Thursday, November 7, 2019

Congressional Pardons

Perhaps Congress should allocate itself the power to both grant pardons and/or to review&veto Presidential pardons.

[Picture of scales]

I see it as a misdesign that the President has an exclusive, unchecked power to pardon, and without a corresponding power held by the people. In a Democracy, an unstated meta-rule is that a consensus of the people through its representatives in Congress, its consensus body, should always dominate decisions by the Executive.

The Executive is just one person, and subject to whim. As I see it, we grant them power not because we think it safer to put all that power in one place, but because we fear Congress might not achieve consensus fast enough or at all in some cases, and we might find ourselves crippled and unable to react fast enough for everything that comes up in the world. However, in any matter of disagreement between Congress and the Executive, if Congress does muster consensus, it seems to me that's generally preferable as a statement of what We The People should want.

A “review and veto” power would be useful as a check just in case there was ever a lawless President promising collaborating criminals a Get Out of Jail Free card. Whether or not one agrees that Congress should always win every contest of wills with the President, it's clear that the unchecked power to pardon fellow criminals must be reconsidered in at least some way.

As for issuing pardons directly, I'd not expect Congress to issue a lot of them itself because each would require a lot of politicians to agree about a single individual, and usually it would not seem worth the risk. But in the case of malicious prosecution by the DOJ, consensus of We The People should ‘trump’ executive power.

It might also have occasional value in other situations. For example, if Congress decides that marijuana possession, use, or even sale should not be criminalized after all, perhaps regretting that it ever was, then along with a change in the law, it could order blanket pardons of those convicted under prior law, rather than waiting for the Executive or the courts to sort that out, and assuring a more uniform application of new social understanding.


Author's Notes:

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The essay which became this post started as a tweet thread by me earlier today.

Our much-touted checks and balances have proven slow and ineffective at fending off attacks on the Constitution and our system of Democracy. We need to find ways to strengthen the power of the people against tyranny. That begins with discussions like these.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Process Due

Seth Abramson wrote in a tweet, “Our descendants won't distinguish between pro- and anti-Trump, they'll just say, ‘What were those idiots thinking?’ “

Folks outside the US no doubt ask it now.

It's a fair question, but maybe the wrong one.

Constitutional government needs clear process as safeguard against idiocy. We just can't rely on intelligence to be there, nor idiocy not to be, in every moment of every day. That's too much to ask.

I don't mean to let us off the hook. We must introspect on how we got here. To assure intelligence is reliably present and available, it must be encoded in our processes, not left as an exercise to the individuals trying to interpret those processes.

Size is Relative

Toward that end, we too seldom question the oft-repeated myth that “minimum government is best government,” fed us by those who want government kept malleable.

Too big government isn't good.
But too small isn't either.

I have lately tended toward the belief that government must grow in proportion to propensity for abuse, not even just in reaction to abuse, but even proactively, anticipating the likely and covering reasonably anticipated cases that follow from trends.

Libertarians grump whenever government grows, but public response needs to be “If you exploited the common good less, we wouldn't have to complicate this so.”

The asymmetry is that we're stuck in an arms race where conservatives want to escalate their hold over society, and they use Jedi mind tricks to make progressives feel bad about responding.

If they want government to stay small, they should “play nice.”

Our Constitution needs repair, more process & process detail, if we're not to leave procedural action to the chance of idiocy or partisanship.

We need such additional detail to assure a nervous public in times of stress that processes being applied were not developed in the moment to serve Machiavellian ends, but are our normal way of attending to all problems, no matter who creates them and no matter who administers them.

Who Could Have Known?

“What were we thinking?” you ask, you who look on from afar, from across the ocean or from the far future.

Well, “what are you thinking?” Your are us on other days. Don't assume your greater intelligence will carry the day. Ask instead, “does process protect me?” Because unless your answer is a very certain yes, you should be as panicked as we are now, and you should be readying for your time to face this same event.

We look back at you and feebly shrug, “Who could have known?” It's a lame excuse, but somewhat true. This problem is new to us. Some saw it in advance, but many didn't. And so, collectively, because we act as a collective entity, we did not see this. And now, mired in it, we lack clear and strong process to get us quickly or reliably out.

But for you looking on, you all see it. Do not make the error of thinking this a uniquely US problem, of thinking yourselves immune. Don't expect “Who could have known?” to defend your honor when your time comes. Act now to buttress your respective constitutions for what's surely to come for you as well.

Trump-wannabes the world over are taking notes.

The Death of Shame

What gives Trump his power isn't just utter GOP corruption and Dem lack of spine.

It's that there are "norms of behavior" we have asked but not required by codifying them in Constitution or law.

We must fix that. The Constitution needs to grow.

The question isn't whether additional rules are needed, only whether we'll have the spine to insist on such necessary change, lest we endure a recurrence for having failed to.

We've relied on social mechanisms like decorum and shame in lieu of rules. But Trump is shameless. His political power comes of seeing decorum isn't a compulsion for him to conform. He sees an ignorable nicety, and his goal is never to be nice. He sees nicety as weakness.

If we get out of this, still an open question, we must add more rules.

Conservatives will cry "bloat". But too bad. Blame yourselves, GOP. You've earned every bit of clarifying legal text that comes in response.

Some Examples

We need process that does not reduce us to arguing whether major felonies are reason for impeachment. We might not enumerate a full list of reasons to impeach, but we should enumerate some, just so we don't waste months debating at least those.

The Constitution intends discretion about allowing more than just felonies, but that discretion should extend in the other direction, allowing discretion about ignoring felonies. It should say flat out that if there are felonies afoot, or there is even just strong reason to suspect it, impeachment must begin. It should say that if impeachment succeeds in the House, the Senate must engage it in the Senate under rules that are fair to both parties to offer substantive discussion without it being procedurally buried.

Even the question of burden of proof needs to be better spelled out. If a President is seen to act in a way that is adverse to US interests, but we can't prove intent, that might be sufficient to avoid a criminal conviction, but do we want such a person in office? We have to either have the clear right to try a sitting President or an easy path to removing the President so they can stand trial. We should not be forced to endure a criminal President simply for lack of some technical detail. Presidency isn't a right, it is a privilege and a responsibility.

Benefit of any doubt in the reliability and good will of our President needs to be given to We The People, not a dubious President.

Going Forward

I speak as if we might get out of this. That's overly optimistic. We won't.

Maybe—hopefully—Trump will be impeached. But even so, he's shown where Democracy is weak, opening a Pandora's box unlikely to be closed.

Such attacks will recur, and not just in the US. We won't get out of that. We can only prepare. Please let's do that.


Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

This article began as a tweet thread of my own in response to Abramson's tweet quoted above. I've done some editing, rearranging, and expanding here.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Gratitude and Life's Poetry

Once born, people push on the world and it pushes back. We are not born expecting a specific number of arms or fingers. If born with an extra, we use it and see what it does. We touch, feel, smile, recoil. But it's a dialog of sorts with the world. What we are and become is a product of this give and take that predates speech, which itself is also arranged in dialog of speaking and hearing, and tying meaning to how our interactions proceed.

Gratitude is part of a more abstract dialog that follows once we have the mechanics down. People, and later society or its pieces, do things for us, and we do things in return. Sometimes the thing we do in return is an act, sometimes a promise, sometimes an acknowledgment of gratitude. But gratitude seems one of the words in the abstract vocabulary of social participation. We encourage it because it helps us learn and sustain our place in society. When there is no specific act to return, its use preserves the meter of the verse that ebb and flow that is polite society's ever-being-written poem. Omitted, the rhythm is off.

An Odd Example

I sometimes ponder the peculiar ritual where I am going through a door and I see you behind me. You're too far back to take it, yet I hold the door. You must run to grab it. It's a pain for me to hold it, and a hassle for you to run ahead. It serves no one in an obvious way, yet we all do it with some regularity, and mostly we all tolerate it as if it were a favor. Why should that be?

Maybe empathy for having lived the reverse.

But also I think it's because the ritual of it in a society of strangers reinforces to someone you don't know that you are not alone in chaos, but among friendly people who agree on--if nothing else--some social conventions. You knew nothing of me, I nothing of you, yet now you know that I'm no beast but someone who would, if called upon, behave by shared rules of social behavior. And I know of you and your gratitude for this pointless act that you likewise subscribe to these unwritten rules, that you will go out of your way for strangers. So we part friends, a little less alone in the chaos of the day. It seems like nothing exchanged, but really the payload is subtle and abstract, that people and society matter, that we acknowledge each other's dignity.


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The power is out today at my house after a big storm last night. That leaves me little to do, but I am taking an online class at FutureLearn entitled What Is Character? Virtue Ethics in Education, and this essay is something I wrote in response to a discussion about the nature and purpose of Gratitude. I was happy with what I wrote and thought it worth sharing here. I would also recommend the course to anyone interested in ethics, and especially ethics in education. As I write this postscript, here in the dim light of the aforementioned power outage, the course has just started a couple days ago, so you could quickly catch up.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Impeachment Poetry

A tweet written in limerick led me to respond in kind:

After laws broken daily for years,
“Shocked, Shocked” are a Speaker and peers.
  Now they’ll risk reelection,
  raising one thin objection.
“Too little, too late” are my fears.

Limerick is not my preferred format. I usually prefer haiku, or (as here) senryu. There's something calmer and more elegant about it. So I also tweeted a senryu, perhaps as apology for the limerick above:

Crimes mount by the day.
  Biden chides, “soon, it's too much.”
What was it before?


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Sunday, September 22, 2019

Losing Ground in the Environment

[Electrical Ground symbol]

“a ‘ground’ is usually idealized as an infinite source or sink for charge, which can absorb an unlimited amount of current without changing its potential”
 — Wikipedia
   Ground (electricity)

There is a notion in electronic circuits of something called a “ground.” It takes its names from the ground we walk on, and the idea is basically that the ground, really the Earth itself, is so incredibly big that it contains an infinite number of electrons, the “stuff” of electricity. So if we ever need a source to draw electrons from, we can get them from the ground. If we ever need to get rid of some electrons, we can just pump them back into the ground.

It's for this reason that we have a “ground” pin in our electrical outlets, in hopes that rogue flows of electricity will make a beeline for the ground rather than flowing through our bodies. Plenty of room for more electrons in the ground.

What We Hold to Account

Another way of thinking about “ground” is to say it's something we don't have to account for.

Consider, for example, a tool for keeping track of your finances. Such programs keep track of several kinds of entities, but among them are typically things usually called something like an “income source” and an “expense category.”

An income source is as a place from which income arrives. When you say your employer is the source of your income, that's really all you need to know. It's not really consequential where the employer got the money. If you had to track such things, there would be no end to it. They might have gotten it from someone else. But where did they get it? It goes on and on.

Expenses are the same way. You pick an expense category like food and you tell the program you spent $20 on food. It doesn't really care what the food place did with the money. As far as it's concerned, you can spend as much as you want and that's the end of it. All gone into who-knows-where.

The point of an income source in an accounting program is to be an infinite source of money, a ground. The point of an expense category is to be an infinite sink of money, something to pour money down, again a ground.

We think of these as ways of accounting for stuff, but really they are ways of not accounting for things. Out of sight, out of mind. That's what grounds are for. They are a way of notating the idea that beyond this point, we just don't care.

“Europe was hitting up against nature's limits. They'd overfished their rivers, felled their great forests, and hunted their big game. When European conquerors stumbled upon the so-called New World, they thought they'd hit the jackpot. They saw in the Americas a kind of supersized Europe that would never run out of fish, trees, gold, fur, or any of that bounty. … The official story of our countries is a story of endless nature, wilderness to be devoured without limits.”

Naomi Klein  

Infinite Self-Deception

Naomi Klein's excellent and insightful video “What's In a (Trump) Straw?” makes the important observation that people have been used to thinking about the world as infinite, when really it is not. In this case, it's not electrons we're talking about, however.

In her conceptualization, there is a kind of rough analog of income sources—the bounties we draw from the earth: fish and game, trees, and so on. And there is also an analog of expense categories—the various kinds of pollution we give Mother Earth in return: sewage, plastics, and air pollution of various kinds.

Stuff we never previously had to account for, because we had a belief that the world was so infinitely large that it would supply us with as much as we needed of whatever we wanted. And we deceived ourselves into believing it would gracefully accept in return as much crap, both literally and figuratively, as we wanted to throw back at it in return.

Shocking, But True

The Earth is still big enough that we haven't used up its capacity to act as an electrical ground.

But it is not big enough that we can pretend there are infinite trees to cut down, infinite fish to catch, or that there is infinite capacity to spill oil into the oceans or pump smoke from fossil fuels into the air.

[Electrical Ground symbol]

As population has grown, we've reached our limits. We should have been paying better attention.

But at this point, the pleasant fiction offered by the “ground” metaphor, that there's some point in the world beyond which we don't have to account for these things, that things can be thought to go into or come from the ground as if by magic, is long past. Nature is holding us to account.

We must start caring about population growth and resource use. We should have been doing that all along. It's going to be a big change. It's not something we're used to doing. But there is no alternative.

We keep making more people, but we aren't making more planet and we're using up the one we have. That's a bad recipe. If we're going to survive, we need to get these things into balance.


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If you're looking for further reading, I highly recommend Naomi Klein's new book, On Fire.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Degrees of Climate Catastrophe

What's the most civilization-destroying error in climate communication? I guess this is something that people might disagree on, but to me it has a very definitive answer: It's talking about climate change severity in terms of degrees Celsius (°C).

Scale

To begin with, it seems like using Celsius rather than Fahrenheit has to make it easier for folks here in the US to lowball or ignore those numbers. We're used to bigger numbers. For example, 3°C sounds small, since we're used to hearing it referred to as 5.4°F. The use of small numbers surely causes some people in the US to dismiss worries over temperature change even faster than they already seem predisposed to do.

Thinking Linearly

Another problem is that use of degrees is a linear measure, but °C as a measurement of badness is confusing because the badness doesn't grow linearly. In other words, if a rise of 1°C has some amount of badness B, it is not the case that a rise of 2°C is twice as bad, and 3°C is three times as bad. The rate that things get bad is worse than that. Some sort of upwards curve is in play, perhaps even exponential growth like Michael Mann's hockey stick. If small integers are proxying for exponential degrees of devastation to society, that's another reason °C is a bad measure. Well-chosen terminology will automatically imply appropriate urgency.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative

And, finally, measuring Climate Change severity in degrees seems to me an open invitation for people to confuse weather with global average temperature. I'm just sure it must affect their sense of urgency. After all, daily weather varies hugely with no global consequence. Small numbers of degrees sound like something that should influence whether you pick out a sweater to wear for the day, not whether human civilization is at risk of coming to an end.

If instead of using small-sounding, homogeneous, quantitative labels like 1°C, 2°C, etc. we used more descriptive, heterogeneous, qualitative labels like

  • home-destroying
  • community-destroying
  • nation-destroying
  • civilization-destroying
  • ecosystem-destroying

we might better understand conversations warning of climate danger. I'm not wedded to these particular words, but they illustrate what I mean by “qualitative” rather than “quantitative” measures. I'd just like the scientists to move away from dinky little numbers that sound like harmless fluctuations on a window thermometer.

To me, small numbers are too abstract and clinical. I think we need words like this that evoke a more visceral sense of what the world looks like if temperature is allowed to rise. Rather than talk about “5°C rise,” I would rather people talk about “climate that threatens civilization itself,” because then we'll have an ever present and highly visible understanding of the stakes.


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By the way, an early version of this idea was something I tweeted about in May, 2019.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Democratizing Climate Discussion

The Importance of Keeping Pace

In the early days of the web, it was not obvious that sites like AltaVista (the original full text search site, predating Google and others) would win the “web search” wars. It seemed to me that keyword-driven, manually curated sites—like Yahoo started out to be, if I recall correctly—did a more recognizable thing, classifying and filing everything in the world into neat little categories where you could go and look things up more like the paper encyclopedias I grew up with.

Full text search, by contrast, seemed messy and really like such a terrible solution. How could anyone possibly rely on the actual text of something in a durable way? And yet, what we found was that it was just too expensive to add keyword metadata to content at the pace it was arriving on the web. Orderly, manual curation of knowledge couldn't keep up. The web was destined to be messy, and the tools that would survive had to embrace that messiness.

Passing the Baton

There's an important lesson here for those involved in the science and politics of Climate Change, I think.

Bill Nye's recent video about a world on fire, using colorful language to wake people up, has ignited a burst of public conversation about Climate.

But in addition to the simple shock of seeing Nye use foul language, there's another and more important issue in play here: Fixing climate is a relay race. There is much to be done and scientists are not sufficient in number or skill to get us across the finish line. The baton needs to pass from the scientists to regular people.

Until now, we have been relying for a long time on scientists to lead the climate conversation. Science is and will continue to be an important aspect of the conversation, but it must move beyond that. Regular people, people without credentials, need to feel free to speak. We all need to own this discussion, to personalize it, to take responsibility for it. We can't expect it to be done by others.

Unchaperoned Climate Debate

The language of science is careful, precise peer-reviewed, cautious. The language of regular people is not. Until this point, we've allowed “others” to talk about climate, but often only with a scientist looking over their shoulder like nervous parents watching a child learn to use a sharp knife. The slightest misstatement might be quickly corrected, but it's a too-slow process to roll out at scale.

And, in fairness, there has been a lot of misinformation out there, so the corrections have been helpful in many ways. There are people who are strongly motivated by short-term profits to introduce misstatements and to see them replicated as memes. So one can easily understand the desire of scientists to watch over the conversation and insist it adhere to standards. They say it's not paranoia when the enemy is real.

But people are finally starting to get it, and as they do, the discussions move faster—much faster than scientists can keep up with. So tactics and norms have to shift to respond. We need people talking all the time everywhere. Addressing climate change is a big problem, and it needs to be at the core of pretty much everything society does. And we don't have enough scientists to chaperone all those conversations.

The language of regular people is coarse, poetic, abbreviated, blurry, emotional, imprecise, and most important unchecked. I often find myself telling people that the Climate problem is about physics, and that physics doesn't negotiate. Here is where I have to push back on the scientists: the Climate discussion problem is about human socialization, about how we build consensus, about how we express our goals and fears, about how we manage trust. These are things that scientists can't negotiate away. In order for public dialog to proceed, scientists need to prepare themselves for sloppy conversations, conversations that frankly will not make them happy at the detail level.

Climate scientists will need to loosen their grip.

A Coping Mechanism for Nervous Climate Parents

A thing that bothers me about Climate messaging—makes me terrified actually—is that climate badness is expressed in degrees of global average temperature. This leads to big confusion because within the course of a single day, weather and local temperature varies a lot. Temperatures at any given location might fluctuate ten or twenty degrees in a day and we wouldn't think that anomalous. Sometimes that's just the difference between day and night, sometimes the effect of a storm or a new front moving in. But if the global average temperature went up by ten or twenty degrees, we'd be cooked. We expect regular folks to get that, but I'm not sure they always do.

Temperature is not distributed evenly, so even though the temperature might be spiked high in one place, it might be quite low in another (or vice versa). It only matters that it averages out. Scientists shrug off local anomalies because they understand that the global average is quite different than any one point location. Let me suggest that there is an important metaphorical lesson for scientists there about how to manage conversation.

Just as daily temperature fluctuations outside your house don't tell you much about climate, so too the daily misstatements by individuals also don't matter either, as long as the overall message trends are right. Some will get the data right, some wrong. Some will exaggerate to make things seem worse, some to make it seem better. People will understand and communicate the problem in different ways, but we have to let them do that. That's part of integrating the message into society. It can't be done some other way.

If the public at large, on average, is panicking that we're going to die tomorrow, or in the other direction if the public is lulled into thinking there's not a problem, it's definitely worth scientists stepping in to speak to that general trend in an organized way. But if a given scientist on a given day observes someone who they feel hasn't got the message quite right, they need to be prepared to hold back. Regular people need to feel they have the right to speak freely without being slapped down for it. Also, an exaggeration in some places may add balance to another person being too unconcerned.

Think about the ways we talk about health or war or other big issues. The conversation is not at every point precise, but it isn't always the wrong way to gain consensus.

At this point, I think, it's better to just let people run with it for a while and see what the trend is than to get involved in the microscopic detail of every single conversation, hoping against hope that scientists can, by force of will, make everyone be precise. That isn't the path to the solution.

Climate scientists need to let go, so they can get their sleep and focus on their research and be ready to answer questions. I don't think they have to worry we'll suddenly have no need of them. Their role just needs to change. They are still are trusted advisors, but they cannot be our nannies. We need both permission and pressure to grow up, to take this on ourselves.

Author's Notes:

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xkcd comic “duty calls” by Randall Munroe used with gratitude under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.5) license.