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.


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Snowden Is A Traitor

If you've read (and you should read!) Wielding Power's most recent issue, 'Should Leakers of Classified Government Wrong-Doings Be Punished?', you'll know where I stand on that question.

In my essay, I don't comment on Snowden. What about his particular case? Is he a hero or a traitor?

I think this is actually very clear-cut: Snowden is a traitor.

I only need one piece of evidence to defend this claim: via the NYT, he released information detailing how the NSA was spying on Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications giant. This spying enabled the NSA to create a backdoor into Chinese communications. That's exactly what the NSA is supposed to do (and what all countries do). And now that pathway is closed.

So he's aided the enemy. And over something that had very little to nothing to do with US privacy.

Whatever you think of he's other actions, this alone should put the question to rest.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Should Leakers of Classified Government Wrong-Doings Be Punished?

Wielding Power has published its fourth issue: Should Leakers of Classified Government Wrong-Doings Be Punished?

Congratulations to the winner and finalists!
Winner: Ethan Deitrich
Finalist: Melanie Smith
Finalist: Tony Leyh

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, May 6, 2014

Record number of entries

Wielding Power has received a record number of entries for our next question: Should Marijuana Be Legal?

We've received 48 entries. So far, the pattern looks like:

Issue 1: 2 entries
Issue 2: 8 entries
Issue 3: 14 entries
Issue 4: 36 entries
Issue 5: 48 entries

That's great! It also means those entries need to be graded. So, pardon me if this blog gets fewer updates this week. Our next issue, 'Should Leakers of Classified Government Wrong-Doings Be Punished?' comes out on Friday, so stay tuned for that issue and corresponding blog post. It's a really challenging question, and produced some very interesting essays.

Friday, May 2, 2014

What's Wrong With Conservatism?

Welcome to Part 4 of the Political Theory Smackdown: Conservatism

Part 1: Libertarianism
Part 2: Utilitarianism
Part 3: Liberalism

What is Conservatism?

Conservatism, like Liberalism, is far harder to define than either Libertarianism or Utilitarianism. Quite literally, 'conservatism' is about 'conserving'. But what's being conserved? People disagree constantly about that, so what it means to be a 'conservative' is quite different in different places in the world and even evolves its meaning within a single country over time.

In this post, I mean to (very roughly) address Conservatism in the United States today. But even specifying that, it's still unclear what I mean. And almost every conservative has a somewhat different idea of what that means.

So what do conservatives believe? Broadly speaking, conservatives promote retaining traditional social institutions.

But what are those traditional social institutions? This site is probably too simplistic, but it gives a reasonable first-pass at definitions of 'liberal' and 'conservative' within the current US spectrum. (Of course, these ideologies are constantly evolving.) In line with that site, I'd probably roughly characterize Conservatism as:
Conservatives believe in personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty, traditional American values and a strong national defense.  Believe the role of government should be to provide people the freedom necessary to pursue their own goals.  Conservative policies generally emphasize empowerment of the individual to solve problems.
That sounds pretty good. What's wrong with it?

Four Problems with Conservatism

1. It stands in the way of progress

This problem is painfully obvious. What's so great about traditional social institutions? What if the traditional social institutions are bad? Progress moves forward, and conservatives stand in the way, clinging onto the past in fear of change.

Conservatives rightfully acknowledge that social systems are fragile, but that doesn't mean they can't be improved. Was monarchy or Jim Crow worth defending? The path to improvement was bumpy, yes, but it's hard to look back now and think they were right.

2. It's impossible

Times change. Economies progress, social mores change, religions rise and fall in influence, knowledge grows. Whether you view these things and their effects as positive or negative, they are inevitable. You can't turn back the clock to the 'better time' of your grandparents. (Conservatives always seem to pine for life 50 years ago- future conservatives will want to go back to the 'good old days' of the 2010's.)

Conservatives are almost trying to halt or reverse the flow of time, an impossible task. Society will change or 'progress' whether you want it to or not.

3. It's unfair.

The current US conservative stance (what they are trying to 'conserve') is unfair. Their economic views are somewhat similar to libertarian economic views (free markets), and you run into the same problems I described there.

In a nutshell, the people who lose in a modern, US conservative economic system are the people who are the most disadvantaged to start out. If you've got bad genetics or a poor upbringing, too bad- you start the race from further behind than everyone else.

4. It over-glorifies the individual.

People have many flaws and biases. People are emotional and irrational. People use many poor mental heuristics to make decisions. People are very heavily influenced by their biology, upbringing, education, culture, and friends. People are heavily influenced by media and propaganda.

Maybe some people are able to minimize the influence of those things, but many, many simply live out their lives like sheep, acting on instinct.

People often act contrary to their own best judgement. Government rules, regulations, and mandates can protect people from themselves. They can lead people to better decisions that they likely wouldn't have been able to figure out for themselves.

Individuals are flawed, and government can help correct those flaws.

Final Thoughts

Conservatism has much going for it; traditional ways have value, and it's important to empower the individual. But as I hope I've highlighted, Conservatism as an ideology can also be backwards.

As I've repeatedly noted, I don't expect to dissuade true believers by these arguments. If you were a conservative when you started reading this, then you probably still are now. Nevertheless, I think it's worth reflecting on why conservatism isn't the 'obvious' answer that so many people believe it to be.


Next Up: Socialism

Thursday, May 1, 2014

What's Wrong With Liberalism?

Welcome to Part 3 of the Political Theory Smackdown: Liberalism.

(Part 1 was on Libertarianism.
Part 2 was on Utilitarianism.)

What's Liberalism?

Liberalism is far harder to define than either Libertarianism or Utilitarianism. The word 'liberal' has its roots in the Latin word for 'free', and since that's been an attractive idea for the past two or three hundred years, many groups in many places have latched onto a form of this word to support their cause. So what it means to be a 'liberal' is quite different in different places in the world and even evolves its meaning within a single country over time.

In this post, I mean to (very roughly) address Liberalism in the United States today. But even specifying that, it's still unclear what I mean. Many liberals call themselves 'progressives', though much of that could be an attempt at rebranding. And almost every liberal has a somewhat different idea of what that means.

So what do liberals believe? This site is probably too simplistic, but it gives a reasonable first-pass at definitions of 'liberal' and 'conservative' within the current US spectrum. (Of course, these ideologies are constantly evolving.) In line with that site, I'd probably roughly characterize Liberalism as:

belief in the role of government to improve people's lives and in particular promote fairness and equality.

If there's a meaningful difference between Liberalism and Progressivism in the US today, I'd see it as Progressives having a stronger belief in that statement.

In practice, this means that Liberals tend to support more regulations and government oversight of life to ensure that the less powerful aren't disadvantaged by the more powerful or to guide citizens to better choices. Liberals typically support greater civil liberties and greater economic restrictions and more progressive taxation. Liberals are less wedded to how things have been done in the past and more often tend to see new areas where government action can bring improvement.

Improving life and helping the weak sounds great. What's wrong with Liberalism, then?

Four Problems With Liberalism

1. It trusts Government with too much

This is really a two-part problem: trusting government with too much power and trusting government is more capable than it is.

Power is necessary for government, but you can't trust people with it. That's the ultimate paradox of politics and governing. You can go too far in either direction (not giving the Government enough power and giving it too much), but since people always try to accumulate more power, the problem of too much power is far, far more common.

So long as restricting government power helps the weak (e.g. freedom of speech, law enforcement), liberals tend to support it. But if they believe that more government power would help the weak or help improve people's lives (e.g. regulations), then liberals tend to support that. So, to be clear, liberals don't always support a 'bigger' government as a matter of principle. However, most people (including liberals) tend to not consider the potential consequences of what might happen when they do want bigger government. Instead, liberals view government as an honest, impartial force that can fairly fix problems.

However, historically, people who have power have tended to use it for their own purposes. That doesn't mean everyone all the time does, but it does mean that the greater the temptation for abuse, the more likely abuse (whether subtle or overt) is going to happen. Abuse might even happen in the name of 'improvement' and come with good intentions, but that doesn't make it abuse any less. That's a dangerous problem.

The other part is trusting government is more capable than it really is. If you want something done, someone has to do it. And the best results seem to come from people who are motivated to do it well. If you have 'skin in the game', which usually happens because the result deeply affects you somehow, you are much more likely to do a good job.

But many government projects suffer from what is called the 'principle-agent' problem. That's the problem when the person doing something (the agent) is different from the person with skin-in-the-game (the principle). They lack the same motivation. The person at the DMV or the post-office doesn't have much skin-in-the-game. It's very hard to fire them and they don't have the motivation of trying to help a company succeed. So it doesn't really matter how they do. Little surprise, then, when they don't do a great job.

If you can get real motivation to do a good job and a sense of mission, as you can in national defense or in the 1960's space race, the government can do a great job. But these are typically rare.

In addition, much ink has been spilled arguing why government rules and regulations are vastly inferior to markets due to a lack of dynamic real-world information that's normally supplied by prices. Or why and how interest groups can bend government power to their own ends to create rules that benefit themselves over others. Or why and how short-sightedness and political expediency often causes rules to be drafted based on whether they sound good or are currently popular with small, loud, minorities rather than whether they'd benefit or are supported by the people as a whole. And the list goes on...

2. It Has An Unclear End Goal And Exhibits Constant Unhappiness

What is the liberal's ideal state? Is there one? Liberals have a bit of a 'slippery slope' problem. Since someone's always gotta lose, there will always be weaker people to help and problems to fix. No matter how good things are on an absolute scale, the liberal will always find something to be deeply unhappy with.

It seems hard for a liberal to look at current developed nations and think, "wow, in the vast scheme of things, life is unthinkably better now than it ever has been." Instead, you get a long list of complaints about increasingly less important things. (On the one hand, that's great, because it means that the biggest problems have been largely dealt with.) It's rare you reach a point where a liberal will say, "that's good enough. let's stop worrying about improving life and just enjoy it."

The result is constant tinkering with a highly fragile, incredibly complex social and political system. It's really hard to know what long-term consequences will result from that tinkering, but the liberal will tinker away anyway.

Unfortunately, it's much easier to create government programs and systems than it is to eliminate them. As a result, poorly designed programs continue to fester and create distortions that then 'require' even more elaborate programs to fix.

3. It Doesn't Respect Tradition 

This problem is highly related to the previous one, so I won't have much more to say.

Tradition is simply how things have been done. That might be good and it might be bad, but culture and meaning is created simply by doing things over and over again. And that has value.

By constantly trying to improve things, liberalism places little value on the tradition itself. An improvement might be analytically a bit better, but by disrupting tradition you lose a lot of value and a good deal of what makes life enjoyable.

4. It Discourages Greatness

One of liberalism's focuses is to help the weaker. Very often (though not always) this happens by shackling the strong and the great.

The DNA of liberalism roots for the underdog, the poor, the weak, the powerless. So, it's very hard for the liberal to root for and celebrate strength and greatness. (Unless it's an example of the strong helping the weak.)

Too often, in their rush to try to help people, they demonize self-help and self-improvement. They believe so strongly in the need to help people stand that they lose faith in the ability of people to learn to stand on their own. Plus, that 'bootstraps' language is very often used by the powerful and the great, which causes suspicion and distrust in the liberal.

Instead, self-help is mocked ('you didn't build that'), and the strong and powerful are smeared, vilified, and pulled down. (Which creates tension and faction within the state.) No doubt some of the powerful arrived in their position by crook, but in most developed nations today, that's a rarity. That was far more true in the past, or in developing nations.

But if we don't celebrate strength and greatness, how will we ever become strong and great?

Final Thoughts

Liberalism has much going for it; fairness and equality are important, and the weak do need help. But as I hope I've highlighted, Liberalism as an ideology can also go too far.

As I've repeatedly noted, I don't expect to dissuade true believers by these arguments. If you were a liberal when you started reading this, then you probably still are now. Nevertheless, I think it's worth reflecting on why liberalism isn't the 'obvious' answer that so many people believe it to be.


Next Up: Conservatism

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Response from Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith, winner of Wielding Power's 'Should Nations Restrict Immigration?' contest, recently provided a lengthy and thoughtful response to some questions I asked him about his winning essay.

You can read it here.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Boston Marathon Security

The Boston Marathon is today. It marks the one year anniversary of the tragic bomb at the finish line.

So this year, Boston is rolling out enormous security measures:
Containers with more than 1 liter of liquid, costumes covering the face, and bulky clothes such as vests with pockets won't be allowed. 
And large flags or signs bigger than 11 inches by 17 inches are also banned from marathon venues. Those venues include the start and finish areas, the course, the athletes' village and areas where official events are held.

 So what about the cost?
Authorities have not disclosed how much the extra security will cost. All they will offer is that it will be "much greater" than last year's cost.
This sort of thing seems inevitable: government feels (is?) responsible for people's security, and they rightly know that if something happened again this year, they would be heavily denounced. Their incentives strongly compel them to wrap Boston in a security blanket. And the people are probably still skittish, with nervous memories of last year, so on the whole they probably appreciate the extra security.

But is it right? I don't live there, so I should first acknowledge that this decision should ultimately be up to the people of Boston. It's their tradeoff to make.

But a tradeoff it is- how much of a police state do you want to live in? How effective are these measures? Should you do this for every big event? Should you do this for every marathon from now on? Is this really the best use of the officers' time? Or the city's money?

This year, I'm ok with this. This event almost serves as a group memorial and psychological solidarity event. Its something special that builds meaning in the community. So I'm ok with the tactics this year. However, in subsequent years or at other events, this level of security strikes me as out of proportion, not cost-effective, and frankly a little frightening. (That's my first impression anyway.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Is Stop-and-Frisk Worth It?

I haven't really thought much about this question, so I found this to be a very interesting article:
http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/03/is-stop-and-frisk-worth-it/358644/

It's long, so here's the short version:

1. Stop-and-Frisk policies are policies based on the 'broken-window' theory of crime- the theory that crime is sort of like a slipperly-slope virus: small crimes create a sense that the law isn't really being enforced, which encourages larger and larger crimes. So, the way to stop crimes is to crack down on the small stuff.

2. So, Stop-and-Frisk involves stopping and searching people who cops think might be up to no good.

3. At least in NYC, Stop-and-Frisk stops and frisks races and neighborhoods in proportion to their crime rates.

4. Since criminals tend to be disproportionately minorities, this means that the people stopped and frisked are disproportionately minorities. In NYC, about 12% of the stops ended in an arrest or a summons.

5. Stop-and-Frisk policies seem to have significantly reduced crime around the country. (Or at least that's what this article claims by interviewing one scholar. The reduction in crime is one of the more contentious issues. It seems everyone has a different theory, though this article makes plausible arguments against some of the other main contenders.)

6. At the cost of disproportionately impacting minorities, who have mixed feelings about the policy. Many feel humiliated by it, though they still feel its effective.

7. A federal judge recently ruled it unconstitutional.

The tradeoff here appears to be between safety on the one hand and 'fairness' and emotional impact on the other.

I put 'fairness' in quotes, because different people view fairness differently. Some people view fair as patting down people essentially randomly, while others view patting down people in proportion to their likelihood to commit crimes as fair.

In this case, I see the latter as far fairer: the whole point of law-enforcement is to protect and serve the city as a whole, and its a huge waste of effort to not target those you think have committed crimes.

I haven't given this too much thought, but it seems like stop-and-frisk was worth it: it probably contributed to reduced crimes (how much, I don't know), and was pretty fair. I would agree with the article though- to the extent police officers can be more polite while doing it, that's going to be much better. If less than half the stops find stuff, you probably shouldn't rush in and be gruff about it. It's counterproductive to alienate people in rough neighborhoods and have them view the cops as enemies. As was said during the Iraq war, you're trying to win hearts and minds- ultimately, you want all neighborhoods to be safe, clean places. The more you can get the people in those communities to support the police and law and order, the easier that will be. Treating innocent people badly is unjust and counterproductive.


Friday, April 11, 2014

Should Nations Restrict Immigration?

Wielding Power has published its second issue: Should Nations Restrict Immigration?

Congratulations to the winner and finalists!
Winner: Nathan Smith
Finalist: Ethan Deitrich
Finalist: Alexander Celesius

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?

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.]

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Arguments Matter

A few weeks ago, Nate Silver launched FiveThirtyEight. This week Ezra Klein launched Vox.

Mr. Silver's meandering opening article argued for avoiding broader political debates and just looking at the data. Mr. Klein's very well written opening article ('how politics makes us stupid') is a bit more sophisticated, but it amounts to the same thing. He looks at a study that shows that people's political beliefs bias them to look at facts in a way that confirms their beliefs. More information won't bring people closer to the solution. He illustrates this with many ways that conservatives figures have allowed their ideology to blind them from the truth. So he says that we should focus on policy, and leave political arguments behind.

(As an aside, I find Ezra's article a bit confusing, self-congratulatory, and hypocritical.

Confusing because the study he highlights would seem to indicate that ideologues will run into the same problem when focusing on policy that they do when they focus on politics, so I don't understand how focusing on policy gets around the problem.

Self-congratulatory because Ezra seems to put himself above this bias that he claims befalls politics and everyone else. He alone can and will 'explain the news' in a non-biased way. I'd feel much safer if he acknowledged his personal biases and said he was consciously trying to correct for them. Those who claim to have no biases are usually the most biased.

Which brings me to hypocritical. Even the article itself confirms Ezra's heavy liberal slant, as all the examples he uses are of conservatives failing to live up to 'reason'. I've read a bunch of other articles Vox has put out, and what it essentially amounts to is them providing a liberal framing and context for some issues in the news. They seem to believe they are providing an objective 'explanation of the news', but it turns out to be not much more than a slickly packaged compilation of liberal talking points. Vox's analysis is deeper than Nate Silver's, but Nate is far more objective.)

Back to the main point. Nate Silver and Ezra Klein seem to represent the newest trend in internet political analysis. Both point a horrified finger at OpEds and newsrooms and say they want to avoid the myopic political bickering that's reflected there. Ezra even seems to have identified the main problem: people's political convictions are underpinned by belief. But Ezra and Nate's method is to grasp after a technocratic solution: understand better how the world works.

I recently argued how this approach is very useful, but it misses half the battle. (Do read that if you haven't already. For the rest of this, I'll assume you have.)

Moral considerations, moral arguments count as much as practical arguments. Moral arguments and considerations frame the very debate itself. They determine what policy choices are even considered or are 'politically feasible'. A shift in the moral climate is cataclysmic within the policy world.

But the moral climate shifts over a much longer time frame than the policy world. Policy is very important, but the technocratic policy world lurches from shiny object to shiny object, focused on the crisis right in front of it, most of the time contained within the 4-8 year period a president holds office. While it might try to craft a policy that lasts decades (like Obamacare), policy must do that within the day-to-day political climate. And that political climate is dominated over the longer term by the broader moral climate, which shifts over the period of decades and generations.

A generation grows up, experiences certain things, draws moral and political lessons from that, and assumes certain things are good and bad. It takes decades for an alternative moral argument to build and grow on the outskirts. Those older and more established are typically more set in their ways- they "know" the world to be a certain way- they are very hard to convince otherwise. It usually takes one of two things for a new moral idea to take over:

(a) the passing of the torch (dying off) of an older generation to a new generation with different beliefs inculcated in their youth
(b) a crisis situation that makes everyone realize the old ways might not work and desperately grope for the next best idea lying around.

In both cases, it's decades of hard moral debate that lays the groundwork for the new moral and political climate. Arguing, debating, convincing, finding flaws in the status-quo: little by little it's these small things that shape our basic assumptions about good and bad, about what the government should or shouldn't do. And it can all seem very petty and useless to the policy people- it doesn't ever seem to go anywhere!

But when the moral climate changes, it can change very rapidly. People are herd animals, and are comforted by the status quo- if a moral idea gains a critical mass and the competing idea has become too tired or broken to fight back, the majority can adopt it quickly. You see that playing out with gay marriage, which is largely following the path of (a) above. Support for that has passed an inflection point in the past five years, and it's rapidly becoming the dominate position. And that's an argument that a Nate Silver or an Ezra Klein can only react to. That debate will be won or lost without them (depending on how hypocritical Ezra is), and they just have to deal with the consequences.

So arguments matter.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

This is Why Congress Can't Do Oversight

Congress can't be responsible for oversight. It fundamentally cannot work. Simply put, you can't expect political parties and branches of government to investigate themselves.

Exhibit A.

The only solution to this problem is the Oversight Branch.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Is the 'Coalition to Stop Gun Violence' Allergic to Reason?

When I was drumming up entries for Wielding Power's first issue, "Should Government Ban Guns?," I emailed various groups of people letting them know about the essay contest.

One particular group emailed me back, saying that they would love to enter, but they thought the question was too loaded to a particular side. This was the 'Coalition to Stop Gun Violence'. I was told:

All this question does is tee things up for pro-gun extremists and excuses them from having to discuss actually policy options on the table at all. That's exactly what the NRA and gun industry want.

I tried explaining that we were looking for thoughtful responses, that this was a forum for rigorous argument and vigorous writing. As you can see by reading the issue, it is very far from a partisan shill for the NRA. (In fact, the winning response favored heavily restricting guns.)

Nevertheless, they took the view that the question was too biased, and beneath the dignity of a reasoned discussion about guns.

Fast forward a few months.

Without my permission, my email address was placed on an email-blast list, and I've started receiving email blasts from them.

Here's the one I got recently:

Dear RKJ,
As you might have heard, the National Rifle Association is conducting its annual conference this month in Indianapolis from April 25-27. They are undoubtedly hoping to dominate the media cycle with their usual propaganda about freedom, liberty and "good guys with guns." 
But we're not going to let them get away with it. It's time the media and public learned that the NRA is run by a group of extremists who routinely trample on any freedom that gets in the way of gun industry profits and unfettered access to firearms.   
Our goal is to make sure that everyone in Indianapolis next month—particularly the media—learns the truth. That's whywe are going to rent a truck-mounted mobile billboard highlighting the revealing, offensive quotes of NRA leaders to drive around the convention center all weekend.

The price of the billboard is $6,100. Can you pitch in $20 today to help us pay for the billboard? 

In addition to highlighting racist/misogynist/homophobic quotes by NRA leaders, our mobile billboard will direct Indianapolis residents and visitors to the "Meet the NRA" website maintained by our sister organization, the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, at www.meetthenra.org.  There we have cataloged decades of offensive remarks by NRA board members and executive staff and revealed that today's NRA serves as attack dogs for a wide range of far-right wing causes that are way outside the political mainstream. 
Can you help us expose the NRA's extremism during a moment when they are on a national stage? 

Thank you for your support. We believe we have a golden opportunity here to shine a spotlight on the men and women behind a radical agenda that opposes even the most common-sense reforms like expanded background checks. We plan to seize it. 
Josh Horwitz
Executive Director
Coalition to Stop Gun Violence

Basically, they're asking for money to try to smear the NRA as racist homophobes.

Way to go, guys. That's really winning the argument on its merits.

Beliefs Determine Supreme Court Decision, Again

The Supreme Court released its verdict in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission today.

You can read the decision here. It was a 5-4 decision.

The opinion neatly describes the essence of the case:

The statute at issue in this case imposes two types of limits on campaign contributions. The first, called base limits, restricts how much money a donor may contribute to a particular candidate or committee. 2 U. S. C. §441a(a)(1). The second, called aggregate limits, restricts how much money a donor may contribute in total to all candidates or committees. §441a(a)(3).
This case does not involve any challenge to the base limits, which we have previously upheld as serving the permissible objective of combatting corruption. The Government contends that the aggregate limits also serve that objective, by preventing circumvention of the base limits. We conclude, however, that the aggregate limits do little, if anything, to address that concern, while seriously restricting participation in the democratic process. The aggregate limits are therefore invalid under the First Amendment.

As you can imagine (and as you saw if you followed the first link above), the political response to this decision broke down party lines. Republicans saw this as a victory for free speech. Democrats saw this as further opening the door to political corruption. 

It is always amazing to see how consistently people's deeply held political beliefs color their views and determine how they weigh things. It even shows up in the Court's own opinions. Both the conservative majority (plurality) opinion written by Roberts and the liberal minority dissent written by Breyer claim to be upholding democracy. Roberts warns that a democracy can't prevent individuals from expressing their political voice by donating to campaigns. Breyer warns that a democracy can't function if money lets the rich have a much louder voice than the poor.

In this case, the conclusions seem to be determined by three things:
1. The justices' political beliefs about the relative importance of various aspects of democracy.
2. The justices' practical beliefs about the corrupting influence of campaign contributions
3. Previous law

In this case, the justices differ on all three. They have different political and practical beliefs, and they each site different law to support their view. (If Nate Silver wanted to do something useful, he'd try to find data exploring number 2.)

I'm not a legal scholar, and I'm sure many legal scholars have expressed their opinion on this case. (Though, my guess is that they probably split along ideological lines too. I have no reason to suppose that they'd be any different from the Supreme Court Justices themselves.) So I have no legal analysis to offer. I just think it's amazing how this split occurs so predictably.


Friday, March 14, 2014

Nate Silver is Half-Right

The revamp of Nate Silver's blog, 538, goes live on Monday.

A few days ago, he did an interview with NY Magazine about it.

In that interview, he trashes op-ed columnists:

… the op-ed columnists at the New York Times, WashingtonPost, and Wall Street Journal are probably the most hedgehoglike people. They don’t permit a lot of complexity in their thinking. They pull threads together from very weak evidence and draw grand conclusions based on them. They’re ironically very predictable from week to week. If you know the subject that Thomas Friedman or whatever is writing about, you don’t have to read the column. You can kind of auto-script it, basically.
It’s people who have very strong ideological priors, is the fancy way to put it, that are governing their thinking. They’re not really evaluating the data as it comes in, not doing a lot of [original] thinking. They’re just spitting out the same column every week and using a different subject matter to do the same thing over and over.
It’s ridiculous to me that they undermine every value that these organizations have in their newsrooms. It’s strange. I know it’s cheaper to fund an op-ed columnist than a team of reporters, but I think it confuses the mission of what these great journalistic brands are about.

Instead he plays up "Data-journalism" which lets the data drive the story without ideology. (It's a bit unclear from the interview exactly what that will mean- I'm sure we'll find out over time.)

So is his criticism fair or valid?

I think it's half-right. At a big picture level, there are two things that *should* drive decision-making: (a) moral considerations, and (b) practical considerations.

The moral considerations are your beliefs about what's right and wrong. What's important and what's not? How important is freedom vs. security? What rights (if any) do I have?

The practical considerations are the facts and dynamics on the ground. How does it work? How many people did guns kill last year? Who did the killing? Who got killed? Where did it happen? Does increasing guns increase or decrease violence?

People's moral considerations are founded on belief, and unfortunately, humans tend to fit the practical considerations to their moral considerations. They will over-emphasize evidence that fits their beliefs and under-emphasize or ignore evidence that doesn't. And so in that sense, Nate Silver is exactly right- most op-ed columnists have their political beliefs and then cherry-pick facts that fit the narrative they want to see. This stands out sharply when comparing Nate's data-driven election forecasts to pundits narratives during election time. The pundit's behavior is highly disingenuous yet utterly predictable. It's basic human nature.

And Nate falls victim to it as well, and that's where he's half wrong. While Nate's left-of-center, I don't think that's where his blindness is. Nate's deep belief is in the technocratic, utilitarian trust in data to find the right solution. But excellent as Nate is on the practical stuff, his moral stuff is basically non-existent. He almost seems to think it's irrelevant. He can tell us who will likely be President, but he can't tell us who should be President.

We need more people like Nate Silver explaining how the world works and collecting and synthesizing the data for us. But the hard work has only begun when you have that picture, for that picture can't tell you what you should do. It helps you make much better decisions, but it can't make decisions for you. Moral considerations are at the heart of most political decisions, so it's simply inescapable, even if you can't measure it.

I agree with Nate that most op-ed columnists are very smart people blinded by ideology. I wouldn't really trust most of them to make moral decisions either. Examining moral considerations is even harder than examining practical considerations, because you have to be extra cautious about your own beliefs and biases. (And everyone has their own beliefs and biases.). People are even more willing to dismiss moral considerations that disagree with them than they are to dismiss facts that disagree with them.

In short, I think Nate is right to focus on practical considerations. But he's wrong to dismiss moral considerations.

(That's why I founded Wielding Power.)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Crimea and Secession

As I mentioned in my previous post on Ukraine, the leader of Crimea called for a vote to secede from Ukraine. The referendum is slated for March 16th.

But is secession legitimate?

A recent NYT article gives the rundown of the fraught recent political history of secession. As the article states, this is a rather timely and delicate topic in the West, as Scotland will be voting on whether to secede from Britain in September and Catalonia will be voting to secede from Spain in November. (Neither Britain nor Spain wants to lose their respective member, and Spain is calling Catalonia's move illegal.)

It's a very interesting question. I'm not sure I have a ready answer in general. Perhaps I'll make it an upcoming question for Wielding Power.