Archive for January, 2002

Foot-in-Mouth Disease

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2002

The World Organization for Animal Health recently certified Britain to be rid of the foot-and-mouth disease that had devastated the British meat industry. Unfortunately, the certification applied only to agriculture and not to the infestation of foot-and-mouth disease in the British media. The British press, especially the tabloid press, has deliberately distorted the nature of the detention a few hundred al Qaeda and Taliban from Afghanistan at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo, Cuba. They have selectively presented information and suggested that Americans may be using torture against the detainees.

Much of this began with a Defense Department photograph showing detainees kneeling and shackled right before they were placed in cells. The photograph suggested to those predisposed to believe the worst that the United States was deliberately humiliating and mistreating detainees. We were reminded that the use of legirons harks back the days of American slavery. It turns out that additional restraints are used when the detainees are moved, not while they are in their cells. To not use these additional restraints with these dangerous detainees, in the words of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, would be “stupid.”

The Mirror provides an obvious example of such deliberate distortion. They ran a headline “Vietnam War Hero Condemns Camp X-Ray.” The veteran in question, Col. James Hughes, had once been captured and paraded around by the Viet Cong. If you read the quotations from Col. Hughes, you see someone unwilling to make any accusation, because unlike the British press, he doesn’t pretend to be informed. The worst he could say was that, “I just hope that they are not being treated like animals… I am enormously concerned about the welfare of anyone who’s being held in captivity.” The statement is an eloquent expression of generalized concern by a former victim of brutality, not any a specific condemnation of US actions as stated by the headline.

Much of the furor has died down and explanations about Camp X-Ray have been provided. The International Red Cross has visited and British officials and a US Congressional delegation have not found mistreatment of the detainees.

The real question is why the British press was so apparently anxious to accuse the United States of brutality, why even members of the British Parliament rushed to judgment. When thousands of Americans were killed in the September 11 attacks, almost all Europeans truly felt anguish at the loss of life. However, there was a small minority, irritated by the United States as the only superpower, smug in the realization that perhaps the United States had got its comeuppance. So long as Americans are victims, so long as Americans are being pulled from ruble, Europeans are sympathetic. When the United States exercises its right of response, some of the European Left gets squeamish and accusatory.

This anti-Americanism on the Left is not exclusive to Europeans and began as soon as US military action began. At the end of last year, there were exaggerated reports of civilian causalities in Afghanistan. Using press reports, Professor Marc W. Herold, of the University of New Hampshire, estimated civilian casualties of nearly 4,000 people. Given that the death count at the World Trade Center has been difficult to determine even in a open society and the fact that it is difficult to identify the civilians and Taliban and al Qaeda, it is foolish in the extreme to use press reports (many from papers unsympathetic to the United States) to compute a civilian casualty count. Herold’s civilian casualty total exceeds that of that claimed by the notoriously mendacious Taliban. Now the British press cites Herold uncritically as if he has a definitive casualty count.

A report from Edward Cody of the Washington Post Foreign Service illustrates the difficulty in untangling was it really going on in Afghanistan. On December 29, 2001, US forces destroyed a number of brick homes near Qalai Niazi, Afghanistan. Was this an attack on civilians or a legitimate military target? According to Cody, “Journalists who arrived here [Qalai Niazi, Afghanistan] on Sunday found a large store of ammunition that filled one little house, from boxes of rifle rounds to stacks of antitank rockets. But, by today, [Thursday] it had been hauled away, and people now swear it was never here in the first place.” One can understand how locals might want to distance themselves from the Taliban and al Qaeda, however, this motivation tends to diminish their credibility.

The foreign press has a positive obligation to examine every country critically, including the United States. No one supportive of liberty wants a lapdog press anywhere in the world. However, the zeal with which the British and European media have leapt to assert the worst on the basis of thin evidence reveals more about these media outlets than it does about the US military.

Enron as an Inkblot Test

Sunday, January 20th, 2002

In 1921, the Swisss psychoanalyst Hermann Roschach published his research on the interpretation of inkblots in the book Pyschodiagnostik. Since that time, there has been a school of psychiatry that supports then notion that the reaction of patients to inkblots can be used to analyze personality — the so-called “Roschach Inkblot Test.” The idea is that people will project their own preoccupations on to an image of random inkblots. There are different views on the interpretation of patient responses to inkblots, but there is no doubt that the term “Roschach Inkblot Test” has become a metaphor for any event where the interpretation of the event says more about the observer than about the event. The responses to the bankruptcy of the Enron energy corporation, in many cases, is suh an inkblot set.

For those who dearly wish to see a Republican scandal, the “closeness” of Enron to members of the Administration represents the “appearance” of untoward influence. Who knows, there may be a scandal somewhere that has not been discovered. It appears now that Enron executives asked for special considerations and were denied by Administration officials. Indeed, it seems Enron received more favorable consideration from the previous Administration. Enron executives accompanied that the Clinton Administration’s Trade Representative Mickey Kanter and Commerce Secretary Ron Brown on foreign missions to drum up business. This was not an evil thing. Kanter and Brown were doing something that many want the government to do: help gain American businesses entrees overseas.

It is ironic that Enron lobbied heavily with the Clinton Administration in favor of passing the Kyoto Accords. The agreement would have shifted American energy production from coal to natural gas. The shift would have benefited Enron with its large stocks of natural gas. Now alignment of goals between Enron and the Clinton Administration does not imply corruption. The Clinton Administration was ideologically inclined to support Kyoto and were not pushed into that position by contributions from Enron.

For those who want “campaign finance reform,” the Enron case represents additional reason to limit political contributions, and hence free speech rights. In actuality, the situation persuasively makes just the opposite case. If Enron bought influence with all its campaign contributions and could not buy a bailout to save itself, then they managed their lobbying even worse than they did their main business.

For those who oppose privatizing some portion of Social Security, the fact that Enron employees lost great fractions (if not all) of their the 401(k) retirement savings when the Enron stock collapsed is one more reason to avoid trusting people to make their own decisions about retirement investment. Of course, such a conclusion deliberately overlooks the fact that any partial replacement of Social Security investments on the part of individuals would be far more diversified than a fund comprise of a single stock.

The Enron bankruptcy is in some ways a good thing. One premise of capitalism is that poorly run companies loose the economic battle and fall by the wayside.

Nonetheless, in addition to suspected insider trading of Enron stock by corporate executives, there does appear to be a grave accounting scandal here. Some large accounting firms that make a lot of money auditing large corporations have a vested interest in overlooking poor, creative, or just plain fraudulent accounting practices. When the dust settles, the Arthur Anderson accounting firm may find itself as legally liable as Enron for potentially fraudulent reporting.

In a recent column, George Will reminded other Conservatives that free markets are government creations that need to provide transparency to economic transactions. It is a government obligation to enforce such a transparency. From the Enron debacle, we should learn several important lessons:

  1. Structures need to be adjusted to mitigate the vested interests accounting firms have with companies. Accounting firm executives should not have separate consulting contracts with the companies they audit. Perhaps the accounting firms should be limited to having only a certain fraction of their income dependent on a single company. For large firms, perhaps consortia of accounting firms should be used, each keeping an eye on the other. Large companies, like large governments, can sometimes become a law unto their own.
  2. The regulations governing 401(k) retirement programs should be amended. Perhaps compensation in company stock by companies in the retirement programs they are sponsoring could be limited to a certain percentage. In addition, employees should have the immediate right to diversify their accounts in other investments.

If the Enron collapse leads to reforms in these two areas, the entire debacle could yet produce important positive consequences

Too Crazy to Make Up

In the category of “Too Crazy to Make Up” we have two items this week.

Monument to Political Correctness and Historical Revisionism

It seems that New York City developer Forest Ratner is returning to his senses. He had originally commissioned a $180,000 monument commemorating the sacrifice of the New York City Firefighters during their rescue efforts after the attacks on September 11. In the wake of public criticism Ratner agreed to reconsider the nature of monument.

The monument was to be based on the famous photograph by Thomas Franklin, showing three New York City firemen raising an American flag over the ruins of the twin World Trade Centers. The photo was reminiscent of the raising of the flag over Iwo Jima in World War II.

Most people see three proud firefighters in the image. It seems that some people, who can only look at the world through a prism that splits the world into different colors, saw only white firefighters. In an act of historical inaccuracy and “affirmative action,” a model of the future monument showed a white, a black, and an Hispanic firefighter. No one would have objected to a different or an additional monument that might have showed different ethic or race groups as firefighters. People objected to deliberate historical inaccuracy in pursuit of a political agenda. People should remember that the mindset that is willing to revise history when necessary is often the same one applied to the revision of history textbooks re-written to emphasize multiculturalism.

ACLU and Airport Security

Many people are excessively concerned about airport security. However, it can be safely asserted, without fear of contradiction, that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) does not suffer from this affliction. The ACLU is challenging in court the citizenship requirement for airport screeners contained in the recent Aviation and Transportation Security Act. Since we are now treating screeners as quasi-law enforcement personnel, requiring citizenship seems like a rather nominal requirement.

No one should claim surprise at this ACLU position. It follows in the wake of other ACLU positions. For example, the ACLU argues that the application of facial recognition technology at airport security checkpoints is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy. In 1996, the ACLU expressed its concern that, “…the privacy of all airplane passengers is jeopardized by the trend towards heightened security measures.” In a prescient observation, the ACLU worried that, “Intrusive `body scanners,’ personal interrogation, and a national database designed to track travel habits warn of future compromises that all travelers will have to make the next time an undetected terrorist attack occurs.” One wonders why they did not also worry about the attack itself.

Grasping for the Flag

Sunday, January 13th, 2002

Patriotism does not imply a slavish and uncritical acquiescence to everything one’s country does. Love of country, like love of another, means expecting and wanting the best from the object of love. Criticism from the “loyal opposition” is an outgrowth of the love of, not the hate of country. The 1960s provide examples of important and thoughtful criticism born of love of country and condemnation borne of contempt. Strong feelings polarized Americans and blurred the meaning of American symbols like the flag.

One of the reasons Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was so persuasive a voice for white and black Americans was because he placed American shortcomings in the context of aspirations of what America could and should be. Rather than berating America for its sins, he awakened consciences. King did not condemn America as evil as much illuminate the inconsistency with America’s premises and the treatment of black Americans. In his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King explained:

“When the architects of our great republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”

Black Americans were just asking the rest of America to live up to its promises. King’s Dream was that “…one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” King’s criticism of US civil rights policies was an ultimate act of the love of country, a love that was often unrequited.

The anti-war movement was somewhat different. If possible, the Vietnam War was more polarizing than the Civil Rights Movement. Though opposition to the war in Vietnam came from all political quarters, there was a strong anti-American undercurrent in the anti-war movement. For some, Vietnam may have been a mistake where the US faltered. For others, the US was an inherently evil and immoral country and the Vietnam War was just the most conspicuous evidence of this wickedness.

Peggy Noonan, the former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan and a Democrat by birth, recounts an incident illustrating this attitude. Noonan was on a bus trip to an anti-war demonstration in 1971. Soon Noonan realized that she was not with a group that shared her love of country. She observed from others on the bus not patriotism, but loathing and contempt for America. The US was to these people not a good and great country trying to extricate itself from a ground war in Asia, but a “racist, genocidal nation with an imperialistic lust for land…”

The passions of the time were so strong that the nation’s symbols started to blur. Some on the far Left began to burn the American flag as a sign of their displeasure. Those in favor of the war waved the flag that much harder in response. Soon, it was impossible to display the flag without the implication that one supported the War in Vietnam and disrespect for the flag became a conventional way to show anti-war sentiment. In one famous photograph from the time that illustrates misuse of the flag, a person assaulted an anti-war protestor using a flag as a weapon. This so of symbol misuse exacerbated the polarization of the war. To be anti-war carried the implication of being anti-American.

After the attack of September 11, the flag again became a symbol of American unity and support for the victims. Flags were plastered on bumper stickers, festooned over windows, pinned to lapels, and proudly flown over homes. US Flags sprouted across the land like wheat on the plains of Kansas. While some might expect flag-waving sentimentality by primitives in the mid-west, flags spontaneously appeared even in sophisticated and progressive cities like New York and Los Angeles. Goodness, the next thing you know, people might even offer up prayers.

Americans under 40 could rush to the flag at a time of stress unburdened by the self-consciousness of the baby-boomers. Not everyone is so fortunate. Trapped by the attitudes of their politically formative years some pundits and the legions of university thought police whined that waving the flag might somehow suppress different viewpoints. One can only imagine the chagrin of those on the Left when chants of “USA! USA!” greeted George Bush at Ground Zero in New York City.

Those fearful that the flag might become a club to enforce lock-step conformity ought not complain when others wave the flag. Rather, they should wave the flag in the midst of whatever critique they have. To do otherwise is to allow patriotism to be appropriated by only one side. This is unhealthy for political dialogue. Maintaining the tradition of the loyal opposition requires that opposition to grasp even more strongly at national symbols.

Of course, this suggestion is moot for those who really do hate America.

Is There Reason For Optimism?

Sunday, January 6th, 2002

Perhaps the lowest order measure of whether circumstances are improving for the bulk of mankind is life expectancy. Thomas Hobbs described life before civilization as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish,and short.” In the Stone Age, the average human life expectancy was 25 years. Largely because of improved sanitation, the increased availability of untainted food and water, and medical advances, life expectancy over the last century has radically improved. In the United States, for example, life expectancy increased from 48 years in 1900 to a current 76.9 years.

Around the world there are pockets of problems. The spread of the lethal AIDS virus in Africa threatens to reduce life expectancy in some countries and Russia has experienced a decline in life expectancy. Nonetheless, globally life expectancy is on the rise.

It is easy to understand how life expectancy increases with improved environmental factors and greater medical knowledge. However, it is also possible to conceive how progress might lead to increase war deaths over time. The US Civil War marked perhaps the beginning of the application of mechanization to the art of war. Although in the Civil War, like previous wars, disease killed more than enemy action, both sides managed to kill a total of over 200,000 people in action. The same science and technology that helps improve life expectancy has made humans more effective and efficient killers. This skill, in principle, could put downward pressure on life expectancy.

One might anticipate an association between population density and increased chances for conflict. As the world population increases, there is more opportunity for friction and conflict and dispute over resources. Fortunately, it seems that, the likelihood of being kill in war is at least stable. The only exceptions are World Wars I and II, when failed political systems collided with human ingenuity and managed to accumulate a death total of over 25,000,000 people. The Peace Science Society International at Pennsylvania State University, whose stated institutional goal is to “encourage the development of peace analysis and conflict management,” has accumulated statistics on inter-state war casualties over time.

Coupling these data with world population information, we can plot per capita war deaths as a function of time, as shown below. The data are averaged over ten year-increments to reduce statistical fluctuations. The values on the vertical axis represent the likelihood of death within a ten-year period. It is clear, that despite increases in population density, an increased capacity to wage war, and except for the World Wars, the likelihood of a human dying in war has remained relatively constant. During the decade encompassing World War II, there was a 1 in 121 chance of becoming a war causalty. Typically, over the last century this probability has been less than 1 in 3000.

Ironically, increased military technology may be responsible for the stability in war deaths. Nuclear deterrence in large measure prevented direct conflict between the Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War. In the present conflict between the US and forces in Afghanistan and in the recent conflict in Kosovo, high technology has permitted the direct application of force with minimum unintended collateral damage. If World War II technology had been applied in either conflict the number of both civilian and military deaths would have been much higher. Conservatives are congenitally disinclined to optimism. However, perhaps the relatively constant per capita rate of war deaths, despite the improved ability to wage war, is a cause for such optimism.

Unfortunately, while inter-state war deaths may be stable, the same may not be true of intra-state genocide. Genocides in the manner of Cambodia in the 1970s and Rwanda in the 1990s may be increasing. Indeed, the Jewish Holocaust in Germany is lumped in the totals for World War II, but might more accurately be categorized as internal genocide. In a world that tends to respect the boundaries of sovereignty, the opportunity for local tyrannies to run amok remains.