Are We the New Serfs?

2014-10-30 Overlords

Kevin D. Williamson has an interesting piece up at the National Review Online with a really though-provoking title: Meet the New Serfs: You. In the article, Williamson recaps some of the more egregious examples of government malfeasance towards private citizens over the past couple of years, emphasizing the callous followup to bungled SWAT raids on innocent Americans. For example:

Bobby Griffin Jr. was wanted on murder charges. His next-door neighbor on Peck Street, Joseph Adams, wasn’t. But that didn’t stop the SWAT team from knocking down his door, setting his home on fire, roughing him up, keeping him tied up in his underwear for nearly three hours, and treating the New Haven man, who is gay, to a nance show as officers taunted him with flamboyantly effeminate mannerisms. If the events detailed in Mr. Adams’s recently filed lawsuit are even remotely accurate, the episode was a moral violation and, arguably, a crime.

And when Mr. Adams showed up at the New Haven police department the next day to fill out paperwork requesting that the authorities reimburse him for the wanton destruction of his property — never mind the gross violation of his rights — the story turned Kafkaesque, as interactions with American government agencies at all levels tend to do. The police — who that same night had managed to take in the murder suspect next door without the use of flash grenades or other theatrics after his mother suggested that they were probably there for her son — denied having any record of the incident at Mr. Adams’s home ever having happened.

So far so good: the extraordinary lack of accountability for anyone operating under government auspices is truly breathtaking. From police brutality to missing hard drives at the IRS, the degree of insulation from any reasonable consequences for corruption or incompetence have gone beyond the bounds of hilarity. We literally have cops blowing the faces off of little children with flash-bang grenades and then the government refusing to even help pay with medical expenses. This does seem a lot like serfs being bullied by the thugs of privileged nobles.

But who are the privileged nobles? This is where Williamson’s analogy breaks down. The cops who brutalized Joseph Adams weren’t targeting Joseph Adams. That’s the whole point: they were too indifferent and incompetent to care who they were harassing. Another problem is Williamson’s insistence that it’s law-abiding citizens who suffer worst under this regime: “the brunt of government abuse falls on the law-abiding.” That claim seems utterly detached from reality, as any discussion of the way local governments have entrapped poor citizens in a never-ending nightmare of threats, fees, and penalties will tell you.[ref]These kinds of articles have been plentiful in the wake of Ferguson as explorations of the roots of the anger in black communities.[/ref]

The reality is twofold. First, we must admit that those most vulnerable to government oppression are not middle or upper-class Americans. The more you interact with, depend on, or (Heaven help you) cross the government or its innumerable agents, the more vulnerable you are. That doesn’t describe your stereotypical National Review audience member at all. Second, we have to concede that if we were serfs who belonged to some cruel lord, that would be less frightening than the reality. A cruel master would at least have a chance of being restricted in their cruelty by self-interest or even simple exhaustion. The lord of the manor doesn’t want to kill everyone who raises his crops, and he has to sleep sometime. But bureaucracy never sleeps and doesn’t care at all if you live or if you die. The real horrifying possibility is not that we are serfs and that local cops or bureaucrats are the new aristocracy. (Have you seen how much cops get paid?) Nope, what ought to keep you up at night is that we’re creating a society with serfs, but no lords at all, where it is institutions themselves that–driven from within by some monstrous emergent property of self-preservation–have become our overlords.

Drive and Prudence

The Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution released a new report titled The Character Factor: Measures and Impact of Drive and Prudence. Using the Behavior Problems Index (BPI) hyperactivity scale in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the researchers found that character traits such as drive[ref]Defined as “the ability to apply oneself to a task and stick with it” (pg. 6).[/ref] and prudence[ref]Defined as “the ability to defer gratification and look to the future” (pg. 6).[/ref] are related to educational attainment in similar fashion to that of cognitive skills. Or, as the graph below demonstrates, character matters as much as book smarts.


Check out the entire report and see why economic historian Deirdre McCloskey praises prudence as a virtue:

…Prudence is a virtue. We have been inclined for some centuries now in the West to relegate prudence to an amoral world of “mere” self-interest. This has been a catastrophe for our dear economics. Only a disposition to take care of others is construed as “virtue,” and then for its intentions rather than for its practical effect. Having good intentions in one’s heart is said to be virtuous, even if the intentions when carried out (such as high-rise public housing along the Dan Ryan Expressway or the war on drugs brought onto the streets of Watts and East LA) do not quite deliver as intended. And surely, as we in European culture have been saying for a long while, knowing how to take care of oneself is hardly a virtue?

Yes, it is. And so is the correlated carefulness in “helping” others: the Love or Justice moving us to help others is a vice, not a virtue, when unalloyed with Prudence. Knowing that one must put out a candle before leaving the house is a good thing, even if you didn’t mean to burn the place down, even if your intentions were pure, even if it was your own house to dispose of.

Imagine a community filled with imprudent people, Mary Tudors in bulk, and you’ll see the virtuousness of prudence. Such a community is not difficult to imagine-a community of small children would fit the bill, as in The Lord of the Flies…We labor to teach our children and adolescents and our dogs and, yes, ourselves the practical wisdom that keeps them and us from injuring or impoverishing themselves and others and ourselves. An imprudent person, someone who does not know the value of money and how to keep accounts, for example, is a menace to his friends and family, and to his fuller self. He may be chivalrous in some sense, courageous and temperate and just, even great-souled, as Aristotle wished, or loving, as did St. Paul, yet a fool, and not virtuous as a whole, tragically-or comically-flawed, as most of us are, short of King Arthur or Cardinal Pole. Thus for example Don Quixote.

Shaky Global Warming Models

2014-10-29 Global Warming

Earlier this month the Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece by Dr. Judith Curry, former chairwoman of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the President of the Climate Forecast Applications Network. The gist of the article is simple: global warming predictions based on current models are predicting unrealistically high levels of climate change. The real levels–based on observational models–are much lower.

Continuing to rely on climate-model warming projections based on high, model-derived values of climate sensitivity skews the cost-benefit analyses and estimates of the social cost of carbon. This can bias policy decisions. The implications of the lower values of climate sensitivity in our paper, as well as similar other recent studies, is that human-caused warming near the end of the 21st century should be less than the 2-degrees-Celsius “danger” level for all but the IPCC’s most extreme emission scenario.

This slower rate of warming—relative to climate model projections—means there is less urgency to phase out greenhouse gas emissions now, and more time to find ways to decarbonize the economy affordably. It also allows us the flexibility to revise our policies as further information becomes available.

To me, this represents a moderate and mature approach to climate change. Curry’s work neither denies global warming nor the human factor in causing global warming. It simply suggests that climate models are biased upwards, and that we might have more time. Time that could be used to develop more sophisticated solutions to a post-carbon economy. This is really important given news like (just as an example) the announcement from Lockheed Martin that they are just 5 years away from a prototype nuclear fusion reactor.

I just finished reading Tim Flannery’s Here on Earth, which was the most eloquent and serious defense of the Gaia Hypothesis I’ve ever read, so I really  like the idea of greater human responsibility for our environment. I just think we’ll do a better job of living up to that responsibility if we have (1) a little less partisanship and (2) a deeper understanding of the relevant science. A little more time can help.

Easy Internet Privacy is a Snipe Hunt

2014-10-28 Anonabox

Earlier this month there were all kinds of stories about an infamous new product on Kickstarter: Anonabox. As Wired related, Anonabox was supposed to be a simple-to-use router that would let anyone easily use the Tor anonymity network. According to Wikipedia, “Tor directs Internet traffic through a free, worldwide, volunteer network consisting of more than five thousand relays[6] to conceal a user’s location and usage from anyone conducting network surveillance or traffic analysis.” The problem is that Tor–like a lot of techniques for anonymizing your Internet usage–requires a little bit of know-how to set up. The Anonabox was supposed to make it ultra-simple, and as a result it quickly raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Controversy quickly followed, however, starting with skepticism that Anonabox was built on a custom board and case; it turned out that the hardware was basically off-the-shelf. Even more serious criticisms soon followed, however:

But as the security community has taken notice of Anonabox over the last week, its analysts and penetration testers have found that the router’s software also has serious problems, ones that could punch holes in its Tor protections or even allow a user to be more easily tracked than if they were connecting to the unprotected Internet. “I’m seeing these really strange smells and poor practices in their pilot beta code,” says Justin Steven, a computer security analyst based in Brisbane, Australia. “It scares me if anyone is relying on this for their security.”

Eventually, Kickstarter decided to suspend the campaign. So the Anonabox itself is (at least for the time being) a non-issue. But here’s the bigger picture. Only three types of people are likely to create a new technology (hardware or software) to help people retain greater privacy online:

  1. Scammers
  2. The NSA
  3. Genuine privacy advocates

Scammers aren’t going to bother building serious, robust anonymity into their products and services. The NSA (or similar entities) probably would do a decent job, but obviously with a backdoor to allow them to have access when they wanted. Only genuine privacy advocates are even going to make an attempt to create a legitimately anonymous product or service, and there’s no guarantee that they would succeed. There are no shortcuts and there are no guarantees to online privacy and security.

In some ways, this isn’t news. Security (online or offline) is never actually about preventing loss, tampering, or theft. Whether it’s data or diamonds you’re trying to protect, the reality is that you can’t deny access to someone with the means and the motive to get at your stuff. All you can do is make it more expensive and hope that the expense turns out to be not worth the bother.

Still, it’s probably good to give people a dash of reality when it comes to security and privacy. Looking for easy and effective security solutions is a snipe hunt. They don’t exist. In the end you’re just gonna have to trust some software that you can’t read (because it’s closed source) or don’t have time to understand (if it’s open source). Remember Heartbleed? It was discovered in April 2014. It had been present since December 2011 and in widespread use since March 2012. That’s open-source software: anyone could read the code. For over two years, however, no one did. And this is code that was running on nearly 20% of the secure web servers on the Internet!

And Heartbleed isn’t the exception. It is, in many ways, the rule. Snapchat gained widespread fame and use because it was supposed to delete messages after they were read instead of keeping a permanent record. Great for privacy, right? Not so fast:

Snapchat has long marketed itself as a private and more secure alternative to services like Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram. The app lets users send photo and video messages that disappear once they are viewed. That self-destruct feature initially gave the app a reputation as a favorite tool for so-called sexters, or those who send sexually suggestive photos of themselves, but eventually it went mainstream…

But security researchers have long criticized Snapchat, saying it provides a false sense of security. They say the app’s disappearing act is illusory. Behind the scenes, Snapchat stores information about its users in a database, similar to data storage at other big Internet companies.

I’m not saying that you should just give up on securing your data online. But once you’ve taken the normal steps–strong passwords, 2-factor authentication, etc.–you should keep in mind that your security is not perfect. To the extent that your data remains secure it’s because you’re too boring and insignificant to attract anyone’s attention. Not because your security is so effective.

I Put a Spell on You: Remembering Screamin’ Jay Hawkins


Since Halloween is almost here, it is worth remembering one of the truly original weirdos- Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

Possibly the only person to be equally detested by civil rights groups and the American Casket Association, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins would make his entrance onstage as a witch doctor springing out of a casket. His demented laughter and howls even sent some of his audience running for the doors!

Still, there (sometimes) was more to Hawkins’ music than macabre gimmickry. If you don’t believe me, have another listen to CCR or Nina Simone performing I Put a Spell on You.

Head over to Biography and check out the fun post on Hawkins’ life.

Drug War’s Impact on Black America

As the arrest data above shows (provided by Jonathan Rothwell at the Brookings Institution), arrests of blacks for violent and property crimes have dropped since 1980. However, arrests for drug related crimes have spiked dramatically. Yet,

whites are actually more likely than blacks to sell drugs and about as likely to consume them.

Whites were about 45 percent more likely than blacks to sell drugs in 1980, according to an analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth by economist Robert Fairlie. This was consistent with a 1989 survey of youth in Boston. My own analysis of data from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that 6.6 percent of white adolescents and young adults (aged 12 to 25) sold drugs, compared to just 5.0 percent of blacks (a 32 percent difference).

As for drug use, just 10 percent of blacks report using illegal drugs within the last month, which is not statistically different than the rate for whites. Among college students, 25 percent of whites reported illegal drug use within the last month but just 20 percent of black students.

Incarcerations wreak havoc on family stability, employment prospects, and future income. While there are other important factors that negatively impact black social mobility, an unnecessary War on Drugs is one we can easily address.

The Racist History of Disease, Africa, and Immigrants

I tend to react to the Ebola scare with the following:

A recent article from The Washington Post provides further reasons to react in such a way:

The long history of associating immigrants and disease in America and the problematic impact that has on attitudes toward immigrants should make us sensitive to the impact of “othering” African immigrants to the United States in the midst of the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Scare-mongering about infinitesimally small risks in one context serves no purpose to the greater good of trying to curb disease transmission and relieve people’s suffering in another context.

The article is full of links to various studies on colonial history, political history of immigration, Ebola breakouts, etc.

An excellent read. Check it out.

Do Muslim Women Need to be Saved?

upper egypt

Ironically, even feminism can become a form of imperialism, colonialism, and oppression­­- the very constructs that figure so prominently in academic and popular feminist discourse.

In 2010, the anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod visited a friend in an Egyptian village.

“I said I was now writing a book about how people in the West believe Muslim women are oppressed.

She objected: “But many women are oppressed! They don’t get their rights in so many ways – in work, in schooling, in …”

I interrupted her, surprised by her vehemence. “But is the reason Islam? They believe that these women are oppressed by Islam.”

It was her turn to be shocked. “What? Of course not! It’s the government,” she said. “The government oppresses women. The government doesn’t care about the people. It doesn’t care that they don’t have jobs; that prices are so high that no one can afford anything. Poverty is hard. Men suffer it too.”

It was just three weeks from the day that Egyptians would take to the streets and the world would watch, riveted, as they demanded rights, dignity and the end of the regime that had ruled for 30 years.”

Abu-Lughod describes her friend as a traditional, observant Muslim villager covered from head-to-foot in black, the mother of seven children. However, she was also deeply involved in community affairs and politics, and had even started her own business. She knew what her rights should be, and she cared about providing opportunities for her village and family. From Abu-Lughod’s brief description, her friend emerges not as a hapless victim of patriarchal and religious oppression, but as an intelligent, savvy, and committed individual working to better her community. It can be argued that it is precisely her traditional and religious outlooks that inspired her to fight injustice. “Her shock at my suggestion that anyone would think Islam was oppressive was telling. Her faith in God and her identity as a Muslim are deeply meaningful to her.” This, in fact, is why Abu-Lughod insists that indiscriminately applying the ideas and ideals of western feminism to women in Muslim societies can, in fact, do more harm than good. At the very least, it shows insensitivity to them as human beings, and marginalizes their voices.

“So why are conservatives, progressives, liberals and radical feminists in the West convinced that Muslim women – everywhere and in all time periods – are oppressed and in need of rescue? Why can’t other voices be heard? Even more troubling, why does it seem so hard for them to focus on the connections between worlds instead of imagining Muslim women as distant and unconnected to themselves?”

This in no way is meant to bash western feminism. There really is no need to stress the obvious good that it has done, and still does. What I find so compelling about Abu-Lughod’s perspective is that it doesn’t dismiss the plight of women, but asks that we see them first and foremost as human beings with individual views and voices.

We can learn from Muslim women no less than they can learn from us.

Economic Freedom of the World Report 2014

The Economic Freedom of the World: 2014 Annual Report has been published by the Fraser Institute. I blogged about the 2013 report last September and Nathaniel and I made use of its data in our SquareTwo article earlier this year. The following can be considered an update of what I deem to be some of the most important graphs in the whole report (descriptions are at the bottom of the graphs):


Economic Growth


 Per Capita Income

Income of Poorest 10%

Life Expectancy at Birth


Another Pro-Choice Spin Job

2014-10-16 Keep Abortion Legal

I often comment on the lamentable pro-choice bias in American journalism, but one of the strange things you will only learn if you dig deep into this issue is that the bias really gets serious when international stories come into play. I have no idea why this is, I’ve just seen it happen enough to know that the amount of skepticism required when you read a mainstream report of an abortion-related news story (already pretty high) gets even higher when the events take place in a foreign country. Just to give the story I’m about to relate some context, the most recent major example of this was the case of Dr. Savita Halappanavar, who died along with her 17-week unborn child as a result of complications from a miscarriage. The story had literally nothing to do with abortion–and this was known from day 1–but it quickly became a media sensation when reporters claimed that she died because she was denied an abortion. If that sounds extreme, it’s actually barely scratching the surface. Read the rest here.

Unfortunately, of course, the fact that the lies are lies never really seems to matter. “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots,” as Mark Twain is reported to have said. And, by the time truth gets its boots on, nobody really cares anymore. There’s already a new crisis to pay attention to.

And that’s what’s happening again, but this time with a story out of El Salvador:

American media giant National Public Radio (NPR) published a report last week claiming to expose the underbelly of El Salvador’s pro-life legal system by profiling a woman whom they say was sentenced to 30 years for abortion after a stillbirth. On-the-ground evidence reveals, however, that the woman was in fact convicted for murdering her son after he was born alive.

It’s not hard to see why El Salvador is a target. First: it’s small, the smallest country in Central America. Second: it’s pro-life. It banned abortion–with no exceptions–in 1998 and then recognized personhood from the moment of conception in 1999. Just as powerful American evangelical lobbies meddle in African countries to get anti-gay laws that they can’t pass in the US, pro-choice lobbies in the United States (often working through the UN or powerful non-profits) throw their weight around in African, Central, and South American countries to get their political way.

And, as usual, it’s easy to see how this makes sense from their perspective. If you’re coming from a strong pro-choice background, then El Salvador has to strike you as an absolutely terrifying human rights tragedy in the making. It’s only a matter of time before some poor woman dies because she can’t get a life-saving abortion. Why wait for it to really happen? Much more compassionate to invent a story instead and make an issue out of that way. Much better than waiting for someone to actually die.

Two additional points to keep in mind. The first is evidence from Chile that criminalizing abortion doesn’t, in fact, lead to women dying. We covered that story back in February. The second is a very technical but very important clarification of what it means to have a “no exceptions” law against abortion. The problem is that Catholics (who are obviously rather dominant in S. and Central America) have a peculiar definition of “abortion” that amounts to “deliberate killing of the unborn human being to end a pregnancy,” whereas the technical definition of abortion simply means “early termination of a pregnancy.” In practice, this means that no-exception laws often do have exceptions. To see an example of this, consider the case of “Beatriz”[ref]Not her real name.[/ref] She would not survive her pregnancy and requested an abortion (in El Salvador). Her request was denied, but permission was granted for an early Cesarean section instead, even though the fetus was non-viable. Did she get an abortion? If you use the Catholic definition, she did not, because the unborn child was removed without harm and even incubated and given fluids rather than being killed or abandoned. But if you use the more general term, she did, because the pregnancy was terminated early even though it would result in the death of the fetus.

This confusion leads to a lot of unhelpful acrimony in the abortion debate. The reality is that no one, as far as I know, has ever actually maintained a true no-exceptions stance on abortion when the general definition is used. For further reading, check out the principle of double effect, which is the ethical principle that allows abortion to save a mother’s life with the caveat that the abortion not be a deliberate act of killing but rather a removal of the fetus to preserve the woman’s life that results in the foreseen but unintended death of the fetus.