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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.

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?