Governing Least: A Litany of Insight

Dan Moller’s Governing Least is packed with random insights and philosophic wit.  Some highlights:

Why so much political philosophy sounds desperate:

Only those already unsympathetic to utilitarianism are likely to be swayed by Rawls’s brief observations. Those who begin their political philosophy by defending the morality of rights don’t so much preach to the choir as exorcize the elect.

Why so much political philosophy sounds so blind:

The reason France does not require aid is not because some external group took pity on the French, but that they were able to generate exponential economic growth themselves. This makes it puzzling that philosophers write long books about aid without mentioning economic growth, and generally seem to imply that the path to escaping poverty lies through individual altruism. Why ignore the only mechanism that has ever succeeded in lifting millions of people out of poverty when thinking about poverty?

A great explanation of the Theory of the Second-Best:

Suppose that a company enjoys monopoly powers that we cannot immediately remove under the present regulatory regime, but that one of its upstart rivals enjoys a market- distorting state subsidy which we can remove. It is a fallacy to infer that market efficiency will be improved by at least killing the subsidy— the reverse may well be true— just as it is fallacious to reason that if our military lacks both bombs and bombers the second- best solution is at least to build the bombers.

Why predictable outcomes can co-exist with abundant opportunity:

The data on intergenerational mobility or its absence is sobering, to say the least. In the United States, sometimes this leads commentators to call into question the traditional self- conception of America as a “land of opportunity.” It’s hardly a land of opportunity if outcomes are determined at birth, runs the criticism.

Let us consider this reasoning in more detail. The critic seems to reason as follows: If there were anything like equality of opportunity, then we couldn’t predict outcomes at birth, but we can, and so the land of opportunity is a myth. Let us assume the standard to meet here isn’t exact equality of opportunity for every single citizen. Could there still be reasonably high levels of opportunity despite outcomes— including bad ones— being highly predictable from the start? The critic seems to assume the following principle:

Predictability defeats opportunity: if we are able to specify social outcomes with a high degree of accuracy in advance, then the people in question cannot enjoy much opportunity.

Why accept this principle? What is it that connects predictability and opportunity? The obvious answer is that we think we know enough about people to be confident that if they did enjoy opportunities, they wouldn’t exercise them in a way that leads to bad social outcomes. The fact that we know that Smith will end up poor in all likelihood suggests that he is powerless to avoid it, since if he were capable of influencing the outcome, then he would. This amounts to another, deeper principle:

Predictability is evidence of incapacity: the fact that we can predict poor social outcomes is evidence that those who experience them lack a capacity for avoiding them.

Another way of putting the matter is that a fixed proportion of poor outcomes might be bad, but it wouldn’t be bad for reasons of diminished opportunity, since it might be the case that there are going to be winners and losers in anything resembling a free society, and as long as everyone has a fair shot at being a winner, things aren’t so bad. (No doubt more would need to be said about what “losing” amounts to for us to feel reassured.) What is terrible about predictability is that the losers aren’t just random, but never had a chance. Because predictability is evidence of incapacity, we know that those with poor outcomes never had a chance to succeed, and a fortiori they lacked anything like an equal or reasonable opportunity for success.

The problem is that it isn’t true that predictability, in itself, is evidence of incapacity, that outcomes are beyond our control. I don’t want to deny in the end that certain forms of incapacity do play a role in social outcomes, but how much is far from settled, and by opening with the assumption that predictability implies incapacity, we go wrong from the start. The fundamental confusion is between the epistemic question of what we can say about the future and the metaphysical question of what people are able to do at a given time in given circumstances. There are various fancy examples to illustrate this in the free- will literature, but for our purposes we can stick to some everyday examples:

Rope line: at the airport, we predict with great confidence that people will walk along a particular circuitous path— the one laid out by the velvet ropes. Nevertheless, the passengers are free to step over the ropes any time they like. It’s just that hardly anyone does. Predictability here doesn’t imply incapacity, it’s just that the passengers all have reason to exercise their freedom in a certain way.
Victim-blaming is (often) question-begging:
[I]t sounds mean to claim that people generally have a capacity to influence social outcomes when thinking about the poor, a bit like victim-blaming. But such a denial would involve insisting that something like the following claims are generally true (readers are invited to imagine these in the mouths of their own children facing unfavorable social circumstances, such as a lousy school system):
• “I can’t help it that I skipped class.”
• “It wasn’t possible to do my homework.”
• “I had no control over whether I had children.”
• “There was no way I could have worked this past year.”
It is important to acknowledge that for some people, these statements will be true. Mothers have children due to rape, classes go unattended because of gunfire or violence in the school, recessions destroy employment opportunities even for those who are highly qualified and persevering and willing to accept low wages. The point isn’t that all poor social outcomes are blameworthy, but that most (not all) people can exercise an enormous amount of influence over whether they lead a decent life in the developed world, even when ignorance or other internal impediments bar the way.
Governing Least is so packed with insight that I could easily have made this post three times longer.  Read it and see for yourself!
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More Bang for Your Buck; or, Better Ways to Buy Your Happiness

Money has little effect on happiness.  Ancient Greeks like Epicurus said it, and modern empirical psychology confirms it.  Why do we have so much trouble accepting this?  In part, because our immediate reaction to money is highly favorable – and that sticks in our minds.  Before long, however, hedonic adaptation kicks in.  We start to take our good fortune for granted… and then we largely forget that our fortune is good.

But there’s probably another important reason why we have so much trouble accepting the weak effect of money on happiness.  Namely: There are so many ways to buy happiness with money!  The fact that “Money doesn’t buy happiness” clashes with the equally obvious fact that “Money can buy happiness.”  The simplest reconciliation, of course, is that most people spend their money poorly.  And in my experience, this reconciliation is entirely correct.  Most people stubbornly spend lots of money on hedonic dead-ends, while ignoring omnipresent opportunities to turn cash into smiles.

So what are these alleged “omnipresent opportunities”?  Here are my top picks.

1. Buy your way out of unpleasant chores by hiring other people to do them for you.  Start with cleaning, laundry, yardwork, auto repair, childcare, and tax preparation.

2. Buy your way out of unpleasant chores by buying different products.  Most obviously, switch to disposable plates, cups, and utensils.  It’s very cheap, and saves lots of time.  If this gives you environmental guilt, compensate with some Effective Altruism.

3. The leading source of happiness is pleasant social interaction.  Use money to get more of it – and make your interaction more pleasant.  If you have to spend hours preparing for and cleaning up for any gathering, you probably won’t enjoy it much.  So cut down on both preparation and clean-up using #1 and #2.

4. Don’t buy products to impress strangers or casual acquaintances.  They’re barely paying any attention to you anyway.  Indeed, even your close friends probably don’t pay that much attention to the details of your possessions.  So if you and your immediate family won’t durably enjoy an expensive product (such as… granite countertops), save your money.

5. Entertainment spending is one of the best ways to convert money into happiness.  That’s why they call it “entertainment.”

6. If you live with other people, soundproof your house – especially if you have kids.  Other people’s music, t.v., and phone conversations (not to mention children’s crying) don’t just get on your nerves; they create needless conflict.  But you don’t have to choose between isolation and serenity.  Solid wood doors aren’t exactly cheap, but they’re affordable.

7. Put less effort into finding a job that pays better than your current job.  Put more effort into finding a job that is more enjoyable than your current job.  First and foremost: Look for jobs with lots of pleasant social interaction.

Overarching doubt: Won’t these attitudes alienate more conventional people?  My answer: Only mildly, as long as you’re friendly.  So be friendly!  And don’t forget that these attitudes also attract people who are eager to actually enjoy life.

Finally: You can and should use your money to build and maintain your Beautiful Bubble!

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Pardoning Assange Would be the First Step Back Toward Rule of Law

On April 11, the ongoing saga of journalist and transparency activist Julian Assange took a dangerous turn.  Ecuador’s president, Lenin Moreno, revoked his asylum in that country’s London embassy. British police immediately arrested him — supposedly pursuant to his “crime” of jumping bail on an invalid arrest warrant in an investigation since dropped without charges but, as they admitted shortly thereafter,  actually with the intent of turning him over to US prosecutors on bogus “hacking” allegations.

The US political class has been after Assange for nearly a decade.

In 2010 WikiLeaks, the journalism/transparency service he founded, released information revealing US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as State Department cables exposing — among other things — Hillary Clinton’s attempts to have American diplomats plant bugs in the offices of their UN counterparts (Clinton, at one point, tried to raise the possibility of having him murdered for embarrassing her so).

In 2016, WikiLeaks released Democratic National Committee emails — provided by an as yet unidentified whistleblower — exposing the DNC’s attempts to rig the Democratic presidential primaries in Clinton’s favor.

At no point has Assange been credibly accused of a crime. He’s a journalist. People provide him with information. He publishes that information. That’s an activity clearly and unambiguously protected by the First Amendment.

Even if Assange was a US citizen, and even if his activities had taken place in territory under US jurisdiction, there’s simply no criminal case to be made against him.

So they’re manufacturing one out of whole cloth, accusing him of “hacking” by asserting that he assisted Chelsea Manning with the technical process of getting the 2010 information to WikiLeaks.

But once again: Assange is not a US citizen, nor at the time of his alleged actions was he anywhere that would have placed him under the jurisdiction of the United States.

Even if he did what he’s accused of doing, the current state of affairs is the equivalent of the city government of Chicago asking Norway to extradite a French citizen on charges of not cutting the grass at his villa in Italy to the specifications of Chicago’s ordinance on the subject.

There are certainly criminal charges worth pursuing here.

The US Department of Justice should appoint a special counsel to probe the Assange affair with an eye toward firing, seeking the disbarment of, and prosecuting (for violations of US Code Title 18, Sections 241, Conspiracy Against Rights, and 242, Violation of Rights Under Color of Law) the DoJ bureaucrats who hatched this malicious prosecution.

The first step in the process, though, is for US president Donald Trump to pardon Julian Assange for all alleged violations of US law on or prior to April 11, 2019.

Assange is a hero. Time to stop treating him like a criminal.

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Speculative News Is Fake News

Nobody asked but …

Today I took a dreary passage down the path of a slow news day, a day in the middle of the weekend news cycle.  It would be sort of OK if this phenomenon were marked with a drought of information, but instead it is littered with misinformation and disinformation (the first is inaccurate, the second is deliberately inaccurate).  Apparently, the media wants us to believe there is an endless cornucopia of critical news.

Examine the linguistic forms in the headlines.  They are bloated with tentativeness.  So-and-so will, shall, may, is to do, has concerns regarding, wonders if, looks forward to, expects, speculates, threatens, questions, rhetorically questions, promises, predicts, as often happens …

There is an old downhome saying, “the sun don’t shine on the same dog’s ass all the time.”  Therefore, speculation about the various permutations of the situation are mundane.  We don’t need an endless list of guesses while we await events.

Most of the small potatoes of human events can pass without remark.  Black holes, for instance, are vast, but seeing a speculative artist’s illustration of a black hole is small potatoes.

Most of the time, the media are just treading water, while the establishment is doling out quasi-info with dessert spoons.  Is it any revelation that sometimes the ink-stained ones get tired of waiting, to resort to speculation to fill that empty page, to make sure that the video crawl is not empty.

There is the thing called the Fallacy Fallacy, wherein the mere fact of speculation does not mean that a forecast may be untrue.  The sad part is that the status quo gives both the liar and the honest man a chance to cry, “fake news!”

— Kilgore Forelle

 

 

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Sorry, Scott: “Climate Change” is a Power Grab

On a recent podcast, Scott Adams almost had a meltdown when confronted by the evidence that many of his listeners believe “climate change” hysteria is all about a power grab by those promoting it. He says this means people have been hypnotized by the media they get their news from.

There’s a flaw in his belief: I don’t partake of the “news”, and the “news” I accidentally get exposed to is from all over the statist map. I also don’t know whether AGCC is real, whether it is a net negative, or anything else about it– other than the fact it doesn’t justify violations of life, liberty, or property by any government.

Yet I do know he’s wrong to deny “climate change” is about a power grab, and here’s why.

He makes the mistake of insisting that someone show him the one person who is seeking to consolidate his or her power using the excuse of “climate change” through something like the “new green deal”. That’s looking for the wrong thing.

Every “law” increases government power. This means any new “law”– no matter what it’s about– is a power grab for the whole collective known as “government”. Any individual who has hitched their wagon to that coercive collective is going to gain power with each new “law”. Of course, any individual connected to government, who lusts for power, is going to advocate for something which will increase government power and will, therefore, increase the individual government cog’s power. Maybe not to the point of that one person being the King of Earth, but enough to cause that person to advocate for the new “law”. In the hope of gaining power. That’s a power grab.

It’s neither mysterious nor a conspiracy theory. It’s human nature and the nature of the political means.

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Social Media Regulation: Speak of the Devil and in Walks Zuck

In a recent column on the mating dance between Big Government and Big Tech, I noted that “Big Tech wants to be regulated by Big Governments because regulation makes it more difficult and expensive for new competitors to enter the market.”

Two days after I hit “publish” on that column, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called for government regulation of social media in a Washington Post op-ed.

Zuckerberg offers expansive arguments for regulating four areas of social media content, but those arguments are specious. My own claim as to his real reasons leers visibly over the shoulder of each argument he makes.

Zuckerberg’s first proposed regulatory area is “harmful content.” “Regulation,” he writes, “could set baselines for what’s prohibited and require companies to build systems for keeping harmful content to a bare minimum.”

Who’s best equipped to build such systems? Facebook, with assets of nearly $100 billion and annual revenues of $56 billion? Or a new site started by some middle class guy (or even an affluent Harvard student like Mark Zuckerberg 15 years ago) with a great idea and some spare time?

The second regulatory area is “protecting elections.” Zuckerberg: “Our systems would be more effective if regulation created common standards for verifying political actors. … We believe legislation should be updated to reflect the reality of the threats and set standards for the whole industry.”

Facebook, of course, has already invested billions in developing technology to identify users and advertisers and connect the two types of parties — all in-house.  Most startups don’t have the money to develop their own such systems. They hook into a third party advertising service or a standardized ad sales plug-in. The effect — and the intent — of those “updates” would be to protect Facebook from those startups (and the American political establishment from its own would-be competitors).

“Third, effective privacy and data protection needs a globally harmonized framework. … it should establish a way to hold companies such as Facebook accountable by imposing sanctions when we make mistakes.”

Facebook can easily accommodate “sanctions” that would kill most potential competitors. It already has big bucks in the bank (unlike a new company that may be years away from turning a profit), and that “globally harmonized framework” will almost certainly be built around its own standards and practices.

Finally, “data portability. If you share data with one service, you should be able to move it to another.” What will the “standard data transfer format” Zuckerberg calls for look like? Existing formats for handling user data. Who handles the most user data now? You know who. New competitors will be forced to build systems like Facebook’s, and forbidden to try their own, possibly better, user data handling schemes.

The Internet’s potential is encapsulated in the expropriated Maoism “let a hundred flowers blossom.” Zuckerberg agrees, but only if each of those hundred flowers is cloned from a geranium grown in his proprietary nursery.

Regulation, not competition, is where monopolies come from. Facebook isn’t a monopoly yet, but Zuckerberg clearly wants to make it one.

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