Thursday, May 29, 2008

Hypocrisy over silence

Summer Anne, of Boingy Boingy fame, has a new manifesto in her series of manifestos, which she prefaces with this statement that I want to take to heart:

These little ideas and affirmations are written as Me talking to Myself, so please don't read condescension or ego into them. They are things that I am working on, not things that I'm actually telling anyone else they Should do. If you're inspired, I hope it's to come up with your own manifesto, not listen to little me.
Even though I've gotten really into blogging recently (as you can see), I still find myself holding back on certain things, including anything that might seem to be giving advice or stating a moral principle. Back when I was studying acting, I remember working on one scene and being told: "Your third eye is going wild, John. Try it again -- turn off your third eye." And you were right, Rebecca.

Your third eye is that meddlesome little critic in your head who watches you and second-guesses every little thing before you're about to do it. Sometimes this can be useful, but more often it's about as productive in helping me live my life as Hillary Clinton's continued presidential campaign is in helping the Democrats win the White House. I don't care if you have a valid point or not -- you're just getting in the way of getting stuff done, so please go away!

See, I want to use the blog to articulate my thoughts on how to live life ... but then my third eye is saying, "Who are you to say how to live life? Do you really have enough experience to tell people what to do?" I definitely want to talk about ethical issues, but the third eye will say, "Are you really the best person to pronounce on ethics? Are you living such an ethical life yourself?"

Of course, this is ridiculous, so I need to give myself permission to just forget about all that. If you limited the pool of people you were willing to listen to for advice to those who do everything right all the time, or if you only listened to thoughts on ethical issues from those who are morally pure (which I'm sure is the unwavering practice of those critics of Al Gore who are outraged that he doesn't take every conceivable measure in his personal life to reduce global warming) ... then you wouldn't be exposing yourself to very much thought.

Back to Summer's manifestos -- I mentioned in my first post that I was inspired by what she said about being open and honest, assertive and direct. That passing reference didn't do it justice, so here's some more for you:

Start by telling everyone about your manifesto and don't bother with a long disclaimer. Your honesty will inspire others to do the same and put everyone's intentions and feelings on the table, all the time. Ask for what you want instead of taking what you get. The answer might be "yes," and if it isn't you're better off knowing now. Get used to talking without trying to make people laugh. ...

Admit your mistakes and request that others apologize for theirs. Don't confuse honesty with being self-effacing or embarrassing yourself -- honesty includes all of the good things as well as the bad ones. ...

Don't confuse simple, reasonable honesty with radical silliness. There is no reason to try to articulate blurry feelings or over-explain every detail. The point is to be honest instead of internalizing, not to try to extract juicy confessionals out of everyday life. And remember: saying something out loud can sometimes make it true, rather than the other way around. Proceed cautiously, but let. it. out.


(Closeup eye photo by Charloto. Self-portrait with monster umbrella by Summer Anne Burton.)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Should we eat Frankenmeat?

As someone who's a vegetarian for largely ethical reasons, I'm intrigued by the prospect of scientists in a lab creating meat from real animal cells -- using the same basic mechanism as human stem-cell research -- that would be food from the start, bypassing the being-a-living-animal stage.

There seems to be a buzz around lab-created meat: there was an International In Vitro Meat Symposium in Norway last month.* And predictably, PETA (an organization I have very mixed feelings about) is promoting the idea by offering a million dollars to the first scientist who brings the concept to fruition.

Unfortunately, the plan has some serious (I'm guessing fatal) flaws. For one thing, the progress has been miniscule (literally) and glacial:

Despite considerable hubbub over the technology in recent months, we're still years -- or, more likely, decades -- away from affordable lab-grown meat. The current experiments are taking place in bioreactors that measure only a few hundred milliliters in volume, and the longest complete muscle tissues are just 2 centimeters long. Researchers are nowhere close to scaling up their production to market-ready levels, to say nothing of market-ready prices. A Dutch team's lab-grown pork, for example, would cost around $45,000 per pound—assuming they could make an entire pound of the stuff.
But what really disturbs me about the whole project is that
manufactured meat promises to replicate only the taste and texture of processed meat; as far as we are from enjoying lab-grown hamburger, we're even further from perfecting man-made rib-eyes. So even if meat labs did become viable commercial enterprises, the naturally raised meat industry would hardly vanish.

Given our penchant for gluttony, affordable lab-grown meat could even be harmful to our health: We might simply increase our beef and pork consumption to keep pace with production, as has occurred over the past half-century. (According to this disturbing assessment, we annually consume 50 pounds more meat per-capita than Americans did in the 1950s.)
As that passage implies, it's foolish to assume that either the production or the consumption of meat is static rather than dynamic, although this is often presupposed in arguments against vegetarianism ("They're just gonna die anyway").** This contradicts the plain facts and basic rules of economics.

But there's one thing that specifically does not disturb me. William Saletan (a liberal who often writes about bioethical issues but is not a vegetarian) says that lab-made meat would be
a colossal concession ... for the animal-rights movement. Lab meat "would mimic flesh," says PETA's press release. Mimic? Lab meat is flesh. ... It won't walk or quack like a duck, so technically, it's not a duck. But if it tastes like duck, chews like duck, and comes from duck, it's duck.
Well, I'm suspicious of arguments that hinge on a semantic distinction like "duck" vs. "a duck." It seems to me that if something is one of those, it's both. If we're attributing momentous moral significance to a little thing like the word "a," that should set off alarm bells: is that really what matters? I don't think so.

People have this impulse to turn moral debates into semantic debates. "What counts as torture?" "What counts as human life?" "When is someone dead?" "Is lab meat made of animals?"

I don't care about any of those questions! When it comes to ethical issues, these are the only things I care about: (1) What exactly is going on? (2) Is it a good thing or bad thing for that to be happening?

I don't care if waterboarding or slapping someone in the face is called "torture." It either will or won't be called torture depending on how any given person chooses to use that word. The important question is: Is that behavior something that we should be engaging in? Skip the semantics and go straight to the ethics.

Yes, language can be essential to thought, but language can also box in thought. (I'm inclined to agree with the thought-precedes-language side of the debate outlined at that link.)

If you want to say that lab meat is made of animals just as normal meat is, then fine. That just means there's no semantic distinction. But what makes normal meat morally problematic doesn't exist in lab meat. A piece of lab meat doesn't have a history as a living, breathing, moving, and -- above all -- sentient creature with feelings. Normal meat does.

Lab meat does raise ethical issues, but they're pragmatic ones like whether the environmental consequences would outweigh the potential for adding more fuel to our meat addiction. I see no fundamental (non-pragmatic) moral problem raised by lab meat.

Again, I doubt the whole thing will work at all. But if producing lab meat from animal cells worked perfectly -- which would have to mean it would be satisfying enough to meat-eaters that they'd reduce the rest of their meat consumption -- then wouldn't it be not just OK, but morally obligatory?

snout
(Photo by Emily Chastain)

* I once had a debate with one of my fellow law review editors about whether you can ever have a capitalized proper noun after an indefinite article ("a" or "an"). Voila! [back]

** I'm planning a series of posts responding to common arguments against vegetarianism like this one. Stay tuned. If you happen to have a favorite anti-vegetarian argument, please send it my way, and I might include it in one of the upcoming posts. [back]

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Make yourself comfortable

If I'm completely comfortable saying, as I said the other day, that I didn't exist during the Carter administration, why shouldn't I also be comfortable saying that I also won't exist during the future _______ administration -- probably by 2080, and surely by 2100?

I don't understand the desire to have some kind of religious faith in order to comfort yourself about death, which seems to be one of the main motivations for believing in a religion. Maybe there's an afterlife -- I don't dismiss the possibility. But I don't see a very good reason for affirmatively believing in it.

Any belief of mine always has a hidden asterisk at the end, with a footnote that says: "This is what seems to be true ... but, of course, I might be wrong." You may not know anything with 100% certainty, but you can get pretty close. You just have to accept the residual uncertainty in order to get through life, so that you're not paralyzed by doubt.

Yes, there might be an afterlife, which would involve a soul that somehow survives the death of the body. But that doesn't match up very well with what we can observe in our lives. So, I'm going to go ahead and just assume it doesn't happen -- not because I'm 100% certain, but just for the sake of having some basic default beliefs about how the world works. The fact that I might be wrong about this is fine with me.

So I think the correct way to refer to dead people -- more so than how we're used to referring to them -- is that they don't exist. They haven't "passed on" to some new place, and they haven't transformed into some sort of different creature.

This is not at all to disparage the fact that we need to take various steps to remember them. But this is for our benefit, not theirs. Because we're the only ones who still exist.

Cimetière du Père-Lachaise

If my family members or your family members were in heaven, doing whatever it is that people do there (singing? pontificating? carousing?), then there'd be little reason to be sad about their deaths. In fact, death would be something to be welcomed and sought after. (Of course, I know that religions get around this by having rules against homicide and suicide. Whether that's coherent is another question.) But in fact, there is very little chance -- I would say no more than 1% -- that these people are in heaven (or hell or purgatory). They're definitely on our family trees and in our memories; they're not very likely to be going on weird adventures in mystical alternate realities.

This is a lot more consistent with the fact that we mourn the deaths of our loved ones: (1) they are no longer in existence to enjoy life, and (2) we no longer get to be around them. Those are the basic facts, the inevitable starting point for both feeling bad about death but also getting over it. You don't need some extra layer of "facts" superimposed on what we can plainly see to be the case. I find the straightforward, reality-based, secular view to provide a lot more comfort and closure than the "Gee, I hope they went to heaven instead of hell" view.

I know this is supposed to be too upsetting; we're supposed to need to be comforted by something more dignified than the plain, observable facts. But I think this is a paradox in religion: you're told you need religion to comfort you, but before you can get to that point, you need to buy into an elaborate story about all the scary, horrible things in the world: sin, hell, etc. I prefer to skip all that drama and just approach whatever specific problem in my life happens to be facing me at the time. Life is hard enough when you're just dealing with the real problems. To those who offer a whole other set of made-up problems, I say: thanks, but I'll pass.



(Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris - photo by me. We Will Become Silhouettes - video by The Postal Service.)

Monday, May 26, 2008

Reverse of cool

My post on Obama and the coolness factor drew a response from Stuff Running 'Round My Head, who points out that Bush is pretty clear proof that being a bumbling oaf is ... brace yourself ... a detrimental quality in a president. If having the-opposite-of-charisma can impair a presidency, then doesn't it follow that charisma can strengthen a presidency?

Take a look at Bush's well-meaning but cringe-inducing attempt to ingratiate himself to the Irish people, for instance:



If you watch his answer around 7:25 - 7:35, he looks like a forlorn child: "Really what you're talking about is France -- and uh, um ... [shakes head] ... they didn't agree with my decision ..."

In Bush's defense, the interviewer certainly wasn't helping. (What a way to start an interview with a visiting head of state: "Unfortunately, the majority of our public do not welcome your visit"!) But an Obama, a Blair, or a Bill Clinton would have made it go more smoothly. Even Hillary Clinton -- not the most charismatic or likable politician -- can stand up to the most incessant bluster and keep her cool more than Bush.

At this point, I realize I'm going way beyond my original "coolness matters" thesis. After all, I used Bush as a positive example in my original post. So focusing on the superficial is a double-edged sword. Charisma, of course, doesn't do much on its own -- you want it to coexist with nuance, intelligence, the ability to think on your feet. Let's just hope we get this powerful combination in January 2009.

Imagine relatively few possessions

The New York Times recently published a human-interest story about an Austin family -- Aimee and Jeff Harris and their two kids -- who are professing to get rid of most of their possessions.

I'm not sure how a family in Texas gets a long article in a New York newspaper devoted to their lifestyle change. But whatever. Let's see what exactly they're doing.

They say on their blog:

We have no need of a 12 piece, breakable set of dishes and will replace them with enamel coated metal dishes, cups, bowls for traveling and camping with. I have no need of high heeled shoes and purses and will replace them with some sturdy Goodwill boots and a back pack. Things of that nature.
I certainly can't fault them for giving away so much to charity. But for a family who's pitching themselves as abandoning possessions, they sure sound like they have a lot of shopping to do.

They're also going to give away their current cars ... and get new cars (again, not exactly monastic behavior) ... and drive all the way from their current home in Texas to Vermont (where they've never been) to start a new life. I'm not sure how driving across the country -- which is to say, using up the world's resources and unnecessarily contributing to carbon emissions, just to give a partial list of the evils of driving -- is part of simplifying your life and returning to nature. Americans are so obsessed with our car culture that using a car doesn't even register as something that goes against the ideals of simplicity, counterculture, anti-consumerism. Thus, the Times write-up never mentions their car situation, and I doubt that the writers had a second thought about this. Or if they did, it was quickly dismissed: "Come on, you have to have a car!"

I'm not sure exactly what their financial situation is, but it's probably pretty cushy in the first place for them to even consider doing this. Aimee says that part of what's making their project feasible is that Jeff will be able to keep his full-time job because he can do it from anywhere with high-speed internet access. How much are they really vouching for the idea of leading an ascetic life if it's powered by technology in a way that would have been unthinkable just a couple decades ago? You know, it took a lot of people, using a lot of money and possessions, to get to this point.

The family also reminds me of Jason, who's described in the book Your Money or Your Life (blogged previously). He had a countercultural, anti-money life philosophy.* He deliberately avoided getting a "real job." The result was that the lack of income caught up with him, forcing him to flail away looking for any odd jobs he could come up with since he was so desperate to have enough money to get by. His radical ethos caused him to be all the more tied down by material things:
Jason's "money isn't important" attitude was just as limiting as [his girlfriend] Nedra's search for happiness in tangible possessions. Because he refused to participate in the standard cultural job-and-money game, his choices in life were severely limited. He found that he spent more time in making do and making trades than he would have in working at a steady job.
I of course wish the Harrises the best -- particularly the 1- and 5-year-old children, who, like all children, aren't consenting to be confined by their parents' values. But who's to say that the ultra-austere focus on minimizing possessions won't just lead this family to become all the more fixated on possessions? After all, you need some things to survive, and this project seems to emphasize and even glorify those relatively few (but surely still numerous) possessions.

If that ends up happening with this family, or if they just plain don't go through with it, I'm guessing that won't get written up in the New York Times.

* In case you have the book, the character appears throughout Chapter 2.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Secret surface

Everyone's talking about this shot of Obama with Fareed Zakaria's new book, The Post-American World, in hand.

I was glad to see this, since I read this distillation of the book the other day, and it's the kind of thing I want my president to be reading.

I hope to do a post about Zakaria's geopolitical thesis soon, but first I have to point out that Obama looks so cool! He looks like his own Secret Service agent.

"Ah, yes, Obama's appeal is superficial. McCain might have less charisma, but he's the more serious candidate."

I wonder what percentage of the people who have that response supported Ronald Reagan, who would not have ended up being President if he hadn't started out as a dashing Hollywood actor.

I actually think McCain is decidedly less serious than Obama when it comes to domestic and foreign policy. But that's a whole other blog post.

There's a tendency to assume that if a candidate gets high marks in some superficial area, then surely this must be offset by deficiencies in more substantive areas. As Matthew Yglesias has observed, people seem to subconsciously adhere to the "Law of Conservation of Virtues." The supermodel must be dumb. The smartest kid in the class must wear dorky glasses and have no social skills. The candidate who gives inspiring speeches must be weak on policy.

Once you put it like that, it becomes transparently irrational: of course Obama's charisma is independent of his strengths and weaknesses on the merits.

But I would go further. The coolness factor matters. Coolness, likability, charisma, and even sex appeal are legitimate reasons to vote for someone for president.

A candidate who's more personally appealing will be more likely to hold onto popularity as president, which will tend to make them more effective at enacting their agenda. If the president is more appealing for admittedly superficial reasons, that should apply abroad too, and we should want the world to have a positive attitude toward us (all other things being equal). [UPDATE: Here's some statistical and anecdotal evidence that Obamamania is sweeping Europe. And he's "becoming an international phenomenon."] Whether the president is liked by a lot of people matters, and someone who's suave and attractive has an advantage when it comes to being well-liked.

We're not supposed to admit that this does matter. We're supposed to believe that "what the voters really care about are the issues." And so while the pundits are willing to analyze relatively clear-cut demographic factors (race, gender, age), you rarely hear them talk about the more nebulous quality of attractiveness, even when it's obviously important.

When Tommy Thompson (my former governor) ran for the Republican nomination, the few commentators who bothered to even talk about him would struggle to articulate what exactly was the problem with his foundering campaign. Based on sheer substance and experience, he could have been a very strong candidate. But all you had to do is watch him for 10 seconds in one of the debates, and you'd see -- and hear -- why he couldn't make it.

My mom has taken a lot of criticism for breaking this taboo and talking about the candidates' more superficial qualities. People can be surprisingly willing to vehemently insist that something doesn't matter at all, when it clearly does matter.

Here was her reaction while watching one of the Democratic debates (she hasn't endorsed any candidate):

You know, Obama can be a rather cool character. Midway through the debate, I found myself practicing an impersonation of him. Not his speech, but his clasped hands on the table, his head turned sideways, chin up, lips pursed in a grin, his eyes looking down onto the hapless soul who imagines she could unsettle him in the slightest degree.
It's become a cliche to lament that the media is obsessed with trivialities in the presidential race and should focus on the issues instead. But if they would talk more about the actual importance of appearance, this would have the twofold advantage of being more honest and more enticing to readers/viewers. If you can get more people to pay attention to a presidential election, that's a good thing for democracy.

I know there's a huge gender angle to this -- I plan to do a whole other post about Hillary Clinton in this context. [UPDATE: Here it is.] But, of course, most candidates are men, and most commentators are men, and men tend to be hesitant to talk about the attractiveness of other men. And female commentators have obvious reasons for not publicly gushing over attractive men.

But face it: the results of the democratic process over the years are clear. JFK, Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush -- each had his own distinctive sex appeal. Can anyone say with a straight face that these men were chosen for the job purely based on their resumes and policy positions?

Nixon, Carter, and George H.W. Bush were, of course, weaker in this regard. I wasn't in existence during the Nixon or Carter administrations, and I had pretty minimal political consciousness for the Bush administration, but I have to imagine that these presidents' relative unattractiveness -- not just in the physical sense, but also demeanor, particularly in Bush Sr.'s case -- played to their weaknesses. Notice that Carter and Bush were both defeated by more charismatic challengers.

As I write this, I almost feel embarrassed to be making an argument about something that should be so uncontroversial. But since even references to Hillary Clinton's voice and attire are routinely presented as evidence of sexism, I think it's worth pointing out that the candidates' looks, voice, style, and charisma always matter.

Everyone talks about Obama's skin color, but what about McCain's ghostly, albino-like skin?

My theory of this general election is that if you have one candidate who's 47, 6'1", and has a full head of dark hair, and another candidate who's 72, 5'7", and bald with thin white hair, it's predictable who will win. I wish this didn't matter at all and everyone just made perfectly rational decisions based on substantive issues. And we won't know if this factor ends up being decisive. But I think we'll know that it mattered.


(Photo by Matthew Chastain Wright.)

UPDATE: My mom links to this post and looks at other presidential candidates who, like Obama holding The Post-American World, have worn sunglasses.

UPDATE: At least McCain is doing what he can in the sex appeal department.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Does the death penalty save lives? (part 3)

In the previous two death-penalty posts (1, 2), I talked about whether it makes sense to think that the death penalty deters people from killing, given how rarely it's actually applied. John Donohue and Justin Wolfers say this is implausible (PDF). As I explained, I actually think it's pretty consistent with human nature.

But most of their attacks on the recent spate of studies showing the death penalty to be a deterrent are empirical: they say the data just don't support the claim. That gets to the other main problem I have with the Donohue and Wolfers paper:

They compare non-death-penalty states with all death-penalty states, and claim that there are no significant differences between those two types of states in how much they deter homicide. But that seems to be a highly distorted picture of the real situation.

Here's the problem: there are some states that have the death penalty but rarely if ever use it. For instance, several death penalty states have had only one execution each in 40 years. As another example, California executed only 10 people in several decades even though it's the most populous state.

I don't know as much as Donohue and Wolfers know about how to put together an impressive-looking statistical chart, but I know it doesn't make sense to lump together those states with states that regularly execute people.

But is there a way around that? Yes — just break down the death-penalty states into further categories based on how much (and how quickly) they use the death penalty. Joanna Shepherd did just that (PDF), and she found a huge difference among the different kinds of death-penalty states.

In a nutshell, the difference is that only the states that apply the death penalty on a regular basis will achieve the deterrent effect. And those are a small minority of states. The death-penalty states that don't use it much actually have the opposite effect: homicide goes up.

As Shepherd puts it: "On average, an execution in the United States deters crime. [But] these averages are powered by a handful of high-execution, high-deterrence states."

So, if she's right, then that's simultaneously (a) pretty embarrassing for most death-penalty states -- they're actually driving up homicide, but (b) a ringing endorsement of the death penalty itself, as long as it's used right. It basically means that most states would be wise to ramp up their use of the death penalty so that it passes the "threshold" level of death sentences and executions that must be crossed before the death penalty becomes effective.

By the way, Shepherd is no death-penalty cheerleader. She says she's "definitely against the death penalty on lots of different grounds." She's just pursuing the data wherever they go, even when they go against her own personal views.

The New York Times highlighted Shepherd's point about the necessary "threshold" for the death penalty to be an effective deterrent:
According to roughly a dozen recent studies, executions save lives. For each inmate put to death, the studies say, 3 to 18 murders are prevented.

The effect is most pronounced, according to some studies, in Texas and other states that execute condemned inmates relatively often and relatively quickly.
This conclusion strikes me as intuitively plausible. But wait a minute -- wasn't I just speculating in a recent post that people who are deciding whether to commit homicide probably realize only that there is the death penalty in their state but are not thinking about the statistical likelihood of being executed? How can I say that, but then turn around and say that the frequency with which a state uses the death penalty does affect people's incentives?

Well, there are good reasons to think people don't run through the whole calculation to figure out the exact percentage of being executed if you're caught. For instance, a Texan might have no idea if the chances are 5% or 1% or what. But at least they know there's a real chance. In many death-penalty states, there isn't even a real chance -- it's basically 0%. If you were living in New Jersey and you knew anything about the death penalty there (before it was recently abolished), you'd know that your state had the-death-penalty-but-not-really: the last execution was in 1963. I find it very plausible that that would negate any deterrent effect, while a state like Texas or Virginia would exert a strong deterrent effect (even beyond what would be rationally justified based on a sober assessment of the actual risk of being executed).

In other words, it seems plausible that there would be some minimal threshold of executions that must be crossed for the death penalty to even register with people as something their state uses at all. But once the state passes that threshold, human nature will cause people to mentally inflate the risk of getting the death penalty.

Back to the studies: I have to give Donohue and Wolfers some credit: they do acknowledge the finding that strong-death-penalty states are the ones with a deterrent effect. But then they utterly dismiss it! They say that if you take Texas — which has executed far more people than any other state -- out of the equation, the deterrent effect pretty much goes away. Well, gee, what direction does that argue for? That certainly seems to mean that the way to deter homicide is to do what Texas does: vigorously apply the death penalty instead of just keeping it on the books without using it. But Donohue and Wolfers somehow see it as noise that's getting in the way of studying the deterrent effect of the death penalty.

The idea that Texas is noise that might be better left out, rather than one of the strongest indicators of the effects of the death penalty, seems like such a blatant mistake that I kept thinking: "Wait, I can't be right about that -- one of the authors is a Yale law professor, and this article was published in the Stanford Law Review. I must be missing something." Well, Cass Sunstein is a University of Chicago law professor, and his article was also published in the Stanford Law Review. And he says it makes no sense to see Texas as noise that creates a deceptive appearance of a deterrent effect:
States having the largest numbers of executions are most likely to deter, and it does not seem to make sense to exclude those states as “outliers.” By way of comparison, imagine a study attempting to determine what characteristics of baseball teams most increase the chance of winning the World Series. Imagine also a criticism of the study ... which complained that data about the New York Yankees should be thrown out, on the ground that the Yankees have won so many times as to be “outliers.” This would be an odd idea, because empiricists must go here the evidence is; in the case of capital punishment, the outliers provide much of the relevant evidence.
For all the surface complexity and nuance of the Donohue and Wolfers paper, they seem to have drastically oversimplified and distorted the situation.

By the way, there have also been two other academic articles specifically devoted to disproving Donohue and Wolfers's claims: 1, 2. (Those links go to the abstracts, but you can download the full PDF for free by clicking "one-click download.")

Again, I'm not really qualified to judge Donohue and Wolfers's study, but from what I can tell, it seems like a very weak rejoinder to the abundance of new research suggesting that the death penalty is indeed a deterrent.

Now, even if you're convinced by all that, I could understand saying that we should err on the side of not actively killing people if the data are even debatable. But I'm not so sure. We're never going to have definitive proof of the death penalty's deterrent effect or lack thereof. From what I can tell, the stronger argument is that it is a deterrent. You can't make policy with perfect knowledge. You can only make the best possible estimate, and act on that.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Time to chill

It just started getting up into the 90s here in Texas -- my long walk home from work was a bit oppressive. And maybe this blog has gotten a bit dry and overheated with the whole death-penalty debate that's been threatening to take over my whole blog. (Don't worry -- I'd never let one issue take over -- that would cause even a great blog to atrophy.)

Actually, the comments over here have been very cool-headed and substantive, complete with scholarly citations! But some of the ones over on this other blog were venturing into typical internet territory.

One comment on my "Should liberals support the death penalty?" post began: "What a stupid argument." Gee, that really makes me want to take the time to keep reading and engage with your counterargument.

Another commenter: "Jac evidently thinks that conservatives are a breed of moral cretins, who routinely rely on empty formalism to justify inaction in the face of suffering or social problems. ... There is something about an election season that makes people want to see the world (and particularly the opposition) through a fun-house mirror. IMO, the observations about liberals/conservatives in Jac's blog reflect just that sort of distortion. The only antidote for that kind of thinking is to get out and about more, and above all, to get out of any university setting."

I pointed out, "I'm not in a 'university setting.' I graduated from law school last year." The commenter responded: "That's not nearly enough time to overcome the deleterious effects of an American university education."

Still another commenter said: "Seems to me that Jac's argument presents a classic caricature of liberals: Liberals believe that [just] because the government can do something, it should do something. ... Jac's mistake is in proposing a utilitarian argument for the death penalty as if it is a moral argument. It's not."

So I'm either a conservative who's unfairly caricaturing liberals, or I'm a liberal who's unfairly caricaturing conservatives. I was trying not to be ideological or caricature anyone, but it's fine with me if people think I didn't succeed in that (though I do think they might want to take another look at what I was really saying).

What's not fine is to say that my argument wasn't "moral" but just "utilitarian." Utilitarianism is a moral theory. You can agree or disagree with it. You can even think it's immoral. But don't say that any argument that factors in the pain or pleasure that might result from certain actions is amoral. (It would be closer to the truth to say that any argument that doesn't do this is amoral!) Disagree with utilitarians all you want, but don't say they don't have moral views.

But I don't want this post to be my official "response" to the response to my death penalty post. I'll have plenty to say in response to the comments later on. (It takes me a while.)

What I want to talk about now is ... cold soup!

And pasta primavera!

Those are how I intend to make it through the Texas summer: with as many differents kinds of cold soup and non-creamy pasta primavera as I can find or think of.

I've been teaching myself to cook in the last few months. I've gone back and forth on whether to blog any of that. On one hand, it's something I'm really interested in, but on the other hand, I'm not really at the point where I have much business telling other people how to cook. 

But I'll start small, with a very easy cold soup from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (which has changed my life):

Cucumber yogurt soup. You should probably get the biggest container of plain yogurt they have at the store for this one. Pour ... a lot of it ... into a big bowl that you can keep in the fridge. (Since this is pretty much the base of the soup, obviously use an amount that corresponds to how much soup you want to make.) Thin it out with a bit of milk. Chop up some fresh parsley, mint, and green onions (she uses garlic instead of green onions, but the latter seem more fitting to me), and mix them in. Peel 2 cucumbers (or just 1 if you're making a small portion), halve them horizontally and vertically, scrape out the seeds, dice them, and mix them into the soup. (She says to grate the cucumbers with a grater -- seems overly fussy to me, and I like some texture to my soup anyway.)

Top it off with those ingredients that are so dependable at freshening up a dish at the end: olive oil (not very much), a squeeze of lemon, and salt & pepper. I also like a splash of white-wine vinegar (I always like things a bit on the sour side). Then chill the whole thing in the fridge.

If you want to know the measurements, buy the book! I rarely use the measurements from recipes -- I usually just use whatever seems "about right" -- so I'm not especially interested in putting them on my blog.

One of the many great things about Deborah Madison's book is that she's constantly suggesting lots of little variations, add-ons, and contexts for her recipes -- unlike some recipe books, which seem to want each recipe to be a perfect, pristine island. In this case, she suggests adding almonds -- which, for me, makes the soup. I stir in a bunch of sliced almonds, and then garnish it at the end with more almonds as well as a few extra mint leaves. Adds some unexpected but unobtrusive flavor, plus protein.

I had some this evening to cool down from the walk back from work, with a big glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice with a twist of lime -- great combination.

The next cold soup on my list is gazpacho. I've taken a shot at it before, but this time I really want to perfect it, so that it becomes an old stand-by for me, and then explore some wild variations. Like watermelon! I got that from a Tastespotting search, which revealed lots of exotic gazpachos -- including a white one, which is certainly challenging my previously held notions of what gazpacho is.

I also found this complaint on one of the other gazpacho blog posts:

Chilled soups were a tough sell for Patrick (as they seem to be for many men).
I know she doesn't specify whether she believes men just naturally have different palates or whether it's a conscious desire to avoid associating oneself with anything as light and delicate as cold soup. But the latter possibility did get me thinking about the total sheer effort, throughout the population, that's put into trying to make sure people don't step outside their proper gender boundaries. I'd never even thought of cold soup as having any gender significance, but now I feel like I've been transgressive.

I feel sorry for people who waste a single minute of their day worrying about how to obey some imaginary set of gender rules. How incredibly unsexy to worry about how well you're following the rules, and what a staggering waste of time and energy that could instead be directed toward actually enjoying life.

UPDATE: The commenters over here are riffing on the gendered food theme.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Does the death penalty save lives? (part 2)

To continue the discussion of whether the death penalty is really a deterrent (as some new research has suggested), but to quote someone who probably wasn't thinking about the death penalty at the time:

Researchers have discovered that when people find it easy to imagine an event, they overestimate the likelihood that it will actually occur.
That's from Daniel Gilbert's excellent book Stumbling on Happiness.

We're more inclined to do this — to overestimate the likelihood of easily imaginable events — with good things than with bad things. A study of college students showed that their beliefs about how likely it was for certain things to happen to them showed that their beliefs were skewed in the direction of the positive. So, for instance, they tended to think it was likely that they'd have a gifted child, but not so likely that they'd have a heart attack.*

But just because we're more inclined to do this with the good doesn't mean we don't also do it with the bad. And indeed, we do.

You're going to a party, and you imagine you'll make some spectacularly buffoonish faux pas when you get there. To use Gilbert's example, everyone else will show up with a nice gift for the host, but you didn't realize you were supposed to bring anything. You'll knock over a whole table of elaborately arranged food and drinks. You'll put your foot in your mouth when you're just trying to make small talk. It's not that you think any of these things are likely to happen. But you're still thinking about it, because you can't get these vivid images out of your head.

To use another of Gilbert's examples, when you go to the doctor, even if you rationally believe you're in good health and don't have any troubling symptoms of anything, you're not just thinking: "Well, it's highly probable that things are fine, so I have nothing to worry about." No, you can't stop thinking about the tiny chance that the doctor's going to tell you you have cancer, or you have six months to live, or you have some rare disease that they've never heard of before. Again, this doesn't make you dumb or irrational. You might know it's not very likely. But you're still going to think about it, because the scenarios are readily available to your brain.

"These dire images make us feel dreadful — quite literally." But, as Gilbert notes, there are reasons why our minds do this. You might be softening the blow in case the bad thing ends up happening. Then at least it won't take you by surprise.

More relevant to the death-penalty issue, though, is that "forecasts are 'fearcasts.'" If you make yourself aware of the worst possible outcome in some situation, this can be a way of motivating yourself to try to avoid that outcome.

You're worrying about the chance of knocking something over at the party, even way out of proportion with the chances that that will happen ... so you make sure to look where you're going. You're worrying about the chances your doctor will tell you you have some terrible disease at your next appointment, even way out of proportion with the chances that will happen ... so you change little things about your daily routine like exercising more and eating healthier foods.

In short, overestimating how likely it is for something terrible to happen to you isn't just "irrational" — it could be a good (albeit unintended) strategy to make yourself be more careful by visualizing the worst possible consequences of bad choices.

And that seems to be exactly what's going on with the person who decides not to kill because they can't stop thinking about the vivid image of getting a lethal injection, or just sitting in court and hearing the judge pronounce a death sentence.
They might be overinflating the probability that this will occur. But if it stops them from killing someone, then who cares that they got the probability wrong?

Now, do Donohue and Wolfers, or Steven Levitt, cite any of the psychological research backing up these human tendencies? Do they even acknowledge the possibility that our minds might work this way? No. But as I blogged the other day, that doesn't stop them from claiming, in academic articles surrounded by impressive-looking data, that the death penalty is not a deterrent because the death penalty is so rarely applied that it can't rationally deter people. (Wolfers was also quoted making essentially the same point in the New York Times.)

Levitt in particular is usually willing to explore the possibility that people's minds systematically work in irrational or unrealistic ways. I already pointed out that he's willing to say that people overestimate small probabilities like terrorist attacks — but he assumes this does not happen with people contemplating the probability that they'd receive a death sentence for killing someone. Levitt was also perfectly happy to describe deeply irrational behavior in his book Freakonomics: parents who know they'll be fined for showing up late to pick their kids up from day care are more likely to show up late than those who don't get penalized — utterly backwards from what you'd expect if people always just neatly calculated the likely costs and benefits of each possible course of action and then did whatever would give them the best outcome.

Yet when it comes to the death penalty, Levitt assumes that people can't be motivated by the fear of death (of all things to dismiss the potential disincentive value of!), as long as a careful reading of the statistics shows that death sentences are rare among all murder cases.

Does he think murderers are more rational than most people? I doubt it. More likely, he has different standards of intellectual rigor for an academic study than an international phenomenon and New York Times best-seller. It's just odd that the intellectual standards are higher for the smash hit than for the academic study.

I still haven't delivered on my promise to explain my other problem with the Donohue & Wolfers study. I'll get to that soon, so stay tuned... [UPDATE: Here it is.]

* Actually, the way Gilbert summarizes this study leaves me wondering whether they really were inaccurate in estimating the likelihood of these things. He says people thought it was more likely for the good things to happen than the bad things, but that doesn't tell you how accurate those estimates are. Also, there's the perennial problem of announcing a sweeping conclusion about human nature based on studying college students. Aren't college students actually better off than average (most people don't have college degrees), so might it not be reasonable for them to think they'll do better than average in all sorts of areas of life? But these quibbles aside, the basic point seems pretty convincing.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Does the death penalty save lives? (part 1)

A few days ago, I argued that liberals should support the death penalty because it saves innocent people's lives by deterring murder. But that all hinged on a new crop of empirical studies. That means a lot is riding on the supposedly improved statistical methods. If those methods don't hold up, the argument doesn't hold up. So why should we believe the studies?

First, I think it's worth noting that many death-penalty opponents have no qualms about making the most elementary statistical blunders. They often flatly assert that the death penalty is not a deterrent because the states that have the death penalty have more homicide than non-death-penalty states.

They don't point out that the four-year nationwide abolition of the death penalty in the United States was correlated with skyrocketing homicides (see the second chart in this blog post). Now, that doesn't prove that abolishing the death penalty increased homicides, but by the same token, the higher homicide rate in death-penalty states doesn't prove that the death penalty increases homicides.

So there should be something more than sheer correlation. It looked to me like the new studies went beyond that: the write-up in the New York Times mentioned "multiple regression analysis" by "sophisticated econometricians" and so on.

But John Donohue and Justin Wolfers wrote a law review article that purported to demolish these studies (PDF). (Thanks to LemmusLemmus for bringing this to my attention.)

Unfortunately, I can't understand 90% of it. So I was going to skip that as blog fodder. I prefer to blog about things that I have some comprehension of.

Well, even though I have no idea if Donohue and Wolfers's analyses of "instrumental variables estimates" and "panel data methods" are right or wrong, I was able to grasp a couple of their points. And neither of those points gave me much confidence that they got things right in the parts I don't understand. Here's the first one:

Donohue and Wolfers say it's just not plausible that the death penalty deters crime because it poses such a slight risk that you'd be irrational to be deterred by it.

Similarly, Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics fame) says that "economists who argue that the death penalty works are put in the uncomfortable position of having to argue that criminals are irrationally overreacting when they are deterred by it." The suggestion is that it's implausible to think that "criminals" would be deterred by the death penalty, since the death penalty is so rarely applied that the risk, from the point of view of someone deciding whether to kill, is negligible. (Scare quotes around "criminals" because that's a really poor word choice. We're not talking about some distinct group of marauding ax murderers. We're talking about people who might decide to kill, or might end up being deterred and end up looking like pretty normal citizens, not "criminals.")

Well, wait a minute. Why is it implausible that the death penalty would deter out of proportion with the actual likelihood of being executed? Wouldn't the really implausible thing be to say that people are perfectly rational in how they respond to death-penalty statistics — and not just perfectly rational, but perfectly well-informed?

A couple examples: Most people overreact to the risk of being killed by a terrorist attack. I myself would be hugely deterred from traveling to Israel, even though I know it's irrational for this to be such a big factor in my decision. I've never been to Israel, but I do see lots of images of gruesome terrorist attacks over there. I'm not calculating the actual likelihood that it would happen to me -- it's much less rational than that. I'm instinctively focusing on the vivid images I've seen, rather than the very high likelihood that I'd have a normal, pleasant vacation. Behavioral economists refer to this as the "availability heuristic" (PDF).

By the way, here's something odd. One person who agrees with me about terrorist attacks is Steven Levitt: "Humans tend to overestimate small probabilities, so the fear generated by an act of terrorism is greatly disproportionate to the actual risk." Well, not only is Levitt the source of the above quote expressing skepticism about deterrence, but he also wrote an article in which he directly argued that the death penalty isn't a deterrent because it's too rarely and slowly applied to affect a rational person (pp. 319-20 in this PDF).

Why would Levitt think the human mind "overestimates small probabilities" when it comes to terrorist attacks, but not executions?

Another example: flying in a plane. I fly a lot, but I'm scared every time I do it because I'm imagining that the plane could go haywire, crash, and kill me. I'm much less likely to think about getting into a car crash, even though I'm statistically more likely to die in a car than on a plane. I'm not looking up statistics or doing calculations — I'm just thinking of the most vivid scenario that jumps out at me. To drive home how overpowering a deterrent the fear of a plane crash can be: Hillary Clinton's top spokesperson, Howard Wolfson, never flies, which, as the great blogger Josh Marshall points out, is "an astonishing feat given the nature of modern campaigning." (Marshall also talks about his own fear of flying and hints that it might have altered the course of his career.)

I can't believe that those who are weighing whether to commit homicide are dramatically more rational than me (or Wolfson). In fact, they're probably less rational, since murder itself is such an irrational gamble to begin with.

But just because they're irrational in these specific ways doesn't mean they're ignorant of the death penalty's very existence, which seems to be the assumption made by those who say the death penalty can't be a deterrent because it's so rarely applied. If you're in a position where you're considering whether to kill someone, you probably know whether your state has the death penalty. That doesn't mean you sit around perusing the relevant statistics; it could just mean you've seen headlines, or maybe even heard stories about people you know.

I'm largely riffing on Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule's argument about "bounded rationality":

[S]uppose that like most people, criminals are boundedly rational, assessing probabilities with the aid of heuristics. If executions are highly salient and cognitively available, some prospective murderers will overestimate their likelihood, and will be deterred as a result. Other prospective murderers will not pay much attention to the fact that execution is unlikely, focusing instead on the badness of the outcome (execution) rather than its low probability. Few murderers are likely to assess the deterrent signal by multiplying the harm of execution against its likelihood. If this is so, then the deterrent signal will be larger than might be suggested by the product of that multiplication.
I always find it surprising that the death penalty is the one punishment about which people say that it's too rarely applied to motivate people to avoid getting it applied to them. It seems to me that it's the one punishment that would vividly stand out in people's minds as something to be avoided, much more so than a relatively abstract distinction like getting 20 years vs. 30 years in prison. Of course, that distinction is anything but abstract for the person who actually has to serve the sentence, but the relevant question is how the prospect of these punishments is likely to affect someone who hasn't gone through them yet. Qualitative differences (death vs. prison) seem a lot more likely to make an impression than quantitative differences (20 years vs. 30).

Ironically, death penalty opponents themselves may be contributing to the deterrent effect by drawing attention to how horrifying the death penalty is, especially if they focus on the vivid details of executions.

One last thing: everything I've said in this post has been assuming that it really would be irrational to be deterred by the death penalty. But that's far from obvious. As Richard Posner put it: "even a 1 percent or one-half of 1 percent probability of death is hardly trivial; most people would pay a substantial amount of money to eliminate such a probability."

I said I have a couple problems with Donohue and Wolfers's attack on the deterrent studies — that's one of them. The other one is that they ignore the very data that most clearly show deterrence, which seems to throw off their whole metastudy. I'll explain why soon.

UPDATE: See the comments for an enormous amount of material criticizing the Donohue & Wolfers article. Thank you, Dudley Sharp.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Should liberals support the death penalty?

One of the most famous liberal law professors in the United States, Cass Sunstein, has flip-flopped on the death penalty. He used to be against it; now he's increasingly leaning in favor of it, though with qualifications.

Why? Because he looked at the data:

“The evidence on whether it has a significant deterrent effect seems sufficiently plausible that the moral issue becomes a difficult one,” said Cass R. Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago who has frequently taken liberal positions. “I did shift from being against the death penalty to thinking that if it has a significant deterrent effect it’s probably justified.”

That's not just based on some new study that's been cherry-picked from a bunch of conflicting studies out there. As the New York Times reported in November (see the link above), this is the conclusion of about "a dozen recent studies" — studies done by "sophisticated econometricians who know how to do multiple regression analysis at a pretty high level."

Even the mildest conclusion from those studies says that each execution saves 3 innocent people from being killed. And it may be as high as 18.

Now, every study like this is going to be attacked for various cold, impersonal, statistical reasons: not a large enough sample size, not a controlled experiment, etc. I'm no statistician, but it looks like Sunstein and his co-author Adrian Vermeule have already done a pretty good job of rebutting those objections in a scholarly article from a couple years ago called "Is Capital Punishment Morally Required?" Naturally, the studies tried to control for as many factors as possible to avoid the "correlation is not causation" problem, but there's a limit to how much you can do that with the available data.

But I don't want to talk about that, because it's boring. Or, less exciting than the question asked by the title of Sunstein and Vermeule's article. The article is too rich with insights to address in just this one blog post, but I want to take an initial stab at it.

Say you accept the conclusions that have been drawn from the data. Even still, you might have the reaction: "OK, so it's a deterrent, but that still doesn't change my opinion. Killing people is just wrong, period."

Well, I don't think it can possibly be that simple.

Sunstein and Vermeule get very deep into this issue. Not only are they synthesizing a lot of empirical studies, but they're also talking about whether a government policy of actively killing people is morally equivalent to passively allowing people to die.

Admittedly, that's always an incredibly thorny, controversial question. But I think there's an especially strong reason why liberals, of all people, should avoid making the passive/active distinction. And this seems to mean that, yes, liberals should support the death penalty, as long as the conclusions from this new crop of empirical studies are valid.

If you're a liberal (in the sense in which "liberal" is used in modern-day America -- as Barack Obama put it, someone whose views on most issues "correspond more closely to the editorial pages of the New York Times than those of the Wall Street Journal"), then you can't believe that an omission -- a failure to act -- is morally excusable simply on the grounds of "Hey, I wasn't really 'doing' anything."

The thing is, if omissions were excusable, then there would be no moral force to drive liberal policies. If the government isn't culpable for the problems it fails to solve — the things it lets happen — then it doesn't make sense to make an impassioned moral appeal that the government must implement such-and-such a policy to end poverty, protect our children from pollution, etc. If you thought the government could be excused for the things it passively allows to occur with a glib dismissal — "Look, that may be unfortunate, but it's not the government's responsibility" — then you'd be a conservative, not a liberal.*

I'm not trying to caricature liberals as people who think government should try to solve all the world's problems. Of course you can be a liberal but still think there are areas of life that the government should just stay out of. But I do think that liberals share this basic idea that if there's major suffering going on in the world, and if the government is in a good position to do something about it, then the government should act. That qualifier makes all the difference in the world, since people will argue endlessly over which problems can be effectively solved by the government.

But the point remains: liberals hold the government accountable not just for the bad things it directly causes to happen, but also for the bad things it sits back and lets happen.

OK, back to the death penalty. If you believe that the government is morally culpable for the results of its omissions -- the things it lets happen -- then you can't sweep murder under the rug and say: "Oh, that's just something citizens are doing. It's not the government's fault." That would be just as egregious as saying: "It's not the government's fault that private corporations are polluting, so there's no reason for the government to intervene." No, the government has to take notice of these problems and ask: "Is there anything we, the government, can do to stop this?"

Or, as a thought-experiment, you can flip it around. You can start with a government policy in mind ... then take it away ... then ask: "Do I accept causing this result?" It might not be a direct cause. There might be some steps in between. But it would be a cause nonetheless. As an example, when it comes to health care, liberals tend to think of what the government could be doing to help bring about an optimal state of affairs, and then blame the government if it fails to meet that standard.

Now, let's say we know that each execution causes enough deterrence to stop three people from being killed (to use the mildest of the conclusions from those dozen studies). Once you know that fact, you can't sit back and say: "Oh, we just don't like executions — it just gives us a really bad feeling, so we don't do them." That would be too complacent. You need to confront the specific consequences of your choices — including the choice not to implement a certain policy.

So if you keep your government from instituting the death penalty, or if you fight against an existing death-penalty system, even though you know that executing convicted murderers would save innocent people's lives, then you have a lot of explaining to do. Why would you accept a net loss of two lives — three innocent lives lost minus the life saved by not executing the killer?

If anything, that's actually understating it. Most people would consider the death of an innocent person, who would have otherwise lived a normal life, to be more regrettable than the death of a guilty person, who would have otherwise spent a long time (possibly life) in prison.

In theory, the loss of three innocent lives might be canceled out by some other factors, but it's hard to see what those would be. After all, what's more valuable than a human life? It's hard to see why you'd think that saving the one murderer from being executed would cancel out the value of the three innocent lives lost.

Of course, there's always the risk of executing an innocent person. But that's surely a tiny fraction of cases, i.e. the equivalent of a tiny fraction of an innocent life per execution on average. So that doesn't seem to come anywhere near making up for the innocent lives saved by executing people.

You might think I'm assuming that utilitarianism is a valid ethical theory. I tend to think that utilitarianism must be accepted — by anyone who's thinking correctly about things — as being partly true and partly false. I want to talk about that eventually, but that's clearly a whole other blog post.

More to the point, though, Sunstein and Vermeule are very careful to not just make a utilitarian argument, but explain why anyone, no matter what their ethical theory is, should agree with them that the innocent lives saved through executions render the death penalty morally obligatory. I'll have to read more of the article to do justice to their argument. Suffice it to say that it looks like they're making the kind of argument that I'll agree with: if you think life is sacred, you have to engage in some kind of utilitarian balancing to avoid contradicting yourself.

Sunstein & Vermeule's article is so interesting to me that I hope I get a chance to follow up on some of the other issues it raises. A huge issue is the misperception that people we can't specifically point at — those who would have been victimized if not for executions — aren't "real people." [UPDATE: I blogged it here.] And as I said, there are deeper ethical issues at play (the article talks about the famous "Jim" hypothetical). There's also the objection that the death penalty just can't be a deterrent, no matter what the data say, because it's applied only rarely and after a long delay, or because murderers don't act rationally. And I still haven't said anything about race.

Oh, and there's the little problem of Justice Stevens's concurrence in the Supreme Court's recent decision on lethal injection, in which he announced that he now believes the death penalty is unconstitutional, in part because it's not a deterrent. Apparently, the meaning of the Constitution depends on which studies the justices choose to cite.

But I'll have to leave all that for later (hopefully!). For now, go ahead and let me know in the comments if I've gone wrong in my thinking about this, or if there's an important angle I've neglected.

UPDATE: Over a hundred responses in the comments section over here.

UPDATE: Thanks for the link, Glenn! And Mom. I guess I've hit the big time, blogospherically speaking.

[Continued here, here, and here.]

* I'm not saying this is the attitude of all conservatives. I could imagine a conservative who sees acts as equivalent to omissions, especially for social issues or foreign policy. Or they might just feel that government is an ineffective agent for changing society. I'm just saying that liberals reject the passive/active distinction -- or, they should reject it in order to have consistent principles underlying their policy views.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Layers of tragedy in Burma

I jotted down some notes to myself about what I could blog about the aftermath of the cyclone in Burma while I was sitting in NYC's most august jazz club, the Village Vanguard. Charlie Haden, Ethan Iverson, and Paul Motian were playing their rarefied, cerebral brand of jazz. Oh, this is a perfect illustration of Peter Singer's famous ethical argument, I thought. I could have had an enjoyable evening some other way that didn't cost as much, and donated the savings to some charity that would step in to the rescue.

But no, that's not quite how the world works. Peter Singer says that it's immoral to dine at an expensive restaurant since you could instead stay home and give the money you'd save to a charity that would save people's lives. (According to Singer, you could save a life for every month you avoided eating out.) Now, there are a bunch of problems with this argument, and I hope to talk about them in a later post. But for now, the relevant problem is that it's really hard to try to go out in the world and find lives to save on the cheap.

It's tempting to think that we have the resources to end world suffering, if only we had the willpower. But the American public doesn't seem too upset about its tax dollars being used foreign aid even though Americans believe, on average, that we spend more than 100 times as much of our GDP on foreign aid as we actually do. There's some occasional grumbling about foreign aid, of course, but this misperception hasn't sparked an outcry. In fact, most Americans either have no opinion or would prefer that we spend more on foreign aid than we do. So the willingness is there; the bigger stumbling block is how effective our assistance would be.

Even if you can somehow make sure the money gets earmarked for purely beneficent purposes, the aid you send might only strengthen an autocracy. Money is fungible, so a government that receives $X to spend on food for its people suddenly has $X more of its old money that it doesn't need to spend on food but can instead use for _________. And even this is idealistic, since it's hard to make sure that a corrupt government is going to scrupulously honor the earmarks.

Burma seems to be a case in point. The US and the UN are desperately trying to help, but the Burmese government is playing hard to get. In the past, Burma has not been embarrassed to throw out aid workers. Now that the situation is so dire that dead bodies are literally piling up all over the place, however, the government is going a step further. This time, they've barred UN aid workers from even entering their country in the first place. They'll accept only outside resources; they won't accept foreign workers physically in their country to coordinate the aid. Why? Because help from outsiders would be "a potential threat to their two-decade hold on power." (They've started to accept aid from the US, but with the same restriction.)

And to top it all off, the government isn't even putting the cyclone response as its current top priority. They're too busy drafting a road map to a fake democracy.

All of this behavior implies that they specifically want to exploit the inherent shortcomings of foreign aid for their own benefit. Meanwhile, there's no telling how many new deaths are being caused each day as a result of this obstinacy: as many as 100,000 people died as a direct result of the cyclone (even the Burmese government's early estimate of the death toll, excluding "missing" people, was over 20,000). And one-and-a-half million people have been left homeless. (I wouldn't be surprised if these numbers have proven to be significant understatements by the time you read this.) The potential for outbreaks of disease in this unsanitary environment is overwhelming. Assuming that things are going to continue on this path, Burma is committing a passive genocide against its own people.

[UPDATE, May 31: U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has now confirmed this in an "emotional" speech: Burma's obstruction of foreign assistance has cost "tens of thousands of lives." Also, "U.S., British and French Navy ships off the coast of Myanmar are poised to leave because the government has blocked them from delivering assistance."]

If you ever doubt that evil is a real, objective phenomenon in the world, just remember the Burmese government's response to the cyclone in 2008.

Back to Peter Singer's ethical theory. If he's right that your restaurant expenditures should be judged based on the missed opportunity to donate to charity, then foreign aid should be judged all the more harshly if it fails to help people. We need to face the reality that sometimes there might just not be much we can do to alleviate the suffering, and the money would be better spent elsewhere. At this point, it's hard to see how we could possibly rescue the Burmese except through military force, but the failure of the United States and its international coalition in the Iraq war renders another nation-building adventure unlikely in the near future. To the extent that there are longer-term foreign policies or global trends that tend to promote liberal democracy and erode dictatorships, those might be more fruitful than a policy of "Oh, a headline-worthy disaster just happened, so we need to fix it."

Thursday, May 8, 2008

My problem with rap

As I was walking over to a cafe in Brooklyn Heights called Tazza, where I'm writing this now, a car waiting at a stoplight was blaring a rap song whose refrain repeated the word "nigger" over and over. As is the norm for this kind of music, there was no attempt at subtlety on any level, just an angry hammering of bland, tuneless noises into the listeners' skulls. And as is so often the case, many of the listeners would surely prefer not to be assaulted with this drivel.

"Well, it's really close-minded to write off a whole genre -- you'd appreciate it more if you listened to more of it." Here's the problem. I have a finite amount of free time in my life for listening to new music. Like every other person in the world, I can't build up an encyclopedic familiarity with every music genre in existence, so the most I can do is thoroughly explore some of them while writing off others as not worth my time. That's a time-management strategy, not an objective judgment. I'm sure there's brilliant rap music that I'm missing out on. (I loved the Outkast song "Ms. Jackson" from a few years ago, for instance.) But I've heard enough from rappers about "bitches," "hos," and "niggers" to decide: my time would be better spent on music that might not make a single controversial statement about society but is challenging to the listener in more unexpected ways.

"Rap isn't all about 'bitches' and 'hos.'" It's no surprise that some rap songs avoid these words, at least for the sake of variety. That's setting the standard pretty low. You know what I'd like even more than a style of music that's not all about vicious epithets? A style of music that's not at all about vicious epithets.

"The music is just a reflection of society." This is the fail-safe defense of rap, since this line of thinking would justify any content, no matter how objectionable on its face. But you can't assume that the causation only works in one direction. That is, it's hard to believe that rap is just passively reflecting what already exists rather than inciting new feelings of machismo and prejudice in new generations.

You know, artists like Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield also perceived an ugly America around them. And yes, they even sparingly used the word "nigger." But they channeled the negativity and racism into music that was uplifting and inspiring even while being incisive. More importantly, it was music that sounded like it was made by people who've taken the trouble to master the subtle interplay of melody, harmony, rhythm, tone color, and expressiveness: Living for the City, Freddie's Dead, You Haven't Done Nothin', Superfly.*

* Unfortunately, the YouTube clips don't convey the elaborate basslines that are essential to the Curtis Mayfield songs. I highly recommend the album Superfly if you really want to hear them.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

What's the deal with Moleskine hacks?

It's a little hard to fathom how fixated so many people are with Moleskines.

I'm pretty much sold on the product. I'll pay a few extra dollars on notebooks and datebooks if the extra quality and style causes me to be more productive, which it does. So I get the basic appeal. But some people are using them in ways that I'm literally having trouble comprehending.

Like this guy. He's explaining his system for writing to-do lists in a Moleskine. Ho-hum, doesn't sound too technical, does it? Well, I don't know what to make of this:

(ITERATION): An iteration number for tasks pushed forward. This gives you an at-a-glance look at how many times the task was moved forward; it also gives an idea to the degree of “stubbornness” of the task. You increment this value every time you process tasks and push them forward.

That's just one of the six parameters you're apparently supposed to enter for each to-do list item. This was a wildly popular blog post, so it must have made sense to some people. Not to me.

It did get me thinking, though, that it'd be nice to have some kind of really efficient Moleskine system. I just need to find a happy medium in between the complexity of that guy's system and my current system, which is to look for the nearest piece of scrap paper whenever I think of something I want to remember to do. Keeping track of these loose sheets of paper is harder than just keeping everything important in my head. (And I can't deal with electronic personal organizers -- makes me too nervous, for various reasons.)

OK, here's someone else who has a system that seems more down-to-earth. At least it doesn't have iterations and incremented values. But she has too many tabs and slips of paper sticking out of the notebook (as you can see from the photos). All I want to deal with is a Moleskine and a pen.

I also can't handle something where you're somehow moving tasks around from one priority level to another. Too dynamic! It has to be more stripped down than that so I don't get distracted by the mechanics of the system.

So here's my plan. I got the Moleskine "address book," which has alphabetized tabs on the side. But I'm using these for tasks instead of what they were intended for.

Blackbird Parlour

I'm dividing the book into the following categories:
A ---> top priority
B - E ---> buy (stuff I want to buy)
F - J ---> friends/family/people (anything social)
K - N ---> kitchen (grocery lists and stuff I want to cook)
O - Q ---> odds & ends (anything that doesn't fit the other categories)
R ---> recording (ideas for a music recording project I'm working on)*
S - V ---> $ (budget)
W - Z ---> work (anything job-related)

This seems like such a neat and organized system that it can't possibly work. But I'll let you know how it turns out. Of course, if you have any suggestions, please put them in the comments!

* Naturally, you could leave out the R section and just have a slightly longer "odds & ends" section.