Monday, October 03, 2005

Energy Prices and the Folly of Price Controls

As a vital commodity becomes scarce, it is foolish to insist on acting as if it is just as pleantiful. This foolish game will bring a shortage on harder and faster than simply facing reality.

I have a concern that I did not express adequately in my previous blog on price gouging.

My concern is that people will demand that the government keep energy prices artificially low. They will demand such things as price caps, suspended gasoline taxes, and access to the strategic petroleum reserves, all to help lower the price of gasoline.

This may make life more comfortable for the present, but will set us up to have a truly disastrous future.

These measures only deal with the symptoms. Artificially low prices will speed up the rate at which we use these resources. This accelerated consumption means that a future shortage will strike faster and harder than it would have been if we left the price alone.

This is not an anti-capitalist “the sky is falling” rant. This is an argument about what happens when governments mess with the market place and try to fix the price of a commodity for political reasons. The society will suffer. In this case, society risks a great deal of suffering.

Imagine a group of people stranded in the desert, saying "Let's use water as if it were as plentiful as it was in Cairo when we took off.”

These people are going to die. This will be the payment for foolishness.

People demand that we keep energy prices low for the same reason. They want to pretend that these resources are still as common as they were in ‘the good ol’ days.” Ignoring reality has some harsh consequences. Those consequences could include suffering and death.

Consider how much energy is used in planting, harvesting, and shipping food to people who need to eat. Consider what will happen if that energy is not available.

The Effects of Price Controls

A higher price invites people to change their lifestyle so that they use less energy. They buy more fuel-efficient cars. They use more public transportation. They telecommute rather than travel to the office. They buy energy-efficient appliances. They switch to alternative methods to heat their homes.

There is a certain amount of inertia involved in keeping an old lifestyle. The individual who is accustomed to driving his SUV to work each day may have to feel a real pinch before he will take the bus. Existing appliances will have to break down before they get replaced. Improvements in public transportation will have to be built before they can be used. Businesses will have to invest in the infrastructure to allow for more telecommuting before more employees can telecommute.

In the mean time, people will continue to use energy at the high price. However, these high prices are necessary to give incentives for the types of changes that are needed. Price controls prevent all of these changes from taking place.

Even the threat of price controls is enough to slow the steps that people and industry take to avoid future energy problems. The energy company considering an investment in wind-power plants has to consider the possibility that governments will put price controls on oil and natural gas. The mere possibility of price controls is computed as risk in the company’s benefits-cost analysis. It makes these projects less likely.

Problems

I am well aware that high prices create problems. In an earlier blog, I criticized John Stossel for ignoring them. I will agree that steps need to be taken to address these problems. However, price controls would be a foolish step to take. It will only make the problem worse.

Rationing

Rationing is an option. However, rationing comes with its own costs. Rationing is probably the best option for a group of people caught in the desert where the resource can be watched. The larger and more complex a society gets, the less effective rationing will be. Instead, rationing will threaten to make crime more profitable, more tempting, and more common.

Another problem with rationing is that it does not respond to changes quickly enough. When does the rationing end? How much rationing is best? With the market, every piece of news instantly changes the price, instantly changing the incentives to conserve and to search for alternative energy sources. In the political arena, changes take months at best, years at most, with a cloud of lobbyists obscuring the facts in an attempt to produce political advantages for their clients.

Windfall Profits Tax

The problem with a windfall profits tax is that it punishes those people who are in the best position to solve the problem. Assume that you were the leader of an isolated village that has lost its crop due to an early freeze, or blight. You have hunters who could bring in extra meat. Would you set up a system to reward them for a successful hunt? Or would you punish them? Which option stands the greatest chance of more people doing more hunting and bringing in more food?

The windfall profit tax is similar to a law punishing hunters in times of famine, rather than rewarding those who bring in extra meat after blight has destroyed the crops. It is not rational.

Consumption Tax

On the other hand, a consumption tax will serve to enhance the benefits that I mentioned above. With a consumption (sales) tax on that commodity, people will then put even more work into finding alternatives or going without in order to avoid the still higher costs of the commodity.

A consumption tax also will invite illegal black-market activity. However, the criminals' benefit is only the value of the tax. As the black-market price approaches the taxed price of energy, the black market offers no advantage, yet still provides all of the disadvantages of being against the law. Criminal profits are less, which means that people get to live their lives with less organized crime and political corruption.

The Uses of a Consumption Tax

The purpose of such a tax would be to help the poor who may suffer greatly from higher prices. It can be used to fund energy assistance programs, gasoline coupons for those working minimum-wage jobs, and subsidies for low-income households to buy fuel-efficient vehicles and appliances or to subsidize the cost of their use of public transportation.

In the mean time, the higher price will continue to discourage consumption and feed the drive to discover and expand alternative energy sources.

Conclusion

My fear, as I said, is that society will demand that politicians keep the price of oil (and gasoline) artificially low. This is as irrational as a group of people getting caught in the desert with a limited supply of water demanding that each person still be allowed to drink as much as they want. It is an irrational course of action that is going to cause a lot of innocent people (in the future) to suffer significantly.

The price has to be allowed to rise to give society an incentive to conserve and to invest in alternatives.

However, this rising price is certainly going to harm the poor. The rich have the power to purchase a good for trivial purposes that others need to survive. The market does not care who gets it, only that the person getting the good is able to pay for it.

To prevent this, a consumption tax which will be used to assist the poor is in order. Rationing and price controls will only make the situation worse. These are not the options that a morally responsible person could pursue.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Defending Bennett

Bennett was responding to an argument that said, "Abortion should be legal because it would help lower the crime rate." He attempted to provide a counter example -- a case where "X should be legal because it would help lower the crime rate" was obviously false. The example about aborting black babies certainly qualifies as a counter-example to the argument he was objecting to.

Former Education Secretary William Bennett has been taking some heat recently for making the statement, “[I]f you wanted to reduce crime, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down"

Liberals pounced on this as an example of blatant racism. Bennett is a well-known conservative who has written several books on morality, such as The Book of Virtues and The Moral Compass. He strongly insists that conservatives have the correct view of morality. The quote cited above gives liberals a chance to catch him making a statement that no moral person would utter.

Bennett’s defense is that he was merely making a Socratic point. He was not advocating the abortion of black babies as a way of fighting crime. He said in his very next sentence that such an option was morally reprehensible. Instead, he was attempting to show that a specific argument offered in defense of abortion in the book Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner was flawed.

I cannot report whether the argument that Bennett was targeting actually appears in Freakonomics. However, for the purposes of this essay, our interest is in the argument that Bennett wanted to refute, regardless of whether he attributed that argument correctly.

The Historical Record

Here is what actually happened.

Bill Bennett was doing his radio show “Bill Bennett’s Morning in America”, when he raised the argument he attributes to Freakonomics. Bennett said, “[Y]ou know, one of the arguments in this book Freakonomics that they make is that the declining crime rate, you know, they deal with this hypothesis, that one of the reasons crime is down is that abortion is up.”

Bennett then seeks to defeat this argument, saying, “I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could -- if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky.”

The Social Benefits Argument

First, I want to note that the argument Bennett was criticizing deserves to be criticized. At best, it begs the question of whether the fetus is a person with a right to life such that aborting the fetus counts as unjustifiably killing an innocent person – in other words, murder.

The problem with this argument can be illustrated using a counter-example much like the one Bennett actually used.

Let us say that we can identify a group of people who are statistically more likely than average to become a criminal. None of these individuals have actually committed a crime. However, we can show that they are statistically more likely to commit a crime than others. From this, it follows that, if we kill all of those people -- even though they are not guilty of any wrongdoing (yet) -- we could lower the crime rate. That is, the crime rate would be lower as long as we do not count killing these innocent people as crimes.

Here, I am not talking about aborting fetuses. Let us talk, instead, of 12-year-old boys who are getting poor grades in school. Let us assume that they are more likely to commit crimes in the future. If we permit parents to kill off such children, we can expect the crime rate to be lower than it would be if we protect the 12-year-old’s right to life. Still, morality demands that we protect that right. Allowing parents to choose to kill off such children would be a “morally reprehensible thing to do”.

Similarly, one can argue that the social benefits argument, that high abortion rates may reduce crime rates, may be true, but it still leaves abortion a “morally reprehensible thing to do” – assuming, of course, that fetuses have the same right to life as 12-year-old boys who are getting poor grades in school.

Of course, this assumption is the very thing the two sides are arguing about. Somebody using the social benefits argument has to assume that the fetus does not have a right to life before he can even start his argument. As a result, it would be question-begging for him to try to use this argument to prove that the fetus does not have a right to life.

It is a bad argument.

Allies

I want it known that I think that women have a right to an abortion early in their pregnancy. I am not writing in defense of a “right to life” for a clump of cells that have no beliefs, desires, or interests of any kind. However, a bad argument is a bad argument. The fact that the Freakonomics argument supports the same general position I support does not keep it from being a bad argument in defense of that position.

To be fair, Bennett showed the same capacity to criticize an ally’s bad argument at the time he made his the statements that got him into trouble. A caller called in to say that one of the adverse effects of abortion is that it reduced the labor force that would have otherwise been contributing to Social Security, thus helping to make Social Security insolvent.

Bennett, though he disapproves of abortion, recognized that this was a bad reason to disapprove of abortion, because it assumed too many things that were unknown. The aborted fetuses would have otherwise had to grow up to be productive members of society, as opposed to criminals and other drains on productivity. People who tend to have abortions are those whose children require a lot of state support – aid to dependent children, welfare – and who do not grow up in the best environments. So, it is not necessarily the case that the Social Security system would have been better off.

Bennett responded to this caller by saying, “Maybe, maybe, but we don't know what the costs would be, too. I think as -- abortion disproportionately occurs among single women? No. . . I just don't know. I would not argue for the pro-life position based on this, because you don't know.”

This is a very responsible position to take. Plus, Bennett is criticizing an ally. He is being very responsible in that he is evaluating arguments based on their merit, rather than their ability to support a desired conclusion.

It is the same trait that I hope that I exhibit in criticizing the social benefits argument above.

Subtext

So, now, let us look at the statement that got Bennett’s into trouble. “If you . . . abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.”

Is this true or false?

Let us assume that we held all of our other social policies constant. Let us assume that the racism, poverty, quality of inner-city schools, were all held constant and we focused only on lowering crime rates. Is Bennett’s statement true or false?

It is not so clear to me that it is obviously false. This is not “linking crime to race” in any way other than to report a statistical correlation. Logicians know that correlation does not imply causation. The relationship may be entirely coincidental, or it could be the result of other factors (in this case, racism or poverty). However, Bennett does not need to care about these things. The statistical correlation is enough for him to prove his point.

If this statistical relationship is true, does this imply that it is permissible to call for a policy of aborting black babies?

Obviously, it does not. Such a move, Bennett correctly says, would be “morally reprehensible.” Even if the statistical relationship were true, the policy would be “morally reprehensible”.

Bennett also claims that he knows that the statistical relationship is true. I have no reason to assume that he does not, in fact, know this.

There is nothing structurally wrong with Bennett’s response to this social-welfare argument.

Now, Bennett’s counter-example has one potential area of confusion. Aborting all black babies would have to be a requirement, not a permission. My 12-year-old boy counter-example is a closer parallel because I speak about a permission to kill, not an obligation to kill. Still, Bennett was answering a phone call, and I am writing an article. I have had more time to consider my answer than he did. No doubt, he would choose a different counter-example if he had the opportunity that I did to give the matter further consideration.

The Response

There are, however, morally questionable aspects to the response to Bennett’s statement. Those who jumped on this statement are exhibiting are misrepresenting the point that Bennett was trying to make, reading things into his statement that he did not put there, and then criticizing Bennett for the fabrications of those who heard or read the statement and made no attempt to understand it.

The response has been, at best, intellectually reckless and, in some cases, intentionally deceptive, for the purpose of scoring political points.

Personally, I can think of better ways to lower the crime rate, beginning with better care and better education for children being raised in poverty – a population that, because of the effects of racism, happens (statistically) to be disproportionately black.

Yet, the fact that I can think of a better way is no criticism against Bennett. Bennett explicitly stated that he was not going to look for a better way, but was only going to look at reducing crime and the effectiveness of aborting all black children on that objective. He did not deny that there was a better way. However, he had to assume that a better way existed as well, because the abortion option was “morally reprehensible”.

Conclusion

Another problem with this response is that it exhibits an immoral level of political opportunism and hypocrisy. Elsewhere, we have a Pledge of Allegiance that actually does link non-theism (not under-God) with rebellion, tyranny, and injustice. There are no complaints against this. Yet, a quote that has to be taken outside of its original intent to be made into a statement linking race with crime gets all sorts of press.

It would be nice if people would at least pretend to aim for some level of consistency in what they praise and what they condemn.

I can find a number of things that Bennett is wrong about. I do not need to go through the effort of making something up.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

The Davis Committee

It makes no sense to trust the defense of truth and justice to those who cannot even recognize what it is they are supposed to be defending.

America is supposed to be a nation whose citizens value justice.

If this is true, then why are so many Americans tolerant of the corruption of the principles of justice represented by the Davis Committee?

The Davis Committee, which is 'investigating' the events following Hurricane Katrina, is something that no nation that actually prides itself on justice would tolerate. Indeed, in a nation that truly values justice, even proposing such a committee would be seen as irrefutable proof that the individual does not know what 'justice' is. If he cannot know justice when he sees it, then he is a poor person to trust with its defense.

The history of the Davis Committee is that, in the politically charged atmosphere following Hurricane Katrina, key House Republicans got together behind closed doors to work out a plan.

A plan to accomplish what?

We are left in the dark about that -- the meeting was held behind closed doors. However, whatever it is these people decided to accomplish, they sought to do so by forming a Republican-controlled committee. They would invite Democrats to participate. In doing so, they would call this the House Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation and Response to Hurricane Katrina. However, the committee will still be owned and operated by Republicans.

In fact, giving the committee this name is a lie. It is as much of a lie as former President Clinton saying, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” It shows just as much contempt for truth and honesty, and shows just as poor a moral character.

We return to the question of what this committee is supposed to accomplish -- what those who met behind closed doors wanted most to accomplish. What end can be best accomplished through a committee that is owned and operated by the Republican Party? What goal cannot be better accomplished by an independent commission?

Truth and Impartiality

Scientists have long recognized that, even with the best of intentions, researchers and investigators will introduce bias into any experiment. They have an overwhelming tendency to interpret the data to support their desired conclusions, rather than base their conclusions on the desired results.

Recognizing this human failing, researchers put safeguards into place to eliminate bias.

Where possible, they prefer blind or double-blind experiments so that the person making observations cannot know how those observations will affect the final results. When testing medicine, neither the doctor handing out the medicine or checking the patients, nor the patients themselves, know which samples are real and which are placebo, so that this knowledge will not taint their observations.

In an investigation into events surrounding the effects of Hurricane Katrina, it would be difficult to set up any blind or double-blind research. However, the lengths to which scientists go to eliminate bias even in an objective study of the effects of a medicine suggests how little justice we can find in a partisan investigation into the effects of Katrina.

People will see what they want to see, and hear what they want to hear.

It points out that we have no reason to do anything but look with either derisive laughter or embarrassed shame at a partisan investigation into these events.

Why It Is Important?

Scientists employ all sorts of safeguards to get to the truth because error can be extremely costly. Scientists need to know the effects of certain drugs with as much precision as possible. Careful data measurements are not enough to secure these results. Control groups and double-blind observations to reduce bias are essential. Failure to obtain objective results will lead to errors. Those errors, particularly in fields such as medicine, cost lives and suffering. Those errors are to be avoided.

Errors in the investigation into the effects of Hurricane Katrina are also going to cost lives and well-being. If we blame the wrong people, or we fail to actually see what went wrong, then we will not fix the real problems. If we do not fix the real problems, then we can expect more death and suffering in the future.

A society that does not value truth and justice will suffer for their sins -- they will pay with the loss of lives and property that a society that values truth and justice would have avoided.

A society that supports an 'investigation' that promises to hide more truth than it reveals, and which is more likely to use a criteria of political expedience to attach blame rather than actual responsibility, will also contribute to future death, destruction, and suffering.

I want to repeat, the Committee leaders do not need to consciously intend to misplace blame and hide the truth for this to happen. Again, medical researchers know that researchers easily misinterpret results in spite of their best intentions whenever they have a stake in the outcome. If the best objective scientists cannot be trusted to yield impartial observations, then partisan politicians certainly have no hope of avoiding political expedience in their investigations.

Who Is Responsible?

I am not a political strategist, so I cannot comment on the political wisdom of going along with a bad idea. The role of a politician is filled with choices where both options are wrong. Sometimes, a politician has to support a bad policy in order to get a good policy enacted elsewhere.

It is the leadership of the majority party in the House of Representatives hold primary responsibility for this injustice. They are the ones that decided that advantage to the party is more important than truth. They are the ones that decided that American lives, property, and well-being.

What does this say about the moral character of these people?

One of these people is House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), recently released from his duties as Majority Leader pending an investigation into criminal acts in Texas. Those crimes –funneling illegal contributions to Republican candidates in Texas, exhibit a similar moral character. If DeLay himself is not guilty of any wrongdoing, the acts under investigation exhibit the same character and culture evident in the formation of the Davis Committee. It shows a culture dominated by an attitude that puts the love of party advantage and power above the love of justice, truth, and the rule of law.

Conclusion

It is one thing when politicians hide the seedier aspects of their profession behind closed doors. Deals made in back rooms and campaign contributions offered in exchange for votes are things that exist largely out of sight. Even though they shame us to know that we have a system in which these things take place, they are at least kept out of public sight.

The Davis Committee is a shame and a sham that is sitting right out in public.

Because of this, it not only reflects on the poor moral character of those who created it, and those who named it. It reflects on the poor moral character of all American citizens who tolerate it. They cannot say, “I did not know that this was going on.” The government has put their contempt for truth, justice, and fairness right out in the open for the whole world to see. As a result, there is no way to refuse to see this as a test as to whether Americans actually do value truth, justice, and fairness.

If we do not, then people will die.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Moral Theory

Some things are so wrong that even God cannot make them right.

I did not have time to research any specific issue for today’s posting, so I thought I would quickly present a bit of theory.

Goodness and God

Many people – too many – state that we can only know about moral truth through God and whoever does not worship God cannot know the difference between right and wrong.

First, I need to point out the bigotry of this statement. Consider, for example, the difference between Christians and Jews. Some could argue that you can only know moral truth by looking at the teachings of Jesus Christ, and any who ignore his teachings cannot know right and wrong. This leaves all Jews as being immoral. Or, we could say that knowing the difference between good and evil requires understanding the word of the prophet Mohammed, and all who do not know his teachings are immoral.

Branding all atheists as immoral is bigotry – pure and simple. It is the same brand of bigotry that once branded all Jews as contemptible, or promoted violent bigotry between Christians and Muslims for a few centuries.

The theist will say that God is required for a tree to exist – no tree could exist without God. Yet, the atheist has no trouble seeing the tree. He simply denies that it comes from God. A theist will say that the wrongness of rape comes from God – rape could not be wrong without a God saying that it is wrong. Similarly, the atheist who knows that rape is wrong simply denies that this wrongness comes from God.

If God were to say, “I now make rape perfectly moral – go ahead and rape whomever you like,” this would not make rape moral. This would make God evil.

Plato presented this argument forcefully 2,500 years ago through his description of the words of Socrates (based on a historical figure). The argument can be found in his book Euthyphro.

Rape, murder, slavery, infanticide, genocide, the use of biological warfare (plague) to accomplish a political objective (“let my people go”) are all so very much wrong that they cannot be made right even by God. Those who forgive a God who does these things forgives evil. Those who worship a God who does and commands these things worship evil.

In short, there is a moral truth that even God cannot violate if God is good. Even God cannot torture a child for the purse enjoyment of listening to him scream and remain good.

So, if there is a goodness that exists without God – a goodness that even God must obey -- the next quest is to find it.

Desire Utilitarianism

The moral theory that I think holds the most promise in identifying moral truth is ‘desire utilitarianism’. Simply put, desire utilitarianism states that the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment are tools. We use these tools to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires (aversion to killing, a love of the truth, a love of reason, a thirst for knowledge, an aversion to non-consent, a passion for liberty, an unwillingness to do harm).

Our desires are malleable. Like our beliefs, our desires are molded in part by our interaction with others. The institution of morality promotes these good desires (desires to help others) and inhibits bad desires (desires to harm others).

This practice does not need a God. If one wants to say that God created desires and the relationships that exist between them, and the ability to use praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to mold those desires, one may do so; just as one can say that God created trees. However, the desires that exist, the ability to mold them, and the relationships between them exist today. They are not invisible to the person who does not believe in God.

This practice also does not need to postulate intrinsic or absolute values. Within the context of this theory, we will only speak about beliefs, desires, states of affairs, and the relationships between them. There is some debate on the nature, or even the existence, of beliefs and desires. However, until the people working in this field of study actually come up with an alternative, I do not think that anybody can blame us for working with the concepts that make up the most widespread and easily understood theory of the day.

This practice is not compatible with common moral relativism – or, more accurately, agent- or assessor- subjectivism. What each individual feels is right or wrong has no bearing on what is right or wrong in fact. Subjectivism is like a moral test, where everybody gets to grade their own paper. Of course, this means that everybody is going to give themselves a perfect score, because the ‘right answer’ is whatever answer the person taking the test put down. I think that this is what makes these forms of subjectivism so popular – the fact that it allows each person to claim moral perfection. I think this is also what makes subjectivism as a theory so dangerous – the fact that any answer is the right answer as long as the individual believes it is right.

This practice also does not allow for any type of evolutionary explanation for ethics. It is true that evolution has molded our desires. It has given us an aversion to pain, a desire for sex, desires for food and drink, some level of concern for our children and close kin, and even some measure of compassion for strangers. However, desire utilitarianism is only concerned with desires that can be changed through the application of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. If evolution fixes a desire, then morality simply takes that as a non-moral background fact like gravity and the laws of thermodynamics. Eating is not a duty, it is just something that people do.

What this practice would allow is a way for people generally to better fulfill the more and the stronger of their desires, by using praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment, to promote desire-fulfilling desires and inhibit desire-thwarting desires.

Moral Language

While each person is promoting desire-fulfilling desires in others, those others are promoting desire-fulfilling desires in them. This will create a feedback loop, Person A seeks to fulfill his desires by promoting desire-fulfilling desires in B. Person B will do the same to A. However, now Person B is using these tools to fulfill desires that have been molded to become desire-fulfilling desires. These are the desires that he is molding A to fulfill. To the degree that their mutual projects are successful, each will be using the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to fulfill ever-strengthening desire-fulfilling desires, and ever-weakening desire-thwarting desires.

I recognize that there are those who would argue that I am hijacking moral language when I express this view in those terms. I, in turn, accuse those who advocate divine-command theories of ethics, intrinsic value theories, subjectivism, and evolution-based theories of hijacking moral language.

Yet, which of us is hijacking moral language really is not a very interesting question. When I speak against other theories, I do not consider the charge of ‘hijacking moral language’ to be very significant. I have more serious charges to level against them.

God-based and intrinsic-value based theories both make use of entities that do not exist. Subjectivism is an incoherent doctrine that says at the same time that each person is both morally perfect and significantly flawed depending on whose perspective one is using at the moment. Evolutionary claims, like physics and chemistry, are merely descriptions and tell us nothing about what ought or ought not to be done.

When somebody says that they wish to call one of these other things 'morality', I prefer to give a two-part answer; (1) it makes no sense to call that 'morality', and (2) if you feel strongly enough about it, then go ahead -- what you now call 'morality' is one in which all moral claims are false, incoherent, or irrelevant to the question of how best to use the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

Another Word about God

Anybody who says that those who believe in God are inherently better than those who do not, or that whose who do not are inherently better than those who do, are exhibiting overt signs of bigotry.

Belief in God isn’t a problem, except when a person thinks that God commands him to harm other people – to blow them up, kill them, destroy their temples, force them into the status of second-class citizens, force them to pay more in taxes or deprive them of equal consideration before the law in terms of both justice and benefits. The people who believe that God commands His followers to harm others are the ones we need to watch out for.

Belief that there is no God isn’t a problem. However, a person who does not believe in God can still believe that he has a right to harm other people – to blow them up, kill them, destroy their temples, force them into the status of second-class citizens, force them to pay more in taxes or deprive them of equal consideration before the law in terms of both justice and benefits. These are people we need to watch out for.

Belief in God, or belief that there is no God, is not the issue. The issue is their ability to live in peace with their neighbors.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Head Start in Religious Bigotry

Discrimination means passing over a well-qualified person in favor of a less-qualified person for a job because the less-qualified candidate has some irrelevant characteristic that grants him special treatment. In this case, the characteristic that qualifies a candidate for special treatment is belief in God.

The U.S. House of Representatives has recently passed, and passed on to the Senate, a bill to fund Head Start for $6.8 billion through 2011. In this bill they changed the rules to allow faith-based organizations that receive this money to use religious beliefs as a criterion for hiring.

What's wrong with this?

Effectively, this government policy takes money from citizens without regard for their religious beliefs, but then promotes the economic wellbeing of those with government approved religious beliefs (those who can get jobs) over those without (who cannot get those same jobs).

The government has created $6.8 billion in economic opportunity and power, and a set of rules that says, "Alonzo and those who share his beliefs have no chance are hereby prohibited from having any opportunity at all from obtaining the benefits of these funds purely because they do not believe what we wish them to believe."

Of course, the government has a right to disqualify people from jobs if they are not qualified to fulfill those jobs. It would be foolish of me to argue that people should be given equal consideration when it comes to fulfilling an opening for an appellate court judge. However, the legitimate criterion for excluding people from the job of Judge is that they do not know the law. The criterion that is being used to exclude people from the economic opportunities available through Head Start is my belief that no God exists.

Sorry, that was a bad example. President Bush has also announced that it is his policy not to hire people as judges unless they meet a particular religious test as well. In 2002, he said, ""We need commonsense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God. Those are the kind of judges I intend to put on the bench."

What Bush actually said is, “Hey, you, atheist law student. I do not care how bright you are, what your grades were in college, what your professors said about your character or your understanding of the law, the opinions of your peers on legal matters, your level of respect in the legal community, none of that matters if you do not have government-approved religious beliefs.”

Imagine what the reaction would have been if Bush had said that the judges he appoints must believe that our rights came from Jesus. What you would be imagining is the amount of bigotry that still exists in his original statement.

Discrimination is a moral crime where individuals are judged worthy or unworthy based on criteria that are entirely irrelevant as to whether they can do the job they are being hired for. Discrimination means passing over a well-qualified person in favor of a less-qualified person for a job because the less-qualified candidate has some irrelevant characteristic that grants him special treatment. In this case, the characteristic that qualifies a candidate for special treatment is belief in God.

Government money must not be used to fund a practice of declaring one set of peaceful citizens superior to another based on their religious beliefs.

Opportunity

Head Start is meant to provide benefits to underprivileged and at-risk children. However, it provides another benefit as well. It provides economic opportunity. It provides a chance for adults who are trying to enter or advance in the job market to gather valuable work experience.

This change in the rules grants extra privileges to those who share certain religious beliefs. In making the change, the government says, "If you accept these approved religious beliefs, then we will help you up the economic ladder. We will provide an opportunity for an additional economic boost. However, if you do not share these beliefs, you are on your own. You are banned from participating in some of these opportunities."

The practical effect of all of this is that our government has a policy of imposing a "belief tax" on certain citizens. This “belief tax” is the opportunity for employment and advancement that these citizens would have had if the government had been fair and just in how it spends tax revenue.

The government is setting up offices for economic advancement, and posting a sign on the door that says, "Authorized personnel only beyond this point."

"Authorized personnel" are those with government-approved religious beliefs.

Fighting Injustice

These types of situations always call up a question that I do not fully know how to answer. What do you do if you find yourself in a society that has significant structural injustices and immorality.?

I think of the slave, living in the South in 1800, who realizes that he is being treated unjustly -- that those who hold him in this position are immoral. Yet, what is he to do? He could go up to his owner and say, "What you are doing is wrong. What you are doing is fundamentally immoral. No decent, moral person would do such a thing." However, if he does this, the chances are good that the owner will only whip him for insubordination and tell him to get back to work, or else.

Similarly, I wonder at the effects of what I write here. I have identified a basic, structural evil inherent in the government charging a belief-tax and providing certain belief-subsidies to its citizens. This immorality is combined with another where the society claims to honor the moral doctrine of freedom of belief. These belief-taxes and belief-subsidies show that it is not the case. A free country does not impose extra tax burdens on those who do not share approved beliefs, or distribute the benefits of government expenses based on the beliefs of its citizens. So, the country that claims to be free and just, who imposes these belief taxes and subsidies, is a country of hypocrites.

What is the use of pointing out the moral failings and hypocrisy of people who have deafened themselves to moral truth? I fear that I can expect only to be (verbally) whipped and told to get back to work -- if I can find it (because the government is giving its money to those who have said that I have no hope of finding work with them).

In a moral and just society, a citizen would only need to report an injustice and the society will put itself to work trying to correct it. In a moral and just society, the citizens do not tolerate injustice or those who seek to promote it. In a moral and just society, the citizens would not support a belief tax. In an immoral and unjust society, however, there is no limit to what we might find.

If a person lives in a fundamentally unjust society, then what is to be done?

I can’t think of an answer to this question. The slaves in the 1800s never found an answer to the question, “Then what?” They remained slaves as the injustices committed against them went on from one decade to the next.

Hopefully, we are better than them. Hopefully, we live in a society that has not so far abandoned an interest in fairness and justice that we are forced to seek an answer to the question, “If we are not such a society, then what?”

Hopefully, we still have a society where decent people realize that it is fundamentally wrong for the government to have anything that can be ultimately expressed in terms of a religious belief tax.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

National Debt

Are you the type of person who gets furious when you hear about an adult abusing or neglecting children? Then, the rising national deficit is something that you should be paying attention to.

Let us imagine a pair of new parents.

They bring their child home from the hospital, place it in its room, then begin filling out credit cards in the child's name. They use these credit cards to buy vacations, electronic equipment, seats at their favorite sporting events, and the like. When the child gets to be 18 years old, the parents give the bills to the child.

These are not good, morally responsible parents. These parents have clearly abused their responsibility to care for the child. Instead of providing the child with what he or she needed for a good life, the parents mortgaged that child's life for their own pleasure.

For all practical purposes, they enslaved the child. They took for themselves the fruits of that child's future labors. So, the child will become an adult that will have a job, where a portion of those wages will be taken from him, and handed over to those who lent his parents money.

The National Deficit works much like this. The present generation spends the money, running up a tab that is then handed to the future generation.

If the present generation spends $1 more than it makes, then some future generation is going to have to make $1 (plus interest) more than spends. The future generation cannot spend that money on their own goals and projects. They have to use the money they make to pay for their parent's expenses.

No Taxation without Representation

In politics, whenever it is possible to tax a group who does not have the option to vote those imposing the tax out of office, there is a risk of exploitation. Representatives simply have no incentive other than their own personal values to stop them from taxing those who cannot vote. Those same representatives have every incentive to provide benefits to those who can vote -- effectively purchasing those votes with government pork.

This is precisely the mechanism that drives the national debt. Politicians who raise the debt are effectively raising taxes on those who do not vote -- future generations who cannot get to the polls. They are using the money to purchase the votes of those who can get to the polls -- today's voters. The net effect is a massive wealth-transfer scheme from those who cannot vote to those who can.

The overall effect is that the tax burden goes up on those who cannot vote, as that wealth gets transferred to those who can. Much like the policy of taxing America to benefit England, our country has adopted a policy of taxing the children to benefit the adults.

Repaying Debts

In addition to the basic moral wrong of robbing our own children for our benefit, we must consider the basic obligation to pay debts. On September 24th, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan met with the Finance Minister of France, Thierry Breton. According to Bretin, Greenspan had said, “We’ve lost control of the budget.”

It is not clear exactly what Greenspan meant by this. Yet, it is clearly the case that this is as much a moral failing as it is a failure in economic policy. Our political leaders have an obligation to keep our budget in control. If Greenspan is correct, our political leaders have abdicated on an important moral responsibility.

There is no law of nature that says that American cannot drive itself into economic ruin. There is no law of nature that says that, no matter how much debt we pile onto our children and their children, that they will be able and willing to pay that debt. Immoral acts are immoral precisely because of the destruction they cause to other peoples’ lives. Living beyond our means is immoral precisely because of the disadvantages we force on children who are unable to give informed consent as to whether to accept those burdens.

Exceptions

There are some things for which a deficit makes sense. If a community is building a road, the present community will have to suffer through the costs, while future generations enjoy the benefits. It seems fair to have future generations pay for the road. Therefore, a bond issue or some sort of debt to pay for the road seems appropriate.

When a nation goes to war, this is another case in which a current generation makes a noble sacrifice for which future generations will obtain a benefit. Those future generations cannot share the risks of life and limb that the current generation must endure. They can, however, share a part of the financial burden. It is not unfair to ask them to do so by having them pay back war bonds and other forms of debt.

Also, if professional economists say that a debt is useful to restore a battered economy, I am not going to argue against that professional. If a leader has assigned experts in a subject to give him advice, then he would be negligent in his responsibility if he did not consider the advice of those experts.

All of these cases ultimately follow the same moral principle. Future generations should shoulder some of the burden for things that benefit them.

However, the present generation has a responsibility to determine if future generations will benefit. If the present generation is wrong, then it is the present generation -- not the future generation -- that should pay for the mistake.

The "benefits" that were promised from an attack on Iraq -- to secure weapons of mass destruction and to weaken anti-American terrorists -- have not materialized. Evidence suggests that the current generation has made the lives of future generations of Americans less secure, for which we are also sending them the bill for our service.

In this case, the expenses are hardly justified. The expense mostly took the form of tax cuts for the rich. This means that it actually did go to buying vacations, cars, and other expensive personal equipment. It also went to a war that, it appears, will not provide future generations with any benefit.

Conclusion

This particular wrong is different from many of the others I have spoken of. The other wrongs have victims in the hear and now – victims who are capable of getting angry and taking action to make sure that these wrongs are made right. However, the victims of deficit spending are not able to defend themselves. They’re out on the playgrounds in the nation’s schools or sitting in front of the television watching cartoons. They are trying to get up the nerve to ask Suzie out on a date, or they are not even born yet.

They cannot take care of themselves. They do not know what they need to do to protect their own future, so they count on us to take care of these things for them. They count on us to make sure that they eat well, exercise, do their homework, wash their hands, get inoculated from disease.

In all of this, there should be room somewhere for an obligation not to steal their money – the money they will be making once they grow old enough to get a job. People not willing to live up to this obligation are no better than those parents who inflict abuse and neglect on their children.

Are you the type of person who gets furious when you hear about an adult abusing or neglecting children? Then, the rising national deficit is something that you should be paying attention to.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

I Am to Be Eradicated

A person cannot, at the same time, be on a quest for justice, peace, and support for all people, while calling for the eradication of those who do not share his beliefs.

I am to be eradicated.

So are many of the people that I associate with. All of us are to be eradicated.

Actually, the individual calling for our eradication was saying that "anti-religious materialists" should be eradicated. I do not consider myself to be anti-religious. If my neighbor is kind, respectful, willing to help in times of need, and unwilling to inflict harm or injustice, I do not care about his religious beliefs.

Yet, the person calling for my eradication would accuse me of being anti-religious. He includes in this category anybody who believe in Darwinism or materialism. So, I guess I must be anti-religious.

Oddly -- and this is the part that confuses me -- the author describes the eradicators as those with special qualities. The eradicators allegedly have a sincere belief in justice, peace, and support for all people. The agents of our eradication are those who are “conscientious, tolerant, helpful, conciliatory, reasonable, virtuous, peaceful, and fair.”

As I understand these terms, it is difficult to imagine how these could be the primary traits of an army of eradicators. Indeed, the very urge to eradicate others seems to define a person as intolerant, unreasonable, warlike, and unfair.

The Source

I woke up this morning, followed a few links, and ended up on an article called "Islam's acceptance of Judaism and Christianity" written by Harun Yahya, a "prominent Turkish intellectual", in an online periodical called the "Media Monitors Network."

In this article, Yahya is calling for an alliance of all conscientious people defined as "sincere Christians, along with religious Jews and Muslims, who will come together and unite in this common cause." The people he is speaking to are "All Jews, Christians, and Muslims who are sincere, conscientious, tolerant, helpful, conciliatory, reasonable, virtuous, peaceful, and fair."

In the name of peace and fairness, Yahya wishes that these groups should not be fighting each other. They should be uniting against a different enemy.

That enemy is me.

"Muslims are not at one pole and Jews and Christians are not at the opposing pole. In fact, one pole represents people who believe in God's existence and unity, and the other pole represents the unbelievers, who believe in such anti-religious ideologies as materialism and Darwinism."

This is Yahya's idea of religious morality at work. This is Yahya's idea of tolerance, reasonableness, virtue, peace, and fairness. Yahya thinks that the person with these qualities exhibits them by dividing the world into groups of ‘us’ at one pole and ‘them’ at the other -- not on the basis that 'them' are actually hurting anybody, but on the basis that 'them' does not have the same beliefs that ‘us’ do. On this basis alone, the reasonable, peaceful and fair members of ‘us’ are to embark on a campaign of eradication.

In a paradigm example of double-speak, Yahya says that this campaign is grounded on "[T]he sincere believers' quest for justice, peace, and support for all people."

Well, not quite all people. He seems to have forgotten about those he wants to eradicate.

Unless, of course, I am not to a 'people'. It is, after all, the first step in oppression and injustice is to deny that the victims are 'persons' in the moral sense.

My Take on Eradication

Here is my take on the issue.

In the name of peace and tolerance, I am not going to care about the religious views that my neighbor holds. I do not care if he is Muslim, Jew, Catholic, Protestant, Wikkan, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Atheist, Mormon, Undecided, None of the Above, or whatever. I am going to judge him on a different standard -- whether he is a threat to the rest of us, and whether he is willing to help those who are in desperate need.

If his religion does not make him a threat to others, then I have no right to question it. If, in fact, he belongs to a religion that threatens him with damnation if he does not live in peace with and respect his neighbors, I certainly have no grounds for complaint.

However, if he belongs to a religion that says it is a virtue to blow himself up in a crowded bus or shopping mall, taking as many innocent civilians with him as possible; or fly airplanes into civilian buildings, then I object that his religion is not to be tolerated.

If my neighbor wants to build a temple, it would be wrong for me to try to stop him. However, if he comes over to rob my house or loot my bank account to pay for the construction, he has broken the agreement that we live together in peace. I should have the liberty to decide for myself which temple I will contribute to, if any -- and not be forced to make contributions to a temple I do not care to support. If I am being taxed to pay for the construction of somebody else's temple, then our society is not tolerant, conciliatory, peaceful, or fair.

If my neighbor wants to express his own belief in God, it would be wrong for me to stop him, even if he is in a public place. An individual who ends an oath with, "So help me God" expresses his own view and harms nobody else, so it would be wrong of me to complain. However, if my neighbor promotes an oath that denigrates my beliefs -- saying that I am comparable to those who support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice -- he has stepped beyond his rights. He can no longer honestly claim that he has an interest in tolerance, peace, and fairness if he treats his peaceful neighbor this way.

If my neighbor claims that he should do unto others as he would have others do unto him, then he is not doing what he should if he forces his neighbors to pay for his religious symbols and rituals when he would protest being forced to pay for theirs. He is a hypocrite if he demands the right to make it a public oath to denigrate the views of other peaceful citizens if he would not tolerate oaths that denigrate his own beliefs.

Conclusion

If you want to say that you seek the happiness, security, peace, and tranquility of all people by opposing conflict, you have to be able to do more than use the words in a sentence. You have to be able to show that you know what they mean by your actions.

You do not prove your interest in these goods, or in avoiding conflict, if the reason you are bringing this army together is to eradicate others merely on the basis that they have different beliefs. There is no better proof that an individual's interests is not in happiness, security, peace, and tranquility than the fact that he is calling for the eradication of his peaceful neighbors based only on a difference in belief.

The moral person includes all peaceful neighbors interested in security, peace, and tranquility. This is how one goes about reducing conflict, rather than promoting it.

The moral doctrine should be, "If you can live in peace with me, then I will live in peace with you."

No other ideology deserves the name 'moral'.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Anti-War/Anti-Terrorism

An individual with harsh words to say against war, should be able to spare a few moments for some harsh words against terrorism.

Why are there no protests against terrorism or the people who use this tactic?

We see people gathering in large numbers throughout the world to protest a war, but I have not noticed a similar movement to protest terrorism.

Are there too few of us who think that terrorism deserves our condemnation? Does everybody else (or almost everybody else) think that the terrorists are the 'good guys'?

Definitions of Terms

On the issue of terrorism, I want to define my terms. A terrorist is somebody who targets civilians. Their goal is to instill terror in the population by making common people fear for their lives and well-being. Terrorists target the student learning to become a biologist or engineer, the office worker trying to support her family, the gardener, the waiter, the computer programmer, the lawyer, and the gas-station attendant. In short, they target us.

If somebody attacks a military convoy, an army base, a destroyer -- these people are not terrorists. They are rebels, or insurgents, mercenaries, or enemy combatants, but not terrorists. This does not imply that the actions of these people are justified. It only implies that we can communicate better if writers and readers are on the same page.

I am talking about people who target civilians; and I will be using the word terrorist.

Propaganda

There are those who want to call individuals who target military installations and troops 'terrorists'. I suspect that this is because of the usefulness that this type of claim has for propaganda. In the drive to generate stronger hatred and less sympathy for the enemy, political leaders want to put them in the least favorable light. Calling all enemy combatants ‘terrorists’ may accomplish this objective for a short period of time.

However, in the long run the effect will be to blur the concept of a ‘terrorist’. While the original effect is to cast enemy combatants in the worst possible light, the long-term effect is to give terrorists a veneer of legitimacy. They are, after all, nothing more or less than enemy combatants, and attacking a public shopping mall is no different than attacking a military convoy. A possible effect of blurring this distinction is to make it psychologically easier to attack civilians.

This type of propaganda makes it more difficult to say, "I do not care how legitimate you think your cause is or which side you are fighting on, targeting civilians is not acceptable." It becomes harder to make this type of statement because our language loses a term specifically for identifying those who target civilians – a role once played by the term ‘terrorist’. This term gets drafted for other uses, and those who target civilians can then hide in the confusion and obscurity this creates.

So, if we are going to target those who attack civilians with special condemnation, as they deserve, then let's keep a term in our language that is specifically used to identify those who target civilians. Let's reserve the word 'terrorism' for this purpose so that we can know exactly the type of person we are talking about.

So, is it the case that "One person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter?"

Answer: No. One person's terrorist is another person's terrorist. If he targets civilians, then he is a terrorist. If not, then the term does not apply.

Now, why do we not see protests against terrorism and those that support it?

Confusion

Perhaps one of the reasons that people do not protest terrorists is that one fears that it will be confusing. "If I were to protest terrorism, this might be taken as a sign that I support the war against terrorism. I do not support the war, and I do not wish to be thought of as somebody who does support the war, so I will not condemn the terrorists."

It's not that such a person actually supports the terrorist. She just does not know how to express disapproval in a way that will not be misinterpreted.

She fears that protesting terrorism might be taken as support for the war. Yet, she does not worry that protesting the war might be seen as support for terrorism. For some reason, she thinks that people are smart enough to recognize the distinction when it goes one way, but too stupid to see the distinction when it goes the other way.

The 'confusion' argument is a smoke screen. There is something else sitting at the core, motivating the decision not to protest terrorism and those who support it.

What Is There to Protest?

Perhaps the reason there are no protests against terrorists is because the target is just too obvious. There are no protests against people who hold up convenience stores. This is because there is no need. Everybody already knows that these people are worthy of condemnation. There is no need to protest the obvious.

However, each night is filled with news that somebody does not think that the moral prohibition against killing civilians is all that obvious. If it were so obvious, then why are so many people targeting civilians?

Where are they finding the support they need to carry out their activities, and to hide from those trying to stop them?

Terrorist organizations, unlike convenience-store robbers, survive on a network of support. There are people out there, people walking among us with money and contacts and prestige, who write checks and give other aid to terrorist organizations. These are the people who need to be told that supporting terrorism is intolerable. These co-conspirators deserve no less contempt than the terrorists themselves.

Who are these co-conspirators?

From whom are these people getting the message that it is morally permissible to attack civilians?

In too many cases, this message comes from religious leaders. It comes from people who say that all true morality comes from God, and God not only accepts but demands that his subjects target civilians. In this case, the source is an evil religion.

We can and should tolerate a great many views in our pluralistic world. The view that it is permissible to target civilians – particularly children – is no more to be tolerated than a religion that thinks it is permissible to offer children as religious sacrifice to any God.

These protests should target those who defend this type of view and those who support such groups. We should be seeking to socially, financially, and politically ostracize these groups, taking away their power to harm civilians and promoting a culture in which people do not accept these types of actions.

There is a great deal of good that a public protest could accomplish -- identifying and publishing the identities of those who refuse to renounce attacks on civilians, and solidifying a public determination to show the public discontent with those who think this way.

The way to start this public protest is simply to ask people to make a public and unequivocal statement about their attitudes regarding attacks on civilians and those who support them, and find out who is not willing to condemn these types of actions.

Why Not?

Perhaps it is too obvious to say. However, I think it is important to take the time to say that it is worth the effort to target those who would target civilians. The ideology that says that this is permissible threatens us all. It is in our interest to bring the weapons of social condemnation to bear against those who practice it, and those who support it, even if that support comes merely through the implied acceptance of silence.

This is my statement, that I offer no support and wish to see no victory handed to those who would target civilians. I condemn them and think that it is worth while to ensure their defeat. “Defeat”, in this case, does not mean just stopping the people. It means defeating the ideology that fails to recognize the moral depravity of showing such disregard for civilian lives.

If we are going to raise our voices to protest the wrongs that people do, let us not forget to protest the acts of the terrorists and those who support them as well.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Dying in Vain

It is a morally bankrupt leader who says, "Do not criticize me and call my orders foolish, because doing so insults the soldiers who execute my foolish orders to the best of their ability." The soldiers aren't being insulted, only the leader who wastes their lives by handing out foolish orders.

The soldier and his commander lives within the confines of a moral contract.

Soldiers have a duty to follow orders (unless the orders are obviously immoral). There is no time to explain the “big plan” to each of them and get them to approve of the overall strategy, and there will always be some who will not approve even if they did know. Therefore, the military has a chain of command. In that chain, the soldier has a duty to obey (except when commanded to do something that is clearly immoral).

In return, the commander has an obligation to use the soldier’s obedience to right and proper ends. Before he puts the soldier at risk of losing life or limb, the commander has an obligation to ensure that the soldier will not suffer that loss in vain. Even when he commands the soldier to kill, he has an obligation to make sure that the soldier kills for a good reason. The soldier has little choice (except under the most extraordinary circumstances) but to assume that this is the case.

This chain of command and obligation goes up to the top to the Commander in Chief.

So, what does it mean to say that the soldier suffers or dies in vain?

The typical describes a situation where an individual goes through a great deal of effort or suffers a huge cost in order to achieve some important end and dues not succeed. The failure means that the effort produced no benefit -- no good result. "It was all in vain."

There are always some risks associated with this type of heroic struggle. There is always a chance of failure. The person going through the effort or suffering the loss cannot guarantee a good outcome. Every once in a while soldiers do die or suffer in vain, just as they die or suffer in an accident. Sometimes, this happens in spite of the best intentions of everybody involved.

Sometimes, somebody is responsible.

Vain Sacrifice 1

One way in which a sacrifice can be in vain is if the goal that one sought to reach was not available. A special team is sent behind enemy lines to destroy an enemy outpost. After days of struggle and sacrifice they reach their destination, and there is no outpost. The survivors groan in frustration, “It was all for nothing.”

We were told that America was sending soldiers into Iraq to secure weapons of mass destruction. We were told that we needed to take these weapons out of the hands of those who would threaten their neighbors, threaten our allies (such as Israel), or threaten us. If Iraq could not threaten us directly, they would turn these weapons over to others (terrorists) who would use them against us. With this invasion, the suffering and loss of life was worthwhile because it would buy us safety from these weapons.

After all of the suffering and death, we found out that there were no weapons. There never were any weapons. It was all for nothing. It was all in vain.

As I said above, sometimes soldiers are given orders to accomplish things that have no value. When this happens, those who ordered the maneuver have made a mistake. It may be an innocent mistake, but it was still a mistake.

One way to judge an innocent mistake from one that was not so innocent is by whether others, looking at the same evidence, would have made the same mistake. In this case, we have reason to believe that this is not the case. The Bush Administration had an opportunity to made its best case to our allies in secret and to the United Nations in public. Others did not find the case convincing. Therefore, the mistake was not innocent. It was foolish. Which means that the soldiers died in vain.

Vain Sacrifice 2

Perhaps one of the most tragic ways in which somebody can suffer and die in vain is when he struggles to achieve one goal, but ends up making things worse. For example, imagine a case where a father struggles to save the life of one of his children and gets all of his children killed in the attempt. He had a worthy objective, but his efforts were all for nothing. They were all for worse than nothing.

Our leaders told us that they were sending soldiers into Iraq as a part of the war on terror. The objective was to deprive terrorists of potential supplies, recruits, and training areas.

It now looks as if the attack on Iraq has recruited tends of thousands of new terrorists, given them ample room to train in Iraq, and equipped them with the weapons of a fallen army that could not be adequately secured. The vast majority of the people attacking our soldiers in Iraq are not terrorists who would have otherwise come to the United States, they are Iraqi citizens who would have otherwise stayed home and ignored us.

In addition, our actions in Iraq have provided the terrorists with another direct benefit. Resources -- men, material, intelligence-gathering capability -- that could have gone to fighting the original terrorists trying to strike us here in America have been diverted from that war, making life a little easier for those terrorists.

We are fighting people we would not have otherwise needed to fight, using our intelligence resources against people we could have otherwise ignored, and generally facing a worse situation than we would have otherwise faced, while the terrorists we would have otherwise been fighting are facing an enemy spread thinner to cover our new commitments.

There is no worse example of suffering and dying in vain than to sacrifice to make a situation better, and making it worse. In this sense, there is reason to believe that those who have fought and died in Iraq have already fought and died in vain. A campaign that we were told was a part of the war against terror is turning out to be a costly diversion of resources that benefit, rather than harm, the terrorists.

Criticism and Responsibility

A leader, too much of a moral coward to face responsibility for his mistakes, will often try to hide behind his troops. "Those who criticize me and say my orders were foolish are criticizing the troops who are executing those orders to the best of their ability. To support the troops, you must say that I am a genius who can make no mistakes -- who cannot possibly have given them a foolish order to execute."

Every soldier knows, or should know, that this is not true. Every soldier knows, or should know, that, if he is given a foolish order, but he seeks to execute it to the best of his ability, that he has done his part and can be proud of it. Every soldier knows, or should know, that somebody who criticizes a commander's foolish order does not criticize the troops. Every soldier knows that the only way to criticize the troops is to say that they did not execute those orders, however foolish, to the best of their ability.

What can we say about the moral character of the leader who denies this? What can we say of the moral character of a leader who gets up on stage and says, "Anybody who dares say that my orders were foolish is insulting the soldiers," as a way of silencing his critics?

He is a moral coward who is not brave enough to stand on his own two feet and accept responsibility for his actions. The soldiers that he commands deserve leaders who are better than this.

Conclusion

In these two things, at least, it appears that our soldiers have, in fact, suffered and died in vain. They did not secure weapons of mass destruction because there were none to secure. They did not win an important battle against terrorism because the battle itself created a country full of terrorists that otherwise would have continued living their lives in Iraq without attacking Americans. In the mean time, we have taken resources away from the battle against the real terrorists to fight this new body of terrorists that this Administration’s action created.

In light of this, some of our soldiers have fought, suffered, and died in vain. The people responsible for this are those who planned and ordered the invasion. There is nothing that the rest of us can do at this point to change this unpleasant fact. Some people may not want to admit it, but name-calling and anger against those who speak the truth will not prevent it from being true.

The soldier and the commander have a special moral relationship. The soldier has a duty to obey (except when the order is obviously immoral), and the commander has a duty to make sure that, in obeying, the soldier is suffering or dying for that which is worth the sacrifice.

If the soldier ends up suffering or dying for nothing, but he still executes his orders to the best of his ability, then nothing can be said against the soldier. Critizing the order is not the same as criticizing the soldier.

The vast majority of America's soldiers have executed their orders to the best of their ability, and deserves our praise and commendation for this.

Yet, it is still the case that their leaders have commanded them to take actions where they suffer and die in vain.

This is not the soldiers' fault. It is the fault of those who gave the soldiers their orders.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Children of Iraq

Anybody who argues that we should pull our troops out of Iraq must answer one question for me. Not only must they give an answer, they must show that the answer is based on evidence and sound reasoning.

What happens to the children of Iraq?

What type of world will the five and six year old boy or girl grow up in if our soldiers leave Iraq and come home?

Here are some possible answers that I have seen.

(1) “It does not matter. It is not our problem.”

First, we helped create this situation, and that makes it our problem. If we perform an action that puts a group of children at risk, then we have an obligation to remove the risk before we abandon the children.

Second, this answer has the same moral merit as sitting back and eating popcorn, watching while a neighbor’s child gets raped and murdered. Compare the moral character of the person who turns his back and says “It’s not my kid. It’s not my problem.” Compare that to the character of the person who gets involved for the sake of the kid, even at great personal risk. It is easy to see which person is worthy of the greatest moral praise. It is easy to see which is the better person.

The moral question here concerns which is the better person. The person who protects and defends children, or the person who ignores and abandons them. "They are not my kids; it's not my problem," is not the morally best answer.

(2) “The Iraqis were better off before we started this mess.”

Maybe this is true, maybe it isn’t. It does not matter.

Assume you are driving to the airport, rushing to catch a flight. You find yourself in a traffic jam. Your passenger says, “If we had turned off on I-70 a couple of miles back we would not be in this mess."

Do me a favor; resist the urge to hit him. Simply try to explain to him that he's not helping. "Don’t tell me what we should have done 30 minutes ago, give me an idea of what I should do now."

It is appropriate to have the same attitude to the person who answers the question, "What about the children of Iraq?" by saying what we should have done -- or not done -- two or three years ago. I agree that the administration made some poor choices. Those choices got us into a serious mess. Still, the relevant question is, "What should we do now?" not "What should we have done two years ago?"

(3) “The Iraqis have a right to decide for themselves how to raise their children.”

This is certainly true. They have this right. However, that right has limits. Furthermore, a right has no value if people are not willing to defend it. Who is going to protect and honor that right, and who is going to trample that right?

My neighbors have a right to raise their children as they think best. They have a right to teach their religion to their children and other values without my interference. I have no right to dictate what they set as a curfew, or whether they allow their children to get their ears pierced or wear a tatoo, or what they allow their children to watch on television. I will not even force them to have their children eat their vegetables.

However, there are limits. If I view that my neighbor’s children are at risk of abuse and neglect – if they are being beaten and killed, deprived of an education, left unfed, have health-care needs that are being ignored, kept in cages, enslaved, or offered as prostitutes – then I have not only a right, but a duty, to interfere with how my neighbors are raising their children.

Will these children become the victims of suicide bombers? Will they become suicide bombers themselves, or soldiers in another religious war?

More importantly, will the Iraqis actually have a society in which they can raise their children as they see fit? Or will some faction imposes its will on everybody, dictating how children will be raised? What are the odds that some religious fundamentalists will be dictating standards – prohibiting women from getting an education (or from voting, or even from being seen in public)? What are the odds that some new dictator will rise up, slaughtering the children of those who belong to an opposing political or religious faction, the way Saddam Hussein gassed and slaughtered whole villages -- including the children?

If the Iraqis actually had the power to exercise this right, and they did not have options forced upon them, then, certainly, it would be time to leave. However, the question about whether we should leave may very well be the same as the question of whether the Iraqis have a system where these rights are respected and enforced.

(4) “Obviously, they will be okay.”

The question, “What will happen to the children of Iraq?” lends itself to a number of answers. Everybody can have an opinion. A quick cursory glance of what is going on in Iraq, some mental extrapolation, and any arm-chair general or political strategist can assert with confidence which road Iraq will take.

None of them really know what they are talking about. None of them are actually offering a believable account of what the future of the children if Iraq will be like. They are all simply pretending that they have a level of expertise they do not have.

The person who offers a serious answer will need to be able to draw on studies and research by those who are experts on Iraq. They will have to cite a mountain of statistics, and be able to show that they know what those studies actually say and their implications.

No protestor standing on the street saying, “Bring the troops home now!” has executed this responsibility. At least, I have not heard of any.

When you look at the average person with a blow-horn edging a crowd in an anti-war chant, he has no idea what will happen to the children of Iraq. Neither do those who follow them.

More importantly, none of them are the asking the question. It’s a good sign that none of them really care. This, in turn, brings us back to option (1).

Conclusion

Here is my position. I am not going to join any street protest to bring the troops home. I would join any street protest to put the project in the hands of somebody who seems competent to make wise decisions. Right now, this is not the case. Like FEMA before Hurricane Katrina hit, the Iraq War is in the hands of people who prove daily that they lack the basic skill set to do the job effectively. It is time to demand that they be replaced. We need competent leadership.

I certainly would prefer a leadership that has an expressed, moral drive to create a policy that fits the intelligence, rather than fixing the intelligence to fit the policy.

A competent leader is not necessarily one who agrees with "Bring the troops home now," crowd. A competent leader is somebody who has a plan for building the best possible future for the children of Iraq -- whatever it takes.

A competent leader knows that he does not have all of the right answers and listens to the advice of experts who have given the subject a great deal of thought and attention, with an eye to what is best for the future of Iraq. He is not one that listens to mobs who have purchased their opinions on a whim without doing their homework.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Divine Wrath

Pick any group. Eventually, you will be able to find a set of events that will allow you to say "God is punishing that group and those who tolerate members of that group living amongst us." These types of arguments are the wares of the hate-monger; the individual who is in the market to sell hate and fear.

It should be obvious by now. America has offended Allah with its Crusade against Islam, and Allah is striking at us in order to defend His chosen people. Hurricane Rita is simply the most recent in a long list of messages that Allah has sent telling us that He sides against us with Muslim fundamentalists.

It 's more than just these two hurricanes that prove that this is the case. Last year, Florida got hit by 4 hurricanes; one of which turned around and came back, hitting Florida twice. Who else but Allah could stop a hurricane in its tracks and send it back to strike Florida a second time? No force of nature can do that.

The odds against America suffering so many strikes -- the last two against vital strategic targets that Muslim fundamenalists would have targeted -- are so astronomically low that there must be an intelligent design behind it.

Obviously, the reason that Allah is attacking Florida is because its governor is George Bush's brother. Allah wanted to make his message clear, so He sent all of His hurricanes against this one state.

Katrina and Rita also hit Florida, though Allah clearly had grown impatient and sought other useful targets as well. So, He aimed the hurricanes at New Orleans to destroy the city more efficiently than any terrorist bomb could hope to accomplish. In attacking New Orleans, Allah attacked our vital oil supplies.

Then, a few weeks later, with hurricane Rita, he attacked those refineries and oil ports that Katrina had left standing. By doing this, Allah has attacked all of America, hitting us at our weakest point - our dependence on energy.

In addition, He made his vengeance known by attacking George's home state of Texas.

The message could not be any clearer. It is time to renounce Christ and admit that Allah is the one true God and Mohammed is his prophet.

Retraction

Of course, I don't believe any of this. I wrote it to illustrate a point. Arguments that target some individual or group as the victim of 'God's wrath' are easy to come by.

Pick any group (Christians, Japanese, homosexuals, red states or blue states, redheads or brunettes, etc.) and wait long enough and you will be able to catch a set of events that will appear to be targeting that group for divine wrath.

If you pick a group that you hate, and you want others to hate them as you do, just wait a while. Sooner or later you will be awarded with a set of events that will allow you to shout, "God hates those who are in that group and will punish anybody who show them tolerance and acceptance."

Examples

We see these types of claims all the time. When Hurricane Katrina hit, some groups claimed that New Orleans was being targeted because of it shows more tolerance of homosexuals than it should. People noted that the hurricane struck just before a ceremony that homosexuals tend to favor. Nobody explained why, if God hates gays, He decided to attack before the party, and not during the party, when he could certainly have inflicted even more damage on His intended victims.

Others claim that God targeted New Orleans to show His disapproval of abortion.

Why did God also take out a lot of innocent people? This is because God was sending a message that He will punish the innocent who choose to live among and accept the wicked targets of His divine hatred. God will not bless us and protect us from harm until we have successfully rid ourselves of these target groups or struck at them with as much hate and contempt as would make Him happy.

Except, maybe God does not hate New Orleans because of homosexuality or abortion. Maybe he hates New Orleans because it gave its electoral votes to George Bush in the 2004 election. This seems to be a much more plausible result. Note that every state struck by this hurricane was a Red state -- a pro-Bush state. Maybe that was the cause of this divine wrath.

Any innocent victims caught in the disaster was God's warning that we should not be tolerating Republicans in our midst. God will not leave us alone unless we get rid of all of them. After all, Hurricane Rita destroyed Trent Lott's house. How much more proof do we need before we admit that God hates Republicans - probably because of false piety?

Maybe God just hates Jazz music. New Orleans has long been known to be the center of Jazz. Maybe he has taken just about as much of that noise as he could tolerate and decided to put an end to it.

Inferences

The argument, "God is punishing us because we let these people live amongst us" can be used against any group. As a result, these arguments tell us more about the people who use them then they do about God. The speaker is saying that God hates this target group, but it is really the speaker that picked the target group, not God. The message is a message about the speaker's hate and intolerance, not God's hate and intolerance.

Hatred of Americans causes one person to interpret the hurricanes as proof that "God hates Americans," while hatred of gays causes another to interpret the hurricanes as proof that "God hates gays." If there were a religion out there with a commandment against playing jazz music, they could argue that this hurricane is proof that God hates those who play jazz music and is punishing the rest of us for tolerating jazz music players amongst us.

What we are actually witnessing when we see this argument at work is a hate-monger plying his trade. He is trying to sell hate and intolerance, and he is using God as a marketing tool to help sell his product.

In addition to using God to sell hate and intolerance, he is also using God to sell fear. He is telling us that if we do not buy into the hate and intolerance he is selling, that God will see that we suffer. It is much like a robber pointing a gun at his victim and saying, "You will purchase protection from me, or you will suffer the consequences." Only, the price of protection is paid, not with cash, but by driving out the target group, be they homosexuals, abortionists, Americans, Republicans, or jazz musicians -- take your pick.

Useful Arguments

Because these arguments can be used against anybody, the conscientious person does not use them.

For example, any group that disapproves of what Republicans are doing should still not suggest that these hurricanes are proof that God is punishing people for supporting Republicans. These people should have the intellectual integrity to restrict their arguments to actual sound criticism of Republican policies, and not drum up phony arguments like 'God's wrath' arguments.

An earthquake in some mountain region that terrorists use is not 'the wrath of God'. It is an earthquake -- a phenomena of nature that does not care about the guilt or innocence of its victims. It will kill a child as easily as it will kill a terrorist or a soldier fighting against the terrorists. These events are not to be used foddor for promoting an agenda of hate. If the target group actually deserves hate (e.g., terrorists), then we do not need to make up arguments to prove it. We have enough proof without these arguments.

A conscientious person would have another problem with these 'God's wrath' arguments. A conscientious person knows that it is wrong to punish somebody for the actions of another. If God is in the habit of killing innocent people to get at those who He thinks deserves to die, then this does not testify to the moral depravity of those who die. This testifies to God's own moral depravity.

Quite simply, "God is punishing people because he hates those in some target group and those who tolerate the target group," is an argument for hate-mongers -- a person who sells hate and uses God in his advertisements. A civilized society has no room for those who peddle midnless hate.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Professional Integrity: Journalism and Research

An individual who claims to be a scholar has an obligation to present his case using only arguments that scholars will accept. Failure to do so displays a lack of moral and professional integrity comparable to the wrongs that, in other fields, count as malpractice.

The online edition of the Christian Broadcasting Network NewsWatch recently ran an article on "Dispelling the Myths of Global Warming." For this article, the reporter, Dale Hurd relayed several arguments from "Climatologist" Pat Michaels of the CATO Institute.

Mr. Hurd's article provides an extremely conspicuous display of academic negligence on his own part, and on the part of Mr. Michaels.

Focus

In spite of the fact that I am talking about an article on global warming, this essay is not about global warming. This is an essay about peoples' professional obligations. Regardless of where any reader comes down on the global warming issue, Michaels used arguments in defense of his position that are so poor that they are equivalent to professional malpractice. In writing the article that reports these claims, Hurd has shown his own lack of professional integrity.

In fact, I want it known that I think that the Kyoto Protocols have serious problems -- problems I think that Michaels and Hurd would agree with. However, I think that it is vital to be against them for the right reasons. There are some arguments against the Protocols that I would never use, precisely because of the lack of academic and moral integrity required to use them.

Human Acts and Natural History

Against the issue that humans contribute to global warming, Hurd quoted Michaels as saying, "…climate has changed in the past without human beings having anything to do with it. There was an Ice Age not very long ago -- 5,000 feet of ice over Chicago and look, here we are, thriving on a planet with an ever-changing climate."

What's wrong with this argument?

Imagine that you are a detective arriving on a crime scene. You see a body. The victim was clearly shot through the head. You see another person holding a gun. Forensic evidence reveals that the victim was killed with a bullet fired from that gun. The gun has the accused person's fingerprints on it. There are witnesses who say they saw the accused point the gun at the victim (who was alive at the time), and pull the trigger.

Now, the accused offers up his defense: "A lot of people have died in the past without my help. I did not kill any of them. Some of them died before I was even born, or in places I could not have visited. Therefore, I clearly did not kill this person."

Would any thinking person consider this to be a rational defense?

I repeat, this is not a essay about global warming. It is an essay about Michaels' display of academic wrongdoing by saying that he has a reason for us to doubt that humans are contributing to global warming. He has a reason that is no better than the accused murderer saying, "Some people have died even though I did not kill them; therefore, I am innocent of this murder."

It is a bogus argument that no academic scholar with integrity would consider using.

One Estimate

Michaels also makes use of one estimate that the Kyoto Protocol, if adopted, would contribute to only one seven one-hundredths of one degree Celsius change in global warming. He then goes on to argue as if this one estimate is the most accurate and best supported estimate in the field. "Not seven-tenths of a degree. Not seven degrees. But seven one-hundredths of a degree - an amount too small to measure. The European answer to this is, 'Well, at least we're doing something.' Yes, they are doing something. They're wasting money . . . "

I wonder if Michaels has any stock investments. If he does, I am certain that I can find an estimate that says that the stock market is going to crash in the near future and investors are going to lose a lot of money. Yet, if I were to write in a report saying that, "By one estimate, the stock market will crash in the very near future," I sincerely doubt that Michaels (if he were to read it) would suddenly sell everything he has.

Michaels knows that one study does not produce meaningful results. The smart investor gathers additional research and looks for the best evidence among them. However, when it comes to “dispelling the myths of global warming”, Michaels wants us to take one hand-picked report as the one and only authority on the issue.

Why This Is Wrong.

Morally, what type of person is Mr. Michaels?

Apparently, he is a researcher who cares very little about the quality of the arguments he uses to support his conclusion. He cares little about how good his evidence is. If it is convincing, even if it is poor evidence, this is all he cares about.

In the medical, legal, engineering, and many other fields, malpractice is wrong. Somebody who simply makes a mistake is not guilty of malpractice. This charge applies to somebody who should have known, as a professional, not to do something that he did. People who engage in malpractice are condemned and punished for the consequences of their actions because those actions are things that no decent, conscientious person of integrity would perform.

Micheals' use of these arguments constitute actions that no decent, conscientious researcher of integrity would perform. He has a professional obligation to make sure that he presents the best case possible.

A person who takes that obligation seriously would have seen the flaws in these arguments and not used them. Either Michaels lacked the professional integrity to check his arguments for flaws and weaknesses, lacked the competence to detect those weaknesses, or he lacked the moral integrity to not use arguments that knew to be flawed.

There is also a chance that Michaels is guilty of hypocrisy. What would Michaels have said of an opponent that he caught making arguments like, "X occurred naturally in the past; therefore, no human has ever done X" or "There was once a study that showed P; therefore, P"?

If he would have condemned that person, then he is a hypocrite. By definition, a hypocrite is somebody who applies a set of standards to others that he is not willing to apply to himself. A hypocrite is somebody who would condemn an opponent for using these types of arguments but not apply those same standards to his own writing.

Finally, Michaels can be accused of promoting academic irresponsibility. That which Michaels practices, he also preaches – he teaches by example. When he uses these poor arguments in his own writing, he communicates to others that this behavior is permissible. This promotes academic laziness and sloth, not to mention giving license to demagogues and outright liars.

A society of decent and respectable people with integrity is not a society that would welcome people like Mr. Michaels as a member.

Conclusion

Michaels' behavior not only taints his own work. It also taints the CATO Institute which, apparently, does not care whether its representatives use such sloppy reasoning in support of their conclusions.

It also tarnishes Dale Hurd, who wrote an article that endorsed these arguments, reporting them to the world without having the decency to scrutinize them. The heading clearly endorses the idea that the opposing view counts as "myths" and asserts that Michaels' work is to be taken as effective at dispelling them. If he says this, he has a professional obligation to make sure that this is correct -- a professional obligation that he failed to meet.

Finally, it taints the Christian Broadcasting Network, which did not have sufficient intellectual integrity to question the reasonableness of these claims.

It also taints the whole society that allows this type of behavior without treating those who engage in it to the moral condemnation they deserve.