Religious terrorism

Most societies have exerted control of individuals they find dangerous by threatening to make the remaining life of a criminal miserable, or to simply confiscate it. This works well enough (with plenty of opportunity to improve existing practices): people with evil intent mostly think they will be caught and punished, or killed in the process of a violent act, and an expected value calculation comes out in favor of not doing the crime.

Sometimes violence isn’t a crime; the civilized world would have applauded the White Rose for blowing Hitler up if they had succeeded, and certainly (if it ever happens) the armed citizen who puts down the lunatic about to shoot up a school or theater is simply doing the right thing. People give up their lives to do good in this world, like the soldier who throws himself on the grenade to save his buddies.

Some very large amount of hideous behavior never occurs because most people have a working moral sense whether or not it derives from religious teaching, and some faiths assert an eternal post-life time during which acts on earth will be punished or rewarded, so doing wrong is discouraged by some combination of just knowing what wrong is, and a selfish benefit-cost calculation.

When religious teaching promises heavenly reward for savagery on earth, we face a distinctive set of challenges (and what seem to be new levels of savagery, like sending a ten-year-old girl into a market with a bomb).   Suicidal murderers are not deterred like bank robbers by the fear that they won’t “get away with it”; oversimplifying only a little, they have been sold the belief that the mayhem they are about is a quick ticket to eternal happiness. If their present life is a dead-end struggle in a segregated banlieue slum, so much the better.  There is no practical sanction society can threaten such a person with to get a good benefit-cost calculation, especially if the society trying to protect itself looks like a bunch of ungodly infidels. Neither armed guards hoping to shoot first, nor a room full of heat-packing citizens going about their business, offer more than modest protection against a suicide bomber at the security desk or door, or in a large heavy vehicle with a running start. Tactics directed at the bombers and shooters, that kept gangster crime in last century down to a dull roar, are toothless here. Continue reading “Religious terrorism”

On not over-praising the dead

Marion Barry is dead. That doesn’t give him in retrospect virtues he lacked in life.

Look, de mortuis and all that; if you don’t want to speak ill of the dead, then you’re justified in not mentioning Marion Barry at all. Or if you want to praise his verbal wit  – “Jesse? Jesse don’t wanna be no Mayor. Jesse don’t want to run nothin’ but his mouth.” – you’ll be on solid ground.

But please, please don’t try to pretend that as a politician and public official he was anything but a disaster to anyone but himself and his cronies. Stealing from mostly Black taxpayers to make some of your friends rich is not giving “working-class black residents a taste of the economic prosperity that racial apartheid had long denied them,” and a summer-jobs program doesn’t really alter that fact.

Of course the racial composition of the DC police needed to change; but too-rapid hiring with too-low standards meant building a force full of incompetent and sometimes brutal grifters, and not having enough senior folks around to train and control them. It’s hard to guess how many Washingtonians who died of homicide would be alive today if DC had had a different mayor, but the number isn’t small. And let’s not forget that DC Statehood was a live issue until Marion Barry turned the District government into a work-free drug place and a national joke.

How bad was the looting? At one point, DC General Hospital ran out of pharmaceuticals because the distributors who supplied the drugs refused to offer the bribes City Hall demanded simply to get their invoices paid, and eventually cut off the hospital when the balance due got too high. That’s right: Marion Barry was prepared to have sick people go without medicine if his cronies didn’t get their slice of the action.

Having said that, I should add in haste that Barry’s conviction on cocaine charges reflected truly outrageous investigative and prosecutorial over-reach. It’s clear from the tape that his interest was entirely in sex, and not drugs; the drug motif was introduced entirely by the undercover. He was guilty of soliciting sex for hire, and guilty of the corruption everyone knew about but no one could prove. But the crack charges were bogus, and his supporters weren’t wrong to say he’d been set up. And no, Barry’s outrageousness provides no excuse whatever for any of the people involved in the investigation or the trial. You’re supposed to convict people of stuff they actually did, not of some manufactured substitute.

 

Rule of thumb

Any politician or pundit who pushed the Benghazi hoax and doesn’t now retract and apologize is a scoundrel.

Any pundit or politician who helped promote the Benghazi! hoax, and who doesn’t fully retract and apologize now that a Republican-dominated House committee has fully debunked all the accusations against the Administration other than having paid attention to what turned out to be inaccurate initial reports from the intelligence agencies, should from now on be conclusively presumed a fool and a scoundrel. Of course we already knew that about Lindsay Graham, who is sticking to his principles by denying reality. But so far none of the loud Behghazi!-mongers has stepped up to eat his plate of crow. And John Boehner’s handpicked “select committee” can probably be counted on to try to make the zombie lies walk again; the House Republican website still has all the debunked charges, with no mention of the new report debunking them, under the mind-blowingly ironic heading of “accountability.” Will no one hold the Republicans accountable?

Yes. anyone involved in politics sometimes thinks the voters are sort of stupid, because of course the voters often act stupidly. The rational-choice political scientists have actually formulated theories of “rational ignorance” to explain why people vote on evidence that would never persuade them to buy a used car: voters aren’t spending their own money. (And no, the inference that democratic government is a mistake, or alternatively that government is always rotten and ought to be minimized, isn’t justified, unless you’ve examined the consequences of undemocratic government of of unchecked private action and found that they’re not as bad.)

And yes, it was damned silly for Jonathan Gruber to let himself get caught on camera saying what everyone knows to be partially true.

But Jonathan Gruber didn’t just win an election by lying to voters. The Republicans did. I’m happy to give Trey Gowdy credit for telling the truth at last, but of course he knew the truth three weeks ago, when publishing it could have had an impact on the midterm election results. Even a relatively honest Republican preferred to have his party win by lying to taking the risk of telling the American people the truth.

Let’s just recall how ghoulish this whole business has been. Republicans have – with some success – tried to get political gain out of the deaths of four Americans who died for their country at the hands of its enemies, and kept doing so long after the spuriousness of the conspiracy theories was clear.

The extremism, mendacity, and lack of scruple of the Teahadi-dominated GOP have risen to the level of a constitutional crisis. That’s observable fact. It’s time for reporters who pride themselves on “objectivity” to start reporting that fact, rather than groveling to the successful scoundrels and blaming their victims.

Solar disobedience

Why a Spanish solar supplier advertises civil disobedience.

That’s not a coinage but a quote. From the website of Spanish solar equipment vendor Efimarket:
efimarket screenshot(Key graf: “Enjoy self-consumption and solar disobedience, supporting the democratization of solar energy and environmental sustainability”.)

What is going on? How on Earth did Spain get to the position where businessmen are using civil disobedience as a selling-point for solar DIY kits?

A little history. Continue reading “Solar disobedience”

If no-one can hear us…

Last week was the annual research conference of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management. For those who do not frequent academic conferences, this is a get-together of people like me and several of yr. obdt. bloggers, where we break up into “sessions” of about an hour and a half, in each of which three or four people present recent research.  A program committee of really noble souls puts these together out of proposals so they have some internal coherence: four papers about urban crime, or three about state pension accounting, and like that. Hour after hour of smart people saying more interesting things than you can possibly absorb.
The outgoing APPAM  president gives an address, on a topic of his or her choice, that is well-attended and subsequently published in the organization’s Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.  This year we heard from one of my  very favorite colleagues, Angela Evans, formerly of the Congressional Research Service and now at UT Austin scarfing up every teaching award in sight.
I thought it was an excellent talk about stuff on which Angela and I almost entirely agree, but at about 49:00 she has one of those moments professors anticipate with, um, qualified enthusiasm: in front of her whole tribe, and the world on YouTube, one of her own students asks an excellent question (heart leaps) to which she has only half of a good answer (heart palpitates): how is all this excellent policy analysis and research supposed to get to the public? Angela has always been all over the need for pointy-heads to explain their stuff in languages people can understand, and not browbeat them with regression coefficients and the kind of technical stuff we play catch among ourselves with.  But she didn’t say a word about  the most important current challenge to good governance in a democracy (and othercracies), namely the technology-driven collapse of the business model for diffusion and creation of content.

Continue reading “If no-one can hear us…”

How UKIP Differs from the Tea Party

Americans who have heard of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) often assume that its members are roughly analogous to those of the U.S. Tea Party, i.e., disaffected conservatives who want the right-most party to move even further right. Some excellent political journalism has shown this is not correct, and a remarkable election result this past week underscores the point.

The setting was Heywood and Middleton, a Mancunian constituency in which Labour politicians have literally never lost a parliamentary election. I was acquainted with the late Jim Dobbin, who used to represent this pocket district, and he was with respect neither a scintillating orator nor entirely in step with many of his constituents on some social issues. But still, he was Labour, so like his predecessors he too always won, and by large margins.

Given this context, it is remarkable indeed that Jim’s Labour Party replacement almost lost the by-election to a UKIP candidate. In the 4 years since the last parliamentary election, UKIP increased its vote-share by a stunning 15-fold. If UKIP were truly just a party of disaffected Tories, this simply could not have happened in a Labour stronghold.

Ian Warren of Election Data blog did some revealing shoeleather reporting and data crunching regarding how UKIP did so well. He posted this photo of a UKIP voting neighborhood (that’s an “estate”, i.e., public housing) and pointed out that its not exactly the dwelling place of the horse and hound set.

hey3

Now take a moment to consider whether you think UKIP are just a problem for the Conservatives. Because this doesn’t look like a Conservative area to me. And consider that in May of this year UKIP took 42.3% of the vote here…..on these streets. Because at some stage somebody in Labour high command is going to need to explain to me how on earth they find themselves in a position where their bedrock supporters, the believers in ‘good old religion’ as I heard John McTernan call them last week, have simply stopped believing.

His whole analysis is worth reading. It reinforces my sense that the 2015 UK election is “everyone’s to lose”, by which I mean that, given the fracturing of old alliances and perspectives in the UK, there is an excellent chance that regardless of who wins, the majority of people who went to the polls are going to feel alienated from the new government from day one.

Scotland ducks a bullet

Burns would have voted “Yes” on Scottish independence. But Hume and Adam Smith would have voted “No.”

I’m going to go out on a limb – based on exit polls – and call the Scottish independence referendum for the “No” side. That seems to me like the right call for the Scots to have made.

Gordon Brown’s speech – in effect, defending the Union in the name of the Scottish Enlightenment of Hume and Adam Smith – reminds me how queasy nationalism makes me, even when it’s not explicitly racist.

Self-determination is a just demand for oppressed nations, but take away the oppression and the case gets pretty weak. And yes, that argues against the American Revolution, except insofar as it was republican and anti-aristocratic rather than merely separatist. (After all, part of what the colonists wanted was a free hand against the Native Americans.)

Brown made a strong case that independence would be a practical disaster for Scotland. What he didn’t say is that it would also help cement David Cameron’s Tories in office. So I’m glad the referendum failed: assuming that is, that it did fail.

Still, we Reality-Basers are so relentlessly fair-minded that we astonish ourselves.

So here, with a blistering dissent, is Robert Burns, given voice by Steeleye Span:

And here’s Alistair McDonald, with more traditional interpretation.

Continue reading “Scotland ducks a bullet”

The Genetics Profession Confronts its Troublesome Inheritance

On August 8, a remarkable letter appeared in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Written by a group of five leading evolutionary geneticists and signed by another 135, it repudiated the main conclusions of Nicolas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance. Wade was for many years the main science reporter for the New York Times covering developments in genetics and biology. His book purported to summarize the main findings of the research he had been covering: that the European, African, and Asian races are genetically defined and that they have faced different evolutionary pressures that have given them what he claimed are different intellectual, behavioral, and civilizational capacities.

The book has been widely reviewed and, apart from a glowing endorsement from conservative policy writer Charles Murray, has received largely negative assessments. Wade’s main response has been that the commentators lack the stature and expertise to criticize his ideas. Thus, when the 135 scientists, many of whom Wade cites as his own authorities, blasted his argument as “incomplete and inaccurate” and with “no support from the field of population genetics,” his thesis had been dealt a mortal blow.

But to understand what makes the move of these geneticists so remarkable, you need some history and sociology of claims that genetic science explains racial differences in intellect and behavior.

In 1969, educational psychologist Arthur Jensen used ideas from the emerging field of behavior genetics in an article claiming that the IQ and educational achievement gaps between black and white children were due in large part to genetic differences between the races, and that educational efforts to close the gap must therefore fail. This was the era of intense conflicts over civil rights and President Johnson’s Great Society. Jensen’s writings sparked student protests and heated academic debates. Not surprisingly many education scholars, social scientists, and psychologists denounced Jensen’s work, but so too did many geneticists. In 1975, 1,390 members of the Genetics Society of America co-signed a statement that said “there is no convincing evidence as to whether there is or is not an appreciable genetic difference in intelligence between races” and over nine hundred had signed a stronger repudiation of Jensen’s work.

The IQ and race controversy was traumatic for researchers interested in genes and behavior. As debates raged about science, politics, and ethics of the research, the field fragmented into mutually distrusting groups and many geneticists completely abandoned behavior as a topic.

A quarter century later psychologist Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray published The Bell Curve, an 845 page doorstop that made a very similar argument to Jensen’s: the lack of success of Latinos and African Americans relative to whites and Asians has a strong genetic basis. American inequality, they argued, is mostly genetic. This time, the response was very different. Social scientists and liberal pundits decried the work, criticizing the science and linking it to the history of scientific racism. However, biologists and geneticists largely ignored the debate. Those who tried to intervene, like Stephen J. Gould, were often perceived as politically, rather than scientifically, motivated. Geneticist David Botstein explained his peers’ silence: The Bell Curve “is so stupid that it is not rebuttable.” Members of the Human Genome Project’s (HGP) Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues (ELSI) division hoped to organize project leadership to publicly distance genetics from the book’s racial ideas. It took two years for an ELSI statement to be allowed to appear in a specialist genetics journal, but HGP leadership remained publicly quiet. Soon thereafter ELSI was reorganized and its public activism discouraged.

We tend to think of a scientist’s public responsibility as a matter of individual commitment. But it has much to do with the structure and culture of scientific communities. The IQ controversy from the 1970s had spurred changes driving geneticists’ disengaged approach to The Bell Curve in the 1990s. Conflicts fragmented the research community so geneticists rarely interacted with behavioral scientists and weren’t comfortable engaging their claims critically. Mistrust made it impossible to see public criticism as legitimately scientific rather than purely political. And the outsourcing of ethics to ELSI made it difficult for many geneticists to see the public interpretation of scientific controversies as their business.

The genetic evidence for racial behavioral differences hasn’t changed in the 45 years since Jensen wrote, but geneticists’ public responses have. The recent collective response to Wade’s book is heartening because it indicates that geneticists are coming to see that a new approach to the public interpretation of their science is needed. Because it aims to tell us about human similarities and differences, capacities and potential for change, there will always be a public politics to genetics. The difficult work of the public interpretation of contentious issues cannot be left to social scientists and ethicists (whose genetics credentials will be questioned) or to individual geneticists (whose motivations will be questioned). This group will take heat for their stand, but they cannot be doubted as scientists or marginalized as individuals. They will learn, I believe, that being political in this way—soundly criticizing public misappropriations of their research—can only be good for the long term legitimacy of genetics.

Aaron Panofsky is Associate Professor in Public Policy and the Institute for Society and Genetics at UCLA. His recent book, Misbehaving Science considers the scientific and political controversies surrounding behavior genetics.

Creeping conservatism: the guaranteed minimum income

Yes, Nixon, Hayek, and Milton Friedman were for it. Some version of it is still a good idea.

What’s supposedly progressive Dylan Matthews at the supposedly progressive Vox doing pushing an idea favored by Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Richard Nixon?

Of course, the devil is in the details. It matters a lot how minimal the income really is, how fast it phases out, and (crucially) how much of the rest of the income-maintenance and social-services structure it replaces. It’s an idea with the defects of its virtues: Insofar as it displaces direct services, it saves overhead expense and avoids subjecting recipients to bureaucratic meddling in their lives. That’s good or bad depending on how great the expense is, how much fraud results, and how much meddling turns out to be useful. It gives recipients maximum flexibility in how and when to spend their money, which is good or bad depending on the recipients’ capacities for foresight and self-command. At the level of political economy, the question is whether the superior performance of the system would give redistributive policies a political edge sufficient to compensate for the loss of support from provider interests.

For those – including progressives – who think the virtues obviously trump the defects, here’s the thought-experiment: Would you replace public education with unrestricted cash payments to families with school-aged children?

But if you think, as I do, that most of what’s wrong with poor people is that they don’t have enough money, and that many of what look from the outside like behavioral pathologies are actually the predictable consequences of scarcity and insecurity, and despair, as I do, of the prospects for changing the distribution of market incomes enough to manage rising inequality, then the guaranteed-income idea looks very, very attractive. The problem then is to get as large a base and as gentle a phase-down as possible, and – this is the hard part – to discern what specific services need to be delivered alongside the cash. Seems pretty clear to me that housing, home heating, and food mostly shouldn’t get specific subsidies or direct provision, while education and health care should. But there’s lots of crucial detail to be worked out: even with a relatively generous income guarantee, I suspect there would be a need for direct housing provision to people who otherwise would be homeless victims of severe mental illness or substance use disorder. (Day care is an interesting liminal case; so is disability insurance, which could be replaced by a cash income not conditional on disability – likely to lead to substantially improved health outcomes – plus direct services or subsidies to help people deal with the consequences of disability other than difficulty in earning a living.)

The other key progressive goal should be keeping the income-support system national, to protect the poor people of, e.g., Mississippi from the hostility of state governments doing the bidding of bigoted majorities and exploitative employers whose business model is based on employees with no alternative to poorly-paid work but starvation or theft. That would have the side-effect of reducing one perverse impact of the current system, which ties poor people to high-cost-of-living areas where the social safety net tends to be less frayed. A family barely scraping by in Section 8 housing in the Bronx could live rather comfortably in Arkansas if it could cash out the value of that housing subsidy as part of a national income guarantee.

I have no idea whether Matthews is right that a guaranteed income is poised to become a mainstream political issue. But it’s a nice possibility to think about.