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