Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Talking to kids about race


The recent bullshit brouhahas about race ("Is Santa Clause white?") have gotten me thinking about how to explain it to kids. I'm sick of words like "black" and "white" being treated as meaningful categories, when they are just the remnants of an system of exploitation.

I found several websites providing advice on how to speak to kids about racism, and describing scenarios about how the discussion might come up:

katie couric
Hand-in-hand parenting

One thing I will not do is tell my kids that "we're all the same on the inside". I find that idea to be demeaning; we are different, and it is our differences that make society work by allowing us to complement each other's strengths and reducing the competition that occurs when we all seek the same thing.

I'm hoping I'm lucky enough to get a straight-forward question from my kids, like "Joe says he's white, what does that mean?"

My answer might go something like this...

"Long ago, a group of greedy people wanted to steal from other people. They labeled their victims "black" because of how they looked and called everyone who looked like themselves "white". They said that it was okay for whites to steal from blacks. These greedy people were in charge for a long time, so they convinced everyone else to use labels like "black" and "white". They aren't in charge anymore, but people still use those labels because they've gotten used to the labels. Now those words are just a quick way to describe how a person looks, but they are sloppy words and you should be more detailed when describing what a person looks like."

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Freedom vs. Security vs. Profit tradeoff

People often parrot the "freedom vs. security" as though this were a self-evident dichotomy. Leaving aside the fact that a slave has no security, the most glaring omission here is that security can often be attained through just putting a little effort into it. However, at the end of the day, someone doesn't want to absorb the costs of securing their facilities, so they turn to the state to assure security through strategies that impose on everyone else. All too often, this "someone" is some corporation whose bosses are just looking for a way to funnel billions of extra dollars to a bunch of people who already have more money than they could ever spend. This is how the ruling class works.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

goodbye cruel blogosphere

I know I've said it before, but real life beckons, and I must go. I'm serious this time; I think that things will just get more intense for the next decade or so. I'll come back some day, when the family and the job aren't so demanding of my attention. It's been fun. I've learned a lot from you all.

See you on the other side...

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Prissy old-money: the WSJ editorial board

This video-editorial from the WSJ is absurd. The woman who complains about NYC's new bike sharing program is the perfect stereotype of the prissy old-money matriarch. I'm no fan of Bloomberg, but I'm glad he's pissing off entitled bigots like this woman:

tip to In Media Res.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The "moral" vs "rational" basis of political authority

A few weeks ago, I blogged about my interest in Michael Heumer's new book The Problems of Political Authority. A comment from rulingclass emphasized the difference between the "moral" arguments for political authority and the "rational" arguments, noting that a rationalist argument will be seen as irrelevant to those who focus on the moral basis of political authority. I am not sure exactly what Heumer's arguments focus on -- the book is now sitting on my nightstand, awaiting my attention (and competing with Gulag: a history as my next read).

Before reading the book, I wanted to get a better sense of the distinction that rulingclass made. In his comment, rulingclass equated "moral" with "communitarian" and "rational" with "liberal". He followed by asserting that most people/Americans are communitarian rather than liberal, so the "rationalist" arguments (often favored by liberal academic philosophers) are not persuasive in public discourse.

I'm going to rephrase these comments in my own words (and connect them to the work of others), hoping that rulingclass, will tell me if I'm interpreting him correctly. I consider "moral" arguments for political authority to be those asserting that submission to authority is intrinsically good, whereas the "rationalist" arguments emphasize how submission to authority enables us to achieve pre-existing goals. Having that interpretation, I came across an essay "Man the Political Animal", in which the author (Michael Hannon) argued that political community is an intrinsic good rather than an instrumental good. I think this is the same distinction being made by rulingclass, but I like these terms better than "moral" and "rational", so I will use them for the rest of this post.

When rulingclass first mentioned that most Americans have a "moral" view of political authority, I contemplated exactly how that would manifest. I figured that for conservatives, the authority would essentially be patriarchal in nature -- that we obey the state for the same reason we obey our parents/father; while for progressives, this would be the authority of the community. However, Hannon's essay (in a conservative publication) focuses on the authority of the community, not parents. Of course, in a republic (unlike a monarchy), state authority cannot really be conceived as a manifestation of patriarchy. Conservative American patriarchy is limited to the family, and the authority structure binding households is more egalitarian. This authority can be idealized as arising from a union of heads-of-households who coordinate their actions to establish more effective governance over the other members of their respective households.  This ideal could account for Lackoff's "strict father" perception of governance. I'm not sure how one can philosophically arrive at the "nurturant parent" perception of government that Lackoff attributes to the American center-left, but it clearly depicts political authority as an extension of an intimate and instinctual authority relationship, not some sort of contract or engineered relationship.

I am put into a bit of a bind by the acknowledgement that most Americans are communitarian and see political authority as an intrinsic good. For as long as I can remember, I have viewed politics as a problem of coordinating individuals for their mutual good. When people use moralist assertions to justify policy (e.g. drugs must be prohibited because their use is wrong), I clench my teeth and disengage from discussion with them -- I basically write them off as dangerous fanatics. The problem is that most people think like this, even if they are not as adamant in their opinion. So how to discuss politics with these people?

One approach is to target the authoritarianism in culture, whether by developing non-authoritarian methods of child-rearing and education, or attacking authoritarian institutions and ideologies that are not blatantly political. This sometimes conflicts with the political libertarian impulse to target political authority in isolation and profess that personal beliefs and voluntary institutions are separate from the political movement (I suppose this is rehashing the thick/thin debate).

The other approach is to dissect political authority and demonstrate that it is incompatible with their primary moral goals. For instance, during the Cato Unbound discussion of Anthony de Jasay's ideas (which I've only skimmed), one of the authors responds that "[The welfare state] reigns supreme because in the eyes of most citizens it conforms to the egalitarian fairness norms that have evolved with humans.” When the standard attitude is that state policies should "try" to achieve fairness norms, the proper libertarian response is to argue that the state is antithetical to such norms (in contrast to the elitist response that often masquerades as libertarian). Here we see how the "instrumental" view of political authority often has a strong moral component; when a state policy or power is not being justified on the grounds that it promotes fairness, it is being justified as a way to prevent free-riding. If we show that the state creates a free-rider problem (i.e. rent-seeking) and facilitates exploitation of the poor, then we have an argument that turns the intrinsic good of political authority against other fundamental values that people may give priority to. Through it all, I think the problem is that most people view the state as an extension of "us", rather than as an exploitative "them". The trick is to retain a notion of "us" (allowing for secession) while rejecting authority relationships that can be corrupted by "them".

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Do secrets make you stupid?

Here's an interesting thought from Daniel Ellsberg on how having access to top-secret information affects a person's thinking. To sum it up, it becomes impossible to really listen to (and learn from) anyone who lacks access to the same information, and such "fools" become nothing more than objects to be manipulated. Great.

Tip: Good discussion at BHL on Obama.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

No rule of law: when everyone has committed a crime

I am very dissapointed by Carnegie Mellon's response to the brouhaha over the "half-naked pope" costume worn by one of their art students in a parade. The student has been charged by the campus cops with indecent exposure. The authorities claim that this is simply a matter of violating a local ordinance, and not about the subject of this woman's performance. For good measure, they also charged a man who got naked as part of a non-political performance in the same parade.

My strong suspicion is that this is a political prosecution, orchestrated by the school's administration in order to placate a bunch of conservative rabble-rousers. There's also the fact that the Catholic Church has a lot of influence in Pittsburgh; some of this influence comes from their ownership of a lot of land in CMU's neighborhood, which gives them influence over local zoning ordinances and would allow them to refuse to sell said land that CMU might want for future expansion.

There are two lines of evidence for my suspicion that this is not simple law-enforcement. First, it seemed to take a long time for the police to charge this woman. I'm sure that cops were present during this parade, and they could have issued her a warning or citation on-the-spot. The fact that they did not immediately issue a warning suggests that nudity is tolerated under these circumstances. 

My second line of evidence that this is a political prosecution comes from various reports that nudity has traditionally been tolerated (if not encouraged) at these parades. I read this claim in the comments section of an article posted at the website of the CMU student newspaper, the Tartan when this all started. I followed up by looking at the official promotional material for this parade. Notably, the pictures from the 2013 parade have been removed from Flickr. However, the 2012 parade pics are still available. They make it clear that the parade is typically pretty raunchy (facebook shows a subset of the more tame photos). There are even a couple of pictures showing exposed buttocks (and ass crack), which falls foul of most indecency ordinances that I've looked at. For the sake of documentation, I'm going to repost the picture here, though I must warn you that it isn't pretty (original):
To top it off, the School's Facebook account even promoted the event by saying "last year got a little out of hand... we expect nothing less this time around." When your combine that attitude with the student's report that she was encouraged to be politically provocative, I arrive at the sad conclusion that she is being scapegoated as part of a conflict between the Arts faculty's impulse to be provocative, and the university administration's impulse to constantly expand the influence of the institution. This has made a mockery of the law, and once again shown how arbitrary law-enforcement can be... to the point that there is no law, just power plays.

The only good thing about this is a sort of Streisand effect -- where the Church has brought attention to it's efforts to silence dissent and caused me to question whether "sacred" is a bad word, and CMU has exposed it's politicization. This may even stoke a bit of a "free speech movement" on a campus that is historically apolitical and has a high rating from FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education).

Some other thoughts:
Boy @ the window

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Is nothing sacred?

The Catholic bishop of Pittsburgh recently insisted that everyone should respect sacred symbols (e.g. the cross). My response: really?

I feel like this is an issue that philosophers should have bickered over for a few centuries by now, so I'm disappointed that I cannot easily find a summary of the arguments against sacred symbols. I recall the essay "against moralism", but it's not addressing this exact point. There are also plenty of arguments against nationalism, which is just one context for sacred symbols. Who has made the general argument against sacred symbols?

The best I could find was an essay called "Is nothing Sacred" attributed to Salman Rushdie, in which he defends the value of the novel. There is one paragraph that gets to the point:
No, nothing is sacred in and of itself.... Ideas, texts, even people can be made sacred - the word is from the Latin sacrare, "to set apart as holy" - but even though such entities, once their sacredness is established, seek to proclaim and to preserve their own absoluteness, their inviolability, the act of making sacred is in truth an event in history. It is the product of the many and complex pressures of the time in which the act occurs. And events in history must always be subject to questioning, deconstruction, even to declarations of their obsolescence. To revere the sacred unquestioningly is to be paralyzed by it. The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas Uncertainty, Progress, Change - into crimes.
That's a good start. Of course, it's detached from the arguments for sacredness, so it has limited value. But it's enough to demonstrate that respect for the sacred is not a self-evident good.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

The Catholic Church is a political organization

There's been a bit of a fuss in Pittsburgh over a public art performance in which a CMU student dressed up as the pope and handed out condoms -- while showing off her cross-shaped pubic hair. It took a couple of days, but eventually someone complained: first the local bishop, and then a bunch of rabble-rouses across the nation (such as the "Catholic League").

The bishop seems to be the most articulate and reasonable among these complainers. He apparently is primarily concerned with the use of the cross in this demonstration, and with an increasing disregard for "the sacred". My inclination is to respond "fuck the sacred". In my experience, "the sacred" is a ploy that some people use to impose themselves on others, and I am quite happy to say that either everything is sacred, or nothing is. (These opinions have not received extensive thought, so I'd love to discuss them). Furthermore, if a powerful person uses a sacred symbol to reinforce his authority, then he is the one who politicized it and invited sacrilege.

The more obnoxious complaints are of the "victimized American Christian" variety... as if American Christians are an oppressed class. Catholics may have some claim to special consideration in America, since they were historically marginalized (particularly if they migrated from English-occupied Ireland), but as a group, Catholics have made a pretty solid transition into the establishment. For instance, they are over-represented in Congress (31%), and it's been about 50 years since the USA had it's first Catholic President. Given this influence, I'm don't give serious attention to superficial claims that Catholics are being treated unfairly. That's not to say that Catholics aren't subject to hate crimes (like every other group), but only that there is no reason to assume that any mockery of Catholicism represents anti-Catholic bigotry and likewise that our society doesn't need organizations that are specifically dedicated to protecting them (such as the "anti-defamation" Catholic League, which was founded after Kennedy's presidency).

So anyway, as is common for American Christians who deny their privilege, these offended Catholics are claiming that a major university (i.e. liberals) would not tolerate mockery of other religious figures. My first counter-example would be the Iranian Ayatollah's, and I'd follow up with the King/Queen of England (head of the Anglican church), Pat Robertson, and the generic character of a revival tent-preacher or faith-healer. Granted, most of these are Christians, but there's a good reason for that -- only Christian religious leaders have substantial influence in our society. My remaining counter-example is a political leader, but so is the Pope.

The Pope is not only is influential, but he heads an explicitly political organization. As such, he is fair game for criticism and mockery. While all religious institutions have political impact, this passive political influence is not enough for the Catholic Church. Rather than just teaching that "abortion is evil" and then allowing laymen to take up the political battles, Church leaders insist on getting directly involved with organization of political campaigns and lobbying of politicians. For instance, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops takes positions on state policies that are not directly relevant to the church (e.g. access to emergency contraceptives), and many bishops use their religious authority to pressure state officials to change public policy (e.g. by denying communion to supporters of abortion rights).

While the political activities of the Catholic Church in the USA are not very intense, the church can  be downright oppressive in countries where it is dominant. The pressure that they expert on legislators is much more intense in parts of Latin America, both because exclusion from the Church has a much greater impact and because the Church strives to influence a wider range of topics. Furthermore, there are several countries where the Catholic Church receives special privileges and powers (such as subsidies in many countries).

All in all, the Pope is a political leader, therefore he has opened himself up to a range of attacks that would normally be considered inappropriate if targeted at catholic laymen or a low-key religious leader.


Monday, April 29, 2013

Ripple and RipplePay: same thing?

The Economist just published a story about the expanding influence of bitcoin, in which it mentioned Ripple, a new open-currency system. This reminded me of Ripple Pay (which I was very excited about in 2006), but I cannot figure out if it is actually the same system. The Ripple Pay websites are offline, and the Wikipedia article only mentions the name of a single developer, who does not seem to be involved in the new service, Ripple. Also, the logo is different for the two companies.

Still, the new Ripple does seem to include an IOU system, which was the core of Ripple Pay. Does anyone know more?

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Books: The Problem of Political Authority

I'm looking forward to reading this book: The Problem of Political Authority, An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey by Michael Heumer ($36, paperback). Excerpts can be found on Heumer's website.

A strong recommendation from John Danaher (Philosophical Disquisitions) is enough to convince me to drop a few bucks on this.

Needless to say, I think that the problem of political authority is the fundamental issue in political philosophy, and I was sorely disappointed by how it was dismissed as an issue in the political philosophy survey course that I took in college. Even those who support political authority should grapple with this issue, because the nature of political authority has profound consequences for determining the appropriate use of political authority (which seems to be what political philosophers care about).

While we're on this topic, I want to reiterate my recommendation of Common Sense, as a beautiful example of how to demolish the perception of political authority ($0, online). 

For completeness, here is related content that I noticed:

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Anti-government derivation of Rawlsian justice

The other day, I got into a Facebook argument over the fairness of a progressive income tax and means-testing of the retirement income assurance system (e.g. Social Security and IRAs). When faced with the assertion that it is unfair to discriminate against relatively wealthy citizens, I responded that true impartiality is impossible given that the state does anything, and therefore the closest thing to fairness is to provide income support to the least well-off members of society.

This is essentially Rawls' "maximin" criterion. As I superficially understand it, Rawls took this as an a priori principle of fairness, and used it as justification for extensive state intervention in a fundamentally free-market (liberal) economy. I want to look at it from the perspective where the state has already intervened in the economy, and we use the maximin principle as a way to minimize the unfairness of the outcome. This is similar to Kevin Carson's maxim that the state "breaks our legs and then gives us crutches", and that we must keep the crutches until our legs have healed. For the sincere statist, this can be seen as a principle of fairness; but for the ruling class managers, it can be seen as a social engineering paradigm to minimize the number of individuals who are willing to rebel despite exploitation.

I start with the premise that every state action produces winners and losers. This is true even if most state actions are positive-sum interventions. To neo-liberal economists, positive-sum interventions should be pursued whenever possible without consideration of fairness, because some of the excess produce can (ideally) be redistributed to the losers to achieve Pareto efficiency. The problem is that it's impossible to identify the winners and losers of each action. Given a large population and a large number of interventions, there will be some people who have repeatedly been on the losing end of these interventions, to the point that their ability to make a living (or save for retirement) has been crippled. Abandoning these people to poverty would be a great injustice.

In this context, we can only observe and manipulate the outcomes. Some people will have done very well for themselves -- through a mixture of effort, benefiting from state policies, and luck (i.e. everything else) -- while others will have done poorly. If we were to select the people who have the least success at life, we would probably also be selecting the people who have been harmed the most by state policies, along with those who exerted the least effort and were otherwise the most unlucky. As such, the provision of an economic safety net can be a strategy for mitigating the cumulative unfairness of those who lose out due to numerous state policies. To take it further, if we're asking the state to compel citizens to provide public goods, then we've already accepted the premise that "we're all in this together", and an economic safety net is justified as a way to mitigate bad luck (which is more in line with the Rawlsian idea).

A typical conservative rejection to the above argument may be that very few (if any) people have been impoverished by the policies that have allowed others to become wealthy, and that differences in effort account for the vast majority of the differences in economic success. For instance, they may say that tax rates on poor people are low, so that even if someone doesn't benefit from state spending, they still have not been crippled by it. Likewise, they may assert that the per-person economic costs of interventions like copyright are minimal, either because they believe that culture would collapse in the absence of copyright or because they believe copyrighted items are essentially frivolous luxuries. While I would point to mass-incarceration for victimless crimes as an example of how state policies "for the greater good" can impoverish some individuals, conservatives would likely assert that the criminal activity (e.g. illegal drug use) was bound to leave the prisoner destitute anyway, or that the criminalization of this activity was only a minor imposition on the criminal, and that their poverty is due to their choice to disobey legitimate authority. Many of the other policies that increase living expenses and depress incomes are so complicated that tracing cause and effect is nearly impossible. Suffice to say, I think that they are sufficient to impoverish many people, through the cumulative effect of many small burdens.

To solidify this viewpoint, I turn to a theory of the exploitative state. The first component of this theory is that while some state actions are positive-sum, many are zero-sum or even negative-sum. The reason that such outcomes are common is that political power is unevenly distributed among the population, and the determinant of state action is that it benefits the powerful -- not that it benefits the population as a whole.

This imbalance of power has a consequence that is even more important than the existence of negative-sum outcomes -- it biases the outcomes such that some people (the powerful) systematically win, while others systematically lose. This scenario does not even require that the powerful consciously exploit the powerless, only that they obstruct any policy that hurts them and promote policies that help themselves (regardless of their impact on the powerless). In this environment, the gains and losses of government action pile up and account for a substantial amount of the wealth variation in the population.

Given this systematic transfer of wealth from the powerless to the powerful (and the consequent construction of both a wealthy and an impoverished class), a person concerned with fairness should not be too bothered by policies that appear to exploit the rich. While an excessively populist attitude can be leveraged by the agents of the state to stuff their own pockets and intimidate critics, adding a clearly defined progressive component to a tax system does not facilitate such shake-downs. By shifting the tax burden from the poor to the rich, we can mitigate the systematic unfairness of government actions. It's only a superficial solution, but it definitely is not the problem.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Did Macklemore & Lewis sell out to the NBA?

You may have heard of this hip-hop duo, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. They are all "anti-consumerist" and shit, but they just made a promo for the NBA with their song "Wings". This has lead to accusations of selling out, with them  responding that it is all part of their grand strategy to bring their message to the masses. I'm not going to criticize their professed strategy, but I couldn't let stand their assertion that the NBA is tangential to the problematic thinking that is targeted in the song.

Basically, they say that the song is about the idea that you are defined by what you wear, and therefore their beef is with Nike but not the NBA. They excuse the NBA on the grounds that it is just an industry that exists within the capitalist/consumerist system. However, the reality is that the NBA (and pro-sports in general) are the epitome of the consumerist pathology. At the one extreme are companies that provide us with simple commodities that provide a simple utility; at the other extreme are the brands that manipulate our perception of society in order to convince us that we have to give them money in order to be accepted. This is just sick, and it is all pervasive in sports fandom.

At some level, the sports leagues are selling us entertainment -- the spectacle of high-performance athletic competition. But as with the Air Nike, the product is only part of what they are selling. In fact, sports may be the industry that sells us the least real product and the most image. We watch sports because our friends are doing so. We wear logos to show solidarity with our neighbors. Our emotions are ridiculously affected by the outcome of the games (and it's not simply a matter of whether the playoffs will include the team whose performance we appreciate most). Pro sport leagues have managed to tap into our primal social impulses, and claim them as their own property.

They have stolen our own society from us. They are making us pay just to participate in our own community. Other industries do similar things (e.g. the music industry and software firms such as Facebook and Microsoft), but pro sports is particularly gratuitous about it.

To top it off, they have special anti-trust exemptions from the Federal Government. What a bunch of pigs.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

The product of America's mass-incarceration policy: racist gangs

The Aryan Brotherhood; the Mexican Mafia; the Black Guerrilla Family.

All three of these gangs originated in American prisons and gained influence by providing protection for inmates in the context of the state-imposed war of all-against-all that occurs within the prison.

Lessig sees the corruption of the system; gives rousing speech. Nothing follows.

Lessig comes so close to seeing that the democratic legitimacy of the Republic is a sham. As a big-shot talking to a bunch of other big-shots, it's understandable that he would think that the system is ultimately responsive to the people.

"Fixing the problem" is not impossible, but his strategy is a non-starter. A broken system cannot fix itself. The law-making process cannot be fixed by passing a law.

He's trying to be radical, but he stops short. His analysis is superficial -- the thinks that the problem is in how money is obtained, but he doesn't ask why money is necessary. He doesn't answer this question, and therefore he doesn't realize how detached regular people are from the rule making process. He doesn't realize that the system is elitist (and "corrupt") at its core.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

FD: Politicization of Climate Sciences

originally published at Freedom Democrats; 12 Dec 2009
In the wake of Climategate, climate researcher Mike Hulme has articulated the ideal role of science in public discourse. Basically, he declares that scientific debates should be kept separate from ethical debates (leaving aside bias inherent in hypothesis generation and choice of research directions), while still informing our actions. This is a nice ideal, but ignores the fact that people will enter scientific debates with ulterior motives and it can be hard for the layman to distinguish between the sincere scientist and these charlatans.
In contrast to Mike Hulme's call for the separation of science and politics, we have his colleague James Hansen (head of NASA's Goddard) who is quite happy to transform his scientific prestige into a platform for political moralizing. In reviewing Hansen's new book for DailyKos, DarkSyde introduces him in this manner:
To be a top climate scientist today means being up to speed in graduate level physics, advanced mathematics, planetary astronomy, meteorology, paleontology, oceanography, bio and geo-chemistry, dealing with programmers and constantly shifting computer architectures, and now on top of everything else, you have to be a tireless political activist and media celebrity.(emphasis mine)
No, you don't have to be a political activist...at least not in Hulme's model of science and politics. The scientific method strives for consensus, while the political method strives for domination; If Hansen and DarkSyde want to make politicians out of scientists, then they should expect politicized resistance and deal with it as a political dispute.
When Hansen compares carbon emission credits to the Indulgences that sparked the reformation, he just sounds like a moralizing fool (even to someone like me who agrees with his preference for a carbon tax, in this case).
There is no necessary connection between doing research and political advocacy. A scientist does have a responsibility to communicate his findings to the public, and when his findings have urgent implications, there is not time to allow the knowledge to percolate through the formal education system (i.e. inform other researchers, who inform their students at university, who become teachers in the primary and secondary schools). So there is an imperative for some member of the field to directly communicate the field's findings to the general public, which probably means being "a media celebrity". However, this is an issue for all academic disciplines, and it is not a requirement for everyone in the field--certain individuals naturally distinguish themselves within the field as communicators and politicians (often taking jobs such as heading major research institutions), and these individuals are the natural public spokespersons of the field.
But what if the research findings have implications for economic policy? If the spokesperson ignored those implications, they would be neglectful in their communication to the public, but taking a position politicizes the field of study.  Following Hulme's model, I suggest that that the scientist make a point of contacting political activists, informing them of the situation, and allowing them to advocate for policy changes. This may even include sitting down with them for a public Q&A, where the scientist acts as a resource on which they draw as they suggest policy responses. This could be either a live discussion, or a book where the first chapter describes the scientific situation and the subsequent chapters are written by activists/politicians who explore the implications.
I'm not saying that scientists should avoid politics all together, just that they shouldn't use their prestige as a practicing scientist to gain exceptional authority in their political advocacy (at least until they have retired).

FD: Climategate

originally published at Freedom Democrats 11/25/2009

By now, i'm sure everyone is aware that the CRU at University of East Anglia was hacked recently either from the outside, or as inside job, and roughly 160 megabytes of documents and emails were archived and uploaded to a Russian file server(btw, russian server farms are a hackers' choice spot for storing warez and other booty). Since then, the document archive has been widely disseminated over the internet, and after the story hit Drudge, it has become fodder for the blogosphere. Predictably, the reactions have reinforced the tribalistic group polarization over this issue. I reviewed some of email correspondence, and unless someone has a firm grasp of climate science, it's virtually impossible if tell if there is any conspiracy to fudge the data. So, i suppose each side will refer to their own priests to tell them what they want to hear. However, it is fairly apparent from the email correspondence that there are some public choice games being played, which frankly, is hardly surprising; that's to be expected from any scientific research that is primarily being funded by the government and which has political ramifications. The only really troubling aspect of the email correspondence is the apparent conspiracy among a few prominent scientists at the CRU to use their political standing and influence to bully refereed journals not to publish papers contrary to "consensus research." This is a very putrid form of public choice, in that group A, which has significant standing with a government body(IPCC) and receives public funding, uses that power to threaten to boycott any refereed journal that publishes research research contrary to the consensus opinion of Group A, or if Group A uses that power to actively conspire to fix the referees.

In the end, Climategate probably doesn't necessarily say much about the reliability of climate science, but it certainly does reinforce the perception among many of an intolerant orthodoxy that that has built up around AGW. The term usually thrown around is "denier," with the connotation being the equating of "AGW consensus" skepticism with something like young earth creationism. I define such skepticism not to imply that there is no such thing as anthropogenic influence on climate(e.g, just nuke the amazon rain forests and we could witness first hand the possible anthropogenic influences on climate, as an extreme example to make a point), but rather with respect to the notion that climate scientists can model the impact of human collective action(or lack thereof) on future long-term climate changes. Admittedly, I don't know much about climate science per se, but I do know a little about non-linear dynamical systems. I'm sure everyone is familiar with the concept of "butterfly effect" in chaos theory, meaning that small variations in initial conditions of a non-linear dynamical system can result in wildly different evolutions in such dynamical systems over time. This is why you can predict weather only over a short term. Climate modeling, where climate is the long-term average of weather over time, however relies on boundary condition, numerical fluid dynamic modeling of the ocean and atmosphere to predict future climate, wherein current observable boundary conditions can be more or less plugged in to test the reliability of the model in explaining past and current climate. These models may be useful in understanding current climate, but it doesn't mean they will accurately predict future changes in climate by fiddling with the boundary conditions. It's a similar, analogous concept, I suppose, to a best fit curve to graph data points in an experiment, which of course, can involve fiddling and fudging, but how well will that best fit curve fit future data points? And in the real long term, that is paleo-climate, it doesn't matter what the fuck humans do, the earth is going to enter into another ice age.

One thing for sure, there should be plenty of skepticism about the public choice dynamics of any collective action. The two things that primarily aggravate me about the typical political debate is the contention that we have only *T* amount of time to act before it's too late, that we have to immanently act to pass whatever boondoggle before time *T* or else all is lost and irreversible. That's scientific nonsense and fear-mongering. The other thing is the propaganda that a public choice game of subsidized green technology is going to be an economic boom. No it's not. There is another type of "denial" at work here, namely "government failure deniers."

FD: The risk of climate change, and its implications

originally published at Freedom Democrats, 12/19/2007
When dealing with an issue like greenhouse gas-induced climate change, productive discussion needs to stay focused on the practical questions: what is the general nature of the risk, and how can we mitigate the risk. Discussions of climate change often become sidetracked by non-productive investigations into the detailed nature of the risk, which are often initiated by individuals who are afraid that general recognition of risk implies that particular strategies/policies must be adopted. I hope to keep this discussion on track by starting with these two declarations:

 1. We don't know exactly how the climate will respond to our greenhouse gas emissions, and it doesn't really matter.
 2. There are many different strategies available to us.

Before getting into the details, let's consider the nature of risk and uncertainty with respect to climate change. We don't know what our climate will be like in the future. It might be similar to today's, or it might be worse. We often wish to refrain from developing plans/opinions until we have a clear sense of what to expect in the future, but this prudence becomes paralytic in situations where we will never have high confidence in our predictions. Some degree of uncertainty is unavoidable with any prediction, and this is especially true with climate predictions due to the complexity of the system. Just to become an expert on this topic would require about 10 years of full time study, and even the experts don't know what will happen. Obviously, most of us cannot become experts, yet we still need to decide how we will act. So, let us begin:

*Greenhouse gas emissions (GGEs) create a substantial risk of problematic climate change.*

1. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas: it allows visible light to pass , but prevents the passage of infra-red light. The net effect is that energy from the sun can easily reach the surface of the earth, but it is hindered from leaving the earth.

2. Humans are drastically increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (about 25% since 1900).

By themselves, these facts give us reason to consider how to reduce GGEs. But we still may wonder if these changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels can impact atmospheric temperatures. So we look at fact 3:

3. Atmospheric temperature is strongly correlated with carbon dioxide concentrations. This has been seen over the long term (ice cores ) and over the short term (modern monitoring).

3b. We also know that the size of glaciers is inversely correlated with atmospheric carbon dioxide, both over the long term and the short term.

This doesn't prove that carbon dioxide levels cause an increase in atmospheric temperature or glacier-melt, but the data is consistent with that proposal. Warming may have all types of side-effects, while excessive glacier-melt will impact the entire water system of the earth, ranging from glacier-fed rivers to the ocean itself. As a practical matter, we face a substantial risk that carbon dioxide emissions will cause global warming and climate change. If these facts aren't enough to convince you that we face a risk of GGE-induced climate change, here's one last fact:

4. The experts agree that we face a risk of GGE-induced climate change.

The Earth is warming. Glaciers are melting. It's time to admit that there is a risk of GGE-induced climate change, and figure out what we want to do about it:

*We have many options for dealing with the risk of GGE-induced climate change.*

 1. Reduce GGEs. This is the intuitive response, and has recieved the most attention over the past couple of decades, meaning that we have developed plenty of ideas of how to reduce GGEs. These options include personal, institutional, and governmental reforms. They exhibit a wide range of return on investment, as illustrated by abatement curves . These options include development of low-emission infrastructe (buildings, vehicles, cities), low-emission technologies, low-emission lifestyles, and carbon sequestration. These may be promoted by private initiative or governmental policies including subsidies, mandates, spending decisions, taxes, cap-n-trade, etc. The most drastic measures (immediate elimination of fossil fuels) could be as bad as global warming.
 2. Buffer the change on a global level (i.e. Geo-engineering , such as putting sulfur dioxide in the upper atmosphere)
 3. Do nothing/Deal with the symptoms directly: We may decide that other concerns are more pressing, and that the risk of climate change does not justify the expenditures needed to stop it. We may also find that we "can't put the geenie back into the bottle", since we've already changed atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. We may also find that it is easier to deal with the symptoms (both technically and politically) than it is to deal with the cause of climate change.

Personally, I favor a mix of options 1 and 3. Reductions in GGEs will reduce the severity of climate change -- both in its magnitude and its suddenness. Total elimination of GGEs in the near-future is possibly not worth the cost, and is probably politically impossible (considering the needs of developing countries). Finally, the climate change models are relevant to the extent that they help us to anticipate future challenges arising from climate change. Keep up the work guys!

/Inspired by discussion with John, and cross-posted to Swords Crossed and Daily Kos . /

FD: The World's Most Elite Libertarian Scientist on Global Warming

originally published at Freedom Democrats, 5/18/2007; author unknown

Sorry for the bombastic title. But I'm not sure any of you have heard of David Deutsch, so "David Deutsch on Global Warming" doesn't have the same bite as say, "Stephen Hawking on Global Warming."

Deutsch is the intellectual father of quantum computation, the viability of such likely validating his Multiverse, Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics--a paradigm to be the most radical since the overthrow of classical physcis with relativity and quantum mechanics at the turn of the 20th century. And he is a libertarian--probably, no doubt, the only one at Oxford.

Deutsche believes in "liberty as an essential human value, the abolition of victimless crimes, favors entrepreneurship and takes the view that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing at a profit."

Deutsche rejects carbon taxes, regulations, centralized control of output, arguing, that, firstly, it is too late for carbon dioxide emissions controls to work, anyways, and secondly, mankind is better off focusing on ways to adapt to a constantly changing environment, rather than spending huge sums on attempting to prevent that change.

Here's the video of his talk

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Creeping communism in a market economy

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!
Every once in a while, I see little hints of the above dynamic in our capitalist society. Basically, it occurs when a person has so much money that he thinks nothing of parting with it. I've wondered how this plays out with waiters -- their wages are typically lower than is typical for such work, and it is supplemented by tips. As my income has increased over the years, I have increasingly left "large" tips -- tips that exceed the standard percentage, but which are still very affordable to me. I've wondered how this would play out when taken to extremes --could we reach a point where payment for services was essentially voluntary (from each according to his ability)?

I'll continue with the above thought; but first, it appears that "pay what you want" has caught on in a more extensive manner. Panera has introduced a meal that is funded totally by donations. So far, they say it is sustainable.

Of course, we have to assume that Panera is driven purely by profit; but it does say something about the development of our society that this business model is plausible. I like it much better than the model where the seller gives a portion of their profits to charity -- the "pay what you want" model cuts out the middle man and uses the business' own economy of scale to facilitate the charity (rather than relying on an outside organization), and it also offers much more flexibility in terms of how much a person wants to contribute or take. Perhaps most importantly, it doesn't distinguish between the granter and recipient of charity; they are both just people going about their lives and acquiring their dinner in the same way.

That being said, I don't want to be naive. Both the "pay as you go" system and the over-tipping strategy can have unintended consequences. They can even be cynically manipulated. 

First: over-tipping. Waiters know which customers are likely to leave a large tip, and I expect that they provide more attention to those customers in the hopes of securing a larger tip. This could lead to the perverse scenario where people are provided services according to stereotypes rather than their own willingness to pay for service. That may actually be a step backwards. Furthermore, the erratic nature of tips could make it difficult for potential waiters to decide which job to take; over-tipping could actually make low-wage workers less secure economically (if it becomes linked to lower wages for workers who receive tips).

Second: "pay what you want". I assume that Panera wants to attract people who are ready to part with large amounts of money, and will spend some of their money on other products that Panera offers (and tips for the staff). So this model could not cover the expenses of the entire store. We also have to trust that Panera is not pocketing the excess donations. Finally, Panera could manipulate the system to minimize the number of meals that they provide without full payment. For instance, they can place stores in locations that are only accessible to wealthy people. They could even lobby for laws that drive indigent people out of retail districts (such as "Measure S", which was narrowly defeated in Berkeley, CA).

Given the above considerations, I think that the first thing I will look for in any proto-communist retail establishment is that they have publicly accessible bathrooms. That is the simplest implementation of "each according to his need".

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

FD: Legalize non-sexual marriage

published at Freedom Democrats 3/28/2006
In all the brouhaha over "gay" or "homosexual" marriage, Americans have been overlooking another sexual minority and ignoring how including sex in the legal definition of marriage may interfere with their ability to develop healthy familial relationships.

Asexual Americans, like many dispersed minority groups, are using the Internet to form a community. Browsing the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network website , I was unable find any evidence of a political agenda, and I have no interest in presenting asexuals as the next step in identity-politics.

Instead, I bring up asexuality as a conceptual framework that can help us to think about the role of sexuality in our society, and in particular, the role of the state in defining sexual norms.

How does a person live in a predominantly sexual society if that person has no sexual desire? I suspect such individuals are commonly frustrated as they develop intimate relationships with others, only to find that those others expect sexual behavior to be part of those relationships. If such confusion doesn't exist, they still find that the importance of their (asexual) relationships is minimized by comparison and competition against sexual relationships. I suspect they have trouble finding others who share similar views towards intimate and committed relationships. When they do find a person to form a committed relationship with, half of the time they are frustrated by society (including the state) declaring that their relationships are less important, and less respectable than (hetero)sexual relationships.

Thinking about these asexual relationships can help us clarify what we want from socially sanctioned relationships and why state promotion of heterosexuality is so deeply offensive, even for those who comfortably fit the heterosexual mold. We support "homosexual" marriage not because we like gays, nor because we want to promote homo-sexual activity. We simply want to remove sexuality from the definition of marriage. We want the state to stop thinking of us as sexual objects, and to start thinking of us as independent humans with a right to our own bodies and a right to define our own relationships.

If you'd like more information on asexuality, I recommend the Wikipedia article. The article presents a range of views and issues regarding asexuality , along with links to mainstream news sources and other resources on asexuality.

With those thoughts, I'd like to refer you to two articles that have caught my attention. The first is a libertarian perspective on how to reform state policy regarding marriage:Tully's Page: As the Free State grapples with gay marriage...

The second is a bit more radical analysis of state-sponsored sexuality from the New Times in Russia:WHAT COMES AFTER A MAN AND A WOMAN , by Denis Dragunsky, excerpts follow:

"The state did not care a whit about the thick book which priests showed to people from time to time. A state...needed statistics and control.

"To be more exact, it demanded two things: a population census with a view to collecting taxes and calling up young men for military service....So it would be no exaggeration to say that heterosexuality as a norm derived from certain functions of power, namely, the registration of the population, tax collection and the formation of a regular army.

"Heterosexuality was a general standard of behavior toward one's own body (and soul) forced by the state on its citizens, inasmuch as their bodies and souls were, if not its full property, then at its disposal."

FD: Libertarian evaluation of anti-discrimination laws

published at Freedom Democrats, 5/22/10

With the recent hub-bub over Rand Paul's dislike for laws against discrimination in employment, I thought it would be good to lay out the issues from a libertarian perspective. I think that Paul's description of the issues has been pretty weak, so I want to dig into those issues a little more.

Proponents of anti-discrimination laws appeal to two benefits of the laws:

 1. Creation of economic opportunities for excluded groups.
 2. Normalization of interactions between the dominant group and excluded groups.

My own libertarian attitudes prompt a few questions to evaluate the justice of anti-discrimination laws:

 1. Is the law burdensome?
 2. Is the law effective?
 3. Is the law necessary?

The answers to these questions are in large part a matter of fact. I have not gathered the relevant facts here (that job is much too big for a blog); instead, I am just going to discuss which facts would be relevant to the case.

* Is the law burdensome?* This is what I see as the crux of the libertarian critique. If a law imposes no costs on anyone, then it is irrelevant. Obviously, anti-discrimination laws will be seen as costly by those who wish to discriminate. Let's just assume that they are worthless people anyway, and ignore this cost. Do the laws place burdens on people who would not discriminate on their own? The people to ask are probably business owners, who are the ones who face discrimination lawsuits. How often are they sued, and how often are accusations dismissed as unfounded? What do businesses pay to retain legal counsel? How do they change their practices to avoid lawsuits. As an anecdote, a small-business owner once told me that she had been the target of discrimination lawsuits from a few disgruntled employees, and consequently limited her job advertisements to locations where "protected" workers would be unlikely to see them. I cannot vouch for the legitimacy of this anecdote, or how generalizable it is, but it does suggest a way that the law may place a burden on businesses. I can also speculate that businesses may try to shield themselves from lawsuits by using affirmative action in promotions or investing in "sensitivity" training. Rather than being a dead-weight loss of compliance, these may amount to transfers from the business to the excluded group.

* Is the law effective?* Libertarians often like to point to the unintended consequences of laws. Just because a law says "thou shalt" does not mean that everyone will. In fact, rather than following the spirit of the law, some members of the public will develop behaviors that comply with the letter of the law, or help to evade the law. Sometimes these behaviors can exacerbate the original problem, or prevent the development of alternative solutions to the problem. The anecdote above suggests that anti-discrimination laws could create discrimination in situations where it would not exist. Taking a cue from the opponents of affirmative action, there's a chance that anti-discrimination laws cause members of the dominant group to feel threatened by members of the excluded group, thereby interfering with the normalization of attitudes. I don't believe that there is any way to actually quantify this for long/standing anti-discrimination laws (though I'm sure many people have tried). Perhaps when the law is originally initiated, the expansion of economic opportunity could be measured by looking at the businesses that had openly discriminated prior to the law, and then see how much business they did with the excluded group after the law went into effect.

*Is the law necessary?* I think this is where Rand Paul really failed. The principles of libertarian law are not absolute. Human institutions, including the law, exist to serve human needs. To paraphrase one libertarian I know: notions of property rights are worthless to a starving person who sees a loaf of bread cooling on a windowsill. So, given the conditions of 1964, were anti-discrimination laws necessary (assuming that they were effective)? */Most definitely, yes/*. The economic argument for anti-discrimination laws is based on the fact that humans need access to physical materials (often called land and capital) in order to survive, but our property system does not provide such materials to anyone by right. Therefore, many people must ask others for permission to use the materials that they need to survive--they must sell their labor. On top of that, they are sometimes prevented from selling their labor because of anti-competition clauses in contracts.

This may be a tough situation in day-to-day life, but in 1964, the situation had been exacerbated to an intolerable degree. The dominant group (whites) had systematically and violently prevented the excluded group (blacks) from acquiring ownership of the materials that they needed to survive. In the absence of laws prohibiting discrimination in employment, blacks would have been dependent upon whites for their survival, and it was well known that many whites fully intended to discriminate against them. If I had faced what blacks had faced before the Civil Rights Act, I would consider the USA to be absolutely illegitimate, and a CRA without the private anti-discrimination considerations would not be enough to convince me that I would live within that system.

Rand Paul completely overlooks this situation when he compares the anti-discrimination laws to other regulations that may be placed on businesses (e.g. unable to prohibit guns) or to freedom of speech.

Some libertarians may be uncomfortable with the identity group mentalities that permeate our society, but our ideological opposition to such mentalities does not provide any excuse to ignore their role in real life, and the legacies of injustices done in their name.

FD: More discrimination against homosexual couples

published at Freedom Democrats, 12/12/07

Homosexual couples can be separated by law, while heterosexual (married) couples cannot. How's that for discrimination?
While it is customary for the U. S. Probation Office to bar people on supervision from associating with other felons while on supervised release, it ordinarily makes exceptions for close family members. After their release, Mangini and Roberts were informed that same-sex relationships were not treated as family and that they would have to stay away from each other.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

FD: The Globalization-Libertarianism connection

published at Freedom Democrats, 11/5/2005; Author unknown.

Surprisingly, one of the most heated intellectual debates in the security community these days is not on terrorism or the US's approach to the Middle East, but instead on globalization and its impact on traditional conceptions of US power and foreign policy practice. Commentators from economist Joesph Stiglitz to former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to journalist Walter Russell Mead have all weighed in on the issue in recent years and all argue from the position that globalization is a dialectical force that could empower the US or destroy its democratic institutions and hegemony. The problem that I have with many of these conceptions is that they generally do not define the parameters of "globalization," which is one reason why it is often parsed into subdefinitions that are defined as positive or negative. To explore my attempt at defining globalization in more effective terms, I am returning to a previous post that devolved into a discussion of the sources of libertarianism, where I described a recent emergent group I have named "global-libertarians." These libertarians generally tap into globalization and the information age as an impetus for a major devolution of political and bureaucratic power to localities and individuals.

One of the most important emergent patterns of globalization is the proliferation of information technology and the creation of a supranational information-based community, of which the Internet is a major part. This "global consciousness" that is fed by 24-hour cable news, electronic forums and, more recently, blogging has greatly accelerated the global spread of American culture and values. This process was originally based on the post-WWII growth of America as a manufacturing and trade hub, which had the effect of establishing similar customs, values and lifestyles around common US products. In a sense, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Levi's, and English led the way of cultural growth across the globe for about 40 years. This was a fairly passive, one-way evolution with non-Americans mostly a position where they could only react to changes with relatively no input or space to voice criticisms. The information age completely changed this situation - the proliferation of communications technology reduced the cost of acquiring and sharing information to the point that the global community could finally take an active role in the process of cultural change. A protest of McDonalds could be felt across the world as it is reported by AFP and broadcast on CNN, reaching both the company's executives and its customer base. Not only has this changed the nature of consumer-producer relationships, it also has created a transnational community that can exert influence on national policy-making. But what does this all mean and why is it important for libertarians?

The IT revolution has resulted in a dramatic shift in the traditional calculation of the rational choice model. Since the late 20th Century, political scientists have used the rational choice model to explain the process of political choice making by assuming that all decision-makers are rational and make their decisions based on a set of values and a limited set of information regarding their choices. I am arguing that the unprecendented access to information regarding choices and the expressed values of others are the core of globalization's effect on politics, both national and international. Spin, the practice of controlling the context and portrayal of an issue in order to shape the perspective of an audience, is just one manifestation of this idea. The rise of personal power and global individualism is another aspect of this process and is particularly important for libertarians.

Information technology has set the stage for a major devolution of power in the US and across the global for two reasons:

1) It allows operators in a bureaucracy to operate more effectively
2) It allows individuals to make better decisions and lowers the difficulty of group formation

The operators of a bureaucracy are the front-line actors of an agency - they are the tellers at the DMV, the auditors of the IRS or the ground troops of an army. Not only does information technology make the managers and executives of a government more responsive to the actions of their operators, through automated activity reporting, it also increases the operator's productivity (think of Internet-based driver's license renewal, auditing software or netcentric future combat systems). As a result, a bureaucracy needs less staff and can empower operators and their customers to take a larger role in government processes.

Individuals are empowered by the information era because they can make better decisions. The Internet reduces the cost of "shopping around" for consumers, it also gives invdividuals easy access to information that they can easily filter. You no longer have to rumage through a paper to find out about political decisions - all you have to do is search the BBC's news site or "Google it." A rational decision-maker has become less bound by the limits of their knowledge and the prevasive state of reporting give foreign policy-makers a broader image of the intentions of other states. Nowadays, a state that does no publish policy papers on relavant issues is considered isolated, standoffish or overly secretive - just look at the major shift the People's Republic of China has made in its public diplomacy practices.

What does this mean for libertarians? Simply that the era of big government should be coming because citizens no longer need it. Social Security can be privatized because Americans have easy access to the equity markets and financial data needed to make good investments. School vouchers can create an education market for well-informed parents, telecommuting and online training can reduce structural unemployment thus reducing the need for welfare programs, and the benefit of trade barrier removal when coupled with e-commerce should be self-evident. The list goes on, but I believe you get my meaning. What does everyone think? Is this a pipedream or are "global-libertarians" actually on to something significant?

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Tools for modeling society

I intent to become familiar with this software package, Insight Maker. It is a modelling system, and seems to be pretty flexible. It may not be appropriate for my day-job, but it looks like it might be capable of handling the simple social/political models that I have contemplated. I'm thinking of things similar to Gavrilet's model of the Egalitarian Revolution. Basically, I think that it should be possible to evaluate the level of fairness/prosperity that results from different modes of social organization, given certain assumptions about human social behavior. I think that a lot of political debates rest upon unstated assumptions about how humans behave, and that an explicit model will help to clarify these issues.

My suspicion is that statist models of social organization only produce widespread prosperity when humans act within a very narrow range of possible behavioral tendencies. I don't know if professional political philosophers have used this tool much, but either way, I think that this tool would be particularly useful for popular political philosophy, where the audience may not have the patience for obtuse arguments.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Here's what a bossless workplace looks like

Slashdot examines the software design company Valve, which is apparently a non-hierarchical organization. I have yet to read up on this, but it has been covered by Library of Economics and Liberty (Brian Caplan's site, I believe).

I'd like to compare it to more traditional coops, such as the Cheese Board in Berkeley.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mandatory economic individualization

I just got an email from an administrator at work describing how certain parts of my compensation need to be handled for income tax purposes. I am in an academic position and this administrator handles most issues seamlessly, so I wish I could ask her to take care of this and let me do my research. But no, that's not allowed by law. Even if I hire a tax professional to handle this, I will have to take care of it separately from my normal economic arrangements.

It makes me wonder how income tax is handled for cooperatives and communes. I assume that they need to find some nominal accounting of individual income for tax reporting purposes. So it seems that even if several persons were to integrate all aspects of their economic lives, they would still be required to act and account as individuals once a year. That's annoying, and one more handicap on the development of alternative economic arrangements.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"None but ourselves can free our minds"

I got a chuckle from this witty photo of a woman's leg, with marks depicting how a skirt's length appears on a spectrum from "matronly" to "whorish". Unfortunately, the commentary that it inspired just provoked a groan.

Lisa Wade's brief (but popular) essay is just pathetic wallowing in victimhood and self pity. She sums up the situation like this:
Women’s closets are often mocked as a form of self-indulgence, shop-a-holicism, or narcissism.  But this isn’t fair.  Instead, if a woman is class-privileged enough, they reflect an (often unarticulated) understanding of just how complicated the rules are.  If they’re not class-privileged enough, they can’t follow the rules and are punished for being, for example, “trashy” or “unprofessional.”  It’s a difficult job that we impose on women and we’re all too often damned-if-we-do and damned-if-we-don’t.
Before I respond to the content of Wade's essay, I need to explain myself. It would be easy to dismiss my criticisms as being born of the arrogance of privilege. Yes, I am a straight, white male in the top quartile of SES. However, I am capable of empathizing with the challenges that women face in our society. For one, I have tried to bring attention to the injustice of laws that treat the exposure of men's and women's bodies differently and done what little I can to normalize the image of topless women. If Wade's essay were just a friend's rant on Facebook, I would let her vent and probably try to make some innocuous but witty comment indicating that I heard her. However, Wade is writing on high profile websites (including HuffPo), and presenting herself as an expert on this topic. Therefore, her expressed opinion is fair game for blunt, critical evaluation. She makes major errors of perception and interpretation, which I will discuss below. The errors of interpretation are more interesting, but the errors of perception provide the context for the errors in interpretation, so I'll address them in detail first.

Even after I noticed all the glaring omissions from her essay, I was still willing to entertain the idea that it was a conversation starter, and the supposedly intelligent and well-informed readers of the Society Pages would flesh out the issues in a respectful and well reasoned discussion. Boy was I wrong. The comments for this article just reiterate the basic victim mentality of Wade's essay (with some exceptions), with a little bit of man-bashing thrown in when anyone who disagrees with Wade is essentially accused of enabling rape.


The first thing to dispense with is the twisted perceptions of social norms that are presented by Wade and the commenters. I have no idea of what society they are talking about; it definitely isn't mine. Wade asserts that a woman risks social marginalization if she's not willing to show her legs, while commenters assert that pants are considered anti-feminine.

In my community, women commonly wear pants and jeans, particularly at work. As far as I can tell, this issue is completely absent for most women over 30 who basically show their legs to the same extent and under the same conditions that men do (e.g. by wearing shorts at casual gatherings).

Even for younger women who may be interested in developing a romance, showing leg is not necessary to be attractive. I personally have taken notice of many women who were wearing long skirts, jeans, and pants (even cargo pants and overalls). I kinda like long skirts. Finally, if this is the realm of activity that we are talking about, then it is absurd to say that failure to show legs results in social marginalization. Having fewer dates with boys is not marginalization. Furthermore, if girls (as a group) stopped showing their legs, would boys stop going on dates with them? Obviously not, which reveals the real dynamic here -- the pressure to show skin is not forced upon women by men (or "society"), it is the consequence of competition among women for men's attention. It may be frustrating that men's interest is driven by such superficial concerns, but the frivolity of our society is not a women's issue by any means; men too compete to catch the attention of women, often in frivolous manners.

Maybe for some people, the issue is broader than dating. If a group of your peers is ostracizing you because of your failure to show some leg, that is a problem, but it's primarily their problem. If you are in a big city, you should find some friends who won't demand such petty conformity; if you are in a small town, the problem is with that town, not general American society. I hope you can get out.

The final problem with Wade's depiction of clothing expectations is that many of these same restrictions apply to men; so they are broader issues of how our bodies are treated, not anything specifically about women. For instance, the length of men's shorts typically falls in the "flirty" to "proper" range of the image, which is likewise a pretty neutral length for women. Men's shorts that are shorter than "flirty" become "dorky", and when you get up to "asking for it", the same can be said for men. Any shorter and you're "clearly a fag", with all the risks that entails. The main difference is that women frequently do push the line with their skirt lengths, wearing skirts that reveal much more than is normal.


So this brings us to Wade's first problem with interpretation: the choice of skirt length can be a form of self expression (pointed out by a commenter). Since I reject Wade's assertion that there is no neutral skirt length, women do exercise the option of wearing super-short, sexy outfits if that's what they want to do, and they can reasonably expect to be treated differently than if they had worn longer, looser clothes. That's not saying that it is acceptable for someone to grope them, yell obscenities at them, propose sex acts, or badger them for a date, but they can expect to be looked at lustfully and perhaps even receive cat whistles or passing comments such as "nice legs" or "nice ass". Maybe unfamiliar men will be more likely to strike up a real conversation with them, though I expect the most likely (and desired) response will be posturing by male acquaintances. On a side note, Wade suggests that an "asking for it" skirt increases the chances of being attacked, but I've heard that claim disputed, and it may not be relevant anyway because it applies to men also (as gay-bashing) and represents the behavior of social deviants, not the enforcers of social norms that we are talking about.

As long as we're considering what is an acceptable response to short skirts, we might as well take it to an extreme and consider the acceptable response to someone in the same situation wearing a bikini-bottom or no pants at all. The issue is how we establish and encourage social norms for body covering (of both men and women) and exactly what those norms should be. I doubt that Wade is suggesting that we should do away with such norms altogether and accept nudity as appropriate for everyday activities.

Wade's second interpretive error is in her identification of the social source of the problem. By presenting this as unfairness to women, she implies that it originates from men. She  does seem to acknowledge (by blaming society as a whole) that women play a role in maintaining this situation, but she fails to specify how women participate while specifically pointing out a way that men participate: presumably the risk of being attacked refers to sexual assault by men.

She also makes a point of defending the "class-privileged" women who epitomize conformity to these social norms, whom I would consider the prime suspects behind this phenomenon. It seems that she is hoping to generate a sense of female solidarity (against patriarchy?), even at the expense of ignoring how fashion, even for men, is tied to the maintenance of class hierarchy.

Now, this is the meat of what I want to say. Let's leave aside issues of power structures for a moment, and just consider the behavior of equal individuals in society.  Social norms are a system of behavioral expectations and actual behaviors, where each reinforces the other. We behave a particular way because we are expected to (or we perceive that we are expected to), and we expect others to behave a certain way, in part because that is how people have behaved in our experience.

The above analysis suggests that a powerful strategy to change social norms is simply to violate the norm. Once people become used to violations of the norm, it is no longer a norm. This is why I think it is important to normalize images of topless women, and also why I have great respect for women who breast-feed in public. Violating norms brings the risk of repercussions, but the good thing about this strategy is that it is always available to the person who is being victimized by an unfair norm. By making excuses for the class-privileged women who conform to these fashion norm, Wade is dismissing this strategy and telling women that they are helpless victims.

Wade's excuses for these women are even more aggravating when we recognize that their class-privilege gives these women the freedom to violate norms with fewer repercussions. Yet these are the same women who conform to the norms most exactly. To make this clear, these women have the choice to either challenge an unfair norm or to reinforce it, and they chose to reinforce it. This clarifies the nature of these fashion rules as a tool of class dominance, not male oppression. The class-privileged women use their clothes to gain higher social status, at the expense of both their fashion-blind peers and the impoverished classes who cannot afford an amazing wardrobe. The words "self-indulgence" (or self-obsession), "shop-a-holicism" (or conspicuous consumption), and "narcissism" are not too far off.

Not only do these women reinforce a status structure by conforming to these norms that others cannot conform to, but they are often the prime propagandists for these norms. If they aren't directly telling others that they are dressed inappropriately, then they are at least funding the magazines and advertisements that saturate our public spaces with the message that women should look a particular way.

If that weren't enough, Ward also undermines our attempts to discourage these socially destructive and domineering behaviors by applying pejorative terms to those behaviors. This reinforces Ward's message that we have to conform. This message is topped off by Ward's exaggerated description of the consequences of non-conformity and the precision to which conformity is demanded, again suggesting that resistance is futile and hyper-conformity is the only way to survive.

Overall, the discussion around these issues suggests a certain dysfunctional obsessiveness on the part of the participants. They seem to fret that "someone might get the wrong message from what I wear". So what? That happens. They seem to demand that everything in their life proceed perfectly according to plan, that they always wear the perfect outfit and everyone responds to it appropriately. It seems that the absence of "neutral" dress arises from their own insistence on exploiting every opportunity that arises, and refusal to accept that some outcomes are "good enough". This abhorrence of risk makes them slaves to anyone who can threaten them in the slightest manner. I don't want to speculate too much on how these people developed their warped perspective, and I definitely don't mean to imply that they are privileged overachievers -- for all I know this is some form of PTSD -- but there is definitely something wrong in their thinking.

This attitude prevents any challenge to unfair social norms outside of professionally sanctioned channels (e.g. academic writing). Even if it could change the norms, it would still demand extreme conformity to the new norms.

The discussion around Wade's article doesn't even provide a meaningful suggestion about how social norms should change. Here's what I can make out:
  • Women should not be assaulted due to their clothing choice.
  • Men should not assume that women want to have sex with them.
  • Women should not be turned away from parties just because they are wearing long skirts or pants.
  • Women should not be considered under-dressed if they are showing as much skin as men typically do.
  • Women should not be expected to show off their bodies on the job or wear impractical "female" clothes.
On all these issues, mainstream society has already taken the side of feminists, so I'm not sure what there is to do. This whole discussion feeds a sense of helpless victimhood.

Rather than obsessing over the vagaries of skirt lengths (I believe that's called a "first-world problem"), it might be better to think about how we interact with social norms in general and our own rejection of conformism.
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

FD: New York decriminalizes the female body: This is what it looks like

Published at Freedom Democrats 16 June 2006 (I am the author).
Update: the links are busted, try here.

I just stumbled upon a collection of photos by Jordan Matter of all types of women going topless in NYC.
It took me a few minutes to get used to the images of topless women on the street, but eventually it started to look natural. Two pictures really emphasized how natural it is: one of a woman breast-feeding in the park, and another showing an older couple running up the steps from Penn Station with their shirts off.
There's also a video on the front page of Jordan Matter's website, which includes the photographer reading (bare-chested) from a court decision striking down laws that prohibit women from going bare chested just like men.
The USA has eliminated a lot of sexism from its laws, but we're not quite finished yet.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

FD: The Hunt for Confederate Gold

From FreedomDemocrats, 29 Oct 2005:

Several months ago I placed an order for a new book I saw mentioned on LewRockwell, Thomas Moore's "The Hunt for Confederate Gold." Rarely do I read fiction, but I was going away on vacation and I looked forward to some light reading. Due to some problems, including Hurricane Katrina, the book didn't arrive until a few weeks ago. Nevertheless, I'd say that the book is well worth the wait.

There's no surprise that the book has a political agenda. Thomas Moore is a true conservative disillusioned by the Republican Party and his characters often give voice to his beliefs. His criticisms of the left are equally common, although I often found them rather childish and absurd. The general plot revolves around a quest to discover some long lost Confederate gold and a parallel story involving the federal government framing an innocent history professor as some type of terrorist.

I was pondering why it seems that right-libertarian novels seem so much more common than left-libertarian. But then I realized that this is partially due to how we name things. If anyone here is familiar with Daniel Quinn and Ishmael, I'd argue that his ideas are in many ways anti-state and left-libertarian. In the discussions below it was noted that sometimes people just don't think to connect a person's ideas with the title left-libertarian or non-authoritarian left. What's a book you'd suggest?