Thursday, July 16, 2015

Why I'm Not Blogging About the Iran Nuclear Deal

This is not a blog post about the Iran nuclear deal. I've considered writing one, but David Lake wrote a piece much better than I could. My colleague Steve Saideman has already thrown down a marker, and will probably write more good stuff soon. I don't think I can add very much to that discussion, since these guys are smarter than I am and spend more time thinking about this stuff than I do.

This is actually kind of surprising, since 1) I have published stuff on Iran and the Persian Gulf, 2) I got my start in political science studying arms control, and 3) I teach negotiation on a regular basis. I can actually claim some expertise in this area - certainly more than the vast majority of pundits currently crowding the airwaves with their pontifications and prognostications.

That in itself isn't surprising - anybody in my field is used to self-proclaimed "experts" coming out of the woodwork whenever something hits the headlines. On September 10, 2001 there were perhaps a dozen legitimate experts on the subject of international terrorist nongovernmental organizations (al-Qaeda and such). Three days later there were hundreds if not thousands. One my favorite quotes, which I used to put on my door during my days as a faculty member:
Politics is "a subject which no one, however ignorant, thinks himself incompetent to discuss".
- John Stewart Mill, Logic of the Moral Sciences
My primary reason for staying out of the discussion, however, isn't merely that others are better at it. It's that on this issue (as on many), public "debate" has been replaced almost entirely by tribal flag-waving, predictable sound bites, and a complete disregard for either expertise or science. What we're seeing is, except at the margins, not a "debate" or even an argument about the agreement at all. It's a series of statements intended to bolster people's self-importance and signal which tribe they're in.

This is unfortunate, because there is actually a lot of knowledge about negotiations, arms control, and conflict. We have scholars who have spent a lot of time researching these issues. Yet most of the "discussion" flies in the face of what we know. Every negotiation textbook will tell you that only a very great fool will compare the agreement before him with a perfect agreement in which he gets absolutely everything he wants. Good negotiators objectively analyze leverage, consider what is acceptable and unacceptable to all sides, and try to steer the process to get the best possible agreement. Scholars of arms control know that no arms control agreement has ever solved all problems, but that many have contributed to minimally acceptable solutions like stability. Then there are broader questions about the balance of power and its effect on how conflicts evolve and play out.

What we're really seeing, of course, is confirmation bias - something Steve Saideman has already pointed out. The Iran agreement is a Rorschach test, in which people see what they want to see. As someone who has spent his adult life trying to adopt the habits and practices of science applied to social phenomena, this repels me. Science, which all of us do imperfectly even as we strive to do it better, is precisely about rejecting confirmation bias and seeking the truth. I don't see a lot of people in the public arena who want the truth. They want to already Be Right.

So I think I'll sit this one out. If anyone wants an analysis of the agreement itself, send me a copy and I'll look it over. Otherwise, I'll let the pundits and politicians degrade themselves further in ignorance, bile, and personal attacks. Funny as it sounds, I have come to prefer the universe of academic administration - the stakes are smaller and the politics (surprisingly) far less vicious.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Religious Convictions, Public Behavior, and the Mythical Quest for Purity

In the wake of the US Supreme Court's decision legalizing gay marriage across the country, a number of quite-predictable rearguard actions have sprung up. Many of these revolve around "religious conviction" exceptions, based on the argument that no one (public employee or otherwise) should be required by law to engage in behavior which violates their sincerely-held religious beliefs. As one lawmaker put it in North Carolina, "Just because someone takes a job with the government does not mean they give up their First Amendment rights." A cake baker has apparently also decided to take his case to court, lest he be sanctioned for discriminating against gay couples in the making of wedding cakes.

I find this argument deeply troubling on many fronts. It strikes me as a species of other arguments people make which use the trappings of commonly-held values (in this case, the language about rights and freedom) to advance the opposite. I'm not 100% sure that's what's happening here in all cases, so I'll leave that broader issue aside and focus on a number of more specific ones:

• While the Supreme Court was arguing the Obergefell case, a number of parallels were made to Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court decision which struck down laws outlawing interracial marriage. Across American society today there is very little opposition (at least in public) to interracial marriage, and we tend to chalk the history of such opposition up to the blatant racism which once ruled much of white society. We forget, to our peril, that much of that racism had a very sincerely-held religious dimension to it:

In this counter-protest photo from the civil rights era, in between the "race mixing is Communism" signs is one equating "race mixing" with the "march of the Antichrist". It's a pretty safe bet that for folks making that argument, this was a sincerely held religious belief. Were public and private individuals excused from following the law in the wake of the Loving decision? Was racism OK because it was cloaked in theology?

• There are a great many other legal parallels related to the broader argument. The core of that argument is that it would violate someone's First Amendment rights to religious liberty to pressure or force them by law to participate in some activity of which they personally disapprove on religious or theological grounds. This was part of the argument behind the recent Hobby Lobby decision, although that decision also created the somewhat novel conclusion that corporations have religious beliefs.

During the Civil Rights era, we had a very different view. At the time many businesses (restaurants, hotels, and all manner of other places) routinely discriminated against blacks. Many of those businesses' owners undoubtedly held strong religious convictions about the "mixing of races". And yet, none were allowed to use those convictions as a shield against the law. The legal doctrine of "public accommodations" meant that, if you serve the public you have to serve the whole public - not just those folks you feel like serving. That's what anti-discrimination laws are about.

There's a broader issue here - the extension of the First Amendment into what might be termed a Quest for Purity. What people seem to be asking for is that they be allowed to completely disassociate themselves from anything that violates their religious principles. But where is that line? Does making a cake morally involve the baker in the wedding? Does processing paperwork in a courthouse indicate individual moral approval?

The fact is that we are all involved in many transactions each day that bring us into contact with things to which we might well have religious objections. My tax dollars go to support wars overseas which I find fundamentally immoral, and certainly indefensible within my theological view. But I don't get to withdraw that support selectively. The government can't draft me to fight in such a war - there's an example of a religious exception - but I can't escape being connected to it.

Legally and culturally, what these folks are asking for is a morass. If every individual, regardless of job or responsibility, gets to pick and choose whom they will or will not engage in transactions with, things could go sideways quickly. Over the medium term, I would expect to see even more Balkanization or "voting with one's feet" than we already see - people retreating into enclaves (neighborhood, school, church, business networks, etc.) of people who are only like themselves.

When that withdrawal is complete - as it largely is with the Amish community - that's OK, especially when it's a small minority that doesn't mind being cut off from the rest of society. And even the Amish don't refuse to do business with the rest of us, even though in their eyes most of us are sinners. But the people who are making these "religious conscience" claims want to have it both ways - they want to engage in society and participate in its wealth and power, but they want to be selective about it. That way lies madness, I fear.

• As much as the debate will focus on law - what individual judges or cake bakers are or not permitted to do without legal sanction - the legal side of this case is less interesting to me. Just as the theology of racial segregation largely vanished from mainstream institutions within a generation or two (though it still exists in dark corners, as Dylann Roof demonstrated), I expect that religious views on homosexual relations will also evolve. Indeed, they already are:

- Jimmy Carter (possibly the nation's most famous Southern Baptist) has publicly broken with the Southern Baptist Convention over this issue.

- Tony Campolo, one of the most prominent public evangelicals in the US, has come out in support of gay marriage after years of opposing it on religious grounds.

Granted, both of these guys have leaned left over their careers and have been to some degree left behind by the rightward drive of their own churches. Both have received plenty of pushback for the statements they've made, some of it pretty harsh. But that's to be expected. I suspect that, in a generation or two, our children and grandchildren will look back and wonder what all the hullabaloo was about.

• What's really interesting to me is not what the law says. It's the "religious conviction" arguments that people are making and the religious understanding behind them. The vast majority of folks seeking religious freedom exemptions in these cases are doing so from a Christian standpoint. And while I can understand (although I don't agree with) Christians who regard homosexual marriage as theologically inappropriate, I don't understand their desire to disassociate themselves from it to such an extreme degree.

Many Christians, even today, find divorce morally problematic. Given the passages in Matthew 19 this is understandable, even though others may interpret those passages differently. Given this, are there county clerks who refuse to issue marriage certificates to people previously divorced? Are there bakers who ask if either of the couple has been married previously before baking a cake? My guess is, probably not.

In Christian theology there are many sins - that is, many things which can separate a person from God. In some Christian views, no sin is worse than another - all have the same effect of sundering the relationship between humans and the divine. In other views there is something of a hierarchy - the Catholic church, for example, has famously raised up seven "Cardinal" sins in particular as the most dangerous. Yet in none of these views is homosexuality given a unique position in the pantheon of sin, as being worse than all others. On those grounds, therefore, it's hard to see why one would religiously discriminate against homosexuals but not, for example, against greedy or violent people.

Even the repeated assertion that "the traditional Biblical view of marriage is between one man and one woman" is challenged by the numerous references (some of them quite favorable) to polygamy in the Old Testament. Politicians who have recently argued that the Obergefell decision will lead to the sin of polygamy next should perhaps read their Bibles a little more closely...

The truth is that views of marriage and relationships have always been cultural, and have always been changing. A couple of centuries ago we still considered wives as property, and marriage was structured as such. Adherents to that view embedded it in their theology, and there were plenty of "sincerely held religious beliefs" supporting legal and social structures that we would find abhorrent today. Despite claims by some that "God never changes", our understanding of God and God's will have changed a LOT over the centuries. Somehow, we always manage to "discover" a theology that fits with our current cultural views and norms.

This is not to say that religious beliefs aren't sincere, or that the search for truth about God isn't important. I don't advocate throwing up our hands and retreating into some kind of radical relativism. What I do think this suggests is the need for humility. People in the past have been wrong - not just wrong by the standards of our day, but wrong. We didn't abolish slavery because we changed our minds and now things are different - we came to view the ownership of any human being by another as contrary to the will of God for humanity as it always had been.

So how best to wrestle with these issues? I think the warning about the speck in your neighbor's eye in Matthew 7 is instructive. We are called to look to ourselves first and foremost, rather than trying to control the behavior of others. Some have suggested that these "religious exemption" arguments for county clerks are a way of making sure that no gay weddings take place in certain communities - that is, a back-door way of trying to control other's behavior. I'm sure there's some truth to that.

But the gospel doesn't call us to control the behavior of our neighbors or to make sure that they don't commit what we think are sins. It also doesn't call us to remove ourselves from the world and refrain from contact with any sinful thing - although that's not what these "exceptionalists" want anyway, since they're not trying to disassociate themselves from any other sins. The only clear direction I can see: love one another. Try as I might, I can't find any qualifiers on that - it's not "love only the people you approve of" or "love only the people who are behaving the way you think they should". Matthew 5 is pretty clear on that subject, it seems to me.

So in a certain sense, I would welcome more religious discussion in this context. If you want to express your faith through your action in the world, great. Just make sure - in all humility - that it's the faith you really claim, and (ideally) that it's a faith that pulls people in and builds them up, rather than tearing them down. I see nothing "Christian" about this wave of rejectionism. Eventually, I hope they see it the same way.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

When Is a Cartel Not a Cartel?

It's Presidential Campaign Season again (what? already?), and the crazy is starting to come out of the woodwork. This early in the effort, with so many candidates (especially on the Republican side) everybody's trying to get noticed in a crowded field. Which probably accounts for them saying some pretty nutty things.

Underneath the firestorm created by Donald Trump's remarks about Mexicans this past week (why are we paying attention to Trump, again?), Florida Senator Marco Rubio decided to give a speech outlining his views on higher education. Which is an interesting choice, since higher ed isn't really a major Presidential campaign issue and it doesn't do much to fire up the tribal base of either party.

But it isn't his choice of topic so much as what he said that I found interesting. Two particularly odd tidbits:

• Rubio referred to the existing system of colleges and universities as a "cartel". That earns him the little-coveted Inigo Montoya award:

There are some 3000 to 4000 four-year institutions of higher learning in the United States. The very largest of them hold only the tiniest sliver of the market. All of them compete vigorously against each other on price, product, and amenities. A cartel, on the other hand, is "an association of manufacturers or suppliers with the purpose of maintaining prices at a high level and restricting competition."

To think that this applies to higher education is simply absurd - universities, public and private, couldn't collude to this level if they wanted to. Plus, the public ones (including those in Senator's own state of Florida) are subject to the rules, regulations, and dictates of their state governments. My own state government decided that, for the next two years, no public university in Ohio can raise its undergraduate tuition at all. How exactly is this "cartel" behavior?

• As crazy as this was, it's pretty garden-variety politician idiocy. They and their speechwriters regularly mangle words all the time, which is great entertainment for the rest of us. What followed next was even more interesting:
"We do not need timid tweaks to the old system. We need a holistic overhaul," Rubio said in a policy speech in Chicago. "We need to change how we provide degrees, how those degrees are accessed, how much that access costs, how those costs are paid, and even how those payments are determined."
Take note: here is a Republican politician demanding an "overhaul" to a key sector of the economy. As President, he wants to use the executive branch of the Federal government (and possibly the Congress as well) to change how degrees are provided, what the costs are, and who pays them.

I'm sorry, didn't he say he was running for the Republican nomination? The party that supposedly stands for smaller government and less regulation? The party that claims to believe in the power of the free market?

Maybe he should go read his own party's platform again.

The current higher education system has its problems, chief among them cost - although cost is not nearly as much of a problem if you stop focussing on the Stanfords and Harvards of the world and look at where most people actually go to college, which is regional comprehensive public institutions and community colleges. But the cost problem exists for a host of reasons, nearly all of them not easily addressable by the President of the United States. If you upset the apple cart of the accreditation system (the one lever Congress might actually have), you will create all kinds of effects, many of which you may not like.

(It should also be noted, as an aside, that cost in higher ed is a problem not only because tuition has gone up, but because wages and salaries for the vast majority of Americans have not. In an economy that better distributes the wealth it has, we wouldn't be talking about an "affordability crisis" in higher ed at all.)

I've made the claim before: all American politicians are meddling Keynesians. Democrats tend to be more honest about it, Republicans try to argue that they want to "get government off the people's backs" and then turn around and use it to monkey with other parts of the economy and hope no one notices the contradiction. Rubio is fitting himself squarely in that camp. I'm sure he and his colleagues will provide us with plenty more amusement in the coming months.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Greece: Politics Not Economics Redux

A great deal of the public bandwidth - that part not dedicated to well-deserved shout-outs to the USA Women's National Team - is being taken up with Greece and its future. This past Sunday's "No" vote took a lot of people by surprise, it seems, and has set off plenty of speculation and finger-pointing.

I'm not a good enough prognosticator to say how this is going to turn out. I'm also not a good enough economist to know whether the No vote was a "good idea" or a "bad idea", which seems to be what's driving much of the discussion. In short, I don't know whether the Greeks will be better off or worse off in the short or medium term - and neither does anybody else, whatever they may say.

But there are a couple of dimensions of the situation I haven't seen discussed yet:

• I heard a debate yesterday about whether the referendum in Greece would strengthen or weaken Greece's position in future negotiations. This is one of the few things I can comment on with authority, since I teach this stuff. It is incredibly rare that one side in a negotiation over unidimensional concessions (more vs. less austerity, to be simplistic) gets to make an almost ironclad commitment to its position. This is the proverbial "throw the steering wheel out the window" move in Chicken. Every game theorist will tell you it's a brilliant strategic move if you can make it genuinely credible.

So Greece has laid down a marker that says, this far and no farther. What if the rest of Europe won't agree to terms that are acceptable to the Greek public? What if the German public, or some combination of European power centers, refuses to meet the Greeks where they now stand immovable? Then from a negotiation standpoint the negotiations were always going to fail, because there was never any acceptable agreement there anyway. Bargaining is about revealing information to discover whether this is an agreement acceptable to both sides. We will soon find out. If the answer is "no", then there's no deal - because one never existed in the first place. Sometimes the sides are too far apart and you just can't create an agreement out of nothing. 

So what Greece did, by holding its referendum, was insure that either they get an agreement acceptable to their own public (and therefore the stability of their government), or no agreement at all. That's smart bargaining, however much some folks might not like it.

• Amidst all the argument about whether Greece should vote No or not, or whether they should stay in the Euro or not, we've lost sight of one very important thing: the whole debate is about politics, not economics

Much of the public discussion is focused on the economic impact of various scenarios, including the "Grexit" (Greece leaving the Euro), where "economic impact" is generally measured by GDP. But the aggregate size of an economy, or even the mean GDP per capita, is only one way of measuring outcomes - and not necessarily the most important one. While an economy generates wealth, it also distributes that wealth. And distribution is a fundamentally political, not economic, question.

It may well turn out that the outcome of the present crisis is that the Greek economy (GDP) shrinks by more than it would have had they accepted terms from the rest of Europe. But if, at the same time, the remaining economic wealth is shared more evenly across the population then that outcome will look far better to most Greeks than one in which the GDP is higher but the benefits flow only to a few. Voting for the former over the latter would actually be the most individually rational thing most Greeks could do, were they given the choice.

I have no idea if a Grexit will spread wealth around better, or if it will reduce Greek GDP farther than the alternatives. I'm not a good enough economist to be able to predict the outcomes of these various scenarios. What I do know is that the economics don't matter nearly as much as the politics do. If the choice is being poor and free vs. being rich (collectively) but enslaved through debt to others, what would you choose?

• Finally, I see some interesting parallels between the Greek situation and the collapse of the US housing market a few years ago. Both were driven by massive, unsustainable levels of debt brought on by extremely unwise borrowing. In the US, we had something of a debate (though with little real consequence) about whose fault this was - the borrowers who took out mortgages they couldn't afford or the banks who lent money knowing that the borrowers would never repay, only to repackage that debt and sell it off to other suckers. There was some blame on both sides, but the power (and therefore the greater responsibility) seemed to rest clearly with the banks.

I don't see a similar discussion with regard to Greece. There is plenty of agreement that the Greeks have borrowed way too much money, and plenty of finger-pointing at them for having done so. But who lent them that money? At what point did those lenders cross the line between responsible and irresponsible lending? The IMF apparently figured out that Greece will never be able to repay all of its debts; where were the other lenders when that calculation should have been done? It's easy to point fingers as the "lazy" Greeks, but somebody (mostly Germany, by most accounts) lent them the money. What responsibility do lenders have to do their homework and lend responsibly?

In all of this, I have a great advantage - I live far enough from Greece that the impact on my circumstances is likely to be small whatever the outcome, and I'm not so attached to any particular ideological tribe that I feel compelled to have a strong opinion about the situation in order to bolster my own views. Most Americans commenting on the situation share the former condition but not the latter - there's a great deal of self-serving going on as different people weigh in. For myself, I am content if the Greek people end up being able to influence their own future, even if it's not a future I would necessarily choose. For me, it's easier to celebrate freedom and popular sovereignty in action than to cheer for the growth in abstract numbers. As for the outcome, we'll just have to wait and see.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Hate: On the Internet and in the Real World

I wrote late week about hate on the internet. I suggested in that post that:
The brokenness of humanity is simply that so many of us hate each other, for no particular reason, and some of us actively and deliberately contribute to that hatred.
One of my friends pointed out that the anonymity of the internet gives some people license to say things that they would never say in the physical presence of their target. Hatred is made safer by distance because there's little risk to me, especially when I can hide behind an invented electronic identity.

But I was reminded over the weekend that fear, anger, and hatred are not confined to the internet - although social media is a great way to amplify them. To my surprise and disappointment, the following showing up on my Facebook feed:

 The original poster attached a comment to this set of photos praising the fellow on the left for having "earned his hippie-stomping badge". The pictures and the comment were then passed around FB to general approval from those inclined to identify with a certain kind of tribe.

I get that flag-burning is controversial and makes some people angry. I also get that it is legally protected speech, one of the freedoms that nearly all Americans say they cherish about the American governmental system. English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall put it perhaps most succinctly: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

That particular expression of value seems to be lost both on the fellow committing assault in the picture above and on the legions of fans he has apparently generated on Facebook. The "hippie" (the bearded fellow on the right) engaged in an act of speech, and the fellow on the left assaulted him for it. Would this have been different had the "hippie" called the older gentleman names? "Old fart"? "Gay"? "Bastard"?

We teach our children not to lash out physically when they're taunted, teased, or verbally abused. Bullies sometimes abuse this teaching by creating a climate of fear, but that's not what's going on here. The guy committing the assault has nothing to fear. He can go buy another flag and display it proudly as he likes.

The exchange pictured here doesn't bother me that much - this is a garden-variety instance of "adults" acting like children, or worse. What bothers me more is the extent to which this behavior is apparently widely approved of, at least by the simplistic measure of "likes" and "shares". Some of the people doing that approving, at least, should know better. A few of them (known to me personally) do know better, because they belong to another tribe (a church) that does not condone this kind of violent response. But it's so easy to click that "like" button ...

This, I think, is one of the more insidious dangers of social network platforms. They do not create the tribes we attach ourselves to, and things that happen in the real world still matter more to those tribes and their boundaries than what happens online. But they make it so easy to be drawn into tribal us-and-them hatred, a little bit at a time.

This is in line with another piece I wrote last week about the "funhouse mirror" effects of the internet. It distorts what we see. Worse, we invite that distortion because it makes us feel good. That fleeting feeling of empowerment, however small, is addictive. But by feeding that addiction we are also fueling our divisions. I hope (possibly in vain) that we can, a few at a time, find a better way.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

I Don't Get Internet Hate

This started off as a casual Facebook conversation. In the course of reading the Chronicle of Higher Education this morning, I came across this article:
What struck me as I read down the piece was not the apparently ironic coincidence between an announcement that a faculty member was leaving for another institution and that same person's having become the subject of some Twitter controversy. Instead, to me the heart of the article isn't the news story at all - it's the flow of tweets and internet conversations, from all sides, about this person. Some examples:

What strikes me here is the level of anger and hatred being casually slung around by people who do not know Prof. Robinson at all. This is vitriol for the sake of vitriol, some of which (particularly the call to pull all tax dollars from public institutions - because you disagree with one professor?) have a very burn-the-house-down-around-your-own-ears feel to them.

As a scholar of conflict, I understand intellectually much of what's going on here. I see the flag-waving by members of particular tribes. I understand that words and ideas take on symbolic weight that can be tied to a person's self-identity. I get that some folks may feel comforted or empowered by being able to lash out, in a safe and protected online fashion, at bogeymen images onto which they can project their fears. I know that this is not about who said what, it's about who is Us and who is Them. And I know that there are plenty of unscrupulous people who amass money or power (or both) by whipping up precisely these sentiments. The National Review and a great many other publications (on the Left and the Right) make a lot of money stirring this pot.

I just don't get it.

I don't understand, in my heart and my gut, how people can travel through life filled with so much fear, so much hatred, so much anger that words on a screen from someone they've never met and never will - someone whose impact on the larger world is really very small - can trigger this kind of outpouring of bile. I've no doubt that Prof. Robinson received far worse than this in her inbox - the usual collection of death threats, rape threats, threats to kill her children (if she has any), often delivered with graphic glee. But even the relatively tame stuff above I don't get.

People will say: well, that's just the way the internet is. It's inhabited, in part if not in whole, by trolls and monsters and people who do such things. Better get used to it, or get out. That's the Way Things Are.

And still I don't get it.

This is, I suppose, a far better indication of the brokenness of the world - the sinful nature of humanity, to borrow the theological term - than many I could think of. Politicians and pundits and (some) preachers pound their pulpits and point to Them as the embodiment of Sin, the reason why everything is screwed up, the Anti-Christs who threaten to drag us into 1000 years of darkness. I think it's much simpler than that. The brokenness of humanity is simply that so many of us hate each other, for no particular reason, and some of us actively and deliberately contribute to that hatred.

So yes, I understand. I just don't get it. And I hope I never do.