Saturday, 27 July 2013

Why Edward Snowden is the story.

I keep reading commentaries about the NSA leaks that stress that "Edward Snowden is not the story", e.g., "Edward Snowden's not the story. The fate of the internet is." Of course, I agree that when the story broke there was far too much distraction about his upbringing, his girlfriend and things that he's alleged to have posted in obscure chat rooms five years ago. But I disagree that Edward Snowden is not the story. One obvious point, there's no reason there has to be only one story. But more importantly, the fate of Edward Snowden is a key part of this story because his fate is a telling sign of how his revelations are being perceived and the effect they're having.

For one thing, if he's prosecuted and convicted and receives a lengthy jail sentence, then this will have an obvious chilling effect in terms of possibly preventing people from making such revelations in the future. But beyond what effect this case has on future attempts at whistleblowing, the fate of Edward Snowden will tell us whether his actions are being perceived as whistleblowing. Imagine his revelations effecting steps being taken to scale back the secret surveillance and to assure the world that US internet companies can once again be trusted -- it almost happened last week. Were that to occur, it would be hard to see that as anything but a vindication of Snowden's actions. And if his actions were to be vindicated in that manner, wouldn't it become difficult to severely punish Snowden? The extent to which he has committed a wrongdoing is inversely proportional to the extent to which what he has revealed were wrongdoings.  And therefore, the extent to which the US thinks they can go in attempting to punish and convict Snowden is an indicator of what kind of effect his revelations have had. In this sense, the fate of Edward Snowden remains a central part of this story.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Trayvon Martin case

I'm not sure if the jury, the crazy legislation, the prosecution or some combination is responsible for the travesty that is the Trayvon Martin case. If it's just the legislation, I wonder if George Zimmerman is going to be able to rest easy knowing that he now lives in a place where armed men may confront people in the street, armed or unarmed, guilty of nothing other than walking home from the store, shoot them and then place the burden of proof on the prosecution to prove that it wasn't self defense. If this doesn't in fact make him (and all Floridians) incredibly anxious about his (their) security, that's also pretty clear evidence that this is just as much about racism as it is bad legislation. 

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Owning a gun isn't morally equivalent to robbing a bank

During the recent gun control debates I've seen a number of versions of this claim and response:

Gun rights advocate: "It's senseless to put gun laws/universal background checks in place because criminals won't obey them anyway. They'll evade the laws/checks and get guns anyway."
Gun control advocate: "That's a stupid argument. We know that criminals will ignore laws about murder, bank robbery, burglary, etc., but that doesn't stop us from passing legislation on those matters."

This is shoddy reasoning on the part of the gun control advocate. There's an important disanalogy between gun laws and laws against theft. The latter laws address things that are inherently immoral, i.e., it is clearly morally wrong to rob a bank and such robberies have a deleterious effect on society. The act itself is worthy of prevention. There's nothing wrong, inherently, with owning a gun. We regulate guns because we're concerned about their being used to commit crimes, not because any and all gun ownership is immoral and has societal harmful effects. That guns have a potential to increase violent crime is a legitimate reason for regulation but it's also an important difference when assessing the legitimacy of legislation. If our ultimate goal is to prevent the implementation of guns for bad ends rather than simply preventing gun ownership itself, it's reasonable to consider whether the legislation will work to prevent the instances of gun ownership most likely to have the effects about which we're most concerned. That's why it's reasonable to assess gun control measure on the basis of whether or not it affects those who are most likely to misuse guns.

None of this is to argue against gun control. I think that as a matter of fact controlling guns is entirely legitimate and prudent, mostly because I think gun control does in fact help decrease gun ownership amongst criminals as well. My point here is to note that gun control advocate are performing flawed reasoning when they assess gun control legislation in the same way that they assess legislation against things more directly immoral and/or having a direct negative consequence on society. The right response to the argument "If we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns" should be to ensure that that's not the case, not deem such considerations irrelevant to the question of whether or not we should try to outlaw guns as the argument above seems to do.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

On Portman, Conservatives and Empathy

As we all now know, Rob Portman has changed his view on gay marriage after learning that his son is gay. Similarly, Dick Cheney parts way with the GOP on this matter because, presumably, he has a  daughter who is a lesbian. And speaking of conservatives changing positions, Rick Scott, Florida governor, recently changed his views on accepting Obamacare in large part, apparently, because his mother had recently died.

Portman is to be commended for being willing to reconsider and change his position and do right by his son. The key mark of a decent person, to my mind, is the willingness to acknowledge and try to rectify mistakes.  Another key decency marker is loyalty and protection of one's children, so bully for Portman on both counts. But it does make me wonder. Who comes to a position on these matters without having first performed exactly the thought experiment that Portman has now participated in IRL? Before taking a position on gay marriage doesn't one at least pause and think, "What would my position on this be if I were gay or if one of my children were gay?" Did Portman really make such important legislative decisions without having given that possibility serious thought? Similarly, regarding health care legislation,  are people actually taking positions on these matters, let alone legislating on them, without trying to consider what sort of state of affairs they'd want actualized were they or their parents ever in a position to require substantial health care and lacking the means to pay for it?

It leads me to wonder if perhaps the key difference between liberals and conservatives is not so much that one values freedom more and/or trusts government less or that they have fundamentally different views on the importance of tradition values. Rather, the fundamental difference may be that conservatives simply lack, whether because of cognitive differences or laziness, the ability or inclination to empathize when making decisions. Perhaps liberals aren't more predisposed to trusting governments, distrusting markets, and don't value individual freedom any less than conservatives do. Perhaps it's simply the case that the biggest difference in the decision making process is that left-leaners are more likely, for whatever reasons, to involve a good faith effort to put oneself in the place of those most likely to be affected by the legislation. Arguably it's what Kant was prescribing when he counseled us to "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law"

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

How Not Not to Fix Climate Change

I'm trying to make some sense of Joe Nocera's climate change article in today's NYT. Here's the meat of his argument, I think:

so long as the demand is there, energy producers are going to search for new supplies of fossil fuel — many of them using unconventional means like tar sands extraction. “With growing global demand, the economic pressure to develop unconventional resources is enormous and not going away,” he said. “Can environmental groups expect to win a series of fights for decades to come, when the economic forces are aligned very strongly against them in each round?” The answer is obvious: no. The emphasis should be on demand, not supply. If the U.S. stopped consuming so much of the world’s oil, the economic need for the tar sands would evaporate.
If I'm understanding correctly, Nocera believes that it's futile to try to prevent the production and distribution of tar sands oil because demand is so high. But why? History is full of examples of governments enacting and enforcing environmental protection standards to inhibit or slow production not just in spite of but in response to high demand for some product. That is because the very fact that there's high demand necessitates the enforcement of constraints so as to ensure that its production doesn't come at the cost of ecological damage. It would be nonsensical to attempt to implement limits on production only for things for which there was no demand. And in fact if we effectively forbid or constrain the production of tar sands oil the demand is mitigated exactly because we've increased the costs to reflect actual costs to society.

Nocera then goes on to attack the notion of a carbon tax: "He [James E. Hansen] told me he would like to see oil companies pay a fee, which would rise annually, based on carbon emissions. He said that such a tax could reduce emissions by 30 percent within 10 years. Well, maybe. But it would also likely make the expensive tar sands oil more viable."

But why would it? Production of tar sands oil generates more emissions, so, in fact, a carbon tax doesn't make tar sand oil more viable. Relative to other energy sources it would be affected more heavily by a carbon tax.

Finally, Nocera argue, " If you really want to eliminate expensive new fossil fuel sources, the best way is to lower the price of oil, which would render them uneconomical." Setting aside the question of how we go about lowering the price of oil without opening up new supplies like the tar sands, the problem with this suggestion is that it increases demand and emissions while decreasing the oil supply. This, of course, will force us to look more quickly to alternate sources, like the tar sands.  The solution to a problem caused by the overconsumption of oil can't be steps that are likely to further increase the consumption of oil.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Anti-Semitism and those NRA Hitler arguments

A few articles I've seen in recent days have been trying to refute the arguments of the NRA and its ilk that Hitler's tyranny was facilitated by gun restrictions on the citizenry. See, for example, The Hitler gun control lie  or Was Hitler really a fan of gun control or The Myth of Hitler's Gun Ban. I'm not going to try to address the soundness or validity of the NRA argument that Hitler used gun control to establish tyranny and the Holocaust. But I think it's worth noting even if Hitler and Stalin had exploited gun control to establish tyranny, (and it's not clear to me that they did), it would be wrong to assume that the second amendment is the only or even the most efficacious way to prevent tyranny.

But setting that aside, a common point in these refutations is arguing that Hitler's 1938 gun law in fact loosened gun control.  There are two things wrong with this as a refutation of attempts to prove that gun control had anything to do with tyranny and the Holocaust. First, gun rights advocates are correct to observe that Hitler's regime was preceded by the establishment of a gun registry in 1928. This wasn't Hitler's doing, as at least one of these articles stresses, but isn't that entirely beside the point? The argument, presumably, is that gun control can facilitate tyranny, not a less interesting historical argument about whether or not Hitler established the gun registry. Secondly, and more importantly, in my opinion, the argument is  just wrong about the law being pro-gun rights.  Hitler's 1938 gun law (wikipedia link) apparently did loosen gun laws for *some* people, but it didn't do away with a registry, only removed rifles from the list. However, the '38 gun law *completely forbade* Jews from owning guns. Arguments that Hitler wasn't really a gun control proponent must dismiss or trivialize this fact, but that's a pretty important fact to trivialize or dismiss. The line of argument strikes me as anti-semitic. To interpret it as pro-gun rights we have to assume that the rights of Jewish people are irrelevant or not particularly relevant to the overall rights question.

Suppose that someone were trying to persuade us that some dictator actually wasn't an opponent of democracy and to demonstrate that s/he pointed to some legislation the dictator's administration implemented that made it slightly easier for white males to vote but stripped away that right from all women. Wouldn't we argue that that actually didn't show the dictator was pro-democracy at all, but only that the historian was quite sexist?