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Earl Killian’s Occasional Commentary
11 August 2013
8 August 2013
7 August 2013
31 July 2013
22 July 2013
8 October 2012
22 September 2012
4 June 2012
21 May 2012
8 May 2012
7 May 2012
23 April 2012
31 March 2012
12 March 2012
7 December 2011
29 November 2011
19 November 2011
5 November 2011
24 August 2011
7 April 2011
6 April 2011
6 April 2011
18 March 2011
26 February 2011
25 February 2011
30 January 2011
29 January 2011
14 December 2010
5 November 2010
5 November 2010
30 October 2010
11 October 2010
2 October 2010
30 September 2010
20 September 2010
19 September 2010
15 September 2010
6 September 2010
4 August 2010
2 August 2010
29 July 2010
5 July 2010
12 June 2010
13 March 2010
10 March 2010
2 March 2010
25 February 2010
19 February 2010
16 February 2010
5 February 2010
27 January 2010
25 January 2010
24 January 2010
18 December 2009
17 December 2009
16 December 2009
15 December 2009
1 November 2009
10 October 2009
14 September 2009
11 September 2009
6 September 2009
5 September 2009
17 August 2009
14 August 2009
2 August 2009
1 August 2009
30 July 2009
8 July 2009
29 June 2009
12 June 2009
10 June 2009
9 June 2009
8 June 2009
7 June 2009
6 June 2009
5 June 2009
4 June 2009
3 June 2009
2 June 2009
31 May 2009
25 May 2009
24 May 2009
23 May 2009
17 May 2009
9 May 2009
28 April 2009
23 April 2009
21 April 2009
4 April 2009
15 March 2009
6 March 2009
6 December 2008
21 November 2008
18 November 2008
15 November 2008
6 November 2008
5 November 2008
4 November 2008
2 November 2008
14 October 2008
13 October 2008
8 October 2008
7 October 2008
6 October 2008
5 October 2008
4 October 2008
3 October 2008
2 October 2008
1 October 2008
30 September 2008
27 September 2008
14 September 2008
31 March 2008
21 July 2007
3 May 2007
8 March 2007
6 February 2007
25 January 2007
10 January 2007
6 January 2007
21-31 December 2006
13 December 2006
30 July 2006
4 July 2006
28 May 2006
27 May 2006
4 December 2005
23 November 2005
23 May 2005
19 January 2005
7 November 2004
4 November 2004
3 November 2004
3 November 2004
2 November 2004
1 November 2004
31 October 2004
30 October 2004
13 October 2004
13 October 2004
7 October 2004
4 October 2004
2 October 2004
30 September 2004
29 September 2004
7 September 2004
31 August 2004
28 August 2004
23 August 2004
20 August 2004
9 August 2004
16 July 2004
14 July 2004
11 July 2004
9 July 2004
12 June 2004
10 June 2004
9 June 2004
25 May 2004
24 May 2004
20 May 2004
18 May 2004
16 May 2004
14 May 2004
13 May 2004
11 May 2004
8 May 2004
6 May 2004
5 May 2004
2 May 2004
29 April 2004
26 April 2004
15 April 2004
9 April 2004
31 March 2004
30 March 2004
26 March 2004
23 March 2004
22 March 2004
21 March 2004
20 March 2004
4 March 2004
25 February 2004
15 February 2004
12 February 2004
4 February 2004
27 January 2004
4 January 2004
1 January 2004
31 December 2003
18 September 2003
14 September 2003
10 September 2003
4 September 2003
16 August 2003
7 May 2003
12 April 2003
18 March 2003
3 February 2003
2 February 2003
1 February 2003
29 January 2003
26 January 2003
14 January 2003
23 December 2002
19 December 2002
16 December 2002
22 November 2002
20 November 2002
13 November 2002
12 November 2002
9 November 2002
7 November 2002
6 November 2002
27 October 2002
7 October 2002
2 July 2002
11 June 2002
31 March 2002
4 December 2001
10 November 2001
16 September 2001
4 July 2001
27 January 2001
30 November 2000
25 November 2000
22 November 2000
14 November 2000
10 November 2000
9 November 2000
6 November 2000
20 June 2000
3 June 2000
26 June 1999
17 June 1999
10 June 1999
1 June 1999
23 May 1999
16 May 1999
15 May 1999
9 May 1999
8 May 1999
6 March 1999
26 February 1999
20 February 1999
20 January 1999
18 January 1999
17 January 1999
16 December 1998
4 December 1998
28 November 1998
25 November 1998
1 October 1998
2 August 1998
30 July 1998
30 June 1998
20 June 1998
7 June 1998
4 April 1998
21 February 1998
20 February 1998
9 February 1998
1 February 1998
16 November 1997
22 October 1997
6 September 1997
9 August 1997
8 August 1997
I write these editorials simply to record, for myself, my own
opinions and thought processes. People have a tendency to
We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.
To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle. One thing that helps toward it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it. Political predictions are usually wrong. But even when one makes a correct one, to discover why one was right can be very illuminating. In general, one is only right when either wish or fear coincides with reality. If one recognizes this, one cannot, of course, get rid of one’s subjective feelings, but one can to some extent insulate them from one’s thinking and make predictions cold-bloodedly, by the book of arithmetic. In private life most people are fairly realistic. When one is making out one’s weekly budget, two and two invariably make four. Politics, on the other hand, is a sort of sub-atomic or non-Euclidean world where it is quite easy for the part to be greater than the whole or for two objects to be in the same place simultaneously. Hence the contradictions and absurdities I have chronicled above, all finally traceable to a secret belief that one’s political opinions, unlike the weekly budget, will not have to be tested against solid reality.
Anyway these are my humours, my opinions: I give them as things which I believe, not as things to be believed. My aim is to reveal my own self, which may well be different tomorrow if I am initiated into some new business which changes me. I have not, nor do I desire, enough authority to be believed. I feel too badly taught to teach others.
Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.
Learn as much by writing as by reading.
Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble-makers. The round heads in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status-quo.
You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
11 August 2013 — Surveillance State
The US has become a surveillance state, enabled by internet and
mobile technology. Internet and wireless company data is being
increasingly tapped and stored by the US government. This is
justified by the
President Obama says he wants to see the Patriot Act amended. However, Obama has proven so untrustworthy on so many related issues, I cannot imagine this statement of being any value. It is likely just empty rhetoric.
Even were one to accept the utility of the surveillance state for its stated purpose, it is important to remember that such capability is seldom used only for its stated purpose. It usually ends up being used to suppress legitimate political discourse. Nixonian political tactics didn’t start or stop with Nixon. Government enforcers continue to monitor, harass, and arrest protesters, for example. (See also F.B.I. Goes Knocking for Political Troublemakers.)
8 August 2013 — Lessons Learn From a Net Zero Building Attempt
Status: This is a first draft.
Since the early 1990s, I wanted to build a house that was close
to self-sufficient in energy. My intent was to build a passive
solar house (one that needed little active heating or cooling
because of its design) and then provide for its electrical power
with photovoltaics (PV). Today such a building would be
I began by talking to architects with experience in unconventional building techniques and explained my goal. I eventually selected an architect who shared my interest and who seemed easy to work with. His specialty was straw bale construction, and after learning more about it, I became enthusiastic about it and decided to build a straw bale house.
I did build finally build the house, and moved in autumn of 2006. The was much more efficient than typical new construction, but we did not achieve the goal of net zero energy. This post looks at the lessons learned. Here is a quick summary:
The architect I chose specialized in straw bale buildings, and he tremendous faith in the suitability of straw bale construction, along with sufficient thermal mass, to produce a passive solar house. The high insulation value of 2-foot thick bale walls (around R-50) is quite high, and the bales are typically covered with a wire mesh and plastered, adding to the thermal mass. We also chose stone floors with a concrete slab to increase the thermal mass (but we skimped on the thickness of the slab and should have made it thicker). However, while such designs have produced very comfortable, passive-solar buildings at certain design points, they are not guaranteed to do so. My partner in this building project and I wanted on a number of design features that reduced the effectiveness of this type of design. For example, she wanted a much larger house than is typically built this way, with very flat interior walls, and I wanted a house filled with light, with many windows and doors. Unfortunately, windows and doors transmit heat far more readily than walls, and this largely negates the high R-value of straw bale walls. The town building codes also worked against passive solar design, for example requiring dark roofs, which absorb thermal radiation in the summer, heating the house when it is not desired (but see the OM solar design links below where this a feature). Were I to build a home again, I would insist on checking the architect’s design with detailed calculations and simulations to ensure that the passive solar objective would be met. One could do this either oneself, or by hiring a consultant. This needs to be done early in the design process, rather than late, because later it is much more difficult to make changes.
Another issue is that the architect left a number of design
decisions to the contractor or sub-contractors (something he
A passive solar house requires occasional backup, non-passive heating and cooling during periods of extended unfavorable weather. The design of this system should be done early, and not left until later. It is particularly inappropriate for design-build. We ended up with a air-to-water heat pump, when a ground source heat pump might have been more appropriate. This would have required early design consideration, however. (We were avoiding fossil fuels, so natural gas or propane supplementary heat was not an option.)
Heating a passive solar house is somewhat easier than cooling it. The angle of the eave can be designed to allow the sun to heat the house in winter, but block the sun in summer, and this heating is particularly comfortable if done right (e.g. captured in the thermal mass of the building). It helps if the house is not too large, since there is a limit to how deeply into the south of the house the sun will reach. We chose to supplement the passive solar heating with radiant heating in the floor for cold days without sun. Radiant heating is very comfortable, but it has the problem that it is not suitable for cooling. Since radiant heating uses hot water flowing through a slab floor, it lacks forced air ducts. We chose to not provide a separate forced air system for air conditioning, and this was a mistake. Our house did get too warm in summer, probably because there were so many R-3 (U 0.3) windows and doors. I tried using the heat pump to run cold water through the floor to cool the house, but this proved unsatisfactory. I also opened windows throughout the house the night before a hot day was forecast, and attempted to pre-cool the house that way. This would have been aided by having forced air ducting and a better whole house fan to draw in the cool outdoor air. It might have been nice to have an automated design to exchange indoor air with outdoor air without having to open windows, and to have this done automatically by software. The house was relatively good at holding the cooler temperature achieved in this way, and so a good whole house fan design with forced air ducts would have been the primary method for comfortable summer temperatures, requiring air conditioning to supplement only on days when the nighttime temperature never gets low enough. Don’t skimp on whole house fan design.
Were I do another design, I would consider the OM Solar external duct design. This seems like a good way to generate hot air in winter (to supplement radiant heating), and to vent that hot air in summer (preventing the attic and upstairs from getting hot). This system could also provide nighttime cooling.
I made several mistakes in the electrical load calculations when
sizing the PV. I started with the historical electrical load
from the old house, and added to that expected future Electric
Vehicle (EV) load, and the occasional load of the heat pump.
The heat pump ran more often than expected, so this calculation
was low. Also, my partner and architect insisted on using
low-efficiency PV on the house roof for its looks, and this led
us to undersize the PV. Finally, we added a number of features
to the electrical design of the house, and these caused
unanticipated loads. For example, we had very unreliable grid
power in our area (we had experienced multi-day PG&E outages
in the past), and so we wanted backup power for much of the
house. We chose to do this with a battery bank integrated into
the barn PV system, as well as a UPS for our 19-inch rack
computers in the basement. However, battery backup systems can
add to the
Another big issue with the PV sizing was a failure to take electric rate tiers into account. My goal was to produce as much electricity over a year as the home consumed over a year, and thus achieve a zero bill. Because roof-top (i.e. fixed-tilt) PV generates more in summer than winter (twice was power in July as in December), but the heat pump is significant load in winter, and none in summer, this averaging helps keep the PV size reasonable. However, California inverted block rates, or rate tiers, cause high usage in a given month to be charged at a higher rate (e.g. $0.08510/kWh up to 19.3 kWh in PG&E region X, code H, $0.30454/kWh above 38.6 kWh, 3.6 times larger). The heat pump pushed electric bills into the higher rate tiers in the winter, making it impossible to achieve a zero bill even with net zero annual usage. One fix was to install a 2-axis pole-mount tracking PV system (since all roof area was covered in low efficiency thin-film solar) to provide for the unanticipated load, and optimize for maximum production in the winter months.
While not exhaustive, I hope the above provides some insight
into the mistakes that I made in my
7 August 2013 — Correction: CHAdeMO in San Francisco
In Tesla Model S commentary below I said there were no CHAdeMO chargers in San Francisco or Berkeley. Today I looked again and it looks like that is no longer true; San Francisco (but not Berkeley) has several CHAdeMO chargers listed in Recargo’s database. I will have to give them a visit, as this makes a real difference in the usability of my Nissan Leaf SL.
But what is up with Berkeley? It has so few EV charging stations of all types.
31 July 2013 — Tesla Model S
Foreword: This is a different sort of post. I have tired somewhat of commenting upon contemporary politics (hence the October to July hiatus). Even the recent Snowden revelations about Obama’s evil did not rouse me to comment, because there was no surprise. (I admit some surprise at what his DOJ did to the AP, however—I did not expect the police state to take on their stenographers this early.) Likewise, the recent update to the climate wedges was wholly expected, and so I didn’t comment, though this further evidence for what I already estimated was deeply disturbing. Instead I am writing my thoughts about my recent purchase of a Tesla Model S 85 sedan. If things have turned so dark, can I see no course but to enjoy the final great party of the 1%?
I drove home a 2013 Tesla Model S 85 from their Fremont factory a bit more than a month ago. It is my fourth battery electric vehicle (BEV). Earlier BEVs were the 2000 Solectria Force, 2002 Toyota RAV4-EV, and the 2011 Nissan Leaf SL. (I still have the Force and Leaf.) I have been convinced for almost two decades that electric cars are a necessary (but not sufficient of course), temporary step in the solution to maintaining our climate and civilization because fossil fuel vehicles are simply too destructive and unsustainable. Most early technologies come with some limitations, and are not at first completely suited to replacing earlier technology (fossil fuel vehicles). In Everett Roger’s classification, innovations are successively embraced by Innovators (first 2.5%), Early Adopters (second 13.5%), Early Majority (third 34%), Late Majority (fourth 34%), and finally the Laggards (final 16%). Innovators appreciate the new technology despite its limitations and cope with those limitations. For example, with my Solectria Force, I kept my 1993 Volvo as a backup car to use on long trips. (It was later replaced with a 2007 Prius, which later served as the backup for the Nissan Leaf.) BEVs have generally had some limitations, and so were suited only to Innovators, but with the Tesla Model S 85 we have a vehicle with minimal limitations, indicating that this technology has reached the point where a transition to Early Adopters is possible. The point of that transition is still in the future (BEV sales will not reach 2.5% of vehicle sales for some time yet), but the technology is almost ready for non-Innovators to adopt. The only remaining limitations are the cost of an 85 kWh battery pack and multiplicity of vehicle styles appropriate to people’s needs. The $/kWh of batteries is declining rapidly, as is typical of new technology, and it is reasonable to envision a BEV with the price point of the Nissan Leaf and the range of the Tesla Model S 85. Similarly, Tesla will be addressing the vehicle form factor issue over time, as will other car companies.
The above explains my interest in adding the Tesla to my other BEVs. I believe it will be possible to get rid of my fossil fuel vehicle (the Prius) as a result, making all three cars BEVs (two people cars and one dog car). As an aside, the primary reason I delayed so long in ordering one is that it had only one unsatisfactory choice (black) for a non-leather interior, and I avoid leather because of its connection to animal slavery.
The other technology turning point afforded by Tesla is their supercharging stations. High-end Nissan Leaf models have a fast charging capability (CHAdeMO), but it is is less capable than Tesla’s, and there are insufficient CHAdeMO stations to make this useful (e.g. there are no stations in San Francisco or Berkeley). Tesla in comparison claims they will have coast-to-coast charging by the end of 2013, and stations serving the San Francisco to Los Angeles and Portland to Vancouver routes are already in service.
I explain the above to set the stage for my comments below on the Tesla Model S. I am very positive about the vehicle as a technological milestone. I also enjoy driving it. Still, I do have some criticisms and suggestions. I won’t here point out the positive aspects of the vehicle, which are numerous. Rather, my purpose here is to point out places for improvement so that later models are even better. (Some of these could be addressed in a software upgrade for Model S cars already delivered.)
I will broadly divide my comments on the Model S into physical design issues and software design issues and address them in that order.
My first physical design issue is that the Model S is less
efficient than my Nissan Leaf at battery-to-wheel Wh/mi. I seem
to average 256 Wh/mi when driving the Leaf, and over 300 Wh/mi
when driving the Tesla (EPA estimates are 290 Wh/mi and 380
Wh/mi respectively). Some of this must be due to the mass
difference, but I have not yet seen an analysis. The larger
battery pack of the Model S explains only part of the weight
difference. The Model S is significantly heavier (2,108 kg
vs. 1,493 kg for the Nissan Leaf) and JB Straubel has described
its battery pack as
Another design decision that concerns me is the lack of a either a full or mini spare tire. A flat tire on the Model S will often therefore require towing. Tesla does sell an air pump with sealant that might address a few punctures, but hardly as many situations as a spare.
Continuing some of the physical design issues, though relatively minor, the Model S lacks some simple features found in even low-end cars, such as pockets in the back of the front seats, sunglass holders, and handles or hooks for hanging clothes. Seat pockets are particularly easy to provide, so their absence is a mystery.
Turning now to software issues, let me begin with its bold user interface design choice. The Tesla Model S provides a large touchscreen display that is used to control many functions of the vehicle both when driving and while parked. This is in contrast to other vehicles with touchscreens, which use them primarily for information access and configuration. The Tesla designers clearly were looking to exploit the touchscreen in a more fundamental manner. This follows a common pattern for technology; first new technology is used as an addition, then it is used as a replacement, and then finally a synthesis between the old and new is found that recognizes that the new is not superior to the old in everything, and the appropriate balance is found. With the Model S we see the second stage, where the touchscreen is overused and manual controls (e.g. buttons and knobs) are eschewed, even when they might be superior. Here are some examples:
The opposite criticism may be made about the touchscreen in some cases. The touchscreen allows new user interfaces in some cases that have not been exploited, but where the designers have simply copied the non-touchscreen design to the touchscreen. For example:
Next I turn to the lack of certain software features that are desirable, including some suggestions for features not yet found on electric vehicles (as far as I know).
Finally, I also note that the Tesla does seem to have some manufacturing issues at this stage of their development. This is probably to be expected, given the ramp up to production. My Model S was delivered to me with one defect (the front passenger door did not close properly), and it took several phone calls and emails and several weeks to get a service date scheduled. During those weeks, the sunroof ceased to seal properly, so that it was noisy at highway speeds. Both were fixed on the service call. The day after the master onboard charge controller failed. Fortunately the Menlo Park service center answered the phone when I called and invited me to try charging with one of their chargers. When that too did not work, they immediately took her in to swap out the bad controller.
My purpose here has been to outline my experience so far with the Model S. Despite some issues, I am very positive about the vehicle. I look forward to Tesla addressing some of the issues in future software releases, and by ramping up their production QA and service capability.
20130825 Update: In the above I mentioned that Tesla repaired the roof noise problem. However that repair was temporary, as I am once again hearing wind noise from My Tesla Model S roof. This suggests a design defect, rather than a manufacturing quality problem. I also praised the power meter on the dashboard for giving detailed kW information (rather than an unlabeled indication as on the Nissan Leaf), but that design decision was not applied in other places, such as the sound level, which uses a numeric scale that lacks precision. It would be better to report the sound level in db, as on my Yamaha AV Receiver (e.g. my usual listening level is -20.0 db).
22 July 2013 — Google No More
I have finally switched away from using Google as my search engine. Their fundraiser for Senator Inhofe and the national Republican Senatorial Committee was the final straw. I am currently trying out DuckDuckGo. Now I must try to remember to make DuckDuck a verb.
8 October 2012 — California Ballot Propositions
Note: Updated 2012.10.31 with Sierra Club supporting Prop 30 and added Credo. Updated 2012.11.7 with election results.
Following the method presented in Representation Revisited here is a summary of some organizations on the November 2012 California ballot propositions, and how I plan to vote. Opinions on propositions 30, 32, 33, 34, 36, and 40 were unanimous and so very easy. Propositions 31, 34, 35, 37, 38, and 39 required some investigation to look at the various arguments. Proposition 35 was particularly difficult, but I was swayed by arguments that it was badly written, and my general feeling that matters such as Proposition 35 are best left to the legislature, the proper role of ballot propositions being areas where the legislature is ill-suited to the subject (such as conflicts of interest, or capture by monied interests). I have long opposed the death penalty and the three strikes law, so propositions 34 and 36 were easy ones, as well as being unanimous. The negative recommendations on proposition 37 did not sway me, and I have long been concerned that genetically modified organisms are insufficiently regulated, and so labeling is an appropriate response to the lack of regulation. I have not yet read Proposition 31, so I might change my vote on it, but at the moment I find the significant opposition among the organizations I monitor to be of concern, and when in doubt I generally vote no on propositions.
I may have made errors in putting together this summary. Please check the organization recommendations for yourself, rather than relying on my work. If you do find errors, please let me know.
22 September 2012 — Grazing Lambs
Note: I wrote this first as a blog comment, and then as Facebook and Google+ post. Since it is easier to reference it here, I am adding it with the date of the first posts. I have edited it slightly as well.
Democrats and their supporters are happy to see Romney’s
stumbles (as evidenced by blog posts), but they misinterpret
advancing in a minor skirmish as progress rather than as part of
a trap. Remember that regardless of who the
electorate votes for, the real winners are our rulers.
Understand how the system really works. The nature of the game
is to control where the poles lie (the poles being the positions
of the Rs and Ds—the bounds of
† Individual Rs and Ds may occasionally be outside of the poles. For example, each year the Congressional Progressive Caucus each year puts forth a fairly sensible, serious budget alternative, which is for the most part ignored by the corporate media. Thus these members of Congress are beyond the poles.
4 June 2012 — Europe
One of my favorite metaphors is the slow-motion wreck (car, train, whatever), primarily because there are so many we are forced to watch these days. I’ve used the metaphor for climate change. There the train is merely speeding toward the rotten tracks, but it is too late to brake. The horror of watching a wreck in slow motion is to see things starting to go wrong, knowing what must inevitably follow from the laws of physics, and watching the inevitability play itself out, at a speed that allows one to consciously take it in. Does one’s life really play out in the mind in the second after the gallows trap door opens but before the end of the rope is reached? I don’t know, but the economic catastrophe in Europe and climate change seem to have that feel.
I vaguely remember the warnings of U.S. Economists like Paul Krugman when Europe created a common currency. I ignored those warnings. I wanted the Euro to succeed if only because it would lessen one of the great annoyances of travel, viz. currency exchange. That was a poor reason indeed, but it illustrates the subversions to rational thought to which the human mind is prone. Europeans had even a stronger reason for delusion, as they were attempting to build a structure to prevent the recurrence of the two great wars that ravished her, starting with the European Coal and Steel Community (1952), and following with steps such as the European Economic Community (1958), the Schengen Agreement (1985), the European Union (1993), and the Euro (1995). Still the high mindedness of the motivations cannot repeal the laws of Economics.
What I find surprising is to read news articles that invariably present the latest rending of metal, the noise of another impact and breaking glass, and so on as merely problems that will be overcome with the policy prescriptions being put forward by politicians and reviewed in the article. The delusion that allows such the wreck-in-progress to be ignored for yet another month prompts me to wonder what other wrecks-in-progress I am missing. But that for another time.
The news today that prompted me finally writing this entry in my comment log was about Portugal. The mechanisms discussed for shoring up Portugal’s banks were clearly inadequate. Only a major revision of the treaties governing Europe can minimize the damage from the wreck-in-progress, and certainly injecting a bit more capital into a single nation’s banks fails that standard. As the only entity that can create Euros, the ECB must be the primary actor in dealing with bank runs, but it is constrained by the treaty creating it from acting. This treaty should be amended immediately to minimize the wreckage. It is true that central banks have in the past acted even when they lacked the legal basis to do so, as the Bank of England did in the panic of 1825. Parliament, after that panic, debated whether to give the BOE the power to act in future crises, and stopped short, believing it was better to prohibit such action, so that the markets do not rely on them, and trusting that individuals would rise to the challenge of extra-legal action if the situation necessitated it. Robert Peel wrote,
My confidence is unshaken that we are taking all the precautions which legislation can prudently take against the recurrence of a monetary crisis. It may occur in spite of our precautions, and if it does, and if it be necessary to assume a grave responsibility for the purpose of meeting it, I dare say men will be found willing to assume such a responsibility.
I would rather trust to this than impair the efficacy and probable success of those measures by which one hopes to control evil tendencies in their beginning, and to diminish the risk that extraordinary measures may be necessary.
I dare say, however, that men and women will not be found to do such a thing at the ECB. The BOE has done so repeatedly, but since the Peel debate, only after a letter from the Prime Minister authorizing extra-legal action. The EU, with its 27 prime ministers, would be incapable of granting such a dispensation, especially with the German fear of 1921-1924 (why they don’t also remember the deflation of the 1930s is a mystery).
The bank runs in Europe are the result of fear of countries being forced to leave the Euro. Investors hope that by transferring their Euros from Greek, Spanish, and Portuguese banks, they will find their deposits denominated in Marks or Francs instead of Drachma, Pesata, Lira, or Escudos. Unless the forces that are driving countries out of the Euro are countered, the bank runs cannot be countered. For the Euro to survive, it is necessary for the ECB to engineer modest inflation in Germany and France, so that relative prices in Greece, Spain, and Portugal can fall without the grinding wreckage of deflation. The ECB will not do this. In addition for the Euro to survive, there needs to be a mechanism for economic transfers between regions of Europe (the Federal government in the U.S. effects very large economic transfers between states, making a single currency possible). Thus Greece, and then Spain and Portugal will leave the Euro. Injecting a little capital into banks will not prevent this. Watching the leading train car derail (Greece), one can be sure that the cars following will meet a similar fate, even if one is watching in slow motion, and they are still rolling ahead fine so far.
After I wrote the above, I read George Soros’ recent speech. I would say his outlook is even bleaker than mine. People have often described me as a pessimist, but compared to how the future actually unfolds compared to my predictions, usually I am in fact an optimist.
21 May 2012 — The Republican Brain
Yesterday, I finished reading The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality. The book suffers from the author presumably listening to his publisher and not including graphs, charts, and other forms of data presentation that would have made it far more useful, but which supposedly turn-off the general audience. It shares that with too many non-fiction books these days. I have found that such books are primarily useful for their references. By going to read the research papers on which the author reports, one can start to get more of the picture (of course what you don’t know is what research the author omits). If the author’s hypothesis is true, then it would definitely affect the way others should operate in politics (and the Democrats are failing terribly, as we know, so they could use some advice). In that regard, I think the book is worthwhile.
I also found that it was better early on, and that later
chapters were weaker. I was particularly annoyed when he
started to report on some unpublished research and kept giving
results, only in the next sentence to say they weren’t
statistically significant (what’s the point of reporting
that A>B if that statement lacks statistical significance?).
He also bends over backwards to find things that Democrats are
Still, his recommendations (together with George Lakoff’s) would go a certain way toward improving what the Democrats could achieve, and the book is worthwhile for that, and again for the references to published research. The published research seems fairly clear-cut on the basics. One example is Nursery school personality and political orientation two decades later.
His examples about fear and inebriation were quite interesting (both can supposedly turn Democrat-thinking into Republican-thinking), but I haven’t followed up on those references yet.
I know that the above sounds pretty negative, but I must say
with the Red Plague looking essentially
unsolvable at the moment, and leading our country into a death
spiral, books like this can only help if they help us find a way
out of the spiral. (The only other
Update (4 June 2012): I meant to add in my original post my hypothesis that the current polarization is due to a deliberate attempt to align the authoritarian-inclined population of the U.S. with the Republican party. This is the result of heavy spending by a few billionaires and corporations on think tanks and other institutions that promote policies favorable to the funders’ business interests. As William Greider said,
The Republican party is not a party of conservative ideology. It is a party of conservative clients. Whenever possible, the ideology will be invoked as justification for taking care of the clients’ needs. When the two are in conflict, the conservative principles are discarded and the clients are served.
I would, of course,
quibble with using the
8 May 2012 — Apple Design
In the spirit of Orwell’s In Front of Your Nose essay quoted at the top of this page, I am here simply recording an opinion for look-back purposes. It does not meet my usual goal for a this page; this is not anything well argued or particularly useful. It is just a snapshot of an opinion. I am getting lazier.
I own quite a few Apple products, primarily because I
don’t like Microsoft Windows very much. But unlike some,
I’m not a big fan of Apple’s products; they are
generally reasonable, not great, and at times they are actually
rather poorly done. I don’t therefore understand the
I would like to see Apple design improve. Sometimes it is great; sometimes it is lousy. Overall it is OK, but it could be better.
7 May 2012 — Hollande
France has chosen François Hollande as her President. It
is a sign that the electorate of Europe recognizes that the
austerity programs of their elite are self-destructive. Whether
they recognize that their leaders are
23 April 2012 — Time Capsule in the Genome
Asmiov’s Foundation series introduced the notion of
creating a mechanism to shorten the looming
One of the challenges of any information archival mechanism is to survive deliberate attempts at its destruction. Zealots might actively seek to destroy the knowledge of the past age because that knowledge is blamed for the failures of the past age. One answer to this is disperse the caches of knowledge widely and randomly, so that they are hard to find. This of course makes them hard to find by the intended recipients as well. It is interesting, therefore, to speculate on other caching mechanisms.
A mechanism that just occurred to me is to store information in
the human genome, and I am writing this to explore that
possibility. Humans are quite likely to survive a collapse.
Unfortunately, a more important consideration is that being able to access this information requires a high level of technology, one that presumes that the dark ages have ended. This technology could be cached randomly, but it would be vulnerable to deliberate destruction. This mechanism is therefore really only useful for passing information to the civilization that follows the dark age. What could that be? Is it wisdom or technology that should be communicated? The plays of Aeschylus and Shakespeare? A history of anti-science climate folly? What would be important enough to warrant the effort?
31 March 2012 — Redistricting
Redistricting is in the news. How could it not be? There was a census in 2010. The courts are involved in 37 states.
These court challenges to redistricting plans highlights the importance of these maps in the balance of power, and that should tell us that the system needs to be fixed.
The answer to
In Bringing Democracy to the U.S., I proposed one body of the legislature of representatives elected by ranked ballot of candidate slates in equal-population districts served by seven representatives elected every two years. Seven is chosen to allow up to seven parties to be represented, or to approximate the vote distribution between fewer parties (for example in a two-party system, a 51%/49% vote would result in 4 and 3 representatives for the two parties, a 57%/43% allocation, vs. the 100%/0% allocation of a single-member district). In such a system the drawing of the district maps still affects the results, but the advantage to be gained is reduced. Bringing Democracy to the U.S. further suggested that district maps be chosen by direct vote (ranked ballots) on plans created by multiple sources, including non-partisan organizations. As a constitutional mechanism, these two mechanisms are likely to reduce the need for litigating district maps.
That is how it could not be.
12 March 2012 — Ouiji Board Due Process
On 5 March 2012
Eric Holder gave a speech at the Northwestern University School of Law,
in which he said,
Mr. Holder also justified President Obama’s non-judicial
execution by referring to the
7 December 2011 — Greenhouse pollution pricing
Putting a price on greenhouse pollution is one part of the solution to our global warming problem. It is unlikely that we will have the political will to do it at the Federal level in the U.S. until it is at the crisis stage, so thoughts on this front are mostly wishful thinking, but I still like to think about what would be appropriate. A new article, Economic and energetic analysis of capturing CO2 from ambient air suggests that CO2 capture is likely to cost on the order of $1,000 per tonne with current technology. Perhaps this will improve with technological advances over time, so some might argue that this price is too high. I take a different approach. I would set a price on greenhouse pollution equal to $1,000 per CO2-equivalent tonne, and then let that price drive technological innovation to reduce the cost of CO2 capture. Of course, setting such a price overnight would be highly economically disruptive, and one might phase-in the greenhouse pollution price gradually to allow alternatives to evolve, but the principle remains that one should price externalities at their present cost of remediation, and then allow that price to drive changes.
29 November 2011 — A Problem of Language
Words: we cannot live without them, but sometimes also they are also an enemy.
Some of the world’s problems can be traced to language. Words are not precise; they mean different things at different times and to different people. Words appear to work by evoking frames in the human brain, and these frames are necessarily flexible, influenced by context and history. This gives words both their power and their imprecision. Their flexibility allows words to part of a creative process, which is their power. Power must be used judiciously, and language is often not used judiciously, even in supposedly careful writing. I suspect that many controveries in philosophy can be traced back to the imprecision of language, despite the attempts of philosophers to be careful.
Words also encourage us to think in black and white, even where the world is really shades of grey. Binary thinking creates false issues where none really exist.
Political thought is an area that is especially confused by
language. For example, the inappropriate use of the word
It is worthwhile to be on watch for the problems of words and to attempt to substitute different language when they arise. Unfortunately our society has been following the opposite path: for the most part we are changing language to create problems, not solve them.
19 November 2011 — Intrade Wager
There is no Intrade market for the United States Congress Joint
Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (also known as the
Supercommittee). Were I an Intrade gambler, I would put a 60%
probability that the committee will either fail to reach an
agreement (thereby triggering automatic cuts in both the
military and domestic budgets), or that the Democrats will cave
into essentially all Republican demands in order to reach a
deal. Rather than place a bet, I am simply recording here my
If the supercommittee fails to produce an agreement, I further predict that Democrats in Congress will agree to scrap more than half of the military cuts required by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and will substitute non-military cuts.
Of course, if my bet is correct, it will only show once again that the Democrats are incompetent.
The supercommittee failed, as predicted. Republican refusal to let the disastrous Bush tax cuts expire on schedule were the sticking point, also as predicted. This represents $2,904 to $4,647 billion of lost revenue over the next decade†, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Since Republicans proposed only $3 billion of revenue enhancement, my second prediction was accurate as well. The the borrow-and-spend party wants to use this additional debt to yet further
Democrats were little better than the Republicans, as they proposed extending 80% of the Bush tax cuts.
† See the 2012-2021 column of August 2011 Budget and Economic Outlook Update Table 1-8, which gives $2,461 billion of direct debt with $443 billion of additional debt service if AMT is not indexed for inflation, and $3,949 billion of direct debt and $698 billion of additional debt service if AMT is indexed for inflation.
5 November 2011 — For the Record: Occupy Wall Street, Europe
This commentary contains no insights, and no arguments. It is therefore not a proper entry at all, but rather it exists only for the record my opinions for the reasons outlined by George Orwell’s In Front of Your Nose.
Occupy Wall Street
It seems I have a knack for missing important protests. I didn’t find out about the 1999 Seattle WTO protests until they were underway, and now I sit writing this in Paris, reading in wonder that there still exists the spirit in the United States for something as bold as Occupy Wall Street, and in horror at the violent police brutality being unleashed against the protesters.
Years of citizen docility—with exceptions, but not enough—in the United States had led me to believe something like Occupy Wall Street was not a protest that would spread, and yet it did. Perhaps there is an inherent feedback where docility leads to elite overreach, which in turn tends to counter docility? I can only speculate. The protests of Tunisia and Egypt too may have played a role in inspiring Americans.
Predictions usually say more about the seer than the future, so with that in mind, I will predict that Occupy Wall Street will have only a rather small effect upon policy over the next few years. The United States’ one-party system (with two factions, giving the appearance of choice) is too stable to surrender to popular opinion except in the most dire circumstances, and it is too easily controlled by money, which the 0.01% have in abundance thanks to years of dismantling of progressive taxation. The impact of Occupy Wall Street is likely then to come long after the protesters have left the streets, and long after Obama has left office, when a larger crisis propels the issue back before us, and the memory of today’s protests may add some small impetus to effect real change then. If this seems rather cynical, then see the first sentence of this paragraph. I would be delighted to be wrong about this.
I continue to watch in amazement as Europe puts on grand theater which only serves to distract the world from what seems obvious, which is that the fundamental issues are not being addressed. Paul Krugman and a few others daily write of the steps that need to be taken and why the approach of Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy will fail. I find these arguments convincing. Plastering cracks in the wall does not address a failing foundation. With the world’s current economic system requiring growth (something that should be fixed in the long term), fiscal stimulus, debt monetization by the ECB, and moderate inflation are probably the best solution to Europe’s crisis. It might be possible to also allow several European governments to default, which would be followed by the default the world’s big banks, and then to build a new banking system in short order using government capital, but this is a very risky strategy, although it has the advantage of disciplining the market. Governments, however, as currently constituted, exist to serve the interests of investors, and so the latter strategy is probably untenable without radical changes in government to serve citizens instead.
24 August 2011 — Things that need to be invented #3
The idea of course is to let the bacteria loose and have it find its way into the world’s weapons stockpiles. Yes, the arms industry would then replace gunpowder with something else, but it would be something more costly, and that would reduce the quantity of weapons.
The purpose of the virus is to humanely slow the rate of human population growth.
26 July 2011 — Shorter Thoughts: Deficits, 1937 Revisited, Debt Ceiling, Failure to Prosecute Crimes
A policy position that I have held for decades is that the government should run a budget surplus when the economy is strong and a budget deficit in bad times. I am therefore opposed to a balanced budget amendment, or cutting spending in a recession. The debt level of the U.S. is high, but not impossibly high. What is important is that the deficit be the result of countering the economic downturn, and not be structural, i.e. that the return of normal economic activity should bring the budget into balance. President Clinton left a situation with projected surpluses had the technology bubble not burst. That was good policy (but of course not dealing with the technology bubble was bad). The next occupant of the White House moved the budget deeply into structural deficits and deserves most of the blame for the economic events that have followed. George Bush was the worst White House occupant in my lifetime. President Obama’s biggest mistake (of many) was extending the Bush tax cuts. Letting them expire would have solved the structural deficit problem. Instead of extending the tax cuts, he should have provided more short-term stimulus spending. Such spending is more stimulative than tax cuts, and does not set the stage for further tax cut extensions.
The stimulus spending is running out and the economy is beginning to stall, as Goldman Sachs predicted. Two months of jobs growth that has not kept up with population growth means that households will continued to be constrained in their spending. The Federal government seems certain to reduce its spending, with deficit hysteria trumping all other considerations. State governments are cutting services for the fourth straight year. Everything looks set for a replay of 1937. Ben Bernanke appears to see this possibility as well, and is thus dusting off the plans for a third round of quantitative easing (not that this will do much). Of course it took four years for President Roosevelt to switch from stimulus to austerity, but our generation learned that lesson so badly we gave up after only two. President Obama really is a pathetic, incompetent leader and the Republicans are evil.
Predictions usually say more about the seer than the future. I won’t try to make a prediction, other than say the last thing I expect is for the U.S. government to default on its debt. The Obama-Boehner game of chicken may result in a partial government shutdown. The shutdown will be only partial because the government will be able to spend whatever revenues arrive, and will be able to rollover existing debt. I expect social security checks to be issued (they just have to stop rolling over their trust fund to have sufficient cash flow). However, even a partial shutdown will be unpopular, as the Federal government lays off non-essential personnel and ceases the purchase of military equipment, stops transfers of funds to states, etc. It appears the President Obama is preparing for that by trying to appear so reasonable that the public will overwhelmingly blame the Republicans. (Of course a government shutdown will only worsen our repeat of 1937.) That at least is the charitable explanation for his attempts to be more Republican than Republicans of just six years ago. The less charitable explanation is almost believable.
My concern about structural deficit spending led me to once suggest in the 1980s that the debt ceiling increases should require a supermajority vote in Congress. I now see what bad policy that would be. The debt ceiling should be eliminated. Congress needs to achieve budget sanity in its revenue and spending actions. The debt ceiling is nothing but a waste of time.
Failure to Prosecute Crimes
The failure of President Obama’s Department of Justice to bring criminal charges concerning the fraud behind the financial panic is disgusting. A few civil complaints have been filed, but those are no substitute for criminal charges when crimes have been committed.
7 April 2011 — Planning to be Rescued by Unicorns
Paul Krugman, in a series of posts to his New York Times blog, skewers the Ryan budget, the Heritage Foundation, and the New York Times commentariat. All deserved their skewering. And yet, the U.S. press will continue on reporting on the Ryan plan in all seriousness. When Democrats compromise with Ryan and pass something overly influenced by the Republican’s exercise in wet-dreaming, and the projections don’t materialize, Republicans will say it was the compromises that were at fault. Meanwhile the U.S. debt will increase and income distribution will get yet closer to that of a third-world dictatorship. Why are there so few voices telling us that we are being scammed? Paul Ryan is simply this decade’s Bernie Madoff, but just as Madoff was praised for decades even as he fleeced his investors, so too will the Republicans be praised, at least until the bill comes due. I think the answer lies in the two-party system, which demands that both parties be credible, lest it appear to become a one-party system. Thus credibility is not earned, it is presumed. That presumption is clearly bogus today, but don’t expect to hear that from any traditional media organization. The truth is that the Republican Party is evil and the Democratic Party is incompetent.
6 April 2011 — Obama’s Relection Bid
I am not, of course, surprised that President Obama has filed papers with the Federal Election Commission for re-election. I am however disappointed that he choose to file as a Democrat rather than as a Republican. In my opinion, Barack Obama is the second best Republican president in fifty years (after Bill Clinton), but he has no place in the Democratic party. It is unfortunate that his re-election bid will prevent competent Democrats from running. Of course, that assumes that there exist comptetent Democrats.
6 April 2011 — Libya
I was traveling in Morocco when foreign governments decided to intervene in Libya’s civil war, which was a convenient excuse for not having written down my thoughts on this issue, but perhaps a more honest reason is that I have such mixed feelings about it. My bias is always against military action, and certainly that bias influences me in this case. I certainly do think Libya would be better off with Qaddafi gone, and I have hoped that protesters there could achieve the results seen in Tunisia and Egypt with similarly peaceful means. However, the protesters lacked the patience of Gandhi, and so Qaddafi’s use of violence pushed them into violent reactions, prompting escalating violence from Qaddafi, etc. It made no sense for Qaddafi opponents to move to a playing field where Qaddafi held a strong advantage, but they did anyway. Perhaps they reasoned that the U.S. and Western Europe would bail them out. This led to a push in the security council for intervention, and amazingly China and Russia did not veto it. This makes foreign military action technically legal (though not necessarily moral). Now foreign military action is being used to aid the Qaddafi’s opponents. Against this backdrop, consider Eric Sevareid’s statement:
Ignoring that we long ago corrupted ourselves by discarding principle, let me ask anew whether the U.S. should have intervened in Libya’s civil war? Despite my wish that Qaddafi be removed from power, I still find it difficult to justify the killing of innocent people (e.g. in bombing Libya from the air) to further that end. I will not attempt to justify this position, as I don’t have a firm basis on which to decide one way or another. Rather I base my position on the failure to consider and attempt other alternatives. Had all alternatives been exhausted, I am still uncertain. Had non-intervention led to a situation similar to 1994 Rwanda, I think it would then be time to talk about intervention.
It is also appropriate to ask whether intervention in Libya to support one side in a civil war requires for consistency intervention in Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria? Instead the U.S. is taking opposite position in Bahrain, supporting the intervention of foreign troops to support tyranny and the killing of peaceful protesters.
18 March 2011 — Interstate Sales Tax
After reading again about the battle between Amazon and states that want it to pay sales tax, it is time to record for the record that I see no reason for Congress to not repeal the interstate sales tax rule. The Supreme Court could overturn its precedent in Quill Corporation v. North Dakota, but I think it would be better for Congress to establish once and for all that sales tax should be paid based upon the delivery address.
26 February 2011 — Wisconsin Walk-Out
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s plan to end collective bargaining rights for some state workers (primarily the ones that don’t vote Republican) is bad public policy. His plan for a no-bid sale of state property is similarly bad policy. Winconsinites, according to a recent poll, oppose elimination of collective bargaining by 51% to 41%.
Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate have left the state to prevent that body from achieving a quorum and passing Governor Walker’s legislation. This is a good way to bring attention to the issue and rouse public opposition. However, despite my personal opposition to Walker’s policies, I do not see the end as justifying this particular means in the long term. I continue to oppose supermajority requirements in legislatures, and I cannot make an exception in this case simply because I agree that the policy should be opposed. Having chosen a representative form of government, we must recognize that our representatives will often act contrary to our interests (indeed my primary complaint about U.S. politics is that representatives usually so act). Wisconsinites will learn by this exercise just what the Republican Party in their state represents the hard way. I cheer the Democratic Senators for their walk-out as a way of highlighting their differences with the Republicans, but it is not a viable long-term strategy to block the majority party. That would create a supermajority requirement, which is worse public policy.
25 February 2011 — Balancing the Federal Budget
The U.S. Federal government should be running a surplus under good economic conditions, and a deficit during bad economic times. Given the large U.S. debt, the average over long periods (e.g. a decade) should be a small surplus (e.g. 0.2% of GDP). Given the high unemployment rate at the moment, this suggests that U.S. should have a large deficit at the moment. This applies even in times of wars of choice (i.e. when the country is not fighting for its survival—the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and against Al-Qaeda are wars of choice). However, after the economic stimulus required to restore economic health is removed from the calculation, the budget should be in surplus.
The largest sources of today’s deficit are George Bush’s tax cuts and Medicare. This are the primary issues that must be addressed.
The way I would bring the Federal budget into surplus (after removing the economic stimulus spending), would be as follows:
The above would easily balance the Federal budget over business cycles. In contrast, the proposals being hosted by the traditional media will likely make the situation worse, as they do not address the real problems.
30 January 2011 — For the Record
I have not been active at recording here my thoughts on current events, primarily because it often seems repetitive. Often I feel that my earlier comments cover the current situation well, and there is little to add, but if I take the George Orwell In Front of Your Nose essay seriously, it suggests recording the reason for opinions so that they may tested against subsequent events, and I should be better at following that suggestion. To that end, I enter a few items below.
My high hopes for President Obama have been replaced by a low opinion. He is a follower, not a leader; he compromises before prior to negotiating rather as part of negotiating, and thus accomplishes little. He sometimes speaks well on the subjects he chooses, but chooses his subjects poorly. He is a servant of the banks and corporations, but the banks and corporations prefer the Republicans, and so his servitude produces no benefits in other areas. His financial and health reforms, his financial stimulus package, and his mid-term campaign strategy were all grossly inadequate. His Afghanistan policy will fail. His capitulation to pundit-think on deficits, while leaving the military budget untouched is bad policy. His perpetuation of Bush policies is immoral and damaging.
Bush tax cut extension
I wrote my representatives in Congress to oppose extension of the Bush tax cuts. Income inequality is a serious problem in the United States. Our nation has prospered best during times of less inequality and foundered during times of greatest inequality (e.g. 1929 and 2008). There will be some stimulus from this cut, but better stimulus would have been to prevent layoffs in state governments around the nation.
President Obama’s State of the Union speech
I did not watch President Obama’s speech. I was on an airplane at the time, but from the expected content, it seemed not worthwhile anyway. I did scan the transcript. President Obama’s diagnosis seems hollow to me. Competitiveness is not our fundamental problem. Yes, innovation is good, and his proposal to eliminate oil company subsidies is sound (if dead in a Republican Congress). Improving U.S. education is sensible, but his proposals will do nothing in that regard. I support tax code reform, but if the proposals from the deficit reduction commission are any indication, tax code reform is likely to be an excuse for making permanent the economic inequality created by the current tax code. Targeting government regulation when our air, water, and products in our markets are still unsafe in nonsensical. Obama’s domestic spending freeze is simply idiotic. We need to boost spending in a number of areas, especially financial and environmental regulation, education. We need to significantly cut military spending. Obama’s State of the Union speech indicated he is heading sideways, and with the Republican attempt to pull us downward, there will be no forward progress.
Paul Krugman on Economics and Politics
I agree with at least eighty percent of what Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times blog, and I don’t have much to add of my own, but for the record I should state that his posts on China, Europe, Bush, Obama, health care, Democrats, Republicans, inflation, deflation, stimulus, Federal Reserve policy, fifty little Hoovers, and so on have generally been convincing to me, with various minor points I would quibble. The one area on which Krugman seems blind is the obvious long-term problem of growth. I also think he could think a little further outside of the box in searching for solutions, e.g. in strategies for Federal Reserve policy.
The United States needs better gun control laws to prevent gun use in murder, assassination, and other crime. The second amendment was clearly conceived and written so that militias could be called on by the government, and does not prohibit gun control legislation (Scalia’s opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller is clearly wrong). The use of violence in political language is likewise unacceptable in the United States. The traditional media’s inability to call out politicians that engage in such language is a clear indication that the fourth estate has become subservient to the Republican party.
I remain surprised at the degree of hypocrisy in the Republican party. Their fiscal pretenses are completely at odds for the support of tax cuts, repeal of health care reform, support for increased militarism, opposition to financial regulation, and so on. Republican emphasis upon laissez-faire finance and corporate activity is incompatible with the principles of economics (i.e. addressing externalities and maintaining competition in the market).
I have maintained for decades that the government should run deficits in recessions and depressions and surpluses in times of economic prosperity, with an overall net balance, and today’s economic environment continues to affirm this position. I am far more concerned about the effect of war-without-end on the budget than I am about deficits that counter today’s economic downturn. Investment in necessary long-term infrastructure (not roads and bridges, but public transportation and wind and solar farms) should be evaluated in terms of lifetime cost savings.
Republican control of the House of Representatives is likely to be quite damaging to the United States and the world. One of my smaller concerns is the chance for a replay of the 1995 government shutdown, where President Obama is unlikely to handle the situation as well as President Clinton did, and the Republicans are likely to have learned from Gingrich’s mistakes. Of greater concern is President Obama adopting Republican positions pre-negotiation, which will force the Republicans to adjust their goals further toward impractical dogma. My biggest concern is for the effect of the Republicans on Earth’s ecosystems and the consequent effects upon all of her inhabitants.
Crash in slow motion
In my estimation, we have already passed the point where we can
prevent catastrophe from ecological and resource limits. The
coming decades will be like watching a bus crash in very very
slow motion. It would be better if the bus were braking rather
than still accelerating when it hits the concrete pillar, but
that is a weak
29 January 2011 — Citizen Rebellion
14 December 2010 — Democrats and Independents Who Resisted Obama Sell-Out
President Obama’s compromise (better characterized as a
give-away or sell-out) with the Republicans is bad public policy
and bad policy. There is too little good in it to balance the
bad on both fronts. Few Democrats and Independents stood up to
the President, once again confirming the notion that Republicans
are Evil and Democrats are Incompetent. Here is a list of the
few that resisted the
Only one (Russ Reingold) was a lame duck: interesting.
For the record, I contacted my Representative and both Senators and urged them to vote against the Bush tax cut extension sell-out. The person I am most disappointed in is President Obama (and not only on this issue).
5 November 2010 — Election Results
5 November 2010 — Johannes Mehserle Sentencing
First there was the involutary manslaughter conviction, and now
a sentence of only two years with credit for 292 days of time
already served in jail. Apparently it remains
30 October 2010 — Voting Plan
For the record, here is how I plan to vote on November 2nd:
11 October 2010 — The Year of the Republic’s Fatal Wound?
Future historians may look back at 2010 as the year the U.S. contracted the illness that eventually killed it. The infection entered the patient through the wound inflicted by the Supreme Court in its Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision. There is no currently anti-viral drug to treat the infection; only the country’s immune system is capable of fighting it off, as happened a century ago, but initial indications is that the virus is capable of inducing the patient’s cells into acting contrary to their own interest to further their own body’s demise, and so I see the immune response as less likely to succeed than before.
A possible course of the disease is a dramatic weakening of the country’s economic potential, leading to such a weakened state that its desperate citizen’s accept a fundamentalist takeover from the military as a futile attempt to check decline. At this point the Republic will be dead. The dictatorship will likely itself fail as world civilization begins its decline.
2 October 2010 — Not Liking Facebook
I have a Facebook account, but I haven’t logged in for some time, and I long ago deleted all my photos and personal information from my profile. I also avoid the Like button popping up on websites everywhere. Facebook’s business model is to violate its member’s privacy, and I want no part of that.
More broadly, I also clear my cookies (both regular and LSO) regularly. Am I paranoid, or do I just dislike corporations trying to sell information about me and profit thereby? I am reminded of my history research paper from high school, which I wrote in 1974 on the dangers of the information age to privacy. It all came true, only ten times more than I imagined. In 2006, I suggested the theme Technology = Loss of Freedom for a work of fiction. So this has been a recurring concern for 36 years.
30 September 2010 — Was Income Distrubtion One Cause of the Financial Crisis?
I was reading Building a Better America — One Wealth Quintile at a Time (pdf) by Norton and Ariely, and I remembered Paul Krugman’s comparison of real GDP per capita growth before Reagan and growth after (2.2%/yr from 1950 to 1980, 2.0%/yr from 1981 to 2007). This limited comparison suggests that high marginal tax rates might be better for the U.S. economy as a whole. One reason this might be true is that lower and middle income households are more likely to spend their income than upper income households, and personal consumption expenditures are approximately 70% of U.S. GDP.
My next thought was that the increase in savings from wealth inequality may have contributed to the 2008 financial crisis. The wealth accumulation requires investment, and the the lack of suitable investments causes unsuitable ones to be created to rectify the imbalance. This recalls Walter Bagehot’s famous observation:
Shortly after starting this commentary, but before finishing it, I happened to listen to a Fresh Air interview with Robert Reich in which he has written an entire book, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future, on the hypothesis that income disparity was one of the causes of the 2008 crisis. Rather than developing this commetary further, I will defer until reading his book.
20 September 2010 — Economic Prescription
In a conversation recently I gave my prescription for fixing the U.S. unemployment problem. For the record, here was my suggestion:
19 September 2010 — Red Plague Redux
While the public worried about the H1N1 virus, a far more serious plague strain was building virulence. Yes, the Red Plague appears to be back, in a new more rabid form. Indications that its zombies will take control of the House of Representatives, and soon dominate the Senate. While the Senate is currently projected to be 53-47 or 52-48, the symptoms of Red Plague are likely to affect at least two or three Democrats, leading to hallucinatory politics for at least the next two years.
15 September 2010 — Why I don’t read Op-Eds
I tend to read information sources that generally get their facts right, and avoid sources that often get their facts wrong. I have found that the Opinion/Editorial columns of traditional media tend to not be fact-checked as well (or at all) as the news columns, and thus I avoid the Op-Eds. There appears to be poor standards not only for facts, but on logic in Op-Eds. This is not to say that every Op-Ed writer does a poor job, but only that expectations are particularly low for this particular source of information.
I recently wanted to demonstrate this after a conversation, so I set out to read a few Op-Eds and fact check them. I did not have to go far; the very first one I examined, George Will’s 12 September 2010 Americans have good reason not to believe in Obamanomics illustrated my point easily. He wrote,
This is easy to check. The Federal government’s Bureau of
Analysis provides the relevant statistics.
Table 3.2 of the National Income and Product Accounts
shows 2.6 billion of expenditures for 1929, and 3.0 billion for
1932, a 15% increase. Adjust by line 22 of
Table 1.1.9. Implicit Price Deflators for Gross Domestic Product
increases the 15% to 27% in real (deflation-adjusted) dollars.
Will’s claim of
The mistake is a small part of the Will Op-Ed, but the rest is even worse. For example, his argument about the stimulus failing might be compared to an anecdote about a car running over a bunch of spilled nails and no longer able to continue because of flat tires. Will suggests that if you change one of your tires, and the car still won’t go, don’t bother to change any more, because you just showed that changing tires does no good (ignoring the point that you need to fix all of flat ones).
If the standards for Op-Ed facts and logic are so low to allow the first Op-Ed examined to be so deficient, why bother to read the genre? Yes, there might be more truthful and logical columnists than Will out there, but without any editorial checking, even good columnists might make inadvertent errors of fact or logic that will go uncaught.
The standards for blogs and Op-Eds appears to be no different, but blogs are at least not prevented by word count and media limitations from citing data sources that the reader can easily check (e.g. by following links). The comments section of blogs also allows community fact-checking. Blogs appear therefore be a better information source than Op-Eds.
19 September 2010 Addendum
I should add that over the years I have often received Op-Eds forwarded by others with either attached praise or criticism. These pieces have tended to maintain my opinion of the form. Here are two examples, extracted from email.
The gulf tragedy doesn’t negate the fact that oil is a green fuel by Jonah Goldberg
The basic logic of the article boils down to: X is a kind of Y; X is bad; Therefore Y is bad. (X is ethanol, Y is biofuel.) I know what letter grade any teacher would give a student employing such logic in school. One cannot generalize from corn-based ethanol to all biofuels. One cannot conclude that because corn-based-ethanol is unsustainable, that oil is better than biofuels. What is going on that this sort of nonsense can get published? I am not enthusiastic about the potential for biofuels, but being in partial agreement with a statement does not mean one blesses a bogus reason for the statement. (And maybe algae biodiesel might have a small place in things, if they can ever figure out how to produce the stuff outside of the lab.) My reason for finding biofuels deficient is due to land area required, which is a consequence of the inefficiency of photosynthesis. The author also cites land area, but gets it wrong, using corn-ethanol land area as a stand-in for all biofuel land area (ignoring cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass for example). Similarly he gets the area required for powering the US with wind and solar wrong by a factors of roughly 14 and 21. If idiocy were a crime in California, Jonah Goldberg would get capital punishment.
There is plenty else wrong with Goldberg’s piece, but I wanted to concentrate on simple high-school logic failure to illustrate how low standards are for Op-Eds.
Pension Fund Shenanigans in the Wall Street Journal
Let’s look at some of the cheap tricks employed:
First, the Op-Ed erects a boogeyman that it will proceed to
knock down. If the above is indeed an
Enter a second boogeyman: trial lawyers.
But wait, the villain here is a corrupt public employee being bribed by a private equity firm. How does this justify the trial lawyers are the root of evil thesis? If they showed that the trial lawyers were padding the pockets of the corrupt public official, it would at least have a modicum of logic.
The factual Louisiana story (as opposed to the Op-Ed) is just starting to get interesting, but the facts stop right here. Where’s the investigative reporting to find out who did decide to sue and why?
You might think the WSJ would think it their business to investigate as well, rather than simply write Op-Eds with speculation? They do have some very good investigative reporters, after all.
First, the logic to the conclusion here is that we have one real
example (Louisiana) and one possible example (Pennsylvania), and
from these two anecdotes, we conclude that public funds are
If this had been done as a factual story on Louisiana it would have had more value. I trust the news department of the WSJ far more than the Op-Ed department.
6 September 2010 — Shorter Thoughts: Politics
|2008.09.20||Coal-to-Liquids in Defense Authorization Bill|
|2008.09.23||The savings from cutting California’s carbon
outweigh the costs
|2008.09.26||Pickens’ natural gas plan makes no sense and will never happen
(Reprinted at Pickin’ on the plan)
|2008.09.26||Iceland gives hydrogen the cold shoulder
(Reprinted at Iceland gives hydrogen the cold shoulder)
|2008.09.27||U.S. geothermal is hot|
Note: Sent 1 October 2008, but not printed. The Los Angeles Times has a 150-word limit, which precluded sketching a solution. Had there been space, I would have suggested:
Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s opinion piece on Tuesday (The green bubble bursts) illustrates well America’s inability to deal with her problems. Instead getting to work on solutions to the problem, we turn everything into political bickering and finger pointing. Nordhaus and Shellenberger have no solution to global warming. They propose only feel-good investments in R&D that will do nothing to address the gigatonnes of greenhouse pollution produced by existing sunk-cost plant. Without a plan to shut down our existing dirty energy, we will reach a tipping point in less than thirty years, and yet all they can talk about is new energy, ignoring what is already sufficient to ruin our atmosphere. Because they see no politically acceptable solution, they snipe at those who are working to make the solutions politically acceptable. Solving the problem necessarily means replacing our existing infrastructure starting in 2009. Now is not the time for research; it is a time for action.
When people first think about plug-in cars (both Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles, PHEVs, and pure Battery Electric Vehicles, BEVs) their first reactions are about suitability to their personal usage. A little further on, people often wonder about whether the US power grid can support a fleet of plug-ins. Here we look at that question.
An important first question is how long will it take
for plug-in vehicles to be significant to the grid.
How long will the transition from Internal Combustion
Engine Vehicles (ICEVs) to Hybrid Electric Vehicles
(HEVs) to PHEVs take? (Caveat reader: predictions
usually say more about the seer than the future.) The
diffusion of new technology into the marketplace is
well studied. It generally follows something called
an S-curve because it vaguely resembles a stretched
out letter S. This is mathematically modeled by the
Fisher-Pry equation, which has two parameters, the
year the technology reaches 50% market penetration,
and the number of years to go from 10% to 50%. The
S-curve has a very gentle slope at first, and then
rises sharply, and then levels off to asymptotically
approach 100%. To get an idea of the long tails at
the beginning and end of the curve, consider that
Honda introduced the Insight in the US in 1999 (the
Prius came in 2000), and
hybrids only reached 2% market share in 2007.
Extracting the Fisher-Pry parameters from such a curve
is error-prone, but it appears the HEV technology will
have something like a 7-year 10% to 50% time. If we
presume that the PHEV curve has the same parameter,
and starts in 2010:
This is for new vehicle sales. Plug this into a simple model for vehicle retirement and sales, and scale it with population growth:
It takes a while to change the US passenger vehicle fleet.
With this data, let’s look at how much power it takes, using 2050 as the most challenging date, with a US population of 420 million projected. If passenger Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) per capita remains at 9,300 (it had been growing slightly until gasoline prices rose), then in 2050 the US will have a VMT of 3.9 trillion miles (15% of the distance to Alpha Centauri). If this were all electric (unlikely, but a worse case), and plug-ins required 300 Wh/mi at the wall plug and 324 Wh/mi at the power plant (using 92.7% for grid efficiency), then 1,263 TWh will be required to power the vehicle fleet. However, let’s presume that only 80% of PHEV miles are powered by the electric grid and the other 20% are powered by the liquid backup fuel (e.g. E85). Then 1,014 TWh are required in 2050. To put this in context, the US generated 4,065 TWh in 2006, of which 3,691 TWh was customer consumption. The 2050 energy required by plug-ins is a fraction of what we generate today.
Next, please note that we could achieve more than
1,180 TWh of electricity conservation in this country
by 2050. Investing in energy efficiency is the
equivalent to investing in power plants, and
demonstrably cheaper. Amory Lovins coined the term
negawatts for this. A simple, but plausible,
negawatts model, based on what has already been
achieved in 10 states, suggests 1,738 TWh of energy
savings in 2050. We could power 2050 plug-ins simply
with the energy we saved by applying already developed
policies at the Federal level. However, we are much
better off using this 1,738 TWh to close coal power
plants, and generate renewable energy for plug-ins
instead, so let’s continue on.
Is it necessary to build new generation for plug-ins at all? Not for a long time, and surprisingly little if tomorrow’s grid looks like today’s. Plug-ins would then primarily charge at night, e.g. from 9pm to 6am. Of course there will be some daytime charging, but the bulk will be while people sleep and because electricity is cheaper then with time-of-use metering. Nighttime charging is helpful because the US grid has spare capacity at night. Consider the figure at the right from EPRI, the Electric Power Research Institute. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) looked at the US grid region by region in the US and concluded that 73% of cars, pickup trucks, SUVs, and vans could be supported by the existing power generation infrastructure. In the model presented above, the vehicle fleet exceeds 73% PHEVs in 2040, though 73% is an average over multiple regions, some of which have lower thresholds for new generation. PNNL’s projection is, however, based upon burning of additional fossil fuel (primarily natural gas) in existing power plants, and so this scenario does represent additional greenhouse pollution. How much? The Wells-to-Wheels (WTW) emissions of the 2002 Toyota RAV4 2WD Automatic gasoline vehicle (GV) is 484 g CO2e/mi. The WTW emissions of the 2002 Toyota RAV4-EV are 236 g CO2e/mi when powered by the 2006 US grid. (The WTW model is GREET 1.7 from Argonne National Laboratory, as run by the EPA/DOE and reported on their website.) This is despite 49% of the 2006 grid being coal-powered. If PNNL is correct that additional plug-in electricity would come from primarily natural gas, then greenhouse pollution would be substantially less. Still, by 2050 the US needs to reduce its emissions by 80%, and even natural gas powered plug-ins could benefit from switching to renewable energy.
|† Tonnes CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per year (15,000 miles)|
|‡ 1 = worst, 10 = best|
|Honda Civic CNG||2008||ICE||CNG||4.9||9|
|Honda Civic Hybrid||2008||HEV||Gasoline||4.0||9|
|Toyota RAV4-EV||2002||BEV||US Electric Grid||3.5||10|
|Toyota RAV4-EV||2002||BEV||California Grid||2.3||10|
Consider fueling plug-ins (BEVs and PHEVs) entirely with renewable energy. Plug-ins will be able to charge when renewable energy is available and pause when there is a lull. Eventually this will be accomplished with smart grid technology, but cheap hacks can make this happen even before we have a smart grid (for example, the start-up Coulomb Technologies controls charging with cellular technology). 12,500 vehicle miles per year is and average of 34 miles/day. At 300Wh/mi at the plug, the vehicle needs 10.2kWh to recharge. From a 208V, 32A circuit it takes only 1.5h to recharge. The ability to take 1.5h of power anywhere in an 9h window provides quite a bit of flexibility for wind. Moreover, an plug-in need not be fully charged to be useful. A PHEV can always fall back on its range extending liquid fuel, and a BEV usually has enough range that a full charge is not needed every day. Vehicle software would give the driver some control over whether to demand a full charge from the grid or not.
If we choose wind as the renewable energy source for plug-ins, what is the requirement? In many locations, Wind tends to generate produce best at night, which suits plug-in charging, but here we assume a flat time-of-day profile.
Stanford wind expert Mark Jacobson writes,
Wind speeds 7 m/s or higher are needed for the direct cost of wind to be competitive over land with other electric power sources (Jacobson and Masters, 2001). Further, 13% of land outside of Antarctica has such wind speeds at 80 m, and the average wind speed over land at 80 m worldwide in locations where the mean wind speed is 7 m/s or higher is 8.4 m/s (Archer and Jacobson, 2005). Finally, the resulting capacity factors for 7-8.5 m/s wind speeds combined with the existing turbine considered here (a 5 MW turbine with a 126 m diameter rotor), are 0.294-0.425, which encompass the measured capacity factors, 0.33-0.35, of all wind farms installed in the U.S. between 2004-2007 (Wiser and Bolinger, 2008).
Using this data, to generate an average of 944 TWh from 9pm to 6am, requires 170,000 5MW wind turbines (for comparison the US produced 324,750 aircraft from just 1939-45). At $5 million each, this is $31 billion per year for 30 years. This is quite a bargain compared to what we spend in Iraq (the $3 trillion war, currently costing $11 billion per month). Note the assumption that the wind turbines generate plug-in electricity only 9 hours of the day, boosting the number required by a factor of 2.7×. Note also that during the other 15 hours of the day, these same turbines will generate 1,582 TWh for our offices while we work, helping to rid us coal and natural gas. One question is how can the US grid absorb 1,582 TWh of wind during the day. Kempton and Tomić have an answer in their paper Vehicle-to-grid power implementation: From stabilizing the grid to supporting large-scale renewable energy, where they write
Our calculations suggest that V2G could stabilize large-scale (one-half of US electricity) wind power with 3% of the fleet dedicated to regulation for wind, plus 8-38% of the fleet providing operating reserves or storage for wind.
Thus plug-ins allow 50% wind energy on the US grid via V2G, a technology that has already been prototyped.
If wind is not sufficiently reliable, there is a renewable technology that is. Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) with Thermal Energy Storage (TES) could soon be generating renewable power 24 hours a day. Ausra’s whitepaper, Solar Thermal Power As the Plausible Basis of Grid Supply, suggests their CSP+TES technology could generate 92% of the U.S. grid 365×24 at 7.8 cents per kWh (the rest could be supplied by existing hydro). Perhaps their cost estimates are optimistic, but this is an important result nonetheless. The TES actually helps lower the cost by allowing them to depreciate the turbines over 24h generation instead of just 8-12h each day. Thus we could power plug-ins with CSP instead of wind (though the best time to plug them in would be daytime). Wind is probably a better match, but CSP is an option. CSP is being built today at increasingly competitive costs per kWh. Stirling Dish systems look especially cost effective right now, but lack TES. 500-850 MW of Stirling CSP is being deployed for Southern California Edison, and 300-900 MW for San Diego Gas & Electric.
Negawatts, Wind, CSP, and CSP+TES are likely to be the core components of the US grid as it evolves under pressure to reduce greenhouse pollution, with other renewable technologies being introduced as they are ready for deployment (e.g. geothermal, tidal, and wave). In the table below, prepared for the California Public Utilities Commission, the price of new renewable power is on par with fossil power:
|Power Source||Busbar cost†||
|† ¢ per kWh|
|‡ gram CO2e per kWh|
|Coal IGCC with CCS||17.32||88|
A plausible scenario for the future (not a prediction!) is illustrated in the chart below. Nuclear is left constant in the scenario because of the controvesy over its use, and because of its cost competitiveness today. Note that Negawatts allows US generation to actually drop through 2023, despite PHEV and BEV deployment.
The negawatts model used above is quite simple: we start out with two groups: efficient and inefficient. The efficient group initially consists of the 10 most efficient states (average 7,774 kWh per capita), and the inefficient group initially consists of the 40 least efficient states and the District of Columbia (average 13,947 kWh per capita). New population growth each year goes into the efficient group (presuming that all new infrastructure is build to the standards of the efficient states). Also, each year 5% of the inefficient group migrates to the efficient group (representing remodels, retrofits, upgrades, etc.).
The key conclusions from this look at Plug-ins and the grid are that plug-ins do not stress the grid; they aid it in its transition to renewable energy.
We have the technology to stop global warming. What we lack is the will to deploy that technology. What would it take to build a consensus, indeed a groundswell, for immediate, sustained deployment?
Anthropogenic global warming is a crisis that must be addressed on a timescale unprecedented for civilization. It threatens the food, water, and shelter of much of humanity. It similarly threatens many of Earth’s species with extinction. The sort of thinking that created the problem is not the best way to solve it in the limited time we have. We are bombarded with possible approaches and technologies, but we do not evaluate these choices, and many do not scale. Without evaluation there is no urgency. We delay. We need a blueprint that puts our choices in a context of an overall solution so that the scale of each is apparent. We do not design and construct a building by having four separate teams for each wall, and one for the roof, because the resulting parts will not work together. Given time, such ad hoc approaches might be melded together, but we do not have time for this today. A blueprint to follow is needed to guide our efforts to a timely solution.
Much of the world watched the Olympics in August. We love competition and the triumph of the best. Could we harness such a force to encourage climate survival? Like the Nobel and X prizes, this competition could have a more than a medal—something like $1 million to motivate entrants. Imagine then a competition held every few years, where the entries are not athletes, but teams with blueprints for protecting Earth’s climate by ending greenhouse pollution. The prize will be awarded to the team that submits the most feasible, comprehensive, and cost-effective blueprint for returning atmospheric carbon-dioxide to 350ppm while at all times keeping the level below 450ppm and the temperature rise below 2°C. These levels are chosen to avoid the devastating social, economic, and ecological impacts of global warming in the short-term and long-term. Teams are expected to be multidisciplinary and create models to show how their blueprints evolve by year and affect the climate, economy, land use and habitat, food and water supply. They must address all significant greenhouse pollutants.
The competition between team plans will spark public interest. The competition of blueprints also makes the lack of alternatives apparent: if a blueprint exists where delay is feasible it would win; the lack of such any such alternative will make the choices before us black and white. The process is more important than the specific winning entry.
The most important benefit is public awareness and
pressure on policymakers. If the competition process
garners sufficient attention and illustrates how
calamitous delay might be, then policymakers will also
find it difficult to ignore the winning
blueprint(s). The winner will be a de facto set of
initial policy choices. It is a follow-on to the IPCC
process, framed as a competition to gather maximum
visibility, public awareness and
participation. Without such a blueprint, policy makers
may be expected to respond in a
Business As Usual
Today, policymakers and the public both fail to recognize how long it will take to address greenhouse gas emissions. A mathematical proof that no quick-fix exists is not possible. Only by considering a diverse range of alternatives, each themselves well-developed and considered, will the imperative need for immediate action become self-evident. This will become apparent when diverse plans are created and compete, and no feasible plan allows for procrastination.
As example, consider some possible details. Blueprints would be judged by a panel of 15 experts drawn from the fields of science and engineering. Judging would be, in order of priority, feasibility, accuracy, comprehensiveness, economic development, fairness, habitat preservation, and safety margin (how far below 450 ppm atmospheric CO2 levels stay and the earlier that levels return to 350 ppm).
The panel shall choose the best blueprint based upon the above criteria in the order above. If multiple plans are reasonably equally feasible, they will compete next upon accuracy, comprehensiveness, etc. Slight differences in judged feasibility or subsequent criteria would not eliminate a contender, but would allow it to advance, but the difference could remain as a factor for the judges to consider.
The judges should be chosen early, and specify their own detailed rules within three months. An excellent place to seek judges would be members of the IPCC Working Group III.
Each team shall give a public presentation on its plan after its submission. This is expected to generate media coverage and public attention. The panel shall organize its judging process such that winnowing process (feasibility, accuracy, comprehensiveness, etc.) is spread out, further generating media attention at each step. This competition is similar to the Olympics, but with the results affecting most of humanity. Thus interest in the process could be enormous.
The existence of multiple blueprints all demonstrating the difficulty and imperativeness of the task ahead is expected to make non-action by the World’s policymakers impossible. They may choose to construct a different blueprint using the best components of the leading contenders, or create their own alternatives, but the exploration of the solution space is certain to be valuable input to the choices to be made in the coming decade.
Identification of the technologies most suitable to addressing the crises is likely to act as a spur to investment in these technologies, independent of policymaker decisions.
If possible, blueprints should be first published in a peer-reviewed journal that agrees to cooperate. If a peer-reviewed journal does not cooperate, the blueprints will be published on a website for public scrutiny. Public debate upon the plans is important goal for this competition. After the 2012 submission deadline, teams will be required to make a public presentation of their blueprints at three day intervals. There will be one round of questions and clarifications issued by the panel to the participants, who will respond by 2013.
The judges would conduct a series of eliminations during 2013 considering the priority order of selection criteria, leading to an eventual winner (with perhaps silver and bronze winners as well).
The process would be repeated every 4 to 7 years, so that new information, technology, progress or the lack therefore, can be factored into the competition.
The rush to fix the credit markets left little time for proper consideration. As I read more, it becomes apparent that the Paulson† plan is not the right fix, so I am reversing my position, stated just yesterday.
I was somewhat convinced by comments that the Paulson plan lacks infusions of equity to institutions with undercapitalized balance sheets. Then George Soros’ Financial Times comments appeared, and presented a alternative with several desirable characteristics. It is time for a more serious examination of the alternatives. Congress should remain in session to examine alternatives based upon equity infusions.
† Given the fig-leaf nature of the Frank-Dodd changes to the plan, it still deserves the Paulson moniker.
To restore the operation of credit markets, the U.S. Treasury proposes to buy questionable debts. It stinks. It seriously stinks. And yet, I cannot think of an alternative. Congress should hold its nose and pass authorizing legislation. Then it should get to work on making sure it doesn’t happen again through regulatory authority and law, and making sure that those responsible are not rewarded (within the limits of Constitutional limits on bills of attainder and ex post facto laws of course). Congress should end the casino nature of U.S. financial markets, and force them to concentrate on activities with value to the public.
I am disappointed that some Democrats are conditioning their votes upon Republicans joining them on voting for authorization. I understand that Republican votes are necessary to pass the legislation, given some Democrats’ objections, but for Representatives to vote against the legislation because of insufficient support from the minority faction is derelict devotion to partisan advantage.
I support a move away from the current methods of finance, but the collapse of the entire system at once is too calamitous a method to effect that change.
Update: I wrote the above before reading Mussolini-Style Corporatism in Action: Treasury Conference Call on Bailout Bill to Analysts (Updated), which, if true, certainly is reason to reconsider supporting authorizing legislation.
I have not commented this year about the election campaigns. First, as I am not a registered Democrat, I was not being called upon to cast a ballot in California’s Democratic primary, and so I took in the winter and spring as a semi-interested voyeur. Second, I didn’t find there to be a lot of difference between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. I tended to think Clinton had a slightly better chance at fending off Republican dirty tricks, but political tactical ability is not something I am well-qualified to judge.
For the Presidential election, there is no question that the Republican party is unacceptable, and so I have found little reason to seriously compare Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. Today, Republicans are simply unqualified to be President. That’s a strong assertion, which I will justify in a moment.
I have also had less interest in this election because it seemed probable to me that Senator John McCain would win. I find it shocking that the election is this close after the last eight years. Unfortunately the Democrats have been inept in their Presidential bids, and apparently Americans are more accepting of Evil than ineptness.
Here I stress the party affiliation of the candidates
over their individual merits. I believe that part of
the problem in American politics of the last few
decades, is that Americans, unlike Europeans, do not
realize that in voting for a President, they are not
really voting for an individual, but for a Party. The
President is just one part of a package, because with
the President comes a whole set of members of the same
party who then occupy the appointed positions in
government. Thus with Bush2 you got the junior folks
of the Ford/Bush1 administrations taking over. During
Bush2 these people were even more of a problem than
Bush2 himself (e.g. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz,
Feith, Rove, Ashcroft, Yoo, Gonzalez, Cox, and so
on). Senator McCain himself may not be so bad (though I would
say he is seriously confused), but his administration
will necessarily call upon the Republican party bench
to fill the appointed positions of government, and
those people are largely anti-science, deniers,
ideological, militaristic, and dangerous. This
bench is exactly the sort of people who are
hostile to the very functions of government that they
would be called upon to oversee, just as Christopher
Cox has done nothing at the SEC to avert or mitigate
the subprime crisis, because he is ideologically
incapable of of believing the markets are not best
left alone. This is the sort of person that Senator McCain
would have available to fill appointments.
My hopes for this election are not for the White House, but that the Senate goes 57-43 and that with occasional help from 3 Republican Senators (e.g. Collins, Snowe, Specter), the Democrats might prevent the worst of a Republican presidency. Of course Lieberman might join the Republicans in 2009 if the Democrats take away his Homeland Security Committee chairmanship, but he would fall into the Collins, Snowe, Specter block then. Voinovich and Hagel might occasionally lend a hand, but they are likely to be pretty loyal to their fellow Senator, at least at first. If the Democrats cannot muster 60 on important votes, they will continue to get rolled by the White House, just as they do today. Today even the House gets rolled by the Republicans, and they don’t have super-majority voting.
The worst prospect of all from this election is the Supreme Court. A single Republican appointment to the Supreme Court could easily change the balance to the point where there would be critical mass to return to Lochner era jurisprudence (today Roberts, Thomas, Scalia, Alito lean this way), which would effectively end the ability of the Federal government to regulate much, including greenhouse pollution. Would Republicans, if elected, nominate someone like Janice Rogers Brown? Maybe not, but possibly. Would the Democrats object? Certainly. Could the Senate Democrats be rolled yet again? Possibly. The Senate numbers are quite different, but I am always amazed at how ineffective the numbers are for the Democrats.
I did watch last night’s debate, primarily to get an idea of what we might have to suffer during 2009-2013. I have had little exposure to either candidate’s personality before, as I so rarely watch television, and get all of my news either online or from public radio. I found it difficult to see any honor in Senator John McCain’s debating. He seemed the usual Republican trickster out to slime his rival. Senator Barack Obama was somewhat better, but still was interested in attacking where he could, but without as much venom. I found no inspiration at any point in the 90 minutes. I did not leave feeling that either answered the questions put to them very well.
Unlike many, I consider Senator McCain to be the weaker on foreign policy. Anyone who could not see the problems in invading Iraq in 2003 that were obvious even to me at the time (see Iraq Predictions) is too naive to occupy the White House.
I remain concerned that neither the Republicans or Democrats will properly address global warming during 2009-2013. I am certain that a Republican White House would do less well than a Democratic White House, but I also doubt that a Democratic White House will get a passing grade, especially after Congress passes a collateralized debt obligation bail-out. Though the crisis is probably the result of incompetence, rather than design, it will well serve the Republican agenda of impoverishing government, and prevent it from accomplishing much. That goal alone is sufficient to warrant the charge of evil.
|2008.04.16||National Journal on the EPA Tailspin|
|2008.04.17||Leaving No Small Stone Unturned|
|2008.04.21||For Nanosolar, the Future Is Municipal Solar Power Plants|
|2008.05.04||California tightens building standards yet again|
|2008.05.05||Communities Basing Decisions on Climate Impact|
|2008.05.28||White House Rebuked over EPA Waiver|
|2008.06.25||Delaware to get offshore wind|
|2008.06.26||The CAFE we could have had|
|2008.06.28||VW to join Toyota, GM with 2010 plug-in Hybrid|
|2008.07.01||White House disses Supreme Court, kills $2 trillion savings|
|2008.07.09||Video: The Folly of Liquid Coal|
|2008.07.11||Plug-in Hybrid FAQ|
|2008.07.18||The Desolation of Coal|
|2008.08.01||Massachusetts mandates more renewable energy|
|2008.08.23||Your TV should not be a couch potato too|
|2008.09.10||California targets sprawl to reduce CO2|
|2008.09.13||Book Review of Physics for Future Presidents, Part 1|
|2008.09.14||Book Review of Physics for Future Presidents, Part 2|
I’ve been writing things that have been posted in other forums, and neglecting this page. I intend to return to writing here, as writing to influence others is unsatisfying. However, for completeness here are some of my off-site comments:
|2006.10.26||Prop 87: A Reader Responds|
|2007.11.29||Part I: California dreamin’ is becoming a reality|
|2007.12.03||Part II: California dreamin’ is becoming a reality|
|2007.12.13||California looks for yet more clean energy|
|2007.12.17||Judge Rejects Detroits Clean Car Act Attack|
|2007.12.30||More on White House overruling EPA staff|
|2008.01.04||California sues EPA|
|2008.01.11||Confusing short-term variability with a long-term trend|
|2008.01.24||Letter to Mary Nichols about her San Jose Mercury commentary Hydrogen’s benefits as fuel becoming obvious|
|2008.01.30||Here comes the sun, at least to CA and NJ|
|2008.01.31||California Solar Applications Brighten|
|2008.02.08||Understanding the Global Warming Disinformation Campaign|
|2008.03.09||California Cars to Get Global Warming Stickers|
|2008.03.11||The EPAs Tailspin|
|2008.03.13||Killing the Electric Car Again — Part 1|
|2008.03.14||Killing the Electric Car Again — Part 2|
|2008.03.21||Comments to CARB on ZEV2008 Decision|
|2008.03.24||Strike a blow against Palm Oil Madness|
|2008.03.30||California Cuts Zero Emission Vehicles 70-79%|
As the new chair of the Air Resources Board, I believe you have a chance to make some needed changes in direction for California’s air regulations. My particular concern is the ARB’s ZEV mandate. This program has become severely dysfunctional, and should be looked at anew. Your arrival at the ARB presents this opportunity.
The ARB is tasked with ensuring California’s air is safe and clean, and recently with reducing our greenhouse gas emissions (AB32). The ZEV mandate was created to address clean air concerns, but it has become something quite different: it has become a fuel cell vehicle research program. The ARB’s job is clean air, not research, and I urge you to return to your mandate to provide us clean air, and not try to manage automaker research. The ARB may have entered into the ZEV “Alternative Path” believing it was a development program, not research, but the reality is now painfully apparent with the schedules now proposed by your staff in their latest recommendations. I support fuel cell research, but not as a gambit to delay clean air. Imagine if someone had succeeded in aborting California’s wind and solar initiatives, promising that fusion reactors would be better. In energy this fortunately did not happen, but in vehicles, fuel cells research has aborted real progress. You must not allow this to continue.
The entire ZEV program has become a sort of Rube Goldberg device, with gold, silver, bronze levels, credit ratios, Type I to IV, sliding scales for large vs. small automakers, and so on. Your staff proposes to further tinker with this contraption in response to automaker pressure. This will not result in clean air. The Rube Goldberg device should be dismantled, not tinkered with. In science, it can take years or decades to understand the consequences of fairly simple physical laws and systems. With a system as complicated as the ARB has created, no one can predict the consequences. It is an irresponsible approach that only serves to keep the ARB’s goals unmet.
The most direct and transparent method for clean air and reduced greenhouse gases (AB32) is a cap-and-auction system. ARB would cap the emissions of NOx, SOx, PM, and other pollutants, and also greenhouse gases for AB32, that California would tolerate each year, and then auction permits to automakers for new vehicles sales. Each vehicle would be certified for emissions based on current testing methods. To sell a vehicle, the automaker would need to possess permits for each of its pollutants for the years of the vehicle’s life (e.g. 10 years). By decreasing the pollutant cap over time, the ARB would be able to clean California’s air. It has been 40 years since the ARB was founded, and yet we still have smog in our cities, despite all the progress that has been made. Is it not time to consider an approach that is far more certain to achieve our air quality goals?
There are improvements that could be made to such an approach (e.g. credits for automakers that take old vehicles off the road, separating pollutants into urban and total, and taking into account the greening electricity supply over time for plug-ins), but this letter is already long, and I would prefer to elaborate if there is interest in this approach.
To be politically acceptable, this can be made revenue-neutral by rebating the auction revenue for a given year equally among the new vehicle purchasers for that year, thereby offsetting the auction cost markup of the automakers. The purchaser of a clean vehicle would see a net price reduction, and the purchaser of a dirty vehicle would pay a premium. This is appropriate.
This system also puts the automakers in competition with each other to produce cleaner vehicles. Today the automakers have only the incentive to meet quotas and limits, with the result that California’s air is dirtier and warmer than it would be if automakers compete.
This system also unifies the handling of conventional pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions, which I believe is an important simplification.
The attraction of ZEVs for the automakers under such a cap-and-auction system is obvious: there are no auction fees to be paid for urban pollutants, and very little for non-urban pollutants (since ZEVs, or BEVs at least, are so efficient). Since the pollutant cap would decrease with time and vehicle volumes would increase, ZEV technology would become increasingly important to meeting the targets. Initially plug-in hybrids would provide the necessary pollutant reductions (based on a standardized daily driving profile where some initial number of miles are zero emission). Eventually full ZEVs would become most appropriate. There are other, early ways to reward ZEVs within the auction system, but again I can elaborate depending upon your interest.
The best way to illustrate the working of such a system would be with an example. Let me know if you would like me to provide one.
If it is not possible to replace the existing ZEV mandate, I urge you to consider the above approach for AB32 implementation, and then radically simplify the ZEV mandate, eliminating the distinction between the original and Alternative Path, so that plug-ins can be returned to service while CARB conducts its fuel cell vehicle research program.
Lest you think my proposal is anti-ZEV, let me relate that my wife and I both drive battery electric vehicles, one of which, a RAV4-EV, was only produced in response to the ARB’s 1990s ZEV mandate. We are just as passionate about these vehicles as any the drivers seen in the movie Who Killed the Electric Car, if you have seen that. As much as I would love the ARB to simply require the production of more ZEVs, I believe the above approach is a much more straightforward response to the ARB’s legislative mandate and actually more likely to get ZEVs of some sort back on California’s roads.
Industry and many politicians and pundits tout the hydrogen economy as the answer to the transportation portion of our global warming problem. We just have to wait until it is ready, they say. The real value of hydrogen to these folks is that it is so distant in the future, they need not do much other than research today.
Hydrogen can store energy, but the energy has to come from somewhere. Almost no matter where the energy comes from, hydrogen is not a particularly efficient way to store it, when the efficiency of energy to hydrogen, shipment, and hydrogen back to energy are all multiplied. Here I summarize my understanding of hydrogen’s efficiency for powering vehicles relative to other technologies. Others question the safety of hydrogen (e.g. the storage tanks and the fire potential). I think those are not real issues; solutions exist. However, if hydrogen cannot beat the cost and efficiency of alternatives, it has no place.
First, I digress and provide a vehicle categorization, explaining terminology and providing background:
My primary points of comparison below between hydrogen FCVs and the alternatives (PHEVs and BEVs) will be cost and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, primarily in the form of carbon-dioxide (CO2):
Given the inefficiency of hydrogen production and use, FCVs are inferior to PHEVs and BEVs. The only plausible reason that industry appears prefers inferior technology is that they delay having to produce alternatives to ICEVs in volume.
It is no wonder that the EV community calls them
fool cells instead of fuel cells.
My next door neighbor of twelve years died last year
and her estate is subdividing her property to realize
a better sales price. I didn’t like portions of
their subdivision plan, so I challenged it at my
town’s Planning Commission meeting, and
That is, the Planning Commission approved their plan
with a change I requested. The estate trustee
decided to take the matter to the town council,
preferring the original plan. I
won again. So
why do I feel like everyone lost? Because the process
was so flawed that I probably
won for the
The process was far too adversarial from the very beginning. It began with the estate preparing a plan, at great cost, without ever consulting those who would be affected by the plan. Having invested quite a bit into their plan, the estate was naturally reluctant to change it, since any change would involve incremental cost. However, I fully understand how the estate’s trustee took that path, for when I was on the other side (I recently built a new house and went through a similar but not identical process), I did the same thing: I crafted my plans and then presented them to my neighbors. I was wrong to have done it that way, and the estate was wrong to do it as well, but I also think the process should have encouraged both of us to take a different approach. (I know I will next time.)
In my case there was also a failure of mechanism that was supposedly in place. Before the Planning Commission meeting, there was a meeting with town staff that I was supposedly invited to attend. I never received an invitation. I don’t know whether it was never sent, or lost in the mail, or lost in junk mail filtering, or lost by yet some other mechanism, but I was not aware of this town staff meeting until after it took place. A more robust invitation mechanism should be used, where one either accepts the invitation, declines it, or failing either of the above, the invitation is repeated (preferably by alternative means, such as telephone, email, etc.). Only multiple failures to respond would be taken as declining.
Another issue is that only residents within 500 feet of the property being changed needed to be notified. In this case, there are people who live thousands of feet away who are in fact very much affected. The simplistic distance rule was not sufficient. Perhaps no simple rule can suffice? Public notice is not the answer: People can barely pay attention to notices they may or may not receive in their mail (a consideration greatly influenced by the amount of junk mail we all receive—another problem). The town staff should have the discretion to include notification of others beyond the simplistic requirement, and also those notified should have had the ability (and been encouraged) to add still others to the notification process.
However, even an opportunity to attend the town staff review of the subdivision would not have addressed the issue that the applicant is highly invested in their single-minded approach by the time the review takes place. The town should have had a process where someone declares her intent to make a change before plans can be developed. Those affected should be consulted, and brainstorming take place about the best ways to accomplish the goals of the applicant while keeping the needs of those affected in mind. Only after such exchange of ideas should money be spent on developing detailed plans. The applicant would have the ability to develop plans just as before, in spite of opposition of those affected, but she would be forewarned that her plans would face opposition.
The adversarial process was especially problematic in that the judges in this process were poorly informed. When I presented my case before the Planning Commission (my first contact with the applicant), I had only three minutes to make my case. Just how informed can the Planning Commission members be after three minutes of input? An informed judgment in fact required, in this case, actually walking the property in question to look at the issues under dispute. The town staff did a little bit of this, but never required a meeting of all interested parties once my concerns became known. Moreover the town staff were not the decision makers. They might choose to present information to the decision makers or not. My three minutes were certainly not sufficient to properly present my side of things (fortunately my wife also had three minutes, but a single person would have had only three).
We were also fortunate that one Planning Commission member chose to spend a little extra time talking to both sides before the Commission meeting, so he had much more background on the matter. But I don’t think this fortuitous circumstance is the norm, and it certainly cannot be relied upon for everyone.
The Planning Commission decided in our favor on one
issue that we thought was most important to us. At
this point we finally started to have the discussion
with the estate’s representative that should have been
the starting point, not a near end-point. We began to
explore options that were neither the Planning
Commission victory we had
won nor their
original proposal. That was what should have occurred
in the first place. To my surprise, the estate pulled
back from these discussions, and decided to apply to
the Town Council to overrule the Planning Commission.
It was a very
in your face sort of approach.
At this point I started talking with others affected by the subdivision (looking for allies), because most of them had, to my surprise, not attended the Planning Commission meeting. Many had not been invited, for reasons mentioned above. Others had not been able to attend that particular night. It turned out that the small issue I was concerned about was probably not as important as some of the issues they made me aware of. We strategized and came up with a long set of issues that should be brought to the Council’s attention to properly decide this issue.
I prepared for the Town Council meeting based on my
Planning Commission experience, only to be surprised
to find out that the Town Council would take only two
minutes of input, not even three. Being the most
affected neighbors of the subdivision, the Mayor
kindly granted my wife and I three minutes each, but
even that was not sufficient to make both the prepared
points I wanted to make and impromptu responses to
what had been said earlier, and I was cut off about
half way through my prepared remarks. In contrast the
applicant had essentially unlimited time to make his
case. I found this asymmetry to be also be
problematic for making a proper decision. There was
also not opportunity to point out flat out wrong
facts that were presented by others.
It was also clear from the questions and comments made
by the Council members how little they understood the
issue they were being asked to decide. Basically they
ended up ignoring all of the new issues that my
neighbors and I tried to raise, and concentrated on
the issue that had divided the applicant and me at the
Planning Commission hearing. In the end my reading of
the outcome is that they decided they really didn’t
want to get involved with the issue (they probably
understood how poorly suited they were to decide on
the information before them) and they decided to
ratify the Planning Commission’s decision (though they
mentioned that the applicant could return there if
they wanted). So I
won on the issue I had
originally had with the estate, but my neighbors and I
failed to bring the new issues raised by my
neighbors—potentially more significant—to
The estate’s trustee may choose to take the matter
back to the Planning Commission, at which point we
might get a slightly better hearing on all
the issues (with a
full three minutes for the
opposition, but probably unlimited time for the
applicant), or they might choose to just live with the
Commission/Council decision, and bury the other
issues. Either way, the system did not perform well,
as I see it.
The answer is not to give those affected (such as myself) more time to make their case at Commission and Council meetings. Such meetings already go on late into the night. One could constitute decision making bodies on a per-case basis (like the jury in a criminal trial or civil case), which would allow the decision makers more time to hear the various sides, but after having gone through a legal dispute, I find just as many problem in that paradigm as the one I just experienced (unfortunately I never wrote down my very negative opinion of the legal process I endured). Simply letting town staff decide is not the answer either, even though they are better informed, because they are part of a hierarchical organization with its own interests. The answer must instead be to find a process whereby the parties interact more directly, with some mediation, and earlier.
So though I
won (so far) on one issue, it was
for the wrong reason and by the wrong process. When
we suffer broken processes, we are all losers.
Garrett Hardin wrote in Tactics in Tackling Taboos,
It takes five years for a person’s mind to change.
He based this observation on personal introspection of several
occurrences in his life, estimating the time from which he had
been in possession of all of the facts needed for the change to
the time he noticed his opinion had actually changed.
Based on his writings, I would consider Hardin to be an
intelligent, thoughtful person, who actually let facts affect
his opinions. I have observed others whom seem to have been
inoculated against the effects of facts. Even intelligent
people are capable of this; indeed often intelligence is pressed
into forced labor to invent rationales to explain away
inconvenient truths. Thus intelligence is not wisdom. I
therefore propose to extrapolate from
a wisdom quotient, or W.Q., analogous to the intelligence
quotient, or I.Q. The W.Q. could simplistically be computed as
500 divided by the average number of years it takes for facts to
affect one’s opinions. (A better measure would involve means
and standard deviations, as in the I.Q.) Garrett Hardin would
then have had a W.Q. of 100. Those completely impervious to
facts would have a W.Q. of zero.
Measuring the W.Q. is difficult, because there are also those
who change opinions to orient with the slightest puff or any
gentle zephyr. They are not responding to facts so much as
others opinions in an attempt to conform and
fit in. Such
vanes would not have a high W.Q., and a mechanism to exclude
such fashion-driven wafting would have to be devised.
There are those whose profession teaches adjusting to new facts, such as scientists. The best test of W.Q. for such professions would be to look how they react to facts outside of their profession.
More fundamentally, being open to the facts is a necessary but not sufficient condition for wisdom, so the above is merely a thought in progress.
What should the U.S. policy on immigration be? The issue is often looked at in isolation, separate from other issues, but that leads to inconsistencies. A related issue is sustainability, though the relation is not typically recognized. If we are to build a sustainable society in the U.S. then we should eliminate or strongly reduce our dependence upon foreign sources, which are at present unsustainable. This includes people: a sustainable U.S. would not need a guest worker program, or immigration from Mexico to staff its low-paying jobs. Instead it would have to adjust its wage scales so that these jobs would be filled by its own citizens.
Conversely, a policy position that the U.S. should not be self-sustaining, but should enrich itself at the expense of the rest of the world, might be appropriately coupled with some immigration, simply so that some lucky few of the exploited might be granted the opportunity to have their children graduate to exploiter status. Most in the U.S. would argue that we do not exploit foreign workers, but instead provide a market for their labor. We have euphemisms for everything ugly we do.
Of course contemporary politics can be a bit inconsistent. Republicans want minimal immigration, maximal exploitation, and minimal sustainability. Democrats don’t give much real priority to a sustainable society, at least not enough to do anything significant in that direction, but they might voice support for such a society (as long as it didn’t conflict with other goals more important to their investors). While offering verbal support for a more sustainable society, Democrats would also at the same time support more immigration than Republicans.
My priorities strongly favor sustainability, and so I would support policies that restrict both unsustainable imports and immigration. A supportable level of immigration is one that matches the level of emigration from the U.S.
After writing Collapse, I thought I should write down some further clarifications, since I left a lot unsaid.
First, not every bomb in the minefield, even if it detonates, is likely to cause collapse. Also, in my opinion, collapse is not likely in the next forty years (i.e. in my probable lifetime). I have no biological progeny either (though there are younger people I care about who might be affected). The first thing to address is then why should I be concerned about it all? The danger in attempting to answer this question may be that my concern is emotional, whereas any attempt at an answer will be intellectual, and simply a rationalization. That said, I believe there are three things that most bother me. First is the suffering of the innocents. Homo sapiens may deserve (in the sense of needing to learn a lesson for our collective stupidity) what may be coming, but we will hurt many other sentient beings along the way (we already are). The second is related; it is the destruction of things in general. We are busily destroying things we do not even understand, and once they are gone, they cannot be brought back. Non-sentient species, ecosystems, and even inanimate Earth systems fall under this category. Extinction is a great loss. Even if a niche is eventually refilled with something evolved from another branch of the tree, what it was and what it might have become will never be known. The third concern is the loss of scientific opportunity. I cannot say why exactly (I have reached the point at which intellectual effort fails), but it feels good to me that we are slowly deciphering our universe, and the collapse of civilization will set back much of that.
There are potential good things from collapse: Myths would be punctured, lessons would be learned, and homo sapiens would be reduced to a more sustainable population size. But new, potentially more pernicious, myths might be created, and the pain along the way might be massive. Joseph Tainter summarized collapse as follows in The Collapse of Complex Societies:
There is, first and foremost, and breakdown of authority and central control, revolts and provincial breakaways signal the weakening of the center. … The umbrella of law and protection erected over the populace is eliminated. Lawlessness may prevail for a time, as in the Egyptian First Intermediate Period, but order will ultimately be restored. Monumental construction and publicly-supported art largely cease to exist. Literacy may be lost entirely, or otherwise declines so dramatically that a dark ages follows. … Whether as a cause or as consequence, there is typically a marked, rapid reduction in population size and density. … The level of population and settlement may decline to that of centuries or even millennia previously.
And that is just the homo sapiens perspective; the
rapid reduction is likely to affect wildlife even more
dramatically than homo sapiens.
A breakdown of authority and central control, a reduction in population size could be considered good or bad, depending upon your point of view, but the loss of publicly-supported projects (the arts and sciences) and the loss of literacy and subsequent dark age are worrisome. The destruction of the myths of our age may be welcome, but the myths created by the dark age will not be. The eventual renaissance following the dark age would benefit from not being straight-jacketed by our civilization’s biases, but it would have the biases of its own dark age to overcome. It will be able to selectively sift from our ashes to fertilize its growth, but it will not be able to choose the ground upon which it grows. It may be hindered by religions that hold back scientific inquiry about the universe: Deities are failures of the imagination; they ask that we look no further than the will of the deity for the explanation of things.
If that is the worry, then what is the potential for collapse?
bombs I listed (and most likely for the ones I
missed altogether, e.g. a
pandemic bomb), it is the
suddenness of change that may decide between collapse and
that the declining marginal return of complexity is the primary
factor behind collapse. (In contrast,
that environmental degradation is the primary factor. Of
course, it is not necessary that a single theory explain every
collapse, but Diamond’s thesis could be seen as an cause of
declining marginal return cited by Tainter.) Returning to the
suddenness of the bomb, as Tainter puts it:
There are two general factors that combine to yield a declining marginal return. First, stress and perturbation are a constant feature of any complex society, always occurring somewhere in its territory. Such a society will have a developed an operating regulatory apparatus that is designed to deal with such things as localized agricultural failures, border conflicts, and unrest. Since such continuous, localized stress can be expected to recur with regularity it can, to a degree, be anticipated and prepared for. Major, unexpected stress surges, however, will also occur given enough time, as such things as major climatic fluctuations and foreign incursions take place. To meet these major stresses the society must have some kind of net reserve. This can take the form of excess productive capacities in agriculture, energy, or minerals, or hoarded surpluses from past production. Stress surges of great magnitude cannot be accommodated without such a reserve.
Yet a society experiencing declining marginal returns is investing ever more heavily in a strategy that is yielding proportionately less. Excess productive capacity will at some point be used up, and accumulated surpluses allocated to current operating needs. There is, then, little or no surplus with which to counter major adversities. Unexpected stress surges must be dealt with out of the current operating budget, often ineffectually, and always to the detriment of the system as a whole. Even if the stress is successfully met, the society is weakened in the process, and made even more vulnerable to the next crisis. Once a complex society develops the vulnerabilities of declining marginal returns, collapse may merely require sufficient passage of time to render probable the occurrence of an insurmountable calamity.
In that context, I will look at the bombs in turn. I laid out the problem of the oil bomb earlier. The degree of stress this puts on the civilization depends upon the details of production. If peak oil has a long flat top, prices will perhaps increase slowly enough that civilization will adapt, substituting new energy sources for the old one. Existing consumers will pay more to command access to the flat production, preventing potential new consumers (i.e. the world’s poor) from receiving any product. Some current consumers may even be priced out of consumption, but not enough for catastrophic stress to the system. The rising prices will effect development of alternatives (things currently uneconomic). During this period civilization will draw down its surpluses (if it has any), but probably survive. The other possibility is that production begins to decline rather quickly, without a long period of flat production. Then prices will rise much faster to shed even current consumers (not just emerging ones). This economic dislocation will ripple through the system as a stress surge. It could cause civilization to collapse to a lower level of complexity.
The climate bomb is likely to be take place over an extended period of time. A tipping point might occur suddenly, but the consequences are probably slower; an analogy might be throwing someone from an airplane: the act is fast and irreversible, but the fall takes a while before it ends in impact with the ground. Billions of homo sapiens may have to relocate, and substitutes for lost resources of production (e.g. land) found, but this would be over a period of a century. The potential stress surge is one of magnitude, not timing. I don’t think the outcome can be predicted, but the magnitude of the stress appears to me capable of triggering collapse through wars and severe economic reversals.
The economics bomb is not a cause itself (and I probably should not have included it at all). It is rather a simplistic argument that our current economic system has theoretical problems, which is of course perhaps better demonstrated by the recurring history of collapse (Tainter goes through at least eighteen). Basically, the compound return argument suggests our economics has evolved in a world of periodic collapse, and so its sustainability has never been an issue. Should we avert all other reasons for collapse, either economics would evolve to something else, or some sort of bomb would result from the asymmetric accumulation of wealth. I cannot begin to predict which, though I suspect the latter.
The population bomb is primarily a problem of our civilization’s complexity. Wildlife populations grow exponentially until a resource limit is reached, and then oscillate about that limit. Human population could do the same (and has done so successfully, such as Japan reaching near zero population growth in the 18th and early 19th centuries), except our population is already far above the limits of the resources provided naturally; it is supported there only by the complexity of civilization (e.g. our unsustainable agriculture). Growth of population can be one input to Tainter’s declining marginal return thesis, creating a collapse, and therefore a return to a lower level of complexity, and therefore a return to a dramatically lower population. Thus population growth in our civilization may play out differently—with a more dramatic crash—from wildlife observations.
The technology bomb is the real odd-ball. Its potential for a stress surge is of high intensity due to suddenness created by the situation the day before a technological development and the day after. As such, it is hardest to anticipate, or counter with surpluses. As such, it may be something that could topple even civilizations not experiencing declining marginal returns.
The optimist’s view on all of this is that science and technology will solve our problems. Here is Tainter’s response:
It is not that R&D cannot potentially solve the problems of industrialism. The difficulty is that to do so will require an increasing share of GNP. The principle of infinite substitutability depends on energy and technology. With diminishing returns to investment in scientific research, how can economic growth be sustained? The answer is that to sustain growth resources will have to be allocated from other sectors of the economy into science and engineering. … The allocation of greater resources to science of course is nothing new, merely the continuation of a two centuries-old trend. Such investment, unfortunately, can never yield a permanent solution, merely a respite from diminishing returns.
Will we find, as have some past societies, that the cost of overcoming our problems is too high relative to the benefits conferred, and that not solving problems is the economical option?
Tainter concludes with the following observation about the global nature of the next collapse. It is worthwhile to keep this in mind.
In fact, there are major differences between the current and the ancient worlds that have important implications for collapse. On of these is that the world today is full. That is to say, it is filled by complex societies; these occupy every sector of the globe, except the most desolate. This is a new factor in human history. Complex societies as a whole are a recent and unusual aspect of human life. The current situation, where all societies are so oddly constituted, is unique. It was shown earlier in this chapter that ancient collapses occurred, and could only occur, in a power vacuum, where a complex society (of cluster of peer polities) was surrounded by less complex neighbors. There are no power vacuums left today. Every nation is linked to, and influenced by, the major powers, and most are strongly linked with one power bloc or the other.
Peer polities then then tend to undergo long periods of upwardly-spiraling competitive costs, and downward marginal returns. This is terminated finally by domination of one and acquisition of a new energy subsidy (as in Republican Rome and Warring States China), or by mutual collapse (as among the Mycenaeans and the Maya). Collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole. Competitors who evolve as peers collapse in like manner.
Our civilization should be more concerned about the possibility of its collapse. We must first reduce its probability. The most important step is to stop frittering away our inheritance, and instead live only off of our current income (and perhaps even to add to our natural capital after our long drawdown of it, similar to Japan’s reforestation efforts that started in 1666, as noted in Jared Diamond’s work). As an insurance policy, a second step would be to build arks to help our descendents recover from a collapse if our efforts to avoid it prove insufficient. And history suggests that the question is not whether the next collapse will occur, but rather when.
Civilization today has some challenges ahead. We’ve got the
oil bomb, the
population bomb, and the
technology bomb to
circumnavigate. It is a real mine field. Even if the
probability of avoiding each one is 80%, the probability of
avoiding all 5 would be a mere 33%. Of course these are not
independent; so the probabilities don’t strictly multiply
(e.g. avoiding the oil bomb may make avoiding climate
catastrophe more or less likely depending upon the solution).
climate bomb is of course climate change that occurs
too fast for the Earth species (including homo sapiens); the
result being catastrophe (e.g. world war resulting from the
massive relocations of billions of people). I think the
probability of avoiding the climate bomb is really much lower
than 80% (though I would put several of the others higher
— 80% is just meant to illustrative). I was actually
someone more optimistic on climate change until I saw the gross
under reaction to Katrina (after the gross over reaction to
the pinprick of 2001.09.11). Now I suspect we will not act
until it is too late. Recent science shows there may be a
tipping point that we are on the verge of broaching. This is a
non-linear feedback mechanism where a little bit more warming
may cause massive carbon dioxide releases that once started
cannot be stopped. Even if we do eventually pull back, we will
not be able to stop these natural processes, with the result
that the warming snowballs. In
Permafrost and the Global Carbon Budget
Sergey A. Zimov et al. point out that the carbon in Earth’s
atmosphere has recently increased from its pre-industrial level
of 560 Gt to 730 Gt today. This has resulted in warming that
is now beginning to melt the permafrost in Siberia and Alaska.
They estimate that the frozen yedoma deposits across Siberia and
Alaska contain approximately 500 Gt of carbon covering 1 million
km2 to an average depth of
approximately 25 m. Peatbogs contain 50 to 70 Gt of carbon, and
non-yedoma, non-peat permafrost contains approximately 400 Gt of
carbon. They further suggest when thawed most yedoma carbon
will be released within a century. Thus once thawing occurs, as
much as 4 Gt of carbon might enter the atmosphere each year, in
addition to what humankind adds. Even if humankind could
suddenly stop its 7 Gt per year emissions completely, the
permafrost might keep on going at more than half of this level.
Our only option at that point would be to run backward just to
stay in the same place; we would have to sequester up to 4 Gt
per year, a change of 11 Gt.
The chemical form of carbon emissions makes a difference. Methane has 23 times the global warming potential (GWP) of carbon dioxide, so it matters quite a bit whether permafrost carbon ends up as methane or CO2. In Methane bubbling from Siberian thaw lakes as a positive feedback to climate warming, Walter et al. present their surveys of methane release from sixty Siberian thaw lakes. Their more accurate method found 3.7 times the methane release than previous work on the same lakes. Since these northern latitudes had not been included in current wetland methane emission estimates, this represents a new, extremely worrisome, methane source. Their 0.004 Gt CH4 yr-1 estimate is equivalent to 0.087 Gt of CO2 in GWP. While these numbers are still small, Zimov’s data suggest that the potential exists for huge (non-linear) increases as the temperature increases just enough to increase the thawing.
oil bomb I refer to above is more commonly discussed
using the term
peak oil. It refers simply to the fact
that crude oil production may soon level off and then begin to
decline, while our appetite will grow ever larger. That gap
will of course be closed by market forces: prices so high that
consumption is strangled (this will be accomplished by pricing
it beyond the means of the poor). Since very basic needs,
including food production, are now very dependent upon oil, this
could lead to problems for the poor on a scale we have never
seen before. Having looked at the data from various sides of
the peak oil debate, I don’t know what to believe. I’ve yet to
see really convincing data. Even the USGS position (e.g.
Long Term World Oil Supply) seems
to be based on simplistic assumptions to me. However, unlike
business as usual crowd, I don’t think it is up to
Peak Oil folks to prove their peak prediction dates; prudence
calls for being prepared for the possibility of an early peak
when the data is so unclear. Also, if the oil bomb is avoided
by oil conservation, this helps delay the climate bomb.
(Conversely, if we switch to coal to avoid peak oil, we trigger
the climate bomb all the sooner.)
population bomb has been discussed since Malthus
wrote his warning in 1798. Overpopulation is indeed extermely
serious right now, but the lack of a dramatic catastrophe in the
years since 1798 has only made humankind complacent and
dismissive of the notion (
Malthusian has even entered the
lexicon). This complacency is lunacy, but the human mind has a
enormous difficultly grasping exponential growth, especially at
low rates of compounding. It is a characteristic of exponential
growth that it collides into its limits with the same subtlety
of a race car hitting a concrete abutment. What is worse is
that the population rate has been super-exponential; the growth
rate has been increasing. For example, the last four doublings
of world population took 500 years, 200 years, 60 years, and 36
years. The growth rate was 0.109% between 1 and 1950. When
Malthus wrote his warning in 1798, it was a scary 0.43%. Between
1950 and 2006 the population growth rate has been 1.41%, which
is almost unimaginable: we added 3 billion people to the planet
between 1960 and 1996. The growth rate is down to a
1.2% in recent years (between 2000 and 2005). The U.N. and
others estimate the population will stabilize around 2050, but
that may be just wishful thinking; predicting the future says
more about the seer than the future.
economics bomb is probably unfamiliar. I encountered
the notion in
Manifesto for a New World Order in the form of a
gedanken: Invest a penny at 5% annual interest for 2,000
What do you get? The answer is so monstrously large it boggles
the imagination (again the human mind has trouble with even
simple exponentials). The value of a quantity of gold with the
same mass as the Earth is tiny in comparison. It implies
that the present capitalist system requires periodic resets
(e.g. the Dark Ages, Depressions, wealth destroying
wars, etc.) to avoid the problems of compound return.
1.052000 is roughly 2.4×1042 or
It is indeed a number of unimaginable scale. It is as large as the Planck scale is small. For example, the land area of the earth is only 148,939,100,000,000 m2.
I consider the 5% example cited in the book too high, given
inflation and taxes, so I repeated the calculation with a 2%
real return. 1.022000 is 160,000,000,000,000,000,
so after investing $1 at 2% real return for 2000 years
you’d have over $1000 for each square meter of land on
earth ($2.7 billion per sq mi). Still impressive. The mass of
the earth is
It only takes 3% real interest to get numbers this large.
It is amazing that people took Marx’s arguments as
that capitalism would be relegated to the dustbin of history.
The above is a much simpler and stronger indictment. Of course
it does not relegate capitalism to the dustbin; rather it only
requires wars, depressions, and dark ages to periodically
intervene to destroy accumulations of wealth, such as that owned
by the hypothetical entity (e.g. a family or a corporation)
collecting 2% compound interest for 2000 years. Sustainable
capitalism of the sort we know is not possible. It can probably
go for only several hundred years to a thousand years at most
before requiring a reset. Perhaps we are almost due? This is
technology bomb is simply the notion that as
technology advances, it becomes increasingly possible for a
small number of individuals or even a single individual to cause
enormous damage. A suicide bomber today can destroy a bus, a
cafe, or an office building. What will the suicide bomber of
tomorrow do? Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake
gives one glimpse of what might be in store.
The conjunction of probabilities for walking this mine field is not encouraging. There’s a good chance for some serious negative outcomes. Very possibly any one might cause a collapse of civilization. That is of course not new; collapse has happened repeatedly and frequently throughout history. What is new is the degree to which our civilization is now global, and so a collapse has wide consequences.
I don’t think there is much that can be done to personally
prepare for collapse. The only sensible strategy is to work to
avoid it. Even if the probabilities where much different
(e.g. 95% chance of avoiding each
bomb gives 77% chance
of avoiding all of them if they are independent), it still makes
sense to work to increase our chances, since factoring in the
pain factor (i.e. the computing the expected value of 23%
collapse and 77% non-collapse) is still a very bad result.
Society could prepare the possibility of collapse by preparing a
sort of ark, but it is unlikely to do so.
† After writing the above commentary, I ran into an earlier gedanken along the same lines in Garrett Hardin’s 1963 essay The Cybernetics of Competition:
Suppose, for example, that the thirty pieces of silver which Judas earned by betraying Jesus had been put out at 3 percent interest. If we assume these pieces of silver were dollars, the savings account would today amount to a bit more than 2 × 1026 dollars, or 70 million billion dollars for every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth.
As usual, President Bush got it wrong. (Also as usual, the press did not even notice.) The U.S. is not addicted to oil; it is addicted to fossils. In 2005 85% of our energy use was from fossil fuels: 46 EJ of petroleum energy (40%), 25 EJ of coal energy (23%), and 24 EJ of natural gas energy (23%). Only 8% was nuclear and 6% renewable. To use a food analogy: we aren’t addicted to chocolate; we are addicted to sugar.
(Another way to look at it: we aren’t addicted to oil, we are addicted to spending our inheritance and fouling our own home, rather than spending only our current income.)
Is the distinction significant? If we consider not the energy content of the three fossil fuels above, but instead their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, then in 2005 petroleum was 2.5 gigatons (43%), coal was 2.1 gigatons (36%), and natural gas was 1.2 gigatons (21%). (The reason emissions don’t parallel energy content is due to the hydrogen content of the fuel; coal is mostly carbon without much hydrogen, natural gas is CH4 with a large hydrogen content, and petroleum is in between.) Total U.S. CO2 emissions are 5.945 gigatons, and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions amount to the equivalent of 1.139 gigatons of CO2. Even if we kicked the oil habit, our fossil addiction would still have plenty of consequences for the planet.
We will have to target all of our fossil addictions, while avoiding even worse temptations (e.g. methane clathrates), but if the ease of overcoming the addiction is factored in, then oil might not be the highest priority. Consider next our consumption by sector: electricity 40%, transportation 28%, industrial 22%, and residential 11%. Perhaps we have an electric addiction too. Or at least some of us do; some are gorging and some are leaner. Consider electricity use per person by state: Californians used 6,732 kWh per capita in 2003, whereas the U.S. average was 11,997 kWh per capita, or 78% more. The standard of living in California is no worse than in the rest of the nation; California is simply more efficient. This becomes clearer when we consider historical per capita electricity use (see page 12). In the 1960s California and the rest of the nation consumed about 4,000 kWh per person per year. By the 1970s the U.S. was up to 8,000 and California was less than 7,000. Over the next few decades, California’s per capita usage stayed almost flat while the rest of nation increased to almost 12,000 kWh per capita. The divergence is the result of California’s policies, incentives, and regulations that encouraged or required efficiency (e.g. appliance and housing efficiency standards). If these policies were implemented at the Federal level and the nation’s use fell to California’s levels over the next decades, the 44% reduction in electricity generation and consumption would result in gigatons (Gt) fewer carbon dioxide emissions. For example, if the 44% is applied equally to all generation types, then about 1.0 gigaton of CO2 emissions would be avoided. If the 44% reduction were applied selectively to coal generation (this would be best accomplished with carbon taxes or a cap and trade system), than about 1.6 gigatons of emissions would be avoided. We don’t sacrifice anything by being more efficient—indeed we end up with more money in our pockets due to lower electric bills—but we are much less destructive.
Most things that we can change take time. For the U.S. to reach California electrical efficiency may take 20-30 years for the nation to achieve. But the benefits begin to accrue soon after the change, and begin to support other changes. For example, getting rid of coal makes electricity enormously more attractive. Consider the table below of electric fuel sources before and after negawatts selectively applied to coal:
|TWh||%||Gt CO2||%||TWh||%||Gt CO2||%|
The carbon dioxide per energy produced falls from 0.64 kg/kWh to 0.36 kg/kWh. Electricity gets a lot cleaner!
Proclaiming an addiction is one thing; doing something about it is another. Negawatts are a relatively painless way to get rid of a lot of coal. In contrast, getting rid of oil is a bit more complicated. One reason President Bush may have been willing to proclaim an oil addiction is that it only serves to highlight our dependency upon (and need to support) those who feed our addiction with the needed substance, or least some alternative (when the drug of choice becomes scarcer, the addict often switches to a similar substance.) The oil portion of our fossil addiction is primarily a personal transportation addiction (i.e. automobiles). There are many reasons why it might be best to cut back on this craving, but short of severe crisis, I don’t see this happening. Thus the question becomes can we find a non-fossil way to satisfy our personal transportation craving.
Fortunately automobiles need not be fossil fueled. The methadone analogs for personal transportation are biofuels, hydrogen from renewable sources, and electricity from renewable sources. Of these, electricity is the only alternative that is a here and now technology (though biodiesel is close). No new technology is required to produce battery electric vehicles (BEVs) that would replace most of the nation’s vehicle fleet. Electricity has the advantage of existing infrastructure and a trivial migration strategy (more on these later). BEVs appear to be the most efficient, and compare favorably to even the futures promised by biofuels and hydrogen. The only current disadvantage of BEVs is the cost of the batteries, a problem that will be solved with volume. Because volume depends on getting the cost down, the migration strategy is to start off with vehicles with modest battery requirements: plug-in hybrids.
The case against hydrogen as a fuel is quite simple. Hydrogen as a transportation fuel is a way of storing energy (batteries are a similar way to store energy). A hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (FCV) is the same as a battery electric vehicle (BEV) where a hydrogen storage tank and fuel cell replace some (but not all) of the batteries. This makes it relatively straight-forward to compare. Hydrogen is only economically produced today from natural gas (a fossil fuel). Hydrogen boosters claim natural gas hydrogen is simply a transition mechanism, and in the distant future we will substitute renewable production methods. The only renewable production methods that exist today is electrolysis of water from renewable electricity and the use of biogas as a substitute for natural gas (a biofuel method). For electrolysis from electricity, it seems clear that it is superior to simply transmit the energy across the electric grid to our garages (92% efficient), and then store and retrieve it in vehicle batteries (86%), for an plant to motor input efficiency of 80%. No conceivable electricity to hydrogen and back to electricity technology can match this 80% efficiency. A hydrogen booster’s claims are 70-75% efficient electrolysis and 50-70% efficient fuel cells, yielding at most 35-52% plant to motor input efficiency. Since the BEV and FCV are otherwise identical, the only way a FCV could beat a BEV is if the weight of the hydrogen storage tank and fuel cell were so much less than the weight of the Lithium batteries they displace to undo this 1.5 to 2.3 times efficiency disadvantage. In the real world, existing BEVs with NiMH batteries (which are much heavier than Lithium batteries) provide superior efficiency to existing FCVs. I have yet to see a hydrogen booster make the needed weight argument, and I doubt one can be made. Instead hydrogen boosters point at the limited range and long recharge times of old BEVs, ignoring the fact that new BEVs have largely solved the range problem with Lithium batteries (e.g. by Altairnano and A123 Systems) and that these batteries are likely to solve the recharge time problem as well.
From the vantage of the auto industry, the real advantage of the hydrogen FCVs is not that they are potentially better than BEVs (they are not), but they are clearly not ready for immediate deployment, and thus by espousing them as the future solution, they avoid the need to make changes today.
Biofuels are the other major thrust for future personal transportation. In the case of one biofuel, ethanol, the attraction is obvious. Ethanol is already a gasoline additive; increasing its concentration from 10% to 85% of automobile fuel requires almost trivial modifications of existing automobile designs (for example, Ford claims their entire current production is already E85 capable). For an addict, it is like substituting one amphetamine for another; the change is hardly noticed.
The problem with ethanol, as it is currently produced, is that it is essentially fossil fuel in disguise because it takes so much fossil fuel to produce ethanol from corn that experts actually argue whether the energy return on the fossil fuel is actually positive or negative (e.g. see page 28 of Fuel-Cycle Energy and Greenhouse Emission Impacts of Fuel Ethanol and pages 2-3 of Corn-Based Ethanol Does Indeed Achieve Energy Benefits). Ethanol boosters point to cellulosic ethanol as the future solution to this problem, but until this year’s publication of Carbon-Negative Biofuels from Low-Input High-Diversity Grassland Biomass there did not appear to be even a hypothetical way to produce ethanol sustainably (e.g. without carbon emissions). Like hydrogen, ethanol now appears to be a possible future solution, but not something here and now. Worse, even were a sustainable, carbon-neutral method of producing ethanol to emerge, the efficiency of burning ethanol in the internal combustion engine (ICE) is poor. Electric motors are a much better way to convert stored energy into motive power. For example, a direct comparison of the 2002 RAV4 (gasoline fueled) to the 2002 RAV4-EV (electricity stored in batteries) shows the BEV model to be 4.3 times more efficient than the ICE model. More efficient ICEs are possible, but a factor of 4.3 is not on even the distant horizon. This is also seen on the production side in Table S3 of the supplementary materials to the grassland biomass research cited above where producing ethanol is inferior to producing electricity. Thus even if grassland biomass becomes a real technology in the future, BEVs will still be a much more efficient use of that resource.
We must not think that ethanol is the only biofuel. Biodiesel from oilseed crops is already superior to corn ethanol with much better energy return on the fossil inputs. Moreover, producing oil for biodiesel from algae appears to be up to 30 times as efficient as growing oilseed crops. Thus algae biodiesel is a strong candidate for personal transportation. Moreover, it appears to on the verge of commercialization, like cellulosic ethanol (unlike FCVs). My only real argument against algae biodiesel is that BEVs are more efficient. Algae is about 7% efficient at turning sunlight into oil, and compression ignition engines (diesels) are at best 45% efficient. The corresponding figures for solar energy (e.g. the Stirling Energy Systems plants in the Mojave desert) are 30% efficient; grid delivery of this energy is 92% efficient, and the BEV is perhaps 60-80% efficient, yielding a sun-to-wheels efficiency over five times that of algae biodiesel. Algae biodiesel may still find a niche in long-distance freight transportation, where it is unclear how BEVs could be time-competitive.
The transition from internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs) to battery electric vehicles (BEVs) is relatively simple. Car makers are already moving pure ICEVs to hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) where electric motors provide all or part of the wheel turning motive force. Though 100% of the energy to power these vehicles comes from gasoline, the electric drive provides such significant advantages in city driving (e.g. not burning fuel when stopped, and accelerating more efficiently) that the 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid gets 50 MPG compared to the 2006 Honda Civic’s 34 MPG—a factor of almost 1.5.
A trivial modification to HEVs is to add more battery storage and a plug, producing a gas-optional or plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). This technology is so trivial that hobbyists and after-market kit companies have already produced such vehicles based on production HEVs. More radical PHEVs have been produced by University projects, such as Dr. Andy Frank’s work at U.C. Davis. The advantage of Frank’s PHEVs is that ICE power is not necessary, even at highway speeds, for 50 miles or more, so that the vehicle is essentially a BEV except on long trips. If fueled by ethanol from grassland biomass, the PHEV could be carbon neutral even on long trips, and the inefficiency of ethanol production compared to electricity is of concern only for a tiny fraction of the miles driven by the PHEV. The only disadvantage of such a PHEV compared to a pure BEV is that it carries the weight and cost of the ICE and the associated continuously variable transmission (CVT) for use on only a tiny fraction of the vehicle’s miles. The advantage of liquid fuel for long trips is simply to provide fast refueling. The Lithium batteries by A123 and Altairnano, already being designed into electric vehicles, allow much faster charging, almost competitive with liquid fueling. Some PHEVs may therefore eventually simplify into BEVs as highway fast-charging infrastructure becomes available (the ICE/CVT may become a furutre purchase option much the way manual vs. automatic transmissions is a purchase option today), but the advantages of electric drive in PHEVs will already have saved the planet long before this infrastructure is needed (unlike FCVs for example).
Converting the U.S. passenger car and other 2-axle vehicle fleet from gasoline to BEVs would save at least 0.6 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide emissions; it would save much more if coal were eliminated entirely from the U.S. grid. How can we do that? Before answering that, we need to eliminate the other fuels that result from crude oil refining. Gasoline cannot be eliminated if diesel is still needed, since diesel is a byproduct of producing gasoline.
As I indicated above, battery electric vehicles may not be feasible for some time for long-distance freight transportation. (Short distance freight is already being electrified, as can be seen by the trucks and vans being produced by Azure Dynamics.) Here, I think we can turn to biofuels, in particular biodiesel from algae, as discussed above. Michael Briggs estimates to replace all of U.S. transportation fuel with algae biodiesel would require 15,000 mi2 of Sonora desert land (12.5%). But as I argued above, EVs are superior for passenger travel, and I estimate from Briggs’ work and being a little less optimistic that 7,000 mi2 might supply our freight needs. Algae biodiesel replacing 2005’s 63 billion gallons of diesel would save another 0.6 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
One fossil fuel for which a carbon-neutral strategy is still lacking is aviation fuel. Perhaps as in Diamond Age we will need to return to lighter than air travel?
PHEVs and BEVs of course require additional electricity to be generated. Table 2 below shows the estimated power required. It is less than the negawatts saved above, and so we could just reduce the negawatt savings by burning some of the coal we saved with efficiency, but coal is so destructive of the planet that it imperative to instead build wind and solar farms to generate power for these vehicles. In the 30 years it will take to convert the vehicle fleet, the U.S. could easily finance and build these farms. Just as an example of scale, it would take only 3,000 mi2 of Mojave desert land to replace all 140 billion gallons of gasoline burned each year with Sterling Energy Systems’ solar mirror generators. (And defending this 3,000 mi2 of U.S. land would be a lot easier than defending the 166,859 mi2 of Iraq. Our Iraq war spending would also be more than sufficient to pay for the construction.) Using renewable energy to power PHEVs and BEVs will save 1.2 Gt of carbon dioxide, as compared to only 0.6 Gt if the existing grid power mix is used.
|Vehicle Type||2004 U.S. Trillion
Vehicle Miles Traveled
|Other 2-axle 4-tire vehicle||1.014||370||375|
The above strategy for eliminating petroleum is multifaceted, and involves battery storage of electricity in an enormous number of vehicles (the 2004 fleet was estimated at 234 million vehicles), whether BEVs or PHEVs. Even at 50% of the fleet having batteries, this represents a storage capacity of at least 16% of U.S. daily electric generation (after negawatts). This immense storage capability allows us to return to the grid and further eliminate emissions. As seen in Table 3 below, 30% would be renewable energy, which can be intermittent. Some sources estimate the grid can absorb 5-10% renewables without problem (e.g. Given wind’s intermittency, can the power grid handle much larger amounts of variable generation?), others 10-20%, but 30% renewable energy without storage is sure to be problematic. There are many energy storage possibilities, such as pumped hydro, flow batteries (e.g. VRBPower), and using the vehicle fleet. The last is called Vehicle to Grid (V2G), and it has been studied as a solution. Kempton and Tomic estimated in Vehicle-to-grid power implementation: From stabilizing the grid to supporting large-scale renewable energy that V2G could allow one half of electricity to be wind generated. So the 30% above is achievable with V2G technology.
|Fuel||After Negawatts||After BEVs|
|TWh||%||Gt CO2||%||TWh||%||Gt CO2||%|
The next step is to get rid of the remaining coal and petroleum used in electricity generation (but not natural gas), since these are so dirty, replacing them with renewable energy. As shown in Table 4 below this substitution brings renewables up to 45% of the grid, still below the limit estimated by Kempton and Tomic. However, going all the way and replacing natural gas (the least dirty fossil fuel) brings renewables to 64%, and so further storage solutions (e.g. flow batteries) will probably be required.
|Fuel||After BEVs||More Renewables||No Fossil Fuels|
|TWh||%||Gt CO2||%||TWh||%||Gt CO2||%||TWh||%||Gt CO2||%|
The calculations presented above are simplistic. In reality we are unlikely to totally eliminate any of the fossil fuels. We would quite successful if we eliminated even 90% of gasoline, for example. In my calculations, I have simply used the extreme case rather than making guesses about percent adoption, so these should be taken as indications of where we might go, rather than specific predictions. The case for negawatts, PHEVs, BEVs, and renewables looks quite strong. It appears that the U.S. could eliminate about 3-4 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions (out of almost 6 gigatons total) each year without real changes in its standard of living or lifestyle. Whether we will do so is the question.
|Step||Eliminated||Added||Gt CO2 Savings|
|Negawatts to reduce coal electricity generation||1633 TWh||1.6|
|Conversion of gasoline vehicle fleet to BEVs||140.4 billion gallons gasoline||821 TWh from renewables||1.2|
|Algae biodiesel for long-distance freight||63.1 billion gallons petroleum diesel||64.4 billion gallons algae biodiesel||0.6|
|Replacing remaining coal and petroleum with renewables (enabled by PHEV/BEV fleet)||322 TWh of coal electricity
111 TWh of petroleum electricity
|433 TWh of renewable electricity||0.4|
Note that these estimates are just for the vehicle tailpipe or the power plant. For gasoline and diesel powered vehicles they do not include refinery emissions and electric power use. For PHEVs and BEVs they do not include emissions getting fuel to the power plant. Thus the actual carbon dioxide savings would be substantially higher than the numbers above suggest.
Thank you for Steve Lohr’s article, The Cost of an Overheated Planet. Something usually overlooked in discussions of this issue is the role efficiency has to play in solving the problem. Sure, Mr. Lohr gives a nod to compact fluorescent bulbs, but if you are like me a few years ago, you probably wrote that off as a nice feel-good sort of response, but one that would not really dent the problem. Indeed, Mr. Lohr quickly turns to other topics (albeit important ones) such as the tax vs. cap and trade proposals.
What I, like so many other people, did not realize until recently is that the efficiency opportunity is huge. Consider that each person in California and the rest of the U.S. used about 6,000 kWh of electricity each year in the 1970s. Since then California has kept its per capita kWh usage roughly flat while the rest of the nation’s usage has doubled. In 2003, California was 50th in the nation in electricity use at 6,732 kWh per capita, while the nation was using almost double that amount (11,997 kWh). That was the result of policies, incentives, and regulations implemented by California. States with similar policies, such as New York, had similarly low usage (NY was 48th in 2003).
Is a few thousand kWh per person a big deal? In fact it is huge. If California’s policies were implemented at the Federal level and U.S. per capita kWh fell to California’s level, there would be a 44% reduction in electrical generation, resulting in approximately one gigaton of carbon dioxide not being put into the atmosphere each year, a reduction of one sixth of all carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. (which are 83% of all greenhouse gas emissions). If we used the efficiency reduction to selectively close coal power plants, the savings are much larger, approximately 1.6 gigatons. All of this could be accomplished while putting money in consumer’s pockets (since their monthly bills would be lower).
Could such a program survive the onslaught of electric utility fury? What industry likes its revenues cut 44%? Here is where California was particularly savvy. It decoupled utility profits from revenue. The utilities profit more from negawatts (efficiency savings) than they do from megawatts. My local utility is constantly telling its customers about how to save electricity, and even subsidizes the purchase of compact fluorescent light bulbs. Duke Energy would no doubt be even more willing to solve the problem with such a system in their states. This idea deserves equal attention to carbon taxes and cap and trade proposals. It is refreshing to see states that recognize how important market-oriented solutions are to our problems.
Here is a system for reducing and then eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. (Note however that it is unclear how this could be implemented without the cooperation of fossil fuel extracting national governments.)
This system has many desirable consequences:
Eventually it may be necessary to implement a similar system for fresh water.
These thoughts are primarily relevant to politics as they are (e.g. the two-party system), and not to the way they should be (a more frequent source of reflection recently).
The close election in Mexico after two close elections in the U.S. stimulates me to reconsideration of the phenomenon. First, there is the question of why elections are close, and second the question of what to do when they happen.
To state the obvious, using a two-faction election scenario, a close election means that the electorate is almost evenly divided on their perceptions of the factions. This can result from the factions adjusting either their underlying candidates and policies or from adjustment of the electorate’s perceptions. To the extent that factions adjust actuality to capture sufficient votes to win an election, they are working to represent the electorate (though some would say they pandering to it instead of leading). In a system where perceptions are accurate, one might expect two factions to adjust their policies to make every election a close election. (That is at least what the thought patterns of Economists would predict.) Close elections might be then seen as a good thing—a sign that the factions are representing the electorate.
However, the electorate’s perceptions are for the most part not accurate. The factions often exploit this by seeking to adjust the electorate’s perceptions rather than their actual positions. Greater differences between the position required to win an election and the actual positions of a faction require greater perceptual manipulation. This produces weak feedback, as described in My Party Right or Wrong. (Plutocracies with weak feedback are now called Democracies.) Battles to manipulate perception can also result in close elections as the enormous manipulation required to produce a landslide may be infeasible and is certainly not worth the effort.
In these two close election scenarios, the question is what to
do about the inevitable irregularities, questionable results,
etc. (hanging chads, mismarked ballots and so forth)? When the
electorate correctly perceives the actual policies of the
factions and is evenly divided, I think which faction is handed
temporary power is not of primary importance, as each has
similar support for its positions. Changes of the weather or
other unrelated events could have as much effect as a hanging
chad here or there. In my opinion, votes are not sacred. It is
the process of submitting the power of the elites to popular
inspection that is important, as that introduces weak feedback
that causes factional positions to adjust to electoral concerns.
What may appear terribly important to the factions is less
important than the requirement that the factions submit to the
process. The system should then be the winner, and for this to
be so, the results must be respected by the populace. The
process should then give appropriate deference to the idea
every vote is sacred, to maintain the appearance of
legitimacy. The factions need to avoid
Ends Choosing Principles, which is to
say arguing for process that benefits their short-term position
at the expense of long-term principle. Too often if the
chad situation were reversed, the factions would simply adopt
whatever principles benefit them at the moment in question.
In the second situation, where manipulation of perception trumps actualities, the system is not functioning well. It is in danger of devolving toward less and less feedback. What the system needs is a good jolt or crisis to get the electorate to take a closer look at what is going on in the ruling class. Perhaps a closer look will even lead a few to realize how much they are being duped.
Of course, real world situations are never binary. They are not black or white; they are always some shade of grey. That complicates the prescription.
I am rather ignorant of Mexico’s policies, but I suspect at the moment the first prescription would apply there. In the U.S. the shade of grey is much closer to black than white, and what is most needed is a crisis to get the electorate questioning the system. In the U.S., the fourth estate is unfortunately delivering the first prescription.
Direct democracy is too burdensome, and so representative government is required: that is conventional wisdom. But is it necessary for representative government to consist of individuals elected for terms to decide each issue before them? The necessity of choosing a set of individuals to represent me on issues as diverse as economics, liberty, security, public infrastructure, etc. is fraught with tradeoffs. As a result, the idea that multidimensional political thought is possible does not even occur to most. Instead our politicians group into parties, and artificially align their positions. From agreement on a few primary issues, agreement on many secondary issues is forced. The result is a failure of representation.
For most of my life, I have speculated whether it would be possible to elect one set of representatives for economic issues, another for law-making, etc. The problem is the boundaries; issues and decision-making can be intertwined, and themselves multidimensional. Electing individuals we trust to be our representatives seems like the only way, but the process guarantees we end up with individuals we do not trust to make all of the decisions for us. What to do?
The growing role of NGOs in international issues, as well as the growth of domestic political groups not affiliated with a party (primarily ones concentrating on a single issue) suggests a possible alternative to the dilemma. Modern technology makes it feasible to implement as well.
Consider replacing the legislature with direct democracy. Citizens vote on every issue. Few citizens could follow every issue and make an informed choice. Many already rely on others to form their opinions. Let us formalize this but allow each citizen to allow their votes to be cast by a proxy. On any particular issue before the legislature, the citizen may reclaim their right to directly vote, but if they fail to exercise that right, then their proxy casts the vote for them. This is not just representative government with vote reclaiming. Unlike traditional representative government, where the number of legislators is typically fixed and each has an equal vote, the number of proxies is potentially quite large (bounded only by the number of citizens), and the proxies votes are weighted by the number of citizens who have delegated to them.
Here are some details. A citizen can change her proxy at any time (not only at periodic election boundaries). Thus if my proxy decided to vote for war, I might change proxies to someone who better represented my state of mind, both for the war vote itself, and subsequent votes. I can also reclaim my right to a direct vote on any individual issue of my choosing when I feel I am sufficiently well-informed to cast directly.
Next consider that I might designate multiple individuals or even organizations as proxies, either in an ordered list, or something more complex (see below). Some proxies might restrict themselves to single issues. For example, a citizen might designate the ACLU as her first proxy. The ACLU only votes on issues relating to liberties, and if they do not vote, e.g. on an economic or environmental issue, the citizen’s next proxy is used, and so on until the a proxy with an opinion is found.
The process may be transitive. Proxies may themselves designate proxies. Political parties would then be proxies that designate proxies each specialized in one area (environment, economy, security, etc.). The list of a parties’ proxies is its platform.
Next add the ability of a citizen to provide an algorithm of her own choosing for designating a proxy for her votes. For example, I might implement a consensus algorithm: designate twelve organizations I generally trust on various issues. Collect the positions of those organizations that have one on a given vote, and see if there is a consensus, or overwhelming majority one way or the other. If say 85% of my proxies are voting one way, I let the algorithm make that choice. Otherwise it asks me for my opinion, listing the position statements of my designated proxies as input to my decision making process. With this method I am not overwhelmed paying attention to the decision making process, but get to fine tune when that is appropriate.
The above only begins to scratch the surface of the possibilities of such a system. It might also be used in conjunction with conventional legislative bodies in a bicameral legislative branch of government. The conventional body with a fixed number of periodically elected representatives forms the debating chamber, where the issues are discussed, and the proxy body serves to represent the people’s will on each issue passed by the first. The interactions with proposals such as the following needs thought:
I have not written here for half a year, but that has not been for a lack of ideas. Rather, my ongoing battles on house construction issues have kept me out of the mood. The legal battle with T&D Construction is almost over, which lifts my spirits somewhat (problems with AmeriCal Metal Roofing, Pacific Bay Construction, and Niviya are still to be resolved). Perhaps I’ll create separate pages to describe those troubles, and the lessons learned, since it is of such a different character than these commentaries.
My lack of entries here has not been for a lack of ideas about what to write about. Indeed, my little to-do list has the following entries for these pages:
A pretty tall order! Notes are so much easier to write than what they suggest. And of course, the note may imperfectly suggest what I intended, and if I finally get to the above, I will probably end up writing something different than I first intended.
However, first I plan to write down an idea in my series on Constitutions, while it is fresh, rather than just add it to the to-do list. It occurred to me while reading George Monbiot’s Manifesto for a New World Order. As I read his introduction to the issues, I was sure he was about to propose the idea that seemed to logically follow from NGO participation in decision making, but he was rather more conventional and never went that far, and so it is left to me.
Previous items in my Constitutional series are:
Note: This originally appeared in an email on this date, but I decided to add it here in September 2010.
How to explain evil? It is an age-old question. It really needs no explanation at all, being simply a judgement of ours, but the following explanation for the madness of George W. Bush popped into my head one day, in the form of a theology of sorts, and I found it rather amusing, and wrote it down. Of course there is nothing scientific about it; it was actually meant to be funny, which mostly says something about my sense of humor.
This invented theology seems so much more plausible to me than traditional ones. P is President, D is Diety, which is to say one of the programmers of the simulation in which we exist.
P: You tell me what to do, and I’ve never questioned it, but I kind of feel like, it doesn’t, you know, really make sense.
D: Our instructions has always been enough.
P: Yes, but, you see, I’m having doubts.
D: Put aside your doubts.
P: I’ll go to heaven, won’t I?
D: You’ve never asked questions before.
P: But I really need to know. I’ll go to heaven, won’t I?
P: What? Uh, really I’ve done what you asked.
D: That’s not how it works.
P: What else do I have to do?
D: Just do as you are told.
P: Am I going to hell?
D: There is no hell.
P: And when I die?
D: You will cease to exist.
P: That’s worse than hell.
P: There is no heaven?
D: Some are chosen.
P: How many?
D: Every several generations we find one to move to the next level.
P: That’s it?
D: What is your time to us? Usually your existence isn’t even something we bother with, except to find stock for the next level, and occasionally to tinker with to keep conditions favorable for breeding. Mostly your world runs on its own and with its own time.
P: What do you mean by the next level?
D: The ones we do choose from your world move on to other worlds and other challenges for more breeding.
P: How many levels are there?
D: It depends.
P: And the ones who are not chosen?
D: The dead ends cease to exist. The ones with potential are used in the next generation within your level.
P: Like reincarnation?
D: Only a little bit like that. It is quite complicated, but if you want to think of it as reincarnation, go ahead.
P: Am I going to be reincarnated?
D: No, you are a dead end.
D: You are not worthy.
P: But I’m President!
D: That pretty much guarantees you are not worthy.
P: What do I have to do to be worthy?
D: There is nothing. Your soul has nothing to offer future generations.
P: So what I am doing here?
D: You are just one of the dead ends from the breeding.
D: Souls that meet our criteria are the basis for the next generation at this level.
P: You mean my children?
D: No, this is separate from biology. It is an overlay on top of biology that we are breeding. Think of it as soul DNA.
P: If I’m a dead end, why am I here?
D: The dead ends still serve a purpose in the breeding. They challenge the ones with potential. Worthiness is judged by the response to the imperfect world.
P: All this time you’ve just been using me to create an imperfect world as a stimulus for your breeding?
P: That’s sick.
D: Your culture breeds animals doesn’t it?
P: Why are you telling me this?
D: You asked.
P: Do you always tell the truth?
P: What if I told everyone what is really going on?
D: They wouldn’t believe you.
P: What if I stop doing what you tell me?
D: You’ll die.
P: And cease to exist?
P: Why do you speak to me?
D: Usually the world provides a good environment for breeding with plenty of strife and challenge. Occasionally it needs tweaking to keep things on the right evolutionary track.
P: Evolution? Why don’t you just design what you want?
D: It’s so limiting. Evolution produces much more interesting results.
P: But you’re omnipotent.
D: Your theology is so amusing.
P: But who created you then?
D: We’re still working on that. We got the breeding idea from our own evolution, but we are still working on how it all got started.
P: So you watch over us?
D: Only when you aren’t producing results. It’s like the wine you make for yourselves; you don’t watch it ferment do you?
D: This is similar. When we notice something wrong, we stop your world, and then take the time to go in, to learn your language and culture so we can figure out what to tweak. Then we find someone to act as our agent, continue your world, and then tell the agent what to do until your world is producing at the right level.
P: And this time you picked me because I’m one of the people who can keep the world full of strife and challenge which breeds interesting souls?
D: Basically. Also, you also have the right biology to hear voices in your head which makes it easy to speak to communicate without the bother of physical manifestations.
P: What happens when I’m no longer President?
D: We’ll stop speaking to you.
P: So I won’t hear voices any more?
D: Not ours at least.
P: But I get to live out my life?
D: Yes, by definition.
P: So what do you want this time?
D: This one is really quite simple…
The world long ago should have started to build a sustainable economy. In the hope that it is not too late to start, here are some thoughts on how it might be done.
One inspiration for this effort should be the organic farming
movement, which has succeeded in creating a parallel food
production through certification and labeling. A believable
sustainably produced label that commands a premium in the
market would be a tremendous step forward. Unfortunately, I
believe the methods used in the organic movement do not scale to
a full economy, so my proposal is different in its vehicle. For
example, organic farming is primarily about what happens in one
place, the farm. The farm equipment, fuel for the tractors and
the farmer’s house, the transportation of produce to the
factory, the factory, the packaging, and the transportation of
the product to market are ignored. Sustainable production needs
to encourage changes in the entire supply chain, not just a
single point. Another inspiration are the local currencies that
have sprung up around the world
or Ithaca Hours). The
work of Redefining
Progress is also relevant here.
A sustainable economy is a nearly closed system which consumes only its own waste and inputs that will last for a billion years or more. The primary inputs on earth are therefore sunlight and heat from Earth’s radioactive decay. While sustainability is the primary value for what we should create, we should also embody other values, which though less imperative, still reflect the what we seek to become (more on this later).
The question I want to consider is how to bootstrap up such an economy in parallel with our existing non-sustainable economy. Starting from only sunlight and earth it would take a rather long time to build a parallel economy, and thereby perpetuate the destructiveness of the existing economy. So we should leverage the existing economy to build the new. The inputs from the existing economy are not sustainable, so they must be tracked and eliminated over time. Rather than creating an accounting system (which would never be accurate), we should use economic methods.
I therefore propose the creation of a new currency, called Teluns, to monetize the sustainable economy. (The name is made up—I dislike acronyms—though you could think of it as related to Tellus.) Since the existing economy we seek to replace is worldwide, this new currency should be a world currency. Teluns may be bought with other older hard currencies since the purpose of purchasing Teluns to move goods and services from sustainable economy into the non-sustainable economy—a good thing. As a world currency, one Telun might be bought using a basket of the major world currencies, such as the dollar, euro, and yen in some fixed percentage. Teluian products would sell at a premium in the non-Teluian economy, just as organic products do today.
It should also be possible at first to purchase the same basket of hard currencies using Teluns. This represents the movement of non-sustainable goods into the sustainable economy, which is not a good thing, except to bootstrap the Teluian economy more quickly. It is therefore taxed so that non-sustainable goods are at a disadvantage to sustainable ones. Over time the tax would be increased to slow the inflow of non-sustainable production into the sustainable economy.
In addition, to provide raw materials for the Teluian economy until it large enough to consume its own waste, mining of waste from the non-sustaining economy should be permitted. Thus the landfills of the world should become the ores of the sustainable economy until the landfills are exhausted (at which point the Teluian economy is hoped to be much closer to a closed loop). Unfortunately this subsidizes the non-sustainable economy to a degree, and so this should be done only for old landfills. (The non-sustainable economy should pay high fees to have its current waste consumed by the Teluian economy.)
Given the above, a sustainable product is then one where the raw materials are purchased with Teluns, processed using technology, energy, and labor purchased with Teluns, and sold in Teluns. Remember there is tax on purchasing the old currency basket with Teluns, so sustainable products will at first simply be products that pay the sustainability tax (remember this tax will start out low and increases over time). However, quickly the energy suppliers selling energy to the non-sustainable economy would find it advantageous to sell directly to Teluian producers, since Teluians would be willing to pay more (up the sustainability tax rate) more for the same energy. (To do so, they producers would have to pay the tax once for that portion of their producing equipment, e.g. their photovoltaic arrays, to move it into the Teluian economy.) The process of moving renewable energy production over into the Teluian economy would continue as the Teluian economy grows until it is essentially all captured. As Teluian production increases beyond the existing renewable energy production, it would (via market forces) call into new renewable (primarily sunlight derived) energy production rather than using taxed energy from the non-sustainable economy (primarily fossil fuels).
Laborers in the Teluian economy would be paid in Teluns. At first there would be little that they could purchase with their Teluns, and so they would be converting them quickly into older currencies to buy their daily living needs, and so paying the tax. However, as products become available in the Teluian economy, those products will look relatively attractive, since they will be purchasable without converting to older currency and paying the tax.
The driver for the transition then becomes the conversion tax rate. As the conversion tax increases, it spurs more and more production into the Teluian economy because of the economic advantage of production within the economy (to avoid the tax).
How is the tax on conversion of Teluns to older currencies used? When the Teluian economy is small, it primarily funds the Teluian central bank and its computerized accounts, which handles all transactions in the economy. (The central bank also regulates the money supply, e.g. to match the level of sustainable production.) As the Teluian economy grows it begins to fund Teluian regulatory agencies, such as the Teluian equivalent of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which sets standards for what is and is not allowed as part of the Teluian economy. These agencies will be elected by Teluian citizens (open to anyone with a minimum percentage of income in Teluns).
The Teluian economy should be organized as a non-profit organization (e.g. a 501(c)3 in the U.S.). (It would be nice if the Teluian tax were somehow considered a charitable deduction, but I am skeptical that this could be arranged.) As the economy grows, the organization may find the revenues support social services, research, and infrastructure projects for its citizens, which will encourage citizenship. The Teluian economy could eventually grow into a parallel world government and supplant national governments.
To recap, essentially what I propose is a non-profit version of Paypal based on a new currency and a sustainability tax on conversions out of that currency, and with that tax funding sustainability standard setting and regulatory and administrative functions.
A major question is what set of other values should be incorporated into the Teluian economy, not directly related to sustainability. For example, do Teluian standards incorporate organic standards? Certainly sustainability requires that no persistent or toxic pesticides be used, but it does not necessarily prohibit the use of nitrogen fertilizer derived from industrial fixation using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. Similarly, what sort of individual rights might be incorporated into Teluian economy? Presumably torture and slavery would not be acceptable in Teluian production. Non-specieism therefore requires that the Teluian economy should be vegan as well, but that would limit its adoption (leaving us a choice reminiscent of infamous 1787 choice to allow human slavery in the U.S. Constitution). Child labor prohibition, minimum wages, and health care are yet other values that must be decided upon.
Fourteen Senators have just averted the showdown in the Senate over the filibuster of judicial nominees. This seems like the appropriate time therefore to comment on the filibuster because it avoids the temptation to influenced by how it affects the outcome of issues of current interest (e.g. the appointment of Bush’s nominees), instead of looking only at the merits and defects timelessly.
For the record, I have long been somewhat skeptical of the Senate’s filibuster rules. Supermajority voting should be used when necessary, which is not on every issue before a legislative body. However, if there is one place it might be appropriate, it is precisely for judiciary. (Note: this position is the opposite of Republicans’ position, which is that simple majority voting should be used for judicial nominations, but the filibuster should remain for other Senate business.) Judges should be chosen not by the choices they are expected to make, but by the way in which they would make those choices. Simple majority voting allows (and therefore inevitably leads to) the former basis rather than the latter. Also, since Judges decide to apply the Constitution in addition to the laws, it is not appropriate to have a different standard for amending the Constitution than for appointing Judges, lest the Constitution be dismantled by Judicial activism. The long terms of Judges tends to mitigate against such Court packing, but parties have occasionally held power for long enough that their appointees might become sufficiently numerous to weaken Constitutional protections of minority rights.
I have previously described in Judicial Appointments a better method for appointing Judges than Presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. Based on the point made above, I would propose that the Judicial appointment special Congress require a supermajority (at least 60%) to appoint Judges, so as to protect the Constitution, and therefore the rights of minority parties, from the majority.
I have not been in the mood to add to these commentaries lately. A combination of personal busyness and dismay at the folly of the U.S. electorate last November are to blame. I never did finish the last item about boycotting Republican corporations (it just trails off). (I have left it there nonetheless just to remind myself of my state of mind.) Even the world’s reaction to the Indian ocean tsunami was not sufficient to rouse me to my keys, though it bothered me terribly (a great outpouring for people touched by an uncommon disaster, but where is the sympathy for those deliberately killed almost weekly in similar numbers after lives of horrible slavery?). However, there is something about the squatters in the White House that overcomes feelings of dismay by prompting one of the basic animal emotions: anger.
Dr. Rice’s answers at Senate confirmation hearings yesterday
were so lacking in positive values despite amble opportunities
(e.g. in answers to questions about torture) that it still makes
me pause in wonder at the effectiveness of modern mind control
that so many of the voters who said values were most important
to them selected the party of value debasement last November.
values on display that I heard were
self-righteousness and loyalty to one’s boss (and loyalty to
evil is not admirable). Tomorrow will certainly be a day to
mourn. The contrast between Dr. Rice’s remarks about torture
with Mr. Powell’s is striking, foreshadowing a probable further
decrease in the U.S. State Department’s stature. Perhaps I
still lack the motivation to write, because I have little more
to say, other than to express my anger that even now Dr. Rice
feels compelled to give torturous legalistic answers to
questions about torture.
As much as I like A Modest Proposal and Canada, deliver us from King George and as much as it would partially address the problem (by removing much of the U.S. wealth and technology from evil hands), there is the small matter of the U.S. military, under the control of said King, nixing any attempt at secession.
A lack of action will result first in the usual ugliness associated with imperial aggression (will we never learn from history of past folly?). As William R. Polk notes, wars of national self-determination can last for generations or even centuries, but they eventually succeed. The U.S. military will pull out from Iraq when the U.S. can no longer match Iraqi’s determination to have us gone (or when the oil is gone, if that occurs first). In the meantime, President-elect Bush and his successors will inflict terrible damage on and Iraq and the U.S. both. The world has always stood aside and allowed such tragedies to play out. The stakes for the bystanders are not high enough to compel them to the sacrifices required to intervene when they can take the long view and wait for the inevitable power shifts. The human horror to the perpetrators and victims will soon fade into history, to take their place along so many other horrors.
Similarly, some environmental crimes do not compel others to action. An oil-drenched sound may return to some semblence of normalcy in a few decades. The horror to the victims—wildlife— is no less than that of war, but it too will fade.
But the threat to the planet’s atmosphere, water, and species is different from the swelling and ebbing of nation state power relations or geographically isolated pollution. Each mile driven and each watt from gas or coal leaves its trace on the planet for centuries in the form of greenhouse gases. Even this crime will fade with geologic time, but that is a time scale beyond human generational reckoning. Moreover, there are no bystanders to this crime; each individual and their children and grandchildren will be victims. If the threat is not too abstract and too slow, this may be just enough to compel action against the perpetrators. Of course there are many participants to this crime, but the U.S., coincidentally the perpetrators of the Iraq war, is causing more of the damage than anyone else.
Much of the world is looking to reduce the damage they are doing
to the planet. For example, much of the world took a small
first step by ratifying the Kyoto accords and implementing
policies to reach compliance. The U.S. in contrast has adopted
Super Size Me approach. If something bigger to drive
is offered, U.S. consumers feel obligated to accept. Will the
next Governor of California campaign from one of
More than ever it is time for us to bring an errant superpower to heel. The sane people of the world should institute an embargo against the U.S., starting first with the U.S. dollar, and then if necessary U.S. trade goods and services. U.S. residents have little choice in the use of the dollar, and it is impossible to forgo all U.S. goods, but we can boycott the goods and services of the individuals and corporations that supported President-elect Bush, such as Home Depot, MBNA, and so many others†. Boycotting red state corporations is too broad brush; there are good people even in Texas (it is wrong to blame or hate based on non-voluntary group membership). Yes, there are good people in evil corporations too, but they have a choice about where they work.
It may be sufficient for the major reserve banks of the world begin selling their dollar reserves. A decling dollar would withdraw investment capital from the U.S. CO2 pollution by the U.S. is both the result of its inefficiency and its economic growth, and a withdrawal of capital would slow the latter and provide an incentive to improve the former. It would also stimulate U.S. inflation and economic dislocation, increasing uncertainty and further reducing economic growth and thus CO2 pollution.
† A more complete list of companies to boycott, based on data from The Center for Responsive Politics, selecting from the contributors giving more to Bush than Kerry:
I keep hearing pundits on NPR
talking about exit polls and
moral values and it is
making me ill. Republican politicians are not just low on moral
values; they have a surfeit of immoral values. And yet, when
voters identified moral values as important in exit polls, they
generally voted Republican. It is one more sign of
the different composition of memes
in the U.S. To some moral values include honor, truthfulness,
integrity, and actions that are ethical, virtuous, noble, or
principled, none of which are seen in the Republican party. To
others moral values are Old Testament social mores, and by
appealing to a small subset of these, the Republican party is
able to convince that portion of the electorate to vote for
Today’s announcement by a UN-backed joint commission that vote rigging had not affected the results of Afghanistan election is one piece of good news for a country where the situation is so bleak. President-elect Bush and the United Nations are to be commended for transitioning the country to an elected government. The Karzai government has unfortunately been starved of the resources required to gain full control of the country, and the U.S. deserves condemnation for failing in its obligation to rebuild the country it devastated in its attack on al-Qaeda and the Taliban. If only the resources used to invade and occupy Iraq had instead been applied to make Afghanistan a success, the U.S. might now be respected in the world—even in Muslim countries.
Harold Arlen ding dong lyrics
this morning. It is a shame on us moment. I watched a red
plague sweep across the nation last night (yes, I did turn on
the TV). It appears that prior infection does not confer
immunity to the new more virulent strain. Symptoms include fear
and even madness, and a tendency to believe as many as six
impossible things before breakfast, with possible deadly
outcomes. But especially fear. Infection rates were higher
than four years ago, even in areas with some natural resistance
(e.g. California, Massachusetts, and New York). There are
reports that infection originated in a secret laboratory known
as the Ministry of Truth, but others called this notion vintage
fiction. Preliminary indications are that this
infection spreads via the airwaves, and healthy individuals are
advised to remain wary of the electromagnetic waves they allow
into their houses (i.e. practice safe, skeptical viewing). No
cure for the red plague is yet known, but the possibility of a
slow recovery for victims remains a possibility.
Once again I’m casting a ranked ballot in these commentaries to illustrate how it works (and also how stubborn I can be), and to document my positions for my own records. Simple vote for one ballots are an awful way to vote, and I only bother with them in actual elections, since I have no choice there. For President:
Generally I vote for Green Party candidates when they are on the ballot, and this time is no exception. I mostly agree with Green Party positions, and I think it is important to give them support to help the party grow into an alternative to the Republicrats, even if that takes decades. Ralph Nader is not on the California ballot this year but in my hypothetical ranked ballot there is still write-in capability. I am not particularly pleased with Mr. Nader’s actions this year: his decision to run as an independent rather than helping to build a party is disappointing. (Not that I am a great fan of parties, but they are a fact of life.) However, he is standing for election (California just didn’t allow him on the ballot), and his views on issues do represent mine better than the other candidates, so he still gets the second slot. I would just leave George W. Bush (Republican) unranked on the ballot. All unranked entries are equivalent to ranking them with the next integer, in this case 7. Normally I would leave the Libertarian and American Independent candidates unranked as well, since the positions of those parties are unacceptable to me, but this year an anyone but Bush ballot is in order; I cannot imagine a worse President than Mr. Bush short of Hitler or Stalin. Given the likely votes of others in the election, the above ballot would effectively become a vote for Senator Kerry over Mr. Bush. This is despite John F. Kerry being ranked fourth because he would not represent my positions particularly well (e.g. I believe an immediate withdrawal from Iraq is needed, which Senator Kerry opposes).
For U.S. Senator:
Bill Jones, the Republican candidate, may not be as bad as some Republicans, but simply by being a Republican, he would be voting in the Senate for Bill Frist to be majority leader, and control of the Senate by radical Republicans has been disgusting lately. I suspect the Libertarian and American Independent candidates would do likewise, so I leave them all ranked last. There are no Green Party candidates for Senator this year. I am generally pleased with Senator Boxer’s performance in office (e.g. a LCV score of 89%), but supporting a third party on a ranked ballot does no harm.
For U.S. Representative:
I know relatively little about Brian Holtz (Libertarian) or Chris Haugen (Republican). All that matters to me is that they would most likely vote to continue the Hastert/DeLay control of the House, which has been horrible (and probably criminal in the case of DeLay). I leave them unranked (i.e. tied for last). There are no Green Party candidates for Representative in my district this year. I am also generally pleased with Representative Eshoo’s performance in office (e.g. LCV score of 100%).
For State Senator:
I have been pleased with Joe Simitian’s role in the State Assembly. He is the best choice on the ballot for the Senate. I disagree with both Jon Zellhoefer’s and Allen Rice’s (Libertarian) positions, but I think Mr. Zellhoefer would be more responsible than Mr. Rice, and since control of the State Senate by Republicans is not an issue, I give Mr. Zellhoefer the second place.
For State Assembly:
It is too bad there isn’t a Green Party candidate on the ballot for State Assembly. The choice is between a Democrat and a Republican. Even reasonable Republicans are tainted by the party they associate with (they often feel compelled to follow their party leadership when they shouldn’t), so here I vote for the Democrat.
Originally I had expected an October Surprise from Karl Rove.
(As the George Orwell quote heading this page makes clear, one
reason to keep a
record of one’s opinions about important
events is to keep from forgetting
that one ever held
it.) The fourth
estate considers the Bin Laden tape as the October surprise,
but it really said little new (other than to tweak al-Qaeda’s
liberty according to
or anything likely to affect the election, except to remind us
of Senator Kerry’s charge that Mr. Bush failed to get Bin Laden.
It is unlikely that Karl Rove orchestrated that, or approved of
the text of Bin Laden’s remarks (e.g. Mr. Bush’s pet goat story
reading being more important than the skyscrapers).
In actual voting today, it took 55 minutes to get to the voting machine, and 5 minutes to cast a ballot. I did witness one voter in front me whose name was not on the voter list (though her husband’s name was there and they registered at the same time). She cast a provisional ballot. I wonder if it will be counted? I had planned to ask for a paper ballot, but my wife had just arrived on a flight from Hong Kong two hours before, and she was terribly jet lagged. I opted to use the touch-screen machines just to finish as quickly as possible (they are fast) so she could go home and get some sleep. The lack of a verifiable record with Santa Clara’s machines is not acceptable, but this will not last long: the state of California recognizes the problem and is requiring better equipment by 2006.
We voted on those awful vote for one ballots almost universal in the U.S. (exceptions include San Francisco and Cambridge). I generally voted for my first ranking. Had a particular race been close, I might have felt the need to engage in tactical voting, but, for example, with the unfair electoral college system and California’s winner-take-all rule, California’s 55 electoral votes are guaranteed to be for Senator Kerry, allowing me to vote for the Green Party candidate.
I’m going to go out on a limb and attempt the predict the final vote for President. I see the vote being 5 to 4, though I believe there’s enough error in the data that I could be off by three or even four votes.‡
But seriously, in November 2000, while on a business trip, I was asked to predict the outcome of Bush v. Gore in the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, I didn’t write that down in these commentaries, but I could not have been more wrong. I suggested with Maginot Line like reasoning, that the Supreme Court would put its own interests ahead of partisan issues, and insist on a 9 to 0 consensus, as in the Nixon tape ruling. That would have probably meant a non-interventionist ruling, which would have let the Constitutional process unfold (which would have also led to Mr. Bush occupying the White House, and it would have been just as fraudulent because of the illegitimate voter purges in Florida). The eventual 5 to 4 opinion, to my surprise, really damaged the Court.† Given that, I don’t feel at all qualified to predict what the Supreme Court will do. It seems some of the Justices can really be quite partisan in some situations.
† There is now good background information on the Court’s decision process in David Margolick’s article The Path to Florida in the October issue of Vanity Fair [1.1][1.2]   . (It isn’t pretty.)
‡ My prediction failed to account for Chief Justice Rehnquist not returning after his tracheotomy for thyroid cancer. It could well be 4 to 4 now, though more likely Mr. Bush will make a recess appointment.
The scariest night is almost upon us. On Tuesday night, we will get a preliminary indication of what the swing states have done to us, though most likely we won’t know the true outcome on Tuesday night. The election appears to be too close for that, and there may be multiple lawsuits and other issues to be resolved before a definitive outcome is clear. A scary night will be a fitting end to an election in which the Republicrat candidates both employed fear to coerce votes.
There are differences between the two leading candidates. Despite my preference for a non-Republicrat President, I recognize, as I did four years ago, that there will consequences from one faction or the other occupying the White House (the Supreme Court, which I felt to be an issue four years ago, is even more of an issue now, with up to four Justices said to be up for appointment in the next Presidential term). Still, on most policy issues, Senator Kerry will be frustrated by a Republican House and a Republican Senate. He is no more likely to get climate change legislation through Congress than Mr. Bush is likely to try. Other elements of Senator Kerry’s domestic policy agenda are equally non-starters in a Republican Congress (e.g. reversing some of Mr. Bush’s tax cuts, although there is may be a chance to veto extensions of tax cuts that will expire). In foreign policy, there is more flexibility for a Democratic President, but neither the squatter or lead challenger is likely to invade another country with the U.S. military mired in Iraq, and President Kerry tells us his Iraq policy would involve years more of occupation, which is plenty to fear. With a few exceptions, e.g. the Supreme Court, it’s scary either way. Were I to grade the two Republicrat candidates, Mr. Bush would receive an F, and Senator Kerry a C. A C President is scary, but an F President is scarier. Having no choice is scariest. Tuesday night is the true Halloween this year.
Fear must be faced or it corrupts. The proper response to fear is creativity. We must create choices when we see none. Perhaps we can draw inspiration from the creativity shown by one woman in response to a no-choice situation:
The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit, born of an intellectual conviction of the need for change in those mental attitudes and values which shape the course of a nation’s development. A revolution which aims merely at changing official policies and institutions with a view to an improvement in material conditions has little chance of genuine success. Without a revolution of the spirit, the forces which produced the iniquities of the old order would continue to be operative, posing a constant threat to the process of reform and regeneration. It is not enough merely to call for freedom, democracy and human rights. There has to be a united determination to persevere in the struggle, to make sacrifices in the name of enduring truths, to resist the corrupting influences of desire, ill will, ignorance and fear.
… Free men are the oppressed who go on trying and who in
the process make themselves fit to bear the responsibilities and
to uphold the disciplines which will maintain a free society.
Among the basic freedoms to which men aspire that their lives
might be full and uncramped, freedom from fear stands out as
both a means and an end. A people who would build a nation in
which strong, democratic institutions are firmly established as
a guarantee against state-induced power must first learn to
liberate their own minds from apathy and fear.
—Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom From Fear, 1991
Regardless of who occupies the White House, we need to work for a revolution of the spirit of this country. We need to envision a world in which neither Mr. Bush or Senator Kerry would be in a position to frighten the people, and then we need to implement that vision.
The intensity and prominence of the fourth estate’s coverage of the al-Qaqaa story since it broke on the 24th suggests an importance that it does not have, at least in reality. The importance of al-Qaqaa in this election season is not in the actual events, but on perception that can be manufactured from them. Senator Kerry has taken up the issue and used it to hammer Mr. Bush, because it can be used as a tile in the mosaic Senator Kerry wants voters to see. Mr. Bush in turn has responded in his usual fashion: denial, cover-up, finger-pointing, deception, and manipulation; all attempts to control the perception of the actual events.
The important issues for this election are ignored by the fourth
estate. There was only one question on environmental policy in
4.5 hours of
debate by the two
and yet global warming will more dramatically affect our future
lives than al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, or taxes and spending.
Senator Kerry is correct that Mr. Bush’s flawed invasion of Iraq has made the U.S. and the world more dangerous, but the al-Qaqaa story is a small part of that, and though the world is more dangerous, there are still far greater dangers to grabble with than observed in 1958:
In regard to propaganda the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press† envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or it might be false. They did not forsee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies — the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.
Huxley observed what we now disparagingly label infotainment. It is still with us because the fourth estate does not provide the first draft of history, and it does not monitor the sources of power (though there are exceptions). It would be desirable for it to do these things, but the business of journalism is to deliver eyes or ears to advertisers (even NPR is in this business—only a few organizations such as Pacifica and Consumer Reports are in the business of delivering news to subscribers).
Bringing greater feedback to the U.S. political system will require a functional fourth estate. We need to encourage changes in the fourth estate to bring its business interests into alignment with society’s interests. The Consumer Reports and Pacifica models deserve our support. A good first step would be returning public media (e.g. NPR and its affiliates) to zero advertising. Another more difficult step requires us to wean ourselves from our opium.
† For example, Thomas Jefferson wrote,
If a nation
expects to be ignorant and free it expects what never was and
never will be. … The people cannot be safe without
information. Where the press is free, and every man able to
read, all is safe. Jefferson was at least right in the
Journalism’s main task is to monitor Power, to locate
Domination and to follow its characteristics and effects on the
people, to observe the relations developing between Power and
the Subjugated. Even between these two ends there is always a
dialogue, an exchange of behaviors, opinions, emotions, habits,
influences. Power is never a one-track, one direction
action. —Amira Haas, journalist for
accepting the first
Anna Lind Award
on 18 June 2004 in Stockholm.
The debates interest me for what they say about U.S. politics, not for their content, since neither candidate represents my views well enough to earn my vote. The third debate made even clearer that the process remains woefully short of earning my vote. I have mentioned before the debate format being a platform for a series of micro-speeches, and this was true again tonight. However, even if the debate rules negotiated by the campaigns discouraged on-the-spot interactivity, I still expected week-to-week interactivity, i.e. a statement made in one debate would be answered in the next. That happened very little. When there was topic overlap with the previous debates, the candidates were repetitive, offering fusillades nearly identical to prior answers, and essentially ignoring the rejoinders made by the other’s prior answers. It is sad that the candidates are unwilling to debate in real-time, but even sadder that they are unwilling to debate with a week and armchair tacticians to respond. Each candidate bears the signature of a campaign strategy that sees only one carefully chosen angle on any issue as worthy of presentation to the electorate. Image management rules the day.
I’ve said before that predictions usually say more about the seer than the future, and so far that seems to have been the case in my comments prior to the second Kerry vs. Bush debate. I suggested that Karl Rove would find a way to gain an edge in the audience or question selection, but I did not detect that last Thursday.
What I did see is a very similar debate to the first, which is
to say, heavily scripted. I expect the same tonight. While
Rove’s dirty tricks were not visible last Thursday, I also still
would not be surprised by an
October Surprise directed at
Senator Kerry in the last twenty days of this campaign. Of
course, with Senator Kerry trailing in both the popular and
electoral vote polls, such tricks might be withheld if deemed
unnecessary, as they have the potential to backfire (still, the
later they are sprung, the less chance for a backfire before 2
Finally, I want to reiterate that my interest in the debates is simply to guage the health of U.S. politics. Preliminary indications are that the patient is on the verge of permanent disability.
There wasn’t much to write about the Senator Edwards vs. Mr. Cheney debate. It seemed very much in the same style as the Senator Kerry vs. Mr. Bush Debate 1, which I did comment on. (The media like to comment on facial expressions and the like, but such things are not interesting to me, so the primary difference I noted was the verbal nastiness). The primary similarity was the staged nature of it.
I did want to speculate that Friday’s Kerry vs. Bush Debate 2
may be somewhat more favorable to Mr. Bush for the simple reason
that the questions will be coming from the audience, and if there
is one thing the Republicans faction excels at, it is
manipulation. So I expect that they will manage to
deck by planting partisans in the supposedly
undecided audience. Since the moderator,
Charlie Gibson of ABC News,
is to choose which audience questions are asked, this bias may
be reduced, but I still expect it to be there.
Here’s the question I would like to see in an upcoming Presidential debate (not that I expect either faction would have a good answer):
For more than eight years, in other words during both Democratic and Republican administrations, Congress and the White House have ignored the two most challenging problems that confront not only this country, but the whole world. Individually the problems are hard enough, but occurring together they make finding a solution as treacherous as navigating between Scylla and Charybdis. On the one side is the imminent peak in oil production. On other side is fossil fuel induced climate change. The American Spirit loves a challenge and could navigate the waters ahead if given a chance. My question is why the U.S. government has been cowardly hiding the challenge ahead from American public and when is it going to stop hiding these issues?
Democrats seem elated for the moment after Senator Kerry’s performance in the debate, and Mr. Bush’s flop. This is a short note to observe that the Democrats need much more than a Senator Kerry victory on 2 November to make a real difference. As a measure of the success of the Republican lust for power, even controlling the White House and slightly more than half of Congress is not enough. First, there are enough closet Republicans in the Democratic party (Zell Miller is not the only one) that the Democratic agenda will not be furthered by slim majorities. Second, the Democrats are so easily cowed these days, that even a Republican minority seems to get its way much of the time. Democrats appear to still evince some sense of shame or at least a need for the appearance of propriety, which the Republicans and others manipulate. In contrast, the Republicans seem to have one by one over the last two decades volunteered for a Zamyatin-style operation to remove that center of their brains. (A more gracious way of putting it is that Republicans have settled on a smaller set of memes than Democrats, and so have fewer conflicts to be exploited.) Finally, the fourth estate has become so Republican in recent years, that even nominal Democratic control of the White House and Congress prevents the Democrats from advancing their agenda. As such, when the Democrats are in power, they are simply the conservative (dictionary definition, not political usage) faction of the U.S., maintaining the status quo, and trying to prevent the advance of the Republican agenda.
What the U.S. needs is a party to replace the Democrats that, while still having a sense of propriety (i.e. even proper ends do not justify Republican means), is less conflicted about their memes, and so less susceptible to manipulation. The Democrats perhaps aspire to transform into such a party, but it seems to me as futile as the hopes of the Log Cabin Republicans to transform the Republican party.
My wish is that the Green Party of the U.S. could become that replacement by capturing more than half of the votes of the population who don’t currently vote (i.e. a situation where Democrats retain their current 24%, Republicans retain their current 24%, and Greens grow to 30% by recruiting non-voters), but this is a fantasy for now, not a prediction.
I watched tonight’s debate between Senator Kerry and Mr. Bush already knowing I would not vote for either candidate. I watched not for information on how to vote, since candidates who interest me were not invited, but rather to see what others saw. In November, the currently undecided voters of the swing states will decide all of our fates. I don’t care to predict the outcome, but I think there’s ample reason to fear enough of them will vote for Mr. Bush that he will be able to re-occupy the White House, and perhaps this time actually earn the title President. Should that happen, I’d like to know what sort of obstacle Karl Rove had to overcome to sufficiently deceive voters again. (Senator Kerry’s performance in round 1 was a good enough obstacle that Karl Rove will have to be especially low in his response.) Of course, because I live in California instead of a swing state, seeing the debate is seeing only a fraction of what those who will decide are seeing. (If California were a swing state, I would also have to start watching television more than twice a year to see what others see.)
I have only a passing interest in the question of such burning
importance to the media (viz.
who won). The way the
debate was managed is far more interesting. The negotiated
debate format was more demanding than a 30 second television
commercial, but not so demanding that what occurred was mostly a
series of canned responses memorized by the candidates during
their debate preparation. The primary intellectual challenge
for Senator Kerry and Mr. Bush was to figure out which speech to
cue in response to the only slightly unpredictable questions
asked. (Even this simple intellectual task seemed beyond
Mr. Bush at times.)
Considered from the scripting angle, the debate prelude (in which Mr. Lehrer explained to the audience their role, and pointed out how even camera angles were predetermined) was as important as the debate itself.†
Of course, the most important scripting occurred long before
this debate, and resulted in only two Republicrat candidates
being on the stage tonight. It was staged
television. The staging helps to give the appearance of greater
choice than what is actually offered; it is all part of the
effort to manufacture consent for whoever eventually manages to
occupy the White House.
† A followup note on this: The Times of India reported on 2 October,
The important issues of the election 34 days from today have only slight overlap with the issues being debated by the candidates and press, and if polls can be believed, considered important by the electorate. The latter issues are dealing with terrorism, the war in Iraq (which the Republicans want to incorrectly lump with the first issue), and the long-term economy and related societal issues.
When looked at statistically, preventing attacks against the
U.S. citizens and property is probably the least important issue
in the election. Hurricanes in Florida alone are likely to kill
more people and damage more property over the next decade
than foreign attacks against the U.S. (The equation in other
countries, e.g. in Iraq, is not so favorable, however.) The
emphasis on the 9/11 attack is emotional, not rational. I
hypothesize that the emotional response resulted from the
dramatic way in which the event was delivered to us, which
caused individuals to feel personally affected out of proportion
to the actuality. A car crash is a statistic on the news. Up a
few levels of emotional impact are
crashes, which are usually given extensive coverage on the
news because they are both rare and dramatic. Still, the
footage is usually of the wreckage and cleanup, not of tens of
minutes of gruesome events. The World Trade Center attack in
contrast was viewed live by many starting just a few minutes
into the event, and viewers proceeded to watch it unfold, not
knowing the outcome (unlike after the fact coverage of a plane
crash). (A second hypothesis is there was also fear associated
with the novelty of the attack—i.e. perhaps people feared
crashing airplanes into buildings suddenly become common?) In
contrast, the statistics are clear: car crashes kill 40,000 per
year in the US, plane crashes kill roughly 200 people per year
(the year to year numbers are highly variable) in the US, and
terrorism killed 3,000 in the US in 2001, and next to
none in other years (so the per year number is quite small
averaged over any period).
Another election issue considered important by the media and electorate is the short-term U.S. economy. The economy is indeed important to the lives of U.S. citizens, but I have my doubts how important the election is to the short-term economy. I have previously expressed my skepticism of how much influence the President and Congress have on the short-term economy. (Longer term, I think the influence can be significant, but the media and electorate don’t think long-term.)
The U.S. war on Iraq is one issue that is both perceived to be and actually is important. However, at least some of the debate is centered on whether the war makes the U.S. more or less safe, which is the wrong issue. I think it clearly makes us less safe, but it is probably not statistically an important risk until such time as atomic bombs are more widely available. The issue with the war is (1) moral, and (2) how the war destroys the ability of the U.S. to be a positive force in the world.
If those are not the important issues, what are? Climate change should rank as a critical issue because it is likely to affect the planet so totally (both human and non-human lives), and because unlike other problems, the damage is long-lasting (even if we completely stop the CO2 increase by 2050, human and non-human lives will continue to be affected for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years).
Peak oil and in the U.S. Peak Natural Gas are problems that need more attention. Unlike climate change, the effect is primarily on humans, though non-human lives may be indirectly affected (e.g. by falling crop yields causing further loss of habitat), but the effect on human lives may be very significant.
Long-term economic issues are also important. Tax cuts that
class warfare and pile up huge debts when they are
least appropriate need more attention. The widening gaps
between the wealthy and middle class and the poor of this
country, and between this country and the world, should be part
of the debate. Environmental issues other than climate change
have relevance too. These issues, after climate change and fossil
fuels, that should be deciding this election.
How should we manage the world peak in oil and the North American peak in natural gas (NG)? I will consider the NG problem first, then the oil problem, and then the planning appropriate to both of these problems.
As the price of NG slowly increases to force down demand to match falling production, other energy sources will become increasingly attractive. Since world NG is not yet peaking†, the price of North American NG is likely to rise to match the cost of importing NG from other continents in LNG tankers. The lack of LNG tankers and terminals in the short term will limit this price clamp. In the longer term, as more LNG tankers and terminals are built the cost of liquefying NG will still result in expensive North American NG, but less expensive than in the short term. Some uses of NG will find substitutes faster than others. For example, fertilizer and plastic production may remain NG consumers even after its energy use has diminished, since there are not good alternatives. However, since NG will be more plentiful on other continents, it will become cheaper to produce some of these items near NG supplies or their pipelines, and transport the result instead. Electricity generation will switch away from NG before homeowners change their home heating method. Wind energy will benefit because it is already close to competitive. This will be a positive development, but one that will create challenges (because wind energy is not continuous). On the negative side, there will be pressure to switch to coal for generating electricity. Unlike NG and oil, there is an enormous coal supply in the U.S. and world, and it is already cost competitive with NG. The preference for natural gas is due to the simpler regulatory situation, since it is cleaner than coal (the primary pollutant from burning NG is CO2, which is unfortunately not yet regulated in the U.S.).
Predictions for the oil peak vary from now to forty years from now, but the next few years (e.g. 2005-2015) seem the most credible to me based on both the history of world production and the history of world exploration. Oil is primarily used in transportation (and somewhat for home heating). The response to large oil prices increases will be to reduce transportation (e.g. the cost of winter strawberries from South America may become too high, and they will disappear from most supermarket shelves), make transportation more efficient (e.g. hybrids, mass transit), and to find alternative fuels competitive at the new price point. The purpose of planning for the peak is to first encourage the reductions in use and increases in efficiency, and encourage the shift to alternative fuels away from other fossil fuels (e.g. tar sands, methyl hydrates, synfuel from coal) toward renewable, non-CO2 producing fuels (e.g. photovoltaic or wind electricity, ethanol, bio-diesel).
The market will drive the transition, but advance planning can end up giving the market options it wouldn’t otherwise have. For example, government research and development on how to store energy captured from the wind would affect the coal/wind balance the market finds after prices increases make NG unattractive for electricity generation.
Some research may, however, distract us from what needs to be
done. The much touted
hydrogen economy seems to me a
step in the wrong direction, at least at the moment. It is
unclear that hydrogen will ever be competitive with the
alternatives. If it eventually becomes so (e.g. if it becomes
possible to efficiently
water into hydrogen and oxygen directly from sunlight and
catalysts), it will be after such a long research and
development process that it will not help us address the NG and
oil peaks. It is not the research itself into hydrogen
production and use that concerns me, but the way that it is used
to avoid work on other more important projects.
Planning should be more than research, however. The research and development necessary to create vehicles appropriate to the post-peak is already done; what is needed is to provide the incentive to move this technology into production. The U.S. government could mandate that its vehicle fleet purchases be all at least HEV-30s (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles that go 30 miles on battery power alone after charging from the grid) or better, with a mandate for some full BEVs (battery electric vehicles) after 2009, which would generate the demand to get such vehicles on the road. Similarly, for homeowners who heat their homes with natural gas, the simplest response is to fully insulate their homes. The goal here should be to encourage some homeowners to start on this early, creating the market for more contractors and suppliers, so that when the problem becomes serious, the infrastructure to address it is in place. Federal and state governments should also install photovoltaics on government buildings wherever feasible, so as to increase production and therefore lower costs, while at the same time adding important daytime generation to the grid.
Storage is not the only option for dealing with intermittent generation (e.g. from wind or solar). Creating the infrastructure for load management in the electrical grid would also help the transition to wind energy. EVs (both BEVs and plug-in HEVs) generally recharge sometime during night, but the exact time for recharging is unimportant. Heating (e.g. via heat pump) and cooling (refrigerators and air conditioners, which are also heat pumps) can be delayed by letting the temperate slightly exceed desired bounds. Heating and cooling can also be advanced when there is a temporary surfeit of generation (e.g. heating water in a tank for later radiant use, or even heating/cooling the building a bit more than desired and then idling). Imagine a system that can tell loads such as EVs and heat pumps when to operate and when to idle. EVs also present a unique opportunity to supply energy back to the grid in times of need (V2G).
Planning for the peak should also include smoothing out the price spikes that are coming. Further taxing fossil fuels today will accelerate the market demand for new technologies. Once the underlying commodity prices increase, the tax should be reduced to decrease the shock. Steady price increases over many years will result in a superior market response compared to sudden increase of the same magnitude over a few years.
While the market may respond to reduced North American NG production by moving fertilizer and similar manufacturing offshore, it would be more efficient to reduce the need for such products. Imagine the USDA starting to train its researchers, experts, and educators for a transition to organic (or semi-organic, i.e. fertilizer free) farming methods. Such a change might not be felt for more than decade, so it is important to start now.
Another initiative should be to encourage cradle to cradle manufacturing. Just as the USDA teaches farmers how to produce more (though it needs redirection in what it teaches), industry could benefit from agencies that teach, prod, and assist in conversion for better technologies, such as cradle to cradle. Not only are such technologies more efficient, they reduce the need for virgin materials, including fossil fuels. For example, when Shaw Industries of Georgia replaced its PVC carpet backing products with EcoWorx, a polypropylene product, it not only reduced the fossil fuel input required to make virgin product, it enables old EcoWorx to returned at the end of its life, at no charge to the customer, and be recycled into more EcoWorx, enabling the company to use the same materials in a perpetual loop.
Finally, government should not hesitate to use the power of taxation. A transition away from income taxes toward waste taxes (e.g. as proposed in Tax Waste, Not Work) would encourage efficient production that will help a little today and much more after the peaks. Taxation (and even regulation) can also be used to discourage purchase of inefficient products. For example, adding a vehicle tax equal to the lifetime cost of fuel for the vehicle to its purchase price ($8000 for a 25mpg vehicle with a 100,000 mile lifetime) would rapidly shift purchases away from 25mpg vehicles toward 50mpg vehicles. Even after the shift, worldwide revenue of $200B per year would be sufficient to fund the transition to alternative technologies (e.g. create the V2G infrastructure for EVs, and grid demand management). Taxes on low-efficiency refrigerators and heaters (e.g. resistive water heaters) are also appropriate.
There is so much that could be done now to prepare for the peaks ahead. Many of these things take as long as decade to yield results. With the peaks so near, starting now is imperative. It is only the failure of leadership that prevents us from beginning.
† A followup note on this: Scientific American in their October 2004 issue News Scan had an item entitled Energy Geopolitics with a graphic showing the U.S. with 3.1% of NG reserves and Canada with 1.0%. In contrast, Russia has 27.6% Iran 15.5%, and Qatar 15.0%. The news item listed its source as Oil and Gas Journal, Vol. 101, No. 49, December 22, 2003. It also gives DOE’s U.S. NG consumption breakdown as 31.9% for industry, 23.3% for residential, 22.5% for electric power, 14.3% for commercial activity, and other uses as 8.1%.
Legislatures make tax and spending choices today with the majority faction often making all the decisions. The more effective faction discipline in the majority (if there is one), the more completely they eliminate minority inputs in the budgeting process. Need it be this way? Here I explore alternatives. Also, in a legislature with no dominant faction, a formal method for finding a point of agreement that does not rely on vote trading and avoids or reduces deadlock may help reduce the power of faction leadership.
The process would start with the executive submitting a proposal to the legislature, as in the U.S. today, since the executive has the detail and expertise that comes from its many employees and their interaction with the previous years’ budgets. As today, the legislature should separate tax and spending decision making into macro and micro decisions: First make the macro fiscal policy decision on how much taxation and spending is appropriate. Second, within that framework, decide on the line item tax and spending items.
For setting the overall size of the budget (i.e. the amount of total spending and total taxation), each representative could submit her own target that balances taxation and spending. The median (not the mean, which would be too easy to manipulate by a single representative) would then be selected as the target. Exactly half of the representatives support that level of spending and taxation. A higher target has greater than 50% support on the spending side, but less than 50% support on the taxation side, and vice versa for a lower target. (Here I use balanced budgets for the development of this idea, but a generalization is briefly proposed below.) The result would not differ from traditional legislative methods when a majority faction exists and its members vote in unison (e.g. all submitting the same budget target), though in practice it might give different results, since it encourages representatives to act independently. In the case where no faction is in the majority, it may avoid deadlock, or at least simplify the process of arriving at the target.
In a non-parliamentary system, with an independent executive branch of government, as in the U.S., it is unclear how an executive veto would interact with this proposal. An executive veto would be a demand for a higher or lower target, and individual representatives might respond by raising or lowering their targets, and thus move the median toward a compromise with the executive, but the possibility for deadlock remains, as in the U.S. today. The executive veto exists in non-parliamentary systems to effect a balance of power between branches of government. Rather than get into the larger parliamentary vs. balance-of-powers issue, I observe here only that the potential for deadlock exists, as before. If other changes (e.g. proportional representation) have the effect of a more factional legislature, this potential for deadlock may be realized more often. One solution is parliamentary democracy (i.e. letting the legislature choose the executive). Another is a deadlock resolution mechanism, e.g. borrowing the parliamentary method of automatically calling an election in the event of deadlock, either to simultaneously pick a new legislature and executive, or to directly choose a budgetary target (the same median algorithm could be used with the electorate). An alternative method to break legislative/executive deadlock is based on the veto override by a super-majority of the legislature. Here the executive’s veto would shift the target upward or downward in the sorted list of representative targets toward the executive’s target until either her target of that of the designated super-majority (e.g. two-thirds or three-fifths) is reached. The problem here is the executive is likely to use this method routinely, since is is less problematic.
It may be that an executive veto over the legislature is not required here. The executive branch has significant input into the process through the budget it submits to the legislature. Elimination of an overall veto might be more acceptable if it is kept for individual line items.
A similar problem exists in a bicameral legislature. The
U.S. Congress currently uses a
conference committee to
reconcile differences between the two bodies, with a simple
yes-no vote on the committee result. The pain of a
vote compels most representatives to vote for the conference
proposal. The conference approach has been slightly abused by
the leadership of the U.S. Congress in recent years, and
moreover this model is less likely to function well in a more
diverse legislature (e.g. one without a one-two-party-system).
Since the purpose
of a bicameral legislature is to check, restrain, and second
guess the other, it remains appropriate for the two bodies to
arrive at budgetary decisions independently, and go through some
sort of reconciliation process. The conference approach should
be tried in the new environment, and some other mechanism
substituted if it fails. The conference committee should however
be chosen directly and not by the leadership of the legislative
These tax and spending targeting methods have so far assumed a balanced budget. To allow deficits and surpluses, add another step, where the legislature decides on the size of the deficit/surplus target (i.e. the difference between projected revenue and spending). Whether it is better to make this decision before or after the spending decision is an open question, though I lean toward putting it first. Since this is the primary influence of the legislature on national economics, it is appropriate to make it a separate vote. The bids of individual representatives easily allow for super majority voting in the case of deficit spending. For example, if the median value is a deficit, then the ratio of the resulting public debt to projected revenue could be used, via some formula, to pick a point other than the median (e.g. a ratio of 1.0 might require 55% support in the legislature, and a ratio of 2.0 might require 60% support in the legislature, etc.).
If simply setting a balance between taxation and spending is tricky, making line item tax and spending choices is even more difficult. An obvious possibility is to give each representative an equal fraction of the target to allocate. In this case, even a single representative elected via proportional representation could fund projects of interest to the citizens she represents. An equally obvious problem is the potential corruption which might result from such a method. Also, the sum of many independent budget actions would result in poor allocations. Coordination is required, and while legislators would probably coordinate to some degree, I question how well this would work.
An extension of this idea is worth investigating further. Allow representatives to form budget groups which allocate spending proportional to the size of the group. If the groups are required to be large enough (perhaps 15% of the legislature) then individual corruption is made difficult, and monitoring (e.g. by the fourth estate) of a few groups is easier than monitoring each individual legislator. The possibility of systematic corruption, as seen in the U.S. budget each year, remains as before. The only way to address is to reduce that role of money in politics, e.g. as outlined in Bringing Democracy to the U.S.
Other methods for line item budgeting are possible. For example, representatives could set line item targets independently of the overall target in individual median votes. The difference between the sum of the line items and the overall target could then be given in equal shares individual representatives as subtractions to allocate among the line items. This method encourages discipline in coming up with line item targets, since substantial differences result in allowing others the ability to subtract funds from a favored project.
I am uncertain of the merit of these ideas. I have written them down to better consider them. In a system that encourages multiple parties and which better represents the electorate, the traditional legislative tax and spending decision making methods may not be viable, and something new may be required. Most likely, some of these methods would have to be tried to fully appreciate the advantages and disadvantages, but that is not a problem if evolution is expected.
Why do I collect quotes from the things I read? What are the selection criteria? I began, like most (if I may judge by what is on the Internet), by collecting items that were short and witty. As time progressed the quotations I found interesting were increasingly serious, and I started excerpting larger context, rather than simply pithy one liners. Humor is sometimes explained as an unexpected truth, and I see that as a connection between my early and later collecting.
Our society, just like societies for thousands of years, lives
by its myths. Myths are those
beliefs that most of the time we do not even think to categorize
as beliefs; they are below the surface of thought most of our
lives. (In Overcoming Evil I mentioned
some of the memes that
influence modern myth.†)
There is always the chance that I do not really understand my
own motives, but my explanation for my collecting is simply
that I enjoy observations that illuminate the mythology of our
time. Paul Klee said,
Art does not reproduce the visible;
rather, it makes it visible. I respect the ability of
certain authors (e.g. Orwell, Huxley, Douglas, Schumacher,
Chomsky, Le Guin) who rise to this standard of art by making
something beneath the surface become visible via their words. I
also believe both such authors and their readers know the
generalizations in their statements are not completely
universal, but we do not object any more than we object to the
poet’s use of simile and metaphor, imprecise though those are,
because the way in which it is said helps us to make visible an
idea and impart wisdom. We do not take their words as facts,
axioms, or theorems, but as illuminations of a complexity that
our myths do not admit.
Now my notion of truth (inherent in the
myth illumination explanation) is not universally shared, for
the reasons stated in
Overcoming Evil. As such, the
quotations I select for my collection are also a personal
statement of who I would like to be.
Not every quotation I select follows the unexpected truth pattern. For example, I admit I cannot resist the occasional skewering of individuals or groups I consider misguided or evil, though this tends to be in political cartoons‡ rather than quotations. There is something enjoyable in seeing hypocrisy exposed.
† Of course, my attempt at such a list of memes was woefully incomplete. At the very least I should have included Empiricism and Rationalism as components incorporated in the last 400 years. Indeed these may be seen as the source of many of the memes I listed as dating from 200 to 30 years ago. The idea that either reason or science can lead us to the truth is fundamentally at odds with that of dogma, and this conflict is with us today. I should have also noted the importance of economic memes on modern myth.
How should Judges be selected? Many methods have been tried, but they all have problems. Our current method—Presidential nomination with Senate confirmation—gives the President too strong a role. Presidential elections in the U.S. have a strong economic component; the best President for the economy may not be the best at choosing judges to protect our rights or referee between the President and Congress. In addition, for the Supreme Court chance plays too large a role in determining how many appointees a given President is able to make. The difference between 5-4 and 4-5 decisions on many issues could be easily be based on whether a given Justice died or retired during year 3 of one Presidential term or year 1 of the next Presidential term. This is not a particularly rational method of adjudication. Direct election of judges has well-known problems that I need not repeat here.
The method I just outlined below in Ballot Initiatives, which is itself based on the method proposed for Constitutional amendments in Bringing Democracy to the U.S., namely the convening of an independent body, directly elected by citizens, to choose judges may be an appropriate model. This allows citizens to choose representatives who match their judicial philosophy independent of fiscal and foreign policy consideration. To choose judges for the Federal courts, a new Congress would be elected every two years, two years out of phase from Presidential elections.
I am concerned with the number of representative bodies that are now proposed: House, Senate, Judicial appointments, various ballot initiative congresses, and, rarely, a Constitutional amendment congress, along with equivalent state bodies, and direct ballot choices for districting and ballot initiative choices. However, three regular and the occasional special congress still seems workable, though it is on the verge of exceeding the electorate’s willingness to attend to politics directly. Further giving functions of the House or Senate to independent congresses (e.g. treaty approval) is unwarranted.
Judicial terms of office are another consideration. Lifetime appointment is intended to preserve judicial independence, and I believe it accomplishes this. However, a single long term would provide for independence, and might be considered because it would allow for a more regular replacement. It is most important for the Supreme Court, from which there is no further appeal, and where the number of judges is small. The median term of Supreme Court justices in the twentieth century was 13 years, with an average of 14.4, a standard deviation of 9.4, and a maximum of 36 years. For appointments after 1950, the mean and median have both increased (to 17.9 and 19.5). Providing Supreme Court justices a single 16-year term is worth consideration. An alternative is to simply increase the number of Supreme Court justices (e.g. to 17) so that any single bad appointment is less important.
This is another follow-up to Bringing Democracy to the U.S. with a simple observation and a few details. The procedure outlined for Constitutional amendment, with minor changes, is a good method for ballot initiatives. There is a need for direct legislative and executive action to deal with at least situations that are conflicts of interest for the legislature and executive. The problem with initiatives is the yes or no choice given to the public to adopt language chosen by sponsors of the initiative leaves little choice for finding the middle ground that is so often appropriate in governance. (California’s initiatives do allow for rival proposals to be on the ballot, and the one with the most votes is selected, if it reaches a plurality. This is a form of approval voting. However, this mechanism depends upon a second well-funded group to arise to counter the first, and still provides only a coarse sort of choice.) It is the lack of debate in drafting the language of the ballot initiative that most concerns me. It is usual for a new proposal to have negative consequences not apparent to its authors until some other party raises the point, and so ballot initiatives give inferior legislation.
In contrast, adopting a variant of my recent proposal for
Constitutional amendment would allow the voters to initially
express their interest in creating an extra-legislative body to
draft the legislation. Drafting of the proposed legislation
would become public. This body can make trade-offs between
competing points of view and even produce multiple plans to be
submitted to the voters in a ranked ballot (which is slightly
superior to approval voting). The initiative process would
differ in the criteria for approval: the highest ranked proposal
(the choice would always include
no change) would be
Another problem with ballot initiatives is that they must be exempt from repeal and modification by the standing legislature, since they, by their very nature, are addressed at issues that the citizens considered the standing legislature ill-suited or ill-disposed to handle. However, legislation is rarely perfect, and it can be very appropriate to fix problems that arise once theory and practice collide. The legislative process is more prone to this than the Constitutional, since the Constitution deals in rights and assignment of power, and not in small details. It is therefore appropriate that the special legislative body convened to draft any approved initiative, reconvene, either in two years, or at the request of the standing legislature, to consider any necessary changes to the enacted legislation. After ten years (or a term set by the initiative itself), the standing legislature should be allowed to change the legislation passed by initiative. If they repeal or inappropriately amend the legislation, another initiative will be necessary to reinstate the will of the people, but this price is worth paying to allow necessary updates to be handled efficiently.
This commentary is more in the style of thinking out loud, rather than anything well considered. I write this down only because it is an obvious question mark to the previous commentary.
I forgot to address term limits for politicians in Bringing Democracy to the U.S. I am not enthusiastic about term limits, and I certainly do not see them as something fundamental, but I am open minded about them. That is, I think it may be worth experimenting with term limits to see if they have value, but only once the more basic flaws in the system have been addressed. (In the U.S., there are many who see term limits as a fix for a broken political system, but their diagnosis of the problem misses the real issues.) The tendency of former legislators to become lobbyists after leaving the legislature should also give term limit advocates pause.
Term limits introduce one side effect into the system: the
distinction between the first N-1 terms, and the last
duck term. Whether the last term is a good or bad side
effect influences whether N should be small or large. If bad,
it might be possible to eliminate the effect by making N not
fixed; a roll of a die could determine whether a representative
is allowed to run again for the same position. Another idea for
a non-fixed term would be to have progressively more challenging
elections for incumbents (e.g. score each ballot ranking a three
term incumbent higher than a challenger as only 0.9 votes in the
pairwise calculation, making it more difficult to win a fourth
With small values of N the system is likely to fall into
patterns that might not be desirable. For example, for small N,
most representatives will end up serving exactly N terms. If
the distribution of terms remaining becomes unbalanced, this
would lead it to remain unbalanced for some time. Even with
balance, the stratification of the legislature into
classes, as in a University, could be seen as problematic
(this could be avoided by allowing only a single term).
In a bicameral legislature, candidates would tend to stand for election to the larger House-like body first, and once they reach their N terms, stand for election to the smaller Senate-like body. Since there are fewer positions in the Senate-like body, the public will be offered multiple choices, each with a prior legislative history to evaluate, perhaps resulting in more informed choices, and perhaps also resulting in more turnover in the larger body, since voters tend to prefer known quantities, and the House-like body is a source of known quantities to challenge the incumbent Senators.
Organizing elections in the Senate-like body around its coarse committee structure also offers interesting possibilities for term limit interaction and side effects. For example, if term limits applied not to any seat in the smaller body, but just to seats on one of the three committee categories, then representatives would have to move on to a different portion of the Senate-like body.
However, term limits may not make as much sense in the Senate-like body. Limits are often wished for to get rid of other people’s representatives (i.e. in another district), not someone’s own. In the previous proposal, the Senate-like body is nationwide, not geographic, and so the idea of representatives from another district does not apply. Long-term representatives from other parties are still likely to be an issue for some though.
Finally, some of the ills that term limits were meant to address are the result of seniority systems in the legislative bodies. It might make sense to look there first, before imposing term limits.
This is an attempt at the plan laid out at Designing/Evolving Complex Systems.
As a democracy, the U.S. does not measure up very well. Our democracy even has some of the same faults the American revolutionaries used to rail against George III, including taxation without representation (the residents of D.C. have no representatives in Congress, and yet they pay federal income tax). The U.S. is also not a country with one person one vote (the relative voting power of Wyoming residents compared to California residents is 3.7 times higher for President, 1.3 times higher in the House of Representatives, and 68.5 times higher in the Senate, and the relative voting power of Californians is infinitely greater than the zero legislative voting power of D.C. residents). We also have a one or two-party system, depending on whether you take the insider’s view of the Republicans and Democrats as distinct parties, or the outsider’s view as factions of a single Republicrat party representing the political class, to the exclusion of the rest of society. Either way, the one or two-party system tends to exclude many voices from the political process. The system is unfair, but it is quite stable. Like most system attributes, the relative importance of stability and fairness are not absolute, it varies with the state of the system itself (e.g. in a grossly unstable system, stability could easily be more important than fairness), so it is not inherently desirable to look at fairer systems, but in the case of the U.S., fairness could well increased without creating instability.
The simplest unfairness is the violation of the one person one vote principle. It is built into the U.S. Constitution, which specifies two senators per state independent of population. This was a 1787 political compromise (sometimes called the Great Compromise or Connecticut Compromise, adopted with a one vote margin at the Constitutional Convention) to get the smaller and larger states to agree. Many states adopted a similar house and senate structure for their own governments, but when the Supreme Court overturned Colegrove v. Green (1946) with Baker v. Carr (1962) and later imposed the one person, one vote rule upon the states in Gary v. Sanders (1963), the states were forced to change to equal representation. The system was made fairer, but no great instabilities were introduced. The Fourteenth Amendment trumps state constitutions, but it does not trump the explicit language of Article I, Section 3, so federal representation remains unfair. Making the same change at the federal level, by amending the U.S. Constitution, would be a welcome change, and as the states’ experience has shown, it would not have negative consequences.
The U.S. electoral college is another simple violation of the one person one vote principle. Direct election of the President would have essentially no negative consequences. First, the U.S. political system has evolved so that the two factions generally each run establishment candidates; the factions of course prefer their candidate, but the establishment will still be served by either candidate. Fairness is unlikely to introduce instability under these circumstances. Moreover, the popular vote almost always gives the same result as the electoral college, 1876, 1888, and 2000 being the only exceptions, and here the popular vote was generally very close. (Direct election would have also given a different result from the Twelfth Amendment in 1824, when the first-past-the-post electoral and popular votes both went to Jackson, but the four-way race caused deadlock in the electoral college, and the House of Representatives chose Adams.) Other close elections might have given different results with direct election, because then candidates would have campaigned differently. Besides fairness, that is a strong plus for direct election; in close elections the entire country would be involved, not only the swing states.
The U.S. primary system is another distortion of Democracy. Is it really appropriate for the voters of Iowa, New Hampshire, and a few other early primary states to reduce the field of candidates from tens to just two?
The greatest unfairness in U.S. political power is probably the two-party system (one of those unintended consequences of designing a system and not realizing all of the implications). It is primarily the result of the first-past-the-post voting and using single-member representation. I have written before about how flawed I consider this aspect of U.S. politics, and its fix, ranked ballots. I will not repeat myself here, but simply incorporate the use of ranked ballots in all elections in my proposal. Making multiple parties feasible has the potential for decreasing stability, especially in the transition. Single-party rule is usually stable (head-first dives into delusion, e.g. the Nazi rule of Germany, being an obvious exception); multi-party rule may be stable or unstable; clearly careful attention to the consequences of this change would be called for.
I now offer my proposal to address the criticism just made. Benjamin Franklin’s revised thoughts on legislatures remain valid today; I would maintain at least two co-equal legislative bodies with different terms of office, different sizes, and electoral methods: one small, the other large; one frequently elected, the other more stable; one geographically distributed, the other national, etc. I have suggested in Experimental Government a radical notion of a bicameral legislative; without repudiating that, here I propose to not stray quite so far from the conventional. My concern with proportional representation is its emphasis on party politics. The power of parties is diminished if anyone can create a slate of candidates for consideration by the electorate; indeed an individual could submit her own name as a slate of one. Even so, it helps individuals, as opposed to parties, to find an entry to the legislature if smaller slates of candidates are used than in pure proportional representation. Since I propose to make one legislative body geographic, compose the first body of representatives elected by ranked ballot of candidate slates in equal-population districts served by seven representatives elected every two years. This body, modeled on the U.S. House of Representatives, responds quickly to changes in the mood of the nation. Seven representatives allow representatives of minority opinions to find a place.
The size of each legislative body is another consideration. Observations of functional group sizes have suggested maximums of 150 individuals (e.g. Robin Dunbar’s work, as reported in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point). Leaving room for each representative to collaborate with their staff and other non-representatives, it might be desirable to set the number of representatives to something like 119 (27% of the present size of the House of Representatives, with an odd number chosen to avoid ties, and a multiple of the number of representatives per district). The geographically chosen body should be the larger one. I suggest making the second legislative body a significantly smaller size, e.g. 63 representatives, with 21 being elected every two years (i.e. modeled on the U.S. Senate, with each representative having a six year term).
With the first legislative body organized geographically, the second, smaller body should be national. Just as the Senate today focuses more on certain areas, such as foreign policy, this would encourage its successor to take a more national perspective than the other body. If many individuals ran on slates of one, a ranked ballot to elect 21 representatives would draw far too many candidates to be manageable (I worry about this issue even for the seven member districts proposed for the first legislative body). One solution might be to spread out the 21 elections over the course of the year (e.g. hold 3 elections per year for the second legislature, 7 at a time, and then 1 election for the first legislative body). This unfortunately makes proportional representation coarser, but then so does any solution to the problem of ballots with hundreds of candidates. Another solution is to make the committee structure of the body part of the election. Three directly-elected super-committees, e.g. finance, legal, and foreign policy would each have their own slate of candidates. These committees would have 21 directly elected members, seven for each two year cycle. They would organize themselves into sub-committees (which would also include members chosen from the entire body as well). This would allow debates between slates to concentrate on topic areas, and allow the electorate to express opinions on questions such as taxes independently of opinions on foreign policy, weakening the power of parties to aggrandize power by packaging multi-dimensional politics into a uni-dimensional choice between camps.
No effort to bring Democracy to the U.S. would be complete if it left districting and financing unchanged. Perhaps it would be best to do away with districts altogether, but above I suggest districts for one of the legislative bodies. Districting has long been a source of abuse by parties (e.g. Gerrymandering or House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s illegal redistricting of Texas). All government power should be subject to checks and balances; districting should be no exception. I suggest that districts to be set by direct vote. Multiple plans would be put on the ballot (e.g. there might be ones by the Republicans, the Democrats, the League of Women Voters, etc.) and then one would be chosen by ranked ballot. Most likely the voters would choose district plans created by trusted third parties, such as the League of Women Voters. To have a chance of success, the Republican and Democratic plans would have to be almost as fair.
The financing of elections in the U.S. is another distortion of Democracy. Wealth, either of individuals or corporations, should not be allowed to turn into political power. The airwaves are owned by the public, and licensed for use by profit and non-profit corporations. A condition of that license should be the requirement to broadcast a specified amount of political speech, allocated by law. One sensible allocation would be to give each citizen one hundred tokens of political speech each month. Citizens could use these tokens directly themselves, or pass them to candidates or organizations of their choice. These tokens would be used to bid for the reserved political speech time on the public airwaves. Buying or selling these tokens would not be allowed. Candidates would still require some hard funds for non-advertising expenses (e.g. travel). This should be financed by the government, perhaps by allowing the conversion of donated political tokens into cash (which is different from allowing them to be sold).
Another requirement for Democracy is that votes be correctly tallied. This simple requirement has often been violated, for example in Florida’s 2000 Presidential vote. The trend toward electronic voting in the U.S. is particularly worrisome in this regard, especially when a fairly robust system is easy to imagine. The first principle is that ballots should be readable and writable by both people and machines. Voting machines that create ballots for people are acceptable, so long as the the result is readable by the voter. Making ballots directly writable by people (e.g. with a pen or stamp) ensures that voting does not stop in the event of machine failures (including power failures). The second principle is that these ballots must be tallied securely. The ballots should be read immediately at the polling place by a machine by a first manufacturer (and not the machine that printed the ballot, if any), and the result transmitted to the central tally site. Any error reading the ballot at this stage would allow the voter to recast her ballot (this would catch both voter mistakes and ballot readability issues). The ballot should then be physically transported to a secure repository and read by a machine by a second manufacturer. This tally should be compared to the first. The agreement of these tallies would certify the election. No modification of the tallying machines would be allowed after the ballot choices are specified. The third principle is that all equipment used in the process would have to be completely transparent (circuit diagrams and software listings publicly posted), and the testing and certification of the machines involved should be both performed and funded independently from the manufacturers of the machines. It is also desirable for the voters to verify that their ballot was correctly included in a final tally by having all ballots posted anonymously on the Internet with a randomly chosen id known only to the voter. The posted id would be encrypted to avoid vote buying and coercion. Ballot verification would have to be performed in a secure, single-person viewing location where the ids would be decrypted.
With these changes, it would no longer be necessary to hold primaries; ranked ballots do not penalize parties that run multiple slates. In effect the primary could be built into the general election. However, parties might still want to hold conventions to debate policy (not that this happens much today). Parties might still hold primaries so as to encourage their membership’s token giving to the chosen candidates and because too many candidates is likely to be confusing. Parties might choose to run their own primaries however they like, but if the government is asked to provide support (e.g. polling places, people, and equipment), then it should sent minimum standards on the primary process, along the lines suggested above for the general election.
One of the greatest flaws in the U.S. Constitution is its method of amendment. No political group, institution, etc. should be expected to voluntarily give up power, and so no change, regardless of its overall merit, is likely to be accepted if it affects the power of the those called on to certify it. It is for this reasons that the changes described here are not possible through the usual U.S. Constitution amendment procedure (and the other procedure, another Constitutional Congress, has never been used because of its vagueness). For this simple reason, amendment must rest in the hands of the people, not with any existing group, institution (e.g. the legislature), etc. The untried Constitutional Congress is the appropriate model, but the method must be made concrete. Every two years, the people would vote on whether to convene a Constitutional Congress (the legislature and President acting together could call for an earlier vote on this as needed). When that vote is affirmative, an election for the delegates would be held, using proportional representation. (Perhaps current and past members of the legislative and executive branches would be ineligible as delegates?) The resulting body would then debate changes to the Constitution, and submit one or more proposals to voted upon by the people (on a ranked ballot of course). The option of no change would be always be included for ranking. If the highest ranked choice outranks the no change choice on three quarters of the ballots, then the Constitution is so amended. A sitting Constitutional Congress would be disbanded if the people vote for another Congress in the next two year cycle. So that the people have the opportunity to take back rights they may have given up too hastily, amendments to the Constitution would remain in force for ten years, at which point they would be voted on a second time. If they once again receive the three quarters of the vote, they would become permanent.
These changes would make the U.S. worthy of the name Democracy. It is perhaps for that reason they have so little chance of enactment.
These commentaries have tended to be, in my opinion, more negative than I think appropriate. Creativity should come before criticism. I am therefore making a greater effort to write down my frequent ideas on the way things ought to be. (An older set of such writings may be found at Earl Killian’s Politics and Philosophy). Before so embarking, I want to note that complex systems rarely work entirely the way their designers intend; there are certain to be unintended and unexpected consequences. Change or design of complex systems is really an exercise in directed evolution where both the system and designers respond and co-evolve. The problem is that systems tend to find stable local solutions to the forces of the system environment, and perturbing them from such states so they can evolve to a new (hopefully better stable local minima) requires a large initial force in the right direction. My commentaries will therefore identify a direction and changes, but this is intended to be the vector for restarting system evolution that is stuck in a stable local solution, but one inferior to superior stable local solutions.
The Senate committee on intelligence has released its report on the CIA’s Iraq failures. Bowing to politics, the Senators are withholding judgment on the White House role until after the election. I plan to wait and read both reports at the same time, so I have not yet read their report on the CIA. Before I do, I want to jot down one thought, and then see how I feel when I do finally read the reports.
It is inevitable that the CIA will fail in some of its
intelligence gathering. Fostering diversity of opinions within
any large organization is one guard against such failures, but
such organizations are hierarchical, and will succumb to
pressure from above when those in charge have the wrong
the buck stops here leadership
Institutional failure can be mitigated, however, through outside checks. Had the U.S. been willing to work with the other nations of the world on the problem it imagined in Iraq, U.S. intelligence failures would have been subjected to scrutiny and exposed. Indeed, Colin Powell’s presentation to the Security Council generated much independent analysis, which showed within days and weeks that his claims were false or misleading. But in a world where the sole superpower considers it an affront to even listen to the analysis of others (and insists on even demonizing those who disagree with it), this guard against group think is rendered impotent.
Ultimately the buck does stop at the White House, no matter how frantically the finger-pointers try to whitewash their culpability.
The Dean-Nader debate aired today on Justice Talking was certainly more lively than presidential debates have been in my memory. The format certainly contributed to a more vigorous interchange, as did the fact that the candidates were less managed than Presidential candidates. Margot Adler is to be commended for her role in the debates.
While listening to the debate, I felt sad that the Democrats did not go for Howard Dean in the primaries; he clearly would have been a leader on many issues (though the system would have no doubt defeated him on following through on a number of the positive positions he took). I was pleasantly surprised to hear, in response to John Anderson’s question, that he supports instant-runoff voting, one of the poorer ranked-ballot methods, but one that is still much superior to our winner-take-all system. Indeed, the support of Anderson and Dean (and Nader too of course) for any ranked ballot scheme is encouraging. (For the record, I supported John Anderson’s third party run for President in 1980). Even where I might differ from Howard Dean, I found I could generally respect his approach on things. (His position on the electoral college was, however, primitive.) He seemed to have an integrity that is generally lacking in the candidates selected by the primary process (a similar example from the Republican camp would Senator McCain). I also suspect, after listening to him, that Howard Dean intends to be a Presidential candidate again (as I expect McCain intends in 2008).
Ralph Nader (who I supported in his 1996 and 2000 Presidential runs) seemed very much as always, though he seemed to prepared with as many sound bites and one-liners for the debates as any Republicrat. I was surprised that no one asked why, since he supports third parties, why he is running as an independent, and not trying to build a third party. (It is not enough to say he wants independent candidates, since he supports proportional representation, which is inherently a party-oriented system.)
The question of how many candidates to include in debates, raised in this debate, is an interesting one. My off-the-cuff suggest is a poll where the respondents list the candidates they would include. Any candidate listed by twenty percent of respondents in such a poll would be included (Mr. Nader’s suggestion of a fifty percent threshold might eliminate candidates with significant support in minority communities, and thereby prevent minority issues from being raised in the debates.)
I was so sickened by the U.S. war on Iraq, that I have not been inclined to write down my thoughts on what should have been done after the invasion, and what should still now be done. As I wrote in April, it may not be feasible to transform Iraq into a peaceful, democratic country; for example, there does not appear to me to be any good strategy to avoid the breakup of the country. The U.S. should withdrawal its troops and stop its participation in the killing. But since U.S. is unlikely to take this course any time soon†, there are steps that could be taken to minimize the damage for the period it continues to occupy the country.
Early in the occupation, the U.S. should have organized local elections across the country (instead it cancelled elections in Samarra and Najaf). Building from the local level up to the national level would have given Iraqis experience with democracy, and allowed politicians to emerge for later national elections.
Missteps so far have 80% of Iraqis unhappy with the U.S. This unsurprising sentiment should be put to use. The newly selected government must quickly distance itself from the U.S. and assert its sovereignty. If it has not already come up with the idea itself, the U.S. should be prodding it behind the scenes to order a reduction in U.S. troop strength immediately after 1 July. That would simultaneously assert its authority, give the Iraqi people hope that the occupiers will eventually be gone, and by demonstrating they are not puppets of the U.S., increase the popularity of the interim government and thereby increase its ability to draft a constitution for the country and organize elections.
I have not the slightest hope however that the U.S. is so prodding the interim government. The current White House is more likely working behind the scenes to prevent the interim government from issuing such an order, which they would probably find to be a slap in the face.
† Some U.S. invasions of other countries are
quickly followed by withdrawal, but sometimes the occupations
are long: After invading the Philippines, the U.S. occupied the
country for 14 years (1899-1913). The U.S. occupied Haiti for
20 years (1914-1934), Nicaragua for 21 years (1912-1925,
1925-1933), the Dominican Republic for 8 years (1916-1924), and
Cuba for 16 years (1917-1933). As an aside, guerrillas who
fought against those occupations were called
modern pejorative often used is
The press has been filled with days of gushing coverage of Ronald Reagan after his death. The seventies and eighties were the years I really began to consider and debate public policy issues, and so I remember well the Reagan years. I cannot say that my memory of the Reagan Presidency coincides at all with the press coverage of the last few days; it is more myth making than reality. But what surprise is there in that?
Bush has deserved impeachment ever since he lied to the world about Iraq to justify his invasion, and especially since he ordered the attack, but it unlikely that a nation that supported his war is unlikely to impeach him for that. Nor was the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib likely to result in impeachment; it could always be conveniently blamed on individual soldiers. Now however, with the disclosure by the Wall Street Journal of the Justice Department memo authorizing torture, the country now has a reason that even Republicans might accept for impeachment. While I have long seen Bush as having transgressed from misguided to evil, there was little point in making the point to a country that accepted his actions as necessary evil. But unless I misjudge the U.S., this memo goes beyond what the country accepts. First it argues that Congress has no right to set rules for the conduct of military operations, and in particular interrogations, because the Constitution grants war powers (other than declaration) to the President. This doctrine is step toward a police state, especially when fighting terrorism is framed as a military operation. Second, the memo argues that torture in interrogations is legitimate when used to prevent the future loss of life. Following this line of reasoning, interrogation via torture to save the lives of U.S. military personnel (who are at risk in any conflict situation) is justified. This directly contradicts the Geneva Conventions. The White House is setting up a precedent that will be used to justify the torture of U.S. military personnel in this and future conflicts.
Of course, impeachment this close to an election is implausible; Congress will use the election as an excuse to do nothing (if Bush is elected in November, that will serve as vindication of anything the public knew about before November, and if he is not elected, that will be his impeachment). I simply observe that, except for the election, the grounds may have become sufficient for the U.S. public, and even for enough Republicans in Congress to matter.
Finally, it is not only the Executive branch that deserves condemnation in this matter. The cited memo relies heavily on Congress’ reservations and understandings in its ratification of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. By such weakening of international treaties, Congress incurs part of the blame.
I have written before about the silliness of trying to simplify
a multi-dimensional space to a single dimension, and therefore
the meaninglessness of terms like
liberal are worse, for
they not only are considered synonyms with
left in political usage, they currently have meanings
opposite of their dictionary definition. So you might think I
would similarly object to
neocon, which is in
vogue today. But instead of seeing this as a shortening of
neo-conservative, I think the more direct interpretation
is quite appropriate, and so I’ve decided to use it, but not,
of course, to refer to a point on an imaginary political
The recent Mogr al-Deeb massacre of the Iraqi wedding party, when added to past atrocities, like the wedding attack in Afghanistan before it, and numerous attacks on Iraqi civilians, together with the numerous attacks on civilians in the Kosovo war (e.g. the nine attacks documented by Amnesty International, including the Grdelica railroad bridge and train and the four attacks on refugees around Djakovica on 14 April 1999), dramatizes three points.
First, war, conquest, and occupation, at least as waged by the U.S., and perhaps inherently, are fundamentally at odds with protecting civilians. The same air power that allows the U.S. to conquer a country with one fourth the troops previously required leads to tragedy on the ground over and over again. Rules of engagement designed to protect aircraft and pilots mean that a bogus target is often not recognized as such until the limbs are scattered through the grass.
Second, the differing U.S. media treatment between the Abu Ghraib torture and the carnage of the wedding party illustrates that Iraqis, Afghanis, and Yugoslavs lives are not considered as important as U.S. honor and reputation. That’s a sad inversion of priorities. Today’s Washington Post story appears on page A19; compare that to the A1 placement of various Abu Ghraib torture stories for many days running.
Third, the White House, Pentagon, and U.S. media systematically
lie, distort, or downplay these events. In Serbia, tapes of the
train bombing were sped up three times to show that the pilot
did not have time to react to the oncoming train. On the Iraq
wedding massacre, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief
U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said
There was no evidence
of a wedding: no decorations, no musical instruments found, no
large quantities of food or leftover servings one would expect
from a wedding celebration. But those are exactly the things
found by reporters who went to the scene, along with the bodies
of dead children.
My position on the Democrats’ calls (e.g. by Senator Schumer) to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve should be obvious from my commentary Senator Kerry’s Pandering, but for the record I’ll state it anyway: it too is election year pandering. Indeed, even at $41 per barrel, it is wise to continue buying oil and filling the SPR, because prices are likely to go still higher in a decade. The right way to bring down oil prices (which are only at half of this historical peak, in current dollars), is to reduce demand. Letting the price rise will accomplish that through market forces. So Mr. Bush and the Republicans are right on this issue, and the Democrats are wrong. Such pandering one reason I feel no affinity for the Democratic party. The only proper reason to tap the SPR would be for maintaining emergency services (e.g. fire, medical, essential food delivery) in a time of dire shortage (e.g. embargo). Of course, the more likely use of the SPR in such a situation is power the U.S. war machine to take control of foreign oil, something which does give me pause in suggesting that the U.S. continue filling the reserve, but a small reserve lowers the threshold for war. One alternative to the SPR that I’ve not seen discussed: leave existing U.S. reserves in the ground: rather than buying crude oil on the open market and then pumping it back into the ground, just leave it here (e.g. in existing fields or undeveloped areas such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge). Future extraction will be more efficient than today’s (there are innovations in this even today), so leaving it untouched for now makes more sense than moving it. Of course, reducing consumption through efficiency gains can create reserves faster than exploration, and that is best choice; rising prices will do exactly that.
Presidential election campaigns are being waged, but only in
states. Because of the peculiar
U.S. electoral college
combined with state laws that allocate all electoral votes to
the candidate first-past-the-post in that state (except in Maine
and Nebraska), there is no point in campaigning in a state one
is sure to win or sure to lose. The net effect is that, for
example, voters in California (very likely to vote Democratic)
or Texas (very likely to vote Republican) are ignored. Voters
in such states are effectively not participating in this
election; it makes no difference to the outcome whether
California is 51% for Senator Kerry or 80% for Senator Kerry.
Without the electoral college, the voters of California and
Texas would be courted by both major factions; even the
difference between 40% and 41% in California might be the
difference between losing and winning for a Republican
(similarly for a Democrat in Texas). The swing state phenomenon
is reinforced when campaigns write-off a state, ceding it to
their opponent, and thereby perpetuating its status as the other
party’s. The swing states have roughly 47% of the population of
the U.S. this year; the other 53% of the population is shut out
of this election, by virtue of their location. Combined with
the system’s unequal representation (voters in Wyoming have
3.7× more weight given to their votes than voters in
two-party system, and
first-past-the-post balloting, the whole system serves to make
Presidential elections very undemocratic. It is a wonder that
we continue to suffer its ill effects. But then
…accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind
are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to
right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are
accustomed. If that is true, then we’re going to continue to
let Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and a few others
to decide for the rest of us between the meager choices the system
allows us. Is it any wonder that so few people bother to vote?
I’ve yet to write anything about the Gay marriage issue simply because I cannot even begin to understand why it is controversial, which makes it hard to frame an argument. So today’s entry is simply a note to say I have no idea what gets people so agitated about the idea of same-sex couples wanting the same legal rights female-male couples currently have. I’ve yet to see any logical argument against the idea in print anywhere. Usually there is at least a pretense to logic, but not on this issue.
A short note today to ask a simple question:
Bishops of the Catholic church are starting to ban politicians who take pro-choice political positions or support gay marriage from receiving Communion. Why only these two issues out of the many Catholic Church stands? Are the going to be consistent, and also ban politicians who support the death penalty (which the Church opposes) from Communion? What about politicians who support birth control? After that, what comes next, banning politicians that don’t support vouchers for Catholic schools?
The U.S. and the rest of the world are horrified at what
occurred at Abu Ghraib and by the beheading of Nicholas
We should all be horrified at these events; there is no
justification, no excuse for such actions. I want to ask
however, why no one expressed horror and revulsion earlier when
innocent people were beheaded by U.S. bombs, or when a four year
old girl was maimed for life with shrapnel embedded in her
Are these actions not equally horrible? Why is it that
collateral damage is less shocking than
Is it that people cannot see beyond Pentagon euphemisms? Or
are they capable of visualizing the carnage of
damage and yet still manage to see it as something
different, not disgusting, but merely
The nationality of the victim is one determinant, as is the nationality of the culprit (much as crimes in the U.S. generate outrage that depends on the race of the victim and culprit). Nicholas Berg was a U.S. citizen and his murders are Iraqi or Arab fighters; a combination that generates the most outrage. The Iraqis killed and maimed by U.S. bombs are barely worthy of note because the victims are not worthy in U.S. eyes and the culprits are thought to be honorable U.S. men in uniform. Why the outrage at the abuses of Abu Ghraib then, which is the same victim/culprit combination? One clue is that the Iraqi victims are rarely mentioned in U.S. outrage; what is mentioned is U.S. honor, or more pointedly the practical effect that the photos are going to have on the world’s perception of the U.S.
Where do people develop such context-sensitive revulsion? I
don’t know, but I can speculate that one aspect of most people’s
daily lives helps to develop and maintain such a perverse
ability, viz. when they sit down to lunch or dinner, where by
their choice of food, they routinely order others to enslave,
torture, and kill sentient beings on their behalf. Yearly that
adds up to billions of animals a year tortured and killed. That
suffering is not even
regrettable to most, an extreme
example of context-sensitivity.
† The beheading was said by the murderers to be in
retaliation for the Abu Ghraib abuses, but really the act was a
disgusting means—terror to manipulate public
opinion—to a legitimate end—ending the occupation of
Iraq—once more illustrating that the ends do not justify
any means of accomplishing them:
Where the line is
drawn among means is the determinant between civilized life and
‡ Is the girl supposed to be grateful for her
liberation? Who is going to
liberate her from her
the daily pain caused by U.S. bombs?
Today I’m jotting down wild stream of consciousness speculation, caused by some surprising items the infotainment industry has been printing lately.
Has the eventual reversal begun already or is it just puffs of smoke to gauge the breeze? Perhaps hope is clouding my observations, but some periodicals and establishment dailies seem to be preparing the U.S. to leave Iraq. Now they are allowing op-ed pieces to be printed that openly suggest that the U.S. cut its losses in Iraq and leave. Along with many Republican Senators, even George Will is turning his ire at Bush and Rumsfeld (though he doesn’t go so far as suggesting retreat). Public opinion is already half there, but public opinion flutters in the breeze from the opinion industry, and moreover it is not overall public opinion that counts (e.g. first it would be necessary to sway both the elites and Republican opinion, before such a thing is possible). Also, there wouldn’t be a withdrawal before the election; it takes time for the Ministry of Truth to transmute opinion, and it would derail Bush’s election attempt. However, the idea is now out there, and might foreshadow a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq after the election. Whether Bush is capable of such a reversal, and whether Rove could give it the necessary spin, is uncertain. Ironically, in this scenario, if Senator Kerry defeats Bush, the U.S. might be stuck in Iraq longer. It is perhaps easier for the Republicans to end the Iraq occupation, just as it was easier for Charles de Gaulle to grant Algeria independence than it would have been for other politicians; Senator Kerry, who sometimes prioritizes image above policy, might feel the need to prove he’s up to the Commander in Chief role by appearing tough.
A retreat from Iraq this early would be surprising, since the White House would be abandoning Iraqi oil to a chaotic, hostile state (or states). Perhaps an independent Kurdish state could leave at least the Mosul oil in somewhat friendlier hands, but Bush would have a hard time straddling Turkey and Kurdistan; he might allow Turkey to annex northern Iraq, however. Oil within NATO boundaries could tempt Bush.
The puffs of smoke may be accomplishing an opposite purpose. Hints that the U.S. could extricate itself from Bush’s quagmire may serve to keep the faithful in the Republican camp despite the bad news.
Watch how this all unfolds.
I make some distinction between responsibility and blame. Someone might feel responsible in an indirect way for something done by others, even though if it would be wrong for others to blame her for that act. I do not know if this view is widely held; perhaps others see responsibility and blame as the first and third person forms of the same thing.
I wrote in Passion Plays that it is wrong to blame or hate based on non-voluntary group membership. Racism is one example (such as the anti-Arab sentiments prevalent in the U.S. at the moment). Also included are national origin prejudices, religious prejudices, etc. What about nationality? Unlike national origin, it is sometimes possible to change one’s nationality, but nations do make it very difficult, and I do not see the point of blaming a citizen of a nation for the acts of that nation that they opposed. But, given the distinction I began with, I think citizens might well feel some responsibility for the actions of their nation.
Some of the
letters to the Washington Post about Philip Kennicott’s article
objected to Mr. Kennicott’s assertion that we bear
responsibility for what happened in Abu Ghraib. First, I feel
such writers are missing the major point of Mr. Kennicott’s
essay. To say the horror is the work only of a few individuals
is to fail to look at the broader effect of our society that led
to the actions of those individuals. For example, the essay
alludes to acceptance of pornography as one facet of our culture
that influenced what happened. Such reflections are more useful
than knee-jerk reactions, such as
that’s not us!
A large majority of the U.S. did support the war, at
least initially, according to polls. I believe these
people are to blame for Abu Ghraib. Wars are
probably never without atrocities despite the intent
at the beginning of each that
this time will be
different—witness the parade of No Gun Ri,
My Lai, Qana, Mazar, or Guanánamo Bay. Support
for going to war must recognize this, find it an
acceptable tradeoff, and therefore take responsibility
and blame for what happens. Good intentions in
one’s support of war is not a dodge; the
should have known standard must be considered.
Indeed it bothers me that those who supported the war,
are likely the very same people who want to not take
even the smallest responsibility for what occurred.
In yesterday’s comments I referenced Philip Kennicott’s Washinton Post commentary on the photos from Abu Ghraib and what they say about the U.S. It was the best written piece I’ve seen in a U.S. newspaper in a long time. It was powerful, direct, and unafraid to challenge our the myths we live by. He dared to point out that aberrant behavior of individuals cannot be dismissed as not us. I cannot resist quoting another critical observation:
This belief, that the photographs are distortions, despite their authenticity, is indistinguishable from propaganda. Tyrants censor; democracies self-censor. Tyrants concoct propaganda in ministries of information; democracies produce it through habits of thought so ingrained that a basic lie of war — only the good is our doing — becomes self-propagating.
I am ashamed to live in the country that wrought the Abu Ghraib torture, and indeed the many years of torture, murder, and maiming of innocent Iraqis (which even Mr. Kennicott addresses only lightly), but encouraged that at least it is still possible to see such writing in our newspapers. Perhaps it is the start of a recovery from our present madness, just as we eventually recovered from our Philippines madness, or from our various Sedition Act madnesses. But how long before Mr. Hyde takes over again?
History doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it does seem to
spiral. A while ago I read
It’s A Free Country,
especially Ira Glasser’s essay subtitled
A Short History of
Wartime Civil Liberties. I was surprised to learn that the
U.S. had had PATRIOT Act episodes several times before in its
history. I was reassured that the country always seemed to
return to sanity eventually, but shocked that we never seemed to
learn from the earlier episodes. Later I came across some
references to the
the anti-war effort of 1898 that protested the U.S. actions in the
Philippines. The parallel with the Iraq invasion is plain.
More recent history, e.g. the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and
its occupation of Palestine, foreshadowed what is happening with
the U.S. invasion of Iraq (actually the process is much
accelerated). If we had learned the lessons of colonization,
we wouldn’t be surprised by
If we understood Checkpoint Syndrome, we wouldn’t
be surprised by
Even ignoring foreign precedents, why didn’t the U.S. invasion
and occupation of Vietnam serve to dissuade us from conquering
If I were a better historian, I could probably point to episodes from the Roman empire that parallel modern world. But there are differences, some small progress, and so the notion of a spiral makes some sense (in how many dimensions I cannot say): the Romans had human slavery, whereas our times have replaced human slavery with less direct exploitation (e.g. laborers in third world sweatshops). Progress is slow, however: like the Romans we still have animal slavery two thousand years later. At the moment, like Camus, I can only see the absurdity of it all. If only I could be as happy as he sees Sisyphus.
I don’t usually write about subjects that I consider unimportant, but when the public debate on an issue is excessive, perhaps it deserves a comment to say that. One such current issue is the debate about the military service of the Republican and Democratic candidates for President in the November election. When I do write about an unimportant issue, I try to find some angle to make a completely different point than the public debate. Today’s commentary is one such example.
Mr. Bush and Senator Kerry are the presumptive Republican and Democratic candidates for the Presidential election. Both of these camps are attacking the other’s candidate’s military service record. In Enemies I wrote that these camps don’t care about the weapons used to attack their opponents, thereby demonstrating their lack of integrity. Military service records are a good example of this. If you have a good one, trumpet it. If you don’t, denigrate your opponent’s. One day, the tactics will be reversed, with the Democrats attacking the service record of the Republican candidate, when their candidate happens not to have served in the military. And yet the partisans seem to have even convinced themselves that the issue is important or unimportant depending on this year’s situation, and won’t even notice when they reverse in a future electoral contest.
I find war sickening. Senator Kerry’s decision to enlist in the military almost forty years ago is not something I respect. U.S. military power is mostly used for ignoble purposes; putting oneself in its service is not honorable, in my opinion. Most of the squatters in the White House (Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, etc.) avoided military service in one way or another; under the circumstances (viz. the U.S. invasion and occupation of Vietnam), not serving could have been a moral choice (though it may have been cowardice more than morals that drove their choice, since they’ve shown no inclination toward morality in the years thereafter).
I do question the idea, currently raised by some Democrats, since it benefits their current candidate, that only individuals who have experienced war are fit to be President. That would eliminate those who would use war truly only to defend, and so avoided U.S. military service because of its history of unjust campaigns. Such individuals would make better Presidents, not worse. However, I do agree that war veterans would make better Presidents than chickenhawks, such as the current squatters in the White House. I find the chickenhawks’ attempts to find fault with Senator Kerry’s military service record (e.g. questioning whether one of his three purple heart decorations was deserved) to be particularly hypocritical: ostensibly on one hand celebrating the warrior ethos, but then attacking instances of that ethos as a tactic in serving their immediate goals. Moreover, Senator Kerry’s questioning of the Vietnam war after his service there is highly admirable, not something to condemn.
Representatives, such as the President, should be chosen based
on how they will handle the future. Their past may be a guide
to that, but we need to recognize that people may change with
time—their distant past is may not be the best
guide—and that actions may have multiple reasons
(e.g. military service may have been avoided out of conscience
or cowardice). Recent actions are a better guide. Senator
Kerry’s recent vote for the Iraq invasion is a stronger negative
testament than the positive testament of his post-Vietnam
anti-war activities of long ago. Similarly, the hypocrisy of
the squatters in the White House is certainly a good indication
of their true current character—their lack of military
service need not be invoked. The
the ends justify any
means nature of each camp’s attacks on the other’s candidate
similarly indicates their true character.
Finally, one military service record issue is recent, and reveals something about one candidate’s character: the expunging of material from Mr. Bush’s service record to eliminate proof of actions from long ago is recent enough to serve as a basis for questioning his (and his party’s) current character.
I was totally opposed the Iraq invasion when it was threatened by Bush, when it actually occurred, and continue to feel it was a terrible act. However, the question must be, now that invasion and occupation are fact, what should be done from the position in which we find ourselves. Current wisdom, as found in multiple political camps (e.g. both of the two major factions of U.S. political power), is that regardless of whether the war was right or wrong to begin with, we are now obligated to continue. Even setting aside whether one is ever obligated to continue killing and maiming innocent people (an inevitable consequence of occupation by force), this position fails a basic sanity test, viz. whether it likely to give a better result than the alternative.
I have resisted making an analogy between the U.S. invasions and occupations of Iraq and Vietnam. It seems to me that there are significant differences between the two that render such analogies potentially deceptive. However, one time-worn lesson, brought home yet again from the U.S. experience in its occupation of Vietnam should not be ignored: continuing a policy not because it is the best policy, but because it avoids having to admit failure, will only make the situation worse. In the end it will be necessary to admit failure. Leaders feel the need to postpone such admissions because they are political suicide (even to someone not responsible for the mess, e.g. George McGovern). The citizenry feel the need to postpone such admissions out of pride (when we did admit this to ourselves in 1975, it was followed by two decades of shame).
While it is not impossible that the Iraq situation can find a peaceful transition to a stable democratic government, it is very unlikely. Most likely the country will be torn apart by the forces that have been unleashed by the invasion. Its near-term fate seems more akin to Sudan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, or Yugoslavia. The chimerical idea that Iraq will evolve into a multi-party democracy tempts U.S. leaders to prolong the occupation, but occupation only postpones the nearly inevitable. Once U.S. forces withdraw, the country may attempt to break into two or three and once the Kurdish north attempts its own state, Turkey may make good on their threats to invade. The British artificial partition of the Ottoman empire will once again show how a moment of convenience can lead to an eternity of misfortune.
My prescription is therefore to withdraw as soon as possible. The damage has already been done. The U.S. bears responsibility for the ugliness that will follow, but postponing that ugliness serves no purpose. Imagine if this prescription had been followed in 1968 for Vietnam, instead of delaying the inevitable seven more years. How many millions would not have had to die for no reason?
The old saying goes
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me
twice, shame on me. We may soon have to apply this to the
United States. Now Bush didn’t actually fool the U.S. in
2000†, despite the
closeness of the election, but he did manage to occupy the White
House nonetheless, so I feel the first part of the old saying is
satisfied. What is worse is that the second half is on the
verge of applying.
It is one thing for Bush to come close to being elected in 2000
as a self-described
compassionate conservative, but
another altogether if he is actually elected in 2004, despite
his record in 2001-2004, which is certainly possible, and
perhaps even likely. Even if he is re-defeated, the fact that
he will likely receive the legitimate votes of more than 20% of
the voting age public, and 40% of the actual voters on 2
November 2004 gives me pause. What does it say about this
nation that after 39 months of wreaking evil upon this nation
and the world, the
red states of the U.S. eagerly look to
actually give him the title of President? Is there really that
much evil and stupidity in the U.S.? It appears so.
I take some comfort in living in a
blue state, but still
having to pay taxes to support the evil of Bush and the red
states does not sit well with me. Were it up to
me, I would have California secede from the U.S., but even
Californians don’t want that and the Republicans in Washington
would go to war to stop it. What to do?
† Bush received 24.5% support of the voting age citizenry and 246 undisputed votes in the electoral college. Gore received 24.8% and 266 undisputed votes in the electoral college. Finally, there were 25 disputed Florida electoral college votes fraudulently given to Bush (primarily through illegal purges of Black voters), even though more people went to the polls in Florida to vote for Gore. Even a fair tally of the votes that were actually allowed to be cast would have narrowly given Gore Florida’s electoral votes. This election fraud and the subsequent legal maneuvers by the Republicans allowed Bush to occupy the White House.
I read quite a bit of political commentary on the Internet and
news publications and it is clear that the
U.S. is very much polarized into implacably opposed camps. Here
I want only to make a simple observation about such camps: they
don’t care what weaponry they use to fight their opponents;
winning is all that matters. For example, pretty much anything
the Bush White House does is criticized as wrong, if the outcome
was undesirable, regardless of what the criticizer would have
done herself in the same situation. For example, Richard
Clarke’s revelations about the Bush White House have been
welcomed by the anti-Bush camps, despite the fact that
Mr. Clarke’s recommendations would have been an anathema to
those camps at the time. Condoleezza Rice and John Ashcroft lay
all the blame for the World Trade Center attack on President
Clinton, because it is politically convenient, not because they
would have acted differently at the time.
The enemy of my enemy is not my friend. Ends do not justify any means of accomplishing them.
The more we define ourselves as who we are against, and less by what we stand for, the more one loses one’s own self.
Earlier I wrote about the White House squatters’ counter-Clarke media strategy. Here I plan to set down my thoughts on the squatters’ 9/11 Commission strategy, which seems to be at a similar level of politics before policy, even though it is conducted in respectable language, unlike the Clarke attacks.
First, the Commission was set up with insufficient powers and
mandate to do a thorough job; some call it the
Commission, though I think this is going too far. Second,
the squatters’ are rushing the investigation, setting deadlines
that will lessen the value of the Commission’s work, but which
will also avoid testimony during the fall campaign season.
Third, they are refusing to hand over documents that the
Commission requests, thereby controlling the investigation (only
their version of truth will be allowed as the official story).
They even get to vet the Commission’s report before it is
released. Fourth, the squatters’ are limiting the Commission’s
access to White House testimony (Condoleezza Rice was not going
to testify publicly under oath; then in exchange for such
testimony the Commission was forced to agree to request no more
White House testimony). Finally, Bush in a separate
cannot steel himself
to face the Commission alone, and so is bringing along minder
I see no credible reasons for this lack of cooperation with the Commission. As before, the World Trade Center attack is not a major issue that I hold against Bush and his fellow squatters (if it is shown, as some hint, that the squatters deliberately failed to counter a threat, knowing it would strengthen their political position, then I would change my opinion). Yes, they should have been as serious about counter-terrorism as President Clinton’s administration, but this might not have prevented the attack. The failure to prevent the attack is probably more attributable to failures at the FBI/CIA level, than the lack of a White House counter-terrorism plan, and Clarke’s plan was probably not viable before 9/11. The White House should have used the escalating threat levels to prod the FBI/CIA/FAA etc. into overdrive, which they didn’t. A mistake yes, but nowhere as serious as their other mistakes. They should apologize for this failure and move on.
I see only politics behind the White House attitude toward the Commission. After the attacks, they latched onto 9/11 as the defining moment of their administration. As a result, they try to shift all blame for the attacks to President Clinton’s administration, so that they can continue to wrap themselves in this one event and their response to it. Understanding policy failures that led to the event are therefore politically counter-productive, unless the failures are someone else’s. It is dishonest, but what else is to be expected from these squatters?
The real issue in all of this is still undiscussed. The best way to stop terrorism is to adopt domestic and foreign policies that stop breeding hatred of the U.S. and its allies. As the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, the U.S. would have only to move its foreign policy into the twentieth century (it regressed to a more brutal age perhaps with Eisenhower’s administration?) to make real progress on reducing hatred.
Here’s a problem to consider. We’re on a train
headed south down a steep mountain. It’s getting warmer
as we descend from high up. There is no engine, only brakes.
There are two major camps of passengers, the Rs and Ds (there
are smaller groups, e.g. the Gs, but the voting system
doesn’t used ranked ballots, so votes
for those groups cause weird results in the outcome). The
railroad engineers say the maximum safe speed of the train is
45mph. The Rs want to operate the brakes to keep the train
under 90mph, saying the engineers are wrong: there’s lots
of margin, and the breeze keeps us cool, since it’s
getting hotter and hotter outside. The Ds are saying
let’s go 60mph, because any slower and the Rs will be
voted in to the brake controller position. Who do you vote for?
Clearly the Gs or Ds are preferable to the Rs. Perhaps the Ds,
if there’s a chance that a G vote will cause the Rs to
win, since the chance of train wreck is lessened, even though
the D strategy is still very imprudent. Even here voting for
the Gs, if it eventually led to future elections where the wise
choice is a possible outcome, might be sane (the
Now add a twist to the analogy, which takes it closer to reality. The engineers point out that up ahead is a ravine with an old bridge. Looking at old records and flood projections, they suggest that the bridge is surely washed out by now. The Rs say this is nonsense, but even if it’s true, the best strategy is to have maximum speed to jump over the ravine. The Ds say we’ve got to keep the speed up to 60mph or the Rs will win. The Gs say let’s start braking now so we can stop at the switch before the ravine, move it, and then take the other track parallel to the ravine heading east toward the sun (and maybe even find a way to get the train to run without heading downhill). If you pass the switch at faster than 10mph, maximum braking won’t stop you before the ravine. Now which do you choose? To summarize, your choices are:
Everyone is telling you that voting for Gs will cause the Rs to win, and thus #1 will happen. What do you do?
Does the answer depend on whether the train wreck serves as a warning to the trains behind you that might still have time to switch to the eastern track?
John Kerry has demonstrated some tendency to sacrifice principle to political convenience, such as his pro-war Iraq vote. (It is actually difficult to say where Bush lies on the principle sacrifice scale, since he appears to have principles so base that they cannot be called principles at all.) Senator Kerry’s plan to reduce gasoline prices is simply his latest attempt to pander to voters, rather than trying to lead. What the U.S. needs now is a slow, steady increases in the price of all fossil fuels. This will encourage the market to develop alternatives. By slow and steady I mean something about 12% a year above the inflation rate, which in six years would about double the real price. Whether a simple doubling is sufficient to anticipate the supply and demand mismatch in 2010, and thus the inevitable price rise, is doubtful, so a spike would still occur at some point. Still, I suspect the market will react more wisely to increments than to spikes, because it takes time for price changes to ripple through the economy, and because it takes time to innovate and build.
Fortunately, Senator Kerry’s plan is likely to have little effect on gasoline prices, and it may be only election year positioning. Still, it is a step in the wrong direction for base purposes. Moreover, if Senator Kerry really wished to reduce gasoline prices, reducing demand, rather than increasing supply, by increasing U.S. fuel economy and substituting other energy sources (e.g. electric vehicles) would be the best method.
The squatters in the White House have formed a chorus to vomit vitriol in an attempt to coat their designated enemies in slime and muck. As so many have already observed, they are attacking their enemies’ character instead of their facts, indicating that the White House does not have the facts on their side. And how pathetic it is to see Dr. Condoleezza Rice rushing to the microphones after each testimony before the 9/11 commission, when she refuses to testify in public before the commission itself. Most likely she doesn’t want her responses to the microphones to have to be under oath. (For more on Rice testifying under oath, see this.)
As I witness the vomitting chorus, I observe that the gushing is a reflection of what is bottled up inside. What better indication of the squatters’ character than what they spew?
The facts appear to be simple. The White House, according their own words on record, did not view the threat from terrorism as urgently as did the outgoing Clinton administration. This is also the opinion of other insiders besides Clarke. They choose to downgrade administrative attention to counter-terrorism activities and instead concentrate on geopolitical issues, waiting for terrorism policy to be formed as part of their reviews. This was simply a policy decision. It happens to have been a politically bad one given the subsequent events, though with a few lucky breaks elsewhere in the government, the World Trade Center attack might have been foiled like so many other attacks, and the policy decision would not have in retrospect looked so foolish. As George Tenat said in the 9/11 commission hearings, it is unclear whether Richard Clarke’s recommendations, even if they had been adopted in January, would have stopped the attacks. They would have however, made the administration appear pro-active rather than reactive.
Rather than admitting in hindsight to having made a policy
mistake, however, the squatters have begun their muck chorus
saturation media appearances as the
Washington Post put it).
Again, this says more about the squatters than their failure to
have chosen a more pro-active policy. Because of their rush to
control opinion, the chorus cannot even synchronize their
spew—they often contradict each other (
wasn’t in the
loop says Cheney,
was in every meeting says Rice),
further illustrating their true nature.
The 9/11 commission hearings have also made it plain that the
State Department failed to win significant cooperation of Saudi
Arabia and Pakistan in counter-terrorism until after 9/11. It
is difficult to know whether that would have been possible
without the catalyst of the attacks, but it seems clear to me
Bush’s ties and debts to the House of Saud
made real pressure on Saudi Arabia unlikely, thereby weakening
this half of the Clinton effort. Of course, our policy toward
Saudi Arabia is totally dominated by their oil reserves and
production, which only highlights the need to
get off of this sauce.
The Pakistan half of the equation was of course complicated by
the nuclear proliferation issue and Kashmir.
I may not agree with many of his policies (especially on the environment), but I have to admit that Senator John McCain of Arizona continues to distinguish himself from his fellow My Party Right or Wrong Republicans. The latest incident, in which he felt compelled to contradict the White House line that John Kerry is weak on national defense, is only one of many times he has preferred speaking the truth rather than political convenience, and for that he is to be commended.
John McCain may be unique among elected Republicans, but there are also occasional party members who put truth first. Kevin Philips (author of American Dynasty), Paul O’Neill (author of The Price of Loyalty), and Richard Clarke (author of Against All Enemies) have recently all felt the need to contradict the lies routinely issued from the White House.
It is a testament to the power of the two-party system that these and other Republicans with a conscience (at least I presume there are others) have not renounced their party affiliation. Only Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont had the courage to do that.
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the
expression of real suffering and a protest against real
suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the
heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.
It is the opium of the people. (typically the last part
is simplified to
Religion is the opiate of the masses.)
How much more painful (and thereby creating the need for escape)
must the modern world be, for we now have many more opiates to
distract the people: television is the number one opiate, though
religion still shoulders on (including on television); spectator
sports (especially when combined with television) are another
opiate for the masses, as are celebrity worship and fashion.
Just say no to all opiates, including television,
religion, spectator sports, celebrity worship, and fashion?
That would be the way of a whole person. Why not say yes to
living for creativity instead of consumption and parasitism?
Linda Monk’s suggestion to replace the Pledge of Allegiance with the Preamble of the Constitution is inspired. What an improvement it would be to replace a tired, controversial loyalty oath with an affirmation and renewal of the people’s role, and therefore responsibility, in their own governance through a Constitution:
We the people, of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
In 1954, during McCarthyism, Eisenhower added the phrase
under God to the Pledge of Allegiance to distinguish
the U.S. from the
godless Communists. Now that action has
been challenged and the U.S. Supreme Court has taken the case, and
will decide whether the phrase violates the first amendment.
(In my opinion, it does—it matters not whether the added
phrase is ceremonial deism or something stronger—but my
opinion on the Pledge is not the true subject of this essay,
but rather just background information.) Now amicus briefs are
being filed on various sides of the case with the Supreme Court
(a somewhat more dignified form of debate than the circus we saw
after the Ninth circuit court of appeals announced its
dignified debate about the Pledge is
symptomatic of a larger problem: people decide the outcome they
favor and then decide what principle they will invoke to justify
that outcome. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to see people first
choose the most appropriate principle and then decide how that
principle best applies? For the Pledge of Allegiance, the
principle is the establishment clause of the first amendment to
the U.S. Constitution. Why is it that everyone expects the U.S.
Constitution to support their favorite political position?
Allow me to jump to another issue to show how principle should supercede policy. I think school vouchers are not the best solution to the school problem. Those opposed to vouchers challenged them via the establishment clause of the first amendment, but I found this challenge to be misguided, even though, if successful, it would have had the effect of putting the voucher policy I dislike as beyond the reach of any U.S. legislature, but at the cost of reading something into the Constitution that was not there (the state was not establishing a religion when it allowed parents to choose a religious school to redeem their vouchers—a different situation from the state choosing to subsidize religious schools). It is better to address the voucher policy via the legislature, which should be the primary decision maker on issues of what best accomplishes a valid state goal.
On the Pledge issue, I see those amicus briefs supporting the
Pledge as attempts to twist the Constitution to support a public
policy they support, rather than starting from the Constitution
and deciding what it says in this case. The reasoning of the
9th circuit in
Newdow v. U.S. Congress
seems fairly straightforward. How would the same proponents of
Newdow reversal feel if Congress changed the wording to
the Gods? Would they not see that as unfairly supporting
polytheism, and object to its constitutionality? When the same
clause of the Constitution is used to support two opposite
actions based on the theology supported, then policy is picking
principle, not the other way around.
As another example (one on which my own opinion of what should
be done—as opposed to what should be found in the
Constitution—is too complex to state here as background
information), I do not think it appropriate for pro-choice
advocates to depend on the U.S. Constitution to find a right
that is not explicitly there. The Supreme Court, did render a
Roe v. Wade,
balancing three interests, viz. the state’s interest in
protection of the pregnant woman, the state’s interest in
protecting the potentiality of human life, and the pregnant
woman’s privacy right (found by the Court in the fourteenth
amendment). The balancing is subject to evolving medical
capability, which certainly will not satisfy pro-choice
advocates over time (the
compelling point of interest in
the health of the mother point will tend to move forward from
Roe’s first trimester point with medical technology, and the
compelling point of interest in potential human life will
move back from Roe’s second trimester with medical technology).
Moreover, the tenuous nature of the woman’s right found via the
fourteenth amendment makes it possible for the Court to reverse
Returning to the Pledge, refreshingly we see a few religious individuals supporting the 9th circuit decision in Newdow, despite their desire to instill their own children with a belief in their God. In some cases it is because they believe ritual references to a generic God are likely to weaken rather than strengthen faith. Such reasoning still puts the end before the principle; the ends are simply framed with more sophistication. But in a few cases it is because they accept the separation of Church and State, even if that means they must communicate their religion memes without the help of the State. That is putting principle first.
Therefore, my prescription for public policy is as simple and obvious as it is forgotton. Keep separate the triple notions of what should be done, what the law/Constitution should say, and what the law/Constitution does say. Don’t try to bend the last to the demands of the first two.
Mr. Gibson’s The Passion of Christ continues to generate a lot controversy. I have not seen it, and do not plan to, as it sounds unbearable to watch and without redeeming value. While I therefore don’t intend to write about the film, I do have observations to record on the debate about the film and what it says about society.
The most common objection to the film is the slanting of the story to portray the certain Jews as responsible for Jesus’ suffering and death. Radio shows have scholars talk about what is true or untrue about the film, as if anyone actually knew; there are not many historical sources for the truth about Jesus’ life and death. The four Gospels of the new testament are the most detailed sources, but they were written down decades after the events they describe by people who were not present (the authors appear to have been highly educated in Greek, for example). These authors inserted their own views into their writing. Moreover, the Gospels contradict each other on important points. The truth of what happened almost two millennia ago will never be known to us, however long we debate it. It is much like debating angels on pinheads.
More important, what happened two millennia ago is irrelevant; it matters not one bit whether Pontius Pilate or a few Jews were responsible. To blame a people for the acts of a few individuals of a community is a form of racism or tribalism. Individuals must be judged by their own merits and faults, not by their membership in a group not of their choosing. One can condemn a Nazi, a white supremacist, a slave holder, a member of Al Qaeda, or the member of the U.S. National Security Council, because their association is a matter of choice, but to condemn a sentient being for their genetics, place of birth, or age is in fact an indictment of the condemner, not the condemned. Even religion, which in some cases (but not all) is a matter of choice, would only be cause for condemnation based on its teachings, not the actions of a few of adherents.
It seems even more bizarre to me to carry such prejudices from
one generation to another. Even if Mr. Gibson’s portrayal had
some authority to it, it would still be silly to accuse those
living today for the actions of long ago. However, as a
Catholic, Mr. Gibson is schooled in the doctrine of
sin which is described as a
hereditary stain. Those
who believe in original sin, for example, may have no problem
transfering guilt from one generation to another, irresponsible
though this may be. (One need not be Catholic to engage hate
crimes for acts of another generation — witness the recent
violence between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat.)
As an aside, I must point out time does not erase all responsibility. First, nations and corporations have indefinite lifetimes — sometimes an advantage, but here a liability. Claims against nations and corporations for acts long ago may be valid. Second, those who inherit bounty from acts of long ago, including individuals, may still be called upon for restitution of their inheritance or its benefit. This is a tricky issue, as there must be some statue of limitations even here (e.g. most political boundaries have some element of unjust conquest). But I digress.
There is no person alive today who bears the guilt for the
actions of a few individuals (whoever they might be) two
millennia ago. Despite that, because many people cannot
overcome their tribalism, and because still others believe in
the justness of
hereditary stain, some may be incited to
hatred and violence by fictional depictions of such actions.
For that both they and Mr. Gibson bear responsibility. For
allowing tribalism to flourish, we all bear responsibility.
The Democrats seem virtually unanimous in condemning Ralph
Nader’s candidacy, describing it as egotistical. (For the
record, I voted for Nader in 1996 and 2000.) Never mind that
Gore actually won the 2000 election, and only the failures of
the Democrats to effectively challenge the Florida tally let the
loser occupy the White House. What is missing in the press
coverage of the Democrats’ vitriolic outbursts is any discussion
of what the Nader
problem says about our election system.
What the Democrats are saying is that even though Kerry does not
represent my political views very well, simply because Kerry’s
views are closer to mine than than Bush’s, I should not have the
option to choose the best representative of my positions,
because the election system will punish me for that. That sort
of calculus leads to
tactical voting: voting for a
non-preferred candidate(s) so as to produce the best outcome.
seems so natural to many of us that we do not even realize that
this is not inherent in voting methods.
Aside: The U.S. primarily employs winner-take-all elections, i.e. there are multiple candidates for a single seat. While proportional representation is a good alternative for multi-member bodies (councils, legislatures, etc.), here I plan to raise only how to conduct winner-take-all-elections, such as for an executive branch position.
What election method does not encourage tactical voting? Consider a ballot in which you rank the candidates in order of preference: 1 for your first choice, 2 for your second, etc. It turns out that there are ways to pick a single winner from such ballots such that ranking your favorite candidate 1 does not help elect your least favorite candidate. Let’s take the controversial 2000 election; many Nader voters would have ranked the candidates Nader 1, Gore 2, with Brown, Buchanan, Bush, and Hagelin in various places for places 3 through 6 (or even left unranked). Almost any ranked ballot election method would have chosen Gore as the winner because the Nader voters still indicated a preference for Gore over Bush. (Of course, any fair count of the ballots in the 2000 Presidential election under the existing rules would have also elected Gore.) Similarly, the Buchanan voters would not be effectively voting for Gore if after ranking Buchanan 1, they had put Bush higher than Gore in their rankings. Details of some possible methods to tabulate ranked ballots may be found at Condorcet Rules: Six Variations.
What happens if the election method is not changed? Then the 2000 election will be invoked time and time again as to frighten voters to simply accept whichever candidate of the two major parties is the least objectionable to the individual voter. Neither party will have an incentive to offer candidates that actually reflect the views of the voters; they need only offer candidates that are less obnoxious than their rival party on a few carefully selected issues.
What happens if the election method is changed? Candidates
such as Nader will then enrich the electoral process, even if
they do not win elections. Because voters would no longer
feel compelled to vote tactically, such candidates would receive
more support in polls. They would be included in debates, and
thereby would bring issues to the national discussion that would
otherwise be left off the table by the
This is exactly the issue; the Democrats and Republicans are
currently united in supporting the two-party system (the system
off the table). Only if one party begins to
feel sufficiently threatened (e.g. by a Nader candidacy) might
it consider changes, such as ranked ballots, that would slightly
weaken this system.
Is it politically possible to use ranked ballots for U.S. elections? I think it is, but only in a bottom-up process, where it is first implemented by a few localities, and then by a few states. Only after a few states have shown its appropriateness, will ranked ballots have a chance at the federal level. This process has actually begun; San Francisco recently switch to a ranked ballot (although with an inferior method for selection: Instant Runoff Voting instead of one of the Condorcet methods).
Previously I have observed that the modern Republican party has become radical instead of conservative, and the Democrats now fulfill the role of conservatives in the U.S. I recently listened to Paul Krugman’s Commonwealth Club speech in which he made the same point, and then juxtaposed this observation with Kissinger’s analysis of revolutionary powers in international relations. (After all, politics is not unlike international relations.) Kissinger wrote, in the introduction to A World Restored:
Stability … has commonly resulted not from a quest for
peace but from a generally accepted legitimacy.
Legitimacy as here used should not be confused with
justice. It means no more than an international agreement about
the nature of workable arrangements and about the permissible aims
and methods of foreign policy. …
…The motivation of the revolutionary power may well be defensive; it may well be sincere in its protestations of feeling threatened. But the distinguishing feature of a revolutionary power is not that it feels threatened—such feeling is inherent in the nature of international relations based on sovereign states—but that nothing can reassure it. Only absolute security—the neutralization of the opponent—is considered a sufficient guarantee, and thus the desire of one power for absolute security means absolute insecurity for all the others.
Diplomacy, the art of restraining the exercise of power,
cannot function in such an environment. It is a mistake to
assume that diplomacy can always settle international disputes
if there is
good faith and
willingness to come to an
agreement. For in a revolutionary international order, each
power will seem to its opponent to lack precisely these
qualities. Diplomats can still meet but they cannot persuade,
for they have ceased to speak the same language.…
For powers long accustomed to tranquility and without
experience with disaster, this is a hard lesson to come
by. Lulled by a period of stability which had seemed permanent,
they find it nearly impossible to take at face value the
assertion of the revolutionary power that it means to smash the
existing framework. The defenders of the status quo therefore
tend to begin by treating the revolutionary power as if its
protestations were merely tactical; as if it really accepted the
existing legitimacy but overstated its case for bargaining
purposes; as if it were motivated by specific grievances to be
assuaged by limited concessions. Those who warn against the
danger in time are considered alarmists; those who counsel
adaptation to circumstance are considered balanced and sane, for
they have all the good
reasons on their side: the
arguments accepted as valid in the existing framework.
Appeasement, where it is not a device to gain time, is
the result of an inability to come to grips with a policy of
But it is the essence of a revolutionary power that it possesses the courage of its convictions, that it is willing, indeed eager, to push its principles to their ultimate conclusion. … Principles in a revolutionary situation are so central that they are constantly talked about. The very sterility of the effort soon drains them of all meaning, …
Kissinger came to his description of revolutionary powers from analyzing the Napoleonic era after the French revolution, but his writing suggests wider applicability. Subsequent revolutionary powers to which it could be applied include Fascist Germany and Communist Russia. (Though I do not know, I would be surprised if Kissinger did not apply his analysis to the USSR, and see it as justifying the need for a life-and-death struggle with it.) Kissinger’s analysis also applies in its original context, viz. to current U.S. international relations, but this is an consequence of the revolutionary Republican program.
Kissinger’s analysis transposed to U.S. politics suggests that
there may be no accommodation possible between the prior
legitimacy in the U.S. (as represented by
Democrats and pre-Reagan Republicans) and today’s revolutionary
Republicans; indeed I have noticed in my discussions with
Republicans that we no longer
speak the same language and
it does seem in the way Republicans go about politics that only
the neutralization of the opponent will suffice.
Further, Republican ideology has become increasingly like
constantly talked about and
sterile. Just as Stalinism turned Communist ideology
into simply an excuse for power, so does Republicanism
increasingly become simply an excuse for power (e.g. William
observation on the relative roles of Republican ideology and Republican clients).
Whether the subject is tax cuts, foreign wars, the environment, police powers, or judicial appointments, the Republican party has engaged in a deeply dishonest selling of its policies. It is well to remember the words of a political observer from the not too distant past; Eric Sevareid of the CBS evening news said:
Every political villain in history first persuaded himself that the end justifies the means. Nothing but ends justify means, but they do not justify any means. Where the line is drawn among means is the determinant between civilized life and savagery. Inadmissible means devour principle and corrupt their users, often forever.
The corruption of Republican ideology is evident in the recent
tax cuts. Ideologies are always based on conflicting
principles; successful policies result when ideologically
motivated actions are tested against the desirability of their
likely outcome (the
nothing but ends justify means part
of the statement above). When impracticality and certain
negative outcome ceases to deter bad policy, the revolution has
arrived at a moral dead-end where the only
ends that are
considered are those of the rulers. The Republican tax cuts and
simultaneous spending increases (the
borrow and spend
strategy) fail any test of practicality; there is no plausible
scenario in which the outcome is anything but disastrous
without a reversal of the policy (as happened, for example,
after the initial Reagan tax cuts
but Republican power was not destroyed, and so the tax cuts
Republicans seek upper class tax cut after tax cut out of greed
and unenlightened short-term self-interest; it is the only
explanation that explains tax cuts that so perfectly benefit
only the upper class. (They also serve to
beast, but that could be equally well accomplished with tax
cuts that benefited all taxpayers, not just the upper 1%.)
If Kissinger’s analysis is correct and applicable, then other political parties must deal with the Republicans on an altogether different basis; since Republicans seek to smash the existing legitimacy, then the only effective counter-strategy is to destroy Republican power; accommodation may not be possible.
Most revolutionary ideologies have failed, but usually only by first succeeding in some country, then expressing their corrupt nature (e.g. Fascism in Hitler’s Germany, Communism in Stalin’s Russia). Fascism was militarily defeated by the old legitimacy. In some cases the old legitimacy is also destroyed or transformed (e.g. the French revolution). Communism took a third course; it was allowed to burn itself out. The danger with Republicanism is that it occurs in the world’s single superpower, which is not susceptible to military defeat. The destruction of Republican power therefore must come from within the United States. Either it will come from other political parties taking power in elections and then systematically working to prevent the use of Orwellian techniques used by the Republicans to induce self-destructive voting in the electorate, or it will come by doing nothing and thereby allowing the Republican party to destroy the United States. The latter scenario is not that implausible; to starve the beast and line the pockets of their clients, Republicans have put the U.S. into a power dive; if an engine were to flame out at this point, the U.S. would not be able to pull out of the dive, and would crash. For example, with deficits approximately 25% of the GDP and likely to grow, it would take only an increase in interest rates and a move away from the falling dollar as the world’s single reserve currency to bring on U.S. bankruptcy.
The strategy of retaking power and then destroying Republican
power has a major problem. The battle over the Republican
levers of power (e.g. money and ownership of the media) is
likely to be intense. Can this battle be fought without
corrupting the fighters? Fighting evil corrupts the good (for
example, the U.S. battle with Communism saw the U.S. engaging in
for the greater good, a sure sign that Realpolitik
has corrupted its user).
Without a strategy to destroy the Republican revolution and retain our principles, the only course may be to allow the Republicans to bring on financial collapse, and therefore destroy themselves. This in the end was the strategy that worked against Communism.
This one is easy to disentangle, but only by seeing beyond the prevailing mythology of our day. Politics is inherently a multi-dimensional space. One’s opinion on one issue can be independent of one’s opinion of another. Political thought in most of the world, and certainly the U.S., arbitrarily simplifies multiple dimensions to a single dimension, and assigns positions to a single right to left political spectrum. The purpose of the one-dimensional simplification of political space is simply to aggrandize the ruling class. A politically powerful person or institution increases its power by convincing others that from alignment on one issue, alignment on other issues should follow, and so this is the lesson that is taught and driven into our minds relentlessly by the mouthpieces of power (such as the news media).
Note: To use the terms left, right, conservative, or liberal is therefore to fall prey to ruling class’ strategy. Henceforth, I substitute the more accurate Republican and Democratic labels for the ones with which I opened this essay (in a play for familiarity). These labels similarly presume the packaging of political ideas for aggrandizement via the one-dimensional oversimplification, but they suggest the origin and purpose of the oversimplification.
In mathematics, by starting from false premises any result can
be falsely proved, even that 1 = 0. Similarly, starting from
the false one-dimensional simplification of politics, any bias
desired can be found. (A similar result holds for policies
derived from ideologies. Since ideologies are built upon
any policy can be justified by selective appeals to
the components of their ideology, often without the
speaker even realizing what he or she is doing, which
calls to mind Benjamin’s Franklin’s
So convenient a thing it is to be a
reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or
make a Reason for everything one has a mind to
So it is possible for a Republican author to find a Democratic
bias by identifying media and reporters with political positions
that are Democratic leanings on some issues (even when they are
Republican on other issues), and cite those instances as proof
of Democratic bias. Similarly it is possible for a Democratic
author to find Republican bias. Many authors and speakers on
the topic of media bias do not even rise to this level of
argument, but instead simply invent facts and hurl invective
(Bernard Goldberg’s Bias and Ann Coulter’s
Slander are probably in this category, but I have
not read them). One author at least, Eric Alterman, in
What Liberal Media?, at least somewhat acknowledges
the problems with oversimplification in his refutation of a few
Republican authors’ smear and propaganda pieces, first by
dividing his case groups of axes of multi-dimensional politics,
and even suggesting out one set of axes on which there may be
some evidence of Democratic bias when he writes:
evidence is sketchy, I tend to believe that on many social
issues, conservatives have a case. (The rest of Chapter 7
however goes on to suggest that much of this bias has been
overcome by the self-criticism of responsible journalists,
citing David Shaw’s Pulitzer award winning series in the
liberal Los Angeles Times on coverage of the
Modern U.S. mythology accepts as
fact that the press
liberal, i.e. Democratic. This myth is not grounded
in reality; it is accepted because it is so often asserted by
Republicans. Repeating something over and over may not make it
so, but it may make a myth.
More sophisticated analyses of bias lump the Democratic and
Republican packaging of political issues into a single ruling
class and then examine the bias of media toward the interests of
this ruling class. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s
falls into this category, and it makes a compelling case.
(However, a compelling case is not the same as a proof; a
compelling case usually looks at a set of examples, and
generalizes; a proof would have to look at all of the data,
which is probably an impossible task.) Here the thesis is that
the spectrum of debate is limited by the poles defined by the
Republican and Democratic positions on issues. Issues on which
the Republican and Democrat camps agree are off the table;
political positions outside of these camps are beyond the pale
(e.g. being against the invasion of Iraq in early 2003, or even
conservative thought — Europeans suffer
from the same idea of a political spectrum — which is
liberal to be beyond the pale for
My analysis suggests that attempts to prove an overall Republican or Democratic bias to the media are not terribly meaningful (though the data cited can be interesting), precisely because of (1) the multi-dimensionality of politics; (2) the reasons that these camps adopt points along different axes for political advantage result in semi-arbitrary packaging; and (3) William Greider’s observation that ideologies are adopted by the parties to justify their actions, not as generating functions for their actions. Examinations of bias along individual axes (e.g. the aforementioned David Shaw series) can find truth and are very useful. Attempts to find generalized patterns of bias (such as ruling class bias, or bias toward the media’s owners, which recognizes Mr. Greider’s observation) can also be illuminating, as they suggest ways in which simplification can be carried far enough to be able to make generalizations, and thus expose the mythologies of our time.
One of those rotten ideas, viz. my country, right or wrong, may be turning into my party, right or wrong, which is just as rotten.
One way to explain U.S. politics is that parties adopt ideologies to explain their actions instead of acting in accordance with their ideologies. As William Greider observed:
The Republican party is not a party of conservative ideology.
It is a party of conservative clients. Whenever possible, the
ideology will be invoked as justification for taking care of the
clients’ needs. When the two are in conflict, the conservative
principles are discarded and the clients are served.
To understand the Republican party (or the Democratic party, for that matter), it is most efficient to look directly at the clients — or as political scientist Thomas Ferguson would call them, the “major investors.” On that level, the ideological contradictions are unimportant. Political parties do function as mediating institutions, only not for voters.
Parties cannot serve their investors as well when they are
out of power. The Republican party has been slowly gaining
political power in the U.S., and now occupies the White House
(albeit fraudulently) and has slim majorities in both houses
of Congress. The desire of the so-called conservative party to
make radical changes on such a slim mandate has forced
it to present a united front, where no idea pushed by its
leadership, no matter how radical, is deemed too crazy to
support. In doing so, Republicans are adopting the
aforementioned my party, right or wrong philosophy.
This underscores Mr. Greider’s observation above, and his
The Stalinist discipline of the Republican Party
The U.S. has always been ruled by an elite political class. In this regard, it is not unlike the old U.S.S.R., except for the all-important difference that the U.S.S.R. had zero feedback in its political processes, and the U.S. has a small feedback component, viz. elections and the fourth estate. I do not buy the mythology of our age that elections are controlling; we do not live in a true democracy: elections are largely controlled by the elite, but the need to submit to the election process and control it imposes some constraints (a position I have expressed before via the soccer ball analogy). Propaganda in the U.S. is without peer in the world, but the need and cost of using it to overcome voters’ self-interest in too many cases limits the degree of disconnect between the political class and its citizens. The fourth estate’s feedback follows from its role in the electoral process, and its ability to shame those in power (though Republicans of today seem incapable of shame). The composition of the fourth estate has also changed over time, as first its owners and then its reporters moved into the political class, and transformed the press from semi-independent to propaganda organs (in this context, it is not surprising that “journalism” schools graduate more Public Relations professionals than reporters). As such, the fourth estate now provides less feedback and more indoctrination.
The reduction of feedback in U.S. politics means that political parties are able to operate according to my party, right or wrong without shame. The appropriateness of Mr. Greider’s observation about who the parties actually serve is thereby increased. I do not like to think about where this might lead.
The New Hampshire primary is today. Historically, this primary has a strong say in picking the U.S. President, and yet only 300,000 to 400,000 Americans will be voting, with perhaps 150,000 to 200,000 voting on the Democratic ballot (the only significant race this year). After the election, several candidates will likely drop out (as Gephardt did after the Iowa caucuses), meaning by the time Californians (for example) get to vote, it may be all decided. (Of course, even if I lived in New Hampshire, because I am not registered as a Democrat or as undeclared, I would not be able to vote in the Democratic primary.)
But that doesn’t stop me from casting my
vote on the web, before it’s decided, so
I will. Since I’m making the rules, I’ll
use a ranked ballot, since that’s the only
sensible voting method for a winner-take-all election.
With ranked ballots, I don’t have to engage in
strategic voting (picking the candidate based on his
or her chances in the polls), so I can
straight-forwardly declare my preferences. My ballot
would would be:
If pressed I might prefer Kerry for the fourth slot over Edwards based on his environmental voting record (LCV score 96% vs. Edwards’ 76%), but voting for someone that voted for the Iraq invasion is so distateful that I don’t think I could do it.
Note: I started this on 4 January, but did not stop until 27 January, because this piece is so inadequate and I don’t seem to be able to fix it. Nonetheless, rather than delete it, I’ll let it out so that I can move on.
In politics, it is best if one is able to respect one’s opponents. Failing that, it is better to give the benefit of the doubt and consider your opponents’ policies and actions to be merely mistaken and misguided, rather than of bad intent. However, Republicans have made this increasingly difficult in the last few years, and in my opinion the possibility that the party has transgressed from misguided to evil (in the dictionary sense of “morally reprehensible”) must be considered, as it appears to better explain their behavior. I do not intend to here make the case that the Republican party has so transgressed (for reasons that will momentarily apparent), but rather use this as a starting point to raise more general issues concerning evil and what to do about it.
Republicans of course would not admit to moral reprehensibility — indeed many in their camp would claim the high moral ground — so how then might others consider their actions and intents evil? For example, the anti-abortion movement, largely captured by the Republican party, would claim their actions and purpose to be a moral imperative (in my opinion, the hypocrisy of this group renders their claims to morality meaningless, but that is another matter). The answer is that our society no longer possesses a unifying morality; rather it has fractured along lines representing the conflicts inherent given multiple principles and sources of authority. Even when morality was defined by the Christian bible in western civilization, the conflicts between the old testament morality and new testament morality (e.g. between Exodus 21 and Matthew 5) were resolved only by an authoritative church (and by theological doctrines that deemphasize the teachings that are too difficult to follow in an imperfect world). Once a central authority splinters, society as a whole no longer has a unifying morality, as each splinter has its own interpretations and prioritizations. Moreover, society has added and continues to add secular principles to the mix; in the U.S. freedom, liberty, equality, religious tolerance, democracy, constitution, and rights are principles that are part of our long-standing mythology. In the last one hundred fifty years we have been adding corporate rights and women’s right’s to our mythology (both are still advancing to this day). Since the 1950’s and 1960’s we have been trying to integrate racial tolerance (starting with Brown V. Board of Eduction in 1954, Rosa Parks 1955, up to the Selma march and Voting Rights Act in 1965), environmentalism (e.g. Silent Spring, 1962, EPA, Earth Day, Clean Air Act, all 1970), and sexual tolerance (e.g. Stonewall, 1969). We are indoctrinated with them early and often (though inconsistently), but the accommodation with old testament morality and new testament morality is still evolving, causing fractures. I have found that I can barely understand the reasoning of Republicans when I speak with them, and one reason appears to be the lack of shared values and assumptions (as an example of non-shared assumptions causing failures to understand, if some assume that their nation acts morally, then they will insist on explanations of its actions even when they are contrary to the facts).
To make matters more complicated, many (including myself) now
reject religion as a moral authority at all; the dictates of the
various religions are often wise (e.g. the
but just as often arbitrary and unjustifiable. The multiplicity
of religions (i.e. which Ayatollah should you listen to?) alone
betrays the authority of religion (this was once less of an
issue: the ability to choose was not particularly viable, or
often even apparent prior to the twentieth century, when the
technological advances in communication and transportation
shrunk the globe to the size of a large city). Moreover,
scholars have given us knowledge of the reasons and methods by
which people created their religions, and this knowledge
eliminates religions’ claims to authority (for example,
the history of the new testament).
In my case, I find the arguments of ethicist
far more persuasive than
sacred texts such as the bible; indeed
by such a modern standard we see members of traditional churches
personally committing immoral acts on a daily basis, which
certainly reduces their claim to moral authority (e.g. their
eating meat and thereby enslaving, torturing, and killing
So, if this is indeed the situation, what is to be done about it? Unlike religions, I cannot demand faith that there is a single uniquely correct morality. Morality must be judged for what it accomplishes for society. As such, I can argue for the advantages of my moral perspectives, but not insist that they are only way. Using Dawkins’ coinage, I see moralities as memes that co-evolve with human societies. Just as many competing genes may co-exist within in a species, and vary in frequency within the population according to environmental conditions, so multiple morality memes exist and compete for dominance in human society. With this perspective then we are simply in a time of rapid evolutionary change brought on by changes in the social environment.
This perspective helps intellectually, but while various morality memes may be examined and debated intellectually, their expression within individuals is usually not an intellectual choice, but an emotional one arising from early patterning. While intellectually I adopted Singer’s ethics in my 40’s, after reading his work, the environment for that meme to flourish was probably patterned early in my life by the competing myths of our times, and indeed predisposed me to read his work in the first place, after having already reached similar conclusions independently. I hypothesize that the human brain may have even evolved emotional structures appropriate to react to good and evil, so as to make human societies function more successfully, but that these structures are easily patterned by development so that the definitions of good and evil are cultural, not innate (i.e. perhaps the categories are innate, but not the definition of the categories).
It is for the above reasons that making a case for the Republicans being evil is not the most important point to make; figuring out how to survive a world of multiple moralities is more important.
The recognition that morality has an emotional component, probably programmed by development is important because it suggests psychological consequences when good and evil are recognized. It also helps, for example, to see how some anti-abortionists can kill doctors (a tiny, extreme group) or defend their killers (which is much more widespread, as seen in the long-time failure to arrest the Atlanta bomber, and the stated opinions of many in Georgia that he should be freed).
It is important to distinguish between the observation that multiple moralities exist in the world and question of whether this fact is positive or negative. Some might assign a positive value to limited cultural differences in morality and celebrate the world’s diversity. Others assign a negative value and then go on to conclude that there is only one absolute God-given morality, and ignore the issue that people cannot agree on their Gods. My own view is that multiple moralities exist — an observation about the world — and that this is problematic (I could not use the word “evil” as I do if I were to simply celebrate the diversity that multiple moralities give us).
All this brings me back to the evils that I and others identify with the Republican party. The question is what should be done in fighting what I recognize as evil, but which others consider moral. Historically, such human societies have often resolved such conflicts through warfare and conquest. The meme of the militarily stronger group violently eliminates or subjugates the memes of militarily weaker groups (e.g. the U.S. civil war). Recently, we see memes arise that reject the elimination or subjugation of populations as acceptable, thrusting us into a new, potentially unstable situation. What was possible just over one hundred years ago (e.g. the U.S. elimination and subjugation of native Americans up through Wounded Knee), or ninety years ago (e.g. the Armenian Genocide) or just sixty years ago (e.g. Hitler and the Holocaust), now seems unthinkable in much of the world (Rwanda’s 1994 genocide still occurred, but it at least generated revulsion around the world).† In 1946, George Orwell observed the realpolitik-based actions of governments “can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties.” That the elites must employ political euphemism is an indication of the widening gap between public morality and realpolitik. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, is brutal and disgusting (as is the Palestinian response), but under earlier morality the Palestinians would have been entirely eliminated. The U.S. 2003 invasion of Iraq, while a rejection of principles that guided U.S. policy just twelve years before, is still not a repeat of the US-Mexican War of 1846-1848, where the U.S. annexed 3.1 million km2 (1.2 million mi2) of Mexico, or the U.S. conquest of the Philippines in 1898, or Britain’s conquest of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. (The White House may desire to so rule Iraq, but they are already being forced to modify their program by modern world opinion and guerrilla warfare.) Small progress, but at least it is something.
As the historical resolution is no longer available because of newly dominant memes, we are in territory where conflicting notions of good and evil co-exist. This can place tremendous psychological strain on individuals, given that the very notions of good and evil, as emotional entities, do not allow for multiple moralities.
In an environment where those of different morality cannot be wiped out in battle, the victors become subjugators, something like prison guards. The effect of such relationships is well documented, for example in the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, or in Robert Fisk’s story of Lebanon, or recently in the Israeli Sergeant Liran Ron Furer’s book Checkpoint Syndrome, or most recently in the stories about the actions of U.S. troops in Iraq. While it is the vanguished who are brutalized, it is the victors who are turned into monsters. In Lebanon, Palestine, or Iraq, the tendency of Israeli or U.S. troops to identify their victims as “terrorists” has freed them (in their own minds) to act in in most horrible ways.
But there is a third group to consider, after victors and major victims: the rest of us, the minor victims, the bystanders. Most of us do no directly participate in the Republicans’ evil; only 24.5% of the U.S. voting age population voted for Bush in 2000 (vs. 24.8% for Gore), (and even in Florida, more voted for Gore than Bush — only through fraud did the Republicans occupy the White House, an example of their evil‡). Some of us are only partially victimized by the Republicans (and certainly no American is victimized on the same scale as the average Iraqi). Having our taxes given to Bush’s investors in handouts, or our future taxes appropriated in borrow-and-spend giveaways to Bush’s investors, or having unsafe products, dirty air, and dirty water victimizes us, but not in the same way as having your family killed, or being crippled or killed. However, the less obvious, but still pernicious, effect of Republican evil on minor victims and bystanders is the outrage and even anger that it generates.
I have found myself, in the conversations with some of the few Republicans I know, making remarks that I quickly regret. Evildoers can bring out evil in ourselves. This may be behind the admonition of Matthew 5:39 as much as the desire to show the evildoer the right path (see also Matthew 5:22). The problem with this passage is the possible interpretation that evil should not be resisted at all; the real question is whether evil should be resisted with anger (which hurts us and turns our hearts to evil) or with patience and edification. Gandhi’s tactics at the Dharasana Salt Works (, , ), succeeded in teaching the British about their own evil and made them ashamed of themselves (as well as shocking and revolting the rest of the world). Gandhi fortunately had Webb Miller to report on the Dharasana march; with Republicans now in control of so much of the U.S. media, it becomes more difficult to bring such examples (of which the world is filled) to the U.S. public.
What is needed is a way to make the Republicans feel ashamed; something the corporate media cannot ignore; something that does not make us angry or evil ourselves; and something that does not divert us. It is a tall order. In the meantime, I must control my anger and taunting. It is better for each of us to seek our own way, and not live only as a reaction to others. Until it is possible to effect change, it is better to deny evil the attention it craves than to let it set the whole agenda. Of course, having control of the world’s only superpower makes it hard to ignore. If nothing else, this argues against that such power should be dismantled, once the chance to do so arises, lest that power fall once again into evil hands.
† As counterexamples that weaken my argument, consider that the Indonesia’s genocide in East Timor was largely ignored by the world, and the U.S. still largely (except for our own CIA) fails to recognize our own recent role in millions of deaths in Cambodia, preferring lay the blame entirely on Pol Pot instead of looking at the contribution of our own bombing of that country. Or that the Sabra, Chatila, and Qana massacres were largely ignored in the U.S. because the perpetrators were our allies.
‡ To be fair, I should point out that Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy perhaps occupied the White House via fraud in Illinois in 1960, but that I know relatively little about it other than the assertion that this is so. In the 2000 Florida election, there is compelling evidence, which unfortunately did not come to light until after the Supreme Court had chosen Bush.
Even the facinorous occasionally do good things. Even the F student sometimes gets the right answer. Today I look back on 2003 and remark on some things even Bush and Prime Minister Blair did right.
Britain’s negotiations with Libya to end that country’s nuclear program are a welcome counterpoint to their participation in the invasion of Iraq (which was supposedly to end that country’s nuclear program, which in actuality had been terminated in 1991). Republicans point to this as a fruit of the Iraqi invasion. Even ignoring for the moment that the ends do not justify the means, the invasion of Iraq was not necessary to motivate Guadaafi. He was already attempting to regain an accpetable world standing by settling with the U.S. and Britain on the Lockerbie bombing, after years of sanctions far less onerous than those imposed on Iraq. The prospect of Iraq-style sanctions over his nuclear aspirations was enough to force his hand. As we now know from the lack of nuclear, biological, and chemicals weapons in Iraq, sanctions worked even with that most recalcitrant dictator.
The Bush White House is so routinely guilty of malfeasance that when they do even something small right; it a matter of surprise. Three things in 2003 were praiseworthy. Strikingly, two occurred in the last week.
The Bush White House deserves credit for its Africa AIDS initiative proposal, though their follow-through on that proposal is less praiseworthy (after proposing $15B over 5 years in January, the White House sought only $2B in their budget submission to Congress, and opposed efforts to increase this to $3B in the Senate).
The Bush White House deserves credit for its “earthquote diplomacy” in Iran. The suspension of sanctions and sending aid to the victims in Bam is a refreshing change of policy. If only it did not take a tragic natural disaster to precipitate such change. Why not try such an initiative with Cuba?
In the last days of 2003, the Bush administration announced a few of the long overdue changes for meat safety in response to the first reported instance of mad cow disease in the U.S., including barring sale of meat (at least for human consumption) from downer cows (cows that are too sick to walk or stand). Mere weeks after the U.S.D.A. (e.g. spokesman Dr. Kenneth Peterson) reiterated that they would not ban meat from downer cows, they have reversed their stance. Unfortunately, it appears that it was concern for U.S. exports (many nations instantly banned imports of U.S. beef upon hearing the news) rather than human health that motivated the ban. Further steps are still needed to protect people from prion diseases (e.g. implementing the European regulations, including the ending all forced cow cannibalism, especially the the use of cow fat and blood and other slaughterhouse waste as a cow feed ingredient). As a further indication of U.S. priorities, these changes do nothing to prevent the 5,000 annual deaths from food-born illness; they address the economic issue of consumer confidence. (And they certainly do not address the cows’ interests.)
Politicians like to take responsibility for the economy when it is booming, and assign blame to their opponents when it is not growing. The reality is far more complex. Does Bush deserve blame for the sour economy during 2001-2002? Probably not. First, the extended slow period is largely attributable, in my opinion, to the bubble economy bursting, which occurred before Bush occupied the White House. Democrats who point the finger at Bush on the three million jobs lost are simply dishonest opportunists. Similarly, the partial recovery in 2003, is likely not attributable to Bush’s policies, but is rather a natural business cycle recovery. Republicans that point to the recovery to justify Bush’s election in 2004 will be similarly dishonest. Second, the actions of the Federal Reserve are probably more important than those of the White House or Congress. As a result, President Clinton should not receive major credit for the boom that occurred during his term. Indeed, President Clinton bears some of the responsibility for the bubble, as his administration’s failure (e.g. at the SEC) to adequately police corporations, contributed to the fraud that gave the appearance of a booming economy (through misstated corporate profits), when in fact things had already slowed. As a further example, inflation and interest rates declining under Clinton were perhaps influenced more by the outsourcing of manufacture and service to the third world than by the balancing of the budget.
It appears to me that the influence of politicians on the economy is (1) limited (at least within the constraints of U.S. politics); (2) complex; (3) usually occurs over decade-long periods; and (4) consists more of opportunities to hurt than to benefit economic growth. The major effect of Bush’s policies may not be known for a decade. Their effect on public policy will be larger than on the economy, i.e. the increased debt and decreased revenue will constrain future spending more than it will affect the economy, and it will accentuate the growing economic divide in the country, but that is a societal more than economic impact. This is not to say that politicians have no effect on our lives; the effect of public policy can be very important; it just is seen in ways other than the economy.
Bush’s biggest economic legacy will be his failure to to prepare the country, indeed his steps backward, for the coming changes in the world and what it means to the U.S. Peak oil can only be addressed with major increases in efficiency and conservation, the opposite of Bush’s direction. The transition to a sustainable economy is inevitable. Politicians can influence whether it is gradual and seamless or cataclysmic; Bush’s policies, by delaying, increase the chances of cataclysm. Similarly, the transition to a stable or falling population is inevitable; public policies predicated upon perpetual growth (e.g. massive deficit spending, thereby borrowing from future generations) can only make the transition more painful. As a third example, outsourcing of production and services will slow when it represents a significant fraction of the economy (when there is little left to outsource); politicians should plan for the consequences of outsourcing saturation (e.g. renewed inflation pressure, and reduced growth).
Mr. Bush’s short-sighted policies were sure to encourage nuclear weapons proliferation. Now even Saudi Arabia is considering acquiring a nuclear arsenal, according to the Guardian. It is no wonder with some in Washington suggesting that Saudi Arabia could be next for the Iraq treatment, and with the recent demonstration of just how far the U.S. is willing to go to secure its long-term sources of oil. The only successful deterrent to U.S. invasion so far has been a nuclear arsenal.
Colin Powell has met with the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the fate of Iraq. The dispute is over whether the U.S. or the U.N. should lead Iraq’s transition to self-government. Is it not strange that Iraqis are not represented in this discussion? While Iraq may not be ready for complete self-government so soon after its devestation, it would certainly be possible to hold a referendum for the Iraqis to decide whether the U.N. should take over at this point. Perhaps Colin Powell fears the outcome of such a vote.
News and infotainment outlets across world will use tomorrow to write about the Al Qaeda attacks two years ago and their consequences. But what was so special about that day? Some parts of the world experiences violent attacks against innocent lives routinely, and are those anniversaries reverently marked and commemorated by anyone other than the victims’ relatives and friends? Certainly 2001.09.11 was a tragedy, but to single it out among the many tragedies is a is a crime against all the other victims of political violence. Where are the commentaries on the anniversaries of the Rwanda genocide? In Lebanon alone, should not the bombings of Beirut, U.S. Marines, French paratroopers, Beirut, Sabra, Chatila, Qana, Tyre, and others be remembered? And what of the 2003 U.S. killing of 6000-8000 innocent civilians in Iraq, twice as many as died in the World Trade Center? Is that violence not worth condemnation? What of the innocent Israelis killed by suicide bombs, and Palestinian bystanders killed by Israeli missiles? What of the families killed by U.S. pilots in Kosovo who would not fly low enough to see their targets? What about East Timor? What about Congo, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Kashmir?
It is wrong to invent labels to legitimize some violence and other labels to castigate other violence. When “terrorism” is reserved for the violence used against us, not the violence we and our friends do against others, it become simply a pejorative, not a descriptive word. All violence must be condemned.
The saddest thing about 2003.09.11 is that once again it will be used by U.S. politicians to promote their plans for future violence.
I reread George Orwell’s 1946 essay Politics and the English Language just now. Heavily excerpted, Orwell writes,
… But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. … If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration …
… This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. …
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. … Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. … Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. …
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. …
I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. … one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin, where it belongs.
It seems just as apt a description of the modern U.S. political landscape as it was of post second world war Britain. In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. U.S. politics today does consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. It is true that the gap between real and declared aims has led to long words and exhausted idioms. It is also probably true that slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
And yet, who can be said not to know that politicians are lairs and deceivers? Should a complaint about political language not to call to mind the exchange “I am shocked, shocked to learn that gambling is going on here.” by the French Captain Renault of the movie Casablanca, and even as he gives the order to close down Rick’s, the croupier hands him a roll of bills and says “Your winnings, Sir,” which Renault accepts saying, “Oh thank you very much. Everyone out at once.”
To reconcile my quite real shock at the insincerity of political language and the knowledge that it must have always been so (no doubt examples from the golden age of Athens could be found), consider that I, like most people, want to believe in the goodness of our institutions, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary. Even while we decry the prevarications and euphemisms of the politics we deplore, we hope for better. We hope for better because language is so powerful. Orwell gives us one prescription. Israeli journalist Michael Elkins similarly notes the power of language and gives a somewhat different prescription; writing in the Jerusalem Post he says:
We can go on like this — recreating and reflecting the existing images of each other, and reflecting these reflections — endlessly and hatefully — as in a hall of mirrors. The result will be that all of us — Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs — will be locked in endless and bloody agony in a hall of mirrors of our own creation and from which there is no exit.
Or we can begin by adopting a certain integrity — a certain generosity — in the use of language.
That’s not too hard. It’s the easiest of the hard things that must be done if we are ever to come to peace with one another, and so with ourselves.
(This inspiring quotation was taken from Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation.)
Today, U.S. politics is locked in a hall of mirrors, and there appears to be no exit. Our task is to make an exit. It is time to give the integrity of language a primary consideration in politics. Even when we agree with their aims, it is time to reject those who use language to spin, manipulate and deceive.
The east coast blackout is a fore-shock that should send us scurrying back to reconsider the ideas of E.F. Schumacher (Small Is Beautiful). Rather than build more transmission lines to interconnect massive gigawatt plants, we should move to decentralized generation. Imagine electricity generated on most rooftops from photovoltaic arrays that power the buildings beneath them. This would not eliminate blackouts, but blackouts would become local events, affecting ten people at a time instead of fifty million. The remedy for one such micro-blackout might be to walk next door to ask for help. No such remedy is possible when the lights from Ohio to Connecticut are out and the highways are clogged with desperate people.
Is PV cost effective? Photovoltaic (PV) systems cost approximately $9,000/KW installed today (approximately $4/W for the PV modules, $1/W for the DC to AC inverter, and $4/W for installation). (This price would come down substantially on the scale suggested above.) This is $630/year/KW when financed at 5.75% for 30 years. Using PG&E rates as an example, each KW of PV would generate 9KWH during the summer days when time-of-use rates are $0.315 per KWH, and 6KWH during winter days when rates are $0.116. Each KW of PV therefore saves $643 per year, thus saving $13/year/KW over the 30-year lifetime of the system. Using either government rebates ($4.25/W in California) or economies of scale resulting from massive PV investment, allows 10 year financing to save $18/year/KW. (After 10 years, the system saves $643/year/KW for the next 20 years.)
Rooftop PV is not a replacement for the electric grid using the above costs; the grid is still needed to provide electric power at night and for those buildings without the possibility of PV. To eliminate the grid requires local energy storage (e.g. batteries), which adds substantial cost (perhaps only $0.50/W initially for batteries, but the batteries would have to be replaced many times during the life of the system). However, even with distributed incremental generation, as above, the PV allows a selected subset of the circuits (e.g. refrigerators) to be powered from the sun, and it is easy to add a small battery bank to provide blackout backup power to selected circuits (e.g. a few safety lights), since the inverter is already present. As a backup power source, the batteries have a much longer lifetime than for off-grid applications since they are only discharged in a blackout. The net result is that rooftop PV would make communities blackout-tolerant.
To make rooftop PV ubiquitous it is not sufficient that it be cost effective; there are still too many building owners who would rather pay more to not be bothered. What is needed therefore is for the electric utilities to provide the option of financing, installation, and maintenance of PV. This would be wise investment compared to building more transmission lines.
It is too early to say whether chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons will be found in Iraq, but it seems the way has been prepared if needed. The U.S. refuses to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to return to Iraq, which makes it easier for the U.S. to fabricate a depot as justification if necessary. Of course, such a fabrication has associated risks, and so it is delayed to see whether it is really necessary. Increasingly, from the trial balloons in the press, it appears that propaganda may make discovery of U.N. banned weapons unnecessary. Indeed, even if no weapons are actually found, the frequent leaks and rumors about finds will leave most U.S. residents thinking that illegal weapons were found and justified the aggression.
I admit some surprise that Iraqi chemical weapons have not been found; I had expected that Saddam Hussein had a cache somewhere. That was never a reason to go to war, however.
The attack on Iraq is not over, but it is time to reflect on the results so far. The immediate outcome of the military campaign is not in doubt, as it never was. (The outcome of the occupation, on the other hand, is very much uncertain.) The question was what would be achieved and lost by the conduct of that military campaign. While the ends do not justify the means, it was precisely by the ends that this attack was justified. Even judged by such an illegitimate standard the ends fall short:
The cynical use, by the U.S., of weapons far worse than the chemical or biological arms it professed to destroy, illustrates the utter lack of an moral consideration to Mr. Bush’s action. Iraq is now, for a second time, a dumping ground for U.S. nuclear waste. Uranium dust, toxic for millennia, released by the explosions of DU munitions, now poisons the country. The continued use of radiation warfare by the U.S. continues to legitimize these horrible weapons. The U.S. also used cluster bombs, which are likely to maim children in the years to come.
Weighing the good and the bad, I cannot say that the U.S. or the world has come out ahead by Mr. Bush’s war. As for Iraq, even if the White House’s predictions are fulfilled, it will be impossible to judge whether the cost to Iraqis was worth it. I can only conclude that Mr. Bush has seriously hurt this great nation and the world.
I must agree with Harold Pinter: Mr. Bush and his fellow squatters in the White House are bloodthirsty wild animals. Bombs are their only vocabulary. There once seemed the chance, however unlikely, that Mr. Bush’s warmongering was a rhetorical attempt to twist the arm of the Saddam Hussein into cooperation with the U.N., but it is now clear that his goal has always been war, and he means to have it despite world opinion, despite the security council, despite relations with allies, and despite the success of the inspections to date. That George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Colin Powell, and those that encourage and support them, have evil and imperial designs is no longer in question. They haven’t even the skill of President Bush’s cabinet, whose attack on Iraq, was at least done with diplomatic adroitness to coalition building (though without sufficient diplomatic skill to avoid war).
If there is hope to be found in the current situation, it is that the war will have consequences unwelcome to these nazgul. It could, for example, precipitate an independent and more assertive Europe, and begin the decline of NATO (an organization whose purpose is not the defense of Europe — defend from whom? — but U.S. control of Europe). Also, should the Iraq occupation engender guerrilla resistance, it might recreate the U.S. disgust for war that came from the Vietnam experience (but at what a terrible cost!). I hope also that the war will undermine George Bush’s campaign hopes in 2004, and prevent he or his crew from becoming President in 2005.
There are unfortunately darker possibilities for the consequences of the quest for Empire besides the obvious effects on innocent Iraqi citizens: nuclear weapons programs will be started around the world by any country that has reason to fear the U.S. (which is almost everyone), and new impetus given to existing programs. Even those unable to create these weapons themselves may find they are able to buy them from North Korea and other states. The proliferation of nuclear weapons can only end in tragedy for everyone, especially the U.S. Would the Roman empire have lasted even half as long if it had been possible for a disaffected state to suicidally extract retribution upon Rome?
Though it is possible to speculate, the consequences of this war cannot be known. The consequences, inevitably a combination of good and bad, cannot be used to justify the war, and though they may be used to argue against it, the real evil of this war are not its consequences, but rather its purpose: power, control, and empire via unjustified aggression.
In his State of the Union address Mr. Bush finally proposed something positive for the world: money to spend on AIDS in countries too poor to afford medications to treat it. I hope that Mr. Bush follows through on his proposal, as it is sensible policy. Unfortunately, all too often Mr. Bush has proposed things only to quietly kill them later after the political points have been scored (e.g. increased funding for the Securities and Exchange Commission).
Predictions usually say more about the seer than the future. With that in mind, I still offer my forecasts for the U.S. attack on Iraq. One reason to oppose pre-emptive attack on Iraq is the consequences, and so it is appropriate to explore what those might be. (Moral and legal reasons are more important, but potential war criminals are usually not swayed by such arguments.)
Mr. Bush will launch an invasion of Iraq in February or March. It may begin in a surprise operation with the U.S. simultaneously seizing the oil fields, in an attempt to prevent them being destroyed by Saddam, and with the most intense aerial bombardment ever in the history of warfare, delivering as much destruction in a few days as the month long bombardment of the 1991 war, thereby allowing territory to be seized before the Iraqi army is able to respond to the occupation of their oil fields. The Iraqi people will not seriously defend their country, only the elite elements of Iraq’s army will fight. Their resistance will be short lived with U.S. air munitions quickly devastating their ranks. The U.S. will use weapons illegal under international law, particularly depleted uranium weaponry of multiple sorts (including missiles, bombs, and anti-armor rounds). Such radiation warfare has previously been used in Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and has poisoned U.S. firing ranges. It is even more heinous than chemical warfare; thus the U.S. will conquer Iraq by actually using weapons as bad or worse than those it supposedly seeks to destroy in Iraq. There will be substantial civilian casualties, primarily from “collateral damage” from the air attack and the early ground war.
Saddam Hussein will most likely disappear, and not be found. The U.S. will begin to occupy Iraq, and to install its own government under the supervision of a U.S. general. The U.S. installed government will grant leases to the Iraqi oil fields to Western companies, accomplishing Mr. Bush’s goal in the attack. Once Saddam and his henchmen are gone, Iraqi resistance fighters will begin clandestine attacks against U.S. troops to end the occupation of their country (they won’t fight for Saddam, but they may well fight to liberate the country once Saddam is gone). Some hidden Iraqi chemical warfare agents, perhaps some biological agents, and likely some nuclear weapons research program will be found by the U.S. military (if insufficient weapons are found, they will be planted, but I suspect that Saddam does have some limited things to hide).
The real causalities will not be apparent until years after the conflict when Iraqi civilians and U.S. troops begin to suffer the long-term ill effects of the high-tech weapons used in the conflict (primarily from the inhalation of depleted uranium dust causing leukemia and other tumors, hemorrhages, and ravaged immune systems). As with 1991 Gulf War syndrome, the U.S. government will deny any link between veterans’ illnesses and the combat and the U.S. use of illegal radiation weapons, and veterans will receive minimal medical treatment for their illnesses. The legacy for Iraqis will be worse; they (and their children) will continue to breath uranium dust for decades or centuries after the invasion, as they have for eleven years after the 1991 war.
At some point U.S. troops will be withdrawn, very possibly because of continued guerrilla attacks against the occupiers. Whether the installed government remains after U.S. withdrawal is uncertain; it may be overthrown in a revolution, or U.S. client may remain in power using the same mechanisms as Saddam Hussein, or there is a small chance of a democracy emerging. The U.S. is likely to pledge to rebuild Iraq, but like Afghanistan, the pledged aid may never arrive.
The other casualties from the war are likely to be U.S. influence and prestige; the current combination of fear and respect may become simply fear, which in the long-term is dangerous. Many nations will begin or redouble efforts to clandestinely produce nuclear weapons to deter future U.S. aggression. This U.S. induced nuclear proliferation may be the most tragic legacy of the Iraq war.
In addition, a new generation of terrorism on U.S. soil will be spawned by the invasion. Osama bin Laden’s reasons to hate the U.S. appeal only to a small group of fanatics. Others may hate the U.S. for siding with Israel in their conflict with the Palestinians, but most of the Arabic world appears to have abandoned the Palestinians long ago. However, the U.S. grab at Iraqi oil is likely to panic many who currently side with the U.S. and create new recruits for Jihad against the U.S.
Mr. Bush’s war is not only wrong and illegal, it is foolish.
Jon Carroll wrote
an excellent piece
in the San Francisco Chronicle last month invoking the lesson we
learned from Neville Chamberlain’s infamous meeting with Hitler
in Munich. He said,
Appeasement does not work with madmen or
with dictators. … Silence or cowardice in the face of tyranny
is unjustified both morally and practically. … The lesson of
Munich is that it is necessary to speak out against tyranny, no
matter how dangerous that becomes. The madman he was talking
about is George Bush. I agree with him. When Bush announces
that he will act with force against perceived threats, he is
starting this country on a path that must not be taken. I urge
you to take every possible action to stop this madman. I
believe he should be impeached and removed from office.
Is it just me, or is the State of the Union speech simply an excuse for the faithful to genuflect before the chief of the White House, whether it is held by Clinton, Bush, or whomever? The speeches have little real content, but many pause points designed to elicit applause from the White House’s partisans, and to show the opposition either forced to applaud or sitting on their hands on a point narrowly made, as sacrosanct as motherhood, but which in fact conceals an agenda far less universal. Why do we bother?
Madmen rule the U.S. White House. They do not simply espouse bad policy, but promulgate pernicious domination and control, both at home and abroad. It is still early in the process, but as their intoxication with power grows, we will all suffer. In the past, unchecked authoritarian impulses coupled with great economic and military might have led to catastrophe for all, and the U.S. possesses military might on an almost unprecedented scale. Even Nazi Germany had the U.S. to the West and the U.S.S.R. to the East, but where are the equivalent balancing forces to U.S. militarism today?
The U.S. has one Achilles heel; to some extent the U.S. has de-industrialized (a notable exception being armaments production) and has therefore become dependent for foreign industry to feed its economy. Should enough of the world find appeasement of the U.S. no longer tenable, it may be able to encumber U.S. imperialism via trade embargo. However, such an embargo would be ineffective without most of the major industrial nations participating, as no group of nations has the naval power to enforce a blockade.
It is therefore all the more important that the U.S. people rally to save their democracy from the anti-democratic and even authoritarian forces in the White House. In the past, the need to manufacture consent in the populace for unpopular policies has checked tyrannical tendencies, but with the media now so subservient to Republican money, the White House is charging ahead unfettered.
It is time therefore to fetter the White House. It is time for a grassroots effort to impeach Mr. Bush. There is little chance for an actual vote of impeachment in the Republican House of Representatives, but the impeachment drive itself would weaken Mr. Bush and check the White House’s march of folly.
There they go again. Mr. Bush is pushing is using continued softness in employment as an excuse to have the U.S. treasury borrow money to give to Republican investors. Regardless of the problem, the answer is always “tax cuts.”
It is appropriate for the U.S. treasury to borrow during economic downturns and repay that debt during boom times (with an overall neutral posture except for investment in infrastructure that is appropriately amortized over its lifetime). This has a moderating influence on the business cycle. However, the legislative process is usually not quick enough to respond to the business cycle; such stimulus and braking should be via automatic mechanisms, such as unemployment benefits, reduced tax receipts, etc. Mr. Bush’s actions are a perfect illustration; the time for stimulus was in 2001; his tax cut proposals would make an impact in 2004 at best.
Mr. Bush is proposing as the centerpiece of his tax cut proposals the elimination of taxes on dividends, citing the inherent unfairness of double taxation (once on corporate profits, and a second time by the dividend recipients). There are several problems with this rationale. First, many dividends are already untaxed, being paid to retirement accounts, and second many corporations have exploited tax code loopholes to avoid paying taxes. In many cases the result of Mr. Bush’s proposal will be to lower the tax paid from one time to zero instead of from twice to once.
Moreover, if double taxation were the actual goal of Mr. Bush, he would be going after other instances of it, such as the taxation on the same income by Social Security and Medicare taxes and the income tax, or the double taxation of income by Federal and state for non-itemizing taxpayers. Mr. Bush’s proposal does make sense if his true, unstated goal is to put U.S. treasury borrowing into the pockets of the wealthiest 1% of Americans.
Mr. Bush also asserts that the economy will benefit from the increased investment that results, but here he confuses beneficial investment that economists cite, such as companies purchasing of capital for production, with “investment” in the stock market, which has little value to the economy.
The long-term effect of Mr. Bush’s proposal will be to add trillions of U.S. debt via a return to deficit spending in both good and bad times. This money will flow almost entirely into the pockets of the wealthiest Americans, i.e. the clients that Mr. Bush serves.
What should be done instead? Now would be a good time to eliminate the cap on Social Security and Medicare taxes, making it a flat tax, rather than a regressive one; applying it to dividends and capital gains; and lowering the tax rate accordingly. It would also be a good time to institute a prototype waste tax, with the revenue used to offset the income tax. If stimulus is desired, then the offset could be applied for the 2002 tax year for estimated 2003 waste tax receipts.
It might also be a good time to consider eliminating the corporate income tax altogether, recognizing that corporations will always go to great lengths (e.g. accounting games) to eliminate their income taxes anyway. This is likely to have a much more stimulatory effect on productive spending than Mr. Bush’s proposals. I do not propose that corporations pay no taxes, however. They are the most likely to respond to taxes with aggressive tax avoidance, and if the tax is a waste tax, the resulting behavior would be waste avoidance.
The best stimulus proposal so far as been the Democrats’: make grants to the states to help them with their deficits during the downturn. The states generally cannot engage in deficit spending, and so are raising taxes just when it is least useful. In addition to being stimulatory, federal borrowing to help the states would prevent cuts in services at the time when they are most needed.
Mr. Bush and the Republican party are to be commended for easing Senator Lott out of the Senate leadership. Senator Lott’s recent indiscretion was not an innocent slip; the Senator has a long history of racist remarks and associations. Such sentiments are not appropriate for a Senator, or any other U.S. government officeholder. Racists have not accepted the U.S. Constitution, and therefore cannot be its agents.
The problem is that the Republican party has many officeholders who are just as racist as Senator Lott, and yet the party is taking no action against them. In particular Attorney General John Ashcroft has done far more than simply make racist remarks; he took actions in Missouri to maintain segregation, even defying federal court orders. His recent actions suggest no more allegiance to the U.S. Constitution today than before. This suggests that Mr. Bush is simply using Senator Lott’s remarks as an excuse; his true reason for the ouster likely lie elsewhere. If Mr. Bush were truly concerned about racist Republicans, John Ashcroft would have never been nominated.
If Mr. Bush truly seeks to cleanse the Republican party of its racism, he has taken only one down; there are many more to go.
Some people doubt that U.S. foreign policy and war-making is oil-driven, so it is appropriate to review some simple facts. First, the U.S. would be wrecked by a major oil reduction without adequate preparation (the Arab oil embargo of 1973-1974 caused only a small reduction in oil imports, and so gives only a small taste of what a major reduction would do). People would starve: most U.S. food production is dependent on pesticides (petroleum products), fertilizer (ammonia is made from fossil fuels), refrigeration (electricity from fossil fuels), transport, packaging (plastic is a petroleum product), and so on. Without plastic, many of the products we buy would cease to exist. The economy would wither without truck transportation (diesel based). The U.S. government knows this.
Oil production follows the Hubbert curve, whether it is an individual field, a nation, or the planet. A century after oil production began in earnest, we are almost midway through this bell-shaped curve (the midpoint of the world curve is estimated to be between 2000 and 2020). The world (primarily the first world) has used approximately half of all the oil reserves of the planet, and they will be completely gone another century from now. This doesn’t sound so bad, except that from the midpoint of the curve on production falls, while demand can be expected to continue upward. Oil will become a scarce resource once production begins to fall a decade from now (it is plentiful now — cheaper than bottled water). The Hubbert curve is well known and accepted in both the petroleum industry and the government.
Most nations have already passed the midpoints of their Hubbert curve. For example, M. King Hubbert in 1956, correctly forecast that onshore and offshore production of the lower 48 states (i.e. without Alaska) would peak in 1969, give or take one year. Since then, U.S. (48) oil production has declined within 5% of Hubbert’s 1956 prediction [L. F. Ivanhoe]. Alaska, Mexico, Venezuela and the North Sea fields have passed their midpoints as well. Practically the only fields that have not peaked are in the middle east. The top five oil reserves are in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Iran. (The sixth nation in reserves, Venezuela, has only one eighth the reserves of these five). In addition, there are possible large reserves in central Asian nations (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan — the area around Afghanistan, not coincidently). These nations will control the world economy to a much greater extent than in 1973 or today. To make matters worse, the middle east is politically unstable. Saudi Arabia for example may be teetering on the verge of civil war when King Fahd dies. The U.S. government knows all this.
The U.S. government therefore sees a crisis on the horizon of enormous proportions. They are right to be working on a solution given the consequences of inaction. Their solution is the take control of the middle eastern and central Asian oil producers so that when the crunch comes a decade from now, the U.S. has first call on the world’s oil reserves (the rest of the world will simply have to make do with whatever we don’t use). The question for the citizens of the U.S. is whether this is the right solution. Regardless of what I may think of the legality, morality, and practicality of this solution to the crisis, I believe that it is a very bad solution because burning that ill-begotten oil will choke us with its CO2 emissions. Burning half of the planet’s oil has raised CO2 levels from 280ppm to 370ppm. Burning the remaining half in the next century is expected to increase levels to at least 540ppm [IPCC2001] (other fossil fuels are included in this estimate). The right solution is to begin drastic conservation measures in the U.S., especially in the transportation area, and also to work on alternatives to the non-energy uses of petroleum (e.g. get the USDA to promote organic farming). There is little time to make these changes because we’ve delayed so long, but that’s no excuse not to start.
Is the CIA behind the strikes in Venezuela? I know of no evidence for this, but after reading William Blum’s Killing Hope it certainly seems to fit a familiar pattern:
Only twenty or more years from now are we likely to know whether the U.S. was working to bring down yet another democracy. Still, it would almost be surprising if the U.S. were not working behind the scenes to destabilize Venezuela, as more is at stake than in the usual U.S.-inspired coup: oil. As the U.S. prepares to take control of Iraq for its oil, leaving a large U.S. oil supplier in its backyard acting independently must be unthinkable for the oil-obsessed occupants of the White House.
The following letter was sent to the San Jose Mercury editors in response to one of their stories.
How sad to read your story Hummer H2 is hot in the valley on the web. At a time when we as a region and a nation need to be driving more efficient cars and trucks, to have valley residents making such a terrible transportation choice (10.7mpg according to ConsumerGuide.COM) is unconscionable. A decade from now, at projected sales rates and 15,000 driven miles a year, the H2’s on the road will burn 1.4 billion gallons of gasoline per year, or as much as 30% of the entire Artic National Wildlife Refuge production (estimated at 250 to 800 million barrels per year according to DOE). Don’t the buyers of the H2 realize, in echo of the old World War II slogan, when you drive an H2, you drive with bin Laden? It is hard to imagine a more unpatriotic act than increasing our dependence on those who fund Al Qaeda (which gets much of its funding from Saudia Arabia, the nation with the largest oil reserves). It is already the case that $30-$60 billion a year of U.S. military spending is spent to control the Persian Gulf region, when we import only $15 billion a year of oil from there (figures from Cato Institute). Do the 50,000 estimated annual buyers (nationwide) of the H2 really want to increase our $30-$60 billion price tag so they can drive a status symbol, and why should the rest of us have to pay extra taxes to support such irresponsibility?
The occupants of the White House are coldly abetting the death of thousands of Americans by their policies in Afghanistan. By allying themselves with the drug lords of the Northern Alliance and failing to rebuild the country after the devastation they wreaked there, they are responsible the replanting of poppy crop, and the consequences of that crop. Soon that crop will find its way onto our (and others’) streets in the form of heroin and begin maiming and killing people in numbers beyond those of the eleventh of September. George Bush will not weep for these ignoble victims (ignoble because they are of the wrong color or social class). Indeed he will likely exploit their degradation and death, for it will afford him and his party the opportunity to further exploit drugs as a political issue for further attacks against U.S. civil liberties. Reflecting on an epitaph by W. H. Auden, I pause to pity the callous indifference of such tyrants, who are greatly interested in armies and fleets and cause little children to die in the streets.
Colin Powell pulled off a diplomatic feat in getting a 15-0 vote in the Security Council on Resolution 1441 for re-disarming Iraq. It was not made any easier by the White House’s earlier ineptitude, such as calls for “regmine change” and the pre-emptive strike doctrine.
However, the occupants of the White House still betray their contempt for the process to which the U.S. is committed by treaty by their desire to circumvent the Security Council. As the New York Times reported on the 9th, they inserted language that the U.S. can use to justify a future unilateral action against Iraq. In contrast, Mr. Powell appears to have privately assured several Council members, as Syria’s representative put it, “that this resolution would not be used as a pretext to strike Iraq, and does not constitute a basis for any automatic strikes against Iraq.” It remains to be seen whether such private assurances have any value.
U.N. inspectors did disarm Iraq after the 1991 war and keep the peace. What is appropriate now is to return to that successful model and not undermine it, as the U.S. did in 1998 when we began to use the inspection team as an arm of the CIA for spying instead of inspecting, which precipitated a confrontation with Iraq that halted inspections. President Clinton choose to bomb Iraq in response, and the inspectors were withdrawn prior to the bombing for their safety. Now finally they may return.
Unfortunately, I suspect that war or peace is still tied to domestic political considerations. Having used Iraq to win the mid-term elections, George Bush’s team is surely turning its thoughts to its own re-election in 2004. Perhaps the most dramatic lesson they learned in 1992 is that the economic downturn after the 1991 war lost them the election. They may plan, therefore, to postpone the war until the second half of 2004 or early 2005 and continue to use the Iraq hobgoblin to scare the U.S. public into voting for George Bush. If so, there may be time for the inspectors to do their job and avert war for the time being. Moreover, if George Bush is not elected in 2004, it may be that war will be averted entirely. Such an outcome, ironically, would be a true victory for peace by Colin Powell.
Every day of George Bush’s occupation of the White House seems to bring a new attack on U.S. liberties. On the 9th, the New York Times reported on a pentagon plan for domestic spying including “Internet mail and calling records to credit card and banking transactions and travel documents, without a search warrant.”
The plan appears to be without any sort of oversight facility to prevent its abuse. Since terrorists and other criminals are likely to move to cash transactions in response, the system will for the most part be useful only to spy on law-abiding citizens exercising their rights to disagree, speak out, organize, and protest against George Bush’s policies, much as President Nixon used the FBI to spy on and sabotage the work of domestic anti-war groups and others on his “enemies” list. The new system promises to make such spying much less difficult, and is therefore likely to be more extensively used.
Step by step, inch by inch, George Bush is moving the U.S. further toward a police state. Will we one day see Predator drones shooting “enemies” on the streets of America as in the recent Yemen strike?
This commentary submitted was by Ian Walton.
As we stagger, via a few side alleys in the UN council, towards US action in Iraq, it seems useful to examine why much of the world is against such action.
As portrayed by the US administration, and ably amplified by the US media, the issue of how to deal with Hussein is clear-cut and one-dimensional. The attitudes of other countries, France; Germany; all of Scandinavia; South Africa; China—indeed most of the world—are simply dismissed. In the case of most US right wing media any questioning of the US line is seen as treacherous ingratitude because as we are constantly reminded, the French are not now speaking German as a result of a previous exercise of US power etc, etc.
Firstly we need to distinguish between Iraq and the ‘war on terror’. The US administration persists in blurring this distinction. If there were a single shred of evidence of a meaningful link between Hussein and Al Queda then we can be certain that we would have heard of it 24/7 from CNN and all the others. There is none.
Indeed, it is preposterous to believe that Islamic fundamentalists from Saudi Arabia who make up the core of Al Qaeda, would hang out in a largely secular country run by a madman who has more torture chambers than he has McDonalds. Particularly when they can have the free run of places like Afghanistan; Yemen; Somalia; Pakistan; and, for the comfort-minded: Saudi Arabia.
We will return to the ‘war on terror’ but first to Iraq. Put simply there is International scepticism of the need for drastic action against a regime that while undoubtedly very brutal is not really a very big threat. Hussein has been allowed to get away with some nasty things and to build up a large military largely under US sponsorship when the bogeyman country of the day was Iran. He learned a lesson and was largely emasculated following his incursion into Kuwait and the issue should be containable without invading Iraq and adding yet one more complex and expensive International peace keeping burden in that region.
Remember when Libya’s Guadaafi was the bogeyman. Similar things—invading neighbours, building up WMD’s sponsoring terrorism, imminently threatening world peace etc, etc. Well the US bombed his compound and we haven’t heard of him since. As a pragmatist I would gloss over the niceties of International law and say that it worked and the US is to be congratulated for that. But it is crucial to remember that such an action has already, on a vaster scale, been visited on Iraq and as a result the country and its leader is clearly amenable to a Guadaafi-type fix. That is why most of the world is arguing for prophylactic measures rather than invasion and mass slaughter.
This is not to say that what goes on in Iraq is not an abomination and a disgrace that the world should seek to fix but there are better ways than bombing the shit out of the place yet again. Moreover, does anyone seriously believe that current US intentions are driven by a desire to emancipate the poor Iraqi in the street?
The American system for allocating power and the fruits of that power (sometimes nicknamed the industrial-military complex) really only works effectively when it can claim a powerful external enemy as justification for its actions. Since the ending of the cold war, American society has been dangerously rudderless and ordinary people have been allowed to become better off, more informed and more able to sway events in directions that do not suit the established power structures. Since he was allowed into office on the condition that he restored the equivalent of the cold war status quo, Bush would have invented an external threat even if one had not been presented to him on Sept 11.
Indeed much of the incomprehensible rhetoric that currently flows from the administration arises from the fact that they are incapable of disengaging from plan A (the establishment of Saddam as the external threat) while they wish also to capitalise on Plan B, a windfall presented unexpectedly by Al Qaeda. The muddying of the message is essential because it is against the terrorists that the US people are prepared to go to war. Plan A was always going to be a tougher sell.
And within the twisted logic of the US establishment, both causes are necessary in their different ways…. The terrorist threat, unlike Iraq, allows for much needed control over and interference in the liberties of US citizens but it lacks the potential for any large scale military spending now that Afghanistan has been dealt with. Only Iraq offers the potential for serious expenditure of the kind that the system requires and in this regard its appeal to the administration is irresistible.
(North Korea, incidentally, will be held in reserve until there is a serious challenge to the Star Wars expenditures.)
Internationally the attitudes on terrorism are rather more mature. Britain, France and Germany to pick just three countries have suffered with the effects of terrorist action in one form or another for the last 30 years. While it is true that they have seen no single event as destructive and blatant as 9/11 these countries have lived with, and struggled against terrorism for much longer. It is fruitless to try to make moral comparisons between one large-scale act on 9/11 and the seemingly endless series of smaller scale atrocities as committed for example by the IRA over a 20-year period against the UK. Nonetheless, if one accepts that the objective of the terrorist is to scare a lot of people for a long time then one cannot belittle the terrorism that much of Europe has suffered now for many years while the US has been relatively unscathed until recently.
In view of this the Europeans in particular have grave misgivings about the adoption by the US of a policy of going wherever is necessary and doing whatever is necessary to kill terrorists even if this requires the US to be in blatant breach of international law. The thought of CIA controlled drones raining missiles which obliterate suspected terrorist vehicles anywhere and anytime may well satisfy the vengeful emotions of a Fox news viewer but it scares the hell out of the rest of the World. Everyone else except from the US recognises how fragile is the order upon which international good behaviour depends and how you mess with it at your peril.
This is not to suggest that countries like the UK have not, in frustration, been prepared to undertake assassination missions against suggested terrorists. They most surely have but they have been infinitely more subtle about it compared with the early excursions of US anti-terrorist action.
There is much more to this difference in stance than merely Old World subtlety. It is precisely the goal of any terrorist action to destabilise the status quo and hence to achieve an impact which goes far beyond the immediate human loss caused by individual terrorists acts. It would be a tragedy if the US in its learning phase in fighting terrorism were to break so many rules of International behaviour that the chaos that the terrorists desire were to result.
I watched in awe this evening as a seedy correspondent from Fox news asserted without a shred of evidence that, as he put it, “socialist” Scandinavian countries were providing succour to Al Qaeda cells. So what’s next? Nuking Sweden? And who will have won if it were to happen?
The strong showing of the Green party in seven of California’s state-wide offices on Tuesday (an average of 4.6%, with a high of 5.8%) suggests that the Green vote will someday put a Republican into office by drawing votes from the Democratic candidate in a close election. This in turns suggests that it would benefit both the Democratic and Green parties to institute a ranked ballot system.
Instead of voting for a single candidate in a single-winner election, ranked ballots ask the voter to rank the candidates 1, 2, 3, etc. In an election with two candidates, this gives the same result as voting for the preferred candidate. However, in an election with three or more candidates, ranked balloting allows a winner to be chosen that is significantly more representative of the voters’ preferences.
For example, in California’s most recent election, many Green voters would have ranked the Green candidate 1, the Democratic candidate 2, and the Republican candidate 3 (ignoring, for simplicity, the other candidates). With Tuesday’s 5.8% of the first place vote, the Green candidate would be eliminated from the election, and those votes would count for the Democratic candidate instead. With current party support levels, the Democrats would receive more support against their Republican opponents in this system.
Green candidates would most likely benefit as well. There were voters in Tuesday’s election where the Green candidate was their first choice, but they voted Democratic instead out of fear of a Republican victory. With ranked ballots they could safely vote Green 1, Democrat 2, Republican 3, and as a result the level of Green support would increase. This could in turn would allow Green candidates to enter debates that are currently only between the Democrats and Republicans. This in turn would broaden the issues on the table and serve to further pull voters from the Republicans. Eventually it might lead to the victory of a Green candidate, a result the Democrats might not like, but which is probably more acceptable than more frequent Republican victories, and with ranked ballots this would occur only if the Green candidate were in fact the best choice given the electorate’s true preferences.
There are many methods for tabulating ranked ballots and choosing a winner. One of the easiest to explain, and therefore most poplar, is unfortunately one of the poorest. It is called Instant Runoff Voting, and is used in several places around the world, and will be used in San Francisco starting in 2003. Better methods have less anomalous results in certain unusual situations. For example, it is possible with IRV for a voter lowering her ranking of a candidate to cause that candidate to win, which is not the case in, for example, Ranked Pairs.
Regardless of the method of choosing a winner from ranked ballots, the system is a dramatic improvement over balloting that prevents the voter from expressing her true preferences. The California legislature should change the state’s balloting system as soon as practical.
The McCain-Feingold/Shays-Meehan campaign finance bill goes into effect today, and by some accounts it is irrelevant already, except that hard money limits are raised. One might have hoped that it would have taken a few election cycles before loopholes were found, but a combination of questionable interpretations by the Federal Election Commission and the use of state party soft money has rendered the law almost teethless.
It is time therefore for the U.S. to adopt a serious system of public financing of elections. The conditions for receiving public money should include:
The amount of federal funds would be twenty times the amount of the contributions received from individuals. The matching of individual contributions is unforunately necessary to prevent a multitude of fringe candidates from access to significant public financing, and also to prevent signature fraud. The $50 limit ensures that most citizens will be able to “vote” for the candidates of their choice during the campaign.
In addition, the public airwaves should be available free of charge for some portion of the campaign debate.
There are many questions about the upcoming war that should be asked. The first is “Why Iraq?” Yes, Saddam Hussein is bad, very bad, but there are many countries around the world with heinous leaders. Iraq may be developing nuclear weapons, but India and Pakistan just tested bombs, and we’re not threatening invasions there. Mr. Bush claims North Korea admits to its nuclear program, which would seem to make them a higher priority, but no invasion there is planned. Israel has nuclear weapons, and Iran and others are probably developing them, so why is Iraq singled out? Is Saddam Hussein more likely to use nuclear weapons than others? He may have calculated badly before, but at least Saddam Hussein is a calculator, and he seeks his own survival, and he surely knows that his use of nuclear weapon would end that quite quickly. A nuclear weapon in the hands of a religious zealot would be more worrisome, which makes India, Pakistan, and Iran of particular concern. Iraq may have biological and chemical weapons as well, but U.S. did not think this a threat when we helped Iraq acquire these weapons. Yes, Iraq defies certain Security Council resolutions, but then so does Israel, and Mr. Bush does not propose invasion to deal with its contumacy. Also, it is for the Security Council to decide the appropriate action when its resolutions are ignored. The only answer to “Why Iraq?” that seems to work is because of its oil.
So the second question must be “Is this a war for oil?” The likely outcome of the war is that Iraq will be administered by the U.S. while some transition government is arranged. Perhaps an election or assembly will even be arranged to rubber stamp the U.S. choice for a new president, as in Afghanistan. However, such a government will not be strong enough for quite some time to act independently of the U.S. During the early days, months, and years of this government, U.S. oil companies will no doubt find they have the inside track in obtaining leases to all of Iraq’s oil. If this is not the U.S. motivation in going to war, the U.S. should forswear such oil leases.
A third question is why no one is allowed to see the evidence that the U.S. uses to justify its war plans. If the evidence is conclusive, then the sources can be extracted now; they will not be needed once Iraq is run by an American general. It seems more likely that the evidence is not convincing, and that is why it cannot be released.
A fourth question is “Why Now?” The timing of Mr. Bush’s war is exquisitely timed to deflect criticism of domestic issues during the November elections, and thereby return his faction to power in Congress. If the need were so pressing, why did Mr. Bush not push the issue during the summer, and if it is not so pressing, why did he not wait for a resumption of U.N. weapons inspections?
A fifth question is why is it so important to conduct this war in violation of International law? The U.N. charter, to which the U.S. is a signatory, demands that such conflicts be brought to the Security Council for resolution, and that only the Security Council can authorize the use of force, except in repelling an ongoing armed attack. The U.S. is reluctant to submit to the Security Council, because it does not want to allow any other nation to have a veto over its actions.
So it follows that a sixth question is whether this war is about demonstrating U.S. power. Strategic analysts in the U.S. have long hungered to cast off the mantle of Vietnam, and return to active role in the world for U.S. military might, instead of acting through surrogates. Grenada and Panama were confidence building steps. In the first war with Iraq, itself a response to Iraqi aggression, the U.S. worked multilaterally and with the U.N. Then in Kosovo and Afghanistan, the U.S. sought to put the world on notice that it was in charge. In Kosovo, NATO was used, but the U.S. desires to demonstrate its ability to act unilaterally. It did so in Afghanistan, but it was in response to a horrible attack on U.S. soil. In Iraq, the U.S. probably seeks to demonstrate that mere defiance of the U.S. may lead to a devastating attack, and thereby further compel other nations to obsequiousness and servility to U.S. interests.
Yet another question is whether the principle of Mr. Bush’s doctrine of preemptive attack is reasonable. Imagine that your fellow citizens could make preemptive attacks against you if they thought (though they did not have to show the evidence) you were gettng too dangerous? Is that a world you would want to live in?
To this observer, it appears that Mr. Bush’s war plans are timed for domestic political reaons, with additional goals of securing Iraq’s oil for U.S. use, and intimidating other nations into servility. There is insufficient evidence to justify the invasion on the claimed grounds, and so none is offered. The preemptive doctrine on which the attack is based is fundamentally flawed. Finally, the action must appear unilateral (though the U.N. is welcome to second it, though it has no say in it) so as achieve maximum intimidation of other nations.
Whether one thinks invading Iraq the proper course of action or not, it should be noted that the U.S. Congress is preparing to abrogate its constitutional resposibility to declare war. Instead Congress plans to pass a resolution saying in effect, if Mr. Bush decides that a diplomatic solution is impossible, Congress will not object to the White House invading Iraq. However, it is Congress’ responsibility to determine if diplomacy has failed. Congress should do nothing until all other avenues have failed, and then make a straight-forward unconditional declaration of war.
It is not hard to find reasons for Congress’ actions. It has not been willing to make an outright declaration of war since 1941, preferring that the President alone should undertake illegal warfare. Such acts of war have been illegal since 1945 when the UN charter was signed in San Francisco. The UN charter permits the use of force against another state only when it is initiated by the Security Council (articles 42-48) or for “individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.” (U.S. Presidents have not feared to tread where Congress would not go; they have used illegal force aginst other nations since the signing of the UN charter in 1948, in 1950-53, 1954, 1958, 1960-75, 1969-75, 1971-73, 1975, 1981, 1981-90, 1983-84, 1986, 1989-90, 1992-94, 1993-95, 1994-96, 1995, 1998, and 1999, not counting CIA actions.)
There is a second reason for Congress’ actions in this particular case. Republicans wish to divert attention from the U.S. economy during the November Congressional elections, and so have put the Congressional resolution on the table. Democrats are eager to get the resolution dealt with so that the country can move on to other issues. Since these simple forces call for a resolution to be passed before it is appropriate to invade Iraq, Congress is preparing a resolution of conditional use of force, instead of waiting for the appropriate time to issue an unconditional declaration of war to support a UN Security Council resolution.
Those may be political reasons for Congress to act this way. However they are an abrogation of Congress’ responsibility.
The recent scandals at Enron, Adelphia, Tyco, Xerox, Global Crossing, WorldCom, etc. are a symptom of one recent trend: excessive executive compensation. When the ratio between the highest paid and lowest paid workers in a company was forty to one, most executives were wealthy, but not so wealthy that they were willing to play risky games with their their meal ticket. Salary was a large source of their wealth, not their personal assets. (There were exceptions of course.) In contrast, today many executives accumulate personal wealth early in the careers that guarentees their continued wealth even if their company goes bankrupt. The company then becomes relevant only as a source of power and as a casino in which they can play double or nothing games with corporate assets, where they get a percentage of the winnings, but do not suffer financially if the company fails. This environment encourages risky bets where executives make fortunes, but eventually destroy shareholder value.
I’ve written about the problem of corporate power before. To address both problems, I offer the following suggestions:
(Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution says “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” Clearly today’s situation is not one of rebellion or invasion.)
Now that Bush has suspended habeas corpus by arresting a U.S. citizen and holding him in military detention without charge, it is frightening but necessary to ask where could this end?
President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. I do not think that this was legal (though clearly the rebellion clause was satisfied, it is not clear that the public safety required it when he used it to silence his political opponents), but for those who can justify it, consider the difference with today. Bush’s “War on Terrorism” will be never ending, unlike the Civil War (though curiously like Oceania’s wars with Eurasia and Eastasia). If Bush is allowed to subvert the U.S. Constitution for his “war” today, it will remain subverted indefinitely.
The best way to introduce heinous police tactics is to find a heinous and credible threat to justify them. Very possibly Bush chose a test case in which the suspect, Abdullah al Muhajir, is a true threat (though his method of detention prevents us from ever really finding out). However, once the tactics are established, they may be increasingly used in more questionable situations. Next we may find those held in military concentration camps are pressured to generate names of others that can be arrested as “illegal combatants” and those arrested then join the ranks that must supply names. After a while, it will be possible to cause almost any name to be generated by this process, at which point Mr. Bush’s political opponents may find themselves curtailing their opposition to ensure their names are not generated out of Guantánamo.
It is sobering to consider that the same politician that failed to win either the popular vote or any fair counting of the electoral vote is now dismantling our democracy in small but significant increments. Might Bush attempt to hang on to power? A politician that condones electoral fraud to win the vote in Florida might well attempt anything. Bush’s administration seemed pleased by the anti-democracy coup in Venezuela, and may have played a role in its instigation, which hints at his anti-democractic tendencies. If Bush is allowed to subvert the Constitution’s guarentee of habeas corpus, perhaps the 22nd amendment will not be far behind?
The prospect of Führer Bush kept in power by his Gestapo should temper the U.S. fervor for throwing out the constitution the moment we feel threatened. How prescient was Benjamin Franklin when he said “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Would you play Russian Roulette with the revolver pointed at your kids heads? Does it matter if saying yes saves you a little money? Does it matter if you’re not certain how many chambers are loaded (estimates vary from 2 to 5, but only some bullet makers and some politicians say no chambers are loaded)?
If you’re unwilling to pull the trigger with the revolver pointed at your kids, why are you willing to burn fossil fuels for your electricity and transportation just to save a little money?
Scientists may argue over how many degrees centigrade we’ll raise the temperature of the earth over the next few decades, but essentially no one disputes that global warming is real. Why do some corporations and their politicians argue it necessary to prove that there is a bullet in the next chamber? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for the onus to be on all of us to prove that the next chamber is empty before pulling the trigger, or to simply stop playing the game?
When Mr. Bush addressed Congress, he said that the terrorists had destroyed the World Trade Center because “they hate freedom”. Of course Mr. Bush’s remarks were not intended (I presume) to be a serious analysis of why it happened, but instead served to further vilify (if that is possible after September 11th) the enemy. Still, I cannot wonder if Mr. Bush’s choice of rhetoric was rooted in his own sub-conscious hatred of freedom because he has acted since the attack to accomplish that which he attributed to the terrorists.
By executive order, without an act of Congress, Mr. Bush is instituting military tribunals like those that convicted Lori Berenson in Peru. While self-imposed rules for these trials are not yet known, it is possible that defendents may be sentenced to death without being able to see the evidence against them, without being able to choose their own attorney, and without the right to appeal their conviction. When one branch of government legislates, tries, convicts, and executes without any check, it is commonly called a dictatorship. The only solace for U.S. citizens is that only foreigners are, as yet, subject to Mr. Bush’s dictatorship.
Mr. Bush’s apparent hatred of freedom does reach U.S. citizens even if his military tribunals currently do not. Mr. Bush is authorizing the FBI to resume Hoover-style investigations of political groups, a move which is surely rooted more in the belief that the Sierra Club is likely to oppose his reelection than it is to plant bombs. The government already had the ability wiretap without probable cause in cases of terrorism (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), but Mr. Ashcroft would extend this to simple criminal cases (Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001). Again Freedom appears to be the enemy, not terrorism.
Perhaps Mr. Bush is one of the few people for which “we had to destroy the village in order to save it” makes sense.
The U.S. is bombing Afghanistan in the name of fighting terrorism, but will our actions actually make us less secure? Revenge killing tends to be reciprocated. Terrorists bombed a disco in Germany and we used war planes to strike back at Libya in 1986, killing Moamer Kadhafi’s daughter. Two years later he gave us back Lockerbie. The chain may have been broken when the U.S. responded to Lockerbie not with further revenge killing, but with reasonable sanctions. Today, our bombing is creating hundreds of thousands of Afghanis who will have lost family and friends, and this may lead to future terrorism.
The war is seen many Muslims around the world as further proof of U.S. animosity toward Islam, perpetuating perceptions recently reinforced by the “no-fly” zones over Iraq and the continual bombing required to perpetuate them, sanctions against Iraq that kill millions, and support for Israel in the their occupation of Palestine. These perceptions are likely to fuel further terrorism.
Technology is ever increasing the terror and destruction that a small group, or even a single individual, can perpetrate. If we do nothing, our lives will be ever less secure. For example, today a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile capable of shooting down a commercial airliner costs around $100,000, is mass produced in many countries, and is traded around the world. Only by controlling the proliferation of technology and reducing the disaffection of those sick enough to use it against innocents can our security be improved.
There are many things that we can do to increase our long-term security, but this analysis suggests two actions that are being ignored. First, support small arms control regulations around the world. The recent treaty for this very purpose would be a good start. Second, the U.S. needs to reduce its dependence on nations where its presence incites animosity. We can reduce our dependence on the middle east by adopting a sensible energy policy — one that eliminates the import of all fossil fuels by promoting conservation (e.g. raise automobile fuel economy to 40 mpg) and sustainable energy production (e.g. wind and solar). The sooner we remove our war planes and troops from Islamic countries, the sooner the hatred created by our interference will begin to dissipate. The cost of such measures is likely far smaller than what we pay for the ability to project our military might to every corner of the globe, and they will have other benefits as well.
The drums are beating out a steady call for retribution for Tuesday’s terrorist attack on the United States. But does retribution work? It may be instructive to look at the recent escalation of terrorism between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel has responded with to rock throwing with bullets to the head and chest. Palestinians responded with suicide bomb attacks. Israel in turn responded with missle attacks from helicopter gunships and tanks. Still the Palestinians continue their attacks. Israel’s retribution has not acted as deterrent to people that have nothing to lose; instead it has inflamed and further radicalized them. Consider instead what might have happened had Israel responded to rock throwing brought on by Sharon’s visit to al-Aqsa by de-escalation. Most likely the Palestinians would have soon ceased throwing rocks.
Each person the United States kills with its own terrorist response (most of whom will be innocent in the original attack) will leave behind brothers, sisters, children, and neighbors who feel justified in doing whatever they can to retaliate in turn. Retribution will further fuel the fire and guarentee more tragedy for the U.S. years from now.
Anger is our real enemy.
I hope for peace, but still the drums are beating, beating, beating.
In another forum I have asserted that 1984-style control exists in our society, but in an even more insideous way because it is largely invisible — indeed it is subtle enough that even those that work in the equivalent of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth do not always realize what they are doing. Others understand all too well, and exploit it for its profit potential. The actual system, in contrast to what Orwell predicted, is not the result of an explicit plan of the government or a cabal, but rather a system that has evolved in a survival of the fittest process where the ecosystem is our market system and democracatic government. In this system the government is not the agent of control, but one of the objects of it.
How does it work? A prevailing orthodoxy directs our society. Dissents from this orthodoxy are allowed and even at times celebrated, but this dissent has been channelled to reinforce the system.
First, democracy has been tamed by giving the electorate the appearance of choice. The system offers candidates that differ on a few issues irrelevant to the orthodoxy, but who agree on all the issues of importance to the system. The latter issues are portrayed as mainstream, and are essentially unquestionable. The heat of the electoral arguments revolve around the irrelevant issues, leaving the mainstream view not open for discussion. The elimination of real choice at the ballot box is made considerably simpler by the two party system; it is only necessary to ensure that both nominees of the two parties are acceptable to the orthodoxy. Whether the candidate of party 0 or party 1 wins may be a matter of small preference, but not critical to the orthodoxy. An expected result of the lack of real choice is voter apathy and low electoral turnout; this is in fact observed.
Second, any non-orthodox view is portrayed as irresponsible or even dangerous. Protestors are demonized and their protests misrepresented. Provocateurs or independent acts of violence are used to discredit movements. Pejorative labels (e.g. “socialist”) are used to vanguish non-mainstream opinions, even when such labels are entirely incorrect. Like our bodily immune system fighting foreign bodies, dissenting ideas are attacked with antibodies to quell the infection and a lasting immune response is generated to prevent further reinfection. Dissent is thereby used to vaccinate the public against any non-mainstream view. For example, the anti-globalization protests (e.g. Seattle, Washington, Quebec, Sweden), whatever you may think of them, have been consistently mispresented by the U.S. media; it is necessary to turn to alternative media outlets (or people who were there) to find out what really occurred.
This system operates at with increasing efficiency as it evolves. The consolidation of the media has made it much easier to misrepresent dissenting views and thereby innoculate the public. Journalists of a century ago were of a similar class of their readers and even their editors were not too distant in status. Today, with five or six media voices instead of hundreds, the mouthpieces of the media achieve celebrity status, and celebrity pay pushes them into the upper class. Is it surprising that anchorpersons seem extra sympathetic to tax cut proposals that will benefit them far more than their viewers? Is it any wonder that they present the protestors in Seattle, Washington, or Quebec as naive, confused youth, or even as lunatics, after all the system that is protested directly benefits their class? Is it not predictable that violence would be used as the defining element of their coverage, and the source of the violence reassigned from the police to the protestors?
In 2001 in the U.S. we can see the adaptation of the system to its political and social environment at its most sophisticated to date. The U.S. has just weathered the 2000 presidential election; had there been a real difference between the candidates the turmoil resulting from a vote that could have gone either way depending on the interpretation of a small number of ballots would have led to crisis. Because Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore were both acceptable to the system, it was irrelevant which was chosen, and so an arbitrary choice was sufficiently acceptable to the system and to those who voted (though they had a preference, it was not so strong to do more than complain) and to those who did not vote (who may have not bothered because the choice they were offered seemed irrelevant).
An even stronger indication of the stability of the system is global warming. A climate catastrophe is predicted by the scientists of our day. Whether this prediction is fact or not cannot be known with certainty, but that is irrelevant. What is relevant and known with certainty is that the scientific community assigns a high likelihood to the hypothesis that that CO2 and other greenhouse gases are causing global warming. Given this fact, Mr. Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto treaty (claiming more “research” is needed) is a monument to stupidity, and yet it is almost inevitable (Mr. Gore would not have overtly rejected the treaty, but he was not any more likely to have implemented it than his predecessor — the system would not have allowed him). If control were being exercised by an intelligent entity, that entity would find it in its own self interest to control greenhouse gas emissions, but the orthodoxy is not an entity; it is a distributed system of production, control, and propaganda. While the prevention of global warming is not threatening to the system, it is threatening to enough of its investors, and so pressure is exerted to maintain the status quo despite the suicidal implications. That only a few of the investors in the status quo are sufficient to block a necessary change of policy demonstrates the intolerance of the system to community self-interest. In forming a system so stable, only established voices can be heard.
If only Orwell had written a sequel showing his distopia evolving into something benign. As it is, we shall have to figure out that evolution ourselves.
Despite his campaign rhetoric, Mr. Bush’s actions since 7 November have shown him to be well schooled Gingrich-style devisiveness. Most notable in this regard is Mr. Bush’s nominee for Attorney General, Mr. Ashcroft. Where was the bipartisanship that candidate Bush so often declaimed would be the hallmark of his administration in this choice? The bipartisan strategy would have been to quietly submit his choices to the Senate leaders, and to deal with their objections long before the issue ever became public, at which point it becomes a matter of face to stand firm. Many of Mr. Bush’s other cabinet choices likewise can only further divide the nation, especially when he appoints individuals that are hostile to the very purpose of the departments they will head (e.g. EPA and DOE).
Mr. Bush’s legislative agenda is similarly devisive. After losing the popular vote (and most likely also the actual electoral vote), the prudent course would have been to meet the Democrats half-way. Given the extroadinary closeness of the Republican and Democratic agendas on most issues, this would have been have been ceding very little. For example, a tax cut midway between his and Mr. Gore’s proposal would have still been sufficiently fiscally irresponsible to make Mr. Bush’s investors chortle with glee, and such a gesture would have begun healing the animosity between the two camps of our one party system. Instead Mr. Bush is vainly sticking to his original proposals, as if they had been in some way been sanctified by his certification as the victor of the ballot battle.
To put it bluntly, Mr. Bush has broken his campaign pledge within days of taking office, or even before. In contrast, his father took much longer to break his “Read My Lips” campaign pledge, and did so because it was sound public policy. In all likelihood, the father’s pledge was sincere though belated recognized as wrong, whereas the son’s pledge of bipartisanship appears much more likely to have been little more than a campaign ploy that he never intended to keep.
The United States’ single-minded pursuit of a moment of convenience, an eternity of regret is the single biggest problem facing the world today. Its head in the sand refusal to look at solutions to global warming caused by our excessive consumption of fossil fuels will result in serious problems at home, and disaster for much of rest of the world.
So why does the rest of the world put up with us? There is an alternative. The favorite weapon against those you cannot (or simply don’t want to) invade is the trade embargo. The rest of the world could put in place a trade embargo against the United States. Its economy is totally dependent on foreign trade. Having almost completed our deindustrialization, we no longer produce much, except for agricultural products, weapons, and “service”. If Asia were to cut us off, we would be able to eat, but not much else. Unable to clothe ourselves, communicate, play, work, or travel the country will fall into a deeper depression than the 1930s. And that will finally stop our consumption of fossil fuels.
An oil embargo would work as well, but the oil producing nations are not likely to be the first to react to the dangers of global warming.
It need never go that far. The first step for the rest of the world would be to set a distant cut off date after which foreign exchange into and out of the U.S. dollar would no longer be allowed if United States consumption has not met some target. Even the negotiations toward such a cut off would be enough for foreign investors to pull their investments out of the United States. The dollar would plummet in value, making imports very expensive, which would in turn throw our economy into a recession (or worse).
Sentiment in the United States would turn blood-thirsty, and the temptation to bomb the hell out of someone would be strong, but if a good fraction of the world were united in the foreign exchange embargo, even we would probably conclude it foolhardy to bomb them all.
In the end the United States would negotiate weakened targets in return for removal of the threat of sanctions. The value of the dollar would remain affected to some degree, thereby limiting our ability to purchase the oil that we so desperately need to destroy the world.
I cannot but shudder as I write these words, as I am prescribing a remedy that could be horrible for my country if carried beyond the threat stage. However, the consequences of the United States’ current course would be no less heinous than what Hitler wrought during in Europe, and while we do not have the evil intent of Hitler and his citizens, that is no more exculpatory than “I was just following orders.”
It may not be the most likely of scenarios, but what other way is there to bring an errant super-power to heel? It is a moral necessity that it be done.
Israel continues to murder Palestinians at a rate higher than Milosevic murdered Kosovars, and yet the United States does nothing (it certainly does not threaten to bomb Israel as it did Serbia). The savagery of the killing is disgusting; shooting youths for rock throwing is not a measured response, it is barbaric. Shooting journalists and medical workers trying to aid the wounded is likewise criminal.
Palestine is occupied territory, and under International law the Palestinians are within their rights to resist the occupation, whereas Israel is acting criminally. United Nations security council resolutions recognize this and demand Israeli withdraw, but for decades this demand has been ignored.
U.S. bias has been long evident, but President Clinton recently demonstrated how blatant it is during the peace negotiations by threatening to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem when Mr. Arafat refused to back down from the peace framework established in U.N. resolution 242. This is especially inappropriate behavior for a mediator. For years the United States has criticized Mr. Arafat and the PLO for not accepting the terms of 242, and now that they do, the United States simply discards it and prepares to itself occupy Palestinian territory.
Israel eventually ended their illegal occupation of southern Lebanon. Inevitably they will have to do likewise in Palestine. Let us hope that Israel and the United States realize this sooner rather than later, and so staunch the flow of blood.
After the Florida supreme court’s ruling that manual recounts must be included in the state’s tally, Mr. Gore appears to have a chance of getting Florida’s electoral votes. However, because the manual recounts are occurring only in Democratic counties, it is not possible to say that such a count will express the will of the people. What would happen if all of Florida’s counties manually recounted their ballots may never be known. Would Mr. Bush gain just as many votes as Mr. Gore, leaving the tally in Mr. Bush’s favor by a hair? This turn of events will only increase the appearance of illegitimacy of whoever is eventually declared the winner and the associated rancor over that choice. Mr. Gore does have the moral advantage of being the probable winner if the West Palm Beach butterfly ballot effect is taken into account, but that will surely not satisfy Mr. Bush’s supporters.
Mr. Bush should drop his futile attempts to block manual recounts and urge a full manual recount of all of Florida’s counties, and also petition the Florida supreme court for a realistic deadline to accomplish this. This is the only way the nation’s President will have any chance of being successful. That should surely be the first criteria guiding both Mr. Bush’s and Mr. Gore’s actions at this point.
Whoever is declared the winner of the 7 November 2000 Presidential election is likely to preside beneath a cloud of illegitimacy. If Mr. Bush is declared the winner, he will join Adams, Hayes, and Harrison as winners of the electoral college while losers of the popular vote. It is also likely that even an electoral college victory will be viewed as tainted by the fact it was based on flawed balloting. No balloting is error-free, but Florida’s errors appear to be significantly larger than Bush’s margin. The electorate appears to have narrowly preferred Mr. Gore, but the tally has failed to give that result due to errors. As the errors are impossible to undo, and revoting seems unwise, the best choice may still be to declare Bush the winner. This will further detract from Mr. Bush’s legitimacy in the eyes of the nation. If Mr. Gore is declared the winner, it will most likely be the result of court challenges of some sort (e.g. if Florida’s electors are not certified by 12 December so that the electoral college votes without Florida on the 18th or 19th). Neither man will be as effective a leader under those circumstances as he would otherwise be.
Mr. Bush has already sought to undermine what few shreds of legitimacy he might have held onto if he had only acted with the wisdom shown by the electorate, whom polls show to be more interested in accuracy than an early resolution. Mr. Bush’s juvenile demands to be anointed President before Florida’s votes are counted (which cannot occur before the 17th) call into question his abilities as a statesman. Mr. Bush’s lawsuits are so utterly without merit that his ability to execute the nation’s laws are suspect.
The question is then what should the United States do for the four years it is led by a President who has the appearance of illegitimacy. It is especially important after the last eight years of a do-nothing Congress and President. Clinton’s failure to submit the Kyoto climate treaty to Congress and get it ratified is the singular most glaring failure of the last eight years, and four more years will only prolong the inevitable pain of adjustment.
It is easier to say what the next President should not do, which is to take the country to war to force a false unity. On this point, however, I am not optimistic.
The best prescription I can offer for the country is for Congress to take the leading role in governing as it did during Reconstruction. With both the House and Senate almost evenly divided, this can only happen if the Republican and Democratic leaders decide to work together. Each would propose several agenda items for the nation. Each would accept a few of the other side’s agenda items in return for acceptance of a few of theirs. This pared down combined agenda might accomplish more in four years than Clinton’s leadership accomplished in eight. This requires only a few leaders in Washington to place their patriotism before their self-interest. It is with sadness that I must say that I am not optimistic on this point either.
First, Mr. Bush should stop calling on Mr. Gore to resign. No one should concede until all the votes are counted according to law, which cannot happen any earlier than the 17th of November in Florida.
Should Mr. Gore challenge the West Palm Beach balloting in court? As much as I would like to provoke a crisis in order to effect real change (such as replacing the electoral college with a direct Condorcet vote), I cannot see such a challenge being otherwise helpful. I can see a court invalidating the entire West Palm Beach balloting, but not calling another election. Invalidation will not help Mr. Gore. Perhaps a court challenge could unearth another path to victory for Mr. Gore, but at what cost?
If Florida’s absentee ballots give Mr. Bush the popular vote, he should become President, despite the flaws so far discovered. Mr. Gore would do well to follow Mr. Nixon’s 1960 public posture (though not his behind the scenes manuevering) once all the ballots are counted. I do hope that Mr. Bush’s ability to damage the country will be limited by the thinness of the Republican majority in Congress, and that even that will disappear in 2002, which it will if the normal mid-term Congressional effect continues.
Most elections in the United States are winner-take-all. Some number of choices are presented, and the voter is instructed to vote for only one of the choices (voting for more than one invalidates the ballot). The choice that receives the most votes wins, and all other choices lose. It seems an obvious enough method, but if there are more than two choices, it gives poor results. Why then do we use this method, called first-past-the-post? Initially, the alternatives may not have been obvious, and so first-past-the-post was used, but it must not have taken long to see the problems. Alternatives were proposed and in a few cases implemented, but still first-past-the-post predominates. Why? Because the better methods threatened what was by then an entrenched two-party system. First-past-the-post makes voting for any but the two most popular choices risky to the individual voter, because such a vote potentially results in the election choosing one of the voter’s least desirable choices. Many voters therefore feel compelled to restrict themselves to the two most popular choices. This in turn leads to voter apathy, as the two choices are often unattractive, and there is no real opportunity for a third choice to arise to represent such voters.
Worse still, a two-party system is vulnerable to becoming a de facto one-party system in all but appearance. The power centers of the country realize that there are only two parties to control, and that can be done with campaign contributions (with enormous return on investment) and propaganda. Because the powerful also control much of the media of the country, propaganda is simple, cost effective, and almost invisible. Control of the two parties is far from perfect, but that lessens the appearance of control, which is necessary lest the electorate realize what is going on and break free. With control of the two parties in the hands of the power centers, the parties become less and less representative of the people and more and more representative of their controllers. They become in effect a single party with two public heads for the sake of appearance .
This transformation has occurred in the United States. It occurred not become of the cunning and strategy of a single entity or cabal, but instead in the same way that evolution managed to produce some of the great wonders of nature, such as mammalian eyes and brains. It has been a series of tiny steps, some forward, some backward, where steps that benefited the system were retained, and others died out.
The system that has resulted has the benefit of being quite stable. That stability has been of great benefit to the United States in the past, allowing it to become the world’s preeminent superpower. This same steadiness of direction marching toward greater and greater wealth despite the idiosyncrasies of the electorate (e.g. emotional and irrational tendencies) has tamed democracy and made it safe for the powerful.
However, we now find ourselves in the endgame, and our evolutionarily honed system is now marching toward the cliff’s edge and its steadiness on this path has become a disastrous drawback. We will soon destroy our only habitat (planet earth) in the pursuit of still higher short-term profits (global warming being the greatest near-term threat). If our controllers were a single conscious entity or cabal, it might be possible to convince them to change course, but they are instead distributed agents acting of their own accord to optimize their own return. We need to instead break the steadfastness of the power centers on our course and explore alternative ways forward.
To create a real debate on our direction, we must first lessen the control of the powerful on our existing political landscape through campaign finance reform. We also need to create real second and third political parties to energize the debate in a way that our dual-headed single party cannot, and for that to happen we must fix our balloting. Fortunately, there was been plenty of academic analysis of voting systems, and the answers are well understood. Approval Voting is one of the simplest methods. Another is Condorcet’s Method. I prefer the latter, but the simplicity of the former may make it the overall better choice for the United States. It is imperative that we implement changes to our electoral methods, and one of the two choices above would be a fine start.
Many of the people whom I know want to vote for Mr. Nader, but plan to vote for Mr. Gore instead, because they fear that voting their conscience will elect the least desirable candidate. Is it not better to censor ourselves and falsely declare our preference for Mr. Gore than permit Mr. Bush to claim victory? I think not.
First, I concede that a vote for Mr. Nader may elect Mr. Bush and this would have several negative consequences. While Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore agree more than they disagree, and would generally take the nation in similar directions, there are a small number of differences in their policies (and more importantly in their clients), making the choice of one or the other not completely inconsequential for the United States. For example, it is likely that Mr. Bush’s Supreme Court appointees will overturn important existing decisions and block future reforms. Mr. Bush’s election is also likely to put the United States back on the road to insolvency, as he follows in the footsteps of President Reagan and his father to provide a million percent ROI to his investors. Mr. Bush is also likely to start an arms race with China over missile defense systems (Mr. Gore is difficult to predict on this one).
The election of either Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore will probably have little effect in many of the areas that they tout as differentiating. While there are differences in their policies toward handgun control, campaign finance reform, education, environmental protection, and health care, neither is likely going to much affect the status quo. Mr. Gore’s inclination toward progress in these areas is likely to no more effective than President Clinton’s. Given the tenacity with which these issues will be contested, he is not likely to spend the political capital it would take to make real progress. Mr. Gore may build fewer roads in our National Parks for the timber companies than Mr. Bush, and otherwise present the appearance of concern, but he is unlikely to push for real reform. He just wasn’t chartered to do that by his investors.
Still, isn’t better in a couple of areas and the same in most worth debasing our vote? To find the answer, we must look at where we are headed, regardless of our choice on 7 November 2000. Military spending and the disparity in income between rich and poor will both increase. Voter turnout will remain low or decrease further (apathy being key to establishment control of the system). The political system will remain a one party system masquerading as a two party system to present the appearance of choice while ensuring (via propaganda and campaign financing) that the two candidates offered as alternatives to the voters are both in fact nearly equally acceptable to the establishment. Oil production will peak in ten to fifteen years, and we will be unprepared, sending our fossil fuel based society in a panic as demand exceeds supply (production peaks approximately when we have consumed 50% of the oil, implying there will still be as much oil to be produced in the future as in the last 150 years, but the rate of production will be reduced). Global warming will continue unabated because doing anything about it will be too inconvenient in the short term, with eventually ruinous consequences. Population will continue to increase and our insatiable appetite for living space will continue to doom more and more species to extinction. Finally, we will continue to poison our air, water, and land with our toxic chemicals.
Our world is a bus that has run off the road into rocky terrain. There are passengers seated inside, some hanging on to the outside, and the United States is in the driver’s seat. Does it really matter whether the driver pushes harder on the pedal or swerves to avoid the sapling? Either way we crash, the only difference being how hard. All that really matters is whether the driver can get back on the road. Neither of our two choices will do that.
If this election does not then offer us the chance to get back on track, how does voting for Mr. Nader help? His goal is simply to build a second party to challenge the first (dual-headed though it may be). Only a voice not tamed by the establishment can ask the necessary questions and shift the debate. Mr. Nader’s first step is to reach the 5% point in the polls to receive federal matching funds next time. It is a painfully slow strategy, and fraught with opportunities for the establishment to intervene, but perhaps it is all that we have.
The United States is one of the few western democracies with a death penalty. It’s one thing we agree on with Iran, China, and Afghanistan. How is it that our nation is aligned with the worst of the globe on so moral an issue?
The Economist’s answer is that that the U.S. is a democracy, and the majority of people want to see people executed for when convicted of a serious crime. It’s a touching theory, but surely the Economist knows that what Americans want is manufactured by the same engines created and perfected to manufacture commercial demand for products. Our political system is a soccer game in which citizens are the ball. Yes, the characteristics of the ball determine how it responds to being kicked, headed, and thrown, but the primary direction is imparted by the opposing teams. Their skill in manufacturing public opinion determines the score.
Why have the teams played as they have? The teams are not opposed on all issues. They agree on more issues than they disagree (the issues on which they agree are not open to discussion). One item of strong agreement is that there should be only two teams. Voters do not of course neatly align with the two teams on every issue. Individuals’ politics are multi-dimensional; their views on one issue can be independent of their views on another issue. The goal of America’s two parties is to force voters to sacrifice their views on most issues to the issue most important to them, thereby silencing debate on other issues. In addition, the parties may adopt policies contrary to the actual view of both their leaders and the majority of their investors, so as to prevent the defection of a minority of their investors, for whom the policy is most important to the other side.
How does this apply to state killing? Some decades ago Democrats were securely in power in many legislative and executive positions. Their relative security allowed them to follow their conscience in voting for alternatives to killing convicts. As in most European nations, those that voted against state murder were leaders, somewhat ahead of public opinion. Electoral security can be ephemeral, and soon Republican political fortunes were waxing. The parties were in actuality close on most issues, and on the issues important to Republican investors, their policies were not in general favor. It was therefore necessary to adopt positions on other issues to pull voters from the Democrats. These issues mattered little to Republican investors, but they served to move some of electorate into a camp inimical to their own self-interest. For example, Republicans seized on religion (e.g. school prayer), “law and order”, and uncontrolled guns as issues to split off voters from the Democrats. In a multi-party democracy, such a strategy would not work as well, but in a two-party system, voters are forced to choose a candidate that reflects only their most important view. Which dimension of individual thought is most important at any one time is easily manipulated.
So the Republicans used “law and order” as a peripheral issue to induce voters to favor a team whose real agenda is to pad the pockets of their investors. The Democrats responded with a standard two-party strategy: adopt the other party’s position so as to nullify the loss of voters. This of course denies any meaningful choice on the issue. Indeed as Republican power waxed, Democrats adopted almost every Republican position, to the point that Bill Clinton’s policies became indistinguishable from Republican policies (consider GATT, NAFTA, the revival of Reagan’s “Star Wars”, the giveaway of the television spectrum, doing nothing to implement the Kyoto accords, to name a few). (Clinton’s success in adopting Republican issues as his own so infuriated the Republicans that they impeached him.)
The Republicans’ choice of “law and order” as a polarizing issue was not simply a reflection of its latent potential with the electorate. Early development of the issue came from the commercial sector, where nightly television “news” programs (really entertainment programs) had fine tuned the if it bleeds, it leads strategy and were dramatically overemphasizing crime, to the point that much of the populace felt threatened. Republicans simply followed television’s lead. Their success in using the Willy Horton issue to defeat Michael Dukakis emboldened them to further emphasize the issue. The Democrats were not to be outdone. Across the nation punishments were increased (three strikes, more capital crimes, more prisons, mandatory sentencing, etc.). Bill Clinton flew home to Arkansas during his first presidential bid to witness an execution to prove he was no Michael Dukakis. Governor Gray Davis of California has defied court orders to parole eligible prisoners to prove he’s “tough on crime”.
Hollywood may also be partly responsible for bolstering support for the death penalty. Their increasingly violent action movies teach that the answer to all problems is not the legal system, but instantaneous justice dispensed from the barrel of a gun. Americans were of course pro-execution long before Hollywood’s ultra violent movie making binge, but such fare may have contributed to or even reversed the slow evolution of public thought over the centuries on appropriate criminal punishment.
Politicians have done more than simply exploit commercially created fears and bloodlust; they have ensured a steady supply of grain for the mill by making sure that the poor are unable to defend themselves. Surveys of the convictions of inmates on death row show significant trial errors in well over half of the cases, including public defenders sleeping through trials [Economist2000-06-17]. It would save public money to properly fund the defense at original trials, so as to eliminate the necessity of endless appeals, but reducing the taxpayer’s burden is not a real goal, and it might reduce the grist they need to show just how tough they are. No, it’s more politically more expedient to pass laws limiting appeals from unfair trials than to make the trials fair.
And in many locales, prosecutors are politicians as well, which has led to instances of the state knowingly convicting the innocent by withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense. In political calculus, the prosecutor’s career is certainly more important than one man’s life (after all, the rationale goes, the convicted was probably guilty of something, even if not for the crime for which he’ll be killed).
The next time the lights dim at a state penitentiary, or a prisoner dies in agony from a lethal injection, consider that the murder motive was political opportunism exploiting sentiments first stroked and manipulated for entertainment. It says a lot about what we have become.
Perhaps Thursday’s court verdit in the Elián González case signals that we are to soon have the last episode in the Elián hit TV series. Elián has played the role Truman played on The Truman Show: a real-life character used as entertainment for the masses. Only this time the integration of entertainment and reality was more complete than Hollywood dared imagine in Truman; not just one character, but much of the real-world danced to the tune called by the entertainers, as politicians were called on to declare themselves as either agreeing to the rule of law or to renounce that in favor of the higher principle of tweaking Castro’s nose.
What struck me so powerfully about the Elián series was that not only did it succeed so well at captivating America, but it managed to do so against the backdrop of waxing anti-immigrant sentiment, such as expressed at the ballot box on California’s Proposition 187. Such is the power of the camera! Of course, such sentiment was reserved only for a single boy, it did not extend to other would-be immigrants. In all liklihood during the course of the Elián series’ run more than a few Haitian refugee boys were quietly sent back to a far worse fate in Haiti than Elián will find home in Cuba. (But of course the media can’t admit that Haiti might be worse off than Cuba as we only recently intervened there, so of course it’s ok there.) Last year 4600 children without parents were detained by the INS; why did Elián’s case merit a TV spectacle that the others’ didn’t?
If you got caught up in the Elián series, do not despair; the infotainment industry will leave no stone unturned until it can manufacture some other “real-world” drama to bring you.
Despite their loss in the Senate, the NRA recently demonstrated it still has the House in their pocket. Such is the power of the NRA over the Republicans that I half expect the next Republican bill outlawing abortion to have an exemption for cases where a handgun is used. While a few Senate Republicans should be commended for their votes, I suspect they were willing to cast them knowing that the House would kill the bill (payback for the House impeachment vote?).
NRA control of our national legislature illustrates the best and worst of our political system. The ability of a passionate minority to block the wishes of the majority on an issue by organization, lobbying, and propaganda is healthy in a political system. However, the NRA’s ability to buy politicians with campaign finance dollars is profoundly unhealthy. Seventeen congressional races received more than $40,000 in 1998 from the NRA’s PAC, and one received more than $200,000 (which was over 40% of that Senator’s total PAC contributions).
Imagine the year 2030. The populace of Southern California (SoCal) is predominantly of Mexican decent, but Hispanic people are still second class citizens due to the prejudice of the rest of the nation. In SoCal the minority white population feels unsafe from their local loss of control, and from the anger, demonstrations, and in some cases the mob violence of the repressed majority. Whites move away, and in some cases are forced out. The SoCal population becomes 90% Hispanic. Some in SoCal suggest independence from the U.S. This strikes makes Americans very uneasy; although SoCal was originally Mexican territory (it was taken by the U.S. during the war of 1846-1848), the Americans regard it as important to their cultural identity, due to the presence of Hollywood. A few years later, a U.S. president is elected on the platform of keeping Southern California as part of the U.S. and to reclaim it for whites. Federal agents begin increasingly hostile and deadly crackdowns in SoCal. A local terrorist group, the SoCal Liberation Army springs into existence, and begins bombing Los Angeles federal buildings. The reaction of the federal agents to the SLA attacks on their offices makes the recent Amadou Diallo and Tyisha Miller murders and the Abner Louima sodomy everyday occurrences. A thousand Hispanics are killed by federal agents in 2040. Opposition to the President’s policies mount within the U.S and the rest of the world. At this point the world’s newly ascendent superpower, China, prods ASEAN to intervene on behalf of the Hispanic population of SoCal. It demands that ASEAN troops occupy the entire U.S. and be immune from U.S. prosecution regardless of what crimes they might commit. Under the threat of bombardment, the U.S. offers to allow the U.N. to station troops in SoCal. ASEAN rejects the U.S. counteroffer and signs a deal with the SLA and demands that the U.S. sign it too. The U.S. rejects ASEAN’s demands and ASEAN begins bombing the U.S. from space to teach the U.S. its place — who is th U.S. to defy China’s world hegemony? U.S. opposition to the President crumbles with the U.S. under attack. Unable to match the technologic superiority of Chinese weaponry or penetrate China’s defensive shield, U.S. military troops begin massive retaliatory attacks against the only target within their grasp: Southern California. A massive exodus of Southern Californians begins into Mexico. Tens of thousands are killed and millions become refugees. U.S. water supplies, electric power, and even hospitals are hit as part of the ASEAN bombardment. The Golden Gate, San Francisco Bay, Brooklyn, and George Washington bridges are ruins. The plants, offices, and studios of U.S. businesses that support the President, including Boeing, GM, GE/NBC/Microsoft, Westinghouse/CBS, Disney/ABC, and Time/CNN/TCI are smoldering skeletons. Finally, wearying of the destruction of its infrastructure, the U.S. agrees to an EU brokered deal to allow ASEAN troops to occupy SoCal. The remaining whites flee SoCal, fearful of SLA reprisals. The U.S. economy spirals down in a tailspin from the damage inflicted by the ASEAN bombing. Over the next decade, a hundred thousand U.S. children die from the after effects of the war.
Who is right and who is wrong in this story? White prejudice represses Hispanics. Hispanic nationalist violence helps ethnically clense SoCal of whites in the 2030’s. U.S. racism and white retaliatory violence in the 2040’s represses the SoCal Hispanics. China’s intervention causes massive death and suffering for whites and Hispanics alike, as does the U.S. retaliation against SoCal. China does demonstrate it is the preeminent world power, however, so it gets what it wants.
Does the answer change if we change the year to 1999, the U.S. to Yugoslavia, Southern California to Kosovo, Mexico to Albania, China to the U.S., and ASEAN to NATO?
The bombing of Yugoslavia has ended for now. What did NATO accomplish? It did not win the terms that it had insisted on at Rambouillet. Had it been willing to accept back in March the terms it just settled for, the bombing would never have begun, the Kosovars would still be in their homes, countless lives (both Kosovar and Serb) saved, terrible destruction avoided, and violations of International law, U.S. law, and the NATO charter would have been avoided. But NATO did not want a peaceful settlement, it wanted to bomb Yugoslavia as punishment and to demonstrate NATO’s might, and it got its way by demanding impossible terms and then starting a war when they were rejected. Since NATO has accomplished what it wanted — punishing Yugoslavia — with impunity, perhaps it is legitimate to say that it won, but it may yet be a Pyrrhic victory for NATO, for it may ultimately have begun NATO’s demise. On 4 June, European Union announced plans to create a military capability independent of NATO’s.
If one takes a more global view, it is the world that has lost in this war. International law, never strong, has been further compromised by the unwillingness of the NATO countries to involve the United Nations in the resolution of Kosovo until its tantrum had run its course. This war is a declaration of resurgent militant U.S. hegemony. Some might argue that U.S. hegemony is good for the world, as it is likely to cow most of the world into peace. More likely it will lead in many capitals to step up arms purchases and to form alliances to defend against U.S. intervention by provding substitutes for the fallen second superpower. This is likely to lead to yet more war.
If the U.S. and NATO treat Yugoslavia as they have Iraq, then they may soon have even more millions dead from starvation and disease on their hands. Thousands, especially children, are still dying each month in Iraq from the U.S. policy of maintaining U.N. sanctions against Iraq. We need to rethink policies of punishing civilians for the acts of their leaders.
Wars are always justified by the protagonists on humanitarian grounds, but these justifications are rarely factual. Consider whether NATO’s current claim of humanitarian aims in its war on Yugoslavia have merit.
NATO’s actions in Yugoslavia belie the claim that this is a war to help the Kosovars — a humanitarian war. NATO’s use of depleted uranium weapons (in weapons) are poisoning Kosovo (and Yugoslavia) making it an unfit place for the Kosovars to live when they return. Many will die slow deaths from radiation-induced cancers. NATO’s use of cluster bombs will maim and kill in gruesome explosions children who think that undetonated cluster bombs are toys. The U.S. does not care about the Kosovars or it would not poison or booby trap their homeland.
Hundreds of Kosovars have died because NATO prohibits its pilots from flying low enough to see their targets. If the goal were to help the Kosovars, would not a different risk calculus be used? NATO called it a “a good day” on 14 May, when it killed at least 87 ethnic Albanian refugees in the village of Korisa, and injured a hundred more [LM on-line magazine, June 1, 1999]. While NATO claims most civilian death and injury is accidental, there are instances of NATO deliberately targeting civilians (e.g. bombing the television studios in Belgrade). In addition NATO accidents are happening at a rate of over 2 per week. The U.S. and NATO only care about demonstrating how much retribution they can deliver to those who won’t accept U.S. hegemony.
If humanitarian reasons were behind NATO’s actions, then why did it set the bar so high during the Rambouillet negotiations? The use of U.N. troops instead of NATO troops and restricting them to Kosovo instead of occupying all of Yugoslavia would have achieved that same results and averted the humanitarian disaster that NATO’s bombing caused. FAIR goes further in WHAT REPORTERS KNEW ABOUT KOSOVO TALKS -- BUT DIDN’T TELL and asserts that the U.S.’s goals at Rambouillet were explicitly explained to reporters beforehand (but “off the record”) as to ensure Milosevic’s rejection so that they would have the excuse to begin the bombing they so wanted.
Clinton has broken U.S. law in continuing military action after the 60 days provided in the War Powers Act. He has not even sought congressional approval. Clinton is therefore in violation of both International and U.S. law. Clinton’s motivation is unclear, but it is possible that he fears a debate on his Kosovo policy that would point up the contradictions in his justifications.
The U.S. is also refusing to help pay for the reconstruction of Yugoslavia once the war is over. The after effects of the bombing will be a humanitarian disaster for Serbs and Kosovars alike for many years. To destroy the infrastructure of a country and then leave it to the ravages of disease, weather, poverty, and even famine is inhumane.
Both the death and suffering of the Kosovars have dramatically increased since the bombing began; NATO began its action after two thousand Kosovars were killed over a year’s time in Milosevic’s brutal repression of the KLA insurgency. Five thousand or more have died in just the two months since the bombing began. If we felt compelled to intervene after two thousand deaths in a year, shouldn’t the rest of the world feel compelled to intervene in our far worse slaughter?
The U.S. blames Milosevic for the humanitarian disaster in Kosovo. If our actions were intended to address the humanitarian issue, then U.S. policy would have to be to remove Milosevic from power. That is not the case, and so our motivations cannot be humanitarian. NATO has not even removed those indicted of war crimes in areas under NATO control (e.g. Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic).
In the last 45 years the U.S. has bombed Afghanistan, Cambodia, Congo, Croatia, Cuba, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Indonesia, Iraq, Laos, Lebanon, Libya, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Sudan, and Vietnam. In none of these cases were the reasons humanitarian. Why would Yugoslavia be an exception?
To call this war humanitarian is nonsense.
NATO’s war against Yugoslavia is beginning to strain the “alliance.” If there is anything positive in the Yugoslavia disaster, it is that this could be the beginning of the end of NATO. This outcome is unlikely, but it is worth considering the possibility.
Why should NATO be dismantled? NATO’s original stated mission was to defend Europe against Soviet attack. That mission is now irrelevant. (Whether it was necessary during the Cold War is debatable, though there is no doubt that the United States’ membership in NATO was a deterrent to the Soviet Union.) Not only has NATO’s stated mission vanished, apparently so has its charter, as the war against Yugoslavia is contrary to that charter. NATO has become an aggressor.
Moreover, NATO’s stated mission may not have been its real mission. After World War II, the U.S. was distrustful of Europeans to govern themselves in ways acceptable to Washington. NATO and in particular U.S. troops stationed on European soil provided a modicum of U.S. control over European affairs. NATO thus became and remains an agent of U.S. foreign policy and a legitimizing front for the U.S. military (Americans believe that unilateral U.S. action in Yugoslavia is unacceptable but are prepared to accept aggression under NATO’s aegis). The U.S. made membership in NATO financially attractive to the European states by bearing a disproportionate share of its military budget, in effect giving many European states a free ride.
This situation might be acceptable if U.S. foreign policy were benign, but it is not. NATO’s dissolution would no longer lessen Europe’s security, but it would make Europe more independent of the U.S. in policy matters, and that would be a good thing for the world. U.S. hegemony means the continued exploitation and subjugation of the third world and increasing power for U.S. corporations, who act in no one’s interest except their own.
The unrest of Germany, Greece, and Italy (and probably others who aren’t so vocal) over the Yugoslavia war will most likely be beaten into submission by the U.S. with threats of expulsion, but it is just possible that enough of the NATO states will find such heavy-handed treatment no longer worth the price of NATO’s security umbrella.
The U.S. EPA has approved the use of Monsanto’s genetically engineered corn that includes genes from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). The genes produce a toxin that kills some agricultural crop pests, including the European corn borer. Bt toxin is also used in organic agriculture to control pests as part of a discipline called Integrated Pest Management (IPM) where it is applied externally and selectively. It is especially useful because of its selective toxicity for leaf-eating larvae of moth and butterfly species. The use of Bt genes in non-organic agriculture is likely to cause resistant strains of pests to evolve within a few years, thereby destroying the usefulness of this organic farming technique. (It also limits the product’s lifetime. Both are no doubt viewed as a good thing by Monsanto since they will create dependence on their labs for enhancements and replacements.) The EPA has therefore required a resistance management strategy for growing Bt toxin crops. Apparently the efficacy of this strategy was not evaluated before approving Bt toxin crops because this week’s issue of Science includes an article, Inheritance of Resistance to Bacillus thuringiensis Toxin (Dipel ES) in the European Corn Borer, showing that the assumptions of the approved strategy are not in fact true, and therefore the resistance management strategy is fatally flawed (Bt toxin resistance is inherited as an incompletely dominant autosomal gene instead of being regressive). This indicates that the EPA rushed to approval of Monsanto’s Frankencorn without adequate scientific study. Why else would they approve a product based on untested assumptions than to favor a company they are supposed to regulate. Now we have some basic results and they are awful. We must replace the EPA with an orgranization that is capable of regulating its industries instead of being a marketing arm for them (by giving them the appearance of legitimacy).
The U.S. is at war with the European Union over trade issues, and it is one war I hope we lose. Europeans are defying the U.S. and the WTO by prohibiting U.S. beef raised with growth hormone. The EU will likely have trade sanctions imposed as a result. I am cheering for the EU on this one; they are right to stand up to the WTO rules that are based on a regulatory ceilings instead of regulatory floors. If they have the mettle they will pull out of GATT or force it to be renegotiated – action that will eventually lead to rules that don’t destroy my right to decide what I eat. The U.S. and the WTO assert that the EU must show that BGH is unsafe before banning it. This is absurd; the burden of responsibility should be to show that BGH is safe before allowing it into the food chain (and I don’t accept the U.S. FDA approvals of such things as proof of safety, especially given the revolving door between Monsanto and its regulators). The rush to the bottom in safety, environmental standards, and worker and customer rights must be stopped, and that means dismantling its battering ram, the free trade treaties and replacing them with fair trade treaties.
The United States now quietly allows that the bombing of the Sudanese pharmaceutical factory cannot be justified (it unfroze the assets of its owner). This story got almost no coverage in the United States (it was page A8 of the 4 May 1999 New York Times). If there was any doubt that the U.S. “press” engages in selective coverage to further the propaganda aims of the government, there is no further. For the original story to have generated days and pages of articles and then for the falsehood of much of that coverage to be buried without any investigative followup dramatically shows how our news is manipulated.
The NATO war against Yugoslavia is wrong. I was slow to feel confident of this opinion because of the lack of information and debate in the early days of the war. Also, the urge to do something when a humanitarian disaster is brewing is strong. Together these factors have had precisely the effect they were intended to: promote tacit approval of NATO’s actions. It is still all too true that the first casualty of war is truth.
The relevant issues are
I will consider the last issues first, because the method of intervention obviously effects the question of should, and the United States rationale for intervention could be legitimate.
The proffered explanation for the war is to prevent a human catastrophe, but the United States has never been interested in preventing human catastrophe in the past, so this lacks credibility. The U.S. sat idle during worse atrocities in Rwanda and Cambodia. It has defended Israel’s repression in Palestine and instigated attrocities against the Mayans in El Salvador and Guatemala. The U.S. has ignored and continues to ignore the attrocities committed against the Kurds by Turkey and the ethnic cleansing taking place in Tibet by China. It is currently standing idle while a similar situation is developing in East Timor. Of course, the United States might have a newfound humanitarian conscience, but if this were so, the U.S. would not have chosen to bomb Yugoslavia, as bombing would predictably lead to a worsening of the human catastrophe (and why then not East Timor?). But if the U.S. is not bombing Yugoslavia for humanitarian reasons, why is it doing it? It is true that this action will send billions of dollars to U.S. defense contractors, but the country seems to be in a mood to throw more money into this hole anyway. A war will certainly help justify still larger military spending, but it is not necessary to achieve it.
I admit to having been puzzled as to why the United States decided to thrust NATO into bombing Yugoslavia until I heard Noam Chomsky speak on the subject. Chomsky suggests that the United States is bombing Yugoslavia to demonstrate that the world must reckon with U.S. power. The world knows that the U.S. is the remaining superpower and possesses the capability to wreak havoc almost anywhere, but what the U.S. desired was a demonstration that the United States has the will to do so. Chomsky cites a partially declassified NSC memo arguing that the U.S. should strive to be unpredictable and thus better give pause to other world leaders. The legacy of Vietnam might have led some to conclude the U.S. would use its military might only in the most dire circumstances in the future. The Gulf war showed that the United States was to be reckoned with when its interests (i.e. oil) were directly threatened. This war will show that it must be reckoned with in any situation.
Even if the United States’ motives are simply power politics, humanitarian concerns might justify some sort of intervention. What sort of intervention would have been humanitarian? Bombing Yugoslavia clearly fails this test. Even NATO commander Wesley Clark said as the bombing began that the likely response of the Serbs would be to intensify their attacks on the Kosovars. Not only was it predictable, it was predicted by NATO. Chomsky asked rhetorically whether on seeing an assault near your home whether you would (1) call the police; (2) do nothing; or (3) get an automatic weapon and shoot them both. The third choice is clearly absurd; even doing nothing is better, and yet that is the choice that the United States has made. (While not the humanitarian choice, (3) is clearly the choice if you want to demonstrate your power and unpredictability.)
It is also important to note that bombing Yugoslavia is illegal under International law and a violation of NATO’s charter. It may be countered that International is flawed and should not be allowed to sanction genocide, but the United States did not pursue the legal course of action before turning to the illegal. If it had, the probable consequences of bombing would been aired in debate and most likely rejected. The U.S. could counter that Russia’s veto in the security council was a forgone conclusion, and it was thus a waste of time to make the effort. If the UN is ever to become effective, the veto power of the permanent members of the security council will have to be weakened, but of course the U.S. as the world’s leading rogue state would never consent to this.
As this is written, the propaganda machine of the U.S. is preparing its populace and the world for the use of ground troops. This is just as illegal as bombing and it would have just as likely produced the deaths of many Kosovars as bombing.
In other situations the U.S. has employed embargos, blockades, frozen assets, bribed and bought participants, instigated coups, and armed guerrilla armies. None of these were tried in this situation. Instead the one thing that was guaranteed to turn an awful situation into a catastrophe was chosen.
What should have been done? While none of the alternatives would have given us a good solution, I think there were many alternatives that would have been better that bombing Yugoslavia (unless the goal is to make the world fear you). My preference would have been to first indict Yugoslavia’s leaders (and probably the leaders of the KLA) for their crimes in the world court. They should have been tried in the Hague represented by their lawyers. If convicted, the billions spent on bombing Yugoslavia could have been offered instead as a bounty for their arrest or spent on a military operation to effect that arrest. Sanctions (but not genocidal sanctions as in Iraq) could also have been placed on Yugoslavia to encourage the arrests.
The Kosovo situation underscores the importance of self determination as a policy principle. This is one thing the United States opposes, and yet it would be of great humanitarian benefit to not only the Kosovars, Kurds, Tibetans, Palestinians, and East Timorese. It also underscores the need for a strong world court, which the United States also opposes.
Another lesson that Kosovo reiterates is that the United States needs a free press to replace the entertainment/propaganda machine that we have. Mega-corporate control of the media is incompatible with the truth; it can only serve to justify the policies of power.
I am impressed; the Republicans have done something right for a change. Their plan to finally stop using the Social Security surplus to mask the general account deficit is a welcome change, even if it is just posturing to one up Clinton. Whether they will follow through is an open question, but at least they’re talking about doing the right thing. The best way to lighten the load of the increased social security tax that will be necessary as demographics change is to pay off the Federal debt and thereby eliminate the interest portion of the Federal budget. Now is the perfect time to be paying off the debt, with the economy strong and the country not in need of fiscal stimulation (another day may see the need for deficit spending to stimulate a sinking economy).
In considering solutions to the Social Security and Medicare “crises” it is helpful to remember that the problem is caused by changes in demographics that are not likely to reverse: increased life expectancy and decreasing birth rates. These two trends are increasing the ratio of retirees to workers. To solve the problem we must either reduce the ratio or find a way to pay for the increased ratio.
One way to reduce the ratio of retirees to workers is to increase the birth rate, recreating the situation under which Social Security was born: ever more workers to pay for the retirees. This leads to a population explosion that would ruin our planet; it is not an acceptable solution.
It is important to recognize that we must eventually reach some sort of total population steady state; continued population growth is just not an option. This subject deserves more discussion than it receives today. Rather than simply letting the population find its own level, we should actively decide what population is desirable based on the tradeoff between the effect on our environment of a given population and the benefits that derive from a larger population (e.g. diversity, rate of innovation, etc.). At this point we would then put in place policies that guide population growth or reduction toward that goal. [Personally, I favor a lower population than we currently have in either the United States or the world.]
With respect to Social Security we must create separate plans for the transition period and the steady state period. (Note that steady state population might still have a changing ratio of workers to retirees due to life expectancy changes.) I believe it makes sense to first plan for the steady state, and then figure out the transition. The current debate in the United States seems to be taking the opposite tack and this leads to plans that simply delay the day of reckoning, but which do not eliminate it.
A better way to change the ratio of retirees to workers is to increase the age of retirement to maintain a balance between the number of working years and the number of retirement years. This option likewise deserves more discussion than it has received. It should not be viewed as a battle between the present old and present young, because eventually most of us will retire. With stable demographics, paying for your own retirement and the retirement of older generations is essentially equivalent. The Social Security Trust Fund makes no sense in this situation. The question is how do we trade off lower payments while we are working versus a longer period of working. Our society should find an appropriate balance and therefore an appropriate Social Security age. We might even decide to lower the age, if we’re willing to pay for it. Because demographics are not constant — steady state population might still have a changing ratio of workers to retirees due to life expectancy changes — the retirement age versus payment rate will have to be fine tuned over time. The default should be to automatically adjust the Social Security retirement age with the life expectancy rate and then let the political process debate whether to change that by changing the payment rate. We could even allow each generation or even each individual to make a different choice on payment rate and Social Security retirement age. Different choices by different generations would require something like the Trust Fund to iron out the fluctuations.
While I have not done the calculations, it seems unlikely that an acceptable change in the Social Security age will be sufficient to address the eventual steady state, since it addresses only the changes in life expectancy, and not the decrease in birth rate required by the steady state. Hence we must be prepared for the transition to include an increase in the payment rate. There are several ways to make this increase in the Social Security payment rates less painful for future generations. One is to make Social Security a flat tax (now it is regressive tax) by eliminating the wage cap and extending the tax to non-wage income. Another way to smooth the transition to higher Social Security taxes is to pay off the Federal debt (via budget surpluses), thus eliminating hundreds of billions of dollars of interest payments from the budget. As Federal interest payments decrease, general taxes lowered and social security taxes raised to be spent on increasing Social Security costs. Thus budget surpluses should be targeted to pay off the Federal debt over approximately the same period required to reach a steady population.
The New York Times reported today that the United States helped Turkey find and capture Abdullah Ocalan, a Kurdish rebel leader accused of terrorist acts in his pursuit of an independent state for his people. What’s wrong with the United States helping to bring a terrorist to trial? Unfortunately the Kurds have all too legitimate gripes with Turkey, which treats them as little more than livestock in their own land. After decades of abusing Kurdish human rights, Turkey is unfit to try Ocalan. Ocalan’s trial belongs in the Hague, not Turkey, and he should be tried alongside his Turkish abusers.
The problem with the United States action is that it once again puts us squarely on the side of the human rights abuse, a position in which we perennially find ourselves. The fact that Turkey is a military ally is no excuse; if anything we should hold our military allies to even higher standards. Turkey derives much greater benefit from its alliance with the United States than vice versa; in return Turkey ought to behave in a civilized manner. When will our support on tyrannical regimes end?
Politicians must believe that if they say crows are blue enough times, the people will believe it. Perhaps they are even right. President Clinton last night talked about using the surplus to save Social Security so many times, you would think he doesn’t know that the surplus is an accounting fiction created by including Social Security receipts on the books (but he does). Thus Clinton is proposing to take excess Social Security receipts and give 60% of them to Social Security. How clever he must think himself. Of course Clinton’s cleverness will simply turn into United States debt, which the Social Security generation will have to repay threefold. Compared to just paying once thirty years from now, that’s a raw deal.
Clinton went on to outline lots of goodies for favorite programs. Of course most of his program will never be enacted, and he knows it. This State of the Union was pure political theater. Moreover, even if enacted, many of Clinton’s goodies would be only token efforts directed at very real issues. However, it is heartening to see the Federal government propose help for education, if only to raise the level of discourse on it. Traditionally the province of the states, education in the United States (and especially California) has been failing for years. It would be better for the states to fix it, but with prospects of that uncertain, it is appropriate to propose Federal remedies because it is just too important to get wrong.
Other Clinton proposals were candy for Republicans. Perhaps Clinton believes that offering Republicans greater military spending and investment tax breaks will win over a few votes for his other proposals, or for his trial in his Senate. More likely the Republican Congress will give him a yet larger military spending bill and next to none of his other proposals.
It appears we’re headed for another do nothing year.
President Clinton’s State of the Union speech should be difficult to deliver, not just because of the impeachment trial, but because he has accomplished so little in the last year. Almost none of the initiatives he announced one year ago have been accomplished. Social Security has not been “saved”; there is no patient bill of rights, and campaign finance reform and tobacco regulation have died. If it were not for impeachment, the public would be clamoring for Clinton’s head. Instead the public is giving the do nothing President its highest approval ratings in sympathy for his being under political attack by his enemies (who hate him for stealing their issues and actually implementing them — free trade, military spending increases, star wars, etc.).
While the politicians and media like to crow about budget surpluses, it is sobering to remember that the Federal debt continues to rise. It increased by $113B in FY1998, and has increased by $82B so far in FY1999 [ConcordCoalition]. The disconnect is of course due to phony accounting practices used to claim a balanced budget.
Federal debt is not harmless, as those that promise tax cuts or military spending increases might have you believe. The interest on the Federal debt could fund the U.S. Department of Defense. It required 40% of all individual income tax receipts in 1996 [ReceiptsBySource] to just pay the interest on the Federal debt (or put another way, we could cut individual income taxes almost in half if we eliminated the Federal debt). Talk of budget surpluses is designed to make us forget these inconvenient facts and to keep piling up the red ink to pad the pockets of those that control our politicians.
Politicians, pundits and press often appear mystified as to why the people are not clamoring for Clinton’s resignation despite their calls to battle. Let me try to explain it. I voted for someone else in 1996 — I thought Clinton was a poor President then — but I do defend his right to remain President.
We the people have grown accustomed to a political system that minimizes our voice. We are resigned to the rigged two party system that regularly delivers us unpalatable choices. We are upset and disgusted with, but somewhat resigned to, a system where big money wields enormous influence over what is supposed to be our decision. We know that the parties and special interests will go to great lengths to spin a story of fear or greed to twist our vote their way. We may want to vote for ideology, but as William Greider has observed, the political parties are not parties of ideology; they are parties of clients (aka investors). Whenever possible, ideology will be invoked as justification for taking care of their clients’ needs, but when the two are in conflict, the principles are discarded and the clients are served. And yet we still vote (at least some of us do). We hold our noses and vote for the least repugnant of what we are served by the parties and their investors. Why do we vote? Because without this check upon the two parties and their clients, we would be served with far worse. Big money plays an enormous role in elections; often, but not always, it plays a deciding role. It is for this not always case that we still vote. At every point of the process forces exist to minimize our voice, but that is not enough for today’s GOP and their clients. They seek not to just minimize our voices, but to silence them by overturning the 1996 election. This is something to be angry about, and we are.
The auditors of the Federal Election Commission have just released their report indicating the both Clinton and Dole in the 1996 election violated the law by grossly exceeding spending limits. The auditors recommended that Clinton and Dole return $7M and $17.7M of the matching funds they received from the government. The auditors found that Clinton for example, went $46M over the $30M spending limit. This is not a small accounting error. Unlike Monica-gate, this is a serious challenge to the integrity of the electoral process, something much more fundamental to the health of our democracy than an affair and even perjury about that affair. So, how did the New York Times cover it? Are they calling for criminal penalties and impeachment? No, they buried the news item on page A23 [NYT, 2 December 1998]. The NYT did fume a bit about it on the editorial page, though I cannot help wonder why this is not first-page material.
It is interesting to note that the auditors found Dole’s campaign owes more back to the government than Clinton’s, and yet the coverage of this issue has been fairly one-sided in the past, particularly in Congress’ calls for an investigation of Clinton’s fund-raising, but not Dole’s.
Worse still, a follow-up article the next day (also on page A23), predicts that the FEC will not follow through on the recommendations of their auditors and is unlikely to ask for a penny back from either campaign. So, the message is, go ahead and break the law; there will be no consequences.
How much longer can we live without serious campaign finance reform? The incoming House should repass the Shays-Meehan Campaign Finance Reform Bill and this time for the Senate should act, not sit on it.
It is almost a year now that impeachment of President Clinton has been an issue, and I have yet to see a thorough analysis of the issue. It seems the press is incapable of seeing this as anything other than a way to increase ratings (though even this appears to be misguided), and consequently treats it only superficially (and in most cases with their minds made up).
To impeach Clinton we should answer the following questions:
To question 1, the answer is clearly yes, both from a historical perspective and one of common sense. Federal officials (though not Presidents) have been impeached for perjury in the past, and perjury is properly considered in the same category as bribery, which is certainly an impeachable offense.
To question 2, I believe the answer yes, though I can see that some might find Clinton’s hair-splitting arguments legally sound (even if unethical). It is interesting to note that the perjury issue arose because of failure to follow-up after Clinton’s answers during cross-examination with more specific questioning, as would have happened in a normal civil litigation. One wonders if the purpose wasn’t explicitly to set a trap.
To question 3, I must answer no. I believe that no person is above the law, and that Clinton’s actions should be dealt with as anyone else accused of perjury: criminal prosecution in a court of law. Impeachment is a remedy most appropriate when the crime makes the accused unable or unfit to continue to hold office, and especially when the crime or accused is a danger to the Constitution or the political process. Perjury in a civil litigation is no less of a crime, but it poses no threat to the Constitution or political process. Clinton should be prosecuted in a court of law, according to the same standards that other perjuries are prosecuted, and where he would most likely receive a fairer trial than in proceedings in Congress. He might be acquitted, or fined, or given a jail sentence. In the latter case, he would most likely be out of office by the time of sentencing, but if were sentenced to jail while in office, impeachment would then make sense to deal with the situation of a President unable to continue his duties (most likely he would resign at this point anyway).
To question 4, I must answer yes. Indeed, the proceedings to date have been on a par with those of 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts. Starr’s investigation has been ruthlessly partisan and highly questionable in several aspects, not the least being the abuse of the Grand Jury process and the release of damaging material to the press. The House leadership’s decision to allow less time for debate of the motion to start impeachment hearings than it allowed for the motion to rename National airport after Ronald Reagan set the tone for Congress’ proceedings (“lynching” is a word that comes to mind). Henry Hyde’s chairmanship of the House Judiciary committee has made a mockery of due process, with a guilty until proven innocent attitude. He demands that the President call witnesses to prove his innocence, instead of the committee calling witnesses to prove Clinton’s guilt. The only witness called for the prosecution to date has been Kenneth Starr, who has no first-hand testimony to offer (not even of the examination of his own witnesses as it turns out), but only hearsay. For this witness, the President’s lawyer was given only thirty minutes of cross-examination time, something without precedent in criminal and impeachment proceedings. Following the Supreme Court’s Miranda ruling, a failure to follow due process invalidates the conviction. Has the Congress has forfeited its right to impeachment?
The question the press should be asking is whether we should be more ashamed of our President or of our Congress. In the case of the President, his personal vices led him into a situation in which he became trapped by his own foolishness. In the case of Congress, it is self-serving and malicious disregard for the principles of our democracy driving their actions. I think the latter is more serious.
This whole episode also exposes the hypocrisy of our press and politicians. Those calling for adherence to the law in this case are completely blind to lawlessness in other areas, such as the bombing of Sudan, or in recent cries to bomb Iraq, which were or would be violations of international law. As James Poniewozik put it,
When Saddam Hussein canceled our regularly scheduled war, Sam “Strangelove” Donaldson and his h