Mar 31, 2015

I Did Some Journalism

It's about jails, and why 3/5ths of people inside them have not been convicted of a crime. Here's the hook:
Paxil, or paroxetine, is a powerful psychoactive drug with a short half-life in the body. Zurn had not had a dose since the day before her arrest. So when she got to the jail, she began experiencing serious withdrawal symptoms. Delirious, dizzy, paranoid, and sobbing uncontrollably, she says she was placed in solitary confinement, as is common for mentally ill people. Alone for 23 and a half hours a day, and still without toilet paper, Zurn refused to eat. After two days, she was released. It was her birthday. "It was the worst two days of my life," she told The Week.

Jan 24, 2015

Ryan Cooper on John Oliver's show

Not that Ryan Cooper, the other one. You'll have to wait till the end, though:

Jan 13, 2015

Steve Randy Waldman on Fraternal Organizations

The history alone in here blew my mind, but the rest of it is also worth a listen:

Dec 27, 2014

Torture Follow-up

Here I argued that torture does not work for intelligence gathering, basically just recapitulating a large section from Darius Rejali's excellent book Torture and Democracy. I think it gets the point across fairly well, but reading it again I think I could have done a better job framing the argument.

The argument isn't that torture never results in a prisoner divulging true information — that clearly does happen on occasion. Rather, the argument is that torture is worse than traditional interrogation and investigation techniques. (As Josiah Neeley noted on Twitter, even a Magic 8-Ball will give you "correct" information through mere chance on occasion.) Torture apologists make grandiose claims about its effectiveness, arguing that it is far more reliable than traditional techniques. Torture is a great and terrible evil, so if it can be shown that it is even simply equal to non-coercive techniques, that obviously implies its use is absolutely inexcusable under any circumstances whatsoever. 

In fact that bar is cleared by a considerable margin. Not only is torture much, much worse than traditional interrogation techniques, it also has devastating side effects both for the agencies that practice it and the nation as a whole. The CIA just got off scot-free for spying on its congressional overseers in an attempt to intimidate them into burying the Senate torture report. As Rejali shows, careering lawlessness that strikes at the heart of a nation's constitutional order is common among organizations that torture.

Torture is rat poison for a liberal democracy.

Dec 11, 2014

Mark Udall on CIA Torture

Hell of a speech:

Just devastating he lost his election. Devastating.

Nov 2, 2014

Winter Soldier and Fascism in Modern Superhero Movies

This is a pretty devastating indictment:

The implicit support of Bush-era security policy is, to my mind, the biggest political problem with modern superhero treatments. As Olson says, the logical conclusion behind most of these movies is that the rule of law and democratic oversight are luxuries we cannot afford if terrorist attacks get bad enough.

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier (I just caught this the other day) gets closest to why this is wrong, but doesn't quite grasp it. It's interesting both because it illuminates pretty starkly why the proto-fascism of the Yoo/Addington legal doctrine (that the president has no restrictions whatsoever on the use of force, and may kill, kidnap or torture whomever he wants) is so monstrous, and because the last-minute hesitation at closing the case weakened the movie considerably.

So (spoiler warning), here's the basic plot outline. Captain America and Black Widow work for SHIELD, a government agency. It turns out this agency has been infested with a Nazi-descended fifth column called Hydra. SHIELD has comprehensive dragnet surveillance, and is in the process of launching three aircraft carrier-sized floating gunships bristling with long-range guns.

Hydra has infested both these operations, and plans to use them to institute a worldwide fascist dictatorship. They have used the dragnet to construct dossiers on basically every person in the world, and after the gunships are launched, they'll use the surveillance tools to locate anyone who might be a potential threat to their new regime, and will use the long-range weapons to preemptively execute all of them en masse. The overthrow is shown to be quite specific — the president, many members of Congress, and many people in the Pentagon are seen on the targeting screen.

The heroes stop the plan at the last second, of course. But the great thing about this movie is how Captain America is shown to object to the gunships from the very beginning, when their secret construction is revealed to him. He correctly recognizes that such power is highly dangerous outside of any oversight, and insists that the gunships not just be stopped from their current course, but destroyed altogether.

But the dialogue in the movie consistently stops short of laying out exactly why this is. Nobody ever says something like "extrajudicial surveillance and force will lead to abuse" and it's a lost opportunity. It would have strengthened the logic and motivation of the protagonist, and in a way that fits very well with Captain America's old-timey ethos as a New Deal Democrat and earnest do-gooder (in this incarnation, he's been frozen since 1945). In a democracy, "authority should derive from the consent of the governed, not from the threat of force." Or, to quote Julian Sanchez:
The conceit at the center of all of these surveillance programs — of almost the entire idea of a secret intelligence community in a democracy — is that you have elected representatives of the people who are allowed to know what they're doing and keep checks on it, even if these things have to be kept secret from the general public. It's only under these circumstances that you can plausibly think that level of secrecy is compatible with a democratic system.
Hydra is bad not because it's descended from Nazis, but because it is the logical endpoint of the Yoo/Addington political ideology.

But instead, perhaps because this idea could equally apply to most modern superhero treatments, Winter Solider keeps getting tangled up in wishy-washy defenses of extrajudicial vigilantism. At almost the last scene in the movie, Black Widow is called to testify before some kind of congressional committee. A general whines that now they don't have infinite murder power on account of all the gunships got blowed up, and some jackoff politician says exposure of her secret past (she posted SHIELD's surveillance data online, and she used to work for the Russians) means she should be jailed. Instead of plainly explaining the stakes, Black Widow says that they'll keep her around because she and her vigilante friends are the only one competent enough to deal with terrorism:

Democratic institutions are just not up to the task, it seems. Here's how the scene should have gone:

GENERAL: Why haven't we heard from Captain Rogers?

BLACK WIDOW: Subpoena him, I dunno. What more would you like to hear?

GENERAL: He could explain how this country's supposed to maintain its national security now that he, and you, have laid waste to our intelligence apparatus.

BLACK WIDOW: General, are you a member of Hydra?

GENERAL [outraged]: Of course not, and I--

BLACK WIDOW: Then that means that you were on the Hydra kill list. If we hadn't brought down those gunships, then you would be dead, along with every non-Hydra person in this room.

I'm not certain how best to keep this country safe. But I'm certain that the very first thing you ought to do is make damn sure that "intelligence apparatus" you love so much isn't actually pointed at our own government.

POLITICIAN: Some of those on the committee here believe that your service record, both for this country and against it, mean that you should be in a penitentiary.

BLACK WIDOW [annoyed]: You people don't seem to understand the gravity of what just happened. Hydra was this close to instituting a fascist dictatorship. Did you even read the briefing books? [embarrassed coughing]

The entire power structure of this nation was moments from assassination. The president. The Congress [she makes a gun with her hand, mock shooting the politician]. The Pentagon leadership [mock shoots the general]. The press [mock shoots one of the journalists to the side].

Those gunships just might have been greatest threat this nation has ever experienced.

GENERAL: That's ridiculous--

BLACK WIDOW [on a roll]: Yes General, even to national security. Not to your fighter jet budget, or to your ability to use fancy surveillance gear with no oversight. I'm talking about the right of the regular people to be secure in their homes, to live how they choose without fear, and to elect their own government.

I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of in my life. But I've served my adopted country. And if destroying those giant floating murder palaces has so annoyed you all that you want to try and haul me up before a grand jury, take your best shot. [stunned silence]


Ideally, that would be paired with another previous scene where Cap argues for these principles, and convinces Black Widow that democracy is actually good. But you get the idea.

Oct 18, 2014

Where Can Rockstar Go After GTA V? Reconstruction

Here's something astonishing: Grand Theft Auto V has sold more than 34 million copies. That amounts to something like $2 billion in revenue. (For a point of contrast, that's a third again as much as The Avengers took in.) Late as usual, I played through it a couple weeks ago.

Was it any good? My standard these days for a good game is one that holds my attention enough that I can finish the damn thing, so I basically agree with Carolyn Petit that it was "politically muddled and profoundly misogynistic" but still quite good overall. The world-building in particular was spectacularly deep, and the set-piece heist missions featured splendid design.

My main problem with the title, aside from the sexism problems that Petit outlined, is the yawning abyss between the series' continuing underdog pose, and the reality of it as a cultural and economic colossus. The first major games in the series, GTA and GTA II, had minor sales and mixed reviews. GTA III, which established the current formula, was a surprise smash hit, so its aesthetic of riotous, gleeful violence and savage mockery of popular American culture felt fairly earned, so to speak. Like a punk band doing a show in some grungy warehouse, the message fit the venue.

But nowadays the punk band is playing to packed stadium crowds paying 150 bucks a ticket, and they're still singing the same songs about how everything in mainstream culture is all fucked up. "Dude," people vaguely think, "you are mainstream culture," and they sort of acknowledge that a little by poking fun at their own audience, but not in a full or forthright way.

As Tom Bissell wrote:
Once upon a time, playing a GTA game was like sitting next to your offensive Republican uncle at Christmas dinner. He was definitely a dick but also smart and interesting, and his heart was fundamentally in the right place. These days Uncle GTA is a billionaire with an unchanged shtick, and he seems a hell of a lot more mean-spirited than before.
Contrast GTA V to Red Dead Redemption, by my lights Rockstar's best work. This is basically a paint-by-numbers western set in 1911, but a straightforward story without the loopy antics of GTA V. Though it had plenty of shooting and murder, it was also subtle, deep, and incredibly beautiful. And while not quite such a stupendous success as most of the GTA series, it still did very well by any other standard, selling something like 13 million copies.

There will be a GTA VI, without question. But probably not for several years. In the meantime, this gap between the actually existing cultural and economic power of video games in general and Rockstar in particular, and the continuing stereotype that games are for gormless shut-in nerds (not helped by recent events) suggests that a genuine effort to make a culturally and artistically serious game wouldn't go amiss.

Here's my proposal: I'd like to see a GTA-style open world game set in Reconstruction. You'd play a slave who escapes alone towards the end of the Civil War. He joins up with the Union Army, fights in a couple battles, finds his family, and then works to secure black rights in the South against ex-Confederate terrorism.

There are a few reasons to select this period. First, it's high historical drama with real villains and heroes. A man fighting to rescue his family from slavery and secure their liberty is a classic story, and it would be a great connective thread to motivate the plot. (Imagine a mission like this one [spoilers], but defending your house from Red Shirts.) That trajectory would also make a nice twist on GTA's typical upward mobility fixation.

Second, if you made it right, it would be doing valuable cultural work. Popular American consciousness has a totally garbled version of Reconstruction largely based on racist Confederate apologia. Most people have a vague notion (if they have anything) that Reconstruction was characterized by corruption, unfair punishment of the South by carpetbaggers and scalawags, and that it collapsed of its own accord. This is total horseshit. Reconstruction was an attempt to build a true democracy in the South. It succeeded for a time, but was violently overthrown by white supremacist terrorists who probably killed more Americans than Osama bin Laden. (Aided and abetted, one should note, by racism and apathy in the North.)

Thus, if Rockstar wanted to fairly reckon with its vast cultural and economic power to critique American culture in a serious and useful way, and make a hell of a great game in the process, Reconstruction would be an excellent setting.

Sep 8, 2014

Inflation and the Class War

Rick Santelli's unhinged rant against underwater mortgage relief in 2009 (see above) marked not just the birth of the Tea Party, but also the turn of the American monied class: from desperately accepting gigantic piles of free government money towards frantically mobilizing to prevent anyone but themselves from getting the same treatment. Through a tsunami of political donations, and a slew of lavishly funded think tanks and foundations, they demanded austerity in the teeth of the worst economic collapse in 80 years, especially cuts to social insurance. They destroyed any chance at mortgage relief for ordinary people. And perhaps least appreciated, they have constantly demanded hard money policy.

So over the last several years, one question has been persistently nagging one percenter analysts: is this behavior stupid or evil? That is to say, are the rich just slickered by very poor economic advice (like that dispensed by Santelli, who would have lost you a ton of money over the last five years), or are they deliberately acting as a class to choke the prospects of the 99 percent?

I believe it's a mix of both. But the key thing to remember for ordinary people is that the class war goes all the way down. More people than in generations understand that, to a very great degree, economic policy is a zero-sum struggle for power between the rich and everyone else. This very much includes our money policy – whether we will prioritize creating as many jobs as possible, or preserving the value of the dollar at all costs (hard money policy, in other words).

But let's step back a bit. Folks like like Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong have wondered whether the rich's love of hard money is a simple intellectual mistake, since a strong recovery (which has been hindered by inflationista/austerian paranoia) would mean more sales, more revenues, and more overall profits. It ought to be good for everyone.

Steve Randy Waldman disagrees. After a certain point, more money is useless in concrete terms, and wealth becomes more and more like insurance. Stronger growth may mean more aggregate production and profits, but if it looks likely upsets the current hierarchy of wealth, incumbents will resist it. Thus, the rich have always favored hard money, everywhere and always:
“Full employment” means ungrateful job receivers have the capacity to make demands that could blunt equity returns. And even if that doesn’t happen, even if the rich do get richer in aggregate, there will be winners and losers among them, each wealthy individual will face risks they otherwise need not have faced. Regression to the mean is a bitch. You have managed to put yourself in the 99.9th percentile, once. If you are forced to play again in anything close to a fair contest, the odds are stacked against your repeating the trick.
As Waldman notes, there is a long history here: the rich of 1896 mobilized more money as a fraction of the economy to defeat William Jennings Bryan's campaign against hard money than any presidential election before or since. (Roughly 4 times as much, in fact.) Krugman admits this makes a lot of sense, but is still drawn to the idea that the rich are misleading themselves, mainly because they routinely espouse totally bankrupt ideas.

This is an interesting topic to ponder for the future, given the outsize power the rich possess (I think you can explain the rapidly shifting nuttiness by noting the need for an unselfish cloak for naked self-interest), but the important thing for the non-wealthy is that class conflict is an inescapable part of money policy. People understand this when it comes to tax or health care policy, where recent Democratic Party policy like ObamaCare features substantial transfers from rich to poor (and most Republican policy goes the opposite direction).

But money is a much more slippery beast. It's one of those things that everyone has daily experience with, but gets stranger and stranger the more you think about it. Both from conversations with friends, memories of how I used to think, and the famous paper about the economics of a POW camp, average people have a vague idea that money is something that just happens in society, and rising prices are always bad. When it comes to inflation, people tend to believe that if prices rise 10 percent that means they'll only be able to afford 10 percent less stuff.

That's the inflation fallacy, and it serves the interest of the rich. If prices – all prices – rise 10 percent, that includes the price of labor (your wages) and the erosion of the purchasing power of a dollar will be exactly counterbalanced by an increase in wages. Money goes in circles in the economy: my spending is your income, and your spending is my income.

But that's why the way Waldman writes is so valuable – he translates these arguments in a way that makes sense on an intuitive human level. What is money, after all? Among other things, it is a claim on future production. But productive capacity is not cast in stone:
Human wealth is not like acorns for squirrels, stuff that can be buried in a tree and consumed over time. Most of the goods and services we require are ephemeral. They have to be produced and reproduced every day. When you save, you are asking other people to do the work of expanding the productive capacity of the economy so that when you eventually redeem your scrip for stuff, there is enough not only to pay all the future workers and investors actually producing, but also to cover your ratty old claims on wealth.
Pushing productive capacity forward through time is a difficult, tricky business. It's not just the daily grind against entropy: the production, repair and replacement of worn-out equipment, the hiring and training of new workers, the education of the young, and so on. It's also dealing with, on occasion, huge macro-scale catastrophes.

Suppose for example that we discovered that the financial system had been madly, unsustainably incentivizing the production of exurbs out in the desert – doing their vaunted allocation of capital right into the garbage disposal. Banks must eat huge losses and large parts of the real economy must be reorganized. Effectively, we find we're not as productive economically as we thought we were. We could deal with this problem by doing all we can to make sure everyone stays employed, which because of the need to reorganize sectors will likely result in scarcity and a one-time burst of inflation. Or we could allow giant levels of unemployment, so that workers will not have the money to bid for goods and services and the value of dollars will be preserved.

This isn't just a theory – the U.S. chose unemployment, while Israel and Australia chose inflation and largely avoided the Great Recession.

So when it comes to inflation, it's time for the non-wealthy to forget the 1970s (badly misinterpreted anyway) and recognize that this is a zero-sum political struggle. There is likely still quite a lot of slack in the economy, so production can probably be expanded without too much inflation, but for the non-wealthy, it's clearly worth the risk (vulnerable creditors could also be protected). Full employment is far more important than stable prices.

Aug 31, 2014

The Bizarre Bankshot Feminism of Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider is one of the weirdest games I have ever experienced. The story is hackneyed, predictable, and irritating. Despite having a female protagonist, it has serious issues with sexism. The violence, particularly that directed at Lara herself, is gratuitous and at times smacks of misogynist sadism. And yet, despite all that -- indeed, partly because of those problems, it is one of the most compelling games I've played. One which, for me at least, ended up in a surprisingly pro-woman place.

The game is so dichotomous it could have almost been made by two different companies. There is the Lara of the traditional videogame story moments -- the cutscenes, spoken dialogue, and quick time events. This Lara is largely helpless and repeatedly subject to shocking violence. A very early cutscene shows her being stabbed through the midriff with a filthy stick. The QTEs are infrequent and have fairly finicky timing, so I failed nearly every one repeatedly, thus having to watch Lara be brutally killed over and over as I learned the sequence.

Then there is the Lara of regular old gameplay, running and gunning across a big jungle island. This Lara is a fearsome, almost terrifying warrior who is as hard as a coffin nail. She casually slaughters hundreds of enemy men, with equal facility in hand-to-hand combat or a half-dozen ranged weapons. She is a world-class climber, routinely jumping across huge gaps and sticking on just a single climbing axe. That part is similar to the Uncharted series, but the whiny narrative insistence that this a Serious Game You Guys (though the “gritty” violence often came off as just silly) made me think about just how unbelievably strong Lara would have to be to pull off her climbing stunts. I would say she’d have to have the grip strength of Alex Honnold or Steph Davis, but in reality I doubt there’s a person alive, male or female, who could do half that stuff without dislocating both their shoulders. In short, in-game Lara is a Total Badass, and the play during these parts of the game was smooth and compelling.

But every once in awhile you get yanked out of that smooth experience to endure a hamfisted attempt at drama (basically a corny paint-by-numbers action plot) which usually involved Lara being stripped of all agency, either by being captured or sent on some errand. Compounding this effect was the camera and costume design, which were obviously designed to titillate a presumed straight male player. The camera is constantly leering at her breasts and ass -- the actual very first cutscene features a prolonged stare right down her shirt. Through the whole game she wears a scoop-neck tank top that is cut just exactly as low as the designers thought they could get away with, and as the story progresses her sprayed-on pants are ripped open in the inner thigh.

And the violence is just beyond ridiculous:

These two halves of the game were constantly grating against each other. Two sequences in particular stood out to me. The first is during an extended climb up to a cold mountain peak up to a radio tower. It’s snowing, and the wind is blowing hard, and at several points Lara is overtly shivering and remarking on how cold she is. On her way up Lara kills dozens of enemies, all wearing jackets or at least long-sleeve shirts. But while she can loot the ammunition and “salvage” (for upgrades) off their corpses, she can’t take any of their clothes, obviously because then the camera wouldn’t be able to zoom in on her breasts whenever there’s the slightest excuse for it.

The second sequence was a short cutscene. After fighting her way past yet more dozens of hapless guards, Lara finds her objective: a friend of hers (another woman, natch) has been captured. She is well-equipped by this point, but instead of busting out her shotgun or automatic rifle, she runs out into the open, and tries to snipe the cultist leader with her bow. It's an easy shot that Lara has by now made a hundred times -- the leader is just standing there in plain view -- but she misses, alerting the troops, and then misses again as the goons run up, then proceed to beat the shit out of her.

This contrast between the intimidating, no-bullshit competence of in-game Lara, and the obnoxious, helpless cutscene Lara, created an oddly feminist experience, if you can believe it. Over and over and over, the message of the game, whether intentional or not, was: see? This is what being a strong woman is like. In-game Lara would have slaughtered a dozen deer, tanned her own leather out of a solution of brains, and made herself a bulletproof winter parka, but she can’t because Cutscene Lara has to have her breasts on display at all times. In-game Lara would have made that above-mentioned shot, whipped out her shotgun, and blasted the oncoming goons into red mist without even blinking, but she can't because the story writers couldn't be bothered to come up with a more plausible transition. In-game Lara can hit a nickel with a pistol at 100 yards, Cutscene Lara yells “SAM?!??” through her radio when her friend is obviously being captured.

At all times, the needs of Lara the female character are set below the needs of a stupid story operating in a sexist framework.

And yet, it was a pretty compelling game! Constantly being whipsawed between these two perspectives was quite interesting if nothing else, and I ended up noticing all kinds of sexist garbage that I probably would have missed if the story had been more absorbing (like the ripped pants, I mean come on). I wouldn't say it's great, because this dichotomy is so distracting, and the story is lousy, but it did hold my attention. Maybe next time they can write a story for the real Lara?