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Jeff Maurer's Politics Blog
Friday, 28 July 2006
Eight Outcomes that will Determine the Outcomes
Topic: News

  On the front page of today's Washington Post is an article entitled Eight Issues that Will Shape the 2006 Elections. The eight issues are: Bush, the economy, corruption, immigration, Iraq, turnout, the Northeast, and Red States. I'd like to point out that the last three of these are not issues. They are outcomes. That's like a football coach telling his team that the keys to winning are touchdowns, points, and winning.

  This is emblematic of one of my greatest frustrations with modern politics: the focus is almost entirely on the "horserace," not the issues. Watch any cable news network (check that: don't watch Fox News for any reason) and they won't be debating, say, the pros and cons of various immigration reform proposals; they'll be debating the political implications of those proposals. It's as if the deliberative process behind all issues has reached a finite conclusion, and the only question remaining is which policy voters will think is better. We expend almost no effort trying to determine which policy is actually better. This encourages the polarization of politics, as the only thing that differentiates one party's followers from the other's is their chosen group identity.

  Though I'm interested in politics, I hate the horserace element of politics with every bone in my body. Yes, I pay attention to it a bit, because I have to, but that element of politics is so Machiavellian and ethics-averse that I can't pay attention to it for long without wanting to blow my brains out. I know it's a necessary evil, but if a candidate wins by adopting positions that he or she believes to be suboptimal and panders to voters' sentiments no matter how selfish or backwards those sentiments might be, is that really a victory? Of course, the counterargument is a good one: how could losing to someone making even worse promises and being even more of a panderer be considered a victory? Its a maddening, maddening thing. I just wish that we could focus on issues more and the "game" of politics less.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:41 PM EDT
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Tuesday, 11 July 2006
The UN
Topic: Foreign Policy

  It pains me to say this, but I feel it needs to be said: the U.N. Security Council is almost worthless.

  The eighteen-year-old me would have been furious with this statement. "Don't you think there should be an international body to promote and protect world peace?" I would have asked. To which the twenty-six-year-old me responds: Yes, I do. But the UN Security Council is simply not that body. And get a haircut, hippie.

  The basic problem is this, Eighteen-Year-Old Me: the UN Security Council is not a noble body inhabited by governments dedicated to protecting world peace. The nations that comprise the UNSC don't act as impartial observers; they don't objectively examine pressing issues and determine the most effective course of action. Many true believers in the UNSC badly want this to be true, so they simply imagine it to be true. But, in reality, it is not. And hereâs what it is: a body that the powerful nations of the world use to promote their self-interests.

  Before I go any further, I want to make a clarification: I am writing about the UN Security Council. Frequently, I hear people say "the UN" when they mean to refer to a specific UN body. This confuses the issue; the UN has multiple parts that do different things. There is the Secretariat, which is essentially Kofi Annan's office. There is the Economic and Social Council, which does some tremendous aid work; the World Food Program and UNICEF, for example, are organized here. There is a Trusteeship Council, which takes the word "irrelevance" to a new level, as it is charged with overseeing decolonization. Then there is the General Assembly, which consists of every U.N. member nation and specializes in passing non-binding resolutions about how horrible
Israel is. And, finally, there is the Security Council, which is the present manifestation of the Wilsonian ideal of collective security.

  The first manifestation of collective security - the
League of Nations - is widely recognized as a failure. And two reasons are commonly cited as the sources of the League of Nations' failure: 1) The U.S. did not participate, and 2) Unanimity was required to authorize military action. Together, these two characteristics made the LON wholly incapable of dealing with the issues of its time. And, unfortunately, the descendents of these characteristics are present in the descendant body of the LON. Like it's predecessor, the UNSC: 1) Is crippled by the unwillingness of the world's powers to provide for world peace, and 2) Suffers from a voting system that makes it extremely difficult to take action.

  To prove that characteristic number one is true, let me ask you this: what is your opinion of the Chinese government? Do you see them as stalwart defenders of human rights? Would you feel comfortable with your human rights in their hands? No? Well, the Chinese government is part of the UNSC. A major part. Which brings us to the second reason why the UNSC is incapable of protecting world peace.

  The UNSC can't act unless all five permanent members are in agreement. And, as you might guess, instances in which the Big Five are in agreement are few and far between. In fact, the UNSC has authorized the use of force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter only three times. The first time was the Korean War, which was possible because mainland
China wasn't represented (they were represented by the exiled government in Taiwan) and the Soviet Union was boycotting the UN to protest Chinas absence. The second time was the first Gulf War, at which point the disintegrating Soviet Union wasn't really participating, and China fresh off of Tiananmen Square didn't really feel like drawing attention to itself over an issue that didn't closely affect Chinese interests. The third time was the Afghan War of 2001. So, two flukes, one act against a country that had alienated everybody, and that's it. The Cambodian genocide? Nothing. The Indonesian invasion of East Timor? Nothing. The Rwandan genocide? Nothing. Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo? Nothing, again. Darfur. Nothing meaningful. Presently, the UNSC is having extreme difficulty handling two frighteningly obvious threats to world peace: Iran and North Koreas respective pursuit of nuclear weapons. How can anyone possibly think of this body as an effective protector of world peace?

  The reality is, the structure of the UNSC means that, until its member countries firmly commit themselves to promoting world peace regardless of their self-interests, it will never be an effective or even kinda good protector of world peace. I applaud people who try to push their government in that direction, but letâs face reality: that isn't happening now and isn't going to start happening any time soon. And adding more permanent Security Council members (as some have proposed) is only going to make things more difficult.

  In the meantime, the Big Five can use their seat on the Security Council to practice old-fashioned, Bismarkian, realpolitik. Because the Security Council can still play a role in validating (or invalidating) various actions, countries can (and often do) use their votes as leverage.
Russia, for example, has made it very clear that no action will be taken with regards to Iran unless the Kremlin is somehow compensated for its pre-existing nuclear energy sales to Tehran. Deliberations within the UNSC during the run-up to the Iraq war were a classic demonstration of realist politics, with each member country (Britain possibly excepted) trying to use its position within the organization to negotiate a resolution that would validate its pre-existing, self-interested position. The US, one might remember, was quite blatantly trying to buy Chile
's vote. This sad display was all too typical of the Security Council's general pattern of behavior. The reality is light years away from the image in many people's minds.

  I am not saying that the UNSC is useless. Not entirely. It can be used to give international actions especially contentious ones, such as the use of force a sense of legitimacy. That's precisely what it did during the First Gulf War and the Afghan War. Furthermore, the Security Council does sometimes act more or less as intended when issues arise that don't threaten any of the Big Fives vital interests and require little significant action. So, I don't think that it should be abolished. However, it has to be noted: the role that I just described is a role entirely different than the role imagined for the UNSC by Wilsonian idealism. The role that I see for the UNSC is practical, not ideological.

  I am writing all of this to explain why, when someone says: "The UN Security Council found that..." I begin to tune out. When I think about international relations - especially the use of force - I try to classify actions as either just or unjust, and the Security Council's opinion is one that I simply no longer care about. The fact that the UNSC has authorized an action does not make that action just, and the inverse is true as well. The irony is that idealists tend to love the UNSC, whereas realists generally hate it; it should be exactly the other way around. I wish that idealists would stop pretending that the UNSC is what they would like it to be and start recognizing it for what it is: a well-disguised bastion of realism in foreign policy.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:42 PM EDT
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Friday, 7 April 2006
Topic: Policy
  There's been a lot of discussion about immigration lately, and lots of legislation floating around Congress reflecting the different viewpoints.  My views on immigration are pretty complex, so before reaching a conclusion I'd like to cover my thoughts on the issue point-by-point.

1.  There is a difference between immigration and illegal immigration.  When the topic of immigration comes up, people often begin talking about illegal immigration.  I find that frustrating; let's be more careful with our language.

2.  The U.S. has a special obligation to welcome immigrants.  Ours is a country where more than 99 percent of the population are immigrants or descended from immigrants.  Immigration is a vital part of the American culture, and our relative openness to immigration has yielded considerable benefits over the course of our history.  There are some out there who would be perfectly happy to see the U.S. never absorb another immigrant - legal or otherwise - ever again.  In my opinion, those people are amoral extremists and morons.

3.  It is in our best interest to admit large numbers of immigrants.  If you're not convinced that the U.S. should allow large numbers of immigrants for ethical reasons, perhaps you'll be convinced that the U.S. should allow large numbers of immigrants for practical reasons.  Immigrants have been a driving force in numerous sectors of the American economy for hundreds of years.  Many of the smartest, most creative, most ambitious people in other countries want to emigrate to the U.S.; what the rest of the world calls "brain drain", we call "a significant portion of our entrepreneurial capital".  Furthermore, low-skilled immigrants also play an important role in the economy; their willingness to work for low wages makes many services more affordable to other Americans, and - it's true - they are willing to take jobs that most Americans won't.

4.  Illegal immigrants are not bad people.  Yes, they broke the law, and that's bad.  But, I've often thought that if I was in their situation, I probably would have done the exact same thing.  Most illegal immigrants come from abject poverty and are seeking an economic opportunity that will create a better life for themselves and their family.  If they could have that opportunity without breaking the law (and without enduring a risky journey across the border), I'm sure that most illegal immigrants would do so.  But, since that's not an option for most, they break the law and come into this country, which is a decision that I can picture a lot of decent, otherwise law-abiding people making.

5.  Illegal immigration is a problem.  Immigration laws exist for a reason.  Any country has the right to pick and choose which people get to enter the country.  It is entirely reasonable for a country to seek an immigrant population that contains no criminals (including terrorists), has a diverse skill set (read: contains a lot of skilled, educated people), and doesn't contain numbers that will overwhelm infrastructure or government services.  Furthermore, illegal immigrants' illegitimate status creates some problems; they often don't have drivers' licenses or insurance (auto liability or health), it is extremely difficult to get them to testify in court, and they make labor laws difficult to enforce.  Finally, ineffective enforcement of immigration laws sets a bad precedent; if the U.S. were to abandon all attempts to enforce our immigration laws, a couple billion people from the developing world would be in this country by the end of the week.

6.  Illegal immigration is not that big of a problem.  For all the concerns I expressed in the previous paragraph, many of those concerns are relatively minor.  Most illegal immigrants are not criminals (and ordinary immigration laws aren't likely to be the biggest impediment to a terrorist attack), their skill sets generally match the areas in which we need workers (they wouldn't come if they couldn't find a job once they got here), and situations in which they have significantly increased the burden on government services are limited.  Illegal immigrants pay most taxes, and their use of social services isn't nearly as large as many would have you believe (think about it: if you're an illegal immigrant, how much interaction with the government do you really want to have?).  The U.S. has had large numbers of illegal immigrants for decades now, and major problems have not developed.  Any adjustments to immigration policy need to be done with the realization that our current immigration policy, while imperfect, has not created an intolerable situation.

7.  The U.S. doesn't owe illegal immigrants anything.  To hear some illegal immigrant advocates talk, you'd think that illegal immigrants have been horribly wronged.  That's ridiculous; nobody has a right to immigrate to another country.  Illegal immigrants have human rights; they do not have, nor do they necessarily deserve, the full slate of rights enjoyed by American citizens.

8.  We should definitely not engage in any large-scale effort to deport illegal immigrants.  This is true for two reasons.  First, the draconian measure of actually rounding people up, charging them with a felony, and shipping them out (as the bill passed by the House in December would do) is way too harsh and not the kind of thing that civilized societies do.  Second, segments of our economy have adjusted to the presence of these immigrants, and deporting them all would produce an enormous shock (imagine what would happen to the hotel industry if all the illegal immigrants in the U.S. suddenly disappeared).  Reducing the presence of illegal immigrants needs to be done by stemming the flow of new illegal immigrants and, possibly, either: 1) Granting amnesty to illegal immigrants presently in the country, or 2) Gradually deporting those that get caught over a long period of time.

9.  The negative effects of immigration on wages don't seem to be as large as you might expect.  It seems obvious that increasing the supply of workers in a particular sector would have a depressing effect (in the economic sense) on wages.  However, several recent studies suggest that that effect is not as large as you might think.  Employers in generally immigrant-dependent industries located in areas without many immigrants seem to invest in technology instead of offering higher wages (the Washington Post had an editorial recently explaining all of this).  So arguments that immigration drives down wages for low-skilled workers don't seem to be as powerful as they might first appear.

10.  The effects of immigration on unemployment don't seem to be very large, either.  It's surely true that immigrants - including illegal immigrants - do take some jobs that would otherwise be filled by American citizens.  But those job losses need to be put in perspective by this fact: unemployment in the U.S., in historical and international perspective, is ridiculously low.  Right now unemployment in the U.S. is just over 5 percent.  No advanced economy (nor any undeveloped economy, as far as I know) has an unemployment rate that low, and most European countries would love to get their unemployment rate as low as even 10 percent.  In the late 1990s, when immigration (legal and illegal) was going every bit as strong as it is now, U.S. unemployment hit the ridiculously low number of 3.8 percent.  Now, I know that unemployment statistics generally understate the actual level of unemployment (as they don't account for "discouraged workers" or the underemployed), and that nationwide unemployment figures don't matter much to someone who's just lost their job; those are both good points.  But the fact remains that if immigration was causing large numbers of Americans to be unemployed, it would be reflected in our unemployment statistics.

11.  Any measure to prevent illegal immigration needs to be considered with its effectiveness in mind.  Many proposals to limit illegal immigration seem good at first, but, in reality, wouldn't be very effective (of course, that won't prevent many politicians from advocating them, as much of the politics of immigration involves pandering to a xenophobic base instead of crafting good policy).  Many people say that we should step up border controls, but previous efforts to step up border controls have had little impact.  I was optimistic about the effectiveness of a proposal to require employers to run new employees' information through a national database, but now questions are being raised about that program's burden and effectiveness; those concerns are articulated well in this editorial in the Post.  That same article, fortunately, provides some hope that requiring employers to follow up on Social Security "non-matches" might yield some results.  Building a wall would probably be effective, but would cost around $2 billion (not counting the border guards that would still need to patrol it), and has an undeniably negative appearance (though people who compare such a wall to the Berlin Wall are, in my opinion, idiots).  I am willing to consider practically any proposal to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants, but I am going to weigh the benefits of that proposal against its costs.

12.  Granting amnesty is not desirable, but it might be a sensible policy anyway.  Granting amnesty (whether you call it that or not) to illegal immigrants does reward people for illegal behavior, and it does set a bad precedent, but it might be the most sensible way of dealing with the illegal immigrants who are already here.  As I said, we shouldn't engage in a large-scale deportation of illegal immigrants, and many of the problems posed by illegal immigration could be solved if those immigrants were simply documented.  If we can develop effective measures to prevent future waves of illegal immigrants, then the best method of dealing with immigrants who are already here might be to grant them amnesty on the condition that they do things such as pay back-taxes and submit to a background check.

13.  Programs allowing immigrants into this country should promise the prospect of full citizenship.  My main problem with Bush's guest worker proposal is that it provides no path for those guest workers to eventually become citizens.  Not only will this result in many guest workers eventually becoming illegal immigrants, but it creates a powerful disincentive for guest workers to assimilate.  If a guest worker knows that he or she will eventually be deported (or become an illegal immigrant), that person will never fully adopt the mindset that he or she is an American.  This discourages immigrants from learning English or participating in American civic life.  And, perhaps most importantly, it sends a signal to immigrants that they are not really wanted here and they will never be real Americans.  That, in my opinion, is much more unfriendly than a wall. 

  Now to connect all these dots.  Given the opinions I've expressed above, my ideal immigration policy would:
1.  Use effective but proportionate measures to prevent illegal immigration.
2.  Increase the number of green cards issued so that our total immigrant inflow is similar to (or possibly slightly below) the current aggregate level of legal and illegal immigrants.
3.  Issue those green cards with an emphasis on skilled and educated workers (like we do now), though large numbers of green cards would also be available for low-skilled workers.
4.  Offer amnesty with the prospect of citizenship to illegal immigrants presently in the country on the condition that they pay back taxes and submit to a background check.

  Of the proposals currently floating around Capitol Hill, the closest to the plan above would probably be the compromise that just fell apart in the Senate.  I would give that proposal a "B", with it missing an "A" because it is not comprehensive and I don't fully understand why a person's length of illegal stay in this country would affect their prospects for citizenship.  I would give the bill passed by the House in December an "F"; it is all draconian enforcement and does nothing to address the fact that we should be welcoming large numbers of legal immigrants into this country.  I would give President Bush's guest worker proposal a "C", as it is a half-measure that recognizes the need for legal immigrants but doesn't address the issue in a manner that is sustainable in the long term. 

  One final note: I think that issuing large numbers of green cards to countries with whom we have friendly relations should be a major component of our foreign policy.   This would likely result in immigrants coming to this country in greater numbers than they presently do, though they would come from different places (think more Ghanaians and fewer Venezuelans).  We already do this to a certain extent, but it's a strategy that I think should be ramped up, as it is a carrot that we're not fully utilizing.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:44 PM EDT
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Sunday, 12 March 2006
Inside the Head of Saddam Hussein
Topic: Foreign Policy

  Slobodan Milosevic has died.  I guess the fact that he - unlike Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot - died in prison counts as something of a victory.  I was hoping for a conviction so as to at least introduce the possibility that perpetrators of genocide would be held responsible for their crimes.  But word from his trial was that an acquittal was a real possibility, so I guess it's good that he died before the world was forced to swallow that monstrous verdict.

  There was also an interesting article in the New York Times yesterday about how Saddam Hussein was more worried about the threats posed by the Shiites and Iran than by the threat posed by the U.S.  This was still true even as the U.S. invasion was beginning.  There are a thousand interesting things about this article, but I think the most interesting things relate to the implications that this information has for how we should think about nuclear proliferation.

  There's an ongoing debate in International Relations about whether nuclear weapons make the world more or less stable.  Most people reflexively assume that nuclear weapons make things less stable, and that seems intuitive.  But the argument that nuclear weapons promote stability has some powerful evidence supporting it, namely that there has never been a war (not just a nuclear exchange, but even a war) between two nuclear powers.  Furthermore, the logic behind the argument makes sense; nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrent, and rational actors recognize that it is in their interest to avoid escalating a conflict with a nuclear power.  To get both sides of this argument in a nutshell, I recommend reading this book.

  While I understand and respect the "nukes = stability" argument (i.e., nuclear proliferation is not so bad and possibly even good), I generally fall on the "nukes = instability" (i.e., nuclear proliferation is generally bad and possibly disastrous) side of the argument.  The reason is this: we cannot assume that those who possess nukes will act rationally.  Now, IR nerds will want to drag me into a debate about the meaning of the word "rational" and attempt to demonstrate how instrumental rationality can explain actions including and beyond the ones that Hussein took in the run-up to the war, but I'm going to cut that debate off by saying that a liberal definition of rationality makes it possible to categorize any action as rational.  When I use the phrase "rational actor", I mean that that actor is not only pursuing their own interests, but also that that actor is at least minimally competent at recognizing which actions will and will not help him or her achieve those interests.  And what I take away from the NY Times article is this: Saddam Hussein was not a rational actor.

  It's hard to imagine things working out much worse for Hussein; he was ousted from power, went into hiding, was caught, is now on trial, and will almost certainly be executed or permanently jailed.  I've often though that if he had played his cards differently - if he had publicly abandoned his WMD programs and played ball with the UN - Bush wouldn't have had significant public or congressional support for the war, and Hussein might still be in power today.  But, as it happened, Hussein - who already had a reputation as a chronic miscalculator (see: invasion of Kuwait) - miscalculated so badly that his worst-case scenario ultimately came to pass.  Which I find very disturbing: here we have actual evidence of the way in which a head of state might have such a distorted view of reality that he vastly underestimates a very real threat to his security, thus rendering the assumed deterrent effect ineffective.

  Without a deterrent effect, nuclear stability theory breaks down.  More disturbing still, the two states we worry about most when discussing nuclear proliferation (North Korea and Iran) are both led by guys who have a propensity for the same sort of paranoid delusion that led to Hussein's downfall.  North Korea is already nuclear, and it seems that we might not be able to stop Iran from someday going nuclear.  I worry that the people who shape our foreign policy often don't take paranoid delusion - by not only the leaders of states but by general populations as well - into account as much as they sometimes should.  People who identify themselves a "realists" often claim that constructivists and liberal institutionalists see the world as they would like it to be, not as it is.  That might be a fair criticism, but it should also be recognized that the assumption that the world is comprised of rational actors is likely as fanciful as any of the assumptions made by other schools of thought.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:45 PM EST
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Tuesday, 28 February 2006
More Principled/Unprincipled
Topic: News
  More commentators have fallen on one side or the other of the principled/unprincipled divide created by the ports deal that I mentioned two posts back:

Principled: Richard Cohen, David Ignatius, Nicholas D. Kristof, Thomas L. Friedman, Jon Stewart (with a small caveat: on Larry King last night, he agreed with the basic principle of the deal, saying "the more you look into it the more you realize there's no story there," but then digressed into criticizing Bush on tangentially related issues)

Unprincipled (liberal) or xenophobic (conservative): Harold Meyerson, Paul Krugman, Charles Krauthammer

  In my opinion, there aren't any surprises on these lists, though it breaks my heart to place Paul Krugman on the "unprincipled" list.  Krugman is a brilliant economist, and I'm saddened by the fact that he has largely abandoned his insightful, pointed, intellectually honest economic analysis for the scatterbrained Bush-bashing that has become his trademark.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:46 PM EST
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Friday, 24 February 2006
More on Ports
Topic: News
In yesterday's blog I mentioned that it would be interesting to see which commentators (especially liberal commentators) would stand by the principle that you shouldn't assume things about people because of their ethnicity/nationality, and which would abandon that principle in order to seize an opportunity to bash Bush.  Some early results are in.  Michael Moore is unprincipled, but that's not news.  The New York Times ran a very strange editorial (sorry, I can't link to it) that supported the basic concept of the deal but criticized Bush for his previous dealings with Congress.  Most of those criticisms are valid, but irrelevant; I'll call their response "ambiguous".  The Washington Times has joined the chorus of conservative commentators whose fear of A-rabs has proved greater than their sycophantic hero worship of President Bush.  It's always dodgy trying to discern political views from a comedy show (sometimes jokes are just jokes), but last night's Colbert Report interview made it pretty clear that Stephen Colbert agrees with the policy, as does his guest, charmingly-old-school-conservative and internally-conflicted-on-a-Shakespearean-level New York Times Columnist David Brooks.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:46 PM EST
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Thursday, 23 February 2006
Bigotry Disguised as Responsibility
Topic: News

  Congress is in an uproar over a company from the United Arab Emirates assuming management of six U.S. ports.  This story has been around for about a week now, so I've had plenty of time to think about it.  And I've come to this conclusion: this uproar is nothing but naked xenophobia mixed with political pandering.

  Security is a bipartisan issue; it's a priority for everybody.  And, at first glance, this development appears to raise some legitimate security concerns.  After all, ports are a vulnerable point of entry into this country, and UAE citizens have committed acts of terrorism in the past.  But a closer look reveals that there are no real security concerns associated with this issue.

  First of all, the company was never going to be in charge of port security; the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs Service control the security of our ports.  Second, these ports are currently managed by a British firm, so it can't credibly be argued that it is truly foreign - as opposed to Arab - control of our ports to which people are opposed.  Third, this transaction completed a review process that included members of the Departments of State, Commerce, Treasury, and Homeland Security.  Fourth, the fact that terrorists have come from and operated within the UAE is irrelevant; terrorists have come from and operated within practically every country in the world, including this one, and the UAE's government has been a reliable ally in our anti-terrorism operations (I refuse to use the phrase "War on Terror").  So, upon closer inspection, there appear to be no tangible security concerns raised by this issue.  Why, then, are people so incensed by this buyout?  I think the answer is obvious: they associate Arabs with terrorism.

  President Bush has aggressively defended his approval of this transaction.  You won't hear me say this too often, but I agree with the President 100 percent.  It is embarrassing that some in this country would view this as giving "them" control of our ports, as if terrorists are an ethnic group or a country.   It is the same (if decidedly less fervent) mentality that ultimately led to Japanese internment during World War II - that is, there's a "they", and we don't need evidence to know that they can't be trusted.  Americans are ashamed of the way we treated Japanese-Americans during World War II, and while denying a port contract is nowhere near the equivalent of internment, I have to think that we'll look back at a lot of the rhetoric surrounding this development with embarrassment.

  Though this is pure conjecture, it's almost certainly true that Members of Congress are actively opposing the president on this because they have to run for re-election.  No politician wants to have an add run against them saying: "He gave control of our ports to a company from the United Arab Emirates!"  That's a killer.  Any politician supporting this deal either 1) Isn't up for re-election, or 2) Is demonstrating incredible commitment to principle (though the principle itself may or may not be an admirable one).  The rest are almost definitely pandering to the uninformed and/or blatantly xenophobic segment of our (disproportionately elderly) electorate.

  Most politicians' first priority is to get re-elected; that's old news.  What will be interesting to see is which non-politicians - especially liberal activists - support the deal and which oppose it.  It should be a telling separation: most of those who support it are dedicated to principle (in this case, the principle that we shouldn't make assumptions based on ethnicity or national origin), and most of those who oppose it are dedicated to bashing Bush with whatever stick they can find.  The Washington Post has already got it right; chalk one up for principle.

  I also think that it's ironic that Bush is now being bitten by the anti-intellectualism that he has done so much to create.  Everyone knows: Bush doesn't do nuance.  This was never more evident than during the 2004 election, in which John Kerry was mocked for holding a complicated position on the very complicated issue of Iraq.  This port security issue is also complicated, and the decision to approve the transaction really only makes sense if given time to explain.  The sound bite, however, is devastating: "He gave control of our ports to a company from the United Arab Emirates!"  Most people won't even hear the "a company from" in that sentence, and fewer still will do the research necessary to determine whether or not that statement is actually true.  Modern American politics provides no opportunity to effectively refute that sound bite, and there's some unfortunate justice in the fact that a man who did so much to create that reality is now its victim.  The penultimate realization of this irony: people are stating that the UAE is now "linked" to Al Qaeda, just as Bush claimed that Al Qaeda was "linked" to Iraq.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:47 PM EST
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Tuesday, 31 January 2006
Random Political Stuff
Topic: News
  There are a couple things I'd like to talk about, so I'll address them briefly:

Thing #1: Congrats to Hamas for proving that when the Bush administration spoke about democracy transforming the Middle East, they were really talking about liberalism (lower-case "l") transforming the Middle East.  Democracy is a system of government in which elections ensure that the government reflects the will of the people.  Therefore, when the people are anti-Semitic, pro-terrorist extremists, you can expect an anti-Semitic, pro-terrorist, extremist government.  Democratic Peace Theory (a theory that I feel makes some good points) has some explaining to do.

Thing #2: In case you haven't been listening to Thomas L. Friedman or Danny Rouhier complain (rightly) about the ways in which our dependence on foreign oil affects our foreign policy, check out this quote from an Iranian senior government official in an excerpt from yesterday's NY Times:

While the top leadership had decided to take a more confrontational approach with the West even before Mr. Ahmadinejad was elected, the new president began with such a harsh style that many officials were initially unnerved. But when the West failed to stop Iran from defiantly restarting its nuclear program, or to punish it, some opponents reluctantly accepted that Mr. Ahmadinejad was right and they were wrong.

''First we thought he is not right,'' said a senior government official who consults frequently with the ruling clergy. ''Now we understand he is right. You need us more than we need you,'' he said of the West.

Scary.  Also, for the Europhiles out there, please note that Iran does notice when they are allowed to act with complete impunity.

Thing #3: To those who believe that the U.N. Security Council is a pantheon of enlightened negotiation and noble intentions, I ask: Would any body seriously concerned with protecting peace and human rights give China, Russia, and even the U.S. (with our ambiguous position on torture) veto power?  Really, no matter what you're political ideology, you can't be too excited about Iran having a nuclear weapon.  And yet any action taken by any coalition of nations will be viewed by many as illegitimate unless Russia - who have numerous investments in Iran as well as a considerable interest in the price oil - and China - who are determined to stem U.S. influence at all possible junctures - approve.  Meanwhile, the opinions of many gigantic countries with no veto power - among them India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Germany, Brazil, and Japan - barely matter.  I'm not saying that the U.N. is useless, but does anyone really think that the opinion of that body should confer any type of legitimacy on decisions?

Thing #4: A hilarious article mentioned on Ryan Conner's blog once again making the point that you are far more likely to kill yourself or a family member with your gun than an attacker.  My favorite nugget of outstanding logic in this article comes from Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-8th): "The truth is you're more likely to get hurt in a car accident than by a gun, so why restrict people's freedoms?" 

Thing #5: Foreign policy involves no numbers and very few absolute truths, and is therfore almost always debatable.  I am generally not a fan of the Bush foreign policy, but there have been some aspects of it that I like (e.g., negotiating an end to the war in Southern Sudan - though not the genocidal one in the West), and I feel that most of the issues involved are, at least, debatable.  The budget, however, does involve numbers, and I feel that the following point is not debatable: the way that Bush and Congress (mostly Republicans in Congress) have handled the budget is an unmitigated disaster.  For evidence, see the Congressional Budget Office's Economic Outlook, 2007-2016.  I'll sum it up for you: we will be buried in piles of debt for the foreseeable future.  And this is true in spite of the fact that we have cut many programs that primarily benefit the poor.  Fuck you, Art Laffer.  Unbelievable.

Thing #6: In his state of the Union speech tonight, President Bush will likely propose a tax write-off for out of pocket medical expenses.  That is a stupid, ineffective idea.  If you'd like to read why, check out the Washington Post from yesterday.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:48 PM EST
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Tuesday, 27 December 2005
Fascist Salutes/Confederate Flags
Topic: News

  Paolo Di Canio, a striker for Italian club Lazio, has been suspended for making a fascist salue to fans after a match.  There is a little more grey area here than first meets the eye, in that: 1) In Italy, the fascist solute - which is identical to the "heil Hitler" salute - is associated more with Mussolini than Hitler, and 2) European clubs occasionally adopt symbols that then take on a meaning separate from their traditional one (in Holland, for example, Ajax fans call themselves the "Jews" and wave Israeli flags in support of their team.  I'm not saying that's okay, but that's what they do).  Lazio fans have adopted the swastika as one of their unofficial symbols, and they claim that they use it independently of its original meaning.  Di Canio, who is an admitted admirer of Mussolini, said: "I'm a fascist, not a racist." 

  If you think the line between fascist and racist seems too fine to parse, I agree with you.  If someone is giving fascist salutes, praising Mussolini, and encouraging fans to bring swastikas to matches, it is reasonable for people to assume that person is a racist.  That may not be the case: Di Canio is pro-immigration (a position that is much more liberal in Europe than it is in the US) and claims only to admire the populist and unifying characteristics of fascism.  But that doesn't negate a more important point: no matter what a symbol means to you, you can't simply ignore what it represents to reasonable people.

  This is the same point that I try to make to people who argue that the Confederate flag is not a racist symbol.  This issue hits home to me because I am a half southerner (I lived in Kentucky and southern Virginia for about 10 years growing up) and get embarrassed when I see southerners flying the Confederate flag.  People who do so usually argue that the flag represents southern heritage, not racism ("Heritage, not hate" is a popular bumper sticker in the South). 

  I've always felt that that argument is bullshit.  First, no matter how much revisionist historians may try to obscure this fact, slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War.  Of course, it's more complex than that, and I'm not saying that most Northerners were crusading against slavery, but the bottom line is: no slavery, no Civil War.  Second, the flag in question was resurrected specifically to protest the civil rights movement.  Most proponents of the confederate flag don't know this, but the flag that we generally recognize as the "Confederate flag" was actually the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia.  The actual Confederate flag was different; pollsters concluded that Georgia voters did not recognize it when they rejected incorporating it into their state flag in a 2003 referendum.  The red square with the blue "X" only gained prominence due to two post-Civil War events: 1) It became the unofficial flag of the KKK, 2) In 1962, South Carolina began flying it over the state capitol to protest the civil rights movement.  Because these are the primary events with which the Confederate flag is associated, I've always considered it a racist symbol, and I think it is entirely reasonable for me to do so.

  My point: it is impossible to disassociate the Confederate flag with racism.  People who fly it might not be racist, but they are ignorant if they don't realize that reasonable people will conclude that its display constitutes a racist statement.  The same goes for Paolo Di Canio's fascist salute: even if he is actually just a really big fan of trains running on time, you can't simply ignore the violence, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and war-mongering that that salute came to represent.  If you want to be proud of your heritage, educate someone about Mark Twain or Michelangelo; the racist symbols don't paint you in a good light.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:49 PM EST
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Monday, 19 December 2005
Dinosaurs Existed
Topic: Religion

  The Mariners recently signed Carl Everett, which bothers me for two reasons.  First, the Mariners - unlike the Oakland A's - apparently do not look at three year trends when making personnel decisions.  If they had, they would see that Carl Everett is player on a steady decline in spite of the fact that he has played left-handed-hitter friendly parks.  This is probably one of the reasons why the A's kick our asses every year with half the payroll.  My predictions for Carl Everett in 2006: 100 games played, .235, 14 HR, 2 ejections, 3 things said about Ichiro that, upon closer inspection, are incredibly racist, 6 quotes "taken out of context", 1 Texas Rangers fan karate-chopped in the throat, 322 references to himself in the third person.

  But here's the other thing that bothers me: Carl Everett does not believe in dinosaurs.  He thinks they're somehow made up.  I read this before Ryan Conner mentioned on his blog that a friend of a friend also does not believe in dinosaurs.  Unless the friend of the friend is Carl Everett, that means that there are at least two people walking around who do not believe in dinosaurs.  Which means that now is a good time to address something that I've been meaning to address for a while: if you claim to literally believe everything in the Bible, you are a fucking moron.

  Let me rephrase: if you claim to literally believe everything in the Bible, you don't know what you're talking about.  And I say this not because of dinosaurs, which I actually can't prove existed any more than I can prove that Abraham Lincoln existed.  Also, I say this not because of any of the other completely erroneous stuff in the Bible, such as the sun revolving around the earth, every species of animal in the world fitting onto an ark about the size of two Boeing 747s, people living six hundred-plus years, or the universe being configured like a giant snow globe with stars painted on the top.  I'll give a free pass on all of this stuff because: 1) I understand that God can do whatever He wants, so ordinary laws of nature don't apply, and 2) I don't need those arguments to prove that people who take the Bible literally are fucking morons.

  People who claim to take the Bible literally are morons (fucking morons, to be precise) because the Bible very clearly contradicts itself numerous times.  Therefore, it is impossible to take the Bible literally.  Next time someone says that they believe everything in the Bible, I recommend trying to get them to explain one of these contradictions:

1.  In the first two chapters of Genesis, there is a clear contradiction involving the creation story that Bible thumpers claim to know so well.  In Genesis 1:26-27, God creates man and woman on the sixth day:

[26] And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
[27] So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

God then rests on the seventh day, and on the eighth day, apparently forgetting what just happened, creates man again in a totally different way in Genesis 2:7:

[7] And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

Then, after creating all the beasts of the Earth again for some reason, God creates woman yet again in a totally different way in Genesis 2:21-23:

[21] And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;
[22] And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.
[23] And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.

  Hmm...suspicious.  It's almost as if two popular creation stories circulating the region at the time Genesis was authored were incorporated so that people could accept Judiasm without drastically changing their beliefs, or that one story was there at one point and another was tacked on at some unspecified later time for similar reasons.  But let me continue...

2.  This is a nice, simple contradiction that is incredibly obvious from a story that everyone knows.  Genesis 7:8-9 tells the story of Noah loading the animals two by two into the ark:

[8] Of clean beasts, and of beasts that are not clean, and of fowls, and of every thing that creepeth upon the earth,
[9] There went in two and two unto Noah into the ark, the male and the female, as God had commanded Noah.

But only six verses earlier, God specifically instructs Noah to take seven pairs of each animal (except for the "unclean" ones, meaning basically pigs, lobsters, and crabs) into the ark:

[2] Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and his female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female.
[3] Of fowls also of the air by sevens, the male and the female; to keep seed alive upon the face of all the earth.

3.  My personal favorite: everyone knows that Jesus was crucified on Good Friday and rose from the dead three days later on Easter Sunday.  How many days between Friday and Sunday? 

  My point here is not that the Bible is worthless or that Christians are stupid (I consider myself a Christian), but simply that the Bible can't be taken literally.  Centuries of poor translations, poor transcriptions, and intentional fabrication and deception by people who found cause to do so have left it riddled with mistakes.  For centuries, people have altered and added to the Bible to make things fit the conditions of their particular time and place.  Most biblical scholars believe, for example, that the Friday to Sunday being counted as three days problem stems from a combination of misinterpretation and a desire to bring the story in line with the customs of the various times and places in which the Gospels were written.  In my opinion, the Bible can still be useful if you assume the stories to be allegorical and focus on the larger message, but if you claim to take it literally you either haven't read as far as Genesis 2:7 or are a complete fucking moron.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:50 PM EST
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