Saturday, December 31, 2011

Weekend metal-blogging (double shot)

What can I say? I like this band.

Try not to die this New Year's; try not to kill anyone (unless they deserve it for dishonouring the All-Father); and tweet every RIDE checkpoint you come across, just to annoy the cops.

Amon Amarth, "Twilight of the Thunder God"

Click Here To Watch The Video


Amon Amarth, "Guardians of Asgard"

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Friday, December 30, 2011

On wishful thinking.

Since this will end up being the last actual content, save metal-blogging, which goes up before 2012, I thought it somewhat appropriate -- and usefully time-saving -- to put up a (very) likely fruitless wishlist for the coming year in politics.

Hooray.

I'll keep it to five points, just because.

(1) For supporters of successful parties to stop being such dicks. Yes, your team won lots. We know. We saw it. Good for you -- you worked for it, you got it, now you get to run things for a bit. But, seriously, do you have to be such assholes about it? It's almost as if you can't quite believe you really did win. There is such a thing as magnanimity in victory. Look into it.

(2) For supporters of successful parties to stop blaming things on somebody else. It's the downside of being in charge: everything ends up being your fault. No, really, it does. I don't care what the last guy did. You're in charge. It's up to you to fix it. Can't fix it? Then it's even more your fault. If you thought being in power was fair, you're idiots.

(3) For supporters of unsuccessful parties to stop pretending they can win by just doing the same thing all over again. Yes, especially those who had historically disastrous results, and even those who had historically kickass results. You didn't come out on top. Given that we have a SMP/FPTP system, and coalition government is thus the exception rather than the rule, you either end up in charge or don't. If you didn't, you failed to achieve the reason for your existence, i.e., political power. If you did especially well, make sure you don't falter. If you did especially badly, time to make significant changes. But the only group who can justifiably keep doing the same ol', same ol' is the one that's currently in charge.

(4) For voters to stop being so stupid. Rob Ford, Stephen Harper, Barack Obama, Nick Clegg -- need I go on? If you didn't know what you were getting, you weren't paying attention. If you thought you were getting a saviour, you don't know how politics works. And if you voted for someone because they promised you things that didn't make the slightest sense -- next time, just stay home.

(5) For parties to stop bloody well pandering. Ontario politics is currently really awful for this, but this is an instance of a general problem. Yes, you are trying to win office, which requires a certain amount of promising people what they want. But there's also the "vision" thing; the "what is the city/province/country going to look like when you're done" thing; the "how will you make things better" thing. And if all you've got is "well, we'll cut a few taxes, and maybe build a road", then what you've got is nothing. Parties need to inspire and aspire, to have something they want to lead us towards, should they get the chance to do so. I've had more than enough of these focus-grouped, demographically-targeted excuses for policies and leaders.

Yeah, I know. Not gonna happen, not even one of them. But it'd be nice, wouldn't it?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

On Christmas

I think I've finally put my finger on what irritates me so much about the "put the Christ back in Christmas!" crowd.

It's not just that they're hectoring and self-righteous. That is annoying -- very annoying -- but not unusually so. Political partisans can be just as bad, as can academics. Just today I read about a Toronto cop who went onto Twitter to condemn people who tweet the location of RIDE checkpoints. That guy's hectoring and self-righteous, thus annoying. But not quite as bad, somehow.

It's also not just that they're deeply ignorant. That's actually sort of funny. I mean, Christmas trees are pagan; December 25th is a pagan holiday; exchanging gifts is a pagan tradition; misletoe is pagan; snowmen are pagan; Santa is pagan. Just about everything associated in the popular mind with Christmas is pagan. So watching (certain) Christians squawk about their traditions being maligned is good old-fashioned entertainment.

No, I think what bothers me the most is the inability to recognize a pretty important distinction, between what we could call religious Christianity and what we could call cultural Christianity. That is, I think there's an assumption underneath "put the Christ back in Christmas!" that everyone who celebrates Christmas must have a religious commitment to Christianity. Otherwise, no Christmas for you!

If you've grown up in the West, you've been steeped in Christian traditions. It's unavoidable. If you've grown up in a relatively multicultural city, you may know about other traditions. In my case, I went to school with a lot of Jewish kids, so could probably even today name most of the high holidays. I also went to school with a lot of Chinese kids, who used to regularly complain about going to "Chinese school" on the weekends. But we all knew about Easter and Christmas, as well as the Biblical high notes -- Mary & Joseph, wise men, crucifixon, resurrection, etc.

None of that implies any religious commitment whatsoever. It's pretty much just background noise: part of the set of cultural bases that we all absorb through exposure to a particular social group. Frankly, the idea that this amounts to any sort of religious faith is insulting to religion.

What it does imply is a set of expected behaviours at certain points in the calendar year. Come December, we're supposed to put up wreaths and decorate trees and buy presents. Come April, we're supposed to buy hot cross buns (shut up; I'm English) and chocolate bunnies. But this is all sociocultural; it doesn't even imply anything moral -- despite regularly irritating attempts to shame us all into generosity at Christmastime -- let alone anything as robust and life-shaping as a religious commitment.

So, what the "keep the Christ in Christmas" crowd are trying to do, in effect, is limit Christmas to just their own special group. Which means excluding those of us who grew up in a Christian context and absorbed the superficial behaviours without really trying. To my eye, this is not only arbitrary, but also rather unfair. It's a bit much to require kids to go along with Christmas celebrations, and then require the religious commitment. If the commitment matters, it should be put in place as an entrance requirement.

If Christians -- and I suspect it's only a subset of Christians, not near the majority -- really want to reclaim Christmas as their own special religious celebration, I'm afraid they're going to have to rename it. 'Cause Christmas to me, at least, is a cultural marker, and not really religious at all.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

On private language.

So, here's a weird idea. Suppose that you lived in a small village. And everyone in this village had an odd habit -- they all carried around a little wooden box. Whenever someone said the word "beetle" to someone else, the person who heard it would determine what it meant by looking at their own box.

Now, if everyone had exactly the same thing in their box, then communication would be smooth and easy. In fact, indistinguishable from how communication works for us in reality. But, suppose further than the objects in the box differ from person to person. So, in the box I carry, there might be an actual beetle, but in the box you carry, there might be a small piece of cake, and in the box someone else carries, there might be nothing at all.

Obviously, we'd figure out something was up pretty soon. If I say "Beetles have six legs", you'd think I was crazy; if you said "Beetles have light pink frosting", I'd think you were insane; in short, unless all our words work like this, we can triangulate on the unusual word -- the one where we individually assign the same sounds (or letters) to different meanings.

So, suppose further that this is actually the case. Whenever we hear any word, we look up the meaning in something that is private and individual. Probably not a little box -- given the number of words in English, little boxes would get a mite cumbersome -- so, let's say it's something mental. A mental dictionary, containing meanings for every set of sounds that you or I hear. And everyone has their own, such that whenever someone speaks to you, you quickly (mentally) look up each word in your mental dictionary, and determine the meaning of their utterance. And in constructing an utterance of your own, you would reverse the procedure: look up the meanings in your mental dictionary, elicit the related terms, and then speak the words.

Sound possible? According to Ludwig Wittgenstein, it's not. Language, understood not just as a set of symbols but a set of symbols associated with meanings, must be public. A language that relied upon private meanings, like the mental dictionary -- what's called a "private language" -- is not a language at all.

The beetle-in-the-box example is deceiving because it overlooks an important feature of language, namely the ability to be wrong or right -- to use the language correctly or incorrectly. If language is wholly private, then the only standard possible is one's own determination of whether the language is used correctly or incorrectly. But that's not actually how we do determine whether language is being used rightly or wrongly.

Consider another example, a fairly simple one involving numbers. (This is being used analogously, BTW.) We all know that, given the sequence 1, 2, 3, the next number is 4. But how could you correct someone who incorrectly continued the sequence with something else -- say, 5?

You could point out that there is a rule underlying the sequence, namely the rule "+1". Every item in the sequence is generated by applying "+1" to the previous item.

That would work for some, but suppose that the hypothetical mistaken person insists that the rule "+1" isn't the rule being applied in the sequence. Or, worse, suppose that the hypothetical mistaken person insists that when you apply "+1" to 3 you get 5, not 4. How do you justify or explain the rule?

Wittgenstein holds that you can't do much. The best you can do is note that this isn't the behaviour that is expected. Given the sequence 1, 2, 3, we expect 4. And anyone who puts down something else is wrong because they are in violation of the expectations of the surrounding social group.

Language, he said, works the same way. There probably are some rules regarding meanings, particularly rules about compositionality -- that is, how larger chunks of language, like sentences, derive their meanings from the meanings of their parts, namely words. But what do we do with someone who just isn't following the rules? Well, we indicate that this is not the expected behaviour, and insist on conformity to expectations.

The thing to notice here is that this is a picture of language as a set of publicly-observable -- and -correctable -- behaviours. If we contrast it with the picture of private language, where language is primarily a set of internal states, we find there is no sense in which an individual's use of words can ever be wrong. Inconsistent over time, maybe; but why wrong? Corrected how?

It should be noted that the point here isn't just about language that is spoken/heard or written/read. It's also a point about thought. After all, when we think, we think often in a sort of language. A purely private thought would therefore have to be fairly primitive -- an image or a sound, without any linguistic content.

If there is no such thing as a private language, then it follows that whatever portion of our thoughts is based upon language is also public.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Weekend metal-blogging.

Napalm Death, "On the Brink of Extinction". A very Christmassy tune.


Click Here To Watch The Video

Friday, December 23, 2011

On education.

A plea for sanity in education policy:

First, don't expect the educational system to make up for our utterly screwed-up system of child-rearing. It's an open secret that parents are responsible for only a small fragment of a child's development; most is done by the peer group and community at large. If parents can't do everything, why should we think teachers can?

Honestly, the teacher-as-superhero thing is incredibly irritating. Most people in education got into it for the same reason people get into any field: because they were decent at it, because it seemed like a good gig, because it was something they could stand to do on a daily basis. Only a tiny minority see it as a grand, quasi-religious calling. If the system starts to require people whose devotion is extranormal -- beyond what we expect from the average bank manager, say -- then it will, inevitably, fail. Those people are the exception. They are not, and never will be, the rule.

Second, don't expect the educational system to teach our children everything. I've seen recently calls for teachers to teach students "financial literacy", which is simply mad. Teachers have no training in this, for one. For two, teachers have no power to ensure that these lessons take in everyday life. Parents are actually around and can control the flow of money to the child. So who, really, is better situated to teach these lessons?

The same applies to all sorts of things. Socialization, for example. The educational system can't teach children how to interact with other children and adults, except at the extremes: don't hit, wait your turn, and so on. When it comes to making friends or dealing with conflict, nothing can replace an involved parent or guardian putting the child in a variety of social situations and helping them work through them, in that very moment.

Third, don't insist that all children should receive education up through university, and then refuse to fund it adequately. And that's not just giving people free tuition. Which is a bad idea, anyway, as it encourages the already prevalent tendency to treat university as a continuation of high school. Student debt is a real problem, but the solution is not to detach student commitment to their education from the cost of that education. The right solution is to reward commitment by reducing cost; and punish lack of commitment by increasing cost, if not revoking the opportunity.

It's also providing adequate institutions for education -- sufficient classrooms and specialized equipment. It's also providing adequate opportunities for educators -- our classes are far too large for students to learn, and we are churning out more and more people who are seeking fewer and fewer jobs in education. It's also about providing adequate post-educational opportunities for graduates -- that is, a reasonable job-preparation program.

Yes, this all costs money, but unlikely endless corporate tax cuts, these will actually pay for themselves.

Fourth, don't insist that educational outcomes be "measurable", and only measure the failure of educators. I'm all in favour of merit pay, as long as it's actual merit pay. If you're good at your job, you do better; if you're bad at your job, you do worse. But all proposals I've seen all talk about restricting pay and firing, and don't talk about improving pay and hiring. Furthermore, since education involves students, whose behaviour is not entirely within the educator's control, it's not fair to measure merit solely by student achievement. Never mind what the universities are currently doing, where student achievement is secondary to student opinion.

(Not that student opinion is irrelevant, but it's a ridiculous basis for hiring decisions, if those decisions are supposed to meritocratic.)

I've got all kinds of problems with the educational system -- I've taught at enough universities to know that the colleges are doing a better job of education; I'm close to enough teachers to know that the high schools, and lower, are having serious problems -- but the policies that are being proposed on the right and the left are little more than cheap pandering and vote-buying.

If you want to fix education, I'm all for it. But let's focus on what really matters. #NDPldr candidates, are you listening?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

On religious discrimination and cheap tastes.

A serious problem facing religious people is that of religious-based and -justified discrimination. Often, this is gendered, but not always. Conservative variants of Christianity, Judaism and Islam aren't big fans of gays and lesbians, after all. It's bad enough when this is turned against people outside the religious group; but there's something especially problematic about discriminating against members of the group. Often, it's claimed that it's legitimate to treat (say) women as inferior beings because they have voluntarily chosen to join the religion and thus willingly accepted discrimination.

This argument doesn't really work. Not because of false consciousness or similarly arcane notions, but because of how human preferences form and change.

Here's the idea. Amartya Sen says somewhere that political philosophers who write about distributive justice have overlooked a pretty significant problem. Distributive justice, incidentally, is the theory of how goods should be distributed within a society such that they are distributed in a just manner.

Philosophers who worry about this problem talk a fair bit about the problem of "expensive tastes" -- that is, what to do about people who prefer goods that are scarce or difficult to obtain. After all, if your theory says anything like "people are entitled to what they need" or that goods should be distributed (more or less) equally, there's a pretty serious problem looming. Some people have a preference for things that are very hard to get -- Ron Dworkin likes to use the example of quail's eggs and claret. Should they get those expensive things? Or not?

One common response is to insist that people are responsible for their own preferences, which sort of works when applied to the quail's-eggs-eaters. It's not unreasonable, it seems, to say that if you've got expensive tastes, it's not up to society to satisfy them but you to change them. Sen's point, however, is that there's an equally bad problem going in the other direction -- he calls it the problem of cheap tastes. Some people have developed preferences for things which are very easy to obtain. And it's difficult to believe that they should be held individually responsible for those preferences.

Sen gives a number of examples, two of which are quite useful: the happy housewife and the comfortable slave. (The last one's not his term; I don't recall that he coins one.) The happy housewife wants nothing more than to work for the benefit of her husband and children; she wants nothing for herself except what is necessary in order to continue to serve others. Similarly, the comfortable slave prefers being a slave to being free. He wants nothing for himself except to have someone else control every aspect of his life.

Plausibly, these two individuals -- sorts of individuals, really -- have had their preferences altered by their circumstances. After all, humans are an adaptable lot; if one's preferences are continually frustrated by an oppressive situation, sooner or later one will start to prefer whatever one can actually obtain and control. This, of course, raises trouble for the standard reply to the problem of expensive tastes: why think that expensive tastes are more likely to be within an individual's control than cheap ones?

Sen's point is that distributive justice is defective if it treats preferences as entirely the work of individual choice and behaviour. There's a strong social component involved, and that can disqualify a preference just as easily as the individual's action can.

And this gets us back to religious discrimination. It's not enough to say that people are voluntarily members of religious groups which willfully treat them poorly. We have to ask why they prefer to stay. It's plausible that they are so closely connected to the religious group that they have altered their preferences to suit the demands of the group. In that situation, should we really give much weight to their choices? Or should we insist, as with the happy housewife or the comfortable slave, that their preferences are warped and thus to be disregarded?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On consequentialism.

Consequentialism -- also called utilitarianism -- is one of the going theories in moral philosophy. It's supposed to give us an account of what is and is not moral. So, not what morality is, nor why anyone should care about it, but how to tell whether a given course of action is morally right or wrong. I've always found it sort of a weird theory, in that I'm not sure it's really a moral theory at all.

There's a number of different forms of consequentialism, and I can't hope to do justice to all of them. But here's the summary. A consequentialist is someone who believes that the moral rightness or wrongness of a course of action is substantially determined by its consequences.

The first point to note is that word "substantially". Very extreme -- usually, early -- forms of consequentialism hold that the moral status of an action is fully determined by its consequences, but this has largely fallen into disfavour. The basic problem is that not everything that seems morally worthwhile is as worthwhile as its consequences would suggest. It seems like a good thing to be courageous or kind; even though these might have good consequences, that doesn't seem like it exhausts the extent to which these are good.

The second point is the word "consequences". It's pretty much a placeholder term, which gives you the form of a full consequentialist theory, without having much substance. Something that results from the action is what matters to determining its moral status, but exactly what varies depending on the theory.

The earliest consequentialist theories were hedonist (or hedonistic) theories; that is, theories which held that the consequences which mattered were the production of pleasure and pain, where pain is defined to be the strict logical opposite of pleasure. That is, when you're not experiencing pleasure, you are experiencing pain, and vice versa. The more pleasure produced -- or, in other versions, the better quality of the pleasure produced -- the more morally correct the course of action.

Of course, other sorts of consequences are possible. I recall reading one version -- the author escapes me, unfortunately -- where the consequence in question was the Kingdom of God. That is, actions were morally right insofar as they contributed to bringing about the Kingdom of God. (Don't ask me for the technical definition of that concept.)

The third point is the idea of a "course of action". On some versions, called "act-consequentialist", what matters is each individual act that someone performs. So, for every act, its rightness or wrongness is determined by its particular consequences. On other versions, called "rule-consequentialist", what matters is the general course of action that someone is following. So, for every act, its rightness or wrongness is determined by the consequences of actions like that, as expressed by a general rule.

The fourth and final point is the idea of predicting the consequences of a course of action. Exactly how far into the future is one supposed to be able to predict? Very strict versions of consequentialism hold one responsible for all consequences of one's course of action; so, if an act turns out to produce good consequences for one hundred years, but bad consequences for a thousand years thereafter, it would have been the wrong thing to do. Looser versions might hold one responsible for the consequences that can be reasonably foreseen; and very loose versions limit one's responsibility to the immediate consequences.

In any event, that's how one goes about filling in the details of a particular consequentialist theory: how much of the moral status of an action is determined by its consequences (all or most); exactly which consequences matters (pleasure/pain, something else); what a "course of action" is (act- or rule-consequentialism); and how far one has to be able to predict (all, reasonably-foreseeable, or immediate consequences).

So, here's my problem with this theory: why think that this is a theory of what's morally right or wrong? It looks to me like a theory of what's sensible or practical (in the common sense of "practical") to do. It makes sense to do what produces good consequences, and refrain from doing what produces bad consequences. That seems like a pretty reasonable thing to believe. But why believe that an action is right because it produces more good than bad?

There's a host of examples in philosophy for putting pressure on just this point; let me work through just one. Suppose that you have the chance to save someone from a burning building, but only have time and resources to save one. Unfortuately, there are two in the building. One is a world-renowned medical researcher on the verge of curing a serious and generally fatal disease (pick your favourite). The other is your spouse (or someone else very important to you personally).

I agree that it's the sensible thing to do to pick the researcher, and that this can be justified on consequentialist grounds. The reduction of suffering produced by curing a serious disease vastly outweighs any personal suffering caused by allowing one's own mother to die.

I don't agree that it's the right thing to do, though. It's right -- morally right -- if anything is to pay special attention to, and especially care for, those one has a close relationship to. And any moral theory which says otherwise is, to at least that extent, deficient.

Smart consequentialists will leap in at this moment and point out that there are consequentialist reasons to prefer people who will generally choose to save those close to them over important strangers. The basic point is that there are better consequences for having people who adopt this rule (or, who generally but not universally choose those sorts of acts) than not. To my eye, this seems to be admitting that there are consequentialist reasons to not always be a consequentialist, which pretty well torpedoes the theory.

So, am I missing something about why consequentialism is plausible as a theory of morality? Or is it a theory that's been misapplied -- that thinks it's about morality when it's really about practicality?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

On reducing risk.

Currently, there's multiple public panics which neatly cross lines dividing partisan and political allegiances, over things including registering guns, vaccines, wi-fi (in schools), and (placement of) wind turbines. One common thread shot through all of them is that we need to "reduce risk". In what sense these policies reduce risk is totally opaque. Risk assessment is tricky, but that's no excuse for not knowing how to do it -- at least approximately.

Here's the idea. First, you need to know what risk you're trying to reduce. This is not just because you need to know what you're trying to target for reduction, but also because what's being reduced has to be able to be reduced.

Take registering guns, for example. If it "reduces risk", we need to, first, determine what risk we're trying to reduce. Plausibly, it's the risk of violent crime involving guns. And we can measure that -- we can tell how many violent gun crimes there were before registration, and how many after. (Of course, it's a little more complex than that as violent gun crime is multicausal and the analysis would have to isolate the effect of registration. But, it's at least possible to do so.)

Similarly for having wi-fi, and let's presume it's in schools. Again, what's the risk at stake? It can't just be "complaints" or "pain" or anything else that's subjective and difficult to measure, as then it's impossible to tell whether eliminating wi-fi has any effect, positive or negative. If you can't measure it, then notion of "reduction" is meaningless. The risk we're trying to reduce has to be something we can find and figure out what effect the policy change has had on it, if any.
Wind turbine placement has a similar problem, as do silicone breast implants, for that matter. The supposed effects that are being targeted for reduction are so vague and/or subjective that they can't really be measured. And, again: if you can't measure it, you can't reduce it.

So, first possible error: trying to reduce a risk that can't, as a matter of logic, actually be reduced.

Once that's figured out, the second step is to actually collect the data and try to determine what effect the policy change has had. In some cases, this is already well known. It is very well-established that vaccines reduce the incidence of disease, while causing a much smaller number of deaths due to adverse reaction to the vaccine. If the risk at stake is the risk of death and disease, it's a classic no-brainer: vaccination wins over non-vaccination.

When it comes to wi-fi, wind turbines, breast implants and the like, if we restrict our attention to something we can actually measure, then the answer is equally clear. They don't cause anything that can be objectively measured. So, there's nothing to reduce.

With regards to registering guns, it's a little less clear, as most of the data available are irrelevant to the issue. ("The police check the registry thousands of times!" "...and?") We would need to compare circumstances where guns are not registered to circumstances where they are, controlling for all other variables. This is the only way, as far as I can tell, to see whether registering guns reduces risk or not. And it is at least plausible that the reduction in violent gun crime since registration was imposed in Canada can be attributed to factors other than registration.

So, second possible error: assuming that one's favoured policy change reduces risk, rather than performing the necessary data comparison to show it does so.

I'm not saying there aren't other reasons to favour policy changes; but if you're going to rest your argument on reducing risk, is it really so much to ask that you do the legwork?

Monday, December 19, 2011

On industrial relations in Toronto.

It's pretty much a given at this point that Toronto's useful idiot of a mayor, the unfortunately duplicated (have you seen his brother?) Rob Ford, is on track to provoke a pointless war with the city's unions. In the interest of getting ahead of the curve for once, let me quickly explain how badly Ford has botched this.

Industrial Relations 101 -- or, more accurately, Remedial Industrial Relations -- teaches us that collective agreements don't change quickly. They just don't. Occasionally, in a rare situation, an employer can exert enough pressure on a union to get major concessions, such as if the industry in question is facing some sort of cataclysmic shift. Even more rarely, a union can exert enough pressure on an employer to get significant advantages, such as if the employer is incapable of waiting the union out.

But, the rule is that a collective agreement changes slowly. If you want to get a series of changes through, you have to commit to doing it over the long run.

Ford and his crack team of morons have broken this rule pretty decisively. I don't know -- I'm not sure how I could know -- but I strongly suspect that the city's negotiators have no significant background in industrial relations or labour negotiations, and may be treating this more like non-union hiring or contract negotiations between corporate entities. Either is insanely wrong, at the very least because you can't get lots of changes in a given round of bargaining.

Now, Ford has obviously tried to provoke a crisis in order to push the union to make all the concessions he wants, all at once. As his strategy has been exposed as total bullshit to many members of the public, chances are the unions've figured it out, too, and aren't going to play along.

That said, in any given round of bargaining, you can usually get one big change through if you're willing to have the inevitable fight -- strike or lockout plus back to work legislation and binding arbitration, plus convincing the arbitrator to go along with it (never all that easy when it comes to public sector bargaining). Mayor Miller pulled this off in the last round; he wanted an end to sick leave banking, and he got it. He didn't get exactly the policy he started with, but he got the banking to end; he gave on the details because it was the general point that he wanted to win on.

So, if Ford weren't a fool, he'd focus on one thing -- my guess would be an end to the so-called "jobs for life" provisions -- and push for that. He blew any opportunity to work with the union to get the change through bargaining, and there's no mega-crisis which would put enough pressure on the union to cave. He could stil try to get that one change through, via a clear messaging campaign against the provisions, a willingness to budge on every other issue, an honest admission that there will be a lockout in order to force the change through, and a clear argument that the premier could use to persuade the eventual arbitrator to write it into the contract. It's not ideal -- the ideal way to do it is to develop good working relationships with the union leadership -- but it's at least possible.

Instead, he's demanding hundreds of changes to the contract, while the union is asking for -- last time I checked -- cost of living adjustments to salary and benefits. This fails on every possible level. There's no crisis. The union is strongly opposed. The current premier needed union support to get elected, and needs support from at least one other party to get anything passed. (The only party that has currently voted with the Liberals, you'll note, is the NDP, who are unlikely to go along with anything that screws over workers.) The arbitrators are generally unfriendly to public officials trying to fool them into massively rewriting contracts.

In short, he has no freaking chance of winning this fight. All the union has to do is wait him out, while lobbying their contacts in the government and in the NDP. Sooner or later, the legislation will come down, it'll send everything to interest arbitration, and the arbitrator will refuse to make the changes Ford is demanding.

Yet, somehow, there are still people in this city who believe -- somehow, in some way -- Ford will get what he wants. This sort of dissociation from reality should disqualify people from getting a vote.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Weekend metal-blogging.

Insomnium, "Through the Shadows"

Not sure what's going on in the video. Okay, yes, playing in the woods, fine -- but spiders? And picture frames? Huh? Still, song is glorious.


Click Here To Watch The Video

Friday, December 16, 2011

On international justice.

International justice is kind of a mess, at least in comparison to domestic justice. For it to be possible for justice to exist, it's not enough to just have a group of people trying to behave ethically to each other. Justice exists when those people organize themselves together in such a way that (semi-) independent institutions emerge. And those institutions -- and the distribution of rights and goods that results from it -- can be just or unjust. I don't think that, at the international level, the relevant sort of institutions actually exist.

Domestic justice works because there are such institutions, clearly institutions, with clear sources of authority. Legislatures, heads of state, judicial bodies, and so on, derive their authority from elections, inheritance, or some sort of vetting process amongst other officials. There's even a robust network of non-governmental organizations which have authority derived from influence or knowledge or even wealth, which are all, at least in theory, secondary to the governmental bodies.

So, whether or not a state is just or unjust is a sensible question. The institutions are there, and either they create and guarantee a robust set of rights, and reasonable distribution of goods, or they don't.

When it comes to the international level, the non-governmental organizations are all there. We have corporations at the domestic and international level; we have universities with domestic but also international significance; media exist both domestically and internationally; and so on. But there isn't much of a world government.

(Okay, fine, the conspiracy-minded like to pretend the United Nations and its affiliated groups are some sort of secret world government. But the UN is so clearly secondary to domestic governments, it's a bit laughable to treat it as a seperate level of government. Rather, it's like an agency or department of the various domestic governments that belong to it.)

The closest there is to a world government is the loos collection of organizations like the IMF and the WTO. Like the UN, the WTO and the IMF -- and so on -- only have authority secondary to the willingness of their members to grant them authority. But unlike the UN, the IMF et al are granted tremendous authority over domestic affairs. So, they are acting as a de facto world government, while not being a government de jure. Officially, they are secondary to domestic authorities. In reality, they exercise tremendous power over domestic governments.

But, they didn't acquire this power through what we generally consider the most central mechanism for acquiring authority, namely the consent of the governed. (Aside: I have problems with this notion, as "consent" is unclear, and rarely given by most of the governed. But that's a detail point.) They acquired it through having power delegated upwards from those we elected to represent us. A delegation which, let's be clear, is of dubious legitimacy itself.

This means that the actions of the domestic governments, who gave up some of their authority, might be just or unjust. But it also means that the actions of the de facto world government are neither. The world government, such as it is, is in a very early stage of development, much as our own domestic governments were centuries ago. So, while one might be inclined to think that the international sphere is thus incredibly unjust, this would be the wrong conclusion. The right conclusion is that there's no such thing as international justice -- at least, not yet.

That is, while there are some institutions which can be evaluated and criticized for their conduct, there isn't really a full organizational framework which can be held to be just or unjust. So, a lot of the criticism of the IMF, WTO, etc. misses the mark. The problem isn't that they're exercising authority. The problem also isn't that they exercise that authority badly. The problem is that their authority is not legitimate. They function more like an aristocracy, deriving their authority from inheritance and favourable position.

In short, given that the non-governmental institutions that exist internationally aren't going away any time soon, we need to improve our world government. We need to make it a real government. This patchwork of institutions we've currently got is a basis, but it needs legitimacy derived directly from the people it governs.

Of course, I have no idea how to actually make that happen. But I figured it was an interesting thought: what if the problem isn't that they have too much power, but that they have power without legitimacy?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

On conceptions of god.

There's a plethora of different ways of conceiving god. A common trick employed by people defending their religion -- or the rationality of their religion -- is to switch between an indefensible conception and a defensible one. While there are a lot of different ways to think about god, I tend to think they can be grouped into two categories.

Stipulate that a "god" is superhuman, and different conceptions define the sense of "super" in different ways. If one thinks of god as a being, a personality, some individual that one can have a (more than logical) relationship with, then "super" is going to be defined largely in terms of power and ability. God is superhuman because god can do or know things that humans cannot. Call this the "personal god".

If one thinks of god as a unifying principle or concept, such as love or peace or something more esoteric (unity itself, say), then "super" is going to be defined largely in terms of transcendence. God is superhuman because god is something that serves as a condition on human existence, that (if you like) lays a foundation on which humans can then build. Call this the "abstract god".

It's important to see that these not only are not the same, but they are logically independent. If there is a personal god, it doesn't follow that god is a necessary foundation for human existence. After all, this sort of god is only an immensely powerful individual, not a condition on anything. On the other hand, if there is an abstract god, it doesn't follow that one can have a personal relationship with this god. This sort of god is the principle which is needed for humans to exist, but not therefore anything with consciousness or personality or anything of the kind.

This doesn't mean that you couldn't connect the two conceptions together, only that you don't get one for free with the other.

The personal god, deprived of the abstract god, is indefensible. An individual, personal being with immense power and intelligence would leave clear and uncontroversial proof of its existence. After all, humans leave all kinds of evidence of their existence all the time. The obvious counter is to point to various artifacts -- religious texts, for example -- or reported experiences -- ecstatic and other spiritual connections -- as evidence for the existence of this personal god.

Of course, this evidence is neither clear nor uncontroversial. We know perfectly well that there are many billions of books that have been written by humans. What makes the Bible or the Torah or the Qu'ran so exceptional that it cannot have been produced in the same way? There's really nothing objective about it which one can point to as showing divine authorship. Similarly, we know perfectly well that ecstatic and spiritual experiences can be induced by non-divine means -- the influence of drugs, direct brain stimulation, various diseases, even traumatic injury. What is so special about the genuine experiences which distinguishes them from the others? Again, there's nothing objective we can point to which shows that they result from a relationship with a personal god.

The usual dodge at this point is to refer vaguely to "faith", which, as far as I can tell, in this context means simply continuing to believe in something because one wants it to be true. A more sophisticated dodge is to slide from the personal god to the abstract god.

Now, the abstract god is actually defensible. But the reason it's defensible makes it perfectly useless to prop up any notion of the personal god. The abstract god is defined as being equivalent to something which is plausibly foundational for or important to human life: again, things like love or peace or a principle of unity as such. But none of these is a person, even in a metaphorical sense. That is, the abstract god is so abstract that it cannot be plausibly equivalent, or even similar, to the personal god.

This, then, is the theist's dilemma: either adopt the personal conception of god, which can't be defended; or adopt the abstract conception, which can't be a person.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

On organ transplants.

It's Wednesday. Let's talk ethics. Specifically, let's talk organ transplants. Not so much on ethical issues involving bodily integrity (a concept which, frankly, has never made sense to me) nor on whether there is an obligation to donate organs (which is weird, but not incoherent). No, my question is systemic: is the system of organ donation as such ethical?

Right now, as all should be aware, organ transplants are performed on a donation basis. Patients who need organs enter the hospital system and are placed on various registries; and people who donate organs are on similar registries. When there's a match betwen the latter -- the available organs -- and the former, the former are served on the basis (approximately) of need. (I say approximately as issues such as likelihood of organ rejection, recovery, etc. also count.)

It's important to note that this system functions basically on luck. It's sheer luck whether or not someone donates an organ that is needed. It's sheer luck whether or not someone who needs an organ gets one before the lack of one kills them. There's something a little weird about making life or death decisions -- which is what's involved in organ donation and transplant, after all -- on the basis of chance.

There's only an ethical problem, though, if there's an ethically preferable alternative. After all, if organ transplants on the basis of luck are the best we can do, it's nonsense to insist there's anything wrong with it. It'd be like saying there's something wrong with oxygenating our blood.

Well, in 1975, philosopher John Harris published an article called "The Survival Lottery" (if you're interested, it's in The Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, vol. 50, pp. 87-95.) which purports to do just that. I'm not going to rehearse all of the technical details of the argument, as they speak to ongoing philosophical disputes in ethical theory. But the proposal is intriguing. Harris suggests that everyone, at birth, should be provided with the equivalent of a lottery ticket. When physicians/hospitals run out of organs made available by happenstance, they can trigger the selection of someone through this lottery. Presume that the tickets are numbered in such a way as to account for blood type, age, medical history and other factors relevant to the success of the transplant. Whoever is thus selected is killed, and their organs harvested.

When I've told this little story to students, it's the turn at the end that gets their attention, and reprobation. But what, exactly, is wrong with it?

Ordinarily, it's certainly wrong to kill people at random, and that seems to be what's going on here. But transplant situations are not ordinary circumstances: someone will die no matter what. The issue is whether we kill someone and harvest the organ, or sit back and wait while the person in need of a transplant dies.

Perhaps the problem is that the person selected has no choice in the matter. People may make great sacrifices for the well-being of others, even sacrificing their lives, but only if they choose to do so freely. Of course, this again ignores the patient in the scenario: no one, except maybe the most well-informed and willing alcoholic, chooses to need an organ transplant. Why is the interference in the freedom of the sacrificed person worse than the interference in the freedom of the person in need of a transplant?

Perhaps the problem is that the person selected is being actively interfered with by another person, while the person who needs the transplant is being actively interfered with by an accident of nature, i.e., whatever disease or injury or medical condition has caused the relevant organ to need replacement. But this is just false, as if the patient is left to die without an organ, then that is the choice of another person, namely the potential sacrifice who refuses to be sacrificed.

One might sharpen the point in a different way by introducing some kind of concern about bodily integrity, that no one may interfere with or compel us to do things with our bodies that we do not want to, because the bodies in question are ours. But this fails, on one of two grounds. Either one can point out that the right to bodily integrity is surely secondary to the right to stay alive, or one can argue that, on the assumption that the sacrifice'sbodily integrity is as important to him/her as the patient's is to him/her, it follows that the sacrifice doesn't have the right to place the preservation of his/her bodily integrity over the repair of the patient's.

One might worry about the consequences of the survival lottery. Would it lead to more deaths, as the system was abused? Perhaps it would lead particularly to the deaths of the poor, as the rich and powerful manipulate the results to ensure that they are never selected? These sorts of worries aren't about the ethics of the lottery scheme, though; they are worries about whether it could be implemented in a (fairly corrupt) society such as ours.

One might worry that people would disdain their own lives, given that they might be selected for the survival lottery at any time. But, on the other hand, any of us might need an organ transplant at any time. One false step into the street, and, suddenly, we need a new liver or lung or heart. That possibility doesn't seem to lead us to avoid leading meaningful lives; why would another random possibility do any worse?

So, the survival lottery seems like it can avoid most challenges to it. It's certainly not going to result in more deaths than under our current, luck-based regime. Yet -- and this is the odd thing about Harris' survival lottery -- it seems ethically abhorrent. But it's important to see that most of the features of the lottery that we find abhorrent are already present in our current system of organ allocation and transplant.

Which means that, as ethically wrong as the survival lottery seems, the system of organ donation is just as wrong. And isn't that a bit of a problem?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On the (alleged) effects of strikes.

It seems every time anyone goes on strike, whether public sector or private, there's a predictable chorus amongst the pundit class. No, not the one that says the right to strike should be removed, unions abolished, people reduced to serfdom or penury. No one needs to prove that one's dumb.

No, I want to apply a little critical pressure to the other chorus, the one which bewails the damaging effects of strikes. It's getting to the point that governments, not just idiot media, are blithely quoting billions of dollars in damages, lost profits, economic consequences due to people daring to insist they be treated as better than cogs in the corporate machine. (This actually has spread far beyond just strikes -- look at the propaganda spewed forth from the content industries on the supposedly damaging effects of media piracy.)

After all, it's on the basis of this supposed damage that we're currently experiencing pushes to strip collective bargaining rights, deem industries essential, intervene in strikes at blinding speed, and contract work out.

Here's the thing. Does no one think before dutifully writing these numbers down? Or before blindly insisting that there's a problem which needs to be solved?

Suppose that some workers go on strike -- public or private sector, whatever industry you like. How do you tell what the economic impact of this strike actually is? How much damage does it actually do?

It seems to me that you'd first want to know what economic activity is directly generated by the workers. That is, how much profit is generated by their labour. That's an immediate loss, and it would be fair to attribute that to the strike.

On the other hand, there are also costs associated with workers doing their jobs. Transit workers drive buses, which burn gas, require maintenance, eventually need to be replaced. Teachers require schools, which require electricity, heating/cooling, janitorial services, and so on. In short, to be fair, you not only have to count the immediate losses following the strike, but also the immediate gains -- how much doesn't need to be paid, and thus how much is saved, by the workers not going on strike.

After that, you'd want to know about indirect costs, whatever economic activity is not directly generated by the striking workers, but depends on their labour. As well as, similar to the point above, indirect benefits. Here things get very tricky, though. If we're talking transit workers, you can't simply assume -- as often is assumed -- that people who normally rely on transit to go to work do not go to work during the strike. Of course people still go to work; they just do so by alternate means. If people are walking or taking their bikes, that seems like a net benefit rather than a cost -- they may take longer to go to work, but aren't paying anything significant to do so. If people are taking taxis, then that generates economic benefit to the taxi companies. If people are carpooling, then that is probably pure cost -- but how much, really?

Whatever workers we're talking about, it's important to view the numbers with a good skeptical eye. It's fairly easy to calculate the direct costs and benefits of a strike. But the numbers given are never just direct costs; they include every possible indirect cost -- a worst-case scenario if there ever were one -- and blame that entirely on the strike. The numbers also almost never count benefits at all, direct or indirect, which is completely arbitrary.

Final point: even if the numbers given to criticize the economic impact of a strike were accurate, that still doesn't justify removing bargaining rights, dubbing industries essential, hammering through back to work laws or contracting work out. The honest way to make that argument, even limiting it to just economic issues (so, ignoring civil liberties or basic justice issues), would be to compare the two scenarios: bargaining rights vs. no bargaining rights, non-essential vs. essential, strike continues vs. back to work, work done in-house vs. contracting out.

And no one in our pundit class is that honest.

Monday, December 12, 2011

On veils and citizenship oaths.

The latest political controversy spawned by the brilliant minds of our Conserative overlords appears to be: requiring people to "openly" take the citizenship oath during the citizenship ceremony. Which means, apparently, that Muslim women must remove their veils.

The contradictions between this position and the Conservative emphasis on religious freedom should be obvious. Either you're entitled to express your religious convictions -- including through dress -- or you're privileged to do so, at the will of the government. I'm actually more aligned with the latter, as I'm not a big fan of religious freedom generally (although am still ambivalent about it), but the former is allegedly what the Conservatives are all about.

The racist intent is also naked. I can't imagine that the Conservatives will require burn victims to remove any necessary facial bandages, there is, to my knowledge, no exception in the proposed rule for medical reasons. I also can't imagine that nuns will be asked to remove their habits. Someone should try applying for citizenship in full Leafs regalia, facepaint and all, just to see if they're forced to take it off.

Any suggestion that this has something to do with identification is a pure red herring. Your identity gets verified earlier in the application process -- when you submit your documents, and then again when you interview with a CIC official. The oath is just a ceremony that comes after all that. Hence why Kenney is trying to play this as an issue of "openly" taking the oath, without "secrets".

Of course, last time I checked, there was no requirement to show your face to other citizens; only a limited number of special legal circumstances. If the rule were just to show one's face to the official conducting the interview, then I suspect most would have no objection. There is also no general requirement to reveal your secrets to a group of random people you've never met before, the usual audience for a citizenship oath.

The central issue with this change is that it's a solution in search of a problem. Although Kenney gamely tried today to spin a few anecdotal cases of veiled Muslims taking the citizenship oath into some sort of Islamofascist scaryscary plot, I'm not sure that he even believed it. It's really rather incredible, after all: unless I'm the worst terrorist plotter ever, I'm not going to be failing to take the oath during the citizenship ceremony.

It's like the whole racial profiling issue. If I'm a master criminal, who am I going to rely on to carry my stolen or illegal goods: a young black man with low-slung pants and a backwards cap, or a middle-aged white man in a suit? Given that I am, ex hypothesi, a master criminal, I'm going for the white guy every time. (Unless I'm in Tokyo or Johannesburg or somewhere else where whites are a noticeable minority, of course.) After all, I want to stay under the radar, correct?

Similarly, if I'm a terrorist mastermind and I want to infiltrate Canada for some reason, what am I going to do: draw attention to myself by having people hide their faces during the citizenship ceremony, mock the oath, and so on? Or have everyone proudly belt out the oath, with hands on hearts and tears in their eyes?

Ultimately, I think this is all about signalling and symbolism. First, that Canada is for Canadians, where "Canadian" stands for people with birthright citizenship -- that is, people whose sole contribution and effort to becoming Canadian is to have Canadian parents. As a naturalized citizen myself, I might find this offensive. But frankly, I find it laughable. It'd be like the UK making it harder to becoming a British citizen for people not born there, but leaving me -- when I haven't lived in the country for over twenty years (about three-quarters of my life) -- as a full and undisputed citizen.

Second, that the oath itself is somehow meaningful and important. Again, I note that born Canadians don't have to take any oath. Apparently, intercourse between Canadians is equivalent to a sacred oath. Furthermore, the oath ceremony itself is really not a big deal. (Of course, it can be, if you want it to be. But that's your interpretation of events, not something in the events themselves.) You show up with a bunch of other people you've never met before; a judge, or similar civic official, you've never met before shows up and has you repeat some words after him or her. And then you go home. This is a big and important ritual, deserving of special protection?

In short, it's typical Conservative culture war bullshit. I wonder, though, whether the government has -- again -- put itself in danger of a challenge before the Supreme Court. Can someone be compelled, contrary to their religious views, to fulfill an additional requirement, solely on the basis of their religious views, that does not apply to other applicants for citizenship? By my read, there's an argument to be made here about religious discrimination, twice over.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Weekend metal-blogging.

Not sure about the CGI insects. But the song crushes.

Machine Head, "Locust"

Friday, December 09, 2011

On contracting out.

Contracting out is the latest fetish for cash-strapped governments looking for a quick and easy way to attack the public sector for problems they didn't cause.

Yes, that's extremist. But, really, the pro-contracting-out line is just as extreme, and just as implausible. Contracting out might make sense, but it also might not. The modern right is looking for a simple solution to a complex problem, namely how to keep the welfare state up and running after decades of failure to maintain it. Rather than being told honestly that we face a difficult problem and hard choices, contracting out is served up as the panacea.

Part of it, of course, is just a general ideological attack on unions. Which is quite stupid, for a number of reasons. For one, unions are one of those groups that freedom of association protects -- governments can't really stop people from forming unions. (The legal ins-and-outs here may contradict me; on the other hand, if memory serves, the members of the RCMP are currently arguing in court, with some success, that they should have a right to form a union rather than an "association" if they want to.)

For two, contracting out doesn't prevent unions from existing. Public transit in York Region is at least partially contracted out, but is still unionized. Green For Life, which recently won a contract for part of Toronto's garbage service, is also unionized -- the CAW, in fact.

For three, public servants already give up a tremendous amount in order to do their jobs. Yes, yes, "public servants are overpaid!". Except they're not, at least not across the board. A dirty little secret of public transit in Toronto is that TTC and GO Transit workers are underpaid relative to the sector. It's only when you compare the public sector generally to the private sector generally that one can show the former are paid more (and even then, not that much more). Which is such an obviously unfair comparison that only an ideologue would make it.

For four, it breaks down the legal consensus which was established at the beginning of the last century. Unions agreed not to strike without notice (amongst other things), and employers agreed to (essentially) not be completely dickish all the time. There is lots to criticize about that consensus; however, when one side -- the employer side -- starts breaking it down, it's only a matter of time before the other side does the same. And I don't particularly want to go back to the days of, say, the Winnipeg General Strike. These sorts of conflict may have been romanticized by some, but they were, in reality, acts of revolutionary civil war. Which may be necessary, but is never desirable.

It's argued by moderates that contracting out can save money. That's possible, certainly, although it's worth noting that saving money isn't the only goal of government. Governments also need to provide public services at an adequate level. Toronto's transit, for example, has been underdeveloped for decades.

Contracting out can't save money, though, if the process by which a service is contracted out is done poorly. Toronto City Council has successfully pulled this off, with the aforementioned contracting out of garbage collection. Standardly, if cost is a concern, an RFP (Request For Proposals) will include a clause stating that the successful bidder will be the lowest reasonable bid. What I've read from councillors is that Toronto left out the word "reasonable", forcing them to take the lowest bid, from GFL. This bid was so much lower than the the next bid that almost no one believes they can do it; and GFL in Hamilton is already, two or three years into the contract, costing the city more than public workers.

Furthermore, there are such things as "public goods", for which a moral case can be made for keeping them not-for-profit and in public hands. Transit is one of them; for-profit transit often leaves areas underserved. Roads are similar; everyone has an interest in having sufficient -- and sufficiently good -- roads for the transport of people and goods, not just the people who can pay for them. Garbage collection is probably not; although diversion from landfill serves public interests, there's no pressing reason I can see for keeping it in public hands. Unless, of course, it costs more to have it done privately.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

On religious freedom.

Religious freedom is one of those basic rights that I've always had a hard time getting my head around.

On the one hand, I get the idea that it's an extension of freedom of association. Of course people should be allowed to form whatever kind of groups they choose, within some very broad limits, if any limits at all. Religions are groups, even if they're rather crazy, so governments should leave them alone.

This doesn't mean, of course, that the rest of us have to leave them alone. Just that we need to be careful not to try to get the legal of political institutions involved. It's one thing to say that Christianity is a cult and people shouldn't be involved in it; it's quite another to say that people should be jailed or sued for being Christians.

On the other hand, there's reason to be suspicious of the idea that religion is really analogous to voluntary associations of other kinds. Religion is more like culture, in that one is often raised in a certain religious tradition, and thus one is inclined to take its claims at face value. This leads to various forms of degradation, both moral and cognitive.

For example, there are religions which treat women as being inferior (because of the will of the divine!) to men. Women raised in these religions who take them seriously will run into a standard cheap tastes situation: having their preferences limited and restricted to serving men. Similarly, men raised in these religions who take them seriously will end up with pretty distorted characters: treating women's ideas and contributions as inherently less valuable than men's, regardless of their substance. (Not to say these two problems are equivalent, only that they are of the same kind.)

On the cognitive end, I think it's fairly clear that the deeply religious have problems with basic epistemic virtues, particularly when it comes to considering the truth of claims which conflict with the tenets of the religion. The rational thing to do is to weigh the two against each other, and give up whichever violates the most epistemic values (such as consistency, evidential support, fecundity of prediction, and so on). Having any beliefs which one would never give up, under any circumstances, is a pretty serious cognitive deficit.

There's also the problem of children. It would be one thing if adults willingly submitted themselves to moral and cognitive degradation. There's an argument to be made here basd on Mill's Harm Principle, that no legal or political intervention is justified except insofar as it prevents harm to others. Adults who are only harming themselves through their conduct can be remonstrated with, bribed, pleaded with, and so on, but never legally coerced.

When it comes to children, though, who cannot be held fully responsible for their behaviour, things get more complicated. It may not be child abuse to raise a child in a moderate form of Christianity or Islam, but what about raising a child as a Scientologist? Or Amish?

This is an issue I've never been able to resolve to my own satisfaction. I can see both arguments, and it looks like a clear conflict between my libertarian tendencies -- religion is just another group -- and my socialist tendencies -- religion is damaging to many people.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

On solidarity.

I'm not sure how much philosophical work has been done on the concept of solidarity, honestly. I think it might be useful, at least for me, to explain what I think of it. There's not a lot of point to this post beyond trying to explain something to my own satisfaction; feel free to skip if that sort of thing doesn't interest you.

Solidarity relates closely to group membership, obviously. You can't exhibit solidarity with yourself, unless you reconceive yourself as some sort of weird collective -- an army of one, if you like. Someone else needs to be involved for solidarity to even exist.

However, solidarity can't be exhibited to just any random person. There has to be some kind of connection between everyone. Membership in a group of some kind thus seems key. I wouldn't want to define "group" in any limited way, though. It's possible to exhibit solidarity in relation to a loose gathering of people with a common function, such as members of a job group, or with a common set of needs and experiences, such as members of an economic class.

Solidarity is quite similar to loyalty. It involves sticking close to the members of a group, supporting them in times of difficulty, standing with them even if it harms one's own interests. It also involves a diachronic perspective, focused not just on an immediate moment, but on a broad stretch of time. Like loyalty, exhibiting solidarity requires a historical commitment.

I tend to think of loyalty as personal, though. You can be loyal to a friend or an employer, but solidarity seems less personal, involving committment to something less personal, a group of people. (As the group's existence swings somewhat free from the people within it -- people can leave or enter a group without affecting the group's existence.)

Solidarity, to be an actual moral value, has to be connected to practical rationality. So, on the "rational" end, it will require involvement of one's intelligent/cognitive faculties. Someone who exhibits solidarity can't be oblivious to the nature of the group in question. Solidarity isn't commitment come what may. It requires an awareness of what the group is actually like, not what one would wish it be like. You can't exhibit solidarity to an ideal by sticking close to a group of people who only pay lip service to that ideal.

Similarly, solidarity will require deploying and developing one's knowledge about the collective and whatever defines it. Otherwise, it's a kind of blind faith.

On the "practical" end, solidarity has to have a connection to action. It's not a value that one simply possess, but one that must be used or demonstrated through one's behaviour. This can be as simple as public endorsement, or as complex as ongoing employment or activism.

So, centrally, solidarity requires an impersonal commitment to a somehow defined group, and is moral to the extent that it involves one's reason and manifests in action. Is that too thin? Possibly, but it does seem to distinguish solidarity from other key moral values.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

On crime.

Skeptics should spend more time talking about crime policy. Credulous folks on both the left and the right have dominated the discussion in a way that's detrimental. There should also be more philosophically-informed skeptics leaping into these discussions. Science is great, don't get me wrong; but it's limited to what can be measured. Not all debates, crime being one in particular, are reducible to something that can be measured.

So, you can't succeed in getting your favoured crime policy passed if you just hammer the opposition with data -- unless the dispute is actually just about data. Data don't have any bite without a set of principles that they can fit within. This is a mistake of the modern left, as well as the moderate right (classical liberals or conservatives). You can always dismiss numbers as irrelevant, and do so legitimately, if the principles underlying the dismissal really do make the numbers irrelevant.

Now, people who think about criminal justice philosophically -- so, about principles -- like to draw distinctions between different bases that might motivate criminal justice policy. Retribution is one, the idea that people who have committed crimes deserve to be punished, to suffer in some way. Rehabilitation is another, the claim that people who have committed crimes should be treated in such a way as to reduce or eliminate the possibility of future crimes. Prevention is another, the claim that people should be discouraged from committing crimes in the first place.

In isolation, these are not useful. On the one hand, yes, it's always good to have a way to think about these issues that doesn't prejudge the point of crime policy. There's lots and lots of talk about crime, as well as lots of data; without a way to sift through it all, we're basically guessing.

On the other hand, most people's thinking about crime includes some combination of a number of principles -- retributive, rehabilitative, even symbolic. Drawing distinctions can create a temptation to reduce, to look at just one dimension or feature and say that should be the point of crime policy.

So, data on its own is unpersuasive; but principles on their own lead to myopia.

The Conservative government, as is often the case with the rising (radical) right-wing these days, is clearly in retributive and symbolic mode. Rehabilitation is just not on their agenda, nor is prevention. Building more prisons and increasing sentences for minor marijuana possession are just the most obvious examples -- the idea is to punish and punish and punish, as well as to be seen to be strong and tough against criminals.

The move to revise copyright law has a similar orientation, however. The idea is to punish violations of copyright, rather than examine whether copyright makes any sense. There's also a symbolic aspect, although with a cynical guise, in that there's no possibility of the proposed copyright changes actually stopping piracy. (I suppose I could make the same point about the other two changes; I'm not sure that building more prisons is cynical, though, as something -- the actual buildings -- will come into existence.)

If you want to criticize these, then, and have those criticisms stick, it does no good to point out -- correctly -- that building more prisons or having harsher sentences doesn't reduce crime. That's not the point of the policy. The point of the policy is to make criminals pay (retribution) and to appear strong (symbolic).

Now, the left tends to be more rehabilitative than retributive. This could almost be definitional: if you favour a (relatively) retributive approach to crime, you're on the right; if you favour a (relatively) rehabilitative approach to crime, you're on the left. The left also tends to work a little more on the prevention aspect than the right.

What's interesting to me is the fact that there's a symbolic aspect to left-wing thinking about crime, too. The long-gun registry is the most obvious recent Canadian example. It was initially funny -- then progressively more disturbing -- to see folks who consider themselves on the left brow-beating others for taking a different position on the issue. If you opposed the long-gun registry from the left, you were anti-women, anti-police, pro-gun (etc, etc), and all this for agreeing with the Conservatives that the registry was a pointless waste of money.

What mattered in that case was what point the registry was supposed to serve. The Conservatives clearly saw it as representing a disdain for gun-owners. The critics from the left, including myself, saw it as an empty symbol, thus completely pointless. The supporters from the left seemed to see it as a powerful symbol. (I'm simplifying a lot, obviously.)

Thus this led to a lot of talking past each other, on all sides. The worst was the oft-quoted stat on police use of the registry. Since the debate was actually focused on what the registry symbolized, and whether we should have such a symbol, all such data completely missed the point. Unless you thought it was a powerful symbol, in which case anything which shows its social influence would matter.

Monday, December 05, 2011

On the first NDP leadership debate.

I'm not going to spend much time dissecting the first NDP leadership debate. (Note that I skipped the French portion; poor ol' monolingual me doesn't much care for CPAC translation.)

No one should expect a ton from these debates. There won't be any major policy announcements in that sort of venue. (For what it's worth, I haven't looked at the candidates' policies in much depth yet, and probably won't until closer to the vote.)

There also won't be much mixing it up. Libs and Cons may treat the leadership like bloodsport, but the NDP won't. For one, the NDP leader doesn't have nearly as much power within the party as the Liberal or Conservative leader. Lower stakes means less motivation to beat each other up. For two, the candidates seem to mostly like each other -- there's no factionalization or possibility of in-fighting destabilizing the party.

So, really, the debates are kind of inside baseball. A chance for party members to see what the candidates are like when they speak in public, to the camera, to each other. In other words, how they stack up as possible leaders.

What I will do, then, is give my impressions of the candidates as leaders.

My top tier, right now, is Topp, Cullen, Singh and Mulcair. They came off as potential leaders with good ideas.

A lot of folks are saying that Topp came off as wooden. Maybe so; but his intelligence and policy grasp impressed me. He may drop off my list based on how he does in the remaining debates; he really does need to grow more comfortable with speaking to people, not just to other wonks and party insiders.

Cullen surprised me. I'm deeply concerned about his "cooperation" riff with the Liberals, but he's very easy and charming in the debate. Also, he'd be a wonderful contrast with Harper.

Singh came out of nowhere for me. I expected him to be an also-ran, but he struck me as competent, forceful and dynamic. He could drop off the list, too; it depends on whether he has more to say than continually hitting the "small business" line.

Mulcair -- well, no one should be surprised that he's in the top tier. My concerns with him are policy-based, like with Cullen. I suspect he secretly wants to make the NDP into something like the 60's/70's Liberal Party, and I'm not on board with that. But he was composed and personable, which, like with Cullen, would be good contrasts with Harper.

My second tier are candidates who had good moments, but also awkward ones. There were also some odd or mixed messages -- over-selling a message, for example ("new politics", "jobs"). This is Ashton, Dewar and Nash.

Ashton came out really strong, but I think her relative inexperience showed through by the end. She seemed like she ran out of things to say and had to keep returning to her slogans.

Dewar seemed really stiff. I was disappointed, honestly. His infrastructure/jobs plan, what I've seen of it, is very interesting. But he didn't sell it very well, and he ran away from engaging with Topp on the spending issue -- that is, would a Dewar NDP endorse deficit spending in the short-term in order to benefit in the long-term.

Nash also seemed quite stiff. She's got a good message, but I'm not sure she's the one to sell it. Women in politics don't get a fair shake generally, and older women get it worse (witness all the attacks Hillary Clinton has suffered since the early 90's.) And given how awkward Nash seemed to me, I suspect the Conservative attack machine would eat her alive.

My bottom tier is the remaining two, obviously: Chisholm and Saganash. These are candidates who seemed hesitant or unsure of what they thought.

With regard to Chisholm, I obviously didn't see the French portion, so I'm not commenting on that. But even in English, he was stuttering and hesitating. I'm not sure if this is just a delivery thing or genuinely not knowing what he wanted to say -- but it certainly seemed like the latter.

As for Saganash, he just seemed out of place. He was hesitant as well, stuttered a lot, and really had a hard time with the debate format -- fitting his answers into the time, dealing with the cameras and the other candidates, etc. So far, not leadership material, from my point of view.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Just sayin'.

As of today, Oct 19, 2011, I am Dr. Rawlings. Who wants a prescription?

(Disclaimer: not that kind of doctor.)

On a serious note, though, this is more a relief than cause for celebration. 6 months of additional revisions post-defense is ridiculous.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Letter to federal MP Matthew Kellway (Beaches-East York).

Dear Mr. Kellway,

I am writing to you as resident of Beaches-East York to express my concerns regarding the government's Bill C-32, An Act to Amend the Copyright Act. While this Bill does make for some reasonable reforms, it contains two serious flaws.

First, the "digital locks" provision trumps all consumer rights. That is, if a content provider or manufacturer includes any measure to prevent copying -- even something as common as a region-encoding on a DVD -- then there is no right to copy this content. This is true whatever one's purpose, whether it be educational, personal, or simply for backup.

This provision is potentially unconstitutional. It seems to infringe on property rights, which are a provincial responsibility. Moreover, it is entirely arbitrary. The United States has some of the harshest copyright-protection laws in the Western world. But even their laws do not give digital locks this power to override every other consideration.

Second, there is no allowance for personal copying. While I understand that content/media industries are seriously concerned regarding the ease and spread of copying over the internet, there is no legal or technological solution available that can stop, or even seriously inhibit, this activity.

The BitTorrent protocol is already highly decentralized, relying only on central servers -- called "trackers" -- to facilitate peer-to-peer connections. There are already proof-of-concept software applications available which can bypass even this requirement, generating pure peer-to-peer connections with no central servers at all. This, combined with reasonable encryption methods (such as virtual private networks, or VPNs, and blocking of connections by unwanted/suspicious peers) would make proving the existence of infringing activity incredibly difficult, if not impossible.

I believe the government has somewhat recognized this reality, with its reduction of statutory damages to $5000 for all infringing activity. Oddly, though, it seems unwilling to recognize this fully. After all, there still is some penalty for infringement. Furthermore, the bill includes provisions for ISPs to track and warn users of infringing activity. And, at least according to the CBC, it prohibits creating a "library" of content -- a sentence I write while surrounded by several hundred CDs and nearly a thousand books.

On copyright, there is, at base, a simple choice. Either culture belongs to individual citizens, and its creators may profit secondary to that. Or, culture belongs to its creators, and individual citizens must rent it from them. Content/media industries and creators are in a time of transition of their business model, but are not clearly suffering due to infringing activities. Available data suggests that there is more cultural content produced today than twenty years ago, and infringement appears, on the whole, to be helping creators to continue to create, rather than harming them. Even if there were clear financial harms involved, something that has never been proven, the provisions in Bill C-32 outlined above seem to go too far. They provide industry with power and rights, and deprive consumers of options and free use of content.

Bill C-32, in my view, is a foolish and wrong-headed bill, written to satisfy the wants of (primarily corporate) content providers, and reduce the rights of everyone else. The government does not appear to have listened to the extensive copyright hearings and debates over the last few years. Thus it falls upon the Official Opposition to attempt to work with the government to improve this bill. Failing that, it falls on the Opposition to do whatever can be done to stop or hinder its passage.

Yours sincerely,

Adam Rawlings

Monday, September 26, 2011

Letter to Toronto City Councillor, Mary-Margaret McMahon (Ward 32)

Dear Councillor McMahon,

I am a resident of Ward 32, and am writing to express my concerns regarding the service-cutting fiscal plan proposed by Mayor Rob Ford. As I am sure you are aware, the Mayor claimed during his campaign that Toronto had a "spending problem" and not a "revenue problem". Thus, in his view, it would be possible to balance the city's budget without major service cuts.

Given his proposals of service cuts and fire-sales of city property, it is clear that the Mayor was either lying or incompetent, or both. After all, if the Mayor can be believed, we have gone from about a $300 million surplus under Mayor Miller to about a $800 million deficit under Mayor Ford. This implies that Mayor Ford has misplaced over $1 billion during his first year in office.

Unfortunately for Mayor Ford, his budget numbers cannot be believed. For example, the nearly $800 million is calculated based on a number of "worst case scenario" assumptions, including various emergency funds such as larger amounts for snowclearing than will probably be necessary.

The Mayor also seems to not understand basic budgeting concepts. For example, he incomprehensibly continues to state, in public, that the cancelled vehicle registration tax -- which removed about $250 million in revenue from the budget -- is a "savings" to taxpayers. This is rather like quitting one's job and claiming it paid off the mortgage.

To make matters worse, the Mayor -- and his advisors -- are engaging in irresponsible fear-mongering, further deception and wedge politics.

Deputy Mayor Holyday, amongst others, has proclaimed that the only alternative to the proposed service cuts is a 35 percent property tax increase. This is false. A 35 percent hike would only be necessary if the city had to make up the entire projected budget deficit out of property taxes, which is clearly not the case.

Similarly, the Mayor and his advisors have proclaimed that citizens who arrive at City Hall to speak against or protest the proposed cuts are somehow agents of public sector unions or the "far left". Not only is this flagrantly disrespectful -- union members and leftists are citizens like any other, as equal as any other -- it is also based on nothing. (Except, perhaps, Councillor Mammoliti's Cold War-era fantasies about Communists.)

Finally, the Mayor and his allies have publicly contemplated selling city assets, while simultaneously talking down their value and talking up the city's desperation. For a group that proudly proclaims their business expertise, this is amateurish at best. If you want to sell your car, the last thing you should do to get the best price is talk about how many miles the car has on it and how badly you need the money for rent.

Given all the above, it is clear that the Mayor and his circle are not capable of, or not interested in, effectively managing the city's financial situation. It is well-known that Toronto has had a structural deficit since amalgamation, thanks to the deliberate downloading of services by the Harris government. Resolving this deficit in the long-term will clearly require action from the province, which will not be forthcoming at least until the October election.

However, Council should, after the election, consider how to effectively persuade the province to reverse the Harris government's errors and permanently solve the city's structural deficit.

I understand that you have taken a leadership role in bringing Council around to seeing the folly of Councillor Doug Ford's Waterfront/Port Lands ideas. I would therefore encourage you to continue in this role when it comes to bringing Council together with Toronto's MPPs to reverse the province's decades-long neglect of our city. Similarly, it would be responsible to bring the Toronto-area MPs together with Council to reverse the federal government's much-longer, yet equally damaging, neglect of Toronto.

The current issue, of course, is resolving this deficit this year. To do so requires a delicacy of touch and an understanding of Toronto's finances that simply escapes the Mayor and his advisors. 

I therefore insist that you oppose Mayor Ford's radical and damaging cuts agenda, and work to lead Council towards an alternate budget process.

Council must consider all the revenue and spending tools at its disposal. This may include modest tax increases, modest fee changes and impositions, the introduction of new taxes and revenue devices. It may also include some service reductions and genuine (rather than rhetorical) efficiencies. It may even include the sale of some valuable city assets that are more effectively managed elsewhere. It is unusual, for example, for a city to be running a zoo the size of Toronto Zoo, rather than simply collecting rent and taxes for the use of the land.

All in all, the Mayor and his circle cannot be trusted with managing the city and its finances. I urge you to step forward to oppose his agenda, and lead Council to a more responsible and effective process, both for this year's budget, and in the long-term.

Yours sincerely,

Adam Rawlings

Friday, September 09, 2011

On the Ontario Liberal platform.

I had planned to go point-by-point through the OLP's platform, like I did the OPC and ONDP. But, well -- the platform really wasn't worth the wait.

Here's the Cliff Notes version:

  1. Harris was awful -- never named, just "previous PC governments", which is an odd choice, given Hudak's close ties to Harris.
  2. Rae was the same -- never named, just "previous NDP government", which is probably a smart choice, given the party Rae is now associated with.
  3. The PC and NDP platforms are sucky.
  4. The McGuinty government has done everything right. ("eHealth?" Never heard of it.)
  5. Vote Liberal, and we'll keep doing everything right

That's seriously about it. There are scattered promises here and there -- all-day two-way GO trains in and out of Toronto, for example -- but they aren't costed, they aren't funded, and nowhere is it explained why these wonderful things haven't been done in 8 years of Liberal government. (Not to mention all the things that are claimed as accomplishments that don't actually exist yet -- sticking with transit, how 'bout the Eglinton-Scarborough crosstown?)

So, that's what the choice comes down to:
  • A selection of parties that don't have a hope in hell of getting an MPP, and don't have any serious plans I include the Greens here -- get it together, guys, you've been in government in Europe.
  • An NDP that's led, again, by a closet Liberal. Apparently, we didn't learn the lesson of Bob Rae. I see zero evidence that Horwath believes in any of the traditional (labour) or modern (environment, education) principles of the NDP. Some policies are okay (transit), but only because the alternatives are so terrible.
  • A PC party that's not as right-wing as Harper's Conservatives, but, given the responsibilities of provincial governments, capable of doing substantially more damage. Seriously, if Hudak gets a majority, he'll take us back to Harris and then some. Hope PC voters enjoy general strikes.
  • A Liberal party that has, over 8 years, proven it has no real ability to improve Ontario's basic institutions. The best it can promise is to continue to stop them from collapsing too quickly.

I don't know about anyone else, but I'm certainly inspired. Anyone want to form an Ontario chapter of the Rhino Party?

(I'll try to get something up next week or so on the NDP federal leadership race, which might be more cheerful than the dismal state of Ontario politics. I'm actively looking for full-time work, though, and that eats up time.)

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Friday, July 29, 2011

On small parties.

Short one today, as I'm trying to work through dissertation revisions. But I thought it was worth noting how few of Ontario's registered political parties have bothered to put together a platform as yet. It's kind of sad, given that we have fixed election dates. You'd think parties would be ready to go months in advance -- apparently not.

The NDP's platform is incomplete, which they admit, and I'll get back to the rest of it when they bother to release it. I'm not sure if this is strategy or carelessness -- I'm guessing strategy, but it's reading like the latter.

The PCs have a complete platform, but are promising a supplement dealing with Northern Ontario issues. So, at least they're ready to go.

The Libs have nothing whatsoever, but are promising something in early September. You'd think after all these years in power they'd have at least a sketch of what they wanted with another mandate -- again, apparently not.

Of the parties that hold no seats, only the Greens have anything approaching a full and serious platform.

The Ontario Libertarian Party has... something. It's called the 2010 platform, which doesn't make any sense, so I'm assuming it's an error. And the platform itself is appropriately insane. My favourite part is where they parrot Locke's "life, liberty and property" and try to apply it to healthcare -- omitting that Locke's actual line is "life, health, liberty and property", which rather changes things. It's not particularly thoughtful libertarianism, just cartoon libertarianism -- what has come to be called "glibertarianism". Serious libertarians have interesting things to say, but this ain't serious.

The Freedom Party of Ontario has the beginnings of a platform but -- well, see for yourself; it's a bit of a mess. Releasing the platform one plank at a time looks to me like they're making it up as they go along -- not the best way to earn votes and get attention when you're a minor party.

The Northern Ontario Heritage Party -- and Northern Ontario seems to be getting a lot of play from the major parties -- has a sketch of what could be a platform. However, it's all nebulous and highly aspirational.

The Communists have nothing whatsoever. I think they're are still focused on the past federal election; documents relating to it are still on the site.

The Party for People with Special Needs doesn't appear to have anything ready for the election. One wonders if they're going to bother trying to field candidates.

The Family Coalition Party has only a set of general principles, and nothing approaching a platform.

The Reform Party of Ontario is promising a platform in July. Since it's almost August, one hopes they're getting right on that. Although, a blatant typo on the front page of their website doesn't inspire confidence.

The Ontario Provincial Confederation of Regions Party has no webpresence, except for that linked Facebook page, which only refers to their Wikipedia entry. IPU knows if they're still really a political party.

The same applies to the Republican Party of Ontario.

This is a little depressing, isn't it? The largest province in Canada and we can't get more than four parties to take an election seriously?