Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Scotland Decides

It looks like a really close independence vote in Scotland. I guess I would've come down on the 'No' side, mainly because of the currency issues. If Scotland keeps the pound, it seems that Scotland's economy is still ruled by London bankers, and it loses what little ability it had to control them. But the future is hard to figure out -- maybe they don't keep the pound, or any one of dozens of considerations overrides that. I'm glad I don't have to make these decisions.

My own postcolonial attachments to the idea of independence from England make it hard for me to be a 'No' supporter. As the American-born child of Bengali parents, I'm at the intersection of two spectacular stories of throwing off English rule. The American story is familiar, but the Indian story may be even better. Over centuries of being ruled by well-educated Englishmen, famines that killed millions were common in India. In the Bengal famine of the early 1940s, Churchill shipped the grain out of the Bengali countryside to fortify Calcutta against a Japanese siege that never came, starving millions of Bengali villagers. (Leo Amery, the British Secretary of State for India, recalls Churchill saying, 'I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion'.) Then after India becomes an independent democracy, famines that kill millions are a thing of the past. When severe drought hit Maharastra in 1972, the government responded to popular pressure for relief, and mass starvation was avoided. The US and Indian success story is basically the success story of democracy -- the people may not be geniuses, but they'll stop you from starving them. I guess if Scotland were to lose all democratic control over its monetary policy, the democratic lessons of America and India might actually apply against independence.

To a utilitarian like me, political systems are broadly like sewer systems. Their proper functioning is tremendously important to human life, and sometimes it's best to build your identity around them. Seriously, with the sewers. If your regime won't let you ever build sewers, becoming a violent sewer revolutionary and murdering people who won't let you do what's needed to build them may be better than letting millions die in endless cholera epidemics. But it's best for the structure of political authority and your identity to come apart if sticking them together doesn't achieve good consequences.

There's all kinds of cool arguments I've heard for independence, including my friend Alfred's argument that an independent Scotland could fill its underpopulated areas with enterprising immigrants (he pointed at me and said "we need more clever fuckers like you!"). Maybe some of these arguments point to systematic reasons why Scottish nationalism is a force for good. It's not impossible -- Indian nationalism a hundred years ago was well aligned with the betterment of India, and very likely humanity as a whole. But if that's true of Scotland now, it's not something I can clearly see.

Scotland will always be the home of my favorite British things. There's MacPherson's Farewell, and Fear a Bhata, and the Loch Tay Boat Song. There's David Hume, and more recently, my buddy Aidan McGlynn versus this English knowledge-first thing that looks more useless on issues the better I understand them. There's the beauty of Edinburgh and the Highlands and girls with skin like milk and hair like fire. And I expect them to remain just as beautiful no matter what Scottish voters chose.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Unionization and An End to Corporate Welfare: Two Great Tastes That Go Great Together

The UAW is attempting to unionize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Republican elected officials are threatening to stop giving out "incentives" in the form of mammoth tax breaks if the union vote succeeds. I don't know about you, dear reader, but to me this sounds like having your cake and eating it too.

There are good reasons to recruit large manufacturers to your municipality. The jobs they create pay good wages; the plants are very "sticky" so the jobs will last a decade if not much much longer; and you can use it to boost an ecosystem of manufacturing employment. But the tax breaks and free land that are the large attractions in these deals are a little unseemly. We'd be much better off if governments focused on providing quality public services that these manufacturers need--education, transportation, management of health care costs--rather than just tossing money from the "Economic Development" slush fund at large corporations.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Racist, But...

As people have noticed, "I'm not racist, but..." very often precedes racist opinions. Anyway, it would be sort of refreshing to see the reverse: "I'm racist, but the mayor ought to take a stand against police harassment of young black men."

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Health Care And Ending The War Secure Obama's Legacy, Nick Gillespie. Okay, Pot Would Be Nice Too

I imagine we're going to see lots more frivolous Obama-legacy commentary as his second term draws to an end. But here's a fine entry in the genre from Nick Gillespie, whose Reason article is headlined "Ending the War on Pot is Obama's Best Hope for a Legacy." The earlier Daily Beast version replaces "Best Hope" with "Last Chance". Look, I'd love to see marijuana legalized, and I'd be very happy to see him push towards legalization however he can. But Obama's legacy is already set.

Obama's legacy is health care reform, ending the Iraq War, and his economic role after the financial crisis. (Also Kagan, Sotomayor, and Yellen.) With getting the health care system closer to a government monopoly that can force down prices, we made a big move towards resolving the greatest risk of structural economic catastrophe, where the percentage of GDP spent on health care rises from 18% to even more insane proportions and strangles the whole economy. Really, the legislators are the superstars there, but Obama played his Chris Bosh role behind Harry Reid's Dwyane Wade and Nancy Pelosi's LeBron, and he deserves credit. There are lots of terrible things going on with Afghanistan and drones and such, but the total death tolls and financial cost of the Iraq War were insane in a way nothing else in US foreign policy has been since. And while I'll give Obama not-too-great grades on economic recovery -- I'm with Krugman in thinking he could've done better -- that's going to be a huge part of how we look back on him.

No doubt about this: I'd be very happy if Obama helped us move towards marijuana legalization. Legally prohibiting the use of marijuana is stupid public policy and it should change. Now, I don't think it's as big a deal in prison-related terms as some of our left-wing allies make it out to be. If you want the dour case that marijuana isn't that huge a deal incarceration-wise and in other broad public policy terms, here it is, and scroll down to section III. (Summary: marijuana generates a large proportion of arrests, but not a large proportion of prison time, since tons of people get arrested for possessing marijuana, but they don't usually end up in prison.) I think a weakness of Scott Alexander's analysis is that it leaves out one of the best effects of marijuana legalization: cannabis is a cause of some very pleasant experiences, and people would have a great time smoking it more often. If the high-minded factors he considers come out even, fun would easily tip the balance.

At the end of this, I'm realizing that this post is basically "I totally agree with your cause, but I got annoyed at your overblown rhetorical strategy." So, sorry about that. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

December Donations: Deworm The World

Over this month, I plan to give away over $10,000 to the best charitable and political causes I can find.

First off is $2,000 to Deworm the World. Medicine to cure children's parasitic worm infections costs about 35 cents per child. DtW has been working with local governments in India to administer school deworming programs, particularly in the state of Bihar where about 2/3 of children have some kind of worm infection. I've given DtW a lot of money before, and I'm happy to do so again, as GiveWell has recently named them one of the 3 most cost-effective ways to help people.

You can see the thing I wrote previously about Deworm the World here. Since then, a couple things have changed. On the downside, it looks like the "two cents for an extra day of school" thing applied only in one situation where flooding had gotten so many kids so sick with worms that you could actually buy an extra day of school for every two cents donated. That doesn't usually happen. But on the upside, Deworm the World has come under new management that has made a lot more information about what they're doing available, leading to the GiveWell recommendation.