Archive for October, 2006

Kerry’s Foot Firmly in Mouth

Tuesday, October 31st, 2006

The words that people say are seldom considered outside of the context of the speaker who utters them. Speaking at Pasadena City College in California, Senator John Kerry and the former Democratic nominee for President said, “You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.” Was Kerry saying that the American military is composed of the least educated among us or suggesting that President Bush’s lack of education is the reason he decided to go into Iraq? The plain meaning of the words suggests he was criticizing American troops, but it could have been awkward phraseology.

Part of Kerry’s problem is that he has a long history of saying pejorative things about American troops. During Vietnam he claimed that American troops had committed war crimes and that such crimes were wide spread. In 2005, Kerry charged American troops with “terrorizing kids and children” in Iraq. Moreover, the notion that American GIs come from those who do not do well in school arose during the Vietnam era when college students received draft deferments and others were conscripted. More than a few young men used college as a means of avoiding military service. Of course, this state of affairs has not existed since the decades-old all-volunteer army began. Perhaps Kerry’s mind set in firmed stuck in the 1960s.

Of course, Kerry could have, as he said, been making a bad joke about Bush’s intelligence and the fact that we are in Iraq. Jokes should not have to be explained, but no one ever claimed that Kerry has a talent for comedy. Ironically, Bush’s grades at Yale were at least as good as Kerry’s, but Kerry’s certainly judges himself Bush’s intellectual superior. Certainly, this conviction is what makes Kerry’s loss to Bush in the 2004 presidential election so frustrating to Kerry.

If Kerry is as smart as he believes he would not be making these clumsy statements. Nonetheless, he did manage to worm himself into a world of trouble during his Presidential bid with clumsy or perhaps revealing statements. With regard to a bill to support American troops in Iraq, he told an audience “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”

Without looking into his soul, it is not possible to know for certain if Kerry was criticizing the troops or making a joke about Bush. However, it can be said with high confidence that he was probably trying to pander to his audience. That is his real problem.

Microcredit and Megacredit

Sunday, October 15th, 2006

Unlike some other Nobel Peace Prize winners, the winner for 2006, Muhammad Yunus, began the work for which he won the prize with his own money. In 1976, while an economics professor at Chittagong University in Bangladesh, he loaned local craftsmen $27 to help finance their businesses. This small generous gesture started a large and ultimately successful experiment in “microcredit.” Many small enterprises in poor countries fail because of the lack of capitalization. Conventional banks are reluctant to make such small loans, considering the poor to be bad credit risks. Part of Yunus’s genius was the use of credit groups where impoverished people would help each other in meeting their payments, in effect all members of the credit group act as guarantors of the loans to the credit group. In addition, Yunus focused most of the loans on women, who appeared generally more responsible in using the loans for the general benefit of the family.

Yunus’s success in Bangladesh is remarkable especially in contrast to typical foreign aid. Large-scale loans to impoverished countries generally are squandered in ubiquitous corruption. The inherent problem is that the aid gets filtered by governments, that if they were effective in the first place, there would be less need for foreign aid. Microcredit schemes represent an innovative way to bring the benefits of capitalism to the poor themselves. Credit and borrowing are a necessary component to growth. Yunus earned a Nobel Peace Prize for providing an effective modality for providing credit to the poor.

Both microcredit and “megacredit” made news in the same week. On the megacredit front, we learned that the annual US budget deficit continues its rapid descent as federal tax receipts grow even faster than government spending. The federal budget deficit for this year fell to $248 billion. Microcredit and megacredit are linked by the fact that liquidity and growth depend upon borrowing, whether for a handful of dollars or billions of dollars. Indeed, just as the use of credit is necessary for individuals to create wealth, it good for the US government to maintain a reasonable level of debt. There are two key factors that many on the Left and the Right do not often remember in assessing public debt:

  • A nominal budget deficit or surplus value must be normalized for inflation. When inflation is high enough, nominal budget deficits could even represent real surpluses. Even with a real budget deficit, if US growth is robust, the federal debt load can be decreasing.
  • A modest debt lubricates the economy and is a necessary requirement for growth.

Consider the current the deficit of $248 billion relative to the total US federal debt of $8.5 trillion. The inflation rate for 2006 is about 3.5%. This means that a nominal deficit of $298 billion would increase the total debt by 3.5%. Hence, for such a deficit there would be no “real” increase in the debt, or zero real deficit if the nominal deficit were $298 billion. Given the imprecision in computing the inflation rate, it might be too much to claim we are now running a real surplus with a $248 billion deficit, but we are certainly within measurement error of it. The only reason to reduce the deficits further is if we believe the debt load is too high.

The current debt load (the debt-to-gross-national-product ratio) for the United States is about 65%, and should optimally be somewhere between 40% and 80%. Beyond these extremes, economic growth is inhibited. For example, in the 1970s, the debt-to-GDP ratio was lower than 40% and we experienced stagnant growth and high unemployment. Indeed, in the late 1970s, inflation was so high we were really running budget surpluses with nominal deficits and suffered under the twin problems of “stagflation.”

It would seem that we are now running something close to the optimum yearly federal deficit with the optimum debt load. We should consider further significant reductions in debt carefully. Though we might wish to decrease the federal debt load in anticipation of increase liabilities as baby boomers begin to consume social security and medical benefits, reducing deficits too quickly could ultimately lead to economic stagnation.

Linda Greenhouse’s Honesty

Sunday, October 8th, 2006

The credibility of reporters depends on the conviction of readers that they are consuming reporting untainted by any political or personal bias. However, in many ways, such objectivity is not possible. An honest and diligent reporter will report facts as best as he or she can determine them. However, by definition reporters can only include a subset of facts, facts they consider important to the story. In addition, there are many possible stories to report upon. Reporters can only devote finite resources to those stories they consider most relevant. It is in the selection of stories to cover and facts to include that bias can seep in. This is not to disparage reporters, but to point out that they like all others synthesize facts into a story in a way informed by both their political and social outlook. Indeed, the most conscientious of reporters will bring the most of themselves into their reporting. At best, we can hope that reporters are conscious of the biases they may bring to story and use that to bring the broadest possible perspective to a story.

Daniel Okrent, the public editor of the New York Times, by contrast, argues that, “It’s been a basic tenet of journalism … that the reporter’s ideology [has] to be suppressed and submerged, so the reader has absolute confidence that what he or she is reading is not colored by previous view.” However, if we believe that all people bring their world views to their reporting, no matter how conscientious, then obscuring a reporter’s ideology is to perpetuate the fiction that anyone can be entirely objective. If a reporter’s ideology is known and conceded, it allows readers to apply this knowledge in the assessment of a story and to decide how much weight to grant the story.

When Linda Greenhouse, the Supreme Court beat writer for the New York Times, was being honored at Harvard University, she spoke honestly. She worried that the government has “turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha and other places around the world — [such as] the U.S. Congress.” Greenhouse’s honesty is a virtue but perhaps she should have known better than to be so conspicuously candid. While writing about the abortion decisions of the US Supreme Court in 1989, she was participating in pro-choice political rallies and subsequently admonished by the NY Times editors to avoid such political activism

One can agree or disagree with Greenhouse’s political perspective. However, her outspokenness is a service to her readers. We can weigh her coverage given her known views. This is far more truthful than if Greenhouse effectively hid her views. It is better to be clear and open about the perspective Greenhouse brings to her coverage than to mislead her readers with the illusion that she is or even could be completely objective.

“Shoot Me First”

Sunday, October 8th, 2006

We all need heroes. We do not need them to worship or to adore. We need them to provide examples and models we can aspire to, even if we ourselves never quite meet these aspirations.

Sports heroes, when not juiced with performance enhancing chemicals, provide examples of excellence that are the outgrowth of commitment and training.  Other heroes provide examples in different, more indirect ways. Most heroes are quite inconspicuous, like the father who works long hours to provide food and clothing for his family or the single mother who works a job all day and cares for her children at night. There are heroes like nurses who stay late to grasp the hand of a frightened patient alone in a hospital room. There are heroes like firemen who risk their lives to save people they do no know. There are military heroes, which we hear too little of, like Marine Capt. Joshua L. Glover who was awarded the Silver Star after taking the full brunt of a grenade to save his buddies.

In a week when we get to experience the worst of behavior, like former Republican Representative Mark Foley who sent explicit and unseemly electronic messages to Congressional pages and we are made to endure the ensuing political finger-pointing, we are also afforded a story of true heroism.

In Nickel Mines, PA an unbalanced milk truck driver, Charles C. Roberts, motivated by unclear internal demons, killed five young girls in an Amish school house. It is a story of violence in schools that has too often been repeated. However, there was an interesting and different aspect to this story.

When it was all to clear that Roberts was going to gun down the children. One of the older children in the school, 13-year-old Marian Fisher, asked “Shoot me first,” in order buy time for the younger children. The sacrifice was in the end not sufficient, but Fisher displayed a self-composure and bravery under stress that few could ever match. In the process, she demonstrated a power of faith and self sacrifice many should aspire to. Few will find themselves in similar situations and fewer still would respond similarly.

Heroism can also be found in the quiet reaction of the Amish community to the killings. There was not only dignity in the private grieving over the loss of the children, but true forgiveness and reconciliation between the families of the victims and the killer. This reconciliation will cauterize the civic wound inflicted by the killings and prevent anger over these killings from spilling over into new violence.

The cynical in us will see a world populated with too many Charles Roberts, while the heroic in all of us will aspire to a world more commonly occupied by the Marian Fishers.

When Are Aggressive Interogation Techniques Justified?

Sunday, October 1st, 2006

While interviewed on Fox News Sunday by anchor Chris Wallace, former President Bill Clinton grew defensive about criticism of his efforts to apprehend or kill Osama Bin Laden before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. He crowed about his aggressive pursuit of bin Laden saying,

“What did I do? What did I do? I worked hard to try to kill him. I authorized a finding for the CIA to kill him. We contracted with people to kill him. I got closer to killing him than anybody has gotten since.”

So we have a president of the United States not only admitting, but boasting, that he exercised arbitrary executive authority to direct the killing of a foreign national. Although clearly bin Laden was pursuing a war against the United States, Congress had declared no such war. As chief executive, Clinton was exercising his Constitutional authority as commander-in-chief, to protect citizens and interests of the United States. Clinton’s admission of the desire and order to assassinate bin Laden is interesting given that the Church Committee’s investigation of intelligence excesses in 1975 concluded that assassination was “incompatible with American principle, international order, and morality.” Of course, there is an exception in times of war, but at the time that Clinton was attempting to kill bin Laden, there was no state of war. The United States was planning to kill bin Laden because we believed he posed a threat and that it would be easier to kill than append him.

President Ford’s executive order 12,333 provided that “[n]o person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” Of course, this presidential order could have been superseded by Clinton. Nonetheless, in the Fox interview, Clinton admits he was aggressively and deliberately violating that executive order. There has been little objection by Democrats on the Left about this now common conclusion that assassinations ordered by the US president can be appropriate.

In retrospect, few would now question the legality of such a potential killing, and many fewer still would question its desirability. Perhaps such an assassination or series of assassinations of Islamic radicals would have prevented the deaths of 3,000 innocent people on September 11. Of course, it is ironic that had such an assassination(s) occurred, there would have been two possible outcomes: either the attacks of 9/11 would or would not have happened. If they had happened, the far-Left would have claimed that the attacks constituted a response to hostile US efforts to kill Islamic leaders. If the attacks of 9/11 had never happened, we would have never known what had been prevented. The assassinations could have still been criticized as yet another example of American international lawlessness. Indeed, anti-Clinton Conservatives would have likely criticized such actions as well.

The morality of a bin Laden assassination, despite any legal issues, rests on the principle that the innocent should be protected with the minimum violence possible. In the case of bin Laden, the application of such deadly force seems justified. We should capture him if we can, and kill him if we must. Can this same principle be applied to the use of torture or aggressive interrogation techniques short of torture?  We seem to have collectively agreed that an assassination that would prevent a terrorist attack is not only morally justified, but morally required. What about aggressive interrogation techniques?

If a president is confronted with high-level terrorists and must use aggressive interrogation techniques to save innocent American lives, to what extent is it morally justifiable? One the one hand, if we are too cavalier with the use of aggressive interrogation techniques we run the risk of unnecessary cruelty and its  morally deadening effect on those who act on our behalf. On the other hand, if we are too punctilious we trade moral posturing for the protection of innocent life.