My heart goes out to all of the victims of the attack in Barcelona. I am saddened to see yet another terrorist attack. These people did not deserve to die. All of these words seem so inadequate, just as they do after every terrorist attack. I often don’t know what to write after these events, so I’ll just throw out some random thoughts.

Any individuals who commit a terrorist act bear final responsibility for their actions. If they die in the attack or refuse to surrender and are killed by police, that seems like justice to me.

There are security personnel in countries worldwide (and yes, even majority Muslim countries for the conservatives out there) who go to work every day thwarting these kinds of attacks. I appreciate their hard work and dedication and the risks they bear. My life and the lives of my family and friends are the better for it.

What is the definition of terrorism? Using violence against civilians for political goals? If that sounds right, then I think every military in the world and every soldier in every military in the world is implicated. Civilians always die in military conflicts. ALWAYS. Is it no longer terrorism simply because the violence is being committed by people wearing special clothes issued by a nation state? Many people see this as a clear distinction, but I don’t – especially when it comes to bombing. I don’t care how precise the bombing is, again, civilians always die.

I know; I know. “But they surround themselves with civilians!” you say. Okay, maybe they share some of the blame then. But it’s also very likely, if there are friendly civilians around, that the targets are very, very far from the US – and unlikely to be an immediate threat.

National self-defense is justified. But I don’t think most of our modern wars fit this definition. Certainly not the second Iraq War, which – no matter the spin by Bush administration officials – was a war of choice. While I supported the war in Afghanistan when the government there wouldn’t hand over the perpetrators of 9-11, we have long lost our way in that conflict. Toppling Libya just led to more chaos.

Reviewing these wars leads me to the fact that we bear some responsibility for this terrorism. We have spent decades manipulating events in the Middle East and destabilizing the region on countless occasions. We were not always the enemy of the people there. But now we clearly are. We need a truly fresh approach. Perhaps that means stepping back altogether. Enough with our reliance on energy from that region. Enough with military contractors benefiting from the endless wars and arms sales there. And enough with our being part of Muslim religious proxy wars.

Underlying much of the Middle East is a long-running analog to the Catholic-Protestant wars of European history. Various Sunni- and Shiite-leaning nations and groups are contending for religious domination. We really don’t have a stake in that fight. Saudi Arabia – the major Sunni power – is a leading sponsor of Sunni terrorism, including Al Qaeda. (A reminder that most of the 9-11 attackers were Saudi nationals.) Iran is a sponsor of Shiite terrorism. I see no particular reason to favor one over the other. We should want BOTH of them to stop. (And if you’re tempted to look back to the Iranian seizure of our embassy, I’d remind you that we are now on friendly terms with communist Vietnam, even after fighting a horrible war there, and that the CIA toppled a democratically elected government in Iran.)

There will always be extremist violence in human relations. There’s no way around that. But as a nation – as a matter of policy – all we can do it contain it in the short run, fight the ideologies that inspire it in the medium to long term, and work to bring a just peace and social stability to all nations in the really long run. Destroying social order from the outside is unlikely to help with any of those goals.

Some long overdue thoughts on Charlottesville

I’ll admit that I’ve been taking advantage of my physical distance from the US to avoid the tragedy in Charlottesville and tend to personal matters. But it’s time for some reactions:

One – The car attack was an act of terrorism, plain and simple. (Just like the left-wing attack on Republicans in Washington was.) In a just world, Heather Heyer would be alive today – as would the two police officers who died in the unrelated helicopter crash while having to monitor the events.

Two – The white supremacists/white separatists/neo-Nazis/neo-Confederates who planned the rallies in Charlottesville are disgusting people. Watch this documentary from VICE News to get a flavor:

(They also happen to be hilarious crybabies when forced to confront the consequences of their actions.)

Three – Pres. Trump should have stuck to his second statement on the events. Just condemn neo-Nazis and white supremacists – full stop.

We must love each other, show affection for each other and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry and violence. We must rediscover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans. Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.

Four – Regarding Pres. Trump’s third set of statements in which he again said both sides were to blame and that there were “fine people” on both sides, let me try to charitable to the president for a moment, even if you could argue he doesn’t deserve it given how he abuses other people online, because:

  • I’m constitutionally built that way. It’s the journalist in me. I can’t help it.
  • I think it’s a better strategy to signal to Trump supporters that might now be questioning his judgment that you’ve carefully listened to them and don’t just dismiss them as bat sh*t crazy.  I believe this can help defuse tense situations and leads to better outcomes.
  • You can find rants about Trump in many other places.
  • There is something to waiting for the facts to come in when these kinds of events occur. Again, it’s the journalist in me. And I praise people who wait for the full information. (Secretary of Defense Mattis impressed me in this way recently.)

Okay, all of that said, let’s take a look at “fine people” on the alt-right’s side. Pres. Trump stressed that they were there to protest taking down a statue of Robert E. Lee. They were there to defend a hero of the Confederacy. Supposedly that was the reason for the rallies, and they were flying the Stars and Bars. But regardless of what personal qualities these people have – of how fine they are – they are protesting in support of traitors to the United States – people who became traitors because they wanted to keep slavery in place in the United States. When it seemed that they couldn’t – that they were losing politically – they took to armed rebellion and tried to leave the Union. That’s what those “fine” people are supporting. (And the irony is never lost on me that these people somehow consider themselves the true patriots.)

Five – Regarding the “fine” people in the counter-protests, for the most part, there can be no comparison. You can’t equate people who advocate for white supremacy and Nazism with the people who oppose it. What, were our troops in World War II who were trying to defeat Nazi Germany just as bad as them? Some revisionists might claim that, but I don’t believe any reasonable person ever would. Now, there are lots of people in the anti-fascist – antifa –  movement who clearly are itching for a fight every bit as much as the white supremacists. They don’t see any problem at all with proactively punching Nazis. I can’t get on board with that, because…

Six – I’m a strong believer in the First Amendment. The law and the morality of First Amendment issues are complex. By my interpretation, your First Amendment rights end when you incite violence. But the definition of incitement is slippery. And even if you have a right to speak, I’m not altogether sure you have the right to be respectfully heard. Not every venue is an academic debate. If you’re going to hold a rally for neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideas, it seems reasonable for you to expect to get drowned out by counter-protesters.

But I don’t care for violent confrontations like some of the events before the car attack. Nobody comes off looking good. It’s not civil discourse. It doesn’t bolster the First Amendment. Call me unrealistic, idealistic, or naive if you want.

That said, defending the alt-right activists is awfully hard to do. They were carrying torches like the KKK of old and came ready for a fight in a military fashion. They did so to defend white supremacist views. In any contest of ideas, they should lose.

Seven – Back to Pres. Trump’s third set of remarks. Sorry, no, Mr. President, we won’t be going after George Washington statues. He fought to create the US, not destroy it like Lee did. And regarding slavery, Washington saw the contradiction between US ideals and slavery and freed his slaves in his will. Of course, he still failed to do so when it would have been personally inconvenient for him, and he deserves criticism for that. Jefferson does, too.

Eight – Again, to be charitable perhaps to a fault, here’s a story about how the right sees events. It would benefit liberals to try to get inside their heads a bit more.

Nine – If you want to see an end to terrorism and political violence – and you’re simultaneously the kind of person that gives a lot of weight to the inborn characteristics of people, like skin color, ethnicity, gender, etc. – well, then, it strikes me that the only reasonable thing to do is to go after males. We males sure do seem to do almost all of the violence and killing. The testosterone cooks our brains, I guess. Put the women in charge based purely on their gender and body chemistry.

Ten – But wait, if that sounds like bigotry to you, well, then good. I hope it does. I want to use that example to make a philosophical point about where I think leftist politics needs to go. I think we need to pin our hopes on universalism, not particularism. What I mean is that we need to focus on and fight for universal values – like freedom and equality and economic security for all. I think these are goals that all humans share. Let me get myself in trouble here with my allies for a moment: While leftists justly promote inclusiveness and equality, sometimes it tips over into bigotry, as well. If you blame “white males” for all of the world’s ills, many white males are going to take that the wrong way. They are going to see people blaming them when they individually didn’t do anything. We, as liberals and leftists, need a new message, and I think that message has to be universalist. Look, particularism – bigotry, racism, sexism – is just part of the human condition. We have to avoid feeding it. The only way out is to focus on universalism and not double down on particularism.

Eleven – Not to give in to prurient interest, but this is the most horrible clip of the car attack I found. The video is not that good, but the sound is terrifying. You can hear the thuds of bodies as they are hit.

Twelve – Just to make a point clear, f*ck neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, and white supremacists of all kinds.

Thirteen – The long struggle against the bigots and plutocrats and warmongers continues. The long struggle for justice and freedom and equality goes on.

Can’t we all just get along?

This post – “Why libertarians should read Marx” – by Chris Dillow (h/t to Mark Thoma) is a good read. Every “tribe” has its totems, and supposedly the left has Marx, which automatically means that the right must dismiss him out of hand. But that’s ridiculous, as Dillow points out.

I’ve encountered this on the left, too. If you don’t condemn Adam Smith, then you’re not a real leftist. But when you actually learn about Smith and his writing, you find that he worried just as much as Marx about the impact of markets and capitalism. He advocated for universal education to counteract the dehumanizing effects of working on a mass production line. He advocated for public infrastructure projects. And he warned that you can always count on businesspeople to collude together to maximize their profits and screw consumers.

In my view, there is no ideological spectrum between Marx and Smith. Instead, it’s an ongoing discussion on how best to organize modern economic life. But the instant you say “best”, you are choosing goals, and people’s goals vary widely.

If there is a spectrum, it’s between people who want to find ways to maximize everyone’s freedom so that we meet together as close to equals as possible (both economically and politically) and those who advocate for hierarchy, deference, and power over others. Autocrats vs. democrats, is a way to put it.

If human rights is the standard, then the West’s long-standing China policy is a dismal failure

From the Straits Times this morning:

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Twenty years after the U.K. handed Hong Kong back to the People’s Republic of China, the city is on its way to becoming just another Chinese city, with all of the same level of freedoms – or lack thereof. While this might seem to be mostly of interest to the people living in Hong Kong, it’s actually the latest indication that the West’s nearly four-decade-long policy toward China has been a miserable failure.

When Nixon went to China, the primary goal was to open a new front in the Cold War by co-opting the world’s other leading Communist state as an ally against the Soviet Union. But once Deng Xioping began his economic reforms in 1978, China became the hot potential market for Western business. It had almost a billion people at the time (1.3 billion now) and the possibility of fast growth since it was a developing country. China played its hand well. It continued to tightly control its economy and managed its integration into the world economy, using a mercantilist approach that allowed it to become the low-cost manufacturer for the world. Back in Hong Kong, once the lease was up in 1997, the UK handed it back to China with the promise that many British-style freedoms would be preserved, but not all Hong Kongers see that happening.

Now China is an ascendant economic – and increasingly military – world power. Those facts are not necessarily cause for concern. I don’t believe the U.S. has some divine right to be a global hegemon. Also, regarding Hong Kong, it was proper that the UK surrender it. After all, it was carved out China as part of its so-called Century of Humiliation, when Western powers took advantage of China’s internal weakness to exploit it, including acting as drug pushers. (And let’s be honest, who was going to stop China from re-taking Hong Kong? Was the UK or the US going to go to war?)

So, again, the issue is not that China is rising. It’s the fact that its record of individual human rights is terrible. I’m all for criticizing the West when it deserves it (and for sure it does, many times over), but I also believe that the development of individual rights and freedoms pioneered in the West is a gift to humanity. Many policymakers in the West claim to believe this, too. And if fact, much of the West’s engagement with China was sold to Western citizens as an attempt to persuade the Chinese government to agree that human rights mattered.

But now we see what’s happening in Hong Kong. Whatever freedoms did exist there are surely to be mostly lost. Hong Kong was supposed to help China learn the value of human rights. Seemingly not. Western investment in China was supposed to do the trick. Not so far. Encouraging Chinese participation in the world economy would surely work. Nope. So many failed theories. And now, if trend lines continue, it’s on track to be the pre-eminent world power. The power of the 21st century. And without a commitment to Western-style human rights. We all get to see how that plays out for human history.

Illinois’ political leaders are squabbling over 2 cents

Illinois is the state where I have spent more of my adult life than any other. I went to grad school there. We’re still connected to there through my wife’s employment. My children’s first memories of “home” are there. We’re bound to return there someday.

And it’s a complete mess.

From the Wall Street Journal:

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$14.6 billion. Sounds like a lot, right?

But Illinois has a huge Gross Domestic Product. It’s $791 billion. That’s the fifth largest in the U.S. That’s larger than 182 other COUNTRIES.

$14.6 billion is just 1.8% of the state’s GDP. That’s less than 2 cents for every dollar of income.

To pay back years of unpaid bills and to get the state back on track.

(At least in the short-term. Underfunded pensions are a way bigger problem.)

And yet the political leadership in Illinois can’t figure out how to get it done.

What a mess.

A bit of truth in a health care lie

This article in the American Prospect is correct:

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Republicans do lie about health care reform for the most part.

Let me expand on one item, though. He uses Palin’s “death panels” as an example of a lie. For sure, as she and other Republicans spun it, it was. I won’t repeat the lie here, but you see the full quote in this Politifact article.

In that quote, though, she started off by talking about rationing care. In this small bit, and it kills me to say this, she was right. The amount of health care will get rationed. Period. There is not an unlimited amount of money we can spend on everything people see as necessary to their health. A line will be drawn. But who will draw it?

Republicans seem perfectly comfortable with so-called “death panels” as long as it’s private companies making the call. They also seem perfectly comfortable with labor markets making that call – that is, if you can’t get a job with health insurance or can’t afford it, well, then no care for you.

For me, a far better system is to have a universal (everyone in), government-administered health insurance program that covers basic, scientifically proven health care treatments. From there, if people want additional or unproven treatments, we can have private out-of-pocket spending or a thriving private insurance market.

In fact, this private health care spending sphere could even tap the power of markets. Entrepreneurs and inventors would have the incentive to develop safe, effective new treatments that could be folded into the wider-spread government program.

Yes, in the end, a government panel would have to decide what is included in the basic insurance. In other words, it would have to ration precious health care dollars. But again, that already happens! At least a government panel would be publicly accountable for its decisions, and everyone would receive basic needed care.

Oh, and Republicans would likely lie about it.

By the way, I am well aware of Democratic counter-examples here. Pres. Obama got tagged with a “Lie of the Year” for saying that, under the ACA, you could keep your health current health insurance. Also, famously, ACA architect Jonathan Gruber dubbed Americans as too stupid to have the full ramifications of the ACA explained to them. No one is innocent. But on balance, the Republicans take the cake.

Single-payer is just too popular

Interesting read from Vox:

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Even though they are both parts of the Affordable Care Act, people seem to be drawing a distinction between the Medicaid expansion and “Obamacare”. Medicaid is popular, while “Obamacare” is not. As the article points out, that’s leading Republicans to try to focus on “Obamacare”, while trying to distract from the fact that their health care bills mainly will cut Medicaid (in order to fund tax cuts for the wealthy).

I keep putting “Obamacare” in quotes because that term means different things to different people. In this case, it seems to mean two things: the ACA insurance marketplaces for uninsured middle-class and higher-income earners, and the requirement that these folks buy private insurance industry products or pay a penalty (the so-called individual mandate). Other parts of “Obamacare” are more popular, like the requirement that insurers cover everyone regardless of pre-existing conditions (so-called guaranteed issue). 

So, the Medicaid expansion – which more-or-less was an expansion of a single-payer option for the poor, complete with guaranteed issue – is proving to be a winner. Seems like something a political party looking to be successful in the U.S. could learn from.