Saturday, September 30, 2006

Update on civil liberties

Well it appears that the congress has passed legislation defining the rules for treatment of detainees and for wiretaps.

While the legislation has many flaws (and may still not fully pass constitutional muster), I say "hooray" that congress has finally done its job of setting up the rules of engagement.

There are two things that I find very disappointing, though.

The first is that while congress stepped up to its job of defining the rules, they largely punted on any heavy lifting, pretty much giving the president the discretion to interpret the rules by which he is bound. I thought we had checks and balances for a reason; the whole problem is that you don't want the same person who can declare someone to be an enemy combatant to be the one who decides if it's OK to declare someone an enemy combatant. It boils down to "trust me" on the president. But it doesn't matter whether I trust the president -besides, in two years we'll have another one. I want to put my trust in laws, in process, not in specific people.

The second thing that disappointed me was the politicking around this. I suppose it can't be avoided this close to an election, but, for example, John Boehner said "The Democrats' irrational opposition to strong national-security policies that help keep our nation secure should be of great concern to the American people" in describing the desire of many Democrats to provide checks and balances and a legal framework on wiretapping. If I understand this line of reasoning, then we might as well give Bush the power to monitor any phone conversation, domestically or otherwise, without court supervision? Heck, why stop there, why not let the government read any email, instant messaging, or smoke signals too? Why not let the government demand a second copy of our home keys so that they can make sure that no terrorist activity is going on? We'll be safer that way, won't we?

Shame on you, Mr. Boehner. Nobody - not even the dreaded Democrats - opposes the wiretaps themselves. All they want is for them to be done in a framework that prevents abuse. I thought that was quite a patriotic American value, but perhaps I was mistaken.

The war in Iraq

Of course we need to bring our troops home from Iraq. But it's just not that simple.

Let me back up a bit.

I suppose it's not a politically correct thing to say these days, but I supported the decision to go into Iraq. Not for the reasons that Bush gave, though. Sure, I thought he had WMDs. (OK, hands up everyone who *didn't* think he had WMDs. Seriously. Even the French thought he had WMDs, as well as Clinton during the 90s, and, well, everyone. So for that reason, I think the claim that Bush deliberately lied is something of a stretch. Which is not to absolve him of stretching the truth, ignoring data that didn't fit his world view, and so forth. But I have already digressed well beyond what I should have).

But my reasons for supporting action in Iraq were not about WMDs. There were, I think, a number of other compelling reasons:
  • Post-9/11, a clear message had to be sent to states that sponsor terrorism or provide haven for them. While Iraq never had ties to 9/11 (something that Bush himself has finally admitted), they clearly met these two goals. Two simple examples include cash payments made to families of Palestinian suicide bombers and the hosting of Abu Nidal. Failure to help Al Queda (in fact Saddam hated Al Queda) is irrelevant; he harbored terrorists, and that needed to stop. Sadly, negotiations would not have achieved this outcome, only Saddams ouster would do so. The fact that he had nothing to do with 9/11 was not important - what was important was preventing future attacks from being hatched within Iraq's safe haven.
  • There are many dictators in the world deserving of the adjective "evil", and I would hardly support taking action to remove most of the others. However, I think it is fair to say that Saddam was in a special class of evil all by himself, with a demonstrable track record of genocide and threatening his neighbors, in addition to desires for WMDs and the aforementioned support of terrorism. Even if Germany had not declared war on the US in WWII, I think we can all agree that history would have made it plain that going in to take out the Nazis would have been justified because Hitler was simply that bad and that big of a threat to his neighbors. I know that Hitler comparisons are so overused these days that they are almost cliche, but Saddam is one of those rare dictators who I think actually merit the comparison. And as such, the world cannot and should not wait for such monsters to be a "direct threat" before acting. Hitler had committed quite a few atrocities before the US got involved; it's simply too bad that we didn't get involved sooner.
  • The post-gulf-war stalemate had gone on long enough; it needed to reach a conclusion one way or another.
Phew, I feel better now for getting that off of my chest. So I think Bush did the right thing, albeit for the wrong reasons.

And, I'm afraid, he did it in totally the wrong way and has made an absolute mess of things. Wow. No wonder the recent National Intelligence Estimate says that the Iraq war has become a cause celebre for terrorists. Bush never planned for nation building, he never planned for an insurgency, he never made the investments necessary to help get the civilian population more interested in building a new Iraq, and he never truly got a worldwide coalition like his daddy did to increase our success. One of the lessons I thought we had learned from Vietnam was that once you commit to a war, you go in 120%. We never had sufficient troops to establish order, and without that almost nothing else matters. People with nothing to lose are the most dangerous enemies to have, and most Iraqis currently have nothing to lose.

We had a tremendous opportunity to really make a positive change in a part of the world that so sorely needs to change, but I fear that we went in blinded by ideology rather than pragmatism.

So what do we do now?

I think that we need to get out of Iraq. Actually, I hope that's not as controversial a statement as it may be - after all, I hope that everyone thinks we need to get out of Iraq ultimately. The question is really when and how.

A lot of folks advocate withdrawing our troops immediately. I would label this "wishful thinking" as well as an incredibly dangerous idea. For many people, I believe that the logic is that the war was a mistake (both going in as well as how it has been conducted) and this can somehow roll things back to the way they were, or at least prevent things from getting worse. (And, there's a certain anti-war contingency that seems to oppose any war for any reason). Unfortunately, we can't roll back to the way things were, and pulling out precipitously would make things much worse. Specifically we would leave behind a failed state that would be a safe haven for jihadists, and we would make quite a statement that indeed America can be defeated through these tactics. I believe that terrorism would indeed increase - perhaps dramatically - if we were to do this.

But staying the course is obviously not an option either, despite the president's seeming insistence that somehow there are no options between the two extremes of staying the course or joining Al Queda. To quote Dr. Phil: "How's that working for you, Mr. President?" It's not working, and we need to do something different.

It's trite to say, but what we need to do is to win. To win, we must leave behind a functioning state and have actually improved our security situation. When that is the case, a withdrawal is both possible and prudent. I'm hardly an expert here, so this is probably naive on my part, but I believe that there are 4 components to success here:
  1. Boots on the ground, both ours and Iraqi as well as anybody else we can convince to help us. (I fear Bush has burned a lot of bridges here, though). Security is a precondition to everything.
  2. Infrastructure investment. When we can't even keep the power on in Baghdad as much during the day as Saddam did, is it any wonder that we are resented?
  3. Help get the fledgling government going, ensure that it has legitimacy in the eyes of the people, and has the strength to disarm militias. At the end of the day, only Iraqis can disarm militias - foreigners cannot - but even Iraqis cannot do it while there is still such a power struggle going on.
  4. Phased withdrawals.
I think the "Phased withdrawals" part above requires a bit of explanation of what I mean. Bush has said "as they stand up, we will stand down." Nice theory, but it has a fatal flaw: since the soldier that stands up in Iraq tends to gets shot in the head pretty quickly, there's a pretty strong incentive for the Iraqis to not stand up, to leave the Americans standing up instead. We need to reverse this: we need to stand down so that the Iraqis have no choice but to stand up.

If we do this precipitously (i.e., withdraw from the country), the Iraqi security forces won't last a New York minute; it will create a vacuum that will be filled with anarchy and terrorists. But if we do this a little at a time - particularly after securing a neighborhood as the recent operations in the Adhamiya neighborhood are hoping to achieve - then the Iraqis have a fighting chance to stand up and stay standing. And then we can force the next neigborhood, and the next one, and the next one.

Our problem today is that we cannot pull out because we have not set up the conditions for success, yet our president who famously abhors nation building is not focusing on how to set up those conditions. It seems to me that this is the key to bringing the troops home.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

My Immigration Manifesto

Immigration is certainly a fashionable hot issue these days. It is not, however, an issue that gets me particularly all hot and bothered. It's just not one of the things that keeps me up at night. But I do have opinions on the topic, and since I actually went to the trouble of writing them up in email to a friend a few months ago, I figure I ought to republish those thoughts (with an editorial transition from email to blog), especially given the context they provide for my English Only treatise I published earlier.

I think that the biggest problem we have with respect to the immigration debate in this country, frankly, is that the two sides (not strictly liberals vs. conservatives) seem to be talking completely past one another. Not only are they not recognizing common ground and properly debating the areas of contention, but I think a number of key issues end up essentially ignored.

For example, here are some examples of stupidity on the pro-immigrant side of the debate (I think labeling this group "the left" is a gross simplification, but do not have a better name for this group) such as those who have been marching of late for amnesty and legalization over the past few months:

  • Blanket legalization of the 11-15 million that are here illegally. This is just wrong. We've done amnesty before (late 80s) and it didn't stem the flow of illegal immigrants. We have laws for a reason; one can claim extenuating circumstances that made it unavoidable to break the law (e.g., self defense), but simply claiming to have been otherwise law abiding and a contributor to the economy is not sufficient reason to pardon them for breaking the law. (But see below, because I think that the notion that they should all be deported and/or denied the right to be here legally is also stubborn ideology divorced from reality and practicality)
  • Being here illegally should not be considered a criminal offense (whether misdemeanor or felony). If someone is breaking the law to be here, by what logic should that not be a crime? Certainly it should not be a capital offense (and some of the anti-immigration folks are proposing the immigration equivalent of capital punishment), but it is crazy in my opinion to claim that it should not be considered a criminal offense.
  • The importance of secure borders and immigration control. Secure borders and immigration control is necessary for both security and our economy, and the immigration-rights advocates are completely ignoring this fact. To wit: flying Mexican flags at rallies is a bad idea, it doesn't help one's cause. If one wants to arrest America's growing suspicions about its immigrants, one should learn English, embrace one's new country, help keep other immigrants off of welfare/Medicaid, etc. If one comes here illegally, one should not have an expectation of a right to these services.
Ahh, but the folks marching for immigrant rights hardly have a monopoly on stupidity or audacity. The Tancredos of the world have their own list:

  • Build a fence. If one's goal is to “stem the flow at any cost, I suppose that a fence is a reasonable approach, but I have a big problem with the "“at any cost" part. While it may stem the flow, it's probably the single most expensive approach to solving the problem imaginable, and it only addresses the symptoms, not the cause. In addition, it is a bury-your-head-in-the-sand approach to the problem. There is a reason that people want to come here (and we should be proud of that), and there is a reason that many are willing to do it illegally. With so many illegals proudly proclaiming that they are honest, hardworking, and important to our economy (most of them are probably correct about that), we should be asking how we can lower the barrier to the honest/hardworking folks coming in while keeping the barrier high forundesirablesables. A fence, unfortunately, knows how to make no such distinctions.
  • Make illegal immigration a felony/deport all of the illegals This is also expensive, and we'll probably spend - no, waste - an enormous sum of money getting rid of otherwise law-abiding tax-paying people who really want to be citizens. Deportation is the immigration equivalent of capital punishment (if you oppose capital punishment, please remember that this is analogy, I'm not advocating putting illegals to death!). As such it needs to be an available option and the threat of its application needs to be real in every case, but applying it automatically to everyone seems like a gross simplification.
  • Screaming "“amnesty" at the notion that illegals be given any path to citizenship I think there are many anti-immigrant activists for whom the notion that an illegal could ever become a legal citizen is the ultimate insult, even when that path includes penalties for having broken the law. Reality check: an amnesty is forgiveness (or at least forgetfulness of the offense), so amnesties don't have penalties. If there's a reasonable penalty, then it's not an amnesty and people shouldn't label it as such. The penalty should be sufficient to make being here illegally less desirable than being here legally, and I think that's a point that keeps being missed by both sides. When you park your car illegally, we don't make you forfeit your car and take driving lessons all over.
  • Making it illegal to provide humanitarian aid to someone if theyillegallye illegaly. Wow. Let's turn everyone into INS agents. There'’s a difference between offering humanitarian support (like a priest might offer, or a family letting someone stay with them) and giving them a job. If our lawmakers can't distinguish the two, they shouldn't be making laws. Fortunately, the idea of this becoming law seems more remote now than it did this past spring.
  • Not distinguishing between lawful and unlawful immigration. Perhaps the most important thing that this side is missing is an acknowledgment that illegal immigration stems largely from a strong incentive for people to come here -– and it's not all people looking for asylum or to live off of our generosity. (In fact, most of them just want to work and would be excellent contributors to our society). Every other immigrant group to America in our history has ultimately assimilated, and contributed. What are we so afraid of?
So what do I think we should be doing?

Leverage the marketplace Since most of the strongest anti-immigration voices are conservative, I'll use a conservative argument: we're witnessing a marketplace, subject to market forces. There's a supply/demand force here that is strong enough to make people break laws to get into our country. We can fight this marketplace or we can try to leverage it to do what we want it to do. In particular, we should be making it easier for law-abiding folks to come here legally, we should be opening up the spigot, not closing it.

We have a lot of low-paying jobs to fill, and there is a pool of labor that is anxious to take those jobs, and by and large (especially w.r.t. Mexicans), they are not displacing American workers. And there is an economic imbalance between our countries. This is a force of nature that a wall can slow down, but cannot stop. Why not instead leverage this force, do the free-trade thing and instead figure out pathways to make it easier for workers to come here legally? I suppose this would be a "“guest worker program", but as Fareed Zakaria points out it really needs to have the opportunity/pathway for citizenship attached to it. But the most important point here is to reduce the incentive to be here illegally by offering a realistic path to be here legally. Yes, absolutely by all means, penalize being here illegally. But just as other crimes do not necessarily result in jail or deportation, use things like large fines and a higher bar for gaining legitimacy (English competency sure seems like a good start), removal from schools, etc.

I think that one of the best ways to do this is to make it harder to hire illegals AND easier to hire legal immigrants. You need both carrots and sticks, though. Many people advocate strong enforcement against employers who hire illegal aliens. I actually support that approach, but I also believe it is not only insufficient, but will fail unless paired with incentives for legal immigration. Specifically, it fails because it (a) doesn't do anything to address an employer's need for employees, all it does is cut off the pool, and (b) it puts the employer in the position of being INS, of having to be responsible for the documentation of its imployees.

If, however, you coupled strong enforcement against employers that hire illegal aliens with programs that make it easier for more law-abiding hardworking workers to enter the country legally and document that they are under a program allowing this, then the employer can have access to their labor pool and does not have to make their own decisions about whether to believe their employees. It's win-win; the employer now just has to keep a record that they have checked the INS-issued documentation, and the costs of being illegal would outweigh the costs of being legal.

And yes, this means letting more people into the country in total. This has always been our history, it's OK.

Provide rational pathways to becoming legal A blanket amnesty is a bad idea - it just encourages more illegal immigration. However, We should quit all the scare talk about amnesty. The problem with shouting "“amnesty" that one can't make it easier for people to come here legally without simultaneously making it easier for the illegals to become legal. (In the same way that you can'’t have a tax cut in a progressive-taxation world without the cuts going disproportionately to the rich; one comes with the other.)

But here's a secret: if making it easier for people to come here legally also makes it easier for illegals to become legal, that's actually OK. Otherwise, one is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. If an immigrant can meet whatever the new criteria is, let them in. And the ones who cannot are the ones we should be throwing out. Simply saying that someone who is here illegally should have no chance whatsoever to become legal is simply counterproductive.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Why is the Muslim world so thin-skinned?

So now the Islamic world is in an uproar because the Pope made the incredibly incendiary point that there's something wrong with forcing people to your religion by gunpoint/swordpoint. That's a controversial point? Am I on some kind of weird alternate universe where things like violence to spread your religion is actually acceptible dogma? I'm perfectly tolerant of other religions and faiths - whether they're mainstream like Islam or ridiculous like (pick your favorite cult) - but that tolerance ends, unapologetically - when it interfere's with my rights to exercise whatever ridiculousness I wish.

The Islamic world right now is incredibly thin-skinned. From the Pope's recent remarks to the Danish cartoons, there is such a feeling of victimhood and, well, low self esteem that Muslims take offense at just about anything the west says or does.

This is particularly hypocritical from a part of the world that regularly spews vile, noxious, and vitriolic anti-Semitic (yeah, yeah, I know that many Muslims are technically Semites; let me just replace that, then with "anti-Jewish") poison in its press, which regularly questions the holocaust, and which forbids the practice of other religions.

I can't say I've ever heard a Muslim protest these offensive practices. For that matter, whenever a Muslim does something heinous in the name of Islam, such as the recent shooting of a Jewish community center in Seattle, the worries of reprisals are voiced much more loudly than the condemnations of the act. In the Seattle case, fortunately, the Muslim community actually was much better about reaching out than in other recent events, but even so the cries of worry were still pretty loud. Funny, though, how rare is the act of terrorism or reprisals against Muslims compared to the acts committed by Muslims in the name of Islam. Reprisals against innocent Muslims is entirely unjustifiable and wrong, but perhaps if the community were more vocal and active about not tolerating these madmen then there would be no reason to fear reprisals.

I think the reason for this thin-skinned nature is that the Muslim world right now has a cancer of victimhood. And to quote Cher in Moonstruck, I'd like to tell the Islamic world: "Snap out of it!".

The Muslim world - particularly but not exclusively the Arab portion of it - has many ills plaguing it. (I don't mean to paint such a broad picture, but it's largely true, especially in the middle east and northern Africa.) Some of these ills are undoubtedly due to the west. But they blame the west for all of them, and more importantly have not looked inward to themselves as both a cause of these problems and as the primary source of the solution to them. Instead, they grasp onto their victimhood.

Heck, look at Bin Laden - he's still upset about the crusades and the fact that Spain is no longer Muslim. I'm serious (and unfortunately, so is he). It's been 800 years, it's time to get over it.

I sincerely believe that this is one of the reasons that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has been so intractible. The Israelis want to move on and build a country. The Palestinians can't get over the fact that 60 years ago they got a deal that they didn't like. And when they finally got some control over their situation - autonomy of Gaza - they didn't do anything to improve their situation, instead they voted in Hamas, whose primary objective is still to wipe out Israel, not to do anything to improve the lives of Palestinians. This is the culture of victimhood.

The world is not a fair place. Has the west done bad things to the Arabs/Muslims? Sure, I have no doubt. Have they done bad things to the west? Uh, gee, yeah. Quite a bit, actually.

But other cultures who have suffered military or political defeats, or who face serious economic/education problems - notably Japan, China, Germany, India, etc. - have been incredibly successful when they decide that yesterday is past, and that the single most important key to future success is themselves. Sudan, Syria, Iraq (previous to the invasion as well as now), Iran, even relatively "stable" countries such as Pakistan and Egypt simply have not grasped this; they seem to prefer to wallow in their victimhood rather than do something positive (key word there!) about it.

The Muslim world would do very well to take a deep look inside, take a deep breath, and make themselves part of the solution. And most importantly, thicken their skins to the insult and anger that they seem to feel at the wind blowing the wrong way. I think that if they do, they will find that attitudes about Muslims in the west will change rather dramatically for the better.

Do they want to solve their problems or remain victims? So far the evidence, sadly, points to the latter. Which suggests a lot more terrorism ahead.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

English Only?

A few years ago there was a lot of noise about making English the official language of the US, and enforcing all sorts of "English-only" rules. With the revival of the immigration debate recently (topic for a separate posting), this topic has come up again.

The folks who advocate English -only seem to come to this conclusion from a few key driving factors:
  • The ability to communicate is pretty darned essential, and communication can only happen when people speak the same language. (See: Tower of Babel). English is the dominant language in the US, so it makes sense for that to be our common language.
  • The desire for immigrants to assimilate, as all previous immigrant groups have done. This is largely targeted, as far as I can tell, at Spanish speaking migrants, although not exclusively so.
  • The desire to simplify and lower the cost of administering services to immigrants (e.g., why do we need to do ballots in N different languages instead of just one? Spend so much money on translators for jails? Spanish-only education for kids that can't speak English? Etc.)
  • For economic advancement, English is pretty vital. (Translation into English: we don't want a lot of non-English speakers on our welfare roles).
  • I think there is also a subset of English-only advocates who also do not want low-education/poor immigrants in the country, and perhaps an even smaller subset who are racist/xenophobic. While I think the reasons above for supporting English-only are broadly adopted by English-only advocates, I am not willing to paint all English-only advocates with this particular motivation; I just list it for completeness. Since this is also not a valid reason for supporting English Only, I'm going to simply declare it irrelevant to any rational discussion of whether English Only rules/laws make sense.
I think all but the last reason above are perfectly legitimate concerns, and I think that for these reasons there is no excuse for anybody that wishes to move to the US not to learn as much English as possible. Sure there are some 80-year old refugees or similar who are here for whom becoming fluent in English is just not likely to happen, but I don't buy the argument that anyone is incapable of learning at least a little English.

We already have English competency as a requirement for citizenship; I think that makes a ton of sense. Heck, I'd go further than this and suggest that it is reasonable to require some degree of English proficiency (or at least mandatory classes) for anybody wishing to visit the US on more than a tourist visa (i.e., green card holders, work visas, etc.); there's nothing constitutionally that I'm aware of that prohibits the US government from imposing whatever restrictions it wants on visitors or prospective citizens. I think beefing up these requirements for entry and competency requirements for continued residency (with allowances made for age, handicap, etc.) is a perfectly reasonable approach towards ensuring that we meet the goals above as much as possible.

I'm no lawyer, but any reading of the constitution that I can tell suggests that if you want to make English a requirement, you need an amendment to do so. There are no language requirements for citizens to vote or to otherwise exercise their rights as citizens, and if the 1st amendment says you can say anything, then it seems to me that by definition you can say anything in any language you want.

So if that's the case, then does an English-only amendment make sense? I don't think it does. In fact, I think that making English the official language or creating an English-only amendment to the constitution would have a number of severe problems and would do little to solve the problems above.

In particular:
  • Once you make English an official language, you need to define it. Once you decide you need to define a language, you quickly go down the slippery slope that our friends in France and Paris (and Iran and other places) have found themselves, with large and intrusive government bureaucracies deciding what is and what isn't part of the language, what sizes of typeface may be employed on signs, etc. (In my opinion, the creation of such bureaucracies is the first sign that your language is dying and can't survive on its own.) One of English's great strengths is that it is dynamic, evolving, and accepts new words/phrases. In the face of English-only rules, these words/phrases would likely not be acceptible if they came from other languages. If you allow them by default, then the English-only rule becomes meaningless. If you don't allow them by default, then you stifle the language.
  • If you declare that English is the official language, or the only language that can be used, then you need to be very clear about where that applies. If you apply it very narrowly - such as to, say, ballots - then it won't have a terribly big effect on solving the problems above. If you expand it more broadly, such as declaring that classes must be taught in English, then you run into a raft of issues about what is and isn't acceptible. E.g., does this mean that books containing foreign phrases aren't allowed in English classes? How can you reconcile English-only in the classroom with bilingual education for English-speakers trying to become fluent in a 2nd language?
  • Scope is also critical to define for the private sector. Would we have ADA-style rules that say that a business must always accomodate English speakers? If so, wouldn't that mean, for example, that a business in East L.A. that provides services for Hispanics, would be required to include English on their signs? (Or, for that matter, that Italian restaurants could no longer have Italian-only menus, as many do today?) And wouldn't those sorts of rules fly in the face of a first amendment freedom of speech?
  • There are a number of areas where things would certainly be easier if it were exclusively English, but as a practical matter we can't escape it. For example, if a tourist is here who doesn't speak English and is hit by a car, are we going to refuse to treat them because they can't converse in English? If they are accused of a crime, would we not provide a translator so that they could talk to their attorney? We're a civilized society with a strong bill of rights; I just don't see us denying these services even to people who perhaps should speak English but do not, or do not very well.
For the reasons listed at the top of this post, I believe English-only is a valid goal. However, I think that the solutions attempted via English-only rules or declarations are lousy ways to achieve this. I think the best way to achieve English-only is in fact the historically dominent mechanism: the economy. Every prior immigrant group has had enclaves of native-language speakers, but they have also all figured out that English is key to economic success. I do not believe that we should coddle non-English speakers such as with bi-lingual classes for non-English-speaking children; I believe that removes the incentives to assimilate and learn English. But we should not get super hung up on people speaking their native languages either. They or their kids will eventually speak English as their primary language.

Security vs. Liberty

On the eve of the 5th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks there is quite a bit of discussion in the press about civil liberties and security. I just have one observation that I think has been overlooked in all of this discussion: it's a false tradeoff.

Specifically, there's nothing inherently wrong with wiretapping - even wiretapping of Americans - when there is suspicion of illegal activity, especially terrorism. Or of using aggressive interrogation tactics, or of doing data mining and the like. Bush is absolutely right about that, and I think that any civil libertarian (of which I count myself) that claims that these tactics are inherently problematic is being blinded by ideology.

Score one for Bush. But now score one for the civil libertarians and against Bush: these tactics MUST be done in a context of lawfullness and accountability, and Bush has studiously resisted any attempt to do this. If FISA, for example, is too burdensome to effectively counter terrorism, then the answer is not to go around FISA. After all, going around the law is something that dictators do, or it is something that a president can do after suspending civil liberties - something that has in fact been done in wartimes past but which Bush has declined to do. Instead of going around FISA, the right thing to do is to get updated legislation passed that will provide the efficiency and speed needed (that the administration claims FISA lacks) while providing the checks/balances/accountability that the population need. I have no plausible explanation for why Bush - whose party controls both houses of congress - has not even tried to do this.

Demanding accountability from our government does not mean being weak on terrorism, it means being strong on the very freedom that we are trying to protect. I for one would hate to gain security at the expense of losing freedom to my own government, and I think anyone who claims that demands for accountability and checks/balances weakens security is playing politics in a disingenuous, dangerous, and destructive manner.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The problem with environmentalists

The problem with many environmentalists (or perhaps I should say instead "the environmental movement") is the same problem with all ideologues/idealists, I think. Specifically, people and organizations can let themselves get blinded by what is "right" to the degree that they take self-defeating or ineffective approaches towards achieving their goals, and are often hostile to the constituency that they most need to make happy (i.e., industry and "the polluters"). But it's not that industry hates the environment, it's that there are legitimate reasons that we burn fossil fuels, legitimate reasons that we create the pressure on the environment that we create. It's not that these activities are inherently bad, it's that we need to recognize their cost and do what we can to mitigate them.

I like to consider myself an environmentalist, at least to the degree that I like unspoiled spaces, I hate to see habitat destroyed, etc. But I'm human, and like any human, I also want a nice life. I drive a car even when I could take alternatives because it's more convenient to do so. I live in a larger house than we probably need. Heck, I fly airplanes for fun, which burns a lot of gas. Do I feel guilty about this? Yeah, a little, I guess, but I think "cut back, don't do these things" is a non-starter of a solution. Asking people to scale back their lifestyle (or aspirations) simply is not a winning strategy, it doesn't mesh with human nature. Heck, in a more extreme example, consider places like Haiti: massive environmental destruction there for firewood, but it doesn't exactly work to tell people not to cut down the trees. They need to feed themselves and cook food. As I mentioned in my earlier posting on I-933, all economic decisions are ultimately personal - given the choice between a concrete immediate personal benefit vs. an abstract "greater good" benefit, people will inevitably choose the former. The environmental movement would do well to recognize that and harness it, rather than fight it.

The problem with being green these days is that it does require personal sacrifice. For example, I recently installed solar panels at my house - capable of generating 1.6kW of electricity at peak (i.e., noon on a sunny cool day). I'm thrilled to be able to do this, but this is also something that won't pay back for 30-60 years, depending on what happens with the local price of electricity, and that's even after the various tax breaks/rebates and energy purchase credits (I get paid more for this electricity by my utility than I pay to buy electricity from the utility). I did this math even before I installed the unit, so my eyes were open - I did this because I wanted to, but the high capital cost and the long payback involved mean that this is not something you could expect most rational people to do. The economics just don't pencil out.

So what should the environmental movement be focusing on? I think there are a few winning strategies.

Efficiency rather than Conservation This may be a semantic distinction, but I think it is critical. "Conservation" is about sacrifice - do less, use less, consume less. The message behind it is "temper your expectations, restrain your lifestyle." It's not something that people will rally around - it's explicitly about sacrifice. "Efficiency," on the other hand, is all about getting more out of what you do or doing the same things but consuming less in the process (rather than changing what you do). That's a benefit people can understand and even rally around because it saves money.

Compete on the merits, not just on the green My favorite example here is Tesla Motors, a new car company in California that is building an all-electric sports car. I have no idea how well these guys will do, but I think they're doing a bunch of things right, the most important of which is that they recognize that what they're building will be a hard sell for many scenarios. So instead of trying to get people to shell out extra money for a greener car that has all sorts of negative tradeoffs (there's that "sacrifice" thing again), they are targetting a market (sports cars) where the car is actually a good sell on its own, ignoring the fact that it's green. (And heck, getting someone to buy a Telsa instead of a Porsche will certainly save more emissions than getting a Civic driver to upgrade to a Hybrid Civic, so it's actually a good green strategy too.) If they succeed, people will buy this car because it's fun to drive and a good sports car, not because it's green. But being green will be a wonderful side effect.

Highlight negative externalities and make them internal As I said before, people make their decisions in a personal and immediate way. Things like global warming are just too abstract, distant, and long-term to truly impact the decision of whether to drive down to the supermarket for an ingredient or just make something different for dinner. But part of the reason for this is that the cost of carbon emissions aren't reflected in what we pay. At the macro level, things like cap and trade standards harness the market and make these externalities internal, which is a good thing. At the micro level, selective and careful use of taxes/fees/funds or other ways to make the economic tradeoff immediate and personal are strategies that embrace human nature rather than fight it. Two examples that I think have worked very well in this regard are deposits on bottles (makes the cost of littering, or more accurately the benefit of not littering, tangible) and recycling programs like here in the Seattle area where we recycling has become so easy (no sorting, lots of stuff accepted, big bin for recycling and small bin for trash) that throwing something away is almost more effort than recycling it.