~ Wednesday, March 26, 2003
Rumsfeld urges chemwar

BBC reports that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is pushing for use of non-lethal chemical agents in the war on Iraq.

Professor Perry Robinson said: "What we're really worried about is the long-term implications for our ability to manipulate chemicals.

"We can coerce and repress people by all sorts of chemical means that are opening up.

"And that's the worry. To see chemicals as weapons of mass destruction is to miss the point, because then you just think of lethality.

"We see them as terrorists' weapons, but their use against terrorists is becoming a big issue, like CS gas and fentanyl, used in the Moscow theatre siege.

"Once you admit non-lethal toxic agents in war - something specifically banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention - you are on a hard road.

"It leads to chemical weapons based on the targets' ethnicity or other factors, and results that would persist for generations."

The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, has asked President Bush to authorise the use in Iraq of riot control agents.

The US has shipped to the Gulf both CS gas and pepper spray, whose use the convention allows only in domestic civil disturbances.

The last thing we need right now is to undermine the Chemical Weapons Convention. Good God, why is this guy still around?
~ Tuesday, March 18, 2003
Did a lack of gun control create Saddam?

American gun advocates have long argued that, just as an apple a day keeps the doctor away, lots of people with lots of guns will keep tyrants away. Of all of the pro-gun arguments, this strikes me as the creepiest. In America, we are ruled by democratically elected officials (well, excepting Dubya, but that's curiously not a case that disturbs the gun pushers). So the "right of revolution" propounded by pro-gunners is the right of a few self-appointed patriots to overthrow a government chosen by a majority of their fellow citizens. Whatever happened to the ballot over the bullet?

Beyond the inherent creepiness of the argument, there is a striking poverty of historical evidence for it. In the first place, widespread gun ownership is not, empirically, a necessary condition of free government. Many countries with fairly restrictive gun laws (Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, for instance) have somehow escaped the ravages of dictatorship.

Perhaps because this is so clear, gun advocates have ignored necessity in favor of sufficiency. That's why the gun lobby focuses so much on Hitlerian Germany. If the Nazis had failed to control guns and if Germans (or Jews) had all been armed, the argument goes, Hitler's tyranny and the Holocaust would have been impossible. Of course, Nazi gun control happens to be one of the great urban legends (the Nazis didn't impose gun control, and their first changes to gun laws, five years after coming to power, actually eased restrictions on gun ownership). Still, gun ownership seems to have been uncommon in Germany between the World Wars, so it doesn't quite refute the pro-gun thesis.

But Iraq does. By popular acclaim, Saddam's Iraq is one of the world's nastiest and most totalitarian dictatorships. I'm sure most pro-gunners, in particular, see Saddam as an especially oppressive dictator. According to a March 12 New York Times article about Iraqi citizens preparing themselves for post-war unrest, however, gun ownership is almost universal in Iraq.

One gauge of that fear is the trade at gun shops. Most Iraqi households own at least one gun, so there has been no particular run on armaments. But some gun shop owners report as much as a 50 percent jump in ammunition sales.

So, pro-gunners here have a real dilemma. Either they're mistaken about Saddam (since lots of Iraqis have lots of guns, he can't be a such a bad ruler!), or they're wrong about guns and oppressive government. I'm not holding out any hope that gun advocates will say lots of Iraqis owning guns caused Saddamism, although they would surely have attributed Saddamism to a lack of gun ownership if any such lack existed.

If they want my advice, I'd suggest ditching the guns and tyranny schtick: it's a stupid argument anyway.

UPDATE: Tim Noah of Slate got to this one first.
~ Monday, March 10, 2003
Affordable housing versus the mortgage interest deduction

Jane Galt contends that the mortgage interest deduction raises the price of houses by around 25%. Wow!

I mean, I always suspected that a lot of what Americans gained though mortgage interest deductions was lost through higher prices. That's simple supply-and-demand economics. If you give people incentives to buy a somewhat inelastic commodity, prices have got to go up. So the deduction ends up being more of a surreptitious transfer payment system to the real-estate and mortgage finance industry than a subsidy of home ownership. But no one ever talks about it, and I'm sure most Americans would be pretty shocked by this argument.

Moreover, it looks like this has a huge reverse-Robin Hood effect. The deduction may make houses worth 25% more for an average-income household, since that will be heavily skewed towards those in the top income bracket, but the tax advantage for a median-income household is surely far less than that. So the deduction may actually make home ownership less affordable for most Americans.

I can see the slogans already. Promote affordable housing! Eliminate the mortgage interest deduction now!
The evil that men do lives after them

The New York Times article I cite in the previous post also connects the wave of lynchings in Guatemala to the right-wing death squads responsible for anti-Indian genocide during the civil war.

In Huehuetenango, the police were actually run out of five villages for reasons ranging from trying to save a suspect from a lynch mob to trying to enforce laws against cutting down trees illegally - thus depriving impoverished residents of income.

Rights advocates see the attacks on the police and judges as a worrisome harbinger of increased violence at the hands of newly reorganized Civil Self Defense Patrols. These groups of villagers, forced to take part in massacres during the war, have demanded payment from the government for their wartime service.

Looks like rule-by-death-squad is making a comeback. The last paragraph of the article returns to this theme.

Almendra Teresa GutiƩrrez, a judge in the western town of Santa Barbara, said armed patrollers in one village told her that they were more powerful than the police and had refused to stop their nighttime rounds. She suspects that they are responsible for two deaths since October. "Like during the war," she said, "if someone is outside at night after a certain hour, they are up to no good and must be executed."

So, even a decade after the Reagan and Bush I administrations, we are still harvesting the fruits of their support for right-wing dictatorship in Guatemala.

~ Sunday, March 09, 2003
Ideas have consequences

From Saturday's New York Times, we get more news about the consequences of evangelical thinking. In this case of rural Guatemala, evangelicals have promoted widespread lynching.

CONCEPCIƓN TUTUAPA, Guatemala - In this market town tucked into the western highlands, picking a pocket can be a capital offense.

The smallest crimes have provoked the most violent deaths in countless villages like this one, where the end of Guatemala's 36-year civil war has brought neither law nor order to remote regions most ravaged by the conflict.

Just this January, a screaming mob of 2,000 people grabbed two pickpocket suspects, tied their hands, dragged them to the outskirts of town, drenched them in gasoline and burned them alive. Police officers responding to the violence said they barely escaped with their lives, fleeing to the station house with no hope of pursuing justice.

It was one of hundreds of lynchings since the peace accords were signed in 1996, officially ending a conflict that claimed 200,000 lives.

Further along, we learn

Several factors lie behind the violence. The shared experience of decades of war and the resulting breakdown in village leadership left divisions and suspicions that set the stage for vigilante outbursts.

Several human rights advocates also said that fast-growing Evangelical churches, whose preachers work independently in small congregations, had frightened villagers about the dangers of satanic cults and encouraged retribution with strict interpretations of Scriptures.

Such teachings by locally trained Guatemalan preachers, they said, played a role in whipping up hysteria among the villagers of Todos Santos, a western mountain village famous for its colorful textiles, where a lynching in 2001 claimed the life of a Japanese tourist who tried to photograph a child.

Days before he arrived in the town, a religious radio station had warned listeners about rumors of a satanic cult that was snatching babies for grisly rituals, said Guillermo Padilla, who has studied lynchings and is an advocate for indigenous rights in Guatemala.

"The evangelicals like to fish in turbulent waters," Mr. Padilla said.

"All week the evangelicals warned, `Take care of your children because there will be satanic rituals and children will be carved up and their organs removed,' " he said. "There was so much panic that the school was closed that Friday so the children could stay home. By the time the Japanese tourist arrived, there was a state of paranoia."

Back in the day (a decade or so ago), conservatives were wont to flog the slogan "Ideas have consequences." That smugly sententious phrase summed up a key right-wing tactic: oppose not just the policy, but the ideals and reasons behind it, because the ideas create the policies.

Well, both the phrase and the tactic are worth reviving for a more deserving target -- conservative evangelical Christians.

Some bloggers have argued for laying off on criticizing evangelicals, except when we have a specific policy disagreement. That's a mistake. The anti-rationalism of evangelicals is a bigger problem than any specific policy dispute. That anti-rationalism is at the root of their policy positions. (And as the lynching epidemic in Guatemala shows, there's almost no limit to the kinds of policy evangelical thinking can bring.) If we give their ideas a free pass, we're doomed to lose the fight over policies.

~ Thursday, March 06, 2003
Cynical or Delusional?

In The American Prospect's article about the Bush administration's ugly initimidation campaign against Mexico, there's this little gem:

In the Feb. 27 Economist,that magazine's correspondent
in Mexico City reports that "a stream of American
officials, sounding much more hostile than sorry,
have been trekking south to argue the point" that
American banking and corporate boardrooms, which
obviously have considerable clout in Mexico's affairs,
would look askance at a "no" vote by Mexico
and pull back from financial commitments.

Despicable, for sure, but what stuns me is the sheer absurdity. As I pointed out yesterday, American business leaders have already expressed their economic opinion of the war: the stock markets are tanking and hiring is at a standstill. If they aren't willing to risk bad investments at home to support a war, what on earth makes the Bushies think that war fever would make them forego good investments in Mexico? Are they stupid enough to believe this, or just brazen enough to lie about it?

Marketing 101

According to the New York Times, a Harvard economist wants to offer a new freshman economics course at the university. Professor Stephen Marglin wants to correct the right wing-bias of Martin Feldstein's freshman economics course with a more balanced approach.

Mr. Marglin said that he was politically to the left of Mr. Feldstein, but that he mainly wanted to offer students a class with a diverse range of readings and discussions. The class would also question some of the assumptions of standard economics and introduce students to the increasingly popular field of behavioral economics, which tries to explain why people often do not seem to act rationally, Mr. Marlgin said.

"The point is not to substitute one set of biases for another," he said. "It's to provide a more balanced approach."

The article goes on to mention that a student group has endorsed Dr. Marglin's effort.

On Saturday, a student group called Students for a Humane and Responsible Economics posted an online petition to support Mr. Marglin's effort. About 300 undergraduates have added their names to it, said Daniel DiMaggio, a junior who took Mr. Feldstein's class last year and is a member of the group.

My question is this: why choose the name Students for a Humane and Responsible Economics? That's just a rhetorical gift for conservatives. "Humane and Responsible" just plays into the stereotype that liberals are fuzzy, muddle-headed bleeding hearts. It also cedes exactly the turf that the conservatives want, namely, the claim to being objective, hard-headed realists. "Well," they will say, "we have to face up to hard truths; we can't be sentimental; little as it pleases our humane instincts, economics proves that we must bribe the rich with huge tax cuts, etc."

Liberals could learn some marketing savvy from conservatives. Conservatives choose names to steal the ground from under their opponents. So, for instance, they have groups called the Global Climate Coalition and the Environmental Conservation Organization to fight against stronger environmental protections.

So, come on guys, let's have another try at it. You need to say conservatives are wrong about economics, and that they have distorted it. You need to paint them as partisan ideologues. So, how about Students for an Empirical and Scientific Economics? Or Students for an Empirical and Non-Sectarian Economics (which produces SENSE as an acronym!)?

~ Wednesday, March 05, 2003
Has Bush no shame?

How disgusting is Bush's chintzy proposal for investigating the September 11 attacks, and the failures that led to them? Consider this: the University of Minnesota spent $2.5 million just to investigate an academic fraud case in their basketball program. And now we're going to spend just half a mil more than that to find out how we let terrorists slaughter 3000 people on American soil.
Voting with their wallets

Reuters reports in a story today that businesses are cutting back on hiring because of war fears.

The huge U.S. services sector
slowed its pace of growth last month and the number of jobs
in the sector fell, reinforcing views of a U.S. economy
struggling with a hangover from the boom years and, now, fear
of war.

This isn't the first signal of war worries from the business sector. After all, Wall Street has been growling bearishly about Iraq for over three months. But now Main Street has joined Wall Street. Even more than increasingly shaky poll results, this shows the political damage Bush is taking for his war push.

Business leaders are just about the most likely people in America to support Bush and the Republicans. If anyone is going to give Bush the benefit of the doubt, these guys will. Furthermore, executives and market traders aren't going to make important business moves based on whims or flights of fancy. Their very lucrative careers are at stake, after all. So when these guys are so sure that the war will trash the economy that they dump equities and slash payrolls, Bush has really lost the battle for the hearts and minds of Americans. Some of his most fervent supporters are voting with their wallets, and they're voting against the war.
~ Tuesday, March 04, 2003
Eschatological politics

Kevin Drum is bothered by an article that claiming end-of-the-world theology sets the agenda for Bush's foreign policy. Generally, he's uncomfortable with the idea that all evangelical Christians could be considered a lunatic fringe. He also asks whether end-time evangelical Christian beliefs really influence the Bush administration's foreign policy. He finds that idea particularly implausible because so many Jewish neo-conservatives hold prominent positions among Bush's foreign policy elite.

Well, last things first, as is appropriate for a post under this title. Israel is a beleaguered country. Israel and its supporters have long been reconciled to welcoming support wherever they found it. Today, they are finding their strongest international support among eschatological evangelical Christians. Israeli leaders have openly embraced that support for over two decades. For instance, see the 2001 Yossi Klein Halevi article in the New Republic here (Google-cached version; scroll to the end for the part on evangelicals).

As for whether Rapture-intoxicated Christianity shapes Bush's foreign policy, well, yes, it surely does. As the current Newsweek cover story shows, Bush and his administration are fairly saturated in a brand of pietistic, millennial Christianity. That aggressively uncritical faith is at the root of all Bush policies, foreign and otherwise.

Finally, we should not shy away from reality. The whole point of evangelical Christianity is to put a lot of debatable views beyond debate by making them a matter of faith. That doesn't make all of those views wrong. (Resolute support for Israel is a good thing, for example.) But it's no way to run a country.

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