Wednesday, October 18, 2017

If you see something, say something

The Army can tell me I have a duty to speak out against Sexual Harassment and Assault.  Or, the Army can forbid me from impugning the character of my superior officers and tell me to keep my politics to myself.  But it cannot do both.

So with the break of the Weinstein scandal and the #metoo thing sweeping social media, I cannot help but remind my tiny audience that my ultimate boss – the Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces – is almost definitely a serial sexual predator.  This isn't the Army's fault, but it's true nonetheless.  The evidence is overwhelming to any rational observer.

Below is the growing list of women who have come forward to accuse the President of sexual assault so far, in chronological order:

1.     Jessica Leeds.  Leeds alleges that about 45 minutes after takeoff on a first-class flight in the early 1980s, Trump lifted the armrest and began touching her, grabbing her breasts, and tried to put his hand up her skirt. "He was like an octopus," she said. "His hands were everywhere. It was an assault."

  1. Kristin Anderson.  Anderson claims Trump reached under her skirt and grabbed her vagina through her underwear while she was talking with friends at a nightclub in the early 1990s.  She had no interaction with him prior to that moment.
  2. Jill Harth. In 1997, Harth filed a lawsuit against Trump for repeatedly sexually harassing her and groping her underneath a table in 1992, as well as molesting and trying to kiss her non-consensually in 1993.  She settled the lawsuit, but remains adamant about the assault claim.
  3. Katie J” – a pseudonym for a child sex trafficking victim pimped out by convicted child rapist Jeffrey Epstein.  Katie filed a lawsuit alleging that Trump raped her at a party when she was 13 years old in 1994.  The hyperlink above directs to her video testimony, in which she alleges Trump also raped a 12 year-old girl named Maria in her presence.
  4. Cathy Heller. Heller met Trump for the first and only time at Mar-a-Lago in 1997.  She says Trump grabbed her, went for a kiss, and grew angry with her as she twisted away, barking “Oh, come on” before holding her firmly in place and planting his lips on hers.
  5. Temple Taggart McDowell. Former Miss Utah says Trump kissed her directly on the lips the first time she met him in 1997, making her so uncomfortable that she refused to see him without a chaperone ever again.
  6. Karena Virginia. Virginia says she was groped by Trump at the U.S. Open in 1998.
  7. Mindy McGillivray. She says Trump groped her while she was attending a concert at Mar-a-lago in 2003.
  8. Rachel Crooks. A former receptionist in Trump Tower, she says she was assaulted by Trump in an elevator in 2005; when she went to shake his hand and introduce herself, he did not let go and kissed her on the cheek and mouth repeatedly.
  9. Jennifer Murphy. Murphy is a former Apprentice contestant says Trump kissed her on the lips non-consensually after a job interview in 2005.
  10. Natasha Stoynoff. She says Trump pushed her against a wall and jammed his tongue down her throat at Mar-a-lago in December 2005.
  11. Jessica Drake. Drake claims Trump grabbed and kissed her without consent, then called her to offer $10,000 for sex in 2006.

13.  Ninni Laaksonen. A former Miss Finland, Laaksonen alleges “Trump stood right next to me and suddenly he squeezed my butt” backstage at a David Letterman appearance in July, 2006.

14.  Anonymous. CNN anchor Erin Burnett alleges that an unnamed friend of hers, who wished to remain anonymous, claims Trump kissed her without consent in a Trump Tower boardroom in 2010, and then made further advances while alone with her in his office.

  1. Cassandra Searles. She says Trump grabbed her ass and invited her to his hotel room in 2013.
  2. Summer Zervos. Another former Apprentice contestant, Zervos says Trump invited to her a hotel, started kissing her and grabbing her breasts, and began "thrusting his genitals" on her in 2007.

Were there but one accuser, the SHARP program reminds me, it should be taken seriously.  Were there three accusers, it would be an alarming trend that should trigger an immediate investigation.  And 16 accusers arrayed against one man is as damning an indictment as the court of Andrew’s opinion needs to have.  You shouldn’t lie to yourself either.

Every company in the entire U.S. Army is required by regulation to keep a SHARP Representative Contact Information board posted in plain sight.  They are also required to display a second board – usually right next to the first! – depicting the names and photographs of that unit’s entire Chain of Command.  This second board is currently crowned by the photograph of someone plainly guilty of the worst SHARP violations imaginable – and that renders the first board sort of absurd, doesn’t it?

Friday, October 6, 2017

A polite and productive conversation on gun control

A friend of mine posted this link depicting the death toll from public shootings in the US on Facebook the other day (they define “mass shootings” in an atypical way designed to inflate their prevalence, but I won’t get into that here).  The following conversation ensued.

Friend: I ask people who oppose stricter gun regulations, is this acceptable? Seriously. I would like to hear why anyone would oppose gun registration, making armor piercing ammunition, automatic and semi-automatic weapons illegal, background checks, limits on the quantity of guns and ammunition that can be purchased and stockpiled, and other attempts to save lives are unacceptable in light of the current epidemic of gun violence. Not talking about taking away someone's right to own a gun for hunting or home defense, but a lot has changed since the amendment assuring citizens the right to bear arms (muskets) was written. If anyone has an argument for why it should not be updated and enforced at a national level, why gun laws are actually becoming less restrictive, I would love to hear it.

Me: Before I dive in, I want to thank you for actually laying out specific policy proposals we can discuss.  That already makes this a more serious conversation than everyone vaguely hand-waving about “common sense gun reform,” as if there were any consensus (even on the left) about what that entails.  As you can see, I got on a bit of a roll and wound up writing too much haha – but that’s because I think getting detailed is exactly what’s needed to advance the dialogue beyond culture war virtue-signalling.  So, thanks for letting me get wonky.

I’ll go through your proposals one at a time, and try to summarize my stance as concisely as possible in layman’s terms before diving into the technical details.

1.     “Making armor piercing ammunition illegal.” You’ll be relieved to hear that most “armor piercing” ammunition is already illegal under federal law.  That which remains legal can’t really be distinguished from “normal” rifle ammo, which is the LEAST likely ammo to be used in a violent crime.  Banning this ammunition as well would have no measurable impact on gun deaths, while imposing comparatively massive headache for millions of law-abiding hunters and sport-shooters.  As such, it doesn’t make sense as a violence-reduction strategy. 

Whether a given bullet (aka “round”) will penetrate a given piece of body armor depends on dozens of factors, including the bullet’s size (“caliber”), shape, weight, density, material, and velocity (not to mention the type, material and thickness of the body armor in question).  This means there’s no neat line between which rounds are “armor piercing” and which are not. 

Federal law currently prohibits all *handgun* ammunition specially designed to be large or dense enough to pierce police body armor.  But because rifles fire larger rounds at faster speeds than handguns do, even most ordinary rifle rounds (the sort commonly used in hunting, for example) could pierce a Kevlar vest. 

Rifle rounds are legal, and with good reason: they’re the least likely to be used for malevolent purposes.  Rifles simply aren’t a practical tool for most criminals because they’re unwieldy in close quarters and you can’t conceal them in clothing; as such, they account for only a minute portion of the overall gun casualties in the country. 

Those who are shot by rifles are almost never wearing body armor anyway, which makes the whole topic sort of a red herring.  The only people who commonly wear body armor are police officers; on average, only about 50 policemen are killed in the line of duty each year.  Not all of those are killed with firearms, and those killed with firearms are sometimes shot in the head, where body armor is no help.  Whatever number remains is not a large enough portion of the 30,000+ gun deaths in the country to warrant our legislative energies.  And it especially doesn’t make sense in response to indiscriminate mass shootings like the one in Vegas, which rarely target anyone likely to be wearing protective gear.

2.     “Making automatic and semi-automatic weapons illegal.”  Again, you may be relieved to discover that automatic weapons (aka machine guns) are already illegal (with the exception of those manufactured before 1986, which by this point are antique showpieces and cost at least $25,000 each).  Semi-automatic weapons, on the other hand, are not illegal, and that’s because MOST guns are semi-automatic: they have been around for hundreds of years, and they are EXTREMELY different from fully-automatic weapons. 

On a fully automatic machine gun, squeezing the trigger once and holding it down will cause the weapon to rapid-fire at a rate of hundreds of rounds per minute.  That’s obviously very dangerous – but again, these have been illegal for 30 years already.  On a semi-automatic weapon, however, only a single round comes out each time you pull the trigger, which makes it vastly less powerful.

Revolvers are semi-automatic weapons.  Police handguns (and really, almost all handguns) are semi-automatic weapons.  Many hunting weapons are semi-automatic.  Semi-automatic weapons are among the most useful and effective for self-defense.  Banning them would require confiscating hundreds of millions of guns from law-abiding people using them for benign purposes.  From my view, this plainly violates both the letter and spirit of the second amendment.  If you still want to ban all semi-automatic weapons even knowing the difference between semi- and fully-auto, then really what we should be discussing is whether it should be legal to own a gun at all.

One caveat, here…on SOME models, it is possible to alter a semi-automatic weapon so that it functions similarly to a fully automatic.  This appears to be what the Las Vegas shooter did.  This is usually illegal already, but if it turns out he found some loophole, I’d be all in favor of closing it and making that alteration harder to achieve.

3.     “Background checks.”  Once again, federal law already requires all *licensed* firearms vendors in all 50 states to perform background checks on all would-be customers, and lists criteria (like histories of violent crime) which preclude sale.  However, there is admittedly a loophole here, which is that unlicensed vendors (those who don’t sell as a primary business, but are selling second-hand from their private collection to a neighbor or friend, or at a gun-show) need not perform these checks.  These second-hand sales account for roughly 40% of all gun ownership transfers in the country, and a “universal background check” policy closing this loophole currently exists in only about 15-20 states.  Nationwide universal background checks is a reasonable proposal, and one of the top priorities of gun control advocacy groups like the Brady Center.

Like most Americans, most gun owners, and even most NRA members, I have no problem with requiring universal background checks.  The question becomes this: which traits, if discovered on the background check, should preclude gun ownership?  Gun control advocates typically mention two: a history of violent crime, and a history of mental illness.  The first I’m okay with; the second, I am not, for two reasons.

First, equality under the law means we cannot take away people’s constitutional rights unless it’s as punishment for a crime.  It’s plainly discriminatory to withhold rights from an entire class of people just because some tiny minority of them are stereotyped as violent and crazy.  That violates the 5th and 14th amendments as well as the 2nd.

Secondly, a law which deprives second amendment rights from anyone with a history of mental illness is guaranteed to exacerbate the problem of mentally ill people declining to seek help – especially in the South, and especially among veterans.  There are enormous swaths of this country in which gun ownership is seen as an indication of manhood – where owning a gun is right up there with driving a pickup truck, drinking beer or watching football as a culturally important social outlet for men to talk about.  Not coincidentally, it is often these same social circles of conservative southern men who most struggle with a) PTSD from combat experience, and b) stigma about appearing weak by expressing their emotions, making them both the MOST in need of mental health treatment and the LEAST likely to seek it out.  That is a toxic combination; a world in which seeking help means forfeiting their guns and appearing even more feminine in their social circles would make it more toxic!  To the extent that mass shootings are a problem caused by both the availability of guns and the mental health crisis in this country, we need to ensure that the solutions we pursue to one problem do not worsen the other.

4.     “Limits on the quantity of guns and ammunition that can be purchased and stockpiled.”  This is two separate proposals: limiting the number of guns, and limiting the amount of ammunition.  For the first, my question is: why?  And for the second, my question is: how?

If war kicks off with North Korea tonight, the U.S. Army will send me into battle with one firearm.  That’s not reckless of them, and it’s not due to funding limitations: one weapon is really all you need!  People who stockpile weapons before going on a rampage are wasting their money, because you can only fire one weapon at a time with any accuracy anyway.  In the time it takes to grab a second weapon, you might as well just reload the first.

As such, limiting the number of firearms people are allowed to own wouldn’t do much at all to reduce the killing capacity of mass shooters – but it would sadden a lot of enthusiastic collectors, and inconvenience a lot of law abiding people.  For example, my father owns three shotguns for a perfectly sensible reason: my family of six likes to go skeet shooting sometimes as a family outing.  Having three weapons we can fire simultaneously minimizes the time each of us must wait for our turn.  So I guess my follow-up question is, how many weapons would you permit people to “stockpile,” and what would capping the number there really accomplish besides irritating conservatives?

The same question applies for ammunition limits: what should the limit be, and how would you enforce it?  Ammunition is expensive, so many sport shooters buy in bulk to save money. If you prohibit them from buying in bulk, they (and would-be mass shooters, for that matter) will just split their purchases into smaller increments from multiple stores or online locations, so as to acquire the same overall amount they initially wanted. 

Perhaps you would make people register and report how much ammo they have on hand; if so, how do you ensure they are reporting honestly?  For example, suppose you make a limit of 100 rounds “stockpiled” per person.  In June, I buy 100 rounds – then I go to the range and shoot them.  In July, I want to buy 100 more rounds; do you let me?  If so, what’s to prevent me from lying about how much I shot, and buying 100 more every month to eventually get 1,000? And if you don’t let people buy more over time, doesn’t a limit on the ammunition you can “stockpile” basically amount to limit on the amount you can ever fire?

Friend: Andrew, you make some great points. I truly appreciate all the time you have put into explaining the issues involved in gun regulation from the perspective of a responsible gun owner.

I totally agree with you about the problems of trying to deny gun purchases based on any mental health issues. There is such a huge spectrum of mental health that it makes it difficult to draw the line. And you make a great point about how it may actually exacerbate mental health issues for some. I think we need to expand the availability of care, especially for our veterans. I also think we have some major cultural problems in our country (and beyond) that are not easily solved with legislation but need to be addressed. The identification of emotions as weak/ feminine combined with guns/violence as an expression of masculinity has no easy solution but, as shown by the fact that the vast majority of shooters and other perpetrators of violence are male, this issue needs to be put out in the open and addressed.

We need more open discussions between people with opposing views because I think we share the goal of wanting to reduce gun violence, but we need to understand the issues involved. Clearly this is not going to be solved by just one solution but by a combination of closing loopholes, making sure others are not opened, and attending to the mental health of our citizens and culture. I'm still going to advocate for gun control which may involve some compromise on the part of gun owners and sellers of guns and ammunition, but will definitely take into account the concerns of our country's responsible gun owners. I'm not happy about airport inconveniences or having to show ID to buy Sudafed, but if it makes our country safer, I'm will to do it. Thanks again and I really hope you don't go to North Korea.

Me: Totally understand where you're coming from, and in many cases those compromises are perfectly reasonable.  Of course I share the goal of reducing violence – shouldn’t everyone?  It’s for that exact reason, though, that I’m wary of giving government a blank check to solve complex social problems, and I think the TSA and Sudafed analogies you made are perfect examples.  Both the War on Terror and the War on Drugs were waged in the hopes of making us safer, but wound up going much too far, with the result being more violence instead of less.

It’s funny you mention Sudafed, actually, because I think that the single most effective way to reduce gun deaths in this country would be to legalize drugs.  An enormous portion of the “mass shootings” depicted on this link are gang related; guess what the gangs are fighting over?  From 2006-2013, Mexican drug cartels alone killed an estimated 60,000 people in drug-related violence.  Prohibition sends these cartels lucrative profits by shielding them from competition and taxation; inversely, legalizing marijuana would divert money away from gangs by eliminating the underground demand for their most popular product.  Pot smokers would no longer need to buy their weed from professional criminals, and bloody turf wars between rival distributors would disappear as the demand for their services dried up.

Legalization would also decrease gun violence in other ways by rebuilding America’s poorest and most desperate communities. Imprisoning peaceful people for victimless crimes destroys families and inhibits economic advancement, which only increases crime down the road (among both the children who grow up without a father, and also the fathers who struggle to find legal employment after their release thanks to a criminal record).

I’m getting carried away again, but the point is that many laws intended to make us safer fail to do so, and even those which do often come with significant tradeoffs to liberty, equality, prosperity, or other values.  When faced with those tradeoffs, it’s not enough to say “if it makes our country safer, I’m willing to do it” across the board – it’s important to quantify just how much safer a given policy is likely to make us, and at what cost to competing considerations.  Hopefully enough of our legislators – perhaps in calmer times – will have enough talks like this one to find that happy medium and make reforms we can all agree on.  Say hi to John for me!

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Jones Act is Morally Indefensible

A sailor friend of mine recently shared this defense of the Jones Act, a surviving relic of early 1900’s regulation which mandates (among other things) that all shipping between US ports be done on American-made vessels staffed by American sailors.  My response is below:

“Protectionism is always bad policy.  I understand you’re in the industry and would never want your working conditions to be any less safe or pleasant than they already are.  But labor laws impose costs in any industry, and that necessarily exposes all regulated industries to competition from foreign producers not subject to such laws.  That tradeoff isn’t unique to shipping; yet in no other industry is it thought sensible to ban foreign competition outright!

I live in a country where work hours are long and OSHA regulations don’t really appear to be enforced.  As such, I suspect Hyundai can both pay and treat their workers less well than Ford has to pay and treat theirs, enabling Hyundai to produce comparable cars at a lower price.  That may suck for Ford, but it’s a risk the US legislators assumed when they decided to pass those laws.  Nobody thinks that justifies banning Hyundai, and it’s widely agreed doing so would hurt American consumers and foreign workers by a much larger margin than the status quo hurts Ford.  Why is shipping different?

Your article clarifies that nobody opposes temporarily lifting the Jones act during times of emergency, which is good, and which Trump has now done.  But doesn’t that concession basically admit what economic studies have proven time and again: that the rule raises the cost of living on Puerto Rico (and Hawaii, for that matter)?  And if you so, doesn’t supporting a temporary suspension of the act – but not long-term or permanent one – basically boil down to saying “it’s not fair to impose economic hardship on millions of people for the next two weeks or so – but thereafter, it’s perfectly okay”?  How does that square with the reality that the rebuilding process is going to take years, or even with the moral implications of poverty and cost-of-living during normal times?

With a shout-out to Don Boudreaux (who I quote below), suppose I offer you a deal: I will agree to protect only those American workers who in return agree to stop buying foreign-made products.  So American sailors and shipbuilders can retain their Jones Act monopoly…

“only if they, in exchange, agree to stop buying the likes of Toyota cars, Samsung televisions, Ryobi hand tools, Ikea furniture, Shell gasoline, Amstel beer, vacations to Cancun, and musical recordings by foreign artists such as the Beatles, Elton John, and k.d. Lang.  They must also promise to stop buying the likes of bananas, cinnamon, and vanilla and, indeed, even American-made food items if these are shipped to their favorite restaurants and supermarkets in foreign-made trucks – or in trucks equipped with tires made by Michelin, Bridgestone, or some other job-destroying foreign company.  These workers would be permitted to drink only Hawaiian coffee; they must quit drinking the Colombian, Guatemalan, and Ethiopian coffees that they’ve become accustomed to drink.  Oh, and absolutely no diamond jewelry, as those gems come from Africa.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

Validation bias and the danger of technocracy

My recent post on healthcare included a section sharply critical of the AMA.  I explained why doctor salaries (and thus, healthcare costs) are inflated by licensure requirements, and highlighted some of the ways the AMA is historically and presently to blame for that.  I’ve since done some reflection on why the AMA behaves as it does, and would like to clarify my impression of its motives.

Whenever we allow professionals to serve as gatekeepers to their profession, cynical minds like mine are quick to point out the potential for outright financial corruption.  Their initial fear – that licensing boards will suppress competition for-profit – is understandable and perhaps even healthy.  But it is also an incomplete model of regulator behavior, and one which (if focused on exclusively) risks weakening the overall argument against centralized regulation of market entry. Regulator conflict of interest is not limited to pure graft.

Really, the incentive for financial gain is tied up with a deep human desire to validate our own importance and the importance of our work, which in the case of technical experts leads them to exaggerate the importance of their own expertise.  This leads to a mutually intensifying interplay between profit and snobbery: if the expert can convince himself that the would-be market entrant is truly so inferior that the public must be protected from them, the financial gain of shutting them out seems more like a reward for their public service.

In each of the policies I described in my earlier articles and many others, the AMA means well.  It is comprised of people who have devoted their lives to healing others, and conceive of themselves as guarantors of quality in the healthcare industry.  But this is the danger of technocracy: the experts become so enraptured with their subtle intricacies of their field that they come to exaggerate the need for that knowledge, at the expense of competing considerations.  In the case of healthcare, the competing consideration is access – through both cost and patient convenience/proximity – which is part of why American healthcare today is very high quality, but endlessly expensive.

The incentives faced by AMA members are not unique to doctors or healthcare; really, they’re a problem with licensure laws in general.  Wine experts will advise you to buy a $50 bottle over a $5 box of Franzia, because they truly believe the difference is worth it.  Gun lovers will tell you to spend hundreds of dollars on all sorts of accessories – scopes, grips, special ammo, etc. – to achieve the most marginal improvements in accuracy, because THEY can tell the difference.  Music lovers will stick up their nose at generic iPod headphones, and coffee lovers at McDonalds coffee, and fashion lovers at a cheap suit, and all of this is fine when these people are making purchasing decisions for themselves.  But when you empower a narrow band of wealthy experts in a narrow, lucrative field to make cost/benefit and risk tolerance decisions for everyone in society, they will always prioritize higher quality over cost reduction at a rate that’s simply unacceptable to those outside their geeky circle of enthusiasts.

Healthcare is no different, and a century of regulation written by those most passionate about healthcare is a huge part of why it costs so damn much. It’s not that there’s no way to provide it cheaply, it’s that those ways are illegal.  The AMA stubbornly opposes any encroachment on the licensed general practitioner monopoly based on the most far-fetched risks of decreased quality or safety, even when those measures would yield comparatively massive increases in affordability or convenience.  The FDA does the same with drug approval decisions.  Nobody wins from that tradeoff except the regulators.

The dangers of technocracy are multiplied (and yet easier to overlook) when the field in question is seen as a public good, or when the providers are seen as selfless public servants driven by non-profit motives.

For some reason, people seem more willing to accept a tiered system of cost-quality tradeoffs in the markets for cars, phones or banking services than they do in the markets for education or healthcare.  Providing a minimum level of education and healthcare to everyone in society is seen by many as a moral imperative.  Maybe it is; but, that doesn’t make the cost-quality tradeoff disappear!  When policymakers impose quality-assurance regulation out of pious refusal to accept anything less than top-notch education and healthcare for their constituents, it inevitably proves counterproductive to the parallel goal of universal provision.

When wealthy business owners or Wall Street executives get in bed with federal regulators to protect their own incomes at the expense of consumer choice, progressives are the first to cry foul.  The left sees plainly how the state is a tool for corruption when the industry in question is commonly associated with greed.  But when the industry in question pertains to the provision of things liberals value, they too often cannot bring themselves to suspect the intentions of those rigging the game, accepting instead the most cursory hand-waving about consumer protection.  They should not be so na├»ve.  Whether driven by profit or by validation-bias, strict licensure requirements keep doctor wages artificially high at the expense of the most vulnerable in society.  Deregulating the profession would amount to precisely the sort of rich-to-poor wealth transfer the left should be able to get behind.

Tolerance of intolerance, revisited

One of the earliest entries on this blog (which I won’t link to now because the writing makes me wince – but hey, I was 18!) was entitled Bigotry Against Bigots.  In a jumbled, rambling and exaggeratory way, high-school me expressed my opposition to “Hate Crime” legislation stiffening legal penalties for crimes committed with allegedly prejudiced motives, and touched on the hypocrisy of not tolerating intolerance through a CISV anecdote.

Recent events in Charlottesville and the ensuing public debate on the proper response to hate speech have prompted me to revisit and develop those ideas.  Specifically, I’d like to address Karl Popper’s “paradox of tolerance” – shared by many illiberal would-be censors in the wake of the kerfuffle – which Wikipedia summarizes thusly:

“The paradox of tolerance, first described by Karl Popper in 1945, is a decision theory paradox.  The paradox states that if a society is tolerant without limit, their ability to be tolerant will eventually be seized or destroyed by the intolerant.  Popper came to the seemingly paradoxical conclusion tht in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance.”

That conclusion is wrongheaded for two reasons.  First, intolerant segments of otherwise tolerant societies are not always large or strong enough to threaten the tolerant majority; and second, for so long as the intolerant remain relatively powerless, their viewpoints can be more effectively counteracted through measured tolerance (allowing them to speak and then engaging in firm but respectful dialogue) than through intolerant means like censorship or forceful repression.

Writing in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Popper could be forgiven for fretting “when a society is tolerant without limit, their ability to be tolerant will eventually be seized or destroyed by the intolerant.”  But WWII merely proves that is possible, not that it’s inevitable; as written, the claim is pretty vague, and doesn’t specify just what “limits” he’s referring to. 

If the limit were the initiation of force, I would agree; we should be intolerant of violence.  But that’s widely accepted, and doesn’t seem to be what people are using Popper to argue.

Rather, Popper’s paradox is being shared on my timeline as justification for repressing intolerant speech, like that at the Neo-Nazi and Klan rallies preceding the murder in Charlottesville.  But from my view, there’s very little reason to fear those groups are anywhere near strong enough to seize power or threaten our norms.  Consider: “A recent report by the Anti-Defamation League found a grand total of 42 Klan groups currently active in 33 states, most claiming fewer than 25 members. Even that small remnant is disorganized, squabbling and fractious.” The numbers for Nazi groups are similarly small.  It just doesn’t follow that if we allow these groups to keep speaking and hosting rallies, our “ability to be tolerant will eventually be seized or destroyed.” Really? With what army?

Not only is censorship unnecessary, it’s also counterproductive.  Ostracized extremist groups recruit off the belief that they are being oppressed for speaking truth to power.  When we jail them for marching, prevent them from speaking or otherwise censor their message, we feed right into that belief and actually make their arguments more plausible/convincing to those on the fence.  At the same time, the act of *attempting” to silence political speech actually does quite the opposite by creating a larger controversy and ensuing media stir, which only amplifies the hate groups’ megaphone and allows them to reach a broader audience.  Publicizing fringe ideologies to the greater public while at the same time lending them just cause for complaint (the infringement of their First Amendment rights) is not a good way to reduce these groups membership or contain the proliferation of their ideas.

It’s much more effective to let them speak (and then explain why they’re full of shit to anyone who will listen!) than it is to banish them underground where their nonsense can proliferate unrebuked. Former hate group members tend to agree with this view.

Finally, for what it’s worth, I think even Popper agreed with it too.  He’s quoted in this article as saying:

“I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise.”

He leaves open the possibility that intolerance can be countered by rational argument and social pressure, and makes clear that this is the preferable solution, when possible.  His paradox only refers to the times when it’s not possible, lest radical Nazi-like groups seize national power. From my view, we remain very far from such times.

Virtue signaling, identity politics, dishonest philosophy and all things bad

I recently came across this video, which is perhaps the video equivalent of the article I responded to a few months back.  The text surrounding it in my Facebook screen read as follows:

Title: Teen Activist OWNS Sen. Jeff Flake At Town Hall

Shared by: NowThis Politics
“I’m wondering…why it’s your right to take away my right to choose Planned Parenthood.” – This young woman absolutely schooled her Republican Senator.

This is an astounding video.  Every part of it – from the preparatory caption, to the source and its business model, to the mind-numbingly stupid question she actually asks, to the raucous applause she receives for it, to the blithe “you go girl!” euphoria with which it was shared tens of thousands of times – could stand alone as an ever-more depressing testament to the shitty-ness of our public discourse in this country. To borrow a phrase from the sort of people who shared the video, “let’s unpack this”, shall we?

First, let’s talk about what this “youth activist” actually says. The “schooling” of Senator Flake has two parts: the statement of facts, and then the actual question.  Interestingly, the facts have almost nothing to do with the question, so let’s start with the facts she chooses to state.  You can read them on the video subtitle, but here’s a convenient transcript for anyone who prefers plain sentences to five-word phrases that alternate between yellow and white:

“I just want to state some facts…um…so I’m a young woman, and you’re a middle-aged man; I’m a person of color, and you’re white; um, I come from a background of poverty and I didn’t always have parents to guide me through life.  You come from privilege.”

Leave aside for now that “you come from privilege” is far closer to opinion than anything objectively factual.  Also leave aside the matter of just what color she happens to be, if not white (which remains an eyebrow-raising question from this camera angle, and poses Turing-test questions about how much white privilege she retains herself).

What most warrants ridicule here is telling a United States Senator that you’re going to preface your question with a statement of facts, and then rather than presenting the sort of empirical, evidentiary “facts” that may actually have bearing on the matter at hand, choosing instead to highlight the contrasting physical descriptions of the Senator and yourself.  Yes – the age, gender and skin color of you and Senator Flake are technically “facts.”  But they are also instantly observable facts to anyone with eyes, readily apparent to everyone present, and consequently do not need to be pointed out.  And yet the audience’s cheers and applause make clear that from these “facts” they consider the argument already won.  The entire endeavor of stating those facts is purely performative; no engagement with Flake’s ideas or opinions was even attempted.

But that’s hardly surprising in today’s climate; on its own, it wouldn’t have warranted a rebuttal blog post. What got my blood pressure up was her actual question:

“So, I’m wondering…why it’s your right to take away my right to choose Planned Parenthood and to choose no-copay birth control? So if you could explain that to me, that would be great.”

Marvel at the temerity of that question.  Gawk at the astounding euphemism of “my right to choose no-copay birth control.”  Gape in wide wonder at how the “right to choose _____” became casually interchangeable with the “right to choose free _____” without anyone in the audience so much as blinking an eye.  Because make no mistake, free birth control on demand is precisely what this brat is so indignantly demanding.

No legislator in Arizona – nor anywhere else I know of – has proposed to take away Deja Foxx’s right to call up any insurance company that does business in her state, and purchase from them an insurance plan which includes no-copay coverage for birth control.  By any recognizable meaning of that phrase, her “right to choose no-copay birth control” remains entirely intact and unthreatened (as does her right to choose birth control generally, draconian prescription requirements notwithstanding).  Sadly, this is not what Deja Foxx actually wants.  She wants a “no-copay plan” in the sense that “someone besides me pays for the plan.”

In all likelihood, she doesn’t much care who that someone else is.  She’d probably prefer wealthy taxpayers pay, through Medicare or Medicaid or a directly socialized healthcare system that includes unlimited free birth control on demand.  But short of that, she’s content with her employer paying, or her parents’ employer paying, through force of government dictate.  What has her panties so up in a wad is not that Senator Jeff Flake and his cronies want to take away her right to choose anything; it’s that they want to give other people the right to choose NOT to give her free shit.

To be fair, what constitutes meaningful “choice” in a world where many people cannot afford everything they’d like to have has long been a matter of philosophical dispute.  Some hold that choice exists so long as it is not constrained by human violence or the threat thereof, whereas others contend it is only possible when coupled with the means to acquire – or “access to” – the desired choice.  But traditionally, responsible leftists have at least distinguished between those two conceptions.  “Pro-choice” people have not typically argued that abortion must be free – only that it must be legal.  When drug war opponents argue that people should be free to choose what to put in their own bodies, they are not arguing that marijuana must also be accessible free of charge.  The popular “woman’s body, woman’s choice” refrain has always been used to agitate for bodily autonomy – not universal healthcare.

The “right to choose X” is one thing, and the “right to free X,” is a step further. Calling for a “right to choose free X,” is a bait and switch deliberately conflating two separate philosophical claims, and deceitfully hijacking the verbiage of the common in service of the much more radical.

Now, let’s talk about “rights,” and how completely meaningless the word has become by the end of her sentence.  Even if people did have a right to “choose free” birth control, the question “why is it your right to take away my right to ____” is maddeningly stupid for at least three reasons.

First, it’s stupid because it begs the question.  Rights are exclusive; by definition, they end where another person’s rights begin.  It can never be one person’s right to take away another person’s right by definition, and we all intuitively understand this.  So to frame any question as “why do you have the right to take away my right” is to presuppose one’s own contention that their actions infringe upon one’s rights (and thereby render the entire question deliberately unanswerable – rhetorical and unserious).

Second, it’s stupid because she’s using the word “rights” interchangeably with “my values.” Rights aren’t just things it would be nice if everyone could have; traditionally, they’re things we already have from birth, which can either be protected or taken away.  She’s basically saying “why is it your right to take away this thing I really want,” without any coherent litmus test for determining which wants count as rights and which do not.

Finally, it’s stupid because of the preamble.  By preempting a question on what rights we have with a “statement of facts” regarding what privilege we have, she strongly implies that that’s relevant to the question  – that is, that our rights are dependent or conditional on how much privilege we do or do not have. This runs directly contrary to both the constitution and the egalitarian principle of “equal rights” to which the left typically appeals.

The final thing I want to talk about here is NowThis.  We could also talk about AJ+, or, or BuzzFeed, or Salon, or any of the equivalent ““““““““““““““news outlets”””””””””””””” that churn out 20-90 second videos designed for social media, because all their videos follow the same predictable formula. 

The first part of the formula is brevity.  The videos must be short enough not to lose the attention of halfhearted social media slacktivists pretending they actually care.

The second part of the formula is subtitles.  The videos are always overlaid in boldfaced white and yellow text, in case the viewer is at work or in class and can’t turn the sound up (for risk they are caught slacking off on whatever they’re supposed to be doing instead).

The third part of the formula is the illusion of news.  The videos always pretend to be “reporting” on an important and developing story, instead of what they’re really doing, which is selling emotions that left-wing people want to feel.  This is crucial because it allows the viewer to believe they are being responsible citizens by educating themselves on worldly issues, instead of just seeking out an echo chamber affirming their own brilliance and empathy.

The fourth part of the formula is a clickbaity title and caption, which is always some variation of the same sentence:

“Watch (*insert figure sympathetic to the left here) SLAY/SCHOOL/OWN (*or equivalent hip verb for “use rhetoric left-wing people find appealing” here) this (*insert demonized right wing archetype here).”

I mourn for the days when this formula would have been called out for the lazy, arrogant, feel-good, remind-me-how-right-I-am bullshit it is, instead of just blending into an ever more cacophonous fake-news background.  A generation of thinkers is being eagerly reassured that these videos constitute responsible social awareness.  A generation of college students consider themselves informed on the issues because they have watched them.  One of them is Deja Foxx, and fake news is as responsible for creating her dumb question as it is for publicizing it.

Are height and whiteness comparable privileges?

A friend of mine recently posted this link on social media, in which an activist politely answers a question about white privilege by comparing it to “height privilege.” Here’s the conversation that ensued:

Me: This fascinates me because I see height and whiteness as fundamentally different.  If you don’t mind, I have some sincere questions for whoever is interested in entertaining them (not rhetorical, I promise, just genuinely interested in people’s perspectives here).

If height is a privilege, is intelligence also a privilege?  If not, what distinguishes them?  If so, are there any differences between people which AREN’T privilege? 

Phrased differently, is there such thing as merit?

Her response:  I'm glad you asked, Andrew! Intelligence is a complicated one to unpack. In most Western societies what is deemed "intelligence" privileges White people. The ways we are taught, the things we are taught, the ways our intelligence is assessed are all part of a larger system that, unfortunately, is based off of the notion that White people and all things they are good at are superior. Example: an SAT question that asks about an equestrian match. Or the cost of ski rentals. Or other things that have been reserved for the wealthy (in American context the wealthy = White). A kid who has never had an interaction with horses, and doesn't know what equestrian means is going to fall short. But that doesn't necessarily mean he is unintelligent.

But anyways. to your larger question. Is there such a thing as merit? YES! Absolutely! No one wants to take away the accomplishments and the excellence that exists in privileged identities. But its a matter of examining and interrogating the "measuring stick". If the measure of accomplishment and achievement is biased to see "height" or Whiteness as the pinnacle of success, then of course those who are not those things are going to seem "less than". Even if that is not actually the case. I.e. why would you judge a fish, a monkey, and an elephant on their ability to climb a tree? They are all skilled, important and useful for different reasons. Height is still a good thing. But we can't have whole societies built to cater to the tall when short people exist! Does that make sense?

And finally. There are DEFINITELY advantage-creating differences between people who are not privileged. I am privileged because I grew up middle class, I am college educated, I am able bodied, I am heterosexual and I am employed. Some of these are earned, some of these were mere luck of the draw. But these are all privileges that I must use for good. I can't pretend that my ability to walk in to a building and not worry about there being an elevator or a wheelchair ramp isn't a privilege just because I am Black. I have to own and use my privilege to listen to those who are speaking up about their oppression and then help them make changes to make a more just & fair society.

Me: Thanks for the thoughtful and cheerful reply!  It seems like you’re saying *the way we measure intelligence* is flawed in ways which benefit white people, which seems likely to me.  But just to clarify, that’s still a subcomponent of white privilege, right?  And noting that white privilege extends to the ways we measure intelligence, or to types of intelligence we value, is still different from alleging an entirely separate, racially-independent axis of experience (like sex) along which some people have socially conferred privilege over others, right?

Basically I’m asking whether “smart privilege” is a thing for you (perhaps related to “neurotypical privilege,” which I’ve seen discussed a lot).  Suppose we found ways to measure intelligence in fairer, more nuanced ways that level out the racial disparities in measured intelligence levels.  Surely, some people would still be smarter than others, right?  At least in certain ways?  And surely those smarter people would have an easier time with wide variety of tasks, which would better position them to succeed in a wide variety of endeavors?  If you agree with that, I’m asking whether the resulting inequality of outcomes is unjust and oppressive *in the same way* racial inequality is.

And if you don’t - if you think intelligence is purely an arbitrary social construct, such that no mental traits or ways of thinking are innately advantageous or objectively superior to any other and everyone’s equally smart (only in different ways) – I’m asking are there any other distinguishing traits among persons which ARE innately advantageous or preferable?  Is it ever just BETTER to be one way than the other, and if so, could you give an example?

Her: ahh. okay interesting question. I don't think that it is inherently advantageous to be one way versus another along any particular axis of identity. I honestly and truly believe that all ranges of [insert identity marker] are necessary and important to have a vibrant and functioning society. I believe that is why animals tend to not be solitary beings. Cunning in one, strength in another, skill in x, talent in y. They all come together to build a society or pack that's sum is better than the individual parts.

I believe that my position is grounded in a world where the society I live in has tackled some important issues--i.e. the eradication of fatal diseases, the creation of safe housing, etc. And although one might say "these things were achieved through the privileging of specific types of intelligence/grooming of scientists and architects and mathematicians of the *typical* variety" but I don't believe that we wouldn't be at this very point in achievement or advancement if we had a society that (from the beginning) had welcomed and appreciated ALL types of intelligence or strength or cunning etc.

The reality is that none of these identity markers in the American context (and arguably the post-colonial world at large) are free from the influence of white supremacy. Identity is intersectional. Meaning that we cannot observe and measure components of one's identity independently from one another. Even subjects like science have historically been used to privilege white supremacist values and world views (re: eugenics). Its hard to argue that our understanding of anything is *not* in one way or another a social construct.

I guess my main point is that we don't have to look at things through a capitalist framing. It doesn't have to be a measurement of the winners/losers or the best/worst. I think that people are too complex for us to have a standard set of markers that we look for every individual to have. I think this is where our society gets it wrong and this is where the conversation gets complicated. Then, how do we tap in to the full potential of individuals if we do not have a standard set of questions/guidelines? What does that society look like? How does it function? I'm not sure I have the answers. But I'm sure there's someone out there who's brain can conceptualize the solutions. They just have to have the opportunity to be asked.

I get what you're saying. And I hope I am making myself clear in my responses lol.

Her friend: I was going to say although its nice to think about things in theoretical vacuums, the reality is (as you said Ty) identity is not singular. There are many parts to each persons identity, and each one's pertinence is shaped by their experiences, upbringing, subculture, society, and other "levels of privilege" the other aspects of their identity have (i.e., black men not seeing the male privilege they have because things are seen through a racial lens). I think its similar to the way Aristotle tried to define the archetype of a perfect form of man but it was based on his perception of what perfect is. Our need to rank things as better/worse, greater/lesser, etc etc, prevents us from seeing (and valuing) things as they actually are. As to your point Andrew, about whether there are some privileges that are maybe "less privileged" than others (is this what you were going for?), because you can't untie race from gender from ability from SES from sex (etc, etc), its impossible (and inappropriate I would think) to try to look at things or compare systems of oppression like that.

Me: Great responses, both of you.  More often than not, I think the general message you’re sending is exactly what society needs to hear.  Too often we derive our personal pride through distinction, as if validating our own self-worth requires denigrating those unlike us.  It shouldn’t!  Most of us have something valuable to contribute, and a more tolerant and open society would not be so quick to label certain traits as undesirable.  If we could all just appreciate that everyone is different, without those differences necessarily making anyone better or worse than another on net, the world could make more productive use of the tremendous diversity in human interests and abilities and just be a happier place in general. So, agreed there.  I also totally get how different axes of privilege can intersect, to the compounded advantage of those with multiple privileged traits and exacerbated disadvantage of those lacking multiple privileged traits.

I still think that’s a separate question than how many axes of privilege exist, though, and the answer I’m gleaning from your responses on that is essentially “infinite” – that there are at least as many types of privilege as there are advantage-creating differences between human beings, which is as many chromosomes as there are in our DNA.  This is where our views part, and unfortunately where I’m reluctant to join in activism alongside people I typically agree with. To me, using privilege as an umbrella term for any trait which makes some people’s lives easier than others conflates very different sorts of social advantages, which are not equally problematic, and which we as social reformers should afford different levels of concern.

Some examples to illustrate…men have the privilege of going about their daily lives without worrying very much about rape or sexual assault. This privilege originates from the fact that men systematically rape women and get away with it, which in turn originates from patriarchal mindsets and toxic masculinity.  In other words, the privilege is created when some people treat others in cruel, illogical and unfair ways.  That’s unjust.  That’s oppressive.

But other alleged “privilege” seems to originate not from how we treat one another so much as from random assignment in the lottery of birth, prior to and independent of any interaction with other human beings.  Some people have good eyesight, others need glasses.  Some are born with no legs.  Some are more genetically prone to certain diseases.  Some are athletic and coordinated, others are clumsy.  Some are found sexually attractive by the opposite sex, others not as much.  And yes, I’d argue some people are smarter than others, or at least more inclined to certain types of mental tasks.  Many of these traits are influenced by social constructs, sure.  But it’s still clear to me that even if there ever comes a day when everyone treats one another with equal dignity and respect and open-mindedness, some people will still be naturally better equipped for success at certain endeavors than others.

(Of course, success can still be defined in many ways, so people will be better suited for *different types* of success.  Some may have an easier time succeeding in school, others in sports, others with making friends, others with finding a boyfriend/girlfriend, others with making money, others with attaining power, etc.  But at least within each of these pursuits, some will succeed more than others no matter how society is constructed around them.  You can conceive of that as “winners and losers” if you like, but to me it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Anyway…)

To me, that’s not oppression!  If some people are underprivileged because other people are mistreating them, whereas other people are underprivileged because the lottery of birth dealt them a rotten hand, those two situations provoke different responses in me.  If an innocent person is struck by lightning and dies, that’s a tragedy that makes me sad; but if an innocent person is murdered, that’s an injustice that makes me MAD!  Likewise, when I see a mentally disabled person struggling to find a job due to their disability, I feel sympathy because they’re unlucky; but, when I see a black person struggling to find a job due to prejudice, I feel indignant because they’ve been wronged.  We may still want to help the suffering regardless of how they came to suffer, but systematic oppression demands fixing in a more morally imperative way to me because mistreatment at the hands of other humans is clearly the culprit.

That’s what fascinated me about comparing whiteness to height.  Yes, both create advantages for some people over others.  But whereas whiteness is clearly an arbitrary and undeserved privilege resulting from the unfair treatment of black people, from my view, the advantages (and disadvantages!) of being tall are basically innate, and aren’t really imposed on you by the behaviors of other people in society.  Tall people had an easier time reaching high things long before civilization even developed!  Is it really oppression for storeowners with limited floorspace to stack items atop one another, at heights above whatever the shortest in society can reach?  To me, making that comparison almost downplays the injustice of racial oppression by making it seem no different than everyday problems faced by everyone everywhere.  As a person of average height, it’s perfectly okay to me that I will never be a starting center on the basketball team, and I think it would be silly to go around campaigning for change there.  Some people get luckier genes - ce la vie! That’s not the attitude we want to encourage for racial oppression.

I’m sort of rambling and don’t have a neat way to tie this up, so I guess I’ll try one last time with a question.  What about the identity marker of character?  Some people are more generous, others more selfish.  Some are vain, others humble. Some are diligent, others lazy. Some are more “woke” and empathetic, while others are ignorant and indifferent to the plight of the suffering.  I’ll ask again: it ever BETTER to be one than the other?  Is there such thing as virtue?  Is it okay to have “whole societies built to cater to the selfless and diligent” despite the fact that selfish and lazy people exist?  Or are all of those differences also just neurodiversity,
arising from different cultural inputs, with our personal moral preferences as arbitrary as our preferred hair color?

And, the follow up…if it’s still the latter, how can there be such thing as merit? If the work of pursuing a more just society is essentially akin to stripping anyone’s ability to succeed (or “win”) where others fail (or “lose”), what successes remain for anyone to take pride in? Isn’t that essentially telling everyone who gets good grades that they’re merely lucky society is oriented to favor people who think like them? and every basketball star that they’re merely lucky society created sports that were easier for tall or fast people? and every charity worker they are lucky their society values generosity over selfishness? and every social justice activist that the violent racists marching through the streets of Charlottesville are really no objectively worse than the peaceful counter-protestors? Taken to this extreme, doesn’t this vision of equality actually deprive our shared commitment to anti-racism of any objective moral authority?

Her friend: the issue isnt that people are born tall, the issue is that stores put all the good ish on the top shelf. As Tyler said in her first comment, its not about individuals benefiting, that's not oppression, its the system as a whole that we should push back against, in all possible ways, to change and see difference as simply a difference not a way to rank/judge/qualify people. also, in your example, a disabled person not being able to find a job is not just about them being "unlucky" (and I would bet a lot of disabled people would bristle at that description), but also very much about the fact that we as a society see contributions and worth in only one way. We choose not to be accommodating at all, we choose to not consider those unlike ourselves when we build schools and businesses and institutions. Its not about campaigning for allowing everyone to do things they are unable to, or not considering advantages like height, etc, its about being more inclusive and understanding and accepting as a whole society. IMO, morality is a totally different subject. I think there are too many contingencies and complexities to life, society, experiences, and humans to ever look at these sorts of things as finite or separate.