Archive for September, 2010

“We can absorb a terrorist attack”

September 25, 2010

The latest kerfuffle concerns President Obama’s saying “We can absorb a terrorist attack.” As though this somehow bespeaks callousness or complacency. As columnist Ruth Marcus observes, should he have rather said we’d crumble if hit again?

Obama’s words were obviously commonsensical. Unfortunately, that’s not reflected in actual administration policy, which continues as though trying to prevent terrorist attacks is one of our highest priorities,

It is not. In fact, the billions spent on this is a colossal misdirection of resources. The truth is that terrorism can’t hurt us very much. In the big picture, not even a radiological or biological attack would bring the country to its knees. (The big danger from such an attack would be government overreaction.)

We face much bigger challenges. Such as falling behind on education. And just for some perspective, while terrorist deaths are tragic, in the past decade we lost a hundred times more people in auto accidents. We “absorb” that too – hardly even think about it. But just imagine how many lives could be saved if all those TSA employees rummaging through your luggage were instead tasked with working to improve road safety.

As Obama said, we did absorb the 9/11 attacks, and are stronger. His comment was actually a tribute to the American character. But that doesn’t stop people trying to manufacture an issue by twisting his words.

Such “gotcha” nonsense is a bane of our public life. Despite serious global issues on our plate, we are continuously distracted by stupid little ones (like mosque locations and Koran abuse). Local public radio boss Alan Chartock constantly natters about “the politics of distraction,” as though some sinister forces cunningly cook up these side issues deliberately to distract us from larger ones. That’s utter rubbish. No – the fact is that we are too easily bewitched by issues that engage our simplistic reptilian reflexes. Thinking about how to respond to globalization’s economic challenges, for example, is hard work. Much easier to think about where a mosque should or shouldn’t be built.*

*I plead guilty, I did a blog post about that issue myself.

Tax And Spend

September 17, 2010

The Bush tax cuts – of so much political sturm-und-drang – are finally set to expire at year-end. The Democrats, after years of railing in high dudgeon over the alleged iniquity of these tax cuts, are now engaged in a legislative effort to . . . extend them.

The only question is whether this will include the tax cuts for the richest Americans. You might think the Democrats at least wouldn’t do that. You might be wrong.

It looks like they can’t manage to pass anything without some Republican support, and Republicans don’t seem willing to support an extension that doesn’t cover all the tax cuts. My bet is that the Democrats will give in and agree to that, partly because they don’t have the political balls to raise anyone’s taxes right now.

In fairness, the landscape has changed, and in today’s weak economy it would be crazy to raise taxes. That the Dems can recognize this reality is reassuring, somewhat. Yet the real elephant in the room still seems invisible to the political class. Or they act as if it’s not there.

It’s that spending and revenue have gotten way out of whack, and it’s not just temporary. Even ending all Bush’s tax cuts wouldn’t remotely close the gap. And raising taxes high enough to bring deficits down to merely tolerable levels would strangle the economy. So, to paraphrase the anti-war folks, tax is not the answer. Government spending has outstripped what we can reasonably afford.

The problem isn’t only the federal government. Here in New York, with a massive budget deficit this year, and an even bigger hole looming next year, the current budget increases spending by 7%.

We can muddle along like this for a time, but it’s ultimately unsustainable. The day must come when government can’t borrow any more, because repayment will become doubtful, and/or it will have to just print money to pay the debts, destroying the value of the dollar. Oh – and all those guys like Bill McKibben who condemn economic growth? – such growth is our only possible pathway out of this hole.

You actually can’t blame politicians. As long as voters continue to reward pols who promise and deliver more, more, more, that’s what we’ll get. We’re like children with a credit card whose bill is paid by Daddy. Only, actually, it’s the other way ‘round. The bill will be paid by our children.

We’d better have lots of them.

Pornography and “Our Sick Society”

September 11, 2010

The latest issue of The Humanist magazine examines the issue of pornography. One of the articles mentions a 1985 humanist panel discussion where, despite deep divisions, “all were in agreement . . . that porn both perpetuated and reflected a culture of filth and malaise, that it was ultimately a symptom of a sick society.”

Such laments that society has gone to the dogs have been with us since, well, society began. But it’s a gross error to romanticize prior epochs as a halcyon time of higher morality. Human suffering and injustice were far more widespread, and more tolerated. As to sexuality specifically, past humans had the same biological impulses and pecadillos as we do; what they lacked was our outlets for them. That didn’t make them more moral; merely less happy. What some decry as a modern sinkhole of depravity is just the fact that we have less suppression of our natural sexual feelings, and greater freedom and openness to express and gratify them.

Just look at the situation of homosexuals, for example. Where they suffered virtual torture in the past, today’s culture allows them to be open, honest, and fulfilled. We have finally gained the maturity to understand that how gays get their sexual satisfaction is nobody’s concern but their own. And the same applies to people getting sexual satisfaction via pornography.

All this freedom does not reflect “malaise” or a “sick society.” It’s societal health.

The same issue of the magazine also discusses the family “honor” code in many Muslim societies, decreeing that a father must kill his daughter if there is any suspicion about her “purity”, or for refusing to submit to his tyranny.  A case was mentioned wherein the “honor” code  even required letting a four year old rape victim bleed to death.

Now that’s what I call a sick society.