Monday, October 31, 2005

Wal-Mart: Image vs. Substance

I'm sorry. I know that I mentioned that I would try for shorter articles, but there is just a lot to say about Wal-Mart.

According to an article in the Washington Post, Wal-Mart recently hired a consulting firm, McKinsey & Co., to make recommendations to overhaul the company's poor public image. In doing so, Wal-Mart executives proved once again that they simply do not understand the essence of being good, moral citizens.

Public Relations and Ethics

The first question that I have regarding this type of practice is: What does a public relations company know about ethics? Public relations have to do with image and appearance. Morality is concerned with the heart. We can see the distinction in what a person does when he thinks that nobody is watching. The moral person will still do the right thing. The image-conscious person will do the wrong thing, if he thinks he can get away with it.

The fact that Wal-Mart is looking to a public relations company to solve its problem proves that it does not understand this distinction. Its executives seem to have no idea that 'wrong' means 'you should not do it, even if it would profit you to do so."

One example of Wal-Mart's focus on image over substance shows up in the statement, "The federal minimum wage is $5.15 an hour. Wal-Mart says its full-time workers are paid an average of $9.68 an hour."

However, what do Wal-Mart's part-time employees get paid? One of the charges against Wal-Mart is that it has a policy of hiring low-paid part-time workers that do not qualify for benefits and other expensive employee packages. In fact, this was a recommendation of an internal company memo – to reduce medical care costs by using more part-time workers who do not qualify for these benefits.

Also, as I mentioned in a previous blog entry, averages are often used to hide unpleasant facts. A set of ten workers, where nine of them makes $5.00 per hour and one makes $55 per hour (about $115,000 per year), will yield an "average wage" of $10 per hour. Note that Wal-Mart's statement is not talking about non-exempt hourly employees, but all full-time employees, all the way to the executive rank.

Again, this is all image, and no substance, suggesting that the company is more interested in looking good than in being good.

Corporate Welfare

Another deplorable practice on the part of Wal-Mart is its tendency to demand corporate welfare from city and regional governments. Wal-Mart uses the tax breaks and other advantages it squeezes out of city government in order to lower its prices, which in turn is detrimental to other (competing) businesses in the community.

Wal-Mart does not win the corporate battle on the basis of free-market principles. It is more than happy to break those principles, go to the government, and say, "We insist that you help us in our quest to drive the other businesses in this community out of business."

Furthermore, the business owners that Wal-Mart is threatening are the same tax payers that will be required to contribute to the corporate welfare package that, in turn, will allow Wal-Mart to lower its prices which will put those businesses out of business. This practice has a lot in common with the wild-West habit of forcing condemned prisoners to purchase the rope that would be used to hang them.

If Wal-Mart was not the beneficiary of this corporate welfare, if it was forced to compete with these other businesses fairly in the open market, we can openly wonder how successful the company would be.

Low Wages/ Low Prices

There is one argument that I have often heard used against Wal-Mart that does not have any merit. These people argue that when Wal-Mart moves into an area, wages tend to drop. The argument states that Wal-Mart tends to pay its employees a lower wage than other, neighborhood stores. As a result, they say, "If we let Wal-Mart into our town or neighborhood, people here will be making less money."

However, wages are only half the issue. If my boss, at my next review, were to call me into his office and say, "We are going to cut your salary by five percent. However, at the same time, the company is giving you this card that will allow you to purchase anything you want at 10% off," I would jump at the offer. It is a pay-cut in name only. In practice, it is the financial equivalent of a five percent raise.

Wal-Mart's low prices are available to the entire community. This means that everybody -- every household in the community – from the hotel maid to the free-lance computer programmer -- will be able to pay lower prices for many of the things they buy. This means that they can buy more things, meaning more things will need to be produced, adding jobs to the volume of goods and services being produced.

As an atheist, I am all too familiar with people who have gotten it into the head that they want to hate somebody, who then accept whatever anybody else tells them as long as it supports the conclusion, "hating these people is good." The "low wages" argument against Wal-Mart is exactly that type of argument.

When it comes to using this type of hate-based reasoning, I would like to simply say, "Please, don't."

Note that this does not apply to the argument that Wal-Mart forces many of its employees into a situation where they must turn to financial aid to cover their basic necessities such as medical care. In doing this, Wal-Mart is effectively demanding another tax-payer subsidy – one in which the tax-paying community pays for the health care costs of Wal-Mart employees rather than Wal-Mart, while every other business covers its own health care costs.


What Wal-Mart needs is not an image consultant to tell it how to look like a better company, but an ethics consultant to help it actually become a better company. The fact that it sought out an image consultant instead shows that it has no interest in actually being a better company -- that, to Wal-Mart, appearances matter more than substance.

Still, no person or company should be criticized for wrongs that are substantially made-up. If Wal-Mart is guilty of genuine wrongs, then nobody needs to invent new wrongs to have good reason to dislike the company. If people need to make up wrongs to justify their dislike for the company, then that dislike is, in fact, unjustified, and unjust.

This is the way that the mind of the bigot works -- accepting arguments for hate without question, simply because it keeps the hate well fueled.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Senator Reid Demands Apology

MSNBC: Senator Reid call on Bush, Cheney to Apologize


WASHINGTON - Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said Sunday that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney should apologize for the actions of their aides in the CIA leak case.

This is a totally inappropriate request that treats an indictment as a conviction. If either Bush or Cheney apologized for the actions of their aids, then this would be presuming guilt. It would be contrary to the principle of “presumed innocent until proven guilty,” and serve only to taint any future trial with an assumption that merited an apology.

The reason for the principle of “presumed innocent until proven guilty” is to prohibit rash actions against a person only suspected of doing something wrong – actions like launching a war against a country only suspected of having weapons of mass destruction. It is there to protect people who are innocent because, sometimes, the accuser has made a mistake.

I know that a lot of people want to assume that Libby is guilty and are already buying tickets to his execution. The fact that a particular immorality is popular in certain circles does not make it right.

Demands that Rove Resign

Now, there are some additional requests that Reid made that actually did make sense. He is reported to have said that Bush should pledge not to pardon any aids convicted as a result of the investigation. Indeed, he should make that promise. However, he has not exactly earned our trust with his previous broken promise to fire any staff member involved in the leak.

On the basis of that earlier promise, Reid also said that Rove should step down because of his involvement in the leak. An individual does not need to be guilty of a crime to have done something worthy of terminating their employment. Even if Rove did not break the narrowly-defined letter of the law (which prohibits knowingly revealing the identity of a covert operative), he was still reckless with national-security information. This recklessness is not sufficient for a criminal conviction, but it is just cause for termination of employment.

However, on that matter, the White House should demand the resignation of everybody who was a part of the White House Iraq Group, for the crime of deceiving the nation into war and for a policy of personal attack against critics over substantive debate. The executive branch should have a zero-tolerance policy with regard for the deceiving a nation into war, and maybe a “three strikes” rule against using personal attack rather than substantive defense of administration policies. We would all be better off if this were the case.

Praise for Libby

Last, Reid condemned Bush and Cheney for praising Libby after accepting his resignation. They are praising an aide who is under indictment for obstructing justice, giving false statements, and perjury regarding actions that may have done damage to national security. An indictment is not a license to presume guilt; however, it is a license to suspect the possibility of guilt.

With these statements, Bush and Cheney have proved that they do not care about these crimes – that the fact that there is enough evidence against a staff member for indictment for criminal actions does not concern them. Potentially damaging national security, apparently, is not on their radar when it comes to making personal evaluations.

A priest, accused of abusing students, should not be described as a “fine and upstanding member of the church” by his superiors. At best, they can say, “We thought that he was a fine and upstanding member of the church.” Anything other than that belittles the seriousness of the crimes which the individual has been charged with. Bush’s and Cheney’s comments betray their sentiment that perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements are too insignificant to influence their opinions of Libby.


So, Reid got three out of four requests right. Bush should promise not to pardon those aids convicted of a crime. He should terminate Rove (and others) for involvement in a campaign to deceive the country into war, put personal attack above substance in defending administration policy, and for reckless and negligent treatment of national security information. He should not have praised an employee under indictment for criminal acts.

However, neither Bush nor Cheney nor Reid should make any official statements that assume that Libby is guilty – until that guilt has been proven in a court of law. Until that happens, these officials have not only a right, but a duty, to assume innocence and make their statements consistent with that assumption. Assuming guilt is a very dangerous practice. Assuming guilt is, perhaps, the core “wrong” responsible for getting us into this ill-planned war with Iraq to start with.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

50th Post

This is my 50th post.

I wanted to use this opportunity as a review of some of the issues that I have discussed in the past. However, I first wanted to say something about the length of my posts.

Generally, I have found that short “sound bytes” are great for sloganeering, but a poor way to understand an issue. They are great for preaching to the converted, but poor for trying to prove a point. So, I do not want to write this way.

I know that this has a cost, that I have fewer readers because of it. I am asking a great deal from my readers, that they will take the time required to actually read through one of these arguments and to consider the flow of reasoning within.

However, I hope that I offer a level of coherence and sound reasoning that will make some people who like a more detailed analysis think that this is worth their time.

Still, I am going to make an effort to break down my comments into a larger number of smaller issues that, hopefully, can add some perspective that the reader may not easily discover elsewhere.

In the mean time, here is a sampling of some of the issues that I have written about in my first fifty days.

Foundations of Morality

An atheist who is keenly interested in moral issues should address the question of how an atheist approaches moral issues. I have included some of those ideas in this blog, though a more detailed discussion can be found on my web page.

Intellectual Integrity

One of the greatest obstacles to solving problems rests with those fighting to obscure rational solutions behind a smoke screen of failed reasoning. It would be worth our time and effort to direct substantially more of our moral wrath against those who use faulty reasoning to defend their positions.


A subgenre under Intellectual Integrity, these are signs of people who want to live by two rules – one set of rules that permit nearly everything for them and their political allies, and a much tighter set of moral restrictions on others.

Science (fact-based solutions) versus religion (faith-based solutions)

We have two groups of people proposing solutions to natural disasters. One group likes human sacrifice and, surprisingly, they want to sacrifice their political opponents under oppressive laws and restrictions. The other group uses science to predict when and where disaster will strike and how best to mitigate the damage that it does. Of these two options, the first costs lives and promotes human misery, while the second is the only option that actually saves lives and reduces human misery.


Though intellectual recklessness and faith-based thinking, the Bush Administration conned the American People into supporting an unjust war. Though the behavior that the Administration engaged in to get us to this point is morally deplorable (and something for which they should be made to pay a political price), this does not mean that the morally right thing to do now is to leave. Sometimes, people have an obligation to clean up the mess that their immoral behavior creates.


I have defended a simple principle regarding the separation of church and state that is approximately captured in the following statement. “I may not prohibit you from building churches and funding missionaries with whatever resources you peacefully acquire; you may not force me to pay for your church activities or to compel anybody to attend your church.”

Civil Liberties

From free speech to the right to die, I have sought to apply the general principles of desire utilitarianism to some specific issues as they came up in the press.

Political Economy

On economic matters, I tend to side with conservatives. I fear that the economic policies of the Democratic Party will do an excellent job promoting misery, want, and suffering. This is not to say that Republicans are always right. Sometimes (way too often) Republicans confuse corporate feudalism (where those with power have the right to put the live, health, and property of others at risk whenever it profits them to do so) with capitalism.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Clinton/Libby Hypocrisy

One basic principle that I have used as a foundation for all of these posts is that, to the degree that we tolerate or, worse, reward immoral behavior to that degree we make society worse off -- and it is our fault for doing so. If we want to put an end to a certain type of behavior -- because of its tendency to do harm -- we do so by criticizing and condemning those who engage in that behavior. We say, "Stop it!" and we do so in a way that we mean it.

The indictments handed down today against I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby provide an opportunity to identify hypocrites across the political spectrum. There are certain parallels between the current Valarie Plame investigation and the earlier Monica Lewinski scandal.

I am looking to see who thought that evidence of perjury (where there were no indictments) on the part of President Clinton was such an important crime eight years ago who now think that it is a trivial offense. Crooks and Liars captured a clip from Hardball on MSNBC, in which Ed Rogers, a Republican strategist, of a Republican strategist, claimed that if there is no underlying offense that charges of perjury and obstruction of justice are not justified.

Here is a person – a strategist, an advisor to political leaders – stating that he thinks lying to a Grand Jury can be justified. We should worry about the type of behavior we can expect from the political forces that are listening to advice from this person.

Patrick Fitzgerald described (PDF file) the moral case quite well. One of the evils of perjury and obstruction of justice is that they get in the way of discovering if a crime has taken place. According to Rogers’ reasoning, if somebody lies well enough that he buries all evidence of a crime – but still gets caught lying – that he should be let off.

Note: In this blog, I have tended to offer far more moral condemnation than moral praise. Yet, Patrick Fitzgerald gave a defense of the crime -- moral as well as legal -- of purjury and obstruction of justice that well deserves praise.

Yet, this same Ed Rogers was willing to claim that impeaching a President for the offense of lying, when there was no indictment, was a good thing.

This is an example of the nonsense that the Libby indictments now give us a chance to uncover.

Eight years ago, the crime was thought so offensive that it was not only the legitimate concern of prosecutors, but it was worth stopping all government action for the purpose of impeaching a President. There was a great deal of important work to be done at that time. However, we had a whole Congress full of people who thought that none of this other work was more important than these impeachment hearings.

Now, let us look at how many people thought that this was important work eight years ago who now say that Libby did nothing seriously wrong and that we should let the issue slide so that we can go about other, more important business.

Republicans are not the only hypocrites. There were Democrats, eight years ago, saying that the offense was trivial and that the Republicans were wrong to be making such a big deal out of it. They accused the Republicans of playing politics -- of "pretending" that something of great importance happened when they were really after nothing more than the political advantage of embarrassing a powerful Democrat. Let us see how many of them now consider this to be a serious affair worthy of diligent prosecution.

The Nature of the Crime

On the Democratic side, we are bound to hear some of them argue that there is a significant difference between the acts underlying the Clinton impeachment and those that Libby allegedly performed. Clinton's sex act was a private affair that Republicans made public because it was useful for them to do so, whereas Libby damaged national security by revealing the identity of a covert operative.

However, Libby is not being indicted for revealing the identity of a covert operative. Those who assert that he did so are making claims about which a federal prosecutor could not find sufficient evidence for an indictment. The Grand Jury said that there was not enough evidence, yet the Democrat using this argument asserts that the charges are certainly true.

If you hear a Democrat speaking of the greater seriousness of the underlying crime, you have found somebody who is rationalizing his own moral double-standard. This is somebody who is seeking to excuse actions when committed by Democrats that he wants to condemn when committed by Republicans. In both cases, we are talking about the crime of lying to a Grand Jury -- one in which the offender was not indicted (Clinton), and one in which he was (Libby).

Democratic use of this tactic is really no different in principle than Republican actions that Democrats are very intent on condemning these days. The CIA and weapons inspectors said that they had no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, yet the White House insisted that an offense had taken place and acted accordingly.

While condemning the White House for this, Democrats now are facing a situation where investigators found nor reason to indict Libby on the charge of illegally revealing classified information. However, for political reasons, they want to assume guilt and act accordingly. In doing so, they are proving themselves no better than the people they condemn.

The reason that we get so much hypocrisy in government and in the press is because we never take any steps to eradicate it. Not only do we allow people to make these inconsistent and contradictory claims, we cheer and reward those who do it. Too many people even join them. From one end of the blogsphere to the other, we are going to be able to find hypocrisy on both sides of the political spectrum -- people condemning in others the same actions that they, at worst, ignore when performed by people on their "side".

Making Choices/Taking Action

The political process does not require that we just choose between Republicans and Democrats. We also have the power to choose better and worse Republicans, and better and worse Democrats. This happens in the early part of the election -- the primaries that are just winding up in many states. This is the time when people within each party can select candidates of integrity -- candidates who, when the election comes along, truly deserve to win.

The primaries are also the time when a given voter can have the most effect. Because the primaries draw significantly fewer voters, the actions of group of people are likely to have a more significant effect. Besides, by the time the general election rolls around, voters really only have a choice between two equally deplorable options. Before the primary is run, everybody in the district is an eligible candidate. It would be useful to work on identifying those that have the moral character to stand for the position. This will reduce the "lesser of two evils" problem that plagues most general elections.

Agents like Ed Rodgers should be embarrassed and humiliated out of their jobs. If his job is as a political strategist, and he is selling something as obviously contemptible as the statements he made on MSNBC, then we should look at who his customers are and judge them to be just as morally contemptible. Those who do not fire Ed Rogers for his lack of moral standards should see their own jobs at risk.

Post Script

There is one other issue relevant to this case that has come to light. Another clip captured on Crooks and Liars shows a Fox News interview where former presidential advisor Dick Morris draw some seemingly sound implications. Given that Libby got the classified information from Chaney before (he claimed) he got it from a news reporter, and Chaney gave him this information, then Chaney knew that Libby was lying, and he did nothing to prevent it. He did not fire Libby, or warn him to tell the truth, or volunteer the fact that he knew that Libby was committing perjury to the investigators. This, in itself, is a moral crime – protecting a known felon – and one for which Chaney should be held morally accountable.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Just War

My previous blog entries may lead some people to believe that I am a member of the “anti-war” faction. I would like to set the record straight in that regard.

I actually consider the "no war, no way" crowd to be comparable to the individual who, when he hears the screaming of somebody being assaulted in the alley below his apartment, gets up to close to window.

To understand my views on war, imagine a village with approximately 200 families. Some families are wealthy; but most are poor. Some own huge tracks of land, while others own small apartments. Some families are large, while others are small.

All of them have children, we shall assume.

The Right of Interference

For the most part, each family should be permitted to decide for itself how to live its life and raise its children. People from one family can offer suggestions to the parents of another household, but there is no right to dictate policy. There is, then, a general moral obligation to leave others alone.

However, that obligation ends where there is evidence that the children in that family are suffering abuse and neglect. The violent death of a child, or forced labor under degrading or dangerous conditions, or failure to provide those children with food, medical care, and an education, obligate others to interfere on the behalf of those children.

There is no less of an obligation to rescue the abused child on the other side of the world, than there is to rescue the abused child next door. These are still human beings. It may be easier to turn one’s back on those made to suffer and die thousands of miles away, but ‘easier’ is not the same thing as ‘right’.

The only time we have in life is the time between the formation of our brain until it ceases to function in death. Some religious people may content themselves that the victims of torture, oppression, and death will have eternity in an afterlife to make up for it. However, there is no afterlife. The ten-year-old who dies of starvation or gets blown up by an errant bomb in this world has had all of the life he is going to have.

Who Gets to Decide?

Members of the anti-war crowd may protest that if we allow one country to interfere with another where the abuse and neglect are evident, that we risk war for superficial reasons. One neighbor, bent on conquest and political domination of another, may 'reinterpret' or even make up evidence to make an attack appear legitimate. The attacker could also assert that trivial reasons are actually serious enough to warrant an attack. The best way to avoid war is to simply say, "No war. No way. "

We face these same questions when determining whether to interfere with how a family raises its children. Yes, of course, our child-protection laws mean that, once in a while, one person will make false accusations against another in order to harm him. It means that some people will take trivial issues and try to categorize them as ‘abuse’ in order to force their will on others. It happens.

However, nobody argues that the efforts at child protection should be abandoned completely because of this. Instead, we establish safeguards to try to reduce these types of abuses.


(1) Presumed Innocent Until Proven Guilty. We give each family a strong presumption of innocence. The abuse and neglect has to be so obvious that there is no questioning it. "Being of a different religion" and "Having a different family structure" are not clear evidence of abuse or neglect.

(2) No Unilateral Interference. No family may make a unilateral decision to interfere with their neighbor. People are obligated to present their case to impartial, neutral parties and allow them to decide if there is sufficient evidence of abuse to warrant interference. Certainly, if a neighbor comes at an individual with an axe, that individual does not have to appeal to the community before shooting the axe-wielder. However, if there is no imminent threat, there is no moral permission to aggressively interfere in the neighbor's actions, then there is an obligation to present the case to a neutral third party and see if they find the accusation reasonable, or wishful thinking on the part of the (potential) attacker.

(3) Condemnation for Malicious Accusations: We treat those who make malicious accusations quite harshly. Their false and malicious statements weaken the institutions whose major purpose is to protect people. So, we take abuse of the system seriously, and harshly condemn those who try to abuse it.

The US and Iraq

On these standards, the United States defenders deserve a strong measure of moral condemnation for the way it handled the attack on Iraq. We allowed our government to level malicious charges that had no support. Plus, we acted unilaterally when we were not, in fact, under imminent threat. When confronting a state suspected to be guilty of the abuse and neglect of its citizens, we broke almost every moral rule that exists.

However, this does not mean that there was not a moral way to accomplish legitimate goals. Saddam was a brutal dictator, and the people of Iraq were suffering under his rule. Turning our back on them (as we had done for 10 years) only prolonged their suffering. There is no moral crime in wishing that the Iraq people had a culture and form of government under which they could live decent lives.

We should have worked to convince the international community that a regime change would be good for the people of Iraq, and gotten their support. The effort should have been truly an international operation so that nobody could even think to argue that this was a case of American aggression.

We should have anticipated the argument that we were in it for the oil and proved our good intentions at the outset by putting the oil out of our reach. We should have negotiated some sort of international body whose job it would be to ensure that Iraq's oil was used for the benefit of Iraq. We should have made this so transparent that only those who are prone to the most bizarre conspiracy theories could have doubted that we strove, not for oil or profit, but to provide Iraqi citizens with a better life.

This also means setting up a system that would prove that the administration was not looking for a way to funnel hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to major campaign contributors such as Halliburton and several oil companies. As it is, I have little doubt that those who lead us into war were seeking, to some extent, to profit themselves and their friends. If they were not seeking a profit, then why did they not take steps to make it obvious that they were not seeking a profit?

So, I am not saying that the Bush administration handled the situation admirably or even well. The Bush administration behaved in a morally repulsive manner. Yet, this is not the same as saying that a good person could not have supported and sought a just war to bring about regime change in Iraq.


Economists recognize that it is irrational to speak of what has already been spent in the past. They categorize this as “sunk costs”. The only rational question to ask and answer is “Where do we go from here?”

Expecting the Bush Administration to act rationally or morally is too much to ask for. We can only expect continuing incompetence and irrationality until replaced by a new set of leaders. However, there is no moral sense to binding those leaders to a policy of withdraw. That policy would be morally equivalent to abandoning a group of children to abuse and neglect, simply because we do not wish to be bothered enough to care.

Critics like to say that those who make this type of argument are "pro war." This is a rhetorical trick, as contemptible as those who call abortion-rights activists “pro abortion”. It’s a type of demagoguery favored by those who value personal attack above substantive debate.

Another example of this mindset are those who use the fallacy that somebody’s arguments can be dismissed if he is not in the military. This is a classic example of “argumentum ad hominem” (an attack on the person). It is a favorite tactic of Chaney, Rove, and the other members of the White House Iraq Group – to replace substantive debate with an attack on the person.

Yet, I would bet that those who use these rhetorical tricks would be the first to condemn those who use terminology like “pro abortion” and White House tactics of personal attack over substance. The word that best fits this type of person is “hypocrite”.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Indictments: A Diversion

Unlike some others, I am not eagerly hoping for indictments to come out against those involved in the Valerie Plame leak.

Presumed Innocence

First, I believe in the principle of presumed innocence until proven guilty. It is unfair to a person to assume that he has done something wrong -- and wait for him to prove his innocence.

As a matter of fact, this policy of "anybody I do not like is presumed guilty until proven innocent" is what got us into this mess -- the larger mess of the Iraq war -- to start with. Saddam Hussein was presumed guilty (of hiding prohibited weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorism) until proven innocent. He was unable to prove innocence. Therefore, based on the assumption of guilt, we launched an ill-planned war that has cost us hundreds of millions of dollars and, as of yesterday, the lives of 2,000 soldiers.

I do not know why, but nobody seems to want to talk about the wounded. In addition to these 2,000 fatalities, 15,220 soldiers have been injured. These are people (some of them) missing limbs and organs, suffering burns and other forms of painful disfigurement. We add to this the cost of families torn apart -- fathers and mothers who are not able to be a part of their children’s lives, opportunities foregone because somebody who has a business plan cannot execute that plan from half way around the world.

And these are just the American costs – as if they were the only costs that mattered.

Federal dollars spent and soldiers' lives lost make up only a small fraction of the cost of this war, which in turned can be blamed on the policy that too many people have adopted of assuming guilt and demanding that innocence be proved.

Wrong Target

Second, I consider the Valerie Plame affair to be like an individual who robs a bank and intentionally tries to run over the wife of a witness who tried to interfere with the robbery ultimately being charged with running a red light.

Deceit Into War

The worst crime in this case (at least in the moral sense), was an intentional campaign to lead the country into a war that Americans by deceit if necessary. The White House Iraq Group's mission was to 'market' a war -- to get people to buy a war with Iraq regardless of the merits of the product that this group was selling. They did so with outlandish claims about what would happen to us if we did not buy this product and with false and misleading statements about what it would cost.

We have good reason to suspect (and, given the nature of this suspicion, good reason to investigate whether or not it is fact) that people in the Bush Administration wanted an excuse to attack Iraq well before Bush won the election. Shortly after 9-11, these administration officials started thinking, "This can be our excuse to attack Iraq, if only we could find evidence linking them." They looked for this evidence, but they could not find any.

Then they said, "We still have a reason to attack Iraq if we can claim that they are working on weapons of mass destruction that they might give to terrorists in the future." They looked for evidence of this, and found none. Except, they found a few photographs and pieces of conversation where they said, "We could interpret this as chemical weapons trucks, and we could interpret that communication as an attempt to negotiate with terrorists." They twisted and distorted events so that they could claim these events as "evidence" that justified our attack.

They deceived us into war. The obligation to presume innocent until proven guilty does not preclude the right to investigate where there is reason to suspect guilt.

At the same time, I expect many critics of the Administration to be guilty of the same wrong. They are going to look at the "evidence" surrounding this case for signs of wrong-doing, and they are going to be more than happy to twist whatever they see into evidence of guilt. They will convince themselves that no other interpretation is possible other than the interpretation that gives them the desired results. All the while, they will be exhibiting the same moral failings that, on a larger level, brought us into war.

Ad Hominem as Administration Policy

The next crime (in the moral sense) was the White House tactic of launching personal attacks against its critics. We have a White House administration that cannot stand to discuss the issues on their merits -- perhaps because their issues have no merits. So, instead of discussing the issues on their merits, it waits for somebody to question those merits, then sets out to destroy the critic's reputation. Then, the team goes into operation to dig up anything they can find on the critic and get it into the press (mostly through its surrogate propaganda arm that consists in part, of Fox News and Robert Novak).

In all of this, President Bush himself is responsible for the moral character of his administration. If his chief political aids and advisors are involved in a campaign of "personal attack above substance" where misdirection and diversion was the order of the day.

Disclosing a CIA Operative

In the midst of robbing the bank by marketing a war with Iraq grounded on lies and misleading statements, and intentionally seeking to run over the life of Joe Wilson who protested these actions, it happened to run a red light in disclosing the name of a CIA operative.

I am not trivializing the crime of revealing the name of a CIA operative. Doing so put this country at risk. There are people out there in the world that have information that is vital to this nation's national security. People who might have given us information -- where the weight of arguments for and against were nearly balanced, now have reason to fear what would happen if they trust us.

If Joe Foreigner is talking to Jane CIA Operative (and everybody knows it), if anybody finds out that Jane is a CIA Operative they are going to start to wonder what Joe Foreigner might have told her. Joe Foreigner now has to worry about the possibility of Jane's name being leaked by White House Administration itself the moment they see a hint of political advantage to be gained. So, Joe Foreigner tells himself that he best keep his mouth shut.

What would have happened of Joe Wilson's wife had not been a CIA Operative? Would we have ended up in a situation where the White House administration lied and deceived us into war, defended its policies with ad hominem attacks on its critics rather than discussing the issues on their merits, and gotten away with it?

We would have been much better off as a nation -- we would have proved ourselves a much better and more meritorious society -- if Valerie Plume had not been a CIA agent and the White House Administration was nonetheless shown that we will not tolerate being deceived into war or administrations that attack critics in the place of discussing issues on their merits.

The deceit into war itself is a moral crime that warrants an investigation.

The tendency to attack critics rather than discuss issues on their merits should itself generate a moral outrage reflecting large jumps in disapproval ratings that teach politicians that we, as a country, will not tolerate this type of behavior on the part of our leaders.

Now, I fear that the Valerie Plame affair will hide these other possible wrongs, and the crimes of deceit into war and personal attack over substance will not get the press or the social condemnation they deserve.


Rewarding deceit into war and personal attack over substance with success will do nothing but to nourish and grow these tendencies into our culture. We cannot criticize deceit into war in others if we do not condemn it when we find it at home.

We still have the option of making sure that people are made aware of the two crimes that precipitated this investigation. We still have the opportunity to remind people that the Valerie Plame affair was possibly the result of a group of people who were living and breathing a culture of immorality -- embracing deceit into war and personal attack over substantive debate -- long before they slipped and leaked the name of a CIA operative.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Economic Statistics and Political Goals

Bush nominated Ben Bernanke to replace Greenspan as head of the Federal Reserve in January. On CSPAN last night, they showed a clip of a meeting in which Bernanke was discussing his budget philosophy with some House committee. In that discussion, I heard Bernanke and several Senators express a line of thought that concerned me.


For the most part, I am an economic conservative. My beliefs are grounded on the idea that if Person A spends Person A's money, he will spend it in ways that benefit Person A; while, if Person B spends Person A's money, he will spend it in ways that benefit Person B.

If Person B is a Senator or Representative, the money will still tend to be earmarked towards whatever fulfills his or her interests, and not necessarily the interests of those who are providing the money – the taxpayers.

In short, the political system is inherently corrupt. I am not talking about the type of corruption where sinister people in powerful positions with a knowing disregard for right and wrong advance their interests at the expense of others. I am talking about the tremendously underrated power of self-deception; believing something merely because one wants it to be true (e.g., that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.)

I am talking about a case where somebody running for public office gets introduced to somebody who has control of money and the capacity to influence a large number of voters. This stranger comes with a passion for an idea. If the politician likes the idea and embraces it, he will get this stranger’s support – as well as the contributors and voters that this man can influence. So, he wants to believe that the idea has merit, and gives it the benefit of all doubt.

Of course, this is not to deny that there are individuals who knowingly cook studies and promote fallacious reasoning because it profits them to do so.

In fact, the plan has been built on faulty research, logical fallacies, and wishful thinking. However, neither the stranger proposing the plan nor the politician wants to see this. As a result, this, and a lot of other very poor ideas, make it through the legislative process and become law, to the detriment of all tax payers.

Illustrating Flaws in Reasoning

The arguments that disturbed me most in the hearing I saw yesterday were arguments of this type that Republicans, and Bernanke himself, seemed to accept. During the session, they focused most of their attention on gross economic figures -- total economic growth, unemployment, and overall inflation rates. As I see it, these figures tell me nothing about whether a particular policy is a good idea.

I would like to illustrate the problems that I have with this line of reasoning with a hypothetical example. In using this example, I am not saying that this is what is happening under our current policies. My claim is that the arguments that these people are using do not rule out this possibility and do not show any concern for it. Because of this, I cannot tell it the statistics being cited are giving me good reasons to support the policy, or good reasons to be concerned about the policy.

So, let's take a hypothetical society in which there are ten people each making ten dollars per year. We institute a tax cut. As a result, the income distribution changes. One person is now making $100 per year, while the remaining nine are now making $9 per year.

As a result of our tax cut, we have grown the overall economy by $81 dollars -- nearly doubling its size. However, nine out of ten people are actually worse off. Most people (almost all of them) are living a worse life than they would have had under the original system, and only one person is experiencing a better life.

Those who endorse this line of reasoning, however, speak about how great this tax cut was, since it did such a good job promoting economic growth. They also claim that government now has more money, because there is more wealth in the economy and more taxes are being paid. Because of the success of this program, they argue for another round of tax cuts.

While the public debates this argument, it is useful to note that in this example one person now controls over half of the economy. He has $100 in income, while the remaining nine combine assets; the remaining nine combined control $81. In a “one dollar – one vote” private economy, this one person gets to cast over half the votes, and dominates the economy. Anybody who does not please him suffers; those who please him are rewarded.

This one individual also has the capacity to buy up the radio stations and the television stations. Everywhere a citizen turns, he hears about the benefits of these tax cuts – how they increased economic growth and government revenue. Nobody can afford to say anything else because they do not have the money, and they fear the wrath of alienating those who have the money.

So, our hypothetical economy gets another round of tax cuts. This one person’s income goes up to $200 per year, while the other nine people drop to $8 per year. This time, we have grown our economy by $91. Average income is now up above $27 per person, and the government is now bringing in even more money.

However, it still makes sense to ask where this economy is heading. If this keeps up, we will end up with an economy where one person makes $1000 per year, and the rest are his slaves. Yet, the economic measures being used in arguing for this economy says that average income has now reached an all-time high of $100 per person. Those numbers suggest that the economy is 10 times better than it was before these tax cuts were enacted.

There is something wrong with using these types of numbers to measure economic success.

Now, I want to repeat that I am not saying that this is what is happening as a result of these policies. I can make another hypothetical argument in the other direction. Assume a country in which one person makes $1000 and nine people make $10. We start a wealth-redistribution program that damages the economy so that 1 person makes $100, eight people make $8, and 1 person ends up unemployed. Wealth redistribution is not necessarily a good thing, and I have not proved the case one way or the other.

My point is not to say that one program works and the other doesn’t. My point is to identify the types of measures we should look at in determining what works, and to warn against measures that work like bait in a trap, drawing in voters by their sweet smell until they have no opportunity for economic escape.

A Statistic Worth Using

Here is a statistics that actually have some merit in determining if policies work.

Median Household Income

Median Household Income is the amount of money made by the person in the middle of the income spectrum. If a household is at the median household income, then half of the households make more than they do, and the other half makes less. This is different from the “average” household income e. The first hypothetical example above shows average household income going up to $18 on the first round of tax cuts, while the median household income drops to $9.

In both of the hypothetical examples given above – the ‘tax cut’ and ‘income distribution’ examples -- median income dropped. What we need are policies that allow median income to go up.

In the real economy, real median household income (adjusted for inflation) has increased from $35,000 per year to over $44,000 – a 33 percent increase.

This statistic still has some weaknesses. How much of the median income is going to health care? If the household income is going up, but employers used to pay for health insurance and pensions that employees now need to cover out of their wages, then an increase in median household income does not mean much.

This measure also still assumes (incorrectly) that money is everything. If we could eliminate certain health risks, but doing so would reduce our median household income by $1 per year, it may be worth it. Thus, a higher median household income is not the only thing that matters.


The main point is to pay attention to numbers and indicators that actually say something about whether the country is heading in a direction that we would want it to go. Anybody who talks about economic growth or average income or even government receipts is not giving us useful data. Either he does not know how useless this data is, or he knows and is hoping that we do not.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Science Saves Lives

I just wanted to make a quick comment, now that Hurricane Wilma has passed Florida. I think it is useful to note that for days, while Hurricane Wilma was moving slowly to the northwest, the United States Weather Service said that it will take a sudden turn to the east and hit southern Florida. This gave the people in Florida days to prepare for the hurricane, at a time when the hurricane was actually moving towards Texas. Also, the citizens of Florida knew that the hurricane would turn and speed up, arriving quickly. Under different circumstances, I can easily imagine the sudden change in direction and speed of this hurricane catching millions of people by surprise. The loss of lives might have been in the hundreds or thousands. Instead, less than 10 people died -- the rest having had pleanty of time to seek safety. Science saves lives. One of the worst and most destructive acts that a citizen can condone are those who want to pervert and undermine science education because it happens to reach conclusions that conflict with their religious beliefs. If this were a harmless activity, we could shrug our shoulders and say, "Go ahead, it's your life." Unfortunately, these people are putting more than their own lives at stake.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Faith Based Prisons

It is ironic that a group of people who want to have a position rehabilitating prisoners do not have the moral integrity to produce an honest report on their progress.

In earlier essays I have defended a rule-of-thumb regarding freedom of religion.

That principle states, "I may not prohibit you from building a church; at the same time, you may not force me to pay force me to attend."

I also argue that this is a reasonable interpretation of the moral principle behind the First Amendment to the US Constitution -- the part that says, "Congress shall pass no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

"No law respecting the establishment of religion" makes sense as a restriction on the Government that no American taxpayer will be forced to pay for the construction of a church or for the activities of a church that he does not belong to. Nor should any citizen be punished for deciding not to attend such a church. Presbyterians will not be forced to build a Baptist church. The salary for a Catholic priest will not be taken out of an Anglican church member's paycheck. The Jewish citizen will not be required to cover the expenses of Christian missionaries going about the world preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.

"No law prohibiting the free exercise of religion" means that the government will not pass laws saying that a citizen cannot fund a church of his choice. If the Baptists want to build a church, and collect the money for it by private donations, then they shall not be prohibited from building that church. If the Catholics raise enough private money to hire a priest, then they may hire a priest. If a group of Christians raise enough money to hire missionaries to go into some part of the world and preach to the inhabitants, then no law may prohibit them from going there and preaching to the inhabitants.

In short, religious institutions may do what they wish, but the money they use to pay for it must come from private sources.


Today October 24th, a trial begins in Iowa where Americans United for Separation of Church and State has filed suit against the InnerChange Prison Systems for violating the Constitutional provision against the establishment of a religion. According to Americans United, the government is forcing taxpayers to fund an evangelical Christian church, pay for the salaries of its ministers, and even paying citizens to attend, while imposing penalties those who do not attend (or who the program will not accept).

Now, for my standard disclaimer: I am here to discuss right and wrong, not legal and illegal. Not everything permitted by the Constitution (e.g., slavery before 1865) is moral. I am concerned with what the law should say, and I will leave it up to lawyers and judges to fight over what the law says in fact.

The government sponsorship of InnerChange violates a moral rule captured in the statement I used at the start of this post.

The InnerChange program takes money from Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Wiccan, and other citizens and uses them to construct a missionary church in the prison system, to pay for the staff of that church, and then sets out a program for providing those who join the church with benefits that those who are kept outside the church are not entitled to. It is entirely inconsistent with the doctrine of not forcing people to support a religion they do not belong to. It is entirely consistent with a doctrine that requires each church to depend on the voluntary contributions of their followers rather than coerced contributions mandated by the government.

The Effectiveness Argument

InnerChange argues that it should be permitted to continue to function as a government-funded ministry because of its effectiveness. There are two arguments to be raised against this.

Cooking the Numbers

The first is that its alleged effectiveness is the effect of cooking the numbers to get a desired result. Using the same principles, I can design an academic program that will be guaranteed to produce the same type of success with respect to academic excellence that this ministry claims for its prison program with respect to recidivism.

The program works like this. Students may freely decide to apply to the program. Those who get in will be given extra benefits. This will include the use of a video-game room that no other student can use, a wider selection of classes, and a cash signing bonus. There will also be different standards of punishment. If the school has a policy of 1 hour detention for disrupting a class, students in my program will get 15 minutes of detention.

Of all of the applicants, my staff gets to decide which ones to let into the program and which to keep out. (Note: Of course, we are going to select those students with the best academic record and keep those with a poor academic record out of the program). Furthermore, at any time, we reserve the right to expel any student that does not meet our standards. (Note: This means expelling any student that threatens to lower our average scores on any standardized academic test).

Under this program, I guarantee that my students will have higher academic scores than you will get from those students who are not a part of my program. I will guarantee those results with my life.

On these same standards, InnerChange is able to guarantee that its participants will have a lower recidivism rate than will be found among those who are not a part of the program. They will use this to argue that their program should continue to be funded.

I could set up such a program. I could use the same type of analysis that InnerChange uses to prove my product a success. I may also set it up as a prejudicial and discriminatory program in the sense that only those who disavow any belief in God are permitted to be teachers, and students who disavow any belief in God get special treatment, and still be a success.

The most significant point to make is that this method of reporting, this “cooking the numbers” is fraudulent. It is immoral. It is wrong. A person of good moral character would want to provide prisoners with options that are actually effective – that sound science (as opposed to intellectual fraud) finds to be effective. He would find the discover of somebody selling “snake oil” rehabilitation to be morally repulsive and abhorant.


The other argument against form of reasoning is to ask whether 'effectiveness' in this regard provides a good reason to build a government-funded church.

Let us assume that statistics show that Jews tend to commit fewer murders per capita than Catholics. Also, let us assume that they are also less likely to molest children, and contribute a higher proportion of their income to charity.

If we accept the InnerChange line of reasoning, this means that we should set up government-funded synagogues and pay people to go to them as a way of fighting crime and promoting charity. By InnerChange logic, this is not to be thought of as an example of attempting to establish a national religion.

Yet, clearly, that argument is absurd. Nothing would be more obvious than government programs that reward people for joining a government approved religion and punish those who do not violates the principle of government neutrality on religion. The person who denies this is speaking as much nonsense as the politician who says, “Sure, I lied under oath to the Grand Jury, but I did not commit perjury.”

If the plan is truly effective, then it should be able to generate private contributions that would allow them to continue their good work. Success does not give any religion the right to government funding.

We keep the religious peace in this country (unlike many other countries around the world) by a mutual agreement among different religious factions to use only voluntary methods to promote religion, and not to allow religions to start fighting for control of the state. There are legitimate reasons for concern when different religions violate that peace treaty and start fighting for control of the government.


The doctrine that I presented at the start of this essay states that InnerChange has a right to establish an outreach program within the prison system with whatever money it raises from the voluntary contributions of its own members. Prohibiting the church from giving its message to the prisoners -- particularly, prohibiting it from doing so based on the religious content of its message, would violate the moral principle I asserted at the start of this post.

Correspondingly, InnerChange has no right to force people who are not members to contribute. Nor does it have a right to negotiate "special rights" for its members -- making them super-citizens with powers and liberties not available to other citizens. These actions are just as much a violation of the same moral principles.

Some people actually care about moral principles.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Evaluating the Hirers

Preliminary Question

Why is Michael Brown, the former FEMA director that was forced out of office after the Katrina disaster, still working for FEMA?

According to the Mary Curtis of the Los Angeles Times,

Brown is still on FEMA's payroll as a consultant, [FEMA Spokeswoman Nichol] Andrews confirmed. He works from home, where he is "pulling all the documentation together" for the investigations into Katrina response, she said, and his original 30-day contract was recently extended for another 30 days.

Second question: Exactly what type of documentation is he pulling together? Does it have anything to do with his actions regarding that hurricane? Can somebody assure me that these things are being handled in a way that protects the integrity of the data that Brown is assembling?

Evaluating the Hirers

If an employer hires an employee who is poorly qualified to do his job well, the person responsible for the error is not only the employee who made the mistake, but the person who hired him or her.

Michael Brown

This is the case with FEMA director Michael Brown. Marty Bahomonde, the only FEMA official at the Superdome while things got so bad there, testified he had personally informed Brown about those situations and gotten no substantive response. He reported sending emails to Brown and talking to him on the phone on one occasion to tell him that the levees had broken. Later that day, when he tried to contact Brown again, he was told that the FEMA director was unavailable because he had gone out for dinner in a fancy Baton Rouge restaurant, and had a TV appearance to make after dinner.

If this can be substantiated, this represents a willful dereliction of duty. It would be comparable to an Army, while a battle is being fought, putting a "do not disturb" sign on his office door and telling his aide to hold his calls for a couple of hours. The time for fine dining and a relaxing evening is after the battle is over and the situation is known to be well in hand.

With respect to his qualifications, it has been widely reported that Brown's last job before working for FEMA was as a supervisor of judges for the International Arabian Horse Association IAHA) -- a position he was asked to resign. Plus, he worked on Bush’s presidential campaign.

This is unfair because his job experience, at the time that Katrina hit, included 4 years working for FEMA; 1.5 years as Deputy Director and 2.5 years as Director. This more than overshadows what happened at the IAHA five years earlier.

My sense is that people who focus on Brown's service for IAHA do so because they are more interested in unjust derision of another person than in fair criticism. These people should have spoken up in 2002 when Brown was nominated as Deputy Director. Where were they then? Brown's confirmation was approved by Senate that the Democrats controlled. They are as responsible for hiring Brown as Bush was for nominating him.

Actually, there is a constitutional dispute over what role the Senate has with respect to nominations. The Constitution says that the President hires people with the advice and consent of the Senate. The dispute is over how to define "advice and consent". Still, the Senate -- a Senate run by Democrats, consented to this appointment.

Where were these critics when Brown was nominated for the position of Director in January 2003? This would have been a perfect time for the Senate to have asked questions. This would have been a perfect time for the Senate to ask, "Can't we get somebody with more experience actually responding to a disaster in this position?"

When people say that the Hurricane Katrina disaster was a failure at all levels of government, this has more truth to it than most people realize. The failure includes the Senate – under both Democratic and Republican leadership – which failed in its role to give advice and consent the President’s nominee.

Karen Hughes

Another recent Bush appointee is Karen Hughes, the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy. She is in charge of improving America’s image overseas. In short, she is the ‘spin doctor’ for explaining Bush Administration policies to the people of other countries.

In a recent visit to Egypt, an Egyptian opposition leader asked her why Bush mentions God so often in his speeches. This is said in the context within which Muslim extremists are using the idea that America is on a religious crusade against Islam to recruit soldiers and solicit funds for their campaigns. According to a briefing transcript, Hughes reports, “I asked whether he was aware that previous American presidents have also cited God, and that our Constitution cites “one nation under God.’

Actually, it appears that the person in charge of promoting foreign understanding of America does not have a working knowledge of the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution contains no mention of God. It only mentions religion twice – once to say, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” (Section VI, Article 3) , and “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (Amendment I).

If anything, it would serve American interests well if the people in the Arab world knew what the US Constitution actually says about religion. It would also serve American interests well if the people in the Bush Administration knew what the US Constitution actually says about religion.

Harriet Miers

Miers’ job history includes an appointed position to the Texas lottery commission (under Governor George Bush), then serving Bush during the 2000 election campaign, getting a job in the Bush Administration as Assistant to the President and Staff Secretary, and moving up to White House Council in 2004.

Earlier this week, the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee returned the answers that Harriet Miers provided to a questionnaire, saying that her answers are inadequate.

One of her answers even contained an error, where she wrote that she had to make sure that the Dallas City Council conformed to the proporational representation requirement of the Equal Protection Clause.

There is no proporational representation requirement of the Equal Protection Clause.

The severity of this mistake comes to light if we consider that a Supreme Court Justice needs to write a decision about what the Constitution says about a particular case before it. The Justice needs to know what the Constitution says. Furthermore, that Justice needs to have enough presence of mind to double-check his or her facts. She should have asked somebody, somewhere, to check her answers and make sure that it makes sense. She should have exercised as much care answering the Senate’s questions as she would have otherwise spent writing a Supreme Court decision.


A good manager does not know how to do every job that needs doing in his organization. But he knows how to find good people to do those jobs. If we discover that jobs are being filled by people who are not capable of doing that job well, our questions should ultimately fall on those who do the hiring.

In this case, it is not just President Bush who does the hiring. It is also the Senate that is supposed to be giving him advice and consent. It is the Senate’s job to look over the qualifications of those that the President submits and say, “I don’t think that this is the best person for the position” or “Heck, sure, I think he can do the job.”

Many people want to blame the President alone. However, it is time to start asking Senators as well, “Why are you allowing these people into these positions?”

Friday, October 21, 2005

Bird Flu and Intelligent Design

This post follows up on arguments I posted on September 23rd on Divine Wrath.

There, I argued that recent natural disasters contain an element of cosmic justice similar to divine wrath. It's not that the disasters themselves were punishment for the wrongs that humans commit. They are nothing more than the natural effects of the laws of physics at play. However, the severity of those effects -- the numbers of people who are killed and injured and the amount of property destroyed -- is our punishment for human moral failings.

The effects of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean was our punishment for failure to establish a tsunami early warning system in a part of the world where tsunamis are possible and hundreds of millions of people live in harm’s way.

The devastation in Pakistan and India from this most recent earthquake is punishment for constructing buildings near a fault line that cannot withstand such an earthquake and packing those buildings full of people.

At New Orleans, we did not suffer because we tolerated homosexuals and abortion clinics. We suffered because we built a city below sea level surrounded by levees capable of withstanding Level 3 hurricanes in a land where Level 4 and 5 hurricanes were possible.

Bird Flu

Nature is now threatening us with another round of punishment for decades of moral decadence. It is threatening us with a pandemic caused by a mutated strain of Bird Flu – the H5N1 virus. The moral crime which has increased our risk of suffering and death centers on the resistance people have put up against theories of evolution on the basis that it conflicts with their religious beliefs.

We may soon be the victims of a campaign that has fought for 150 years to gut and dismember our scientific understanding of biology and genetics – the tools that provide our best defense against such a pandemic.

"Intelligent design" (an evolved form of “Creationism”) tells us that when we encounter what appears to be an unlikely change in biology, such as the creation of the flagellum, that we should shout "irreducible complexity", throw up our hands, and blame the change on a designer. Science, on the other hand, tells us to look for a natural solution -- a way in which the proteins and genes could have come together naturally and produced this effect.

"Intelligent design" is a campaign of willful ignorance. When we encounter a problem in biology, we shelve it and move on to other things.

Science is a campaign of forming theories, designing experiments to test those theories, observing the results, and upgrading the theories. The best theories give us hints as to what might happen to living organisms today under different circumstances. If the theory works, then it allows us to explain what happened in the best, and predict what will happen in the future. It means being better able to explain a pandemic that occurred in 1918, and predicting and preparing for a pandemic that might occur in 2007.

“Intelligent design” is not a theory that says, “I do not know what happened.” It is a theory that says, “I do know what happened – an intelligent designer is responsible for these effects.” Somehow, ignorance is supposed to give us the ability to ‘know’ such a thing.

Scientists have no trouble saying, “I do not know.” There are some things they will admit to not knowing – and some things that they will admit that they can never know. However, the scientist keeps looking, where he or she is able. He keeps theorizing, keeps designing experiments to test his theories, and keeps throwing away proposals that do not withstand the rigor of experiment and scientific testing.

The scientist advances our understanding so that we can explain and predict what something like the "bird flu" will do under different circumstances. The “intelligent design” theorist freezes our understanding at the point where he claims to find ‘irreducible complexity’, leaving us ignorant, defenseless, and unable to plan and prepare for the dangers that nature may have in store for us.

Years of Change

Changing our ways, and encouraging more children to learn the basic facts of biology, including genetics and evolution, will not have an immediate effect on our ability to react to the Bird Flu virus. These effects are long-term.

However, I am talking about the price that we pay for past sins. The campaign against literacy in the biological sciences has been going on for a long time -- for 150 years. It is reasonable to expect that this campaign has had at least some effect, causing us to live today in a world with fewer medical advances and less overall scientific understanding of the living organism that share this Earth with us than we would have otherwise had.

It is the past promotion of willful ignorance that puts lives today at risk. It is our current campaigns to promote willful ignorance that will put future generations at risk.

Now, I do want to add an important addendum, in case somebody draws some wrong implications. It is never permissible to object against an idea by using the force of law to suppress it. Bad ideas have to be defeated by education, not violence or government sanction. So, I would reject any campaign against intelligent design based on laws and punishments. I would only accept a campaign that puts more emphasis on rational thought and an appreciation of the benefits that we can obtain through a greater understanding of the biological sciences.

Failure to promote a proper appreciation for the science of biology is a sin which some of us may well pay for with our lives.

Cosmic Justice

We have two groups of people proposing two separate programs for protecting ourselves from the next natural disaster.

One group advocates violently interfering with the lives of our neighbors in order to enforce a uniform religious code, and a uniform scientific ignorance, on everybody. Somehow, this is supposed to please a God who will then protect us and make sure that plagues and pandemics do not strike us.

Intelligent Design can be understood as telling us to give up on predicting Bird Flu at the start, because, at any moment, a designer will introduce the perfect design into this disease, and we will not be able to explain or predict it.

Another group advocates using the scientific method to understand how the natural forces moving around us actually work. With that knowledge, we come up with theories that allow us to explain and predict those forces. We then use that power to immunize ourselves against disease, prepare for potential outbreaks, and to respond quickly and efficiently when they do occur.

Of these two, I am willing to assert with confidence that the second option has significantly more promise of saving significantly more lives than the first. However, the second option requires being honest with ourselves and with each other about what the scientists are telling us about the facts of living organism.

Intelligent design can tell us nothing that will allow us to predict or explain the world around us. The ‘intelligent designer’ that they speak of can do whatever it wants, and is entirely outside of our ability to explain or predict. The theory is of no use. It only stands in the way of theories that we can use to prevent real death and suffering.

What scientists are telling us is that the best theories for predicting and explaining what will happen in nature are theories derived from or dependent on evolution and genetics. Promoting ignorance of and hostility toward the best life-saving tools we have available, by definition, puts lives at risk that could otherwise be saved.

Promoting such a risk is not something that a person of good moral character would want to do.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Science vs. Religion

As the case involving the reading of an anti-evolution statement to 7th-grade students in Dover Pennsylvania continues, I have read a number of accounts in which individuals have said, "I am religious, and I believe in evolution." From this, they infer that the theory of evolution has no religious implications -- that religious belief and belief in evolution are compatible. This further implies that there are no religious implications to teaching evolution and that the practice is consistent with separating church and state.

Really, that argument does not work.

The fact that Person A's religion is compatible with evolution, does not imply that Person B's religion has the same compatibility. Nor does it change the fact that teaching evolution in science classes involves teaching that religions that are compatible with evolution are better than religions that are not compatible with evolution.

More generally, the claim that science and religion are distinct and separate realms, and that science has nothing to say about religion (or that religion has nothing to say about science) is nonsense.

If one's religion states that the earth rides on the back of four elephants that are, in turn, standing on a giant turtle, then science has a great deal to say about that religion. It's wrong. It's hypothesis that earthquakes are caused when these creatures move is also wrong. Earthquakes are caused by tectonic plates moving over, under, and past each other.

If one's religion states that a solar eclipse is caused by some divine creature devouring or destroying the sun, and that innocent people must be sacrificed to this god in order to bring the sun back, this view is mistaken. The eclipse is caused by the relative motions of the sun and the moon, and will come back on its own.

If one's religion states that lightning bolts are Thor's weapon and thunder is the pounding of his hammer, then science has created a problem with this religion. Science has shown that thunder and lightning have more to do with the static electricity that is generated by water and ice crashing past each other in the atmosphere.

If one's religion states that the earth is at the center of the solar system, and that saying anything contrary to this so offends God, that the offender must be burned at the stake to appease this angry and vengeful God, science tells us that this view is mistaken. All planets revolve around the Sun, since it contains most of the mass (and, thereby, the gravity) in our solar system.

If one's religion says that strange behavior is the result of demonic possession and that exorcism is the appropriate treatment for this behavior, science tells us that this is wrong. Strange behavior is caused by the way the mind/brain sometimes gets wired. It advises us to respond to these cases with medication, surgery, or behavioral modification therapy, or to simply leave these people alone to live their lives as suits them (if they are no danger to themselves or others).

If one's religion states that disease is caused by a rejection of God, and that prayer and sincere expressions of faith restore health, then science has shown this to be incorrect. Illness is caused by bacteria, viruses, or internal organs that cease to function as they used to because of physical processes. Acceptance of God is a far less reliable road to health than antibiotics, surgery, diet, and exercise.

If one's religion states that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, science has proved that this religious view is incorrect. Teaching children this nonsense will perpetuate ignorance of volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, climate, ecology, and a number of other fields that we must understand if we are going to make intelligent choices that keep people safe from these natural disasters.

Science is not neutral with respect to religion. Science is constantly coming into conflict with religious beliefs. Teaching science in junior high and high school means teaching a way of thinking that is incompatible with at least some religions. It means conveying the message that "those religious views that are not compatible with these scientific findings are mistaken.

It means putting children in a position where they must choose to either accept the scientific findings and reject their religion, or accept their religion and reject the scientific findings.

Establishing Religion

The next question is whether teaching science violates the Constitutional provision against attempting to establish a religion. Science classes coerce students into religious beliefs that are compatible with scientific findings. It promotes evolution-compatible religions over evolution-incompatible religions. It promotes old-earth-compatible religions over young-earth-religions.

It takes the business of treating physical and mental illness out of the hands of the priest and puts it in the hands of his leading competitor, the physician. That physician may still believe in God, but he does not believe in the same religion. One religion prescribes prayer, the other prescribes anti-biotics, and science classes tell us that the latter is better than the former.

This creates tension. It is a tension that some people want to deny. Glossing over these issues by saying that science and religion are distinct and separate realms really involves just as much denial as ignoring the evidence that the earth is over 4.5 billion years old. Everything that science says is an invitation to young students to adopt a religion that is compatible with this reported fact, and to reject a religion that contradicts the scientific claims.


So, what does this mean about teaching science in public schools? Does the prohibition against establishing a religion prohibit the government from teaching that earthquakes are caused by shifting tectonic plates rather than turtles, the static-electricity theory of lightning where it conflicts with the Thor's hammer theory, or 4.5 billion year old earth where it conflicts with the literal interpretation of The Bible?

Our country would be in a sorry state if we did.

One of the key features of science is that it allows us to better explain and predict what is going on around us. It makes the results of our actions less a matter of chance and blind luck, and more a matter of choice.

This is not an accident. It is the very essence of science that it strives for better and better ways to explain and predict what goes on around us. The very criterion for determining which theories to keep and which to toss out is that of better explaining and predicting the world around us.

To toss out science for religion means to toss out the ability to explain and predict the world around us, the ability to make intelligent choices, to avoid misery and suffering and choose, intelligently and deliberately, fulfillment and happiness.

The only reasonable option is to teach science in school – teach children the ideas how to predict and explain the world around them. Then, let people do whatever they want to or can to try to reconcile their religious beliefs with scientific fact.

“These are the facts, world. Do with them what you will.”

Many religious people reshape their religious beliefs around scientific facts. It is as if they say, “When science says that the earth is not the center of the solar system, they do not burn the scientist at the stake, they say that their interpretation of scripture must have been mistaken – because scripture cannot be wrong, and if scripture actually said that the earth was the center of the universe, it would be wrong.”

Others are less flexible, demanding that science confirm their religion.

Science is not neutral between these two religious perspectives. It clearly favors the first over the second.

That is a fact. Do with it what you will.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Illicit Justification for War

According to Chris Matthews -, the investigation into the Victoria Plame case may start to touch on some very significant questions.

Did the Vice-President of the United States orchestrate a campaign of deception against the American people in order to drum up support for an attack against Iraq?

Whether he did or not is a matter of speculation. I did not start this blog as a place for speculating on political fortunes, nor am I interested in the legal aspects of the case. This blog is concerned with ethics – as much with legal immoralities as those that are also illegal.

We do not need to have evidence of a crime to justify investigating a potential offense. One of the main powers of government is to investigate situations, not for the purpose of finding who is guilty or innocent, but to find out the truth of a situation and whether and how the law can be improved.

Morality justifies an investigation into the use of American intelligence before the war. Morality justifies asking the question of whether Americans think that being deceived into going to war is a trivial concern that can be shrugged off, or whether we think that deceiving the people into supporting a war is among the actions that we count as intolerably wrong.

Are we going to send a message to future political leaders, "Do not toy with we the people when it comes to war?"

A Matter of Trust

There is a complexity in this issue in that we cannot expect our political leaders to tell us everything they know relevant to a decision to go to war. They may have information they cannot reveal without threatening our security. For example, divulging such information may expose important spies or other intelligence-gathering operations.

Because of this, we have to trust the Administration to go to war for the right reasons -- reasons we would approve of if we knew about them. If they say that a country is seeking to build nuclear weapons, we cannot say, "Prove it!" We must trust that they know what they are talking about. We have to assume that they would not be saying these things without evidence – evidence that they have taken no less lightly or casually than we would demand of them.

The problem that exists when one group must trust another who is in a position of power and authority is that those with the power and authority may abuse that trust. In this case, they can lie and say that they have evidence of a threat to national security that does not exist in fact. They can lie and say that they have given this evidence the care that we would demand of them.

If they can lie about these things, they can steer this country into a war with any country that displeases them that is not sufficiently powerful to defend itself. So, we demand that they take no action towards war without a careful assessment of the evidence and the necessity of war.

Evidence of an Abuse of Trust

Before we started this war (and we were the ones to start it), there were signs that our political leaders had abused their trust. Joe Wilson’s remarks themselves told us that the government had given us reasons for going to war that everybody who had investigated those reasons had discredited.

Yet, even with these accusations being launched, there was a problem deciding what we could do about them. We cannot demand that the government laid its intelligence-gathering operations open for all to see. There are all sorts of politically-motivated reasons for making these types of accusations, even if they are not true. There would be no such thing as national security if the government had to reveal its secrets every time an accusation was made.

So, we still had to trust our political leaders. We must give them the benefit of the doubt. Correspondingly, they must have the moral character that makes them deserving of the benefit of this doubt.

Yet, we are getting more and more evidence that these people did abuse their authority and our trust.

We have the fact that the United States had inspectors in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction before the war started. Our government told us that they are not looking hard enough or in the right places – that we had evidence of weapons that they were not finding. The inspectors asked for the information, but the United States Government refused to make it available -- perhaps because there was none to make available.

The last inspectors' report to the United Nations said:

Governments had many sources of information that were not available to inspectors. Inspectors, for their part, must base their reports only on evidence, which they could, themselves, examine and present publicly. Without evidence, confidence could not arise.

We have Joe Wilson’s testimony that he and others checked out some of these reports – reports of attempts to purchase uranium in Niger. All of the sources we now know about came back saying that these reports were unfounded, that there was no evidence of such an attempt. Furthermore, they provided this information before the war started – before the decision was made to save us all from these weapons of mass destruction. The only examinations made to date of Wilson's contributions have been Republican-controlled investigations.

We now control Iraq and have determined that the reason the inspectors did not find weapons of mass destruction is because there was no such weapons to be found. The reason that rumors of purchasing uranium could not be substantiated is because they were false. The so-called intelligence stating that Iraq was a threat and that we needed to act to preserve our security seems all to have been wrong – if there was any such intelligence at all.

Perhaps Bush’s war was another faith-based initiative. Perhaps his administration’s belief that there were weapons in Iraq was not based on evidence but on faith. Perhaps they decided to gamble, hoping that the needed evidence would show up after the invasion, that their faith would be rewarded, and they would prove themselves to be heroes.

This illustrates one of the most significant problems when people base their actions on faith rather than evidence. Faith tends to be an unreliable indicator of truth, and those who depend on it too strongly run the risk of crashing head-first into reality.


We have enough ‘probable cause’ to launch an investigation. Americans who believe that we ought not to tolerate politicians who lie their way into war have reason to demand that we find out whether this happened.

Political party should not matter. An investigation should be welcomed both by those who have faith that the Bush Administration is innocent, and those who have just as much faith that they are guilty.

Personally, I belong to the tradition of “presumed innocent until proven guilty.” However, this presumption of innocence never takes the form of presuming that the innocence is so obvious that no hearing on the matter can ever be justified.

I want to add emphasis here. I am only arguing that there are enough questions to warrant an investigation. I do not approve of presumed guilt. Nor do I approve of cheering evidence of wrongdoing or that a crime had taken place. I simply want to know what happened and, only if what happened violated moral standards, then decide what action to take.

To the rest of the world, we have an important question to answer considering our moral character as a nation. We have to answer whether we believe that lying one’s way into war is a trivial offense, or an intolerable wrong. The only way to show that we know the right answer to this question is to make sure that, given the evidence suggesting the possibility of deceit in this case, we demand assurances that our political leaders did not commit an intolerable wrong.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Toledo Riot

The neo-Nazis had a right to march in Toledo, Ohio on October 15th. They had a right to march where they marched. The wrongdoers, in this instance, were the protestors who decided to respond to their message with violence. (News)

This is not to say that I approve of the neo-Nazi message. In fact, that's not the point. The person who defends "freedom of speech" only when the speech is something he agrees with does not understand the concept.

In fact, neo-Nazis place atheists on the same list as Jews, blacks, and foreigners. The only reason that this aspect of their philosophy is not widely heard is because the neo-Nazi attitude towards atheists is mainstream, so it is not newsworthy. Yet, in spite of its widespread acceptance, and in spite of power in blocking atheists from public office, I still hold that the anti-Atheist hate groups have a right to freedom of speech.

The Insult Argument

One of the arguments that I often hear against allowing the neo-Nazis to march is that others have a right not be subject to being insulted and offended. The claim seems to be that a person has a right to walk down the street without hearing anybody say anything that he or she does not like.

The concept of a "freedom of speech" is nonsense if it does not include an obligation to put up with insults and offense from time to time. The individual who says (or writes), "I am in favor of freedom of speech, so long as the speaker does not say anything that I find insulting or offensive" is not really for freedom of speech. A so-called "right" to be free from insult and offense is nothing other than a "right" to suppress speech that is insulting or offensive. If we give groups or individuals the legal "right" to suppress speech they find insulting or offensive, then there is no free speech.

The right to freedom of speech means an obligation to take an insult and to suffer offense without resorting to violence against the speaker. It says that a citizen may get angry, and counter offensive and insulting speech with speech of their own, but that if speech results in violence, it is the person who threw the punch who is at fault, not the person who spoke.


I have also heard some people defend the position that the neo-Nazis be allowed to march, but that their march should have been confined to some other neighborhood where fewer people who would be offended. The fault, they say, is that the city officials allowed the marchers into a neighborhood made up largely of African Americans immigrants and people of eastern-European descent.

Let us take this suggestion to its logical conclusion. Even if we move the marchers into another neighborhood, some people there would still find the words offensive and insulting.

We would not say if somebody is attempting to rob a hundred people, that we have lived up to our duties if we place him in a different neighborhood where he can rob only ten. There is no moral sense in saying that a legitimate response to somebody who wants to blow up a bus with thirty passengers should be directed instead to a bus that blows up three.

If a thousand people have a "right" to be free from offense and insult, then it makes no sense to say that a hundred people do not have the same right or that, in virtue of their lower number, they have no such right. So, if it is wrong to insult a thousand people then it is wrong to insult ten. And if it is wrong to insult ten, then it is wrong to insult one. The only option remaining is to put these speakers in a place where nobody can hear them, so nobody will be offended or insulted by their words.

What happens to the freedom of speech if we pursue this option? Let us imagine a dictator who says that he has decided to grant freedom of speech in his country. He will allow his political opponents to say whatever they want, so long as they do so in a soundproof room, with the door closed, alone, with nobody looking through the window who can read his lips.

Would this satisfy us that freedom of speech is truly being protected? Or would we consider this attempt to allow people to speak but to restrict who may hear his words to be a joke?

Hopefully, we are smart enough to see it as a joke. It is just as much a joke to say that the neo-Nazis may have their march, but they must march "over there" where far fewer people can see and hear them.

Other Insults

Why do we need this freedom? Why do people not have a right to be free from insults and offense?

Simply look at the things that can be considered offensive. A group of people who are protesting a war "insult" and "offend" military families who took up arms themselves or have friends and family who took up arms and fought in that war. A law banning offensive and insulting speech can make sure that the next anti-war rally is routed through some deserted streets where they cannot be seen or heard by those they might offend.

Consider the how the anti-abortion marcher "insults" doctors whom they call murderers and compare to Nazi soldiers willingly participating in a new genocide. If offense and insult justifies moving these speakers away from where they cannot be heard, then we need more than a corridor of free passage to the door of the abortion clinic; abortion-clinic protestors will have to be moved out of earshot of any patrons.

Civil Order

I am not saying that the freedom of speech is an absolute and that all other considerations must give way. Individuals have no obligation to put up with a nuisance with a bull horn shouting slogans outside of his window all day and all night. If a parade or march threatens to tie up traffic or cause some other type of civil disturbance, than city officials have a right to demand advanced notice so that they can be prepared. As a result, city officials have a right to demand that speakers obtain permits.

However, those permits may not be accepted or declined based on their content. If the March of Dimes is allowed to have a walk-a-thon go through a residential neighborhood, then a neo-Nazi organization has a right to walk through that same neighborhood. Government officials have no right to say, "We approve of this message so you may speak here where others can hear and see you. We do not approve of that message so the speakers are limited to locations where we know few people will encounter their message."

Prohibiting any group from shouting slogans on the street day and night is not an issue of content. It's an issue of getting some sleep.


Ultimately, we need to ask who provides the greatest danger to the public. Does the danger come from a dozen radicals who are walking along a public street surrounded by police hurling insults? Or does it come from those who decided to hurl rock?

It was not the neo-Nazis who wounded the police officers who were doing their job. One of them in critical condition after getting hit in the head with a brick. She was defending free speech from those who could not stand the idea of allowing others to speak freely.

It was not the neo-Nazis that looted and sat fire to the bar.

It was not the neo-Nazis that proved by their actions that they have no regard for the life, limb, and property of their peaceful and innocent neighbors.

The next question is whether the people of Toledo value freedom enough to elect politicians willing to defend it, or if they will yield to the intimidation of those who proved that they are willing to use violence to see those freedoms suppressed.