Thursday, December 30, 2004

A Short Break

The wife and I discovered that we had too much cash lying around. So, we're off to Las Vegas. Things will be quiet here until January 3, or so.

Wishing everyone a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Ignorance, Malice, or Door Number Three

Prisoner abuse seems to be making a comeback in the headlines recently. The catalyst this time is the release of new documents cataloging complaints registered by FBI agents as they toured American detention centers across the globe. According to some, these new documents succeed in challenging the notion that the Abu Ghraib scandal was an isolated incident conducted by a few independent bad actors.

In fact, said [New York human rights lawyer Scott] Horton, the latest documents were potentially much more serious than the Abu Ghraib revelations because they strongly suggested that top administration officials not only knew about the abuse but approved it… “These memos completely demolish the administration's argument that abuses were carried out by a few low-level 'rotten apples,” he said. "The memos suggest they were deliberate policy."
It remains to be seen whether or not this revelation will finally close the credibility window on this administration's claims of ignorance. Given Bush's reluctance to accept responsibility for the negative consequences of any of his policy initiatives, you may color me skeptical. There seems to be no limit to the imagination of the Bush administration when the shit hits the fan.

But lest we get into a debate over who knew what when (a debate that we may ultimately be unable to definitively resolve), we should take a step back and ask ourselves if it matters who, if anyone, ultimately gave the orders.

US interests in the Middle East have been immeasurably damaged by the mere existence of the torture allegations (Publius at Legal Fiction beats the drum on this issue here and here). I can't see how establishing culpability for the incident could possibly affect the impression it has made on the Muslim street. Nothing short of a Bush/Rumsfeld conviction in the International Criminal Court (something schedule to occur right after my lunch date with Elvis) would even begin the process of redemption. And I fear that even that would have limited short-term success in rehabilitating our image abroad. The damage is done and we will have to endure its consequences.

Since no rational argument can be made to deflect the impact of the prisoner abuse revelations, discussion often turns on whether it was driven by incompetence or malice. Though they use differing terminology to describe their involvement, the Bush administration typically invokes incompetence as an excuse. It is an inglorious and, frankly, dubious justification, but it provides enough breathing room to escape the serious domestic repercussions that could potentially follow a more damaging admission of responsibility.

However, I believe that the incompetence/malice issue presents us with a false dichotomy. There is a third option, one that is potentially worse than the previous two. I argue that, if what occurred there was not the result of direct orders from civilian leadership, then it was the result of criminal negligence.

Let us assume for the moment that the Abu Ghraib abuse occurred independent of any official direction. Instead, let's focus on the conditions that were present at the detention center during the period in which the abuse occurred. Guard staffing was significantly, if not primarily, comprised of National Guard volunteers who had little or notraining related to the assigned duties. Their supervision, when present, was extremely light. Finally, the prisoner to guard ratio was extremely high. With these factors in place, how predictable was it that prisoner abuse would occur? Apologists would say that it was not predictable at all -- but they would be very, very wrong.

In 1971 Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo conducted a psychological study to determine the effects of the prison environment on those within its walls. To do this, he constructed a simulated prison in the basement of Stanford's Psychology Department building. The simulation protocol was developed in consultation with a group of experienced prison consultants (including one former inmate) in order to ensure an accurate reflection of the reality of incarceration. To populate the prison, Zimbardo placed an ad in a local newspaper offering $15 a day for participants. Respondents were screened to eliminate candidates with health issues, psychological problems, histories of drug abuse, or criminal propensities. The remaining sample of 24 was randomly split into two groups; one half would serve as prisoners, the other half as guards.

Originally Zimbardo had planned to run the experiment for two weeks. However, in merely five days, the situation in the faux prison had spun wildly out of control. The prisoners were beginning to exhibit serious psychological pathologies, including deep interpersonal withdrawal and hysteria. In contrast, the guards had become sadists, subjecting the prisoners to ever-increasing levels of cruelty and humiliation. For the safety of everyone involved, the prisoners were released and the prison disassembled.

In spite of the fact that the experiment participants were identical as the study commenced, a few short days in the prison transformed them in hyperbolic fashion. The prisoners began as healthy men, but left as broken shells. The guards began as kind and civil individuals, yet quickly evolved into hideously sadistic abusers. No pre-existing condition could possibly explain the manifestation of these behaviors.

Quite literally, the participants were transformed by the prison itself.

Free will is a concept near and dear to the hearts of everyone living in this highly individualistic society. It is not a concept that we relinquish easily. Nevertheless, the Zimbardo prison study and the Milgram obedience experiment (discussed here) demonstrate that there are limits to the absolute notion of free will. The behavior of human beings can be profoundly affected by the circumstances in which they find themselves. There are times when this effect is positive and beneficial. And there are times when it releases the darkest impulses within us all. As much as we would like to think otherwise, no one is immune to contextual influence.

For the record, the Zimbardo prison study is not an obscure piece of research, known only to those immersed in the arcane universe of theoretical psychological research. Every first-year psychology student learns of it during Psychology 101. If you are in the business of building and maintaining prisons, there is no excuse for ignorance. It would be akin to a NASA scientist who was unfamiliar with Newton's laws of motion.

And that is why, even without direct orders, the Abu Ghraib scandal is the responsibility of civilian leadership. The soldiers committing the abuse did not create the conditions inside the prison. The conditions were created by their superior officers, who in turn did so because of the resource limitations they faced. The abuse that occurred was a direct and predictable result of civilian policy directives. There is no question that civilian leadership should have known the likely outcome of their detention center design. In all likelihood, they did know. They just didn't care.

Of course, if you mix in abusive interrogation directives, it gets even worse. My personal belief is that much of the abuse that we became aware of in the spring of 2004 was not directly planned by the Bush administration. But, I believe that it occurred alongside abusive interrogation techniques that were planned. The explicit approval of torture within the prison walls simply greased the wheels for additional, unsanctioned abuse. Again, highly predictable.

There are many things that could have been done to prevent Abu Ghraib. Rumsfeld & Co. knew what those things were (more training, more guards, more supervision). But, it would have required resources they were unwilling to expend. If that isn't criminal negligence, I don't know what is.

So -- don't get lost. Don't be distracted by those who claim that orders to abuse did not exist. Maybe they did, and maybe they didn't. Rumsfeld & Co. knew what they were getting into. And that alone is enough to demand accountability.

Monday, December 27, 2004

It's All Relative (Morally Speaking)

As I was crafting this post a few days ago, I ended up producing the following sentence.

For all except the most rigid moral absolutists, actions are judged in the context in which they occur.
At the time this was a way to avoid addressing the absolutist position, since the entire post was essentially a love letter to moral relativism. But, as I pushed them to the side, I began to wonder about them more. And the more I thought, the more I began to doubt whether true moral absolutists actually exist.

Here's what I mean.

I think that a fair definition of moral absolutism would be an adherence to rules without exception. Whatever the rule is, there are exactly 0 circumstances that will excuse an infraction. In this worldview, moral evaluation is a binary computation: right/wrong, black/white. Given the complexity of the universe in which we live and how infrequently we are in possession of enough data to accurately assess the appropriateness of a specific action, I tend to believe that this position is unworkable in practice. But, as a relativist, that isn't my problem, and if an absolutist feels that he can solve the pragmatic issue, then more power to him.

But, assuming that the issue of complexity and data availability are somehow resolved, is our absolutist truly absolute?

Let's take an example. Here's a rule: killing is wrong. I think that all of us would agree with that rule in a general sense. However, no one takes the absolute position. Everyone would make an exception for at least self-defense. Once you do, you are in relativist territory. Remember, absolutism is about no exceptions. Add even one and the game is over.

Now, an absolutist might attempt to get around this by redefining the rule. The rule isn't that killing is wrong, but that murder is wrong. At first it might appear that they have succeeded in identifying an inviolable rule. I disagree. I think that this is merely a semantic trick. What they have done here is to encapsulate the exceptions of the previous rule in the word "murder." After all, what is murder but the killing of another human being without legal justification?

It seems to me that most morally absolute positions follow this model. Whatever the rule, its definition incorporates allowable transgressions. Once the formulation is complete, the adherent can claim an absolute position. But, if we are allowed to completely specify when a behavior is acceptable and when it is not, could not any of us construct an absolute rule set to live by?

The label "moral relativist" is commonly used to slander left-leaning individuals. In this last election, John Kerry's embrace of nuance was a source of constant ridicule amongst Bush supporters, while the president's clear vision of "right and wrong" was heralded as an indication of his elevated character. But, in truth, we are all relativists -- we're just arguing about which exceptions to the rule we should allow. And that is exactly the debate that we should be having. It would just be nice if we were having it honestly, rather than ducking behind the self-righteous and utterly meaningless position of moral absolutism.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Merry Christmas -- Why Not?

I tend to be kind of a Scrooge, but what the hell. Happy holidays.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Supporting the Troops in Evil Conflicts

A discussion broke out over at Legal Fiction recently regarding the inconsistency that potentially exists when one professes opposition to war while supporting the troops. At first, I was surprised that the question was getting any play at all. However, thanks to a clarifying comment, I realized that the issue was more subtle than I had initially appreciated. The real question was: how do you morally justify the actions of soldiers taken in service of a larger, immoral cause? I agree, that trickier. But not impossible.

For all except the most rigid moral absolutists, actions are judged in the context in which they occur. For example, most people would morally excuse the theft of medication to save a dying child if there were no opportunity to acquire it lawfully. In the abstract, most of us lean toward Machiavellianism, supporting whatever action produces the greatest good. In the same vein, people tend to forgive behavior that is legitimately uncontrollable. A man who commits a crime after being surreptitiously drugged will generally not be seen in a negative light.

Of course, judgment in the real world is complicated by the fact that circumstances are rarely indisputable. But, for our discussion here, these abstractions aptly describe the fundamental principles.

With all this in mind, let's consider the situation of a typical soldier in Iraq. They're young. Due to their displacement, often extended far beyond what they had been led to expect, and the constant danger in which they live, they are under enormous stress. They have been trained to employ their own judgment, but also to follow orders without question. Failing to do so often results in severe punishment. Conversely, behavior that would in a civilian context be considered antisocial and destructive is instead rewarded implicitly and explicitly. In short, it is a very different world than most of us typically experience.

Given this context, can the actions of soldiers in combat truly be said to be under their control? If there is any remaining doubt, consider the following:

In the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram performed a series of experiments designed to establish the degree to which humans are malleable to authority. Subjects were recruited under false premises and were told that they were assisting in a learning study. In the experiment, the subject sits in front of a desk containing a row of buttons. Above most of the buttons a numerical value indicates a voltage level, increasing as one moves from left to right. Near the end of this row is an indication warning the subject not to proceed beyond that point, although buttons exist beyond the indicator implying that it is possible to do so.

The subject is told that he is assisting a researcher who is in the room with him. The supposed subject of the learning study cannot be seen. Allegedly, he is electrically wired to the subject's dashboard. The only connection he has to the experimental room is his voice over a loudspeaker. In actuality, this subject is a confederate and is in no danger whatsoever. But, the actual subject of the experiment has no way to know this. Also, he is told that it is imperative that the experiment reach its conclusion.

The researcher then proceeds to administer a test to the "learner." When the learner responds incorrectly, the subject is instructed to administer a shock. With each additional wrong answer, the subject is told to increase the voltage. As the "shocks" get more intense, the learner begins to protest, eventually crying in pain, demanding that the experiment stop, and reporting that he has a heart condition and that further shocks might kill him. Past a certain level, the learner is simply silent, the implication obvious. According to the researcher, silence is scored as a wrong answer, necessitating more shocks.

As the experiment is conducted, the researcher does nothing more than ask questions, request administrations of punishment, and explain that the experiment must continue. He does not explain why. He does not employ force or other forms of overt coercion on the subject. He is, except for the mild indications of authority implicit in his experimental role, completely neutral.

The results of the experiment were terribly disturbing. Fully 65% of the experimental subjects delivered the maximum possible voltage, indicated as 450 volts. No subject stopped before reaching the "do not go beyond" indicator. To a man, every subject was willing to take actions that they believed would cause great physical harm or death to another human being.

Now, we all would like to think that we could resist such behavior, that our sense of right and wrong would prevail. However, the results of this experiment, and of its many variations, conclusively demonstrate that few if any of us could refuse to comply with the wishes of the researcher. So, if you are willing set the bar for moral validation so high that no mortal could ever attain it, you can condemn the actions of the study participants. I, for one, am willing to cut us all a little more slack.

The soldier, like the experimental subject, is in a situation where they are at the mercy of another person's authority. However, the explicit authority governing the experiment is extremely mild in comparison to the power wielded by a soldier's commanding officer. Immense forces of coercion are brought to bear on a soldier to ensure that he dutifully complies with his commanders wishes. And if we are unable to control our actions in such a relatively benign setting as the Milgram experiment, is there any question that a soldier is completely at the mercy of his command structure?

As I see it, that's the bottom line. I condemn this war and those who administer it. The closer the individual is to the top of the chain of command, the more I hold him accountable for the consequences of the conflict. But the foot soldier has no choice in the matter. Quite literally, his conduct is beyond his earthly control. And therefore his actions I absolve of moral stain.

Individuals who are unaware of the power of authority to compel obedience may be unable to unravel the connection between the soldier and the larger conflict. However, it is my hope that those armed with this knowledge will be able to do so successfully, enabling them to support the troops, irrespective of the cause they serve.

Update: both Intel Dump and Peat are thinking about this issue.

Update: added link and fixed typo.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

History Is Not Bunk

Tom Friedman reaches down from his palace on high to lecture the poor, unwashed, pacifist masses:

However this war started, however badly it has been managed, however much you wish we were not there, do not kid yourself that this is not what it is about: people who want to hold a free and fair election to determine their own future, opposed by a virulent nihilistic minority that wants to prevent that. That is all that the insurgents stand for.
Is he really saying this? Is he really telling me that the fact that our intervention was based upon a false premise no longer matters? Is he really saying that its mismanagement is irrelevant to the present situation? Is it really all about good guys and bad guys now? I think not.

I don't know where Tom Friedman is getting his information, but to my knowledge no mainstream voice speaking in opposition to the war effort is heralding the methods and goals of the insurgency. Opposition is based ENTIRELY on the initial false premise and on the mismanagement of the endeavor. Without both of these historical precedents, the insurgency he despises would not even exist.

Personally -- I never wanted this war. But when my opposition could not prevent it, I prayed that somehow a noble end would be achieved. The implication that my "failure" to recognize what "the insurgents stand for" is somehow responsible for its success is absurd and offensive.

Kevin Drum has a much more accurate assessment:

Even war enthusiasts ought to agree that you either fight a war to win or you don't fight at all, and the Bush administration has made it clear they're not willing to take the political risk needed to increase troop strength enough to put down the insurgency and stabilize Iraq, a step that everyone agrees is a precondition for democracy. Don Rumsfeld won't do it because he wants to prove he was right all along about using a small, light force, and George Bush won't do it because George Bush never changes his mind — ever.
As they say (or should say, anyway), the buck stops here. There is no blood on my hands.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Rare (or not so rare) Candor

Kevin Drum led me over to Andrew Sullivan this morning where I discovered a few juicy tidbits.

Consider the following passage from Krugman’s 7 December column:

My favorite example of their three-card-monte logic goes like this: first, they insist that the Social Security system's current surplus and the trust fund it has been accumulating with that surplus are meaningless. Social Security, they say, isn't really an independent entity -- it's just part of the federal government.

If the trust fund is meaningless, by the way, that Greenspan-sponsored tax increase in the 1980's was nothing but an exercise in class warfare: taxes on working-class Americans went up, taxes on the affluent went down, and the workers have nothing to show for their sacrifice.

But never mind: the same people who claim that Social Security isn't an independent entity when it runs surpluses also insist that late next decade, when the benefit payments start to exceed the payroll tax receipts, this will represent a crisis -- you see, Social Security has its own dedicated financing, and therefore must stand on its own.
There’s another way of reading this. (1) This part is true. (2) Yes, the Greenspan-sponsored tax increase was an exercise in class warfare, and that’s a bad thing. (3) No, it’s still not an independent entity.
Let me take a crack at this "another way of reading this" stuff. (1) I am part of the group that believes that Social Security is not independent. (2) Yes, Greenspan & Co. screwed the lower classes -- sorry about that. (3) I still believe that Social Security is not independent.

Great stuff, if you ask me. Sure, we fleeced the poor in order to prevent a General Fund crisis (a problem that has been essentially re-created by the Bush tax cuts), but hey. Mistakes were made. The commitment that justified the payroll tax increase is, frankly, inconvenient to honor and is therefore no longer operative.

Andrew, the history of the Social Security still matters in this debate. You can't simply ignore the pieces of the history you wish didn't exist. Nice try, though.

One last thing. If you thought I was blowing smoke in my last post about system noise being used as justification for system abolition, take a look here:

SOCIAL SECURITY AND SELF-RELIANCE: Which leads us to Social Security. It’s not that I agree with Paul Krugman—that the Bush administration’s true intention is to destroy a successful government program precisely because it represents an ideological affront—but, well, Social Security is an affront to the “ideology of self-reliance,” and it fosters dependency.

Some noise is inherent. Deal with it, Andrew.

Signal and Noise

My father used to tell me when I was growing up that if I was going to do something, I should do it right or not at all. I'm sure that we've all been told this at one time or another. In general, I would say that it isn't bad advice. It's another way of saying don't be half-assed in your endeavors.

Sometimes, though, advice like this can get you into trouble. The problem, as I see it, is the subjectivity in the phrase "do it right." Often times it is easy to divine what this means. But, the more complex the problem is, the more difficult it is to determine what the right way is. And since we are often ready to abandon efforts when we decide that a certain path is not the right one, it's fairly important that our criteria for right and wrong be appropriate for the situation.

Let's look at an example from the world of engineering (yes -- I know, let's all contain our excitement).

In Chaos: Making a New Science, James Gleick describes a problem that IBM engineers were faced with during the infancy of computer networking. At the time the engineers were attempting to transmit data between computer systems across telephone lines. Unfortunately, telephone lines were (and are) quite noisy. That's OK for us humans since a dropped word here and there won't disturb us; we can generally fill in the missing pieces from the surrounding context. However, computers cannot recover dropped data bits in the same way. Dropped data is simply lost, often corrupting the entire datastream. Clearly this is an important problem for the engineers to resolve.

To solve this problem, they initially attempted to raise the signal strength to drown out the noise. They also investigated using quieter transmission lines. Both of these strategies achieved a degree of success. However, they still were faced with occasional bursts of "spontaneous noise" that, despite their best efforts, they could not successfully eliminate or even explain. Eventually they came to the conclusion that they would never be able to completely eradicate noise from the system. In other words, they accepted that noise was a fundamental component of the system that they had developed. Once they faced this reality, they switched tactics. Instead, they used standard signal strength and transmission lines while employing an error correction algorithm that would resend data that had been lost in transit. It meant that more data had to move through the system for the same amount of information to be transmitted. But, it was much cheaper and, most importantly, extremely effective. In fact, this identical strategy is still used today in modern data transmission systems (TCP/IP networks, CD/DVD players, etc.).

Now, let's get back to my father's advice.

If the engineers had been too rigid in their interpretation of their goal, if they had insisted upon sending noiseless signal, they would never have achieved the ultimate goal. If they had interpreted "doing it right" as completely eliminating noise, and if they had followed my father's advice to the letter, they might have decided to do it "not at all." Fortunately, they were able to take a more expansive view of the problem.

I think there's a lesson to be learned here.

As a society, we are constantly faced with important, large-scale problems of staggering complexity. The systems we employ to address these problems are frequently just as complex. And in all of these systems, noise exists. No matter how hard we try or what resources we bring to bear, we will never eliminate this noise. It is a fundamental component of these systems. Instead, we should accept the inevitability of noise and focus on the larger problem at hand.

Conservatives traditionally trash the welfare system because it can be abused and because it creates disincentives in the communities it is attempting to assist. To them, these issues justify its abolition. However, these problems are the noise of the welfare system. I freely acknowledge that welfare abuse exists. Likewise, I acknowledge that it creates a mild disincentive in some individuals. But the existence of this noise does not indict the system as long as it is achieving its central goal -- averting the most extreme consequences of impoverishment. Strategies should be developed to correct this noise, but its existence alone does not argue against the system at large.

In any substantial military action, there will be civilian casualties, collateral damage, and war crimes committed by all engaged parties. No amount of effort will successfully eradicate them. They are the noise of the war system. Does the existence of this noise mean we should never enter military conflict? No. But it does mean that we have to accept them whenever we apply military force. We should do all we can to reduce their consequences, but we must understand their inevitability. Therefore, any honest attempt to justify military action must include these factors in the calculus. Whatever the goal, it must be worth the infliction of atrocity.

Noise exists. Always. Accept it. Expect it. Work with it. And don't let it distract you from doing it right, whatever it is.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Some Minor Changes

I've added a few features to the blog this evening. Specifically, I've switched to Haloscan comments/trackback and I've added a site feed (provided by FeedBurner). Also, you'll notice a link to e-mail me if you so desire.

I think that everything is working, but you never know until it's been field tested. If you notice any problems I would greatly appreciate it if you would let me know in comments or via e-mail.

Thanks. More actual content soon.

Update: I've just noticed that the switch to Haloscan resulted in the loss of all current comments. Alas. Just to let you know, if you have left a comment on the site, I promise that I read them and responded graciously (I'm looking at you, Peatey). Hopefully these growing pains will dissipate shortly.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Peace Activist Bites Dog

Over at Alicublog (via Atrios), this little story bubbles to the service. A soldier is beaten up outside a concert, he asserts that it is because of his Iraqi Freedom T-shirt, and everyone assumes that his assailant is a peace activist.

Could there be a more beautiful example of the fundamental attribution error?

What's great about this is that there is a tremendous amount of information about the event that should've caused people to question the narrative. What the hell is a peace activist doing in the parking lot of a Toby Keith concert? What the hell is a peace activist doing attacking anyone -- doesn't that kind of go against type? Then, we learn that the attacker was a war veteran. Do people question the narrative yet? Nope. Instead, he is transformed into a soldier who has gone over to the dark side.

Ultimately, we learn that the event arose after "exchanged insults" regarding their respective units.

Narrative: the assailant's actions were driven by who he was -- a peace activist (dispositional attribution).
Reality: the assailant's actions were driven by conflict arising in the moment (situational attribution).

The narrative is wrong, but is wrong in a very specific, highly predictable fashion. Keep an eye out for this stuff. It's everywhere.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

A Word on Social Security

Social Security is a hot topic these days. Apparently it is going to be the Bush administration's premier domestic policy initiative. That's great news considering the success he has had with tax cuts, job creation, and the Iraq War.

But, seriously…

Now plan has been revealed, so it's a bit difficult to speak about specifics. However, one thing that is clear is that it will, on some level, include a degree of privatization. And when you get down to it, that's enough to hate it. I mean, it's costly, it shifts risk onto those who can least bear it, it's not clear that it will solve the problem that supposedly justifies it, and it's not even clear that a problem exists. So, that's enough for me.

But, once you get outside all the wonkiness, you can see a real disparity of intent in the two camps. By this I mean that supporters of this policy fail to understand the central purpose of Social Security: preventing poverty in the elderly and the disabled.

Social Security isn't about making people rich. It's about making them financially safe (hence the name). We can all yammer on about how responsible people should save for their retirement and how well they would do if they just socked a little away in a 401(k) every year. But even assuming that everyone was responsible enough to do that and had enough income over expenses to afford to do that, some people are going to make bad choices and/or have bad luck. Those people are going to be old, unable to earn a living, and therefore destitute. Add in the disabled (and all the people we recklessly assumed earlier would be responsible enough to save and responsible enough to earn respectable income) and you have a real problem on your hands.

Like it or not, privatization is a step in this direction. The degree of privatization determines how far you go, but not where you're headed.

The irony of all of this is that when the shit hits the fan, the government is going to step in and bail the retirees out anyway. That's what happened in Chile when their privatization plan failed to prevent elderly poverty. It'll happen here, too. There is exactly a 0% possibility that the most politically active demographic will allow a substantial portion of its population to suffer this sort of severe economic hardship.

So, we pay now for the transition and later for the cleanup. Sounds great. Sign me up.

Friday, December 17, 2004

UN Critics -- Back Off!

I happened to catch former Ambassador Dore Gold on The Daily Show a couple of nights ago and he made a comment that got me to thinking. He was out plugging his new book Tower of Babble: How the United Nations Has Fueled Global Chaos which is, as the title suggests, rather critical of the UN. Since I haven't read the book, I can't speak to the arguments therein. That said, Gold did lay out the Reader's Digest version on the show and I can only assume that it fairly represents his thesis. If so, I've got to say that I have a little problem with Mr. Gold.

I don't have access to transcripts, so everything that follows is a paraphrase. If it turns out that I've unfairly reproduced what was said, I'll make an appropriate retraction in a future post.

With that out of the way, here's the thrust of the interview. The UN is problematic because it lacks "standards." To bolster this claim, Gold pointed to the promotion of Syria to the Security Council. His question was: how can the UN effectively combat global terrorism when a member of the Security Council is a supporter of terrorist activity?

Well, as I recall, when the Bush administration went to the UN in late 2002 to get a resolution compelling the reintroduction of weapons inspectors to Iraq, they unanimously succeeded. Yes, including Syria. A major rationale for that resolution was, of course, the threatened collaboration of Saddam Hussein with global terrorists.

But, successes that completely contradict the point aside, is that what the UN is all about anyway?

Every time somebody criticizes the UN, the issue seems to be that the UN is failing to endorse US policy. Given the influence that the United States structurally wields within the UN, I can understand why it is frustrating when it does not bend to our will. But, like it or not, the UN does not exist to legitimize US actions, regardless of how noble we perceive them to be. In fact, the more of a rubber stamp it is for us, the less legitimate it is in the eyes of the world.

Given the disparity of interests across the globe, it shouldn't surprise anyone that consensus is difficult to achieve. That's the nature of the beast. And the UN is not without inherent bureaucratic inefficiencies (and, frankly, corruption). Many things could be done to increase its effectiveness when it finally takes action. However, imposing "standards" that would allow the US to dictate UN policy even more than it already does is the last thing that it needs. If competing interests aren't allowed to have voice then membership incentive evaporates. Nonallied nations will drop out. You might then have more consensus, but will it mean anything?

Mr. Gold, what you want is a body of allies, not a deliberative organization. And you can have one. But not at the UN.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Wish I'd Said That

The liberal dominance of academia is a well-documented phenomenon. Not that it needs to be (well-documented, that is), since anyone who has been to college will tell you that. But, I suppose more data is always welcome. The interesting thing, though, is not the existence of the phenomenon, but the reaction to it. And specifically, the Republican/conservative reaction. I mean, it's really bizarre. For more on this, check out this Jonathan Chait commentary (via Nick Confessore over at Tapped).

You know, when I'm in a roomful of experts I have a tendency to defer to their judgment in their area of expertise. Otherwise, I end up looking like kind of a jackass -- something I avoid when I can. Apparently, the modern conservative movement has no such fears. At any rate, Chait's commentary basically says it all. I'm just envious that he said it first.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Size Matters -- So What?

What the hell is up with this post anyway? I mean, what the hell does it have to do with anything else that I've written about here.

Well, today I'm going to try and link it up. Wish me luck.

To briefly review, the basic thrust of the original post was that the size of a physical object greatly affects the rules to which it is subject. Small objects are ruled by a different set of physical forces than are large objects. As you may recall, I used a few real-world, yet crude, examples to demonstrate this point. There are other, better examples of this phenomenon. For example, anyone who has spent time studying physics will acknowledge that quantum theory (the physics of the very small) is utterly incompatible with classical theory (the physics of everyday size). This is less true now then it was when I was in college, largely due to efforts to discover a unifying theory. But, it is true enough for our purposes here. The point is that using theory developed to explain observed phenomenon on one scale is often inappropriate when the scale changes, especially when the scale changes dramatically.

Now, let's apply this in a more familiar context. Growing up in my family we had what you might describe as a zero-tolerance policy toward drug use. I'm sure we were hardly unique in that respect. There were no allowances for "experimentation" or distinctions made between "use" and "abuse". The expectation was simply that we were to be a 100% drug-free household. As policy for a family, that makes a lot of sense. While I'll admit it did not completely succeed in its goal, it wasn't an unreasonable policy to pursue. And for many families it works like a charm.

As you are doubtlessly aware, this is essentially the same policy that is used by the United States government. How's that working? Not so well. Drug enforcement is enormously expensive. Due to the creation of a black market, it enriches criminal warlords, fuels violence, and spreads corruption throughout the enforcement system. Our prisons are filled with nonviolent drug users, often forcing the early release of violent offenders. Due to the fact that there is rarely a complaining victim accompanying an illegal drug transaction, the police are forced to employ entrapment, unscrupulous informants, and a, shall we say, loose reading of the fourth amendment in order to successfully prosecute violations of drug statutes. And, believe me, this is a short list of the problems that are a direct result of our current prohibition policy. For all that, drug use has remained largely stable over the last 40 years. Politicians frequently discuss their desire for a drug-free America, but realistically we are not now, nor will we ever be, capable of reaching that utopian goal.

Yet, in spite of overwhelming evidence of prohibition's failure, and in spite of its failure in its previous incarnation (see amendment 18), Americans overwhelmingly favor perseverance.

Obviously, there are many reasons why this is true. For one thing, no politician has ever lost an election for being too tough on drugs. Users themselves are a highly marginalized group and are therefore politically inconsequential. And drug abuse is a real problem with real consequences for the individual and for society at large. But, after following a failed policy for literally decades, you would think that enthusiasm for it would wane. Why doesn't it?

I suggest that one underappreciated factor is that we, as a whole, fail to recognize that scale changes the rules. Stiff, zero-tolerance policies work well on small groups. These are the rules we know and enforce in our own lives. Therefore, these are the rules we gravitate toward when we divine social policy. When they fail to work as expected, rather than question the theory, we question their implementation. It takes a tremendous amount of evidence, and an uncommonly open mind, before we're willing to explore other options.

Here's another example: abortion. In many families, abortion is not an option, regardless of circumstances. Within that family, given the fairly homogeneous moral and religious values that most likely exist there, that policy is not likely to create unmanageable problems. Change the scale of policy application and suddenly a substantial portion of hospital beds in our nation are populated by women who endured a botched abortion.

This is not to say, in either the case of drug or abortion policy, that the opposite position (legalization/abortion on demand) is the correct one. That may or may not be true and is frankly beyond the scope of this post. The point is that, whatever policy turns out to be the most effective, it will only be discovered when we acknowledge that insights gained from studying smaller systems have extremely limited application and rarely extrapolate smoothly.

So, I say again, size matters.

Friday, December 10, 2004

The Fundamentals of Attribution

One of the hooks of Rush Limbaugh's radio show is his supposed ability to reveal the true character of the liberal. As amusing as these conclusions are, I'm going to stay away from specifics. Instead, I'm simply going to address the general formula: liberals do X because they are Y. In this context, X is any undesirable behavior or policy endorsement and Y is any of a host of negative personal characteristics (arrogance, elitism, phoniness, etc.). It's a beautifully simple system for slamming the opposition, it's appliable to nearly any imaginable situation, and his audience eats it up. It's no wonder he breaks this tool out of his rhetorical toolbox every day.

It's almost enough to convince me that he understands Attribution Theory. The problem is that not enough of the rest of us do. Let's see if we can change that.

As social animals, human beings are constantly observing the behavior of those around us. One of the most important aspects of this observation is the evaluation of motive. This evaluation is instrumental as we attempt to determine how to appropriately distribute our trusts. Thus, the phenomenon is an unavoidable consequence of social interdependence. Now, what is interesting about this process is that motivations have a tendency to break down into two main categories: dispositional and situational. In other words, behavior can be explained by character or by circumstance.

Unfortunately, it is rarely possible to know with any degree of certainty which of these two attributional categories controls in any situation. This can be incredibly problematic because our opinion of an individual can radically change depending upon how we categorize his motivation. To see this in action, let's look at a hypothetical situation:

Imagine you work in a warehouse. One day, you are on the floor peacefully going about your duties. A coworker is walking by. Suddenly, just as he reaches you, he gives you a hard shove, propelling you several feet away and knocking you to the floor. At this point, you are most likely to conclude that your coworker is a dangerous asshole (dispositional attribution). However, in the next moment, a large and heavy box slams to the floor right where you had been standing, apparently fallen from its perch high above. Now, realizing that your coworker just saved you from serious injury or death, you probably conclude that your coworker is a quick thinking Samaritan (situational attribution).

As we can see, the switch from dispositional to situational attribution transforms the character of our coworker from bully to hero. Pretty dramatic, don't you think?

Of course, this example is pretty simplistic because, eventually, all the data that is required to make the correct evaluation is available to us. In the real world, this frequently is not the case. For example, when someone cuts you off on the highway, is it because he's dangerous and inconsiderate or is it because he's having a medical emergency that is compelling him to navigate aggressively. You'll never know enough about his situation to make an accurate determination.

So, what happens in a situation like this? Well, as it turns out, we tend to demonstrate a bias toward dispositional attribution. This is what is known as the fundamental attribution error. If what we know about a situation fails to explain a behavior, we tend to attribute the behavior to the character of the individual.

Armed with this information, let's take another look at Rush: liberals do X because they are Y. Clearly, this is dispositional attribution. The thing is Rush never examines situational factors. It's possible that dispositional attribution is correct, but context almost always enlightens our understanding of a situation (something Rush clearly knows, since whenever a particularly ugly quote of his boils to the surface he claims that it was taken out of context). Thus, his listeners are extremely vulnerable to making fundamental attribution errors.

Rush is by no means alone in exploiting this tendency of ours to make dispositional attributions. Politicians and pundits of all stripes are guilty of similar rhetoric. It's too easy and too powerful a technique to abandon. It's not going away anytime soon. But, it might become just a little less effective if we all become a little more aware.

If you're interested in learning more about Fritz Heider's Attribution Theory, click here.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

What Controls History

Yesterday, over at Legal Fiction, Publius penned a great post regarding the Ayatollah al-Sistani's importance to the future of Iraq. In doing this, he began by discussing one of the great debates in historical study: the role of the individual in historical change.


The "Great Person" (yes, I'm that PC) theory is a response to one of the most fundamental questions in the discipline of history: What is the source of historical change? To me, I've always thought that this theory provided a kindergarten-level answer to that question - or at best, training wheels that get you ready for the real lessons. For example, when people first start learning about history in school, they inevitably begin with some variation of the Great Person theory. Hitler caused World War II. Lincoln saved the Union. George Washington was the cause of the American Revolution. Given the horrendous state of our history education, Americans don't learn until college (or never at all) the role of broader economic, demographic, and social forces.

Put another way, the Great Person Theory provides a tip-of-the-iceberg view of history, and that view usually extends to current events as well. For example, focusing on OJ or Rodney King is less important than understanding the underlying racial and economic tensions that elevated these news stories on to the national scene in the first place. Similarly, focusing on George Washington is less important than understanding the underlying economic tensions that led to the American Revolution. Likewise, focusing on Brown v. Board is less important than understanding the broader effects of World War II, the Great Migration, the growth of the black middle class, and the efforts of brave civil rights workers.

But there is a more advanced level of the "Great Person" theory that must grappled with (sort of like in Mike Tyson's Punch-Out when you fight the easy Bald Bull early, and then the really tough Bald Bull later on). The Great Person theory is a subset of contingency theory. The contingency people would argue that history is far less determined than people like me tend to think. To them, what we call "the present" is usually the product of random, arbitrary (or "contingent") events that could have easily gone the other way. For example, if Robert E. Lee had formed a guerrilla army (which he toyed around with), the American South would have fought on for many more years, if not generations (sort of like Northern Ireland) - and our country would be a lot different. If George Bush hadn't invaded Iraq, things would be very different in the Middle East.

Now, I'm no historian and therefore I have been spared the details of the debate. But, I get the feeling that something is missing from this discussion. It seems to me that reasonable adherents to either position would shy away from absolutism. "Great Person" theorists would acknowledge the role of broader deterministic forces, while deterministic theorists would accept the possibility that are individual action can occasionally steer historical change. Therefore, the debate is not so much about which theory is correct, but rather about which theory controls in any given situation.

I'd like to take this one step further. I believe that not only are both theories true, but that they are in fact different expressions of the same theory

Let me explain.

When one talks of broader deterministic forces, what is actually being discussed? What are, for example, economic forces? I would argue that they are, in fact, the aggregation of millions of individual economic decisions. Social forces, migratory patterns, demographics, etc. can all be similarly viewed as the aggregation of choices made by individuals. Naturally, these choices are affected by the context in which they're made. Nevertheless, the choices are ultimately made by individuals and will vary widely in response to individual predilections.

Of course, it's useful to think about this aggregation in terms of larger forces, especially when there is so much feedback between the aggregate and the individual. But, in the context of this debate I believe it's important to see the connection between them.

How does this enlighten our understanding of history? I suggest that everything turns on the decisions of individuals -- sometimes on one decision and sometimes on millions of decisions. Another way to look at it is that history is the complete aggregation of all individual choices (with a splash of chaotic natural events thrown in for variety). The significance of each decision varies based on the situation in which the decision is made, thus individuals in influential positions can have wide ranging effects (justifying contingency theory) while average Joes tend to be at the mercy of the crowd (justifying deterministic theory). But both theories ultimately rest on the same fundamental phenomenon, that being the actions of individuals. Everything beyond that is semantic convenience.

Update: fixed small grammatical error -- boy, am I anal.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

It Lives

Whatever fleeting hopes that I had that this story would die a quick, yet painful death have been dashed on the jagged shores of reality. I haven't checked in with Limbaugh recently, but Hannity is flogging it mercilessly. More importantly, people are buying it hook, line, and sinker. In just 10 minutes of Hannity's radio show today I heard three separate callers lament the disrespect liberals are heaping our nation's history. I understand it was also the subject of Hannity & Colmes this evening. At this point, I can say with confidence that this story will outlive all of us.

At any rate, if you are interested in any actual facts regarding this situation, eRiposte has the goods.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Living on the Supply-Side of the Tracks

One of the largest questions that politicians and policymakers must address is that of taxes. In fact, tax policy may be the most generally distinguishing factor between Republican and Democratic platforms. Of course, no one wants high taxes, but Democrats are generally willing to endorse higher taxes in order to fund the government programs they support. Conversely, Republicans despise nearly all taxation with a hatred that often borders on the pathological. I say this because support for tax cuts endures even when it will indisputably create revenue shortfalls. For a party that claims to be the guardians of fiscal discipline, that's more than a little strange.

Now, in reality Republican tax cutters fall into two categories: "supply-siders" and "starve the beast"-ers. Regular readers of Paul Krugman will recognize this distinction. For those who haven't caught his New York Times op-ed for the last five years or have not read The Great Unraveling, I'll provide a brief description. Basically, "starve the beast" is a philosophy of reducing taxation in order to create dangerously large deficits. It is believed that eventually the deficits will create an economic crisis that will force politicians to dismantle large and otherwise untouchable government programs, such as Social Security, which these individuals dislike for a host of reasons. However, this rationale is rarely if ever explicitly revealed. It is, after all, a strategy to eliminate popular government services that would never succeed through direct democratic action.

"Supply-siders" are a horse of a different color. They claim, somewhat counterintuitively, that lowering taxes raises revenue overall. Needless to say, this claim is rather controversial. Despite this, nearly every public voice clamoring for lower taxes will trot out this rationale. And why not? It's another way of saying tax cuts are free. Keep more of your money, without sacrificing the government services we've all come to know and love.

The question I have is this: how authentic are "supply-siders"? I mean, do they really believe it?

Short answer: no.

OK, here's the long answer. Supply-side tax policy is in essence a claim that taxes are a drag on the economy and that by removing them you create more business activity, more taxable events, and ultimately more revenue. I'm sure that an economist would have an awful lot to say about the validity of these statements, but for the time being let's assume that the general premise is correct. Let's say reducing taxes creates more taxable events. With this as a given, how does revenue go up (or at least stay neutral)? It does so as long as taxable events increase at a rate high enough to offset the revenue loss on previously existing taxable events.

But, even if everything we have just discussed is incontrovertibly true, does this trend extend forever? In other words, will the increase in taxable events forever outpace revenue loss due to lower tax rates? Well, obviously no. For example, if we reduce taxes as much as is possible, by eliminating them, it wouldn't matter if there were an infinite number of taxable events. Infinity (the number of taxable events) times zero (the aggregate tax rate after eliminating taxes) is zero. Therefore, no one can rationally argue that reducing taxes inevitably leads to higher revenue. There is a point where the tax rate is going to be simply too low relative to the number of tax events to keep revenue rising or neutral.

Where is that point? That is an excellent question. And the answer to it should be incredibly important to any supply-sider because that point is where they should want the aggregate tax rate set. Moving away from it, either by raising or lowering taxes, reduces revenue, something they are ostensibly trying to avoid.

Now, have you ever heard any supply-sider discuss the existence of this magical tax point? Me neither. And frankly, if you're not talking about it, you're not serious.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

What's in a number?

Numbers are funny things. Without context, they are nothing more than abstractions. But when attached to something concrete, they can be imbued with an overwhelming significance. Yet, before we can truly understand the significance of a number, we must truly understand the relationship between the abstraction and the real world. The process of uncovering this relationship is sometimes referred to as analysis. Without analysis (or without good analysis), numbers are empty and meaningless, often becoming a tool to justify whatever preconceived notion the presenter adheres to.

Speaking of great analysis, I point you to Brian Gifford's op-ed in the Washington Post (via Crooked Timber). In it, he discusses how casualty figures from Iraq are commonly understood in comparison to figures from Vietnam and World War II.

To better understand the difficulty of the fighting in Iraq, consider not just the current body count but the combat intensity of previous wars. During World War II, the United States lost an average of 300 military personnel per day. The daily figure in Vietnam was about 15. Compared with two per day so far in Iraq, the daily grinds of those earlier conflicts were worse than what our forces are currently experiencing.

On the other hand, improved body armor, field medical procedures and medevac capabilities are allowing wounded soldiers to survive injuries that would have killed them in earlier wars. In World War II there were 1.7 wounded for every fatality, and 2.6 in Vietnam; in Iraq the ratio of wounded to killed is 7.6. This means that if our wounded today had the same chances of survival as their fathers did in Vietnam, we would probably now have more than 3,500 deaths in the Iraq war.

Moreover, we fought those wars with much larger militaries than we currently field. The United States had 12 million active-duty personnel at the end of World War II and 3.5 million at the height of the Vietnam War, compared with just 1.4 million today. Adjusted for the size of the armed forces, the average daily number of killed and wounded was 4.8 times as many in World War II than in Iraq, but it was only 0.25 times greater in Vietnam — or one-fourth more.

These figures suggest that our forces in Iraq face a far more serious threat than the public, the media and the political establishment typically acknowledge or understand. Man for man, a soldier or Marine in Iraq faces a mission nearly as difficult as that in Vietnam a generation earlier. This is in spite of the fact that his contemporary enemies do not field heavy armored vehicles or aircraft and do not enjoy the support and patronage of a superpower such as the Soviet Union. …

In other words, when the comparison between conflicts is made, it is apples to oranges not apples to apples. Solid analysis, like this one, destroys the myth that the Iraq War is "no Vietnam". Clearly, the Iraq situation is hell on Earth, even if the bodies don't stack up as quickly as they have in other wars.

And this doesn't even begin to address the fact that we rarely discuss the "merely" injured or the civilian casualties when attempting to assess the seriousness of the war. But, at least it's a step in the right direction.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Size Matters

As human beings, we all have a general sense of the physical rules of the universe. By this, I mean that we all understand gravity, the fact that objects have mass, and the repercussions of applied force. This is true even if we do not have a vocabulary to describe the phenomenon. When one drops a heavy weight, it is understood that it will fall to the ground and the word "gravity" never need be spoken. Moreover, we not only understand the existence of these rules but, more importantly, what these rules mean to us as we navigate our way through the universe. And because our experience on these matters is so consistent, we naturally believe that these rules, and the repercussions of them, are universal.

However, this is only true when you limit the conversation to humans. What about that fly walking across the ceiling right now? Assuming for the moment that communication with such a creature was possible, how would he respond to questions about the meaning of gravity? Well, most likely he would have no idea what you were talking about. His life is lived with little or no awareness of gravity, and therefore it would mean nothing to him. If asked what forces ruled his universe, he would describe the ever present reality of surface tension (the force that holds him to the ceiling).

Now, take a look around the room in which you are sitting. Notice how every object has a unique shape. This reality is so obvious you've probably never even thought to notice it. Of course different things have different shapes. It is one of the primary methods by which we identify objects. In fact, often times shape is the only characteristic that will differentiate objects from one another. Again, so ubiquitous is this reality in our world, we can hardly be faulted for again assuming that the differential shape of objects is universal.

Funny thing, though. Planet Earth is a sphere. Mercury, Venus, and Mars are also spherically shaped, as is every other planet in our solar system. This is also true of nearly every moon, the sun and, in fact, every star in the universe. In truth, spheres dominate existence. Deviation from a spherical shape is the exception, not the norm.

I present these examples to you for a very specific purpose. We have a reasonable tendency as human beings to assume universality of rules: gravity dominates the universe and shape is highly variable. However, as we have just seen, these supposedly universal rules are anything but. This raises an important question: what makes the rules change?

Size.

Gravity is irrelevant to a fly because its mass is incredibly small. The force gravity is able to exert on a fly, due to its negligible mass, is inconsequential when compared against the tensile strength of its exoskeleton. Conversely, surface tension is unrelated to mass and exerts a constant force that is quite substantial to such a tiny creature. At the other end of the scale, gravity becomes so powerful that it crushes everything above a certain mass into a sphere.

The lesson here is that size determines the rules. And, not only in the physical universe.

More on this soon.

Click here to read Part II
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