Surface    |    Backfill    |    About    |    Contact


"It takes so much time ... time I could be spending with my kids!"

It absolutely boggles my mind that there are people out there genuinely upset about having to press "1" for English when they call some automated line. The only way to retain my faith in humanity is to assume that they're all pro-diversity activists who are excessively subtle in their sarcasm.


Blogger weirdness

So it seems that when you draft a post in Blogger and later go back to finish it, it keeps the post in its original location rather than sticking it in as a new post. That means that frequent visitors might miss this post because it made its debut halfway down the page.

Reasons To Eat Plants

A friend of a friend is doing an online survey about attitudes toward food, particularly meat versus vegetables. At the end it gives you a rating on various reasons for preferring a plant-based diet. My scores are:

Health Effects of Meat-Eating 46%
Psychological Effects of Meat-Eating 21%
Animal Welfare Concerns 72%
Environmental Impact of Meat-Eating 79%
Aesthetic Concerns (Taste, Disgust) 66%
Concerns about Peace of Mind/Conscience 64%
Meat-Eating as a Violation of Natural Order 50%
Social Justice Concerns 68%
Cost and Convenience Issues 65%

They're all pretty high, but that's because I only picked 1 or 2 (out of 5) for a question when I thought the statement was either ridiculous or the opposite was true. So, for example, my 46% on "Health Effects" is basically a neutral position. I don't think a diet with or without meat is intrinsically healthier, since there are so many other factors at work -- so going vegan as a magic bullet for dietary health is dangerous. (I actually suspect that the optimal diet for the average person includes some meat, but there are plenty of adequately healthy omnivorous and herbivorous diets.) A similar thing can be said for meat-eating as a violation of the natural order. It seems abundantly clear to me from archaeology and anthropology that humans evolved as omnivores, and claims to the contrary are wishful romanticism. However, I don't find such "follow nature" arguments to be normatively compelling. If I can be adequately healthy without eating meat -- and it's clear that I can -- I don't care what my caveman ancestors ate.

It should be no surprise to anyone who has read this blog for a while that my top two concerns are animal rights and environmental impacts. They would probably be higher if some of the statements hadn't been phrased in fairly absolutist terms (e.g. implying that going vegetarian would save the Earth -- it's one thing that would help, but it's not the only thing).

The social justice factor suffered from a similar problem. I think there are significant social justice problems with the current meat industry, but they're more about feedlots polluting groundwater and fouling neighborhoods and presenting hazards to slaughterhouse workers, rather than the survey's focus on famine. The survey tended to be interested in a pretty simple Malthusian chain of reasoning -- if we produce X units of corn, we can either feed X/10 people, or X/10 cows who in turn will feed X/100 people. But as Amartya Sen has shown, famine is a question of political economy and whether people have access to food, not the sheer volume of food that exists.

The aesthetic concerns and cost and convenience issues relate to the disagreement I had a while back with Hugo Schwyzer -- herbivory is sort of a rut for me, so even if they were to come up with eco-friendly synthetic fair trade meat that answered all of my objections to the meat I currently have access to, I probably wouldn't start eating it. I was never tempted by the "eat only organic free-range meat" lifestyle because it just seemed like too much work to find that kind of meat.

The one I scored very low on was "psychological effects." I presume this was the Kantian type of arguments -- that eating meat is linked to violence in general. I find these arguments unpersuasive because they seem to entail a simplistic psychology and sociology that see all violence as springing from the same internal violent tendencies. (Rebutting these kind of psychological arguments is the one context in which it's relevant to mention that Hitler was a vegetarian.) I did notice something interesting, though, about the phrasing of some of the questions that I presume make up this scale -- e.g. "Eating dead animals is barbaric," "People who eat animals are more likely to behave like animals." If these statements were coming from an article or blog post, I'd have a field day with the irony of promoting vegetarianism -- which is ordinarily framed as a way of showing compassion for and non-domination of animals -- as a way of separating ourselves from the animals.

I notice the survey does not include the reason that I originally stopped eating meat -- the person I was dating at the time was a vegetarian. That may sound silly, but it's part of a larger issue of food as a form of social bonding and belonging.


Everyone Could Believe In God

One argument for the existence of God that gets little attention from critics is the argument from widespread knowledge. In a nutshell, this argument says that the fact that most people believe in God shows that God is at least an extremely probable hypothesis.

In its crude form, the argument from widespread knowledge points to the popularity of religion around the world, usually attributing this belief to an innate, God-created intuition. Anthropologically speaking, this is a weak claim (even without getting into the question of alternative explanations for why people might believe something independent of its correctness). Large portions of the world's population adhere to non-theistic religions/philosophies -- Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, etc. The crude argument from widespread knowledge is especially unfavorable to Christianity, as the idea of a single, transcendent, perfect God is not the obvious favorite -- rather, some sort of polytheism or animism featuring many imminent imperfect supernatural beings seems to be the most common outlook. Even people who nominally adhere to a monotheistic or atheistic religion often reconfigure it into a more animist or polytheist mode (just look at how many lay Christians think about angels or the saints).

Alexander Pruss puts the argument from widespread knowledge in a more philosophical form*:

Every adult who has at least average intelligence, is in at least normal epistemic circumstances (no brainwashing, for instance, and no living in a vat), and strives to figure out the Big Questions with intellectual honesty and openness to truth, practicing the intellectual virtues, putting in an amount of effort proportionate to the importance of the questions and having a firm resolve to strive to live by the truth should he find it, howsoever demanding that might be, will at some point conclude that God exists.

He spends most of his post dealing with the obvious rebuttal: the presence of thoughtful atheists. He has two major replies, both of which strike me as question-begging.

First is the claim that those atheists can be explained away as not having thought properly about the issue. Obviously they would present no challenge if they did not meet the epistemic criteria set out in the first premise. But to make this argument, you would need to actually show, in the case of any atheist presented as a falsifying case, that that person had made some identifiable error in reasoning. Or you need some general argument showing that atheism can only be arrived at through flawed reasoning. The conlcusion they reach ("there is no God") cannot by itself be evidence of flawed reasoning if you're then going to turn around and use the fact that all non-flawed reasoning concludes that God exists as an argument for God's existence. (You would additionally have to show that some significant portion of the people who conclude that God does exist are not making any errors in reasoning.)

Second, Pruss claims that maybe all those atheists actually have deathbed conversions. He has no evidence for this, other than his faith that God would do that kind of thing. So yes, if God exists, then he might induce us all eventually to believe in him (even if he, for no discernable reason, waits until the last moment so that for all anyone else knows, we die atheists). But that conditional gives no positive reason to believe that God does in fact exist and alter people's beliefs. If we need the deathbed conversions hypothesis to make the argument from widespread knowledge work, then we have to assume God's existence before we can even start the argument meant to support that claim.

Both of these considerations about atheists ultimately lead to the conclusion that Pruss's version of the argument from widespread knowledge is extraneous. That is, in order to make this argument work, you need to introduce some other argument for the existence of God. But then that other argument ends up doing all the work. We could cut to the chase and just make the other argument, without the additional assertion that anyone else who heard that argument would also come to agree with it. After all, if all those people are properly concluding that God exists, they must be doing so for some reason -- a reason that could be offered to the skeptic directly, rather than asking him or her to just trust all of those other thinkers.

The fatal flaw in the argument from widespread knowledge is its democratic nature -- that is, its claim that anyone who thought seriously about the issue would conclude that God exists. The argument from widespread knowledge is a form of the argument from authority. The argument from authority is valid if the authority whose word you're taking arrived at their belief through a process that you would agree is epsitemologically valid. The argument from authority is non-extraneous only insofar as the belief-creating process in question can be evaluated but not accessed by the person who is to accept the belief on the basis of authority. Scientific claims such as the theory of relativity are a good example of a case in which the argument from authority is useful. I can evaluate the epistemological validity of the process by which scientists derive their findings, based on my knowledge of the scientific method and of the ways that the institutions of scientific research enforce compliance with that method. However, I lack the training, eqiupment, funding, and time to personally replicate physicists' discovery process. Thus I can believe in the theory of relativity on the basis of authority. (I should note here that authority-based beliefs are always provisional, since the very esotericism of the underlying claim-validating methodology means that we can't be certain that future improvements in esoteric methodology might not lead to alterations in the authorities' beliefs.) Pruss's argument for God, on the other hand, is democratic -- it holds that anyone can personally recaptiulate the process leading to belief in God. So not only is the argument from widespread knowledge extraneous at the philosophical level due to being parasitic on other arguments (just like the argument from authority with respect to the theory of relativity is extraneous on the philosophical level due to being parasitic on the arguments presented in papers by Einstein and other physicists), it's also extraneous at the practical layperson's level.

Through all of this I've been assuming that the source of belief in God is rational arguments accessible to any serious-minded person. But Pruss's description of the deathbed conversions (as well as a common formulation of salvation by grace through belief) would hold that it's not reasons, but the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit, that causes belief in God. If this is the case, then the argument from widespread knowledge can be reformulated as an argument from authority, because only a few people with God-induced beliefs would need to be found in order to show that God does exist. However, this non-democratic version founders on the question of the epistemological validity of the ostensible authorities' beliefs. How is a person who has not been blessed by directly-God-induced belief to be certain that the authorites really were touched by the Holy Spirit? There may be a perfectly secular explanation of the source of their belief, or it may be a false belief caused by a different supernatural being (e.g. Loki decided it would be funny to make a bunch of people believe in Yahweh).

*Looking back at Pruss's post after writing this, I realize that he's making a more modest claim than I initially attributed to him -- he's rebutting the atheists' argument from divine hiddenness ("God doesn't exist because if he did, he'd make sure everybody knew it"), rather than proposing a positive argument for God's existence. Nevertheless, I think it fails as a rebuttal to divine hiddenness for the same reasons it fails as a positive argument -- to show that God is not in fact hidden, we have to show that everyone does or could come to believe in him, but to do that we have to have an independent argument for God's existence.


John Howard Is A Racist

I tend to be pretty sparing in my use of the "racist" accusation*. Most white people have a very particular narrow definition of what that word means, so using it risks sidetracking the discussion into unhelpful debates over the purity of the accused's soul. But sometimes you have to haul out the big guns.

What convinced me that Mr. Howard deserves the R-word was his recent decision to about-face from neglect to active intervention in Aboriginal affairs. A report on child abuse in Aboriginal communities has apparently convinced him (or at least provided a pretext) to try to whip his country's indigenous people into shape (via my blogless brother). Specifically, the Australian government will be imposing various conditions on welfare payments, taking control of Aboriginal land, and sending in the military -- all without asking the communities themselves how they'd like the situation handled.

The policy taken on its own would be enough to earn the "racist" label. It's a perfect storm of racism, combining "lazy welfare cheats who can't manage their own dysfunctional families" with "primitives need the white man's discipline to become upright citizens" and a dash of terra nullius.

But to make it even more galling, you have to remember that Australia was the scene of the Stolen Generations**. During the 20th century, the government forcibly interfered with Aboriginal parents in the name of protecting their children. So how would anyone with half a brain expect things to go when the 21st Century Australian government proposes to forcibly interfere with Aboriginal parents in the name of protecting their children?

Child abuse in Aboriginal communities is a problem that needs to be taken seriously. But taking child abuse seriously requires enabling Aborigines to attain cultural and economic self-determination, not indulging in macho fantasies of punitive crackdowns that force people to straighten up. (Hmm, I suppose John Howard may be a sexist as well.)

*As opposed to pointing out how certain actions have among their effects creating and/or sustaining racial injustices.

**Similar policies were implemented anywhere white people set up a country on other people's land, but Australia has made it a particularly clear political issue.


When The Military Is Good For The Environment

Most environmentalists are liberals, and hence we tend to be a bit skeptical of the military. We're unenthusiastic at best about the use of force, we're concerned about the military-industrial complex, and we know that the military has serious problems with such illiberal practices as sexism, homophobia, and religious proselytization in its ranks. So we're not surprised to hear frequent stories about the military harming the environment, too -- usually because military activities are wholly or partially exempt from environmental laws.

But in doing some background reading for my dissertation, I recently discovered a case in which the military is good for the environment. The case relates to the New Jersey Pine Barrens, an ecosystem that occupies most of the southern part of the state. The Pine Barrens are noted for being fire-adapted, and maintaining the health of the ecosystem requires periodic fires. In contemporary New Jersey, that means controlled burning, since there's too much development in the state to ever allow a wildfire to run free the way they can in, say, Alaska. But as with any fire-adapted ecosystem, all fires are not equal, and the type of fire that is optimal for the ecology is not necessarily the same as the type of fire that would best serve some other objective, such as hazard reduction.

Anika McKessey presents a contrast (pdf) between two types of Pine Barrens land: land owned by the military at Warren Grove Gunnery Range, and land owned by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. One would think that DEP would have the more eco-friendly fire policies -- it's right there in the name! However, DEP is constrained by another environmental goal -- the Clean Air Act. New Jersey is typically in non-attainment for Clean Air Act standards for, among other things, particulate matter (that is, the state's air has more particulates than the law allows). Being in non-attainment puts restrictions on the pollutant-creating activities that you can engage in -- activities like controlled burning, which produces particulate-filled smoke. DEP's interpretation of the law is that as long as the state is in non-attainment, the only kind of controlled burning that is permissible is for hazard reduction (since hazard reduction burning has a major direct safety benefit and also minimizes wildfires, which would produce even more smoke). Ecologically-focused controlled burning is not allowed. (Note, however, that the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, an environmental group that among other things advocates for increased ecological burning, disputes DEP's interpretation of the law.)

Warren Grove, on the other hand, has a longstanding ecological controlled burning program. It's not entirely clear whether the military has a formal exemption from the laws that DEP says tie its hands, or whether they just have an ethos of taking the most generous interpretation of the laws. The result is that McKessey found that the forests at Warren Grove are actually in better shape than those on neighboring State Forest land.

A Medium-Length Post With More Than Its Share Of Parenthetical And Footnoted Asides, About Arguments Against The Death Penalty

... with a bonus Schwyzerian title.

Abiola Lapite says that, contrary to the claims of anti-death-penalty campaigners, studies have shown that execution is actually pretty good at deterring crime. But he also says that death penalty opponents shouldn't be making that argument in the first place, as their real reasons for their stance are on a moral/philosophical level*. But I don't see why it's "sophistry" to choose arguments based on what you think will connect with your audience rather than what most strongly motivates you yourself, provided the arguments are all valid ones. Indeed, it shows a kind of respect, in that you're accepting that your audience has a different viewpoint and you're trying to set up some intellectual cooperation, rather than demanding that everyone else assimilate to your core values**. (Of course, there are still pragmatic reasons to be careful of using arguments that you accept intellectually but which don't motivate you. You're less able to understand the details and the larger framing, and to argue it passionately. This is why I'm skeptical of secular environmentalists trying to use "creation care" arguments. But deterrence is such a well-understood concept in our society that I don't think these pragmatic concerns carry a great deal of weight in the death penalty case.)

Lapite makes a positive mention of concerns about making sure that the death penalty is applied fairly, since it can't be undone if you make a mistake. This is, in my experience, one of the two most common arguments made by death penalty opponents. (The other is that if it's wrong for a murderer to kill someone, then it's wrong for the government to do it too. I find this very unpersuasive -- after all, any punishment involves doing something to the criminal that you would not be allowed to go out and do to an innocent person on the street. Even the most touchy-feely rehabilitative program is something that you couldn't force non-criminals to go into.) I agree that unfairness in applying the death penalty is a serious concern. But I'm often made uncomfortable by the way it's used by most death penalty opponents (not Lapite). The unfairness argument rests on facts that are not just empirically contingent (as the deterrence argument does), but on ones that are historically/institutionally contingent. We're unlikely to make major changes in how much of a deterrent the death penalty is***, since that's a matter of human decisionmaking psychology. But the fairness of applying the death penalty is clearly within our control, through various reforms of the criminal justice process. So while the unfairness argument should certainly lead us to consider an Illinois-style temporary moratorium while the worst abuses get sorted out, it cannot support a permanent ban. Moreover, using the unfairness of the system as a reason to eliminate the death penalty is a blinkered vision in which the argument's utility for the anti-capital-punishment cause is prioritized over its real force. The real force of the fairness argument is toward reforming a system that is unfair to everyone it gets hold of, not just those accused of capital crimes. Ending the death penalty would be just a band-aid over one of the worst effects of the unfair system (and a counterproductive one at that, if Lapite is right about the strong deterrent effect of capital punishment).

In summary, the deterrence argument is a valid and useful argument for eliminating the death penalty (assuming the empirical evidence it's based on holds up). The fairness argument is a weaker argument with respect to the death penalty issue because its real force should point us in the direction of a broader justice system reform.

* Most of them, anyway -- I personally place a great deal of weight on the deterrence question, so I am willing to reconsider my stance in light of new evidence. I remain a bit skeptical of the studies that Lapite cites, however, because in the news report he links to they cite some very exact numbers as to how many homicides are prevented by each execution. That kind of specificity in social science is often an indicator that various factors have either been assumed away or filled in with unreasonably precise guesses (though of course it's possible that these assumptions bias the findings against the effectiveness of the death penalty). My preexisting judgment that the evidence did not support the death penalty came from watching a debate in college between two professors, where the anti-death-penalty professor clearly had stronger evidence, and in fact the pro-death-penalty professor much preferred to focus on non-deterrence arguments such as the intrinsic desirability of revenge and making bad people suffer.

**"Seeking an overlapping consensus," for any Rawlsians in my audience.

***Though trust in the criminal justice institutions -- which is in turn affected by their fairness -- may make some difference as it encourages people to view punishments as following from the criminal's wrongdoing rather than from the punisher's ill will.


Ecofeminism in Action

One of the central ideas in ecofeminism is the way that a dualism of Culture/Nature is constructed in our culture, and then projected onto all kinds of other forms of difference, so that women, people of color, etc. are seen as less valuable and in need of control by the white male Culture pole.

There's a great example of this kind of nature dualism in this post where Rachel S. collects commenters' responses to photos of Maggie Gyllenhaal (who's apparently a celebrity of some sort) breastfeeding. The commenters describe Gyllenhaal as an "animal," "Africa[n]," and a "peasant" -- a trifecta of species, race, and class discrimination applied to reinforce a demand that a woman comply with the ideal of the body-free masculine-style self. The commenters resent having an admittedly "natural" activity popping up in the public sphere without being properly Culture-regulated -- at least by a towel over the baby and breast, but better by keeping breastfeeding hidden away where non-breastfeeding-mothers don't have to think about it. And it's not just her behavior, but even Gyllenhaal's body is brought into it, as her breasts are deemed too "sagging" and ugly to be fit for public viewing (especially since she's a celebrity).

I find it amusingly ironic that people are hauling out the "eww, keep that in private" reaction to pictures taken by papparazzi -- people whose job is to pry into, and publicize, the affairs of others, and whose activities are supported by the audience of people who read celebrity publications like the blog where the photos were posted.


Egalitarian Environmentalism

Kevin Drum says that the theme that ties together all of the liberal issues (particularly social liberalism and economic liberalism) is egalitarianism. All of them, that is, except for environmentalism:

Environmentalism, for example, is something that I suspect everyone naturally supports unless they have some reason not to, and the main reason not to is that it interferes with business interests. So opposition to environmentalism comes mostly from conservative, pro-business parties, while everyone else supports it. It has nothing much to do with egalitarianism.

But in fact environmentalism has a lot to do with egalitarianism (and with intra-human egalitarianism, not just giving equal rights to nature versus dominating it). In very crude historical terms, there was an initial wave of anti-egalitarian environmentalism followed by a pro-egalitarian wave.

Anti-egalitarian environmentalism is the conservation movement of the late 18th and early 19th century, the domain of Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and John Muir. To such men, environmentalism was associated with class privilege (preserving nature for the hunting and other recreational pursuits of the gentry and as a resource base for future industry), race privilege (getting rid of those filthy Indians who mess up our pure wilderness), and male privilege (wilderness pursuits as a school of tough manly virtue, a la the Boy Scouts). Indeed, there was significant crossover between supporters of early environmentalism and anti-egalitarian causes like eugenics (Hitler was, after all, a vegetarian and a conservationist). This anti-egalitarian strain explains the initial hostility of the socialist left (the infamous "red-green" battles). It wasn't just (as a common green view similar to Drum's holds) that socialists were aiming at an industrial communism that would be equally threatened as private enterprise by environmental protection.

The second wave of environmentalism -- which came to prominence as "environmentalism" in the 1970s, though it has a much longer history -- started down a more egalitarian path. Pollution issues disproportionately impact oppressed people. Increased respect for other cultures brought with it a valuing of their comparatively more sustainable lifestyles. On the far left, recognition of the destruction caused by capitalist development programs began to note the environmental factor, as third world peoples' livelihoods are undercut by degradation and loss of resource access. Rhetoric of "exploitation," "rape," and "dominance" convey the egalitarian thinking in modern environmentalism. Indeed, even the environmentalist conservatives of today -- notably "sportsmen" (hunters and anglers) and "creation care" evangelical Christians -- generally hold a comparatively egalitarian/populist outlook (today's hunters focus on preserving access to wildlands for the people against the depredations of big government and big business, and the new wave of evangelicals are more concerned about poverty and less concerned about homosexuality than their forebears).

This is not to say that egalitarianism is a complete explanation for environmentalism (or any other social movement), or that modern environmentalism is fully egalitarian (the environmental justice movement still has complaints against the big green players). But it does challenge the view proposed by Drum (and by a number of green theorists) that environmentalism is unique from other political issues.


Salex Tax Redux

In the comments to my previous post, Joel Monka brought up another argument for a national sales tax that's worth commenting on because it's structurally similar to my rebuttal to the "reduces complexity and bureaucracy" argument. Monka says that the sales tax will reduce under-the-table payments:

There is a huge underground economy that does not pay income tax- services, from nursing to yardwork, drug dealers,etc.- every time you've ever been asked to pay cash it was probably because it wasn't being reported; none of these people pay income tax. But they all buy things, which means they all pay sales tax.

In my previous post, I said that it doesn't matter where in the economic cycle you withdraw your tax, politicians will still load it down with complexity. Similarly, I would argue that it doesn't matter where in the economic cycle you withdraw your tax, people will still be motivated to create a black market to evade paying the tax. A 23% tax is pretty good motivation to look for someone willing to sell it to you on the sly.

The examples Monka gives of under-the-table income -- yardwork and drug dealers -- are particularly bad ones, because they're not likely to change under a sales tax system. In both cases, the same transaction is being taxed under either system, it's just redescribed from "income for the yardworker/dealer" to "sale of yardwork services/drugs." I don't see why changing the description would change people's motivation to report the transaction and pay a tax on it. This is particularly true for drug dealing, which is illegal independent of the taxes paid on it. People engaging in a drug deal are highly unlikely to want to advertise that fact to the government.


Sales Tax Bureaucracy

I think there are a lot of things wrong with the idea of exchanging our income and payroll taxes for a national sales tax being floated by a number of people, most notably presidential candidate Mike Gravel. The most important one is that it's regressive* (albeit with an artificially introduced kink at the bottom through a rebate system). But the one I want to talk about now is the vacuousness of its claim to reduce bureaucracy.

A key selling point of the national sales tax is that it would free us from the gargantuan bureaucracy of the IRS. No more filing tax forms with complicated schedules and deductions, and having some percentage of your money go to pay accountants to process them. The problem is, the tax bureaucracy is a function of having a tax system, not of the point in the economy at which the taxes are extracted.

The income tax is extremely simple in concept as well. You take in X dollars over the course of the year, so you pay Y percentage of that to the government. (And it is that simple in practice for those of us who just earn a wage and take the standard deduction -- most of my federal tax-filing time is spent clicking the "does not apply" buttons in H&R Block's online filing system.) The complications come as politicians add various conditions and hitches for different types of income and different types of taxpayers. Over the course of 94 years, our tax system has accumulated a lot of cruft.

So the national sales tax will start out simpler and less bureaucracy-ridden simply because it's new. But slowly and surely, conditions will be added. At the link above, Steven Puma already proposes lifting the tax on "used" items (whatever the legal definition of that winds up being -- the used versus new distinction is not self-evident), production inputs (ditto for needing a complex definition) and education expenses. The experience of states -- who have been charging sales taxes for many years -- shows some of the ways a sales tax can be made more complex. Many states exempt food and clothing from their sales taxes. And of course gas, cigarette, and hotel taxes are essentially extra sales taxes on certain items. And in addition to varying the tax rate on certain items (either as a favor to their producers/users or to encourage/discourage consumption), there's the option of varying the tax rate for different producers or buyers. For example, nonprofit organizations are often exempt from sales taxes. Then there's the question of how to handle the rebate that sales tax proponents rely on to round off the worst edges of the system's regressiveness. Just sending the rebate will require a substantial bureaucracy (and use of paper), and a check being sent to every citizen every month is a prime target for politicians to add various complexities with respect to the size and eligibility requirements. All of this complexity creates the need for more burdensome reporting and bureaucratic processing and enforcement.

Sales tax advocates may not support these additions and conditions. But the point is that in the political process they will happen. Just getting a sales tax bill through Congress will doubtless require the first load of porkish conditions and complexities. Charging the tax at the point of purchase rather than the paycheck is no proof against tax system complexity.

We should certainly simplify our tax system. But that can be accomplished within the income tax paradigm just as easily as by switching to a sales tax that has many other flaws.

*Sales tax advocates like to point out that the Social Security payroll tax is regressive too -- but the simplest way to fix that is to roll it into the progressive income tax.


Just File A Complaint

The latest coverage of the troubled relationship between Casa Grande's police and black community opens with a bit of bureaucratic blindness:

The board is hampered in its progress because most of the complaints - some presented calmly, others to the point of screaming - have not been filed with the Police Department and then investigated, giving both sides of the picture.

As board member Jim Rhodes told those attending the May 10 meeting at Len Colla Recreation Center, "It looks like we have an issue, a problem, from the eloquent statements that have been made, but it looks like there's a breakdown in getting those in writing so they can be considered.

"One of the problems that we run into is that you've all done a great job of talking tonight, but when we leave I don't have your words to take with me to look at."

Some of those speaking to the board that night were asked if they had filed complaints against officers. Their reasons for not doing so ranged from not knowing the process to not knowing how to put it down on paper to "this happened in December, but I have still not filed a complaint out of fear of retaliation from the department; I don't trust the Police Department, that's why I'm here tonight."

This is a common refrain any time an agency encounters an unhappy public. Bureaucratic organizations all have formal procedures for registering complaints. So what's the problem with using them? Essentially, that complaint procedures are set up for the convenience of the bureaucracy. They serve to transform issues in the outside world into a form that can be processed internally in a way that does not threaten the agency's organization.

For example, the written complaint process deals with discrete incidents. Complaints take the form "on X day at Y place, Z member of the agency did such-and-such." The agency can then collect evidence about the given incident and see if it's clear that Z did something substantially contrary to some relevant guideline. Then the file can be stamped "closed."

But the concerns people have do not always take a form that can be easily reduced to complaints about discrete incidents -- and even when they can be, such translation empties the concerns of much of the force they have when experienced and understood as part of a larger pattern. Questions of distrust and disrespect can't be broken down into policy violations, and so bureaucratic organizations tend to be blind to them.

Police Chief Bob Huddleston doesn't seem to grasp the problem. We first encounter him in the article telling a woman concerned about DNA testing of suspects that proper procedures have been followed and that supporting documentation can be produced upon proper request. Later he lists the formal appeals steps that a questioner could take if they disagree with the police's violent arrest of a man charged with posession of narcotics.

In an accompanying article, members of the Police Advisory Board (which is presumably much less bureaucratically structured than the police department) take a much more productive stance. Rather than Huddleston's attitude of "come meet us on our turf and speak our language," the board members seem to recognize the need to take the black community's concerns seriously on their own terms, and to proactively seek resolution of them rather than waiting for them to be translated into bureaucracy-appropriate forms.


Two Questions About the Nature of Marriage

Jonathan Rauch's rebuttal of a new book by David Blankenhorn opposing same-sex marriage opens with a conflation of two questions about the nature of marriage. Rauch writes (my italics):

By marriage, I mean not just a commitment that two people make to each other. Marriage is a commitment that the two spouses also make to their community. They promise to look after each other and their children so society won’t have to; in exchange, society deems them a family and provides an assortment of privileges, obligations, and caregiving tools. (Not, mostly, "benefits.") Marriage does much more than ratify relationships, I would tell audiences; it fortifies relationships by embedding them in a dense web of social expectations. That is why marriage, with or without children, is a win-win deal, strengthening individuals, families, and communities all at the same time. Gay marriage, I said, would be the same positive-sum transaction. The example gay couples set by marrying instead of shacking up might even strengthen marriage itself.

Audiences received my gay-marriage pitch in predictably varied ways. What consistently surprised me, however, was how few people thought of marriage as anything more than a private contract. Particularly among groups of younger people, the standard view was that marriage is just an individual lifestyle choice. If chosen, great. If not chosen, great. I would leave such encounters with a troubling thought: Perhaps straights were becoming receptive to gay marriage partly because they had devalued marriage itself.

There are really two differences between Rauch's view of marriage and those of the younger people he mentions. Because I agree with Rauch on one point and with the younger people on the other, Rauch's conflation of the two jumped out at me.

Rauch first asserts the social nature of marriage, and I agree with this point. Marriage is not just a private agreement between two people, it's an institution to which society is a party as well. Married people take on certain responsibilities for each other (and for each other's wider relationships and affairs) and recieve support from society in doing so. I'm skeptical of the ability of people living in long-term romantic relationships to maintain an adherence to the parameters of a purely private arrangement without sliding into a form of unofficial social-marriage. (Which is not to say that such individuals necessarily ought to get formally married.) Thus I would side with Rauch in finding the "get government out of the marriage business" argument unsatisfactory.

But in the passage I italicized, Rauch opposes the social conception of marriage to the idea of marriage as just one among many legitimate lifestyles. I would argue, however, that the social-private question and the one-many lifestyles question are analytically separate. It is quite possible to hold -- and I do hold -- that marriage is a social institution, but it's also a social institution that isn't for everyone. Social-marriage is a way of recognizing and formalizing a supportive environment for people who structure their lives around forming a household with a romantic partner, with the particular vulnerabilities and responsibilities that such an arrangement entails. It in no way follows from this that forming a household with a romantic partner is a privileged lifestyle. People may choose a different lifestyle, and -- if that lifestyle is not intrinsically unacceptable -- society ought to examine analogous ways of providing a supportive structure for it.

The young people that Rauch cites likely see a connection between private-marriage and lifestyle pluralism. I would hypothesize (contrary to the last line of Rauch's quote) that the connection begins with a recognition of lifestyle pluralism. The commitment to private-marriage follows not as a logical entailment but as a defensive strategy. Contractualism has a strong resonance in our society, particularly since it seems to impose less on others ("just leave me alone to do things my own way"). And the combination of contractualism with privileging a single lifestyle, while logically possible, is implausible and hence highly unstable. Thus adherence to private-marriage constitutes an outer defense line against threats to lifestyle pluralism.


Square States

Strange Maps points out an interesting 1838 map proposing to cut Australia up into 10 equal-area states. The map is entertaining as a change from the actual six states and two territories, particularly given some of the naming choices -- southern WA is named "Victoria" (modern Victoria is merged with southern NSW into "Guelphia"), while the Kimberlies and Kakadu become "Tasmania" (the island now using that name retains its 1838 designation of "Van Diemen's Land").

But the map is also a nice commentary on 19th-century European attitudes toward nature. Newly "discovered" lands like Australia were seen as blank slates, whose settlement could be rationalized and organized into mathematically and administratively pleasing forms without regard for nature or history. Just a couple years prior to the drawing of this map, the colony of South Australia had been established based on a plan for systematic, intensive (Europe-style) agricultural settlement. This was also the era of the US's Northwest Ordinance, which established the system of chopping the land into square blocks and allocating them for sale to settlers or other uses based purely on the surveyor's geometry.

To those of us in the 21st century, the divisions in the 10-state map look absurd -- Dampieria (northern WA) and Nuytsland (Nullarbor plain) would have almost no population, while Sydney and Melbourne would both be in Guelphia. One may perhaps excuse the mapmaker because of the great ignorance that prevailed among Europeans about Australia's interior. Melbourne had only just been founded. Few explorers had ventured beyond the comparatively well-watered southeast and southwest corners of the continent, and it would be many years before hope of finding a great inland sea or mighty river would be given up. The favorability of Australia's climate (in terms of both rain and bushfire) was consistently either overestimated or assumed to be improvable by good farming practices (it was believed that "rain follows the plow," and crops would squeeze out more flammable vegetation). Yet this ignorance just highlights the hubris of the European view. It didn't matter to them what the real characteristics of the country were, because the best form of settlement could be determined a priori. (I don't know anything about the author of the ten-state map, but Edward Gibbon Wakefield had never even set foot in Australia when he created the plan for settling South Australia.)

From Aristotle to Rousseau via Wilderness

Philosophers' arguments for the preservation of nature often turn on the Aristotelian distinction between natural objects and artifacts. Wilderness is more valuable than human-altered landscapes because it exists on its own terms, whereas the meaning of an artifact is imposed on it by humans. Some proponents of this line of thinking go so far as to say that domesticated animals are so shaped by humans that they're of no more worth than a hammer or paper cutter.

There are various problems with this school of argument. The most commonly noted is its use of a human-nature dualism, in which nature is a holistic system and (non-Noble-Savage) humans are inevitably exogenous interferers who can only damage (never sustain, improve, or productively provoke) the course of nature. Less often noted is the flawed analysis of artefacts that the argument depends on. On the one hand, artifact-making is a process of alteration, not creatio ex nihilo, so any artefact is a product both of its human* creator but also of the cooperation and resistance of the chunk of nature that the creator took as his or her material -- after all, there's a reason we bred dogs from wolves, not from fish. Further, there is no reason to think that the creator's purposes bind anyone else's evaluation or the object. I think that existentialism is correct in holding that objective essences can only be self-defined (note that this would not rule out "autopoietic" defenses of nature preservation, in which natural entities, like human individuals, are self-defining systems -- though I disagree with autopoietic arguments on other grounds).

Also problematic is the anti-artifact perservationist view of human-to-human relationships. Preservationists of this stripe, who clearly count humans as non-artefacts, seem to be committed to taking one or the other sociologically indefensible extreme on the spectrum of liberal to communitarian views of humanity. At the communitarian pole, "humanity" can be concieved of as a single entity with shared will and purposes. At the liberal pole, each individual is a presocial atom that can be in conflict with others over the use of nature but whose essence is independent of interactions with others. Either of these positions would deny the ability of humans to be artifacts -- for communitarians because the only possible purposeful shaping of humanity would be self-shaping (since humanity is the only shaper), and for liberals because individuals cannot be shaped by anything.

But of course neither of those extreme poles is realistic. Humans are shaped by other humans, both physically and mentally. This shaping is an inevitable consequence of growing up and living socially, not just a process that occurs in cases of oppression. Human beings are, on the preservationist argument at issue, just as artifactual as humanized landscapes. Thus holding to the Aristotelian analysis of artefacts seems to imply a need to return to a Rousseauian state of nature. In Rousseau's original state of nature (unlike Hobbes' more famous vision), humans are spread thinly enough over the land that they never interfere with one another (much less with nature), living lives that are solitary and hence free of shaping by others. Or we might be led the other way to Rousseau's ultra-communitarian ideal for a society too large to remain in a state of nature: a republic guided by the "will of all" that harmonizes people and hence makes all shaping of humans into collective self-shaping.

*Or in a few cases, animal.


Recognizing The Limits Of Your Cultural Appropriation

Kevin's recent post on the ethics of cultural appropriation reminded me that I've had a post on the subject kicking around in my head for a while that I ought to get written down. The lefist position holds that cultural borrowing is OK as long as it's respectful of the originating culture. This respect means not damaging the originating culture through your appropriation, and acknowledging the authority of the originators. As Kevin puts it:

You can be white and into Hip Hop, but if you don’t know about the Last Poets or Kool Herc, if mentioning the Zulu Nation leaves you with a blank stare, I’m questioning you. Dressing a certain way and talking like you’re a so-called gangsta or whatever you imagine Black folks talk like means nothing.

While I agree with this view, I can't help feeling it's a bit one-sided. The one-sidedness may come from the paradigm (and most harmful) case of cultural appropriation being the white kid who's "really into" a certain other culture and imagines that donning a bowldlerized version of the superficial trappings of it makes him cool. By "questioning" a person like that, Kevin would expose his shallowness and point him in the direction of achieving his stated goal (partaking of whatever culture) in a more appropriate way.

This standard leftist response basically says "if you want to be into this culture, you have to be really authentically into it." I'm made a bit uncomfortable by the all-or-nothing implications that this outlook could take on, and the sense in some statements of the leftist position (albeit not Kevin's) that all of the parts of a culture are inseparably welded together such that they can only be partaken of in their original authentic context.

So let's take the example of the white hip hop fan in a different direction. I don't usually listen to hip hop, but I may someday happen to stumble across a hip hop song that for whatever reason does it for me. Since I'm not into hip hop, I would not be willing to expend the time and effort to listen to all of the important artists and learn all of the history so as to have the full context in which to place the one song. But with only the perspective in Kevin's quote above, that seems to be my choice -- get totally and authentically into hip hop, or stick strictly to indie rock*.

The "other side" to respectful cultural appropriation, it seems to me, would be cultural appropriation that acknowledges its limits. I can like that one song, buy the album, and listen to it over and over. But I have to be clear, with myself and others, the shallow level at which I've done the appropriation. I can't claim to be a "hip hop fan," or that liking that song is a bulwark against racism, or that I'm somehow closer to people who are genuinely part of the culture that song comes from. I have to accept that there are levels of appreciation of the song that are closed to me as long as I'm unwilling to get deeper into hip hop. In short, I can be inauthentic as long as I know how inauthentic I am and I present that inauthenticity honestly to others.

As someone who's in no position to be a victim of inappropriate cultural appropriation, I may be off base -- maybe there isn't any way to pull off this other side of the coin in a way that's truly respectful of the source culture. But I self-interestedly hope there is, if only to excuse me for creating Koftas Salvadoreñas (which I sometimes tell myself is actually the whitest dish in my reportoire, because it's made via the traditional white techniques of crudely imitating the superficially interesting aspects of other cultures and throwing it all together in a bland mix).

* I don't actually know much about the history and full scope of indie rock either, but I've arguably imbibed all of the relevant cultural orientations just by being a middle class white person.


Voting Rights For Felons

It seems that the ACLU is suing Arizona because the state's felon disenfranchisement laws are excessively strict, impacting not just "common law" felons like murderers and rapists, but also "raar we get tough on crime" felons like nonviolent drug offenders and people who fail to pay court fees.

The responses to this development by commenters on the AZ Republic's site fall into three categories (all negative, of course):

1. Oh noes teh illegal immigants!!one! This doesn't actually have anything to do with felon disenfranchisement, but there's some sort of rule that every comment thread on the Republic's site -- whether the story be about Iraq, light rail, or Paris Hilton -- be 50% rants about immigration.

2. They knew they were losing the right to vote when they committed their crime. The problem with this response is that it proves too much. Any punishment could be justified this way, and thus we're left without any standards by which we can argue for or against a sentencing law. Death penalty for a parking violation? Sorry buddy, you knew that was the punishment when you decided not to move your car on street-sweeping day. At most, this principle might be applied to block judicial review -- there may be reasons why a punishment is more or less suited to a particular crime, but the court's job is not to question those policy judgments. However, commenters using this argument are not intending a procedural argument about the scope of the court's power independent of their policy preferences, but rather they clearly intend it as a substantive justification of the policy.

3. What if we let child molesters vote and they vote for legalizing pedophilia? Technically this argument is inapplicable to the ACLU's suit, which recognizes that serious felonies like child molestation may constitutionally be grounds for taking away the right to vote. Presumably these people are not deathly afraid of enabling a huge court-fees-reduction voting bloc. But it's legitimate to talk about the larger policy question (like I did in the previous paragraph!), on which many of us favor re-enfranchising all felons, so we should look at why this argument is wrong on the merits. It basically boils down to a position that people shouldn't be allowed to vote if we think there's a good chance they'll vote for the wrong thing. In this sense it's similar to conservative proposals for taking the vote away from DC residents or people on welfare because they'd have an incentive to vote for bigger government.

There is some room in designing a democratic system for procedurally promoting competence and the "right results," for example through mechanisms that promote deliberation, disenfranchising young children, and constitutional principles (like those the ACLU is appealing to) that are harder to change or overrule than ordinary laws. However, it is contradictory to the idea of democracy to prejudge the outcomes by disenfranchising people because they will vote the wrong way. If we're going to limit the voting public like that, why have voting in the first place?

The right to vote is not rooted in the likelihood that you'll tick the right box. It's rooted in the moral right to have a say in the conditions and circumstances that affect your own life, which is in turn rooted in respect for you as a distinct sentient being. Your sentience is not compromised by committing a crime or having wrong preferences, so neither should your right to vote.



Is there anybody in this country who actually has a consistent position on federalism? I had no sooner finished reading this Scott Lemiuex post making the usual points about most conservatives' hypocrisy in citing federalism as a reason to oppose civil rights laws, when I came upon JMG at Grist calling the federal government "totalitarian" for wanting to override state and local GMO bans. Maybe we need to just admit that we all basically care about substantive policy outcomes, and so it's fine for the feds to take charge if and only if they're doing so in the service of substantively good policies. It doesn't sound very noble, but at least it's true.


Listening To The Oppressed

Three things I've seen in the blogosphere recently have touched on the issue of listening to the oppressed. First there's the dust-up among UU bloggers ostensibly* over whether one seminary was right to change the title of a seminar from "brown bag lunch" to "lunchtime conversation" over concerns that it would be offensive to black people due to associations with the "brown bag test" once used to distinguish between light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks. I haven't read every post and comment written on the issue, but I did notice a conspicuous absence of anyone saying "hi, I'm black, and I (am/am not) bothered when a talk bills itself as a 'brown bag lunch'." It seems like that would be essential input -- or else it's just white people (and at least one person who's neither white nor black) speculating on what "those other people" do or do not find hurtful. And it contrasts unfavorably with the race debates in the feminist blogosphere, where you get lots of women of color offering their experiences (though the white women often fail to fully grapple with them).

The second thing that I've recently read on this topic is a good post by David Schraub on the complexities of listening to the oppressed. He raises two important issues that complicate the simple (albeit rhetorically very useful) demand to shut up and believe the oppressed. On the one hand, the members of a given oppressed group do not all tell consistent stories (nor can all but one of those stories be dismissed as obvious false consciousness). On the other hand, it's not always self-evident who the oppressed are (even straight white men sometimes tell sincere stories of feeling oppressed), meaning we need a way of listening that's critical without unfairly invalidating people.

The third thing that inspired this post was a post by tekanji that quoted the following comment by Yonmei about gay men objecting to how women write slash:

If you find it comfortable to play in the slash sandbox, as is, I don’t think you’ll find any female slash fans telling you you can’t. If what you want to read is slash, no one can stop you. If what you want to write is slash, slash fans will want to read it. If you want to join in metadiscussions about slash, this is also possible - so long as you do so as a slash fan, and not as a gay man arguing that you know how gay men experience the world, and this or that in a slash story isn’t it. Because then you are not trying to join in metadiscussions as just another slash fan: you are trying to distort metadiscussions about slash with male privilege.

If I actually knew what I was talking about with respect to anti-oppression issues, I'd know the term for this phenomenon, but as it is I think of it as "non-Pareto oppression." The classic examples of oppression dynamics are "Pareto** oppression" -- cases in which one person is indisputably the oppressed because they suffer from every form of oppression suffered by the oppressor plus at least one more. Non-Pareto oppression is when each party suffers from a type of oppression that the other does not. Black men versus white women is the classic example, of course. (I should acknowledge that it's a bit tricky for me to pontifficate about how to deal with non-Pareto oppression since, as a person who falls on the privileged side of any concievable non-trivial line, I can only be a party to Pareto oppression.)

My discussion here is not about who is right in the example of gay men versus slash-writing straight women. I know next to nothing about slash*** and even less about what's apparently an ongoing debate. My point is about how tricky non-Pareto oppression is and how it disturbs our easy paradigms based on Pareto examples.

The temptation with non-Pareto oppression is to reduce it to Pareto oppression. The presentation of Yonmei's quote in tekanji's post seems to do that -- since the parties are respectively men and women, the issue is treated as a man trying to use his male privilege to take control of a women-dominated space. But what struck me is how easily it could be reframed in a way that reverses the lines of privilege, since the parties are just as obviously homosexual and heterosexual, respectively. So it's easy for me to imagine seeing this from the gay man's perspective, from where it appears to be a case of some straight people exercising their privilege to define what gay sexuality is all about and appropriate it for their own entertainment.

The trick in dealing with non-Pareto oppression, then, is to ensure that you're not using your privilege on one axis to defend yourself against oppression on another. Even trickier is to ensure that your feeling of oppression on a legitimate axis of oppression is not inflated as an excuse to excercise your privilege against your ostensible oppressors. Tekanji and Yonmei clearly believe that gay slash-critics are doing that, using resistance to homophobia as an excuse to wield their male privilege against women. And perhaps the women have done just the kind of honest privilege-checking that I've described in order to come to that conclusion, rather than letting their straight privilege blind them to the harmful ways their stories deal with gay sexuality. My point is just that the way they confidently asserted that gender, not sexuality, is the important axis in what is clearly a case of non-Pareto oppression stimulated a clarification of my thoughts on the issue.

* I say "ostensibly" because the debate is also about the larger principle of when something is over-PC hypersensitivity to motes in people's eyes, and when it's genuine anti-oppression work that challenges comfortable assumptions. And there's also preexisting views of the seminary in question, which is widely viewed as representing one side or the other of that larger principle.

** The term comes from the Pareto principle, which says that a course of action is undeniably better than another if it makes at least one person better off and nobody worse off.

***Not because of any hostility to it -- it's just not my thing, as I enjoy worldbuilding from scratch.


I'm amused that my previous post on abortion -- a topic I normally make efforts to avoid posting on -- seems to have gotten more attention than anything else I've ever written. I guess now I know what to do if I ever decide I'm not satisfied with having 20 readers a day.