Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Theory of Goodness, brought to you by Linear Transforms

Neil and Dennis are discussing how to determine moral worth, when you’re operating in our extremely utilitarian world. You know, to what degree we should care about foreign strangers and not just friends, how we can measure the good intention of anyone short of messianic-perfection (ie, who still occasionally acts in self-interest), and compensating for the different abilities/resources).

I’ve taken the most straw-man-like approach, and am arguing that all that matters is how much you give money to third world charities, and any other charitable action has at least some aspect of self-interest to it. Or maybe it’s just some irrationality, as Neil describes (under his luscious pie theory). But they’re clear on what is good to do, it’s just a question of how you judge others. Under my proposition, it would appear that your moral worth is how much you give to said charities – ie, making the richest of us automatically the most morally accomplished.

Instead, economics would tell me that a person’s moral worth is measured by how much they don’t give to charities (well the negative value of that, of course).

From the beginning, introduction to economics again.

Let’s say I have some money, and my entire enjoyment in the world is determined by: Cars, Computers, and Candy. I decide how to spend my money on those 3 things. Now the enjoyment I get out of each of those for each dollar I spend, are different functions. Specifically, Cars and Computers it’s pretty clear that there’s a certain amount of money I can spend on them, at which point I’ve gotten a machine that can do what I need it to, and from then on it’s only luxury. This is concavity. But let’s assume that for Candy, although I have a small value for it, each piece of Candy is as valuable to me as any other piece, no matter how much I have had already.

To intuit this, imagine I offered you a coin flip. On heads, I took your Computer, but on Tails I got you a second one of it. Would you take the coin flip? Of course not. Even if I offered you $50 to do so? Again, probably not. The second computer just isn’t worth much to you, compared to having 1 computer or none.

Now assume I did the same for your Easter candy. You may or may not take the coin flip, but you wouldn’t be passionate about it either way. If I threw in $5 for it, you’d say sure in a heartbeat.

So my “utility function” would be something like:
Square Root of (Money spent on Cars) plus 3 times Square Root of (Money spent on Computers) plus .1 times (Money spent on Candy).
U = (C1)^.5 + 3*(C2)^.5 + .1*(C3)
where: C1+C2+C3=my total money

(Admittedly, I would in all fact be concave for Candy, but it’s possible to take 3 concave equations and transform them so that one of them is linear and the other two are still concave. Economists and physicists do this all the time, since it’s necessary in order to play with the equations in useful ways. What ways? Glad you asked…)

So this equation is useful for what it says about my spending habits. I will spend entirely on Cars and Computers, up until the point that $1 spent on a Cars or Computers gives me the exact same happiness back as $1 spent on Candy. Because I get less and less enjoyment from Cars and Computers, this has to happen eventually, and after that point any more $1 on Cars or Computer would be less than the happiness I’d get from spending $1 on Candy. So after that point, I will spend entirely on Candy. If anything happened, like my income doubled, all that extra money would just go directly to Candy. (Again, this is assuming I had enough money that I reached the diminishing returns for Cars and Computers).

Now we are in fact concave for all these things, and almost any consumer good we can think of. We all get full, or only have so much time to spend on gadgets, or whatnot. So finding the product we are linear for is very hard.

I would posit that Charity is most likely to be linear, at least if we are anything close to rational. Sure, giving gifts to one person produces diminishing returns, but saving a number of starving children doesn’t. We are probably indifferent between saving 1 starving child for sure, and a coin flip between saving none or 2. Would anyone disagree with this assumption? (At the very least, it is more linear than any other goal)

In particular, it’s very linear with respect to the actions of one person. Oxfam, or Doctors Without Borders, may approach diminishing returns for money after a point sure, but not in the thousands of dollars any of us would give. I would imagine that even the Bill Gates and the Sultan of Brunei could find a network of charities large enough to engulf their money without suffering much diminishing returns.

What does this mean? Well, to the degree that anyone controls all their money (one could argue that most uber-rich people do not given the nature of financial assets), and that people are rational (or at least honestly desire to do “good”), a person would spend a certain amount on things that benefit themselves – and every dollar beyond that goes to charity. This certain amount may be high, but it is capped. Ie, if you have given $1000 to Oxfam, and your income doubles from $30,000 to $60,000, My theory would imagine that you’d next give $31,000 to Oxfam. (Of course other things can change which affect the value you place on self-interested good, or Charity – just not income).

Which then comes down to, I measure your balance of self-interestedness and altruism as when $1 towards consumed goods gives you the same marginal value as $1 to charity. This would not be reflected in how much you gave to Charity, but the amount of the cap that you consumed.

Which gives me things like: poor people (especially those who give some to Charity), have the most benefit of the doubt, even if we don’t know necessarily that their cap is really low; it’s easy to believe that no one in the country really has altruistic drives (eg, that their altruism isn’t linear, and thus it’s about fulfilling some sort of compassion quota, and not how much good the money really does); I should think hard about where my personal cap is; and this is harder to analyze for public servants and people in general who see their work itself (or for politicians even their social context) as altruism (the easiest thing would be to find a comparison of what they could do privately, and how much more money they'd earn).


Monday, March 28, 2005

Role of the Loyal Opposition: Foreign Policy Edition

Hopeful libertarians at Libertarians for America are arguing over what foreign policy agenda the Democrats need to lay out between now and 2006. Elsewhere, Matt Yglesias is proposing that since the Democrats want troops out, any Iraq news that make things look better is good for them, not bad.

Which brings to mind a key point about how democracy works. Not just as two (or more) ideologies vying for power, but as a free-market system where the competitors influence the actions of each other for the benefit of the consumer.

The Democrats are the opposition party. It is not their sole duty to lay out a specific “alternative path”. It is their duty to point out when the ruling party is acting wrongly. Maybe it is pointing out the flaws in the general policies and platforms of the governing party, but also it might just be pointing out the technocratic foibles and official excesses of the policies that are inacted. (Similarly, the governing party’s duty is not just to come up with a platform to follow, but to run the government officially.)

The Democrats can’t do this by creating one separate policy, and constantly insisting that it’s the best one. Why? Well it’s:
-head in the sand to what is going on;
-it eventually amounts to pornography for ideologists who don’t ever have responsibility about how their policies will actually play out;
-it removes people who don’t agree with either policy from having any role in politics at all, and
-it gives the administration too much of a pass when it comes doing bad things under policies the opposition agrees with (the proverbial example being Thatcher’s poll tax, a policy so unpopular that caused riots, but wasn’t stopped before then because the Labor party didn’t want to get involved).

In this case, look at how Democrats sticking to one path would pan out. Do they argue in favor of the war in Iraq, but better? Then the people who disagreed with the war are left out and there’s no discussion of the wider nature of our strategy. Do they argue against the war regardless? Then the people who feel the war was good, but that the administration has messed up many things are alienated, and if the administration has a majority behind the policy, it can enact that policy in any corrupt, inefficient, or politicized way it likes. The oppositions job is to make opportunistic pot-shots, not because they need to set themselves up as a specific alternative, but so the governing party is kept honest.

I think this applies to most domestic programs, but one should remember that foreign policy and security issues are incredibly hard for the opposition. The executive is always granted a great deal of political capital in these matters. He gets the bully pulpit, gets to determine all actions that actually happen, has access to all classified information, and is presumed to be acting in American non-political interest (until proven otherwise). The on instance of a President paying any price for foreign policy actions was rebellion from within his own party and in a fairly catastrophic circumstance (Johnson, ’68). In comparison, opposition parties that have focused on criticizing the President during war have suffered pretty humiliating defeats (the Federalists during War of 1812, non-Democrats during the Mexican War, Democrats during the Civil War, Democrats in 72, and to some degree the 2004 loss).

Indeed, most calls for “coherent foreign policy alternative” are not from strategists trying to create a balanced political climate, but agents with specific foreign policy goals. Do not let your belief about what the best policy is, convince you it is also what the Democrats need to do to win (in a purely positivist analysis at least).


Thursday, March 24, 2005

Secularism through reponsibility

I do not want to end up with an American-style of politics with us all going out there beating our chest about our faith.*

Tony Blair is cute, and like facing a good bettor in poker, I can never figure out his political strategy. He always seems to be blundering through mishaps, but when you look at it, for all his failures, it’s clear there’s no effective way to attack him. Maybe he made this speech at the faith conference to shore up his left and distance himself from Bush. Maybe he made it so the focus would be on his decree about British politics, and not horse race like his opponent Michael Howard has a chance in hell. Who knows.

The funny thing is that as this is getting reported in the American press, it’s all “Blair, who is reluctant to talk about his religious convictions…” in the snide “that liberal foreigner is only saying this because he doesn’t like Christianity” way. Ha, I say, ha. Blair is often the loudest Christian in all of England, with terms like “Christian socialism” or “communitarianism” casually thrown around. For those religious liberals out there who think that the left needs to take back “moral issues” in terms of poverty and community, he’s the guy to emulate, you hear me?

But I think this is a wonderful contrast really for those of you who think the wall between Church and State is all important in America. Look at our Constitution, and where it has gotten us in terms of curbing the influence of religion. Now look at England, a country where in legalisms the Church is still attached to the state, but has a much more gradualist and purely democratic approach to law making and social policy. They have moved to the point where the politicians keep out coercive religious influence all on their own, and don’t need any from a bill of rights.


* Blair apparently got a sneak preview of last night’s West Wing, where the agnostic, pro-choice, minimum wage raising, Californian, intellectual, winner of the Republican primaries suddenly worries how he’s going to convince the Republicans to vote for him in November. There was a stirring speech at the end where he said “if you ask politicians to make religious promises, they’re only going to lie to you”, and then half of his delegates at the convention abandoned him. And then the Democrats accused him of being too far to the left.


Little Known Fact of the Day: Taxes

United States Constitution
Article 1
Section. 7.
Clause 1: All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives;

Talk about antiquated procedures!

In all the political discussions about taxes in the past few years, most of them based around what the President decides to push for, does anyone mention that it’s not his responsibility? His committees shouldn’t be the one to judge, his national campaign shouldn’t be about the tax system. It’s the House. Which goes to show how far we’ve gone from the legislature based system of government our founders wanted, and instead to
one based on the charisma of the executive.

I’d love for Chief Justice Scalia to strike down some tax bill because his originalism says the President should not have had such a heavy hand in that matter.

But we’re not just denying the letter of the law, but even more so the spirit.

Why did the founders impose this restriction? Determining how much money to take from the people should not rest with an aristocratic and disproportionate body, or a “big picture”-focused executive (like George III), but with the legislature most closely connected to the people. If anyone is going to take their money, then it should be the elected officials who would pay the greatest price.

The founders did understand the virtues of democratic accountability. Even if they didn’t trust the average commoner to say much of use about the Ambassador to Switzerland, they had every right to vote directly and equally on the guy who raised (or lowered) their taxes.


Oh Joy

I was wrong on Tuesday. Apparently the conservative-movement really does see that the American Constitution is getting in their way. This is not the joyous day I had hoped it would be though.

Devout followers of the Schiavo drama probably noticed today’s Ann Coulter article on the evil of the court that is killing someone. I’m not sure if it’s the state court, the state appeals court, the state Supreme Court, or the federal court that she’s criticizing as being a lone and arbitrary blood-thirsty evildoer, but she certainly has a beef with one or all of them. She goes so far as to utter the quote that is the mast-line of this page:

President Andrew Jackson is supposed to have said of a Supreme Court ruling he opposed: "Well, John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it." The court's ruling was ignored. And yet, somehow, the republic survived.

Leave it to Coulter (a woman who I think Republicans should despise more for giving them a bad name rather than any Democrat should legitimately fear) to choose historical examples that are among the most heinously evil acts our government committed, when trying to defend the actions of the current administration. But this means I should probably defend my use of the quote then.

The courts and the strict legal meanings of the Constitution do not enforce themselves. It is the people of the government who effect our laws. And it’s easy to forget this, which is why I choose such a controversial quote to remind readers of that brightly highlighted time when it was very true. Even the Constitution in its clearest interpretation, could not stop our popular will when it’s got blood on its mind. Coulter has done her duty, however, and made me question whether I should keep that line up there. More thinking will occur.

In the meantime, some comments on hypocrisy and political dialogue. If you stand for a principle, and you fall short of that principle, then it is quite acceptable for people to criticize you for it, even if those people do not advocate that principle themselves. Why? Because you lied. If a Democrat advocates unions and living wages but treats her staff in a dramatically Randian fashion, then she is falling short of the platform she uses to get herself elected, and it’s ok for Republicans who don’t believe in such labor standards to criticize her as holding others to impossible standards. In fact, it is an important role of our political parties, to point out the lies, hypocrisies, and practical flaws of their opponents; otherwise we wouldn’t find out.

Similarly, if the Republicans choose to campaign for decades on the ideals of federalism, and hide behind that edifice when opposing Democratic legislation, then capricious disregard of federalist procedures when it comes to their own goals, is a very legitimate thing to point out. Saying “well you don’t believe in states rights, so why do you care?” is not a convincing argument about your lies.


Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Tyranny of the Majority, per se

Can’t imagine any liberal or libertarian reader of this blog thinking of the entire Schiavo dilemma and not think it’s a refutation of my anti-legal proposals. The Republican federal government moving swiftly to abrogate the courtsthe legal guardian, and hospice technocrats in the favor of appealing to a passionate faction, seems the ultimate thing our Constitution was designed to stop. (And sadly, I can’t imagine any conservative reader of this blog, period).

That’s a side problem with our Constitution itself being seen as a source of goodness and legitimacy. Anytime one political side is thwarted by it, they deny that it is the nature of the Constitution to thwart them and blame someone else, causing people to only remember when it protects them, not when it stands in there way. I wish this entire escapade would send more Republicans to my parliamentary way of thinking, but instead it will likely send them to Scalia’s rants about activist judges.

If anything, the most recent series of events should show how legal principles of limited government are not standing in the way of the majority doing whatever it wants, especially these days. Those curmudgeons at lewrockwell.com say it well:

But there is another problem that adds to the historic record in illustrating the fallacy that written constitutions can limit political power. Words are but abstractions, never equating with what they are intended to describe. As such, they must always be interpreted, and in our society such powers of interpretation have been assumed by the state, which has always given self-serving interpretations of both its powers and limitations. Humpty Dumpty understood this far better than most lawyers in declaring: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."

As the Schiavo case was unraveling in the halls of Congress, the thought kept running through my mind: under what constitutional authority is the GOP presuming to act? The commerce clause? National defense? The "general welfare" clause? (The latter didn't seem to apply as this legislation was designed for only one family!) The answer became quite obvious: the federal government operates on the principle that its powers extend to whatever it chooses to regulate!

This is the lesson to be learned by those who still embrace the illusion of limited government: once you create a political system - which, by definition, enjoys a legal monopoly on the use of force - there is no way to keep that power from being exercised in ways that large numbers of people desire. So understood, the best that can be said about the Constitution is that it continues the deception of keeping the government from doing all the terrible things that it does!

So let’s see. Our Congress, in order to accomplish this, has a) acted immediately without any “wise” deliberation, b) used its powers of subpoena to extraordinary degree, c) met no differing opinion in either House or the executive, d) took over a matter that belonged to the states, e) acted without even any reference to what legal view gives them power over this matter. It really is acting like a parliament anyway. Now why shouldn’t we just do away with the whole thing, so we can get rid of silly things like pork for southerners or the electoral college as well?


Thursday, March 17, 2005

Torture: Technocracy in Action

I could go on this subject for hours. Who couldn’t? How doing so would mean privileging our side. The public opinion costs across the world. Countering pseudo-utilitarians with more personal costs. The difference between abstract theory of it and the always degrading practices. Discussions of it’s portrayal in the media. But as I said in the last post, there really isn’t anyone to argue with, no one trying rational defenses of it anyway. Two things though:

1. We do not need any law saying it’s ok to torture in certain situations. The “ticking time bomb”(TTB) and obviously right hypotheticals are just that, obviously right. If an agent knows for 100% certain that breaking laws and human rights will save hundreds of lives, do any of us imagine that this official or officer will not do so? After the lives are saved, do any of us think that they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law?

Just as the government is willing to disregard the Constitution when it feels necessary and answer questions later (be it extraordinary rendition, or making Social Security), so are government officials willing to disregard military law if it will definitely save lives. And our democratic legal system, with input from juries, prosecutors, judges, and executive clemency, is not going to punish them. When they’ve been right.

So if one were to argue “well there are scenarios when we wouldn’t let them off the hook, or they believe they wouldn’t be understood, but I want the FBI to torture people nonetheless”, that might require a different law. But then this does not include the usual TTB hypothetical.

2. What does economics tell us? Well lets look at the costs and benefits.
Benefits: Preventing further death and destruction (sometimes only probabilistically)
Costs: Pain to victim (innocent or guilty), public opinion, creating a culture that dehumanizes prisoners and trains guards to be without compassion, letting blood-lust affect the decision making process, can’t be undone.

Sometimes those benefits will outweigh those costs. Unfortunately sometimes they won’t, and while our public servants are good at internalizing those benefits, they aren’t good at internalizing those costs. So make them do so. Have a $5 million torture purchase. An officer can get a warrant to torture when they’ve satisfied some warrant condition like Dershowitz suggests (although because of the immediate nature of possible threats, I’m willing to be very lenient here), and pays $5 million from their budget. Maybe it’d go to the tortured’s family, maybe it’d go to some distant charity, maybe foreign aid, who knows. Just the agency loses money in a way it really would rather not.

A lot of liberals are looking at this torture argument from such a legal hard-and-fast perspective, saying that while the TTB scenario might be tempting, it opens a slippery slope. Does TTB mean you’d torture 10 guys, 9 of whom are innocent and 1 who is guilty? Slippery slopes aren’t a problem in economics, because motives and rationales are all gradual anyway. Find out what the total cost (to society, American efforts, emotional harm to the victim, etc) is, make the torturers internalize that, and ask them if it’s still worth it. The difference between torturing 1 guy who certainly has the knowledge, and 10 guys when one of them has it, is about $45 million.


Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Torture: Stop Enabling Them

Congress is dealing with proposals to end “renditions” to other countries of suspected terrorists. Now, this country only has a very low level debate about tortute going on (try as I might, I couldn’t find any actual defense of “torturing people because of a ticking time bomb” going on outside Freeper-town, and I’m not using them as my straw men) so it’s hard to actually deal with arguments about torture. It’s become a playground for liberals to hate the military, and a way for conservatives to tell their supporters that liberals automatically fault the military.

Did Gonzales write that anti-Geneva Convention memo? Probably. Has he stood behind it? No. Does it directly apply to torture? No. It probably is only the justification for things like Guantanamo Bay, which we’ve known about since 2001.

Anyway, because of all this wishy-washy-ness, I think we can comfortably say that torturing prisoners is against the 8th Amendment banning “cruel and unusual punishment”. You may think these civil liberties are outmoded “suicide pacts”, but I think we can all agree that a) the Constitution forbids these actions (both via the 8th amendment and the 14th one) and b) the majority of the American public does too.

(If you think this rendition is perfectly appropriate for the times we live in, well then I probably don’t have to convince you of the uselessness of the Constitution. Also: you scare me. Yes Yes you.)

But what we have now, is the executive branch sending suspects it wants information out of, to other countries, where they are tortured and we are given the information. The opposition party, sensing the public supports them on this issue, demands to pass a law that would halt this activity. The party in power uses procedural constraints to stop said vote.

Wow, asking other countries to violate our Constitutional rights. That’s a great idea. I guess the government can also run the school system, if it makes sure to subcontract out the work through Switzerland. Actually, there’s already considerable evidence that the NSA uses Britain to spy on us. So I guess none of this is new, but is really a great spin on how ineffectual our hard-and-fast limitations on government action are. Heck, maybe this will make Scalia finally care about what the rest of world opinion is.

So against both popular will and Constitutional limitations, the governing party uses the separation of powers to surreptitiously treat prisoners in ways that our founding fathers saw as the most pre-eminently important thing to stop.


Populism Against Liberalism

For anyone that has read the classic political science treatise Liberalism Against Populism, then EconLog brings us a definitive skewering of how that book applies to public policy.

Riker's problem: He suffers from what I call "the Mathematician's Fallacy." For the mathematician, you have either proved your result or you haven't. There is no middle ground; either you have absolute certainty, or no business speaking. And that's crazy. Every day all of us makes insightful, useful, intelligent observations about the world that fall short of absolute certainty. More certainty would be good, but what we now have is a lot more than zero.

I guess I like economics a lot because it tries harder for objectively provable statements than most of social scientists and politicians, with quantifiable data and predictive power, but it also is fine dealing with uncertainty and statistical predictions.

And Riker’s argument is fine if you’re justification for democracy is that it reflects the will of the people, the only true good. But we know democracy is good for many other reasons. It allows people to settle grievances about policy through productive means. It stops rulers from doing things that harms 80% of the people, which is generally were a lot of the true badness in history comes from. The laws are more likely to be enforced well if the people doing the enforcing believe in them. Etc.


Putting Your Money Where Your Irony Is

In relation to what Dennis and Wonkette have suggested, I’m interested in starting a betting pool on how long till the Administration names their Social Security plan “freedom accounts”. Bush is busily touring to promote the plan for 60 days now, so it's a good time to expect any more changes in it's naming.

-First Half of April
-Second Half of April
-First half of May
-Month after the “60 day window” of campaigning for it
-Between June and November Elections
-Dude we'll be arguing over this till 2006 Elections
-You are deluding yourself, till 2008 elections

Put $2 down (a Jefferson), and the first time we hear Bush say those words, is when I take that to be the Administration line.


Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Munchkins to the Supremes

Likely next Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Antonin Scalia gave one of his trademark polemics yesterday, upset about activist liberal judges on the courts. Despite my concerns Democrats don’t pay enough attention to this as a deep issue beyond opportunistic rhetoric, I also clearly agree with most of academia that Scalia’s own philosophy of “originalism” is pretty biased and unconvincing.

Scalia didn’t stick to just bare bones logic of how the court should work as he usually does, but also discussed the real world costs of SCOTUS trampling.

Citing the example of abortion, he said unelected justices too often choose to read new rights into the Constitution, at the expense of the democratic process.
"Abortion is off the democratic stage. Prohibiting it is unconstitutional, now and forever, coast to coast.”

“the latest example of politics on the court that has made judicial nominations an increasingly bitter process.”

And judges are important, since our legislatures can’t vote on every single disagreement and enforcement of the law. What more, I’m sure we all agree with Dennis that legitimate democracies should be able to make promises and keep them in some way.

I guess Scalia and I agree on the harm the tension between “the inevitable drive to enact personal policy preferences” and “unelectable judges” is creating. He thinks this simply means certain judges and political parties need to hold more discipline. I think it’s a silly system riddled with inherent contradictions and inefficiencies.

Most ironic lime of course “Scalia, who has had a prickly relationship with the media”. Let me know any articles about speaking events by Thomas or O’Connor on recent decisions you have.


Taking the NP out of NPR

David Velleman on Left2Right discusses principles against government funded mass media:

One of the things that has impressed and dismayed me in these discussions threads is the extent to which many people do not regard the government as expressing their will, or even a collective will in which they participate. This perception is inimical to representative self government. And it is inevitably heightened insofar as the government has a distinctive personality, from which some people will inevitably feel alienated. This danger is one of the many reasons for separating church and state, for example. Insofar as the government takes on the personality of a particular faith, some portion of the population will be unable to see it as an extension of themselves, or its actions as expressing a collective will to which they contribute. This reason against giving the state the face of any particular faith is also a reason against giving it the face of any particular anchor man.

Glad to see him join the pro-democracy bandwagon, acknowledging there are important effects on participatory spirit when people aren’t involved.

Of course, apparently NPR only gets 1-2% of it’s funding from federal grants, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a discussion to be had. PBS still exists. Maybe NPR should get more money. Most importantly, Americans – even American liberals – tend to be far too willing to restrict public debate to hypothetical considerations, when there are a wealth of liberal democracies with various social programs we should be happy to use as suggestions and test cases.

I really appreciate the British model of mass media political discourse. Their station-of-record, the BBC, (generally) has a no-nonsense facts approach, and delivers most of the factual information about the world to people. The newspapers are completely biased rags that give their interpretation on this common pool of facts, with no apologies about where they are coming from. This common pool of knowledge means there’s some agreement about the world, and the opportunity for partisan analysis stays in places that acknowledge it. American television stations and newspapers, in contrast, try to pretend they are unbiased but consistently deliver slanted coverage or number of stories. So people watch and read different sources, claim they have the unvarnished truth, and become increasingly polarized without knowing it.

But this ties into larger discussions about where the media of the future is headed, especially as information technology makes limited distribution require government intervention for protecting copyright. Maybe we’ll move towards more government supported mass media. The covertly charitable approach of my friends towards some media (“well I’ll buy the DVD’s when they come out”) makes me think that overtly charitable beg-a-thons are at least superior to that. Maybe sacrificing advances in IT is preferable to collapsing the mass media industry.

Hmmm. I’m uncertain about many of these questions. The government’s mandate to create copyright laws though, via Constitutional stricture, presents even more problems. Why should the Supreme Court define “fair use” instead of our legislature?

Panaceas anyone?


Monday, March 14, 2005

Trouble in Mideast Today

Juan Cole writes that the negotations around forming an initial government in Iraq are collapsing.

The US spiked the Iraqi parliamentary process by putting in a provision that a government has to be formed with a 2/3s majority. This provision is a neo-colonial imposition on Iraq. The Iraqi public was never asked about it. And, it is predictably producing gridlock, as the UIA is forced to try to accommodate a party that should be in the opposition in the British system, the Kurdistan Alliance.

Likewise, in France, a simple majority of the National Assembly can dismiss the cabinet. Likewise in India. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the 2/3s super-majority is characteristic of only one nation on earth, i.e. American Iraq. I fear it is functioning in an anti-democratic manner to thwart the will of the majority of Iraqis, who braved great danger to come out and vote.
It is all to the good if the Shiites and Kurds are forced to come to a set of hard compromises. But not everything can be decided at the beginning of the process. Some issues (Kirkuk is a good example) must be decided by a long-term negotiation. I perceive this latest Kurdish demarche to consist in a power play where they grab all sorts of concessions on a short-term basis, just because they are needed to form a government, even though no national consensus has emerged on these issues.

Yes, sometimes majoritarian rule is harsh, but rarely can you get any more peaceful and just compromises with artificial limits.


Tax Code: Economic Goals

It is important we figure what our goals are:

1. Take in a great deal of revenue for our government (government spending is about 4% of GDP)
2. Be progressive. We are aware that people with less money need their money more, even if we disagree on the degree.
3. Be efficient. To not hurt the market, or encourage perverse behavior (like black markets).
4. Be malleable for technocratic aims. Targetted tax cuts and penalties are a useful function the government can use, assuming we can trust our democratic representatives at all.

These are not all hard and fast rules, just various costs and benefits to consider. We must keep in mind that advancing in one goal often has draw backs in others. The ideal tax code finds the diminishing returns we can get from each of these. I think ideologues on both sides need to recognize that these are separate and often competing goals. We are probably not at the current optimum, but reaching that optimum does not require just moving in 1 direction on 1 goal.

For instance, I am in favor of a small sales tax. I am well aware of how regressive a sales tax is, because the lower you are on the economic scale, the greater a fraction of your spending you consume. But let’s look how much inefficiency can be erases.

In the traditional supply demand curve, the points where supply and demand intersect, is the set price, and the large triangle below the demand curve before that point and above the supply curve, is the surplus generated. Economists and technocrats generally want to maximize this surplus as much as possible, whether it is surplus that goes to producers, workers, consumers, or the government even.

So let’s add a tax on the supply curve. Just a fixed increase of X on each marginal unit, so we draw a parallel line to the supply curve, a little higher. The causes a higher set price. There’s much less surplus between consumers and producers now, but most of that is government income, which is fine.

The deadweight loss is the little bit cut off the nose of the triangle. That would be the people who were somewhat undecided about buying or selling before, and now that the tax has added costs, it’s not worth the trouble. This is small, but it’s the only inarguable bad part of government taxation. Deadweight triangle.

Note, the size of this triangle is directly a function of tax level X, something on the order of X squared. (in this idealized picture, around 1/3 x^2). Such an increase in the inefficiency of X, means we are pretty concave for X (ie, we’d rather two taxes at half the level than one tax at that level).

Now take two different markets side by side. Your government needs to bring in a certain amount of revenue, let’s say T. So the tax on both markets needs to add up to that, or X + Y = T. Your inefficiency loss is going to be X^2 plus Y^2. Pretty clearly, having X and Y at the same level is much better than having only X market be taxed, in fact it creates about ½ less inefficiency. This is great.

One would extrapolate from that, that “double taxation” complaints are BS. In order to generate as little inefficiency as possible, you should have as many taxation methods as possible. The total tax load could still be small or big, but the number of methods you use are still important. Idealistic notions of just taxing one form of wealth (property, or consumption, or tariffs or …) are extremely inefficient, why pundits shouldn’t be in charge of technocratic policy.

Of course the sales tax is still regressive, but there has got to be points where the amount it is relieving the extremely high inefficiencies elsewhere that balances out regressive effects. Not to mention the rest of your tax code (such as income, savings, and property taxes) can be engineered to balance and create overall progressive codes.

Math is fun.


Tax Reform: Guaranteed to get worse

The Constitution, via the 16th amendment, only lets the federal government generate revenue on tax of income and tariffs, and the rest falls on the states. Especially as the burden for governance has moved towards the federal government via our democratic culture, this is clearly silly. Even conservatives who feel that national defense is the only really legitimate aspect of our government, will acknowledge that this means the national government should have more taxing power than the sections. So agreed; constitutional limits make little sense in rapidly evolving economic matters.

The Bush economic team has made clear that their next goal after SS reform is reforming the tax code. They promise to be revenue neutral about it, but already this stirs a hornet’s next. Idealists insisting their own perfect tax code is our economic panacea, liberals arguing that shifting any more burden to the poor is anti-Christian, libertarians fearful this will actually be a tax increase.

Overall, there is a general cynicism by the public and a general eagerness by the lobbyists, despite that the purpose of said tax reform is to eliminate loopholes and complexity.

Care to reason why? A good computer scientist and security expert measures security by how many points of attack there are, and how strong the system is against attacks at these points.

Any major tax overhaul has to be supported by the executive, get through a couple committees in either house, and be passed by the Senate and House, and then goes to conference committee before final voting (when the final input by the executive will be just whether to veto his flagship bill or not).

Keen readers will see how many points of attack this system has. Moneyed interests that have investment in “loopholes” (which are just targeted tax cuts created by our democratic process to encourage things like savings, having children, research… not all excesses) aren’t going to let them die away, even for promises of “economic growth through simpler code”. Even if this president is as well intentioned as his proposals for overhaul sound, he is generally unable or unwilling to stop runaway “tragedy of the commons” free-for-alls among his party membership.

And as I’ll discuss in my next entry, there are some really good across the board things that could be done with the tax code too. It’s just a truism that we cannot trust our current system of government to do them well.


Friday, March 11, 2005

Public Opinion Watch: Terrorism Response

I’m sure it’s common belief that television as the reigning media influences how the electorate interprets the world. Good to have some data behind that.

Apparently liberals who got most of their news from TV became more pro-government in the days after the 9-11 attacks, compared to those who got their news from newspapers.

Like Nixon v Kennedy debates, this is not wholly good or bad. Viscerality can convince to change their outlooks when otherwise rationalization and status quo hold sway. Any anti-war person should remember that it’s widespread graphic depictions of war that made Vietnam and Abu Gahraib such debacles. But any pro-war person should accept that we are not going into our foreign policy with the most educated of intentions.

But I do wish it would mean there’d be less comment about the brainwashing of the liberal media..


Last Abortion Post for a while

The pro-choice feminists at Geekery Today are up in arms about laws making the death of a fetus murder. They point to a number of cases where people are being tried for ad-hoc unauthorized abortions, as murder.

They didn’t go through the extensive bureaucratic paperwork, privacy-invading parental notification measures, artificially inflated expense, traumatic harassment by screeching fundamentalists, or invasive surgery that the states of Michigan and Texas impose on young women seeking an abortion. And for that, the prosecutors are going after them with a charge of murder.

This is what happens when the laws we follow have no source among the people! You get conflict between the legislatures trying to place laws to make that super law as moot as possible, you get members of the government like prosecutors and judges using any excuse they can to stretch the law, you get massive mobs creating social coercion, you get people unwiling to exercise their rights, you get providers raising the costs of such operations, and you get juries slyly winking and convicting people in any technical case they can.

The reason democracy works isn't just because the will of the people is good. It's because the will of the people bleeds through in almost everywhere, and they are charged with enforcing the laws. It's nice when the majority of people enforcing a law actually believe in it.

So yay, Roe v Wade means confident and well to do people can get abortions. Otherwise, you may still get charged for murder. I'm sure we can find better options.


Populist/Leftist Ramblings: Credit Reform

It occurs to me that people may appreciate this blog more for generic politics but from what perspective I can give it, than single focus on the issue of constitutional reform. . We’ll see.

Inspired by the discussion over at EconLog about bankruptcy reform, I’ve had a number of thoughts along the line. If you’re looking for solid economic and pragmatic opposition to credit card reform, besides the rhetoric Paul Krugman has to use on the NYTimes page or how many numbers Brad DeLong uses, try this cup of joe.

The central premise for anyone beginning is this: if you are in debt (mortgage or credit card debt or bills paid via those) and can’t possibly pay, you can declare bankruptcy at personal loss to you, but in such a way that you can’t be charged for eternity. The legal and personal costs to achieve this are high, and economically speaking, the bill would raise them. Now banks and credit card companies know people might default on their debt, and so when they loan you money, the risk of you defaulting is part of the cost and premiums. By making it harder for people to default, this risk is reduced. The economic hope there is that lower risk rates of debtors defaulting will increase profits for the industry, and also pass on lower premiums to high risk borrowers through competition.

1. The bill is an explicit gift to the credit card industry, when without grandfather clauses. This is not that changing rates will be better necessarily only for the credit card industry. But, any high risk person who has already borrowed for mortgage or credit, at rates calculated using previous rules about bankruptcy, now is lower risk (and cost) to the industry but with the same rates charged to them. That surplus alone is huge motivation for credit card companies to push this bill. In contrast, anyone who borrowed money as a high-risk person, is paying premiums that include that risk, but doesn’t have the protection it assumed. (And if you think any bill that would make bankruptcy easier wouldn’t grandfather exception the people who had lower rates beforehand, ha.)

2. Low risk people aren’t affected. Drinking the Kool Aid about the free market and assuming that the lending industry responds to these incentives (something many would believe they don’t) is the only way to assume this is a good thing. Well if the lending market is competitive, low-risk borrowers already get charged rates independent from the risk by high rate borrowers (since a firm could set up shop that just serves low risk lenders).

This is only true for the degree that low risk and high risk people can be separated out. But the lending industry has gotten pretty good at that. So this bill is largely being sold to the American public saying that they will reap surplus from this, but it in fact won’t affect most people monetarily.

3. This does not affect the overclass. If you are dealing with sufficiently large amounts of money, there are ways to make bankruptcy easier, protect certain funds from bankruptcy, and evade debtors. Much of the country is cynical about how accountable rich people are in cases like this, and this bill is partially being sold as a way to stop people who are “gaming the system”. That is a lie, and the bill explicitly leaves open loop-holes for such asset protection. Now, there may be good economic reasons for loopholes – but it still isn’t doing anything to stop those people with the most money from gaming the system.

4. Most bankruptcies in the middle class are because of catastrophic losses. Divorces gone awry, medical losses, etc. These people are not gaming the system, and the bill is going to hurt them the most.


Thursday, March 10, 2005

Other Constitutions Alert: Finland

The ever mischevious Lew Rockwell blog points to interesting aspects of the Finnish Constitution.

What this means is that if the legislature wants to enact a statute that is unconstitutional, instead of having to actually amend the Constitution (with supermajority and other procedural requirements), the legislature can pass the questionable statute with the same supermajority and other procedural requirements otherwise required to amend the Constitution, and that law itself will be constitutional but it will not be viewed as having more fundamental normative implications than it would if it were put in the Constitution itself. Also, unlike amendments to the Constitution, it can be repealed in the same way a normal statute could be.

Huh, interesting idea. Anyone have a good reason why a government can’t repeal certain contemporary supermajority laws with a simple majority. It seems specifically useful in times of paranoia where it’s tempting (for the public) to ignore our civil liberties altogether. What we get is some laws and executive actions that don’t even consult the Constitution, and some attempts at overturning Constitutional laws. But these a-constitutional laws could get the job done temporarily, but also not be stuck on the books forever.


Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Mathiness is Key

Inspired by Libertarians for America's post on the public's budget priorities.

I come off as pretty as a pretty populist-majoritarian type of democrat (small d) in this blog. Like Winston Churchill saying “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”, it’s not a guaranteed form of legitimacy, but it’s the only one close to non-arbitrary and non-corrupt, in my eyes. So I’m generally against things that subvert interpretations of the will of the people. But this does not mean that the will of the people is always awesome. In particular, anything requiring hard logic or factual thinking can be subverted by a candidate who it willing to lie. “I can cut taxes/raise spending AND reduce the deficit” is a winning platform, possibly.

The public's lack of grasp of numbers, and also inability to do math, becomes very relevant here. Namely, people don't understand the budget at all.

If you polled "what should our foreign aid be" a majority gives a level higher than what it currently is

If you polled "should we cut or increase foreign aid", definitely cut wins. Why? Well partly the public believes our foreign aid is higher than it is. Although if you said "foreign aid is X. should it be raised or lowered", I doubt raised suddenly gets converts.

I think people's priorities, influence the budget in terms of what grows and what doesn't. If you took the existing budget, mapped those priorities for the study as instead growth rates, then you’d find an useful prediction for the next year.

But there's a huge difference of course between what's important and thus we spend a lot of money on it, and what's important and thus we should spend more money on it. Sadly our public and political system does not grasp that fact.

For instance, every time you hear studies of governmental growth, it's "non-defense spending rose 5% or such", why non-defense? Of course defense is important, that is why we spend a quarter of the federal budget on it. But why should we be less concerned about inflation and corruption and waste and the tax dollars it takes to pay that, in terms of it growing without check, than any other sector of government?

PS: But this does not lead me to believe that Constitutional limits are the solution to this problem. The Constitution does not teach citizens or legislators the difference between derivatives and integrals.


Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Ok, this is Minority Rule

Washington Post as an article on the developing fight over farms subsidies. The depressing part is listing the opponents of the bill and Senators from the states affected, and how incredibly important each is (Chairman of Finance, Chairman of Appropriations, Chairman of Agriculture, Majority Leader). Whatever you might say about the South, they are the ultimate munchkins. They have gamed our seniority based committee system and even in the already absurd Senate, weild an immensely disproportionate amount of power.

And thus will New York tax dollars go to continue subsidizing inefficient farmers and corporations, raising the price on the products they buy, while such profits are poured into campaign commercials that accuse them of being against the free market.


Filibusters and Minority Rule

Although the academic in me despises the inaccuracy of the term “minority rule” for descriptions of veto powers that minorities can exercise, the politician in me loves the rhetoric used against clearly anti-democratic procedures.

National Review Online, that bastion of non-partisan historical analysis, brings us a glowing description of how the House of Representatives did away with its own versions of filibusters. I find this amusing in many ways, from contrast to their William Safire born defenses of the filibuster as the tool of the educated in the Senate when Democrats and moderate majorities held sway, to its constant praise of Republicans in the 19th century and denigration of Democrats. Of course mapping the party’s positions in different cultures is very hard, but if anything back then the Democrats were the conservative party and the Republicans the liberal one. Thusly, their contrast of the idealistic and educated Republican from Maine with the menacing and stubborn knife-displaying Democrat from Texas is especially ironic.

The filibuster, and other minority-protection measures of the Senate, is the simplest example of why I distrust the “protections” our Constitution provides. One would expect the Democrats of now to know that liberal causes have been shafted by the filibuster far more than conservative causes, and to embrace any “nuclear option”, even one limited to the current focus of judicial nominees.

But the NRO article does not limit its lessons or praise to those who overturn minority-road blocks on judicial nominees, and instead speaks the gospel of democratic majoritarianism in every legislative action. Good article comrades!


Some posts ago Dennis defended some of these rules as “democracy’s ability to make promises”. And as we see in the formation of the Iraqi government, the idea of promising minorities certain future concessions so they can reach a compromise at the present is rather important. But it is clear that by modern standards, the original compact was not done under democratic legitimacy (only native, white, property owning, males could vote; the ratification through state legislature is nothing like a referendum; and the writing and ratification of the 13th through 15th amendments is the most suspect thing ever), and the irrelevancy of perspectives from 216 years ago becomes all the more damning.


Colonialists != Dictatorships

For those that do think terrorism is the pre-eminent evil of our time, I recommend you read Arab expert Juan Cole's piece on the history of Arab terrorism.

In contrast, authoritarian governments like that of Iraq and Syria, while they might use terror for their own purposes from time to time, did not produce large-scale indepdendent terrorist organizations that struck itnernational targets. Authoritarian governments also proved adept at effectively crushing terrorist groups, as can be seen in Algeria and Egypt. It was only in failed states such as Afghanistan that they could flourish, not in authoritarian ones.

So it is the combination of Western occupation and weak states that produced the conditions for radical Muslim terrorism.

Now I admit I'm tempted by the Orwellian view of terrorism and authoritarian states as endlessly feeding off eachother (the extremes of each providing excuses for the excesses of the other). It is very interesting, however, that home grown authoritarian governments are top of the line when it comes to effectively reducing terrorism, and it's only foreign oppressors and weak states that can't do it.

This would certainly lend credence to the administration's Kissingerian tendencies to support authoritarian governments that we get along with (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Russia, etc.) and create stricter laws here.


Friday, March 04, 2005

Over on LFA... Intellectual Property!

I can't resist wading into an argument over on Libertarians for America on copyright issues, because I've been thinking about this too much lately. Namely, how libertarian philosophies think about intellectual copyright problems. I’m going to do some drastic simplification here, but I don’t think it generates false results.

Copyright issues are, among many other problems, a contract issue. 1. The media companies want to develop and sell content that can only be used by the person they are selling to. 2. We know from revealed preference (ie, what people did in the day when copying was hard), that people would certainly buy such things. 3. We can also bet that if there was no way to keep IP from spreading, media companies wouldn’t develop or sell the content (at least like they do now). And we know technology is rapidly approaching that point.

Now there are many different types of libertarians. I’ve heard them described as 10 radicals sitting in a room each having different fantasies about what a libertarian utopia would look like. They are motivated by different goals. Some (anti-gov) just feel that the government is innately inefficient and can’t solve any problems without making things worse. Some (Coase) believes the market is the best, and the ideal world is a Coase theorem where everything is solved by people making contracts with eachother, which have 0-cost enforceability. Both these guys believe in the “free market”, but clearly in different ways. (Some think Lincoln was the greatest tyrant of the hemisphere, while others think Bush is the greatest president of modern times because he’s so much like Lincoln. Clearly opinions vary.)

Well an anti-gov libertarian would see pretty quickly that IP contracts can’t be enforced in any way except government intervention. And as it gets easier and easier to covertly violate IP laws, the government intervention to keep this industry alive at all, becomes more and intrusive. The solution is to make sure the government stays out of it altogether, and watch as copyright dies.

A Coase libertarian would feel the opposite. In a free market people definitely want to make these deals, and it’s just a matter of making someone who buys media stick to the contract of not distributing it. If the government can enforce such contracts for less cost than the benefit we get from such media’s existence (and given the economic size of the media industry, that is not hard to believe), then they should do so. Ideally we’ll eventually get better and more private ways of contract enforcement, but that is just a technocratic matter, and not an ideological opposition to copyright laws at all.

So um, finding out why you are libertarian (and Dev I suspect is a Coase libertarian), is important in determining these issues.

(Oh, and no, I do not think that if IP law didn’t exist, things would be fine as those who produce IP could just travel the road and sell merchandise and appearances. They can do that if they want to, and clearly some do, but there’s also a lot of economic value being generated by people who reject that choice.)


Never Heard That One Before

Just read over at one of my favorite wacky libertarian blogs about this proposed 13th Amendment at the beginning of Lincoln’s first term. Apparently in order to prevent secession, Congress tried to pass an Amendment promising it would never outlaw slavery. It got pretty close too. But the polarization has gone too far by that point, and the South had plenty of other complaints.

Just want you all to know how close our government got to making a constitutional decree that we could never outlaw slavery. (And if any historian has rebuttals, please let me know.)


In Which I Defend the Indefensible, Suprise to Everyone

Nothing gets the blogsphere more excited than someone talking about them, except maybe if it’s someone threatening to take away their liberties. Instapundit and DailyKos will rant daily how insane the media of the other side it and how it needs to be reigned in, but any attempt at doing so by the government is apparently verboten. Shrug.

Not that I endorse stretching campaign finance laws to the internet as is being proposed. Combining government’s inability to regulate speech (even commercial) with even a semblance of coherence and the very fuzzy nature of internet law, makes for a bad pie. But this is as a technocratic matter, not an ideological one.

But geez, we’ve already seen examples of blogs on both sides of the political spectrum taking cash from political candidates. Most Americans happily accept that curbing campaign funding makes some infringement on the first amendment. And it’s clear that congress has given up on its responsibility to protect free speech and just left that to the Supreme Court anyway, so why the commotion over this new law?

Of course without a first amendment we might be able to have reasoned discussions of the limits of political speech that doesn’t have to get settled by absolutism. But then, if we didn’t have a first amendment, “they” could eagerly push all sorts of laws, like arresting anyone who wrote disturbing stories, push arbitrary social mores, or stop discussion of governmental violations of human rights. Thank Jefferson that doesn’t happen.

Seriously though, my only question is, what are the laws about “give aways” on cable television? I understand that the government can set limit on the broadcast station because the federal government controls access there (never mind that with assuming that monopoly they’ve now gained the ability to regulate the main medium of communication in modern life), and so current campaign finance law says television stations can’t give free advertisements to one political position. Do they limit cable stations from doing so? I don’t think there’s a legal reason US internet providers can be more immune to media-law than cable providers can.


Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Starving the Beast…

As the current budgetary limitations are being cut to shreds by Congress, pundits are starting to repeat the mantra of "starving the beast".

In terms of shrinking the government, increasing spending without increasing income, so in the future the government is bankrupt and limited, is called “starving the beast”. It is a bad idea. It is a contradictory, foolish, unreliable, destructive idea. It is such a bad idea that it’s not that I need to convince conservative/libertarians that it is a bad idea, but that I need to convince liberal/populists that the conservatives and libertarians don’t even desire it. Small government economists and conservatives from Cato to Milton Friedman to Grover Norquist have abandoned it.

1. First order effects make second order effects look like girly men. The reaction to the change (increasing the government) in order to balance it (decreasing the government) has almost no reason to be greater than the change itself. [ In this aspect only is it different from lowering taxes without lowering spending. That is a first order effect limiting the size of the government.]

2. You’re in charge now - 10 years, not so much. Why would anyone believe that when they could decide what to cut now, they will put the decision to cut something off till much later. Will they still be in power (even if their party is, it’s unlikely to be the same ideology and personal support of programs)? A Republican may find that in 10 years the military will be cut instead, or new taxes raised, so the bloated social welfare program may continue on course. If the party thinks government programs can ever be reduced, why not do it now while they’re in charge. [Of course, they might not actually have the political power to cut things. But no reason to believe anyone will have more willpower in the future.]

3. The deficit itself is a great tool of the government. A Republican becomes a libertarian when they stop thinking of Alexander Hamilton as “the great intellectual who founded our capitalist system and fought that vile Democrat Jefferson”, and instead as “the devil incarnate”. Hamilton was a great believer in building central industries and central government through mercantilism. He explained that by selling government debt to businesses, they would now have an interest (read: dependency) on the government succeeding. Every increase in the debt not only distorts the market, but it also increases government control over industry. [On the plus side, Hamilton did hate France.]

What STB is, however, is a useful rationalization. Pork spending congressmen can tell their ideological supporters that this is a cunning plan. Pundits can sleep at night thinking this will save the nation later on. It’s an argument that is to be thought, but none of us should believe that Reagan or Bush do their actions because they will ultimately shrink the size of the federal government.


Find the Exception: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, US, China

Today, it is now the US, as SCOTUS has ruled that excecuting people under 18 when they committed a crime is unconstitutional.

Excellent news from an international relations point, as we can now join several treaties and global standards about the rights of a child. We are worldwide leaders in several standards about rights, but while still executing children we are somewhat lacking in our moral authority to convince other nations to sign the treaty.

Also good: we no longer kill children.

That being said, it is disgusting that we needed the Supreme Court to tell us this, and bad for a number of reasons. Reading the opinions, it is clear that subjective standards are responsible here and certainly no objective or strict judgement from the constitution. Justice Scalia pointed out "The court says in so many words that what our people's laws say about the issue does not, in the last analysis, matter: 'In the end our own judgment will be brought to bear on the question of the acceptability of the death penalty,"' When (in my opinion, not if) this reasoning eliminates the death penalty altogether (again), we can guarantee frustrated culture wars flaming up all over again.

Of course, we have an amendment that says "no cruel or unusual punishment" which our political system has decided that it is the responsibility of courts to enforce, not our democratic represenatives. As such, they do have to employ subjective decisions about what is cruel and unusual. Which is sad to leave up to unelected unaccountable justices.

No I don't think this is a matter of the Constitution doing good, btw. It's pretty clearly federalism that is responsible for executing juveniles in the first place. Only 19 relatively depopulated (edit: no, avg pop) states execute juveniles. Not even enough to hold a filibuster. The federal government does not execute that group, and I'm pretty sure if the federal government wrote all the rules on the death penalty instead of states, it would not be an issue.

PS: Is a 17 year old gang member a "child"? Excellent points can be made that in previous societies age of maturity was as early as 12. And current standards are only in place because of a) a desire to increase the high skill labor supply through more education and b) a desire to decrease the low skill labor market. Tough question, but as a society we clearly do set a standard at 18 for a number of reasons, and I sure as hell don't want us killing or sending to war anyone who couldn't vote no against the guys who decided that.