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Monthly Archives: August 2010

I found this quote by Victor Navasky, as relayed to the Economist by Jay Rosen, pretty interesting:

There’s an ideology of the left, an ideology of the right, and an ideology of the centre. The news system is on guard against too much left or too much right. It is defenceless against any excesses in the ideology of the centre. There you can be as extreme or didactic as you like.

In my earlier piece on the political spectrum I took care not to criticize left and right or praise the center. Media’s goal shoul not be to keep policy discussions balanced; it should be to present the strongest arguments being made, regardless of which “side” they’re coming from.

Here’s Rosen’s list of media outlets practicing the right kind of journalism:

Advertising Age. Gawker. Wired. Voice of San Diego. The New Yorker. The Economist. (Disclosure: You’re The Economist!) Rachel Maddow. Frontline. The New York Times. West Seattle Blog. Texas Tribune (Disclosure: I’m an advisor there). “To the Point” with Warren Olney. The Atlantic. “This American Life”. The Guardian. Jon Stewart.

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Ross Douthat has a post on the New York mosque controversy, arguing that in order to improve dialogue between the West and Muslims, Westerners will need to reach out to thinking Muslims, who may often hold or defend positions that aren’t perfectly aligned with Western thought:

If such bridges are going to be built, much of the work will necessarily be done by figures who sometimes seem ambiguous and even two-faced, who have illiberal conversation partners and influences, and whose ideas are tailored to audiences in Cairo or Beirut or Baghdad as well as audiences in Europe and America. That’s how change — religious, ideological, whatever — nearly always works.

Sound familiar?  In my earlier analysis of Palestinian-Israeli tension–not identical, but similar to the issue Ross is writing about–I argued for building exactly these bridges.  Douthat wants to connect the Thinking Westerners in the middle left and Thinking Pan-Arabians in the middle right of my diagram.  Because Thinking Pan-Arabians are engaged in conversation with the hard-liners in the bottom right of the diagram, they’ll occasionally say things that make Westerners uncomfortable.

Douthat’s second point is that thinkers need to be actively critical of the opposing views their engaging:

Making these kind of distinctions doesn’t require us to suspend all judgment where would-be Islamic moderates are concerned. Instead, dialogue needs to coexist with pressure.

Pressure is implicitly a part of dialogue.  But in order for intellectual pressure to exist, it needs to be both exerted and acknowledged.  For this to happen, both sides need to be willing to acknowledge strong arguments made by the other side.  If everyone instinctively ignores or deflects any argument coming from the opposite side (the hard-line approach), then there is no dialogue and there is no pressure.  If individuals evaluate arguments critically and objectively, both those arguments raised by the opposite side and those raised by their own side (the thinking approach), then the progress Douthat describes can occur.

Mark Kleiman, who wrote a great book on crime-prevention policy, recently posted a set of initiatives on drug policy. His disclaimer, “Warning: Believing all of the stuff below will make people on both sides of the drug-war debate look at you funny”, suggests that he’s generally thinking outside the conventional framework, and more interested in finding solutions that in pushing a hard-line policy agenda. Most of his ideas make a fair bit of sense. And then there’s this one:

11. Make getting drunk (as opposed to drinking) the object of a big negative-advertising campaign. Goal: make being drunk, or having been drunk, something people—especially young people—try to hide, rather than something they brag about.

Is Kleiman unaware of the existing shame campaign that acts exactly opposite to the one he suggests? Consider:

  • You’re drinking at a party, and realize you’ve had enough, yet you still have a drink in your hand. Is it more shameful to a) leave the drink unfinished, or b) keep drinking, even though you’ve already had enough?
  • You’re at a bar, and realize you’ve had enough. A friend starts ordering shots. Is it more shameful to a) decline the shot, b) drink the shot, c) drink the shot and then order another round of shots?

My bet is that a significant percentage of 18-35 year-olds would answer (b) to the above questions. Given this, and given that teenagers generally look up to their older peers, what are the chances that an advertising campaign telling teenagers that being drunk is not cool will have any effect whatsoever?

Ross Douthat’s latest column, in which he presents his strongest case against gay marriage, found its strongest critics not from the left but from the right.  I touched on this earlier, calling Douthat’s column disastrous, and wondering whether he’ll end up conceding entirely, based on the strength of Andrew Sullivan’s rebuttal.  A second powerful critique has come from thinking conservative Noah Millman; tellingly, Douthat’s response largely avoids discussing gay marriage, and instead focuses on other issues he believes to affect marriage, such as divorce, abortion, and pornography, and pushes for a debate over potential policies to address these issues. Douthat groups the three issues together with gay marriage, arguing that they together represent an attempt to strength his ideal of lifelong heterosexual monogamy.  But even as he does so, he praises David Cameron, a politician who support gay marriage, but nonetheless supports initiatives Ross believes will support his marriage ideal.

I’m left to wonder whether Ross’s intention all along was not to confront gay marriage, but rather to segue towards a push for intelligent conversation on the nature of marriage, and to discuss other policy issues entirely.  If so, I’d say his first post wasn’t disastrous, but instead really sneaky.  The divorce law reforms Ross links to seem like they could be pretty agreeable to liberals.  The abortion debate is highly politically charged, but I see it as a much better bet for conservatives than gay marriage.  And as for the whole porn thing, I’m going to hold off on any comment for now, besides saying that I’ve found Douthat’s previous work on the subject pretty interesting.

Earlier, I proposed a different way to view the political spectrum, placing political ideology on a left-to-right axis and willingness to criticize one’s own side on a vertical axis. I argued that, in order to improve the discourse, and eventually improve policy, the conversation needs to shift from the bottom of the diagram to the middle and top, wherein individuals with opposing views actually engage each others’ ideas.

The same improvements to political discourse, I believe, could yield vastly improved policies and results in the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This conflict can be resolved only when individuals on each side actively engage people with whom they disagree, and criticize their own side at appropriate times.

Consider the diagram below:

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Thinking conservative Ross Douthat writes one of the laziest pieces I’ve ever seen him put his name to; it induces a hell of a response from contrarian conservative Andrew Sullivan.  Ross normally responds to his strongest critics, and I have no idea how he responds here, besides conceding his entire argument.

Rather than view the recent failure of Cap and Trade as a defeat, I think liberals should view it as their opening jab or exploratory mission, and should learn lessons from it, so as to craft a stronger policy. The best way to do so is to listen to the smartest critics of cap and trade, to engage them, and to either confront their arguments directly, or to modify policy proposals such that specific criticisms don’t apply. Enacting climate change policy will be easier if Jim Manzi and Ross Douthat are backing a plan rather than rallying moderate conservatives and independents against it. I’ll highlight two key arguments that I think are worth engaging, and suggest approaches for dealing with each.

Think Global

Ross Douthat writes:

When it comes to actual mechanisms whereby Waxman-Markey becomes a model for the developing world, all I’ve heard from the left are neoconservative-style arguments about how “if the world’s leading power leads, everyone else will follow,” and visions of a carbon trade war between the West and China. Neither seems persuasive.

Adds a conservative-leaning reader of this blog (yes, this blog has readers):

I would go a step further and suggest that we will not have any meaningful climate change legislation in our lifetime because of the huge collective action problem and the discount rate for today’s economic gains/loss outweighs the future payoff enough to discourage effective action.

The arguments is as follows: Even if the United States could succeed in reducing American carbon emissions, so long as the developing world continues to rapidly increase carbon emissions as it develops, the global problem of climate change continues to grow. Climate change falls in the realm of foreign policy, not domestic policy.

I find this argument pretty compelling, although I don’t share my reader’s long-term skepticism. There is a collective action problem, but it’s not a huge one. The problem boils down to roughly two players. The West (Europe and the U.S.) has a greater sensitivity to climate change than does the Developing World (China, India, maybe Russia and Brazil). Though climate change effects all nations roughly equally, the Developing World has other pressing issues, such as poverty, which the West does not share to nearly the same extent. So in order for the West to persuade the Developing World to work to reduce carbon emissions, it will need to offer up concessions, at some cost to the West. The nature of the concessions, and the magnitude of the cost, is the crux of the collective action problem. If the U.S., Europe, China and India can agree on what that cost should be, I’d expect that smaller countries would follow suit.

Pass the Cost-Benefit Test

I’ve seen three approaches to refuting the cost-benefit analysis that Jim Manzi has used to attack climate change policy proposals: the first is to broadly question the applicability of cost-benefit to climate change policy; the second is to make specific criticisms of Manzi’s analysis without presenting an alternative analysis; and the third is to present an alternative cost-benefit analysis. I find the first approach to be highly uncompelling, and the second approach incomplete. The third approach, which requires digging into the technical nature of the problem, is the most convincing method. Public policy, broadly speaking, should be based on cost-benefits analyses, and if the case for action is as strong as many liberals believe, building a model to back a given policy should be doable.

In the comments to my earlier post on climate change policy, Joe writes:

The uncertainties aren’t just around how the climate will change, i.e. whether temperatures will go up by 2 degrees or 20 degrees, etc. (these are the uncertainties that he addresses). There are also uncertainties about the effects of climate change.

I think this is exactly right. Whether average temperatures rise 2 or 20 degrees is, in isolation, irrelevant. It’s the undesirable effects of temperature change that matter. My suspicion is that a probability distribution of projected future temperatures can safely use a normal distribution. Projecting the costs associated with these temperature increases probably does not; it may even make sense to use a Mandelbrot distribution, as I suspect Nassim Taleb is doing right now. As such, it’s probably reasonable to use an assumption set that’s further tilted towards extremely bad outcomes, rather than the baseline assumptions that Manzi points to in the IPCC. But someone needs to do the hard work of reading the IPCC’s report, deciding which assumptions to make, and building the case for policy action.

Neither of these objections is insurmountable, but both are real challenges. I suspect they’ll be overcome in time, but this policy debate is an open one, and those wanting to reduce carbon emissions have their work cut out for them.

would go a step further and suggest that we
will not have any meaningful climate change legislation in our
lifetime because of the huge collective action problem and the
discount rate for today’s economic gains/loss outweighs the future
payoff enough to discourage effective action.