Tuesday, August 24, 2004


"What about Bush's second-term agenda, Kerry's health care plan, the new overtime rules and (ahem) Iraq? Overshadowed, drowned out or blown off by the histrionics over Kerry's "character" and whether he deserved a Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts." - Howard Kurtz, Washington Post media columnist

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Stupidity Strikes Again

Apparently, a Mexican flag hung in a Denver-area high school sparked a torrent of complaints. The school district responded that any display of foreign banners must be temporary and related to the curriculum. Since, you know, we shouldn't be teaching kids about the existence of countries other than the United States.

It's people like this who ensure the suckage of our school system.

Attack of the Demagogues

Religious demagogue extraordinaire James Dobson is coming to Raleigh September 7th. I'm wondering if I should go...

Ben points out that Dobson doesn't just do demagoguery, that his website actually deals with issues of importance to Christian families. So it's just the political wing of Focus on the Family that blows ass, while the rest of the organization appears somewhat honorable. Dobson's still a jerk for actions that spread fear instead of love, but no one's all bad, I guess.

Pollsters Suck

When it comes to polls, people generally pay attention to little besides the numbers. But it's equally important - in fact, I would say more important - to know the exact questions being asked. I just received a computerized poll asking me questions such as:

"Do you agree with the NRA and their strong support for gun owners' rights?"

"Do you believe that our taxes should be not raised and, if possible, cut?"

The first one is obviously constructed in order to distort the numbers in favor of the NRA. I would wager that most people believe that some restrictions on the free flow of firearms are appropriate, but who the hell is going to say they don't support the rights of gun owners? The use of vague idealistic terms instead of specific policy proposals tilts the question.

Also, who the heck is going to answer no to the second question (besides me when I'm messing with pollsters)? "Yes, I'd like to pay more in taxes, please." A better question would be "Would you be willing to pay higher taxes to fund (insert specific government program here)?" That would actually tell us something. A poll that reports on how 80% of Americans support lower taxes is not news. Watch the pollsters turn this into support for Bush's tax cuts.

There are more subtle ways of manufacturing opinion. Take, for example, this question from the same poll:

"Do you agree that marriage between one man and one woman should be the only legally binding marriage in America?"

On the surface, this is not a biased question - and in a paper poll, it wouldn't be. But it seems to me that the use of the word "agree" in posing the question verbally is meant to create a knee-jerk reaction in most people. People don't like to disagree unless the option is given to them, so a lot of people would automatically say "yes, I agree" without giving much thought to the question. Even I hesitated, and I disagree very strongly with the statement.

In fact, there are even more subtle ways to influence poll response. Tone of voice can be very important in the posing of a question. The previous question placed an emphasis on both "one"s rather than remaining monotonous throughout. As a result, it came off as more admonition and less question. Even the most innocently phrased questions - for example, "If the election were held to day, would you vote for John Kerry, George Bush, other, or don't know (responses rotated)?" - can be biased if the tone of the question changes. Imagine that question if "John Kerry" were said in an excited, happy voice while "George Bush" was said in a disaffected, sad-sounding voice. It becomes less "who would you vote for" and more "do you like happy?"

Moral of the story: watch out for the poll numbers. They're not always the whole story. You should also pay attention to the questions asked and to who's conducting the poll. (Mine was conducted by something called "Helping Hand International." They don't show up in a Google search unless they're a Kentucky-based adoption agency, which I doubt. My guess is that they're a Republican-leaning political group.)

Energy Policy Rant

Why, oh why, couldn't the beginnings of an oil crisis come in an off year?

Oil prices have been on the rise disturbingly. They have been setting records, spurred on by the specter of instability in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela and an extremely overreactive market.

Sadly, our current political climate precludes any sort of actual debate on the issue of oil prices and what to do about them. Short of military action against all the OPEC countries, there's not a whole lot we can do on the production end - the producers, so to speak, have us over a barrel. Our goal, then, must be to lower consumption of gasoline. The advantages of lower consumption are twofold: limiting demand will drive down the cost of crude and give us more leverage in our foreign policy.

Of course, no candidate who actually wants to get elected can come out and say "consume less gasoline." That would be about as appreciated as telling a kindergarten class that Santa doesn't exist. Kerry and Bush, to their credit, provide proposals to wean us from foreign oil, but none hint at the sacrifice on our part that will be necessary to combat this problem. (Badnarik's website fails to address the issue.)

Kerry proposes research and development money for alternative energy sources, which is admirable as a long-term goal. (I also like it since it's my probable career path.) He also proposes tax credits for companies that develop more fuel-efficient cars. Bush intends to concentrate on increasing domestic oil production, especially by drilling in ANWR, but I believe this will solve nothing. To my knowledge he has proposed little else. (His energy policy is elusive on his website.)

However, both candidates have disgracefully cast aside a possible solution to our out-of-control consumption - a higher gas tax. Commentators such as David Ignatius and Charles Krauthammer have offered intelligent columns supporting an increased gas tax. Alas, a civil discussion on the merits of a gas tax is impossible, since it has become a huge political issue: Bush and Kerry attack each other regularly for supporting such a tax.

The gas tax does, indeed, have merits. It is the most obvious way to limit consumption; higher prices would make people think twice before driving the car instead of taking public transportation. It would generate more revenue for the states that they could then funnel into improving public transportation. Most importantly, a high gas tax would encourage innovation in both city planning and automobile design. This policy would provide both long-term and short-term relief from high oil consumption.

But at what cost? A gasoline tax is highly regressive; the hardest hit by it would be lower-middle- and working-class families who are already struggling to make it. The extra $20 a week for the commute could push them over the edge into insolvency, especially if real wages continue falling over the next decade. True, those living near major urban centers have public transportation available, but how much would that solve in the short term? Outside of New York, public transportation in our cities is horribly inadequate and cannot be repaired in the short term. This leaves working families forced to pay the extra tax without having an option to avoid it. Furthermore, those in the rural working class do not have the option of taking public transportation and often must commute long distances to work. These people would be extremely hard-hit by any gas-tax increase.

In short, I probably agree that the gas tax is not the way to go to cut production. But what is? Maybe a tax credit for using public transportation or carpooling would help - it still mostly misses the rural poor who live far apart and are forced to use cars, but it could create gains in the areas most likely to limit consumption. Portland, Oregon made a step in the right direction by forbidding outward expansion beyond a certain point; perhaps federal money for cities that follow Portland's lead would help.

Energy policy is a highly complex issue, and one that deserves to be debated extensively. The American people deserve to be able to understand all the issues at hand and the arguments on all sides of these issues. It's certainly one of the most important issues out there. Too bad it's an election year, so intelligent debate is impossible.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Reconcilication With Iran Is Possible

Sorry for the anemic post frequency. It probably won't get better since I'm actually doing stuff at work now. Also, I'm quitting with the column numbering. It's annoying me and probably annoying you.

"The West ... got rid of the tyrannical talons of the church ... and delivered itself from the clutches of feudalism ... with the motto of 'freedom, fraternity and equality' and finally construed and built a modern society which today... produces miracles worthy of admiration." - Mohammed Khatami, President of Iran (read the whole poorly translated document here.)

Recently, I've been hearing a lot of harsh talk about Iran, and for good reason. The Iranian government has doggedly pursued a nuclear program that may or may not be producing weapons. European attempts to find out more have failed miserably. Furthermore, the 9/11 commission found links between hardliners in the Iranian government and the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Financing Hezbollah, the group responsible for the 1983 Beirut bombing that killed hundreds of Marines, was a rotten trick to say the least. And Bush appears to be sounding the war drums again; an official from the administration was quoted as saying that a second Bush administration would oversee "much more intervention" in Iranian affairs.

And yet, I'm not convinced that the kind of "intervention" Bush is advocating - stirring up revolutions and the like - is the answer here

Iran's relationship with the Western world has always been a troubled one, but there have been a plethora of signs in recent years that Iran is ready to open its arms to the West. The election of Khatami in 1997 - with over 70% of the vote - was a definite vote for more normalized relations with Europe and America. Iran has recently opened relations with India, an important Western ally. The Iranian government has rounded up several al-Qaeda members, and has expressed support for a stable and free Iraq and Afghanistan. My point is, there's hope here.

It's obvious to me that the Iran that exists today does not hate the West or the Americans. Khatami points out that "it was in the state of backwardness, misery and humiliation, being the consequences and the scars of despotic rule in our society, that we encountered the West with two different feelings – humiliation and fear." Indeed, Iranians had much to be humiliated about, and much to fear.

Iranians asserted themselves against the Shah many times before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In 1953, Premier Mohammed Mussadiq, a Socialist, nationalized the oil industry of Iran, thus angering American and British interests. As Mussadiq continued to assert power, he was supported by the bulk of the Iranian people - for a while. A growing disaffection with Mussadiq opened the door for an American-led coup that deposed Mussadiq and put the Shah back in power. The result of this: Iranians would forget their own disaffection with Mussadiq, and would view the coup as an attempt by America to control their affairs. Continuing American support for the increasingly despotic Shah would only cause Iranians to grow more fearful and more humiliated before the West.

As a result, Iran lashed out, and the Islamic Revolution and its horrifyingly bloody aftermath were the results. This backlash causes most Americans to perceive Iran as an enemy. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Iran, with Khatami in a position of some power, is ripe for reconciliation with the West. President Bush - or, if elected, Kerry - would be well advised to begin an honest dialogue with Iran. It should begin with an expression of regret - an apology, even - for our support of the 1954 coup and of the Pahlavi dynasty. Our leaders should reassure Iranians that support for dictatorships and the overthrow of popular leaders, while disturbingly common in our foreign policy, does not align with our principles. Our leaders should recognize that Iran is far too complex a country to be buttonholed onto the "axis of evil." And most importantly, our leaders should make a pledge to support the will of the Iranian people.

Such an olive branch will not solve everything. Copious actions of good faith on both sides are needed to bridge the divide, but I daresay it is possible. After all, we are on good terms with Chile now, and our intervention in Chile was more recent and had far worse effects than our interventions in Iran. If it's possible to win the respect, if not the admiration, of Chile, we can win the respect of Iran.

Yes, there are numerous wrongs for which the Iranian government must apologize if relations are to be normalized, but this action is out of our hands. The important part is that if we play our cards right, Iran could, in time, become an extremely important ally in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war on terror. For now, a conciliatory gesture on our part can only help our relations. Friendly actions tend to beget friendly actions - if we apologize for supporting a cruel dictator, perhaps Iran will apologize for supporting and participating in anti-American terror. And in a land where humiliation and fear still linger, unfriendliness begets violence.

You know you're in trouble when...

Check this out to see what renowned liberal hippie peacenik Pat Buchanan is publishing about the Bush administration. I wonder if he's gunning for the Jewish vote in Palm Beach again this year...

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Column 10: The Libertarians' Big Chance

The media love to obsess over Ralph Nader. His campaign's often laughable attempts to gather signatures and get on the ballot in various states inspires plenty of amusing little articles here and there about what Republicans are helping him out and what Democrats are doing to stop him.

Truth is, Nader's not going to be much of a factor in this election, at least not to the extent that he was in 2000. Sure, more narrow margins of victory such as those in Florida, New Mexico, New Hampshire, and Iowa will show up in this election. But the closer we get to Election Day, the more apparent the differences between candidates will be, and the less influential Nader will become. (And accepting the nomination from the party that previously nominated ultraconservative Pat Buchanan further dents his credibility.)

But that's not a reason to make this a two-candidate struggle. Truth is, there's a third candidate - Libertarian Michael Badnarik - who, if he plays his cards right, can have a huge effect on the outcome of this election.

As most of the readers of this blog will know, Libertarians are a traditionally Republican constituency. They had been willing to put their differences on social issues on the back burner in favor of a unified front for smaller government and free-market values. It's always been a somewhat tenuous alliance, but the Republicans tended to be good enough at keeping government small to mollify Libertarians.

The importance of keeping Libertarians happy has completely escaped George W. Bush and the Republican leadership of the past four years. Since Bush took office, he has presided over an actual expansion of government. The tax cuts may have pleased Libertarians, but the new Medicare entitlement certainly didn't. Add to that the huge increase in defense spending, the immense deficit, and the civil liberties disasters of the past four years, and you have a lot of Libertarians who are annoyed at the Bush administration.

Enter Badnarik, who could learn a lot from Nader's 2000 run. In 2000, Nader recognized that the Democratic Party was giving very short shrift to the concerns of progressives. Recognizing that the 2000 election was going to be a close one, he set out to send a message to the Democrats by influencing the election - and succeeded. The Democratic Party of 2004 spent a lot more time mollifying progressives than it had in recent memory, and Kerry - though he's no progressive - has positioned himself well to the left of Gore and Clinton.

Badnarik could have that sort of effect on Republicans, who have become as complacent about Libertarian votes as the Democrats were about progressive votes in 2000. By running a campaign aimed at small-government conservatives and Libertarians in states like New Hampshire, Nevada, Arizona, and Ohio, he could cost Bush the election. This will force Republicans to give Libertarians a more prominent voice in their party, and restore small-government ideas to the national debate. More importantly, it will give the Libertarian Party a national spotlight and some much-needed respect.

Badnarik could also go the other way if he wants. By emphasizing his peace credentials, he could probably siphon off enough progressive votes to swing the election to Bush. This probably wouldn't get Libertarian ideas into the Democratic Party mainstream, but it would still give the party its national spotlight.

The choice, then, is Badnarik's. A well-run Libertarian campaign could very well decide the presidential election - either way. The Libertarian Party, which has long dwelled on the margins of American politics, has an opportunity to make its voice heard louder than ever before. (They have an added advantage in that their candidate is finally not Harry Browne - Badnarik appears a hundred times more accessible.) And if not now for the Libertarians, when? Small-government ideas seem to be rapidly vanishing from the national debate - by 2008, the Libertarians will be even more marginalized if they don't take this chance.

Good luck, Mike.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Too Outspoken, My Ass

Teresa Heinz-Kerry is getting berated by the media for referring to a Bush victory in November as "four more years of hell." Click here for details. (Fortunately, the Post does a decent job chronicling the event, but CNN's television coverage gave it an unabashedly negative spin.)

It seems to me that this is no different from Ted Kennedy's "the only thing we have to fear is four more years of George Bush" from the convention. When Ted Kennedy says it, it's politics. When Teresa Heinz-Kerry says it, it's "too outspoken." Maybe it's time to quit trying to project the Nancy Reagan image onto potential first ladies and recognize that they, too, are real human beings with actual opinions on things. Just a thought.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Column 9: Realistic Expectations For Iraq

This one's kind of disorganized. Sorry.

This political season, Kerry and Bush have been falling all over themselves to try to prove to Americans that they can "get the job done" quickly and effectively in Iraq. Each candidate claims that if they are elected, they can bring peace and stability to Iraq.

Yeah, right.

Revolutions do not sort themselves out overnight. The history books are littered with countries who have overthrown oppressive regimes, only to become bogged down with internal issues for decades. One country in particular became tormented with regional factionalization, racial discrimination, and social unrest caused by poverty immediately after the end of their successful revolution. The various tensions led to outbreaks of violence for decades, culminating in a catastrophic civil war some ninety years later.

I refer, of course, to the United States.

America enshrined racial inequality in its founding document by endorsing the existence of slavery; the Civil War was a direct, though avoidable, result. Furthermore, early Americans' regional loyalties often trumped loyalty to the central state. The maintenance of these conflicting loyalties led to the faulty Articles of Confederation, numerous armed rebellions, and the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s. They also contributed to the Civil War.

Other instances in early American history bear a striking resemblance to what is happening in Iraq now. Had the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 made use of roadside bombs, Pittsburgh might well have looked like Fallujah looks now. George Washington was able to quell the rebellion with a combination of a confident show of military might and sheer force of personality.

The Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 probably provides a better picture of the road ahead for Iraq. A somewhat unified force overthrew antidemocratic dictator Porfirio Diaz in 1910. Soon after, the revolutionary forces began to bicker. The assassination of new President Francisco Madero in 1912 led to a somewhat organized display of force against the overthrower, Victoriano Huerta. However, after it became clear that Huerta's days were numbered, the revolutionaries separated into no less than four factions. Years of fighting interspersed with attempts at peace ensued. The attempts at peace failed because one of the groups would generally feel excluded. It wasn't until 1920 that peace finally stuck - and then only because Alvaro Obregon had managed to definitively eliminate his competition. It seems that the issues of the Mexican Revolution were resolved mostly by attrition.

Mexico's revolution was likely a lot cleaner and more conclusive than its American counterpart, but issues raised during the Mexican Revolution still simmer. Even now, people claiming the legacy of revolutionary Emiliano Zapata lead the occasional armed insurrection in the southern state of Chiapas. The party founded by Obregon's successor became increasingly corrupt and was accused of rigging elections as recently as 1994. Indeed, the election of Vicente Fox in 2000 represented for many Mexico's final proof of democratization. Mexico, too, had its personalities that held the country together - the scrupulously honest and well-liked Lazaro Cardenas fended off an effort by the cronyists that likely would have plunged Mexico into deeper unrest.

The factionalization in 1910-1920 Mexico represents closely the divisions between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds in Iraq, and the further factionalization within the Shiite camp. The Mexican Revolution can demonstrate to Iraqis and Americans that it is important for all factions to be brought to the bargaining table if we desire a workable peace. Iraq can also learn the dangers of dishonest and unpopular leaders; Mexico suffered through several minor rebellions between the presidencies of Obregon and Cardenas. And last but not least, the danger of leaving factional loyalties in place cannot be underestimated.

Iraq probably has a Washington or a Cardenas out there somewhere. Perhaps it is Allawi. But the point I have been trying to make is this: while there is much for Iraq to learn from the histories of the U.S. and Mexico, we can expect nothing less than a long road ahead. Even if the Iraqis learn from the mistakes of the American and Mexican Revolutions, the issues that now exist in Iraq will take years, even decades, to sort out. There will probably be a civil war or two. To expect a quick and painless overnight solution to this ordeal is fantasy, and shame on Bush and Kerry for scoring political points from perpetuating such unrealistic expectations.

One more point. In 1916, when the factionalization in Mexico was at its height, Woodrow Wilson saw it fit to authorize a military intervention. While the factions of the revolution tended to agree on very little, everyone agreed on this point: the Americans should just go home and let the Mexicans sort this one out. We left, and within three years the Mexicans had come to a difficult but workable peace. Keep that in mind next time you weigh the importance of "staying the course" in Iraq.