As everyone waits to see how the current situation in Egypt will play itself out, I find myself wondering what will happen if the Mubarak regime is toppled. There is a chance, how much of one I don't know, that the Islamic Brotherhood could rise to the top of the new power structure.
This would leave the United States in quandary. Any action taken against the Brotherhood would not go over well in the Islamic world, not to mention Egypt itself. But the United States has shown that it's not comfortable with Islamist governments, and the American public would likely be alarmed by a hostile regime in Egypt, and this would put pressure on the Administration to do something about the situation. Of course, the Egyptians wouldn't be happy with this, as they're already not very happy with the United States in the first place, given that we've been propping up Mubarak in exchange for his being "on our side."
Sunday, January 30, 2011
As everyone waits to see how the current situation in Egypt will play itself out, I find myself wondering what will happen if the Mubarak regime is toppled. There is a chance, how much of one I don't know, that the Islamic Brotherhood could rise to the top of the new power structure.
Sunday, January 23, 2011
"But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power."While I suspect that right wing of today is significantly different than the right wing of 47 years ago, I am still amazed by the fact that if you didn't put a date on Hofstadter's statement, you'd have no way of knowing that he hadn't coined it just yesterday.
Richard Hofstadter "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." Harper’s Magazine. November 1964.
Posted by Aaron at 1:32 PM
Saturday, January 22, 2011
I know that I should probably quit writing about things that I see on other people's weblogs, but this caught my attention. Seth Godin leads in with what everyone who has studied human reactions to risks is well aware of:
The perception of risk is skewed when bad outcomes are vivid, personal and immediate.He later ties this into the role of the media in prompting people to misjudge risk.
This is one reason why the media is so complicit in many of the issues of the day... they take concepts that were previously abstract and relentlessly make them vivid, personal and immediate. It amplifies the risks around us and easily sells us on a cycle of dissatisfaction.A bit too caught up in blaming, perhaps, but a wise observation nonetheless. But he loses me here:
If you want to create action on the important, figure out how to make it vivid, personal and immediate.Rather than advising us on how to better judge risks, Seth veers into the idea that it's important that each of us leverages the mechanisms of misjudgment to influence people to act on our priorities. With all due respect, everyone already knows this - the world is full of media promising all sorts of vivid, personal and immediate bad outcomes to our not acting on "the important," which can be anything from buying the newest acne medication to repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. I don't understand how adding yet more voices to the cacophony helps anything other than sales of advertising space.
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
I was reading a recent entry on Man Bites Blog, and it was clear to me that John was upset. I mentioned this in comments, and he confirmed it. And then I didn't know what to say. It was clear that John felt belittled and insulted by the way the debate over values and the effects of rhetoric (and actions, for that matter) on society, and I could sympathize with that, but I was having a hard time linking into it, so that I could empathize with it.
Earlier today I was directed to an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal: "Toward a 21st-Century Regulatory System," written by none other than President Barack Obama. If you really want to, you can go over and read it for yourself, if you haven't encountered it already, so I won't bore you with the details. But the general jist of it can be summed up with the idea that regulations are out of whack, so the President is signing an Executive Order to fix the problem. "This order requires that federal agencies ensure that regulations protect our safety, health and environment while promoting economic growth," the President tells us. Later, in summing up, he says: "Regulations do have costs; often, as a country, we have to make tough decisions about whether those costs are necessary. But what is clear is that we can strike the right balance."
Really? It's clear that we can strike the right balance between safety, health and environment while promoting economic growth while obtaining consensus from "experts, businesses and ordinary citizens?"
Yeah. Uh-huh. Sure it is, Mister President. Sure it is.
Nearly the entire time that I was reading the President's Op-Ed, I was thinking to myself: "This man must think that I'm an idiot." But then I realized that I wasn't bothered by that fact. I can remember a time when I would have been livid nearly to the point of incandescence. But now, my reaction is closer to "meh, whatever." Of course President Obama trots out a wild oversimplification of an issue and treats it as an accurate picture. Of course people on one side of an issue treat people on the other side as idiots. What more do you expect?
And maybe that's the problem. Maybe I should expect more. Maybe I should be angry when the President (or, more likely, one of his staff) pens an Op-Ed that seems predicated on the idea that I'm about as intelligent as a clam. Maybe I should be angry when partisans on either side treat me like a coward for not being firmly in one camp or another.
I'm starting to think that perhaps I've let going with the flow and not getting bent out of shape mold itself into a cover for a sort of genial contempt. It could be that I owe it to people to let them spark some outrage now and again.
It's amazing how quickly a "dynamic entry" on a drug bust unfolds. There's a video that goes along with this story. It's less than a minute long, and the setup eats up all of the first quarter of the video, and then some. To say that things get chaotic is to vastly understate what happens. I know that I'm watching a video of a police raid, but when the police first start shouting "Police! Search warrant!" it takes me several seconds to untangle their competing voices and understand what is being said. It's no wonder the homeowner came out brandishing a golf club. It seems to me that these sorts of entries into homes are intentionally designed to be disorienting - but the suspects are still expected to act as if they know exactly what is going on. It's a wonder that more of these don't end in tragedy.
“We’ve discussed a couple of ways as to how we can be more careful,” [Ogden Utah Police Chief Jon Greiner] said without elaborating. “The problem is, what you’re looking for could easily be destroyed and there’s generally weapons. ... I just don’t know an easy way to get in there.”Okay... so let's say that the suspect destroys the drugs he has in the home. It doesn't seem that this would close the door on police efforts to arrest him forever. Drug dealers and drug abusers aren't known for quitting cold turkey on a dime. But let's say that one did. Because the police officers took their time getting into the home, the suspect flushed the drugs down the toilet. Realizing that he was basically seconds away from doing some pretty hard time, the guy swears off the stuff forever, and stays clean. The police never get another crack at him, because he stays on the straight and narrow.
Would that really be so bad?
Monday, January 17, 2011
The ability to post what you're thinking to the World Wide Web is, to be blunt, a mixed blessing. The world is full of trolls, sock puppets and generally obnoxious people that you'd rather not hear anything from.
But sometimes, someone does you the favor of setting up the perfect straight line And you learn that when you let everyone have their say, what you get is humor gold. Sadly, Amazon seems to have gotten wind of things, and pulled the product listing.
But honestly, who would order a Laparoscopic Gastric Bypass kit from Amazon?
Friday, January 14, 2011
[Justin] Griffith[, a sergeant at Fort Bragg, N.C., who describes himself as a "foxhole atheist,"] finished the survey, pressed submit, and in a few moments, he received an assessment: "Spiritual fitness may be an area of difficulty."Outside of whether or not the Army should be pushing people into being more spiritual than they feel is warranted, what struck me about this story is the conflation of feeling "connected to something larger than yourself" with some sort of spirituality. I've been asked by incredulous believers how I could not believe in something greater than myself, and always found the question confusing.
It continued: "You may lack a sense of meaning and purpose in your life. At times, it is hard for you to make sense of what is happening to you and to others around you. You may not feel connected to something larger than yourself. You may question your beliefs, principles and values."
It concluded: "Improving your spiritual fitness should be an important goal."
Army's 'Spiritual Fitness' Test Angers Some Soldiers
Take, for instance, the Sun. Were the sun to suddenly go out one moment, in about eight minutes, it would get really dark, and it would really quickly start to become VERY cold. Let me assure you that I would be very cognizant of this, and quite put out - but only for as long as it took me to freeze to death while the Earth was on its way to becoming a lifeless iceberg. Now, were I to suddenly be snuffed like a candle flame, the Sun would be extremely unlikely to take notice, after eight minutes, or eight million years, for that matter. In fact, very few people, given the overall population of the Earth, would notice. Last I checked, that placed the Sun quite clearly in the "larger than Aaron" category, even if we somehow discount the fact that the Sun is about a million times the volume of the Earth (and thus likely several trillion times my own volume). And I most certainly feel connected to it, given that pretty much everything that keeps me alive relies on it, directly or indirectly.
But as far as the stereotypical religious calculation is concerned, since I don't have a shrine to Sol Invictus in my apartment, or spend the solstice at Stonehenge, that doesn't count as acknowledging it as "larger than myself."
And don't get me started on the appropriation of "making sense of what is happening to you and to others around you..."
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
It's likely that at some point in your life, you've been on at least one side of a discussion like this:
Okay, so tell me again why you put your head into that pipe?These conversations are interesting in that it's one of the few cases in which we postulate that doing something self-injurious because someone else told you to do it makes you an idiot, rather than a victim. Sure, we might label Alex a "Bad Influence," but everyone (even the parents, in their unguarded moments) agrees that the kid who manages to wedge their head into a pipe after listening to one of their peers is a moron who really needs to learn better than to uncritically listen to others. (Okay, not always, but close enough.) But if Alex grows up to be an advertiser, or some sort of celebrity, suddenly they develop mind-control powers that the general public simply can't be expected to resist. Except that is, for a chosen few, and they, therefore, should be the gatekeepers of what messages the rest of us can hear. After all, we wouldn't want Alex convincing anyone to shove their head into a pipe. Or spending money they might need later on something frivolous or that is bad for them. Or shooting someone over politics.
(Sheepishly) Um... Alex told me to...
I see. And if Alex told you to go jump off a cliff, would you do that, too?
Welcome to the dark, unspoken-of underbelly of the constant debates over not simply incendiary political rhetoric, but modern advertising and the media sphere as a whole. If you listen to such discussions carefully, you can always hear the following argument - this person or group of people are constantly telling other people (who aren't very bright) to do bad things. Things that are bad for them, bad for society, bad for the environment; just plain bad things. Some of us are smart enough to know better, but these other people aren't. (After all, they aren't very bright.) So we need to carefully control the speech of these people who are smarter than the public at large, but don't care about them the way that we do - otherwise they'll keep leading people into doing bad things. Now perhaps we don't think that all of the public is in danger, just those people who haven't the sense to come around to our way of thinking.
Perhaps the idea that large numbers of people are simply too uncritical to be allowed to hear certain messages is simply a facet of human nature. After all, censorship or suppression (not always by governments) of things that are perceived as Bad Influences is more or less a worldwide phenomenon. I guess it's simply another facet of the idea that Evil is attractive. But it's one that we here in the United States would likely do well to put aside. The single best way to attack freedom of well, anything, is to argue that someone will get hurt - that's why we always fall back on the example of yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater. But the idea behind the restriction on falsely telling people that they're in a burning building is based on the idea that if you think the building is on fire, you can't be bothered to verify that before stampeding for your life. Of course, this is also why pulling the fire alarm is a foolproof way to empty a building so that you can get in unseen - at least in Hollywood. But most of the real world doesn't work like this. Cigarette ads and calls to take back the nation aren't things where a delay of 30 minutes, or even an hour, spell the difference between life and death. People should be expected to think about them, and suffer the consequences themselves if we don't. Just because Alex is now pulling down the mid-6 figures or more doesn't make us any less idiots when we let them convince us to put out heads into the pipe again.
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Blame is a way of simulating control: if we can just identify who was at fault, we can stop it.There is a reason why we often term the rush to find someone to blame for something as a "witch hunt." The persecution of suspected witches is (remember, there are still people in the world who actively believe in witchcraft) simply a facet of the impulse to simulate control through blaming. (Once you link Satan to mortal agents, and say that he must act through them, you can control him by dispatching said agents.)
Humans are said to be the most advanced, intelligent species on the planet. Mainly because of the degree of control that we can exert over our environment. We've taken places that were deserts and made them green (and, when we are careless, vice versa). We have mastered the land, sea and air, and have even been able to set foot on the Moon. We could even go to Mars, if we wished - most of the technical challenges have been worked out - resources are the main thing holding us back now.
But we still have difficulty dealing with the idea that the world is mostly beyond our control. After the tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean in 2004, if you paid some attention to the media coverage, you could find people blaming everything from the sinfulness of those who died to secret nuclear weapons for the catastrophe. "These things" the reasoning went, "Don't just happen." But things always "just happen." Sure, they have reasons, but that doesn't mean that we understand what those are.
The understanding that the Universe is a big, cold place that will wipe you out of existence as easily as throw you a bone clearly isn't for everyone. And I can understand why. But it's also worth remembering that along with our other needs that the Universe doesn't provide for, it doesn't bother with giving us the means to satisfy our need for control. So maybe it's time that we worked to leave it behind.
Saturday, January 8, 2011
Ken Rudin is absolutely correct in his understanding that speculating about the motive for the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona) is more or less a waste of time. But constructing narratives is how we make sense of our world. Whether it's those to the political left claiming that the shooter was a member of the Tea Party, those on the political right claiming that he was a radical liberal or the theory that it was an Islamist radical that did the deed (or just speculating on a traffic accident that we pass on the road, for that matter), all of these are attempts to fit the story into a greater worldview.
We can regret that people don't wait for the facts all we want. But the simple truth remains. To paraphrase, of all things, Futurama: "Unexpected things make people feel scared." Pointing to a disliked out-group as violent, and holding this up as proof of their wickedness, takes some of the scary out of life. In light of this, it seems pointless to ask people to avoid self-soothing behaviors. No matter how much mischief those behaviors might cause down the line.
So I was reading an article in Foreign Policy that talks about the current high levels of unemployment. The culprit, it says, is that there were unproductive workers in the economy - which is why even with a high unemployment rate, "real GDP is now higher than it has been in the entirety of U.S. history," excepting the housing boom of 2007 and 2008.
The fact that the United States has pre-crisis levels of output with fewer workers raises doubts as to whether those additional workers were producing very much in the first place.This conspicuously leaves out productivity growth as a factor. Not so much in the idea that productivity has gone up, but in the idea that productivity never reaches a maximum at any point in time, and that said maximum increases over time - it seems to me that assuming that just because one only needs 10 people to reach a certain level of production now can be taken to mean that you only needed those same 10 people 3 years ago - or ever - requires some backing up. (Especially when the Bureau of Labor Statistics seems to be constantly reporting increases in productivity.) But I guess it's easier to cast people as slackers than to deal with the idea that one of the things that technology does is make labor less valuable - specifically because you need less of it.
10 Percent Unemployment Forever?
Econ 101 is that you have some assets, some resources, and you use them to get things you want. One of the assets you have is your ability to work. But you work in part because that's a way to get other stuff. If there was a way to get other stuff, you wouldn't work so much. You might work, but you'd call it volunteering, leisure; you'd fill your time. Some of that time-filling might be productive, but you wouldn't be doing it because you need the money. This requires that you have other assets, of course. If your only asset is your ability to work, and that asset becomes less valuable, then your portfolio becomes less valuable.Now, What Robin Hanson was talking about is pretty much the doomsday scenario for the working person, the point where technology and artificial intelligence becomes so advanced that you can pretty much replace people with machines in a wide variety of jobs that can't be done by machines now - "We're talking about machines that would do things like give you a haircut--some of the services. Revise your will, sue for you in court, write a script for a movie. Teach economics. You'd put your head in a box and you'd know economics!"
Hanson on the Technological Singularity
The Hanson podcast is long - while most EconTalk podcasts about an hour, this one is an hour and a half, and I haven't finished it yet. From the partial transcript posted, it seems that they do eventually circle around to this idea of what do people do, when machines can replace them. The answer seems to be find something scarce and control it.
Right now, labor is not scarce. And advances in productivity make it less so every day. And it doesn't take technology to boost productivity - economies of scale do the same thing. If I merge two companies, a certain level of redundancy will be created. The fact that I let go of workers that are no longer needed in the merged company doesn't mean that they were never needed in the separate firms.
An unsaid part of the Foreign Policy analysis is that if all workers were productive, they would create enough goods and services to make employing them worthwhile, because people would purchase all of those goods and services - "If weak demand was the main problem, profits should be collapsing too, but they are not." But I don't know that you can make the assumption that no society will ever reach the point where it can satisfy native demand without the need to employ its entire workforce - that is, that efficiency can never outstrip desire. After all, even during the Great Depression, when the unemployment rate rose as high as 25%, we don't hear anything about shortages - there was enough stuff - just not enough free wealth to purchase it. I think that our confidence in materialism - that we'll always want so much stuff that we'll all always need to be engaged in making it - is misplaced. If we don't plan for a future where production is efficient enough that we don't need all of the eligible workforce, we're going to be in real trouble when it arrives.
Friday, January 7, 2011
While I'd rather not think of myself as being a partisan, the fact of the matter is that I'm not a Republican. There are moderate Republicans that I think would be good in office, but they don't live near me, so I can't vote for them. Instead, I'm stuck with the die-hards who want to pander to the base, and cast me as villain for not being a part of said base. Don't get me wrong - I don't care for the common Democratic vintage of Whine... but if I have to chose, I find it a shade less disgusting than Republican-bottled Haterade.
The newly Republican-majority House of Representatives is launching into an effort to repeal the Democratic health care reform bill. I have some thoughts about this, in no particular order.
- One of the big Republican complaints about the bill, outside of feeling shut out of the process was that the public would rather that the President and Congressional Democrats dealt with the economy first. So why is this such a huge priority?
- If one is charitable, you could make the point that the President had enough faith that his economic team would turn things around that he didn't have to worry about it himself. If you're less charitable, you could assume that the focus on health care was an admission that he couldn't fix the problem. I, for the record, am less charitable.
- I think that we can also take the focus of Republicans on repealing health care reform and retaking the White House in 2012 as an admission that when it comes to the economy, they've got nothing, either.
- Those people who back them on this either aren't feeling much in the way of economic pain, or have given up on any sort of political fix, so the Republicans aren't really under any pressure. I think the only thing that stops them from just coming out an admitting that they can't fix things is that one never rocks the boat on denial.
- The Republican leadership's willingness to publicly refer to the Congressional Budget Office's reports on things as "opinions" when they don't jive with the party line is telling. They're encouraging people to buy into the notion that "accurate/factual" and "in line with what you already think" are one in the same. I wish I could be disappointed and/or bothered by that.
- The common idea that "Waste, Fraud and Abuse" are code for "Government Programs that benefit Someone Else," is likely false. I suspect that "Waste Fraud and Abuse" are actually code for the idea that the Government doesn't need to borrow and spend to prop up the American standard of living - so spending can be drastically cut to balance the budget, and we'll never notice the change. This is how the CATO institute can refer to tax increases as "damaging," while working under the assumption that lowering spending while leaning taxes where they are - so that one receives less for one's tax dollars doesn't also represent an effective tax increase, and therefore, is not damaging to standard of living.
- Despite the fact that we have poor health outcomes considering the per-capita amounts that we spend, and American children don't come off as being that well educated when compared to nations with higher taxes, it's common for Americans to think of themselves as "overtaxed," rather than simply receiving poor value for money.
- Why do Middle-class Americans think of themselves as being one step away from the poorhouse? You'd think that they were completely unfamiliar with grinding poverty, which we know to be false, given their willingness to send millions of dollars overseas after any appropriately photogenic disaster.
- Oh... that's right, I was talking about health care. Since when does anyone repeal a law when their intent is to replace it with a different law?
- If you take the Republicans at their word that they aren't being symbolic with their attempts at repeal, the only other intelligent option is basically blackmail - if they were confident that their proposal, whatever it turns out to be, would be objectively better than what we already have, simply replacing the old law would be a no-brainer, right? But if it's only an improvement when compared to the old status quo, then the old status quo would need to be in place for it to pass, correct?
- Back to the economy for a second. I wonder if we've heard the last of the idea that you can combat deficits through economic growth.
- "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act?" Really? And we're supposed to think that this isn't pandering, fear-mongering or both?
Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Last night, I was watching a re-run of Frontline from this past October. It dealt with the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of setting a fire in his home that resulted in the deaths of his three small children, and was executed for it.
If the name means anything to you at this point, then you don't need me to tell you about the case. Not long after the execution, the story gained legs, and pretty much every media outlet in the nation. Besides, if you've been reading me here, you're likely at least somewhat familiar with the facts and the controversy - this is, after all, my fourth post on the topic.
Despite the fact that my last post on the Willingham case was occasioned by the Frontline installment that I mentioned above, I didn't actually catch it when it was first on, so last night was the first time I actually watched it. One thing struck me. One of the people that was interviewed was a local bar owner, and she made an interesting point - to paraphrase, she pointed out that Willingham treated his family poorly, and wasn't given the benefit of the doubt - other people who had treated their families well were given the benefit of the doubt. In short, part of the reason that Willingham was convicted and sentenced to death by a jury of his peers was that he'd made himself unpopular with his peers. And that made it easier for them to label Willingham as Evil and believe the negative things that prosecutors and a jailhouse snitch said about him. (Why anyone still thinks that people who loudly proclaim their innocence to anyone who will listen would suddenly spill the beans to a random fellow prisoner, who is likely to attempt to parley that into a break for himself, is beyond me.)
On the one hand, we understand that we seek to punish people and frighten us, that we don't like or don't have anything to offer. On the other hand, we like to think that we can create a system that somehow removes that from the equation, so that simply being scary isn't effectively a felony. But the simple facts on the ground would tell us that this isn't true. It doesn't take an exhaustive reading of the news to understand that we don't treat all people equally. If nothing else, celebrity is often a defense against charges that would land lesser mortal behind bars for long periods. While Tucker Carlson might think that Michael Vick should have been executed for the deaths of dogs during Vick's dogfighting days, the very fact that Vick is playing football again professionally demonstrates that most of the rest of us are okay with him now. "Normal" people would be effectively unemployable for life after a major felony conviction.
Of course, I'm not the first person to make this connection. People have been talking about it for decades, if not longer. Perhaps we should stop talking about it, and simply own up to it. Even if we don't do anything about it - and I suspect we won't, at least being okay with it will let us stop being hypocritical about it.
Monday, January 3, 2011
Sunday, January 2, 2011
Happy New Year!
I'm still working on whether or not I should have a New Year's Resolution this time around. The last time I had one, and I carried it out, was in 2004. I resolved to be less of a bystander in politics - I was going to go out there and become involved. It ended badly. (Although I did have the chance to speak, face to face, with both of our Senators, for the low, low, price of $250. Which was, really, a bargain.) It turns out that there is a reason why so few people are active in one party or the other. One is drunk on a constant stream of whine, and the other throws back Haterade like it was water. And no matter which side you happen to be on, it's hard to escape the idea that they're trying to convince you to drink the Kool-aid*.
Of course, maybe I'm better off simply not playing the New Year's Resolution game. It's hardly been shown to be a good model for improving one's life. But I can see the appeal. If we're going to make an arbitrary date in the beginning of Winter the start of a new year (had it been left up to me, I would have chosen the Spring Equinox), it makes as good a marker as any from which to measure progress. And there is a part of me that wants to do something different this year. I've been doing too many things that haven't been working in the way that I want them to. Time to give it a rest, and find a different path.
Although one thing I want to do this year, which I know is going to get me into trouble (because I never learn), is find a Cause. I've added a link to my list of weblogs for Photography is Not A Crime, over on Pixiq. But I like to take pictures, so it makes a certain amount of sense that I'd be in favor of not having Big Brother looking to have me re-educated every time I haul out my Nikon. So I've been feeling an itch to find a cause to support that has nothing to do with me. And I mean really support - as in actively do something to advance, and not just pretend that Awareness equals Action - slacktivism won't get anything done. Something that doesn't directly benefit me, my friends or my family. This one, I know, is going to be tricky - activists give me a pain. Which, perhaps, is the single best reason for doing it. The fact that someone gets on your last nerve doesn't mean that what they're doing isn't important. I've also never really been much of an activist; passion and I aren't exactly tight. Maybe it's time I worked to change that.
Or maybe I'll just work to make it though another year with my sanity intact and my cynicism in check. That always turns out to be more work than it has any right to be.
As for you, enjoy it. Years are never as long as they're supposed to be. If you're going to cram in all the good times, good works and just plain good life that you're entitled to before the end of 2011, you'd better get started.
* Yes, I know it wasn't actually Kool-aid specifically that Jim Jones and his followers used to poison themselves and each other.