The inherent atrocity of “border security”

Jun 24 JDN 2458294

By now you are probably aware of the fact that a new “zero tolerance” border security policy under the Trump administration has resulted in 2,000 children being forcibly separated from their parents by US government agents. If you weren’t, here are a variety of different sources all telling the same basic story of large-scale state violence and terror.

Make no mistake: This is an atrocity. The United Nations has explicitly condemned this human rights violation—to which Trump responded by making an unprecedented threat of withdrawing unilaterally from the UN Human Rights Council.

#ThisIsNotNormal, and Trump was everything we feared—everything we warned—he would be: Corrupt, incompetent, cruel, and authoritarian.

Yet Trump’s border policy differs mainly in degree, not kind, from existing US border policy. There is much more continuity here than most of us would like to admit.

The Trump administration has dramatically increased “interior removals”, the most obviously cruel acts, where ICE agents break into the houses of people living in the US and take them away. Don’t let the cold language fool you; this is literally people with guns breaking into your home and kidnapping members of your family. This is characteristic of totalitarian governments, not liberal democracies.

And yet, the Obama administration actually holds the record for most deportations (though only because they included “at-border deportations” which other administrations did not). A major policy change by George W. Bush started this whole process of detaining people at the border instead of releasing them and requiring them to return for later court dates.

I could keep going back; US border enforcement has gotten more and more aggressive as time goes on. US border security staffing has quintupled since just 1990. There was a time when the United States was a land of opportunity that welcomed “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”; but that time is long past.

And this, in itself, is a human rights violation. Indeed, I am convinced that border security itself is inherently a human rights violation, always and everywhere; future generations will not praise us for being more restrained than Trump’s abject and intentional cruelty, but condemn us for acting under the same basic moral framework that justified it.

There is an imaginary line in the sand just a hundred miles south of where I sit now. On one side of the line, a typical family makes $66,000 per year. On the other side, a typical family makes only $20,000. On one side of the line, life expectancy is 81 years; on the other, 77. This means that over their lifetime, someone on this side of the line can expect to make over one million dollars more than they would if they had lived on the other side. Step across this line, get a million dollars; it sounds ridiculous, but it’s an empirical fact.

This would be bizarre enough by itself; but now consider that on that line there are fences, guard towers, and soldiers who will keep you from crossing it. If you have appropriate papers, you can cross; but if you don’t, they will arrest and detain you, potentially for months. This is not how we treat you if you are carrying contraband or have a criminal record. This is how we treat you if you don’t have a passport.

How can we possibly reconcile this with the principles of liberal democracy? Philosophers have tried, to be sure. Yet they invariably rely upon some notion that the people who want to cross our border are coming from another country where they were already granted basic human rights and democratic representation—which is almost never the case. People who come here from the UK or the Netherlands or generally have the proper visas. Even people who come here from China usually have visas—though China is by no means a liberal democracy. It’s people who come here from Haiti and Nicaragua who don’t—and these are some of the most corrupt and impoverished nations in the world.

As I said in an earlier post, I was not offended that Trump characterized countries like Haiti and Syria as “shitholes”. By any objective standard, that is accurate; these countries are terrible, terrible places to live. No, what offends me is that he thinks this gives us a right to turn these people away, as though the horrible conditions of their country somehow “rub off” on them and make them less worthy as human beings. On the contrary, we have a word for people who come from “shithole” countries seeking help, and that word is “refugee”.

Under international law, “refugee” has a very specific legal meaning, under which most immigrants do not qualify. But in a broader moral sense, almost every immigrant is a refugee. People don’t uproot themselves and travel thousands of miles on a whim. They are coming here because conditions in their home country are so bad that they simply cannot tolerate them anymore, and they come to us desperately seeking our help. They aren’t asking for handouts of free money—illegal immigrants are a net gain for our fiscal system, paying more in taxes than they receive in benefits. They are looking for jobs, and willing to accept much lower wages than the workers already here—because those wages are still dramatically higher than what they had where they came from.

Of course, that does potentially mean they are competing with local low-wage workers, doesn’t it? Yes—but not as much as you might think. There is only a very weak relationship between higher immigration and lower wages (some studies find none at all!), even at the largest plausible estimates, the gain in welfare for the immigrants is dramatically higher than the loss in welfare for the low-wage workers who are already here. It’s not even a question of valuing them equally; as long as you value an immigrant at least one tenth as much as a native-born citizen, the equation comes out favoring more immigration.

This is for two reasons: One, most native-born workers already are unwilling to do the jobs that most immigrants do, such as picking fruit and laying masonry; and two, increased spending by immigrants boosts the local economy enough to compensate for any job losses.


But even aside from the economic impacts, what is the moral case for border security?

I have heard many people argue that “It’s our home, we should be able to decide who lives here.” First of all, there are some major differences between letting someone live in your home and letting someone come into your country. I’m not saying we should allow immigrants to force themselves into people’s homes, only that we shouldn’t arrest them when they try cross the border.

But even if I were to accept the analogy, if someone were fleeing oppression by an authoritarian government and asked to live in my home, I would let them. I would help hide them from the government if they were trying to escape persecution. I would even be willing to house people simply trying to escape poverty, as long as it were part of a well-organized program designed to ensure that everyone actually gets helped and the burden on homeowners and renters was not too great. I wouldn’t simply let homeless people come live here, because that creates all sorts of coordination problems (I can only fit so many, and how do I prioritize which ones?); but I’d absolutely participate in a program that coordinates placement of homeless families in apartments provided by volunteers. (In fact, maybe I should try to petition for such a program, as Southern California has a huge homelessness rate due to our ridiculous housing prices.)

Many people seem to fear that immigrants will bring crime, but actually they reduce crime rates. It’s really kind of astonishing how much less crime immigrants commit than locals. My hypothesis is that immigrants are a self-selected sample; the kind of person willing to move thousands of miles isn’t the kind of person who commits a lot of crimes.
I understand wanting to keep out terrorists and drug smugglers, but there are already plenty of terrorists and drug smugglers here in the US; if we are unwilling to set up border security between California and Nevada, I don’t see why we should be setting it up between California and Baja California. But okay, fine, we can keep the customs agents who inspect your belongings when you cross the border. If someone doesn’t have proper documentation, we can even detain and interrogate them—for a few hours, not a few months. The goal should be to detect dangerous criminals and nothing else. Once we are confident that you have not committed any felonies, we should let you through—frankly, we should give you a green card. We should only be willing to detain someone at the border for the same reasons we would be willing to detain a citizen who already lives here—that is, probable cause for an actual crime. (And no, you don’t get to count “illegal border crossing” as a crime, because that’s begging the question. By the same logic I could justify detaining people for jaywalking.)

A lot of people argue that restricting immigration is necessary to “preserve local culture”; but I’m not even sure that this is a goal sufficiently important to justify arresting and detaining people, and in any case, that’s really not how culture works. Culture is not advanced by purism and stagnation, but by openness and cross-pollination. From anime to pizza, many of our most valued cultural traditions would not exist without interaction across cultural boundaries. Introducing more Spanish speakers into the US may make us start saying no problemo and vamonos, but it’s not going to destroy liberal democracy. If you value culture, you should value interactions across different societies.

Most importantly, think about what you are trying to justify. Even if we stop doing Trump’s most extreme acts of cruelty, we are still talking about using military force to stop people from crossing an imaginary line. ICE basically treats people the same way the SS did. “Papers, please” isn’t something we associate with free societies—it’s characteristic of totalitarianism. We are so accustomed to border security (or so ignorant of its details) that we don’t see it for the atrocity it so obviously is.

National borders function something very much like feudal privilege. We have our “birthright”, which grants us all sorts of benefits and special privileges—literally tripling our incomes and extending our lives. We did nothing to earn this privilege. If anything, we show ourselves to be less deserving (e.g. by committing more crimes). And we use the government to defend our privilege by force.

Are people born on the other side of the line less human? Are they less morally worthy? On what grounds do we point guns at them and lock them away for the “crime” of wanting to live here?

What Trump is doing right now is horrific. But it is not that much more horrific than what we were already doing. My hope is that this will finally open our eyes to the horrors that we had been participating in all along.

Bigotry is more powerful than the market

Nov 20, JDN 2457683

If there’s one message we can take from the election of Donald Trump, it is that bigotry remains a powerful force in our society. A lot of autoflagellating liberals have been trying to explain how this election result really reflects our failure to help people displaced by technology and globalization (despite the fact that personal income and local unemployment had negligible correlation with voting for Trump), or Hillary Clinton’s “bad campaign” that nonetheless managed the same proportion of Democrat turnout that re-elected her husband in 1996.

No, overwhelmingly, the strongest predictor of voting for Trump was being White, and living in an area where most people are White. (Well, actually, that’s if you exclude authoritarianism as an explanatory variable—but really I think that’s part of what we’re trying to explain.) Trump voters were actually concentrated in areas less affected by immigration and globalization. Indeed, there is evidence that these people aren’t racist because they have anxiety about the economy—they are anxious about the economy because they are racist. How does that work? Obama. They can’t believe that the economy is doing well when a Black man is in charge. So all the statistics and even personal experiences mean nothing to them. They know in their hearts that unemployment is rising, even as the BLS data clearly shows it’s falling.

The wide prevalence and enormous power of bigotry should be obvious. But economists rarely talk about it, and I think I know why: Their models say it shouldn’t exist. The free market is supposed to automatically eliminate all forms of bigotry, because they are inefficient.

The argument for why this is supposed to happen actually makes a great deal of sense: If a company has the choice of hiring a White man or a Black woman to do the same job, but they know that the market wage for Black women is lower than the market wage for White men (which it most certainly is), and they will do the same quality and quantity of work, why wouldn’t they hire the Black woman? And indeed, if human beings were rational profit-maximizers, this is probably how they would think.

More recently some neoclassical models have been developed to try to “explain” this behavior, but always without daring to give up the precious assumption of perfect rationality. So instead we get the two leading neoclassical theories of discrimination, which are statistical discrimination and taste-based discrimination.

Statistical discrimination is the idea that under asymmetric information (and we surely have that), features such as race and gender can act as signals of quality because they are correlated with actual quality for various reasons (usually left unspecified), so it is not irrational after all to choose based upon them, since they’re the best you have.

Taste-based discrimination is the idea that people are rationally maximizing preferences that simply aren’t oriented toward maximizing profit or well-being. Instead, they have this extra term in their utility function that says they should also treat White men better than women or Black people. It’s just this extra thing they have.

A small number of studies have been done trying to discern which of these is at work.
The correct answer, of course, is neither.

Statistical discrimination, at least, could be part of what’s going on. Knowing that Black people are less likely to be highly educated than Asians (as they definitely are) might actually be useful information in some circumstances… then again, you list your degree on your resume, don’t you? Knowing that women are more likely to drop out of the workforce after having a child could rationally (if coldly) affect your assessment of future productivity. But shouldn’t the fact that women CEOs outperform men CEOs be incentivizing shareholders to elect women CEOs? Yet that doesn’t seem to happen. Also, in general, people seem to be pretty bad at statistics.

The bigger problem with statistical discrimination as a theory is that it’s really only part of a theory. It explains why not all of the discrimination has to be irrational, but some of it still does. You need to explain why there are these huge disparities between groups in the first place, and statistical discrimination is unable to do that. In order for the statistics to differ this much, you need a past history of discrimination that wasn’t purely statistical.

Taste-based discrimination, on the other hand, is not a theory at all. It’s special pleading. Rather than admit that people are failing to rationally maximize their utility, we just redefine their utility so that whatever they happen to be doing now “maximizes” it.

This is really what makes the Axiom of Revealed Preference so insidious; if you really take it seriously, it says that whatever you do, must by definition be what you preferred. You can’t possibly be irrational, you can’t possibly be making mistakes of judgment, because by definition whatever you did must be what you wanted. Maybe you enjoy bashing your head into a wall, who am I to judge?

I mean, on some level taste-based discrimination is what’s happening; people think that the world is a better place if they put women and Black people in their place. So in that sense, they are trying to “maximize” some “utility function”. (By the way, most human beings behave in ways that are provably inconsistent with maximizing any well-defined utility function—the Allais Paradox is a classic example.) But the whole framework of calling it “taste-based” is a way of running away from the real explanation. If it’s just “taste”, well, it’s an unexplainable brute fact of the universe, and we just need to accept it. If people are happier being racist, what can you do, eh?

So I think it’s high time to start calling it what it is. This is not a question of taste. This is a question of tribal instinct. This is the product of millions of years of evolution optimizing the human brain to act in the perceived interest of whatever it defines as its “tribe”. It could be yourself, your family, your village, your town, your religion, your nation, your race, your gender, or even the whole of humanity or beyond into all sentient beings. But whatever it is, the fundamental tribe is the one thing you care most about. It is what you would sacrifice anything else for.

And what we learned on November 9 this year is that an awful lot of Americans define their tribe in very narrow terms. Nationalistic and xenophobic at best, racist and misogynistic at worst.

But I suppose this really isn’t so surprising, if you look at the history of our nation and the world. Segregation was not outlawed in US schools until 1955, and there are women who voted in this election who were born before American women got the right to vote in 1920. The nationalistic backlash against sending jobs to China (which was one of the chief ways that we reduced global poverty to its lowest level ever, by the way) really shouldn’t seem so strange when we remember that over 100,000 Japanese-Americans were literally forcibly relocated into camps as recently as 1942. The fact that so many White Americans seem all right with the biases against Black people in our justice system may not seem so strange when we recall that systemic lynching of Black people in the US didn’t end until the 1960s.

The wonder, in fact, is that we have made as much progress as we have. Tribal instinct is not a strange aberration of human behavior; it is our evolutionary default setting.

Indeed, perhaps it is unreasonable of me to ask humanity to change its ways so fast! We had millions of years to learn how to live the wrong way, and I’m giving you only a few centuries to learn the right way?

The problem, of course, is that the pace of technological change leaves us with no choice. It might be better if we could wait a thousand years for people to gradually adjust to globalization and become cosmopolitan; but climate change won’t wait a hundred, and nuclear weapons won’t wait at all. We are thrust into a world that is changing very fast indeed, and I understand that it is hard to keep up; but there is no way to turn back that tide of change.

Yet “turn back the tide” does seem to be part of the core message of the Trump voter, once you get past the racial slurs and sexist slogans. People are afraid of what the world is becoming. They feel that it is leaving them behind. Coal miners fret that we are leaving them behind by cutting coal consumption. Factory workers fear that we are leaving them behind by moving the factory to China or inventing robots to do the work in half the time for half the price.

And truth be told, they are not wrong about this. We are leaving them behind. Because we have to. Because coal is polluting our air and destroying our climate, we must stop using it. Moving the factories to China has raised them out of the most dire poverty, and given us a fighting chance toward ending world hunger. Inventing the robots is only the next logical step in the process that has carried humanity forward from the squalor and suffering of primitive life to the security and prosperity of modern society—and it is a step we must take, for the progress of civilization is not yet complete.

They wouldn’t have to let themselves be left behind, if they were willing to accept our help and learn to adapt. That carbon tax that closes your coal mine could also pay for your basic income and your job-matching program. The increased efficiency from the automated factories could provide an abundance of wealth that we could redistribute and share with you.

But this would require them to rethink their view of the world. They would have to accept that climate change is a real threat, and not a hoax created by… uh… never was clear on that point actually… the Chinese maybe? But 45% of Trump supporters don’t believe in climate change (and that’s actually not as bad as I’d have thought). They would have to accept that what they call “socialism” (which really is more precisely described as social democracy, or tax-and-transfer redistribution of wealth) is actually something they themselves need, and will need even more in the future. But despite rising inequality, redistribution of wealth remains fairly unpopular in the US, especially among Republicans.

Above all, it would require them to redefine their tribe, and start listening to—and valuing the lives of—people that they currently do not.

Perhaps we need to redefine our tribe as well; many liberals have argued that we mistakenly—and dangerously—did not include people like Trump voters in our tribe. But to be honest, that rings a little hollow to me: We aren’t the ones threatening to deport people or ban them from entering our borders. We aren’t the ones who want to build a wall (though some have in fact joked about building a wall to separate the West Coast from the rest of the country, I don’t think many people really want to do that). Perhaps we live in a bubble of liberal media? But I make a point of reading outlets like The American Conservative and The National Review for other perspectives (I usually disagree, but I do at least read them); how many Trump voters do you think have ever read the New York Times, let alone Huffington Post? Cosmopolitans almost by definition have the more inclusive tribe, the more open perspective on the world (in fact, do I even need the “almost”?).

Nor do I think we are actually ignoring their interests. We want to help them. We offer to help them. In fact, I want to give these people free money—that’s what a basic income would do, it would take money from people like me and give it to people like them—and they won’t let us, because that’s “socialism”! Rather, we are simply refusing to accept their offered solutions, because those so-called “solutions” are beyond unworkable; they are absurd, immoral and insane. We can’t bring back the coal mining jobs, unless we want Florida underwater in 50 years. We can’t reinstate the trade tariffs, unless we want millions of people in China to starve. We can’t tear down all the robots and force factories to use manual labor, unless we want to trigger a national—and then global—economic collapse. We can’t do it their way. So we’re trying to offer them another way, a better way, and they’re refusing to take it. So who here is ignoring the concerns of whom?

Of course, the fact that it’s really their fault doesn’t solve the problem. We do need to take it upon ourselves to do whatever we can, because, regardless of whose fault it is, the world will still suffer if we fail. And that presents us with our most difficult task of all, a task that I fully expect to spend a career trying to do and yet still probably failing: We must understand the human tribal instinct well enough that we can finally begin to change it. We must know enough about how human beings form their mental tribes that we can actually begin to shift those parameters. We must, in other words, cure bigotry—and we must do it now, for we are running out of time.

Why it matters that torture is ineffective

JDN 2457531

Like “longest-ever-serving Speaker of the House sexually abuses teenagers” and “NSA spy program is trying to monitor the entire telephone and email system”, the news that the US government systematically tortures suspects is an egregious violation that goes to the highest levels of our government—that for some reason most Americans don’t particularly seem to care about.

The good news is that President Obama signed an executive order in 2009 banning torture domestically, reversing official policy under the Bush Administration, and then better yet in 2014 expanded the order to apply to all US interests worldwide. If this is properly enforced, perhaps our history of hypocrisy will finally be at its end. (Well, not if Trump wins…)

Yet as often seems to happen, there are two extremes in this debate and I think they’re both wrong.
The really disturbing side is “Torture works and we have to use it!” The preferred mode of argumentation for this is the “ticking time bomb scenario”, in which we have some urgent disaster to prevent (such as a nuclear bomb about to go off) and torture is the only way to stop it from happening. Surely then torture is justified? This argument may sound plausible, but as I’ll get to below, this is a lot like saying, “If aliens were attacking from outer space trying to wipe out humanity, nuclear bombs would probably be justified against them; therefore nuclear bombs are always justified and we can use them whenever we want.” If you can’t wait for my explanation, The Atlantic skewers the argument nicely.

Yet the opponents of torture have brought this sort of argument on themselves, by staking out a position so extreme as “It doesn’t matter if torture works! It’s wrong, wrong, wrong!” This kind of simplistic deontological reasoning is very appealing and intuitive to humans, because it casts the world into simple black-and-white categories. To show that this is not a strawman, here are several different people all making this same basic argument, that since torture is illegal and wrong it doesn’t matter if it works and there should be no further debate.

But the truth is, if it really were true that the only way to stop a nuclear bomb from leveling Los Angeles was to torture someone, it would be entirely justified—indeed obligatory—to torture that suspect and stop that nuclear bomb.

The problem with that argument is not just that this is not our usual scenario (though it certainly isn’t); it goes much deeper than that:

That scenario makes no sense. It wouldn’t happen.

To use the example the late Antonin Scalia used from an episode of 24 (perhaps the most egregious Fictional Evidence Fallacy ever committed), if there ever is a nuclear bomb planted in Los Angeles, that would literally be one of the worst things that ever happened in the history of the human race—literally a Holocaust in the blink of an eye. We should be prepared to cause extreme suffering and death in order to prevent it. But not only is that event (fortunately) very unlikely, torture would not help us.

Why? Because torture just doesn’t work that well.

It would be too strong to say that it doesn’t work at all; it’s possible that it could produce some valuable intelligence—though clear examples of such results are amazingly hard to come by. There are some social scientists who have found empirical results showing some effectiveness of torture, however. We can’t say with any certainty that it is completely useless. (For obvious reasons, a randomized controlled experiment in torture is wildly unethical, so none have ever been attempted.) But to justify torture it isn’t enough that it could work sometimes; it has to work vastly better than any other method we have.

And our empirical data is in fact reliable enough to show that that is not the case. Torture often produces unreliable information, as we would expect from the game theory involved—your incentive is to stop the pain, not provide accurate intel; the psychological trauma that torture causes actually distorts memory and reasoning; and as a matter of fact basically all the useful intelligence obtained in the War on Terror was obtained through humane interrogation methods. As interrogation experts agree, torture just isn’t that effective.

In principle, there are four basic cases to consider:

1. Torture is vastly more effective than the best humane interrogation methods.

2. Torture is slightly more effective than the best humane interrogation methods.

3. Torture is as effective as the best humane interrogation methods.

4. Torture is less effective than the best humane interrogation methods.

The evidence points most strongly to case 4, which would mean that torture is a no-brainer; if it doesn’t even work as well as other methods, it’s absurd to use it. You’re basically kicking puppies at that point—purely sadistic violence that accomplishes nothing. But the data isn’t clear enough for us to rule out case 3 or even case 2. There is only one case we can strictly rule out, and that is case 1.

But it was only in case 1 that torture could ever be justified!

If you’re trying to justify doing something intrinsically horrible, it’s not enough that it has some slight benefit.

People seem to have this bizarre notion that we have only two choices in morality:

Either we are strict deontologists, and wrong actions can never be justified by good outcomes ever, in which case apparently vaccines are morally wrong, because stabbing children with needles is wrong. Tto be fair, some people seem to actually believe this; but then, some people believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old.

Or alternatively we are the bizarre strawman concept most people seem to have of utilitarianism, under which any wrong action can be justified by even the slightest good outcome, in which case all you need to do to justify slavery is show that it would lead to a 1% increase in per-capita GDP. Sadly, there honestly do seem to be economists who believe this sort of thing. Here’s one arguing that US chattel slavery was economically efficient, and some of the more extreme arguments for why sweatshops are good can take on this character. Sweatshops may be a necessary evil for the time being, but they are still an evil.

But what utilitarianism actually says (and I consider myself some form of nuanced rule-utilitarian, though actually I sometimes call it “deontological consequentialism” to emphasize that I mean to synthesize the best parts of the two extremes) is not that the ends always justify the means, but that the ends can justify the means—that it can be morally good or even obligatory to do something intrinsically bad (like stabbing children with needles) if it is the best way to accomplish some greater good (like saving them from measles and polio). But the good actually has to be greater, and it has to be the best way to accomplish that good.

To see why this later proviso is important, consider the real-world ethical issues involved in psychology experiments. The benefits of psychology experiments are already quite large, and poised to grow as the science improves; one day the benefits of cognitive science to humanity may be even larger than the benefits of physics and biology are today. Imagine a world without mood disorders or mental illness of any kind; a world without psychopathy, where everyone is compassionate; a world where everyone is achieving their full potential for happiness and self-actualization. Cognitive science may yet make that world possible—and I haven’t even gotten into its applications in artificial intelligence.

To achieve that world, we will need a great many psychology experiments. But does that mean we can just corral people off the street and throw them into psychology experiments without their consent—or perhaps even their knowledge? That we can do whatever we want in those experiments, as long as it’s scientifically useful? No, it does not. We have ethical standards in psychology experiments for a very good reason, and while those ethical standards do slightly reduce the efficiency of the research process, the reduction is small enough that the moral choice is obviously to retain the ethics committees and accept the slight reduction in research efficiency. Yes, randomly throwing people into psychology experiments might actually be slightly better in purely scientific terms (larger and more random samples)—but it would be terrible in moral terms.

Along similar lines, even if torture works about as well or even slightly better than other methods, that’s simply not enough to justify it morally. Making a successful interrogation take 16 days instead of 17 simply wouldn’t be enough benefit to justify the psychological trauma to the suspect (and perhaps the interrogator!), the risk of harm to the falsely accused, or the violation of international human rights law. And in fact a number of terrorism suspects were waterboarded for months, so even the idea that it could shorten the interrogation is pretty implausible. If anything, torture seems to make interrogations take longer and give less reliable information—case 4.

A lot of people seem to have this impression that torture is amazingly, wildly effective, that a suspect who won’t crack after hours of humane interrogation can be tortured for just a few minutes and give you all the information you need. This is exactly what we do not find empirically; if he didn’t crack after hours of talk, he won’t crack after hours of torture. If you literally only have 30 minutes to find the nuke in Los Angeles, I’m sorry; you’re not going to find the nuke in Los Angeles. No adversarial interrogation is ever going to be completed that quickly, no matter what technique you use. Evacuate as many people to safe distances or underground shelters as you can in the time you have left.

This is why the “ticking time-bomb” scenario is so ridiculous (and so insidious); that’s simply not how interrogation works. The best methods we have for “rapid” interrogation of hostile suspects take hours or even days, and they are humane—building trust and rapport is the most important step. The goal is to get the suspect to want to give you accurate information.

For the purposes of the thought experiment, okay, you can stipulate that it would work (this is what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does). But now all you’ve done is made the thought experiment more distant from the real-world moral question. The closest real-world examples we’ve ever had involved individual crimes, probably too small to justify the torture (as bad as a murdered child is, think about what you’re doing if you let the police torture people). But by the time the terrorism to be prevented is large enough to really be sufficient justification, it (1) hasn’t happened in the real world and (2) surely involves terrorists who are sufficiently ideologically committed that they’ll be able to resist the torture. If such a situation arises, of course we should try to get information from the suspects—but what we try should be our best methods, the ones that work most consistently, not the ones that “feel right” and maybe happen to work on occasion.

Indeed, the best explanation I have for why people use torture at all, given its horrible effects and mediocre effectiveness at best is that it feels right.

When someone does something terrible (such as an act of terrorism), we rightfully reduce our moral valuation of them relative to everyone else. If you are even tempted to deny this, suppose a terrorist and a random civilian are both inside a burning building and you only have time to save one. Of course you save the civilian and not the terrorist. And that’s still true even if you know that once the terrorist was rescued he’d go to prison and never be a threat to anyone else. He’s just not worth as much.

In the most extreme circumstances, a person can be so terrible that their moral valuation should be effectively zero: If the only person in a burning building is Stalin, I’m not sure you should save him even if you easily could. But it is a grave moral mistake to think that a person’s moral valuation should ever go negative, yet I think this is something that people do when confronted with someone they truly hate. The federal agents torturing those terrorists didn’t merely think of them as worthless—they thought of them as having negative worth. They felt it was a positive good to harm them. But this is fundamentally wrong; no sentient being has negative worth. Some may be so terrible as to have essentially zero worth; and we are often justified in causing harm to some in order to save others. It would have been entirely justified to kill Stalin (as a matter of fact he died of heart disease and old age), to remove the continued threat he posed; but to torture him would not have made the world a better place, and actually might well have made it worse.

Yet I can see how psychologically it could be useful to have a mechanism in our brains that makes us hate someone so much we view them as having negative worth. It makes it a lot easier to harm them when necessary, makes us feel a lot better about ourselves when we do. The idea that any act of homicide is a tragedy but some of them are necessary tragedies is a lot harder to deal with than the idea that some people are just so evil that killing or even torturing them is intrinsically good. But some of the worst things human beings have ever done ultimately came from that place in our brains—and torture is one of them.

Why are all our Presidents war criminals?

JDN 2457443

Today I take on a topic that we really don’t like to talk about. It creates grave cognitive dissonance in our minds, forcing us to deeply question the moral character of our entire nation.

Yet it is undeniably a fact:

Most US Presidents are war criminals.

There is a long tradition of war crimes by US Presidents which includes Obama, Bush, Nixon, and above all Johnson and Truman.

Barack Obama has ordered so-called “double-tap” drone strikes, which kill medics and first responders, in express violation of the Geneva Convention.

George W. Bush orchestrated a global program of torture and indefinite detention.

Bill Clinton ordered “extraordinary renditions” in which suspects were detained without trial and transferred to other countries for interrogation, where we knew they would most likely be tortured.

I actually had trouble finding any credible accusations of war crimes by George H.W. Bush (there are definitely accusations, but none of them are credible—seriously, people are listening to Manuel Noriega?), even as Director of the CIA. He might not be a war criminal.

Ronald Reagan supported a government in Guatemala that was engaged in genocide. He knew this was happening and did not seem to care. This was only one of many tyrannical, murderous regimes supported by Reagan’s administration. In fact, Ronald Reagan was successfully convicted of war crimes by the International Court of Justice. Chomsky isn’t wrong about this one. Ronald Reagan was a convicted war criminal.

Jimmy Carter is a major exception to the rule; not only are there no credible accusations of war crimes against him, he has actively fought to pursue war crimes investigations against Israel and even publicly discussed the war crimes of George W. Bush.

I also wasn’t able to find any credible accusations of war crimes by Gerald Ford, so he might be clean.

But then we get to Richard Nixon, who deployed chemical weapons against civilians in Vietnam. (Calling Agent Orange “herbicide” probably shouldn’t matter morally—but it might legally, as tactical “herbicides” are not always war crimes.) But Nixon does deserve some credit for banning biological weapons.

Indeed, most of the responsibility for war crimes in Vietnam falls upon Johnson. The US deployed something very close to a “total war” strategy involving carpet bombing—more bombs were dropped by the US in Vietnam than by all countries in WW2—as well as napalm and of course chemical weapons; basically it was everything short of nuclear weapons. Kennedy and Johnson also substantially expanded the US biological weapons program.

Speaking of weapons of mass destruction, I’m not sure if it was actually illegal to expand the US nuclear arsenal as dramatically as Kennedy did, but it definitely should have been. Kennedy brought our nuclear arsenal up to its greatest peak, a horrifying 30,000 deployable warheads—more than enough to wipe out human civilization, and possibly enough to destroy the entire human race.

While Eisenhower was accused of the gravest war crime on this list, namely the genocide of over 1 million people in Germany, most historians do not consider this accusation credible. Rather, his war crimes were committed as Supreme Allied Commander, in the form of carpet bombing, especially of Tokyo, which killed as many as 200,000 people, and of Dresden, which had no apparent military significance and even held a number of Allied POWs.

But then we get to Truman, the coup de grace, the only man in history to order the use of nuclear weapons in warfare. Truman gave the order to deploy nuclear weapons against civilians. He was the only person in the history of the world to ever give such an order. It wasn’t Hitler; it wasn’t Stalin. It was Harry S. Truman.

Then of course there’s Roosevelt’s internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans. It really pales in comparison to Truman’s order to vaporize an equal number of Japanese civilians in the blink of an eye.

I think it will suffice to end the list here, though I could definitely go on. I think Truman is a really good one to focus on, for two reasons that pull quite strongly in opposite directions.

1. The use of nuclear weapons against civilians is among the gravest possible crimes. It may be second to genocide, but then again it may not, as genocide does not risk the destruction of the entire human race. If we only had the option of outlawing one thing in war, and had to allow everything else, we would have no choice but to ban the use of nuclear weapons against civilians.

2. Truman’s decision may have been justified. To this day is still hotly debated whether the atomic bombings were justifiable; mainstream historians have taken both sides. On, the vote is almost exactly divided—51% yes, 49% no. Many historians believe that had Truman not deployed nuclear weapons, there would have been an additional 5 million deaths as a result of the continuation of the war.

Perhaps now you can see why this matter makes me so ambivalent.

There is a part of me that wants to take an absolute hard line against war crimes, and say that they must never be tolerated, that even otherwise good Presidents like Clinton and Obama deserve to be tried at the Hague for what they have done. (Truman and Eisenhower are dead, so it’s too late for them.)

But another part of me wonders what would happen if we did this. What if the world really is so dangerous that we have no choice but to allow our leaders to commit horrible atrocities in order to defend us?

There are easy cases—Bush’s torture program didn’t even result in very much useful intelligence, so it was simply a pointless degradation of our national character. The same amount of effort invested in more humane intelligence gathering would very likely have provided more reliable information. And in any case, terrorism is such a minor threat in the scheme of things that the effort would be better spent on improving environmental regulations or auto safety.

Similarly, there’s no reason to engage in “extraordinary rendition” to a country that tortures people when you could simply conduct a legitimate trial in absentia and then arrest the convicted terrorist with special forces and imprison him in a US maximum-security prison until his execution. (Or even carry out the execution directly by the special forces; as long as the trial is legitimate, I see no problem with that.) At that point, the atrocities are being committed simply to avoid inconvenience.

But especially when we come to the WW2 examples, where the United States—nay, the world—was facing a genuine threat of being conquered by genocidal tyrants, I do begin to wonder if “victory by any means necessary” is a legitimate choice.

There is a way to cut the Gordian knot here, and say that yes, these are crimes, and should be punished; but yes, they were morally justified. Then, the moral calculus any President must undergo when contemplating such an atrocity is that he himself will be tried and executed if he goes through with it. If your situation is truly so dire that you are willing to kill 100,000 civilians, perhaps you should be willing to go down with the ship. (Roger Fisher made a similar argument when he suggested implanting the nuclear launch codes inside the body of a US military officer. If you’re not willing to tear one man apart with a knife, why are you willing to vaporize an entire city?)

But if your actions really were morally justified… what sense does it make to punish you for them? And if we hold up this threat of punishment, could it cause a President to flinch when we really need him to take such drastic action?

Another possibility to consider is that perhaps our standards for war crimes really are too strict, and some—not all, but some—of the actions I just listed are in fact morally justifiable and should be made legal under international law. Perhaps the US government is right to fight the UN convention against cluster munitions; maybe we need cluster bombs to successfully defend national security. Perhaps it should not be illegal to kill the combat medics who directly serve under the command of enemy military forces—as opposed to civilian first-responders or Medecins Sans Frontieres. Perhaps our tolerance for civilian casualties is unrealistically low, and it is impossible to fight a war in the real world without killing a large number of civilians.

Then again, perhaps not. Perhaps we are too willing to engage in war in the first place, too accustomed to deploying military force as our primary response to international conflict. Perhaps the prospect of facing a war crimes tribunal in a couple of years should be an extra layer of deterrent against any President ordering yet another war—by some estimates we have been at war 93% of the time since our founding as a nation, and it is a well-documented fact that we have by far the highest military spending in the world. Why is it that so many Americans see diplomacy as foolish, see compromise as weakness?

Perhaps the most terrifying thing is not that so many US Presidents are war criminals; it is that so many Americans don’t seem to have any problem with that.

What happened in Flint?

JDN 2457419

By now you’ve probably heard about the water crisis in Flint, where for almost two years highly dangerous levels of lead were in the city water system, poisoning thousands of people—including over 8,000 children. Many of these children will suffer permanent brain damage. We can expect a crime spike in the area once they get older; reduction in lead exposure may explain as much as half of the decline in crime in the United States—and increase in lead exposure will likely have the opposite effect. At least 10 people have already died.

A state of emergency has now been declared. Governor Snyder of Michigan will be asked to testify in Congress—and what he says had better be good. We have emails showing that he knew about the lead problems as early as February 2015, and as far as we can tell he did absolutely nothing until it all became public.

President Obama has said that the crisis was “inexplicable and inexcusable”. Inexcusable, certainly—but inexplicable? Hardly.

Indeed, this is a taste of the world that Republicans and Libertarians want us to live in, a world where corporations can do whatever they want and get away with it; a world where you can pollute any river, poison any population, and as long as you did it to help rich people get richer no one will stop you.

Every time someone says that our environmental regulations are “too harsh” or “stifle business” or are based on “environmentalist alarmism”, I want you to think of lead in the water in Flint.

Every time someone says that we need to “cut wasteful government spending” and “get government out of the way of business”, I want you to think of lead in the water in Flint.

This was not a natural disaster, a so-called “act of God” beyond human control. This was not some “inexplicable” event beyond our power to predict or understand.

This was a policy decision.

The worst thing about this is that people are taking exactly the wrong lesson. I’ve already seen a meme going around saying “government water/free market water” and showing Flint’s poisoned water next to (supposedly) pristine bottled water. I even saw one tweet with the audacity to assert that teacher pensions were the reason why Flint was so cash-starved that they had no choice but to accept poisoned water. The spin doctors are already at work trying to convince you that this proves that government is the problem and free markets are the solution.

But that is exactly the opposite lesson you should be taking from this.

This was not a case of excessive government intervention. This was a case of total government inaction. This was not the overbearing “nanny state” of social democracy they tell you to fear. This was the passive, ineffectual “starve the beast” government you have been promised by the likes of Reagan.

There were indeed substantial failures by governments at every level. But these failures were always in the form of doing too little, of ignoring the problem; and the original reason why Flint moved away from the municipal water supply was to reduce government spending.

(There were also failures of journalism; but does anyone think this means we should get rid of journalism?)

Nevermind that any sane person would say that clean water should be a top priority, one of the last things you’d even consider cutting spending on. Flint’s government found a way to save a few million dollars (which will now cost several billion to repair—insofar as it is even possible), so they did it. Institutionalized racism very likely contributed to their willingness to sacrifice so many people for so little money (would you poison someone for $100? Snyder and his “emergency manager” Earley apparently would).

I say “they”, and I keep saying the “government” did this; but in fact this was not a government action in the usual sense of a democratically-elected mayor and city council. The decision was made by a so-called “emergency manager”, personally appointed by the Governor and accountable to no one else. This is supposed to be a temporary office to solve emergencies, just like the dictator was in Rome until Julius Caesar decided he didn’t like that “temporary” part. Since it’s basically the same office with the same problems, I suggest we drop the “emergency manager” euphemism and start calling these people what they are—dictators.

This is actually a remarkable First World demonstration of the Sen Hypothesis: Famines don’t occur under democracies, because people who are represented in government don’t allow themselves to be starved. Similarly, people who are represented in government are much less likely to allow their water to be poisoned. It’s not that democratic governments never do anything wrong—but their wrongness is bounded by their accountability to public opinion. Every time we weaken democracy in the name of expediency or “efficiency”, we weaken that barrier against catastrophe.

MoveOn has a petition to impeach Snyder and arrest him on criminal charges. I’ve signed it, and I suggest you do as well. This perversion of democracy and depraved indifference must not stand.

The good news is that humans are altruistic after all, and many people are already doing things to help. You can help, too.

How Reagan ruined America

JDN 2457408

Or maybe it’s Ford?

The title is intentionally hyperbolic; despite the best efforts of Reagan and his ilk, America does yet survive. Indeed, as Obama aptly pointed out in his recent State of the Union, we appear to be on an upward trajectory once more. And as you’ll see in a moment, many of the turning points actually seem to be Gerald Ford, though it was under Reagan that the trends really gained steam.

But I think it’s quite remarkable just how much damage Reaganomics did to the economy and society of the United States. It’s actually a turning point in all sorts of different economic policy measures; things were going well from the 1940s to the 1970s, and then suddenly in the 1980s they take a turn for the worse.

The clearest example is inequality. From the World Top Incomes Database, here’s the graph I featured on my Patreon page of income shares in the United States:


Inequality was really bad during the Roaring Twenties (no surprise to anyone who has read The Great Gatsby), then after the turmoil of the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War 2, inequality was reduced to a much lower level.

During this period, what I like to call the Golden Age of American Capitalism:

Instead of almost 50% in the 1920s, the top 10% now received about 33%.

Instead of over 20% in the 1920s, the top 1% now received about 10%.

Instead of almost 5% in the 1920s, the top 0.01% now received about 1%.

This pattern continued to hold, remarkably stable, until 1980. Then, it completely unraveled. Income shares of the top brackets rose, and continued to rise, ever since (fluctuating with the stock market of course). Now, we’re basically back right where we were in the 1920s; the top 10% gets 50%, the top 1% gets 20%, and the top 0.01% gets 4%.

Not coincidentally, we see the same pattern if we look at the ratio of CEO pay to average worker pay, as shown here in a graph from the Economic Policy Institute:


Up until 1980, the ratio in pay between CEOs and their average workers was steady around 20 to 1. From that point forward, it began to rise—and rise, and rise. It continued to rise under every Presidential administration, and actually hit its peak in 2000, under Bill Clinton, at an astonishing 411 to 1 ratio. In the 2000s it fell to about 250 to 1 (hurray?), and has slightly declined since then to about 230 to 1.

By either measure, we can see a clear turning point in US inequality—it was low and stable, until Reagan came along, when it began to explode.

Part of this no doubt is the sudden shift in tax rates. The top marginal tax rates on income were over 90% from WW2 to the 1960s; then JFK reduced them to 70%, which is probably close to the revenue-maximizing rate. There they stayed, until—you know the refrain—along came Reagan, and by the end of his administration he had dropped the top marginal rate to 28%. It then was brought back up to about 35%, where it has basically remained, sometimes getting as high as 40%.


Another striking example is the ratio between worker productivity and wages. The Economic Policy Institute has a very detailed analysis of this, but I think their graph by itself is quite striking:


Starting around the 1970s, and then rapidly accelerating from the 1980s onward, we see a decoupling of productivity from wages. Productivity has continued to rise at more or less the same rate, but wages flatten out completely, even falling for part of the period.

For those who still somehow think Republicans are fiscally conservative, take a look at this graph of the US national debt:


We were at a comfortable 30-40% of GDP range, actually slowly decreasing—until Reagan. We got back on track to reduce the debt during the mid-1990s—under Bill Clinton—and then went back to raising it again once George W. Bush got in office. It ballooned as a result of the Great Recession, and for the past few years Obama has been trying to bring it back under control.

Of course, national debt is not nearly as bad as most people imagine it to be. If Reagan had only raised the national debt in order to stop unemployment, that would have been fine—but he did not.

Unemployment had never been above 10% since World War 2 (and in fact reached below 4% in the 1960s!) and yet all the sudden hit almost 11%, shortly after Reagan:
Let’s look at that graph a little closer. Right now the Federal Reserve uses 5% as their target unemployment rate, the supposed “natural rate of unemployment” (a lot of economists use this notion, despite there being almost no empirical support for it whatsoever). If I draw red lines at 5% unemployment and at 1981, the year Reagan took office, look at what happens.


For most of the period before 1981, we spent most of our time below the 5% line, jumping above it during recessions and then coming back down; for most of the period after 1981, we spent most of our time above the 5% line, even during economic booms.

I’ve drawn another line (green) where the most natural break appears, and it actually seems to be the Ford administration; so maybe I can’t just blame Reagan. But something happened in the last quarter of the 20th century that dramatically changed the shape of unemployment in America.

Inflation is at least ambiguous; it was pretty bad in the 1940s and 1950s, and then settled down in the 1960s for awhile before picking up in the 1970s, and actually hit its worst just before Reagan took office:


Then there’s GDP growth.


After World War 2, our growth rate was quite volatile, rising as high as 8% (!) in some years, but sometimes falling to zero or slightly negative. Rates over 6% were common during booms. On average GDP growth was quite good, around 4% per year.

In 1981—the year Reagan took office—we had the worst growth rate in postwar history, an awful -1.9%. Coming out of that recession we had very high growth of about 7%, but then settled into the new normal: More stable growth rates, yes, but also much lower. Never again did our growth rate exceed 4%, and on average it was more like 2%. In 2009, Reagan’s record recession was broken with the Great Recession, a drop of almost 3% in a single year.

GDP per capita tells a similar story, of volatile but fast growth before Reagan followed by stable but slow growth thereafter:


Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to blame Reagan for all of this. A lot of things have happened in the late 20th century, after all. In particular, the OPEC oil crisis is probably responsible for many of these 1970s shocks, and when Nixon moved us at last off the Bretton Woods gold standard, it was probably the right decision, but done at a moment of crisis instead of as the result of careful planning.

Also, while the classical gold standard was terrible, the Bretton Woods system actually had some things to recommend it. It required strict capital controls and currency exchange regulations, but the period of highest economic growth and lowest inequality in the United States—the period I’m calling the Golden Age of American Capitalism—was in fact the same period as the Bretton Woods system.

Some of these trends started before Reagan, and all of them continued in his absence—many of them worsening as much or more under Clinton. Reagan took office during a terrible recession, and either contributed to the recovery or at least did not prevent it.

The President only has very limited control over the economy in any case; he can set a policy agenda, but Congress must actually implement it, and policy can take years to show its true effects. Yet given Reagan’s agenda of cutting top tax rates, crushing unions, and generally giving large corporations whatever they want, I think he bears at least some responsibility for turning our economy in this very bad direction.

Saudi Arabia is becoming a problem.

JDN 2457394

There has been a lot of talk lately about what’s going on in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Iran, and Iraq, where Daesh (I like to call them that precisely because they don’t like it), also known as ISIS or ISIL, has been killing people and destroying things–including priceless ancient artifacts.

We in the United States actually have little to fear from Daesh. Pace Ben Carson and Lindsey Graham, Daesh is absolutely not an existential threat to the United States. We have them completely outnumbered and outgunned—indeed, we have the world outgunned, as we ourselves account for 40% of the world’s military spending and a comparable portion of the world’s nuclear missiles, naval tonnage, and air fleet.
The people who need to worry are those living in (or fleeing from) the Middle East.

Some 17,000 civilians were killed by warfare in Iraq in 2014, the plurality killed by Daesh and only a small fraction killed by US or NATO forces. Contrary to the belief of people like Noam Chomsky who think the US military is comprised of bloodthirsty genocidal murderers, we actually go quite far out of our way to minimize civilian deaths, up to and including dropping pamphlets warning of bombing raids before we carry them out (I love the “admits” in that headline. You keep using that word…). Then there’s Syria, where there have been over 200,000 deaths, though actually more attributable to Bashir al-Assad than to Daesh.

Daesh, on the other hand, has no qualms about killing anyone they consider not a “true Muslim”, which basically means anyone who doesn’t support them—it certainly doesn’t exclude all Muslims. Daesh is so brutal and extreme that Al Qaeda has condemned their tactics. Yes, that Al Qaeda, the one that crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center in 2001. If you really want to know the sorts of things Daesh has been doing (and have the stomach for it), there are plenty of photos and video footage, many of them openly promoted by Daesh itself, including on their Twitter feed which also shows lots of (I am not kidding) kitten photos called “Mewjahideen”.

But today I’m not actually going to focus on Daesh itself. I’m going to focus on a country that is ostensibly our ally in the fight against them—yet the way they’ve been behaving is a lot more like being an ally of Daesh. As I gave away in the title, I mean of course Saudi Arabia.

Between the time that I drafted this post as a Blog From the Future on Patreon and the time that you are now reading this, Saudi Arabia did another terrible thing, namely executing an important Shi’ite cleric and triggering the possibility of war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. (I think it helps support the point I’m about to make shortly that the focus of this article is on the effect on oil prices.)

First, remember what Saudi Arabia is—namely, an absolute theocratic monarchy founded upon the same Wahhabi Islamist ideology that drives Daesh. They teach Wahhabi Islam as their state religion in schools. This by itself should make us wonder whether they are really our allies—they after all agree a lot more with our enemies than they do with us. And indeed, while they speak of joining the “war on terror”, they are actually the leading source of funds for global Islamist terrorism. In theory, with their large, powerful military and a majority-Muslim population (which would help avoid the sense that this is some kind of Christian/atheist versus Muslim neo-Crusade, which it absolutely must not be), Saudi Arabia could be a valuable ally in this war—but they don’t particularly want to be.

Saudi Arabia is now paying to support refugees, but they aren’t actually accepting any refugees themselves. It would make sense for the US to do this, because we are very far away and it would be very difficult to transport refugees here. It does not make sense for Saudi Arabia to do this, except in order to look like they’re doing something while actually doing as little as possible. (Also, I’ve read conflicting reports as to whether they’ve pledged $10 million to Jordan or $10 billion—which is kind of like saying, “The car was either $1,000 or $1,000,000, I’m not sure.” The most credible estimate I’ve seen is $300 million, $10 million to Jordan. In my favorite unit of wealth, they’ve donated a romney. It’s a whopping… 0.04% of their country’s income in a year.) They should be doing what Turkey is doing, and taking on hundreds of thousands of refugees themselves.

As is fairly common among tyrants (look no further than North Korea), Saudi Arabia’s leaders often present some rather… eccentric beliefs, such as the claim that Daesh is actually secretly a wing of the Israeli military. Maybe this is Freudian projection: Knowing that they are secretly supporting Daesh and its ideology, they decide to accuse whomever they most dislike—i.e., Israel—of doing that very thing. And they certainly do hate Israel; Saudi Arabia’s state-run media frequently compare Israel to Nazis because apparently irony is completely lost on them.

One of the things Daesh does to display its brutality is behead nonbelievers; yet Saudi Arabia beheads far more people, including for thoughtcrimes such as apostasy and political dissent, as well as “crimes” such as sorcery and witchcraft. The human rights violation here is not so much the number of executions as the intentional spectacle of brutality, as well as the “crimes” cited. In the summer of 2014, they beheaded about one person per day—in a country of 27 million people, it wouldn’t be that odd to execute 30 people in a month, if they were in fact murderers. That’s about the size and execution rate of Texas. The world’s real execution leader is China, where over 2,000—and previously as many as 10,000—people per year are executed. China does have a huge population of almost 1.4 billion people—but even so, they execute more people than the rest of the world combined.

I mean, one can certainly argue that the death penalty in general is morally wrong (it is certainly economically inefficient); but I never could quite manage to be outraged by the use of lethal injection on serial killers (which is mainly what we’re talking about in Texas). But Saudi Arabia doesn’t use lethal injection, they use beheading. And they don’t just execute serial killers—they execute atheists and feminists.

Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is one of the worst in the world. (And that’s from the US Department of State, so don’t tell me our government doesn’t know this.) Freedom House gives them the lowest possible rating, and lists several reasons why their government should be considered a global pariah. Even the Heritage Foundation (which overweights economic freedom over civil liberties, in my opinion—would you rather pay high taxes, or be executed for thoughtcrime?) gave Saudi Arabia a moderate freedom rating at best.

So, the question really becomes: Why do we call these people our allies?

Why did President Obama cut short a visit to India—which is, you know, a democracy—to see the new king—as in absolute monarch—of Saudi Arabia? (Though good on Michelle Obama for refusing to wear the hijab. You can see the contempt in the faces of the Saudi dignitaries, but she just grins smugly. You can almost hear, “What are you gonna do about it?”) Why was “cementing ties with Saudi Arabia” even something we wanted to do?


The answer of course is painfully obvious, especially to economists: Oil.

Saudi Arabia is by far the world’s largest oil exporter, accounting for a sixth of all crude oil exports.

The United States is by far the world’s largest oil importer, accounting for an eighth of all crude oil imports.

As Vonnegut said, we are rolling drunk on petroleum. We are addicts, and they’re our dealer. And if there’s one thing addicts don’t do, it’s rat out their own dealers.

Fortunately, US oil imports are on the decline, and why? Thanks, Obama. Under policies that really were largely spearheaded by the Obama administration such as expanded fracking and subsidized solar power investment, a combination of increased domestic oil production and reduced domestic oil consumptionhas been reducing the need to continue importing oil from other countries.

Of course, the “expanded fracking” and “increased oil production” part gives me very mixed feelings, given its obvious connection to climate change. But I will say this: If we’re going to be burning all that oil anyway, far better that we extract it ourselves than that we buy it from butchers and tyrants. And indeed US carbon emissions have also been steady or declining under Obama.

The sudden crash in oil prices last year has been damaging to both Saudi Arabia and other major oil exporters such as Russia and Venezuela, which are nowhere near as bad but also hardly wholesome liberal democracies. (It also hurt Norway, who didn’t deserve it; but they’re wisely divesting from fossil fuels, starting with coal.) Now is the perfect time to implement a carbon tax; consumers will hardly feel it—it’ll just feel like prices are going back to normal—but oil exporters will have even more pressure to switch industries, and above all global carbon emissions will decrease.

Ideally we would also combine this with what I call a “human rights tariff”, a tariff applied to the goods a country exports based upon that country’s human rights record. We could keep it very simple: Another percentage point added to the tariff every time you execute someone for political, religious, or ideological reasons. A percentage point off every time you go at least a month without executing anyone for any reason except murder.

Obviously that wouldn’t deal with the fact that women can’t drive, or the fact that hijab is mandatory, or the fact that homosexuality is illegal—but hey, it would at least be something. Right now, every barrel of oil we buy from them is basically saying that we care more about cheap gasoline than we do about human rights.