Monday, July 28, 2014

New Home

I've moved! Please join me at Wielding Power. I won't be updating this blog any longer.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Is Secession Legitimate?

Wielding Power has published its sixth issue: Is Secession Legitimate?

Congratulations to the winner and finalists!
Winner: Raymond Cressler
Finalist: Christopher Mariscal
Finalist: Robert Bognar

Please use the comments to continue the conversation. What do you think the answer is? What are your thoughts on the essays in the issue? Don't be shy!

As long as there aren't too many comments, I will try to respond to them. The winner and finalists may also stop by from time to time this month.

[A few points of order.

First, please be respectful. Imagine this is a conversation after dinner among friends. We're all trying to get to truth together. We want your true, honest thoughts, but ugliness can sometimes emerge when people hide behind computer screens. That has no place here. This is not the place for ad hominem attacks or nasty takedowns. These are controversial, and sometimes emotionally charged, questions, so we're not all going to agree. But respectful disagreement can be profoundly illuminating.

Second, feel free to use a pseudonym if you'd prefer. If you do, please pick a name that's distinguishable (like 'squirrel'). If we have several people called 'anonymous', it's harder to follow the conversation.]

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

*The Case for Reparations* by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Part 2

In Part 1, I briefly summarized the argument Ta-Nehisi Coates makes in his recent article "The Case for Reparations". I summarized my summary like so:

In essence, Coates sees white supremacy as one of the defining characteristics of America and the cause of the plunder of black people, which has resulted in a large wealth gap. Coates calls for reparations (broadly construed) as a practical and moral remedy. 

 It's worth reading that entry in full, though.

So what about his argument?

Does Coates Think White Supremacy is a current problem?

Probably the most vexing thing for me is figuring out whether Coates thinks that white supremacy currently is a fundamental force in America, or if he thinks that it used to be but is no longer. Whenever he describes it, he uses the present tense, but most of his examples are from times long ago. This is important, because 'reparations' without fixing white supremacy seems largely pointless, particularly from his point of view.

Coates believes that 'black poverty is not like white poverty' because of white supremacy, and so simply helping the poor isn't enough. According to Coates's view, without fixing the underlying white supremacy, cash payments or acknowledging the past can't be enough, because blacks will continue to face white supremacy in the future. If so, that'll only serve to further anger everyone: whites will feel like they've settled their debt, while blacks will not.

Since Coates uses the present tense and uses a few examples from the present (e.g. discrimination suits that banks paid for home loans made in the mid 2000s), I'm pretty sure he believes that white supremacy is currently a fundamental force in America.

That's a very strong claim: does Coates defend it? I don't think so. Maybe someone can point it out to me, but from what I'm reading, I see most of his argument centered on pre-civil rights era injustice. He provides one or two modern day examples, but since he spends such little time on the present, he doesn't have a chance to develop an argument that shows the extent and severity of white supremacy in modern times. And without that he can only assert that 'black poverty is not like white poverty' today.

Ok- but just because he didn't give a full argument doesn't mean it's false. Is his argument plausible? I don't know enough to say. But my guess is that he can't defend the full strength of his claim. I'm sure that racism in subtle ways (from all sides!) is still a factor in life. But claiming that 'white supremacy' is an obvious fundamental force in America today seems like very much a stretch. These days 'racist' is one of the most damaging labels that anyone can receive. Even a whiff of racism is enough to ruin someone's reputation and career. As a result, the racism of today seems incredibly mild in comparison to that of 50 or 100 years ago. It seems like it takes some serious watering-down of the idea of 'white supremacy' for it to fit in today's world.

Let's set that issue aside and turn to some others.

Have there been enough reparations already?

A common reply to Coates's argument brings up the multitude of post-civil rights era programs that have provided disproportionate benefit to blacks, exemplified by affirmative action. "Aren't the untold billions sunk into these programs reparations enough?" is the question typically asked. Coates clearly doesn't think so. For Coates, such programs are too quiet to count as reparations: he's looking for something beyond simple monetary transfers: basically, he wants white Americans to see blood on their hands and issue a collective public transfer in penitence.

Still, it's rather confusing that Coates simply dismisses these programs. He dismisses affirmative action because it has unclear goals. But so what? You can argue about the goals all you want- the effect was clear: de facto preference was given to blacks for over a generation.

As noted above, he similarly dismisses transfer payments that disproportionately helped blacks by claiming that 'black poverty is not white poverty'. But if that's the case, why should current transfer payments (reparations) do any more good? (Unless he believes that white supremacy isn't a problem anymore. See the previous question for discussion on that.) More importantly, Mr. Coates doesn't describe why or how racism prevented these transfer payments from being useful. Racism or no, having extra money should be beneficial. (Unless you believe transfer payments weaken incentives to work, but that's clearly not the argument Mr. Coates makes.)

I haven't added up the total benefits given to blacks in the post-civil rights era, and I don't know if anyone could accurately- any number will face endless argument about whether some particular benefit counts as 'reparations'. But much has been given over the past generation, and Coates's dismissal of that is very weak.

What does Coates mean by 'reparations'?

Coates is very vague and expansive with his definition of 'reparations', which he describes as "the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences".

It seems Coates wants it both ways: he wants the shock value and the moral crusade of arguing for monetary transfer payments but he wants to be able to retreat and avoid arguments over the specifics of monetary transfer payments.

The devil is always in the details with this sort of thing: it seems he wants certain people to do things, and maybe some people to give things to other people. But who? and what? and to whom? Being specific forces you to ground your argument more carefully, because anyone can test how the reasons you give might apply in other situations. It's much easier to viscerally test the justice of a proposal by being able to look at the proposed outcomes. Who benefits? Who loses? Why? How could you apply that same reasoning elsewhere? Would that make sense? For example, why not reparations for Native Americans (who lost a continent) or the Chinese (who died building railroads) or the Jewish people (who faced enormous discrimination in the 1800s) or the....?

But Mr. Coates tries to avoid specifics and only speaks in generalities, wanting 'reparations' from 'the government' or 'Americans' for 'blacks'. I find it's always good to beware when people start talking about amorphous groups and not individuals. Reality is always much more complex; any group is always filled with a mix of vastly different people, some very good and some very bad.

Until he's more specific, he's not really arguing for anything.

And that's why some cynics have described it as more a piece crafted for an educated elite that allows them to nod their heads and feel sympathy for blacks, which makes them feel good and morally superior as they do nothing and return to their regularly scheduled programming. That's a very harsh assertion, but one which bears some resemblance to what happened. And it's also more in-line with Coates's stated goal of the piece: "More, I hope it mocks people who believe that a society can spend three-and-a-half centuries attempting to cripple a man, 50 years offering half-hearted aid, and then wonder why he walks with a limp." (Notice he's not hoping for a practical result; he's hoping to make his readers think a certain group of people are morally inferior.)  

Are reparations possible?

This is the discussion that Mr. Coates explicitly tries to avoid.

A short essay by David Frum in the Atlantic highlights some of the possible issues.

Mr. Coates has followed up with his own reply. In it, he mentions the reparations paid to Japanese who were interned during WWII. But this was a different sort of case. The Japanese Americans asked for explicit things from the people who did the wrong (the US government) to be given to explicit people (those who had been interned). This is in-line with how our criminal court would typically work: specific victims of crimes can get redress from their convicted perpetrators.

Very briefly at the end of that reply Mr. Coates gets specific in the case of blacks, and the things he names are far more modest than the grand reparations he discussed in his original article, things like identifying the victims of racist housing policies. Though again, a fair treatment would quickly get very complicated: the losers of that housing policy were the blacks who wanted to buy homes, and the whites who had homes and sold at a deep discount to fear-mongering speculators. The speculators were the people who benefitted. Are any still alive? If not, who do you go after? Reality is complicated.

And that shows why this question and the previous one are so important. If you want to make a serious proposal about what should be done, you should at a minimum provide guidelines for how to carry out that decision. They can then be tested to see if they are actually fair and actually possible. Because if your proposal isn't actually fair or isn't actually possible, then we shouldn't do it. So this question is unavoidable.

Summary

All-in-all, I find Mr. Coates's essay to be a great piece to read to better learn some American history that's probably unknown to many today. But the argument itself is quite weak. You could describe the argument as follows:

1. White supremacy is a fundamental force in America.
2. That white supremacy has had two results:
2a. A compounded harm against blacks that's best represented by the wealth gap
2b. And it has rendered ineffective any attempt to help the poor or blacks in the past 50 years
3. Therefore, we should come to "the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences" and attempt to close the wealth gap.

I haven't addressed (1) in a historical sense, but I've questioned the strength of Coates' argument for it being true today.

I haven't addressed (2a).

Coates's evidence and reasoning about (2b) is pretty weak.

And I've struggled to make sense of (3): what does it mean? Without being much more specific, it's almost impossible to evaluate the justice of it. A specific proposal would give something to explore.

And we need something to explore, because the general argument, "some people were harmed a long time ago; therefore, a group that includes descendants of those who did the harm should give cash payments to a group that includes the descendants of those who received the harm" is far from obviously true.

That general argument might be true in general, or it might be true in specific cases, but Coates didn't say why. Instead, he mostly relied on the sympathy of his reader to make the connection.

While manipulating people's sympathy is a too-common means to an end, it's a very weak reason for action.

And that's too bad, because it would have been interesting to read a thoughtful argument for reparations.




Friday, June 6, 2014

Should Marijuana Be Legal?

Wielding Power has published its fifth issue: Should Marijuana Be Legal?

Congratulations to the winner and finalists!
Winner: Joe Katz
Finalist: Tom Cantine
Finalist: Mahmoud Jalloh

Please use the comments to continue the conversation. What do you think the answer is? What are your thoughts on the essays in the issue? Don't be shy!

As long as there aren't too many comments, I will try to respond to them. The winner and finalists may also stop by from time to time this month.

[A few points of order.

First, please be respectful. Imagine this is a conversation after dinner among friends. We're all trying to get to truth together. We want your true, honest thoughts, but ugliness can sometimes emerge when people hide behind computer screens. That has no place here. This is not the place for ad hominem attacks or nasty takedowns. These are controversial, and sometimes emotionally charged, questions, so we're not all going to agree. But respectful disagreement can be profoundly illuminating.

Second, feel free to use a pseudonym if you'd prefer. If you do, please pick a name that's distinguishable (like 'squirrel'). If we have several people called 'anonymous', it's harder to follow the conversation.]

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

*The Case for Reparations* by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Part 1

Last week, the Atlantic's newest cover issue came out. It was the much buzzed about essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, entitled "The Case for Reparations."

Though this piece has been much buzzed about, it seems like it's been little read, and even less understood. So I thought I'd break this into two posts. This one will summarize the argument. The next will give my thoughts on the argument itself.

The argument:

Coates' essay takes an interesting approach. He focuses much of the essay on the Federal Housing Administration's (FHA) 'redlining' policy in the post WWII period.

According to Coates, from 1934 until it was outlawed in 1968, the FHA's 'redlining' policy prevented blacks from getting normal mortgages. Instead, white speculators would spook white homeowners in a neighborhood by making them think blacks were buying into the neighborhood. The homeowners would then sell their houses at below market rates to the speculators. The speculators would then sell the houses to blacks with a very disadvantageous contract specifying that the buyer would forfeit everything if they didn't make all their payments. If they didn't, speculators would repossess the house and be able to resell it. So the speculators were able to profit off of the white homeowners (because of the homeowners' prejudices) and the black buyers (because of the FHA policy and the inability of some of them to make their payments).

Coates traces these events through the heart-breaking point of view of Clyde Ross, who'd moved from the deep south to Chicago to avoid the heavy racism faced in Mississippi. Along the way, he loses nearly everything.

Coates goes on to argue that America's strength and economic system was founded on the plunder of blacks, as the cotton produced by slaves accounted for nearly 60% of exports and slaves were one of the country's largest assets in 1860, as well as the continued racism of Jim Crow and things like the FHA 'redlining'.

As a result, he argues that 'black poverty isn't like white poverty', since white supremacy is "a force so fundamental to America that it's difficult to imagine the country without it." So he dismisses attempts that try to help the poor regardless of their color. Similarly, he dismisses Affirmative Action, since he says that its goals are unclear.

For Coates, the wealth gap is the best statistic to illustrate "the enduring legacy of our country's shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans". Reparations, which Coates defines as "the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences," would "seek to close this chasm" in the wealth gap. Coates asks Congress to pass a bill to study reparations, for he thinks the discussion of the calculation of the number is at least as valuable as the number itself.

Indeed, his stated goal for the piece: "More, I hope it mocks people who believe that a society can spend three-and-a-half centuries attempting to cripple a man, 50 years offering half-hearted aid, and then wonder why he walks with a limp."

In essence, Coates sees white supremacy as one of the defining characteristics of America and the cause of the plunder of black people, which has resulted in a large wealth gap. Coates calls for reparations (broadly construed) as a practical and moral remedy.

(Continue on to part 2.)

Monday, May 19, 2014

Does the Oversight Branch Have Too Much Power?

In the comments to 'Should Leakers of Classified Government Wrong-Doings Be Punished?', Robin asked me a great question:

In your essay you proposed an oversight branch, which would be responsible for making the decision on whether government actions should be made public or not. I'am wondering how you can trust so few people - 3 as you proposed - with so much power.
Initially, you argued that we need the oversight branch because the government is trusted with too much power. But don't you agree that by establishing such branch, we are not solving the problem at all? We are just shifting it, as now the oversight branch has way too much power. 
Sure, the people could remove the current heads of the oversight branch by a popular vote. But they can never know if the oversight branch is making decisions against their will, since the branch is working behind closed doors. 
Do you think this control mechanism is sufficient? If not, do you have an idea how to improve your proposal?

I think this is probably the largest worry with the Oversight Branch- that it'll be too powerful. So I figure this merits its own post.

The Goal
Here's how I think about this: when structuring government, you must hold in your mind the goal of government. You should do the things that get you closer to that goal, and avoid the things that get you further from that goal.

What is that goal? I think the government should do what the people believe is right.

The Problem
As Robin notes, the problem is that government has too much power and can't be trusted to use it properly.

We'll never achieve a perfect government- that's just impossible. Government faces two fundamental splits: (1) the principle-agent problem (where employees' self-interest prevents them from acting as their employer would like and (2) the morality problem (where individuals' crass self-interest leads them to do what they want to do, rather than what they believe is right).

We cannot fix these problems. The best we can do is create incentives that motivate people to do the right thing.

The now standard 3 branches of government goes a long way to getting this balance right. But it breaks down when a single party holds 1.5 or 2 branches of the government, for then the checks/balances stop checking-and-balancing each other. Serious breaches of the people's trust can occur in the name of the party or passing some point-in-time legislation. Yes, voters could remove these people 4, 6, or 8 years down the road, but in the meantime, the party has all the incentive in the world to hide their wrongdoings. By the time the people find out and remove them, the damage can be done.

So there's a problem.

The Solution
What's the solution? We need something that incentivizes the government to do the right thing, while minimizing the risk of it being partisan or giving it too much power. I propose the Oversight Branch. (Which I describe here or here.)

Here's my thoughts on why it's not too powerful:

1. It has no power over citizens.
The Oversight Branch, by design, only has power over the government. It has no power over citizens. So the only way it can have influence is by what it does to the government. So does it have too much power over the government?

2. It can take only very limited actions
The Oversight Branch only has power to investigate, prosecute government employees in the courts of law, and release information. Think of it as an investigative journalist with access to more information coupled with the ability to prosecute.

All of these abilities are necessary, and none of these abilities is particularly powerful; indeed, if they aren't combined, the oversight branch would be too weak to provide oversight.

3. Even if it turns out to be very partisan, it's no worse than today.
Even if the Oversight Branch turns out to be very partisan, it's no worse than having a (Republican/Democratic) Congress paired with a (Democratic/Republican) President. The current hyper-partisan attempt to catch the other side in a scandal or (worse) attempt to create a scandal where these is none already occurs today. So, the risk of partisanism isn't a real concern.

4. The Other Branches are Very Powerful
The worst possible case is a corrupt Oversight Branch that tries to use the threat of prosecution as a way to control the government. But the other branches are very powerful too, and they would surely push back against this threat and quickly try to smear the Oversight Branch as corrupt, given the safeguard (discussed below) that the Oversight Branch must fear.

5. (Roughly) Three people in charge is a good number.
Some number of people have to be in charge of the Oversight Branch. If there are too many, the responsibility is too diffused and effectively no one is in charge. That would neuter the Oversight Branch and prevent it from being focused and effective. Having one person in charge is too risky due to the chance of personal biases. (Being accountable to two other people reduces the risk of abuse.) And three people in charge is better than two, because it allows them to vote on disagreements and reach a conclusion- an even number risks creating fracture.

6. Any good oversight must work behind closed doors.
If an Oversight Group will have access to classified information, it must largely operate behind closed doors. Much of what any oversight group looks at will turn out to be perfectly fine. You shouldn't smear politicians who are investigated but found innocent. And you don't want to release classified information that should be classified. So you'd want the work of any oversight group to be behind closed doors.

7. Findings would be made public.
The two end-products of the Oversight Branch are (1) prosecutions in courts of law, and (2) releasing information. Both of these are public, so it's not like the Oversight Branch operates in total secrecy.

8. The people have a safeguard.
As noted in the essay, and as Robin noted, the people have a safeguard. There is always a risk of things going badly, so if the public puts it to a vote, and 75% agree, everyone in the Oversight Branch would be fired and prevented from working at the new one. The Oversight Branch should be doing the work of the people, so if the people strongly think it's not, then they can start it over again. As noted in (4) above, the rest of government (a very powerful group) would be highly incentivized to alert the people of malfeasance. So, if the Oversight Branch became corrupt, the people would find out about it.

Summary
In short, I think there's a serious power imbalance in government currently. We can't eliminate it, but we need something that incentivizes the government to do the right thing. I think the Oversight Branch has the amount of power necessary to do that job well, and no power more than necessary. So, I think it brings government closer to its goal, not further.