Sunday, May 2, 2010

Emperor Berlusconi

(A Czech Republic protest in solidarity with the anti-Berlusconi last December 5th, dubbed by opponents of Berlusconi "No Berlusconi Day.")
The Italians tend to think of heirs to the glory of the Roman empire. This is just another nationalistic myth of lineage from an ancient civilization, and there are few similarities between the present day Italian state and the Roman empire. However, in terms of government, I think they may have a point. The style of Emperor driven politics of the most dissolute Caesars has made a return to Italy, and shows no sign of leaving. I am referring of course to the reign of Silvio Berlusconi, the richest and perhaps most corrupt man in Italy. The politics of Berlusconi are a revolting cocktail of corruption, misogynism, money politics and media control. Italy is unique among developed democracies is how much of official and unofficial power can be wielded by one man, and how this the influence of this one man has perverted and coarsened the already non-too-robust Italian democracy. These developments should give us pause. Though much of Berlusconi-ism is unique to Italy, the power of corporations and media tycoons certainly is not. The power that an oligarch like Berlusconi can accumulate in Italian politics by dint of media empire and monetary power should give us reason to look hard at the role money plays in our own politics as well.
For some idea why I dislike Berlusconi so much, I recommend this article in the New York Review of Books. Some of the details about Berlosconi's politics are salacious and titillating, and I suppose ought to be reasonably ignored, but when Berlusconi starts packing Italian and European parliament with his show-girls, a line has been crossed.
Berlusconi did indeed bring several former showgirls into parliament in the 2008 elections. Two of them were made government ministers, one of equal opportunity, the other of tourism. Both had appeared, as starlets, on Berlusconi entertainment shows. A series of wiretapped conversations made during a criminal investigation was said to reveal that Berlusconi had a sexual relationship with some of these women but prosecutors destroyed numerous taped conversations of a “purely personal” nature because they had no bearing on the investigation. Wiretaps that have been made public show Berlusconi using the state television system as a kind of casting couch, getting auditions for le mie fanciulle (my girls) in order to “lift the morale of the boss.”
The incident that initially infuriated Berlusconi’s wife, Veronica Lario, occurred in 2009 when he handpicked a couple of dozen showgirls, many of them young women in their early to mid-twenties, to be groomed as candidates for the European Parliament. Few of them had any political experience. One of them had been the weather girl on a Berlusconi network. Several had attended some of his private parties. He set up a school to give them a crash course in European politics so that they wouldn’t embarrass themselves during the campaign. Lario denounced the women as

trash without shame…who offer themselves like virgins to the dragon in order to chase after success, fame, and money.

This says more about Italian politics than just that Berlusconi is sexually voracious (and, unsurprisingly, sexist.) This is one more story of the use of power for personal ends, that is, corruption, by the Italian president. If he gets in trouble, the president can simply have the laws rewritten to accommodate his corruption.
Berlusconi set back to work on a new law that would immediately eliminate the two criminal cases pending against him—the Mills case and another charging that his TV company, Mediaset, used offshore accounts to inflate the prices it paid for movie rights in order to cheat the Italian treasury of millions of dollars it would otherwise have owed. To avoid the suspicion that the law grants special status to Berlusconi, it is written so that it will absolve many other white-collar criminals and could eliminate as many as 80,000 to 100,000 criminal cases. By some counts, Berlusconi has passed eighteen laws that appear to have been written specifically to meet his own personal needs, but this time, neither Berlusconi nor his allies make much of a pretense that there is some larger public principle involved. It is government for and by one person.

The whole article is worth reading for the picture it paints the sin and corruption of this one-man political system.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Don't Talk to Aliens

Stephen Hawking tells us that we should probably not try to contact aliens.
He suggests that aliens might simply raid Earth for its resources and then move on: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.”

He concludes that trying to make contact with alien races is “a little too risky”. He said: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

The idea that extra-terrestrials could be scary isn't exactly new idea, the alien invasion trope has been used again and again in fiction ever since H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds.
I would somehow prefer to believe that whatever aliens we came across would have developed morally to a point where they think just kill us, but this obviously isn't necessarily the case.
Among the greatest defining features of humanity is our rapacity. Whenever early humans arrived in a new part of the globe, most of the other life forms died off soon after. It could be that the aliens operate in much the same way. What if the aliens are simply rapacious, and don't care about any other forms of life they come across. Daniel Drezner on comments:
Why would aliens go after the inhabited planets? Ceteris paribus, I'm assuming that aliens would prefer to strip-mine an uninhabited planet abundant with natural resources than an inhabited one. Three hundred planets have already been discovered in the Milky Way, and there are "likely many billions." Even rapacious aliens might try some of them first before looking at Earth, since we are mostly harmless.

There is a counterargument, of course. Over at Hit & Run, Tim Cavanaugh tries to assuage fears of aliens by observing, "Why would a race of superintelligent jellyfish or blue whales even take notice of us, let alone want to conquer us?" This cuts both ways, however. If those jellyfish fail to notice us but notice our abundant amounts of salinated water, they could decide to come without a care in the world for the bipedal inhabitants of Earth.

One can imagine a callous species of aliens, who are as uncaring toward human interests as most of humanity is to the inhabitants of the forests we chop down. Think of the Vogons from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, who demolish Earth in order to build a hyper-space highway, or these aliens from Calvin's imaginings in Calvin and Hobbes (click the pictures for more legible view.)

Monday, March 1, 2010

More on Money and Politics

For the opposite point of view from my own on this Supreme Court, I would point you to this piece by libertarian Will Wilkinson. Wilkinson does a good job characterizing the liberal logic on the decision. He goes on to say we should applaud the ruling because the law, as it pertains to free speech, is very clear. "The trouble is, the First Amendment is written in stubbornly plain language. By honoring the simple letter of that law, the Citizens United decision dealt a crushing blow to this progressive project, leaving them wailing as if all were lost." I think the flow of money in political elections is pretty questionable as far as free speech, especially when we start extending free-speech rights to imagined entities, ie corporations. For more of this argument, see my piece for the Michigan Independent, as well as this piece from slate.
Wilkinson goes on to discuss three "progressive fallacies" on this issue.
First, progressives mischaracterize the nature of corporations. Corporations are not essentially villainous agglomerations of money and power. They are a convenient form of social organization that enables large numbers of people to undertake cooperative endeavors. Non-profit corporations, like Citizens United or the ACLU, provide individuals the opportunity to amplify their lone voices in harmony with like-minded others. Meanwhile, for-profit corporations are little more than lenders’ co-ops – a way for people to pool their resources to finance what look to be profitable lines of business. It is true that managers of corporations can -- and do -- take advantage of their owners and creditors. But there is a staggering number and diversity of for-profit corporations, and most of them, most of the time, do right by their stakeholders. Moreover, very few ever get involved in electoral politics in a significant way.

This seems to me a problematic objection. Even if we accept everything Wilkinson says about the essentially benign nature of corporations (which seems to me wrong, a group of individuals banded together in the search for profits can be a sinister entity), this seems to me scant reason to grant these agglomerations special rights that citizens are already allowed. Further, it is very clear when one looks at the way pharmaceuticals, insurance companies and large banks have played in the recent legislation, the role of corporations is in the political process is outsized. Wilkinson addresses this concern in his second point:
Which points to a second progressive error: the tendency to fixate on the high drama of elections rather than the more mundane processes by which corporate and other special interests actually do rig legislation and regulation in their favor. A single lobbyist with a good friend in the right place can deliver more to a special interest than many millions spent on campaign advertising. In 2009, $3.47 billion was spent on federal lobbying – a large sum, certainly, but not when you consider that the stimulus bill alone dispensed nearly $800 billion in public funds.

This also seems at first reasonable until one realizes that the reason that lobbying is so effective is that lobbyists hold the strings to possible campaign funds. Now, it is far from the case that all influence-peddling in Washington is the result of campaign contributions, but enough of it is that it doesn't make sense to dismiss it by simply pointing to the lobbyists who often enable it.
This brings us to our final "progressive fallacy":

But the granddaddy of all progressive errors – the one that breeds all others -- is the assumption that greater government power can rectify the problem of unequal citizen power. Government can only act as a “countervailing force” in this regard if it is not acting already to serve corporate and special interests. But it is. That is why new government powers merely augment, rather than offset, the already disproportionate power of entrenched interests.

This is in part pretty reasonable, the state is admittedly a very flawed vessel for changing the way that groups influence the state. On the other hand, if, as this argument pre-supposes, the state is already a under the sway of special interests, I don't think the argument necessarily follows that one must give up hope of using it to regulate interests. The best way to curb these interests would be for civic-minded people to fight a few key battles to attempt to limit these interests, rather than having to fight on every issue. Often, campaign finance reform does not work for the reasons outline (McCain-Feingold has not been an overly successful piece of legislation), but the answer is to attempt to fight to limit the interests in smarter ways, like providing public financing for elections, not by simply acknowledging that the state will always be hostage to special interests.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Article from the Independent

In case you've missed it, you can find my article from the here.

The article, is part of a point counter-point, the second article can be found here.

The article seems to counter-point argues that the decision will likely have little effect on our democracy, and that any changes made by the decision are greatly oversold, and that in any case, it doesn't benefit one party more than the other. I don't think there's anything wrong with this conclusion, as far as it goes, it merely seems to me far from the beating heart of the matter. In my editorial, despite its hysterical title (for which I am not responsible), I write:
President Obama quickly moved to condemn the decision. “This ruling opens the floodgates for an unlimited amount of special interest money into our democracy,” he said in a statement issued soon after the decision. “It gives the special interest lobbyists new leverage to spend millions on advertising to persuade elected officials to vote their way – or to punish those who don’t.”

This is only partially true. The floodgates were already open, the decision just opens them a crack wider. The decision FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life already allowed corporations to run attack ads about candidates. The only thing that this recent decision changes is it allows these ads to explicitly endorse a candidate. Concern that corporate money will now flow into the system is overblown; it already could. The president is right, however, to be worried about this decision, which will only exacerbate the situation.

Indeed, I am cautiously optimistic about the result of the decision. It both changes very little about existing law and brings attention to absurd ideological justification for money in politics (corporations are people and money is speech, it all follows from that). Very few people believe that existing campaign financing laws (ie McCain-Feingold) have been successful in restricting the influence of corporations in politics, this decision is a wake-up call for limiting corporate influence.

The other article concludes:
There are certainly valid reasons to question the decision—primarily, whether corporate personhood entails the right to free speech. Some take issue with the idea of corporate personhood in general. I don’t intend to in any way undermine the importance of these issues, but I don’t think these are the primary issues for most people. If those are the real issues, and not politics, why is this so polarizing? If Citizens United is actually eroding the very foundation of our democracy and will inevitably lead to the collapse of our entire civilization, then this is not a political issue. But this very obviously is a political issue, which seems to indicate that the doctrinal issues are not on the forefront of people’s minds. If the partisan divide of the donations remains the same, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t continue to fluctuate with the political cycles as it has in the past ten years, no party stands to benefit from this decision any more than any other party.

It has has certainly not been the impression I've received, either from the people I've talked to or the articles I've read, that must people are worried about the decision because they believe that most contributions will go toward Republican candidates. Perhaps all of the what I have heard from editorial writers, friends and politicians worrying about untoward corporate influence is simply a Machiavellain smoke-screen for concern about Democratic politicians, but there is little reason to think this. It is wrong to point to the fact that their is a partisan divide on this issue as showing that it is an issue primarily because of how it effects the two parties. There are similarly partisan divides about abortion, gun-control, climate-change and healthcare but simply because beliefs about these issues tend to break down along partisan lines doesn't mean that liberals some how think gun-control will lead to more more votes for a Democratic candidates, or that Republicans oppose abortion because they think future Republican voters are being aborted. Similarly, to suggest that the partisan divide on this issue is due to worry about who gets more contribution (a worry that the article has already shown to be largely invalid) is to completely write-off the genuine ideological difference between liberals and conservatives on issues like this one.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Is Religion Adaptive? Does it Matter?

I've just finished watch a bloggingheads tv featuring Nicholas Wade, author of The Faith Instinct and Razib Khan of Secular Right. I recommend this diavlog thought-provoking and containing interesting discussions of historical religion.

The main argument made by Nicholas Wade here (and in his book) is that religion is an evolutionary adaptation as opposed to, say, a spandrel- a byproduct of otherwise adaptive faculties used wrongly. Many have postulated that humans have an innate tendency to deduce agency- that is, attribute a will and intelligence to something which in fact acts out of natural forces rather than emotion. A storm, for example, may appear angry to the observers, but correctly understood it is merely the result of blind meteorological forces. It's easy, so goes this theory, to see that gods began- we simply imagined these beings from an otherwise adaptive faculty.
Wade has a not altogether convincing alternative- religion is in fact an adaptive force for "social cohesion". Though this initially seems plausible, I have trouble seeing that there's that much evidence far it to be. Perhaps we have a predisposition toward belief in a higher power, but its difficult to test this: we rather either have the belief drilled into our heads and acquire it, or don't. According to Wade, in the same way we acquire language early in life, it is similarly much easier to come by religion as a child. A much more obvious answer is simply that we are most impressionable as children, and tend to reflect the world-view of our parents and other influences.
Obviously, just because something is adaptive does make it true, indeed, because their are other reasons for such a belief to evolve, it increases our reasons to doubt such a belief. Those who make the "religion is adaptive" argument tend toward an altogether different argument, namely that it shows religion to be a social good. This is problematic, as many things that are adaptive are utterly evil (rape and genocide, come to mind). Nevertheless, Wade does apparently seem to think that the argument that religion is adaptive and the argument that it is good go hand in hand.
From the New York Times review of the Faith Instinct
Wade would probably deny that being adaptive makes any religion better in a non-evolutionary sense than any other. His scientist’s neutrality slips toward the end of the book, however, when he starts making the case for Religion with a capital R. Like Robert Wright in “The Evolution of God,” Wade wants to defend religion from so-called “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, who see it as a malignant illusion. In chapters on religion and trade, religion and warfare, religion and nation, and the “ecology” of religion — the way in which religion regulates fertility and population size — Wade argues that our religious disposition can enhance social and national unity, manage scarce resources, even solve the tricky problem of how to get young men to die for the greater good when that’s called for. But Wade also knows that the faith-based preference for the group has engendered genocide, mass suicide and maladaptive cargo cults. Perhaps that is why he declines to draw one inference that proceeds from his arguments: that individual religions can be compared and ranked and, well, approved or disapproved of, since a religion can be good only insofar as it’s useful.

The argument that religion is merely an evolutionary adaptation and clearly socially constructed, yet ought to be encouraged for its social effects seems incredibly Machiavellian. the argument in a nutshell is that this is not true but the masses should believe it, so that they will be more socially cohesive and hence, among other things. Napoleon made the point similarly "Religion is excellent stuff to keep the poor from killing the rich". If it were true that these myths were useful, there might be some sort of argument, but there's little reason to think they are. Take the example of getting people to die in battle. Evidence points toward the secular being over-represented in the military. Even it true that the religious being more willing to fight and die, today technology is far more important than fanaticism. The Taliban and Al Qaeda have shown themselves far more willing to die for their cause, however, the United States is far more powerful because of the weaponry. In the modern world, know how (primarily furnished by secular scientists) trumps fanaticism ten times over.
Beyond this fact, I don't understand why anyone sane would ever recommend religious belief as a way to encouraging military service. I for one would prefer the soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan to have a secular world-view, rather than be encouraged to see themselves as on a crusade. I think the other alleged "good effects" of religion are probably similar to this. They sound appealing on first blush, but upon examination don't make sense.