Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Global Warming libertarians

Peter Gleick, a prominent climate researcher and scientific popularizer, was recently disgraced due to his use of a false pretense to acquire internal Heartland Institute documents. This whole story (starting with the publication of the Heartland documents) is reviving the idea that there is something "libertarian" about denying the science of global warming. For instance, if you look at the story that I linked to, you'll see Heartland described as a "libertarian" think thank.

I cringe at that association, but I regretfully cannot argue that Heartland is just a tag-along in the libertarian movement -- their roots go back to the origins of the "think-tank" component of the libertarian movement.

Since I cannot disown them from the libertarian movement, I can only discredit their approach to climate change, and point out how they discredit the libertarian movement by politicizing science.

With that, I suggest the following blog articles, the first being by Kevin Carson at the Center for a Stateless Society, and the rest being my own thoughts as published at the (defunct) Freedom Democrats blog:
Unfortunately, these writings do not address all relevant issues, but should make the point that global warming denial is not a libertarian position. We all need to come to grips with the fact that human activity can change the climate, and this will only become more true in the future as our technologies advance. Libertarianism can handle this reality as well as any other ideology can.

Activism: looking in, looking out (libertarians and climate science)

Originally published at Freedom Democrats in 2009

The main goal of ideological advocacy is expand the influence of a particular ideology among the general public. I define an ideological movement as a group of advocates for an overlapping set of ideologies, who recognize their shared interests. These advocates will frequently look to each other for intellectual and material resources, which aid them in their primary task of expanding the influence of their ideologies. While most of their attention will focus on contrasting their own ideology against others that influence the general public, some of their attention will be focused inwards--evaluating disagreements within the movement.

While there are definitely benefits to some degree of introspection within the movement, I've noticed a tendency for people to go overboard and focus on internal squabbles to the detriment of the original goal of advocacy. There are probably many reasons for such navel-gazing, ranging form a concern with one's own social circle to finding more satisfaction to debating with others who share at least a few common assumptions, but I don't want to get too deep into that speculation. What I want to focus on here is an example of productive introspection, and how a lot of people seemed to miss the point.

Over at the Center for a Stateless Society, Kevin Carson wrote an essay called "Libertarians for Junk Science". I thought it was a very well focused and relevant essay. He starts with the premise that there is a scientifically valid risk of man-made climate change, that will cause major harm in at least a few ways. This has long been the mainstream opinion among scientists, and it has finally become the mainstream opinion among the public. Carson takes a faction of libertarians to task for obsessively denying the science here, accusing them of providing a disservice both to science and libertarianism.

Carson's essay is primarily focused inwards, but it can also provide an outsider with greater respect for libertarianism. Carson asserts that climate-change denialism is driven by the fear that the reality of man-made climate change would invalidate libertarianism, then argues that there is no reason for this fear. This point is of immense importance because if the public believes that climate change invalidates libertarianism, then libertarianism is dead. Even if the greenhouse gas effect turns out to be benign, our ability to modify the climate will only increase in the future and we will eventually have to deal with these sorts of issues. Carson provides an explanation for non-libertarians, and asks libertarians to stop framing the issue in a way that discredits liberty.

Unfortunately, his audience (as represented by the comments) seemed to miss the point. One commenter (Schulman) immediately turns to navel-gazing, debating whether Carson is a real libertarian. Another (Kinsella) ignores Carson's critical introspection, apparently interpreting it as an attack on libertarianism and insisting that statists are much more prone to ideology driven pseudoscience than libertarians are. While this is an interesting issue, it is beyond tangential and it wasn't clear that the commenter recognized it.

A final note on the comment thread, is that it was full of standard denialist rhetoric (I've become familiar with it from the evolution/creation debates). The core of this rhetoric was misrepresentation of scientific opinion. Understandably, it is hard for a layman to get a good grasp of the issues, since they don't have the time that a professional has and they are often getting their information second-hand from reporters and activists who don't have a great understanding themselves. One consequence of this misunderstanding is the "magic bullet" refutation -- acting as though one inconsistency is sufficient to demolish a body of theory that has been built by hundreds if not thousands of research projects (and often, that apparent inconsistency has already been addressed). I also got the impression that some commentators have spent more time reading fringe opinions (both for and against climate change legislation) than they have spent reading the opinions of mainstream scientists or policymakers.  They seem unable to distinguish between the ideas of opposing ideological advocates, such as radical environmentalists, and those of the mainstream scientists and technocrats whose ideas form the solid foundation of public debate.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The conservative fallacy: "someone -> anyone -> everyone"

Back in my days of Swords Crossed debates, I read an argument that Americans are in control of their own economic success. This argument was built upon the observation that several people from low-income backgrounds had managed to earn high incomes during their working lives. This belief is a cornerstone of economic conservatism, since it dismisses the need for economic reform and supports the idea that differences in wealth are the result of personal choices.

However, this argument is based on some pretty sloppy logic, which is commonly employed by conservatives without much thought. I just encountered it again coming from Bryan Caplan (via Anagory) and figure I should put my criticism up for critique. Caplan's basic argument is that high income people have achieved their success in part by "being meek", and that many low income (i.e. working class) people are held back by their lack of meekness. He concludes by implying that if only the working class would me more meek, America could be saved from the emergence of the permanent underclass that Charles Murray harps about.

So let me break down the argument:
  • Some people have achieved success by being meek.
  • Anyone else can also achieve success by likewise being meek.
  • Everyone can achieve success by following this strategy.
Let me first enter the caveat that Caplan does not explicitly follow this entire chain of logic; he seems to be equivocal on the second point, and perhaps completely deviates from the third point (I'll discuss this at the end). However, he puts this in the context of Charles Murray's campaign to teach the lower classes how to be upper class, so that implies that this could be a strategy by which everyone could achieve prosperity and status.

So here's my criticism. First, the fact that someone achieved success by following a particular strategy does not mean that everyone can achieve success by the same strategy, even leaving aside the issue of variation in talents. There is randomness in the world, and one strategy will produce both winners and losers. That's not to say that some strategies aren't better than others, just that we can't attribute all differences in outcome to different choices.

Second, even if the strategy could work for anyone, that does not mean that it could work for everyone simultaneously. This is evident from some pretty basic and well established economic models relating to the growth of competitive industries -- that large profits in an industry attract new suppliers to enter the trade, resulting in lower prices and smaller profits. In other words, while one person could get rich by entering this particular market, if everyone tried to do the same thing, no-one would get rich (but they would get normal wages, and the customers would be happy with the low prices).

Another scenario where anyone does not imply everyone is illustrated by elections: even if anyone could be President, there can still only be one President. While politics may be a special case of hyper-competition (as opposed to the regular competition described above), I think that a lot of the success stories trotted out by conservatives (e.g. Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordon) involve the same dynamics, where individuals made their fortune by attaining a prominent position in society, and providing a service that by the nature of being a society-wide service necessarily was limited to only a few providers. In other words, there can only be a limited number of celebrities whom "everyone is talking about".

Finally, to be fair to Caplan, his argument does not precisely fit this chain of logic. First, he points out that some people can benefit from being overly assertive, but they are the people who are already at the top of the hierarchy or otherwise have a major bargaining chip, and the "meekness" prescription only applies to the rest of us slobs. Second, he seems to frame the benefit of "meekness" as a competitive tool for climbing up the professional ladder, not as a way for low income people to generally increase their productivity and wages. As such, he doesn't really imply that this strategy would "work" for everyone. However, in this case he deviates from the philanthropic motivation behind Murray's campaign, and is basically just telling the lower classes to know their place.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Elections are not worth our attention

"Conventional wisdom" holds that citizens of democratic states have an obligation to cast an informed vote for the leaders of the states (or referenda, if applicable). This idea forms the ideological foundation of a news culture where the actions of politicians are examined in excruciating detail, both while in office and while on the campaign trail. While I'm sick of hearing about the election horse-race and political theater, I am still sympathetic to the principle that voting is important, but I have not heard a convincing justification for this position. Without a good justification, I have no basis on which to approach the details of this decision -- just what am I trying to achieve by voting?

Some commentators take an emotionalist position on this topic. For instance:
Voting is a privilege and a right given to us by virtue of living in a free society — we don’t need a rational choice framework to provide a reason for participating in the process.
Of course, this doesn't answer the question at all. Why should I consider voting to be "a privilege"? Why would it matter if I didn't vote?

Other commentators have attempted to answer this question rationally, but I still find their arguments wanting. Here we focus on probabilities and expected payoffs.

The main problem to be overcome is that there is a very low chance of a voter influencing the election (about 1 in a million for the Presidential election, if the voter is in a battleground state). Sometimes people have more influence, such as pundits or multi-millionaires who can sway a substantial number of votes, or when the electorate is small. But most regular people -- no matter how smart and informed -- are not going to have substantial influence on the election.

The way to overcome this lack of influence is to focus on the scale of the benefit, should we sway the election. If we figure that one candidate is $1.5 billion more valuable than the other (i.e. $50 per American), then the one in a million chance of swaying the election seems pretty good. Based on these numbers, I figure my vote is worth $1,500;  I'd give up an hour of my time to get that lottery ticket.

My concern is that this "deal" quickly falls apart once we realize that buying that ticket is not as simple as walking to the voting booth, waiting in line, and casting my vote. There is actually a risk that I will vote for the wrong candidate, and end up costing America $1.5 billion. Yikes. In fact, a quick analysis indicates that I have about equal chances of getting it right or wrong in the Presidential election. Basically, since I'm not a partisan fanatic, I have to assume that most voters are just as smart and altruistic as I am, yet about half of them would choose the other candidate. Clearly, selecting the right candidate is not a simple decision. Ironically, the situations in which I'm most likely to affect the outcome of the election are the very situations when I would have the least confidence in my decision (i.e. when the vote is evenly split).

Having realized the responsibility that I bear as a voter, I could decide to collect more information about the candidates so that I am able to make an informed decision. Even if I cannot go into the voting booth with absolute certainty in my decision, perhaps it is enough to increase my confidence to 75%, or even 60%. Maybe it's worth voting even if I only have 51% confidence that I am choosing the right candidate (2% of $1,500 is $30).

But how can I make a reasonable choice about candidates. I can watch debates, read their ideological statements, and the policy proposals. How much will this help? Will I select a good President, or just the best con-man? Will the newspaper articles really reveal the character of these candidates, or will they just reflect which candidate has the best PR team and is the best at manipulating reporters? The final fact that I have to face is that all of these candidates are strangers to me, and I can only gain a very superficial understanding of them even if I dedicate all of my free time to investigating them. Is there anything better I could do with my free time?

On almost any criteria I can think of by which to evaluate the candidates (e.g. policies, parties), I run into the same problem -- the situation is incredibly complex and far removed from my direct experience. To top it off, and I can't really trust half of the information that I get since it is clearly being manipulated by the candidates and their supporters. I'd end up spending hundreds of hours studying just to get my confidence up by a couple of percent. There is some consolation in the fact that I'd likely do much of this studying anyway (I'm a news junkie), but I'm sure that I could spend my time more wisely than that -- I could spend time with my family, on my job, or volunteer with a charity.

After all this, I still have some hope that voting is worthwhile -- perhaps as a signal to the President that he does not decide when to leave office. But I'm not sure it matters who I vote for. Maybe if I am presented with a truly despicable candidate (e.g. Santorum), I would vote as if the election depended on it, but otherwise, I can't see the point in taking the decision too seriously. If I were to vote seriously, the best strategy that I can think of is to vote on a single issue.

Luckily, this mess clears up a little if we think about smaller elections: as things get more local, my influence increases and my information also increases, even if the stakes decrease. This reaches an extreme with my decisions in my personal life, where I confidently make plenty of low stakes decisions that cumulatively provide massive welfare benefits for myself and others.

The decision to vote or not (and how seriously to take it) is simple enough, but this attitude that voting is sacred permeates our culture and twists our institutions. This is most evident in the way that newscasters obsess over politicians: how much real news are we missing because the newscasters think that national electoral politics is the most important thing in the world? How many science and technology stories are going unreported? How many local stories are ignored? How much energy are we wasting on national politics?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Libertarian Transhumanism

No comment, just a funny bumper sticker I found...

Monday, February 20, 2012

Heartland slimebags

Like many corporate-funded institutions, the Heartland Institute is trying to spread lies. Now, they are suing anyone who calls them out.

The Bad Astronomy blog has the original story. According to the DeSmogBlog:

It is clear from the documents that Heartland advocates against responsible climate mitigation and then uses that advocacy to raise money from oil companies and "other corporations whose interests are threatened by climate policies."

A comment on Slashdot has a good evaluation of conspiracy theories...
"Turning everything into a massive conspiracy theory is not going to help you do this."
One side promotes the idea that there has been a massive global conspiracy by scientists, across a number of disciplines and organizations, lasting over decades, to lie about a central scientific result in their field. There is no sensible organizational backing or motivation to this.
The other side promotes the idea that there is a small political conspiracy to gain by people who have previously been known to engage in political conspiracies of a a similar nature. There is a well known organizational consistency and economic motivation to this.
These legal threats are just one more link in their conspiracy to silence unfavorable opinions.

Threats to free speech

Here are two stories of companies threatening the free speech rights of their employees (and former employees). Both came to my attention via Slashdot.

First, who owns your twitter account? This is an issue of trade-secrets, non-compete contracts, and trademarks. The lawsuit is in Federal courts.

If you set it up as a company representative (e.g. using their name), does it belong to them? This is the issue that is contested in an ongoing court case, where the company "Phonedog" is suing a former employer who had amassed 17,000 twitter followers under the name "Phonedog_Noah". When Noah left Phonedog, he changed the name and continued to use the account. Now Phonedog wants $2.50 for each subscriber to the list. What a crock!

Lawsuit May Determine Who Owns a Twitter Account - NYTimes.com

My first thought is that if the company wanted control over the account, they should have established it themselves. Either they should have set up their own server, or they should have established some sort of corporate account with Twitter (if Twitter allows such things). If Noah contracted with Twitter under his own authority, then it is his account. Noah is a free man, and can do whatever the fuck he wants with his account.

The other thing that bugs me is how they treat the subscribers an their property. Noah's subscribers are people with their own interests, and Phonedog can go fuck themselves if they think that they have the right to disrupt communications to these people. The question here is "what did the subscribers think that they were subscribing to?". If they wanted to hear Noah's opinion, then they are Noah's audience. If they wanted to hear about Phonedog, then they are Phonedog's audience. I'd think that the proper way to deal with this sort of divorce is to shut down the account in question, and give the subscribers the following non-exclusive options: if you want to hear Noah go to A, if you want to hear Phonedog go to B. I don't know how Twitter works, and whether this is plausible (I'm sure they'd loose a chunk of their subscribers), but it seems to be the only way to handle this split while respecting the audience.*

This lawsuit is in Federal courts. It shows why we need to invalidate all contractual arrangements that constrain a person's ability to make a living or their free speech rights (e.g. non-compete and non-disclosure agreements).

The next situation is that the Heartland institute is threatening lawsuits over alleged leaked/forged documents. It seems that they want to sue all their opponents for defamation or something. So far, there is no actual lawsuit, just vague threats. Fuck them. I think I'll jump in the pool just because of these threats.


*An alternative would be to clone/fork the account. On the one hand, if Twitter allowed such behavior, it might expose the audience to a bunch of spam (equivalent to selling an address list). However, if the chain of inheritance is transparent, subscribers would be empowered to punish anyone who is selling the subscription list (perhaps simultaneously unsubscribing from the original feed and all cloned feeds)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Life as a start up

A fairly new book about the "networking economy" is getting some press -- "The Start Up of You", essentially encouraging college-educated professionals to treat their careers like a startup... which includes using a lot of professional networking to find new opportunities. Appropriately, it is written by the founder of LinkedIn. Based on the reviews at Amazon, it seems to be a little bit stuck in the Silicon Valley experience, and is probably targeted at white-collar corporate workers.

One commenter recommended "My Start Up Life" as a more "real" alternative.

Of course, the problem with reading a book by a big-shot Silicon Valley CEO is that not all of us want that type of life, and even for those of us who want that life, we won't be able to achieve it. One of the ideas that really bothers me (based on a superficial exposure to the book) is the notion that we need to work harder and take more risks. That works fine for some people, but most of us have obligations and lives outside of our professional activities.

My other concern is that this will be another sort of "Who Moved My Cheese"-type book -- encouraging workers to take control of their jobs, even though there are a lot of very real obstacles to doing so. Kevin Carson has expounded on these issues before.

Finally, this also brings to mind what I read in Jack Welch's book "Winning" -- that workers are completely dependent upon their employer for good recommendations. Since your boss may be a jerk, it is a good strategy to cultivate several "employment" relationships and build a network that can substitute for that reference letter from your old boss. Relying on one person (or company) may appear to be the route to economic stability, but such small, narrowly focused groups can often fail in the blink of an eye.

Monday, February 13, 2012

More education resources...

Two more potential "unschooling" resources to consider:

MIT's Online Education Prototype Opens For Enrollment 

The above Slashdot title is self-explanatory.

I've also recently found another simulation system: NetLogo. I've played with a couple of the biology simulations, and they seem pretty solid. There's tons of other science simulations, both in the built-in library and in the online database of community contributions. I haven't done any programming, but it looks like it could be a rather simple (and quick feedback) system to practice the basics of computer programming.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The real problem in our healthcare system...

Darien Worden has a good essay at C4SS describing how all this bruhaha over contraceptives coverage is just culture-war grandstanding by demagogic politicians with no interest in actually addressing the real problems of our society.

It could almost serve as a plank to the Left Libertarian platform that I'm assembling.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

In defense of networking

I've been defending the social value of professional networking over at the anagorism blog, and wanted to make a comment here. The argument (as I understand it) is about how much of a role direct social interactions should play in the establishment of economic relationships, and how much this match-making process can be formalized.

My belief is that there are situations where formalization (e.g. credentials, match-making services) can be useful, but that such situations should be viewed as the exception rather than the rule. Rather, in my vision of a "good society", most relationships (including economic relationships) would be established by networking (e.g. recommendations from trusted sources). I view this as the contrast between a mass-society on one hand, and a personal society on the other. In one society, humans are commodities to be fit into predefined categories by managers, while in the other society, humans define their own needs and pursue these needs with their friends and trusted colleagues.

There are all types of problems with the formalized society, ranging from its inability to innovate to the problem of establishing universal trust in the managers. Granted, the network society can have its own problems -- two of them being wasteful competition and nepotism. I won't address the former, because I don't think it is really solved by formalization. While the later (nepotism) isn't solved by formalization either, the anagorist position provides a clear challenge for finding ways to minimize it in a network society.

The main way to accomplish this is to identify socially privileged networks (e.g. government, academia), and assure that they have some sort of open access point by which outsiders can gain access. In academia, there is a semi-formalized admission process for university, after which students can approach professors and try to develop relationships. I am usually up for establishing new access points, but am opposed to proposals that would formalize the entire system from top to bottom.

The thing that really bugs me about anti-networking critiques is that they build on the corporatist assumption that jobs are something that a deity-like employer creates, and then bestows upon an imbecile worker. In the world I live in, and the wold I want to live in, the worker plays an equal role in creating the job. I think this is undeniably true in an abstract sense (supply and demand together determine the quantity produced), but I also see it in the individual hiring decisions of managers. Managers do not necessarily decide to hire a person and then go seeking a person to fill that slot -- often they hire employees opportunistically; it is only after a prospective employee approaches them and says "here I am, here's what I can do" that the employer decides to take on the project that the employee can work on. There are a lot of pieces that have to come together to make a project work, and it takes efforts to bring them together. If you can bring your skills to someone who has the complementary pieces already, you can make things happen.