Sunday, April 20, 2014

15 things everyone would know if there were a liberal media

I was familiar with 13 of the 15 items on the list (all except #3 and #7; #11 seems unfair, as there's no evidence that this "Nixon strategy" is still used today). How many are you familiar with?

Obviously for some folks like me, I know most of the facts that annoy conservatives, yet I don't identify as conservative; but for the less politically engaged.... I wonder if, for most people, being "liberal" or "conservative" merely depends on which facts you know... or how those facts are presented. Did you know? Liberal and conservative are not the only options.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Study: US Is an Oligarchy, Not a Democracy

Due to the similarity between the two parties in the U.S. and enormous barriers facing any would-be third party, I have mused that the U.S. is almost a one-party state. I mean, okay, there are two parties, but the U.S. just doesn't feel like a democracy.

A new study applies some numeric analysis to the decisions that are made in Washington. I haven't actually read the study yet, but apparently it finds that Washington's behavior is strongly correlated with what the most elite want, not the common people. Apparently it doesn't directly say the U.S. is an oligarchy, but an oligarchy is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people--and you don't have to run a study to get the feeling that this is true, given some matching definition of "small".

Lawrence Lessig, formerly my favorite copyright activist, has turned himself into my favorite campaign finance reform activist. He points out that all members of congress (remember, that dysfunctional bunch of people that makes most decisions about federal law?) are completely dependent on campaign contributions in order to be re-elected, and therefore spend up to 70% of their time on fundraising. Isn't it logical to expect, then, that the behavior of lawmakers depends on what the funders want? Well, I ask you: how many funders are there?
  • 0.26% gave $200 or more
  • 0.05% gave the maximum amount to a single candidate ($2,600)
  • 0.01% $10,000 or more to (multiple) federal candidates
  • 0.000042% (132 Americans) gave 60% of all SuperPAC money spent in the last election
Lawrence Lessig suggests that 0.05% is the most relevant number in his TED talk about "The Republic We Must Reclaim":
And the question we need to ask is what does it do to them, these humans, as they spend their time behind the telephone calling people they've never met, but calling the tiniest slice of the 1 percent? As anyone would, as they do this, they develop a sixth sense, a constant awareness about how what they do might affect their ability to raise money. The become, in the words of "The X-files," shapeshifters, as they constantly adjust their views in light of what they know will help them to raise money, not on issues 1 to 10, but on issues 11 to 1,000. OK, now every single one of you know this. Yet, you ignore it. You ignore it. This is an impossible problem. You focus on the possible problems, like eradicating polio from the world or taking an image of every single street across the globe or building a fusion factory in your garage. These are the manageable problems...
Of course, this only works within limits: following the "money election", the masses ultimately do get to vote in the general election. But remember, there are only two choices, and both can be bought--not always, but the majority of the time. Moreover, in recent years we have seen remarkably effective tricks by elites in the media to alter public opinion. For instance, whenever the copyright debate reaches television, it is filtered through the lens of each giant media company on which the debate is presented, companies that have a vested interest in the excesses of the current system. And then of course there's the conservative media, which has made excellent use of language to frame the debate in such a way that poor people may actually feel good about lowering taxes on the "job creators" and removing social services as a natural consequence (my own parents are suckered by these lines of reasoning.) In fairness, the liberal media too have had some success promoting their false truths, for example equating sex with love and framing opposition to gay marriage as "bigotry" and equating it with racism (despite the fact that many opposed to gay marriage are not opposed to the right to have gay sex, at least for those not of their faith, and often have gay friends). Counterpoint: you may love your best friend, but if you're straight and don't have sex with him, you can't marry him. Ergo, sex is the heart of the issue, not love. That's why it's "gay marriage", not "love marriage", "civil union" or "personal partnership".

Anyway, looking into history, it is impressive how well the elites can capture the hearts and minds of the masses:
Percentage-wise very few Americans actually owned slaves, yet it's estimated that somewhere between half a million and 1.5 million men served in the Confederate Army. That's a large number of people willing to die to protect the rights of the rich to own another human being. I have little doubt that if there were some kind of mythical Civil War today in the US that millions would willingly lay down their lives to protect the money of the rich and receive absolutely nothing in return for their willingness to fight and possibly die for somebody else's money. - random guy
Whatever your opinion on these issues, you'd be foolish to claim that the media does not influence you, or to claim the media is not biased. Even if you don't watch TV, you can be influenced by your peers who do, who were in turn influenced by the media. If you're American and not convinced, take it from me, as someone living in Canada: Americans believe different things than the rest of the world because American media focuses on different issues and emphasizes different claims than media in the rest of the world. In Canada we have a lousy electoral system, nearly as bad as the U.S., yet our parties and media rely on different rhetoric and biases than your media, even though we're neighbors, speak the same language (er, apologies to Quebec) and share similar interests. Or listen to this guy:
I'm from Europe. I know what it is like if you actually DO have parties with diverging world views. There are countries where you actually have everything from far left to far right to choose from. When you have such a variety, you tend to not even notice the, from an Euro point of view, rather subtle difference between Republicans and Democrats. Every time I watch a debate between two of your candidates, it feels like the host is trying very, very hard to come up with questions that would not get the same answer from them. You get to hear the most outlandish topics being discussed because those are simply the ONLY petty rubbish they don't agree on. - random guy
The wealthy funders, it seems to me, can directly influence politicians on "issues 11 to 1,000" as Lessig says: but in order to influence politicians on "issues 1 to 10", issues that the public watches, they must influence the public too. And so they do.

See also: Move to amend

Monday, April 14, 2014

Nuclear reactors and airplanes

It's interesting to watch the different arguments from pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear forces. The pro-nuclear forces point out that building all new power plants as 100% renewable in the near future is completely impractical, but a mixture of renewables and nuclear is. They may point out that coal is the fastest-growing power source in the world, and that in a contest between the environmental impacts of coal and nuclear, there is no contest. They go on to point out the relatively high rate of deaths from coal power (such as direct deaths in coal mines, and indirect deaths from air pollution) per unit of power generated, compared to the few deaths from nuclear. They may even then point out that petroleum power in general has a poor safety record compared to nuclear worldwide.

The anti-nuclear crowd, meanwhile, focuses on a tiny number of accidents like Chernobyl (actually, there is no other accident like Cherlobyl) and a few problematic, but non-lethal, old reactor designs, like this pebble-bed reactor design from the 60s--as if costly problems are unique to the nuclear industry. As if the industry has learned nothing in the last 40 years. As if today's engineers cannot be trusted because previous generations occasionally made mistakes. After all, why pay any attention to accidents, deaths or cost overruns (or air pollution) in fossil-fuel power, when we can simply make every single new power plant a renewable power plant? Never mind that not every place in the world has plentiful sunlight or wind, or that the sun and wind rarely provide consistent and predictable power. They may argue that nuclear power produces too much toxic waste, or that it lasts too long--even though the amount of waste is very small for the amount of energy generated, and even though there are new designs on the horizon which can get 100 times more energy from the same amount of fuel, while simultaneously producing waste that is toxic for just 300 years rather than 3000+ years for older reactors. (okay, you can see which side of the argument I'm on.) They may point out that nuclear reactors can produce material fit for nuclear bombs--but this is largely intentional; there are numerous reactor designs that are poor sources for bomb material, and a couple that are specifically designed to prevent re-use of the fuel in bombs. In any case, in democratic countries it makes a lot more sense to rally against the bombs themselves rather than a potential source of bomb-making material, especially in countries like the U.S. that already have huge stockpiles of bombs.

They then move on to the argument about nuclear that is actually fair: that it often costs more than renewables.

Nuclear faces political and popular opposition, often due to outdated opinions based on a few unsafe reactors from the 60s and 70s (did you know that Fukushima reactor 1 was built before Chernobyl? Or that there is another nearby reactor run by a more safety-conscious company that survived the tsunami?). This opposition and regulatory uncertainty increases costs, plus reactors are traditionally built with the "craftsman" approach where every reactor is large, somewhat unique, and built on-site. It seems to me that costs could be reduced greatly if nuclear reactors were mass-produced like trucks (small reactors seem to work great for nuclear subs!) and distributed around the country from factories, and if they used passive failsafes to make uncontrolled meltdowns "impossible" so that outer containment chambers could be less costly.

But the public opposition is no small barrier to overcome. Remember how a Tesla car makes nationwide news whenever a single battery pack is damaged and catches fire, even though there are 150,000 vehicle fires reported every year in the U.S.? You can expect the same thing with small modular reactors--barring some terrible disaster, all sorts of problems with petroleum power plants will be scarcely noticed, while a single minor nuclear incident will make nationwide headlines. Similarly, despite the many casualties and massive damage inflicted by the enormous earthquake and tsunami in Japan, my news sources have delivered vastly more news about Fukushima (the power plant, not the prefecture) than the rest of the disaster, even though the power plant is a relatively small part of it. Such reporting biases surely make potential nuclear investors nervous.

I think if the aviation industry were maligned the way the nuclear industry is, it would never have gotten off the ground, so to speak. While the raw data would say flying is as safe as driving, if not safer, people would actually believe that flying is more dangerous, so not many people would want to fly. But think about the other effects of negative public opinion: countries would enact laws to prevent flying near cities on the basis that they might crash into a community at any moment. Airports would have be built far from populated areas to keep the flying menaces away, which would decrease even further the number of customers, since they would have to drive a substantial distance to get to the airport in the first place. Due to the low number of customers, flights would cost three or four times as much, and much fewer flights would be available because for some paths there would not be enough customers to run flights weekly, let alone daily.

Finally, although this hypothetical world might have fewer airplane accidents than our world does in absolute terms (because there would be so many fewer planes), flying in this world would actually be more dangerous, because that world hasn't had the opportunity to make tragic mistakes and learn from them. Although at some point they encounter diminishing returns, plane crash investigations generally lead to safer planes. Since air travel is commonplace in our world, we have had enough plane crashes to learn how to make planes that are very safe--not just "on par" with cars, but thousands of times safer. In other words, if people hysterically avoid planes because they believe they are unsafe, in the long run this actually keeps them less safe. Ironically, when you put two different facts together...
  • That people are afraid of flying despite the safety record
  • That people are willing to fly despite their fears
...this probably explains why flying is so safe. If the media treated fatal plane crashes as "ordinary" events like fatal car crashes are, people wouldn't be as afraid of flying, and then the plane builders would have a much smaller incentive to make planes safer. So to reach the maximum safety level, we as a society have to be irrationally afraid of flying, but not so afraid that we stop flying.

So it is in the nuclear industry: if we build very few reactors because there is a tiny chance of disaster, then each reactor we do build will be very expensive and it'll be hard to learn how to make them perfectly safe, because we won't have the benefits of experience. But if we build small reactors in large numbers, we can learn to build them cheaply, and their safety, cost, longevity and efficiency will improve over time (even though, like airplanes, nuclear reactors are already much safer than the most common alternative.)

So if we'd like nuclear power that is cheap and safe, it is clear what we must do: build more reactors!