Archive for June, 2011|Monthly archive page

Leaving Fukushima

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on June 27, 2011 at 1:14 pm

Kevin has written a lot about how his family got out of Fukushima, Japan following the Daiichi meltdown.  Parts I through VIII can be found on this site plus Kevin’s own travel blog: Travel. Write. Drink Plenty of Fluids.  As some readers know, I’ve been working on a book about the whole event to be loosely framed as a creative narrative but altogether more a work of science journalism.  My plan calls for a long and ambitious schedule and party explains why I haven’t been writing many articles here recently.  (There are a few other reasons as well, but hopefully I can get some more time for articles soon.)  Anyways, my first thoughts on the disaster have appeared as a functional article on the website Expat Arrivals titled In the Case of Emergency: What’s an Expat to Do?  Here is an excerpt: 

In the case of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown, the Japanese government was hopelessly inept at pressuring the plant operator to disclose necessary information. When numbers finally came out, they were conspicuously low, and then they got conspicuously slightly less low, and now they’re conspicuously slightly less low than that.

Crowdsourcing and social media surfing is a much better way to stay informed. Basically, we had a dude in Canada who had nothing better to do, so he assembled information from people on the ground and posted it all on his Facebook page. By checking his Facebook page with our Smartphones, we knew which roads were closed, where quarantine lines were, which cities had gas and other supplies and which cities didn’t, the best routes to escape, which way radioactivity was blowing, and what the levels were. We and others challenged the assembled information by commenting and demanding links to credible sources.

The next steps in our constantly evolving plan were decided by piecing together such credible press releases, crowd sources, and scientific articles to get a clear picture of exactly what was happening. The mainstream media was useless for getting accurate information: typically a major news outlet would report what we already knew and had acted on two or three days later, usually riddled with inaccuracies and the trappings of news theatre.

The article is of fairly moderate length (just over 1000 words) and not always relevant to the purposes of the Inductive, but it provides a good glimpse into what it was like getting my family out of Japan for anyone who is interested.  

Prison Rape is Unacceptable

In Specific Facts on June 24, 2011 at 1:01 am

by VectorportalI live in Washington, D.C. I go to policy school. I read about politics, policy, and economics for fun. The news doesn’t outrage me anymore.  I like to consider things in a cool, analytical perspective; think about what would be more efficient, or how to convince someone who had different values than I did.  


But right now I’m fucking furious.

The U.S. Department of Justice recently released its first-ever estimate of the number of inmates who are sexually abused in America each year. According to the department’s data, which are based on nationwide surveys of prison and jail inmates as well as young people in juvenile detention centers, at least 216,600 inmates were victimized in 2008 alone. Contrary to popular belief, most of the perpetrators were not other prisoners but staff members—corrections officials whose job it is to keep inmates safe. On average, each victim was abused between three and five times over the course of the year. The vast majority were too fearful of reprisals to seek help or file a formal complaint.

That’s unacceptable.  There is no two sides of this issue.  There is nothing to convince another person of, except to give a damn that our country systematically rapes hundreds of thousands of people, often for nonviolent crimes.  Maybe you think I’m being hyperbolic, it isn’t America’s fault that these people get raped. Stopping prison rape is like trying to make the sun come up in the west.


Sexual violence is not an inevitable part of prison life. On the contrary, it is highly preventable. Corrections officials who are committed to running safe facilities train their staff thoroughly. They make sure that inmates who are especially vulnerable to abuse—such as small, mentally ill, and gay or transgender detainees—are not housed with likely perpetrators. And they hold those who commit sexual assaults accountable, even if they are colleagues. 

You know what, I don’t care how much it costs.  This isn’t optional.  If you can’t run a prison without a bunch of people getting raped, THEN YOU CAN’T HAVE PRISONS!  Rape is pretty much the worst thing there is, so how can you punish non-violent drug and property criminals by sending them to “rape factories”? 

It’s easy to feel numbed by the Justice Department’s estimate that almost 600 prisoners are sexually victimized each day. But behind that number are real people like Jan Lastocy. While serving time for attempted embezzlement in a Michigan prison in 1998, Lastocy was raped. Not once, not twice, but several times a week for seven months. The rapist was an officer who supervised her at a prison warehouse. Lastocy was so afraid of him that she did not even dare to tell her husband of 30 years, John, what was going on. 

These are our sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. They are powerless, vulnerable, and they wake up knowing today it might happen again and there is nothing they can do to stop it.  Because we don’t care enough to do anything about it.

This is un-American, to the core.  Cruel and unusual. No due process.  No equality before the law. No freedom.  There is no freedom if this is out there.  You, or someone you love, could be stripped of all human dignity and locked up with a rapist.  Someone we pay to go to work and rape people.  

It will not change unless people make it change.

Call your Congressman.  Write a letter to your state representative.  Write a letter to the editor.  Go to a prison.  Tell someone.  Care.  Do something.  This is unacceptable, and it should not happen in our name. 

Featured Find: My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant

In Specific Facts on June 22, 2011 at 10:43 pm

Pulitzer Prize winner Jose Antonio Vargas drops a bomb in the New York Times: he’s an undocumented immigrant.  Immigration reform is near and dear to me: there is no reason why people like Vargas shouldn’t be entitled to U.S. citizenship.  Immigrants are the engine of American progress.  Here is an excerpt from the Vargas article:

It’s been almost 18 years since I’ve seen my mother. Early on, I was mad at her for putting me in this position, and then mad at myself for being angry and ungrateful. By the time I got to college, we rarely spoke by phone. It became too painful; after a while it was easier to just send money to help support her and my two half-siblings. My sister, almost 2 years old when I left, is almost 20 now. I’ve never met my 14-year-old brother. I would love to see them.

Vargas writes:

I’ve decided to come forward, own up to what I’ve done, and tell my story to the best of my recollection. I’ve reached out to former bosses­ and employers and apologized for misleading them — a mix of humiliation and liberation coming with each disclosure. All the people mentioned in this article gave me permission to use their names. I’ve also talked to family and friends about my situation and am working with legal counsel to review my options. I don’t know what the consequences will be of telling my story.

Indeed, if the law is upheld, ten or fifteen prominent journalists could face criminal charges, and one of America’s best reporters could be sent back to the Phillipines.  For what?


UPDATE: Chris Suellentrop has the story behind the story.

Modern Visionaries Part III – Benoit Mandelbrot

In Empires of the Mind on June 16, 2011 at 9:19 pm

“Think not of what you see, but what it took to produce what you see.” – Benoit Mandelbrot

“Nebulabrot” by Paul Nylander

In keeping with the mathematics theme established in the previous installment of this series (on Buckminster Fuller), Part III is about Benoit Mandelbrot.  It is impossible to ignore the “geodesic”, forward-looking genius of Benoit Mandelbrot.  Like Fuller before him, Mandelbrot used geometry to identify and educate us about the nature of infinity.  Mandelbrot’s elucidation of “fractals” may have given the human race a much closer look at nature’s grand design.  

Benoit B. Mandelbrot was born November 1924 and died on the 14th of October, 2010.  A mathematician born in Poland but raised in France, Mandelbrot spent much of his life living and working in the United States.  Starting in 1951, Mandelbrot worked on problems and published papers in mathematics and applied math, information theory, economics, and fluid dynamics.  He became convinced that two key themes – fat tails and self-similar structures – ran through a multitude of common problems in those fields.

the Mandelbrot setPerhaps Mandelbrot’s most famous contribution is the M-set.  Mandelbrot discovered the M-set in 1980; this discovery has been widely discussed in books such as The Fractal Geometry of Nature by Mandelbrot and Chaos by James Gleick and in scientific magazines (for example see the beautiful pictures and excellent summary in the July 1985 issue of Scientific American).

I am by no means a mathematician.  I’ve always been humbled by the complexities of higher mathematics, more of a right brained guy I guess.  Mandelbrot’s discovery of the “M-set” may well be a look in to the true fabric of Mother Nature, and sure enough, Mom speaks math.  

 For those who are mathematically inclined, here is a brief outline of how the M-set is created: start with the expression z -> z^2 + c; choose two complex numbers z and c; solve the expression z^2 + c to get a new value of z; put the new z into the z^2 + c term and compute another z value; continue this process on a computer for much iteration.  Color coding the rate at which different values of c cause z to either (1) shoot off to infinity, (2) stabilize in the realm of finite numbers, or (3) go to zero creates the visual embodiment of the “m-world”.  One of the many wonders of this infinitely complex “world” is that it can be created by just a few simple lines of computer code that are repeated recursively.  From these little algorithmic loops comes the most rococo universe that anyone has ever seen.  No matter how many times you magnify the M-set to infinity, it continues to expand.  And you can see the M-set everywhere in nature.  Mandelbrot found a mathematical formula to describe a “fractal” (a term he invented to describe the M-set) – in which each part mimics the pattern of the whole.

“Fractal geometry is not just beautiful, but useful – for modeling turbulence, financial systems, the distribution of galaxies. It underpins the physics of disorder and chaos theory.  My whole career became one long, ardent pursuit of the concept of roughness,” Mandelbrot wrote in an essay on receiving the 1993 Wolf prize for physics.  “Fractal geometry plays two roles.  It is the geometry of deterministic chaos, and it can also describe the geometry of mountains, clouds, and galaxies.”

Science and geometry have always been partners and have progressed in lockstep throughout history.  In the 17th century, Johannes Kepler found that he could represent the orbits of the planets around the Sun by ellipses. This inspired Isaac Newton to explain these elliptical orbits by devising the law of gravity. Similarly, the back-and-forth motion of a perfect pendulum is represented by a sine wave. Simple dynamics used to be associated with simple geometrical shapes.  This kind of mathematical picture implies a smooth relationship between an object’s form and the forces acting on it.  

Indeed, Galileo put forth the notion that “the great book of nature is written in mathematical language”, adding that “its characters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.”  Mandelbrot added: “(Certain) phenomena need geometries that are very far from triangles and circles.  They require non-Euclidean structures and a new geometry called “Fractal” geometry.”

3-D fractal modelA lot of math stuff I know, but I found that just learning a little of this math through researching Mandelbrot’s discovery is well, for lack of better term, simply mind blowing.  For most of us this kind of mathematical language is often cosmically abstruse and uninteresting; but here with the M-set it is deeply compelling, and it has a certain universal appeal.  Mandelbrot’s discovery of fractals shows that an otherwise drab mathematical formula can produce an apparently self-replicating, infinite design that is everywhere around us.  When asked whether fractals point to a single rule underlying reality, Mandelbrot simply stated:

“There is no single rule that governs the use of geometry. I don’t think one exists.”  In addition, according to Mandelbrot, “The beauty of geometry is that it is a language of extraordinary subtlety that serves many purposes.”

Perhaps if we take away the symbolic, mathematical aspect of the M-set and fractal geometry, it becomes a little simpler to understand.  First, get a microscope that kicks ass.  My point here and the core amazing trait of the M-set is that no matter how many times you magnify it, it just keeps going on to infinity.  This is where we can learn lessons for nature and art (for those of us who don’t want to go the math route).  In a PBS Nova documentary called “Hunting the Hidden Dimension” one prominent Ph.D. made a comment that summed up this art-math notion of the M-set quite nicely:

“Math is really quite close to art…They just speak different languages….”

“How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension” is a paper first published in Science in 1967.  In this paper Mandelbrot discusses self-similar curves that have Hausdorff dimension between 1 and 2. These curves are examples of fractals, although Mandelbrot does not use this term in the paper, as he did not invent it until 1975.  In late 1982, Mandelbrot published his visionary work The Fractal Geometry of Nature.  This work explains how fractals can explain a variety of natural forms and structures ranging from trees to coastlines.

ferns have self-similar structureWhat Mandelbrot’s brilliant discovery gives us is a new appreciation of the natural world and the beautiful art we see within it. Many things previously called chaotic are now known to follow subtle fractal laws of behavior.  This reflects what we observe in both small details and macroscopic patterns of life in all their physical and mental varieties as well.  It all centers around what’s called in Mandelbrot’s math world “iteration”.

Here is Webster’s definition of “iteration”.  It is short and sweet, and this article just won’t allow the space to go into it more:

the action or a process of repeating; as a : a procedure in which repetition of a sequence of operations yields results successively closer to a desired result b : the repetition of a sequence of computer instructions a specified number of times or until a condition is met – compare recursion.

halved Nautilus shellIn other words, it continually repeats itself… A formula continues to repeat itself in both math and nature.  Fun to get your head around…. Just take a close look at the fern hanging inside or outside of your home.  You’ll start to see.  Look up a picture of a Nautilus (the sea mollusk, not Nemo’s awesome ship) or a simple snail; the M-set is truly everywhere.  For us old hippies, it’s everywhere in our tie-dyes and art.  It’s quite hard for anyone paying attention to miss.  The beautiful tapestries and rugs of Persia and India have the M-set in them as well.  The M-set is in winter snow.  Before catching that snowflake on your tongue, take a close look at it.

The M-set gives us poetry as well.  I felt that closing with this thought was comfortable and soothing and wouldn’t leave most of us dizzied like we’d just received an intensive crash course in advanced geometry.  The great poet William Blake penned in 1803 these beautiful lines in his great work “Auguries of Innocence”:


To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.


Next time you’re stopping to smell the roses, take a close look at them as well.

Science is the Bee’s Knees

In Empires of the Mind on June 14, 2011 at 10:00 am

I have a short post today.  Here are my thoughts on science recently crystallized on a LinkedIn science writers thread:

“Most highly educated adults understand evolution as Lamarckian evolution, and even if they do understand Darwinian evolution, it’s usually in some crude and offensive form like survival of the fittest. Highly educated adults who can actually intuitively grasp the intricacies and layers of information, the tension between cooperative behavior, competitive behavior, sexual selection, disease adaptation, somatic vs. germ-line mutation, polymorphisms, social behavior, and all the other complexities that are necessary to understand in order to even be having the conversation are few and far between. It might make more sense to focus on basic things like how cool an elephant’s trunk is or other concrete phenomena from the natural world which can serve as metaphorical templates on which to graft more intuitive understandings of science and engineering in the years ahead.”

“But, Don, science is a fixed method. Adhering to that method is not ideological bias, since ideology is not a factor. As of right now science necessarily entails naturalism. I agree that questions of the origin of life may have non-naturalistic components, but these components should not be grouped with scientific explanations. This is a really basic for me, yet most people tend to feel personally insulted when they encounter unfamiliar frameworks.”

“I only accept naturalism if it is a methodological naturalism that pertains specifically to science. Scientific theories are models, and models by definition are abstractions of only portions of reality; every model is good for some purposes and not for others. So, philosophical naturalism is unfounded in my opinion. Science entails naturalism because science is by definition the study of nature. Studying nature scientifically does not rule out studying nature as an artist or as a theologian, nor is it possible to conjure up any value judgments regarding the results of various modes of study without resorting to further abstraction. So I agree with you completely that using “science” to make an unfalsfiable claim such as “religion is a defense against the fear of death” is no more than the expression of genuinely held belief.”

“Elmer, it seems like you have a naively positivistic view of science, which I don’t share: science postulates the most parsimonious explanation of the behavior of materialist (and very often deterministic) systems. It is a special case which has been extremely useful in assisting humans at meeting certain goals.

Your reference to peer review seems like an appeal to authority as well. And your examples represent an egregious category error. Also, generalizations based on interviews and sociological experiments are neither predictive nor falsifiable (and therefore not even science). 

Don’t get me wrong: I think science is the bee’s knees and aspire to its upper echelons and whatnot; my general critique of your argument is that I think it understates the role of assumptions and uncertainties in producing scientific consensus.

As for your contention regarding solipsism, I do believe other people exist, but I also believe that the human’s attempt to understand the universe is somewhat like the cell’s attempt to contemplate the human.


Goodbye, For Now – tohoku earthquake part eight

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on June 12, 2011 at 1:14 am

On Tuesday morning all I cared about was getting my family out of Fukushima, far away from the radioactive mess that was percolating down along the coast. We didn’t know where we might end up when we jumped into Jun’s car. Maybe we’d go to Akita, I thought, or Yamagata – put some more miles and mountains between us and the reactors. If we really thought it necessary we could probably get to Osaka, or even Kyushu, where people had gas in their cars and the supermarket shelves were stocked and kids could play in the park without their parents worrying about what might be falling out of the sky. No place could be too far, really. We just needed to find a corner of Japan, a place we could go to be safe, where we could breathe the air and let our kids run around outside, and wait until things settled down. Then we could return home and get on with living our lives.

The long ride to Morioka – the stretches of quiet thinking time along a road through a country that seemed much more dead than alive – those four hours in Jun’s car changed all that.

Even if we went to Kyushu, far from any threat of fallout from the fallout, how long would we stay? How long could we sleep in a hotel room, living out of our bags before our kids started wigging out and the walls started closing in and the four of us finally just went crazy? When would we be comfortable returning to Fukushima, and did we want to live like runaways in the meantime, for two, maybe even three weeks? Or could it conceivably turn into months?

I didn’t consider going all the way to America when we were scrambling to stuff our lives into two duffel bags. By the time we got to Morioka we knew that was where we wanted to go. My wife, in her eminent wisdom and foresight, had brought our passports; she seemed, actually, more eager than I was to head overseas. Which made me forget what she was leaving behind, until she spoke with her mother on the phone while I played with our sons on the bed in our room at our hotel in Ohdate.

I half listened in as she asked her mom if she would consider leaving Fukushima, if only for a short while. But for her father, confined to a wheelchair since he went down with an aneurism two years ago, a trip to the bathroom was hard enough. Leaving home – a home he hadn’t been more than a few dozen miles from in God knew how long – was, in his mind, out of the question. Heck, leaving home for anything less than pure free will was unthinkable; home was home, where their whole life was…and, my wife’s mom said, where they would die.

My wife’s sister offered less compelling excuses to remain, but would remain just the same. Her son was starting high school in a couple weeks. And the government said things would be fine.

I spoke briefly with my wife about her family; I knew the answers already but I thought she might want to tell me anyway, like she needed to get her bad day at work off her chest. Thirty minutes later she was settling down with the kids and I was heading to the hotel lobby where I would spend the next hour on the Internet, reading messages of encouragement from family and friends, all praying for me and my family to make it out of Japan safe and soon.

In the morning the mission was simple: get breakfast and then get to the station in time to catch the bus to the airport. The six inches of snow that had fallen overnight was light and fluffy, the kind that feels like feathers underfoot. My son stomped along like Godzilla, kicking up white puffs and making three-year-old noises of utter destruction. I wanted to drop our bags and tackle him, play in that perfect blanket until we both collapsed from exhaustion and laughter. But this would have to wait for another day.

There were forty-two people in front of us, with more lining up behind us with each passing minute. Few had bags as big as ours; many had only a briefcase, or nothing at all. A few minutes before departure time a man in an official-looking windbreaker asked all of us going to the airport to form a new line, closer to the curb. Only about twenty of us stepped forward, which to me meant we were one step closer to home.

From a distance the airport seemed not much bigger than the house I grew up in. There was no line at the check-in counter, where a woman smiled graciously and spoke gently as she helped us through the automated check-in process. A smattering of people drifted through the main hall, gazing at travel posters and sipping coffee and seeming very much removed from the world unfolding 200 kilometers to the south.

From the plane we looked down on a snow-covered world. Mountains dominate the northern part of Japan, and from the air you see nothing but trees and valleys and water and serenity. But it was not long before we were passing over Miyagi and Fukushima. In places inland we could see towns and villages, appearing as they should from 25,000 feet. Further off was the coast, and while sun, moisture and distance conspired to hide any detail from us, we could see in that indistinct mass of brown and gray that things were as far from ‘should be’ as one could ever imagine.

I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to get on a plane and fly off overseas when hundreds of thousands of people had in a moment lost everything they’d ever known, unable now to buy even a bus ticket out of town. I wanted to kiss my family and put them on that plane and go back to Fukushima and do something, anything, I didn’t know what but I could figure it out because there were people back there who didn’t have a credit card and two bags of clothes and a family on the other side of the world to take them in and a whole army of friends standing by just in case. I wanted to get to the gate and find that someone needed a small miracle – a mother with a small child, or an elderly couple, waiting on standby because they were one seat short. My family would be fine. I wanted to be useful.

The hell I knew was down there slowly faded from view.

My wife had prepared masks for all of us, to use when we got to Haneda Airport in Tokyo. Yet inside the terminal people seemed just as calm and unmoved as they had in Ohdate-Noshiro earlier that morning. No one was wearing a protective mask. Nobody was running anywhere. It barely seemed like Tokyo let alone Tokyo just now settling after more skyscraper-shaking earthquakes the day before and a growing nuclear threat up the coast. ‘Where are you going?’ The young kid with the orange windbreaker smiled, eager to point us to the correct bus stop. He was working, probably for not a whole lot per hour. His country, at least part of it, had been ravaged and the worst seemed yet to come. And he was happy, helping get us on our way to Narita.

Our bus would be full, as my friend Vid had warned us. This leg of the journey, from Haneda across Tokyo and into Chiba prefecture to Narita Airport, had also concerned me. Standing in that hotel lobby, staring at the indecipherable directions for reserving tickets online, I envisioned masses of people fighting to get on the bus to Narita. Our flight into Tokyo could be delayed too, I thought without wanting to. And it might take forever to get our bags. And what if the buses weren’t running the normal schedule? What if there was another massive quake and everything went down? If we didn’t make our flight how long would we have to wait before three more seats opened up? Flights were all but booked solid for the next week and beyond, after all.

Sitting on our bus, my eleven-month-old making funny faces with the woman behind us, it was almost hard to imagine why I had been so worried.

At Narita the line to check in was without exaggeration two hundred yards long. I heard a dozen languages as we walked along, our older son riding on top of our luggage cart. Mothers barked at their unruly (or not so unruly) c
hildren. People in a hurry stutter-stepped before shouldering their way through any small break in the line to continue toward the security check and the gates and the relief of knowing they’ve caught their flight. Groups of uniformed policemen stood and talked and watched. Announcements drifted through the air. The huge departure screen loomed high on the wall; somewhere in there was our passage out of here.

I spent the last minutes before boarding our plane texting a few important people. I let Vid know we were on our way, and thanked him for all he had done for us. After making sure we were alive, then offering to drive up to Fukushima himself to bring us to Tokyo if that was what we needed, then keeping everyone informed of our whereabouts as we made our roundabout way, all the while making sure we were set up with hotels and flight information and everything else he could possibly think of, he would end up staying in Tokyo to volunteer at a distribution warehouse, helping to get food up to the Tohoku area, the place I had just run from. Several other friends had mailed me as well, expats who had also taken off and Japanese who were staying put. And finally, as we stood on line to board, I sent word to my mom that we really were on our way. It was only at this moment that I believed that we truly had made it, that we were leaving Japan behind, for now.

I couldn’t see Japan falling away below as our plane climbed into the sky. But I thought about my adopted home; the people I had called neighbor and friend for the past nine and a half years; the places that, though not perfect, I had grown to love, not as one loves a thing but as one loves an idea. And I knew that no matter how dear Japan was to me, however I would adore her, my home would always be America. And today, I would go home.

I looked over at my wife, cradling our little one. She liked America; liked my family. But America was not her home. And her family was among those we were leaving behind. For our sons’ sake the choice was easy: get to where it is safe, no matter how far we have to go. For me, yes I have struggled with my decision to leave when there are still so many with nothing, so many that could benefit from another set of hands moving food, or bringing water, or clearing debris, so many who, in moments of clarity amidst the chaos, would want nothing more than a friend to lean on and an arm to cry on. That my boys need me too helps to ease this guilt. But it is my wife who is leaving her life behind, at least for now. While my family waits to receive us with outstretched arms her parents are left with one less daughter. While I get to see my nieces and nephews living in a blessedly normal world my wife is left to wonder what is silently raining down on her sister’s son and daughter, who have grown so much since I first met them. And as welcome as my wife feels, as loved as she is by my family, her family and her home are now far away.

We know we will return to Fukushima, at least for a time. And perhaps we knew too back in our hotel room in Ohdate. But as I listened to my wife talk to her mother on the phone I knew what our leaving meant to her. ‘Good bye for now,’ my wife said, and gently hung up.

In our hotel room in Ohdate, it seemed like now was all we had.

And we were among the very fortunate ones.


Note: This is the last of an eight-part series on my experiences during and following the March 11th earthquake. All eight parts can be found here on The Inductive as well as at – where also I’ve posted a sort of epilogue piece.

The situation persists in Japan; please keep the hundreds of thousands still affected in your thoughts, as most have few options but to ride it out and pray they will one day return to a life resembling normal.

Rejoinders to a New Political Dialectic

In General Principles on June 9, 2011 at 10:00 am

I posted some rejoinders to my original piece “A New Political Dialecticin the comments at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen.  I have reproduced them below:

1.  A possible litmus test for what constitutes “positivist New Atheism” is that they tend to make the argument that religion is unfalsifiable as if that is an indictment of religion.  Really, religion does not hold itself to the same standards as science (why should it?).  The two work best when kept separate.  Just like I can be a scientist who enjoys art or a scientist who enjoys nature, I can also be a scientist who enjoys religion.

Again, this doesn’t speak to the question of whether or not God exists, (which I made explicit above) and I was hoping not to get into that since it’s been hashed out billions of times and no one has made any progress.  But, since people seem to want to talk about that, from my own personal journey, I know that “Does God exist?” is a difficult question to define precisely.  I’ve settled into a sort of noncognitivist/Spinozan outlook on the divine that places me closer to both a Sufi mystic and a Nietzschean atheist than one who believes I’ve been “saved” by a personal Jesus or the group of people that make vast amounts of money antagonizing believers in personal Jesuses (Jesi?) because their beliefs are not based on the scientific method.

2.  To be honest, I’m really disappointed that comments tended towards an old-fashioned Internet atheist debate, but I fault myself for putting so much about Harris and his positivist atheism at the beginning of the piece.  Burt Likko’s comment is one here that actually engages my argument, which is that political debate should be driven by a dialectical relationship between libertarianism and socialism; I was hoping that more comments would address this contention.

3. Specifically to Elias Isquith: my definition of “authoritarianism” is more all-encompassing than simply being authoritarian regimes.  One of the major problems in American society today that I think we should all be able to agree is a problem is the encroachment of politics into every single facet of life.  It seems like this could be (and has been) rationally explained as the effect of the death of “real” conservatism and its replacement with an aggressive conservative authoritarianism to compete with an aggressive progressive authoritarianism for rule of everything America.  We commonly call this mutated conservatism “movement conservatism”.  How this relates to Lears’s piece: Lears (and everyone else) uses the term “New Atheism” to refer to what should instead really be called “movement atheism”, just another participant in the mad rush to remake the world in one’s own chauvinistic assumptions.  In criticizing “New Atheism” Lears criticizes a positivism which has gone beyond applying itself to science; i.e. the belief that the scientific method should guide not only science but everything else as well.

4. In calling for a dialectic between socialism and libertarianism, I am specifically calling for a socialism that stops allying itself with progressive technocracy and a libertarianism that stops allying itself with social conservatism.  In other words, it’s time that every political issue in this country be discussed in terms of collective solutions designed to realize a greater good vs. individual decision-making.  While Burt Likko suggests above that that is effectively what we have, I would argue to the contrary (It may be how Mr. Likko thinks about political issues, but most people root for their “team” to win so that it can pass bills favoring its own breed of authoritarianism.)  Socialism and libertarianism currently fill roles supporting a system from which they gain nothing.

What this has to do with Lears’s piece: Lears’s piece illustrates some of the themes common to socialism and libertarianism, important themes around which the two approaches to politics can find commonalities.  But this opportunity for commonality is wasted in misunderstanding: Goldwater is classified as a positivist modernist; libertarians are castigated as corporate toadies and exponents of scientism.  Socialists are all equated with Stalin.  I think this antipathy is unfortunate considering that socialism and libertarianism share “a certain epistemic humility; a realist policy outlook; an appreciation for life’s complexities and humankind’s poor ability to understand and tame them; politics as a utilitarian resource and no more; a focus on the agency of the individual; an engagement with the idea of justice as fairness; and a desire to remove unnecessary obstacles to subjectively-defined meaningful existences.

This [original] post is a culmination of a long period of political soul-searching on my part, or trying to reconcile two ostensibly conflicting self-identifications, and it makes me sad that it was so poorly received. Back to the drawing board I guess.

Later I added:

I’ll agree that liberalism was the outright winner of the 20th. Century’s ideological wars, and overall freedom and free markets and whatnot represent the best basis for government, but I also think that it seems probable that liberalism’s monopoly on mainstream political thought in this country is the cause of many of our social problems.

Liberalism (and any ideology really) is most effective when it is restrained in certain regards. It has been an unrestrained and antagonistic liberalism that has given us massive environmental destruction, a selfish and materialistic consumer culture which brought us to the brink of economic collapse three years ago (and will again unless the underlying basic problem is identified and purged), and the growth-at-all-costs model which prioritizes the accumulation of capital regardless of its intrinsic worth over maximizing the welfare of humans. I’m not saying I agree with any socialist positions on these issues in particular (as it is, I think liberal solutions are usually superior), but I certainly value the socialist critique for highlighting these problems and attempting to redefine how we think about some goods: for example, in an age without a frontier, is land not a public good? In a truly globalized age, do the resources of the earth and sea not belong to all? When we have the capacity to provide medical care for all, do we not have a responsibility to do that?

The socialist critique of the corporation is particularly trenchant. Corporations are great at what they do: maximize profit for shareholders; but to try and put any sort of social responsibility on corporations as more interventionist schools of liberalism espouse will only result in a system which rewards the corporations that most effectively create the appearance of compliance. To treat corporations as people and not machines used by people has become a defining feature of modern liberal capitalism. The more socialistic component of the modern liberal system advocates policies which only create incentives and opportunities for those corporations to take the lead to write regulations that crowd out competitors and create barriers to entry. This kind of behavior is bad for all but that company’s shareholders yet we tolerate it as a priori consistent with liberalism.

As you say, a lot of socialist attempts to create competing orders have failed, but some sort of presence of those ideas is valuable as a restraint on a society that throws the baby out with the bathwater.

I still believe socialism and libertarianism can and should be somehow reconciled, but it’s something I’m going to have to think about a bit more.

A New Political Dialectic

In General Principles on June 7, 2011 at 2:00 pm

<cross-posted at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen>

Jackson Lears has a riveting piece up at the Nation which soundly routs the new parapositivism taking the popular and newspaper science cultures by storm.  The piece is called “Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris”.  It’s a takedown of Harris couched within a takedown of the New Atheist conceptual framework couched within a takedown of a positivism which oversteps its bounds.  Freddie deBoer recently praised the piece:

I think that absolutely everyone should read this profoundly necessary evisceration of Sam Harris, the Moe of the New Atheist Three Stooges, written by Jackson Lears and published by the Nation. It may be my favorite essay published this year; it goes well beyond the usual stalking horses of New Atheism and speaks to some of the fundamental analytical and ethical issues confronting our species, particularly when it comes to progress and the limits of knowledge. Read the whole thing, seriously.

While I would characterize Sam Harris as more of a Shemp, I strongly second deBoer’s recommendation.  In general, Lears’s piece is an important and exhaustive work, which, in addition to exposing the New Atheist conceptual framework as confused and reductionist, provides much factual background necessary to participate in public discussion:

Atheism has always been a tough sell in the United States. In Europe, where for centuries religious authority was intertwined with government power, atheists were heroic dissenters against the unholy alliance of church and state. In the United States, where the two realms are constitutionally separate, Protestant Christianity suffused public discourse so completely in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that some positivists felt the need to paper over their differences with religion. US politics has frequently been flooded by waves of Christian fervor. Sometimes religion has bolstered the forces of political sanctimony and persecution, as with Prohibition in the 1920s and anticommunism during the cold war; but it has also encouraged dissenters to speak truth to power—to abolish slavery, to regulate capitalism, to end the Vietnam War.

The Christian right, which had risen to prominence in the late twentieth century, provided an unprecedented target for New Atheists’ barbs. Here was a particularly noxious form of religion in American politics—more dangerous than the bland piety of politicians or the ad nauseam repetition of “God Bless America.” From the Reagan administration to that of George W. Bush, the Christian right succeeded in shifting political debates from issues of justice and equality to moral and cultural questions, often persuading working-class voters to cast ballots for candidates whose policies undercut their economic interests. Rage about abortion and same-sex marriage drowned out discussion of job security and tax equity. Fundamentalist Christians denied global warming and helped to derail federal funding for stem-cell research. Most catastrophically, they supplied the language of Providence that sanctified Bush’s “war on terror” as a moral crusade.

Of course, none of this speaks to the existence or nonexistence of God, but it is important to note that Harris et al. are not representative of atheism, nor are they representative of science:

The midcentury demise of positivism was a consequence of intellectual advances as well as geopolitical disasters. The work of Franz Boas, Claude Lévi-Strauss and other anthropologists promoted a relativistic understanding of culture, which undercut scientific racism and challenged imperial arrogance toward peoples who lagged behind in the Western march of progress. Meanwhile, scientists in disciplines ranging from depth psychology to quantum physics were discovering a physical reality that defied precise definition as well as efforts to reduce it to predictable laws. Sociologists of knowledge, along with historians and philosophers of science (including Karl Mannheim, Peter Berger and Thomas Kuhn), all emphasized the provisionality of scientific truth, its dependence on a shifting expert consensus that could change or even dissolve outright in light of new evidence. Reality—or at least our apprehension of it—could be said to be socially constructed. This meant that our understanding of the physical world is contingent on the very things—the methods of measurement, the interests of the observer—required to apprehend it.

None of this ferment discredited the role of science as a practical means of promoting human well-being: midcentury laboratories produced vaccines and sulfa drugs as well as nuclear weapons. Nor did it prove the existence (or even the possibility) of God, as apologists for religion sometimes claimed. But it did undermine the positivist faith in science as a source of absolute certainty and moral good. As ethical guides, scientists had proved to be no more reliable than anyone else. Apart from a few Strangelovian thinkers (the physicist Edward Teller comes to mind), scientists retreated from making ethical or political pronouncements in the name of science.

This brings us to the blending of the fact/values distinction for which Harris is notorious:

More commonly, though, Harris depends on the MPFC to make more provocative claims. He says nothing about the pool of test subjects or the methods used to evaluate evidence in these experiments. Instead he argues by assertion. As he writes, “involvement of the MPFC in belief processing…suggests that the physiology of belief may be the same regardless of a proposition’s content. It also suggests that the division between facts and values does not make much sense in terms of underlying brain function.” This is uncontroversial but beside the point. The nub of the matter is not the evaluation of the fact-value divide “in terms of underlying brain function” but the conscious fashioning of morality. Harris is undaunted. He asks, “If, from the point of view of the brain, believing ‘the sun is a star’ is importantly similar to believing ‘cruelty is wrong,’ how can we say that scientific and ethical judgments have nothing in common?” But can the brain be said to have a “point of view”? If so, is it relevant to morality?

There is a fundamental reductionist confusion here: the same biological origin does not constitute the same cultural or moral significance. In fact, one could argue, Harris shows that the brain cannot distinguish between facts and values, and that the elusive process of moral reasoning is not reducible to the results of neuroimaging. All we are seeing, here and elsewhere, is that “brain activity” increases or decreases in certain regions of the brain during certain kinds of experiences—a finding so vague as to be meaningless. Yet Harris presses forward to a grandiose and unwarranted conclusion: if the fact-value distinction “does not exist as a matter of human cognition”—that is, measurable brain activity—then science can one day answer the “most pressing questions of human existence”: Why do we suffer? How can we be happy? And is it possible to love our neighbor as ourselves?

Finally, Lears’s conclusion is one of the more compelling descriptions of our era I’ve come across:

Maybe this explains why Harris remains an optimist despite all the “dangerously retrograde” orthodoxies on the loose. Moral progress is unmistakable, he believes, at least in “the developed world.” His chief example is how far “we” have moved beyond racism. Even if one accepts this flimsy assertion, the inconvenient historical fact is that, intellectually at least, racism was undone not by positivistic science, which underwrote it, but by the cultural relativism Harris despises. Ultimately his claims for moral progress range more widely, as he reports that “we” in “the developed world” are increasingly “disturbed by our capacity to do one another harm.” What planet does this man live on? Besides our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, “we” in the United States are engaged in a massive retreat from the welfare state and from any notion that we have a responsibility to one another or to a larger public good that transcends private gain. This retreat has little to do with Islamic radicalism or the militant piety of the Christian right, though the latter does remain a major obstacle to informed debate. The problem in this case is not religion. Despite the fundamental (or perhaps even innate) decency of most people, our political and popular culture does little to encourage altruism [emphasis mine].  The dominant religion of our time is the worship of money, and the dominant ethic is “To hell with you and hooray for me.”

I find myself largely comfortable with the main flow of Lears’s essay, from his characterization of the unique complexities of atheism in the United States to his takedown of Harris’s reductionism (thankfully using science itself) to his diagnosis of the primary social problem in the United States being an individualism grossly mutated into selfishness.  However, there is one current running throughout the essay – almost ubiquitous in materials from the left these days – that I must take issue with. 

Just as liberals today seem to lack the necessary imaginative faculties to understand the support of young people for a candidate like Ron Paul, Lears finds it unfathomably strange and monstrous that young people in the sixties would have supported the Goldwater campaign or libertarian causes; Lears’s incredulousness is for reasons that are apparently just so obvious to the Nation‘s readership that they remain unexplained:

What could be more ludicrous than the spectacle of young people embracing an old reactionary who wanted to repeal the New Deal? One might as well try to revive corsets and spats.   

Lears then proceeds to link Goldwater and his Republicans to the kind of positivism exhibited by Sam Harris.  This link is established by virtue of only the coeval existence of that nascent philosophical movement and what Lears baselessly asserts to be Goldwater’s yearned-for sweet golden age of policy before the New Deal, when twelve-year-old chimney sweeps died in the cold from tuberculosis while fat cats spent all day and night polishing their mountains of gold coins.  (In fact, there is a much more substantial and well-documented link between positivism and New Deal progressivism about which I would happily go into detail, except that the notion of Republican policies being based on science is laughable.)

Here it is important to note that Goldwater and other post-New Deal libertarians were reacting to the same arrogant positivism that Lears excoriates.  The 1960s libertarian sympathy for individual sovereignty, limited government, and traditional institutions derived not from a belief that these institutions represented a one best way but from a skepticism that technocratic government could effectively solve all the problems facing us and a fear that that same institutional optimism could take us to places where we didn’t want to go.

The specifically libertarian component of this anti-positivist reaction to design by the best and brightest lay in the idea that traditional institutions, having developed organically and to equilibrium, were necessarily superior to those designed from scratch and then released upon the world – hence opposition to bureaucracy, over-regulation, and (obviously) rule by scientific design.  The specifically socialist component of this anti-positivist reaction (which seemingly Lears represents) was an anti-corporate egaltarianism which sought to erect legal and institutional barriers against rule by the lucky few – hence support for environmental protection, robustly codified civil liberties, and (obviously) self-rule.

These two schools of political thought remain alienated today, but considering the whole range of political opinion in America, they share much (of what is important) in common: a certain epistemic humility; a realist policy outlook; an appreciation for life’s complexities and humankind’s poor ability to understand and tame them; politics as a utilitarian resource and no more; a focus on the agency of the individual; an engagement with the idea of justice as fairness; and a desire to remove unnecessary obstacles to subjectively-defined meaningful existences.  It is the failure to recognize this shared heritage that fuels the antipathy of what we’ll call socialism to what we’ll call libertarianism (and vice versa) when the two should be natural allies.   

Libertarians (effectively classical liberals) and socialists don’t have to like each other, but they’ve historically done their best work when responding dispassionately to each other’s theories and criticisms (see the great economic calculation debate or everything Marx wrote for instance).  As such, libertarianism and socialism operate best in a dialectic sense (in contrast to the prevailing “culture war”) – of establishing mutual agreements and moving on to iron out details or implementation.  On the standard political compass this dialectic would be represented not as a position point but as a vector, pointing in the direction of reforms away from any and all authoritarianisms.

Freddie deBoer wrote several months ago calling for a new political discourse which includes the socialist left; for a long time our political vector has been pointing directly away from socialism.  It’s easy to understand why from a historical perspective: with the Soviet Union as principle threat to liberty and the American project, it made sense to strongly represent ourselves as the opposite.  In the year 2011 – as it was a hundred years ago – threats to society and the common good are multiple and authoritarian in nature.  History shows that our political discourse should be running away from authoritarianism of all stripes, and we should be enacting policies that are consistent with a non-authoritarian consensus.  Whether these policies result in something resembling Kropotkin’s mutual aid or something resembling Hayek’s spontaneous order, it’s time for a new era of non-coercion, heterodoxy, and pluralism.

Agreeing to Agree

In Specific Facts on June 7, 2011 at 12:26 am

Job Training: Not a New Idea, But a Good One.Matthew Cameron, at Matt Yglesias’s blog, criticizes, sight unseen, President Obama’s plan for increased job training:

Although we don’t yet know the specifics of Obama’s speech, its billing as a discussion about “the importance of job training to improving the economy” suggests that the administration remains attached to the idea that the nation’s unemployment crisis is structural rather than cyclical in nature. That unemployment spiked for all education levels following the 2008 financial crisis, however, indicates the economy is plagued by more than just structural unemployment caused by a dearth of human capital. Rather, it is coping with severely depressed aggregate demand. 

Of course, Obama has little say in whether Congress or the Fed acts appropriately. And it is true that job training is a good policy objective for the long-term strengthening of the U.S. economy. But if Obama hopes to convince voters that he cares about the immediate employment situation, he should address the real issue and not settle for nice-sounding speeches that essentially are irrelevant to the average American’s ongoing plight.

The need for monetary stimulus is one of Matt Yglesias’s favorite subjects, and while I generally agree with that Matt, I think this Matt is off base.  

First, this is terrible political advice. If the President wants to convince voters that he cares about the immediate employment situation he should eschew blaming estoteric villians like “aggregate demand shocks” and get behind tangible, common sense (if ultimately low impact) policies like job training.  If he wants to do something about the economy then he can work on the Fed through official channels, but he can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Second, the spikes in unemployment Mr. Cameron cites in fact are much more severe for low skill workers. As Tyler Cowen pointed out, it takes an asymmetric shock that disproportionately falls on the low-skilled in order to produce proportionate decreases in unemployment for all skill subgroups. 

Besides, as Mr. Cameron pointed out, job training is good policy!  Low skill workers suffer disproportionately during adverse aggregate demand shocks and even when the economy recovers do not benefit as much as their better educated and more skilled counterparts.  The President is right to advocate for more job training even if the current recession is entirely due to a demand shock.

However, most economists acknowledge that at least some of the increase in unemployment is structural (meaning that some of the unemployed are not qualified for the jobs that are available) Moreover, as the economy continues to shuffle along, structural unemployment becomes that much more problematic since long-term unemployment leads to atrophied skills and may serve as a negative signal to potential employers. Job training provides a bridge back into the work force both by imparting new skills and a signal of work ethic.

I agree with Mr. Cameron that the Federal Reserve should do more to stimulate aggregate demand and the President should do more to stimulate the Federal Reserve, but that’s no excuse for knee-jerk criticism of other worthwhile administration economic initiatives.  

Full Disclosure: I applied for Mr. Cameron’s job as Matt Yglesias’s summer intern.  No hard feelings though, I managed to avoid joining the ranks of the short term unemployed.

Calling a Truce in the War on Drugs: Reason verus Barbarism

In Specific Facts on June 5, 2011 at 8:03 pm

Don’t you Feel Safer? Image by Flckr user OregonDOTThe juxtaposition of the Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy and Steven Levitt’s introduction of “The Daughter Rule” provided insight into both what is wrong with international drug policy, and why it probably will not soon be improved upon.  The Global Commission includes such luminaries as Paul Volcker, Kofi Annan, the former presidents of Columbia, Mexico and Switzerland, and the current Prime Minister of Greece.  They do not mince words:

The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. …

End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others. Challenge rather than reinforce common misconceptions about drug markets, drug use and drug dependence. …

Encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens. …

Offer health and treatment services to those in need. …

Abolish abusive practices carried out in the name of treatment – such as forced detention, forced labor, and physical or psychological abuse – that contravene human rights standards and norms or that remove the right to self-determination. …

Apply much the same principles and policies stated above to people involved in the lower ends of illegal drug markets, such as farmers, couriers and petty sellers. Many are themselves victims of violence and intimidation or are drug dependent. Arresting and incarcerating tens of millions of these people in recent decades has filled prisons and destroyed lives and families without reducing the availability of illicit drugs or the power of criminal organizations. …

Law enforcement efforts should focus not on reducing drug markets per se but rather on reducing their harms to individuals, communities and national security.

Bravo.  Not for any new policy innovations, but for being bold enough to speak unpopular truth. It is too bad that so many politicians wait until after they have power to voice their concerns about this barbaric war we have conducted against those dependent on drugs and the global poor engaged in one of the few sources of economic opportunity open to them.  I can only hope that some people pay attention and this spurs reform.

Somehow, I’m skeptical.  Too many people let their well-intentioned prejudices prevent them from advocating for change.  Steven Levitt, of Freakonomics, provides an apt metaphor for this bias:

It wasn’t until the U.S. government’s crackdown on internet poker last week that I came to realize that the primary determinant of where I stand with respect to government interference in activities comes down to the answer to a simple question: How would I feel if my daughter were engaged in that activity?

If the answer is that I wouldn’t want my daughter to do it, then I don’t mind the government passing a law against it. I wouldn’t want my daughter to be a cocaine addict or a prostitute, so in spite of the fact that it would probably be more economically efficient to legalize drugs and prostitution subject to heavy regulation/taxation, I don’t mind those activities being illegal.

Basically, Levitt knows that drug legalization is good policy, but he does not want his daughter to be a drug addict so he supports the ban on drugs.  Prioritizing the emotionally satisfying over what is right is maddeningly counterproductive even to Levitt’s stated purpose. The fact is, drug criminalization does not prevent his daughter from doing drugs, it only opens the possibility of her going to jail for doing drugs.

In response to Levitt, Kevin Drum has a nice post about how people closer to these issues, who actually know people struggling with drug addiction, feel differently about drug legalization than those of us who are dispassionate policy professionals.  Fair enough, but that’s not to say we are wrong. People whose support for drug criminalization is founded in emotional responses are genuinely and understandably mistaken. It is not immediately intuitive to hold both of these truths in your head: drugs can be very harmful, but making them illegal is even more destructive.

I know people in prison for drugs.  How does society, or Levitt’s daughter, benefit from their separation from their families and their youth?  

I have done drugs.  Not recently, but that’s the point.  I did some drugs and then I stopped when I decided I had other things I thought were more important.  How would society benefit if I were permanently prevented from those opportunities?  

SWAT teams kill innocent people in their homes in the name of the war on drugs. What benefit to society could possibly justify that?

The question is not “would I want my daughter to do that,” but “would I want my daughter punished criminally for doing that?” It is ok to say no to both questions.