Wednesday, December 30, 2009

vegan children, a recipe

I've been coming to fisticuffs lately with a vegan friend over whether or not it's appropriate ('ethical' seems overly strong) for vegan parents to raise their children vegan. This came up because as part of a book exchange with her I read The Ethics of What We Eat, by Peter Singer and Jim Mason. In the book, the reader is introduced to a nice little vegan family with two kids, ages six and ten. The youngsters are eager to talk about all the reasons why they're vegan, including animal welfare and land and resource use.

Compared to most non-vegans, I'm sympathetic to veganism. A well balanced vegan diet is perfectly healthy. And if you can live well without using animals, it seems reasonable to do so if you choose. Because a child of a vegan parent lives in a home with vegan pantries and refrigerators, he'll have to be almost entirely vegan by default, and that's fine. But I think things get a little more complicated when the child leaves the home. Should the child be burdened with upholding vegan standards amongst the non-vegans? Must he inquire of the ingredients of birthday cake and refuse it. Cupcake or pizza parties in the classroom? Meals at the homes of friends? Must the child refuse a gift of a leather jacket or belt or boots, say, when an aunt or friend of the family forgets about the family's unusual practices? Should they feel guilty when they accidentally imbibe something with milk in it? These hefty standards are too much.

The kids in the book are conveniently home-schooled. But if that weren't the case, my friend claims parents can send vegan snacks with the children to whatever events they attend, and supply teachers with vegan alternatives for snack occasions in the classroom. Kids should learn that it's okay to be different, of course, but I don't like the idea of saddling a kid with something that unnecessarily sets him apart from his peers.

More importantly, I suspect a raising a child as a strict vegan requires a certain amount of brainwashing. This was the case in the book. The ten-year-old from the book made this creepy adorable statement: "Mom, I love gymnastics, but it's not my real life. My real life is activism." The mother is an activist, so of course the daughter wants to be one as well. As a libertarian and frequent critic of public schools, I tend to cut homeschooling a lot of slack, but there's a reason so many homeschooling parents are evangelical, young-earth creationist Christians: it's easier to make your kids believe weird things if they aren't exposed to differing views.

Veganism (much more than vegetarianism) is indeed similar to young-earth creationism, extra-Utahan Mormonism, atheism, libertarianism, and eco-communism in this way. Richard Dawkins loves to point out that there are no Christian children or Muslim children, nor Republican or Democratic children, because these ideologies do not follow one out of the womb; they are learned. And the ideas underpinning the ideologies are far too complicated for a child to truly understand until they're much much older. Brainwashing them with belief systems before they have learned to think critically handicaps them. I think this is correct, and I think the case is stronger for the really bizarre sets of beliefs at the top of this paragraph. Democrats and Republicans are, for better or worse, part of mainstream American culture. A child will have to understand these aspects of society one way or another to fully function as a member of the society. A relatively un-dogmatic upbringing as a Democrat or Republican could be seen as little more than an introduction to American civics. I hesitate to say something similarly charitable for moderate, mainstream religious traditions (differing from Dawkins), but the case could be made.

It's tempting to think "My [quirky] philosophy is so obviously true and good, of course I should raise my children in this manner." I feel the same way about, say, atheism. But preserving a child's ability to form her own ideas, at least partially, inevitably porously shielded from the overwhelming influence of her parents is a worthier goal. I could raise my children explicitly as atheists, inculcating in them the fallacies of theism and images of all the horrible things people have done in the name of religion throughout history at such an early age that they would likely be forever immune to Christian proselytizing (unless that's their chosen form of rebellion). But I'd rather try to keep my biases and ideologies to myself as much as possible, teach them to ask questions, answer those questions honestly as they arise, and then hope that with curiosity and critical thinking, they will come round to my way of thinking anyway. A vegan parent should do the same. And a Marxist parent, and a kosher Jewish parent, etc.

Monday, December 21, 2009

climate change and tribalism

I've blogged about what I call flat-earth libertarianism before: the tendency for libertarians and conservatives, upon discovering some--what to call it--inconvenient truth that might imply some sort of government action. Jim Manzi, in a bloggingheads video with Grist's David Roberts, addresses the same tendency:
It's been a real not just kind of political error, which I think it has been, but an error in the attempt to find what is true ... There will be an argument made in the public sphere that scientific finding X implies political action or moral or ethical conclusion Y. The fact that by putting more carbon dioxide molecules into the atmosphere we drive temperature up implies we need a global regime of a carbon tax. Accepting the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology implies being an atheist. And people on the right routinely have gotten into the habit of saying I don't like conclusion Y, so I will attack the underlying scientific finding X, instead of the much more logical and sensible line of attack which is challenging whether X really implies Y.
Manzi goes on to suggest that part of this may be a reaction to a tendency for the other side of the debate to drape the full prestige of the physical sciences over areas of science that are quite a bit more cloudy. Measuring the mass of an electron is a different beast from teasing out the health effects of third-hand smoke. Climate science is incredibly difficult and has large uncertainties.

Another interesting discussion topic in that video was on the notion that the West owes the Global South something because rich western countries have been emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for longer than developing countries.
It is correct to say that the product of the sudden change in economic circumstances that happened first in northwestern Europe, then its offshoots, and is now spreading to the rest of the world, created many global effects. One of them was it pumped a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere. Another was figuring out how power turbines work, and that you can use penicillin to cure diseases, and how democracy can work at scale and so on. And along with all the CO2 we put in the atmosphere, inevitably knowledge of that kind, as examples, leaked. And so to choose one of those external effects, called CO2, and say we're going to attempt to track this across borders over the last 200 years and add up in an accounting sense a debt owed by the people who emitted the CO2 to the people feeling its effects I think is entirely artificial and arbitrary.
I'd never actually thought of it this way before, but I think this is correct. But I still think it's reasonable to suggest that rich countries should help developing countries decarbonize their economies if only because helping developing countries build fresh, green infrastructure is about the only way the problem will get solved. On the other hand I think it's a relevant point out that, coincidentally or not, it is the poor, developing nations that will feel the worst brunt of climate change.

Another bloggingheads video just a week later featured David Roberts (again) with Reason science correspondent Ron Bailey, reporting from Copenhagen. They found energy utility regulations as an area where they could agree, giving the example of how cogeneration (selling the excess heat generated in coke plants, for example) is prohibited in most states.
Roberts: These monopolies have been regulated and their profits have been protected and they've been protected from competition for decades and as a result there has been no innovation.
Bailey: Electricity utilities are regulated monopolies, form the least innovative sector of the economy, period.
Roberts: I'll tell you where they innovate is in new ways of manipulating public utilities commissioners to give them their money. So right there you have, at dead center of the American energy economy, something that would give Adam Smith the heebie-jeebies.
Here we have dogs and cats, living together; environmentalists and libertarians, speaking constructively, in both bloggingheads videos. Bailey even offered to buy Roberts a beer next time he's in DC. Something that bothers me personally about discussions between, very roughly, liberals/environmentalists and conservatives/libertarians on climate matters is the extreme bad faith. The powers that be at Bloggingheads could much more easily have found a libertarian who thought that Climategate was the final nail in the coffin for the idea of anthropogenic global warming and that the whole thing is a conspiracy of liberals and the UN to return us to the Stone Age. And they could have found an environmentalist who thinks vocal dissenters should be put on trial for crimes against humanity and nature and there is no possibility for constructive dialogue.

There are mercenaries on all sides and they should be denounced by all sides, but a lot of the acrimony I see comes from otherwise reasonable, honest people. I think political tribalism is the big villain here. There is a gut level distrust between the environmental-minded and the economic liberty-minded, for whatever reasons. This gets smart people to say dumb things. Here is, for instance, my favorite blogger Will Wilkinson being schooled on the basic logic behind cap and trade by my favorite bugbear, Matt Yglesias. Putting aside momentarily public choice/sausage factory critiques, cap and trade is at its core a very libertarian policy (it's creating a market to solve a problem instead of imposing onerous regulations), and I suspect Wilkinson is at least partly so skeptical because all his Cato buddies are rigidly opposed. Likewise, I suspect most environmentalists would oppose efforts to deregulate electricity utilities simply because they deeply distrust free markets and their advocates.

This tribalism is unfortunate because, at least I opine, libertarians have really smart things to say
about potential climate policies. I'm sure it's because of my own tribal affiliation with libertarians and economistic pro-growth types that I chose to read Manzi's and Lomborg's arguments in the first place (I imagine rank-and-file environmentalists feel safe concluding Lomborg is a hack and Cool It is not worth their time). But the basic argument that expanding wealth (by economic liberalization of course) in poor countries will expand their ability to adapt to climate change is a powerful one. Libertarians also have an intuitive feeling that, whatever the damages of climate change, it is possible that there exists some political deal and suite of regulations so onerous and inflexible that it is worse than climate change itself. I myself doubt that any cap and trade scheme will be that bad, but I think it's a reasonable concern. I certainly think it's worrisome that green industrial champions will be effectively chosen by pet senators and barriers will be erected around them, bringing innovation (and our best hope for decarbonization) to slow creep. The bias from the other camp seems to me to be that we are at a global minimum of effective climate management and any imaginable climate legislation must represent an improvement. Stated in those terms, obviously no one would agree, but that's the impression I have.

There are valid criticisms for these libertarian arguments (I would call them insights). I just wish more of the debate would be about these concerns and less about accusing opponents of mass murder.

Monday, December 14, 2009

US military spending

My favorite non-libertarian political blog (I've been thinking of it as mostly a liberal source lately, though it waxes libertarian from time to time, depending on the current mix of contributors) interviewed paleoconservative thinker Daniel Larison this week. The whole thing is worth reading, but I especially liked this bit:
What I would like to see is a scaling back of the size and scope of our military presence around the globe. This could be done gradually as our present allies in Europe, Asia and the Gulf could begin to provide for their own security and reduce their dependence on American power. After 1945, it may have been inevitable that the United States had to fill the power vacuum that the political upheaval and devastation of the war caused, but when the USSR dissolved we had the opportunity to begin to unwind our abnormal and originally temporary role as a superpower. Over the last 20 years, we have simply refused to do this, but the peaceful rise of emerging powers in Latin America and Asia and the consolidation of the EU gives us another opportunity to relinquish our outsized security role while continuing commercial and diplomatic engagement with the world.
Indeed. I really like his framing of a military scale-down as an opportunity. Whether we ever needed to inflate our military to the extent we did during the Cold War or not, the vast resources ( over $600B, ~20% of federal spending, over 40% of total military spending in the world) tied up in this sector are surely unnecessary now. Will Wilkinson has ably argued that this enormous spending on defense effectively subsidizes the defense of those countries allied with and friendly toward America.

A more equitable distribution of military spending amongst friendly nations might even encourage more multilateral decision making and discourage rash invasions (as would the decrease in funds). A reduction to 50% of current defense spending would put the US at a comparable amount per head as France and the UK, which is still far more than Russia and China. Such a reduction might even serve as a friendly signal to the 'peacefully emerging powers', heading off wasteful arms races.

Back of the envelope numbers from Wikipedia.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Whole Foods field trip

I'd been wanting to shop at a Whole Foods Market ever since all the hubbub and protesting over CEO John Mackey's libertarian Wall Street Journal oped on health care happened. I wanted to at least walk around in the store as a matter of principle, even though I'm generally annoyed by the over-priced organic, locavore mumbo jumbo mentality.

I have to say I was disappointed. I expected my jaw to drop at $10 boxes of raw, organic cereal and $15 local, seasonal, biodynamic fruit juices. The prices I saw seemed even a bit more affordable than Astronomico's Andronico's, and there were sale items and free samples. Of course, comparing something to Andronico's isn't saying much.

Maybe I've been in the Bay Area too long, but the only thing that really offended me about the place was the little homeopathic remedies section. I might even shop there occasionally if there were one nearby. I bought a really delicious box of cereal (I know it's delicious because of the free samples).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

bipartisan commissions

In the current issue of the Economist, Wisconsin Representative lauds the paper's analysis of America's long term deficit problem. But he bristled at their suggestion for a bipartisan commission to reform taxes and entitlements. From that analysis:
One way to finesse these toxic politics would be to establish a bipartisan commission to fix entitlements and taxes, as proposed by Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg, respectively the most senior Democrat and Republican on the Senate Budget Committee. Its membership would be drawn from both parties, both chambers of Congress and the White House. Democrats and Republicans alike would have to make sacrifices. To preserve this grand bargain, Congress would be allowed only to approve or reject the commission’s proposal, not amend it.
And Ryan's complaint:
Yet your reluctant conclusion to outsource the tough decisions to a commission fell short. Contrary to popular belief, politicians are elected to solve problems, not punt on them. Americans should be treated like adults and offered bold solutions, as I’ve done with my comprehensive entitlement-reform proposal, “A Roadmap for America’s Future”, which tackles overdue reforms to Social Security, health care, the tax code and our broken budget process. Pessimism with our political process is understandable, but the United States has faced more difficult challenges in the past.
I don't understand how this would be 'punting' any problems. The entire Congress would have to vote on the thing. This no amendment, up/down vote commission tactic has been used successfully before (Social Security crisis in the early eighties). Matt Yglesias thinks it's a dumb idea, but I'm not sure why this sort of thing isn't used more often. It seems to be proposed for crises, where congress folk all want to pass something important and prevent the usual gaming among their peers. A smaller number of more focused (and perhaps more specialized) brains hash out their differences and then the whole Congress votes on the resulting bill. Why not, for instance, set up a bipartisan commission on effective greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategies. Even if you still didn't get a carbon tax out of that (because the whole Congress might not want to vote for a big tax increase), a cap'n'trade scheme resulting from such a commission might actually be efficient, and less riddled with industry favors.

I'm probably naive, but I like mechanisms for removing trash from legislation. I was always fond of the idea of a presidential line-item veto too.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

quick thought on prostitution

I linked to the Jezebel post on the outing of Belle de Jour simply because I liked the way the author handled the different viewpoints it brought forth. Her summary: "The truth is that prostitution as a whole is neither glamorous nor dangerous. Instead, it's as complex as the sexual urges prostitutes satisfy."

This reminded me of my favorite defense of prostitution that I've heard, which is that the broad diversity of the human condition makes it too inflexible to simply say "Prostitution is wrong." It's probably not the most powerful defense or the most passionate, but it's one of the more interesting thoughts I've heard on the topic. Here is Tyler Cowen, from an Intelligence Squared debate on the resolution "It is wrong to pay for sex" (which is perhaps a more interesting debate than something like "Prostitution must be banned.")

(This post is as much about me learning how to embed media as it is about prostitution)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Can a cap and trade scheme actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Caveats abound but the example of Europe appears non-negative. Some of those caveats would be addressed if more markets signed on to such a scheme ...

The state of immortality research. Death sounds pretty boring, so I'm a big damn fan of these efforts. I wonder if you could get people on board for raising the age of retirement/pension drawing if the life expectancy increases to 120 or so ...

The Economist suggests the war on drugs may be fizzling out, internationally at least.

Also from the Economist, this week's Charlemagne included this bit:
If you play word association, it turns out that for many in a Parisian classroom, the polar opposite of “competition” is “solidarity”: ie, the useful rigour imposed by competition is overshadowed by the pain caused as society divides into winners and losers. For Anglo-Saxon liberals, the instinctive opposite of “competition” is “monopoly”: ie, the pain of competition is justified by a quest for fairness, even before getting to arguments about efficiency and companies’ long-term fitness.

In Paris the idea that a free-market liberal may believe he is defending a moral position (rather than a necessary evil) often causes surprise.
Sensible thoughts on the outing of Belle de Jour.

Monday, November 16, 2009

slippery when wet

After I wrote this post about sin taxes and slippery slopes, a friend said something about not reading the whole post because he doesn't pay attention to slippery slope arguments. I thought that was a bit narrow. According to Wikipedia's entry on the topic, the slippery slope argument is an informal fallacy, plain and simple, unless, in arguing that A will lead eventually (via B,C ...) to Z, you justify every single step in the chain. A Google search for 'slippery slope' will likewise lead you first to several web pages discussing the slippery slope as a fallacy.

But I don't think I use the term slippery slope in the same way the Wikipedia entry uses it. I don't think in politics you can ever say something like 'A will inevitably lead to Z.' I think it's different to say enacting A will make it more probable for B to occur, and that B makes C conceivable, where it might not have been with just A (or pre-A). Perhaps through these mechanisms from Eugene Volokh, summarized in Wikipedia for the gun regulation-confiscation example:
  1. Cost-lowering: Once all gun-owners have registered their firearms, the government will know exactly from whom to confiscate them.
  2. Legal rule combination: Previously the government might need to search every house to confiscate guns, and such a search would violate the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Registration would eliminate that problem.
  3. Attitude altering: People may begin to think of gun ownership as a privilege rather than a right, and thus regard gun confiscation less seriously.
  4. Small change tolerance, colloquially referred to as the "boiling frog": People may ignore gun registration because it constitutes just a small change, but when combined with other small changes, it could lead to the equivalent of confiscation.
  5. Political power: The hassle of registration may reduce the number of gun owners, and thus the political power of the gun-ownership bloc.
  6. Political momentum: Once the government has passed this gun law it becomes easier to pass other gun laws, including laws like confiscation.

There is no inevitability, since there's push-back by interested parties at every step, including push-back because of perceived slippery slopes. The gun example is a great example of just how non-inevitable slippery slopes can be.

In the strong sense of A inevitably leading to Z via the rest of the alphabet, slippery slope arguments are fallacious, but in this weak sense of expanding the political adjacent possible, slippery slope arguments and descriptions are valid. I thought to write this post after reading this essay (hat tip: Offsetting Behaviour) on John Banzhaf's rhetorical history. Banzhaf founded Action on Smoking and Health in 1968 and has been campaigning against smoking ever since. For example, in the early years of his career he clearly states support for smoking sections in public places, suggesting they're a reasonable compromise; but after smoking sections became universal he switched rhetoric, claiming smoking sections are useless since smoke drifts. The point isn't whether or not any of that is true; rather, it's the shifting rhetoric toward Policy C (banning smoking in public places) upon successful implementation of Policy B (establishing precedent for regulating where people can smoke by requiring smoking sections in public places). No one could have seriously argued for C from the beginning; B made C more probable.

Maybe by fuzzying up the concept of slippery slopes like this I'm voiding the phrase of all utility? I'm just using sloppy language for political workings? That is, if the polity can debate each point in the alleged slippery slope, you gain nothing by describing it as a slippery slope. Well, it's possible. I could talk about thresholds and hysteresis in politics, but then I'd just be throwing analogies after one another.

Conjecture: Liberals are more dismissive of slippery slope arguments than conservatives or libertarians. I would guess conservatives, in their quest to stand astride history yelling Stop!, find rather more use for slippery slopes than liberals. Certainly the slippery slopes that come to my mind most readily are conservative: gun regulation leads to gun confiscation, interracial marriage will lead to gay marriage will lead to dogs marrying cats, and health care reform leading to full nationalization of the health care industry.

Friday, November 13, 2009

about the blog

The background art on this blog comes from Gustave Doré's illustrations for John Milton's Paradise Lost.

The title phrase came from somewhere in Mike Carey's magnificent comic Lucifer, which I encourage everyone to read. At least, I'm pretty sure that's where I got the phrase.

I'm open to suggestions/criticisms about the blog's appearance and design. I haphazardly threw this all together in the half hour before sleepy time last night. It's a work in progress.

Yglesias and nukes

I'm going to cheat and cross post my final substantive post from my old blog to get the ball rolling.

Matt Yglesias has written two annoying posts about nuclear power. His thrust is that conservatives are hypocritical for supporting nuclear power, nuclear power plants require subsidization due to large initial capital investment and long time horizons. And of course, conservatives are passionate about free markets, so how could they support nuclear power? Even more damning, the place where nuclear power has been expanded the most is socialist bogey-nation France.

This assault is wrongheaded and irresponsible. Yglesias points out that conservatives agitating for nuclear power are asking for subsidies. He sounds as if the energy market is perfectly competitive, unregulated, and subsidy-free. Well, it's not. Every form of energy has a lobby and a pet senator or dozen. Anyone who wants to say anything realistic about energy policy has to face that fact (unfortunately). Unless admirers of free markets are just not allowed to speak about heavily subsidized industries because it means they have to admit the State is involved. (Libertarians hear no end of this: Whaddya mean you use public transportation. I thought you were a libertarian!!)

Energy markets aren't exactly transparent either. This NYTimes article on a current program to convert nuclear weapons into nuclear fuel mentions that about 10% of electricity in the United States comes from old Russian bombs, a fact that must remain obscured:

Utilities have been loath to publicize the Russian bomb supply line for fear of spooking consumers: the fuel from missiles that may have once been aimed at your home may now be lighting it.

How many Americans know where their power comes from, even without deliberate obfuscation? Can consumers pick and choose their power sources? I don't even know. I just moved to San Francisco and assumed PG&E was my only option.

Of course the reason why utilities don't advertise nuclear power is because nuclear power (still) has a public relations problem. Part of anyone's advocacy of nuclear power is an attempt to win hearts and minds for nuclear generally, not economically. And this NIMBYism has an economic effect. Aside from the intrinsic risk due to the size of the investment, a potential investor has to fear changes in local rules at any moment.

A carbon tax or cap and trade scheme would bring down the costs of nuclear compared to oil and coal. Yglesias patronizes David Frum for advocating nuclear power in a post where Frum explicitly offers it as a way to lower carbon emissions, in light of an eventual cap and trade scheme. Seeing how so many conservatives deny climate change altogether, it seems like it would be more responsible of Yglesias to welcome such good faith, sensible proposals by conservatives, especially since Yglesias isn't even anti-nuke anyway.

Most importantly, just because nuclear power plants can be prohibitively expensive without public subsidy right now doesn't mean that will always be the case. Stewart Brand in his book and lectures talks a lot about microreactors, which are produced and sold by competing private companies. Evolving public opinion, carbon dioxide emission capping policies, and advancing technology all make it seem perfectly reasonable and unhypocritical for conservatives to embrace nuclear power. Those who do should be applauded.

hello world

For my first post I should say that I've actually been blogging for a bit. I'm moving my blog here from a livejournal account because I started the livejournal in college as a personal blog, a way to keep in touch with friends. But over the last year or so I've stopped writing about personal things and starting writing about ... ideas, I guess. And all my friends stopped writing in their livejournals. So I've decided the change in content should be matched by a change to a more robust blogging utility, with more opportunities for expanding (creating) my audience.

Oh, and about me. This blog adds another cosmotarian, secular humanist voice to the Nets.