Monday, March 24, 2008

Study History or Be Doomed To Repeat It, Yadda Yadda Yadda

I decided to make this week’s column about the reaction to the previous week’s. There are people out there, as readers of this blog know, who are perfectly willing to give up their rights for security – and to demonize those who disagree. As a
number of commentators have noted before me, the passage from Thucydides is pretty compelling for its modernity. But lots of people would rather be Spartans than Athenians (but even those who want to be Athenians want to be the right kind of Athenians—not the slaves, for example.)

East Valley Tribune, Mar. 23. 2008

You know what’s scary? Many people, emailing angrily in response to last week’s column, actually do believe that we face a greater danger today than during World War II or the Cold War. One actually wrote that today’s dangers aren’t “a small threat like Nazi Germany or the USSR.”

A “small threat”? Sure, some “Greatest Generation” stuff may be overdone, but calling Hitler “a small threat”? There’s a difference between glossing over uncomfortable history, like the Tom Brokaw book, and turning history on its head, like these Iraq war supporters.

Calling Nazi Germany “a small threat” is pretty absurd. And notice the logical inconsistency. Every new threat is the “next Hitler” -- and so dangerous that the original Hitler really isn’t that big a deal? It’s like a fun-house mirror that makes today’s dangers seem huge and the past’s microscopic. Today’s “next Hitler” is the greatest threat ever. The actual Hitler just can’t compete with his successors.

Of course, hyperbole is pretty much standard in the ‘winger mindset. America once was perfect, then the liberals/women’s libbers/homosexuals/foreigners ruined it. You can located the precise point of decline because everybody claims they supported Dr. King through the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but that by 1965 (the War on Poverty, King turning against the Vietnam War) the “golden age” had ended. Thus, we need to turn the clock back at least 44 years, but 45 is too much. To restore America to its past greatness, we need a really accurate time machine.

And if the USSR also was only “a small threat,” then Ronald Reagan apparently didn’t accomplish much in staring down the “Evil Empire.” Why bother naming everything after somebody who only faced “a small threat,” not like the he-man dangers faced by George W. Bush?

Thucydides understood these Chicken Littles, having seen them in action in ancient Athens:

To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual
meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was
now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think
of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any
idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character;
ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally
unfitted for action. (The Peloponnesian War
III, 82)

One email claimed that, through a series of mathematical assumptions (1 billion Muslims, some small percentage hate the U.S., do the math) a million “virgin-seeking suicide bombers [are] anxious to blow me and my family to Hades.” Because the fate of Western Civilization depends on some guy in Mesa with an email account. It must be nice to be that important.

Then there are the correspondents who ferociously objected to noting that when the U.S. uses waterboarding and other techniques that used to be called torture, we’re no better than Shia or Janjaweed militias. That’s outrageous, say these emailers, because we’re using “enhanced interrogation techniques” to defend ourselves from attack, but those bad guys use those techniques, and worse, because they are “senseless, brutal, cold killers [who] hate.”

But that’s why the U.N. Convention Against Torture -- which the U.S. once proudly joined -- exists, because it doesn’t take much for any country or ethnic group to start justifying almost anything from the lack of decency or humanity of their opponents. We use “enhanced interrogation techniques”; they torture. We are good and decent, and you must trust us; they are evil, brutal, and do not play by our rules.

So the rules against torture are designed not to be relativistic, but absolute. You don’t get to start torturing if you decide your heart is pure -- because who ever doubts that their own heart is pure, or at least purer than their enemies’’?

I find the idea that “Islamists” are “among us everywhere” more laughable than frightening. But that so many Americans eagerly accept torture, government surveillance, and suspicion of anyone who looks different out of fear -- now, that’s scary.
Boston Globe Profiles Jim Roosevelt

Sometimes, you actually do have the right guy in the right job when it hits the fan.

It's too long a set-up for readers who aren't health care lawyers, but Peter and I did a parody NYTimes Magazine-style profile of Jim as his roast as outgoing president, with President Roosevelt announcing that AHLA was going to war against the ABA Health Law Section because intelligence sources revealed that the ABA was reprocessing plutonium into widely-attended HIPAA compliance seminars, or (wait for it) Weapons of Mass Instruction.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Dangers Aren't Bigger; It's Us That Got Small

My suggested headline was above, but in the newspaper version, the editor didn’t want to quote Norma Desmond twice (or wasn’t sure if it was better to use the objective or the nominative) and I got the longer headline instead.

The scary thing is that there really are people out there (who email me) who claim to believe that we’re in greater danger than ever, that today’s threat isn’t “a small threat like Nazi Germany or the USSR” (A small threat? Take that, “Greatest Generation”!) and that a million “virgin-seeking suicide bombers [are] anxious to blow me and my family to Hades.” It must be nice to be that important.

East Valley Tribune, Mar. 16, 2008

These really aren’t the most dangerous times we’ve ever faced. This absurd war-without-end isn’t the greatest crisis the United States has ever seen. The threat of whatever it’s called this week -- Global Extremism? Islamofascism? Really Scary-Looking Guys With Beards? -- are lesser than we’ve handled before.

The threat isn’t greater; rather, we’re just more fearful than any other time in our history.

You’ve heard of the Greatest Generation? We’re the Scared-est Generation. Every two-bit dictator is the next Hitler, and any swarthy foreigner with a laptop is a terrorist mastermind.

We line up like sheep at the airport to remove our shoes and make sure our shampoo is safe. We fear threats (balsa wood model airplanes!) that wouldn’t propel a comedy skit. The only thing we have to fear is everything.

To paraphrase
Norma Desmond, the dangers haven’t gotten bigger; we’ve just gotten smaller.

It’s not the danger that’s forcing us to abandon our principles and the Constitution. It’s our fear. We see torture working on 24 -- a TV show, people! -- and we convince ourselves that we have to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” to protect ourselves.

Never mind that in the past, we never used torture on fanatical Nazis; there were more effective interrogation techniques that didn’t require Americans to sell our collective souls for safety. Never mind that in the past five years, in each case that’s come to light, torture yielded more bad information (false leads, idle chatter, and stuff we already knew without moral compromise) than good.

Shouldn’t the burden be on the people saying “torture works!” to prove it, before they can sully the rest of us? And shouldn’t it take something more than just bald assertions by the Bush administration, given their track record?

But, hey, we’re so afraid that we’re perfectly willing to let somebody -- so long as we don’t have to watch, so we’ll use contractors instead of enlisted personnel -- torture in our name. After all, they’d never torture anybody like us, only people who look different, whom somebody says are out to kill us. Fine, believe that. Just don’t consider yourself any better than the average Shia militiaman or Sudanese Janjaweed, because those are the rules by which they play, too.

The latest example where the fearmongering just doesn’t stand up to the facts is updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The Bush administration claims that without (a) expansion of their power to wiretap without court approval and (b) retroactive immunity for telecoms that “cooperated” with the government, then we’re at mortal risk! Why, FISA could be interpreted to prevent monitoring foreign-to-foreign communications that, in a networked world, somehow travel through US wires or servers!

that too is a lie. The Justice Department’s top national security lawyer confirmed last week that foreign-to-foreign communications aren’t subject to FISA. The only problem is with emails stored on US servers when it’s not known where the recipient is (or will be) located. That’s a relatively easy problem to fix -- but one the Bush administration doesn’t want to fix without retroactive immunity.

Many observers think the immunity issue isn’t a big deal for the telecoms, suspecting that the companies got government indemnification before cooperating. Instead, the administration doesn’t want to disclose what they actually did. Remember Alberto Gonzales’s
mysterious nighttime hospital visit to John Ashcroft to reauthorize the program? Wouldn’t you like to know what the government was doing before we agree to let them keep doing it?

Of course, the red herring here is the idea that we need to give the telecoms immunity because in wartime, we want them to cooperate “patriotically.” Julian Sanchez
has the answer: No, I’d rather corporations obey the law. If the law’s wrong, change it, but don’t “fix” it by having regulated businesses “cooperate” with whomever sits in the White House.

The folks who believe in torture also think it’s worth giving up some of the Constitution to keep them safe. There’s a word for people who value safety so more than freedom -- and that word isn’t “American.”

Monday, March 10, 2008

If War Is So Great, Why Won’t You Pay For It?

My suggested headline was above, but the editor went more confrontational.
UPDATE: A reader points out that the headline misstates my point. Republicans want to do things, and they need to support taxes to pay for the things they want to do. War may be necessary, but it isn't free. Voluntary donations, or spending cuts, won't do it; if they want war, they should take the political hit that would come from having to raise taxes to pay for the war. The headline makes is sound like even more of a flippant sauce-goose-gander argument than it was. It's more of the economics argument, that how important can the war be if it's not worth paying anything for? Too bad for readers; I finally write something with less snark and the headline makes up for it.

East Valley Tribune, Mar. 9, 2008

What’s the war in Iraq worth?

One of the more tired tropes of right-wing ideology is the voluntary “tax me more” account. “If you want the government to act,” they say, “send money. Once we get enough, we’ll raise teacher’s salaries or whatever else you liberals want.”

Of course, nobody contributes to these voluntary accounts, and conservatives crow, “See! Nobody wants to pay for your liberal claptrap.”

However, there are several flaws with voluntary payment accounts, which game theorists call the “
collective action” problem. It may be worth $50 to me to increase teacher salaries statewide -- but that happens only if others also contribute. Otherwise, my $50 doesn’t buy anything; the donation’s value to me requires that everybody pay their share, because without collective action, there isn’t enough money to raise teacher salaries.

There’s also the free-rider problem -- why I should contribute so APS can pay lower property taxes? And, in Arizona whenever the economy turns south, there’s the budget shortfall problem. You’d be foolish indeed ever to contribute to a voluntary fund here, because the first thing the Legislature in a recession is grab all unprotected funds (like energy assistance or mental health research) to help close the budget gap. Of course, when times get better, the Legislature never seems to replenish those accounts, and merrily resumes cutting taxes on the richest.

But ignore those problems, and grant the ‘wingers their argument; nobody really wants these things because we’re giving them the chance to pay, and they aren’t. So let’s apply that thinking to the Iraq war.

None of the war’s supporters are willing to pay for it. It’s been 5 years of “emergency” spending, with no tax increase even remotely considered. As
the leading House Republican said in 2003, “Nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes.” This would have been a shock to the Founders, who did impose taxes to raise an army to fight for independence. But apparently, paying for war is so old-fashioned. These days, you still may need money to pay soldiers, buy equipment, bullets, and bombs, and there are former Sunni insurgents to keep paying off -- but apparently it’s money war supporters have no desire to pay.

Look at presumptive GOP nominee John McCain’s policy positions. We have to fight the war, and have US troops in Iraq for 100 years if that’s what it takes, and we have to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, and cut all sorts of other taxes, too. We’re supposed to pay for all this by cutting spending, none of which is supposed to affect those getting Social Security, Medicare, or federal projects here in Arizona, like securing the border. The cost of the war is supposed to disappear somehow, and if anything is done to pay for it, it’s by having other people get less. But as far as what John McCain, or George W. Bush, want to pay personally, right now, for their war -- can you spell zilch?

If the war is such a great idea, shouldn’t its proponents be willing to pay something to pursue it? This isn’t like the collective action problem; those supporting the war are in a position to make sure everybody pays their share, and that the money contributed (in taxes) goes right where it’s promised (to Baghdad). Also, these people are supposed to be experts, and pride themselves on their ability to move public opinion. But raising taxes would burden the economy and their contributors, not necessarily in that order. It’s an odd position; the war is the most important thing, “defeat would unleash incomprehensible consequences,” but in dollar terms it’s all worth, well, nothing, actually.

I know ‘wingers find it tiresome when liberals prattle on about doing things “for the children.” But even they would have to admit that it’s better than the conservatives’ approach of borrowing all the money for their war. Instead of doing things “for the children,” the proper ‘winger approach is “stick them with the bill.”

Monday, March 03, 2008

Man Bites Dog: CEO Supports Democrat!

That was my suggested headline but the editor thought it was one joke too many, apparently. In case you want to (and you should) read the Mickadeit column, it's here. My column (newspaper version here) was linked to a Tibor Machan column telling you to vote for the (unnamed) libertarian in November if there is one on your ballot. We’ve thus come to the crux of the matter; libertarianism is a political philosophy without any people involved, politics without the polis. What could possibly go wrong?

East Valley Tribune, Mar. 2, 2008

Independent “content” contractors like yours truly don’t get much access to our Orange County Editorial Overlords. Once a year or so, Prof. Tibor Machan, the home team’s “libertarian advisor,” descends from his ivory tower at Chapman University, the Harvard of the 92866 ZIP Code, and propounds the libertarian “less should be more” philosophy to us locals.

The Tribune’s Perspective section also participates in the Freedom Communications annual salute to R.C. Hoiles, the founder of the family-dominated corporation that owned this newsprint before selling it to you. It’s in November; you’ll want to buy those Ayn Rand books you’re considering for holiday gifts before demand soars in response.

But stuck here in the Arizona boonies, we lesser minions in the Freedom food chain missed the big corporate event last week,
as described by Orange County Register columnist Frank Mickadeit. Freedom Communications sponsored the “Freedom Presidential Debate” between Prof. Machan and Freedom CEO Scott Flanders at Corporate HQ (in an Irvine office park; think Chandler, but with less convenient parking.)

Mickadeit figured a debate between Machan and Flanders over which libertarian to support for president in 2008 (of course there’s more than one libertarian running, it goes with the territory) wouldn’t be very interesting, but hey, a free sandwich and soda counts as a perk to a print journalist. And the first part of the debate was pretty run-of-the-John-Stuart-Mill, an abstract discussion of the practical versus philosophical approaches to politics.

Machan urged the audience to vote for the Libertarian Party candidate. While that candidate has roughly the same chance of winning as does Ralph Nader (assuming that Ralph Nader isn’t the Libertarian candidate; when you’re a vanity candidate, any platform will suffice), Machan thought it would be good to get libertarian ideas a wider hearing, to prepare for serious reforms, “maybe even a revolution.” (Since when is going back two centuries considered a revolution?)

Flanders took the other side of the argument, that it would be better to vote for the major-party candidate who would accomplish more for personal freedom -- in other words advancing libertarianism without Libertarians. Our CEO then announced that in 2008, the top issue for him is “who will get us out of Iraq.”

This is not news; as part of last year’s Hoiles hoopla, all the Freedom papers had editorials
applying Our Founder’s philosophy to current issues, and guess what? The war in Iraq was a mistake, and we should bring the troops home: “Terrorists may ‘hate us for our freedom,’ but they are able to recruit people to attack us because we are in ‘their’ countries, trying to run them.”

So if your top issue is getting out of Iraq, for whom do you vote? Flanders risked the whole Hoiles legacy, not to mention his membership in the CEO Club, by saying he was going to vote for Barack Obama, even though he really does know that Obama is a Democrat.


It’s not just the war; Flanders said Obama also would do the best job on three other top libertarian concerns, namely restoring the separation of church and state; reducing state exuberance in prosecuting victimless crimes; and cutting back the Patriot Act. Just ending the war, much less those additional issues, mattered to Flanders far more than whether taxes get (temporarily) raised or lowered.

Freedom doesn’t endorse candidates, so the fact that the CEO supports Obama tells you only that the CEO supports Obama. But it’s worth noting that neither the CEO nor the house philosopher thinks you should vote for the Republican.

This should not be surprising, because a political party that supports misguided and expensive (
$3 trillion and counting!) wars, which wants to tear down barriers between religion and the state, and which thinks government knows best about everything but money, really isn’t a congenial home for libertarians.

If you like what Bush has done and what McCain promises to keep doing, fine -- but don’t call yourself a libertarian. Taxophobic, yes, but not a libertarian.