Fueled By Scotch

"I cannot call to mind a single instance where I have ever been irreverent, except toward the things which were sacred to other people." -Mark Twain

Tag: United States

On “Brutal and Catatonic” Countries

by Cosmo Houck

E.L. Doctorow has written an overwrought satirical piece for the New York Times and Will Wilkinson isn’t having any of it:

Mr Doctorow’s not very clever conceit is that because America has failed to avoid all those things he finds especially wretched, it has been rendered “indistinguishable from the impoverished, traditionally undemocratic, brutal or catatonic countries of the world”. That is to say, America’s undoing is a direct consequence of the country having failed to successfully oppose what the author opposes.

Indeed, Doctorow’s primer for the pursuit of “unexceptionalism” seems to be an arbitrary list of things the author doesn’t like, with blame handily pinned–well, he’s not especially precise, but it’s clearly primarily conservatives of some ilk. It begins with the Supreme Court and the handy visage of George W. Bush, but after that it turns to–who knows.

Truly, it’s hard to tell what Doctorow makes of the last few years of policy formation, because he doesn’t say, and lumps in policy that has taken place under Obama and his former congressional majority with things achived by Republicans. The point, as I take it, is that Doctorow does not see this  as a partisan issue so much as an expression of a worrying trajectory for the country; it’s unfortunate, in that case, that he is so imprecise with his complaints.

He laments that college educations have become unaffordable, that immigrants are treated as criminals, that we have suspended progressive taxation (even I, crazy leftist that I am, readily acknowledge that this is certainly not true), and a litany of other ills. Many of these issues are unrelated, are old problems that far predate Bush (college tuition has been rising for decades), and nowhere does he tell us if every problem he lists is a necessary condition for unexceptionalism, or if some smaller smorgasboard of them would prove sufficient. It is every bit as bad as Wilkinson charges.

Wilkinson is too eager to dismiss the most fundamental claim, however, that the United States is “indistinguishable from the impoverished, traditionally undemocratic, brutal or catatonic countries of the world”. In rejecting Doctorow’s puffed up mendacious drama Wilkinson suggests that:

Despite America’s many egregious failings, it is rather harder to distinguish it from the rich, democratic, gentle or vigorous countries of the world. If America has become a plutocratic, jackbooted, war criminal, the correct conclusion to draw is that America makes plutocracy, jackboots and war crime look surprisingly decent.

This is where I differ. It’s certainly true that the United States is readily distinguishable from say, Eritrea or Equatorial Guinea, but that doesn’t mean that it’s particularly hard to draw distinctions between the States and a country like Canada.

The United States may have free elections and comparatively lesser censorship than the “catatonic countries” of the world, but it also has a history of offering considerable military support to “brutal” and “catatonic” regimes, has an express policy of not giving a shit about national soveriegnty, maintains the right to assasinate whoever it would like, imprison and torture whoever it would like, and is spending more and more on surveilling its own population.

That doesn’t sound like Canada–or Sweden, or any one of a number of other “rich, democratic, gentle, or vigorous” nations to me.

If you were to ask me which is worse: a nation whose government broadly oppresses the populace, kills and starves and abuses its own people, or one that is complicit with and supports regimes that do that, unobtrusively gathers massive amounts of data about its population, aggressively and punitively targets government whistleblowers, and is broadly expanding the military’s power to unilaterally take action without oversight–I’d say they both sound pretty bad.

Durable SCOTUS

by Cosmo Houck

Alex Pareene makes a nice point about the power and durability of the Supreme Court, and I don’t have anything to add except this: Democrats, you guys have defended what Republicans call “judicial activism” for years (see: Roe v. Wade). Don’t appropriate conservative arguments now because you’re on the other end of it. Republicans: it’s not “bullying” to use the same arguments you’ve been using for decades–it’s just hypocritical. It’s also not “bullying” to criticize the Supreme Court, which is very, very powerful (perhaps too much so–you used to think that too!) and can take it because they’re big boys and have awesome job security. Carry on.

F**k Horatio Alger

by Cosmo Houck

A couple of nights ago, Senator Jim DeMint was on “The Daily Show”, and cogently described a sentiment many Americans on the right and in the Tea Party believe: “I think what we’re trying to communicate here is a sense of urgency, if Americans understand what made us exceptional in the first place…” Before and afterwards he talks about the necessity of getting the federal government out of the private lives of citizens.

Here’s the link to the Daily Show segment; the quote occurs a little more than halfway through. In the context of a larger discussion it’s always tricky translating spoken statements into a pithy quote, but I interpret Mr. DeMint as saying we have to get back to American values like individualism and self reliance in order to get back to being exceptional. I hope I’m not being unfair; watch the clip and let me know.

I also appreciate the idea that we should examine diminishing the size of the federal government.  I think the federal government is far too large. I would love to see the War on Drugs curtailed, federal gun laws repealed (within reason), a streamlining of regulation and the tax code across the board (although I am not necessarily for the tax rate being reduced), and overall a hard look at what the government should and should not be doing (Hint: I’m also against the enormous security state and ballooning DoD budget). I’d like to point out, however, that I felt compelled to attach qualifiers to every single one of those (already generic) prescriptions; those reflect what I think are the enormous complications involved in the issues we’re thinking about.

That’s ultimately tangential however. While I’d like to think that, were we to sit down together, Senator DeMint and I could find some common excess to cut from the federal government (and at this point, what two people anywhere couldn’t sit down and do that?? [oh right; our politicians]) I have to challenge his stunningly simplistic characterization of how we came to be a successful nation.

Warning: I view this explication as worryingly generic, but it will at least add some specificity to Mr. DeMint’s explanations for our exceptionality.

We did not become an “exceptional” nation because of the tremendous work ethic and individualism of American citizens. I’m not saying that did (or did not) help, but if it was a factor it took a back seat to global economic forces.

The United States became a global superpower in the wake of World War II. We were a powerful nation before that, no question, but it was only following World War II that we attained the sort of elite status with which we all seem to self-associate. This is what I take Senator DeMint to mean when he talks about our nation as “exceptional”.

If “exceptional” in this sense is largely conceived as a supranational political and economic juggernaut, then the United States largely became “exceptional” by default. The aftermath of World War II offered a unique set of historical circumstances: Europe, which had hosted the predominate industrial powers since the dawn of industry, lay in ruins. Japan, which had been expanding as an imperial power for the half century leading up to World War II, was likewise devastated. The population of the U.S.S.R. was ravaged—over 23 million deaths (not including its satellite states). Who was the competition? Newly (or not yet) freed colonial states in South America, Africa, and South Asia?

The United States ably and assuredly stepped into the international economic and power vacuum, but let’s not kid ourselves: the circumstances in which we did so were pretty conducive to success. In fact, the the decline in American industrial power happens to coincide (relatively) neatly with the successful resurrection of industrial power in Europe and Japan.

Maybe our national character had something to do with our “exceptional” nature. I find that worrisomely hard to evaluate, although it certainly appeals to my ego. I do know that I despise narratives that depict our international prominence as some sort of neo, internationalized Horatio Alger story with no consideration for the global socioeconomic realities that allowed it to happen.

Maybe Defense Spending is “Shovel Ready”; but then how is it different than everything else?

by Cosmo Houck

I noted on Monday that representing President Obama’s ten year defense spending proposal as a dramatic “cut” was perhaps being overly generous with the word ”cut”. It, like nearly all “cuts” that come out of Washington, represents a decrease in proposed spending increases. Nonetheless, the predictable hysterical reaction from the right ensued (and yes, the same thing would happen from the left if the “cuts” being discussed were to happen to social programs—that doesn’t make it ok).  This despite the fact that no one knows what exactly is being “cut” yet. Whatever it is, it must be invaluable.

Anyway, I’d like to briefly respond to one particular piece on Obama’s proposal. Yesterday National Review published “Defense Spending is a ‘Shovel Ready’ Investment”, by Victor David Hanson. There are a number of problems with the piece that I would like to address.

First comes the expected dig at President Obama: “Fairly or not, the cuts will only cement the now-familiar stereotype of Obama’s desire to retrench on the world scene.” I hate this. Whenever anyone wants to appear to be a rational commentator thinking about things objectively, this is how they frame their criticisms (I’m sure I’ve done it too, but that doesn’t make it ok). As a commentator, it’s your job to tell us whether it’s “fair or not”. Everyone reading you knows how you feel; don’t equivocate when you clearly don’t mean it.

After the requisite dig at our President, Hanson gets to the thesis of his piece: that a large military is just as vital in peace time as it is in wartime as a deterrent, and that when we scale back our forces during peace time we inevitably regret it. I’ll have to shelve that thought because he immediately veers off onto another topic.

He wants to assert that the military offers superior preparation for America’s youth than colleges:

America’s armed forces spend about 80 percent of their budgets not on bullets and bombs but on training and compensating troops. Often, they do a far better job of shaping the minds and character of our youth than do our colleges. Somehow the military can take an 18-year-old and teach him to park a $100 million fighter on a carrier deck, but our colleges cannot ensure that his civilian counterpart will show up regularly for classes. Young men and women leave the service debt-free and with skills. Too many of our college students pile up debt and become increasingly angry that by their mid-20s they still have received neither competitive skills nor real education.

This paragraph is extraordinarily unconcerned with the grim reality facing young American veterans. They face a higher unemployment rate than the rest of the population, and significantly higher than college graduates. Despite the implied laziness and lack of skills of college students (shameless pandering in a magazine that has a readership that is very hostile to relatively young movements like OWS), the reality is that young veterans have a much tougher time in the work force. It’s too bad that pundits like Hanson who presumably care about the people who serve in our military are too preoccupied with using them to score cheap points than actually addressing the challenges they face.

He goes on to say that defense expenditures are insignificant in the face of our budget deficit—a mere 20% of the federal budget. He dismisses this as insignificant, using 3 year totals for unfunded entitlements to make it seem small. The reality is, 20% of the federal budget is a lot of money, and the number is actually 25% for 2012. “Health” is 23%, “Pensions” are 22%, “Welfare” is 12%, and the rest is all lumped together as “Remainder”. Only by throwing a whole bunch of disparate stuff together can you make the defense budget seem insignificant, and even then it’s not: to reiterate, 20-25% of something is not negligible.

He then suggests that defense cuts would begin a devolution into an ineffectual, impotent “European” style socialist state:

Unfortunately, defense cuts do not occur in isolation. They feed a syndrome best typified by an insolvent and largely defenseless socialist Europe. The more prosperous societies cut their defenses to expand social programs, the more the resulting dependency leads to even less defense and even more benefits. Once the state promises to take care of the citizen, the citizen starts to believe that more subsidies are still not enough. And once voters believe that defense spending is an impediment to greater entitlements, they will pay for fewer and fewer impediments. The net result is something like the squabbling, soon-to-collapse European Union: with trillions in unfunded entitlement liabilities, and unable to defend itself.

This is patent nonsense and misdirection. First, in our national context right now, “expanding social programs” doesn’t appear to be on anyone’s agenda. I suppose he’d argue that we are looking at cutting military spending in order to sustain existing social programs, but that ignores the national discussion over cutting those programs that has been taking place. Furthermore, when he suggests that “…once voters believe that defense spending is an impediment to greater entitlements, they will pay for fewer and fewer impediments” he does a great disservice to voters. I thought conservatives were supposed to believe in the ability of people to make rational decisions? People are capable of making cogent choices about how much security they want, and how much we should spend on it, and how much we should spend on other things. To pretend otherwise is patronizing to the extreme. Finally, let’s play along with Hanson and put these cuts in a global context—how about the top ten military budgets world wide?

2010 expenditures

Source: SIPRI

Cutting our defense budget by $500 billion over 10 years carries with it exactly no chance of fielding a military force as ineffectual as Europe’s apparently is. (This is all without discussing whether or not Europe is actually defenseless, or whether it merely lacks the ability to project its military power unfettered to every corner of the globe; I suspect if we asked Hanson he would say they’re the same thing [to say nothing of considering Europe as some homogenous mass])

Hanson concludes his article by drawing unsubstantiated comparisons to societies of the past—Rome makes a requisite appearance, along with Byzantium and 1930s Western Europe and Athens. From a brief brutalization of history (If I have a problem with his disregard for boundaries in Europe now, how do you think I feel about him homogenizing the continent in the 1930s??) he draws the conclusion that:

History’s bleak lesson is that those societies with self-reliant citizens who protect themselves and their interests prosper; those whose citizens grow dependent cut back their defenses — and waste away.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this conclusion in the broader context of the piece, except to assume that college graduates are meant to be stand ins for “dependent” citizens while the “self-reliant” ones are veterans—government employees as it were, and the “shovel ready” investment. It doesn’t make any sense to me how government spending can be assumed inefficient everywhere except on the military—because that doesn’t make sense.

Government spending is government spending, and bureaucracies that operate independent of a free market will produce a greater amount of waste than a market would. We, as a society, decide when the social benefits justify incurring some amount of waste—this is the decision we make regarding our security, because we believe that the government should have a monopoly on power so individuals aren’t free to abuse the use of force. The point is that there are plenty of other contexts in which people argue that it is worthwhile to sacrifice the efficiency of the free market to foster some collective social benefit that would be poorly served by the marketplace, and the military isn’t intrinsically different than those other than the fact that almost everyone agrees that we should have it.  If Hanson thinks that the military is worthwhile for enabling “Young men and women [to] leave the service debt-free and with skills”—a reason that goes beyond mere security—I don’t see why he wouldn’t believe that the government can’t do similar things beyond the military arena. And judging by the employment rate of college graduates compared to veterans, do it better.

Regardless, I think you know my point of view: let’s cut it by more. Check out the Cato chart link on Reason down below for a vivid illustration of why.

SOPA and the disingenuous MPAA

by Cosmo Houck

I haven’t written about SOPA yet, primarily because there are a lot of people who are more qualified than I am, and they’ve been pretty clear about what a bad bill it is. However, on the 10th the MPAA published a blog post in reaction to a Julian Sanchez piece for Cato that I find offensive enough that I have to say something.

Before that though, how about some background for the people out there who have no idea what I’m talking about.

SOPA stands for the Stop Online Privacy Act. Sounds pretty innocuous right?

It’s not.

There are a lot of problems with the bill. For a more complete rundown, check out this post over on Lifehacker, or this FAQ from Cnet. For a letter berating Congress for not knowing how the internet works, go here.

A brief synopsis: SOPA allows the possibility that courts can censor lots of websites you use everyday (things like Wikipedia and YouTube), but will almost certainly be very bad at stopping online piracy. Additionally, it could undermine DNSSEC, which provides end-to-end encryption of domain names.

You’d think with all of that collateral damage, the bill would at least hold out the promise of seriously clamping down on online piracy. You’d be wrong. The consensus is that it would fail abysmally. Websites blocked under SOPA would still be accessible through their numeric internet address (Cnet’s is 64.30.224.118).

So to summarize: it wouldn’t adequately address the problem it’s trying to fix, due to vague language it could potentially be used to censor sites like Facebook and YouTube, and it undermines a key internet security standard. If you think that sounds objectionable you’re not alone.

So who’s pushing for this? Well, it’s primarily the big content creation organizations: the MPAA, the RIAA, and the Chamber of Commerce at the forefront. Those organizations also happen to have outspent tech companies in lobbying efforts over the past half decade. They (understandably) want people to stop pirating their content.

That’s fine. Most people willingly acknowledge that piracy is a problem. However, in pressuring Congress to help address that problem, the cadre behind SOPA has continually made up statistics and information. That’s not ok.

Here’s an example Julian Sanchez debunked three years ago. Over and over again, people were told that online piracy costs 750,000 jobs per year and between $200 and $250 billion dollars. The sources? The dollar figure came from a 1991 Forbes sidebar declaring that “’counterfeit merchandise’ is ‘a $200 billion enterprise worldwide and growing faster than many of the industries it’s preying on“’”. Never mind the age, if you’re thinking that “counterfeit merchandise” includes a lot more than online piracy, you’d be right.

That experience with IP watchdogs’ fallacious numbers is what led Mr. Sanchez to weigh in over at Cato on Jan 3, where he does a rock solid job debunking some of the current numbers floating around—for instance, an estimated cost of piracy in the U.S. from the MPAA is $58 billion annually. That, it turns out, is the product of some shady mathematics—it’s more like $6.1 billion. And of that $6.1 billion, SOPA would only address the $446 million of it that occurs in the United States—which Sanchez pithily points out is approximately the amount grossed by Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.

Furthermore, Sanchez goes on to make the point that the missing $446 million is not actually being taken out of the U.S. economy; as the GAO notes:

(1) in the case that the counterfeit good has similar quality to the original, consumers have extra disposable income from purchasing a less expensive good, and (2) the extra disposable income goes back to the U.S. economy, as consumers can spend it on other goods and services.

Furthermore, for consumers who would have bought the good if they hadn’t pirated it, it does not represent money taken out of the economy so much as money redistributed within the economy; they’re going to take that disposable income and spend it on something else. This is not a good thing, but arguments about how much pirating is hurting the overall economy tend to overstate the situation. Of course, most people who pirate stuff wouldn’t ever purchase it legitimately. As Mr. Sanchez nicely states, that represents a scenario in which “The downloader enjoys the benefit, and the producer loses nothing.” This becomes the crux of the issue.

I’ve gotten a bit carried away; if you recall I want to talk about the MPAA response to Mr. Sanchez. They begin with obviously inflammatory language that deliberately misrepresents the point:

Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at CATO and former Washington editor for Ars Technica, a tech blog with a long history of challenging efforts to curb content theft, recently wrote a post on Cato@Liberty, which once again offers tired arguments about why the theft of intellectual property is not such a bad thing.

Of course, that is not at all what Mr. Sanchez was doing—unless using accurate figures and contextualizing internet piracy constitute arguing that “it is not such a bad thing”. Thinking about reasonable ways to prevent piracy, and avoid overreaction, is not advocating piracy. I suppose that language is to be expected, however, from a rabid organization uninterested in dialogue.

More egregious is the false equivalence the post draws between theft and online piracy. Reprehensibly the post suggests that piracy equates to credit card fraud or shoplifting. This is patent nonsense—especially within the context of the MPAA.

Let’s focus on Alvin and the Chipmunks again; the approximate production budget was $75 million (I’ve seen lower estimates, but let’s go with the high one). The cost to digitize the movie and make it available online is essentially negligible. This is the beauty of the internet: it drives costs down to essentially zero.

This is among the many reasons that piracy is not “theft”. When someone shoplifts a product, they both a) deprive another shopper of that product and b) deprive the producer of the money it costs to make/distribute/market that product. When someone pirates a movie, there are still an effectively infinite number of copies of that movie for the movie company to distribute. This is a point that Matthew Yglesias made much more clearly than I can:

If I steal your car then you don’t have a car anymore, whereas if I duplicate a digital media file we both end up with it. The harm in the duplicating is supposed to be that by duplicating content that Fox Filmed Entertainment owns the copyright to, I’m depriving Tom Rothman of some revenue that he might have gotten had I instead gone out and bought a copy of the content for myself. That’s fair enough for Rothman to feel sad about, but it’s a totally different kind of thing. I didn’t buy DC’s animated film of Batman: Year One, and I didn’t pirate a copy either; I watched it at a friend’s house. The difference between watching a movie with your friend and copying your friend’s Blu-ray is that one is legal and one is illegal. But in both cases you watch the movie without paying the copyright owner, and in neither case have you stolen anything from anyone.

This is an important distinction, and a wholly necessary one to understand the sort of extraordinary claims the MPAA post makes against Julian Sanchez. It is not true that “Extending [his] argument, shoplifting has no economic impact since shoplifters can spend the money they “saved” on other products, a perspective which runs counter to treatment of crime in other “costs of crime” studies” for reasons sane people can readily understand: copyright infringement does not equate to theft.

This is NOT to say that copyright infringement should be condoned, but rather that we should orient it properly—because without that, we’ll end up with shitty legislation that unnecessarily curbs speech in an attempt to protect an industry that has proven almost willfully resistant to adaptation.

The Inanity of our Immigration Laws

by Cosmo Houck

From the excellent Reason comes this fairly old infographic that I think is worth revisiting. That won’t be today. Hopefully later this week I will tackle immigration; until then, dwell on their image:

SOURCE: “New at Reason: Mike Flynn, Shikha Dalmia, and Terry Colon on America’s Absurd Immigration Waiting Line