Thursday, March 26, 2009

Condi on the Tonight Show

Rather interesting...I hadn't watched her speak in a while. She discusses George W. Bush and his ability to grasp ideas very well, even if he's simply horrid at explaining them to others. I can't recall ever hearing otherwise from anyone who knew the former President.

Also she mentions the progress in civil rights, and asserts that the country has come a long way from 50 years ago when her friend Denise McNair was killed in the Birmingham church bombing, to electing a black president.

To be fair, I have to nitpick the factual accuracy(as I do to everyone) of one statement she made, that "we were considered three-fifths of a human being in Thomas Jefferson's original Constitution" - what's wrong with that assertion is that Madison wrote most of the Constitution(Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence).

And hasn't the "three-fifths clause" (found in Article I, Section 2 of the constitution) been a thoroughly overused, inaccurate inducement to guilt for long enough? I guess it would have been better if the founders had counted all the slaves as "full" human beings for Congressional representation. They'd still have been enslaved, vulnerable to abuse, and disfranchised, and their masters would have more representation in Congress relative to the free states, but hey - at least the free descendants of said slaves wouldn't feel so bad!

In any case, my distracting rant aside, I have a hunch it'll be at least 5 years until the Bush administration can be evaluated rationally.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Venezuela's Chavez - he's not Marxist, but fascist(in the original sense of the word)

In this excellent article in the New Republic, Enrique Krauze discusses the philosophical background of Hugo Chavez, his successful appropriation of the personality cult surrounding Bolivar, his contempt for liberal democracy, and the anti-Semitism of Argentinian sociologist Norberto Ceresole, a longtime Chavez adviser. Also mentioned are the importance world oil prices have had in allowing Chavez to buy the affections of the masses, and the potential consequences if they remain at their current levels or lower.

The one thing I'd take issue with is that Krauze follows the conventional practice of describing fascism as "right-wing" and Marxism as "left-wing". This distinction usually seems to be made on the basis that Marxism is supposed to be internationalist in its outlook whereas Italian fascism and German National Socialism were obviously nationalistic. While true, I think that these ideas all had in common socialism, commitment to revolution, and contempt for liberal democracy, and that generally the label "right-wing" precludes at least the first two common traits.

It's interesting for me as well to think about what differences exist between the USA and Latin America that could be traced almost entirely to the fact that the 13 colonies had George Washington leading them to independence, and Ibero-America had Simon Bolivar.

A lot of revisionist history has criticized Washington and some of the other founders primarily on the basis of their continued ownership of slaves, and raised Lincoln far above him in the pantheon of American presidents; but this obscures Washington's real contribution to American politics. The office of the Presidency was created specifically for a reluctant Washington, and the precedents he set gave the position the stability which has lasted 220 years uninterrupted, with peaceful transitions of power throughout.

In contrast to this, Bolivar enthusiastically sought to be president for life, and to unite all of the former Spanish empire under his leadership. I suspect that his actions justified more than a little the many future Latin American dictators, presidents-for-life, etc. who desired similar positions for themselves.

Mark Bowden(of Black Hawk Down fame) on torture

Originally published in the Atlantic Magazine, October 2003.

This is definitely the most thorough analysis of the subject that I've ever read - Bowden has interviewed several former interrogators from such diverse organizations as the Vietnam-era USMC, Israel's Shabak[General Security Service], and the NYPD; and he properly distinguishes torture from "enhanced interrogation" and the like, and effective from ineffective interrogation methods; also he cites a few actual examples of the much-hypothesized "ticking time bomb" scenario where extracting information has literally been a matter of life and death for others.

He's more optimistic than I am, however, when he says that "no interrogator is ever going to be prosecuted for keeping Khalid Sheikh Mohammed awake, cold, alone, and uncomfortable. Nor should he be." I think of the "Wall" between intelligence and domestic law enforcement that existed pre-9/11, and I can't rule out the prospect of government lawyers being similarly overzealous in the near future.

What a hard question - can murderers and rapists be good doctors?

From the NYTimes. I am really, really amazed that some people actually had to think this one over. Also I was amused by the headline - "A Quandary in Sweden: Criminals in Med School". I got the initial impression they were worried about street level drug dealers or something of that ilk, but these cases are just a bit more severe.

A year ago, Sweden’s most prestigious medical school found itself in an international uproar after it unknowingly admitted a student who was a Nazi sympathizer and a convicted murderer, then scrambled to find a way to expel him.

It is hard to imagine how the case could get any more bizarre. But it has.

The 33-year-old student, Karl Helge Hampus Svensson, having been banished from the medical school of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm on the ground that he falsified his high school records, has now been admitted to a second well-known medical school — Uppsala, Sweden’s oldest university.
It goes on:

And in still another case, a 24-year-old medical student at Lund University was convicted last April of raping a 14-year-old boy while he slept. A district court sentenced the student to two years in prison, but a higher court reduced the sentence to two years’ probation and medical therapy.

When the dean at Lund sought to expel the student, a national board that reviews expulsions blocked the action, saying that although the man had committed a serious crime, he was not considered a threat to people or property. The decision was then reversed by an administrative court, which upheld the expulsion; the student did not appeal.

Hmm...2 years probation for raping a 14-year-old boy. And a guy who's already raped "isn't a threat to people or property". Seems reasonable to me! Don't we have courts in this country which state similar nonsense?
The lowest point, though, is when they interview some of the other med students:

But another Uppsala student, Karl-Wilhelm Olsson, 23, said that “the important factor is whether a person is a risk to another human being, and it’s hard to draw a line.”

He added that while there is no law requiring a university to bar prospective students because of a criminal past, “a student should be expelled if he or she is viewed as unfit.”

But Gustav Stalhammar, 25, said Mr. Svensson should be allowed to become a doctor. “Who is to say that he might not become a great doctor, even if it in some ways would feel wrong or awkward to have a murderer for a colleague?” he asked. “It is not fair to have preconceptions about his character.”

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Some nonsense from the Secretary of Homeland Security

SPIEGEL: Madame Secretary, in your first testimony to the US Congress as Homeland Security Secretary you never mentioned the word "terrorism." Does Islamist terrorism suddenly no longer pose a threat to your country?

Napolitano: Of course it does. I presume there is always a threat from terrorism. In my speech, although I did not use the word "terrorism," I referred to "man-caused" disasters. That is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur. The Johnstown Flood, or New Orleans after Katrina, or the various "famines" that Communism produces - those are "man-caused disasters". They are also things that the secretary shouldn't be worrying about when real threats to the security of the homeland exist.

SPIEGEL: You would like the German authorities to share personal data of terrorism suspects, such as fingerprinting and DNA?

Napolitano: That is exactly right. We will also want to share some experiences with counter-radicalization, how the radicalization of young Muslims in our countries can be prevented.

SPIEGEL: Europe has a problem with just such people, young Muslims who grew up in the West and are still susceptible to radical messages. The terrorists responsible for the July 2005 attacks in London are an example.

Napolitano: In some ways, the problem in Europe is greater than in the United States. But the questions are the same. How do you identify a youth who is susceptible to becoming radicalized? How do you work with that youth, his family and community to give them alternatives to radicalization?

I can't help but think that before the USA became so sensitive to other cultures she had a wonderful solution to this problem, called "Assimilation", or "The Melting Pot".

What do you really know about the AIG bonuses?

Maybe this is just wishful thinking, since the country has an abundance of people who get angry in Pavlovian fashion at whatever the charlatan du jour tells them to, and who successfully evade actual thinking on any subject whatsoever(the real critical thinking that isn't taught in schools anymore - it's been replaced by endless blather about feelings and such nonsense).

I would really love to see people take the tiniest bit of interest in actually understanding the economic and political happenings of late. Granted, you've all got a finite number of hours in every day, but can you really say that you can't take a half hour away from your drinking schedule to actually understand what you think you should be mad about?

Getting to some specific questions I'd like to see everyone answer to themselves:

1. About the bonuses paid to AIG employees. Do you understand that a "bonus" is just another name for variable compensation as paid to some people in the financial industry? Surely most of you know someone (a salesperson, or a business manager, or a restaurant server perhaps) who is paid in some way other than hourly or salaried. So why get mad about a bonus, per se?

But, you say, "They're being paid with my tax dollars!", and you're right. The ordinary wages and salaries of the employees are being paid with your tax dollars as well, so why not be angry about those as well? What's the difference between hundreds of thousands of dollars in "salary" and the same amount as a "bonus"? Can you answer these questions to yourself?

2. As to compensation in general. If your taxes are paying for a restaurant which has just spent $1000 on spoiled food, why are you worried about the $1 that they paid to the cook who does oil changes on the side and doesn't wash his hands at either job?

But then that's not the same, you'll assert. Some people deserve $100,000 a year but no CEO or commodity trader deserves $10 million! How about Oprah, or your favorite movie star, or athlete? Can you describe the typical workweek of Tom Cruise, or Albert Pujols, or Tiger Woods? How about the CEO or trader I've just mentioned? I know that I don't have the foggiest idea what any of those people's work consists of. If you don't know either, on what basis do you say that they're overpaid?

3. Government deficits. If I drink 10 beers in an hour, I'll be quite drunk. Does that mean I can't tell you that it's not a good idea for you to drink 30?

Getting much more serious, where do you think $1 trillion is going to come from to finance the deficit of this year alone? And how can the deficit become smaller between now and 2026, when the last of the 1946-1964 Baby Boom begins collecting Social Security? And are those separate withdrawals on your paycheck "Fed Income Tax" and "FICA" really not paying for some of the same things?

4. Perquisites. What are these corporations thinking, giving their executives access to a private jet? What similarities can you think of(assuming a Pittsburgh perspective here) between the 911th Airlift Wing's location at the PIT Airport, which is used by the U.S. President during visits to the area, and the Allegheny County airport? (Hint: think about what you DON'T have at either.) Answer the second question, and you've answered the first.