Sunday, September 28, 2014

Could Ellora's Cave Be More Pathetic and Pernicious?

Updated Below

I was traveling much of the day yesterday, so I missed the news that romance publisher Ellora's Cave is suing Jane Litte and her blog Dear Author for "defamation." Jane reported on EC's apparent failure to pay EC authors royalties that were due, on authors calling for a boycott of EC-published books, and on related matters, and it seems EC responded the way powerful entities sometimes do when their abuses are exposed: they sued. For more on what's happening here and why it's so important that authors stand with Jane and Dear Author, I recommend in particular "Ellora's Cave Sues Dear Author: Hello Streisand Effect," at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

I've opined many times that we're living through a revolution in publishing, a revolution that promises more opportunities, freedom, and profits for authors, and better choice, convenience, and prices for readers. The publishing establishment is trying to impede that progress in a variety of ways: propaganda; marginalizing critics; calls for government intervention; and now, it seems, litigation designed to frighten and silence critics of entrenched interests.

(For a fascinating and disturbing look at this phenomenon in the context of the CIA aligning with establishment media to destroy a muckraker's reputation, don't miss this must-read from Ryan Gallagher at The Intercept: "Managing a Nightmare: How the CIA Watched Over the Destruction of Gary Webb.")

Jane says she's going to keep her readers updated about progress in the suit. She might set up a legal fund. If she does, I'll certainly contribute, and I hope so will anyone else who cares about authors, readers, and the importance of stopping corporate interests from using spurious lawsuits to chill free speech.


response I wrote offline to some people quite fairly pointing out that Ellora's Cave is not an establishment publisher:

I think maybe our disconnect is that you guys are focusing more on individual distinctions, while I'm focusing more on higher-level commonalities. It's been my experience that different approaches like ours can sometimes cause argument, because depending on what you zero in on, any two things can be said to be different (apples and oranges look and taste different) or to be the same (apples and oranges are both fruit).

The post I wrote is about power dynamics in publishing. As I think should be reasonably clear from our discussions here (and my posts elsewhere), I don't trust asymmetrical market power anywhere I see it, and despise its abuses no matter how or in what system it manifests itself. This is why I make connections between politics and publishing, and between establishment publishers like Hachette and upstarts like EC. Of course it's perfectly accurate to say, "New York Publishing is not the Democratic Party/Republican Party/Wall Street!" Or "Hachette is not EC!" But it's the commonalities that concern me here, not the differences. Except as a straw man, identifying and examining those commonalities doesn't translate into "The Big Five=the Democratic National Committee," or "Ellora's Cave=Hachette," and it's a bit silly to suggest otherwise.

Mike said, "I'm reminded of the line about the guy with the hammer to whom everything looks like a nail." Indeed, and there's a corollary: a guy afraid of picking up a hammer will live in denial that nails even exist. Though I'm not sure argument by allegory is well calculated to shed light here rather than heat.

Let me put it this way. If EC doesn't believe its suit is going to cause a massive backlash and result in new authors being afraid to sign with them, it can only be because: (i) they're so desperate they think they have nothing to lose; (ii) they believe they have such asymmetrical market power that authors will submit new manuscripts to them no matter what; or (iii) both. These power dynamics are the connections and commonalities I see between EC and establishment publishing. I get that you don't see them, and that's okay. I'm glad we all agree that EC's behavior here is outrageous.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Is Conflict Bad for Publishing?



I’m a member of a list serv peopled by various prominent voices in publishing, and this morning I had an exchange with one person I thought was so illustrative of some of the worldviews at work in the revolution in the industry I wanted to reprint it here. The discussion started because of something Nate Hoffelder wrote about Authors United over at The Digital Reader:

So after not taking sides in taking out a $104,000 advert in the NYTimes, and after not taking sides in sending a letter to Amazon’s board of directors (and then revising it so it was even more insulting), Authors United is now going to not take sides by calling for Amazon to be investigated for antitrust violations... Tell me, does anyone else think it’s time to simply come out and call AU for what it is, a publishing industry astroturfing group?

Which led to this exchange. My thoughts in regular font; the other person’s in italics.

I think Authors United are just trying to do what they think is best for them, and I don’t really see why they should be blamed for that.

I’d like to substitute a few new subjects in that sentence to test the validity of its underlying principle:

“I think Goldman Sachs is just trying to do what they think is best for them, and I don’t really see why they should be blamed for that.”

“I think defense contractors are just trying to do what they think is best for them, and I don’t really see why they should be blamed for that.”

“I think gerrymandering politicians are just trying to do what they think is best for them, and I don’t really see why they should be blamed for that.”

So unless you are arguing that “just trying to do what they think is best for them” is an automatic shield against criticism, I think you have to modify what you said above. Something else is causing you to sympathize with Authors United (which is obviously fine), but I don’t think it makes sense to suggest that thing is merely “they’re just trying to do what they think is best for them.”

My own belief is that a group that’s trying to do what’s best for them at the expense of the wider society of which they’re part is indeed deserving of criticism, and this is precisely the root of my criticism of Authors United (well, that and the embarrassing disingenuousness).

It’s no more disingenuous than what various self-publishers are doing, taking the side that feels most beneficial to future careers.

I imagine you could find individual instances of various self-published authors who’ve said disingenuous things. If you can find anything as consequential and prominent as a group like Authors United claiming not to take sides even as it urges the DOJ to investigate Amazon, I’d be curious to hear about it. Certainly I have my own biases, and it’s possible I’m missing something, but I just can’t imagine what you’re referring to here. 

Astroturfing is a very specific thing, and as an accusation it can only be stood up if there’s evidence that the group is being funded by, manipulated by, or organised by someone within the industry. The fact that their aims fit in neatly with the publisher’s aims is not, by itself, enough to make the accusation of astroturfing stick. It just means they happen to have similar aims - and afaik, for Authors United, that aim is to get Amazon to stop penalising authors for Hachette’s actions.

As I’ve said before, I agree with all of the above -- except for the notion that Amazon is “penalizing” authors. More on this below.

Personally, I think the sanctions are a shitty thing for Amazon to do. Whether Amazon or Hachette are “right” is anyone’s guess - I’ve no idea of the details of their negotiation, pretty much like everyone else, so it’s very hard to make a call. But deliberately damaging someone’s sales is a nasty tactic...

If anyone has a suggestion for how a retailer could exercise any negotiating leverage against a supplier without at some point reducing or refusing to stock the supplier’s inventory, I’d like to know what that thing could be. I’ve asked this question many times and no one at Authors United has proposed anything. And if Amazon is deliberately damaging Hachette author sales, why has Amazon proposed three different ways to fully compensate those authors for any damage they incur as a result of the Amazon/Hachette impasse? Three different ways that were all immediately dismissed by Authors United and Hachette with no counterproposal other than “capitulate to whatever Hachette is asking of you.”

Part of the disingenuousness that so fundamentally characterizes Authors United is precisely this “targeting authors” and “sanctioning authors” line of rhetoric. You can make a good case that authors are collateral damage in the Amazon/Hachette dispute. In fact, I wouldn’t know how to argue otherwise. But to suggest that Amazon’s aim is to damage authors directly makes little sense (with all the media sympathy garnered by the plight of these authors, I think you’d be on firmer ground arguing that Hachette is deliberately using them as bargaining chips). You’ve imposed a quite stringent burden of proof for accusations of astroturfing; why are you so comfortable with your certainty that Amazon is “deliberately damaging someone’s sales,” when there are other -- and far more plausible -- explanations easily available? How could Amazon’s attempts to compensate those authors -- again, attempts all rebuffed by Authors United and Hachette -- coherently be said to be further evidence of Amazon’s desire to damage those authors’ sales?

I think what’s sad is that this has turned into a mess of identity politics, which is causing much more, and much uglier, conflict than there needs to be. It is a shame because there are some important issues that need broader discussion, but that discussion has now mostly been poisoned by ego.

To me, this feels like decrying the quality of online discourse generally. Sure, probably 99.9% of it is puerile, but that still leaves more great stuff than anyone will be able to follow in a lifetime. So sure, there’s a lot of ugly, ego-driven heat on this topic, but there’s still more than enough light. I like to think we’re enjoying a more-light-than-heat conversation right here, no? :)

Another of countless examples: there’s a terrific conversation going on right now between Lee Child and Joe Konrath over at Joe’s blog. Check it out.

What is also deeply disturbing to me is the marginalisation of dissent that has been slowly blossoming in self-publishing and which is now in full flower.

I’m not sure what this means.

Traditionally published and self-published authors should not be in conflict.

Why not? To me, this is like saying, “Democrats and Republicans shouldn’t be in conflict.” When two groups have two competing visions regarding how and for whose benefit a system or society should be designed, of course there should be conflict! In fact, my “Democrats and Republicans” example is really an opposite kind of proof, because so much of what ails America is the result of a lack of conflict between the two parties (which on most issues are really just wings of the same party). The whole country would be better off if Democrats and Republicans were in conflict. If they were, then for example right now Obamawouldn’t be bombing his seventh Muslim country (Bush only managed four). Perhaps bipartisanship and conflict avoidance isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

But I digress. I just don’t know why anyone would argue that conflict between competing visions is bad. I think the opposite is true.

You all write books. You all want readers to read and be happy. You just have a different methodology for achieving that. And that really is it. It’s a shame that the rhetoric has to get so heated. But then, identity politics does that.

I agree that it’s useful for competing groups to keep in mind the important things they have in common, as doing so helps keep perspective. But again, I’d like to substitute just a few words in the paragraph above to test the underlying principle:

“Wall Street and Occupy Wall Street, you all love your country. You all want people to be happy and prosperous. You just have a different methodology of achieving that. And that really is it...”

That really is it? I don’t think so. I think that taken too far, this “With all we have in common, can’t we just agree?” mindset is an artifact of an attachment to our own politics. Because of course my politics aren’t politics at all; they’re just common sense. So if you don’t agree with me, it must just be identify politics at work...

I will also add that as someone who’s dabbled in self-publishing, I’ve been really put off engaging further with the community because of the aggression, the identity politics, and the lack of impulse control shown by some of self-publishing’s louder voices.

LOL... I get it. I feel the same way whenever Doug Preston claims not to be taking sides, or when Hachette claims its all about “nurturing” authors...

But then I remember it’s exactly the most aggressive, the most identity-politics-driven, and the most impulse-control-challenged among legacy publishing’s louder voices who could benefit most from my thoughts and my example. So I continue to engage.

I made the active decision to stop blogging about it, because the shitstorm that comes down on anyone who doesn’t toe the self-publishing line is deeply unpleasant, not to mention entirely unnecessary.

Hey, at least those loud self publishers are engaging you! If you ever figure out a way to get Doug Preston, Roxana Robinson, Richard Russo, or Scott Turow to engage their critics, please tell me what it is. Personally, I think rough-and-tumble discussion is a hell of a lot better than no discussion at all, and it’s precisely that willingness to engage that’s one of the things I admire about indie culture, as its opposite is one of the things I decry about legacy culture.

If anything, I have become more sympathetic to publishers now than I was 4 or 5 years ago, not because my views have changed regarding how terribly they are coping (rather, failing to cope) with change, but because I understand how embattled they are probably feeling.

I’d sympathize more if their solutions to feeling embattled weren’t always about higher prices for readers and lower royalties to authors.

Instead of being a force for change, self-publishing appears to be a force that creates conflict, makes people feel defensive or unwilling to speak publicly, and is, I believe, getting in the way of change. And that, too, is a shame.

This part is especially hard for me to understand. Because when there are no alternatives, of course there is no conflict! Up until recently, legacy publishing had all the leverage, made all the rules, and ran the entire industry with cartel-like power. Under those circumstances, where could conflict have come from? You know where else there’s no conflict? North Korea! Yes, I know this is an extreme example, but it illustrates the point. In human systems what might superficially resemble harmony is much more likely to be evidence of an extreme imbalance of power.

Reading through all your thoughts here, I’m getting the feeling that you almost feel conflict is inherently bad. I think that’s a hard position to support. You say conflict is getting in the way of change. No, it’s more than that -- you say that self-publishing isn’t a force for change because it’s causing conflict. But does that make sense? Can you tell me what change we ever saw in the publishing industry before there was conflict? That’s not a rhetorical question; if I’m missing something, I really want to know.

Is it possible you have things precisely backward? Is it possible conflict doesn’t obstruct change, but in entrenched situations is rather the only thing that causes change? At a minimum, can you identify any significant social or industry change that has ever occurred, if not by conflict, than at least while not being accompanied by it? Again, not a rhetorical question; your views are sharply different from mine and if I’m missing something, I want to know.

What I really think is a shame, as you put it, is that you would point to the very conflict that’s causing reform in publishing -- or that at a minimum is inherently accompanying that reform -- as something that “makes people unwilling to speak publicly.” Look, anyone who wants to speak up but doesn’t isn’t being “made” to do anything. That’s a choice, not a condition. Again, having to repeatedly point out embarrassingly remedial concepts to legacy propagandists isn’t the most fun I can imagine, but I choose to do it because in doing so I believe I’m doing my tiny part in making the world a better place. Of course we all have to make such decisions for ourselves and I don’t think there’s any one-size-fits-all answer, but nor do I think it’s useful to pretend that these decisions are somehow being made by self-publishing and not by we ourselves.

Change is always accompanied by conflict. To decry conflict is therefore to decry change. Which is why establishments purport to hate conflict. Let’s not unintentionally aid them in their propaganda.


Literary agent Ted Weinstein and I were going back and forth on this on the list serv, and Teds questions were (as usual) so interesting and provocative I wanted to reprint them here. As I say in the comments, if this is an example of conflict, I hope to see more of it!

Ted said:

How does anything that AU is saying or advocating affect any self-published author?

Hi Ted, Ive addressed this question a few times:

“All this power, and it doesn’t even occur to them to say to Hachette, You want us to back you up in your fight with Amazon? We want a press release from you promising to change the following policies for all authors by X date. No press release? No support. That’s the kind of behavior you’d expect to see from an Authors Guild even remotely worthy of the name.

“But you don't see that. Instead, a bunch of plutocrat authors are going to drop a hundred grand -- about the equivalent of anyone else buying a cup of coffee at 7-Eleven -- to take out a New York Times ad castigating Amazon. Thats how theyre using their power on behalf of all authors.”


“Like a Democrat effectively saying, Vote for me or I’ll turn the keys over to John McCain and Sarah Palin, the Big Five and their supporters are effectively saying, Support us and our cartel-like business practices because Amazon could become even worse than we’ve been. I don’t buy that bullshit when I hear it from Democrats, so why would I buy it from legacy publishing?  I’m willing to take that risk, recognizing the only way things might get better is if I’m willing to ignore self-interested threats to the effect that Without us, it might get even worse.

“To put it another way: the Big Five and its supporters in Authors United and the Authors Guild are playing a game of chicken with the 99% of authors who have been ill-served by the business practices the establishment refuses to reform. I’ll be damned if I blink first in the face of that.”

More here:

And here:

Ted said:

You haven't answered the question at all, here or in any of those links. How has what AU said or done DIRECTLY AFFECTED the ability of any self-published authors to continue to self-publish, via Amazon, Smashwords or any of the other self-publishing outlets?

Ted, before you asked, “How does anything that AU is saying or advocating affect any self-published authors?” That was a different question, and if you don't think I answered it in the quotes and links I provided, it's okay, we can just agree to disagree.

If, on the other hand, what you meant to ask was your new question, the answer is: I don't think it has.

But do you see the important differences in your two questions? The first asks about a global effect -- current and potential -- and on self-published authors generally, not just on their ability to self-publish. The second question focuses more on how what Authors United is doing affects self-published authors right now, and only with regard to their ability to self-publish. I think these are subtle but quite important differences.

It might be that we're not seeing eye-to-eye here because youre looking at legacy-published and self-published authors as discrete classes. In other words, right, for someone who would under no circumstances ever consider legacy publishing and is certain only to self-publish, groups like Authors United probably dont merit much more than an eye-roll (at least to the extent that such authors are motivated purely by self-interest and not by concern for authors generally). Bob Mayer, for example, often makes this case, and makes it well.

But for self-published authors who are hybrids, who are considering the legacy route, or who might consider the legacy route, of course what Authors United is doing matters a lot -- because, as Ive said many times including in the links I provided, Authors United is fundamentally trying to maintain the legacy system with all its flaws, rather than seizing a great opportunity to help improve it.

I might be misunderstanding you, but it seems like the basis for your questions is the assumption that self-published authors only care about the larger publishing ecosystem insofar as that ecosystem directly affects their bottom line. This hasnt been my experience. Certainly some people are motivated purely by self-interest, but people do also have larger concerns. Im reasonably active against torture, warrantless surveillance, and drone strikes, for example, and not because Im unduly concerned that I myself am likely to be tortured, droned, or surveilled. Im passionate about gay marriage, too, even though Im not gay and I am married and therefore unlikely, as you put it, to be directly affected by the ability or inability of gays to marry.

In fact, we could broaden things even further and ponder MLKs dictum that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But I don't think we need to go that far to understand why a lot of self-published authors are unhappy with Authors United.

Anyway, even hewing closer to the “Wheres the self-interest?” assumption, I think the better way to understand the reactions of so many self-published authors to Authors United is to recognize authors as part of a larger, common ecosystem, rather than as inhabitants only of discrete segments with no existing or potential overlap with, and unaffected by events within, other segments. Does that make sense?

Ted said:

Every one of your points for why self-published authors might care about the larger publishing environment can be turned 180 degrees to explain why AU and any other traditionally-published author might care about (and not share all your views on) what Amazon is doing in their self-publishing offerings, let alone their larger book retail business.

I don’t doubt that when Doug Preston looks in the mirror, he sees someone who stands for the good of all authors looking back at him. But then I keep returning to my questions about why nothing about lockstep royalties, why nothing about twice-a-year payments, why nothing about life-of-contract terms, why nothing about draconian non-competes, why nothing about B&N and S&S and brick-and-mortar and Amazon-published authors, which unlike Amazon/Hachette was and are real boycotts... why nothing about any of the things that affect 99% of authors a great deal and Doug Preston not at all?

The most vocal members of the Axis of Indies (you, Howey, Konrath, etc.) are like Americans several generations after the Revolutionary War.

I prefer to think of us as more of a Galactic Empire than a mere axis, but... okay. :)

You won. The rest of us wonder why you can’t go and enjoy your independent country, instead of continually hollering “England is a Monarchy! The Magna Carta is not a real constitution! And the tax rates are too high there!”

I think it must be because self-published authors identify with and feel more affected by what’s going on in publishing at large than Americans do by what’s going on in England.

I share your disdain for AU’s unconscionably illogical, ill-informed stances and sloppy use of language. And I share your frustrations with the traditional publishing world, who ill-serve many of the authors they publish. And I also think that Amazon putting a banner on top of an individual Hachette author’s individual book page saying “would you maybe like to buy a different book?” is fucking sleazy, as is “it won’t be available for 3-4 weeks” when it can be delivered from Ingram or B&T in 24-48 hours regardless of the status of Amazon’s contract w/Hachette. I don’t defend ANY of these parties. I’m surprised you do.

I don’t really think my stance is so hard to understand. Again, as I wrote just yesterday:

Which is why my attitude toward the legacy industry is, If you want a shot at my support, immediately double digital royalties to all authors; immediately begin paying all authors once a month instead of twice a year; immediately eliminate rights-of-first refusal, non-competes, and other draconian clauses from your contracts. Short of that, I’ll know the only thing you’ll respond to is pressure — and I’ll be sure to support the party that’s applying it.

If Authors United would adopt a similar attitude, I think it would benefit far more authors (and readers) than their current stance.

Agreed on all of that, as I have said frequently in many forums. But I’m still waiting to hear a word of public criticism for Amazon from you.
This is probably a good place to explain what I mean when I sometimes refer to “Amazon Derangement Syndrome.”  I’m not referring to all criticisms of Amazon, or even to most.  For example, I think Amazon’s cutting off Wikileaks from Amazon Web Services at Joe Lieberman’s request was pernicious, shameful, and cowardly.  I’m glad there’s media scrutiny of conditions in Amazon warehouses.  And while still far better than anything I’ve ever seen in the legacy world, Amazon Publishing’s contracts are showing increasing legacy-like lard and legacy-like author-unfriendly clauses.  Certainly I don’t think these criticisms are deranged — after all, I’ve made them myself...

Okay for now? I seriously have to get back to the new novel... :)

Second Update:

I was thinking more about this notion that conflict is bad because it impedes change... and the more I ponder it, the more I realize it's not just wrong, but pernicious.

Where do we see the most conflict in the world: within democracies, or within totalitarian systems? Again, I don't think there's much conflict at all in North Korea...

Indeed, America is actually built on the notion that conflict is inevitable. Look at Federalist 51. Did Madison say, "Let's eliminate all the factions but one so we'll have harmony"? Or did he say, "Let's empower all the factions so we'll have balance"? And we've had conflict ever since -- the very notion of a system of checks and balance is predicated on it.

Speaking of which: I would argue that America would be better off today if the systems in question would engage in *more* conflict, not less. If Congress protected its prerogatives, we'd have fewer undeclared wars. If the judiciary protected its prerogatives, we might have an actual investigation into torture and unconstitutional surveillance. If the Justice Department weren't in such harmony with Wall Street, we might have seen a banker or two prosecuted for global-economy-wrecking fraud.

Alas, things are very peaceful and civilized. Not much conflict at all.

In fact, has any significant social change in America *ever* been unaccompanied by conflict? Off the top of my head: ending slavery, women's suffrage, civil rights, gay equality. Which of these great changes was accomplished simply through civil dialogue?

Entrenched interests tend not to respond to reasoned discourse. It's one of the things that makes them entrenched. They tend not to listen and then say, "Golly, those are good points. You're right, we'll share." More often, you have to fight for change.

Which is why entrenched interests prefer to tsk-tsk at the noisy, angry barbarians demanding reforms. I get that. But why make it easier for them by parroting their self-interested, unsupportable rhetoric?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Publishing Establishment: "Okay, We Suck, But Amazon Might Be Worse!"

If you haven't seen it already, don't miss this discussion between Joe Konrath and Lee Child about the causes and consequences of the battle between Amazon and Hachette. The topic interests me a lot, and here I'd like to take a probably thankless stab at getting to the heart of what’s going on between publishing’s establishment and publishing's revolutionaries…

Writers like Lee believe that fundamentally the legacy publishing industry is good, and therefore that anything threatening that system must be fundamentally bad.

Writers like Joe believe that fundamentally the legacy publishing industry is oppressive to readers and writers; propagandistic (all that hokum about “nurturing”); and cartel-like, and that anything tending to force that system to engage in more enlightened business practices must be good.

Lee perceives Hachette and the other “Big Five” (the cartel is right there in the name, no?) to be under threat, and wants them protected — “Apres moi le deluge.” Joe perceives the Big Five as already being protected by their paper oligopoly, and in need of real competition for the sake of readers and writers.

Obviously I’m with Joe on all this, but that’s not the point. The point is, if you believe legacy publishing needs to reform, what might bring that reform about?

The debate reminds me of a discussion I sometimes get into with Democrats who support Obama, most of whom have been forced over the course of two terms to acknowledge something along the lines of, “Okay, he sucks—but a Republican would be even worse.”

It might be true that a Republican would be even worse (given Obama’s record, I don’t think that’s an easy argument to make—for example, Obama has bombed seven Muslim countries so far, while Bush bombed four—but leave that aside). My concern is that whenever you signal to an incumbent that you will back the incumbent *no matter what*, you have surrendered all your leverage.

Which is why my attitude toward the legacy industry is, “If you want a shot at my support, immediately double digital royalties to all authors; immediately begin paying all authors once a month instead of twice a year; immediately eliminate rights-of-first refusal, non-competes, and other draconian clauses from your contracts. Short of that, I’ll know the only thing you’ll respond to is pressure — and I’ll be sure to support the party that’s applying it."

Like a Democrat effectively saying, “Vote for me or I’ll turn the keys over to John McCain and Sarah Palin,” the Big Five and their supporters are effectively saying, “Support us and our cartel-like business practices because Amazon could become even worse than we’ve been.” I don’t buy that bullshit when I hear it from Democrats, so why would I buy it from legacy publishing?  I’m willing to take that risk, recognizing the only way things might get better is if I’m willing to ignore self-interested threats to the effect that “Without us, it might get even worse.”

To put it another way: the Big Five and its supporters in Authors United and the Authors Guild are playing a game of chicken with the 99% of authors who have been ill-served by the business practices the establishment refuses to reform. I’ll be damned if I blink first in the face of that.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Policies Don't Just Have Benefits. They Also Have Costs

When people are evaluating a policy sanely, they instinctively know to weigh the benefits *and* the costs. Which is how you can identify the policies some people are so attached to they value them for their own sake. Drug prohibition is one; war is another. How can you know? Watch for people discussing those policies as though they offer only benefits and involve no costs. For example, you'll see a huge amount of the "no costs, only benefits" tendency now with regard to war with ISIS.

To me, it's really a question of applying common sense, imagination, and our understanding of human nature to try to divine what makes sense. Seeing how the attacks of 9/11 incited America into an orgy of retaliation that continues to this day, I surmise that being bombed causes humans to crave revenge. Then I try to imagine what it's like to be Iraqi, for example, and to have my country invaded and occupied by foreigners who kill over 100,000 of my innocent countrymen and turn another four million into refugees (out of a population of about 33 million)... and what it must be like to live under the shadow of flying robots that have killed thousands of my innocent co-religionists... and I think, "Well, if these people are anything like Americans and not instead innately wired for pacifism, they now probably crave revenge for what we're doing to them as much as we craved revenge following 9/11. And look what that caused..."

And even if the GWOT has solved some problems (I'm sure it has; what policy can't meet that low a bar?) there's the question of what those benefits have cost us and whether they could have been achieved more cheaply. I'm inclined to believe that with the risk of dying in a terror attack anytime in this century lower than that of drowning in a bathtub, we could probably handle The Very Scary Terrorists in a way that didn't end the lives of something like six thousand American military personnel; that didn't burn, blind, maim, cripple, and brain damage tens of thousands of others; that didn't kill tens of thousands of innocent foreigners (that's a lot of "collateral damage" for a policy to have to justify, no?); that didn't add $3 trillion to the national debt and siphon off money that could have been invested at home to blow it up over seas; that didn't lead to the rise of ISIS; and that didn't embody so much of what James Madison warned of when he said:

"Of all the enemies to public liberty war, is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other."


"The means of defence against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home."


"No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."

I think it would be reasonable to require politicians to point to some pretty astonishing benefits from a policy to justify costs like those.