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Monday, January 5, 2015

A Law By Any Other Name

Some days ago I read an interesting article on the stranglehold our laws and regulations have over our daily life. This was a balanced and thought-provoking article, for most part, though it made a few errors in conflating laws and regulations and did not distinguish clearly between the federal government and more localized authorities. However, it reinforced a theory that I'd heard some years ago that there is no longer a single person or small group that controls our lives, but rather that we are at the mercy of a vast and faceless bureaucracy that punishes individuals not out of spite or hate but simply because it exists and functions.

It is hard to dispute that we live in a highly regulated society, and many argue that we live in fact in an over-regulated world. This is a major political issue and even appeals across the political spectrum, though predictably the solutions are less clear than the problem and far less universally accepted. Regardless of which aspect of regulation one chooses to examine, the opposing sides of the political world have widely different responses. Environmental regulation and worker protections are anathema to conservatives while progressives swear we do not go nearly far enough, while abortion restrictions and marriage definition quite neatly flip their positions around. And therein lies the first of the problems: we do not object to laws and regulations per se, just to those that do not suit our political positions. In a world of compromise then, it follows that we will always have regulations that no not suit us; the burning question is whether the laws and regulations we have actually hinder us in our daily lives.

Many business owners contend that they struggle under an unsustainable load of regulations. There is usually some hyperbole involved, but there is also a certain justification for their angst. Yet, as the article points out, each law and regulation taken in isolation is usually justified and quite often widely supported. Laws are usually passed to reflect the wishes of the wider public, and whichever law one chooses to examine will seem justified. The Great Recession is an excellent example, where the excesses of the unregulated financial world plunged the economy into chaos and led eventually to a slew of new regulations designed to prevent a repeat. Similarly, the mass shootings in Aurora, CO and Newtown, CT prompted calls for regulation on certain guns (the fact that the public demand led nowhere is moot in this discussion, the point is that Congress reacted to an event and a public demand).

The key however is that laws and regulations make sense in isolation. Taken together we often end up with a jumbled mass of contradictory and mind numbing requirements, regulations that would challenge Daniel himself should be asked to judge their worth and meaning. This is certainly a problem, yet it is not an insurmountable issue, should the goodwill and political desire exist. It must first be recognized that there are three distinct sets of rules, viz. laws passed by Congress (or a lower level legislature) that distinctly specify certain requirements, laws passed but which leave the specifics to be spelled out by regulatory agencies and finally regulations put in place by various entities (both public and private) to help them navigate the first two sets. In the article I cited, it's crucial to note that most of the failures in practice were caused by the third set, and as often as not, caused by a lack of independent thinking or a clear understanding of the reasons for the rules (e.g. the school that banned teachers from calling 911 was attempting to prevent police being summoned too often for discipline issues, and understanding that would have freed the teacher to call emergency services for a medical issue). The second and greater problem is that all public entities (school districts, emergency rescue services, utility agencies) and private companies draft voluminous lists of rules on behavior to avoid being sued, by employees and the public they serve. Congress does not have legislation on acceptable interaction of men and women at work, yet many companies will have lengthy lists of "dos and don'ts" to negate the risk of inappropriate behavior leading to a harassment suit, to offer one example. Human nature is the culprit here; in the absence of regulation, stronger groups will assert themselves at the expense of weaker ones. Human nature also has led to numerous lawsuits against companies and public entities, no matter how big or how small the grievance and how much blame they actually deserved. Hence fast food companies feel the need to warn us that the hot coffee they provide really is hot, or that ingesting unknown chemicals may not be a wise course of action. These are not the result of a regulatory government run amok. The fault, if fault it be (for  reality is never cleanly defined in black and white) lies wholly with us, both the victims who sued and the juries of their peers who so often have rewarded the seemingly frivolous claims with the same largesse of more deserving cases.

While the laws passed by the government often complicate life, they are not always passed with that intent. Most laws are intended to address real needs and pressing problems. But as the years roll by, the vast numbers of laws begin to stack up and inevitably we end up with both contradictory laws and occasionally foolish laws. I am constantly disheartened by the laws in India that still prohibit any intimate gesture between the sexes in public, or the Texas law that criminalized homosexual relations till it was finally struck down by the Supreme Court. There are many more rules, passed decades even centuries ago that are antiquated yet remain in full force, if simply not enforced today. For all we know, there are probably plenty of laws against cohabitation, premarital sex or the like. Laws against blasphemy, swearing and drinking on Sundays have similarly fallen aside as society progressed. But other less visible restrictions remain in effect, forgotten till someone finds a reason to challenge them or use them.

We would definitely gain if all our laws were subjected to an intelligent audit. However, such an audit could be undertaken, leave alone succeed only if every player approached the exercise with an open mind and a spirit of compromise, a combination sadly lacking in most of us. Some have suggested that all new laws include a sunset clause that will automatically retire them unless renewed. I almost endorsed that idea for a moment, but in reality that would greatly complicate life. If every law we had today was temporary, we would have little to no certainty in life. In the most extreme case, one could imagine basic laws against theft and cheating falling prey to political squabbles and failing their renewal, leaving one at the mercy of the unscrupulous. Perhaps a better use of our energy would be to urge that different government agencies get together and reconcile their different regulations so that we have fewer outright contradictions in practice. And we should remember how irksome regulations can be when next we sit to draft rules or regulations that will affect others.

But above all, we need to remember that a world without rules and regulations has no order at all, and will not be a civilized land. It is rules that protect us from chaos and shelter us against the depredations of the greedy and the power of the wicked. The law is, in the end, not so much an ass, as a necessary evil.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Police and Public: A Two Way Steet That's Closed

It's been over four months since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO shone a light on a part of the American politic that most citizens would rather not face or acknowledge. Race in America is always a sensitive subject, and more importantly, certain to stir deep passions. When an unarmed young black man is shot by police, it is certain to cause great anger within his community, no matter the exact circumstances. When the shooting occurs in a Southern city, when the police of that predominantly black township is predominantly white and when the reaction on all sides seems tone-deaf at best, it would seems inevitable that trouble would follow. In the following months, more young black men were shot by police. More accurately, in the following months the press reported about more young black men who were shot by police. And this week, the next, and equally inevitable chapter was written, when two police were murdered while on duty, gunned down in cold blood by a young black man.

And yet, we have yet to acknowledge the real problems, of which all the violence and angst of these past months is but a symptom. While the New York police may blame the death of their colleagues on the rhetoric of their mayor, a bit of introspection should tell them that the badly disturbed killer was not taking his cues from Bill DiBlasio, especially when he first shot his ex-girlfriend in Baltimore before heading to New York. If anything could destroy the righteous anger of the thousands protesting peacefully, it was this senseless act, and the greatest tragedy in a tale marked by more than its share will be that protesters will now be reluctant to air their legitimate concerns and that the supporters of harsh police action will feel and act vindicated. In weeks past, athletes on the biggest TV stages made a quiet statement with mute gestures as they entered the stadium or a simple T-shirt message.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this sordid mess has been the response of the police to these protests, or in fact any protests. The St. Louis police demanded that the Rams football team apologize for drawing attention to the fact that Michael Brown was unarmed when shot, as were the victims in so many other similar cases. The police do not understand the frustration and anger in the communities they serve and in turn feel that those protesting their actions do not appreciate the risks they face daily, every moment that they are in uniform. That is essentially the same feeling that has led to a almost juvenile behavior of the New York police, when the mindlessly lash out at the Mayor for his empathy with an unarmed man who died in a police choke hold; they ignored the equal empathy he wished to display when their fellow officers were murdered in cold blood last week, in part because they feel that his earlier criticism denies him the right to condole with them in their loss.

Like a couple in a bad marriage, both the police and the minority communities do not see each others point of view and every act is seen through a prism of distrust. Add in a racial filter and it's all too easy for the two sides to neither hear nor understand each other. In reality, all the anger has obscured an important fact: these deaths are not about race, they are not about a police force out of control, it's most certainly not about the wrong and overeager use of lethal force or prohibited choke holds. Those are all valid concerns, but they are simply symptoms of the actual underlying problems. Not surprisingly, both problems are fairly uniquely American and that in part makes them both harder to recognize and certainly far more difficult to address.

The problem starts with manpower and cost. The US has always struggled with the high cost, and shortage of, manpower and the police forces have been no exception. It's generally left fewer officers on the street than might be ideal, and police departments have always turned to technology to extend their reach with fewer personnel. We've seen police switch from foot patrols to police cruisers; in the last twenty years, most departments have switched from a pair of officers per cruiser to just the one officer in each car. This definitely extends the reach and coverage of units with limited personnel, but it exacerbates  a different problem that I will address below. However, the most obvious effect has been to create a gap between the officers and the neighborhoods they police. A modern police force, reflecting the modern view of policing, should interact with the community. Totalitarian states, echoing the concept from colonial nations of yesteryear, use their police to suppress and control their population and the police serve the ruler, not the people, but in a liberal democracy one would expect the police to live up to the idea that they serve the community. It's a concept that receives plenty of lip service (after all, nearly every department has "To protect and serve" in its motto) but without a real interaction between the groups on either side of the blue line that sentiment rings hollow. The problem goes far beyond just a lack of information on criminal activity; when the police force is insulated from the people there is a lack of empathy in both groups and a real lack of understanding of the issues that the other side faces.

Given the generally enlightened attitudes on race, so far removed from just fifty years ago, I cannot imagine that even a predominantly white police force walking the streets of an inner city populated by black people or Hispanics would be unable to reach out and develop a rapport with the people. But this can happen only if the officers can interact face to face with the people. Human interaction should never be underestimated, and it can transform the way people think about each other and the way they act. Conversely, when police and citizens are separated, there is a dehumanizing aspect - think about rap music referring to police as "pigs" - and when forced into confrontation, it is a lot easier to employ lethal force against someone that isn't really seen as a fellow human being. Once the first step of separation is taken, the gap simply widens. Today, even when one encounters police out of their cruisers, there is a lack of interaction. Given that their paths will rarely cross again, neither  the citizens nor the police make much effort to even greet each other more than perfunctorily. When police do respond to a call for their services, they tend to be professional (in the best sense) but there is a lack of human contact in the meeting; we are but statistics, mere numbers in a spreadsheet rather than people. Again, this is not a failing of the officers at a personal level - when given the chance, police officers have reacted with great warmth and sincerity - but the system in which we live today makes such events few and far between. In the end, the best chance one has to meet a police officer today is when one is a victim. Or, sadly, suspected of wrongdoing. Given the relative time we spend not in either role, it's not surprising that we barely know each other. When the only interaction between the police and people is suspected crimes, as is the case for so many young black men, it is hardly surprising that the only emotion between them is suspicion, fear, resentment and anger.

This lack of interaction plays no small role in the other major problem plaguing police-civilian relations, and as I mentioned before, this too is a quintessentially American problem: guns. Now admittedly, I am strongly in favor of gun control and naturally any case involving a shooting death will prompt me to urge greater control of firearms. It seems so self-evident to me that an overabundance of guns, coupled with ever less control on who may carry them or where they may be taken, is the greatest reason that police will react with lethal force in any confrontation. In the case of Ferguson, MO, the police officer has testified that Michael Brown lunged towards him, and he reacted instinctively to protect himself. Leaving aside the possibility that his story is not strictly true, the fact is that a police officer would be not unjustified in suspecting that every person he confronts may be armed and willing to shoot back. When police confront a person, they fear him or her, just as much as the person fears them. Just this past weekend, an officer in Flagstaff, AZ was shot dead when he responded to a domestic violence call. When an officer in Cleveland shot and killed twelve year old Tamir Rice, he was responding to a report of an "armed man"; as it turns out that was a kid with a toy (but realistic looking) gun who refused to obey an order. From the kids viewpoint nothing made sense - a police officer (who he was probably conditioned to distrust) order him to drop his gun and lie flat, as though he he some dangerous criminal. For a young kid on the cusp of becoming a teen, refusing an order would seem the most natural thing in the world. For a policeman, lacking any empathy with the boy he's confronting, who may be armed and dangerous, that refusal was enough to trigger his deadly reaction. No one was wrong and no one was right - but a child died because he had a toy gun.

The fact is police face a danger every minute they are on duty. They are alone, stripped of wingmen - costs and manpower shortages have reduced patrol cars to just one officer per vehicle - so many stops involve two and three cruisers converging on a single vehicle before the police approach. If the person stopped turns violent, the police have little chance to protect themselves from the first strike and hence they respond with measures designed to give themselves some protection, but which are humiliating for those on the receiving end. Now when you add in racial tensions, and a lack of empathy between police and civilians, every move by one is viewed through a hateful prism of distrust and even the smallest, most innocent actions are interpreted in the most negative manner possible.

These are not problems that can be solved easily. Having the same number of police per capita as say France, would involve increasing the total number of officers by fifty percent, a cost increase that is beyond unimaginable. Even were that possible, our sprawling suburbs would make foot patrols impossible and even if we had the men to walk the streets, they would find contact rare; in the inner cities, decades of distrust will not vanish overnight even if we could triple or quadruple the number of officers and worse yet would probably lead to an initial feeling of being invaded and occupied. Guns are so deep a part of American culture that removing them from the equation between police and community is not even worth a thought today. Until America awakens to the consequences of universal gun ownership, nothing will happen, and so far the attitude has pure denial. Meanwhile we will continue to send our police for more training and we will write lengthy directives on the correct protocols for employing deadly force. But our police will remain removed from the community around them, suspicion and distrust will continue and increase, and the next confrontation will end as always - in a death, that whether it's that of a child, a young adult or a police officer is just as tragic.

(On a sidenote: for those who think that more guns would reduce crime and killing consider that two armed officers of the NYPD were shot down before they or anyone else could react. Two trained police officers could not save themselves from a less than emotionally stable civilian; what chance then for a bunch of people who have never trained to react to a shooting situation?)


Some interesting links:
Today more and more police wear body armor while on duty -  http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/lpd07.pdf.
A comparison of police manpower levels around the world -     http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_number_of_police_officers





Friday, December 12, 2014

Forgive Me When I Cry (I Have Legal Status, the World is Mine)

Soon after the President announced his executive action on undocumented immigrants, I came across a thoughtful open letter addressed to the President and seeking answers on behalf of the real forgotten class, viz. legal immigrants. Titled "Mr. President, What About Me?", the letter swoops straight to the question that constantly burns in the minds of legal immigrants. The US system seems oftentimes tilted against those who wait patiently in line, forgotten and ignored while those who throng in without following the rules seem to hog all the attention.

On reflection, though, I realized that the author had made several mistakes, likely in ignorance. It does reflect on the Byzantine immigration laws that even reasonably intelligent persons have little chance of navigating the system without retaining specialized counsel. But one must remember that the American system, most notably its tax laws, treat citizens with the same lack of empathy or reasonableness. The opacity of the immigration system aside, Ms. Godinho has really far fewer complaints than she realizes. She bemoans the ten years spent in the US without reaching the end of the road on citizenship. But for a Portuguese citizen like her, the lines are typically far shorter. Of course, i do not know under which category she applied, but employment based categories tend to be current for everyone except applicants from China, India, Mexico and the Philippines. In other words, she would normally qualify for a permanent residency visa soon after applying. If the process has dragged out longer, it is undoubtedly an indictment of the system's complexity but it would seem that the complexity rather that the actual law has stymied her.

She also mentions the familiar complain that non-permanent immigrants have to periodically visit US consulates outside the territorial borders to obtain a visa stamp. But her use of the term "self-deport" is misleading, even unnecessarily inflammatory. While an undoubted hassle, the requirement is not really that onerous, and till recently, there was an option to obtain the necessary stamp in Washington D.C. rather than travel out the country. That option, like many other conveniences, was swept aside after the terror attacks on the Twin Towers in 2011. However, it is still not necessary to travel outside the US to get the stamp. Rather it is necessary to get one's visa stamp only if one has traveled outside and wishes to return. I have sometimes gone several years without an updated stamp, and get that addressed only when I'm next traveling internationally.

She also mentions the burden on being tied to the employer who initially sponsored her residency visa application. But if she feels so constrained, it maybe out of a misunderstanding of the rules. Not only does she have the option of concurrently remaining on a work visa which can be transferred from one employer to the next, but after clearing all the checks she may apply for a temporary document that would release her from her dependence on an employer.

To be sure, the points I've addressed are still a burden of some magnitude, and I, like any other legal immigrant would welcome any action that eased my path to permanent residency and lifted the Damocles sword of deportation. But that is perhaps the most important point to address in her appeal. The President has actually taken some steps to ease the path for legal immigrants as well. This was a far less publicized aspect of his action, since legal immigrants do not stir emotions in the same way as those who are less welcome, but it exists and we may well see some positive developments in the days ahead. Even if those presidential actions do not yield benefits for me personally, I would be no worse off than I was before, and in reality still better off than those who were granted this so called amnesty.

The fact is, and this is where I strongly disagree with Ms. Godinho, we legal immigrants have always been much better off than those who  are undocumented. We face hassles and irritation in our daily life while seeking the American Dream; those who hike across the southern border face physical hardships and dangers we could scarcely imagine. While we come here to pursue the life we dream of, the undocumented visitors have only the most backbreaking and menial jobs open to them. That magic page in our passport that grants us leave to live here also opens doors to us that remain firmly shut in the face of those lacking it. My wages are regulated against unfair depression, while undocumented residents must work for a pittance and have no recourse. Once it is proved that my skills are unavailable from any US citizen, my employer is required to pay me according to the worth so proved and I can seek a better market for my skills if I'm unhappy with my remuneration; an undocumented worker has no such freedom and all too often they fall victim to unscrupulous employers.

But above and beyond mere dross, my legal status empowers me in a way that an undocumented resident could only dream of having. I can live in any residential community I desire, while they are forced into inferior quarters where landlords ask no questions. They could certainly never hope to own a house, since no bank would be able to extend them credit. More importantly, I am protected by US law and its enforcement services, while the undocumented must skulk in the shadows and avoid all contact with the police, even when they are the victims. That is the cruelest aspect of their life, for the people sworn to protect and heal them are enemies to be avoided on account of the dark secret they bear. When my home was burglarized or when my car was rear-ended, I had not a moment's qualms in calling the police for assistance. Imagine however a life in which even serious injury must be borne in silence, for it is impossible for an undocumented resident to seek aid without risking all they have struggled to achieve. The children of legal visitors are automatically citizens of this country; though the children of undocumented residents enjoy the same status, they are sometimes unable to avail of their rights without endangering the residency of their parents.

My confidence stems from that little slip of paper that bestows upon me the right to live freely here, albeit for a limited time. But in that time, I enjoy all the freedom and rights of my American neighbors, save the right to flip burgers at McDonald's (or other menial low-wage tasks) or waste my vote in a highly partisan political experience. I live, secure in the knowledge that I am on a path of permanent residency here, long and meaningless as it may seem; my undocumented counterparts know that they may never enjoy full status, not even if they live their entire lives here. I may live here, with dignity. That respect may never come to those in the shadows and that, in short, is why I fully support the President's action and do not feel that I have been forgotten. True, I may have been forgotten, but it is because the trials I face in my path are mere irritations and discomforts and barely worth mentioning, while the millions of undocumented residents daily live in fear and hardship. This executive action, while merely a start, at least bestows upon them some security in life and permits them to stand tall and live with the respect and dignity that should be the right of any man or woman, more especially those who live in the USA, no matter how they got here.





Monday, July 7, 2014

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Jihadists?

The Mother Abbess in "The Sound of Music" liked a measured approach to her problem charge, counseling her fellow nuns to accept Maria for what she was. And that turned out really well, as we all know. However, when the problem is not a spontaneous, free-spirited young woman, but a group of blood-thirsty murderous and merciless killers, acceptance is not so much a policy for dealing with them as it is a graceful suicide note. This past couple of months have seen separate groups in different corners of the world showcase their vision for the world around them, and their vision is so terrible that life for those subject to their tender mercies is a worse hell than anything dreamed up by any theologian.

In Nigeria, a group whose name explicitly explains its world view has found worldwide recognition after kidnapping two hundred school girls and threatened to sell them into slavery. (A side note: their threat reveals the very real existence of a slave trade for young women, centered strangely enough on the same Islamic world that so worries about the morals of everyone). Boko Haram (or "Western ways are bad") is determined to impose a highly regressive regime on the vast regions of Nigeria that it currently terrorizes, banning not just the common "ills" like alcohol and gambling, and of course women in public, but also proscribing all modern education presumably because it is seen as "western".

In Iraq and Syria, an equally rabid group has seized control of massive swaths of territory. While the stunning advances in Iraq have been aided by far less fundamentalist allies who have attempted to temper the blood lust of the jihadists, there have already been claims of massacres of those judged not sufficiently pious. While typically such claims would be denied as propaganda of their enemies, in this case the claims are made by the jihadists, complete with videos proudly documenting their actions. It would be unacceptably murderous, but understandable if these were part of a psychological warfare campaign designed to strike fear into government troops and convince them to quit the fight. Unfortunately, while terror is the aim of this group, it seems be mostly a promise of life to come for everyone once they establish their ideal Islamic state. Perhaps nothing is as telling about the nature of this group as the fact that they are considered too fanatical and blood-thirsty by their original inspiration, al Qaida.

While I normally accept the right of every person to follow any religious belief, the determination of the more religious fanatics to impose their beliefs on everyone else is unacceptable. I disagree with any attempt to force one's personal beliefs on one's fellow citizens, even in a relatively benign manner, notwithstanding the opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States. This does raise the delicate question of whether atheists are as guilty of forcing their world view upon people of faith. However while some atheists do occasionally get over-enthusiastic in demanding that their religious brethren open their eyes and embrace rationality, they rarely have the inclination, much less the power to do much more than vocally berate. For all the claims of being beleaguered and oppressed by agnostics and atheists, that usually arises from their frustration at being unable to impose their beliefs on others. Being prevented from opening public meetings with prayers is not oppression of the faithful, it's protecting all other sects including non-believers from the oppression of the majority faith. Similarly demanding, even insisting that science classes teach evolution as the accepted theory and give no time to malarkey like Creationism is not in any way a denial of religious rights, it simply insists that science classes be devoted to science and not to religion.

I discussed this question at length, because it is critical to distinguish between those who demand the right to live their beliefs and those who understand that right as a carte blanche to run roughshod over the rights of others. Most religious groups believe that they have a unique knowledge of the unknowable (their own way of seeing it, really since history has a habit of rendering the mysterious unknowable remarkably mundane). They have every right and freedom to their smug self-importance, and even to tell us non-believers about the everlasting torture that awaits us post-death. Unfortunately however, when faced with skepticism, the faithful prefer to use force to convince those who would shrug off well-meaning attempts to save their souls.

The big difference is that while the more mature religion of the West, and the less insistent religions of the East refrain from overt coercion, newer (comparatively speaking, by some seven hundred years) Islam has yet to learn restraint. While the majority of Islamic people would undoubtedly prefer to live in peace and leave the judgment of the world to the all-powerful god they believe in, and even the small minority who would force their view mostly push a more inclusive attitude. The truly violent groups like Boko Haram, the Taliban, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and al Qaida and its many offshoots represent a small, even miniscule, minority that will commit any violence, any atrocity to further their dream of an Islamic state that conforms to their twisted vision.

It is easy to ridicule the central pillar of their belief - if they truly believe in such a powerful god, why does he need them to act with such great violence, and why do non-believers need to be killed as quickly as possible, when there is all of eternity left for their god to mete out judgement - but neither logic nor ridicule is likely to sway such fanatics. Filled with absolute belief in their mission, they will never hear anything that would conflict with their vision. Even of that small group of fanatics, most of them are young and impressionable, led into a life of violence and murder by a tiny number of older leaders. Whether these leaders truly believe in the hatred and venom they spew or whether they are the ultimate cynics is impossible to say, though it is hard to understand how any man could be so scared of a fourteen year old girl as to order her death for speaking out for education; or how anyone who claims to be serving a higher power can justify enslaving hundreds of young girls for the "crime" of being in school; or how there can be any justification for the near daily murder of hundreds of their fellow humans, and even fellow Muslims, in the name of liberating them. 

All this begs the question: how do you neutralize this threat and stop their mindless violence? It is extremely difficult, when they are prepared to kill anyone and everyone in their path, and at least amongst the lower level fighters, are ready to sacrifice their lives readily if they can take their perceived enemies with them. Most ideologues hope to enjoy the world they fashion and that means that they are both interested in living to see their efforts succeed and that they may be willing to compromise and accept a lesser version of their dream if faced with determined resistance; these  jihadists however are willing to die willingly and there is no way to prove to them that their dream of eternal  bliss is but a foolish dream and neither force nor reason will deter them. There are many who would argue that the only way to stop them is to kill them all. Though I consider myself for most part a liberal, there are times when I wonder if that is the only available path. When these misguided fighters wage war on the innocent and defenseless, when they would enslave (literally!) women and kill girls who dare to pursue education, when they would destroy everyone who does not adhere to their own twisted ideas, it seems that ultimate force is the only way to truly stop their murderous journey.

Perhaps. Perhaps, sadly, for many of the young and angry youth who form their violent corps, there is no way to stop them in time. Some of these youth have never known any world but the world of hate and weening them from that savage dream is likely impossible. But it is critical to note just how few that number really is. These jihadists number in the thousands, at most, while there are over a billion Muslims in the world. In not one single theater of war do they command a majority, either in numbers or even in support. Why then are they able to produce so massive an effect? True, they are usually the most brutal and most fanatical in support of their cause. But the environment that they spring from is in the end the answer, both to their inception and their neutralizing. In most cases they come from societies that lack liberal education, openness and a respect for the rule of law or the right to peaceful dissent. Those that come from the Muslim communities of the West have faced a mixture of distrust outside and confusion within themselves, and that mixture has made them vulnerable to simplistic answers. It is telling that the Nigerian Islamic terrorists virtually rule massive swathes of the country because for all their brutality and madness, they still provide a better government than the official rulers.

Education and good government are the main weapons that would defeat the terrorists. These are not the kind of weapons that turn the battle overnight, but if the masses of the Islamic world have governments that they can trust, and critically that can act on information without brutality or repression, those millions of ordinary people would ignore the preachers of fanaticism aside. Starved of followers and money, the most virulent strain of jihadism would weaken and collapse. While this may seem simplistic and to and extent is so, consider two cases where the most rabid strains of Islam have failed to establish any deep roots - Bosnia and India. Bosnia's Muslims found themselves under attack from Serbia (and Christians at that), yet their nation has remained relatively quiet, and peaceful; all the more amazing when you consider the extremism that has been seen on every side, from Western Europe to the Middle East to the Caucasus. In India, a Muslim minority lives in relative harmony with a Hindu majority, giving lie to the idea that Muslim minorities are a recipe for disaster. Undoubtedly, there have been outbreaks of violence in India; but the critical factor is the lack of extremism within that Muslim community. This stands in especial contrast to the violence that wracks neighboring Pakistan, a nation created as a refuge for Muslims.


The lesson of India and Pakistan is perhaps the most important ever. A Muslim community, closely entwined with its liberal host, aware that there is a brighter future for its children through education and growth eschews the violent dreams and twisted paths of a Muslim majority that for all its religious freedom has neither real freedom nor any future worth living for in this life. Is it then surprising that they seek a path that promises happiness beyond the grave?

In the end,  there are few easy answers and no silver bullets in combating this scourge. But violence begets violence and every forceful act against the crazy minority will risk shaking an undecided few that their way of life is under attack, and will line up to replace the "martyred" fools. Focusing instead on the small steps that would stem the flow of new fighters will go far further in ending this madness. As Abraham Lincoln so eloquently said, "I defeat my enemy when I make him my friend." We do not bow down to the jihadist madness, but we should look instead to choke off their supply of rubes.




Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Risks of Great Expectations

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The Indian elections of 2014 may well have been unique in the history of that young nation and ancient country and marked an epochal change in its politics. For the first time, at least one of the major political parties sought a democratic mandate based on a straightforward policy of economic progress. Indian elections have been fought on policy before, contrary to general perception, but the policy has usually bordered on the populist and vacuous - promises of social engineering and glorious temples that served to fire up certain sections of the electorate while explicitly leaving significant other sections worse off. This time, the Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP) pushed their more divisive policies to the background and promoted an all-out message of economic development for all. Unlike past promises of prosperity, this was a message that did not promise free electricity or cancellation of loans - both ideas have been presented numerous times before by parties of all stripes with predictably terrible results when fulfilled; rather it promised a vision of economic development for everyone, with the implicit suggestion that every Indian would be free to pursue their dream of a better life.

Unique as that approach was in Indian politics, the real surprise was the whole-hearted embrace of it by the electorate. Cutting across the traditional divides of Indian polity, blurring the lines between various caste and ethnic groups, Indians across the nation bought into the idea that they could in fact enjoy a better tomorrow. The Indian electorate has usually proved a lot more sophisticated and perspicacious than they are given credit for, so perhaps the rejection of politics as usual should not really shock observers. But the level to which they rejected the tired ideas of the old political order and jumped aboard the BJP train is a surprise - they have given a single party an outright majority for the first time in twenty-five years, ending the incessant mess of unprincipled coalition politics. Undoubtedly the BJP were assisted by the erstwhile ruling Indian National Congress Party which squandered every bit of goodwill extended to it in past elections and produced a primer on how to misrule a nation and set new lows in corruption, all while treating the nation with contempt that would have made Nero proud. With a level of disconnect that bordered on the comedic, they misread every signal of the changing mood in India and attempted to fight an election of ideas and policy with a badly tarnished brand and the tired feudal approach of yesteryear. Unsurprisingly they ended up crashing to the worst defeat ever and the BJP ascended to unprecedented heights of power and popularity.

This is not the largest election mandate in Indian history, not by a long shot. But prior victories of similar proportions were driven by events that ended up skewing the results by large margins - the sympathy for Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 following his mother's assassination in office, the sympathy that followed his assassination in 1989 that propelled his party back to power, the highly divisive politics of caste and religion that lifted the BJP to its first position of power at the end of the last century. This was the first time that a major party sought a mandate on a purely economic agenda and was rewarded for it.

Yet, in that mandate are the disturbing risks that if not ably managed could upend India and make the chaos of the early 90s seem downright peaceful. The nation has bought into the idea that he can replicate at the national level the economic boom that he presided over as Chief Minister of the state of Gujurat, and they have invested heavily in that assumption by voting so strongly for him. Make no mistakes, the belief that Mr. Modi can bring prosperity to all of India was a major factor in his electoral success, an idea that he did much to perpetuate. But the question is whether he can in fact work an economic miracle for all of India and lift twelve hundred million people out of poverty. India is a large and complex nation, and massive swarths of the country are stuck in almost the dark ages in terms of infrastructure. Half the country lacks access of drinking water or modern sanitation; those that enjoy that access still live with intermittent water supply and near constant power shortages. Despite plenty of bombast, roads are pitifully inadequate - potholes are the least of one's worries when traveling the so-called highways. Median separated highways that crisscross every developed nation are few and far between; an utter lack of discipline amongst the driving public reduces even those few real roads to chaos. Corruption is more than a problem, it is a way of life and even those who bemoan it most loudly are often more than willing to indulge it when it suits their personal needs. The Indian State and its executive arm have yet to throw off their colonial approach to government and much of the power of the State is directed against its own people.

This then is the nation that the BJP and their leader Narendra Modi inherits. How does it compare to the state he ruled since 2002? Gujarat while not the most progressive state, has historically been fairly well-developed. At the risk of stereotyping, the Gujaratis are amongst the most entrepreneurial in India, and have long been in the foremost ranks of business leaders. In 2000, after decades of litigation, the massive Sardar Sarovar Dam and Narmada Canal project were green-lighted and the dam was commissioned in 2006. The economic stimulus to the state of Gujarat cannot be underestimated, with almost eighteen thousand square kilometers of drought-prone land brought under irrigation and fifteen hundred megawatts of power generating capacity. Mr. Modi and his state government had nothing to do with making this happen; the project had been conceived before 1980 and successive governments had sought to make it reality; Mr. Modi was fortunate enough to be the Chief Minister when the benefits became available. He will not enjoy anything like the same good fortune as leader of a much bigger, more complex, more factitious and undoubtedly much poorer (per capita) nation.

To be fair to the man, he may well have maximized the advantage and above all did nothing to impede the natural ingenuity and productiveness of his people. It is possible that he will find the means to unlock the potential of all of India. But the greater risk is that he will find it much harder to deliver the kind of prosperity India longs for and that the challenges of delivering development to all of India (significant parts of which are only nominally under the control of the State) will prove beyond his, or anybody's skills. It's not that it is absolutely impossible to deliver on progress; rather it is the timeframe that will be so difficult. When expectations are sky high, people tend to expect that they will be met earlier rather than later. There is a grace period, but it is short and Mr. Modi faces the challenge of managing those high expectations. He does not need to turn everybody into millionaires, he just needs to improve their lives.

But to do this will mean overcoming massive inertia at every level of the State. Not every Indian wants him to succeed (his political rivals, obviously, especially those who have preferred a feudal form of government). There are going to be those who find themselves on the losing side of the equation, for even economic growth is not a win-win game, and they will have far greater reason to oppose him forcefully than the rest of electorate have to rally behind him, even if they supported him today. And given that India is in desperate need of a huge overhaul of it's approach to corruption, at some point Mr. Modi will have to make some decisions that will be unpopular in a great many places. And always, those who have something to lose, or have some grievance are more driven to act and protect their interests than those who are busy reaping the benefits.

The danger lies not so much in a failure to deliver on his promises, per se. After all, if Mr. Modi failed to live up to expectations, India would seek someone new at their next election. But political leaders do not suffer to go quietly to defeat, and if Mr. Modi's party finds their unpopularity rising on the back of failed expectations, they may revert to other political ideas that have served them well before. Even now there is a faction of the party that would see the mandate to deliver prosperity as a great opportunity to revisit older promises, such as a plan to build a grand temple on the ruins of a recently destroyed mosque (which probably stood on the ruins of a destroyed temple), though such an act would be a clear slap in the face of India's considerable Muslim minority and be perceived as a threat to the entire idea of the secular state. Yet, when political fortunes wane, lesser leaders are willing to loose the evils of Pandora's Box upon the world if it buys them a few moments more at the helm.

If Mr. Modi and his party face a disenchanted electorate, there will be a strong temptation to tear at the scabs of sectarian conflict. Mr. Modi has already presided over a violent reaction against Muslims before, and while he maintains that he did not encourage attacks on Muslims (and has been held blameless by inquiry commissions) his responses have also a certain unwholesome vagueness, an unwillingness to deplore the violence that occurred, and a tendency to downplay the scale of violence. Should he face an unfavorable political climate, will he revert to a less suave version of himself and seek to bolster his support amongst a smaller group at the expense of the nation? I hope not, and
People are not wholly unreasonable, and Indians are possessed of an almost legendary patience, bordering on apathetic. I believe that if Mr. Modi can deliver even a down payment on his promises, Indians will recognize his effort and extend him additional time. And hopefully, Mr. Modi will recognize that the only way to rule all of India is to present a vision for all of India. A better life and a better tomorrow means far more to more people than the grandest temple in Ayodyah. The challenge now is for Mr. Modi to manage expectations and work towards delivering on his implicit promise of that better tomorrow. And for his to remember what truly makes a better tomorrow.

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.