Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Song Remains the Same

Thoreau lays it down:
So, I was thinking about the fact that the Dems insist there’s nothing they can do without a two-thirds majority. There are two problems with that sort of talk:

1) Even if they can’t over-ride a veto, they could still just refuse to pass a spending bill for Iraq, NSA spying, and other obscenities. And if a few Democrats refused to go along and tried to vote with the Republicans to get a majority on a spending bill, I’m sure that between filibusters and the procedural powers of the House and Senate majority leaders and committee chairs, Reid and Pelosi could find a way to fix this. If they really wanted to, and if they were prepared to take some risks for the sake of the Republic.

They might not have all the power, but they have enough, if they’re actually willing to do something about this mess.

2) We’ve heard this talk before. Republicans spent decades insisting that they really do want to roll back the scope of the federal government. But first they needed more power. Well, they finally got the Congress, the White House, and the chance to appoint a bunch of judges.

Last I checked, they didn’t exactly decrease the size, scope, or intrusiveness of the federal government.
Ideology is a rationalization. It's what politicians sell to voters to get donations. We don't deny that some politicians may genuinely be opposed to or in favor of certain practices - like, say, abortion. But any electioneer worth his sand would ditch that principle like a plate too hot from the oven if he thought he could profit in doing so.

As to why the Democrats aren't acting on Iraq? on the President's various crimes? There's no mystery.

Friday, July 20, 2007

A False Sense of Security

Commander Pleads For Time to Secure Iraq:
BAGHDAD (AP) -- If the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq is reversed before the summer of 2008, the military will risk giving up the security gains it has achieved at a cost of hundreds of American lives over the past six months, the commander of U.S. forces south of Baghdad said Friday.
How did people even write before they had the ability to use hypertext? We have no idea and, frankly, don't care to find out.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

The Road To Hell

Eric Falkenstein on Mahalanobis:
It's good to know what evil really is: good intentions, enthusiastically applied, on a bad theory. These people are creating utopias or protecting some principle, and the mere sadists are just opportunists. The idea that killing a politician who won two democratic elections, because one disagrees (strongly!) with them is based on the premise that Bush actually stole the election, or that he is in fact cynically trying to favor big business knowing this merely sucks the life out of average people, or some other caricature. [British historian Eric] Hobsbawm thinks we should give him credit for his intentions, which as applied rationalized both terror and an unimaginable bureaucracy. As Nietzsche said, no one lies like the indignant, and they lie to promote a greater good. It is facts that matter, because facts constrain theories, and if you assume the wrong facts, your theory that explains those facts is wrong, and an extreme application of that theory is evil.
Everyone thinks they're a hero. Everyone thinks their intentions will whitewash their actions. More terror has been inflicted on the world in the Twentieth Century in the name of "at least I'm doing something!" than was probably inflicted in the five centuries prior.

Every time someone insists to us that the evil of Josef Stalin or Chairman Mao is not indicative of communism's failures as a whole, we ask them this: if Stalin had been elected President of the United States in 1918, how many U.S. citizens could he have killed? Would every state governor have cooperated as he confiscated food en masse? Would no citizen have risen up in arms as his neighbors were herded off into slave labor camps? What's the most that President Stalin could have killed in the U.S.? One million? Five million, at the outside? But not twenty million? Okay.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

It's The Territory, Stupid

A Bruce Schneier essay in Wired that's worth reading in its entirety. But we'll draw out the important parts:
People tend to infer the motives -- and also the disposition -- of someone who performs an action based on the effects of his actions, and not on external or situational factors. If you see someone violently hitting someone else, you assume it's because he wanted to -- and is a violent person -- and not because he's play-acting. If you read about someone getting into a car accident, you assume it's because he's a bad driver and not because he was simply unlucky. And -- more importantly for this column -- if you read about a terrorist, you assume that terrorism is his ultimate goal.

Like most cognitive biases, correspondent inference theory makes evolutionary sense. In a world of simple actions and base motivations, it's a good rule of thumb that allows a creature to rapidly infer the motivations of another creature. (He's attacking me because he wants to kill me.) Even in sentient and social creatures like humans, it makes a lot of sense most of the time. If you see someone violently hitting someone else, it's reasonable to assume that he's a violent person. Cognitive biases aren’t bad; they’re sensible rules of thumb.

But like all cognitive biases, correspondent inference theory fails sometimes. And one place it fails pretty spectacularly is in our response to terrorism. Because terrorism often results in the horrific deaths of innocents, we mistakenly infer that the horrific deaths of innocents is the primary motivation of the terrorist, and not the means to a different end.

I found this interesting analysis in a paper by Max Abrams in International Security. "Why Terrorism Does Not Work" (.PDF) analyzes the political motivations of 28 terrorist groups: the complete list of "foreign terrorist organizations" designated by the U.S. Department of State since 2001. He lists 42 policy objectives of those groups, and found that they only achieved them 7 percent of the time.

According to the data, terrorism is more likely to work if 1) the terrorists attack military targets more often than civilian ones, and 2) if they have minimalist goals like evicting a foreign power from their country or winning control of a piece of territory, rather than maximalist objectives like establishing a new political system in the country or annihilating another nation. But even so, terrorism is a pretty ineffective means of influencing policy.

This theory explains, with a clarity I have never seen before, why so many people make the bizarre claim that al Qaeda terrorism -- or Islamic terrorism in general -- is "different": that while other terrorist groups might have policy objectives, al Qaeda's primary motivation is to kill us all. This is something we have heard from President Bush again and again -- Abrams has a page of examples in the paper -- and is a rhetorical staple in the debate.

The Abrams' paper Schneier refers to can be found here (.pdf file).

Even sensible people (Jon Wilde of Distributed Republic, nee Catallarchy being one example) can make the mistake of believing that al Qaeda "hates us for our freedom." This analysis fails in the armchair for a few reasons:

(1) Jihad has been a pillar of Ismaili Shi'a for centuries. Radical, anti-Western ideologies like Salafist Islam (the brand to which al Qaeda subscribes) have been around since the 1800s. Yet Arab terrorism has only blossomed in the West in the 20th and 21st centuries. What has changed on the Arabian Peninsula in the last century that might have caused that?

(2) Why do Arab terrorists devote most of their attention to London (we're ignoring the few futile idiots that have been caught in the United States, such as the geniuses who tried to ignite a fuel line with a blowtorch at JFK Airport)? Wouldn't France, Germany, Belgium, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Ireland or any other largely Westernized country make an easier target? In other words, why do Arab terrorists devote most of their attention to the countries that have a sizable presence in the Persian Gulf?

(3) If the face value claim that Arabs attack the West for its ideology is to be swallowed without hesitation, should the face value claim that the West attacks Iraq in the name of "freedom" be taken equally seriously? If not, why not?

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Impish Impeachment Questions

The Office of the Executive has grown even more contemptuous in recent days, with Bush claiming executive privilege to avoid answering a subpoena, Cheney arguing that he's not part of the executive branch, and therefore allowed to avoid NARA requests for classified intel and, most recently, President Bush commuting Scooter Libby's sentence after he failed to make appeal. This is on top of the Military Commissions Act, various deceptions about the war in Iraq, and other crimes.

So why haven't the Democrats started impeachment proceedings?

(1) Political cowardice - they're so in love with power for its own sake that they fear their tenuous hold on a few Congress seats will slip if they lift a finger in the air to object;

(2) Opportunism - Bush is on his way out anyway, and if precedent is set for the Executive to claim this kind of power, why not save it for Obama/Clinton/Edwards/whoever?

(3) Sympathy - they don't find anything wrong with what he's doing; they just wish he were a little more genteel about it. Like Clinton's overseas adventures in Somalia, or Reagan funnelling weapons to Saddam Hussein.

You tell us.

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