Thursday, May 31, 2012

Thoughts and articles on anarchism

I am not an anarchist, and I'm know for being critical of anarchists in the Keene area. In general, however, I tend to like anarchists. A few recent articles provide a sense of the fascinating social side of anarchism, a side that I enjoy.

What does an anarchist look like — or stand for?
“My message is, community not commodity,” Black said, a slogan handwritten on the back of her hat. “We need to recognize the value of our relationships and not the dollar signs that we put on things and people. … The problem is we don’t put any value into the relationships with our neighbors and friends. We see each other as walking dollars.”

It's a few weeks before May Day and I'm sitting in the living room of the Emma Goldman Finishing School, a four-story house on Beacon Hill that is also a 15-year-old experiment in anarchist-style living. It has 12 rooms for members, one guest room, a 500-square-foot garden, and some fruit trees dotting the property. Inside and outside, EGFS looks tidy, cozy, and totally unremarkable.
Addy, a young woman who used to work in social services but is now in nursing school, sits on a couch across the room. The house, she explains, was built in 1907, fell into disrepair, was eventually condemned by the city, and was collectively bought by a group of people in 1996. "It was in bad shape," she says. "Where you're sitting right now used to be all blackberry vines."
Addy is an anarchist, but she's no window-smasher. "For me," she says, "identifying as an anarchist means that reformist strategies are not working and I want to find more revolutionary strategies." Her revolutionary strategy is helping to manage the household finances in a way that, in her words, "resists capitalism."

Anarchistic and self-trained, are street medics the future of first aid?
A trained EMS team is standing 20 feet away, but the police aren't letting any medical workers through. The injured demonstrator's only resource is a team of street medics — fellow radicals, armed with basic first-aid knowledge. In all-black outfits with red duct-tape crosses on their sleeves, they quickly surround the guy and hustle to construct a makeshift splint.
Anarchistic, high-energy, and self- organized, street medics have been part of activist counterculture since the 1960s, with major presences at civil-rights protests, anti–Vietnam War actions, the American Indian Movement's occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, anti-globalization protests in the 1990s and early aughts, and most recently, at Occupy encampments internationally. Street medics also take their skills to disaster areas: there were medics in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and in Haiti after the earthquake.

Unfortunately, many anarchists in the Keene area don't seem to grasp the concept of community, and their decision-making process is far too dysfunctional to organize anything as sophisticated as street medics. It's sad.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Experimental politics

Slate has a nice article about how the Obama campaign (and some Republican campaigns) is using experiments to determine the effectiveness of particular approaches. I approve.

If these forays seem random, it’s because at least some of them almost certainly are. To those familiar with the campaign’s operations, such irregular efforts at paid communication are indicators of an experimental revolution underway at Obama’s Chicago headquarters. They reflect a commitment to using randomized trials, the result of a flowering partnership between Obama’s team and the Analyst Institute, a secret society of Democratic researchers committed to the practice, according to several people with knowledge of the arrangement.

I'm still hoping for experiments to catch on in policy-making circles.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The central location of NH's capital helps prevent corruption

According to new research from Filipe R. Campante and Quoc-Anh Do:
We show that isolated capital cities are robustly associated with greater levels of corruption across US states. In particular, this is the case when we use the variation induced by the exogenous location of a state’s centroid to instrument for the concentration of population around the capital city. We then show that different mechanisms for holding state politicians accountable are also affected by the spatial distribution of population: newspapers provide greater coverage of state politics when their audiences are more concentrated around the capital, and voter turnout in state elections is greater in places that are closer to the capital. Consistent with lower accountability, there is also evidence that there is more money in state-level political campaigns in those states with isolated capitals. We find that the role of media accountability helps explain the connection between isolated capitals and corruption. In addition, we provide some evidence that this pattern is also associated with lower levels of public good spending and outcomes.

Here are some cool graphs:
(Corruption is on the y-axis, and a measure of the centrality of the capital is on the x-axis. Click to enlarge.)

The paper is here.

Hat tip to John Sides and Seth Masket.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Markets and morality

The Boston Review is hosting an enlightening discussion about markets and morality, started by political philosopher Michael Sandel.

Here is the lead essay. Here's the discussion page.

I was surprised by Herbert Gintis' unyielding defense of economics and markets. As a former Marxist, I would have expected him to be more sympathetic to Sandel's opening arguments.

HT: John Tomasi.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Deliberative defense budgeting

Most voters don't know very much about politics. This has been a consistent finding in public opinion polling for decades, a finding that some commenters find vexing. But the finding doesn't surprise economists, because economists know that people respond to incentives, and there's little incentive to stay informed. The chance of a single vote affecting an election is vanishingly small, so why bother? In this situation, rather than research the issues, most people will prefer to spend time with friends and family, do homework, work overtime, or watch a movie. Economists call this rational ignorance.

Some political scientists have argued that voter ignorance doesn't matter, because voters can use shortcuts to reach reasonably accurate decisions. For example, they may vote along party lines, or they may mimic the views of a favorite politician or talk show host. In reality, sometimes this seems to work, and sometimes it doesn't.

Looking for a better system, another group of political scientists have been experimenting with alternative forms of democracy, in particular deliberative democracy. In a deliberative democracy, voters are provided with relevant information to help them deliberate before voting. Researchers use a variety of approaches. Sometimes they have participants deliberate together, among themselves. Other times participants decide on their own. They select participants and the information to present in many different ways. (My favorite variant is the policy jury.)

Last Thursday, the Program for Public Consultation released the results of a deliberative democratic poll focusing on the defense budget. The participants, 665 Americans, were selected using random telephone numbers and street addresses. They were presented with arguments over the internet for and against cutting defense spending. The arguments were vetted by experts at non-partisan, non-profit organizations. Participants without internet access were provided with laptops and internet. Throughout the process, participants answered questions about their opinions.

Their responses suggest that the shortcut theory fails in the case of defense budgeting. Old-fashioned polls repeatedly find that large majorities of Americans oppose cuts to defense spending. After being presented with arguments from both sides, however, participants in this deliberative poll—Democrat, Republican, and independent alike—overwhelmingly supported significant spending cuts. Among Republicans, about two thirds supported spending cuts, with an average preferred spending level 15% lower than the 2012 budget. Nine out of ten Democrats supported spending cuts, with an average 28% cut, and about two thirds of independents called for cuts, with an average 26% reduction.

Unfortunately, since politicians work within a system of old-fashioned, non-deliberative democracy, the results of this poll are unlikely to provoke policy changes. In order to keep their jobs, politicians must satisfy rationally ignorant voters, even if that leads to poor outcomes. But the first step to recovery is admitting that we have a problem.

You can read the official release here.

HT: The Economist.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Science fiction and the death of economics

Or the death of the economy, at least.

Paul Krugman says Ben Bernanke has been assimilated by the Borg: "he’s become more concerned, probably unconsciously, with defending the Fed’s institutional safety, because it’s the apostle of price stability, than with doing whatever he can to get this economy moving." Here's the more detailed accusation.

But others, like economics reporter Robert Samuelson, choose Team Bernanke in the "battle of the beards". (Sorry for the mixed metaphors.)

I lean towards Krugman, but it's a tough call. The Borg are hard to resist.

Economics and the death of science fiction

I want to post here more often. To make this happen, I'm trying to tweak my approach to blogging, posting articles here that I would normally reserve for facebook. Ideally this will create more posts without demanding much more of my time. And they're legitimately interesting articles, so why not?

Anyway, I like Charlie Stross. For someone who writes science fiction, he is unusually good with economics. (His book Accelerando is astounding.) In the last few months, he's written a few provocative blog posts about the economics of the book publishing industry, and the impact on science fiction in particular.

First, a post on Amazon and DRM [Digital Rights Management, an electronic security measure] (and an extension). He explains what a monopsony is!— quite exciting for me.

Then, informed speculation on how changing market structures will transform science fiction:
Authors responding to one another isn't unusual. But in SF/F it's particularly visible. It got started in the pages of the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s and continues today, both in short fiction (we're unusual insofar as we still have a vibrant short fiction ecosystem) and at novel length. ...

I'm here to talk about something much more concrete: the likelihood that within another decade, two at most, science fiction as a literary genre category may well die. ...

our genre sits uneasily within boundaries delineated by the machinery of sales. And that creaking steam-age machinery is currently in the process of being swapped out for some kind of irridescent, gleaming post-modern intrusion from the planet internet. ...

This is going to drastically affect the quality and content of the internal dialog within our genre