Jul 30, 2011

A not so clever move in a broken political game

Previously: A clever move in a broken political game

Unlike a couple weeks ago, the Aug 2nd deadline really, really, is approaching fast. There was a time when playing empty political games to try and win a bit of public opinion was, perhaps, even logical. That time has now passed. Instead of getting serious or even pretending to get serious, Republicans have spent a week on utter nonsense while the Democrats did not much of anything, even explicitly making reference to the need to wait for the House Republican proposal to work itself through.

The proposal the Republicans worked on and finally passed was dead in the water. Obama has repeatedly promised to veto any legislation that punts the problem with a temporary extension and then round two (or three) of these shenanigans before the next election. But it wasn't going to make it to Obama because the Senate Democratic leadership had vowed to kill it there and so they did; it took all of two hours after passing the House to die in the Senate. The rational for not allowing a short term extension is very valid, by the way, because a) this is just a silly procedural thing, they can easily work on long term problems regardless of the debt ceiling in the next six months and b) if the political system is this screwed up right now, it is hard to imagine that in election season they could ever do anything that is not just pure political gamesmanship.

The reason the bill took so long to pass in the Republican controlled House is because the Republican leadership had difficulty getting the Tea Party caucus minority to actually agree to this nonsense; not because it was nonsense, but because it didn't go far enough. In response, the Tea Party was thrown a symbolic bone: a constitutional amendment to force deficit neutrality was added. Please. Leave alone the silliness of such an amendment, leave alone the difficulties in getting a large plurality of states to ratify it, this is obviously going to get insta-killed in the Senate and insta-killed by presidential veto if not killed in the Senate. It only makes a bizarre kind of sense being included when one realizes the inevitability of the bill being killed regardless; when that is the case, you can add whatever silly extra to appease political subunits that you want. As great as an inter-party leadership squabble is, John Boehner doesn't even need to worry about the Tea Party right now. He can pass a bill palpable to mainstream Republicans and Democrats in the House. Baring oddities like presidential fiat via fourteenth amendment or an up/down vote, this is the only path forward. Who cares what the Tea Party caucus thinks, they are irrelevant in passing meaningful legislation and are only relevant when passing irrelevant legislation like this nonsense they spent the last week on.

All this should be kept in the context that there is no debt crisis, per say, just a political one. The debt ceiling has been raised over seventy times since 1960, by all presidents multiple times. Reagan, the political hero of the right, raised the debt ceiling 17 times for a total debt increase of 199%, far more than Obama. There is no market movements that raise into question the sustainability of US debt, interest rates are low, and buyers of bonds are plentiful. It is pure politics. And in the face of the Euro debt crisis which is a real crisis and determined by legitimate issues with the debt and the market reaction to them, it is an insult to the Euros to pretend this is a debt crisis.
Read more » "A not so clever move in a broken political game"
Jul 28, 2011

Religion's Changing Domain of Knowledge

Religion has long claimed ultimate Truth in two differing domains of knowledge: what is, and what ought to be; descriptive and normative; knowledge about the nature of the universe and knowledge of the morality of the universe. But these claims to knowledge in both the descriptive and normative domains are shrinking and have shrunk considerably. A third domain of knowledge, the spiritual one, turns out to be largely vacuous.

It is most obvious in terms of the descriptive knowledge. What we know about the universe through the growth in scientific understanding has been staggering. In physics, astronomy, mathematics, geology, biology, archaeology, paleontology, sociology, psychology and many other fields, the new knowledge gained through science was, where it contradicted religious claims, aggressively combated by the clergy of the times. Resisting the inevitable march of progress is, however, difficult and with time mainstream religion has surrendered these past claims to knowledge and accepted the scientific truths. This transition is infamously remembered in the story of Galileo, but the history of the relationship between science and religion is so full of such a richness of continual struggle that to overemphasize this one story is to minimize the extent of this millennia long battle.

The descriptive claims maintained by religion have been reduced to a very narrow scope. Most obviously, it retains the major metaphysical claims of the existence of a deity that created the universe and intervenes in our lives. Such a deistic claim, so lacking in predictive ability and explanatory power (the hallmarks of a good theory), has been pushed by science into a domain that is so limited in scope one is reduced to merely epistemic questions. (For More: The Slippery Slope of Deism). Proving the validity of these last few metaphysical claims is an order of magnitude harder than disproving or proving string theory which likewise makes few predictions that we can currently imagine being pragmatically testable. Religion, much more trivially, also maintains claims about a relatively narrow branch of history in the middle east thousands of years ago. One can dispute the historical accuracy of the claims, but it is a sufficiently tiny fields of knowledge that we don't need to bother.


In response to this declining ability to make descriptive claims about the universe there is a domain of knowledge that has been invented; namely, the so called 'spiritual' claims. We hear this word all the time so it is reasonable to assume it has some important meaning. Yet, unless one begins with the circular assumption of the existence of a deity, the concept would not appear to have a separate meaning from the other forms of knowledge. I challenge anyone to give me an example of a spiritual claim that cannot be immediately reduced to being either a descriptive or a normative claim about the universe. It would appear to simply be an expression that creates an allegedly new form of knowledge to which science, by definition, cannot make claims to and to which religion has ultimate lordship over. One would thus have a larger classification into descriptive, normative and spiritual knowledge with science constrained to but the former. It would appear, thankfully, that this is merely a false category that gives but a pretense of a new form of knowledge. As religion has retreated from the descriptive world it has responded by building up the supposed spiritual world.

With the descriptive knowledge so cripplingly reduced by science, and with spiritual knowledge seen as vacuous, all that is left is normative knowledge. And religion maintains its claims as the sole source of moral knowledge. It is often suggested that morality without God simply isn't possible (or even definable) or that the morality of atheists today has only come because of emersion in Judeo-Christian culture. There are many ways to dismiss these claims (perhaps deserving a more substantial post) but the principle observation I wish to note is that much like science, morality has been involved in a more or less steady progress that consistently pushes the necessity of religion further and further into the fringes. Over the thousands of years that religious canon has remained unchanged, society has undertaken an enormous transformation in its cultural understanding and practice of morality. By the moral standards of today, the homophobic and sexist (and many other forms of) comments in the bible are palpably anachronistic and immoral. We must thus reject the notion that morality (or at least societal understanding and expression of it) is somehow fixed and, indeed, moral knowledge is subject to the same progressive and modernizing forces as descriptive knowledge. In parallel to the retreating descriptive claims of established churches, there has been a retreating of previous held moral positions. These battles have been and still are being viscously fought (see gay rights, abortion, teaching creationism etc) between the church and the forces of modernism.

It is usually well acknowledged that religion has lost domains in terms of its descriptive claims about the universe. What is less well acknowledged is that the other two domains, spiritual and moral, are respectively vacuous or experiencing the same retreat into irrelevance as experienced by the descriptive claims. Our knowledge of the universe or of what we think ought to be moral claims is never going to be complete. There will always be gaps in our knowledge and in those gaps a 'God of the Gaps' can always be claimed to reside. With the march of progress in our understanding, however, the gaps become increasingly filled in and the God of the Gaps gets irrevocably smaller. 
Read more » "Religion's Changing Domain of Knowledge"
Jul 27, 2011

Oslo vs Tuscan: Asymmetric Reactions

When Jared Loughner shot dead six people in Tuscan in an attempted murder of congresswoman Gabby Giffords, there was several interesting reactions outside of the obviously deserved expressions of sympathy and horror at the tragedy. It is worth comparing these reactions to the reactions from the recent horrific bombing and shootings in Oslo, Norway. Often what is not said is more interesting than what is said.

Post Tuscan, there was a predictable reaction which used the tragedy as a vindication of their own political opinions. As the details about Jared Loughner's mentality and opinions emerged, people took elements of his writing and favorite books to be indicative of him being on the opposing political side. For the right, the fact that he listed the Communist Manifesto was evidence of Loughner being a far left fundamentalist. The many loosely anti-government positions he took were embraced by the left as indication that he was some far right crazy. While the latter is probably more correct, any reasonable interpretation of his writings demonstrates someone very much outside of most people's understanding of the political spectrum. Regardless, it should be trivial that the actions of one person, crazy or otherwise, do not lend credence to ones own political views one iota. Yet we are quick to identify such easy villains as being somehow representative of the "other side".

As the evidence mounted of Loughner's views being vaguely related to some concepts expressed on the right, a powerful meme rose that started to shift blame to people like Sarah Palin and Glen Beck. Much was made, for instance, of a map released by SarahPAC showing gunsight targets over various politicians including Gifford's district. The idea was that the violent, gun toting political rhetoric expressed by elements in the right contributed to the shooting. As it turns out, there is zero indication that Loughner followed either Beck or Palin; in fact he expressed considerable resentment of such political/media figures in general. This sparked a larger debate where one might argue for a more nuanced idea that doesn't associate direct causality but maintains the rhetoric is bad for its own sake and contributes to political culture conducive for extremists to find cause for violence. In response, the right tried as hard as possible to distance itself itself as being related in any way to Loughner and portraying him, largely correctly, as merely a crazy wackjob.

If there was anything of value to come from this horrific tragedy, it was in sparking a national conversation about the appropriate role of violent rhetoric in politics. It is hard to judge, but I think it might be true that some of the more egregious rhetoric has actually tempered just a bit post Tuscan and post the debate about Tuscan. Personally, I believe that this debate should occur regardless of any violent incident and that in some ways talking about it only after a violent event is putting too much emphasis on an implied causality between the rhetoric and the event. What is fair to say is that ideas exist as memes in our culture and those that contribute to the perpetuation and strengthening of those ideas should be, at least, cognizant of the fact that others may take those ideas as justification for violent extremes even if we ourselves would never do that. Most of the downsides of these ideas are bad in and of themselves and not because of a slippery slope to violent extremism. Should such a slippery slope be occasionally realized it may spark a national conversation but the emphasis should be on how, say, violent rhetoric is bad in and of itself and not just because of how it (might) lead to violent extremism.

Turning to the Oslo bombing and shootings, parts of this reaction has been repeated and parts have not. Initially, despite essentially zero evidence, it was portrayed as being an Islamic Extremist and this meme spread like rapidfire. We then learned that Anders Breivik was in fact staunchly anti-Muslim thereby directly challenging the preconceived notions of the very word "terrorism" which has all to often been, inaccurately, equated with specifically Islamic terrorism. The reaction was so poignantly self-righteous in condemning not just the action but briefly started to channel all of the bigotry and Islamophobia I am forced to condemn time and again on this blog. It might have been reasonable to think that when we found out the real source was itself Islamophobic that there would be a huge backlash against all aspects of culture that might touch on this views - as there was from the left against the right post Tuscan - but it has not seemed to manifest itself.

As someone who frequently laments Islamaphobia, it is tempting to see this as a vindication of my positions. Such in-group/out-group thinking is very bad in and of itself and leads to all kinds of problems from minor discrimination all the way up to being a basis for terrorism such as Oslo. Reading some of his writings (which were surprisingly lucid, incidentally), were not significantly more or less "crazy" than many others I have seen on the Internet; take, for example, the comments left on this blog in a previous post. Of course, there is no causal link between thinking or expressing anti-Muslim sentiment and violent extremism, but one absolutely is contributing to the perpetuating and strengthening of these meme which is damaging in many more ways than simply the occasional fringe violent actor.

If there were to have been a little something of value to come from the tragic Oslo shootings, it would be to spark a robust discussion of the pervasive nature of anti-Muslim sentiment in our societies and how it is so very bad, much as a discussion about violent gun rhetoric was sparked in the US after the Tuscan shootings. I would disagree with any causal implications, but I would strongly approve of the need for such a discussion. Yet it appears to be minimal at best. To be fair, there is significant negative attention at the select few very hateful blogs that were given large amounts of quotes by Anders Breivik. Good. But what is lacking is the wider dialogue on Islamophobia in general and its pervasive nature in society.

My speculation as to the reason for this is that it is sign in our society where generically anti-Muslim sentiment is simply more latent and accepted than other forms of expression. Issues like the use of terrorism being asymmetrically identified as something Islamic show this (despite EU studies demonstrating how of the hundreds of terrorists incidents per year in Europe only a handful and sometimes zero per year are Islamic). In the Tuscan case, there is already a strong anti-gun sentiment latent in a subset of the population and so it was natural the left would strongly identify the gun rhetoric as a problem. There is not, however, a large anti-Islamophobia movement and hence despite this being such a poignant opportunity to seed such a discussion it was largely absent.
Read more » "Oslo vs Tuscan: Asymmetric Reactions"
Jul 25, 2011

My Central Tension in Moral Philosophy

It would be nice to be able to say that my moral leanings followed a consistent system of moral belief and didn't leave central questions such as the source of morality unanswered. Were that the case, it might superficially lend credence to the weight and convictions of my many moral claims as evidenced on this blog. Alas, this is not the case for I am plagued by the infamous and classic conflict in moral philosophy between absolutism/deontology and consequentialism/utilitarianism. Despite this conflict, a pragmatic approach remains possible and beneficial.

The mathematician in me cries out for the use of formal systems. In mathematics, one typically chooses to accept some small set of axioms (such as the five axioms of Euclidean Geometry) and then deduces a large body of theorems from these axioms and associated rules of logical inference in order to have a body of knowledge that can be considered to be absolutely true under the assumptions. One then considers this body of knowledge as tested against our observable universe and should it appear to correlate (as, say, general relatively so perfectly does) then we are motivated to consider the foundational axioms as valid and so too for the subsequent body of knowledge.

The natural extension to moral philosophy would be to try and identify a foundational set of moral claims that would become the axioms in a moral system. One would then derive (ideally deductively, but for pragmatic reasons induction and other forms of inference wold surely be used) a large body of moral claims. Should this body of moral claims seem to coincide well with my own sentiments, and that of the general population, it would appear worthwhile to accept the assumptions as valid and the conclusions as informative, motivating and useful.

Aesthetically, such a formal moral system would be very pleasing. Provided that derivations within the system were reasonably possible, it would lend a certain absolutism to the statements deduced and allow for strong moral claims about how we ought to act. Perhaps most importantly, it would then merely require for one to agree with the axioms (and the validity of ones subsequent logic) in order to force them to logically agree with ones conclusions. Compared to asking someone to accept or reject any specific moral claim in isolation, this approach is very powerful.

The problem, however, is not in the a priori nature of this approach, which is certainly desirable, but in the products of the approach. I have simply never seen a deontological moral system worth much consideration and, after many attempts, have not been able to come up with one on my own.

Philosophical approaches to absolute or deontological moral systems seem to fail in one of two ways. They might be too specific, such that innumerable counterexamples immediately crop up; imagine the moral claim 'thou shalt not kill' which might seem reasonable until one considers, say, whether killing Hitler would have been justified. Alternatively, they might become too general where no meaningful or practical deductions can be made. Sometimes they are both; Kant's infamous categorical imperative (that an act is moral only if it remains so should it before a universal law) is highly general but whenever one tries to deduce something further it becomes of the same form of over-specificity as 'thou shalt not kill'. A priori, one could imagine a perfectly balanced system that was neither too general such that we had the freedom to still derive conclusions but not too specific such as to induce numerous counterexamples. In practice, it would appear that the shear complexity of human civilizations makes that perfect balance too elusive for us to find even limited systems of any reasonableness.

I am thus forced due to pragmatic considerations, despite my aesthetic hesitations, to accept utilitarianism. Instead of having a fixed and narrow moral system where an action is right or wrong in accordance to whether it violates one of these sacrosanct rules, utilitarianism claims things are right or wrong in accordance with the much fuzzier concept of whether it appears to maximize some understanding of the public good. How one precisely defines this is not necessarily fixed, but the central idea is grounded in pragmatism and a willingness to embrace a detailed calculus of a specific situation opposed to merely considering the applicability of a fixed rule. It is hard to claim any form of absolute truth or epistemological certainty in moral claims of this nature. But what it lacks in these domains, it more than makes up for in being able to actually make useful claims, and it is for precisely this reason that essentially all of my moral claims and considerations frequently espoused on this blog are ultimately utilitarian in nature.

The philosophical difficulties with deontological and absolute moral systems is confounded by the fact that several such systems are loosely within the political sphere and all of them I strongly dislike and have discussed at some length on this blog. Firstly, we have the biblical and other religious, deontological moral systems that make the claim that morality is both given and defined, absolutely, by a deity and that an act is or is not moral in accordance to the text of the religious canon. Biblical morality, however, is far removed from any morality that I would find appealing and, despite popular belief that our culture is Judeo-Christian in its moral practices, remains at odds in many ways with the standard moral beliefs of our culture that should form the basis for comparing any deontological system. Secondly, the libertarian moral system is largely a one axiom deontological moral system that asserts that violation of private property is the single inviolate moral claim; this blog resists this notion frequently. Thirdly, particularly in the US, there is a strong constitutional reductionism where an act is considered moral in accordance with whether it coincides with the constitution. Regardless of the difficulties of the constitution itself that I might identify, a constitution should reflect the views of the people and not determine the views of the people; the almost deistic glorification of the American founding fathers, history and tradition that is prevalent in some circles blinds people of this reality. All three of these moral systems are lacking in many ways and do not do well at motivating continued effort in the deontological approach.

There is a pragmatic hybrid between the systems that I have advocated for in the past. Instead of trying to define ultimate sources for morality or answer any of the deeper philosophical questions surrounding morality, it tries to identify common moral trends that are widely accepted in our society and then apply an essentially utilitarian analysis to deducing further claims. Absolutism isn't established, but one does get some sense of grounding and a place to stand upon which to build a moral framework. Where this approach really excels is in dialectic. One might be arguing for a contentious moral claim and can then instead raise an uncontentious moral claim which is widely accepted and demonstrate how the contentious claim follows logically from the uncontentious one. This is the method of deontology but without ever have written down a fixed, immutable, small set of moral axioms and instead one is using a more fluid and transient set of guidelines each of which may not have universal applicability. It is more of a heuristic than absolute truth; its value lies in its ability to actually talk about politics in a coherent way and make relatively strong claims about what one advocates.

Previous related posts:
Politics as a Formal System
Local vs Global Issues in Formal Political Systems
Constitutional Reductionism
Read more » "My Central Tension in Moral Philosophy"
Jul 16, 2011

Marriage Equality, Obama, Jurisdiction

Which of these sounds like a true leader, a president one can get behind: the man who strongly and emphatically declares what he thinks is morally right and acts accordingly, or the man who tries to make enough small improvements in the right direction to appease his supporters but not state his "evolving" belief clearly for fear of angering the opposition? I will let the reader decide which best characterizes Obama's position on marriage equality, but to me it feels like I am being dangled carrots and not given the full declaration of the need for marriage equality out of a political sense of appeasing the rightwing base which, newsflash, has already successfully painted Obama as an out of control liberal and nothing is going to change that.

To be sure, there have been many important steps in the right direction including making sexual orientation have protection from discrimination, repealing the extremely bigoted policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in the military, speaking for the It Gets Better campaign, and dropping the administrations legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act. He deserves applause for this, but it simply does not go far enough. The time has come to say the four little words: I support marriage equality. Sorry, Mr. President, but anything short of this is insufficient.

Take Obama's justification to stop supporting the Defense of Marriage Act. It wasn't because he feels the act is morally wrong. It was allegedly because of a technical quirk of the constitution: the finicky issue of jurisdiction. The claim is that marriage equality ought to be left up to the states and not the federal government (because Obama is obviously a huge advocate of minimal federal powers and states responsibility, groan). What this does is take the morality out of the issue. That said, this move by Obama is widely interpreted as being a big victory for the gay rights movement and everyone talks as if he is doing this because he feels the act is morally wrong, not because the fundamental problem is one of jurisdiction.

To me, moral issues cannot be determined by questions of jurisdiction. It doesn't matter to me whether gay marriage is approved at the federal or state level, as long as it is approved. It is fine to use jurisdictional differences as a strategy; one might say letting the states deal with the issue is the most effective level to expect change or that constitutional challenges make states the better place to fight the battle. Without the declaration of being pro marriage equality, however, Obama deserves zero credit on the moral issue. Let us take his words at face value which means that for now dropping the legal defense for DOMA only scores him points on supporting states rights and leaving moral decisions to the jurisdiction of states, not points for marriage equality.

To balance this discussion about gay marriage, it is worth noting that there are many other gay rights issues quite far removed from this. Take, for example, the fact that perhaps 40% of homeless youth self identify as LGBT. As important as marriage equality is, the often unilateral focus it gets as the major gay rights issue results in a distraction form some of these other issues like LGBT youth and the very serious and widespread suffering that they experience. As important as Obama's speaking for the It Gets Better campaign was, policy debate on the issue of LGBT youth is effectively nonexistent.

It is possible that Obama will be a one term presidency. If so, he has to wonder about his legacy. Does he really want to be the first black president, trumpeting and symbolizing equality, yet unable or unwilling for political reasons to come to the correct side of history and take a stand for marriage equality? If he genuinely does not think it is morally right, shame on him. But if he is doing it as a product of a political calculus, I simply ask that he remembers to factor in his legacy.
Read more » "Marriage Equality, Obama, Jurisdiction"
Jul 15, 2011

Hate Speech, Religious Freedoms, and Islamophobia

Competing with the concurrent LGBT Pride parade in Toronto, a local imam took it upon himself to very publicly condemn homosexuality, referencing how Islamic law instructs us to execute those caught in the act. Sigh, it really would be so much easier defending religious freedoms and freedom of expression if they didn't stoop to such egregious lows. Nonetheless, with the Attorney General of Ontario investigating whether this possibly violates Canadian hate speech laws and the news media making a big deal out of it, it must once again be defended.

It hopefully doesn't need to be clarified that, of course, these words are horrific, unconscionable, and must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. The speech is surely hateful. But it should not (and almost definitely will not in any Canadian court of law) violate hate speech laws.

To begin with, we must note that this Imam's position is not an unreasonable interpretation of the Quran and the Hadiths. Incidentally, it is also not an unreasonable interpretation of the Bible to conclude precisely the same where homosexuality is termed an abomination whose participants "shall surely be put to death". As an aside, I acknowledge the is-ought problem some use as a defense of this line, but regardless it can - and certainly has many times through history - been reasonably interpreted as an ought statement and not just a descriptive one about practices thousands of years ago - much to the suffering of homosexuals. The point is that, unquestionably, such statements as made by this imam are religious statements. Hateful, certainly, but also religious.
Read more » "Hate Speech, Religious Freedoms, and Islamophobia"
Jul 14, 2011

On Cultural and Technological Selection

In my previous post, regarding the Hydraulic Thesis's role in history, I referred somewhat vaguely to the idea of competitive pressures selecting for groups that had adopted the more advantageous hydraulic technologies. Comparisons with Darwinian biological evolution have some level of applicability and offer some level of insight into the 'evolution' of societies. However, the comparisons are not exact and it is important to be somewhat more precise about exactly what the comparison is.

The main clarification I wish to make is that the fundamentally unit of selection (the 'genes' or 'alleles', if you will) is not a group of people, but a particular cultural motif, technological idea, or similar element of society that is reproducible in other societies. Colloquially, one often refers to groups being in competition with each other (because it is so apparently so). Just as Darwinian natural selection is a competition between fundamental units of selections, genes, and not actually between individuals who carry the genes, so too is it here where the societal development analogue of genes is the cultural/technological ideas and thinking in terms of competing groups is as wrong as thinking in terms of competing individuals is. 

There is a separate concept called "group selection"' where the fundamental unit of selection actually is a group. A group spawns various daughter groups with slight variations in cultural and social make up - alleles - who then are more or less likely to succeed and in turn spawn daughter groups. One can imagine as an example of this a village on a river system which as it grows expels subgroups of itself who make their own, largely similar, villages in nearby areas. That said, while this concept exists a priori it is not at all clear it is a meaningful concept in practice. Namely, changes between the collection of groups (tribes, say) in a geographical area occurs in a myriad of quite different ways. The daughter villages are usually a fraction of the size of the original, conquest determines so much of the makeup, and factors of geography and environment are too deterministic in the short term, to name but a few factors. The result is that there are not many good examples where one group, whether it is a small village or civilization, produces an array of very similar allele daughter groups to which competitive pressures can play out on a relevant timescale.

Instead, it is the various cultural and technological units - memes, if you like - that are the unit of selection. A technology such as newly domesticated sheep, for instance, can spread quite easily among a diverse population of groups as they adopt the technology. The groups can be vastly different in all sorts of different ways, but they can all in principle adopt the new technological meme. The cultural/technological units have a much higher practical copying fidelity compared to groups being the chief unit which are rarely copied with high fidelity. As such, it is the former which is the appropriate comparison to Darwinian evolution and ought to form the basis of a selection analysis to cultural evolution. In the case of the Hydraulic Thesis, the unit was the set of technology (both hydraulic technology and the technology of a state, something I argued went autocatalytically hand in hand) that could be reproduced, if found successful, in a variety of groups. A wide category of religious ideas, social structures, technologies and the like are all open to such considerations.

As indicated earlier, the role that groups play is the comparison to individuals in Darwinian natural selection. They are essentially bodies in which the true unit of selection, cultural/technological ideas, take residence. Bodies are nothing more than fancy propagating mechanisms for the genes they carry (if we wish to anthropomorphize we could say their "purpose" is to carry out the gene's "desire" to propagate), things like big teeth or rational thinking are simply effective mechanisms to carry out this role. Moreover, bodies are the result of a wide array of different genes each of which influences the nature of the body and each of which becomes more or less frequent in the gene pool based on their relative tendencies towards success. In comparison, groups in our sense are fancy propagating mechanisms for the set of various ideas and technologies that are exhibited by the group. An idea which makes the group more effective propagators - a technology useful in war, say - will thus propagate; that group then rises in relative prominence and other groups imitate the technology.

The comparison is not exact, of course, one reason for which is that groups do not form homogenous, discrete units for cultural or technological expression. A small village may, for instance, may be all of the same religion and thus be an appropriate unit for the expression of that religious idea but they may have very different views on some other cultural or technological aspect. In general, however, groups while often defined by a geographic correspondence nonetheless typically exhibit sufficient levels of homogeneity in ideas relative to other groups to be relevant as vessels for expression of ideas.
Read more » "On Cultural and Technological Selection"
Jul 13, 2011

A clever move in a broken political game

The "negotiations" surrounding raising the debt limit in the United States is a particularly poignant example of the oh-too-funny-if-not-so-serious circus of partisan, brinkmanship showboating that dominants so much of American politics. It is hard to imagine how the most effective way to make multi-trillion dollar decisions that fundamentally affect the nature of key aspects of our society is while pretending - for that is what it is - that we are about to go over the cliff of not raising the debt limit and going into default. The dominant motivation, from both sides, seems to be an attempt to manipulate public opinion and score the political points going into the next election, a motivation with noticeably distinct consequences than from aiming to do what is best for the American people.

Mitch McConnell's recent proposal is, if nothing else, an excellent play in this game that underscores the extent to which this is just that: a political game. His proposal is to essentially give Obama the power to increase the debt limit, three times before the next election and no more after that, in exchange for Obama submitting nonbinding multi-trillion dollar spending cut proposals that he can later just veto or have the Senate democrats kill.

Firstly, it demonstrates the truth that has been known all along; namely, that the debt limit will of course be raised. It might appear to be a massive capitulation by Republicans since they have not bound Obama to anything at all in terms of spending cuts and appear to give up on the trillions of cuts under debate. That is only the correct perspective, however, if actually cutting the deficit is the goal. Given how Republicans forced through the massive extension of tax cuts for the rich in the last brinkmanship moment, which does more harm to cutting the deficit than anything else in the last two years, it is hard to take them seriously on this goal. If instead we see it as trying to gain the political upper hand then the move is bordering on brilliant.
Read more » "A clever move in a broken political game"
Jul 12, 2011

A Canadian Republic (with a new anthem to boot)

It is worth remembering, every once in a while, that Canada remains a constitutional monarchy. Precisely because the monarchy has no de facto power, most of us - myself included - rarely give it much thought and when we do it is of a mild form of bemusement or indifference. Polls indicate that half the population believes the monarchy to be "a relic of our colonial past that has no place in Canada today" and roughly half support a national referendum on the question. However, the issue is largely outside of political and even public debate and people who are passionate about the subject don't seem to be very prevalent. Especially with the rampant fervor over William and Kate's wedding rekindling the attention on the monarchy it is timely to take up the question of the monarchy's role in our society.

The principle comment whenever the topic is raised - particularly if it is by someone claiming there is something morally wrong with being a monarchy - is that it is only symbolic and as such simply cannot be much of a problem. Possibly so, but the conversation doesn't often seem to go that next step and answer the obviously begged question: what exactly does it symbolize again?

Before looking into this, it is worth noting that the answer is actually important. Symbols matter. They influence society, affect how we think, and manage to form a pervasive existence in society. The structure at the hierarchal top of our society is meant to be indued with our loftiest values and principles. For the most part they are, things like universal rights and freedoms that are codified in democratic governments are excellent symbols in society with meaningful consequences. Indeed, it is precisely the commendable nature of these symbols that lends legitimacy to the governance of our society. So it is worth asking whether the monarchy helps in this way by symbolizing important values that we can all agree on or whether it does something different. It won't have real power in the form of being able to actually write laws, but its symbolism should be compatible with the values we espouse and it retains the power that such symbols provide.
Read more » "A Canadian Republic (with a new anthem to boot)"
Jul 3, 2011

Middle powers, Great Powers, and incentives in war

Many, but certainly not all, US led military campaigns share a common element: a widespread international coalition that supports and participates in the campaigns.  We will see that it is two motivations - the need for legitimacy among the leaders and the need for relevance among the participants - that provide much of the impetus for this phenomenon.

There are several benefits to the leaders of military campaigns - namely the US and to a much lesser extent the UK and France - of having a host of middle powers like Belgium and Canada join along in excessively multilateral campaigns like Libya and Afghanistan. Firstly, there is a cost sharing benefit so that the leaders don't have to pay the full financial and human costs of the campaigns. This also extends the capacity of the campaign allowing for longer and larger scale operations than might have been politically possible were the leaders to go at it alone.

However, perhaps the biggest and most important benefit of multilateral campaigns is legitimacy. Having a large cabal of international partners all participating in the campaign underscores that it is a legitimate campaign with widespread support and as such ought not to be challenged. When the US/UK did not get the widespread support in Iraq they enjoyed in Afghanistan the result was extensive criticism and loss of international prestige.
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Jul 2, 2011

Incentives in Prosecuting Dictators

The International Criminal Court has recently sought the arrest of Qaddafi, and others in the Libyan regime, for crimes against humanity. Justified, surely, but is this move wise? To answer the broader questions about charging dictators in international courts, it is worth looking at this from the perspective of the dictators.

Imagine being a dictator like Qaddafi who is facing both an existential threat about the viability of continued power in his state and the inevitability of criminal charges brought against him in the future (but very possibly in absentia). The threat of spending the rest of their lives in jail is a powerful incentive and it works to provide further momentum to stay in power at any and all costs.  Qaddafi must be worried about the chances of him ending up in the sorry state of Egypt's ousted Mubarak. To him, desperately clinging to power despite the enormous effect on the lives of millions of Libyans suffering from the crisis is a rational outcome to attempt to avoid the horrors that beset him should he voluntarily leave into international custody.

This effect that the fear of prosecution entrenches the world's worst dictators and thereby exacerbates conflict has an important - perhaps dominantly important - converse effect. Namely, that the fact that dictators are not untouchable years and decades after their atrocities, and that once they eventually become ousted they will face huge consequences for their crimes, acts as a disincentive to dictators committing such crimes in the first place. Perhaps the case is such that the most egregious atrocities are being suppressed in the dictatorships of other countries because of the disincentive of subsequent prosecution and without the continued attempts to try people like Mubarak and Qaddafi the world would be worse off. That said, it would seem that dictatorships go so strongly hand in hand with atrocities of some kind that could be prosecuted in the future (take Syria, Yemen and Bahrain as other examples caught up in the Arab Spring) that they all can fear prosecution but could hardly be overly motivated not to commit atrocities for fear of even more prosecution. Sentences aside, one can only spend one lifetime in prison and if the threat of that exists regardless then the dominating incentive is the one to not get caught by being ousted opposed to the one not to commit crimes in the first place.
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Jul 1, 2011

On the Hydraulic Thesis

The Hydraulic Thesis is related to the interplay between the rise of states in certain societies and the production of large scale irrigation and other 'hydraulic' systems that increase per area food production. Historically we see there is a loose temporal correlation between the rise of both elements of civilization. Depending on the various ways it is stated, there is an implied causation arrow whereby the increased food production afforded by hydraulic systems causes the increasing size and stratification of hierarchal social structures. Ultimately, the validity of the thesis rests upon the strength to which one asserts the causation.

In Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, and in David Landes' The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, both men take opposing views on the Hydraulic Thesis (Diamond against, Landes for). Unfortunately, I find that both essentially straw-manned the opposing side and while perhaps appropriately criticizing the strawmans don't address more substantive criticisms. Without claiming any special knowledge of the subject beyond analyzing the statements in these two books, the logical conclusion to me appears to be somewhere in the middle where I believe a version of the thesis is true provided it is stated in relatively weak terms.

Landes was the more egregious of the two, despite me siding with his view more. He says that opponents of the thesis are "zealous in their political correctness" and are only "presumably" disagreeing with the thesis out of a sense that attributing non cultural factors to the rise of states like China's is in some way racist. While this may be true of the person he quotes, it is undeniably possible to object to the thesis on intellectual grounds - as Diamond does who is certainly not racist and clearly strives in his book to assert environmental not racist factors that a priori would be entirely in keeping with the hydraulic thesis were it not for Diamond simply thinking it is false. To ignore the tempered, intellectual arguments in favor of burning the arguments of an extremist strikes of intellectual dishonesty.
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