Peder D4

Discussion of politics and other odious things

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

How To Handle Dictatorships

We're in an odd moment here in the West.  After the cold war was won, we wound down, leading some to declare that we had reached the 'end of history'.  That obviously wasn't true and we've now been at war for more than a dozen years.  The odd thing is, despite many military victories, we have no idea how to actually win. 
Foreign policy under Obama is, well, hard to define.  It places a high value on international consensus.  It avoids conflict, especially conflict that would put US troops on the ground.  It cherishes 'soft power' approaches.  And it really hasn't changed the world for the better. 
Not that the Bush approach worked any better.  The military did its part in conquering forces in the field but then things fell to pieces.  Nations refused to be built and the world decided that the US was the bad guy.  No one looks to the Bush years as a model on how to move forward.
So what do we do?  Allow me to spitball some ideas.

Tie foreign aid to reforms.  One of the reasons why the situation in so many poor countries is so helpless is because the political structure is rotten and corrupt.  What if we made foreign aid conditional on reforms to fix those systems?  We could attack bribery pretty easily.  We could also include things like freedom of the press and other basic rights.  Figure out the top priorities and very publicly tell the dictatorships that unless they clean up their acts, the money stops.
Pay dictators to retire.  Another enduring problem is that once an autocrat takes power, they hang on to it until death.  Sometimes, like in North Korea, that means the family takes over and there is little hope of peaceful regime change.  On some level it's galling, but the world would be better off if some of these despots were given a pile of cash and the deed to a Mediterranean villa.  One of the prime strengths of the Western world is that countries periodically trade power to other countries without bloodshed.  We should do what we can to encourage that.
Threaten cultural retaliation.  If you've read 'The Looming Tower' by Lawrence Wright (and you really should!), then you'll know that Al Qaeda and their spiritual brethren are motivated by the idea that non-Islamic ideas are decadent and will corrupt the soul.  What would happen if we found a way to tell leaders of terrorist groups that we would use culture to retaliate to any attacks from them?  What if we threatened to broadcast our most decadent channels, say Bravo and MTV, onto every TV in their country?  What if every radio picked up station after station of pop music?  Would that give them pause?
Outsource nation building.  If we do find ourselves again in the awful place of having to force regime change, we should break it into two distinct phases.  The US (and any probable coalition) can handle the military side.  The big problems come after.  The people there rightly fear imperialism and resent the foreign troops.  So we call in someone else.  Ask the UN to rebuild.  That takes away the imperialism fear and allows the foreign troops to withdraw. 
Confidently assert pluralistic values.  If we really want a future world where conflicts over race, religion and creed are rare, then we need to show how that's done.  We need to push examples of how different people can live comfortably together.  This will mean less searching for specks in our own eyes and some bragging about the areas where we do a good job.  It will mean standing up for principles like free speech without the depressing 'but' that so often follows.  It will mean reasserting assimilation and the melting pot. 

These may not work but our current ideas aren't so hot.  They might be worth a try.

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Friday, January 09, 2015

Charlie Hebdo

Points are numbered to make responses easier.

1. Let's start with the basics.  This image should not justify murder. 
It may be disrespectful and distasteful but in a free society, drawing and publishing such a picture should not carry a death sentence.  It also should not carry a fear of prison or fines or any such thing.  Possibly it will bring social penalties but that risk is up to the artist and publisher.
2. A free society depends on the ability to dispute, criticize and ridicule members of authority.  This can be messy but it's necessary.  As Voltaire said, 'To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.'  No person or institution is granted that position in a free society.
3. Not everyone agrees with the second point.  Here is Anjem Choudary in the US Today, writing about the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
Contrary to popular misconception, Islam does not mean peace but rather means submission to the commands of Allah alone. Therefore, Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people's desires.
Although Muslims may not agree about the idea of freedom of expression, even non-Muslims who espouse it say it comes with responsibilities. In an increasingly unstable and insecure world, the potential consequences of insulting the Messenger Muhammad are known to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
That last sentence seems to say, 'they were warned and they had it coming'.
4. I have no idea how widespread this thought is among Muslims.  Obviously some millions of Muslims live in the US and other countries that share our notion of free speech.  The vast majority of them seem able to deal with the prospect that something personally precious to them may be ridiculed.  Hopefully Mr Choudary's viewpoint is held only by a tiny minority.
5. It would be good for us, and the world as a whole if we could help make that minority even smaller.  As J.S. Mill said, 'If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.'  We are better off with more and more speech, not less.  Even if that speech makes others uncomfortable or offended.
6. I don't know how good of a job we do really explaining the concept of 'free speech' to the rest of the world.  Of late, we've done a really terrible job of explaining that a commitment to free speech means that listeners just might hear some terrible things.  You might hear things that make you conclude that the speaker is a terrible human being.  You might hear things that make you angry.  You might hear things that make you feel a little sick inside.  Freedom isn't always pretty.
7. What's the alternative?  The only way of avoiding all of the bad stuff is to wall off sections of speech.  This means (per Voltaire's point) figuring out who is in charge and must not be criticized.  It also means (per Mill's point) that minority points of view must be silenced.  An adult society rejects those choices and deals with the possibility of being offended.
8. So how do we communicate this to those who aren't convinced?  By being steadfast in our defense of allowing people to talk.  If someone makes art that is anti-X, we stand up and defend their ability to do so.  We stop looking for ways to tell each other to 'shut up'.  That means terms like 'micro-aggression, mansplaining and privilege' should be used to open up avenues of conversation, not bring it to a halt.  It means a rather thorough reexamination of the concept of 'hate speech'.  Any time we are telling someone else that they must shut up, we give credence to the arguments of someone like Mr Choudary and his belief that people should stop talking in ways that bring him offense.
9. None of this should be taken as saying that people shouldn't criticize speech that they don't agree with.  If you see obscene art, tell the artist and gallery that you find it offensive.  If you read sentiments you disagree with, talk back and explain why you disagree.  This may get messy and loud.  So be it.  That's better than the alternative.
10. Of course, another way of dealing with offensive art and the like is to simply roll your eyes and ignore it.  This is another way that mature, pluralistic societies work together.  They avoid the worst arguments with a sort of 'live and let live' attitude.  We could use more of that.  We'd be better off if we could comfortably go to a restaurant even if we disagreed with the politics of the owner.  We'd be better off if bakers could simply bake cakes without worrying whether they were topped by two brides or two grooms.
11. Large numbers of people can live together with other people who say and do things that they find disagreeable.  We've proved that.  We should be exporting these ideas to any of the rest of the world that will listen to them. 

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Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Political Dynasties

Why are political dynasties ok?

WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton defended American political dynasties — including her own — arguing some families may just have a “predisposition” to become presidents.
In an interview published Tuesday with Der Spiegel, Clinton batted down the notion that a succession of Bushes and Clintons in the White House would turn American politics into a monarchy.
“We had two Roosevelts,” the former secretary of state told the German publication. “We had two Adams. It may be that certain families just have a sense of commitment or even a predisposition to want to be in politics.”
 I'd like to see someone defend this type of sentiment and then explain to me how inequality is a prime problem for our country.  Oh, I have no doubt that the same person could do both, but they'd have to sacrifice intellectual honesty to do so.



Thursday, January 30, 2014

Racists!

I need a system where I can stick posts that I want to refer back to later.  This one, from Matt Welch, about casual assumptions of racism is a prime example. 
This isn't just bad journalism, it's bad tolerance. Attributing a single set of personality traits to scores of millions of people whose only commonality is age and race is the opposite of judging people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. It's also a cheap way to wave off the substance of anti-Obama criticism—why bother figuring out why a majority of Americans have consistently disliked the flawed Affordable Care Act when you can just roll your eyes and assert that the real reason is white anxiety and worse? There is nothing tolerant about assuming that those who have different ideas than you about the size and scope of government are motivated largely by base ethnic tribalism.
 The casual assumption is a lazy excuse to avoid answering real arguments.  As a bonus, it gives the accusers some unearned virtue so that they can beat up their opponents.  Of course, it's also become a signal that the speaker should simply be ignored . . .

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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Money in Politics

In a recent article from Eric Black, he talks about the migration of donors from President Obama to possible Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.  He ends with a weary observation:
In the corrupt world of big-time fund-raising the help of Priorities USA will bring plenty of potential conflicts of interest between the fund-raisers, donors and lobbyists.
I think there is a lot of disappointment on the left with how much money has flowed through the Obama presidency.  And I don't think fans of good government are at all pleased with how easy it is for businesses to influence how the rules are made.  I'd like to offer some suggestions on how to do a better job of picking a presidential candidate to do some actual cleaning. 
The first step is to pick out some simple, bi-partisan, good government regulations.  Some suggestions:
  • One of the most effective ideas I've read is found here from Glenn Reynolds.  The basic idea is that government employees in policy positions would face additional taxes on earnings that are higher than what they earned while in government employ.  The idea is to blunt the edge that lobbying groups and companies can gain by buying influence.
  • Perhaps there should be a rule where candidates for high office (House of Reps, Senate, President and Vice President) must make their taxes public each year.  And maybe for some period prior to candidacy, like five or ten years.  We don't elect people so that they can become rich in office.  Let's see what money they're receiving.
  • There was some embarrassment recently when we learned that Obama's nominee for Ambassador to Norway, knows next to nothing of the country.  It seems he was picked more as a reward for fund-raising than for talent.  This is a bi-partisan tradition and it should be stopped.  Maybe we'd be better off if the State department sent annual lists of people that were qualified to be ambassadors.
These strike me as non-partisan or at least not of any obvious partisan advantage over the long term.  Maybe they don't appeal to you, or you have different ideas.  It almost doesn't matter what is put out there as long as it's a fairly straight-forward, non-partisan, 'good government' idea.  Ideally, there would be at least three or four good bills put forth.  That's step two.
Step three is the big one.  Every presidential candidate should be on record regarding each plan.  If it's someone like Elizabeth Warren or Rand Paul, then we'll have their votes.  If it's someone like Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush then we need to make sure they're asked and interviewed until we know where they stand.  The best way to find someone who won't use the presidency as a cash register is to find someone who will bind their own hands before they get there.

Yes, I can hear people out there muttering about Citizens United.  I don't think that Citizens United has had much effect on letting big money into politics.  Or in other words, people like Karl Rove would still be raising and using large amounts of money even if the Supreme Court had ruled the other way.  In any case, the issue is contentious and those on the right don't trust those on the left here.  If you won't act without overturning 
Citizens United, then you simply won't be acting. 
The key is to find a plan which should appeal across the aisle.  Candidates shouldn't be able to dodge by saying that any such bill would only help the opposition.  Good government measures are supported by people of all political stripes and it shouldn't be too hard to ways to fix things. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Unprecedented

Think opposition to Obama is unprecedented?  Read this.  Pay special attention to the part from 2005 which tells a story that I had never heard before.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Distribution of Wealth

Interesting piece from Eric Black here, on wealth distribution and reaction to it on the right.  Here is the key quote (but do read the whole thing):
On the other hand -- this is only my impression but a strong impression, at least in my addled brain -- I don't hear Republicans even acknowledging that the maldistribution of wealth and income is a problem, or even an issue, or even a fact.
Perhaps representatives of the various factions of the right should be asked about it more. Is there any percentage of the nation's wealth that could be concentrated in the top one or five or 10 percent of the population that would be a problem, and if so what is the Republican plan for addressing it?
 I can't speak for all Republicans, of course, but I do swim in those waters.  I've got an idea of the general thoughts on wealth distribution from the right.  (For simplicity of response, I'm going to number my points.)

1. To start with, I've long been skeptical of the timing of this argument.  We didn't talk much about income inequality during the 2008 campaign.  It wasn't thrown around as a reason for the Great Recession until a couple of years later when charts like this came out:

Take a look at a couple of things here.  Right before the recession hit, we had the greatest inequality since before the Great Depression.  When did we have the second highest?  The late 90's.  Do you remember all of the arguments about wealth inequality during the second Clinton term?  Of course not.  They didn't happen.  Somehow that wasn't a problem then, during boom times.  I'll also note that most of the charts that I've seen cut off in 2007 so we don't get a feel for what's happened since the recession began.
2. Another popular type of chart is this one:




This chart shows that the wealthy have more space and will eventually push the rest of us into the ocean.  Except that isn't how wealth works.  For instance, even as wealth inequality has been growing, the average house size has too.  The middle class of today owns more house, better cars and is able to afford more entertainment than they could have a generation ago.  In real terms, each generation is wealthier than the previous one.  If you want to visualize wealth as some kind of divided pie, then you have to understand that the pie is growing larger and larger.
Ok, so I'm skeptical.  What about the questions that Mr Black asks?
3. Yes, there is some percentage at which maldistribution would be a problem but I don't know what that percentage is.  It wouldn't bother me if the top 1% had 90% of the wealth if the rest of us could still live well.  This is the heart of how the right understands wealth distribution.  We think that people will try to keep up with Jones, but not the Rockefeller family.  As long as we still have sustainable paths for average people to create the lives they want, the overall American dream is fine. 
Let me unpack that a bit.  I'm not saying that people should be content with any old hovel and a ration of food.  I'm not talking about just the bare necessities.  There is a standard of living that every culture comes to expect and we want it to keep getting better.  I do too!  I want people with stable jobs to be able to afford nice homes, have nice cars and playthings, go on nice vacations, etc.  The normal path is something like: go to school, get a job, get married/get house/get career, spend excess money on things you want/like.  I want this path to work.
4. Right now there are two big obstacles on that path: health care and college expenses.  Neither one of those obstacles are obviously connected to wealth distribution.  In fact, both of those areas have been heavily influenced by government efforts to fix the problem.  We've had de facto price controls in health control ever since Johnson's Great Society.  Prices have shot up.  The latest effort, the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, seems to also be raising prices (though we'll need to check on that after the system is actually in place and we have better numbers). 
College prices have been a mess too.  We've been giving more and more money to colleges, both directly and through grants and cheap loans.  Colleges have taken that money, captured the increases and still the prices are going up and up.  My father could work his way through college.  My kids will have to go deeply in debt to get a degree.
5. Can we make the path easier?  Sure.  Here are some ideas off the top of my head:
  • Ease regulations and make it easier to start a business.  Right now the regulatory thicket is so tough that you almost need a lawyer to get through.  That's a problem.  A related problem is the out of control licensing issues.  It shouldn't take several hundred hours of licensing to open a beauty shop.
  • Recognize other paths than the university model.  We should be encouraging vocation and technical schools.  A degree in humanities may make you a better person (I believe it does) but it won't make you a better programmer.  
  • A related point, we should encourage employers to ease off on degree requirements for hiring.  A couple of years ago I saw a job where someone would go from hotel to hotel, making sure that mattresses were installed correctly.  The company wanted a two year degree or higher.  That's a pretty obvious mismatch of training and needed skills.  This kind of thing is widespread and a problem.  
  • One big problem is the growth of the single parent family.  It's much, much harder to create stable wealth with one parent.  I don't have any specific policies in mind to help this, but the first step is to recognize the problem.
6.  My biggest worry with concentration of wealth is that the 1% will buy themselves favors from government.  That's happened even in the Obama administration, though doubtlessly his supporters thought it wouldn't when they elected him in 2008.  I'm skeptical that we can ever regulate away from this problem and I flat out don't believe that a 'watchdog media' will ever give scrutiny to the party that they support.  The only way to combat this is to have some broad and flat rules for companies and leave it at that.  Every time we have exceptions and carve outs, it will favor the wealthy or the well connected.  Waivers present an obvious problem that's been almost completely ignored. The typical shorthand for this on the right is that 'if we don't want money to corrupt the government, then we shouldn't give money a reason to do so'.  A large company without lobbyists is in trouble today and that's a huge problem for our country.
7.  If you want to convince me that wealth inequality is a problem in the U.S., then you need to show me that our bottom 20% is worse off than, say, that of the EU.  I haven't seen any such thing.
8.  This point probably should have been higher up, but another problem I have is that I haven't seen a good attempt to walk the problem through from A to Z.  I need something like, "A: we have great wealth inequality.  B: This is causing something.  C:  That is causing an additional something."  Until we get to the explanation for why inequality caused the recession or is keeping us from recovering or whatever.  What we're seeing now is simply that some people have a lot more than others so we should be outraged.  That doesn't convince me at all.