Oct 31, 2010

Connections between racism, religion and war.

Public support for war is a tricky thing. On the one side if we view the opponents as members of the human tribe, it is hard for us to maintain the horrors of war as justified. On the other side, if we cast the opponents as being of a fundamentally different tribe from us - described by religious, racial or political differences - then it is much easier to accept and even support aggression against them.  Our societies have achieved, for some time now, the commendable fact that there is at least some accountability between leaders and the people. Thus the nature of racial and religious differences, and the way these viewpoints are manufactured and reinforced, is of critical importance in the acceptance of state wars.

The last decade gives a clear picture of how the mechanism works. Our wars in Muslim countries are, by any objective standard, going very poorly and the atrocities committed by all sides are horrific. Yet the public remains by and large muted and apathetic. Not at all coincidentally, islamiphobia is very prominent as I have talked about. False equivalencies between terrorists and Muslims get drilled into our heads by the media and often originate in the continual discussion of terrorist threats - real or imagined - generated by white house and pentagon press briefings.  Nearly 20% of Americans think Obama is a Muslim, no doubt universally understood to be a pejorative claim. Muslims have been cast and are perceived by many as a violent, backwards religion desiring to take over the world and other nonsense. The result is simple: the anti Muslim sentiment makes it easier to support wars against Muslims and as such having the political establishment reinforces this sentiment allows them to carry out wars of aggression.
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Oct 30, 2010

People are not always right

In remarks after losing the recent Toronto mayoral race to Rob Ford, unsuccessful contender Joe Pantalone made the remake that "the people are always right". This is a frequent sentiment expressed around elections. While I understand and agree with the pro democracy implication being espoused, the actual statement is objectively false. The people are not always right and acknowledging this does not detract from the important of democracy.

When an aggregate of people believe things inevitably there are contained a series of verifiable, falsifiable truth statements. Consider early 2003 in the US where slightly over 50% of the US was polled to believe there was a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. This is patently a false claim without supporting evidence and when people elect representative based partly on a belief in false facts the result cannot be objectively "right".

This extends beyond merely factual claims but to moral ones. Large majorities have previously believed in slavery, black segregation and other similar issues. These are moral issues we can objectively determine to be morally unacceptable in any reasonable moral system we might come up with. Simply because a majority believes a moral claim is not evidence for its moral validity.

It is partially for this reason of the failings of the people that modern democracies have many checks and balances and enshrine moral codes separate from the current beliefs of the people. Charters, bills of rights and constitutions as well as the judiciaries that adjudicate them are not just checks on governments but checks on the people that represent them.

Of course, I am being somewhat disingenuous for the spirit of the comment is undoubtably that we have a democracy that enshrines the will of the people and the results of an election should be respected. To the extent that this is the point, I completely agree. However, we should not allow the statement to lull us into a sense of complacency with the results merely because the people voted for them and indeed we should actively work to change public opinion where we think the people are wrong. Simply assuming that, by definition, the people are always right in a democracy is a dangerous pitfall.
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Oct 28, 2010

Positive feed back loops in the media.

There is a an interesting relationship between public opinion, government policy and media presentation. That the media influences public opinion dramatically is obvious, as is the fact that the public influences government policy through elections. Slightly less obvious but no less powerful  is the governments influence on the content of the media. Assuming this, we get a positive feedback loop where governments influence the media which influences the people which influences the government as illustrated in the red arrows. The result is many innately pro government bias's get reinforced through the loop. When this loop is distorted by outside forces (such as various lobbies, indicated by blue arrows) these messages also get reinforced via the feedback loop.

An ideal world might be one in where by the message of the media deduced entirely from the opinions of people and the reality of the world. In this sense, the media may magnify or homogenize public opinion but it would not significantly skew it in a particular way. However, when the media is heavily influenced by the government or outside forces there is the possibility for a positive feedback where a particular idea gets continually reinforced.

It should be noted that in theory if the government had no external forces and was only influenced by the people democratically then there would not be as many problems; a pro government bias would still be reinforced but hopefully less of the other distortions. Since government  would be solely the aggregate reflection of the people, the government influencing the media would simply result in a very similar phenomenon to the media itself in that it would homogenize public opinion but not necessarily skew it. The problem of course is that the government is not singularly enforced by the media. It is heavily influenced by corporations, the military industrial complex, lobbyists and the like. So when you have this skewing of government, it gets reinforced by the positive feedback loop and becomes part of our society.
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Oct 27, 2010

On Alternative Medicine

There is an interesting dichotomy regarding public opinion when it comes to alternative medicines. The perception of alternative medicines it seems is either one of largely disbelief where they are disregarded as valid medicine or alternatively people buy into them entirely believing not just in their results but their claimed mechanisms. I suspect neither view is correct and a more balanced and scientific approach to the field should be established. On the one hand, we cannot dismiss that some legitimate benefits from alternative medicine do exist. On the other hand, simply accepting point blank all of the dogma that goes along with these practices on insufficient evidence is not only invalid reasoning but actively obstructs an objective and rational analysis of their results and mechanisms that could lead to improvement and wider acceptance. Moreover, there is in this story an interesting analogy to the relationship between religion and science.

It should be established at the front that there can be legitimate benefits of many alternative medicines. People can and do have genuine and even normative physiological and psychological benefits from such medicine. We ignore the legitimacy of these benefits at our own detriment. At the same time, we should be highly skeptical of both the claimed mechanisms as well as the objective scale of the benefits. Acknowledging some benefits is very different from acknowledging all claimed benefits, and there is good reason to believe a large scale exaggeration of the claimed benefits exists and indeed some practitioners are easily seen to be charlatans.
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Oct 24, 2010

False equivalences when condemning Islam

In our post 9/11 world, Islam is far too frequently condemned in western society by word and by action of politicians, the media and everyday people. Ideas like "Islam is a violent religion" are unduly prevalent.  The justification for such ideas is often in a false equivalence where examples are found of extreme violence and then implicitly (or sometimes even explicitly) extrapolated to arrive at this general conclusion. I aim here to discuss several reasons why this is not only a false equivalence but a misunderstanding of what religion is. The points are quite general in nature and apply to making generalizations about any religions; however, I have largely framed them in the context of attempts to condemn Islam and the "violent religion" question in specific.

Religion is undoubtably an important component of culture. However, it is but one factor among many that determine the local culture. Indeed, the local realization of religion in some specific community is heavily influenced by the culture itself. The result is that the way one experiences and perceives a religion is not absolute but varies greatly. A Muslim growing up in Toronto versus a village in Gaza are going to have very different perspectives on the world as a result of the very different cultures,  and indeed very different perspectives on their religion. We cannot easily disentangle religion and culture and as such to blame acts entirely in the religion ignores the influences of culture. Given our wars in some fairly backwards Islamic countries or 9/11 itself, our public consciousness is full of examples of horrific violent Muslim acts, yet the culture vs religion issues means we cannot use them as vilifications of the religion in general.

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Oct 23, 2010

Media Bias in Presenting Wikileak's Iraq Files

Wikileaks has just released nearly 400,000 military documents pertaining to the Iraq war that paint a fairly unappetizing view of the Iraq war just as the Afghanistan documents did back in July. What I look at is the administration's handling of these documents, both before, during and after (the after we only currently have the Afghanistan case for) their release, as well as the level to which the media goes along with the administration's narrative. The general approach is very similar in both cases and turned out to be very successful from the administrations perspective in Afghanistan and so will likely be the same with Iraq.

It should be made clear at the start that this is legitimately a very big story. Some of the highlights include that the administration had widespread knowledge of prisoner abuse at the hands of the Iraqi military with directives not to investigate these further, as well as the fact that despite frequent claims to the contrary the military was keeping track of death tolls to the tune of over 100,000 direct casualties. Within the 400,000 documents there are many individual stories and relevant facts that can and should be discussed and indeed a national discussion about what is going on in Iraq given the new information would be a good thing. Al Jazerra writes a good introduction to the leak.
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Oct 21, 2010

The US's 60 billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia raises few questions in the mainstream media's presentation.

As the Obama administration passes the potentially record breaking, 60 billion dollar arms deal to Saudi Arabia, it is worthwhile to note the lack of any notable opposition among the mainstream media or even a genuine examination of the relationship and background. The close US-SA relationship is so unquestioned by the establishment that it is essentially outside of the prominent public discourse, despite some striking contradictions. Most in the public know little of the relationship, unlike the relationship with Israel or Iraq which is discussed extensively.  It is a relationship that ought to be explored for Saudi Arabia directly contradicts many western values yet enjoys enormous de facto, unquestioned support as this arms deal represents. I lead off with a bit of the background of Saudi Arabia and its relationship with the US, and then discuss this arms deal in that context and the emerging geopolitical realities of the region.


If one were to analyze the states of the Middle East by compatibility of their society with the US, Saudi Arabia would be near the bottom. Far from being even remotely democratic, its kingship is ranked the 7th most authoritarian regime in the world. It has many oppressive human rights abuses, a very substandard rule if law and horrific treatment of women. It exports radical and even militant Islam (recall 9/11 originated in SA as opposition to US influence in SA) to places like Afghanistan through it's massive international madrassa networks, arms and funds transfers and the like. It is the embodiment of a fully Islamic state with Sharia as its constitution. Now I should be clear, I believe in tolerance and cultural relativism. However, the conclusion that SA is simply culturally very divergent from western values can be objectively supported. In particular, given the strength of anti Islamic bias in the western media, one would expect such a radically Islamic state to get a lot of negative attention when being supported by the US through deals like this. It isn't that these attributes reject the ability for the US to be a firm Saudi ally in my mind, merely that open discussion and pressure on these issues ought to be maintained.
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Oct 20, 2010

The Win Mentality in Wars

One of the major ways in which the merits of war are discussed in the public discourse is the idea of "winning" the war. We support wars we can win and desire to withdraw from wars we will lose.  We intuitively see this question as a binary yes/no question posed for a single, objective, condition that determines whether we have or have not won.    There are two major problems with a "win" mentality when it comes to fighting wars.  One is a matter of definitions and "winning" not being an appropriate metaphor for today's wars, the other a matter of moral objectives in war.

To claim we have "won" requires defining an objective victory condition. For the most part, this is both difficult and misses the point. Instead of a single objective condition, there is a spectrum of different objectives, sometimes very imprecise or interrelated objectives, that we usually wish to obtain. Moreover, "winning" may not mean passing some distinct level but simply making progress on an issue, perhaps merely incremental progress.  A maximal objective in a failed state might be a complete cessation of violence and the introduction of a westernized, democratic, liberal state without violence and a high quality of life. This is unlikely to be obtained, but we can work incrementally to reduce suffering and violence and put in place the beginnings of a democratic state. Take Iraq which both the Bush and Obama admins claims to have "won". The democracy there is a failure, but has the basics in place. Violence remains high, but somewhat less so than earlier in the war. Quality of life is slowly improving. So while the maximal objectives in Iraq have not been achieved, it has moved forward in various ways in the spectrum over the last couple years. Especially when it comes to nation building in failed states like Afghanistan, we cannot expect any simple objective victory condition to be possible to be easily defined in a sentence or two.
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Oct 19, 2010

The use of "middle class" in the public discourse

Most people, it seems, view themselves as either middle or working class and polititians use these terms very frequently to describe their target audience. That this is their target audience represents two main factors. The first is the fairly vacuous one that they are just using the term which applies to how the majority view themselves. However, I think there is also a component where it is selecting one demographic over the other for political reasons, in particular at the expense of the poor and this gets represented in the policies of administrations.

Consider the case that a majority of Americans consider themselves middle or working class: ^
In Fox News/Opinion Dynamics polling that asked respondents to situate themselves in an "economic class," 50 percent termed themselves "middle class." "Working class" was the runner-up, at 37 percent.

Few characterized themselves as either "upper class" (5 percent) or "lower class" (8 percent). Despite the flood of water under the bridge in the past 13 years, the new figures are nearly identical to those found in a similar 1997 poll, when the split was 6 percent "upper," 49 percent "middle," 35 percent "working" and 8 percent "lower" (with the rest undecided).
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Intergenerational Justice

Intergenerational justice is a social issue which is rarely talked about and as a movement isn't even in it's fledgling stage yet it is important enough to warrant attention. The concept is a social justice movement for harm done by one generation on future generations. Three major categories of such harm are resource depletion (such as oil), environmental degradation and global warming, and financial obligations. The challenges to an intergenerational justice movement and some possible solutions are discussed.

Financial obligations such as leaving a subsequent generation with a crippling debt load is perhaps the easiest to deal with because we can imagine it at the level of individuals. One family member leaving a large debt to a later family member is clearly causing harm. Now extrapolate this to the level of societies and, say, government debt where one generation leaving a debt load to a subsequent generation to pay off can be seen as harm from one generation on another and may require intergenerational justice to resolve. This can also come out in ways such as an unsustainable welfare system means one generation pays for high standard of living for the previous generation but will not be able to receive a high standard from the subsequent generation. Note, this is not an argument against welfare systems, their scope or their funding, merely their need for sustainability.
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Oct 18, 2010

The US attack on Chinese clean energy subsidies leaves something to be desired

In the latest trade spat, the US has blasted China for its clean energy subsidies which was given a surprisingly clear "bugger off" by Chinese standards of noncommittal diplomacy. There are several interesting issues and hypocrisies at work here.

Firstly, the US heavily subsidizes green tech as do many countries around the world. To accuse China of doing something they more or less do themselves is somewhat hypocritical. The difference is that most western subsidization is on either the R&D side or the supply side (subsidies for green energy into local energy markets) whereas the Chinese subsidization is on the manufacturing aide of things. The Americans naturally are worried about losing even more green energy production to Chinese producers.
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Pax Americana

After centuries of unending cyclical violence in Europe, WW2's end  finally created what is a seemingly enduring peace among western Europe and America. With the rise of American dominance, this peace spread outwards and after the collapse of the SU now consists of effectively all modern 1st world countries. The state violence that occurs now occurs on the periphery of failed and rogue states. It is a "Pax Americana" that dwarfs the Pax Romana of the Roman Empire and likewise still experiences much violence on its periphery. This post investigates this juxtaposition between the peace and the violence in today's world.

In the west, the level of this peace is startling. Within a couple generations, the very idea of two major western states like France and Germany going to war with each other is effectively impossible. While of course the cold war saw many conflicts between the US and the SU, nowadays worldwide big modern states are considered very unlikely to go to war. A repeat of a Sino-Japanese war just isn't going to happen. The reason for this enduring peace among the major states of the world outside Russia and China can be attributed to many factors such as military alliances, economic ties bringing people together, an increase in military technology that makes the deterrent threat of pyrrhic victory too great and simply the modernization of a globalized and integrated world where full out war is neither desirable or possible among major states.  What should be noted is that all of these factors are symbolic of the rise of the American superpower. NATO and the Marshall plan where the beginning of this world order where western Europe was bound economically and militarily close to the US. Having an enormously powerful military (with no less importantly a stable cohort of close allies) creates a powerful disincentive worldwide to engage in war if the US and her allies would be opposed. Likewise, while military power is certainly a large component of the American Empire, its military power is made possible through its economic power. Its economic power however creates many stabilizing forces in that it is forges the kind of international economic ties that bind countries together in peace. Thus while certainly not the exclusive reason, the lasting peace among the modern worlds major states is attributed at least in part to the rise of the American superpower and hence the term "Pax Americana". In as far as there is peace and in as far as it can be attributed to the US superpower, the US can be applauded.
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Oct 17, 2010

Why Merkel's attack on multiculturalism is wrong

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel made disparaging remarks about multiculturalism on Saturday claiming it has "failed, utterly failed". Her comments both implicitly and explicitly reference in particular Islam and immigration. I find her comments to be not only wrong and misappropriating the problems but to be fundamentally damaging. Sadly, these comments are part of a larger pattern of xenophobia - particularly islamophobia - that is sweeping through the west.

I should make the distinction at the outset about the descriptive versus normative definitions of the word. The descriptive definition of multiculturalism simply describes a demographic reality while the normative definition is claim that we ought to both accept and even praise cultural diversity within our society. This is in contrast with a normative "melting pot" aim where one aims for increasing homogeneity and integration within society. Merkel's comments are a little of both, they are claiming that (descriptively) the existing demographic diversity is harmful and further that (normatively) we ought to not maintain multiculturalism as a goal.
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Oct 16, 2010

Individual vs Societal perspectives

Many moral, political and economic issues can be looked at from two perspectives: individual and societal. We can look at the consequences of such a moral, political or economic claim on any given individual and compare the effects to that of an aggregate of individuals or society. Interestingly, I think the two perspectives actually yield different results. The societal effect is not merely the aggregate of the individual effects.

For economics, this is well understood and so should be addressed first. The study of economics is very explicitly divided along the individual/societal distinction. Loosely, microeconomics deals with economic properties relating to a small amount of individuals while macroeconomics deals with the broader aspects of the economy at large. For a long time there was a hope that macroeconomics could be derived from microeconomics in the sense that if we understood enough about individual transactions, the macroeconomic properties would just come out. As it turned out however, this goal remains elusive and simple macro phenomena can not be accurately predicted from an aggregate if micro knowledge. As an analogy, It is much like how knowing the micro level physics of how atoms behave doesn't give immediate predictions about macro level physics like the relationship between temperature, pressure and volume and certainly not about what the weather is going to be tomorrow. Of course it may just be that our microeconomic understanding is merely currently insufficient to provide a foundation for macroeconomics and that with mote knowledge it could. However, for the realities of the present the two perspectives - individual and societal - remain distinct in their ability to give economic understanding.
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Oct 15, 2010

Scalability of environmental solutions

One of the largest challenges that faces the environmental movement is scalability of its solutions. By this I mean the difficulty of taking a solution that works well when a small proportion of the population utilize it and having it work when a large proportion of the population uses it. Indeed, localization is a key aspect of many environmental proposals, however there are challenges to having a local paradigm be globally applied and widely supported. That said, I don't mean to minimize the viability of environmental solutions with scaleability problems merely to acknowledge that this is often where their largest impediment lies and one focus of our attention ought to be in resolving them.

Perhaps the clearest example is that of electric cars. When electric cars are used by a small proportion of the population, they are excellent. Especially if the regional electricity infrastructure is largely hydro, nuclear or other clean energies than the small influx of extra capacity needed can be absorbed in a clean way. However, if we imagine this solution scaled such that a majority of people used electric cars then an enormous increase in primary electricity energy sources would need to be found to satisfy the demand. Such energy sources may well be superior in cleanliness or efficiency to gas engines however the point is the majority of the problems with electric cars as a viable solution are in this scaleability problem.
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Oct 13, 2010

A unipolar military power in a multipolar economic world

The US remains the worlds dominant military power: global, unprecedented, and more asymmetrically powerful in the wars it engages in than any other empire in history. For a long time its economic, diplomatic and cultural influences were also asymmetrically powerful and the world was unipolar (or bipolar while the soviet union exists) in these factors as well as the military factor.  What we are experiencing however is a transition to an increasingly multipolar economic world. Moreover, since economic power leads these other types of power we should expect a future transition to an increasingly multipolar world in these other factors.

That the US does indeed represent a unipolar military power deserving the term "empire"  is documented in my post here.  That the world is becoming increasingly multipolar economically is actually close to the surface of the public discourse. China fears are particularly prevalent and it is well discussed how their rising economic strength might detract from western economic strength.  Concerns about the US trade imbalance, concerns about US foreign indebtedness, the currency, the strength of foreign multinational companies like Japanese cars and the like are all commonly understood in the public discourse.
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Oct 8, 2010

The shift in wars from centralized and concrete to decentralized and abstract

Over the last 75 years the nature of the wars we engage in has transformed in many ways. Perhaps the most compelling shift has been the shift from established, powerful states through to rogue states with limited power to finally not states at all but decentralized groups of individuals. We have gone from fighting Germany's and Japan's powerful armies to containing "rogue" states like Nicaragua to finally fighting against abstract concepts like the wars on "terror" or "drugs". These shifts towards individualization, decentralization and abstraction of the opposing belligerent are now prevalent in most US and western theaters of conflict around the world.

Up to and including world war two, the most striking forms of war were state vs state (or allied groups of states) battling each other. Both belligerents were established with large formal armies. Everyone knew who they were fighting such as "the Nazis". Two prevalent factors in this type of war is that both sides were engaged in legitimately existential struggles and that while certainly one side may have the advantage their was not a gross asymmetry of power anything like what exists today. Now of course the other aspects (such as fighting in rogue states as proxies) existed and occurred but the dominant theme was big, established state vs state wars.
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Oct 6, 2010

How we externalize the costs of war, and hence its opposition

The unfortunate part about democracy - for someone who wishes for a particular political action - is that the government is accountable to a people who may not agree. The fighting of wars is one such political action and for political hawks who support it in various cases, garnering the requisite support of the people, perhaps merely passively, is essential. The problem is that the administration has managed to find a series of ways to externalize the immediate costs of war such that the people feel the consequences less and therefore will be more supportive of war. Debt based vs tax based financing, eliminating the draft, airpower over ground power and the use of proxies, local forces, allied forces and private forces are all examples of removing immediate costs and hence opposition for civilians.

Perhaps the most compelling tactic of the last decade in externalizing the immediate cost of war is through debt based financing. In many previous US wars, they were rather naturally coupled with tax increases to finance the war. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars are enormously expensive yet taxes were actually decreased during this period while deficits shot up to record levels. Of course, the American tax payer will ultimately bear these costs of war, but it will be through the long term nature of future austerity to reduce debt, paying interest and through inflation. What has been removed is both the immediacy and also the obviousness of the connection between the cost of war and the cost to the average American in the form of taxes. It is easy to feel now as if the costs of war are indeed some externalized, nefarious concept that doesn't directly affect any individual. Now to be fair, the costs may well in some cases be too high to realistically expect to be paid for in the time period of the war and additionally damaging the economy by too quick and large a tax increase is bad in and of itself. That said, I believe that we should require, and if not then at least we should encourage, a political culture where a proportion of the war costs are taxed immediately on the citizens. This will have the dual purposes of actually financing the war opposed to punting it off down the road via deficits as well as tying the connection for voters between war and its costs.
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Oct 3, 2010

Our China Fears Compared to Japan

One of the dominant changes occurring on the world stage is the rise of the economic force that is China. With levels of fear, xenophobia and more than a little bit of awe at this rising Chinese economic strength becoming increasingly aparant in our national discourse, it is instructive to take a step back and compare both the rhetoric and reality to that of Japan's rise particularly in the 70's and 80's. The comparison shows that we have less to fear than the rhetoric indicates and ought to expect an increasingly multipolar economic world and not a replacement of our western unipolar economy with a Chinese unipolar economy on the world stage.


As China passed Japan as the worlds second largest economy a few months ago the comparison is both apt and timely. In both cases (China today and Japan 30 years ago) the basic aspect is a strong regional power experiencing an explosive growth rate, a rise in economic influence to second in the world and creating considerably competitive pressures on the west. In both cases a very strong American trade deficit resulted as their economies relied on exports and manufacturing to the west. The respective periods were marked by the development of a quickly growing middle class and rise in average living conditions for their countries. Perhaps most directly resulting in worry in the west, both were very successful at competitively taking over large portions of the market in sectors like electronics and automobiles for Japan and general factory manufacturing for China. In both countries there was a similar tendency by which the state gave enormous benefit and assistance to sectors of their economy whether it was a state oil company in China or companies like Toyota in Japan. Both countries are resource poor (Japan because of its geographic size and composition, China because of its immense demand resulting from high population) which while providing caps on growth has promoted a very aggressive outreach into the world to acquire basic resources and motivates to some degree their expansive economic policies.
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Oct 2, 2010

Why we shouldn't mock the Tea Party

The political discourse in this election campaign has a new and strong focus on the Tea Party and the politicians and media on the left spend a lot of effort ridiculing the Tea Party.  Let me be clear: I strongly disagree with a lot of what the Tea Party says and advocates. That said, much of their underlying anger is both legitimate and quite natural given the circumstances. The reality is that there are many legitimate problems that motivate the response of Tea Party advocates and opposed to simply ridiculing them for their reaction and proposed solutions (deserving of ridicule though they may well be) we should be trying to identify these underlying problems and have an open discussion about how to solve them.

Consider being in the shoes of the average Tea Party supporter. They have probably worked hard at their jobs, got a house and car like everyone else, been a good God fearing Christian, paid their taxes, sent their sons and daughters to fight wars for the country, were fervently patriotic and generally involved themselves in society. In effect, they have done everything that society said they were supposed to do. However, now they find themselves losing their jobs, losing their homes and even if they hold onto those, inflation adjusted wages have stagnated over thirty years. To make it worse, they can turn on Fox or Limbaugh and hear all about the governments role leading to the housing crisis, the enormous bailouts of wall street and Detroit, the record deficits and the like. Now of course the rightwing media adds a substantial bias that further indoctrinates people, but these basic ideas are founded in truth. In the need to blame someone, the Government is usually the immediate choice.  The result is that is the anger of the Tea Party supporters is to be expected and the focus against government comes because they think - and to a large extent correctly - that their government has failed them.
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Oct 1, 2010

Constitutional Reductionism

The question is this: can we expect the solutions to our disparate political problems all be found within a small set of guiding principles? I argue both that the answer is 'no' and further that this is precisely what the tea party and constitutionalists are arguing for. In their case the set of guiding principles is of course the constitution and declaration of independence - or more precisely a small subset of these that dominate the political rhetoric.  There is a related consideration when considering the merits of a similar moral reductionism attempting to solve moral problems through a limited set of guiding principles contained in religious books. In both, I argue for rationalism over reductionism to all inclusive first principles.

The simple reality is that our political problems are very difficult and complex. The ramifications of, say, an economic policy are usually very poorly understood and even debated extensively among experts.  To expect that a small itemization of principles would be sufficient to apply to our complex and disparate problems of the day is at the very least a rather extreme position. Take a simple example of freedom of speech - core in our liberal democracy - yet it contains many nuanced exemptions such as regulations on advertisers, slander, inciting harm etc. The exemptions don't reduce the praiseworthiness of the principle, but they demonstrate how a focus entirely on direct, literal application of these first principles doesn't solve the complexity of the problems faced.  Furthermore, even if we accepted a reductionist standpoint for the sake of argument, society changes enormously over centuries and the same set of reductionist principles may not extend to the new problems. Social issues such as gay rights or a women's right to choose were simply not prevalent questions a couple hundred years ago. The ability to give twenty first century universal health care didn't exist. The result is we should have a healthy amount of skepticism about the attempt to argue for or against a given policy today based entirely on the merits of a  constitutional principle. The context and complexity of the situation and a rational consideration of the consequences need to dominate an appeal to first principles.
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