Surface    |    Backfill    |    About    |    Contact


Privatize the liquor stores

My political positions run pretty far to the left. I favor fairly extensive government intervention in the market -- things like strong environmental regulations, extensive public transit, single-payer health care, and public higher education. Nevertheless, I am something of a classical liberal at heart, in that I believe in a principle of limited government that says that the presumption should be in favor of activities being handled by the private sector. Government should step in only when 1) an activity is a vital social need, and 2) there is a significant market failure in providing it. My disagreement with libertarians is in that sense more an empirical question of how often those questions apply than a question of pro- vs anti-government principle.

This is made clear by my position on the privatization of alcohol sales in Pennsylvania. The state legislature is currently considering bills to reduce the state's near-monopoly on intoxicating beverages. I think that doing so is a great idea.

Alcohol sales fail the first of my two prongs of the government intervention test. While getting medical treatment or being educated are vital social needs that all citizens should have access to, getting drunk simply is not. Drinking is a hobby. On that ground alone, I would dismiss the need for state-run alcohol sales.

But Pennsylvania's alcohol sales fail the second prong as well. There is no massive market failure in the case of alcohol. There is no problem of externalities, perverse incentives, or grossly unequal access in the way that there is for purely private provision of the other things I want government to provide. Many other states (such as my old home of Arizona) have far more liberal alcohol sales systems than Pennsylvania, and people there get drunk just fine.

Opponents of privatization have complained that privatization would reduce selection and raise prices. These, I think, are actually arguments for privatization. If state-run stores have lower prices and better selection than private ones would, this means that the state is subsidizing drinking. This would be a concern only if cheap access to the full range of liquors were a vital social good (as is the case, say, for cheap access to the full range of medical treatments). People are not entitled to have any recreational product they like at any price they like.

Another concern is the potential loss of unionized liquor store jobs. Here I would simply point out that there is no reason why a private liquor store workforce couldn't unionize (and they should!). There are many ways for the state to encourage the creation of good jobs, but running a business as a make-work program seems like a decidedly inefficient way to go about it. (Note that the case for saving my own job as a unionized public university employee is importantly different. Education is an important social good, unlike alcohol. And the private sector is unlikely to provide decent quality education to all students who need it at a price they can afford, unlike alcohol.)

I see no more reason for the state of Pennsylvania to hold a monopoly on alcohol sales than I do for it to take over guitar manufacturing or movie theaters. Privatize it, and let the government handle the real social needs.

Why religious exemptions?

The Catholic church has recently been making strong cases for exemptions from US laws on the grounds of religious freedom. I say "cases" because there are at least two distinct logics being employed to claim religious exemptions in different scenarios.

The most famous issue on which the Catholic church claims an exemption is the law requiring health insurance to provide birth control coverage. The logic used here is the classic "conscience" logic. To put it in utilitarian terms, being forced to do something that you believe is deeply wrong is harmful to a person, and may be more harmful than the consequences of allowing the person to avoid the requirement. The suffering of a Quaker forced to join the army is greater than the harm to national security of one less set of boots on the ground, and so we grant them conscientious objector status. Conscience logic is fundamentally secular, as it's a function purely of the depth and sincerity of one's belief, regardless of the correctness of those beliefs (though in practice religious consciences are more likely to succeed in their claims).

The explicit argument in the birth control case is conscience-based. The church argues that covering birth control for its employees* would be a grave violation of the Catholic conscience. After all, opposition to non-procreative sex is the central pillar of modern Christianity. The debate is then about whether the harm of allowing that exception (reducing access to birth control) is great enough to outweigh this harm to conscience.

The logic employed in Duquesne University's objection to unionization of its adjuncts is quite different. Duquesne claims that as a Catholic institution, it is exempt from National Labor Relations Board rules requiring it to recognize the adjunct union. This case cannot be covered by the conscience logic. Allowing adjuncts to unionize does not violate a fundamental Catholic principle -- not only does unionization have little to do with sex, but the Catholic church has staked out an official position explicitly in favor of unionization. Instead, we can call this a "separate spheres" logic. Here, the claim is that the Catholic church constitutes a distinct institution that should have broad discretion to run its own affairs. Unlike in conscience cases, the church would not have to prove the validity of its policies to the secular government, any more than Pennsylvania has to justify its own internal laws to New York.

Separate spheres is, however, a logic that requires state consideration of the validity of religion. The government has to decide which institutions deserve to have separate spheres apart from the general law. These separate spheres need not be religious -- similar separate spheres are granted to Native American tribes, for example. But if an institution wants a separate sphere, it must justify that, a justification that for the Catholic Church would have to be religious in nature.

The separate spheres logic is not unique to the Duquesne adjunct case -- the church has used it, for example, in trying to shelter priests accused of molestation or molestation-enabling. And it has the capacity to subsume conscience cases, for example by arguing that as a separate sphere, the church is free to make its own decisions about health insurance coverage on any grounds it pleases.

*Wording adjusted from original version


Romney will win

Just for fun, here's my prediction for the 2012 US Presidential election. I'm expecting a 295-243 Romney win. Depending on the timing and severity of Europe's economic implosion, I could also see Romney taking Pennsylvania, Michigan, Oregon, and/or Nevada. On the other hand, the only state I'm calling for Romney that I could see flipping in a best-case scenario for Obama is New Hampshire.

Electoral map of US showing Obama (blue) winning HI, WA, OR, CA, NV, NM, MN, IL, PA, NJ, MD, DC, DE, NY, CT, RI, MA, VT, and ME, with the Republican (red) winning the rest.
(click to embiggen)


North Carolina did not outlaw sea level rise

You've probably heard that North Carolina recently "outlawed sea level rise." The popular liberal framing of this story was that the state was trying to use the law to deny and even change physical reality -- see, for example, Stephen Colbert's take, where he mockingly proposes to legislate immortality for himself.

But this is not quite what's going on. If you look at the text of the law, the focus is on banning the state and its subdivisions from making plans for dealing with sea level rise. Non-coastal counties are banned from planning for sea level rise at all, while coastal areas may only base plans on linear projections, which are much lower than the estimates of current climate science.

This focus on planning for sea level rise fits with the growing grassroots conservative framing of environmentalism. It's of a piece with the Agenda 21 panic. The basic belief is that environmentalists, working with the United Nations, are using concerns about environmental degradation and climate change as excuses to destroy our freedoms. Such laws would ultimately turn Americans into serfs of the totalitarian One World Government.

These conspiracy theories are obviously ridiculous. But if you believe them, then a law like North Carolina's makes perfect sense. You're not trying to legislate away sea level rise, you're trying to block false claims of sea level rise from being used to pass new restrictions on people's lives and property.

Ultimately, the debate over addressing climate change is not about a clash between willful ignorance and critical thinking. It's about the clash between ways of life -- the patriarchal homestead and the hippie commune, to reduce them to crude stereotypes. One side is quick to accept the reality of a threat like climate change because it justifies their preferred way of life. The other sees, for exactly the same reason, that the threat makes a convenient way for their opponents to undermine their own way of life. The sooner environmentalists can figure out how to fight on this terrain, the better.


Don't neutralize culture

I think David Roberts is on the right track in his response to a recent paper on cultural theory applied to climate change. In Nature Climate Change, Dan Kahan reports a study that found that higher levels of scientific literacy did not produce greater concern about climate change. Or rather, they did only for people with egalitarian-communitarian cultural values. For people with hierarchical-individualist values, on the other hand, increased scientific literacy made them less inclined to believe humans are changing the Earth's climate. This shows that views of climate change are driven by cultural values, and learning more about science just gives you more ammunition to rationalize your cultural worldview -- and therefore "more education" is not the answer.

Kahan is the head of the Cultural Cognition Project, a research group dedicated to investigating Grid-Group Cultural Theory. Or rather, investigating one particular interpretation of GGCT. The CCP version of GGCT differs in several ways from the original version of GGCT as formulated by Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky. Of relevance here are the ways the CCP 1) psychologizes culture, and 2) treats culture as bias.

The CCP psychologizes culture by treating cultural worldviews as personality types. I'm not sure if Kahan would explicitly endorse this view, but in practice his research works on the assumption that people just are communitarians or hierarchists, etc. This then leads into the issue of treating culture as bias. If people simply are of one cultural orientation or another, then the only way we can get anywhere is to try to neutralize culture. Culture distorts our thinking, and we're better able to reach agreement and see the science clearly if we can get culture out of the way. Kahan is very explicit on this point -- his goal is to find ways to reduce the relevance of cultural cues in political decision-making.

Roberts' response pushes back at these two points. Roberts says -- and I agree -- that culture matters. It's important whether we structure our society in a communitarian or an individualist way. There's no shame in desiring (say) a communitarian society. We can't simply set aside culture as a bias so that we can make decisions like bloodless technocrats. If views on climate change are driven by culture, then what we need is not a way to neutralize culture, but a way to inspire people to understand the merits of our preferred way of life. Douglas and Wildavsky saw this quite clearly -- Douglas wrote an article called "Being fair to hierarchists" in which she extolled the virtues of her (heavily Catholic) hierarchical orientation, while Wildavsky was a noted libertarian (individualist) thinker. Both of them also recognized the importance to society of input from all cultural orientations. But this is quite different from the CCP quest to neutralize culture. With respect to climate change, culture can't be neutralized without eviscerating the very things that make climate change worth caring about in the first place.

The blame dodge

A little while back Sarah Kendzior wrote an interesting article about the effects of Google's choice of languages to develop translators for. Translators have been developed first for the world's more common languages -- English, Spanish, Chinese -- and only later for less-common languages. She discusses the implications this has for deepening the digital divide, bringing more of the internet within the grasp of speakers of the big languages while reinforcing the isolation of people who only speak smaller languages.

In the comments, we quickly see the manifestation of what I call the "blame dodge." Commenters point out, in Google's defense, that their translation development process depends on accessing and processing a large corpus of bilingual text. Such input material is more widely available in languages that are spoken by more, and more tech-savvy, people. So of course Google hasn't developed translators for Piraha or Pitjantjatjara yet! They're not to blame!

The commenters' response is entirely correct and entirely irrelevant. The point of Kendzior's article is not to blame Google, to accuse them of individual wrongdoing. The point of her article is to point out a structural injustice. Google is acting in an entirely rational manner -- indeed, acting in the only way that they can. But because they are acting in a world with preexisting inequalities (in language popularity and internet access -- which are in turn built on other inequalities such as the history of colonialism), their perfectly reasonable actions produce unequal effects.

The blame dodge tries to take discussions of structural injustice and turn them into discussions of blame. Users of the blame dodge can only conceptualize injustice through the framework of individual, blameworthy wrongdoing. So when someone begins talking about a problem, the assumption is that they must be blaming someone for doing something wrong. But nobody's blaming Google. They're just pointing out how social systems perpetuate their inequalities through new channels.