3/31/2005

Quote of the Day

…If revenues are available, one should not do what popular leaders today do—make a free distribution of the surplus. (When people get it, they want the same again: this sort of assistance to the poor is like the proverbial jug with a hole in it.) [But] the duty of the true democrat is to see that the population is not destitute; for destitution is a cause of a corrupt democracy.

Every effort therefore must be made to perpetuate prosperity. And, since that is to the advantage of the rich as well as the poor, all that accrues from the revenues should be collected in a single fund and distributed in block grants to those in need, if possible in lump sums large enough for the acquisition of a small piece of land, but if not, then enough to start a business, or work in agriculture.
—Aristotle, The Politics Book VI, Ch. V, Penguin edition

3/30/2005

Parallels Between Early America and Early Israel

Lately I've been reading the parts of Judges that most people skip over, and I am struck by the similarity between the political situation of pre-monarchy Israel and the United States under the Articles of Confederation, and to an extent afterwards until the Civil War. The situation in Israel went to greater extremes than that of America, but remember that the Constitution was ratified after less than two decades of life under the Articles of Confederation, while Israel was without a central government for several centuries.

In a sense, the time of the Judges could serve to indicate what we could have expected in America had the states retained a sense of individual identity. (Indeed, we had a taste of Biblical-style discord with the Civil War; and the result of it was to dramatically expand the power of the Federal government.)

Israel was composed of thirteen different tribes, each with its own territory and power structure (except for the tribe of Levi, which had no territory and no inherent political status). They were united by (increasingly distant) ties of kinship, and (theoretically) a common religion, with its center in Shiloh. But there was no unified government; the leaders of each region would often act in concert against an invading power, but supreme commanders would often be chosen on an ad hoc basis, generally based on who had been granted a Divine spirit.

Politics between the tribes would frequently get nasty. Often, only a few tribes would contribute armies to repel invaders; tribes living further away were much less likely to send aid. Sometimes, tribes would fall under the influence of pagan religions and actually support foreign powers against their cousins. In a few instances, a tribe would fall so far into moral degeneracy that the other tribes would make war upon it. For example, after the incident of Gib'ah (Gibeah), eleven tribes united to attack the tribe of Benjamin, and ended up nearly wiping it out entirely. The survivors had to pull a "Sabine women" just to make sure they all could have families.

Early America, while it had a central government, was primarily seen as an alliance of states. Even by the time of the Civil War, the national government was weak enough at the outset that President Lincoln made many of his military appointments with an eye towards cementing the support of some of the more reluctant states. Military units were organized by state, and bickering between states was common. Of course, the Southern states felt independent enough of the national government to secede entirely, and a major issue of the Civil War was how much power the central government would have over the states.

I'll be thinking more about this, and trying to extend the parallels if I can. For starters, read Samuel's warning to the people about the dangers of having a monarch, shortly before anointing Saul and establishing the kingship.

3/29/2005

Murder by Judge

In a previous piece on the situation with the Schiavos and euthanasia (Choose Life, March 19), I noted in general terms the trend towards a general acceptance of killing off inconveniently handicapped patients. Last week, Harvard student Joe Ford puts the case into specifics, in an article for the Harvard Crimson. (Hat tip: Powerline.) Ford, who has cerebral palsy, tells about the doctor who tried to starve him at birth, and notes the specific actions of groups of people with an interest in ending the lives of the disabled.

The whole piece is worth reading. But most striking to me was this passage:
In 1997, the executive director of the Hemlock Society [now called End-Of-Life Choices] suggested that judicial review be used regularly “when it is necessary to hasten the death of an individual whether it be a demented parent, a suffering, severely disabled spouse or a child.” This illustrates that the “right to die” movement favors the imposition of death sentences on disabled people by means of the judicial branch.
Is this out of some sense of pity for those who are supposedly suffering? I doubt it, at least as a primary cause. Note that the quoted statement indentified individuals in terms of their relationship with someone else, presumably "normal." In other words, the major problem being fixed has to do with those who interact with the badly disabled.

What problem in particular is at issue? Clearly there are monetary issues; the care of an incapacitated person is expensive, and a social utilitarian would argue that the money would be better spent elsewhere. Also, care for the incapacitated can often place tremendous psychic strain on the caregiver, and takes a great deal of time and effort. But I think that these are not the main issue; after all, Terri Schiavo's parents have repeatedly tried to gain custody of her, and if the wellbeing of the caretaker was the primary issue, then few people would argue against Terri remaining in her parents care, given that they want her so badly.

I think the major issue can be identified in a statement that has been bandied about by the talking heads as representative of the views of much of America: "I wouldn't want to live like this." There are two ways to read this statement. Either, "I wouldn't want to live like this, therefore Terri clearly would not either"; or, "I wouldn't want to live like this, therefore nobody else may."

Why on Earth would anyone even consider the second statement?

Think back to the last time you saw an incapacitated person (especially a mentally incapacitated person), who you did not know well. When you saw that person, what reaction did you have?

I can tell you, because I have similar reactions: unease, disgust, horror, pity, a sense of wrongness, and underlying it all, a deep and terrible fear. A fear that I myself could end up the same way, and the frightening realization that it could happen so easily.

(Those who know me could note the hypocrisy of my having such a reaction, given my own situation. I do all the time, but it rarely seems to help. In a way, my own situation makes such feelings more intense, because "There, but for the grace of God, go I." It's something I am working on overcoming, slowly.)

This fear is incredibly threatening, especially in this modern era where our society tries to banish fear from life, as much as it can. Coming face to face with human malfunction punctures our unconscious illusions of omnipotence, and for a brief instant reminds us that we are mere flesh and blood. In the modern world, this will not do. So how can a society that worships human ability and omnipotence respond?

By removing the cause of this overwhelming fear. By removing, if need be destroying, all those who inspire such fear in others, so that "normal" people can live out their days free from unease.

It is this overriding denial of mortality that confronts us, and that we must confront. We cannot simply sit by, while the instruments of justice themselves are used to obliterate people whose only crime was in inspiring fear. It is an abomination before God and humanity.

3/28/2005

The Canaries Start Singing

Roger L. Simon gives a sneak peek of the information presented to Paul Volcker's commission investigating the UN "Oil for Food" program, particularly from one Pierre Mouselli, the business partner of Kojo Annan. If the official report contains a tenth of the stuff that Roger has posted, Kofi is dead in the water. Mouselli testified that he and Kojo specifically met with Dear Daddy to inform him about their business arrangement, and to "get his blessing."

Check it out. Small wonder that Kofi has been reportedly struggling with acute depression in the last week. If I knew that the world was about to discover that I was a corrupt scumbag who let tens of thousands of children starve to death so that my cronies could skim the cream, I'd be pretty depressed too.

It is long past time for Kofi to resign. Every minute he stays as Secretary General is a stain on the record of the United Nations, which seems to be nothing more than an unending series of stains lately. If the UN is to have any sort of function in the world at all, it must clean house; and Kofi should be the first to go.

3/26/2005

Get Ready for Hevel Havalim #16!

Soccer Dad has kindly asked me to host next week's edition of Hevel Havalim, "Vanity of Vanities," the Jewish blogosphere's official carnival. From now until midnight on Saturday, April 2, I'll be accepting submissions at: o r e n d o g [AT] y a h o o [DOT] c o m

Submissions should be related in some way to Israel, Jews, or Judaism. I will link to anything sent to me, no matter what position it espouses, unless the piece is genuinely offensive or incoherent. So please send in your stuff! You can also submit links to pieces that were written by someone else, if you think they are worth reading. Please include, at minimum, a link to the actual article and a short description.

The carnival post will go up sometime on April 3. Be sure to check back then!

Vignettes From a Long Purim Weekend

Overheard Purim night: "Hey, what happened to the rubber chicken in my back pocket?”

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During the reading of the Megillah: “Balailah hahu, nadda shnat hamelech…” ("That night, the King’s sleep was disturbed"), chanted to the tune of Brahms's Lullaby

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Half the people on the bus at 10:00 Purim morning: “I have such a headache!”

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Mournful after hitting the liquor table: “You know the problem with really good scotch? Bad scotch, you drink it and it burns on the way down, so you drink a few shots and you’re done. Good scotch, it goes down so smoothly that you feel like you can just keep drinking it. So I did.”

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“United States, Canada, Mexico, Panama…” (Performance of the Animaniacs' song "Countries of the World," by a student of the rabbi's. Done flawlessly, no doubt because he did it before the drinking started…)

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Political Science major during the walk to synagogue: “We should start a Henry Kissenger fan club on campus.”

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Sung very loudly in the middle of hundreds of people breaking their fast Thursday night: “A-a-a-mazing gra-a-a-ce, how swee-e-e-t the so-o-ound…”

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[Long and heated discussion at lunch on which was less healthy, smoking marijuana or excessive drinking. No conclusion.]

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Delivered in the "movie preview narrator" voice: “From the bestselling author of Genesis (‘A gripping read’) and Exodus (‘It changes you’) comes a book unlike any seen before—Leviticus!”

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A student doing a quick d'var Torah (not exactly a sermon, but close) on the seemingly redundant prohibition against eating or drinking blood:
“…And so, just like you consider blood to be disgusting, so too you should consider all sins to be just as disgusting…”
I like blood.”
“Well, there goes that d’var Torah.”

*************

Overheard as a dozen guys tried to find seats on one sofa:
“Oh yeah, why don’t you go throw balls at little kids and say that they enjoy it…”
“But he was smiling!”

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For some reason, I can't remember much else that went on. Must be a short-term memory thing. Oddly enough, I do have a number of Scottish-sounding names running through my head…

I hope everyone had a good and safe Purim, and a good weekend.

3/24/2005

Purim Sameach

Had I been thinking, I would have written some Purim Torah before the Fast of Esther began; I don't do my best comedy on an empty stomach. Oh, well. Something to remember for next year...

One thing worth mentioning. A critical point that often gets overlooked is that Mordechai initiated the conflict with Haman, by refusing to bow to him. We are never told why, and the commentators came up with all sorts of reasons, but all we know for certain is that Mordechai believed Haman unworthy of respect, enough so that he risked death to publicly demonstrate his opposition.

His judgement of Haman was accurate, of course, and Haman's reaction to his opposition put all of Jewry in mortal danger. One could ask, why did Mordechai risk antagonizing such a powerful man, who would apparently have been content to leave him alone in the absence of provocation?

The answer is that it is the duty of the righteous to oppose evil. We cannot excuse our inaction by saying that stirring things up will only make things worse. We may well be correct to say so, yet that does not change our obligation to act anyway. Obviously, this needs to be leavened with some pragmatism; yet how many people have died under evil regimes because the West cynically decided to avoid making trouble?

That is not the way of the righteous, especially the righteous Jew. And Mordechai knew that it was his duty to battle evil, and not to hesistate for fear of how it would end.

As in his days, so too in ours. I will never forget that President Bush gave his 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam and his sons on Purim night, two years ago. May we never shrink from confronting evil.

Have a happy Purim!

Beware the British Pen

Via Instapundit, an editorial in the Times Online savages Jacques Chirac for his opposition to capitalism and general bufoonery. The article is full of devastating lines such as:
[Chirac] opted yesterday to embrace the cause of poverty in the Third World (as if those souls had not suffered enough)
Check it out.

Broadband Connections Over Human Skin

The computer geek in me is in rapture over this:
NTT, the Japanese communications company, has developed a technology called RedTacton, which it claims can send data over the surface of the skin at speeds of up to 2Mbps -- equivalent to a fast broadband data connection....NTT is not the first company to use the human body as a conduit for data: IBM pioneered the field in 1996 with a system that could transfer small amounts of data at very low speeds, and last June, Microsoft was granted a patent for "a method and apparatus for transmitting power and data using the human body."

But RedTacton is arguably the first practical system because, unlike IBM's or Microsoft's, it doesn't need transmitters to be in direct contact with the skin -- they can be built into gadgets, carried in pockets or bags, and will work within about 20cm of your body. RedTacton doesn't introduce an electric current into the body -- instead, it makes use of the minute electric field that occurs naturally on the surface of every human body. A transmitter attached to a device, such as an MP3 player, uses this field to send data by modulating the field minutely in the same way that a radio carrier wave is modulated to carry information.
Aside from the sheer coolness factor, the system has several advantages over Bluetooth or similar setups. The most significant is that it is more secure; Bluetooth has a broadcast range of about 10 meters, while RedTaction can only be detected a few centimeters away from the skin, making it much harder to spoof.

I have only one question: will there be any adverse effects to modulating the body's electric field? Probably not, I suppose, but worth looking into. At any rate, read the article and be amazed.

3/23/2005

New Dogmas in Modern Jewish Education

In one of my classes, we are studying Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), one of the most complex and troubling books of the Tanakh (Bible). Indeed, the Sanhedrin seriously considered suppressing the book entirely, because of the danger that it would lead readers into heresy. In the end they did not, and Kohelet has the same religious standing as every other book in the Tanakh. It is considered to be the product of Divine revelation.

This only sharpens the central questions of the book. How can a book derived from Divine revelation, and written by King Solomon himself, declare that "all is vain under the sun"? How can such a book advise readers not to be overly righteous (7:16)?

Careful study of the book clearly shows it to be a painfully honest critique of the human condition, which ends in the affirmation of Divine rule. (Essentially, Kierkegaard's philosophy was plagarized from King Solomon.) For many students, the honesty in this book is far too painful. Indeed, many of the classical commentators wrote glosses that deliberately diverged from the strict meaning of the text and conveyed more conventional lessons that would be more palatable to most readers. Rashi was one such; his grandson, Rashbam, wrote another commentary that is rigorously text-based, and in many instances is directly opposed to that of his grandfather.

This book is one of my favorites in Tanakh, and studying it has been fascinating. Even more fascinating has been watching the reactions of some of my classmates. Kohelet comes as a challenge to certain strains of thought that have gathered followings within the religious Jewish education system. In many communities, the usual method of education has been for students to be presented prepackaged ideology, and required to accept it uncritically. Very few students in these types of schools are ever expected to grapple with the fundamental questions of religion and ethics; they are simply given the "answers," like second-graders given calculators to learn about multiplication.

This mindset is compounded by the popularity of mussar works, generally from the early 1800's and on, which advocate specific worldviews as remedies to the essential flaws of human nature. I do not say this to criticize these works, but rather the way that they have been presented. In many cases, study of the rabbinic authorities of the last few centuries is placed on a de facto plane higher than that of much of Tanakh itself! Fewer and fewer students have any sort of knowledge about most of Tanakh, and what they do know is refracted through the teachings of the recent rabbinic leadership, often to the detriment of the literal text.

Do not misunderstand me. Studying a text with associated commentaries is wonderful and often necessary; one gains access to the wisdom of the ages in trying to understand the text. But when such works replace the text entirely, we have a problem.

Some of the students have objected to ideas in Kohelet, saying things like, "This is not a Jewish idea" (direct quote!). Remember, they are talking about a book in the Tanakh itself, written with Divine revelation. If these ideas aren't Jewish, then what is? Apparently, whatever falls within the specific narrow strands of ideology that have been pounded into their heads from birth. Others have said that to truly understand the book, we must go beyond the literal reading. Fair enough; but then they say that not only is the literal meaning insufficient, it should be disregarded entirely!

What has gone wrong here? How can it be that certain ideologies have become so strong in the Jewish world that adherents would rather belittle the word of God itself than change their minds? (And this among a community that bases its identity, in theory, on adherence to the word of God!)

I don't know. But I think this may have to do with something Dennis Prager implied, that our community has effectively replaced veneration of the Torah with veneration of the rabbis and the Halacha (Law), which is not the same thing at all. When most people use rabbinic exegesis to supercede the literal text, instead of as a tool to better understand it, we have lost sight of the word of God.

What can be done? I think we need to restore a degree of respect for the literal text, and we need to get students to work through the big questions, instead of feeding them prepackaged spam masquerading as religious philosophy. In this regard, I am very happy that my school has an extensive Bible requirement in which just these sort of issues are addressed. But the rabbis should not have to work so hard to break down the accumulated sentiment of twelve years of groupthink.

Meanwhile, if you ever feel like confronting the deep questions of life, read Kohelet. It is unsettling, it is provoking, but it is the word of King Solomon, written with the aid of God.

3/22/2005

China, Taiwan, and the Dollar

The more I learn about Southeast Asia, the more convinced I am that China will not escalate the Taiwan issue into a military confrontation. Nationalism is a powerful motivator, but China has been successfully deterred from military action before now. To argue that they will change policies, one must first show that the Chinese can expect to gain in the long run from war.

Let us assume that within a few years, China will assemble an amphibious force that they believe capable of taking Taiwan. (Set aside for the moment whether it would actually succeed.) Let us even assume that the United States is intimidated by China's nuclear arsenal, and withdraws its carrier task forces from the Taiwan Strait. (This is highly improbable, given that all signals have been to the contrary; note for example Operation Summer Pulse, in which an unprecedented seven carrier groups were activated as a show of strength.)

What would be the effect of such a move on China's neighbors?

Japan and South Korea, already nervous over North Korean nuclear blackmail, will certainly be concerned. Some analysts believe that they would be tempted to develop nuclear weapons of their own, which would certainly not be in China's interest. Japan is already testing the boundries of Article Nine of its constitution, which foreswore war as a tool of statecraft; the present Japanese deployment to Iraq is the first time that ground troops have been deployed outside of Japan not under UN auspices. Before that, Japan contributed immeasurably to the success of the Korean Inchon landing by providing a fleet of minesweepers to clear the way, though this was kept secret for decades.

China and Japan have been enemies for a long time, though this has not stopped them from trading with one another. If Japan felt threatened enough to take on a more assertive military role, China surely would not benefit.

Meanwhile, Australia has for a long time been building nuclear breeder reactors, which can quickly produce weapons-grade material if deemed necessary. Though Australia has not taken specific steps towards a nuclear weapons program, it is very deliberately giving itself the option.

What benefits would China get from control of Taiwan? The largest benefit would be expanded control over the sea lanes; but it seems likely that the United States, Indonesia, and Japan would quickly act to prevent Chinese access to the deep Pacific routes. And this would be after an expensive invasion. I don't see how gaining Taiwan would be worth the staggering cost.

What about the dollar-meltdown option? This scenario, a favorite of Fortress-America types and hard-money aficionados, goes roughly like this: China, having prepared for the inevitable war with the United States, first acts to disrupt the world economy by dumping its massive hoard of dollar-denominated bonds onto the market. With world financial markets reeling and the dollar plummeting, the United States will have too much on its plate to risk worrying about Taiwan, and our global deployments will be pulled back to save the cost of mintaining them.

This remains a possibility. But again, the benefit to China must outweigh the cost. Right now, China's economy is running on dollars. Moreover, China is now a net importer of oil, and will import much more in the next several years. Until China's economy becomes self-sufficient and it transitions away from oil, China needs the world market much too badly to consider destroying the dollar.

But these optimistic conclusions have one major difficulty, in that they do not explain the Chinese military's ongoing buildup, or the recent Chinese legislation authorizing an invasion if Taiwan should declare independence. It could very well be that China feels threatened by American power, and is only acting defensively. But China could also have decided to go to war, all of the foregoing notwithstanding. After all, national leaders have a history of improperly analyzing the chances of success and the costs of action.

We should of course be vigilant for any Chinese aggression. But on the whole, it seems unlikely.

3/21/2005

Abbas's Blunder?

Debkafile is reporting in their headlines box that Mahmoud Abbas has submitted a draft resolution to the Algiers Arab conference starting today. The resolution ostensibly calls for Israel to withdraw completely to the 1949 armistice line, and then to accept an armistice with the Palestinians, and not a permanent peace.

Absent further confirmation, I am skeptical. Such a move would be monumentally stupid, even by PLO standards. It violates a central rule of Palestinian diplomacy: never put anything on paper. Yassir Arafat would make similar statements all the time, but always in speeches, never in writing (IIRC). That allowed the deluded Left to claim that he was only throwing red meat to his base, and "wasn't being serious." On the other hand, if Abbas were to seriously present this as his demands for negotiation, as opposed to simply stonewalling and obfuscating as per Arafat, he would be dooming any chance for an agreement, ever.

Perhaps that would be what he has in mind, but I doubt it. What alternative does Abbas have, other than negotiation?

That said, I can imagine a few scenarios to explain this:

1. Debkafile is wrong.

2. The resolution will never proceed past the draft stage, and is meant to placate the rebellion in the al-Aqsa Brigades without doing anything substantial.

3. The resolution will be publicized, becuase Abbas has no choice and is in danger for his life or political standing. This would be intended as a distress call to America and Sharon.

4. The resolution will be publicized, because Abbas is trying to pull an Arafat and isn't clever enough to do it right.

5. The resolution will be publicized, in order to trigger a massive backlash in Israel against Ariel Sharon for making so many concessions to such an obviously faithless "partner." Sharon's government will fall, and in the resulting chaos Abbas hopes to consolidate his power somehow. The major problem I see with such a strategy is that the next Prime Minister would make Sharon look like Yossi Beilin.

The most likely explanation? Debkafile is wrong. If not, then things are a lot uglier than I thought.

3/20/2005

The Case for Chinese Inaction

Via Chrenkoff, here is a very good analysis suggesting that despite China's bellicose noises towards Taiwan, China does not actually intend to go to war:

The China Syndrome

If you have time, check out the rest of the blog. It's quite good.

3/19/2005

Choose Life

Readers probably have heard of the ongoing abomination that is the death-by-starvation of Terry Schiavo. Readers of the New York Times might be under the impression that this is about "right to die," but it could more accurately be said to be about the right to kill: that is, the right of Terry's nominal husband (who, by the way, has been living with another woman for over a decade and has two children with her) and a Federal judge to condemn her to death, on the basis of hearsay and over the strenuous objections of Terry's parents, the Florida Legislature, Congress, and much of America.

Ace of Spades has been following the case with disgust and some alarm:
I'm not fond of slippery slope arguments as a rule (I mean, once we begin taking slippery slope arguments seriously, who knows what sort of arguments we'll begin taking seriously in the future?), but Rightwing Nuthouse notes that the right-to-die/right-to-euthanize impulse seems to be gaining. As he puts it:
Each time we kill someone like Terri it gets easier. Each time we make a decision to end the life of someone like Terri we expand the boundries of what’s “permissable.” Each time the debate is joined, the advocates for the cult of death point out the “special nature of this particular case” or that it’s only an “isolated incident."
And to prove his point, he cites the Gronigen Protocols, Dutch procedures regarding when it's ethical to euthanize children with incurable and painful diseases, up to 12 years old.

I don't believe these are easy questions that can always be resolved in favor of "life." But we do seem to galloping towards a general acceptance of euthanasia in the interests of "mercy" for a stricken patient -- and in the unspoken interests of convenience for every one else.
This point is very personal to me. Completely aside from the fact that a society that no longer considers life to be sacred is on a path to the worst sort of institutionalized evils, I can easily imagine a world in which I, personally, would have been "euthanized," i.e. murdered. And some would have thought it merciful.

The trouble is, death forecloses all other possibilities. It is absolutely irrevocable. And deciding to murder another in the name of easing pain, or even for an individual to commit suicide, is to deny hope. It is to deny the chance that things will get better. Worse, it is to deny that life can be worth living, in spite of whatever hardships have caused people to consider death.

A few weeks ago, I met a remarkable student at college. I had seen him around before, from a distance; his head seemed dented and unbalanced in spots, the skin of his face seemed like he had been badly burned, and he was blanketed with freckles. When I did speak to him, he told me that he had a severe allergy to ultraviolet rays, which come from the sun, or flourescent lighting, or any number of things. He had already had 86 seperate surgeries to treat recurring outbreaks of skin cancer, including dozens of skin grafts.

I was horrified. How could anyone live a life when such simple pleasures as feeling the sun's warmth were deadly? How could anyone endure such constant hardship? I have had 2 surgeries, and did not enjoy them too much; I cannot imagine having 86 surgeries. Yet the student was remarkably cheerful. His condition came from God, he said, and who can say why God chose to give such a condition to him? He lived his life with purpose; he felt that he had a mission to improve the world in whatever way he could.

In a world of euthanasia for "non-viable" babies such as is called for in the Gronigen Protocols, he would have been killed as soon as his condition was discovered.

It makes me sick to think that people exist who wish for doctors to kill patients who are seemingly more trouble than they are worth. Human life transcends such petty concerns; all the more so in the case of Terry Schiavo, who was not hooked up to expensive machines such as respirators, but only to a simple feeding tube.

I intend to live for as long as I can, under whatever circumstances are consonant with Jewish law. When the Angel of Death comes for me, he'll have to call for backup, because I'm not going quietly. I have three reasons for this decision. First, because life is good. Second, because the realm of human action is in this world, not in the next. By ending my life, you are stopping me from impacting others and making the world a better place. Third, where there is life, there is hope. As long as I am alive, things could improve. People of goodwill could lend their help. New conditions or technologies could solve the problem. And always and always, God could intervene. There is no situation so hopeless that God's power cannot reverse it.

And this, I think, is the key point. Generally, those in favor of euthanasia are not thinking of God, or of hope for the future, or of transcending suffering. They are thinking of cost/benefit, or expected utility, or of overwhelming physical sensation as a justification for snuffing out a human life. They would build a world where hope is absent, where God is disregarded, and where physical sensation rules over all.

Soma, anyone?

3/18/2005

Techno-Gothic Horror? Not Quite

Spies Infiltrate Zombie Computer Networks

It sounds like something on the order of Army of Darkness Meets The Matrix, but it isn't. Scientists are developing methods to petentrate networks of hacked computers, and record information on who is running the networks. Interesting stuff. (Hat tip: Spacemonkey at IMAO.)

While I'm on the subject... if you're running a Windows machine, chances are it's got some sort of virus on it. If you don't have several good antivirus and antispyware programs, get some.

That'll do it for this week. Shabbat shalom!

3/17/2005

A Bible for the Modern Era

Looking at trends in Biblical translation these days, I'm beginning to think that Christians should learn Hebrew in self-defense.

Michelle Malkin reports on the "Today's New International Version of the Bible," which apparently has been infested by 45,000 linguistic and feminist edits that make up about 7% of the text. I'm not as interested in the event—post-modernist types have always been eviscerating the Bible, and they won't stop any time soon—as I am in the response of blogger Teflon, who takes this trend to its natural conclusion:
Aren't the Ten Commandments too unhip?

Why not make them a little more 21st century, a Generation Y translation if you will:

1. I am the cool mack daddy of the dope hype flow. Give me props and mad respect.
2. Don't be kneeling for some bling bling.
3. Don't be throwing my name around, be it J. Hovah or Yah Diddy.
4. Yo, Sunday is "funday", ya dig?
5. Respect your moms, your pops, or whoever it was raised you, unless they whack.
6. Thou shalt not bust a cap in someone's [***].
7. Don't be running around on people like they don't know.
8. No five-finger discounts.
9. Don't front.
10. If your neighbor's got a fly crib or a pimped-out set of wheels, that's they bidness, not yours.
The point he's making, I think, is that exalted language has value, even if it is unfamiliar to new readers. As they become familiar with the text, readers learn to rejoice in the flowing poetry of the words, particularly if you read the original Hebrew. As Shepherd Book says in the defunct TV show Firefly: "You're not supposed to change it... it's supposed to change you."

3/16/2005

The Grammatical Meaning of "Intifada"

I learned something very interesting today about the etymology of the Arabic word "intifada." This word is best known in the West as the Palestinian name for the current Arab-Israeli war. The word derives from the root "NaFaDa" (nuun faa daal), and is conjugated in a form that corresponds to the Hebrew hitpa'el, which is reflexive. (Properly, the word is "intifad," with the accusative case ending "-a" added when it is the object of the sentence. But nobody seems to care when they're talking in English.)

Here is an excerpt from an Islam Online article on the grammar of "intifada," which is more than a little disingenuous:
The word intifada (literally “shaking up” in Arabic) suggests an interesting semantic and cultural paradigm in the context of the Arab Islamic world. The root of the word intifada is nafada which means “shook up” or “shook off” (the default in Arabic is the past tense of the verb), e.g. as of clothes to remove dust from them. The actual meaning of the word is “a creative movement that generates something new out of something old.” The implicit meaning is that the thing being shaken off – the Zionist occupation of Palestine – has not grown firm roots.

Another meaning of nafada is “scrutinized,” which is exactly what the young people of the intifada have been doing. Other meanings include “clearing a highway of bandits” and “dispatching a group of reconnoitering scouts.”
One should ask what "clearing a highway of bandits" or "dispatching scouts" has to do with "shaking off." In fact, this definition is a distortion; note that the example given is of shaking dust off of clothing.

Dr. Hayyim Tawil, one of my professors, is a noted scholar of Semetic languages (a particular specialty of his is Akkadian). According to him, the Arabic root "NaFaDa" is the equivalent of the Hebrew root "SaNaN" (samech nun nun), which means "to filter or strain." From this root are derived words dealing with filtration and purification; a derived word "mistanen" means "one who infiltrates" (compare to "reconnoitering scouts" above).

Such a meaning corresponds well with the examples given in the piece above. When you shake off clothing, you do so to remove dust, an impurity; when you scrutinize something, you are looking for impurities. Clearing a road of bandits is also an act of purification.

So, the word "intifada" when properly analyzed means "self-filtration"; or, more freely, "purification."

And that is what this is all about, of course. The intifada is not only about Palestinian sovereignty; if so, why do the Palestinians not allow Jewish settlers to stay where they are, under Palestinian rule? Why is selling land to a Jew a capital crime in the Palestinian areas? Why is any Jew who takes a wrong turn on the highway and ends up in Ramallah, in danger of being lynched?

Because the Palestinians want to purify the land. They want to make it J├╝denrein. That is the goal of the Intifada. And the truth of it is in the very language they use, distortions and propoganda notwithstanding.

Note that although the useful idiots on the Left constantly used "Iraqi Intifada" to describe the insurgency, I have not seen a single Arab source that does so. (Please correct me if I am wrong.) With this new understanding, it is not hard to understand why.

3/15/2005

Kung Fu: The Lebanon Saga

Captain Ed writes about doublespeak at Reuters, and includes a short piece of imagined dialogue that borders on genius. Check it out.

A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing

My studies in Tai Chi have placed me in an unusual, and disturbing, position. I have only had about ten hours of class instruction at this point, and my knowledge is very basic. At the same time, I can do things with my energy now that startle me profoundly. Unfortunately, my ability is undisciplined, and hampered by my profound ignorace of the theory behind Tai Chi. For the first time in my life, I am painfully aware that I can do harm as easily as good with my skills, simply because I do not know enough about them.

This feeling was brought home last week when my heart began to ache whle I was practicing the forms. On Sunday, my professor had to adjust two of my energy lines: one was just to the left of my heart, and the other was halfway down my left thigh. The idea that I could be damaging my body when I do the forms is a bit worrying, and I still do not know what I did wrong.

In retrospect, however, there is no reason why this general feeling should be so new. I have learned many things over the years which, when used improperly or clumsily, have the potential to cause harm of one sort or another. Improper first aid can make injuries worse; rhetoric can make the most terrible ideas seem plausible. Why then has this feeling never hit me with such immediacy before?

Part of the answer, I think, has to do with the "Modern" attitude towards human knowledge, and how it has shaped the popular mindset. Through most of human history, people understood that human knowledge was incomplete, and that relying on human intelligence was in many cases dangerous, and should be done cautiously. The Moderns, on the other hand, were convinced that Knowledge and Science were reaching a point where humanity could subjugate nature itself, and find permanent solutions to the problems of the human existence.

This was expressed in many ways, but I think the experience of Karl Marx can be instructive. He believed that the advent of industrialization had created a whole new problematic of history, which needed to be solved with Communism. Secure in the validity of his premise, he then took steps to bring it about, launching one of the most horrible ideologies to crawl across the Earth. Unfortunately, Marx disdained the knowledge of the ancients; had he listened to the warning of Kohelet that "There is nothing new under the sun," he might have perhaps realized that Plato had proposed a form of Communism thousands of years before, which was decisively rebutted by his own student Aristotle in the Politics, for all of the reasons which have become common knowledge to liberty's exponents today.

This recklessness, and unwillingness to consider the limitations of human ability, seems to have crossed over into the popular realm. Children are encouraged to aim for the stars, not to proceed carefully and with trepidation. Partly this is no doubt due to human arrogance. It is far easier for a person to believe himself omnipotent than limited by his own ignorance (and I include myself in that as well).

In pseudo-intellectual circles, the flaws in this position have been identified, if not internalized; academics are just as capable of arrogantly asserting mankind's ignorance as mankind's knowledge. The pseudo-intellectual response has been Deconstructionism, the idea that nobody can really know anything (this is a gross simplification, admittedly). Of course, those who realize that they know nothing are a step ahead of the game. Modern academics aspire without admitting it to be like Socrates, who was wise because he knew that he was ignorant; yet they do not truly believe themselves ignorant, or else they would hesistate before arrogantly inflicting such ideas on the world, where they have caused unimaginable misery.

This refusal to confront the limits of your knowledge is much easier in the intellectual fields. An electrician would realize very quickly how little he knows when his wiring explodes. More generally, any field which much produce tangible, verifiable results would tend to discourage such arrogance, especially if there are severe consequences for errors.

(Of course, here I am arrogantly claiming to be superior to academics because I realize how arrogant they are...)

I think the world would be a much better place if people would leaven their desire to leap off into the unknown with an appreciation for the dangers they can find there, and perhaps unleash on the rest of us if they are not careful. One should truly understand a thing and its consequences, as much as possible, before it is used.

3/13/2005

"You Have to Make Demands!"

On Saturday afternoon during the just-finished Stern College Shabbaton, Dr. Ruth Wisse of Harvard gave a lecture in which she addressed the question of how it was that Jews have been so spectacularly successful in every field of endeavor in the modern world, except for maintaining their own sovereignty. I will try to summarize her points, though I will be doing them a disservice. Unfortunately, Dr. Wisse has not published these ideas herself yet, though she expects to finish a book on them soon.

It is amazing how successful Jews have been, not just in degree but in kind. Dr. Wisse being a literature specialist, she is especially impressed that Jews have won Literature Nobel Prizes for writings in (I think) seven different languages, including two seperate Jewish languages (Hebrew and Yiddish). It is incredibly uncommon for a people to become so proficient in the language of another people that they can produce masterpieces in that language; it is unheard-of for such a thing to happen several times.

Dr. Wisse's main thesis to explain this is as follows:

When the Jews were exiled, they effectively carried out a great experiment. It is generally assumed that to have a country, you had to have land, centralized leadership, and means for self-defense. The Jews had none of these things. Indeed, they were generally submerged within a much larger population that did not necessarily wish them well. In order to survive, the Jews had to become masters of adaptation.

The first step, naturally, was to learn the local languages. The Jews were unusual in that they saw no problems of cultural purity with respect to learning new languages, as the French do today, for example. Indeed, at the time of the expulsion Hebrew had already been elevated to High Speech status, and was replaced in the vernacular by Aramaic. Thus Jews had no problem with learning the local languages, sometimes even adapting them for internal use, for example Ladino or Yiddish or Judeo-Arabic. (Note: the present angst over the disappearance of Yiddish is apparently a unique occurance. Historically, the Jews transitioned from one language to another with no qualms.)

Second, since the Jews could not be self-supporting without land, to survive economically the Jews had to provide services that were in demand. This meant adapting themselves quickly to the outside economic structure and finding profitable niches. And indeed, the Jews prospered in every land which allowed them to.

This brings us to the third point, relations with the local rulers. Because the Jews could not defend themselves, they had to cultivate the goodwill of the rulers so that they could rely on royal protection. This required constant accomodation, compromise, and concern for the opinion of the ruler.

And here, unsurprisingly, is the weak link. For it does you no good to amass possessions and a community if you lack the means to protect them. And relying on princes will only take you so far, as the Tanach warns us. So if at any time the rulers decided to abuse their Jewish communities, the Jews were helpless. This was shown time and time again. Yet the Jewish strategy of accomodation continued, and was institutionalized within our collective memory and psyche.

Why? To us, history seems like an unending series of pogroms, expulsions, massacres and explotation. But to the Jewish communities of the time, accomodation seemed very successful indeed. Communities would go for hundreds of years in uninterrupted peace and tranquility. The Polish Jews knew only success for over five hundred years! And this was due entirely to their strategy of appeasing the nobles. Is it any wonder that such a strategy became our first instinct?

This instinct was so strong that the first pioneers in Israel had no idea that they would need any form of collective defense. They expected to buy the land, or earn it, or negotiate privileges with the local Arab populations, and be left in peace to found settlements. It took decades—decades!—of attacks before the Yishuv finally realized that it needed a defensive militia. And even then their tactics were utterly defensive. It took a concentrated effort by David Ben-Gurion to convince the Haganah to go on the offensive, even in the middle of open war.

The instinct of adaptation and accomodation has served us well in the era of modernity, which is marked by nothing so much as by endless, accelerating change. But this is true only in the cultural and economic sense, not the political sense. Such a political mindset was barely tolerable in a time of Diaspora, and even then it ultimately lead directly to the Holocaust. (Imagine what would have happened if every ten Jews of the six million had killed one German soldier; how long would the roundups have gone on?) In a time where we have our own state and sovereign soil, a mindset of accomodation is absolutely fatal.

And yet it continues today. Just think of the farce of the Oslo negotiations, where we traded physical power for mere words on paper, on the say-so of a murderer and the American president he bamboozled. It continues even now, with the disengagement fiasco. Dr. Wisse said that she approved of the actual steps being taken, but was horrified by the tone being struck by Israeli diplomats. A sovereign nation cannot be so cringing, so apologetic, she said in a tone approaching desperation: "You have to make demands!"

And this is exactly what must happen. We need to understand that the Diaspora is over. Galut may not be, but the Diaspora, and the specific political situation that implied, ended the moment that the State of Israel was born. We must shed the mindset of political appeasement, and have the audacity, the brazenness, to defend what is rightfully ours. This is part of why I believe all Jews must accustom themselves to firearms, as a way of training the mind.

In any event, we must be guided, as we should have been guided from the very beginning, by the threefold dictum of Hillel the Elder: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?"

3/12/2005

We Should Do This More Often

I just got back from an incredible Shabbaton. The guest speakers were Dennis Prager, Norman Podhoretz, and Dr. Ruth Wisse of Harvard. There was so much good stuff that I could write about it for weeks. I'm not sure whether I could do any of it justice this late at night, so I'll restrain myself for the most part.

A few quick notes on Prager. One of his speeches was on the decline of Europe; he traced it to the breakdown of their guiding ideas, and said as well that America is strong because of "American values." He said that he only realized what these American values are since 9/11, but that they can be found on any American coin. These values are three, and they are:

1. Liberty

2. In God We Trust

3. E Pluribus Unum

These are contrasted against the main European values, which are respectively:

1. Equality

2. Secularism

3. Multiculturalism

It is this last which is most damaging, since Europe no longer has the intellectual framework to justify fighting against the tide of Muslim immigrants, hostile to the very states that give them shelter. "European values" have a wide following in the United States as well, as can be seen from the recent Supreme Court decision on executing minors, as written by Justice Kennedy in which he cited world opinion as the basis for his ruling. If America is to remain vital, we must reassert American values over European ones.

One last Dennis Prager question to ponder on until I can treat it more fully: Given that we have a fixed calender, does the Rabbinic institution of a second day for Yom Tov violate the prohibition against "adding to the Torah"?

3/11/2005

The Coddling of the American Child

Many people have been surprised by the success of the Harry Potter series among young children, some barely old enough to read. The conventional wisdom had it that the plot of the books should be too complex, the atmosphere too grim. And characters actually die! The horror of it all...

This presupposes a view of children as being used to simplistic plots in which the conflicts are trivial, the characters are cardboard, and everything is sweetness and light. This sort of view is exemplified in the pabulum usually found in the children's section of libraries and bookstores, where the books often serve as nothing more than vehicles to shove some feel-good message down the throat of the reader, with very little in the way of realistic plotting.

Similar observations can be made about most children's television, at least from what I remember seeing on TV when I was younger. There was violence, certainly; but it was "cartoon violence," meaning violence without any sort of negative outcome. Nobody ever died in "G.I. Joe" that I recall. Nor in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," nor in any of the excrable variants of the "Power Rangers" franchise. In fact, I don't think I ever saw anyone die in a children's show, with the exception of one episode of "Mighty Max."

The problems being confronted were all relatively simple. Enemies were caricatures, intent on outlandish schemes of world domination or somesuch. It was rare indeed that the good guys did not triumph at the end of every episode. There was no reflection of what happens in the real world.

Often this whitewashing would reach lengths that defied simple logic. I remember one episode of "Double Dragon" in which one of the brothers is railroaded to prison by an unusually hostile judge. When he escapes a few weeks later, the judge is discovered to be a shapeshifter of some sort, and the real judge is found tied up in a back room. I remember thinking that it didn't seem realistic; if I were the imposter, I would have murdered the real judge to lessen the chances for discovery. Of course, such things don't happen in the world of American children's fiction.

Similarly, in the movie "The Iron Giant," near the end of the movie the Army is attacking the giant robot with every weapon at its disposal: planes, tanks, warships. It does not respond, until the boy that had befriended him is *apparently* killed. Then it goes berserk, unleashing its awesome weaponry against the Army. Yet when it would blow up a tank, the crew would always escape just in time to avoid death. Indeed, there is not a single death in the entire movie, which stretches the imagination given the firepower being thrown around.

Why are American children fed such a distorted view of the world, violence and its consequenses? Not only do such practices insult the intelligence of the young, they end up accomplishing nothing. Children will simply watch movies meant for older audiences; and in the meantime, they are shown that violence is something exciting, and completely without consequence.

The question was sharpened for me when my brother introduced me to a Japanese anime series called "Rurouni Kenshin." When I first watched it, I was shocked at how "adult" it was. The title character was an assassin during the Meiji Revolution, and is now trying to atone for his past by protecting the innocent, while never killing again. One of his friends was part of a group of warriors allied with the main revolutionaries, until the revolutionaries won; then they betrayed their former allies and killed almost all of them.

The show addresses drug dealing, corrupt government officials, revenge, the confrontation between a traditional society and Western culture and technology. Death is a constant part of the show; I couldn't believe my eyes the first time I saw an evil character commit murder. And not just the evil characters; one character, an assassin turned policeman, kills criminals with absolutely no emotion. Most importantly, the show is built around some of the loftiest themes that life holds: atonement, redemption, friendship, forgiveness.

Similarly, I discovered a young adult fiction novel written by an Israeli, David Grossman, called "Someone to Run With." It is "young adult" only in the sense that the main characters are young teenagers; but they must navigate a nightmarish world of criminal gangs, heroin addiction, and brutal police. The action is as dark as any "adult" novel, especially the sequences in which a character goes through heroin withdrawl. Grossman is an acclaimed writer of so-called serious fiction as well; it seems that in Israel, there is no stigma to writing for children as there is in America.

It seems that while many societies try to prepare their children for the real world, American society tries to insulate their children from the real world. Of course, this is folly. There is no way to escape the real world, especially now with mass media. All that is happening is that society is wasting a valuable pedagogical tool, and raising young adults with unrealistic ideas about how the world works. At the same time, children know when they are being condescended to, and respond with cynicism and sarcasm.

I don't know why Americans have the notions of childraising that they do. But I do know that they do more harm than good. The world will not ignore children until they reach adulthood, and we have a responsibility as a culture to prepare our children for real life—not some video-game fantasy world in which actions do not have consequences.

3/09/2005

A Nation of Sophists?

...[Aristotle] says that the sophists either identify political science with rhetoric or subordinate it to rhetoric. If there are no things which are by nature just or if there is not by nature a common good, if therefore the only natural good is each man's own good, it follows that the wise man will not dedicate himself to the community but only use it for his own ends or prevent his being used by the community for its end; but the most important instrument for this purpose is the art of persuasion and in the first place forensic rhetoric....[T]hey believe that it is "easy" to discharge well the non-rhetorical functions of government and to acquire the knowledge needed for this purpose: the only political art to be taken seriously is rhetoric.
—Leo Strauss, "On Aristotle's Politics," The City and Man

Something which I have been noticing more and more often is that large segments of society place much more emphasis on saying the right things than on doing the right things. Harvard president Lawrence Summers, whose administration is arguably one of the friendliest towards women that Harvard has ever had, was pilloried for daring to make a statement in an academic conference that ran afoul of the ideological orthodoxy. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued after President Bush made his statement about Iraqi purchases of yellowcake (never mind that it was already official US policy to remove Saddam, ever since Bill Clinton's second term). The United Nations commands the respect of many because it can cloak its depravities in the flag of universal peace and brotherhood, and an attack on the UN is seen as an attack on humanity's desire for peace itself!

Granted, words are important. They warn of future action, and project ideas and affinities into the world. This is especially true in the realm of politics, where words often seperate the world from endless war. Yet, often governments have used words as a substitute for action, not as a prelude to it. Tens of thousands are dead in Darfur, and most of the world makes portentous speeches full of sorrow and resolve, and then retire to their collective drawing-rooms for tea and crumpets. Much the same happened during the Rwanda genocide, or during the long decades in which Islamist extremism festered and spread through the sea of brutal Arab dictatorships.

Now we have a President who actually follows words with deeds, and much of the world is aghast. Why is this cowboy upsetting the boat? Every president says these things, so why doesn't he do what they did?

Regardless. Why is it that much of the West, and much of America even, is so contented by empty genstures and symbolism that they feel no need to actually take action? If a situation is dire enough to merit opposition in speech, should it not merit opposition in deed?

I think part of the answer lies in the creeping advance of moral relativism. Many people believe that no culture can impose its beliefs on another. After all, nobody can lay claim to the truth, so who is to say who is right? So what they can do is protest, cajole, plead, and hope that the culture eventualy agrees that what it is doing is probably not so great, and changes itself. But how can you actually act to change the world? That's not being tolerant of others!

Note that feminist groups were united in their condemnation of the Taliban government's treatment of women, right up to the minute that President Bush promised to go to war against them. Then suddenly the feminists turned against the warmongering imperialist US government.

In a society where colleges are overrun by majors in communication or English (both concerning use and manipulation of language, neither involved in actually doing something constructive), it is unsurprising that we develop an unhealthy fascination with abstraction and symbolism, to the exclusion of the concrete.

(Admittedly, it is odd for such sentiments to appear in a blog, written by a political-science major. But I started college as a physics major, and much of that mindset remains with me. I need to see tangible action, not intangible fluffery. Example: I will not believe that the new Palestinian Authority is any more sincere than the old one until we see multiple large-scale gun battles between PA security forces and terrorist groups. So far, none have been forthcoming.)

But for those who actually believe in Good and Evil as concrete forces in the world, words are insufficient. They are useful, but they are not decisive. In the end it takes action, and sometimes violent action, to make the world a better place. A thousand "give peace a chance" posters will do nothing to create that peace; that job is happily left to the "rough men [who] stand watch in the night on our behalf." So be it. But it is frustrating indeed that so many people refuse to see the obvious. Perhaps we should, like Plato, propose educational systems that develop moral virtue and not individual whim.

Quote of the Day

However much the power of the West may have declined, however great the dangers to the West may be, that decline, that danger, nay, the defeat, even the destruction of the West would not necessarily prove that the West is in crisis: the West could go down in honor, certain of its purpose. The crisis of the West consists in the West's having become uncertain of its purpose. The West was once certain of its purpose—of a purpose in which all men could be united, and hence it had a clear vision of its future as the future of mankind. We do no longer have that certainty and that clarity.
—Leo Strauss, The City and Man, introduction

3/08/2005

Social Security: Whose Money Is It Anyway?

[Note: This post was originally written as a column for the Commentator, the campus's student newspaper. It appears in the Tuesday, March 8, 2005 edition. I wrote it a few weeks ago. Let me just say that I have a lot more respect for skilled columnists now. It is extremely difficult to say anything worth reading in 800-1000 words, especially on such a complex topic as Social Security. The flip side is that it is easy indeed to produce brainless fluff of the type that infests most newspapers. Ah well.]

“In 1960, the Supreme Court of the United States in Flemming v. Nestor ruled that you have no legal right to your Social Security benefits…and that your benefits are part of a government spending program, no different in the eyes of the law than corporate welfare or farm subsidies.” Patrick Hynes, Cato Institute

Right now, the main event in Capitol Hill is the wrangling and arm twisting by President Bush to gather Congressional support for his Social Security reform plan, and by Democrats to defeat it. It is shaping up to be the most apocalyptic legislative battles in recent memory.

But why? What makes Social Security reform so important? And why does it need reform to begin with?

Let’s begin by briefly describing the present system. When you pay income taxes, 12.4% of the portion of your income below a cap (currently at $90,000, and indexed to inflation) goes into the Social Security trust fund. In other words, the most money an individual can currently pay into the fund is about $11,600 per year. From this fund are paid out disability payments and old-age pensions; the average beneficiary receives about $11,000 per year. The trust fund presently takes in more money than it pays out; and the remainder is exchanged for special Treasury notes. The Federal government then uses the excess money to fund general spending, which lets it pad its budget figures and disguise the true state of its finances. (If you tried this in a private firm, you would probably be arrested.)

The problem is that the system depends on a large number of workers to cover the cost of the retirees. And not only are birth rates going down, but life expectancy is going up. So while in 1950 each beneficiary was supported by 16 workers, in 2003 there were only 3.3 workers per beneficiary. In 2030, there will only be 2.2 workers per beneficiary. And the number will continue to decrease.

Moreover, the payment formulas are indexed not to the rate of inflation, but to wage growth. Because of this, benefits are growing more quickly than the general economy.

The results are stark. The Board of Trustees for Social Security reported in 2004: “Annual cost will exceed tax income starting in 2018 at which time the annual gap will be covered with cash from redeeming special obligations of the Treasury, until these assets are exhausted in 2042.”

This is the real problem. Yes, the trust fund is holding a certain value in Treasury notes; but in order to redeem them, the money must come out of the general budget. To do that, either the government must borrow more money, or else aggressively cut spending. So the real date to worry about is not 2042, but 2018. And we have very little time to change things.

How does President Bush want to fix the problem? Several ideas are being considered, but two seem most likely to be part of the eventual proposal. First is to index payments to inflation, not wage growth. This would slow the growth of Social Security obligations, but would not deal with the structural problem.

The second idea, and the most contentious, is the use of private savings accounts. These accounts would be voluntary; taxpayers may decide, on a one-time basis, to opt into the system, and in any event nobody born before 1950 may participate. Those participating may invest up to 4% of their payments in one or more of a handful of approved, conservative mutual funds, administered by the government. The system is modeled on the Thrift Savings Program, a pension program used by Federal employees (including members of Congress).

The plan for private accounts has set off howls from some parties, who would rather see the payroll tax increased in some fashion. The AARP, for example, is advocating that the tax cap be raised from $90,000 to $140,000. President Bush has refused to consider raising taxes of any kind, saying that they would do more harm than good in the long run. He notes that the payroll tax was only 2% when the system was instituted in 1935, and has been raised 20 times since then.

Some opponents have gone further. Dianne Feinstein, senator from California, wrote an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle on February 4th in which she advocated: “Repealing President Bush’s tax cut for those earning more than $200,000 and transferring the revenues to Social Security, which could save about $2.9 trillion over 75 years.”

Here, even the pretense of fixing the system is abandoned. Sen. Feinstein’s proposal is out-and-out income redistribution. The savings she claims do not exist. After the tax cuts were put in place, Federal receipts actually increased by about 10% year over year. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the budget ran a $12 billion surplus in January. This demonstrates the clear effect of the Laffer Curve, i.e. that high taxes will restrain economic activity. Why is Sen. Feinstein ignoring this?

The answer comes from Noam Chomsky: “[P]utting people in charge of their own assets breaks down the solidarity that comes from doing something together, and diminishes the sense that people have responsibility for each other.” Or, as Pete du Pont wrote for OpinionJournal.com on February 16th, “The government's Social Security system is socialism's last redoubt, and must be preserved at all costs.”

Private accounts would take money out of the hands of the government, and put it under the control of the people who earned it in the first place. And this is a tremendous benefit for younger workers, few of whom expect to receive any money at all from the Social Security Administration when they retire. But it remains to be seen whether President Bush’s proposal will survive Congress.

3/07/2005

Twice the Military, Half the Mess (for You, Anyway)

Vodkapundit has a post where he responds to a decent column by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times dealing with European arms sales to China. Friedman notes that Europe's own military is woefully anemic, and suggests:
There is an obvious compromise that Mr. Bush could put on the table that would defuse this whole issue. Mr. Bush should simply say to France, Germany and their E.U. partners that America has absolutely no objection to Europeans' selling arms to China - on one condition: that they sell arms to themselves first. That's right, the U.S. should support the export to China of any defense system that the Europeans buy for their own armies first. Buy one, sell one.
As cute as the idea is, it has several problems. First, as Vodkapundit notes, we don't have that kind of clout with the French or Germans. Second, I believe that Friedman is missing the whole point of the exercise, from France's perspective.

French leaders and diplomats have been saying for decades that they want to form a counterbalance against the United States. Indeed, much of the explicit motivation for a unified EU "rapid-response force" (which is neither rapid, nor will it ever respond, nor does it project much force) was to balance against U.S. military might.

But France has discovered that to have a military, you have to pay for it. And neither France nor Germany can afford to support a serious military at the same time as they pay for huge social safety nets. (Truth be told, they can't even afford the safety nets...) But they need to maintain their defense industries somehow, or else they will be left unprepared for any serious future threat. And there is still the Hyperpower to contain.

Enter China. In China, we have a growing geopolitical player with a lot of money to spend, a huge but largely obsolete military in need of modern equipment, and—most importantly—strategic rivalries with the United States, particularly with respect to Taiwan. By equipping the Chinese, the French and Germans get all the desired benefits of having their own militaries, and none of the costs. Indeed, China will even pay them! You can't get much sweeter than that.

Of course, such a policy would be woefully shortsighted (as with much of French policy in general, these days). The key assumption being made is that even with a powerful military, China will play by the rules. If actual war would break out, the EU would suffer as much as anyone. Moreover, the Chinese are exceptionally good at reverse-engineering technology. I can easily imagine homegrown Chinese military technology reaching parity with Europe in a decade or two. If that happens, the Chinese will simply displace Europe from the military export industry entirely.

The worst scenario is if China and Iran develop closer ties then they already have. China needs oil to run its economy, and Iran has a lot more oil than does Europe. Conceivably, China could purchase weapons from France or Germany, then turn around and resell them to Iran. It would not be the first time they did something like that; China has been known to supply Egypt with Israeli weapons technology.

Once again, the "realists" seem to be living off in another planet, where there is no such thing as "cause and effect." I have no idea what they expect to do should China start to throw its weight around, with shiny new European arsenals.

3/06/2005

Stratfor on the War on Terror

Seeker Blog has posted an analysis and excerpts of Dr. George Friedman's "America's Secret War." Dr. Friedman, founder of Strategic Forecasting, Inc. ("Stratfor"), provides a compelling picture of the strategy behind the war on terror, the Iraq invasion, and our relations with our sometime allies, the Saudis. (Hat tip: Roger L. Simon.)

One of the most interesting new pieces of information I got out of the piece was as follows:
...because the number of Al Qaeda’s key operatives is small, AQ is quite risk averse regarding mission compromise. Allied intelligence has used this against AQ to stop operations. E.g., by leaking that the CIA is interrogating "X", since AQ doesn’t know whether "X" has compromised an operation, they are likely to cancel it to avoid the risk.
I'd often wondered why news organizations publish this sort of information; now I know. This seems to dovetail nicely with some of my thesis research, particularly the "Two-Army Problem": given unreliable communications, two parties cannot coordinate their actions with any certainty, and coordinated activities will break down—especially if they involve a significant degree of risk. Of course, this only happens when the parties know that the communications are unreliable. Therefore, by making al-Qa'ida suspect that they've been compromised, the U.S. is very cleverly disrupting any terror attacks in progress.

The drawback is that this tactic will limit the utility of any actual information gained from captured VIP's. But in the particular instances mentioned, it was apparently judged that the chance of actually rolling up the active terror operations was not worth the risk of letting them continue to function. If al-Qa'ida is indeed this conservative, then it is worth taking some gains off the table, so to speak.

I will purchase this book soon, I think. I'll be sure to write up any thoughts on it when I finish.

3/05/2005

Syria-Iran Cooperation

Debkafile reports that elite Iranian units have taken up positions in Lebanon alongside Syrian intelligence forces. They have also beefed up Syria's border with Israel.

I don't know just how far to go with this. Debka has been wrong about some things, and rather spectacularly so at times, but in general they seem to catch things months before any of the major news sources. The only thing that would surprise me about Iranian troops in Lebanon and Syria is that Assad must be very desperate to place so much trust in a country that despises the Ba'ath Party. If I were Iran, I'd consolidate my position and then depose Assad and install a puppet regime in Damascus.

On the other hand, it would show just how desperate Assad is getting. Which is good, I suppose. Except that Iran gets a major geopolitical boost, and more direct access to their point-men, the Hizbullah.

Hmm.

Proud Member of the McCain-Feingold Insurrection

The Geek with a .45 has asked bloggers to post statements of defiance against the new threat to free expression. I am only too happy to oblige.

If the FEC wants to shut down this blog, they can bite me. If someone decides that I am violating campaign-finance laws by linking to candidates' sites, he can jump in a lake. If they are so desperate to stifle the voice of the people that they threaten mass arrests, then they'd better come with A LOT of backup, because there will be a lot of us to arrest.

This blog will continue, and I will write whatever the hell I feel like writing, and I will link to whoever the hell I feel like linking to, for as long as I have access to the Internet.

[Edited to remove a few "youthful indiscretions."]

3/04/2005

The Light of the Menorah

Yesterday a friend of mine asked me if I could read from the Torah this Shabbat for a small Chabad minyan on campus. I told him I'd see what I can do. So now I'm desperately trying to learn the reading in time.

There are several benefits to learning the readings. Because you have to repeat the words over, and over, and over again to memorize them, you begin to notice nuances of the text you would otherwise have missed. (Especially if you usually read on the English side...) This parasha, "Vayakhel," deals with the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). As I'm reading, I notice that the word "mela'cha" is used repeatedly to describe the activities involved in the building, particularly those needing skilled artisans. The same word is used at the beginning of the parasha to refer to the prohibition of activity on Shabbat, and the Sages understood that the prohibited activities were precisely those which were performed during the construction of the Mishkan. But that's a whole 'nuther topic.

Over and over again, there have been references to the oil for the lamps of the Menorah, which had seven branches with designs of flower cups and almonds underneath the lamps. The Menorah was fashioned out of a single ingot of gold, by Divine decree. Why?

(Disclaimer: everything I'm about to say is one opinion among many. When I remember my sources, I will cite them, but a lot of them have blended together over time. For that, my apologies.)

It is a well-established tradition that the different vessels in the Mishkan all had symbolic meanings. Maimonides et al assert that the Menorah represented the different aspects of human thought. Each of the six outer branches represented one of the six schools of human knowledge (metaphysics, philosophy, history, etc.), while the central column represented Divine knowledge and the Torah. Tradition has it that the wicks in each of the outer lamps would lean inwards, towards the central lamp. This is understood as meaning that all aspects of human thought are subservient to the Torah.

I'm sure someone must have said this before, but I believe this is why the Menorah had to be made from a single piece. One cannot section off his mind and say, "This is my Torah knowledge, and this is my secular knowledge; each is self-contained, and they do not interact with each other." Rather, there cannot be any separation between Torah and human knowledge; each must inform the other. Indeed, Maimonides believed that one could not truly understand the Torah without a basic grasp of physics first.

This model of learning is contrasted with another model, that of the Holy Ark. The Ark represented Torah and Divine Revelation in its purest form, without human adaptation. (R' Aryeh Kaplan wrote that the prophets of old would prepare themselves for prophecy by meditating on the Ark.) The Ark was kept in the innermost room of the Mishkan, and nobody ever went inside except the High Priest, and then only on Yom Kippur. This model is that of the ascetic, who closes himself off from society to focus entirely on the Divine.

A point which gets forgotten is that because the Ark was purely Torah, it had to be hidden. Such a model, while praiseworthy for individuals, is not fitting for an entire society. Those who are not true spiritual masters cannot live properly if they scorn "secular" knowledge, because their knowledge of Torah itself will be stunted and narrow. Moreover, the Menorah—and not the Ark—was placed opposite the Table of the Showbread, which symbolized the Divine promise of sustenance. Those who follow the way of the Ark must depend on others for their livelihood. For the society to function, the bulk of the people must follow the way of the Menorah: employing "secular" knowledge and being enriched by it, while viewing all through the lens of the Torah and Judaism.

The Menorah, in contrast to the Ark, was not shut away from society. Indeed, when the Temple in Jerusalem was constructed, windows were placed so that the Menorah's light would shine out into the world. Today, the world needs that light badly.

3/03/2005

Let's Try This Again...

A while back I experimented with Google advertising, and got annoyed by the off-topic ads they kept posting on my site. But things might have improved since then, and I could certainly use some lucre about now, so let's see what happens.

McCain-Feingold in All its Rancid Glory

Well, we knew it would happen eventually. A Federal judge has just extended the so-called Campaign Finance Reform Bill to regulate the content of blogs.

The entire blogosphere, left and right, is up in arms. Michelle Malkin has a good roundup here.

I think the Washington reactionaries have just stepped out in front of a big-rig. This is going to be a lot of fun to watch. At least I hope so; if it ever stops being fun to watch, it might just be time to stock up on guns and ammo, or else leave the country.

Power Without Responsibility: Tyranny and the Supremacy Clause

Going through my readings for American Politics yesterday, I came across something absolutely shocking. A naked abuse of government power that undermines the very pillars of a federal society.

I do not know much about the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff in which Vicki Weaver was shot by an FBI sniper, under objectionable circumstances. All I knew was that many considered the shooting to be murder, yet the agent in question had not been punished. Now I know why.

Hans Sherrer writes in "The Inhumanity of Government Bureaucracies" (The Independent Review Fall 2000) that the state charges of involuntary manslaughter brought against the agent were dismissed by Judge Edward Lodge:
Judge Lodge ruled that under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution federal agents cannot be criminally prosecuted by a state for violating a state law while performing their assigned governmental duties (Sherrer 258).
Full stop. Apparently, a Federal agent may now willfully break any state or local law he chooses, and get away with it so long as he is "on the job." Note that there was absolutely no reference to the guilt or innocence of the agent in question, only to the right—the right!—of a state to charge him for a crime he allegedly committed on its own soil.

So who is left to enforce justice on Federal agents? Why, themselves! Presuming, of course, that the Federal justice code is comprehensive enough to cover all acts of wrongdoing, which it most certainly is not. Indeed, this is by design; most aspects of civil or criminal law are rightly judged to be the domain of the states, and not subject to the meddling of the Federal government. There is no federal statute for involuntary manslaughter; thus, the government could not charge the aforementioned FBI agent with an equivalent offense, even if it felt like doing so.

How abhorrent.

Is the United States a country of laws, or of men? Is our code of justice so arbitrary and slanted that we peasants are subject to the full force of the law, while our Federal masters are immune? How is that justice? An organization wielding the full force of government, and yet unrestrained by that same government, becomes a fit tool for oppression and tyranny. And it need not even be an explicit program of tyranny either, merely the cumulative effects of the petty, self-serving actions of many individuals.

Worse, this same sort of immunity is theoretically enjoyed by all government bureaucrats, regardless of position (Imbler v. Pachtman 1976). A member of a bureaucracy suffers no consequences for his actions, and is trained to believe that the bureaucratic end justifies the means. It is now a valid defense in an American courtroom to say, "I was just following orders"—provided you work for the United States government.

What will be the reducto ad absurdium of such a situation? Simply that everyone in the country will want to work for a government bureaucracy. Moreover, anyone in a position of power will seek to use that power to the best of his ability to advance his own position, and to torment his enemies. There is no cost of doing so, after all, and significant benefits. If such a legal monstrosity is allowed to continue, we will create a society filled with irresponsible, amoral, sadistic parasites.

Is it really that bad? Fortunately, not yet. For the most part, our government is still run by decent people. But they are steadily being displaced by the professional status-grabbers, who are attracted to the idea of power without responsibility. For the sake of America and all who are in it, we must reimpose the rule of law on the guardians as well as the guarded, so that no one must suffer unrequited injustice, simply because the offender is wearing a badge. If these scum are hiding behind the Supremacy Clause, then let it be amended.

3/02/2005

Military Service and the Draft

The Washington Monthly features an article by Phillip Carter and Paul Glastris titled "The Case for the Draft." Though it contains some predictable sniping about "inept leadership" and "inadequate forces" (which in light of the events of the last week are particularly off the mark), it makes some good points about the limits on military deployments with the present force structure.

The key passage outlining their proposal for a new draft is:
A better solution would fix the weaknesses of the all-volunteer force without undermining its strengths. Here's how such a plan might work. Instead of a lottery, the federal government would impose a requirement that no four-year college or university be allowed to accept a student, male or female, unless and until that student had completed a 12-month to two-year term of service. Unlike an old-fashioned draft, this 21st-century service requirement would provide a vital element of personal choice. Students could choose to fulfill their obligations in any of three ways: in national service programs like AmeriCorps (tutoring disadvantaged children), in homeland security assignments (guarding ports), or in the military. Those who chose the latter could serve as military police officers, truck drivers, or other non-combat specialists requiring only modest levels of training. (It should be noted that the Army currently offers two-year enlistments for all of these jobs, as well as for the infantry.) They would be deployed as needed for peacekeeping or nation-building missions. They would serve for 12-months to two years, with modest follow-on reserve obligations.

Whichever option they choose, all who serve would receive modest stipends and GI Bill-type college grants. Those who sign up for lengthier and riskier duty, however, would receive higher pay and larger college grants. Most would no doubt pick the less dangerous options. But some would certainly select the military—out of patriotism, a sense of adventure, or to test their mettle. Even if only 10 percent of the one-million young people who annually start at four-year colleges and universities were to choose the military option, the armed forces would receive 100,000 fresh recruits every year. These would be motivated recruits, having chosen the military over other, less demanding forms of service. And because they would all be college-grade and college-bound, they would have—to a greater extent than your average volunteer recruit—the savvy and inclination to pick up foreign languages and other skills that are often the key to effective peacekeeping work.

A 21st-century draft like this would create a cascading series of benefits for society. It would instill a new ethic of service in that sector of society, the college-bound, most likely to reap the fruits of American prosperity. It would mobilize an army of young people for vital domestic missions, such as helping a growing population of seniors who want to avoid nursing homes but need help with simple daily tasks like grocery shopping. It would give more of America's elite an experience of the military. Above all, it would provide the all-important surge capacity now missing from our force structure, insuring that the military would never again lack for manpower. And it would do all this without requiring any American to carry a gun who did not choose to do so.
Let's begin by noting that such an idea is absolutely politically unfeasible. The liberal elite would howl at the thought of mandatory national service for (gasp!) college students. The college students themselves wouldn't be thrilled either, and though national service may indeed lead to worthwhile benefits for the national character, sadly it must overcome the present national character to be instituted in the first place.

Second, the Petagon has adamantly opposed a draft for a long time. They find that volunteers generally do a better job than conscripts, for any number of reasons. Aside from that, it causes much less domestic turmoil to send volunteers into battle than it does to send conscripts, which is probably the biggest reason why the government prefers a volunteer force. Just look at all of the breastbeating over deploying National Guard units, because they are being ripped away from their work, families, etc. And they volunteered for it!

Third, such a proposal would inevitably lead to a growth in government programs of the Americorps variety, just to absorb the new capacity. It is possible that such programs would end up promoting the model of government as social patron, leading America into the Euroswamps.

Carter and Glastris note that one major problem with military deployments is the present unit structure. Units at present do not operate independently of each other, but are part of a vast logistical hierarchy which must be deployed along with them. While they note that the military has been working to reorganize its units to be more flexible, Carter and Glastris discount such efforts as a way to meaningfully solve the problem. I think this is a mistake.

For some time I've been paying attention to the work of Arquilla and Ronfeldt over at the RAND Corporation, especially their piece "Swarming and the Future of Conflict." In it, they propose that the entire unit hierarchy be canned altogether, and that soldiers be organized in autonomous units called "pods," which are about battalion-size. The pods would be more or less specialized, and would coordinate with each other to bring the correct mix of abilities to bear on any obstacle. They suggest that such an approach would be much more efficient than what is presently done, and would allow for the maximum benefit from new network technologies.

I think that such an approach is much more realistic than pressing for a draft, especially in the present political environment in which "draft" is a dirty word. (Thank you, Charlie Rangel...) It has the benefit of making our forces much more effective, as well as reducing our footprint. The only difficulty is convincing the rear echelon at the Pentagon that they have to devolve control to the front line, and embrace a radically new way of doing things. Actually, that might take a while...

UN Growing a Spine?

UN forces came under attack in the Congo recently, and responded by killing about 60 militiamen with fire-support from an attack helicopter. This is in stark contrast to previous events in the Congo and in other parts of the world, in which the UN went so far as to allow its own men to be killed without retaliation (as noted in the article).

Could this be the start of something new? And how much of this is due to the increased international pressure on the UN to stop wasting oxygen and do something useful?

I'll be watching this carefully, I think.

3/01/2005

Hoisted on Her Own Petard

Apparently one of the original founders of the Million Mom March was arrested for illegally possessing a handgun and drugs. The woman in question, Annette Stevens, claims the gun belonged to her murdered son and that "...she didn't find it until six or seven months after he died. Not knowing what to do with it, she wrapped it up, put it in a drawer and forgot about it."

She also claims that she was only arrested because she has close connections with one of two rival gangs under investigation for a series of drive-by shootings. Gee, I can't imagine why that would get cops annoyed, can you?

Ms. Stevens joins an illustrious list of gun-control advocates arrested for breaking gun laws. Perhaps most notorious was fellow MMM co-founder Barbara Graham (also known as Barbara Ann Lipscomb, and a few other aliases), who shot and paralyzed an innocent man who she wrongly believed had murdered her son.

The prevailing theory among gun users to explain this seemingly odd phenomenon of gun-control types committing violent acts is that such people are projecting their own instabilities on the rest of humanity. Knowing that they themselves cannot be trusted with weapons, such people assume that the rest of the country is the same way, and live in fear of a similarly deranged person shooting them first. To mitigate that fear, they seek to disarm society (though not themselves, of course).

It is a hopeful sign for the gun-freedom movement that our most prominent opponents are a few Valiums short of a pharmacy, if you get my meaning. As noted in a statement widely attributed to Sigmund Freud, "A fear of weapons is a sign of retarded sexual and emotional maturity."

Cato Grades Governors

The Cato Institute has released a report analyzing the fiscal prudence of the nation's 50 state governors. The top marks went to none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. Arnie came into office with a massive state deficit, and has been whacking away at it ever since. He also promised not to raise taxes to close the gap, which he has more or less stuck to. A point worthy of mention is that Arnie is one of the most popular governors in office.

State governments have a constraint on their spending that the Federal government does not: they cannot simply print new money and inflate their debts away to zero. One would imagine that the states would tend to be more conservative, and yet we find that many states managed to run up huge deficits that they are having trouble financing. (Note: the site I link to seems to believe that the answer is taxes, taxes, and more taxes. Obviously, I disagree. But they also note that the Federal government has foisted hundreds of billions of dollars worth of unfunded mandates onto the states, which is wrong on so many levels I cannot even begin to describe them. Actually, I can: it is a gross violation of the Federalist principle.)

Could Arnie's staggering popularity, achieved precisely because he is willing to take on the entrenched class of public parasites that are driving up California's budget year after year, perhaps encourage other elected officials to discover fiscal prudence as well? I hope so. For a government to run persistent deficits, and accumulate ever-increasing debts, is corrosive to public policy. There are only three ways such a scenario can play out: by paying down the debt, by paying off the minimums on the credit card every month and hoping you can keep up, or by defaulting on the debt entirely. Not paying off debt immediately amounts to passing the buck to future generations. Being part of an imminent "future generation" myself, I am not amused by such irresponsibility on the part of government officials.

One could rightly ask why I have such a visceral opposition to raising taxes, since that would also ameliorate the present deficit problem. My answer is that I have no confidence in government's self-discipline. Perhaps they would keep their spending under control for a few years, but soon you will get another would-be FDR who simply spends everything he can get his hands on. I would much prefer the Arnold Approach: no new taxes, and elimination of spending. Especially pork-barrel projects.