Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Justice vs Practicality - The Bush Years

There is much talk lately about what should be done about all the illegal acts committed during the Bush administration. The Democrats are already talking about "moving forward" and not focusing on the past. This is a claim to practicality, but is just an excuse.

There have been clear indications for much of the past 50 years that GOP administrations are more willing to violate the laws. These fall into two broad categories. The easier one to deal with has to do with standard corruption. Selling government influence, taking bribes in the form of campaign contributions or promises of future employment, or favors while in office.

This has become especially outrageous during the Bush years as a total lack of desire to prosecute, or even investigate such misdeeds, rose to an unprecedented state. Even private firms have become generally immune to punishment for violating the law.

The second violation of the law has to do with government actions meant to further legitimate aims, but which themselves break the laws to achieve their aims. Right now those in the forefront have to do with sanctioning torture, violating the privacy provisions of the Fourth Amendment and obstructing investigations by the legislative branch.

As the Clinton years showed the GOP is willing to use legal mechanisms for political aims. The impeachment of Clinton being the pinnacle of their efforts. There were many others, including the refusal to allow federal judges to be seated and misuse of the filibuster.

Now if the Dems turn around and start to prosecute the violations of government policy the they will run the risk that the next time the GOP is in power they will even engage in more politically motivated persecutions. This is what happens in third world countries which only pretend to be democracies. At each change of government all the prior leaders are at risk of prosecution. Such a course of action leads to the complete destruction of any adherence to the rule of law. Since the GOP has already shown that they are willing to play this game, timidity by the Dems is unwise. You don't defeat a bully by giving in to him.

So what should be done?

I suggest two courses of action. The activities which are based upon traditional monetary corruption should be left to the appropriate judicial departments to investigate. This, of course, means that the hacks and cronies have to be removed from the departments. Obama seems to be making some moves in this direction, but a lot depends upon appointments of US Attorneys and the willingness of local jurisdictions to investigate regional crimes. The regulatory agencies have to be restored as well.

As for policy-based misdeeds. There needs to be away to counter the already-forming critique that any investigations are just "partisan politics". Existing law protects most government officers even if they do the most stupid or ill-conceived things as long as they do them in good faith and as part of their official duties. So "heckuva job" Brownie never gets charged for being incompetent.

There is nothing to stop congress, however, from holding hearings on what went wrong and who was responsible. This is similar to the truth and reconciliation commissions that have arisen elsewhere. I'm not sure about the forgiveness part of the process, people in the US don't seem very willing to ever admit to a mistake or apologize.

In addition to hearings, the Obama administration should sign the treaty which established the International Criminal Court. If there are injured parties, say Guantanamo detainees, who want to bring charges at the ICC then this would allow them to do so. International law allows countries to arrest people accused of being war criminals as the UK did with Pinochet. If the ICC decides to issue a warrant for Gonzales or Cheney or Rumsfeld then this is not a political act by the Obama administration.

If the US is not willing to adhere to international law, including taking responsibility when it breaks it, then why do they expect others to do so. We are quick to condemn Al Qaeda or Hamas for their actions, but don't want to be judged for ours. This is not the rule of law, it is the law of the jungle - might makes right.

How about, Mr. Constitutional Lawyer president? Join the ICC.


Philosopher Harry Frankfurt had a minor best seller a couple of years ago with his book "On Bullshit".

Here's a bit from the publisher's blurb:

Rather, bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant. Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner's capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

Now Frankfurt is a philosopher, not a psychologist, so he approaches this subject from an ethical or moral point of view. This is fine for those wanting to express moral outrage, but does nothing useful for those who want to see lies stamped out.

He seems to imply that liars have a concern for the truth, in that they know what it is, but ignore it while BS-ers are indifferent to it. I think that this still implies that the BS-ers know what the truth is. We condemn them when the continue to repeat things which have been shown to be false. We can't believe that someone could continue to maintain a falsehood in the face of evidence unless they were being deceitful.

I think there is something else at work here, a need for self justification for ones actions and beliefs. Notice that when a person of the cloth loses his faith it is a major psychological trauma as had been related many times in works of autobiography. When one has based their entire worldview on a certain set of assumptions then one is left adrift when these foundations are removed.

Right now we are seeing a spate of conservative justifications for failed policies - economic, social and international. People are getting increasingly upset the way these defenses continually twist actual historical events. But if your self image depends upon justifying your actions, then remembering history the way you wish it had been becomes a self-defense mechanism.

A good example, from history so we won't have to deal with current personalities, is that of Harry Truman and the A bomb. When he entered office he knew nothing of the advanced military planning that had been going on. Roosevelt thought he was a lightweight and kept him out of the loop. He got all his education from a group of insiders who had a vested interested in seeing the A bomb program completed and used militarily. So they fed him slanted information. The most outrageous was the claim, which he repeated throughout his later life, that Hiroshima was a "military" target. This was untrue and was further confirmed by later inspections once the US had occupied Japan. Truman was given later intelligence data. In fact the data was so damaging to the US story, that it, and the pictures from the scene, are still mostly classified.

What could Truman do with this new knowledge? Admit he had been misled, or misled himself and admit that he had OK'ed the largest war crime in the history of the world? So Nagasaki and Hiroshima remained military targets in his mind until the end.

Now we see the outgoing administration, and their enablers and cronies, lying about the basis for the two wars, the successes of prior social programs (the New Deal and the Great Society), the current state of the economy and public opinion. Lies or defensive mechanisms?

It makes a difference. You cannot debate a BS-er, they operate in a non-rational universe. The ends always justify the means. Whatever is needed to win your point at the moment trumps everything else. This is not to say that one should let them get away with distorting reality. There are always the impressionable listening on the sidelines who need to be reminded of the truth. But it does alter the way such counter efforts should be undertaken. Going onto a talking head show with a BS-er just gives them an opportunity to repeat their story and implicitly validates their position as being plausible. In addition there are no venues where the host will call out the guest for gross misrepresentation. This would be seen as the host being partisan and removing their credibility as a "neutral" observer.

Unfortunately the only ones willing to call BS on such people are on Comedy Central. A poor commentary on the state of our press.

There is a similar dynamic going on over the "debate" about evolution. Serious biologists will no longer debate creationists because just the act of appearing in the same venue enhances the creationists with their followers and the easily swayed bystanders.

I don't think those who relish face time on TV will listen to me and boycott such venues, but they might consider if they are helping or hurting the cause of truth by doing so at least. The business press and the weekly news magazines represent business interests so can never allow challenges to the capitalist, free-market, ideology of those who pay the bills. One would never expect the Marxists "Daily Worker" to support the bosses, so why any surprise over the distortions of the "Financial Times" or the "Economist". If you knew what they were peddling was false would you work there?

Keep up the good fight, but don't ever expect the BS-ers to yield.

The Theory of Everything - Blame Darwin

The human race is afflicted with the desire to make sense out of the world. Since the world is complicated the human mind tries to simplify by finding common features that explain it all.

I'm going to give my theory of "everything" right after I review some of the most popular ones of the past. Now by "everything" I actually mean human behavior. There have really been only two popular theories.

Man springs from evil

This is the source of all guilt-based views of the world. The most explicit expression is to be found in the traditional Judeo-Christian tradition starting with Adam and Eve. Other cultures had variations, such as the Pandora story of the Greeks.

The belief that man is basically evil leads to a variety of social structures which all have several things in common. There is said to be a subset of mankind who is exempt from this innate evil, its usually royal rulers, clergy or others in authority. They are all wise and good and act only on behalf of their followers. Notice that even the terminology reflects this thinking people are part of the "flock" or subjects.

Man is perfectible

This view acknowledges man's inherent weaknesses, but thinks they can be overcome by various means. The theological take the form of performing good works on earth (variously defined) to, at least, achieve perfection in the afterlife. The political takes the form of retraining people so that the new attitudes will be passed on to future generations. Marx's followers were fond of this idea. The "scientific" uses the ideas from plant and animal breeding. The most horrific example being the rise of eugenics as practiced by the Nazis and other groups seeking cultural uniformity.

Once again, since a vast undertaking is required, it is essential that the details be left up to the leaders. History hasn't proved any kinder to these leaders than it has to the other group. The Kings of England and France don't have a better record than Stalin or Hitler when it comes to providing a prosperous and secure environment for their followers.

Other repercussions

These basic views of human nature became modified with the rise of science and the industrial revolution. If we take Malthus as an arbitrary starting point we see how the ideas of human nature start to leak into the new field of "economics". His theory of supply and demand is framed in terms of the evil model of human nature. People will not be able to control their "base" desires and this will, inevitably, lead to overpopulation and the consequences of this.

Darwin was influenced by this line of thought and adopted it for his theory of evolution, in terms of the competition for resources between individuals and species. There was no direct evidence that it was competition that caused evolution, it can just as easily be as the result of changes in the environment or even random mutations. There are plenty of examples of species co-existing with no change for long periods of time. They are in equilibrium with each other and the environment, there is no "competition". The coelacanth is thought to have existed for millions of years.

From Darwin it was a short hop to Herbert Spencer who misunderstood Darwin's theory which works on a species-wide basis and adapted it to human nature as "survival of the fittest". This, in turn, has led to any number of variations on economic theory. The rise of psychology and allied fields at the beginning of the 20th Century led to theories which pinned the evil inherent in humans to a variety of mental functions, including "unconscious" ones. The latest in this series is the new work trying to discover how "rational" decision-making is. If humans are not rational actors as classical economics assumes then we must revert to mechanisms which lead them in the "right" direction.

Capitalism is an outgrowth of these theories. People are motivated by self interest, only through competition can the best outcomes be obtained, authoritarian leaders (even "benevolent" ones) can only make things worse by getting in the way, etc.

To summarize: Malthus' belief in human moral weakness, led Darwin to hypothesize the same thing for the rest of the natural world, which led Spencer to make an evolutionary theory into one of economic behavior by individuals. This led to other like Marx and Freud to posit ways to overcome these limitations. In the most extreme cases it led to the worst examples of totalitarian regimes the planet has ever seen (Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and it continues to day in Africa and elsewhere). These theories all have one thing in common - they are wrong because they oversimplified too much.

A new theory

What all these have in common, even the ones that claim a "scientific" basis is that they are far from the kinds of theories that one finds in the physical sciences. The rise of Newtonian mechanics and what followed inspired social philosophers into thinking that their theories could be as unambiguous and exact. Analogies to mechanical processes are still commonplace when discussing social structures.

My theory of "everything" is that there is no theory of everything. People are complex and no broad-brush explanation is going to be useful. Most theories are inspired by people who have a particular viewpoint and are looking for justifications for why it is right. There are as many cases where people have been shown to support altruism and community involvement as there are where they appear selfish. That one set of behaviors is ignored while the other is taken as the only motivator of human behavior is just wrong.

Many societies have been based upon cooperative, not competitive, models. This is true of human and animal societies. Social insects are the most extreme case in the animal world, but wolf packs and even groups of whales hunt cooperatively. Societies not based upon industrial production frequently have more of a communal structure. Frequently there is a group of elders or similar which makes decisions rather than the more popular pyramid structure seen in western society.

A functional democracy is also the opposite of the Spencerian dog-eat-dog model. People have to work collectively and select leaders to work on their behalf. Such leaders are not supposed to work for their own benefit, in fact if they do this, it is seen as a breach of trust. They are also supposed to be replaced regularly without any interruption of basic social structures. The losers in an election are expected to yield to the will of the majority when it comes to decisions to be made, but are expected to continue to try to persuade others to change their opinions in the future. This is all self-sacrifice for the general good.

Now, obviously, the democratic model has worked fairly well for several hundred years. In addition the number of countries adopting it has increased steadily throughout the period. These facts stand in stark contrast to the continuing belief in the quasi-Darwinian view of nature. Why these contradictions are not noted more is a puzzle.

The world is approaching a real Malthusian situation, for the first time ever, on a global scale. There are those who feel that the spoils should go to the strong. The US military establishment has created contingency plans on how to deal with the rise of Russia, China and threats to world oil supplies. They have not developed plans on how to get along with other countries. Given that we have lost every "war" since the end of WWII, it seems unlikely that their plans will work in the future either. We haven't even won the metaphorical wars on drugs, poverty, terrorism, crime, etc.

It is time to abandon the Darwinian view of the world and adopt a more comprehensive one. One which appeals to people's better nature, their desire to make something of their lives and to leave the world a better place. Motherly love is the unchangeable part of human nature, not selfishness.

What is Money?

With investments falling in price recently people have been looking at the whole concept of money and value more closely again. Money is a topic which has confounded thinkers for several thousand years, so I don't think I'll be able to explain it either. Instead I'll just ask some questions.

Until the invention of paper money, money was based upon some relatively rare tangible object. Silver and gold have been popular choices for a long time. Their virtue was that one can't counterfeit them, although there have been cases of adulteration and "clipping".

Having a governing body issue coinage was a way of simplifying trade since the provenance eliminated the need to verify each coin every time a trade was done. The problem with gold and silver is that the "wealth" of a society was based upon an arbitrary commodity which had insignificant purpose aside from as a medium of exchange. Jewelry is just another way to hold on to this commodity.

It was only in the past 100 years or so that gold and silver have been needed for actual industrial production. Silver in photography and some electronics and gold in electronics. Even today industrial use of gold is only about 20% of the amount mined.

With the rise of mercantilism and industrialization the limits on the actual amount of gold and silver acted as a barrier to trade. One might have a large amount of grain to sell, but if the buyer didn't have the gold to pay for it there was no deal. This led to the creation of credit. So "money" was now created without any connection to scarce commodities, but only based upon a promise. From letters of credit to central banks and the issuance of paper money has been a long path in time, but a short leap conceptually.

Once we permit trade to take place based upon credit then we have allowed money to be created outside the direct control of national mints. Credit is a promise and the "value" of the promise is based upon expectations that the loan will be paid in a timely fashion.

Those who see the evil in "fractional banking" and "fiat money" have confused a specific mechanism for the creation of credit with the idea that money is based upon trust, regardless of how this is defined. So proposals to limit banks to lending only what they have in reserve, for example, just put the entire creation of the money supply in the hands of the government. If they fail to put enough money into circulation (either in the form of paper or bonds) then trade becomes constrained just as it was with a limited amount of coinage in circulation.

Proposals to substitute something for credit all are variations on going back to the old system. Should we base wealth on land or a basket of commodities? If so then how do you determine the "value" of these things. We have seen recently that land and oil can change value just as rapidly as anything else. There are no physical commodities which have a value independent of what people assign to them.

One could argue that the use of credit has worked well since it became the norm in the 20th Century, but this isn't true. There have been dozens of revaluations of money and a successions of international mechanisms set up to deal with problems. Going off the gold stand, Bretton Woods, the creation of the IMF and World Bank have all been attempts to systematize a process which is fundamentally based only on trust. We are now going through the latest international convulsion over money and will probably see some new ad hoc mechanisms put in place to restore confidence.

As I said, I don't have any ideas, but it seems to me that we will be stuck with trust-based credit for the foreseeable future.

Why the Middle East Conflict Never Ends

The strife in the middle east has been going on, in its latest phase, for 60 years. Now when something goes on this long without being resolved there has to be a reason. The reason can usually be found by examining who stands to gain from the status quo.

I'll offer three hypothesis as to who these might be.

First there are what I call the "magic sand" people. These belong to all three of the monotheistic religions of the region: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All claim that certain spots in the desert have special properties to them and their group is thus entitled to control over these regions. In some cases they all lay claim to exactly the same spots. They use historical evidence as justification for their positions, even though these claims are based upon conditions which existed over a 1000 or even 2000 years ago. Historical clams can't be allowed to trump everything that has happened since.

This group is very vocal and can be counted on to create civil unrest and perform acts of violence in pursuit of their cause, but they are tools of the other groups.

Second are the oligarchs who run all of the countries in the region. There are no functioning democracies in the region, although a few have elections and other democratic trappings. In addition, they all suffer from gross disparities of wealth. Not only within a state, but between them. Egypt has no oil and is poor, Kuwait has too much oil and is obscenely rich.

I have some statistics on this which can be seen in the table at this link. Look at the column which list oil reserves per person to see the imbalance.

Another measure is the "Gini" Index which ranges from 0 for a perfectly equal society to 100. For comparison, Norway has the lowest at 25.8, the US at 40.8. There are only statistics for a few middle eastern states: Egypt 34.4, Yemen 33.4. The lack of data for the most unequal like Saudi Arabia and the Emirates is telling. The states where everyone is poor release statistics, those with the most extremes in wealth suppress them. International agencies, which could estimate this, seem reluctant to do so, since they don't want to offend our friends with the oil.

Third are the oil consuming states, principally the US and Europe. They have long pursued a policy of keeping the oil states economically, socially and politically underdeveloped. This is a variation of the banana republic strategy that was the norm for South America for much of the 19th Century. We support oligarchs because it is easier to do business with a small group of powerful individuals than to have to deal with messy democracies and the will of the people.

The oligarchs don't want the population noticing this and rising up to remedy the situation, so they create distractions. These distractions are the issue with Israel and the ethnic rivalries that never get resolved. This is where the magic sand people come in. By blaming everything that is wrong with the region on Israel it is not necessary to deal with the local injustices.

The US also has its proxy in Israel. It supplies it with arms and other materiel so that it can perform the type of destabilizing tactics that the US wants without the US having to get its hands dirty. Notice that all the fighting in the regions that has involved Israel has never been directed at toppling a major Arab political hierarchy and replacing it with democratic institutions.

In addition the Arab states have refused to allow the displaced Palestinians to resettle elsewhere in the region. They want to keep this group bottled up and angry generation after generation so that there is a steady supply of foot soldiers.

There are no players with clean hands in this conflict.

The Jews in 1948 did some sort of land grab, whether this was done under a "mandate", whether it was fair, whether Arabs were forced out, fled from fear, or were duped into leaving by their leaders, is a historical question which seems impossible to answer fully. Whatever the circumstances, it happened. It was an injustice, but it wasn't the only injustice in history.

The Arabs who fled have been mistreated by fellow Arabs ever since. This is also an injustice, but it is a continuing one.

The Arabs who stayed in the region have also been mistreated. The ones in Israel proper somewhat less than those in the areas claimed by the Palestinians. These are currently being mistreated by both the Israelis and the radicals in their midst.

Speculative Solutions

Are any of the proposed "solutions" viable? It would seem not or they would have been implemented already. These ideas are not to be taken as firm policy suggestions, rather they are just my attempt to get people thinking along new paths.

To my mind the "two state" solution is the least viable option. The territories that the Palestinians would end up with are not big enough and don't have enough resources to provide for a decent standard of living. A divided state is also unworkable. Even if the free movement between Gaza and the West Bank became the norm this would still add gross inefficiencies to any economic development.

The desire of the magic sand people to have those in the opposing groups vanish from the region is, of course, also impossible. That some keep wishing for this just means that they have been programmed to avoid thinking about realistic solutions.

Stamping out opposition by military means has also proven a failure. This has been a failure not only between states, but within states as the recurring battles in Lebanon illustrate. One cannot solve problems of civic injustice by military means. One can cower a population as totalitarian states have done in many cases in the 20th Century, but the cost is high in terms of low economic development and blighted lives.

I suggest a new approach. Redressing the history of injustice by means of money.

All those who have suffered by being displaced, or being put into situations of economic constraint, should be compensated financially. This means, at a minimum, "Palestinians" living in camps throughout the region as well as those currently living in the disputed regions. The compensation should extend to the third generation of those affected. That is those who still under 20 years old as well as those who experienced displacement and hardship directly.

The compensation should be large enough that these families can establish themselves economically. I don't have an exact figure, but let's say somewhere in the neighborhood of $50-100 thousand per adult. This money would be paid out over a period of a few years via an international agency which would hold the funds in a special banking system set up for this purpose.

Those countries which are now keeping refugees bottled up or refusing to allow them to become full citizens would need to allow them to integrate into the general society, or move to countries in the region which would be willing to do so. For each case that was thus resolved the host country would also get some direct aid to assist in resettlement and integration.

The Palestinian areas would enter a new status. Gaza would become a "special administrative unit" of Egypt and the west bank of Jordan. This requires a bit of explanation.

The idea of sovereign states based upon cultural homogeneity has been a dominant trend over the past several hundred years. Regional difference in Europe were generally minimized to promote the idea of a nation. This can be seen in the consolidation in France, Italy, Germany and the UK. Cultural and language differences have been minimized and a national identity created in its place. The results have been fairly successful. Using this model has worked less well in other areas of the world, especially in Africa and the middle east. Arbitrary sovereign state borders were created by colonial powers with little regard to the ethnic groups within the regions. The results have not been good. There have been continual flareups of ethnic violence ever since.

I propose a new type of citizenship for groups in these regions. They maintain their sovereign-based citizenship, but also have a clan or ethnic group formal identity. This second identity permits them to participate in the administration of local affairs using traditional cultural mechanisms. We have a model of this in the US with American Indians. They are US citizens and, if they wish, they can participate in tribal affairs. The rules for such participation are up to the tribe and may involve living on the reservation or other criteria.

Many countries with large numbers of people living elsewhere also accommodate this by allowing them to continue to vote in local elections. In some cases they don't lose this right even if they obtain citizenship in their new place of residence. An example where such a dual identity could work to reduce friction is with the Kurds who are spread over three sovereign countries, but consider themselves as one people.

Ethnic groups with a strong cultural tradition want to preserve this and the primary focus for them has to do with education and local land disputes. There is no reason why these administrative tasks can't be handled locally.

So the "special administrative districts" I'm proposing for the Palestinians would be like this. If they chose to remain in their enclaves they can run their own local affairs. If they chose to minimize their cultural heritage and move into the larger society then they give up some of these special privileges.

Fears, such as those expressed by the King of Jordan, about his country's national character being overwhelmed by the increase of new citizens are a type of cultural racism. History has shown that immigrants integrate into the general society, almost completely by the third generation, if they are allowed to. If the US can accommodate people of widely differing backgrounds, Jordan can accept some who differ only slightly from the native population.

People who are granted full rights become just as patriotic as those who have lived their before. It is only when the governments continue to emphasize the differences that problems arise. So the Palestinians become dual citizens or not as they wish.

Chances for Success

Is any of this possible? As I said out the outset, the reason there has been no resolution to the issues is because there are strong forces who favor the status quo. Are they about to give up their privilege voluntarily? Will the west push for democratization of the region and take on the associated risks of having to deal with populations that want to trade their resources on their own terms, not ours? Will the military establishment be willing to stop selling unneeded, expensive and provocative armaments to the region and lose the revenue?

Will the local oligarchs be willing to cede control to the people? Will the hyper-wealthy oil states be willing to share their revenue more equally with their own population, and more importantly, with their impoverished neighbors?

Obviously the vested interests have the upper hand. Change has to happen from the bottom up. The people of the region have to demand a better deal. The first step in this is education. They have to learn that their interests are being ill served and who it is that is working against them. Focusing on the Israel/Palestinian conflict is a deliberate distraction and only education can explain this.

The west cannot force a solution on the region, even if it wanted to, but those interested in social equity and economic advancement can promote a better understanding of the issues and not fall into the trap of debating which side's moral failings are more egregious.

First comes education and the fostering of good will, then comes cooperation, then come the calls for social justice within the population. Then, and only then, can real solutions emerge.

My stimulation idea - paid volunteerism.

The never-ending debates over how to best get the economy going again swing between tax policies, interest rate adjustments and public spending. All of these require a huge bureaucratic system to be put into motion. My plan is much simpler and can be put in effect immediately.

Here's how it works, those who are unemployed or underemployed get income support through existing insurance programs. Then instead of sitting around or pretending to look for work they use their time to volunteer. They are not paid to volunteer or required to volunteer, but they can afford to do so since their income is assured.

There are many areas where extra hands could help. For example, teaching reading or helping kids with their homework in public libraries in the afternoons and weekends.

Or monitoring after school activities that give kids a place to go while their parents are working. The gym, library and auditorium are there, it just needs some adults to supervise or create activities.

How about driving people to doctors appointments or job interviews or the like? Even visiting the home-bound just for companionship is a good idea.

If you want to get more ambitious, those with the appropriate skills could volunteer to help people fix up their homes with improved insulation and the like. The issue of who pays for the building supplies would need to be worked out, but many localities already offer grants for this type of thing.

I'm sure there are dozens of other areas which could benefit from some volunteer labor. Since these volunteers are being paid they are not sacrificing financially by being good Samaritans.

Unlike the job corps or the peace corps or the WPA these efforts would be from the bottom up and responsive to local needs. One could use a mechanism like Craig's List to coordinate things. All of these projects are "shovel ready" right now.

Nuclear Swords into Plowshares

As has become abundantly clear over the past few years there are no "good" solutions to the energy crisis. Clean coal has been revealed to be anything but. Tar sands rip up the landscape, create huge pools of contaminated water and tailings and have a low net energy yield. Corn and other plant-derived ethanol consumes resources needed for crops and doesn't yield much net energy. Oil and gas remain the most economic choices, but suffer from variable availability, price uncertainty and declining reserves.

In addition, all of these fossil fuels contribute to the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Efforts to sequester the waste gases are not available and many proposals lack scientific rigor.

Wind, wave and solar will become increasingly important, but it is unlikely that they will provide enough of a solution to meet demand. At this point I usually argue for cutting down on demand by re-framing the consuming societies so that they are not so wasteful.

I think that there is another alternative that we should consider - nuclear power. The world has enormous stocks of highly refined Uranium and Plutonium which could be reprocessed and used as fuel for nuclear power stations. In addition existing spent fuel can be reprocessed and provide fresh fuel. In addition there is the possibility of building more breeder reactors to provide further supplies.

There are several objections to nuclear power. The ones about control of nuclear material are based upon unfounded fears. The risk of "proliferation" because there is fuel in a reactor is irrational. The world handles huge amounts of radioactive material every day for use in medical and industrial applications. Radiation from Cobalt is more deadly that that from Uranium fuel rods, yet adequate controls keep the number of incidents to a handful each year.

There are new generations of nuclear power plant designs which avoid the problems of the past. Several of these are currently in use and several others being considered for new plants. Part of the problem with nuclear plants has been poor citing decisions, poor planning for storage of spent fuel, and a lack of community involvement. If a plan to build huge solar arrays, far from population centers in the US desert, can be considered then so can citing nuclear plants in similar locations.

One of the big issues has to do with funding new nuclear plants. Some studies claim that if total costs are included they are not economical. The latest number being bandied around is in the range of $0.20 per kilowatt hour, about ten times what the industry claims. For the sake of argument, let's assume that this true.

This cost is only excessive when compared against flawed analysis of alternatives. The two biggest costs that are ignored when calculating the cost of fossil fuel plants are the value of the non-replaceable fuel and the cost of the emissions on the health of the planet. At some point such costs become unacceptable and only those processes which avoid them are a viable choice. We don't put a price on depletion and pollution because we can't, not because they don't have a cost.

I propose we decommission all nuclear weapons over time and use the nuclear material for power generation - the swords into plowshares of the title. In addition I propose that all aspects of nuclear power generation be run by government agencies set up specifically for this purpose. In the US the TVA has provided power to an under-served region for many decades. The government undertook this because a private solution was unworkable.

As the recent disaster with a TVA coal-fired plant shows, even government agencies can become complacent and sloppy. The solution to weak supervision is better monitoring, not condemning government administration. The number of disasters associated with private power generation shows that who owns the plant is no indication of safety or good management.

I don't like nuclear power, I think the risks are minimized, but I think this is because private firms need to make a profit from something which cannot compete economically with fossil fuel. Eliminating the profit motive and the need to cut corners can help ensure that plants are built and run safely. If it costs more, it costs more. It's better than seeing our coastlines underwater in a few decades.

Nuclear power won't be a permanent solution, that's where my usual push for reforming our social systems so they aren't based upon excessive consumption and consumerism. However, if done wisely, it can provide a bridge to a new system and allow time for alternative technologies to be developed. I'm still hopeful that some sort of controlled fusion can be made to work, but we need to get there from here and burning more oil is not the way to do it.

When faced with only unpleasant choices one still has to chose. Even doing nothing is a choice, a fact that those who want to minimize the climate threat seem not to realize. I'm not trying to rehash all the debates on nuclear power from technological or economic views, these seem never to end and how you feel about the issues seems more to be based upon personal prejudices than on the available information.

I'm arguing for nuclear power as a moral issue. We need to get rid of nuclear weapons, a moral choice. We need to reduce greenhouse gasses, a moral choice. We need to leave a habitable planet for future generations, a moral choice. For too long decisions have been based upon economic arguments. Since when did money become the measure rather than morality?

Monday, September 22, 2008


Who Should Chose Your Cultural Identity?

While people claim that they abhor prejudice they seem to find nothing wrong with imposing cultural behaviors and norms on their children. Implicit in this is the belief that there is something special about their culture which is to be preferred in the education of their children. Then they complain when others stereotype them.

Why should a child have to adopt the rituals and conventions of their parents? Instead of being required to practice these rites why shouldn't they be free to chose their own? Why should I learn the music of my country if I prefer that of another time and place?

I understand that one has to teach children something. I also understand the motivation which makes the older generation pass on its norms. If your children don't keep the flame burning that your life was for naught and the fact of your existence vanishes to future generations. No one wants to be forgotten.

Nevertheless there are many reasons to oppose such teaching. It breeds separatism, dislike of other and narrow-mindedness. It also preserves old feuds between groups that have no bearing on those now living. What is the point of commemorating some distant victory if not to stick it to the other group that lost? Many cultures contain myths and falsehoods which have been passed down from less well informed generations. These obsolete beliefs stifle progress by making questioning a social taboo. In some cultures such questioning can be severely punished, even by death.

Being forced to adopt the cultural norms of the group you were born into also encourages discrimination. If your parents brought you up to be an Irish-American than that is what others will tend to identify you as. But suppose you prefer Spanish or French culture? Why should an accident of birth brand you involuntarily?

Some societies try to teach "multi-culturalism" believing that this will lessen prejudice. But the students sill look at it from within the framework of their own background. It's like observing the strange natives on some anthropological expedition - curious, but not for me.

There have been some shifts in the US. For example few people nowadays have the same attitudes towards Asian-Americans as existed 100 years ago. Many Asian-Americans carry little of the cultural baggage of their ancestor's home countries. They have become "white" Americans. I think a similar thing may be happening in the EU. Young people who travel from one home country to another tend to become more cosmopolitan and less provincial. There ability to speak several languages also helps.

I realize that putting changes into practice is a near-impossible task, but I think it is more a case of changing attitudes than of actual steps. Children are always going to learn the culture and language that their parents speak (although second generation immigrants tend to do this less, and by the third generation many can't speak their grandparent's original language). Still cultural practices are passed down as part of the "heritage".

In the schools mutli-culturalism needs to be decoupled from being based upon ethnic distinctions and replaced with the teaching of more universal characteristics.

Many people grow up and explicitly reject their parent's background, but the prejudice of society still tries to force them into these categories. I claim that you are what your enemies call you. The harm can be most easily seen from the extreme example: the most acculturated and secular "Jewish" Germans still ended up in the ovens.

It is a sorry commentary on human nature if the only way people can define themselves is by pushing their prejudices onto their children.

Global Waming as an Economic Issue

Global Warming as an Economic Issue

As part of the ongoing debate about global warming there have been various studies which have tried to cast this as a problem in economics. The most comprehensive of these was created by the British Economist Nicholas Stern. The full report is available here along with various summaries.

For our purposes this is all that is required:

Using the results from formal economic models, the Review estimates that if we don’t act, the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever. If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, the estimates of damage could rise to 20% of GDP or more.

The way these numbers were arrived at was by doing a present value calculation. This is standard in economic discussions, how much needs to be saved now to provide the desired amount in the future.

One of the sharpest critics of Stern is the economist William Nordhaus who has made a mini industry out of commenting on the report. One of his fundamental complaints is that Stern uses an incorrect rate for future economic growth. Here's one version of Nordhaus' explanation:

Based on historical studies and projections, the inflation-corrected return on investment has been in the range of 3 to 6 percent per year depending upon time period and risk. In my modeling, I have used a 4 percent discount rate. Applying this discount rate to the trust would lead you to propose a present payment of x = $39,204. Over two hundred years, as the interest on that sum is paid and compounded, the value of the trust would reach $100 million.

This is in reply to critics who disagreed with a book review in the New York Review of Books by physicist Freeman Dyson. Here's the review: The Question of Global Warming

There have been other approaches to this problem, one of the most novel is by economist Martin Weitzman: On Modeling and Interpreting the Economics of Catastrophic Climate Change (PDF), where he argues that the economic impact of a catastrophe is so great that even if the chances of it are extremely remote steps should be taken to avoid it.

Nordhaus has managed to shift the debate to one over some parameters in an economic model.I don't think such calculations (and even assuming that compound interest will be the dominant financial growth mechanism 200 years hence) is a reliable measure for such long range projections. There are some basic assumption embedded in both papers. The idea that economies grow at an average rate has only been true in developed countries since the rise of the industrial revolution. It still isn't true in many parts of the undeveloped world, where societies tend to be relatively static (or were until modern medicine started dropping the death rate faster than the birth rate declined). There is no reason to expect that a trend that has affected 25% of the world's population for only 300 years will continue to be the norm for the next 200 years.

Second the idea of compound interest which is the basis of calculating present value only makes sense in a capitalist economy. In this type of system money is invested and what is required in return is interest. Some societies still prohibit the charging of interest. In addition compounding implies that interest received periodically can be reinvested at the same terms as the original capital. This assumes continual growth, something which is not a forgone conclusion as we enter into an era of resource shortages.

Without assumed continual growth, both arguments fall apart. We can predict nothing about how money set aside now will be used in 200 years, or even if it is possible to preserve capital over such a long period of time. The wealth of the French Aristocracy didn't last. The British taxed away the wealth of the landed gentry during the 20th Century. Things considered of high value in one era have become valueless in another. Where one would put the money that is supposed to supply the funds to ameliorate the effects of climate change in the distant future is not a simple task.

A series of recent events have shown that there is value in taking steps now to fix the known risks faced now. The effects of the series of hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters could have all been minimized by adopting adequate civil engineering projects.Nordhaus things that combating the eventual effects of climate change now will only consist of reducing economic activity.
The current international approach in the Kyoto Protocol will be economically costly and have virtually no impact on climate change. In my view, the best approach is also one that is relatively simple - internationally harmonized carbon taxes.

In other words a simple economic fix will provide an incentive towards efficiency. In fact he opposes large-scale efforts altogether:

We should avoid thinking that we need a climate Manhattan Project to develop the key technology. It seems likely that new climate-friendly technologies will be the cumulative outcome of a multitude of inventions, many coming from small inventors, and originating in unrelated fields.

The best way to encourage the process of radical invention is to ensure an economic environment that is supportive of innovation and entrepreneurship.

This is not planning, it is wishful thinking. Large enterprises undertake focused R&D all the time, that's why they have research labs. When the task is too large then government funding is necessary. The idea that big ideas will occur spontaneously in someone's garage is hopelessly out of date. Societies have to decide on goals and then put the resources into achieving them. This can be levees along the Gulf Coast, earthquake resistant buildings, or looking for a cure for cancer. The libertarians in the US have promoted a free-market idea that disfavors centralized planning. As a consequence the only government central planning that takes place in the US is in the military sector. Corporations, of course, do central planning, that's why they exist, but their motives are to make a profit not save the world.

Even if it were possible to agree on a discount rate that would hold over the next 50 or 200 years, that still avoids facing the moral issues. Depending upon "entrepeneurship" to address social problems doesn't work, that's why we have destroyed cities and millions living in poverty. The moral course is to work to alleviate suffering now, and not hope that something will come along in the future.

Why can't libertarians understand that today's suffering can't wait?

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Too big to fail

As the "capitalists" in the GOP proceed with the largest nationalization in US history, it seems a good time to talk about market dominance.

In the past six months a half dozen financial firms have been effectively nationalized. In order to disguise this a variety of means have been used, such as lending money to the acquiring public firm, or as yesterday with AIG taking an ownership position via warrants.

In the UK, which has a tradition of nationalizing (and then re-privatizing) a takeover is done straightforwardly. That's what happened with the Northern Rock Bank. But in the US we have to maintain the fiction that private enterprise does everything better than government and, therefore, subsidies and bailouts have to be called something else.

The reason given for these actions is that these firms are "too big to fail". I claim that any firm that is too big to fail is just too big, period.

Since Reagan there has not been any semblance of anti-trust legislation and firms have been allowed to merge and buy each other up, willy-nilly. For awhile firms used to justify their actions by claiming that this would lead to improved efficiency, but the stock market usually sells off the stock of the acquiring firm. Investors know that the results will lead to lower profits. So why do they do it? I claim that the CEO's do it as a way to keep score (as they do with their salaries). "I'm running a $XXX billion firm" is oneupmanship for the parasite class these days.

If a firm is too big to fail, then it is too big to exist.

There are two simple reforms (well, simple to state). First, firms cannot own other firms. The parents are just conglomerates and provide no added benefits. In fact top management can't even follow the details of all their subsidiaries.

Second, when a firm gets over a certain size it has to be split up. Look at the benefits from breaking up AT&T. It's true it was a monopoly, but once it was split new businesses emerged and we got everything from WiFi to cell phones. Now that the telecom business has been allowed to reconsolidate the US has fallen behind in this area.

Not only are big firms inefficient, they wield too much political power and they control too big a segment of the economic pie.

The nationalization of failing firms has just made explicit what has been the reality for several decades now. The US is not a capitalist economy, it is a corporatist-syndicalist one similar to what Mussolini tried to set up. The parallels with the rise of an internal secret police function should give us pause as well.

Walmart may not have a traditional monopoly position in the retail market, but its size allows it to set the pace and distorts the entire consumer space. It's not just that they force ethical firms to compete with an unethical one, its that they accustom everyone to the idea that unethical business practices are acceptable and a way to financial success.

This is the "Christian" lesson that the Walton's are teaching the good people of middle America. We have become a nation of cynics as a result. Shame on them.

Econometrics as Signal Processing

The purpose of this essay is to explore how the techniques used in economic analysis compare to those used in other disciplines. As in other social sciences, data in economics is observational, rather than being obtained from controlled experiments. Analyzing such data can be cast as an information processing problem.

In this essay, I will draw a parallel between the two disciplines. The fundamental assumption is that any finite data set can be considered a "message" or "signal", embedded in noise. The noise in this case is additional information which is not relevant to the hypothesis under consideration. Extracting information from this "noise" then becomes analogous to techniques used in signal processing.

Shannon [1948] established the perspective that within a given message there is a fixed amount of (unknown) information. Extracting it requires not only finding it but recognizing it once found. Since no recovery method will be perfect, and since the noise will always corrupt the message in some fashion, there also needs to be a way to determine how close the information is to the source signal and how much residual distortion remains.

In conventional signal processing, such as that used for telephony or storing music or video, there are physiological and psychological criteria that have been developed experimentally which determine acceptability. Many modern compression schemes deliberately throw away data, but the message is still found satisfactory due to the relatively low requirements of people when receiving these sorts of messages. For example, audio compression is based around the limits of human hearing; information which is determined to be aesthetically unimportant is discarded to save space.

In the case of scientific observational data, there are well-established rules that define acceptability when the "message" is extracted. A common example is curve fitting, where goodness of fit is determined by least squares or a similar test. Simultaneously, various confidence levels are generated such as variance. The use to which the message will be put determines whether a given level of confidence is acceptable or not. In controlled experiments, differences between control and experimental data are the message, and depending on confidence in the strength of the signal (as measured by a variety of standard statistical tests), the hypothesis may or may not be confirmed at the acceptable level of confidence.

There are many methods used to extract the message. I'll just mention a few.

1. Filtering. If the noise is known to be in one area while the signal is in another, filtering can be used to separate them. There are three popular types of filters, low pass, high pass and band pass. Low pass filters are used in telephony to eliminate high-frequency hiss above the speech range. High pass filters are used to eliminate low-frequency hum from poorly shielded public address systems. Band pass filters are used to capture a single radio station along the dial. Digital signal processing has made the implementation of much more highly complex filters feasible; filters can also adapt to a changing signal in real time. Such systems are used to eliminate feedback at live concerts.

2. Signal averaging. This is useful when the message is repeated. By gathering multiple copies of the message, the signal/noise ratio is increased. Astronomical observation uses this, as does radar processing.

3. Subtracting out noise. If the characteristics of noise can be fairly well determined the noise can be subtracted from the message. Modern digital cameras take a blank picture (which should only contain noise from the camera's sensors) and subtract it from the desired image.

4. Predictive reconstruction. Many messages tend to vary slowly so a loss of part of the signal can be reconstructed from adjacent information, whether adjacent in space, time, frequency, or other dimension. Digital TV sets have frame buffers which compare one frame to the next. If there is a loss of signal, prior frames are used to estimate the missing information. Since the criteria for acceptability of a moving image is low, this works well as long as the interruptions are relatively short. Humans use this when processing speech. Much speech is highly redundant and missing a word or two can usually be compensated for by comparing the message to expectations of what the words should have been.

There is a fundamental difference between the first method and the others. In the first case, the technique is to remove information from the data set. It is hoped that more irrelevant information (noise) is removed than message information. For example, when filtering a particular radio station out of the electro-magnetic spectrum, the result has less information than before, but filtering has made the signal more observable.

In the other cases, external information is fed into the system to make the data set larger. It is hoped that the extra information is relevant to the message. However, because of this addition, it is important to account for potential bias in the result.

Examining statistical methods through the lens of information theory

Let's look at some common statistical methods, especially as treated by econometrics. I can't cover all the techniques that have been developed, but once I have shown the pattern it should be possible to make the proper analogies between the two disciplines.

All techniques which subtract selected data are type 1, employing filtering to enhance the signal/noise. A common approach is to use, say, a lagged, three month average when looking at employment data or the like. This is a form of high pass filtering. Short term fluctuations are filtered out leaving the desired long wave signal - the longer trend.

Making seasonal adjustments to data is also a form of filtering; in this case low pass. The repetitive shifts throughout the year are like hum, it is periodic (or quasi-periodic) enough to be filtered out.

Sliding windows and sub-sampling are type 2, signal averaging. A new data set is collected which is similar to the prior one in the important respects and various averaging techniques are used to remove the differences leaving the desired information. Whether old samples are dropped off the end or the sample size is increased should depend upon some knowledge of how much the message is changing. Out-of-sample forecasting is also a type of signal averaging. The new samples can be considered a new instance of the message.

Techniques using dummy variables are type 3, analogous to subtracting out noise. There is "information" present which is known to be irrelevant and the characteristics are also reasonably well understood so that it can be well described. The dummy variables can be used to "subtract" this from the calculations.

Bayesian techniques are type 4, a variety of predictive reconstruction. The idea is that there is some information external to the data set which is known independently about the environment. Adding this in improves the signal/noise ratio. An event that occurs in the data may be strongly correlated with an event that is not; for example, a data set tracking the relation between river flooding and rainfall may not include riverbed construction events, but the correlation between the two make it appropriate to introduce this additional information. Adding in the 'missing' information adds only a small amount of noise (the inverse of the correlation), and may improve the resulting signal. Similarly, using an independently derived model, whether hypothetical or based upon previous cases, adds information to the system. If the extracted message conforms closely to the model then it increases the probability that it is the "right" message. However, as the difference between the predictive model and reality can be difficult to estimate, expectations may, therefore, distort the results.

As with signal processing there is a limit to how much information can be extracted from any "message", the entropy of the system. Another analogy will be useful. Many people have seen the crime shows on TV where the detective turns to the technician and says about an image on the screen "can you enhance that"? Poof! the evil doer is revealed. In the real world there is a simple law of optics, identical in formulation to Shannon's measurement of information complexity which determines the resolution of a given image. Attempting to enhance images beyond this Nyquist limit produces no additional information. An information-contributing technique blowing it up larger or sharpening it may make it easier to view, but it doesn't add any new information. In this case the absolute limit is determined by the diameter of the lens (assuming it has no other aberrations) and the wavelength of light. To get more detail you need to change one or the other. That's why electron microscopes don't use light to resolve fine detail, instead using electrons (which have a much smaller wavelength).

The same thing is true with finite data sets There is only so much information available within the data set. It is tempting to try to find patterns that conform to desired expectations, but this is done at the expense of certainty. A common case of this is when a small number of current data points are combined with model data to extrapolate future results, as is routinely done in, e.g., population predictions. Both of these methods (introducing a model and extrapolating) introduce uncertainty and the possibility for bias.

However, in many cases the claims made are not subjected to a rigorous enough error analysis, and low-confidence results are presented as truth. Is it adequate to say that the results may be so and so with only a 75% confidence level? This is an important consideration, and matters when defining policy, but is outside the scope of information theory.

One of the issues about a data set is whether it is time-based or not. While there is often a distinction made between them, time-based and non-time-based data sets are equally amenable to information analysis. From an information point of view, time is just another dimension. For example, one could be trying to make a prediction on the effect of change in consumption of some commodity over time compared with some behavioral characteristic - say chocolate consumption vs weight gain. Using time based analysis one could using a sliding window to create a series of data sets which incorporate out-of-sample material. This analysis is conceptually no different than gathering a data set from a specific geographic region, and then considering the out-of-sample data as coming from a different region.

Curve fitting is a popular technique in the social sciences, for both interpolation and extrapolation of data. It can also be used as a form of band-pass filtering. Any finite signal can be decomposed into a sum of orthogonal functions. The most common sets are the polynomials and the trigonometric functions (sine or cosine). For example, a popular method of finding out the acoustical properties of a performance space is to capture a sharp sound, as from a gunshot, and then decompose it into a harmonic series using a Fast Fourier Transform (FFT). This produces a frequency response curve and a reverberation curve for the space depending on the method used.

This technique has been extended to the spatial domain, allowing for analysis of complex optical paths in lenses. Instead of the painstaking prior methods of establishing image quality, which required imaging a test chart of increasing finer lines, a single slanted knife edge is used and the resulting image is scanned digitally. The knife edge is equivalent to the acoustic spike; both are step functions. The resulting image is decomposed using FFT into a series of spatial frequencies which translate into resolving power and contrast at each frequency. I'm not aware of an econometric equivalent of impulse or step signal testing.

Recognizing the signal (or lack thereof)

Another issue concerns the problem is that the desired message may not be in the data set, or may not be complete. This is not the same as a simple data loss or a sampling error, but is like looking for the needle in the wrong haystack. To go back to my chocolate example, perhaps chocolate is a factor, but it is peanut butter which most influences weight. We have measured the wrong thing, and while we may get a correlation it may not be the most important. Recognizing the message is as vital as finding it.

I think this problem is much more common in the social sciences than is appreciated. With so many factors present in the real world. one has to make assumptions about what to measure or even what one can measure. This involves a bit of assuming the answer, and Bayesian statistics won't help if the possible choices are all bad ones.

Drug testing suffers from the needle in the haystack problem. Many new drugs only affect a small percentage of people with a given condition. In order to observe the effect the sample size must be large enough. This is referred to as the number needed to treat (NNT). Suppose a given statin helps prevent heart attacks in three out of 100 people who take it; then there is a reasonably large chance that a sample of only 100 will show no positive effect. The inverse case is even worse. Suppose, at the same time, the drug adversely affects one in 1000. The positive effect will be found in a sample of 1000, with a good degree of confidence, but not the side effects. Incorrect choice of the population size can introduce difficult-to-detect bias such as by selecting a population size unlikely to exhibit rare but serious undesired effects. However, if the 'cost' of these rare events is sufficiently high, the results of the experiment may not lead to an acceptable real-world policy This has led to serious problems such as with the recall of the drug Vioxx due to rare but potentially lethal side effects. In social sciences limited to observational data, the experimenter does not get to select the population size, and so this effect may occur involuntarily; the analyst may not even consider it a source of bias. The SETI project which is looking for signs of extra-terrestrial life uses advanced signal processing techniques, but suffers from this problem.


The problem of extracting a coherent "message" from social science data is not fundamentally different from the same task in other disciplines. As with many fields of study, insularity and the development of a unique terminology has made knowledge transference less efficient than it might be.

These techniques can be used to reveal the possibility of hidden bias in findings, in the form of signal added by the analyst. This hidden bias may be an inadvertent product of analysis, or may have been introduced consciously or unconsciously as a result of a specific agenda. Analysts in some sciences, such as physics, are held to a high standard of impartiality because of the paradoxical situation where those closest to the data are the most likely to possess an unconscious bias toward the outcome. This makes it very difficult for data analysts to see or believe that they may be introducing bias. To assist in producing pure results, techniques such as clarity of methods, sharing of data, and independent verification of results are crucial to producing truly scientific results.

Identifying and eliminating bias in the social sciences is crucial. Because the results of analysis in the social sciences, especially economics and sociology, are used to understand civil and fiscal issues, and construct public policy, errors or bias in social science findings can affect the lives and fortunes of millions of people. However, the difficulty of identifying bias leads to abuses, as those with a predefined agenda misuse the techniques to obtain results which support their position. The most common misuses seem to involve biased selection of data, either in the type selected or in the range used for analysis. This is a type of filtering, and can completely distort or eliminate the original signal; but because of the nature of the data tampering, it is invisible unless observers have access to the original, unfiltered data set.

Some professions are diligent in monitoring this type of scientific misconduct, but this diligence is less visible, and perhaps even more important, in the social sciences. Because of the difficulty of running independent, confirmatory experiments, social science results must be scrutinized even more carefully than those in sciences more amenable to experimental exploration.

There have also been misuses over methodology, but this usually centers on the choices one makes for various parameters. The fact that some ideologues claim more certainty than is warranted doesn't help either, and by association blackens the reputation of those who are more scrupulous. Maybe the fact that many of the ideologues are employed by organizations which profess the same viewpoints makes attempts at censure difficult to enforce, but this only highlights the importance of accurate, unbiased results in the social sciences.

Thus we have seen that econometrics and statistical analysis used in the social science are really equivalent to other information processing techniques. Advanced modeling is simply a way to add in external information believed to be relevant, and the type and complexity of the model do not determine how much this additional signal improves the reliability of the analysis.

Monday, July 07, 2008


The Reagan Era Fraud

One of the stories of our age has been that there was a cultural revolution which started during the Nixon era and reached its culmination with Reagan. I claim that this shift never took place and that the population has always been more progressive than the conservative history states. There are three parts to this view of history.

1. Conservative "values" became the majority viewpoint in the nation
2. Evangelical Christian views on social issues were made into policy
3. Libertarian style economic policies became the norm

The press and many politicians have certainly acted as if these were widely accepted ideas. Recently, as the age of Rove winds down, people have been discussing the fall in the power of the GOP and implicitly equating its political power with the conservative themes listed above.

I'm not going to detail all the studies about attitudes over the past 60 years, but just point out some examples of the disparity between what was enacted and what was claimed.

Let's start with the three most culturally defining "values" of the period: abortion, homosexual rights and evolution. The right (especially the religious, evangelical right) made these issues the cornerstone of their support for candidates. Looking at the statements made by politicians over the period it would seem that they did cause a shift in electoral preferences - more pols supporting the conservative positions were elected.

When we examine the actual course of legislation and court rulings, however, we find a much more mixed picture. Abortion rights have been slightly limited, but most of this has happened at the state level and many of the restrictions have been overturned by the courts. This pattern allows pols to say to the religious right: "I supported your demands, but it's not my fault that the legislation failed/was overturned."

With homosexual rights even the pretense of limiting rights has been a sham. There have been a few symbolic laws about marriage, but in general there has been a steady progression towards more civil rights for homosexuals during the entire period. Over the loud objections of the religious right we now even have gay marriage in a number of places. The politicians talked the talk, but didn't walk the walk.

Anti-evolution has fared even more poorly. Every attempt to make the teaching of biblical creation has been struck down by the courts. The misinformation has had an effect in the public sphere, however. Too many people now are confused about Darwinism and, as a consequence, are willing to support bogus treatments and ineffective public health policies. The results have been an avoidable increase in diseases such as TB and HIV as well as common childhood infections.

With economic policy, the situation looks different, after all this was the age of Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan. They preached free markets, trickle-down economics and smaller government, but didn't actually support policies to put these ideas into force. What we had instead was a period of government growth, tax breaks for the wealthy with no claims about trickling anywhere, and market consolidation. In other words, the rise of traditional economic (or national) syndicalism. This is where government and industry work together against the interests of the workers, the general population and foreign competitors. It was the standard approach used in the 1920's in Germany to eliminate the power of the workers and in Italy under Mussolini for the same ends. At least these regimes didn't pretend to be promoting free market capitalism, but made the alliance between business and government an explicit goal.

What happened in all three cases was that the views of a vocal minority were misrepresented as those of the majority and then used as a cover to put policies into place that not only weren't those of the majority, but weren't those of the minority either.

Throughout this period the majority of people have favored modestly regulated abortion, increased civil rights for homosexuals (although the specifics have changed over time) and regulation of markets. Furthermore most people want to see expanded government social services, especially with regard to health care and support for education.

The fact that the GOP is now losing control of legislatures does not indicate a change in people's attitudes, it indicates that the false promises of the conservative minority are no longer fooling people. There is a lesson to be learned from the past 60 years and it is one that needs to be relearned time and again.

It is that when the majority is silent or allows itself to be manipulated by a well-organized or well-funded minority things will turn out for the worst. Not only will the majority end up poorer, but the overall society will just be a less pleasant place. Suspicion, fear, anxiety all rise, the opportunities for the free expression of ideas declines and even the ability for entrepreneurship declines. Even the wealthy may end up worse off, very few people would claim that they came out ahead in Italy or Germany by the end of WWII.

Germany and Italy had their armed gangs of thugs to aid in the rise of totalitarianism, in the US we have only had a compliant press and some overzealous government officials. There have been no overt acts to close down publications as happened in the US in 1917, there have been no Palmer Raids and mass imprisonments either, yet the press has been complicit in promoting factual lies about events, misrepresenting public opinion, giving voice to extremists while claiming they represent the majority, and ignoring opposing voices.

Now that there is a willingness for people to see a change in majority party one needs to ask whether this will also lead to a change in real policies. So far it would seem not. There are signs that all viable candidates running for office are still pandering to the religious right, still supporting the privilege of corporations over workers, and still favoring tax policies which disproportionately aid the wealthy. Modest promises about health care and other social services may also turn out to be all talk and no walk.

The people need to make it clear that their desire for a more equitable society has not changed over the past 60 years and that they expect the new broom to do more than sweep the GOP out of power. The wealthy can outspend us, but they can't outvote us. Throwing a few incumbents out on their ears will be a message that many who get re-elected will understand regardless of how much money they raised.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008


Class Warfare

There is a neo-populist movement afoot in the US right how. No one is sure exactly what to call it. Analogies with the original Populist party break down over issues of tariffs and xenophobia. The later "Progressive" movement, which is credited with creating the first round of government regulatory agencies, doesn't fit well either. It didn't have the broad-based working class foundation that is meant when one talks about populism.

These days when critics accuse liberals of engaging in "class warfare" they mean the the working classes are looking to rein in the excesses of the super wealthy. Since this group is tiny, the appeal to defending the rights of Paris Hilton doesn't work well, so they try to include the top 20% as well.

I propose to separate the classes on a different basis than is usually the case. In my scheme there are only two classes: those who have to work for a living and those who don't. Those who work may have different levels of income and wealth, but if they lose their wages they will, eventually, starve.

The blue collar, white collar and professional sectors have more in common than they realize. That the wealthy can disguise this fact is one of the greatest triumphs of social misdirection of the modern age. In the middle of the 20th Century the local town doctor might live in a better home than his patients, but he was part of the community and adverse economic conditions affected him just as much. The same was true for the local banker.

Now we have large sectors of society who make money by dealing in intangibles. These may be financiers, or media people, or others engaged in marketing intellectual property. A dealer in derivatives does not have the same connection to his neighbors as did the town banker. He thus, mistakenly, thinks he has different interests.

What goals do the various strata of the working class have in common?

1. A clean environment
2. A safe local environment
3. Adequate health, education, and retirement services
4. A functioning democracy
5. A stable international political scene
6. The expectation that similar conditions will exist for their descendants

What does the non-working class want?

1. Adequate supplies of material goods of any sort
2. A stable and growing economic system
3. Permanent investment opportunities
4. Freedom to move capital internationally
5. Freedom to relocate when any locale becomes too risky
6. A political system designed to maintain their influence

Why do some in the working class fail to understand where their interests lie? There have been many attempts at formulating an explanation. All seem to have some partial insights. In no particular order: a belief that they will rise to the non-working class and thus they need to support those interests so that they will be in place when they "make it". A feeling of elitism or superiority. Distraction over "values" issues which blind them to the underlying real class concerns. Jingoism or xenophobia which fosters an "us versus them" mindset - another form of elitism. Insecurity or fear which leads to the aim of keeping those who might challenge their position from below being kept "in their place". This latter attitude may not be totally irrational. Many "populist" proposals these days aim at limiting the wealth accumulation of the upper segment of the working class.

The non-working class has every reason to oppose limits on their wealth accumulation since their continuing class membership depends upon the ability to make money from money and not labor. Anything which constrains this will lead to a permanent limit on future wealth growth. Unlike the working class there is nothing they can do to increase their income except have the rules altered. By definition they don't "work" so they can't increase their labor. (I realize that some of the non-working class "work", but they don't have to work to eat they do it for other reasons.)

Now why doesn't a stock trader earning $1 million a year see that his paying a higher fraction of his income is a "good thing"? Doesn't he want a clean and safe environment for himself and his family? Who does he think is going to pay for this? Why the tax resentment? Why does this segment exist only in those countries with a high level of wealth disparity?

As I stated above, I think the problem is one of a misunderstanding of where one's interests lie. In a country with a high degree of wealth disparity (like the US and UK) this imbalance allows too much power to reside in the hands of too few. This not only affects how elected representatives are selected, but also means that the information outlets are in the hands of the non-working classes. The misinformation barrage is thus unchallenged. Politicians who represent the working class don't get elected and voices from this class don't get heard in the press or on the air. With a continual program of class misidentification the working wealthy become blind to their real interests.

A member of the non-working class can leave his home country when things get too bad, but what happens to the financial analyst who thinks he is member of this same group. He is stuck in the muck just like his blue collar compatriots. As the problems of resource shortages spread even the options for relocation will diminish. Perhaps the 400 wealthy families in the US can relocate, but where will they go in 50 years when climate change affects the entire planet?

If you are making $1 million per year, be glad to pay 50 or 90% in taxes and realize that you are still ahead of 99.99% of the rest of the people on the planet. You can't eat gold and you can't buy protection during a revolution, just ask the French aristocracy of 1789. If you are among the most fortunate than you have an obligation to contribute more to society. When did greed replace community as one of the virtues?

The question is how to get people to understand where their interests lie in the face of a generation-long misinformation campaign. I don't have an answer, but perhaps the rise of alternate sources of information will provide the needed wedge. This needs to be defended as well. There are already steps being taken to limit the reach of dissident internet sites as well as to control access to the network itself. Don't expect the legal system to support the working classes. Judges and government workers suffer from the same misunderstanding about their class affiliation as do all the others.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Measuring Democracy

There are a number of new books out which try to show that more democratic countries have a higher level of economic equality and also a higher level sustained economic growth. There is some question as to whether equality leads to growth or vice versa, but the issue I'd like to discuss is how to measure democracy.

There are many studies and organizations which aim to rate states on an authoritarian - democracy scale, but many also add in civil liberties as well. I have something slightly different in mind.

A dictionary definition.

Democracy: government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.

The problem is that such textbook definitions don't take into account the many ways democracy can be imperfect. I'm aiming at a more realistic measure.


A democracy must allow all "citizens" to vote. In addition it must not restrict the definition of citizenship is such a way as to exclude various disfavored groups. For example some countries exclude permanent resident populations who are not members of the dominant ethnic group. There should also be a straightforward way for new residents to obtain citizenship within a reasonable period of time.

Democracies should also not remove the right to vote from citizens, except in very limited cases. Mental incapacity seems appropriate, imprisonment or former imprisonment not as much. Societies regard removing the right to vote as part of the "punishment" of law breakers, but as these people are still affected by the actions of the government they should still have some say in how their lives are regulated.

Other qualifications such as literacy, land holdings, income, or relocation within a country should also not be used to restrict the right to vote. A change of domicile should only restrict voting rights for the time it takes to process the change of address. With modern computer systems this should be at most one month. Fears about people changing location just to vote are unfounded.


Having established who can vote, the next criterion is as to how the votes are counted. For example, having unequal district sizes for the selection of representatives means that some votes are worth more than others. Winner-take-all, rather than proportional assignment of officials, also acts to effectively disenfranchise people. Various forms of Gerrymandering can be used so that minority votes are diluted in such a way that the group never gets any representation. Conversely they may all be grouped together so that the group have little influence outside of a limited number of districts.

In addition to "legal" policies which dilute votes there are many corrupt practices which exist. Such steps as vote rigging, intimidation of voters, restricting the candidates who can stand for office on various trumped up charges, and control of the media are also common. NGO's which monitor elections to see if they are fair issue reports, but even the most damning report doesn't prevent the corrupt officials from taking power anyway. The increase in the cost of running a campaign in the era of corporate media has disfavored candidates without access to financial resources. This relationship taints the legislative process which I discuss next.


Every democracy has some sort of separation between an executive and a legislative function. A government where the people elect a chief executive who then rules by decree is not a democratic government. There is no feedback mechanism to influence the policies that are enacted. This means that there are various bodies dedicated to creating legislation. Once these representatives are chosen one needs to consider how their agenda is chosen and what the basis is for their support of pending legislation. In many countries the parties control their members. The party leadership determines the party's position and the members just follow instructions. This is not very democratic as the voters have no input.

Another common occurrence is to have legislators beholding to those who funded their campaigns. Even in the US we have had individuals tagged as "the senator from Boeing" or "Wall Street". This goes beyond looking after the interests of big firms in one's district, since the firms did not vote and their interests may not coincide with those of the majority of the citizens in the district. In states where voting tends to follow along ethnic lines a legislator of one group rarely looks after the interests of other groups even when there are such citizens within the district.

Many nations have more than one legislative body; the US has the Senate and the UK the House of Lords. These are usually very undemocratic. The US senate gives much more weight to states with small populations. In fact 18% of the population controls 50% of the votes. The House of Lords (until recently) had no pretensions to being democratic at all. There may be a benefit to having a more deliberative body, but it still needs to reflect the makeup of the population.


Once laws are passed they need to be interpreted. In addition, violations of them need to be enforced. A functional democracy needs an impartial, independent, yet responsive judiciary. There have been many attempts to make the selection of judges more democratic, but most have produced ambiguous results. Appointing judges for life is supposed to ensure that they are not beholding to special interests, but being free of outside influence once on the bench doesn't mean that one doesn't bring one's prejudices and loyalties along. This is so well known that most lawyers try to do judge shopping if they have an opportunity. The number of cases that are reversed on appeal shows that the decision-making process remains flawed. Clear laws would not be open to such widely varying interpretation.


In general the executive branch is meant to carry out the laws which have been enacted. In some societies the executive proposes new legislation, while in others it is the legislature which does this. Whatever the formal mechanism, in practice the executive usually sets the agenda. The various agencies and departments of the executive branch are not chosen democratically, but are some combination of political patronage and formal civil service selection rules. In some countries (France is often quoted in this respect) civil servants are seen as a quasi-independent branch which continues on its way as executives come and go. This may help prevent chaos when control passes from one majority to another with sharply opposing political philosophies. The history of nationalization in the UK is a case in point. Stability comes at a price, however. There is no mechanism for the people to alter the function of the permanent civil service.

In the US the courts have ruled that the winning party has an explicit right to fill patronage jobs in executive agencies. Sometimes these are just paybacks to supporters - ambassadorial posts are a favorite, but increasingly the posts have been filled by ideological hacks with no expertise in the area under their supervision. There has also been a proliferation of new titles meant to avoid the limits on the number of such patronage jobs available. This has made agencies more political and less impartial. Other steps have been taken to prevent legislation on the books from being enforced. This includes leaving key seats open so that agencies don't have a quorum, refusing to prosecute or investigate possible violations of laws and tinkering with the funding of agencies whose purpose is at odds with the prevailing political philosophy.

In many countries it is necessary to bribe agency workers if one is to get action on routine matters that come before them. This can range from the petty, like getting a visa, to the awarding of million dollar contracts. Even legislators are frequent recipients of bribes in some nations. Money destroys representative democracy.

Other Organizations

These days the primary non-governmental organization is the for-profit enterprise. Even nominally "communist" states like China are increasingly replacing state-owned firms with private ones. In the classic model a public firm sells shares to investors who then have a voting interest in how the firm is managed. Over the past 100 years this link has become increasingly tenuous as ownership becomes more diffuse and as firms are increasingly run by a professional managerial class which has little connection with the founding or long-term survival of the firm. Managing is seen as a skill and, apparently, the same person can sell sugar water or computers equally well. Compensation packages for the managerial class are designed in such a way that they are mostly insulated from the results of their actions. Terms like "golden parachute" show that even the worst manager can expect to leave richer than when he arrived. The selection of the top management and the board of directors is far removed from the control of the shareholders. In the US one sees fewer than a dozen attempts by shareholders each year to change control of large firms. Even with this small number, many fail.

Firms have a non-democratic, self perpetuating management structure, where investors, employees, customers and suppliers have no meaningful influence on policies. Even when one of these interest groups has some success in promoting its interests the mechanism used is not a democratic one, but raw economic power.

In addition to public firms there are a variety of quasi-public organizations. Charities, NGO's, educational intuitions, religious organizations and the like are never organized along democratic lines. Most are run by self selected boards, and when there are nominal elections for the board seats, it is extremely rare to see more than one candidate for each seat. Nomination processes are arcane or non-existent. As most of these quasi-public organizations get tax breaks or other public benefits, the citizens end up funding them in part while having no say on what the mandates of these groups are.


True democracies perform better for the bulk of the population. That this needs to even be stated, shows how far simple truisms can be distorted by the powerful. When the people have control they are not going to support policies that are harmful to themselves. This doesn't mean that everything will always turn out for the best. People can make mistakes. They can be uninformed, overly cautious, or unable to predict the future properly, but at least the mistakes are their own. Democracies can also suffer from the "tyranny of the majority", but then I would rate them as imperfect, just another defect to add to the lists above.

So, those who want to prove this correlation need to take all the imperfections into account when measuring the real status of democracy in a country and look beyond the nominal measures. By these criteria some of the world's "best" democracies fall far short. If the populations in these states fail to realize this then, perhaps, they deserve the fates awaiting them. Remember no state can exist without the acquiescence of the governed. It is allowing oneself to be dominated by institutions that makes democracy fail. The Philippines was a good example of how a dictatorship could be ended (Markos) when the population just stopped participating in society. Others can do the same, but it requires a willingness to take a risk and sacrifice some temporary security. It doesn't require violent revolution.

Saturday, March 08, 2008


Protecting Citizens - the Bush Failures

The Basic role of government is to protect its citizens. What this means has changed over time, originally it was not more than protection from foreign marauders. Let's see how the administration brought in by the Gingrich "revolution" has done.

Failed to prevent 9/11 attacks even though it had explicit warnings and was tracking several of the key conspirators. Of course, no one can catch all such attacks, as the ones in Spain and London also showed, but it is one thing to be unaware of a plot and quite another to dismiss existing intelligence information.

It is now seven years later and Osama is still on the loose. The Al Qaeda network has not been smashed either. Isn't the one priority of the Bushies the war on "terror"? Isn't that what has been used to justify all sorts of draconian steps (see below)?

The anthrax attacks are still unsolved and since they aren't, it is always possible that the same person could strike again. Is the kind of protection our crack, internal, secret police forces provide?

There has been an increase in the number of cases of tainted foods, ranging from fresh vegetables to ground meat. There are an estimated 1.4 million cases of Salmonella food poisoning in the US each year; E. Coli affects about 25,000 people annually. Lax enforcement has led to a rise of cases and huge recalls. Several meat packing companies have been forced out of business after they had to recall millions of pounds of meat. Food inspection is no longer working. The staffs of the agencies have been gutted and much of the work of inspectors has been left to self enforcement by the firms.

The number of dangerous products has risen. Those getting the most publicity have been toys, but there have also been recalls in other areas such as fire retardant clothing and lead tainted serving dishes. The Product Safety Commission is down to half strength (and budget).

The number of dangerous drugs allowed onto the market by the FDA has grown significantly. The approval process is now funded by the drug companies themselves, which has led to conflicts of interest and hasty approval. Many widely prescribed drugs have had to be recalled after large number of users suffered ill effects. The living ones may get to sue, the dead ones don't have this option.

A notable number of mentally unstable people have gotten access to guns and gone on rampages. There have been more people killed in such incidents than from "terrorists" since 9/11. There have been no steps taken to keep guns out of the hands of such individuals. Even modest record keeping ideas have been thwarted. Just who is being protected, innocent bystanders or crazed gunmen?

Almost 4000 soldiers have been killed and tens of thousands have been injured in the ongoing wars. Putting over a million soldiers in harms way is not protecting citizens, after all soldiers are people too. Starting unnecessary wars is not protecting the population. In fact the US now has fewer friends in the world than before. This puts all American travelers at increased risk. Even those who are fighting the wars are put at unnecessary risk since they are under armed and lacking protective equipment.

Unpreparedness of the levees in New Orleans led to the destruction of the city. After the storms, the government has failed to provide for the victims, and still fails to help restore the region. The collapse of the bridge over the Mississippi is only the most dramatic example of lax care of important civil engineering infrastructure. Road and rail accidents caused by improper maintenance are not connected in people's minds with this failure, but are directly related. We cannot stop mother nature, but we can take steps to minimize risk, especially when the dangers are well-known.

The gutting of the National Guard. When a national disaster such as Katrina does happen it is usually the National Guard that is among the first responders. This capability has been compromised since many of the units are now fighting overseas, and have shipped vital equipment abroad to support their mission. Perhaps the National Guard was created to defend against foreign invaders, but for a long time they have performed a key humanitarian function. No more.

Illegal use of harmful drugs and misuse of prescription pain killers has led to an explosion of the prison population, without having any noticeable impact on the size of the problem. Locking up 1% of the population is not protecting people, it is just creating a new, almost unemployable, permanent underclass which will continue to be a problem when they are released.

Lax regulation of the business sector has led to a succession of frauds which have cost billions in losses. Starting with Enron and Worldcom and extending up to the present banking and housing crises the foxes have been left in charge of the chicken coop. Not only have investors been duped, but as many as a million people may lose their homes. The SEC, Federal Reserve and Treasury department have abdicated their responsibilities. After the follies of the 1929 were revealed there were regulations put in place to prevent a repetition. Many have been ignored, and some specific legislation like the Glass-Steagall act (which prevents banks from owning investment firms) have been repealed. Oops.

Civil liberties have been abrogated which has led to thousands of people being arrested, imprisoned and/or deported without due process. Not one real "terrorist" case has resulted from this assault on our rights. Protecting civil rights was the basis for the creation of America. Abuse by the English led many to emigrate to the new world to begin with and continuing abuse of the colonies led to the establishment of these "United States". The argument that "I'm not doing anything wrong, so I don't need to worry" has proven to be false as the number of innocent people who have been arrested, rendered, or tortured continues to rise.

The right of workers to organize so as to be able to negotiate their working conditions has been gutted. The NLRB no longer supports the rights of workers to organize. The consequences are as would be expected - falling wages and the elimination of fringe benefits, for those still lucky enough to be employed.

The elimination of usury laws and the requirement that disputes with lenders be handled by mandatory arbitration means that borrowers are subject to excessive interest and fees and have little recourse even when fraud is involved. Arbitrators side with the creditors almost all the time, if they settled in favor of the borrowers too often they wouldn't be rehired for further cases. It may be mandatory, but it's not impartial. Bankruptcy laws have also been rewritten to favor the lenders. People who can no longer clear their debts are becoming indentured servants to the banks. The only difference between now and Dickens' time is that we don't toss debtors in to prison - we make them work to pay off the banks.

The weakening of the social safety net has meant that an increasing number of people are without health insurance, have lost welfare benefits (such as food stamps) or are unable to pay for housing. Rising fuel costs are also starting to reduce more people to poverty.

The rise of corruption as demonstrated by the links between government and business has led to compromised elections, government by lobbyist and the trashing of environmental policies. Not only are vast natural resources being turned over to private firms, but efforts to find new energy sources and improve efficiency have been blocked. If projections play out as believed we will be living in cold, dark homes further inland as rising sea levels destroy the coastline. Protection of our lives seems like it should be a fairly important responsibility.

The "war on terror" has refocused all activity away from the real risks that face society to a set of highly unlikely circumstances. Suppose we had a real insurgency in the US, such as happened in Northern Island "Troubles". During the peak year of 1972 there were an estimated 250 civilian deaths. In the US we have over 42,000 deaths and about three million injuries from automobiles each year. Which is more likely getting killed by a "terrorist" or in a car? Where is the enforcement money and effort going? Why?

To summarize:
Failure to protect against harmful foods, drugs, and consumer products.
Failure to protect against deranged people with guns
Failure to protect against unreasonable search and seizure
Failure to protect armed forces
Failure to protect against natural disasters and provide aid afterward
Failure to protect against failing infrastructure
Failure to protect the weakest against poverty and disease
Failure to protect against financial fraud and abuse
Failure to protect against crime funded by drug money
Failure to protect the rights of citizens to think and say what they wish
Failure to protect the democratic process
Failure to protect disaster caused by energy shortages and climate change

What have we gotten instead:
An all out effort to protect against a vague, highly unlikely threat caused by "terrorists".

The platform for the Democratic Party almost writes itself...

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