Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Epstein suicide: do we trust the state?

Eptstein's suicide looks like the latest in a series of decisions that will protect his associates. Maybe the FBI can get to the bottom of this and let us know what happened. But that's not the real question that faces the public now -- the question is whether we trust the system to reveal what Epstein was up to and who else was involved. This case is prompting conspiracy theories among people who are not normally prone to such things... it may reveal a more widespread loss of faith in American institutions. Or maybe not.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The efficiency of public services

I've become more acquainted with the workings of state agencies over the past few years, and consequently have become more interested in some of the theories about the efficiency with which the government delivers public services.

When looking at the inefficiencies of government services, I've previously focused on the big picture issues:
  1. The agency problem: The government is not necessarily attempting to achieve what the people (or a person) wants -- it has its own agenda.
  2. The information problem: Even if the government were fully committed to serving the needs of the people, it would not know how to serve those needs as well as the people themselves do. 
Along these lines, you could also define "the control problem", by which I mean that the state is a massive, complicated institution, making it very hard for the elected officials to actually assure that federal employees are doing what the elected officials think they should be doing. This issue exists in any institution,  but it creates some special problems for democratic states, which will be the focus of this post.

What I've seen in government agencies is that the employees are extremely constrained, to the point that it is difficult for them to do their jobs. There are tons of bureaucratic hoops. Some of these are the natural result of working for a big institution and trying to coordinate large numbers of people (which includes the public, and not just the employees). But I believe many of them are consequences of the need to maintain "the public trust". This is especially complicated because government employees are working with tax dollars -- forcibly confiscated wealth. If a government employee overcharges (or does not fulfill their commitments), it's a scandal. In contrast, if a private company does the same, its just a bad business decision. Throughout the institution, people are more forgiving of corruption in private institutions -- both because the costs are often limited to people who are inside the institution, and because others (e.g. customers) are free to walk away. As a result, government employees are wrapped in red-tape to avoid corruption -- every decision goes through several layers of approval to make sure that nobody is abusing their position. Of course, it can only stop a fraction of the corruption out there, and it probably costs more money than it saves. But the point that elected officials can claim they are doing everything in their power to stop corruption, and everything revolves around CYA rather than GID.

Another problem with government agencies is that everything is ultimately a performance -- the ultimate justification for government activities is that they get supportive officials re-elected.

While I'm on this topic, the conventional Republican complaints hold no water.
  1. Workers need to fear losing their jobs. Complacency is rarely a problem among career civil servants, that I've seen. I think Republicans just want to maintain a general culture of financial insecurity, so that they can better push around workers.
  2. Agencies need more efficient management (hence, the hiring freeze). Again, the Republicans talk a big game, but have no idea how to improve management. If management seems bloated, it is a consequence of the control problem described above. It is exacerbated by the Republican drive to hold worker's feet to the fire. Policies like the hiring freeze don't magically make agencies do more with  less -- in fact, it just makes the operation of the agencies more complicated (more layers of approval to make a hire), and increases the administrative burden. Ultimately, all of this stuff ends up being just another form of political performance -- one more thing to distract employees from the jobs they are supposedly hired to perform.
If the elected officials want to make government agencies efficient, they need to start by looking at their own behavior. Start by setting clear strategic plans (wouldn't NASA love that), and then allocating the money needed to implement those plans. Let the agencies know how much they have to spend and what they are expected to accomplish. And stop denigrating the employees.

p.s. Maybe "control" is the problem. Maybe the solution is to trust the employees. Or shrink the state to the point that it can be efficiently managed.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Small government for the small folk

I asked previously whether "regular Americans" have any influence over the government. For those of us who think the answer is effectively "no", we may think of ourselves as "the small folk". My view is that the small folk amount to perhaps 3/4 of the population (others say 90%). This leads to the seemingly contradictory proposition that elections could be easily decided by the people who have no influence. However, this is not a contradiction, for a couple of reasons. First, part of what makes small folk "small" is that they do not have the resources to organize around myriad policy issues, and therefore they have no say as the elite micromanage policy decisions to their own benefit. Related to this, the small folk are not the people who run for office or decide who gets on the ballot -- so the conclusion that small folk could decide the election depends on someone actually running that small folk would want to vote for. Given these realities of political power, what is the best outcome that small folk like us can obtain from voting?

The first thing to recognize is that if the small folk are going to be anything but pawns in politics, we need to vote as a block. If we allow ourselves to be recruited to the campaigns of elite, their arsenal of marketing strategies will drag us into culture wars, special-interest favor seeking, or whatever pet cause they can use turn us against each other so that they continue milking us. To have any electoral power, the small folk must organize around a single issue, or a coherent and durable platform. This is the traditional strategy of socialist movements -- while it had some success prior to WWII, the elites have figured out how to neutralize it since then: paternalistic social welfare policies dampened the urgency of reform, pro-establishment worker organizations were cultivated to replace radical organizations, the threat of foreign tyrants was used to rally workers around the flag, and finally cultural disagreement was politicized (made into "a war") to create divisions among the people. The New Deal could be considered a victory for the worker's movement, but it did not change the basic power structure and class dynamic of American society, and eventually the USA fell back into the old patterns of elitist greed, unmediated by a sense of elite solidarity with the (white) working man.

I've found no proposals from conventional activists that would protect most Americans from being reduced to peasants at the mercy of the elite. Some progressives seek a reinstatement of the post-WWII social contract (with some updates), but this agenda has consistently failed to gain electoral traction. Even worse, it depends upon a sense of noblesse oblige from the elite, which is unlikely to be revived short of some crisis comparable to the threat of nationalist or communist revolutions*. Socialist radicals see an opportunity to revive their old big-government agenda, but struggle to overcome horrible legacy of state-socialism, ranging from economic stagnation in the West and India, to routine atrocities in the Stalinist regimes.

Any agenda that focuses on the state as a solution to our problems grinds to a halt when people balk at handing more authority to distant elites. The progressive agenda has failed to appeal to conservative populists, who see progressive policies as embodying an urban cosmopolitan culture that conflicts with their own judgement. Likewise, the socialist program fails to live up to its ideass due to the inevitable problems that arise when one group of people tries to impose decisions on another group. The political and organizational weakness of these statist approaches argues for an anti-state (i.e. libertarian) approach to establishing a shared political agenda for the small folk.

A libertarian approach first recognizes the limited ability of the small folk to control the state. If there is only one thing that we can tell the government to do, we should tell it not to take more authority on itself, because that authority will inevitably give more discretion to the elite at our expense. A libertarian approach also recognizes the diversity of the small folk. We are not going to agree on how to live our lives and organize our communities, so detailed prescriptions should be left out of a political platform to help us stay above the factionalism and culture-wars that the elite use to divide us. Progressives claim that the reduction of government is inherently elitist, but they ignore that even a small government must make many policy choices that can tilt society toward either an elitist or egalitarian outcome. An egalitarian libertarian coalition will focus on dismantling any government policy that gives one person power over another.

The details of this agenda remain to be worked out, but numerous ideas are circulating in the left-libertarian community, some of which I tried to document in a (incomplete) Left-Libertarian platform. Setting that aside for now, we can still discuss whether a "small government" strategy  is sufficient to promote the welfare of "the small folk".

Progressives and socialists make a strong case that many people need immediate, tangible economic support if they are going to get out of the poverty trap that the elites have pushed them into. They propose that healthcare and education should be provided as a right, and income should also be supported through a variety of interventions. I don't see this as essential to a broad-based radical movement, because fore a radical movement gained enough political power to guarantee those rights, it would have enough social and economic clout to provide decent social services on its own. Since that economic power would increase as egalitarian libertarians whittle away the privileges of the elite, those problems would be solved as quickly by a "small government" approach as by establishing new government programs. Perhaps the strength of the statist approach is that the agenda of the radicals could dovetail with the agenda of progressive reformers, such that basic anti-poverty benefits could be won even when the radical movement has moderate influence in society.

The egalitarian libertarian response should be to carefully avoid removing anti-poverty programs while aggressively targeting "pro-poverty" policies. For instance, taxes that affect the poor should be slashed, with the unapologetic reasoning that government benefits tend to be proportional to wealth.

Finally, there is one place where even "small government" advocates should support programs that superficially increase the size of government -- when the lack of  those programs is a way to push the cost of other government programs onto the poor. A prime example would be to fully fund defense lawyers for those accused of crimes. When the government decides to criminalize an activity (such as drug use), it needs to account for the full cost of that policy, including the cost of providing a fair trial.

*Trumpism could be a wake-up call to the cosmopolitan elite of US business school, but I've yet to see any evidence that their repulsion is sufficiently strong or widespread to provide a meaningful response to Trump's pitch.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Town meeting or Monarchy?

Apologists for the USA routinely assert that the government is "democratic" -- that it is a government "of the people, for the people, and by the people". Modern progressives often bemoan the diminishment of democracy, hearkening back to a period (1950s-1970s) when "regular" citizens had a voice in government, and policymakers took heed of their interests. Skeptics of this progressive mythology, frequently point to white-male supremacism during this period, as well as the substantial differences in power that existed between white-male workers, managers, and the power elite. But still, the progressives adhere to this sunny view of the state, and demand that all right people should happily support "their" government.

A contrasting view is that the state is fundamentally elitist and exploitative, even in the USA. Here, the state was established by a narrow elite in order to subjugate the rest of society. With the state being structured around domination, it is fundamentally incapable of being democratic. Granted, the state does have some democratic aspects -- most notably elections, equality before the law, and civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution. However, these do not change the fundamental nature of the state, they just give it some procedural accountability and restrain the arbitrary use of power. Perhaps these concessions were made to gain broader support from the general populace, or perhaps they were established to mediate conflict among the elite, but either way they are a big improvement over absolute monarchies, totalitarian regimes, or naked kleptocracy.

These two views essentially treat the USA as either a scaled-up New England town-meeting, or a reformed monarchy. Perhaps the distinction is not too important, since the USA is clearly influenced by both traditions. Geniuses such as Thomas Paine and John Stuart Mill aimed to design institutions from democratic first-principles, but it looks to me that they were still trying to design something that functioned very much like the monarchies that they were familiar with. Even if town-meetings were being used as a starting point, it could be that the town-meeting does not scale up well; that coordinating with strangers requires the delegation of authority, and the desire for rapid, centralized decision-making is fundamentally elitist. During the foundation of the USA, democratic idealists were clearly in the minority, as most of the decision-makers arose from the colonial elite, and many championed elitist attitudes, even aside from racism and sexism.

Progressives seem to view that elitism as essentially receding into history, pushed aside first by Jacksonian democracy, then by the slow and ongoing extension of civil and economic rights to women and racial minorities. Yet many conservatives, perhaps stuck in the Jacksonian era, see a new nexus of elitism centered around the university network, which extends its influence into government by educating the ranks of bureaucrats and technocrats who are constantly telling regular folk how to live their lives. And of course, socialists consider the USA to be tightly controlled by the capitalist class.

Amidst all these conceptions of power and powerlessness, I find myself wondering "what is power for?" The nature of the state is clearly to create power differentials -- to allow one group of people to exert power over the rest of society. Why do we go along with that? Engles had a dream that once people gave up the idea of dominating and exploiting each other, the state would transform into a simple administrative agency, coordinating economic activity. However, the rejection of racism and sexism a generation or two ago has not made control of the state any less contentious -- if anything, Americans seem to be ever more strongly divided over who should control the state. Perhaps this reflects the aimlessness of the state -- it is no longer clear who the state is meant to dominate, so what is it's purpose? Perhaps we've moved from an era when the state acted as the executive committee for a broad, stable ruling class (white males), to an era of true democracy, where each election is an opportunity for one faction to establish themselves in a dominant position over the remainder of society.  Having established an institution that necessarily dominates people and redistributes their wealth through both direct and indirect mechanisms (e.g. taxes and copyrights, respectively), all of us are now perpetually at risk of becoming its next target.

Which brings me back to the initial question that motivated this post -- can "regular folk" (even those with Socio-economic status in the 70th percentile) exert reasonable control over the state? Can we choose more than one issue to base our votes on, or does trying to engage in the full range of political debate just sap our energy and diffuse our effectiveness? If we do choose one issue, is it just a matter of personal preference, whereby each of us focusing on a topic that motivates us, we end up covering all of the bases? Would that strategy allow the elite to easily pit us against each other, such that they can continue to systematically shift wealth to their own associates, while we tear at each other over the culture war. Or is there an issue or principal that can be elevated above all others, that can shift power back to the people? To me, the single issue seems to be "small government", or perhaps "small government socialism"

Sunday, March 25, 2018

How will we stop an preventive attack on Korea or Iran?

I'm having flashbacks to 2002. The government is marching towards war, and the American people have not grasped that fact. I was slow to grasp what was going on, but my eyes were opened by this article at the Intercept:

John Bolton Chairs an Actual “Fake News” Publisher Infamous for Spreading Anti-Muslim Hate

 This made me realize that Bolton is not just a hawk -- not just a guy with different opinions about how to solve a problem -- he's a genocidal liar. Based on the material published by the Gatestone Institute, he will whip up fear using brazenly fallacious arguments. For people in his position, credible arguments are not needed, because repetition and political power will be enough to persuade a large number of people to support his agenda.

We have to assume that the Trump administration is preparing to attack North Korea and/or Iran, and we need to put every possible roadblock in their path. People from diverse political and moral schools of thought recognize that what they intend to do is illegal, immoral, and pretty much insane.

Now we need to raise the alarm, and organize a response.

I've found the following groups to be speaking out against preventive wars:
1. Buchanan conservatives (The American Conservative)
2. Catholics academics (Unclear about the conference of bishops, but they likely would come out against invasions)
3. Libertarians (Ron Paul, Rand Paul?)
4. Your standard anti-war, anti-state leftists.

We Will Breathe the Ashes of the Dead for the Rest of Our Lives

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Environmental Anarchism

Pollution is a bodily assault. Releasing a puff of smoke in a person's face is comparable to shoving a person aside while walking down the sidewalk. These are the types of behaviors that result in fights--possibly escalating to wars--and governing these interactions is one of the rationalizations for the state. As described in the Economist (A scourge of the EPA takes over at the EPA), the Trump administration has made it painfully clear that they plan to abandon environmental governance, even at a time when the majority of Americans believe that greater governance is needed (and it's not just greenhouse gases). According to that article, the demand for environmental governance really took off in the post-WWII era as a number of high-profile environmental disasters produced a bipartisan consensus is favor of the Clean Water and Clean Air acts. Even in recent years, there have been a several high-profile environmental disasters*, so how will people respond if the state abandons this realm of governance?

Some people will try to shoulder the burden themselves, treating pollution prevention as a civic duty even as profiteers exploit the opportunity to shed their waste on everyone else. But there is also a history of people enforcing their own sense of justice. However, I don't think we've ever had a situation where a large fraction of the population has desperately felt the absence of state involvement with environmental governance -- possibly leading to a form of environmental vigilantism unlike anything we've seen.

Of course, pollution is different from other forms of impositions -- the consequences are diffuse, and we all claim the right to engage in "reasonable" amounts of pollution. It is hard for vigilantees to establish a consensus on what amounts to excessive pollution, and then identify the people who create excessive pollution. 

It'll be interesting to see how this develops.

* I couldn't find a list, but here are some I can think of:
  • Deepwater Horizon
  • Several other oil spills
  • Several drinking water problems (though the immediate cause is infrastructure maintenance)
  • Elk River Chemical spill of 2014
  • Fukoshima

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Nolan Chart of cynicism

I used to think that I had a cynical attitude towards major American institutions --primarily the government and big business. I even remember a survey that placed me into a "disenfranchised" group (or something like that) -- basically identifying me as a lower income white guy (which is not quite accurate). Occasionally I would run into other libertarians who were more cynical, but outside of that bubble, my impression was that most people were pretty satisfied with how our country operates. But these days, I feel like I've been outflanked, and am running into lots of people from across the political spectrum who are even more cynical than me -- even people of greater socio-economic status than me.

So, I need to rethink the political spectrum.

I used to think mainly in terms of the Nolan Chart, and derivatives of it. Basically you have the "left" (defined by Dems as the center-left) and "right" (defined by Repubs as the center-right), with a second libertarian/authoritarian axis. On such charts, I typically landed as left-libertarian, which seemed correct to me. However, these charts are very much tuned for a pro-establishment polity. They define things in term of the policy disagreements between the two big parties. How would you capture the fact that people would happily abandon those parties?

So, I imagine a coordinate system based on cynicism. One axis is cynicism towards major institutions, the other is cynicism towards regular people. The four extremes would be:
1. Authoritarian. Trusting institutions; distrusting people.
2. Anarchist. Distrusting institutions; trusting people
3. Anti-social. Trusting nobody.
4. Pangloss. Everyone is as good as can be expected.

Of course, this is a gross simplification -- trust in institutions could be broken down between trust in the state and trust in big business (to give the conventional left/right divide among liberals). Similarly, "trust in people" often means trust is a specific subset of the American population -- whether just trusting one's own race, one's own religion, or one's own political coalition.

But still, I think there's something to this. On this scale, I think I'd be in the center-Anarchist region (perhaps with public figures like Glenn Greenwald). Establishment politicians tend produce propaganda in the Pangloss corner, spouting platitudes towards the American people and the benevolence of govenment and business (at least when they are in charge). I think in reality, they are a bit more authoritarian than that, and that faith in the state is often built of distrust of regular people. A lot of libertarian propagandists are near the anarchist corner, but I think most real libertarians are a bit more suspicious of some of their neighbors (at least suspecting that their neighbors are authoritarians), so would shift up towards anti-social. I'm not sure where to put the Trumpists -- before the election, a lot of them were probably in the anti-social corner, trusting only a small portion of the American population. With Trump in office, there's the risk that they'd drift towards authoritarianism... or maybe they just supported Trump the wrecker, and don't care for Trump the Leader.

Anyway, this puts some of my recent thoughts in perspective. A few years back, I said that the the big contribution of left-libertarianism is to expose the elitism of the state (thereby creating more cynicism towards institutions), however, with the rise of the Trump movement, it seems that the problem may be that there is not enough trust among the people, and it's time to put more effort into building a cohesive civic culture for our country -- and world.

p.s. I think this all has something to do with conspiracy theories too -- with trump being the biggest proponent right now.