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No Nukes

David Roberts has a great nutshell summary of why -- despite the harping of various "mavericks" -- nuclear power does not deserve environmentalists' support:

The pressing realities of climate change argue against nuclear power, not for it, because they argue for the cheapest, fastest, most adaptable and resilient response, and that's not nuclear power. Money spent on capital-intensive hard infrastructure (run by a rent-seeking, politically connected industry with a crappy record of regulatory compliance) is money that would have more positive effect spent on distributed renewables and efficiency. The opportunity costs of nuclear power are too high.


Racism Is Objective, Take 2

Alon Levy (in comments and at his blog interprets my previous post as saying that "majority-race people should accept minorities’ judgments in assessing whether they engage in racism." He counters with the example of Jews who claim that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic -- noting, rightly, that we shouldn't just take their word for it.

The thing is, though, that I wasn't saying that "majority-race people should accept minorities’ judgments in assessing whether they engage in racism." My point was that whether or not something is racist or not depends entirely on its effects on others, not the intentions of the actor. One important source of information about those effects is the testimony of purported victims. But it would be poor methodology, not to mention patronizing, to automatically take someone at their word that an action is racist -- rather, we should give consideration to their arguments, factoring in everything else we know about the context of the action and the objection to it.

Levy's interpretation of my argument comes close to being accurate with respect to the particular example I used in my post -- Native American mascots -- due to the nature of the alleged benefits weighing in favor of keeping the mascot. Defenders of Chief Illiniwek claim that the Chief honors Native Americans. Honoring, though, is an act whose success can only be judged by its subjective impact on the intended honoree -- that is, does the honoree feel honored or not. So the honest testimony of Native Americans is the only evidence we have to go on for this particular issue.


Racism and Introspection

Racism (and sexism, etc.) is an objective phenomenon. It consists of actual harms to actual other people. That means introspection alone cannot produce an "innocent" verdict. For example, you can't decide whether supporting Chief Illiniwek is a good thing or not by thinking about whether you intend to honor Native Americans. You have to ask those Native Americans whether they actually feel honored.

Similarly, if you (as a white person, at least) bring out the standard "I'm not a racist" line, that pretty much means you are one. And I don't mean that just in the sense that everyone in our society is at least a little bit racist. If you think that you have the authority and ability to make a definite statement about your own racism, that implies that you think racism is wholly subjective, making the question about you rather than about the people of other races who are affected by your actions.

(This is not to say that introspection isn't incredibly important, or that white people should rely on people of other racism to teach us everything. But introspection alone is insufficient.)


Why Utilitarians Have Become Conservative

In Will Kymlicka's Contemporary Political Philosophy, he makes an interesting observation about utilitarianism, but proposes what I think is a wrong explanation for it. The observation is that while utilitarianism began as a radical progressive philosophy, its modern day defenders are quite conservative. And indeed, Bentham was a noted prison reformer who endorsed (albeit quietly) animal rights and gay rights, while Mill was a proto-feminist. On the other hand, it can be embarassing to read R.M. Hare's insistences that his version of utilitarianism can't possibly conflict with common sense morality. (On the other hand, Hare's most noted follower, Peter Singer, is the one contemporary utilitarian that Kymlicka admits to be radical -- though of course there's debate on whether all of his radicalism is progressive. Sidgwick, meanwhile, shows up fairly early in the theory's development yet insists on utilitarianism's consonance with all common sense judgments.)

Kymlicka's explanation is that utilitarianism clearly mandated radical consequences in its original environment (the 19th century), but that reformers have now gone as far left as utilitarianism can uncontroversially take them. Utilitarianism's progressiveness, he says, is most clear and compelling when the masses are oppressed by a small elite, the paradigm case being the denial of political rights to the lower classes. But today's big questions revolve around protecting the interests of minorities (such as Latin@s or gays), and it's less clear that utilitarianism would favor them over the majorities that enjoy oppressing them.

I think Kymlicka's historical progress explanation is wrong on two counts. First, I think utilitarian considerations do weigh clearly in favor of the equality of oppressed minorities, though anti-utilitarians don't always see it because they are so troubled by the theoreticaly possibility that, given the right implausible circumstances, utilitarianism might justify some oppression. More directly devastating to Kymlicka's perspective, however, is the fact that only a conservative could claim that the battles fought by the early utilitarians are won. While the poor have a measure of formal political equality today, it is still widely (and in my view, correctly) held that modern capitalism is not utility-maximizing, but rather unfairly advantages a small elite at the expense of the masses. It is likewise difficult to argue that the modern gender system -- despite the attainment of Mill's goal of women's suffrage -- might be close to maximizing utility. (Indeed, when we take into consideration the way patriarchy hurts non-alpha-male men, gender issues become a case of a small elite oppressing the masses). And even a cursory look at the contemporary penal system would provide no end of motivation for a modern-day Bentham.

To really see why modern utilitarian philosophers so often come off as conservative, we need look no further than the earlier part of Kymlicka's own chapter. There, he takes the standard angle (among others) in criticizing utilitarianism -- he proposes a variety of scenarios in which a strict utilitarian analysis leads to consequences at odds with common sense morality. Such critiques have put utilitarians on the defensive, leading them to expend much energy appeasing their critics by devising explanations for why the common-sense act really would be mandated by utilitarianism. It's a bit funny to announce that you can't accept a theory because its consequences aren't conservative enough, and then -- when offered a version of the theory that meets your demands -- to turn around and attack it for being too conservative. There is still a criticiam to be made of writers like Hare who go to great lengths to avoid biting any bullets (but also of writers like Singer who go out of their way to, with much fanfare, scarf down bowls of bullet soup). But that criticism has to acknowledge a key source of contemporary utilitarianism's anti-radicalism. It's not utilitarianism's political success, but rather its experience of badgering by intuitionist critics like Kymlicka, that explains its contemporary bent toward conservatism.


Don't Fear The Schism

Not too long ago, a woman came up to me and Christina on the street and declared "you guys look like Episcopalians!" It turned out that she had attended pretty much every Episcopal church in the county except for St. Peter's in Casa Grande, where we have attended irregularly for the past six months, yet she was convinced she knew us.

I'll take that woman's Episcopalia-dar as warrant for me to pronounce on church politics. My pronouncement today is: don't fear the schism. Anglicans from other parts of the world are drawing up the battle lines to pressure the Episcopalians into backing down from their pro-equality stand. They don't appear satisfied with the US church's wishy-washy attempts to compromise by giving lip service to gay rights while placing a moratorium on practicing it. So if it comes down to it, justice is more important than friendship. Having some foreign bishops refuse to drink some wine next to you is a price worth paying for the freedom to unreservedly minister to the needs of all your members.

(Then again, I really don't get all the rules about who can give or share communion with who. It seems to take something that should be a symbol of shared base-level belief and turns it into a certification of detailed doctrinal purity.)



I should mention that I'm now practicing what I preached, as earlier this month I got married and my wife will remain "Ms. Powers." Now we need to come up with a polite way to clue in people who call her "Mrs. Danielson." (I also get called "Mr. Powers" a lot, but that's mostly because our grocery store savings card is in her name.)


Academic Freedom

Is it just me, or does it seem like this bill would basically outlaw whole university departments (specifically the social sciences and philosophy)? Arizona is trying to make it illegal for teachers and professors to, among other things "advocate one side of a social, political or cultural issue that is a matter of partisan controversy." I guess I'd better get any articles I'm going to publish from my dissertation published before I get a job here, since my findings clearly support one side of some social and political issues.

Bank Of America, 501(c)3

The latest from Snopes is the true story that Bank of America will begin offering credit cards to people without social security numbers, which would include illegal immigrants. One of the hyperventilating email forwards that Snopes was responding to is rather funny:

Bank of America is now giving credit cards to Illegal Aliens without any identification! They say that they want to get more of the Hispanic population to bank with them! What the hell is happening to this country? The next thing you know Illegal Aliens will be allowed to run for President! What part of 'ILLEGAL aliens' don't they understand? And why do we have to cater to them, especially when we have 'AMERICAN CITIZENS' who are in much more need of help then they do? This is an outrage!!

Bank of America is apparently now a charitable organization, which should make its business decisions based on who needs their help more. I'm just trying to puzzle out how keeping the bar on credit cards for people without SSNs would enable the bank to help citizens more. This program is expected to turn a profit for Bank of America (or else they wouldn't do it), and every citizen has a SSN which they can use to obtain a credit card with a better rate than the no-SSN ones.

The second email Snopes cites makes a surficially rational argument, saying that enabling illegal immigrants to get credit cards makes it easier and more attractive for them to stay in the US. This argument is interesting in that it shows how deeply the anti-immigrant discourse is rooted in the Egalitarian or Communal Sharing cultural model (as described respectively by Mary Douglas and Alan Fiske). These models stress placing a strong boundary between Us and Them, and the importance of cutting off relationships (in this case, commercial ones) with Them so that They do not infiltrate and pollute Us.

The "Bank of America is a charity" email brings out the "positive" side of Egalitarianism and Communal Sharing. Anti-immigrant discourse tends to focus on the "negative" side of boundary maintenance*. But that boundary maintenance is linked to an ethic of "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need" among Us.

Heck, I might as well do a whole Cultural Theory analysis of the immigration debate. The anti-immigration position is, of course, largely Egalitarian. Nevertheless, it draws at times on Hierarchist rhetoric, stressing the centrality of the fact that illegal immigrants have broken a rule and need to be put in their place. Taken to its extreme, however, the Hierarchist position leads not to a border fence but to things like a guest worker program and a highly differentiated set of statuses between "illegal" and "citizen" (as was seen in the former German system). Hierarchists would also be especially concerned about the inefficiency and rights violations in the detention and immigrant-processing system (whereas a pure Egalitarian would tend to say "who cares how we treat Them -- They shouldn't be in this country in the first place). Individualists would be the classic libertarian open-borders crowd. But an open-borders position can also be Egalitarian, if one extends the boundaries of Us to encompass all of humanity, and then reconceptualizes immigration as one way of providing for the needs of some of our fellow global citizens. Then there are the Fatalists like myself, who doubt that immigration flows can be stopped (or increased), at least within any reasonably policymaking horizon. The Fatalist goal is then to look at the facts on the ground (e.g. "Jorge is here in the US") and mitigate or improve their impacts on people's well-being (e.g. by giving him some sort of status and rights so that he is not exploited or used as a tool to hurt citizen workers).

These emails make me feel a bit bad about my plans to cancel my Bank of America credit card -- I feel like I should write them a letter saying "this isn't about the immigrants thing, it's about the ridiculous interest rate you stuck me with."

*This is not to say that boundary maintenance is always "negative" in the sense of "morally bad." Boundary maintenance includes both xenophobia and maintaining the integrity of "safe spaces" and other autonomy/self-rule arrangements. Boundary maintenance, like any other item in the social structure building set, becomes morally good or bad depending on its impacts on the welfare of Us and Them, which is in turn largely a function of the power relations involved.


I Totally Rock!

I need to start a collection of vaguely laudatory quotes to stick in my sidebar like all the cool blogs. So far I've got:

Sebastian Holsclaw: "He's leftish but not in an obnoxious way." Also: "I think I'm like one of twenty regular readers." (I'm now averaging 40 hits a day, for the record.)

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

Scott Wells: "postings that keep me from waltzing down a dead-end of thoughtlessness," and PeaceBang: "Seriously, he uses too many grad-school words."

Philocrites: "Who knew there was such a thing?"

Prometheus 6: "Stentor Danielson HAS been blogging for a while."

Dru Blood: "that smarty-pants."


Class And Race Are Not The Same Thing

David Schraub tries to defend John Edwards against the charge that his advocacy for the poor is inconsistent with his wealth. He states, correctly, that "Human beings have a moral obligation to try and remedy unjust systems of which they are the beneficiary." But the point isn't that rich people shouldn't care about the poor, it's that people who care about the poor should not be, or should cease to be, rich.

Schraub draws an analogy to race:

As I clarified in that post, this is not saying that said beneficiaries are responsible for the unjust state of affairs. White people are, by and large, not responsible for the web of White privilege which gives them their advantage. Rich people should not be looked upon as evil because they amassed wealth.

However, I think we need to be a bit more hesitant to assimilate class issues to the identity politics paradigm that works so well with respect to race, gender, and some other oppressions. A key difference here, which bears on the tension between Edwards' wealth and professed ideology is this: white privilege can't be given up, but rich privilege can. Further, while racial justice must be achieved while retaining the full scope of racial diversity, the whole point of progressive class politics is to eliminate (or at least reduce) the class diversity, moving the very rich and the very poor toward middle-class-dom.

John Edwards had no say in being born white, and nothing he can do can do can change his whiteness. So he's an innocent beneficiary of white privilege, and can therefore without contradiction fight against it. However, wealth is not something that just happens to you -- especially in Edwards' case, as he's a "self-made man" rather than a trust fund baby. He took deliberate actions over a long period of time to earn that money, and he could easily divest himself of it.

White privilege isn't fungible -- Edwards can't take a racially-profiled traffic stop on himself to spare a black person from it. But wealth is fungible. While some degree of wealth is necessary to sustain him in his quest to combat the structural causes of poverty, it's absurd to think there's some justification for buying a second mansion:

... 28,000-square-foot estate that Edwards and his family call home ...

A main home has five bedrooms and six-and-a-half baths. It's connected by a covered walkway to a bright red addition known as "The Barn," that includes its own living facilities along with a handball court, an indoor pool and an indoor basketball court with a stage at one end. Nearby, the family has cleared space for a soccer field.

With a current building value of $4.3 million ...

Anyone so pampered that they couldn't go on without that kind of luxury deserves pity, not a job running the country. Edwards should perhaps schedule a meeting with Peter Singer to talk about other options for spending his $4.3 million dollars. There are lots of organizations out there -- with focuses all along the scale from relieving immediate suffering to activism about root causes -- that could make much better use of that money. What's stopping him from building a public YMCA for the underprivileged instead of a private one for just his own family?

Edwards may in fact do quite a bit to help the poor were he elected president (I haven't researched his proposals in any detail). His ownership of a ridiculous mansion does not prove that his commitment to the cause is totally vacuous. But it is not a morally innnocent happenstance comparable to his white privilege.


Kyoto Vs. Carbon Taxes

If you're going to knock a claimed solution to a problem, it's important to be sure that your proposed alternative actually overcomes the flaws you point out in the solution you reject. A good case study for this problem comes in a column by Anne Applebaum, who is knocking the Kyoto treaty and proposing carbon taxes instead. (Although perhaps writing a whole blog post about this column is giving it more credit than it's worth, since Applebaum makes the inexplicably ignorant claim that America needs Europe's encouragement to give up on the Kyoto Protocol.)

The first thing to note is that Kyoto and national-level carbon taxes are not mutually exclusive. Kyoto sets targets for each country, and establishes some international trading mechanisms. But each country is free to achieve its domestic carbon reductions in any way it likes -- including by implementing a carbon tax.

One of the advantages of a carbon tax, Applebaum says, is that nations can implement it on their own, without worrying about whether other nations are doing so as well. It's unclear why a country can't just as easily start working on its own Kyoto committment (or going beyond it), through whatever mechanism, without worrying about whether the treaty is in force yet. But if this is going to be one of Applebaum's points against Kyoto, she should take a closer look at the US Senate's 95-0 rejection of Kyoto, which she claims shows the political unfeasibility of Kyoto. The Senate rejected Kyoto not because it requires too much international cooperation, but because it doesn't reqiure enough international cooperation. Specifically, the Senate's issue was that Kyoto requires the first world to go it alone during the first period, imposing no emission reduction targets on developing countries like China and India.

The core of Applebaum's beef with Kyoto, however, is that it's unenforceable, complex, and prone to manipulation. And it's not just a matter of the UN's perfidy or ineptitude, since she also rejects the idea of non-carbon-tax programs within the US. One can only imagine Applebaum has never taken a look at the US tax code. Any real carbon tax system would be riddled with loopholes and special tax breaks for industries who give money to powerful legislators.

I think a carbon tax would be a useful component of climate change policy -- as long as it's made suitably progressive so that the incentive falls heavier on the people with the resources to make reductions and innovations, not on Joe Working Class who can barely afford enough gas to drive to work as it is. And I think any developed country has a responsibility to go it alone in reducing emissions even if they can't get other countries to go along. But a national-level carbon tax doesn't solve any of the flaws Applebaum sees in Kyoto.


Lovelock's Lit Review

Before you get to the substance of any argument, you typically need some eqiuvalent of the academic "lit review" -- a survey of the existing debate that allows you to position your own proposal in the context of what others have said about the issue. A poor lit review shows that -- whatever the intrinsic merits of your idea -- you have no clue who you're really arguing with. James Lovelock gives a good example (via Muck and Mystery) of a confused lit review on the question of how to deal with climate change.

Lovelock's substantive position is easy to pin down -- a technological fix centered on massive expansion of nuclear power*, plus other engineering projects like giant space mirrors to deflect sunlight. His understanding of how he relates to the rest of the environmentalist debate, however, is quite skewed.

"Our situation," Lovelock says, "is similar to that of a boat that suddenly loses engine power shortly before reaching Niagara Falls. What's the point of trying to repair the engine?" To save what it can, Lovelock believes, the world must embark on a completely different path. Most important, it must abandon the notion of "green romanticism."

"Green romanticism" may or may not be the dominaint strain of environmentalism -- but it is quite clearly not the current path of the world as a whole. All current proposals to deal with climate change that have any traction with the world's decisionmakers are far closer to (albeit more modest than) Lovelock's technocracy than to any romanticist back-to-the-land or "small is beautiful" proposal. I'm sorry, but if your preferred solution is advocated by George Bush and John Howard, you can't claim to be out of the mainstream.

Lovelock has nothing but ridicule for environmentalists' favorite issues, such as "sustainable development" and "renewable energy," calling them "well-meaning nonsense."

I found this put-down of sustainable development bizarre, because Lovelock's view of the term is exactly the opposite of the environmentalist view. To every environmentalist I've heard, "sustainable development" means the very kind of modestly-paradigm-changing, technology-based solution that Lovelock is pushing. Sustainable developers are his best allies, while anti-sustainable-development environmentalists charge that the concept provides cover for continuing the kind of high-tech capitalist managerialism that created our environmental problems in the first place.

Do-gooders, he adds, are concerned about pesticide residues in bananas and the link between mobile phones and cancer, all the while accepting CO2 poisoning as a necessary evil. "They strain out the mosquitoes while blithely swallowing camels," he says.

I challenge Lovelock to find me one environmentalist who thinks "CO2 poisoning" -- by which I assume he means the various negative effects of climate change, not that CO2 is itself becoming a significant toxin -- is a "necessary evil." He's free to say that the policies that other environmentalists advocate will not in fact solve the climate problem, or that paying attention to any other issue takes time and resources that are needed for action on climate. But only someone completely out of touch with the actual environmentalist debate could claim that anyone other than non-environmentalist apologists for the status quo (who, we should note, are also unconcerned about pesticides or mobile phones) think increasing CO2 is a "necessary evil."

* Even if I was a nuke enthusiast, I don't think I'd want Lovelock on my side -- his response to Chernobyl is not the usual "that was the Soviets' fault, and reactors are safer now," but rather "the death toll was only in the thousands, so why are you complaining?" (My opposition to nuclear power is less "radiation will kill us all," and more that nuclear power is incompatible with a restructuring and decentralization of our energy system, which I think is at least as important as changing the source of the power.)

Progressive Vs. Liberal Views Of Racism

I was a bit surprised to see that Lynn Gazis-Sax doesn't "get it" with respect to why Joe Biden's description of Barack Obama as "articulate" is problematic. But her explanation as to why she doesn't get it highlights a basic difference between progressive and liberal viewpoints. She notes that John Edwards is also often described as "articulate," then asks:

if it’s not condescending to use about a white man, why should it be condescending to use about a black man?

I should first note that I think describing Edwards as "articulate" is typically condescending -- it's generally coupled with observations about his physical attractiveness, and thereby used to imply that all he's got going for him is that he looks and sounds good on the surface, and hence that he lacks experience and substance. Quite similar to the most common line of attack on Obama, in fact.

Nevertheless, calling Obama "articulate" is more problematic than using that word about Edwards precisely because of the men's races. The liberal view of race, as expressed in Gazis-Sax's quote above, is based precisely on a refusal to allow the race factor to be taken into account. The liberal says that if we act as if race doesn't exist, racism will be taken care of. Colorblind equality of treatment -- achieved by asking "would I do this exact thing to someone of a different race? -- is the order of the day.

Progressives, on the other hand, recognize that our actions don't happen in a vacuum. Rather, our actions occur within a complex and racially-biased social structure, which filters and shapes their effects. A superficially race-neutral act can end up having strongly disparate effects on people of different races, because it pulls on a racially-biased string in the social network. What's more, pulling on such a string may well reinforce it. It is therefore irresponsible to refuse to take race into consideration, or to say that "I would treat someone of a different race this way" is always a sufficient justification for an act. (This is not to say that surficially equal treatment is always wrong -- indeed, in many cases it's exactly the right thing to do. But it must be chosen in light of the social structure it's interacting with, not on the basis of a refusal to consider that structure.)

So what does this mean in the specific context of Biden's remarks? The key point to recognize is that the word "articulate" has a racially-biased history attached to it. When used to describe a black person, it invokes a different set of ideas and stereotypes than when applied to a white person, because the web of connections in our culture is not colorblind. Therefore we must take into consideration the race of anyone we might consider describing as articulate -- both to ask what that word will communicate to hearers (and hence what effects it might have on reinforcing the inequities attached to it), and to ask why it was that a racially-tinged word was the one that popped into our heads.


Richardson's Bag May Contain Marginally Less Scum

One of my little ... I guess you'd call them anti-pet-peeves ... is that I love to learn good news (especially minor good news that wouldn't otherwise be that exciting) through blog posts fulminating about how it's horrible news. Today's example came as I was poking around to see if I could find anything to justify my vague comparatively positive feeling about Bill Richardson. I stumbled upon "Blue Dog State," who wrote a diary on Daily Kos furious that Richardson would invade his property rights by supporting animal welfare (pdf). I say good onya, Bill.

(Apropos my previous post, Richardson also categorically denies considering war as an option for dealing with Iran. I'm not sure how much stock I put in that, though, since he's self consciously built his campaign around a resume that includes being a super negotiator, so cultivating that image could easily take precedence over either honesty or trying to sound tough.)

The "Me Too" Party

Ahh, remember the good old days of October 2006, when we could pretend that the Democrats had at vaguely progressive agenda, and blame the Republicans for everything? But now reality rears its ugly head, and we have the three top contenders for the Democrat* presidential nomination itching for a war with Iran.

*Yes, I know partisan hacks get all het up about dropping the -ic. That's exactly why I'm doing it. I figure the more time they spend fulminating about grammar, the less time they have to paraphrase the Republican platform.