Thursday, March 28, 2013

Whose choice?

Connor Friedersdorf recently posted an article in the Atlantic with an interesting premise. He quoted people who still defend George W. Bush's for war in Iraq; apparently, they claim American lack of will, and specifically President Obama's lack of will, caused the departure of American troops. Mr. Friedersdorf counters by claiming the American people will never accept long imperial wars and costly long occupations of foreign lands. As a general proposition, that makes sense; Americans have never fallen for the imperial idea in the same way the British did for most of the nineteenth century. But in the specific case of Iraq, he gets the source of the decision wrong.

By the time President Obama assumed office, the United States had already negotiated a "status of forces" agreement with Iraq. That agreement contained a schedule for the orderly departure of American troops, and no provision for any ground forces to remain in Iraq. At the time, I summed it up, in the popular phrase, as: don't let the doorknob hit you in the butt. The UN mandate for Americans to remain in Iraq expired late in 2008, so the Bush administration had no choice but to negotiate with the elected government of Iraq, and the Iraqis wanted American troops, and particularly American military contractors, to quit their country.

Americans spend more on their military than the rest of the world combined. Many Americans seem to believe that money buys them the ability to make critical decisions about world events. West Point boasts that much of the history they teach was made by those they taught. American media reports routinely describe the President of the United States as the most powerful person on Earth. But in this case, it seems that even libertarian critics of the Iraq war cannot bring themselves to state the plain fact: Iraqis, not Americans, chose the end of the Iraq war. Perhaps American military spending does not buy the Americans what they think it does.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The insecurity state: investment in humiliation

No kidding. A sworn peace officer upheld the law and the constitution, and it made the news. It made the news mainly because he did it in an airport, and by a consensus that nobody actually remembers agreeing to, constitutions and laws have generally stopped at airport doors for a long time now. Well before 9/11 serious people told us that questioning or laughing at the very serious and important security people at airports, and their very serious and important security measures, would result, and should result, in severe legal consequences. They called making jokes about bombs in airport lines "stupid", referring to the sad history of hundred-ton airplanes brought down by humour. As George Orwell pointed out in his description of the goose-step, a government and society able to prohibit or restrict laughter has moved its whole society a long way toward totalitarianism.

And then two impudent kids distributing leaflets with advice about dealing with security checkpoints at American airports, and a sheriff's deputy walked into the Albany New York airport. As President Obama put it in another context, that sounds like the start of a joke. But what happened next is no joke: the serious and important edifice of aviation security collided head on with the concept of limited government codified in the United States constitution, and the constitution won. One decent law officer simply repeated, over and over, to an obviously hostile government functionary, that people handing out flyers and filming had a constitutional right to do so and hadn't broken any laws.

So what made the airport official in question so hostile? Why try to block some leaflets? I try to beware of large political explanations for individual actions. Occam's razor of politics tells us to never attribute anything to conspiracy if you can adequately explain it by stupidity, and I would add that I never attribute to ideology anything I can attribute to an individual attitude. At the same time, the nature of airport screening did not come about by accident, and to some extent it doesn't matter if the system has a lot of thought behind it or not. We have evolved an airport security system that strips us of our rights, our dignity, and our ability to choose. Since we don't like that but we have a limited ability to resist it, we compensate by telling ourselves that airport security matters, that it must keep us safe, that hoops the authorities line up for us to jump through must have some justification.

Anyone who has experienced a neurosis that involves magical thinking knows the process. If you convince yourself you will die if you don't wash your hands before eating, the more elaborate and difficult your hand-washing ritual gets, the more you believe that ritual has kept you safe. In the same way, travelers who have submitted to the humiliations of airport screening have an investment in the insecurity state. One way to defeat magical thinking is to force it to submit to the test of reality. One police officer insists that law and constitution, not magic, applies even in airports. One action will not bring down the insecurity state, but one person can make a difference.
Good job, officer.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Gambling on inequality

In today's Toronto Star, Royson James offers a good analysis of the declining prospects for a casino in Toronto. Some casino promoters have tried to entice the Toronto City Council, and the electorate, to assent to a casino by offering increased hosting fees; the Ontario government has now told us Toronto will get no better deal than any other municipality.

Whatever promoters offer, we should ask ourselves what additional value casino gambling will bring to the city. Toronto already creates major entertainment value: we have several world class theatre centers in this city, we host tryouts for Broadway on a regular basis, and most pop star tours stop here. Our festivals, such as Caribana, already draw an audience from across the region, as far away as Detroit. Establishing Toronto as an alternative to Las Vegas as a venue for the kind of entertainment Vegas provides, assuming we want to, would mean overcoming stiff competition for a limited market.

Do we want to compete? A casino doesn't actually produce anything. For every person who experiences the thrill of winning, more than one other person has to experience the let-down of losing. And the more communities compete to host casinos, the more people fall into casino gambling who can't afford it. Casinos sell the image of glamorous jet-setters enjoying spectacles and gambling their excess cash. At their best, casino resorts like Las Vegas cater to solidly middle class individuals who do enjoy some spectacular shows and who generally gamble what they can afford to lose. But as casinos proliferate, they increasingly need to attract the desperate: people who hope to stretch a pay cheque or a pension, and problem gamblers looking for the rush of risking more than they can bear to lose.

A recently popular graphic illustrates the increasingly skewed distribution of wealth in the United States today. I believe that broadly speaking, it makes sense that when money moves without creating value, inequality tends to rise. That happens because the individuals able to make claims on money in motion, from lawyers to investors to executives to politicians tend to have money, and power, and to compensate themselves well. And when money in motion doesn't create value, the economic pie gets no larger, so that as money flows to the top, the resources at the bottom get smaller. Perhaps we can in some small part hold this trend back by taking a hard and skeptical look at to the promises of casino promoters.

Numbers versus narrative

Number the indisputable -- Ursual K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed
One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic -- misattributed to Joseph Stalin 
Our debates are marked by a paradox: numbers, while imperfect, give us the most effective, rational, objective and accurate picture of the state of our world. One picture of a slum or a staving child may shock us; numbers can describe a whole world of inequality and suffering. A single picture of a tank or missile may evoke awe, pride, disgust, or fear; the numbers can tell us what role a weapon can and cannot play in politics, the monetary or human cost of building it, the consequences of its use. Yet of all the information we can process, numbers probably have the least effect on our emotions, our motivations, and thus on our actions.  Social psychologist Stanley Milgram found that when he instructed subjects in an experiment to inflict what they believed to be electrical shocks, the voltages, expressed as numbers, had little effect. If subjects had no contact with the people they thought they were shocking, if they did not perceive suffering in other ways, then numbers on a dial did not affect their actions.

From Milgram's experiment to everyday observations on the net, it seems clear that the things we see, the narratives we identify with: these animate our passions. Numbers may offer the basis of clear and comprehensive understanding, but they do not reach us very effectively. I used to lament that disconnect, but I no longer do. Without it, I believe, we could not progress. Numbers tell us what exists, what we can measure. They locate us in the present. The narratives and images that fire our imaginations describe what we might do, where me might go. And as the product of our imaginations, we cannot measure them with the precision that numbers suggest. Numbers describe what we can do; pictures we make for ourselves and the stories we tell describe what we choose to do and what we ought to do. We need both, but our stories and our visions come first.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Nowhere man

The Atlantic Magazine staff writer Connor Friedersdorf has a post up on Ezra Klein's discussion of Paul Ryan's budget proposal. As a Canadian who nether pays taxes to, nor does business with, the United States government, the outcome of this argument doesn't affect me, but the ideas about politics and political discussion do interest me.
Connor Friedersdorf argues that despite Ezra Klein's claims to base his analysis on pure data, he has, in fact, a political position. Further, he and by extension other writers need to make their ideological assumptions and biases clear, so the reader can evaluate the assumptions underlying the facts they choose to present. Mr. Friedersdorf cites one claim Ezra Klein makes: that Paul Ryan bases his budget choices on the belief that American federal involvement in the social safety net "strangles" or "muscles out" state, local, and community initiatives. He cites a long passage from The Economist which includes this:
Don't expensive federal guarantees make community and family charity both less necessary and less affordable? Hasn't the increasingly intense and comprehensive regulation of the health-care sector made free markets in insurance and medical services basically illegal? I'm not so sure it's unusual to think so.
As someone who grew up in and still lives in the kind of community that does supports its members, I reject this premise. In my neighbourhood, in Toronto, one of the homes of Canadian single-payer health care (and very glad to have it), I and my neighbours for a number of years have held a block party and yard sale in which proceeds have gone towards supplemental care for a child with cerebral palsy. Access to world class medical facilities does not diminish community solidarity. To the extent that government policies have caused community programs to shrink over the past forty years, aid to the dispossessed and guarantees of basic services have played a minor role.

I grew up on the water, spending a part of my teenage years as a watchkeeper on the sail training ship St Lawrence II. A group of local Kingston businessmen built this ship for the youth of the community, and in so doing created a spectacularly successful program. In a sense, when conservatives speak glowingly of community programs, they refer to success stories like this. But community programs like the Brigantine rely on local businesses deeply invested in the community, and with the resources to back up that commitment with cash. In a series of policies that began before the Second World War and accelerated dramatically after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, North American governments have fostered the growth of massive enterprises that have no ties to any particular community. Today, local business that exist have their margins squeezed by competition with Walmart and other big box discounters. Governments have indeed fostered the growth of these large scale businesses, and in the process, in the name of efficiency, have disconnected communities from their economic support. That, in my experience, has had more to do with the ability of communities to support their members than federal entitlements.

Ruins in Detroit
In a sense, this, too illustrates the weakness of an analysis that claims to have a basis in pure data: it ignores not the ultimately sterile matter of political or ideological affiliations, but both the richness of knowledge and the passion that springs from the lived experience that numbers do not capture. In the worst of the plague years, some political leaders wished the communities affected by HIV would simply disappear. The searing account by Garance Franke-Ruta allows us to understand the passion with which communities afflicted with HIV not only survived but broke through their oppression. No table of numbers will ever bring home this lesson. In the same way, to understand the absurdity of the assumption that gutting government support for basic human needs will cause communities to magically rally to fill the gaps takes experience of the way communities really work. Imagination helps, too. Consider the actual condition of too many American cities: does anyone really believe the poorest American communities have the resources to create great social programs if the national government would only leave them alone?

[edited March 17]

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Hard words

According to news reports, the New York Jewish community to which Nachman and Raizy Glauber belonged want the state to prosecute their deaths in a car crash, along with the death of their newborn, as "homicide" or "murder". Bereaved parents in Grande Prairie Alberta give the justice system's performance a failing grade after a judge gives a driver three years for four counts of dangerous driving causing death; nine months for each of the four teenagers who died in the crash.

Perhaps, centimeter by painful centimeter, the public has begun to understand that the law has no business treating death by car differently from death by bullet, death by lead pipe, death by poison. While tragic accidents happen, we appear to excuse motorists from responsibility for traffic deaths in a way we would never excuse accidental shootings. Our definition of murder does not require a specific intent to make one person dead. If an offender chooses to gratify an appetite, for the contents of convenience store till, for "respect" on the street, for revenge, and if to gratify that appetite they behave in a way that endangers someone else's life, and by doing so cause a death, then that offender will suffer the penalty for murder. Canada's Parliament has seen fit to treat deaths caused by motorists indulging an appetite for excessive speed differently. The courts have responded with an even more lenient standard. Recent news suggests the public has grown increasingly impatient with this disparity.

To make this clear: I do not ask to have homicide perpetrators treated without mercy. I ask to have them treated without favour. I ask to have the law deal with death by car bumper the way it deals with death by bullet.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Right to the road

When the question of licensing drivers arose in the early decades of the last century, the governments and people of the time resolved it by defining a driver's license as a privilege. Since that time, the government has taken pains to emphasize the nature of a license as a privilege, earned by skill and good behaviour, rather than an inherent right. Recently, some drivers have apparently begun to push back against this, claiming the operation of a motor vehicle as a right, derived from the right of personal mobility. This push back has arisen in the context of discussions about medical fitness of older drivers and the limits on the right of cyclists to use the road.

English law, from Magna Carta on, enshrines the right of personal mobility, the right against detention without cause and the right to hold anyone who detains you to account. So does almost every society with laws fashioned on the English model. The rights of personal mobility necessarily include the right to move through public space. But a right does not come with the ability to impose burdens on other peoples' exercise of their rights.

In the case of cars, the burden in this case falls on the Charter section 7 right: life, liberty and security of the person. In 2007, the most recent year we have numbers for, road accidents, most involving cars or other powered vehicles, killed over a million people. Moving about on your own power is a right; using a vehicle as dangerous as and automobile or light truck is a privilege, granted not by a government but by your fellow citizens, who agree to bide the danger.

Almost a century ago, our grandparents and great grandparents concluded that operating the new powered vehicles made possible by the internal combustion engine creates so much danger it made sense only as a privilege. I believe the subsequent century of experience has only shown the wisdom of that conclusion.