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.

Apathy kills Wednesday, Mar 31 2010 

WikiLeaks has just released a rather disturbing document. The leaked document comes from the CIA, and it details how the manipulation of public opinion should be used to bolster support for our war in Afghanistan. The CIA is apparently concerned with the possibility of a “Dutch-style debate” in other NATO countries, “notably France and Germany.” The Dutch, of course, made news last month after their government collapsed amid debates as to whether the country should keep its troops in Afghanistan or not. The Dutch will pull their troops out by August.

Naturally, the U.S. government is very concerned about this. If a “Dutch-style debate” spreads to other countries, the mission in Afghanistan could be jeopardized. They know this because they know their war in Afghanistan is overwhelmingly opposed by the public. (You can read my post on why I think the Afghanistan War is fundamentally wrong here.) The CIA acknowledges, “Berlin and Paris currently maintain the third and fourth highest ISAF troop levels, despite the opposition of 80 percent of German and French respondents to increased ISAF deployments, according to INR polling in fall 2009.”

I believe this has something to do with one of the conclusions I came to in a post about the way democracy in the United States functions: the public is supposed to be marginalized and its opinion ignored. I don’t pretend this is limited to the United States. The CIA readily admits “French and German leaders” have been able to “disregard popular opposition and steadily increase their troop contributions to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).” The CIA notes that Germany and France “have counted on public apathy about Afghanistan to increase their contributions to the mission.” But if a “Dutch-style debate” spreads to these countries, they may not be able to rely on apathy any longer to continue their involvement in Afghanistan. Apathy could quickly “turn into active and politically potent hostility,” and worsening conditions “could become a tipping point in converting passive opposition into active calls for immediate withdrawal.” This is bad news because the CIA fears “politicians elsewhere might cite a precedent for ‘listening to the voters.'” We can’t have politicians listening to voters…

Thus, the report recommends the United States government be involved in a campaign to alter the public’s opinion, or what has been referred to as “the manufacture of consent.” In normal parlance we might refer to this as propaganda. The report mentions, “Western European publics might be better prepared to tolerate a spring and summer of greater military and civilian casualties if they perceive clear connections between outcomes in Afghanistan and their own priorities.” Therefore, there is a need for “A consistent and iterative strategic communication program” that would give “tailored messages” to the public, in order to get them “to support a good and necessary cause despite casualties.” The report suggests the U.S. government “could leverage French (and other European) guilt.” If we monger fear, particularly about “the Taliban rolling back hard-won progress” and “a refugee crisis,” we could “provoke French indignation.”

One of the key resources we have in doing this is President Obama. It’s fairly hard for anyone to ignore how muted the subject of war has become, particularly in left and Democratic circles, after the election of President Obama. Him being a Democrat has helped the hawks in calming the anti-war movement, which has a strong core of Democrats and leftists (though there are also many right-libertarians as well). The CIA recognizes this fact. The CIA is quick to boast about the “confidence of the French and German publics in President Obama’s ability to handle foreign affairs in general and Afghanistan in particular.” They suggest there is a “significant sensitivity to disappointing a president seen as broadly in sync with European concerns.” Therefore, President Obama is a wonderful asset for the U.S. government to sell the war.

If our government being involved in the manipulation of opinion in other countries doesn’t unsettle you in the slightest, perhaps it would be even harder to not be disturbed by how it is actively going after Web sites like WikiLeaks that expose secrets of corrupt governments and corporations. WikiLeaks.org has been described as a “controversial but essential example of what the web does best,” that “takes power away from the powerful and hands it to citizens.” This is precisely what has the U.S. government concerned. Writes The New York Times, “To the list of the enemies threatening the security of the United States, the Pentagon has added WikiLeaks.org, a tiny online source of information and documents that governments and corporations around the world would prefer to keep secret.” This is following WikiLeak’s release of a document prepared by the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Center that discusses how it sees WikiLeaks as being a threat to the national government.

I think little else need be said.

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.

So much ado, but about what? Thursday, Jan 14 2010 

I get tired writing about global warming (read: anthropogenic climate change). As far as I am concerned, the main conclusions are settled. The main conclusions that I’m talking about is the mainstream consensus outlined by the IPCC and supported by every major academy of science in the world and virtually every scientist publishing research on the matter. The consensus is that human activity is responsible for recent climate change, that this climate change has adverse effects, and that the effects are going to worsen if we continue down the “business as usual” path. That’s settled, no question about it. I would like to leave the quibbling over minor uncertainties, model improvements, and further refinement of the theory to the more capable scientists who publish legitimate research in the technical literature. I find myself, however, having to defend against the main conclusions of the theory of anthropogenic climate change, because people find opportunity to attack it whenever it becomes politically convenient. That’s essentially what we call partisanship (i.e. hackery). These people like to pretend they are engaging in some sort of scientific inquiry, so label themselves “skeptics.” But we know this is not true—the real skeptics (e.g. Lindzen) are few and far between—so I label them “septics,” borrowing the term from William Connolley, who explains the meaning on his blog.

Again, we find the septics at the SCSU Scholars blog making a bunch of ado, in their regular fashion. But about what? Essentially, nothing. Dr. Banaian, professor and chairman of the economics department at SCSU, using a satirist’s Web site for reference (though, be careful in pointing out the fact, or you’ll be accused of ad hominems), complains about the use of principal components analysis (PCA)—a statistical procedure used in the analysis of data—in a 1998 paper written by Michael E. Mann, Raymond S. Bradley, and Malcolm K. Hughes (hereafter referred to as Mann et al.). The problem for Dr. Banaian lies in the fact that, as he explains it, “PCA is a technique that, in the social sciences, has been found to be highly sensitive to the inclusions of new proxies.” This might be true, in part, he says, in the natural sciences, but he’s not really sure, probably, in part, because he hasn’t read about it. That might be a wild supposition, but given that the professor even admits to us that he hasn’t even bothered to read the paper he criticizes, it’s not beyond legitimate possibility. This, he says, “increases my skepticism,” though “septicism” probably would have been more fitting.

I try to point out to the professor that the Mann et al. paper, the basic conclusion of which is that contemporary warming is anomalous (differing from previous warming), is valid and supported by virtually the entire scientific community that’s spoken on the issue, including those scientists who have published criticisms of the Mann et al. paper. Dr. Banaian says Mann et al. are wrong, I say they are correct. I better provide some evidence, right? One might reasonably make that assumption, so I link to a report done by the National Academies of Science (NAS), which concluded, “The basic conclusion of Mann et al. (1998, 1999) … that the late 20th century warmth in the Northern Hemisphere was unprecedented during at least the last 1,000 years … has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence …” Summarizing the report, Nature, the prestigious scientific journal, writes that the the NAS “affirms [the] hockey-stick graph,” while Roger A. Pielke, Jr., a critic and pretty close to being a skeptic himself, writes, “the NAS has rendered a near-complete vindication for the work of Mann et al.” In addition to the NAS report, I linked to two peer-reviewed articles that support Mann et al.‘s use of PCA and the accuracy of their reconstruction of past temperature. The first paper, by Wahl and Amman (2007), is a response to McIntyre (who Dr. Banaian later appeals to) and McKitrick. Wahl and Ammann say, “the Mann et al. reconstruction is robust against the proxy-based criticisms addressed. In particular, reconstructed hemispheric temperatures are demonstrated to be largely unaffected by the use or non-use of PCs to summarize proxy evidence from the data-rich North American region.” Moreover, I provide a link to a blog post written by climate scientists discussing McIntyre and McKitrick (the people the aforementioned satirists relies on) and the various “false claims” they make regarding Mann et al.‘s use of PCA.

Well, one might think this is all well and good. Science, after all, is an objective field in which one can appeal to evidence, and the evidence can be judged on its merits. If someone has a differing point of view, they can provide the scientific evidence to support it. So it would be reasonable to assume that evidence should be welcomed when there’s a contradictory claim. It helps you evaluate the claims being made. But it’s dangerous not to drink the Kool-Aid. The cost of not jumping on the politically-convenient (but scientifically-bankrupt) bandwagon of the septics is that I get derided for posting “a link dump”—because contradictory evidence isn’t welcome. Instead it constitutes “linking dumping” to “the cross-referencing, daisy-chain-refereeing bunch from the Mann gang.” I never link to Mann nor anyone from his “gang,” but these types of facts are not supposed to matter. (Although, even if I had linked to Rutherford et al., which includes Mann, and the defense they provide for the methods used in the Mann et al. paper, so what?) I ordinarily would not think much of this; it’s the typical rhetoric the septic retches up whenever confronted by an “inconvenient truth” (science). The thing is, you don’t typically see the type of anti-intellectualism displayed among self-professed scholars. The septics I usually speak with on a near-daily basis, though their rhetoric is virtually identical, don’t usually come from academia. Perhaps that says something. But when you get accused of being a “pedant” trying to enter “Valhalla,” I think this says something quite serious about the culture of this so-called “skepticism,” which has always had at its roots a derision of science and an acceptance anti-intellectualism. I personally find it to be pretty dangerous.

But let’s say we ignore the rhetoric and accept Dr. Banaian’s argument. Does it mean anything? It means nothing. We’re talking about a 1998 paper that has been updated by the authors and commented on multiple occasions over the years, and further supplemented by numerous, independent research that has all come to the same basic conclusions that Mann et al. came to in their paper. Any suggestion that the Mann et al. paper is crucially relied on to support the basic conclusions made by the IPCC or even that contemporary warming is anomalous is transparently absurd. So even if Mann et al.‘s paper was invalid (though it wasn’t), it says nothing about our understanding of climate reproduction or contemporary warming. The so-called “hockey stick” graph that appears in the Mann et al. paper is but one of many “hockey sticks” that exist in the literature on climate reconstruction. See, for example, this image put together by Robert Rhode; a similar image is found in the IPCC’s latest report (Chp. 6 of the WGI contribution) and elsewhere. Mann et al.’s (1999) graph is the plain blue line in Rhode’s image.

The literature on the issue is robust. Contemporary warming is anomalous—unprecedented within the past 1,000 years. The cause is explained by the theory of anthropogenic climate change. We can and should dismiss the feverish rhetoric as ado about absolutely nothing.

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.

Obama evinces the truth: the crisis of democracy Tuesday, Oct 6 2009 

Today, President Obama announced that what I and others have been saying about democracy is true. Namely, it doesn’t function in the United States. As I point out in my post about democracy in the United States, it functions just as Dana Perino explains it: You get your say every four years, and you’re supposed to shutup in between those years. That is, you’re supposed to be relegated to be spectators in this “democracy,” not participants.

So when Obama declares he won’t listen to the public or Congress in how to handle the Afghanistan War, a war that is fundamentally wrong, he is implicitly agreeing with Perino and others who argue that the public should have no input on how the country is run.

These ideas are not new by any means either. This is essentially how it was designed by the Framers. This is what Madison meant when he said government’s role was “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” The public was not to interfere with what he called the “Wealth of the nation.” Therefore, government is to be comprised of the “more capable set of men,” which “ought to come from, & represent, the Wealth of the nation.” That’s Obama’s role. Obama (and Congress) is there to represent elite opinion and interests (against the interests of the majority, i.e. the public). That’s how it was designed by the Framers.

One of the biggest supporters of this idea has been Walter Lippmann, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was renowned by the progressives of his era. The public, what he called the “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders,” should occasionally “lend their weight” to a small choice of the “responsible men” (what we call elections), but should, for the most part, be spectators rather than active participants in democracy. That’s because he considered public involvement in governing a “false ideal.” This idea was supported quite widely, even among the liberals. Take Harold Lasswell, for example — “a leading American political scientist and communications theorist.” He argued that we should ignore “democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests” because “men are often poor judges of their own interests” and because the “masses are still captive to ignorance and superstition.” These views are consistent with Lippmann’s, who argued for an elite class of men to rule (a vanguard of sorts) because, as Lasswell points out, men are not good judges of their own interests but “we are” (the “we” being elitists). So “we” have to stave off “the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd” (that is, the public).

So, yes, Obama takes the elitist view when he declares that the public does not know what’s best for them. That’s what the “more capable set of men” are there to do. (And it should be no surprise that these “responsible men” “represent the Wealth of the nation” and not the public.) The public has no illusions either. They know it. Some 80% of Americans recognize that government is “run by a few big interests looking out for themselves,” and not “for the benefit of all the people.” That’s why 94% say government should “pay attention to the views of the people” more than every four years. But that’s now how the system is set up. Obama knows this.

But I think it also highlights another important subject, which is taxes. Michael Moore brings up a good point about them in a question and answer at a university regarding his new film on capitalism. People in America are upset about taxes. We’ve all seen the protests as of late. But if we look at places like France, which is no stranger to protests, we don’t see the public enraged over taxes, which are substantially higher there than here. Why the difference? Perhaps it’s because the lack of involvement by the public in deciding how their taxes are used here in America. Half of every tax dollar collected goes to the military, when a large majority of the population supports decreasing the radical spending on the military, for example. Our tax dollars aren’t really going where we want them to go (e.g. a majority of people support a public health care option). It’s not happening. There is (and has been) a huge gap between public opinion and elite opinion. Public opinion is ignored, as Obama proves to us. So I’m not surprised at all that tax day is so dreaded in America. In a functioning democracy, everybody would say “great, today is the day I get to contribute to the common decision that I was able to participate in.” It just doesn’t happen.

The dangers of jingoism Sunday, Oct 4 2009 

There is, by now, an all too familiar refrain that goes something like, “Our military is under-appreciated” or “they don’t get the respect they deserve.” Janet, at the SCSU Scholars blog, argues that we take for granted the work the military does, that rights and freedoms are earned by military fighting, and that criticizing their actions “will lead to losses very few of us can imagine.” In an earlier post, she claims “we take our 100% voluntary military for granted,” calling it “the most humane military that has ever existed.”

(In all transparency, I took similar positions during my first year at SCSU. You can read a letter I wrote to the school newspaper in response to Cindy Sheehan’s anti-war speech on campus. “That’s just typical American rhetoric from those who take their freedom and liberty for granted,” I wrote. Needless to say, I no longer hold these views.)

Of course, such sentiments are supported by calls for us to “Support our troops,” a completely vacuous slogan. It’s an empty and meaningless piece of propaganda, but that’s for good reason. It’s a phrase jingoists can rally around, that no sensible American could possibly be against (because it lacks meaning). If you dissent, you’re un-American, immoral filth, and so on. You feel guilty. You know — Americanism and nationalism. You can’t be against that, right? So that’s the first goal. But even more importantly, it diverts our attention away from asking important questions. Questions like, “Should we support this foreign policy?” “Is this war in Afghanistan right?” “Is what we’re doing moral?” You’re not supposed to ask those questions. You’re supposed to ask, “Do you support our troops?” That’s what propaganda is there for. As Noam Chomsky explains, “propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.” It’s there to control public thought. So, of course, you “support our troops” and display yellow ribbons; you’re patriotic.

The military is to be left unquestioned, lest we face “unimaginable losses.” We’re supposed to forget (or not be told about) the terrible atrocities committed by our military in the name of righteousness, liberty, fairness, democracy, or all the other similar platitudes. We’re not supposed to mention the wars of conquests and terror carried out by this utterly humane military might. Anything we do overseas is right by definition because we’re doing it. We are, after all, exceptional.

That’s extreme jingoism. And it’s dangerous.

On the Iraq War Monday, Sep 28 2009 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More denialism Tuesday, Apr 14 2009 

Global warming denialism is still strong, particularly by those on the right for some reason. Perhaps it’s because they adhere to the idea that if we want to solve this problem, it’s going to hurt and we can’t have that happen. Of course, they’re wrong on that point. (Check out some of Amory Lovins’ work, for example.) They hate the answer, so they hate the theory. Never mind they’ve got the answer completely misconstrued–attacking a theory because you disagree with its result is not the way to go. You should be critical of the basis of the theory. Unfortunately, this is lacking in the “debate” on global warming.

Some in St. Cloud still seem to be fascinated with the subject after Bachmann’s recent “visit” to campus. This is good, but they’re still attacking the theory because they disagree with what it says, not the scientific basis for it. See, for example, this recent post by King Banaian, an SCSU economics professor and chairman of the department. There’s an interesting discussion taking place there, but let’s evaluate some of the claims.

The Earth’s climate is driven by the receipt and redistribution of solar energy. Despite this crucial relationship, the sun tends to be brushed aside as the most important driver of climate. Calculations on supercomputers are primitive compared with the complex dynamism of the Earth’s climate and ignore the crucial relationship between climate and solar energy.

Yes, of course; the sun is an important driver of climate, but it is not by any means the only driver. Greenhouse gases, for example, also play a crucial role in the climate. So it’s important to look at all the meaningful forcings. And, as it happens, scientists have. The journalist (no wonder) here is flatly incorrect; solar variation has been accounted for in the models. What we find is that solar irradiance had a radiative forcing of .12 W/m^2 (watts per square meter) in 2005. What this means is that it does have a positive radiative forcing (increases temperatures), but it is small, especially when we compare it to human activities (emitting CO2 and methane, land use, etc.), which has a radiative forcing of 1.6 W/m^2. So, clearly, human’s impact on climate is much more profound than that of solar variation.

“To reduce modern climate change to one variable, CO2, or a small proportion of one variable – human-induced CO2 – is not science. To try to predict the future based on just one variable (CO2) in extraordinarily complex natural systems is folly. Yet when astronomers have the temerity to show that climate is driven by solar activities rather than CO2 emissions, they are dismissed as dinosaurs undertaking the methods of old-fashioned science.”

Again, it’s not being reduced to one variable. Many are being accounted for, including solar variation. “Ah, but CO2 doesn’t account for much of the atmosphere, and certainly only a tiny amount is human-induced, so that can’t be the answer.” Wrong. It’s true that human-caused CO2 makes up a small amount of the atmosphere. But that’s not the point at all. Ice core data has shown that CO2 levels are higher now than they have been for at least 650,000 years; other evidence (see Pearson and Palmer, 2000, for example) suggests it may have been on the magnitude of 20 million years. The rise in CO2 and other greenhouse gases since the start of the Industrial Revolution is unambiguous. (And CO2 levels keep going up, and are expected to for a long time.) It’s important to keep in mind that CO2 has a long atmospheric lifetime (about 100 years–water vapor’s is about 10 days). So this means that humans are causing greenhouse gases to increase at a rate faster than carbon sinks can accommodate, which simply means temperature is going to rise. The radiative properties of greenhouses gases, known for over a 100 years now, explains this very well.

Over time, the history of CO2 content in the atmosphere has been far higher than at present for most of time. Atmospheric CO2 follows temperature rise. It does not create a temperature rise. CO2 is not a pollutant. Global warming and a high CO2 content bring prosperity and longer life.

I’ve addressed the “CO2 follows temperature rise” in an earlier post here. The argument that CO2 is not a pollutant and that increasing CO2 is actually a good thing are interesting ones. Given all the negative impacts that global warming is expected to bring or, indeed, has already brought about, it’s hard to imagine how CO2 increases could be beneficial. One argument is that plants love CO2, so production will increase. This is a seriously strained argument. New Scientist does a good enough job at debunking this myth.

First Amendment Forum and the media Saturday, Apr 4 2009 

Yesterday, I was able to go to the 37th annual First Amendment Forum being held on campus. The theme was “Reporting God? Religion, News and Freedom.” Overall, I thought the forum was great and the panels and speakers certainly provoked good discussion.

I was disappointed that the first panel did not allow for a question and answer session between them and the audience. I’m sure there were plenty of people had questions they would have liked to ask the panel. For example, I thought it was really interesting professor David Domke from the University of Washington, early in his keynote address, wondered why the media did not critically analyze the increasingly religious rhetoric used by presidents since Reagan and, in particular, President George W. Bush, but instead echoed it. (And this is very true, and goes back to my explanation of how the media are biased.) Then I read one of the handouts that organizers of the event were offering. It was the “Journalist’s Creed” written by Walter Williams, founder of the Missouri School of Journalism. The handout states, “his declaration remains one of the clearest statements of the principles, values and standards of journalists.” So, what does Williams write? In the creed, which is written from a journalist’s perspective in the first person, it states that “I believe that the journalism which succeeds best–and best deserves success–fears God . . .” Here we have the professor perplexed as to why the media are complicit in the increasing religiosity of the office of President and then a creed that the sponsors call a clear statement of journalists’ “principles, values, and standards” that calls for a fearing of God. Naturally, I was wondering how much this kind of propaganda still influences contemporary journalism and its standards. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to ask this question.

On the whole, I think Dr. Domke provided rather compelling evidence that the media have a systemic and institutional bias.

I would also like to point out another great part of the presentation. In the second panel, Nehrwr Abdul-Wahid very explicitly pointed out that the mainstream media was a profit-maximizing institution. Earlier, he had stated it was inappropriate to blame the media for bad things, such as not covering important news topics or for sensationalism (etc.), and that the majority of the blame rests in the audience’s interpretation. Dr. Domke, being the moderator of this panel, asked Mr. Abdul-Wahid to justify his position of letting the media get off so easy. In response, Mr. Abdul-Wahid said the media cannot be blamed because they are simply doing their job as a corporation, which is to make money. (I beg to differ, but more on that later.) Mr. Abdul-Wahid is correct in that the media have forsaken their duty because of their structure as corporations and, again, this goes back to my last post on the media and their bias.

During the question-and-answer session at the end, I was able to ask whether Mr. Abdul-Wahid or anyone else on the panel genuinely thought the media as a corporation is the ideal model for the dominant institution for providing news to the citizenry of this country and being a cornerstone of democracy. I believe Julia Opoti, Mordecai Specktor, and an Iranian professor of communication (she was filling in, and I wasn’t able to grab her name) provided very intelligent responses. Mr. Abdul-Wahid’s response, however, was that it was essentially okay for the media to be biased, to not provide news, to sensationalize, etc. because the media are large corporations in the business of making money, and he saw nothing wrong with that. However, that the media are corporations does not suggest that they should be. I believe that the current institutional structure of the media, based on the propaganda model detailed in my previous post, creates a bias in the media. I don’t see how this can be justified as an appropriate state of the media. Wouldn’t it better better if the media weren’t biased? Apparently, Mr. Abdul-Wahid doesn’t think so, and that’s where I disagree with him.

Some other highlights: Mr. Specktor points out the inherent problems with the media’s sources and complacency with and subservience to authorities. Essentially, he says, the media act as recorders of authority establishments and simply regurgitate whatever they tell them to report on. This is the same argument Herman and Chomsky make in their propaganda model of the media. I was also glad to see the Iranian professor (anyone know who she was?) mention Herman and Chomsky’s work, along with others, including Ben Bagdikian and his research, which I cited in my previous post regarding the dwindling number of corporations in control of the media and the diminishing competition.

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