Risk, Part 2: Fear and Control

Part 2 of a 2-part sequence on different aspects of how American society deals with risk:

It seems that government policy – and social convention, and cultural aspiration, and the tyranny of public opinion expressed through social media mobs – is now all too often fashioned by a destructively self-reinforcing partnership between those, on the one hand, who have lost all trust in their fellow citizens and who want so badly to be protected from risk, and even from discomfort, that they will trade away almost any freedom for a promise of a bit more security; and those, on the other hand, whose innate and fervent proclivity is to tell everyone else, with great piety and self-assurance, how to organize and operate their lives.

The more we have come to – and the more we have been taught to – rely on government to regulate the behavior of others, the less we have come to rely on – and the less we have been taught or practiced – the virtue of regulating ourselves. The more success the solipsistic fringe – economic more than cultural on the “right”, cultural more than economic on the “left” – has had in attacking and emasculating the economic and religious and social and cultural mores that historically disciplined such self-control, the less able we are to count on self-regulation and the more pressure there is to empower government to impose yet more external regulation upon us.

We can no longer negotiate and compromise – we can no longer embrace a shared process for governance rather than seeking a raw power over others – because we no longer trust each other either to have empathy or, more importantly, to act in good faith.  Why are we intolerant of risk?  Because we feel a lack of control.  Why do we feel a lack of control?  Because we don’t trust each other to do the right thing, either as individuals or as a polity.  In the absence of trust, even small risks loom large.

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Under Color of Authority

The police act on our authority and in our name.  That gives us a corresponding responsibility to act, as well, when they step beyond reasonable bounds we have set.  And, if we don’t act – if we relax and extend those bounds, either intentionally or simply by failing to accept the responsibility to rein them in – then we are, as well, responsible for the consequences.  The color of authority becomes actual authority if we acquiesce to it; and, therefore, the moral stench of that authority, when exercised indecently, adheres to us as much as it does to whoever exercised it on our behalf.

The protesters want justice, but not the kind that a court can give them by convicting a particular villain.  Their protests are not really directed at the police or at the courts or at the politicians: they are directed at us.  And what they are demanding of us is simple: “Step up!  Stop accepting the unacceptable! Rein in those who claim to act in your name!”

That is, indeed, our responsibility.  How can we do less?

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Risk, Part 1: Trade-Offs and Value Judgements

Part 1 of a 2-part sequence on different aspects of how American society deals with risk:

“…we all intuitively understand, even if we can neither articulate nor rationalize the precise placement of the implied ethical boundaries – or are loath to admit to them – that the trade-offs in risky human activity between the potential for loss of human life and the potential for benefit, economic or otherwise, are not as stark and as obvious as the simple and common mantra –that saving human life is always worth any cost – implies.

To be blunt: there is, indeed, some upper bound on how much cost, either in economic benefit or in liberty, represents a fair trade for a statistical human life.  And we all personally adjudge where that bound lies, implicitly if not explicitly, many times per day, every day, as a matter of routine. We all take risks and impose risks on others because we think we will reap some economic or physical or emotional or social or moral or spiritual reward from doing so…

“There is a legitimate, important, and ongoing debate that we may and should have over where, on the continuum of behavior, the margin lies between prudent risk-taking and reckless disregard. But we must acknowledge that there is a continuum, not a simple border: not all risks are reckless ones and there are costs sufficiently dire, and benefits sufficiently valuable, that they may, indeed, justify the risk of precipitating some generalized and arbitrarily-distributed human suffering in order to forestall or foster them.”

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The Care and Feeding of Watchdogs

This has nothing to do with political or social commentary — it is a technical professional article. Feel free to skip it if you aren’t a software nerd.

This is an early technical article I wrote dealing with how to manage the servicing of Watchdog Timers from within a multi-threaded application. I am posting it because it was originally published on paper, the original publisher is long gone, and, as near as I can tell (i.e. it doesn’t come up in a fairly detailed Google search), it was never digitized and made available online. Hence, for all intents and purposes in this digital age, it never actually existed.

I am publishing it here, in this wholly inappropriate forum, because it’s the only online presence I maintain other than a largely unused Facebook account.

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Executive Agencies Independent of the Executive

Here’s a proposal: If you want agencies that set policy and priority to be independent of the Executive, don’t make them part of the executive branch!

The issue with such agencies is really that their missions are split: they are as much legislative as they are executive.  Congress, in its wisdom (or recklessness) has delegated some large measure of its legislative authority, the authority to create the rules by which we live, to such agencies; but they have also tasked those same agencies with enforcing the rules that they, themselves, concoct.

Does that not violate the spirit, if not the actual text, of the Constitutional separation of powers?

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Reasonable and Unreasonable “Disclosure”

It is no more reasonable to demand that Pete Buttigieg disclose who he did work for at McKinsey and what that work entailed than it would be to demand that a doctor or a therapist running for office disclose his or her list of patients and all their medical and psychological histories, or to demand that a lawyer running for office disclose his or her list of clients and the details of all their legal troubles.

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Making the Case for Impeachment

The leaders of the Democratic Party have spent the last three years creating an appearance of partisanship and an atmosphere of skepticism: by first raising the specter of impeachment (or an invocation of the 25th amendment) to remove Trump from the Presidency immediately after his election, even before he took office and, therefore by definition, literally before it was possible , never mind reasonable or necessary, to impeach him; by encouraging various candidates in the mid-term Congressional elections to campaign on that promise (“If elected, I will vote to impeach Trump”), thus making impeachment appear to be a convenient electoral strategy rather than a serious and ethical act of accountability; and by allowing their rhetoric about his alleged crimes to get so far out ahead of any actual investigations that the rhetoric was very rarely tied in any concrete way to demonstrable facts and seemed to be driving the investigations rather than resulting from them. The message they have communicated is simple: they always planned to impeach him; they were simply looking for a good excuse.

To be clear: Trump is both an appalling human being and an awful President. He deserves to be defeated at the polls in the next election, now less than a year away.  From the latest evidence, he has also abused both the powers and the oath of his office and deserves, in this moment, to be impeached. And the Congressional Republicans have forsworn any claims either to integrity or to principle by making it clear they intend to judge him solely as partisans and enablers, not as defenders of the Constitutional order and of the national interest.

But everything that preceded this moment has primed those who are not self-declared members of the “resistance” to presume that attempts to impeach Trump are not, and have never been, about “accountability” but, rather, are, and have always been, about power — about overturning the result of an election that the Democrats really, really didn’t like. And there is a legitimate question about which is worse: Trump’s tawdry abuse of the authority of the Presidency, by using the levers of foreign policy to help in his next election; or the Democrats’ tawdry abuse of the authority the Congress, by politicizing and cheapening the power of oversight, investigation, and impeachment in order to undo the results of the previous election. If either of those becomes a common part of our political culture then we are, indeed, in trouble.  No matter which way this goes, some set of bad guys gets rewarded for their bad behavior and some damaging precedent gets established for the future conduct of politics and governance.

The question is, what could Democratic leaders do now to overcome that sorry history and to convince the justifiably skeptical that, this time, they are actually and truly acting on honest principle instead of from base partisanship?

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Laws against “Domestic Terrorism Hate Crimes”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo just penned an OpEd for CNN in which he touted a proposal that New York state “pass a national precedent: a Hate Crimes Domestic Terrorism Act.” He went on to explain:

For anyone who launches a mass attack and kills on the basis of race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity, the penalty should be the same as it is for other terrorist crimes: up to life without parole.

One might reasonably ask: what, currently, is the penalty in New York for someone who “launches a mass attack and kills” — on any basis at all, regardless of whether or not or they were motivated by some hatred from Governor Cuomo’s laundry list of special categories? If the answer is not, already, “up to life without parole“, then the problem would seem to be not a lack of laws against “Domestic Terrorism” or “Hate Crimes” but a casual and wholly inadequate attitude toward dealing generally with those who would destroy innocent human lives.

If, on the other hand, the punishment for attacking and killing people is already — as I would fully expect — “up to life without parole“, then what, exactly, does a new “Hate Crimes Domestic Terrorism Act” add, beyond empty rhetoric and craven virtue signaling?

The point is not that “hate crimes” and “terrorism” are not worth condemning: they undoubtedly are. The point is that it is the crimes, themselves, that deserve our revulsion and our censure, not the motivations behind them.

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