Sunday, October 26, 2014

Ebola, Ferguson and political narratives

The Ebola virus reaching the US and the ongoing troubles and controversy over a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri display the power and the dangers of political narratives from all sides, both of US politics and more broadly.

Thus, one of the more tired and embarrassing responses to Ebola mis-steps in the US has to been to decry "budget cuts" at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and related agencies, thereby fulfilling two perennial progressivist tropes--there is never enough money and more money makes it better

Evading responsibility
Embarrassing because:
  • (1) dealing with viral outbreaks is rather their core business [particularly the CDC, but the US Health and Human Services Department generally], and having an appropriate action plan ready to go should not be very expensive [even if implementing it may be]; and
  • (2) the NIH spends a considerable amount of money, an amount which has gone up dramatically over the last decade and a half.
In 2000, the NIH had a total budget of $17.8bn, which rose rapidly to $28.6bn in 2005 and has hovered around $29-$30bn ever since. Quite a lot of money and not subject to any serious cuts. (It is a bigger budget than the Australian Defence Force.) This did not stop the current head of the NIH blaming the failure to come up with an Ebola vaccine on "a decade of stagnant spending". Yes, that is a bureaucrat evading responsibility, but the Huffington Post headline blames "budget cuts"; and the "budget cuts!" and "more money!" memes are very useful for evading responsibility.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a budget of around $6.5bn in recent years, also after considerable increases under the Bush II Administration.

Then there is the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which the NIH and CDC are part of. It, and its subordinate agencies, has a total budget of, in 2013, $886bn; in 2014, $958bn; and, in 2015, $1trn. That is a significantly bigger budget than the US Defence Department and more than twice the expenditure of the entire Federal Government of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Again, effective plans for dealing with a possible viral outbreak which has been raging in West Africa for months, how much does that cost, really? [Including health guidelines one might adopt from people with experience.] The HHS has, for example, enormously more resources than, say Nigeria or Senegal, who have both successfully dealt with much worse outbreaks and provide learning experiences that a competent bureaucracy might notice. (Though Peter Turchin raises a rather nastier possible explanation for the somewhat lacklustre response.)

If a trillion dollar budget does not generate satisfactory competence in a basic area of responsibility, no amount of money is going to. Indeed, at that sort of scale, more money, and the extra responsibility that does with it, is almost certainly going to generate less basic competence, not more. It does rather look like something of a failure of the administrative state (though the degree of "failure" is being rather overdone).

Apart from being easy tropes, fulfilling a preferred political narrative, "budget cuts!", "more money!" also do something such narratives are often about--they divert attention from awkward facts likely to cause cognitive dissonance. The cognitive dissonance here being a (very well-funded) government bureaucracy does absolutely nothing to provide any guarantee of effectiveness, or even basic competence. The omni-competent state that progressivist politics implicitly or explicitly postulates will solve problems--if just given the correct goals and the funding-which-is-never-enough--does not really exist.

Worse, as we have seen with the head of the NIH, the memes in question actively work to evade responsibility--and that is precisely the point. Holding government agencies and spending programs genuinely accountable for their competence and effectiveness not only makes "the government will fix it" much more complicated, it can actively and seriously undermine that central presumption.

This is not merely an "political narratives" issue. It goes right to the heart of holding governments and their agencies accountable. Political narratives matter, and in a very direct sense.

President Obama's response to the agencies on the ground letting him down--in the "embarrassing the President in the news cycle" sense--was to appoint an Ebola "czar". Both he and his predecessor have been very inclined to such appointments, far more so than previous postwar presidents. That is partly because both President Obama and President Bush II are mediocre administrators, by US Presidential standards. It is also likely to be partly a response to the 24-hour news cycle--President Clinton was much more inclined than his postwar predecessors to appoint such folk, though not nearly as inclined as his two successors. It may also be partly a response to the growth of the US Federal Government--the more it does, the harder it is to coordinate.  But I would rate administrative competence as the main driver: Bush II and Obama are simply not very good at such (witness Obama's appalling failure to appoint people to vacancies on the US Federal Reserve Board), and political officers are what you turn to when you can't make the ordinary bureaucracy do what you want.

[This piece on problems in the administration of National Security by the Administration is less than re-assuring, further indicating a lack administrative competence. Jeb Bush--who, as a former Governor 0f Florida, has a lot of experience in crisis-management--has criticised the Administration's simple message management, contrasting it with his own efforts in somewhat similar circumstances: also not an expensive matter.]

Three languages of politics
Which brings us to Ferguson, Missouri and the police-and-blacks issue that the killing of Michael Brown by police offer Darren Wilson and subsequent riots brought (yet again) to the fore. The controversy over what did and did not happen (the killing itself remains distinctly murky) provides an excellent example of Arnold Kling's The Three Languages of Politics (which he discusses here, I recommend listening): the progressive oppression/oppressor axis, the conservative civilisation/barbarism axis and the libertarian freedom/coercion axis.

Reading progressivist and conservative online commentary on matters Ferguson is to enter two different world views that barely interact. Among conservatives, it was about "race baiting", appropriate behaviour when stopped by a police offer and (lack of) civic engagement--in other words, how progressivists make things worse and the civilisation v. barbarism axis. Among progressivists, it was yet another unarmed black men being killed in police-initiated or massively over-reacting incidents, police incitement and abuse of authority, narrow and unbalanced reporting of a mainly black community--in other words, a civil rights matter, one of oppression and oppressed.

Then there was the libertarian commentary, which particularly focused on the militarisation of US police forces--notably in Republican Sen. Rand Paul's opinion piece in Time. Libertarians have been warming about the militarisation of US police for some time, as in this 2006 article by Glenn Reynolds in Popular Mechanics. A concern that has spread to conservatives, as in this 2013 Heritage Foundation analysis. Sen. Paul managed nods to both the civilisation/barbarism narrative:
The outrage in Ferguson is understandable—though there is never an excuse for rioting or looting. There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace, but there should be a difference between a police response and a military response.
And to the oppressor/oppression narrative:
Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them. ...
Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention. Our prisons are full of black and brown men and women who are serving inappropriately long and harsh sentences for non-violent mistakes in their youth.
While focusing on critiquing the militarisation of US police forces (freedom/coercion):
When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury—national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture—we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands.
Militarisation combines power and separation: it separates the police from the local citizenry while elevating their sense of power over them, not a happy combination. At which point, (conservative and libertarian) opposition to gun control is surely a factor. A recurring claim in favour of widespread gun ownership is that "an armed society is a polite society". Historically, that is not true; it more often breeds a violent, honour-obsessed society. What an armed society does apparently breed is not polite police folk, but paranoid ones. And, with the militarisation of US police forces, courtesy of the US Federal Government, ludicrously over-armed paranoid ones; also not a happy combination.

But not randomly paranoid ones. Young men are the most likely corpses from fatal police-initiated/disproportionate reaction shootings, particularly young black men.

To the extent that these shootings become matters of public debate, they tend to disappear in the talking-past-each other self-supporting political narratives seen regarding events in Ferguson, Missouri. But freedom is, ultimately, indivisible. A long history of US police forces being able to evade responsibility for how they treat black folk (and other low-status groups, but particularly black folk) turns out to be not something that can be quarantined away from, well, everyone else. As a man whose son was shot by a police officer 10 years ago wrote recently:
Our country is simply not paying enough attention to the terrible lack of accountability of police departments and the way it affects all of us—regardless of race or ethnicity. Because if a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy — that was my son, Michael — can be shot in the head under a street light with his hands cuffed behind his back, in front of five eyewitnesses (including his mother and sister), and his father was a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who flew in three wars for his country — that’s me — and I still couldn’t get anything done about it, then Joe the plumber and Javier the roofer aren’t going to be able to do anything about it either.
Michael Z. Williamson (website here) is a military SF writer of libertarian views with a strong interest in military history. (His novel Freehold, for example, is basically the Winter War in space.) His recent collections of short stories and other writings, Tour of Duty, contains two pieces which detail his experiences with the IPD (Indianapolis Police Department). His view of the police:
Lesson here: they're hired goons, not at all concerned with law and order (p.446).
They are mercenary thugs, hired by my tax dollars to oppress me in the name of corporate America. Not even whores, as whores are paid for their work (p.447).
His view of correction officers after being arrested and held overnight:
I have learned that you are petty, gutless Fascists who are so pitiful as to find solace in your own wretched lives in bullying people with problems, helpless to resist you, until they turn into caged animals for your amusement (p.462).
Remember, he is a white US military veteran. (If a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality, perhaps a libertarian is a conservative who has had one too many dealings with government officials.)

[Frank Serpico--yes, from the movie--discusses writes about the continuing problems of (lack of) police accountability in the US.]

Techniques of evasion of accountability can spread--both from bureaucracy to bureaucracy and from low-status group to well, anyone and everyone. Which, as this article in conservative journal National Review sets out, leads to a pattern of inadequately accountable government agencies:
It’s perverse: If an ordinary citizen makes a typo on his 1040EZ, he could be on the hook for untold sums of money, fines, even jail time. When the IRS abuses its power to harass political enemies, nothing happens. A few years ago, an employer of mine entered the wrong Social Security number on my paperwork — I have barbaric handwriting — and the error took months of telephone calls and mail to fix, a period of time over which I was threatened with all sorts of nasty consequences by the Social Security Administration and the IRS. But when the Social Security Administration oversees the payment of millions of dollars in benefits to Nazi war criminals summering on Croatian beaches, nothing happens. If you’re an ordinary schmo, a typo can land you in jail. If you work for the government, you can burn the face off a baby and walk.
The clear and present danger
Discussions of the uncivil tribalism of contemporary US politics and the power of political narratives tend to talk about it as unfortunate, regrettable, be nice if we could do better. But the problem is much deeper than that. The way the tribal narratives are actually operating is to frustrate political accountability and breed dangerously unaccountable government agencies.

If one is trying to deal with the world as it is, rather than as you would like to think of it, then the question becomes; is that an appropriate axis to view this problem? Or merely one you find congenial? For example, phenomena such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are really not usefully viewed through the oppressor/oppressed axis (unless, perhaps, you realise that their aim is to be oppressors). The civilisation-v-barbarism and even liberty/coercion axes are much more appropriate. (Which is why progressivists tend to end up saying such inane, or worse, things on the issue.) Though, that is a relative, rather than absolute judgement, since blanket condemnations of Islam are not useful either. Conversely, equal rights for queer folk really is not raging barbarism, not a threat to civilised order.

But the virulent political tribalism and war-of-the-narratives of contemporary US politics are having much more invidious effects in fostering a whole lots of distracting delusions about issues that seriously matter:

  • Government agencies are not automatically reliable toys which can be waved to generate social justice.
  • If you are going to be so keen on an armed society, you better think a lot more seriously about the position that puts police officers in.
  • Yes, there is a problem with police treatment of specific groups (particularly young black men) and no that is not about keeping you safe; obsessing with not conceding an inch to the concerns of those other folk is just creating homicidally unaccountable police departments and, by copying and contagion, undermining accountability in government agencies generally.
  • No, abusing due process to target those "evil others" really is a big deal. 
  • Yes, there does come a point when privileging public sector unions undermines basic effectiveness and accountability.

And so on.

Creating cultures and processes of accountability in government agencies is hard, grinding work. Not least because it means giving up so congenial notions on the way through. But if the shouting political tribes of the US do not look up from their status games and start noticing what their cognitive civil war is doing in corrupting basic processes of government and government administration, then the culture of inadequate accountability among US government agencies is just going to get worse and worse. Which can lead to places I doubt few, if any, of the shouting political tribalists want to go.


ADDENDA After I posted this, I came across this comment by SF writer John Scalzi:
Broadly speaking, the Republicans are frothing ideologues, the Democrats are incompetent ...
Sounds about right.

A political scientist notes the lack of interest in cooperation embodied in the competing narratives.

Public sector pensions are driving US city and state governments towards bankruptcy.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

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