Friday, May 29, 2015

Institutional disrespect for law

On March 10, 2015, the Wyoming state legislature passed a "data trespass bill". The law is designed to limit collection of data of pollution or health hazards on land within the state.[1] The law makes it illegal to trespass without an owner's permission onto any land outside city boundaries to obtain evidence such as photographs or soil samples and then to submit the data to any state or federal agency.  Penalty for violation of the law is a fine up to $5,000 and up to 1 year in jail. This applies to private land and federal lands such as national parks or land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The point of the law is to discourage and limit collection of data of pollution or health hazards so that economic interests, primarily cattle ranchers, can operate without public knowledge of their activities, regardless of the legality of those activities.

The law comes after years of of disputes over collected data between Wyoming ranchers and citizen scientists who were working for the Western Watersheds Project (WWP). Water sampling data the WWP obtained found high levels of E. coli bacteria in streams on land owned by the BLM. The WWP asserts their data proves that ranchers allow their cattle to graze too close to streams and, if true, that could lead to stricter regulation of the polluted waterways. Those waterways are on public, federal land. they are public lands.

Under the circumstances, pressing for and passing this law by supporters including most Wyoming ranchers, the state legislature and the governor mocks the rule of law. First, the law is undeniably designed to discourage collection of evidence of illegal activity. If there was no such activity, there would be no need for such a law. Second, if this law is unconstitutional[2] the ranchers who use public BLM lands to graze their cattle are operating for their own economic benefit without regard to the public's right to access federal lands to engage in legal activities, including collecting evidence of pollution or health hazards.

The disrespect that supporters of this law show toward the rule of law is yet another example of the weakness of the rule of law in America and the disrespect that economic interests routinely show toward any law that impairs their ability to make money, regardless of impacts on the public interest. Given the paltry grazing fees the government collects[3], the arrogance the backers of this law have for both the public and the law is astounding. Not only do taxpayers subsidize scofflaw rancher operations by charging unreasonably low grazing fees, they have to put up with their polluting activities and the utter contempt these welfare recipients show toward the public and the rule of law. This is what can and often does happen when no one defends the public interest.

1. Dissident Politics (DP) previously commented on efforts to limit collection of data or information as one of the ways the two-party system deceives the public. Based on DP's understanding of the situation, this appears to primarily be a practice of business entities or conservatives. The Law discussed here is similar to laws being passed in other states to limit public knowledge of various business practices such as making undercover videos. The point of such laws is presumably to aid businesses in their conduct of illegal and/or unpopular activities or to vindicate conservative ideals. Backers of such laws cite reasons such as protecting privacy or limiting fraud.
2. The law arguably is unconstitutional because it interferes with federal law under the Clean Water Act and/or EPA regulations. The Wyoming law arguably violates the Supremacy Clause and possibly other parts of the Constitution such as the First Amendment right to free speech.
3. The Federal grazing fee for 2013 and 2014 was $1.35 per “animal unit month” (AUM) for public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management.  An AUM is defined as the amount of forage needed by an “animal unit” grazing for one month. The quantity of forage needed is based on the cow's metabolic weight, and the animal unit is defined as one mature 1,000 pound cow and her suckling calf.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Politics and economics: Rational or not?

Dissident Politics relies on current understanding of human cognition to argue that the two-party system (TPS) subtly but effectively manipulates both perceptions of reality and logic. That is done for self-interested reasons and a key reason is defending a failed status quo. The TPS bases its manipulation on centuries of human experience with how reality and logic can be distorted to the advantage of the manipulator. Machiavelli’s book about political leadership, The Prince, published in 1532, is an example of explicit advice to leaders to lie and commit immoral acts and crimes. The point is to advise leaders on how to gain and keep political power. Deceit of both the public and political opponents is a major component.  

Machiavelli’s 16th century tactics are mirrored in politics today, but softened somewhat by limits the rule of law imposes on the rough edges. Despite the softening, politics remains a dirty, bare knuckles fight. Being faithful to unspun fact and unbiased logic has little or nothing to do with modern political rhetoric and debate. That isn’t the point. Spin in politics is constitutionally protected free speech.[1] The point of spin in most campaigns is to deceive the public while serving special interests, including the candidates themselves and their major campaign contributors, before serving the public interest.[2] Evidence of fact and logic distortion, including withholding information from the public, is overwhelming. It happens in public debates, routine discourse and governing.

Don’t trust the experts, or the politicians
A major political concern is with budgets, economic forecasting and fostering economic growth. Most economic theory that politicians rely on is based on an assumption that humans are rational in their decision making. This is referred to as the “rational man” theory. In the last few decades, social science has shown the rational man theory to be basically wrong. Unfortunately, economists and their advice to politicians are based on the flawed rational man theory. Their advice is very influential in informing or guiding political policy choices. According to Richard Thaler, a psychologist, who helped debunk the rational man theory, economic policy advice, “the very premises of which are deeply flawed” is why “economic models make a lot of bad predictions: some small and trivial, some monumental and devastating.”

That observation is in accord with research showing that human experts generally do a poor job at forecasting the future. Experts typically get predictions right about 10% of the time, 20% at best by the rare exceptional expert. By contrast, one statistical model that was tested for comparison purposes gets predictions right about 50% of the time. Experts are often not much better at predicting the future than simply guessing. The reality is that experts are intuitive creatures like everyone else and, also like everyone else, they typically use logic to justify and/or deny their own errors or biases.[3] The subtle power of intuitive belief or ideology to distort fact and logic cannot be understated. People who become self-aware enough to see the subconscious power of normal intuitive, not rational, human cognition are few and far between. That ignorance applies in spades to most politicians and even more so to true ideologues.[4]

Machiavelli + free speech + unenlightened humans with big egos = flawed 
second rate government
What is one to make of all of that? Those observations are disparate and have little to do with each other, right? Wrong. They have everything to do with each other. That assumes that one accepts that (i) Machiavelli was basically correct about the nature of political leadership being basically self-interested (not public interest-focused), (ii) spin dominates political discourse and (iii) most politicians, like everyone else, are intuitive creatures and find it hard or impossible to apply reason to alter flawed intuition or faith. If those assumptions are correct, what are logical, defensible conclusions?

Conclusions that jump out are not subtle. TPS politics is based as much or more on false beliefs and flawed logic than it is based on unspun fact and unbiased logic. That flawed basis for governance is self-serving or special interest-focused, typically at the expense of serving the public interest. And, finally, if people and politicians can be taught to see their own intuitive nature and more often apply reason to guide it, politics and governance can be made to be first rate.

1. Spin is speech that consciously or not, is based on one or more of lies, deception, misinformation, withholding, distorting or denying inconvenient facts or arguments, unwarranted character or motive assassination, and, use of fact or logic that is distorted by ideology and/or self-interest.
2. Serving the public interest as DP defines it: Governing by finding a rational optimum balance between serving public and private or commercial interests based on a pragmatic, non-ideological assessment of competing policy choices, while (1) being reasonably transparent and responsive to public opinion, (2) protecting and growing the American economy and its standard of living, (3) defending personal freedoms, (4) protecting national security and the environment, (5) increasing transparency, competition and efficiency in commerce when possible, and (6) fostering global peace, stability and prosperity whenever reasonably possible, all of which is conducted (i) in an fiscally sustainable manner, (ii) in accord with the U.S. constitution and the rule of law and (iii) by way of government that is as transparent as applicable realities permit.
3. A new field of academic research called behavioral economics generated this new understanding of human cognition. The data show that humans are “rational” but with rationality based mostly on the intuitive or emotional basis of human cognition. On rare occasions when people do consciously use logic or reason, it is usually to justify intuition or belief, even when the intuition is wrong. Intuition can often objectively be shown to be mostly right or wrong. When it is wrong, changing a false intuition or faith can be hard or impossible. Logic or reason is rarely used to critically analyze a personal intuition (belief) and it is very unusual for logic to change an intuitive belief based on fact or logic that undermines the belief. Fortunately, people can be taught to see this aspect of their own nature and, with moral courage, to give more respect to their own power of reason to correct flawed beliefs. It won’t make politics perfect, but it will make it better.
4. Even economists resisted evidence that their theory about the rational man was wrong. Dr. Thaler observed that: When  traditional economic theory predicted something, but the evidence did not confirm or contradicted it, the “establishment explained away the evidence as an anomaly or miscalculation.” Up to a point, skepticism of evidence that contradicts an established theory makes sense and is good. However, there comes a time when an old, flawed theory has to be acknowledged for what it is. Human cognition and biases delay the day of reasonable reckoning, sometimes by decades. That is just a manifestation how inefficient (imperfect) human cognition or reason can be.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Our ideologically politicized Supreme Court

Americans expressing a great deal or fair amount of trust in the Supreme Court peaked at about 71% in 1999 and dropped to 61% by 2014. Although that is better than the 43% trust level in the executive branch or 28% trust in congress, the decline likely reflects the court’s ideological polarization.

Recent decisions on socially divisive topics such as campaign finance decisions are usually 4-4 party line votes with the final 5-4 decision being decided by a republican justice, Anthony Kennedy, being the deciding vote.[1] It is fair to believe that the Supreme Court is an ideologically and politically polarized institution. If that is true, eight of the nine justices cannot objectively read the constitution without the powerful but subtle fact- and logic-destroying bias that accompanies political ideology.[2]

From time to time, it is asserted that the law is simply politics by other means. Maybe that is mostly true and maybe it has been since the founding of the republic. Due to bitter disagreements, the Founding Fathers never came anywhere close to resolving the role of the Supreme Court.[3] The question is what would best serve the public interest. Would a Supreme Court that impartially reads the constitution impartially to decide cases be best? Or, is it better for judges to be “merely politicians clad in fine robes” who make decisions as they prefer to see them through the distorting lens of their political and religious ideology?

The distinction between a political, ideological court vs. a politically impartial court could make all the difference in the decision on gay marriage the court has to decide before or by the end of June. Regardless of how it decides, especially if the gay marriage decision is a 5-4 party-line vote, the decline in public trust in the Supreme Court will probably continue or accelerate. Two-party partisan politics has arguably significantly ruined the Supreme Court.

1. In two rare exceptions, Chief Justice Roberts, normally a conservative ideologue, decided with the four liberals on the first Obamacare challenge and on a case about financing of judicial elections.
2. Ideology promotes false fact beliefs. Distortion of fact and logic by ideology is subconscious and people only rarely come to realize how subtle (subconscious) and powerful the effects are.
3. Some of the Founders wanted the Supreme Court to be the final decider of constitutional questions. Others wanted the president to have that power, while others wanted congress to have that power. In 1803, the Supreme Court itself took that power for itself in the Marbury v. Madison case.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Political advocacy: Win by deceit and hypocrisy

An April 27, 2015, a Wall Street Journal editorial by William McGurn argued that when America loses a war, the losses are high and not fully appreciated. That is probably true for the most part. The point of the article was to provide a rationale for greater American persistence in the wars America gets into. Mr. McGurn argues that a false lesson from Vietnam was that U.S. withdrawal was a mistake because the killing did not stop and “the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps,’ and ‘killing fields.’ ” Mr. McGurn asserts that the price of U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam also includes “more aggressive Soviet intervention in the Third World that included in the invasion of Afghanistan.”

What are the lessons?
What can be learned doesn’t have anything to do with Mr. McGurn’s unsubstantiated speculations. This is about raw partisan advocacy in two-party politics. It is not about informing the public with unspun fact and unbiased logic. It is not about ideological fights on a level playing field. It has nothing to do with the vaunted, probably now discredited, concept of the nobility of an honest competition in the marketplace of ideas. This is all about defense of a failed, corrupt two-party status quo.

Deceit: Mr. McGurn’s assertions could be partially right or better, but there is no way to know. Maybe he is not even that close to the truth. For example, Russia may have invaded Afghanistan for geopolitical reasons such as (i) deterring U.S. interference in the USSR’s backyard, (ii) obtaining a strategic foothold in Southwest Asia, (iii) neutralizing an Islamic revolution,[1] and/or, (iv) simply to establish an ideologically-friendly puppet regime. Some or most of the ancient factors behind the blinding complexity America faces in the Middle East today were in play then, i.e., Sunni vs. Shia vs. profound corruption vs. ancient cultural norms and customs we know essentially nothing about vs. whatever else is relevant. This opinion piece is standard two-party partisan deceit for partisan advantage and defense of a failed two-party status quo.

With that context, how persuasive is Mr. McGurn’s argument that U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam was the primary or even a significant cause of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan? How does he know what he claims to be the truth? What is his proof? He cannot know and he has no proof. That is why his essay is called opinion, not news. The lesson arguably is that partisan pundit opinion is mostly deceit based on a partisan-biased assessment of a few facts without reference to sufficient context with unspun facts.

Hypocrisy: Mr. McGurn argues that premature American withdrawal causes preventable civilian slaughter and misery in the countries we “abandon”. Mr. McGurn observes that “before President Bush had ordered the surge in Iraq, the argument for the futility of the fight there was filled with Vietnam analogies.” The American invasion of Iraq caused about 150,000 to 1,000,000 civilian casualties and, as of November 2006, about 1.8 million Iraqis refuges fled to neighboring countries, and about 1.6 million were displaced internally. During the Iraq war, which is now open to the argument that it was an unnecessary war, the Iraqi civilian casualty and refugee situation was rarely mentioned because that factor would undermine U.S. public support for the Iraq war.

Now, in a broader context, Mr. McGurn raises this as part of a rationale to at least stay in wars for a longer term.[2] That is pure partisan hypocrisy, at least in Dissident Politics (DP) opinion. During the Iraq war, concern for Iraqi civilians was minimal. Even today, America has been reluctant to allow both Iraqi military allies and civilians into the U.S. Conservatives are just as reluctant, or more so, to bar comfort to Iraqi civilians than liberals. When Mr. McGurn raises this as part of his rationale, in DP opinion it is the height of sheer self-interested partisan hypocrisy.

The real lessons here are simple. Overwhelming data shows that pundits like Mr. McGurn are bad at what they do. Their accuracy rate is typically about 5-10%. Mathematical models of predicting future events trounce human experts and pundits, with an accuracy rate of almost 50%. When Mr. McGurn asserts that more persistent American involvement in wars will lead to better outcomes, he has no more than about a 10% chance of being correct. In DP opinion, his chance of being mostly right is no more than about 1% because Mr. McGurn is not an expert in military science, history or strategic geopolitical policy. He has no security clearance to assess what remains confidential national security information. But, Mr. McGurn is an expert in partisan political ideology and how to deceive the public regardless of how much hypocrisy goes into the effort. Deceiving the public, not informing it, is the point of partisan political opinion such as this.

Unfortunately, as the DP has pointed out before, the damage from this typical form of free speech to the public interest is very high. In DP opinion, we cannot afford politics based on fantasy and illogic. The stakes are too high for self-interested partisan nonsense to guide or “inform” either public opinion or political policy debates or choices.

1. Iran supported Shia groups and the U.S., China and others supported Sunni groups known as the Peshawar Seven. Russia could very well have been worried that Islamic revolution from Iran to Afghanistan could spread to other parts of the USSR.
2. For the most part, Mr. McGurn ignores the flawed rationales for getting into at least some of America's wars in the first place, e.g., Al Qaeda in Iraq launched the 9/11 attacks. That was nonsense and president Bush finally admitted it after years of dithering for obvious partisan reasons.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Irrational political assaults on research

In 1972, Congress created the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to provide objective and authoritative analysis of complex scientific and technical issues. The world was becoming much more complex and Congress needed objective analysis to help understand issues and to guide policy debate and choice. In 1995 under Newt Gingrich's leadership, Congress de-funded the OTA, arguing it was wasteful and therefore ineffective because it was redundant over other research and analysis centers in the federal government. As usual with anything in politics, there were at least two completely different versions of events. 

One explanation for OTA's shutdown was the argument about irrelevance and waste. The other is the argument that the analyses the OTA was generating were interfering primarily with conservative ideology and policy arguments. OTA's version of unspun facts, unbiased science assessments and policy implications tended to undermine what conservative ideology wanted the world to be. Unfortunately for ideologues and the rest of us who are governed by ideologues, the world and reality just is what it is without regard to what any ideology might want it to otherwise be.

Dissident Politics (DP) believes the second version is much closer to the whole truth than the first. That opinion is based partly on direct personal experience with OTA's work product at the time, which was excellent. It is also based on how DP sees modern politics as an enterprise grounded mostly in ideology, false facts, spin and corruption by cash from powerful special interests. Those special interests prominently include both political parties and their politicians. OTA's analyses tended to undercut the rationales for policy choices that many powerful people, businesses and some federal bureaucracies wanted to put into place.[1]

That's just DP's opinion
It is fair to ask if there is any contemporary evidence to support DP's assertion that the American two-party system of politics, or conservative politics and ideology in particular, could do something that arguably amounts to an irrational assault on unbiased research? There is. Lots of it.

Gun violence research: For example, conservatives in Congress and the National Rifle Association have been blocking federal research on the public health effects of gun violence since 1996. Gun owners and manufacturers and Second Amendment ideologues suspect bad news. The best way to deal with that possibility is to simply prevent the research that would prove how good, bad or indifferent gun violence is for public health.[2] A 1993 study showed bad effects of guns on public health, "guns kept in the home are associated with an increase in the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance". More research is needed to fully understand the situation. Barring research on this topic is irrational partisan politics. Calls to restart gun violence research are unlikely to succeed, given the intense ideological gridlocked barrier to doing so.

Earth science research - global warming (yet again): In another example, Republicans in the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology voted on April 30, 2015 to severely cut NASA's research budget for earth science research. It was a straight party-line vote. No democrat supported this particular research budget cut. Republicans argue that (1) the cut was needed for fiscal responsibility and (2) study of the Earth itself wasn't part of NASA's mission. The other version is that earth science study always was part of NASA's mission, which is true, and that NASA's climate science research continues to add to evidence that anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change is real and an urgent problem.[3]

Psychoactive drugs, social science: More or less the same situation applies to irrational conservative opposition to research on psychoactive drugs, including marijuana, and social science[4], with arguments about waste and/or irrelevance being applied to rationalize the cuts. Arguments to make research cuts are based on ideological grounds and anecdotes about waste. Anti-research arguments are not grounded in a clear, direct cost-benefit analysis that comes from unspun fact and unbiased logic. That is the epitome of irrationality.

Where's the beef? What is the cost-benefit ratio?
DP is not arguing that there is no waste in taxpayer-funded research. There clearly is some. That is no different than waste or inefficiency in any federal spending. Human endeavors, especially ideologically-grounded ones, are not perfectly efficient. What is missing from attacks on research, including de-funding the OTA, blocking gun violence research, cutting NASA earth science research and everything else, is an honest, transparent cost-benefit analysis. Yes, it saves money to not fund research. But, that half of the argument is never accompanied by an unbiased assessment of how much money the lost research would have saved, i.e., an unbiased, fair cost-benefit analysis is absent.

In DP opinion, for every research dollar that is cut in the name of fiscal responsibility, waste or whatever excuse is applied, it costs (i) taxpayers about $5 in lost efficiency and (ii) the U.S. economy or GDP about another $5 in lost business activity. Obviously, the DP cannot prove that a 1:10 cost-benefit ratio is real. But, can people who advocate research budget cuts prove the 1:10 ratio is wrong? No, they cannot prove 1:8, 1:10 or anything else positive is wrong. They fear that a 1:10 ratio just might be about right. Given that, blocking or cutting research keeps the illusion alive. It's called plausible deniability. Research budget cutters won't do the analysis needed to make their point in terms of cost-benefit. That too, is the epitome of irrationality.

1. Some organizations have called for restarting OTA. However, with the current climate of partisan ideological gridlock and widespread conservative contempt for science and unbiased analysis, the chance of that happening any time soon is nil. Two knowledgeable observers, Ornstein and Mann described the modern Republican Party's knowledge intransigence like this: ". . . unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science". Equivalents of the OTA have been established in some European countries and those entities are highly valued for providing enlightened information to help guide intelligent, cost-effective governance with little or no ideological bias.
2. The logic here is simple. If gun advocates truly believed that research would show that more gun ownership and fewer gun restrictions was good for public health, they would jump at the chance to have that proven by science. But, since gun advocates prevent the research, one can reasonably conclude they fear powerful ill-effects of gun ownership on public health. That is just common sense. If there is a flaw in that logic, what is it?
3. There is no need to argue anthropogenic climate change. The battle lines are almost exclusively ideological and crystal clear: Many or most conservatives deny anthropogenic climate change exists and/or that there is anything humans can or should do about it. Many or most liberals and moderates argue otherwise. A large majority of climate scientists decided this years ago and no longer debate this point. Only conservatives politicians, self-serving special interests argue it, which is to the great detriment of the public interest. Climate scientists now argue over the fine points of their models, how to refine them and what they may be missing in their research or models. Logic argues that conservatives fear that they are wrong about anthropogenic climate change and continued research will continue to support that. The logic here is the same as the logic behind blocking research on gun violence.
4.  Social science merits separate mention. The rationale and ideology that this blog espouses is based almost entirely on findings from social and biological research, mostly from the 1980's to the present. The study of human cognition, how people perceive reality (facts) and apply logic to their perceptions, can now give a solid explanation for why there are vast differences in perceptions and logic, especially between warring ideologies. The research provides a good explanation of why the two-party political system is as corrupt and incompetent as it is. It also explains why the public interest is routinely abused in service to special interests, including both political parties, their politicians and major campaign contributors. In DP opinion, there is far more value to modern social science, especially psychology, political science, history, economics and anthropology, than most of society knows and/or is willing to believe, especially ideologically conservative society. Unfortunately for their own professions, social scientists are far too academic and inept at communicating and translating their knowledge from the ivory tower to the general public - politics is relevant there too. There is some effort to explain things and establish rational politics, but it is far too small and astoundingly obscure. Forces supporting establishing rational politics, mainly social scientists and, as far as DP knows, DP and a few others, has essentially no impact on policy or public perceptions. Irrational as it is, that is the way the two-party system wants it.