Friday, September 25, 2009

The causes of war, intervention, and nonproliferation

After hearing some outrage from western countries following the discovery of a secret uranium enrichment facility in Iran, I wanted to add my own brief comments on the topic. This issue is really an aspect of the larger question of how best to regulate the domestic affairs of foreign countries. The stakes, however, are higher -- because the severe threat that nuclear weapons pose is not a danger to peace but to human life and the Earth's environment. The problem with the debate as it has progressed is that when we focus on answering the question at hand, we forget the way our previous decisions have restricted us, and we forget that the question should not merely be answered for expediency today, but considered as a permanent change that charts the course of our intellectual life as well as our future history. In this essay, I offer a mix of multilateralism, development assistance, and military force retraining to chart a path toward constructive techniques of intervention as a viable alternative to the wanton destruction that marks almost all of America's interventions over the past 60 years.

Wars develop through a process of escalation. Countries' leaders do not wake up in the morning and say "I would like to invade our neighbors today". Rather, the situation develops over time, and a history of animosity must exist to justify the conflict. In Democratic states, there is a dynamic tension between the Leaders and the People that conditions leaders not to start unnecessary wars, even though in practice they may not need explicit authorization. Even the Second Gulf War was not completely arbitrary or capricious, because Bush invented a context of preventive war, a context that Congressional Republicans quickly parroted and which Democrats generally acquiesced to. Had Bush simply issued secret orders, he would have betrayed his own party and violated traditions of the political process in an embarrassing fashion. In totalitarian states, where dictators lack the popular strength and justification of action that a democratically elected leader would have, an arbitrary order to commence military action is much more likely to meet with mutiny. Regardless of whether the order is followed, the reputation and power of the dictator is damaged by such capricious behavior. Thus, in every case, while it is possible for a war to begin for no reason, it is really never in the interest of the leaders to pursue such a war, even if they were to have some private reason for doing so. Wars of manifest aggression are exceedingly rare and possibly nonexistent. There is always some context that both sides will provide to argue that they were acting defensively.

Escalation is required. Politically it takes the form of threats and demands that go unmet, diplomatic failures, disputes over treaty and trade terms, and other general failures of normal relations. Military mobilization and planning is also usually required prior to any actual fighting. Logistical efforts are made in an attempt to reorient forces toward the possible threat, with both sides arguing that they are acting defensively.

During this time, the coordination between the media and the Government is necessarily increased. Part of the very definition of journalistic professional conduct, as it is defined in America and most other countries that have developed schools of journalism, is that Leaders should be portrayed in a certain light at the time of crisis. Since "crisis" is a subjective framing of events, the media must defer to the government's framing. For the individual journalist, it is not really an issue of being a traitor, but rather of being perceived as deluded, incompetent, or wrong. As such, large, image conscious media organizations cannot afford to enter into an argument in which they may be proven wrong or seen a unpatriotic because there is little to gain in terms of ratings and advertisements while at the same time there is much to lose.

In any event, the entire scale of escalation and conflict can vary dramatically, but the character of the dispute is different from that of the conflict. Conflicts can resolve quickly or become quagmires that last through decades, but once they are started there tends to be political pressures to continue. Disputes between nations are more complex and may go on for long periods, but require intermittent political investment. Political leaders must constantly search for new content to inject into the debate, to portray either progress toward resolution or escalation toward conflict. Absent a conflict, the dispute is usually settled on the basis of possession - however things currently are becomes the starting point of negotiations, and the political conditions at home mean that neither party can give concessions beyond a certain threshold. In direct representation, where the two parties are simply negotiating with each other, this threshold precludes concessions that would be politically embarrassing for either party (absent the situation where one nation is poised to annihilate the other without retaliation, such as the gobbling up of Indian satellite states...) As a matter of historical example, Chamberlain's acts of appeasement toward Hitler were only political possibilities for him because the territory under negotiation was not part of England. As a second example, the development of the State of Israel has progressed over the decades to the point that there is severe, appalling apartheid. Any negotiations to create two states are at this point empty of content that the two parties can agree on.

Proliferation really has two components. From the strategic perspective, nuclear weapons pose the threat of devastating retaliation, and from the tactical perspective they are capable of inflicting particularly high casualty rates. The context of Nuclear conflict, as I have previously alluded to, is not really much different from conventional conflict. The only distinguishing feature is that the level of destruction is much higher, thereby practically eliminating the likelihood of any conflict happening at all. If all that this ensured was that western countries become less likely to engage in spurious conflicts, there would be no meaningful argument against countries developing nuclear weapons.

From the western perspective there arises the complaint that nations acquiring nuclear technology are now a greater threat than they once were, and that the rise of nuclear states undermines the ability of western nations to be the "global police". Although this perspective can be criticized as self-centered, the statement is essentially true. The question of whether the United States and NATO really should be the world's primary police force is really a separate question from whether individual nations should take actions that amount to a resistance of this somewhat self-declared world order. To bridge the gap requires a separate argument on rights of resistance. Allowing western powers the privilege of taking direct intervention actions into the domestic affairs of foreign countries is really a part of the global police role as it is defined, particularly by the United States.

This aspect of the global police role is defensible on the basis of analogy to interpersonal relations. The argument proceeds from the proposition that individual faults should be corrected, and at times the source of those faults can be confronted in cultural attitudes and what has been described as "backwardness". The crimes of nations are the result of decisions taken by leaders who either have defects in their own moral character or are spurned on by other political forces, all of which have individual personalities behind them who outwardly espouse certain cultural perspectives. Most faults in individuals come from personal absorption of collective attitudes, and from the perspective of the individual these forces are as immutable as stone, even more so when indefinite, inexpressible in common or expert language, or logically inconsistent. The mind does not usually allow the individual to sink deep enough within himself to reach the essence of such forces, and so he does not believe that his options are restricted or his perspective transformed.

It is a great folly of thought for a person to believe that there is virtue in not correcting the faults of others. A cruel or manipulative person is not designated as such merely because he chooses to interact in a certain way, but by his intention. The intention, of course, restricts the means of interaction. Thus the action taken often reveals the intention in practice; it is an error of oversimplification to confuse the two. The impression that one should not inform others of their faults comes from man's political instinct, not his moral one. It is a quirk of our culture and possibly humans in general that they do not like to be corrected. Indeed, there are far too many cruel or ignorant people dispensing mean or false advice, meaning that earnestly offered advice can sometimes be taken as an insult. Furthermore, people stake their pride in their beliefs and always prefer to change them privately, or not at all. Among the ethical duties of pluralism is the obligation to separate the activities of every culture into virtues and vices, and to encourage the virtues in others in accordance with their culture, while discouraging the vices. To not do so is to draw arbitrary lines between cultures, when in truth no two people have the same culture. Without having a means of judging other cultures, one can apply morality to nobody else, and possibly not to oneself (I could continue, for there is much to say about cultural life and substantive discourse between cultures, but I must return to the topic at hand).

The nation, as a collection of people, displays these same characteristics in aggregate. The laws and institutions of the state can furthermore be judged by their own systematic standards, usually in a much more thorough fashion than any person or action. Therefore it is possible to identify nations caught up in corruption, without equality for minorities, with economic engines that stratify wealth and destroy the environment, and with generally backwards views. Here, I have identified the entire world, and rightly so, because every nation in the world is as of yet still at the stage where it deserves to be intervened with and not yet at the stage of becoming a nation that does the intervening. Certainly, there are prescriptions for change, but we need not describe these yet; the surgery is only necessary for the wound that will not heal on its own. Let us be sure of our diagnosis.

The role that the Western Powers have assumed is not one that results from moral superiority but merely from military superiority. Some of the aspects of this statement are well understood: there is the providential belief in might makes right, the profiteering by business in its many terrible incarnations, and the many nagging questions about the way the global police image is used politically. Other aspects have been neglected in the all-too disingenuous foreign policy debate: the duty to intervene that comes from having power in the first place, the nuances of action that reveal the intentions of leaders, and most importantly the combined effect of the many little things of life that are so different for the global police nations than they are for the nations that usually experience interventions. There are many problems that come directly from the imagining of action as simple moral choices when nothing can be further from the truth.

There are two primary obstacles to the improvement of conditions in any nation. The first obstacle is the isometric force of the political sphere. There is an idea that world leaders have a great variety of different views of things, that there is a great debate about what we should have and how we should live. In truth, this is an illusion. World leaders never speak in sufficient specifics to allow such a debate to actually occur. There is no one voice or force of a nation or even of the state. In truth, the political forces of a state engage in a complex and constant struggle, of which any state policy or action is the result. These forces, through the desire to condemn one another for immediate gains, hold each other in stasis. The state is unable to change its values or its emphasis, it is unable to enact meaningful changes because the marginal effect of doing so is negative for each individual politician. Such is the case in the most functional democracy or the most abhorrent tyranny. Tyrants who are not bothered by political concerns either have no true power or are quickly deposed. In reference to this effect, the idea of isometric force describes how the removal of one corrupt group catapults other corrupt interests into power.

Here, the perception of corruption should be carefully examined. In nations where corrupt individuals rise to power, there must be some function or force in place that encourages and promotes corruption. The typical member of society, from whom all great men are drawn up and transformed, is exposed to the attitudes of political corruption and is usually caught up in it tacitly, directly, or in futile resistance as he rises in power. Since we have all gained power between birth and adulthood, we have all experienced corruption. It is a defining part of western political life, to the point that taking corruption into account in one's plans is nearly identical to taking the politics of the situation into account. Political corruption's motive forces are greed, guilty pleasure, threat, and intellectual corruption. In the intellectual sphere, corruption is the harmful altering of intellectual discourse. It shares its motive force with political corruption, but the arguments that corrupt the discourse have their dual origin in deliberate argument for purposes other than the furthering of the truth and the incidental argument made by the intellectual whose strength of thought exceeds his clarity of thought. In every day life corruption expresses itself in the way that individuals evaluate the prospects of each other, the perception of kindness and benefit, and the degree to which desires and tendencies are either embraced or shamed.

The second obstacle is the lack of technical knowledge, and it is brought about specifically through intellectual corruption. Here in America, there is far too little consensus in the specific sphere of economics, and few things have more benefited the brokers of power. Discord expresses itself through an economic timidity that borders on ideological stasis. It leads to many bad policies, and of course muddles entirely the debate on how we should assist the developing world. Generally, peoples around the world have far too much of a selfish ideology -- they feel, though the message is cloaked in other terms, that the measure of their life should be how much better they are than average, and of course we see the corrupt source of this ideology so much better in others than in ourselves. Ironically, this view does not make its posessors any happier; all evidence indicates it is strictly less rewarding than an altruistic attitude toward life. People are forced by political concerns to exemplify the cultural archetypes. "A man who acts successful is more likely to succeed". There are, of course, many many bad practices of all types, from genital mutilation and arranged marriage to traditional medicine and astrology, that occupy a spectrum on which many of our cherished traditions also fall. Many wouldn't dare tell those who are close to them, those who they have shared memories with, that the very context of these memories is caught up in practices rooted in corruption. It is a political concern that confines us to criticism of strangers. The root of this very perspective is the continued assault on the coherence of philosophy, social science, and economics. The distillation of common strands shows a radical divergence between action and theory, but this is brushed over and obscured by a few strategically placed misperceptions.

The only way to help the vast majority of people on the globe is to give them the tools to improve their own lives -- and these tools are, in my view, the following: modern science, engineering, technology and tools; access to birth control; an enlightened teaching of economics, history, and philosophy (I say enlightened because these disciplines in particular are plagued by meritless perspectives); land and resource control reform to correct initial disparities; and transitional assistance to help nations develop their own robust institutions of justice, welfare, and information exchange. It is no wonder, looking at this, that our interventions have so often failed. Our militaries were never equipped to do these things, and we have so often selected politicians who are proudly ignorant of philosophy and history.

Returning now to the escalation of dispute model, let us synthesize this with the political concerns and psychology as I have described it. The greatest force of persuasion comes from allies. The western nations must be willing to diversify their public images, so that some of them are allies with every nation, so that all nations have western interests that they hold dear. During this process, technology and resources as described above must be combined with trading status and prestige for cooperative leaders. This is a strictly positive process -- there is no meaningful concept of punishment for a sovereign nation. Here we have faltered too often by punishing, but we have also confused pro-business with pro-west, a sad and novel example of regulatory capture. The positive alliance method is the most important means not only of effecting change but of diffusing conflict, because a western power is less likely to attack the ally of an ally.

If this mechanism fails, a process of non-military deterrence must be in force. In this situation, the image of a world government is a critical component of the legitimacy of the entire deterrence mechanism. For this reason, the United Nations is an important force, but it must be conservative in its acts of censure, and should pursue different types of actions than it currently employs. But before discussing these measures, some minor details of international law should be cleared up.

The first thing to note is that the right to emigrate is meaningless for those who are most in need of it. A wealthy person can escape any country with ease while a poor person will likely have no other country that will take them. To add to the problem with this disparity, the wealthy members of a society exacerbate the failure of a state by fleeing it. Measures should be in place to force these individuals to contribute to the security and prosperity of their own country; i.e. we should generally not allow individuals to emigrate, and when we do allow it, they should forfeit any excess wealth. Now, nations should happily engage in emigration and exchange policies, and these should not disrupt the justified flow of economies. However, we should not allow individuals to leave countries whose regimes they disagree with for political reasons, and take their wealth with them, and in fact from time to time the only way to save a country at all is to force the educated class to stay there. The right to emigrate should not exist as a human right; requiring nations to allow emigration seems to be a strange nominalism in the first place.

Another point to be made is that economic sanctions are an abomination. These should not be used. They harden a subject people against the international community. I hardly need to say more.

Lastly, all nations that enter the United Nations should be required to meet certain basic requirements or be expelled. One of these should be to allow a constant UN presence of civilian observers. These observers will oversee the process of the courts, media, elections, and other indicators of the vitality of a country. The United States should allow these as well, and I believe they could be used to ensure that more police officers who are involved in cases of police brutality or excessive force are jailed. Another basic requirement should be an environmental commitment, since nonhuman life matters too.

The means of deterrence should be to pursue several soft forces against the isometric balance in the target country. Positive results are not expected. The only goal is to hurt ones political opponents without in any way overstepping the bounds of sovereignty. Famous people and world leaders should speak out in favor of specific positive reforms that may be on the table in the domestic sphere and speak out against opponents. The principal consumer nations should impose tariffs that specifically target the income sources of those who are responsible for crimes. Though it might also be possible to pursue internal political manipulations through espionage, this option is both unpopular among the populace and prone to failures where a pro-business leader is elected rather than a pro-democracy one. It is risky, because it may tarnish the all-important image of the progressive world leader.

Here, carefully selected rhetoric can prevent countries from being able to start down the path of escalation. This is crucial, because political forces can sometimes push countries toward unnecessary conflict. Even so, virtually any action taken can be spun by the language of national pride and sovereignty. The purpose of deterrence is really to prevent further cases, not to convince leaders to backtrack, because they will rarely do this. Politics is too public a sphere, there is too much shame in making mistakes, and there is no way to return to a state of privacy where the leader can rethink his actions objectively. It is also important to be patient. Simply because a leader can spin things in the immediate aftermath does not mean that his strength will not be undermined in the long run.

Unfortunately, in some cases escalation occurs or there is immediate action is necessary to stop a grave crime or some other compelling reason. In this case, intervention is justified, but only by nations that meet certain criteria, and only for specific purposes. Although a nation may have good intentions in intervening, it is not always properly equipped to do so. Especially in cases where the society itself will be remade, the task cannot fall to a regime that shows clear signs of intellectual depravity (George W. Bush is a case in point). The intervention is an injection, an exposure to cultural attitudes. When the power structure of a country is changed, the culture will change with it, and so it is no wonder then that America in particular has spread its own brand of corruption around the globe.

The nation that has earned its right to intervene is one designated as such by the international community. It must have a military with a specific training, philosophy, and equipment. It must enter special treaties with the international community to have any war crimes investigated and acted upon by the international body. It must be a nation of exemplary development itself. Finally, it must draft up a specific resolution of action that lists the objectives of intervention and clear goals. This document must also stipulate an action and withdrawal timetable; reparations to the host country if it is left in worse shape after the intervention; and it must carefully define the means by which such assessments are made. This document will be approved by the international community before military action can commence and be subject to revision only through that body in a process of formal amendment.

The military force of a nation interested in domestic interventions must be constituted such that it is capable of responding to humanitarian crises. Rather than emphasizing destructive technologies, it should be a military with the capability to rapidly rebuild and restore order in secured conflict areas. The philosophy should be less oriented toward protecting each individual soldier as toward demonstrating the commitment of the invading country toward the welfare of the conquered. As such, every effort should be made to capture and try insurrectionists, to preserve civilian lives, and to protect economic life. This means that large, expensive weapons systems will have little to no use after the initial invasion.

If we do not accept these changes and imperatives, I cannot see how we can carry the moral high ground in our actions. We will be nothing but imperialist plunderers, wearing the robes of providence. We will indeed be pursuing a "crusade" as Bush so eloquently stated about Iraq. We have long been greater fools than we believed.

The essence of nonproliferation is international stability. This essence is rooted in the realities of leadership. The dominant character of the third world dictator is a mild isolationism and a desire to obtain security for his own county while amassing personal wealth. Even as world leaders take the moral high ground against these individuals, they must accept the reality that these "petty dictators" represent peoples who have suffered much greater hardships and injustice through the historical events of colonialism and the cold war than they have from their own leader. There are a few notable exceptions (Consider North Korea - the conventional wisdom is that Kim Jong Il is responsible for starving his own people, however food aid from the US was scaled down from 700,000 tons annually in 1999 to just 40,000 tons in 2004. It is really unclear whether the lack of agricultural self-sufficiency is intentional or the result of incompetence and poor environmental policy).

The isolationism of leaders can often be interrupted by disputes that escalate to international conflicts. In these situations, the probable winner is likely to condemn U.N. intervention much more vocally than the expected loser. This is all the more reason for the U.N to have a presence in all countries and to function as a central body that connects the world to itself. Internationalism must have a track record of success, it must become something that the people believe in, but once it is, even despots will come to believe in its decisions. If the international courts functioned properly, they would make all nations equal, and this is a powerful draw for these despots. However, bringing such a world about often feels like hubris against hubris (or exception to exceptionalism?).

Among neighbors, the concensus seems to be that we would rather not point cannons at each other through our windows. When nations arm, it is often a symmetric response to the actions of others. Similarly with nuclear weapons. This is why any sane leader makes disarmament the cornerstone of the nuclear strategy. Certainly, though, some leaders are a bit erratic, and we fear their rash orders. What could they do in times of crisis?

For the west, the very problem with the development of Nuclear Weapons on the part of Iran has more to do with our history of escalation against them than their relative depravity or backwardness. Just as Bush handed Obama a wrecked economy and two unwinnable wars, so also did he hand him a poorly developed policy of saber rattling toward Iran. Even a talented statesman such as him will not be able to approach the burdens I have outlined here. I wish him luck.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A brief roadmap toward a better economy

The general consensus in economic circles is that as the economy becomes more technologically sophisticated, the productivity of each worker will increase. Therefore, the aggregate level of demand must also increase if it is to absorb these increases in production without decreases in employment. This is understood, and the erstwhile politically expedient approach is to manipulate currency and allow the free promotion of corporatist advertisements and consumer ideologies in an effort to stimulate demand further.

However, stimulating the tastes of the individual may not be possible or desirable. Evidence suggests that individual consumption is not truly unlimited - we reach a bliss point beyond which our total consumption does not increase our happiness and beyond which we will not consume unless in a mental state of derangement. Furthermore, theoretical limits begin to come into play: the budget of actual time to consume is limited - production of increasingly luxury goods and trivial services also cannot meaningfully absorb the excess production; the marginal value of public goods and shared services begins to skyrocket after a certain point; wealth concentrations may run ahead of wealth creation, preventing demand from being able to keep up, thereby causing a failure of self-correction due to market withdrawal of firms rather than selling at a loss; and the spurious nature of fashion undermines the ability of producers to consistently serve at a level of adequate efficiency. The desirability of even pursuing such a strategy is really rather questionable: do we want to exhaust the earth's resources, work our people to the bone, and critically pollute ecosystems simply to avoid a paradigm shift? Are we setting the economy up for cruel boom-bust cycles, and are we critically undermining the opportunities available for young people to meaningfully interact with their society? If so, we should admit that we are forced to the paradigm shift option, that we should move away from a free-market dominated model and start to see markets as nothing more than essential efficiency seeking and accountability preserving components of a modern system of governance (in truth, this is what they always were, and we have simply been participating in an economic cult of sorts).

I begin with the economy of modern woes: excessive consumerism and persistent high unemployment; anomie and a public sphere in which the average citizen is either not at all engaged or marginalized. Assume that for the sake of environmental preservation that we desire to limit the rate of resource extraction with a goal of eventually living in a more-or-less sustainable fashion. Then it follows that there are only two options at the policy level to address this disparity:

  1. Decrease the amount of work done by each worker
  2. Sustain the employment levels through public works programs

Obviously the latter of these options is the more politically palatable. Quixotically, this is the option that is the most expensive and should therefore in theory be the most difficult to implement politically. However, the idea that Americans should share work is so foreign to their consciousness and so counter factual to their perceived universe, model of ethics, and workaholic habits that it seems that there is no hope of ever actually reducing our level of production per worker in a controlled way - the only politically palatable option seems to be to allow the economic busts to occur.

Fortunately, we do not have to launch into the first option until the second has become well enshrined in our consciousness. Given the horrific pattern of American urban and suburban development, institutional erosion, and neglect of scientific programs over the past 64 years, there are more than enough Government jobs waiting to be funded:

  1. Jobs in civil engineering, urban studies and design, sustainable practices research, and infrastructure planning to help turn our cities and suburban areas into livable spaces in which individuals no longer require cars to do basic tasks like buy groceries and get to work. Everyone agrees that we cannot achieve sustainability without actually reorganizing the structure of our cities. This is such a mammoth undertaking that planning for it must begin now, and in fact new channels of action should be created because the processes for approval and change are just too slow to accommodate real progress.
  2. Jobs in our neglected institutions, particularly the judicial and legislative branches of government, the revenue service (because there are so many tax cheats that each new revenue employee actually earns money for the state), government policy advisors and researchers, Human Services, education, and so many other little places where we are letting our society fall apart. These services increase the quality of life of the citizens and also reduce the unemployment level, making them win-win political propositions. The only way they lose is when the lies of business people are believed by the general public. The business people should be confronted when their credibility is weakest - when we are in economic crisis.
  3. Jobs in the academic world and the arts, where we should have rotating positions for every Ph.D to spend time without curricula or research requirements, simply to allow them time to think and develop philosophy or reflect on current events. Everyone who wishes to obtain a Ph.D should have the chance to attend graduate school and write a thesis - and these should be judged by blind panels of visiting scholars on their merits, transforming them into something other than the political products that they so often are today. Higher education should not limit itself to being a servant of politics and business, it should be a vibrant and politically influential institution, and we should stop pretending that some of us are "not smart enough to have good ideas". Musicians and artists should receive support from the state, and programs like Concerts in the Park should become national standards.
As these jobs gradually expand to absorb the excess demand, we will have a period that is remarkably similar to the economic boom of the 90's. At the end of this period, projects of public works and development will complete. We will then be living in a very functional society with sustainable, livable communities and a much higher standard of living for the masses than they experience today. Even the wealthiest will have a higher standard of living because there will be many more opportunities to become popular in their community and participate in events, philanthropy and a great many things that simply cannot be provided by the free market alone.

This is the point when we must execute the most radical paradigm shift. We must begin to curtail the large bureaucracy of urban development and design (job group 1) and bring it to a maintenance level regime. This will help to ensure, among other things, that useless and wasteful projects do not occur. As we dismantle the large bureaucracy, we must absorb these employees into (2), (3), and the private sector. This will necessitate a modest decrease in the work week and possibly a lowering of the retirement age so that companies will hire these workers.

The economic development pattern, as evidenced by history and surely what we shall also see in the future, is one where technology and fashion work hand in hand to supplant existing regimes. The technological aspects of changes are of increasing complexity and therefore require greater and greater commitments by government to plan these changes. Our current economy is mired in its state because of the unwillingness of Democracies the world over to engage in the coordinated planning effort within their own legislative bodies, ie. they cannot work together.

We should either elect leaders who have a vision of a sustainable future, are not petty or prone to infighting, and who are not beholden to corrupt business interests who oppose change, or resign ourselves to the strife, environmental destruction, and the needless human suffering that is the mark of all ideological backwardness. I fear the thought of bequeathing to my grandchildren a world where many beautiful plants and animals are extinct, where we kill indiscriminately, and where we all work ourselves to the bone only to receive the pittance that will pay our debts and buy meaningless trinkets at Christmas time.

My vision of what is possible is not Utopian - I do not declare it the best or perfect. But the escape from ideology that this vision requires makes it less susceptible to catastrophic failures or the rise of totalitarianism when compared to our current system and where its probable trajectory would take us. It is, really, common sense: when there is unemployment, create jobs doing what needs to be done. When there is nothing to be done, do not work. These are subtle truths of economics that none can deny. They are self-evident, and we should act sensibly, starting today.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A brief critique of property rights

Each and every one of us was born into this world where every bit of property, every grain of sand, every sheaf of wheat, is already claimed as the property of another person. We are literally dependent on their good will to survive. Following the logic of rights to its conclusion means that these "original owners" are collectively entitled to determine who lives and who dies among all who come after them.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Comments on the proposed PPS High School System Redesign

This is my response to the Thinkoutloud program on the proposed High School System Redesign. I don't believe the case for abolishing the transfer system has been made adequately.

You can read about it here:

First - As a caller has already pointed out, it is impossible for every school to offer every opportunity. Attempting to provide "every opportunity at every school" will lead to situations where multiple schools each have a few students interested in a particular program but that program exists at none of them, where under the current system that could be provided at one school and those students could attend there.

Thinking a bit deeper, one sees the self-motivation behind the Education System's desire to end transfers and provide every opportunity at every school. Because we lose the comparative advantage of varied curriculae from school to school, the entire system loses efficiency. The resulting shortages will help to make a case for diverting more funding to Education.

Secondly - It is not difficult to make school funding work under a transfer system - even with the current system of funding. Even as this show's guest speaker talks about how the current system doesn't work, the truth is that no realistic attempt was ever made to make the transfer system work.

All that needs to be done is for more of each school's (proportional) funding to be fixed based on the facility size, meaning less money moves from one school to another when a student transfers.

This will have two benefits: First, this increases the per student funding at a school that has students moving away from it, thereby allowing the quality of programs to increase at that school. Similarly, the quality of programs at schools that become packed with students will decrease. An equilibrium is created from this shifting, and we will have achieved a natural equalization mechanism that is not subject to political manipulation by the ambitions of State Agencies. Secondly, the transfer between schools provides important, direct evidence of the relative quality of one or another school. This will force the very good schools to admit that they are overfunded. If we want equalization in education it means the nicest schools will have to get crappier, or more money will have to be injected into the system. There is no other alternative. How about decreasing funding for Lincoln and Lake Oswego in order to increase funding for Jefferson and Grant? Already I can hear the rich (oh, I'm sorry, "middle class") kids moaning. Only a quasi-market approach like what I have suggested here will overcome the rhetorical trump card of liberal urban wealth.

Finally, just to comment on some random things:

* The idea that bussing kids around the city is wasteful to the environment is really an unfair argument. When we are talking about the inner city schools, they aren't really that far away from each other in the first place, high school students can take the public busses, and most kids are within biking distance of their school. Plus, schools have a lot of incredibly environmentally wasteful practices, such as the emphasis on paper handouts instead of textbooks, the use of pre-made foods for the lunch program, the locating of new schools on the edges of town, etc. Picking one of them out like this is dubious at best.

* In order to implement this no-transfer system, a political battle will take place over where permanent funding is allocated. This battle will be political, and I have no doubt that the worst schools will come out of it underfunded. These schools don't have parents who are rich lawyers giving $1000 political contributions.

* What the system really needs is a move toward much more localized schools. The education system needs to become more adaptable to situations and more vigilant, with the resources to snap up choice real estate and have compromise building designs so that space can be utilized even when it is not ideal. This is a ways off, but most people I have spoken to agree we should move away from the large high-school model and toward smaller, more local schools that are anchors in the community. But moving toward a uniform curriculum will mean that schools can't be shrunk down, effectively blocking Oregon from moving in that direction.

* We should not sacrifice a few white students as the crucible to ethnic diversity in schools. From everything I have read, the black student body at schools that have a very small population of white students subject these students to the most horriffic racism. These white students are subjected to violence or the threat of violence on a daily basis, and they face constant harassment. White girls are even accused of being racist when theydecline the many dates and propositions they recieve from the black males at those schools.

In conclusion, I feel that we should give the transfer system a fair chance by making realistic attempts to get it to work. This will mean some schools have funding reduced, and that is simply how it needs to be. Sometimes in politics, it is bad to give the people what they want, but here there seems to be very little reason to proceed with this plan to end school transfers. Thank you for reading.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Nerd Rage

Growing up, I never thought of myself as a nerd. This is mostly because I am tall, didn't have severe acne, and never was into any of those godawful sci-fi television shows. But I did like reading philosophy, Kurt Vonnegut, and leftist literature. I also got into gaming. I played Counterstrike, Starcraft, DOTA, World of Warcraft, etc. In college, I got into Anime and Manga, which I still read for enjoyment today. Now, I do a lot of board gaming. Perhaps the nerd meter is rising. Perhaps I was always a nerd because I taught myself how to do computer programming in 7th grade?

I guess that even though I never called myself a nerd, other people might have called me a nerd. Maybe I'm a nerd just because I don't watch or play any sports. Somewhere during my time growing up, I think a new definition of nerd kicked in and now everyone is a nerd, nerds are cool, and people with genuine interests in esoteric things are part of some nameless class of uncool people.

Well, I've got news for you: those people are nerds. A nerd is not a fashionably dressed, tall person who has good interpersonal skills and just happens to wear glasses. That's a hipster. The class president, outside of blockbuster hollywood moves, is not a nerd no matter how bookish she looks.

Maybe at its very core, nerdiness is a fascination with the real and imaginary workings of objects outside of the bounds of the social - the social world being our duties and obligations to each other and society, and the resulting system we use to judge each other on so many levels.

Ok, so that's a nerd, and you know a nerd because he tells you all about something that you perceive as being completely irrelevant. Before this whole new definition came around, nerds didn't call each other nerds, and popular kids called plenty of people who weren't nerds.. nerds! This is the same thing that happens when people call me a fag when they see me riding my bike. We are not about to change the definition of what a "fag" is so that I can be a proud faggot riding my bike around to save the Earth (and for your information I support gay rights without being gay myself).

So how did this happen to the nerds? It was a coup d' etat by the popular kids. A change in the winds of fashion blew them into the world of Firefly, Harry Potter, Twilight, and other shamefully marketed shit. But unfortunately, when the popular kids arrived in the world of the nerds, they usurped them. They didn't try to learn from them - instead they defined them out of existence.That's why I won't call myself a nerd. The word doesn't mean anything anymore.