Archive for January, 2009

Holocaust Survivors for the Legalization of Marijuana

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

I have no idea what to make of these ads:

(H/t Andrew Sullivan.)

But it’s not a parody. It’s apparently a real ad for the upcoming elections in Israel on February 10 resulting from the political alliance between the Holocaust Survivors Party and the Green Leaf Graduates party. The older party wanted to reach out to younger Israelis and the pro-marijuana party wanted to be taken seriously. The fact that I’m writing about it demonstrates that it’s created a significant amount of buzz.

The best line:

For us, the Holocaust survivors, our obligation is to legalize it [marijuana].

I don’t follow the logic, even if I support the cause.

(more…)

Torture, Plain and Simple

Friday, January 30th, 2009

David J. Morris, a former Marine, attended the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) program whose purpose was to train US soldiers to withstand torture but whose techniques migrated to interrogation of prisoners after the Bush administration pushed for “enhanced interrogation.” Morris writes of his experience being subjected to these techniques:

I was incarcerated at SERE for only a few days, but my mind quickly disintegrated. I became convinced that I was being held in an actual prisoner of war camp. Training had stopped, from my point of view. We had crossed over into some murky shadow land where the regulations no longer applied.

41 Tells a Joke

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Science’s A Priori Assumptions

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Dennis Overbye in The New York Times:

[Science] requires no metaphysical commitment to a God or any conception of human origin or nature to join in this game, just the hypothesis that nature can be interrogated and that nature is the final arbiter. Jews, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists and Hindus have all been working side by side building the Large Hadron Collider and its detectors these last few years.

The main reason I mention this is Overbye’s implicit acceptance that science has a priori assumptions – an argument I’ve had many times before. Of course, Overbye misses a few of science’s a priori assumptions – from cause-and-effect to Occam’s razor to the rules of mathematics. But he admits my point.

The Populist Party Blog

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

On what seems to be the official Populist Party website, they are taking “Oh Bomb Uh” to task for launching a war without consent of Congress:

Even though he swore the oath twice, Barack Obama is in violation of the Constitution of the United States of America, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 which states that only Congress can declare War.

What they are referring to is the launching of military strikes against what they would call “alleged” Al Qaeda bases in Pakistan. What confuses me of course is that he starts out by quoting Ron Paul saying that to use the word, “War” in regards to attacking terrorism has no meaning – and that “You can’t have a War against a Tactic.” But if that’s the case, then how is what Obama doing a war?

And for that matter, Congress has not formally declared war since World War I. Which would make any military action – in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Somalia – seemingly anywhere – also contrary to the Constitution. Of course this is a unique reading of the Constitution, but this is how the Populist Party can claim to represent “the people” – they know as much about the Constitution as the least of all people.

Choose a side and stick to it Populists!

N.B. Can anyone at all make sense of how any of this evidence backs up the initial claim in this paragraph. For the life of me, it just doesn’t make sense. The evidence he cites is interesting – but does nothing to prove his point:

Although it is sacrilegious, some commentators are even claiming that Al-Qaeda does not exist. Their evidence? Just well-documented interviews with a key Oh-Bomb-Ah foreign policy advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and footage of him extolling a bunch of muhajideen to fight for their god before the Soviets even invaded Afghanistan.

Overall, it’s nice to see the Populist Party has a blog. But they should work on the content a bit.

Fair-Minded Yglesias

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

Matt Yglesias points out the inconsistency in Republican opponents of the stimulus bill claiming:

we can’t afford large new temporary deficit spending but can afford large new permanent tax cuts.

And then Yglesias points to “a Republican worth listening to,” Rep. John L. Mica.

It’s the fair-mindedness that keeps me reading Yglesias’s stuff.

Galvanized By Sexual Panic

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

Andrew Sullivan on the big headline GOP objections to the stimulus bill (Funding for Contraception! Funding for STD Prevention!)L

[W]hy is it the GOP is so easily galvanized by sexual panic? Weird, if you ask me. This is the budget we’re talking about here. Even there, they reach, like the exhausted tacticians they are, for the culture war.

Why It Should Be A ‘War’ Against Terrorism

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

One of the big issues many kossacks had in responding to my post was that they objected to the term, “war” being used in describing efforts to combat terrorism.

Peter Feaver over at Foreign Policy nicely parries at least one of the points made – what he labels the “specious claims like the idea that calling it a war narrow options down to only military tools.” Feaver’s response:

On the contrary, of course, calling it a war actually has the opposite effect of expanding options: It admits the use of military and other war-like tools, but it also encompasses the rest of the non military tools in the toolbox, as I’ve argued here. Those who want to label it as something other than a war are the ones who want to limit the tools available.

What Feaver seems to support is what he calls a popular straddle that unites the semantic warriors:

Obama intends to say that we are really at war, but we will voluntarily not use all of the tools of war because we do not need to.

Although at the present, this is fine – it seems to offer the worst of all worlds should another attack occur. Politically, Obama will have boxed himself in by admitting that we are at war and at the same time, by saying that we do not need to use every tool at our disposal to win that war, a kind of anti-Powell doctrine.

The approach that I think bears the most promise – both as a solid grounding for understanding the struggle against terrorism and for creating a politically defensible position – is what I’m calling the Philip Bobitt approach. More on that in a moment.

I think it’s obvious to see why the Feaver approach1 would probably cause political damage to any candidate that embraced it if there is another attack. (Think of the mothers of the victims of an attack saying, ‘You said we didn’t need to do this, but my son died!’) At the same time, the policy of holding back would be discredited by a spectacular attack – or perhaps even a minor one. There would be a backlash. The delicate balance that would need to be struck between the war we are fighting and what we are holding back “because it is unnecessary” would necessarily come undone at the first loss of life.

Alternately, some claim we are not at war and that the struggle against terrorism is a law enforcement matter, and that politicians should embrace this view publicly. If there are no future attacks, then this position will work out fine. If there are only a small number of minor attacks, this also might work out fine. If there are a series of minor attacks, it’s possible that this position might get us through – both politically and substantially. But this doesn’t seem a smart bet to me. I’m not sure that anyone would deny that our society is vulnerable to catastrophic attacks – and that with technological improvements, increased travel, the increasing density of our urban areas, the spread of information, the worldwide and instantaneous nature of the media, and the growing importance and fluidity of markets – non-state actors are more empowered today, to do good or harm, that at any time in the history of the world. I’m not sure anyone would deny that there are significant numbers of individuals who seriously wish harm to America. Terrorism then – terrorism more serious than before – is inevitable.

Ron Suskind, whose critical books on the Bush administration earned him the ire of the former president, reported that an Al Qaeda agent accomplished a technological breakthrough and was prepared to launch a chemical attack on the New York subway system several years ago. The operation was within 45 days of being launched when it was called off by Ayman Zawahiri. Although we have no definite intelligence as to why this attack was called off, the most plausible explanation based on other statements Bin Laden and Zawihiri have made is that Bin Laden feared this attack would not surpass September 11. Societies throughout history have shown that they can acclimate themselves to a constant low-level of violence – even terrorist-created violence. Which is perhaps why Al Qaeda seeks spectacular attacks on their primary target, or none at all – because a spectacular attack is more likely to generate an overreaction.

If history is to be a guide, we can bet that if a terrorist group does enough damage, people will care little for triviliaties such as freedom – such is the effect of the fear of death. (At the same time, history must also inform us that a society’s fear of death can be manipulated by the state as well as by the terrorists.) It seems to me that the law enforcement approach is not especially suited to combatting the terrorism we now face because:

  • the consequences of letting an ordinary criminal go are far less serious than letting a terrorist go;
  • punitive measures that are supposed to deter crime don’t work regarding strategic terrorism (The death penalty, for example, doesn’t deter someone who wants to be a martyr like Khalid Sheikh Muhammad.);
  • law enforcement focuses on prosecution and punishment rather than prevention, when counterterrorism measures must do the reverse;
  • military engagement may at times be called for – as it was in Afghanistan after September 11;

The efforts to combat terrorism then don’t seem to fit into our traditional ideas of law enforcement. Neither of course, do they fit into our modern definition of war – as a military engagement between states (or within states) that ends with a treaty. The efforts to combat terrorism don’t fit into any of these preexisting categories neatly. We could invent a new term – but if we did, that would suggest that if this threat escalates, then war would be the next step. In other words, I don’t see any approach to terrorism short of “war” to be sustainable – because I believe it is likely that regardless of what steps we will not be able to prevent another attack.

So I suggest we adopt the term “war” and couple it with the main aim of this war – a preclusive victory against strategic terrorism. This victory would be the protection of the ability of citizens to consent freely to their government.2 Any time the government violated the rule of law, it would be violating the war aim – it would be, as I described it in a post long ago, a “preemptive surrender of American values.”

This seems to me to be a sturdier construction for the protection of American values than either the law enforcement approach, the Feaver approach, or (and especially) the Bush approach.

  1. It’s unfair to label it the Feaver approach as he actually attributes it to Obama, but for the moment, this is the least confusing way to go about explaining. []
  2. I believe we must aim as a society for more than mere consent to government action – to actively shape it, etcetera – but that’s not the goal of this war. []

Not Taking the War on Terror Seriously

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

…[T]his nominalism [is not] confined to the U.S. administration’s critics. In his conduct of the war in Iraq, George W. Bush has cast considerable doubt on whether he actually does consider operations there as part of the Wars on Terror, for he has chosen to fight in Iraq as if it were a theater of conventional operations. It is as if he, too, has been using a word for practical political reasons – to rally the public, to gain support for appropriations – without regard for the reality the word is supposed to reflect. Had the president really believed that the use of the term “war” was compelled by reality and not just by the instrumental purposes to which he put the word, he would surely have raised taxes (not significantly lowered them), brought Democrats into the cabinet, enlarged the army, and ardently sought American alliances abroad. These steps have invariably characterized the measures taken by U.S. presidents who have led the U.S. in war since 1917.

Philip Bobbitt on page 174 of Terror and Consent.

I just wanted to point out that it’s not merely liberals who don’t properly understand the threat of terrorism. I’ve been focusing on that aspect because that’s where I started, and since I’ve been dealing with the blowback.

Someone Who Predicted the Financial Crisis

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

“There is nowhere to hide,” Roubini, an economics professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business who predicted the financial crisis, said from Zurich in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “We have for the first time in decades a global synchronized recession. Markets have become perfectly correlated and economies are also becoming perfectly correlated. This is not your kind of traditional minor recession.” [my emphasis

Nouriel Roubini was one of the economists whose analysis I latched onto in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. His writing makes a lot of sense, especially recently. But I’m sure I’m not the only person tired of hearing people identified as someone “who predicted the financial crisis.”

Many of these people who “predicted the financial crisis” have been predicting the financial crisis we are now seeing every year since the 1980s. Specifically, I’m thinking of Michael Lewis and Nassim Nicholas Taleb – both of whom were in the finance industry in the 1980s and got out while the going was good – and then went on to write about it’s unsustainability. They were right that the Wall Street boom was unsustainable and built on shakey foundations. But they obviously missed something in what was going on as the boom continued for many years. In other words, they were right in the end, but wrong for quite some time. Their insight allowed them to see moral problems that would come back to haunt us but had little practical effect in terms of predicting the future – including this crisis.

All this is less true of Roubini though who famously did predict with some precision what has happened – and did so in a timely fashion. As the New York Times described his 2006 presentation to the IMF:

On Sept. 7, 2006, Nouriel Roubini, an economics professor at New York University, stood before an audience of economists at the International Monetary Fund and announced that a crisis was brewing. In the coming months and years, he warned, the United States was likely to face a once-in-a-lifetime housing bust, an oil shock, sharply declining consumer confidence and, ultimately, a deep recession. He laid out a bleak sequence of events: homeowners defaulting on mortgages, trillions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities unraveling worldwide and the global financial system shuddering to a halt. These developments, he went on, could cripple or destroy hedge funds, investment banks and other major financial institutions like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

What Michael Lewis and Nassim Nicholas Taleb did was correctly point to an unsustainability in our system – but their insights haven’t had the same predictive value as Roubini’s.