Saturday, November 23, 2013

Libertarianism As Process

November 23, 2013, 9:20 p.m.

In the Excellent Society

"An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The Society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water. . . . The tone and fiber of our society depend upon a pervasive and almost universal striving for good performance."

-- John W. Gardner, Excellence (1961), pp. 86, 132

The Goal
When Libertarians assert that the government should not forbid the sale of large sugar drinks, or foods with trans fats, or riding motorcycles without helmets -- because it interferes with what our Declaration of Independence refers to as individuals' "liberty and the pursuit of happiness" -- is there something wrong with their position? If so, what is it, and how would you articulate their error?

Is there some way that the values they hold -- indeed, all of us hold to some lesser or greater degree -- can be more deliberately incorporated into our public policy process, without necessarily adopting their position, or proposal hook, line and sinker on every given issue? These are the questions to which this blog essay attempts to find, if not the answer, at least some progress towards one.

Like many Americans, I find myself in agreement with a number of Libertarian positions -- especially their opposition to TIFs and other forms of corporatism (i.e., government transferring taxpayers' money to for profit, private businesses). It's that latter position, often seen in these blog essays, that causes some to believe I must be a Libertarian.

I'm not (in the sense of a formal, voting member of today's Libertarian Party), but I have often struggled with the questions with which this blog essay begins.

Now, thanks in part to one of my exploratory policy conversations with Jim Leach, my thinking has advanced a bit.

Here's the story.

Nouns, Verbs and Process

Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) was a popular icon of the 1960s and '70s, whom his numerous followers referred to as "Bucky." He was, among a great many things, an architect (geodesic dome popularizer), author (30 books), and creative thinker on many topics. We occasionally shared the platform as speakers at the same gatherings.

Among his books was one with the title I Seem To Be a Verb (1970). As he explained it, "I don't know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process — an integral function of the universe."

I mention this because, like Bucky Fuller deciding he was a verb, I have finally come to the view that Libertarianism can most usefully be thought of as a process, or rather as having a legitimate and significant role in the policy formulation process, rather than a set of platform planks and "positions" on issues.

What's "Libertarian"?

"Libertarian" has become, in most common usage, a reference to a political party, now boasting the third largest membership after the Republicans and Democrats. By that definition it is relatively new, formed in 1971 and with its first presidential candidate in 1972. It is also, of course, a political philosophy with an American history prior to today's political party, origins around the late 1700s, and some claiming threads going back to the Greeks and even Lao-Tzu, in the 6th Century B.C.

Most Americans would find at least something with which they agree in the beliefs and positions of those who identify themselves as Libertarians. You can find Libertarians who are almost as anti-war as the Quakers, yet as strong for gun rights as the National Rifle Association; more conservative than most Republicans on fiscal matters, and yet more liberal than most Democrats when it comes to personal freedoms, such as gay rights and use of drugs.

But it was a recent column from the Heritage Foundation attacking the regulation of trans fats that got me struggling once again with the intellectual challenge of how to either utilize or respond to the Libertarian position on such issues. (Daren Bakst, "FDA's Proposed Trans Fat Ban is a Power Grab to Control Lives," The Heritage Foundation, Nov. 18, 2013; in The Gazette as, Daren Bakst, "FDA's Trans-Fat Power Grab," The Gazette, Nov. 21, 2013, p. A5.) What is the answer to those who refer to government regulation of personal life choices as the creation of a "nanny state"?

The Motorcycle Helmet Dilemma:
Wherein I Argue With Myself and Discover That
"I Can't Win, I Can't Break Even, and I Can't Get Out of the Game"

The motorcycle helmet dilemma has been the example most often used when thinking about the question, or discussing it with others.

There is probably as much diversity among libertarians' views on various subjects as there are for those of conservatives, or liberals. But it's a reasonable guess than a great many Libertarians would put the motorcycle helmet issue this way: "If someone wants to ride with no helmet, it is no business of the state. As long as they are doing no harm to anyone else, are fully informed, and know the risks, it's their life to live as they choose."

Previously, I have imagined myself being backed into an analytical corner.

First, I would say to myself -- or whomever else might be within earshot -- "they are doing harm to others, economic harm. If they are ever in an accident without a helmet, unless they have health insurance, or are independently wealthy, the rest of us -- hospitals' patients (and shareholders of for-profit hospitals), health insurance premium payers, taxpayers -- are going to be picking up some share of their initial medical bills. And if they are brain injured, or paralyzed for life, hundreds of thousands beyond that. The response: OK, but to get to the core of this,let's assume, hypothetically, that the motorcyclist posts a bond adequate to cover all costs.

Second, "Now what is your objection?" comes the real or imagined next question. I respond with something about the way the law permits plaintiffs to calculate damages in wrongful death cases -- namely, what they might have expected to receive from the decedent over the course of his or her lifetime had he or she not been killed as a result of actions by the defendant. To this the response is similar: "OK, so hypothetically assume the motorcyclist must take out a life insurance policy, too, with an initial value equal to the plaintiff's share of the decedent's future earnings." (Its value might decline over time, so long as the insured lives and the future plaintiff has received ongoing economic benefit from him or her. At any given point in time its value would roughly equal the anticipated economic benefits from then until the actuarially determined estimated year of death.)

This simply produces the same response: "OK, so now what is your objection?"

This process could probably continue, but at some point you've run out of potential economic losses, all of which have been covered in advance (at least hypothetically). You're in a corner. You're back where you started: "If someone wants to ride with no helmet, it is no business of the state. As long as they are doing no harm to anyone else, are fully informed, and know the risks, it's their life to live as they choose."

Continuing to travel further on down the wrong road doesn't make it the right road. So let's start over.

Of all the people who would not respond well to demands that they follow a particular procedure for making policy decisions, I can imagine that Libertarians might be at the top of that list.

This is Not About Libertarians; It's About the Rest of Us:
Libertarianism as Process in the Balancing of Values

So I'm not talking to or about Libertarians. I'm talking to the rest of us. And I'm suggesting that we do not need to approach Libertarianism as a body of predetermined platform planks and specific policy positions, binary yes-or-no decisions as a result of which Libertarians either "win" or "lose."

What if we viewed Libertarianism as part of a process, as a set of values that, though not decisive, not only can be, but should be, a legitimate part of the policy formulation process?

Are there analogies, or precedents, for this approach? Try the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights.

The Fourth Amendment is currently in the news as we receive revelation after revelation regarding the NSA's "searches" of Americans. The Amendment recognizes "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects." But it also recognizes that some government searches may be justified. It expressly limits its prohibition to "unreasonable searches and seizures." Thus, "privacy" is identified as a value to be constitutionally protected, certainly to be considered as a part of the decision making process, but only up to the point where a governmental search may be "reasonable."

Similarly, the Eighth Amendment is unqualified in its prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishments." But when it addresses bail and fines it, like the Fourth, once again calls for a balancing: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed . . .."

In the case of the First Amendment, the language is absolute: "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . .." Indeed, Justice Hugo Black read it as such, asking his colleagues the equivalent in his day of the current line, "What part of 'No' don't you understand?"

But in the case of the First Amendment, notwithstanding the "no," a majority of the Supreme Court justices has interpreted the language to require a balancing of the values associated with free speech (e.g., as a prerequisite for a self-governing democracy, a force to check abuses of power in and out of government, a process more likely to produce "truth," among others). Congress has been upheld by the Court in numerous cases in which Congress has made a law "abridging the freedom of speech."

Companies are legally required to reveal to potential customers the ingredients in their food products (labeling laws), and to potential shareholders the truth about their company (their stock prospectus). You are prohibited by law from telling jokes around an airport security checkpoint. The Copyright Law limits what you can do with others' writing. Courts can punish for speech found to be defamatory, obscene, or inciting to "imminent lawless action."

What I am suggesting is that we approach the principles and values of Libertarianism -- not the "positions" and fixed positions of Libertarians, or the platform of the Libertarian Party and its candidates, but their principles and values -- into our decision, and policy making, processes.

The fact is that my hypotheticals, in which the citizen who takes risks pays up front for the potential economic costs of doing so, are just that: hypothetical. There is a negative impact on our nation's economy from our risky behavior, the accidents and illnesses we bring on ourselves -- driving drunk or without seat belts, excessive use of alcohol and what I call the lesser drugs, tobacco, overweight and poor nutrition, failure to exercise, and, yes, riding motorcycles when not wearing helmets (and comparably risky activities).

Citizens' and Government's Legitimate Interests Beyond Economic Costs

But even if all those economic costs were nonexistent, whether hypothetically or actually, there is another value of legitimate interest to the American people and their democratically elected government. As I quoted John W. Gardner as saying, at the beginning of this blog essay, "The tone and fiber of our society depend upon a pervasive and almost universal striving for good performance."

America's greatest potential asset is performance at levels of excellence by each of its 227 million citizens (over 21) 365 days each year. It is in the best interest of each of us, interests that go beyond mere cost saving, that the government do all it can to ensure that all 227 million come as close to that ideal as possible -- for the good of all, as well as for the good of those individuals. That is why, even after the costs are covered, there is yet one more reason why it is appropriate for the government to concern itself with our self-destructive behavior -- because an excellent society requires a striving for excellence, as John Gardner reminds us, by its plumbers as well as its philosophers.

The point of "Libertarianism as Process" is that it is equally important to weigh heavily the benefits of incorporating into our public policy decisions the values of individuals' freedom, personal choices, and individuality. (To some extent this is, today, the product of the warring lobbyists, with their generous campaign contributions, fighting each other for the votes of House and Senate members. The difference is that I would like to substitute rational analysis, fairness, and incorporation of Libertarian values -- to whatever extent possible -- for raw political and economic power.)

The Radical and the Reasonable

And how might that be done? The way we often do it -- which requires, however, that we recognize the difference between the radical and the reasonable.

The radical positions regarding motorcycle helmets are, on the one hand, simply banning any manufacture or sale of motorcycles, and, on the other, imposing no safety regulations whatsoever. Permitting motorcycles, while requiring the riders wear helmets is, in reality, a middle position, a compromise, a balancing of values. That's not, alone, enough to say it should be the policy. That's not my point. Positioning oneself along this continuum from banning to no government involvement involves personal judgment. People will differ. It is only an example of how one might incorporate Libertarian values along with the state's legitimate interest in maintaining the productivity of its citizens who are motorcyclists.

Another example would be the policy regarding cigarette consumption. Again, the radical extremes would be, on the one hand, to simply ban the sale of any tobacco products, and, on the other, to make no efforts of any kind to limit the adverse health effects of tobacco use (including the 400,000 tobacco-related deaths a year). We have done neither. Cigarettes can be manufactured and sold. Smokers can continue to buy them. Some examples of the compromises have been to limit where they can smoke (as, in part, a response to evidence of harm to non-smokers from second hand smoke), to forbid tobacco sales to minors, the creation of smoking cessation programs, and the imposition of price increases to discourage young people from starting down the path to nicotine addiction.

A more local and recent example would be the Iowa City City Council's approach to the consequences of alcohol abuse by those legally forbidden to buy, possess, or consume alcohol (those under 21). The extremes would be to forbid their entry at any time into businesses whose sole purpose is to profit from the sale of alcohol, on the one hand, or, on the other, to permit their entry 24/7. The Council's balancing of values is a compromise that permits underage individuals to be in bars 20 out of every 24 hours a day, but requires they leave the bars between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. See, "Underage Drinking As Human Right? I Don't Think So; Why Bar Owners, Students, Should Embrace Iowa City's 21 Law," Oct. 16, 2013.

And that's what I mean by "Libertarianism As Process."

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Why Politics Make Us Stupid

November 17, 2013, 11:20 a.m.
Yes, Liberals, This Means You, Too

It turns out that the half-jocular line, "My mind is made up, don't confuse me with the facts," is worth more reflection than we may have realized.

Yale Professor of Law and Psychology, Dan Kahan, heads that school's Cultural Cognition Project, a national group of academic researchers who study how one's political or other group affiliations and opinions can alter an individual's perceptions of relevant data concerning, say, climate change or gun control. Nicole Ng, "Kahan Responds to Media Storm," Yale Daily News, Oct. 29, 2013.

This first came to my attention as a result of one of my many informative BBC program podcasts, this one from the program "More or Less: Behind the Stats" ("Numbers are used in every area of public debate. But are they always reliable? Tim and the More or Less team try to make sense of the statistics which surround us.").

This episode, titled "Does politics make us get our sums wrong?" was a exploration of Dan Kahan's research.

Kahan didn't take the easy way out, which would have been to choose a random or representative sampling of subjects from across our socio-economic-educational classes. Instead, he choose those with outstanding mathematical ("numeracy") skills. As he explains it, "We did tests and found that people who are more science literate and better able to make sense out of scientific data tended to be more polarized along cultural lines on issues like climate change or guns or nuclear power, not less. That’s not what you would expect if the problem were that people had a deficit in rationality — in that case, the people who are the most science comprehending among those different groups would be converging on their views consistent with the best evidence."

He began with an exercise that was political-value-neutral: two skin creams, one of which smelled like strawberries, the other like bananas. He told the participants that the strawberry cream was tested on 300 subjects, 200 of whom saw improvement in their rash, and 100 of whom did not. The banana cream was tested on a smaller group; it produced only 80 whose skin improved and 20 whose skin did not. Virtually all of those with high numeracy skills got the correct answer to the question, "Which was the better skin cream?" (If you're having trouble with this one, although 200 got improvement from the strawberry version, and only 80 from the banana, 200 out of 300 (200 plus the 100) is 66.6%, whereas 80 out of 100 (80 plus the 20) is 80%.)

On the other hand, when the exercise involved statistics regarding a politically loaded issue, such as gun control, the numeracy-gifted subjects came up with remarkably different rates of success. The subjects were divided into two groups, those who believe that crime rates come down when more people have guns, and those who believe that crime rates come down when there are bans on gun ownership. Both tended to respond according to their beliefs.

Let's assume, hypothetically, that the statistics again involved the 200-100 and 80-20 splits: out of, say, 100 cities 80 would have seen crime rates decline, and 20 would have seen no change.

When the correct answer supported the view of those who believed that more guns mean less crime, this high numeracy group scored about as well as they had on the skin cream exercise. However, when it did not, when the results seemed to show that gun bans did a better job of reducing crime, the percentage of those who came up with the correct answer dropped to as low as 35%.

I hasten to add, those who thought that banning guns would reduce crime produced exactly the same results. When the "correct" answer conflicted with their ideological opinion, only 35% of them came up with it.

We've seen reports of surveys that involve the provisions of a supposed legislative proposal. When Democrats are told that the provisions are in a bill from President Obama, the percentages that think it's a good idea are far higher than if they're told it comes from the Tea Party Republicans in the House. Republicans' responses show a similar disparity depending on the provisions' sponsor -- even though the specific provisions are precisely the same in all four tests. [Photo credit: Stan Honda / AFP-Getty Images.]

But Professor Kahan has now provided us with some scientific data that helps to explain how this happens. It turns out that the power of our predispositions is such that they can, even for the most mathematically gifted, scientific and data-driven among us, block out their ability to do simple math.

Oh yes, some liberals have read Kahan's data as supporting their assumption that conservatives are more stupid than liberals. Alas, not only are the liberals wrong about that, they have simply provided more evidence in support of his findings!

"My mind is made up, don't confuse me with the facts"? Ah, if only that were possible. Apparently, once our minds are made up it's highly unlikely that anything, including persuasive facts, will ever confuse us.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Exclusive: Insider Explains Fiasco

November 2, 2013, 4:00 p.m.

From 'Integration Testing' to 'Full End-to-End Testing'

Unless you've spent the last month in a cave with your mountain-dwelling guru, you're aware of the fiasco in the Obama Administration's roll out of the Web page that was supposed to provide the gateway for Americans' path to near-universal health insurance. [Cartoon credit: Steve Sack, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Oct. 23, 2013.]

It's been hard to get the details on how such a thing could happen -- especially when Obamacare ("The Affordable Care Act") has been the one major accomplishment and showpiece of President Obama's Administration.

Of course, a part of the cause may have been CMS' [U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] failure to fully investigate the record of their prime contractor:
Canadian provincial health officials last year fired the parent company of CGI Federal, the prime contractor for the problem-plagued Obamacare health exchange websites . . . after the firm missed three years of deadlines and failed to deliver the province’s flagship online medical registry. . . . The CMS officials refused to say if federal officials knew of its parent company’s IT failure in Canada when awarding the six contracts.
Richard Pollock, "Canadian officials fired IT firm behind troubled Obamacare website," Washington Examiner, Oct. 10, 2013.

There is project management software appropriate to this task. It is called the PERT ("planning, evaluation, review technique") system, something used and developed in part by the Polaris submarine project as I observed it in the 1960s. Polaris required the ability to manage a project involving tens of thousands of sub-contractors under an extremely tight schedule. Surely PERT could have helped, with or without a failed CGI Federal.

Thus, the scenario has been a dramatic case study in both (1) the consequences of a failure to understand some basic principles of Management 101, and (2) how not to roll out a massive, new, and complex bit of software.

Although I did some computer programming in the simplistic Basic language over 30 years ago, since then I've limited myself to some easily mastered DOS and html commands and left the real programming to others. But I've experienced enough to agree with the observation of the head of a university's computer science department when told there were over 100 million lines of code in President Reagan's "Star Wars" program: "I've never seen a computer program that was more than three lines long that ran the first time it was tried."

So I asked a very reliable source whether I could share with you some professional insights which they have provided. This source, in no way affiliated with the effort, has so many years' experience in the business, in a variety of contexts, that to help to maintain his or her anonymity I have substituted "nn" in the following at the spot where they reveal that number. I found what was sent to be helpfully informative, and it's shared here in the hope and expectation you will find it so as well.

# # #

I've been closely following the developments in the debacle. I'm not a politician nor a healthcare expert, so I really can't comment on whether the Affordable Care Act will achieve its goals or fatally undermine the American Dream. That sort of pontification I leave to Democrats and Republicans, respectively.

What I am, though, is a veteran software engineer with nn years of experience dealing with large projects in both the public and private sector.

Point blank: we have been lied to, and we are being lied to, about the future of the site.

I could write five thousand words on precisely how many deceits are on display. I'll try to keep it under a few hundred and just focus on the one whopper of a lie that I believe even non-programmers can understand.

The contractors who originally delivered advised the White House that full end-to-end integration testing had not been completed -- and, in fact, had not even started until a few days before the October 1 rollout. That's a technical term, "full end-to-end integration testing," so let me explain what we mean by that. Integration testing means "we're putting the pieces together to see if they work well." End-to-end integration testing means "we're putting *all* the pieces together to see if they work well." And finally, full end-to-end integration testing means, "we're putting *all* the pieces together and testing them exhaustively to ensure they work well."

To put things in terms of cars: when the team building the tires meets with the team building the hubcaps and the team building the rims and the team building the axles, and they make sure the tires fit on the axles and the hubcaps look nice, that's integration testing. When all the teams come together to assemble a complete car, that's end-to-end integration testing. And when they put a test driver behind the wheel and send the car out for a five hundred mile drive at the local track, that's full end-to-end integration testing.

Any engineer will tell you that full end-to-end integration testing is a headache and a half. Things always go wrong, and they're never the things you expect. As a result, full end-to-end integration testing takes a long time -- oftentimes measured in months.

Would you buy a car if the vendor said, "We only started test laps at the track a couple of days ago and it had some serious problems we haven't been able to fix"?

Of course not. But that's exactly what happened with when it rolled out on October 1.

Secretary Sebelius has been publicly humiliated over the defects in She and the President have promised the website will be fixed and will be reliable no later than December 1.

My question is, where will she find the time to do full end-to-end integration testing? Even if all the changes to the infrastructure are completed November 1, that still leaves only a month for testing to make sure the site works. The contractors who originally developed were adamant that testing it properly would require months. From my own experience, I am inclined to think four months of testing is about the minimum required.

I'm not a politician and I'm not a healthcare expert -- but I'm a very good software engineer.

The system needs at least four months of testing and it's not going to get it. That means that, come December 1, the best we can hope for is that we will be delivered a new site which will not have received any significant testing. Rather than being able to point to a record of successful tests, we will instead be asked to take Secretary Sebelius at her word. "Trust me! It works fine now."

Software that has not been thoroughly tested, or has not passed its thorough testing, is fundamentally incomplete. will be fundamentally incomplete on December 1.

There's simply not enough time for it to be tested, and that means there's not enough time for it to be completed.

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