Strike on Iran in the Works?

Der Spiegel reports that American officials have been briefing NATO countries, particularly Turkey, on possible military action against Iran's nuclear program. (I can't get data to load from the Der Spiegel site, but here is a piece from Captain Ed with extensive quotes and commentary.)

That this is being publicly discussed strongly suggests that the attack is not imminent. Rather, this is a way to signal to Iran that the time for games has passed. Iran seems to have gotten the message, suddenly agreeing last week to let Russia process their uranium fuel instead of doing it themselves, as they previously were dead-set to do. I doubt that their own enrichment program will shut down entirely, but Iran will probably try to keep it off the radar for the time being. At least until they think they can get away with it again.

I am still pessimistic. Barring a fundamental change of Iranian government, I think any leader will be too strongly tempted by their nearly complete nuclear program to restrain themselves for long. But assuming that the mullahs regain their sanity, we may have just pushed off the day of reckoning for a time. Or, we may have finally decided to lay it on the line, which is probably better in the long run.


Imperial Grunts

I apologize for the light blogging lately; we're going into final exams here at school. But if you read nothing else today, read this interview of Robert D. Kaplan by Hugh Hewitt. Kaplan has spent the last few years writing "Imperial Grunts," about the soldiers on the front line of American power around the globe (hat tip: Instapundit). There is so much good stuff in this interview that I couldn't possibly capture it in a few quotes, but just to get you started:
RK: Yes, one of the things that I think really kind of unnerved the elite, is that while there are all these conferences and discussions in Washington and elsewhere about should we support Afghan warlords or not, should we create an Afghan national army or not, what should our foreign policy be in Yemen or Colombia or in Iraq. I discovered a world of basically working-class people, who were operationally far more sophisticated and knowledgeable about all these issues, who spoke languages, who had personalities that didn't fit into any one neat division. They were evangelical, but they spoke two exotic languages. People like that who...so while all these discussions are taking place, foreign policy is being enacted on the ground by majors and sergeants and lieutenants, who are utterly oblivious to most of these discussions. And you know what? They're doing these things very, very well.

RK: Yes, and it's also...you know, people say America's imperialist. It's bad because it's in Iraq. Actually, Iraq is a perversion of intelligent imperialism, rather than an accurate expression of it, because the British and the French and the others were at their best when they had small numbers of troops training host country militaries, so that the British were not overextended financially, or in any other sense. And so American military influence works best when we have the least...when our military footprint on the ground is the smallest. I've seen one man accomplish miracles in Mongolia. I've seen dozens do great work in Algeria this past summer when I was working for Volume II. I've seen hundreds do great work in the Phillipines and Colombia, where treading water with ten thousand or so in Afghanistan, and 150,000, whatever one's views on Iraq, does constitute a mess.

HH: I had very little grasp of how insidious the Abu Saaef guerillas are. Are you an optimist about the Philipines?

RK: Not really. I'm not a pessimist, either. I think that the Philipines will be a more accurate barometer for the U.S.' ability to manage the world, than Iraq will be, because we've been involved in the Philipines going back a hundred years. We invaded the country. We fought a long, difficult counter-insurgency there a hundred years ago. We developed the country. There's strong ties with the U.S. and the Philipines islands. But there's very few other places where the Chinese are more active now, trying to displace us.

HH: Oh, how so? Explain to people—

RK: Yeah, so the Philipines is the ultimate barometer to kind of—the relative power between the United States and China in the coming decade.

RK: Absolutely. Absolutely. In fact, the military now, another tactical frustration they have in Iraq, is they say where is the State Department. We want desperately to hand over responsibility to USAID, the State Department. Now, the State Department may be an unhealthy agency. It may be in desperate need of reform. The military knows it can do a better job than these civilian government departments. And yet nevertheless, they are very uncomfortable with their expanding role.
As they say, read the whole thing.


The Lure of the Strong Man

Caroline Glick has a must-read piece in the Jerusalem Post examining the platform of Ariel Sharon's new political party, Kadima—or the lack of same:
…Kadima is not a political party at all. It is merely a list of unpopular politicians who stand behind the enormously popular Ariel Sharon….

What is the basis for the wide public support for Kadima - a party that places among its leaders such despised political figures as Shimon Peres, Ehud Olmert, Haim Ramon and Dalia Itzik?

Kadima has two main sources of public support. First, with his strongman image, Sharon has convinced wide swathes of the public that he and he alone can ensure the security of Israel's citizenry. In so convincing the populace, Sharon has divested the Likud of its greatest asset: its reputation for being the political party best equipped to secure Israel's national security.

The second reason that Kadima is polling so well is Sharon himself. Sharon's many supporters, who are currently giving Kadima between 32-42 Knesset seats in opinion polls, are undaunted by the criminal investigations surrounding Sharon and his sons. They couldn't care less that his strong-armed political tactics make a mockery of Israel's democratic processes. Sharon's supporters are moved by the sense that Sharon can get things done.
Let us avoid asking whether such a perception is accurate (as Glick acidly notes: "Since taking office five years ago, Sharon has received Washington's support—such as it is—by abandoning Israel's national interests every time that they are challenged by the institutionally anti-Israel State Department"). Sharon's political manner has long been described, metaphorically, as "dictatorial." As time passed, that description has become much less metaphorical. During the Gaza pullout debacle, Sharon ignored the advice of the IDF, fired the Chief of Staff and the head of military intelligence for daring to disagree with him, and dissolved his cabinet. He ignored the results of a Likud referrendum that decisively rejected the pullout, claiming that such a vote did not reflect the desires of Israel as a whole; he then refused to hold a national referrendum, despite the incalculable damage this caused to Israeli civil society.

He declared Gaza a closed military zone, and had peaceful protesters within Israel proper arrested by executive fiat (just one of the fringe benefits of ruling a country without a constitution). Sharon did this all while he's been under constant suspicion of financial corruption. Now, he seems to have built a political coalition that amounts to little more than a personality cult.

My partner in crime Mitch, who first referred me the above article, commented, "Sharon's running on a platform of fascism." I see no reason to disagree. Israel has thus far been able to escape the worst pitfalls of a political environment swarming with former generals, but only because those generals have been fundamentally willing to accede to the wishes of the electorate, eventually. Not so Sharon. He is a man with a plan, and that plan is staying in office no matter what gets in his way. It is fortunate indeed that he has alienated the IDF as badly as he has, so we need not worry about an actual coup d'etat; but he is using all the raw power of his office to frustrate his political opponents, crippling Israeli society and Israeli security in the process.

At this point, I don't care who defeats Sharon, just that Sharon is defeated. Israel's political arena has long been constricted by the difficulties inherent in permanent war; but as Israel has grown more secure, its politics should have become more open and more just. The opposite has happened. Now, Israel is in serious danger of becoming a banana republic, and we cannot allow that to happen.


Options Writeoffs: See Under "Sweetheart Deal"

In the course of researching a proposal on ways to balance the budget, I came across a piece by the decidedly liberal Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy called "Corporate Tax Incomes in the Bush Years." While it contains a good deal of misleading material, the main point is valid and worth paying attention to: the largest companies often take advantage of tax policies they helped influence in order to dramatically cut down their taxes, in ways that smaller firms cannot. I am not quite as outraged about the situation as the authors of the study; some of the policies they object to have valuable economic effects, and one in particular (accelerated depreciations) was strictly temporary and has already expired.

But many tax credits and writeoffs are unjustified, indefensible, and implicitly shift the tax burden onto small businesses and individuals for dubious benefits. Tonight I will pick on just one such writeoff, the one on exercised options.

When a company issues stock options to its employees, the strike price for those options is often well below the actual price of the stock. This is especially true for executives, who can often pick up shares at half price or less. Many companies use options, so goes the theory, to encourage employees to work for the general good of the company by tying compensation to the stock price. More often, options are employed for their stupendous tax benefits.

When the option is exercised, the option-holder purchases stock for less than market price—often considerably less. This could, in theory, depress the market price in response, especially if there are a large pool of unexercised options out there to scare away traders. Somehow our enlightened lawmakers took this idea and produced our current law: when an employee exercises a company-provided option, the company itself gets a tax writeoff equal to the difference between the strike price and the market price of the stock!

That was a bit jargon-heavy. Consider this example, which should be easier to understand:

Employee A works for XYZ company. Instead of paying A a salary of $100,000, they pay him $50,000 cash and 10 option contracts for XYZ stock which give him the right to purchase 1,000 shares of stock at $50 per share. The stock trades at $100, so he can exercise the options, immediately sell his shares on the open market, and come out with $100,000 anyway.

What's the difference? The actual salary is smaller, decreasing payroll taxes and the like. And because selling the shares on the open market depressed the price a tiny bit, XYZ can claim a tax writeoff on the $50 difference in price (i.e. $50,000) to make up for the "damage" to its market capitalization!

To be fair, often the stock options are sold back to the company for cash, in which case the writeoff bears some relationship to reality. But the writeoff is good even if the options are redeemed on the open market, and in any case the whole arrangement is often used to duck taxes and for no other reason. Now, I'm all for using the tax code to encourage behavior seen to benefit the state, within reason. But this sort of symbolic paper-juggling has no practical benefits, absorbs a great deal of time and effort for the involved parties, and has no general benefit that justifies tax advantages—especially when those companies not wealthy enough to issue stock must struggle along as best they can.

Can anyone tell me why the government should be encouraging the use of stock options as de facto salary instruments?


Quote of the Day

Engineering is very different from physics.

A good physicist is a man with original ideas.

A good engineer is a man who makes a design that works with as few original ideas as possible.
—Freeman Dyson


Of Souls and Cyborgs

I recently finished Charles Stross's Accelerando, available in printed form or online in its entirety. If you have a free weekend, do read it. Stross examines some of the implications of a world in which biology and machinery increasingly diverge, and the human body rapidly becomes obsolete. By the end of the book, all the main characters are essentially digital copies of themselves housed in new bodies, with some characters making several copies of themselves at one time. The human race, such as it is, is desperately trying to stay ahead of their computerized posthuman descendants, who are relentlessly converting all the matter of the Solar System into server space.

Only tangentially does Stross consider the soul, and what would happen to it. The death of characters' original bodies is considered of no intrinsic importance; more than that, nowhere does Stross ask why the survival of humanity is important, given that humanity per se is soon replaced by perfect "personality copies" housed in artifical bodies. The biological imperative is gone; for mechanical beings, any spiritual imperative must be gone as well. So why bother?

This is perhaps the greatest gift of the approaching Singularity, and the greatest curse. Humanity is forced to confront the question that much of it has studiously avoided asking: what is our purpose? What function does humanity serve? What goal must sapient beings aim for? And how much of that is dependent on your physical makeup?

I believe that the soul is a crucial part of the human being. (I tend to associate the soul with top-down control of the brain, as opposed to bottom-up control that originates on the cellular level.) If you spawn a perfect clone with your memories, does it get its own soul or does yours split in two? Can an uploaded mind have a soul? If not, what would that mean for the dreams of the transhumanists?

Can one manipulate spiritual energies with an artificial body, or an artificial brain? For most people, the question is to all appearences academic. Yet everyone has some tie to the higher realms, whether or not it is conscious. Could that tie be severed by excessive mechanization, and would the cyborg in question still be human?

Odd as it sounds, the only way I can imagine resolving the questions about the soul and consciousness is through experimentation. (I have this image of the first hard-core cyborg standing in a big white room, surrounded by Kabbalists and Qigong practicioners scribbling on notepads…) But that does little to solve the larger questions about purpose. Such questions are way above my pay grade, of course. But I think that as our power over the body itself becomes greater and greater, the world must come to a better understanding of the spiritual so that it can better fathom what the costs might be.

This is a time of great upheaval. Those of us who live for good have an obligation to develop our own spiritual strength, for the world desperately needs a stronger flow of Divine energy. This does not mean that we should all go off to a cave and meditate for twelve years, as did R' Shimon bar Yochai; but neither can we ignore the spiritual entirely. For soon, we may be offered physical immortality, at the price of the spiritual. My intuition is that transhumans would be spiritually damaged; I hope that I am wrong, and would be overjoyed if I were. But for us to know, we must first learn what the spiritual is.


Quote of the Day

Pacifist: A person or group that willfully refuses to see a fundamental moral distinction between those persons, groups, or political entities that behave as predatory animals, and those persons, groups, and political communities who are compelled to raise a hand in their own defense.
Leslie Bates


Idolatries of the Muwahhidoun (Updated)

Last Shabbat, I stayed with the Jewish chaplain of West Point, Rabbi Huerta, a true gentleman and scholar. He has served two tours of duty in Iraq, and is studying Arabic to better understand the political situation. During our conversation he mentioned something I had never heard before about Wahhabi Islam; the Wahhabis are hyperliteral in their reading of the Qur'an, surpassing even the Jewish Karaites of the Tenth Century. Their literal reading goes so far as to say that if the Qur'an speaks of "the hand of Allah," then Allah must have a hand, an actual physical hand.

Indeed, Rabbi Huerta possessed books of Wahhabi commentaries stating that anyone who did not believe in a physical, tangible God was a heretic and an apostate.

This explains many things about our enemy. First, they are so cavalier about murdering those who we perceive to be fellow Muslims because they are not truly "fellow Muslims" at all; to the Wahhabi, those from the more traditional Islamic communities are heretics deserving of death. Second is their astonishing emphasis on Paradise as a place of sexual excess. To the typical religious mind, sex is as irrelevant to the afterlife as suntan lotion is to a deep-sea diver; the afterlife is a world of the spirit, far removed from the physical. But if you believe (as the Wahhabis do) that Allah has a physical form, then surely the afterlife must be physical as well; therefore, it will be marked with the most sublime experiences available on the physical level, i.e. sex, hallucinogens, and delicious foods.

Moreover, it becomes easier to understand how Wahhabi Islam can be so devoid of the Judaic spirit that is found, in some measure, in both Christianity and traditional Islam. Wahhabis are unconcerned with the spiritual world; for them, the realm of action is entirely the physical. This must be the source of their characteristic impatience with opposing groups. If you believe, as we Jews do, that setbacks in the physical realm can be offset by spiritual efforts, at a time when your physical adversaries are too strong to be challenged directly you will focus your attention on good deeds, charity, scholarship, internal cohesion, and all the myriad ways in which you can shape the spiritual battlefield, as it were, in your favor; patience and prudence will eventually win the day. But for a Wahhabi, the war can never pause, only change form. And none of their deeds are intended to have abstract effects, but are relentlessly practical and geared toward the political realm.

Note that the Sufis, skilled mystics whose practices influenced Maimonides and his descendants, are viscerally hated by Wahhabis.

We must realize two things about our enemy. First, Wahhabism is as fundamentally different from the old Islam as Christianity was from Judaism, if in a different manner. Though both depend on the same text, the Qur'an, Wahhabism's reading of the text diverges sharply enough from Islamic tradition to effectively make it a new religion entirely. And Wahhabism promotes a rigid adherence to ceremonial law on the one hand, and a frighteningly sloppy view of interpersonal law on the other, compared to traditional Islam. To lump the two together and call both Islam is to be complicit in the destruction of one of the world's monotheisms, for the original Islam will be destroyed in the end unless steps are taken.

Second, Wahhabism is ultimately a pagan religion. I mean this in the Jewish sense of the term, meaning that Wahhabism's belief in a physical deity is repugnant and violates the Noahide code under which all mankind is bound. Under the law, those who practice this abomination must either repent or be suppressed by the courts, by any means necessary including the death penalty.

In a free country, this is to some degree academic. But even if we prefer to allow the free exercise of religion, we have no obligation to allow foreign states like Saudi Arabia to actively promote a new religion that preaches violent war against the West. They call it Islam not only to gain internal legitimacy but external as well; we would be far less tolerant if Scientology started advocating terror bombings. Yet the situation today is functionally equivalent; and Saudi Arabia must be restrained, with force if need be. We must realize the stakes, and react accordingly, or else we will see unending war to the death.

All of which raises the question: why are most Muslims so quietly accepting a descent into paganism?

[UPDATE 19 Dec: Soccer Dad sent me an email in which he noted a disagreement between two prominent Jewish medieval commentators, Maimonides and the Ra'avad, about the belief in a corporeal God. Maimonides says that such a belief is heretical; the Ra'avad says that such a belief is wrong, but not actual heresy in the legal sense.]


Back From West Point

Tonight I came back from attending my cousin's graduation from West Point and commissioning. He is now a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army. Damn, I'm so proud of him. Godspeed and good luck, Lieutenant, in all that you do.

The whole event was amazing, and I'll have a lot to say about it once all the experiences have a chance to digest.

On another note, thank you so much to all of my loyal readers who voted for me in the Weblog Awards. I ended up seventh out of fifteen in my class, which is not too shabby. And congratulations to everyone else who was nominated.


If This is What Multilateralism Does…

More linking today. If you don't read Captain's Quarters regularly, you should. Today's link is to a post demonstrating just how thoroughly NATO has FUBAR'ed its mission in Afghanistan. Remember that we turned the deployment over to NATO to be more multilateral; now, several member nations are pulling out, the Netherlands has the audacity to ask for American "security" for their contingent, and the Germans have been utterly negligent in their efforts to train Afghan police. Read it all.


In Defense of the Death Penalty

Blogging will be light in the next week or so, as research papers and the play are both causing a time crunch. In the meanwhile, read this post by Captain Ed, an opponent of the death penalty, in which he posts the argument of a prosecutor for the death penalty's value. He also links to a study by the Brookings Institution's Cass Sunstein, of all people, suggesting that each execution deters eighteen murders, as a "conservative estimate."


The Storm Approaches

Israel prepares to attack Iran's nuclear sites.

Reasonable people could tell years ago that it would come to this. The UN has proved as feckless as we knew it would be, and the United States is tied down by political concerns.

War is coming. Weep, and pray, and look to your weapons.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Whiners

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With the release of the first movie installment of the Chronicles of Narnia has come a blizzard of articles bemoaning and/or celebrating the Christian content (a good roundup can be found here). Polly Toynbee of the Guardian goes so far as to write that "Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion."

The amusing aspect of all the teeth-gnashing is that compared to the later books in the series, "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" is remarkably tame on the religious front. Yes, there is a great deal of Christian imagery, but it seems clear that it is in service to the story, and not the other way around. In particular, Aslan is very much not the divine figure that he becomes in the later books. Let us examine his portrayal:

The first mention of Aslan is by Mr. Beaver on pg. 64, who says that he is "on the move," perhaps "already landed." In other words, he arrived in Narnia by ship; his mode of travel seems to be physical. Later in the story, Susan and Lucy travel on Aslan's back to the castle of the White Witch, and while they move quickly indeed there is nothing about the journey that is supernatural.

The Beavers are both adamant that Aslan is "a lion—the lion" (pg. 75), in sharp contrast to later portrayals (see below). When we finally see Aslan at the Stone Table, he appears an exceptionally powerful figure, physically and magically, but otherwise unremarkable in the sense that he is not qualitatively different from the White Witch or any other magical being.

A similar portrayal is found (if memory serves) in the second book, "Prince Caspian." There is one major difference, in that he can only be seen by those who are worthy; likely the transformation of Aslan in C.S. Lewis's thinking has already begun.

By the third book, "Voyage of the Dawn Treader," Aslan has become very different. Several times he assumes different shapes, especially an albatross and a Lamb (with a capital L!). He manifests himself in visitations, for example when Lucy reads through the Book of Many Spells; and most of all, the dialogue at the edge of the world between Aslan and the children draws explicit parallels with Jesus. Aslan has morphed into a Christian divinity.

This treatment gets stronger in the later books, culminating in the Armageddon of "The Last Battle." The patronizing dismissal by the warhorse Bree ("A Horse and his Boy") of a physical Aslan, and Bree's speedy humiliation, recalls Lewis's discussion of tapioca pudding in his essay "Miracles." Surely by the end, Lewis saw his series as a way to communicate matters of theology.

In comparison, it seems clear that Book 1 was indeed simply a fairy-tale built on Christian mythological elements. And to be honest, even if one chooses to associate it with the much more overt novels in the rest of the series, it doesn't warrant the incredible invective spilled by the atheists, not does it warrant the all-consuming devotion of certain Christian groups. The Chronicles of Narnia are fun stories, no more. One can easily enjoy them, as I do, without taking off for the nearest baptismal font.

That the making of a single movie must be the focal point of all this sturm und drang is more worthy of notice. Why must religious movies be stigmatized in this way? What are people afraid of?


Quote of the Day

May You [God] bless Israel… in every season and time with Your peace.
—Last blessing of the Standing Prayer, liturgy of the Ashkenazim (European Jews)

May You [God] bless Israel… with great strength, and with peace.
—Last blessing of the Standing Prayer, liturgy of the Adat haMizrach (Middle-Eastern Jews)


The Lower Half of the Laffer Curve

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As an idea, the Laffer Curve is simple and elegant. Raising taxes along a continuum from 0% to 100% will discourage legal economic activity by changing the cost/benefit analysis. Logically, if a 10% tax rate would raise X amount of revenue, then a 20% rate will raise somewhat less than the expected 2X because of the dampening effects of taxation. At a certain point, higher taxes will actually decrease revenues; at the margin, one may expect zero revenue for a 100% tax rate.

The tricky part when determining budget policy is figuring where exactly we are on the Laffer Curve.

The argument given by supply-siders is that when we cut taxes, we will actually achieve a net increase in tax revenues. Yet this is only true if the current tax rate is above the maximizing point T on the linked graph. Similarly, while any reasonable tax cut will stimulate the economy to a degree, a cut from 5% to 4% will have much less effect that a cut from 50% to 40%. The converse is that raising taxes will indeed increase tax revenue, so long as you remain below point T (though the increase may not be worth the long-term damage to the economy, depending on the tax rate).

At a presentation I saw over the summer by a member of the Heritage Foundation, he admitted that Heritage has not actually tried plotting specific taxation rates to specific points on the Laffer Curve. It seems to me that we have enough data on changes in tax policy, not only here but around the world, to at least make a rudimentary attempt at it; that Heritage has not done so makes me suspect that our present rates are indeed below point T, and that the nonspecific idea of the Laffer Curve is thus more powerful than hard data as a way to advance tax cuts.

Indeed, Congress's Joint Committee on Taxation published a report on the effects of the recent tax cuts on the economy and Federal revenues. They found that between 5% and 25% of the "cost" of the tax cut would be recouped by increased economic activity, nowhere close to a net gain.

That is not to say necessarily that we should not be cutting taxes, but that we need to be more judicious about which taxes we cut. We need to look for anomalous taxation rates that truly stand in the way of economic growth, such as our absurd corporate tax rates, rather than slashing the personal rates. Given our increasing debt, right now we should be focusing on balancing the budget. Yes, that means cutting spending, but we can no longer pretend that cutting taxes is cost-free.


I Confess

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My fellow finalist Sensible Mom has tagged me to play the blogging game, "I Confess." And since confession is the first step towards repentance, here goes…

I confess… to not praying anywhere near as often as I should. Not because I don't think it's important, but because I never get around to it. Ironically enough, I was most consistent during the summer when I dormed at Georgetown. Not many Orthodox Jews get the chance to pray consistently on a Jesuit campus, I imagine.

I am pretty consistent about saying the Blessing for the Torah; and I recite Psalm 121 almost every day. It's a personal favorite.

I confess… to sometimes using my disability to get out of physical work. This is counterbalanced by my pride and desire not to be limited by my disability; on one memorable occasion during our Philmont backpack, my brother used this pride against me when I was slacking off, with devastating results. Sneaky devil, him.

I confess… to jointly owning original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons manuals by Gary Gygax. This was a late enough revision that races and classes were already separate, but well before 2nd Edition. They were gifts from a dear friend of the family when my brother and I were growing up, who I haven't heard from in years.

I confess… that I simply despise small-talk. I can talk for hours about things, but I am congenitally incapable of simply talking for the sake of talking. As you can imagine, this makes socializing difficult. On that topic…

I confess… that when I am among girls, I can feel myself giving off a powerful vibe of I am completely out of my element. It's an amazingly effective repellant; I just might license the patent to Coleman for use against mosquitos.

I confess… to chronically being in the middle of half a dozen projects, one of which is a book which is getting progressively less muddled with each aborted draft.

I confess… to being extremely private with my friends on campus. At one point, I realized that almost nobody around me knew my birthday, where I went to school, anything about my family (except that I had a brother), or anything about my earlier experiences.

I confess… that my deepest regrets concerning by disability are that it makes attracting a wife harder (particularly when I don't put in the work on my end), that I am a poor dancer, and that I could not serve in the military.

I confess… that I deal civilly enough with some people who I think of scornfully, and during whole conversations I imagine braining them with a 2x4, as I smile and nod.

I confess… to admiring myself in mirrors or other reflective surfaces. (Honestly, how could I possibly resist?)

I confess… that if I could ignore all the obligations on me and assume that money were no object, I would live in a tastefully opulent mansion in the Golan Heights, where I would drink fine wine, write my books, make music, pray, meditate and become a practitioner of medical Chi Gong. Oh, and bomb the hell out of every oil well in the Middle East.

That's it. Now I have to pass this game along to somebody… I think I'll tag Geek With a .45, my friend Ezra Klein, Soccer Dad, and Eric of Eric's Grumbles.

The Price of Conspiracy Theories

War protesters lied, people died:
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Thursday in a new report that Iraq's economy appears to be stabilizing.

However, major work remains to be done, particularly with Iraq's vast oil reserves, the country's primary source of income. The United States purposefully avoided investing in the oil export sector to the detriment of Iraq's reconstruction.

"In order not to look as if we had designs on Iraqi oil, the United States has foregone meaningful investment in the one area that would have made the biggest difference, namely Iraq's oil-exporting infrastructure," the study states.
In other words, the accelerated stability of Iraq was sacrificed, directly contributing to the deaths of Iraqi soldiers and civilians and our own troops, for fear that actually doing what needed to be done would be seized on by our enemies to further impugn the United States, and make our eventual victory less likely.

Are you proud of yourselves, o champions of peace?

(Hat tip to Ace, who had briefly endorsed me in the Weblog Awards before switching his endorsement to Seven Deadly Sins. But hey, I'm not bitter or anything…

Ps: Remember to vote.)


Rules of the Game

[Remember: vote early, vote often!

This piece was adapted from an op-ed I wrote earlier today. All quotes are from a promotional video found on the linked MIT site.]

Dr. Hugh Herr, director of MIT’s biomechatronics research group, is at the forefront of research into robotic prosthetics for therapy or for replacing lost limbs. A double-amputee, Dr. Herr brings a unique passion to his work. “Eight million people just in the U.S. alone desperately need technologies that will help them move again,” he says. And Dr. Herr and his team intend to help them. His team has developed a prosthetic leg with a robot-controlled knee joint, called the MR Knee, that can closely mimic the motion of biological knees. Presently, patients who had their knees amputated have to rely on clumsy plastic prosthetics that hardly bend at all; but soon, the MR Knee will hit the market and improve the lives of thousands of people.

Dr. Herr’s group researches more fields than robotics; researchers are chiefly interested in how machines can interface with the human nervous system. And they are not alone. Dr. Gerald E. Loeb of USC, one of the original developers of the cochlear ear implant, is presently working on what he calls BIONs, or bionic neurons. These are inserted within a muscle or nerve, and can then receive signals from other BIONs (which could relay messages from the spinal cord) or from outside the body entirely. They then stimulate the muscle or nerve. Potentially, BIONs can overcome the effects of spinal damage, or even interface between the nervous system and robotic implants.

Advancing technology offers the chance to alleviate suffering for millions of people. But why stop at repairing the human body when you can improve it? “I believe in the next decade we will have artificial legs that are better than human legs for running,” says Dr. Herr. “The best amputee runner in the hundred-yard dash is only a second slower than the world record with biological legs; and that’s just with carbon-composite dumb passive springs.”

Others are much more ambitious. Once scientists can link machines to the nervous system, the sky is the limit. Futurist Ray Kurtzweil imagines a world in the next few decades in which people use artificial hearts that pump artificial blood (with much higher efficiencies than biological blood), breathe with artificial lungs, replace the bulky organs of the endocrine system with much smaller robotic analogues, and eventually replace the human body entirely with designed components.

Looking at all of this, Americans should all be wondering the same thing: what does this mean for major-league baseball?

Imagine a game ten years in the future. The pitcher warms up on the mound, making sure that his robotically enhanced arm is running smoothly. He then looks over at the batter, judges the precise spot where his pitch should end up, and directs his arms accordingly. As his finely tuned torso makes a beautifully fluid rotation, his arm and fingers execute a preprogrammed sequence of movements designed to give the ball the most fiendish combination of spins known to man. The ball twirls its erratic way towards the plate at 200 mph, but not fast enough to evade the eye implants of the batter. He, of course, possesses lightning reflexes thanks to his fiber-optic nerves (which transmit neural impulses much faster than the 140 meters per second that “wet” nerves do); and he calculates the exact spot where the ball will cross the plate.

He swings his bat with the power of a runaway train, sending the ball high overhead. But the right-fielder sees his chance; he makes a tremendous leap twenty feet in the air, and hurls his glove directly into the path of the oncoming ball. The ball neatly smacks into the glove’s well, and the center-fielder bounds over instantly to catch the falling bundle. One out.

Purists grumble that the game just isn’t the same anymore. But in the roar of the crowd, few people listen.


My cousin, who I have seen entirely too little of over the years (we live in different states), can be seen in this picture with his brother cadets, as they stand behind the President and First Lady. Given the MOS he's graduating into, it's a sure bet that he's off to Iraq soon. I am so proud of him for what he is doing, I cannot possibly put it into words.

Good luck, and may God be your Shield and Protector, and crown you and all your brothers with victory.

(No, I won't say which one he is.)


Education and Reform

[Remember to head to the 2005 Weblog Awards and vote for your favorite blogs. Not that I have any preference, of course, but should your mouse happen to click on "Critical Mastiff," you just might find a large stack of gold bars under your pillow tomorrow. Hey, it could happen…]

Back when I attended high school, at a private religious school in California, everyone’s favorite class was Humanities. The teacher, a Fellow of the National Endowment of the Humanities, modeled his class after the old Greek idea of the Trivium: grammar, logic, rhetoric. We all loved his class, despite how hard we worked. More importantly from the school’s standpoint, after taking his class we achieved spectacular scores on our standardized tests. Other teachers wondered what it was that made his Humanities class so successful; yet when he suggested that the entire school adopt his methods, the administration said no. They felt that the school needed to more closely model its curriculum on the standards of the State of California. This is of course the same California whose public schools were ranked 43rd in the nation by Morgan Quitno Press for the 04-05 year.

At least my school chose to follow a flawed model. California’s standard public schools have no choice at all. They must comply with mandates from on high specifying what they teach, how they teach it, and what materials to teach it with. And the mandates are often driven not by how effective they are at teaching children the skills they need, but by political concerns, education PhD’s pushing fancy new programs in need of guinea pigs, or lobbying by textbook companies. And this problem does not end with California. All across the country, our children are subjected to public schools where teachers simply don’t have the option of teaching the way they think works best.

Particularly damaging are the abysmal textbooks used today. Cornell professor Donald Hayes examined textbooks published between 1860 to 1992, and concluded that “Honors high school texts [in 1992] are no more difficult than an eighth grade reader was before World War II.” Things have only gotten worse since then. Dr. John Hubisz noted in his review of middle-school science textbooks that a textbook is far more likely to be rejected by a state government for “offensive” material than for factual mistakes; naturally, publishing houses openly admit to employing more censors than fact-checkers. Hubisz concluded that “Not one of the books we reviewed reached a level that we could call ‘scientifically accurate.’ ”

Mathematics books fare no better. When the Education Department endorsed ten textbooks in 1999, 200 mathematicians and scientists, including 4 Nobel Prize winners, wrote an open letter to Secretary Richard Riley criticizing all ten texts, and calling for the government to retract its endorsement. Small wonder that among the 34 developed nations of the OECD, United States fifteen-year-olds ranked 29th in math in 2003, “significantly below average.”

Meanwhile, despite a large and growing body of research showing that studying fine arts can powerfully boost student’s academic performances, the arts are always first in line to be cut. The Council for Basic Education’s 2004 report “Academic Atrophy” found that a quarter of public school principals are reducing their fine arts instruction, and a third plan to do so in the future. These numbers are much higher for minority schools, who arguably need the fine arts most. At the same time, cuts are reported in elementary-level civics, geography, and foreign language.

In a global economy increasingly dependent on highly educated workforces, it is incredible that we have let our public schools dumb down our children. As a country we cannot remain at the top for long if we continue to produce students with such horribly abused minds.

What can be done? In California at least, parents and educators are flocking to charter schools. A charter school is a public school run by the teachers, parents, and the local community, and has significant autonomy from the state bureaucracy in determining their curriculum and teaching methods. The RAND Corporation, in their report, “Charter School Operations and Performance” (Zimmer and Guarino 2003), found that while nonclassroom-based charter schools had poor performace, classroom-based charter schools outperform public schools “…across grades and subjects except in elementary math, where the scores are slightly lower.” Moreover, charter schools offer broader education in the fine arts and foreign languages, and do it all using less money per student than comparable public schools receive.

The secret to charter schools is that they can teach in whatever way they think best. Free of the educational tyranny of state government, charters can choose their own teaching materials from anyone who can provide a quality product and tailor their methods to the needs of their students. The charter-school model has been shown to work, better than the standard public schools that have resisted every attempt at reform. For the sake of America and its children, we should promote charter schools across the country.


A Debt of Society

[As you know, I was chosen as a finalist in the Best of the Rest category of the 2005 Weblog Awards. Please check the link to see if voting is active yet, and if it is, do remember to vote.]

Free Money Finance, a blog discussing personal finance and budgeting issues, has a fun article about going to Russia and educating people about debt. The proprietor uses several verses from Tanakh, particularly Proverbs, to illustrate the Biblical attitudes towards debt. In particular, note the following:
If you do borrow, you must pay back all of the debt. It is a sin to borrow and not repay.

Psalm 37:21 says: “The wicked borrow and do not repay, but the righteous give generously.”

If we don’t want to be counted among the “wicked,” we must repay any debt we owe. It really doesn’t matter if the circumstances are beyond our control. If we make a debt, we’re stuck with it. Ecclesiastes 5:5 says: “It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it.”
The United States Government has been borrowing money for a long time, with very little thought about how to pay it back. The deficit is projected to get much worse as the Baby Boom generation takes advantage of Medicare and Medicaid; that money must come from somewhere. (I do think that the projections are too pessimistic; much of the cost that government pays is for caretakers for the elderly, and the Japanese have been researching robotic exoskeletons for the elderly specifically to avoid this problem. The exoskeletons should be ready for prime time in a year or two. Regardless, there's still a big hole in the budget.)

As I wrote previously, we private citizens can donate money towards paying down the national debt. "But why?" you may ask. "Congress decided to spend that money without my say-so!" Very true. But aside from the fact that donating money towards the debt punishes Congress (by taking money out of the general budget), still we have a moral responsibility to pay back what this country owes.

Few politicians these days even consider really paying down the debt. Those who want to balance the budget typically want to do so with tax increases, and only so that they are free to invent new government spending. They would prefer to simply pay the monthly minimum on our national credit cards, as opposed to paying off the principle. Others, of course, prefer for America to live beyond her means. They want to be all things to all people, and to push off the costs to those poor saps left holding the bag in a few decades. This is wrong.

A government in debt ha a few options. The most moral, obviously, is to pay the debt off by living within the means of the country. Or, less happily, you can pay it off by raising taxes and funnelling the revenue towards retiring the debt. Or, governments can repudiate the debt entirely, which is breach of contract and comes close to outright theft.

But if a government's debts are denominated in its own currency, things get interesting. America owes a certain amount of dollars. America also prints dollars. The temptation is great for a country in this situation to simply inflate away the currency, reducing the real value of its debts proportionally. Of course, this ends up reducing the wealth of the people as well; this is why a stable level of inflation is called the "invisible tax," because it increases the wealth of government at the same time as it impoverishes the people.

But inflation is low, is it not? Well, maybe. Remember that government tax brackets are adjusted according to inflation, as are many types of government spending programs. And the inflation numbers themselves are reported by… yup, the very same government. If inflation is systematically underreported, then more people will drift into higher tax brackets at the same time as government payments are held artificially low. This is a constant hazard, of course; but it becomes all the more attractive to a government that is deeply in debt.

Whether or not government is actually deliberately inflating the currency, the massive amount of debt creates a continuing temptation to do so. For the sake of the very moral character of our government, we the people have an urgent need to get the debt under control if our elected officials will not. It is simply the right thing to do.

Thank You, Weblog Awards!

The 2005 Weblog Awards have just announced their finalists in the various awards categories. In each category, blogs could be nominated by anyone (including their authors) and fifteen would be chosen as finalists. I submitted my blog under the Best of the Rest category, and am proud to say that Critical Mastiff is one of the finalists!

(See, getting hardly any traffic can be a good thing…)

Tomorrow, the voting begins. So now I am appealing to you, my loyal readers… as well as the casual readers, apathetic readers, amused readers, and annoyed readers. Votes can be cast once in each category, EVERY DAY! Which means that the old maxim "Vote early, vote often" definitely applies. Now, the other nominated blogs are quite good, so take the chance to check them out first. Afterwards, you can vote for me anyway.

I will be posting reminders every day at the end of my posts, so take a few moments and do your blogospheric duty, starting tomorrow!


Running on Fumes

I have just come back from this year's Political Science Shabbaton down at Stern. Not quite as star-studded as last year's, but still very good. The highlight of the event was a visit by Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-Brooklyn/Bronx), House Democratic Whip. Congressman Weiner is exceptionally talented, having been the youngest person ever elected to New York's city council, and is still unusually young for his position.

Weiner's speech was fascinating to listen to, though I did not agree with much of it. I will note only two points in particular. First, he criticized what many in the blogosphere have also lamented, that President Bush has not asked the American people to sacrifice for the war, keeping an artificial divide between America's policies and the daily experience of most people. Indeed, by one way of looking at things the President has effectively bribed America with tax cuts. While many groups of citizens have taken it on themselves to support the war effort through organizations such as Soldiers' Angels, most people do not even know such organizations exist. The effect of all this has been to make the people quickly lose interest in the war. Congressman Weiner particularly feared that the general fatigue would make nearly impossible any military action against Iran's nuclear program.

Second, he mentioned that he was part of a small group of Democrats pushing for the party to take a tougher line on Saudi Arabia, both for sound foreign-policy reasons and to make the Republicans pay the price for their close ties to the Saudis. This would seem to be a no-brainer. Most people hate the Saudis, and many conservatives are livid that their party continues to deal with them. Moreover, Saudi Arabia continues to fund the spread of Salafi Islam, which is presently destabilizing much of Europe, while still taking advantage of preferred prices for American military equipment. Yet the Democratic leadership has resisted moving against them; indeed, despite the incredible political benefits of doing so the Democrats do not even talk about Saudi Arabia, leaving it to be covered by Michael Moore and his ilk.

Why? Perhaps the Democratic leadership is as compromised by Saudi money as the Republicans are; this is likely, given the strong ties between the Saudis and the State Department and the CIA. But I think that a larger reason is that to move against Saudi Arabia would be dangerous, and would only be tried if it were part of a larger strategy. The Democrats have no larger strategy for dealing with the world that I can tell, and certainly none that would justify the disruptions in the world oil market, the American munitions industry, and the Middle-East balance of power that would ensue from such a conflict.

In a later panel discussion by members of the faculty, our International Relations professor noted that the Democrats typically win the presidency when their candidate is credible on security (FDR, Truman, JFK, Johnson) or when the world is seemingly free of major conflicts (Clinton). But when the Democrats run a weak candidate during wartime, they get flattened (McGovern, Dukakis, Kerry). The Democrats will likely remain out of power until they regain a fundamental willingness to use force, and more importantly to justify using force.

This is the key point. When you look at the conservative end of politics, you find a distinguished group of intellectuals and philosophers who have between them developed a powerful and flexible conservative ideology. This group includes Leo Strauss, Irving Kristol, William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, Allan Bloom, Victor Davis Hanson, and a host of others. Not only did such figures breathe new life into conservatism as an idea, but each could justify a set of consistent policies that flowed out of his philosophical positions. And conservative politicians could look to a powerful theoretical foundation to back up their agenda.

On the liberal end, this sort of intellectual firepower seems to be lacking. Not that liberals are stupid; but they cannot point to a clearly elucidated, consistent philosophy in the same way as conservatives can, unless they go back to discredited ideas from Marx's various students. A senior member of our faculty (who shows by her example that Trotskyism can be a good thing) calls the current liberal leadership "marshmallows" and is frustrated that they cannot describe what they stand for, because in many cases they don't know themselves.

In such an environment, the discourse of the Left is being taken over by those who scream the loudest, usually refugees from the '60's. These people fantasize that they can somehow transcend the evils of the present capitalist society by rehashing the same failed ideas that they tried the last time. Or, when the ideas themselves are useful, they do not represent a true alternative to the status quo.

Example: in the last few weeks there has been a great deal of coordinated media attention to a "movement" called Freeganism—essentially a euphemism for dumpster-diving. There is nothing wrong with dumpster-diving, of course; as the linked site notes, over 40% of U.S. food production goes to waste, to say nothing of furniture or clothing, and freegans can apparently make out quite well with the trash of others. But many freegans are not simply thrifty people out to benefit from the waste of others; they have the audacity to consider freeganism an alternative to capitalism! The movement's publicity is mostly funded by Wetlands Preserve, and the Freeganism site contains an article titled Everyday Revolutions which states, in part:
If we are to build a revolutionary movement with the power to truly challenge the status quo, we must demonstrate that the principles we uphold offer not only planetary survival, but a better everyday life. We must recognize that for most working people, the threat of not being able to pay rent is a much more immediate than loss of biodiversity , threats to civil liberties, or nuclear war.

To build a truly revolutionary movement, we link our indictment of the horrors of the current system, things like factory farming, the Iraq war, and rainforest destruction with the sense that we offer a better way than the status quo to provide for people’s food, shelter, health, community, security, intellectual stimulation, and joy in their lives. When we build a movement that demonstrates the capacity to offer all of these things, while challenging the greed, misery, and destruction of megacorporations, their puppet government, and entire capitalist-industrialist model, then we can begin to build broad support and engagement in ecological resistance struggles, and finally have a real chance to liberate this world.
Freeganism will never "challenge the status quo," of course, nor will it "build a truly revolutionary movement." Freeganism is not an opponent of capitalism, but a parasite. Parasites are valuable in any ecosystem, and freeganism could have a valuable impact on society, but to say that freeganism will overthrow capitalism and its associated activities is like saying that vultures will unite and wipe out Africa's lions. That people could seriously make the statements above suggests either monomania, abject stupidity, or shallow and simplistic thinking in otherwise intelligent people.

That the Left has become so intellectually bankrupt should not be a cause to celebrate. Not only is their incompetence allowing the Right to become smug and complacent, but society in general is denied the chance to refine its intellectual model. I strongly advocate capitalism, but I do not love capitalism. Its great advantages are balanced against the discomfort of the poor, the everpresent stress and tension of modern life, and above all the constant focus on materialism and the consequent narrowness of vision that capitalism creates. Spiritual concerns are pushed to the side; indeed, this may well be the eventual undoing of capitalism as Marx predicted.

But the present range of alternatives such as the welfare state are not alternatives at all; for all of them cause far greater misery and tyranny in the long run, compounded with a distateful infantilization of society. At any rate, they also tend to denigrate the spiritual in favor of the physical, so we have gained nothing thereby.

It should be the purpose of the Left to offer substantive challenges to the staus quo, that can actually improve the lot of the world. Instead, for the most part we get a jumbled mush of Third Way social welfarism, petulant anarchism, naked authoritarianism, and cheap populism. This is hardly an intellectual framework that leads to good policy, nor has it done so.

Until the Left produces a new generation of philosophers that can move beyond its many ideological flaws and offer something better, they will continue to hinder the advance of society instead of promoting it. This is particularly true since the Left's influence promotes the idea that Western civilization is not worth fighting for. When we are warring with an enemy that fervently believes in its own righteousness, such apathy will be lethal. Until the Left develops a true alternative to conservatism, they must be denied power.


Quote of the Day

Good leaders create followers. Great leaders create other leaders.

—Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth Jonathan Sacks, speaking at my college today.