01.31.07

Shot Heard ‘Round the World

Posted in Policy at 9:01 pm by steve

Wednesday Worry of the Week

When a much richer, swaggering, narcissistic neighbor moves into the neighborhood, his neighbors have only a few options. One is to roll their eyes and try to avoid contact as much as possible. One is to behave as psychophants, trying to gain incremental advantages over other neighbors by milking the relationship for all it is worth. One is to challenge the new neighbor along lines of his weaknesses, knowing that each time a nasty neighbor loses a challenge his hatefullness is magnified in the minds of those predisposed to dislike him and his advantageous position is degraded in the minds of those who use him to their own benefit.

We are reminded of this sort of situation by a recent international spat over space. Several years ago the Bush administration asserted “Freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power.” ( The Week, Feb 2, 2007. p 16). It was a sort of shot heard ’round the world. News organizations proclaimed that Bush had just claimed all of space in the name of the United States of America. To sane people with a sense of proportion and a long view of history it was the sort of claim that could only be made by the delusional.

Except in this case that long view of history needs only be two years or so in duration before the long view begins to overturn the short view. And in the study of history that is barely the blink of an eye. For the Bush proclamation that the USA owned space was really a rather exaggerated gesture by the Bush administration of turning down talks with the Chinese on testing of missiles that destroy satellites. Evidently it was a failure of imagination on the Bush administration that kept them from anticipating that the Chinese could be as adept at it as Americans.

In January the Chinese put the shoe on the other foot. They launched a missile from the ground that destroyed one of their own space satellites. The reaction in the west was a caucophony of fury and consternation. Some parties blustered that in was a sort of act of war. The Economist fretted that the fragments of the exploded satellite will haunt space for many decades, possibly endangering future space missions - possibly even Chinese ones. This, it turns out, was among the most level-headed reactions I saw. But why is it that the same worry was not circulated when Americans and Russians did the same sorts of tests decades ago? There is no reason to believe that the fragments from the Chinese tests would be materially more hazardous than would be the fragments from American and Russian tests. No, even for the level headed-writers at the Economist, the point of view on this event strikes one as being tinged with jingoism.

Newspapers in Hong Kong and Taiwan interpret the test as a kind of saber-rattling gesture to keep Taiwan cowed into not asserting independence. It would be silly to imagine that there are no elements within China, especially within its military, who do have such a goal in mind. Taiwan is an important issue to the Chinese. But this is much too narrow an interpretation.

China does have regional ambitions. But China clearly has global ambitions, too. And it is time that Americans realize this as a fact. It is time that Americans also realize that under the Bush regime, America has become that pushy neighbor that everyone loves to hate. And that this hatred is pushing countries that Americans have blithely assumed to be comfortably within its sphere of interest into the arms of the Chinese.

In the mid ninteen sixties, right after Zambia gained independence from Britain, the Chinese began investing in Zambia. They built a rail line connecting its copper mining region to the port City of Dar Es Salaam on the East Coast of Africa. Today, I am told, the Chinese are among the most ubiquitous expatriate community in that nation’s capital of Lusaka. The Chinese have spent four or five decades building a durable relationship with the Zambians in order that they might avail themselves of a steady supply of copper. That relationship is beginning to pay off.

Recently we heard stories that Hugo Chavez had penned agreements in principle with the Chinese to supply them with vast amounts of the heavy Orinoco tar-like crude, oil that American and French companies had assumed to be theirs for the taking.

These are but two of the more prominent examples of places in which the Chinese by investing in long term durable relationships are gaining access to vital streams of natural resources and raw materials that Americans stand to lose access to by taking those same relationships for granted. Or by abusing them. By being the bad neighbor.

What does shooting down their own space satellite have to do with oil and copper? At one level there is no connection. But at another level they are expressions of what China has become. The shot is an announcement that China has become a global power with first world capabilities in manufacturing and technology. It has become adept in the means of creating material wealth for peaceful purposes and for the purposes of exercise of force. It is proof that China long ago and permanently abandoned its age-old conception of isolation and that it has become increasingly adept at the European model of commerce: import raw materials, transform them using advanced manufacturing methods - or at least clever applications of cheap labor - and export the goods at a profit. Manufacturing is the heart and soul of wealth creation. It is, in fact, all the internal organs. Capital flows to areas of manufacturing excellence. And they quickly become the centers of power. Eighteenth century Europeans knew this. Twentieth century laisez affaire capitalists should have known it, too. We stand at risk of learning it over, the hard way.

When China shoots down its own space statellite, it sends the west a message that we would do well to hear. We are not dealing with the China of the eighteenth century - one all but impotent at the exertion of military might against the West, even within its own territory. We are not dealing with the China of the ninteen fifties, an isolated an inward looking nation with resolve and technical know-how but without the power of industry and commerce. We are dealing with the most populous nation in the world, one that is now comparable to European nations in its technical sophistication, in its commercial success, and in its ability to extend influence to far-flung regions of the earth - even to space.

The neocon myth of the “end of history” or ” American Empire” is not just proven wrong with this shot. It is proven not just dangerously wrong. It is proven pathologically delusional. China has the same needs for raw materials and energy as European and North American countries. And in the near future it will be on a much larger scale. China has the capacities to form relationships to gain these by peaceful means. And China is asserting the capacity to gain these same materials by other means, should the need arise. If America persists in failing to take China seriously on all of these counts, the only rational behavior for China would be to increase efforts to be taken seriously. And if resource shortages threaten both Chinese and Western commercial interests, there is no doubt that the West will underestimate Chinese military capacities. Probably, the Chinese will be tempted to overestimate their own. And that has all then necessary conditions of a very ugly resource war.

All that is avoidable if American administrations only quit playing the bad neighbor game and started, instead, to talk with other interested parties, treating them with respect. No hope of that happening with the current crowd in control in Washington. Let’s hope we don’t learn the harm of it the hard way.

Creativity and Habits of Mind

Posted in Uncategorized, Philosophy &c at 5:28 pm by steve

The beauty of the creative act is that it moves us from thinking about or experiencing the world in one way to thinking about it or experiencing it in another way. Some creative acts are clearly evolutionary in nature. Mozart’s work, for all it sparkling brilliance, was not far removed from Mendelsohn’s. The fundamental expressive languages they use are quite similar. One might argue that Beethoven’s work moves music much farther than either of these two men. Consider Stravinsky. His work was so revolutionary that at least one drew rage and missile fire from the audience. Stravinsky’s work was revolutionary; it was a creative tour de force. There was nothing like it before. And there is a sense in which it was the final successful expression of classical music.

I have not researched Stravinsky and I have not become acquainted either with his working habits or with his frame of mind. I heard once that his music succeeded because he painstakingly practiced to develop a unique and hauntingly beautiful new sonic language. And that this practice was something subsequent workers have sometimes done less rigorously. I don’t have any idea if it is true, but it is sensible. I find it to be a powerful metaphor. Great art is almost always highly idiomatic. Each artist develops a kind of language within his medium, one that is both uniquely his own and expressive of something universally held.

The fundamental thing about language - whether it is a musical language or a spoken one - is that it has a set of rules, a syntax. And that syntax “makes sense” to a person who “gets inside” it. But the syntax sounds strange or foreign before this happens. People who like things to be familiar and comfortable tend to reject these new languages. People who have adventuresome tastes will sometimes give them a try - they will suspend disbelief - until they have made a decision about the new language.

One sometimes experiences a mystical sense when one is presented with a new language. One finds elements and relationships that have regularity but whose specifics are different from what one is used to. One must invent a new way of parsing the language. And that process will sometimes produce as sense of pleasure.

I happen to be a Beatles fan. The Beatles, it can be argued, were two distinct music groups. The early Beatles were straight-ahead simplistic rock and roll. Any two of their songs sound similar. I am not an early Beatles fan. But something happened round about the time of Rubber Soul. They started pushing their musical expression into new areas. Revolver, Yellow Submarine, Sergeant Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, White Album, and Abbey Road all give expressions to sounds that are new to the Beatles. And a friend who has taken an introductory music theory course tells me that a number of the chords and chordal progressions in the works on these albums is quite unusual. In short, the Beatles invented a new musical idiom.

There were a few groups that took Beatles’ innovation engine and kept going with it after the Beatles broke up. Yes might be an example. But the level of abstraction eventually overbalanced the comfort factor. And before long the creative edge of rock soon had to find expression in newer and simpler idioms such as punk.

So what does all of this have to do with the Francis Crick, Nobel Laureate credited with the discovery of the double helix as the spacial form of DNA? Firstly, the double helix idea was a great leap of imagination. It was a creative idea with few parallels. In all of chemistry, only von Stradonitz’ conception of the benzene ring comes close to being its equal - inspired by a ring of six snakes he encountered in a dream. Crick, then, deserves lots of credit for being bright and creative in his conception of DNA.

Crick had some help. Yes, he had Watson. And surely Watson was of much help. And he worked with a brillaint woman whose painstaking crystallographic work was completely necessary to proving his theory, Rosalind Franklin. Some workers have argued, in fact, that she deserves more credit than Crick, that she was at least as deserving of Nobel Prize recognition as Watson. Perhaps it is true. But Crick gets the credit for the idea. According to the story link above, the edge of Crick’s creative genius sharpened by miniscule doses of the then new hallucinogen LSD.

Descriptions of experiences with LSD suggest that the chemical interferes with the processes by which we assign things to categories. So if one looks at visual information, it “swims.” The brain keeps reinterpreting it in different ways, making “sense” of it in ways that, mostly, do not make sense. And new each interpretation changes our perception of the same visual scene. By this means, a perfectly static scene changes before our eyes. It swims. The chemical may interfere with any of the set ways we have of interpreting the world.

The effect of LSD is to cause the mind violate categorical bounds, to randomly take perception and experience where they do not normally go. When it comes to executing the normal drudge tasks that make up our daily lives, this kind of mental activity is almost uniformly destructive because we misinterpret what ought to be fairly robust perceptions about the physical world, relationships of space and time. It is especially dangerous when dealing with power tools or wild animals. And I have heard it told that in polite society, when a person is to embark on a chemically enhanced journey, sober friends offer to come along to help manage interactions with the real world that might otherwise become problemmatic.

Voyages that depart from the known are fraught with unseen dangers. Yet to the nations that explored the unknown new world of the Americas, those voyages eventually proved powerfully transformative in material and spiritual ways.

Similarly, when it comes to creating new ways of looking at or experiencing the world, the hallucinogenic experience may actually prove to be of some help. Crick, evidently, found it to be so. And in this his experience runs parallel to that of the Beatles. For it was not until their own experiments with the same mind-altering chemical that they produced the truly creative stuff of their second incarnation.

When one looks at the Beatles’ movie Yellow Submarine, in fact, it is like stepping into a hallucination. There are people who find that movie unbearable without some chemical help, I have been told. Yet it is clever, engaging movie. It places us in an interesting world and very convincingly distracts us from pretty much all that the world we normally inhabit is and all the problems it presents. It is simultaneously a creative product and a creative force.

There have recently been workers who have suggested that one of the most hopeful treatments for certain opiate addictions is a different hallucinogenic drug derived from a particular mushroom. Evidently, when used in a particular regimen, it manages to “rewire” the part of the brain that accounts for the craving for narcotic. It breaks down a sort of hard-wired bad habit. Interesting.

We do not intend this piece to be a discussion of the merits and hazards of a particular chemical or class of chemicals. That is a separate debate. We intend it, rather, to show that the creative act is closely allied with a giving up of certain mental habits. And that it is frequently by giving up mental habits that useful progress in science and the arts is realized. Sometimes this “giving up” comes as we sleep and we dream. Sometimes it comes when we “give up” and work on some other problem. Or when we play. Sometimes it comes when we channel our thinking in different ways and try to practice new habits. And sometimes it comes with the aid of certain chemical substances.

Man as a social animal is indistinguishable from the ant as social animal so long as one is considering his physical endeavors alone. It is our physical endeavors that provide us vital food and shelter. But it is our mental endeavors that make us human, that bring us inner vitality, meaning. It is our creative capacities that make us interesting, fun, truly human. Without our abilities to create we would be mere machines; ants on a larger scale. Dreaming, creating, seeing the world in new ways - these are the acts that define who we are. But sometimes they require us to leave behind habits of the mind that prove unhelpful.

CPE Bach was probably the most musically successful of JC Bach’s sixteen children. His music was written in “the new style.” And for some time he eclipsed his father. The young crowd eschewed the works of “old Bach.” JC fell into obscurity. And it was not until his work was re-introduced some time later by Mendelsohn that he was widely listened to across Europe. This proves that sometimes we choose new primarily for the reason that it is new, not knowing how durable it will be. CPE Bach’s work still commands some listening time, but today it is a tiny fraction of that of his father’s work. Stravinsky is still listened to, and usually without the sailing fruits and vegetables. His sound still sounds fresh. So, to does the music of the Beatles, when it has not had the life Muzak’d out of it. There exist Rock Critics who insist that only old Beatles is real rock and roll, and that what Beatles in their second incarnation produced does not deserve to share the stage with Elvis or the Cars. Perhaps I can agree with them, but it would prove me to be not much of a fan of the classic genre.

Some creative work is durable. Other creative work amounts to a flash in the pan. Sometimes, when a work is new we can tell the difference. Often we fail to do so correctly. But even if our immediate judgments are wrong, creative work both defines who we are and makes us who we are to become. It is necessary to being human. Sometimes when one builds anew, one chooses a new site. Othertimes one must tear down the old and dysfunctional remnants of past failures and build anew on the same ground. The problem in building a creative, functional, durable, happy society is knowing when to do which.

Early Notes on Game Theory

Posted in Philosophy &c, Book Reviews - Non-Fiction at 3:54 am by steve

Meyerson’s Game Theory arrived late last year and I have just now gotten to page 10. At page 10 we are presented with substitution laws written in terse and exact mathematical language. I will try to describe the notion I find in the four substitution laws on the bottom of page 10. Suppose I prefer a to b. They assert that if I have z, I will prefer a and z to b and z. This is a lovely mathematical argument. But it is categorically silly. Let us suppose a is cheese and b is jelly. I actually prefer cheese to jelly. Served alone, I will not hesitate to eat cheese. Not so with jelly. Now, suppose z is toast with peanut butter. The substitution idea suggests that, given my choice of cheese over jelly, I must choose cheese when presented with toast and peanut butter. But it ain’t so.

Game theory, at least at its development on page 10 neglects the notion that some goods or events have synergistic qualities and some have redundant qualities. Well balanced meals and portfolios alike eschew certain redundancies and work for synergistic qualities. I have always found choice theory confusing - it has always asserted things I thought had no connection with reality. I am sure there are compelling computational reasons for this approach. And I imagine that if the problem were abstracted in some different way these objections could be overcome. That is, one might be able to discover abstract variables based on the qualities goods deliver to us that really do behave as expected. But the behavior postulated is not categorically true for all material goods.

At page twenty three we run into a nice little problem that illustrates something like the argument I made above. It succeeds by confusing expected value with utility. The example neglects to distinguish between the expected value of a bet and its utility.

It implicitly suggests that ten apples have ten times the utility as one apple. But in my own experience, whether this is true depends on the situation. If I am equipped with the means to transport and store ten apples this might sometimes be the case. If, however, I am eating lunch, one apple is generally more than enough. Ten is no better than one. Therefore the situation in which I have one chance in ten of getting ten apples has no definable preference relationship to a sure bet of getting one apple, not unless I happen to be in a small group of ten people who all make the same bet, agreeing to share the apples. And even in that case it depends on the nature of the game. Is one person in ten to win? Or will there be ten independent trials, each with a one in ten probability?

So now I realize why I never amounted to anything. I find an argument that supports my own reasoning but I reject it because it has a different set of flaws altogether.

Well, despite these two little problems, I like the way the book reads, I like the way it is structured, and I like the choices of problems. I look forward to learning more about Game Theory. I appreciate the author’s awareness of many of the pitfalls and shortcomings of the methods he describes and advocates.

The Toxic ‘Burbs

Posted in Culture at 2:49 am by steve

In the ninteen sixties we realized that the air that cities produce is toxic. And America spent billions ot clean up the air. Now researchers wonder out loud whether there is something else about city life that is toxic.

Dan Harder in Science News (Jan 20 2007, p43) writes about a number of studies that show a corellation between urban sprawl and the battle of the bulge. Several studies show that people who live in sprawling suburbia tend to get out of shape and grow obese more than people who live in other situations.

The article starts with an observation by Lawrence Frank, an urban planner and resident of Vancouver, British Columbia. He observes that in that city, there are many neighborhoods in which residential and commercial functions are within close walking distance of each other. But in Atlanta, another place he has spent time, one must always get into the car to go from home to any place of business. He worries that bad urban architecture discourages normal levels of physical activity.

I happen to agree with Frank on the idea of accessability. I agree that in the best places to live, one can walk to cafes, shops, restaurants, parks, and other kinds of attractions. And I would like to see all of North America developed in a way that would make this possible. As does Frank, I personally find the strip mall depressing.

Frank’s team found that “a typical white male living in a compact, mixed-use community wieghes about ten pounds less, [on average,] than a similar man in a diffuse subdivision containing nothing but homes.” This corellation he uses to argue that bad architecture is physically unhealthy. There are times when I wish he were right. But careful work suggests he may be confusing corellation with causation.

Toronto Economist Matthew Turner insists that people like Frank have been using studies that corellate obesity and urban sprawl wrongly. He argues, instead, that people who tend to be obese are ones who tend to be less comfortable with physical exertion. And therefore they are the ones who live in residential subdivisions. His own studies collected data over 6 years from 5000 young adults and compared weights of people as they switched from community to community. In this case, the same body occupied different ecological niches. And in this case, the average difference was zero.

It is possible that six years is not long enough to detect the potentially profound effects of a sedentary life. Perhaps thirty would be better. There are also methological issues that were raised in his work. Still, his work does suggest that the corellation between sprawl and obesity may have a causal effect more due to selection than it has to do with transformation. Sedentary people self-select for single-use urban architecture.

The conclusion of Turner’s work is that physically active people thrive in mixed use communities, and people who are sedentary by nature tend to select residential communities. Maybe everyone is getting what they want. And maybe building fewer cities like Atlanta and more like British Columbia will not succeed in helping people to be more fit. That is what the well done science suggests.

And I believe it. But that does not mean we need to settle for a world of residential subdivisions and strip malls. Some of the most pleasant times I have spent have been spent walking along scenic streets in the still of the morning or near dusk, smelling the smells of food cooking in restaurants, and seeing people interact in public places. There is a charm to a good neighborhood that no residential subdivision can touch.

My own personal experience has been that when I incorporate forty minutes of walking into my day, everything about my life improves. But that only happens when I live in a neighborhood that has the right characteristics. And such neighborhoods are very difficult to find. At least now I know to look in Vancouver before I look in Atlanta.

Briefly Noted

Posted in Social at 2:12 am by steve

Here are a few articles worthy of note:

01.30.07

In the Absence of Market Failure

Posted in Social at 6:54 pm by steve

Government interference is generally not warranted except “in the absence of market failures.” according to a primer written by Ms Susan Dudley while she served at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and quoted in the NYT. She is now the President’s nominee to run the office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the Office of Management and Budget. So why would the nomination of an undersecretary make for a story? It wouldn’t.

Except that her reasoning is quoted within President Bush’s recent executive order mandating that all agencies be headed by political appointees. The rationale being given is that political appointees will be respectful of Susan Dudley’s idea and their regulational output will be minimized. This will ultimately make things easier for businesses.

I, for one, imagine that it would be convenient to make life easier for businesses. I imagine that it would be good to have a kind of government “storefront” staffed with people who understand precisely which regulational hoops businesses must jump through. These staffers would have the mandate to help them do just that. This is a real need. Democrats reject the idea because it acknowledges a problem Republicans complain about. Republicans reject the idea because the reason they complain about the problem is that they want the regulations to go away. The stated solution would remove most of the legitimate reasons for complaint.

But that is not what Bush is doing. Not even close. I think one may reasonably ask what replacing experts in a field of endeavor with political apparatchiks has to do with making things easier for businesses. The two have nothing to do with each other. Unless one were to imagine that one is the medicine and the other the “sugar that makes the medicine go down.”

There is little doubt in my own mind that Bush is intent on “governing less.” That is, when he finds laws whose provisions he finds inconvenient to his own world view, he sets out to do what can be done to subvert those laws. In the case of environmental policy, his political appointees redefined what scientists had called pollutants. And he redefined dangerous levels of many pollutants, upwards, to levels unprecedented in scientifically informed civilized societies. His rationale in these cases was not scientific. It was political.

Then there is the raging controversy about global warming. The administration has persistently tried to use political means to bludgeon scientists into denying the truth about the phenomenon. This is an old and raging controversy and it goes to the heart of why scientific agencies need to be apolitical.

So we might reasonably ask, “If Bush gutted environmental law for political gain, why would he not do precisely the same with all other aspects of governmental work?” If it is politically convenient to define AIDS as a “sinner’s disease” then why not have the political appointee at NIH declare it so? And maybe prevent health insurance companies from covering treatment. If it is politically convenient to define global warming as a scientific mistake or as a result of some factor outside man’s control, why not have a political appointee force governmental agencies such as NOAA and NASA to parrot that nonsense?

A necessary practice in faith-based governance is to systematically remove the empirical evidence that clearly disproves the various tenets of the faith. In the case of agencies whose output is empirical - science or business data - we have reason for concern. What possible reason would there be not to exert political influence over the output? First, the methods of data collection are made biased. Then the numbers are tweeked for political purposes. Then, at some point, agencies that once had a reputation for producing helpful data are producing unbelievable works of fiction. The data businesses and politicians use to make good decisions becomes worthless. And what happens? Businesses and politicians make bad decisions.

With this single executive order, Bush manages to exert direct political control over governmental agencies that heretofore were decidedly apolitical. He puts in place an apparatus by which political power trumps scientific truth and executive privilege trumps social goods. He transforms the autonomous function of agencies whose societal good depends on objectivity and apolitical advice into a political support device. As Echidne of the Snakes put it, this “reminds me of totalitarian countries of the past.”

Agencies such as NOAA, NASA, and NIH serve specific societal needs. These are but three of a huge number of agencies whose missions would be politicized by this move. When their missions are politicized, they serve these needs with one hand tied behind their backs. Or with their heads in the sand. Or both. Once science is politicized it is the end of government sponsored science.

Most governmental agencies that remain apolitical do a solid job of carrying out their mandates. Those that have been politicized have failed. Politicization guarantees the failure of every governmental agency to deliver on its mandate in a clear, objective, apolitical way.

We have been talking mostly about scientific and technical agencies, but many agencies in question deal with the way businesses serve the public good. They exist because the Legislature passed bodies of law that made their function necessary. The legislature identified “market failures.” And their mandate under law is to address those.

Markets fail all the time. People behave unfairly and inconsiderately in business just as they do in personal affairs. In fact, the competitive world of business prompts at least as much bad behavior as does the private sphere. And this behavior leaves messes that society has to clean up. Business regulations are all aimed at minimizing these messes. The existence of the agency itself presumes a “market failure” In the absence of a market failure the agency itself would not exist. So Bush’s mandate is redundant. Or it is code for something else.

Putting people in charge of executive functions who do not understand the function and who cling with a kind of religious zeal to the notion that it “doesn’t matter what the regulation is, it ought not exist” is precisely like sending the fox to guard the chickens. The only party who benefits from such an arrangement is the fox.

In light of its many other acts that would suggest it so, we imagine this administration intends to insert political functionaries whose role as political operatives is not to serve the executive function as mandated by the Constitution, but to subvert it. If we have an Attorney General who asserts before the Judiciary Committee that habeus corpus does not apply to everyone, what possible reason would we have to imagine that any of the President’s political appointees will be interested in actually enforcing law in a fair and uniform manner? Especially when their public rhetoric suggests they don’t believe in government regulation in the first place.

When the NYT tried to get her opinion on her new boss’s initiative “She did not return calls seeking comment.” I wonder why not?

01.29.07

A Nightmare and a Dream

Posted in Philosophy &c at 7:15 pm by steve

What is to be learned from a nightmare? Perhaps they tell us what we fear. If this is so, what ought one make of this nightmare?

I am in a classroom, a huge lecture hall. It is brightly lit, and it is filled with students, not hundreds, more like one or two thousand students. The students are all talking to each other energetically. It is normal conversation, but it is pervasive. They are making arrangements to study together. They are talking about sports. They are doing social things. Really, I have no idea what they are talking about. Except that none of it seems to deal with any subject matter.

At some point a person comes in and scrawls something incomprehensible on the board. It is not graffiti. But it has no connection to any conceivable course of study. The person and his writing is ignored. The words, if they are words, make no sense in any imaginable context. The students linger in this state of disorder for some time. Then, the crowd begins to disperse.

I realize that this class meeting is over. I don’t know who the professor is. I don’t know when the class meets again. I don’t know what the texts are. I don’t know what the cirriculum is, so I would have no hope of discovering the texts or boning up on subject matter. I don’t know anyone in the class. I imagine I am registered for the course. I imagine there will be tests I imagine I will fail. I presume that professor, text, syllabus, meeting time, all this stuff is vital to my own success in this course. And I don’t understand why other students would not think so, too. Yet all of them seem completely undisturbed by this class meeting. It is as if this is precisely like all the classes they have ever been in. It is as if this ought to be the way the classes work.

At one level this is just another “fear of failure” sort of dream. I am in a situation and there is no hope, no chance of success. This point of view may be helpful to me, but I know it will be unhelpful to the two or three people who sometimes read my pieces.

At another level, this dream is about fear of a total absence of leadership in authority positions. I write here quite frequently about how the last time government had a tendency to engage with real world problems was during the Carter administration. And that the press interpreted Carter’s election loss as a sign that the American people wanted the government to stop dealing with problems that affected their lives. So it did.

My own sense is that when it comes to many of the really big problems that threaten the futures of ordinary Americans, government simply doesn’t show up. Why? because the issues are threatening, painful. A candidate loses votes by talking about problems before they have become life-threatening crises. Boosterism, however, always sells. Rallying people together is a vital part of good governance, but not to the exclusion of talking about pressing issues.

There is a dark side to this dream as a metaphor for government. It suggests that I am looking for some authority figure to show up and give me the answers to the questions on the examination. I see the instructor as being a kind of instrument of my success. And I see the the instructor as a kind of ultimate authority figure. If I believed that the model of education we have in the US were perfect, and that educators ought to be little dictators of their own tiny domains, this would be a very disturbing interpretation of the dream. But I don’t.

When I think about government, that is precisely the opposite of what I want. I want my government authorities to engage with me and to bring me along. I also want them to listen to me. I do not want them telling me how it is going to be; rather, I want them to be asking me the right questions. If I provide the answers they expect, policy develops as they imagined it; but if my answers are both sufficiently persuasive and suggestive of a better policy, it develops differently. Policy develops like a well run conversation, where people with different backgrounds, aptitudes, capacities, and perspectives, lead the discussion to a conclusion that could not have been reached by any single person involved.

Or it can be compared to the relationship between a horse, a carriage, and its driver. Government is the horse. It pulls the carriage. But the driver directs the horse over the course of the ride. This is the proper metaphor for democracy, but if the carriage is not to spend most of its time mired in a ditch, it requires both a sober, knowledgable driver and a well-trained horse.

At a third level, I think it is possible that the fear is about education itself. Education fails in two ways. In one way it fails to deliver what it is rightly designed to do. In another way it fails by lack of proper design.

It’s a big ball of yarn, so let’s start with the evaluation process. The evaluation process ought to play several critical roles. It is responsible for sorting students according to their strengths and weaknesses. It is responsible for motivating students to study and learn. And it is necessary to assess the effectiveness of the learning process itself.

The current structure of quizzes and tests with close temporal connection to the act of study does promote some kind of diligence. Yet it does so at the expense of deeper learning. As importance as diligence is in society, there are other means of teaching it; and education is too precious to make this the singular end of the training. We need to learn assessment methods that promote deeper learning and learning that lasts beyond the next test or quiz. We have to put an end to the question of “is this going to be on the final?” Not just the question itself, but the thinking from which it arises. It ought to be an unthinkable question.

As a student, I moved from a British system to an American one. In the British system one did get report cards six times a year, but they were qualitative, not quantitative. They told one more about how one could do better and less about how good or bad one really was. And at the end of the day, that process is more consistent with all the noble goals of education than is a grade.

There was one week of testing at the end of the year. And this week of testing established what a person had learned. It was a hellish week, even for a second-grader. But it is impossible to cram for a year’s worth of studies. Tests measured less what was thrown at the wall than what was incorporated into it. As a student in America, I liked never having to remember more than six week’s worth of material. But I think such a system tempted students to learn to forget.

I believe one might find a deep psychological connection between our educational forgetfulness and our political neglectfulness. They arise from a general flaw in the American psyche that has been widely expressed at least since the days Tocqueville studied America for his landmark book Democracy in America. Ironically, while America was founded by philosopher kings, philosophy in all things has ever since been eschewed as a conceit of kings. We don’t think deeply. All of our knowledge is empirical, none of it deeply reasoned. Einstein, the inventor of both relativity and quantum physics could not have been born and educated an American; he would have been too shallow. Philosophy strives to get to the roots of things.

Philosophy might be useless at establishing what is true. Yet its study inculcates a habit of asking questions, of probing deeply, of getting at underlying assumptions, of rooting out fallacies, and so on. This practice lies at the center of the practice of good government. And because education was originally designed to promote good government, it ought to be at the center of good education. The practice of philosophy goes by asking questions. And it succeeds by asking good questions, questions that force people to make meaningful distinctions and discard meaningless notions.

We imagine that once, long ago, the British school system that gave rise to an empire that spanned the globe was driven by this sort of philosophical inquiry. Even at grade school levels. My own experience was that classroom questioning, direct inquiry, was more prominent in a colonial backwater than it was in America. Americans, by contrast, have practiced school as vocational training. Exclusively. Now, this is rational behavior for individual students. But the interest of the school is subtly different from the interest of the student. Schools are about building communities. Part of the charter is to make students productive within those communities; but part of the charter is to make those communities cohesive and cooperative so they have a chance of functioning. We need to be more than good, diligent reading machines. We need to think. We need to get along with each other.

The student tends to assume that his only obligation at school is to do well academically And all of the incentives are rigged for that. For all but a few percent of the brightest students at school, however, the singular purpose of school is to build a durable and cooperative society. In either case it is imperative that students learn to read and write competently. But that is not the end to which education is disposed. It is disposed to the end of giving people the tools by which they exercise good citizenship. Reading, in and of itself, is not enough. Arithmetic, in and of itself is not enough. Otherwise, school would stop at sixth grade.

Schools teach geography, algebra, geometry, history, literature, composition and rhetoric, biology, chemistry, physics, and more because all of these studies develop our capacities for critical thinking in helpful ways. Or they could do so if they were taught in a way that would do this. Sometimes it happens.

In one of my graduate school courses in operations research I had a professor who gave essay examinations without any calculations. It was the only time I had this experience in a life of studying technical things. I am not sure this professor was a very good teacher. Nor over the course of the semester did he engage the class by asking questions to see what people learned, how they thought. But I give him much credit for forcing technical people to express what they knew about the topic at hand in common language.

That process of casting understanding gained in one language, a mathematical one, into another language, a common one, forces a person to abstract an idea outside of its expression in a single language. And it is at that point that the idea begins to stop being “words” and start being something else. That is the true practice of philosophy. That is the true goal of education.

So that is my nightmare. It is of a world in which all of our institutions are so dysfunctional that it is as if they were not there at all: education, government, and all the private institutions as well - banking, manufacturing, health care, and so on. This is not factually the case; not quite, anyway. But it makes for good stuff to worry about.

My first reaction to those students in the dream was quite negative because none seemed to realize how broken everything was. And it is impossible for me to completely escape that sense. But there is some hope. The students, in talking to each other were forming communities. And it is from well-formed communities that institutions great and small spring. Talking and listening. All our institutions may fail us; but if we can learn to talk and listen well we have hope of revitalizing failed institutions. Talking and listening is the fundamental cohesive act of all community. It builds society. It is what binds us to each other.

There comes a point in every adult life when what we learn comes from exchanging ideas as peers, not from getting them like commandments on slabs of stone from some high authority.

Socrates himself proceeded by talking and listening; by asking good questions, by being part of a vital, thoughtful community. There were no lectures. There was no syllabus, there was no professor, there were no textbooks. Yet the men who inherited from Socrates: Plato and Aristotle, still hold more sway over what we believe and how we think in the west than any philosopher America is likely to produce in all time. Even the founding fathers aped Montesquieu. And Montesquieu followed in Plato and the Latin historians who knew his work.

The model of talking and listening carefully and respectfully, that is how we are to solve our problems. If we are to learn anything from school, that might be the most helpful It’s not the subject of any course. Nor is it modelled well by most teaching practices in America.

In the end, we need most to learn how to learn from each other. We need to learn how to spot good and knowledgeable authorities and how to reject the advice of fools, demagogues, pathological narcissists, and sociopaths, opportunists, frauds, gamers, manipulators, and people with destructive hidden agendas. We need to rig societal incentives to reward good and constructive behavior at all levels, not just material ones.

We need to learn to listen both openly and critically. And to ask good clarifying questions. We need to question assumptions. We need to get solid evidence. All of these practices will promote trustworthy communication. This will extend any hope we might have of good dialogue filtering up from the lowest levels of society to the highest ones.

If we learn the art of good dialogue, we might find hope of transforming this nightmare into a dream.

01.28.07

The Costco Effect

Posted in Culture at 6:56 pm by steve

What can we learn about relationship management from a discounter?

Under what conditions would a consumer enter a store planning to buy toilet paper, and end up charging $1500 on their AMEX card? The idea is inconceivable. Yet it happens quite regularly at Costco, according to a story in today’s Sunday Money section of the NYT. $1500 would buy a lot of toilet paper, a whole truckload. And while Costco is a wholesale club and its transactional quantities are large, owning a house with a loading dock and a forklift are not requirements of membership. Rather, one might spend twenty dollars or so on toilet paper, a tub of salsa for five or six dollars. Then spend the balance on a plasma television. So suggests an article in the Sunday NYT.

What accounts for this idiosyncratic behavior?

Costco is decidedly not the place to go if one has done painstaking research and has one’s heart set on a particular model in a particular color with a particular set of features. Need a Kitchen Aid Artisan Mixer in Empire Red? Sorry. You can have them in any color you like so long as that’s white. If one’s tastes are too carefully refined, if one’s expectations are too narrowly set, shopping at Costco can be a perfunctory affair. Or an exercise in futility. The store only stocks 4000 SKU’s at a time. Most of them are not “exactly the thing.” But all come mighty close.

For over a decade, when I heard the Costco faithful whisper to each other in tones of awe and tenderness about their latest Costco purchases, I discounted the stories. I saw Costco as a kind of temple to rampant consumerism. And I imagined that the faithful were just a little too caught up in the American game of acquiring stuff. I sometimes still hear the excited whispers. And I sometimes still think the same thing. But now I am one of the faithful. And when I point the finger, one end points back at me.

My family’s own Costco association started with a white chest, a cooler. We had borrowed one from a neighbor for an annual fete. And we discovered that the item in question came from Costco. So we went on line and found places where it was on sale. We checked the price at Costco. And we discovered that the difference in price would pay for a year’s membership.

It did not take many trips to discover that something special was going on. Costco violated the economic principle of “price as a proxy for quality.” They stocked brand names and SKU’s with the best reputations and reviews. And they did it at prices that were almost always a third less than the items could be bought at retail. Sometimes they were half off. Sometimes more than that.

We started by buying things we knew and trusted, like double packages of Heinz Ketchup or Grey Poupon Mustard. It was not long before we were buying sixpacks of bell peppers, or ten pound bags sacks of Yukon Gold potatoes. The gallon jars of mayonnaise, however, we eschew because it does not stay fresh after opening.

Early on we discovered that we could get good prices on HP ink cartriges. Not much later we were charmed that the paperback book section carried “trade” books with high quality bindings and writing to match. We got hooked on the flame cooked chickens for just less than five dollars. And we grew to depend on the boxes of three dollar pizzas, the four pound packages of butter, the cases of V8 and spring water. We were surprised to find that their house brand, Kirkland, was frequently both better in quality than the best commercially available brand of the same description, and less expensive. Even at Costco. A famous consumer magazine, for instance, rates Kirkland laundry detergent more highly than a famous national brand that took that spot for many years.

After some time we joined the crowd. We have yet to purchase a plasma screen TV; but when we were picking up new eyeglasses the other day we did look at one rather fondly. Our impulse purchase that evenng was a fistful of DVD’s to watch while we use the running machine that we ordered online from Costco a month ago.

Why is it, we asked ourselves, that we do this? Why do we buy things from Costco? Why is it that we go into the store for toilet paper and while we are there we pick up a tub of salsa and a plasma television - metaphorically speaking?

The answer is as old as selling. Costco removes all barriers to buying. When one has decided that one has a physical need that can be met by some food or manufactured good, what is it that keeps a person from buying at a given point of purchase? Fear. The biggest fears are:

  • The item is inferior in quality
  • The item can be purchased somewhere else for less
  • The item will not meet the need one assumes it will meet.

Costco succeeds in completely removing these fears. The items they stock are either the best of type or they are materially similar to the best of type. If they can be purchased at other wholesale clubs for less, the amount less is not material. Costco marks up every item 15%. So going into the store, one expects that every single item will be either a good bargain or the best bargain possible. Sure, some stores sell the occasional item at a “loss” but often there is a hidden reason that explains why. And that hidden reason makes the apparent discounted price no longer a bargain. At Costco this does not happen. There is no reason for a busy person to look elsewhere. And if a purchase is not satisfactory, things are easily remedied. A coffee grinder that broke was returned, and the refund was in hand before the end of the sentence explaining the problem.

Remember that old Roman saying “buyer beware?” Costco’s revolution is to make that saying not just irellevant to its customers, but anathema to its way of doing business. Even the priests who minister in this temple of consumerism display both an uncanny energy in their pursuits and a rather stunning concern for the well being of their customers. Except for the price stickers that never seem to be correctly attached to the Jarlsberg cheese and a frequent problem with freshness of “fresh’ button mushrooms, almost everything works. And if it does not work during one visit; it is not long before it starts working. One day we found there to be a paucity of shopping carts. A week later there were twice as many. Problem fixed. And these are sturdy, expensive carts.

The biggest problem is the “by the pallet” syndrome. Huge amounts do not always work for perishable items. As the old joke goes: a sharp fellow comes home all excited and he tells his wife “Guess what, honey, I just bought a Lexus, at an unbelievable price.” She replies “That’s great dear; but how many did you have to buy?”

The joke is so completely believable, because Costco has been quite successful moving high ticket items, things that, in the absence of this store’s unique merchandising process would otherwise never share the same mental concept space, like toilet paper and plasma TV’s.

Costco has been successful by systematically building a high level of trust with its customers. And this high level of trust allows busy people the space to buy big ticket items without shopping around. Therein lies its success. Shoppers show up for the potatoes and peppers, but they leave with plasma TVs and exercise machines.

Sure, Costco is well run. It selects good products. It operates in a highly efficient way - else 15% markup would not be enough to guarantee a profit. But it has succeeded not just on the basis of being efficient in the Wal-Mart mode. It has succeeded by actively helping busy people make good choices about a wide range of material goods that span virtually all the needs of healthy people. It has succeeded by building trust. It is a model of American enterprise. It succeeds by employing noble principles. That, I find, is a hopeful sign.

( In the interest of full disclosure, I am a Costco stockholder. It is possible that this has colored my opinion. If the share price doubles as a result of this article I will be able to afford one of those plasma TV’s and some salsa. )

01.26.07

Aid and Comfort

Posted in Social at 7:44 pm by steve

Treason Defined

Article III Section 3 of the US Constitution establishes a definition of treason. But it does not take a very careful reader to see that it does so in a very curious and special way. It establishes it in a sort of grudging way. As if a proper country must be able to properly defend itself against open violence committed against it by another proper country, and as if this were a rather rare and special idea.

Section 3. Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.

Sketchy Background

When it came to succession to the throne, England had a long, bloody history. Henry VIII’s strange obsession with bearing a male heir may be the best known example of a reaction to this problem. A very common ritual in these succession wars and manipulations was the custom of charging political enemies or threatening rivals with treason, not because the act referred to in the charge amounted to a threat against the state of England per se, but because the person’s freedom in society represented a threat to the current political order. And because treason was a convenient tool that would either separate a person and his heirs from their real property in perpetuity, or separate a person from his own head for the same period of time.

Terms of Art

Framers of the Constitution were painfully aware of this tradition. And they believed that it was a means of quashing legitimate dissent, dissent that they deemed vital to a well run democratic system. The language defining treason comes in two clauses. In the first clause it is “levying war against them.” War, here, being an act of one state against another.

The language anticipates that from time to time one country will be engaged in an acute military struggle with another. It anticipates that such a struggle is officially declared war by Congress. We imagine that the framers expected such a conflict would be resolved quickly as were most declared wars in English history. And that they expected that when each war was concluded, strife would cease, and agreements would be signed. And nations that once were enemies would no longer be so. The conditions that might make the act of treason possible under the Constitution would be temporary, fleeting. They would not tempt leaders to use a perpetual war or the fact of perpetual, if imagined, enemies as an excuse to create treason in political opponents where none could otherwise be found. Because of treason’s clouded background, the framers wanted to limit it to the cases that presented clear and imminent dangers to the the existence of the state; not hypothetical, distant ones.

The terms “war” and “enemy” were special terms of art in the Constituton. They had special meanings, not normal conversational ones. War was declared. Enemy was the object of the declaration. It was a nation, not any other entity.

With this in mind, we get to the second clause “or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid or comfort.” The definition of enemy is again a term of art. Again, it is a nation upon which the Congress of the United States of America has officially declared war.

The real issue is the relationship between phrases “aid and comfort” and “adhere to enemies.” There are lots of ways to parse the relationship between the two phrases. But it seems reasonable to depend upon the occurrance of the term “only” as a hint. If one does this, then “giving them aid or comfort” is a kind of explanation or a kind of condition that must be met in order for one to be considered “adhering to their enemies.” In this interpretation, the two phrases must go together as in “adhering to the enemy and giving them aid and comfort.”

There is an instance of popular current usage that suggests a group of people find it convenient to their purposes to imagine that the two phrases were connected by the word “OR” suggesting that either adhering to the enemy or giving aid or comfort were treasonable offenses. Actually, everyone in this case appears to simply dismiss the first phrase as inscruitable or irrellevant. As a practical matter, it is difficult to know what is meant by “adhering to their enemies.” Simple consortation is never sufficient. It would not be treason for the American Ambassador to eat at the Royal Table during the Revolution. Or a citizen. No. It would only be treason if he did so and he revealed vital secrets of state that would materially compromise America’s prosecution of the Revolutionary war. That is the stuff of “aid and comfort” in the context of “adhere to the enemy.”

Separating these two phrases would be wrong under any circumstances, but the matter is made worse by the fact that the modern day usage of “comfort” is materially different from that of the writers of the Constitution. This heaps insult upon injury. For an already misconstrued phrase takes on a meaning that is very far afield from the original intent. And this fact deserves some discussion. The first definition to be found in the OED for comfort is “Strengthening, encouraging, inciting, aiding… ” It suggests that comfort in this context refers specifically to “strengthening.” Interestingly, the OED quotes Blackstone in 1769 “if a man be adherent to the king’s enemies giving them aid and compfort… ”

4. “If a man be adherent to the king’s enemies in his realm, giving to them aid and comfort in the realm, or elsewhere,” he is also declared guilty of high treason. This must likewise be proved by some overt act, as by giving them intelligence, by sending them provisions, by selling them arms, by treacherously surrendering a fortress, or the like. By enemies are here understood the subjects of foreign powers with whom we are at open war. …

Blackstone, whom the framers of the Constitution are quoting, demostrates that what the framers meant by aid and comfort was aid that would strengthen and enemy in the prosecution of a declared war against the United States. Aid and comfort refer to material aid. Physical goods that would clearly help and enemy prosecute a war. Or intelligence of the same sort. Or material physical efforts in the prosecution of such a war. Making pleasant talk about the enemy is not treasonous. Nor is critiquing any aspect of a government’s prosecution of war on an enemy.

By contrast, American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd edition gives “to soothe in a time of distress” as a definition of comfort. Usually, one does not soothe in a time of distress by giving material things, except perhaps, a warm beverage or a stiff drink. What civilized person would characterize a nice cup of tea or two fingers of good single malt Scotch treasonous? Comfort, as we use the term is different from the sense used in the Constitution. Our meaning carries a sense of addressing psychological needs, whereas the framers of the constitution were primarily concerned with material needs. Our sense carries a private connotation. The connotation of the term in the Constitition is exclusively public. These two meanings have almost no connection with each other. And it is the wrong meaning that the people in the current event in question have attached to the term.

The severely restrictive language of the treason definition in the Constitution suggests also that “aid and comfort” can only be meaningful if one “adheres” to the enemy. That means joining and supporting their cause. “Aid and comfort” is a term of art as well. And it does not mean “consolation” or “sympathy.” It means providing arms or the the means to get arms; and it means providing specific actionalble, classified information about ongoing military operations in the prosecution of a declared war against an enemy. It means joining with the enemy nation in prosecuting their own military action against the United States in a declared war. This, of course, is my opinion. But once one starts expanding the scope, it is really not a great conceptual distance one must travel before one makes nonsense of the Constitutional language and its intent.

Getting Off the Path

We have argued for an extremely narrow sense of the term treason. We understand that it is more narrow than law or courtroom precedent would likely support. There have been successful prosecutions of people for treason when certain kinds of intelligence were leaked to nations with which the US was not at war. Perhaps the most notorious case involved providing information about nuclear weapon design to the Soviets. More recently, the Valerie Plame incident reminds us that under US law disclosing the name of a CIA operative is an act of treason.

There are compelling reasons to make these acts unlawful. But, it seems to me, that construing them as treasonous is a monumental mistake; for doing so sets the precedent for construing as enemies entities that are not at war with the US. Once one starts down this path who is to define an enemy? Under the Patriot Act, if I understand it correctly, the President has the power to name people as enemies. And the notion of treason being propagated about Washington these days would make it a crime to aid such people. One such act might include representing them in court of law. In fact, law firms are being pressured by the administration not to take certain kinds of cases at the risk of losing valuable corporate clients. Another potential notion of treason might include media criticism of certain arrests. This is all nightmarish stuff. It is stuff that cannot happen in America. And it is happening.

The Counter-Revolution

And that brings us full circle. By interpreting the language of the Constitution in a way that is clearly anathema to the intentions of its framers, the Bush administration and its advocates succeed in creating the very conditions that motivated the founding fathers to fight the Revolutionary war and to write the Constitution. By saying “aid and comfort” as a threat to people who would sanction or criticize presidential action or policy, we return to precisely the way of retaining governmental power and control that the framers of the Constitution were trying to overthow. In fact, if we take Blackstone seriously, there has been no time in Anglophone history when we have veered so closely to using “treason” as a standard charge for “dissent.” By this measure, England under Mad King George lived much closer to the sense of treason held in mind by the framers of the Constitution than we might expect America to do under the tuteledge of his contemporary namesake.

This would be nothing but an esoteric argument were it not true that ranking government officials are actively trying to undermine the restrictive language the Constitution imposes on the idea of treason. For example there is this recent interchange between Senator Lieberman and General Petraeus:

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) asked Army Lt. Gen. David H . Petraeus during his confirmation hearing yesterday if Senate resolutions condemning White House Iraq policy “would give the enemy some comfort.”

Petraeus agreed they would, saying, “That’s correct, sir.”

Lieberman and Petraeus are agreeing on record that an act condemning policy amounts to “aid and comfrort of an enemy.”

This is wrong.

First, there is no enemy. Congress has not declared war on anyone. Nor has anyone declared war on the US. The factions in Iraq may be shooting at Americans or setting off bombs, but they are not “the enemy.” We are, presumably, in Iraq on their behalf. That would make them technically our allies. Or our clients. That they shoot us suggests our own bad taste in allies or clients. Or it suggests we have overstayed our welcome. If the Iraqi’s who are upset at American occupation were the enemy, then virtually all Iraqi’s are the enemy. And who is it that is giving aid and comfort to the enemy? Who is it that it has committed two trillion dollars to bring democracy to Iraq? And why are American weapons so easy to buy in shops around Baghdad?

The term enemy might refer to an assumed organization whose members presumably plan and carry out violent acts. But this is the definition of crime and of a criminal organization. We have spent two trillion dollars, presumably to pursue and destroy this organization. And to date, not a single bona-fide member of the organization has been tried in a court of law. So either there is no person who satisfies the informal definition, or the group is so sophisticated and difficult to catch that there is simply no hope of catching up with them without driving the nation to financial ruin. Either this class of enemy does not exist. Or there exists no hope of catching them. In the first case they cannot be aided and comforted. In the second case, they require none of our help and are unlikely to benefit from any offered.

Second, there exists no declared war. Nor has any government official proven any connection between action in Iraq and and violent acts in queston. There is one press feeding at which President Bush himself says something like “Look, no-one ever claimed that the war in Iraq had anything to do with 9/11.” Iraq is not an enemy. Nor by any normal definition - even Dubya’s - is al-Qaeda. In the absence of an enemy, the “aid and comfort” provision is moot. How does one aid and comfort a non-existent entity?

Third, “aid and comfort” are defined only in the context of “adhering to” an enemy. If Iraq is the enemy, who is giving aid and support to Iraq? Who is adhering to Iraq? If drug lords are the enemy in Afghanistan, who gave them aid and comfort to overthow the Taliban? If Bin Laden was the enemy in Afghanistan, who telephoned ahead and warned him to quit Bora-Bora in advance of the attack? Who gave him aid and comfort in the form of intelligence? If we are going to wield this unwieldly sword, we must soon realize that it is sharpened more keenly on the edge that is not now being used. And that forces in Washinton who are using it now are using it as a bludgeon.

Finally, are Lieberman and Petraeus arguing that anyone in Iraq that is shooting at Americans will behave any differently if the president’s policies are criticized by Congress? Are they asserting that if the president is not criticized the violence will stop? This is not believable. And if it were so, it cannot be deemed relevant. Americans need to be able to discuss public policy in public. Congress has a constitutional obligation to check the powers of the executive. Criticizing executive policy within Congress, checking executive power, these are not vaguely suggestive of treason; they are the purpose of Congress. They are among its sworn duties.. Blackstone insisted on it. The framers of the Constitution insisted.

Except for the likes of Rush Limbaugh, people do not criticize the government for sport or for profit. They normally do it because they sense a shared interest in good public policy. It is for this reason that criticizing the government can never be treasonous. No matter what. American Revolutionaries fought for this principle. If the people who are undermining the Constitution believe that the Revolutionaries were wrong, let them say so. Let them say that democracy is a bad idea; that America should be ruled by a dictator who cannot be criticized. Let us see if America really does want to travel the path they are leading us along one step at a time, once Americans have the full end in sight.

What we are witnessing is a systematic undermining of the sense of the Constitution (see article on Gonzales below). Such a thing is unthinkable. Because it is unthinkable, we imagine that cannot be happening. And so long as we insist on not seeing it, it goes along smoothly. I agree that it is unthinkable. Yet I cannot imagine that it is not happening. It is a steady drum-beat that comes from a rather sizeable group of Washington power brokers and politicians. And if we stuff our ears with cotton because the noise of it bothers us, we heighten the risk that we will wake up one day after their counter-revolution is over, only to discover that criticizing the government will cost us our jobs or our freedom.

If we are to talk about enemies using definitions that are not terms of art, then the enemy I fear most is the politician who holds no respect for the personal freedoms granted by the Constitution. The politician who undermines the spirit and sense of the Constitution by eroding support for the restrictions it places on governmental powers to act against individuals. If we are to define enemies in terms of what they criticize, then the enemies of America - as a sort of shining ideal - must be the governmental officials who use the word “treason” or who use the false definition of that word to limit legitimate discussion of policy. That behavior betrays all that Americans hold dear, all that once distinguished America’s system of government from alternative types of governments. If we fail to see this fact; if we fail to stop the enemies of the Constitution from rendering it meaningless, our grandchildren will visit our graves only to spit on them. And we will have earned the full measure of their contempt.

01.24.07

Webb’s State of the Union Response

Posted in Social at 3:41 pm by steve

Wednesday Worry of the Week

One of the best political speeches I have ever heard comes from Jim Webb, the new Democratic Senator from Virginia. He is the one who upset “macaca” candidate and presumed presidential candidate George Felix Allen. With this speech, Webb eradicates any need for us to compare him to his predecessor; he stands firmly on his own merits. Here are some of his main points

On Energy

Further, this is the seventh time the President has mentioned energy independence in his state of the union message, but for the first time this exchange is taking place in a Congress led by the Democratic Party.  We are looking for affirmative solutions that will strengthen our nation by freeing us from our dependence on foreign oil, and spurring a wave of entrepreneurial growth in the form of alternate energy programs.  We look forward to working with the President and his party to bring about these changes.

On Class and the Economy

When one looks at the health of our economy, it’s almost as if we are living in two different countries.  Some say that things have never been better. The stock market is at an all-time high, and so are corporate profits. But these benefits are not being fairly shared.  When I graduated from college, the average corporate CEO made 20 times what the average worker did; today, it’s nearly 400 times.  In other words, it takes the average worker more than a year to make the money that his or her boss makes in one day. 
 
Wages and salaries for our workers are at all-time lows as a percentage of national wealth, even though the productivity of American workers is the highest in the world.  Medical costs have skyrocketed.  College tuition rates are off the charts. Our manufacturing base is being dismantled and sent overseas.  Good American jobs are being sent along with them. 
 
In short, the middle class of this country, our historic backbone and our best hope for a strong society in the future, is losing its place at the table.  Our workers know this, through painful experience.  Our white-collar professionals are beginning to understand it, as their jobs start disappearing also. And they expect, rightly, that in this age of globalization, their government has a duty to insist that their concerns be dealt with fairly in the international marketplace.
 
In the early days of our republic, President Andrew Jackson established an important principle of American-style democracy – that we should measure the health of our society not at its apex, but at its base.  Not with the numbers that come out of Wall Street, but with the living conditions that exist on Main Street. We must recapture that spirit today. 
 
And under the leadership of the new Democratic Congress, we are on our way to doing so.  The House just passed a minimum wage increase, the first in ten years, and the Senate will soon follow.  We’ve introduced a broad legislative package designed to regain the trust of the American people.  We’ve established a tone of cooperation and consensus that extends beyond party lines.  We’re working to get the right things done, for the right people and for the right reasons.

On Foreign Policy

With respect to foreign policy, this country has patiently endured a mismanaged war for nearly four years.  Many, including myself, warned even before the war began that it was unnecessary, that it would take our energy and attention away from the larger war against terrorism, and that invading and occupying Iraq would leave us strategically vulnerable in the most violent and turbulent corner of the world. 
 
I want to share with all of you a picture that I have carried with me for more than 50 years.   This is my father, when he was a young Air Force captain, flying cargo planes during the Berlin Airlift.  He sent us the picture from Germany, as we waited for him, back here at home.  When I was a small boy, I used to take the picture to bed with me every night, because for more than three years my father was deployed, unable to live with us full-time, serving overseas or in bases where there was no family housing.  I still keep it, to remind me of the sacrifices that my mother and others had to make, over and over again, as my father gladly served our country. I was proud to follow in his footsteps, serving as a Marine in Vietnam. My brother did as well, serving as a Marine helicopter pilot.  My son has joined the tradition, now serving as an infantry Marine in Iraq. 
 
Like so many other Americans, today and throughout our history, we serve and have served, not for political reasons, but because we love our country. On the political issues – those matters of war and peace, and in some cases of life and death – we trusted the judgment of our national leaders.  We hoped that they would be right, that they would measure with accuracy the value of our lives against the enormity of the national interest that might call upon us to go into harm’s way. 
 
We owed them our loyalty, as Americans, and we gave it.  But they owed us – sound judgment, clear thinking, concern for our welfare, a guarantee that the threat to our country was equal to the price we might be called upon to pay in defending it.
 
The President took us into this war recklessly.  He disregarded warnings from the national security adviser during the first Gulf War, the chief of staff of the army, two former commanding generals of the Central Command, whose jurisdiction includes Iraq,  the director of operations on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and many, many others with great integrity and long experience in national security affairs.  We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable – and predicted – disarray that has followed. 
 
The war’s costs to our nation have been staggering.
Financially.
The damage to our reputation around the world.
The lost opportunities to defeat the forces of international terrorism.
And especially the precious blood of our citizens who have stepped forward to serve.
 
The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought; nor does the majority of our military.  We need a new direction.  Not one step back from the war against international terrorism.  Not a precipitous withdrawal that ignores the possibility of further chaos.  But an immediate shift toward strong regionally-based diplomacy, a policy that takes our soldiers off the streets of Iraq’s cities, and a formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq.

 

Webb’s reasoning is crystal clear, his rhetoric solid and inspring. So what is there to worry about? Two things. We might worry that Webb is soundly ingnored. Ignored by the media, ignored by his peers, ignored by the president, ignored by America. That would be the worst outcome. If the best ideas travelled farthest, this would be no worry at all. But Bush’s ideas gained a lot of traction before they proved themselves to be dangerously flawed. So Americans cannot be counted on reject bad ideas; why should they be any good at taking ownership of good ideas?

The second worry is that Bush will coopt the language, adopt the ideas as rhetorical talking points, and render them functionally dead by either adopting the forms they suggest without the function, or by sucking the vitality out of the ideas by some rhetorical method; equivocation, false praise, not-invented-here, whatever. The classic Bushista act would be to create a great corporate giveaway for something like ethanol from corn or methanol from newsprint, one that is so terrible and huge that it succeeds only on the basis of the government giveaway and one that sucks the air out of other, more potentially sustainable choices. It would take the form of Webb’s suggestion, but it would subvert the intention.

Doing this in the case of Iraq might be a little harder. It would probably require opening a brand new and more hopeful war in a new place, even while the old ones in Afghanistan and Iraq are crumbling. If we were to judge on the basis of what makes sense in terms of national policy, such a scenario is nonsense. But the war in Iraq never had a sound national policy reason. Nor will the next Bushista war.

Despite all this worrying, there remains some hope for democracy in this nation so long as there remain a significant number of political leaders in DC willing and able to make speeches like Webb’s. The age of the gray-man technocratic Democrat is fading toward twilight. The age of smart and inspiring dawns.

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