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:

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  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.