Archive for September, 2011

Why are we vetoing Palestinian statehood?

September 29, 2011

The UN has been petitioned to admit Palestine as a state. The U.S. plans a veto. This is wrong.

One suspects it’s less about the UN vote than the Jewish vote. Obama is already in trouble with Jewish voters (not a big bloc, but influential way beyond their numbers), for perceived insufficient support for Israel. Hence he feels he must back  Israel’s misguided opposition to the Palestinians’ UN bid. But this violates the doctrine that politics stops at the water’s edge. To injure America’s international interests for the sake of political gain crosses an unforgivable line.

This UN veto will seriously harm U.S. relations with the entire Muslim world, undoing much of the remedial work which Obama has creditably attempted. And for what? Why are we opposing this Palestinian bid? We should support it. After all, it has long been consistent U.S. policy to favor an independent Palestinian state. That has been a chief objective of our Middle East diplomacy for decades. A UN vote to recognize Palestine would merely be symbolic endorsement of our own long-held objective, while in no way altering facts on the ground. Even if the UN resolution purports to specify borders or other terms, that will have no practical effect, since the UN has no authority in those respects.

Israel and Obama are right that peace cannot be achieved by a UN vote, but only by hard negotiations between the parties. But the UN vote would not impede those negotiations (which are dead in the water anyway). And in fact, by vetoing the Palestinian bid, America will shred whatever credibility it still had as an “honest broker,” cementing the widespread view that America shills for Israel, and undermining its ability to mediate an eventual settlement.

But America will nevertheless cast a veto because that’s what Israel wants. Or, rather, the current Israeli government, which is not the same thing. Indeed, we are hostage to a minority Israeli government that is itself hostage to a minority within that minority. The fractured Israeli political system gives undue leverage to small fringe parties holding a few seats, and hence the balance of power, in the Knesset (parliament). Thus Prime Minister Netanyahu is forced to march to the tune of Avigdor Lieberman and his extreme hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu Party; and the U.S. has now effectively fallen in line as well.

Both Israel and the Palestinians have been pursuing dysfunctional – no, crazy – policies. Israel acts as though it can indefinitely rule territories inhabited by a hostile people, with no rights, whose population is growing faster than its own. That kind of thing inevitably eventually failed even in medieval times. And those times are over. Even Netanyahu, and indeed Lieberman, actually recognize this, and say they favor a Palestinian state. Yet their actions do everything to thwart it.

The Palestinians were sold down the river by their feckless leader Arafat in 2000 when they could have had a state encompassing Gaza plus 90% of the West Bank, but preferred continued conflict instead. And boy did they get it. Palestinians act as though they can somehow, by sullen “resistance” and agitprop, compel Israel, with vastly superior military power, to give up what is obviously more than its legitimate national interest can tolerate. For this impossible fantasy of a complete future triumph the Palestinians sacrifice what could be decent lives today. Another case of the perfect as the enemy of the good.

Palestinian children, living in the ruins of their parents' utopian dreams

One wants to scream: “Stop it! Stop your fantasizing, and instead of romanticizing ‘resistance’ and wallowing in victimhood, take the state you can get (while you can still get it) and get on with building lives for yourselves.”

But what they can get shrinks the longer they refuse to face reality, as Israeli settlements progressively make swiss cheese of the West Bank. It’s assumed that in a peace deal the Israelis might annex nearby settlements but would have to yank out distant ones – as they did in Gaza – ever harder as ever more settlers dig in. But this assumption may be challenged. Why not just leave the Israeli settlements within an independent Palestine – thus, creating a multi-ethnic state? After all, it works in America. It even actually works, more or less, in Israel itself, with a large Arab population (not disenfranchised).

Anyhow, the two-state solution has been obvious for decades, accompanied by a sharing of Jerusalem and token but not massive return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. That’s the deal. Nothing different is possible. And majorities on both sides want this deal. But they’ve allowed it to be hijacked by extremist minorities (God-inspired zealots). Now America, with its UN veto, is allowing it too. A truly sad day for U.S. foreign policy.

“God is my co-pilot”

September 23, 2011

PBS ran a program posing (inter alia) the question, “Where was God on 9/11?”

The answer: God was in the cockpits of those planes. He was, indeed, the hijackers’ co-pilot. What they did, they did for God.

You might argue that theirs was a perversion of religious faith. But people have been thusly arguing for millennia over who’s got the real truth, while religious zealots have tortured and murdered millions upon millions, century upon century, often in service to those very arguments.

The problem is that true belief in a God is by its nature such an inflated, extreme belief that it doesn’t lend itself to benign moderation; rather, to enflamed righteous passion. Thus repeated faith-inspired holocausts (like 9/11) are not aberrations, they are grimly predictable. If you truly believe that you’ve got the remit of the Lord of the Universe, it’s an all too short step to believe that anyone not with this divine program should be extirpated. Faith has been prone to this, way too often.

Religion’s defenders might acknowledge this drawback, but would say it’s more than balanced by the good religion does – mainly, its claimed role in keeping people moral (the ones who aren’t impelled to atrocities).

That believers in general are more moral than non-believers is very debatable. Again, the 9/11 hijackers believed they were acting with the highest moral purpose. But even on a more mundane level it’s doubtful whether religious believers act better, in their everyday lives, than non-believers. There’s actually a strong reason why the opposite would obtain. Non-belief forces one to examine one’s conscience on a regular basis. Religious believers, in contrast, have a tendency to suppose that since they’re good with God, whatever they do must be okay. That’s a very slippery assumption.

But even if it were true that religious belief correlates somehow with acting morally, the real point is that people don’t need faith for that. We have other paths that lead to moral conduct. Religion isn’t even the best one. Nonbelievers do the right thing because they work out that it’s right. Believers because some archaic book dictates it, and they fear punishment. Which is really being moral?

Human cultures developed moral sense both from our evolutionary background, where cooperation and even altruism had survival value for ancestral tribes, and from our thinking, reasoning minds. Religions were invented later, to incorporate these primordial moral values. If we didn’t have religion, we’d still have the values, and human cultures would still inculcate these moral values in each new generation. Supernatural man-in-the-sky beliefs are completely unnecessary for this.

Bottom line: for the good religion supposedly provides, we don’t need religion. We can have the good stuff without it. And we’d certainly be far better off without all the bad stuff.

Class action lawsuits — legalized extortion

September 15, 2011

The Sunday Parade magazine usually contains a large class action “legal notice.” I look them over just to get my blood boiling, because most such cases are veritable scams cooked up by lawyers to shake down businesses. Corporations usually are forced to settle, because it’s so costly to defend even the most baseless claims, and juries are very unsympathetic to any corporation. It’s an extortion racket.

Some of the smarmiest cases are ostensibly brought on behalf of stockholders, often suing a company because its stock price fell. Of course, it’s the shareholders who own the company – so effectively they’re suing themselves. Why would they do that? To create fees for the lawyers who manufacture these lawsuits.

In most class action cases, the supposedly injured parties get very little. Often nothing more than a coupon to buy something else from the same company that allegedly screwed them. It’s the lawyers who get the real bucks. That’s what these lawsuits are actually for. Since I’ve owned stock in a lot of companies, I’m often in the “affected class” of stockholder suits. After laboriously filling out the paperwork – the slightest mistake will disqualify you – I get a check for a derisory amount. One time, I got a form letter from the lawyers saying that since my payout was below some minimum value, they weren’t required to send me a check at all!

Anyway, the latest class action in Parade (Sept. 11) really takes the cake – or, rather, the chicken meal. It seems that Oprah announced that KFC would offer downloadable coupons for a free $3.99 chicken meal, good between May 5 and May 19, 2009. The suit alleges KFC did not honor the coupons during those dates. KFC denies wrongdoing but – guess what — settled, providing a $1.575 million fund to compensate “victims” – at $3.99 each – but with $515,000 set aside for the lawyers. (See www.couponmarketinglitigation.com)

In law school, a fundamental principle of contract law was “consideration.” Suppose you agree with Joe that he’ll fix your driveway for $200. He does it. You owe him $200. But suppose you change your mind before he’s done anything. Do you still owe him $200? Of course not. He can’t enforce the contract because there’s been no “consideration” yet on his side.

In the KFC case, KFC agreed to give you a free meal. If KFC changed its mind, does it still owe you the free meal (or its value)? Where’s the consideration on your side?

If you feel KFC gypped you on a $3.99 coupon, what’s the proper response? Don’t eat there. But a million-dollar class action lawsuit??

Another principle I learned in law school was “de minimis non curat lex.” Loosely translated: the law doesn’t deal with trifles. Any self-respecting judge should have thrown out this ridiculous $3.99 lawsuit immediately, as a waste of the court’s time and an outright abuse of legal processes. In fact, the lawyers should have been sanctioned for even filing the case. But there are certain jurisdictions where the class action sharks know the judges will allow this kind of crap. The KFC case (like many) was filed in Minnesota.

Consider: to submit a claim to collect your $3.99, you have to enclose the coupon. How many people will still have a $3.99 coupon that was no good more than two years ago? Very few, I daresay. Maybe almost none. I’ll bet the $3.99 payouts will total – what? – couple hundred bucks? But, for “getting justice” for those few coupon “victims,” the lawyers will still pocket $515,000 of KFC’s money.

That’s a chicken meal that gives me indigestion.

 Class action lawsuits originated to provide effective and efficient justice where a group of people all suffered the same injury. But lawyers have perverted this into a way of parlaying trivial or even nonexistent “injuries” into big payoffs for themselves from deep-pocketed businesses. It’s a recurring national disgrace.

(Note: Just while I was typing this up, an e-mail came in notifying me of a class action settlement concerning “classmates.com.” (www.cmemailsettlement.com) This innocuous little outfit has apparently been screwed over by lawyers into ponying up $2.5 million because it allegedly sent out some e-mails it wasn’t supposed to. (Classmates denies it, but – guess what — settled.) I can get an estimated five to ten bucks by filing a claim form. The lawyers are seeking $1.05 million in attorney fees for their efforts in pursuing justice in this matter.)

UPDATE 9/18 – The latest one, in Parade – “If You Received an Unsolicited Text Message Advertisement . . . ” Yes,  an alleged unsolicited text message — an outrage that — to use another law school phrase — “shocks the conscience of civilized men.” In a world where children are being tortured to death in Syria, we have lawyers filing cases about unsolicited text messages. TWELVE MILLION bucks. Three million for the lawyers. (http://www.TextAdClass.com)

Well, come to think of it, maybe we do have here something that shocks the conscience of civilized men.

9/11

September 10, 2011

I was in my lounge chair on the lawn, perusing a coin sale catalog and enjoying the beautiful weather when, shortly before 10 AM, my wife drove up, got out of the car with tears in her eyes, and said, “The United States has been attacked!”

Some say we have overreacted, and there is truth in it. But if government has any unarguably legitimate function, it is to protect citizens’ lives and property. In the wake of 9/11, government could not have simply shrugged.

In fact, prior to 9/11, government had been aware of this threat, and was working on it; there had even been efforts to kill bin Laden. One could say this was inadequate. But, in a kind of compensatory symmetry, the subsequent response was over-adequate in many ways.

While clearly, radical Islam had declared war on us, we didn’t have to accept those terms of conflict. But we took their bait, gave them what they craved: the battle for the world, mano-a-mano with the big boy. We didn’t have to dignify them like that. Instead, we might have said: You’re wasting your time (and lives).

Because these stupid attacks are not going to achieve anything. You can hijack all the planes you want, blow up all the trains you want, but it’s not going to get you anywhere. We’ll still have plenty of planes and trains and our society will carry on as before. You’re like mosquitos: annoying but incapable of real injury.

I don’t mean to minimize the carnage of the 9/11 atrocity. Nobody values every individual human life more than I do. But still, some perspective is needed. For a nation that tolerates 30,000 annual highway deaths, without rushing into a “War on Accidents,” a terrorist strike killing 3,000 is not an existential threat.

So, yes, it was right to do everything reasonable to thwart further attacks; just as we should do everything reasonable to prevent auto deaths. But if auto deaths were not the Number One problem confronting America, then surely terrorism wasn’t it either. Yet we acted as though it was.

That fundamental error has led us to incur enormous costs – in further lives lost, in civil liberties, and in dollars, most obviously, but in other ways too. America has most regrettably compromised one of its finest qualities, as an open society. Hearing the names of all the 9/11 victims, one is struck that they came here from all over the world. Our post-9/11 inhospitality toward foreigners is tragic. We let foreign students study here, and then refuse permission to stay. We’ve undermined our moral stature, with torture and other human rights lapses. And we’ve allowed our whole foreign policy to be twisted – hijacked, if you will – into a wrong-headed priority, subordinating our truly important national interests, to this veritable monomania about terrorism.

Humans are rational creatures, certainly far the most rational on Earth. We evolved that way to deal effectively with the life-or-death challenges of the natural world confronting our ancestors. Evolution also gave us a repertoire of gut responses, to act instantly, without ratiocination, when needed. That primordial response system remains basically in place, even though the world we inhabit today is enormously different. Thus it’s hard for us to respond to its challenges in a wholly rational way. As, for example, when comparing the risks of car travel versus air travel. The 9/11 hijackers actually killed more people in cars than in planes, by persuading many that driving would be safer than flying.

It wasn’t – even counting the terrorism risk. But terrorism triggers such primal responses that we can’t compare it objectively with other problems that actually have far greater importance.

This only served to fuel the fire, by giving Islamic radicals the idea that there really was something in this suicide attack thing. Eventually, they would have figured out that it did nothing to improve their situation; that realization, hopefully, is being accelerated now by the examples of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, showing that the road to Muslim renaissance runs not through Western countries, but their own.

Yes, we need to remain vigilant against terrorism. I think we also need to see through our moral commitments to the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya (and indeed, do more for those in Syria). But we must stop acting as though terrorism is the central concern of America in the world. The terrorism tail must no longer be allowed to wag the American dog.

And we no longer should be removing our shoes in airports.

The President’s Jobs Speech: First Draft

September 6, 2011

Mister Speaker, members of Congress, my fellow Americans:

We have a jobs problem. Believe you me, I’ve spent a lot of time lately wrestling with this thing.

You know, the 2009 stimulus bill – wait, don’t laugh! – it was supposed to employ armies of people in construction, on infrastructure projects, which Lord knows we need. Remember “shovel ready”? Yeah, right. FDR somehow was able to just hire guys and put ‘em right to work. But today, we’re too balled up in bureaucracy and environmental impact reviews and all that crap, the government can’t even find its backside anymore with both hands.

Then a lot of people say we should give businesses incentives to create jobs, with all kinds of tax breaks and other subsidies. We actually have a lot of experience with that sort of thing; and it does work; only it seems it always costs taxpayers like a million or two per job created. We could job-create ourselves into the poorhouse that way.

Then there’s that old stand-by, job training. Yeah. Give me a break. Government already has, like, 867 job training programs going. Ain’t none of ‘em worth diddly squat, ‘cept to the bureaucrats who get paid to run them.

And that’s a real shame, because if you step back and look at this thing a different way, it’s not so much a job shortage we’ve got, as a skill shortage. Oh, there’s actually plenty of work to be done; but we don’t have the folks who can do it. Lookit, a third of them don’t even finish high school – who the heck is going to employ them? Considering that fact, you should be giving me a goddamn medal that the unemployment rate is only 9%. Job training is all well and good, but what you gonna do with all those folks who can hardly even read or write worth shit? In today’s high-tech economy? Come on.

So then you step back again and ask yourself why so many people are so uneducated. You know, we actually have a lot of good schools. In the nice affluent neighborhoods. Kind of goes hand-in-hand. But where the neighborhoods suck, so do the schools. It’s actually ironic, the affluent kids don’t even really need great schools, they’ll be fine no matter, but the kids from the crappy neighborhoods, they’re the ones who really really need good schools or they’re cooked; and they’re the ones who get the worst schools. But I can’t mention “school choice” or the teachers’ union’ll have my head.

But it’s actually not a mystery how to educate even the most disadvantaged kids. Time and again we see when you get a real fireball of a principal in there, seeming miracles are accomplished. Leadership matters. Unfortunately, however, not every school principal can be a break-the-mold fireball. In the real world, we have to put up with mediocrity. No one’s figured out how to overcome that.

But then you want to step back again and ask yourself why these neighborhoods gotta be crappy, and filled with “problem” kids that ordinary mediocre school folks just can’t deal with. Yeah, yeah, single moms are heroic, tell me all about it. So how come all the neighborhoods I’m talking about are filled with single moms? You know, it wasn’t always like this. Couple generations ago, black people had the highest marriage rates. Today 70% of black kids are born fatherless. Seventy percent! How many of them gonna wind up in college?

So I’ve wrestled with this jobs thing, and I conclude there isn’t much I can do about it, in the sixteen months I’ve got left anyway. You might say, “We need a different president.” I think we need a different population.

Anyhow, you can have yourselves a different president. I’m moving to France, where I’m appreciated, and run there.

God bless America.

American Inequality

September 2, 2011

America is the land of equality. “All men [and women] are created equal.” But what sort of equality?

One answer is seen in the recent Strauss-Kahn episode. American law enforcement (initially) took the word of a black immigrant woman, a hotel maid, against one of the world’s most powerful men. The Economist queried, would this have happened in Paris, or Rome? – implying it wouldn’t.

This is the essence of Americanism – that all people stand equally in dignity and worth.

However, lately there’s been increasing concern over the issue of material equality, with apparently growing disparities of wealth and income. I’ve given this a lot of thought (as evidenced by previous blog postings: June 21, 2008 & May 11, 2010).

I would concede that some material inequality comes from injustices – various rip-offs – and a more just world would be more equal. But I reject the idea that material inequality per se is unjust.

(Disclosure: I count myself as wealthy. Not born to it, but successful.)

The leading egalitarian philosopher was John Rawls, author of A Theory of Justice. He distilled all people’s advantages or disadvantages down to mere luck rather than merit – even if you prosper due to smarts, being smart is a matter of luck rather than something you somehow deserved. Thus Rawls argued for the “difference principle” – advantages enjoyed by some should be tolerated only to the extent they redound even more to the benefit of less advantaged people. For example, high doctor incomes would be justifiable only as necessary to get health care to the less fortunate.

Rawls held that any implicit social contract must embody this principle. He proposed the thought experiment of a social contract negotiated under a “veil of ignorance” wherein nobody knows beforehand what societal niche they’ll occupy. In those circumstances, Rawls argued, no one would agree to risk deprivation.

I find none of this persuasive. Even under a “veil of ignorance,” rational people would favor a social model prone to inequality if that meant better outcomes overall – which is the case where people who contribute to society can earn and keep rewards for their efforts.

Typical of the Left, Rawls views wealth and other societal goodies like manna falling from the sky, something to be distributed, not something produced and earned. There isn’t a single line in his fat book concerning wealth creation. But if the rewards for wealth creation are negated by an enforced equality, it will be an equality of poverty (as Soviet communism demonstrated – for the proletariat at least).

True, if you’re smart, industrious and virtuous, all that may be chalked up to luck. Likewise, it’s unlucky if you’re stupid, slothful and venal. But so what? Justice means nothing if not people reaping what they sow, for good or ill. A murderer is unlucky to be the kind of person who would be in that situation, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be punished. Thus, Rawls has not propounded a “theory of justice” at all – it’s actually a theory for removing justice from the societal equation, and distributing rewards on a different basis.

“Social justice” is nevertheless the byword of egalitarians. Since “justice” is quintessentially a concept of deservingness, the implication is that the poor deserve better – and correspondingly the rich deserve worse. This makes “social justice” a faulty concept for helping the disadvantaged. It should not depend on judging that the rich deserve less. Society should instead help the disadvantaged because it’s humane to alleviate suffering. The aim should be minimally decent living standards for everyone – not living standards being less unequal. The bare fact that A has more than B is not an injustice. In fact, a society without such disparities of wealth and income – everyone getting the same, regardless of desert – would be highly unjust.

We hear the phrase “obscene wealth.” Wealth cannot be obscene if legitimately earned. Bill Gates did not get rich unjustly, but mainly by providing products that many millions wanted. He may be taxed, as a proper contribution to society; but it’s no kind of justice, “social” or otherwise, to say he just shouldn’t have more than Joe Schmoe who did no such beneficial things, and that some (most? all?) of Gates’s billions should be confiscated in order to make the world’s Schmoes less unequal.

Rising American inequality is not mainly because more people are becoming poor, it’s more becoming rich. Were it the former, that would be bad; but more wealthy people is not a bad thing. A nation with X number of richies and Y non-rich is better off with X+Z rich and Y-Z non-rich. As long as the Y’s are not made worse off, which is basically true. It’s a huge mistake to believe the rich get rich at others’ expense. Not to say it never happens; but most wealth is gained by making others better off, for which they willingly pay (as in the case of Gates).

The broad trends of American society are consistent with this. “Poverty” numbers have been pretty steady over decades, but the definition of “poverty” has evolved, and today’s government poverty line applies to people whose living standard, not long ago, would have been considered solidly middle class.

Photo by Walker Evans

I don’t minimize the problem of people who face a dead end because they can’t get work (often because they’re frankly unemployable.) Yet we don’t have real poverty in America anymore. To see what real poverty looks like, go to Haiti, where people eat literal mudpies. Or read Evans and Agee’s portrait of 1930’s rural Alabamans in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Their diet wasn’t mudpies, but nothing you’d care to touch. Women’s clothes were made from used burlap sacks. Work was grindingly hard, and the only compensatory entertainment was fucking. Health care was nonexistent. And that was the white folks.

I often wonder if the true impetus behind all the harping on American wealth inequality is social concern – or plain old envy.


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