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.

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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.

RE:God debate Thursday, Feb 25 2010 

Wow! I would like thank Campus Crusade for Christ (CRU) and Secular Student Alliance (SSA) for hosting and Professor Suzanne Stangl-Erkens for moderating last night’s debate between August Berkshire and Joe Boot on whether God exists or not. Mr. Boot argued in the affirmative, while Mr. Berkshire argued in the negative. The turnout was spectacular. There were 700 seats set out in the Atwood ballroom and an additional 200 were brought in to accommodate the influx of people. Even then, there were still people standing, so attendance was close to 1,000 people. That’s way more than I think anyone was expecting. This is clearly a subject many people are interested in, including even for college-aged students. In most of these types of events on campus, there is usually a high ratio of older adults to college students. I didn’t notice that here. It did seem to me that God-fearing Christians outnumbered the secular nonbelievers in the crowd, but that would be consistent with the broader demographic, though there was still strong support for Mr. Berkshire. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any polling beforehand to gauge the beliefs of those in attendance, though I did notice more people went towards SSA’s table than to Mr. Boot’s near the entrance of the ballroom. I think free material enticed people more than books for sale. 😉

As for the debate at hand, I cannot make much of a reply to Mr. Boot’s positions, as my knowledge on metaphysics is not very strong. I do, however, like how he took a philosophical approach and touched on some epistemological issues. Philosophy is one of my favorite subjects and I find it very interesting, so I do not take for granted his appeal to many philosophical arguments for the existence of God. Indeed, I believe it is only through these types of arguments that anyone can ascertain the existence or non-existence of God or a god. Moreover, I thought Mr. Berkshire was rather calm, straightforward, and concise, while Mr. Boot always seemed to be yelling and went over the allotted time on several occasions. At the same time, though, the debates were on quite different levels. By that, I mean they took very different approaches to their arguments. Mr. Berkshire was very concrete and straightforward in his arguments, in my opinion, whereas Mr. Boot was much more philosophical and abstract. Mr. Boot, for example, argued that the existence of God is necessary if we are to make any intelligible sense of the world, whereas Mr. Berkshire referred to this line of thinking as “God of the gaps”; Mr. Berkshire contended that since Mr. Boot could not find any natural explanation for certain phenomena (e.g. natural laws), that he was merely trying to fill the void (in knowledge) or gap with the invention of a god. So Mr. Berkshire’s argument was that there lacked any compelling evidence to lead him to believe in the existence of a god, whereas Mr. Boot argued that such an existence is logically necessary.

Who had the stronger arguments? Me being a member of SSA, I’m naturally inclined to say Mr. Berkshire did, just as I’m sure most of the Christians in the crowd would say Mr. Boot did. Did anyone in the crowd change their mind? I don’t know, maybe a few (as I said, there was no polling to objectively gauge this). For those coming in unsure, I hope either debater helped clarify the positions so that informed and educated decisions could made. I very much enjoyed the debate. It was great to hear from Mr. Boot a new perspective that I had not heard before. Mr. Berkshire also brought interesting arguments that I also had not heard before, which helped me solidify my beliefs. I do have to admit though, one my favorite quotes from the whole thing was from Mr. Berkshire: “According to Christian theology, God sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself.”

In the end, I think the debate was very constructive. Open, intelligent, and civil discussion serves an important function in liberal democratic societies. The fact that we’re able to hold discussions on such topics is a testament to progress of society, even within the past few decades. Where just a few decades ago atheists were relegated to second-class citizenship who should not be “considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots” according to the then-Vice President Bush, I am pleased we are able to discuss the topic rationally, respectably, and with impunity. While I do think much progress is left to be made in this area, I appreciate greatly the time and effort both Joe Boot and August Berkshire gave to bring this great experience to SCSU. I would again like to thank CRU, SSA, and Professor Stangl-Erkens. I would also like to thank all those in attendance who also took time to listen to perspectives they may have disagreed with it. In all, I believe there was a positive outcome.

American ungenerosity – part I of II Saturday, Feb 20 2010 

In their pompous belief in American exceptionalism, there are some people—typically on the right—who claim that the United States “is the most charitable country on earth.” Next, they try to explain why we’re so generous, and they have plenty of ideas indeed. But, really, what we ought to ask first is whether or not it’s true. Is it really true that the United States is the most generous nation on Earth? It depends.

It depends, first of all, on what we’re measuring and how we measure it. In the first of a two part series examining “American generosity,” I’ll look at how the United States compares as a nation to other nations in terms of its charitable contributions. In the second part, I’ll look at the generosity of the American people through private donations.

On a national scale, how does the United States compare? As a nation, are we the most charitable? If the American people are truly as generous as the believers in American exceptionalism say we are, this should be reflected in the national policies and agendas set by the people we’ve elected to represent us. Is it? Is giving a priority the American people are concerned about? Using some measures, it is. For example, if measure how much Official Development Aid (ODA) the United States gives compared to other nations, the United States far surpasses any other nation according to data compiled by the OECD. In absolute terms, the United States gave away $26.01 billion in ODA in 2008—nearly twice as much as the second most charitable nation (Germany) gave away.

But is this really a good measure of charitableness? The United States is the third most populated country and is by far the richest in the world (more than the next three richest countries combined). We would expect that the United States should have the highest donation rate in absolute terms, based on that fact alone (there is, in fact, a strong positive relationship between the total wealth of a nation and the absolute amount it gives away). How does the United States compare when we look at ODA relative to the nation’s gross national income (GNI)? According to the same OECD data, the United States ranks dead last among industrialized nations in terms of the ODA it gives away as a percent of GNI. In 2008, the United States gave away just 0.18% of its GNI in ODA, while Sweden, the most charitable of industrialized nations, gave away 0.98%. In other words, the United States is the least charitable industrialized nation relative to its wealth, while the Scandinavian countries are the most generous. Looking at the data, there is a slight trend showing the inverse relationship between a nation’s GNI and how much it contributes as a percentage of that GNI (in other words, nations with higher GNIs tend to donate a smaller percentage of it), as shown in the figure below.

By this measure, then, which I find much more reasonable, the United States is not very charitable at all. As you can see in the above graph, the United States is a big outlier, with very high GNI but very low percent of it going toward ODA. As you might have noted in the OECD data, there is a UN target of 0.7% of GNI being donated towards ODA, which only five nations have surpassed. More sobering is the fact that this goal was made 1970—40 years ago. In 1970, the General Assembly passed Resolution 2626, stating, “Each economically advanced country will progressively increase its official development assistance to the developing countries and will exert its best efforts to reach a minimum net amount of 0.7 per cent of its gross national product at market prices by the middle of the Decade.” The Millennium Development Goals, a set of goals 192 nations including the United States have agreed to achieve by 2015 to improve human existence, includes the goal of having rich nations contributing a minimum of 0.7% of GNI towards ODA. By 2015, when the Millennium Development Goals are to be reached, it will have been 45 years since the target was established. While the last administration balked at the pact to fight poverty, the question is now if the Obama administration is going to renew America’s commitment to eradicating global poverty.

However, is simply increasing the amount of aid the answer to all the world’s problems? Clearly not. A lot of people, e.g. William Easterly, argue that foreign aid is ineffective or that we have no moral obligation to extract from our coffers to give to the disadvantaged—and they have strong arguments. Writes Easterly, “It is heart-breaking that global society has evolved a highly efficient way to get entertainment to rich adults and children, while it can’t get twelve-cent medicine to dying poor children.” Indeed, there are many problems that plague foreign aid. If the quality of the aid is not very good, then the quantity won’t make much of a difference. The problem becomes clear when we adjust aid figures for the quality of the aid. When we adjust the aid figures to reflect quality, for example by penalizing proliferation of programs or tying aid, the United States delivers only 0.07% of its GDP in quality aid, according to a paper by to a paper by David Roodman for the Center for Global Development. Similarly, according to a report by Action Aid, “roughly half of global aid is ‘phantom aid’, that is, it is not genuinely available to poor countries to fight poverty.” Argues Pekka Hirvonen in a 2005 paper for the Global Policy Forum, “development assistance is often of dubious quality. In many cases, aid is primarily designed to serve the strategic and economic interests of the donor countries or to benefit powerful domestic interest groups. Aid systems based on the interests of donors instead of the needs of recipients’ make development assistance inefficient. Too little aid reaches countries that most desperately need it, and, all too often, aid is wasted on overpriced goods and services from donor countries.” So, for example, during the Cold War, the superpowers were very “charitable,” and gave a lot of money away to client states that acquiesced to their political and economic interests. But does that promote development or help the people in most need of it? That’s “dubious.”

Clearly, there is both a quantity and a quality issue with foreign aid. To bring it to the present, some commentators, such as Ann-Louise Colgan, have noted, “aid flows are largely dictated by geo-strategic concerns rather than by efforts to reduce poverty.” For example, an overwhelming majority of U.S. aid goes to Israel, a lot more than any other nation. A majority of this is Foreign Military Financing (FMF). In fact, when you look at U.S. FMF, an inordinate amount goes to places like Israel, Egypt, and Colombia—in other words, the leading terrorist states. A lot more could be said about this, but the point should be clear. “Aid” is being to used to bolster strategic and ideological interests, not for the purpose of helping the poor escape their poverty or find a more decent life. Of course, all of this is perfectly transparent. Take, for example, Ronald Regan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz, who stated, “our foreign assistance programs are vital to the achievement of our foreign policy goals.”

What should we take from all of this? First, it should be clear that the United States is not nearly as generous as it is touted to be, certainly not “the most charitable country on earth.” We, like most developed and rich countries, continue to fall significantly short of the levels of aid promised. Second, we should also be concerned with the quality of the aid (rather than just the quantity). So long as our “generosity” is guided solely for self-interests, the issues of poverty and despair will continue to be with us well beyond the 2015 marker established to eradicate the world of this blight.

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.

Democracy vs. libertarianism Monday, Jan 11 2010 

One of the problems that ideologues of any persuasion probably run into is the problem of democracy. What do I mean by “the problem of democracy”? What I mean by this is that the democratic majority often does not adhere or conform perfectly to the ideology that a person or group may have. This can be a problem for the ideologue if he or she professes to be a democrat (a supporter of democracy). So, for example, the libertarian may decry the government’s role in society, despite the democratic majority wanting social programs or government regulation. Thus, any claim that we should wipe out social spending is inherently anti-democratic in this sense. My previous post on government involvement touches on this issue. Of course, the ideologue can bypass this “problem” if they do not profess to be democrats. Instead, we should simply implement the policies of our ideology, no matter how much the public is opposed to it. That is, we become authoritarians. For the libertarian or the anarchist, this is inherently paradoxical. We cannot claim to be libertarians and authoritarians at the same time—the ideas are necessarily opposed to each other. It is not possible to authoritatively implement our policies in the name of libertarianism, for example. That isn’t to say no one has tried; for example, Augusto Pinochet, in his brutal dictatorship over Chile, enacted free-market reforms in the name of “liberating.” We know that’s hypocritical, and we understand the perversity in his understanding of “liberty.” Here, “liberty” means liberty for the corporation, not for the people. Thus, the ideas of libertarianism and anti-democratic measures are incompatible.

How can the ideologue cope with “the problem of democracy”? How can we accept certain principles that the majority rejects, yet still call ourselves “champions of democracy”? I have two suggestions, and others are welcome. First, be what could be called a philosophical ideologue (cf. philosophical anarchism). That is to say, you keep your beliefs in whatever ideology you choose, but you accept the majority’s opinion as the opinion that should be adhered to. So, for example, if you’re against social spending, but the majority supports it, you continue to believe that social spending is wrong but accept the majority’s choice as the will of the people. For some, this might seem like an unpleasing solution, which I accept. It does seem contradictory to accept the choice but at the same time to not accept the choice. It would seem as if we are not truly adhering to our ideologies (that’s a common argument against anarchists who do not support the overthrow of the state—they’re not real anarchists). Do we or do we not accept that argument? The other thing I suggest is that we teach or advocate our ideology in a way that is not anti-democratic. We explain our philosophies (non-coercively) to others in the hopes that they will accept them. In this way, we can influence the outcome of the democratic choice without resorting to authoritarianism.

I accept that others may not accept this. They may say we have to cling to our ideologies, no matter what. We must reject the democratic majority. They may not say it in this way, but it is what they’re saying. I reject this argument and find it to be dangerous. Over ideology, I am a democrat.

P.S. This is a further exploration of a concept that Dr. Spagnoli explores on his blog in a post titled “What is Democracy?” In it, he explains, “Napoleon Bonaparte propelled his armies across Europe on behalf of the universal principles of liberty, equality and fraternity . . . Napoleon’s armies occupied Europe because they wanted to export French principles and French civilization. . . . France was the advance guard of the struggle of humanity for freedom and against old-style authoritarianism.” The parallels to contemporary foreign affairs are obvious enough. Claims Dr. Spagnoli, “Attacking, conquering and occupying other countries, even with the purpose of liberating these countries from oppression and archaic authoritarian forms of government, seems to be highly illogical and self-contradictory. It’s incompatible with the very principles of democracy (democracy is self-determination).” The question being raised is, “are we allowed to impose or enforce democracy in an authoritarian way?” Likewise, I raise the question if libertarians are allowed to impose or enforce libertarianism in an authoritarian way. I say no.

Is the government inefficient? Sunday, Jan 3 2010 

I found this passage somewhere on the Internet, unknown author:

This morning I was awoken by my alarm clock powered by electricity generated by the public power monopoly regulated by the U.S. Department of Energy. I then took a shower in the clean water provided by the municipal water utility. After that, I turned on the TV to one of the FCC-regulated channels to see what the National Weather Service of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration determined the weather was going to be like using satellites designed, built, and launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I watched this while eating my breakfast of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected food and taking the drugs which have been determined safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

At the appropriate time as regulated by the U.S. Congress and kept accurate by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Naval Observatory, I get into my National Highway Traffic Safety Administration-approved automobile and set out to work on the roads built and maintained by the local, state, and federal departments of transportation, possibly stopping to purchase additional fuel of quality level determined by the Environmental Protection Agency, using legal tender issued by the Federal Reserve System. On the way out the door, I deposit any mail I have to be sent out via the U.S. Postal Service and drop the kids off at the public school.

After work, I drive my NHTSA car back home on the DOT roads, to a house that has not burned down in my absence because of the state and local building codes and fire marshal’s inspection, and which has not been plundered of all its valuable thanks to the local police department.

I then log on to the Internet, which was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration and post on freerepublic.com and FOX News forums about how SOCIALISM in medicine is BAD because government can’t do anything right.

What this passage is getting at is the myriad functions that government serves— sometimes unbeknown to the general public—and it only begins to scratch the surface. It would, I think, be pretty safe to say government is responsible for or at least crucially linked to the development of modern society, not free markets. That’s just a descriptive statement, and I believe the main point of the quoted passage. There are some, like those “on freerepublic.com and FOX News forums,” who bemoan government and its supposed inefficiency, yet take for granted all the things it provides them (like roads and police protection).

The question, really, is an economic one. One issue that arises concerns what are called public goods. In technical terms, a public good is any “good that is non-rivalrous and non-excludable.” All non-rivalrous means is that when one person uses that good another person is not restricted from also using that good (e.g., when I log on to the Internet, this does not preclude you from doing the same). All non-excludable means is that no one wanting access to the good can be reasonably denied access to that good. A decent example might lighthouse beams that provide light to ships, regardless of which ship it might be (that is, it’s difficult to exclude other people from seeing this light). As the Wikipedia article points out, “there may be no such thing as an absolutely non-rivaled and non-excludable good; but economists think that some goods approximate the concept closely enough for the analysis to be economically useful.” (The economic idea of public goods, by the way, was developed by Paul Samuelson, the pioneering Nobel laureate who died just three weeks ago.)

The problem that arises is that public goods are not produced efficiently in “free markets.” They’re under-produced. This causes what is called market failure; the market does not operate efficiently. The reason for this is because you can’t make a profit off of it, or not very much the closer the good approaches the concept of a public good. If a good produces a benefit to society that the creator of the good cannot profit from, there’s little economic incentive to produce such a good. That’s standard neoclassical economic theory, anyway. The idea is tied to what are called externalities. A positive externality is something people benefit from, e.g. clean air, but those who benefit from it don’t necessarily have to pay for it. An example I get from Milton Friedman, the great free-market thinker, is that when I plant a pretty garden in my front yard, other people get to experience the benefit of it without having to pay or do any work for it. Again, these are under-produced in free markets, according to standard theory, because there is not enough economic incentive to produce these things.

Well, one solution has been to have the government produce goods for public use, which is where the entire passage quoted above comes from. The result is that we all get to benefit from government involvement in the market place. I get the ability to tell the precise time because the government has taken the initiative to keep accurate account of time—something theory tells us profit-maximizing corporations would be unwilling to do.

At the same time, however, as the story above illustrated, people still bemoan government and its attempts to provide for the public good. The market is great, it will provide us all the things we need, and it will do so efficiently, they might say. The socialist might respond by pointing out that this is not necessarily true, and point to things like externalities and asymmetric information, which exist nearly everywhere, and conclude the market rarely works efficiently. For this reason, we need the government to provide for the public good, particularly when the unfettered market cannot. The right-winger (if they’re not Austrian) might concede that things like externalities and asymmetric information exist but posit that the government still ought not get involved because that would constitute an abridgment of our freedom, is coercive, evil, etc. The question becomes harder. Indeed, for many the question is not only economic but also ethical. At this point, I think most people begin to ask what the right balance is between market forces and government involvement. The question is left unanswered and, in mind, the answer remains to be seen.

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.

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