The Politiconomist

Where Politics and Economics Hang Out

Politicians Behaving Badly: Ted Cruz

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Dear Senator Ted Cruz,

I issue citations only when my cynicism doesn’t overcome my impulse to pooh-pooh someone. To receive a PBB citation, you have to be so heinous that I feel we’re mining a low. And Senator Ted Cruz, you are charting new territory!

You have one virtue: Your knuckle dragging, anti-government view is as predictable as it is bombastic. Yes, denying whoever it is you want to deny funds this week is a predictable exercise in consistency. But, alas, power has corrupted thee.

I of course refer to denying aid for Sandy but not for the Texas flooding. It is base politics, but actually, you have generally been for cutting aid to your constituents. (That they may not realize that that’s what you stand for is a poor defense of you, their elected representative. But I digress.)

You’re running for president on MORAL OUTRAGE that it might cost money to help people. Get our act together and tell your constituents that they should suck it up and deal. The backlash you will feel is a feeling you will never get to know: what it will be like to oppose welfare in the general election.

For caving to base politics when I genuinely thought you’d take a principled stand, you Ted Cruz, are a Politician behaving badly.

~The Politiconomist

Written by R. A. Stark

May 29, 2015 at 1:06 PM

The Liberal Case for American Austerity: Prelude

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I’m coming out pro-austerity, and I’m as surprised as anyone. I’ve agonized over how best to get started—restate macro theory in a more holistic framework? Do an overview of something Robert Reich said and start picking it apart? Dive right in?

My question was answered by a post on Free Trade Agreements by Benjamin Studebaker. While I quibble about some of his evidence and details of the system, the piece broadly tracks with my own arguments. So much so that he agrees with me in places which go back to the heart of a long-standing objection I have with wage policy.

The sketch of my argument is thus: First, I want to provide a more rigid framework than what Studebaker is working in. There are macro constraints that he’s neglecting in favor of some micro issues (which are definitely in play and generally well-outlined). Second, I will show that if he’s right in our accounting framework, wage augmenting policies are a bad plan—a position I’ve taken before. The stricter framework makes it much harder to waive these considerations. Finally, I give the introduction to my case to austerity, building on the intuition liberals have about free trade.

Very Simple Trade

We begin by building the macroeconomic trade books. This will allow us to track all relevant considerations.

One of the clever things that the National Income and Product Accounts do is create a dummy country to trade with: The Rest of the World. The only entries in it are the United States buying or selling goods, services, and assets. Obviously, it’s important in other contexts to model the complexities of multi-lateral trade and the internal workings of foreign economies, but that’s not my purpose here today.

In the case of very simple trade, we assume that the only things for trade are currencies and goods and services. For concreteness, we will take Britain and France with Pounds and Francs. (Bit of a throwback, I know.) If you buy goods from Britain, you pay pounds and in turn Francs in France.

If the French want to import British goods, they buy Pounds for Francs at some exchange rate. In this case, they buy 100 Pounds for 200 Francs. The French then turn around and buy 100 Pounds of goods and services from Britain. But, the Francs are useless to the Brits unless they buy 200 Francs of goods and services from France, so they will do so.

Let’s tally this up from the British side. They exported 100 Pounds and imported 200 Francs. At the exchange rate implied above, that’s 0 in Net Exports. On the asset side, domestic holders moved a lot of currency, but it cancelled to a net of zero.

Two caveats. First, there is every probability that at any given moment some currency will be held abroad. The turnaround isn’t instant, but in this kind of system there’d be no reason to hold it very long. Second, there are important microeconomic considerations here. Studebaker lays them out well enough with his models of Textbook Free Trade, Exploitative Free Trade, and Submarine Free Trade. That’s worth a conversation, but I’m not here to have it. I’m here to point out that you can’t get a trade imbalance through unfavorable trading conditions. The money will have to find its way home, even if it’s not in some sense fair how it’s going there.

Throw in Some Debt and other Assets

But I’ve just proven that we can’t run trade deficits which is evidently false. So we now add in the financial markets.

This is probably the most consistently misunderstood sector of the economy. In accounting, an asset is something that will be worth money if you sell it. (In the case of cash, you’re “selling” it when you pay for things with it, but we don’t usually talk about it that way.) A liability is something you’ll have to pay later. Debt is both, depending on whether you owe it or are owed. If it’s owed to you, it’s an asset because you could sell the right to collect that debt to someone else. If you owe it, it’s a liability because one day it will come due. Let’s start with private debt—though the difference between public and private debt is not an accounting one.

French companies look for investors to back the purchase of assets for production. (Factories, land, equipment, or even inventory augmentation.) They put debt up for sale. We’re not interested in the case of domestic borrowing, so let’s look at foreign investment. The Brits will buy Francs for Pounds, much like above. They’ll buy French debt for Francs—and presumably the French will then buy French capital, but that’s not especially relevant. The French now hold both the Pounds and the Francs. What happens next will determine the trade balance.

Most likely, they will import British goods. It’s conceivable that they might counter-invest in Britain or even hold a some of the pounds as reserves, but that would be unusual. It is somewhat at odds with the logic of borrowing to then hold onto the Pounds. In a gold-standard system, it is also possible for the French investors to buy Gold from Britain with the Pounds to even out the accounts. This has the virtue of preventing exuberant lending by Britain and putting something on the French books that they can pay down the loans with later. The downside is that it greatly constrains the investing opportunities between countries and puts money in a precarious situation if there is some kind of revaluation or if the British heedlessly loan.

The main difference between private French borrowing and public French borrowing is entirely behavioral. On the books it looks exactly like the private case. However, governments can, as a rule of thumb, issue more longer-term debt than private companies. The private sector must turn a profit, and those that can do it sooner rather than later are favored by investors. The public sector has no such constraint and is in fact designed to tackle long-term problems. The flip side to this is that they can break their gold standard doing this and then run deficits for decades without any checks to make them stop—as the US has done. Conceivably, a firm could issue longer term debt and demonstrably some governments are viewed as unreliable enough to look more like firms in this respect, so this is not an ironclad rule.

The Policy Bind

We’ve arrived at the point that we can only run trade deficits if we make up the difference by sending some asset abroad. Possibly gold, but for most present economies debt. This isn’t where the contradiction lies, though it shores up the framework it happens in.

Let’s accept this argument uncritically:

Because of the relative strength of labor laws in affluent countries like the US or the UK, countries like China can be a bit technologically underdeveloped but still remain highly competitive by effectively turning their workers into 19th century style wage slaves. Chinese workers take the jobs because even with negligible pay, they are still marginally better off in the factories than they are on traditional Chinese farms. In this kind of situation, free trade between the US and China will allow American consumers to buy goods at lower prices, but it places a massive anchor around US wages, making it very difficult for wages to rise without ceding more jobs to China. In the short term, the deal still looks like a win-win–Chinese workers get slightly better (albeit still quite miserable) jobs, while American workers get cheaper products. But in the long-run, SFT utterly devastates America by crippling wage growth.

So, what does government policy do in such a situation?

Let’s say that one takes the position that wage policy will increase consumption and therefore wages. Or that transfers are good for the economy because they put people to work through demand increases. Or that government spending will lift wages.

One is forced to inevitably note that, “In this kind of situation, free trade between the US and China will allow American consumers to buy goods at lower prices, but it places a massive anchor around US wages, making it very difficult for wages to rise without ceding more jobs to China.” Indeed.

There are major pitfalls to arguing that we could simply put in trade policies to fix this. For macroeconomic trade policy to work in this context, it’d have to effectively limit our lending abroad—meaning that a large fraction of the finance for the wage-raising policies Studebaker advocates would be off limits. More, a gold standard is only sustainable if the nation is not consistently a net borrower, which is difficult in the face of government borrowing.

This puts Studebaker and liberals like him in an awkward bind. If raising wages really does pit us against China, then wage-raising policies should be shied away from. In turn, re-aligning the system to control that will squeeze the very funds for policies to get us away from imports.

The Liberal Case for American Austerity

What follows from this point will stop being organized as a critique of Studebaker, though it would be a mistake to read it as unrelated. Much of my digging comes out of an intuition that the EPI graph he is fond of shows that something broke in 1971 and our ongoing disputes.

My pitch is simple: Free Trade isn’t driving the phenomena that Studebaker has detailed, but rather public debt. To be clear, I’ve only alluded to the argument for blaming primarily public debt; I’ve not made it in full yet. The wrinkles in proving it lead to important caveats on my advocacy for austerity. The mechanics laid out so far leave private debt on the table as a cause, and I won’t be addressing rebuttals that draw the distinction until after I make the case.

By raising taxes and cutting transfers, we can stop subsidizing foreign workers. We can undo nearly four decades of accruing the rights to exports when we finally pay down our debts. That is to say, balancing the budget is putting the very people liberals want to help back to work. Because this is the liberal case, I will be advocating a decidedly liberal path forward: progressive taxation and transfer cuts. This argument has no quarter in the modern GOP. After all, half the bitterness of austerity are the tax hikes liberals often call for.

So buckle up. If you are a liberal who thinks that international trade is doing us harm, then you have an inconstancy to work out.

Written by R. A. Stark

May 28, 2015 at 12:00 PM

The Duggers and The Privileges of White Fundamentalism

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There is a whole genre of “If media covered America the way it covered foreign cultures” and I can’t do it justice. I know because I’ve tried. And again with the revelation that Josh Duggar of 19 Kids and Counting fame has been accused of molesting his siblings.

I’m going to skip the shooting fish in a barrel part of all this. Yes, the Duggar family are involved in the Family Research Council who still pedal the “homosexuals are child molesters” line. Yes, this really does highlight everything wrong with purity culture. And yes, you can find other fundamentalists rationalizing this in absolutely heinous ways. None of this is to suggest that I’m calling a ceasefire against the wayward fish, just to tell you that that’s not why I’m here.

I’m here to remind you that a perennial addition to the White Man’s Burden is “child brides” and other exotic reporting on similar phenomenon happing in largely rural, fundamentalist regions. Remember when #BringBackOurGirls was trending because Nigerian girls were kidnapped and sold into slavery? The endless reporting on Pakistani tribal customs? The moral horror at the rapes of young girls under ISIS?

Juxtapose that with defenses of Josh Duggar.

It should be obvious that this does not excuse enslaving young girls through marriage or the terrible crimes ISIS has committed. What it should illuminate is that we’re not so different—and those differences can be measured in shades. In regions where this is a problem, it is recognized as such and local people are taking action to condemn and challenge these practices. Fundamentalism and purity culture are usually at the root. The main difference is prevalence of proponents and apologists of these crimes—of which the US clearly has no deficit.

White America should seek the help of the Pakistani Parliament, who is taking steps to curtail this abuse. (The linked article is, sadly, part of the problem in reporting.) White America clearly has some sort of intrinsic moral poverty, and a coalition of U.N. backed nations should invade to intervene—and a bombing campaign is appropriate if that can’t mounted. White America should not be allowed to immigrate to other countries—you know how we are!

Of course, that’s not how white supremacy works. Josh Duggar has repented, never mind that he repented in a religious framework that is permissive of this abuse.

One wonders if the men enslaving young girls abroad were white and found Jesus if the Quiverfull movement would let them off the hook.

Written by R. A. Stark

May 27, 2015 at 12:00 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

In Honor of John Nash

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This blog is deeply indebted to the work of John Nash, who was tragically killed in a car accident on Saturday. Game theory permanently altered how I viewed incentives, showing me that a tangled web of strategies could create multiple and counterintuitive outcomes. And at the bedrock of the field is John Nash’s proof that there must be an equilibrium.

I can’t offer the full proof here—it’s maddeningly abstract and I can’t follow its finer points. What I can offer you is a little game to get at the intuition. (I’ve been known to pull this out at parties to prove to drunk people math is fun; that probably confirms all your worst suspicions about me.)

Draw a rectangle. Now, from one corner to the opposite corner, draw a line. This can be as twisted or direct as you like. The only rule is that you can’t go outside the box, and you can’t pick up your pen. The challenge is to draw another line from the remaining corners with the same restrictions without crossing.

Give it a few tries. I’ll wait.

No, really, it’s good fun. I’ll still be here.

The punchline is that you can’t. The lines must cross, and an odd number of times—basically. John Nash proved this is true for much more general scenarios, ones which cannot be drawn. The analogy here is that the corners are pure strategies and the space between is possible combinations. (The problem is actually more restricted, but a more general proof never hurt anyone.

Giving a reason, even an informal one, that’s not just pointing at the obviousness that the corner is blocked out is a bit harder. The way I convinced myself was a drew a straight line between two corners and then traced out the two extreme cases for drawing the second line. I went around each side and bumped into at the corners. Clearly, any line through the middle meets in the middle. This technically only proves it for that first line, and fairly crudely at that, but I couldn’t see any twisting helping matters. They must cross somewhere. Nash’s brilliance was finding the abstract proof of that.

There’s a lot to say about Nash besides his work. Several of my friends pointed out that his struggle with mental illness was something they drew strength from in their own struggle. But this little rectangle game puts your hands on something he created, and is well worth a few minutes.

Written by R. A. Stark

May 26, 2015 at 12:00 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Line By Line: Being Against Gay Marriage Doesn’t Make You a Homophobe

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Lest you thought The Atlantic was some sort of liberal rag, they’ve published some badly thought out anti-gay apologia. How bad? Bad enough I need to line-by-line this steaming pile of garbage.

Does being against gay marriage make someone anti-gay?

Yes? Anti-gay is Latin for being against gay. And what better way than our marriages? Surely no more needs to be—oh.

The question resurfaced last week when Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, claimed on Meet the Press that the Catholic Church is unfairly “caricatured” as anti-gay.

This has been unfair ever since the Church reversed its stance on same-sex marriages in two thousand and never.

The Huffington Post’s Paul Raushenbush quickly wrote up a response, saying that “The hard reality that Cardinal Dolan and all Christians need to face up to is that the Catholic Church along with every other church whether Orthodox, Protestant or Catholic has been horrifically, persistently and vehemently anti-gay for almost all of its history.”

Then Raushenbush hauled out a familiar argument: “Let’s just be very clear here —if you are against marriage equality you are anti-gay. Done.”

This is good a good primer—oh, Wikipedia—on the history here. If you don’t know what 100 lashes does to a person, you might not want to look it up. If you do, direct all thanks to the Catholic Church.

As a gay man, I found myself disappointed with this definition—that anyone with any sort of moral reservations about gay marriage is by definition anti-gay. If Raushenbush is right, then that means my parents are anti-gay, many of my religious friends (of all faiths) are anti-gay, the Pope is anti-gay, and—yes, we’ll go here—first-century, Jewish theologian Jesus is anti-gay.

Yes. Especially your parents. Stop rationalizing and internalizing their shitty behavior, you’ll feel better.

That’s despite the fact that while some religious people don’t support gay marriage in a sacramental sense, many of them are in favor of same-sex civil unions and full rights for the parties involved. To be sure, most gay people, myself included, won’t be satisfied until our loving, monogamous relationships are graced with the word “marriage.” But it’s important to recall that many religious individuals do support strong civil rights for the gay members of their communities.

And they need to get over their homophobic impulse to exclude us from that civil right. The theological argument against marriage for same-sex couples is ultimately framed in terms of our relationships being inferior—that our love is somehow lesser. That is the very essence of homophobia and excluding us from our communities. That you could be doing worse is a sorry excuse for not doing your best.

What exactly do we mean when we say “anti-gay,” or “homophobic”? Often when I try to understand where my conservative opponents are coming from, my gay friends accuse me of being homophobic. It isn’t homophobic of me to try to understand why someone might be opposed to marriage equality. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt takes courage; dismissing him before considering his argument—well, that seems a bit phobic. Beside—me? Homophobic? I write essays about being gay, and then I publish them, and everyone goes, “Oh yeah, he’s gay.” I have no reservations about my sexuality, so as far as the accusation of homophobia goes: that gay ship has already sailed to Disneyland, with a speedo-clad Tom Daley carved into the bow.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. No one said empathy is homophobic here. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding that if I got to know these people I wouldn’t think of them as homophobic. I’ll take you at your word; that if I got to know these people I would have a nuanced, “Yes, but their heart is in the right place.” And that’s nice, but it doesn’t make their views less homophobic, nor does it negate their participation in perpetuating these homophobic ideas. Further, no one questioned your gay card? I totally believe you’re gay!

Also, let’s all have a moment to objectify speedo-clad Tom Daley:


We return to our line-by-line.

If it’s “anti-gay” to question the arguments of marriage-equality advocates, and if the word “homophobic” is exhausted on me or on polite dissenters, then what should we call someone who beats up gay people, or prefers not to hire them? Disagreement is not the same thing as discrimination. Our language ought to reflect that distinction.

What the hell? Okay, for starters, this isn’t about “questioning the arguments”. It’s about pointing out that the conclusions are powered by the conclusion that same-sex relationships are in some way inferior. And trust me, I won’t run out of breath to call the other cases homophobic either.

This is vitally important. Our language reflects the intimate, historical, and present connection between all manifestations of believing gay people and their relationships are inferior. There is room in our language to qualify how those connections are playing out—“They’re homophobic, but their heart is the right place.”

I would argue that an essential feature of the term “homophobia” must include personal animus or malice toward the gay community. Simply having reservations about gay marriage might be anti-gay marriage, but if the reservations are articulated in a respectful way, I see no reason to dismiss the person holding those reservations as anti-gay people. In other words, I think it’s quite possible for marriage-equality opponents to have flawed reasoning without necessarily having flawed character. When we hastily label our opposition with terms like “anti-gay,” we make an unwarranted leap from the first description to the second.

This position is so ahistorical, limiting, and disengenous that I question how it made it to publication. Like racism, the most insidious (though not necessarily most odious) forms of homophobia are those that masquerade as care and reason. When homophobia dresses up as something respectable, even liberal magazines like The Atlantic are willing to treat it as something else. Because reasoning that contains the premise that same sex relationships are somehow inferior requires some kind of deficit of empathy for gay people, it does follow that there is something amiss.

To me, recognizing the distinction between opposing gay marriage and opposing gay people is a natural outgrowth of an internal distinction: When it comes to my identity, I take care not to reduce myself to my sexual orientation. Sure, it’s a huge part of who I am, but I see myself to be larger than my sexual expression: I contain my gayness; it doesn’t contain me. If it’s true that my gayness is not the most fundamental aspect of my identity as Brandon, then it seems to me that someone could ideologically disapprove of my sexual expression while simultaneously loving and affirming my larger identity. This is what Pope Francis was getting at when he asked, “When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?” The Pope probably won’t be officiating gay marriages any time soon. But because he differentiates between a person’s sexual identity and her larger identity as a human being, he is able to affirm the latter without offering definitive commentary on the former. Maybe his distinction between Brandon and Gay Brandon is misguided, but it isn’t necessarily malicious, and that’s the point.

You can’t hear me, but I just let out a huge sigh.

This strikes me as a huge case of misdirection. The question of homophobia isn’t about humanity in general; it’s about the specific question of a persons sexuality. The reason why I believe it makes sense to say a homophobic person’s heart is in the right place is the foregoing passage; but that doesn’t make them not homophobic. And none of this breaches the question: what to do with those of us who generally feel our humanity is more bound up in our sexuality? I certainly do. It’s what makes this so thorny for me; the dichotomy isn’t hard, even if it is a useful one.

Rob Schenck, current chairman of the Evangelical Church Alliance, told me that while he believes that marriage is between one man and one woman, this belief is a “source of internal conflict” and “consternation” for him. How, he candidly asks, is denying marriage to gay people “consistent with loving your neighbor?” Schenck has no plans to change his social stance on this issue, but he serves as a good reminder that not all gay-marriage opponents are unthinking and bigoted. Sure, there are plenty of religious people who are actually homophobic, and find in their Bible convenient justification for these biases. But let’s not forget about people like Rob who, though he opposes marriage equality, appreciates the reminder from gay advocates “that love is as important as anything else.”

Schenck? He’s a wonderful fellow to be defending. He supported chemically altering gay people (in 2007). He supports a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. And while he’s been a trajectory towards softening his rhetoric, that’s not nearly the same as softening his position. I’m sure he’s kind about advocating making us second class citizens, but let’s be honest about that.

Though I’d like to see Rob change his mind, I don’t imagine he will. For him, the procreative potential of the male-female sexual union is what marriage was designed for.

He believes I wasn’t designed for marriage. Let’s all hold hands—no homo—and sing.

But even if Rob’s opinions don’t change, I still don’t believe he’s a bigot. Just as I distinguish between my sexual expression and the larger identity that contains it, I think it’s quite possible to distinguish between his political or theological expression (Conservative Rob) and his human identity (Rob).

But all those things are still homophobic—yes, including that person bound up in with his religious beliefs. Because I have have a hard time buying that he isn’t genuinely trying to embody his religion, one that is homophobic. I can’t say that enough.

If he were disgusted by gay people, or thought they should be imprisoned, or wanted to see the gayness beat out of them, then that might implicate his human identity, in part because it would suggest a troubling lack of compassion.

He’s homophobic, but his heart is in the right place.

But the way he respectfully articulates his position on this issue doesn’t give me grounds to impugn his character. I can think his logic flawed, his conclusions unwarranted, and his activism silly, and yet still think him to be a good person. In fact, these are the feelings I have for many of my religious friends, and I’m sure those same feelings are returned!

Respectfully advocating against my rights is still advocating against my rights. The qualification matters, but it changes nothing of the broader question here.

The secular cases being made against gay marriage, as well, often have little to do with any kind of animus towards gay people themselves. Rather than appeal to an archaic notion of God’s “intentions,” these arguments instead focus on the vested interest the state has in legislating sexual relationships. Those who argue in this way don’t see marriage as a sacrament, but as a child-rearing institution whose regulation is in society’s best interest. Not a very good argument? Totally. Not a very good person who makes that argument? I need more information.

Ahhh. You’re worried I think homophobes are bad people. You should have written that piece. Or, if you think homophobic folks are bad people, you should stop reassuring yourself that the bad people in your life are good people. As a suggestion for how to fix this.

Also, several of the cites in the NPR piece the original link cites for the secular case are organizations which are known to give secular justifications for religious positions—I’m looking at you, Heritage Foundation.

As a gay man thinking through the issue of marriage equality, I’ve come to the conclusion that, although it’s a no-brainer for me, this issue is complicated to a great number of people. To demonize as anti-gay the millions of Americans currently doing the difficult work of thinking through their convictions is, in my opinion, very troubling.


Now, on that word “demonizing”. I’ve personally encouraged friends and acquaintances to consider the position of homophobic people in their lives who aren’t working past it. But part of the consideration has always been to acknowledge that it’s hurtful, and part of that hurt is that they can’t work past those beliefs for the person in their life. That’s what’s truly missing from this piece—an acknowledgement that so long as people hold this position, it hurts.

It’s true that as an LGBT person, I am Otherized against the sexual norm. But at the same time, I have an ethical obligation to my Other—the people unlike me—as well. On this issue, my Others include conservatives, fundamentalists, and more than a few folks from the square states. If my primary ethical obligation to my neighbor is to allow and affirm his moral agency, so long as it does not lead him to commit acts of violence, then what happens when I take away his right to peacefully disagree with me?

Excuse me? What about my right to peacefully disagree with him? Is that not what we’re doing here? It’s not a right to advocate against other people’s rights unfettered just because you’re nice about it. It’s my right to call this homophobia homophobia when I see it. (And, for that matter, to call things that aren’t homophobia homophobia when I think I see it.) And yes, it’s Brandon Ambrosino’s right to write this piece, terrible as it may be. And The Atlantic was within their rights to publish it, though, ugh, why?

Bringing up rights is to concede the best argument here is that this position is allowed. Sure? But it’s homophobic and a bad one.

We shouldn’t have to resort to trumped up charges of bigotry to explain why opponents of gay marriage are wrong. Calling someone “anti-gay” when his behavior is undeserving of that label doesn’t only end civil discussion – it degrades the foundation that undergirds a democratic, pluralistic society. Though gay rights’ opponents have at times villified us, I hope that we’re able to rise above those tactics.

No, no, no. If you hold beliefs that LGB (and to an extent, T) folks have lesser relationships, that is behavior worth calling homophobic. Bending over backwards to accommodate this kind of homophobia because it is not odious is, point of fact, homophobia.

Written by R. A. Stark

May 13, 2015 at 12:00 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Confession: I’m Ambivalent about Effective Altruism

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Because I’m rationality-adjacent, many of my friends are involved in Effective Altruism causes. Effective Altruism is a genuinely good movement focused on figuring out the outcomes of intervention, maximizing giving, and making sure it’s going to the places it can do the most good. This is probably the best collection of introductory material I’ve come across.

One thing I want to be absolutely clear about is that I am very much aligned with EA. This critique isn’t so much a call to abandon EA so much as temper it. Believe me, when I am financially stable I plan to give more like an effective altruist than not because the weight of many of the consequences far surpasses the magnitude of my objections. But there are ways I will give that seem to be at odds with EA nonetheless because of my reservations.

There are two main ways I think EA is flawed, apart from the additional problem I’ll throw out at the end. First, I think Effective Altruism tends to be very sure of its modeling in practice—though paradoxically also very concerned with it’s modeling in theory. Second, I think that reliance on modeling in places where data is bad neglects thorny issues about the consequences of empowering EA charities. Finally, I’ll mention the issue of accessing the movement, which is of a different character than this piece is aimed at.

Full Disclosure: I’m Not a True Consequentialist

My philosophical background is in political (not moral) philosophy. Further, I’m reasonably well-read in the standard canon—Plato, Cicero, Locke, Rousseau, Nozick, Rawles, and more—but it amounts mostly to personal reading and one undergrad course. I’ve read scattered chunks of Singer, but I’m in no position to truly take him on.

Still, I’ve never been persuaded by strong-form consequentialism. We are (to my mind, all but self-evidently) not fully in control of outcomes because of system variability and information problems. I tend to be most consequentialist where we know more and that knowledge indicates we have control. I’m aware that there is a degree of straw-man to this and a good many consequentialists from luminary philosophers to your everyday EA has considered the problem and offered degrees of accommodation or rebuttal.

I can’t take on these issues in full without blowing this post into a massive philosophical treatise. Given that I’m not here to trash EA, I would hope that readers would tailor their comments accordingly. (On the internet, so there’s that.) If you think there are no fuzzy edges in consequentialism, we disagree on the level of my operating assumptions and I request you answer to that and not my conclusions. But I put more stock in processes than most Effective Altruists because I believe we have more control over them and I think that shows through in the following reservations.

The Illusion of Control or Give Locally

One thing I struggle with writing this blog is balancing between modeling and realism—and this is hardly a problem unique to this time and place. Frequently, when trying to make sense of the world we have to cut out detail. Computational problems and information problems constrain what we can model. Missing data is filled in, regression smooths relationships, and it can be hard sometimes to even seen the shadows cast by holes in understanding.

Effective Altruists, to their credit, are unusually good about acknowledging this. Robby Bensinger and Scott Alexander are both bloggers in my wider social circle who spend a lot of time and energy trying (and succeeding!) at parsing empirics and trying to roll back the shadows. This is one of the reasons I’m happy to be EA-adjacent; a movement with kind of care to finding out what is right cannot be terribly far astray.

But I think there is a blind-spot in EA about what we know when we donate to EA style causes. Consider for contrast giving money to your local food bank. Speaking for myself, in both communities I’ve lived in for sustained periods in the last two decades, I know what neighborhoods my donations go to serve. I know what drives the income disparity issues there (Orville Redenbacher and RCA leaving each of the towns). I get feedback when a food bank screws up that I don’t get with international charities. This intimacy and certainty has a value that has nothing to do with appeals to community or neighborliness. It has everything to do with overlapping—though, still disparate—lived experiences.

And, again to EA’s credit, Give Well has considered the problem of measuring in more detail than I have. I think the fact that Give Well has found further advances in this to be intractable should be more sobering to Effective Altruists, especially given how popular discussing QALY analysis is on EA boards. (My most cynical thought in this post: Many people do EA because they like maximization problems, not out of altruism. Discuss.) That practical Effective Altruism is being forced back towards heuristic and process problems makes me all the more certain that giving in places you know outcomes may be worth a good deal in certainty.

This should not be read as an argument against giving internationally, at least in the extreme, because in the verbiage of economics I’m only arguing against a corner solution. EA is billed as the marriage of heart and head, but then oversells the head. The focus on international problems is a red-flag to me that EA values model output over model design. I challenge effective altruists to consider how much they know about their donations and consider apportioning more where they are certain.

The Illusion of Control or Give Abstractly

The other place I think those shadows rear their head is when talking about wider consequences of EA systems. There is a bitter, bitter debate in development economics about how effective aid even is. The two poles coalesce around Jeffery Sachs (very effective) and William Easterly (not effective), though as always there is a good deal of space in the middle. I lean towards Easterly, but I’m marginally more optimistic than him about direct aid and more pessimistic than him about institutions.

The thrust of Easterly’s argument is that aid does not encourage genuine economic growth and the formation of institutions that fight poverty. The West has done better because we have systems in place to manage our resources in ways that, while imperfect, tend towards better outcomes. EA folks will be happy to hear that I think that intervening in child deaths, moral imperatives aside, helps change the course of places where we intervene.

But I think the creeping focus on death rates and immediate measurables distorts some of the real issues at hand. If I accept that the death of a child from malaria on the other side of the world is as immediate as hunger in my own community, it seems to follow that the death of a child from malaria twenty years from now is as immdediate. In this way, Easterly’s concerns that we need to focus on institutional development makes him a better steward than Singer.

And the two are hardly in dire conflict; Easterly is a proponent of empirical aid. And the question of inter-temporal giving is not un-discussed by effective altruists, nor is it an easy one to answer. Again, I am EA-adjacent for this reason.

But I challenge effective altruists to give more weight to the impacts their giving has on changing institutions for better. The most effective giving is giving that eliminates problems and thus the need for future giving there. Of course, such choices may not be part of the feasible set, but the Easterly critique has teeth which should be minded.

Conclusion or Am I Ripe for a Conversion?

My feelings about Effective Altruism are pretty plain at this point: Ambivalence. Any fair appraisal will find Effective Altruism well-intentioned, well-executed, and a net positive. Indeed, there is a real argument that my nit-picking is within the definition of EA.

My critique is that modeling is complicated and so we should give more to places we know well enough to not need to pass through the thorny tangles of modeling. In a similar vein, I think measurable sets are more subjective than many effective altruists seem to, especially when weighing present lives against the lives saved in the future by present institutional development. These are unorthodox positions, certainly, but not wholly incompatible with EA.

And because the movement is fairly impenetrable to newcomers, I’m certain there are parts of this post that are wrong, flattening, or unfair. Flattening, by the way, because modeling EA is hard, a theme here. I’d love to hear EA responses to the shortcomings of this post. But I also challenge the movement to find ways for people to be adherents cheaper in terms of time and energy while still being engaged and informed. (If I have to learn formal moral philosophy to deal with the movement, I’m out. If you’re okay with that, that’s fine, but do your calculus accordingly.)

So, to all my EA friends: keep fighting the good fight and give these issues some (more?) consideration.

Written by R. A. Stark

May 12, 2015 at 12:21 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Why it’s not okay that we haven’t seen Dany get it on with Daario

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If you don’t watch Game of Thrones, most of this post will go over your head.  Of course, you probably also don’t really care about this post if you don’t watch the show.

Game of Thrones is notorious for its gratuitous sex, violence, and sexual violence, for which it’s had its fair share of criticism.  Leaving aside the particularly problematic way that rape is used in the show, the disparity between male and female nudity is troublesome in and of itself. Hardly an episode goes by without some naked breasts on screen to titilate (hehe) the audience, yet there has been exactly one dick shown in all 5 seasons, and it was definitely not intended to be sexy*.  It’s not exactly like GoT is hurting for Mr. Fanservice characters, either.

The story of how beautiful men never get naked below the waist, yet 85% of dresses fail to cover up tits.

With so much sex already in the show, it shouldn’t be such a huge deal that we haven’t seen Dany and Daario get down.  But it is.  Because unlike every other (hetero) relationship in Westeros or Essos, this is the only one where (a) the woman has the power and (b) the audience is still supposed to like her.  For once in GoT, a female protagonist is indulging her sexual desires purely for her own pleasure.  She’s not using sex to manipulate or deceive (Melisandre, Margaery). She is not in love with her partner (Talisa,** Ygritte).  Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those conditions from a narrative perspective, just that those seem to be the only scenarios in which the creators have deemed it acceptable to show a woman gettin’ it on.

This is different.  Dany has a lot on her mind, what with leading a slave rebellion.  She can’t devote much time or energy to a deeply involved romance, and there’s no indication she’d want one even if she could.  She still wants to get laid, and Daario is available, attractive, and willing.  But even though these characters are not in love, which is pretty much the only condition in which the show has depicted female sexuality in a positive light, they obviously respect one another.  They can communicate as intellectual equals.  Dany vents her frustrations and seeks Daario’s advice, and though he’s at times too familiar with her, he never forgets that he is her servant and so treats her with the deference she is owed as queen.  That last bit is really important.  Dany is his queen, meaning that she’s the one with all the power in this arrangement.  She is the one who summons him and sends him away when she’s done.  He’s her slampiece, not the other way around.

But of all the gratuitous sex on this show, we haven’t seen this coupling.  This show has literally never shied away from sex, but the one time the characters respect each other and the woman has the power, we don’t get to see it.  I mean, come on!  Emilia Clarke’s pretty pretty face is what got a lot of people watching the show in the first place, and Michiel Huisman is no slouch either.  That alone should have guaranteed them some onscreen sexytimes, but the creators of the show decided to treat their relationship with a little more discretion.  There’s been no problem with sex scenes between characters who declare their love for each other, or when a woman uses her body to manipulate a man, or using the rape of unnamed background women to show just how evil some guy is, but as soon as a female character takes charge of her own sexuality, it’s all cutaways and what passes for subtle implication on this show.  It’s as if the creators are uncomfortable with a sexually empowered female character.  Game of Thrones, for as much as I enjoy it, really sucks at portraying female sexuality.  A sex scene between Dany and Daario wouldn’t fix all of that, but it might be a place to start.  In the meantime, let’s enjoy this gif.

daario again

PS.  I have considered the possibility that there’s something behind the scenes that I may not be privy to, like the actors not being comfortable doing sex scenes together.  That would explain the lack of sex scenes between these two characters in a way I can deal with.  But failing that, it pisses me off.

*If you think using the occasional presence of man-butt will work in this argument, it doesn’t.  There’s also been woman-butt, and a lot more of it.

**I don’t read the books.  I know this character is really different in the books, but i’m going by the show.

EDIT: A friend pointed out that Emilia Clarke has it stated in her contract that she will not appear nude on the show anymore.  Fair enough, but this doesn’t mean that there can’t be any physical intimacy between her character and Daario.  Unless that’s also in her contract…

Written by Kelly

May 7, 2015 at 1:45 PM

Posted in Uncategorized


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