Contra the Peninsula Panglossians

It’s easy, and somewhat unfair, to dismiss social networks and people who work for them as time wasters. Because since the rise of the middle class we have known that people are willing to pay substantial sums in money and/or opportunity cost to have their time wasted. Non-cynical people call this “leisure.” People who facilitate that shouldn’t be dismissed per se.

But one’s impulse to tolerance and understanding is deeply tested by living in the Bay Area, where people spend long hours working hard so other people can evade productivity, and tell themselves it’s worth it because a) their work place is like a never ending carnival and b) because they are “connecting the world” or some other such empty technoptimistic tripe.

But social media’s strength is the flaw in the “connecting the world” hypothesis – it tends mostly to bring people together who know and like each other already and who are predisposed to each other’s ideas. So yes, connecting the world, but kind of like how I’m connected to Kevin Bacon: through degrees of separation – not togetherness. Freddie DeBoer’s critique of Twitter always sticks with me:

My criticisms of Twitter as its used are multiple, but largely they boil down to this: Twitter is used as a kind of consensus machine where the like-minded band together to dismiss opinions or criticism they don’t like, by creating the illusion of consensus. If a particular group of socially or professionally connected people don’t like a story or post or whatever, someone will tweet something disparaging about it, some other people will retweet it, some people will give an attaboy…. So you can easily create the impression of consensus. Now, you might say that Twitter is an open medium, and anybody can join. And that’s true. But not everybody can actually get into the conversation. The system of followers means that rebuttals or responses are only broadcast if the people making them also have a big audience, or if an individual tweeter is principled enough to reply to criticism from people who aren’t well connected. It can be kind of a closed loop in that sense. And one of the funny things about it is that people often behave exactly this way when I complain about it– they prove the point in trying to refute it.

This makes me skeptical when technoptimists tell me that Twitter has started revolutions. And even if it has – it isn’t clear to me that it started revolutions that have led to anything more in the flavor of enduring democratic renaissance rather than new, networked insiders agitating and usurping power. It certainly is powerful that digitally networked people can use modern information technology to agitate in the physical world, but that fact need not be positive and my feeling has been for some time contra the Peninsula Panglossians.

Which is why I found this post on the Monkey Cage blog particularly intriguing:

Though scholars have long warned about the attempts of authoritarian leaders to influence the internet, little empirical evidence has been brought forth about the effects of these efforts on politics at the micro-level. In a forthcoming article, we used survey data from the 2011 parliamentary elections in Russia to examine how usage of different social networks affected users’ awareness of electoral fraud. Our results indicate that users of Western networks like Facebook and Twitter are about five percentage points more likely to believe that there was significant electoral fraud during the elections. Usage of Russian networks, VKontakte and Odnoklassniki, meanwhile had no effect on awareness of electoral fraud.

We argue that the reason for this discrepancy lies in the type of information being spread on these networks. During the election season, local networks’ vulnerability to state pressure seems to have led many opposition activists to focus their social media strategy on Western social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, which are much harder to monitor and pressure. Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most popular political blogger, maintained an active public Facebook page and Twitter account, which he used to spread hundreds of YouTube videos, photographs, and anecdotes documenting electoral fraud, and yet Navalny maintained only a token presence on Vkontakte and no presence on Odnoklassniki. This strategy is at odds with the goal of reaching a mass audience since Odnoklassniki and VKontakte each have five times as many users as Facebook (only 5% of Russian internet users are on Facebook).

Emphasis mine. The point being that shepherds will stick with their flocks. Not that people are sheep or anything.

There are billions of other people in the world and Twitter is nowhere near the most populated or popular social network, and this is especially true in some key nation states where the neoliberal project is failing. Even where Twitter is popular, like most social networks, its function is more palliative: an echo chamber, an apparatus for affirmation, a platform from which to preach to a pious choir.

PS I use Twitter, unlike DeBoer who seems more principled than I am. I readily admit to following mostly white neoliberals, although I try my best to be open to those I disagree with and use the platform for genuine discourse. While that is my aim, I readily admit it’s much easier to just follow and retweet what I like to the people around me like myself. There’s utility in that – but it’s hardly revolutionary.

Causation Both Ways

It is commonly asserted these days that extremely accommodative monetary policy is driving down yields on junk bonds to historical lows. The situation has gotten so drastic that people have even started to use the word “bubble,” which is what Very Serious People say when something they don’t like seems overvalued.

This excited me because the BofA High Yield (junk bond) index happens to be an index that I look at on a daily basis like it’s my business – because in part it is.

So for an illustration of how dramatically low rates have been driven down, look at the following. If you’re a corporation today looking to get funding you’re undoubtedly in the greatest market in history.

20130529-212907.jpg

What I wonder, though, is that if today’s rates are a bubble inflated by loose monetary policy, then surely 2008-2009 shows drastically incontrovertible proof that Fed policy was far too tight, when yields were pushing 25% and the market essentially ceased to exist.

The camp that hates Alan Greenspan and is convinced that the Fed overheated the economy leading up to the recession would never admit such a thing.

Turns out shit flows up the yield curve as well as down.

IMHO.

I caught a fair bit of hell for being upfront about my sentiment that locking down Boston and essentially carrying out a military invasion of the metro area was overwrought, obnoxious and unnecessary – even dangerous.

I’m going to always, to some extent, be THAT civil libertarian, and I even have some friends who (thank god) find that endearing. But my beliefs are more than a cute tchotchke that sits well among a collection of other amusing personalities. In the name of understanding, if not ultimately solidarity, I have deemed it worthy to undertake the following list of my grievances.

1) $$$

Most Americans are fundamentally utilitarian, but it remains buried under a mountain of sentimentalism. That’s not a bad thing. Pure utilitarianism leads us to uncomfortable conclusions that go against our moral impulses. It’s not comprehensive. But it’s obscured the most during times of apparent crisis – when the “something must be done” mentality kicks in. But every decision has costs, including the decision to ignore them.

This one was approximately $300 million.

That figure is the foregone economic activity which is the necessary result of shutting down a large city for most of the working day.

Maybe you’re the kind of person who thinks that $300 million was worth it to catch a wounded 19 year old suspect. But I doubt most people are.

2) We’ve met the enemy, and he is us.

We are fortunate no one was hurt during the lockdown. But it’s abundantly clear from the photos that this was, as it increasingly tends to be, a military operation. As America’s police becomes more and more militarized, the amount of firepower allowed on the residential streets of America only increases, as does the danger. The greatest potential for death lay in the possibility of collateral damage incurred by an errant cop and in the possibility, however remote, of equipment malfunction in one of the various but ultimately useless tactical vehicles and helicopters brought in to sweep Watertown – not the suspect at large.

Now, your response might be that that’s an absurdly remote possibility. Remember that the NYPD, with only handguns, shot nine people last summer near the Empire State Building while attempting to gun down a man who killed a former colleague he had beef with. The NYPD is now being sued, and rightfully so. This happens. And the danger is all the greater when we sanction greater and greater firepower in the hands of our would-be protectors, and greater and greater tolerance for abuses when they are overly aggressive.

3) Media Matters

The day of the lockdown started with the Boston PD botching an attempt to capture both suspects, alive. In any reasonable world, this would have been the frame.

That world was left behind after the bombing. Normally the media/government dynamic is stable. Media focuses on government, government is proportionally attentive. But attentions are divided and we never reach criticality. Nothing like a terrorist attack makes it go critical faster. I’m not using the language of nuclear physics to be coy – we talk about “tipping points” all the time and this is of that flavor. There is a fundamental, instantaneous change evoked by a terrorist attack.

The dynamic changes to media monofocus on the site of the act. 24 hours a day. Non-stop coverage. Americans become monofocused on retribution. Local authorities feel the intensity of a thousand suns to “do justice” or whatever term you want to slap on the primal urge of “getting even.”

This was the context of the failed attempt to get their man, which intensified the feedback. This was better than Homeland. Television couldn’t make this up. The media was ON IT. Live non-stop coverage of an ongoing chase after several days of interviewing the same five people who knew the suspects and a few of the victims, desperate for answers or leads or what we typically call “news.” And thus the government did only what could be done in a critical state – escalate the response. It gave the world better television in the name of righteous indignation and resolve. And the media gave thanks.

It is a great and disturbing irony that reason is most absent when it’s most needed – when we need the press to stand athwart and yell stop, to beg the question as to why the collective punishment of lockdown and paramilitary invasion should be inflicted on the people of Boston when it was the police themselves who missed their opportunity to end it all hours earlier, to ask what it says that it was the restored freedom of movement of the lockdown lifting that allowed a man to check on his beloved boat and to notice the blood on the keel.

These questions will generally go unasked.

4) The Road to Serfdom

Every ideology has a road to serfdom. The only one that seems to truly have materialized is that of the civil libertarians and we have been walking down it every day since 9/11. It has been more or less constant policy since then to gradually chip away at the civil freedoms Americans had gained and to reverse the ascendance of freedom which had more or less been continuous (painstaking, tedious, excruciatingly slow, but roughly monotonic) since the founding.

The corollary here is that every time we accept these little compromises, we are undermining the structure of our freedom. Again – tipping point. The security state will continue to undermine us with minor inconveniences until it is too much and too late. Death by a thousand cuts.

Vigilance is bad medicine. It’s never going to be popular to fight the swell of public outcry and demand we make no compromises to liberty. But we already tolerated enough after 3,000 people died on 9/11 (wire-tapping, the PATRIOT Act, drones, indefinite war, indefinite detention, etc.). This week we tolerated marshall law in a large city after 3 people died in a bombing and an officer was killed during the chase several days later. It looks like we’re about to tolerate (I hope I’m wrong) refusing to recite to an accused man his basic right to not be self-incriminating. This tolerance only begets further abuses.

“This time is different” is an absurd excuse because it denies the very essence of “rights” which are eternal and omnipresent.

Naturally.

Quote

Naturally the next time we come out onto the Mall and see the finish line of a race awaiting us, or a similarly crowded event, we’ll turn away, take a detour, head back home. And the time after that. And the time after that. Until … well until what I don’t know, except that time passes, and fear subsides.

But what I hope we don’t see, when the next race or a parade or festival looms up in front of us, are layers of extra stops and searches and checkpoints, wider and wider rings of closed streets, the kind of portable metal detectors that journalists remember unfondly from political conventions, more of the concrete barriers that Washingtonians have become accustomed to around our public buildings … more of everything that organized officialdom does to reassure us, and itself, that soft targets can somehow be eliminated entirely, and that everything anyone can think of is being done to keep the unthinkable at bay.

This kind of security theater is a natural response to terrorism, but it’s a response that since 9/11 we’ve done an absolutely terrible job of reasoning through and then gradually ratcheting back. Today’s attack, on the kind of event that countless cities hold and that even the most omnicompetent police force couldn’t make entirely secure, could easily lead to a further ratchet, a further expansion of preventive (or preventive-seeming) measures, a further intrusion of bureaucratic and paramilitary rituals into the rhythms of everyday life. Or it could be an opportunity to recognize the limits of such measures, the impossibility of achieving perfect security, and the costs of pretending that an extra ring of barriers and inconveniences will suffice to stop a determined evil from finding its way through.

Ross Douthat, Keep Calm and Carry On

So it goes.

The reality of the changing geopolitics was not lost on the Japanese officers who watched their soldiers scrambling up San Clemente’s grassy hills. They acknowledged they were learning tactics from the United States Marines, who developed them during their island-hopping campaign in the Pacific against Imperial Japan.

Full story from the NY Times

Universal armament is a stable equilibrium.

I’ve been hearing a lot of my friends on the left dismissing the argument that guns make us safer. This disturbs me because I’m with the left on this issue: I don’t want more guns and it bothers me that America is already “armed to the teeth.” But I completely disagree with the left’s casual dismissal of the opposition’s solution.

I was therefore relieved when Will Wilkinson wrote this:

In part because my father’s gun made me feel safe in a McDonald’s almost three decades ago, I feel today that increasing the number of good people with guns is a perfectly sensible response to the threat of bad people with guns.

This is not false or twisted logic. It’s coherent. I just believe the Left sees the right as so militant and authoritarian that it has built a reality distortion field.

In fact, America has already operated under this policy before.

To this end and so as to preserve the possibility of bargaining effectively to terminate the war on acceptable terms that are as favorable as practical, if deterrence fails initially, we must be capable of fighting successfully so that the adversary would not achieve his war aims and would suffer costs that are unacceptable, or in any event greater than his gains, from having initiated an attack.

That was Jimmy Carter. The most liberal President of the second half of the 20th Century, arguing what was not right wing propaganda but rather was simple game theory. Mutual Assured Destruction was the official foreign policy of the US for much of the Cold War.

It’s the same game theory that motivates the right in advocating for broader gun ownership. Bad guys will always be armed. But if the good guys are armed, then maybe they can deter aggression. The threat of being killed or seriously maimed substantially raises the costs of committing assault.

My problem is that I find Mutually Assured Destruction poisonous. Universal fear produces a stable equilibrium, but it’s hardly the equilibrium anyone really wants. Furthermore, in spite of preserving some lives, it seems rather anathema to creating a “free” society, which I like to think of as ideally marked by harmonious and amicable relations and not one full of shotgun diplomacy.

I can’t say whether the left will win or lose on this issue, but it does itself no credit by hurling invectives from reason-proof perches. The easy argument is to arm everyone. The hard argument is to say that we demand the kind of society that doesn’t want to be universally armed, and we won’t stop till we change the zeitgeist because that is the world we want free autonomous beings to live in.

Dropouts.

Two disturbing pieces coming nearly back to back recently outline the clusterfuck that is higher education in America today.

This, from the New York Times

Young adults have long faced a rough job market, but in the last recession and its aftermath, college graduates did not lose nearly as much ground as their less-educated peers, according to a new study.

But those with a bachelor’s degree started off in the strongest position and weathered the downturn best, with employment slipping from 69 percent to 65 percent. (The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded a similar decline, about four percentage points, among all people over 20, at any education level.)

Similarly, in all three groups of young adults, wages fell for those who had work, but the decline was spread unevenly.

People with four-year college degrees saw a 5 percent drop in wages, compared with a 12 percent decrease for their peers with associate’s degrees, and a 10 percent decline for high school graduates.

Recessions in some respects put secular trends on steroids. Before, it was desirable that you have a college degree. When the bottom falls out of the labor market, it becomes nearly essential because qualified labor compresses, crowds out, and expels the least qualified. Trot out your studies about kids not learning in college. I don’t care. Across the labor market, degree > non-degree. It’s a heuristic we need to work to justify, not expunge.

Then this from the Wall Street Journal

Nearly half of the schools surveyed by Moody’s reported enrollment declines this fall, though overall median enrollment remained relatively flat from the previous year. A stagnant high-school graduate population, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, is contributing to the declines at some schools.

Moody’s also attributed the enrollment decline at some public universities to a “heightened scrutiny of the value of higher education” after years of tuition increases and stagnating family income. The credit-rating firm said in its report that more students are “increasingly attending more affordable community colleges, studying part time, or electing to enter the workforce without the benefit of a college education.”

Private universities and colleges with lower credit ratings, as well as smaller public universities, reported the most enrollment pressure, according to Moody’s.

“We have a more informed class of college consumers,” said Bonnie Snyder, founder of Kerrigan College Planning in Lancaster, Pa. “Everyone today knows someone who went to college and ended up with a career that didn’t justify the cost. They see college as a more risky investment.”

College on average leads to higher lifetime income and more secure employment. Yet humans’ fragile minds discount the future to the present. Times are uncertain, and college costs a lot, today. Its subjective value is being decimated. And let’s not kid ourselves who these people are: they are the kids who have to take out loans and work jobs just to go to a mid-level state school. In other words they are the vulnerable ones. And they are almost certainly making a decision today that will hurt them the rest of their lives.

Higher education is far more expensive than it should be. I have ideas as to what needs to be done to bring higher education into the 21st century. Yet not one of them involves simply rejecting the value of human capital investment through post-secondary education. Sorry.

Anyone who is standing around with a grin on their face yelling “told you college cost too much!” is truly blind to human welfare, and of course truly blind to empirical truth. But it’s becoming disturbingly en vogue to play the cynic.

Takes two to entangle

Nate Silver has an interesting post about how the space for compromise in the House is dwindling along with the number of swing seats, as more districts than ever are hyper partisan.

It’s an interest piece and I think one quote in particular is informative for how we ought to view the causes of going over the cliff, if in fact we do so.

So why is compromise so hard in the House? Some commentators, especially liberals, attribute it to what they say is the irrationality of Republican members of Congress.

But the answer could be this instead: individual members of Congress are responding fairly rationally to their incentives. Most members of the House now come from hyperpartisan districts where they face essentially no threat of losing their seat to the other party. Instead, primary challenges, especially for Republicans, may be the more serious risk.

Contracts are at least a bilateral transaction. Basic microeconomic theory would tell you that the failure to come to an agreement means that there was no equilibrium along two contract utility curves. The somewhat tautological common sense version is “when two parties fail to agree, it’s because they can’t agree.”

But politics is irrational and defies this logic. And while I have no sympathy for Republicans and their inability to steer the narrative in their favor, it seems completely wrong for intelligent individuals to place blame on them for no deal being done. Ironically the most rational people are the Republicans who recognize their electoral prospects suffer by striking a deal.

In our minds we all want to say to ourselves that getting re-elected isn’t the end goal. Our politicians should ideally be selfless in the name of averting going over the cliff.

That’s a lot to ask in reality of people who have to go to stand for election every two years. But guess who doesn’t have to do that? The President. Doubtless, Obama has a legacy to protect. But he will likely never run for office again. If anyone has less of an incentive to be selfish, it’s him. And because the modern presidency is often a position of herding Congressional cats and forcing compromise, I would go so far as to say the person most responsible for us going over the cliff is Barack Obama.

But the average American seems to buy into the Republican blame game. If they took the rational view, there would be culpability all around. But with the narrative so dead-set against the other side, why would the President want to flex his muscle to do the right thing?

Heumerous thoughts on guns.

Philosopher Michael Heumer published an essay in 2003 arguing that humans have a prima facie right to own guns. Please note that this is different from a constitutional right which I still find problematic.

The meat:

The main argument on the gun rights side goes like this:

1.
The right of self-defense is an important right.

2.
A firearms prohibition would be a significant violation of the right of self-defense.

3.
Therefore, a firearms prohibition would be a serious rights-violation.

The strength of the conclusion depends upon the strength of the premises: the more important the right of self-defense is, and the more serious gun control is as a violation of that right, the more serious a rights-violation gun control is.

I begin by arguing that the right of self-defense is extremely weighty. Consider this scenario:

In this scenario, the killer commits what may be the most serious kind of rights-violation possible. What about the accomplice who holds the victim down? Most would agree that his crime is, if not equivalent to murder, something close to murder in degree of wrongness, even though he neither kills nor injures the victim. Considered merely as the act of holding someone down for a few moments, the accomplice’s action [307] seems a minor rights-violation. What makes it so wrong is that it prevents the victim from either defending himself or fleeing from the killer—that is, it violates the right of self-defense. (To intentionally and forcibly prevent a person from exercising a right is to violate that right.) We may also say that the accomplice’s crime was that of assisting in the commission of a murder—this is not, in my view, a competing explanation of the wrongness of his action, but rather an elaboration on the first explanation. Since the right of self-defense is a derivative right, serving to protect the right to life among other rights, violations of the right of self-defense will often cause or enable violations of the right to life.

It is common to distinguish killing from letting die. In this example, we see a third category of action: preventing the prevention of a death. This is distinct from killing, but it is not merely letting die, because it requires positive action. The example suggests that preventing the prevention of a death is about as serious a wrong as killing. In any case, the fact that serious violations of the right of self-defense are morally comparable to murder serves to show that the right of self-defense must be a very weighty right.

I am very fond of Heumer’s work. Here he is at a TedX event discussing the irrationality of politics as it pertains to the War on Terror. He is no right wing populist zealot. Rather, he is a serious philosopher who happens to believe guns are important to the enjoyment of life for recreational users and an important tool for self-defense, which as a derivative right to the right to life, is very weighty indeed. While recognizing that the harm of guns can outweigh these goods, he suggests it does not. I leave it up to you to decide.

Thoughts on guns.

Still, still processing my thoughts on the shooting but there are a few important observations I’m ready to weigh in on.

Back when this was Jared Loughner, the immediate reaction is that this is what happens in an America overrun by right wing extremism. When you shoot Congressmembers, you’re a right wing extremist. When you shoot kids, you’re just deranged. I’m more convinced now than ever that the national conversation we had in the wake of the Giffords shooting regarding violent rhetoric and the right wing was quite off the mark unproductive. I am NOT trying to equate the motives of shooting children and attempting assassination. But I think a national conversation about doing better in identifying and helping individuals with mental disabilities and violent dispositions is more directionally correct in getting at the real cause of these one-off acts.

I’m still quite shocked that nothing is being said about the violence people are exposed to through the media today as a contributing factor to the apparent increase in mass murder. Our special effects are more horrific and realistic than ever in our films. How many kids are getting first-person shooter games for XBox this Christmas? How many parents proudly accompanied their children to Act of Valor, and will do so again for Zero Dark Thirty? The media and Internet also carry visual and narrative depictions of horrible real world crime and disseminate it widely. I don’t think there’s a conspiracy here but surely the media is capable of some self reflection.

I am not opposed to public policy allowing gun ownership, but I think the Second Amendment has been absolutely poisonous to the discourse and an obstacle to better public policy. I can’t think of any good reason why people should have an absolute right to own murderous machines. Ironically, those who defend this right most vehemently are often deniers of positive liberty. The right exists here though, and it provides a moral dimension to what should be governed purely by the prudential. I actually have people tell me guns are important to defend ourselves against our government. 1) your government owns horrific weapons that are far superior more devastating than your semi-automatic Constitutionally guaranteed hand gun. 2) no insurrecting society ever relied on a constitutional guarantee to be armed in order to arm itself. 3) Most importantly, the probability of you needing to defend yourself against the government is approximately zero. It’s even less than the likelihood your small child will be gunned down at school. Now weigh that against the probability of someone, probably black, dying in one of the many incredibly violent corners of our society that gets ignored but where you must fear for your life every. single. day and from which there is no meaningful chance of escape or betterment. Perspective.

I don’t believe in making public policy based on isolated events. But there’s a culture of violence in parts of this country that is due to years of racial oppression and, perhaps to an extent, the armed culture of our society. Gun ownership is tearing at the fabric. It’s becoming a powerful determinant of ideology. It’s negatively correlated with educational attainment, and with being a Democrat, and the gap is growing.

I don’t have all of the answers, but one clear step seems to be leveling registration requirements. No more gun show loopholes. Regulation should apply equally, always. I don’t support loopholes generally and particularly in this matter.

The real heavy lifting is getting at the core of the problem. Better mental health care to identify those who would kill indiscriminately and better social policy to fight the culture of gun crime that devastates many minority communities, which coupled with better regulation would lead to improved outcomes for preventing these people from getting weapons, giving them and would-be victims a shot chance at a better and longer existence. We could also use a better national dialogue around the culture of violence portrayed by the media and perpetuated in attitudes suggesting that we have a right to vigilante justice in the name of defending our freedom.

We are fortunate that as a society we are peaceful and getting more so. Homicide is way down. Most people don’t want to kill other people. But some do, and some always will. The question in my mind is “can we do better.” I think the answer is yes.