discussed the other day. Americans would rather make welfare harder to access based on this logic rather than increase its stability or simplify the processes of providing assistance to the poor because it is perceived, by a substantial majority of people, as giving money to undeserving "others". This is not a casual problem that can be dismissed and the policies implemented anyway over these objections. The racism implied in it is quite real.

European democratic socialists also often possess different political systems (again, Germany might be an exception), where the central governments are often not as limited by jurisprudence and Constitutional law. So ultimately what this doesn't tell me is pretty vast. It doesn't tell me how such policies would be implemented here, rather than how they are used over there, who would carry them out (at what level of governance), and which ideas are or are not good from markets. His response to this question "What is the underlying principle there? What are the situations where you look at a given area of the economy and say, "That's something we should turn over to the market," or, 'That's something we should possibly federalize'?" wasn't helpful as he didn't offer some softball things that could be turned over to markets (because the model countries he likes did so). All he did was point to things on the other end of the lever which I'm not all that fond of. This doesn't offer a model for what he thinks markets are good for, just what he thinks they are ill-disposed for. I'm not necessarily opposed to these ideas, for example I think a universal health care system would have been better than what we have or what the ACA provided. I'm not just not sure I follow why these are big deals or why they would have to be implemented in the way he seems to be describing and how they would help us fight inequality as a social ill. Health care alone as a universal system has a number of options ranging from the UK to Switzerland to Singapore. It doesn't have to be just the one way he seems to prefer.

I'm really not clear on how or why "free college" is a good and necessary reform. College educations still generally pay for themselves, and are generally pursued by people who are coming from relatively well-off socioeconomic status already. While the cost and debt load has risen (the cost in particular), the benefit in post-graduated income and access to the job market readily pays it off such that it's basically like having a really expensive car loan that you can pay off in the time it takes to pay off a house, with income that generally does so. The skill sets are pretty specific and specialised in most cases, which feeds further into a career path that benefits the person paying for it. This means that most of the benefit accrues privately, whereas a K-12 education is intended to provide both a basis for people to jump off to go to college and a set of basic skill sets that everyone benefits from by having a moderately educated population (or workforce). The debt involved is more like individual capital investment (that usually pays off). There are ways we could alleviate this debt load or provide alternative methods of paying it off well before "everyone can go for free" that would resolve this as an economic problem and free up college educated persons to make alternative career decisions to improve economic mobility further. In any case making it "free" doesn't do anything about the basic reasons American colleges have risen in the tuition costs on its own, just as Medicare did not do much about the cost of health care, meaning it potentially adds a substantial cost to the taxpayer without a clear social benefit that accrues to the taxpayers. It looks more like rent seeking behavior to pander to the recent college graduate class (younger and mostly white voters) than a sensible economic proposal as a result. I'm not seeing this as a major social reform that is needed.

Despite college being "free", Germans still graduate fewer people from college than the US does. Suggesting they're doing something else instead to provide for the economic welfare of people than sending more people to college, as "free college" should have to imply to be a good policy (otherwise it is just a handout to relatively well off and well educated people). What seems a better question of higher priority is why our K-12 education doesn't pay for itself anymore as that's where the college pay gap has emerged. "College" pay hasn't risen so much as graduating high school has collapsed as being economically viable on its own. Or perhaps look at what the Germans do that provides for people who don't get into college (eg, better use of apprenticeships, fewer occupational license laws, somewhat more unionization, etc). Another better question might be what we could do to raise the college graduation rates, or look at why or how students wash out, or what we could do to provide for people who must work while attending school to help pay for it with more generous loans or other social welfare changes that have less to do with college, or do things like expand access to accredited online resources or local community colleges that offer (only) basic courses such that students moving on to a four year program or degree can take these basic courses cheaply and then proceed on to these more rigorous demands that only a more specialized program supposedly could offer.

One of the basic questions of economics to me is "why are there people who are prosperous" as the natural state of human beings is scarcity and poverty. Sanders seems to have implicitly answered this question in a way that doesn't interest me very much. To me the answer to that question is not something like a zero sum game where the rich are taking something from everyone else. The model Sanders proposes is the system of economics for capitalist or market society, and which I admit does exist on some level in the US in the form of crony capitalism or rent seeking behavior, is not a model for sustained prosperity (the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and the ongoing struggles in Russia or Greece should demonstrate a reason why, and if you think the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia were about something other than poverty and economic structures of cronyism enriching the few, I'm here to tell you are completely wrong). I think it is possible there are kernels of what Sanders says on these questions that move toward an idea that is not zero sum and is a way that the perceived imbalances of worker and corporation can be redressed in the political sphere if not the economic one, but most of the policies he seems to prefer are either not likely to be enacted or not likely to do much about it (indeed, I see the "free college" idea as suggestive of something moving away from this ideal he envisions rather than toward it). The basic problem of the "use government to solve the problem of markets behaving badly" is that it requires governments behave correctly too, and that it may be easy for governments to become co-opted by these nefarious forces they are intended to be policing. That doesn't mean it cannot be done, but it does suggest there is a rather substantial obstacle to dismantling and reforming the structures of power that Sanders believes are impediments to growth and prosperity, much less in the directions he proposes doing so. If something as a agenda is impractical and doesn't seem to be addressing the problems, I'm likely to be not interested and dismiss it as populist nonsense. As I generally have done with Sanders.

3) He barely touches on race or racism as a problem. Klein sort of asks about it, but mostly softballs it. This has been a major problem with his campaign is that the types of policies he talks the most about, for the most part, do not generally help poor minorities in the same way they might help lower middle class or working class whites. The needs of minorities in policy terms are more concrete and immediate, such as better relations with police, or because of this commonly poor relationship, access to job markets that are either which can more easily ignore (often unjust) criminal records. For instance occupational licensing often prevents people from obtaining a license and starting a business or just getting a job. This intersects poorly with the forms of unionization that Sanders tends to want to promote as it is often police unions and police union reps standing up loudly to thwart reforms in the criminal justice system or opposing and reversing penalties for bad apple cops who have done egregious things to people in the communities they work in (it is also often the largely white governing bodies of cities that oppose criminal justice reforms, but not every city or jurisdiction is controlled by majority white governments, and there are emerging trends for reform supported on certain issues regardless, like mandatory minimums or winding down portions of the drug war). Or it is unions that have helped enacted occupational licensing laws in the first place, to obstruct competition or to collude with businesses that provide themselves (but not others) employment. The idea that unions are inherently good market actors that do not rent seek at the expense of the public or even that they are good social actors is not a necessary truth and includes a rather ugly racial history that I suspect some minority voters are not all that happy about still. His positions on immigration and trade likewise have struck too often at poor people in Malaysia or Mexico in a way that is not likely to appeal to minorities either, even if his intention was to complain about rich business owners supposedly exploiting cheap labor.

I suspect he has downplayed this as a problem too much because it interferes with the economic populism message he wants to run with instead. It would have been interesting if Klein had pointed at this harder to see how he would have responded.

25 July 2015

Not so quick hits

Hacking Ashley Madison

I'm not terribly sympathetic toward the people whose privacy is threatened here, but then legal cases and rights are typically bounded by cases that don't involve very sympathetic people. We shouldn't expect to be that sympathetic of other people's privacy when it is their privacy at stake rather than our own, but should work to be to a modest degree. The thing that seems less clear to me is why, if the beef is with the company/website, the hack intended to release the private information of possibly millions of customers (or former customers). Who would, by the logic of going after the site itself as some form of scam or immoral business (the motives are not entirely clear to me), be more like victims in this. It would seem to me that exposing that the site is not terrific at protecting identity theft or disclosure would be sufficient to discourage its use if that was the goal (to put it out of business). But this has already been done with other technical problems in the website's design. And yet it remains.

Which to me leads to some questions about the function of a website designed for people to have flings and affairs. Clearly there must be some amount of market for this, to at least look, or such a site wouldn't have sprang up. There have usually been gray markets of a sort designed to meet needs or desires of individuals that are not illegal (adultery is not illegal in the US), but which aren't exactly looked kindly upon for social reasons. People have been able to make private arrangements for affairs and sexual infidelities for centuries. This is not a new thing. The difference is the implied discretion of the internet overarching these arrangements or the easier manner with which the internet allows for arrangements (lowers transaction costs of searching for partners willing to indulge in an affair, etc).

But. This is the implied problem of such a site from a moral or social perspective: the idea is to do something in secret, without the consent of a monogamous partner (typically), for whom ordinarily someone has granted a great deal of trust, communication, and affection at some point. The purpose of discretion isn't so much to conceal that someone is a slimier character from others unknown, the usual character of the internet commerce, but from parties closely and intimately known. This is or should be troubling. It did not start with Ashley Madison, so blaming such a setup seems unlikely to produce much change in social conventions and intimate arrangements of human sexuality and expression. But the existence and sudden highlighting of such a convention, and the scope and scale with which it had expanded should indicate that some of these conversations and conventions of human sexuality are already being altered, or maybe have always been altered and simply weren't known to the degree by which they were.

I think in some sense, there was an unspoken degree by which marriage as an institution allowed for some amounts of infidelity, in secret, and without disclosing socially the amounts of people engaging in extramarital sex or relationships. What this variety of hack would disclose is that there are a fairly large number of people who are willing or desire to look for such activities. Since this seems to be the case anyway, I would propose these should be the social goals we should want to strive for.

1) Social disclosure is less important. It is not important to tell all of your friends and family you are having an affair. This kind of disclosure is not as essential to the underlying relationships or the social cache that is placed upon marriages. Our sexual histories or intentions thereof aren't usually objects we wish or need to be socially informed (to have others advise us on them) and socially disclosed (to make others aware of them).

2) Intimate disclosure, with any regular and typically monogamous or monogamous-desiring partner is vital. If people are going to be having or seeking to have affairs, they should communicate these desires to potential or current partners. It may be possible to head off some number of affairs by modifying or repairing (or ending) an existing relationship, by communicating and working through problems of say, sexual excitement and variety, or by simply being up front about this as a possible sexual interest that other people would be able to say they think they are okay with or not. One of the problems of consent discourse is that if a person is having multiple close emotional and sexual relationships this is not typically done openly with the consent of other partners. People probably don't need to communicate every one-night stand they do while dating. But they should communicate if they are having problems, or are jealous, or are otherwise troubled while married or engaged or in what are otherwise exclusive relationships where both partners are intent on remaining with this other person rather than seeking other partners at the same time.

3) All of that includes the other parties who should also be aware of what is going on as these other people will be human beings complete with their own emotional or physical interests and needs and not simply objects used for sexual gratification. There is some advantage in this setup through a website designed around the idea of helping people cheat on their spouse or other intimate partner in that the third party person can reasonably conclude they are with someone who is actually married, or who is actually engaged in extramarital sex or relations with them.

4) If some people are going to be in more open marriages, or other polyamorous arrangements, this is not in and of itself that troubling to me. It might be troubling to the parties involved that they attempt this and find it is not that easy to do (which it wouldn't be), or isn't as fun or satisfying as they expected it to be. There's probably some number of people who are willing to fantasize about a spouse being with another person, or themselves fantasizing about being with another person. Transferring this from the realm of sexual fantasies to a reality involves more messy human emotions and attachments (or detachments) than many people can deal with at one time. This is worth acknowledging. Indeed, it's one of the reasons I would suggest we move toward more open communication as many people in proceeding with an intent to have an affair may find that the consequences and any enjoyment of doing so are less desirable than they may have believed. They may find also it is perfectly enjoyable or fulfills some need or demand. But given that our ordinary monogamous sexual relationships are often hit or miss on our enjoyment, or complete with other varieties of work and management to maintain them, adding more such relationships may be too much for many people to handle adequately without risking damage to other partners that they hold in some esteem.

5) If you are in a relationship, or considering one, and the other party to it expresses interest in a more open or polyamorous arrangement, you can push back against this to reject it but persist in the relationship on a more monogamous framework, you can leave on the understanding that this other person is not someone whom you believe you could form or sustain a stable relationship, or you can go along with it and re-visit or place strict rules of communication and transparency. Simply providing some assent to this in theory is very different than approving of all its possible particulars. Just as consenting to any sexual act is not the same as consenting to have, say, anal sex as well, this is something that needs to be negotiated and examined throughout as a given consent rather than a blanket "sure, go ahead".

Drug testing welfare

I've written about this some before, but it's something I'd rather not have to, so this is one of these "I'll write something so I don't have to for a long time". This comes up periodically as different states or governments propose doing it. There are, unfortunately in my mind, broad bipartisan supports for this as an idea. Conservatives love the idea as it feeds into a notion of persistent poverty as caused by cultural artifacts of lazy stoned people. Meanwhile every state it has actually been tried it hasn't ensnared a lot of drugged up poor people to be kicked off of welfare, has been declared illegal (for reasons that will be examined in a moment), or just otherwise hasn't justified the intrusiveness and fiscal costs by materializing in substantial savings.

Here are the problems with it in theory and in practice

1) It includes an assumption of guilt before innocence, which offends our standard model of justice. People may object that this applies to random job drug testing as well. I would agree. I don't think that is a substantial moral objective in most professions that drug test presently either. For performance or safety reasons, I could conceive of a basis for drug testing. For most jobs that presently drug test randomly, I could not see this as a common problem however. Roughly a third of working people have to take such tests. These are themselves largely clustered in occupations that are lower working class (with a few exceptions), just as people who are on welfare might find as options instead of being on welfare.

2) It relies principally on a gross underestimate of how many people are on welfare programs (almost 40-50M, many of whom are children or otherwise not adults), who is on such programs, and how many poorer people use drugs regularly or addicts (and who are able to apply for social assistance programs), what restrictions already exist that are designed to delink drug use from welfare. Estimates made by people of the proportion of drug use among welfare recipients largely focus on observational evidence rather than rigorous study. It's very easy to see visible people who are not working strolling through a neighbourhood (not all of such people qualify for or are on welfare of course). It is not easy to see the many millions of people who are working (sometimes two jobs) and still qualify for many welfare programs. Because those people are at work.

In addition, there are constraints for housing assistance that are intended to prevent people who have drug convictions from getting it. This is at least punishing people who have been convicted of a criminal act (whether or not it should have been a criminal act is a different question), but it tends toward the notional penalties people are wishing to see applied here already in a more efficient and less intrusive manner. If the intention is to break drug use from welfare, the goal of a successful policy should be to do so as efficiently and unintrusively as possible.

3) It discards as appropriate other forms of tax assistance and subsidy that middle class and richer people receive. "My" money is fine but I don't want to give money to "those people" is what this sounds like as an argument. Medicare is effectively subsidized by poorer, younger, working people to pay for older, richer non-working people's health care. This looks very similar to welfare in some respects (taking money from other people to give to others who are "not contributing"), except the beneficiaries are seen as sympathetic. So few people complain. This also applies to housing subsidies in the form of mortgage interest deductions which largely favor banks, realtors, and wealthy people and inflate housing prices such that poorer people are priced out of some areas to try to live in.

From a moral and ethical standpoint, using taxes to be taking money from poorer people to give it to richer people should be seen as far more problematic than taking money from richer people and giving it to poorer people via taxation.

4) This also relies on a perception that poorer people are spending their money unwisely, on drugs and big screen TVs say, rather than on sensible things like education, food, clothing, and housing. On average, the average poorer person spends way more on food and housing as a percentage of their consumption habits than a middle class person. Something like 75% of spending is on basic needs, where this is much, much lower for someone of modest means, closer to 40-50%. And even lower for an upper middle class professional. They are not generally wastefully spending money in this way. There are other wasteful signaling problems in poorer communities, but this is not one of them. This basic sense of paternalism may have been useful if people were actually wasting money and not obtaining food and shelter as part of their basic needs. They are however getting precisely that.

5) Many of the complaints seem aimed more at the existence of the welfare state in the first place rather than the need to administer some form of tie-in to drug policy. There are many possible flaws in the existing programs that could be pointed out, or a preference for cash instead of transfer payments, or a general philosophical belief that safety nets could be provided in some other way besides taxation (this seems very unlikely, charities don't do that much that can be scaleable on a societal level). But this demand for a tie-in to drug consumption and addiction seems rather low on the rank of problems in any event. It is unlikely to substantially shrink the size of the welfare state, and would do so by adding new layers of bureaucracy and interference, growing the size of government. If the goal is to decrease the footprint of government, or reduce or abolish the welfare state, this is not the road to do so.

6) Other complaints, perhaps from more liberal perspectives, might be focusing on the efficiency of the program being in some way improved if people are more surely spending public money on food or housing instead of drugs. Or this in some way being an efficient way to curtail drug addiction and abuse/use of illegal narcotic substances. Neither seems likely to be true however. The cost of administering such programs to monitor and test drug use will in some way achieve some combination of the following: the state will be adding more bureaucracy and cost to existing welfare programs because not many people will be caught (this in part relies on some very flawed concepts of what constitutes "drug addiction" as well), some number of people will not be able to afford the additional upfront costs (even if they would be reimbursed) to apply for these programs and will not apply in the first place thus reducing the number of people who are aided by social welfare programs rather than increasing efficiency, some (additional) number of drug addicts or regular drug users would not apply for these programs and be further socially isolated and removed from possible sources of intervention or assistance beyond the legal system. Which the legal system is probably the least efficient means of dealing with the social problem of drug addiction of the available alternatives. None of this looks optimal as a way of improving either drug policy or the welfare state.

20 July 2015

"We only make peace with our enemies"

In the wake of the change in status in Cuba, the nuclear deal with Iran, and various political figures inveighing about China or Russia, I felt it might be useful to offer something like a primer on diplomatic relations.

1) "We only make peace with our enemies, that's why they call it making peace". - You generally don't have to ask your friends for stuff. They know you well enough to know what you might like, what you might need, and if they have it, sometimes they just give you something to keep you happy (in part in the expectation that you would do the same). But for people that you don't know, we usually have to give them money, or bargain or talk or otherwise arrange to get what we want. Over time, if you do this a lot, other people come to know and trust you and might offer things in a more casual way. The ideal position is to make them not hostile and friendly or receptive to your interests and agenda. There are many avenues to that point.

Rule: Diplomacy isn't as necessary with your allies and client states as a hegemonic power like the US. It is needed with your rivals or states you see as hostile to your interests and agenda.

2) By far the cheapest way to get what you want is to talk for it. Followed by bribing for it. Bombing people, as with beating people up, is not cheap and costless as it is often portrayed as "just another option". Lives are lost, people are angered and thrown into grief and despair, economies are mangled by all the destroyed infrastructure, homes are destroyed, placing thousands, if not millions, as potential refugees fleeing the violence rather than trying to rebuild. There are a lot of consequences. If you throw money into it and don't get what you wanted, all you have lost is money. Trade is also not the same as throwing money away. Even a trade deficit or outsourced labour is a potential avenue for diplomatic and human rights/economic advancement for both countries involved. If you throw talk at someone and get nothing useful in return all you have lost is time. Both time and money are valuable, but taking or losing lives is more expensive than both (it also costs both).

Rule here: Don't take lives or risk lives if you don't have to to get what you want.

3) If you talk and don't get what you want, try listening as well. Sometimes there is a deal there to be made if you pay attention to what the "other guy wants". There seems to be an assumption that asserting loudly what you want is the way to get it. I'm not aware of this working on an individual level usually. Maybe sometimes. It is not generally how international relations functions. Telling people off for not doing what you want tends to assure they won't do it. Maybe if they really want to avoid a war.

Basic rule: other countries have legitimate interests and needs for their country and populace to prosper. Being more aware of these may make it easier to achieve your own interests.

4) Belligerent talk is also ill-advised as it has to be backed up once in a while or you're just a loud-mouthed bully. It commits you to a course of action rather than retains it as a course of action. This also assumes that a war will gain you want you want. In the cases of Russia and China, both countries are nuclear armed. War could be very, very costly indeed.  In the case of Iran, it's very unclear if a war would gain us what we want (which seems to be a regime change in the case of hawks). I would say that it seems to me that the Green revolution was overblown as a source of political change and upheaval in Iran, just as various Russian orbit countries (like Ukraine or Georgia) experienced modestly democratic revolts in the breakup of the Soviet Union but little that should give us confidence that these are "reformed" nations (the Baltics may be a different case).

In the past 25 years, the only intervention of a sort I can think of that has "ended" positively thus far might be Serbia, and the intervention there that worked had more to do with the ICC than our bombing campaigns. Somalia, Kosovo, Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq (twice), Libya, Yemen, Colombia, Honduras, Afghanistan, Pakistan. None of these should be global locations that inspire confidence in the ability of the American military to establish or re-establish a peaceful and prosperous people in some other country or territory far afield. I don't think that's what it is for generally speaking. Too often even American diplomats think it is (see: Albright).

Bombing Iran weakens any internal opposition to the regime, not strengthens it. Talking about China's misdeeds on human rights in an overt and hostile/belligerent way via our diplomatic channels or our Presidential bully pulpit risks committing us to a longer-term strategy of rivalry and opposition. The current longer term strategy of trade and diplomacy does not, even if currently frustrates some number of people who harbor a degree of anti-China bias (it also opens us up to some similar charges, given the record of torture and imprisonment we have accumulated over the last decade plus and have not dealt with yet). Pushing the countries surrounding Russia into a pro-Western orbit of protection both prevents this from happening naturally and adds to the isolation and paranoia of Russian views that they are being threatened, increasing rather than decreasing the likelihood of events like those in Ukraine (or Georgia, though there much more was done by Georgia itself on the theory that it was already supposedly within this orbit of protection).

Takeaway: Remember that war is very costly and its gains, if any, are often uncertain and will be exaggerated by more hawkish forces within a country while costs are minimized or ignored.

5) All this talking and wheeling and dealing does not mean you don't keep an eye on your rivals to be wary of things they might do that are belligerent, hostile, or undesired. That's why we have a military and various intelligence agencies and intelligence gathering options. As unpleasant as it may be to talk to unsavory people and give them things, none of this means we cannot take it away. What it means is we reserve our ability to strike and gather information for the things we actually have to take away instead of mindlessly bombing everything that we "could" take away on the theory that this would help. Our goals for decisive, military interventions should remain very clear, very achieveable, and often with the understanding that military power is limited. Soft power is limited in some respects too, but in the manner that we often talk about the uses of military power (regime changes for instance), I would place more trust on diplomacy and trade and espionage getting us what we want and keeping things in check than repeated bombing campaigns.

6) It's much easier to amass soft power or to use military power when you have assembled allies. And those allies also have interests or limits on what they are willing or able to do with or for you. If our allies want or believe a deal with Iran or trade with Cuba is more sensible than our proposed alternatives, even if we believe they are wrong, it is generally smarter to go along with them than to try to enforce something by acting alone, particularly if it doesn't seem to matter very much to us. Only if something is essential to national interest and security does it matter to enforce it over objections. This was not the case with Cuba and the embargo, or the case with Iran. Or at least, not having a deal with some degree of intrusive monitoring of their nuclear program was not preferable to having such a deal if the goal is to reduce the likelihood of Iranian nuclear weapons. More to the point, the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon is at this point fairly minimal. Pakistani nuclear weapons represent more of a threat for international terrorism or world peace. Or Russia's still massive arsenal. Or even North Korea. All of these countries have had these arsenals for years, if not decades, without a serious incident (Cuban Missile Crisis and Able Archer 83 to the contrary). It is unclear how this arithmetic changes with Iran.

09 July 2015

The slippery slope argument

Most of this I disagree with. 

I do think there are sound strategic reasons for advocates of same sex marriage not to move on to this; namely that the status of same sex marriage is still going to need to be reinforced over the next decade or so in the US, and remains unrecognized in various moderate to liberal nation-states. That part I certainly agree with. The focus of advocates for same sex marriage need not begin to fracture into other causes in order to achieve these ends however.

Morally and legally, these are not persuasive arguments for the state to be involved in restrictions against polyamorous arrangements. Viewed in a utilitarian sense, I do not see this as a very strong case myself (as a semi-utilitarian, particularly in public policy views). I'm not sure why this is described as a "utilitarian" case against it: that it causes some number of people (who are not party to the arrangements) unpleasantness is not a case for government restriction on its own (it might be a case for coercive restraints of a sub-state nature). A similar and perhaps stronger utilitarian case could be made for any number of existing marriages that they will fail or be singularly unpleasant for one or both parties (or their children, should they have any) for the state to step in and prevent them from occurring in the first place if this is an argument for government intervention. Why this flaw of reasoning does not occur to people in rejecting pluralistic marriage arrangements is very strange to me.

The basic statement boils down to some sort of claim that every person must have equal possible sexual and intimate right to another person. Some people are assholes however. Not every person is easy to live with, or desires to make formal arrangements for their sexual partnerships. Simply because some men or women would be able to amass more partners via their popularity, sex appeal, etc seems like a flawed case for "some men or women would have no access to these partners". This suggests that they would be able to marry or even enter into an intimate relationship with these other men or women in the first place (those who are "closed off" by entering into multiple marriages). Perhaps this suggests some sort of trickle down effect where more eligible candidates for marriage are effectively destroyed because they are bound up in this other arrangement and this eventually screws some number of people. I do not follow that this is likely to be a significant effect.

It also implies that the marriages will be permanent effects. While the divorce rate has been going down (for various reasons), it's still a considerable weapon for marriage arrangements that are deemed unfair or unpleasant to be amended, or for people within those arrangements to revisit these concerns prior to breaking off their marriages, and so on.

Stability arguments at the end are the same gobbledegook that were thrown at homosexual "marriages" being less stable for many years, and in fact to me is and was an argument for recognizing and providing a method of stabilizing influence (a legal contract with social capital behind it, aka, marriage).

As for making extra demands for more people in the marriage arrangement, I'm not sure this is a case against polyamorous arrangements either. People already have the option of engaging in extramarital intimacy and sexuality. When confronted by this, people often find it to be pretty destabilizing to their existing relationships and marriages, often because it occurs without consent or permission or knowledge. This is not an argument against allowing people to try to do this openly or within the confines of marriage. Indeed, I would argue this would be a more healthy social outcome that people who wished to be monogamous could insist on this as a demand (rather than assume it to be the case at their own peril) and people who do not have this as a wish for their private relationships could choose among people who do not make such insistence to conduct their relationships.

The strongest arguments against such arrangements aren't utilitarian but are I think feminist or humanist concerns about consent to such arrangements being often unipolar or overly domination concerned rather than resulting from the active consideration of all parties will and desires for one another. Example: one man deciding on his own to have another wife than his existing partner consenting to this equally as a party to the arrangement, or even that both wives are actively consenting to marry this man in the first place is not clear. This lack of clear consent or equal party to contract is a significant problem ethically (even in a utilitarian sense as it is the source of harm). It is theoretically possible to construct such arrangements in a way that all parties have consented. But it will be difficult to conceive of arrangements for the government to determine this and regulate it (for that matter, the same arguments again apply to regular two-party marriages, as de Boer points out).

The complexity argument for regulating currently standard legal decisions is also a factor. Laws should be simple and easy to transparently enforce in my view. Two-party homosexual marriages are fairly easy to regulate as they're virtually identical in the legal sense to two-party heterosexual marriage in how the various rights and benefits could be conveyed. This is not some invincible argument against polyamory however. It is possible to construct legal rights and methods of conveyance that could account for this. It just requires more work.

06 July 2015

More on the T word

Or at least what there is of it. 

I will note there are major problems with the public debates surrounding terrorism.

Lots of things that probably aren't terrorism and some things that probably are don't get counted properly. We end up with a lot of fighting over what is and is not actually terrorism and not much acknowledgment that such attacks, in the US at least, are quite rare. To me this resembles the fighting over mass shooting incidents, which are pretty rare, and ignoring the hundreds of "ordinary" homicides (and suicides) per month from gunfire. Which seems to me to be a much bigger societal problem with more obvious causes and methods of ameliorating. If terrorism is pretty rare in the US, but is pretty common in other places (various Middle Eastern countries), one should be able to figure out why that is. As a hint, it doesn't really have much to do with the nature of Islam. That's an exacerbating factor fanned by religious zealotry, and probably not a causal factor. Terrorism has had pretty standard causes for generations and these are little different; asymmetric warfare against an occupying or perceived occupying/oppressive force, violence against political enemies and rivals in the contest for power in a political vacuum, etc.

We instead like to engage in a lot of pointless finger waving. Such arguments are exceedingly tedious in any forum for which they pop up (eg, Christians/atheists arguing about Hitler/Holocaust who to blame these on). The arguments over who is to blame probably have more to do with what sorts of penalties and processes we are willing to tolerate in the legal and international realm, but very little to do with actually reducing the incidence of violence. Many gun control debates end up in the same place, with pet causes trotted in rather than pragmatic effects debated. Nevertheless these tedious arguments over who is and who is not a terrorist or what is counted as an act of terrorism take up a considerable amount of the volume of the debate. I have previously advocated they should largely stop by making a classification of "terrorism" more rigorously empirical as a definition if possible (the definitions used by academics for instance) and not looking over every rock and cranny to find more sources of it through the public forum. As the public forum is very unlikely to have a firm grasp over what is or is not terrorism and is very likely to be exploited to graft more sources into it for political purposes.

"Extremists" is an even worse term that gets thrown around that we should be careful about. Political radicals have been both a necessary and sometimes unpleasant reality of US (and world) history in pushing for various kinds of change, including reactionary varieties like those tended to be pushed for by Islamic radicals or racists. The idea is to do so without violence however where possible. Since violence has a pretty low track record of working to institute such changes. There are many people who hold what are conceived of as abhorrent or unacceptable views. I probably hold some myself given the proper audience for my views as I can be fairly opinionated. This is not an argument for silencing such ideas, or broadly investigating those who hold them without suspicion that they are involved in acts of aggression and violence and advocating for such actions. This is a problem that afflicted investigation of right-wing groups in the 1990s, and Muslims over the last 15+ years in our general response to acts of violence is to see potential sources of danger everywhere where there is disagreement and unfamiliarity in our culture.

The actual events of terrorism in the US are exceedingly rare, and often include some rather spectacularly failed plots, indicating that not only is the impetus to commit acts of political/ideological violence pretty low, but that the wherewithal to carry them out is fairly limited in many cases. This goes unacknowledged often that the societal problem we are discussing is very, very rare. More to the point, isolating individual actors who a) have some sort of political/ideological grudge against the US and b) the ability to carry out acts of violence against mass innocents is pretty likely to be pretty easy to do in many cases. Where it succeeds in carrying out an attack, we are tending to overlook things. For instance, political right-wing fringe violence gets overlooked in a haste to look for any suspicious Muslim/minority, or leads from otherwise reliable sources go unfollowed up. For instance, clerics in American mosques used to report people to the FBI who advocated for violent extremism (they do not now because the FBI has effectively caused several plots to occur and themselves placed extremists in their midst, in basically a textbook case of how not to do police work and how to aggravate a community that you could get cooperation from. In several cases, a person who was reported to the FBI turned out to be someone paid by the government). Presumably some Christian religious organisations have done the same, and both often expel such people from peaceful religious gatherings. This suggests that there's a serious flaw in the direction of intelligence operations.

Which is probably a bigger problem than the actual terrorism is our public response to it. The intelligence community has seemed to demand a huge haystack to sort through and root through millions and millions of people's data, and so they are therefore at risk of not dedicating these "haystack" resources that could be used to actually collect information on suspicious people. The way we might with a typical criminal or intelligence operation go in and gather information on a specific target. The argument has been that this method of haystack gathering helps the US identify targets, but there's little or no evidence to support that assertion and by now plenty of misses to suggest it has zero utility for that purpose.

What this line of argument (my argument at least, not theirs) is suggesting is that we're spending a lot of time focusing attention on arguments about terrorism in order to justify very large and potentially invasive programs. Note that the NSA through the FISA court has defied a district court ruling AND a Congressional legal change suggesting its dragnet activities are illegal and not sanctioned by the government and is still doing them anyway. And nobody is getting punished for that decision, nor is it likely to be reversed in the near future. FISA interpreted that the NSA was given a few months extra to scale back by Congress, basically, instead of having to stop immediately if no law was passed or no time was given to do so. This was similar to when the NSA interpreted a Congressional change to the privacy of medical records to specifically exclude these from NSA searches without a warrant to indicate that the specificity of medical records in law now paradoxically allowed such searches without a warrant). It is largely unclear to me what use such programs and routes of investigation should have, particularly without warranted searches looking for specific named or at least roughly identified targets. I can imagine lots of nefarious purposes, but my main guess is that they don't have any better ideas that they think they can actually do. Conducting intelligence with the goal of a "zero terrorist incident" is impossible as a task. Simply reducing the net amount of terrorism would be a very difficult goal. So instead they seem to have selected a very large program on the theory that it will be easier to defend what they are doing. Paradoxically some of the "better" defenses of that program have involved the fact that it has identified that the potential for terrorism in the US is very small. Something that most people could have told you prior to 9-11 without invasive monitoring programs.

Some thoughts
1) Stop arguing so much over what is or is not terrorism, at least in the public sphere. Look for common causes if you can find them, but don't expect much. Radical fringe persons willing to engage in violence for political ends are unlikely to be closely tethered to many people in the US. I would hasten to add that people find political causes and ideas that are convenient to their ideological ends more so than that they hue to a particular ideological end. "States' rights" or the prospect of "jury nullification" are, like most political concepts, not inherently evil and vile things but have been used for some very vile political ends in the past (typically racism and racist violence). Not everyone who thinks they might be useful is likely to be inherently evil and vile in their intentions toward other people. Jury nullification and states' rights via federalism may be ways we end up with a winding down drug war, for example. I view that as a positive goal. Even if some states have moved to other extremes in how they prosecute the drug war, several have moved to legalise or regulate the distribution of various substances.

We should recognize that our societal problem to resolve is violence first. Not ideological conflicts. Ideological conflicts leading to violence is fairly rare, even on the international stage. Most of our violence problems as a country are pretty ordinary by comparison and may have pretty ordinary, if difficult, solutions.

2) Recognize that this thing we apparently fear is exceedingly rare and very unlikely to impact most of us. If we do not live in NY or DC in particular. Obviously since media hubs are in NY and DC, we should expect the media to get pretty excited about it. But we don't have to take them as seriously. CNN just wasted several minutes of time last week reporting on an "ISIS" flag in London during a gay pride parade. That was pretty obviously covered in dildos as a parody. When things like this happen, I should take it as a sign that the media believes it has an incentive to drum up cases of exciting violence and danger over and above actual reporting. Which means we want to believe there are cases of exciting violence and danger afflicting us. This is, generally speaking, false. There are specific people who may suffer threats and enhanced risks of violence in the US, but very little of that has to do with terrorism. Some small percentage of racists or other assorted forms of bigots, and some small percentage of anti-abortion advocacy focuses in this way, and small group of anti-corporate/"environmentalist" movements. As examples. Unfortunately we live in a society that overall believes crime is rising when crime has been falling steadily and rapidly in most parts of the country for over two decades, and virtually every crime story I see mentions this fact at some point. It may be difficult to convince significant numbers of people to stop taking terrorism that seriously. More dildo flags being taken way too seriously by supposedly serious newscasters as evidence of extremist violence at our doorstep and we might have a chance. Keep at it CNN. If we throw enough sex toys at the media problem at least it will be easier not to take this as seriously. At some point more people will take seriously the idea that zero tolerance of terrorism is an impossible goal and be willing to look for more pragmatic solutions to resolve the problem rather than just trusting whatever we are doing must be working.

This is one of the paradoxical problems of counter-terrorism policy (and actually it applies to criminal justice more broadly). If terrorism is pretty rare, the government can plausibly claim that whatever it is doing must be working. Since terrorism is pretty rare, this is what it does. But it also has a stake in hyping up threats, which then turn out to be more like duds or problems caused more by things it was already doing, otherwise the public takes a closer eye to the methods and equipment and decides, "hey, why do we need to be doing this again?". Which is the appropriate place to start when trying to alleviate fear (it would be better to start by recognizing the fear as unreasonable, but most people aren't going to do that). If it doesn't actually work, or doesn't actually help get rid of the sources of our fear, it's of no utility and is theatrical rather than needed.