Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Arguments on Torture

From the New York Times today:

"As the Bush administration completes secret new rules governing interrogations, a group of experts advising the intelligence agencies are arguing that the harsh techniques used since the 2001 terrorist attacks are outmoded, amateurish and unreliable.”

That argument is completely irrelevant.
Dick Cheney in his speech at West Point on May 28th:

"These are men who glorify murder and suicide. Their cruelty is not rebuked by human suffering, only fed by it. They have given themselves to an ideology that rejects tolerance, denies freedom of conscience and demands that women be pushed to the margins of society. The terrorists are defined entirely by their hatreds, and they hate nothing more than the country you have volunteered to defend."

That kind of argument in favor of torture is also irrelevant.
George Washington, founding founder of our country, on torture:

"Torture is a terrible and monstrous thing, as degrading and morally corrupting to those who practice it as any conceivable human activity…"

That argument is relevant.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Remembrance place themselves, their precious lives, between their homes and the forces which would destroy them.

A Rabble in Arms, Kenneth Roberts

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Uncertainty & Self-evident Truth

My nephew, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, pointed out to me in the course of an interesting and quite enjoyable discussion not long ago that the government knows things that I do not know. His point is quite valid, as is his implication that I owe a certain amount of trust to my government, recognizing that I do not know all of the facts.

As a citizen, given the vote and charged with the responsibility of electing those who are to govern this country, I am obliged to utilize the facts that are available to me to form opinions as to what course of action I believe my country should take and whom I believe is best qualified to lead. If I form the wrong opinion because I have been given too few facts, or because I have been given the wrong facts, then that is a failure of leadership.

In a dictatorship, monarchy or oligarchy the government determines a course of action and imposes it on the population. In our representative democracy the leadership determines a course of action in the short term, but the people determine the leadership and in so doing are the long term determinant of policy. For that reason, open government and an abundant disclosure of information is essential. Our government cannot simply say, “We are going to do this and we cannot tell you why.”

A time is coming when I must vote for those who will continue the war in Iraq or those who will end it. It is no longer important why we began the war, except insofar as it explains why we must continue to fight it, and that is the question that I need answered in order to cast my vote. Why are we now fighting that war?

First I was told the purpose was to remove weapons of mass destruction which, if ever there, were never found. Then the reason was to remove an evil dictator. Then it was to install democracy. Now we are fighting against Al Queda. I cannot help but wonder why we need four different answers for a single question.

I am told that if we leave then this horrible thing will happen, then that horrible thing will happen, followed by the next horrible thing. I am not gifted with these politicians’ ability to foretell future events, so I do not know what will happen if we leave. I do know that everything that has been foretold about the adventure in Iraq has been wildly wrong, so I’m not sanguine about these forecasts either.

I do know that “they will follow us home” is bogus on the face of it. Al Queda’s weapon is terrorist attack and if they want to perpetrate such an attack in this country there is absolutely nothing about the war in Iraq that will deter or hinder them from doing so.

This war is costing lives. Our young men and women are going repeatedly to a distant and hostile land and placing their lives at risk. They are losing their lives and they and their families are suffering horribly. If that is the price of freedom, then so be it. It is a price they have agreed to pay and it is a price this nation has paid before and doubtless will pay again. But it is the sacred duty of this nation’s leadership and its voters to assure that not one soldier, not one single volunteered young life is lost without absolute need.

But there are things I do not know and I am left somewhat in doubt.

In the absence of sufficient facts, I look to a saying, “Your actions speak so loudly that I can’t hear what you say.”

The actions of this leadership provide such a disconnect from their words that I simply cannot conclude that the war in Iraq is worth the lives and treasure that it is costing this nation. This is not an absence of facts. This is self-evident.

If this war is worthy of the lives of our sons and daughters, then it requires the commitment of the nation. It requires a national “call to arms” by our leadership. It requires the mobilization of our industry. It requires the commitment of our financial sector. All of these are dramatically notable by their absence.

And so of our leaders I demand: If the safety of this nation depends on this war, as you claim it does, then you must commit this nation to the effort. If it does not justify that commitment then you are wasting precious lives with your egos and you are monsters.

Either commit the nation to this war, or get our men and women out.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Democratic inactivity

Kevin Drum in today’s Political Animal post has it, I think, precisely right when he says the following (in part) in response to the suggestion that Democrats should keep the death toll front and center in the anti-war discussion,

Substantively it's wrong because the death toll isn't the reason we should withdraw from Iraq. After all, if fighting in Iraq really were critical to our national security, we'd be willing to make the sacrifice in lives and treasure that we're making. The reason we should leave Iraq isn't because the war is costing lives, but because the war isn't critical to our national security.

There is more in that post that I also agree with quite strongly, and I suggest that you follow the link and have a read.

As part and parcel of that I think the Democrats need to be stressing the great disconnect between the Republican rhetoric and that same party’s call for effort. This is the “struggle for survival” upon which the future of our nation depends, but there is absolutely no “call to arms” by the Republican leadership. There is no call for young people to put on the uniform and fight, there is no call for industry to divert from manufacturing luxury goods to providing the troops with arms and armor, there is no call for citizens to buy “war bonds” or in any other way contribute to the war effort.

Congressional investigations

In another post, further down, he discusses the congressional investigations, and specifically the questioning of Monica Goodling. He raises a point that I have addressed several times, that these investigations are performances for political purposes and serve no real constructive purpose.

I have watched these shows on occasion, and have always found them to be nonsensical. Each committee member is given five minutes, which is not long enough to accomplish much of anything. The member reads from his/her list of prepared questions, all of which are more speeches than questions, and then does not listen to the answers. Time after time the person being questioned gives an answer than absolutely demands a follow-up question, and the questioner merely says something along the line of “Thank you” and moves on to the next prepared question/speech.

“Where did all of those millions of dollars go to?”
"Well, we were in the middle of a war, and it was difficult to get receipts."
"Oh, okay. Thank you."
Next question.

Status quo ante

Finally, during the 2006 elections I posted that I hoped the Democratic Party might take control of one or both houses of Congress but cautioned not to hope for too much in the way of change. That post reminded that our government is contaminated by moneyed interests and the self-interest of re-election and that Democrats are by no means immune to those diseases.

Sure enough, what we have so far is an increase in minimum wage accompanied by tax breaks for business, watered-down ethics reform, and a war in Iraq that has increased in intensity on the Democrat’s watch.

Status quo ante. Congressional self interest trumps national interest.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Full Responsibility

The New York Times editorializes today about the importance of the ongoing scandal in the Department of Justice. The editorial may be behind a subscription wall, but the gist of it is very high-sounding and insists that this scandal must be (and can be) “fixed” by getting rid of Gonzales.

I would agree with the editor if getting rid of Gonzales actually would “fix” the problem, but that solution falls so far short of solution as to be laughable. It illustrates the kind of short-sightedness and simple-mindedness that pervades politics today.

First, if I am a business owner and the manager of my company commits crimes and in so doing badly tarnishes the reputation of my company and harms its ability to function, I am certainly not going to be satisfied with firing him. Nor is merely firing him going to restore the reputation of my business in the eyes of the public. To regain public trust and to right the wrongs done by that criminal manager, I must be sure that the manager is brought to account for his actions; to see that he is charged and punished for the wrongdoing.

Second, firing scapegoats does not constitute even a beginning toward solving a problem. The wrongs in the Department of Justice will not be repaired by firing Gonzales, when those wrongs were perpetrated by Karl Rove and George W. Bush.

Polls show that approval of Congress, which jumped when a Democratic majority was elected in 2006, has now dropped to 29% again. This is just about where it was before last year’s elections and is about even with the approval rating of Bush and Company. Dismal.

I would suggest that the reason for that drop is that Congress has shown us that the Democratic majority is no more interested in the well-being of this country than was the Republican one. This Congress, just like the ones preceding it, will only do what is in its own best political interest, what will please its campaign contributors, what will best serve itself rather than what best serves the country or the people it is supposed to represent.

So we get showy investigations that bring no one to account, that lead to no charges or indictments. We get subpoenas with deadlines that are ignored and then extended. We get a Congress that is satisfied with the mere exposition of wrongdoing.

It’s easy to “accept full responsibility” for evil when you know that doing so is sure to be without actual cost.

America’s Cup Update

Another off day today. Oracle is on its way home, which is disappointing but no surprise.

The Spanish made a race of their challenge, but realistically we can be looking forward to the series between Italy and the Kiwis starting June 1. It should be good racing and, hopefully, the wind will pick up a bit as we get further into the summer.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Debacle Redux

I was going to post about political issues today and ran out of steam, so a minor degree of outrage at America's pitiful sailing efforts is all you get today. Pitiful.

Yesterday the American boat managed not to lose the start. It wasn’t really a win on the start, but Oracle started in the position of advantage on the right side. The Italians sailed very aggressively and were leading by 25 seconds at the first mark, a lead they never surrendered. I commented yesterday that Oracle has lacked aggression when trailing; well, the Italians certainly don’t share that lack.

Today, once more, the prestart was just embarrassing. Chased out of the starting box altogether, Oracle managed to draw not one, but two penalties before the starting line. The sailing that ensued showed an American crew that was utterly demoralized.

I cannot help but feel that arrogance is becoming a national trademark. All teams but ours put responsibility for management of the race team in the hands of one person and leave sailing the boat to another. Only the US team combines CEO and Skipper in one man and that man is sailing the boat like a rank amateur. The boat is fast, and the crew work before today has been flawless. Even today the crew was well drilled, merely lackluster.

The commentators maintained today that the team should not change to another Skipper, but I believe they should. It is not that Chris Dickson cannot do better; he is a master sailor and clearly he can. But whether as a result of the pressure of managing the team or for whatever reason, he simply is not doing so.

This is the second American challenge that has combined team manager and skipper in one person. The last one lost the challenge in five straight races, and this one won’t even reach the challenge.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

Snow Stumped

This is big. I don’t think this has ever happened before. Yesterday, Tony Snow was thrown for a loss, was handed a question by a reporter which he could not spin, for which he could not do a tap dance on the podium. He could neither dazzle us with brilliance nor baffle us with bullshit.

In announcing the new “War Czar” Tony was asked what the purpose of the position was to be, and why now. I’ll let you read his initial answer elsewhere; it’s typically lengthy and involves the phrase “new way forward” several times. But then comes this,

Q: So you think this is a new need and you did not need someone to do this for the previous four years?

MR. SNOW: Well, again, I'm not going to try -- I don't know. I don't have an answer for you. I'm telling you that's what he's here to do now.

There you have it. “I don't have an answer for you.” Finally, George Bush has done something that Tony Snow actually could not explain.

America’s Cup Update

Off day today. I suspect the crew of Oracle needs it. I know I do.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Affirmative Action

It bothers me that racial divisiveness is still a part of the social fabric of this nation. I do not believe that affirmative action is in and of itself the final solution to that problem, but so long as the problem exists affirmative action is one of the tools that we use to solve the problem. It is a useful and important tool and it is by no means time to do away with it.

Barack Obama on was a guest on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" which you can read here, and one question that was asked was this:

Stephanopoulos: And you're a constitutional law professor so let's go back in the classroom.....I'm your student. I say Professor, you and your wife went to Harvard Law School. Got plenty of money, you're running for president. Why should your daughters when they go to college get affirmative action?

You can read Obama’s answer at the link above, you’ll have to scroll down a bit to reach the topic in the interview, but I was disappointed with it. His response seemed rambling and disjointed to me, and it did not seem that it was a question to which he had given much thought. As a candidate for the nation’s highest office, I believe he should have been able to answer much more clearly. (Ha, you thought I was going to say because he is an African-American, didn’t you?)

To be fair to Obama, though, I hate it when the media asks such loaded and stupid questions.

Affirmative action is not about Obama’s daughters. It’s not about any individual kids. It’s about millions of kids. Children in African-American households grow up in disadvantaged conditions in numbers far exceeding white households, and we need to address that as a nation. Affirmative action is an important tool that we use to address that condition and until we eliminate that condition we need to preserve that tool. It isn’t about what happens to one or two individuals, white or Black, it is about an entire class of people who need and deserve the opportunity that has been denied to them for too long.

More importantly, affirmative action is not about the benefit that African- American kids receive when they get into college, or that African-American men and women receive when they get good jobs, it’s about the benefit that accrues to this nation and this society when that happens. Having that happen takes us in the direction of a nation where racial divisiveness is no longer a part of our social fabric. It takes us toward becoming a society that is truly colorblind. It brings Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream closer to reality.

Affirmative action benefits people of color but much more important, it benefits our country.

America’s Cup Update

Trounced again today. Oh boy, this is sad.

Oracle has been outmaneuvered in the prestart three races out of three, and lost the start badly all three times. They’ve chosen the wrong side of the course twice, and given up the favored right side of a neutral course the third time. They’ve read the wind wrong repeatedly. They’ve seemed less than aggressive when trailing, although I’ll admit that without being on the course that’s not really a realistic judgement.

The boat speed is good upwind and really excellent on a run. Crew work is excellent. But the strategic and tactical decisions have been decidedly amateurish. Where are you when we need you Dennis Conner?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

America's Cup

The pulse-pounding, heart-racing, breath-stopping excitement of 12 meter sailboat racing returns to television.

Well, okay, I may be indulging in a small degree of hyperbole there, as the pace is admittedly somewhat less than frenetic. But I’ve been waiting more than three years for this.

Many years ago I raced Lightening Class sailboats and, at the risk of immodesty, I was very good at it. The experience defies description. It is man against man, man against nature, team skill, individual skill, knowledge, art, science and courage.

In a match race you are pitting yourself not just against your opposing sailor, but against the course, the water and the wind, and against yourself. The results of your decisions manifest slowly and often at a long remove, and there is often inclination to second guess yourself. I have won races after trailing simply by doing something so outlandish that it made my opponent become indecisive.

There’s talk of this being the last challenge using the 12 meter class, but I hope not. This is such a beautiful boat. Can anything be more lovely than the curve of that sail when perfectly filled, of that hull performing an exquisite combination of cutting water and yielding to wave?

The television coverage is quite good. The commentary gets a little hyper at times, but getting the viewer excited is their job and they don’t really overdo it. They have a “sail track” technology thing and they use it very tastefully. In the challenger semifinals they are covering two races simultaneously, and my hat is off to the skill with which they are managing that.

The American boat is tied with the Italians at one race each. Oracle sailed into a bad wind shift yesterday, did so repeatedly in fact, and lost by more than two minutes. Today they got snookered horribly on the start, which is just really hard to imagine: the start is often considered to be the most important part of the race. Oracle has tremendous downwind speed, though, and passed on the last leg to even the series. Still, they look a bit overmatched at this point.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Homegrown Terrorists

First, let me say that if there is any realistic threat to our citizens or soldiers at home or abroad I hope that threat is taken seriously and resolved promptly. I do not regard terrorism as a joking matter, and particularly not when it is directed at military people and installations.

But I have to wonder what, precisely, our federal agencies are actually doing when I review the caliber of the plots that they are apprehending. It rather makes me wonder what may be going on that they are blissfully unaware of, when they are trumpeting their prowess in breaking up such nefarious schemes as:

A group that was planning to blow up a tunnel that is below sea level (in bedrock) in order to flood Wall Street, which is above sea level. This group possessed no explosives at the time the plot was broken up. It was never clear what they hoped would be accomplished by flooding Wall Street.

Two guys that were supposedly going to blow up the Mackinac Bridge using cell phones. They also had no explosives, and it turned out they were merely reselling the cell phones.

A group that was holding public close order drills in Miami and was planning to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago but had neither weapons or explosives. When the undercover agent tried to get them to buy weapons they asked for combat boots instead.

And now a Muslim drinking club that made home movies of themselves at a rifle range and had plans of attacking Fort Dix. It turns out that there was nothing more than talk, however, until after more than a year of undercover work an agent suggested selling them fully automatic weapons – an idea that it appears had not occurred to them.

So this group has had an undercover agent in their midst for more than a year and had not yet obtained their desired weaponry, and U.S. Attorney Christie is standing before the microphones talking about how we have “dodged a bullet, maybe a lot of bullets.”

With all the Congressional investigations going on in the Department of Justice right now, I think if I were a U.S. Attorney I would be maintaining a rather low profile, not standing on the steps of the courthouse braying about my department’s prowess at slapping down inept terrorists.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Question of Ethics

Updated below

In Media Matters today LTC Bob Bateman addresses news stories of last week about the ethics of troops in Iraq. He refers, in his discussion, to this story in the San Diego Union-Tribune, which I recall reading. He then makes reference to 2002 surveys having to do with cheating and plagiarism in schools and offers an alternative to the survey results being a sign of the military forces being “broken,”

“…why is anyone at all surprised? This is not to say I condone or am trying to explain away the statistics. I am just noting that your military is the product of your society.”

I’m not sure that the two things really equate, so I don't think I agree with his premise. I do think that too much can be drawn, and is being drawn, from the recent survey and its findings.

For one thing, the sampling was pretty small. Only 1320 soldiers and 447 Marines were included in the survey, out of 150,000 serving. That’s barely over 1% of the serving force, and we do not know how typical that sample may have been. Where were they serving? What duties were they performing? How long had they been in theatre?

Polls are dangerous things. Before one starts reading a high level of gravitas into them one needs to be sure that the sampling is sufficient and that it is in reality representative. I don’t think we really have that here, and I think the results should be viewed with a certain amount of caution.

This survey was made after four years of war, and much of the conclusion being drawn seems to be that the prolonged exposure to war is lowering the ethics of our troops. I wonder, though, what the results would have been if the survey had been made three years earlier? And no, I am not suggesting that our troops are “bad guys.”

What I’m saying is that war is a “bad thing.”

In the days of Ghengis Kahn the warrior didn’t even attempt to distinguish between armed enemy and unarmed noncombatant, he slaughtered anyone who came in front him. Today we want our wars to be more civilized than that, but that is a contradiction in terms. War is what happens when civilization has failed.

We expect our soldier to go in harm’s way, to expose himself to the risk of being killed or maimed for life, but to be courteous in all his conduct in the theatre of war?

Whether or not this particular war needs to be fought is irrelevant at the moment. It has been compared to Viet Nam in too many ways, please God do not let us start down this road and begin to question the ethics of the soldiers fighting it. Bad things happen in war because they are the nature of war. You cannot sanitize war because you cannot sanitize killing. The only way to prevent the Hadithas, the My Lais, the Dresdens is to prevent war itself.

You and I at home enjoy the ethics of society.

Soldiers live with the ethics of war.

Update, May 11, 10:50 AM

No, I am not suggesting that any specific behavior is okay or not okay. What I am suggesting is that we should not sit here safe at home sipping our Starbucks and second-guessing the actions or ethics of soldiers who are under fire.

Condemn the war if you must, but do not even think about condemning the soldiers who are fighting it. Not to me.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Economics 101

Gas prices have hit a new all-time high here in California, and nationwide according to the news, and it’s not even Memorial Day yet. We are told that prices are headed even higher and that they are not caused by oil prices at this point, but rather by increased demand. The high prices, we are being told, are our fault because we are using too much gasoline.

I keep hearing that “increased demand” refrain, and it really chaps my scrawny ass. Okay, that’s a figure of speech, as “scrawny” is not really the operative word, but…

Increased demand permits higher prices, it does not require them, it does not cause them. The cause of higher prices is either higher costs, for raw materials or in processing, or it is greed.

If I have 10 widgets that cost me $8 each, a market of 10 people who want widgets, and I decide I need 20% margin of profit to operate, then I have a balanced market of 10 customers for 10 widgets at $10 each.

If I’m sitting there with those 10 widgets and 20 people show up I can start a bidding war and get those people bidding against each other for those widgets and I will make a larger profit, but I do not have to do that. The procedure that is fair is to sell at $10 to the first 10 people and go home with the $20 profit that I decided ahead of time was my fair profit.

Or I can sell at $20 to the 10 people who yelled the loudest and then go home, telling them that the higher price is their fault for yelling so loud.

Or I can do like the oil companies do. Real quick get 10 more widgets, which also cost me $8 each, sell all 20 of them at $20 each and go home, telling buyers the price is their fault for being willing to pay so much.

Make no mistake, in the latter cases the high prices were caused by greed.

Advertising 102

My girlfriend and I were talking about osteoporosis and she told me she has to set aside time one morning every week to take her osteoporosis pill.

Oh, barf.

I have emphysema, heart disease and Parkinson’s. For one thing, I don’t sit around and chat with my friends about how often I take medication. Of course I’m a guy, right? We talk about cars and baseball and go, “duh” a lot, but… But if I did have that discussion, would you like to guess how many pills I take and how often I take them?

One morning every week. Forsooth.

Just how freaking long does it require to take a pill?

I’m not suggesting that I don’t think that condition is serious, or that developing a pill that can be taken less often is not worthwhile, but…

I told my doctor in one visit that I wanted him to prescribe a purple pill for me and, before he could ask why, I added that I wanted it to have two yellow stripes on it. The second part of my request (and that I couldn’t quite keep a straight face) tipped him off to what I was up to and he asked, “Didn’t the advertisement tell you to ask your doctor if it was right for you?” he asked, smiling. I acknowledged that it had and he shook his head. “I’m so sorry,” he said, “It’s not right for you.”

As I suspected, doctors absolutely hate these advertisements. My doctor is something of a dinosaur in that he runs a private practice and makes almost a religion out of a) not keeping patients waiting for him and b) spending as much time with patients as they need. When he comes in to examine me he initially sits down with my chart and we talk about what has happened since my last visit. He really doesn’t need to spend time talking patients out of some inappropriate drug that a television ad convinced them that they need for some condition that they don't have.

He did rather enjoy the time I told him I thought I had the bird flu because, “that’s what’s in Reader’s Digest this month.”

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Jon Stewart's disconnect

I’ve always thought that Jon Stewart was a great deal more than just a funny man, and that was confirmed in the interview with Bill Moyers on PBS the other night. He is a serious man who cares deeply about his country, and this statement by him in particular made me sit up,

But war that hasn't affected us here, in the way that you would imagine a five-year war would affect a country. I think that's why they're so really — here's the disconnect. It's sort of this odd and I've always had this problem with the rationality of it. That the President says, "We are in the fight for a way of life. This is the greatest battle of our generation, and of the generations to come. "And, so what I'm going to do is you know, Iraq has to be won, or our way of life ends, and our children and our children's children all suffer. So, what I'm gonna do is send 10,000 more troops to Baghdad."

So, there's a disconnect there between — you're telling me this is fight of our generation, and you're going to increase troops by 10 percent. And that's gonna do it. I'm sure what he would like to do is send 400,000 more troops there, but he can't, because he doesn't have them. And the way to get that would be to institute a draft. And the minute you do that, suddenly the country's not so damn busy anymore. And then they really fight back, and then the whole thing falls apart. So, they have a really delicate balance to walk between keeping us relatively fearful, but not so fearful that we stop what we're doing and really examine how it is that they've been waging this.

I have commented before on this lack of involvement by the country as a whole in the war and the failure of leadership that is implied by that lack, but Stewart’s evaluation takes that one step farther and it is an important step.

If this is the struggle upon which this generation and all future generations depends, then why is such a miniscule portion of the resources of this great country committed to this so-called great ideological struggle?

The vast majority of the fighting-aged men and women of this country are engaged in the pursuit of wealth and comfort, business as usual, and only a small handful of them are engaged in the life-and-death commitment to the defense of freedom. Not only has the leadership of this country not instituted a draft, it has not even issued any kind of “call to arms” at all.

Only some 1% of the GDP of this country is committed to this “great struggle” and that only on a deficit basis. Not only is our leadership not raising taxes to pay for this supposedly vitally important war, it insists on cutting taxes and passing the cost of this war on to future generations.

Our manufacturing might is still devoted to producing gas-guzzling SUV’s, refrigerators and other luxury goods. The IED-resistant trucks that are so desperately needed by our troops will take years to produce but, if we put our industry on a war footing basis, we could produce them in months if not weeks. Doing that, though, would mean that all those young men and women who are making millions selling hedge funds wouldn’t have their SUV’s to drive.

Bush and Company love to compare this war to WW2, but if we had fought the Axis the way we are fighting this war, Europe would be the Third Reich today and the Pacific would be a Japanese lake. Either this war is not as important as George Bush wants us to believe, or…