Monday, October 31, 2011

Lumpy Ideals

But there’s a sense among the [Occupy Wall Street] protesters (though it’s common among protesters for other social causes as well) that the nature and existence of the injustice they seek to eliminate is obvious. An apparent corollary of this belief is that those who disagree with their prescriptions are stupid or evil. And that all that’s required to make positive change is to develop the willpower to do what we already know is right.

Maybe it’s the philosopher in me, but this kind of attitude always rubs me the wrong way. Things are rarely so simple. Here, as in so many other involving complex social issues, there is room for reasonable people to disagree not merely about what ought to be done to correct injustice, but about what really ought to count as an injustice in the first place.
Matt Zwolinski, Does Inequality Matter? Bleeding Heart Libertarians
Sometimes, it's seeing your own outlook on life reflected back at you that exposes the parts of it that you never really thought about before. As a moderate, I see people who believe in obvious injustice all around me. The Evangelical Christian who is convinced that Satan is at work in sexual license. The Anarcho-capitalist who believes that taxation is theft and that power of the state is an evil. The advocate for immigration reform who holds that the right to migrate is non-negotiable. Not being excited about any of these things, I find their black-and-white passion to be quaintly naïve at best and a cynical tool that allows them to demonize all who disagree at worst. And so, in my "reasonable" way, I preached the tolerance of agnosticism, calling on the people I interacted with - especially whose viewpoints I sympathized with - to see the world in more shades of gray, and to embrace the complexity that surrounds us. And now, I find myself asking: "why?"

Okay, the world that I live in is very complex. I understand that, even if some people that I come into contact with don't. If no two of us can really live in the same world, why shouldn't they live in one that's simple and easy to navigate? Leaving aside my Truth Reflex, since I understand that my Truth is valid for no more than a single person, what difference does it make to me if people live in a simplistic world where the answers to life's questions are near at hand? In almost all cases, it doesn't matter a whit to me. They're not going to be able to impose their world view on me in anything approaching a reasonable timeframe. Simple worlds are a lot like action - there is an equal and opposite reaction in someone else's simple world, and while those two go at it hammer and tongs, I can go on about my business. Any real concern on my part that I'm going to wake up tomorrow in a theocracy or an anarchy is pure fantasy.

And given that people do things, and see the world, in the ways that they do because these things _work_ for them (no matter how dysfunctional it might appear to me) a simple debate isn't going to change that. I'm neither mean-spirited nor invested enough to do the world that it would take to undermine people enough that their straightforward worldviews aren't going to work for them. And that assumes that I understand the world well enough - which I don't. I can just barely point to the times when things that I used to do stopped working well enough for me that I gave up on them.

In the end, I suspect a firm belief in complexity and an agnostic view towards things that others have a deep and abiding faith in doesn't really preclude one from being an idealist. It's simply becomes a muddy and jumbled form of idealism where the world is both impossibly complex yet not beyond the ability of people to sort it all out. All idealism is founded on wanting to believe that people can be better than they are. The desire that we'll make positive change through developing the willpower to do what we already know it right is one way in which that manifests itself. But so is the idea that we really are smart enough to make an increasingly complex world work without needing to fall back on simple answers. The realization that we're all idealists of a sort can be a difficult one, especially when the term conjures up a starry-eyed naïf. But the liberating things about seeing your own idealism is that it's easier to not hold other people do it. And maybe that's what we're more in need of these days.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Room For Debate

I was reading Public Debate, Dialog, and, by Deborah Teramis Christian, and started thinking again about the nature of public debate, especially as it pertains to the Internet.

My personal understanding of things is that HOW we debate really hasn't changed, but WHAT we debate has. While many have lamented that the anonymity afforded by the Internet have lead to people being disinhibited in the way that they speak to each other, it's just as important to realize that this phenomenon also extends to the topics under discussion. Despite the fact that you're never supposed to talk about sex, politics, and religion (and/or money), you could float the entire Web on discussions of nothing else. And the issue with these topics, and those that touch on (or trample over) them isn't that we can't manage to talk about them in an adult way - it's that most of the time we don't actually know what we're talking about.

Now, before you pipe in to assure me that you are QUITE knowledgeable about sex, thank you very much, that's not really what I mean. Many of us are quite well versed in the topics under consideration. But we don't realize that they aren't really the focus of the conversation. This was driven home to me when I was watching Niall Ferguson and Jeffrey Sachs on CNN's GPS show this morning. Ferguson, in my opinion was attempting to speak to the facts, to try and talk about what had really brought down the global economic system. Sachs, on the other hand, was defending his moral instincts, life experience and feelings. In short order, they were talking past one another. It became fairly clear that Sachs, feeling that Ferguson was directly attacking him, was responding in kind, accusing Ferguson of "name calling" and claiming that he is "confusing so many issues." By the end of the discussion, it was clear that Niall Ferguson was speaking about flaws in Jeffrey Sachs' argument. Jeffrey Sachs, on the other hands, was discussing flaws in Niall Ferguson.

This is not surprising. Once, in a discussion on Google+ someone remarked that if you referred to a movie or other media as "lame" you were "automatically" calling out as stupid anyone who liked said media. In a culture in which we don't often differentiate (linguistically, at least) between our esthetic judgements and objective findings of fact, one can see how a discussion shifts from the merits to someone's point to a heated argument about the people involved and/or their own feelings of legitimacy.

The issue is not, as you might expect, that we don't pick up on subtext. In fact, the problem might be quite the opposite, that we are TOO focused on perceived subtexts, even (or especially) when the speaker/writer does not intend them. Case in point: I, for my part, am of the opinion that a primary reason that it difficult for Americans to talk about policy is that we each tend to see our own viewpoints as simple and obvious - anyone who puts more than a moment's rational thought with an open mind to the topic should realize the facts lead them exactly to where the facts lead us. Therefore we tend to have little or no respect for those whose viewpoints differ from our own. They're cretins, dupes, shills, whatever, but the reason for our disagreement is that the person on the other side is either unintelligent, incredulous or immoral. This questioning of the judgment or thoughtfulness of someone that you claim to trying to persuade is both glaringly obvious to me (after a post on Seth Godin's blog pointed it out to me in the first place) and just as obviously counter-productive. But, as my father used to say, "obvious" means that you're only person who can see it. So while many of the discussions that I've observed have eventually produced intimations or outright statements that one or both parties are stupid, being used or actively seeking to undermine the cause of right and justice, the perception that a subtext of active disrespect is at work tends to be mine and mine alone.

And because the subtexts are perceived/unintended, the responses they provoke nearly always catch the target off-guard. And if they then respond to a perceived subtext in what's being said to them... well, you can see how things quickly go off the rails. What's infuriating about this is how difficult it is to control, even when you're aware of it. I know that the perception of a speaker disrespecting others tends to set me off - especially when I agree with what the actual point that speaker is making, and I'm aware that I'm usually the only one who sees disrespect, and I still tend to come out swinging. And I'm usually surprised when the person I'm responding to is surprised that I see them as being disrespectful to others.

As we become more comfortable discussing topics that carry perceived subtexts that are very meaningful for us, I think that we will encounter this more and more. And unless we become not only more aware of it, but learn to exercise control over it, our debates will continue to produce copious heat, but precious little light.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Now What?

So it looks like Occupy Oakland has gone somewhat off the rails. I've been reading various local and national accounts for an hour, from the LA Times to the Huffington Post. There's a fairly broad range of opinion over just what made things turn violent - the police not choosing to simply look the other way, to elements of the crowd looking for an excuse to riot. In any event, let the recriminations begin.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Walking In Circles

This cartoon resonates with me. When I read it, my mind says "Yes! That's EXACTLY what's happening!"

And then, my skepticism kicks in. After all, I'm not intimately tied into the system well enough to actually know what's going on. Perhaps this is just another knee-jerk reaction by a political cartoonist with an axe to grind or an agenda to advance. So I started hunting around for some data to look at. Of course, here I run into a problem, and any good conspiracy theorist will tell me what it is - since I can't independently verify the data, it could all be a bunch of hooey designed to throw me off the scent. And I acknowledge that risk. After all, I don't KNOW anything that I haven't seen for myself. I may believe it, but I do not know it.

Given that caveat, I started looking for voter turnout data and immediately noticed a striking parallel. If you head down to Occupy Seattle (as I have on a few occasions), you'll notice that most of the "live-in" (as opposed to "commuter") protesters are mostly relatively young people - late teens to mid-twenties - university and graduate student age, or just going into the workforce. Take a look at Washington State voter registration data from 2010 for the last general election, and you notice that of eligible voters from 18 to 34, a little less and 50% of them (46.47% to be more precise) came out and voted, leaving them with about 16% of total votes cast. Given this, (and assuming it's roughly the same nationwide - which is, admittedly, a pretty big assumption) it's no wonder that young people feel that the national political culture doesn't serve their interests, and is unresponsive. Conversely, when you head to the upper end of the age range, 65+, you find that even though they comprise just shy of one-fifth of eligible voters, they cast almost one-fourth of the votes - about 8 out of every 9 voters in that demographic voted. It doesn't take much mental horsepower to understand why retirement communities are such popular campaign stops.

Now, before I go on, let me re-iterate that I understand that Washington State is not the entire nation, so I'm engaged in a fair amount of generalization. But voter registration is a state and not a federal issue, and so federal numbers by age cohort were not immediately available to me, sitting in front of my computer. I could likely find them, assuming they exist, but that's more work than I want to put into a Sunday morning blog post.

But getting back to my primary premise. According to the United States Election Project at George Mason University, in the 2010 election "the national total ballots cast is estimated to be 90.3 million or 41.4% of those eligible to vote." This number is an estimate because not all states report it. Again, this does leave an opening for chicanery, since estimates are subject to intentional (or unintentional) biasing. It's also tricky because in this case "eligible" does not mean "registered." (According to state data, Washington has about 3.6 million registered voters, the GMU data tells us there are about 5.2 million eligible voters in the state.) But by either measure, you have large numbers of people who are not participating in the process. And one of the central characteristics of democracies and republics is that even when they are working well, they tend to punish non-participation (voluntary or not).

Okay, so that leaves us with some understanding that many people, especially young ones, have turned off politics. How does this interact with interest groups taking over government? To me, this one is easy, and it dovetails nicely with another complaint that both the Left and Right in the United States have with politics - too much ("special interest") money. I have a general hypothesis about why money plays such a large role in politics: people who are not strongly partisan one way or another tend to make up their minds in such a way that correlates more or less directly with the amount of money spent. That is to say, "swing voters" are swung by campaign advertising dollars. I suspected that it would be relatively easy to check this against data. But that turns out not to be the case. Information may want to be free, but the people who compile it want to eat, and so they don't give it away. And so the hard data on the correlation between swing votes and dollars spent isn't at my fingertips. But I did find a couple of nuggets in abstracts:
Melinda Gann Hall, of Michigan State University, and Chris W. Bonneau, of the University of Pittsburgh, used a two-stage modeling strategy to assess whether relatively expensive campaigns improve the chances that citizens will vote in the 260 supreme court elections held from 1990 through 2004 in 18 states.

Results show that increased spending improved participation in these races. Whether measured as the overall spending in each election or in per capita terms, greater spending facilitates voting and money means voters in Supreme Court elections.
Increased campaign spending improves citizen participation in state supreme court elections
In contrast to previous research showing that, because of higher marginal returns to challenger spending, the incumbent's spending advantage cannot explain high incumbent reelection rates, this article shows that in an average Senate election the incumbent's spending advantage yields a 6% increase in the incumbent's vote share.
Estimating the Effect of Campaign Spending on Senate Election Outcomes Using Instrumental Variables
Put together, these would point to the idea that the more money spent in an election, the higher the turnout, and for Senate incumbents, anyway, outspending the opposition tends to increase vote share.

All of this leads me to a hypothesis - young people are disaffected with politics because between their relatively small percentage of the electorate and their low voter turnout, they don't represent enough potential votes for professional politicians to cater to them directly. Among voters who are not strongly partisan, voting patterns correlate with the amount of money spent advertising to them. Between these two factors, more money is spent on wooing older voters, who are less likely to go looking for non-mainstream candidates in an attempt to find very close matches to their individual viewpoints. When you look at political protests, especially those on the left, the main constituency is comprised of people who don't vote in large numbers - while Occupy Wall Street (and other locations) are mainly young people, the large immigrant rally marches had the same issue - the protestors were ready, willing and able to take their message to the streets, but were unwilling or unable to vote. (Note that along with this, another voting group that tends to complain of being shut out, African-Americans, doesn't vote in large numbers, and so the major political parties don't spend much time courting them.)

I passed on majoring in Political Science in college - I was told there were a lot of papers to be written, and I dislike writing. (I blog in a continuing attempt to overcome that.) So now, some time later, I'm not immediately equipped to test my hypothesis. But if I assume that I'm at least barking up the right tree, these are the tactics I would expect would be effective.
  • Become more involved. Understand your positions, and which candidates support them, even those from minor parties. The more people understand who they want to vote for and why, the less important large advertising buys become.

  • Older people are the ones who swing elections. Communicate with them, understand what they want, and structure platforms that make getting that incumbent on you getting what you want.

  • It's about personal relationships. Television tends to be considered more credible than strangers, but less so than friends. Start forming bonds with people.
Will they work? I don't know. But I think that starting on them will break the chain of public apathy and interest group influence.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


Here is a basic question that we have to answer for ourselves: When does a need for something become an entitlement to that thing?

This is a difficult question to answer, because there are a remarkable number of variables to consider.

Consider the fable of the grasshopper and the ants. The grasshopper frolics all spring and summer, while the ants spend their time working to lay in stores for the fall and winter. Eventually, as the seasons turn, the grasshopper starts to go hungry. Now, considering that this story is a fable, and thus a morality tale, conventional wisdom holds that the grasshopper has to appeal to the charitable instincts of the ants, and if those fail him, he goes hungry. But there is a counter-moral, which holds that for the ants to withhold charity is to fail in their moral obligations just as much as the grasshopper did, and two wrongs don't make a right.

Or consider this conundrum, which we argued vociferously back when I was a high-school student in a Catholic academy. A man's wife is dying. There is a medicine that can save her, but the price that the pharmacist asks is to high for the man to pay. May he legitimately steal the medicine? If he does, must he make amends to the pharmacist? If so, what may the pharmacist ask of him as recompense? What if he asks too much of the man? And so it goes. As you can imagine, it was a very contentious debate.

Leaving these somewhat contrived examples behind, and moving on into real life, things become even more convoluted, partially because things do not scale very well. Generally speaking, we are uncomfortable imposing on individuals measures that we are more willing to impose on communities. Neither do they transfer well - we tend to be less sanguine about measures imposed on ourselves than we are about measures imposed on others. There also the question of relative imposition - sometimes people are willing to impose one part of a deal but not another. (Generally speaking, given a arrangement that works to the advantage of both parties vis-à-vis the status quo, the least advantaged party may be allowed to impose this upon the other party, but the more advantaged party almost never is.)

At the bottom of it all is a simple concept that is often overlooked. Ideas such as fairness, justice and equity are not objective physical characteristics, but rather subjective understandings of certain situations, and defined in relation to how we each see the world. While it's a simple matter to get most people to agree that "Murder is always wrong," (especially given the fact that as a tautology, it's correct by definition) "the killing of someone who has done no intentional harm to you is always wrong," can be a subject of intense debate.

And it's that very lack of objectivity, and our difficulty in seeing and/or conceding it, that threatens to make this an endless debate.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

To Confuse Matters...

Herman Cain versus Social Conservatives on the subject of abortion... Interesting. I'm surprised that more people don't seem to understand that Cain is taking a fairly run-of-the-mill Libertarian stance on the subject (even if he doesn't always articulate it well).

While Cain clearly feels that abortion is reprehensible, he's only slightly less clear about the fact that he would make no attempt to legislate the practice out of existence - he feels that it would be inappropriate to try. Cue the outcry - from the left and the right - basically for an orthodoxy foul.

But this is why it's not quite correct to associate Libertarians with the stereotypical Conservative party line. Social Conservatives tend to be VERY "statist," as the term is used, looking for government intervention in people's lives in the name of preserving public morals (or, depending on your viewpoint, forcing everyone else to pay lip service to their idea of proper religion). Libertarians, with their focus on limiting the role of government as far as possible, generally don't allow room for government enforcement of social issues.

To be sure, the stereotypical Libertarian focus on fiscal matters tends to obscure this, as the prominent Libertarian think tanks and the like tend to downplay support of decriminalizing drugs and other freedoms that the Left tends to hold dear. If you don't become somewhat steeped in the minutia of the whole thing it's really easy to come away with the idea that a Libertarian utopia is a theocratic police state - as long as it isn't funded by tax revenue. But just like the common stereotype of the Left, this is simply another place where Conventional Wisdom proves to be unwise.

Herman Cain's somewhat muddled public statements on this are adding to the confusion about what he really believes, and make it seem as if he's talking out of both sides of his mouth, attempting to be all things to all people. (Or at least those on either side of the abortion debate.) But what's really going on is he's simply not as good an orator as he is a singer, and it's likely that the Republican Party will move on from him, especially if he demonstrates more ways in which he doesn't favor using government as a means of punishing the enemies of Conservative orthodoxy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Wither the Enemy?

I've been dropping in on Occupy Seattle from time to time, and I don't know if I understand what it is they're really fighting.

Oh, I understand perfectly well what they think they're fighting. They're perfectly clear about that, if you can stand the marijuana smoke and tune out the mentally-ill homeless hangers-on long enough to listen in for a while. But I wonder if the problem doesn't go deeper, much deeper, than that.

Humanity, in my humble opinion, simply doesn't scale up well. The sorts of small communities in which it more or less doesn't matter what sort of government (or lack thereof) that is in place have to remain small, or things start to go off the rails. We see it time and again. Put enough people into a place, and factions start to form, as people begin to conclude that there simply isn't enough to go around. Combine any given faction with a lack of overall accountability and you have a surefire recipe for problems. It doesn't matter what sort of institution you create. Governments, churches, corporations; they all start looking for ways to secure themselves at the expense of those that they aren't accountable to. Direct accountability only goes so far, and indirect accountability takes more work than it seems that we're ready, willing or able to put into it.

And that's a much harder phenomenon to fight.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Lessons My Father Taught Me

My father and I had one of those "complex" parent-child relationships, and to a degree, we still do. Still, despite our disagreements, I regard my father as a very wise man. I was thinking of the things that I learned from him, and boiled it down to this list of the most important/interesting things. Sure, most of them are simple aphorisms, but having had the opportunity to grow into them from when I was a child somehow makes them seem deep and profound, in a way that things you understand the first time you hear them don't.

People in Hell want ice water. (I hated hearing this as a child, but as I've grown older, I come to really understand that it's true on a surprising number of levels.)

The definition of "obvious" is something that is so crystal-clear that you are the only person who can see it.

There are two kinds of people in the world. People who believe that you can divide everyone in the world into two groups - and people with some sense.

If you don't know what you're doing, stop doing it until you do.

The trick to getting someone to like you is not to do something for them - it's to get them to do something for you.

There are two people on either side of every job. The person that takes a job, and the person that gives a job. One of these positions is better to be in than the other.

The one way to become rich by doing a job is to do a job that other people can't do, or that other people won't do.

There's little point to redistributing wealth. The problem that most people have isn't that they don't know how to obtain money - it's that they don't know how to keep it, and therefore, most of the money will eventually wind up back where it started.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Feel the Beat

Because it just isn't a lefty protest without a drum circle.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Phat Company

"For the top 100 companies, about 30 percent of their total value is bound up in this thing called brand."
The World's Most Valuable and Fastest Growing Brands

Or, put another way, 30 percent of the value of the top 100 companies is derived from the fact that a certain level of sales is driven entirely by brand loyalty. Now, this is an average - the numbers by company vary widely - "Brand contributes about 20% to GE's total earnings, whereas Coca Cola is nearer to 80%." In effect, were I selling the exact same product as Coca-Cola (think a white can with "COLA" on it in black stenciling), my earnings would only be about 20% of Coke's, all because of the brand name on the can.

And we think nothing of this. People could literally save 30% on a regular basis by focusing on factors like price, location and quality.

On the other hand, I bet that you couldn't find a government anywhere in the nation that sees anything close to a 30% margin, even on its best day. But we always seem to feel that it's government that's ripping us off...

Thursday, October 6, 2011

I Need A Dollar

The juxtaposition of hard times, unemployment and despair with jaunty, addictive lyrics and upbeat tempo is jarring, but strangely compelling.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Worst. Advice. Ever.

The Economist, a magazine that I normally enjoy reading, is doing what I dislike most in the media - fear mongering.

Outside of the simple fact that emoting never solves anything, telling people to be afraid sends exactly the wrong message. What will our fear accomplish? Every time we as the public respond to a situation with inchoate terror, politicians (well meaning or not is for the reader to decide) rush to make the case that they need more powers to deal with the situation; which they eventually become reluctant to part with, even once it becomes clear that the problem isn't being solved, because the exercise of those powers enables them to claim to be acting, and if those powers are relinquished and a new crisis arises, the political opposition is going to be quick to lay blame. And not only do those power come with limitations on how we can live our lives, but the trade-offs they entail start to erode our ability to care for ourselves and each other. In other words, the ability to protect requires power that increases the need to protect. And the cycle goes on.

Saving the world economy is possible by the actions of us, as people. We're always told to think of our lives as if life were a railroad, with us as passengers at the mercy of the engineers and conductors. But I think that an expressway is a better metaphor. Traffic jams are a fact of life, but if we are all skilled drivers - and are willing to lean on our horns when people start getting out of line - we can, collectively, minimize the delays. Okay, so we'll need the help of the D.O.T., or a traffic cop now and again. But if we all understand the rules of the road - especially those that we've created for ourselves, we can create a well-functioning (if very imperfect) system.

I know I keep coming back to this metaphor, but it speaks to me, and so it's always at hand. I understand the search for a Good Shepherd, but shepherds eat mutton, too.

Saturday, October 1, 2011


I need so see if this guy will sell me some. As near as I can see, this thing is constructed completely of Bionicle parts.

Speaking to Motive

Ursula Goodenough asks: "What motivates a [climate change] denier?" And she basically received a number of different answers. One motivation from the deniers/skeptics that wrote in and a number of attributions of motive from people who weren't themselves deniers, instead being people who worried about climate change.

Goodenough posted six on the various attributions that climate change "worriers" attached to the skeptics. One matched the motive that skeptics themselves gave. The other five covered a variety of different bases, but didn't really line up with what the skeptics themselves claimed, and more than one was a thinly veiled expression of contempt.

I suspect that if you ran the experiment the other way, you'd see a similar pattern, with skeptics attributing motives to worriers that were largely unrelated to the motives that worriers claim.

Any wagers that worriers who believe in the other five motives think that someone is lying? (And vice versa?) And that causes a problem, because people tend to behave as if the motives that they have attributed to others are accurate, and then expect those people to admit to them. This is why we never get anywhere. We attribute motives to other people and then demand accountability for those motives as a condition of dialog.

No wonder no-one's talking.