Dec 28, 2012

Happy Holidays!

Apologies for the lack of posting, I've been busy with holiday and family stuff. I should be back after the new year. In the spirit of wretched commercialism, note that Spec Ops, my favorite game this year, is on sale at Steam for $15.

In the meantime, I quite enjoyed this sermon, which I had never heard before:

Dec 21, 2012

Programming Note

I've been busy with holiday stuff here, but today I'm blogging over at the Monthly. Check it out!

Dec 17, 2012

Bill Keller, South Africa, and Political Dysfunction

Bill Keller, recently retired executive editor of the New York Times,apparently lived in South Africa for a time as the local bureau chief. The framing device for his column today is what lessons new Arab democracies can learn from South Africa after 18 years of freedom:
I wish I could say the lessons from here are easy. But it is becoming clearer by the day that a glorious constitution carries you only so far if its values have not taken root in the culture.
So South Africa has an exquisite balance of powers on paper — but is, in effect, a one-party state, riddled with corruption. It has a serious independent judiciary — but is now contemplating loopholes to let tribal courts practice South Africa’s version of Shariah. This country was years ahead of the United States in recognizing the rights of homosexuals, including same-sex marriage — yet there is no openly gay leader in the ruling African National Congress, and lesbians have been targets of punitive rape and murder. It has a vibrant, diverse press — and a president who keeps trying to muzzle it.
I too lived in South Africa, from 2009-11, and I witnessed much of what Keller describes. But his bullet-pointed suggestions are aggressively banal. Write a good constitution, he says, peace before justice, activist judges aren’t so bad unless they are, etc. All this is compounded with a Brooksian tendency to passive-aggressively blame the masses. The liberal values of South Africa’s constitution “have not taken root,” new democracies should “make citizens” as South Africa failed to.

The current tottering of the South African state bears eerie similarity to what happened across the continent after the end of colonialism. First, a charismatic leader would lead a liberation movement and take power on the strength of having shoved out the European oppressor. Next would come political repression, galloping corruption, and megalomaniacal excess. The country’s economy would stagnate and spiral down, and then the coups would start.

South Africa has been following this quite closely, especially starting after the world-historical presidency of Nelson Mandela (who was probably the only reason the country isn’t now like Zimbabwe). That kind of a pattern suggests that there are deeper forces at work than “values” failing to “take root.”

That force is a lack of political competition, and it is the number one problem with South Africa. The African National Congress has won every election with over 60 percent of the vote, and the lack of electoral consequences for failure hasn’t done wonders for their moral discipline. So I’d add one bullet to Keller’s list: foster political competition for its own sake.

This is, incidentally, one reason why the projections of a permanent Democratic majority are troubling. The system needs loyal opposition to keep the parties honest, and lately the Republican party has been overtaken with a messianic apocalypticism and doesn’t seem very interested in competing on the electoral turf as it exists today. Instead they hatch plots to rig the system in their favor:
Republicans alarmed at the apparent challenges they face in winning the White House are preparing an all-out assault on the Electoral College system in critical states, an initiative that would significantly ease the party’s path to the Oval Office.
Senior Republicans say they will try to leverage their party’s majorities in Democratic-leaning states in an effort to end the winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes. Instead, bills that will be introduced in several Democratic states would award electoral votes on a proportional basis.
And in the process, they totally destroy their reputation among core Democratic constituencies, who rightly perceive that they are being deliberately disenfranchised. Let’s hope they figure out soon that this is a losing strategy, for everyone’s sake. South Africa is an example of where that road ends.

Dec 11, 2012

Does Political Rhetoric Matter?

Kevin Drum has an addendum to my post about the rhetoric of the "fiscal cliff," which I think is mostly correct. (As a reminder, I was arguing that liberals should try to be more rhetorically coherent, better to drive out nonsense like "fiscal cliff," which is horribly misleading.) Jonathan Bernstein, meanwhile, in his once-yearly tradition of being correct about most things but wrong when he pays attention to me, has a much more radical proposition. Word choice matters not at all, he says:
Beyond that, the really important point is that in almost every case, what we call this stuff matters a whole lot less than people think, and probably not at all...
At any rate, my view is that there's basically no evidence that it would make any difference at all that whether we call all of this the "fiscal cliff" or something more accurate. Similarly, pick an issue: it almost certainly didn't matter that people came to call the recent health care reforms "Obamacare," or that people called certain taxes a "death tax."
Like how algebraic variables can represent any number, in this view words are merely containers with no shape or agency whatsoever; they are defined by reality and common usage, not by the intent of the propagandist. Put that way, it sounds silly, but I actually have a lot of sympathy for that view. The eternal prescriptive-descriptive grammar debate falls largely around these axes, and the descriptivists clearly win overall (which is to say that there is no wrong way to speak, only varying usage patterns—Ebonics is every bit as legitimate as Newcasterese). This is why linguists get so peeved by amateur grammar Nazis who toddle around scrawling on movie posters and shaming those who don't use who and whom "properly."

Here's an example of how this works over the long run:

And in the long run, I have to agree. Reality will win out every time. Abject propaganda like "collateral damage" becomes only more horrifying in its failure to hide reality (not to mention the image of a bunch of dead-eyed Pentagon PR flacks who come up with that stuff). But when it comes to the short term, especially during some high-stakes negotiations, I can't embrace the strong version of Bernstein's proposition.

When some political compromise is being hammered out a lot of things are interacting. The background culture and history shapes the space of things that are discussed and thought possible. Rich people, businesses, and pressure groups work the lobbying channels. Occasionally, mass uprisings can capture the discussion. Finally, elites provide coordination through signaling. Matt Yglesias had a great post on the latter awhile back:
In countries like the US and Australia where right-wing political elites are skeptical about global warming, you see the right-left split on climate science grow bigger as people pay more attention to politics. It looks very different in Germany. Well-informed voters are well informed about their ideological camp’s position, not well-informed about the issues. And in the United States, a conservative voter who takes the climate issue seriously probably isn’t a well-informed person who sees through Tom Coburn’s cant, he’s someone who’s so ill-informed that he’s not familiar with Coburn’s cant.
This is where lousy slogans can really have an effect. Economics is a tricky subject, and the intuitive appeal of Hooverite austerity policy is strong indeed. All across the developed world even lefty parties have embraced austerity, even at the cost of their own electoral success.

And the left's failure to unite around a common frame for the fiscal cliff really has weakened the left's elite signaling. Take the Daily Show. Stewart's stuff on the fiscal cliff has been weak, and he got badly rolled by Alan Simpson. Stewart is probably the most widely respected person among the lefty media, and his personal specialty is cutting through Washington bullshit and hypocrisy to reach underlying truth. The people complaining most about the fiscal cliff, foremost among them Alan Simpson, are the biggest bullshitting hypocrites in Washington, and that's saying something. If even Stewart can't manage to shovel all the way down to what's actually happening, it's a major failure of the lefty wonk-to-elite idea transmission mechanism. Good slogans are an important way to coordinate and give people fingerholds on complex ideas.

Again, I agree with Kevin, good slogans are tough to come by and maintain. But to say it would make no difference at all if we called it the "fiscal cheesy poof" is a step too far.

Dec 9, 2012

Spec Ops: The Line and the Morality of Drone War

Warning: major spoilers ahead. Spec Ops: The Line is one of the best games I have ever played and if you're a gamer, I highly recommend it. I'm going to spoil most of the plot, so if you haven't played it yet, be warned.

Let me start with some background. Spec Ops is based on Heart of Darkness, though only loosely. It is set in a Dubai which has been buried by incessant sandstorms (perhaps in a nod to future climate change). One Colonel Konrad volunteered his 33rd Battalion to oversee the evacuation, and deserted after high command ordered him to abandon the city and the refugees. The last anyone heard, the 33rd was attempting to lead a caravan of survivors out of the city, but the caravan was never seen; Dubai was declared a no-man's-land and the 33rd disavowed for treason. You play a Delta Force operative named Walker, whose team of three is sent into the city to search for survivors after a despairing transmission from Konrad gets picked up.

The gameplay is nothing special, just bog standard cover-based shooting that serves as a vehicle for the plot. But that story really got to me. It was so disturbing that I had to set the game down on occasion, but so compelling that I would pick it back up again minutes later. In short, it's the finest story work I've ever seen in a game, and (among other things) the most morally profound statement on America's wars today that I've seen in any medium.

The progress of events is altogether wretched. You start on the outskirts of Dubai in what seems like a generic war shooter at first. You meet some local brown people, they try to shoot you, then you kill them. But there is a looming sense that something is wrong. It turns out the Emiratis are being led and equipped by the CIA, who are fighting the remnants of the 33rd for control of the city. Soldiers from the 33rd mistake you for CIA and you are forced to kill them, much to the dismay of your squadmates. You fight your way across the city to a major staging point for the 33rd, where things get really horrible.

This is the game's turning point. You're facing dozens of soldiers, so you use a convenient white phosphorous mortar lying to hand (over the objections of one of your allies) to wipe them out. You select targets for the mortar by shooting a camera up in the air on a parachute, and then selecting targets using a grainy, black and white laptop screen. At the end of this scene you hit an armored personnel carrier with the phosphorous, and you burn a bunch of nearby figures in the process.

I figured that this group of figures was the main body of troops, as this is how it worked in a very similar sequence in the game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. But after you go down through the charred aftermath of your work, stepping around the few soldiers still moving, you find that that group of grainy white dots you saw and brutally burned to death were a bunch of civilians. Here's what it looks like:

This is, I think, mostly a critique of how games portray war these days in titles like Battlefield and Call of Duty, where the player gets to feel like a hero and save the day, or at least die in glory. Towards the end this becomes more and more explicit, as the game breaks the fourth wall. The loading screens say things like "This is all your fault," and one final line is clearly directed at the player: "You're here because you wanted to feel like something you're not—a hero." You can even make out Walker's silhouette on the laptop screen, an inescapable reference to the yourself as the gamer, as you massacre civilians with a few clicks of a button. It's a truly bold evisceration of the tropes of the entire shooter genre.

This is reinforced by a brilliant and subtle use of game mechanics. "Choice" in video games is typically expressed by some morality system, where you get good points for doing the noble thing and bad points for doing the evil thing, but you still get more power as you play through the game. Often the choice boils down to taking over world with a halo or with glowing red eyes. Spec Ops is the first game I've played where the choices you make only make you feel even more wretched and helpless. Save the civilians or the captured CIA man? One thing's for sure, nothing will be improved by either one. It's inspired, and deeply uncomfortable.

But on another level it is impossible to avoid thinking about today's wars. Much of the killing done by the American military these days is by remote-controlled drones, operated by people at computer screens halfway around the world, with their faces dimly reflected on computer screens. The Iraq War is mostly over, and it seems likely that the one in Afghanistan will follow soon, but drone attacks are everywhere. Here's one from 2011:
On March 17, 2011 a drone attack killed at least 40 members of a Wazir tribal Jirga, which was resolving a land ownership dispute among sub-tribes in Waziristan, a mountainous region in northwest Pakistan, according to local media reports. 
The reports claimed the Jirga was not the intended target and the predator was chasing a car before finally executing five people without any trial or due process near the Jirga. While this predator was hovering in the area, sophisticated cameras allegedly picked up images of a bigger gathering. Without appearing to have any intelligence or knowledge of its target, it fired four more missiles at the congregation.
Walker and the player are immediately bludgeoned over the head with the gruesome consequences of their own little war-by-video-game, but even his reaction is to shift the blame to someone else. (Remember, Walker and he team really were attacked by the 33rd, and kill the civilians only by accident.) Walker blames Konrad for the phosphorous scene, and you spend most of the game talking to and trying to find him, only to find at the end that Konrad has been dead for a long time. The guy on the radio had been a hallucination (Fight Club style), because Walker could not accept the guilt caused by his actions (NB this is only one ending):

One of the most troubling trends of the last generation or so is an increasing disconnection of the elite from the apparatus of death. Just last week we killed five civilians in Afghanistan. We went from the mass military of the Vietnam era to the volunteer force of the Bush era to the robot death machines of the Obama era. At every step the deadly consequences of the use of force has become more obscure, and the willingness of the elite to grapple with them (see for example Andrew Sullivan on Obama and drones, or a truly monstrous Robert Gibbs) has become weaker and weaker. Like Walker, they avoid responsibility; or just refuse to think about it.

Spec Ops is not just a simple allegory. It's much deeper than that. But it contains the most visceral, wrenching, morally serious demonstration of drone warfare that I've seen yet, and for that alone it deserves high praise.

For more (and I've only scratched the surface) see here, here, and here.

Dec 4, 2012

Why We Should Care about Admission Policy at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton

Ron Unz has a fascinating read in The American Conservative about the admissions policies of elite schools. It's an extraordinarily long piece, and I hesitate to summarize it (it badly needed a heavy edit, but it's still really worth a read), but mostly it documents at length evidence of an anti-Asian and pro-Jewish bias in elite school admissions and discusses several possible solutions. It's uncomfortable in spots, especially the parts making a case that there has been a "collapse in Jewish academic achievment," meaning that according to Unz American Jews have gone from tremendously academically successful, with massive over-representation in educational awards, to something like about the average for all Americans. Here's a taste:
The U.S. Math Olympiad began in 1974, and all the names of the top scoring students are easily available on the Internet. During the 1970s, well over 40 percent of the total were Jewish, and during the 1980s and 1990s, the fraction averaged about one-third. However, during the thirteen years since 2000, just two names out of 78 or 2.5 percent appear to be Jewish. The Putnam Exam is the most difficult and prestigious mathematics competition for American college students, with five or six Putnam winners having been selected each year since 1938. Over 40 percent of the Putnam winners prior to 1950 were Jewish, and during every decade from the 1950s through the 1990s, between 22 percent and 31 percent of the winners seem to have come from that same ethnic background. But since 2000, the percentage has dropped to under 10 percent, without a single likely Jewish name in the last seven years.
His explanation for this is pretty stark:
Several possible explanations for this empirical result seem reasonably plausible. Although the innate potential of a group is unlikely to drop so suddenly, achievement is a function of both ability and effort, and today’s overwhelmingly affluent Jewish students may be far less diligent in their work habits or driven in their studies than were their parents or grandparents, who lived much closer to the bracing challenges of the immigrant experience. In support of this hypothesis, roughly half of the Jewish Math Olympiad winners from the last two decades have had the sort of highly distinctive names which would tend to mark them as recent immigrants from the Soviet Union or elsewhere, and such names were also very common among the top Jewish science students of the same period, even though this group represents only about 10 percent of current American Jews. Indeed, it seems quite possible that this large sudden influx of very high performing immigrant Jews from the late 1980s onward served to partially mask the rapid concurrent decline of high academic achievement among native American Jews, which otherwise would have become much more clearly evident a decade or so earlier.
Meanwhile, says Unz, Asians have done about the opposite, but the Ivy League has instituted a strict Asian quota even as Asians' percentage of the population has grown and they have come to completely dominate the most competitive academic awards for the young, much as what happened with Jews back at the turn of the 20th century.

I obviously don't have the background to critique this evidence, and I also wouldn't build a national policy around it without a lot more study, but I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand either. Liberals have trouble with frank discussions of race sometimes, and I think here we can assume good faith.

Anyway, Unz's solution for all this is a lottery system for most of the slots for the top schools:
(say) 300 slots or around 20 percent of each entering class are allocated based on pure academic merit (the “Inner Ring”), with the remaining 1300 slots being randomly selected from the 30,000 or so American applicants considered able to reasonably perform at the school’s required academic level and thereby benefit from a Harvard education (the “Outer Ring”).
My colleague Daniel Luzer is not impressed by such schemes:
In truth it doesn’t really matter who goes to Yale or Dartmouth. Such people, to extend Unz’s (somewhat debatable) claim, get a chance to enter the American aristocracy. Good for them. But admission to the elite is necessarily unfair.
The important things here is how most people live and are educated. It’s true that a Yale degree might help a great deal with securing a good job at Goldman Sachs. But all we need to worry about from a policy perspective is what you need to be a bank branch manager in suburban Atlanta.
Admission to the upper class is, for all societies and throughout all time, unfair and based on some combination of talent, luck, and favoritism.
I do like the bald assertion here that "meritocracy," at least regarding who gets to join the elite, is for now and all eternity impossible. That seems true. I further agree that the policies of super-elite schools don't matter a lick for the education of the broad mass of people—your average schlub isn't even going to think about applying to Harvard, and it's far more important in any case to have enormous, good-enough public schools to educate the masses. (And this line is great: "it’s very important what Goldman Sachs does; it’s not at all important who works there.")

But I also think Daniel sells Unz's idea somewhat short. He says that it doesn't matter who goes to Yale or Dartmouth. But consider: six of the last ten presidents went to just Harvard, Yale, or Princeton at some point in their careers. That speaks of a whopping great influence those institutions have on the production of the elite class. And one of the biggest problems of the last few decades is the piss-poor quality of elites we've produced. In his book Chris Hayes proposes that societies based on meritocratic ideals eventually become corrupted, and imagines what that might look like:
It would be a society with extremely high and rising inequality yet little circulation of elites. A society in which the pillar institutions were populated and presided over by a group of hyper-educated, ambitious overachievers who enjoyed tremendous monetary rewards as well as unparalleled political power and prestige, and yet who managed to insulate themselves from sanction, competition and accountability; a group of people who could more or less rest assured that now that they have achieved their status, now that they have scaled to the top of the pyramid, they, their peers and their progeny will stay there.
Such a ruling class would have all the competitive ferocity inculcated by the ceaseless jockeying within the institutions that produce meritocratic elites, but face no actual sanctions for failing at their duties or succumbing to the temptations of corruption. It would reflexively protect its worst members; it would operate with a wide gulf between performance and reward; and it would be shot through with corruption, rule-breaking and self-dealing, as those on top pursued the outsized rewards promised for superstars. In the same way the bailouts combined the worst aspects of capitalism and socialism, such a social order would fuse the worst aspects of meritocracy and bureaucracy.
It would, in other words, look a lot like the American elite in the first years of the twenty-first century.
It's true that the few elite schools that monopolize the American ruling class are not perfect; there are lots of schools that would do a fine job of turning out potential presidents. But as it stands Harvard and its ilk have the inside track to elitedom pretty much monopolized, and changing their toxic admission policy could make a real difference towards improving America's elite pipeline. As Unz writes:
But the remaining 1300 Outer Ring [students who won admission in the lottery] students would represent a random cross-section of the tens of thousands of students who applied for admission and had reasonably good academic ability, and since they would constitute 80 percent of the enrollment, Harvard would almost certainly become far more diverse and representative of America’s total population in almost all ways than is the case today, when 30 percent of its students come from private schools, often the most elite and expensive ones.117
Furthermore, the vast majority of Harvard graduates—and everyone who later dealt with them—would know perfectly well that they had merely been “lucky” in gaining their admission, thereby tempering the sort of arrogance found among too many of today’s elite college graduates. And our vast and growing parasitic infrastructure of expensive cram-schools, private tutors, special academies, and college application consultants would quickly be reduced to what was merited by their real academic value, which may actually be close to nil. A general armistice would have been declared in America’s endlessly growing elite admissions arms-race.
Daniel is probably right that Harvard etc. would fight this proposal hammer and tongs. But it still seems like a good idea to me.

PS: This piece comes to basically the same conclusion as Chris Hayes did in his (very good) book, but starting from a very different place with very different assumptions. That alone makes it worth reading. But more broadly, The American Conservative is that rare magazine ostensibly on the right that has a great deal of challenging and worthwhile material, something which is badly needed these days.

Dec 1, 2012

Ah, the 90s

This was perhaps my favorite movie when I was 6-7: