Pornography vis-à-vis feminism and rights Wednesday, Sep 30 2009 

Pornography can be a touchy subject to deal with because many people are uncomfortable discussing sex, let alone its commercialization. I concede this fact, but will try to anyway.

I’m generalizing a bit, but I think it’s fair to say there are two broad categories of people when it comes to pornography: those who believe it should be illegal and those who believe it should not be illegal. I belong in the latter category. I’m not alone by any means, and I believe I’m in good company. But I want to make myself very clear that supporting the legality of something does not necessarily mean condoning it. For example, when I say I support the decriminalization of marijuana, I do not mean to imply that I condone the use of marijuana (recreationally) or that I would use it myself. When I say abortion is an absolute and inalienable right of women, I do not mean to imply I support women getting abortions (I prefer they don’t, but that doesn’t mean it should be outlawed). So when I support the legality of pornography, I do not mean to say porn is necessarily a good thing. I’m sure there’s a good deal of people who support the legality of pornography but do not necessarily agree with the act (and definitely a great deal that do support the act itself).

Tonight (Wednesday), however, the SCSU Women’s Center along with the Residential Life Social Justice and Diversity Committee will be hosting an anti-pornography special event at 6:00 P.M. in Ritsche Auditorium (I’m not sure that I will be able to make it, because I’m also going to a special event on Palestine). The event is titled “The Price of Pleasure” and it will show the documentary that goes by the same name followed by a presentation by Robert Jensen who is an anti-pornography activist and a professor of journalism at the University of Texas in Austin (he also appears in the documentary).

In one of the few times I’ve been impressed with the quality of a student-written opinion appearing in the University Chronicle, Neil Panchmatia writes a scathing criticism of the Women’s Center position on pornography that it takes in showing the documentary and hosting the professor, which he says is contrary to “the consensus of most feminist scholars.” Panchmatia, a graduate student in social responsibility, writes, “In feminism there is lively debate on whether porn is harmful, but through Professor Jensen the Women’s Center is promoting only Andrea Dworkin’s extreme perspective, which not only claims that porn itself embodies the violation of womens rights, but equates the term ‘porn’ with ‘gender violence,’ and even that porn ’causes’ rape and fuels violence against women.”

Indeed, arguments about pornography are nuanced, even among feminists, but there’s little doubt that the position the Women’s Center endorses is out on the extreme. A thorough survey of the American public by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman in 1986 showed 78% of people did not believe pornography should be illegal (finding reliable polling on this subject somewhat difficult). I do not deny that pornography can cause problems. I don’t think anyone doubts there can be detrimental effects in the participation, production, or consumption of pornography. There is, in fact, robust scholarly literature that deals with this important subject. But to conclude from that that pornography should be illegal is misguided.

In their 1969 ruling in Stanley v. Georgia, the Supreme Court of the United States declared every American has the “constitutional right to keep and enjoy pornographic material in his home.” Though the court said they have the “broad power” to regulate “obscenity,” it concluded every American may “satisfy his intellectual and emotional needs in the privacy of his own home.” That is, the court affirms, Americans have the right to free speech and privacy. (In a true perversion of the Constitution, the court later ruled in 1973 in Miller v. California that it had to right to determine what “obscenity” is and therefore declare it not a form of protected speech or expression under the First Amendment.)

So if we have the right to view pornographic material, one can infer from this that there also exists the right to participate in and produce pornography. That is, consenting adults have the right to perform sexual acts with each other and they also have the right to disseminate depictions of these acts with other consenting adults. They have these rights, but whether you want to argue that engaging in these activities is right or wrong is an entirely different thing. You may wish to educate people, inform people of risks, discuss its immorality and so forth, but we cannot deny them the right to engage in the activity. I can certainly agree, for example, that pornography can have the effect of distorting views on sex and sexuality and objectify and dehumanize women, but it doesn’t follow from that that pornography ought to be outlawed.

But proponents of outlawing pornography point to the alleged negative social effects it creates. Particularly, they argue pornography incites violence against women including through rape. “Pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice,” goes the saying. Is it true? The Classically Liberal blog, in their post on the benefits of pornography, cites a study by Todd Kendall, a professor at Clemson University. Kendall finds, “a 10 percentage point increase in Internet access [to pornography] is associated with a decline in reported rape victimization of around 7.3%,” among other benefits. There is a preponderance of evidence that supports this claim. (In fact, in 1969, Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress, in response to the SCOTUS ruling in Stanley v. Georgia, set up the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. What the commission found was that exposure to sexual materials does not create adverse social effects, does not corrupt the individual, that restrictions on the “sale, exhibition, or distribution of sexual materials to consenting adults should be repealed,” and that adults believed they had the right to view pornography on their own accord. Congress rejected these findings.)

To conclude, the right to own, view, participate in, produce, and distribute pornography has been affirmed for consenting adults. We have strong and overwhelming evidence that pornography does not create adverse social effects and, in fact, may reduce violent crimes against women such as rape. Yet, the Women’s Center will dismiss these rights and ignore the research to instead advocate the idea that pornography is fundamentally and necessarily wrong and detrimental and ought to be illegal. Needless to say, I believe they are taking the extreme position and it ought to be firmly rejected.

Funny tidbit Monday, Sep 28 2009 

Here’s a short little tidbit that satires the debate on health care reform (which I’ve written a little on, e.g. here). In it includes Will Farrell and others arguing, sarcastically obviously, for not forgetting about health insurance executives who have been getting such a bad rap:

On the Iraq War Monday, Sep 28 2009 

It seems I haven’t written thing about the Iraq War on this blog. I always thought I had, since it seems like an obvious topic. (I have, however, discussed the use of torture by President Bush as a result of this war.) I even have a post on the Afghanistan War. (Many consider the case for the Afghanistan War much stronger than the Iraq War. Indeed it is, but only marginally; both wars are fundamentally wrong.)

I could approach the Iraq War in the same way I approached the Afghanistan War. Namely, if something is wrong for others, then it is equally wrong for us. That is the idea of moral universalism, which every respectable moral theory has at its core. See my post on the Afghanistan War for more on moral universalism and its application to U.S. foreign policy. The justification for the Iraq War fails in the same regard. I can speak more on this if anyone is interested.

There is clearly a lot to say about the Iraq War and a lot can be said about why it was wrong. I cannot possibly cover all of these but I will try to cover some of what I feel are important points.

Let’s look at some of those justifications, a lot of which were provided in in a discussion at the SCSU Scholars blog (updated link) regarding President Obama’s foreign policy. The first justification is that most of Congress and some of the international “coalition” (mainly the West) supported President Bush’s war of aggression against Iraq. But this is trivial to the question of whether it is right or wrong. If 51% of Congress supported the genocide of a population, would that make it justifiable? Certainly not. The rightness of response is not dictated by Congress (or a coalition, for that matter). Conservative critics often lambast Congress and the President for the laws they pass, but when it comes to war they automatically get it right? No, because, again, rightness is independent of Congressional mandates.

Second, it should also be considered that the American public and the rest of the world was blatantly lied to by Bush and his administration. “Lie” implies the knowledge of truth and stating a deliberate falsehood contrary to that truth, and indeed this is what occurred in order to sell the war in Iraq. That’s virtually without doubt. The Downing Street memo, “the smoking gun,” clearly demonstrated that Bush wanted to dispose of Saddam Hussein on the grounds of WMDs and terrorist links but had to knowingly lie to the American public to do so (it should be clear to everyone that both of these are patent falsehoods). Add to that the Manning Memo, the 2004 document leaks in the UK, the Bush-Aznar memo, the Niger uranium forgeries, or Ron Suskind’s pile of evidence that Bush and his administration orchestrated the war in Iraq long before 2003 and had fabricated evidence or misled the public to do so. What you have is a clear case that the justification, the primary rationale given by Bush’s administration, was contrived and deliberately used to mislead the American public and the rest of the world to get them on board the hawkish agenda. So even when a majority of people agree with you, that’s a void point when those people have been duped.

Another point used to justify the war is that the fact that Bush and no one from his administration has been indicted or tried for any of their actions shows that their actions were right. This is another nonsense argument. Even if we look at the more generous example of O.J. Simpson, who was in fact tried, we do not say his murdering of his wife is justified (and it’s clear he did). (Also, morality is not dictated by law. I can do something morally wrong even if it’s not against the law.) But the fact that Bush has not been tried says nothing about the rightness of response (again). In fact, what it does show is how hypocritical we are. This goes back to the idea of moral universalism. If war of aggression is the “supreme crime” for one, then it also is for Bush. That Bush has not been tried says a lot about who we are as a people, but little about the justification for war in Iraq.

Perhaps the strongest justification the hawks have in defense of the Iraq War is that it resulted in the disposal of Saddam Hussein, who we all agree was a dictator who committed terrible atrocities. (It should, however, be noted that he did so with full support from the U.S.) This is the argument that Bush and his administration switched to when it became glaringly obvious to the world that the primary justifications given for the war were completely invalid. This is the utilitarianism argument, which says the Iraq War was right because it saved more lives than it ended, got rid of a dictator, etc. I personally believe utilitarianism is a shoddy moral theory for reasons I’ve laid out in other posts on this blog, but it should be mentioned that even some utilitarians would disagree with this assessment. They may argue that overall utility has decreased because of the war (or at least was not maximized), and I feel they would be correct in saying so. Rule utilitarians might also claim that invasions and occupations such as these, as a general rule, do not maximize utility, and I feel they would also be correct in saying so.

But does the ousting of Saddam really make this war justifiable and does it make legal? The answer is no. The UN is actually very specific in their charter: “The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42” where “measures not involving the use of armed force” are preferred. The exception is Article 51, which allows for self-defense until the Security Council can respond. So that’s what the international community agrees with. It’s clear the U.S. war in Iraq fails to meet this requirement. In 2004, Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General at that time, declared, “From our point of view and the UN Charter point of view, [the war] was illegal.” Not only is this war blatantly illegal, it is considered the supreme war crime because it encompasses all the evil that follows from it: “to initiate a war of aggression…is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

Richard Perle, the former chairman of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee under Bush (and about as conservative as you can get), even admits the war is illegal, but he says it was justified. The argument now is that the war is illegal but justified. Indeed, it’s possible for morally right actions to exist even if they are contrary to written law. But was the war justified? If it is not even justified from the utilitarian perspective, then it’s certainly going to be hard to justify! (By the way, if it was right to invade and occupy Iraq, it could certainly be said it is equally right for a country to invade and occupy the U.S.) Deontologically, people often use “just war theory” to determine whether a war is just or not (both the criteria to enter into war and how the war is conducted once it is entered into). I think just war theory is a bit dubious, but even this theory makes it clear that the Iraq War is not just. Just war theory states that nations have the right to defend against aggression, but in this case that would apply to Iraq, not the U.S. The war in Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with self-defense (Iraq could not even defend itself).

The question to answer now is, “Where do we go from here?” I think it’s fairly clear. The U.S. has the obligation to withdraw from the nation and pay massive reparations to the Iraqi people. That’s what it ought to do. Second, we also have the obligation to hold the guilty responsible for their crimes. Will that ever happen? I seriously doubt it because we fail to rise to even a minimal moral standard in which we can say what’s wrong for others is wrong for us too.

SSDP and the War on Drugs Tuesday, Sep 22 2009 

Today, the Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) had it’s first ever meeting on SCSU’s campus. You can find out information about the organization, which has over 100 chapters in the U.S. and more in other countries, on its Web site. Though it might be easy to assume otherwise because it is a college organization regarding drugs, the organization does not promote the use of drugs or necessarily support the legalization of narcotics. Instead, it is focused on more sensible drug policies on the campus, city, state, or national level, namely due to the failures of the United States’ current War on Drugs. The mission statement, also available on their Web site along with other helpful information, is as follows:

Students for Sensible Drug Policy is an international grassroots network of students who are concerned about the impact drug abuse has on our communities, but who also know that the War on Drugs is failing our generation and our society.

SSDP mobilizes and empowers young people to participate in the political process, pushing for sensible policies to achieve a safer and more just future, while fighting back against counterproductive Drug War policies, particularly those that directly harm students and youth.

Again, as per their values statement available on the Web site, SSDP “neither encourages nor condemns drug use.” Instead, it seeks “a just and compassionate society where drug abuse is treated as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue.” Furthermore, the SSDP continues, “As scholars we seek solutions to society’s drug problems through focused research, honest dialogue, and informed debate, instead of unquestioned extremism, punishment, and propaganda.”

So that’s the SSDP. Now that SCSU officially has a chapter, I hope the issue of sensible drug policy can more earnestly be discussed on campus. In fact, I’m rather optimistic that this can happen even after just the first meeting tonight. There were good ideas brought up about spreading awareness and contributing useful dialogue. We are still discussing the scope of our focus (thinking primarily the campus-level at the moment) and the types of policies we should be promoting, but I’m confident this organization has the capability of creating meaningful discourse and even implementing helpful changes because I know there are members working on this who are eager, intelligent, and devoted to the issue.

My diatribe on the issue
What is my take on the issue of drug policy? I don’t know how aligned my views are with the rest of the group’s but I think we can all definitely agree the War on Drugs has been a fantastic failure. The research and academic literature on this issue is immense, and I cannot possibly address it all. To make a seriously thorough post on this topic is probably beyond my capability, especially for the purpose of crafting a blog post (so I won’t pretend to address every or even most of the salient points, which are important and have been discussed diligently elsewhere). One thing has become abundantly clear, though: Prohibition does not cause things to go away; it makes things more dangerous among other adverse social effects. The argument in support of the War on Drugs are plentiful and nuanced (mostly coming from the conservative right), but usually fall flat when seriously scrutinized.

Of particular interest has been the issue of marijuana. Increasingly, the American public has been concerned with the government’s harsh laws on marijuana and there has been a very strong push for legalization (or at least decriminalization), even to such an extent that President Obama and his administration had to respond. The response has been less harsh than that of President Bush’s, but it still falls short.

But we cannot even begin to talk about the criminalization of marijuana without first acknowledging its purpose. There is a reason why marijuana is illegal (and alcohol is not, for example). History actually ran a show about it (Hooked: Illegal Drugs and How They Got That Way—I recommend everyone watch it). The reason is because it was associated with “deviants” (read: minorities). So the policy has its roots in racism. The laws are still quite racist, in fact. The only way to justify them is through bigotry.

There is no medical reason for banning marijuana (a claim strongly supported by the medical literature). Certain drugs, including marijuana, have become criminalized because they’re associated with what’s called the “dangerous classes,” meaning poor people. That’s why, for example, gin was criminalized in 19th century London and whiskey was not. Poor people drank gin. This is why the sentencing for crack is so much harsher than for powder cocaine. Poor people use crack. For marijuana, it was Mexicans bringing it in. That’s why you’ve got to criminalize it.

So, yes, it’s also quite true that there was a time when these things weren’t prohibited. Society functioned still. In fact, there are places were it’s currently not criminalized. Take Portugal for example. They’re a functioning society. In fact, since they’ve legalized marijuana, they have said it has benefited their society (teen drug use decreased, HIV from needle sharing decreased, and treatment increased). Of course, one should not be surprised by this.

As it happens, places such as the National Treatment Improvement Evaluation Study and the RAND Corporation have done studies the cost effectiveness of certain approaches. Invariably, what they find is that treatment and prevention is the most cost effective (and by large margins). Law enforcement, police work, and incarceration was more expensive and less effective. Even more expensive and even less effective is border intervention. The least effective and most costly? Extra-national operations. So what approach do the United States take? We actually do it in the opposite direction. We’re spending more money on doing things like engaging in chemical warfare on Colombia’s farms. The next biggest place we spend money is on border intervention, and down the line. Why is it done this way? Because it helps corporations and the government. It’s used as a cover for counter-insurgency, clears the land of peasants so large multinational corporations can come in for resource extraction and agrobusiness, benefits the prison-industrial complex, grows the government, unconstitutionally expands their power, etc. But it doesn’t stop drug use. And this is no small amount either. We’re spending hundreds of billions of dollars on this so-called war on drugs. And for what? For naught. (In fact, it’s making things worse.) All the while we could be making billions from the legal sale of it in taxes. On the other hand, while we’re losing hundreds of billions, drug cartels and other illegal enterprises are making billions. Does that really seem logical to anyone?

Behavioral economics, taxes, and health care Sunday, Sep 20 2009 

In my previous post (Keynes vs. the Chicago school of economics), I posted a link to an article written by Paul Krugman regarding the current state of macroeconomics and its salient failures. One thing I pointed out is Krugman’s advocacy for a higher reliance on behavioral economics, which is a branch of economics that “applies scientific research on human and social, cognitive and emotional factors” to economic decisions. Essentially, it’s a combination of economics and psychology.

One thing behavioral economics helps us do is find differences in assumed, theoretical economic behavior and actual economic behavior. For example, in a recent paper by Congdon, Kling, and Mullainathan, the authors write, “Behavioral economists have now accumulated several decades of findings indicating that the standard economic assumptions about individual behavior are not accurate, that people do not act rationally, that they are not perfectly self-interested, and that they hold inconsistent preferences. Moreover, and especially in recent years, policy economists have increasingly come to see that these deviations from the standard assumptions about behavior matter for economic policy.” The authors point out that while such faulty assumptions about human behavior are used in modern economic theory, some justify it on the basis that they are simple and useful for modeling purposes and crafting new theories. However, write the authors, “behavioral economics argues that the standard assumptions are so consistently violated as to be neither literally true nor useful as modeling assumptions.” (Emphasis mine.) What this tentatively suggests is that some of our assumptions about economic decisions are so fundamentally disconnected from reality that they serve no relevant purpose in economic models that use such assumptions. This might also suggest that Krugman is correct that macroeconomics has a long way to go yet (and that perhaps behavioral economics should play an important role in crafting future theories).

This paper specifically deals with behavioral economics as it relates to taxes. On this, the authors declare, “Behavioral economics stresses that individuals are not, in practice, perfectly self-interested.” In fact, “They care about the welfare of others and they care about the fairness of the process that generates outcomes.” And this, I think, relates to some comments I made in a SCSU Scholars post regarding health care reform. The point I try to make is that I think there are some goods and services that we can call essential, that we can reasonably say no person should have to go without (at least in a highly developed, industrialized, and wealthy country such as the United States). For example, I think most people would agree policing, firefighting, and defense under law are all reasonably essential and that people should be entitled to such things even if they cannot afford them. My argument is that health care is something we can reasonably say people deserve to have even if they can’t afford it.

Now, I concede that this might just require taxes in the same way taxes are used to fund police protection, firefighting, and public defenders. Some people may say taxes are a “road that leads to slavery.” I don’t like taxes either, but I won’t go that far; the question isn’t whether there are taxes, per se. What we should ask ourselves instead is, To what end does this taxation go and does it represent what most Americans want? As the authors of the paper point out, people do actually care about the welfare of others and how welfare is achieved. So I think in answering the two questions I asked, and as someone who believes strongly in democratic principles, I think a tax in this case can be justified. For example, poll after poll show the American public favor a public health care system (and by wide margins). And it’s been like that for decades. Of course, if this were a functioning democracy, I think that would be the case by now.

Keynes vs. the Chicago school of economics Tuesday, Sep 15 2009 

I just finished reading a very good article in The New York Times Magazine by Paul Krugman, an economics professor at Princeton University and the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2008. It’s pretty long, but I think it’s well worth it. In it, Krugman discusses the questions of how economists got it so wrong, of how they failed to predict the current recession, of how contemporary macroeconomics has been so illusioned. He points to the prevailing economic belief (among both freshwater and saltwater economists) in an “idealized vision of an economy in which rational individuals interact in perfect markets,” that is, the Chicago school of economics that embraces the efficient market hypothesis. Krugman contends that people do sometimes act irrationally and that markets are not always efficient or perfect—ideas that I myself have come to accept despite the SCSU academe that tends to dismiss such notions. What he propose as a solution to the current problem in macroeconomics is a reversion to Keynesian economics and a heavier reliance on behavioral economics. I can certainly agree with him on many of his points, but I doubt I can do the article justice here so I advise people read it on their own.

One of the worst terrorist attacks in human history Monday, Sep 14 2009 

In a world politics course I have with professor Aref Hassan, we were discussing some aspects of World War II today. In discussing the evilness of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime, Dr. Hassan also made the point that deliberately creating a weapon for the sole purpose of maximizing human death (i.e. the atomic bomb) is also evil. I’m glad he raised the point. One student, a bit older and seemingly knowledgeable of WWII events and military history in general (I believe he served in military), replied by stating that, because it may have led to fewer American casualties, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945 was justifiable. Was it?

As I pointed out in my last post on moral universalism, namely as it applies to U.S. foreign policy, there’s an easy way to judge this. And that’s to ask yourself whether what is right or wrong for is us also right or wrong for others. That is, do we apply to ourselves, at a minimum, the same standards we apply to others? Well, let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose Nazi Germany, which was also attempting to develop a nuclear weapon, decided to drop atomic bombs on, say, Minneapolis and Boston. Despite murdering hundreds of thousands and leaving many more to succumb to the brutal effects of nuclear fallout, the Nazis defend it, saying it ended the war and prevented many Nazi casualties. Would anyone accept this?

No one accepts that argument. Okay, so we do not even rise to a minimal level of morality and, as I quoted Chomsky in my earlier post, “those who do not rise to the minimal moral level of applying to themselves the standards they apply to others — more stringent ones, in fact — plainly cannot be taken seriously when they speak of appropriateness of response; or of right and wrong, good and evil.” But let’s try to talk about the appropriateness of the response anyway.

Would it be right for anyone to massacre, through the deliberate targeting of civilian cities, hundreds of thousands of civilians and innocent people with the justification of it saving more lives than it ended? (This is a more generous argument since the original one only states that combat deaths were reduced through the bombing; we can be even more generous and simply ask if it is right under any circumstance.) This is the utilitarian approach for justifying terrorism. (But this accepts the conclusion that it saved more lives and ended the war. One should not accept this conclusion so easily, as we know the war was already in its last throes and was militarily unnecessary according to numerous authorities. This was more about showing might and instilling terror than it was about military objectives.) As I pointed out in my discussion of President Bush’s use of torture against human beings, there have been attempts by some to justify evil and human rights abuses with the utilitarian argument that it’s right because it ultimately saves lives. As I said, accepting this principle also means we must accept the “repugnant conclusions” that come with it, including accepting the most heinous and monstrous crimes against humanity if doing so saves more lives than it ends. Murdering one innocent human being, for example, is right if it possibly saves two more. That’s not something most people are willing to do. Most people, instead, accept that some things are simply always wrong to do, no matter what, including the deliberate targeting of civilian populations.

This idea is manifested in the numerous international laws and treaties, not the least of which include the Geneva Conventions or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that outlaw the deliberate targeting of civilians during war or killing of innocent human beings (i.e. murder). So, yes, President Truman committed a grave war crime and it being “among the most unspeakable crimes in history.” Was it terrorism? In fact, it’s one the clearest examples of state terrorism. How do we define terrorism? There are a lot of definitions; the U.S. defines it as “to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping…” The U.N. also has multiple definitions, one of which include “criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.” So, yes, the U.S., under the auspices of President Truman, committed a heinous act of terrorism, and one of the worst in human history.

Howard Zinn, a historian, champion of liberty and author of A People’s History of the United States, writes, “if the word ‘terrorism’ has a useful meaning (and I believe it does, because it marks off an act as intolerable, since it involves the indiscriminate use of violence against human beings for some political purpose), then it applies exactly to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” This becomes plainly obvious when we consider the masterminds of this attack did so in order to instill the maximum amount of terror in the civilians of Japan and not for combat or military purposes. What’s more, writes Mark Seldon, the bombings “broke the fragile remaining taboos on civilian bombing. This deployment of air power against civilians would become the centerpiece of all subsequent U.S. wars, a practice in direct contravention of the Geneva principles, and cumulatively the single most important example of the use of terror in twentieth century warfare. As we mourn the 2,800 victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks, including Americans and citizens of more than twenty countries, we should simultaneously recall the millions of civilians who have been victims of American bombing and other acts of terror during and after World War II.”

Obama on health care in Minneapolis Sunday, Sep 13 2009 

On Saturday, President Obama came to Minneapolis to give a rally speech on his proposed health care reform. I was going home to St. Paul for the weekend so I thought I would try to go. I was lucky enough to get in and see the president (the first time I’ve seen one in person).

It was being held at the Target Center at 12:30 P.M. and doors opened at about 9:30 A.M., but lining up was allowed as early as 6:30. I’m not sure what time people started lining up to see the President speak because I didn’t get there until about 9:25 A.M., but by then the streets were already packed with lines spanning several blocks. There were, of course, a few protesters, some with interesting signs; there were no large quarrels between the Obama supporters and the detractors, though, and I actually saw some people have civilized debate while I waited in line. There were anti-protesters too, holding signs of their own (“Competition is good. So let the government compete” or “Death panels already exist. They are the insurance companies,” for example), who drew loud cheers from people waiting outside the Target Center.

As I said, I got there at about 9:30 and I didn’t get in until about 10:45, seeing as how everyone had to go through airport-like security. Once inside, I was greeted with even more lines to get into the seats. Anyone familiar with the Target Center knows you pretty much go around in a circle on whatever level you’re on until you get to the section of seats you want to get to. I was told to keep going left until I got to the end of the line, but by the time I reached the end of the line I was already exactly where I began (i.e. the start of the line). Not cool. So I just went in whatever section everyone else was going in. I got decent seats the first time around–facing the President directly–but I was behind the camera stand for the media outlets, so I tried to find better seats. I was got pretty lucky on my second try, and I found seats about 50 yards or so from where Obama was speaking sort of to his right. I could see him fairly well so that was pretty cool. Surprisingly, everything started on time. During the wait, the crowd (about 15,000 people, apparently) did the wave for several minutes (fun to watch) and went through several chants. Not as boring as I thought it would be, as I barely got to read the book I brought for the three hour wait.

So what did President Obama have to say? I took a few notes but not many, so I’ll try to remember (I’m sure the speech is somewhere on YouTube). He started humorously by saying he needed to get to the important things first and mentioned the Gophers game going on later that night in opening their new stadium. They were playing Air Force, so he said he had to be careful what he said because they were flying him back later on. He then made an obvious jab at FOX by saying, “You may have watched So You Think You Can Dance, but I gave a speech to Congress a few days ago…” (Fox decided to air the reality dance show rather than his address to Congress on health care reform.) I thought it was funny (as did the crowd). Obama made the point that while is not the first president to champion health care reform, he is dedicated to be the last.

I’m not exactly being chronological here, but it seems to me his main goals he pointed out were to make it illegal for insurance companies to to deny or cut coverage for people with “pre-existing conditions,” to water down coverage when people get sick or need it the most, or put caps on coverage over a period of time. That’s all well and fine, I think. He said neither government bureaucrats nor insurance company bureaucrats should decide when to cut coverage. He said we should end subsidies to insurance HMOs that don’t improve health care. He pointed to Minnesota as a leader in health care, citing the Mayo Clinic as an example. His dismissed his Republican critics who he said were playing politics and were bickering; he said Social Security and Medicare were criticized as “socialism” too when they were introduced. He then said there should be mandatory screenings for things like breast and colon cancer because it will save money (because it will catch it earlier). That seems dubious, because now you’ve got to screen everyone who doesn’t have the cancer, and that costs a lot of money; but if it increases detection, that’s a good thing. Even more dubiously, he said he won’t pass any bill that adds a dime to the deficit or debt. I’m guessing whatever kind of reform he wants to see is going to cost a lot of money. Surprisingly to me, he mentioned the public option, which he said made sense. He compared it to public universities (like SCSU), saying it increased competition and created affordable and good results without pricing private universities out of the market. He then ended with a personal story about being “fired up” and “ready to go,” and asking Minnesotans if they were fired up and ready to go on reforming health care.

In all, I thought it was a great speech. President Obama is truly a great orator, and this is apparent when you see him speak live. He motivates the audience and he reacts to them too; his speech did not seem obviously canned. There were some things I might have questioned, but I think for the most part he provided some very good points. I think it’s fairly obvious there are things that need to be changed, whether we agree with the President or not. Making something as essential as health care more affordable is, I think, a very important objective that America must meet.

The Fed and conflicts of interests Wednesday, Sep 9 2009 

I just wanted to make a short post about a very interesting story published in the Huffington Post about the apparent lack of criticism of the Federal Reserve by economists (particularly within academia) and why this might be. One reason, the authors argue, is because doing so is a liability for economists who wish to have their views and ideas respected. This isn’t because their ideas are necessarily wrong, but because there is an inherent conflict of interests with the Fed vis-à-vis economists. The authors explain,

One critical way the Fed exerts control on academic economists is through its relationships with the field’s gatekeepers. For instance, at the Journal of Monetary Economics, a must-publish venue for rising economists, more than half of the editorial board members are currently on the Fed payroll — and the rest have been in the past.

How is it that economists (with marginal exceptions) have been so wrong regarding the current economic crisis and have failed to critically analyze the Fed’s consistent failures throughout its history? As it happens, there’s a lot money and respect hinging on them failing to do so. The Fed, their associates, and their grant money dominate the field. Essentially, they are what the authors call the “Gatekeepers.” For example, nearly 45% of editorial board members of top economic journals are associated with the Federal Reserve.

That’s what you call a conflict of interest. But it’s nothing it new. Take, for example, the government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which holds a monopoly over medical research on marijuana. This impedes research and skews results, particularly when NIDA deliberately withholds marijuana from researchers it believes will contradict its own findings. As another example, as the article mentions, “The pharmaceutical industry has similarly worked to control key medical journals, but that involves several companies. In the field of economics, it’s just the Fed.”

As the famous saying goes, “It’s almost impossible to get a man to understand something, when his paycheck depends upon his not understanding it.

The double standard in foreign policy Thursday, Sep 3 2009 

In light of my recent post on the economic liberalization policies during the 1980s and onwards, I was hoping to discuss what is today being referred to “globalization.” Something else has been on the top of my mind lately, however, so that post will wait. What I wish to discuss instead is something that I have referred to numerous times on blog, which is the idea of moral universalism and specifically as it relates to U.S. foreign policy.

I promised someone a while ago I would discuss the Afghanistan War, and unfortunately I have been putting that off (along with most other issues dealing with foreign policy). The issue, in fact, is fairly complex but is one that can be simplified in terms of discussing the morality of it. The simple question we ought to ask ourselves, at all times, is whether what is right or wrong for us also right or wrong for others?

This is a very simple moral question and deals with what’s called moral universality. Namely, we should apply to ourselves the standards we place on others. I think Noam Chomsky, a leading and influential public intellectual, offers a good description of this moral principle: “… the principle of universality: if an action is right (or wrong) for others, it is right (or wrong) for us. Those who do not rise to the minimal moral level of applying to themselves the standards they apply to others — more stringent ones, in fact — plainly cannot be taken seriously when they speak of appropriateness of response; or of right and wrong, good and evil.” He explains, “Any moral code that is even worth looking at has that at its core somehow.” So, back to the question, do we follow this basic moral principle?

The answer to the question is a resounding no. This is plainly evident from my discussion of Israeli and U.S. war crimes in Palestine. It’s merely assumed, by virtue, that U.S. is allowed if not obligated to violate international law and human rights. I referenced something U.S. Justice Robert Jackson said during the Nuremberg Trials that also deals with the idea of moral universalism: “If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them. And we are not prepared to lay down the rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us. We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.”

But this is something that cannot even be comprehended in the United States, even among intellectuals. Saying we should apply some basic standards to ourselves (minimally, those we apply to others) would be considered absurd in some circles, if comprehended at all. For example, some people use the September 11, 2001, attacks as the justification for criminal wars and occupations of two destitute countries. Is that the correct response to terrorism? Well, let’s ask what standards we place on others. How should the myriad countries, usually poor and defenseless, across the globe react to Western state terrorism? Let’s take the extreme yet uncontroversial example of the United States’ terror campaign that President Reagan launched against Nicaragua, which left tens of thousands dead and its economy in ruins even to this day. Who of those advocating the bombing of Afghanistan and Iraq also advocate the bombing of Washington by Nicaragua? Who in the 1980s was saying Nicaragua should declare war against the U.S.? Would Nicaragua have the right to targeted assassinations of our terrorist leaders and those who support them? The answers lead us, invariably, to the conclusion that what’s right for us is wrong for them. We cannot even rise to a minimal moral standard in which we can say what’s wrong for them is wrong for us too.