Is the intentional killing of civilians okay? Thursday, May 5 2011 

First, let me apologize for the long delay between posts. I’m busy in life, and I am not afforded the free time to do research and write extensively that I had as a student at university. Also, I am posting this because it is a subject that particularly touched me, though I do have several posts regarding economics and democracy that I’ve had lined up for quite some time. There have been plenty of subjects I would have loved to write about since I put my writing on hold. But this I would like to address right now.

The question I pose in the title seems like an easy one to answer. To any decent human being, the answer should be no. The conclusion seems to go unquestioned. The idea that the killing of innocent lives is morally wrong and unjust is so embedded in the mores and norms of our culture, and countless others across the globe, the questions seems nearly absurd on its face. Yet, I’ve recently found myself asking the question and defending the forgoing conclusion in a Facebook discussion. Surely, though, the only opposition would be from a militant extremist, some brainwashed fascist, or simply a troll?

Actually, the tiff was with none other than Fouzi Slisli, a human relations professor at SCSU. (This is the same professor whom, by the way, I vehemently defended on this blog and in the SCSU University Chronicle regarding a presentation he and others had gave on the attack on Gaza in 2009, which was interrupted by professor Edelheit. This is also the same professor I praised, both here and in the University Chronicle, for their trip to Palestine and their presentation of that trip.) I do not pretend to admit that Dr. Slisli does not take outspoken stances on several issues, some of which I agree with, but this one goes beyond the pale.

This started when the professor posted a link to a Telegraph article titled “Muslim group claims royal wedding is legitimate terror target.” Seemingly approving the notion, he says, “They’re not saying they are going to target the wedding; they’re just saying the wedding is a legitimate target and might be targeted by others…” I reply, saying, “No such thing as a legitimate target that has as its essence a civilian population.” The conclusion seems obvious enough. But not for Dr. Slisli.

Dr. Slisli contends that the U.S.—and the West in general—has targeted civilians and has deliberately killed civilians. This is undoubtedly true. I agree with the professor here. In fact, I wrote on this blog about the criminal bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, describing them as “One of the worst terrorist attacks in human history.” The intentional killing of civilians is a sad reality of U.S. foreign policy and is a reason why the U.S. is one of the leading terror states. However, the fact that the West attacks civilians in no way justifies the position that killing civilians is okay. It should seem obvious enough that the actions of the West do not dictate morality. A moral theory based on such a concept would be shallow, as only a few moments of thought and reflection evidences.

Certainly the West’s behavior vis-à-vis its rhetoric makes it hypocritical. But as logic might remind us, hypocrisy does not validate an argument. Tu quoque (“you too”) is a kind of fallacious argument that aims to discredit a conclusion because its arguer does not adhere to said conclusion. But the fact that the U.S. has engaged or is currently engaged in targeting civilians has no bearing on the question of its legality or its morality. As I stated to him, “The question, though, isn’t whether the West has attacked civilians. The question is what is the proper response? Is it proper to attack the civilians of the offending nation—say you or I? That is to say, is it legitimate [to] deliberately target civilians for any reason? The answer is no. And the answer doesn’t change just because Western governments have violated the rule. Sure, it tells us a lot about the moral culture of Western nations. But if it’s wrong for the West that also means its wrong for everyone else. That’s just the elementary principle of moral universality.” (Many readers know that I’ve repeatedly mentioned the principle of moral universalism on this blog, and I’ll return to it here later.) The principle of universalism dictates that you apply to yourself the standards you apply to others (more stringent ones, in fact) and vice-versa. If it’s wrong for the West to kill civilians, it is wrong for you and your cohorts to do the same; if it is right for you to kill civilians, it is right for the U.S.

Dr. Slisli contends that moral universalism, “lofty as it is, does not capture the complexity of the issue.” While I believe the principle is both basic and elementary (far from lofty)—the necessary basis for any decent moral theory—the professor takes issue with it. He claims I am “making the weaker sides to a conflict uphold a morality that you know full well the stronger side does not/will not uphold.” But again, that has no bearing on the question of either its legality or its morality. In any case, Dr. Slisli says Islam offers a “contingency plan” that universalism does not in situations for those who suffer the transgressions of others: “the law of equality.” This law states, “If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, Transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.” Those from the Christian tradition can think of a similar idea found in the Bible (“an eye for an eye”). Thus, “if anyone transgresses this universal law against you, the Qur’an instructs, then Muslims are allowed to transgress likewise against the enemy,” posits Dr. Slisli. (Of course, “Allah prefers if Muslims have restraint.”) He therefore concludes that, while it’s preferable to have restraint, it is not necessary when “ONE HAS TO PROTECT ONESELF” (emphasis his). He does claim, however, “I am not stating my own opinion here” and that he is “merely explaining the legal frameworks that the Qur’an sets for the rules of war and the legal status of civilians and civilian infrastructure.” I’ll leave the latter claim for more competent scholars.

In any case, the phrase that Muslims ought to show restraint unless “ONE HAS TO PROTECT ONESELF” in an important one because it requires the person using force to demonstrate that in fact it is for the purpose of protecting oneself. So certainly the onus is on the attacker to demonstrate that attacking innocent civilians is an act of “protecting oneself.” And quite frankly I don’t think the onus can be met. In fact, I would venture to say that it would have the opposite effect: it would endanger oneself more. The reason should be obvious, but I’ll return to it later.

At this point, the discussions turns ugly. Dr. Slisli perverts my statements, saying my act of “Preaching non-violence while the powerful is sawing through the weak is, in practical terms, nothing but a complicity by inaction.” Careful readers will note that at no point do I ever “preach non-violence,” and most certainly not to those stricken by violence. In fact, I do believe violence is legitimate, but only under very certain circumstances, and the onus is on the perpetrator to demonstrate that violence is appropriate. So, for example, the use of force for the purpose of self-defense is legitimate. You can find this precedence in article 51 of the UN Charter. Self-defense has always been a legitimate act. Thus, I fully support the Quaranic injunction that allows for the use force to “protect oneself.” Again, though, one has to demonstrate that the use of force is, in fact, self-defense.

To attack innocent civilian populations under the guise of self-defense is an act reserved only for the most morally depraved. And I do not pretend that this is an uncommon excuse for violence and terror. Take, say, Hitler when he invaded Poland and began his slaughter of Jews and millions of others; he did so under the pretense of self-defense. That’s always the pretense. We could go through a long list, but I doubt that would be necessary.

So let’s summarize. According international law, Quaranic injunctions, and elementary morality, self-defense is legitimate. The use of force, violence, etc. is legitimate insofar as it can be demonstrated to be legitimate, for example for the purpose of self-defense. Attacking those who have not attacked you does not qualify as self-defense. Ergo, the killing of innocent civilian lives is illegitimate and is deeply immoral. It is for this reason that such acts are outlawed, condemned (nearly) universally, is considered terrorism, and is a grave abuse against human rights.

Yet, the professor is having none of it. He clings to the claim that, because the U.S. does it, it’s okay for everyone else to do it. He ponders, “If the West refuses to apply the universal laws of common decency with people A, B and C, why should people A and B and C apply the laws of common decency with the West?” He gives two reason why A, B, and C might. He says either they would because “the balance of power OBLIGES THEM to uphold the laws of common decency” while the other side does not—i.e., they are too weak to retaliate. The second is because “People A, B and C are ‘better people’ and although the West doesn’t deal with them decently, they CHOOSE to act and be better.” He admits the latter case demonstrates “admirable strength because it produces moral rectitude.” Yet, he says this is not the path to follow, because it is a deceit by the West to prevent its victims from retaliating. He wonders, “Is it a coincidence you think that intellectuals in colonial societies have always advised the colonized to use non-violence?” He claims the idea that we ought not attack innocent civilians has “sinister uses as a weapon to disarm populations …”

Therefore, Dr. Slisli concludes, the proper order of things is for A, B, and C to “apply common decency with People D, E and F and EVERY OTHER people who submit to the universal laws of common decency.” But should someone not adhere to the “universal laws,” then A, B, and C “also HAVE THE RIGHT TO DECLARE THAT COMMITMENT VOID IF THE OTHER SIDE FLAGRANTLY VIOLATES IT.” There’s a problem with this argument, though. A law is not “universal” if it is not applied universally. Of course, what the professor really meant to say, if he were being a little more honest, is, “it’s wrong for them to do it to me, but it’s okay for me to do it to them.” And it’s a demonstration of the sheer hypocrisy found in those defending the attacks on innocent lives. And that’s a vile maxim that operates nearly everywhere: it’s a crime if they do it, but not when I do it. If you think about it, that’s the exact opposite of what one might call a “universal law.”

Finally, an argument made by others (and hinted at by Dr. Slisli when he accuses me of “a complicity by inaction”) is that innocent civilians really aren’t innocent at all. (In a separate posting, Dr. Slisli contends the innocents being targeted by al-Qaeda, including Muslims, are “the Crusader-Zionist alliance and those who collaborate with them,” thus fair game. But, “At any rate, this is an inter-Muslim debate in which Americans have no business sticking their nose.” When innocent American lives are at stake, I believe this to be an issue in which we might have the right to stick our nose, so I’ll continue.) One commenter notes, “We are all party to what our government/military does until it stops,” as if it’s a valid argument for attacks on civilians. But if they commenter, whom I’ve also defended elsewhere, agrees with me that the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were wrong, as I suspect they do, then it is wrong for terrorists to bomb us here. Just because these were citizens of Imperial Japan make them no more a legitimate target than you or I simply because we are U.S. citizens. So in the same vein, the attack on the World Trade Center was no more legitimate than the U.S. and Israel’s punishment of Gazan citizens for voting the wrong way in a free election. They both represent an illegitimate and immoral use of force.

So back to the original topic of the royal wedding, just because the spectators of the royal wedding are citizens of the country, or merely residents, or merely tourists, or merely bystanders does not make them a legitimate target. And, as it was hinted in the previous sentence, attacks on civilian populations do not even assure one that those targeted are only nationals of that country, as there could very easily be non-associated agents within the same population. But even if we could assume it was only nationals within the civilian population being targeted, is nationality ever a legitimate basis for attack? I suspect the commenter who says we are all party to our government’s crimes also believes that other discriminations based on nationality are wrong. So if I asked her if it’s okay for us to make certain nationalities pay more in taxes or if it’s okay for us to put certain nationalities in internment camps or maybe even okay for us to toss certain nationalities into furnaces (because of the crimes their nations committed, of course), I’m confident she’d say no. Yet there is such a disconnect to the point that she see nothing wrong in the idea that it’s okay for innocent civilians to be subjected to terror attacks because of what their government has done. And that brings me to the final point, which I’ve discussed throughout this blog, which is that, even to the extent that I do live in a “democracy,” my influence on policy is basically near zero. Democracy is mostly nominal and is defined in procedural terms: I pull a lever every four years and keep quiet and to myself in the time in between. Does that make me responsible to some extent? Maybe one could argue so. But it certainly does not make me a legitimate target for attacks, nor does it make Dr. Slisli, nor the aforementioned commenter—neither of whom, I’m sure, are ready to admit they are vile war criminals deserving death.

I understand the importance of criticizing one’s own crimes. Again, to the extent that I do live in a democracy and free society, I can make some effort to address them. I take seriously Dr. Slisli’s argument that, “If you want to talk universalism, then you should make the aggressor stop aggression FIRST …” Those who have read my blog know well my critique of state crimes, particularly those of the U.S. That has always been my focus. A dishonest person is one who criticizes the crimes of others but does not reflect on his own. But that does not make the crimes of others any less of a crime. This is a moral truism we should not easily let escape from our minds.

Is Social Security in shambles? Saturday, Apr 10 2010 

The answer to this question requires some careful examination that goes beyond the platitudes that we are supposed to take as self-evident. What we’re constantly told is that Social Security is in shambles. It’s bankrupt. The elderly on Social Security are outpacing workers who contribute to it, and we’re headed for a crisis very soon. Even King Banaian, the chairman and a professor of the economics department at SCSU, says we suffer from “cognitive dissonance”; it’s “part of the angst that grips” us, though none of us “want to hear of big changes.” Ed Morrissey from the Hot Air blog says it was foolhardy to listen to those who “assured us that Social Security was safe for decades without reform.”

The reason for this maelstrom is because, as The New York Times reports, “the system will pay out more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes” this year. The recession has claimed millions of jobs and, as a result, tax receipts are down. At the same time, the Baby Boomer generation is beginning to retire en masse and will be collecting their Social Security benefits. By 2016, “indefinite deficits” are expected. Naturally, we should be frightened.

Indeed, Social Security looks like it is in shambles. Save some major reforms, which may very well including privatizing the system, the entire program appears to be heading for collapse. In fact, we’re probably better off getting rid of it entirely.

That much seems like common sense. If you collect less than you handout, you’re eventually going to go broke and the system cannot continue as is. This common sense is what drives the usual iterations about how Social Security is doomed. But, as with everything claimed to be common sense and self-evident, we should force ourselves to ask if it’s true. The assumption, of course, is that you don’t question it. It’s easy to parrot what the demagogues and pundits are saying on television and blogs; it requires some effort to look a bit beyond the rhetoric and platitudes.

Is it true that a fiscal disaster is on its way? As it happens, it’s not. In fact, if we bother to compare our Social Security system to the pension systems of other highly developed nations, just as the OECD has done, we find that the United States has one of the least generous pension systems for the elderly. Yet the fiscal hawks keep pushing on us “the great deficit scare,” though prominent economist such as Robert Eisner have been telling us for a long time now how absurd their claims are. Eisner’s book is over a decade old now, but we can learn some valuable lessons from it. Moreover, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research warns that the policies deficit hawks want to push through, which are are not based on sound economics, would be much more devastating than any projected deficit.

It’s certainly true the American population is aging, and faster than the workforce is growing (or will be soon). In economics, the technical literature refers to this as the dependency ratio. It tells us the number of dependent people (children under the age of 15 and adults over the age of 65) for every 100 productive people (people aged 16 to 64). The United States does not have the largest dependency ratio—far from it, in fact. And when we actually bother to look, the dependency ratio is not currently at the highest it’s ever been (nor will it be for a long time). That was around 1965. There was a problem in the 1960s, a more significant problem than we face today, back when real GDP was almost a quarter of what it is today (i.e. when we were much poorer).

What did they do about it? Did they say the rights to a decent life in a highly developed nation simply “are not natural rights of the people,” and therefore we should just stop helping the young and the elderly find a more decent life? Actually, that’s not what they did. They increased expenditures. That’s how they dealt with the unprecedented dependency ratio, one we won’t come close to experiencing for a long time. The solution to the current “crisis” is the same. You increase expenditures to ensure disadvantaged people can still live a life that isn’t marred by poverty, sickness, and starvation—so that people’s basic needs are met. There’s a consensus in every rich and developed nation that safety nets are a society’s moral obligation. In fact, the world came together and agreed on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms these rights, calling them “indispensable for [a person’s] dignity and the free development of his personality.”

When we actually look at the published literature, there is an almost unanimous agreement that there is no “crisis,” that the dangers of an aging society are being way overblown (it is argued, in fact, that an aging society is beneficial), and that the problems that do lie ahead are quite manageable (in the same way the bigger problems of the 1960s were managed). What’s pointed out is that any fiscal problem that might possibly arise is easily addressed. For example, the Social Security board of trustees report that future problems (because there isn’t one currently) could be remedied with a simple increase on the payroll tax. The estimated 75-year actuarial deficit for OASDI is just 2% of taxable payroll (so you increase it from something like 14% to 16%). The OECD also came out with a major report on easy solutions for any possible future problem that might occur with the pension system, none of which included abandoning the pension system. One reason is because it’s recognized that there is a moral obligation on our part and that there is in fact something that separates us from primitive animals that might simply “let nature take its course” (one of the more repugnant euphemisms I’ve heard).

So the solution, then, is quite simple. We don’t need to get rid of Social Security. Nor is there a need for “big changes” or major reform.

How do we end child labor? Friday, Feb 12 2010 

I’m in international economics this semester with Professor Ming Lo. The class is very interesting and Dr. Lo is a great professor. The topic of child labor came up in class as we were discussing globalization. Most people today agree that child labor is unethical. The question becomes, how do we stop it?

One response has been to simply outlaw it. For example, in 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act in an attempt to curb child labor and protect children from the horrors of industrialization, which had brought with it brutal, and often fatal, working conditions. This had an effect in domestic markets, but it did not stop similar abuses of children in foreign markets. This is why Senator Harkin (D-IA) introduced the Child Labor Deterrence Act in 1992 and several other years after that. The bill would “prohibit the importation of products that have been produced by child labor, and included civil and criminal penalties for violators.” Well this had an effect. According to Jagdish Bhagwati, the University Professor of economics at Columbia University and author of the 2004 book In Defense of Globalization, garment employers in Bangladesh laid off an estimated 50,000 child workers, fearing passage of the bill. We don’t know what happened to these children, but it is believed that these children moved to the underground economy. That is to say, they found worse jobs in worse conditions. These included, for example, unregistered garment factories. At least in some cases, however, these may have included child prostitution and being sold into the sex trade. Very few people could agree this is a positive result.

So how do we stop child labor if we agree that it ought to be stopped? Clearly, banning imported products made with child labor will likely have the effect of not eliminating child labor, but rather making it more concealed and even more dangerous and exploitative than it was before. Not doing anything doesn’t seem to be the solution either, evidenced by the fact that child labor still exists and has always existed until actions were undertaken to deal with the problems too. Dr. Bhagwati suggests in his book that we label products that are are made by child laborers. In this way, consumers can make a decision as to whether to buy the product or not. Although I agree it is a good idea to label products in this way (it increases consumer information), there are some problem. For one, many consumers still purchase goods even when they are aware of the negative aspects associated with it. People still continued to buy Nike products, for example, even after it was exposed that many of their products were produced in sweatshops and unethical working conditions. Sometimes the benefit that we receive from purchasing a product outweighs any negative thoughts we have about the ethical standards of its production. That is, even if we agree that the production of what we’re buying was done unethically, we still are inclined to purchase the product. Second, even if demand for products created with child labor does decrease because of increased awareness, the effect won’t be much different than prohibiting the import of these products. Children will be forced into other sectors, including underground markets that help conceal the true abuses to these children. While it may help us feel better, it doesn’t do much in the way of ending the exploitation of children. There does not seem to be any clear and easy solution to this problem, and I certainly don’t have the answer. I do believe, however, that a principal component needs to address the underlying causes that drive parents and their children to pick child labor as their available best option. In other words, we need to tackle the issue of world poverty and the social conditions in developing countries that lead to child labor. Decreasing our demand for these products is a step in the right direction, but clearly not enough to end this blight on human affairs.

A comment on the recent Supreme Court decision Saturday, Jan 23 2010 

Recently, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations (and labor unions) can spend unlimited amounts of their money on elections. Essentially, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations can run campaigns. Many have lauded the decision as a great defense of First Amendment rights.

Is it? “Freedom is awaking from its coma today,” declares conservative Rush Limbaugh. Dr. Spagnoli, writing on his blog, states, “there’s no reason to deny corporations [free speech].” This is because “free speech [is a human right],” he says. I agree with Dr. Spagnoli, free speech is a human right. But are corporations humans?

As it happens, corporations are not people. They are social constructs, entities created to carry out specific functions. However, as I discussed in a earlier blog post, Are corporations individuals?, corporations slowly became considered “persons” through a series of judicial rulings. There is no law that says corporations are humans. It’s not anywhere in the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment was passed after the Civil War to give rights to people, specifically the newly freed slaves. It declared, “No State shall … deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” It affirmed the rights of people. It was there to protect blacks from the evils they had endured under the brutal regime of slavery that had oppressed them for centuries.

Well, corporate lawyers were very savvy, and they began to say, “look, corporations are persons.” Corporations deserve the protection that was meant for freed slaves. In fact, when you look at the history of it, it’s very perverse. According to work done by Doug Hammerstrom, of the 150 cases involving the Fourteenth Amendment heard by the Supreme Court up to Plessy v. Ferguson, only 15 involved blacks. The other 135 were brought by corporations. This is the exact opposite of what we would expect to happen. However, through a series of activist decisions by judges, which has no basis in law, corporations gained personhood. Richard Grossman proclaims, “600,000 people were killed to get rights for people, and then with strokes of the pen over the next 30 years, judges applied those rights to capital and property, while stripping them from people.”

So now they can say corporations deserve the rights of flesh-and-blood persons, like the right to free speech; the ability to sue others; the right to “life, liberty, or property”; the right to own other businesses; the right to run campaigns; and so on. But there’s nothing inherent to a corporation that says its a person and deserves the rights of flesh-and-blood people. That’s only come about through very perverse judicial activism (e.g. Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad). Moreover, there’s nothing in economic theory that says corporations ought to be treated as persons. That corporations should run campaigns has got nothing to do with capitalism. There’s nothing about efficiency that says corporations should be allowed to do this. In a free and competitive market, it wouldn’t happen.

Anyone who argues that corporations should be treated as persons and have the same rights would also have to accept that corporations should also then be allowed to run for office, hold office, to vote in elections, and so on. But no one agrees with that and for obvious reasons. Moreover, Dr. Spagnoli does not say that only corporations should have the rights of persons. He also says, “corporations, trade unions etc.” should not be denied the right to free speech. Well, what does “etc.” constitute? If a corporation is a person, why not a sports team? Can a townhome association be considered a person under the Fourteenth Amendment? Why not?

What happened before corporations were granted the rights of persons? They were chartered by the state to carry out some function that was meant to serve the public good. They had a specific charter, their shareholders were accountable, they had limited rights, they were regulated, and so on. That they should be running campaigns was completely unfathomable, particularly to the Founding Fathers, who were vary wary of corporate power. Within this framework, corporations had moral obligations to the communities they served. With judges granting corporations personhood, however, the moral obligations we ascribe to flesh-and-blood persons was not ascribed to corporations. The moral obligations and social responsibility that corporations have, according to people like Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, is to serve their own interests. The only obligation corporations are to have is to maximize profits. These are not the same type of moral obligations we think flesh-and-blood people have. Most decent people, ignoring extreme ethical egoists, believe we ought to consider what happens to other people, that we have an obligation not to harm others, that we should not rape the environment, that we should not ignore grave injustices, that we should treat flesh-and-blood people as ends rather than means, and so on. Even those who support corporate personhood do not ascribe these moral obligations to corporations. These are very special types of “persons” indeed.

Should people have the right to free speech in a democracy? Yes. Are corporations people? No.

Haiti Thursday, Jan 14 2010 

Please see this post from The China Rose blog for information about the recent earthquake in Haiti, as well as relevant context to the tragedy and Haiti’s history of poverty and instability. As Haitian streets run with blood and its air fouled by the stench of piled-up corpses, let this tragedy remind us of the human suffering that exists in the world and serve as an opportunity to learn something about the history and lived realities of Haitians, which has got little to do with “bad luck.” For those of us with money, a donation cannot help the hundreds of thousands now feared dead, but it could make a difference for the poor masses of Haiti, who lived in extreme poverty and on less than a dollar a day even before the earthquake struck.

While the tragedy in Haiti is almost universally recognized as such, the response from right-wing extremists (or is it mainstream?) has been rather shocking and saddening. Rush Limbaugh, for example, claims President Obama’s response to the disaster will be used to “burnish” his “credibility in the light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country. It’s made to order for him. That’s why he could not wait to get out there” to offer support for the those devastated by the disaster. And while the right will continue to decry government spending as “inefficient” and “evil,” the Haitians rummaging through the debris of what was once their homes, their neighborhoods, their schools, or their places of worship, I’m sure, think quite differently of it. Meanwhile, as Limbaugh is busy throwing political jabs at Obama’s offer to provide relief to those enduring the pangs of sudden and utter disaster, Pat Robertson, the voice of conservative Christianity, claims that the earthquake (and the rest of Haiti’s ills) was a consequence of “a pact to the devil” Haitians made over 215 years ago to liberate themselves from France’s colonial rule.

Robertson, who also claims the September 11 attacks were God’s punishment on Americans for being too secular, claimed on the Christian Broadcasting Network‘s The 700 Club, “something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other. Desperately poor.”

Mr. Robertson would do good to first read some history. First, the Haitian Revolution of 1791 was well before Napoleon III’s time. Instead, the Haitian slaves spent most of their time fighting the powerful armies of Napoleon Bonaparte (i.e. Napoleon I). Napoleon III was not yet born by the time Haiti gained independence in 1804. Robertson’s ignorance of basic historic facts reflects the level of thinking required to make such bizarre and perverse statements. But, “You know, … whatever.” As for this “pact to the devil,” Robertson again faces a contradictory reality. According to Jean Gelin, a Haitian pastor who commented in 2005 on this supposed pact, “One would agree that such a strong affirmation should be based on solid historical and scriptural ground.” However, Gelin continues, “it is nothing more than a fantasist opinion that ultimately dissipates upon close examination.”

I would like to congratulate Mr. Robertson, however, for making at least one true statement. It’s true “something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it.” What happened is what’s been described as “the greatest of all the slave revolts,” which “forever altered the fate of black people in the Americas.” This “pact to the devil” that liberated Haiti from its racist overlords was really what normal people call Enlightenment thinking. That the Haitian Revolution closely followed the American and French revolutions is no accident of history. The great leaders of the Haitian Revolution, like Toussaint L’ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, took seriously the idea “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” They believed, as their contemporaries in this Age of Reason did, that power lies in the people, not kings and nobility. They challenged the religious orthodoxy of the Divine Right of Kings. These were the true roots of liberation theology—an understanding of Christianity that stresses the scriptural teachings of freedom, social justice, human rights, and supporting community—a striking contrast to Western and conservative understandings of Christianity, to be sure. That Mr. Robertson “might not want to talk about it” is understandable.

However, this Haitian revolution went beyond “the limited definition of freedom adopted by the French and American revolutions,” writes Haitian historian Patrick Bellegarde-Smith. Instead, continues Bellegarde-Smith, the Haitian Revolution that Robertson describes as “a pact to the devil,” was based on the “universal freedom for all humankind.” That slaves could rise up and overthrow the slave regime in the 1790s, the first time in the Western Hemisphere and perhaps in the history of the world, indeed was nothing short of a great inspirational source for those still suffering under the grips of slavery and those wishing to liberate them, from Fredrick Douglass in the United States of America to Simón Bolívar in South America.

Once again, “Even in its hour of utter devastation,” to again quote Cunningham, “Haiti, the western hemisphere’s poorest country, teaches the rest of the world some valuable truths.” The question is if anyone’s paying attention.

United States vs. the world Saturday, Dec 26 2009 

It wasn’t very long ago that I saying President Obama would probably be a centrist president. (Maybe not on this blog, but my comments are elsewhere on the Web.) The wild claims about socialism and radical shifts in policy were just that—wild claims. Most of the Republicans are scared out of their boots and most Democrats seem dissatisfied. He’s continued Bush’s Patriot Act, FISA, illegal spying, destruction of the Fourth Amendment, and so on. He’s continued the unwise bailouts of those responsible for our current financial crisis. And perhaps worst of all, he has kept the hawkish policy of his predecessor, now recently expanding the war in Afghanistan and has continued the illegal policy of extraordinary rendition, black sites (including the black jail), and ignoring Israeli crimes. All of this was expected, of course. Putting aside all the wonderful rhetoric (“Hope!” and “Change!”), Obama’s policies were recognized as nothing more than underwhelming. He’s a centrist president. (Here I am keeping myself, of course, to the American political lexicon. In American politics—where Democrats represent the “left” and Republicans represent the “right”—he is “centrist.” To the rest of the world, he remains a rightist.)


(Click for larger image. Author unknown.)

On a more specific level, Obama has continued his racist and imperial policies as they relate to Latin America. I wish to specifically talk about Honduras and the recent military coup that occurred there. For those unaware (which would be unsurprising, given the American educational culture), there was an illegal coup d’état in June of 2009 that ousted the democratically-elected president of Honduras, Manuel “Mel” Zelaya. After the military coup had removed Zelaya from the country, the Honduran congress voted to put Roberto Micheletti in power, with no other government in the world recognizing his presidency.

Naturally, of course, the neoconservative right hailed this military coup as a “defense of democracy,” a “democratic coup,” and so on. Janet from SCSU Scholars acclaimed it as a “legal election.” The rest of the world had no illusions and harshly condemned the illegal takeover of the country. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as the historical role of scholars has been to acquiesce to power, authority, state doctrine, and so on.

The rest of the world, that is, with the exception of the United States. While Obama certainly mimicked what the OAS and the UN were saying regarding the illegal coup, he was the only one to keep his ambassador, Hugo Llorens, in the country. This is the same Llorens who called the elections under the illegal coup as “a great celebration of democracy.” Meanwhile, the U.S. Ambassador to the OAS at the time declared Zelaya’s return to his country “foolish and irresponsible.” The British scholar Gordon Connell-Smith aptly points out, “While paying lip-service to the encouragement of representative democracy in Latin America, the United States has a strong interest in just the reverse,” apart from “procedural democracy, especially the holding of elections—which only too often have proved farcical.” While it’s certainly true there were procedural elections, which the U.S. supported in contrast to much of the rest of the world, the U.S. continued to refuse to demand Zelaya’s return to power and still refuses to speak even one word about the human rights abuses occurring under Micheletti.

This isn’t to say the precedent isn’t there. The countless Latin Americans murdered, tortured, or disappeared speaks volumes to the U.S.’s long and historic role in intervening in the region for its own (read: business’s) interests through dismantling left-wing democracies and installing right-wing dictatorships. The history is clear enough that it does not bear repeating here. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the Obama administration has opted to support (and played an important role in) the illegal overthrow of the left-wing Zelaya, ignore the atrocities of the current government, and support the right-wing “election” occurring just recently.

A crime against that which does not exist Saturday, Dec 19 2009 

Global warming is a crime against that which not exist, namely future people. Of course, it is still a crime against people who do exist in the present, e.g. the poor in Bolivia whose glacial water sources are quickly disappearing.

This is a point I just thought about in a discussion about global warming on some other forum. It’s worth mentioning that global warming (read anthropogenic climate change) is a classic example of externalities. Neoclassical economics tells us that when people (which includes corporations) don’t have to pay the price for the consequences of their actions, there is market failure. Resources are not being allocated efficiently—one reason why any claim about markets being efficient should be taken with a grain of salt. For examples, producers of pollution do not take into consideration the harmful effects of pollution—i.e. the true cost of pollution is ignored—and so pollution is overproduced (because the price does not reflect the cost). However, not only is global warming a classic example of market failure, it is the “greatest market failure” ever, in the words of Nicholas Stern:

The science tells us that GHG emissions are an externality; in other words, our emissions affect the lives of others. When people do not pay for the consequences of their actions we have market failure. This is the greatest market failure the world has seen. It is an externality that goes beyond those of ordinary congestion or pollution, although many of the same economic principles apply for its analysis.

This externality is different in 4 key ways that shape the whole policy story of a rational response. It is: global; long term; involves risks and uncertainties; and potentially involves major and irreversible change.

As it happens, there is a solution to fix the problem of when prices do not reflect true costs. The solution is to make the price reflect cost. In this case, you increase the price. That’s what some people have called the carbon tax (i.e. a Pigouvian tax). The externality goes away and resources are being allocated more efficiently. Now, we know the cost of our pollution and activity on this planet is enormous. It is several magnitudes larger than any cost associated with mitigating it, in fact. The rational human being should therefore be opting to mitigate it. The real question becomes whether or not we’re rational.

But let us think about the four key ways that Stern says global warming is distinct from other typical externalities. It’s global, long-term, risky and involves uncertainties, and is irreversible (within reasonable amounts of time, that is). What this means is that we’re condemning future populations of humans to live with the adverse effects of our actions. When we think about it for just a moment or two, we quickly realize that this is fundamentally wrong. It is morally wrong. Yet, many of these people do not even exist yet. They haven’t been born. At the same time, when they do come into existence, they will have to live in a much worse environment because of the actions we are committing in the present. It is in this sense that we are committing a crime against that which does not yet exist (namely future generations).

This is very peculiar indeed. The non-harm and non-aggression principles of libertarianism tells us not to harm other people. But it says nothing of people who do not exist (in that they have yet to exist). In a sense, I think many people in the present feel undisturbed about the effects of human activity on future generations because it’s a rather intangible idea, somewhat abstract. It’s hard to connect. If we are able to so brazenly ignore the plight of suffering Africans in the present, surely it is almost impossible for us to feel anything for generations of humans who are yet to exist. The effects of what goes on in our neighborhood, our cities, our states, or even our nation are much more immediate than that which goes on halfway around the world. So I think there is a problem of immediacy here. What happens to future generations is not immediate to us. This allows us to do what we do without even so much as batting an eyelid. Again, though, this is because we aren’t having to pay for the costs. Future generations will have to pay for it, and they will pay greatly. This is an externality. We can fix it by making the price of our actions reflect the true cost, and in this way we will also make the problems associated with our actions more immediate to us.

The people speak Sunday, Dec 13 2009 

Sorry for the relative inactivity as of late. I’ve been busy with finals, and still am, so this will be a short post. I just got finished watching The People Speak shown on the History channel. If you have a chance to watch it, I suggest you do. It was a very moving show of what real and ordinary people have said throughout American history. It wasn’t about what politicians, the elites, or the business class have thought. It was what people who were being affected by the nation’s policies spoke about. And I think it shows just how much Americans have been anti-war, for participatory democracy, social change, equality, and solidarity. It has always been this way and it runs deep in American life, outside of the perverse culture of Washington and Wall Street.

It shows how much American history has been built on the backs of ordinary people who strove for nothing more than a better life. It shows that opposition to state violence and oppression has a long and strong history, and the struggles of people like Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Eugene Debs, Martin Luther King Jr., J. W. Loguen, Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Emma Goldman, and others to fight against it. American history is a history of dissent and resistance and activism. Society has become more civilized due to their contributions. What liberty we have is because of these people who rose up. That is to say, democracy and liberty comes from the bottom up, from the people. When you look at the activist history of the sixties, the seventies, and the eighties, you see that it has a civilizing effect on society. And it continues straight through today, and we see it in the opposition to our fundamentally wrong wars, in the fight to give rights to gays, in the advancement of environmental protection, in the anti-sweatshop movements, and the solidarity with the suppressed in Palestine. That is the source of social progress. That is message I think Howard Zinn is trying to put out in The People Speak (and his A People’s History of the United States). So when we talk about what lies ahead, well, it’s largely up to us.

Organ capitalism revisted Wednesday, Dec 2 2009 

A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece supporting the sale and purchase of organs. I argued that allowing for a market for organs would get rid of the lack of supply of organs that are desperately needed to save the lives of those in need of an organ transplant (the literature tends to agree, as does empirical evidence from Iran). Every year, tens of thousands of people (about 100,000 in the U.S. alone) in need of new organs must wait because there lacks a supply of healthy organs available to them, and thousands more die because of this shortage. Every year the shortage continues to rise (demand is increasing faster than supply is). Healthy organs abound, but the shortage arises from the fact that it is a crime to sell or purchase organs. The altruistic donation of organs, while undoubtedly saving many lives, simply does not come close to supplying the necessary amount of organs. The logical conclusion seems to suggest there ought to be a market for organs.

Some people, however, detest this notion. In a recent post on his blog, Dr. Filip Spagnoli makes several nuanced arguments against free organ trade. The main arguments he makes, insofar as I understand them, are that the poor, qua the poor, will be desperate for money and therefore forced to sell their organs; the wealthy, qua the wealthy, will be able to disproportionately afford the organs and therefore be unfairly benefited; organ transplants are dangerous; solid organs donation is nonrenewable and therefore decidedly and relevantly different from blood donation; organ trade is tantamount to commodification of the body; and an opt-out system is the best solution to our problem.

King Banaian, a professor and chairman of the economics department at SCSU, made an argument similar to first listed above, back in 2005. The poor are desperate, goes the argument, and so it’s unfair they would end up selling organs (i.e. they lack informed consent). The basic underlying premise of this argument is that the poor are irrational, incapable of thinking for themselves. The government, therefore, knows what’s better for them than they themselves do. That is, they have to be protected from themselves (because they’re poor). I reject that argument. If the premise is true for the sale of organs, then it would be equally true of other economic decisions they make, including the sale of their labor or their purchase of goods. That doesn’t seem to be the case and, if it is, we certainly don’t restrict completely their involvement in the market (and even more certainly not the involvement of others).

So the argument seems to be that, if it weren’t for the money incentive being offered, the poor wouldn’t choose to donate their organs. But that’s true of basically all people. Economic agents would not do many things if it were not for the money incentive. Dell wouldn’t sell me computers if they weren’t being compensated for it. Is that exploitation (of their want for money)? I don’t think so. That’s called trade, and both the seller and buyer are made better off by it. So what the detractors have failed to explain is how the poor are made better off by ensuring they are not able to receive money that would help alleviate their predicament.

The second argument is that the wealthy, because they obtain more wealth, “will be able to benefit disproportionately from the market because prices will be high …” Dr. Spagnoli says this is true because society is aging, but admits prices will fall because of competition among suppliers, particularly from poor places like Africa. Still, the fact that the wealthy can disproportionately afford things does not suggest to me there ought not to be trade. So long as the distribution of wealth is unequal (which seems to always be the case), some people will be able to afford more than others. That doesn’t mean we outlaw trade. (The wealthy can afford more food and labor than the poor; do we therefore outlaw the sale of food or labor?) That seems to be punishing the rich merely by fact that they’re rich. And in this case, the punishment is death. Detractors of organ trade fail to explain how outlawing trade benefits the less-than-wealthy who are in need of an organ. It seems to me that as the wealthy begin to demand less organs, prices will begin to fall (allowing even the poor to afford to buy organs). By outlawing organ trade, detractors are (at best) disallowing some people from buying lifesaving organs merely because of their wealth.

The next argument is organ transplants are dangerous, so they should not be allowed. It’s true that all surgery, even the most benign, carry risk (including death). That reason alone is not enough to outlaw transplantation of organs. If it’s dangerous to sell organs for money, then it’s equally dangerous to donate organs altruistically. But we allow the altruistic kind. Clearly, danger is not the underlying factor here. Moreover, the dangers are overplayed, I think. The death rate for liver transplantation in Japan is at 0%, and 0.3% in the United States. These rates will continue to decline as advances in medicine continue and as surgeons progress along the learning curve. Kidney transplantation is even safer (people who donate kidneys live longer than those who don’t). Remember, it was Joseph Murray who won the Nobel Prize in medicine for completing the first kidney allograft in 1954. The patient in that case is still alive. While there is serious risk in many activities, including surgery (or timber cutting or smoking, which are both legal), that’s not enough to outlaw the practice.

Another argument is that blood (or sperm perhaps) is okay to sell because it’s renewable. The only defense here is that the distinction between renewable and nonrenewable is “relevant,” but without any further explanation. How is the distinction important? The fact that some goods are scarce doesn’t tell me a lot (other than that their price is going to be higher). Furthermore, modern liver transplantation in live patients consists of removing only a portion of the liver from the donor, which will regenerate and return to full functionality within a matter of a few weeks. Does the detractor now accept the trade of livers? (Similarly, the sale of bone marrow, which is just as renewable as blood, is a serious crime in the United States.)

A very common argument that also comes up is that the trade of organs is tantamount to the commodification of the body. I say, So what? It saves the lives of real human beings. That’s what matters. “Commodification is dehumanization,” they say. I counter that there is nothing more dehumanizing than simply letting people die, which is precisely what you do when you outlaw the trade of organs. So what is worse: that people might sell parts of their body or that hundreds of thousands of people are unable to get organs that could save their lives? Supporters of this argument also fail to explain how blood, bone marrow, sperm, ovarian eggs, or bearing children (all of which have markets) do not constitute commodification. Or, if they do, do they believe these practices ought to be outlawed? It’s also worth mentioning that even in altruistic donations, people are still profiting from it: the doctor, the nurses, the hospital, and so on. That is, everyone except the donor.

They might respond, We’re not letting them die because we have a solution, which is the op-out system. Opt-out, also called presumed consent, begins with the assumption that all people wish to donate their organs upon death. If you do not consent, you must specifically tell this to the state. (My contention is that this is akin to saying the state owns your body by assumption.) This is opposed to the opt-in system, like in the United States, where the assumption is that people do no wish to donate their organs upon death, unless it is otherwise specified. In that way, the hope of opt-out supporters is that people are not altruistic, but rather lazy or ignorant. I find that deeply unethical, but Dr. Spagnoli points to several studies from his country, Belgium, which show opt-out is providing an ample amount of organs (that is, people seem to be lazy or ignorant). (The rate of “donation” is marginally higher than that of the U.S.) A lot of the scholarly literature, however, does indeed seem to suggest opt-out provides higher rates of organ “donations” than opt-in. If this were necessarily true, though, Sweden and Israel (opt-out states) would not have such low donation rates. A study published in 2005 further shows that opt-out systems do not guarantee higher donation rates. The authors find that, when correcting for mortality rates, the apparent efficacy of opt-out disappears. Perhaps better than opt-in or opt-out, a better choice would be mandatory choice. All competent adults must choose whether or not they wish to donate their organs or not. Family decisions (which negatively affect the efficacy of both opt-in and opt-out) must not override the individual’s choice.

Still, it seems giving enough of an incentive to potential donors is the key to finally getting rid of organ shortages, which cause unnecessary deaths each year. As I explained earlier, Iran has been successful in accomplishing this. If detractors are unwavering, however, then perhaps markets are not necessarily the correct solution. Instead, I might propose a system wherein the government pays for the organs and then distributes these as equitably as possible. This removes a lot of the fears detractors have of unfair market allocations. Others, unfortunately, might reflexively bash the idea because it relies on (*moan*) the government. But I ask these people the same question as before: What is worse—that the government might be involved in the trade of organs or that thousands must die needlessly each year because they are unable to procure necessary organs?

The profit motive Friday, Nov 20 2009 

In my global marketing strategy class the other day, instructor David Thomsen showed two pretty shocking videos in discussing public relations. One was on the Bhopal disaster of 1984. The Bhopal gas tragedy is the worst industrial disaster in human history, leaving 8,000 dead within hours of the gas leak in the Indian city, 25,000 dead since the disaster, hundreds of thousands adversely affected by the chemicals, continuing side effects on humans and other animals, and environmental damage that persists today. The “compensation” the video talks about was less than $900 per injured person. Union Carbide, the corporation responsible for the leak, denied any culpability. The Dow Chemical Company later bought them in 2001. The CEO of the company at the time, Warren Anderson, was charged with homicide and manslaughter. He left the country and fled to the United States, where he currently resides, and refuses to appear before Indian courts.

The second video was a report by Australia’s Channel 7 revealing that Nike, a corporation marred by its human rights violations and despicable working conditions in Third World countries, continued to engage in forced labor practices in sweatshops in Malaysia as late as 2008. Note this is after they claimed to have cleaned up their act.

There is a simple reason these types of actions, and others like them, occur, which is what’s called the profit motive. When profit-maximization is the creed, what happens to people is only incidental. There is a whole generation of businesspeople who have been influenced by the work of people like Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, whose principle message is that the only socially responsible (and indeed morally right) action is to maximize self-interest by way of profits. These ideas are justified by ethical egoism, a morally bankrupt and vacuous theory that says the only morally right actions are actions that maximize the acting agent’s self-interest. That’s what’s called “the moral economy.” The right, in their usual perversion of Smithian theory, always tries to defend this on economic grounds, appealing to what they refer to as “the invisible hand,” a term meant to describe the unintentional benefit to society that corporations bring about through acting in their self-interest. Adam Smith, of course, only used the term once in his The Wealth Nations and only as a “casual metaphor” for risk-adverse merchants wary of foreign exchange who inadvertently help their own countries. Smith, like many of the other great anti- and pre-capitalist Enlightenment thinkers, denounced greed and selfishness. As most serious scholars of Smith recognize, Smith never saw the “invisible hand” as a reality or “law” of markets. As Joseph Stiglitz puts it, “the reason that the invisible hand often seems invisible is that it is often not there.”

As ethical egoism posits to us, there is a certain calculus all moral agents are supposed to undertake in their actions. Namely, they are to ascertain which actions will ultimately lead to profit maximization and undertake those actions. For Union Carbide, that meant denying responsibility for the worst industrial disaster in human history and paying its victims an inconsequential and truly unjust fraction of its coffers. For Nike, that meant finding the cheapest source of labor and exploiting them in the worst kinds of ways—that is, until they’re caught. And while these might indeed be the profit-maximizing choices, surely nobody agrees they have improved the lot of all. When we ignore the rights of people and the laws that regulate acceptable behavior (as, indeed, ethical egoism asks us to do when it is profitable), the necessary result is an abject and deplorable world. The fact that the far-right advocates the abolition of regulations intended to safeguard against such massive injustices from ever happening is justified, they say, by a certain euphemism they call “market democracy” (the idea that ordinary market participants, like you or me, can shape business behavior—but you more than me, because I’m poor). The sobering reality: Dow’s revenues in 2008 totaled more than $57.5 billion, and over $16.6 billion for Nike.

So long as corporations continue to operate within the framework of this “moral economy,” justified by Friedman, Rand and others, we will continue to witness the tragedies and corruption that we hear about on an everyday basis. What is needed instead, at the most minimal level, is a better consideration for those other than the self, as advocated in theories like stakeholder theory, and better regulations and stiffer penalties to ensure “profit over people” (what Smith described to as “the vile maxim of the masters of mankind”) does not become the norm.

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