Further Meditations on the Objective Meaning of Green Twitter Avatars

Some people were really ticked off by my Twitter avatar post, and I can see why. I guess it's bad enough to accuse people of empty moral posturing. It's another thing to accuse people of empty moral posturing that helps the people who worked like crazy to start an unjustified war in Iraq. So let me say that I completely understand the impulse to express solidarity with Iranians who seek freedom. I feel it very strongly myself, but I also don't trust it. Why not?

Because I realize that I have no idea what I'm talking about. I don't understand Iranian politics very deeply. I will now proceed to make some mistakes that prove this. For example, I did not know until this episode that Mousavi was Prime Minister of Iran for many years under Khomeni, which pretty much guarantees he's no angel. I did not understand anything about the internal divisions within the Council of Guardians and the Assembly of Experts. Indeed, I still don't completely grasp how these various bodies are related to each other. What I gather is that that Khameni and Ahmadinejad are aligned against former Prime Minister Mousavi and former President Rafsanjani (who is now the head of the Assemby of Experts, the body that chooses the Supreme Leader. Thank you Wikipedia). I don't really grasp whether Mousavi and Rafsanjani are in it together, or are in a “the enemy of my enemy is a friend of mine” sort of thing, or what. As far as I can tell, the ruling axis got worried A'jad might lose the election, botched the vote-rigging, but validated the result anyway. I don't know who would have won had the vote been counted (I think this remains quite unclear), but in any case, it seems clear enough that Ahmadinejad is staying in power despite a pretty transparent flouting of the rules of an already deeply anti-democratic constitution. This provided a great opportunity for the anti-Khameni/Ahmadinejad faction to encourage a popular uprising, which I am sure is fueled by real discontent with the current regime. And much of this discontent I am sure is surely rooted in an authentic desire for a more liberal and democratic Iran.

Is that what we get if the Mousavi-Rafsanjani axis comes to power? A more liberal and democratic Iran? I honestly don't know, and I don't think many people do. I do know that these guys are deeply embedded in the larger status quo power structure, have had power before, and their records don't look so good. They may well represent improvement, but I don't honestly know that. As far as I know, the outpouring of desire for change that we see so clearly on YouTube is being exploited by one faction of the Iranian ruling class to depose another. I'd like to see the whole theocratic structure of Iran fall. I'd like to see the whole country radically liberalize, but I think that's unlikely, largely because I doubt very much that that's what most Iranians want. I want Iran to be free, and I want Iranians to want to be free. And I'm quite willing to cheer for freedom. Go freedom! But given my ignorance of exactly what and who I'd really be cheering on should I alter my Twitter avatar to reflect the campaign color of the former PM of the Islamic Republic of Iran, I think the intellectually and morally responsible course of action is to watch with colorless hope.

I am, however, quite confident that the powerful faction within American politics that argued for and got a war in Iraq has been arguing for a much harder line against Iran in order to set up a familiar dynamic of sanctions, UN Security Council demands, and so on. Just read the Weekly Standard blog.  Dick Cheney's authorized biographer Stephen Hayes is certainly not trying to avoid a future conflict when he writes:

The reason to talk about consequences [i.e., what the U.S. will do if this or that happens in Iran] is, at least in part, because it offers an opportunity to influence how this is going to play out. It may be the case that there are few potential consequences from the international community that could affect regime behavior. But if that's the case — and given the regime's support for terror, its pursuit of a nuclear weapon, its theft of the election, and its violent suppression of the protests — doesn't that make it more urgent for the international community to at least try to affect behavior and at least raise the possibility that there will come a time when the world refuses to recognize the current regime?

People are accusing other people of naïveté all over the place, so I'll try not to. But let me say I think it is rather unwise to underestimate the strategic savvy of the opinonmakers at the Weekly Standard and Fox News. It is not “paranoid” to think they are in fact talented at shaping American popular opinion and then bringing it to bear to achieve their political aims. The correct description of the events in Iran continues to elude me. Perhaps I have been ideologically blinded to the obvious. All I can say is that given what little I know, it is not obvious. But it is quite clear to me that the story of a people yearning for freedom and rising up to demand their rights as citizens who are then crushed by an evil authoritarian regime that will do anything to achieve its evil ends… it's clear to me that this story is useful to a certain faction in the ongoing debates about U.S. policy toward Iran. It may be that this story is the true story. But I don't honestly know that it is, so I think it is prudent not to assume it is–especially given the fact that this narrative does play into the hands of the most dangerous people in American public life.

Things really are lining up rather nicely for the neocons, and I don't think it's crazy to be wary of helping them, especially when doing nothing but explaining why you're doing nothing really can't hurt. If Mousavi turns out to be the Iranian Gorbechev, I'll be delighted. But then we'll hear how the reverse domino theory has been vindicated, how George W. Bush is a world-historical champion of freedom, and how we should not in the future be so hesitant to knock down dominoes. If the protests are crushed, it proves how rotten and dangerous the regime is, making it all the more urgent that the “international community” intervene to make sure the evil mullahs don't nuke Israel. If it turns out the new boss is same as the old boss, we'll hear a lot about Iran's instability, and the danger of nukes in that kind a tinderbox. Etc. So, yes. I am on my guard.

Anyway, I really did disparage people's motives in my first post, and I don't really think all Livestrong bracelets, pink ribbons, yellow ribbons, purple ribbons, blue ribbons, and green Twitter avatars are cheap, empty signaling. If you're really sincerely just excited to do some small thing to stand with people risking life and limb for their freedom, I apologize. But I do ask you to reflect on what you do and don't really know, and to consider what narrative benefits whom.

Meanwhile, IOZ interviews The Revolution.

History Repeats Itself

As I admitted below, I don't know much about Iran, but I suppose exiled Iranian journalist and filmaker Lila Ghobady does. She says:

There has been no real election. Candidates are all hand-picked and cleared by a central religious committee. It is a farcical imitation of the free nomination/ election process that we have pictured in the free world. There is no possibility that a secular, pluralistic, freedom-loving democratic person who loves his or her country can become a candidate to run for president (or any other office) in Iran.

Twelve years ago, we went through the same process. Mohamad Khatami became the favorite of the western media, which called him a “reformist” who spoke beautifully about freedom of speech, civil rights and dialogue between cultures. But when he became president there was a crack down on a student uprising – a crackdown against the same students who voted for him. Many were killed, many disappeared, and many were tortured. Artists, authors and intellectuals disappeared and were found “mysteriously” murdered. The smooth-talking president Khatami, whom westerners loved, never tried to stop the violence and never showed sympathy to his supporters. Instead, he openly avowed that his responsibility was to respect the wishes of the supreme leader, Ayotollah Khameni, and to protect the security of the Islamic regime.

Now, the passionate and oppressed young generation of Iranians are going through exact same situation. They are supporting Khatami’s friend, Mousavi. It is sad that history repeats itself so quickly in my beloved country of birth. The people of Iran were fed up with poverty, injustice, corruption and international embarrassment with the knuckle-dragging, anti-Semitic, war-mongering cretin who was President Ahmadinejad. They chose to support a bad choice – Mousavi – rather than the worse choice, Ahmadinejad. However, when an election is really a selection, choice is an illusion. Mousavi is from the Islamic regime; he is inseparable from it, and all its abuses and cruelties.

The reality is that Iran has not had a democratic, free election for the past 30 years. Mr Mousavi, if elected, will not make any changes, not because he is powerless to do so (as Khatami’s supporters claimed during his presidency), but because he doesn’t believe in a democratic state as his background shows. He belongs to the fanatic dictatorial era of Ayotollah Khomeini and he believes in the same command-and-control system of government. We should not forget Khomeini’s statement in one of his speeches after the revolution about democracy. He said that “if all people of Iran say ‘yes” I would say no to something that I would believe is not right for the Islamic Nation”.

Let us not forget that Mousavi was Prime Minister of Iran in the 1980s when more than ten thousand political prisoners were executed after three-minute sham trials. He has been a part of the Iranian dictatorship system for the past 30 years. If he had not been, he would not be allowed to be a candidate in the first place.

Do you have any reason to think she's wrong?

Ghobady observes that no matter who comes out on top, he would stone her for her many “crimes” against Islam. This is not the situation I prefer, but it does seem to be the situation we have.

Is Poverty a Violation of Human Rights?

I've been meaning to blog about William Easterly's exchange with Amnesty International about the notion that poverty is a rights violation. I've found my own view much harder to pin down than I thought I would, so it took me forever to actually write this post, which goes far afield, and amounts to a lot of thinking out loud. I remain unhappy with my thoughts (or this not-very-rigorous way of putting them), but I found writing it very useful, and maybe some of you will find it useful. So I'm throwing it out there. Dive under the jump at your own peril.

Continue reading Is Poverty a Violation of Human Rights?

Signaling and Solidarity

So folks on Twitter have been turning their avatars (little profile photos) green to show solidarity with the protesters in Iran. There are websites to help you do this. But why do this? How does it help? I want the Iranian people to live in freedom, just as I want all people to live in freedom. But the point of the gesture eludes me, unless the point of the gesture is to be seen making the gesture by others who will credit you for it. Like so many political gestures, it is vanity dressed up as elevated moral consciousness. It doesn't help. Is it harmless? Unlike the stupidly grandstanding House resolution, the ruling regime probably won't be pointing to verdant Twitter avatars as evidence that the uprising is an American plot. So I wouldn't worry about that. Here's what I do worry about. When people feel pressure to signal, and it's free, they'll signal. But sending the signal creates a small emotional investment in the overt message of the signal — solidarity with opponents of the ruling Iranian regime. As every salesman knows, getting someone to make a big, costly commitment is best achieved by getting them to first make a tiny, costless commitment. The tiny, costless commitment of turning Twitter avatars green is thin edge of the persuasive edge for the neocons who would like to sell the public a war in Iran. Since I would rather not be Bill Kristol's useful idiot, I will conspicuously leave my avatar as is, and continue hoping for the best.

The Bailouts are Like Paying Off Molested Children

Since I found it all interesting, I thought I'd just reproduce all of Will Ambrosini's post about my last post here:

I’m actually with Will Wilkinson when he talks up “liberaltarianism” and I support a reasonable social safety net. I’m one of those people that thinks rising GDP indicates increasing interdependence, that that is a good thing and that self-sufficiency is the road to poverty. Today Wilkinson suggests a reason why liberaltarianism might be a non-starter:

[I]t’s easiest to get people to face up to tax increases if they don’t have the sense that they’re paying more just so the special interests of the winning coalition can get more.

Isn’t the conditional phrase an empirical fact about governments?

This reminds me of my dad and the Church. Even after all us kids grew up and he stopped going to church, he gave money to them every week. The Church does a lot of good things for people — disaster relief, poor assistance, etc — but a couple years ago my dad stopped giving. His primary reason: he thought his money was primary going to paying off molested children; it wasn’t going to help poor people. He didn’t want to subsidize corruption.

I don’t want to subsidize corruption either.

I think Will is just agreeing with me. I take it that the empirical fact about governments is this: when taxes go up, transfers to the special interests of the winning coalition go up. I think that's probably a decent empirical generalization. But I don't think most voters do. Now, if the increase in transfers is generally equal to the increase in revenues, then budgets balance only when revenues are underestimated. I'm not so sure that's true. And pretty sure most voters assume it isn't.

What I was trying to say is precisely what Will is getting at: that willingness to contribute reflects a sense that the contribution is going to something worthwhile. Tax increases coupled with large spending cuts creates the sense that there is a good faith effort to balance the budget, which the tax increase is one part of.

As a matter of fact, I think the various bailouts have created a large problem for Democrats in generating public support for tax increases. Ideologues on the left enjoyed depicting the various Tea Parties as a ridiculous efflorescence of dimwitted rightwing ideology, and it was partly that. But it was also partly a real reaction to transparent distributive injustice. You can say that some of the bailouts were necessary to keep the whole system going. That may be true, but that doesn't make it fair. (Maybe it was the best thing for the church to pay off molested children, but that doesn't mean Will's dad wants to pay for it.) That sense of unfairness, which is by no means limited to Limbaugh-loving Tea Partiers, together with the sting of the recession (even after it's over), together with the typical American aversion to taxes increases that Obama has constantly catered to, is going to make tax increases on the middle class an incredibly hard sell even if there are also large cuts in spending, which there won't be.

Yglesias on Taxes

In an admirably frank piece in the American Prospect, Matt says the problem with Obama's budget is that the government doesn't have enough money to pay for it and so Democrats will need to raise taxes on the middle class if they want all this spending. This is such an important message because many Democrats are now going through a phase of magical-thinking freelunchism. Every huge new program will save money! Well, it won't. So Matt's right. It's better to face up sooner rather than later to the fact that taxes need to go up a lot to pay for all this stuff. Or, we could spend a lot less. I know Matt's down with slashing defense budgets, but I guess he just wants to spend that money elsewhere.  For my part, I think it's easiest to get people to face up to tax increases if they don't have the sense that they're paying more just so the special interests of the winning coalition can get more. Large, comprehensive spending cuts together with a modest increase of tax rates on the middle class seems to me the most plausible way of regaining something like fiscal balance. After the recession.

Regulating Pundits

Joshua Green writes:

[P]undits are a plague on us all. It is time we acted.

The crowning indignity, of course, is that they're usually wrong. Not just off-by-a-few-degrees wrong, but invading-Iraq-is-a-good-idea wrong. “Dow 36,000” wrong. And what are the consequences? There are none at all! You can blow the biggest questions of the day, time after time, and still claim to be a discerning seer.

Well, there ought to be consequences. It's not as if blogs and propaganda outlets don't keep trackof this stuff. In Washington, regulation is back in fashion. If we can regulate tricky things like credit-default swaps, surely we can regulate pundits.

That pesky First Amendment prevents us from silencing them outright. But couldn't the more reputable media outlets reach a gentleman's agreement to stop inviting commentary from the very worst offenders, at least for a respectable interlude? Pundits should have to explain their bad calls (and grovel?) as a condition of return.

It's always amazed me that entire foundations seem to exist solely for the purpose of dispatching hordes of green-eyeshaded technicians to pore over transcripts and news clippings in a civic-minded effort to detect “bias” in media coverage. Who cares? Why not measure quality—or the lack thereof—instead? That would be useful information.

Regulating pundits needn't be the province of dull nonprofits and media scolds. It could be fun! What would be more satisfying than a Daily Show segment that routinely held the worst offenders up for public ridicule? Let's keep a list of them online—a surefire traffic-generator if ever there was one. Some reputable publication with a track record more often right than wrong could serve as sponsor and steward.

Hmm. Green seems to recognize that we do this already but allows the reason it doesn't work as he would like to slip under his nose.

There is a huge amount of energy devoted to tearing down the credibility of pundits of all stripes. There is Sourcewatch. There is Discover the Network. One of the main activities of pundits is attempting to shame and marginalize opposing pundits. And it's not as if the editors and producers of “more reputable media outlets” (which one's are those!?) don't apply a discerning filter. The problem is that the motivation to “regulate” stray pundits is primarily ideological. And ideology is precisely why there is so little agreement about whether a particular pundit is right or wrong, whether a media outlet is reputable or disreputable.

The Dow 36,000 example is easy, since it's so easy to determine with certainty that it did not come to pass. But almost nothing is like this. So, to take Green's other example, I have always thought it was wrong to invade Iraq, but I don't feel like I know yet whether it was a “good idea” in a more compehensive historical sense. Maybe we're seeing the domino theory in action right now in Iran. Or not. The thing is nobody really knows. I don't feel like I know that America's entry into World War II was a good idea. For all I know, Germany would have otherwise walloped the Soviets and the rest of the century might have turned out better than it did. But if you say that you don't know for sure that America's entry into World War II was not a good idea, people will start to regulate you right away. (Ask Jim Cramer's regulator, Jon Stewart, who was sternly regulated for suggesting, quite reasonably, that Truman was a war criminal.) Indeed, Green's choice of “invading-Iraq-was-a-good-idea wrong” is a not-so-sly attempt to marginalize those who disagree.

So who does the financial markets collapse discredit? Free market ideologues? The Federal Reserve? People who trust regulation to work? Those who supported policies to increase homeownership among the poor? Who gets a black mark? Who gets a gold star? Should we dogpile Joshua Green for this ill-conceived piece of meta-punditry?

I think what Green wants is an ideas future market. So far, this idea has been regulated into ineffectuality, literally.

Should Freedom-Loving Americans Fear the Mexican Voter?

At Distributed Republic, Curunir cites this study by Erzo Luttmer and Monica Singhal finding that immigrants' preferences for redistribution tend to be predicted by the average views in their country of origin. They also find a similar but weaker effect on the children of immigrants. Curunir writes:

Now, there are several possible reactions one could take to this finding, assuming it holds up, which is always tricky in social sciences. One is to find that the net benefit of immigration for libertarians is still positive. Another is that free movement of people is simply a basic civil right, consequences be damned (I'm not wholly unsympathetic to this view). A third would be to blame this entire problem in the existence of the state, which strikes me as true but irrelevant (since anarchy isn't coming any time soon, I fail to see why we shouldn't consider how our policies on immigration will effect the world as it currently is).

But what is unacceptable is to just sweep aside concerns over the cultural and political effects of immigration as simple racism. What this study shows us is that it really does matter who constitutes the voting public, and that immigration could easily change the beliefs of the people in ways libertarians will find discomforting.

I think there's some confusion in this response.

First, it is wrong to take a preference for redistribution to say much about liberty at all–even economic liberty. Take the example of Denmark, which has the lowest level of income inequality in the world due to a population with a strong taste for redistibution. But, setting tax rates and government as a percentage of GDP aside, Denmark has a higher level of economic freedom than any country in the world. And the latest Heritage index puts Denmark at 8th in economic freedom, with no really meaningful difference from the U.S's 6th or Canada's 7th.

Of course, nobody in the U.S. is worried about the electoral effect of Danish immigrants. The immigration debate in the U.S. is almost entirely about Mexicans. And I think it's better to not talk in code about abstract foreigners and just face up to the fact that we're talking about people from the much poorer country along the United States' southern border. It is both clarifying and refreshing to talk about the real subject at hand. So what do Mexicans think about redistribution?

Take a look at the World Values Survey. On a 1-10 scale going from “Incomes should be made more equal” to “We need larger income differences as incentives,”  Mexicans average 6.1, the same as Americans. However, Mexican answers tend to cluster toward the ends of the scale, in every income group, while American answers tend to cluster toward the middle, in every income group but the richest (of which there is a very small sample). A larger proportion of poor Mexicans strongly believe there ought to be more inequality than poor Americans. Also, a larger proportion of poor Mexicans strongly believe incomes should be made more equal. On average, poor Mexicans are more pro-redistribution than poor Americans, but less pro-redistribution than poor Canadians. Canadians in general are rather more pro-redistrubution than Americans, but Canada has the same level of economic freedom as the U.S. and arguably more freedom overall. There is, as far as I can tell, little reason to think a large influx of Mexican voters would much change the American median voter's preference for redistribution, which is not in any case a good proxy for a preference for freedom.

But this is all to take for granted Curunir's sadly common confusion between residency and citizenship. It is almost impossible for a low-skilled Mexican to work legally in the U.S. without family ties. There is so much family chain migration and so many “border babies” because that's what it takes to get access to U.S. labor markets.  If we finished the work of Nafta and unified North American labor markets, there would be very little reason to worry about the electoral effects of Mexican immigration, since most Mexicans who come to the U.S. come to work, not to vote, or become American citizens. Labor migration and citizenship are separate issues. If Curunir's worry about diluting the electorate's taste for freedom had force, it would apply to the question of the distribution of citizenships, not the question of openness to foreign workers.

Cash for Clunkers

OK. Let me get this straight. I can get $4500 toward a new car as long as my old car gets terrible gas mileage. Well, I've got a 1996 Civic, which gets 30-something MPG. But it's worth less than $4500. So I guess I should sell it for what it's worth ($2-3000) maybe, buy a total piece of shit for as cheap as possible, and then exchange that for $4500 off a new car? I'd be several grand ahead. Of course, most of the models of new car I've got my eye on get worse mileage than a 1996 Civic. So if this plan induced me to buy a new car when I wasn't going to, which it might, and I get the kind of car I think want, taxpayers will have paid me $4500 to drive a nicer but less fuel efficient car than I've got. Thanks democracy!

Or maybe I should just buy a clunker, get the trade-in, then instantly sell the brand new car for $2000 off sticker and pocket the rest. Anyway, better move quick. Lemons go fast when everybody's thirsty for lemonade.

New at Cato Unbound: Robert Wright on the "Clash of Civilizations" as a Malfunction of Moral Imagination

You may know him as the Felix Unger of Bloggingheads TV. Or you may know him as the author of big-think bestsellers like The Moral Animal and Non-Zero. Today Robert Wright's years-in-the-making The Evolution of God hits the bookstores and the new issue of Cato Unbound offers you a taste with an essay adapted from one of the later chapters of The Evolution of God on the moral imagination. Here's the summary:


June 8th, 2009

This month’s Cato Unbound features an essay drawn from The Evolution of God, the ambitious new book by Robert Wright, author of Nonzero and The Moral Animal. In this essay, Wright explores the relationship between “moral imagination” and the possibility of religious tolerance and social cooperation. Wright argues that moral imagination is part of our evolved mental machinery. When we see others as potentially cooperative, moral imagination is awakened to better grasp the needs and interests of partners and allies. But when we see ourselves caught in a zero-sum game with others, moral imagination, and thus sympathy and the spirit of toleration, shrinks as we prepare for a fight. Wright argues that the widespread perception that “the West” and “the Muslim world” are playing a zero-sum game is an illusion created by a misfire of moral imagination. The media’s relentless focus on the truculent acts of a small minority of Muslim extremists encourages the sense that the larger, more moderate Muslim world is much more hostile than it really is. But this sense narrows moral imagination, making it harder still to grap the possibility of cooperation and the point of toleration.