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Thursday, December 30, 2004

Let's End 2004 on a Positive Note

According to Radley Balko, there's actually a lot of good news to be thankful for:
  • America's kids are all right. Juvenile violent crime has fallen every year - and nearly halved - since 1995. The percentage of high school students who carry weapons to school is at a 10-year low. There were 14 homicides on school campuses in 2002-03, down from 34 10 years earlier. Teen birthrates are at a 20-year low, and high school dropout rates are at a 35-year low.
  • America is healthier. Life expectancy in the U.S. is at an all-time high among men and women, black and white. People at every age can expect to live longer than anyone at their age in U.S. history. Heart disease, cardiovascular disease and stroke have fallen dramatically in the last 15 years. Incidence of, and deaths from, cancer have dropped every year since 1990.
  • America is cleaner. Concentration levels of every major air pollutant have dropped dramatically since 1970, even as we drive more, consume more, and produce more. According to data analyzed by the Pacific Research Institute, U.S. water has been getting steadily cleaner for the last 20 years.
  • The world is less violent. In his book, "A History of Force," the historian James L. Payne argues that when you adjust for population increases, over the course of history, the average citizen of the world has grown less likely to die a violent death caused by government, war or his fellow man. War, murder, genocide, sacrificial killing, rioting - all have tapered off over time.
  • The trend continues even into recent years. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, there were just 19 major armed conflicts in 2003, down from 44 in 1995. Existing wars seem to be less violent, too. According to the Human Security Report, published by the University of British Columbia, 700,000 people died in battle in 1951. By the 1990s, the number had fallen to 40,000-100,000. In 2002, it was just 15,000. This, as the world's population increased.
  • The world is freer. According to the United Nations, as of 2002, 70 percent of the world's nations were holding multi-party elections. Fifty-eight percent of the world's population lived under a fully democratic system of governance. Both of these figures are at their highest points in human history.
  • The Freedom House think tank gave 89 countries containing 46 percent of the world's population a ranking of "free" in the 2003 edition of its annual Freedom of the World report. Both figures are at their highest in the 30-year history of the survey. Freedom House also reports that countries moving toward more freedom have outpaced countries moving away from freedom by three to one.
  • The world is less poor. Yale University's David Dollar has pointed out that since 1980, the total number of people living on less than $1 per day has actually fallen by 200 million, despite the fact that the world's population increased by 1.8 billion. It's the first time in recorded history that that has happened. The UN's 2004 Human Development Report notes that real per capita incomes in the developing world have more than doubled since 1975. In some provinces in China, incomes are doubling every few months.
  • The world is healthier. Between 1960 and 2000, life expectancy in developing countries increased from 46 to 63 years. Mortality rates of children under five are half of what they were forty years ago.
  • The world is getting cleaner. Most economists now endorse the concept of a "green ceiling", which means that although the transition from a developing economy to a developed one requires some environmental exploitation, there is a point at which a country becomes wealthy enough that its citizens will begin to demand environmental protection.
Note that there are numerous links in the original article for those who like to check sources.

Happy New Year! Here's hoping that 2005 continues the trend.

Monday, December 27, 2004

How Time Flies

I see I haven't posted for a while. I post three sorts of entries: responses, snippets, and essays. Responses are posts that respond to someone else posting to this blog or possibly some other blog. Since there haven't been a lot of posts from anybody else, I haven't had the opportunity to post any responses. Snippets are excerpts from articles I find interesting and want to archive here at Great Guys. Since the election, articles to excerpt haven't been as passionate and interesting to me. I'm sure after the holidays things will get more interesting.

I'm currently working on two essays, both of which are getting quite long and I have quite a ways to go before I'm finished. The first shows a plausible economic model in which moderate federal government budget deficits, to the tune of 2% of GDP per year, are actually beneficial. The second essay deals with self organized super intelligence, using the metaphor that a neuron is to a human brain as a human is to the super intelligence of the planet. This last one is a little spacey but interesting.

Both essays will be posted in parts, but I can't begin posting until I'm more or less finished to ensure that the overall essay is coherent (as possible) and consistent. Hopefully, I'll be able to start posting one or the other by the end of January.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Left2Right

I've been enjoying a new liberal blog called Left2Right. They describe themselves as follows:
We're a bunch of academics, mostly philosophers but also some lawyers, political scientists, and economists. We're interested in liberal ideas, though we are probably far from unanimous about what "liberal" means, and our being interested in liberal ideas doesn't entail that each of us subscribes to all of them. We think that political debate in this country has deteriorated into a shouting match, a food fight, a flame war -- call it what you will. We'd like to consider whether liberal ideas should be somehow reconsidered -- in some respects revised, in others perhaps merely re-stated -- with the aim of increasing the overall ratio of dialog to diatribe in the American political forum. Some of us will be trying out various ways of re-thinking and re-formulating those ideas; others may end up arguing that such attempts are unnecessary, even counter-productive. And in the course of our discussion, there will be plenty of digressions and asides of the sort that naturally occur at the margins of a group discussion.
They've invited people from the Right to comment on their posts. The gyrations have been quite amusing so far, I highly recommend it. Hopefully, they won't get discouraged as easily as some other bloggers I know.

Friday, December 10, 2004

American Ignorance

I've seen repeatedly the claim that Americans (especially conservative Americans) are ignorant, based on various poll questions. Indeed, the claim is that if only Americans weren't so ignorant, they would be able to understand the issues adequately to make informed choices and then they would, of course, vote for Democrats. For example, Allan Hazlett writes:
"There's a plethora of issues on which Americans are misinformed, and the issue is not one of a clash of normative beliefs, but simple ignorance of the facts."
I'll agree that Americans (and not just Americans) mis-regurgitate information all the time, but I'm less convinced that it's because they're "misinformed" or have a "simple ignorance of the facts." I think it's perhaps a "complex ignorance". Let me explain.

One's worldview is constructed as one absorbs many millions of factoids, some true, some false, over one's lifetime. Each new factoid causes an extremely small shift in the worldview. One can't possibly recall all of the factoids, indeed one can only recall a tiny, tiny fraction of one-percent of those factoids. Nonetheless, the factoids have been absorbed and incorporated into the worldview.

If I've been exposed to information, have considered it and allowed it to affect my worldview, but then forget the details, do I have a simple ignorance of those facts? I think not, since the information persists within my worldview. That's what I mean by "complex ignorance."

Now, some pollster (PIPA in this case) comes along and asks me some question. I sort of have a vague recollection that I've heard of these things before but I am hesistant to answer. The pollster encourages me to give it a try. I apply the answer most consistent with my worldview. It happens to be wrong. I am American and answered incorrectly, thus the poll makes Americans seem ignorant.

You might say "well, Kyoto is incredibly important, everybody should know all about that." I have two responses. The Kyoto treaty is hundreds of pages. Quick, off the top of your head, in the last English version, what are the points that are made in the second paragraph on page 97? What? You don't know? You don't remember? You didn't read it? But if it's so important, why not? Ahhh, because there are other things that are important too and it's an unimportant detail.

And I don't hold it against you. I don't consider you ignorant because you don't know those particular details. I'm fully aware that you can look up the information if needed. Just as the people being asked questions by the pollster. If they were given 5 minutes they could google it and come up with the right answer too. And the details of whether or not Bush supports Kyoto are probably really not that important to the average American on a day to day basis. Even in terms of who to vote for in the last election, that particular factoid would rank low relative to Iraq, moral values, the economy, healthcare, etc. for most people.

So I think the concern of conservative voters being ignorant and not having access to basic information is quite mistaken.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

A Lowering of Arms

Former Soviet dissident and hero Natan Sharansky has George Bush's ear. The following is an excerpt from an article Sharansky wrote for the National Review Online:
Our world has changed so much over the last fifteen years that it may be difficult for today’s reader to get a sense of the degree of skepticism there once was in the West over the possibility of a democratic transformation inside the Soviet Union. In the early 1980s, when some were actually arguing that the Soviet Union could be challenged, confronted, and broken, the possibility was dismissed out of hand. The distinguished historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., expressing the sentiments of nearly all of the Sovietologists, intellectuals, and opinion makers of the time, said that “those in the United States who think the Soviet Union is on the verge of economic and social collapse, ready with one small push to go over the brink are wishful thinkers who are only kidding themselves.” [...]

In April 1989, just seven months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Senator J. William Fulbright, who had served for 15 years as chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, co-authored an article dismissing the views of those in the “evil empire school” who believed that Gorbachev’s reforms were “no more than the final, feeble, foredoomed effort to hold off the historically inevitable collapse of a wicked system based on an evil philosophy.”2 Instead, Fulbright offered insight into how the “d├ętente school,” in which he included himself, understood the changes that were then taking place behind the Iron Curtain:
We suspect that the reforms being carried out in the Soviet Union and Hungary may be evidence not of the terminal enfeeblement of Marxism but of a hitherto unsuspected resiliency and adaptability, of something akin to Roosevelt’s New Deal, which revived and rejuvenated an apparently moribund capitalism in the years of Great Depression.
If scholars and leaders in the West could be so blind to what was happening only months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, imagine what the thinking was in 1975. Back then, the suggestion that the Soviet Union’s collapse was inevitable, much less imminent, would have been regarded as absurd by everyone.

Well, almost everyone.

In 1969, a Soviet dissident named Andrei Amalrik wrote Will The Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?, in which he predicted the collapse of the USSR. Amalrik, to whom I would later have the privilege to teach English, explained that any state forced to devote so much of its energies to physically and psychologically controlling millions of its own subjects could not survive indefinitely. The unforgettable image he left the reader with was that of a soldier who must always point a gun at his enemy. His arms begin to tire until their weight becomes unbearable. Exhausted, he lowers his weapon and his prisoner escapes.

While many in the West hailed Amalrik’s courage — he was imprisoned for years and exiled for his observations — almost no one outside the Soviet Union took his ideas seriously. When he wrote his book, short-sighted democratic leaders were convinced the USSR would last forever, and according to many economic indicators, the Soviet Union appeared to be closing the gap on the U.S. Amalrik must have seemed downright delusional.

But inside the USSR, Amalrik’s book was not dismissed as the ranting of a lunatic. The leadership knew that Amalrik had exposed the Soviet regime’s soft underbelly. They understood their vulnerability to dissident ideas: Even the smallest spark of freedom could set their entire totalitarian world ablaze. That’s why dissidents were held in isolation, dissident books were confiscated, and every typewriter had to be registered with the authorities. The regime knew the volatile potential of free thought and speech, so they spared no effort at extinguishing the spark.

I was arrested in 1977 on charges of high treason as well as for “anti-Soviet” activities. After my own mock trial a year later, I was sentenced to thirteen years in prison. In 1984, my KGB jailers, swelling with pride, reminded me of Amalrik’s prediction: “You see, Amalrik is dead” — he had died in a car accident in France in 1980 — “and the USSR is still standing!”

But Almarik’s prediction had not missed by much. Within a few months of that encounter in the Gulag, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. Faced with an American administration ready to confront him and realizing that the Soviet regime no longer had the strength both to maintain control of its subjects and compete with the West, Gorbachev reluctantly implemented his “glasnost” reforms. This limited attempt at “openness” would usher in changes far beyond what Gorbachev intended. Just as Amalrik had predicted, the second the regime lowered its arms, the people it had terrorized for decades overwhelmed it.

I think Sharansky is where Bush gets some of his "radicalism", in other words his belief that the world can be changed if you only try.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Cost Benefit Analysis of War

From the beginning of time, whenever an individual or the leadership of a group has perceived the benefits of using violence as outweighing the costs, they have utilized violence. This will continue till the end of time, almost by definition. Organizations such as the UN are supposed to raise the costs of violence but that basic premise still holds. Therefore, I consider the distinctions between offensive, defensive, preemptive, and preventive war a distraction to the real argument.

If all we're trying to prevent is a few thousand or even a few tens of thousands of U.S. citizens murdered and a few big buildings knocked down every few years, then the cost of invading Iraq may not have been worth the benefits.

But what about the value of civilization itself? It's not inconceivable that a few well placed nukes could so shake the faith people have in civilizations and its institutions that the whole thing collapses like a house of cards. For example, currency only has value because: a) people think it does and b) people think that the issuing government will be around essentially forever. The latter could possibly be called into question with an attack not all that much bigger than 9/11. Many of civilization's institutions are like that so the whole thing could unravel fairly quickly.

If civilization collapses, then what? The planet would probably struggle to support even one billion people living without the structure and efficiencies of civilization. That means at least five billion dead, of all races and ethnicities. If you estimate the probability at one in ten-thousand, that's still an expected value of 500,000 dead. Even at one in a million, that's still 5,000 dead. That's how I look at the utility analysis. Thus I'm pretty easy to convince to give war a chance.

Friday, December 03, 2004

A Nation of Bushes

Turns out the French don't read much:
Even though the French take great pride in the writings of their intellectuals, few people read newspapers compared to other European nations, and the numbers are declining further.
Bush should feel right at home there. :-)

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Rational Adoption of Irrationality

It can be perfectly rational to adopt an irrational, incoherent, incohesive, and conflicting worldview. In order to do so, the adopter may have to reduce cognitive dissonance by ignoring, or at least not taking too seriously, the conflicting evidence.

How can it be rational? One argument could be that worldview X has worked for the past N years even when exposed to radical change and conflict in an unfathomably complex universe with essentially unlimited uncertainty. Thus worldview X is robust if non-optimal. Worldview X has known inconsistencies but since it's impossible to truly know which particular item is right or wrong, or that it even may be that the inconsistencies are inherent to the robustness of the system, tweaking worldview X is risky. Perhaps the tweaking of X creates a more optimal system, at least in the short term, but creates fragility where robustness once existed.

I personally am a risk taker, so I think tweaking is worth it, but I fully understand the other view.