Re: Amen to That


I'm sorry, Ogged. And I love you. But seriously...

...this is just stupid.

1) an act of terrorism obviously requires some political aim being served. Was Charles Manson a terrorist? No, he was a mass murderer. And Mohammed Atta? A terrorist. Why is the distinction important? The mass murderer is disconnected from world events; he is a random malfunction in the human landscape. A terrorist a) has an effect on the political world and international relations; and b) meant to do so.

2) Do you think it is reasonable for the level of foreign aid to be determined by even the most educated layperson's guess-timate of the appropriate mathematical relation to defense spending? Obviously not. An incredible number of programs is managed by the federal budget. it would be stupid to expect a man on the street, even the best of them, to have an exact answer as to the correct proportionality of spending among different programs. That's why we have a system of representative democracy.

Most people out there should be doing something productive with their lives -- like building businesses or writing poetry. If they have a general list of priorities against which they match their politicians, and a commitment to seeing that through, that's all we should ask. That's all that's required for a functioning civil society. It's the mirror image of the argument against centralized control of the economy.

Sorry, dude. But there's been a lot of good stuff this week. I enjoy you no less for the occasional bum post. (Makes me feel better actually -- your average post is way too interesting and articulate.)

Posted by: Magik Johnson | Link to this comment | 05-22-03 11:01 PM
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Not sure it was clear that none of the words after the first introductory bit were mine. That said, I do agree with Atrios and Kevin. (And you can call me stupid without being nice to me first.)

1) I think there are two points regarding the definition of terrorism. CNN, Fox, et al do use "terrorism" as shorthand for "acts of terror perpetrated by Al-Qaeda." I can see why that's convenient and intuitive, given the situation, but the price--that Muslims "own" terrorism--is too high and they should be more precise.

That wasn't really your point, I know. But I think your definition assumes the answer to precisely what's at issue. Why does terrorism have to have political ends? I think it just has to terrorize. I'd say my definition has the presumptive edge. If we want to maintain distinctions, we can do a lot better than "terrorism is political." We can say Al-Qaeda is a reactionary fundamentalist movement which seeks to provoke a global religious conflict; the Tamil Tigers are a separatist nationalist group; John Allen Mohammed and Lee Malvo were rogue angry men. Those definitions at least suggest an appropriate mode of response to each phenomenon. Does classifying such disparate phenomena as "terrorism" dilute the word? Not really, the word just isn't very useful.

2) I don't see how you can make this argument without assuming two things a) that the representatives in a representative democracy aren't sensitive and don't respond to the wishes of their constituents and b) those constituents don't need any knowledge beyond a "general list of priorities" in order to form reasonable beliefs about what their representatives should do. Would it really not make a difference whether people believed $1 or $24 out of every hundred were going to foreign aid? Or if they understood how many dollars out of every hundred were going to pay down the debt and not to, say, subsidizing their medical care? And do you think politicians don't watch the polls and don't care when they get phone calls wondering why we're giving "all that money" to the Israelis and Egyptians?

And the point about your position being the "mirror image of the argument against centralized control of the economy" just mystifies me. In a decentralized economy, individual agents make specific, local, self-interested decisions which, in the aggregate, we believe to be beneficial for the whole. In foreign policy, politicians who sometimes know better perpetuate convenient falsehoods which resonate with their ignorant constituents in order to maintain themselves in power to the detriment of our own long-term interests and the interests of foreign nations. Perhaps I haven't stated that with maximum generosity, but I really fail to see the "mirror image."

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 05-23-03 12:26 AM
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> Not sure it was clear that none of the words

> after the first introductory bit were mine.

It was clear but irrelevant given a headline of "Amen to That", and an intro of "Atrios and Kevin Drum on some points that keep needing to be made."

Does classifying Malvo as "terrorist" render the word un-useful? Yes, but I think that's exactly my point. It wasn't terrorism. Political (or international-relations) relevance is the only sense in which it is useful to have a term "terrorism" distinct from either mass-violence or mass-murder. A bomb exploding is not "terrorism" unless you believe in the arbitrary assignment of novel words to describe an already describable phenomenon. It's in that sense that Atrios's comment is stupid. There is a reason to have the word "terrorism" -- he's just ignoring that reason, or possibly unwilling to deal with it because it's not 100% cut and dried.

The word is useful. Atrios plays dumb to the distinction, but when a postal worker shoots up the workplace we don't call it terrorism, and when an islamicist tries to shoot up the El Al counter at LAX, we do call it terrorism. No, if you want to challenge the usefulness of the term, you shouldn't be comparing it to random violence, but to "rebellion". It is the distinction between freedom fighter and terrorist that is truly challenging.

And yet, even that I can defend. A terrorist is not trying to weaken the military or economy of the perceived oppressor; he or she is trying to use locally significant but nationally insignificant violence to create to effect defeat psychologically where it would otherwise be unthinkable. Palestinian terrorism is not reducing the assets or population of Israel in a significant way -- except via the psychological shockwaves created.

Anyway, that at least is an interesting argument.

"If someone plants a bomb, it's terrorism," based on my previous argument, is pretty clearly a stupid statement. More precisely, it is useless and semantically null.

I was definitely nice to you first.

I didn't say you were stupid. Just the post! :-)

Earthquakes terrorize but are not terrorism.

Charles Manson's acts definitely created terror, but were not terrorism, at least not in the sense that it justifies having a second concept distinct from mass-murder (or maybe "mass-violence").

The mirror image is this: centralized control of the economy fails for the reason you described -- no one person or small group of people can explore the possibilities in the economy and make judgments more effective than the result of the collective wisdom of many orders of magnitude more peope operating in the economy at large. Millions of people seeking the best outcome do better than 10 or 100 or 1000 people seeking the best outcome. Because each person among the millions specializes in a particular area in a way in which no one among the 1000 can; plus there are five or ten or twenty of the millions in each of these areas. Add it all up, and the advantage of expertise accrues to the millions even if they aren't the smartest or most privileged in terms of overall access to information.

The mirroring here is that politics and international relations are equally a specialty in which those dedicated to the enterprise can have special expertise. And so the politician looking in the mirror realizes that if he chooses not to dedicate himself to running other people's business, and instead becomes an expert in his own, then he cannot expect each among those millions of people busy being experts in their corner of the productive economy also to be an expert in his area. the point is, everyone person has only limited time available to him; none of us is omniscient. Just as the politician cannot do everyone else's job better than he; neither can everyone do the politicians job as well as the politician.

The phenomenon we are wrestling with then is the principal agent problem. I invest in a company. I cannot know everything the company's management does about how best to manage the company. I do have a list of priorities I desire to see met by the company's management. Every investor has slightly different priorities. We all come together through an imperfect process to try to achieve our own goals. It ain't perfect. None of us can specify the exact ratio of engineers to marketing people that will make the company succeed; but the company managers are privileged through access to information, experience and time dedicated to the enterprise, such that they can understand this better than we. As long as we design a good system of shareholder oversight, we can achieve better results by having the expert managers make local decisions, taking into account our collective interests, than we can achieve by making every management decision by direct shareholder vote.

I think your & Drum's point is naive about the human condition. We can't all know everything. And that's a very important constraint! It's not a truism. We can't all keep track of the ratio of discretionary to entitlement spending. (I do, but what good does it do me? -- Do I make better political decisions? Basically no, because the important issues are the overarching priorities. With good politicial processes, a dedicated population, and free flow of information, we'll achieve a good match between the details and the goals of the people even though the people don't understand all the details. And that's a very closely related mirror image to the phenomenon of the aggregate economy performing well even though no group of experts controls it.)

Posted by: | Link to this comment | 05-23-03 1:47 AM
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I'm not sure we can get very far with competing definitions of terrorism. I do think intent is important, insofar as the perpetrator wants to scare (you know, "terrorize") a population, so you can exclude Andrew Cunanan but include Mohammed and Malvo. I'll stop defending the "someone plants a bomb it's terrorism" claim, but I still think that it makes more sense to say politics belongs to the species rather than the genus. In any case, the goal of Atrios' post and my defense of it is to keep the association of Muslims and terrorists from being hypostasized/reified/essentialized.

As for the economy analogy, I still think it's just wrong. What are the "local decisions" of foreign policy? What self-interested micro-decisions are we making that affect how much aid we give to Sudan or what Ari Fleischer says about a coup in Venezuela? Foreign policy is a mess wherein a group of experts formulate policy that is bastardized by Congress and the Executive Branch acting under political pressure from ignorant citizens. Is that how the economy works?

And, of course, we're also having the "people are ignorant and that's a problem" vs. the "people are ignorant and that's the American way" debate. But here's where I think you're wrong on that one too. You say that you have more knowledge of government spending but that doesn't help you make better political decisions because what matters are overarching priorities. But unless those priorities are very general, information is crucial to setting them properly. If you have any idea how many of "your" tax dollars go toward paying the interest on the national debt, could you possibly be fooled into thinking the present tax cut isn't likely to cause long-term disaster? Isn't that a matter of setting priorities? If you think of political decisions as choosing between simplistic binary oppositions, sure, you can throw your lot in with one side or the other on any given issue and you won't be crazy for doing so. But if, as you realize, real political involvement is the setting of priorities, then the field of choice opens up and information (and the ability to think about it) makes a difference.

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 05-23-03 11:36 AM
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How much knowledge is enough? I think one can make the case you made at any level of public knowledge. Likewise for the case I made. So we're disagreeing over the acceptable level of public knowledge.

And I fundamentally disagree with your assertion that the public should have a precise understanding of the ratio between defense spending and foreign aid. To get to the right answer requires intimate knowledge of the machinery required to mitigate various security threats, including knowledge of the specifics of weapons purchasing and force planning. It also requires intimate knowledge of what each incremental dollar of foreign aid can accomplish. And furthermore it requires an understanding of the entire federal budget to a moderate level of detail in order to evaluate opportunity costs. A ratio is a useless way to express the correct level of spending for either defense or aid.

So if the public understood this number you and Drum highlighted, I argue it would make not a wit of difference. I think it's exceptionalism substituted for judgment.

The system of representative democracy exists because no one, or at least almost no one, can understand all of the details required to make good governmental decisions. To make sure our representative democracy does a superior job of making those decisions we need to ensure a healthy market of information, and good meta-governance processes such that the interests of politicians are aligned with the will of the people. If you want to look at why political decisions are screwed up, I think it would be far more fruitful to look at the processes that are driving the system. Campaign finance & gerrymandering being two good places to start.

-Magique de Tocqueville

Posted by: Magik Johnson | Link to this comment | 05-23-03 5:07 PM
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I'm out the door so I'll make this quick. You say "I fundamentally disagree with your assertion that the public should have a precise understanding of the ratio between defense spending and foreign aid." Would that I could dream of asking for precision. Given that we're off by a factor of 6 on the defense/foreign aid number and a factor of 24(!) on the GDP/foreign aid number, I'm willing to be super generous and say, hey, how about we all get together to educate the public to miss by a factor of 3? It's not a quiz. I don't care if people know the precise ratio, but some guesses at a ratio indicate that guesser has a clue and some guesses indicate that he doesn't. I won't argue that we need to do something about campaign finance and gerrymandering, but I'm quite sure that a more well-informed and educated public makes for better policy.

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 05-23-03 5:19 PM
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You're just engaging in outrage journalism. This is exactly the same @$% we get fed all the time by the media. (And half the time the media have their facts wrong, misstating survery results, etc.)

Omniscience would be nice, but we ain't got it. Define for me the reasonable level of knowledge you expect people to have on-demand. I.e., when some survey-taker calls and asks them to answer a question.

I think that if every American had a precise understanding of the ratio you cite, it would make NO DIFFERENCE to the political landscape. Not only is it less important than campaign finance and gerrymandering. It's of approximately zero importance.

People need to have general priorities; they need sources of information and analysis that let them make judgments about whether candidates match up against their priorities; and they need to care enough to vote. The question of the precise number is just plain HARD, and it makes no sense for every person in the country to be thinking about it. You're just taking a crotchety cheap shot.

Government isn't what life is all about. Instead of having everyone in the country contemplate this ratio, we should have most of them pursuing happiness and engaging in productive economic activity. The question of the optimal setting of this ratio is a tax on most of the citizenry. It is sensible for them to be concerned with the high-level issues and outcomes rather than the details of execution.

The fact that you (and I) enjoy digging into this detail is the real exception. It does not make everyone else a bad citizen.

Posted by: Magik Johnson | Link to this comment | 05-23-03 9:38 PM
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Cheap shot? Where did I ask for omniscience? I even said being off by a factor of 3 was acceptable. Do you really believe that thinking that fully one-quarter of the government's money is going to foreign countries doesn't affect the judgements people make? I don't see you addressing the point that knowledge changes our priorities.

And why isn't government people's first priority? You just assert that we should be pleasure-seeking market instruments. In any intellectual tradition, that's a radical position. From where I sit, the recommendation that people should pursue happiness and engage in productive economic activity is pretty much the same as asking them to be bad citizens.

Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 05-24-03 2:15 AM
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Running the government is not the purpose of life. It's a responsibility each of us shares. But every week I take out my trash without accepting the obligation to be a garbageman. I'm saying that the level of knowledge you are expecting people to have at the ready, when extrapolated from your single instance across the vast range of government activity, would require people to dedicate an unreasonable portion of their lives to their role in overseeing the government. In that time they should be doing things to enrich themselves and to actually make stuff and enrich the world.

I agree that more knowledge makes for better decisions, but I think the example you cite is of relatively low value in citizens making a decision. Having that piece of knowledge does nothing to change their priorities. It's not trivia at the technical level of managing the government, but it's trivia at the level of setting priorities. If my priorities are 1) to provide for the national defense with a comfortable margin, and then 2) assuming there's money left, to use some of my tax money to aid the development of other nations, then I can read about the candidates and the tradeoffs, and make a good decision, without ever knowing this number.

Are you arguing that we exist to do nothing more than govern? That governing transcends living our own lives? That extra-governmental activities do not, at the margin contribute at least roughly as much as do governmental activities? Should I spend my time governing or inventing a treatment for a disease? As long as the baseline governing is taken care of, then I and the world are much better off if I allocate my time to personally or economically productive activity. Hell, man, most foreign is spent propping up governments that ought to be put out of business. Knowing your ratio tells me nothing about the fact that foreign aid is relatively infrequently spent on improving the lives of people in other nations.

It's just trivia.

Posted by: Magik Johnson | Link to this comment | 05-24-03 6:36 PM
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