06
May
18

Borders

“[The migrant caravan] is a deliberate attempt to undermine our laws and overwhelm our system.”  – Jeff Sessions

“Make no mistake about it; These families – often women and small children – are victims. They’re victims of open border advocates who support and encourage them to take a long and dangerous trip.” – Mike Pence

This week the “migrant caravan” – a large group of families from Central American countries totaling roughly 1000 people – reached the US border to request entry. Fox News described this group as a migrant “army” that threatens our border, a sentiment that is clearly shared by the administration. What is not mentioned is that this is a yearly occurrence. A group of asylum seekers has come to the US border from Central America every spring since 2008, but in our current political environment this is suddenly a big deal, though in terms of immigration to the US, 1000 people is nothing. They come mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, and are seeking asylum from political violence in their countries. It is so violent in their own countries that they are willing to walk a hundreds miles, carrying kids and all their belongings, then live in a tent in Tijuana indefinitely, for the chance of making a new life in the US. They don’t try to sneak across the border, they walk right up to the border guard stations and report themselves and fill out the appropriate paperwork and wait. They travel in a large group for safety (consider what chance a small family with a few kids and carrying all their worldly belongings would have walking through Tijuana).

But either way, I don’t want to debate whether or not this group of migrants is a dangerous threat or a shining example. I have always believed that people should not take their instinctual, gut reactions to specific events and then extrapolate their worldview from those. Rather, they should come to an understanding of what their individual values are, and then consider specific events through that prism. So in approaching this particular question, I would want to consider whether or not migration is a “human right”.  There seems to be some weight behind the view that migration is in fact a human right on the liberal side. On the other hand, most conservatives would likely consider the perceived security implications to be much more important.

Historically, there is no basis for migration being a human right. It has never been considered so throughout human history, and in fact extending past that into pre-history. It has always been true that groups of people, whether clans, tribes, or nation-states, defend their territory and resources against incursions by other groups. The first duty of governments, has always been defense of the population; and this has always been taken to mean primarily defense of the borders. The majority of the time this means military defense against an attack, but there are also many examples of defense against migrating populations. Throughout history, the migration of a large group into the territory of another has always led to chaos, violence and upheaval, and usually to one group dominating the other. Strictly defined borders and international law may be modern concepts, but the defensive impulse against outsiders is instinctive. Even animals do it.

If there is no doubt that there is at least a correlation between large amounts of migration and large amounts of social and political instability, often leading to violence, there is also no doubt that the defense of a group’s territory against others has always been legitimate, and still is. It is a recognized right, by every international law, for a country to control its borders and the flow of people and things in and out. It is even recognized to be a moral right, even duty. Migrants may be in a horrible situation, they may be escaping violence and persecution themselves. They have no certainty of safety, or of basic needs, in even the very short term. But there is still nothing wrong with a government putting the concerns of its own people first. Helping migrants is a choice.

So, legally, the US has no duty to accept immigrants into the country or to ensure their well-being outside of the country. Any moral duty extends only to the point that we have the ability to help and may choose not to. So what’s the big deal if Americans want to get really strict about letting people into the country? In my view, it is more about the identity of America and Americans, rather than a responsibility to others. Part of the American identity, in the minds of Americans and others in the world, has been the image of something that stands apart. I’ve heard many conservatives on TV and in person talk about America as the “exceptional country”. This seems to be a test of patriotism, something that must be believed without question (and without definition). It is something that personally I do believe, ie that America is an exceptional place, but I do question what it is that makes the US exceptional.

It seems to me that conservatives (not to pick on one “side”, its just very noticeable) seem to view American exceptionalism extremely simply and one-dimensionally, as being based primarily on military strength. But to me, this is no exception at all. All countries are judged on military strength, we just have more of it. To me, America is exceptional because we have always chosen to do exceptional things. The exception for America, is that it has a moral duty with respect to the rest of the world. Many people may see this as a soft liberal idea…well, too bad. Our history shows that it has always been a source of strength. A large part of America’s identity throughout its history has been as the Land of Opportunity, the Beacon of Liberty, the Last Refuge of Freedom. It was a place that people in other countries looked to as an example. We have, in the past, chosen to do the things that other countries don’t do.

It is a legitimate choice for the US to “defend” its borders, to accept or turn away as many immigrants as we see fit, and it would be fully legal, moral, and justified in almost every way. But would it be right for us? Should we just do what every other country does? In my opinion, the only way for America to remain the “exceptional” country, is to make the choices, and accept the challenges, that are exceptional.

Tell me what you think.

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24
Feb
18

Cold Dead Hands

“The Carrying of Firearms Strictly Prohibited” – Sign at the city limits of Dodge City Kansas

“Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes” (A War of All Against All) – Thomas Hobbes

Let me begin by stating that the law, as it currently exists under the Constitution, allows for the legal ownership of guns. And therefore the burden is not on gun owners to explain or justify their decision to own guns. They are allowed to, and that’s it. The burden rather, is on the person that believes gun ownership should be made illegal or at least more strictly regulated to explain and justify the limitation of what is currently considered a right.

That being said, I believe that there is a reasonable argument in favor of stricter gun laws. This post is not going to be an interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, well regulated militias and so forth, but more of an exercise in pursuing a thought through to its various conclusions.

First, the limitation of a freedom in favor of the public good is, and has always been, legitimate in a lawful society. For example, no one questions the freedom of speech, but we can also accept that libel or slander are out of bounds, along with speech that promotes violence. I personally feel like I am reasonable and responsible enough to decide when I might safely drive 80 or 90 miles per hour, but I can also accept that there are other people out there who may not be as reasonable as me. And so I accept that a speed limit is legitimate.  In the same way, I know many people who are responsible gun owners, but I also understand that there are irresponsible and unreasonable and dangerous gun owners out there (such as this week’s shooter). I’m not talking about people who get guns illegally, but people who get guns legally and use them inappropriately.

This paragraph brings up an inconsistency in an idea that is being debated right now that must be pointed out. The question is whether schools would be safer if teachers are armed and trained.  The basis of this proposition is that if a prospective school shooter knows that other people in the school have guns and may kill him, then it will dissuade him from going through with it. Deterrence assumes that the person being deterred is rational, and wants to avoid the threatened outcome. Many have pointed out that the people who do school shootings are obviously irrational, and likely mentally disturbed, and therefore the problem isn’t the availability of guns, but rather lies with the individual who committed the crime.  If this is the case, then armed teachers cannot act as a deterrent because the individual is either not capable of understanding the threat, or unwilling to avoid the outcome. It is a fact that most mass shooters have been suicidal, and therefore somewhat immune from deterrence. While this is an argument against the arming of teachers, it is also a larger concept – that the presence of armed individuals will not deter violent crime. I would submit, perhaps as only an opinion, that most violent criminals do not reach the decision to commit their crimes through a rational thought process.

The ideal “good guy with a gun” fails as a deterrent of crime, as it fails in addressing crimes in progress. We unfortunately saw this week that the presence of a number of armed sheriff’s deputies did not prevent the school shooting from happening, and did not stop it once it was in progress. All this aside from the question of the practical difficulty armed teachers (or any good guy with a gun scenario). Police often, if not always, arrive on the scene of a crime with imperfect information. In the case of a school shooting, they would likely know only that a shooting is in progress, not who is doing it, how many shooters there are, where they are, etc. On entering a school or any place with a shooter, a policy officer seeing an unknown subject with a gun out is likely to take immediate decisive action in the interest of protecting others and in his own self-defense.  If teachers are armed, I would propose that they would have to have some kind of very visible identification such as a uniform or badge.

This leads to the second point I have to address – the very common argument from gun owners that if guns are illegal, then only criminals will have guns. A few moments of thought will find that this is not true. If guns are illegal, then only criminals and police and other law enforcement will have guns. The idea that only criminals will have guns if they are made illegal ignores the fact that we have in our government structure provisions for the legitimate use of force. We do not live in a savage state of nature where without weapons we are left defenseless. In fact, a long accepted precept of government is that it has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In return for that allowance, it has the responsibility of ensuring safety of civilians to a reasonable standard. Whether or not law enforcement can do this is a question to be addressed both functionally, within the various agencies, and politically, by considering what powers and what resources we give them. If law enforcement is not doing the job to a communities satisfaction, then that community should consider who they have put in responsible positions and what resources they provide, rather than simply diffusing the duty of law enforcement to the citizenry. The idea that the average citizen needs firearms to defend himself presupposes a level of violence and anarchy that is simply not evident in today’s society.

If the question is whether we would be better of with no one but criminals and law enforcement having guns, or with everyone able to carry a firearm if they choose, we do not have to use our imagination to appreciate what that would be like. It was in fact the case, in an easily accessible historical space – the Old (Wild) West. There’s no stronger picture of personal freedom in the American experience than the cowboy out on the plains, taking care of his own simple needs, and taking no crap from anyone. However, the people that moved out west to “settle the frontier” and start new lives quickly realized what life would be like when everyone has guns…it sucks. When everyone has guns, they don’t rationally think through their daily activities and gauge actions vs. consequences. They do the same things that people without guns do – they get drunk, they get in fights, they have arguments over property, money, husbands and wives. But frontier towns often went without powerful and organized law enforcement, and so even those freedom-loving cowboys could agree that everyone would be better off if we agree not to carry our guns around town.  Dodge City Kansas, Deadwood South Dakota, Tombstone Arizona – they all had as one of their first laws a prohibition on firearms. The gunfight at the OK corral happened when the Earp brothers and Doc Holiday, hardly the image of over-sensitive liberals, attempted to enforce gun control laws. Some cowboys brought guns into town and the Earps/Holiday confronted them to confiscate them. The rest is (much-revised and glorified) history.

These are my thoughts. You will note that I don’t propose any solutions. I’m not giving an opinion on the NRA or the politicians that work with them. School shootings and the dysfunctions of our society are a larger question. I’m not against gun-ownership, in fact I enjoy recreational shooting and would consider ownership myself. But I am in favor of laws and restrictions that would put a great burden on gun-owners; restrictions strong enough to effectively reduce gun ownership overall.

I will, however, give my personal opinion on the statements made by Dana Loesch, the spokesperson for the NRA, this week. You can find the full quote online, or just by turning on the TV right now.  She stated that the media, the liberal boogeyman of the right, loves school shootings, noting that “crying white mothers” are ratings gold. This statement is obscene. I don’t mean dirty joke or bad word obscene. I mean that it is a statement not fit for civilized people. The assumption that people cannot react as human beings, that they can only experience feelings stemming from total self-interest, and that they can only act in accordance with those narrow and selfish concerns; this assumption is indicative of a supreme cynicism that is both a cause and effect of today’s dysfunction, and is the enemy of community. Until we can find a way back to a reasonable foundation for civilized interaction – that we all want similar things for our lives and our families, that we all feel similar things, and fear similar things – then we will confine ourselves to world where people are not, by nature, good. Is that the real world? You tell me.

11
Feb
18

Buy/Sell

“The best time to buy is when there is blood in the streets.”  – Baron Nathan Rothschild

Is the stock market rigged? Does the little guy, who goes out and does some research on his own, and saves up some money to invest, have any chance of success against the combined forces of big banks and government favoritism? The way the stock market turned this week from unstoppable advance toward prosperity to darkest gloom is certainly hard to understand. It’s not hard to see why a lot of people see the unknown forces behind the market as at best mysterious, and at worst malicious. But like other large groups I’ve discussed in this blog, such as the government, companies, political parties, there really isn’t any independent thing called the market. There are millions of people who have varying levels of influence making their own decisions for better or worse.  So if there’s no behind the scenes cabal of power-players designing ways to enrich themselves and impoverish you, then what is it that makes the market, or even just the price of a certain stock, go up or down?  Here’s my very basic understanding. Feel free to comment if you have some deeper insight or greater experience.

Two things, that I can see, move stock prices 1) The value of the actual underlying company that the stock represents, or 2) Supply vs. Demand. I’ll explain.

  1. Very basically, a share of stock is a piece of a company. If there is a company that is worth $100 million, and that company has 1million shares of stock in the market, then the price of the stock will be $100 per share. So if the company does well, for example if they attract more customers, create new products, or if the general economy leads to the company making more money, then maybe next year the company will be worth $125million. If that happens, then your shares will go up, from $100 per share to $125 per share. So people with some knowledge of the company may buy the shares now if they think it will do better next year, or sell the shares if they think it will do worse.  The decisions that these investors make to buy or sell may be correct or incorrect. I may believe that a company will do well in the future, but then something happens to change their prospects, maybe a change in management or just plain poor performance, and the shares I buy now will go down and I’ll lose money. The fact is that investors, no matter how knowledgeable, never know everything about a company, and can rarely accurately predict what will happen in the future.
  2. By supply vs demand, I do not mean supply vs demand of a company’s products. It needs to be understood that the shares of stock that represent the value of the company are themselves products to be bought and sold for different reasons. More people buying a particular stock will drive its price up, regardless of the performance of the underlying company. While #1 leads to long term, easier to understand changes, #2 generates short term swings that are far more complex and open a real can of worms. People don’t just buy stocks because of their (correct or incorrect) knowledge about the company, they buy stocks because they got a tip from someone, because they saw something about the company on TV, because they work at the company, because they have insider information, because they’re smart and did good research, because they think a stock is “hot”. People make a decision to buy or sell stock for the same reasons they do other things – because they’re smart or stupid or greedy or methodical or afraid.

These factors leads to action in the stock market that may, in the short term, seem to make absolutely no sense, and in fact sometimes seem to be the complete opposite of what should be happening. Nobody can understand fully what causes each and every move in the market, but one can reach a general understanding. I had said in a previous post that I thought the market would go down shortly after the new year. I didn’t know for sure, but there were a number of things that tend to be reasons for people to sell, driving prices lower. There were tensions with North Korea, tensions within congress about government shutdowns and the Russian investigation. There was the fact that the market had been going up for some time and people had some profits, and by selling in January or February, you have a full year to enjoy the profits and reinvest them before you have to pay the taxes on them. Note that none of those have anything to do with the performance of any company or even the economy. My own very general understanding, from what I have learned in my own small scale investing, is that people are out there making decisions about risk. When there is uncertainty – yes, in the market, but really just uncertainty in general – then people don’t like to risk money in stocks, they like to have cash. When they sell their stocks to get cash, it drives prices lower. When people feel secure – in their jobs, in their prospects for the future – then they will act optimistically. This is true for the average person and usually also for financial professional. Even though they may have greater knowledge, it is very difficult to overcome the human impulses of fear and greed.  These two factors will tend to cause people to sell when the market is doing poorly and buy when it is already up, which of course is the opposite of what should be done.

Of course, if trying to gauge what the public is thinking and feeling sounds like a real hassle, then the other way of solving this problem is to just set up your 401(k), disregard this post, and in 30 years you’ll be a millionaire. Congratulations.

08
Dec
17

Jerusalem, Hebrew: City of Peace; Al Quds, Arabic: The Holy One

This week Donald Trump unilaterally, and seemingly totally at random, decided that the US would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Most Americans aren’t familiar with the specifics of Middle East peace talks, and therefore don’t get why this is a big deal. Here’s a very quick rundown: Israel was created in 1948 when the British mandate of Palestine was divided between Jewish and Arab areas. Part of this division led to the city of Jerusalem being split into West Jerusalem, controlled by Israel and East Jerusalem controlled by the Kingdom of Jordan. Decades of war followed, as we all know, and over the course of these wars Israel conquered the rest of the city of Jerusalem and the rest of the Palestinian territories. Over the years, the “peace process” has led to the widely accepted conclusion that there must be a “two-state” solution, meaning that Israel will withdraw from most of the Palestinian territories and the Palestinians will have their own demilitarized country. Jerusalem is one of the big problems because both sides want it to be the capital of their country. In the meantime, each side had an unofficial center of government, Israel in Tel Aviv and the Palestinians in Ramallah. This week’s unilateral declaration, which arbitrarily announces to the world  that the US somehow has the authority to make this decision, simply gives the city to Israel.

Here are the major issues, from the American position (which I would think would be Trump’s main focus):

1) This announcement changes nothing on the ground. Everyone owns the same land they owned last week. Both governments work the same way.

2) It does nothing to benefit the United States at all. Many have said that Trump would do this to please his base, which is true, it will. But I’ll admit its a complete mystery to me why. If nothing is changing on the ground in Israel, there’s certainly nothing changing here. How will any American’s daily life be affected in the least? Moreover, it does nothing to help Israel. So the US recognized Jerusalem as the capital, so what? How does that make Israel safer; how does it make Israeli’s lives better.

3) This announcement basically guarantees a wave of violent unrest if not war, and the significant likelihood of anti-American terrorism. I’ve been under the impression for some time that the point of the peace process was to avoid renewing a state of war. This does the opposite. This puts Americans around the world in greater danger, without achieving anything at all. I don’t think we even need to elaborate on the amazing shallowness and crassness it takes to place pleasing your base, which knows nothing about the actual issues, over the actual lives of thousands of people. Many people are actually going to die because of this. Let’s just consider, if some Palestinian kid loses a mother, father or sibling when the Israelis try to enforce this, who is he going to blame? He’ll see, like any reasonable person, that this was a meaningless gesture meant to make Trump look tough. I don’t work for the CIA, but I’m going to guess that the first rule in the War on Terror is “Don’t create thousands of new terrorists.” Maybe not.

4) Aside from physical danger, this damages America’s standing around the world. There are literally zero other countries that are with us on this. It’s only one more thing proving to everyone that this administration will make irretrievable mistakes based on no facts and little or no thought.

5) Aside from physical danger, and diplomatic damage, this is going to inject a huge amount of uncertainty into the economy. Trump likes to brag about how the market has been booming since he took office. (We’ll address somewhere else how this market has been advancing at roughly the same rate since 2008) Just like I don’t work for the CIA, I don’t work for Goldman Sachs either. But I have a 401k and own some stocks, and the most basic market education (which I would think Donald Trump has achieved in his business career) will teach you that if there is one thing the market hates, it’s uncertainty. Nothing presents more uncertainty than the prospect of war. We now have two areas of the world (Israel and North Korea) where war is not just a possibility but a probability. So Donald Trump’s been unpredictable for a while now, why would this be the thing that affects the market? Well the prospect of corporate tax gains has been keeping valuations up, and with the first part passing the Senate this week that is some insurance against a drop. Also, people may be holding onto their gains for the next few weeks until the new year so they don’t have to claim them for taxes this year. Making predictions about the stock market, especially uneducated ones like mine, are always dangerous. But if I had some stocks with some gains from this year, cashing out and locking that in before January might be a good idea.

26
Nov
17

Can You Put a Price on Your Kitten Memes?

“Net neutrality is pro-business in the best and fullest sense of the term, guaranteeing that new companies can grow unimpeded and help accelerate the US economy.”   — Nicholas Economides, Professor of Economics, New York University

“Frankly, the regulators are not that good at understanding the underlying technologies. Even if they’re right now, things change.” — Christopher Yoo, Professor of Law, University of Pennsylvania

“Two months ago, I saw a provocative movie on cable TV. It was called The Net, with that girl from the bus. I did a little reading, and I realize, it wasn’t that farfetched.” – Frank Costanza

 

The FCC’s current initiative against the doctrine of net neutrality is called the “Restoring Internet Freedom” initiative. As I’ve noted in a few previous posts, whenever people feel the need to put the word “freedom” into a proposal, or go out of their way to tell you that something is for “freedom”, it should trigger your analytical reflexes. You may not know what, but something is up.

Net Neutrality, what the hell is it? In 2015 internet service providers were classified by the FCC as “common carriers”, which without a long technical explanation basically meant that the internet would have to be treated, and regulated, like a utility. Net neutrality says that internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all data on the internet the same, and not discriminate or charge differently based on the user, the use, the content, the website, etc. ISPs can’t block, slow down, or charge more for specific sites or content. As long as you pay the bill to your service provider, you can access anything on the internet equally.  In my personal opinion this makes sense in today’s world. The use of the internet is inextricably woven into our daily lives. I use the internet all day at work to store and pass on information to coworkers and communicate with clients and claimants. At home, or on my phone, I pay my bills online, make reservations and appointments, email about various commitments, find entertainment, etc. In previous years I searched for and applied for jobs and school. It’s hard to think of anything you might do nowadays that wouldn’t involve you being connected to the internet. People depend on the internet being just like electricity or water, when I turn on the computer I want it there…now. And if I pay my bill on time I don’t want any excuses.

In my understanding, net neutrality promotes efficiency in all aspects of people’s lives, public and private. Further, in consideration of public good, it promotes the free and timely availability of information, which is of huge importance to a democratic country that depends on an informed electorate.

However, there are those, such as the current head of the FCC Ajit Pai, who argue against this. He has said that net neutrality is “last century” style regulation; that net neutrality actually limits people’s choices because they are not allowed to choose and customize what kind of internet access they want. For example, what if I want to pay less and not have access to video games or entertainment sites? What if I just want the “useful” parts of the internet like email, personal banking, and shopping? Isn’t the FCC’s current ruling against this a needless regulation? Why not have basic and premium plans like we do for TV? (And just in case it seems like I’m building this up into a Trump thing, Ajit Pai is a Republican, but was appointed by Obama, on the recommendation of Mitch McConnell, back in 2012, apparently the heyday of across the aisle cooperation.)

Pai’s feelings fit in nicely with the Republican/Conservative point of view that any reduction of regulation makes the market freer and therefore is good for its own sake. The main problem as I see (among others) it is that removing the current regulations would allow ISPs to restrict access to certain sites and information. For example, if net neutrality did not exist, ISPs could restrict access to sites and news sources that promote net neutrality, and by doing so shape this very discussion. They could prominently place sites and news sources that are critical of politicians and groups that disagree. They could tailor the news and information that people have access to in order to give the impression of great strength for their own position and weakness for the opposing position. Likewise, they may provide this service – the tailoring of information and access – for other paying customers, such as political interest groups, commercial interests, and anyone else that wants to pay up to put themselves first, safe in the knowledge that they can pass on the costs to the consumer in the end.

An internet provider might choose to charge companies to make their sites faster, more accessible, and to include their sites in basic plans. Who is more likely to be able to pay what they charge, the small businesses and startups that drive economic growth or Amazon? Once Amazon pays whatever the cost to make them the automatic connection for online purchases, how is that cost not going to be passed down to the sellers that are featured on Amazon, and then down to the consumer? If this situation restricts people’s access to competition, increases costs for both consumers and companies, and makes it harder for new companies to compete, then how exactly is this promoting a free and open market?

As usual the loud and explicit invoking of “Freedom!” is a distraction that is meant to hide the exact opposite. The freedom referred to in the Restoring Internet Freedom initiative is the freedom of powerful interests to restrict the freedom of those with less economic and political power.

19
Nov
17

Says Who

“People don’t believe things anymore.”   – Salman Rushdie

 

I was watching a CNN segment recently on the whole Roy Moore thing. There was a typical panel for discussing it with some liberal and some conservative commentators. I apologize up front for not getting the guy’s name, but one of the conservative commentators was asked what he felt should be done about Roy Moore and the upcoming election in Alabama. His response was “Well look, that whole thing was reported by the Washington Post so….”  So…what? It’s unfortunately very common right now for people to simply doubt the source that brought a problem to their attention, rather than to address the problem itself. The Washington Post has a liberal slant, that’s a fact. Does that mean it is incapable of reporting simple facts? This trend is not limited to the conservative side either. I can very easily imagine some unflattering info about Hillary Clinton being reported by Fox News and some liberals responding with “Well look, that whole thing was from Fox News so…”

People seem to think that today’s media outlets leaning a certain political way is a new thing; that it somehow just started when 24 hour news stations were created. However, this has always been the case. When people primarily got their news from newspapers and the nightly news on network TV, it was well understood that 90% of the paper would be normal reporting of facts and that there would then be one or more editorials, where the editor or a commentator gave an opinion on a topic. This editorial was understood to be their personal view on the subject. If an editor is the one making decisions about what gets printed, then obviously their personal view may influence the reporting, but there was no doubt that the vast majority of the reporting was fairly unbiased.  For some reason, nowadays people seem to think that anyone with any kind of political opinion is incapable of viewing any fact without the tint of their political belief.

Part of the responsibility for this is due to the news channels on TV, which have reversed the levels of content. Now, they need to keep viewers interested enough to watch for long periods of time for ratings, which simply reporting on daily happenings cannot do. You can get the gist of a day’s important events in a few minutes. The goal of a 24 hour news station has to be entertainment, in addition to information. And so today’s news channels are almost completely editorial. Its more entertaining to watch a news personality or panel discuss a subject to death than to report deeply. The American education system, as a general rule, does not train people to think critically or to be analytical, so it can be difficult for people to see the difference in these two kinds of reporting. For example, if I watch Sean Hannity and disagree with everything he says, does that mean I should then not trust a Fox News correspondent to report facts? If Fox News says that Hillary didn’t disclose a bunch of emails that she was supposed to, that is something that can be confirmed or disputed by facts. If their commentators then say that this is of huge significance and that it clearly points to something criminal and so forth, that is opinion, which I have the responsibility of evaluating – maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not.

The inability of the current American educational system to teach critical and analytical thinking has developed a society which, as a whole, finds it extremely difficult to accept that some things are true, and others are false, independent of one’s opinion on the matter. People have a very hard time seeing the difference between one and the other, between opinion and fact. It’s acceptable in our society for people to question established scientific facts, or at least to see them as matters of belief. If someone asked you if you “believe in” evolution, your response might be “of course” or “of course not” but it will probably not be that the question itself doesn’t make sense.

Something can be true, even if it is not fact. For example, a person may believe that there is “truth” in the Bible, without believing that the Bible is literal, historical fact. But people don’t think that way today. Some people think that unless you believe that the stories in the Bible are historical fact, you cannot have faith in what the religion teaches. Conversely, many think that because the Bible is clearly not historical fact, that the religion as a whole can be rejected. Someone who thinks critically will see that there is fact and there is faith, and that they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. This is a heavy responsibility to accept, because it puts the duty of analyzing information on the individual, and we are confronted with an insane amount of information in a day. But until people take this seriously, then the highest level of public discourse we have any right to expect will be the one noted above – a stubborn refusal to “believe in” facts we don’t like, and accepting half-assed implications and unfinished thoughts as being somehow meaningful.

 

21
Oct
17

Iran, Iran So Far Away

“I never get too attached to one deal or one approach…I keep a lot of balls in the air, because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first.”   – Donald Trump, Art of the Deal

 

It looks like Trump is starting down the road of removing the US from the Iran nuclear deal. This is a deal in which Iran agreed to stop pursuing the development of nuclear weapons, agreed to limits on its enrichment and use of nuclear material, and agreed to neutral inspections in order to confirm these actions, in return for removal of nuclear related sanctions and movement toward normalizing relations with the US, Europe, and the rest of the world.  Most Republicans seem to support getting out of this deal, and it also seems that this is driven by their “base”. One may wonder, if there is a diplomatic deal with the purpose of stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons, then why would you be against that? (I’ll show my conservative readers the respect of assuming that they’re not against it simply because it came from the Obama administration, that they’ve actually considered what the deal may or may not do). I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and my conclusion (open to debate) is that there are a few basic misunderstandings regarding Iran and diplomacy in general that sway some people. Let me point out a few criticisms of the deal, and then explain where I think they’re wrong.

  1. We shouldn’t deal with terrorists/dictators, etc. – This attitude has come up frequently in US history, mostly because the US, to its credit, has very often had antagonistic relations with authoritarian or totalitarian governments, and with governments that support terror. Generally, we don’t like them, and they don’t like us. In my everyday life, when I think someone is a jerk, I try to avoid them. Countries can’t do that, at least not important countries. And Americans hate to hear it, but Iran is a very important country. They have a lot of oil, they sit right in the middle of the shipping lanes for other people’s oil, they carry a lot of influence with a very large worldwide religious community, they have important friends. Ignoring them will not ever make them go away. In WWII we sucked it up and worked with the Soviets to defeat Hitler. In the Cold War we managed to trust the Soviets enough to negotiate a number of nuclear arms deals. We worked with Communist China because it gave the Russians something to worry about. We have a huge amount of trade with Communist China today because it’s good for both countries. Being realistic about a situation does not mean that you’re giving up your principles. And like anything else that poses problems in your life, ignoring it only makes it worse.
  2. The nuclear deal is a bad deal because it doesn’t do anything to address Iran’s support for terror, or its meddling and supporting oppositions in Iraq, Yemen, etc. – It’s not supposed to. It’s a limited deal that addresses the issues of nuclear weapon development. If Iran lives up to its end of the deal, then only the sanctions related to nuclear programs are removed. All of the other sanctions stay in place. We can address those other problems separately. Anyone who does any negotiating in their everyday lives knows that you don’t throw out a deal just because you don’t agree on every single aspect. You figure out what you can say “yes” on, and then you build from there. This deal would actually make it easier to accomplish settlements of those other issues because we would have a history of success to build on, and a framework with which to work.
  3. It legitimizes the authoritarian government of Iran – Just the opposite. It legitimizes the moderate opposition to the authoritarian government in Iran. There are parties in Iran just like there are here, even if they’re not formalized like they are here. There are hardliners who think there is no possible way to work with the US. They call us the Great Satan. They support terror. They’re very strong in Iran and control a lot. Then there are a growing number of people, mostly the young, who think conflict with the US is stupid, and is a game they can’t win. They want to deal with us as they would any other country. They see the growth in nearby China and India and think, why don’t we have some customer service centers here? The Great Satan thing doesn’t play with them, because they just got out of college and it doesn’t help them get a job. A peaceful deal, would serve to undermine the hardliners’ image of the US as an irredeemable military threat. Believe it or not, people vote in Iran, for parliament and president. The religious leaders have a veto, and so they have the control, but they also came to power when the people rose up in a revolution and overthrew the old government. Suffice it to say that they are sensitive about the things that may rile up the people. If people are voting moderate representatives into their parliament, and moderate presidents into office, then they will get the message. Will they give up the game just like that? Of course not, there will be stiff resistance, but it will lead to progress.
  4. We can’t deal with them, they’re crazy – Wrong. They do a lot of things that we disagree with, but everything they do has a clear goal and if successful benefits them, or at least the higher-ups in the regime. That being the case, dealing with them requires that we have some kind of realistic idea of what their goals are. Why do they want nuclear weapons? Because they believe nuclear weapons are a guaranty against military invasion by the US. The primary motive of the regime in Iran is, as should perhaps be obvious, preservation of the regime. They will do things that protect the regime and make it more powerful, and they will avoid things that weaken the regime. Democratic reforms are perceived to weaken the religious authorities, and so they avoid them. Supporting terrorist organizations like Hezbollah in Lebanon extends there power further over the region. Nuclear weapons would do much to protect the regime. Nukes solve their problem of being so much weaker than the US. It’s the same reason North Korea got them.

This idea some people have that Iran would get nuclear weapons and give them to terrorists is ridiculous. Why would they spend so many years, go through the trouble and expense of sanctions, risk war with the US, all to get nuclear weapons, and then just give them away? If their goal is to protect their regime, then why would they give up their most powerful weapons to people who cannot be controlled, knowing that if that group uses the weapon, then of course the US would hold Iran responsible and would destroy the regime. It makes no sense at all.

So, if nuclear weapons would be so good for the regime in Iran, why would they agree to give up the program? They’re weighing the costs against benefits. Nukes are a guaranty against military invasion, but have a very high cost – economically, through the cost of the weapons themselves and the sanctions that come from them, and in damaging their relations with other countries that are against the spread of nuclear weapons. A deal that includes the US, Europe, Russia, and China, is also a good protection against invasion. It restrains the US by making us live up to an agreement and gives these other countries some say in any actions taken against Iran. It’s not a rock solid guaranty, but it’s pretty good and far more affordable.

  1. A deal with them doesn’t make any sense because they’re only going to cheat on it and get nukes anyway – This argument is based on the fact that Iran very often tried to cut corners and cheat when the international community was trying to get them to abide by nuclear non-proliferation programs for years. However, these were not agreements. It was basically the US and others informing Iran that they could not have nuclear weapons. Few self-respecting countries would feel obligated to live up to such programs unless compelled to. A deal in the form of an international agreement, recognized by the most powerful countries of the world is not only a good deal for everyone, it’s also a sign of respect. Iranians have a strong sense of identity, with a stress on their history. Americans tend to think of Iran one-dimensionally, only as revolutionary, theocratic Iran. This version of Iran is about 40 years old. Their sense of identity goes far deeper, back to ancient Persia 2500 years ago, when they were the largest and most powerful empire in the world. Of course, they understand that they are not so powerful now, but they’re not Bolivia either. They feel that when important issues in the world, or at least in the Middle East, are being decided, they have a right to be in the room. They’ll force the issue if they have to, by supporting terror or threatening oil supply lines, but they’d rather make a deal.

 

Even if there are problems with this deal, and I don’t know that there are, a deal is generally the right move here. People these days seem to think only in military terms when they think of the US as being the most powerful country in the world. That is only one aspect of our power. We also have the most powerful economy, and the most influence diplomatically. By ignoring the last two, we are only taking powerful weapons out of our own hands.




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