Monday, May 25, 2015


The Polar Pioneer, docked in Seattle. In the foreground is a "protest barge."
Royal Dutch Shell has plans for Arctic drilling this year, and is using the Port of Seattle as a stopover point. This being called the Left Coast for a reason, there have been protests; and even the City Council and the Mayor are getting in on the act.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Column A and Column B

The story of Josh Duggar—of the whole Duggar family, really—is a tragedy. Duggar’s actions were absolutely appalling, as anyone with a well-tuned moral compass could understand. Of course we should condemn Josh and his crimes: Contra Mike Huckabee’s strange statement, publicly denouncing sex criminals sends a resounding message that our society won’t tolerate such abuse. But even as we reprove him, we should remember the odious lies that were forced down his throat as a child. As much as Josh deserves our scorn, the young teen who perpetrated these crimes also deserves a small measure of our pity. Josh was born into a world of subjugation and repression. That doesn’t excuse his monstrous behavior. But it does help to explain how a man who spends his days espousing family values lost his own sense of morality.
Mark Joseph Stern. "Of Course We Should Condemn Josh Duggar. We Should Also Pity Him."
First, apologies for the long quote. This is a situation where I wanted to make sure that I pulled in all of the necessary context for what follows.

I understand the call to both Condemn and Pity Josh Duggar. But it seems like a call to have it both ways, when I think that it would be healthier to make a choice - either one's "moral compass" is objectively self-calibrating and acting in reprehensible ways is a sign of insufficient commitment to proper behavior, or we do as we're taught to do, and people's sense of morality is personal.

Note that this doesn't touch on whether Josh Duggar's actions were criminal and/or harmful. They were both. But that's a separate issue from whether or not there is a greater moral issue at stake.

I've never seen _19 Kids and Counting_ because it strikes me, as does much of "reality" programming, as Freak-Show Television. And, to be honest, the Point-and-Stare/Laugh aesthetic of it all makes me uncomfortable. But the Duggars, like any other phenomenon popularly understood to be a train wreck, are impossible to get completely away from. I won't claim to have read the public conversation around the show entirely correctly, but I think I understand the discomfort that it provoked in America's political Left. The unabashedly Conservative Christian Duggars have been described multiple times as openly using their show to promote their particular values as the only correct ones. They were preaching to a choir of people who see themselves as kept out of the élite of the American mainstream, and the sermon seems to have been "'Society' is different, and that's Bad."

And so when Mr. Stern relates that: "[...] much of the left has greeted the news of [Josh Duggar's] molestation charges with a kind of derisive, jeering disgust," I get it. Like anyone, people on the Left want to believe that they're good people, with well-calibrated moral compasses, and so are always alert for a chance to point out when a mighty critic has fallen. But the idea that it was Josh's upbringing that helped shape him into someone who is worth of pity for being "born into a world of subjugation and repression" is designed to take a singular critique of a man and reshape into a broader, if milder, indictment of a culture. (This has been going on for a while - people on the Left( and the Right(, for instance, have leveled charges of child abuse for passing on one's beliefs to one's children.)

Which creates something of a paradox - as I first encountered the concept in college: "People are taught to behave in certain ways, but should held accountable for learning them." Our culture of making both the external what and the internal why of behavior important leads us to forget that for the most part, culpability doesn't matter. It makes sense to condemn the molestation of youth below the age of consent. This is a behavior that we have more or less collectively determined to be unacceptable. But once we've done that, why bother to condemn Josh Duggar? It may be satisfying to point at him and say (as is becoming popular): "You're a bad person and should feel bad." But what do we earn from that other than a sense of personal satisfaction?

Conversely, if we've decided that Josh Duggar is a monster, and fully responsible for what he has done, who cares what he was taught? A lot of people have been taught things that would appear to justify bad behavior on their part - yet they don't indulge in it. This is why the dueling accusations as to whether teaching creationism or evolution by natural selection constitute child abuse are completely irrelevant. Sure, they give people something to snipe at each other about, but Children and Family Services will never become involved over them.

We often appear to have difficulty deciding who to blame for bad things that happen. So we don't decide. We spread the blame around to anyplace we think it will stick. Which is understandable, but it doesn't solve the problems at hand.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Right Side

It will be okay when I do it...
When it comes to crimes like murder, I don't believe that our biggest problem is our willingness to kill. Instead, it's our willingness to tell ourselves that our reasons for killing are the right ones.
[Art] Caplan draws a wise lesson from the Nazi doctors: Beware the human weakness for moral rationalization. But part of that weakness is the illusion in each of us that we have escaped it.
William Saletan. "Natural-Born Killers" Slate Magazine, 4 April, 2005
In the end, our weakness for rationalization doesn't lead many of us to violence - despite the tough talk, I doubt that Mr. Shaw would shoot down an unsuspecting person for the "sin" of hunting for sport. It's, likely just words. Instead, it leads us to look the other way when people we dislike are subject to violence. Or, perhaps worse, engage in character assassination.

There is nothing wrong, as far as I'm concerned, with backing things that suit one's purposes, even if those same actions would otherwise trigger protest. Where we fail is in owning up to our biases. Which gives us the idea that our moral sentiments are objective reflections of reality, and thus superior to those of people who disagree with us. And there is no price to high for others to pay in the pursuit of a higher ideal.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

It's Never Basic

I was reading The Atlantic, and came across an interesting article on the idea of a guaranteed basic income. At one point, it mentions a German experiment in crowdfunding that has given about a dozen people, chosen by a lottery:

Indeed, the stories told by the winners are inspiring. For example, one recipient is using his newfound freedom to write his dissertation. Another winner quit his job at a call center to study and become a teacher.
And while this is a small sample within a small sample, it raises one of the fundamental issues with a guaranteed basic income that isn't backed up by a command economy - how does one ensure that the basic goods and services that people need to get by will be provided if they're not making them themselves?

Consider a small community of ten people. Alice and Bob are farmers and are capable of producing enough food to feed the entire community. Carol and Don are clothiers, and again, are capable of outfitting the entire community. And finally, we have Edith and Fred, who are homebuilders - and they have the ability to house the entire community. Now, back in the day, the three couples relied on themselves or each other for the basics (food, clothing and shelter) and the other four members of the community provided luxuries - things that Alice, Bob, Carol, Don, Edith and Fred wanted, but didn't need to live. But now, machines can do the things for Alice, et al that the other four community members did more cheaply. If Greg owns the machines, there is a problem. One can talk about giving the remaining three members of the community a basic income that they don't have to work for in order to buy goods and services from the other members of the community, but if we remove money from the equation for a moment, you can see the problem. Unless Alice, et al continue to produce enough to supply everyone, you don't have anything to give the remaining three members of the community. And if they do, they're basically giving it away, because Greg's automation can do whatever they would have done for the farmers, clothiers or builders.

Of course, in a larger community, things become much more complicated, and very quickly, but the basic problem remains the same. If producers make goods and services to meet the demand of the people who can afford to pay for them directly by trading value for value, if you have a number of people on a basic income who aren't necessarily making goods and services that the producers of necessities want, what do they do to justify producing things for them? At some level, a basic income only works if there is a predictable surplus of goods and services for them. But in a society where people can chose, how do you get there?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Act One

In the end, the problem with pragmatism is that it slides into cynicism. And even if it doesn’t then metastasize into despair, it can create sense of futility. After a tip-off from a fellow Google+ user, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Million-Dollar Murray,” about homelessness and the “power law” distribution thereof. Picture a graph where, as you move from left to right along the X axis, the Y axis rises only slowly - until you come up on the far right edge of the distribution, at which point the Y axis suddenly rockets into the stratosphere. That’s a “power law” distribution. You see it in such things as wealth distribution in the United States or use-of-force complaints against police officers. And you see it in homelessness, where, as the article points out, most people who are homeless at some point are only in that condition for a short period of time. But then there are a comparatively few people for whom homelessness is a way of life - and that’s where all of the money goes. Removing these people from the streets and putting them into supportive housing would save us millions of dollars a year (assuming we didn’t redirect the savings into services for the less catastrophically homeless). And it would remove people from a situation that Americans are constantly decrying.

It is very much ingrained in me that you do not manage a social wrong. You should be ending it.
Philip Mangano, former executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness
Seems logical. I don’t know that I could find anyone who would sincerely say that a social wrong should be allowed to persist indefinitely. But before you ask yourself why we don’t seem committed to ending the social wrong we are confronted with, ask yourself what social wrong people perceive.

One of the important points that Mr. Gladwell makes about a problem with a power law distribution is a simple one: “But from a moral perspective it doesn’t seem fair.” Being in a difficult spot abd managing it to the best of one’s ability, so as to stay out of the right-hand spike at the end of the distribution means, when there are not enough resources to go around, not receiving the help that the hard cases get - even when the hard cases seem singularly disinterested in helping themselves. As a result, Mr. Gladwell notes, “Our usual moral intuitions are little use, then, when it comes to a few hard cases. Power-law problems leave us with an unpleasant choice. We can be true to our principles or we can fix the problem. We cannot do both.”
Thousands of people in the Denver area no doubt live day to day, work two or three jobs, and are eminently deserving of a helping hand—and no one offers them the key to a new apartment. Yet that’s just what the guy screaming obscenities and swigging Dr. Tich gets. When the welfare mom’s time on public assistance runs out, we cut her off. Yet when the homeless man trashes his apartment we give him another.
The pragmatic solution is a simple one. We simply jettison our “usual moral intuitions” around concepts of fairness and deserving. After all, these are not physical traits of the world around us. The world is full of unfairness, and bad things happen to presumably undeserving good people all the time. It’s part of the reason why so many people refer to the Just-World Hypothesis as a fallacy. Or, to be a bit more colorful about it, “Believing that life is fair might make you a terrible person(” There is a whole segment of religious study devoted to Theodicy, defined by Merriam-Webster as “: defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.” We worry about the “goodness and omnipotence” of a deity, rather than our own commitment and effectiveness. Because instead, the common impulse is to reject Mr. Gladwell’s contention, and believe that, regardless of how great a gulf a neutral observer might see between following our principles and the solution to the problem, that they are one in the same thing - that close adherence to our principles of fairness and deserving will inevitably lead to the solution we want. Or, to be more precise, if other people were to adhere to our principles, they would solve the problem. It’s a brilliant strategy, one that allows for a self-proclaimed commitment to the issue, but that also places the responsibility in the hands of people who are in dire straits to begin with.

That idea isn’t going away any time soon, and the pragmatic thing to do is to understand that. But doing that means understanding that what we are doing now is futile. In doing a little bit for every homeless person in the name of being fair, we’re not solving the problem. And oftentimes, our standards of who we consider deserving are so stringent that we can hardly be said to be living up to our principles - after all, even when we’re not simply handing the keys to subsidized apartments to the chronically homeless, we’re not giving them to the person working three jobs, either.

The conclusion that one draws from Mr. Gladwell’s piece, one that Mr. Gladwell himself appears to draw, is that we’re not invested in solutions. We’re invested in our own comfort; we’re invested in making sure that we feel good about what’s going on. And we’re willing to pay a high monetary price for that - and for others to pay a high price in suffering. But that’s the way it is - it’s part of human nature. Right and wrong are often invisible to us. But we understand what feels right and what feels wrong, and with no other way by which to judge, we place our feelings at the top of our priority list. And so we find ourselves trapped in Solutions Theater, where the appearance of marrying “our usual moral intuitions” and workable solutions to the problem becomes a cover for the fact that none of it is real.