Archive for the 'democracy' Category

27
Jun
13

CAFOs and Democracy

Today I listend to a podcast about CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operation). These are basically places that raise a lot of livestock. Today the issue was how CAFOs pollute the water supply.

Apparently, human shit is very closely regulated. Where it can and can’t be put, how it has to be cleaned etc. We’re particular about our own. But animal shit can go anywhere. Because some people realized that animal shit would help crops go, there seems to be unlimited regulatory latitude about where it can go. In fact, the animating issue of this entire podcast was that there is too much shit for it to used as fertilizer and so the excess just goes in waterways, which then causes enormous algal blooms where the nutrients are. The algal blooms in turn eat up the oxygen in the water causing everything else to die.

The ins and outs of this problem seemed complex, but I heard two things over and over.

1. There are laws against dumping this stuff into the water and about using too much of it on land, which then seeps into the groundwater and into rivers and lakes. However, no one brings enforcement actions because big agriculture is, well, big. And powerful. Or maybe the enforcement agencies are understaffed. They interviewed a few farmers from Wisconsin who said that there are just never any enforcement actions.

2. Random redirection of the question, and denials that anything is wrong.

2 gets so old so fast. It was standard redirection, non-answer type stuff. The science appeared to be overwhelming judging from the other guests.

1 made me even more upset, because I hear this line ALL THE TIME. Banks, pharma, military, etc. etc. The pattern of our government appears to be; there is a problem x that we have already addressed, but not really, since nothing that we actually make into law affects anything. This is incredibly aggravating and disconcerting.

What does it mean to have a law against dumping waste in the river if it is so non-enforced as to become a running joke of those people who are supposed to be obeying the law? It seems that it is not law at all. But worse than that, there is a legitimacy problem. If we are supposed to be getting together to make the laws, but then the interests that are meant to be regulated just make the rules themselves, then this is a disastrous state of affairs. This no different than a modern kind of feudalism in which some people get to set the rules for some people and can, in this instance, dump waste into the water of other people if they so choose.

It makes me think that a candidate who simply promised to enforce the laws as written would actually have a powerful philosophy, because even if a law were actually intolerable, it would at least spur people to actually change the laws, rather than let them linger on the books as they do now.

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21
Mar
13

Who Tells Us What

When you have data and a nuanced, long-view, of an area, it’s easy to say profound things. It comes naturally. Look at this sentence from a very recent pew report on the state of the media.

In 2012, a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.

The point is striking, but I never thought about it before. When reporting manpower goes down, but total content output needs to stay the same, then something must give. In this case, Pew seems to think that other entities step in to provide content in a more packaged or ready-to-press form. This shouldn’t be surprising. If you go to buzzfeed.com, you’ll see that some of their content is put together straight from advertisers. There model is not really reporting so my analogy is flawed, but there is definitely something convincing about the hypothesis that as reporting and analysis dry up, powerful groups such as the government and the market can dictate the terms of content promulgation even more.

Again, I don’t want to shortchange the rise of bloggers and specialists. I’ve learned a ton from individual people who just decided to drill down on a complex issue. It just doesn’t seem to me like the burgeoning independent journalism sphere yet makes that much difference. It seems like there are established message channels and that they are still up for use/hijack depending on how you see it.

12
Jan
13

What do people think about Alex Jones on Piers Morgan?

I’m really interested in what people think about this debate between Piers Morgan and Alex Jones.

I thought Piers Morgan was generally right in the sense that his DEMEANOR and COMPORTMENT were right. I thought he stayed calm and civil. That’s not easy to do and it’s a victory when one is interested in coming up with a good plan.

I do think it’s odd that Morgan decided to have Jones on his show. As far as I can tell, Jones is one hair away from being a lunatic. I’m not sure if it’s a gracious move to give a voice to someone with so little to say or if it’s foolhardy to invite someone without argument in to an arena that badly needs to be more thoughtful and more deliberative. Was Piers Morgan just looking for the worst representative of the pro-gun side?

I also think it was a little patronizing for Piers Morgan to claim that it was a debate that he wanted, but he wanted to just ask questions that were kind of leading. I think it would have been better if he had just tried to put out a positive view about why the gun control restrictions he supports would have merit.

Jones had a video after the interview talking about his harassment by various security personnel. If such things happened, it’s a shame. That’s just garbage. There’s no need for it.

I didn’t get much from the arguments though. “Gun violence is down” was the big statistic that Jones was pointing to, but that doesn’t really tell us anything, because the question is whether gun crime would go down further if intelligent laws were put in place. Also, the risk of tyranny or disarmament is hugely overblown. There are so many guns in America already that disarmament would fail, and the fact that so many people are worried about disarmament means that democratically, such a measure would be impossible, and it seems, dangerous to carry out. Thus, we’re at no risk of being prevented from resisting a Hitler state should it come about. Our choice now then is between keeping the status quo or adjusting it in some way.

Then again, Piers Morgan’s statistics weren’t really that helpful either. He never said why closing the gun show regulation or whatever would help.

30
Dec
12

Games and Civilization

I recently read Jane Mcgonigal’s book titled¬†Reality is Broken.¬†Unbelievably, I’ve misplaced my copy and so am without my notes for this short post.

What I want to focus on is a remark that McGonigal makes about scale. Her point is that scale is not what we think it is. It’s natural to think that if five molecules behave a certain way, then fifteen molecules will behave in a similar way, just with more molecules to take into account. The rules get more complex but the rules themselves don’t change.

She talks at points as if physics shows this to be false. That at higher levels of scale, there are new emergent properties that would not be predicted by just taking the laws for a lower scale of interaction and just account for more things. I don’t know about physics and her reference is obscure and offhand, so I can’t speak to that analogy. What I want to do is to think about how civilization fundamentally changes at each stage of it’s evolution so that ideas and rules that were applicable to one part of it at one time are no longer applicable at a later part or later time.

Applicable is a vague word, but I mainly mean that solutions for certain social problems become unworkable as things change. It’s hard for me to find an example that makes the case once and for all. But take a broad view. The ways of organizing a small society, like a tribe or a clan, involve face to face problem solving, kinship relations, a very uncomplicated economy, etc. When you move from this, to something different, like a city-state, a lot of things don’t work. For example, justice requires the codification of laws, division of labor (to a meager extent), and full time political offices.

Humankind, in my mind, seems to be incapable, just horribly incapable, of keeping up with the pace of our living, of our own society. I’m tempted to think the root cause is our two systems of thinking. Humor me. We have an intuitive system of thought that rushes to judgment. See Daniel Kahnemann for more evidence, but at root, we like fatty foods, sex, we automatically approve of our own action, we see the concerns of others as less important, again ETC. We can combat all these tendencies, but it isn’t easy, and I think that these individual cognitive facts are mirrored in the way society works. Society is great at getting better music, sexier celebrities, cooler cars, gadgets, more power for the powerful. These things take care of themselves and no one, in the history of the world, has had to focus on making sure the powerful can defend themselves. No one needs to worry that the present is shortchanging itself in order to help the future. In fact, global warming shows us that we are obsessed with the present and may, organizationally, be unable to deal with what’s coming. It seems it will always be privileged.

There are other examples. The phrase “we’re always fighting the last war” is instructive. Even war, one of the most important concerns of a modern state, always lags behind. It’s partly incompetence and partly complexity. Who would have guessed that the U.S. traditional military dominance would result in people willing to blow themselves up. We’re always fighting the last war, and we’re always solving the last problem. In other words, I think we’re always woefully behind what our intuitive, automatic, unthinking societal forces create. We created the internet and it has huge legal implications. It changes how we gather intelligence, how privacy works, what IP is, and what property rules are applicable. We are way behind in addressing these issues in terms of clear thinking. We’re waiting to catch up.

One more example. We’re worried about what violent video games are doing to children. Some analogize this to the effects of TV or rap lyrics. Yes and no. If we think the analogy is perfect, then we will be fighting the last war. What I mean is that we will think that video games effect people in the same way as violent movies or lyrics. But it’s subtly different. For proof, just look at the fact that school shooters who are influenced by video games often kill themselves, whereas people from the TV generation didn’t usually suicide after their crimes. There are probably deeper differences. The right thing to do would be to adjust our social science, tweak our thinking, and come up with a new way to respond that involved reducing bullying, increasing mental health services, possibly gun control or at least better enforcement of laws we already have. We wont’ do any of those things. We may slowly adjust all of those things in the next 15 to 20 years. But for now, we can only crawl forward.

McGonigal’s point is that we’re facing a new scale to human problems. The instantaneously massive. Problems that cross geographic boundaries, social science disciplines, and defy easy solutions. To solve these problems, we must become more collaborative on a new scale. And here McGonigal really has a point. Wikipedia is a massive reproduction and systemization of human knowledge. It can be improved, but it’s already very good. She has examples about how game players can help fold proteins and create massive edifices of functionality and knowledge. Knowledge that is alive with it’s own use and pregnant with it’s own application. Her example is video games like world of warcraft in which the players have an entire economy, solve collective world problems, and develop idioms, ways of interacting, and codes of conduct — the micro rules that make all societies run but are almost impossible to catch in a sentence, a law, or a movement. This is a good point and she may be right that we need to evolve better, more massive, more complete systems of cooperation.

My one criticism though is that more and more coordination will only get us so far. Beyond coordination is genuine cooperation, valuing, and striving. We have to pick our priorities, seize decisively on mistakes and errors, and work to improve things as we see them. None of this can be accomplished by mere world-of-warcraftization. World of warcraft takes place within a somewhat free liberal society, and it is those values that make it playable, and our games will replicate the flawed, never-quite-there sickness of human civilization until we solve the problem of values first.

Of course, we will never solve the problem of values. They will always be in flux and being contested, and this is exactly what makes life so enjoyable. The game we play with each other when we try to build a company, raise a family, or paint a picture is INFINITELY complex. Some games get boring because you learn their internal logic and you become tired with the repetition. Human life though, FOR THE VERY REASON THAT WE CAN NEVER SOLVE IT COMPLETELY, is always fresh and new. It’s always challenging us and we usually feel like meeting that challenge.

 

03
Jul
12

The History of Western Civilization Through Social Media

The history of western civilization, as far as I can tell, is the substitution of institutional, coercive, control over people’s lives with diffused, softer, and “social” controls. First, the church, your lord, your husband, and the difficulty of human life ruled over you. Very few people had power to direct their lives each day as they saw fit, and the power that they had to direct others was stern and violent. Remember, legal courts are a comparatively new thing. If someone didn’t like what you did, it was likely that they would just kill you themselves or find someone with power that looked out for them and have them kill you.

Then the church lost its power and slowly but surely, over the course of roughly two hundred years, individuals won the right to practice the religion that they saw fit. But the freedom from excommunication and being burned at the stake by the church was replaced by legal requirements instituted by various governments, and then even those slowly died away as society finally realized the ability to. In a way, religion might be our collective sneak peek at what happens to ALL institutions and systems of value. First, they rule everything, then they are up to the state, then up to the economy, then up to the individual, and then they cease to matter altogether (as I believe will largely happen to religion, or will it have staying power? That would be interesting to see). One might say that a system of values starts its death the moment that those who believe in it cannot summarily kill those who do not.

The same thing happened with the economy. First, people owed their labor to their lord. In fact, there was slavery at the beginning of most societies, but the intermediate step was serfdom or vassalage. A huge class of people created food so that others might live. Then property became somewhat more democratized in that more people could own it, but land was still largely restricted to certain people and labor was still largely immobilized by the difficulty of travel and the power of nobles of all stripes. Also, taxes were set up to almost make sure that certain people could never participate in the economy. In France, the nobles were the ones who DIDN’T have to pay taxes for a long time, because they just didn’t want to and the king did not want to tangle with them. Today, everyone can have property to roughly the same degree. If you have the money and the skills, you can get land, cash, machines, information. Anything you want. If you have the cash. (Addendum: this trend is further backed up by a short look at the history of lending. The dispersion of capital into the economy has massively democratized access to $$)

Same thing happened with the state. At first, the state was nothing more than a group of people who had weapons or commanded the power of other people with weapons. Offending the laws of a place was a good way to die. Since that brutal starting point, the legal controls on the average person have loosened in a host of ways (though they still exist). For one thing, people can now elect their rulers. They play a role in who will rule them, to some degree. That is the legacy of the advance of democracy. Also, the state cannot do certain things. That’s never really true in practice, but there are much more barriers to outright discrimination, pogroms, and the like then in the past. That is the legacy of liberalism. Finally, breaking the law is almost never a ticket to death. There are courts, appeals courts, and finally prisons. There are many, many MORE laws because society has become so much more complex, but they do not carry the absolute and unbending character that they used to.

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In this post though, I want to focus on the economy at large. Here again, we are witnessing a substitution of one type of obvious power with a more subtle more dispersed power. The example I’m thinking of is social media and the internet. As the economy had evolved up until the 20th century, people were entitled to property of various kind by paying for it. The problem was that if one didn’t have money, one became poor. If you were poor before public transportation, you had to find a ride another way. If you were poor before food stamps and the like, you were hungry (soup kitchens being the exception).

But these days, a lot of things are eliminating that barrier by providing things for free. For example, news is now free, because sites provide them along with advertisements. Facebook is free, because they want you to give them all your personal information. Thousands of other services are provided not for a monetary cost (the old way of restricting people to goods), but by transacting over someone’s personal data.

This fits with western civilization thus far. Goods and services are made available to more and more people. Yay! Anyone can go to theatlantic.com and read pretty high quality writing about a range of interesting topics. Anyone can connect with friends and family via google voice, facebook, email, and on and on. The tradeoff though is made in terms of less understood and “softer” forms of restriction. Cynicism is the name for this and I predict it will grow as an extremely unhealthy force in our society.

In the old economy, if I wanted to buy steel, and you wanted to sell it to me, I knew why you wanted to sell it to me. You wanted my money. This was a type of honesty. As many have pointed out, it was also callous, since I didn’t care about you, but only your money. I maintain though that because everyone knew that money was the trade off, it created an activity and a respect similar to sports. If I played you in basketball, I know you wanted to win, but we both knew the purpose of our interaction. Same with negotiations and creating business. People know what they are getting into when they enter the marketplace. They expect to engage in economic competition (as I’ve argued elsewhere, the value of this competition is exactly the reason we need public education and wealth redistribution, so that this competition is meaningful). But now, when you go to get something, there is an element of fakery that breeds cynicism. Rather than posting a price that Facebook expects you to pay, it plays an ongoing game that most people do not KNOW ABOUT or PAY ATTENTION TO regarding what they will and will not do with your information. They want badly to do whatever they want, but they are bound to care about the community because they need the “community” to continue to extract the information that it needs. Thus there is a very amorphous dance that goes on about the service and what it entails rather than a price transaction which focuses the consumer on what they are buying. This type of transaction makes it very clear to the consumer what they are giving up.

The same things goes for news sites that make money through eyeballs. Rather than asking you to pay for what you read if you like it, there are now gadgets an procedures at every turn to keep your eyeballs on the site. Such things can be distractions, redirects, and prettier and prettier advertisements. But the point is simply to deluge you with advertisements. This is much less callous than simply asking a price, but it’s much more insulting. The purchase of things is becoming indirect. Rather than trying to get your money, facebook wants you to be willing to make it easier for someone ELSE to get your money.

07
Jun
12

The relationship between fundraising and electoral support

Many people are worried about money in politics. They think that all the fundraising is bad because a candidate who raises money can then spend it on electoral success. In this way, money is supposed to be distorting American politics.

But there is an ongoing question in the social sciences about whether raising money makes a politician a strong candidate, or whether being a strong candidate helps one raise money. If the latter is true, then it seems that money is just a harmless byproduct or a demonstration or sign of how attractive the candidate already is.

But even if the latter is true, and fundraising is just a byproduct of being a good candidate, there may be reason to lament the money in politics.

If money is not an exogenous variable that can help a poor candidate beat a superior candidate, then money is an endogenous candidate which demonstrates which candidate had a more attractive history/platform/etc all along. So, the big spending by winning candidates is just proof that they’re attractive candidates in the sense that they are responsive to people.

But why is the candidate attractive? Perhaps they are attractive for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps they are a pretty face or have a talent for rhetoric. And every minute that attractive candidates spend raising and spending money is time that they don’t spend clarifying their positions to the people who already believe in them or convincing those who don’t yet agree that they should. In other words, the fact that strong candidates manifest their strength through advertising and fundraising says something about our democratic system. In a different democratic system, strong candidates might manifest their strength by other metrics that aren’t easy to quantify such as number of people convinced or number of new voters that voted for them, etc.

 

25
May
11

15 minutes extremely well spent

Use this. It takes about 15 minutes to complete and in the process you will become a much better citizen of this country. It’s not because it necessarily teaches you anything specific, but rather attacks the cancerous cynicism that infects so many people these about politics. If you play this game you will learn that governance is hard and that people are for the most part, probably trying to do their best.

I solved 125% of the social security problem and lowered the deficit to around 300 billion. Not bad, but not that good either. I did most of it by increasing taxes and slashing the military pretty heavily. I mainly boosted education and some other social services.

This game also teaches you where the big money goes and where it DOESN’T. We don’t spend shit on the environment or our court system. Things seem to work ok with that decision, but we just don’t spend anything there. This game also gives you a great sense of how ABSOLUTELY MONSTROUS our military budget it. Wow.