Monday, May 29, 2006

Let's Go Home

Former NSA director and retired military man William Odom has a great piece in Foreign Policy Mag advocating an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. Odom argues that stability for Iraq exists only on the other side of a civil war at the end of which some sort of consolidation of power will occur. That's a more pessimistic view than I would endorse, but I think it's not far off. Odom also argues that every other element of our foreign policy and our war on terror is being held hostage by Iraq, and until we get out we will be unable to make any forward progress. My favorite part is his discussion of the political impacts of withdrawal:

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the world’s opinion of the United States has plummeted, with the largest short-term drop in American history. The United States now garners as much international esteem as Russia. Withdrawing and admitting our mistake would reverse this trend. Very few countries have that kind of corrective capacity. I served as a military attaché in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow during Richard Nixon’s Watergate crisis. When Nixon resigned, several Soviet officials who had previously expressed disdain for the United States told me they were astonished. One diplomat said, “Only your country is powerful enough to do this. It would destroy my country.”

Deficits Matter

Here's a brief update on how we've lost control of our own interest rates, and now sacrifice our economic welfare to fund the federal deficit.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Political Process

Hank, thanks for that post. It will take a while to process, and I'm afraid that my time is pretty limited these days. So I'll try to bite off a few bits at time. The basic question here is about decision-making and the costs and benefits of various approaches and how to evaluate particular issues to determine which approach is appropriate for that issue. The big question of trying to apply some generalized system and draw conclusions about whether we have enough or too much of one approach or another is an important one, but it's more than I'm willing to bite off without working through some of the ancillary issues.

First, I want to agree with you on the stupidity of this unidimensional visualization of politics that is popular in the U.S. There is a left and a right and various points in the middle and on the extremities and that's that. Not only is that inaccurate, but I really believe that this metaphor tends to promote partisanship and stifle substantive policy discussion. A real policy dialogue is founded on common ground, and it is much easier to find common ground with other parties when you visualize policy as existing on many dimensions rather than as a point on a line. And it trivializes everything. Somehow Joe Lieberman becomes a moderate Democrat, when he's not moderate about anything. He is a zealous social conservative and an unrepentant fan of big and aggressive (and irresponsible) government (is it any surprise that he has had a love affair with this administration). But somehow, under our unidimensional view of politics, his two opposing extremisms cancel out to create a "moderate". Hmm.. This has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time..

Anyway, on to my main point.. I'd just like to hash out some of the territory here. Some of what you describe about presidential politics is, I think, referred to as the "equilibrium displacement" theory of voter power. Or as it has been referred to in two of my classes it has come up in, the hot dog vendors on the beach theory. Say you have a beach full of people, and two hot dog vendors trying to sell to them. Where do the hot dog vendors inevitably set up? Side by side at the median point of the locations of the beach-goers. That is, I believe, a Nash equilibrium (neither side can unilaterally improve his position). The only power of any individual on the beach is to switch to the other side of median point. The median will shift one person over.

That is really the traditional view of American presidential politics. I think there are some real problems with that model, but to the degree that you subscribe to it, perhaps there is some sense in which the political spectrum is linear. No matter how many dimensions there are to issues, the positions will boil down to the two hot dog vendors and you can define a line that runs through the two points. Of course, I don't think this model properly accounts for a) voter turnout (and not so much strategic voter turnout (i.e. your Shotgun News story) as much as general voter turnout issues) and b) that there is a fairly broad range of "acceptable" policy positions beyond which non-policy issues (the charismatic frontman, the TV commercials, gamesmanship, etc.) are more significant.

The Shotgun News thing raises another issue: strength of preference/logrolling. If owning an AK-47 is worth 25 points of utility to you, having low taxes is worth 10 points of utility, and having high steel tariffs is worth 5 points (and those are the only three policy questions in the election), clearly you're going to be willing to compromise on taxes and tariffs in order to have the gun policy you want. And I don't think that is inherently problematic. People have varying strengths of interests and should be able to express those in voting preferences. I personally will overlook many policy differences in order to find candidates who support aggressive action towards clean and accountable government, campaign finance reform, and balanced budgets. Add in sane foreign policy and that's nearly my entire voter preference list. The single issue voter is only an extreme iteration of this.

Logrolling is problematic where people are logrolling for immediate financial gains. In general I'm referring to situations where commercial interests are engaged in the logrolling, and are using lobbyists and campaign contributions to do it. They may not care about any other policy except getting the earmark that delivers them a $5m contract, or an agency regulation that puts a competitor out of business. I think you have to distinguish that sort of logrolling (the car seat example) from the logrolling involved in individual voters deciding who to vote for (the shotgun example). The former, I agree, is a serious problem, but I have no objection to the latter.

I think that's about all I can handle for now. For next time: policy bundling in presidential elections. And I'll look into updating the general appearance of the blog, although it might not happen for a couple weeks...

edit: I should add, having now read Ryan's comment on Hank's post that my statements above assumed that the car seat law was a result of industry lobbying.

Friday, May 19, 2006


Sorry guys, I really meant to reference this where I mentioned it in the last post. Having forgotten to I thought I ought to put it here so you wouldn't have to go back a page to find it (assuming you wanted to listen to it).

Why No One Likes U.S. Presidential Candidates

Joe's post about good and bad presidential candidates (if you find this intro irrelevant refer to the final section of this post: Hank 5/19/06) inspired me to put down a few ideas I've been refining at work: since my job requires no thought I have plenty of time to hone my thoughts about other things all day long.

The focus of my criticisms will be, largely, the two party system, but these criticisms are nested within an overall criticism of any democracy that has a government as powerful as ours is.

As for that general criticism it is this: from amongst the infinite number of possible policies imaginable, a central government can only actually implement one policy. To put this another way, a government cannot simultaneously enforce contradictory rules. The point of this is that with regard to any particular issue the public will almost certainly embrace a wider set of potential policies than the government can actually implement (i.e. one). In some cases the people are fairly close to unity in their opinion. Very few people, for instance, would oppose laws condemning and punishing murder. There will, of course, be a diversity of opinion as to what punishment for murder ought to entail, or even what precisely constitutes murder, but at least we can come to nearly universal agreement with regard to the central issue. Questions as to how industry standards should be set, how transfer payments should be structured, and what our foreign policy should consist of are much more contentious. With regard to these more divisive issues we might expect opinions to be distributed much more widely along the spectrum, or more properly, within the space, of possible opinion. When our government passes legislation relating to these issues, which, as stated above, necessarily represents a single opinospatial point, we should not be at all surprised that most people find it at least partially dissatisfactory.

So the problem we're looking at is that, when we vote for a presidential candidate, we are forced to choose between two points of view that holistically combine individual opinions on every possible issue addressable. Even when faced with a single issue this a or b approach is clearly unsatisfactory. What color would you like your car to be? Black or yellow? What would you like for dinner tonight? Ham or turkey? Looked at from this perspective, the absurdity of voting upon such a vast complex of issues by choosing 'a or b' becomes perfectly clear. Imagine you were looking to buy a house and the entire market was just house a or house b. "Well, I did want the bathroom walls to be blue, and these are a sort of bluish green, and house b has pink walls in the bathroom. I certainly don't want that, hmmm…" You might want the deck but that means that you have to accept the brass fixtures, the smaller yard, the garish exterior lights, etc. Surely you see what I'm saying. The fact is that the decision that we make when we vote for a political party in fact conglomerates a vastly greater number of choices than those you would make in designing and decorating a home (and, in fact, a larger percentage of your income is devoted to the outcome of these decisions).

This, I think, highlights one of the truly bizarre peculiarities of our modern way of looking at politics. What I am talking about here is the concept of a political left and right. This universally pervasive idea implies a one-dimensional spectrum of political thought. All political thought, one might think, can be defined as being at some point on this line. There is a center, characterized as the midpoint between the Democrats and the Republicans. There is a point somewhere left of center, the Dems, and another just as far right of center, the GOP. Everyone, it would seem, then falls somewhere on this line. What this would appear to imply is that if I, for instance, take a harsher stance on criminal punishment than you do I must also favor a larger military, weaker social safety nets, stronger government interference in sexual activity, active corporatism, Christian lifestyles, etc. That is to say that, as I move along the spectrum, all of my values shift simultaneously to become either more Democratish or Republicany. I can be on the far left, by which we mean that I represent all the values of the democrats, only even more than they themselves. Now, I understand that few people take this analogy to be true in such an absolute sense, but I don't think that there is any doubt that these ideas, as I have elaborated them, pervade our thinking about our political environment.

The reality, as I explained earlier, is that political opinion exists in an infinitely multidimensional space, rather than on a one-dimensional line. Allow me to draw up a simplified example of what I am talking about. Let's imagine a three dimensional politospace (that being the number of spatial dimensions we inhabit, it's easy for us to visualize). Say on the x-axis (left to right) we have attitude toward gun control. At positive infinity (the extreme right) we have a policy in which we make weapons capable of annihilating the universe standard issue at birth; at negative infinity (the extreme left) we have a policy in which the shooting of a spitball results in lifelong confinement. Then on the y-axis (fore and aft) we have military combativeness increasing as we move forward and decreasing as we move abaft. Finally on the z-axis (up and down) let us plot attitudes toward the rights of the accused, up being less accommodating toward, and down being more protective toward, the rights of accused persons. Within this space we can plot the points representing the Democrats and the Republicans. The Democrats are somewhere leftward, rearward, and below the origin. The Republicans are somewhere rightward, in front of, and above the origin. We can plot a line connecting these two points and extending past them to infinity in either direction. This line represents the traditional 'left' 'right' spectrum. This spatial visualization clearly illustrates the problem that the linear representation presents. Virtually one hundred percent of the points within our space do not fall anywhere on the line we have drawn. In particular, six of the eight octants into which the planes of our axis divide this politospace are completely excluded from the line. These correspond to orientation combinations that do not bear the same proportional relationship between opinion types. Someone who, for instance, is in favor of militarism, does not support strong rights for accused persons, and who supports strict gun control legislation would fall in an octant that the line never enters and thus could not possibly be accurately represented as being 'right' or 'left' she is in fact some place perpendicular to the line, off in the neglected regions of politospace. When we take into account the fact that our real politospace is infinitely-dimensional rather than three-dimensional it becomes clear that not only will very few people coincide with the points that represent the two major parties but in fact very few will fall upon the line passing through these two points (or even in two the ifinants (my term for whatever it is 'quadrants' become when we are dealing with a space with two to the infinity power of them) through which this line travels) which we so commonly use as a proxy for all of politospace. In fact, there are many policy dimensions in which the two parties are identical. For a person such as myself who questions the necessity of the FDA and the Federal Reserve, there isn't even a lesser of two evils; the parties are both equally opposed to my position. Again we should not be surprised that most people feel poorly represented by the political status quo.

Now let's move on to what might be called the 'lesser of two evils' problem. We have already seen that virtually no one can be expected to be satisfied with positions of an individual party or candidate. So the inevitable problem is that in choosing between parties or candidates, be there two or twenty, we are inevitably forced to choose the one that most closely aligns with our average viewpoint. But why does what could conceivably be the 'better of many mediocre suitors' become the 'lesser of two evils'. Well the 'two' is fairly obviously the result of the 'wasted vote' phenomenon. In any electoral situation where there can be only one winner votes will gravitate to the candidates who have the strongest chance of actually winning. The partisans of weaker candidates will inevitably be absorbed into the coteries of the contenders one level up in the competitiveness hierarchy who most closely resemble their true favorites. This process of conglomeration appears to be inevitable. Our system settled into the two party solution quite rapidly and three-way races have remained exceptional. We see the same result in races for unique positions worldwide. Once we have arrived at the 'two' the "lesser of __ evils' also becomes quite easy to explain. Once we have two candidates who are assured to receive virtually one hundred percent of the votes they have a strong incentive to move to the center in an attempt to capture the lost votes that hang between their positions. That is, if a voter who is primarily concerned with a single issue--let's take gun control--will automatically vote for whichever of the two parties is closer to his position, the candidates will have no incentive to leave any space between their positions. If party A takes position A' and party B takes position (A' - d) [lets say that the negative direction is anti-control, so, in this case, party A is the gun control party] and all voters who lie in the negative direction from B will be guaranteed to vote for B and all those who lie on the positive side of A will vote for A,both parties have every incentive to reduce d to nigh on zero. This is because d represents the voters who, being neither (assuming an opinion axis where negative is represented by the leftward direction) to the left of B nor to the right of A, are not specifically guaranteed to vote for either party. Every step that one of these parties takes in the direction of its rival moves voters from the undecided d region into the guaranteed camp. Thus the natural equilibrium here is for the two parties to stand back-to-back, dead center, with an equal number of voters on either side.

The net result here is that the parties will never take extreme positions. This is because extremism necessarily costs them voters in the central region of the 'spectrum'. Thus we get the lesser of two evils. I read an enlightening editorial perspective on this issue in the Shotgun News (a firearm sales publication printed on my press at work). The author observed that if second amendment advocates really wanted to get the legislators to actively support their position (rather than just taking the least substantial position that would make them superior to their opponents in this regard) they must be prepared to withhold their votes, even from a lesser of two evils candidate, until he actively supported a position that they considered to be suitably stringent. That is, the author recognized that, in order to remove a candidate from a centrist position, constituents must not guarantee their vote to the lesser of two evils. They must represent their block as a carrot to be received only by a candidate who is willing to step decisively into their camp.

This last point leads naturally into another that is, probably, more important. We must recognize the power that a system such as I have described lends to a single-issue voter.

Imagine that, based on the principle that our gun-toting friend espoused, you decided to convene a policy advocacy group that would set a specific platform based on a core platform of issues, and that this group would promise its votes to whichever candidate best obeyed the mandates of your party platform. This would be just the sort of action that should gain you the most leverage in influencing real legislation. No guarantees, just performance based voting. Even if neither party worked well for you, you might vote just to punish the lesser of two evils for failing to reach out to you (this would be twice as effective as just not voting for him at all). The problem is that you would have to weight the issues in your platform. Necessarily some of your issues would be better addressed by one camp and some issues by the other. Whichever you choose to reward you will necessarily work contrary to a portion of your platform. Your prioritizing will, optimally, guide you to become a single-issue party. This is an essential feature of our current system. Given the vast diversity of issues addressed by our federal government most single-issue groups will be unopposed and as such will achieve easy victories. Such is the case with many industry advocates and other lobby groups. The single issue that they care about is unique to their area of concern and so there is no opposing platform. Thousands of pages of legislation are passed on behalf of such groups every year without the observation or concern of the general voting public.

A recent example of this sort of thing that came to my attention recently was a law passed in Wisconsin that requires children under the age of nine to use booster seats when riding in cars. In the article that I read explaining this law, it was mentioned that there were fifty children in this age group who had died (in the previous five years) who, it was presumed, would have survived had they been in booster seats. Now, given that there are five million residents in the state and that a conservative estimate would put one seventh of this population in this age group. Estimating, again conservatively that these children make two car trips per day (to and from school, day care, etc) over those five years we can further estimate that the increased risk of death (per trip) due to nonuse of a booster seat is one in fifty-million or less. This seems like a risk that could be left to the parents to assess. But I believe that there is a substantial single-issue safety lobby that argued in favor of this law and that, in the absence of a corresponding anti-safety lobby, they succeeded, even though I suspect that a significant majority of voters would oppose this legislation. This is an illustration of the power of the single-issue lobby. So long as there is no opposing group, legislators can guarantee themselves a block of votes at no cost to themselves. The issue is that, with thousands of pages of legislation being passed into law each year, voters cannot possibly monitor each bit of legislation. Under these circumstances a special interest group can enact legislation that benefits their own interests substantially while only negatively impacting the interests of the general voting population at large by a very small increment. Though each individual instance of this phenomenon may seem insignificant, over time, many such acts may be very detrimental to the interests of the general population. They simply do not have the wherewithal to combat so many diverse special interests on so many issues.

A corollary principle is that issues with regard to which there are two strong opposing single-issue groups will tend to dominate political discourse. The problem here is that these issues will eclipse others, which, though important, are supported only by groups with blurred (i.e. pluralistic) interests. I think this is the reason why such issues as abortion and gun control tend to dominate political discussions. It is political dynamics and not obscuritanist politicians attempting to mask more significant issues that lead to the preeminence of these issues. That is to say that I believe that the commonly acknowledged problem: that our political system obsesses over pointless and obscure issues, is a product of the actual positions of the voters, and that these positions, in turn, are the result of logical adjustments, by the voters, to the format of the system itself.

You may by now have guessed that my central position is that our federal government is making too many decisions at too great a level of complexity for the democratic system to function properly. The more numerous and involved these decisions become the more the possibility that they will closely mirror the desires of the people will be reduced. As the people come to believe that the state is the only avenue through which they can achieve their ends extremism becomes the norm and totalitarianism is the ultimate result. This is the inevitable fate of fascist and socialist political systems. One might argue that there are alternative approaches to structuring the people's suffrage, ways in which the two-party equilibrium can be disempowered. But the truth is that even if you have a ten party system the results do not change all that much. If you went in search of a career and everywhere you looked you found the same identical ten options I do not suppose that you would be well satisfied. Again I would assert that the number of variables that you might adjust in pursuing a career do not exceed those that you encounter when you make political decisions in our current system.

You might suspect that it is not a casual coincidence that causes me to repeatedly compare the options that democratic election present with those of free market options such as the purchasing of a home or the selecting of a position of employment. This is precisely the contrast that I intend to highlight. Government is necessarily authoritarian (this is true by definition) and its decisions are necessarily unitary. As more and more decisions are shifted into the sphere of public authority the people will necessarily become less and less satisfied with the actuality of their circumstance. The paucity of individual choice will necessarily lead to increasing polarism of opinion and intergroup antagonism. These consequences are not even directly related to the natural benefits of the free-market relating to efficiency. They are merely the product of communal decision-making. Each decision making opportunity that we remove from the public sphere by allowing individuals to decide for themselves will result in increased national unity, increased efficiency, and increased specificity in our ability to influence those policies that yet remain in the public sector. Some of these decisions may even be appropriate to government but perhaps just not on the federal scale. That is, the smaller the group, the greater the commonality. Thus, if these decisions could be devolved to state and municipal government units, the likelihood of accord being achieved would be greatly increased. I think that this was a significant part of the objective that our founding fathers had in mind when they provided the limitations of the federal government (through the enumeration of powers).

So, I guess that's my perspective on the issue. I think that our government has become so powerful that passing one bit (here I mean a bit in the true digital sense) per person per biennium is just not sufficient to define a satisfactory course. It has become so powerful, in fact, that a sole dictator could not even satisfactorily control it. No one is in a better position to make the important decisions that our society requires than those who are in the thick of the decision-requiring event. The free market provides for just this sort of individual flexibility and this is its great virtue. This is why the term 'free' market is so important to understand (as opposed to the compulsion and coercion of the state).

I hope you'll pardon any coarseness or incongruity that occurs in the latter portion of this document. I wrote it in three parts separated by probably about two weeks apiece. So I had two opportunities to review the first portion, one to review the second, and I only reviewed most recent portion after writing it this very evening. As I'm sure you recognize it is easier to objectively review a piece of authorship after an intermission, but at this point I haven't the patience to wait another day. The intro may not make much sense but this is because it refers to a piece that Joe posted immediately prior to my beginning writing this, something that is at least a month out of date. Fortunately it has little bearing on the rest.

Since I'm posting I'll just throw in my bit about a couple other things.

I have been consistently reading the posts here though I may not always be leaving a comment. I will strive to leave more just to assure you of my presence.

I downloaded the Colbert speech from Joe's bittorrent link. Mama B has watched and enjoyed it. I thought it was decent though I thought John Stewart would have done a better job.

I want to recommend one more time that you guys check out the link that I left to the MIT talk on 'Winning the Oil End Game'. I watched it again today and it really is a good talk. He discusses how we can eliminate oil demand (through efficiency) much more cost effectively than we can increase energy supply. It is a pleasurable hour and a half to spend in exchange for becoming truly knowledgeable about our nation's energy future.

Oh yeah. And since I always make such long posts I might suggest that we change the colors of this page to dark print on a light page. I acknowledge that Joe is the host and that I am merely a minor commentator. I don't think that the current negative format is obstructive when we read a paragraph or two at a time. But when I make such large posts I feel guilty for making you guys read it like this. I honestly can't say what the impact is since I don't read my posts on the blog, but on Word where I work on them. So just let us know if you find the current format uncomfortable or not.


Thursday, May 11, 2006

Hayden and the NSA

An update to my previous post. Indeed, House Republicans are not thrilled with the Hayden nomination. High-profile hearings on Hayden's time at the NSA are not what they'd prefer to have the nation focused on as the election season warms up. Unfortunately for them, the NSA domestic spying story just got a lot worse.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Monday, May 08, 2006

Politics and Religion

Andrew Sullivan at his best. I've become a big fan of Sullivan's blog. I disagree with him frequently, but always find his take interesting. He is also a prolific blogger, which makes his blog a good place to see what the latest buzz is.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Aggressively Pursuing the Two State Solution

I find it fascinating to read news reports about the Sharon/Olmert unilateral withdrawal plans. You just keep seeing quotes like this one from Olmert: "In the next few years, we will change Israel's character to ensure it will be a state with a solid Jewish majority living in defensible borders.." But no effort is made to contextualize what these statements mean. I suspect many readers (and maybe some of the reporters) are missing the subtext. Conservative Iraelis are growing increasingly fearful of the possibility of a one-state solution and the demographic timebomb it presents (as predicted here a couple years ago). Going forward Israel can be any two, but not all three of the following:

1) Democratic
2) a Jewish State
3) inclusive of the occupied territories

Olmert is making every effort to secure (1) and (2) (i.e. the "Jewish majority" and "defensible borders") and is trying to dump (3) just as fast as he possibly can (although he intends to cherry-pick some of the better Israeli settlements and appropriate them for Israel).

Saturday, May 06, 2006

What Are They Thinking?

It appears that the Bush administration is poised to nominate NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden to replace Porter Goss at the CIA. Hayden, of course, presided over the illegal NSA wiretap program. The wiretap program that Democrats wanted to see investigated by Congress and that Russ Feingold tried to censure the President over. And the administration wants to put Hayden through confirmation hearings. In an election year.. Good on them. We needed a more pubic airing of the wiretap program, and now we're going to get one. The Senate may actually confirm the guy, as only a third of senators actually have to face the voters in November, but here's guessing that House Republicans are not going to be happy..

Whipping Up a Frenzy

This is a brief follow-up to my point on threatening Iran. Mark Bowden (of whom I'm a big fan) has a NYT column how the Iranian conservatives are using the nuclear weapons conflict to generate support and stifle dissent. And we've played right into their hand...

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Controlling Military Spending (Sort Of)

While it would be nice to see some actual cuts in military spending, CSM is covering a report from the Task Force on a Unified Security Budget that recommends redirecting $62b in military spending from Cold War-based weapons programs to items more relevant to dealing with terrorism (including money for first responders and foreign relations). These are good recommendations and perhaps a first step to getting some rein on military spending.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Winning the Oil End Game

I just watched this lecture at MIT about using existing technology to end our dependence on oil. My expectations weren't that high going into it, but it turned out to be really interesting. If you're interested in the topic I think that it is well worth taking the time to listen to this.

Democracy in Iraq and Nigeria

So I was reading this article about Nigeria in the Atlantic (thanks, Ryan!) and I came across a throw-away line in which the author, Jeffrey Tayler, makes a very interesting assertion: "In Nigeria, where one generally votes for one's religious or ethnic brethren, democracy has deepened divisions rather than healed them." I think he is pretty much on the money, and it says a lot about why election after election has not helped Iraq achieve a functional government. When people feel insecure (and not insecure as in "does my hair look ok", but insecure as in "I don't know if I'll be dragged into the street and shot by thugs today"), a clan mentality tends to ensue. If the fundamental conflict in Iraq (and Nigeria) is one between clans, having elections (where everyone votes for a representative from their own clan) buys you nothing. It really is problematic for democracy in many of these cobbled together former colonial holdings. Democracy does not necessarily require an ethnically and religiously homogeneous society, but it does demand one where people don't identify themselves solely by those traits (someone send a memo to the religious right).