Tuesday, December 20, 2011

smart thoughts from others on Ron Paul

This post by Ta-Nehisi Coates is rather required reading for anyone interested in my previous post.
The Times notes that Ron Paul's racism newsletters are, again, becoming an issue. The standard defense has generally been Paul didn't write the newsletters. I think an honest reckoning with that defense would have someone question the faculties of an adult who would allow a newsletter filled--by Paul's own admission--with bigotry to be published under one's name. Had I spent a decade stewarding an eponymous publication steeped in homophobia and anti-Semitism, I would not expect my friends and colleagues to accept an "I didn't write it"excuse. And I have no (present) designs on the launch codes. It is a peculiar thing when the basic standards of honesty and decency are lowered in direct proportion to the power one seeks to wield. This is especially true of our friends. One has a hard time imagining a President Barack Obama who had done a stint writing for, say, for The Final Call lambasting gays and Jews.

Be that as it may, I think it's extremely important that the discerning consumer understand that the problem isn't merely that Ron Paul claims that the newsletters are a bizarre forgery, but that when initially asked about them Paul actually defended the letters. 
Racism, like all forms of bigotry, is what it claims to oppose--victimology. The bigot is never to blame. Always is he besieged--by gays and their radical agenda, by women and their miniskirts, by fleet-footed blacks. It is an ideology of "not my fault." It is not Ron Paul's fault that people with an NAACP view of the world would twist his words. It is not Ron Paul's fault that his newsletter trafficked in racism. It is not Ron Paul's fault that he allowed people to author that racism in his name. It is anonymous political aids and writers, who now cowardly refuse to own their words. There's always someone else to blame--as long as it isn't Ron Paul, if only because it never was Ron Paul.

This is not a particular tragedy for black people. The kind of racism which Paul trafficked is neither innovative nor original. Even his denials recall the obfuscations of Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens. But some pity should be reserved for the young and disgruntled, for those who dimly perceive that something is wrong in this country, for those who are earnestly appalled by the madness of our criminal justice policy, for those who have watched a steady erosion of our civil liberties, and have seen their concerns met with an appalling silence on the national stage. That their champion should be, virtually by default, a man of mixed motives and selective courage, is sad.
Do read the whole thing, where incriminating Paul quotes abound.

Maybe here is also a good place to link to Tyler Cowen's thoughts on Ron Paul from four years ago. Quite relevant today.
The Ron Paul phenomenon reminds me of the old America First movement, with Misesian 100 percent reserve banking theory on top.  He is making (one version of) libertarianism much more popular by allying it with nationalist and also states’ rights memes.  That includes his stances on immigration, NAFTA, China, devolution of powers, and "The Constitution."  Even when the policy recommendations stay libertarian, I fear that the wrong emotions will have the staying power.  Evaluating a politician is not just about policy positions; for instance personally I am skeptical of most forms of gun control but I worry when a candidate so emphasizes a pro-gun stance.
Many libertarians see the Paul candidacy as their chance to have an impact and they may well be right.  There is also no one else for them to support.  But, raw milk or not, I am not myself tempted to take a stance this year in favor of any of the candidates, Paul included.  Liberty is lacking in the United States but I’d like to see it more closely bundled with reasonableness, moderation, and yes pragmatism; I am looking to advance on all fronts at the same time.  Call me fussy if you wish.
I fear that Ron Paul is so taken with his own ideas that he is unable to see how or when his views might ever be wrong; it is in that sense I consider him insufficiently intellectual.  (Admittedly all the other candidates are too open to whatever is politically popular at the moment.)  Openness also means ability to improvise, which is a critical leadership quality; many of the challenges of the presidency are the surprises, 9/11 being one example of many.
The America Firsters, by the way, were right about many things, but they were very wrong about a few very big things, such as World War II and the civil rights movement.  They also suffered a virtually total eclipse for decades.  I don’t see nationalist and states’ rights memes as a path toward a future with more human liberty.

Monday, December 19, 2011

thoughts on Ron Paul

I have never been a fan of Ron Paul (well, since high school/early college, but that hardly counts, right?), but his increasing viability changes the dynamic somewhat. A new PPP poll puts him in the lead in Iowa. I easily prefer Gary Johnson, who is like Ron Paul, but with actual accomplishments and more enlightened views on immigration and reproductive rights. But, sadly, he never managed to get any traction. Paul has.

Erik Kain has written a few posts endorsing Ron Paul and then defending that endorsement. These are all choice posts, but here are a few highlights, all of which I second.

I have lost faith in Obama. Yes, I think that some things in the healthcare reform legislation and financial legislation do some real good for some people. But I see a very poor trade in electing folks who give you corporate healthcare legislation in exchange for dubious, never-ending war powers.
What it comes down to for me is not spending or taxes or anything like that at all. I want peace. I want to elect whichever candidate is most likely to lead us in a peaceful direction – toward peaceful commerce and a vastly downsized military abroad. I want a candidate who will honestly and frankly assess the abuses of liberty here at home, because without our basic rights intact, how can we trust anything our government does?
For me it is hardly about left vs. right anymore or the various second-tier policy differences Democrats and Republicans may have. Yes, I care about jobs, about taxes, about healthcare and public education. Yes, on many of these issues I’m far to the left of Ron Paul. But I care more about peace.
from the first link.
In a startling break with tradition, Ron Paul took a few quick jabs at his Republican rivals on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno Friday. Asked his opinion of Michele Bachmann, who Paul had clashed with earlier in the week over the question of a nuclear Iran, Paul said Bachmann “hates Muslims” and “wants to go get them.”

Leno asked Paul his opinion of Rick Santorum, asking whether he talked about anything other than gay people. “Gay people and Muslims,” Paul quipped.

I appreciate his belief in live-and-let-live. His clarifications on his belief in state’s rights (which he noted do not actually have rights) was welcome, as were his arguments about the environment (which he said should be governed by property rights which would prevent pollution better than current regulation.)
His notions on marriage and morality are likewise non-interventionist. It is more Christian, I think, than the shrieky attempts by his rivals to push their beliefs on everyone else through the long arm of the law. Morality is built by communities and families and harbored in the human heart. The state cannot enforce it, only nudge us in the right direction by first doing no harm.
from the second link. I absolutely love that Ron Paul just comes out and says Michelle Bachmann hates Muslims. In Kain's third link, he musters some mighty moral clarity and defends his endorsement over the protestations and condemnations of those concerned about the "racist newsletter":
Has Paul espoused any of those views himself? Not that I can tell. Do his preferred policies lead as much killing as the preferred policies of Obama or Romney or any of the other candidates currently swarming about? No, they don’t. Do you think the children we blow to shreds with our aerial drones care if Ron Paul’s associates published a racist newsletter in the 90′s or do you think they care more about being blown to shreds?

Paul obviously should not have allowed things like that to be published under his name and I completely and utterly condemn that newsletter and those behind it. It’s just not as big a deal to me as the aforementioned wars and assassinations under this president.
What’s more important to your idealism – words or bombs? What is more liberal? What is more progressive?
I see it as a matter of life and death. I know you see it as a matter of Your Team vs. The Others. But that’s just not enough for me.
Now, as our President might say, Let me be clear. There really appears to be some nasty stuff in those newsletters. Here is the Weekly Standard:

Though particular articles rarely carried a byline, the vast majority were written in the first person, while the title of the newsletter, in its various iterations, always featured Paul’s name: Ron Paul’s Freedom Report, the Ron Paul Political Report, the Ron Paul Survival Report, and the Ron Paul Investment Letter. What I found was unpleasant.
“Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks,” read a typical article from the June 1992 “Special Issue on Racial Terrorism,” a supplement to the Ron Paul Political Report. Racial apocalypse was the most persistent theme of the newsletters; a 1990 issue warned of “The Coming Race War,” and an article the following year about disturbances in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., was entitled “Animals Take Over the D.C. Zoo.” Paul alleged that Martin Luther King Jr., “the world-class philanderer who beat up his paramours,” had also “seduced underage girls and boys.” The man who would later proclaim King a “hero” attacked Ronald Reagan for signing legislation creating the federal holiday in his name, complaining, “We can thank him for our annual Hate Whitey Day.” 
No conspiracy theory was too outlandish for Paul’s endorsement. One newsletter reported on the heretofore unknown phenomenon of “Needlin’,” in which “gangs of black girls between the ages of 12 and 14” roamed the streets of New York and injected white women with possibly HIV-infected syringes. Another newsletter warned that “the AIDS patient” should not be allowed to eat in restaurants because “AIDS can be transmitted by saliva,” a strange claim for a physician to make.
Does Ron Paul have racist, far-right inclinations? I have no idea. He certainly hasn't employed racist or particularly far-right rhetoric in either of the last two of his presidential campaigns, that I have seen. I find it exceedingly hard to believe that as president he would even try to dismantle civil rights laws, let alone succeed. That really doesn't appear to be where his passions lie. No, what gets him really riled up are military aggression, fiat currency, and the authoritarian power grabs by the Bush and Obama administrations.

While I have a hard time thinking Ron Paul as president would disenfranchise minorities or reinstitute segregation, I am under no delusion that a Paul administration would be at all enlightened. He is a Creationist and is opposed to abortion. With his deeply held belief that all of our economic woes can be laid at the feet of central banking and can be (easily!) explained by Austrian economics (an obscure, heterodox school of economics), he has all the markings of a true believer. While I am happy we could trust him not to bomb Iran under just about any circumstances, I am wary how adamantly convinced he is that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapon (I think the evidence is at least mixed). The world is a complex place and I think it is quite dangerous for the world's most powerful person to be a fundamentalist of any kind, and I think this is a fair characterization of Paul's intellectual curiosity and flexibility.

Maybe through some second-order effects (e.g., sparking a violent populist movement because of economic blunders) Paul could cause more damage than a status quo president like Obama or Romney. I doubt it. But luckily for all of us we don't have to worry about that yet. The primary benefit of  nominating Paul as the Republican candidate is the issues that he would bring to the nation's attention. We have already seen this in the Republican primary race. Minus Paul, who on the national stage would be defending civil liberties? Who would be arguing for the reestablishment of the 4th Amendment guarantees of freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures? Who would be arguing for the rights of terrorism suspects to fair and speedy trials by jury? Who would be arguing that perhaps the president of of the US should not have the power to order the assassinations of American citizens (or anyone else, for that matter)? Who would be suggesting that killing foreigners with flying death robots is not the right thing to do?

All civil libertarians already have Ron Paul to thank for bringing these concerns into American dinner conversations. A Paul nomination would only amplify these issues and we would still have a few months to change our minds. The opportunity to bring civil liberties back into the national spotlight should be enough for all sorts of liberals to change their party identification to Republican and vote in their primaries for Paul, even if their ultimate priorities are economic or otherwise. Hold your noses if you must.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Cultural imperialism (as it were)

I have become obsessed with the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks. For those unfamiliar, the books tell stories (unrelated, so it's not a proper "series" and it doesn't matter in which order you read them) about a mostly humanoid galactic civilization called the Culture that is pretty well described as a post-scarcity, hedonistic utopia. And really a utopia, not a dystopia; they actually *have* figured everything out and are pretty much all happy. So of course it sounds like a boring setting for stories (where's the conflict?), except that all of the stories deal with the Culture's interactions with other civilizations, usually lower on the technological ladder.

If I have one complaint about the books, it is ideological. Banks is a bit of a technosocialist. Money and exchange are all outdated concepts, and the reason the Culture has so many nice things is because they are 'ruled' by benevolent artificial intelligences, called Minds. I'm a fan of artificial intelligence so I have no problem with that, but the Culture appears to have solved all its problems by brute force figuring by the Minds. There is no appreciation evident in Banks' writing (at least in the five books I've read so far) for any sort of bottom-up, organic processes.

The aspect of the books that I really want to bring up is related, though my complaint doesn't really extend to it. For someone so far to the political left, Banks displays a very Whiggish attitude. As I mentioned above, the conflicts in the book revolve around interactions with less-developed peoples. And these interactions are usually interventions to liberate people from illiberal and inegalitarian regimes.

To be fair, Banks isn't totally unaware of how this comes off, and he often addresses these criticisms of the Culture in the books. He at least pays lip service to the idea that unintended consequences are a threat in these interventions. But the Minds have almost always got their sums right. While it might be more interesting if, every once in a while, the Minds forgot to carry a 1 and the Culture damaged their intended beneficiaries, his world is interesting for coloring a thought experiment. If we ever live in a society that to a large degree has solved all its problems, and really does represent a flourishing way forward for all peoples, then how would our foreign policy change? If the United States, for example, were everything its more ardent admirers like to think it is, then would it be justified in militarily interfering in the internal affairs of other nations on humanitarian grounds, and to spread our spectacularly successful way of life?

To be sure, the assumption is rather hard to swallow. "Suppose we have solved essentially all of our own social problems and have vast wealth to spare, and further that we have a very good track record of nearly bloodless humanitarian intervention and nation building", where "essentially", "vast", "very good", and "nearly" are parameters that can be adjusted for the realism of the thought experiment. For appropriate values, I think interference would be perfectly okay and indeed it would be hard to argue that non-interference would even be ethical. Cultural- or moral-relativistic arguments that other peoples should be able to construct their own societies as they see fit without the interference of arrogant (call them "Western") outsiders would seem to be laughable collectivistic caricature. The thought experiment almost morphs into the Problem of Evil in theism. As far as this atheist has ever seen, there is no satisfactory answer to the trilemma of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and benevolent god so long as evil and suffering exist in the world. Replace "god" with "advanced society" and the only difference is that the advanced society didn't actually create its potential beneficiaries. But that fact doesn't even enter into the moral calculus as far as I am concerned. Fun to think about, anyway. Back to the real world of suffering and limited knowledge ...

Saturday, November 19, 2011

school vouchers and the separation of church and state

I was surprised to find that some atheist activists get riled up over school vouchers. Hemant Mehta lays the issue out:
There’s one main reason church/state separation advocates don’t support school vouchers: It would allow parents to send their kids to religious schools on the taxpayer dime. (Want a second reason? The private schools also wouldn’t be held to the same accountability standards as the public schools.)
Separation of church and state means that tax money cannot be used to fund one particular faith (or an “atheist school,” whatever that is) over another.
I think this is misguided. My libertarian instincts nudge me to view voucher programs favorably, because it seems to preserve the most choice for families, given mandatory, publicly funded education. Maybe I'm wrong on this, but I'd like to set that aside the policy merits for now. Do publicly funded school vouchers violate the separation of church and state?

I think the answer is no. Okay, under a school voucher regime, public money indeed finds itself going into the coffers of religious institutions operating schools. But the state is in no way respecting the establishment of any one religion over another, or over non-religion. In principle, the state is essentially doing nothing other than giving each student a backpack full of money and telling them to go get educated with it. It would be a different story if every student was given a voucher and only religious schools were on offer, but that isn't the case.

Imagine a church that decided to operate something like a health maintenance organization. And suppose, for the sake of argument, that the federal government decided to mandate the private purchase of health insurance but also subsidized that purchase. Would that also be violating the separation of church and state?

Is the Earned Income Tax Credit a violation of the Establishment Clause because some people are going to tithe or pay for vacation bible school with their tax rebates?

I suspect most atheists are opposed to school vouchers because most atheists are liberals and the school voucher idea is a darling of conservatives and libertarians. And that's fair enough. But the argument from church/state separation is weak at best, and it should not be a priority for atheist activists.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

never a better time to vote Republican

I would love to see civil libertarian Democrats mount a primary challenge to Obama in 2012 and have argued for as much previously. Conor Friedersdorf inspired the post behind that link and he's now offered a twist to the idea: Democrats and independents who are concerned about civil liberties should register as Republicans and vote in the Republican primary.

To get it out of the way first, this will not happen for the same reason that no primary challenge will materialize. If there were enough voters out there hot and bothered enough over civil liberties to make a convincing primary challenge, then we would probably already have more civil libertarians in positions of power.

That said, this is a clever idea. The absolute worst that can happen is that the least dissatisfying of all the Republicans wins, and there is no danger of destabilizing the Democratic party (for those who think that is a bad thing). As Friedersdorf argues, there's really only an upside here:
At this point, Obama is effectively going to run unopposed in the Democratic primary. He'll be the general election candidate regardless. A protest movement that used the GOP primary as its vehicle would, at worst, fizzle out with no real effect. If it succeeded in getting Johnson even a bit more attention, there would be two voices, Johnson and Ron Paul, speaking out in favor of shrinking the military, ending the drug war, and protecting civil liberties; they'd give voice to an actual marginalized constituency on the right that the left should want to see better represented; in the unlikely event that elevating Johnson succeeded wildly, and he won the GOP nomination, the left would have dodged the possibility of President Perry or Cain; Obama would be no less likely to win the general election; and to do so, he'd be forced to move toward the civil libertarians on issues like drugs, war, and homeland security policies, rather than moving right. Much the same logic applies to Roemer. Elevating him would inject into the campaign more talk about the capture of government by various moneyed special interests.
This has an advantage over mounting a primary challenge in that there's no need to start from scratch. Candidates have already surfaced in the Republican primary who are well to the left of Obama in civil liberties. The hardest part is already done!

One disadvantage that Friedersdorf doesn't mention is that there are more races next November than just the presidential race. Voters have the most sway in local elections. If a Democrat switches to Republican on a pie-in-the-sky attempt to sway a national election, then she may lose the chance to vote in a Democrats-only race closer to home. Of course, no one's vote is going to make a difference, one's party identification can remain secret, and there's nothing to stop a RINO (really!) from campaigning for their favorite Democrats.

My favorite aspect of this stratagem is that if it became a habit, if enough people regularly switched parties every election cycle, then that would represent a real assault on the two party duopoly, which would benefit everyone.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

a conservative argument for immigration

Last week Matt Yglesias suggestively alluded to a "national greatness" case for more immigration. This, or at least a more generally conservative case for increased immigration is something I've wanted to write for a while. My own passion for removing barriers to migration come from the more bleeding heart libertarian concerns of 1) greater personal liberty for migrants and natives who would like to peacefully interact with those migrants and 2) the trillions of dollars of potential poverty alleviation. So take this in the spirit of a semi-Ideological Turing test, if you will. I say "semi" because I'm just offering different arguments for a policy I do support, but still, I want to get the motivations roughly right.

Yglesias presents this map of world population density, noting that India and China have a lot of people and they're getting richer all the time. That means that in a short while their economies will dwarf that of the United States. To wax Hegelian, this means India and China will dominate the world historical stage; the story of world history will be the stories of India and China, for better or worse. This is the national greatness case for greater immigration: keep birth rates at or above the replacement rate and throw open the gates to increase the number of Americans. A nation of one billion Americans, with our head start in technology and productivity, can balance the rising powers in the east. We can then extend (what we like to think of as) our historically benevolent influence on world affairs well into the foreseeable future.

The skeptical conservative might balk at this, suggesting that opening up the gates to a bunch of Chinese is not a good way to curb China's relative influence in the world. I suppose conquest of a democratic state through immigration is possible, but it is hardly a plausible in the light of America's history. America has had for long stretches effectively open borders, and in every case incoming immigrant communities have assimilated--learned English and adopted American institutions and culture in just a couple generations. The conservative spin I suggest is this: immigration is a way of making more Americans. Few people worry now about the fate of the Republic in the hands of swarms of Italians or Irish or Germans or Japanese now. This isn't because those populations were successfully got rid of; it is because they are Americans now. For the sake of the paranoid conservative, an open immigration policy can be combined with stricter assimilation requirements as well.

In principle this applies to Europe as well. While EU enlargement isn't big on anyone's agenda at the moment, one can view admission of new nations into the EU as a way of wrapping those nations within the customs and institutions of the Europe. My impression is that much of the opposition to allowing, say, Turkey into the EU comes from fears that teeming Muslim Turks will threaten the liberal, secular society the western European nations have fashioned for themselves. But, as in the case of US immigration (or for that matter a North American economic union), the current EU nations have a better bargaining position and are more likely to make Turkey more secular and more liberal than vice versa.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

shifting standards of evidence in criminal justice

Matt Yglesias brings up the really good point that the death penalty is merely one facet of the cluster of horrific policies that constitutes the American criminal justice system. After all, it is unclear that putting an innocent man to death is really much worse than locking a man in a cage for the rest of his life.
[The case for executing the guilty] seems like a separate issue from the fact that the American criminal justice system too often punishes the innocent. I see three main facets of that problem. One is that we don’t provide adequate legal representation to many indigent defendants. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that underfunding public defender officers is somehow “tough on crime” as if railroading innocent people is a close substitute for punishing guilty ones. The second is that we rely heavily on eyewitness testimony even though it’s known to be unreliable, and police departments often don’t seem very interested in improving witness identification procedures. The third is that we give convicts far too little ability to present newly discovered evidence of innocence. But none of this has anything in particular to do with the death penalty. If an innocent man is in prison for a grisly rape/murder based on eyewitness testimony that would be debunked by DNA evidence that wasn’t available at the time of his conviction, that’s terrible even if he’s not being executed. 
There seems to be an active institutional resistance to the introduction of new information once a verdict has been decided and a sentence has been passed. If the point of the criminal justice system is to mete out actual justice, then it is mighty strange that after an arbitrary moment in time, new information is no longer permitted. Or at least the barrier to new information is abruptly and steeply raised. It also seems to me that the burden of proof abruptly shifts after a verdict has been passed. While in trial, a guilty verdict requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but post-verdict, it seems that innocence requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

I keep saying "seems" because I must admit that I am not really well-versed in the ins and outs of criminal justice. The two cases I have read the most about (and even here I have not really done all my homework) are those of Cameron Todd Willingham and Troy Davis. In the former case, independent forensic analysis called into question the forensic methods used to reach the guilty verdict, but the new forensic report was ignored. The latter case relied heavily on eye-witness testimony, seven-ninths of which was later recanted. Both of these cases are examples where, at least post-conviction if not pre-, the evidence of guilt was not sufficient to surmount reasonable doubt. If the same burden of proof applied after conviction as before, these two men would still be alive.

Getting back to Yglesias' post, it is perhaps a shame that so many bleeding heart types like myself get so riled up about the death penalty when there are likely many more innocent people languishing in prison than there are innocent people awaiting execution. I agree with this, and recognize it as an unfortunate cognitive bias. On the other hand, it's hard to see it happening any other way. Ritualistic state killing is so conspicuous that it probably must come first in reform efforts. I rest somewhat assured that the liberal appetite for justice will remain unsatiated after exhausting the ample low-hanging fruit of state-sanctioned injustice.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

humanitarian aid and migration

This post by Andrew Cohen over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians is short enough that I hope it's kosher to just quote its entirety:
Assume there is a moral principle indicating that states (or citizens therein) that have adequate (or better) resources have an obligation to aid those in states that have inadequate resources. Such a principle has been defended, of course (see, for example, Charles Beitz’ 1979, esp. 136-143). Importantly, even if such a principle is right, it does not get us directly to a conclusion that states (or citizens therein) that have adequate (or better) resources (like us) have an obligation to aid those in states that have inadequate resources in their society. Although many that write in defense of international redistribution often fail to recognize it, immigration—perhaps coupled with remittances–is an important method of international aid. Hence, it might be enough—indeed, it might be better—to help those in states with inadequate resources to immigrate to a place with better resources (perhaps our own state).
Picture an island devastated by floods and incapable of supporting agriculture. The people on this island need help. Assume we owe them help. If there is a good reason to believe the island cannot be made life-supporting (a dubious situation to be sure), the people have to move and at most our aid should be aiding emigration. More realistically, the island will take some years to be life-sustaining again. Perhaps, then, we ought to help them with temporary food supplements. But perhaps aiding emigration can still satisfy our duty. Certainly, in the more extreme case, where the island can’t support life, we simply cannot conclude that we must sustain the people on the island. Some might bemoan the loss of the “island culture” that would follow mass emigration, but given the extreme nature of the natural disaster, that is unavoidable. The only possibilities are losing the culture and the individuals or losing the culture and saving the individuals by relocating them.
It seems clear, then, that no duty to aid individuals in other societies (or our own) can require, in all cases, that we help them to continue to lead the sorts of lives they previously lived (or would choose to live) in the environment they did (or want to). This does not mean there is no duty to help individuals in other societies; it simply means that sometimes the way to satisfy such a duty would be to help the people move, perhaps to our society.
I don't usually come at my migration advocacy already assuming that we have a moral duty to help people in other nations. But let's assume there is such a moral duty. If you assume this and follow along with Cohen's quick argument that sometimes supporting greater emigration is the best of all options, then I want to offer a small twist.

I claim that natural disasters and catastrophic misgovernance are morally indistinguishable. If a disaster strikes your country or you happen to be born in North Korea, both events are best described by luck. Unless you're a Calvinist, you probably agree that bad luck has nothing to do with culpability or just deserts. Then if you accept the premise (perhaps a big if*) that we in rich countries owe some kind of aid to people in nations struck by disaster and that emigration is an optimal kind of aid, then I think it follows that we also owe similar aid to people fleeing grossly incompetent or malevolent governments.

As a side note, I think Cohen is too harsh on his natural disaster premise. A nuclear strike could render a small country uninhabitable for decades. And last I checked, the island nation of Maldives is, like fabled Atlantis, actually in danger of sinking beneath the waves.

* It's a big if that a reader will accept the premise, but it's interesting to note that natural disasters do tend to tug our heartstrings, empirically. You see this in the sudden, worldwide spike in donations to aid organizations and relief efforts when big tsunamis or earthquakes occur.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

principled ideological fuzziness

Some days I wonder if I should even consider myself a libertarian any longer, since I reside in the ambiguous borderlands of progressive liberalism and libertarianism. Every time I tell someone I'm a libertarian, I find myself hedging "No, not that kind of libertarian!" So I enjoyed Will Wilkinson's recent piece at the New Republic: A Libertarian's Lament: Why Ron Paul Is An Embarrassment To The Creed. The whole thing is worth reading, but I really liked this bit:
In any case, the philosophical basis of Paul's property-rights absolutism is mysterious. Like many libertarians, Paul sees ironclad property rights as a straightforward implication of the moral impermissibility of coercion in human affairs. But, of course, a system of property is itself a system of coercion. If I cannot waltz into your home, raid your fridge, and make myself a hoagie, it is because you might shoot at me or call the cops to drag me off at gunpoint. If you're like me, you think the enforcement of property rights through the use of violence, or the treat thereof, is justified. But it does need to be justified.
Here’s my best attempt: A system of secure property rights is conducive to a society of peaceful cooperation that benefits even the least among us. The important thing for libertarians to remember—and the thing that Ron Paul forgets, or, rather, never knew—is that a system of secure property rights is a means to a peaceful society of mutual benefit, not an end in itself. And there are other legitimate public goods beyond the police protection of property rights. The need to finance the provision of these goods can justifiably limit our property rights, just as a system of property can justifiably limit our right to free movement. The use of official coercion to collect necessary taxes is no more or less problematic than the use of official coercion to enforce claims to legitimate property.
Maybe this is all Ayn Rand's fault, but I think many (certainly not all!) libertarians come to the philosophy in a blinding flash of enlightenment, where the truth of something like the Principle of Non-Aggression is made clear, and let's run to the ends of the earth with it. I don't want to be condescending here; I was an anarchist for many years because I took the PNA very seriously. But Wilkinson points out here that, rather than flowing elegantly out of the PNA, property rights are a separate beast entirely, and actually constitute a framework of aggression. This is a shame because a system of property rights and principled non-aggression both seem like good ideas to me.

But we can't have it all. Some really nice ideas rather clumsily butt heads with one another. I was an anarchist for so long because I couldn't see how you could get from a state of nature to a state of monopoly governments wielding violent force. But eventually I decided there was no 'state of nature', or rather, the real state of nature is that we humans are apes, only recently quit the African savanna, and our vaunted morals have old, deep roots as evolutionary adaptations to the problems associated with fostering cooperation and keeping a social group from fragmenting.

Evolution has shaped our moral concerns. But evolution doesn't care much about rigorously adhering to consistent principles. It's hodge-podge all the way, mixing and matching to solve problems that are themselves constantly evolving. So it would be a little surprising if, in our modern world of complex interactions, we found that public policy was reducible to one or more ethical principles that were both easily stated and universally applicable.

Something I remember from reading Michael Shermer's The Science of Good and Evil several years ago is his hammering home the idea of a "provisional morality". This is a morality crafted with genetic and cultural evolution in mind, and it consist not of hard and fast principles, but of fuzzier principles that worked "for most people, in most situations, most of the time." (I don't have the book with me, so that might not be his exact wording). I think this is the best we can do with our ethics and with political philosophy.

Property is an excellent social technology as long as we realize the edges are blurry and ill-defined. They are contingent upon other social considerations, like the fact that present distribution of property is unjustified and unjustifiable. Likewise, a prohibition of coercion is great until it's inconvenient, where what constitutes "inconvenient" has to be hashed out by competing social concerns. Democracy is fine and dandy until it becomes ridiculous (Is de facto gerontocracy justified merely because young people are less motivated to vote?)

This sounds hopelessly slippery. Libertarianism in the style of Ron Paul is attractive because it is easy; there are simple rules to apply to every situation. A less ridiculous libertarianism is more difficult to apply, but it provides value by offering a set of insights (for example, actions carried out by the State rely on violence or the threat of violence) and suggesting that we should demand very good reasons to override the first-order moral reaction to those insights ("Gentlemen, leave your guns outside." really is a good rule for most people, in most situations, most of the time.)

Finally, also commenting on Wilkinson's essay, Eli Dourado made a useful distinction:
Let’s call an action justified if, all things considered, it is the best action to have taken. Let’s call an action satisfying if we can go further and say that we are glad that it happened. It should be obvious that an action can be justified but not satisfying.
Take statements of the form: I wanted person X to do action Y, so I made X do Y. Y can be a number of things: give me candy, have an abortion, not have an abortion, eat vegetables, stop picking on the other kids, not trespass on my property, stop gunning down innocent victims, pay for Timmy’s leukemia treatment.
The action of making X do Y is sometimes justified (depending on what Y is and the circumstances and, sometimes, on who X is), but it should never be satisfying. If an intruder came into my house and threatened my family, I might (might!) be justified in shooting and killing the intruder. But if I were satisfied that I got to justifiably shoot and kill someone, it would represent serious moral deficiency.
I feel that way about all coercion; it should never be satisfying, even when it is justified. Yet when I observe real-world taxation, I see a lot of satisfaction. People seem glad, for instance, that taxation is progressive. It’s not just a resigned, “Well, this is the most justified level of progressivity.” People are satisfied that those who they want to pay taxes are doing it.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

fantasy, feminism, and a Song of Ice and Fire

I was halfway through E.D. Kain's post defending George RR Martin and his Song of Ice and Fire against charges of sexism, when I thought I should read the post where the charges were actually presented, by Sady Doyle on the Tiger Beatdown. I found most of the arguments wanting, and I was put off by the number of cheap shots from what I thought was a willful misreading of the books. Good points brought up were drowned out by bad points. (Minor spoilers throughout.)

For example, she blows off Danaerys as a potential strong female character because she represents western domination over brown people with funny names and customs. Good point: Dany takes on a White Savior role, and that's a racist cliche. But the point is muddied (though certainly not invalidated): Yes she is white, but she never even knew Westeros. And, while Westeros doesn't have slavery, it is not exactly presented as civilised itself. If Dany ever makes it to Westeros, she's going to heartily disapprove of what she finds there as well, and her bleeding heart that I love will compel her to try to reform Westerosi civilization, to which she is thus far a stranger. Another thing, she's not exactly successful in her savior role, which may or may not mitigate the criticism. And then I'm just befuddled as to what Doyle thinks is an appropriate ethical response to slavery:
Daenerys: Oh, here we fucking go. Daenerys, you see, has discovered that the mystical, barbaric cities of the Orient have one particularly barbaric custom of which she disapproves heartily. That custom? Is slavery. And so, Daenerys must save these other cultures from themselves, by going city to city and systematically destroying them, imposing her own standards upon them all. Here’s a problem, though: We, the European and/or American readers, also know slavery to be a bad thing. And here is how we know this: White people enslaved people of color. For generations. We brutalized people of color, we institutionalized the rape of people of color, we committed genocide against people of color, we devastated the cultures of people of color. And here is how we white people rationalized that: We told ourselves that these people of color were barbaric, that they were savages, that European standards should be universal, and that we were saving these people from themselves. So, for those keeping track: The rationale behind Daenerys’s campaign to abolish slavery? IS THE RATIONALE THAT CREATED SLAVERY. Daenerys: Mystic Dragon Land’s leading producer of UGH.
A couple more examples. Catelyn is also blown off as a strong female character despite her considerable agency because she is overwhelmingly concerned about protecting her children. Is it feminist to be unconcerned about the safety of your children? Ned was also concerned about his children, and forsook his valued and annoying honor to protect them.

Very good point: Cersei is the most explicitly feminist character in the books and she is portrayed as evil and entirely unsympathetic. Not so good point: Martin is sexist because Catelyn and Cersei, female characters with strong agency, continually fail in their endeavors. But this is in the context of a story where all the characters, males included, often catastrophically fail. Jon and Dany appear especially blessed in this regard through the end of book four, where Doyle stops her analysis. But in book five it's not clear at all that even they are winning the future.

Then there was this from Doyle in the comment section,
@Trolls, people explaining why George R.R. Martin isn’t sexist. Your names, thus far, have been:

John G. [deleted for rudeness]
John D.
E.D., who runs a blog on “Gentlemen” [deleted for blog spam]
Jake [deleted for starting off with "Sady=cunt"]

I’m noticing a theme here, but what can I say? I am but a young girl who knows little of blog war. And tends to think women are in a better position to explain What Is Sexist than men are.
This is undoubtedly true (she does after all write on a well-trafficked feminist blog and, as a woman, can grok  patriarchal biases better than I ever possibly could). But this is a shortcut that shuts down the conversation. I certainly didn't feel welcome commenting after that. If a male is intrinsically incapable of contributing valid criticism of a feminist critique, then what is the point of a male trying to understand the critique at all? And does this not also invalidate the contribution of males who concurred with the feminist critique? Yes, I recognize that I am inviting ridicule here. "Aw, the privileged white male feels invalidated!" And to be fair, I checked back later and there was a pretty reasonable discussion going on in the comment thread, with men and women on both sides of the issue. The fact that she has to deal with real trolls hurling epithets casts a dark cloud over this whole conversation.

This is all sad because I think a feminist critique of GRRM's books is perfectly warranted. Here are some thoughts after reading a couple other posts found by googling "feminist critique song of ice and fire".

As mentioned, I think Cersei is a really strong female character. But she's painted as completely unsympathetic. This would be fine, indeed it would count as a net plus to have a strong female villain, if there was another explicitly feminist character who was more sympathetic. She still appears to be evolving somewhat in the series, so maybe this will all change.

Martin missed an opportunity with Asha's sex scene in book five. SPOILER The scene is early on portrayed as rape, but it turns out he is her boyfriend, so it's "okay". My complaint is that if he wanted to write an attempted rape scene, why not allow her to fight off an actual and uncontroversial villain? Better yet, why not take the opportunity to show a strong female character engaging in and enjoying transparently consensual sex? She is a pretty strong female character over all, as a woman captain in a man's world, complete with men who seem to really respect her.

The lesbianism in the series is bullshit. First, Dany and her servant girl get in on occasionally, so she's bisexual, which is just fine. But she clearly is most attracted to men. This is all well and good, as bona fide bisexuals absolutely exist in the real world. But this falls flat if there is no example of bona fide lesbians in a story that spans several thousand pages. This is probably said better by Prickly Woman:
Two lesbian interactions. Dany and her handmaid...for Dany it was portrayed as happening because she needed a man but didn't have one. Lesbianism as temporary, not serious, to be replaced by heterosexual interactions. Cersei and Taena was all about Cersei wishing she were a man. Lesbianism again as poor substitute for someone who just really wants a penis, whether to possess it or to be penetrated by it. Not cool, my man.
The male homosexuality is at least apparent, though not as developed as it could be, between Renly and the Knight of Flowers. And of course, the Red Viper, my very favorite character, was a bisexual male.

That's all I've got for now, but I am very interested in reading more feminist (and other literary) critiques of Martin's books.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

on the need for a cosmotarianism

Michael Clemens has reviewed the available literature and estimated the potential economic gains from removing barriers to international migration in a working paper titled "Economics and Emigration: Trillion Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?" The money quote:
The gains from eliminating migration barriers dwarf—by an order of magnitude or two—the gains from eliminating other types of barriers. For the elimination of trade policy barriers and capital flow barriers, the estimated gains amount to less than a few percent of world GDP. For labor mobility barriers, the estimated gains are often in the range of 50–150 percent of world GDP.
This is a stupendous amount of wealth generated merely for doing the right thing and removing coercive barriers to freedom of movement. If a technical invention had similar effects, it would be lauded as revolutionary and the inventors would earn a page in the history books.

But the world lacks an adequate framework for receiving this big effing idea. Simply put, who cares? Which ideological group will take this information and bear its message in large fonts on their banners while chanting an annoying but difficult to forget rhyming couplet? Now, there are organizations, including the Center for Global Development, which employs Dr. Clem, and proud we are of all of them. But there are no movements.

This comes to mind perhaps because I'm currently reading a history of Communism by Archie Brown. Communism got many things catastrophically wrong but also got one thing right. Brown describes the "existence of, and sense of belonging to, an international Communist movement" to be a defining feature of Communism. The familiar motto was "Workers of the world, unite!" Communist doctrine did not do away with tribalism altogether, but it reoriented tribalism from the usual ties of blood and race and nation to the abstract economic concept of class. Class transcended ethnicity and national identity. Communists thought a worldwide utopia was possible (inevitable, actually) and worked toward it in their own misguided way. Seeing how powerful feelings of national loyalty often are, that's quite something. Communism had people out in the streets for global justice.

I lie awake at night fantasizing about a popular movement that combines the universalism of Communism with actual good ideas. My biases as they are, I think most of the good ideas are liberaltarian ideas. I think it's really important to realize all the nice things we've got here in the democratic, developed world, including massive wealth and health (by historical standards), civil quiet (the occasional London riot is something I think we can live with) and an ever-expanding plenitude of enriching options for our private lives. I say liberaltarian because the developed world is one largely designed by modern liberals and progressives, one of social safety nets, democratic government, and equal rights for women and minorities (in principle if not yet in fact). Libertarianism can provide necessary tweaks in the form of market-savvy solutions, a greater awareness of the public choice limitations of democracy, and civil liberties absolutism.

But the good ideas of liberals and libertarians too often stop at the border. At present, most discussions of policy pay attention to the effects on our neighbors only insofar as there will be repercussions back on us. To be America-centric for a moment, consider the 34,000 Mexicans who have died in the drug war, much (not all) of which can be laid at the feet of America's illiberal drug laws. The number gets very little traction in public discourse because they are dead Mexicans and not dead Americans. But Mexicans are human beings with passions, hopes, hobbies, and families who grieve at the loss of loved ones just as much as we do; this number should evoke roughly ten times the shock and horror of the 9/11 tragedy. Something similar can be said for the fatality statistics of our current wars. One hears the number of American soldiers slain more often than the number of Iraqis or Afghans, despite the latter being at least an order of magnitude more gruesome. Most of the gains Michael Clem has estimated will accrue to the migrants themselves and all by itself that is a powerful reason to get out of the way of their migration and their gains.

We should extend our awareness, our ethical considerations, and our utilitarian calculations to the globe. We should be not just liberaltarians but cosmotarians, and ask not What is good for our country? but instead What is good for humanity? Unfortunately this doesn't lend itself to catchy slogans. People of the world, unite!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

a disturbing Dance with Dragons

This is a post concerning George R.R. Martin's new addition to a Song of Ice and Fire, but I'm going to try to keep it vague and basically free of spoilers. Fair warning all the same.

Martin's series is well known for its gritty realism. I often point to the brutality as a selling point. It's refreshing to read a story where even central characters are vulnerable to death and disfigurement. Aside from grieving for the affected characters, I have been able to breezily read through the gruesomeness of Martin's earlier books. Dashing babies' heads against the wall, ubiquitous rape, dismemberment, plain-old wanton slaughter--all of these things are just par for the course in a Dark Age world, I guess.

But Martin has really kicked it up a notch with a Dance with Dragons, so much so that I was uncomfortable reading some chapters. These chapters are from the perspective of a character whose mind has been shattered by torture. He has been trained to think of himself as a pet of his master. He is not allowed to wash or change clothes from the rags he was given when first captured. He is forced to sleep with dogs and he shares their food. The fact that the reader sees the story unfold from this character's perspective drives home the depth of the psychic damage. He has been given a new name, and the character cannot bring himself to vocalize his birth name, even within his own brain. And of course there was a physical component as well. Part of his training involved the slow amputation of a number of fingers and toes. And he lives in constant fear of losing another finger or toe, as well as feeling once again the flensing knife of one of his master's torturers.

For the first couple chapters of this, I felt it was gratuitous. To follow the story, does the reader really need to be inside the head of this suffering shell of a human being? Do we need the paranoia and pain firsthand? Maybe, maybe not; I'm still not sure. But after my initial misgivings, I remembered that torture is still with us in the modern world, with a recent regime of the world's most powerful hegemon torturing captives and the subsequent regime countenancing that policy by refusing to uphold the rule of law by refusing to investigate war crimes. This may not be an isolated incident, as we are arguably moving backward in the court of public opinion. As I'm pretty sure I've mentioned before, a relatively recent poll found a majority of young people think that torture is sometimes justified. This, when I imagine most of us fifteen years ago just assumed that torture was one of those human evils consigned long ago to the dust bin of history, something we would collectively feel embarrassed about, laughing at the ridiculous, transparent arguments that somehow beguiled our ethically slapstick forebears. Like slavery.

Now that the series is a big hit on HBO, I wonder about how different aspects of the story will play out on the screen. Will viewers be able to distinguish these scenes from the torture porn of movies like the Saw franchise? I think so. By the time a Dance with Dragons is beamed into homes everywhere, viewers will have followed the suddenly dehumanized character for four seasons, through highs and lows. The character is no Ned Stark. He has some nasty sins darkening his conscience, but he does have a conscience. The reader at least sees how he grapples with his misdeeds. There is a wealth of context and nuance in the character before he is tortured into his current state so the reader/viewer remembers his humanity even if the character himself does not.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Why not a primary challenge?

Conor Friedersdorf suggests that those on the left who are disappointed with Obama's presidency should mount a primary challenge.
President Obama won't face a serious primary challenge prior to Election 2012, but that isn't because he has governed as the left would've wanted. He is trying to keep American troops in Iraq beyond his own withdrawal deadline. His executive power claims are every bit as bad, and sometimes more extreme, than the excesses the left blasted when Bush was responsible for them. The prison at Guantanamo Bay remains open. Warantless surveillance on innocent Americans continues. Whistleblowers are in greater legal jeopardy than they were. The economy is terrible. Health-care reform was more corporatist than progressives would've preferred. We're now waging an illegal war in Libya that'll cost over a billion dollars, even as we prepare deep cuts to social welfare programs. Despite promises to the contrary, the FBI is still raiding medical marijuana dispensaries in jurisdictions where they're legal under state law. Promised advances in government transparency haven't materialized.

The left would be justified in lashing out, given the Grand-Canyon-sized chasm that separates the rhetoric of candidate Obama from the behavior of President Obama. By and large, however, they've kept quiet about the abuses and unlawful behavior of the man who occupies the White House, with a few notable exceptions, compared to their volume and passion during his predecessor's tenure. That's partly because they've focused their attacks on the tea party, and politicians like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. The truth of the matter is that even if a conservative like Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, the soft spoken advocate of a truce on social issues, won the nomination, the vast majority of liberals would support President Obama's reelection anyway.

What I'd like to see, apart from everything else, is a return to strong primary challenges against sitting presidents. It's easy to understand why they don't happen. But hard to argue that we wouldn't be better off if President Bush had been forced to worry a bit more about fiscal hawks, and President Obama was worried a bit more about anti-corporatists and the anti-war, civil libertarian left. 
I couldn't agree more. Since America's two-party political system is firmly entrenched by regulation, custom, and inertia, the primary challenge is just about the only possibility we have to avoid voting merely for either Bad or Worse, regardless of your political slant. I don't understand why this option isn't used more often.

Say what you want about the Tea Party (I'm not a fan), they have not been afraid to prop up their own homegrown candidates against those proffered by the Republican establishment. Sometimes they've won. And they've forced the Republican party to pay attention to their pet issues, regardless of what you may think of those issues. Now is a fine time for progressives and civil libertarians to do the same.

If no one from the left challenges Obama (and the Democratic establishment more generally), he will continue to abuse the progressives, the civil libertarians, the anti-war movement, gay rights advocates, anti-Prohibitionists, etc. He will continue to treat those groups with contempt because they simply have no where else to go. Even if a primary challenger lost, it would be a statement, maybe even a wake-up call for Democratic leaders in the future. Especially if a lefterly groundswell offered a host of primary challengers, not just a sacrificial lamb for the presidency.

The abused constituencies are held in bondage to the Democratic party because they are terrified of anti-choice, creationist Republicans who want to dismantle the welfare state (by passing legislation like Medicare Part D). This is clearly a dilemma. But what is the worst that could happen? If the progressive/civil libertarian champion loses, the disaffected can always come crawling back; Obama won't turn their votes away. Or is there fear that any challenger would necessarily be less electable than the sitting president? Well that's a risk. But I would rather lose with dignity and send a strong signal than wring my hands in limp despair.

A kernel for such a broad primary assault could be the War on Drugs, or at least the war on pot. A majority of Democrats support marijuana legalization, and yet few establishment Democrats do. (Although the recent bill cosponsored by Ron Paul and Barney Frank is a promising development). And amid the growing number of states legalizing marijuana for medicinal use, the Obama administration has continued to raid medical marijuana dispensaries compliant with state law. But of course there is no shortage of Obama administration failures to be outraged about as a liberal.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

drugs: good and good for you

Since this month (especially yesterday) marks the fortieth anniversary of Nixon's declaration of the War on Drugs, I would feel remiss if I didn't blog something about it. My inclination in attacking the War on Drugs is typically to focus on its most soul-crushing outrages, like the racism, the paramilitarization of the police, or the assault on the 4th amendment. For more information, the ACLU has been doing the Lord's work and blogging about drug war excesses all month.

With the corpses of prohibition piled so high, it's easy to lose track of the fact that many drugs don't even pose the social problems laid at their feet. I was reminded of this upon reading this Kevin Drum's piece on psychoactive mushrooms at Mother Jones.
But now for the most interesting result: psilocybin produces not only mystical experiences, but joy, happiness, and positive social effects. And it does it for a long time: in followup interviews 14 months after the study was completed, nearly all the subjects still reported positive changes in their lives, especially if they received their psilocybin in increasing dosages. (Half the study volunteers got the highest dose first and worked down, and half started with the lowest does and worked up. All volunteers also got a placebo tossed in at some point.)
There is a reason people throughout history and all over the world have sought out mind-altering substances. Like art, literature, or a good film, drugs entertain us, and can even change the way we think about the world. In many cases, such as 'shrooms, they're only about as dangerous as a good novel (maybe a hardback, to be fair). And they're fun, remember, which is the oft-forgotten but necessary consideration of any proper cost-benefit analysis. If ingestion of a particular drug induces good feelings then, all else being equal, that drug should be considered a good thing, like apple pie.

True, some drugs, like alcohol, are significantly more dangerous than others. But mushrooms and marijuana are virtually harmless. It's important to point this out, since the drug war propagandists have a bit of a communication advantage over the academics doing experiments and drearily tabulating data to ascertain the real-world effects of drug use.

So while it's not as enraging as reading about 30,000 Mexicans killed as a consequence of prohibition, we should remember that at its most fundamental, the War on Drugs is an effort to prevent regular folks from having a fun time in the way they choose.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

scripture and early Christians

For the past couple weeks I've been reading Christianity: the First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacCulloch. It's a massive tome of a book, so I'm only a couple hundred pages in, and thus a couple hundred years into post-Jesus history. Two related topics have really struck me: the nature of scripture and the diversity of early Christian belief. I never really thought about these things back in the day when I was a believer, and so I assume your typical, theologically untutored believer also hasn't thought much about them.

Admittedly, I was a lazy Christian growing up,* but I expect my own experiences with scripture are fairly common, even among life-long believers. When I was a wee believer I more or less didn't read the Bible at all. I absorbed everything I knew about Christianity from the culture around me: my parents, Sunday school, television, other books, etc. These included vague ideas like the existence of Heaven and Hell, and the necessity of "accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior" to enter the former and avoid the latter. God was all-knowing and all-powerful. And benevolent. Things like this. I just assumed all this was in the Bible, and the Bible was written by people inspired by God.

I had a more sustained exposure to scripture during my high school years. I must have read a lot of passages, especially from the New Testament, during the sermons and the young adult Sunday school sessions, but to be honest I don't remember much of which selections were covered. This was all just the Bible, mostly amorphous except for the distinction between the Old and New Testaments. I guess I knew that the OT was a history of the Jewish people. And the NT covered Jesus's time. And Revelation was a vision of the future. Even when I heard the full names of the NT books, like Paul's Letter to So-and-So, I didn't really stop to grok that this was a letter, like the kind one person writes to another. These books--letters or whatever--were the inspired word of God. I would ignore the broader context and mull over whatever point the pastor was trying to make.

Reading Robert Wright's book and now McCulloch's, you can't help but really grapple with what scripture is. Those NT works really are letters. They're letters from early Christian churches to one another. Why are they writing each other? Because they are trying to figure out what the hell it means to be Christian. No one knew at the time. They were letters written a few decades after Jesus' death. And the gospels, those recounts of the life and times of Jesus, were written after many of these letters (the whole Bible is completely out of order, turns out). As there were more gospels and letters written than are included in any one version of the Bible, different churches argued and ultimately disagreed on which ones should be deemed scripture.

This whole process took a couple centuries, and clearly there was no hard and fast reason for it to stop, but now there is a lock-in effect, whereby what is scripture is scripture, and everything else is literature written about scripture. It's interesting that there is no inherent difference between the scribblings of later theologians (like Augustine or Rowan Williams), the communications of modern church leaders like the Roman Catholic Pope (or the Pope of Alexandria), and what modern believers think of as scripture. Summary point: scripture is a lot more organic than the naive idea I had growing up, where I took it more or less as is.

The other big thing I got from reading about the early churches is just how incredibly diverse they were. These churches weren't just arguing things like whether Jesus had two natures or one nature (whatever that means). They were arguing about whether they were still Jews or not. Gnostics believe(d) that Jesus was sent by an entirely different god to save us from the flawed creation of the wicked Jewish god. Ethiopian Christians revere(d) Pontius Pilate, of all people, for their own peculiar reasons. One of my favorite theologians I've read about, Origen, thought that all mankind would be saved, and not just Christians (remember, this guy's writings could have been scripture). He viewed Christ as subordinate to God. And he also, like me, never could figure out the point of the Holy Spirit, ultimately leaving that as an exercise for the reader. Reading McCulloch, you appreciate how wildly different modern Christianities would be if history had taken a slightly different course at various times.

As I assume 95% of my readers are non-believers, I'm not really trying to convince anyone of anything here. I'm just getting a kick out of the history, and recommend the book as a good way to learn a little western history from the angle of Christianity. I blogged about Robert Wright's book here.

*Lazy only in some ways. I internalized hard the notion that people I cared about were destined to suffer for eternity, and that it was mighty unfair for people born in other parts of the world to suffer the same fate. And I had a fairly sophisticated argument for how free will and an omnipotent deity were mutually incompatible.

Monday, May 2, 2011

a line in the sand, Dude

With all of the celebratory spirit over the elimination of Osama bin Laden, it is worthwhile to take stock of the costs of America's response to the attacks bin Laden directed. And we should reflect on how America has changed over the last ten years. At Reason, Radley Balko offers a handy, quick-and-dirty list of the ways America has changed for the worse, at least from a civil libertarian perspective:

  • We’ve sent terrorist suspects to “black sites” to be detained without trial and tortured.
  • We’ve turned terrorist suspects over to other regimes, knowing that they’d be tortured.
  • In those cases when our government later learned it got the wrong guy, federal officials not only refused to apologize or compensate him, they went to court to argue he should be barred from using our courts to seek justice, and that the details of his abduction, torture, and detainment should be kept secret.
  • We’ve abducted and imprisoned dozens, perhaps hundreds of men in Guantanamo who turned out to have been innocent. Again, the government felt no obligation to do right by them.
  • The government launched a multimillion dollar ad campaign implying that people who smoke marijuana are implicit in the murder of nearly 3,000 of their fellow citizens.
  • The government illegally spied and eavesdropped on thousands of American citizens.
  • Presidents from both of the two major political parties have claimed the power to detain suspected terrorists and hold them indefinitely without trial, based solely on the president’s designation of them as an “enemy combatant,” essentially making the president prosecutor, judge, and jury. (I’d also argue that the treatment of someone like Bradley Manning wouldn’t have been tolerated before September 11.)
  • The current president has also claimed the power to execute U.S. citizens, off the battlefield, without a trial, and to prevent anyone from knowing about it after the fact.
  • The Congress approved, the president signed, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a broadly written law making it a crime to advocate for any organization the government deems sympathetic to terrorism. This includes challenging the “terrorist” designation in the first place.
  • Flying in America now means enduring a humiliating and hassling ritual that does little if anything to actually make flying any safer. Every time the government fails to catch an attempt at terrorism, it punishes the public for its failure by adding to the ritual.
  • American Muslims, a heartening story of success and assimilation, are now harassed and denigrated for merely trying to build houses of worship.
  • Without a warrant, the government can search and seize indefinitely the laptops and other personal electronic devices of anyone entering the country.
  • The Department of Homeland Security now gives terrorism-fighting grants for local police departments across the country to purchase military equipment, such as armored personnel carriers, which is then used against U.S. citizens, mostly to serve drug warrants.
Well, those are some bullet points, but I have no idea if they matter. Perhaps one in ten thousand people stumbling across this blog (as if I had that kind of traffic!) would change his mind from defending the behavior of the American national security apparatus to a more skeptical posture. Moreover, for better or worse I recognize I am a bit far from the mainstream in my attitudes on civil liberties and military action, as is Mr. Balko. Maybe the bullet points above fall well within the range of appropriate responses to terrorism.

But there has to be a line at some point, right? So here is a question for those who think the policy responses of the American government to 9/11 have been well worth it: Where is the policy line which, upon its crossing, you will decide that the government has gone too far, and has become more fearsome than terrorists? Does that line exist? Is it, in principle, possible that America could become no longer a free country? If America is not just free by definition, what would cause you to decide the country (its people, its history, its culture, etc) you love has lost its way, and is no longer free, however you define the term?

Stretch your imagination. What if a close friend or neighbor, whose character you would vouch for without hesitation, was picked up by national security agents and detained indefinitely. And further, she was given no recourse to trial by her peers. By the way, this exercise works best if you conjure up the face of an actual person in your mind. Now, it's possible that your whole relationship with this person had been a sham. And it's possible that these national security people really know their business. They have information you'll never see. And maybe no one will be able to see their information, because an information leak would just be too dangerous.

Maybe this person you thought was your friend is summarily executed. Maybe she was just too dangerous to wait for proper procedure. The national security people must have good information, right? Torture? The national security people need good information, right? What if you know other people who know people who have been terminated by national security agents in a similar way? What if these numbers keep cropping up?

Hypothetically, what if an entire class of people is shown to be statistically more likely to produce terrorists, or at least to aid and abet terrorism. For national security, these people are removed to ... well, you don't really know where or what. The question: is America still a free country if this comes to pass? If this happens, are the brave men and women in uniform still fighting and dying for a good cause. Or does the fact that they're fighting and dying bravely prove that America is still a free country? What if your son or wife is one of those soldiers. Is it possible, in principle, that he or she could die, bravely, for a bad cause?

I don't mean to say these things are happening. I just want to highlight the notion that surely there is a line somewhere. Each individual's line will be different. I believe it is a valuable exercise for every citizen of every nation to ponder just where his own personal line is.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

passports, the right of emigration, and the rule of law

As someone who likes to gallivant around the world to see new places, I take a bit of pride in my passport, or at least regard it with some kind of affection. But it's worth remembering that a passport is actually owned by the issuing government, and that we are not actually free to leave a sovereign territory without the blessing of the government. For most of Americans, this is an academic point. If you want a passport, all you have to do is provide some minimal documentation and a nominal processing fee and voila. But times, they may be a-changin':
What if I told you that a cadre of "birther" Republicans want to prevent President Obama from appearing on Election 2012 ballots unless he fills out a form listing every address he's lived at since birth; every job he has ever held; the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of his supervisors; a list of his siblings and personal details about them; the address of his mother one year prior to his birth, on the day of his birth, and one year after his birth; the name of his mother's obstetrician and the dates when she received prenatal care; the names and addresses of people present at his birth; and details about any religious ceremony held to mark his birth.

You'd scoff at those requirements, and rightly so! They'd be unnecessary, laughable, outrageous.

Ironically, the form I described is not one dreamt up by birthers, or meant to parody their obsession. It is, in fact, the actual information the Obama administration wants to require of some US citizens when they apply for a passport. I kid you not. The form, proposed by the U.S. State Department, can be viewed here. Above I've laid out the actual information it requests of any U.S. citizen who 1) wants a passport and 2) "wasn't born in a medical facility" (or didn't have their birth recorded within a year of it happening). Incredibly, Foggy Bottom staff estimates that providing the answers to all those questions will take the average applicant just 45 minutes.
That is from Conor Friedersdorf. A couple points:

This is an affront to the rule of law. By making the form impossible to complete in the requested level of detail, what constitutes satisfactory completion will be left to the whims of the bureaucrats in charge. This provides an opportunity for the passport office to grant or deny the passport privilege for hidden, possibly political, reasons. A disappointed petitioner will just be told that any one of a dozen pieces of crucial information was lacking. And then there is the possibility of being charged with perjury for failing to fill out the impossible form.

All the things I might say about the right to immigrate apply to the right to emigrate as well. Fortunately, for once I think most "common sense" views from salt-of-the-earth types probably coincide nicely with my cosmotarian take on the right to leave a country. For most Americans or other Global Northerners, it may not seem like a big deal that a government assert authority over when, where, and how a citizen can leave the nation's territory. But this is exactly the power that makes North Korea and the former East Germany prison states. Less dramatically but closer to home, recall that it is illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba. This smacks of the idea that the State owns the individual.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

the human right of migration

Apropos of nothing especially current, I recently read Michael Huemer's slam-dunk essay "Is There A Right To Immigrate?" I was directed to it by this talk Bryan Caplan gave to the Future of Freedom Foundation. For the audio-inclined, Caplan's talk is a close substitute for Huemer's essay, and a good way to spend an hour.

The essay revolves around a few thought experiments that illustrate how restrictions on immigration actively coerce and harm, rather than passively allow misfortune to persist. The distinction is important if, as many ethical systems suggest, you think that while a) you don't have a moral obligation to go out of your way to help alleviate existing injustice, b) you do have an obligation to refrain from inflicting new injustice. The mood setter:
Suppose that, through no fault of mine, Marvin is in danger of starvation. He asks me for food. If I refuse to give him food, I thereby fail to confer a benefit on Marvin and, at the same time, allow Marvin to go hungry. If Marvin then starves to death, those who accept the doing/allowing distinction would say that I have not killed Marvin, but merely allowed him to die. And some believe that this is much less wrong than killing, possibly not even wrong at all. But now consider a different case. Suppose that Marvin, again in danger of starvation, plans to walk to the local market to buy some food. In the absence of any outside interference, this plan would succeed--the market is open, and there are people willing to trade food for something that Marvin has. Now suppose that, knowing all this, I actively and forcibly restrain Marvin from reaching the market. As a result, he starves to death. In this situation, I would surely be said to have killed Marvin, or at least done something morally comparable to killing him.
The actions of the federal government of the United States are more analagous to the case in which I restrain Marvin from reaching the market, than to the case in which I merely decline to provide him with food. The government's immigration policy is not a merely passive one--the government does not, for example, merely fail to assist people in coming to the United States. Rather, the government hires armed guards to stop people from coming in and to forcibly expel people who are already here. The federal government spends almost $13 billion a year on actively excluding or expelling unauthorized immigrants. The United States is like the market where would-be immigrants could satisfy their needs. There are Americans wiling to hire immigrants, to rent them living spaces, and in general to engage in all other kinds of needed interactions with immigrants. My charge is not that the U.S. government fails to give Third World inhabitants what they need. It is that the government actively and coercively prevents many Third World inhabitants from taking a course of action that they otherwise would undertake and that would in fact succeed in enabling them to meet their needs. This is much closer to inflicting a harm than it is to merely allowing a harm to occur.
In most cases, immigration is not such a life-and-death situation. Mexico, for example, is a fairly comfortable middle income country. But sometimes it is quite close to life-and-death, as in the case of the earthquake-fleeing Haitians being turned away at gunpoint. Or to be less America-centric, take the efforts of the EU nations to turn back refugees from the conflicts in North Africa. In any case, however dramatic the example, it illustrates that immigration restrictions are coercive violations of the rights of would-be migrants as well as willing natives to peacefully interact with one another.

A substantial portion of the essay addresses concerns that immigration involves more than merely allowing people to interact with one another. Citizenship in a country confers benefits, and the spectre of brown hordes swarming over the border intent on sucking dry the teat of American welfare looms large for many otherwise decent people. Whenever I bring up immigration, my mother, a suitable stand-in for your generic, socially conservative Great Plains voter, invariably responds "I don't mind it if they come here and work. I just don't want them to sit on welfare." And this continues to be the response no matter how many dazzling empirical factoids I might deploy. Huemer generously grants some (in my view often implausible) negative effects on natives of immigration as policy stands today. But he argues that it is absurd to argue for coercive remedies to what amounts to our own generosity. If we are really so concerned that immigrants constitute a net fiscal burden via welfare consumption (and I would argue this concern is misplaced), then forbidding immigrants from collecting welfare benefits or charging them special surtaxes would be far more humane than pointing guns at them and violating their freedom to live where they want and interact peacefully with willing native citizens.

Huemer's closing paragraph goes for the jugular:
Racism once caused white Americans to ignore the rights of blacks and to treat small advantages to members of their own race as more important than the most vital interests of members of other races. Similarly, nationalism has caused present-day Americans to overlook the rights of foreigners and to treat small advantages to Americans as more important than the most vital interests of foreigners. Only thus could Americans have been led to think that a small reduction in wage rates for some American workers outweighed the rights of foreigners not to be subjected to extremely harmful coercion. Once we overcome this bias, we will see foreign-born persons and American-born persons as moral equals. Seeing persons of all nationalities as equal need not lead us to abandon the view that the U.S. government has special obligations to its own citizens. But it will surely lead us to abandon the view that modest economic interests of some Americans can outweigh vital rights of the foreign-born.
Many people on the liberal side of the immigration debate, myself included, have tended to focus on technocratic utilitarian arguments. Maybe this is because we don't want to be seen as namby-pamby bleeding hearts, but really the impact of immigration on GDP is beside the point. Immigration is instead a civil rights issue, and one of the greatest of our time. Including foreigners in our ethical considerations could be the next great step in our society's moral advance, similar in kind (if not necessarily scope) to freeing blacks from slavery, liberating women from the home, and welcoming gays and the transgendered in open society. We should respond to subtle and explicit anti-immigrant and anti-foreign attitudes in the same way we respond to racism and sexism: with shame. With luck and effort, our grandchildren will be as ashamed of us for our closed borders as we are ashamed of our great-grandparents for Jim Crow.

Oh hang on, I think I've found a way to make this post current after all. Gary Johnson, ex-governor of a border state who is vying to be the Republican nominee for president, seems to have internalized this radical notion that migrants are human beings deserving of human rights:
Johnson said he doesn't like the harsh tone he's heard in the immigration debate. "At an event the other night and some guy says, 'What we need are A-10s flying low across the border ... guns blazing.'" Johnson said. "I said, 'Really? You want to kill the immigrants? ... We are on different pages here. We really have a serious disagreement about this.'" But a couple of minutes later, Johnson said, the man apologized and said he didn't mean what he said. He said such emotional reactions to the problem "have to do with the notion that (immigrants) are taking away jobs from U.S. citizens."
In this anecdote at least, the soft-spoken shame strategy seemed to yield fruit.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Presidential Protocandidate Speaks Out Against Treatment Of Manning

That candidate is Gary Johnson, ex-governor of New Mexico. He also questions the dismissal resignation of Crowley.
Bradley Manning, the accused WikiLeaks leaker, is either a traitor or a patriot, depending on who is doing the judging. If he did what authorities claim he did, he most certainly broke some serious laws, and for that, there should be consequences.
Regardless of his guilt or innocence, the seriousness of his actions, or whatever, one thing is clear: No American should be stashed away in the brig, under questionable conditions and treatment, without a timely day in court. And perhaps even more importantly, a government spokesman like P.J. Crowley who tells the truth, or even his own observation about what the government is doing, shouldn't be the one to 'take the fall' for yet another embarrassing example of federal arrogance.
The truth can be painful. P.J. spoke the truth, and now he is out of a job. And the President, well, he says he will look into Manning's treatment. Of course, that means asking the people holding him if they are doing so appropriately. Wonder what answer he will get?
We have a judicial system that works pretty well if we actually use it and make sure all have access to it. This case is no exception. If the facts and the evidence can't stand the light of day, then we have a much bigger problem than WikiLeaks.
Link here. With respect to past and future presidential contenders, Dennis Kucinich has also spoken out.

This will be an item in my forthcoming catalogue of reasons why it is morally impermissible (especially for progressives and other liberals) to vote to reelect Barack Obama in light of alternatives. Item #2 will probably be "Glenn Greenwald's blog, and links therein."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

vegetarisch in Deutschland

Jeanine, telling me my business, thinks I should use my blog to talk about my experiences as an American expat in Germany, in addition to blogging about political things that only I care about. I'll give that a shot.

The first surprise (no so-called culture shocks yet) I had in moving here was seeing how easy it is to be be a vegetarian. Since I've been here (seven or so weeks now) I have had meat a few times, but that's usually been because of my laziness/shyness. Basically, I've been faced with a menu and, being illiterate, I've ordered things that I had guessed (with about 70% confidence) were meatless but in fact were not. I could have asked, since nearly everyone speaks English. And in fact I could have made German-like noises that got the gist of an inquiry across. But I've been lazy. Not losing sleep over it.

My favorite places to eat are the Turkish doner joints, which offer a number of options for vegetarians, including falafel, vegetarian döner (the same sandwichesque vessel minus the meat; the vegetables are plentiful and varied enough that this is usually satisfying), vegetarian yufka (a wrapped döner, but in this case without the, you know, döner meat), and any number of vegetarian pizzas. Yes, for some reason, nearly all the döner joints also make pizza. Since the only business more numerous than Turkish holes-in-the-wall are bakeries (handy, or mobile phone, shops come in third), I'm in pretty good shape. But there are also Chinese restaurants and Indian restaurants, which of course have veggie options. And even burger places usually have something that passes as vegetarian. It's not always healthy, mind--at a popular student hang-out near the university I had a mozzarella burger, which replaced the meat patty with a grilled slab of mozzarella cheese. Even when I went to see Symphony X in concert I was able to have something called a tofufrikadellen. It wasn't even as freaky as the name implies. Finally, the big grocery store near my barracks has an entirely adequate meat substitute section, comparable to what you see in most Safeways back in God's country. I got a sampler mix of faux meats meant for barbecues and the pieces I've tried have been pretty good, with diverse textures.

The one time I was at a restaurant where there really was no meatless option on the menu was a fancy, 25 euro per plate restaurant. Not even a risotto or the dreaded grilled vegetable platter. This is pretty similar to what you find in America, and brings out my populist, anti-foodie Angst. Why is it that expensive restaurants give you fewer options, smaller portion sizes, often lackluster service, and still get away with charging more? One idea of course is that they focus on a small menu set so they can really make those dishes extra special. There's something to that. At the expensive restaurant in Karlsruhe I had some sort of pork that was falling off of some sort of bone and it was really quite fantastic. Fine, focus, but that's no reason to ignore the 9% of Germans who are vegetarians. And isn't it cheating, just a little? I'm not one of those vegetarians who claim not to like the taste of meat. On the contrary I think it's often delicious. And so it's a lot easier to make a decent tasting meal with meat: take some meat, add a vegetable side, and serve over a complementary carbohydrate, voila. It takes a little more effort to make a compelling vegetarian meal. If chefs at fancy-pants restaurants are so status-starved, then why don't they man up and offer more vegetarian options to show off their prowess?