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"I'd Agree With You If You Weren't Such A Jerk"

One of my least favorite political arguments is the one that says "I don't agree with X, because other people who agree with X are jerks. Maybe if they were less shrill I'd come over to their side." (Often this argument is disguised as a claim that people who believe X are unlikely to convince some other non-Xists if they persist in being shrill. While this version may be technically valid, it's a bit hard to take seriously coming from a resolute non-Xist.)

The "I won't agree with jerks" argument is, if taken at face value, an argument based on privilege. It essentially says that the substance of a political view is unimportant. Political ideologies are just arbitrary markers of group belonging, like baggy vs tight pants or "soda" vs "pop" or the brand of truck you drive. From that viewpoint, what matters is whether you want to associate with a particular group of people. And so their jerkishness becomes an important criterion, in the same way that you wouldn't invite jerks to go out for a beer with you.

"Xists are jerks" may be a reasonable empirical/causal explanation for why Xism isn't more popular (given the factual prevalence of the fallacious "I won't agree with jerks" argument), and so an Xist might reasonably argue that they and their fellow travelers ought to tone down their jerkishness*. But it's not a justification for a non-Xist to remain a non-Xist. The only justification for being a non-Xist is to argue that X is wrong on the merits.

*The empirical claim is, of course, debatable, and there are other considerations that weigh in favor of (certain forms of) jerkishness.

Good And Bad Arguments About AC

There's a pair of articles on air conditioning by Stan Cox that ought to be good but end up suffering from an attempt to push them into a partisan frame.

The questionability of the article starts with its focus on AC. Now, there's nothing wrong with writing about AC -- but it's telling that Cox defensively dismisses the idea of making any of the same claims about heating:

The average household in the southeastern United States consumes almost twice as much electricity as the average household in New England, but air-conditioning doesn't account for that entire disparity. Southerners use a lot more power for all appliances, whatever the season. Of course, northern households consume more fossil fuel for heat, but in the dead of winter, heating cannot be dispensed with.

Heating is thus a necessity, where AC is a mere luxury. Never mind that heat arguably causes the same number of deaths as cold. Sure, you need some heating system to survive in the north, but you don't need a modern central heating system cranked up to 80 degrees. Since Cox allows low-tech solutions to the heat (like sitting out on the porch and going swimming), we have to allow low-tech solutions to the cold, like the fireplaces that suited the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims just fine. And if Cox's message to southerners is "don't move to Texas if you can't stand the heat without AC," he could as easily say "don't move to Vermont if a fireplace doesn't cut it for you."

The real reason for the focus on AC perhaps becomes clear in the subhead to the second installment: "Air-conditioning ... just might have given us President George W. Bush." AC is especially bad because it's a Republican climate control technology. But Cox doesn't even stand behind his claim about the AC-GOP link, repeatedly claiming that AC (by making the South hospitable to a larger population) is responsible for the rise of the Republicans, then backing off and disclaiming that thesis*.

The articles also make a strange detour into a sort of technological determinist Marxism. Essentially, Cox argues that the development of air conditioning was a prerequisite for rampant capitalism. Without air conditioning, we'd all take siestas or go down to the free neighborhood swimmin' hole -- but with air conditioning, we're able to spend all summer shopping and seeing movies and other things that involve engaging in consumption. I find this hard to believe. Capitalists are a creative bunch, so I have no doubt that, if AC technology had not come about, they would have found other ways to keep us spending our cash all summer -- privatizing the swimmin' hole, for example. (And in any event, the same argument could be made about heating -- good heating systems allow us to continue our fast-paced consumerist lifestyle in the dead of a New England winter, instead of holing up by the fireside telling stories and eating salted beef like the Vikings.)

A good article about AC, or about climate control in general, would look more like the just first half of Cox's first article. The key points are that AC uses a lot of energy (as well as having other environmentally negative effects), and that it's over-used -- there are alternative, more environment-friendly, ways to keep cool, and when you do use AC, it should be to bring the temperature down just into the tolerable range, not to make your building chilly.

*I'm a bit skeptical of how much geographical population shifts can explain changes in the parties' fortunes. But to the extent that it is a factor, the explanation has to include the fact of our winner-take-all system (which is amplified in the Presidential context by the Electoral College). A bunch of liberal snowbirds heading to Arizona will boost AZ's population, and hence the number of seats/votes it gets. But so long as there aren't enough immigrants to make conservatives a minority, all of that extra clout will still go to conservative representatives.


Collectivism, Aggregism, and Egoism

Matt Yglesias has been accused of "fascism" for claiming that people ought to consider the broader impacts of their actions on others, rather than only their narrow self-interest. The accusation raises a common false dilemma, of collectivism versus individualism. In reality there are three positions, of which Yglesias was taking the middle one -- collectivism, aggregism, and egoism*.

Egoism we're all familiar with -- it's the claim that you should do what's best for you, and the heck with everybody else. Collectivism -- for which "fascism" is a disparaging term -- is the claim that you should do what's best for the collective. Collectivism must be distinguished from aggregism (philosophers probably have a better sounding name), which claims that you should do what's best for all individuals added together. The distinction between collectivism and aggregism is what Jeremy Bentham and Margaret Thatcher were each getting at in their denials that there is such a thing as "society."** A collectivist or fascist seeks the good of the collective as a system (even if that requires hurting the individuals making it up), whereas the aggregist seeks the good of the members of the system (even if that requires destroying the system and organizing the relationships of the members in a quite different way). Yglesias's argument is the aggregist claim that egoistic actions by individual women will lead to greater harms to other individual women, not the collectivist concern that the collectivity "women" will be harmed (I happen to be an aggregist, as I see no justifiable way of attributing a "good" or "interests" to any entity -- including collectivities -- that lacks subjectivity.)

Of course, hybrids of these positions are common. On the one hand, there are "compatabilist" hybrids, which argue that since (due to the way the world works) the goals are not fundamentally in conflict, pursuing the favored one will lead to satisfaction of the others. Nearly all egoist theories are compatabilist to at least some degree -- even Ayn Rand assures us that rampant pursuit of selfishness will ultimately work out pretty well for the population as a whole. Meanwhile, some variants of Deep Ecology claim that pursuit of the collective good will be ultimately the most fulfilling course of action for the individual.

On the other hand are pluralist hybrids, which admit that conflicts between interests are inevitable but must be balanced. Liberal political theories (e.g. Mill or Rawls, and afaik Yglesias) tend to balance egoism and aggregism by carving out a protected private sphere for the former. Most contemporary holistic environmental ethics are hybrids of collectivism and aggregism.

As I see it, "fascism" refers to an excessive, or even exclusive, emphasis on collectivism (or perhaps more narrowly to excessive collectivism implemented through the use of force). But not all theories that incorporate some collectivism are fascist, and aggregism is a different beast.

*There is theoretically a fourth possibility -- asceticism, the claim that you should do what's best for others without any regard to yourself.

**Unfortunately these denials took a legitimate claim about what entities have moral standing, and phrased it as a false ontological claim about what entities exist. There is a social system, but its value lies only in its instrumental effects on the interests of the people organized by it.

One More Thought On Religious Progressives

I think one problem with the way the religious progressives question is discussed is that it's usually framed (and Obama did this in a classic fashion) as an argument against the secular left. Any talk about religious progressives has to start by bashing secular progressives, accusing them -- sometimes fairly, sometimes not -- of being unwilling to accept religious progressives. The problem is that this kind of opening gambit, while seemingly useful as a way to show you share religious swing voters' concerns, frames the whole discussion as an attack on secular progressives. But this is a battle that religious people, not secular ones, are responsible for fighting.

All progressives can talk about specific policies, and how to those policies are linked to the shared core of progressive values. The question in the religion debate, however, is how to dig deeper and link those progressive values to fundamental worldviews. Secular people can't be asked to make arguments linking progressive values to a religious worldview, and in fact they must be free not only to assert the secular basis of their commitment to progressive values, but also to advocate for the superiority of a secular worldview over a religious one. All they can be asked to do is accept the political comradeship of others who accept the same progressive values on whatever basis -- and a corresponding demand is made of religious people.

The real culprit who should be blamed here is religious progressives, who have failed to articulate (or perhaps even to have) the link between their religious worldview and their progressive values.

Obama's Emptiness

I still don't understand either Barack Obama or keynote speeches. The former recently gave one of the latter on the subject of religion and progressive politics, and the blogosphere is all atwitter. Some are furious that he would dare say something nice about religion, since doing so amounts to selling out to Jerry Falwell. Others are swooning over the silver-tongued savior of the left.

I read the speech and couldn't see what the fuss was about. It's a long bit of rambling boilerplate, nice-sounding but noncommittal. It's made all the worse by the fact that he was speaking to a conference on faith-based progressive politics, so his audience would already be quite well aware of, and in agreement with, the idea that progressives shouldn't let the right have a monopoly on religion.

That claim is true, but it's hardly sufficient -- after all, nearly every prominent Democratic politician is a believer and makes a labored show of the depth of their faith on the campaign trail. To accomplish anything, progressives need not just to defensively deny the right's framing, since that only reinforces it and invites the type of close scrutiny justifiably given to newly-proposed and against-the-conventional-wisdom claims. What's needed is a positive narrative (one that doesn't need to be framed as a reaction to the right) showing how Christianity can give rise to the set of values shared by both Christian and non-Christian progressives* (once we decide what those values are). But Obama's "liberals can too be religious" angle doesn't give us that narrative. The only bit of real substance in the whole speech (albeit substance that reflects well on Obama's character) came at the very end, when he described how an email exchange with an undecided conservative voter led him to tone down the ad hominem in his website's statement on abortion. But less ad hominem is only the first step.

* This project is essentially liberal, as it roots a shared political program in a substantive worldview already head by a group of people, without demanding that people who don't already hold that worldview have to change their minds -- they can find justifications for the same political program in their own worldviews. It also reminds me of the pragmatist interpretation of Arne Naess's "apron diagram" theory, in which varying philosophies -- he talked about Christianity, Buddhism, and his own secular version of Spinoza -- will, if interpreted rationally, lead to the same Deep Ecology platform.


In Which I Say Something Nice About Bush

To shift into a far more wonkish mode for a moment, I actually think President Bush's proposal for a line-item veto is excellent:

"When the president sees an earmark or spending provision that is wasteful or unnecessary, he can send it back to the Congress," Bush said. "And Congress is then required to hold a prompt up-or-down vote on whether to retain the targeted spending. In other words, the Congress is still in the process."

He said this procedure would "shine the light of day on spending items that get passed in the dark of the night," sending "a healthy signal to the people that we're going to be wise about how we spend their money."

Matthew Yglesias is right that pork is hardly the biggest of our problems (or even of our budgetary problems), and that Bush is unlikely to actually use the line item veto for much. But pork is still a problem, and the law would remain on the books for more responsible future Presidents (not Frist, but perhaps McCain) to use. In any event, given that Congress is controlled by Republicans, I'd rather see them spend their time on doing a tiny amount of good than their other agenda items (FMA, ill-advised tax cuts, etc) that do a large amount of harm.

Fatalists Are Made, Not Born

The "justice" system is fundamentally broken. Or maybe it's working exactly as intended -- after all, it did take a black man and screw up his chances of getting ahead, with no remorse or accountability. Elias Fishburne was lucky enough to have been in good enough shape before his ordeal to have gotten back on his feet afterwards.

Another striking thing is how jaded all of the people who are part of the system are. Their view has been narrowed to encompass just their cramped bureaucratic role. They are so focused on their own coping -- through laziness, cynicism, and dehumanizing of others they interact with -- that they don't see the horrible effects both of the official procedure and of the way they go about implementing it. There's no passion for making the system work, or even for caring about its effects on others. Feeling so put-upon (in their narrow selfish way) by the system, they end up with a sort of passive trust in it -- evidenced, for example, by the assumption that any inmate passed to them by a previous link in the chain is definitely a criminal.


Making Up Things To Debunk

Killing some time in a bookstore yesterday, I leafed through a book called "Debunking History, which claims to "explode" various historical myths. The first myth I turned to was Andrew Jackson's treatment of the Native Americans. My first reaction was to cringe, expecting some sort of Randian praise of the heroic white man civilizing the poor Indians. But in fact it was just the opposite -- the section said basically "Jackson was really nasty to the Cherokees." Now, I quite agree with this as a matter of historical fact. But how does this count as "debunking a myth" in the 21st century? I've never heard anyone say anything other than that Jackson's treatment of the Native Americans was awful. People may not care very much, and they may dismiss it with "yeah, people were racists back then," but I've never heard any living person claim that the Trail of Tears was a peaceful resettlement.


A Couple Points About Population

1. Here's a great example of how the obsession with the power of economic incentives can lead people into dodgy moral territory. Alberto Palloni has a terrible idea for how to reduce population growth:

Economics could even help reduce population, he says, with "a mechanism that controls the spillover of childbearing. If you have six children and think the rest of us are going to pay for their education, sure you will have six children. But if we make it difficult for people to educate their children [by, for example, having parents pay directly for schooling], surely they will cut their fertility." Similarly, policies that provide for old-age insurance make it less likely that parents will have children to provide "social security."

Set aside for the moment the empirical facts that parents are not rational utility maximizers, and that the places in the world with the highest population growth are the least likely to have well-funded universal education. Palloni is proposing to punish children for the sins of their parents, in order to send a message to other parents. "Sorry Billy, but you don't get to learn about science, because we're trying to scare some other prospective parents into using the Pill." Note, however, that the suggestion about social security is just fine, as it achieves its incentive without penalizing innocent people.

2. If reducing immigration from the third world to the first world is so great for the environment (because a poor Mexican does less harm to the environment than a rich Mexican-American), then it stands to reason that migration from the first world to the third world would be even better. Here's the link for getting a visa to immigrate to Mexico.

Juvenile Thinking

Speaking of coining clever new terms with which to cast aspersions on your enemies, I'd like to find a snappier way to say something like "argumentum ad developmental psychology." Argumentum ad developmental psychology is the claim that something is wrong because it resembles the behavior or thinking of younger people. (And there's also the converse fallacy, which holds that younger people have a clear and innocent moral sense that adults lack.)


Shooting the Messenger

Richard Morin is complaining about the Daily Show:

This is not funny: Jon Stewart and his hit Comedy Central cable show may be poisoning democracy.

Two political scientists found that young people who watch Stewart's faux news program, "The Daily Show," develop cynical views about politics and politicians that could lead them to just say no to voting.

So the problem is not that our politicians are a bunch of incompetent buffoons, our electoral system is broken, and the news media is asleep on the job. The problem is that the Daily Show points these facts out to people. Oh, for the good old days when everyone bought into the myth of the public servant and smoothly-running democracy!


Is The Fantasy You Really You?

Laurenhat has posted a very interesting thought experiment. She writes about a hypothetical sci-fi scenario in which anyone can download an exact replica of another person (typically for sexual purposes), and asks whether you'd be squicked and/or find it morally objectionable for people to download you. The more basic question here is: is it (at least potentially) a violation of a person to fantasize about them doing something that they would be unwilling to do in real life? (My post and Laurenhat's both focus on sex, but I think the ideas involved can easily be applied, mutatis mutandis, to other activities.)

Laurenhat and I (I post as "acsumama" on Livejournal) both give the thumbs-up to people downloading us. If I don't have to actually experience the things they're fantasizing about, I'm not harmed. The fantasizer's utility is increased and mine is left unchanged.

Typosqueene makes the case for the other side:

I am not a sex object, and no one has the right to use me that way. Even if it’s just a thought of me as a masturbatory aid – it’s still making ‘me’ or some essence of ‘me’ into a masturbatory tool, which I absolutely do not give consent to. I don’t mind being aesthetically assessed; it’s unavoidable, really. So if I have a nice bottom and you think “oooh, that’s a nice bottom”, fine. If I have to squeeze past you in a corridor and you’re feeling *cough* oversensitive and get over-excited, well, ew, but fine.

But you don’t get to wank with my hand, nor do you get to do it using all the effort I’ve put in to *be* this bubbly, intelligent, attractive, fun, desirable person. Abstract as it is, it’s still some part of *me* that you’re using for a sexual purpose, and I do not have any interest in engaging in sexual activity, even at a distance, with 99.999999999% of the human race. Thus – wrong.

What I think this boils down to is conflicting intuitions about identity. To typosqueene, the fantasy version of her is her (or at least a part of her), and so things done to fantasy-typosqueene without the consent of real-typosqueene are violations of real-typosqueene. But to me, fantasy-acsumama is a separate entity that just happens to be based on real-acsumama. And being a fantasy entity, it lacks subjectivity, and hence no action done to it can be directly morally problematic. In my view, fantasies bear something of the same relationship to the originals as parodies, remixes, and fanfic bear to the original works of art (the use of stock characters -- like the generic cheerleaders that typosqueene says she's OK with fantasizing about -- might be something like public domain art). I don't know enough about philosophy of mind to argue for one of these conceptions over the other.

On a sociological level, it appears that men tend to share my perspective and women lean toward tyopsqueene's (though of course there are exceptions -- Laurenhat and several other women share my view, and I would be surprised if Hugo Schwyzer didn't favor tyopsqueene's). This seems to make sense given the genders' differing experiences of sex. Men experience relatively few unwanted sexual advances in real life. Other people rarely act as if they are entitled to get some form of sexual satisfaction from us, and we don't feel pressured into offering. We generally feel more in control of our sexual landscapes (at least with regard to avoiding bad things, if not to obtaining good things). Thus it's easy for us to imagine a strong separation between reality and fantasy -- we don't feel threatened by the thought that the fantasy may spill over into real life. We confidently accept a narrower realm of "what actually affects me" in order to establish broader bounadries on people's liberty to fantasize. And we more easily sympathize with the position and interests of the fantasizer, weighing those comparatively heavily against the position and interests of the fantasize-ee.

Women, on the other hand, would be more likely to take a precautionary approach. A life full of unwanted advances (and the fear or reality of worse) makes them less sanguine about the boundary between reality and fantasy. The thought of someone fantasizing about them hits closer to home, in a bad way. A more "extended" conception of the borders of the self seems appealing, at the very least as a way of putting a buffer zone around the critical "real" person. There's also a more relational aspect to this perspective. Fantasy versions of people aren't just objects floating around to be appropriated and used privately and without accountability. They're inextricably linked to real people. This is apparent in typosqueene's point that not knowing that someone's fantasizing about her to adds to the violation -- they're being dishonest to her by not telling her what they're doing with something that belongs to her.

Why Are Slums Poorer Than Farms?

Via Marcelino Fuentes, the UN has a study out showing that third world slum dwellers are actually worse off than those still living in rural areas. Fuentes frames it as a question of either the rural-to-slum migrants being mistaken about the opportunities available in the city, or the UN choosing the wrong indicators of wellbeing (hence slum dwellers really are better off). Either option frames the wellbeing of the two populations as relatively independent. But I wonder whether there isn't some degree of connection between the wellbeing of people in the two locations.

I can see two ways that migration to the city might actually improve the lot of the migrants, while improving the lot of those left behind even more (meaning that slum dwellers really are worse off than their rural cousins, but that they still made a rational choice to move to, and stay in, the city). On the one hand, migration to the city may relieve rural overpopulation. Rather than everyone starving together, a reduced rural population is able to make ends meet because their neighbors went away to the city.

Adding to the simple population shift effect is the issue of remittances. It's common in the third world for some people -- typically young men -- to move to the city to look for work, leaving the rest of the family behind. So rather than just urban vs rural households, you have households that are geographically extended in order to pursue a mixed economic strategy. These migrants deliberately live cheaply in order to funnel money back to their rural homes.

Of course, neither of these explanations denies the fact that improvements to slum conditions (such as infrastructure improvements and property rights reforms) would be a good thing -- indeed, they may even have trickle-down effects on the conditions in rural areas.


Not-So-Veiled Xenophobia

In theory, a purely procedural concern over the illegality of illegal immigration is a valid one. And perhaps one could be such a committed legal positivist* as to focus solely on the fact that the laws actually on the books are being broken, without also being disturbed by how little those laws correspond to any notion of justice. Nevertheless, one most often encounters procedural claims acting as a respectable veneer on xenophobia. The slip between the two motivations is a clever one, as the idea of "illegal immigrants" evokes ideas that certain people are inferior "criminal types," prone to all sorts of mischief and unsuited to a good society, while the rest of us -- who did things the hard way by being born in a rich country -- are different.

Take, for example, Hazelton mayor Lou Barletta's statement justifying his city's proposed crackdown on illegal immigrants. While Barletta superficially puts the emphasis on "illegal," it becomes clear from reading his statement that his real concern is about "immigrants." He doesn't want Those People, who are Different and hence Bad, coming to His city.

Barletta opens with some standard glurge about how Americans are just so nice and so wonderful and so open and so tolerant, but gosh darn it those ungrateful immigrants have just pushed us too far by abusing our remarkable generosity. Generosity that appears to consist of things like allowing them to pay for a place to live.

Take a look at Barletta's list of the problems that illegal immigrants cause:

Illegal immigration leads to higher crime rates, contributes to overcrowded classrooms and failing schools, subjects our hospitals to fiscal hardship and legal residents to substandard quality of care, and destroys our neighborhoods and diminishes our overall quality of life.

... Illegal Immigration is a drain on city resources. Every domestic incident, every traffic accident, every noise complaint, each time we send our police department, fire department or code enforcement officer to respond, it costs taxpayer dollars.

These are not problems caused by some Hazeltonians' lack of green cards. These are problems caused by increased population, or at best increased low-income population. Replace every illegal immigrant in Hazelton with someone whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower or the Bering Land Bridge, and those problems would still exist. At best, lack of immigration status provides a convenient way to target a group for being thrown out in order to reduce class sizes.

The fact that Barletta's real motivation is xenophobia becomes clear when he goes on to propose making English the city's official language. Many illegal immigrants do speak English. Many legal immigrants do not. But non-Anglophones are Different, and Barletta doesn't want people in Hazelton who don't fit in, who don't bear all the burden of crossing the cultural divide themselves.

* I hope I'm using this term right -- I'm referring to the view that the law is what the law is, and there's no point in asking what the law should be.

Profiling For Your Own Good?

Promoting seat belt use among black motorists

Seat belts reduce injuries and deaths in motor vehicle crashes, but previous studies have found that blacks buckle up significantly less often than whites.

... Nathaniel C. Briggs, M.D. and his Meharry - State Farm Alliance research team found that racial differences in seatbelt use vary according to the type of seatbelt law enforced by individual states. In states with secondary seatbelt laws, where motorists can be cited for a seatbelt law violation only if stopped for another offense, blacks are significantly less likely to wear seatbelts than whites. In states with primary laws, where motorists can be stopped solely for not wearing a seat belt, the disparity disappears.

... While it is unclear what accounts for the increased seatbelt use among black motorists in primary law states, Briggs et al. suggest that the findings may reflect concerns of blacks about the possibility of racial profiling, or differential enforcement, whereby law enforcement officers could selectively stop and cite minority motorists for seatbelt law violations.

The authors note that "The issue of differential enforcement has received little attention in the peer-reviewed literature, and should be addressed using methodologically robust epidemiologic studies. In the interim, however, the passage of primary seat belt laws, in conjunction with provisions or companion legislation to monitor and prevent racial profiling, appears to be justified given the possibility that we can achieve racial parity in motor vehicle crash mortality rates."

In other words, "let's use the fear of racial profiling to get black people to protect themselves." Um, great. What makes this even more ridiculous is that the authors recommend a combination of primary seat belt laws and anti-profiling measures as a way to get more black people to wear seatbelts. But that recommendation only makes sense if their proffered explanation for the reduced disparity under primary laws is wrong. Otherwise, the anti-profiling measures would undo whatever increased pressure for wearing seatbelts primary laws cause.

Maybe in the next phase of their study the researchers might actually interview some black drivers (and some white ones for comparison) and ask them about what their thought process is in deciding whether to wear a seatbelt. (Of course, this is all assuming that increasing seat belt use is a worthy goal.)


Learning to be Uncivil

We tend to think of incivility as a sort of natural state, an impulse of our id that must be, or at least can be, reined in by the superego's insistence on civility. Incivility is seen as a sort of "letting go," dropping a culturally-imposed restraint in order to show your true self. Working from this model, I've tended to see my own penchant for civility as being a result of having less of the dreaded uncivil id. I "naturally" fail to be uncivil because I just don't have the feelings that drive incivility. This conception, however, seems dangerously self-congratulatory -- I, the enlightened white man, have perfected my inner nature, while the rest of you sods have to be allowed to vent now and then.

Luckily, there's another explanation -- incivility is a learned skill, just as much as civility is. Neither is more primal. Looking back on my life, it seems that every time I let someone have it (even if just in my own mind), I've come to regret it. This is not an indicator of the intrinsic badness of civility -- most succcessful bloggers could probably point you to a dozen posts where they are proud (even during their most civil moments) of how uncivil they were. But neither is my regret at my past incivility just a guilt trip based on the idea that incivility is ipso facto wrong. What's really happening is that I'm no good at being uncivil. I haven't learned and internalized the rules for what situations are worth being uncivil about, and what kinds of incivility are effective. So when I give it a try, I do a poor job of it, see rationally that I messed up, and retreat to an across-the-board civility whose failures are less obvious. I can't say how I got started down this road -- perhaps some degree of intrinsic disposition is at play -- but once I did, it became self-reinforcing.


Moon Colonies II: Social Justice

Another problem with the idea of colonizing space as a solution to environmental problems on Earth is the question of social justice. The pro-colonization argument glosses over this issue -- a move that is symptomatic of the strain of environmental thinking that John Dryzek labels "survivalist." Survivalists see all humans as being in the same boat, and favor solutions by whatever means necessary. As I see it, there are at least two major social justice problems involved in a large-scale transfer of people to space.

The first, raised by Amanda Marcotte, is the question of who gets to go. Marcotte argues that it will be the already-privileged, such as white Americans, who can afford to escape to moon colonies, leaving the already-oppressed behind to fend for themselves on a crisis-ridden planet. Even with a lip-service commitment to fixing the Earth in addition to space colonization, the fact that the elites can all depend on space to save themselves will undercut their motivation and ability to adequately protect the enviroment (just as their cushy offices and access to Whole Foods currently makes them insensitive to the environmental plight of the poor and minorities). And to return to the population theme of my previous post, we have to remember that population is not a single global stock -- overpopulation happens at a local or regional scale, so moving a bunch of Americans to Mars won't help people living in crowded areas of Africa.

So why not charitably offer to bring a more diverse selection of astronauts -- e.g. if the United States were to finance the migration of Zimbabweans and Kenyans instead of sending its own people? Doubtless many of the underprivileged would sign up. Many would also be exploited by human traffickers and other scam artists. And many would be justifiably suspicious -- why are the global elites trying to push us out of the way to an unknown frontier? Are we just expendable guinea pigs whose troubles in the new colony can be waved away as inevitable kinks that have to be worked out? (And I can already hear the conservative pundits: "you declined our offer to send you to the moon, so don't come crying to us for welfare.")

The second important social justice implication is the connection between a high-tech engineered environment and authoritarian social relations. Any extraterrestrial colony will have, for the forseeable future, a highly managed environment. They won't have any room to rely on nature to take care of itself without close oversight. One little hole in the dome, and everyone dies. This sort of situation lends itself (as GGCT has seen) to an authoritarian social system. Everyone must submit to the dictates (benevolent though they may be) of the experts who run the biosphere. This is not an attractive option.

Related to this point are the implications of the argument that the scientific progress spurred by space colonization will prove useful in learning to handle the Earth's environment. Artificial space environments will be of necessity highly engineered environments, controlled and stabilized in all their particulars by expert oversight. Moon engineers will bring this hubristic managerial perspective back to Earth with them. Yet just the opposite perspective -- humble, and cognizant of the ecosystem's unpredictability -- is what's needed to solve the terrestrial environmental crisis.

Moon Colonies I: Overpopulation

Amanda Marcotte has a post about theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking's recent foray into geography, in which Hawking declares that the key to solving our environmental crisis is to colonize space. I generally agree with Marcotte's view (also echoed by Chris Clarke) that overreliance on space colonization is a distraction. Indeed, we can already see the results, as NASA is currently cutting funding for much-needed Earth monitoring satellites in order to find money for space exploration.

In this post I want to deal with one pro-colonization argument that is repeatedly brought up in the comments to Marcotte's post: that it would solve overpopulation. As commenter Ellis Tripp put it:

Transferring a sizeable portion of the Earth’s humans and human-dependant species to Mars would give other species a little more breathing room and make it easier for them to rebound from things like epidemics and natural disasters.

In other words, space can act as a sort of safety valve for overpopulation. I happen to be skeptical of how important population is as a point of attack in solving environmental problems, but I'll set that aside for now. There are two basic ways to think about population growth, and I don't think either of them lend much support to the idea of space colonization as a solution.

The first way -- which has a long history in environmentalism stretching back at least to Malthus (though Malthus drew very different conclusions than his contemporary disciples) -- is that population grows exponentially. Resource constraints form a simple ceiling, and population grows faster and faster until it bumps up against that ceiling. Space colonization, then, would raise the ceiling, adding extraterrestrial resources to our portfolio. We could siphon off Earth's excess population to Mars, then eventually Mars's to Venus, and Venus's to Alpha Centauri ... The problem, of course, is that solving exponential population growth through colonization requires exponential colonization. We'd need to colonize other planets faster and faster to keep up. Even if we could manage that feat, the universe is huge, but it is finite. And the key point made in any ordinary discussion of exponential growth is how quickly exponential growth can overwhelm even the largest-seeming space.

The other way to look at population -- which most demographers agree is more accurate as a description of the contemporary global population -- is logistical, or S-shaped, growth. Population initially rises quickly, but then it slows down and levels off. The Earth's global population passed the steepest point in the 1970s, and most predictions say we're likely to level off around 10 billion people sometime in the next hundred or so years. If this is the case, then it seems more reasonable that a one-time injection of additional resources, such as would be achieved by colonizing a few more planets, would get us over the hump.

But what about the resources it will take to get those colonies established? In the long run they may be self-sustaining, but big projects always take longer, cost more, and encounter more technical problems than you can forsee at the outset (even if your foresight takes this principle into account). In the comments to Marcotte's post, Clarke offers some stunning back-of-the-envelope calculations for the resources required just for moving a significant number of human bodies into near earth orbit -- never mind getting them to another planet and supplying them with the materials for survival and terraforming. So large-scale space colonization will actually increase the resource crunch on Earth. It's only a solution if you assume humans are extremely tenacious and extremely willing to remain committed to a grand collective goal at great expense to themselves for decades.

And of course all these arguments assume that we can move enough people off-planet fast enough. Given the expense and time taken to move even small crews of astronauts around, the idea of moving large populations of people seems unlikely within the time frame of the increase to 10 billion people.

I'm not opposed to space colonization as a long-term project and a defense against exogenous disasters like asteroids or the death of the sun. But I don't see it as a reasonable fix for any of the really pressing problems of the present.

A Convenient Misstep

David Roberts has a standard environmentalist take on the brouhaha surrounding a recent paper in Science purporting to show that postfire logging damaged the environment. The paper was inconvenient for the timber companies who would profit from increased sales of postfire timber, so they tried (via proxies in academia) to suppress it. Their tactics were crude and bullying, provoking the outrage of the environmental community.

The timber companies' misstep in trying to suppress the paper has proven to be mightily convenient for environmentalists. Environmentalists were able to shift the debate from the (modest at best) merits of the paper to an indignant defense of the integrity of the scientific process. The significance and reliability of the paper are inflated as it's elevated into a martyr. Science's peer reviewers become modern-day canon compilers.

The new debate is not about the impacts of postfire logging. It's about whether you trust the timber industry or the scientific establishment. Where you stand on the new question determines what you'll think about the old question. The trust debate is easier for environmentalists to win, because they can play on society's reverence for science and a clear example of overstepping by the timber companies.

This is not to say that the trust debate is necessarily a bad one to have. Indeed, any attempt by a general audience to discuss the merits of the issue will end up as partly an implicit trust debate, since for the most part we don't have direct access to any data.


A Compliment, I Think

So I was doing a vanity search (verdict: prospective employers aren't going to find anything more incriminating than an orgami Lore Sjöberg -- and I wouldn't want any job that had a problem with origami Lore), and I came upon this comment by Alon Levy to an old Pharyngula post:

If you want civility, go read Stentor Danielson; every other blog written by someone who knows what he's doing has some incivility.


Affirm Me!

Complaints about the ill effects of media "balance" are often justified -- there's no excuse for leaving a story at "he said, she said" when the facts of the matter are easily verifiable. But in other cases, the complaints cross the line into demanding that the media editorialize in one's favor. So we get, for example, the absurdity of calling suicide bombers by the less informative but more morally loaded term "homicide bombers." Another recent example comes from Chris Bertram's displeasure at the way the Daily Telegraph obituary headline writers summarized two recent deaths:

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—Jordanian terrorist associated with bombings and beheadings of hostages in Iraq.

Raymond Davis, Jr—Physicist whose proof that the Sun’s energy came from nuclear reactions won him the Nobel.

Bertram opines: "Almost as if proving the sun’s energy came from nuclear reactions and beheading hostages were just different ways of spending one’s life."

Now, it's true that the Zarqawi headline doesn't explicitly conclude that Zarqawi used his life for evil. But need we really assume that people -- even Telegraph readers -- are that stupid, or literal-minded, or morally bankrupt, that they can't draw the inference that someone who is famous for bombings and beheadings is a bad person, and someone who won the Nobel prize for a scientific discovery is a good person?

There seems to be a strange insecurity at work here. If the media doesn't affirm your moral inferences, then perhaps others will not learn that bombings (by Zarqawi or suicide bombers) are bad things. (Or even more frightening, maybe the fact that they aren't compelled to explicitly editorialize means that the badness is not obvious, and thus we may be mistaken in our moral commitments.) But in fact it's the very social consensus on the evilness of bombings that makes it possible for Western headline writers to omit obvious editorializing.


Military Precaution

More evidence (via Jonathan Adler) for GGCT's assertion that it's not about whether you're a risk-taker or risk-avoider, it's a matter of which risks you worry about.

Wind-Power Projects Halted

More than 130 wind turbines are proposed for the hilltops of central Wisconsin, but that project and at least 11 others have been halted by the Defense Department as it studies whether the projects could interfere with military radar.

... Defense and FAA officials said the "proposed hazard" letters are not prohibiting the wind farms, just delaying them until any risks to military operations can be assessed and resolved.

"We're not saying, 'No, you can't do this,' " Spitaliere said. "We're looking to work with the proposals to mitigate the hazard."

It's easy enough to read this move as transparently political and conclude the military is making bad-faith claims. But even so, there's something important in the fact that the language of physical risks is being used to defend a hierarchy of values in which military security is prioritized and other considerations must bear the burden of proof of showing that they won't interfere with military needs.

In the Hierarchical worldview, the system is isomorphic with nature. So it's dangerous to entertain the idea that natural limits (which are the motivation for renewable energy like wind farms) or entrepreneurial activity might interfere with, rather than reinforce, the system's prerogatives.



Ampersand has some beautiful snark at a pastor who claims God told him He would smite Oregon for its gayness. In the introduction, he manages to express the exact opposite of what I find valuable in the Christian tradition:

I was struggling with praying for the hurricane victims. I certainly want to pray for those who are suffering through this ordeal but at the same time I see all these things as judgments from God. My real prayer is that this country will wake up and realize that this is a judgment from God and repent of their evil ways.

How can a pastor gloat over God's judgment against Other People when the Bible says over and over again that Jesus came to save everyone from God's judgment? Boy won't his face be red when he gets to heaven and finds those Katrina victims and gay Oregonians are there too.

People of Color and Animals

I'm still swamped with work, but I don't want to lose the link to this brownfemipower post about race and animal liberation, which highlights some of the complexities of environmental justice.


"Discourses About Wildfire in New Jersey and New South Wales"

I'm about to leave for Brisbane for a few days to present the results of the first half of my dissertation research. You can see a summary here, and if you're really ambitious there's a link on that page to the detailed report.

Egalitarian Geeks

This Geek Social Fallacies list is very interesting -- it's practically a field guide to the pathologies of the Egalitarian (in the GGCT sense) way of life. Just as GGCT would predict, geeks -- feeling oppressed and shut out by the system -- take refuge in an Egalitarian form of organization. Yet any form of organization can, when taken to extremes, go bad. The fallacies identified by the article are:

1. Ostracizers Are Evil
2. Friends Accept Me As I Am
3. Friendship Before All
4. Friendship Is Transitive
5. Friends Do Everything Together

Fallacies 3, 4, and 5 are straightforward manifestations of the "high group" character of Egalitarianism, in which solidarity with the group takes precedence over forming outside connections and individual choices. Fallacy 2, and to an extent Fallacy 1, reflect the tendency for Egalitarian groups to be highly conflict-averse, lest disagreements jeopardize the equality of all members, and because no clear decision-making structure exists for resolving a conflict once it boils over. (Note that Egalitarians are also prone to the reverse pathology -- getting bogged down in endless discussion in search of an elusive non-coercive consensus.)

Fallacy 1 is especially interesting to me, and not only because it's the one I'm most prone to*. There's a tendency in theoretical discussions for descriptions of Egalitarianism to focus on the boundedness of Egalitarian groups -- the way they draw a sharp, and restrictive, line between the select few insiders and the heathen outside. There are some tendencies toward this in the Fallacies list, as the other fallacies are described as leading to schisms when commitment to shared group solidarity is not total. But Fallacy 1 represents the opposite tendency -- a universalizing impulse that insists on bringing everyone into the group.

*In my case, I think it's more a function of being less bothered by offensive people than others are, rather than a moral compunction about ostracizing those who are truly offensive.


Participation, For And Against

Zaid Hassan at Worldchanging manages to sum up much of where I think environmentalism needs to go:

Those of us working for social change should have one key idea flash-burned into our consciousness. If the communities we wish to benefit have not participated or been involved in decision making processes then there will be a lack of ownership and the initiative will most likely fail (if not sooner then certainly later). This key idea is forgotten again and again and the results are sadly predictable. Dialogue is a key tool in ensuring that this particular trap is avoided. Given the frequency with which this particular trap appears on the landscape of social change and development projects, a map to the terrain is no bad thing to be carrying.

Click through to the comments for a strong opposing viewpoint from Lorenzo (as well as some interesting subsequent dialogue), who throws some cold water on the naive participationist viewpoint that people are eager to get involved if only the technocratic boot would be taken off their necks. (Both Lorenzo and his critics cite anthropological evidence -- which should come as no surprise to fans of Alan Fiske.) Indeed, the early results of my dissertation (which I'll link in a few days once I finish it) suggest a mild version of Lorenzo's point -- most of the views of people in both New Jersey and New South Wales were that fire safety is the job of the Forest Fire Service or Rural Fire Service, and ordinary residents' role is to support their work.

The way to steer between these two opposing tendencies is twofold, I think. On the one hand, participation must be made available -- we can neither foreclose opportunities on the assumption that everyone will follow a basically Authority Ranking model, nor demand participation in a way that disrespects people's choice to be Authority Ranked. Second, we need greater attention to which situations tend more toward one model than the other. In particular, I would say that greater focus on participation would be justified when 1) the issue is more controversial (e.g. siting a nuclear reactor, versus ordinary controlled burning), and 2) when the decision is a key juncture that will shape the basis and assumptions of further routine policy. Risk perception research, including Grid-Group Cultural Theory, can be useful in identifying cases of the first type, while theories like the Adaptive Cycle offer some promise in the second case.


Freedom of Speech vs the First Amendment

Freedom of speech is a moral principle. The First Amendment (and associated jurisprudence) is one country's current attempt to translate a version of freedom of speech into law. A key difference is that freedom of speech is broader than the First Amendment, since most people would believe that there is some moral claim to freedom of speech in civil society and employment situations (even if they don't believe that claim ought to be enshrined in law), but the First Amendment applies only to actions by the government.

It irritates me the way people tend to conflate the two. Sometimes it happens because someone, feeling that their moral right to free speech has been infringed, assumes that the law will offer them succor. More common, however, is a situation in which someone asserts that their freedom of speech has been infringed by, say, an employer. Then a self-satisfied pedant will point out that the First Amendment doesn't cover that situation, and therefore their free speech has not been infringed. This pedantry misses the point -- the claim at stake is a moral one (perhaps even a moral claim to legal redress), not a legal one.

Supreme Court decisions define the scope of legal protections offered by the First Amendment. But they do not define the moral principle of freedom of speech, except insofar as the Justices make persuasive arguments in their opinions.