Entries in politics (36)


The Politics of Behavioral Economics

A while back, someone posted this video (talking a bit about some modern research into the psychology of motivation) to the Liberal community on LiveJournal:

They asked:

Is this a liberal or a conservative idea? I mean, if we’re increasing productivity and creating more effective work places, isn’t that basically conservative? But we’re talking about empowering individuals and normalizing pay scales, and isn’t that basically liberal?

Which seemed to me like a silly question.  I wouldn’t attribute political views to the result of research unless making accusations about bias.  The truth itself isn’t ideological; what sort of political policies you promote based on the truth is ideological.

It’s popular for conservatives and liberals to accuse one another of “legislating morality”, but the truth is that both do.  Politics is making value judgments about what the government should or shouldn’t do.  And once you get beyond the sort of pure volunteerism that few (anarchists and hardcore libertarians) think should define the political process, that includes constraints on what people in general can or cannot do.

The morality in question simply has a different focus.  Conservatives tend to focus on deontological ethics, since if you seek to preserve traditional institutions, it makes sense for your morality to flow from the authority of traditional institutions.  Liberals favor teleological ethics, since if you believe that traditional institutions run the gamut from pretty good to hopelessly immoral and corrupt, you’d better focus on an ethical system that can tell the difference.

(That’s not quite the same explanation discussed in the essay Red Family, Blue Family by Doug Muder, which I list as one of my influences.  (That essay is in turn discussing the book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think by George Lakoff.)  However, I think that the “government as strict father” / “government as nurturant parents” and “inherited obligation” / “negotiated commitment” distinctions are related to the deontological/teleological distinction.)

Of course, that doesn’t cover the whole “conservative” / “liberal” distinction, since there’s more to politics than where people stand on traditional institutions in general (for Americans, especially given the way all political difference is crammed into a dichotomy in a two-party system).  A lot of “conservatives” are fine with traditional institutions being substantially reformed (especially when discussing past examples), so long as the government isn’t involved (in my opinion, a tricky distinction to defend).


America Needs Better Places

This TED Talk given by James Howard Kunstler is fascinating because it goes a long way to explain the problems with suburbia outside of the direct issue of energy efficiency:

The problem of impoverished public spaces has several sources, many self-reinforcing.  If people drive everywhere, they don’t spend a lot of time in between-building public spaces, so there’s no incentive to improve those spaces, and thus no incentive not to drive everywhere.  If culture values private space over public space, the resulting public spaces reinforce those values.  If people have hard jobs and long commutes, they might not want to linger anywhere on their journey back to their family, so even the indoor public spaces put convenience and speed over the friendliness of the space itself.  And after a long drive home to the kids (who have no access to any sort of public space on their own), one might prefer playing in the back yard to driving out to the park (if there is one).  On the architectural side, building one nice building won’t rehabilitate an otherwise unpleasant space, so why bother.  And based on the idea that the right thing to do in public places certainly isn’t “hang out”, architectural fashions have risen disproportionately promoting elements that are intimidating, disorienting, or disconcerting.

A digression on that last point:  It seems almost like America’s wholesale rejection of urban design fundamentals gave American architects a form of Stockholm Syndrome.  These are the people tasked with building good spaces, which is often impossible and requires knowledge that has been largely discarded.  That leads them to make horrible design decisions even in places where good public spaces could be created and the resources are available.  Kunstler uses Boston’s City Hall plaza as an example, and I can see why:

Boston City Hall

Wikipedia’s discussion of the critical response highlights that architects rated the building far more highly than the general public.  Seriously, did the architects actually think, “It would be great if Boston’s City Hall looked like an imposing concrete inverted UFO filled with bureaucrats, surrounded by a vast brick buffer zone where people have no reason to habitually linger, that’s what the face of local democracy and civic engagement in Boston should look like”?  Presumably not.  It’s just that it seems like a cool idea, any sort of cube-dwellers can be installed in any sort of building, the wide-open space makes for some dramatic light and shadow and consequently some pretty interesting photos if you crop them right.


On Political Cake and Eating

Political will is an interesting phenomena, to say the least, and America is quite the case study.  Take alternative energy, for example:

Overwhelmingly, Americans think the nation needs a fundamental overhaul of its energy policies, and most expect alternative forms to replace oil as a major source within 25 years. Yet a majority are unwilling to pay higher gasoline prices to help develop new fuel sources.

That’s nothing new, of course.  And I don’t mean in general, I mean on this specific issue.  For decades, across political party lines.

That’s not the only example of such a contradiction.  For example, most Americans want to cut foreign aid spending, but polls that ask for specific amounts find that Americans want to “cut” foreign aid spending to more than it currently is.

What’s the right way to deal with issues like that in a representative democracy?


Democracy Lives

One of the things I’ve been listening to lately is a series of video essays by Stefan Molyneux, an anarchist thinker.  I have very mixed feelings about his arguments for a variety of reasons.  I am in some ways sympathetic to anarchist polticial philosophy (which includes concepts like volunteerism, consensus decision-making, and free association while managing to avoid some of the pitfalls of naive libertarianism), but on the other hand I’m a big fan of democracy.  He rants a good rant, but his argument can be less than watertight.  For example, in Molyneux’s first “Statism Is Dead” essay, he states:

[presenting an argument for statism] “People won’t be voluntarily charitable, but they will vote for the violent theft and transfer of their wealth.”  I mean, it’s like a Kafkaesque dream sequence, these arguments, right?. People don’t want to help the poor, but they will vote for people to put a gun to their head and force them to help the poor.  […] The existance of the wellfare state is certain proof of the fact that people want to help the poor, and will.

It’s a bit of a straw-man, that argument.  I can think of two reasons why people might pursue policies democratically instead of through volunteerism.  First, they might think that a democratic government is better able to carry out that policy than a non-governmental organization. Second, they might be more willing to support a policy in a decision process where everyone is bound by the results, as opposed to volunteering to support a policy supported only by the volunteers.

Of course, the uncharitable way of describing that is to say that people will voluntarily support charity so long as they can require the “violent theft and transfer” of non-volunteers’ wealth (Molyneux does not say that, presumably, because he’s trying to persuade and does not want to (indiscriminately) insult his audience).  A better way of describing that, in my opinion, is that people in a democracy participate in a decision-making process where they pre-commit to be bound by the result of the process, even if they don’t get their way on a specific issue.  In the world as it is, that may not be a voluntary pre-commitment.  Moving to another democracy can be hard, moving to a libertarian/anarchist society may be impossible.  Still, I would argue that people have a right to participate in a democratic decision-making process and a corresponding responsibility to abide by the results or willingly face the consequences, even though current conditions don’t allow for participation in society to be truly voluntary.

(But here’s a recurring idea of mine, which might apply to this situation:

Idea #3: People tend to worry too much about freeloaders.

So maybe you could run a modern society on volunteerism and consensus without tax collectors and then the police knocking on someone’s door when they say, “Screw the decison-making process, I didn’t agree to that policy,” and that would be even better.  I’m skeptical, though.)

* Of course, to hear Molyneux say it, it’s even worse than that:  Democracy is a sham, all political progress merely granted to the masses by a monolithic political class to improve productivity, the equivalent of “free-range” livestock.  Even given his argument that the US is that sort of government, I don’t think that’s reason to support anarchy over democracy in the abstract.  Nor do I think a bunch of virtuous non-voters will be very effective at achieving political change.



This Monday, Israeli forces boarded and captured the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla”, a convoy of ships carrying food and medicine to the besieged territory of Gaza.  Nine activists were killed, many more activists and some Israeli soldiers were injured.

Gaza has been under a near-total blockade since 2007, though Israel formally ended their occupation in 2005 and denies that their near total control of the land, sea, and air borders, complete blockade (save for limited humanitarian aid imports), and complete prohibition of any kind of military development qualifies them for any of the responsibilities of an occupying power.  It’s not clear at all that the blockade is legal under international law.

Meanwhile, the organizers of the flotilla had a stated intention of breaking the Israeli blockade, but they were sailing under the Turkish flag (the lead ship was a Turkish ship, the convoy departed from a Turkish port, though the vessels in the convoy were from a bunch of different countries) and attacked in international waters.  The activists claim that Israeli soldiers fired on them before boarding, Israel claims the soldiers only returned fire after coming under attack (with improvised weapons and their own weapons).

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here.  Legally, the act was either a crime commited by Israeli soldiers on a Turkish vessel or an act of war by Israel against a Turkish ship.  Israel argues that the flotilla presented a danger to Israel that justified acting in international waters instead of waiting.  Turkey is understandably upset that an ostensibly friendly country expects them to ignore such a provocation, and is threatening to send a naval escort with the next such attempt.  It’s brinkmanship, it’s not clear that the Turkish navy would stand by while Israel attacked a Turkish ship in international waters, not clear that Israel would wait until the ship entered their territory (since that would demonstrate that their decision-making was affected by something as trivial as the Turkish navy), and it’s not clear that an actual naval battle between warships wouldn’t lead to a war.  Which would be an awkward situation for the United States, to say the least, given that Israel and Turkey are both allies.

Brad Hicks, one of my favorite essayists, has an excellent analysis of the incident.

An interesting question is to what extent did the flotilla activists succeed in their goals.  They failed to break the blockade, and the supplies were not delivered because Hamas would rather make political points than accept another shipment of aid.  Then again, the flotilla protesters clearly shared that objective, they didn’t accept Israel’s offer to allow the supplies in through an Israeli port.  Another shipment of supplies won’t end the chronic food and water shortages in Gaza, won’t restore the destroyed economy.  So here’s an idea that’s worth highlighting:

Idea #2: Nonviolent direct action succeeds when it is disruptive politically or economically.  Getting attention isn’t enough.

Was the flotilla disruptive?  It’s certainly caused a lot of noise.  Turkey aside, Ireland is pulling out the diplomatic threats over a lagging Irish vessel following the flotilla.

But brinkmanship and talk are nothing new, actual war or significant sanctions wouldn’t be.  The former is (fortunately) unlikely, the latter… well, the relevant question is what exactly would it take to cool unconditional US support for Israel?  (Note that attacking a US navy ship was not sufficient to cool US-Israel relations.)


Oil Volcano Apocalypse

The story of the Gulf oil spill have been on my mind a lot lately, I’ve been following it since the initial disaster, and there are some interesting recent developments, so it’s as good a topic as any to start with.

Basic background:  On April 20, there was an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig (belonging to Transocean, leased by BP, operating 80 km off of the Louisiana coast).  The resulting fire could not be extinguished, and after two days, the rig sank.  The disaster killed eleven crew and caused a massive oil spill.

The oil spill should have been stopped by the rig’s blowout preventer device.  It’s unknown if the crew tried to trigger the device manually.  The failsafe dead-man’s switch failed to trigger the device.  Subsequent attempts to activate the device with ROVs failed.  Some countries require an acoustic remote control for the blowout preventer on offshore wells, but BP had successfully lobbied against US regulation that would require that.  It’s not clear that would have helped.  Yesterday, the well casing collapsed.

BP and the Coast Guard have been trying various methods to contain the oil spill, with very limited success.  BP does not appear to have had enough boom on hand to contain a spill of that magnitude (a lot, but still actually rather cheap compared to the cost of operating the rigs, where just the lease is nearly a half-million dollars per day).  The general idea is to use multiple layers of overlapping boom to divert oil to catchment basins.  That way, even though some oil sloshes over and under the booms (and it will), the lion’s share of it can be concentrated and removed from the area.  If you see long parallel lines of boom parallel to the shore, that’s a sign that things are being done wrong.

They’ve also been hitting the spill with chemical dispersants, which have several problems:  They’re toxic.  The metabolism of oil by bacteria, which the dispersants are intended to allow, is also pretty disruptive to ecosystems.  It turns the ocean into a giagantic oil lava lamp, which makes the oil harder to track and more disruptive to ecosystems at all depths.  Not surprisingly, oil is being found at great depths and the media are mostly following the spill at the surface.

BP is also considering implementing a “top kill” (circulating mud and concrete through the well to seal it), but it’s not clear whether that plan will work now that the well has disintegrated further.  Also, if they succeed, they’ll face the question of why they didn’t implement the plan sooner.

The spill has been interesting politically.  BP has claimed that they’ll pay “all legitimate claims” of damages from the spill, but it’s not clear how arduous a process they’ll use for determining “legitimacy”.  If they pay more in civil liabilities than required by law, they might risk shareholder lawsuit.  Republicans have blocked attempts to raise that limit from $75M to $10B, but I don’t know if such a change after the accident would affect BP.  President Barack Obama has talked a good talk about making BP pay, but has done nothing of substance (some possible but implausible options).  Sarah Palin has accused Barack Obama of being in bed with big oil (warning: the preceding sentence may contain a lethal dose of irony).  Libertarian (and now Republican congressional candidate) Rand Paul accused Obama of being “un-American” for merely criticizing BP, seeming to assert that BP’s assurance that they’ll pay civil penalties is more than enough.

It’s also been interesting from a media standpoint.  BP’s been trying to restrict access to spill sites.  On the other hand, they put the live streaming feed from their ROV monitoring the drill site on the internet, though that may now be down.  CNN is curating citizen journalism on the spill on their iReport site.

So, interesting stuff.  What am I still missing about this story?  I’ll probably have some political opinion writing to do on the subject, but I think I’m going to wait a bit given recent developments, and because this post is long enough as it is.

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