Policy Is the Best Policy
August 13, 2012

The concept of policy is the American political imagination’s self-circumscribed border. You can do what you like with policies–build, mold, destroy, rearrange–but the context in which policies appear is static, unchanging. Policies can reflect different governing philosophies, but only those philosophies which endorse governing through policy. Policy can shape philosophy as much as philosophy shapes policy.

Policies deal with the tactile and the quantifiable. If it’s not measurable, it’s not truly thinkable. Policy is hostile to virtue ethics or theology, but it loves utilitarianism. To the extent that policy addresses psychology, it turns us all into behaviorists. Behavioral economics has made policy more sophisticated, but it has also made its outer limits more sharply visible.

The ultimate end of modern politics is to exert as much influence as possible over policy making. You can do that either by electing your own policy makers or by influencing the ones already in office. Elected officials, public institutions and interest groups form alliances and compete among one another to most effectively dominate the policy-making process. Within those categories, political actors are distinguishable only by their stated policy preferences, the amount of power they wield, and how they use that power. So, for example, all interest groups are identical insofar as they all do more or less the same thing in the same way. A labor union is indistinguishable from a pro-life activist group is indistinguishable from the Chamber of Commerce until you examine their stated policy preferences and the strategies they use to achieve them.

This is essentially why Occupy Wall Street was so baffling: it refused to behave like an interest group. When members of the press urged Occupy to release its demands, they were really asking for a menu of policy preferences. Occupy Wall Street’s idea of a politics beyond policy seemed as intelligible as a language spoken without words. But that idea’s moment has passed, at least for now, along with its frightening ambiguities. Policy has resumed its central, uncontested place in political discourse. Occupy–cloudy, confusing and inchoate–has ceded to the simple, comforting, and diamond-hard.

Even more comforting: Paul Ryan’s appearance on the Republican presidential ticket this election cycle. Conventional wisdom has it that his presence will make the election especially policy-heavy. Here’s hoping!

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Tucker Annihilation
February 23, 2012

A couple nights ago, Tucker Carlson told Fox News that “Iran deserves to be annihilated.” Nothing to see here; just some standard yuppie pundit chest-beating. But I found his pseudo-mea culpa absolutely fascinating:

It’s my fault that I got tongue tied and didn’t explain myself well last night. I’m actually on the opposite side on the Iran question from many people I otherwise agree with. I think attacking could be a disaster for the US and am worried that Obama will do it, for fear of seeming weak before an election. Of course the Iranian government is awful and deserves to be crushed. But I’m not persuaded we or Israel could do it in a way that doesn’t cause even greater problems. That’s the main lesson of Iraq it seems to me.

See, the problem with declaring war on Iran is that it would be a “disaster” … for the US. It might cause problems. That’s the main lesson of Iraq.

You could argue that this position is less monstrous than the one that tongue-tied Tucker seemed to profess on Fox News. After all, he’s saying that we shouldn’t take actions that would lead to the senseless slaughter of thousands of Iranians. But he’s doing so while also making clear that the lives of those thousands of Iranians are not the main issue. National interest, dammit!

If the “main lesson” of Iraq was really that one should refrain from committing inexpedient atrocities, then no one’s really learned anything. Just remember Tucker’s words the next time he castigates the Iranian government for how poorly they treat Iranians.

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Pity-Charity Indentured Servitude
February 16, 2012

From his “favorite graph of the week,” Mike Konczal discovers, in Florida, “a very strong relationship between sanctioning those on welfare with the needs of local, highly seasonal, labor demand.

In layman’s terms: during the peak tourism months in Florida (when the demand for cheap labor rises to accommodate the influx of tourists), the state is more likely to penalize welfare recipients — for whatever reason — by withholding funds. Thereby, presumably, forcing them to find employment in seasonal, minimum wage jobs.

Cue a very strange response from Kevin Drum:

Still, this is nonetheless pretty persuasive evidence that case workers do, in fact, calibrate sanction levels to the needs of the job market. So my next question is this: is this a bad thing? Mike doesn’t really take a position, though he seems vaguely disapproving. And it’s possible that the details of the sanctioning regime are objectionable. But just in general, is there anything wrong with welfare case workers trying to push clients into the job market when jobs are available, but being more lenient when jobs just aren’t there? Offhand, I’m not sure I see a problem with this.

Drum misses a few things.

Do You Believe in Magic?
January 24, 2012

As Corey Robin, Malcolm Harris and IOZ have all suggested or implied, Melissa Harris-Perry’s latest is perhaps best read as a sort of Swiftian parody of liberalism, written by a closeted anarchist. What else does one make of a column that compares American liberal democracy to Santa Claus and then exhorts us to believe in it?

Santa exists only if we make him real through belief. The American project in democracy is similar. Even as we challenge it to be better, fairer and more honest, we still have to believe that democratic governance by the people, through their institutions, can and should exist. Like Santa Claus, democracy requires us to believe that collective faith can be greater than our individual doubts. In 1994’s Miracle, Santa says, “I’m not just a whimsical figure who wears a charming suit and affects a jolly demeanor…. I’m a symbol, I’m a symbol of the human ability to suppress the selfish and hateful tendencies that rule the major part of our lives.”

Granted, we do Dr. Harris-Perry an injustice if we refuse to engage with the substance of her argument and instead content ourselves with snarking at an unfortunate metaphor. She does, after all, have a point, or at least half of one. A republic of institutional nihilists will destroy itself in seconds flat; the glue that holds any democratic project together is a shared commitment to democratic values. Whether or not one can have a rational commitment to those values is a point of contention as old as moral philosophy. On this point I would only say that even if all ethical claims are non-rational, they are still qualitatively distinct from empirical claims regarding the alleged existence of supernatural avatars of jolliness.

Anyway, even if ethical claims can’t be mathematically proven, they can still be persuasively argued. That is not what Harris-Perry has done; in fact, her entire column is a long exercise in question-begging. We are told that we should believe in the American democratic project because, if we don’t, then the project will fail. But if we don’t believe it in the first place, then why should we want it to succeed? A more persuasive version of this column (though also, no doubt, a much longer one) might have told us why, whether or not Santa is real, we should want him to be real.

Furthermore, it might have told us how that desire should translate into reality. I’m no anarchist — this little boy wants to believe. But what am I supposed to do with that? Faith in American democracy must mean something different from faith in the institutional machinery of the American state, machinery which Harris-Perry admits has failed us. That being the case, trying to exercise power through established channels may be necessary, but it is woefully insufficient. That’s why Harris-Perry’s final paragraph made this little boy’s heart sink:

Our faith has been badly damaged by governors who crush unions, by a Congress that will not govern, by a military that tortures, by campus police with pepper spray, by coaches who prey on kids, by CEOs who slash jobs as profits rise, by a system that seems irreparably broken. But building a country requires investment in one another, hope that we can be better tomorrow than we are today and faith that our failures are not definitive. In these final days before we enter the 2012 election year, it is time to ask, “Do you believe?”

Juxtapose the reference to 2012 with the glaring omission from Harris-Perry’s list of faith-damagers, and this starts to sound dangerously close to another call for everyone to just suck it up and vote for the Democrats. I submit to you that doing so, and letting the extent of our civic engagement stop there, would actually be a testament to our profound lack of faith in democracy. Surely Occupy Wall Street should have reminded us that democracy is more than something you do for a couple hours once every four years; it is, in fact, a way of life.

That’s another problem with the Santa Claus analogy: Saint Nick comes but once a year, if he comes at all. If American democracy is to be rescued, or if we are to so much as demonstrate that American democracy is worth rescuing, then that means conceiving it as a permanent, year-round state of existence.

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Special Topics In Crazy Metaphysics
January 20, 2012

Forgive the long blockquote, but I think this puzzle from philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel (who blogs at The Splintered mind) earns it:

In Anglophone philosophy since the 1960s, the dominant approach to the mind has been materialism: the view that human beings are naturally evolved beings, wholly made out of material stuff like elementary particles, with no immaterial soul of any sort. On materialistic views of consciousness, the reason that we have a stream of conscious experience is that we have brains that represent the world, can guide us in goal-directed action, and that are massively informationally connected in complex self-regulating loops. It is that fact about the complexity of our organizational structure that is responsible for our having a stream of conscious experience so that there’s “something it’s like”, phenomenologically, to be us, or to be a mouse, while there’s nothing it’s like (we ordinarily think) to be a toy robot.

But the United States appears to have all those same features! The citizens of the United States are massively informationally connected, in complex self-regulating loops – not in the same way neurons are connected, but just as richly. The United States engages in environmentally responsive coordinated action, for example in invading Iraq or in taxing imports. The United States represents and self-represents, for example via the census and in declaring positions in foreign policy. As far as I can tell, all the kinds of things that materialists tend to regard as special about brains in virtue of which brains give rise to consciousness are also possessed by the United States.

The United States is a large, spatially distributed entity. But why should that matter? Isn’t it just morphological prejudice to insist that consciousness be confined to spatially compact entities? The United States is composed of people who are themselves individually conscious. But why should that matter? We can imagine, it seems, conscious aliens whose cognition is implemented not by neurons but by intricate networks of interacting internal insects confined within their bodies, where each insect has a minor animal-like consciousness while the organism as a whole has human-like consciousness and intelligence. (Maybe such aliens are much-evolved descendants of bee colonies.) In the vast universe, it seems likely that intelligent environmental responsiveness, and consciousness, could emerge in myriad weird ways. It seems chauvinistic provincialism to insist that our way of being conscious is the only possible way. So why not regard group organisms as possibly conscious? And if so, why not the very group organisms in which we already participate, given that they seem to meet standard materialist criteria for consciousness?

This notion strikes me as being somewhat similar to Heidegger’s notion of Dasein — though I could be wrong about that, since I still have only the fuzziest notion of what Dasein is supposed to be. (Nor, if the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Martin Heidegger is to be believed, can real philosophers agree on a single account. Which should surprise no one.) Still, the fact that the Dasein label has been applied to both individual human beings and entire nations suggests a certain level of conceptual overlap.

There is a key difference, though: Dasein is a category of being within phenomenology, the field of philosophy which examines structures of experience while bracketing the question of whether the objects of those experiences are real. In other words, a phenomenologist might say that we sometimes have the experience of being part of a larger conscious body called a nation, though that conscious body may or may not exist outside of our experiences. Schwitzgebel, on the other hand, is not bracketing: he is suggesting that, in a very real sense, the United States is conscious.

With that in mind, some questions:

1.) Am I horribly misreading Heidegger? Wouldn’t be the first time.

2.) For the materialists who follow this blog (and who I occasionally successfully bait into replying to posts like this): Is Schwitzgebel’s theory correct? Why or why not?

3.) How big or small can a composite conscious entity be? What’s the criteria for determining when one exists and one does not? For example, can a family be collectively consciousness? What about all of humanity?

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America’s Got Issues
January 3, 2012

With respect to Elias, these are the sort of pronouncements you get from a political coalition that has no meaningful analysis of power:

I say this with a nagging sensation in the back of my mind that by co-signing this I am in some way revealing myself to be intellectually or morally lacking; but I feel deeply ambivalent about devoting my political energies to battling-back American empire. And it’s for entirely fatalist reasons. It seems sadly inevitable to me, at least for the foreseeable future and until the United Nations or some other form of global governance becomes supreme, that the world will be run by at least one Great Power.

That’s not to say I’d not rather it was otherwise; but rather it is to say that I feel my passion, time, and capacity is finite. I wouldn’t for anything wish that those who have devoted themselves to challenging, exposing, and attacking the American imperium stop. I just can’t honestly say that this goal moves me as much as does the cause of economic and social justice. Just as I often find the ideologies of leftist anarcho-syndicalism deeply appealing — but determine that, pipe dreams being what they are, I’d rather work for a more accountable Big Government — I hope for a more transparent and accountable neo-empire.

I’m not discounting the idea that an accountable empire is no less a fantasy than rolling back empire entirely. I’m merely sharing my gut feelings, and an explanation as to why I find Ron Paul’s appeal utterly minuscule when compared to his defects.

As colossal and entrenched as American empire may be, making it “accountable” is far more of a pipe dream than rolling it back. There is simply no way to address the root issues Elias wants ameliorated without eventually confronting the militarized structures that perpetuate existing conditions.

If you believe otherwise, ask yourself who profits from America’s wars, and who is asked to fight them. Ask yourself what impact the justifications for military expansion have on domestic law enforcement, and who suffers the most from the results. Ask yourself why laws ostensibly designed to aid in the war on terror are being used to fight the war on drugs. Ask yourself again who pays the price.

As long as the progresssive movement continues its myopic obsession with dividing its concerns into hermetically sealed categories like “civil liberties issues” and “economic issues,” it won’t have the conceptual equipment to deal with structural ills. A political coalition needs an analysis; what progressives have now is a policy wishlist that adds up to exactly the sum of its parts. Maybe figuring out how those desired policies interrelate should be a bigger priority than bickering over the rankings.

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November 25, 2010

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. NYC. hdr
Image via Wikipedia

Posting will be light-to-nonexistent until Sunday or Monday, as I’m taking some time off in New York City, visiting friends and doing my best to avoid large parades. If you’re in the city and you want to grab a drink, hit me up.

What I’m thankful for isn’t the subject for just one short blog post, but I will say that I’m thankful for your continued indulgence as I return again and again to writing about the topics that mystify me the most. And I’m especially grateful for those of you whose insightful comments have made me slightly less mystified.

And lastly, I’m grateful for The Onion’s Turkey Day-themed humor. Thanks to Dara for pointing out a copy of Obama’s flowchart on the topic. I’m half-seriously thinking about critically analyzing it in a blog post.

Torture Without Torturers
November 21, 2010

Via Andrew Price’s Twitter feed, an article on the psychology of the great American torture debate:

2009 study by Carlsmith and Sood delves into the motivations behind support for harsh interrogation techniques. They discovered that support levels for harsh interrogation techniques did not really correlate with conceptions of the efficacy of the techniques themselves.

“Those who support harsh interrogation make an a priori assumption that a detainee is guilty of some heinous act (e.g., killing U.S. troops), and is therefore deserving of harsh treatment,” Carlsmith explains, but “those who oppose harsh interrogation, by contrast, entertain the possibility of detainee innocence, and thus reject the notion that the detainee deserves harsh treatment.” Carlsmith emphasizes that “both groups seek the same outcome — namely, that the detainee receive his just desserts; the main difference is in the “assumptions they make about the initial moral status of the detainee.”

Carlsmith’s research helps in understanding the division between Americans on the topic of torture, where a majority of Americans support harsh interrogation even while a sizeable minority opposes it. “I’m trying to understand how reasonable people can reach diametrically opposed position on seemingly fundamental moral issues,” he says. “In the case of torture-interrogation, both sides are seeking to be moral. The difference is that those who support torture focus on the detainee’s past (immoral) behavior, while those who oppose it don’t.”

It strikes me that there’s another dimension to this as well, though. I don’t have the research to back this up — though hopefully Carlsmith and Sood, or others, might do some further studying — but the people I’ve encountered who defend America’s torture regime either deny the amount of pain inflicted or categorically refuse to classify it as “torture,” or both. There’s also a distinct separation and depersonalization at work here, not just with regard to the detainees, but also to the torturers themselves. For all the talk about “giving the military the authority to do what they have to do,” and so on, we lose the main point about whose responsibility this is: ours. This is still a republic, and if we sanction members of our government to torture others without legal consequences, then the onus falls on us.

I think this changes the context of the debate significantly. Defenders of torture are willing to stand alongside authority figures who, presumably in the interests of their safety, commit unspeakable acts. But are these defenders willing to assume responsibility for the acts themselves? The less we allow them to hide behind abstraction, the better.

The Matter With the Ownership Society
November 14, 2010

Newly industrialized countries Other emerging ...
Image via Wikipedia

Apropos of yesterday’s post about how Westernization can sometimes be conflated with modernization, there was a piece up at Good a couple of days ago arguing that developing countries would be ill-advised to adopt America’s culture of ownership.

 As the East develops, and the size of the middle class grows, there is a push toward individual ownership. With increased incomes, the incidence of joint families reduces, and sharing resources is less of a financial necessity. However, if the East starts to choose individual ownership more readily over communal access, emerging economies will likely struggle to manage these patterns of consumption, particularly with regard to pollution and waste.

From an economic development perspective, Western practitioners are guilty of seeking solutions for the poor that are based on these American values. It’s only natural; this ideal is integral to the West’s notion of progress. Solutions to a lack of access to clean water, sanitation, healthcare, and education often cater to the provision of individual ownership: a faucet in every kitchen, a toilet in every home. However, this paradigm is wasteful, and thus, may not be ideal or sustainable for developing world countries.

Of course, as the article points out, this cuts both ways: the United States has been practicing an unsustainable level of consumption for awhile now. Luckily, the collaborative nature of the Internet has engendered some positive trends on that front.

To me, this isn’t just a matter of allocating resources responsibly: there’s a political and (self-parody alert) philosophical dimension. Pooled resources and communal interdependence are naturally going to foster more of a community-minded spirit. On the other hand, our culture’s over-emphasis on individual ownership has created* an illusory sense of independence. Instead of depending on our neighbors, we’ve just wound up depending on bigger, more abstract forces. And sure, we’re never going to be wholly not dependent on those things. But these aren’t forces that one can necessarily feel a sense of collective responsibility towards, and that sense of collective responsibility is an important and (in the here and now) hugely undervalued ingredient in the glue we use to build nations.

*And/or been caused by, but let’s stay away from the chicken/egg implications for now.

The Joys of Nudging
November 10, 2010

Cover of "Nudge: Improving Decisions Abou...
Cover via Amazon

Recently I had the opportunity to read about half of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s famous book Nudge. It was more or less what I expected: a broad overview of different observations about human behavior from the young field of behavior economics, followed by a series of arguments for various policies that utilize those behaviors in a constructive way. The biggest surprise of the book — given Cass Sunstein’s reputation as a “non-ideological pragmatist” and his current employer’s reputation as same — was how willing Thaler and Sunstein were to engage with the philosophical arguments for and against their doctrine of libertarian paternalism. Burke was cited, as was Rawls.

As for libertarian paternalism, and nudging itself, I’m basically onboard. I’ve argued before that public policy can’t help but influence social norms, and so policy makers need to think about how to influence them in a productive manner; this book provides a handy conceptual framework in which to do that. It goes without saying that the concept has limited utility (Sunstein’s proposals for how we can nudge conspiracy theorists are kind of disturbing), but it also adds some much-needed texture to notions about what constitutes good policy.


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