Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Futility of Military Wars on Terrorism

It would seem that winning a war against terrorists, particularly the suicide variety, by military means, is futile. Winning would constitute killing them all, or somehow convincing them to stop committing terrorist acts. The former seems impractical without great loss of life on both sides and the latter seems a task more suited to diplomacy.

Usually in such wars the terrorist side has little to lose and the terrorized side has much to lose. Fighting military battles with sophisticated equipment is expensive whereas committing terrorist acts is relatively inexpensive, so depletion of resources favors the terrorist side.

Recruiting for the war also seems to favor the terrorist side. The terrorized side usually has more to live for so they are more reluctant to join or continue the fight. The terrorist side seems to have little or nothing to live for, otherwise why would they be willing to commit suicide? As the war drags the terrorized are more likely to look for other solutions, like building walls or other means of isolating themselves from the terrorists.

Another way of stopping the terrorism is to make it difficult or prohibitively expensive for the terrorists to obtain the materials necessary to continue the terrorism. But, this is not a task for the military. It’s an investigative task for organizations more like the police or the FBI, The same is true for seeking out the locations of the terrorists.

The bottom line seems to be that war is not the answer. Armies are more suited to fighting countries, not individuals and small groups. The job seems to be more one of security and intelligence. In this respect the war on terrorism seems to be more like the war on drugs than the great wars of the twentieth century.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Reconciling Growth and the Income Gap

Free marketers like to think that maximizing growth is the tide that lifts all boats, but history has proven otherwise. Over the last several decades as growth has expanded rapidly the gap between rich and poor has widened. Not only has the gap widened, but the boats in the lower waters have not been lifted. Wages at the low end have stagnated in real terms, fringe benefits have disappeared or been reduced, more people are working part time, and most families require two or more breadwinners to make ends meet. If the goals of a society are to ensure that everyone benefits from growth, not just the top half of the income spectrum, some changes must be made in our economic structure.

The first obvious change would be to eliminate taxation on that portion of a family’s income that is required to sustain life and enable work without making choices between such necessities as health care, food, shelter and transportation, that is, a living wage income. The tax reform commission has recommended doing this with a system of tax credits. This would put individuals on an equal footing with businesses which are taxed on their profits, not their revenues.

Eliminating tax inequities alone will probably not be enough to bridge the gap, due to the international drive toward globalization, to reduce labor costs and improve the standard of living of people in undeveloped or developing countries. Globalization to achieve some measure of world wide equity in living standards is a noble goal. But, progress in this direction must not come at the expense of turning all countries into enclaves of peons working for starvation wages with an overclass of professionals, entrepaneurs and managers calling the shots and living in luxury.

The classical struggle between the left and right is between work and welfare. The left sometimes seems to ignore the power of markets to generate the growth that is required to sustain meaningful work and a safety net for the needy. Having a large percentage of the population unemployed and on welfare is not a prescription for long term prosperity. The right, on the hand, seems to subscribe to the theory that as long as government welfare is minimized and growth is sustained everything will come out smelling like a rose. Neither is correct. Both have to learn to compromise and find the best mix of growth incentives and reasonable wages to sustain long term prosperity and a healthy middle class.

One attempt to put a floor under the conditions for work has been the minimum wage. The right has succeeded in keeping the minimum wage lower than a living wage, that is a wage which will pay for all expenses necessary to stay healthy and hold a job, as discussed above as a floor for income taxation. They have done this by making the claim that increasing the minimum wage puts people out of work and on to welfare. But this ignores the fact that people working for less than a living wage have to be subsidized by government welfare in other ways, for example, by earned income credits, food stamps, housing subsidies, Medicaid, etc. Raising the minimum wage to a living wage would eliminate these latter subsidies, while possibly increasing the number of people that become unemployed and enter the full welfare rolls. As far as I have been able to determine, no studies have been done to adequately explain how this tradeoff plays out. There is some wage at which the total cost of both types of welfare is minimized. This needs to be investigated to set the minimum wage where it is most advantageous.

Another approach to keep people off welfare would be to set the minimum wage at the living wage and employ all people displaced from the private labor market, but able to work, in meaningful jobs to maintain national infrastructure. By keeping the labor rate for these infrastructure jobs at the living wage, and not allowing it to increase, any demands for labor in the private sector which could pay a higher wage would be met by shifts from this pool of infrastructure labor. This would eliminate the frustration and worry of being unemployed and unproductive, yet provide opportunity for workers to move into better paying jobs as the demand for labor increased. This movement would be augmented by training and experience acquired in the infrastructure jobs. Anyone not willing to enter the infrastructure job network would be on their own unless they can show they are disabled or otherwise unable to work.

The infrastructure job network would be funded out of progressive taxes on corporations and those making more than the living wage and implemented by private contracts from agencies like the Corp of Engineers or other federal, state or local agencies engaged in maintaining infrastructure.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Roots of Rebellion

Rebellion has many faces. All stem from some form of oppression which is only overcome by action. This action usually takes to form of embracing the stereotype impressed on the rebelling party by the controlling entity, and doing precisely what the controlling party fears most, without concern for the consequences.

Probably the most well known form of rebellion is that of the youth approaching adulthood. The youth cannot continue their development toward adulthood by continuing to follow the dictates of the parent. They must start to make their own decisions and learn by their mistakes. If even the smallest deviations from the prescribed behavior are met with stern reprimand, resentment builds and inevitably is followed by more drastic rebellious acts. If what the parent fears most is the use of drugs and promiscuous sexual behavior it is likely that some form of this behavior will ultimately result to demonstrate independence if lesser forms of independent behavior are repressed. The form of independent expression is usually dictated by the accepted norms of the group to which the oppressed individual belongs, which are, in turn, usually dictated by the more daring and bold leadership of the group.

A second example is that of oppressed minority cultures. David Brooks of the New York Times has recently commented on the common use of “gangsta rap” customs in both the American youth culture and the participants in the recent uprisings in French minority ghettos:

“The images, modes and attitudes of hip-hop and gangsta rap are so powerful they are having a hegemonic effect across the globe.

American ghetto life, at least as portrayed in rap videos, now defines for the young, poor and disaffected what it means to be oppressed. Gangsta resistance is the most compelling model for how to rebel against that oppression. If you want to stand up and fight The Man, the Notorious BIG shows the way.

When rap first came to France, American rappers dominated the scene, but now the suburban immigrant neighborhoods have produced their own stars in their own language. French rap lyrics today are like the American gangsta lyrics of about five or 10 years ago, when it was more common to fantasize about cop killings and gang rape.

The French gangsta pose is familiar. It is built around the image of the strong, violent hypermacho male, who loudly asserts his dominance and demands respect. The gangsta is a brave, countercultural criminal. He has nothing but rage for the institutions of society: the state and the schools. He shows his own cruel strength by dominating women. It is perhaps no accident that until the riots, the biggest story coming out of these neighborhoods was the rise of astonishing and horrific gang rapes.

In other words, what we are seeing in France will be familiar to anyone who watched gangsta culture rise in this country. You take a population of young men who are oppressed by racism and who face limited opportunities, and you present them with a culture that encourages them to become exactly the sort of people the bigots think they are — and you call this proud self-assertion and empowerment.

You take men who are already suspected by the police because of their color, and you romanticize and encourage criminality so they will be really despised and mistreated. You tell them to defy oppression by embracing self-destruction.

In America, at least, gangsta rap is sort of a game. The gangsta fan ends up in college or law school. But in France, the barriers to ascent are higher. The prejudice is more impermeable, and the labor markets are more rigid. There really is no escape.”

It’s not such a leap to extend this sort of behavior to dead-end Muslims in ghettos throughout the Islamic world. Along comes an Osama bin Laden or an al-Zarkawi with utopian reasons to commit to a world uprising against The Man, particularly when The Man is doing very well and infusing his cultural norms into a culture dominated by a stifling religion. And what results is Islamic extremism, just another form of rebellion from an oppressed culture with no hope of controlling their own destiny.

But, in all these cases, is the rebellion really a threat to organized society if the causes are reduced or eliminated? Can the struggling adolescent, the gansta rapper, or the Islamic extremist take over and control a society by force? Do they really want to? Or are they just looking for some reason to believe they can control their own destiny?

Obviously there’s a difference in these three forms of rebellion, and that Islamic extremists are a greater danger than adolescent teens. But, should our approach be to declare war or to protect against such behavior while at the same time trying to correct the situation giving rise to the behavior? The decision is up to us.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Advice to the Tax Reform Commission

There are two actions that would reduce the cost of tax preparation and auditing and make the personal income tax more equitable while changing the code very little. This is not to say that other changes are not desirable, but these changes can be made easily without upsetting almost anyone, and therefore are a good place to start.

The table below compiled from IRS data shows that 53 million taxpayers with incomes less that $22,000 could be removed from the tax rolls, reducing tax revenue by only $13 billion out $748 billion. Seven billion of this loss could be recouped by closing the loopholes that people making over ten million a year use to lower their tax rate four points below that of people making half a million. The savings in preparation and auditing costs could easily make up the rest.

Anyone making $22000 or less can hardly meet their everyday expense to hold a job and pay for health care. They shouldn’t have to pay income taxes if they don’t have any income after expenses, when corporations pay taxes only on their net income.

The first thing the commission and the Congress should do is take anyone who is making less than $22,000 a year off the tax rolls and close the loopholes for the multimillionaires so their rates are in line with others making less.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A Religious Outlook I Respect

Although I’ve been pretty hard on religion when it inserts itself into government and policy making, there are some religious leaders I respect, even though I think they are lost in fantasyland. Dr. Richard Land is one of them. He is one of the few evangelicals who have spoken out against Bush’s touting of her religion as one of the reasons for picking Harriet Miers as his Supreme Court nominee. Land is a true believer not only in Christianity but in the philosophy that judges and justices should set aside their personal beliefs and decide cases on the basis of existing law. This is what some conservatives believe, but not all, by any stretch. There are many who view getting a Christian on the court as a way to get Christianity back in government, i. e. prayer in schools, creationism in the classroom, gays on the sidelines, stem cells, abortion and contraceptives out of medicine, etc. Land is not one of them.

Another attitude I can respect is what Land sees as one of the virtues on Christianity. He believes that if Christianity were accepted by all, we would have a much more ordered society with fewer births out of wedlock, less crime, more attention to the plight of the less endowed, etc. And, he may be right for some segment of society, but not for all. This belief assumes that all people need religion to live productive, law abiding, moral lives. This I cannot accept because it has been proven wrong over and over again. There are many people with no religious belief that live such lives. Religion limits the freedom and liberty of such people. And anchoring a society on rules and principles devised thousands of years ago limits its adaptation to changing conditions and acquisition of new knowledge.

An appropriate compromise would be to take advantage of religion by allowing those who can profit from it to profess it freely, but also allow those who don’t to go their own way without discrimination or any requirement to participate in religious activity. In any case it should be a personal choice, not something that should be implemented in law or universally applied.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Elitism, Enlightenment, Tradition and Our Future

Michael Barone of U. S. News and World Report has written an article, Spurning America, which I hope will be the opening salvo of a discussion of an important issue in American politics, namely, the role of tradition and religion verses adaptation in a modern society. The following is my response.

In the article, he chastises the liberal elites for a world of sins, the usual saw in attacking the left. So let’s first clarify what it means to be “elite”.


Elitism involves setting oneself apart and above the rest of society on the basis of what may be just a perceived superiority in the eye of the exhibitor of this behavior. Elitism is to be distinguished from enlightenment which is the true attainment of a state of knowledge that others might not have acquired in a particular field or discipline.

There are elitists of all political stripes, although liberals are most often accused of elitism, possibly because they reside in urban trend setting communities like the Northeast or West Coast cities, or because they have advanced degrees and prominent positions in academia. But, there is also a business elite of CEOs, investment bankers, and free marketers who conceive of themselves holding a unique knowledge of how economic systems work and how to scratch their way to the top of the economic pyramid without being too concerned about what happens to those who don’t achieve their prominence, or who think there is more to the health of a country than just economics. And then there are the literary and cultural elite who reside in the press or political think tanks pontificating on whatever they are paid to pontificate on. And finally, there are the political elites who have achieved high positions in government, possibly only through clever association with the aforementioned elites who provide the necessary campaign funds or writing and promotional skills to get them elected.


What may appear to some as elitism, may actually be enlightenment, if the individual exhibiting it has achieved a state of knowledge through study, experience, or travel that gives them a better perspective to judge the value of a theory, plan, or action. Someone may appear as an internationalist elitist if he cites examples from foreign sources attained through study or travel that the observer has not attained through comparable experience.

Someone unfamiliar with governance or economics may rely more on the personality of someone, which mirrors his own, rather than the documented history of a person’s actions if he is not informed of them, or if he does not understand how the experience relates to the requirements of his position.

Someone without a scientific background may equate the scientific method with any other theory or myth regarding an observed behavior or phenomena.

Someone growing up in a rural environment may have an extensive knowledge of the land, conservation and natural phenomena that someone raised or living in an urban environment has not acquired. Whereas, someone in an urban environment may have experienced a wide range of social behavior from a wide range of different cultures and ethnicities, while the rural resident may have experienced a relatively monolithic culture.

These differences in learning or experience, when viewed from the opposite viewpoint may appear as elitism when they are actually attributable to enlightenment through wider experience or study.

Tradition and Religion

Now let’s examine the makeup of those who most value tradition and religion as opposed to those who may be accused of taking an internationalist, and possibly more secular political stance. Here we might look at why some people prefer “my country right or wrong”, support their leaders, fly the flag, put patriotic stickers on their automobiles, etc. whereas others seem to protest against their government’s actions and cite examples from abroad rather than taking the former approach.

History is littered with empires that faded because they clung to what worked in the past instead of adapting to the present and future, taking account of the rapid growth of knowledge acquired over the years.

It used to be tradition in this country to enslave people because it seemed to work economically, and there was an “elite” attitude that these people were better off enslaved because of their lacking an ability to make their way on their own. Fortunately, we finally got rid of that tradition after discovering these people actually weren’t much different from their enslavers and could function pretty well on their own.

At one time we considered women lacking the necessary skills, or possibly due to their domestic responsibilities, the time and ability to participate in the electoral process or hold some jobs that required the “manly” skills. We have subsequently found through experience and learning that women do indeed have the skills and mental capacity to do almost all things previously done only by men, and fortunately have abandoned that tradition as well.

Now it has been a couple thousand years since our religions sprung to life at a time when there was essentially no science and where religion provided essentially all the answers to the unanswerable questions of the time. And, answers to many questions are required for an ordered society and for peace of mind for the individual, to give people a sense of purpose and comfort in times of stress or despondency.

Since then, we have passed these traditions on to our descendents, from an early age, as principles which have served us well and which they should adopt to get along in the world. But, we have also learned much since then about how the world works and what is required for an ordered society. We have discovered individual liberty, human rights, democracy, political institutions, etc. and we now we rely much less on the oracles or the priesthood to give us guidance on the right way to live.

At some point we may want to ask ourselves how much we want to rely on the knowledge we have acquired over these many centuries and how much we want to rely on the ancient religious faiths we have adopted. We still may enjoy our religious community, the comfort we feel from our religion in time of conflict or loss, and ceremonial aspects of celebrating religious holidays, etc. But, we should consider the degree to which we want our religious faith to dictate our everyday decisions in raising our children, pursuing our careers, and governing our society.

The Future

Our success as a country in the future will depend on our further enlightenment and recognizing that we can’t run in place, resting on our past success and traditions to see us through a rapidly changing future. It will require the less informed to become more informed. It will require that we not rely on our tradition of American exceptionalism, but recognize the other countries and civilizations may have discovered ways of prospering and getting along that we have been too isolated to appreciate fully. It will mean cooperation, not just nationwide but worldwide. We can continue to do battle over preserving our traditions, or put them in perspective with the requirement to continue expanding our knowledge, to sustain our past success and prominence as a leader of the world.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Constitution and Representative Government

At the time the constitution was written there was no theory of evolution, no quantum theory, no molecular theory, no theory of relativity, no cosmological theory, no electronic theory. The only light was from the sun or fire. There was nothing that could be called scientific medicine. Only cut and try methods of treating symptoms, like blood letting or distillates from roots and herbs were available.

Antoine Lavoisier first defined a chemical element and drew up a table of 33 of them for his book 'Traité Elémentaire de Chimie' (Treatise on the Chemical Elements) published in 1789, the year the Constitution was written.

There were about 4 million people in the country and only 13 states. Most were farmers, shopkeepers or tradesmen. There were no corporations. People held slaves. Women couldn’t vote. These were all traditions of the times, many of which we have since discarded based on more recent knowledge and development.

Under the circumstances, the founding fathers did a magnificent job of constructing a governing document for the time and as a guide to future needs. But, can anyone really say that we should be bound by the original intent of the constitution, let alone only the original words of the constitution with all the water that has gone under the bridge since then? Certainly the safeguards enumerated in the Bill of Rights remain viable. But the commerce clause, privacy considerations, and the basic rules adopted for representative government could use a little updating and further definition.

One of the major problems encountered in governing is the remoteness of the people from those who represent them, primarily due to the overwhelming growth of our population and the dominance of political parties, which were never given a charter in the constitution. The gap has been filled by special interest groups who usurp the role of voters through the finance of political campaigns and mass media advertising in return for legislation to accommodate their special needs. There seems to now be a need to bring politicians closer to the voters they represent.

Having one representative for every 600,000 people hardly seems adequate. When was the last time you talked to one of your national representatives? Even the mail you send them is answered by auto responders, or if you’re lucky, a low level staffer. They are so well insulated from the average voter that only polls give them a sense of what voters want, and they are easily ignored without consequences.

It may be time for some form of tiered representation where the lowest unit of representation is small enough to where everyone can personally know the person they vote for, like on a precinct level. The representatives at any level would be elected by the representatives at the next lower level, who also know them personally, etc. This system would only have 3 or 4 levels of representation to cover the entire population. A prime minister would be picked at the top level to lead the making and enforcing of laws.

In addition to the formal government elected in this way, a ceremonial head of government would be elected by all the voters at large. His duties would be to meet with kings and other ceremonial heads of government around the world, go to scenes of catastrophe and sympathize with victims, go to holiday events and make rah-rah speeches, present awards to military heroes, citizens of the year and other personalities of achievement, go to press events and rally the country around causes, and generally do all the backslapping chores required by a population that worships celebrity.

This electoral system would be safeguarded by a recall process, where a representative at any level could be petitioned and recalled by a vote of all the people they represent. If they were recalled all the representatives who voted for them would also be recalled, all the way down the line. In this way, representatives would have a stake in picking the best people and would know the people they pick personally. A similar referendum process would allow petitioning and reversal of any piece of legislation by a vote of the people. If a piece of legislation was overturned by referendum, all those representatives voting for it would be automatically recalled, as well as all the people who voted for them, all the way down the line. This would ensure that only laws that the people supported would be implemented.

A similar initiative process would be available to petition and pass laws by a vote of the people. If a law was passed by initiative, all representatives would be recalled and new elections at every level held. This would ensure that representatives would pass and enforce laws that had the support of the people. A classic example needing this kind of attention today is the illegal immigration situation, where politicians refuse to deal with the problem because the money getting them elected and reelected is coming from people who don’t want the problem addresses while the majority considers it one of the most important problems that needs addressing.

It could be expected that these initiative and referendum processes would be seldom used because the system itself would be more responsive to voter sentiment.

People could still join interest groups or even political parties, but these groups would have no role in electoral process like they do now, where the two major parties are able to essentially exclude candidates that don’t belong to one of them by controlling participation in debates and press opportunities.

This is only one of many ways our constitution could be improved by taking advantage of what we have learned over the past 200 years. There is always fear of throwing the baby out with the bathwater in any attempt to modify a document that has served us fairly well for a long time. But, there comes a time when even valuable, almost sacred documents become out of date for the times.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Curves along the Economic Road

When supply side economics became the vogue in the eighties, Arthur Laffer came up with the Laffer Curve to show that there was an overall tax rate which maximized tax revenue. There would be no tax collected if the rate was zero and if the rate was 100% no one would be interested in working so the revenue collected would again be zero. Somewhere in between a rate would exist which would result in the maximum tax revenue.

An analysis of government intervention in the free market would yield a similar curve, which we will call the Laugher Curve, since we would all be laughing instead of fighting if we could find the optimum point. Growth is increased by some government regulation of markets because it makes the markets more stable and prevents monopolies from developing. Some government regulation also promotes growth when it helps workers by promoting safe working conditions and stable employment. So growth increases as the degree of government intervention increases, up to a point, beyond which growth drops when the tax burden necessary to improve the lot of workers and regulate competition swamps its beneficial effects.

These trends are indicated in the following graphs, which are not meant to represent the actual data, because we don’t know at what percentage the peaks in the curves occur.

Supply siders always seem to assume that any tax rate cut is a good tax cut because it stimulates growth. But, this is only true if the current rate is beyond the peak of the Laffer Curve. Similarly, conservatives always seem to assume that any government intervention in the free market is too much, and liberals appear to assume the opposite, when in fact there is some degree of intervention that produces the maximum growth rate.

To further complicate the issue, even if we could determine the optimum percentage in each case we still might not have the best overall situation for the good of the country. Growth due to increases in productivity usually increases our overall standard of living, but not necessarily the standard of living of everyone. It is possible to have an increasing standard of living for a few people, while the majority tread water or backslide. To ensure an increasing standard of living for everyone, further government intervention is usually necessary to level the playing field by transferring benefits to those lower on the economic scale. This may result in lowering overall economic growth, while at the same time enhancing overall well being. A measure of this effect might be represented by the median per capita domestic product (MPCDP), rather than the gross domestic product (GDP). Comparing the solid and dashed Laugher Curves shows the trends. The peak of the MPCDP curve occurs at a higher rate of government intervention.

Unemployment can be addressed in a similar fashion. Low wages and no government assistance may result in the least unemployment and greatest GDP, but it won’t result in the greatest MPCDP, or overall well being of the population.

We need to get away from addressing prosperity only in terms of maximum GDP growth and lowest tax rates and try to determine what these curves actually look like if we want to minimize class warfare and promote the well being of the whole country.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict and Worldwide Terrorism

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a microcosm of the larger war on terror. After over half a century of fighting terrorism with a few billion a year and the moral support of the largest superpower in the world, the Israelis are no closer to peace, or to killing all the terrorists. Now they have embarked on walls and partition as a better way of addressing the problem.

The withdrawal from Gaza and a few settlements in the West Bank is looked upon by the West as progress in the conflict, and a move closer to the roadmap prescribed by the US. This is an illusion.

In a recent Newsweek interview Sharon was asked the following question and gave the following answer.

WEYMOUTH: Why did you decide that disengagement is the right thing to do?
I never thought there would be any possibility that a small Jewish minority in Gaza—seven or eight thousand Israelis, [living] among 1.2 million Palestinians, whose number doubles every generation—might become a majority or [establish] a place that could be an integral part of the state of Israel.”

In other words, there was no illusion that this was motivated by any desire to see a Palestinian state alongside Israel. It was simply to partition off a section of Israel that would clearly always be dominated by Palestinians. The Israelis don’t envision a state. They intend to control access to Gaza. The Palestinians in Gaza are precluded from having an airport or a seaport to engage in free commerce with the outside world. They insist the border with Egypt be controlled by the Egyptians to their liking. They insist that the Palestinian authority eliminate Hamas and Islamic Jihad. This is impossible, since these organizations comprise nearly half the Palestinians in Gaza, meaning any attempt to eliminate them will mean civil war. They have also indicated continuation of any terrorist activity will mean a severe military response, in other words they will fight terrorism in the same way as they have always contended with it, by at least an equal destruction of lives and property. But, now this destruction will not be occurring in Israel, but in Gaza, essentially a prison camp for Palestinians.

Will partitions and walls eventually end the conflict? It may afford somewhat better protection for Israelis but the conflict is unlikely to end for the same reason the war on terrorism is unlikely to end through the way it is now being prosecuted. First, the lot of the Palestinians, contained in Gaza and the West Bank without commerce with the outside world will not improve. It will probably get more hopeless than it already is. Having nothing to lose and valuing their religion more than their lives they will continue to fight the endless battle of overcoming Israeli dominance with terrorism, the only weapon available to them. And the battle will continue as a war of attrition. Since the Palestinians have a birth rate higher than that of Israel, the end is not in site. Eventually, only the diehard fundamentalists in Israel will be left to fight the battle alone. The Jewish progressives will realize that they will not want to burden future generations with the fate of constant terror and marginal progress and join the Diaspora in countries where they are accepted and can prosper.

Unlike the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the US, perceiving itself a victim of a similar terror has more options. Isolated by two oceans it only has to worry about terrorists in its midst. If the will is found to protect its land borders and identify its citizens, as Israel does, it can be secure from all but the most rare of terror attacks. But, the international problem of terrorism will continue as long as there are extremists that value their religion more than life, and the tactics used to combat terrorism generate more terrorists or more sympathy for terrorism than they eliminate. I think we have shown that cooperation among countries in tracking down terrorist leaders and destroying infrastructure and communication necessary to their activities reduces terrorism, but that military action can have a positive or negative effect, depending on what specific military action is taken.

The long term solution to terrorism is likely to come when Islamic countries follow the example of Qatar, converting their monarchies to democracies more like the UK, and when Western countries realize that they have a role in encouraging this transformation, but that they must respect the sovereignty of other countries and treat them as equals, rather than attempting to control or use them to their own advantage.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Religion and Civilization

This discussion is not about the validity of religion, but about the consequences of religion. If you want to understand the futility of arguing the validity of religion a good place to start is the PBS series, The Question of God. Or on the subject of religious wars throughout history, the Penn State site on Holy Wars and the Western Cultural Tradition.

A New Modern Era

It is somewhat uncanny that the first George W. Bush presidency intersected with the events of 9/11/2001. For the previous several decades religion in America was ever present but relatively uncontroversial and threats from external religious sources were not taken with any degree of seriousness, although many incidents should have awakened the American public and its government.

Essentially all American presidents have claimed some form of religion, it being a necessity to become an American president. But, George W. Bush was unique in his claim of being born again in the Christian faith and not only embracing it, but promoting it as a star in his resume for the position he sought. Indeed, in a presidential town meeting he cited Jesus Christ as the philosopher who most influenced his life. To the religious in America this must have seemed like a gift from God, finally having a candidate to support that identified with their deep seated religious beliefs.

His performance in office showed that he was no pretender to religion. His championing of social issues based in religion, his black and white identification of good and evil, his support of faith based government initiatives, and his strong identification of religion with patriotism and American exceptionalism proved he was the genuine article.

So along comes 9/11, an attack on primarily Christian America from Islamic extremists, justifying their actions on the basis of the Quran, and the interference of the West in their practice of Islam.

And the rest is history.

The War on Terror

The administration was quick to assure Americans that the subsequent wars were not wars on Islam but a war on terror, since the West is a civilization of countries made up of many religions, whereas Islam likes to think of itself as the true world religion existing in many countries.

But we are not fighting terrorists from the IRA, the white supremacist movement, communist guerilla groups, or an other form of terrorism than that perpetrated by Islamic extremists. So it is really a war on Islamic extremism.

Religious Extremism and Changes in American Attitudes

Religious extremism comes in many stripes. We have our own home grown religious extremists like Pat Robertson, accepted as a legitimate candidate for president, indeed winning the Iowa caucuses in a recent primary election, and now advocating the assassination of a Latin American president and praying for the death of Supreme Court justices so they can be replaced with people more to his liking.

And of course we have al Qaeda, with megalomaniacal leadership primarily based in politics rather than religion, but supported by a wide swath of religious sympathizers to their cause in the Islamic street.

In both these cases we have people whose beliefs dominate their actions. The people they approve to lead are not selected for their secular qualities but for their positions on upholding religious beliefs on a myriad of social issues.

There is no doubt that America has rich religious traditions, and that over the years the country may have strayed from them since we approved the constitution. But, we also had a tradition of slavery, of women being subservient to men, of championing the rights of those immigrating from abroad over those who originated here, etc. In all of these cases we have put these traditions behind us in favor of what seemed a better path for a nation whose advance in knowledge and understanding had changed our perspective. Indeed, our countries of origin abroad have moved in the same direction, some much further than our own.

Since the start of the Bush administration and the events of 9/11 we seem to have moved back in the direction of greater religious involvement and outspokeness, even to the extent of integrating religion more in the public arena, education, and government. The theory of evolution is now being put on a par with faith based “intelligent design” concepts. Re-restricting abortions, increasing animosity toward unusual sexual orientation, introducing prayer back into the classroom, and increasing the presence of religious symbols in the public square all seen be in the ascendant. This has caused a backlash among the secular community where they may soon become less tolerant of the privileges offered religious practice in the form of tax breaks on religious property and deductions for religious contributions. Since the majority of Americans have some form of religious affiliation or personal dedication, secular people fear a tyranny of the majority could develop.

Meanwhile, our new pride in American exceptionalism and patriotism, now extended to preemptive military actions, has caused concern among our long standing allies and a changed view of Americans around the world. It is difficult to identify the degree to which these changes are due to our change in diplomacy or to renewed pride in religion, American exceptionalism or patriotism, but the reelection of George W. Bush seems to indicate to those abroad that the American people and not just the administration support the changes. This has compounded our conflict with the views of other nations.

Religious Belief and Freedom of Action

When people base their decisions on religious tradition, or in the extreme, on the dictates of the literal interpretation of ancient writings, they have less freedom of action in adapting to changes in population, culture, and scientific and intellectual advancement. This is apparent from examination of the degree and rapidity of change in rural and urban environments. Where people experience less change, less contact with others of different cultures and attitudes, and less opportunity for learning or advancement, cultural traditions seem to be sustained over a longer period. Urban areas tend to be concentrated on the coasts or at the intersection of natural terrain where traffic is greatest. What we are now calling red and blue states are really red and blue areas, urban areas being more blue and rural areas being more red. Rural areas remain more steeped in religious tradition and urban areas more secular, although many traditions and habits are sustained for multiple generations in the migration to urban areas.

Urban areas are growing, while rural areas are shrinking. But new exurban areas are now developing where primarily successful urban people are migrating to previously rural areas and carrying the urban attitudes along with them. The question that arises is whether religious traditions can be sustained over generations, and this depends on the degree to which religion is a learned behavior or whether it is something inherent in the human psyche. The experience in other, older countries seems to indicate that less developed countries are more religious and vice versa.

If we retreat to earlier and more fundamental religious traditions we will have less freedom to adapt to changing circumstances, since we will be guided in our actions by the restrictions and limitations of our religion. It appears clear that the western enlightenment was a major factor in our advancement at a more rapid rate than Islamic countries that once dominated the world. Is religious extremism likely to become more virulent in our society as it has become in Islamic society? Are we more likely to succeed in our struggle against Islamic extremism by becoming more religious in our own society? These are questions that will determine our future as a country.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Clash of Theism and Human Rights

The human rights tradition sprung from the enlightenment, was solidified during the French Revolution in the publishing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and is documented in its modern context in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed by the United Nations after World War II, on 10 December 1948. ( It embodies concepts which are at odds with the Bible and the Quran, the primary sources of religious doctrine of the three most prominent modern theistic religions. These governing religious documents tolerate, and sometimes even prescribe inequalities that are not tolerated in the human rights documents.

There is a fundamental difference in the documents underlying religion and those underlying human rights. The former are immutable, the latter subject to change as circumstances change. Civilization has changed dramatically since the Bible and the Quran were written. Is it to be bound to principles and laws that are a product of a time when knowledge and understanding of human and natural phenomena were primitive? Or are we to benefits from generations of study and enlightenment?

Until recently, modern religious practice has mitigated these conflicts by accepting some of the tenets of human rights. Countries have precluded conflict by prescribing separation of religion and state, while others have a state religion, but nevertheless accept human rights principles, while still others incorporate religious law into their governing law.

The continued coexistence of religion and human rights depends on either a compromise of religious principles or human rights principles, in some cases. In the past decade we have seen a rise in religious fundamentalism which shows less tolerance for human rights and a greater demand for obedience to religious principles enumerated in the Bible and the Quran. In the case of Islam, this has resulted in Islamic extremism which condones terrorism to achieve its ends. In the case of Christianity it has resulted in the election of a born-again Christian president, and increased demands from the Christian community to accept a greater degree of Christian influence in government and a renewal of tensions between the human rights and religious communities. Many of the conflicting issues now before the American people have religious roots, including abortion, stem cell research, attitudes toward and rights of homosexuals, toleration of religious symbols in public places, and use of religious organizations as instruments of government activity. If the trend continues we can expect to see protests against tax exemptions for religious institutions, and income tax deductions for individual giving to religious institutions.

We live in a very pluralistic world of many cultures and religions. Our foreign policy is dependent on an understanding and appreciation of other cultures. If our country becomes bound by religious traditions and customs even more than it is now it will complicate our role as a citizen of the world or isolate us from countries that don’t accept our religious principles. We must deal with countries that have even more deeply held religious beliefs and where religion governs the society. Will we be better able to change or accommodate these countries if we are bound by an equally restrictive set of beliefs. Or will we be better equipped to handle foreign diplomacy by keeping religion a private matter and out of the arena of government?

Discussion of religion and its consequences has been somewhat taboo in American society because a large majority of Americans have some religious affiliation or sentiment. Most religious people turn away from any discussion of their beliefs, considering it a private matter and out of bounds to anyone else. But, it is becoming less of a private matter and more of a public matter when religious people demand more than their right to practice their religion and defend it. When religious dogma begins to infringe on human rights and affect other people it is an open subject for discussion and legislation. It’s time for a frank discussion of religion, particularly in the context of its conflict with human rights.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Nature of Current and Future Conflicts

The Lessons of the 9/11 Attacks

On September 11, 2001 the country was traumatizing by an attack by Islamic extremists, after many years of not taking the threat seriously. It was natural for us to strike back at such enemies immediately and take all measures necessary to prevent future attacks. But doesn’t there come a time when we must examine the nature of the conflict we are in, the reasons for the occurrence of such events as 9/11 and the best way to protect ourselves and achieve our long term goals for a peaceful and prosperous world?

Since the attack was by air, our first impulse was to keep such an attack from being repeated by securing aircraft and preventing hijackers from getting on planes. In this endeavor we went overboard, to the extent of scrutinizing babies and old ladies and inconveniencing air travelers in a major way while the remainder of our infrastructure remained largely unprotected and our borders as leaky as ever.

But, the event has heightened our awareness and we are getting our house in order, slowly but surely. We are finally taking border security and identification of our citizens seriously and making a major effort to secure our homeland. Four year without another attack has proved that we are no longer an easy target of opportunity.

Now we have adopted a military posture towards terrorism, even taking nearly unilateral actions in the face of world criticism, to protect ourselves. But, are these actions in our best interest or is it now time to examine other ways that might achieve our goals at less cost of human life, treasure, and reputation?

The War on Terror

Terror is many things. Tim McVey was a terrorist. The Weather Underground were terrorists. The IRA engaged in terrorism. Palestinians engage in terrorism. Israelis engaged in terrorism to establish the state of Israel. Then there are eco-terrorists that put steel shards in trees to injure loggers. And finally there are Islamist terrorists. All attack civilian targets in their attempt at revenge or to further a cause.

We call everything a war in modern times; the war on poverty, the war on drugs, and now the war on terror. In the former there were no military operations, in the latter there are. When is a war not a war requiring military operations, or requiring more than military operations? If the enemy has a well defined force and command structure and fights back militarily it may be a war. If the is no military response from the enemy, only stealth attacks from unknown sources, possibly widely dispersed or spontaneous, is it really a war that can be won by military operations?

If we are going to call the current threat a war then it is more a war on Islamic extremism than a war on terror. Just as there has been no winner in the Palestinian-Israeli “war” there is not likely to be a winner in the “war” on Islamic extremism. This conflict, like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, will likely require a political solution. Calling it a war will only cloud the search for a real solution.

The Nature of Islam

The Islamic religion is different from other religions in that it prescribes how Muslims should live their lives and govern themselves according to what is called Sharia. This is fundamentally different from other religions and from western constitutional democracy, where constitutions and the legal framework are decided by the majority of the people and leaders are democratically elected. Necessarily, societies governed by Islamic Sharia are democratic only to the extent that a majority decides to adopt Sharia as law. In this case western concepts like human rights are precluded to some extent. Women, are by definition, treated unequally and non-Muslims are viewed as inferiors.

Imposed on the concept of Islamic Sharia is the view by Islamic extremists that any measures to achieve it are legitimate, including terror. If local dictators or western societies somehow interfere with achieving the goal of Sharia they become targets of terror and any other measures necessary to achieve it.

So there are really two questions to be answered. Can western cultures coexist with Islamic societies electing to adopt Sharia as their governing law? Or, is only the use of terrorism to achieve it to be contested?

Modern warfare

Can modern warfare methods defeat terrorism? Or are only political solutions possible?

In the 18th century armies lined up in rows of bright colored uniforms and fired volleys at one another. Then someone discovered that it was more effective to not wear a uniform and fire from behind a tree or hill. The regular armies cried fowl and dismissed the new tactics as unprincipled and inhuman, but to what end. It was only their opinion. The other side saw it as the only way to achieve success. Now we have a similar change in modern warfare. We send in the people in uniforms with jets and tanks and cruise missiles. Sure we can break things and kill people, but to what end. The enemy uses what ever tactics are necessary to achieve the result they want, irrespective of our opinion about their tactics.

The use of high tech weapons and fully equipped troops at great distances from the homeland is very expensive, while the use of large numbers of basically equipped local guerillas is not. The proliferation of small lethal weapons in the hands of large numbers of people can result in losing all the battles but winning the war if they can persevere while the superpower wearies of the expense and duration of a protracted conflict.

A New Assessment

At some point modern western societies must ask, is it worth it, or is there another way. This is the conclusion that Israel and the US have come to in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It’s the conclusion we came to in the Vietnam. We could claim victory in skirmishes in El Salvador, Haiti, Guatemala, Grenada and Panama with military power. But these were small and in our back yard. But we went home from Lebanon and Somalia, when confronting actions there, probably because to result didn’t justify the cost.

Now we have to ask ourselves again, does the result justify the cost in the confronting Islamic extremism primarily with military power? Is there another way than military power that will achieve a better result? We have to step back even further and ask ourselves what our long term political goals are. Do we want to continue being the lone international superpower at all costs, even if we have to go it alone? Do we have the capacity to do this in the face of growing economic power in China, India, Russia, Europe and other Asian countries? Or are we better off being one of the key members of the world community and addressing conflicts only as a member of a world wide alliance?

Other western countries share our dilemma of deciding whether a potent and aggressive Islam can coexist with western democracies, and under what circumstances. Will moderate Muslims join the West in confronting Islamic extremism, or do they secretly favor societies governed by Sharia and sympathize with the goals of the extremists?

Are we better off with less democracy, royal families and even dictators in Islamic countries as long as they don’t abuse the populace and are willing to advance the rights of women and minorities? Or should we step back and allow Muslims to live under Sharia, possibly even helping them to achieve it? What course will advance our interests the most? What will best ensure the safety of world commerce, prevent the outbreak of nuclear catastrophes, and minimize terrorism against peaceful neighbors? These are the questions that must be answered by future government leaders. We hope they are up to the task.

“Fend for Yourself and Don’t Look Down”

Judging by the results, our motto “In God We Trust” isn’t serving us very well. Approximately half or working America is doing quite well, with comfortable salaries and fair prospects for improving their lot. The other half has stalled for the last several decades with few prospects for improving their lot. While the cost of living has increased wages have barely budged, while many jobs no longer include good fringe benefits or full time employment. More and more households are kept afloat by having two or more occupants employed.

A metaphor for the situation might be depicted as a giant ocean with many boats afloat, many planes overhead, and many people straining to remain afloat or submerged beneath the waves. Those in the small boats are envying those with the big boats and those with the big boats are envying the jet setters flying overhead, all envisioning someday achieving their status. No one above water seems concerned about those sinking fast into the surf or submerged in the deep.

Meanwhile, government actions are more and more decided by those willing to sponsor representatives. Districts are gerrymandered to ensure one or the other major party stays solidly in power while economic performance is judged on aggregate measures so as not to disclose who is succeeding and who is failing.

All in all it appears a better motto would be “Fend for Yourself and Don’t Look Down”.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Dissecting the Media

Media means different things to different people, maybe even to the media themselves. Of late, some distinctions have become clouded. Strictly entertainment fare is pretty easily recognizable. But when it comes to political news it’s sometimes hard distinguish between real news, as in reporting, verses propaganda or paid commercials for this cause or that

Newspapers at least separate opinion pages from reporting, or at least the purport to do so. But a lot of it in both sections comes from AP, Reuters, or syndicated columnists. Sometimes I long for another division, something like “This News is Really New” or “This is a New Idea” vs. “Rehashes Still in the Current News Cycle”. In the syndication department it would be nice to see a division between “This Guy has done Some Research and has a New Twist on this Idea” vs. “This Guy works for a Think Tank so you know His Take Already” or “This Guy Needs to Publish Something Every Week to get paid”.

To qualify as newsworthy or opinion worthy, it seems it is no longer required that a piece contribute to the dialog on a subject. It can have one of two purposes and still qualify. It can provide information or a proposal which contributes to arriving at a solution to a problem, or it can simply help to reinforce the readers already held opinion on the subject. As the society becomes more polarized, one side is perfectly happy to pay for a piece that reinforces their existing opinion, and doesn’t want to even see anything with which they might disagree. Think tanks make a lot of money just promoting one side of an issue. But, should the media join them in this endeavor, or should the media, the so-called fourth estate, try to present both side of the argument. And, should they try to find a source that is willing to actually present both sides of an argument? Should their responsibility to inform the public just be the presentation of two exaggerating blowhards, one from either side, or should it entail some attempt at a dispassionate analysis of both sides of an issue?

A final consideration is whether the media has a responsibility to highlight issues which do not appear to have a champion. We all know that special interest groups are good at getting free press whenever they can to promote their particular interest. But, what about issues where there is no financial incentive to champion them, such as almost all reform issues. Classic examples are tax reform, immigration reform, and class issues. Although the public support for an issue may be apparent from polls, if politicians or movers and shakers are not anxious to address it, it seems very unlikely that the press will take it on. This seems an abdication of their responsibility to inform the public.

I must give credit to a few major news organizations for now and then taking the initiative, usually after background noise becomes deafening, to investigate issues which have little importance to politicians because there is nothing in it for them in terms of campaign contributions. Good examples of this are the recent articles by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and others on the growing income and wealth gap. It seems all it takes is for one major media outlet to decide to come out with something and within days the rest of the herd is there repeating the same thing over and over. But, it should be pointed out that this income gap has been growing for the last thirty years. If this is how long it takes for the media to get motivated, it may be too late for some issues. When will we see a major push in the media on tax reform, pension reform, and health care reform? Thirty years from now? It may be too late.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Social Security personal accounts that might fly

President Bush’s proposal to means test SS COLA’s has sweetened his SS proposal to moderates. One more step might put it over the top. And that is to put an income cap on the personal accounts equal to the mean personal income (about $35000). Contributions on income above this cap up to the SS cap (about $90,000) would go into the SS trust fund as before, reducing the borrowing necessary to make the transition. And make the personal accounts mandatory, with government bonds as an option. One problem the program will encounter if it is voluntary is that high income people will join and low income people will not, defeating the purpose of the program.

President Bush says he wants low income people to become part of the ownership society. Since they don’t make enough money to save in IRA’s or other instruments, and SS is a mandatory tax, this is a way for them to save and become part of the ownership society. Having a personal investment cap means that there is no disparity between high and low incomes as to how much of SS they can privatize, and will force people to save at least a portion of their income.

Another tweak that would get more people behind personal accounts would be to allow the investment to be in an owner occupied home. Allowing SS contributors to acquire and pay off their residence would reduce the need for retirement income. There are already laws that allow this investment to follow the owner to other homes if a move is necessary. Rent is a major portion of retiree’s expenses if they don’t own a home that is free and clear. The tax free accumulation of such gains in the value of a home, together with the deductibility of mortgage interest make home ownership one of the best investments a person can make.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Differences in American and European Values

Once in a while you run across a paper that gives a complete picture of a topic that impresses. This is one such paper from the Elcano Royal Institute.


The idea that a new cultural divide is emerging across the Atlantic is a gross misrepresentation of reality. The US and Europe share major values on democracy, human rights, the rule of law, market economy, family, abortion and homosexuality, even if lately Europe is moving faster along a liberal trend and the US much more slowly. The great difference on these and other important value issues (consider the role of women) is between rich and poor countries, not between Europe and the US.

Indeed, one could also argue that Europe is also moving in a more conservative direction. On questions such as immigration and xenophobia, national identities and multiculturalism, it is Europe that is lagging behind. And the emergence of powerful extreme-right parties in Europe is seldom considered but is a major fact that explains many events (for example, the Presidency of Jacques Chirac).

Moreover, there are many Americas and many Europes, and indeed many Americans are ahead of the Europeans and many Europeans are behind the Americans. There is a European America as well as an American Europe. Unfortunately we cannot compare data from the 50 American states with the 25 European nations but it is reasonable to suspect that the result would be a blending together of the two sets of data into a single continuum.

This similarity is evident in issues such as the perception of threats, mutual views and views of the world, and even on when and how to use force.

However, the greatest differences arise when one has to decide about the use of force. Here we have a difference that indeed makes a difference: Europeans are always much more reluctant than Americans to use military force under any circumstances. There are more doves and fewer hawks in Europe than in America, even recognising that many Americans share European views and vice versa. We can argue that Europeans are more reluctant to use force simply because they have very little of it, but this explanation confuses cause and effect. It has been a tough and long learning process for the Europeans to see war and terrorism in a wider context and establish measures and instruments that can be used as an alternative to force. It is our attitudes, a result of our respective experiences, that account for our military power, not the other way round.

And one final comment: isn’t this reasonable? After all, war is always a last resort and must be used with great caution. Hence, a debate on its limits and conditions should be welcomed in democratic societies. Next time let’s hope it is not polarised on either side of the Atlantic. We already have what could be considered a pacifist America[34], so what we probably need are European neo-cons willing to discard the free-rider culture inherited from the Cold War.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Greed: One of the Seven Deadly Sins

The basis for a rebirth of the Democratic Party should be to establish a solid moral position that the electorate can get behind rather than chasing just enough votes to squeak ahead of the Republicans with a program very close to theirs. There is a paper at the link below that the DNC should all read that would go a long way toward this goal.

Greed: One of the seven deadly sins.

Here are a few excerpts:

An essay concerning the origins, nature, extent and morality of this destructive force in free market economies.

America is once again a nation of extremes. There is indeed a problem, and it has a history.
Historians Will and Ariel Durant (19) estimated in their survey that the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in
America has become greater than at anytime since Imperial plutocratic Rome. The Durants show a cycle repeating through history. Great social inequality creates an unstable equilibrium. The swelling numbers of the poor and resentful come to rival the power of the rich. As grievances and restlessness grow, government worsens, becoming tyrannical. Eventually a critical point arrives. Wealth will be redistributed, either by politics, or by revolution.

Greed is not a rational force. Not all wealth is created by greed, and not all inequalities are caused by greed, but if you could start with a society of complete equals, unrestrained greed will be sufficient to quickly render that society unequal. Present inequality is vast enough, the chances for the poor to work to close up the gap are long gone. Inequalities of this magnitude tend to become hereditary, and by and large, the descendants of the American poor will be poor.

In a free society, some people's greed inevitably means deprivation for others. This does not require environmental limits, it only requires persistent and competitive self-promotion, and in a vast nation whose economy is two hundred years devoted to these principles, we now inhabit a society with a small fraction of astronomically wealthy individuals towering over a growing mass in poverty.
America is arguably now more unequal than any of the original European cultures,yet we cling to and proselytize a horribly outdated economic theory which implies equality but actually delivers more inequality. Greed is the outstanding wrong because it reverses the utilitarian ethic. It produces the greatest good for the smallest number. Democracy's founding virtues are freedom and equality, so greed without restraint, producing great inequalities, becomes an undemocratic force.

What about the churches? Their purpose for existence includes helping the weak. If each church took in 6 homeless, there would be no more homelessness.

First, this society should decide how low any member can go. That establishes minimum rights. It requires we identify the least-advantaged person in society, and draw focus to him. Next, the very top and the very bottom of society should be (and all intermediate levels should be) connected, as if by a loose linked chain. Then if the top rises, it pulls the bottom up with it. If the bottom moves up, that closes the gap toward equality. This arrangement does not prevent any upward rise; but it establishes consequences on movements at the top.

Greed has to be reinstalled as a moral wrong, and in religious circles, as a sin.
We want our morality back!