Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"Does democracy work?"

No, or at least not very well, according to Bryan Caplan:

Democracy clearly works if you set the bar low enough. Is democracy better than dictatorship? Of course. Does democracy allow most people in the First World to live long, comfortable lives? Sure. But we now hold most of our social institutions to far higher standards. If 90% of women survived childbirth, we wouldn't say "Medicine works." We'd expect doctors to use everything they know - and constantly strive to learn more. And if mothers were dying because doctors stubbornly clung to superstitious treatments, we judge the doctors very harshly indeed.

So what would we conclude if we held democracy to analogous standards? Do democracies use everything we know? Do they constantly strive to learn more? Do they at least avoid acting on sheer superstition? I say the answer is no across the board. When we actually measure voters' policy-relevant beliefs against reasonable proxies for the Truth, voters do poorly. Democracy's defenders often insist that these errors will harmlessly balance out, but the facts of the matter is that voter errors are usually systematic. Voters err alike....

Couldn't we solve this problem with better education? I'd like to believe that, but the facts once again get in the way. "Educating" people out of their policy beliefs is very hard. Why? In large part, because error is, selfishly speaking, free. If a voter is intellectually lazy, what happens to him? The same thing that happens to people like you who voluntarily attend online debates on "Does Democracy Work!" This contrast is easy to see when you offer to bet someone about his policy views: Even passionate ideologues usually decline to back up their extravagant claims with cold hard cash. As I explain in The Myth of the Rational Voter, we shouldn't think of democracy as a market where people buy the policies they like. We should instead think of democracy as a common well where people throw their intellectual garbage, heedless of the fact that we all drink the water.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Tim Russert

Five years ago today, the world was deprived of an important journalistic voice when Tim Russert suddenly died at the age of 58. This is what I wrote at the time about the impact he had on me and many others.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"But don't you think that if a government official claims that something has to do with national security, ...

... rules of privacy and speech don't matter at all?"

So Ben Wikler (a friend of mine) wryly asks Ben Wizner of the ACLU, which just filed suit against the US government over the Obama administration's surveillance programs. Listen to that interview and more about PRISM here.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Paul Krugman on two different kinds of "surveillance states"

"There was a really good article written five years ago by Jack Balkin at the Yale Law School. He said that technology means that we’re going to be living in a surveillance state. That’s just gonna happen. But there are different kinds of surveillance states. You can have a democratic surveillance state which collects as little data as possible and tells you as much as possible about what it’s doing. Or you can have an authoritarian surveillance state which collects as much as possible and tells the public as little as possible. And we are kind of on the authoritarian side."

(Here's the video.)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

How often do we know who our drone strikes are killing?

NBC News reports (via):

The CIA did not always know who it was targeting and killing in drone strikes in Pakistan over a 14-month period, an NBC News review of classified intelligence reports shows.

About one of every four of those killed by drones in Pakistan between Sept. 3, 2010, and Oct. 30, 2011, were classified as "other militants,” the documents detail. The “other militants” label was used when the CIA could not determine the affiliation of those killed, prompting questions about how the agency could conclude they were a threat to U.S. national security.

The uncertainty appears to arise from the use of so-called “signature” strikes to eliminate suspected terrorists -- picking targets based in part on their behavior and associates. A former White House official said the U.S. sometimes executes people based on “circumstantial evidence.”

Three former senior Obama administration officials also told NBC News that some White House officials were worried that the CIA had painted too rosy a picture of its success and likely ignored or missed mistakes when tallying death totals.

NBC News has reviewed two sets of classified documents that describe 114 drone strikes over 14 months in Pakistan and Afghanistan, starting in September 2010. The documents list locations, death and injury tolls, alleged terrorist affiliations, and whether the killed and injured were deemed combatants or non-combatants.

Though the Obama administration has previously said it targets al Qaeda leaders and senior Taliban officials plotting attacks against the U.S. and U.S. troops, officials are sometimes unsure of the targets’ affiliations. About half of the targets in the documents are described as al Qaeda. But in 26 of the attacks, accounting for about a quarter of the fatalities, those killed are described only as “other militants.” In four others, the dead are described as “foreign fighters.”

In some cases, U.S. officials also seem unsure how many people died. One entry says that a drone attack killed seven to 10 people, while another says that an attack killed 20 to 22.

Yet officials seem certain that however many people died, and whoever they were, none of them were non-combatants. In fact, of the approximately 600 people listed as killed in the documents, only one is described as a civilian. The individual was identified to NBC News as the wife or girlfriend of an al Qaeda leader.

Micah Zenko, a former State Department policy advisor who is now a drone expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it was “incredible” to state that only one non-combatant was killed. “It’s just not believable,” he said. “Anyone who knows anything about how airpower is used and deployed, civilians die, and individuals who are engaged in the operations know this.” ...

Once a target has been killed, according to current and former U.S. officials, the CIA does not take someone out of the combatant category and put them in the non-combatant category unless, after the strike, a preponderance of evidence is produced showing the person killed was a civilian.

Monday, June 3, 2013

What's going on in Turkey?

Listen to my friend Ben Wikler interview an activist/radio host in Turkey, Omer Madra, about the uprising going on there right now. (This is a live radio show, starting at 3:00 p.m. Eastern, which will still be available online after it airs.)