Monday, December 20, 2010

Are you on the inside or the outside?

Many commentators have been describing the new forms of segregation in American society -- where people are either members of an "in" group with special privileges, or you aren't. Much of the talk has focused on the segregation of workers into "protected" jobs from which they cannot be fired, and the rest who cannot get steady employment, in large part as a side effect of the protection system.

However, we are also seeing increasing segregation of Americans into the group with security clearance, who have access to massive government databases, and the rest of us who are forbidden to access this information. This segregation has troubling similarities to the system of the Chinese Communist Party, which maintains separate media systems for privileged insiders and the ignorant masses.

The Washington Post has taken the lead in exposing the scale of "Top Secret America", first by revealing that hundreds of thousands of Americans have this clearance, indicating that such clearance is increasingly a requirement for a decent job (like Party membership in Communist countries). Now the Post has described a massive database of "suspicious" Americans, which is available to pretty much every law enforcement agent. So next time a cop stops you for some trivial reason, he can check to see if you've ever done anything suspicious, and adjust his behavior accordingly. This is a good reason to use a pseudonym on the Internet.

A summary is here: Monitoring America: How the U.S. Sees You - CBS News

The best quote:
"The old view that 'if we fight the terrorists abroad, we won't have to fight them here' is just that - the old view," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told police and firefighters recently.

Apparently the mainstream media is finally waking up to what commentators like Kevin Carson have been describing for years:
Technologies and techniques honed for use on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan have migrated into the hands of law enforcement agencies in America.
Anyway, this reminds us that the main resistance to this trend is being attacked by "the authorities" as we speak, and these authorities are called out by John Wilkins in Statism and Wikileaks.
the real lesson is the extent to which the professional political classes of the west are statists. They have no concern for their citizenry. They have no concern for their economies or even for the corporations or big labor organisations they nominally represent. They only care that they are in power, or might get into power, and so the state is what they care about, so they can have that power.
The last thing on my mind today is the fact that the Dream Act failed to pass. It sounded pretty innocuous to me, but there are enough authoritarian nationalists in Congress that even this law couldn't pass. Not a big surprise, but the likely hypocrisy of these nationalists was conveniently illuminated by the contrast against a recent essay describing the pseudo-liberal argument against affirmative action that conservatives trot out so often -- "since we're all equal, all discrimination is wrong". Of course, this ignores the central role of group identity in our society. Sometimes this group identity is implicit (e.g. cultural affinity), sometimes it is explicit (e.g. citizenship, family), but either way it is very important. If a person can't recognize that and consider how this factors into our decisions, then they are pretty naive. If they continue to advocate for group identity in one situation, even as they dismiss its complexities in another, then they are just hypocrites. I don't know what this particular author believes about nationality and migration, but if he's like most conservatives who use terms like "equality" or "individualism", then he's just an opportunist who will use whatever argument he can to secure privileges for himself and his favored identity group.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

My respectability vs. their legitimacy

Over the past few years, I've been conversing with a bunch of anarchists, and have come to accept their basic arguments. Anarchists have a bad reputation, so I've been using a pseudonym for these online conversations. In fact, I now use the name Ricketson (from Benjamin Ricketson Tucker) in all my online political discussions, though this is simply because I prefer that a Google search of my real name points to my professional writings and not my political opinions.

The core doctrine of anarchism is that all coercive power, particularly the state, is illegitimate and should be resisted. As such, it can be difficult to support anarchist causes while maintaining respectability in mainstream society, where state power is generally taken for granted and is often considered an essential part of a good society. On top of that social pressure, there is also the fact that anarchists position themselves directly at odds with an institution that regularly deprives people of property, liberty, and life; so associating with anarchists brings some physical risks, and it is very important for anarchists to know what actions will provoke the state to action and stay within those bounds.

Fortunately, the USA and its citizens are generally tolerant of abstract political opinions, so there is a lot of room for advocacy of anarchic social reforms. However, anarchists necessarily push the limits of that tolerance in their attacks on the legitimacy of the state and its laws. If laws of the state are illegitimate, then interfering with the enforcement of those laws is implicitly legitimate, as long as the circumstances are appropriate.

However, not all law-breaking is the same. Anarchist "direct action" can come in the form of scofflawry*, civil disobedience, and outright resistance against the enforcers of the law. Anarchists are safe as long as their opposition to the law is kept abstract (even the American Declaration of Independence advocates the right to resist the state), but they could get in hot water if they were to support particular acts of resistance. Even if they stay within the formal limits of the law, they would risk attracting the attention of law enforcement agencies and facing extra-legal harassment from these powerful groups. I've got a family to support, and don't want to go there.

The recent brouhaha surrounding Wikileaks illustrates these dynamics. For details, go to Wikileaks Watch at the Ruling Class Blog, but there are two important points relevant to the topic of this essay: first, a person who says "the wrong thing" can be targeted for extra-legal harassment by the USA; second, reciprocal harassment of the state and its allies will be taken very seriously by the state.

The harassment of Wikileaks is a prime example of extra-legal (i.e. no due process) harassment in response to "saying the wrong thing". Following their publication of a whole bunch of slightly confidential documents, Wikileaks' website suffered a denial-of-service attack, law enforcement agencies effectively froze several accounts associated with Wikileaks, and several high profile politicians called for extra-legal action to be taken against Wikileaks.

In response to this harassment, several of the instigators and collaborators have been themselves targeted for similar harassment, such as denial-of-service attacks on their websites. This has sparked debate among anarchists over whether this counter-harassment is justified. Some of the rhetoric has made me question whether I can openly associate with these people (for instance, by making a donation) and maintain my mainstream respectability (i.e. avoid unwanted attention from powerful institutions).

It's one thing to make abstract arguments for breaking the law; it's another to provide moral support for people who are breaking a specific law as we speak. The difference is even greater when the law-breakers are physically interfering with another person's activities (an "attack", in the broadest sense of the word).

Finally, the justification of the law-breaking is important. The DoS attacks by "Anonymous" are often portrayed as Civil Disobedience; such cases are treated as limited threats by the established powers, but they can still be met with substantial retaliation. However, if the attacks are viewed as resistance (i.e. an attempt to directly block the exercise of power) , the full power of the state will be brought against the lawbreakers and their supporters. In this case, Anonymous has really escalated the seriousness of the Wikileaks situation. Compare the "Civil Disobedience - Resistance" of Anonymous with the "Scofflawry - Civil Disobedience" of Wikileaks. It isn't even clear that Wikileaks did anything illegal, but there is no doubt that the acts of Anonymous are illegal. Furthermore, Anonymous has a clear victim. This type of escalation had better be necessary, or else I am going to stay a mile away.

Through my associations with anarchists, I have been comforted by those who swear off confrontation, insisting that their goal is to expose the illegitimacy of the state and start building the institutions that will replace the state. Not only do I believe that they make an important point about what is the most productive strategy for improving society, but I feel comfortable that associating with such people will not bring me to the attention of the police.

I hope this doesn't sound like I'm whining about how hard it is for me to contribute to "the cause"; I did not write this to make excuses for myself or belittle those who have shouldered the responsibility for developing and communicating anarchist ideas. I just want to make a small point about the tactics of a political movement -- if we want to gain mainstream influence, then mainstream people need to feel comfortable associating with us.

*I believe that I have coined the term "scofflawry". Is there a better term for the habit of evading law enforcement? Scofflawry is a bit awkward, but is conveniently parallel to outlawry.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Good riddence: Emilio Massera obit in Economist

The Economist magazine has an obituary for Emilio Massera. I'd never heard of him before, but apparently, he was the admiral of the "dirty war" during Argentinia's military dictatorship. We can thank him for converting "disappeared" to a transitive verb. This obituary brings up one question: what was the role of the Vatican (bank) in this immense crime?

Emilio Massera | The Economist

Update: The link to the Vatican Bank was through a secret society, "Propaganda Due".

WikiLeaks changes domain name

In the face of a distributed denial of service attack, WikiLeaks has been forced to change its domain name.

It can also be accessed directly by IP address:

Friday, November 19, 2010

On "The Statist Media"

Radley Balko proposes that the "legacy media" (i.e. mainstream media) is authoritarian, not liberal (due to their treatment of the TSA body scanner policy). I don't have much to say on this, except that these institutions cannot be pigeon-holed into any preconceived ideological categories. They have their own interests and their own culture, and this article provides some insight into that culture: The Statist Media | The Agitator

Update: The EFF provides instructions for filing complaints against the TSA.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Our own Cultural Revolution?

As an academic with some Chinese colleagues, I've heard the horror stories of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution ™. I've never even considered whether it could happen in America, but a couple of essays from conservative academics have pushed the possibility into my mind.

First, the stage is set by the class/culture war masterpiece from Angelo Cordevilla, "America's Ruling Class and the Perils of Revolution", presenting the "ruling class" as culturally disconnected from the rest of the country (oddly called "the country class", even though for the past century or so the majority of Americans have lived in cities). As is common in these criticisms of the liberal elite, academics take much of the blame for ignoring the culture of the common man, who just isn't going to take it anymore. The second reading, Whoring it in Higher Education from Jason Peters, bemoans the loss of academic integrity in the face of financial incentives. He seems to be saying that everyone involved in higher education, from the students to the professors, has abandoned the nobility of learning in favor of social status and prosperity.

The following excerpt is what reminded me of the Cultural Revolution:
I’d like to see more people with soft hands working harder, professors and students alike. I would allow no one on a liberal arts college campus to eat in the cafeteria who has not participated that week in serious food production.

And I would make more stringent demands on faculty members who enjoy arguing in the faculty dining room the merits of various single-malt scotches. Let them argue, but let them do some real work first. Let them, for example, castrate a ram for every gyro they eat.

Of course, Professor Peters is not suggesting that this solution be forced upon schools from the outside, let alone that children be separated from their parents or that unrepentant ivory tower snobs be executed. I see no reason the believe that anything like the Cultural Revolution is likely, but I wonder if there might be the slightest seed of it somewhere in contemporary political movements like the Tea Party. America is different from China of the 1960's both in the large portion of population that may qualify as "elite" (e.g. college educated) and the mobility among classes. However, if the economy continues as it has, with lawyers, bankers, and computer programmers getting additional raises even as the non-college crowd struggles to make ends meet...then maybe, just maybe.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Where's the respect?

Yesterday, I wrote that the rhetoric and political agenda of conservative Christianity can easily be interpreted as disrespectful towards those of us who don't share their religious views and policy preferences (Don't say "abortion is murder"). This rhetoric is often moralistic -- suggesting that anyone who disagrees is fundamentally degenerate, rather than simply being mistaken about one rather small part of life. The political agenda is often punitive -- insisting that certain behaviors are obligatory or prohibited, rather than simply being encouraged or discouraged.

While I believe that conservative Christians are the main source of this disrespect in public discourse, I figure that I should try to figure out where they may feel disrespected by the people whom they disagree with. Unfortunately, many public figures make constant spurious claims that Christians are the victims of frequent disrespect, yet the examples that they cite (e.g. "The War on Christmas") are typically nothing more than non-Christians challenging the cultural dominance of Christianity.

Here are the issues where I expect that conservative Christians (really, social conservatives more generally) may feel that their sense of morality is being disparaged, or that they are being prohibited from engaging in important aspects of their desired lifestyle.

  • Animal rights: There's nothing worse than being called a murderer. Animal rights activists can get pretty extreme in their rhetoric. Luckily, the absolutists have no real political or social influence. While conservatives may call these people "leftists", in fact they are just as likely to target their fellow "leftists" as anyone else. In fact, one of their favorite targets is another stereotypical "leftist" group -- biologists engaged in animal research. Another favorite target of animal rightists is the hedonistic, fur-clad cosmopolitan elite who the cultural conservatives often rail against. Regular Americans eating cheeseburgers almost never receive any attention from these people. The small-town family farm of conservative ideal is typically viewed as being a pretty humane system for producing meat. Vegetarians are definitely more common on "the left" than "the right", but they are typically pretty tolerant of us carnivores, and there isn't any reason that a Christian must eat meat (is there?). The only real conflict between traditionalists and vegetarians arises over hunting, but vegetarians will typically cede the issue if the hunters make the case that it is an important part of non-elite culture and livelihood (but British fox hunting doesn't get a pass).
  • Gun prohibition: As with hunting, some extremists will attribute base motives to people who want to own guns, such as bloodlust or a desire to dominate others (frankly, many Republicans have done a lot to connect these ideas in public perception). However, most calls for restricting gun ownership are framed as utilitarian anti-crime measures. As with meat-eating, gun ownership doesn't have anything to do with Christianity, though guns do play a role in some traditional lifestyles. The prospect of broad gun prohibition is politically plausible, but remote. If conservatives are concerned about losing their guns, that risk is nothing compared to the prohibitions that they are imposing on others.
  • Multiculturalism/Libertinism: Conservatives are often depicted as "hateful" or "dictatorial" for holding others to certain standards. This is often a reasonable response to attempts by conservatives to impose their cultural preferences on others. However, this hostile response is not justified if the conservative is trying to persuade others to change their lifestyle in the absence of coercion. But unless we have a culturally libertarian state (including unlimited immigration), non-conservatives will be justifiably suspicious that any advocacy for cultural uniformity is just a prelude to violence.
  • Abortion: Opposition to abortion is often ascribed to an attitude that women are subordinate to men. This accusation is probably made to quickly in many cases, but I cannot say that it is unprovoked; if you want to dictate major life decisions to women, be prepared to be called "sexist". While not all opponents of abortion are sexist, there is good evidence than a good portion of them are, and America traditionally was sexist, so a traditionalist should not be too shocked by this accusation.
To sum it up, these non-traditionalist moralists typically have little influence and very rarely pass legislation that severely interferes with the continuation of traditions. The only issue where I think that traditionalists could reasonably feel disrespected by mainstream attitudes is with regards to gun ownership, and even there they face rather weak opposition.

Aside from partisan posturing and attacks on politicians, most disrespect in public discourse originates from conservatives.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Let's talk, but don't say "abortion is murder"

Todd Hartch, has written an interesting essay about what drove him to get involved in the gay marriage debate at his workplace. Many of us try to avoid the topics of politics and religion at our workplaces, but things are a little different for Mr. Hartch since he's a (tenured) professor of history at a public university. He's also a socially conservative Christian, and like many conservatives, feels that he's been pressured to keep his mouth shut by the fabled "campus political correctness".

I am probably the ideological opposite of Prof. Hartch, but I liked a lot of what he said in his essay, and my first impulse is to endorse his call for his political/ideological allies to speak up. Below are some of the key points of his essay, with my thoughts interjected:

Campus Political Correctness and the Costs of Free Speech

For at least two generations, Catholics, Orthodox, Evangelicals, and other religious conservatives have sought to “get along” with the prevailing American campus culture of relativism and moral license. We have dedicated ourselves to academic excellence, to fair and balanced teaching, and to keeping a low profile. We have kept quiet in department meetings, in the faculty senate, and on university committees. We have bitten our tongues when colleagues disparaged our religion, our morality, and our most cherished beliefs. We have convinced our colleagues that religious conservatives can be surprisingly thoughtful and urbane.

The above description matches my own impression of the situation in academia (at least in the sciences). I have a number of conservative religious colleagues who allow their religious identity to be known, but don't make a fuss when they disagree with others. Political comments are often shared among like-minded colleagues, though a few faculty members will make leftist/anti-religious comments to broader audiences and sometimes earn a rebuke for unprofessional behavior.

Overall, most members of the department follow the same strategy as Hartch described. It's just good manners. There is good reason to avoid this sort of confrontation with one's colleagues. At best, it distracts from work, and it may even make it impossible for colleagues to work together.

In the end, what have such actions won for us? ...Our jobs are secure and our careers give every sign of continuing success.

We have watched, though, as our campuses veered farther and farther off course. Sexual license is now taken for granted. Mentions of abortion, homosexuality, and even bestiality [I think Hartch didn't get the joke -R] hardly merit a second glance in our campus papers. Many students have never heard a rational conservative argument about any moral issue.
I agree that rational conservative voices are hard to find. At least, it's hard to find any who can speak meaningfully about social issues to a person who doesn't share their own religious and cultural identity (Hartch is only the second such writer that I've encountered).

This is something that conservatives should keep in mind if they want to engage in thoughtful discussions with others. Hartch was bothered by derisive comments targeted at his culture, but I think that conservatives most often are the ones dishing out derisive comments. Liberals may make snide comments about conservatives in their private conversations, but conservatives regularly announce to the world that liberals are degenerates who are destroying everything good in our society. Off the top of my head, I recall a Republican candidate for Congress who attacked his Democratic opponent for supporting "San Francisco values", and the Pope recently blamed atheists for Nazism. These are mainstream conservative Christians. To further illustrate the point, conservatives regularly use moral reasoning to justify criminal punishment of many actions that others engage in (e.g. drug use).

A thoughtful conservative will have to keep this in mind when he tries to hold a conversation with others: mainstream conservatism regularly denigrates the morality of others and even threatens others with physical punishment. The epitome is probably the rhetoric around abortion. Mainstream conservatives regularly equate abortion with murder and the holocaust. If you tell your colleague that "abortion is murder", think about what you are saying. This person may have had an abortion, or may know someone who had an abortion. In that situation, you would be calling that person or their friend a murderer. That's quite a loaded word, and even if you don't mean to say that abortion should be punished by imprisonment or execution, it isn't hard for another person to make that inference (at least at an emotional level).

Many conservative positions can be viewed as threatening, and must be thoughtfully worded if they are not going to start a fight. I've seen what happens when the words "abortion is murder" are uttered to the wrong person. So, if you want to have a thoughtful conversation, don't say "abortion is murder"; you may also want to be clear to distance yourself from anyone who does make those statements in public.

Perhaps all this might be justified if students were somehow benefitting from this atmosphere of license and relativism. The opposite is the case. Most students, even at the best universities, have no passion, no love of learning. Focused on careers, at best, or, more often, on nothing at all, they approach texts that have changed the world as if they were being forced to read the dictionary. Faced with the results of painstaking research, they yawn and check their phones. They do less homework than American students have ever done before because professors have relaxed their requirements. The result is that, amazingly enough, students are bored in their modern Sodom.

What is to be done?

It’s time to speak up. It is time to make a public case for truth, for human dignity, for academic standards, and for the joy of learning. I guarantee that students will not be bored when they see us defending the truth. (I should point out that speaking up is not a synonym for being rude.)
I agree that students typically don't appreciate the opportunities that they have at a university, and faculty have a responsibility to engage them in any way possible. If that means discussing politics and morality, then so be it. If there is anyplace where Americans can have a respectful political discussion, it is on campus.

We need to go into this process knowing that the risks are real....we risk our jobs. There’s not much that can be said to minimize this threat, but I can propose that if universities make it a common practice to fire their vocally conservative professors, it will publicize our arguments more than anything we could do on our own.

Interestingly, most calls to fire politicized professors (e.g. Ward Churchill) come from conservatives. David Horowitz has made it his mission to discourage professors from discussing political, moral, or religious issues with their students.

However, let's assume that universities manage to protect the free speech rights of everyone. Professors still must not appear to be prostletyzing to their students. Hartch has provided examples of how professors can participate in these discussions outside of the classroom, but even there the power relationship between students and professors still holds. A professor will have to be impeccably respectful of others in order to avoid intimidating students into silence on this issue. I think this will be difficult if a professor such as Hartch effectively says "my sexual impulses are healthy, while yours are worthless if not destructive".

[W]e need to dialogue with those most opposed to our ideas. Some professors and students will respond to our more visible presence on campus with anger and ridicule, but some will want to understand us. With this latter group we must make every effort to communicate clearly and to forge relationships of trust and respect.
Well, good luck with all this. Such discussions should have intellectual value, and they may even overcome some of the divisiveness of mainstream political discourse. Finally, a tradition of open discussion of issues outside of one's own specialty may allow truly fringe opinions to be expressed openly. Maybe the radicals will be a bit more visible. Maybe recent immigrants will become stronger advocates for their traditional religions. There is also the chance that the anti-religious expressions that Hartch wants to counter will become much more frequent and ubiquitous as more people feel comfortable discussing these issues.

As you may have noticed, my own opinions are well outside of the mainstream (largely opposite to Hartch's). As things stand, I avoid talking about a lot of my political and moral opinions. When I do discuss these issues, I take care to avoid direct contradiction of mainstream values (though I will openly question the value of voting). I was more open about my fringe opinions during my first couple of years in college, but as I entered a more professional environment, I kept my mouth shut more and more.

Whatever happens, part of the purpose of the university is to hash out these issues and clearly expose the purely idiotic arguments that are so common in public discourse.

For further thought: International travel is part of the job description for many academics. Would open discussion of sensitive issues interfere with their ability to travel, particularly to more restrictive countries? Even in the USA, one academic was denied entrance due to what he had said about drug use, and another may have been denied entrance dues to his political opinions (since visa's can be denied without any evidence, we can't really know).

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Fraud everywhere

From News of the Weird:
A lawyer in Xian, China, filed a lawsuit in September against a movie house and film distributor for wasting her time -- because she was exposed to 20 minutes of advertisements that began at the posted time for the actual movie to begin. Ms. Chen Xiaomei is requesting a refund (equivalent of about $5.20) plus damages of an equal amount, plus the equivalent of about 15 cents for "emotional" damages -- plus an apology. [The Guardian (London), 9-8-10]
I hope she wins. In fact, I hope that she comes to America leads a billion-dollar class-action fraud lawsuit against the movie theaters and movie studios. If the movie studios will sue their audience for illegally distributing copyrighted material, then we should sue them for this sort of systematic nickel-and-dime fraud that regularly emanates from the marketing departments of corporate America.

Fair is fair, but I'm willing to accept a truce if they are.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Democrats deserve to lose.

I made the mistake of watching TV this weekend, and was treated to the massive flood of campaign advertisements (mostly negative). One in particular stood out as especially disgusting. It comes from the DSCC, is completely xenophobic, and is embedded below.

This add attacks Pat Toomey for his stance on trade with China. It starts off by focusing on Toomey's opposition to trade barriers with China, blaming them for "costing Pennsylvania nearly 100,000 jobs". This is bad enough. Apparently Democrats have no idea of how to stabilize the American economy, so all they can do is target China as a scapegoat*. However, it gets worse.

The advertisement finished by criticizing Toomey for welcoming China's economic growth, as though it's a problem that hundreds of millions of Chinese have risen above poverty in the past three decades. One advertisement (which I cannot find) even suggests that Toomey is betraying America because he considers the welfare of Chinese to have some value (and therefore he should seek a position in the Chinese government). To top it off, the advertisement end with a message in a fortune cookie.

All in all, this advertisement campaign reflects very poorly on the Democrats. First, it validates the impression that their economic strategy is identical to Hugo Chavez's: isolate and centralize. Second, it indicates that their foreign policy views economic growth outside of the USA as a threat. Finally, it demonstrates that their political strategy is to find scapegoats* for our economic problems. If I weren't so cynical about politic advertisements, I'd say that the Democrats were fascists.

*The Chinese have sold us cheap goods and given us cheap loans. Our misuse of those resources is not their fault. We could have used them to increase our own productivity, but instead we went on a wasteful consumption binge. Likewise, the fact that some people cannot find work is not due to the fact that foreigners sell us cheap goods; it is due to how we organize our own economic resources.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Let's get rid of the lawyers

A lawyer friend of mine once asked "why are you a libertarian?" I didn't have a good answer on hand so I said "Because we have too many lawyers". It didn't take me long to regret having missed the opportunity to explain my views in a serious manner, but having had a decade or so to mull it over, I realize that there is an element of truth in it.

I believe that the increasing "legalization" of society is both bad and unnecessary. By "legalization", I mean the fact that we need to consult lawyers -- either while making a decision of after we make a decision that exposes us to legal risk. The problem is that lawyers aren't cheap (of course, if they were, it would imply that their job were simple and each of us could be our own lawyer). The large fees paid to lawyers don't only represent a great drain on the productivity of society, these large fees mean that lawyers are inaccessible to many people in our society and consequently these people are vulnerable to threats of lawsuits against which they cannot defend themselves (for, here, and here).

To be clear, I don't mean to imply that lawyers are intrinsically engaged in immoral or parasitic conduct; given how our legal system is structured, their work in necessary and it is part of how our society organizes itself. Lawyers (as a profession) even go out of their way to provide counsel to those people who cannot afford to hire lawyers at market rates; however, such charity does not undo the fundamental injustice of the situation, in either its magnitude or intrinsic nature*.

With that being said, let's get to the point: how can we change our laws to reduce the need for lawyers (and truly place them on the list of "Unneccesary People")? I propose that we abolish any legal actions arising from the following:
  1. Misuse of speech (e.g. libel, slander, inflicting emotional distress): The remedy for bad speech is good speech.
  2. Misuse of confidence(e.g Breach of contract, release of secrets, fraud): Be careful who you trust. Liberty is inalienable, and all relationships are "at will".
  3. Social Management (e.g Intellectual property, victimless crimes): Social structures and norms should arise from the bottom-up, in a non-violent manner.
Notice that the one part of the legal system that I did not propose gutting is the tort system. I don't see any way around needing a very serious legal system when one person forces himself on another. All proposals that I've seen to reform the tort system are nothing more than attempts to make it easier for the uber-parasites (with their corporate protections and armies of lawyers) to bully and steal from everyone else.

Likewise, there will be some situations in which there is no straightforward principle by which to decide ownership (for instance, with joint possessions, such as when a marriage or business partnership is being dissolved). These will require legal intervention.

As for the offences that I propose to remove from legal jurisdiction, this does not mean that those behaviors (e.g. slander) are acceptable; it only means that they should be dealt with in a non-violent manner.

The first two categories that I mentioned can be addressed within a reputation-based system. If a person is telling lies, then it should be made clear that he is a liar. If a person reneges on contracts, then it should be made clear that he cannot be trusted with responsibilities. These issues can be handled in an unstructured manner (as they often are), but they could also benefit from a formal process analogous to a lawsuit. However, the difference would be that there would be no forced confiscation of property or imprisonment; the lawsuit would conclude by publicly noting that a person has been found to be in the wrong (or not) with respect to a particular dispute, and he may be given instructions on what to do to resolve the dispute.

The laws designed for social management (whether funding public goods, or enforcing some view of morality or professional standards) should be enforced by non-violent social pressure. I doubt that any centralized formal system would be needed for their enforcement. Tax law could be included in this list, but this gets into a much more radical proposal than what I want to discuss now.

*The law profession in many ways looks like a state-enforced cartel.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Can I ever vote Republican?

I just added "Divided We Stand" to the blogroll on the right. I first encountered the author, "MW", at the Freedom Democrats blog, back when the Republicans controlled the entire Federal Government. He made the case that single-party government is generally a bad thing. Single-party rule leads to extreme, unstable policies, and also facilitates corruption. Speaking to libertarian concerns, single-party rule results in greater government spending.

I generally buy his argument. What's more, I dislike fanatical partisanship, and the core of the "Divided Government" strategy is the realization that voters should treat parties as part of the system of government, rather than identifying with one or the other. However, the limitation of the strategy is that voters need to vote for parties rather than individual candidates, and we can't have a strong preference for the policies of one party over the others.

So the question that faces me in November is whether I can vote against the Democrats. This shouldn't be too hard for me -- I've voted Democrat occasionally, but have never beet terribly happy with the party or the candidates. For instance, I don't have any particular fondness for Bob Casey, but I despised Rick Santorum, so I voted for Casey in 2006 (and the Republicans had the Presidency regardless).

Anyway, for the upcoming election, I looked at my choices to find a Republican Congressional candidate that I could vote for. No luck.

First, there's Pat Toomey for Senate. I don't remember what I dislike about him, but he left a bad impression six years ago when he challenged Specter for the Republican nomination. I also don't care for the Democrat, Joe Sestak.

There's also the House race, so I went to Project Vote Smart to get some info on who is challenging Mike Doyle (with whom I disagree a lot); and it is Melissa A. Haluszczak. She's an unknown (no ratings from interest groups), so I check out her website. Let's see if she takes any positions that are intolerable...

Under "Issues", there is Immigration. It's the only one I look at. Straight off, she calls for a range of punitive measures against illegal immigrants. She tops it off with a call to make English the national language. As an afterthought, she notes that immigrants (legal ones) are decent people. Okay, that about does it. There is no way I could support this woman.

So I'm not going to vote for either of the Republicans, but I'm also not going to vote for either Democrat--neither of them are good enough to justify the power that the Democratic party has. I guess that I am essentially going to sit out this election, and cast a protest vote (Haluszczak doesn't have a chance anyway). The Greens have candidates for both positions, and their issue positions range from exciting to tolerable -- except for their apparent desire to eliminate private-sector employment (e.g. 32 hour work week). The Libertarians have put up a candidate for Senate, but he doesn't have any web presence yet (nor does their candidate for Governor!), which is a bad sign for their campaigns this late in the process.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Apparently, it's okay to have paranoids running the state

Well, the title says it all:

WDUQNews: Homeland Security Newsletter Said Anti-Drilling Protesters Could Be Threats

Governor Ed Rendell says he’s angry and embarrassed Pennsylvania’s Office of Homeland Security provided information about environmental protests to drilling companies. But no administration officials will be fired or disciplined for the controversial security bulletin.
Of course no-one will be fired. No-one was fired for harassing professors Ferrel and Kurtz, no-one ever gets fired for this type of behavior. Harassing any American with an opinion might as well be official state policy. Rendell obviously sees no problem in the fact that the people running Homeland Security have no respect for our First Amendment rights. These people may even be downright paranoid....but that shouldn't stop them from holding a powerful government office.

Update: State Senator Ferlo is calling for someone's head.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

That bigoted pope...

To the extent that Catholicism is defined by acceptance of the authority of the pope (in any role -- religious, political, or corporate), I am anti-Catholic.*

In part it is because of my opposition to hierarchical social systems, and in part it is because of the pernicious opinions repeatedly expressed by the pope and other church leaders.

Most recently, the pope has claimed that the Nazis were the product of atheism:

Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny” (Caritas in Veritate, 29).
I have to interpret this as slander. You may question whether he really meant to say that Nazism was the product of atheism--he doesn't say it directly, but in the context of his speech I cannot find any other interpretation for the above paragraph.

The Nazis were not atheist my any means. Based on what I know about Nazi politics, what I remember from books like "They thought they were free" and read in Wikipedia, the Nazis were not an atheist movement. Like all totalitarian regimes, they sought to destroy any independent authority (such as churches), but they did not do this by promoting atheism. At one point they promoted a pagan religious system, but they faced too much resistance from the German people so they instead settled for co-opting Christianity.

The idea that they would advocate atheism is ridiculous in light of the fact that one of the main pillars of the fascist regimes was anti-communism -- and the communist movement at that time was dominated by an explicitly anti-theist school of thought

The pope's defenders will probably say that even though the Nazi party did not advocate for atheism, the leaders had rejected God and were atheists at heart. Leaving aside the fact that this probably makes all non-Catholics into atheists, it is nothing more than the classic bigots defense. Bigots regularly redefine identity words (white, black, jew, atheist) so that they can use it to belittle others and redefine the world according to their hateful ideology. "White" means greedy. "Black" means lustful. They redefine these terms as a way of denying any association with unpopular people (a few popes come to mind), while associating those outcasts with whatever group the bigot wants to scapegoat.

If the pope thinks that he can see into people's souls (and all atheists are the same), then he is either delusional or a liar. If he is saying that the Nazis advocated atheism, he is either as ignorant as your typical Klansman, or he's just another power-monger who values the influence of his own institution over human fellowship or the truth. In other words, he's probably what he would call "an atheist".

*The other level at which I am anti-Catholic is political. The Catholic Church regularly acts as a political advocacy group (and they are especially blunt about it in Latin America), so to say that one is anti-Catholic is no different than saying that one is anti-Republican or anti-Nazi. Of course, the Catholic Church is nowhere near as bad as the Nazis at the moment, but the basic issue is the same.

tip to Evolving thoughts

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Happy Patriot's Day

Too bad that about 2.3 million Americans are in prison.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Do you trust your political opponents?

Via Libérale et libertaire, I've been discussing "the Horowitz Challenge":
The next time you’re engaged in a political discussion with someone who has very strong views different from your own, ask them if they can name two famous thinkers or politicians whose politics are opposed to theirs who they also think are very smart and genuinely concerned with making the world a better place. If they can’t, it’s not clear they are able to grant the good faith such discussions should have.

I'm stuck on the criteria of "genuinely concerned with making the world a better place". Sure, plenty of my political opponents want to make the world a better place, but they are domineering and even megalomaniacal about it. Basically, the way that they would make the world a better place is to force everyone else to conform to their own ethical and ideological system.

I can really only interpret "make the world a better place" as meaning "generally improve the welfare of humanity." There are plenty of people out there (including many Americans) who clearly indicate that they view vast swaths of humanity as their enemy, for no reason other than a difference in culture, values, or lifestyle. These people will identify someone as an enemy even if that person has never expressed any ill intent towards them, or acted in any way that is clearly harmful to others.

These people are commonly known as culture warriors. Some culture warriors only use the arsenal of cultural confrontation -- such as rhetoric. However, others think nothing of using violence (including the state). This later group ranges from the "Clash of Civilization" Islamophobes who want to bomb foreign countries back to the stone age and shut down mosques in America, to the Drug Warriors who intend to "scare straight" all of those hippies and ravers. These people clearly do not want to make the world a better place for people with different cultures. They explicitly intend to cripple others who pose no material threat to themselves.

The thing about these people is that their enemies list knows no bounds. We see that it is generally the same group of people who attack all of these different subcultural groups. In contemporary America, they are generally a particular type of Republican. They attack religions minorities, cultural minorities, political minorities. If many of these minorities are free from harassment in modern America, it is only because we have fought these bigots to a standstill or we have learned how to avoid their attention, and they have turned their attention to less powerful groups. However, if those less powerful groups weren't around to distract them, then they would again turn their hate towards the more established minorities.

So basically, I believe that these people want to destroy me. There is no excuse for their advocacy of policies such as imprisonment (or even fines) for things like drug use. People who do so are my enemy, and I cannot trust them. I can only have a good faith debate with them in the most abstract sense, but ultimately, for my self preservation and the preservation of everything I value, I must hide from them and undermine their agenda at every opportunity.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Religious War in NYC

It never ends. The Right-Wing Noise Machine* has found a new spin for the (near) Ground Zero (semi) Mosque** (GZM) story, assuring that it will live for another week. I had the rare opportunity to listen to Rush Limbaugh today, and he was ranting about Saint Nicholas church not being rebuilt. The basic story is that the church building was adjacent to the WTC site, and was crushed when the south tower fell. The church has yet to be rebuilt due problems coordinating with the Port Authority, which is responsible for the renovation and rebuilding of the WTC site.

Some bloviators are contrasting the difficulties facing this church against the supposed ease with which the the GZM project is proceeding. They take this as evidence that government officials --and by extension "the elite", which includes everyone who disagrees with them-- favor Islam over Christianity. This recent spectacle of demagoguery comes to us thanks to George Demos, a Republican candidate for Congress in NY. He apparently finds it easier to get elected on a campaign of FUD targeted at local activists, instead of directing constituent attention to substantial policy issues, or even his competition in the election. While I'm sure that the St. Nicholas congregants appreciate the attention that their cause is getting, I'm guessing that they (especially the officers) want nothing to do with this divisive issue of the GZM

Before picking apart the comparison between the GZM and St. Nicholas church, I want to present this Google Earth image of the WTC site. There are two things to pay attention to:
  1. St Nicholas is within the reconstruction/renovation zone, immediately adjacent to the WTC site. It is in the SE corner (there's a map with this NYT story). It is actually in a location where the Port Authority wants to build a park and an underground bus/truck screening center.***
  2. The Cordoba House is two full blocks away from the WTC site (I have it marked in the map). It is intended to be 13 stories tall. I counted 16 stories on the building that separates it from the WTC site.

View Larger Map

(Update: street view)

View Larger Map
Okay, here are some important differences between the church and the mosque:
  1. The church site is in the middle of an incredibly complex reconstruction and renovation project. The Port Authority may have bumbled this project, and made it more complex than is necessary, but nobody is forbidding the church from building in that area (immediately adjacent to the WTC). The problems arise from trying to figure out what is the best site for the building, how it will fit into new zoning regulations, and who will pay for it. The zoning issue would not exist if they were simply planning to rebuild the original building, but they want to build a much larger structure. The financial issue is especially tricky since the Port Authority is building underneath the WTC site, including the church site.
  2. In contrast, the opponents of the mosque would forbid them from building anywhere in the general vicinity of the WTC. Furthermore, the barriers that they would place in front of the mosque construction are not based on any practical considerations -- they just dislike the religion that would be the focus of the project.
I guess that's really the entire difference between the two construction projects. One is held up by a coordination problem, the other would be forbidden for ideological reasons. The opponents of the mosque act like they are so liberal because they don't want to expel all Muslims from the USA, they just insist that Muslims keep their heads down and constantly apologize for the actions of other Muslims. It is ridiculous that they accuse Bloomberg and others of facilitating the mosque, when all that they have done is speak up for it in the face of this ideological onslaught being led by Republican office-seekers.

*I don't think I've ever used the term "Right Wing noise-machine", but I couldn't think of any better description of those media outlets who pick up on Republican talking points and never shut up about them.
**The GZM is not on the WTC site, or even adjacet to it. It also apparently would not even qualify as a mosque since it will have a food court and performance space. It will have a large prayer room and hold Friday services, but that will only occupy a portion of the building. It is also said to be built from glass and steel, so it won't have the traditional architecture of a mosque.
***The transportation system that they are building makes no sense to me. Maybe it will work out well, but it seems like they have too many conflicting demands. Maybe that's just how transportation is in NYC.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Why all the Chinese comment spam?

This may explain why CAPTCHA is unable to keep the Chinese comment spam off of my blog -- Chinese sweatshops are full of workers who are paid to post this spam. What confuses me is that Google has not elected to harness the power of these spammers by using Re-CAPTCHA.

from CAPTCHA Economics at Marginal Revolution:

Bottom line:

  • Prices run about $1 per thousand CAPTCHAs solved, depending on the time of day and demand.
  • The median response time to solve a CAPTCHA is 14 seconds and accuracy runs about 90%.
  • "[T]he business of solving CAPTCHAs, a well developed, highly-competitive industry with the capacity to solve on the order of a million CAPTCHAs per day."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Responding to Muslim influence

please pardon this ramble from 2AM

I'm increasingly bothered by the continuing fuss (not debate) over the Cordoba House, a.k.a "the ground zero mosque". As I mentioned before, this is a particularly strong exhibition of irrationalist xenophobic nationalism. The irrationalism of this whole thing is emphasized with how much energy is being harnessed for ... nothing.

I say that there is no debate (and all the agitation is focused on irrational feelings) because nothing can be done about the Cordoba house. There is nothing illegal about building it, and there cannot be anything illegal about it because to do so would blatantly violate the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Their donors are very unlikely to back out of this project (though maybe if the donor list is made public, they can be intimidated). In other words, there is no legal way to force the Cordoba House to shut down. In spite of this, a bunch of people are making this into a political issue.

I'm figuring that the politicians are just demagogues who have decided that they can ride this non-issue to power. Other organizers are probably more concerned with creating an "us vs. them" mentality (and constructing mailing lists). In that way, it reminds me of the anti-war protests that were held on the eve of the Iraq invasion (after the decisions had been made and the elections completed).

Anyway, there seem to be two semi-reasonable concerns related to the construction of this "mosque", and the general increase of Muslim influence in America. First, there is concern that foreign terrorists will be able to blend into these American Muslim communities. Second, is that Muslims will become a political force in some places, as they apparently have in Europe, and start demanding that we change our ways in order to not offend their sensibilities.

Neither of these concerns are totally reasonable for the basic reason that my fears do not justify the infringement of other people's liberty. It applies to gun ownership, just as it does to religious movements.

This second issue ties into some of the plans being laid by opponents of the mosque. Over at Free Republic, there is a semi-serious proposal to perform various "anti-muslim" acts in the vicinity of the mosque, from opening a gay bar, to a pork factory. Of course, these proposals are meant to explicitly antagonize the Muslims, in retaliation for the perceived insult of building a mosque near ground zero.

But we could also approach them as an issue of setting boundaries. We want to make sure that the congregation here doesn't start to think that the area around the building is their private property and that they can dictate what others do there (whether promote homosexuality, serve alcohol, process pork, or wear skimpy clothing).

There may be some benefit in making it clear that they have to tolerate us just as we are willing to tolerate them. After all, despite all of their liberal platitudes, the people building this mosque have political views that are on the far right of the American culture wars.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Revival of irrationalism?

I haven't been closely following the furor over the proposed Islamic Center in NYC, but now that the ADL has come out against the building of the center, I'm starting to think this is something more than the regular nationalistic posturing.

From their statement, their opposition is based on nothing more than vague conspiracy theories (the ADL should be sensitive to such defamation). But from a NYT article, one particular quote caught my attention:

“It’s the wrong place,” Mr. Foxman said. “Find another place.”

Asked why the opposition of the families was so pivotal in the decision, Mr. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, said they were entitled to their emotions.

“Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational,” he said. Referring to the loved ones of Sept. 11 victims, he said, “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.”

According to the NYT article, most of the opposition to this project comes from outside of NYC...from nationalist demagogues who want to absorb the WTC site into their holy-war mythology.

So, Foxman is saying that we should embrace this nationalistic irrationalism, and allow one group of people to push around another group because we sympathize with the trauma felt by the pushers. Well, I'll let Foxman in on a little secret -- there's lot's of trauma in the world, and very little of it gets into the national news. If we single out certain victims because everyone noticed and shared in their trauma, then we are not being compassionate, we are playing politics. And it is the ugliest and worst kind of politics -- the same kind that gave us the Nazis.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Symbolism for President!

The content below was originally published at Freedom Democrats back in August of 2008. It came to mind due to a good essay about racism and race-based voting that I commented on over at the Libertarian Standard.

The below pro-Obama video is funny in the "turn your own arguments against you" kinda of way. I don't have a whole lot to say about the theme behind it, except to point out that electing a President is largely about symbolism. Modern Presidents are as much (or more so) a symbol as an administrator. The act of voting is purely symbolic.

Why shouldn't we consciously choose symbolism, especially when the real substance is hidden behind smoke and mirrors?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The threat of cyberwar (roundup)

There has recently been a good bit of media coverage of the issue of "cyberwar". An article at the Economist gives a good overview of the debates regarding the threat of cyberwar and what America and its allies are doing to prepare. They describe two basic levels of cyberwar -- espionage and sabotage:
The next step after penetrating networks to steal data is to disrupt or manipulate them.
Since so much of this discussion is focused on surveillance and secrecy, I'm going to include recent articles on those topics. I won't provide any substantial commentary, just some choice quotes.

NPR has an article covering the concerns of cyber-alarmists; James Gosler describes the challenge and our inadequate preparation:
"You can have vulnerabilities in the fundamentals of the technology, you can have vulnerabilities introduced based on how that technology is implemented, and you can have vulnerabilities introduced through the artificial applications that are built on that fundamental technology," Gosler says. "It takes a very skilled person to operate at that level, and we don't have enough of them."
Gosler estimates there are now only 1,000 people in the entire United States with the sophisticated skills needed for the most demanding cyberdefense tasks. To meet the computer security needs of U.S. government agencies and large corporations, he says, a force of 20,000 to 30,000 similarly skilled specialists is needed.
So basically, every smart person in the US should work for the CIA/NSA. That's a bit of exaggeration, but Gosler is still suggesting a massive allocation of resources to the field of cyberdefense, a large portion of which will involve secret government agencies (for a sense of scale, there are about 30,000 science and engineering PhD's awarded each year in the USA).

For all the hype about the threat from China, the Economist has this to say:
Western spooks think China deploys the most assiduous, and most shameless, cyberspies, but Russian ones are probably more skilled and subtle. Top of the league, say the spooks, are still America’s NSA and Britain’s GCHQ, which may explain why Western countries have until recently been reluctant to complain too loudly about computer snooping.
Of course the USA is still the best at cracking codes and spying on communications (rember the establishment of warrentless wiretaps from the NSA). But that doesn't mean we should let down our guard. Here's a long but telling quote from the NPR story:

The cyber manpower crisis in the United States stands in sharp contrast to the situation in China, where the training of computer experts is a top national priority ...

The Chinese government, in fact, appears to be systematically building a cyberwarrior force.

"Every military district of the Peoples' Liberation Army runs a competition every spring," says Alan Paller of SANS, "and they search for kids who might have gotten caught hacking."

One of the Chinese youths who won that competition had earlier been caught hacking into a Japanese computer, according to Paller, only to be rewarded with extra training....

Some members of Congress, eager to follow China's example, are now promoting a U.S. Cyber Challenge, a national talent search at the high school level....

Last year's preliminary Cyber Challenge game was won by a 17-year-old from Connecticut — Michael Coppola — who was smart enough to hack into the game computer and add points to his own score.

... the competition judges were so impressed by Coppola's ability to hack into the computer game that they actually rewarded him for changing his score.

"It's cheating," Michael says, "but it's like the entire game is cheating."

Indeed. People who know how to cheat will soon be on the front lines of cyber defense...

So,the ethic of these new "cyber-soldiers" is to do whatever it takes to win (Just one more way that the USA emulates the People's [sic] Republic of China). They are even rewarding "soldiers" who attack non-target computers as part of their strategy. As they say, the "whole game is cheating". So much for the myth that there can be rules in war...this seems morally equivalent to Germany marching through Belgium to attack France, or Hamas launching rockets at Israel from within urban areas. What is the chance that these "cyber-warriors" will flinch at taking over your personal computer to use it as a weapon against their enemies? Not much different from the Russian mafia with their bot-nets.

Well, I'm out of time, but here are a couple of other stories to think about:

The American security apparatus is out of control, and now includes almost a million people with top-secret security clearance. Soon enough, there won't be anything special about having security clearance -- what will make you special is if you don't have security clearance. To paraphrase Noam Chomsky: covert actions are only secret from the domestic population.

For some context, Kevin Carson has been expounding on how the National Security apparatus is becoming involved (or can be expected to get involved in) in all sorts of traditional law-enforcement activities, from the drug war, to copyright infringement, and just harassing dissidents.

Update: I should mention that this was inspired by a post at "The Ruling Class" blog, called, of all things, The Ruling Class.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

from Confessions of a Community College Dean: When Students are Homophobic

Confessions of a Community College Dean: When Students are Homophobic

This is an interesting little story about how a teacher (and school administrators) should respond to bigotry from students.

The comments are pretty good also (aside from the partisan sparring over whether conservatives/Republicans are bigots). My only contribution is to point out that everyone has power....even "subordinates". Power is a diverse and dynamic thing -- not a simple and static hierarchy. It can be direct (physical threats) or indirect (social influence). Indirect power can be formal (a landlord being able to call the cops to evict a tenant) or informal (defaming someone's character).

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Krugman the Hegemon

At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen picks apart Paul Krugmn's vague proposal that the US should "send a message to the Germans: we are not going to let them export the consequences of their obsession with austerity".

Leaving aside the technical issues (which Cowen covers), I want to point out a deeper problem with Krugman's proposal (applying to both China and Germany). Krugman basically wants to use other countries as a scapegoat for the fact that the American economic system is unstable. His solution to the problem of our own instability is to find some way to pressure other countries to adopt policies that complement our own system, or perhaps retreat into isolationism.

I don't see how it is the fault of Germans or Chinese if Americans want to spend all of our money on frivolous shit. If the Germans and Chinese want to sell us stuff at deflated prices, then we should either take advantage of these bargains to build useful infrastructure, or we should not buy their stuff. This is our choice, and it seems disingenuous to blame others for these problems.

Of course, this entire debate is built around the consumerist economic model, where everyone needs to buy silly junk just to make sure that everyone else can have a job. Of course, it skips the obvious question of why each person's ability to make a living is dependent upon these macroeconomic conditions. Aside from the basic issues of the benefits arising from cooperation/trade, why is it that our employment is structured in a manner where some people have much more money than they really need, while others can barely scrounge up a meal.

Aside from these issues of wealth distribution, there is also the problem that our consumerist economy may not be sustainable. We are depleting mineral resources, over-harvesting biological resources, and polluting our environment -- but our lead economists can only offer solutions that involve ever-increasing demand for stuff, no matter how pointless that stuff is in itself.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

America's Climate Choices

The National Research Council (part of the National Academies) has released three new reports as part of the series called America's Climate Choices. The three reports are Advancing the Science of Climate Change,Limiting the Magnitude of Climate Change, and Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change.

I believe that these should be treated as authoritative resources on this issue. The National Academies are institutions composed of America's most accomplished researchers, with a long history of excellence and political independence (though its members probably do have a leftish bias). I'm much more comfortable with their conclusions than I am with the U.N.'s ad hoc organizations such as theIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. While the IPCC basically agrees with the conclusions put forth by other bodies of experts, the fact that it has a narrow charter from the UN makes me doubt its political independence, both in terms of its agenda and its selection of experts. America is fortunate enough to have its own collection of domestic experts who can report on these topics from an American perspective.

Two more reports are in progress, and these above reports are considered "pre-publication" so there is some restrictions on how you can read them. However, short summary reports (PDFs) are freely available, and the full report can be read on the web for free, or downloaded for only $2.50. I expect that it will be free in the future, as other National Academy reports are.



Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Competition as the foundation of a fair society

Cross-posted to FreedomDemocrats

Support for competitive markets is often associated with aristocratic ideas such as elevating the innately talented and motivating the innately lazy. Alternatively, some advocates for competitive markets focus on their role in distributing information, thereby guiding workers towards the projects that are most valuable to other members of society. In all this talk about excellence and efficiency, where is the concern for fairness?

In popular perception, competition is the antithesis of fairness. Competition in games results in winners and losers. There is no difference between losing by one point and losing by a hundred; either way, the loser gets nothing. To make things worse, there is always some luck involved in competitions, so even if two competitors are truly equal, one of them will still lose (especially if there is a "sudden death overtime" rule). Such a winner-takes-all setup may be good and fine for recreation, but it is hardly the way that we want to make a living and structure our community. People want some stability in their lives, and an economic system that provides no individual stability is practically worthless, regardless of its society-wide benefits. What's more, human society and productivity is premised upon cooperative behaviors, so cut-throat competition undermines the foundation of a productive economy.

With this perspective, it is easy to view economic competition as a maladaptive behavior to be suppressed, rather than it being the foundation of a fair and prosperous economy. However, this anti-competitive perspective ignores the fundamental differences between economic competition and the "game competition" described above.

First, economic competition is secondary to, and supportive of cooperation. For instance, salesmen don't compete with each other in a vacuum; they compete for the privilege of doing business with a customer. The primary interaction here is the mutually beneficial exchange between the customer and the salesman. The competition between salesmen is secondary. Contrary to the hypothesis that economic competition destroys cooperation, the competition between salesmen actually increases the total number of mutually beneficial transactions between salesmen and customers because it encourages salesmen to provide better deals to their customers.

Second, economic competition is not necessarily a winner-takes-all game. Consider the competition among salesmen again. Each salesman has a limited ability to identify customers and convince them to do business with him. Most simply, he does not have the time to sit down with every person in his town to negotiate deals, nor does he have the logistical capacity to provide them with every product that they may want. The limits of any one salesman means that there is unsatisfied demand that can be met by other salesmen. A good salesman will have a higher income than his less effective peers (because he either has a larger market or makes a greater profit on each sale), but he will not prevent them from making a decent living--at least in markets that approximate this simplistic model of a competitive market.

Our values of fairness and cooperation are only violated when competition takes the form of a winner-take-all game--which I'll call hyper-competition. In fact, hyper-competition often arises because something has undermined regular competition, and replaced its fair distribution mechanisms with the unfair distribution mechanisms of a monopoly following a brief, intense competition (examples below). Consequently, those of us interested in economic fairness should advocate for regular competition, and fight against hyper-competition.

--Examples of hyper-competition--

Patents: Patents are form of intellectual property--a state privilege that provides the owner with the right to exclude others from selling a particular good or service. Patents are initially granted to the inventor of a strategy to solve a problem. Because it is possible for multiple inventors to develop the same general strategy for solving a problem, patents can create a race to be the first to record their solution to the problem. Consequently, competing teams may lose all of their investment if they are not the first to find a solution. Side note: Ayn Rand, with her aristocratic view of competition, justifies this situation by treating it as a normal part of competition, and treating patents as laws of nature rather than laws of men.

Corporations in a market: There's an argument to be made that for corporations in a new market, "slow growth equals slow death". The idea is that a large competitor automatically has a major advantage over their smaller rivals, due to various economies of scale, and will eventually crowd out their rivals. This may be the most prevalent form of hyper-competition in our economy, and this may make it seem like an intrinsic part of competitive markets. Kevin Carson has written a lot about artificial contributors to economies of scale, but the above author (inspired by Geoffrey Moore) doesn't seem to focus on the same mechanisms that Carson has. Instead, this author seems to focus on how consumer's respond to bigness; the companies benefit from name recognition, the network effect, and a general credibility that is associated with bigness. These observations suggest that hyper-competition arises from the corporate structure itself, and its ability to expand to fill the entire market, no matter how big. This may not be a problem if the corporate structure allowed for high levels of autonomy within the corporation (for instance, a franchise brand), but most corporations completely subsume all aspects of production, not just the components (e.g. branding and intellectual propety) that are particularly responsive to scale.

Tournament Markets: Some labor markets fall into a tournament (winner-take-all) structure. This is actually well studied by economists (see Wikipedia for links). This tournament structure may result from reputational positive-feedback -- achievements generate reputation, which produces opportunities, leading to more achievements. This plays a role in academia, and is similar to the corporate competition mentioned above. Sometimes employers explicitly use tournament logic as a strategy to motivate employees, though its value is debatable.

Monopolistic practices: In general, if one market participant can exclude newcomers from entering the market, then it can gain very large rewards for being the first to be established. There are many practices in this category, but the most egregious are those that are enabled by the state, such as the enforcement of non-compete clauses in employee contracts. These practices can even apply more broadly, by making sure that certain high-paying professions are more accessible to those who are born into wealth, thereby protecting wealth that may have been earned (or plundered) in earlier competitive activities. See the Conservative Nanny State for examples.

Elections: Elections are perhaps the cleanest example of a winner-take-all competition that has a real impact on our lives. As with any job opening, the individual candidates will "win" or "lose", but because those candidates represent different factions in society, elections result in widespread winning and losing across society. Many citizens don't ever win, because none of the "serious" candidates share their concerns. Even in the legislature, the pattern of "winning and losing" continues as the majority passes legislation over the objection of the minority, though members of the legislative minority still get some influence.

Indeed, the hyper-competition of politics seems to be the source of much of the hyper-competition in society as large, as various special interest groups vie for political power that they can transform into special economic privileges. The observation of deep hyper-competition at the core of the state should give pause to any who intend to use the state to promote fairness in society. Perhaps their first goal should be to assure fairness within the state itself.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

What do scientists think? (last post for awhile)

Many contentious social and political issues are informed by scientific research. Debates on these issues often appeal to the authority of the researchers in this field. Consulting experts is good component of a decision-making strategy when we don't have the time to thoroughly investigate some issue personally.

However, this still requires that we answer two questions:
  1. who are the credible experts?
  2. what do they think?
I'll get back to these issues in a moment, but I first want to point to a underutilized resource for answering these questions: the National Academies, including the National Academy of Sciences(NAS). The National Academies regularly produce reports on issues of interest to the public, including Climate Change, and Evolution. The National Academies assemble committees of experts on a given topic, which then produce reports that state the opinions of the experts and also review much of the evidence behind their opinions. If you want to know what scientists believe about some field of research and why they believe it, first go to the NAS.

Given the availability of these resources, it's distressing that many people harbor severe misimpressions about expert opinion. Typical errors include the misidentification of experts and exaggeration of the influence of fringe opinions within the research community.

One common error in identifying experts is to consider all scientists to be experts in all fields of research, or all members of a field (e.g. biology) to be experts in all subfields within that field. Even within a subfield (e.g. microbial evolution), there are many lines of research being performed and expertise is not evenly distributed. I think that part of the reason for this error is that the public often isn't aware of the vast amount of research being done these days (which is only going to increase as the global economy expands).

It's true that a scientist may be better than a non-scientist at interpreting the debates in a random field of science, but there are still plenty of people who will have greater expertise than that random scientist. This is the idea behind the reports issued by the NAS: non-scientists turn to scientists as a whole for expertise, and scientists then identify those among their ranks with the greatest expertise.

Another common error regarding expert opinion is to identify one or a few experts (or near-experts) with a particular opinion and then interpreting that opinion to be common among the community of researchers. To make it worse, this one dissident's deviation from the standard opinion is often exaggerated and interpreted as dissent from the core components of the standard theory, rather than being dissent from a particular aspect of the theory (I've seen this with evolution, global warming, and HIV as the cause of AIDS).

Dissent is essential to scientific progress, and scientists often give disproportionate attention to dissenting opinions, if for no other reason than that without disagreement there is nothing to research. However, this emphasis on dissent within the scientific community should not translate into giving dissenters excess influence in public discourse. There are many reasons that a person can arrive at an erroneous conclusion, so there is not much information in the fact that people disagree. Going by the principle that there is one correct opinion and many erroneous opinions, we should pay attention when a large number of experts agree on a point, and not give much attention to the scattered and diverse dissensions (unless you are interested in the issue for purely intellectual reasons).

Unfortunately, the public and the press is good at finding a few voices that provide whatever opinion they want to hear, yet are incapable of surveying the opinion of the large number of experts who hold the dominant opinion...probably because those experts are doing research rather than writing blogs or talking to reporters. This is why we have reports from the NAS.

People also feel that they should be directly informed about the issues affecting their lives, and want to see both sides of "the debate", even though the debate is often driven by groups with an economic or ideological interest in persuading others to the view the world in a particular way. For those who want to rely on experts for guidance but not conclusions, the public debate often degrades into an exchange between two experts (e.g. ClimateSci and RealClimate). While the reader will still have nothing resembling expertise, I suppose that they can more directly evaluate the credibility of the two experts. However, they need to keep in mind that if the blogger representing the dominant view does something that discredits his personal opinion, the reader still has to contend with the credibility of everyone else who supports the majority view.