Parking violations in a democracy

A throwaway comment by Andrew O’Hehir in Salon, in an article about the fascist overtones of recent police challenges to civilian authority in New York, reminded me of one of the things that has long mystified me about the psychology of automobilism. He writes

We still don’t know where this confrontation between de Blasio and his cops will lead, or how it will be resolved. (So far, the city has been peaceful – and nobody on my block got a parking ticket all week! So it’s win-win.)

In most places I’ve lived, at most times, I tend to think that enforcement of parking regulations is distressingly lax. This surely reflects, in part, my own interests, as someone who doesn’t drive, but who frequently finds sidewalks and cycle lanes blocked by illegally-parked cars. And I particularly resent when the illegally parked endanger my children’s lives by forcing them out into the street. But in most places I’ve lived — including significant periods in the US, UK, Canada, and Germany — the general culture seems to view enforcement of parking regulations as an evil incursion upon human liberty.

It doesn’t seem at all strange that people resent their own fines — that’s core human nature — or even that people would develop a general perspective of ignoring the benefits of parking regulations and communing on the personal nuisance, particularly when the benefits accrue disproportionately to the weaker members of society — the young, the handicapped. What seems strange is that people seem, on the one hand, to consider enforcement of parking and traffic laws illegitimate, on the other hand not to want their elected representatives to do anything about it.

As with so much else, our current Tory government is different in this point. They genuinely seem to want to bring the Wild West to British roads. One of the first things the Tories did after coming to power was to stop funding speed-limit enforcement cameras. A few years ago the government said that widespread lawlessness on the roads proved that the current speed-limit regime lacked democratic legitimacy. Most recently, spheroid Tory caricature Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, was prevented by the Liberal Democrats from pushing through a 15-minute grace period for parking on double-yellow lines, essentially making all local parking restrictions unenforceable.

And now, Pickles has just announced that from this autumn local councils would be banned from using CCTV to enforce parking laws, including “Orwellian spy cars”, because if Winston Smith hadn’t been ticketed for parking too long outside the Ministry of Truth he never would have to go pay his fine in room 101.

The force of “overwhelming”

The New Republic has published a film review by Yishai Schwartz under the portentous title “The Edward Snowden Documentary Accidentally Exposes His Lies”. While I generally support — and indeed, am grateful — for what Snowden has done, I am also sensitive to the problems of democratic governance raised by depending on individuals to decide that conscience commands them to break the law. We are certainly treading on procedural thin ice, and our only recourse, despite the commendable wish of Snowden himself, as well as Greenwald, to push personalities into the background, is to think carefully about the motives — and the honesty — of the man who carried out the spying. So in principle I was very interested in what Schwartz has to say.

Right up front Schwartz states what he considers to be the central dishonesty of Snowden’s case:

Throughout this film, as he does elsewhere, Snowden couches his policy disagreements in grandiose terms of democratic theory. But Snowden clearly doesn’t actually give a damn for democratic norms. Transparency and the need for public debate are his battle-cry. But early in the film, he explains that his decision to begin leaking was motivated by his opposition to drone strikes. Snowden is welcome to his opinion on drone strikes, but the program has been the subject of extensive and fierce public debate. This is a debate that, thus far, Snowden’s and his allies have lost. The president’s current drone strikes enjoy overwhelming public support.

“Democratic theory” is a bit ambivalent about where the rights of democratic majorities to annihilate the rights — and, indeed, the lives — of individuals, but the reference to “overwhelming” public support is supposed to bridge that gap. So how overwhelming is that support? Commendably, Schwartz includes a link to his source, a Gallup poll that finds 65% of Americans surveyed support “airstrikes in other countries against suspected terrorists”. Now, just stopping right there for a minute, in my home state of California, 65% support isn’t even enough to pass a local bond measure. So it’s not clear that it should be seen as enough to trump all other arguments about democratic legitimacy.

Furthermore, if you read down to the next line, you find that when the targets to be exterminated are referred to as “US citizens living abroad who are suspected terrorists” the support falls to 42%. Not so overwhelming. (Support falls even further when the airstrikes are to occur “in the US”, but since that hasn’t happened, and would conspicuously arouse public debate if it did, it’s probably not all that relevant.) Not to mention that Snowden almost surely did not mean that he was just striking out at random to undermine a government whose drone policies he disapproves of; but rather, that democratic support for policies of targeted killing might be different if the public were aware of the implications of ongoing practices of mass surveillance. Continue reading “The force of “overwhelming””

Somebody to blame

Jonathan Cohn — one of the best-informed voices on healthcare in American journalism — has a new article in The New Republic about the reductions in provider networks that insurers are imposing, due to constraints in the Affordable Care Act. Except, as he points out,

Even before Obamacare, employers and insurers were already moving in the direction of limiting networks and penalizing costly hospitals like Cedars. Kominski notes that his employer, the University of California system, aggressively restricted its provider network two years ago. The change affected thousands of employees—and was one of many such decisions employers made around the country. But it didn’t generate a national controversy. The city of Los Angeles just took Cedars off the network for one large plan in order to keep premiums for city employees low. And while it’s possible Obamacare accelerated a trend toward limited networks for direct consumers, it’s also possible that insurers would have made that switch anyway—and that they’re introducing these changes now, in one big wave, because Obamacare gives them a convenient excuse.

This is a genuine bias, particularly in American democracy, toward leaving problems unaddressed, because as soon as you start trying to deal with the problem, voters will hold you responsible for any remaining defects.

I remarked on this shortly after I came to the UK, that it seemed to me that the British underrate the NHS, because any health problem that occurs anywhere in the country, whether it’s unhygienic conditions in a hospital, or GP surgeries not being open at sufficiently convenient hours, is blamed on “the NHS”. That is a strength, but it’s also a temptation for politicians to offload the responsibility onto “the market”. The political culture hasn’t  gone that far in this country, but that’s why there’s a major US political party whose political philosophy is, conveniently, essentially “There’s nothing we can do”.

(Physicist David Deutsch has written a book-length quantum-utopian manifesto whose main lesson seems to be that the fundamental criterion for the progress potential of a political system is the extent to which it makes it clear, when things go wrong, who is to blame.)

This is a well-known problem in torts law — a public danger that has never been touched is nobody’s responsibility. If you try to make it safer, but cannot eliminate the danger entirely, suddenly it has become your responsibility if someone is injured. I first encountered this many years ago, when The Economist published a somewhat surprising plea for a planetwide defence against rogue asteroids. Like (I think) most people, on the rare occasions when I do think about asteroid strikes, I generally do not consider the legal implications. The article pointed out, though, that while an unmolested asteroid that obliterates London is an Act of God, as soon as some government tries to divert it, it becomes a legal liability.

This is an issue that I’ve never seen raised in the famous trolley problems that moral philosophers love to natter about. If you’re the trolley driver then you have a real moral dilemma. If you’re a bystander who happens to see a switch that could be thrown, you’d best call your lawyer first. She’ll tell you, under no circumstances should you touch anything. If 5 people die, that’s not your fault. If you save the 5 but kill one — if you even hurt the one’s finger — his family will sue you.

The advantage of having a queen…

… is that the prime minister can take the train.

The tabloids are trying to turn this into a scandal, because the PM’s conspicuous red box of official papers seemed to be unguarded. Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. I won’t suggest that riding in the first-class carriage is exactly a recipe for inculcating modesty, but look at this photo

David Cameron working on the train
He looks so tired…

of David Cameron working while he travels. He looks more like a public servant than Barack Obama ever could, despite the fact that he is doing fundamentally the same job. And if the cost of that is that some important papers may be left temptingly out on the table occasionally, I think it’s well worth it.

Part of the cost may be maintaining a monarch, as well. I like to mock the notion of monarchy (as here and here) as inimical to democracy. I still think the idea of assigning important roles in society by heredity both ridiculous and pernicious. But there is a strong pragmatic argument on the other side that a constitutionally neutered monarchy keeps the atavistic and campy royal circuses away from the levers of power.

I’d say, far from being a scandal, this photo is one that Downing Street and the British people generally ought to be proud of. Even if he does seem to get a whole table and block of four seats to himself.

This is how democracy works

If you know anything about the difference between the US and the UK constitutions, you probably know that a parliamentary system, as in the UK, is more dynamic and effective: No separation of powers to hamstring the government. The Prime Minister stands on a parliamentary majority, and parliament answers to no one, so he (or sometimes she — that’s another difference), so the PM gets to make decisions and have them carried out.

That’s how it works for legislation, more or less, but not, apparently, in matters of war and peace. Parliament is now actually debating the decision to attack Syria. Labour has submitted an amendment to the government motion, requiring that military action proceed through an orderly process, including a vote by the UN security council. And it appears that there are enough disaffected coalition MPs to make it likely that it would succeed. This forced the government to back down yesterday on holding an immediate vote on a measure authorising the use of force. Now, they are debating a non-binding resolution of support.

I don’t know where I stand on the merits of this, but I’m fascinated by the process, and grateful for Ed Miliband — not someone I had previously thought of as a courageous leader — for being willing to ask some difficult questions. Presidents and prime ministers have a natural bias toward moralising with bombs. It makes them look strong and decisive, and like they’re accomplishing something important. Democracies need other forces that can ask difficult questions, and restrain the march to war.

I wonder if the the US Constitution could be amended to give the Congress a role in declarations of war? Nah, it’d never pass. Too utopian.

But this does spare the Obama administration from the frustration that leads to this sort of invective:

[A government] source was claimed to have said: “No 10 and the Foreign Office think Miliband is a f****** c*** and a copper-bottomed s***. The French hate him now and he’s got no chance of building an alliance with the US Democratic Party.”

I’m not sure what the “copper-bottomed” part means, but it sure sounds colourful.

Obama to the American people: You’re beautiful when you’re angry!

Back in 2008 I remember being amused by the accusations of arrogance levelled at then-candidate Barack Obama. It seemed to me a mere expression of anti-intellectualism. Of course you don’t become a top politician, even within reach of the presidency, without being pathologically arrogant, but no one really wants a shrinking violet as president.

But the Republican He’s a smart, educated guy, and the Republicans think (I supposed) they can gain an advantage by playing to the common fear that any such person must hold the average citizen in contempt.

I must now admit to having experienced a failure of empathy. Only now, when I (and those like me) am the object of the great BO’s contempt, do I appreciate how peculiarly infuriating this man’s ego is. This idiosyncratic blend of openness and narrow-mindedness, his willingness to discuss anything with anyone, undertaken with the absolute self-assurance that his intellect already encompasses any argument we might make.

Basically, Obama tells the American people, “You’re beautiful when you’re angry”.

In his recent remarks on l’affaire Snowden, Barry said

And if you look at the reports — even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden has put forward — all the stories that have been written, what you’re not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s emails. What you’re hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused. Now, part of the reason they’re not abused is because these checks are in place, and those abuses would be against the law and would be against the orders of the FISC.

Having said that, though, if you are outside of the intelligence community, if you are the ordinary person and you start seeing a bunch of headlines saying, U.S.-Big Brother looking down on you, collecting telephone records, et cetera, well, understandably, people would be concerned. I would be, too, if I wasn’t inside the government…

But people may have better ideas and people may want to jigger slightly sort of the balance between the information that we can get versus the incremental encroachments on privacy that if haven’t already taken place might take place in a future administration, or as technologies develop further….

And so those are the kinds of things that I’m looking forward to having a conversation about.

Speaking as one of those “ordinary persons”, I am disgusted by the president offering to start a “conversation” about what I and many others who have thought deeply about these matters consider to be already huge violations of our civil liberties, an injury to the rule of law, and laying the groundwork for the complete evacuation of democracy, with the caveat right up front that the only possible result could be “to jigger slightly sort of the balance”. Because Obama the Omniscient couldn’t possibly have gotten the whole policy wrong. He’s an (adjunct) constitutional scholar, ferchrissake!

He ridicules our concerns, because we’re not well informed like the people in the “intelligence community”, but he has been withholding the information, and taking extreme measures against anyone who tries to inform us.

But he loves having these heated conversations with us. We ordinary folks are so beautiful when we’re angry!

Are you demographic?

As a sometime demographer myself, I am fascinated by the prominence of “demographics” as an explanatory concept in the recent presidential election, now already slipping away into hazy memory. Recent political journalism would barely stand without this conceptual crutch, as here and here and here. A bit more nuance here. Some pushback from the NY Times here.

The crassest expression of this concept came in an article yesterday by (formerly?) respected conservative journalist Michael Barone, explaining why he was no longer confident that Mitt Romney would win the election by a large margin. Recall that several days before the election, despite the contrary evidence of what tens of thousands of voters were actually telling pollsters, he predicted 315 electoral votes for Romney, saying “Fundamentals usually prevail in American elections. That’s bad news for Barack Obama.” In retrospect, he says,

I was wrong because the outcome of the election was not determined, as I thought it would be, by fundamentals…. I think fundamentals were trumped by mechanics and, to a lesser extent, by demographics.

Continue reading “Are you demographic?”