In Our Lifetimes

March 27, 2008


I’ve said to friends on a number of occasions that I think that it’s quite likely a nuclear bomb will go off in a major American (or European) city within our lifetimes. I guess it’s a morbid prediction to make, but as an avid believer in Murphy’s Law, I think it’s a reasonable prediction. No one took the idea of a terrorist attack like 9/11 seriously prior to it actually happening, and today the idea of nuclear terrorism in an American city is so terrible a thought that it’s nearly inconceivable.

Jay Davis has an interesting article in the Washington Post about how the US should respond if/when this occurs. I applaud Davis for thinking in hypotheticals that aren’t often discussed, and his recommendations look good as well.

The appearance of nuclear weapons materials on the black market is a growing global concern, and it is crucial that the United States reinforce its team of nuclear forensics experts and modernize its forensics tools to prepare for or respond to a possible nuclear terrorist attack.

So what do you think. Is this possible? Is this likely?

Let Freedom Ring?

June 12, 2007

I am not a patriot. I dislike nationalism in all its forms, and I hold no extraordinary allegiance to my country of birth. I see no more reason to fight for the economic gain of those who share my nationality at the expense of others as I do to fight for my Caucasian ethnicity.

I do however hold allegiance to certain principles–freedom and justice being primary among them–that I believe are worthwhile. To the extent that America is in line with those principles, or at least better than some other countries, I love America. To the extent that America falls short, I am an irrepressible critic. Principle stands higher than country, and it seems that most of the wars in the world have followed when country stands higher than principle.

Truthdig has a piece on Bush’s (positive) reception in Albania, at the same time as a report was released by the Council of Europe on America’s secret prisons. From the report:

What was previously just a set of allegations is now proven: large numbers of people have been abducted from various locations across the world and transferred to countries where they have been persecuted and where it is known that torture is common practice. Others have been held in arbitrary detention, without any precise charges leveled against them and without any judicial oversight. … Still others have simply disappeared for indefinite periods and have been held in secret prisons, including in member states of the Council of Europe.

So, how should we judge President Bush? They say history will judge him… Who knows, maybe later Americans will retain their penchant for preemptive war and laud Bush as a hero for setting a precedent. That’s not an America that I look forward to. One thing I can certainly say now is that the abuses of freedom and human rights that were often justified in our foreign policy by utilitarian calculations (civil war in Guatemala or elsewhere is better than a Communist takeover) have been thrown front and center by George Bush. From TruthDig:

We will remember that long after it was clear that Guantanamo was doing serious harm to our nation’s reputation in the world—on Sunday, Bush’s former secretary of state, Colin Powell, called for the place to be shut down “this afternoon”—Bush stubbornly kept it open.

Let the scandals of today pass. Certain things will stick in our minds much longer:

We will remember Alberto Gonzales not for his hapless stewardship of the Justice Department or the firings of those U.S. attorneys—well, actually, we will remember him for those things—but we’ll also remember that when he was White House counsel he dutifully provided legalistic justification for subjecting prisoners to treatment that international agreements clearly define as torture.

And, one last note on the Council of Europe report:

Marty [the author of the report] makes this point in his report. “We are fully aware of the seriousness of the terrorist threat and the danger it poses to our societies,” he writes. “However, we believe that the end does not justify the means in this area.” Resorting to “abuse and illegal acts,” he says, “actually amounts to a resounding failure of our system and plays right into the hands of the criminals who seek to destroy our societies through terror.”

If America is a beacon for freedom, justice, and human rights, then she is worthy of praise. If she is a den of selfish, aggressive foreign policy and a hunger for economic gain with no question of its consequences, then she is not. Most Americans don’t really care about numbers killed that much. In truth, American forces have killed (whether purposefully or accidentally) many more civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere then died on 9/11 in New York. The conflagration begun by our military belligerency has arguably resulted in the deaths of more civilians than the continuation of Saddam’s murderous regime would have.

We, as Americans, normally accept these numbers not because we like death, but because we believe the American government is fighting for something that is true, noble, and just: American forces are fighting to preserve the American way of life. If America is not just in its treatment of enemies, are we fighting for justice, or for blind self-preservation?

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Shooting the Messenger

January 20, 2007


Turkish journalist Hrant Dink was shot and killed in broad daylight on a street in Istanbul. Dink had been outspoken about the Ottoman genocide of Armenians at the start of the 20th century. While this may seem like ancient history to present-minded Americans, it plays heavily into regional politics in Turkey and Armenia. Many Turks think the killings were a justifiable part of a civil war, while Armenians see it as genocide (most non-Turkish sources I’ve read agree with the latter).

Being a prominent journalist about an unpopular issue is never an easy task. But in some places the messenger is more likely to get shot than in others. For example, I don’t think Anderson Cooper has gotten many death threats lately. (However, this may be a symptom of how any prominent journalist–especially American ones–pander to the system. If you’re not getting death threats or hate mail, your work might not be that important…)

So how big of a deal is calling the killing of Armenians genocide in Turkey? Evidently it’s illegal to insult the Turkish state (in America it’s mostly legal, just unpopular). From CNN:

Described as a “well-known commentator on Armenian affairs,” Dink had been called into court a number of times on allegations of “insulting” the Turkish state in his writing.

And apparently Dink isn’t the first Turkish journalist to be targeted for unpopular beliefs:

Joel Campagna, Mideast program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said, “Like dozens of other Turkish journalists, Hrant Dink has faced political persecution because of his work. Now it appears he’s paid the ultimate price for it.”

Campagna said that Turkey “must ensure that this crime does not go unpunished like other cases in the past and that those responsible for his murder are brought to justice.”

He said that over the last 15 years, 18 Turkish journalists have been killed — making the country the eighth deadliest in the world for journalists in that period. He said many of the deaths took place in the early 1990s, at the peak of the Kurdish separatist insurgency.

Unlike Anna Politkovskaya, who was likely assassinated by the Russian government itself (for criticism of atrocities in Russia’s war on Chechnya), Dink’s death is more likely that of an Islamist or Turkish ultra-nationalist extremist (the assassin reportedly shouted “I shot the infidel”), categories which can often become blurred, but the Turkish government is anything but blameless for the overall situation:

Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, told CNN that the case is the “product of the environment that the Turkish government has created” — its persistent denial that the killings of the Armenians last century did not amount to genocide.

How Turkey handles this event, along with its relations with the Kurds, will also inevitably tie into Turkey’s desire to join the European Union. But while this killing raises political questions, it also brings me to a more philosophical inquiry.

Is there really a right to free speech? Do people inherently have an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Where do any of these rights come from? In the idealistic sense the answer may be yes, we have these rights, but many authors on human rights (Farmer ‘s Pathologies of Power comes to mind) would be the first to admit that they can’t “prove” rights. Nobody truly possessed a right to freedom of speech or freedom of religion until people decided that they had those rights, declared them, and made them a reality.

A right can exist as an ideal that has no real correspondence to actual conditions, but over time the ideal may come closer to realization. Our freedom of speech is still imperfect, but there are arguably more people in the world today who can speak freely than ever before. There will always be people and governments who will shoot the messenger, but if we shed light on and punish those who violate the right to speech, we may move closer to the ideal, if only incrementally. In the same sense, I hold that people have a right to health care–a right that is inseparable from our right to life–but recognize that this right is less realized in America than any other wealthy nation. The act of smoothing over the edges between the ideal and the reality is the whole pursuit of social justice.

Update: A suspect has been arrested in the case.

Choosing Chavez

December 3, 2006


On Sunday the 16 million registered voters of Venezuela get a chance to select their next leader. Hugo Chavez is running for another six year term, and is opposed by former Zulia state Governor Manuel Rosales.

I honestly don’t know much about Rosales. There isn’t much on Wikipedia, and I hadn’t heard too much of him before. That, and the incumbent’s still soaring popularity among Venezuela’s poor, seems to bode well for Chavez’s reelection.

Read the rest of this entry »

A Nationalist Feeding Trough

November 27, 2006

(An extension of Rotten Cotton)


While my full review of Bill Emmott’s book 20:21 Vision: Twentieth Century Lessons for the Twenty-First Century is still forthcoming, I’ve been pleasantly suprised by some of his positions. As the editor of The Economist, Emmott espouses an interesting brand of economic libertarianism. He is no pure laissez-faire economist. Instead, he recognizes that in many areas government intervention is necessary in order to allow the market to function optimally. Key areas are in reasonable environmental regulation, responsible control of the money supply, and the restriction of monopolies.

So Emmott’s economic libertarianism seems to be driven more by practicality than ideological devotion to smaller government as necessary for the preservation of freedom. This is important because, in my view, government intervention is often necessary to protect individual’s freedom (and to promote justice) from those who are more powerful- be they individuals or corporations. Faith that the unregulated market would be the best of all possible worlds is akin to religous belief for some, but falls shorts of tests of pragmatism.

Similar to Stiglitz’s critique of farm subsidies in general, here’s Emmott’s pounding of the European Union’s farm subsidies:

“Despite being planned at a supranational level, the Common Agricultural Policy [of the European Union] has become a nationalist feeding trough. It is a case study of how a system of subsidies is almost impossible to dismantle once it has been created, for farmers in every country lobby their politicians to maintain subsidies, quotas and rules that favor them. It is also highly protectionist and throttles poor countries’ farm exports….”

I also just found this interest, sometimes productive discussion of Jeffrey Sach’s poverty-elimination scheme over here.

Elimination of farm subsidies by the U.S. and E.U seem to be a necessity for African farmers to really develop successful business models that could yield exports, and thus a more productive economic base then mere subsistence. The only serious issue remaining, in my estimation, is what incentives to offer developed-world farmers for them to abandon their subsidies. At the very least, fat pensions and re-education programs to help them find new careers would be required. But after that, my mind’s a blank.

Corinthian Columns

November 25, 2006

The city of Corinth sits on a thin little isthmus between the mainland of Attica and the Peloponnesian peninsula in Greece. The Temple of Apollo (pictured below) is typical ancient Greek fare, but ironically doesn’t use Corinthian capitals on its columns. The other pictures are of (and from) the Acrocorinth, a mountainous outcropping near the city that was heavily fortified during the Byzantine era. The Acrocorinth was best known for its temple of Aphrodite, which was mainly famous for being the home to a whole lot of women of ill repute.





Patents and Patients (II)

November 25, 2006


As an addendum to my previous post, I’ll offer these quotes from Bill Emmott’s 20:21 Vision: Twentieth Century Lessons for the Twenty-First Century. Emmott is the chief editor for The Economist. I’ll be writing a review of this book briefly, but for now, here are some quotes that jive pretty well with Stiglitz’s take on pharmaceutical patents:

“Intellectual property (that is, patent) protection for rich-world firms enables them to keep their goods expensive in developing countries while preventing local firms from competing against them.

“This is particularly problematic in the pharmaceutical business. Medicines are cheaper in the third world than in the first, but they are still costly by local standards. Pharmaceutical firms argue that they need to make profits in order to maker their research into drugs worthwhile; without patents and profits, the drugs would not exist. Perhaps more pertinent, however, is a fear that if they sell drugs very cheaply in poor countries, traders will buy them up and export them back to the rich world, undercutting the drugs firms’ profits there.

“Both these arguments are sound. Without profit, the drugs would not be invented. But there remains a question of quite how much patent protection is really needed. And, most important, there remains a question of who should pay to help make drugs cheap in the third world: the drugs firms’ shareholders or rich-world taxpayers. There is a strong moral case for the second, for the use of aid money to bridge the gap between the need for profits to repay research and the difficulty the poor face in paying the bills. This is especially important for diseases that are prevalent only or mainly in poor countries, and thus provide no profits at all in the rich world. Such aid, targeted clearly at medicines and health care, especially for scourges such as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, would come with risks. Over time, for instance, the drug firms might raise the prices charged to the donor governments, thus creaming off more of the aid money for themselves. The risk of smuggling back to the rich world would also persist. But it would still save millions of lives. And the moral point would be clear: it is not capitalism that is at fault in making drug prices too high and unaffordable in the third world, it is poverty.”

Rotten Cotton

November 6, 2006

Globalization and the rhetoric of free trade have often been used to the detriment of the poor. On the other hand, free trade and free markets also have the potential to facilitate positive change throughout the world, if their excesses are moderated. Want a great example of how the principles of free trade and the ethic of rooting for the poor can be undermined in one fell swoop? Let’s try farm subsidies.


Farm subsidies help our farmers compete in international markets against all natural market forces. These subsidies hurt farmers in developing nations because they are forced out of markets they might otherwise be able to compete in (domestic and international).

Republican and Democratic presidents and legislatures have been equally bad on this count, constantly increasing subsidies for U.S. farmers. Our hypocrisy on this issue is nearly unrivaled; as we call on other countries to open their markets while keeping the poor shut out of ours (the European Union is just as bad, if not worse). Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, has written a striking piece on cotton subsidies; “The Tyranny of King Cotton”.

Stiglitz’s piece caught my eye because I got his book Globalization and Its Discontents last year for Christmas (yes, I actually ask for things like that). Greg Mankiw (a Harvard economist) also recently blogged about Stiglitz’s article.

In general, I’ve found that economist speak an entirely different language. I took a macroeconomics class one summer to help me understand a little, but I’m afraid I’m still far from conversant on many issues. But Stiglitz makes things understandable to the layman on a level similar to Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty. Here are some excellent quotes from Stiglitz on farm subsidies:

“Americans like to think that if poor countries simply open up their markets, greater prosperity will follow. Unfortunately, where agriculture is concerned, this is mere rhetoric. The United States pays only lip service to free market principles, favoring Washington lobbyists and campaign contributors who demand just the opposite.”

Stiglitz continues, saying that if we had eliminated farm subsidies,

“Likewise, migration pressure would have been reduced, because it is the huge disparity in incomes more than anything else that leads people to leave their homes and families to immigrate to the US. A fair trade regime would have helped reduce that disparity.”

“Indeed, citizens throughout the rich developed world all stand to benefit from a more prosperous globe – especially a world in which there is less poverty, with fewer people facing despair. For we all suffer from the political instability to which such despair gives rise.”

So eliminating farm subsidies is definitely within our self interest; rational self interest is usually the purview of economists. But when they start moralizing as well, you know an issue is rather clear:

“America’s national interests thus dictate a change of policy. But there is also another powerful rationale for doing so: treating fairly those who are poorer and less powerful is the morally right thing to do.”

Serbs Them Right

October 28, 2006

Serbia is voting this weekend on its new constitution. The controversial part is that the new constitution (necessitated by Serbia’s split with Montenegro, which opted for independence earlier this year) maintains that Kosovo is an “integral part” of Serbia. And most Kosovars disagree. Serbian politicians have urged citizens to either vote for the new constitution or risk “grave consequences”.

Kosovo is currently governed by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), with security provided by NATO. Since most Kosovars want independence from Serbia, the UN will likely eventually give it to them, and hopefully Serbia won’t have the military might (or will) to resist seriously. So Serbia’s new constitution will likely have no impact on Kosovo’s actually status.

Instead, it could hurt Serbs themselves. Serbia is hoping to join the European Union sometime soon, and without protection for the rights of (or possibly independence for) Kosovars, Serbia’s chances of joining the E.U. are close to nil.

From my short time in the former Yugoslavia, I got the impression that everything I had read was more or less correct. Blind nationalism and religious self-righteousness were found on all sides. The Serbs just had better weapons, so the others suffered more.

Hard feelings are close to the surface between ethnic and religious groups. Over breakfast coffee in Split, right next to Diocletian’s palace, a former Croatian tank commander told me about fighting for “his country, his people”, gesturing that he smiled when he got to fight.

And I realized a sort of truth about pretty much every war in history. What group has ever gone to war without believing that fate, or luck, or righteousness was on their side? And what people have fought a war not believing God was on their side?