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Thursday, December 15, 2011

"Practical" and "Fair" may be like Apples and Oranges

My apologies again, readers, both for my long absence and for this really long Post.  I can't help it.  I just do not feel comfortable sharing thoughts that could be sound bites or bumper stickers.  A friend recently accused me of being "overly attached to nuance"
Often, I will, after considerable thought, develop an idea that I share with my wife.  Most of the time, her response is the equivalent of "well, duh".

When I read my first draft of this Post, my immediate thought was that it was a pointless thing to write. My observations (such as they are) seemed obvious.  Yet they were not initially obvious to me.  I had to think about this stuff to come up the ideas.  Now, one possibility is that I'm just not too bright, but, even if that is the case, I don't really believe that is why I had to think.  Rather, I believe most of us simply do not slow down and think things through.  Rather, we come to conclusions based on unarticulated assumptions.  Heck, we have to, or we'd never make it out of bed in the morning; we'd lie there, contemplating our respective navels and thoroughly examining the existential reasons why we had to get up and do something.  Yet when it comes to political ideas, I believe we need to think more about those assumptions or axioms or whatever you want to call them.  What I like to do when I have an opinion on a complicated issue is to take my immediate reaction, then ask myself "why", then take that answer, and ask "why" again (like a reluctant 3 year old using "why" as an offensive weapon against a parent), until I come to, well, something I think is more "basic".  All modesty aside, while I'm not stupid, I'm "slower" than a lot of people.  I have to think things through to understand them, and I know it.  My real advantage is that I don't mind looking stupid a lot of the time.  In any event, whether this point (and this entire Post) is already obvious to the reader, I would recommend examining political assumptions as at least an interesting and useful exercise. 

The incorrect assumption that "fair" and "practical" go hand-in-hand, particularly when looking at some sort of economic "redistribution".

Political/economic discussions often make little progress because opposing sides do not actually listen to each other.  Right now, a number of widely diverse political/economic debates seem to be even more a series of non-sequiters (or "comparing apples with oranges") than usual,  as differing viewpoints may arise largely out of unarticulated assumptions about what values are important in determining public policy.  More specifically, some (perhaps most) positions rest on the idea that what is important is to be “fair”; others are perhaps more concerned with what may be “practical” (or “smart” or even “necessary”.)  Few if any leaders publicly acknowledge these different assumptions, perhaps because doing so might involve acknowledging that courses of action that seem “practical” may not be “fair” and vice-versa, which, in turn, would force leaders and journalists to be more nuanced and less “sound bite friendly.  As a ratings or vote-getting move, this avoidance may make sense.  In terms of a reasoned and honest public debate, and the public interest, it does not.

A common characteristic of several such discussions is that they involve what might be considered “bailouts” or “redistributions” from those who appear deserving to those who do not.  Specific examples discussed below include Germany and/or the European Central Bank possibly guaranteeing the debts of less solvent members of the Euro zone, the 2008 TARP bailout of American financial institutions, American “entitlement” spending,  possible reductions of mortgage principle for “underwater” homeowners, and what to do concerning illegal immigrants.

We can't agree on what is fair,  but we can agree on some things that are unfair.-Two rules of unfairness

“Fair” is a slippery, overused, and powerful political word, although it seems to have become a synonym for “what I personally think is a good way to share either profit or pain”.  Every politician or interest group or person will describe their desired division of either benefits or taxes (or any benefit or detriment) as fair.  Presumably, most of them even believe what they are saying (OK, I may be naive).  If I am a politician and want higher or lower whatever for some group, I will sooner or later characterize what I want as "only fair".  Guaranteed.  

"Unfair” is an even stronger word; we tend to react more strongly to negative stimuli.  However, what is “unfair” may be more susceptible to universal agreement  than what is “fair”.  Specifically, I believe two particular things strike almost all Americans (and probably Europeans, and maybe everyone) as very unfair.  First, we believe it to be unfair if rules and promises are changed in the middle of the "game" to benefit one party to the detriment of another - a lesson learned as young children playing board games.  When we thought someone was trying to cheat us in such a fashion, we (yes, all of us) would tend to go ballistic.  Second, we believe that, at least generally, good or desirable behavior should be rewarded and bad or undesirable behavior should be punished.  To do the reverse is, we think, fundamentally unfair.  Most adults understand that the world is not always fair, but we emotionally believe that it should be.  More to the point, we strongly believe that our governments should pass laws and regulations which, to the extent possible, promote fair rather than unfair behavior.

It is also important to note that "fair", particularly when viewed in the context of my second rule of unfairness, often relates to rewards or punishments for past behavior by the person or group in question.

"Practicality" and its focus on what will happen in the future, as opposed to who has been trying to cheat whom

What is “practical” or “smart” or “necessary” is obviously also subject to disagreement, but is a less emotional word.  As with “fair”, the negative is easier to agree upon.  Getting agreement on what is not practical is usually easier than getting agreement on what is.   In any event, however, what is practical may or may not be fair, and vice versa. 

In their well-known book, “Getting to Yes; Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In”, Roger Fisher, William L. Ury and Bruce Patton discuss the differences between: 1) what they describe as a “positional” analysis – how did we get here or who did what to whom – which focuses on past behavior, and 2) an “interest” analysis – what is in the interest of each party going forward into the future.  The authors believe that while we have a tendency to analyze disputes in “positional” terms because we arrive at a dispute out a perception of right vs. wrong behavior, it is generally more useful in any negotiation – more “practical” if you will – to focus on where the parties are now and on what they would like to happen from this point forward. 

This tension is evident in the political examples set forth in this Post, and one key to trying to be “practical” is to realize the extent that both “sides” ' future economic interests are intertwined.

The Euro.  When countries break the rules

European countries that adopted the Euro did so under certain rules.  Countries were to supposed to meet certain qualifications before being allowed to join the Euro group.  All members committed to certain fiscal limitations.  They were not to be responsible for each others’ debts (there is some debate on whether and how they might do so indirectly).  Treaty revisions had to be approved by everyone.  Countries were not giving up much, if any, sovereignty, or so most of them seemed to believe.  The problem – from a “positional” or "fairness" view -  is that some people cheated.  The Greeks cooked their books in order to get into the group in the first place.  Other countries did not exactly follow the fiscal rules after they were in, either by using dubious accounting measures, or as a result of domestic political concerns, or just because of what might be considered the economic bad luck which struck in 2008.  Another factor is that the countries were, internally, all playing by their own different rules.  Work weeks, retirement ages, pension levels were national rather than European decisions, and vary widely from country to country. 

The richer countries – particularly Germany – are now faced with requests that they, either directly, or through the European Central Bank, or by other means, bail out the countries that cannot finance or refinance their own debt without such assistance.  I must tell you, if I were a German (or a Finn or a Swede), I would not be happy about this prospect, and my instinctive reaction would be to tell needy countries, particularly the Greeks, to go ahead and default and leave the Euro, even if it meant crippling losses to my own banks.

Therein lies the problem, with both this European issue and the other, American issues.  The well being of the “good guys” and the “bad guys” (or the “ants” and the “grasshoppers” or whatever one wants to call them) are connected.  Everything is interconnected when one deals with numbers this size in the world economy today.  For example, if the Greeks were to default on their bond obligations, an immediate consequence would be that French, German and other banks would take tremendous losses.  American companies which may have issued credit default insurance would take a hit as well.  In the longer term, the loss of Greece and perhaps others from the Euro group would deprive Germany of much of the economic market and factors that have enabled it to increase its exports and become much more prosperous.  In short, as good as it might make a German citizen feel, if the German Government were throw other countries off of the perceived gravy train, it may be throwing our hypothetical angry German citizen off the train with them.  Many economists believe the pain to the rich countries will be greater if they let themselves be governed by considerations of what is “fair”.  It would simply not be “practical” to do so. 

At this point, the Germans seem to be trying to do three things:  1) keep the Euro from collapsing (practical); 2) force "austerity" upon the less well off countries (my belief is that the governing elites view this as primarily practical, but that for unhappy citizens, there's also a strong element of punishment involved); and 3) set up some structure with teeth to make sure that no one can break the rules in the future (practical and fair).  Whether this is either wise or possible remains to be seen.

2008 and the Troubled Asset Relief Program ("TARP")in the United States

The 2008 "bailout" of American banks via the TARP program has similar characteristics to the current Euro problem.  The banks, bankers and other players in the financial services industry made some terrible economic/business decisions.  They invested in (and convinced their customers to invest in) what turned out to be obvious garbage.  (I  recommend “The Big Short”, by Michael Lewis to anyone who has not yet read it).  They were capitalists, existing in a system of good vs. bad bets where, presumably, making really bad bets meant you lost lots of money.  However, the bankers, at least those at the top of the food chain, did not personally “lose” money.  Instead, they received huge monetary compensation packages for kicking the American economy into a toilet.  Their bonuses did drop – for a year.  Yet our Government, in a capitalist system, bailed these banks and bankers out.  We rewarded the bankers for behavior which was almost certainly both stupid and greedy.  We violated the first fairness rule by changing the rules to protect capitalists from their business losses.  Doing so was even more a stunning violation the second fairness rule above: “good or desirable behavior should be rewarded and bad or undesirable behavior should be punished”. 

Virtually everyone is still angry about this because it was obviously not fair.  The Tea Party doesn’t like it.  The Occupy Wall Street Protesters don’t like it.  Many of the Congresspersons who voted for TARP did not like it either, for various reasons.  Yet it passed, with bipartisan support, because it was not only practical, but necessary, to do something to save the financial system. (Yes, TARP was certainly highly flawed, but it was also a rush job.) 

The truth is that Main Street  needs Wall Street to function, or, to put it another more dramatic and even less precise/accurate way, the 99% needs the 1%.  If the banking and financial system had gone into further systemic shock and banks had really stopped lending for any substantial period of time, the entire American economy, not just the bankers, would have suffered far more than it has.  Credit is the blood supply of the American economy.  You want to shrink the big banks? OK with me.  You want to cut bonuses?  OK.  You want to throw a bunch of people in jail?  OK.  You want to raise marginal income tax rates on the wealthy?  OK.  But we need banks, and lending, to function.  Period.  So being practical may have required us to be less focused on fairness than everyone would have liked, at least in late 2008 and early 2009.

"Entitlement" programs and the perception of fairness

On the other hand, the 1% also needs a relatively prosperous and stable 99%, or at least a large middle class, to buy stuff, make stuff, and not engage in a violent revolution.(didn't see that one coming, did you?)  If I were part of the 1%, the increasing levels of income disparity, continuing high unemployment and continuing reduction of the number of well-paying manufacturing jobs would worry me- a lot, for both solely economic reasons and because of its effect on public perception of the legitimacy of governments (more on this later). It’s only fair (lol) that those who are successful in our system are rewarded.  How much they should be rewarded in order to be fair depends on one’s own ideological bent.  However, rewarding them too much (as well as too little) may not be practical.  It may kill the goose laying the golden eggs. Yet many conservatives who have an intensely negative reaction to any hint of  “wealth redistribution” do not seem to understand this. 

Conservative attitudes on this point are based in part on a belief that certain, but not all, “entitlements” are “handouts” to the undeserving.  I believe most rank and file members of (or at least sympathizers with) the Tea Party movement view Social Security and Medicare in a different way than, say, food stamps, Medicaid and unemployment insurance.  Most of those of us who are older have contributed substantial amounts to both Social Security and to Medicare.  We have lived our adult lives with the expectation that the rules governing those programs would not change in any dramatic fashion – that certain basic social compacts to provide for our elderly would remain in existence for us.  Moreover, many of us have not done anything “wrong”; all we have done is get older.  This happens to rich and poor, liberal and conservative, deserving and undeserving.  The famous angry citizen with the sign demanding that the Government “keep its hands of his Medicare” was saying what he meant.  However, because people are living longer, health care costs have risen, and the population has aged, maintaining these programs in their current form may not be practical. It would be impossible without someone paying more or getting less.  On this issue in particular, all of our politicians and interest groups engage in a lot of what is called "magical thinking".

Programs such as food stamps, Medicaid and unemployment benefits, however, are not entitlements from which we all expect to benefit.  To get them, one is, after all, supposed to be poor or unemployed.  Many conservatives appear to believe that being poor or even just unemployed is evidence of  bad behavior that should be discouraged and not rewarded by “gifts”.  I have heard politicians say things like “If you’re poor or don’t have a job, it’s your own fault”.  (In some cases, it may be. There are lazy poor people. There are also old, disabled, disadvantaged, unlucky and “just made some bad decisions” poor people. There are also rich people who fall into each one of those categories.)  Rather than wander off onto a discussion of  whom, if anyone,  deserves support from the rest of us, their fellow citizens, let it suffice to say that many Americans, particularly those who view themselves as conservative,  believe this to be a “fairness” question – that “redistribution of income”, under most circumstances, is not only "Socialism" (gasp), but just not fair because it appears to reward those who “lose” at the game of capitalism. Practicality (as well as morality and my own view of fairness, but I am not going there) seems to suggest a different approach. To me, cutting such programs with a meat axe is not likely to significantly decrease the number of unemployed, or create good jobs, or make recipients of entitlements into taxpayers.  In any event, this is an area where all sides are trying to use both fairness and practicality as support for their respective positions.

Democrats seem to have a more popular argument on Medicare and Social Security than on other entitlements because of this different view of the fairness of the programs involved (as well as because seniors tend to vote more heavily than poor people).  However, the dollar amounts involved – and a focus on practicality - would lead to the opposite conclusion.  The big numbers – the ones that would have to be cut to significantly reduce spending – are in Medicare and Social Security.

The Foreclosure crisis and mortgage relief

Another example of this focus on fairness can be heard in debates about whether steps should be taken to assist homeowners whose equity is “underwater” by reducing  principle balances of  mortgages, whether through changes in the Bankruptcy Code or via some other legislation.  One side will say:  “What message does this send to those who did not borrow and spend too much money – those who acted prudently and saved and left themselves a cushion?”   Well, my wife and I are two such people.  We’ve always been very reluctant to acquire debt.  And I must tell you, while we do not believe ourselves to be particularly virtuous, it does not seem fair that the “grasshoppers” should be able to stay in their (sometimes big) houses and have their legitimate debts “just” forgiven.  (this reaction comes from someone whom can rant at great length about fraudulent mortgage originators and predatory lenders.) This is a “fairness” argument, not a “practicality” argument.  The other side will argue that if foreclosures continue at this pace, the real estate market and the construction industry will fall upon even harder times, and that those are two big pieces of both our citizens’ private assets and our economy.  That is a “practicality” argument - that people like me and my wife – the “ants” - will in fact be much better off if we agree to cut  “grasshoppers” some slack on this issue.  No one in this debate, however appears to acknowledge that it is a matter of judging between competing political values.  Fairness and practicality, in this case, are like apples and oranges.   One side says such programs would be unfair.  The other says it would be practical.  Neither seems to realize that both sides may be correct. 

No one wants to pay attention to the fact of two competing sets of political values

It is not my intent to take a substantive position advocating particular policies on underwater mortgages or on any other specific issues referenced in this piece, particularly since, as Ross Perot once said about policy, “the Devil is in the details.”  My point is that different sides are often arguing from different points of reference/basic assumptions.  One group may focus on what it perceives to be fair with regard to a particular issue, the other on what it perceives to be practical. Sometimes, everyone conflates the two.  No one seems to be acknowledging this distinction.  The politicians stoke up their bases largely on what are presented as fairness issues, the elites talk to other elites about what is practical, the pundits are doing one or the other, and no one wants to admit there may be a conflict  between pursuing one value over the other.  The result is a lot of heat and not much light on the issues.

I am not breaking any new ground in making this distinction.  The great German political philosopher Max Weber described two sets of ethical virtues: the ethic of conviction (“Gesinnungsethik”) and the ethic of responsibility (“Verantwortungsethik”).  If one were to focus on being “practical”, and use the ethic of responsibility, an action would have meaning only as the cause of an effect.  What would really matter is the effect, or end result.  The ethic of conviction, however, does involve “fairness”.  Using it, a person should base his political decisions on the means as well as the ends; this ethic gives weight to certain ultimate values and meanings of life.  (My apologies to Weber scholars for probably misstating his ideas).

Practicality and fairness may require each other, at least in the longer term - and some thoughts about treatment of illegal immigrants

What is fair, or at least is perceived to be fair, may be, ultimately, absolutely critical in terms of practicality.  David Brooks wrote recently in the New York Times about this point in the context of the Euro crises, noting that failure to play by the rules in that and other economic areas had resulted in what he termed a “crisis of legitimacy”.  Mr. Brooks went on to argue that our public institutions could not and would not survive in the long term if everyone came to believe that the game is “rigged”, and that effort, hard work and playing by the rules are not rewarded by our economic system.

Mr. Brooks makes a very good point, which can also be viewed in terms of long term as opposed to short term practicality.  One example of this long term/short term distinction may be found in the current discussion of what policies the United States should pursue with regard  to illegal immigrants.

Illegal immigrants did not follow the rules.  They knew they were not following the rules.  (Perhaps they had a good reason for not following the rules, such as the prospect of grinding poverty for them and their children, or death for political reasons. Nonetheless, they did break the rules.)  So in no way is it “fair” (under a strict interpretation of my own rules) to allow these rule breakers to become citizens or even “legal”.  (Their children are a more complicated issue from a fairness perspective; they did not choose to break the rules, whether they were born here or crossed a border when they were 3 years old, but they have theoretically benefited from the rule breaking.)  And what of those who waited to come here legally, or otherwise chose not to break the law?  No, the fairness argument here says, “no amnesty in any form”.

Yet the “practical” argument, at least in the short term, suggests a different policy, even from a strictly economic self-interest perspective.  Business groups have been resistant to the idea of requiring their members to make very sure they are not hiring illegal immigrants.  Economic studies as well as anecdotal evidence indicate that illegal immigrants are filling many job openings that would not be filled by legal citizens.  In some cases, where local authorities have clamped down, local economies have paid the price, as businesses have been suddenly unable to find enough workers.  Illegal immigrants serve in the U.S. Military.  Many pay taxes.  Demographically, continued immigration (legal or illegal) is necessary for the long term economic health of an otherwise aging America.  Without immigrants, there will not be enough younger workers to pay my Social Security benefits as well as those of the older members of the Tea Party.  This is not even considering the time, effort and money it would take to locate, deport and keep out several million people.

However, encouraging further illegal immigration is a bad thing in the longer term.  Among other things, having laws or rules that are widely unenforced or unenforceable (whether relating to immigration, alcohol (during Prohibition), marijuana, securities fraud or tax evasion) simply undermines the social contract.  If we are going to make something illegal, we should seriously try to enforce that law.  If we can’t or won’t, I suspect that the conduct in question perhaps should be legalized in some fashion.

Also, any path to legalization for illegal immigrants would be a practical disaster when one considers longer term incentives for behavior.  If people think that they can break the rules because the rules will eventually be changed to forgive their “bad” conduct, they (or others) are much more likely to break the rules in the future. Why not do it, if, eventually, we’ll be forgiven and become legal?  This problem of  longer term incentives for future actions applies to European Governments, Wall Street bankers and other possible beneficiaries of rules changes as well as to potential future illegal immigrants.

Practicality is also important in determining fairness in the long run.  If something does not work – does not do more or less what it is supposed to do -  it, along with whatever fairness it may promote, will be corrupted if not abandoned as a policy. 

But for the long run to "work", the short run must "work" first-my bias towards "practicality"

I started a law firm with two partners in 1994.  We briefly discussed "mission statements" (popular at the time).  We finally decided against one, because while we had all sorts of nice ideas about fair treatment of clients and employees, we decided our real "mission" was to make enough money to stay open.  Because if we did not do that, it did not matter what our longer term or more theoretical goals were.  If the short term economics did not work, at least adequately, whatever our specific plans were for the longer term would have to be drastically changed if not completely abandoned. 

This realization has led me to always keep practicality in mind.  Policies concerning economics (whether for nations, partnerships or individual) should be fair, but they have to be at least somewhat practical.  Long term policies are nice, but if you're demonstrating in Greece or unemployed in Spain or living in your car in the United States, reducing Government debt is, shall we say, a bit of an abstract issue.  And if enough people cannot meet their basic short terms needs, and perceive that their Governments are not even trying to act in the general benefit, at least in Democracies, they are likely to act in such a manner as to adversely effect the long term insistence of others that the system be "fair".  What we have now is political dysfunction in the United States, as both the Tea Party and the "99%"  feel that the Government is under the control of some sinister outside force or forces, and a Europe where there does not seem to be be a single Government that wants to put any of the current proposals up for a public referendum, because the voters will probably say "no". 

Conclusion: a failure to think and/or speak honestly
Both what is fair and what is practical in a given situation is and should be subject to vigorous debate among citizens.  However, the habit of our leaders – and ourselves -  of pretending that these issues are not complicated, and that being “fair” is always the same as being “practical”, does everyone a disservice.  As noted initially, it may be that everyone is very cognizant of what I view as unarticulated assumptions, but that is not my impression.  It is tempting to assume that this failure to address real issues in a meaningful way is the result of political demagoguery or public stupidity, but I do not think that is the case, particularly in terms of the public.  Rather, I think that people - leaders and followers alike - are often just not thinking, but reacting in their own comfortable patterns which fit into particular ideological approaches.  We all can and should do better, and can and should demand better of our leaders.  It might help to keep in mind a quote from H. L. Mencken: “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”



Friday, June 24, 2011

Individualism and Rational Choice - a link to yet another article

Well, gang, the article referenced below is one of those things that I don't think I quite have the smarts and/or background to fully understand.  Maybe you do.  Anyway, I found it interesting, and hope you do too.

OPINIONATOR | THE STONE: The Failure of Rational Choice Philosophy
Today's zealous advocates of individualism invariably forget their origins in a long ago program of government propaganda.

A really good article highlighting why (or at least how) our politicians act like idiots

The following linked article is about the desirability of viewing the Medicaire debate from what I would call a "problem-solving" view rather than an ideological one.  It touches upon some things I have said before, but is a better illustration of those points than anything I've written.  I may write more on this; we'll see.

An Article/ and Why do Libertarians focus on Economic liberty?

The following link is to a Post, actually both much longer and much more theoretical than anything I have written, about the philosophical underpinnings of "Libertarianism".  I know nothing at all about the gentleman discussed in the article, but it was interesting and made me think. 

My first reaction was that I think that the onset of political movements and philosophies may not be so neat, and that the roots of modern Libertarianism in American political thinking certainly go back at least to Barry Goldwater.

The second thought that the article triggered was a question:  Why do Libertarians seem to see "liberty" in primarily economic terms?  They seem to focus on the right of the individual to be free from governmental interference in his or her economic life?  They want fewer taxes and fewer governmental restrictions on how a person carries out his or her economic activity, and seem to view a  free market as the best and only "regulation" of such activity.  As readers of this Blog will know, I find the idea that the market is somehow perfect or even rational or free to be somewhat silly, but be that as it may, let's even assume that that is true.  My question is why focus on economic activity? What about sexual activity?  Moral activity?  Reprehensible religious practices?  Crime (either economic or non-economic)? 

It seems to me that all of us (with the possible exception of Ayn Rand herself) are willing to say that we, through our government, should be able to theoretically limit our citizens' behavior for the common good.  Why place a higher value on economic liberty?  Well, I can think of some possible reasons, namely:  First, the market does (at least for some people) exist as some "higher power" in the economic arena, whereas in other areas we must create rules for ourselves.  Second, there is a cogent argument that has been made that the right to private property and to economic liberty is at the foundation of other liberties, and that without that right, other rights may be less than meaningful.  Third, the economic area is always one where it can be argued that many people are competing for the same resources, and that some people will "naturally" have a motive to use the government to get them a bigger share of those resources (money) than the market would give them?  Still, none of these arguments are entirely convincing, particularly when used as a theoretical justification against government "interference" with economic activity.  And this is coming from me - and I consider myself to have some sympathy with libertarians.

Third, it occurs to me that the Libertarians have actually adopted ideas normally associated with the radical "left", at least historically.  The idea of economic activity, rights and relationships being at the center of human society is straight out of Karl Marx.  The idea that Government is not necessary - that people will voluntarily organize to undertake whatever common activities are necessary -  is classic Anarchism - straight from Pierre Proudhon and Peter Kropotkin, although the Anarchists would eliminate the State, not just its ability to govern economic activity.

I would go back to a familiar theme of mine; anyone who tries to put the complexities of modern civilization into an ideological box that will always govern what we should do is misguided, arrogant, nuts, not-too-bright, really focused on being elected or re-elected or some combination of the above. (For a more detailed rant on this point, see my Post of October 22, 2010)  Conditions change (as the Article points out).  New data comes in.  In short, stuff happens, and we should try to learn from it.  It seems to me that ideologues in general could be said to be always "preparing to fight the last war."

Anyway, here is the Link I promised you at the beginning of the Post.

The Liberty Scam
By Stephen Metcalf

Friday, June 10, 2011

Why not go after the Bankers who caused this mess? An article.

I don't know the ins and outs of the criminal laws in this area, but, like many Americans, I have wondered where our Federal and State authorities (particularly the Feds) have been.  There seems to be a lot of evidence of  illegal conduct out there - not just available through the Congressional investigation.  Even an anti-conspiracy theorist like me has to wonder why large numbers of rich and powerful people haven't been charged.  Anyway, here's a good article on the subject.

Don't Let Goldman off the Hook
By Eliot Spitzer

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The recent "Rapture" - a cartoon

I don't normally post cartoons on this blog, but this one from a couple of weeks ago is to good not to share.


Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the Internet. How God Is Managing The 2011 Rapture

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Israel's "security" interests or "National" interests?

You know, I have never trusted the people claiming to represent the Palestinians, certainly not on the "peace with Israel" question
Unfortunately, it may have reached the point where I don't really trust the current Israeli Government as a "viable peace partner" either.  I would emphasize that the Israelis have a democratically elected government, and its for them and their government to make the security decisions for Israel.  And, as the article in the link below points out, the Israelis have a variety of opinions.  Still, I think that Israel policy may be driven, at the moment, by Israelis who want Israeli to permanently occupy the entire West Bank. (or, as they would say, "Judea and Samaria").  Anyway, I hope you like the linked article.

Rand Paul's speech about the Patriot Act

While I disagree with most of Senator Paul's positions, I think he's mostly right about this one,and I wish his speech had been more publisized.

Rand Paul's Noble Defeat on the PATRIOT Act By David Weigel

The role of history/ "good" wars

First, my apologies for the gap in Posts;  I have been busy.  There may continue to be gaps because I am still busy.  My current plan is to Post links to certain articles I have read in the last few months that I find particularly interesting, with a few editorial comments on those articles, and then to try to get time to write more myself. 

It has been strongly suggested that I try to make my Posts shorter.  I would like to; we'll see.

Anyway, as to the link below - the main reason I am sending it is the last two paragraphs of the article, which to me, at least, express some very important ideas.  I would particularly direct readers' attention to the first sentence of the next to last paragraph, which talks about living the present in ambiguity.

The whole piece is good, and I recommend it, but the point I am trying to share is the last two paragraphs.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Does the phrase "Pro-Democracy" turn the American public into suckers?

When one listens to the talking heads on TV or on the Internet, one constantly hears that certain groups or factions are "pro-democracy".  In my last Post, I went into the question of why we all assumed that "Democracy" was a desirable thing. (I think it generally is, but I don't like unexamined assumptions).  Anyway, it occurs to me that perhaps our first question to anyone claiming that they or someone else is "pro-democracy" should be: exactly what do you mean by "democracy"?  It appears to me that, as 21st century Americans, we view "democracy" as meaning a lot more than either the foreigners using the term or Americans in earlier days would have meant.  Indeed, it's not clear that all of us Americans of today have the same definition.

There do seem to be some common elements which most people would seem to agree should be included when discussing the elements of a democratic system of government:

1.  The majority has the right to decide what the government should do, either by a direct vote, or (much more often) by electing representatives who will themselves vote, with the majority (or super-majority) vote of those representatives being controlling.

2.  This right to decide will be determined by a peaceful vote rather than by guns

3.  A large group of "citizens" will have the right to vote (we'll get to some real differences about this later)

4.  The voters will have a meaningful choice between actions and/or candidates.  In practice, this means that there will be, every so often, some turnover of both individual representatives and (probably but not necessarily) of the "party" in power. (I would argue that many modern democracies have had long periods of one party dominance, ie. Mexico and Japan, but that there were still "meaningful" and fair elections in those countries).

5.  There must be general elections at reasonably frequent intervals.

6.  There must be some real control of the government by the elected officials (rather than by an Army)

7.  There should be some limitation on how long a head of the Government should serve.  This is often not formal, and I guess I'm thinking of it more in the negative;  if any one person is the head of a government for more than 20 years, I think it's a sign that it may not be a democracy any more.

8.  The "people" have the right to at least be publicly critical of their Government without penalty. (To what extent one can take to the streets or strike may be up for debate, but I should at least be able to run a newspaper that says terrible things about the Government in power.) This seems to be the first one to go when a democratically elected government turns into something very different;  Venezuela is one example;  Russia another.  Turkey is showing some signs of becoming yet another.

Now, let's look at some things which modern Americans may think of as being essential to "democracy" but which certainly are not  (or have not been)

1.  Universal suffrage.  Certainly not originally the case in the US.  Women?  Slaves?  Property requirements to vote?  Literacy tests? Voting age (used to generally be 21-now generally 18)?  Convicted Felons (not in some states today)?   (My recollection is that, in Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein created a society in which only Veterans could vote.  A form of Democracy?  I believe so.)

2. Protection of any rights of minorities from the possible oppression by the majority (meaning either  just those with fewer votes or of a minority race or religion).

3. Similar to #2-Anything in the Bill of Rights

4. A Constitution

5. A Court system that can act as a check on the other branches.

6. Checks and balances in general

7.  A lack of blatant and open corruption (I should not even have to list this one)

In short, you can have a "Democracy" that elevates one religion over others, and gives a race, an ethnic group and/or a gender no legal rights whatsoever. 

Do the Afghans or the Libyans or whoever have the right to determine that this is the kind of government they want?  Whom am I to say that they do not?  Do we only believe in a people's right to self-determination when they determine they want not just "democracy" but our particular general form of democracy?  I tend to come down on the side of the right to self determination; you may disagree, but I would ask how far you are willing to go to make these other groups act like us.

BUT when Afghans or Libyans or whoever wants the support of my Country because their group is "pro-democracy",  I think we are entitled to look a little more closely at what they are likely to mean by that, because it may not be exactly what we think of as democracy or even as a good idea worthy of our support.

We used to support groups because they were "anti-Communist".  That was often enough, in itself, to get the support of the American Government and/or people?  "Pro-democracy" sounds better to me, but it still does not, even if true,  mean the same thing as "deserving of U.S. Military support". 

That depends on a lot of factors besides just the views of the faction seeking support, including previous U.S. commitments, costs, presence or lack of International support, U.S. strategic and economic interests, and who the other side is.  However, trying to figure out what those seeking our support really stand for is certainly one of the first steps.  Enough

Friday, March 4, 2011

Why do we assume that "democracy" is a good thing for everyone?

This Post is the result of my exposure to a tangential string of comments to a discussion on the web about whether democracy was growing or shrinking in the world.  While the views expressed below are mine, many come from thoughts which originated with others.

One of those other posters, commenting on recent events in the Middle East, particularly Egypt, asked if our (America's) insistence on the inherent virtue of western style democracy was not a form of cultural "imposition".  Why is it important or desirable that the Egyptians choose a western style democracy?  Shouldn't the choice be theirs? To quote the other poster, "I am uneducated, parochial, starving, homeless, and unemployable but I can vote, I can vote??! "

A second poster pointed out that:  "Many ancient civilizations - Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, for example, did quite well (at least in terms of their contributions to Civilization, and their economic wealth) even without democracy. On the contrary, the largest democracy in the world, India, is saddled with an effete coalition government incapable or unwilling to rein in corruption. Is it really good to have a democracy wherein one's vote can be bought for say, the equivalent of 10 USD?"

A third commented that:  "From a philosophical perspective, Rousseau's Social Contract should give one pause in promoting pure democracy. When these views were applied in France, they got the dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety and the genocide of the Terror. What is the end of a more democratic government? An opportunity for the Legislator to dictate our true interests? More freedom of action for the majority? More liberty for individuals?"

Other posters expressed serious dissatisfaction with our own government, with the prevailing theme of  "the best legislators money can buy."

I like democracy (or republics) as a system of government.  Intellectually, however, I think democracy should be thought of as a means and not as an end.  Emotionally,  I feel like democracy (not necessarily "pure" democracy) is an end in itself.  Realistically, modern (more on that in the next Post) western style democracy is probably close to being my religion.  It was how I was brought up, at home, in school and elsewhere. I feel that it's "good" for each adult individual in a political entity to have some say in or control over what that entity does, because it may affect him or her, and that the "fairest" (there's a slippery word) way to give them (us) that say is by letting them vote, either on issues or for representatives.

After all, what government does is "govern" (more or less) the lives of the people within its ambit.  Who should determine how those people (us!) should live their lives?  It seems obvious that we (or those we elect to do so) should decide our own fates.  But why?   How about a philosopher/king?  Or a group of our "smartest" people?  Or God?  Or the Church?  Or whoever has the most guns?  Or the most money?

Democracy seems to be the best form of allowing self determination (assume for the moment that self determination is good) by the members of the community about what their government will and will not do.  Further, self determination by voting rather than by guns (the more common alternative) seems less subject to abuse.  But what about when the people choose something or someone that limits or eliminates future self determination, whether they realize they are doing it or not?

Democracy does not guarantee a better outcome in any situation. It does not even ensure further democracy. It is certainly not close to being the most efficient method of government. I believe it does offer the best chance of "better" (also culturally subjective) outcomes/ends (such as reasonable order and general standard of living for most citizens) in the long run, but that  may be just wishful thinking.

In short. my attachment to democracy is largely emotional/ moral, and is a product of my own culture and upbringing.

Of course, this idea of democracy as a universally desirable goal has been a part of American political culture since (and even before) the Nation was founded. Thus far, the historical evidence on that idea seems mixed.

So just why do we all seem to think that democracy is such a good idea for everyone?  First, it empowers us - the unwashed masses.  Unless you are very rich and/or very powerful, a Monarchy or Oligarchy is not going to leave you with as much personal power, at least in theory.  Even Communism, Theocracies and other theoretically egalitarian systems have developed a much earned reputation of creating narrow groups which control "everything", limiting social/economic mobility, and not tolerating dissent.  They all want "us" to listen to someone or some group of other people who "knows better".  To me this "empowerment" reason is a very good one; it's one reason I like democracy.  I think it's also consistent with human nature; most of us seem to want as much freedom as we can have to do what we choose to.

A second reason, however, is more of an unstated assumption:  that democracy is both a "higher" state of political system, and also one that, given enough education of a people, is inevitable in the long run. This assumption does not seem supported by any real evidence.

Democracy is, first of all, a system of governance , devised by people who thought it a desirable or appropriate way in which to govern the community and its affairs.  Common belief is that it was originated by the ancient Greeks, but it has certainly not been "fashionable" for most of human history.  Unlike Kings or various religious figures, leaders of democracy have never been generally thought to be anointed by God.  I remember (from Jr. High?) Rousseau and other proponents of democracy writing about "natural law", but I really did not buy that then, and I don't now.  In fact, it seems to me that this "natural law" idea is inherently dangerous.

Whenever someone references "Natural Law" in terms of human political systems, I immediately think of the Marxists, and their belief that the triumph of Communism was preordained as the inevitable result of the inexorable forces of history.  And, of course, particularly in its earlier years, Communism presumed that it was an international/universal inevitability.  Well, it certainly hasn't worked out that way so far, and I see no reason to believe that it ever will.  Although Communism has generally failed as a system for a large number of reasons, I submit that two of its basic philosophical weaknesses were its reliance on patterns of economic relationships that were true in the late 19th century but not thereafter, and its insistence on a "one-size-fits-all" political model, which made no allowances for different political, economic, and cultural patterns.

Communism was a product of the industrial revolution, and the assumption that modern society would become more and more divided into those who worked in factories (a majority) and those who did not.  A second assumption was that those who owned and/or ran the factories would oppress the workers with the support of the State until there was a violent revolution which would overthrow both the political authorities and the economic masters.  Well, history turned out to be not so simple.  The capitalists and "their" governments were able to compromise with the unions  (but tune in next week), factory workers have shrunk as a part of the population of the industrialized world, technology has made manufacturing less labor intensive, ordinary people may own stock, and people seem to work harder and more efficiently in a largely capitalistic system.

As to the "universal revolution" - that idea just did not happen in 1918 and 1919,  And, after that, the only countries which seem to have adopted Communism (from the inside as opposed to being on the wrong end of Russian tanks) have been those who have combined it with an openly nationalistic movement based on an awareness of local differences.  (Yes, I know that's simplistic, but you really want me to stop here - trust me on this).

"So, Jeff", the Reader says, "what the Hell does this have to do with whether democracy is good for everyone?"

Just this - our belief is that it is good is based partly (and only partly) on assumptions about history, on how the world used to work, on how everyone "should" react, and on a tendency to believe that "one-size-fits-all" - that what works for us is best for everyone else.  Moreover, some of these assumptions are based on old information. particularly about "alternate" systems, and on the idea that "democracy" itself is a definite and fixed idea. It's not, which will be the subject of my next Post

Unexamined assumptions may or may not be correct, but they are dangerous to act upon.


Thursday, March 3, 2011

Ultimate "Ends" - a minimalist approach

We all have our own set or sets of basic goals or "ends"; but treating ideologies, partisanship or short term gains as absolutes leads to a confusion of "ends" with "means."  My own most basic political "ends" (and I use them as an example only; you are entitled to your own) are simple.  My own view is that politics (and our personal behavior, but that's off point) should serve the following ultimate goals.  Perhaps they could be viewed as my core moral beliefs.

1. Peace is better than war
2. Health is better than sickness
3. Pain and suffering (not just physical) are to be avoided if possible
4. Prosperity is better than poverty, both for societies and individuals
5. Individual freedom is good
6. Other people should be treated as we would wish ourselves to be treated (not quite the same as "the greatest good for the greatest number", but this should be viewed in the context of numbers 1-5 above)
7. We have a responsibility to not screw things up for future generations
8. Knowledge is good
9. Children should be valued and protected
10. Animals should not be treated with gratuitous cruelty.  (I couldn't leave that off, but I had to put in "gratuitous".  So sue me.)

Note that I have tried to make this simple.  To me, what will lead to those ends/outcomes is "good".  Note the absence of any "isms" or even of things like "God", "morality" or "equality", or even "fairness" or "democracy".  I suspect most of my readers may agree with my "ends", but will be troubled by what is not on the list. (For example, "Life is better than death".)

Now there are a lot of other things that I believe are desirable in that they will lead to one or more of the above ends, but if you were to convince me that achieving them would make these ends less likely, I would tend to rethink my attachment to those other things.

I would invite readers to come up with your own lists.  See if you can keep them to 10 or 15 items or less.  It's an interesting exercise.


Monday, February 28, 2011

"Better" outcomes- self interest and idealism in American Foreign Policy

In my last Post, I wrote about the uncertainty that certain foreign policy actions by our Government would lead to "better" long term outcomes.  I did not define "better", but that, of course, is a central question.  What should the Government of the United States by trying to achieve with its foreign policy?  In the long term as well as the short term.  My answer below is, admittedly general, but I think makes an importan point or points.

Historically, a great many scholars have write about the intertwining and tension between the ideas of "idealism" and "self interest" in American foreign policy.  It started with the founders and continues today. Today, you get the simple version of my own, non expert, opinion, to wit:

1. The principal foreign policy goal of American foreign policy should be to advance the self interests of the United States of America (not exactly the same as the interests the American people, and certainly not the same as the interests of the current Government of the United States of America, but those are pretty meaningless distinctions for the purposes of this Post, and two that can - and have been - argued by lots of people).

The principal goal of any State is to protect itself and its citizens.  Read the preamble to the Constitution.  It's about protecting the American people and their rights.  However, to effectively do so, the State (any State) must both continue to exist and be as strong in relation to the rest of the world as it can be.  This strength may be military, moral, economic or whatever, but if the State is to effectively protect the interests of its people in a world environment filled with terrorists, dictators and other economies, it should be as strong as possible.  Whether and how it should use that strength is another question.  And of course, there are cost/benefit constraints which are very real.

Other States really make no bones about this.  America, however, was very consciously founded on the idea that certain political ideas and structures were intrinsically universally good.  The original big ideals (and we have tweaked and added to them) were a) liberty/freedom from Government interference and coercion, b)self determination, and c) a democratic form of government. (The latter two relate to the idea that Government should be based on "the consent of the governed").  I plan to discuss these ideas and how they have developed more specifically in a later post, but for the moment assume that we have long wanted to "push" the idea that democracy and self determination are good.  "Freedom" is a bit trickier, as it requires some definition of "freedom to what".  However, despite number 3 below, I am putting this "desire to spread the word" behind self-interest in importance as a foreign policy goal.

(Where I'm heading, as you may have guessed, is the issue of how we should deal with Governments that support the current international goals of the United States, but range from benign to not-so benign dictatorships.  Two good examples are former President Hosni Mubarek of Egypt and the current King of Bahrain.)

2. However, that goal - promoting self interest - should recognize long-term as well as short term self interests.  To put it simply, it's not wise to back eventual losers.  Unpopular, corrupt and minority-dominated governments are often perceived to be less stable in the long term.  All of the Middle Eastern rulers now at risk (unless you put Iran on that list) have been supportive of the U.S. war on terrorists and have been at least reasonably supportive of U.S. policy vis-a-vis Israel.  Here we have a dilemma; we want and need support of our short term interests, like the war on terrorists.  If we don't get it, it is more likely that the terrorists will succeed in blowing up or otherwise killing more Americans.  To be avoided.  So we almost have to support less-than-wonderful people. (This is not new; we have long supported all sorts of dubious people, including the Taliban, strictly because they were anti-Communist).  But our long term interests suggest this could become a problem in that successful revolutionary forces are quite likely to blame the United States for supporting the old regimes.  It's not a problem with an obvious solution, and that's even before we get to point No. 3.

3. It is in the the long term self interest of the United States  to actively promote American political ideals and systems to the rest of the world.  Advocating these ideals because they are "right" or "moral" is reasonable, but that's not my point here.  Self interest is. 

First, I believe (and it may be wishful thinking) that democratically elected governments are more peaceful and stable in the long run, and thus, make better friends and partners. 

Second, such Governments are more similar to our own, and thus are likely to be more sympathetic to our own ideas and interests, and to work with us in promoting our ideals. 

Third, America is still a moral force; large numbers of people and throughout the world really expect us to do the "right thing", whether it benefits us or not.  It gives us at least some moral credibility that other nations do not have.  Although we've done a lot to damage that over the years, and some people just plain hate us (in part because of the threat of our ideals), it seems to me that the rest of the world (as well as our own people) expect us to act morally-which is reflected by the fact they become so angry when they believe we are not.  Having moral credibility is in our self interest. I'm not going to bother to explain that one unless people ask me to.

Fourth, we, the American people, need to believe that we are acting idealistically.  Our ideals are a large part of what makes us a Nation.  Citizens of other States often base their national identity on a common language or religion or ethnic background or long history or even on who their enemies are.   We really don't.  Our Nation was consciously founded - artificially created - based on certain political ideas.  While we have come to share a common language and culture, we are an acknowledged nation of immigrants who adopted that language and culture after we arrived here.  My grandparents emigrated to this country in the early twentieth century, but Washington, Jefferson and Madison are my Founding Fathers.  Viscerally, they belong to me as much as they do to someone descended from the revolutionaries.  The main thing that holds us together in a sort-of-spiritual sense is certain shared political values.  Even if we don't agree (to put it mildly) on what all of those values are, a real (or perceived?) belief in democracy, freedom and self determination is a large part of what makes us Americans.

4. Another long term self interest of the United States is in promoting the belief that we do not abandon our "friends".  Back to Mubarek and the King of Bahrain.  If we want leaders to support us, it's not a good idea to appear to abandon them or throw them to the wolves when the going gets tough, simply because the next King or Dictator from whom we seek support may well take that into consideration.  We've become spoiled since 1989 or so, as perhaps the only game in town.  Not necessarily true anymore, given the economic and military rise of China.  Another dilemma.

The result is that our Government, of whatever party, has to walk several lines.  We have to seek support on certain critical issues - like terrorism - wherever it can be found, but we have to try to avoid backing "bad guys", but we (maybe) have to show some loyalty to those very "bad guys".  Not an easy task. 

My complaint is not about the Government here, it's about my fellow citizens, who think all of these choices are easy and self-evident.  My point is that, even with a primarily self-interest analysis,  it's both complicated and hard.


Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Middle East, Afghanistan, and the relationship between Control, Responsibility and Authority

My daughter and I were recently discussing the current situation in the Middle East, and particularly the urging of various parties that the United States do "more" in one or another nation to support one (or the other) side.  My daughter opined that our Government should generally try to stand back and let the citizens of those countries work out whatever they were going to.  Her reasoning was, as it often is, multi layered, nuanced and convincing.  It triggered a series of thoughts -  about the relationship between "control", "authority" and "responsibility" in both a general and foreign policy context  -  that make me even more inclined to agree with her.

Since this train of thought came from one of my children, let's start with children in general.  As parents, we have at least legal (and hopefully other) authority over our children.  We are also legally responsible for them, and may feel that responsibility emotionally even long after they have become adults.  Control over how they act is usually a matter of degree, and normally decreases as a particular child grows older. 

I remember being struck as a young parent with just how limited my control was.  I was a youngest child, and had little experience with babies, and was actually somewhat taken aback when I realized that there were times that, no matter what I did, my infant daughter was not going to stop crying and go to sleep, at least for a while.  I had responsibility for her.  I had at least theoretical authority.  But my practical control was very limited.  Picture my shock when, my kids, at maybe 18 months of age, both gave me clear evidence that they were not merely "babies", but independent people, with their own strong ideas about how they and the rest of the world should act.  Anyway, I had lots of responsibility, less authority and even less actual control of my children.

When I started practicing law, the same kind of disparity arose in another form.  I was responsible (at least to the partners) for how "my" cases were handled, but my authority to do certain things was limited (and not always made clear), and my control was mythical, given the existence of clients, witnesses, opposing counsel, judges and juries.  My professional life involved a combination of trying to keep my responsibility in line with my authority in any given instance (I had to actually say things like: 'If I'm going to be responsible for doing X, I need to have more authority about how it will get done"),  and fighting with the other side (and sometimes my own) to try to control outcomes for the benefit of my clients.

As a result of this and other experiences, I concluded that if I were going to be responsible for something, I wanted as much authority and control over it as I could get.  And that if someone else insisted on taking authority and/or control, they had better be prepared to accept some responsibility for the outcomes of their decisions.  Of course, real life is much messier.  Most of the times, all of these things are shared somehow, and control (by anyone) is often an illusion.

We come to foreign policy.

We, as Americans, assume that our Nation can do anything anywhere in the world if it puts its mind to it. (And maybe further- JFK told us we would put men on the moon in 10 years, and we believed him).  Unfortunately (??), this idea American control over outcomes is simply not accurate. We can probably blow anyone up (if we can find them), but we can't make foreign politicians not corrupt, religious loons become tolerant, or a free people elect those candidates we would like them to (Hamas, anyone?). 

Worse, for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to our military power, our wealth, and our aforementioned confidence, large chunks of the rest of the world also seem to believe that we have more practical control than we really do.  Thus, the Palestinians think we can control Israeli policy, some Egyptians seemed to feel that the U.S. was responsible for either propping up Mubarak or for enabling his opponents (or both), lots of people think we should do something to ensure a "good" outcome in Bahrain, or Yemen, and that we should do much more to support anti-Government forces in both Libya and Iran.  Everyone (including our own journalists and politicians) thinks we should DO SOMETHING! to ensure the victory of good vs. evil in the world.  (As I pointed out in another post, I can usually find at least one set of "bad guys" in these situations; that doesn't mean that their opponents are "good guys").

Sometimes, I listen to native experts from the affected countries calling for American action, and I wonder how many of them will blame us if our intervention leads to bad results.  Certainly, there are large factions of "revolutionaries" in those countries who would immediately see any American action as a form of Imperialism, and would use that as a rallying cry to do whatever.  I'm drawn back to the "children" analogy.  All teenagers want their parents to help and protect them (although they may not admit it), but we know who they are going to at least partly blame if things turn out "badly".  OK, this is part of the job description with my children.  Middle east political movements are not the "children" of the United States.

Maybe the smartest thing that George H.W. Bush did as President was to generally stay out of the demonstrations and revolutions when the Soviet Bloc disintegrated in 1989.  Sure, there was no question about whose side we were on, and our people and press, as well as our diplomats, made that clear.  However, we were not shipping guns to anti-Communists in Eastern Europe.  Nor were we talking about sanctions or "no-fly"zones.  Aha, you say.  That was totally different. We could've empowered the old regimes and even started a major war if we had done too much.  Exactly my point.  It was painfully obvious (at least to most of us; there were many who did call for more active intervention) that we could not reliably control even short-term outcomes.  The problem is when one gets to somewhere like Egypt or Bahrain or Libya, we could well have a lot of control over short term outcomes;  the problem is with longer term outcomes.

The easiest example of this is Afghanistan.  Did we have the ability to overthrow the Taliban, at least in the short term?  Yes.  Did we have the power to create a modern western democracy there?  Right now, that's not looking good.  To go back a step further - did we have the ability to help the resistance throw out the Soviets in Afghanistan?  Turns out we did.  Did that turn out to create a "better" Afghan government?  My opinion is not.  No translate that "lesson" to Egypt or Libya or Bahrain.  Will assisting in the overthrow of those established governments result in a "better" outcome?  (I'll get to "better" in a minute, or maybe not until the next post).  Maybe and maybe not.  Each of these countries is different, and no one really knows what will happen in any of them.  "Wait", you say; "we couldn't do worse than Qaddafi".  I disagree;  He's awful, but I can imagine worse.

I am going to save "better" outcomes for the next Post.

So what should we do?  What I think the Administration is doing.  Think.  Don't act hastily. Realize that each country is different, realize the dangers of appearing to take responsibility in situations you can not practically control.  In short, try to not rush in to dramatic and forceful unilateral action.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Thoughts on the furor in Wisconsin

Well, I'm back.  Sorry about the two month gap.  There has been a lot I've wanted to write about, but I've been busy.

Most readers are familiar with the drama/dispute that has been taking place for the last week or ten days in Madison, Wisconsin, and I am about to repeat what those readers already know, but my foreign readers (yes, there appear to be some) may need some background.

A new Republican Governor and legislature have been attempting to cut back (using the term loosely) certain benefits of most unionized public employees in Wisconsin.  There have been mass protests, and the Democratic Senate members have left the State to prevent the State Senate from convening - due to the lack of a quorum.

I have a lot of problems with the Republicans here, and some with the Democrats (I don't like parliamentary tricks to keep a legislature from just voting stuff up or down).  My biggest annoyance, however, is with the way the Republicans are to misrepresenting their reasons for what they are proposing. Blatant intellectual dishonesty and political distortion just really get to me.  The Governor keeps talking about the need to save money and plug current State deficits by cutting certain benefits, but the unions and their Democratic supports have said they are OK with that.

So what are the Republicans proposing?  Broadly speaking, it is a single bill which, among other things:

1.  Forces the public employees to pay a much larger share of the cost of their medical and other benefits right now.  (This is what the unions have agreed to), and it would clearly save the State money right now.

2.  Severely cuts back the issues on which the unions have a right to collectively bargain, and even caps the amount of raises that can be bargained for.  This would not save any money now, but the argument can be made that the State and local governments in Wisconsin have been getting "stomped" by the unions, and that the governments need help from state law in order to keep the unions from walking over them in future collective bargaining.  This may be, in some sense, true, and, if so, would save the state and local governments money in the future;

3.  Requires frequent votes to recertify unions and allows union members to prevent their dues from being used for political purposes.  This saves no money.  It is clearly designed to cripple the public sector unions generally, and particularly their ability to donate money to political causes.

My (who-the-Hell-is-he-anyway) thoughts and proposal:

Collective bargaining rights and benefits given thereunder are not God-given.  They are a creature of law.  The rights of public employees to benefits or to collectively bargain at all are rights given by the laws of the State of Wisconsin.  And what the State gives, the State, through its duly elected representatives, can take away.  So if the Republicans have the votes to do so, that's life.  Although others might disagree, I do not think that passage of the law in question would be the end of the world for anyone.  I do think most of it is a bad idea, but not one that justifies indefinitely grinding government to a halt.  Remember, the next Governor and legislature can change the law back if they see fit to do so.  (Aren't regular elections truly wonderful things!)

So, my suggestion:  1) Republicans -divide the current bill into at least three parts.  2) Democrats -  come back.  3) Everyone - Debate the bills for a reasonable time.  Amend them if you like.  Vote them up or down.  Go on with life.  But stop bullshitting about  alleged purposes.

The first part of the bill described above will then pass.  Whether increasing required contributions from state workers is how to solve Wisconsin's public deficit problems is subject to reasonable dispute.  I think it should be part of the solution, but I can cheerfully argue either side on that one. More to the point, it's what the Governor and Republican representatives promised to do if elected.  And they won. Further, it does help solve a legitimate budget problem, and Wisconsin State employee contributions would become closer to the average of all public employees (and would still be lower than the average contributions of those in the private sector).  Will it significantly hurt a number of less-than-rich people?  Yep, and I'm not unsympathetic.  However, times are bad, and the State does need more money.

The second and third parts of the current bill might or might not also pass.  Most of the Republicans in the legislature (and certainly the Governor) would favor passage, but the idea of taking away rights from working Americans,  basically just to take away those rights, may not sit well with the voters of Wisconsin.  I find the third part of the bill particularly offensive, and nothing more than an attempt to further stack the deck in favor of "corporate" as opposed to "worker" interests, but that's only my own view.  Wisconsin citizens voting in 2012 might feel differently, but I'd like the Republicans to put their money where their mouths are.  If it's a good idea, stand up and vote for it; don't try to pretend that you're doing it to close a budget gap.  Me, I think the Republicans are too chicken  - and too dishonest - to do this.


Monday, December 13, 2010

You have a right to your opinion-but it may be worthless (the opinion, that is)

Let me start by paraphrasing others

1. The late Robert A. Heinlein wrote a short story concerning physicists who, upon re-examining certain mathematical calculations, realized that a particular kind of nuclear power plant was far more dangerous than they had assumed.  They decided that the plant had to cease operations.  But the lead physicist was called into a meeting of the Governing Board of the plant, and was informed that the members of the Board had reached a different conclusion about the implications of the calculations.  The lead physicist responded with a statement to the effect of: "Unless they're nuclear physicists, they don't have the right to an opinion".

2. (On a lighter note)Fran Liebowitz, in her book, Metropolitan Life, wrote something like:  "As is obvious to any single woman who walks into a room at a party, all men are not created equal".

As many commentators have noted, we appear to be living in a political atmosphere which takes pride in anti-intellectualism, and a general suspicion of those who claim some "expertise" based on education or study.  Sarah Palin seems to take pride in her lack of knowledge in many areas.  The successful Republican candidate for Senate in Wisconsin took pride in his statement that he would need a map to find Washington, D.C.  Pundits on all sides scold President Obama for appearing "intellectual" rather than "populist".

There are reasons for this, and some of them are, at least to me, pretty good, or at least understandable. 

First, people with "more" of anything they consider important - education, money, good looks, or religious fervor, tend to look down upon those who have "less" of that item. It's particularly true in the "education"  and "religious fervor" areas because those areas seem to be more "status" oriented than money or power oriented.  The resulting condescension (which is often obvious) causes an understandable resentment in those of us who have less.  We "lessers" also may have some psychological insecurities that increase our resentment.

Second, intellectuals and "experts" in general have a not perfect track record.  They have a tendency to speak with a certainty that even their mere theories are correct based on their superior education or knowledge, and yet at least some of what they say is not obvious, is counter intuitive, and is often (eventually) proven incorrect.  I believe this to be particularly true in what we call the social sciences.  (This is not meant to be critical of anyone, including social scientists.  The nature of any kind of predictive science is that new evidence may demonstrate that current theories are not correct.)

Third, experts tend to set forth general theories which may run counter to our own particular experience in specific cases.  For instance, experts seem to believe that phonics is the best way to teach children to read.  Since I, my siblings and my children learned perfectly easily without using phonics, the experts' theory, although it may be correct,  starts off with two emotional strikes against it, at least for me.  This is even more true when we "ordinary people" have knowledge the experts do not.  For example - I have lived with my kids.  I know how my body tends to react.  I have been running my business.  The experts almost certainly know stuff that I do not about what I should do to "manage" my kids, my body and my business in certain situations, but the reverse is also true.

Fourth, like any other group, intellectuals have their share of idiots and those with their own axes to grind, but they (I'm tempted to say "we") tend to make our failures more public.

Fifth - an understandable but really "bad" reason.  Sometimes the experts want us to do stuff, individually or collectively, that we do not want to do.  This one is really tempting, really common, and really awful.

Generally, I believe I have a strong populist and egalitarian streak.  Nevertheless, I think the anti-intellectual /anti-expert streak manifesting itself in American politics is very, very dangerous.  The "experts", individually or collectively,  may or may not be right in any particular case, but they are usually experts because they have more training or experience in a given area than most people, and, as a result their opinion is often worth a lot more than "ours".

I'm a lawyer.  Have been one since 1978.  I know a lot about some areas of the law, and much less about others.  In some areas, I could be called an "expert".  Everyone (it seems) loves to argue about the law.  That's good.  It affects us all.  And when you are telling me what you think the law should be, your opinion may be worth as much as my own.  But, when you are a client or prospective client who asks me about an area of the law in which I am expert and in terms of what the law is at the moment, your opinion is not equal to mine; I simply know a lot more about the subject.  Many clients want to argue with me at length about what the law is or is not, because they do not like the answer I just gave them.  This is understandable, if sometimes annoying.  "Annoying" is OK, but having a client actually do or not do something because he or she thinks that he knows as much as I do is often dangerous to the client.

Some of my frustrating experiences in this regard have been with physicians, academics, and very successful business people - people who are, frankly, often "smarter" than I am.  Sometimes much smarter.  However, that does not mean that they know more about my field than I do.  (This is not to say that they cannot learn what they need to know about the law in their particular situation.  Given enough time and focus, most of them can and may actually do so.  The law (at least what I do)really is not that intellectually hard.  It's complicated, but not all that complex.  It can't be; it's created by people and supposed to be generally understandable.)

Politically, the most troubling example of this may be in the area of climate change.  Somewhere between 90% and 98% of those who could be considered "qualified" climate scientists believe that global warming is becoming a problem and will become a bigger one.  There is less general agreement on the causes of global warming and what should be done about it, but almost all the true "experts" believe that it is a very real problem.  These are generally very bright people, and they each have studied climate science for years; they are professional scientists opining about what is a scientific issue. Could they be wrong?  Sure. Are they?  Almost certainly not.

Despite the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion, a disturbingly large number of politicians have characterized global warming as "bullshit" or a "scam".  However, is any politician's opinion contrary to what almost all scientists are saying in this area worth anything ?  No.  Your basic politician (or lawyer) is about as capable of really evaluating climate change evidence as my dog is.  (Not intended as an insult; my dog is very smart, but she is not a climate scientist).  This is not necessarily stuff that just anyone can evaluate with a little reading.  As most schoolchildren (and adults who remember) will tell you, science, once beyond elementary levels, is hard.  And being a scientific "expert" takes a lot of knowledge as well as smarts.

There are other "political" examples of: "it isn't so because I say it isn't.  Nyah, nyah", but I won't go into them here.

What bothers me even more than the politicians (I have low expectations) is that a large number of the American people still seem to believe Snake Oil Salesmen, so long as they tell us what we want to hear.  Enough.

P.S.  Addendum

Since I posted the above thoughts, I have heard from some people who at least partially disagree.  They raise (along with some looniness) some good points:

1.  Scientists and the politicians who cite them often blur scientific conclusions with political conclusions, and claim that the combination is "scientific".   True.  So does everyone on all sides interested in making a political point.  This may make the "blurred" conclusions suspect, but the strictly scientific ones tend to be based on evidence or data that is generally transparent.

2.  Some of the scientists involved in the Climate Change debate fudged the data to support their own political agendas.  Yep.  But I think there were exactly 2 of them, and the overwhelming majority of scientists, using "unfudged" data, think it's a serious problem

3.  Most scientists are liberals.  Not sure where the data is on that. (If true, I think that says bad things about Conservatives rather than about scientists, but I have my doubts). It's possible, I guess, but it doesn't make their conclusions invalid or less "scientific".

4.  Scientific research which is inclined to come to "liberal" conclusions is more likely to be funded, and, therefore, science is likely to have a liberal bias.  This would be troubling, if true, but across the board, I think it's not true.  A lot of research is done or sponsored by companies that want to make a profit.  Period.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A good article on Obama being "too reasonable"

Here's the best thing I've seen so far on the issue of whether President Obama should be "tough" or "reasonable".  It's a critique, but a "friendly" one, and comes at the question from a sociological perspective about how groups function to encourage normative conduct. 

No, You Can't
By Shankar Vedantam

It is worth reading if only for the last line, which I will preview here

"Memo to Obama: Being unreasonable all the time is crazy, but if you're always reasonable, you might as well hang a sign around your neck that says, "Exploit Me." "