Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Iraqi Election

Hi Everyone,

Its still too early to really say what's going on but this day deserves mention. The elections in Iraq are taking place. And while there is violence it appears to be not much worse than the violence in elections in many transitioning regimes. The range of predictions for turn out is rather broad but it looks like it will be over 50%. I have a hard time seeing how this is anything but a set back for the insurgents. We'll have to wait for the results to see if its a win for the Bush administration (of course the Bushies are already spinning it as a major political victory for them). I think we can say right now its a good thing for the Iraqis.

Reasons for optimism:
High turnout in an election that the insurgents demanded be boycotted is something of a referendum on the insurgents.
Sistani called on everyone to vote.
Violence was not at disastrous levels.

Reasons for caution:
Lots of countries currently ruled by dictators have had reasonably fair elections in the past.
We have no idea yet what policies the elected representatives will push for.
Just because some of these parties support this election doesn't mean they support elections for ever.
There are hundreds of parties. I imagine more than a dozen will get noticeable representation in the assembly. When partisan divisions are so complicated it is very difficult to get anything done (that's not really a problem in established democracies but can be disastrous when you need a new constitution fast).

Comments? Discussion? Wild eyed predictions?


Saturday, January 29, 2005

Ideological Links

Hi Everyone,

I posted some links to some international political organizations the sidebar over to the right. I posted links to international organizations representing the three biggest ideological families in modern democracies: Social Democrats, Liberals and Christian Democrats.

Americans might be interested to note that the Democratic party is neither a member of the Social Democratic international or the Liberal international organizations. The Republicans are not members of the Liberal group either. Frankly, I'm a little surprised that the American Libertarian party is not a member of the Liberal International. Perhaps the Libertarians are too isolationist to think of joining (just a guess, I really have no idea).

Anyway, I just posted them for kicks and giggles. But take a look if you are interested in such things.


Friday, January 28, 2005

Libertarian Heresies

I am not Libertarian, because I feel their extraordinarily individualistic philosophy is corrosive to community values and their views of capitalism and private property are dangerously naive (e.g., "I have the right to do whatever I wish with my property.") But sometimes their unusual perspective can be illuminating.

Libertarian Presidential candidate Michael J. Badnarik wrote this simple sentence about marriage that took my breath away: "Marriage partners, not government, should define the terms and spiritual orientation of their union in accordance with our nation's guarantee of religious freedom." And in another place, he asks rhetorically, "If you have a marriage license, what permission do you have to do now that you did not have permission to do before? Who gave you that permission, and who gave them the authority to give you that permission in the first place?"

I recall LTG saying once that marriage was really a contract with three parties: the two spouses and the government. Badnarik turns that on its head. It's audacious. (As is often the case with such Libertarian heresies, the flaw in the reasoning is that it neglects the context of marriage within the community--but I still think it's a fascinating concept.)

Moving to another line of thought, I ran across a fascinating quote Beatrice Jones, Libertarian councilmember for Hardeeville, SC. "In the past two years, in a city of 1,500 residents, we have built a $4.2 million dollar recreation and city office complex, fixed a 12-year-old road drainage problem that was the root of two lawsuits against the city, bought three brand-new fire trucks and doubled the employment at our fire station, bought four new police cars and paid them off early, doubled the size of the city, and developed a 24-hour cable access channel that broadcasts (in conjunction with a local college) accredited college courses that people can take at home. And we did all this without raising taxes."

Surprised that this list of community programs would come from a Libertarian? I was. But it just goes to show that these values cut across party lines. Even the Libertarians support projects that promote the well-being of their community. In fact, this was from the Libertarian Party website--they are proud of her work. The difference between their approach and that of liberals is that want to pay for these services with individual fees instead of general taxation. I think this helps show how much these values are part of the American political heritage.

Lastly, Jones says, "If elected Libertarians want to accomplish something while in office, they have to be willing to work with other people to forward near-libertarian ideology -- and other Libertarians shouldn't insult them for doing so... If Libertarians are tired of believing that candidates spring fully formed from Ayn Rand's forehead--and actually want to do something real and viable to grow the party as a political force, then it's time to get moving." She has kept her seat through repeated elections and run other Libertarians' successful campaigns. I think this is precisely the kind of practical coalition building that the Democrats could do with church groups and other organizations who are not liberal, but nevertheless share these community values.


Religion and Politics or Topics Polite People Avoid

Hi Everyone,

We've been talking alot about religion and politics lately. The aftermath of the 2004 election seems to be dominated by this question. Most of it is strictly about the Christian conservative movement without much discussion of religion in politics more broadly. Most of the regular posters on this blog are also regular church goers but have political opinions far to the left of the typical evangelical conservative voter/activist. I for one am an atheist - one of the few subsets of American society it is still acceptable to exclude and persecute.

In this posting I propose two subjects for discussion. First, what is the role that religion plays in American politics and life? Second, what is the role that religion should play in American politics and life? The first is an empirical question that has an answer out there waiting to be discovered. The second is a normative question to which answers are essentially opinion.

Here are some basic statistics I found at (see link to the right):

-42% of all Republicans think that people with strong religious beliefs are discriminated against. 62% of Republicans think that evangelical Christians have the “right amount” of influence on President Bush’s decisions.

-53% of Republicans believe that the greatest concern should be public officials who don’t pay enough attention to religion and religious leaders. In contrast, 65% of Democrats believe that the greatest concern should be public officials who pay too much attention to religion and religious leaders.

- 72% of respondents believe that it is proper for the 10 Commandments to be displayed in public buildings.

- With regard to the religiosity of political candidates, 70% agree that it is important that Presidents have strong religious beliefs. 25% disagree.

- Republicans are split almost 50-50 on the question of whether religious leaders should try to influence politicians. 71% of Democrats believe that religious leaders should not try to influence politicians.

- 15% of Americans say that religion is “not very important” to their own life. 55% say religion is “very important.” 29% say it is “fairly important.”

- 43% of Americans say that they attend religious services “seldom” or “never.”

- 64% of Americans support the use of federal funds for social programs run by Christian religious organizations. 56% of Americans oppose the use of federal funds for social programs run by Islamic religious organizations.

- 40% of Americans believe that government can promote the teaching of religion without harming rights. 54% believe that when government promotes the teaching of religion it always harms rights.

I believe that the above data shows some interesting items. It comes as no surprise that Americans are very religious. Comparisons with other democracies will show that Americans are more religious than any other democracy except for Italy or Ireland. The Italian government is a rightist coalition that includes openly fascist elements.

American views on religion are complex and at times contradictory. 54% believe that governments always harm rights when they promote religion. However, majorities of Americans support federal funding for Christian organizations and oppose similar funding Islamic organizations. Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s the same people making up all three majorities but the overlap means that many Americans have inherently contradictory views of politics and religion. For example, advocates of an entirely secular policy would oppose federal funding to both Christian and Islamic organizations. Also, religious faith is not universal in America. 43% of Americans say that they attend religious services seldom or never.

So what should the role of religion be? My own view is that there is already too much devotion to devotions in American politics. I long for the strict seperation of religion and politics advocated by Jefferson and Madison. Personal spirituality and public policy should be separate debates. When political parties get into the business of taking sides in theological debates (such as what policies are most closely based on Christian teachings), both public policy and private religion suffer. Of course, such a separation is very unlikely in the United States. Ironically, several of the European democracies which have officially recognized state religions have less religion in their politics than does the United States in which the Constitutions calls for their separation.


Thursday, January 27, 2005

Remembering Auschwitz

Sixty years ago this week, the Red Army entered the German extermination camp at Auschwitz. What they found there shocked the world. In the next months, similar camps would be liberated. This is an appropriate time to reflect on how the concentration camps and the Second World War changed the world.

WWII was an anti-fascist war. It changed the ideology of the Western civilization. Broadly put (and of course, putting anything broadly risks over-generalization), the ideology of liberalism and humanism was triumphant. In the years immediately following the war, this had a profound impact on the Western world. It marked the moral demise of imperial foreign policies -- the idea that it was appropriate for a powerful country to exploit and oppress its neighbors. In the US, there was a direct connection between the war and the struggle for human rights and democracy at home in the 1950s and 1960s. Women's equality also was lifted by these ideas. In short, victory put liberty, equality, peace, and above all human rights, at the center of world political and moral discourse. Liberal ideology condemns slavery, racism, and torture, and that has became the dominant ideology of the Western world. In the 1990s, liberal ideas began to dismantle the oppression of gays and lesbians. The ascendancy of these ideas has made the ideological atmosphere pre-WWII world, where eugenics and mandatory sterilization were practiced even in the USA, almost impossible for most of us to imagine. The point is not that everything has changed, but that the dominant hegemonic ideas have changed.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the following went from being dominant to the defensive: official racism, anti-semitism, sexism, religious intolerance, and elitism. The headmaster of Eton remarked that before 1964, all the working-class boys tried to imitate the accents of their "betters." By the late 1960s, that had reversed. Before WWII, the dominant political ideology in the West was that white men of the upper classes were destined by God to christianize and subdue the rest of the world, using any means. Today few advocate this openly -- those who do so couch their ideas in the language of the times, the language of universal human rights and democracy.

In many ways, however, this is a failed revolution. Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur remind us that we have not even abolished genocide. Slavery is on the resurgence in Africa, and human trafficking has brought it into Europe and America again. The Economist estimates that the price of a human being, approximately $100, has never been cheaper. Religious intolerance in the form of fundamentalism is on the rise. Fundamentalist militant Islam is part of the picture. So is "fundamentalist" hinduism, ultra-orthodox judaism in the West Bank settlements, fundamentalist Christianity that preaches substituting allegiance to selected biblical passages over conscience. Bombing abortion clinics and "reform schools" that young boys and girls who sexually "misbehave" are examples of religion that has been cut loose from moral moorings.

The liberation of Auschwitz is, above all, a time to recognize that the liberal ideology that was triumphant and ascendant in the latter half of the 20th century is now on the defensive everywhere. To give you an idea, just try to imagine - even as late as the Reagan administration - Republicans and Democrats discussing what kind of torture is acceptable. Try to imagine Clinton calling Rwanda genocide (as Powell has called Darfur genocide) and then doing nothing about it. Clinton resisted calling it genocide because he assumed that once he did so, he would have to act. It would have been unthinkable in 1989, when the Berlin wall was being breached, for the Israelis to have built their "security barrier" in the West Bank. Now the unthinkable has become commonplace.

The problem is that powerful conservative political elements in the USA have never adopted these values. Conservatives fought civil rights. Then, conservatives said "yes, but not women's rights." Next it was "yes, women's rights, but not gays." Conservatives opposed divorce, then accepted it. Now they want to "protect marriage" as we understand it in the 2005 (with easy divorce, and no legal enforcement of monogamy), and pretend this is as it always was. Each time, conservatives pretend they have a moral basis for the next opposition, when it is actually political expediency. At each stage, until now, they have lost and regrouped. Now, they may be winning. The result -- US government using torture and offensive war -- is sad to see. Europeans haven't indulged in this backsliding nearly as much. European rightist movements are minorities; here, they are the Republican majority.

The anniversary of the liberation Auschwitz should be a reminder for liberals to focus on the battle at hand. Liberal ideas became detached from philosophy -- indeed postmodernists decry any kind of unifying worldview at all. The result is that we have lost the ability to talk about morality in a way that allows us to demand that others desist from immoral behavior. Conservatives know how to talk about morality. The 2004 election showed that Americans perceive conservatives as morally steadfast, as 'firm in their convictions' but cannot say the same for liberals. In much of the 20th century, until the 1960s, liberalism expressed itself often through religious ideas, but liberal christianity is a small force today, a shadow of the 'social gospel' and the early 20th century. Also, multiculturalism has made religion an inadequate moral framework for modern ideas. I do not know how to begin to fight back for liberal ideas. Auschwitz, however, reminds us why we cannot fail. Once conservativism succeed in persuading us to bite into the apple and trade away the value of human dignity for other chimeric but tempting goals such as 'security,' or 'prosperity', we have lost our moral compass. We become unmoored. We can, in the tsunami of fear, be led anywhere. Without a map, without a compass, without our moorings, the roads lead to dark places beyond the edge of our imagination.


Monday, January 24, 2005

It's Not Just About Terrorism

Excerpted from today's New York Times:

"The Israeli government secretly approved a measure last summer that says the state may seize land in east Jerusalem that is owned by Palestinians who live elsewhere, the government and an attorney for the Palestinians said today. Many of the Palestinian landowners live in neighboring Bethlehem and in the past had access to property that is inside the Jerusalem boundaries that Israel unilaterally established after capturing the eastern part of the city in the 1967 Mideast war. Many Palestinians have not been able to reach their property in the past two years because of the West Bank separation barrier, which Israel has built between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. But until recently, the Palestinians still believed they owned the property, most of it olive groves and grape orchards that have been in the families for generations.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government approved the confiscation measure in July under the Absentee Property Law, which has been on the books since 1950. Israel has invoked the law to seize thousands of homes and parcels of land that belonged to Palestinians who fled or were driven out during the 1948 war surrounding the founding of Israel. The Israeli government did not announce the move, which requires no compensation for the land, when it was made, but has acknowledged the new policy following a report last week in the daily Haaretz.

In many cases, the Palestinian landowners in the Bethlehem area live only a short distance from their Jerusalem property, and in some cases are right next to it. Johnny Atik, a Bethlehem resident, lives in a house next to his eight acres of olive trees. However, his house is in Bethlehem, while the olive grove is on land that is part of Jerusalem, according to Israel. The Israeli separation barrier runs through Mr. Atik's backyard, separating him from his olive trees, Mr. Seidemann said. Over the past two years, Mr. Atik and other landowners have repeatedly requested permission from the Israeli military to tend to their land, but never received it."

These issues very rarely make U.S. papers, although they are well known in Europe. U.S. journalists are usually loath to mention any actions of the Israeli government that are unpleasant. Contrast this Israeli policy with the US policy on Cuba, Iran, Iraq, and the whole of Eastern Europe, demanding that refugees and exiles be given their land back in full or be compensated. Dare I mention certain artwork? Of cousre, just putting this here will probably raise accusations of anti-semitism. But here's the point: Israeli actions are part of the problem too. It's not just about terrorism. But the US will not condemn this dispossession, only the terrorism. The US will not establish middle east peace by creating a showcase of democracy in Iraq (the pipe dream of the neocons) while we are seen, rightly (sadly) as having a double standard about how nations should behave.


Sunday, January 23, 2005

Why Howard Dean is the Wrong Choice for the DNC

Hi Everyone,

Before I start, I'd like to thank Dr. Strangelove to injecting new vigor into this blog. After the election we kind of got a flat tire.

OK, here is why I think Howard Dean is the wrong choice for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee:

I just saw Howard Dean on what used to be This Week with David Brinkley but is now hosted by George Stephanopolis. Dean was thoughtful, intelligent and correct about the bizarre kind of "embrace your role in the process" culture in Washington, D.C....but wrong about how to get the Democratic party into power. Dean's vision of what the Democrats need to do is give more power to the activists who would then be more willing to do the grass roots organizing the Democrats need to out mobilize the GOP. I have two points of disagreement with Dean.

First, he assumes that the cause of the defeat in 2004 was due to insufficient mobilization. But the Democratic party got more people to the polls than ever before and exceeded all of their goals for mobilization. The problem was that rural, religious conservatives voted in record numbers too and since the electoral college over represents those interests they won. Ultimately the battle for the White House was a battle for the hearts and minds of the suburban residents of Ohio and Florida. The Democrats NARROWLY lost that battle and narrowly lost the White House. Had Kerry won another 2% or 3% of the vote in the suburbs of Columbus or Orlando we'd have a different President right now.

Second, he assumes that giving power to the activists (which means a shift to the left) would increase support for the Democratic Party. He fails to consider that it is likely that such a move would alienate the suburban voters who ultimately decided the 2000 and 2004 elections. A shift to the left is not what is needed. It would be the end of the Democratic party for the next decade. Its the mistake the British Labour Party made in the early 1980s. Its the mistake the Republicans made with Goldwater in 1964.

I've repeatedly suggested on this blog that the Democratic Party should present itself as an alliance of progressives and libertarians against the religious authoritarianism of the Republicans. The vision Dean laid out on TV today (Sunday) would not lead to such a coalition.

OK all you Deaniacs out there, let the debate begin! ;-)


Wednesday, January 19, 2005

...and they can't drive worth s**t either

You've probably heard by now that Harvard President Lawrence Summers suggested recently that the scarcity of women in the hard sciences might be due to innate biological differences between men and women. This suggestion was one of several deliberately "provocative" remarks he delivered at a private conference (no transcripts were kept) at the National Bureau of Economic Research on the subject of improving the status of women in the sciences. Among his other ideas were that the stress and time committment was unusually high in the hard sciences and therefore more than many married women with children were willing to accept--and also, of course, that there might be actual discrimination at work.

The NY Times article refers obliquely to a, "sharp decline in the hiring of tenured female professors during [Summers'] administration," but offers no details or evidence. While the NY Times reports that Summers says his remarks have been "misconstrued" and that he has pledged to continue efforts to attract and retain female professors, they do not report that he repudiated the suggestion. Not surprisingly, the NY Times reports criticism has poured in from academic committees and professors everywhere. Some have outright accused him of bigotry (often citing the "sharp decline" as proof) while others have said that his remarks distract attention away from real discrimination that is occuring--and others have just scolded Mr. Summers for being stupid enough to accept an invitation to be the "provoker" at such a conference.

While I deplore any knee-jerk reactions to politically incorrect suggestions, the idea of any meaningful biological differences between men and women's intellects really has been fairly well discredited and it bothers me that he did not acknowledge this. It bothers me that he did not say that a competing explanation (discrimination) has a lot more evidence behind it. It bothers me that he has not stated unambiguously that his example was poorly chosen and he simply doesn't believe women are intellectually inferior to men in any way when it comes to the hard sciences.

And while I believe people should be free to speak their minds, I realize that being President of Harvard means Summers' voice is not wholly his own--he is a public figure in charge of hiring professors. As such, he has been rightfully criticized by Harvard alumni for not representing the views of Harvard very well--especially in that, given the limited resources available, as an administrator he really ought to know that it probably isn't worth spending money to study the baseless idea of male superiority in the sciences when the money might be better spent to fight well-documented discrimination.

Finally, in my years as a physics graduate student, I have witnessed discriminatory attitudes toward women in the hard sciences. Too many labs still have a fraternity-like feel to them, where you must be "one of the guys" to fit in and those who don't never get the good recommendations, conference opportunities, financial support, etc. I remember one woman in particular who described to me some of what it was like to be a woman in the sciences: her male peers were either too polite (or worse) to really wrangle with her over the issues--or they listened politely and then always went to someone else, ostensibly to "check" their answer. I have heard a lot of sexist remarks spoken quite seriously by physicists; I have heard the specific assertion that women can't do math as well as men. And I have heard remarks just like Summers' phrased as "provocative questions" by professors precisely so they could shield themselves with plausible deniability later.

So I think, for once, I find myself on the side of the "PC" crowd in condemning Mr. Summers' remarks. But Mr. Summers himself was trained not as a physicist, but as an economist/political scientist, which leads me to ask other Citizens: what have your experiences been in the social sciences? How to you fall on this issue?


Cui Bono?

I've been trying to make sense of Bush's desire to siphon off "personal retirement accounts" from the existing Social Security trust fund, and I keep coming back to one question: why? We can, of course, rule out the stated reason--that he's trying to avert a crisis--because there is no crisis. Even Republican projections admit Social Security will be solvent for at least 40 more years, and even then, modest tweaks are all that is required to make it solvent as far as anyone can see. So what's the real reason behind it?

1. Will this be a windfall for Wall Street, with a hundred million new "personal retirement accounts" to invest?
2. Will this result in more income for the richer retirees, and less income for the poorer ones?
3. Is this a first step toward geting rid of Supplemental Security Income, Medicare, disability benefits?
4. Is this the first step toward getting rid of the payroll tax?
5. Is this some devious attempt to use the hidden $3 trillion in transitional costs that the Federal Government will have to pay as part of a "starve the beast" strategy?

The trouble is, I have not been able to find any good data to back up any of them. Going through these one-by-one...

1. I haven't found good evidence that this would be a windfall for stock brokers, and even the issue of "administrative fees" (which you'd think would be a slam dunk) isn't clear since most accounts wouldn't have much money and fees might be highly regulated.
2. I haven't been able to figure out what effects this program would have on the incomes of people of disparate income (and the only relevant studies I have found were done by the Heritage Foundation, with dubious methodology). Because Social Security is not a needs-based program, it is not obvious to me that getting rid of it would benefit the wealthy.
3. While this might be part of the first wave of assaults on needs-based programs, wouldn't Bush do better to spend his political capital (such as it is) attacking such programs directly (e.g., pushing forward the stalled "Medical Savings Accounts" stuff) rather than touching the "third rail" for what would be essentially purely ideological reasons?
4. I don't see any compelling evidence that this is an assault on the payroll tax. I'm sure that's a long-range goal, but there's a medicare tax too (see previous point).
5. It's not clear to me where the $3 trillion would come from, so it's not clear that this would "starve the beast." And hasn't Bush been fattening the government up, rather than starving it?

Ultimately, I believe the answer must be that this assault on Social Security will financially benefit some Republican constituencies. It's the age-old question: cui bono? Perhaps some of The Citizens can shed some light on this?


Monday, January 17, 2005

Here We Go Again

Hi Everyone,

The BBC is reporting that the New Yorker is reporting that US special forces are active inside Iran preparing for airstrikes against that country. The story also reports that US special forces are active inside as many as 10 Middle Eastern countries. This against a background of Bush administration statements that the election was an "accountability moment" and it produced an endorsement of the Middle East policy based on invasion, occupation and war.

Since this is Martin Luther King Day I think it would be appropriate to consider what that great American would think of these developments? Remember, King was not just a one trick pony. He was mostly remembered for his Civil Rights Movement work but he was also a peace activist and an advocate for the poor.

So what do you think?


Cult of Personality?

Hi Everyone,

I would like to propose a topic for conversation. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his cult of personality.

A&E network is going to broadcast a made for TV movie about Schwarzenegger's run for Office. They already did a biographical piece of his earlier life. The guy is not only in office right now, he's still in the second year of his term. In Ohio a sitting governor of LONG standing, James Rhodes, had a statue of himself erected on the State House lawn weeks before he retired at the end of his term (Rhodes still holds the record for years serving as Governor of a state). The move was highly controversial and was seen even by supporters as extremely arrogant. One night a drunken country boy drove his pickup truck into the statue and knocked it over (the position of the statue well away from the street in the heart of Downtown Columbus made it clear it was intentional).

So here is my question: Where is the outrage? Where are the accusations that Schwarzenegger is building a cult of personality around himself? Given his past statements about the need for "one leader" and blaming California's problems on "too many politicians" isn't this sort of thing just a little alarming? What other politicians have gotten this sort of treatment while still in office??


Friday, January 14, 2005

His Holiness the President

Its long been a matter of Roman Catholic dogma that the Pope (whoever it is) is infallible. But as we learned in the election our President also believes he's infallible himself. When asked to name a single mistake he'd made in a first term so plagued by screw ups that Congress did little else for a year than appoint commissions to "investigate" them all, he couldn't think of one mistake.

But now Bush is coming close to admitting that he might have been a little lacking in the compotence department. Alluding to the "Bring 'em on" comment and the "Wanted Dead or Alive" declaration re: Bin Laden, Bush said "I don't know if you'd call it a regret, but it certainly is a lesson that a president must be mindful of, that the words that you sometimes say. ... I speak plainly sometimes, but you've got to be mindful of the consequences of the words. So put that down. I don't know if you'd call that a confession, a regret, something." You can see the full story on Not exactly Mia Culpa but its about as close as we're going to get from a guy who decides to go to war after asking God but not his defense secretary.

On a side note related to recent debates....About 25% of the American voting population thinks George W. Bush is the paragon of morality and ethical behavior. To many Evangelicals, Bush is the living embodiment of one of Plato's Golden Guardians (of course they probably didn't read Plato but you know what I mean). They trust him implicitly in all matters of policy. Many of them believe his electoral successes were divinely mandated. And they believe that conforming to divine plans should be the ultimate measure of a just government, even if that means treading upon the sensativies (or rights) of less moral people like "terrorists" or "perverts" - sorry - "terrists" or "preverts".


Thursday, January 13, 2005

Oh, you mean that swastika?

New York Times today:

"Britain's royal family could hardly be described as immune to slips and stumbles and scandals, but even by those standards, Prince Harry, son of Princess Diana, grandson of Queen Elizabeth II and third in line to the throne, has broken new ground. After photographs of him wearing a Nazi swastika at a private fancy dress party appeared in the British tabloid The Sun today, Jewish groups from Los Angeles to Jerusalem registered protest and some people called for him to visit the Auschwitz death camp to understand why his party clothes caused such deep offense."

Um... oops?



Koala Boy brought to my attention an LA Times article concerning an Australian who is being released from Guantanamo: Detainee Says U.S. Handed Him over for Torture. The article says that while official testimony/investigations show about 18 terrorism suspects have been "rendered" to Middle Eastern nations, the actual number is far higher.

"Officials say the CIA's role has varied widely, from providing electronic and other covert surveillance before raids to flying blindfolded terrorism suspects from one country to another on a Gulfstream jet the agency uses.

"It's a growth industry," said a recently retired CIA clandestine officer who worked on several "renditions" in the Arab world. "We rendered a lot of people to Egypt, Jordan and the Saudis in particular…. Ultimately, the agency just wants these people to disappear forever."

I'm appalled by this, as I assume most of The Citizens are. My question is: if such "terrorism suspects" are in fact foreigners captured on foreign soil, is the CIA doing anything in violation of U.S., foreign, or international law? If the CIA is not acting in any official capacity, isn't this called "kidnapping"? If the CIA just "renders" them to foreign governments with no instructions and never inquires what has become of them, aren't they still liable for what happens to them in some way, like sending Jews back to Nazi Germany (didn't we do that at some point)?


Wednesday, January 12, 2005

A Crash Course in Space Exploration

On Friday, January 14th, the Huygens space probe (successfully detached from Cassini on Christmas day) will land on Titan, Saturn's largest moon. It will take a 2-hour plunge through the atmosphere and, if it survives the plunge, hits solid ground, and survives the crash, it may last for a few minutes. The entire Cassini-Huygens mission is estimated to end up costing $3.25 billion by the time it wraps up 2008.

Another NASA space probe, "Deep Impact," launched today and will smash into the compet Tempel 1 on July 4th. Scientists are hoping to blow a stadium-sized hole in the large comet to see what's inside. Amusingly, the payload for Deep Impact includes a CD-ROM with half a million names on it, of people who apparently wanted their names vaporized in a 23,000 mph collision with a heavenly body. This mission will cost $330 million all told.

So are these projects worth the money? Don't get me wrong--I love that we're funding 'em--but justifying the fun isn't so easy. There are tangible benefits to the space program, mostly in terms of technologies developed, but if that were the goal, we could just invest the money directly in technology development instead. The only real way to justify space exploration I can think of is to wave your hands, appeal to history, destiny, and the love of adventure, and argue that increasing our knowledge of the universe is a worthy endeavor in and of itself.

And believe me, NASA has become an expert at doing just that, but all they've been able to do with 40 years of propaganda is just about keep their budget stable--even with Bush's "new" push to land on Mars, oh, sometime before the Second Coming. Well, perhaps this new trend of crashing our spacecraft into rocks at high speeds will bring the NASCAR dads onboard.

Comments? Discussion? :)


Monday, January 10, 2005

The Republic

In our recent heated debate about partisan versus non-partisan methods to make the politics of failure work again I mentioned that Dr. Strangelove’s proposals seemed (at least to me) to be reminiscent of Plato’s Republic. I’m not trying to start another fight about Dr. Strangelove’s arguments. But I do think The Republic is an interesting subject for discussion. What follows is merely a brief introduction to The Republic and barely even that. I’m not a political theorist and I’m sure I’m leaving many important things out.

In The Republic, Plato lays out (through the hypothetical words of his mentor Socrates) his ideal form of government. Society will be divided into categories of people who will be bread by the state to be optimally adapted to their role in the society. Workers bred to work. Soldiers bred to fight. “Guardians” bred to rule. Guardians are the wisest in society, the ones who know what is best for the community.

“So the state founded on natural principles is wise as a whole in virtue of the knowledge inherent in its smallest constituent part or class, which exercises authority over the rest. And it appears further that the naturally smallest class is the one which is endowed with that form of knowledge which alone of all others deserves the title of wisdom.” (Part 5, Book 4, section 429).

The Guardians attain their rank by birth initially but must spend their childhoods passing tests and trials and must follow strict rules: Guardians own no private property. Guardians have no home or storehouse to which all shall not have access. Food shall be provided to them as an “agreed upon wage” for the Guardians.

And how would these Guardians be prevented from abusing their position? Plato advocates the creation of a state religion. “They must be told that they have no need of mortal and material gold and silver, because they have in their hearts the heavenly gold and silver given them by the gods as permanent possession, and it would be wicked to pollute the heavenly gold in their possession by mixing it with earthly, for theirs is without impurity, while the currency among men is a common source of wickedness.” (Part 4, Book 3, section 416e).

One might think that this merely a utopian speculation. But in Plato’s time, Greek states assumed many of the powers that he discusses. For example, Spartan children were taken over and raised by the state. Indeed, Plato’s form of government is based in part on Spartan principles. To Plato, this was a serious proposal of a practical form of government.

This approach to establishing good government was widely followed for nearly two thousand years. Macheivelli is part of that tradition, as are the advocates of the divine right of kings. In the 18th century a new approach arose based on individual preferences and laws. These philosophers (Locke, Jefferson, Madison etc) no longer think of selecting or creating the best possible types of governing elites. Instead they dream of creating institutions capable to getting the most out of who ever gains office. Which leads me to the Federalist Papers which I have posted about before and probably will again.


"Cheerleaders all over America form pyramids"

Koala Boy just brought this article to my attention: Prisoner pyramid a "control techinque." You need to read it. The lawyer defending one of the soldiers charged in the abuses at Abu Ghraib says there's nothing wrong with what was shown in the pictures. He likens the scenes to cheerleading pyramids and the tethers some people use to keep track of their children! I'll bet it is going to be all over Al Jazeera, although here we're just reporting on the local rainstorm...


1 Dead in La Concita Landslide

Yes, yes, I know that getting killed in a landslide is nothing to laugh about, but when several U.S. soldiers are being killed practically every day in Iraq, and tens of thousands are still starving in the aftermath of the tsunami, and even a dozen other people have already died from the storms over the weekend in California, I thought the L.A. times front page headline I saw this afternoon (the caption for this post) was hysterical.


I Guess We'd Better Buy More Lottery Tickets

Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget plan was released today. The education portion of it is what we all predicted: when faced with the choice of raising taxes or hurting California's already beleaguered schools, he has chosen the latter.

Last year, Schwarzenegger got education officals to suspend Prop 98 to give $2 billion to the general fund, with the understanding they would be repaid. Now, not only is he not repaying it, but he wants to suspend Prop 98 again. Naturally, educators are crying foul. In his defense, the governor argues that in his budget overall spending on schools will still increase (though it is unclear if this is in real dollars).

The 800-pound gorilla standing in the room that nobody wants to talk about is Prop 13. Tax cuts are not free: they are darned expensive. They're costing the future of California's children. I think the Democrats can make the argument--if they are bold enough--that this is too high a price to pay.


An In-gene-eous Plan

An article in today's NY Times, To Try to Net a Killer, Police Ask a Small Town's Men for DNA, pokes at some interesting questions. The gist of it is that the police in Truro, MA are stumped and are asking (politely) every man in town to give them a DNA sample (the police are sitting in sub shops and waiting at the postal counter, ready with swabs).

This is not a new concept. The article mentions that these mass DNA collection drives have been used successfully in England and Germany, including a case in 1998 when they collected 16,400 samples and found the man who'd raped and murdered an 11-year old girl (the man also confessed afterward.) It's also been done in this country before.

The program is "voluntary," but the police are clear that they will, "pay close attention to," those who do not provide a sample. The police sergeant said they were, "trying to find that person who has something to hide." This aspect of the DNA sweep is mostly what has offended some residents, who called in the ACLU. It's worth noting that after a similar sweep in Baton Rouge last year, the samples were kept on file, and now 1,200 men are suing to have them destroyed.

Question for our legal scholars: how does this sit with the constitution? While I appreciate the police's dilemma, this certainly seems to be on the border of the law. On the other hand, if everyone were required to give a DNA sample to the DMV as a matter of course, wouldn't that be essentially the same thing? And don't we do something like that with fingerprints?


Sunday, January 09, 2005

Framing Social Insecurity

The NY Times reports that Bush is trying to build momentum for his Social Security (SocSec) privatization plans by, "searing into the public consciousness," that we are on a, "fiscally unsustainable," course (quotes are from a White House memo). They want us to believe we are facing a "crisis" and the system cannot be patched--the only thing responsible, farsighted people can do is create individual savings accounts. Unless the Democrats start framing the debate over SocSec better--and fast--seniors will be bamboozled into not mobilizing their considerable political muscle to oppose it. Here are some thoughts on how to do this.

1. Never call this sense of urgency a "crisis;" call it "frightening seniors." There is no crisis; everyone agrees that SocSec is projected to be solvent until at least 2042 or 2052. "Stop frightening seniors, Mr. President. Our seniors deserve better than to be treated like this."

2. Never say that SocSec is "broken," "bankrupt," or, "insolvent;" say that it is a "great system" that "will need our help to keep going, as it always has." Say that when it needed help in the 80s, our parents shouldered that responsibility and made sure it was still here. Now it's our turn. Say that the system has been going strong for four generations of seniors and it is still the "best thing" we have ever done for our parents. Think of Bob Dole and repeat after me: "We have the best Social Security system in the world. We have the best Social Security system in the world. We have the best..."

3. Never call SocSec a "program;" call it a "promise." The promise was that if you work hard and play by the rules, when you retire you are guaranteed a decent income for the rest of your life. It never runs out and it doesn't matter what the hell the stock market is doing. "You kept your promise with your elders when you were younger, and today's youth will keep their promise to you."

4. Never say that Bush is "reforming" SocSec; say he's "giving up" on it. Never say he's "overhauling" it; say he's "abandoning it." Say that it's our "job" to keep this promise, and, "we will do whatever it takes to make the system work. We will never give up on our parents' future or our children's. We can make sure this promise will always be there if we make that a priority." Say that this isn't how we keep promises, and we can do better than that.

5. Never say "privatize;" use the word "end" or "ruin." Saying you are going to privatize SocSec to make individual retirement accounts is like saying you are going to "burgerize" a cow to make individual meals. It may sound mighty tasty, but trust me: after you do that, there ain't no cow no more. It is shortsighted and doesn't look to the future.

6. Never say Bush is "building the future" of SocSec; say he's "turning back the clock." FDR invented it after the great depression so that seniors who had saved all their lives would never lose their retirement again. All he's doing is turning back the clock to a time when you had to fend for yourself.

7. Never say Bush is "letting" Americans "invest" in their own retirement; say he's, "leaving us no choice," but to, "gamble our retirement away on the stock market." The stock market--can you believe it? Didn't we learn that lesson in 1929? Maybe the Bushes did OK during the depression, but a lot of people did not. His plan may sound good to an MBA, but in the real world, seniors can't afford to take this kind of risk with their retirement. Let Bush invest his own money in the stock market and let seniors keep their social security.

I think this message could really work.


Saturday, January 08, 2005

Would You Like Falafel With That?

Elections in Afghanistan concluded last month; elections will be held in Palestine tomorrow (Jan. 7th); and elections are scheduled for Iraq on Jan. 30th... what a politically fascinating time it is for the Arab world! And yet they all have a few things in common. They all have a U.S. backed candidate (Karzai, Abbas, Allawi) on the menu who is already in power. There is no suspense regarding who will win. And all three victors will face an uphill battle against military insurgencies in their nations. And so the question on everybody's mind is: will these elections make any difference?

I don't hold out much hope for the Palestian elections because of the tremendous power and popular support that Hamas and other murderous groups have who will continue to kill regardless of any peace overtures the elected leader may make. And Karzai is largely on his own, holed up in Kabul, while the vast rural areas of his nation turn into a Columbia-style narco-state before his very eyes. But believe it or not, I have hope for the Iraqi elections. Let me explain.

I am wondering if one aspect of the conventional wisdom regarding the deployment of US troops in Iraq may be wrong. Even the Democrats have been reluctant to set a firm date for withdrawal--but I wonder if might not be precisely what we need to do! If we made a firm committment to exit in, say, 12 months, that would give us time to train Iraqi forces while making it 100% clear that we were going to leave.

Remember: the only reason the Iraqi insurgency is having any success is that the Iraqi people support it--because they want us to go away. Perhaps the insurgency would lose some of its popular support if the people had a good reason to believe that no such violence was necessary to get us to leave. Furthermore, it would make them start paying more attention to the Iraqi government, which many of them (rightly, I suspect) believe isn't really calling the shots yet.

I respect Allawi and I think he knows how to negotiate with the relgious and military factions. The key is for the elections to feel reasonably legitimate to the people of Iraq. A landslide victory for Allawi would make questions of the exact balance of Shia/Sunni voters irrelevant. Although today's New York Times suggests that the whole-nation (no districts) voting plan for the parliament may "distort" the legislature by failing to elect "enough" Sunnis, since they live in areas where there is a lot of violence that may dissuade them from voting... consider the alternative.

Wouldn't a person elected from a such a district alone appear even more illegitimate? And I admit I sort of feel that since the Sunnis are the ones supporting the terrorists more than the other groups, it's kinda their own fault that there is violence in their own towns. If they wanted to stop it, they could. The insurgency could not be alive without a network of supporters and tacit support from their communities.

I admit it may be naive, but I think it is vital that the occur ASAP (on schedule) regardless of the violence, because a legitimate Iraqi goverment may be the only thing that can stop it. Yes, once we leave, maybe a civil war will break out between the factions--who can say? But that will be a different matter, not related to the current insurgency and foreign terrorist activities.


Friday, January 07, 2005

Reason #251 to Abolish the Electoral College

From today's LA Times:

Kerry won 252 electoral votes, but an apparent error by a Minnesota elector reduced his official tally by one vote. When Minnesota's 10 electors officially cast their votes for president in December, one apparently mistakenly entered the name of then-Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Kerry's running mate. So Edwards officially received one vote for president.

Let's try to picture this: you are 1 of the only 535 United States citizens who is actually allowed to vote for the President, you have just one tiny job to do to fulfill your sacred Constitutional duty... and you go ahead and f*ck it up. So what happened? Had the esteemed Elector already forgotten which John was at the top of the ticket in the 6 weeks since the election was held? Was the Minnesota delegation using the butterfly ballot? Did someone forget to darken the oval next to the name?

Can anyone give me a rationale for keeping the Electoral College? And even if you can come up with one (there are many clever political scientists on this blog)... do you truly believe it?

I was in my car, listening to NPR, when I heard that the Senator who joined Representative Stephanie Tubbs in objecting to the counting of Ohio's electoral votes was Barbara Boxer, and I actually cheered. (I talk to my radio sometimes.) It was sweet to hear that a feisty Jewish grandmother from my home state interrupted the joint session of Republican triumphalism to force Congress to address the issue of voting irregularities, if only for a couple of hours. Because even if we abolish the Electoral college, we're going to have to change how we conduct national elections if Americans are going to trust them again.

How sad is it that in our great democracy we permit partisan elections officials in each state to design, distribute, and tally the ballots? How sad is it that we let them handle all registration and eligibility issues for voters as well? (And not just for the national elections, but often for their own jobs as well! Think foxes and henhouses.) And then we are shocked--shocked!--to find, as we saw in Ohio, that they put a few, old voting machines in poorly staffed polling places in the precincts likely to vote against them (ensuring long lines and mechanical failures), while they put lots of fresh new voting machines in the precincts where their supporters live. And we also discover that registration forms for some "enemy" voters mysteriously get lost. Truly, if Bush had proposed a system for electing the Iraqi Governing Council in which the local warlords ran the elections, he would have been laughed out of the White House.

I'm sure that Boxer & Tubbs' (sounds like a good buddy cop movie, huh?) little stunt will be forgotten by tomorrow. I only hope that it signals a willingness on the Democrats' part to finally put this issue of fraudulent or unfair elections processes near the top of their agenda in Washington.

[And on a personal note, my thanks to The Citizens for adding me to their blog!]


Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Right Wing by any Other Name

Governor Schwarzenegger of California ran for office with a fantasyland pledge: no new taxes, no cuts to education or other critical programs. He immediately backed down this pledge -- no, not the taxes part, the "no cuts" part. He made separate deals (bypassing the legislature) with K-12, Community colleges, theCal-State system, and the UC system asking for cuts, but promising no more. Swayed by his celebrity status and popularity, a popularity buoyed by the fact that nobody would oppose him, the deals were made. The Governator also asked for a "one time" $15 billion deficit bond, again bypassing the legislature. Not a bond to fund capital projects, but a bond to fund current expenditures. Again, he made the fantasyland pledge that this would solve everything. Again nobody opposed him.

Now we have a $8 billion deficit. The Gov's new financial guru (finance minister?) Tom Campbell, a snake whom I know personally, has broken all the pledges, save the only one he ever really meant: no new taxes. Tom Campbell's trademark is pretending to be a moderate while actually pushing a hard-right agenda. As a professor, Campbell would go to shocking underhanded lengths in order to injure the careers of liberal students, all the while pretending to be a moderate or a bipartisan figure (by not being a total bigot on social issues). He's made a career out of it. The Gov's association with Tom Campbell is disappointing, and has produced the expected, sad result: a thoroughly right-wing set of priorities presented by supposedly moderate figures. The new plan: cut billions from education and pensions for employees.

It seems that the Democrats may now be willing to call a spade a spade, and fight the Governator on these broken pledges. Perhaps somebody will, at last, call the Arnold Schwarzenegger on being a self-made millionaire and model immigrant. He took tons of illegal drugs (steroids and god knows what else) to help him create a freaky body which he has exhibited on television and movies for money. He has also participated in the bodybuilding industry, in which heavy-steroid-using persons sell insecure young men on the potential of building tremendous bodies by purchasing their magazines using their supplements and vitamin projects. He made his other money running restaurants employing illegal immigrants and paying minimum wage (or less). Not a hero.

Perhaps Democrats will point out the real problems with Arnold's right wing politics, and lay off the trumped-up-sounding accusations that during his drugged up bodybuilding days of the 1970s, he inappropriately touched some women (don't women's groups realize these actually burnish his tough-guy image by 'proving' he's not gay, which is a constant issue for bodybuilders, whose lives revolve around obsession with physical appearance and masculine beauty).

The question is whether the Democrats will expose Arnold for who he really is. Can they take on the Hollywood PR? Maybe so. Hollywood preaches that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Not true in politics.


Long Term Response To Tsunami

Hi Everyone,

OK, the immediate response: shock - apathy - disgust - horror - guilt - compassion - self satisfaction is drawing to a conclusion. The world is beginning to turn to long term solutions. My favorite starting place for a debate on the long term response to global poverty and living standards is the Copenhagen Consensus. Check it out!

Tony Blair has begun pushing for debt forgiveness for the stricken countries. Good idea. Blair has been pushing debt forgiveness for the developing countries world wide for a while now and he seems to be taking a page from the Book of Bush here - namely use traumatic events as a justification for actions you've advocated for years before the trauma.

I would add my little pet peeve here too. If we in the developed world want to really help the people of South and South East Asia the best thing we can do is end agricultural subsidies. Here is an article about how agricultural subsidies are distributed in the United States. Rich farmers get most of the subsidies and rice growers (grown in the south) and cotton growers (grown in the south) are the disproportionate beneficiaries of subsidies. Agricultural subsidies are the Republican Party's secret weapon for getting out the rural vote in the South especially. If the GOP is for it, progressive people should seriously consider being against it. Here is what OXFAM says these subsidies are doing to Mexican farmers. Of course, Mexico isn't in South Asia but it has a very similar relationship to trade and the developed world. Ag subsidies are not the exclusive domain of the United States. The EU's system is at least as bad, as is Australia's. This is one of a number of situations where the pro-market approach is actually the most progressive. These subsidies disrupt the market in ways that benefit the rich at the expense of the working poor throughout the world both "North" and "South". They also create incentives for illegal migration as farmers from developing countries are put out of business by unfair trade practices and go "North" looking for work.

So what do the Citizens and friends think about other long term solutions? What do you think of these two?


Saturday, January 01, 2005

Religion and US Media Coverage of the Tsunami

Hi Again,

Many of you may have noticed that while the overwhelming majority of victims of the tsunami are South and South East Asians, most of the people being interviewed by the US media are either Americans or other westerners. One announcer on CNN had the decency to be embarrassed about it and try to make an excuse about not having access to anyone else (what ever happened to investigative journalism??). I've begun to notice another development. The few non-western people being interviewed have an strong tendency to be Christians. CNN even did a prolonged interview with a guy from Sri Lanka who believes he stopped the tsunami in mid air by shouting Bible verses at it. Another story about 2 widowed sisters made a point of mentioning that they were Christians. Interviews with aid organizations and refugee centers have been predominantly run by Christians. Prayer vigils among the Sri Lankan immigrant community in the USA are shown to be led by Christian ministers. I have watched A LOT of this coverage since I'm on vacation and I have not seen any interviews with Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim clergy (check out recent cartoons by Danziger on the link to the right). From the coverage one might get the impression that Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand have large Christian populations. I have to admit, I didn't know for sure and I've heard that South Korea actually does have a surprisingly high percentage of I looked it up in an atlas I got on sale at a local book store. Here are the religious affiliation percentages for the most seriously effected countries:

Indonesia: 86.9% Muslim, 9.6% Christian, 1.9% Hindu, 1% Buddhist, .6% other
Thailand: 94.4% Buddhist, 4% Muslim, .5% Christian
Sri Lanka: 69.3% Buddhist, 15.5% Hindu, 7.6% Muslim, 7.5% Christian, .1% other
India: 80% Hindu, 14% Muslim, 2.4% Christian, 2% Sikh, .7% Buddhist, .5% Jain, .4% other
Maldives: 100% Sunni Muslim

There are some Christians but they are nothing like a large part of the population.

Comments? Discussion?