Monthly Archives: July 2011

Are America's Best Days Behind It?

A few days ago I was reading a blog entry from CNN’s Jack Cafferty with this title. As one commenter noted, the fact that the question is even being asked suggests what the answer is, and in fact the majority of commenters answered in the affirmative, noting dysfunctional government, spiralling debt, the decline of the middle class, massive expenditures on dead-end wars, politicians who have sold out to the highest bidder, a declining educational system, the loss of manufacturing jobs, citizens wasting all their time on cellphones and social media and not being educated about the issues, and all kinds of other woes that are afflicting the United States.

Throughout all of history, just about every state that has risen to the top of the heap has eventually fallen. The Egyptians, the Hittites, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Franks, the Mongols, and lots of other nations have fallen. Sure, there are a few exceptions. Turkey is the (much reduced) remnant of what used to be the Ottoman Empire, China has lasted for a few millennia, and Japan has been around for a while too, but, nonetheless, these nations have seen ups and downs, revolutions, invasions, and the like. So, it seems reasonable to assume that, sooner or later, the United States will fall or at least have some “down” times. This doesn’t mean that this is going to happen imminently, but it doesn’t mean it won’t, either.

When the United States was created over 200 years ago, it was, in part, an interesting experiment. Back then, most people felt that people were best governed by a small elite group of people who had been groomed for the role since youth and would be well prepared to lead. The United States decided to do things differently, by having the people choose who would lead them.

Back then, communication and transportation were incredibly slow, and it was only practical for people to go to elect their leaders every couple of years or so. Two hundred years later, we are all in instantaneous communication with each other, so going to the polls every two or four years seems positively slow by comparison.

Just like systems of government based on the rule of an elite aristocracy have, for the most part, either disappeared or evolved into democratic governments, it seems likely that democratic governments will eventually evolve into something better. Two characteristics of a better government would be:

  • One in which citizens are constantly able to voice their opinions in a meaningful way, not just once every four years
  • One in which all parties are able to reach consensus, not like today where 51% can enforce their will on the other 49%

Will the stalemate in Washington result in new and improved forms of government involving? I doubt it. However, I suspect it will happen eventually, and this may be the first step.

Google+ and Real Names

Google+ has recently launched to rave reviews.  One interesting thing about the TOS for Google+is that Google+ requires that real names be used.  OK, no big deal.  I wasn’t aware this was actually a big problem, but apparently it is for some.  My response would be that, if you don’t like Google’s TOS, don’t use Google+.  Google owns the site, and they can decide under what terms people can use the site.

That’s just the way things are.  Over the past decade or so, the content on the Internet has been increasingly dominated by larger entities.  If you’re looking for information on, say, tigers, you’ll probably go to Wikipedia, instead of the homepage of some tiger fanatic or tiger researcher.  If you’re looking to connect with people, you might use Facebook or Google+ instead of decentralised newsgroups or mailing lists.  You might post on Twitter or Tumblr instead of on your own blog.  The people that run these large websites certainly have the right to insist on certain ways of behaving; they have their reputations and profits to protect.

Having said that, I think that there are some advantages in independence or competition on the Internet.  Take this blog, for example.  This is not a page on Facebook or some large Internet corporation, so I don’t have to adhere to whatever its terms of service are. Obviously, this blog is hosted by an ISP, which certainly has the right to insist on my using my web space in a way that won’t get it into legal troubles, but if they were to impose overly weird terms of service, I would probably host my blog on some other ISP.

Obviously, this model isn’t useful for everything.  If you want to keep updated on what’s going on, you probably don’t want to check a thousand different sites for this information.  There’s also benefit in standardisation.  A social network isn’t very useful if everyone uses a different social network.  Hence enormous corporations are required to run these sites.

However, I think it’s useful to keep in mind that not everything may need to be put on mega-sites.  I think there’s a place for them (and a very big place at that), but I don’t think they should be the entirety of one’s Internet experience.

U.S. National Debt, Debt Ceiling, and Hyper-Partisanship

I’ve been following the gridlock in Washington around the need to raise the debt ceiling a bit lately.  I just wanted to share a few thoughts.

The U.S. National Debt (it’s so large I’m writing it using capital letters (-:  ) is approaching $14.3 trillion dollars.  Let’s say that there are 300 million people in the United States (this is a bit of an underestimate now, as the population hit 300 million five years ago). That works out to about $47,000 for every person in the United States.  Five years ago, the U.S. national debt was about $6 trillion less than it is now.  So, over the past five years, the United States has spent $20,000 per person more than it has taken in.  If you are an American taxpayer, have you, for each of the past five years, been getting $4,000 per year more than you’ve been paying in taxes over the last five years  (whether in money, services, or some other form) from the U.S. Federal Government?  I would imagine that, for most people, this is not the case.  One might then ask where all the money’s going.  I’m not going to analyze the budget in detail, but I’m just going to suggest that I would suspect that there’s a lot of money that doesn’t really need to be spent (for example, the government paying people or nations for jobs that don’t really need to be done).

There’s one more thing that I wanted to explore.  Is it just a coincidence that this hyper-partisanship (to use a word that I heard on CNN today, although I’m sure it isn’t a new word) that is causing this problem arises around the same time as the Internet has become popular?  I don’t think so.  I would suspect that the Internet has made it a lot easier to connect with people who hold extreme opinions (whether on the left or right).  Once one connects with others who share your opinion, it will probably be quite easy to drift into holding increasingly extreme views.  Such a thing wasn’t possible 20 years ago when the mass media was virtually the only media available.

It’s a very interesting problem and it will be interesting to see what the solution will be.

Thoughts on the Terrorist Attacks in Norway

Is it possible to prevent terrorist attacks such as the ones that happened in Norway on Friday?

I’m not going to explore the answer to that question in well-researched detail; rather, I’ll list some thoughts.  Preventing such an attack would require intervening at some point or another.  There are a few possibilities:

  1. In the perpetrator’s youth, to ensure that whatever experiences that caused him to become a sociopath and to lose respect for human life don’t happen
  2. Preventing the perpetrator from obtaining the weapons to be used in the attack
  3. Being there on the scene to stop him just before committing the crime

I don’t think any of these three will work.  #1 seems impractical.  Psychology isn’t an exact science and it isn’t known exactly what turns Timothy McVeigh or Anders Behring Breivik.  I don’t think #2 will work either.  First off, it’s hard to identify these people (if it weren’t, wouldn’t people have tried to help them before?) so you’d need to take the weapons away from everyone, which isn’t always practical.  Second, I suspect that, if they didn’t have one weapon, they’d use another.  As technology advances, it becomes easier for people to obtain or create things that could be used as destructive weapons, and banning every single possibility would be a major infringement on civil rights.  As for #3, how would anyone know where to be (unless you were in a police state where the police were everywhere anyway)? One possibility is that a lot of these folks that commit these sort of acts leave some sort of message on the Internet explaining themselves; possibly there might be the ability to look for this sort of material, but I suspect that, if this were in place, these folks’ MO would change so that this wouldn’t work anyway.

So, I think the answer to the question I posed in the first paragraph is “No”.  The risk of these sort of terrorist attacks is unfortunately inevitable in a world that contains 7 billion people.  This huge population makes it more likely that the right (or, more accurately, wrong) combination of circumstances will cause people like Anders Behring Breivik to go down the path that they do, and it makes it more likely that there will be a lot of innocent bystanders in the way when they do unleash their anger.

How significant a problem is this, though? Before I investigate this question further I want to apologise for the tone of the following paragraph.  I’m going to be taking a “big picture” look at these events, and that unfortunately excludes examining the individual suffering of the dead or wounded and their friends and family.  Having said that, it seems that 200 deaths is around an upper limit on the number of people that one person can kill before getting caught.  Timothy McVeigh managed to kill 168 people in Oklahoma City.  The terrorists in the September 11, 2011 attacks managed to kill nearly 3,000 people, but there were 19 of them.  I can’t think of any incident in which a single person managed to kill more than 200 people.  This is because there are so many things that could go wrong that it takes a rare combination of circumstances to ensure that they all go right.

Those with lurid imaginations could probably imagine how these people could have killed more people, but I think it’s likelier that other events would happen that result in more people being saved.  The events that we do hear about on the news were the ones that were (from the terrorist’s perspective, not the world at large) wildly successful.

Not to minimize the individual suffering of the victims and their relatives and friends, but even 200 deaths are not highly significant from a global perspective. Worldwide, around 267 people are born every minute, so the number of people killed in a hypothetical terrorist attack that takes 200 lives are equal to the number of people born worldwide every 45 seconds.  One attack doesn’t have a significant effect on the Earth’s population, and attacks of this magnitude are rare.

Unfortunately this is the way it is because there are so many people on this planet and we currently can’t choose to go somewhere else.  “Animals can be driven crazy by placing too many in too small a pen.  Homo sapiens is the only animal that voluntarily does this to himself” (Robert A. Heinlein).   I hope that, one day, technology will make it possible to go somewhere else and that we don’t have to continue to crowd each other out in the same tiny pen that is the Earth.

Justice and Casey Anthony

As everyone knows, Casey Anthony was found not guilty last week of murder in the death of her daughter Caylee. She was found guilty of lying to investigators, but with credit for time served, she was released from jail on Saturday. The verdict seems to have aroused feelings of intense anger among many Americans, who are angered at seeing someone who likely killed her own daughter walk free. I won’t discuss the specifics of other people’s thoughts on Casey Anthony; they’re pretty easy to find at any news site. This post is more to discuss my own.  There are two points I want to make.

First point:  A lot of people have directed their anger towards the members of the jury.  Honestly, I don’t get that at all.  How could someone who is angry with the verdict think that they, who have probably just read a few articles or seen a few TV programmes about it, know more than someone who had spent weeks doing nothing but hearing every last detail of the case?  Also, our justice system is much more biased in favour of letting guilty people walk free than innocent people getting convicted.  There is a high bar with regards to being certain that the accused is in fact guilty.  We consider this to be a good thing.  No-one would ever want to be in the situation of having to go to jail for a crime they didn’t commit, and even though that happens sometime, it doesn’t happen a lot because proving that someone is guilty “beyond a shadow of a doubt” requires a lot of evidence, which usually isn’t there if the accused is in fact innocent.

Second point:  A few weeks ago I posted a two-part book review of the book In Defense of Flogging by Peter Moskos. In the first part, I discussed the many different purposes that incarceration can serve (although it often doesn’t serve those purposes too well).  Those purposes are deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, restitution, and punishment.  In the second part, I argue that, while the first four purposes are still valuable, punishment has no good purpose.  While we cling to the idea of punishment because of how our brains are wired, if we want to advance as a species, we should discard the idea of punishing criminals and focus on the other four purposes listed above.  That doesn’t mean that we should abandon imprisonment or other negative consequences of crime.  For example, the threat of long prison sentences can be useful as a deterrent, and a criminal who poses a great danger to society should be locked up to keep him/her off the streets.  However, we shouldn’t mete out long prison sentences solely for the purpose of punishing people.

How does this apply to the current case?  Well, even if Casey Anthony were guilty of murder, how would a long prison sentence help matters?  It seems unlikely to act as a deterrent; people who kill their own children likely aren’t in a rational frame of mind, and couldn’t possibly weigh the consequences of their actions well.  She isn’t a threat to anyone else, so she doesn’t need to be locked up to protect the public.  If rehabilitation and restitution were important issues to consider, prison would be a poor place to address those anyway.  So, even if she were guilty, I don’t think that locking her up would be beneficial.  So, to those who assert that she should have been locked up forever, I would ask, why?  What is the benefit?  As shown above, there really isn’t any benefit.

Book review: In Defense of Flogging by Peter Moskos, part 2

So last week (actually, it’s getting closer to two weeks ago now) I wrote the first half of a book review of the book In Defense of Flogging by Peter Moskos. I concluded by asking whether punishing criminals for the sake of punishment was the best that we could do as a society. I’ll look into answering this question now.

As a society, we don’t really spend a lot of time actually thinking about free will. Do we have free will? Are we completely responsible for our choices, or are our decisions caused by other factors, or is it a combination of the two? The concept of free will has never been scientifically explained. If you accept that scientific assumption that everything is caused, it would follow that your thoughts are caused by something, possibly something external, possibly other thoughts, possibly the way your brain is put together, possibly some combination of all those. If you were able to follow all of the causal chains back far enough, you would end up with a set of causes all of which are external to you. Therefore, your thoughts are caused by external factors and there is no such thing as free will. (I have seen arguments that suggest that suggest that quantum effects in the brain produce stuff like consciousness and free will. I feel that these are based on a poor understanding of quantum mechanics. Quantum fluctuations produce random behaviour, not rational, conscious behaviour). So, if rational thought would suggest that we don’t have free will, why do we continue to implicitly assume that we do?

In the essay “Free Will, Determinism, and Self-Control” in The Philosophical Legacy of Behaviorism, Bruce Waller suggests that one reason is so that we can hold others morally responsible for their actions; they deserve the punishment that they get. I’ll look at a non-criminal example from the essay, that of a woman who doesn’t leave her abusive husband. A psychologist might see her refusal to leave as being a learned behaviour (“learned helplessness”), which she learned in childhood as a result of inescapable suffering. We can’t blame someone for having a traumatic childhood, so how can we blame them in this scenario? Yet we often do blame the victim, seeing the woman as being “weak” and so deserving to continue living a miserable existence. This also serves as an handy excuse to avoid trying to understand the victim and the causes of her behaviour better, which in turn makes it easier to avoid helping her and to ignore any role we, either individually or as a member of society, might have in her predicament.

One can look at criminal behaviour in the same way. The antisocial tendencies that cause criminal behaviour can often be traced to a defective upbringing (in some cases, defective genes may also play a role), which is something that the criminal couldn’t control. So why do we insist that we should lock the criminal up and throw away the key?

This belief probably comes from our caveman heritage. We are hard-wired to be outraged when someone does something wrong and satisfied when that wrong is punished. Back when humans were “cavemen”, this was probably a trait that helped us to survive. A readable summary of this can be found in the book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner.

In the days of hunting and gathering, when someone did something that hurt the tribe or its members, there wasn’t any good way of trying to rehabilitate him, nor was there any good way of segregating him from the rest of the tribe if he didn’t want to be segregated. The only way of hoping to achieve these aims was to punish the person. Perhaps for serious infractions the perpetrator would be killed, thus ensuring that he wouldn’t commit any more crimes. Other punishments for less serious infractions might in some cases discourage future antisocial behaviour (they might not in other cases, but there isn’t any better alternative). One could also hope that the punishment would serve as a deterrent for the other members of the tribe. Nowadays, one would hope that we could put systems in place that would allow us to do better than cavemen.

Furthermore, claiming that people are “responsible” for their criminal behaviour allows us to ignore any role that we might have in creating this behaviour, so that we don’t have to think about how we, either individually or collectively, might be responsible for creating criminals, perhaps through our toleration of poverty and other social ills, unwillingness to help those in need, lack of moral standards, lack of support for incompetent parents, indifference or even cruelty toward those that we meet each day, lack of respect for the law in our own day-to-day behaviour, etc.

I think that, if we want to advance as a species, we need to leave these caveman notions behind. Hard as it will be, we need to suppress our instinct calling for wrongdoers to be punished. Instead of dragging criminals down, we need to make people’s lives better. This can be done by working to prevent crime in the first place, to rehabilitate the criminal, and to replace punishment by restitution—having the criminal try to fix what he broke as far as possible. “Don’t get mad, get even”.

So, I feel that Moskos’ premise in In Defence of Flogging, while not without merit, is flawed. Instead of finding different ways to punish criminals, we should look at removing punishment from the criminal justice system, without neglecting deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and restitution. Corporal punishment doesn’t accomplish any of the last four aims, so it doesn’t have a part in my view of the corrections system of the future.

In order to serve the purposes of incapacitation and/or deterrence, prison sentences may still be required in some cases. However, there still is the problem of 2.3 million people currently in prison in the United States. Reducing sentences only to what is required to deter or incapacitate, while substituting activities aimed at rehabilitation and restitution for the rest of the sentence may help. Perhaps a technological solution could help as well. We already have various monitoring devices often worn by those under house arrest and/or probation. We might want to look into smarter devices that play a more active role in restricting the actions of the wearer. Perhaps a device could be created that causes physical pain when the wearer is doing something they shouldn’t. Perhaps a device could be created that physically restricts the wearer in various ways in various situations in order to force compliance with terms of sentencing. Perhaps even some sort of chip could be implanted in someone’s brain (kind of like Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) that would prevent them from doing various off-limits activities. The big question is: Will people think of these devices as immoral, either because they torture wearers or invade their brains, or would it be seen as a humane alternative to prison sentences? I don’t know. This is something that’s worthwhile to start talking about, though.

Hopefully these measures will save money. Some of the savings should be earmarked for crime prevention, but in a smart way. Too often we try to prevent crimes in ways that don’t really prevent crime. Much the “war on drugs” involves arresting drug dealers, but as soon as the authorities do that, someone else sets up shop and we’re back to square one again. It would be much more effective to put money toward treatment programmes for addicts and make it very easy for addicts to get treatment. This would likely prevent a lot of thefts, prostitution, and other crimes that addicts commit to get money. We could undertake similar “smart” approaches with other crimes.

With luck, a combination of all these approaches would both significantly reduce crime and increase national productivity.