Distributed Mind

"I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves."

Your hosts: J. Lowry, B. Martin.

July 25, 2009

RLS on Immigration

by ben

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about a train trip from New York to San Francisco, traveling not in style, but with emigrants, in Across the Plains. Stevenson gives a portion of the space to musings on racial bias and immigration (specifically, on American attitudes toward Chinese travelers):

Of all stupid ill-feelings, the sentiment of my fellow Caucasians towards our companions in the Chinese car was the most stupid and the worst. They seemed never to have looked at them, listened to them, or thought of them, but hated them A PRIORI. The Mongols were their enemies in that cruel and treacherous battle-field of money. They could work better and cheaper in half a hundred industries, and hence there was no calumny too idle for the Caucasians to repeat, and even to believe. ...

Awhile ago it was the Irish, now it is the Chinese that must go. Such is the cry. It seems, after all, that no country is bound to submit to immigration any more than to invasion; each is war to the knife, and resistance to either but legitimate defence. Yet we may regret the free tradition of the republic, which loved to depict herself with open arms, welcoming all unfortunates. And certainly, as a man who believes that he loves freedom, I may be excused some bitterness when I find her sacred name misused in the contention. It was but the other day that I heard a vulgar fellow in the Sand- lot, the popular tribune of San Francisco, roaring for arms and butchery. "At the call of Abraham Lincoln," said the orator, "ye rose in the name of freedom to set free the negroes; can ye not rise and liberate yourselves from a few dirty Mongolians?"

01:59:20 - Politics - ben - No comments

June 25, 2008

Dobson on Obama

by ben

I remember Barack Obama's speech at Call to Renewal 2006 (Call to Renewal is connected with Sojourners). I didn't hear it, but I was familiar with it. And I've read the transcript recently. So I know the speech fairly well. James Dobson on the other hand, has only heard of it recently, but having heard about it, he felt the need to address some deficiencies in it, which he did on his radio show today.

Now, I don't think Obama's speech was perfect. It wasn't even brilliant. But it was a good speech that made some good points. Especially notable were Obama's emphasis on his own identity (and thus responsibility) as a Christian, his defense for religion's participation in the public realm, and his reminder that separation of church and state began as a way to protect religion not government. I personally found it to be a little theologically liberal for my taste, to be sure, and I don't like Obama's defense of his views on abortion in it (though he does make a point to at least grant an acknowledgement of good faith on the part of his opponents on the issue). But on the whole I thought it was a good speech.

James Dobson and Tom Minnery (apparently Focus on the Family's Vice President of Public Policy), unsurprisingly, don't think it was a good speech. Quite the contrary, in fact. Of course, it probably doesn't help that Dobson was mentioned in the speech in direct contrast with Al Sharpton. (Dobson also blatantly misinterprets part of the speech and claims that Obama thinks he wants to kick all non-Christians out of the country, which is clearly not what Obama meant, and in fact that part in context didn't even have anything to do with Dobson directly.) That's not his primary complaint, though.

First, they criticize the speech for not raising the "Judeo-Christian heritage" of the United States and for putting too much emphasis on other religions. Specifically, Obama said, "Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers." Pointing out that 78% of Americans identify as Christian, they find this to be problematic.

They also take Obama to task for bringing up interpretive difficulties with the Bible - interpreting this as "disparaging serious understanding of the Bible." What Obama said was,

Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let's read our bibles. Folks haven't been reading their bibles.

Dobson and Minnery criticize Obama for suggesting that political moral arguments need to be universalizable to those of other religions (or of no religion) to be politically acceptable. Dobson quotes George Washington in supporting the idea that religion is the basis of morality (a view I'm not ashamed to admit I do not at all agree with - in part because I read Romans 2 to be saying the exact opposite) to criticize this argument.

Dobson also badly misinterprets Obama's call for universalizable arguments as a claim that in order to make a moral argument, the majority of people must agree with the argument in advance or else the argument is undemocratic. Which would not make any sense and be completely insupportable - if anything like it had actually appeared in the speech. But it didn't.

That last part really shows the underlying problem with this commentary: it is ignorant. Dobson and Minnery don't appear to have spent any time thinking about this speech, or even reading it accurately. Some of their complaints may be valid, though those are subject to interpretation at a very broad level, but others are, to be generous, ridiculous. Which is unfortunate on several levels, not least of which because substantial discussion of Obama's views on religion in the public sphere could be very interesting and productive.

Now, as I said, I don't want you to think I subscribe to everything in this speech. But I really do think it deserves better than Dobson gave it. But both the speech and the radio program are available and I invite everyone to examine both.

00:53:45 - Politics - ben - No comments

May 29, 2007

Conservatives and Environmentalism

by ben

It's interesting to see how conservatives deal with environmental issues. Take, for example, everyone's favorite dinner topic ,anthropogenic global warming.

As I recall, up until about ten years ago, no conservative would even admit there was any global warming, regardless of supposed cause. Eventually, that position became largely untenable, and most conservatives took to (1) merely denying anthropogenic global warming while (2) simultaneously pointing out that global warming wouldn't be all bad. Incidentally, denying anthropogenic global warming seems to have slipped more into denying conclusive evidence of anthropogenic global warming (attempting to take the intellectual high road). In addition, the claim has been added that it would be too expensive to prevent global warming and cheaper to fix later. (There's also the absolute last ditch argument that it's not the government's job to prevent environmental catastrophes, but... Well, need I say more?)

These arguments all have several things in common. The first is that these arguments didn't sound all that bad when they were first made (the actual quality of the arguments is a different story). The second is that they have steadily moved to agree more with the environmentalist position of the mid-1990s - momentum is almost exclusively in one direction on this issue. Based on those two properties, you might see that these arguments look suspiciously like rationalizations; that would be the third thing they all have in common.

Now, I'm not saying they are rationalizations, I'm saying they sound like rationalizations. Actually, I could go further and say I think that they are rationalizations. The problem is we can't say for certain they are - rational arguments based strictly on evidence but with a strongly skeptical perspective might look similar. Note I'm also not saying they are good arguments, just that I can't prove they're irrational.

Furthermore, I think if we looked at many other environmental issues we'd see a similar pattern. For all the complaints about economy-killing pollution regulation, for example, we seem to have survived somehow. Car emission and fuel standards, I think we can safely say, were not stringent enough - the conservatives blew that one big time. About the only issue environmentalists really look conclusively incorrect on was nuclear power, and even there there remain problems, just most of them will only really be an issue long after we're all dead. (There's also the DDT thing, but the word "conclusively" is not evoked by that debate, nor am I familiar enough with the details to even attempt to sound reasonable about it.)

What I'm trying to say with all of this is... It's true environmentalism makes bold claims. And it's true that those claims can't always be proven (which is not to say they are not rational). And it's even true those claims occasionally affect the way some people want to live their lives. But, environmentalism has a pretty good track record, and converesly the opposite is also true: anti-envrionmentalism has a bad track record (I bet a lot of people who have been opposed to gas milage standards could go back in time and change their position). But what really strikes me is that anti-environmentalism seems to be merely reactionary, not rational but rationalization. I can't prove it, but the history of its battles suggests it strongly.

Incidentally, it seems that conservative opposition to environmentalism is based largely on opposition to governmental regulation. This outweighs the desire to preserve that one would tend to expect out of people who do after all call themselves "conservatives" (and in other places and times that indeed would have been the case, I'm sure). People who take a cautious approach to resources which can't be readily replaced tend to view the environment as a public good and hence one that can be protected by the government. On the other hand people who take a cautious approach to laws which supposedly can't be readily repealed tend to view the environment as an issue of private property and hence something that should not be regulated by the government. The problem is we have to put up with the earth a lot longer than the laws. Governments that have lasted more than a few hundred years are rare (and at 220, we're getting up there), and laws that have lasted that long are even rarer. On the other hand, we're more than capable of inflicting envrionemental damage that last much longer than that, besides the immediate effects of pollution and such.

As a final gripe, I get really sick of people denouncing environmentalism because of Mother Earth-types and neo-pagans. I try not to evaluate all conservatives on the basis of Pat Robertson, and I'd like the same courtesy.

Alright that's mostly what I wanted to say. But, since I brought up global warming, and since it seems to be the topic du jour, let me add a few thoughts on that.

First, I agree, as everyone does, that anthropogenic global warming is not "proven" though we need to keep in mind that most things in science aren't "proven" per se. Of course, anthropogenic global warming isn't even up to the standard of a looser definition of proof like relativity or something like that; it's definitely something that requires going farther out on a limb than that. But, and I want to stress this, that doesn't make it irrational. It doesn't even make legislating on the basis of the theory irrational. Actually, probably the opposite is true.

Also, I don't want to claim that I "believe in" anthropogenic global warming. I don't "believe in" things in science. I just don't have reasons to doubt them. I'm not signing on to some doctrinal statement here. In fact, I would not be surprised if anthropogenic global warming turns out to be wrong. I've always given it worse odds than a lot of people. On the other hand, I sure ain't betting against it, both because I do believe (there's that word finally) in the general quality of physical scientists in the world and because of the potentially cataclysmic effects if they're right. I don't think, by the way, one should blindly believe scientists (and especially in some fields - not all disciplines are held to equal standards, but also given the ability of scientists to buy into weird theories) and I even realize that some scientists doubt anthropogenic global warming. But in so far as this is unfortunately an issue where it seems to be impossible to remain neutral - if only because policy decisions must be made - I'm going to go with the people who I know to be most credible. And I generally am inclined to trust climatologists more than New Gingrich, especially on something they specialize in. True, they could turn out to be wrong (which even they admit, I'm sure), but short of becoming a climatologist myself, I'm going to have to rely on their judgment to an extent.

Also, I think everyone needs to look deep into their intellectual soul and ask themselves why they think we ought to assume anthropogenic global warming is happening or not. I happen to think that a large portion of conservatives would have to admit, if they were really being honest, that they don't buy into the the idea largely because they don't like it's implications and not because they have any real basis for doubting it. At the same time, I'm sure that because of their initial bias some conservatives may have discovered interesting and good reasons to doubt global warming that they might not have seen if they hadn't been so skeptical. I'm not sure what to say to those people, other than they'll have to be patient with those of us who are still waiting for more climatologists to come around to their way of thinking.

Ironically, had conservatives just left the whole global warming thing alone in the '90s, there would have been no partisan backlash and they would probably have found it easier to promote skepticism now. If global warming really does become the religion they're accusing it of becoming (and in some ways they probably are correct with that complaint), a large part of the impetus for that will probably be traceable to their opposition. But isn't that always how politics works? (I suppose we could blame the 60s for modern conservatism, for example...)

And absolutely finally, a quick shot at all those arguments I brought up way back in the opening: Nearly everybody believes global warming is happening, so I don't need to address that (other than to say, sure, it's always a good thing to have a better understanding of the data, and it's not completely nailed down just how much warming is happening or even that it's 100% certain it is, though it seems to be pretty close to that). Obviously the arguments about the source of global warming are the crux of the whole thing, so I won't dealt with those. But global warming is not as far as I can tell a good thing. Oh sure, it's probably alright if you live in Montana, but if you live on a coast line it's pretty bad. Some bad predictions about agricultural impacts have also been made. The mere existence of this argument suggests both a large amount of ignorance about global warming and a certain provincialism. Next, I've already said a little about why denying conclusive evidence is not useful. That also has to do with the next argument, which is that global warming is too expensive. I've never actually heard a good argument for why fixing the problem is supposed to be so expensive (actually I've never heard any argument - it always just seems to be stated as a fact) but worse this argument seems to completely ignore the history of regulation to the small degree I am familiar with it (that is, regulation usually ends up costing way less than predicted and sometimes ends up actually causing higher profitability). But even if one were to buy into it, first, the potential economic effects are also large, but more importantly, the thing is you're staking a certain percentage of your economic growth against the fate of billions of people - it hardly seems a fair approach.

[Update, May 31: I was not entirely correct when I said I had not heard an argument for why global warming was supposed to be too expensive to fix. Bjorn Lomberg's Copenhagen Consensus had something to say about that.]

04:39:28 - Politics - ben - No comments

April 14, 2007

You Can Never Have Too Much Information: College Enrollment

by ben

Why don't people attend college after high school? That was the question I asked myself. I still haven't found really good information on that,and I did not perfectly predict the responses even among what I did find. Nor did that turn out to be the most interesting question one could ask about this issue. But, first, reasons students gave for not enrolling in college can be found in a 1999 survey of Oregon high school students (specifically, see Table 18). I'm sure there's better data on this, but I don't have time to spend all night looking for it. Maybe some other time, or at least if people are interested (of course, maybe someone can suggest some source?). Now, the more interesting thing I found: "Factors Related to College Enrollment" (executive summary also available), a 1998 study. It looks like it was done for the Department of Education, but its not clear (though certainly they're using it - it's on their web site after all). Interesting but odd things in there. Turns out a lot of small things correlate really well with "post-secondary education" (as they call it) attendence. None of that will necessarily tell you why students end up attending college or not, but it will give you a pretty good mechanism for predicting which students will.

20:26:19 - Politics - ben - No comments

April 09, 2007

Security through Infrastructure

by ben

I just caught a talk on C-SPAN (yes, I am an addict) by one Stephen Flynn, fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, security expert, and author of The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation, blah, blah, blah, before the World Affairs Council of Houston on March 27th. Basically, Flynn was harping on the idea that one critical role in protecting the United States from terrorism is to make it an unattractive target through strengthening domestic security - such as securing chemical refiniries - and infrastructure. He also talked about the need to emphasize "hazard" rather than terrorism, since terrorism is not the only threat but so are natural disasters and accidents. Furthermore, he claimed a need to involve everyone in the process, for example, emphasizing "preparedness as a civic duty." And he gave some scary examples of lack of preparedness.

Brilliant. Well, of course, I am not an unbiased observer; I've made claims similar to Flynn's in the past as well. (But then, you know, I'm not a fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations or a security expert, and all that stuff.) But, anyway, I really do think the general point is a good one. The cost of preventing or drastically mitigating a disaster relative to the cost of a full disaster is insignificant. Furthermore, regardless of the risk of terrorist attacks, we know that natural disasters will occur, so it pays to be properly prepared. And, we really have no excuse, given the low cost and high risk without it, and finally the fact that this is not a partisan issue and there's no opposition.

I don't have any specific policy recommendation on this one. I'm not familiar with the particulars of all the issues to weigh in. Though, I would like to suggest that some more emphasis be placed on the issue than is now. One thing we can all do is obviously to find out how prepared our own community is. And if you don't like the answer, you'll know what to do. This is not just, or even primarily, a national issue, it's a local and regional issue in most ways. So we certainly have more influence here than we might elsewhere. Furthermore, this is an interesting issue in that we can all take direct action. We can as individuals or families or whatever prepare for disaster by taking the proper direct steps (keeping bottled water, and all that stuff) and through training and practice. There's Red Cross classes on these sorts of things, and amateur radio licenses, and organizations that can be joined, and so on.

00:38:58 - Politics - ben - No comments

March 01, 2007

Senate Hearing on Immigration Reform

by ben

I was just watching the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing held today on immigration reform from February 28th. Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez were providing testimony. Near the end of the hearing, one of the senators (I've forgotten who it was, but it was someone from out west) asked why the administration has not been supportive of promoting English as an "official" language. Gutierrez responded that we needed make it clear to immigrants that they need to learn English otherwise "we do them a disservice," but at the same time that it was in our best interests to encourage everyone to learn a second language, and we shouldn't do anything to send a signal that knowing only English was best. While I think he may have overstated slightly the need to learn English (though I'm not saying we shouldn't encourage people to learn English!) I think his second point was dead on. I've said similar or implied the same thing in the past, of course, so I am biased.

(I also find it interesting that with as much as I disagree with this administration - on nearly every issue, as a matter of fact - I find their immigration policy to be, well, better than nearly everyone else's, which isn't saying much (Immigration is one of the most regressive political issues in this country) except when they cave in to belligerent factions in Congress. Bush started out more progressive on immigration than he has ended up, at least as I remember it, and I'd lay the blame on last year's House. Still, the administration, and everyone else, could be a lot more progressive on this issue, and I wish they would.)

00:25:03 - Politics - ben - 1 comment

February 17, 2007

English in Nashville

by ben

Language Log points to Nashville, TN mayor Bill Purcell's statement regarding vetoing a measure to make English the "official language" of Nashville and requiring communication "except when required by federal law or when necessary to protect or promote public health, safety or welfare" (according to an article "Veto does not end English debate" from the Tennessean). Purcell provides a fairly pragmatic, if sometimes vague, argument for not legally requiring the use of English. While I wouldn't make exactly the same arguments he does, it's interesting to see a practical political perspective on the issue.

17:31:20 - Politics - ben - No comments

February 13, 2007

An Amendment?

by ben

I was just considering the possibility of proposing an amendment to the Constitution along the lines of this:

The President shall not order engagement in any military combat without a prior declaration of war by Congress (in accordance with Article I, section 8).

Exception shall be made in the case of a defensive engagement when the territory of the United States is under direct and immediate threat and there is insufficient time to obtain such a declaration of war. In that case, a declaration of war shall be asked for as soon as possible after the beginning of hostilies, if not issued by Congress first.

Nothing in this amendment shall be interpreted as preventing the limited use of force by military units or craft stationed abroad or at sea to defend themselves from hostile actions. However, military units and craft shall not be delpoyed outside of a state of war in a such a way as could be reasonably interpreted as expected to incite attacks upon them or as threatening by anoter nation.

Furthermore, nothing in this amendment shall be interpreted as preventing the limited use of military force to defend civilians of any nationality when there is insufficient time to obtain permission from Congress for such an action. In such a case permission for such a deployment shall be asked for as soon as possible after the beginning of deployment, if not issued by Congress first.

I am not sure the last paragraph could not be improved, though I feel the rest of this proposed amendment seems fairly straightforward and reasonable. Of course, I am not a lawyer, so I am sure a professional could come up with something better than this. (And I invite anyone to try to do so.)

One weakness of such an amendment as worded would be that it still requires a declaration of war before defending an ally, which most of the time would be alright, but one could imagine circumstances where that would be inadequate. The danger of adding such a clause to allow action in such a case without a declaration of war is that not all allies are equal, and not all should be automatically protected (an ally might be intentionally provocative, for example). Furthermore, it raises the question, who decides who is an ally? I would not be absolutely opposed to such an addition to the amendment, though.

Such an amendment is neccesary in part because since World War II, the Constitution has been read as not requiring a declaration of war by Congress prior to miltary engagement. In fact, several important pieces of legislation have been written around this interpretation. Obviously, it could be suggested that the Constitution as written should be enforced. While this is not necessarily a bad idea, it has the disadvantage of (1) requiring someone to enforce it, while the only people who could even attempt to do so (namely Congress) currently don't even agree with the straightforward interpretation of Article I, section 8, and thus have no incentive to do so, and (2) it opens the door of potentially having to resort to a original intent for other cases where that might not be such a good idea (the Second Amendment and the Constitutional right to bear nuclear arms comes to mind...). While I have previously felt that simply enforcing the Constitution as written was the obvious right thing to do, it occurred to me this morning that this might be a pragmatically better approach. Such an amendment has the further advantage of reducing some ambiguity as to what circumstances military force might be used without a prior declaration of war.

One concern that occurs to me is that if such an amendment were to fail, it might provide further incentive to ignore the obvious intent of the Constitution on this matter. On the other hand, if such an amendment were to pass, now would not be a bad time to introduce it. I am not sure I would be optimistic about its chances though, even now.

(It also occurs to me that if I were bolder, I could suggest a further amendment that prevented any military action outside of immediate and direct defense of our nation's territory, regardless of declarations of war. I think such an amendment would have very little chance of passing. I'm not even entirely sure that such an amendement is a good idea, but then when I consider the history of United States aggression which was conducted with declarations of war, whether the ridiculous anti-democratic expanionist wars we have fought even with declarations of war (such as the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War) or just the ones of questionable wisdom (World War I might be the only war that really fits in that category, and even that classification could be arguable), it seems like it would not be such a bad idea. One of the ideas of a "liberal democracy" is that democracy is not enough to prevent the abuse of liberties without the proper laws to protect minorities, or in the case of war, non-citizens.)

06:05:21 - Politics - ben - No comments

November 22, 2006

Instant Runoff Voting and Electoral Reform

by ben

Yes, I know I still haven't written anything more about platform issues. We're in no hurry, herem though. And, I have to admit I have been sidetracked a little since I started thinking about electoral reform, and, more specifically, Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) as my mentioned in the last entry.

Some quick research seems to suggest that there are no organizations pushing IRV specifically in Indiana (and it doesn't look like Illinois either for you Illinoisans). Well, of course, we have the Green Party, at the least, but they have a much broader platform, of course. And they don't really have a lot of traction in Indiana, sadly. Anyway, if I'm mistaken and anyone knows of anyone in Indiana (or any other states relevant to this limited, I mean, exclusive, readership) pushing this, please let me know. If it's true that there aren't any, I suppose that means I better be thinking about ways to fix that.

I think you all get the idea that I think this is important. The main reason why is that I can't imagine there being any long term hope of getting elected lawmakers who care about the issues I care about. It might happen every once in a while, but not often enough to make a difference. So, everything else I want to write about here is most like one giant waste of time without a change in the system. But even beyond that there's a fundamental principle of democracy at stake here. Democracy isn't democracy if people don't have a choice, and too many of us right now are voting for people we don't agree with much or even most of the time, or for candidates that have no chance of getting elected not because they don't represent voters but because they don't have the right party label. If you've ever felt like you didn't have a real choice in an election, then alternative voting systems are something you should be interested in. If you've ever voted for a candidate you didn't like instead of one you did because you thought it was more important to make sure a third candidate wasn't elected, this is something you should be interested in. If you think voting turnout is too low, alternative voting systems are something you should be interested in. (Am I being too hyperbolic? Maybe. But probably not.)

So, anyway, if I've convinced you, spread the word. If you want to step it up even more than that, be thinking about ways to make this happen in your state of residence. And if you live in Indiana, let's coordinate.

Okay, break!

[And on a related issue, the blog "Fort Wayne Observed" raises the issue of ballot access.]

[After spedning (too much) additional time looking to see what was out there, I found still nothing for Indiana - so if you know anyone who's currently doing this let me know! - but I did find that Illinois progressive activist (I guess you would call him) Dan Johnson-Weinberger is more than a little interested in IRV as is the Midwest Democracy Center, local chapter of the Center for Voting & Democracy (which is what prompted my meory and how we got started on this whole thing, as you'll recall), though their web page doesn't seem to be too actively updated and I wonder how active they are these days.]

[And, in case you're wondering who doesn't like IRV, I found an example of people saying it's too complicated and thus will make voting harder for minorities, etc. thus actually effectively disenfranchising voters. It's a legitimate concern though I'm inclined to say the cost is worth it, but it bears thinking about and discussing, I suppose. This stuff has been studied, so time to start doing some research... Of course, IRV and other such systems are used internationally, and also in certain places in the United States, so it's certainly doable. Minneapolis just approved IRV for certain city elections, that is set to start in 2009 according to the Star Tribune. That article also quotes the president of the Minnesota Voters Alliance who seems convinced that this is a bad idea and vows to oppose it in court. The article doesn't say why he doesn't like it and looking up the Minnesota Voters Alliance didn't really give me any more informtation, so... Council President Barbara Johnson opposes IRV becasue of added cost for implementing it.]

[Update, 8:37: On the topic of IRV making voting for minorities harder... A Pew survey showed that in 2006 while a majority of registered voters were satisfied with their available choices for their candidates for Representative, a significant minority of 43% was dissatisfied (which has been decreasing apparently, and in fact in 1990 the majority were dissatisfied - not the direction I would have expected). But the real kicker is that a larger percentage of blacks (they don't say how much, I'll try to find out later) were dissatisfied. (Also, oddly enough, those surveyed were less likely to be happy with their choices if their districts were considered to have "competetive" races, where apparently competetive was deefined by Pew.) On the other hand, a San Francisco State University study indicated that in terms of actual elections (based on one election in San Francisco, so not necessarily universally), minority voters were more likely to encounter problems. On a different angle, a League of Women Voters survey that alientation is not a factor in non-voting - though they do have a rather narrow definition of alienation, perhaps.]

[Update, 9:17 (last one, really!): I found the Minnesota Voters Alliance argument against IRV. I am sure one can formulate very convincing arguments against IRV, but that just isn't one...]

01:13:43 - Politics - ben - No comments

November 17, 2006

The Issues, Part 1

by ben

Well, no one has contributed anything on issues yet, so it looks like I will have to do my own work! Of course, I had already planned on writing some things up, but life has a tendency to get in the way. But, I'm taking a few minutes here to hopefully get the ball rolling farther, on my part at least.

First thing is a good example of the kind of thing I was looking for that I saw earlier this week. It's even on an issue I've thought about before, but was not high on my list of things to write about. But now someone has done the work for me... Anyway, the issue is food. That might not seem like a huge thing to worry about but it certainly has the potential to have some big impacts - some of which you can think of yourself probably, but Dustin Kidd suggests some too - and it certainly represents an issue that isn't being thought about at the policy level (and there is some room for improvement on that front, even, I think, for people who are generally opposed to gvernment involvement). So, go read Kidd's post on the topic.

The second is electoral reform, which I was reminded of this week when someone linked to Fair Vote. I've ranted about this in the past, and I don't want to spend all night writing about it, so I'll be brief (thus violating my own rules of carefully laying out the problem...). Basically, it's easy to see that getting people elected who we actually want elected is hard. I haven't seen any surveys, but anecdotally that seems to be true. There are all kinds of things that could be done to fix that. The most useful would probably be to implement alternatve voting systems, of which Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) is a good one that currently has momentum. (You'll occasionally here debate on which alternative voting system is best, and frankly I haven't done enough research to be able to back any particular system over another. One thing everyone agrees on though is that all of the main alternative voting systems are better than the present one, which system is chosen is less important than choosing one. If it proves problematic, it could always be replaced later anyway.) In terms of making it easier for third party or independent candidates to get elected, there are lots of other reforms that could be useful, but most of those don't have to do with voting so I won't adress them now, but of course they are also things that should be considered. Fair Vote is an example of an organization promoting IRV (and similar systems) among other electoral reforms, and IRV and similar systems are part of the Green Party platform and is backed my most other smaller parties as well. I've never heard any one present an argument for why any of these systems are a bad thing (though I could imagine some entrenched partisans might present such arguments...) so this issue seems non-controversial; it just needs some more momentum.

Another major electoral issue that was talked about a lot six years ago but has been sadly mostly ignore since is switching to a popular vote for the presidential elections. National Popular Vote is a campaign to get a popular vote to replace the old electoral system, and it has had a fair amount of fanfare. I haven't followed it closely, I'll admit, but it sounds like it could have chance of being implemented.

18:54:32 - Politics - ben - No comments

November 09, 2006

Distributed Mind: The Interactive Edition

by ben

I have been ranting, as many of you will know all to well, about the need for alternatives to the current two party hegemony. Frankly, whether that means the introduction of other parties or a mass rise in independent candidates, I really don't care. What I want are options that will represent my values and be more interested in the issues than party politics. As yet another election has passed, with many voters complaining about their lack of options, and as we again have (a very short) two years until the next election, it seems a great time to think about making such alternatives available to voters - us - in the next and future elections.

Now, I wanted to write a series of posts about the issues (and the perspectives on those issues that would be most helpful) that I think matter. In fact I probably still will. But I also know that (1) that's a lot of work, more than I can probably take on myself and still do well, at least in the near future, and (2) it doesn't get anyone else involved. So... here's the plan: Write a post about an issue that you think you aren't being represented on well right now and suggest a third way (or fourth or whatever) of approaching it and then either post the link in a comment here or send me a link and I'll post it here. And, of course, write about as many issues as you want.

Now, I know that we probably won't all agree exactly on everything, but we'll all probably agree with each other more than we do with the current Republican or Democratic parties, and certainly discussing the issues can't hurt, as long as we're all civil about it.

So let's get started!

(And hopefully this doesn't become yet another reader-interaction post where no one comments...)

00:13:58 - Politics - ben - No comments

March 30, 2006

Some Information Resources on Immigration

by ben

Some studies on immigrants, legal and illegal:

A recent study on illegal immigrants: "Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S." from the Pew Hispanic Center. I stole this from someone, but I don't recall where I saw it.

A comprehensive 1997 study on immigrants legal and illegal: The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration.

And just for kicks, and dated and extremely immigration-positive study from Cato (yes, you read that right): "Immigration: The Demographic & Economic Facts". It turns out that a lot of libertarians are extremely positive towards immigration, some out of principle and some - well, not so much. I obviously am sympathetic to the ideological arguments in favor of immigration, though. (I realize that immigration is not the same issue as illegal immigration - but illegal immgration happens in part because we are afraid of legal immigration. If immigration limits were loosened we would not presently be having this argument.)

03:27:27 - Politics - ben - No comments

March 06, 2006

Where Have You Gone, William Jennings Bryan?

by ben

A Michael Kazin has apparently recently published a biography of William Jennings Bryan. I heard about it from a review by one Russell Fox. The review would pretty much fit right in around here, so it should be a good read, and the book is probably worth it too. Bryan is definitely one of the figures in our history who deserves a second look - a lot of interesting things going on there.

15:19:16 - Politics - ben - No comments

March 01, 2006

Mockers Stir Up a City

by ben

I almost got by with not commenting on certain controversial cartoons, but a letter in Time finally got me. I hope I don't offend anyone. I'm doing the best I can, and don't take this personally, I just felt moved to offer what I hope is helpful advice.

Mir Shokvat Ahmad, of Leeds, England, self-described moderate Muslim, "integrated into the Western world," had a letter printed in the most recent edition of Time. The letter says, in part:

...The Muslim world has unfortunately been hijacked by its real enemies, Islamic terrorists. While moderate Muslims are trying to find their voice and salvage their religion, the Western media help the radicals by making fun of everything that's precious to a common Muslim.

Joe Carter, whom, I never agree with on anything, did write an interesting piece about the Danish cartoons. You can read it for yourself, but he basically argued that, while the violent protesters were in the wrong, and that that was a different level of wrong than drawing offensive cartoons, that both were still at some level wrong. He brought up the language of - remember this word? - responsibftility - a word oen mentioned in connection with free speech. It's a truism that people looking for a fight will find it, and it seem that the editors of Jyllands-Posten unfortunately found their fight.

This whole episode has highlighted for me the difference between peacemakers and self-righteous warriors. Some people are trying to prevent an all out war between radical elements in the Middle East and... well, everyone else. Others (I don't mean anyone directly responsible for the cartoons - I am thinking now of the reaction elsewhere in Europe and the United States) seem to be looking for such a fight, thinking that ultimately they will prevail (and they are probably right). But how much blood will flow on the way? They want a bloodbath, which they will blame on the Muslims, as if that were possible. And, indeed, people who commit violence will be guilty. But if you knew in advance that your speech would be answered violently, are you not culpable as well? Most certainly, you are.

In short, sure, in the U.S. the Danish cartoonists and editors would certainly have had the right to draw and publish the cartoons (we see worse things all the time here, in fact). That doesn't mean we should encourage them, though. In this nation, neo-Nazis have the right to write, speak publicly, and protest. That doesn't mean we should encourage them. What this Danish paper printed was not vile in the same degree as what "racialist" groups in this nation print, but much of it was still intentionally provacative. Unsurprisingly, provocation worked. It angers me that some people - I mean here certain parties in the Middle East - would take this opportunity to lie (I assume the false cartoons were spread intentionally, though I could be wrong), to provoke, and to incite violence, but I will not as a result of that anger advocate making the situation worse by using the same tactics back.

Proverbs 29:8 says, "Mockers stir up a city, but wise men turn away anger" (WEB). I admit to some prooftexting there, but there are many examples in the Old Testament of the dangers of unrestrained speech.

I understand that many in our nation have wanted to stand up for free speech. It is certainly one of the most important freedoms we have. So I understand that some people have a different opinion on this. I just encourage us all to be wise, and not give in to heated speech. To quote an even more famous passage from Proverbs, "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Proverbs 15:1, WEB).

(Incidentally, with somewhere around 1 billion Muslims in the world, if Islam really lent itself to the rate of radicalization and violence that some people claim that it did, we should all have been dead a long time ago.)

07:41:36 - Politics - ben - No comments

February 21, 2006

Still Talking About Darfur, Still Not Doing Much

by ben

How long has the situation in Darfur been going on? I'd lost track, and had to go check: two and a half years. Of course, I don't remember it as often as I should, though I haven't entirely forgotten. The most recent reminder was Gary Farber wrote a post about it yesterday, rounding up some recent stories about it. Farber points out that as far as sending any forces to the area, basically nothing is going on. I understand the US not sending anyone (though our leadership seems interested in backing NATO forces if they were to be sent), but where is everyone else? So far, only the African Union has shown up, with the help of outside money and transportation, but everyone seems to think that that is not an adequate force.

I just want it clear that I think that supporting this kind of use of armed forces is not the same as supporting wars in general. This wouldn't be war - or shouldn't be, anyway. Having said that, whoever ends up in charge of such a force definitely needs to be careful that it doesn't end up as a war after all.

11:30:13 - Politics - ben - No comments

February 09, 2006

Gladwell on Power-Law Problems

by ben

Jordon Cooper points to a fascinating and useful article ("Million-dollar Murray") by Malcom Gladwell in The New Yorker about power-law social problems, such as homelessness and car emissions. A power-law problem is one where contributions to the problem follow a power-law distribution (instead of say, a normal distribution, which, as Gladwell points out, seems to be what we usually expect). So, for example, Gladwell points to the finding that a small fraction of Los Angeles police officers were responsible for much of the problems with police abuse. In the case of homelessness, there is a similar problem, where a handful of chronically homeless people cost an inordinate amount to the system as a whole, and with auto emissions, a small fraction of cars are responsible for much or most of automobile pollution.

This article points to a lot of things I've realized in the last few years but don't get talked about very much and that I hadn't really thought of how to articulate. One of the things that comes out is that it is sometimes worth it to fix some problems, even if people don't "deserve" to have the problem fixed - such as some of the worst chronic homeless, in whose case it would be cheaper to just give them an apartment and such than to have to pay their medical bills everytime they end up in the hospital (a solution I thought of a long time ago in reference to specific homeless persons, but I never thought anyone would buy it at a political level - although apparently some people have already tried it!). The problem of course, as Gladwell points out, is that this violates our sense of fairness, along with some practical problems (one has an incentive, say, to be worse, not better). Gladwell says, "Power-law problems leave us with an unpleasant choice. We can be true to our principles or we can fix the problem. We cannot do both." Gladwell is more optimistic, as we might be, when writing about the problem of automobile emissions, where he can point to a practical and efficient approach to helping solve the problem. This suggests that not all "power-law solutions," as Gladwell calls them, are really as similar as he would lead us to believe. But, some, such as the proposed solution to the homelessness problem are classic examples of unfairness (in a positive sense - giving people what they don't deserve), but unfairness that we might want engage in for the benefit of everyone. It occurs to me that by lumping all of this together Gladwell may have mixed together two separate issues: That it might to help to check if problems fit power-law distributions, and that the solutions to some social issues are "unfair." But, whether these are separate issues or the same thing, they are both useful observations that we need to think about when approaching social problems.

02:23:59 - Politics - ben - No comments

November 20, 2005

What Will We Do Next Time?

by ben

In late 2002 I did not know whether Iraq was actively developing non-conventional weapons; there were reasons to think both ways. But to me not knowing was not a reason to support the administration's approach for two reasons: (1) I didn't think a war was an appropriate way to deal with the situation, but, also, (2) I knew that the administration didn't care whether there were such weapons or not, and that was the real point. It was clear to me and many others that this war was going to happen, and if "WMD" couldn't be used to make a clear enough case, some other thing would be. Maybe those of us who said so were wrong, but that's how we felt.

I really feel this nation let itself be talked into a war. We (I mean now the nation as a whole) still really believe violence is the way to solve things. But it isn't. There may be times for military intervention (active genocide, say), but they don't look like and won't ever look like the time of the Iraq war. Even if Bush and company were at fault, so was the nation as a whole. We wanted this war! No, it wasn't our idea, but once it had been suggested, we were more willing to listen to our president than our consciences. Or maybe we just didn't know what war was like (though how could we not? was Vietnam really so long ago?). Even if we were lied to, the liars found a receptive audience. This isn't just Bush's problem. And it isn't even just the government's problem (remember many Democrats in Congress supported this war as well). It's our problem.

What's my point? War is not a panacea. And even when war is the best solution, it still hurts. Next time someone tries to talk you into a war, America, remember what happened this time. Remember the doubt three years later about whether the argument for going to war was a good one. Remember the pain of seeing thousands of American military members and perhaps tens of thousands of Iraqis killed and maimed. Don't... let... this... [being talked into a war we didn't want] happen... again.

(I am sorry if I offend any of my more interventionist friends. You know, I hope, how I feel about killing - even of animals - and my feelings on war come out of the same place. (I find it somewhat amusing that people find it so easy to accept my vegetarianism while I always feel they are implicitly condemning my much less radical - I feel - opposition to war.) I simply don't accept war on the same terms many of you are willing to do so. But I really don't think I have rejected it out of naivete. I urge you to carefully consider under what circumstances war would be acceptable and under what circumstances it would not. Put aside for a moment the ideologies you have come to accept from years of living in our partisan, polarized, and nationalistic political environment, and think about the fundamental moral implications of war. And then think about what you want your response to be the next time your president wants to convince you to go to war. And if you have any doubt about the reasons, I urge you to take that doubt into consideration.)

00:14:27 - Politics - ben - No comments

October 10, 2005

The Rights of 400 Pound Second Graders

by ben

Alright, excuse me as I play a crank economist for a moment (and please correct me if I am wrong): Does the United States have the same rights as other states? Whether we do in a technical sense, I would suggest that given our situation we must be careful in asserting that "right." The United States accounts for roughly one quarter of the cumulative gross domestic product of all nations. In school yard terms, in a class of 20 second graders, based on the average weights of seven year olds, that would be like one of the children weighing over 400 pounds! Should that child be allowed to hit back if one of the merely average 87 pound children hit them? Perhaps, but what of the consequences? Similarly, the United States is capable of of acting with disproportionate force in any area affected by our economic capacity.

01:46:09 - Politics - ben - No comments

September 22, 2005

Ambassador to Canada on "Deportation"

by ben

Remember Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen who was deported from the US to Syria while on a layover on the way back to Canda and who was allegedly tortured for several months afterward? Jeanne of Body and Soul pointed to an article printed in the Globe and Mail with some amazing quotes by our new ambassador to Canda, DAvid WIlkins.

First, on whether there are any regrets:

Mr. Wilkins, who took up his post in Ottawa about two months ago, seemed puzzled when asked whether he or his government had any regrets about the affair.

"You talking about regrets by the United States?" he said.

"The United States made that decision (to deport Mr. Arar) based on the facts it had, in the best interests of the people of the United States, and we stand behind it."

The ambassador went on to describe the action as an example of the hard-nosed approach that has governed U.S. anti-terrorist policy since the 9-11 attacks four years ago.

"The thing is that tough decisions have to be made every day now in this new environment we're in," he said.

"When you make decisions at the border or inside your country you don't get second chances. You've got to be right all the time in terror, because if you make the wrong choice an act of terrorism occurs."

Remember, regardless of how our officials try to position these events, we are talking about a Canadian (who admittedly was a dual citizen) suspected of somehow being related to terrorism being "deported" (while on a layover!) not to Canada but to Syria where certainly he would be treated harshly and possibly tortured. And they think that this is alright, and would do it again in a second. We know that inocent-until-proven-guily is not believed to apply to foreigners by our federal government, but if ever we doubted how far that could take us, this gives us a hint.

Also from the article:

David Wilkins is also warning that other Canadians with dual citizenship could face a similar fate if they fall under suspicion.

"The United States is committed in its war against terror," Mr. Wilkins said.

"We're committed to making sure that our borders are secure and our country is safe. Will there be other deportations in the future? I'd be surprised if there's not."

Why would anyone want to come to this country, ever? I wouldn't. Of course, in this whol incident, Canada has hardly proven itself a bastion of civil liberties. And I know the Europeans aren't any better. It's almost enough to make me an anarchistic.

14:09:03 - Politics - ben - No comments

September 19, 2005

Obligatory Katrina Observations

by ben

Well, we have managed to be completely silent on all the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina. I can't speak for Justin, but for my part, that was because: (1) I didn't really have much that I felt confident enough in saying, both because I did not feel I had enough information and because I did not have any insights I considered to be worth sharing at the moment and (2) other people have managed to say what was worth saying sooner and better elsewhere. But, the time has come to share some points I think are somewhat, though of varying degrees, important.

Just a few passing thoughts, of varying importance:

Alright, that's all I've got.

00:00:14 - Politics - ben - No comments

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