Archive for September, 2011

Killing in the name of…?

September 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Three reasons why Troy Davis’ execution at the hands of the state of Georgia was murder

1) Troy Davis was not ‘guilty beyond all reasonable doubt

2) Even if he was, he did not deserve to die

3) Even if he did deserve to die, the state does not have the right to kill him

It’s murder. Plain and simple.


Manu Tuilagi, and the injustice and capriciousness of our immigration laws

September 18, 2011 14 comments

Watching the England v Georgia game this morning, this remark from one of the commentators reminded me of something I’ve been wanting to write about for a while:

“Manu Tuilagi [England centre], was almost deported last year due to visa problems. He was eventually granted indefinite leave to remain…”

A quick google shows that Tuilagi had come into the country on a six-month holiday visa aged 13, and then stayed on illegally after the Home Office turned down his work permit when the Leicester Tigers offered him a professional contract. The decision was eventually overturned, with a representative from the UK border agency saying

“Taking into consideration factors such as his age, length of residence and family ties in the UK, a decision has now been made to grant Mr Tuilagi indefinite leave to remain.”

I wonder how many young men and women who arrived as children or teenagers, who have been resident in the country for five years and who have family ties in the UK ended up less fortunate in their dealings with the immigration authorities. I’m sure that the fact that Tuilagi is one of the most exciting young players in world rugby had absolutely nothing to do with the decision.

I find the resistance to immigration amongst the vast majority of citizens of liberal democracies politically understandable, but at the same time totally contrary to the principles that ostensibly form the basis of such a society. Resistance to immigration is completely inconsistent with the two principles of justice offered by Rawls in his classic liberal treatise Theory of Justice. Let’s start with the second, the difference principle (paraphrased)

“Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society”

Rawls meant the difference principle literally (i.e. that we must maximize the welfare of the least well off individual), but let’s take it as a more general concern with the least well-off. The problem with national statistics on income inequality is that you can get situations where inequality decreases whilst measured inequality increases. Imagine a society of three people: one who earns $100, one who earns $200 and another whore earns $300. There is also another, who earns 10$ in his home country but would earn $30 if he immigrated to the wealthier nation. If he immigrated and the other’s incomes were not affected, measured income inequality would have risen despite the fact that the inequality amongst the group had actually decreased. That’s because national statistics only count people who are in the country at the time – they don’t count the people who weren’t in the country before and are now, or the people who would potentially come to the country if they were legally allowed to. This phenomenon is the fallacy of analytical nationalism, which is discussed at length in Will Wilkinson’s Cato superb paper on inequality. Now that I’m aware of it, I see this fallacy all over the place. The fastest route to decreasing global inequality would be for rich countries to open up their borders, but it wouldn’t show up in any of the statistics.

If our restrictive immigration policies generally violate the difference principle, the case of Tuilagi is an example of how many of our institutions violate Rawl’s first principle:

“Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others” (my emphasis)

We can argue over whether the right for an otherwise law-abiding person to enter and work freely in your territory is a basic liberty compatible with similar liberty for others, but the way we apply it in no way applies an equal right insofar as such a right exists. Do we seriously believe that Tuilagi shaping up to be a major presence in English rugby didn’t affect the decision? The problem with laws that are highly restrictive of personal liberty is that they end up being enforced by institutions that inevitably end up favouring those who least need to be favoured.

I’m very happy for Tuilagi that he was able to remain in the country with his family. I’m very happy he’s playing for England. If only I could believe that nothing would have been different if he wasn’t.

Categories: Policy

Bryan Caplan’s argument for pacifism, almost triumphant

September 10, 2011 1 comment

Fairly soon after I published my earlier post on the argument, I realised that instead of criticising Caplan’s argument, I was actually arguing for his position. So, here is a new informal argument for pacifism, based on his own and my failed critique:

  1. The short run costs of war are very high (innocent people are killed)
  2. The long run benefits and costs of a war are subject to extreme Knightian uncertainty
  3. Where the benefits or costs of a decision are subject to extreme Knightian uncertainty, they ought to be excluded from rational calculation (essentially the point I made in my last post)
  4. Therefore, we ought to exclude the potential long-term benefits and costs of war from rational calculation (my friend David’s comment on my last post explains this premise nicely)
  5. Therefore, as the category of reasons usually given for war (the achievement of a long-run benefit) have to be excluded from rational calculation, we ought not to go to war in those cases

You could argue in some cases that there are short-term reasons to go to war that are not subject to Knightian uncertainty and that therefore the pacifism one can conclude does not apply to all cases. Fair enough, I’m not going to argue against war in immediate self-defence (although I could, and Caplan makes a few points here about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising). But given that a lot of justifications for war involve the desire to fulfil long-term strategic or moral objectives (see interventionism, liberal) Caplan’s argument mitigates very strongly in the direction of not taking deliberate action that we can foresee will lead to our killing of innocent people.

Why Goldfinger’s plan wouldn’t have worked

September 10, 2011 3 comments

In Goldfinger, arguably my favourite Bond film and one of the few which is recognised as being a better film than book, the titular villain Auric Goldfinger has a plan to enrich himself by irradiating the gold held in Fort Knox, making it worthless an hence increasing the value of his own stock. So far, so plausible (at least, within the context a Bond film).

The logic seems pretty straightforward, reduce the supply of the commodity and it’s price will go up. However, Goldfinger would have found himself sorely disappointed at what actually would have happened. First, the gold held in Fort Knox and other large vaults such as the New York Federal Reserve and the Bank of England is likely not marginal gold being supplied in the market. As David Hume once observed (in a slightly different context but the point remains the same)

If the coin be locked up in chests, it is the same thing with regard to prices, as if it were annihilated

Now, you can make a case that since this was 1964 and the Bretton Woods currency system prevailed, which mandated dollar convertibility of gold (essentially, the US Federal Reserve would give you an ounce of gold for $35 if you so wished). So one could make the case that this would reduce the credibility of the government’s commitment to gold/dollar convertibility, and that this credibility was important to the value of the dollar, you would therefore increase the value of gold relative to the dollar (i.e. the price of gold increases). Even granting this assumption, when gold ‘changes hands’ that doesn’t mean that the gold actually has to go anywhere. Gold is by-and-large a fairly useless commodity, and the market for physical gold is very small. Much of the gold in Fort Knox, the NY Fed and the BoE isn’t owned by the US and UK governments, but by central banks all over the world. Since they aren’t going to be turning it into jewellery or anything, they are pretty indifferent to where it is kept. Just because gold gets sold overseas doesn’t mean that it actually has to go anywhere, it just nominally changes hands. If I was buying gold as an investment, I’d probably want it kept in one of those three vaults. So even if the US ended up being forced to sell gold after it was irradiated, it really wouldn’t be a problem if no living thing could go near it for 56 years. I mean, you can’t get safer than that!

To get the intuition about this, imagine that each share of Microsoft was a physical piece of paper stored in a filing cabinet in Fort Knox. Goldfinger irradiates the shares. Are they now worthless? Of course not, because your legal claim to ownership as a shareholder is irrelevant to your ability to physically hold the piece of paper. Microsoft would keep paying dividends as normal, the shares can be traded as normal, and everything would be as it was before. It’s exactly the same with gold – the value of gold doesn’t depend on your ability to actually access the physical bar itself*.

At this point, one might be inclined to ask… so, what exactly is the value of gold? We go to great efforts to get it out the ground, and then put back into the ground and guard it at great expense. It does give you any yield like a share or a bond. It doesn’t do anything but sit there and gather dust**. My own view is that the value of gold is minimal, and that what we are seeing is a six thousand year old bubble.

That doesn’t mean I’d be willing to short it, though. The market has remained irrational far longer than I’ll remain alive, let alone solvent.

* Once might argue that the ability to have access to the gold is important in the case of hyperinflation. However, in such a circumstance the government is probably pretty likely to nationalise all the gold. If you’re buying gold for the store of value in case of hyperinflation and financial crisis… congratulations, you’re a sucker.

**Probably not, actually. There’s probably some horrendously and needlessly expensive system for preventing the dust from accumulating. Sigh.

Categories: Culture, Economics

An ode to The West Wing and female characters in modern television

September 10, 2011 1 comment

(Warning, this contains serious spoilers through season 6 of The West Wing)

For longer than I would care to admit, I really wanted to be Josh Lyman, Bradley Whitford’s character in The West Wing (TWW). As a teenage boy who was into politics, Josh seemed to have everything – he was clever, very funny, and was constantly involved in romantic entanglements with smart, strong and gorgeous women*. Man, did I want to be him.

Cue the beginning of season 6. I would have been about 16 at the time, hence pretty much at the height of my Josh-worship. With Leo’s departure for health reasons, I finally thought that Josh would get his chance to shine by being promoted to Chief of Staff. And honestly, I was seriously pissed off when President Bartlett asks Leo for a list of names, and Leo gives him only one – CJ. But Josh was the Deputy Chief of Staff! He totally deserved it! He was my hero, and so I protested. In my head.

But looking back on it now, it makes complete sense. CJ Cregg is one of the best female character in the history of television, and Alison Janney was the only cast member to earn a well-deserved Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor/Actress. Josh was intellectually and strategically astute but also a hothead, whose quick and snarky wit which combined with a massively oversized ego often got him into trouble. CJ was, in my view, the most consummate professional amongst the senior staff and I absolutely loved how she would get in the face of people who technically outrank her. But where Janney really shines over her peers is in the emotional depth of her character, which rarely ventured into the melodrama that TWW too often lapsed into. That the circumstances of Simon Donovan’s murder made no sense whatsoever and the aftermath being set to the tune of ‘Hallelujah’ a.k.a. the most emotionally manipulative song in history (seriously, can we have a moratorium on its use in television?) didn’t bother me compared to what I had seen played out between him and CJ in the previous four episodes in such an utterly believable way.

But what prompted my re-assessment of the CJ narrative in TWW from my originally adolescent attitude? As well as simply growing up, I think it has a lot to do with the brilliance – nay, magnificence – of some of the female characters on television in recent years. For me, it began with The Sopranos and the superb performances of Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco and Jamie Lynn-Siegler. In particular, Falco has to be singled out for portraying not only the best female lead but as arguably the most complex and interesting character on a show whose cup positively overfloweth with them.

I could go on (January Jones, Christina Hendricks and Elisabeth Moss in Mad Men, Felicia Pearson and Sonja Sohn in The Wire, Julianna Margulies in The Good Wife, Katee Sackhoff in Battlestar Galactica, Sofie Gråbøl in The Killing etc.), but the show that really opened up my eyes and made me pay attention is Game of Thrones.

I read the first books when I was about 14-15, and I thought they were incredibly cool. My teenage brain treated it as something like Lord of The Rings, but with less magic and more cussing and fucking. I think I got through about book three before this bored me, but I was still excited to hear HBO were doing an adaptation. What I hadn’t remembered was how the women of Westeros went toe-to-toe with the men on almost every conceivable personal and moral dimension, from bravery and chivalry to downright bloody monstrosity. The women are fascinating, and that fascination has very little to with the fact that they have an extra x-chromosome. Needless to say, this is a big step up for me compared to my teenage appreciation of television and literature.

One question that lingers in my mind is whether female characters written for TV have genuinely become increasingly multi-dimensional, or whether I’ve just grown up and can see what was already there. An inordinate amount of conversation about television that takes place amongst men of a certain age (i.e. about 12 and upwards) is about the attractiveness/sexiness/hotness of the women on the show. Frankly, it would be untruthful for me to claim this doesn’t still command a disproportionate amount of my viewing attention. But the women on these shows give you so much more to think about, and are responsible for some of the most gripping television I have ever seen.

I couldn’t really think of a way to finish this, so… here’s CJ doing ‘The Jackal‘. So long.

*Except Mandy, who was so irritating that she was axed at the end of season one without explanation

Categories: Culture