Narrow Your Gun Debates

On firearms, I’m open to robust gun ownership, but I’m not sold on anything. Like most of my positions, my default is to favor the ability of individuals to operate without restrictions, but I’m by no means a gun purist, to the dismay of many more intense libertarians I know. If there were more stringent regulations on firearms purchases, it wouldn’t be something I cared strongly about.

Nonetheless, many people do feel strongly about gun ownership in the United States, and I wonder if this is a position where efficient advocacy could help us understand whether those feelings are warranted. Unfortunately, gun ownership and gun control are complex issues with many different parts. Continue reading Narrow Your Gun Debates

Abortion is way more complicated than you think it is.

Disclaimer: I am a man, and this article is written with respect to the development of my understanding of the issue While both men and women can and should have a say in such a philosophical debate, a woman will probably have given more thought to a matter that directly affects her.

I am neither “Pro-choice” nor “Pro-life”. A year ago, after changing my opinion on the matter for a fourth time, I realized that the issue was so complex such that I didn’t know enough to defend a particular opinion. From my experiences, I don’t think there are many people who do. Yet, reasoned discussion is stonewalled by the adamant insistence on the most basic and simple reasoning of each perspective.

Most libertarians can identify that the key arguments surrounding abortion are based in conflict between two human rights: the right of life and the right to one’s body. This conflict is not elucidated by objective science, but by subjective philosophy. If a fetus or embryo is a life, then ending it could be morally wrong, but if not, then restricting a woman’s control over its viability could be morally wrong.

However, abortion goes beyond these foundation arguments. Some assert that even if a fetus is alive,  it is similar to someone on a life support system, only the support system requires another’s body. Many would agree that being obligated to lend your body to a sick person is wrong; however, the fact that a fetus is brought into existence in this situation presents a possible exception. If a child were born in such a way that it was connected to other being, and needed to be so to continue life, would severing the connection not be an act of killing?

On the other hand, a “Pro-life” objection to the traditional “Pro-choice” argument asserts that even if a fetus is not a life,  terminating its development into a life is immoral. One argument for this, presented by philosopher Don Marquis, asserts that ultimately, killing a person is wrong because it deprives them of a future, and abortion is wrong on the same grounds. However, this has been countered by questioning if, by the same logic, a killing a sperm or egg would be wrong as well.Abortion Flowchart2

These arguments, presented simply in this flowchart, only scrape the surface of the complex issue of abortion. They all have their own rebuttals and counter-rebuttals, and they don’t even begin to address utilitarian arguments or exceptions for rape, incest, or the mother’s life. However, by presenting some of the complexities, I believe I have illustrated the complexity of issues to be considered before being able to justifiably claim oneself as “Pro-choice” or “Pro-life”

Your Candidate Sucks: Democracy Troubles

Now that we basically have our two major candidates, let’s do a retrospective look at some of the political candidates our system was able to produce, reject, or approve over this election cycle.  Let’s start with Republicans.

In early 2015, the prevailing wisdom was that Hillary Clinton was going to be the Democratic nominee.  She looked like a strong candidate but one with a low ceiling; she had great name recognition and experience, but also was (and is) tied to the Obama administration, especially its foreign policy. I’d argue she’s appeared even weaker over the course of the primaries than she did in 2015 as big swaths of Democrats have shown hesitation to embrace her candidacy. Given this situation, Republicans should have been able to come up with candidates that played well against Hillary; what they got is someone who (as of May 2016), isn’t very competitive. If only there had been someone else to pick from!

Wikipedia counts 17 Republican candidates. We won’t spend lots of time on all of them, but it’s worth seeing some of the candidates that were rejected. Continue reading Your Candidate Sucks: Democracy Troubles

Model-Breaking Observations in the Senate

It’s rare when an idea, or piece of evidence, comes along that is so impressive, it forces you to rethink your entire model of the world. The recently released Feinstein-Burr encryption bill has done just that.

It has been described as “technically illiterate”, “chilling”, “ridiculous”, “scary”, and “dangerous“.  Not only are the issues with the bill fairly obvious to anyone with a cursory understanding of encryption, the problems are of such magnitude that it thwarts any attempt to understand the Senators’ actions.  Let’s look at the effects of the hypothetical law.

The biggest issue is that this bill will significantly damage the United States’ national security. We live in a highly insecure world where cyberattacks, both foreign and domestic, are omnipresent. The Feinstein-Burr bill would fundamentally reduce the security of all technology infrastructure in the country. Jonathan Zdziarski in a blog linked above, gives some details:

Due to the backdooring of encryption that this legislation implies, American electronics will be dangerously unsafe compared to foreign versions of the same product. Diplomats, CEOs, scientists, researchers, politicians, and government employees are just a few of the people whose data will be targeted by foreign governments and hackers both while traveling, but also whenever they’re connected to a network.

That’s awful, and even if you have the most America-first, protect-American-lives mentality, weakening American encryption is the worst thing you could do; it literally endangers American lives.

I think there’s also a strong case to be made that this will do very little to combat terrorism. Unbreakable, strong encryption is widely available on the internet for free, forever; if bad people want to use it, they will.  Moreover, terrorism, as awful as it is, is relatively rare; Americans are about a 1000x more likely to die non-terrorism related homicide. And many more “common” homicides occur due to heat-of-the-moment arguments, which means there would be no encrypted messages detailing conspiracies. All this bill does is remove the ability of average, non-technically inclined Americans to secure their data.

And the people whose data will be most at risk will be those consumers who are less educated or less technically adept. Better informed consumers might have the ability to install foreign encryption software on their phone to keep their data safe, but most uninformed consumers just use default settings.  Thus, criminals who try and commit identity theft will greatly benefit from this legislation; they wouldn’t usually bother targeting knowledgeable users anyway, and with security stripped away from phones, it will be much easier to steal data from susceptible users. The people most in need of help to protect their data will be disproportionately harmed by this legislation.

On the other hand, most companies are not uniformed users. They have IT departments who understand the value of encrypting their data, and they will continue to purchase strong security software, even if it is no longer sold in the United States.  Foreign produced software works just as well.  Banning strong encryption will debilitate the American technology sector, one of the biggest and most important parts of the economy.   This will cost Americans jobs and diminish America’s influence on the future of the world, as technological innovation moves overseas.  But this isn’t just bad for Americans; it’s not easy to simply move an entire company or product overseas. There are huge capital investments these companies have made that will not be available in other countries immediately, if ever, and this will set back the global technology industry billions if not trillions of dollars.

So this really begs the question of why Senators Dianne Feinstein and Richard Burr introduced this bill; given their stated obsession with national security, and given the horrific effect this bill would have on American national security, there’s no good way to resolve their stated beliefs with their actions. Here are a couple theories to explain their behavior, and some discussion as to why each respective theory is unsatisfying.

The Senators are actually foreign spies purposefully trying to weaken American national security.  Obviously, if this theory is true, it’s self-evidently very bad that our elected officials not only don’t represent us, but actually represent foreign governments likely trying to harm Americans. Sure it’s quite unlikely since it’s very difficult to become a U.S. Senator at all, and no spy agency would send agents in with a plan to become a U.S. Senator.  Whether they were turned into foreign agents after being elected, I really can only speculate. But it strikes me as improbable. Nonetheless, it is true that this legislation is exactly what foreign security agencies would want to introduce to make the United States more vulnerable.  I was curious, so I checked the constitutional definition of treason as well as the Espionage Act, but it seems that you need to literally give secrets to other people, not just make it easier for them to obtain. But there is that one case where a high ranking official is in trouble for storing documents insecurely…

They’re power hungry politicians. The idea of the Senators being foreign spies is bit far-fetched.  But what know for sure is that they are politicians, which means they chose a career path that would give them more power to change things. Maybe Burr and Feinstein are sick of technology companies telling the FBI that they can’t assist their investigations, and they wanted to put them in their place.  If this theory is true, it’s pretty self-evidently evil; people in power using their power indiscriminately to harm citizens is the exact problem Thomas Jefferson identified in the Declaration of Independence.  Of course, it’s not usually a big problem, because James Madison helped construct a whole host of ways to check the power of government. Of course, the most important check for our situation is that senators are voted in by the people. So as long as people know about this dumb bill, they’ll kick these guys out…right?

Hanlon’s Razor (origin disputed) states that one should “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”  This theory would mean that two sitting, highly experienced U.S. Senators are too stupid to realize the ill effects this will have on national  and economic security.  Obviously, congress has to make laws in areas that its members are not always familiar with…but Burr and Feinstein are the chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Intelligence Committee. If anyone knows about intelligence, they do. And Feinstein is even on the Judiciary Subcomittee on Technology, Privacy, and the Law! If even these people are too stupid to understand what the effects of their own policies are, we might as well stop sending representatives to a legislature at all and just have run-of-the-mill uneducated voters pass everything directly through referendum. Sure, they’d have no idea what they’re doing, but apparently neither do Senators!

What I think is most likely, and most terrifying, is that American Democracy incentivizes members of Congress to make bad policy if it’s politically beneficial. With all the aides and staff Senators have, plus the amount of pressure they receive from outside groups, it seems unlikely they never heard about the bad effects of the bill. Yet, they did it anyway. Given they don’t work for law enforcement, there is no Frank Underwood endgame for passing this bill; banning encryption doesn’t directly allow Burr and Feinstein to look at their political enemies’ phones (…probably), just criminals and the police.  So then maybe their incentive was to appear tough on crime and terrorism, consequences be damned. Richard Burr is in a reelection year in North Carolina, so let’s look at the effect this horrible bill has had on his chances to win according to Predictit.org:

Primary was in mid-March, bill introduced in early April
Primary was in mid-March, bill introduced in early April

As you can see, the bill had very little effect on his perceived chances. Now, it could be that voters have already factored in Senator Burr’s position on destroying defending American national security, and he needed to introduce this legislation to maintain his position. But it looks identical to a situation where North Carolina voters couldn’t care less about Senator Burr’s position on encryption, and his introduction of legislation consequently had no effect on his reelection chances. If it’s the former, then we are in serious trouble because our legislative representatives are incentivized to make horrible policies because voters aren’t well informed.  If it’s the latter, then we have to dismiss this explanation and go back to one of the other three.

Whatever the explanation is, it reflects poorly on how the government constructs policy, and it reflects poorly on American Democracy. Moreover, assuming any of those discussed theories are true, they imply massive issues that will be difficult or impossible to solve.  Reforming democracy as many progressives would like, through campaign finance, wouldn’t even address any of these issues; it is the technology corporations and privacy NGOs which have been advocating for more privacy and making unbreakable encryption more accessible, while law enforcement and other government agencies have been advocating for less security.  But as far as I can tell, even they haven’t demanded anything like this bill.  Thus,  more campaign spending by private groups would help, not hinder good policy.

No matter how you look at it, this bill indicates a big failure for democratic government and illustrates the dangers discretionary state power.


Photo credit: Caïn venant de tuer son frère Abel, by Henry Vidal in Tuileries Garden in Paris, France, photo by Alex E. Proimos, licensed under CC-BY-2.0.

Follow-up: Not that wrong about Obamacare

Anytime we see something that challenges our worldview, it’s important to acknowledge it, and investigate whether our model of the world is incorrect, or at least to acknowledge our mistake. Otherwise, we cease to be engaging in discussion and building on knowledge. About a year ago, Josh, one of the former authors on this blog, wrote an excellent piece about how his predictions of massive failure for Obamacare did not seem to be coming true:

I Was Wrong About Obamacare

But now, a year further along, it seems the healthcare system isn’t doing so hot. The Wall Street Journal wrote in October:

Among this population of the uninsured, HHS reports that half are between the ages of 18 and 34 and nearly two-thirds are in excellent or very good health. The exchanges won’t survive actuarially unless they attract this prime demographic: ObamaCare’s individual mandate penalty and social-justice redistribution are supposed to force these low-cost consumers to buy overpriced policies to cross-subsidize everybody else. No wonder HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said meeting even the downgraded target is “probably pretty challenging.”

Late in December, Reason reported:

United announced during an investor briefing Thursday that it was expecting a whopping $425 million hit on its earnings this year, primarily due to mounting losses on its Obamacare exchange business. “We cannot sustain these losses,” United CEO Stephen Hensley declared.

And also in January:

Aetna, for example, has already dropped out of the exchange market in two states. A dozen of the 23 non-profit co-op plans backed by the law have already closed up shop, causing about 600,000 people to lose health plans, and a Politico analysis indicates that most of the remaining co-op plans are in trouble. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas and North Carolina both lost a sizable chunk of money on its exchange business during the program’s first year. The financial outlook for a number of insurers participating in Obamacare, in other words, doesn’t look good. And there are few signs that it is set to improve in the near future.

February:

Yet, the mandates aren’t working as planned. My colleague Brian Blase recently summed up the difference between the projected numbers of people who were expected to enroll in the ACA during this third open enrollment and the people who actually did. He notes a high estimate of 12.7 million people signing up for an exchange plan. But Blase actually thinks there will only be an average of 11 million enrollees this year. That’s 16 million fewer than the Rand Corporation predicted, 11.8 million fewer than the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services predicted, 12.1 million fewer than the Urban Institute predicted and 10 million fewer than the Congressional Budget Office projected.

It seems more likely than not that there will need to be some sort of change to the health system. Perhaps Josh’s predictions were too dire, but overall, I would retitle his post “I was still mostly right about Obamacare”.

 

Voting Rights Schmoting Rights

I.

“If you don’t feel like voting, don’t bother. It won’t matter. The statistical odds of your vote making any difference at all are infinitesimal.” These are the words of Megan McArdle in a sad, but amusing, piece telling you not to vote. And she’s right: your vote, at least in federal elections, is pretty worthless. Even in smaller House elections, over 80% of incumbents win.

But she’s not the only person that’s been talking about voting recently. The Left has been quite upset over new voter ID laws being implemented around the country. John Oliver even did a long segment on it.

I like John Oliver as a political commentator (and in Community). His sharp wit combines biting commentary with excellent humor, and the format of his show allows a deep dive on interesting issues. I try to watch as many of those segments as possible (they are available for free on YouTube) despite the vast differences in the way he and I view the world.  Oliver’s analysis provides great starting points for discussion, and he helps me understand many critiques of issues that I would never have thought of.

While I don’t really disagree with him on the basic issue of voter ID laws, I feel like he’s missed the more profound problem about American democracy: voting is just a gimmick.

How can this be? Voting is a fundamental right!  America was founded as a grand experiment in democracy! Yes, voting is very important to Americans, but why?  In fact, what is a voting right? Continue reading Voting Rights Schmoting Rights

The Iowa Caucuses

Republican

Ted Cruz has won Iowa, and it looks like Donald Trump and Marco Rubio are essentially tied for second place. This is good news for Cruz and Rubio, and bad news for Trump. Trump was leading in most of the polls leading up to Iowa, and Trump has marketed his high polling numbers as his claim to relevance.  It seems, at least in Iowa, those polling numbers aren’t as powerful as we thought.  This could be due to the fact that caucuses are bad for Trump’s less educated constituency, or it could be evidence of deeper issues that his constituency will have a hard time showing up in many primaries.  Rand Paul, for what it’s worth, did better than expected, but was a distant 5th.

What does this mean?  Well, as I’ve referenced before, Trump’s lead may be due to disproportionate media coverage. This may fade as there is more focus on Cruz this week. Before tonight, I would have expected Trump to win in New Hampshire, but after tonight, his chances will be a bit slimmer.  Referencing my own predictions, I had Trump at 20% on December 31, and I personally had him at a 30% chance of winning the nomination yesterday. I’d bump him down to at most 25% now, perhaps less.  You have to also figure Rubio’s chances have increased.  Iowa is not somewhere he would be expected to do very well, yet he essentially tied for second. I’m not sure where I’d put Rubio’s chances to be the Republican nominee, but perhaps around 40%. Cruz would probably be around 30%.

How do I feel about this?  Well my preferences are certainly Rubio > Cruz > Trump, so I’m glad Trump lost. There’s the destructive argument that if Trump wins the nomination, it might help third parties out as conservatives voters cast about for another candidate, but even then it would be tough for libertarians to get the 5% needed for public financing or the 15% needed to get into the debates. We’ll have to see how the rest of the primaries go, but I severely hope Trump continues to do poorly.

Democratic

This was very close, and though I still don’t know who officially won, an outcome this close has clear ramifications: Clinton underperformed and Sanders beat expectations.  Sanders was already likely to win New Hampshire, and I’d bet that 538 will give him above an 80% chance to win for the rest of the week.  He is still likely to lose South Carolina.

What does this mean? In December, I gave Hillary a 90% chance to be the Democratic nominee (and Bernie a 10% chance). Before tonight, I think I would have given Bernie a 15-20% chance. After tonight, I think I’d be closer to 20%. Maybe. The problem for Sanders is just that Iowa plays to his strengths; he’ll do well in NH as it also plays to his strengths, but in big states and in more diverse states, I predict he will lose.  This will be one of Bernie’s best showings–and it was essentially a tie.  In all the other areas: funding, endorsements, connections…Hillary wins very handily.

How do I feel about this?  I vaguely prefer Sanders as I know exactly where he stands and what problems I have with him. Moreover, the president controls foreign policy, and I agree with Sanders much more than Clinton on foreign policy. But on his domestic agenda, Bernie has disastrous ideas.  I haven’t focused on them much this cycle because I gave Bernie a very low chance of winning the nomination. It may be worth writing about his policy flaws while people are still interested in discussing his policies.

However, that’s not the whole story, because there is some strategy involved as well. Even though in my last post, isidewith.com recommended Bernie over many other candidates, I’m not nearly so excited about him in my own preferences. I think in reality, I might prefer a Rubio presidency to a Sanders one, although both would be bad. Rubio just seems less extreme, and some of his compromises might be very beneficial, such as on immigration. So here’s the point: if Sanders was the nominee, it would doubtless lead to a GOP victory. This is bad if it’s Trump, but probably good if it’s Rubio (and I’m not sure about Cruz). And so this gives me another incentive to cheer for Sanders, as long as Trump does poorly.

So overall, it’s good Trump missed expectations, good Rubio beat expectations, and probably good Bernie beat expectations as well, but I doubt it’ll last.

And as for my last prediction I’ll bring up; in December, I gave myself a 70% chance I’d vote for the libertarian candidate in November.  An important reason I wouldn’t vote for the libertarian candidate would be if a situation arose where my vote would help decide the outcome of the state I live in, and if I feared for the outcome of the election. Overall, if I’m not voting for the libertarian candidate, bad things are probably happening. Luckily I’d say my prediction remains unchanged as of right now.

 

 

Picture credits: both by Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC-BY-SA.

 

Why Vaccines Should be Mandatory and Guns Should be Legal.

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A summary of herd immunity

The advent of vaccines has led to a dramatic rise in the quality of life in the 20th century. Vaccines have reduced morbidity of diptheria, mumps, polio, and several other diseases by over 99%. In the wake of such overwhelming success, many government policies have moved to make vaccines mandatory, but many libertarians and conservatives have argued that this infringes on the individual right to his or her body. However, I believe that mandatory vaccines may in fact protect rights.

When evaluating individual rights, the quote “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins” is important to consider. Does the right to choose whether or not to vaccinate harm other individuals? In the sense that you enable yourself to transmit disease to unvaccinated individuals, yes. But the act of not vaccinating could easily be considered a conscious choice to be more vulnerable to a disease.

The problem with this logic falls in the concept of “herd immunity”. “Herd immunity” is when such a large percentage of a population is immune to a disease that, even if one susceptible person becomes ill, the disease is unlikely to spread. For example, if 96% of a population has received a measles vaccine, when one individual gets measles, it is unlikely that they confer the disease to the other 4% of people, because the individual is surrounded by so many who are immune (This Romina Libster TED talk explains the concept well).

These individuals aren’t all free riders either. Vaccines are not 100% effective, they cannot be used on people of all ages, and some people are allergic to them. These individuals did not make a conscious choice to be vulnerable to a disease, and by one person choosing not to vaccinate, their “herd immunity” is weakened, significantly increasing their risk of becoming sick.

This has happened several times before, particularly after Andrew Wakefield’s false autism link. In 2014, a measles outbreak occurred in California, only 45% of measles cases occurred in unvaccinated individuals, and among those 12 were in infants too young to be vaccinated.

In defending mandatory vaccines, I have been asked if this same argument could be applied to justify gun control. While the data is conflicting depending how it’s looked at, even if there is a link between gun ownership and gun violence, I don’t believe that the increased risk associated with gun ownership is not grounds considering it a right infringement. With guns, the decision that puts others in harm’s way is not the decision to purchase, but the decision to fire. Furthermore, the decision to fire is already controlled by the illegality of assault, manslaughter, and murder, while the decision not to vaccinate cannot be controlled by anything other than laws mandating it.

Vaccines are one of the most important health advancements of the 20th century, but there are many people that they cannot directly protect. For this reason, it is critical that we prevent healthy adults from making a choice not to vaccinate.

Election 2016: Little To Look Forward To

In November, The Economist wrote “If the Republican campaign is to return to normality, it will do so in South Carolina” due to the state’s ability to filter out the unserious candidates.  We are now a month out from the South Carolina primary, and a lot could still happen, but if you’re one of the people who think the government should do less spying on citizens, less intervening in the market, and less mindless spending on the DoD procurement program, you’re in a for bad time: Trump is at 49% chance of winning, Cruz 18%, and Rubio 13%.

Continue reading Election 2016: Little To Look Forward To

Legalize Organ Markets

In 1996, Hurricane Fran hit Raleigh, knocking out power and trees. Duke Political Science Professor Michael Munger describes the response of several citizens from a neighboring town who decided to exploit the situation.  These budding opportunist entrepreneurs rented some refrigerated trucks, filled them with ice and drove to Raleigh, where they sold the bags of ice for about $8 each.  Raleigh police eventually arrived, arrested them for price gouging, and allowed the ice to melt with virtually none distributed to the locals.

Continue reading Legalize Organ Markets