Friday, October 29, 2010

Money Isn't Everything (A Defense Of "Citizens United")

Here's a firm counterexample to the idea that you can simply buy victory in an election:

There's Meg Whitman down by 10 in the Field poll (all the polls, really, but the Field is to CA what Selzer is to IA.)


There's Linda McMahon, 42 million spent, and who hasn't convinced men and (especially) women that dead wrestlers and steroid abuse are the experience we need to move America forward.


Nate Silver gives her a 0.1% chance of winning. Way to show folks how to manage money, Linda. Why not just give each CT voter $25?

And then there's Rick Scott, down three in the Mason-Dixon poll and behind on the 538 forecast as of this writing (that one is still too close to call.) That poll position cost Scott and his wealthy wife $60 million.

This is a big reason why Citizens United doesn't get my knickers in a twist; it's simply not the case that pouring unlimited amounts of money into a race guarentees success. Hell... looking at how Meg Whitman is performing its not even the case that it gets you a close race. Which, thankfully, is as it should be; the alternative rests on the assumption that people vote for whomever buys the most airtime rather than engaging in a reflective assessment of the candidates' positions.

I often wonder if the people who are getting upset at the outcome of Citizens United have read the transcript of oral arguments? I found the government's position in the case to be absolutely odious:

Robust debate about candidates for elective office First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. Yet that is precisely the dialogue that the government has prohibited if practiced by unions or corporations, any union or any corporation.

The government claims it may do so based upon the Austin decision that corporate speech is by its nature corrosive and distorting because it might not reflected actual public support for the views expressed by the corporation. The government admits that that radical concept of requiring public support for the speech before you can speak would even authorize it to criminalize books and signs.1

That's bloody-fucking-awful... the idea that you can criminalize a book or a poster merely because it's put out by a corporation. Granting the Federal Government the power of prior restraint is far worse, IMHO, than allowing people to (fruitlessly) spend buckets of money supporting a candidate or cause.

1 P. 3, lines 11-24.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Fuck You Markos, Redux

I've become convinced that Markos is part of the problem, not part of the solution:

Note, the Texas Greens have been trying for years to get that 5% and automatic ballot access and have failed. Texas Democrats, incompetent lots that they are, failed to field a candidate in the Comptroller's race, so the GOP literally paid to get the Green candidate on the ballot. So now, if that Green candidate breaks 5 percent, Democrats will have to contend with spoilers in 2012.


Blame the Democrats for putting themselves in this position, but if you are a Texas voter, don't compound the mistake by voting Green in the Comptroller's race.

As for those who will feel compelled to defend the Greens -- I'll take them more seriously when they can get their ass on the ballot without cashing the GOP's checks.

One of the biggest problems with democracy as its practiced in the US is the entrenched Republican/Democrat duopoly. They both suck, but if you're going to vote you've no choice but to hold your nose and pick the least bad candidate. I don't particularly care whether the Republicans purchased a spot for the Greens; broadened access for alternative viewpoints is objectively good, period. Maybe if they have a little competition the Democrats in Texas will find cause to stop sucking so much.

The above, taken in combination with his recent advice to Jack Conway vis-a-vis farm subsidies, makes a pretty good case that Markos has abandoned the moral high ground. His focus is not better policy or promoting democracy, but rather ensuring that Democrats obtain (and retain) power by hook or by crook.

Friday, October 22, 2010

I'm Not Sure Bacon Counts As A Hate Crime

(via Dispatches) Let me stipulate up front that leaving a message in bacon on the grounds of a mosque is

  • Juvenile
  • Vandalism
  • Almost certainly motivated by animus towards Muslims as a group.

However, I'm extremely leery of categorizing such an act as a "hate crime" since the "baconing" (if you will) of a mosque:

  • Borders on political speech.
  • Lacks essential elements necessary to merit the designation.

I'm not suggesting that the act, as described in the Sun News article, is bona fide political speech, but rather that its close enough to the real thing that we should be wary of setting a chilling precedent. If I were to wrap a Koran in bacon and hang it in an art gallery you'd be hard-pressed to argue that it was anything other than a legitimate excercise of free speech. Similarly, were I to picket a mosque with a sign reading "Pork is yummy" in foot-high, bacon-based letters you might call me an idiot and question the utility of my actions, but it'd be a stretch to categorize such activity as a hate crime.

Now suppose I steal onto the mosque grounds in the middle of the night and leave that same message, in bacon, in the courtyard. I'm trespassing, and committing an act of vandalism, but am I committing a hate crime? There are parallels here with other forms of anti-religious protest such as the desecration of communion wafers. If I leave broken crackers strewn through the nave of my local Catholic church on account of disagreements with Rome should that also be considered a hate crime?

The question of what is, and is not, a "hate crime" brings to mind a quote from David Neiwert on this topic which I've written about before:

Hate crimes are message crimes: They are intended to harm not just the immediate victim, but all people of that same class within the community. Their message is also irrevocable: they are "get out of town, nigger/Jew/queer" crimes.

I've thought about this definition a lot in the 3 years since I wrote that post and have come to the conclusion that David is essentially correct. I have no trouble supporting the idea that feeling secure from private violence is a fundamental civil right; other rights mean nothing if their free excercise is restrained by the threat of bodily harm. However, I also think that this principle should be narrowly construed, which puts me at odds with the general trend in progressive thought. That it is motivated by animus towards a particular group is insufficient to make an act a hate crime; such an act must also deprive the targeted group of the feeling that they are safe from private violence. Put more plainly the act must, implicitly or explicitly, threaten future violence against the targeted group.

This formulation neatly sidesteps the problem of determining the intent of the perpetrator. Intent is impossible to prove directly; to do so we'd need a record of the perpetrator's thoughts at the time the crime was committed. Instead, under current law we look for extrinsic behaviors which may serve as proxies for the perpetrator's mental state1 at the time the crime was committed. Which leads, inevitably, to ridiculous logical contortions of the kind we've seen recently here in Seattle:

King County prosecutors will not file hate crime charges against a Seattle police detective accused caught on camera striking a Latino man while threatening to "beat the Mexican piss" out of him.


"Detective Cobane did not maliciously and intentionally target (the man) due to his ethnicity," Satterberg said in statement issued Wednesday afternoon. "Instead, Detective Cobane and his fellow officers lawfully detained (the man) ... because they had a reasonable belief that the men were involved in two armed robberies. ...

"Detective Cobane used patently offensive language referencing the suspect's ethnicity. However, using such language is not in and of itself a crime. The threat or assault must be directed specifically towards a person because of the person's race. Detective Cobane's command to stay still was directed at (the man) due to (his) actions and his lack of compliance, not his ethnicity." 2

It certainly looks like a hate crime, but how do you prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Satterberg's interpretation is incorrect? You can't, for the reasons outlined above.

However, if we take the view that hate crimes are essentially acts of intimidation directed towards a particular group, its no longer necessary to determine Detective Cobane's precise motivation. A reasonable person would conclude, based solely on observation of external phenomena, that Detective Cobane is prone to express his dislike of Mexicans through violence. Mexicans in the area should rightly fear for their safety3 knowing that he's around, thus Detective Cobane's actions represent a hate crime, QED. Moreover, Detective Cobane could reasonably be expected to understand that his actions would be interpreted in this fashion and thus has the notice he needs to restrain his actions.

Which brings us back to the baconing. I maintain that a reasonable person would not believe that it represents a credible threat of future violence to the Muslim community in the area4. They might find it irritating, or offensive, or an abuse of bacon, but none of these things, by themselves, are sufficient to make it a hate crime.

1 Which just pushes the problem off one level if you ask me... how do you prove that a visible behavior is an accurate proxy for someone's mental state?
2 Shorter Prosecutor Satterberg: Detective Cobane was just using the first epithet that came to his mind to express his anger as he beat the snot out of the victim. Nothing to see here... move along.
3 Doubly-so because he's a police officer. Not only might he be a perpetrator of violence against them, but he may very well also be less inclined to protect them from violence perpetrated by third parties.
4 You might inquire as to whether I'm in a position to fairly render such a judgement evaluating in this case; that's a fair enough criticism and you're welcome to disagree with my assessment. Such determinations are rightly the domain of judges and juries rather than individual bloggers.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Solved: Content-Length header is not provided by the namenode

Seems like a non-trivial number of people have been having problems with communication between their primary and secondary name nodes under various releases of Hadoop 0.20. I found a solution today and, since (stupidly, IMHO) makes you register to post comments, figured I'd post it here instead.

This problem first manifested itself when we migrated from Cloudera release CDH3b2 to CDH3b3. During the DFS image transfer process the secondary name node was issuing the following request:

http://<name node>:50070/getimage?putimage=1&port=50090&machine=

To which the name node responded with

WARN org.mortbay.log: /getimage: GetImage failed. Content-Length header is not provided by the namenode when trying to fetch

Note that the name name was trying to contact, presumably based on the "machine=" parameter posted by the secondary name node. After tracing through a bunch of source code it turns out that in release 0.20.2 the "machine=" is (eventually) derived from the value of dfs.secondary.http.address. Editing hdfs-site.xml to explicitly point dfs.secondary.http.address to the secondary name node rather than accepting the default value of "" resolved the issue for me.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

For Once I Agree With Amanda

While I might quibble with some of the specifics, Amanda totally gets the context of the Cranick house fire.

The Implications Of Jesuses, Tap-Dancing Or Otherwise

PZ's post regarding the fundamental unprovability of the existence of God brought to mind a vignette from a couple of years ago. I was walking to work and was stopped by a couple of young-ish people (high-schoolers perhaps) who asked me if I believed in God. When I replied that I didn't they followed up with a question about what evidence I'd need to change my mind, to which I answered something along the lines of "documented evidence of the supernatural" would be a good first step. PZ's assertions notwithstanding I still think there's merit to that answer.

Let's stop and consider the example of a tap-dancing Jesus. What are we to make of it if the aforementioned fellow suddenly poofs into existence, does a little soft shoe, maybe performs assorted miracles, and then disappears into thin air? Our first step, certainly, would be to eliminate the many natural phenomena which might serve to explain our observations. But after we've determined that it wasn't done with smoke and mirrors and that we're not experiencing a mass hallucination, what then?

Michio Kaku provides a helpful framework which can be used to think about this sort of thing. He has identified three classes of probability regarding technology, the most improbable of which, "Class III", contains phenomena like perpetual motion and precognition whose existence would violate established laws of physics. If the hypothetical Jesus were to perform one of these Class III feats it should, in the very least, give us pause. The question is what sort of pause, exactly, should it give us?

I'm with PZ in that the existence of a Class III Jesus (not to be confused with a level 80 Jesus) wouldn't, in general, prove the existence of any particular god and would deal a fatal blow to many theologies. At the same time we'd have found ourselves in the presence of a chap who does things which are inconsistent with our fundamental understading of how the universe works; what to make of that? As PZ points out "god" is a hopeless muddled and malleable concept; venture down that road and you'll end up in a hopeless semantic quagmire. But its facile to say that the existence of such a fellow should be dismissed as epistemologically meaningless; were he to turn up tomorrow the metaphysical implications thereof would be absolutely staggering.

So, while it may be true that there's no possible evidence for the existence of "god", it is possible to prove the existence of beings with abilities that are "god-like".

Monday, October 11, 2010

God Dammit People, Stop And Understand The Context

There are big problems with Dante Atkin's analysis of the now-infamous Cranick house fire:

Now, many free-market supremacists in the conservative movement have argued that Mr. Cranick deserved to watch in tears as his house burned to the ground because he had not paid the measly $75 to the local Fire Department for service outside the city limits. But if the genuine issue were about making sure that adequate fees were rendered for services provided in the true spirit of the free market, there would have been at least two solutions to the problem: the South Fulton Fire Department could have accepted Mr. Cranick's fee at the time of the fire, or, barring that, the Fire Department could have put out the fire and then billed Mr. Cranick for the costs.

No and no. Accepting Mr. Cranick's $75 of the fire would have established a precedent that they must abide by at a later date; it would be unjust for them to accept Mr. Cranick's money and then subsequently refuse to extend the same offer to another homeowner. Such a predecent would inevitably result in some non-trivial portion of the fire department's customers paying the fee after the fact, effectively eliminating the risk-pooling aspect of requiring the fee from everyone up front. The original article to which Mr. Atkins links says the following in this regard:

Cranick's fellow residents in the rural stretches of Obion County had no fire protection until the county established the $75 fee in 1990. As Williamson explained: "The South Fulton fire department is being treated as though it has done something wrong, rather than having gone out of its way to make services available to people who did not have them before."

Mr. Atkin's insistence that Cranick be allowed to pay after the fact logically leads to the collapse of the South Fulton fire department. From a public policy perspective this is a worse outcome than allowing Mr. Cranick's house to burn down.

Nor could the fire department expect to be able to bill the Cranicks after the fact. As Orin Kerr points out:

Daniel Foster finds it objectionable that the Fire Department didn't agree to individually contract with the Cranicks to provide the service when Mrs. Cranick said over the phone that they would pay for the service "whatever the cost". But I don't know how the city is supposed to contract individually with the Cranicks while their house is burning down. Is the city supposed to treat Mrs. Cranick's statement that she would be willing to pay as the acceptance of a contract, at whatever the cost ends up being? At whatever the city wants to charge? And what if the Cranicks don't have the money to pay the actual cost of the firefighters coming out and putting out the fire?

The Cranicks would have been contracting under duress on account of their house being on fire and such, so there is a good chance that such a contract would have been unenforceable.

The treatment that this episode has been getting from people like Mr. Atkins is either fundamentally ignorant or just one more example of reflexive libertarian-bashing. Here we have a rural area that, up until the introduction of a fee-supported fire department, had nothing at all. That might be a problem in-and-of-itself, but Mr. Atkins isn't criticizing the difficulty of sustaining a fire department. Rather he's specifically criticizing the behavior of the fire department in regards to Mr. Cranick's situation, behavior which, as demonstrated above, is consistent with the public policy objective of providing sustainable fire service to an underserved community.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Constitutional Idolatry Vs. Constitutional Fidelity

Lexington is half-right in eir recent column about constitution worship within the Tea Party movement. There is indeed a trend towards deification of the Founders among this segment of society, a fact which I noted in passing in my post on Glenn Beck's Common Sense. It is, however, a mistake to assume that everyone calling for strict adherance1 to the Constitution is motivated by "constitutional idolatry" or dreams of "a return to prelapsarian innocence"; there are good arguments to be made for hewing as closely as possible to the principles laid out in the Constitution which have nothing to do with either.

There are a lot of ways to approach this particular issue, perhaps the simplest of which is to ask "Does the Constitution constrain the actions of the Federal government?". Presumably Lexington would answer that question in the affirmative, in which case my follow-up would be "Under what authority may the Federal government ignore those constraints?". I would argue that there is no such authority, whereas ey seems to have something else in mind. Consider this quote from the end of the article:

None of this is to say that the modern state is not bloated or over-mighty. There is assuredly a case to be made for reducing its size and ambitions and giving greater responsibilities to individuals. But this is a case that needs to be made and remade from first principles in every political generation, not just by consulting a text put on paper in a bygone age.

Absolutely! Every generation, every person, should seek to construct a coherent ideology for themselves from first principles. While they're thus occupied, however, something has to keep the government from overstepping the bounds which are currently in place. And, once the political generation has made up its mind, the various representatives thereof have to get together and reconcile the conflicts that will inevitably arise between different conceptions of the pursuit of happiness. The Founders, in their wisdom, provided the amendment process as a procedural framework for this type of reconciliation.

Which brings me to my second point: characterizing the Constitution as a "text put on paper in a bygone age" is, to put it charitably, incorrect. It, as Lexington is well aware, had been amended multiple times since its institution, fixing some of the problems (such as a greatly restricted franchise) which the Founders introduced with the original version. In this sense it is a document of relatively recent vintage; the contention that we're perpetually constrained by the archaic beliefs of the Founders is balderdash.

Close reading of eir article reveals a quote which suggests that we have a disagreement over the basic purpose of a constitution:

More to the point is that the constitution provides few answers to the hard questions thrown up by modern politics. Should gays marry? No answer there.

That's a feature, not a bug. Political questions will have multiple solutions; the purpose of a constitution is not to select one solution in particular but rather to define the boundaries of the permitted solution space. "Should gays marry?" is a normative question which, in my opinion, the government has no business answering. The appropriate question to ask is "To what degree is the government permitted to regulate gay marriage?"; that's a question which the Constitution is competent to answer.

As I said before, Lexington is half-right: the Constitution, by itself, doesn't provide the answers to all political questions. But it does provide an agreed upon framework by which each political generation may work out the messy details for itself. For this reason some (perhaps small) fraction of the individuals whom Lexington has tarred as constitutional idolators see fidelity to the Constitution as a matter of pure procedural justice. The Constitution represents the "rules of the game"; for an individual or institution to decide that ey are not bound by its constraints is not only an act of hubris but also incorrect as a matter of procedure.

Which brings us to the question of alternatives; what principle would Lexington propose as a substitute for constitutional fidelity? Surely any legitimate political order must include some fundamental set of rules by which the actions of government are constrained. If such an order is to maintain its legitimacy the government's actions must be well and truly bound by these rules at all times, not just when its convenient.

And that, I think, is the moral of the story: government has to play by the rules even when its inconvenient. It may very well be the case that the Constitution "gets in the way" of otherwise salutary activities such as the provision of universal healthcare and that, as a consequence, we're willing to ignore such violations of the government's mandate. If we do so, however, we have no cause to complain when the government oversteps its bounds in a fashion which we find objectionable.

1 The phrase "strict adherence" makes my skin crawl, but seems apropos in the current context.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The "Civil Liberties Stuff"

I, too, get depressed by the civil liberties stuff. This is serious shit; all the wholesome goodness that we enjoy by virtue of living in the US is (or, rather, was) predicated on the fact that we don't have to worry about the Federal government offing us in our sleep. You know, that whole bit about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"? You can't really pursue your happiness if Uncle Sam just killed you.

Which is why I wonder sometimes why people spend so much time worrying about HAMP or TARP; who gives a rat's ass about either of those when the President has said that he can assassinate you whenever he wants? Atrios and Markos and all the rest of the first tier, progressive bloggers should be shouting "Stop!" from the rooftops; Glenn Greenwald can't do it on his own.

I know... they'd probably say something like "Yes, but pragmatically speaking there are more immediate worries". Yeah... most people have nothing to worry about, I'm sure, regardless of who's in office. Of course that's because most people are sheep who don't threaten the status quo. Obama's not going to start rounding up people, but he shouldn't have the power to do so even in theory. And what happens when the administration changes and there's another attack? Remember "either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists"? The next time there's an attack there will be that much more pressure to sit down, shut up, and cheer harder.

Glenn's right... when you stop to think about it Obama is a tyrant. A benevolent despot, to be sure, but one who has asserted, in writing, unlimited power via the invocation of the state secrets privilege.

When it's come to that there's hardly any point in worrying about goddamn SUPERTRAINS!!!!.

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