Sunday, January 3, 2016

Sanders vs. Tocqueville, Round One: FIGHT!

This is an expansion of my response to this article in a discussion with a friend.
Looking through Sanders’ speech, one can’t help but think he believes that the vast majority of America’s economic problems will disappear if more people have more stuff.
Uh... yeah. That's kind of a tautology. If your problem is lots of poor people, then those people having more stuff gets rid of that problem. Redefining the problem to be a spiritual one, wherein we just ignore the fact that we are starving, is a delaying tactic. It by no means prevents the inevitable social instability that comes from millions of people being unable to feed their children.

This article is just so much noise, ignoring the fundamental reality: the programs Sanders proposes have a decades long track record of providing better measurable outcomes in every way. Ignoring the measurable well being of actual people in the name of abstract philosophical goals is just another from of despotism.

The American experiment is that people rule themselves, by a government of their choosing. It has nothing at all to do with a rejection of socialism. If the people want socialized medicine, it would be unamerican to tell them they can't have it because a man two centuries dead said so.

Every law trades the freedom of some people for the security of some people. This is the fundamental concept of government. Laws creating police and courts and jails to protect us from robbers require us all to pay taxes; we don't get to opt out and just take our chances getting robbed. Laws creating militaries to protect us from invasion are identical. There is no conceptual difference between those scenarios and laws protecting us from catastrophic medical expenditure, or environmental destruction, or joblessness.

The only question is which trades are good. How much freedom (typically in taxation) do we sacrifice, and how much do we gain by doing so? Each trade should be analyzed for its own merits. To claim that the trades that were good 200 years ago will remain the only good trades for the rest of time is not an position that can be rationally derived from any set of premises. It is an axiom in itself, a religious belief, and its implementation leads, as I say, to despotism. 

As Jefferson said, the Earth belongs to the living.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Arguments for Empire

Warning: the below is very imprecise. I'm going to be talking about "Europe" as if it's a single entity. It's clearly not. There are a dozen different levels of integration, with groups defined along dimensions of politics, economics, and travel.
Throwing NATO into the mix makes things even more complicated, since it's a military alliance that largely but not completely overlaps the EU. (Blue is EU, orange is NATO, purple is both.)

Here, though, I'm going to talk about Europe as if it's an entity capable of making unified decisions along all these lines. Because my argument depends on that, it is also an argument for greater European integration.

Europe is in an interesting position in the world right now. By any economic standard, it is a superpower: its GDP exceeds that of the United States, and its GDP per capita is quite high as well. But its military spending is only 1.55% of GDP, compared to the United States 3-3.5%. Europe clearly has the capability to be a military powerhouse, and chooses not to do so.

Why they've made this collective choice is largely a matter of history. The last two times there were major military buildups in Europe, large fractions of the population died. Since World War 2, European defense has been guaranteed by NATO, meaning the United States. (Well, and the Warsaw Pact for a while there.) Since the end of the Cold War, there's been no perceived need for Europe to defend itself. They've been unthreatened, able to spend their money on things like education and health care and social programs. More power to them in that regard.

But Europe doesn't have the geographic luxury of playing the isolationist, when 80% of the world's population can walk there. South Sudan and Somalia have been disasters for decades. When Syria disintegrated, the problem got ten times worse. There are a finite number of refugees Europe can absorb, and they're reaching that point rapidly.

Europe can not afford to continue playing such a passive role in the world. When a country like Lybia or Syria collapses, it is now everybody's problem, at least everybody who doesn't have an ocean between them and the catastrophe. Consequently, Europe must help to prevent and overcome such destabilizations. We must put in place a process to deal with failed states, rather than ignoring the problem.

Put another way, which is cheaper: absorbing half a million migrants? Or sending twenty thousand troops to occupy and stabilize Syria?

Yes, I'm an American. Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan were destabilized by the actions of my government, directly leading to this migrant crisis that Europe and Turkey are now forced to handle. But fault is irrelevant when discussing solutions. This migrant crisis will not stop. If it hadn't been caused by this, it would have been something else.

From a certain perspective, being overrun with refugees or economic migrants is no different than being threatened by an external military: you have nice things, other people want them, and they'll come take them if it's cost-effective to do so. The only way Europe can prevent being peacefully plundered, today or tomorrow, is to actively reach beyond its borders to keep the world more stable.

I speak of Europe, but the same can be said for Turkey. Turkey's military is formidable, but they've absorbed millions of refugees rather than use their military to stabilize Syria. I suspect this is due to balance of power issues between them and the other two major players in the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

For that matter, the same can be said for the United States and immigration from Latin America. The best way to prevent illegal immigration is to make Mexico and Central America safe places to live and work.

Major powers in the world go to great lengths to avoid being perceived as imperialist. Colonialism in the past has led to tremendous harm (see the existence of Syria and Iraq). But in a world of failed states, especially a world as connected as ours has become, a new kind of colonialism may be the most cost-effective solution for all involved.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

2016 Presidential Candidates: Republicans, Part 2

Rick Perry
Rick Perry is presently the governor of Texas. Much of the below is about his record in that position, as well as statements he made during is 2012 Presidential campaign. As a point of interest, the majority of his state does not support him running for President.
  • Is presently facing charges for abusing power
  • Is owned by AT&T
    • Much like our local rep Marsha Blackburn
  • Collected $90,000 a year in retirement benefits while still working
    • So we should cut government spending everywhere except on Rick Perry
  • Rejected free federal money to expand Texas' Medicaid program, meaning over 300,000 Texans (including 40,000 veterans) have been without insurance so Perry could make a political point
  • Passed a bill requiring women to have ultrasounds before having an abortion
    • And then passed another one effectively shutting down almost every abortion clinic in Texas
    • Regardless of your moral position on abortion (which I hold to be tragic and in many cases a moral wrong), I don't hold that it's therefore morally correct to torment women who choose to have one; nor do I hold it to be correct for Perry to pass laws that are unconstitutional. If his religious beliefs contradict the laws of the United States, he should resign, not violate his oath.
  • Gutted funding for child services when 24% of children in his state live in poverty
    • So make sure they're born, but after that? Screw 'em. They should get a job. A little consistency, please?
  • Tried to keep a bill making homosexuality a crime on the books
    • Again, it is in no way the job of a Christian to punish other people for not following our specific religious beliefs. Getting away from that crap is entirely why the original colonists came here in the first place! But Perry apparently thinks that is his job as a Christian, even if it contradicts his oath of office and the teachings of Christ. 
    • ...because Satan
  • Opposed the federal government bailout of state governments, then claimed credit for using that money to balance the Texas budget one year
    • To counter the deficit he created, I might add, with the typical cut-taxes-to-increase-revenue lies that do not work
    • More than doubled the debt owed by the state of Texas
      • Why do we think he would do better as President? Not really clear
  • Wants to send troops back to Iraq even though Iraq as a sovereign nation kicked us out; new decade, new invasion of Iraq!
  • Dramatically cut funding to Texas firefighters, then asked for federal funds when wildfires broke out and his people couldn't handle it
  • Dramatically cut funding to schools, resulting in (gasp) a failing educational system
  • Has overseen huge numbers of executions, including one confirmed wrongful one, which he's specifically said doesn't bother him at all
  • Blatantly lied about the number of homicides committed by illegal immigrants
    • And about terrorists captured trying to cross the Mexican border
  • Censored an environmental report he didn't like
  • Supports decriminalization of marijuana
Marco Rubio

Donald Trump

Bobby Jindal
Chris Christie
Scott Walker
  • Cut taxes, sending Wisconsin into tremendous deficits
  • Said dealing with massive protests against him prepares him to deal with ISIS
  • Spent much of his political career lengthening prison sentences
    • Then advocating for more private prisons to deal with the resulting overcrowding
    • While taking huge contributions from the private prison industry
  • Wants to functionally eliminate unions nationwide
  • Wants to implement drug testing for food stamps and other programs
  • Passed a law making it unconstitutionally difficult to obtain an abortion in Wisconsin
  • Would attempt to unilaterally cancel the new nuclear non-proliferation deal with Iran
  • Opposes increasing the minimum wage on false premises

Friday, July 17, 2015

Reducing Wrongful Convictions: Better Juries

The most critical means of reducing wrongful convictions is to have better juries. When you consider being summoned for jury duty, what is your reaction? Dread? Annoyance?

If so, you're part of the problem.

Now, I suspect you consider yourself to be of above average intelligence. (And if you have good enough taste to be reading this blog, it's probably true!) So look at it this way: someone is going to be on that jury. Wouldn't you rather it to be someone with half a clue? Think of all the really horribly stupid people that could be sitting in that seat instead of you.

Now look at it another way: you're the one on trial for your life. Do you really want all the intelligent, reasonable people like you to be the ones avoiding jury duty? Leaving you at the mercy of imbeciles? Probably not. Do unto others...

(Quoting Jesus, not maxim 13. Just so we're clear.)

So if you really don't think you'd do a good job, or can't afford the time, fine. But don't try to avoid jury duty just for the personal unpleasantness of it. It's just not cool.

And I'm not going to lie. Jury duty for me wasn't that fun. It wasn't the worst experience of my life, by any means, and I'm glad I did it. But dealing with the kinds of evidence involved in some crimes is not easy. If you can't handle a particular kind of case, they'll probably dismiss you. This is definitely a job, not playtime.

Now there are, of course, other factors besides personal preference that might keep you from serving on a jury. In the United States, your employer has no legal obligation to pay you while you're serving on a jury. That makes it functionally impossible for many people to serve. Spending a week on jury duty at $40 a day is a huge hit to someone who would otherwise have been working a full-time job at $15/hour. For a lot of people, that may be the difference between making rent and not. Juror pay should be at least the usual hourly rate of the juror, with some maximum cap at or above the average wage of the United States. If determining that is too complex, just pay everyone the maximum.

How much money are we talking about spending? There are something like 154,000 jury trials in the US each year. Figure 14 jurors per trial, and that the average trial lasts five days. Add in a little for all the jurors that are summoned but not selected. That means compensating juries costs the US something north of half a billion dollars a year.

I'm suggesting we increase the daily pay by a factor of, say, four, to roughly $20/hour. So we're talking about spending an extra two billion dollars a year, divided among the fifty states and the federal government. We're definitely in the realm of fiscal possibility; that's less than the cost of invading and occupying Iraq for one day. And we actually get something for this!

Other costs need to be accounted for. Jurors may have other non-job obligations, like child or elder care. Assistance should be provided for that as well.

In theory your employer can't fire you for jury duty, either, but that only matters if you can prove that was the reason in a court of law. Good luck proving that! Unfortunately I don't have a good idea for correcting that without throwing out the entire concept of at-will employment. That would have huge ramifications beyond the jury system, so we're just not going to talk about that right now.

We also need to spend some resources educating people as to what jury duty actually involves. (Maybe a blog post...) A lot of people dread it for no defined reason at all. Many have never been summoned. Schools should focus some time on this. One interesting thought might be to show informational videos on the subject at the DMV. After all, you're going to be in that line for three hours. Captive audience!

Friday, July 10, 2015

Reducing Wrongful Convictions: Better Public Defense

The Bill of Rights guarantees you a right to a lawyer when you're on trial, even if you can't afford one. Unfortunately, the lawyers provided by the state are often less than effective. Most public defenders have more work than they canhandle, and are underpaid on top of it. I'm sure many do a fine job even so, but you can't reasonably expect first-class work in those circumstances. The public defender system should be improved, with more pay, more attorneys, and reduced workloads.

Worried about cost? Most states already provide specialized appeal attorneys to death row inmates, and those attorneys often find errors in the original defense lawyer's work. The state ends up with a worst-case scenario: all the cost of a death penalty trial, and no execution (assuming the execution itself to be of value, which we've shown it's not).

Why not save all those man-years of prison resources, not to mention possible lawsuits for false imprisonment, not to mention the moral cost of stealing years of someone's life? States should provide better defense attorneys during the trial phase! Yes, it will cost more on the front end, but we get a better, more trustworthy system of justice out of it.

Also, we need to update the requirements for being provided with a public defender. Even the very poor are in many cases still considered to be able to afford their own defense lawyer. That's both absurd and unamerican. Nobody should have to throw their lives and livelihoods away just to prove their own innocence!

Per the above Mother Jones article, we would need 6,900 more public defenders to get the current workload down to acceptable levels. Say we added 20,000 instead, to account for the additional cases that will be covered by allowing more people to be covered. Median salary for a public defender is around $50,000. So we're talking about spending a billion dollars a year, divided among all the states and the federal government. That's not trivial, but it's doable! For comparison, we spent that during the invasion and occupation of Iraq every eighteen hours.

If you don't have functional courts, you may as well stop pretending to be civilization. We have to stop trying to do justice on the cheap.

Saturday, July 4, 2015


I found myself listening to cable news today. I appreciated the music, and people telling what they loved about America. I appreciated that there were many tributes to the armed forces, as there should be. But it's important to remember that ISIS and Iran and North Korea are not threats to our freedom. Al Qaeda and Iraq and Afghanistan were never threats to our freedom. Vietnam and Panama and Germany and Japan were never threats to our freedom. We've been attacked by outside forces, and Americans have been killed. American soldiers have died by the hundreds of thousands to bring freedom to others. But not since 1814 has American freedom been threatened from outside.

Our freedom is threatened from within, by those that divide us, and try to use fear and anger and lies to manipulate us.

Our freedom is threatened by a government that operates in the shadows, ignoring the will of the people and the rule of law and the rights of man.

Our freedom is threatened by those who deny the rights and humanity and American-ness of their neighbors, and who try to use force of law to punish those who do not share their personal beliefs.

Our freedom is threatened every time someone tries to shout down a dissenting opinion, instead of discussing it, and every time someone rejects a fact that doesn't fit their partisan narrative.

Our freedom is threatened by government dysfunction, by elected representatives more committed to beating the other side than to finding solutions that work, and by elections whose outcomes do not reflect the will of the people.

Our freedom is threatened by a false definition of patriotism, one that says it's unpatriotic to recognize problems and try to fix them.

Our freedom is contingent on the idea that we are, as individuals and as a country, imperfect. The framers created a more perfect union, leaving to us the job of making it more perfect still. If we reject that charge, if we decide we are good enough and that no further improvement is possible, then we surrender our freedom to those in power. Because why should we strive to be better if we're good enough already?

If you call yourself a patriot, then you must ask yourself: how can America be better for all Americans, not just the ones I happen to agree with? And how can I help make that happen?

Happy Independence Day!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Reducing Wrongful Convictions: False Guilty Pleas

Why would someone plead guilty if they're not? Plea bargaining. In a plea bargain, the state tells an accused person "You are going to jail. Just say you did it, even if that's a lie, and you won't go for as long."

A plea bargain is great if the state is dealing with a guilty person. But what if they're dealing with an innocent? Regardless of how good a job the police and district attorneys may do, they will make mistakes occasionally, and accuse the wrong person. That's why we have courts and trials in the first place! Nobody but courts should be determining guilt or innocence.

It's just a matter of incentives. If a truly innocent accused is convinced they're going to jail, they will accept a deal and plead guilty, even if they did nothing. By offering plea bargains, the state is literally threatening innocent people into putting themselves in jail.

There is no justice in this. If we want to reduce the rate of false convictions, we first have to eliminate incentives for innocent people to convict themselves. Plea bargains may save the state time and resources, but only at the cost of the integrity of the entire system. We shouldn't be pushing innocent people to convict themselves. Plea bargains should be illegal.

(Now, I admit, we're not talking about the death penalty any more. Plea bargains contribute to wrongful convictions, but not to wrongful executions. You don't get the death penalty after accepting a plea bargain! What could you have pleaded down from?)

Of course, plea bargains exist to save the state money. So we get back to the same question we asked about the death penalty: what is the dollar value of not incarcerating an innocent person? Compare that against the dollars saved by not going to trial at all. I don't have numbers in this case, but I'm betting it doesn't work out in the plea bargain's favor.

At least, once any value at all is placed on the innocent.