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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Stand Up and Be Counted

I don’t normally read the newspapers of my native land (I would very likely qualify for Sir Samuel Rice’s description of a soul-dead man). But some months ago I found myself browsing the old, once familiar, sources of information, seeking to discover if the latest immigration fiasco, involving legal immigrants this time, had perchance made the headlines in the old country. They hadn’t, as far as I could see, but my attention was arrested by a different lead story, one that had seized pole position in the Indian newspapers, though garnering at best a sidebar on the “Odd news” section here at home.

The wise gentlemen of the cloth at the famous religious school in Deoband
declared that coeducation was unlawful and responsible for a variety of evils. The Dar-ul-Uloom seminary in Deoband in India's largest province of Uttar Pradesh is not too famous in non-Islamic circles; even in India, I heard their name in the news less than a half dozen times, I would estimate. But their influence in conservative Muslim circles is extremely significant. To put their importance in perspective: the Taliban leaders were students of the Deobandi school of thought, and were theologically connected, even though they did not actually study at this school. With such adherents to serve as an introduction, we should be prepared for the extreme stupidity that characterizes Deobandi teaching. 

Unfortunately, the biggest problem today is not the extremists themselves but the moderates. The debate has swung so far towards the extreme that even the so-called called moderates are anything but. There is no better example of the lack of moderation in the Islamic world than in the response the Deobandi fatwa. If these madmen were merely a fringe, their fear and hatred of offering women the same education, status and freedoms as men could be treated with the contempt it so richly deserves. Unfortunately, moderate experts and clerics have failed to truly repudiate the madness. They have, to their limited credit, accepted that women have a right to education and even defended the rights of women to attend classes along with men who are neither their husbands or blood relatives. But this should have been self-evident, in this day and age. And should never, ever have been accompanied by the qualifying statement that co-education is unobjectionable “provided the woman is properly attired, including wearing the hijab”. 

What wonderful freedom this is, for women, that they may attend school or work, only if they hide their faces. I suppose we should be glad that they were not advised to wear that shapeless black all-enveloping costume makes a potato sack look like the height of fashion; their virtue will be preserved if they cover their heads and dress conservatively. I assume, of course that the moderates did not mean the hijab to be worn along with a thong bikini or something like
this (mind you, if that was their subtext, I wholly support them). In their qualified defense of women’s freedom, these moderates have basically accepted the central tenet of the Deobandi fatwa, which is that women are the source of temptation and evil and must therefore be forced to cover up lest the drive men to crimes of passion. This has been an underlying principle of all the injustices heaped upon women in Islamic society and to a lesser, much milder extent in Christain concept as well. 

As a man, I object to every idea in that position. Passion and lust are not evil, per se; rather they are amongst the most fundamental and basic human emotions, and it is religions insistence on ignoring this fact that actually leads to dangerous repression and deviant behavior (remember all those priests molesting altar boys?). Furthermore I am responsible for my own actions and irrespective of how a woman dresses or acts, I remain solely responsible for my behavior. To blame a woman for being raped is one of the peculiarly stupid attitudes of the Islamic world (and some other conservative societies as well), along with a host of other chauvinistic ideas and unfortunately that they are clinging ever more passionately to them instead of abandoning them in favor of more enlightened attitudes. I know that moderates in Islamic society live in fear of attack from conservatives, less on an intellectual level and all too often on a physical one, with followers of the conservative priests willing to kill those who espouse a less hate-filled view. This is a real and understandable reason to avoid crossing the conservatives openly, but there are ways, especially in societies that are not ruled by Islamic law. In the words of Edmund Burke, "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing", and too often, those good men stay silent out of fear. They do not need to fight back with sticks or guns, but they do need to make a statement all the same. In India, as in the US and Europe, the power to oppose lies with the congregation and all they have to do is shun the more conservative of priests, and the temples they preside in. If the preachers of hatred and intolerance were shunned and left to preach to empty temples, their doctrine would wither and die and soon be forgotten. It would be harder in nations like Iran, Egypt or Saudi Arabia, where the Islamic clergy is entrenched and empowered to rule, directly or otherwise, but even there, if congregations chose to spend Friday evening prayers at home rather than going to their neighborhood mosques, the priests in charge would find themselves bereft of the rabid mobs they need to cower their opponents, and would be reduced to the same levels of influence of the Westboro Baptist Church.

I have harshly trashed the moderates within the Muslim community for their refusal to adopt more enlightened positions and challenge the fundamental drawbacks of their religion. But sadly, self-described liberals like myself deserve no less opprobrium. Liberals champion the freedom and equality of all people within their societies, but too often we hamstring ourselves in our misplaced respect for the sensitivities of others. Fearing to insult Muslims, we do not comment on their treatment of women in their societies and families, pretending that it is a private issue for them to confront. However their comes a time when we have to recognize that our silence is not respect for Islam but compliance in its greatest injustices. We do not have to march in and tear off the veils of pious Muslim women - if the women truly wish to believe that they are inherently evil and impure, we cannot and should not attempt to convince them of their error. Violence in support of even a righteous position is a bad idea but there are other ways that we can make a difference. We have to also let them know in no uncertain terms that we do not believe that trash ourselves, and that we support their right and freedom to dress and behave just as their counterparts in the West do. (I, for one support their right to dress in revealing clothes, like
mini-skirts and g-strings). Many of them have been raised in conservative societies, cut off from interaction with the world outside their house and it is critical that we make our message loud and clear. Perhaps we don’t have to do it quite like this clip of “American Dad” but we can assist in emancipation by offering our support should they need it. We can let every person know that we will support their right to renounce their religion without fear of being murdered as apostates – and we should not flinch when we are accused of attempting to undermine Islamic society. That is a card that the religious conservatives have played too well in the past, and forced us to retreat from any meaningful support for true moderation in their midst. Sadly till now, western liberals have shied away from overt support to oppressed groups outside Western society in fear of offending the sensibilities of the oppressors. Worse yet, we have looked the other way at oppression within Muslim immigrant societies in the West while championing the rights of their society as a whole. On occasion this reaches truly ridiculous levels, as when a German judge ruled that a Muslim immigrant has the right to beat his wife, since that was the law of his people and religion. I would say that people who would oppress and ill-treat their own family members, to the point of murdering their own daughters and sisters to protect their family “honor” have no claim to respect for their twisted ideas. It is time for liberals to step up and support the women and religious minorities and voices of dissent in Islamic society, just like western conservatives do so that they are offered true freedom and equality. If Islam is the true religion it claims to be (as do all the other dozens of religions), it should be able to convince people to give up their identity as individuals without the threat of violence and death. And if coercion is all that keeps it alive, then it is a religion best consigned to the trash heap of history.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Fair Housing Solution

Earlier today I came across an article on Time about the controversy surrounding the head of the Federal Housing Financial Administration, the agency that ultimately runs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Ignoring the overblown and hysterical byline of the piece, I gathered that this man's reluctance to embrace reducing the basic principal on loans, specifically loans on underwater mortgages has earned him both staunch detractors and fervent supporters. It should surprise no one in these hyper-partisan times that support lies largely amongst the strongest conservatives while his bitterest foes are progressives who see his stubbornness as the rock grinding down the weakest and most helpless of society.

As anyone who has had the misfortune of exchanging any more than a fleeting greeting knows, I am as pink a liberal as ever had a bleeding heart. And yet, in this case, I support Ed DeMarco wholeheartedly. I understand where the progressive angst is coming from, and also the practical logic of the arguments in favor of loan forgiveness - in many, if not all, cases foreclosure is a more expensive option than writing off a portion of the principal to match market value. But DeMarco is entrusted with public funds and his first responsibility is to his stakeholders, the taxpayers; he would be remiss in betting big, with their funds. on an unproven theory. Perhaps this strategy will lead to lower losses over time; it also may not, especially if too many borrowers and homeowners default on their loans to gain advantage. That would not only lead to greater losses, but may well tip the economy back into turmoil.

More critically, I disagree with the very idea that assistance should be directed at those on the verge of financial implosion. Apart from the fairness factor - is it really fair on the rest of the homeowners to soldier on with their loans while a small minority gets a bailout (and doesn't that simply create an incentive for people to default on loans even if they could scrape by) - I simply don't believe that this is a wise use of scarce funds. People about to default on their home loans have a lot of related problems. In fact since the majority would have struggled to keep their homes even in the face of adversity, it's likely that they will have run up other debts; or they have been pushed to bankruptcy by loss of jobs or medical bills. Simply reducing their one obligation, and that too reducing but not removing it entirely, will not lift too many of them out of their dire straits. And the loss of their credit worthiness will further impact them.

Rather I would suggest that money be directed towards any and every borrower, and not just those on Freddie and Fannie loans, towards reduction of their principals. This may sound like an even larger bailout, but in fact there is a crucial caveat. Two actually. One, the funds do not come out of FHFA coffers - their loans remain intact, and instead Congress use TARP funds or other sources (I hear the Federal Reserve has virtually unlimited dollars for select customers) to finance this. And secondly, the money advanced to the homeowners is a loan not a bailout. A generous loan to be sure - the borrower gets a low interest, long term loan that covers the difference between what is owed on the property and what that property is currently worth, and can therefore payoff enough of the principal to bring the house back above water. This would free one up to refinance to better rates, or sell if one so desires, without taking a hit on one's credit score. However, and this addresses the fairness of a bailout, the borrower still owes that money to the government - this would actually be a lot "fairer" than the sweetheart deals offered to the banks and Wall Street firms.

There are several further refinements I would suggest. Firstly, the private banks get only ninety percent of the loan back - they have to take a minimum ten percent write-off on their loans, in return for being able to take all those underwater assets off their books and turn them back into negotiable instruments (ten percent is just a general number I threw out there, it could be fifteen or twenty percent). However, the borrower still owes the government the full amount of the loan - that is the price of being able to keep one's credit history clean and be released from the weight of an underwater mortgage. As an example, if a person bought a house for $250, 000, and it's worth only $150,000 today, the government would advance a loan of $100,000. The bank would get only $90,000, but the homeowner would still have to repay the full $100,000. Now, if the home appreciates in value, the borrower may be able to pay off the government early using the equity in the property. But should that owner sell the house, he or she still owes the government their money. The borrower has a choice of wrapping his federal loan into any new housing loan, thus allowing the government to recover its money faster.

The term of these loans should be set to a sufficient length, such as 20 or 30 years, and be strictly principal plus interest - no fancy interest only loans allowed here.n addition, I would suggest that the loans be advanced mainly to people with good credit and a strong history of payment. This is the exact opposite of the attempts to bail out the housing market to date - and I would suggest that the efforts so far have failed precisely because they've been focused on people who cannot really gain much advantage from that assistance, when they are struggling with a plethora of problems. This is a straight forward loan and as such should follow the basic principles of lending - people with proven income and a history of responsible behavior get their loans. The resulting recovery in the housing market may actually help even those in deeper problems, if nothing else by raising property values again. I imagine that if this were successfully implemented, private equity would also flow into the market, offering similar loans with different structuring and negotiating different settlements with the original lenders. But  the key is to get the housing market moving again, and releasing approximately ten million homeowners from a millstone that constrains mobility and freedom to innovate.

The government should not and cannot afford to be in the bailout of such vast numbers of its population. But it can, and should be able to step in when private capital freezes, to leverage its unique power of the purse for the common good, not as a bail out, but as a helping hand to help people back on their feet, rewarding those who act in good faith above those who didn't. We have a government not just of and by the people, but critically also for the people. Not just those at the top and not just those about to sink below for the third time, but for all the people.

DISCLAIMER: I suppose one is due here - the ideal homeowner of strong credit history and responsible borrowing habits, yet still possessed of an underwater property, as described in my post would be I, and this program is developed to get me out of my current mortgage.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

For Water as Well as Blood

Blood is thicker than water, as the old platitude reminds us, and last week, Senator Rob Portman provided striking proof when he became the latest and possibly highest profile member of the GOP to change his views on marriage equality for all. Approximately two hundred members of his party have preceded him, but that list is sadly lacking in influential names or currently elected members. In that sense, Sen. Portman's change of heart is welcome, adding greater weight to that list of conservatives and putting his political future on the line to some extent.

Yet, in a sense his conversion leaves much to be desired. It's true that he's changed his mind, but his conversion was aided by the fact that he has a gay son, a son he loves and who has made him realize that being gay is a natural and unchangeable part of of some people. He has certainly been a good father, accepting and loving him for who he is, and changing his own views rather than attempting to force his son to change. But it took a very personal circumstance to get him to reevaluate his position, and realize that denying rights to gays is inhuman and unfair. In his many years in politics, he has undoubtedly met gay people (surely he has met Liz Cheney, or members of the Log Cabin Republicans), yet he never changed his views till they affected his flesh and blood. Or if his views had evolved, he kept them strictly to himself and allowed the hatred and discrimination against gays to continue unabated within his own party.

Some supporters have defended him, pointing out that even President Obama only recently changed his views and that Vice President Biden preceded him. Joe Biden invited some scorn from those people for suggesting that his views evolved from watching the portrayal of gays on "Will and Grace". Certainly, the president's leadership was less than stellar, and he probably waited for the opinions on his side of the ideological fence to mature ahead of him. His belated announcement was far less politically risky than it could have been. On the other hand, the ability of both Obama and Biden to change based on their interactions with people outside their immediate family reflects to their credit. Portman's change of heart, while important because of his prominence, also seems almost cowardly, coming after the winds of change had already swelled to near unstoppable levels in the public square and had begun to sweep through even his own party.

Before the 2012 election, Portman enjoyed tremendous stature in his party and was considered as Romey's running mate. To his credit, he did not hide his son's homosexuality during the vetting process (though on the flip side, it's unlikely that he could); to Romney's credit, this apparently did not weigh against Portman during the search process. What does count against both men, especially Portman, however is that knowing what they did know, they still supported a party platform that strongly opposed marriage equality. He held his peace and did not follow the president's lead in those months before the election. Did Portman change his mind about his son's right to marry a partner of his choice in just the last three months? That is a possibility and the more charitable explanation, but one cannot help but reflect on a missed opportunity to fundamentally change the direction of his party had he reached his epiphany just a few months prior and ridden out to fight the demons of ignorance and prejudice within the social conservative side of his party. In retrospect, it may even have aided the GOP heading  into an election where they painted themselves in the most conservative and uncompromising of colors.

The far greater sins of commission and omission came in the senator's announcement of his change of heart. He now calls for a repeal of the federal law outlawing marriage equality, but would like the states to retain the right to outlaw it all the same. Perhaps this is the belief of a staunch federalist, but I can't help but question his logic. If marriage equality is right, then it's right in every corner of the country, and should be extended even to those states that passed contrary laws in less enlightened times. These constitutional amendments against equality have lost popularity steadily each year, and in 2012 voters enshrined equality through popular vote for the first time in four states. Yet the restrictions remain on the books in many states and it will be many years, at best, before they are finally repealed. Portman would strong more empathetic if he had combined his federalist beliefs with a wholehearted plea for those states to reverse their laws. the midwest is moving quickly towards equality; shouldn't those rights be extended to every American? Equally important was the lack of contrition for his role in the original and terribly misnamed Defense of Marriage Act. Extensive self flagellation is not critical, far less helpful, but surely an apology is warranted to the many gays who were treated as less than equal citizens for the past twenty years. Portman acknowledges that equality is right; it follows then that the discrimination against them was, and is, wrong. If President Clinton could apologize for his less than willing role in those laws (mostly his failure to fight them), then those who played more active roles in crafting them should do no less.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Insuring Gun Rights

It appears as though the window for meaningful regulations of guns has closed, if indeed it were ever open more than a hair's breadth. The well organized lobby called the National Rifle Association, with help from some other organizations, has moved to quickly re-frame the debate on its own terms, and using a mixture of false fears and misinformation to obscure facts and drown out voices of moderation. From a purely academic standpoint their polished demolition of a majority viewpoint is as nearly perfect as anything I've seen, and only my deep disagreement with them keeps me from leaping to my feet with full fledged approbation.

I have mentioned in my earlier post on this topic that the NRA is not an organization that represents gun owners, despite all their posturing to the contrary - it represents the interests of gun manufacturers and gun sellers. Unfortunately, the strong hatred for the political players lined up on the side of gun control blinds people to this very obvious fact. Nothing in the NRA's actual position aids law-abiding gun owners, but the various changes in legislation that they have supported - fewer background checks, no inventory keeping by gun sellers, exempting gun shows from laws on background checks and waiting periods - all help in selling ever more guns to a country that already outguns most of the world (it speaks volumes when Somalia may be one of the few nations that can claim better gun penetration across its population, pun unintended). The NRA taps into an irrational fear of the federal government, maybe even into deeper and darker parts of the mind, when they argue that gun sellers should be allowed to destroy records of gun sales within a day; no other industry has anything approaching that attitude towards records. Tellingly, the fear that the government will use this information to find those who would oppose its potential tyranny does not extend to outrage over, say, warrant-less spying on one's communications or the fact that health insurance companies and credit rating companies (to cite but a couple of examples) collect a lot of information about us and for most part, we don't even question what they know about us or with whom they share this information, including possibly the much maligned federal government. What the NRA does achieve is a world in which it is easy for criminals or straw buyers acting for criminals to freely obtain guns - so much for protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens!

One of the tropes advanced on many forums debating gun control was the argument that more people die per year in auto accidents than from gun homicides, so cars should be banned before guns. This is a false argument on many different levels, since it starts with a conflation of accidental and intentional killing. But more interesting in the choice of this analogy is that these partisans would have been hard pressed to find a more regulated segment than automobiles. They are strongly regulated from the design and manufacturing phase, through every step thereafter. There are laws against driving while drunk, driving and texting, driving underage, driving with an expired license, for starters. One cannot legally drive without a license, and to obtain a license one needs to demonstrate one's expertise in driving. When stopped by the police, for any actual transgression or suspected problem, a driver has to show his license, or face strictures for that failure even if nothing else is blameworthy. And every driver is required to maintain insurance to cover damage that he may, or may not cause while driving. This is actually a perfect idea, and I owe the plan I lay out below to the gun rights advocates who first drew my attention to the level of regulation we accept on cars and the parallels that they see between car and gun ownership. (Not surprising perhaps, given the Bushmaster advertisement that suggested owning an assault rifle conferred a man card upon the owner; in another version, that would have been a Mustang, Camaro or pickup truck).

If there is one thing the Roberts Supreme Court has upheld consistently, it is the power of corporations and their status above individuals. While I strongly disagree with the idea philosophically, I see an opportunity to use this concept towards regulation of guns, along with the concept enshrined in the Court's ruling regarding the Affordable Care Act. Simply put, I suggest that all guns be insured against the damage that they can potentially wreak. Let me clarify that the insurance is on the gun, not the gun owner. The key reason is that the gun must be insured from the moment it rolls off an assembly line (if locally made) or the instant it enters a US entry port. The moment the weapon is sold to a gun dealer, the onus for maintaining insurance can be transferred to the dealer or retained by the original party - I do not forsee many companies choosing that option, even less their insurance companies. Similarly the dealer is free to transfer ownership of the insurance policy along with ownership of the gun to his buyer, or he may choose to trust his buyers will never use their guns on other people without good and unimpeachable cause. The same rule holds for any sale of the gun, with no exceptions.

Some advantages of this are immediately obvious. Libertarians who fear the reach of the government and its intrusion into their private lives have fewer qualms over the same power in the hands of private companies and corporations. The level of regulation required over the sales will now be determined not in Washington but in the opaque boardrooms of Omaha and Charlotte and Wilmington. The greatest fear of Constitutionalists, that their right to bear arms enshrined in their reading of the Second Amendment, will be set at rest, since the law does not prevent anyone, not even Son of Sam, from buying a gun, so long as he or she can pay the insurance rates on it.  In my mind, the actual intent of the Second Amendment can be further strengthened by offering waivers or reduced insurance needs for militias that can meet the definition of "well-regulated"; in essence, weapons for the police or National Guard would not need to be insured to the same level as those in the hands of the Hutaree. 

However, in fairness to Branch Davidians and their ilk, the insurance amount on guns will be predicated only on the gun itself, not the owner. There is a challenge in determining the correct amount of insurance required, especially when the aim is to keep the amount within reason that can be serviced by private insurance companies. My starting thought for this would be the potential destructive power of the weapon. Obviously a small handgun, a shotgun or a hunting rifle have limited use in mass killings and would carry a smaller coverage than the now infamous AR-15 Bushmaster. Determining a good coverage amount is a job for actuaries (maybe?) and underwriters, and I have no doubt that they will crunch through the numbers and figure out a formula that combines population, per capita gun ownership, annual gun homicide rates, lost earning due to premature death and tooth fairy taxes. This amount would then be applied to every privately owned gun in the US, and to every gun being manufactured, offered for sale or being imported. In the event that a weapon is used in any crime, the insurance would be shared amongst the victims and/or their next of kin. One advantage, one that would really bring lawyers over to support this, is that even accident victims like Dick Cheney's unfortunate hunting partner would stand to gain when mistaken for a quail and shot in the face.

I appeal to the free market supporters on this idea. The insurance companies can evaluate the risk of say a large gun dealership, look at their safety methods and attention to inventor keeping and set a very low rate or a high rate that reflects the risk that a weapon will be sold improperly. This provides an incentive to the dealer to follow better practices and sell only to those customers who can take over the weapon liability. In turn, when seeking to buy a gun, an individual would have to convince his insurance company that he is not a risk. He may be required to provide mental health certification, and private insurers may ask for periodical certificates - it's important to emphasize that these checks would be between the individual and his insurance company only. If an insurer wishes to ban its customers from carrying their guns out of their houses, that too would be between the two private entities, and the government's role would start and end with requiring that the gun be insured at all times. As I said before, if a dealer trusts his strawbuyer client, he may retain ownership of the insurance, but he would face claims if any of those weapons was used in a crime subsequently - his insurance company may require a much higher premium for the risk involved or may refuse him permission to sell without transferring liability. On the flip side, the insurance company may very well offer big discounts for a dealer that has a waiting period on purchases, or performs detailed background checks, or one that ensures the buyer has insurance before handing over a weapon. (In part the need for waiting periods and background checks are based on the idea that dealers, similar to car dealerships, may offer a 30 day insurance period to the buyer).

In much the same vein, the individual may obtain discounts on their insurance by showing that they keep their guns securely. I envision insurance rates for existing gun owners being very low if they can show a long and responsible history of ownership - in other words for most gun owners. I also imagine most hunting weapons and smaller caliber pistols being either waived or covered for very low rates, given that they can be used in homicides (see the latest high profile case from Arizona and the on-going hostage standoff in Alabama), but they cause comparatively less death and destruction. I also foresee insurance companies offering reducing rates (similar to auto insurance models) based on history and discounts for people who can demonstrate safe practices and attendance of gun safety classes, again similar to auto insurance discounts for defensive driving classes and the like.

No proposal would be universally hailed, and gun owners would likely grumble at any rule that increases their bills for owning weapons. But given that this neither constrains one's rights under the Second Amendment, nor increases the role of government in our lives, I see it as the simplest means to reducing gun violence. It would have a very small impact on the vast majority of gun owners, but it would go a long way to reducing the vast number of guns available to criminals. I will, I admit, increase the cost of owning a gun, but that may be a small price to pay for reducing the overall level of gun violence.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Call From Arms

In the month since the Newtown, CT massacre, emotions have surged and ebbed, and as is my practice in such emotionally charged issues, I've waited a while before addressing it in my blog. While it appeared, in the first days after the killings, that the sheer horror of seeing a score of elementary school kids cut down in their schoolrooms would lead to a raft of overdue regulations to take some of the tools of mass execution out of the hands of would-be killers, with each passing day the chances of any meaningful legislation reduce rapidly. In a world of the twenty four news cycle,  even a tragedy of this magnitude cannot long hold our attention, especially when the national news is devoted to the never ending manufactured drama of the national debt and budget deficit, and predictably the first excitement has faded and with it the burst of energy to take on the entrenched interests of the gun industry has rapidly dissipated.

No discussion on gun control is complete without a mention of the National Rifle Association, which has only just reached five million members. That's not a small number, of course, but it represents only about a tenth of the total number of gun owners in the country. On the other hand their political power is far beyond their membership numbers suggest, all the more amazing when one considers that they don't seem to represent the interests of gun owners so much as those of gun manufacturers and sellers. Yet the legislature is largely beholden to them, and every presidential candidate has to profess his love for guns and his commitment to the right to own. The NRA and other gun rights groups have chipped away at controls and regulations, even used the courts to overturn laws they oppose, in the name of freedom and the rights of the Second Amendment. Members, and gun owning non-members have followed along, reading docilely from the script they've been handed and apparently driven by an irrational fear instilled in them by their handlers, and rarely stopping to actually question the actual dangers to their way of life.

The most amazing thing is that NRA seems to have abandoned their gun-owning individual members a long time ago, and now seem only to care about the rights, and profits, of the gun manufacturers and sellers. There is no other explanation for their opposition to background checks, their opposition to tracking gun sellers' inventories, their support for destruction of the records within twenty four hours and above all, their opposition to any restrictions on who can buy guns. Ironically, they always cloak their motives as protection of the rights of law abiding citizens. Yet all these policies they endorse have nothing to do with law abiding citizens and everything to do with selling guns at all  costs, to anyone and everyone. The NRA's favorite argument in favor of guns for law-abiding citizens' access to weapons is to protect themselves from criminals, who will have guns anyhow; an amazingly prescient argument, since the NRA does their best to ensure that those criminals will be able to buy guns whenever they want. It's a logic that benefits only those providing guns. As an interesting comparison, in many even most states, convicted (and even suspected to be convicted) felons lose their right to vote (and those convicted of sexual crimes, even be it urinating in public, can lose all rights to privacy), but they retain their right, or at least their ability to buy guns, in world of "don't ask, don't tell" between buyer and seller.

I concede that if the most radical of gun control proponents had their way, there would be a lot of guns to collect and destroy. On the other hand, almost no one believes that such a sea change is practical, or even necessary; and even fervent believers in gun control such as I know that anything so radical would be tantamount to plunging the nation into chaos and bloodshed, hardly the end result desired. We may not believe in the need for any normal individual to own a gun, or ten, but we see the answer in education, not confiscations. Unfortunately, the most influential voices on the gun rights lobby refuse to accept that reality and either truly believe or cynically profess to believe that their rights to own guns are threatened, and their followers appear to buy into it rather wholeheartedly.

Most control proponents disagree with gun rights believers over the reading of the Second Amendment - indeed, millions of pages have been devoted to the correct interpretation of that one little sentence - but let us leave that argument for another time and grant a universal right to own firearms. Why is it then so impossible to find some common ground, based on common sense? No one, surely, wishes to see more deaths by guns (I would hope) and surely the basic interests of gun owners can be met while still ensuring civic safety in a practical manner; I emphasize practical, since there are some suggestions that the way to safety in schools is either bullet proof vests for the children (talk about a Dystopian scenario) or armed faculty or guards. The single biggest regulation required would cover high capacity gun magazines - does this in fact infringe on the normal gun owner? Would a lack of assault weapons - high rate of fire, high capacity magazines - really affect the vast majority of gun owners, or any legal owners in their professed needs?

To the best of my knowledge there are three main reasons that people own guns, viz. personal defense, hunting and protection against a tyrannical government. In the case of protection, whether in one's home or even for those partisans who claim a right to carry their guns at all times (again a topic that is best left for another time), the most effective weapons are pistols and shotguns. One rarely sees cases of home invasions or muggings deterred by individual with M-16 rifles; even in such cases as homeowners do defend their castles with assault rifles, it seems more like an overkill than a necessity, with the exception, of course, of those trapped in Precinct 13 on that fateful night. My intellectual twin, who couldn't agree less with me on almost any topic under the sun, is possibly the only hunter I know who claims to need an assault rifle to hunt hogs, but most other hunters seem to prefer weapons that are better at killing animals than human beings, or in other words, hunting rifles or shotguns; and I'm almost certain that Dick Cheney's hunting partners, like Harry Whittington, are strongly opposed to hunting with assault rifles.

Which brings us to the last reason for owning weapons. the one often touted by those on the far edges of the political spectrum: citizens need their guns to protect themselves from the tyranny of the government. This latest idea has been trotted out on Fox TV recently, suggesting that it is the new normal on the rightwing, but few of those advocating this position seem to really think through the argument. Let us set aside for a moment the very great differences between the times in which the Constitution was framed and the world we live in today - the men who wrote that document lived in a world of muskets, not automatic rifles. Perhaps even more importantly, the framers envisioned a citizen militia for national defense, and did not support the invention of a permanent professional army - again, an idea that was reasonable in the days it was written, but long since overtaken by a changing world. But let us set aside these lacunae, and focus only on the practical aspects of opposing the potential tyranny of the government in today's world. Let us even entertain, for academic purposes, the suspicion of the government, so rampant amongst owners of assault rifles and like weapons. Let us pretend that the government is in fact out to usurp our liberties and that we need to fight back against tyranny, even though I see no credible evidence of this happening in the way envisioned by these partisans. The fact is that weapons alone, even the powerful semi-automatic rifles available to everyone today, are far less important in withstanding State repression than their owners believe. Not only is the State (any functioning country really) possessed of far greater firepower than its civilians could muster - especially when the State in this case commands the might of the US military - but their advantages over would-be resistance fighters really lies in their command and control systems, their organization and dedicated communication networks, and their control over the wider communication systems. This is what has helped the Assad regime retain power in Syria, and that regime's gradual loss of control over those levers of power to their opponents is leading to their demise. It is why governments from Iran to Egypt have countered popular protests with a shut down of the internet and other public communications, and their successes in those endeavors have determined the success or failure of the protests against them.

Freedom must be protected, even in the freest of societies, but it is not defended with guns or swords. Those who think that they can take on the government with their personal weapons are fooling themselves - of course, most of those who seek to defend themselves against their government in the United States are living in an illusory world already. They suspect their government of sinister motives where none exist, and close their eyes to the actual constraints upon their freedom. These patriots fear the jack-booted minions of the government, seeking to tear their guns from them, when the real weapon of freedom is information. The power to know the truth of the workings of our government is the real shield against government tyranny, the ability to mobilize public opinion, share ideas and information is our real defense against a government's attempt to usurp our rights. Guns, especially in the hands of a disorganized mob, are of no avail and would do more harm than good, while a free press and open channels of communication are what keep our government servants, not masters of the citizenry.

Governments, especially tyrannical ones but even democratic ones, may like to keep their population's access to weapons limited, but they do not fear their armed citizens; they only fear informed and questioning citizenry. It is no coincidence that governments, everywhere, seek to draw a curtain over their actions and keep their secrets from the people they purport to serve. Guns do not compel transparency in governments, but ceaseless vigilance by citizens and the Fourth Estate does. A study of access to weapons in the populations of different nations showed no great co-relation between weapons and freedom. The USA leads the world in gun ownership, and staunchly democratic and liberal nations like Switzerland rank up there with it; however so do nations like Iraq, even under Saddam Hussein, Afghanistan and Somalia, which leave a lot to be desired by way of liberty. Nations like Japan enjoy the same level of freedom without a high percentage of armed citizens. Perhaps most telling in the argument regarding the importance of guns to liberty are the cases of Libya, Egypt and Tunisia - nations that have risen against dictators. Libya had plenty of weapons in the hands of its people, yet the forces of the state rapidly crushed the local militias and were stopped only by the more powerful air forces of Europe and the US. By contrast, Tunisia, and to a lesser extent Egypt had very low numbers of armed citizens, but overthrew their dictatorial governments through largely peaceful mobilization of huge swaths of the the population. Guns played next to no role in overthrowing the tyrants, while information and communication was king.

In conclusion, I may say that I see no overwhelming need for citizens to own the kind of assault weapons that so many gun proponents demand as a right. I'll concede that they may have a Constitutional right to weapons even (though I have never bought into that narrow reading of the Second Amendment) but if they see their weapons as protecting their freedom, they delude themselves. There has been no attempt to reduce the proliferation of guns in decades, while numerous rules have greatly expanded access to powerful weapons. The continued paranoia about government tyranny in the face of all facts would be merely pathetic, except that it has also placed this country far ahead of the rest of the world in every category of gun related violence and death. Guns may be cool to shoot, and I cannot help but wonder if in the case of military-style assault weapons, they also help the owners compensate for other shortcomings and feelings of inadequacy. But given the number of avoidable deaths, is the price too high?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Lamenting the Death of Conservatism

The 2012 general election was widely expected to be a blowout conservative victory -  at least in conservative circles. The right wing blogs, radio talk show hosts and television talking heads were certain that the president was going to lose, ending the brief chapter that interrupted the conservative story of this century. And history was on their side - the president had failed to turn the economy around, and his argument that he'd inherited an economy in shambles and faced non-stop obstruction from the right wing in Congress would not convince the electorate. With massive unemployment and seemingly little good news, at least for the working classes, it seemed impossible that President Obama could win another term, especially after the gridlock, standoffs and stalled economic agenda that marked the two years since the GOP won control of the House, an election that seemed already to indicate a deep distrust of the president's plans for the nation and a marked swing back towards conservative philosophy.

It is needless to add that all those predictions were false and that the president won a surprisingly robust re-election. As an unabashed liberal, I should be delighted, and certainly I am happy that Obama rather than Romney will take the oath of office in January. But that small consolation aside, this election was decidedly disappointing, at the presidential and congressional level. There were a few bright spots in the state referenda, the most significant being the clear victory for marriage equality in four states, marking the first popular vote in favor. The votes in a couple of states to legalize marijuana also portend a heartening move away from the three decade old sham called the "War on Drugs" - if the federal government reacts with wisdom.

But let me explain why the presidential election was such a letdown. In the run-up to voting day, this contest was portrayed as a clear cut choice between liberal and conservative agenda. Strangely enough, the loss of both the electoral college and the popular vote led to an instant revision on the part of some prominent conservative leaders who pointed out that the president had never really laid out a plan for his second term and hence lacked a mandate to undertake any plan during his term. They are partly right, but like the blind men with the elephant, also mostly wrong. First and foremost the president did have an agenda, and it is largely a continuation of his plans from his first term - regulation of the financial markets, extending healthcare coverage to larger numbers, immigration reform, controlling the deficit through a mixture of spending cuts and revenue increases. But, and this is the real crux of my problem, the president is no liberal and his agenda is really not at all liberal. He, like many Americans, leans slightly left of center, and is more likely to side with the liberal viewpoint than its opposite, but would be far more likely to be pretty much at the center if left to his own devices. President Obama took several years to embrace marriage equality, and has yet to rein in the Department of Justice from their long, wasteful and pointless war against drugs (targeting the smallest players and users while ensuring huge profits for the violent cartels and various terrorist organizations). He has embraced targeted assassinations of suspected enemies of the nation, with the verdict of death pronounced upon hundreds in secrecy and without trial, and many other questionable policies put in place by the Bush administration remain active or simply suspended (not cancelled or repudiated), with little transparency or scrutiny. The regulation of the financial market was a weak effort, and largely toothless, while the talk about increased marginal rates mostly remains just talk - these may be reflections of political necessity but the President has rarely pushed them vigorously in the halls of the legislature. His signature, and now likely permanent, achievement was the extension of health insurance to millions of previously uninsured workers. But the system lacked a strong government role and represents as much of a boon to the insurance industry as it does to the millions who now qualify for healthcare coverage. Tellingly, the basis of the entire plan was initially proposed by conservatives and first advanced as Bob Dole's alternative to President Clinton's plan, and then embraced by Speaker Newt Gingrich and implemented by Governor Romney in Massachusetts, before they developed a severe dislike of it. In short, the President is no liberal.

If that were the only problem, I would be only half as disappointed. Unfortunately, he was never opposed by any true Conservatives. Of course, to be opposed by a conservative, the movement would first have to decide exactly what form of conservatism they embrace and then pick a standard bearer to explain their position. Conservatism is essentially a wish to either keep things the way they are, or to restore them to the way they were at some point in the past. However from the practical viewpoint there are some things in the past that are considered worth keeping or restoring, while others are universally accepted as best left in the past. This concept is largely subjective obviously and manifest itself as two broad forms of conservatism, viz. social and fiscal, with an inherent dissonance betwixt them. Social conservatism is well defined in America, painfully so, with well defined positions that include support for the traditional family, opposition to birth control and abortion, opposition to gender equality, especially for homosexuals, and opposition to scientific theory that contradicts Christian theology. Perhaps I should be more charitable and describe their positions as support for only natural forms of birth control, strong belief in the sanctity of life, belief in the traditional roles of the "normal" sexes, and above all a deep religious faith in the absolute truth of Christian theology. This group was represented by Michelle Bachman, Mike Huckabee (in previous years) and Rick Santorum, and when the dust settled, they were left in the cold, with mere lip service to their ideology.

The fiscal conservatives have a less defined ideology. There are times when I wonder if they know exactly what they stand for themselves, for they sometimes seem to conflate policy for philosophy. Whether they articulate this or not, in the simplest and most positive terms they believe in the supremacy of the individual over the collective, and thence flows most of their policy. Since the individual is prime, government should be minimal, dealing with only issues like defense and international relations. The individual should be entitled to keep his earned wealth and spend it as he sees fit, rather than be forced to contribute it to a collective fund, which ties in nicely with the concept of a minimalist government. The individual rises or falls on his own merit, not on the support of others, an almost Darwinistic approach, but with space for compassion towards those of lesser merit, with the extent of compassionate assistance decided by each individual. In it's purest form, one can certainly understand this philosophy, even if one does not agree with the basic tenets.

From this philosophy flow the various conservative policies, but it is critical to note that a policy such as low taxation is means to an end, not an end in itself and too many conservative in America mistake one for the other. Low taxes as a policy follow from a philosophy that the individual is the best custodian of his wealth, but higher taxation would be a reasonable conservative policy if another policy took precedence, say national security. True conservatives believe in paying the bills as they go, and increased spending if deemed necessary must be paid for by higher taxes. And true conservatives should also accept the importance of prior commitments by the government to its citizens, even when they don't quite agree with that commitment - that commitment, be it social safety nets or medical coverage, must be met even as they're phased out, and by higher taxes if need be.

Governor Romney attempted to straddle the divide between the two strands of conservatism, but it was never clear exactly what aspects of conservatism he endorsed. It was never clear that he even understood the inherent conflict between social conservatism, which emphasizes the primacy of society over individual, and economic conservatism which takes the exactly opposite view. It is not impossible to reconcile the two worlds, but it required a level of intellectual honesty in assessing priorities that the GOP never indulged, neither in it's standard bearers and certainly not amongst its partisans. Both Governor Romney and to an even larger extent Representative Ryan ignored the dichotomy they were attempting to sell and never sought to define the conservatism they would embrace in their presumptive administration; Governor Romney had an inconsistent commitment to conservative principles to put it mildly, but I am not convinced that Paul Ryan, the supposed intellectual cares about the paradox in his position any better than Romney or even actually understands it.

While I do not share conservative principles, even less do I respect the many self-declared conservatives. And yet I, as bleeding heart a liberal a person whose heart ever bled,  lament the failure on the conservative side of the political divide. The liberals did not have a true candidate in this race, but President Obama is indubitably left of center (at least as the center is defined in America) and was accepted by liberals across the country; equally important he was identified as the liberal candidate by his opponents and embraced that label. But the conservatives never came to the fight, not on the intellectual field which is the challenging political battlefield. The GOP hoped to win the White House without winning the battle of ideas, believing that the election was theirs so long as they had a name on the ballot. Despite the ever increasing divergence between the social and economic conservative wings of their coalition, they did not address the issues but tried to pretend that they simply did not exist and nominated a man who sought to avoid every political label. The social conservatives did show up in the primary, and I admit that they are largely consistent in their core beliefs and clear about the kind of society they would like to build, but I am also convinced of the error of their beliefs and history has judged their ideas wanting time and again; in any event even the GOP decided against a full throat-ed endorsement of social conservatism in the presidential election. But the economic conservatives never came out to the lists and critically, have forgotten what their underlying ideology. Normally as a liberal, I would be delighted with a victory by the candidate on the left, but the fact is a healthy polity requires intelligent conservative policy as much as it needs liberals. Unlike some partisans, I respect honest economic conservatism even when I disagree fundamentally with the ideas. Conservatives are as invested in the success of society as liberals and it is foolish to accuse either side of hating themselves or their country; they only differ in the means to the same goal. In an ever changing world, continued success requires a continual examination of policy, and when one ideology gains too great a dominance, it tends to overreach and commit mistakes in policy. Equally dangerous is the stagnation that sets in on the intellectual side and refuses to recognize the changes in the world that make policy from a prior era unsustainable. Both sides of the ideological spectrum are equally susceptible to this failure born of hubris and need each other to balance their demons. If liberalism provides the helping hand and equal opportunity for every member of society, conservatism ensures that individual merit gains the recognition and reward it deserves. Conservatism ensures the generation of wealth while liberalism protects society from the excesses of over-concentrated wealth and indirectly provides the essential conditions that nurture merit and sustain growth in wealth in the first place. The disappearance of true economic conservatives leaves the American polity dangerously imbalanced, and clinging to clueless charlatans masquerading as intellectuals. The policies of Reagan do not work three decades later, but conservatives  have not yet figured the difference between policy and ideas and are floundering with no clear vision. Their only silver lining today is that the economic liberals are almost if not quite as intellectually bankrupt.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Betrayed By Expectations

Normally one might expect a commentary on the political ramifications of a major presidential election in the week or so after said election, but this has been a strange year, culminating in a strange election, one that was overtaken almost instantly by news that befuddled both friend and foe alike. And as an exceptionally talented leader departed following the elections, I was left to ponder whether the failure was not in the man who stood shamed before the world but in the expectations of the public who first deified him and then recoiled in horror at his humanity.

General David Petraeus was a man, and like many men before him, he happily accepted the pleasures that life offered him. Even now, three weeks after the scandal of his extra-marital affair forced him from office, there is little evidence that he had allowed his personal life to affect his efficiency in his professional duties; yet the strange Puritan attitude that passes for wisdom in modern America demands that he leave in disgrace, preferably flagellating his back as he crawls away to hide. Perhaps he needed to go once the affair was publicly known, for the rumors, the publicity and the non-stop chatter of twenty four hour news television would have made it impossible to execute his duties as head of the CIA anymore. Yet, that begs the question: why is his bedroom life of any importance to us?

Of course, as the chief spy, his personal life is of some importance, since he might have fallen prey to the wiles of Mata Hari. Even given that the "other" woman was no security hazard, perhaps the normal pressures of an intimate but secret and (using the term in a very limited sense) illicit relationship might lead to unwitting breaches of security (there is some speculation already on that score, though nothing has been revealed as fact as yet). Such arguments I could understand, but they have been put forth but mildly. One might even argue that Petraeus was never as good as his admirers claimed, and that his background in ground operations and counterinsurgency, no matter how stellar, do not make him an ideal fit as head of a spy agency, and that his work was not to the level expected or required. This again is an discussion worth having, since it can be rationally discussed; and again, it is a discussion swept aside in favor of the weakest, least defensible reason to end this man's tenure. The moral case against him carries the day, as it has in so many other instances, yet this is a unique case that it should have had least weight.

America argues that its leaders, even its masked spy chiefs be paragons of virtue. One can certainly demand that in one's leaders and their appointed servitors, but is that very wise or realistic? Morals, apart from being notoriously subjective, are but one facet of the man (or woman) - more on that later. Good moral character, that bedrock of resumes, is not the only, and not even the most important aspect to seek, especially in the head of a spy agency. Intelligence, innovation, management skills and more, these are all things to look for in a leader, elected or appointed, and we need to ask ourselves if it is more important to have an ascetic but intellectually slow general leading our forces than a smart philanderer. We may wish that the best of all desired virtues are met in one man, but if that highly unlikely man be impossible to find, or unwilling to answer our call, what do we consider more important in available candidates for that position. Kindness to animals in need is a very commendable trait, but would we really care if our CIA director tosses all letters from PETA and the ASPCA directly in the trash? Sharing the burdens of marriage equally may raise a man in the eyes of his peers, but would we disqualify a man who refused to help his wife with the dishes?

We need to really think about what we want in our leaders, and more importantly perhaps in the men who serve our elected leaders. And especially we need to drop the idea that a vaguely defined moral code should be imposed upon a person who has never signed onto that code (I recognize that General Petraeus might still have been subject to the military's code of conduct, which he had accepted when he signed up, but the role as CIA director was not subject to that Code). The whole morality question is especially ridiculous when you consider that killing unarmed men, and even more so women and children, is strongly proscribed in nearly any moral code; yet the head of the CIA will unleash the instruments of death based on incomplete information and with far less proof than we would accept in allowing our police to stop Hispanic car drivers to demand proof of residency. Lying is universally seen as an act of low moral character, yet the CIA director will not only instruct his agents to practice subterfuge and misinformation, but will even lie to the public on occasion. I don't argue that there isn't a case for such action - though I feel it's largely overstated to protect laziness in proving a case for action - or that these actions are inherently immoral. My point is only that we already accept suspension of moral codes in some areas, where to follow the code would be impractical or counterproductive. And this in in the case of principles that are scarcely debatable. Yet in the more morally ambiguous case of an extra-marital affair - was it a brief weakness, did it really hurt anyone, do we know anything about the details of the marriages of the people involved, and is it any of our business anyway - we have invoked that code and our self-righteous outrage at its flaunting to end a man's career, (and subject a trio of young children to publicity about their parents that they certainly didn't request or deserve) and leave a key government agency without its leader.

We can chase the chimera of the perfect candidate and crucify those who fail to live up to the standards of the most voluble, or we can step back and challenge ourselves to identify what we really need in our leaders and then accept the best candidate available, warts and all. And then, perhaps, we will also quit our foolish habit of beatifying our leaders (or at least those from the "correct" side of the political spectrum) and save ourselves the mortification of discovering their feet of clay.