Search This Blog


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Immigration, Nativists, and Primaries

Late one evening, while driving through west Texas en route from California to New Jersey, I listened to a caller on talk radio defending the American educational system. The caller asked, "What could be wrong with education in the country that developed the first atomic bomb and put the first man on the moon?" Neither the host nor subsequent callers informed this caller that those great engineering efforts were largely driven by scientists and engineers who had fled Europe before, during, and immediately after World War II. The U.S. is a wonderful country and has given birth to many first rate scientists and engineers, but we have been able to overcome our lousy pre-University educational system, in part, because we are a great destination for immigrants. I have had the good fortune to work with wonderful scientists who moved to the U.S. from around the world, especially from India and China. Immigrants have made many great contributions to the U.S.

The failed, nativist congressional candidate for my district vows to run again in 2012. His 2010 platform included such bizarre planks as a complete 2 year halt in the granting of H1b visas, which would devastate our local tech based economy. His campaign rhetoric attributed anti-American thoughts and intent to the entire Hispanic immigrant community, including legal immigrants. He never explained how he gained access to their unspoken thoughts. The final nail in the coffin of my possible support for Mr. Nativist came when we exchanged emails about his desire to `rebalance' the ethnic origin of immigrants. I am supportive of ideas to give visa priority to those who through their education or business skills are most likely to make strong contributions to our economy. Using ethnicity as a determining criterion is a position strongly associated with the old Democratic party auxillary, the KKK, not with the Republicans. I pointed out this KKK association to Mr. Nativist, hoping he simply had not understood the implications of his word choice. He responded with a weird rant against Chinese immigrants. In our community, the Chinese immigrant community is dominated by scientists and engineers. Why this fellow would target them is beyond my ken. It certainly made it impossible for me to support him and prompted me to consider an opposing run. In addition to being inherently repugnant, a racist candidate would severely damage recruitment of new Republican voters. The declaration of the candidacy of the libertarian Republican freed me from running.

Current U.S. immigration policy is severely flawed in many ways, which I do not need to detail here, but consequent hostility to legal immigrants is misplaced. Legal immigration, especially if immigration policy is modified to be more economically rational, has the potential to continue to make great contributions to our (educationally challenged) society. Perhaps some people are so upset by illegal immigration that legal immigrants are simply tarred by association. On the other hand, maybe this is a non-issue. In my congressional district (which does not face significant illegal immigration issues like those facing Arizona), Republican voters rejected the candidacy of the anti-immigrant candidate. I'll work to ensure they reject him again in 2012.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The joys of primaries and tea parties

Our local primaries are now over. For the first time since I turned 18, I knew every candidate on my ballot, including all the judges. My libertarian candidate beat the nativist candidate for the Republican nomination for the local U.S. House seat. In fact, no candidate for whom I voted lost. (I won't say they all won because some face runoffs.) Outside the nativist/libertarian battle, my voting choices were essentially forced. One candidate for the state legislature dropped out of the race too late for his name to be removed from the ballot. One judicial candidate had essentially no legal experience. The legislative candidate dropout came in a close second to the active candidate. The judicial candidate with little knowledge of the law forced the conservative incumbent judge into a runoff. What scandal caused such unusual vote outcomes? Sex? Drugs? No, the scandal of severe voter ignorance.

I have always felt that term limits are a bad idea. Voters should simply exercise their right to replace their representatives with ones who will serve them better. I have always been dismayed that this does not work in practice. Strong ideological considerations may require you to regularly vote for your party, but they do not require you to return the same tired political hack to Washington year after year. Primaries give the voters regular opportunities to improve their party's representatives. Why don't the voters exercise this right?

After my experience this year, it has become clear to me that I (and millions like me) am a major part of the problem. I never miss a general election, but often skip nonpresidential primaries because I don't know any of the candidates. I simply vote the party slate in November. This year, however, I met every candidate, questioned most, attended several debates, and read candidate websites. I passed on what I learned to family, to friends, and to those very few of my colleagues who are not of the far left. The time required to become an informed citizen was only a few hours a month to attend political meetings and read web sites. Now that I have seen how easy it is to stay informed, I plan never to return to my prior inattentive state.

The press tries hard to focus the story of the tea party movement on voter anger or extreme ideology. More important for the health of our democracy is the story of engagement. Tea partiers are actively engaged in the political process and informed about their candidates. The same commentators who have long called for term limits miss the import of the current anti-incumbent wave. It should be the natural healthy state of an informed electorate to regularly retire its representatives. The tea party movement and the anti-incumbent wave is a sign of improving health of our political society. I hope the main outcome of the tea party movement will be that henceforth more people attend to politics before and during the primaries and that our candidates each November are determined, not simply by ballot placement or name recognition, but by their stands on the issues.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Steepest descent and libertarian philosophy

The evolution of complicated physical systems shares interesting features with social dynamics, especially as viewed through the lens of l ibertarian philosophy. Consider, for example, a system in which the physics of the system is determined by some energy, E, and the evolution is determined by the simple law: minimize the energy. This is called following the path of steepest descent. Water running down a hill is a simple model to keep in mind. In these models the total energy, E, is a sum (integral) of the energies of each constituent particle or point in the system. In most interesting systems, unlike water, you cannot simply tell each particle to minimize its energy, because its energy depends on the states of its neighbors. Consequently, some level of coordination is required among neighbors to minimize energy. In most systems of interest, there is a rule (called the Euler-Lagrange equation) which tells each particle what to do in order to minimize energy, and this rule only requires the particle have knowledge of its neighbors and its neighbors' neighbors. All the particles acting on these simple rules, knowing only what happens around them, pursue a course which approaches the minimal energy (greatest happiness) for the whole system. Thus we frequently find in physics an analog of the notion that individuals acting in their own best interest while respecting basic rules for interacting with others may maximize the happiness of the entire society.

In complicated systems, bad things may happen on the path to minimal energy. With each particle trying to minimize its own energy, following the path for steepest descent, sometimes enormous energy is concentrated in a small region, blowing it up and destroying the system. This blow up can be extremely hard to foresee. Some systems always blow up as they approach minimal energy. This behavior may be a function of the mathematical model of the system. Scientists often suspect that the validity of the idealization involved in creating a mathematical model out of a physical situation loses validity as the system approaches the time of blow up. A new and different model is required to understand what is happening to the system there. A famous example of this arises in the treatment of fluid motion before a sonic boom.

So, the manner in which physical systems optimize their energy is similar to the way libertarian philosophers envision human society. Each individual, acting in his own interest and optimizing his own life without access to a grand plan, optimizes the society. An analog of modern liberal political philosophy, on the other hand, would require physics to be determined by the actions of a bevy of gods on Mount Olympus. Finally, the conservative recognizes that even optimizing behavior, can occasionally lead to the destruction of the society. Hence he reserves the flexibility to deviate from the libertarian optimizing path. In physical systems and probably also in society, such deviations always prevent the evolution to the optimal total energy (happiness) level, but stop the destruction of the system enroute. Unfortunately, one rarely knows in advance whether a great concentration of energy is merely a peak on the way to optimization or is impending blowup. So too, the conservative is rarely sure what is the appropriate juncture to deviate from libertarian minimalism.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Not Q then Not P: Libertarians vs Conservatives

My local Republican congressional primary pits a libertarian against a nativist. Unable to stomach a nativist, I support the Libertarian candidate. Consequently, I have been reading Boaz's Libertarianism: a Primer to improve my understanding of libertarian philosophy. The book is extremely clear and light, suitable for bedtime reading. It also provides a useful foil for analyzing my own conservative views.

For simplicity, in the following I reduce the libertarian position to the level of Asimov's 3 laws of robotics. I recommend Boaz's book for a more faithful representation of libertarian philosophy. Asimov's 3 laws of libertarianism:
(i) People have the right to live their lives as they choose, as long as they do not interfere with the rights of others.
(ii) The government has the duty to protect its citizens' rights. In particular, it should protect them from attempts to harm their bodies or to harm or steal their property.
(iii) The government does not have the right to act in such a manner that it interferes with the citizens' rights expressed in (i) except in carrying out its duty specified in (ii).

Small government conservatives share the libertarian belief that minimal government is best. Like libertarians, they recognize that almost all government actions require coercion and thus some attendant loss of individual freedom. In addition, they recognize that government interference in the economy almost always reduces economic output. Where then do we diverge? Consider, for example, drug policy. A citizen's use of marijuana does not affect the rights of other citizens; hence, libertarians say that it should not be criminalized. I believe that decriminalization leads to much greater drug use and to use of drugs more dangerous than marijuana; I further believe that this greater drug use leads to large subsequent societal problems affecting many people including those too young to be given the responsibility to choose whether or not to destroy their own lives. I am therefore averse to decriminalization. Thus I differ from a libertarian in that I am willing to violate libertarian rule (iii) above if I consider the benefit to society is sufficient compensation for the coercive policy. A libertarian may now come along and convince me that my analysis of the costs and benefits of criminalization are incorrect (and I admit I have not delved deeply into this issue). A change of my position in favor of decriminalization, however, would not make me more libertarian. Because my decision is still based, in part, on a weighing of costs and benefits rather than a strict adherence to rule (iii), I am not a libertarian.

Constitutional conservatives believe that the government should enact no law which violates the Constitution, independent of any cost benefit analysis. In addition to respect for our founding documents and the rule of law, our reticence stems from our fear of weakening the constitutional safeguards of our liberties. Weaknesses that we create in our safeguards in order to pass legislation that we favor, can (and probably will) later be used to push legislation that we oppose. Most worrisome is the prospect that such weaknesses will eventually be exploited to erode our basic freedoms. All libertarians I have encountered are also constitutional conservatives. Where the Constitution differs from their libertarian philosophy, their recourse is typically to suggest constitutional amendment and not the (modern) liberal response of trampling the Constitution with activist judicial decisions or unconstitutional legislation.

The main battleground between conservatives and libertarians is on social issues (such as drug policy discussed above). For constitutional conservatives, this battle should take place only at the state level. Social issues are constitutionally the domain of state legislatures. As long as conservatives remember their constitutional principles, the libertarians are their natural allies at the federal level. Remembering this distinction between state and federal domains would lead to a greater conservative presence in the federal government.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Intellectual specialization, political partisans, and independents

Mathematicians rely more heavily on their written records than scientists in any other field. In physics, for example, each new theory is expected to provide a more accurate and broadly applicable approximation to reality. New theories frequently replace or even invalidate their predecessors. Consequently, old journals rapidly lose their value. In mathematics, however, once something is proved true, it remains true forever (assuming no error in the original proof). It is impossible to be expert in all branches of mathematics or even to know the proofs of every result you are likely to need in your work. It is a forgiveable - and often necessary - shortcut to assume the correctness of previously published results, without carefully checking each detail (but if you rely heavily on a result or need a variant, you ultimately end up learning its proof). Rapid scientific progress relies on intellectual specialization, which in turn requires trust in the refereed work of your predecessors (and contemporaries).

In politics too, most people do not have the time to become expert in every issue. From the feedback mechanisms required to understand global warmism to the importance of derivatives in providing grease to the gears of the economy, it is hard (impossible?) for most people to be well versed in the majority of issues facing our nation. Hence we all must rely on the deliberations of others; we cannot always check their 'proofs'. Unlike in mathematics, however, there is no refereeing process to check accuracy in politics. Most of us ultimately use party affiliation as a proxy for refereeing. We are most likely to believe the analysis of the political party whose past record and previous positions inspire the most trust in us.

Party affiliation alone is usually too broad to allow us confidence in the pronouncements of our copartisans. In addition to party, we rely on ideology. I am always amused by the attacks on ideologues as rigid and unthinking obstacles to progress. I suppose the definition of ideologue should be anyone whose principles are different from yours. If I know the principles driving the political positions of the person who is helping me take positions on the myriad of issues we face, then I am better able to trust his conclusions. Conversely, I distrust nonideologues. If the mavericks of McCain's ilk claim not to have fundamental principles guiding their economic decisions, what does? A desire for power? Popularity? Employment? I'll choose the principled ideologue every time.

Party affiliation has dropped dramatically in recent years. I hope the hordes of independents have the time and energy to research every issue, as they are unwilling to outsource their research to a political party. The rapid flipping of the independents from the far left of candidate Obama to the embrace of the small government tea parties, suggests, however, that the independents did not do their homework. The absence of any ideological mooring with its attendant party identification clearly led to gross errors. (The Republican choice of a presidential candidate without guiding principles didn't help either.) I suspect that the Obama administration will provide a valuable political education for independents. I hope that the outcome is that they will henceforth outsource to Republicans those research jobs they do not have time to complete for themselves; I hope that the Republicans will nominate enough principled candidates to deserve the job.