Saturday, 27 December 2014

Damn Statistics

     Mark Twain (crediting, perhaps mistakenly, Benjamin Disraeli) famously said there are "lies, damn lies, and statistics". Fox News appears to have warranted the addition of a new category: damn statistics. The following image has come across my Facebook feed several times in the last little while:

     I think this is one of the more egregiously irresponsible things I've seen this year. The numbers themselves are accurately reported from the FBI statistics, which you can confirm for yourself. But it's appallingly unhelpful to pick a statistic like that without giving appropriate background into how to interpret it. Reading it only as it appears above, you could be forgiven for concluding that white people are peaceful law-abiding decent folks, and black people are dangerous violent beasts, which is almost certainly what the people circulating this screen capture want you to believe. (Is that what Bill O'Reilly and Fox News want you to believe? I'll stop short of claiming that; all we have here is a screen capture taken out of context, and I'm sure a fair and balanced reporter would have taken great pains to explain the limitations and significance of the data.)

     So the first thing I'd like to point out about the actual data is this: it's compiled by the FBI from the reports of the nearly 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies operating the United States. Each of those 18,000 agencies has its own staff, and its own standards and procedures for investigating, reporting and categorizing crimes. Not all of them report on the race of the suspect, and if you look at the FBI table, you'll see that 4112 murders are attributed to an offender of "unknown" race (and 249 "other", which I'll ignore for the purposes of this essay). That's almost as many murders as the total attributed to whites, a huge hole in the data if you're trying to establish a correlation between violence and race.
     How many of those 4112 murders were committed by whites and how many by blacks? There's no way to know from what's reported here. We probably shouldn't assume that it matches the proportions of the murders where race is reported, though, because the very decision to treat race as a relevant factor in reporting crime statistics may reveal institutional biases, either in the police agency or in its community or both. A police agency that tracks crime by race may be more prone to racial profiling, and thus more likely to catch black offenders than white ones. So, a fair number of those 4112 "unknown" murders may in fact be committed by whites who got away with it, and some of the 5375 murders attributed to blacks may well represent the wrongly accused.

     But, you might observe, even if all of the 4112 "unknown" murders were committed by whites, that still means that there were 8508 murders by whites and 5375 by blacks, which is still grossly disproportionate to their respective shares of the population at large. A race that makes up 13% of the population should not account for 39% of the murders!
     True enough, but there's some other important information missing from the FBI data: economics. We know (and have known for thousands of years) that there's a pretty strong correlation between poverty and violent crime; wealthier communities tend to be less violent than poorer ones. (I would say less criminal, but it's complicated; white collar crime is still crime, but it's not generally violent, and the worst white collar crime isn't even treated as crime at all.) We also know that in the United States, wealth disparities are huge, correlated with race. In 2009, the median income for white families was $62,525, and for black families it was $38,409. (The same table shows "Asian and Pacific Islander" median income at $75,027, which might explain the almost negligibly small 249 "other" murders I said I'd ignore.)
     So it would be interesting to see how the FBI stats would look if broken down by family income. I'd expect that once you correct for income, the murder rates of whites and blacks are much closer to the same. They're probably not quite equal, mind you, because many law enforcement agencies in the U.S. tend (intentionally or not) to be more zealous in pursuing black offenders than white. But they're equal enough that we should not be reinforcing these stupid and destructive prejudices.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

An Open Letter to John Maguire, ISIS, and Issuers-of-Threats Generally

     If I understand your recent video correctly, you're saying that as a Canadian I should expect terrorist attacks on Canadian soil, and that if I want to be safe, I should lobby my government to pull out of the military mission against ISIS. Presumably, you want me to fear that I or someone I care about (which, by the way, includes everyone) will be hurt or killed, so I will do as you say in order to avoid that. 
     I could just say you don't scare me, but I don't think that would be very helpful, since that's what a lot of people say when they're afraid. Instead, I want to explain to you exactly what's wrong with your threat from a logical and strategic perspective, because you're making some very serious errors in reasoning, and putting lives (including yours) in needless danger.

     First of all, you have a credibility problem, and it's not what you think. Your organization has taken great pains to make its threats credible by releasing videos to prove that it is willing and able to murder people. To be sure, you really do have a long way to go to make me actually fear you, because realistically, you don't really have the resources to make yourself a statistically significant danger. There are 30 million Canadians, after all, spread out over a vast territory; most of us are going to be pretty safe from you no matter what. Also, there are lots of other dangers that you can't control, and which are much more likely to kill me. A couple of years ago I had part of my bowel removed for Stage III colon cancer, and the chemo seems to have been successful, so I probably won't die from that, but maybe there's some lingering metastasis hiding in my organs somewhere, or maybe a completely new cancer will form, or maybe I'll have a heart attack or a stroke or get hit by a truck or freeze to death or get eaten by a polar bear (this is Canada, after all). Why should I fear you more than these things?
     But as I said, that is not the real credibility problem, and in fact solving that one will only make the real one worse. You see, I already believe that you're willing and eager to kill me if I don't comply with your demands. You don't really need to prove that. What you do need to convince me of is that you will not kill me if I do comply. In other words, you need me to trust you, and that's really hard when you spend so much effort trying to make me fear you. And this is especially a problem in the case of random terrorism, where people get killed for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. You don't know -- or care -- who you're killing, and so you don't know that maybe the person you just killed had written letters to her MP demanding a change in policy, and had done everything you asked. So if you're just going to kill me anyway, regardless of what I do, why should I comply with your demands?
     It gets worse. Even if I do believe that you'll keep your promise and not kill me if I give you what you want, how do I know you won't demand something else later on and threaten me until you get that? You want me to trust you way more than I trust most people, and yet by murdering people and threatening to murder me, you're seriously undermining the basis for that trust.

     So, that's why I'm unmoved by your threat, and why it's not going to influence my behaviour in any way. I simply don't trust you to keep your part of the bargain if I comply. But there's another mistake I think you're making, too, and that's your failure to consider the broader context. You're talking as if you're in a position of power over me, but the kinds of things I need to fear from you are basically terrorist-type attacks. And the thing about most terrorist attacks is that they're cheap; powerful nation-states have conventional armies with military systems that are much, much more effective than car bombs and other improvised terrorist weapons. So yeah, it sure is scary to contemplate that some crazy might randomly kill me with a toaster, but here's the thing: I have a toaster, too.
     You think your group is special? You think you're badasses, and the rest of us should cower in fear of your might? Look, any idiot can improvise a way to hurt lots of people. You're not even the only ones claiming to be fighting for God. So if I should be afraid of making you mad by disobeying you, shouldn't I also be afraid of making some other crazy mad for obeying you? Heck, shouldn't you be afraid of making me mad? I have the same access to ordinary household items as any other Canadian; I can carry out terrorist-style attacks against you just as easily as you can against me. 
     Ultimately, that's why your threats do not move me. I, and people like me, have just as much ability to hurt others as you do. The only difference is that you are willing to do so, and I am not. That is not because you are stronger than I am; it is because you are more foolish, and have not yet recognized just how futile and evil violence is. 

Friday, 21 November 2014

Sympathy for the Nice Guy

     I have been thinking about the whole Nice Guy pathology. That's where some guy figures that the way to get women to fall in love with and have sex with him is to be the devoted, generous, kind friend she can rely on, the shoulder she can cry on about all the cruel jerks she's dated until finally she realizes that here, right in front of her, is the perfect guy she's always wanted.
     It's a lovely narrative, of course, and if it plays out that way then all's well. Maybe. I mean, a relationship founded on that kind of formula might turn out to be a little inauthentic, but most relationships encounter difficulties anyway and all's seldom completely well even in the healthiest relationships. So it's not necessarily a disaster if the Nice Guy formula actually works out, which I suppose it does sometimes.
     The real problem is when it doesn't. When the Nice Guy invests loads of effort into being so nice she couldn't possibly fail to recognize how wonderfully perfect he is, and still somehow she doesn't fall for him. Then, it's so easy for him to become angry and resentful. He's done sooo much for her, and she doesn't even appreciate it, the ingrateful bitch! And then we see that the "Nice" guy isn't really genuinely nice, but he sees niceness for sex as a quid pro quo, and she's not keeping her part of the .... bargain? There was no bargain. That's not what "nice" means.

     All of this has been talked about a great deal lately, and rightly so, but I don't know if that argument by itself is going to sink in to the Nice Guy. It just rings a little hollow to someone in his shoes. And that's because Nice Guy is really hurting, is really lonely, is really feeling that he's the victim of an injustice, and telling him he's being a jerk (even if he is) is unlikely to be effective.
     I've been there. Well, maybe not quite the same place, but close to it. Before the phrase "nice guy" took on its current meaning, I always tried to be one, as distinct from the kind of aggressive jerk who takes advantage of women for sex. I was very sensitive to the stereotype that men are always after sex, so I was always careful to keep any attraction I might have felt a closely guarded secret, so as not to make anyone feel awkward or uncomfortable. Only if I got some sign or clue that a girl might be receptive to an advance did I consider I'd have permission to make my feelings known, and of course I was wary of letting my wishful thinking mislead me about ambiguous signals, so my default assumption was that girls generally were not interested in me. (I had not yet recognized that expecting the female to make the first move was no more sensible an arbitrary convention than having the male do it, and even less satisfactory if I was the only one following it.)
     I really did (and still do) value my friendships with females as rewarding friendships with equals, and I'm glad that many of them felt comfortable enough to talk to me about personal problems. It isn't that I wasn't romantically interested in any of them, because if I'd had a hint that was an option, I certainly would have been willing and indeed eager to explore the possibility (and in fact did on a couple of occasions). It's that romance was genuinely not the objective or motivation for these friendships; I was not just being nice to them in the hopes they might eventually give me sex. 
     And yet, at the same time, I really did long for a romantic relationship. I experienced all that painful loneliness and unfulfilled desire, just as much as anyone does in their teens and twenties, and it felt terrible. It felt even worse when my female friends would talk in front of me about how all men were jerks and then add "Oh, not you, Tom, you don't count!" I didn't? That was supposed to be comforting how, exactly? I wasn't a jerk, or I wasn't a man? Or is it only jerks you're attracted to? Or... what? Seriously, what was I supposed to take away from this?

     I know how I was wrong then, of course. I should have been a little bit more open. I should have been more willing to acknowledge that yes, I found girls attractive for their bodies as well as their minds. Since then, I've had my heart broken enough to know it won't kill me, and I've inadvertently broken enough hearts to know it's not anyone's fault, so if a woman tells me she's not interested, that's sad for me but I'll get over it and we can still be friends because I know she isn't to blame for me being hurt (assuming she knows me well enough to trust I won't resent her for it).
     But the fact that I was inexperienced in how to think about and deal with that pain doesn't mean the pain wasn't real. And it really was unfair and frustrating that these lovely young women always seemed to be attracted to guys who treated them with less respect than I did, and never seemed to even consider me as an option ("You don't count"), and so yeah, I really, really do understand why so many Nice Guys feel hurt. It really does hurt, and it isn't fair.
     That's the problem, the kernel of truth behind their complaint that is so very real and so painful and so genuinely unfair that any amount of lecturing Nice Guys to wise up and recognize that women don't owe them anything is going to run into the barrier of "But you don't know how I feel!"

     Dude, I do. I really, really do. You want her. You want her real bad, and not having her feels like the worst thing imaginable. But try this experiment: make yourself not want her anymore. Just decide that you can live without her, that someone else out there might make you happier. In fact, pick that someone else, maybe someone you find less attractive now, and see if maybe you can discover her inner beauty, and make yourself be attracted to her instead.
     Not that easy, is it? Turns out, we don't have a lot of control over whom we find attractive. It's not your fault. And here's the thing: it's no easier for women. Doesn't matter how nice someone is to you; if you're not attracted you're not attracted. End of story. So it's not their fault they're not attracted to you, and it's not your fault you are.
     You may be a very nice guy, and very handsome, and do everything right, and still end up lonely. Or, fate may have made you unattractive and unpleasant, and yet someone still falls for you for some inexplicable reason. It happens. There are lots of things that fate inflicts upon the undeserving. Get past it, and be nice and respectful to people without expecting anything in return. It's not a reliable way to get others to sleep with you, but it does make it easier to sleep with yourself.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Trickle-Up Economics

     That the trickle-down theory of economics has enjoyed such marketshare in the public mind for the last thirty odd years is testimony to the power of branding. Similar names for the same product, "supply-side economics" and "voodoo economics" have been less successful. "Supply-side" is still used because although only a few economists actually know why it's called that, you can sound like you know what you're talking about. "Voodoo economics" doesn't afford that cover; if enough people claim to understand something, then calling it inexplicable nonsense will backfire by making them look smarter for understanding it, whether they actually do or not.
     The real strength of the trickle-down metaphor is in its simple and obvious intuitive imagery. Of course water trickles down from wherever you pour it, eventually finding its way to the bottom. It's a law of nature, this gravity thing, and pretty widely accepted even among Young Earth Creationists (mostly).

     The trouble with the metaphor, and with the theory generally, is that it actually mixes two incompatible metaphors, effectively flipping the force of gravity upside down. We call it "trickle-down" because we have a strong tendency to speak of wealth and social class in vertical terms: we have upper and lower classes, prosperous people are upwardly mobile, it's lonely at the top. We accept this social heirarchy metaphor unquestioningly, and in the context of describing social heirarchy, it's just fine. But metaphors are dangerous if we take them too literally, and it's a mistake to assume that the force of gravity in our social metaphor which will bring the high and mighty crashing down into poverty if they're not careful also applies to their money flowing downhill, because that's not what the original metaphor was crafted to explore.

     It is useful to think of money as a kind of fluid. We talk of cash flow, liquid assets, currency and charges. But which way does it flow? That's much more complex, because money flows in so many different directions; I might pay you today to do something for me, and you might turn around and use that money to buy something from me tomorrow. In general, though, it's a safe bet that if money is accumulating in any particular place, there's a reason for it: money tends to flow towards rather than away from such places. The mere fact that it's accumulating there is at least prima facie evidence of that.
     We generally call people who accumulate money "rich". There are all sorts of reasons why rich people become rich, some of them good, some of them bad. Some people become rich by being really good at providing something that everyone needs. Others are good at gaming the system. Others inherit wealth, others steal it. If you've heard anything about Thomas Piketty's tome, Capital in the 21st Century, you might be aware of his analysis that income from capital tends to be more than growth, which means that wealth will naturally tend over time to accumulate in the hands of those who own capital. But whatever the reason, we can think of these places where money accumulates, regardless of the reason, as "down" with respect to the natural flow of money. Money flows downhill, into the pockets of those who are good at making it, and away from those who are bad at keeping it.

     In other words, money does trickle down, but down is where the wealthy are, while the poor live in the arid highlands, praying for rain.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Refining vs. Redefining

     It may be a little late to the game to be talking about this, now that a clear majority of people in Canada and the U.S. actually favour same-sex marriage, but just the other day I was talking to someone who brought up the linguistic argument. He had no problem whatsoever with same-sex relationships; he just objected to changing the meaning of the word "marriage", which (he argued) has always been understood to mean a particular sort of relationship between a man and a woman, and that if we're going to sanction similar sorts of relationships between men and men, or women and women, we should come up with a new word for it, rather than dilute the meaning of good old-fashioned "marriage".
     This seems like the sort of argument that would appeal to someone like me, because I tend to be the grammar/usage purist at dinner parties and similar events, and I place a great deal of value on using words correctly. I reliably object whenever someone tries to explain acupuncture or shiatsu using phrases like "energy lines", because energy is a well-defined and quantifiable scientific concept: force times distance. I tremble with rage at "irregardless" and don't even get me started on using quotation marks for "emphasis".
     And yet, expanding the set of relationships captured by the word "marriage" does not bother me at all. Why?

     I don't love words and grammar and punctuation rules for their own sake. All by themselves, they're kind of arbitrary, and any number of other equally effective rules could be devised. Indeed, they have been: that's what other languages are. In English, we tend to distinguish between subject and object by word order (subject - verb - object), but in Japanese, the subject is often simply implied, the object marked by a particle, and the verb at the end of the sentence goes.
     No, I care about English words and the rules of grammar because I understand how versatile they are and how they can skillfully be used to convey meanings with rigorous precision or with playful ambiguity. I don't object to people knowingly misusing a word for effect; that's not actually a misuse. I do object to habitual misuse that degrades a useful meaning so that I can't use it anymore, and have to go into a long pedantic exposition before I can get to my main point. (Okay, so maybe I seem to like being pedantic, but I'd rather be able to get to the main point. When I have one, anyway.)

     So I want the words I use to be useful. I want them to capture the meaning that is really at the core of what I'm talking about, and not merely some label for an arbitrary list of elements. Let's imagine, for example, that everybody only ever used a Thermos to keep hot drinks hot, and if you asked anyone what a Thermos was, they'd say "It's a special kind of bottle that keeps hot things hot." Let's say the word came to be defined that way (assuming it lost its trademark status, that is), and dictionaries universally adopted that definition.
     Then, someone discovers, that if you put a cold liquid in a Thermos, it stays cold longer! My goodness! What a discovery! Whatever shall we call this new function? If a Thermos is a device that keeps hot things hot, we can't call it that. Maybe Cryos or something?
     But that's silly. It's the same object, whether it's used to keep things hot or keep things cold, and moreover its actual function is neither, but to limit the flow of heat energy between the inside and the outside, whatever the temperature is. The appropriate thing to do is to revise our definition of the word, not to invent some brand new one in order to preserve an outdated (mis)understanding of what the old thing was.

     I applaud this kind of refinement of meaning. Words are tools, and I want them to be the best tools we can make them. We should be wary of discarding their traditional meanings too quickly, because very often there are good reasons for why a word came to mean what it does; the words we have today are the product of many generations of productive bickering among writers and speakers and philologists who probably raised and considered many of the same concerns we think we're bringing up new today. But we should also be willing to change the old meaning when it is clearly inferior to the new proposal.

     And that's what I think is true of the word "marriage" today. I don't necessarily accept that the word itself just meant one man and one woman before, but even if I did, I submit that that's a pretty inelegant kind of word to preserve. We know now that the legal status that goes by the name of "marriage" when it applies to a man and a woman can also perform the same function with a man and a man or a woman and a woman. Insisting that we come up with a new word for it in those cases is just as silly as insisting that we can't call something a Thermos when it's used to keep something cold instead of hot.
     Yes, I care deeply about the integrity of our language, and to me, the word "marriage" is made stronger and more useful, not diluted, by expanding it to include all spousal relationships regardless of the gender permutations involved. What that couple has is a marriage, and I don't actually need to know what their genders are in order to understand the essential qualities of their relationship.


Thursday, 23 October 2014

Calm down, everyone. It's just an idiot.

     Yesterday, in our nation's capital of Ottawa, there was an incident that has drawn a great deal of attention and led to much wringing of hands. A man with a hunting rifle shot and killed a soldier standing guard by our National War Memorial, and fled the scene in a car. Shortly thereafter, the same shooter arrived a couple of blocks away at Parliament Hill, and ran into Centre Block. There were two exchanges of gunfire, after which the shooter lay dead. There were two casualties: the shooter and the soldier he had shot. Some of the staff in the Parliament block were injured, but no one else was killed.

     Now, this certainly was a significant event, and definitely newsworthy, but let's try to put it into perspective. So far as we know, one person, for reasons known only to himself, undertook heinous acts of violence. He murdered one guy, and then was shot while presumably trying to murder some others. We grieve for the man he killed, Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, and the shootout on Parliament Hill is scary to contemplate not just because it's where our government does its work but because it's a location so familiar to us from media scrums and tours. (I was there myself earlier this year.)
     But that's about as far as it should go. This was not a meaningful attack on us as a nation or an act of war, because a lone deluded individual doesn't and shouldn't have that kind of power. Back in 1981, a mentally ill man shot President Ronald Reagan in the bizarre belief it would impress an actress he was infatuated with. What does it matter who yesterday's shooter was trying to impress, or what ideology he thought he was advancing? He was a criminal idiot, and that's how we ought to react to this.

     The sad truth is that people are murdered from time to time, even in Canada. It's a tragedy when it happens, and we should look to ways to prevent it, but the happier truth is that it happens less and less often. More and more of us live our entire lives without ever killing anyone. Violence may never completely disappear from human society, but it is in decline. A side effect of that decline, though, is that we are more shocked by violence when it does happen, and perhaps a little more prone to overreact.

     So what should be done?  I'm not sure we need to do much differently at all, at least not in response to this incident. It's just another data point to consider when formulating policy on a number of issues: gun ownership, mental health, etc. Probably security procedures at Parliament Hill may need to be revised somewhat, as it's a little troubling someone was able to run all the way up into the front door and get as far as the library while brandishing a hunting rifle. They make visitors go through metal detectors, after all. And yet, let's not forget that he actually failed to kill anyone else, and ended up dead himself. Although he shouldn't have got as far as he did, they did stop him.
     But there is absolutely no reason why this should have any impact whatsoever on foreign policy. It should not dissuade us from participating in the fight against ISIS, nor should it stir us to escalate our contribution. The criminal stupidity of a lone gunman should not move us to anger or fear. Let's not give him that power.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Dreams of Certainty

     Last week, I was reminded of a dream I once had, many years ago as an undergraduate in philosophy. Perhaps it was because I fell asleep while listening to Beethoven's 9th Symphony, but in my dream I had been working through a philosophical question, and suddenly had an epiphany: all the pieces of a proof suddenly fell into place. In that moment, I knew, I really knew with absolute certainty, that I had just proved with perfect logical rigour, relying only on unassailably self-evident premises, the existence and immortality of the soul!
     And then I woke up, and it evaporated. I could not remember anything about my proof, other than the conclusion, which by itself is no proof at all. I tried my best to reconstruct it, but I came up with nothing.
     There were two choices I had at this point. I could take my dream at face value, relying on that feeling of certainty to assure me that the proof actually existed and was still out there for me to rediscover, which I dearly wanted to do. Or, I could recognize that in all likelihood, what I had dreamed was not the proof itself, but the feeling of having found it, and there was no particular reason to believe any such proof actually existed. Eventually, and with some disappointment, I had to accept that the dream was just a dream.

     Although I hadn't consciously thought of this experience in many years, it seems to have played an important role in shaping the skepticism that has characterized most of my thinking since then. In particular, if you've read through the lengthy comment threads on some of my more theological postings here, it illustrates why I have never accepted the subjective claims of certainty promised by my anonymous commenters. They assure me that if I would only open my heart to Jesus, I would then know, really know with absolute certainty, The Truth. And once I had that sense of certainty, I would need no further proof.
     But I know that sense of certainty already, and I am unimpressed by it, because I am aware of the possibility that it can be mistaken. How certain you feel about something bears little relationship to how likely you are to actually be correct, and so even if you promise me that I'll feel certain and even if I believe you that I will feel certain, none of that amounts to an assurance that I'll be any closer to knowing the truth.
     Some people are really uncomfortable with uncertainty. They crave that feeling of certainty, and feel it gives them strength, and maybe it does that. I will probably never know that kind of comfort outside of a dream, but I'm okay with that. I find a different kind of comfort in being aware of my own fallibility, in knowing that while I'm very likely wrong about most of what I believe, I am wrong honestly, and willing to correct my errors when I become aware of them. In a way, it's kind of exhilarating, like taking off the training wheels or jumping in at the deep end of the pool. It isn't that I find the risk of being wrong a thrill; it's that I've learned that the apparent safety of the training wheels or the shallow end of the pool are illusions.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Misquoting and Misspeaking

     Once again, I must bring up the proper use of quotation marks. They are not to be used for emphasis. See? I just emphasized "not" with italics. And just now, I set apart "not" with quotation marks because I'm referring to the word itself, not its meaning or reference or anything else. Putting something in quotation marks means you're quoting (hence the name) what someone said, not paraphrasing or restating.

     I bring this up because another pseudoquote just crossed my Facebook feed today, this time attributed to Vice President Joe Biden.

"No ordinary American cares about their constitutional rights."

     The image circulated with this alleged quote goes on to say, "Yes, America, our Vice President said that!" Except he didn't. He did not utter this sentence.

     I watched the video, and what he does say is almost as dumb, if you take it strictly literally: "And let me say at the outset to all the press: No law-abiding citizen in the United States of America has any fear that their constitutional rights will be infringed in any way. None. Zero."
     That is obviously false. There's lots of law-abiding citizens in the U.S. who do fear that their constitutional rights will be infringed, and lots of law-abiding citizens whose constitutional rights are infringed every day. (The practice of civil forfeiture, for example, has gotten rather out of hand, which I take to be a pretty clear violation of the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment.)

     Now, you could take Mr. Biden as meaning exactly what he said, and if in fact he does believe that no law-abiding citizen does fear infringements to their rights, then statement attributed to him in the image macro would be a defensible inference about his beliefs. But it's not a quotation. You could say "Joe Biden believes that no ordinary American cares about their constitutional rights", and that'd be fine. Just don't use quotes unless you're actually quoting the actual words he actually said. (Seriously, is that so hard to understand?)

     But I want to go a little farther and argue that this would be a silly and uncharitable inference about Mr. Biden's actual beliefs. To me, it seems far more likely that he missed a word in his written speech, and that what he was supposed to say was that no law-abiding citizen has any reason to fear infringement of their constitutional rights. If you watch the video from the beginning, you'll see a couple of similarly clumsy oratory missteps.
     Let's be fair. Public speaking is not an easy thing to do, and mistakes happen. Working from a script (which is what any written speech is going to be, even if you write it yourself) has its own difficulties; it takes time to absorb the flow of the lines and internalize their meaning, and to find your own inflections, pauses, emphases. Joe Biden may be affable and confident, but if he's a gifted orator then this was not a day that showed it. Interpreting what someone says always takes a bit of cognitive effort at the best of times, and sometimes requires us to cut the speaker some slack while we correct for errors. We should do this regardless of whether or not we agree with the speaker's views, because successful communication is a matter of trying to discern what the speaker actually means, rather than seizing upon whichever meaning reinforces our own beliefs.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Fair Warning and Photo Radar

     I've written before about speed limits, and generally argued against speeding, so it may come as a surprise that I have received seven photo radar tickets. Admittedly, six of them came over several months after I had my license plate stolen by some nitwit who apparently drove a 1985 Supra, if the images on the summonses are to be trusted. I had reported the plate stolen promptly, so I never had to pay any of the six, and needless to say, it wasn't me speeding.
     The seventh was just this past year, and it was for going 60 km/h in a 50 zone, which wouldn't have bothered me but for the fact that it was a short stretch of the road between two zones where the limit was 60. Also, it did surprise me a little, because I had always understood that there was an unwritten rule that they wouldn't issue a ticket if you were within 10 klicks of the limit, not that I have ever thought that was a valid legal argument against any actual speeding ticket. And also it was probably my wife driving.

     Now photo radar has become a hot topic again here in Edmonton, with the mayor responding on his blog to a petition of angry drivers who want photo radar abolished. They argue that it is a cash cow, that it doesn't actually make us safer, and that speed limits are too low anyway. I'll not address those again here, but instead, I wanted to consider what Mayor Iveson said (and I've said in the past myself) about speed limits, and how exceeding them at all is illegal, period, end of story. I agree with that, of course, but I want to argue here for why there ought to be a buffer as a matter of policy, and how it should be handled.

     First, the reasons for a buffer. I've read that highway engineers usually try to establish speed limits based on the 85th percentile of free traffic flow, meaning the speed at or below which 85% of vehicles are travelling. Although vehicles may vary in their performance and individual drivers vary in their skill and tolerance of risk, taken in the aggregate they can give a pretty fair idea of what people can handle safely and comfortably. I imagine they probably set the actual limit a little bit below that point (perhaps they just round down to the nearest 10 km/h), which would make sense because traffic flows most efficiently when everyone is going close to the same speed, and if only 15% of drivers feel comfortable at or above the posted limit, you'll likely have a lot of people going considerably slower and gumming up the works. So the optimum limit should be something a clear majority of drivers can confidently handle.
     But there's a curious fact about posted limits, which grocery store owners understand. Put up a sign that says "Limit 5 per customer", and people who normally would only have bought one will buy four more. To some extent, the same psychology applies to speed limits, and so drivers who might otherwise have been content at 48 km/h will feel they're missing out on something of value if they don't snap up those extra 12 klicks. So even if they do set the limit at the 85th percentile, it seems likely that the general flow of traffic will usually be at or near the speed limit, which is, after all, a good thing: we want everybody to be going approximately the same speed.
     Now, posted limits are one thing, but the facts of driving are such that sometimes you need to adjust your speed upward or downward in order to make certain maneuvers, such as getting into position to change lanes. Ideally, to avoid exceeding the limit, you'd just slow down and drop back behind the car next to you so you can change lanes, but in practice that's not aways the safest or best choice (especially given the prevalence of tailgating). So occasionally going a few klicks over the posted limit is a perfectly reasonable thing to do for certain maneuvers, and ought not to be discouraged when it's done responsibly in that kind of context. Moreover, I'd be willing to bet that traffic engineers who prescribe a speed limit are building into it assumptions that normal traffic flow will include such minor incidental variations around that value.
     As well, there's the scarcity of attention; a driver has only so much of it, and we want drivers to focus their attention where it is needed most. Although they shouldn't completely ignore the speedometer, micromanaging it is not a good investment of attention, either. A too-rigidly enforced speed limit without any buffer will begin to punish drivers for the wrong thing: watching the road. You could argue that to avoid this problem, you can just set your speed around 5 klicks below the posted limit to leave yourself some wiggle room, and of course that's true. However, remember the "Limit 5 per customer" phenomenon, and the fact that traffic engineers almost certainly take this into account when setting limits in the first place. It's likely that when they post a limit of 80 km/h, they expect and intend for traffic to comply by driving at 80 km/h and not 75 km/h.

     And yet, speed limits are legal limits; if you exceed them, you are breaking the law. If you build into it a formal buffer of 10 km/h, then in effect you're really just raising the "actual" speed limit by that amount. So what to do?

     One of the advantages to a live traffic cop pulling you over is that he or she has some discretion to let you go with a warning, when a warning is sufficient and effective. Why not have photo radar do the same thing? When it catches you exceeding the limit by 10 km/h or less, it would send you not a summons, but just a warning that you've been caught speeding. There would be no penalty, but if you get into the habit (that is, if you get too many warnings within a reasonable time period), you will start being fined.
     Mayor Iveson explained, in his blog, that the proceeds from photo radar do not go into general revenue but are used to fund traffic safety initiatives, so it seems to me that this would fall right within that mandate. The infrastructure for processing such cautions is already in place, so this would be a cost-effective way of delivering a message to exactly the people who need to hear it.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

A Half-Baked Idea for Patent Extraction Rights

     I have written before about my disdain for patent law and the notion of intellectual property in general, but today I thought I'd share an idea I had a few years ago while thinking about the issue of patenting living organisms, which yesterday's post reminded me of. The idea is to create a new kind of property right which would hopefully establish an economic interest in maintaining biodiversity while encouraging basic research.

    But first, let me start with mineral rights, at least as they are handled here in Alberta. When you own land here, you do not actually own the rights to the minerals under it. Those belong to the Crown, which is one of the ways our government generates income, by charging royalties to the companies that want to drill for oil. That doesn't completely cut out the landowner, though, because to get to those minerals, you usually need to go through the landowner's property, and that often involves a fee.
     Now, this got me to thinking about a possible structure for biological patent rights. Under the current system, you go out and do some research and when you find something novel and useful about some organism, you can apply for a patent and there you go. It's as if an oil company could just go out and look for oil wherever they wanted, and then file a claim for the exclusive right to drill when they find it, without ever having to deal with landowners.
     So what if there were the genomic equivalent of a landowner, someone who owned not patents on an organism or its DNA, but the right to apply for such patents? So, for example, suppose I own the patent extraction rights for the genus Taraxacum, and the various species of dandelion. I don't necessarily own any actual dandelions, just the right to apply for patents on them. Then, if some pharmaceutical researcher discovers a medically useful protein in a dandelion leaf, and wants to patent it to bring a profitable new drug to market, they need to talk to me and work out a licensing arrangement: I will license them to apply for the patent in exchange for a flat fee, or a share of their profits, or whatever we agree on.

     What's the point of this? Well, the owner of the patent extraction rights would be economically motivated to do two important things: conservation and research. If I own the patent extraction rights for Taraxacum, I can now demonstrate an economic interest in preserving the species, which means I can have standing to sue someone who puts them at risk, and claim real damages. This internalizes an externality, as the economists say. Secondly, it's now in my interest to do and publish basic science about Taraxacum, because it boosts the chances that someone out there will recognize a patentable use for the plant, which could turn into a lucrative license arrangement for me.
     Consider also the issue of indigenous peoples and their traditional lore about the plants they've used for generations. At present, a scientist can go learn from the locals how they use this plant to treat this disease, take a few specimens back to the lab and reap the benefits of a patent on it, even though most of the actual work in discovering the plant's use was done by someone else. But if the patent extraction rights for these species were vested in the indigenous peoples themselves, they would have a way to share in the profits derived from their knowledge, as well as a justiciable property right in preserving their ecosystem.
     Arguably, the patent extraction rights to the human genome should be vested in the Crown on behalf of all humanity, and used to ensure that all patents on life-saving therapies are licensed on terms that do not exclude any humans who need the therapy.

     So there is my crazy half-baked idea, thrown out there for all the world to consider. Please accept my invitation to criticize it mercilessly in the comments below.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Ignorance of the Law is no Excuse: Refuting Another Paranoid Chain Letter

     Yet again I find myself responding to one of the inane Facebook memes that appears in my feed. The text of this one reads:

Why did the US government
invent and patent EBOLA
Patent number #CA2741523A1
Patent number #8124101
The AIDS cure
Patent number #5676977
The CANCER cure
Patent number #6630507
Seems like they are trying to
cause an epidemic, making us Ill,
then keeping us sick...

     Wow. So much wrong. Let's start, first, with ignorance of the law. Patents are a form of intellectual property designed to encourage inventors to come up with new stuff. See, the problem with inventing is that if you have a great new idea that makes people's lives better, the only way to keep other people from using that idea is by not telling anyone about it, which kind of makes it hard to make money by inventing. You can maybe make things using your idea and sell them, but if you do that there's a good chance someone else will figure out how you did it, and then who'll buy from you? And even if you do manage to keep your method a secret, when you die it's lost, which is good for nobody.
     So patents are a kind of temporary legal monopoly on new ideas. In exchange for filing an application with the patent office, which includes a complete explanation of the invention and how it works, you gain the exclusive right to use the idea for twenty years. (This varies with jurisdiction and is sometimes amended by statute, but the exact length of time doesn't matter for this explanation.) If someone else uses  your idea during this time, you can sue them, and of course the fact that you've published a patent means it's fairly easy in principle to establish whether or not they actually used your method or came up with some other process. (It doesn't matter if they independently came up with your method all by themselves; the fact that you were the first to patent it gives you the legal monopoly, and too bad for them.) So you have 20 years to make as much money as you can from your brilliant idea, and then the patent expires and anyone can use it without having to pay you anything.

     What does this mean for patents on EBOLA, SWINE FLU, The AIDS cure and The CANCER cure? Well, first of all, it means that all of these patents are by definition public knowledge. When you patent something, you tell everyone else how to do it so they can do it for themselves when the patent expires. If you had a bioweapon form of Ebola virus or swine flu, the very last thing you'd want to do is patent it. You'd want to keep it as secret as secret can be. So the fact that someone has patented these things means it's completely ridiculous to think that they're planning on using them to make us sick. I think patents are an inefficient kludge that may cause more harm than good, but the basic principle of what a patent is kind of makes it impossible for them to be evidence of a grand plot by the evil gubmint to make us all sick.

     Okay, so maybe the author of this forward didn't know what patents are and how they work. Lots of people don't, and that's okay. But that doesn't excuse the sheer idiocy of their paranoid rantings. I mean, if you're going to make claims about patents and what they mean, the least you could do is go and look up the patent itself. Let's do that now.

Ebola: Ebola virus causes a nasty and very frequently deadly hemorrhagic fever that's killed nearly 2,000 people in the 2014 outbreak in West Africa. It's scary, to be sure, but scientists studying it tell us that it doesn't actually spread all that easily and we shouldn't be panicking. Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control have managed to isolate and characterize specimens of the virus, and as often happens, they've taken out a patent on it. (A patent doesn't mean they invented the virus; it just means they claim to have discovered its genome in a meaningful way so as to make further inventions, such as a vaccine, possible.)
     A lot of labs, including those at the CDC, routinely file for patents on things they find that could be economically useful. That doesn't mean they plan to make money off it, though. Bear in mind that the job of the CDC is to control the spread of disease, a task they might find considerably harder and more costly if some big drug company manages to patent a treatment. So by pre-emptively patenting the virus itself, any cure based on the virus will be subject to the CDC's patent rights, so the CDC can negotiate with whatever private company finds a cure, in order to keep them from charging unreasonable prices for it.  So, I am not in the least bit worried about the fact that the CDC might hold a patent on the Ebola virus, although I am still more than a little uncomfortable about the idea of patenting life-forms. But more on that in another post.

Swine Flu: Swine flu was not invented by anyone, but patent 8124101 is for a genetically modified version of the naturally-occuring virus which was developed to improve the efficiency of preparing flu vaccines. I, for one, think that flu vaccines are a splendid idea, and I get mine every year, courtesy of Alberta Health Care. While I don't have to pay out of pocket for the vaccine, my government does, so I'm really rather pleased to learn that this patent was assigned by its inventors to Mount Sinai School of Medicine, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and the United States of America through the Secretary of Agriculture, and not some for-profit pharmacy corporation. 

AIDS: Another thing to remember about patents is that the invention doesn't actually have to work to be patented. Patent 5676977 is titled "Method of curing AIDS with tetrasilver tetroxide molecular crystal devices", which sounds awesome until you realize that being able to kill HIV in a test tube isn't necessarily all that helpful for curing AIDS. You can kill the virus by boiling it in chicken fat, too, but that's not a very helpful discovery when the virus you're trying to kill is lurking within the living cells of a human patient.
     Two more crucial details about this patent. First, it's not held by the U.S. government at all, but by Antelmen Technologies Ltd. of Providence, Rhode Island. Presumably Antelman hoped the discovery would be profitable, and I don't know, maybe it has been. But that's kind of moot, because the patent was filed May 31, 1996, which means that it's pretty close to expiry, at which point it becomes fair game for anyone to start making molecular crystal devices with tetrasilver tetroxide and go cure AIDS with it all they want. 

Cancer: Oh, man, this one annoys me. See, I'm not an oncologist or a microbiologist, so I'm by no means an expert, but I have undergone successful (so far) surgery and chemotherapy for a Stage III cancer, and I've learned just enough about cancer and how it's treated to be able to recognize when someone knows less than I do.  Talk about a cancer cure is dangerous nonsense, because cancer isn't a simple, single disease. It's a whole category of diseases which have one thing in common: cells dividing when they're not supposed to. The human body has hundreds of different types of cells, some of which are supposed to divide and some of which aren't, and there are thousands and thousands of ways their DNA can get screwed up to produce a cancer-type disease. Some of them can be cured, some of them cure themselves, and some of them will kill you dead. We're learning lots about how cells work, and amazing progress has been made (hey, I'm alive, as of this writing), and maybe we'll have cures for all of them some day, but anyone who says there is "A cure for cancer!" is smoking something.
     And I mean that literally. Lately I've seen a lot of talk about cannabis as a cure for cancer, usually from people who are enthusiastic about marijuana. Now, personally, I'm all for decriminalizing pot, mainly for philosophical reasons (I've never tried the stuff, myself, and was never tempted to, even when I was on chemotherapy), and I think it's probably very useful medicinally, especially for cancer patients. It's supposed to be good for suppressing nausea, for one thing, and I can attest that chemo can really get you puking. It may even be effective for directly treating some cancers.
     But, as I said, there is almost certainly no such thing as A cure for cancer, and I strongly suspect that some people are vastly inflating the promise of cannabinoid drugs for the ulterior motive of Freeing The Weed. And indeed, that seems likely if you actually read patent 6630507, for "Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants". It's not a "cure for cancer"; it's potentially a treatment for a particular set of conditions which are sometimes associated with cancers.
     And yes, the patent is assigned to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. What does this mean? Not much, as long as cannabis remains illegal, making research into its properties inconvenient at best. Maybe the evil gubmint is holding onto the patent so it can sue stoners for patent infringement if the weed is freed? Doubtful, but I have heard that one of the side effects of marijuana use is paranoia.

     Explains a lot, actually.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Government and Governance: Why We Ought To Vote

     This is part three of a series of three posts about the role of the state and the rule of law. The previous two posts have been about the claims society makes upon us, and why we shouldn't object to them. We ought to obey the law because properly constituted law makes us more, not less, free. We ought to pay taxes on our use of collectively administered assets (such as our use of the money system) because the owners of those collectively owned assets (i.e. us collectively) are entitled to collect a fair price for the benefits we enjoy from their use, and we are better off than we would be without the exchange.
     But here's the catch: it doesn't matter if you buy these arguments, because you cannot opt out of The State. You are bound by its laws whether you like it or not. I have argued that we ought to consider ourselves fortunate to have laws and taxes, but what if you don't? And what if it seems that the country you live in doesn't really adhere to these noble principles? What then?
     Well, the good news is that we live in a time when virtually every government on the planet at least pretends to a legitimacy based on some sort of democratic ideal. Yes, there are a few theocracies and the occasional monarchy that claims authority based on some sort of divine right, but for the most part, even the most repressive tyrannies at least claim to represent the people. Even the Khmer Rouge called their regime "Democratic Kampuchea", and the Kim dynasty calls itself the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea".
     To be sure, such oppressive states are just plain ol' dirty rotten liars when they say they are democratic. Mao hinted more than a bit at his true philosophy when he wrote "Political power grows from the barrel of a gun." And when dealing with raw, might-makes-right totalitarian coercion, there are really only two options: total resistance or total surrender.
     But very few regimes today are quite so brazen. Nearly everyone at least claims to respect some sort of principle of justice or right beyond "do as I say or else". And that is a start, even if it is a bluff. For now.
     What I want to suggest here is that the way to deal with government is to call that bluff, even if you believe it is a bluff. If your government tells you it respects your rights, then exercise them with confidence and good faith, even if you suspect they don't really want you to. Hold them to their word. Make them be the liars and the lawbreakers.

     This will sound naive: do I not understand that corrupt systems will simply disregard my arguments, and lock me in jail or worse regardless of the merits of my arguments? Of course I do, but it is every bit as naive to assume that corrupt systems will be nice to you if you do everything they say. Corrupt systems are corrupt, and inherently untrustworthy; you cannot rely on them to keep their word either way. They very well might just shoot you for fun, or to make an example of you, or whatever. The fact is, when you're living in a lawless tyranny, there really is no such thing as playing it safe. Some risks can be reduced, but often at a cost of accepting increasingly oppressive conditions.
     Moreover, most of the time you will not be dealing with the supreme dictator at the top, but with some lower-level functionary, and in all likelihood, that functionary will be as scared of angering the regime as you are. If the regime says it respects these rights in its citizens (whether it sincerely means it or not), then you can characterize the functionary's infringement of those rights as an act of disloyalty, at least enough to raise some doubt in the mind of your functionary and open a discussion.

     In the individual instance, it won't always work, but then, what does? If he's intent on locking up up or shooting you, there really isn't a safe way to avoid that. But in the long run, in the big picture, rights do not suddenly spring into being by a single glorious armed rebellion; they take root and grow as we collectively begin to recognize, demand, and eventually assume them. The American Revolution was, to be sure, a defining moment, but it didn't happen in a vacuum; the fundamental rights which were codified in the Bill of Rights were not invented in 1776, but had already evolved and were well established within the English common law tradition, even if they were not yet uniformly respected.
     In short, fake it 'til you make it. Whether or not you believe your legal system means what it says when it claims you have rights to a fair trial, to vote, and so on, if you (and others) take it at its word, and go out and exercise those rights as if they actually exist, then The Powers That Be will either have to start actually respecting them, or issue some sort of embarrassing retraction.

     I often hear people despair that democracy doesn't work, that the system is too corrupt and the Powers That Be are too powerful to allow us to make any difference, and that our only hope is armed rebellion. This I reject categorically, not because I reject violence generally (although I do) but because pragmatically it almost never works, and even when it succeeds in overthrowing a corrupt regime, it will almost always replace it with another tyranny. Only if there is a deep and broad commitment to the fundamental principles of law and justice can it be otherwise, but such commitment is not brought about through violence. Violence is utterly incompatible with justice. One may, on occasion, be compelled to defend against violence with violence, but one should never be under the illusion that arguments are won that way; once the fighting stops, the questions of justice and right remain unanswered, even if the ones asking them are dead.
     There are also people who feel that to cooperate with The System is to endorse it and thus become complicit in its injustices. That is a fair criticism, but an empty one, because refusing to participate in trying to improve the world is no way to keep your hands morally clean. The world we live in is the world we live in, warts and all, and we cannot absolve ourselves of its impurities by pretending we have nothing to do with them. As satisfying as the sanctimony of withdrawal can feel (and I am no stranger to such self-indulgence), it helps no one. Criticism should be constructive; if it isn't, it's merely veiled self-congratulation.

     So what I am urging, then, is to engage within the system for the change you want, even (especially) if you don't have any faith in the system. Vote. Write letters to your elected representatives. Read and consider the views of people who disagree with you, and talk with them on the assumption that they'll listen and maybe even change their minds, even if you don't think they will. If you think your rights are being violated, don't be afraid to speak up. But even more importantly, make sure to speak up when you see someone else's rights being violated, because ultimately, your rights are only effective when they are respected by other people, so fostering a culture in which people habitually consider the rights of others is more effective than one in which rights are seen as solely tools of self-interest.  Rights, and the rule of law generally, are matters of convention; the law only has power over people who believe in it and agree to be bound by it. We will always be vulnerable to the actions of other people, law or no, so it is in our interest for those other people to bind themselves to the law, and that is more likely to happen if we all act like we expect them to do so.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Defending (a little) Theistic Evolution

     Today I saw this article by Greta Christina, which offers four reasons why theistic evolution fails. As should be evident by now, I tend rather strongly to an atheist view of things, particularly explanations of the origin of the universe and humanity. However, it seems to me that the arguments in this article rather unfairly misrepresent theistic evolution, and I'd like to speak up a little in defense of that view, even though I don't actually share it.  For those who don't want to follow the link, I'll summarize very briefly. Theistic evolution is the view that evolution is just the way that God chose to make us. The article claims that this view is flawed in four ways, which I'll address in turn below.

"1. It contradicts a central principle of the theory of evolution."
     Ms. Christina argues here (correctly) that the theory of evolution is all about probabilities, and is fundamentally undirected. That's actually its chief merit as a theory; it provides an account of how such amazing complexity as we see around us could have arisen without the need to postulate any kind of deliberate intervention.
     Where she goes astray is in assuming that theistic evolution must be directed in that sense. That is, she seems to believe that the God of theistic evolution was aiming specifically at producing us, of all the beings that could have come into existence through unguided natural selection. No doubt many theistic evolutionists do believe this, but it's not at all a necessary assumption for the theory.
     The reason I think it's not necessary is because I've "created" so many undirected virtual universes myself, in roleplaying games and simulations, where I quite deliberately included random elements because I wanted to see what evolved naturally within the system I'd put in motion. Now, to be sure, I'm not deemed to be eternal and omniscient, so it's possible for me to do such a thing without knowing in advance the outcome. But even if we suppose the God of theistic evolution to be omniscient, that doesn't mean that His foreknowledge is the same as intervening at any particular step in the naturalistic evolutionary process; the sequence itself unfolds in exactly the non-deterministic fashion it would without postulating God. The problem here is not with theistic evolution per se, but the deeper philosophical problem of reconciling divine foreknowledge with our notions of randomness and uncertainty.

"2.There's not a scrap of evidence for it."
      No, of course there isn't, and there shouldn't be. The mistake Ms. Christina is making here is in thinking that theistic evolution is a scientific claim, intended to explain something about the world that atheistic evolution cannot explain alone. It isn't. Rather, it is an attempt to preserve elements of a myth with deep personal meaning, in the face of the complete triumph of scientific reasoning. The thinking theistic creationist completely surrenders to science, at least in the arena of trying to understand how the physical universe works. The evidence shows that evolution is how we got here, so that's what the theistic evolutionist accepts. God is not a part of the theory at all. God is postulated entirely outside of the reality that the theory alone governs and exhaustively explains.
     Personally, I have no need of the postulate, but as an avid player of what-if, I recognize that there may be a solid aesthetic reason for including it. But aesthetic preferences are not evidence, and as long as that's understood, I have no beef with theistic evolutionists.

"3. There's a whole lot of evidence against it."
     This is actually the same mistake as in #2 above, and related to the error of #1. Scientifically, theistic evolution is exactly the same theory as atheistic evolution, and relies upon exactly the same empirical evidence. Theistic evolution does not make any of the special predictions Ms. Christina claims it does. The God of theistic evolution may or may not have preferred for us to have sinuses or blind spots or external testicles or any of the countless engineering imperfections we evolved with, but He chose to let the laws of nature produce whatever world would come into being, and He saw that it was good, warts and all. That doesn't mean He thought we'd be better off with an appendix; it means that of all the potential beings in the multiverse, He apparently didn't prefer the perfectly engineered ones to the naturally evolved ones. If I believed in God, that'd make me feel profoundly loved, which is kind of the point of the theistic part of theistic evolution. The evolution part doesn't need God at all. He's just a bonus, a source of comfort for those who need Him.

"4. If it were true, God would either be incompetent or malicious."
     This is a completely valid criticism of the anthropocentric creationists, who assert that God made everything for our benefit, but again, it has no bearing on theistic evolution, which is just evolution-with-God. True, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that such a God is at best brutally indifferent to the suffering of the creatures in this naturalistic universe, but theistic evolution at least has something like an answer to this: the naturalistic universe is what it is, and God wanted a naturalistic universe rather than a human-centered one.
     But that's one of my chief criticisms of a lot of mainstream religion, the preposterous notion that God should care about whether we get that raise or contract this disease or get hit by that bus, and the incredibly vain superstition that God will favour us in this life if we ask Him nicely or recite the proper incantation. Such a god is demonstrably non-existent by empirical comparison with the null hypothesis, and unworthy of worship if He did exist. The God of theistic evolution is not posited to intervene in such ways, and so there's no reason to blame Him for cruelty or incompetence. Blame Him for fatalism, perhaps, or better yet ourselves for not being fatalists.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Leviathan, Inc.: Why We Ought to Pay Taxes

     In the previous post, I argued that law exists for the purpose of increasing the freedom of those bound by it, and I spoke of a liberty dividend, the net gain in liberty that we receive in exchange for the freedoms we surrender. In this post I want to further explore the analogy of the State to a business corporation.

     A corporation is an artificial legal person. It can own property, enter into contracts, and exercise various other legal rights. Unlike natural persons, however, the corporation is owned by its shareholders. Yet it is important to remember that the assets of the corporation itself are the property of the corporation; just because you're a shareholder in the Coca Cola Company doesn't mean you can help yourself to free Cokes at the local bottler. Rather, you own a stake in the enterprise as a whole, which means that you get a say in how it is run. (Which means that if you want free Cokes, you need to elect a board of directors who will implement a policy to give away free Cokes.)
     There are lots of reasons to form a corporation, but most importantly for this discussion, a corporation allows one to undertake large projects beyond the capacity of any individual. If a bunch of entrepreneurs wanted to build a ship to engage in merchant trade, it would be prohibitively unwieldy for each to manage their own portion of the investment, hiring the shipyard and crew and buying materials and cargo and fuel and supplies. It's much easier to simply pool all the money, and appoint someone to coordinate the whole project and delegate responsibilities. And by constituting the enterprise as a separate legal person, the investors can greatly simplify the dealings with customers, contractors and clients.

     Now, the state differs from a typical business corporation in several respects. For one, you don't get much of a choice as to whether or not you invest your liberty with the state. You may have the option to emigrate to a different state, but wherever you go you're going to be subject to the local laws. As I argued in the previous post, it's actually a good investment and you ought to welcome it, even if you're not practically free to refuse.
      For another, you buy shares in a business corporation with money, which means you can own multiple shares, and that entitles you to multiple votes when electing the board of directors. The investment we make in the State for our shares is not money, but the liberty we surrender to its laws, and since each of us in principle surrenders the same individual sovereignty, each of us should have exactly one share; no one's vote should count for more than anyone else's.

     But our liberty need not be the only thing we invest with the state. There are various sorts of things which we can think of as collective assets, valuable finite resources that all of us have moral claim to but which cannot be conveniently divided up into individual shares. It makes sense to manage these resources as a single unit, on behalf of the people collectively. Governments already do this for many resources when they allocate radio bandwidth, establish fishing quotas, and charge royalties for logging and mining.
     It's true that there are some laissez faire ideologues who believe that all collective assets should be divided up and owned privately, and that a robust private law system (i.e. torts and contracts) would be sufficient to resolve the conflicts that would arise. But that would require an ideal world like the one of introductory high school physics, where the absence of friction and air resistance makes almost everything seem possible. In the real world, rivers flow and the wind blows and what I do in my allotment of ocean will unavoidably spill over into yours. In fact, it's a good thing that air and water circulates around the planet, as that's fundamental to keeping our ecosystems functioning. Sorting out who has rights to what would actually call for much more government involvement (in the form of courts hearing private tort/contract cases) than simply managing shared assets as a single unit.
     Some shared resources can be divvied up, of course, but others can't, not just because it would be impractical to do so but because the value of the resource comes from its being unified into a single cohesive system rather than broken up into many competing parts.
     Consider measurement systems, for example. We are so used to everyone knowing what a meter or a kilogram or a second is that we rarely imagine how much more complicated everything would be if we didn't all use a single standard system of measurement. It's only when we have to deal with backward countries that still use inches and ounces that we have some inkling of the confusion, but even there we enjoy the benefit of having fixed conversion rates between standards, rather  than everyone just picking their own poetic description for "This much".
     Think for a moment how insanely complicated our lives would be if we didn't have single unitary standards for standard units. We'd get by, but it'd take up a lot of our time trying to sort out how much rice it should cost to trade for how much cotton thread. Because, after all, the other hugely important unitary standard we all rely on and take for granted is money.

     Like standard units of measurement, the existence of a single system of currency improves our lives in countless ways. The time and effort saved by being able evaluate our trades with standard units is truly staggering, but we are so used to to using dollars that we don't even think about how powerful the system is. We take the convenience of money so much for granted, that we don't even think to put a price on it; we assume it should be free.
     But why should it be? Why should anything that makes your life easier be given to you for free? If there's a widget that saves you $10 of effort every day, it doesn't matter how much it costs me to produce that widget; if I can let you have it for less than $10 you still come out ahead, and have no reason to complain.
     So stop and think about how much it's worth to you to have a functioning system of currency. How much does would you pay for the benefits of living in a world where you can use the concept of a dollar to speed up your calculations and negotiations? Where you can buy insurance against risk, or pool your money with others in a joint stock corporation, or buy a house with a mortgage instead of having to save up enough gold to buy land outright? Money's a ridiculously powerful thing that we all benefit from, but the benefits are greater the more you use it. People who use a lot of money, and who therefore have access to the more powerful uses of money, ought to be willing to pay a lot more for the use of the money utility than people for whom it is a mildly more convenient alternative to barter.  It does not matter how much it costs to create and maintain the money utility; the price you are willing to pay for its use should depend on the utility you get from it.

     Now, what makes the money utility useful is the fact that all of us collectively agree to use it as a standard, and that we all agree to accept its promise of value. (Indeed, you could argue that the person who will do an hour's work for $5 contributes much more to maintaining the value of a dollar than someone who bills out at $300.) It therefore is arguably one of those collective assets of the sort the State can and should manage on our behalf, and if it is economically practical for the State to turn a profit by charging a premium for the use of money, then it ought to earn as much profit as it sustainably can for us by doing so. In the case of the money utility, the premium the State charges has a special name: tax.
     What I am trying to suggest here is that the way we usually think of taxes is wrong. We have traditionally thought of taxes as a necessary evil at best. Historically, warlords extorted tribute from people they subjugated. In time, they justified it by spending some of that money on public works that benefited their people. We still think of tax as the powerful government confiscating our property, sometimes for our own good to pay for roads and hospitals. But it's a mistake to think that what we're paying for is roads and hospitals, because then we (quite understandably) get angry at having to pay for benefits that other people use and we don't, and we elect politicians who promise to cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes, whether or not that's actually a good idea (sometimes it is, but not always).

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Liberty Dividend: Why We Ought to Obey the Law

     I've recently been involved in a number of conversations about the proper use of law and the role of government. Since my thoughts have been coalescing around a general theory of such things which I haven't fully articulated yet, I have decided to attempt to do so in a series of blog posts. The first element I'm going to address is law, which I've touched on before but not quite with the attention I mean to in this essay.

     As I've previously written, I think of law as the weapon of choice for final resolution of disputes in any society that aspires to consider itself civilized. But I haven't yet explained in detail how I think this weapon works, why we should prefer it to guns or swords, and what that means for how it legitimately can and can't be used.

     To begin with, a weapon is a tool which is used to diminish the capacities of a target in some way or other. A gun or sword takes away an opponent's choices mainly through blood loss and the incapacity that results, while the law takes away choices by agreement. (Sure, there may be coercion involved through penalties imposed for breaking the law, but law-abiding citizens generally obey the law because they have agreed to do so.)
     But why would anyone choose to give up choices? All other things being equal, aren't more options better than fewer? Isn't it irrational to surrender freedoms that one might conceivably some day wish to exercise? (You might think you would never want to murder someone, so why not give up that freedom? But if no one ever had a reason to murder anyone, we wouldn't need a rule against it.)

     In fact, surrendering freedoms can sometimes be a very smart move. On his way home from the Trojan War, Odysseus had to sail past the Sirens, whose song invariably overcame the willpower of any who heard them, drawing them to sail onto the rocks where they would be shipwrecked and drowned. Clever Odysseus knew that all he had to do to get past this peril was put wax in his ears and the ears of his crew, so they could not hear the Sirens. But Odysseus wanted to hear the song, too, so he had his crew lash him to the mast and ordered them to ignore him until after they had sailed clear of the danger. And so, by deliberately giving up his freedom to control his ship, Odysseus achieved what no one had ever done before: he heard the Sirens' song and lived to tell about it.
     There are lots of non-mythical examples of how surrendering some autonomy can be a smart choice. With respect to the criminal law, we are all better off (more free) if we give up the right to murder each other in exchange for the right not to be murdered, because being murdered extinguishes all freedoms. Perhaps even more significant, though, is the surrender of autonomy through contract law. Seriously, would you do business with me if I said, "I will bring you a bushel of wheat for that piece of silver, but I reserve the right to break all my promises once the silver is in my hand"? The whole point of contract law is to allow us to make (and thus rely on) binding promises. By giving up the ability to break our promises, we gain a greater ability to trade with each other.

     I argue, then, that law is something which we ought to obey as rational beings because doing so has the net effect of increasing our practical liberty. We may, on occasion, obey the law out of fear of coercion rather than civic duty, but that need not undermine the legitimacy of the law itself. Odysseus wanted to steer his shop onto the rocks, and was prevented by the brute force of the ropes around him, but his choice to be bound by those ropes in the first place was not invalidated by the fact that he changed his mind under the influence of the Sirens. What matters is that law over all must increase our liberty, regardless of how we may bicker about any particular instance of its constraining our liberty. If law in general makes us freer, then we ought to obey it.
     So, the principle I want to articulate here is that properly constituted law represents an investment of liberty: we surrender some of our liberty to the State, which then uses that liberty capital to generate a profit, a surplus of liberty which is then distributed back to us as a liberty dividend. (A regime whose laws do not generate a net gain in liberty is owed no obedience by its citizens. It may impose its will by force, but it cannot claim to be lawful.)

     And this is where the moral obligation to obey the law comes from. I need know nothing about your personal moral beliefs and what other moral duties you may feel you have, but can assert that a moral duty to obey the law almost certainly follows from your own value system.

  • If freedom itself is a value, this is trivial; you ought to do that which maximizes your freedom, which is what a properly constituted law is meant to do.  
  • If you do not directly value freedom, you probably value something else for which freedom is at least an instrumental good. That is, if you think being nice to puppies is important, then you should want as much freedom as possible in order increase the likelihood that you will be able to find a way to be nice to puppies in any situation that arises. The same logic applies if you think you ought to sacrifice puppies to Cthulhu, or put things on top of other things, or whatever it is that you may value. Ergo, you ought to obey the law in order to maximize your capacity to advance whatever primary values you do have.
  • If you do not value the freedoms that law creates, and prefer the freedoms that it constrains, then and only then do I admit you have no particular internal duty to obey the law. But if you are willing to bear the risk of being murdered or maimed or violated by others, in exchange for your own freedom to murder or assault and violate others, then you can have no principled objection to being imprisoned yourself.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Memetic Pathology of Rape Culture

     People have been talking a lot about rape culture lately, and how to eradicate it. I'm completely and enthusiastically in favour of this project, but I think it's important we understand what we're up against from a memetic pathology perspective. In particular, I want to argue that rape culture is more like cancer than it is like an infectious disease, and so we should tailor our approach to it accordingly.

     Eradicating an infectious disease is, in principle, easy. All you have to is kill off all the virus or bacterium or parasite that causes the disease, and that's that. Infectious pathogens are organisms that have evolved sophisticated tricks to get into the body of the host and use it to reproduce more pathogens. These pathogens aren't simple; they are products of countless generations of natural selection, honing and refining their genome to enable them to overcome the various immunities in hosts that are also the product of countless generations of natural selection. Once the last polio virus is destroyed, no one will ever again contract polio, because a common influenza virus isn't clever enough to just spontaneously re-invent for itself all those neat gadgets polio had to sneak into a cell. In short, it's really hard to start an infectious disease from scratch.
     If rape culture were like an infectious disease, eradicating it would be a simple matter of not teaching boys to rape. Without being taught that rape was okay, goes the theory, they'd never get it into their heads to force themselves on girls without consent.
     But that's kind of silly. I mean, the idea of raping someone is not exactly rocket science. Toddlers quite spontaneously and independently discover the secret of hitting people, so any idiot can come up with the idea of using force to get one's way. And if the way one wants to get is with someone else's body, then it doesn't take a great deal of imaginative genius to devise a scheme to which we would properly attach the label "rape".

     Now think about cancer. Although it may be triggered by a virus or some environmental factor, cancer starts out as something going haywire in the finely-tuned instructions that control when and how a cell divides. (Most cells aren't supposed to divide at all, once they become specialized for a particular function as a nerve cell, muscle cell, blood cell, etc.) The cell replicates when it's not supposed to, often growing into a tumour that interferes with the proper functioning of the tissue it's in. Now, cell replication is still a remarkably complex process, and there's an awful lot of biochemistry involved, including genes that perform vitally important functions in a healthy cell. But in a cancer, these otherwise healthy genes and sugars and lipids are put to work supporting the out-of-control cancerous replication. The basic mistake that turns the whole process cancerous is just a dumb mistake, not some fiendishly clever set of genes from a highly evolved virus. Any idiot can toss a monkey wrench into the machinery and make it start malfunctioning.
     The same is true, I think, of rape culture. Any idiot can come up with the idea of forcing sex on someone else. Most of the time when that happens, the person immediately recognizes why it would be morally wrong, and it stops there. (Likewise, most potentially cancerous mutations never develop into tumours.) But occasionally, the idea will get past the immune-response of that morality meme, often because we human beings are just so diabolically clever at rationalizing justifications for why we deserve what we want and what we propose to do about it isn't really that bad, after all, and in fact maybe she really wants it and just needs to be given the opportunity to admit it and... etc. etc. etc. 
     I think, then, that rape culture is best understood as consisting of the kinds of cognitive tools that facilitate such rationalization. There are a few truly pathological memes in this complex, such as the moral concept of the slut (which I'd love to see eradicated from our vocabulary), but I suspect that most of the ideas that contribute to facilitating rape-thinking may actually perform useful cultural functions, just as most of the genes that allow a cancer cell to grow also perform important roles in healthy cells. But they likely could benefit from some refinement, to make them less susceptible to excusing rape.
     For example, consider the idea of consent, the absence of which turns sex into rape. But notice how closely the concept of  "consent" is to "permission", and thus how it ties into our way of thinking about sex as something done by men to women, rather than something two do together. Patients consent to treatment by surgeons who often work while the patient is unconscious. So even when we take pains to talk about the importance of consent, we are still unwittingly using and reinforcing a conception of sex where the verbs are all transitive ones, with active subjects and passive objects who are screwed with or without consent. 
     We could, instead, talk about consensus instead of consent. They both mean the same thing, actually, but "consensus" emphasizes the agency of all parties to an agreement, rather than implying a passive permission-granter. In fact, it goes farther than that, because our talk of men requiring the consent of women tends to reinforce a blindness to the role of male volition here. We blame women for implying their consent; we don't even think about men's consent because we just presume that a Manly Man must always be willing. And that, of course, is an idea that is central to rape culture.

     So my point here is that it isn't enough to say we need to stop teaching boys that rape is okay. It isn't even enough to say we need to start teaching them not to rape. Rape culture is a cancer that metastasized ages ago, and has become thoroughly integrated into even the tissues we're using to try to fight it. We need aggressive meme therapy, to replace even apparently helpful memes like "consent" with alleles like "consensus" that are more resistant to facilitating and rationalizing rape-thinking. That means we need to be a lot more conscious and reflective about how we think and talk about sex and sex roles generally. It's going to be tiresome, and we're going to be sick of the cure long before we're well. It's going to be especially tiresome and draining on those men who take pains to remind us that #notallmen are rapists, because those of us who aren't rapists are prone to think we're cured and don't need any treatment. 
     Sorry, guys. It really is just like cancer that way.