Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The urge for the surge

Lots of people have been criticizing President Bush's proposed "surge" of troops into Iraq. Frankly, I don't know whether or not it's a good idea or a bad idea because, frankly, I don't know what his goal is. (And to be clear, "success at our mission," as Bush describes it, is not a goal. It's a description of whether or not you've met your goal. I still don't know what his goals for Iraq are, frankly, although I have some of my own.)

Anyhow, there's sort of a predictable and reflexive response from many - mostly, but not exclusively, from the left - opposing the surge. I think that's as absentminded as the surge proposal itself.

As I see it, the surge could be exactly what we need, or just putting more troops into harms way, but it depends on how they're used. In other words, the surge is neither a good idea or a bad idea - mostly, it's a tactical move rather than a strategic move, and I have no idea whether or not it actually supports our strategy. (Hmmmm....actually, I think the problem is that I don't have a good idea what our strategy itself is). As an essentially tactical decision, I also have a quibble with the fact that Bush spent months agonizing about what to do in Iraq only to come up with a tactical move that he could have ordered one morning over coffee. But I digress...

Here's the thing. It's been said so often that it's cliché at this point, but I'll say it anyhow: the problem in Iraq is fundamentally a political problem, not a military one. This is something that the left has repeated and that the White House still doesn't seem to understand. But equally true is something that the White House points out that the left seems to ignore: you can't solve anything politically until there is stability on the ground. If the surge can provide the stability that is the substrate for any conceivable political solution, then hooray - it's a critical and necessary move.

Of course, that then begs the following question: "Mr. President, now that the surge has been successful and the streets of Baghdad are quiet, how do you ensure that they will stay quiet and won't need a massive military force (ours or Iraqi) for centuries to come?" If the President has an answer to this, then the surge is the right medicine at the right time (no, scratch that - a year or 3 too late), and I'd love to hear the political strategy.

Absent any clear coherent political strategy - or even a strategy for a strategy - the surge is just going to put more gasoline on the fire.

I'm not an advocate of a withdrawal from Iraq. Right or wrong, we made this mess, we need to fix it. (And full disclosure: I felt that invading Iraq was the right decision, albeit for different reasons than Bush provided. It's the subsequent management of Iraq that I think has been so disastrous.) The surge is a tactical move that could provide the opportunity - through stability on the ground - to actually address core issues and actually achieve a stable, democratic Iraq (something that I feel would indeed be an unambiguously Good Thing), or it could just result in more body bags. My fear is that Mr. Bush hasn't thought it through in this way.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

There's nothing wrong with taking life

I suppose that's a pretty provocative title, but I think it's true. I don't think that the taking of life per se has any moral issue about it. It's the wasting of life that I think is morally problematic. Why do I draw this distinction, and why do I think it frees me to make the provocative assertion that the taking of a life is amoral? I think it actually provides a better basis for figuring out a host of other issues than starting from the premise that taking life is wrong.

I should point out that despite the claim that killing is not evil in and of itself, the corollary that wasting of life is wrong prevents me from coming to wacky conclusions on the basic moral scenarios.

For example, killing someone for their wallet is pretty clearly a waste; certainly that fails the morality test. And one can generalize this pretty quickly based (perhaps on a technicality) on the inability of one person to judge whether or not another person's life would be "wasted" if they were killed. More to the point: since it's so hard to determine when killing someone would be a waste (who gets to decide, after all?), one must default to the position that it will be wasteful and thus refrain. Of course, we have a number of well defined exceptions where killing is perfectly acceptible (self-defense, for example), but I think my "wasting life" litmus test applies here as well. After all, if someone is lunging at you with a knife, then failure to kill them likely means wasting your own life.

And I don't think that this argument has any actual bearing on the abortion debate. Pick whatever point that you believe that human life begins (see my earlier post on abortion where I argue that this is the real crux of the issue). Prior to that point there is no life to waste (by definition of how we picked the point) so this argument doesn't apply, and after that point then it's pretty clear that the life is being wasted, so it's not OK.

Rather, I think that the distinction about wasting life vs. taking life helps more at the fringe cases - cases where you are balancing interests, or weighing quality of life issues.

Some examples:
  • Hunting and eating meat. Hunting for trophies has always bothered me. But someone who hunts a deer and eats the venison and uses the leather is not wasting the deer - and I have no problem with it. In both cases, the life of the deer is obviously taken, but I think the former case is immoral while the latter is not. This is actually the scenario that got me thinking about the distinction between taking and wasting life - after all, it's the same act as far as the killing goes, so I asked myself why the two scenarios felt so different. Even apart from hunting, eating meat necessarily involves taking a life - but if it's to nourish another, then I don't think it is wasted. Butchering the cow and leaving the meat to rot, on the other hand, doesn't feel morally acceptible to me.
  • Euthanasia. I think the Terri Schiavo case was the perfect example here: the fight was clearly a quantity-of-life vs. a quality-of-life fight, and my "wasting life" argument suggests that quantity of life is not what's important, it's quality. Prolonging suffering in hopeless scenarios strikes me as very much a waste.
  • Death penalty. While I have lots of problems with the death penalty in practice (specifically around my confidence that the system does what it is supposed to do and never executes an innocent person), I don't really have any problem with it from a moral point of view. Assuming that the person truly is guilty and that the crime is serious enough that the death penalty is not unreasonable, then I don't think this is one of the cases where "who decides if it would be a waste" has actually been answered: a jury and several layers of judges.

I think there are many people who have a knee-jerk "life-at-all-costs" philosophy, but I think that this often leads to moral contradictions; I think it makes more sense to focus on why life is important, and that leads to a more insightful understanding of why taking life is sometimes morally acceptible and sometimes not.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The problem with affirmative action

I suppose this is a relevant post for today, being MLK day and all.

Affirmative action has been in the news a bit lately, with the new affirmative action ban in Michigan. Frankly, though, nobody should be surprised that affirmative action remains in the news. It will always remain an issue as long as it is done the way it is done because - as it has been implemented - it is fundamentally self-contradictory.

I should be very clear up front that I think that the goal of affirmative action is both noble and necessary. The legacy of institutional racism from slavery through Jim Crow is clearly still being felt even several generations after the most notorious institutional repression has been erased.

I should also be clear that I think it is not the idea of affirmative action that is flawed, but rather how it has historically been implemented that is broken, and in fact would suggest that alternative approaches are feasible.

The goal of the civil rights movement was to achieve a colorblind society - something that it has, fortunately, been largely successful at. (Not entirely of course, but overt racism is certainly no longer socially acceptable and not only have institutional barriers been removed, but protections have been enshrined in the law. But I digress...) The goal of affirmative action was to make up for the effects of past repression. But herein lies the internal contradiction: in order to make up for past wrongs, many affirmative action programs end up being quite color-sensitive - the opposite of the very colorblind ideal that gave root to the cause of affirmative action!

Furthermore, because affirmative action has largely been implemented in zero-sum games such as college admission, helping a minority because they are a minority comes at the expense of someone else who is not a minority. This, of course, is the issue that most conservative opponents of affirmative action decry - both because it is a form of reverse-discrimination (how can that possibly be morally acceptable if discrimination based on color is unacceptable?) and because it effectively punishes this generation for the sins of prior generations - something that western society has for a very long time looked down upon. The fact that affirmative action has patently noble goals blinds many of its advocates to the very real fact that - as implemented - most affirmative action has a necessary side effect of embracing the very evils to which it aspires to provide redress!

I mentioned "zero-sum" above, and I think that is the crux of the problem: giving preference to one person comes at the expense of another. Remove that and I think the controversy around affirmative action goes away. After all, there are many sports scholarships and nobody decries the fact that non-athletic students do not have access to these scholarships. Nor should they: failure to win a sports scholarship doesn't bar you from attending a school (though of course, economically, it may make it more difficult), and there are other scholarships or student loans available.

There is yet a third argument raised by opponents of affirmative action: that it provides opportunities to people who are not qualified to take advantage of those opportunities. Sadly, there is some merit to this objection, even if it is not actually happening in practice, it could. In my opinion, affirmative action done correctly focuses on the supply-side of the equation - expanding the pool of qualified minority applicants for jobs, school admissions, and such - rather than the output side of the equation (how many minorities get hired or accepted). In these pools, consumption from the pool can (and should!) be strictly merit-based. Of course, to fill the pool, you have to feed the pipeline at the other end. You can have a merit-based job applicant pool, but to ensure that minorities have the same opportunities, you have to get more of them through school. And getting more of them into school means reserving more spots for them ("quotas", or at the very least displacing other qualified candidates since school size makes this a zero-sum situation), or lowering standards so that you can accept students that you would not have otherwise accepted.

Neither of these are attractive approaches, but I think there is a third option: that feeding the pipe means consuming from a secondary pool of applicants, and that if you can push the problem down a level. The job applicant pool is fed by the output of our universities. Affirmative action today tries to directly fix the output of our universities by force-fitting more minorities into them, with the problems above. But viewed as a supply chain problem, one realizes that the output of the universities is a result of the applicant pool from which the university itself consumes. Get more qualified minorities into that applicant pool, and you'll see more qualified minorities coming out. And how do you get more minorities into that applicant pool? Get more of them successfully through high school. And so on.

In other words, remove the zero-sum nature of the problem. Smart affirmative action programs would start in grade school to ensure that minority kids are getting a great education and any additional help that they need to succeed. This doesn't come at the expense of the education of a middle-class white kid - it's analogous to the sports scholarship. Then you get a lot more minority kids coming out of grade school ready for high school. Do the same thing in high school, and you see a lot more qualified applicants for college. If you have more qualified applicants from all races, there is no need to use race as a deciding factor where the zero-sum bottlenecks apply: you can do admissions based on merit and still find yourself having proportional representation in your student body.

While there are fortunately many programs that seek to help minority kids early in their educational career, this is sadly not where most affirmative action advocates focus. But it's really the crux of the problem - otherwise, you're treating the symptom rather than the cause, and doing it in a morally problematic manner at that.