Entries in politics (36)


Murray and Meritocracy

I’m going to write a bit more about Murray, in response to an op-ed follow-up to his recent book.  The op-ed responds to the accurate criticism that his book describes a problem but doesn’t lay out policy suggestions or responses.  In the article, he makes several suggestions:

  1. Eliminate unpaid internships
  2. Replace the SAT with subject-specific tests
  3. Replace ethnic or racial affirmative action with socioeconomic affirmative action
  4. Eliminate bachelor’s degrees as a job requirement

All of those sound reasonable to me, though I don’t think those would make that much of a difference.  Neither does Murray, he thinks it would be more symbolic.

The big about degree requirements is interesting, in part because there’s been some action on a similar legal front with regard to high school diplomas.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has at least raised the issue of whether high-school diploma requirements could be discriminatory when that credential is not well-connected to actual job requirements.  There are probably quite a few jobs where the credential of a college degree (especially if not requiring any particular subject) is also not well-connected to the job requirements, and may have an adverse effect on protected groups.

Murray really does have a lot in common with meritocratic liberals.  A common mis-characterization of the liberal position on group differences among alt-righters seems to paint liberals as radical “blank-slate” believers, who either think there are no identifiable groups (plainly wrong), there are no differences between identifiable groups (plainly wrong), or that there are differences between groups but by really lucky coincidences none of those differences are morally significant (plainly wrong and incredibly implausible (unless you think no differences are morally significant, I guess)).  Rather, liberals mainly disagree with Murray on whether wandering into the rhetorical minefield of biological group differences is net-beneficial.

Murray himself notes in an essay summarizing his previous book:

In all cases, the variation within groups is greater than the variation between groups. On psychological and cognitive dimensions, some members of both sexes and all races fall everywhere along the range. One implication of this is that genius does not come in one color or sex, and neither does any other human ability. Another is that a few minutes of conversation with individuals you meet will tell you much more about them than their group membership does.

Which makes me wonder why he can’t avoid those minefields entirely instead of merely tiptoeing.

(There’s some further fascinating discussion of the op-ed here.  The comments are really worthwhile, in particular the comment (left March 8, 2012 at 10:19 am, sadly no comment permalinks on that site) by Albatross on meritocracy.)


The Fall of "Fishtown"

A while ago, I picked the January 2012 issue of conservative journal The New Criterion (Volume 30, Number 5) from a local newsstand.  The issue caught my eye because it had a symposium on the question “Is America in decline?”, a topic I find fascinating as a futurist and someone interested in Peak Oil and similar phenomena.

One of the essays on the purported decline of America was “Belmont & Fishtown” by Charles Murray, summarizing Murray’s book Coming Apart, which discusses “The State of White America”.  (Presumably “white America” specifically for rhetorical reasons, given the fate of Murray’s most famous work.)  Murray discusses the richest and poorest of whites, using Belmont and “Fishtown” as emblematic labels for these groups.  Murray’s conclusion is that since the 1960s, “Fishtown” has gone into deep decline in terms of American core values (Murray refers to such as “Founding virtues”).  “Belmont” has avoided such decline, but become isolated (geographically (for more on that topic, see Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort) and in terms of tastes and preferences (becoming David Brooks’s bourgeois bohemians)).

Murray talks about four values in his study:  Marriage (and single vs. married birth and parenting), industriousness (Murray just looks at hours worked and participation in work force), honesty (Murray just looks at crime rates), and religiosity (which Murray posits causes increased civic engagement, but I’d say that it’s just correlated to civic engagement in general; church attendance is just a civic engagement thing religious people do).

Why did this happen?  Murray goes into little detail (at least in the short essay version of his work, I have not read the book).  One reason cited is the sorting effect of elite universities, coupled with financial aid.  This is an unintended consequence of meritocracy, the best and brightest, no matter how poor, are able to escape from troubled “Fishtown” (and, presumably, ensconce themselves in isolated “Belmont”), leaving “Fishtown” with even less social, cultural, human, and financial capital to deal with its escalating problems.  (Affirmative action would presumably bring the same effect to a broader cross-section of de-facto-segregated communities, but Murray doesn’t discuss this because he’s focusing on whites.)  As the problems get worse, the best and brightest of “Fishtown” have fewer opportunities where they grew up and more incentive to leave.

There’s one big thing missing from Murray’s explanation, though, perhaps best explained by a graphic like this:

(Excerpt from a graphic by the New York Times, from this opinion piece, HT Nick Huber.)

I’d say that’s the real power behind the wedge that’s driving “Fishtown” and “Belmont” apart.  I’d guess that the decline in the top marginal tax rate has something to do with that phenomena, though that came too late to be the primary cause.  Once you have the wedge of economic inequality (that is, declining economic opportunity that disproportionatly affects those already worse off (and pretty much anything will disproportionately affect those already worse off)), all sorts of feedback loops start up related to Murray’s metrics:

  1. Marriage: Less economic opportunity means fewer people can find a match who will make them better off. Job-related stresses also take a toll on relationships.
  2. Honesty: Less economic opportunity means more desperate people on the fringes.
  3. Industriousness: Murray asserts that divergence on this metric began when demand for labor was still high, but work that pays less (relative to national standards of living) is still less motivating.
  4. Civic Engagement: Less economic opportunity means less funds for church dues and other activities.  Increased job stress may mean less time/energy for other activities.
  5. Honesty + Marriage: Harder to get married if you’re a criminal.
  6. Honesty + Industriousness: Ditto for finding employment, even if it’s available.
  7. Honesty + Civic Engagement: Why participate in your community if you don’t like/trust your neighbors?
  8. Civic Engagement + Marriage: A good context to meet people, and in terms of child rearing in or out of wedlock, you’re more likely to care about social censure if you’re a member of a social group in the first place.
  9. Civic Engagement + Honesty: Building the sort of trust and norms that discourage crime.
  10. Any one of those four + itself: Norms change, it’s a vicious cycle.  The sorts of capital that keep these metrics high is also driven out when they decline.  Successful people leave, organizations move or cease to exist, webs of trust break down.

The above isn’t an inclusive list, and that’s not all that’s going on.  Technology has a role to play, too, and given my earlier points about the Robot Revolution (related), I expect the trend in the graph above to get worse.

I think both liberals and conservatives are aware of the decline Murray discusses, though I’ve seen rhetoric from both sides accusing the other of being in denial.  The underlying problem is largely untargeted by either side.  Liberals only have the political power to defend stop-gap measures that help the poorest of the poor.  Conservatives deny that a gap between productivity and wage growth is a problem, or suggest that the poor will pull themselves up by their own bootstraps if only liberals stopped “helping”.  That line misses two things:  First, the “rising tides lift all boats bit” doesn’t really fit with the psychological reality of the situation, which is that people judge how well off they are relative to others in their society, so economic inequality means social breakdown even if standard of living continues to rise.  Second, there seem to be some implicit and very rosy assumptions about the form such bootstrap-pulling would take, especially if the “social safety net” really is removed (or overwhelmed).

(There’s been about Murray going around the blogosphere (especially among alt-righters), some posts to start on include this speculation about Charles Murray and the Future and this review of the book.  I’d be curious to see more left-wing reactions to the book, too, if there are good ones to read.)


Internet Blackout

If you’ve been paying attention to the internet, you probably noticed that a wide swath of website users and owners were none-too-pleased at the proposal of the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) (from the US Senate and House of Representatives, respectively).  This led to a coordinated website strike and mobilization campaign last Wednesday.

There’s a great technical analysis of the problems with the bill on the Reddit blog here.  But I think the best analysis of the issue I’ve seen comes from this TED Talk given by Clay Shirky:

His central point is that SOPA and PIPA represent the latest in a trend in entertainment industry lobbying, away from getting Congress to define the distinction between legal and illegal copying (producing, for example, the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992), towards restricting copying through technical means and making it illegal to work around those “protections”.  The DMCA lets companies sell you “broken” (for the purpose of restricting copying) devices and makes it illegal for you to fix those devices.  PIPA and SOPA let the government (at the behest of the entertainment industry) break DNS to censor “pirate” sites, and would make it illegal to work around that (which requires search engines and the like to pay to police themselves so that they aren’t indiscriminately helping users find such things).

Cory Doctorow describes this trend towards technological control systems backed by force of law (and away from legislation about what sorts of things should or shouldn’t be legal, with restrictions on liberty sitting on the other side of due process) in a recent essay titled Lockdown: The Coming War on General Purpose Computing.

The bills have been defeated for now, and in the aftermath, many activists have pointed out that similar legislation will undoubtedly reemerge (under the same name, a new name, or grafted wholesale into something politically inconvenient for legislators to oppose).  But after watching Shirky and reading Doctorow, I’m convinced it’s not sufficient to oppose, whack-a-mole-style, the latest bit of oppressive-technology-backed-by-force-of-law that comes up.  It’s necessary to oppose the idea that companies should be allowed to sell computers that can work against their users in ways that the users are prohibited from fixing.  And it’s necessary to move the copyright debate back to what sorts of copying should or shouldn’t be allowed, regardless of what sorts of copyright law the entertainment industry might be willing to buy or sell.


Thoughts on Occupy Versus Police

(This post is way delayed and fairly disorganized, but I’m putting aside further editing in the interest of getting it out the digital door.)

Occupy is interesting, but it’s also interesting to consider the variety of tactics police have used in opposing the movement.  On the one hand, there’s the UC Davis incident, where the message of “if you are in the way, we will hose you down with military grade pepper spray at point-blank range” was communicated by actually doing just that.  That might be legal, even in the liberal 9th circuit, but doesn’t exactly defuse the situation, and it’s unclear whether it will prevent the protesters from achieving (some of) their goals.

On the other hand, there’s the aikido tactics of the St. Louis Police.  As related in this post by Brad Hicks, after a series of fake-out maneuvers, the police acted with a combination of power and restraint:

[…] [The police] didn’t show up in riot gear and helmets, they showed up in shirt sleeves with their faces showing. They not only didn’t show up with SWAT gear, they showed up with no unusual weapons at all, and what weapons they had all securely holstered. They politely woke everybody up. They politely helped everybody who was willing to remove their property from the park to do so. They then asked, out of the 75 to 100 people down there, how many people were volunteering for being-arrested duty? Given 33 hours to think about it, and 10 hours to sweat it over, only 27 volunteered. As the police already knew, those people’s legal advisers had advised them not to even passively resist, so those 27 people lined up to be peacefully arrested, and were escorted away by a handful of cops. The rest were advised to please continue to protest, over there on the sidewalk … and what happened next was the most absolutely brilliant piece of crowd control policing I have heard of in my entire lifetime.

All of the cops who weren’t busy transporting and processing the voluntary arrestees lined up, blocking the stairs down into the plaza. They stood shoulder to shoulder. They kept calm and silent. They positioned the weapons on their belts out of sight. They crossed their hands low in front of them, in exactly the least provocative posture known to man. And they peacefully, silently, respectfully occupied the plaza, using exactly the same non-violent resistance techniques that the protesters themselves had been trained in. […]

By dawn, the protesters were licked.

(Again, read the whole thing.)

The clearing of Occupy Boston used some of the St. Louis tactics, so maybe those are catching on.  More brutal tactics may or may not be self-defeating, but I suppose that depends on exactly how far police are willing to go, as Brad points out, addressed towards police:

In case you haven’t noticed, you are not the only police officers who have been asked to use as much force as necessary, in order to crack down on trivial ordinance violations, as an excuse to shut those citizens up. Your fellow police have been asked to shut down those protests in every country in Latin America, in every country in the Middle East, in every country in North Africa, and in almost every country in Europe. In country after country, one of three things has happened: the cops obeyed orders and the kleptocrats are getting away with imposing austerity, or else the cops obeyed orders but foreign governments stepped in, citing actual or impending police atrocities, and overthrew the kleptocrats, or else they did something that you chose not to do, this last week or two.

In a few countries, the cops saw that they didn’t have the choice of defending the perfectly law abiding, saw that they were being asked to defend criminals, concluded that they could not morally justify obeying the order to shut down the protests, and went home. Few if any of the protesters even asked the police to switch sides and join the protests against kleptocracy. Most of us know that that’s an unreasonable request, we know that most of you feel that you owe it to the uniform you wear, and to the oath you took, and to your fellow officers, not to join the protesters. But in the countries where the police, asked to use force to shut down peaceful protests against kleptocracy, took off their uniforms and went home until it was all over? Not just in the Arab (Spring) world, but in places like Iceland? Freedom is on the march. Nor have those countries slid into poverty because they refused to cover the debts that the thieves owed to the dishonest bankers; those countries are recovering from the global recession faster than we are.

Charles Stross has some interesting thoughts on how the police crackdown fits into the larger economic/political situation:

Public austerity is a great cover for the expropriation of wealth by the rich (by using their accumulated capital to go on acquisition sprees for assets being sold off for cents on the dollar by the near-bankrupt state). But public austerity is a huge brake on economic growth because it undermines demand by impoverishing consumers. Consequently, we’re in for another long depression. […]

Starving poor people with guns and nothing to lose scare the rich; their presence in large numbers is one major component of a pre-revolutionary situation. […] Worse, the poor have smartphones. […]

The oligarchs are therefore pre-empting the pre-revolutionary situation by militarizing the police (as guard labour).

The rest is interesting, too, including the comments.


The Robot Revolution


Idea #6: The history of the 21st century will be one of technological singularity and collapse.

More accurate:

The history of the 21st century will be shaped by, on the one hand, labor-saving technologies (with vast and unpredictable effects on society), and on the other hand, peaks in resource production and attendent problems in maintaining complex systems in the face of random disasters, demographic shifts, increasing population, and so on.

For now, let’s focus on the former.

The history of capitalism is one of labor displacement and capital accumulation.  Really expensive tools make increased productivity possible.  Only the rich can afford really expensive tools.  The way to get guaranteed access to work is to sell most of the product of your labor in exchange for access to such tools.  Those that don’t make the trade are out-competed.  The rich get richer.  The new unemployed (since productivity increases exceed demand increases (which are at least somewhat constrained by population increases, but that’s a whole other post)) end up in newer, cooler jobs made possible by the same sort of technological development.  Or so the story goes.

The question is what happens when the newly-created labor demand from technological development is less than the labor-displacement from technological development.  A related question:  What happens when labor saving technology just creates demand elsewhere for not labor but more labor saving technology?

Or: What happens when having your job outsourced to Chinese robots just creates jobs for more Chinese robots?  (The robots are also built by Chinese robots.  In China.)

I’d argue that the marginal cost of adding production through labor-saving technology has probably been lower than the marginal cost of labor in many areas of production for a while.  However, there were a few mitigating factors delaying the robot revolution.  Both have to do with “developing markets”.  First, there was the desire to expand quickly into new markets.  If hiring people is quicker than building more-automated factories, it might be better to do the former than let your competitors beat you to the punch.  Second, there was a desire to produce stuff in areas that didn’t have the infrastructure to support highly-automated production (especially since many of those areas have fewer regulations and lower labor costs).

I think that’s no longer the case.  The most promising developing markets are developed, first-to-market incentives are diminished (i.e. the resource grab is over).  Infrastructure development has also come a long way.  Hence stories like this.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed this trend:

A faltering economy explains much of the job shortage in America, but advancing technology has sharply magnified the effect, more so than is generally understood, according to two researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


During the last recession, the authors write, one in 12 people in sales lost their jobs, for example. And the downturn prompted many businesses to look harder at substituting technology for people, if possible. Since the end of the recession in June 2009, they note, corporate spending on equipment and software has increased by 26 percent, while payrolls have been flat.

Corporations are doing fine. The companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index are expected to report record profits this year, a total $927 billion, estimates FactSet Research. And the authors point out that corporate profit as a share of the economy is at a 50-year high.

Productivity growth in the last decade, at more than 2.5 percent, they observe, is higher than the 1970s, 1980s and even edges out the 1990s. Still the economy, they write, did not add to its total job count, the first time that has happened over a decade since the Depression.

They concluded on an optimistic note:

Yet computers, the authors say, tend to be narrow and literal-minded, good at assigned tasks but at a loss when a solution requires intuition and creativity — human traits. A partnership, they assert, is the path to job creation in the future.

But that misses both that many people are not capable of “intuition and creativity” jobs (at a high enough level to make a living at it) and, at any rate, that the demand for such jobs will never equal the previous demand for industrial-labor jobs.  Intuition and creativity don’t scale.

I expect this effect will also have a way of trickling up from industrial workers.  As everyone tries to avoid the industrial-work class if at all possible, the struggle for those “creative” jobs becomes more intense.  This analysis from Robert Cringley is telling:

In the near term how do we creatively respond to jobs going overseas? In the longer term what happens if Ray Kurzweil is correct and the Singularity rolls along in 2029 or so and humans suddenly become little more than parasites on a digital Earth?

The easy answer to this problem has been the same since the 1960s — become Paul McCartney. But how many Beatles can the world sustain?


Where you live counts as much as anything else, too, so position yourself in a city that has high serendipity.  Any kid living with his parents in Palo Alto can get a job today simply because he already has a place to live. No skills required.


Live in the coolest place, I tell Cole and his brothers. Have the coolest friends. Do the coolest things. Learn from everything you do. Be open to new opportunities. And do something your father hasn’t yet figured how to do, which is every few years take off 138 days and just walk the Earth. [emphasis mine]

Cringley takes an optimistic tone, but I find the content of his post rather grim.  He’s right.  Sure, there are some high-paying jobs that the robots can’t do for now, assuming that not too many others are trying to do the same thing.

But if you want to get into / stay in the middle class after the start of the robot revolution, you’d better be cool.  Have the right connections, be in the right place.  Hopefully have parents wealthy enough to facilitate that and smart enough to realize that it’s not about “job skills” anymore. Social skills are the new middle class job skills.  It’s hard to evaluate those “intuitive” and “creative” jobs, so appearances matter.  As the job search becomes more competitive, attributes not related to job performance matter more.

And be lucky (the repeated “serendipity”).  Maximize your opportunities to benefit from luck.  It’s all a gamble, victory goes to those who can roll (or rig) the most dice.

Hard enough for the middle class.  And for those not currently in the middle class, being either “cool” or “lucky” enough is going to be mighty tough.

Though angry may stil be an option.


How Can Occupy Wall Street Win?

Occupy Wall Street continues to be very interesting.  (On the economic side, see also.)

I previously mentioned that non-violent protests can only win by being economically or politically disruptive, but there are a few ways to achieve that goal:

Consumer Siege: Cut someone off from funding by refusing to do business with them (boycott) is the typical example.  Indirect boycotts can sometimes work (for example, see Color of Change’s successful campaign against the Glenn Beck Show, which worked by convincing advertisers that being associated with Glenn Beck was not a good idea for their brand (or at least that it would be better to spend their advertising budget’s elsewhere).  Divestment can also work, since the people running an institution tend to also be investors.  Of course, that only works if equity in the institution is publicly held and the protesters have a lot of it (not usually the case).

In the case of OWS, this is why I’m interested in this story in which a bunch of protesters who were Citi Bank customers tried to close their accounts, only to be locked in by guards and arrested by police.  Bizarre.  A question:  In the actual bank runs of the 1930s, did banks ever try to get police to arrest customers who were closing their accounts?

Disruption of Business: Protesters prevent the institution from doing business with anyone.  This either involves discouraging customers or actually preventing institutional activities from happening.  The strike is an obvious (and fairly mild) example of this type.  So is the picket line, in which customers and/or replacement workers are discouraged (but not actually prevented) from entering a place of business.

Given the name “Occupy Wall Street”, I’m surprised there isn’t more action of this type.  While seeing the protesters “occupy” Times Square was impressive, it’s a far cry from actually occupying, you know, Wall Street.  There’s no indication that OWS has been at all disruptive to the business activities of anyone working on Wall Street.

Petition: In general, just expressing one’s grievances, no matter how publicly is pretty useless unless you can effectively turn that to recruiting people for one of the activities listed in this post.  Getting arrested is only great if you emerge from jail with your numbers doubled.  (The IWW was great at this, Anonymous not so much.  (That topic might be worth its own post, but in the meanwhile, read this, which also includes some very good speculation about the possible outcomes of the protests.))

There’s one exception, though.  If your grievances are expressed directly, in person, to an institution itself, then the actions the institution takes against you can effect the institution’s reputation enough to be disruptive.  That only works if the institution is considered to be in control of the action taken against protesters and the institution is perceived to have some sort of obligation to listen to protesters.  Here, that’s likely to be just government, and maybe not even that.

That tactic can also work as the political equivalent of “disruption of business”.  If hundreds of people are showing up in person to present their grievances at each congressional office every day, it does give Congress a bit more personal motivation to resolve the situation.

Elections: In a democracy, if you can mobilize enough support to actually get incumbent legislators replaced with legislators loyal to your position, then that’s one way to change things.  To do this at a large scale, you really need to establish an effective political party.  Specifically, it must be able to do two things effectively: Get candidates elected, and ensure that candidates who don’t toe the party line on important issues (the platform) are not reelected (and preferably are left with their careers in total ruin, such that they actually fear defecting).

I’ve heard suggestions that OWS needs a “non-partisan political party”, which is nonsense.  To the extent that the concept is coherent, we already have a non-partisan political party, the Democrats, which is wildly ineffective at whipping their members into going along with even the core of the party platform.  The Republicans, on the other hand, are wildly effective whips, at least on the limited platform of opposing Obama (or whatever non-Republican is in power at the time).  (They’re less effectively partisan when actually in charge, but you don’t really have to coordinate much on how to burn the place down in order to do so effectively.)

You also need a lot of political power to push around the bureaucracy, but I don’t think that’s an intractable problem in the case of OWS.  (At least not compared to the difficulty of getting legislators elected in the first place.)


"Occupy" Where Now?

The Occupy Wall Street protest and related protests are interesting, but they mostly remind me of my first pithy generalization on this blog.  The protests have garnered some attention, but unless they can be economically or politically disruptive, they won’t get anything done.  As near as I can tell, the protests have not yet had a significant political effect and as far as economic effects go… well, if it’s still “business as usual” for the place allegedly occupied, the “occupation” probably isn’t doing a very effective job.


What's the Default?

There’s a lot of talk about the US debt ceiling and whether that will be raised or not by the August 2 deadline.  The odd thing about this is that it’s always framed in terms of an impending default, when it’s not clear that will happen at all.  Especially when that’s expressly prohibited by the US Constitution (Amendment 14, Section 4):

The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Clearly, the amendment addresses debt in the context of the Civil War in particular, but it’s not unreasonable to read that as a blanket prohibition on a default on treasury bonds.  So on August 2, absent legislation, we’ll be in the following state:

  1. Congress has said “no more borrowing”.
  2. Congress has determined how money can be printed, and the answer is “not without more borrowing” (money is printed by the Fed and exchanged for new Treasury Bonds).
  3. Congress has specified the amount of taxes to be taken in.
  4. Congress has specified how much is to be spent and on what.  (But it’s a higher amount than the revenues provided for in 2!)
  5. Treasury Bonds specify when they need to be repaid and for how much, and the Constitution says Congress can’t just decide to not pay those.  (There are also a few other obligations the Constitution says Congress can’t decide not to pay, including judicial salaries.)

That’s an odd state, as of yet untested under US law.  Clearly, something’s got to give.  The executive department must faithfully meet conditions 1-5, which is impossible.  The Constitution gives only Congress the authority to alter 1-4, and no one the authority to alter 5.

Since the debt ceiling law and the most recent budget are in some sense contradictory, and Congress is the one with the power to alter those conditions, I think the relevant question is how to interpret the actions of Congress regarding those laws.  I can think of a two reasonable possibilities:

One: The budget implicitly raises the debt ceiling to cover the difference between revenues and expenses, since otherwise that law would be requiring the impossible.  (Bill Clinton seems to take almost this view, but it’s a way better argument to suggest that Congress implicitly loosened 4 than to say the Constitution gives the president the authority to violate 1 in order to fulfill 5.  Both are required by the Constitution, it would be quite an ass-pull to say that Am. 14 Sec. 4 gives additional emergency borrowing powers to the Executive Branch.)

Two: The debt ceiling law, unless explicitly repealed, implicitly limits spending after the debt ceiling is reached to revenues taken in.  The budget didn’t amend that restriction, so the restriction still applies.  Unfortunately, the debt ceiling law doesn’t specify what spending to cut or how that should be decided.  But a reasonable assumption might be that the Executive Branch (the Secretary of the Treasury?) would have the authority.

That puts the power in the right constitutional place:  When Congress passed the last budget, they either intended increased borrowing or decreased spending, they can’t have both.  That’s what should happen.  Of course, it’s not ideal for courts to try to interpret laws that are either overly vague or logically impossible, but it’s not the courts’ fault that Congress failed to do at least one of those in this case.

Some have suggested that the debt ceiling law is unconstitutional because they view all spending as sacrosanct under Am. 14 Sec. 4.  There’s a good take-down of that argument by Professor Lawrence Tribe, here.  His counter-argument is sort of like my second case above, except he doesn’t claim that “bend 4 to satisfy 1-3” is implicit in the budget, he just cites legal precedent.  (I like my argument a bit better, but Tribe’s argument certainly beats Clinton’s, and I’m willing to defer to his expertise.)  I also agree with the caveat on his conclusion:

I do not mean to suggest that, if it becomes necessary for the President to prioritize expenditures, the President is free to use whatever priorities he likes. First, the Constitution itself requires giving some expenditures (such as the payment of judicial salaries, Art. III, § 1, or payments on the public debt, Amdt. XIV, § 4) priority over others. Second, even if circumstances make it impossible for the President to obey the anti-line item veto rule announced in Clinton v. New York, he must do his best to honor the principles animating that rule: namely, using the line item veto to give the President unbounded power over spending would allow the Chief Executive to reward political allies and punish political adversaries. The President may not, for example, prioritize spending in blue states over spending in red states. Within those constitutional boundaries, however, it is up to the President to determine how spending must be prioritized when it becomes impossible to comply with all of the President’s legal obligations simultaneously.

I don’t know if that’s a reasonable prediction of what would actually happen if the debt ceiling failed to be raised.  Obama would have the first move, so if he did something other than prioritize spending, the courts would have to react to that instead.

And it’s not clear that such a “default” (not actually a default!) will happen.  There are still possible ways to avoid that, including congress actually raising the debt ceiling, or harebrained schemes in which Congress restores the “out of power party futilely opposes the debt limit raise” status quo by handing over the raise-the-debt-limit power to the Executive, reserving for Congress enough power to oppose Obama’s decision but not enough to actually succeed.

(Also, if all this media default hullabaloo has you thinking about fleeing to gold or some such, you should find this Moldbug piece interesting.)


Oh When the Sluts / Come Marching In

In Boston last weekend, this happened.  And I was there.

The Boston SlutWalk was a response to the Toronto SlutWalk, which in turn was a response to a member of the Toronto police, who at a workshop on security York University college said “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”.

People found that annoying for several obvious reasons:

  1. “Like sluts” is a surprisingly fickle term, and that bit of advice reduces rather easily to a claim that women should be inconspicuous or else.
  2. It’s stated in a way that’s overly simplistic: In fact, that advice would only apply to a small minority of rape or sexual assault cases (and even in the cases where it does apply, one wonders if there’s something self-fulfilling about law enforcement officers making statements like that, in terms of undermining legal deterrents).
  3. That sort of advice pushes focus away from solutions that discourage perpetrators in absolute terms (non-zero-sum solutions that make life harder for perpetrators if followed by anyone, instead of just making one person a less-obvious target as compared to someone else).
  4. Such advice is particularly troubling in the context of a crime where perpetrators do escape justice based on victim-blaming judges and juries, and particularly troubling coming-from law enforcement.

As always with such decentralized activism, the message of the march was a little incoherent.  However, the speech given by Jaclyn Friedman at the end of the march was an amazing and coherent piece of rhetoric, and you should read it here.  The key bit:

[…] make no mistake about it: we can be called sluts for nearly any reason at all. If we’re dancing. If we’re drinking. If we have ever in our lives enjoyed sex. If our clothes aren’t made of burlap. If we’re women of color, we’re assumed to be sluts before we do a single thing because we’re “exotic.” If we’re fat or disabled or otherwise considered undesirable, we’re assumed to be sluts who’ll fuck anyone who’ll deign to want us. If we’re queer boys or trans women, we’re called sluts in order to punish us for not fearing the feminine. If we’re queer women, especially femme ones, we’re called sluts because we’re obviously “up for anything,” as opposed to actually attracted to actual women. If we’re poor, we’re gold diggers who’ll use sex to get ahead. And god forbid we accuse someone of raping us – that’s the fast track to sluthood for sure, because it’s much easier to tell us what we did wrong to make someone to commit a felony violent crime against us than it is to deal with the actual felon.

There’s a word for all of this. And that word is bullshit. But there’s also a phrase for it: social license to operate. What that means is this: we know that a huge majority of rapes are perpetrated by a small minority of guys who do it again and again. You know why they’re able to rape an average of 6 times each? Because they have social license to operate. In other words: because we let them. Because as a society, we say “oh well, what did she expect would happen if she went back to his room? What did she expect would happen walking around by herself in that neighborhood? What did she expect would happen dressed like a slut?” [emphasis mine]

In other words, the question is what happens in the minds of bystanders, when they’re looking for a rationalization for not intervening in an ambiguous or sketchy situation?  What happens in the minds of jurors, when they’re looking for a reason not to convict?  Those may well be the same essentially-random people who see or hear about such “awareness-raising” activism.

Feminist blogger Hugo Schwyzer discusses the SlutWalk here and argues with some detractors who frame it as an effort to reclaim the word ‘slut’, and he makes an interesting point:

In their op-ed SlutWalk is Not Sexual Liberation, Dines and Murphy assert that

… the focus on “reclaiming” the word slut fails to address the real issue. The term slut is so deeply rooted in the patriarchal “madonna/whore” view of women’s sexuality that it is beyond redemption. The word is so saturated with the ideology that female sexual energy deserves punishment that trying to change its meaning is a waste of precious feminist resources.


What Dines and Murphy share with the Toronto cop is a sense that women are fools for demanding a level sexual playing field with men. Like so many of my colleagues on the “anti-porn” wing of feminism, Dines and Murphy tend to mistrust (or ignore) young women’s efforts to pursue pleasure. Their concerns about premature sexualization are legitimate, and I share them. But I think they seriously underestimate young women’s potential to negotiate their way from unwanted sexualization to healthy, empowered sexual agency. That kind of journey can’t take place alone, of course. And that’s part of what the SlutWalk movement is about: creating a safe space for women to come together in public defiance of those who would define their sexuality for them. [his emphasis removed, mine added]

I agree with Schwyzer.  Though I’d say that last bit doesn’t just apply to women.


More Than Meats the Eye

There’s more going on here than you might think:


That video is from a YouTube show called EpicMealTime, there’s an entire line of such videos.  See also thisiswhyyourefat, the Heart Attack Grill, the ffffffuuuuuuuuuuuud subreddit, etc., etc.

A few thoughts:

1. Competitive feasting has deep historical roots.  It’s hypothesized to be one of the reasons for the transition between hunting-gathering and agriculture.  Starving hunter-gathers presumably would not turn to agriculture, since that means burying grain instead of eating it and staying in a food-poor area instead of moving.  However, moving from gathering to horticulture to agriculture could be a way of turning a current surplus into a future even-bigger surplus at the expense of being tied down and vulnerable to future famine.

2. Robin Hanson is a fan of explaining modern trends in terms of the tendency of high-status industrialists/agriculturalists to live according to forager norms instead of farmer norms.  But he points out a hole in his hypothesis:

I hypothesize that the cultural pressures which long ago pushed folks from more natural forager ways into then-more-functional farming ways work better on poor people, so that rich folk less feel their pressure. If so, as folks get rich they would tend to revert back to the natural-feeling forager ways.

While this hypothesis may seem natural, I must point out that it has a gaping hole: it is far from obvious why the cultural pressures that made foragers act like farmers should weaken when folks get rich.  Yes poor farmers may have few other options, while rich folks have the luxury of acting more like foragers. But rich farmers could have instead used their wealth to act like hyper-farmers, moving even further from forager styles. Why exactly did rich farmers act more like foragers?

I wonder if competitive eaters lean more politically conservative or liberal than seemingly-similar individuals?

3. Is the kind of competitive feasting I highlight hyper-farmer or hyper-forager?  Well, forager modes of competitive feasting tend to allow high-status individuals to accumulate further status without them accumulating further material control or wealth.

Of course, not all the examples above are the same.  In the case of EMT, I suppose it depends on how the social pressures on Harley Morenstein and the other hosts work as they gain more wealth.  If it results in a dramatic increase in their personal income, agriculturalist.  If it results in the show containing ever larger / more expensive / more dramatically produced meals in such a way that it precludes extraordinary accumulation of wealth by the hosts, forager.

On the other hand, the structure of the feast is more agriculturalist (the “big man” is paying to obtain raw materials up front and people are (essentially) paying him for the result). And pretty much all the distribution of funds is going directly to industrial agriculture.  Distribution of actual food isn’t involved.

And no way a forager is going to get their hands on that much bacon per person.

4. Given the low price of many high-calorie food items, excessive food is in many cases very clearly framed as a celebration of “low culture”.  It hardly fits in with the “eats a healthier and well-varied” diet that’s the first item in Hanson’s description of foragers.  On the other hand, the exaggerated or ironic celebration of low culture is very SWPL.

No idea how to fit that into the farmer norms vs. forager norms framing.

5. Getting back to point 3, countering the accumulation of all wealth in the hands of a few high-status individuals is kind of key if you want to have a stable society.  Modern civilization has dealt with this almost entirely by expanding frontiers (or in globalization terms, “developing new markets”).  But we’re running kind of short on frontiers at the moment, and the need for labor is lower than ever due to technology.

Arguably, foreign aid programs are a sort of competitive feasting.  They redistribute wealth to accumulate status, both of which promote stability.  Given the role of food prices in recent revolutions (past and ongoing), that’s not been terribly effective.