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Scientist or Advocate?

Mark Lynas recently wrote an article urging climate scientists to come "off the fence" and act as advocates for policy to address climate change. His article begins with the observation, familiar to the risk management community, that debates about the science of climate change are often really proxy battles for social agendas (he suggests anti-socialism and anti-capitalism as the key ones). But this is exactly the reason why climate scientists needn't, and shouldn't, be political leaders in climate management. Being an expert at analyzing ice cores or building atmospheric models says nothing about your expertise on the relative merits of socialism and capitalism. Knowing what a ton of carbon dioxide will do in the atmosphere has little to do with knowing what kind of regulations and incentives will most efficiently and equitably prevent the release of that carbon dioxide. Too many environmental tragedies have already resulted from the assumption that understanding the biophysical systems involved is sufficient for knowing how to solve a problem.

By placing a special burden on climate scientists to take a leadership role, Lynas is in effect asking them to use the prestige and public trust they accumulated through their work in one field and use it to give a stamp of approval to policy choice where their opinion is equivalent to that of an educated layperson. A natural scientist could be a political leader, but to become so is not a matter of stepping up to the responsibility of his or her role as a natural scientist. Rather, it's a matter of developing a second core of expertise, the social scientist and policymaker's toolbox of understanding how to listen to people's values and create the organization and incentives that will allow them to implement those values. More realistic would be a stronger and more explicit collaboration among natural scientists, social scientists, and professional leaders (politicians and activists) to ensure that climate scientists are producing useful information and that someone will make actual use of it (as opposed to merely cherry-picking rhetorical clubs from it).


Love Your Aliens As Yourself

I knock Hugo Schwyzer here a lot, so it's only fair that I point out occasionally when he posts something I like. Such is the case with his recent post defending his decision to ignore immigration/citizenship status when hiring day laborers. He is right that the Bible is strikingly clear on the need to welcome foreigners, and here the Bible seems certainly right -- as I argued before, it's the facual entanglement of people's lives, not permission from the pre-existing in-group, that is the moral basis of the rights of community membership. (I wouldn't, however, go so far as to call this form of civil disobedience obligatory.) Schwyzer's commitment to paying his employees a fair wage nicely circumvents the "stealing American jobs" argument, as well as being morally laudatory regardless of the person's status.

What was particularly interesting was when he pointed out the beneficial effects on immigrants' communities of origin, due to the money that is sent back there. (Though I think he is mistaken in implying that this is important to the question of whether to check his employees' status -- legal immigrants send money back home too.) There's a longstanding philosophical disagreement about the proper objects of charity. One school of thought holds that we should help those most in need, even if they are strangers in faraway lands, while the other asserts that we have a special duty to those who are close to us. (Peter Singer has notably been criticized for advocating the former but practicing the latter.) Pragmatic arguments showing that charity to those close to us is more efficient only go so far in reconciling the gap. Hiring immigrants from poor countries bridges the dilemma in an interesting way. Hugo is able to support and strengthen his local community while also getting resources to the faraway needy* -- and because those resources are sent through the "thick" ties between immigrants and their families, the problems of the coldness and wastefulness of direct foreign charity are alleviated.

*Though not, perhaps, the very neediest, as financial and social poverty ultimately inhibits the ability to take advantage of the immigration-and-remittances strategy.


The Perils of Authority Ranking

The folks over at TAPPED seem to think that Karl Rove's comments about liberal wimpiness after September 11 will be the last straw that finally turns the country against the Republicans. This prediction has been made time and time again, with each new GOP wrongdoing, but it has been wrong each time -- and I see no reason to think that Rove's comments will do what the lack of WMDs, the outing of Valerie Plame, and the Downing Street Memo failed to do. In fact, I think Rove's comments show just how screwed the Democrats are.

It's helpful here to refer to Alan Fiske's theory that social interactions are guided by four basic models -- Communal Sharing, Authority Ranking, Equality Matching, and Market Pricing. In the wake of September 11, the public felt that it would be appropriate to engage in Communal Sharing between the political camps in the US. The attacks created a sense that there was a huge gulf between Them and a comparatively homogeneous Us -- a perfect recipe for Communal Sharing. We wanted the parties to work together for the common good without a thought of personal or partisan advantage.

And indeed, Communal Sharing rhetoric was all the rage. However, the modern democratic system is not set up to allow for real Communal Sharing. Personal and partisan egos are too well entrenched, and trust is in too short supply, for the kind of merging of the self that is required for Communal Sharing. Equality Matching is also not really feasible. Thus, the left half of the American political scene was left with a choice between Authority Ranking and Market Pricing.

Liberals chose Market Pricing. They pushed an alternative agenda in competition with the Republican one. It is this agenda that Rove was decribing, albeit in hyperbolic and negatively loaded terms.

In contrast, Democrats chose Authority Ranking. Unlike liberals, Democrats had something to lose. They understandably feared the short-term political consequences of a strategy that was so far removed from Communal Sharing. And they knew that they lacked the power to force the Republicans to make a bargain that would incorporate some of their agenda. So instead they decided to submit, to become the lower-ranked party in an Authority Ranking relationship.

Authority Ranking confers many privileges on the higher ranked party. They get to call the shots, and they get to take credit for joint accomplishments. Lower-ranked parties, meanwhile, enter the relationship with the hope of noblesse oblige. They expect to be recognized and thanked for their contribution, and they expect that, while the higher-ranked party may use its status to make gains for itself and reinforce the Authority Ranking relationship, it will not abuse its privilege to destroy the lower-ranked party. Democrats hoped that their acquiescence would encourage Republicans to set terrorism aside as an arena of struggle when the two parties faced off in the Market Pricing competition for votes.

What's crucial to remember, however, is that noblesse oblige is not an enforceable expectation. Reciprocity in Authority Ranking is solely at the discretion of the higher ranked party -- unlike a Market Pricing bargain or contract, in which each party's conduct is contingent on the other upholding their end.

What we're seeing now is Karl Rove (somewhat passive-aggressively) testing the Authority Ranking relationship by withdrawing his noblesse oblige. He's using the common misconception that Democrats are liberal in order to smear the Democrats with liberals' use of Market Pricing after September 11. There is a bit of danger in this strategy, as Rove runs the risk of himself being accused of Market Pricing due to his assertion of a lack of respect for Democrats' submission -- which we see in the accusations that he is politicizing the terrorist attacks. However, this outcome is unlikely to be significant for two reasons. First, the higher-ranked party in an Authority Ranking relationship typically gets the benefit of the doubt when the relationship breaks down, since it's assumed that the lower ranked party has a much larger incentive to defect. Second, the accusation he's making -- an accusation repeated and spread in every attempt to rebut it -- resonates with a longstanding discourse about the wimpiness of the left side of the spectrum. Thus hearers are predisposed to believe Rove's framing.

The main response we've seen is self-righteous groveling. Democrats protest truthfully that they did in fact submit to Republican authority following September 11, and they beg (since they have no power to demand) an empty apology. This is exactly what Rove wants. When Democrats assert their support for the war in Afghanistan, they send the message that the Republicans are right about how to fight terrorism. "Me too" is the cry of the loyal lieutenant.


Vulnerability To Rape, Or Resilient Rape Control

The hot topic in the modern risk literature is vulnerability. The issue goes back to the founder, Gilbert F. White, who pointed out that natural hazards are about the intersection of human and natural systems. The deaths from a flood are not just a matter of the size and strength of the water, but also of the decisions of people to live in ground-level houses along the shore without flood insurance. This theme was pushed farther by the "radical" school, the founders of Political Ecology, who blamed class relations for putting some people in risky situations and depriving them of coping resources, while others lived in relative safety. The term "vulnerability" became a major buzzword over the last 20 years in sustainability science, as social scientists emphasized that we should ask not only "how can we prevent climate change?" but also (and perhaps more importantly) "how can we make societies and ecosystems able to cope with climate change?"

The notion of vulnerabiliy is important. Addressing vulnerability is often easier than changing the hazard event. More importantly, a vulnerability focus incorporates the lessons of resilience, emphasizing flexibility and learning, whereas a hazard event focus relies on a technocratic attempt to control nature (e.g. through dams, or cloud seeding) -- an attempt that resilience theory teaches us is doomed.

However, the association of vulnerability-focused analysis with more resilient policy prescriptions is not universal. A good example comes from a recent flurry of posting by Amanda Marcotte and others about rape. Specifically, they challenge the common reaction to stories of rape, which is to ask how the victim could have avoided the rape. At its worst, this line of thinking leads to speculation about whether the victim was "asking for it." This is a vulnerability-based analysis. It's a part of the picture, and given the prevalence of rape, it behooves potential rape victims to take precautions to reduce their vulnerability.

But as Marcotte and others point out, the vulnerability analysis alone is not enough. We have a problem when the first and only discussion that happens after a rape report is about the role of vulnerability and ways to reduce it. Focusing too much on vulnerability takes what is basically a moral choice -- the choice by the rapist to rape -- and turns it into a natural hazard. This claim is often made explicit, with crude sociobiological claims that "all men are dogs" and thus it's inevitable that some of them will rape. By this logic there's no more point in trying to attack the problem from the rapist's side than there is in trying to build huge levees to stop all floods.

Marcotte and others have pointed out that the vulnerability-only focus is wrong both morally -- because it lets rapists off the hook -- and empirically -- because all men are not in fact dogs, and none need to be. What I would add is that in this case it's the hazard reduction strategy (stop men from raping) that is more resilient, rather than the vulnerability reduction strategy.

Chris Clarke succinctly explains how the focus on victims' self-protection necessitates a rigid control-based strategy:
The whole of American society's response to rape, it seems, runs along the lines of the old bad joke in which the patient says "Doctor, it hurts when I do this."

Society's response: "So don't do that."

"Don't go out at night. Don't relax with your friends on vacation. Lock your doors. Don't be friendly with men you don't know. Don't trust the men you do know." It's a prescription for a very large prison, one that women are expected to carry around with them every minute of their lives.

Reducing vulnerability to rape is all about reducing women's options, reducing their flexibility and resources, protecting them from rapists at the expense of the rest of their lives.

According to the macho crowd and the sociobiologists, attacking the hazard event -- stopping men from trying to rape -- also requires a rigid control strategy. All we can do is build levees around the raging floods of testosterone, levees that will inevitably crack or be overtopped, levees that are in some cases prohibitively expensive to build. Perhaps there are a few psychopaths who that's true of -- but those few can hardly be solely responsible for the rape epidemic. What's really happening is that men face countless small and large messages every day telling them that they're entitled to power, that they should get their way with women (sexually and otherwise), that male agression is natural. This cultural theme comes from so many angles that it becomes highly resilient, able to withstand feminism, rape laws, and other safeguards that keep most men most of the time from raping.

What we need, then, is a shift to a robust anti-rape culture. If equality is woven into every strand of our culture, if it's a constant message from every corner, rape would become unthinkable. Men who are now horrified at the thought of losing the dominance they think the world owes them should become horrified at the thought of violently dominating another person. Note that vulnerability reduction contains a trade-off with other values -- a woman has to sacrifice other things she wants to do in order to avoid being raped. But a resilient hazard reduction strategy would not only combat rape, it would also reduce countless other forms of sexism that spring from the same cultural nexus. Anything we would "lose" -- e.g. the privileges of dominance and the advantages men get because unlike women they don't have to spend resources dealing with sexism -- is a loss only when seen through the lens of present-day attitudes.

Unfortunately this isn't a policy prescription. It's not the kind of concrete advice that the vulnerability-siders offer. But it suggests that resilience is an important criterion for an effective response to rape (and that resilience can be found in a hazard-size solution). A control-based reduction in vulnerability is not an adequate solution to the resilient sexism of our culture.


Sensitive Veterans

I don't want to waste too much time on this flag burning thing, but I did have one other thought. Anti-flag-burning measures are usually justified as a way of showing respect for veterans. So I started thinking about Republican policy toward the military.

Things Republicans are not willing to do for our soldiers and veterans: provide them with armor, increase their pay, provide decent health care, protect them from bankruptcy, keep promises about how long they'll be deployed to Iraq.

Things Republicans are willing to do for our soldiers and veterans: protect them from having to serve alongside gays and lesbians, shield them from an extremely rare form of symbolic protest.

I notice a pattern. Republicans don't seem interested in anything that would substantively improve the lives of our soldiers and veterans, but they're all over anything that would protect their delicate sensibilities against being offended.


Let Me Put This Simply

If you support a ban on flag-burning, you are not a patriot. You are an idol-worshipper.


Vulnerability vs. Resilience

In preparing for my oral exams, I've been thinking about one of the classic questions -- what's the difference between resilience and vulnerability? My answer runs something like this:

First, we need to define the two terms as they're used in the human-environment literature. Both address the question of the impacts of a disturbance on a human or ecological system. Resilience refers to how far a system can be pushed and still bounce back to its old equilibrium. Vulnerability refers to how much impact a given degree of disturbance will have on a system.

1. The two terms are inverses. This is the most common -- and to many, the only -- difference. A vulnerable system lacks resilience, and a resilient system is not very vulnerable. This is true, to some extent. In particular, their moral valence is inverse -- vulnerability is bad, while resilience is good. This is a result of these terms' use mostly in research on environmental and technological hazards, where the interesting changes in the system are the negative ones (forests and houses being flattened by a hurricane, for example). Researchers in the resilience community, however, have pointed out the possible benefits of a lack of resilience -- a process akin to Schumpeterian "creative destruction" that clears out old structures and allows fresh building.

2. The two terms use different types of scales, and imply different visions of the world. Resilience describes a limit -- push the system up to this limit and it will always bounce back, but push it just a bit farther and it will settle into a quite different equilibrium (or disintegrate altogether). This is a categorical type of measurement. Vulnerability, on the other hand, is a continuous measure -- for any amount of disturbance, there is a corresponding degree of change wrought on the system. Thus the idea of resilience is designed for a system that has several discrete equilibrium points (as well as conditions of system destruction) to which the system will gravitate. On the other hand, vulnerability works well for a linear system.

3. Vulnerability is a broader concept. In determining the vulnerability of a system, you must consider both its ability to spring back from disturbance (i.e., its resilience) as well as its resistance to being disturbed. Consider two towns on a hurricane-prone coast. Both towns will collapse (perhaps because the local economy becomes unviable and thus the remaining residents move away) if 50% of the houses are destroyed by a single storm. Yet perhaps for Northtown, a category 3 hurricane would be sufficient to destroy 50% of the houses, whereas Southboro has been blessed with better architects and thus only a category 5 storm will be sufficient to destroy 50% of its houses. Both towns have equal resilience, yet Northtown is clearly more vulnerable, because it has less resistance.

4. Resilience has a built-in time frame, whereas the apparent vulnerability of a system is dependent on the post-disturbance time. Resilience implies the existence of discrete equilibrium points. Thus, to determine a system's resilience, you simply wait for it to arrive at an equilibrium, and then look at whether it's the same as the starting point. With respect to vulnerability, however, it's not clear when the springing-back process can be considered to be finished. In the immediate aftermath of a hurricane, some people may seem to have been extremely vulnerable, as they've lost all their posessions. But if you come back a year later, they may be back where they started (or even better off) because they got a check from the insurance company or rich uncle Phil. On the other hand, in the immediate aftermath the local store may look like it did great, since it was the only undamaged store and thus business is booming. But a year later, enough people may have given up and moved away that the store is facing bankruptcy due to a lack of customers.

None of this is meant to imply that there's a choice to be made between these two concepts, and that one must be a partisan of one side or the other. Each is useful for analyzing different questions, and a clarification such as the above is useful in deciding when each is most applicable.


Specter vs. Santorum

Pennsylvania's two Senators may both be Republicans, and they may be close allies on the campaign trail. But there are some definite differences. One is willing to entertain the idea that inmates at Guantanamo Bay are human beings with rights, while the other insists that they're criminals recieving far better treatment than they deserve. One is willing to push for medical advances that could save countless sick people, while the other obsessed over a single terminally ill woman. Perhaps that's why one of them has a 54% approval rating while the other has only 45%.


Not A Risk Society

Perhaps the most cited theory in the literature on environmental risks is Ulrich Beck's concept of the "Risk Society." Typically it's referred to only in the introduction, as a way of saying "my work on risk is important, because this guy claims we live in a 'Risk Society'." The literature actually grappling with Beck's theory is surprisingly small given how widely cited his book is. But it's not so surprising when you consider that his theory is a pretty bad one.

The starting point of Beck's theory is that the 20th century saw a shift (at least within the first world) from a preoccupation with the distribution of goods (i.e. traditional class conflict) to a preoccupation with the distribution of risks. Perhaps the situation is different in Germany, but in the US (where most of the Beck-citers I've read live) this claim is largely false. Let's take a look at the major issues that animate public debate today:

  • Abortion: Abortion is not a question of managing risk. It comes down to whether the fetus has rights, and whether the mother's rights trump them.

  • Same Sex Marriage: Again, this is a moral issue, not a risk management one. Some people will frame the anti-marriage case as a matter of risks to family structure and child welfare. But aside from a few intellectuals, this is not the driving concern -- rather, it's that same sex couples are a direct (and certain) affront to traditional gender norms.

  • Terrorism: Terrorism is, at first glance, a key part of any Beck-defender's argument. It gives little solace to most Beck-citers (whose expertise is in environmental and technological risks), but it's at least a risk. Yet I would argue that the risk element in the terrorism question has faded as time passes. Terrorism is no longer primarily conceived of as a threat that could strike anyone anywhere. It's an enemy to be punished, rooted out and destroyed.

  • Iraq: The war began as a risk issue, because in the immediate aftermath of September 11 that framing was powerful. But Saddam as a threat to American security has hardly made an appearance in the last year or two, ever since it became clear that his WMD arsenal -- and hence his risk -- was nonexistent. On the right, the issue is now one of freedom versus oppression. On the left, the real question is lies versus honesty and ideology versus empiricism.

  • Social Security: The social security debate is, again, superficially about risk -- do you want to trust your retirement to a volatile stock market or a government spiralling toward bankruptcy? But again, I think the basic motivational factors are not really about risk. From the right, it's about the distribution of power -- should the government take care of things, or should individuals have "ownership" of their fate? From the left, it's a question of economic distribution, as government-provided Social Security is a keystone of the New Deal welfarist vision while privatization is emblematic of class inequality. The parameters of the health care debate are very similar.
  • Michael Jackson: Now here, finally is a risk question -- and on the most important issue of our time, to judge from the amount of media coverage it has gotten. The crucial issue, it seems, is the wisdom of the risk calculation in letting your child spend the night with a creepy old man.

Certainly there are risk elements in some of these debates -- for example, the risks posed by back-alley abortions. But they're hardly the defining characteristics. And certainly there are many risk management decisions we face, and which deserve research (indeed, they may deserve it more exactly because they are not as salient in the public agenda as they should be). Beck and his followers saw the rise of the anti-nuclear movement, and let their hopes trick them into thinking that it would be the paradigm case of social conflict in the new era. But that has turned out not to be the case.

Only Baby Steps

What does it mean when a relentlessly optimistic article only makes you more cynical?

Meet the pied piper of one of the most exciting green grassroots uprisings to hit the U.S. in years: Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels (D).

He's managed to get roughly 300 mayors nationwide -- from the Northwest to the deep South and everywhere in between -- to agree that it's a good idea for U.S. cities to meet or beat Kyoto Protocol targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, despite the Bush administration's rejection of the treaty.

... Granted, the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement is non-binding, so cities could climb aboard the bandwagon but not follow through on meeting the targets. But the fact that there's a bandwagon at all is noteworthy ...

Mayors of major cities are hardly what I would call "grassroots." They may be lower on the totem pole than Presidents or Senators, but they're still part of the ruling elite. And if the best they can do is a non-binding agreement, we're in trouble. It's as if it was 1945, and we were talking about how much progress we'd made by sending a whole 20 soldiers to the war in Europe.


Linguistic Pluralism

Don Herzog wonders whether there might not be something to the English-only movement's demand for monolingualism:

Though linguists and philosophers fret about just how to put the point, language really is intimately wrapped up with culture, if not how people think or see the world. So requiring public schools to do all their teaching in English looks like an assault on ethnic communities and parents' autonomy. But it is true that children who can't speak good English will have a hard time of it in some job markets. And they'll be shut out from important arenas of political debate, too. I don't doubt that there are ugly nativist and racist reasons for rallying to Official English. But you have to be a lunatic to think that there are no plausible reasons on ProEnglish's side of the debate.

I agree that the government has a responsibility to ensure that its citizens have the opportunity to acquire the skills necessary to interact with each other. Given the dominance of English both in face-to-face speech and the media -- and, crucially, its status as the language of the politically, economically, and socially powerful -- that means providing effective and accessible English instruction for both children and adults. However, it also means supporting minority languages as far as is feasible -- for example, through effective and accessible Spanish instruction in areas such as the Southwest where there is a large Spanish-speaking community. It is also important that providing the opportunity to learn English does not turn into paternalistically requiring the use of English by those who would prefer to conduct their business in other languages.

Yet the English-only folks want to go farther than that. There seem to be three main components to the English-only agenda. One is the question of language immersion programs, which I think can be reduced to a pragmatic debate about what teaching method is most effective at providing children with the opportunity to learn a language. I don't claim any expertise on this issue.

Second is the demand that all government business be carried out solely in English. Often this is phrased as a question of government spending -- that the government is wasting money printing ballots in Tagalog and Navajo that could be better spent elsewhere (or returned to people through tax cuts). But in the grand scheme of things, the expense of translation is a small one. And it's justified by an important need -- that the government should reach out to and serve the people, rather than requiring the people to come to the government and play by its rules.

The third prong of the English-only agenda, which is supported by the "all government business in English" prong, is to get formal recognition of English as the nation's official language. It sends a message that "real Americans use English," turning an empirical coincidence regarding the linguistic composition of the citizenry into a constitutive part of the national identity. This is similar to the demands for nativity scenes on government property, as a statement that this is a Christian country that tolerates other religions rather than a country that happens to be made up of mostly Christians.

There is a reliance here on a strong insider-outsider divide. Rights are premised not on the fact that one is a human being whose interests are materially affected, but on earning membership in the ruling class. Certainly some such boundary is necessary. The question is about how it should be established -- as a hereditary system in which those who were members in the last round define the entry requirements for anyone else asking to be let in, or as an empirical matter in which we look at everyone as having a potentially equal claim to inclusion*?

English-only is an attempt at shoring up a hereditary system of citizenship (citizenship in both the formal and especially the substantive sense). It's a government that sets up criteria by which people may participate, and asks that they do the work of getting themselves up to code (though not necessarily without aid). Linguistic pluralism, on the other hand, demands that the government reach out to those whose interests give them a claim to participation. Rather than speakers of minority languages having to become "one of us," a pluralistic government redefines "us" in order to encompass minority language speakers on as equal a basis as is feasible.

*Compare, as a very rough analogy, the current Bishops of a church selecting their successors in accordance with their own views, versus a legislature that is re-created from scratch based on the will of the wider community.


Amazon Myths

In challenging one myth about the Amazon, this article (via Gristmill) perpetuates a few more. All of them tend to give aid and comfort to the "fence it all off" conservation impulse.

Rain Forest Myth Goes Up In Smoke Over The Amazon

... When the burning season strikes, life and health in the Amazon falter, and color drains out of the riotous green landscape as great swaths of majestic trees, creeping vines, delicate bromeliads and hardy ferns are reduced to blackened stubble.

But more than just the land, these annual blazes also lay waste to a cherished notion that has roosted in the popular mind for decades: the idea of the rain forest as the "lungs of the world."

... Far from cleaning up the atmosphere, the Amazon is now a major source for pollution. Rampant burning and deforestation, mostly at the hands of illegal loggers and of ranchers, release hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the skies each year.

First the easy one (mentioned in a part of the article I didn't quote): the Amazon is not virgin. Humans have been altering it for millennia, and the jungle we all know and love is the result of generations of native swidden farmers. Sustainability will continue to elude us so long as we insist that the touch of civilization is automatically destructive, and that natural beauty is diagnostic of a lack of humans. It's somewhat ironic that tropical rain forests are the icon of untouched wilderness given that it's there that the evidence is strongest for non-degrading human influence.

Second, the article paints a uniformly negative picture of fire and agriculture. The article is right that most of the current fires, and the agriculture that follows them (e.g. industrial soybean growing) is bad for the planet. They're also bad for the local people, who are economically marginalized by the big companies but forced to bear the environmental costs of their activity.

However, there is an important nuance that gets lost in condemning current corporate practice: some fire and some agriculture are good. Forest clearing is only a problem if it never gets a chance to grow back. And while the Amazon is hardly as fire-loving as chapparal or eucalyptus, fire still has a role in rejuvenating the forest. Smallholder swidden (slash-and-burn) agriculture can provide sustainable livelihoods for Amazonian peasants. But condemning fire and agriculture with a broad brush tempts us toward strict conservationist policies -- parks without people -- that undermine the region's people in a different way.


Obama's Honeymoon Ends

I'll admit to a bit of schadenfreude reading this comment thread at Body and Soul. Many commenters are shocked and disappointed over Barack Obama's "move along, nothing to see here" response to a letter about torture. It shouldn't be surprising that a politician would take a weaselly position on an issue of high moral importance but low public profile. Our political system is set up in such a way as to weed out honesty and moral clarity.

The desire for a messiah -- for Max Weber's "charismatic leadership" -- is a strong temptation for those out of power. I felt it myself, though my cynicism won out. Note, for example, the strength of attachment to Ralph Nader even in 2004, after he had been jettisoned by the party organization that could have made his run productive. Note how religious leaders, who depend on charisma, work hard to stoke their followers' sense of being disempowered in society.

When Republican politicians control the House, Senate, and Presidency, it's easy for those of us on the left to see all of their failings as being a result of their Republicanness, not their politicianness. We attribute to neocon ideology things that are really the product of an electoral system based on the lure of power and the effectiveness of pandering, amplified by the context of a party organization facing no serious opposition. It's tactically tempting, because the idea of cleaning out corruption has a broader appeal than policy choice arguments. And it's psychologically easy because we lack prominent examples that would allow us to distinguish the effects of the ideological and occupational factors. And when people are so hungry for a leader that they can attribute passion and vision to John Kerry, it's no wonder a slick operator like Howard Dean or Barack Obama can sell them (it was very nearly "us") a bridge.

I should be careful, though, not to let my cynicism drag me into the opposite, fatalist, trap of attributing all of the Republicans' failings to their politicianness, and none to their Republicanness.


Ampersand Saves Me The Trouble Of Being Interviewed

Ampersand recently did an interview with the right-wing blog Conservative Christian. He currently has me listed on his blogroll as being to his right, so I was a bit surprised that I agreed with nearly everything he said*. The only real disagreements, I think, are that I would prioritize environmental issues more than he does, and that I take a stronger line on freedom of speech -- neither of which, I think, really place me to his right. The discussions of abortion and Terri Schiavo are tangential to my views, since I refuse to hold a position on either of those issues. But otherwise the interview is a good summary of the type of liberalism I subscribe to.

*Note that I'm not trying to dispute Amp's classification of me -- it's quite possible the interview just didn't delve into our areas of real disagreement. And it would be reasonable if, say, he had decided that abortion is just such a crucial issue that he can't consider anyone a fellow traveler if they're willing to give an inch to the pro-life side.

Relational Models For Taxation

I apologize if you're not too interested in the relational models theory, but having just finished Fiske's book, it's on my mind.

One shortcoming of the relational models theory, as well as Cultural Theory, is that in focusing on the conflicts between models/worldviews, they don't offer much help in deciphering sub-model/worldview conflict. So Douglas and Wildavsky dwell on the contrast between the egalitarian Amish and the hierarchical Hutterities, but they don't have much to say on the differences between the Amish and the equally egalitarian Old Order Mennonites, or between the hierarchies of the EPA and the DoD. Fiske does go on at length about the importance of specifying the parameters for implementing a model, but he doesn't offer a theory about how particular parameters are chosen and what happens when people disagree about them.

I think taxation provides a nice example of the importance of parameters. In the modern US, the debate over taxes is, for all its acrimony, largely limited to Market Pricing visions of taxation. Certainly all four models offer a view of taxation. Communal Sharing would lead to a voluntary contribution system. Under the Articles of Confederation, we found that the Communal Sharing ethos isn't strong enough in modern states to support this type of system. Authority Ranking suggests a feudal or imperial tribute system, which has been out of favor for centuries. Equality Matching would undergird a system in which each person is charged the same dollar amount. We do see this system at work in many places today -- for example, toll roads and vehicle registration fees, which cost the same amount for the pauper and the billionaire. But outside of New Hampshire, few governments get a major portion of their revenue from this type of head tax.

One of the big arguments in modern tax policy is between two versions of Market Pricing. (It may seem odd to describe taxation as "Market Pricing," but the Market Pricing model is a broad concept covering any system based on equity, proportionality, and ratios.) Both flat-taxers and progressive-taxers agree that taxes should be proportional to wealth, but they disagree as to how to measure that wealth. To flat taxers, taxation should be proportional to dollar value. Everyone should pay the same number of cents per dollar to the government. This philosophy underlies both a flat income tax and a sales tax. Progressive taxers believe that taxation should be proportional to utility, that is, the amount of happiness that wealth brings. As the early utilitarians noted, there is a general trend of diminishing marginal utility with increases in wealth -- each additional dollar is worth less. Thus a properly equitable system would charge rich people a higher number of cents per dollar. While this philosophy is best associated with a progressive income tax, it is also crudely approximated by some sales taxes that exempt necessities like food and clothes (which make up a larger proportion of the poor's budgets) from taxation and which add a luxury tax to items that rich people buy more of. The key point here is that both progressive taxers and flat taxers believe that their system is properly proportional, the commonsense application of the Market Pricing idea -- and thus the other system is inequitable and thus a backhanded form of Authority Ranking.

Likewise, our most salient tax question -- what the rate of taxation will be within a given structure -- is also a question of parameter specification. Here, I think the taxation parameter is subordinated as a means to supporting a choice of models elsewhere in society. Libertarians thus support low taxes because they're instrumental toward maintaining a wider Market Pricing system running on neoclassical economic parameters. Small government conservatives also support low taxes, but they do so because they favor Communal Sharing at the local community level. Liberals likewise want to support Communal Sharing, but because they specify the parameters of the community as being the whole nation, they are led to favor a high tax rate.