Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Kramer? I Barely Know Her

So the Michael Richards outburst has led me to think a lot about race in the United States. I have a lot to say, but for now I'll just make a quick observation. We have a repugnant history of racism. Luckily, most of us recognize it as repugnant, and we want to build a better and more just society. To a large extent we have succeeded. It's a strange society that we've ended up with, though. Explicit expressions of racism are almost universally condemned, and condemned furiously. Meanwhile huge disparities in income, life expectancy, educational achievement, etc. are not only tolerated, they largely pass unnoticed, or at least unremarked upon. So we live in a society where race is hugely relevant to your life prospects, but where expressions of racism count for more than the experience of suffering because of your race. It's a bizarre outcome, one that I'll try to explain in the future (I suspect it's just the predictable result of a society of self-interested individuals who care more about seeming not to be racist than they do about addressing racial injustice).

On Libertarianism

Libertarianism really irritates me. I think this is because I find it alluring at times, but always end up repulsed by it. Meanwhile plenty of otherwise intelligent people claim to be libertarians. I'll examine the strains of libertarianism I've encountered, and then try to explain my antipathy towards it. The last paragraph sums it up pretty well, so skip to it if you want the short version.

So let's start out with definitions. Some libertarians are "principled" libertarians, who see liberty as the primary or the only value. Many of these libertarians have a very strange conception of liberty (more later). While the language of absolutism is very common among utilitarians, few are actually "pure" or "absolute" libertarians. In other words, almost all of us would prefer a world with minor infractions on liberty but universal prosperity to a world with no incursions on liberty but universal poverty.

Far more libertarians have more or less reasonable values (freedom, but also prosperity, safety, etc.), but they have crazy factual beliefs that lead them to favor "libertarian" positions. These "instrumental" libertarians would be willing to trade away some liberty in exchange for longer lifespans, more literacy, and so on. They just happen to believe that this tradeoff isn't necessary. Good things come from liberty, and bad things come from regulation of human behavior.

This class of libertarians shades gradually into reasonable people who call themselves libertarians. These people might place a high but not infinite value on liberty, and might believe that in the majority of cases people can solve their problems through consensual arrangements. All of that is reasonable. It's not far from my viewpoint. At some point, though, simply valuing liberty doesn't make you a libertarian. I draw the line subjectively, but basically you're not a libertarian if you acknowledge substantial areas in which liberty must be curtailed for social purposes.

A final definitional point. Liberty is obviously a vague term. I don't have a rigorous definition, I take it to mean the ability to do what you want. Obviously there are fine points that I am ignoring. Importantly, though, a lot of libertarians have a truly crazy definition of liberty, in which it is defined as the inverse of the government's power to intrude into people's lives. This ignores other threats to liberty. Also, liberty isn't just the absence of external restraint. I think literacy expands freedom, and in some sense constitutes it. The same goes for all kinds of things that libertarians subvert to their truncated conception of liberty.

So I'll write another post explaining the specific problems with libertarianism, but I actually think I've spelled out my big objections. It's unreasonable in its pure form. It's unrealistic in its instrumental form (this is the claim I will defend in future posts). However, liberty is in fact a good means to many social ends, as well as basic happiness and dignity. This leads many people to self-identify as libertarians even though they recognize the validity and utility of substantial infringements on liberty. This inflates their reported numbers and pisses me off. Finally, libertarians are overly suspicious of the government, and this suspicion stems in part from their refusal to recognize that many government programs expand liberty. This in turn stems from their sterile conception of liberty. Sloppiness and wishful thinking have given libertarianism too much clout, or at least too many purported adherents, and it should be curtailed.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Feed a Man a Blowfish

I alluded in my last post to another disagreement Tarun and I had about foreign aid. I don't know exactly what Tarun thinks should be done, but I know he doesn't like my idea of favoring democracies or my idea of concentrating additional aid on one country or region.

Tarun's problem with the "big push" idea, I imagine, is that it screws over the people who aren't selected as the recipients. Now, strictly speaking that's not true: I don't propose cutting aid to anyone. Tarun would respond, though, that whoever doesn't get the "big push" money will get a reduced fraction of all aid money. Another way of putting it is that if I call for an increase in aid money of x dollars, those x dollars need not be concentrated on a few recipients. If they are spread out evenly, it will be somehow better than concentrating them, and to concentrate them is to rob them from everyone else.

Now, maybe I'm implicitly taking sides in the big push/balanced growth debate, a debate that I don't really know anything about (I might be mis-using the term, in fact). My intuition, though, is that certain kinds of aid are complementary. So for instance, education is great, and nutrition is great, but they are especially helpful together. In fact, early malnutrition might permantly damage children's ability to learn, and hungry students are not typically good students. So if we had a choice of giving education to one country and nutrition to another, or both to one country, I would probably favor the latter approach.

Now in real life that's not exactly the choice we face. Still, I can't help feeling that in most developing countries there are strong complementarities among development projects. Good roads, which are valuable in themselves, also reduce the cost of getting aid to its destination. Good education, valuable in itself, is especially valuable if graduates are able to get good jobs.

Tarun would argue, I imagine, that development projects are not strongly complementary, if at all. If he acknowledged that complementarities exist, he would then argue that it doesn't matter, because the marginal utility of development is strongly concave. In other words, the first unit of development is worth much more than the tenth, so we should prefer lots of countries getting a little funding to a few countries getting a lot of funding, even if those few countries would be lifted permanently from poverty.

I actually suspect that Tarun is motivated by a kind of Rawlsian maxi-min concept: the overriding concern is the well-being of the worst off. I think Rawls is wrong, because I would gladly trade away a few pennies for the worst-off person in exchange for lifting billions of other people out of poverty. To be fair, Tarun is probably not as extreme as Rawls, and in fact I would agree that the concavity of the utility function is an important consideration. Still, I think that fundamentally some countries are on a path to greater prosperity, freedom, and dignity. Other countries are not. We can ameliorate suffering with diffuse aid, but to shift countries onto the right path might take more of a push. If this "big push" succeeds, a poor country or region will never again require foreign aid in the ordinary course. It may even become a donor. It is in this way that I think large-scale poverty can be most quickly eliminated from the earth.

[update: fixed typo]

Hard Choices

Tarun and I had an argument about democracy and foreign aid, and I thought I would spell out our positions and defend mine. This was a while ago, so I might not remember everything perfectly.

I was arguing for a "big push" in which international donors concentrate a lot of effort on one recipient state or region. I wouldn't want this to come at the expense of existing aid arrangements, although actually some existing aid could probably be cut without very much pain. Rather, I would like to see increases in the aid budgets of rich nations. These increases need not be large as a share of GDP. A few billion dollars a year from each contributor should be ample for my purposes (less from smaller donors).

Tarun opposes this idea entirely, and I can write about that another time, but for now I'll discuss one thing in particular that Tarun didn't like about my formulation: I would rather spend aid money in democracies rather than authoritarian regimes. Now, aid money need not go directly to the government of the recipient nation, so in this discussion I'm including money that goes to NGOs etc. Tarun would agree, I presume, that it's not often wise to give money directly to dictators. He would argue that in those cases we should spend the money directly on aid projects.

As a quick aside, totalitarian governments seldom allow broad civil rights, including the rights to property and free movement. In the absense of these rights, the value of purportedly independent projects can be expropriated by the government. So for instance, say you're building a bridge to help poor people. The government can block your workers and materials and thus extort money. Once the bridge is built, the government can charge a high toll. This doesn't make the project useless, but it makes dollars spent on it less effective, probably much less effective, than they would be in a liberal democracy.

Tarun's position (if I remember correctly) is that people can't help what kind of government they live under, so it's improper to favor democracies over authoritarian governments. He might have qualified this by limiting it to cases in which a dollar spent in an authoritarian regime is as effective as a dollar spent in a democratic regime. I think this exception will swallow the rule, but we'll come back to that.

My basic contention is that democracies are better than authoritarian regimes and we should encourage them. I don't think Tarun disagrees in general, although in particular cases (China) he might be more tolerant of totalitarianism than I am. The real disagreement is whether aid makes a difference in stabilizing or encouraging democracy.

I think the answer is a pretty clear "yes," although it's a complicated question. The classic example is Weimar Germany, which was humiliated and drained of wealth as "reparations" for WWI. This weakened and discredited the democratic government and led to the rise of national socialism. I think it's highly plausible that a Marshall Plan after WWI would have led Germany down a different path than the one it followed. Now, the Nazi regime was uniquely evil, and I don't contend that comparable evils await every feeble, cash-strapped democracy. Still, the tendency is clear, and I think we should do a lot to bolster democratic governments around the world.

This wouldn't support my argument very much if nations switched easily in both directions. In other words, if authoritarian regimes naturally progressed to democracies as wealth increased, we could basically ignore political structure. Some countries would slip back into dictatorships, some would emerge as democracies, and it would be relatively unimportant because damage would be temporary. In fact, though, many authoritarian regimes are brutally stable, while new democracies are often fragile. Authoritarian regimes do not automatically switch over to democracies when they reach a certain wealth (see China and the oil states), and the governments often clamp down hard enough to destroy a lot of wealth in the first place (see Burma). In this situation, we should carefully guard poor democracies until they have the institutions and wealth to preserve themselves. Otherwise we will end up with more undemocratic regimes, and once they are in place they will be very difficult to dislodge.

Technically, this doesn't defeat Tarun's argument. Tarun could say, "Sure, but all of this just means that aid to democratic governments tends to be more effective, all things considered. We should still give money without regard to the form of government, with an exception for those cases in which aid is less effective in totalitarian states."

As I said earlier, though, the exception will rapidly swallow the rule. It is like a rule that we should treat slavery the same as free, compensated employment, with an exception for those cases in which slaves are worse off than free laborers. This is fine as an abstract formulation, but as a matter of policy it's silly. We shouldn't tell policymakers to ignore a highly relevant variable simply because the variable isn't conclusive in every single case. Often it's the best, most accessible variable upon which to base a decision, and we are not wrong to use it.

In practice this means that we should prefer democracies when we are doling out aid. This isn't fair to people who can't help living in totalitarian countries, but then we also don't transplant organs into people who are about to die, even if it isn't their fault. We have the somewhat gruesome task of allocating scarce aid money in a way that will do as much good as possible, which means that unfairness is inevitable. What is not inevitable is that money will be wasted on projects that mostly benefit dictators, while democracies go begging. That is entirely avoidable, if we are willing to take democracy into account in our aid decisions.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

You Can Help Me

So the way it works is that you take a bar class during the summer after law school. Then in August you take the bar exam, and you start work in September. In between the exam and starting work you have about 6 weeks to spend however you like. Many people take a "bar trip," knowing that there won't be a lot of opportunity for travel once work starts.

So assuming I have money, what should I do for my bar trip? Initially I was thinking that San Francisco might be a good destination. I like wine, the weather will probably be nice, it's relatively inexpensive, and I'm increasingly convinced that I might be gay.

However I've been watching "The Wire" on HBO, and it kind of makes me want to check out Baltimore. It seems like a fairly unique city with a lot of local flavor. Now, in a sense that's irrelevant, unfortunately. I don't eat crab, and I wouldn't feel comfortable going to places I might recognize from "The Wire." I could go to an Orioles game and drink some Natty Boh, but that's a pretty superficial way to experience Baltimore culture.

So anyway, you can help! Give me ideas for a good bar trip. Ideally it would be cheap and would introduce me to a part of America I haven't seen before. I'm also open to other suggestions, though. For instance, it might be fun to take a trip across Canada or something. You can help!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Close to Greatness

To make up for my last post, which was fairly boring, I've decided to add another boring post. I want to figure out why some movies seem to come close to greatness, only to fall short and disappoint.

If you've seen any of these movies, feel free to share your thoughts on why they seem almost hauntingly good but ultimately fail.

"Where's Marlowe?" (noir spoof)
"The Chumscrubber" ("Donnie Darko" imitation)
"The Illusionist"

James Posts Guide to Clear Headlines

So I realize headline writers are under time pressure, and that it takes quite a bit of skill to craft a good headline. The sheer density of information is by its nature difficult to process. Still, consider this one:

"Clear Channel Buyout Talks Fuel Concern of Management Conflicts"

This isn't ambiguous or misleading, it's just difficult to process quickly. The problem is that you have three words in a row (talks fuel concern) that can be used as either nouns or verbs. When I first saw the headline, I thought, "What does Clear Channel have to do with fuel?" So I guess my advice is, when you're writing headlines, keep in mind the noun/verb problem.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Think People

So I sometimes watch the game show 1 vs. 100. The contestant answers questions, and so does the "mob," a collection of 100 people. Every time the contestant gets a question right, the members of the mob who missed it are eliminated. If you eliminate everyone, you get a million dollars, but you also accumulate a certain amount for each mob member you knock out. If you miss a question the remaining mob members split however much you had accumulated.

The second lifeline is the ability to talk to two mob members, one who got the question right and one who got the question wrong. Each gives his or her reasoning. Now, remember, if you miss the question, the remaining mob members get to split the money you've accumulated. Thus it's usually in the interest of each person to get you to pick the other answer.

What's crazy is that contestants will say things like, "I was leaning toward A, but he sounded really unsure of himself. I'm going with C." Of course he sounded unsure of himself. If you pick C, and you're wrong, he gets some of your money! I've never seen a contestant acknowledge this issue, which leads me to believe they're stupid. It's really galling for some reason, that this fairly obvious ploy works. If you can't think for yourself, you're going to get taken advantage of! Not just on the game! In life! Think!

Monday, November 06, 2006

Augmented Markets

Slate, which I can't help reading (partly because I like their election coverage), is running a series on reducing carbon emissions. Today there's an entry on choosing environmentally friendly foods. To me this seems like a classic example of a problem that is best solved by an augmented market.

The contention is that you should eat locally grown and organic food and avoid meats and heavily processed foods. This will help you to avoid foods that require lots of energy to produce and transport. Consider, though, how computationally difficult it is to tell how much carbon went into something you're eating. If I eat food processed in the US, it doesn't have to travel very far. On the other hand, if I eat food processed in France, it has to make it over the Atlantic, but it was probably processed with nuclear power, which doesn't emit carbon. Similarly, processing food might use a lot of energy, but it might save energy on refrigeration and spoilage. Consider that to produce the same amount of food organically requires more land to be cultivated, which might mean eliminating forests, wetlands, etc. These and countless more examples mean that it's unclear what I, as someone who cares about the environment, should actually be eating.

Now consider a carbon tax. Assuming you could tax emissions fairly accurately (probably not a stretch, since you can just tax inputs like fuel), the consumer can simply choose food the old-fashioned way: by quality and price. This puts a far smaller informational burden on the consumer, and it avoids other market failures like free-riding (I benefit when you forego steak). In fact, ask yourself how many people are likely to choose food based on carbon emissions, and then consider whether the Slate approach is likely to be as effective as a mandatory carbon tax.

Now I realize that these two approaches aren't really comparable. One is a political, the other is personal. The political solution isn't going to happen anytime soon. Still, the personal effort to reduce carbon emissions by changing food choices seems hopelessly quixotic, and it seems to me that environmentalists would better spend their time educating and lobbying on behalf of real solutions.