Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Why does everyone hate Albanians?

Mark Perry's blog Carpe Diem linked to an interesting post by Steven Landsburg, author of Armchair Economist and his newest book The Big Questions:

Bryan (paraphrasing me!) starts with the rather strong intuition that it’s okay for tenants and workers to discriminate. If you don’t want to live in an Albanian-owned building or an work for an Albanian employer, that’s your right (no matter how strongly we might strongly disapprove of your attitude). By analogy, then, it might seem that landlords and employers should have the same right to discriminate.

Now clearly the situtation is not that simple; landlords and employers are not the same as tenants and employees. But the question is: Are they not the same in any way that is morally relevant? The most frequently cited difference (in my experience) is that landlords and employers tend to have more market power than tenants and workers. Putting aside the question of whether that’s true, it can’t possibly be a full justification for treating landords and employers differently, and here’s why: There are plenty of instances where we don’t think that market power takes away your right to discriminate. Extremely attractive people have a lot of power in the dating market, but I think it’s safe to say that almost nobody thinks the most beautiful among us should be forced to date Albanians, or to prove that they choose their partners according to some objective criterion other than national origin.

So if you think it’s okay for tenants to discriminate but not landlords, you’ve got to face the question: What is the ethically relevant distinction here? It’s clearly not market power, so what, if anything, is it?

I do not deny that there might be a good answer to that question, but I must admit I can’t imagine what it would be.

I assume Steven used Albanians to avoid a black vs. white debate, as Mark Perry alluded to his mistake in doing so. But I don't think we can talk about Albanians without talking about African-Americans, because the two can not be interchangeably substituted. On the whole, I am against any policy or system that would factor in the color of a person's skin, BUT an exception should be made, for a period of time, for any group that was systematically marginalized through government and government-sponsored policies. That is what makes Albanians and blacks different, at least in America.

Civil rights "reparations" policies are important and have been monumental in changing American society in the last 50 years with respect to its treatment of blacks. However, I do feel like a time limit on government affirmative action policies is important, as I believe there is a tipping point past which (in almost every case) continued government action begins to do more harm than good. There is a fine line between help and pity, as there is a fine line between support and condescension, and the last thing we should be doing is institutionalizing any group as perpetually in need of assistance. I am not smart enough to know exactly when, but we should be at least trying to understand how close we may be to reaching the point of diminishing returns.

Now, as far as Albanians and all others are concerned, Landsburg has a point, in that we can not legislate discrimination out of human nature, and attempts to do so are usually one-sided and without moral/philosophical consistency.

We discriminate every day in the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, the music we listen to, the friends we keep, and the places we live/work/congregate. Discrimination is the primary function by which we form an identity and form communities with others who share in our discrimination. Racial discrimination is particularly crude and offensive, I agree, but in an open society with a blind government, those that discriminate poorly will usually suffer their just rewards.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Reformed Jihadists and the way forward

Johann Hari has written a must-read article for UK's The Independent. The piece is a series of anecdotes recounting the paths of former jihadists, and I consider it extremely insightful. It also has credibility, as it eerily echoes the U.S. Department of Defense's analysis from 2004 (see pp. 48-49 here) in showing how America's aggressive and violent approach to the very real threats of Islamism is horribly misguided and counterproductive. It also sheds light on the type of actions that actually did produce change in the hearts of some of Britain's most notorious former terrorists.

First, there is the conversion story of Usama Hassan, the Imam (religious leader) who recruited hundreds of others impressionable youths, including the man convicted for Daniel Pearl's beheading, to extreme Islamic fundamentalism. His conversion centered around the rejection of violent force:

He says the 7/7 bombings detonated a theological bomb in his mind: "How could this be justified? I began to wonder if parts of the Koran are actually metaphor, and parts of the Koran were actually just revealed for their time: seventh-century Arabia."

Once the foundation stone of literalism was broken, he had to remake the concepts that had led him to Islamism one-by-one. "Jihad has many levels in Islam – you have the internal struggle to be the best person you can be. But all we had been taught is military jihad. Today I regard any kind of campaigning for truth, for justice, as a type of Jihad." He signed up to the pacifist Movement for the Abolition of War. He redefined martyrdom as anybody who died in an honourable cause. "There were martyrs on 9/11," he says. "They were the firefighters – not the hijackers."

Next is Maajid Nawaz, once a leader and recruiter for the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir:

He started to recruit other students, as he had done so many times before. But it was harder. "Everyone hated the [unelected] government [of Hosni Mubarak], and the US for backing it," he says. But there was an inhibiting sympathy for the victims of 9/11 – until the Bush administration began to respond with Guantanamo Bay and bombs. "That made it much easier. After that, I could persuade people a lot faster."

What was the catalyst for his conversion? Was it threat of war or torture? Quite the opposite, actually:

HT abandoned Maajid as a "fallen soldier" and barely spoke of him or his case. But when his family were finally allowed to see him, they told him he had a new defender. Although they abhorred his political views, Amnesty International said he had a right to free speech and to peacefully express his views, and publicised his case.

"I was just amazed," Maajid says. "We'd always seen Amnesty as the soft power tools of colonialism. So, when Amnesty, despite knowing that we hated them, adopted us, I felt – maybe these democratic values aren't always hypocritical. Maybe some people take them seriously ... it was the beginning of my serious doubts."

For Maajid, Islamism will fail only when its fundamentalist ideals are discredited:

"You know, back when I was an Islamist, I thought our ideology was like communism – and I still do. That makes me optimistic. Because what happened to communism? It was discredited as an idea. It lost. Who joins the Communist Party today?"

Continuing the theme of a battle of ideas, the writer then recounts the stories of a group of former Islamists:

But once they had made that leap to identify with the Umma – the global Muslim community – they got angrier the more abusive our foreign policy came. Every one of them said the Bush administration's response to 9/11 – from Guantanamo to Iraq – made jihadism seem more like an accurate description of the world. Hadiya Masieh, a tiny female former HT organiser, tells me: "You'd see Bush on the television building torture camps and bombing Muslims and you think – anything is justified to stop this. What are we meant to do, just stand still and let him cut our throats?"

But the converse was – they stressed – also true. When they saw ordinary Westerners trying to uphold human rights, their jihadism began to stutter. Almost all of them said that they doubted their Islamism when they saw a million non-Muslims march in London to oppose the Iraq War: "How could we demonise people who obviously opposed aggression against Muslims?" asks Hadiya.

Just as their journeys into the jihad were strikingly similar, so were their journeys out. All of them said doubt began to seep in because they couldn't shake certain basic realities from their minds. The first and plainest was that ordinary Westerners were not the evil, Muslim-hating cardboard kaffir presented by the Wahabis.

Johann Hari humbly closes his article with a series of statements and questions:

They have burned in this fire of certainty. They have felt it consume all doubt and incinerate all self-analysis. And they dared, at last, to let it go. Are they freakish exceptions – or the beginning of a great unclenching of the jihadi fist?

Andrew Sullivan adds the following thoughts after reading the piece:

It is also a very old story - the chastened revolutionary. The totalist identities that fundamentalists attach to are always fragile, because they are based on lies. And lies collapse suddenly. If we truly believe what we say we believe in the West - that these fundamentalist claims are lies and will be dispelled on day - then we need to remain confident that the West is right, and will prevail.

The more I witness this global struggle for freedom and meaning in the face of fundamentalism and denial, the more it seems to me that containment is the best strategy. Alongside this, we need a robust commitment to our own values, and a refusal to give in to the cant that treats evil as culture and fundamentalism as faith.

Of course this is hard. But there is no other way. And in this struggle the fate of our civilization lies.


Guantanamo Bay was the biggest victory for Jihadism since 9/11. In fact, Cheney's war crimes have endangered our civilization more profoundly than 9/11. That disgraced and disgraceful vice-president gave Jihadism the symbol of Western evil it desperately needed to recruit and grow. Abu Ghraib and the vast web of the torture regime both destroyed our ability to prosecute Jihadists, destroyed the possibility for truly accurate intelligence and gave al Qaeda the critical oxygen it needed to flourish.

And the corollary is true. The more the West lives up to its values the more lethal an enemy we are.

This does not mean giving Islamism the slightest quarter; it does not mean avoiding an aggressive and persistent attempt to identify and monitor Jihadist groups and individuals; it does not mean softening a global campaign to find and target and if necessary kill Islamist enemies bent on our destruction. And it does not mean denying the real murderous intent of these people, or their vile anti-Semitism or their religious inspiration. It does mean using our strengths as a Western civilization to defang a corruption of true religious faith.

A tip of the hat to Glenn Greenwald's Salon piece on this article.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Age of Empire

It is my personal and humble belief that, from religious, political, and economic standpoints, there are few things that threaten our society as much as our culture of war and empire. Now, the irony here, is that I owe my literal existence to America's military empire, the product of an American soldier and a waitress he took a liking to while stationed in Europe.

From a religious standpoint, I think John Howard Yoder argues for pacifism (see here, here, here to start) better than anyone. At least I am convinced. I am also convinced that pacifism is not politically viable, which is why I am glad to live (at least theoretically) in a society the separates church and state. I would not be quite as hard-lined and vocally upset about Constantinianism as some, but it is a serious problem.

Politically, I am for the closest feasible position to pacifism, non-interventionism. Strong borders and a strong defense (as opposed to preemptive offense) are necessary. Filling the role of Europe's army and the world's police, not so much. Americans give themselves too much credit if they think the world would be much worse off without our worldwide military and political presence. I'll take actual strength concentrated at home than the appearance of strength at the risk of over extension. If we did a better job of protecting liberties at home, perhaps then we could lead by example and speak out with greater moral authority while other countries determine their own destinies.

I would suspect that most would disagree with either one or both of my positions above, but the economics of empire don't look good, either. (Hat tip to Washington's Blog for the rest of this post.) Global Insight, perhaps the most respected economic forecasting company in the world, recently studied the economic toll of defense spending and war:

The impact of higher spending will not be directly proportionate in these economic models. In fact, it should be somewhat more than proportionate, but if we just multiple the Global Insight projections by 3, we would see that the long-term impact of our increased defense spending will be a reduction in GDP of 1.8 percentage points. This would correspond to roughly $250 billion in the current economy, or about $800 in lost output for every person in the country.

The projected job loss from this increase in defense spending would be close to 2 million. In other words, the standard economic models that project job loss from efforts to stem global warming also project that the increase in defense spending since 2000 will cost the economy close to 2 million jobs in the long run.

For all the economic and political costs, and for the loss of innocent life on all sides, where are the trade offs of value? For any argument that could be made in favor of our recent foreign policy, an equally valid argument could be made that the Iraq war has increased the threat of terrorism. (See this, this, this, this, this, this, and this.) Eight years after 9/11, and we still can't prevent an act of guerrilla warfare from happening on a military base in our own country.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Gold, Math, and Investments

After reading several different pages (because if its on the internet it must be true), the general consensus is that a total of about 160,000 tonnes of gold has been mined from the Earth throughout history, which if melted together would make a single cube with sides about 20.15 meters long, or 8,187 cubic meters total volume. Motivated by Dr. RosenRosen's comment in the previous post, I found an Olympic-sized swimming pool has a volume of about 2,500 cubic meters, so we are looking at 3.275 Olympic swimming pools full of gold in the world. That said, the gold held by the world's central banks is only about 30,000 tonnes (just over half of one swimming pool). To put India's purchase of 200 tonnes in context, they bought 0.666% of global bank gold reserves, or 0.125% of all gold ever mined. But the irony is in where that gold may be located. New York City:

... five stories down into the solid bedrock underneath the New York Fed, 30 feet below the level of the New York subway system and 50 feet below sea level.

There the New York Fed has a vault containing about $300 billion in gold bars.

It's the largest single gold hoard in the world. It holds more than Fort Knox. Almost all of it is held in custody for foreign governments -- very little of it is owned by the U.S. government, and none of it by individuals.

More math, but if my numbers are right, this vault holds over 12,400 tonnes of Gold, or over 40% of global bank gold reserves. Here is the rub, if the US Dollar did fall off a cliff, wouldn't the Fed be a little hesitant to ship off this gold it is holding for everyone? Hmmm... Why does all of this matter?

The longer the Fed keeps interest rates at zero, the more worthless paper money becomes. That creates the impression that gold is more valuable -- in fact, this week it hit all-time highs at almost $1,100 per ounce as the Fed announced the indefinite continuation of its zero-rate policy. But that's not gold becoming more valuable. That's the paper money in which the price of gold is denominated becoming less valuable.

In other words, gold is the constant. Its value doesn't change. Its dollar price changes, but not its value. So when investors come to me and ask me how they can hedge against the falling value of the dollar, I always tell them to buy gold.

I am not the world's biggest gold bug, but as a half-libertarian, I can be considered a half-gold bug. Yes, it sounds crazy, after all it is just a shiny metal, but it is a shiny metal that has remained valuable throughout history, regardless of the rise and fall of empires.

I don't know if the Luskin's predictions are correct. As far as predictions from the crazy libertarians/contrarians, I have read everything from another stock market slump with DOW @ - 6,400 on one end to Gold @ + $2,300. We could theoretically see both (although probably not at the same time) if the economy experiences a series of crises. Even then, the problem comes in predicting the timing and sequence of events.

All to say that gold can be part of a fully diversified and conservative investment approach. Such a portfolio will never have the highest rate of return possible, but it doesn't rely on "sure bets", and can limit downside risk.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


While American policy makers are in full PR mode announcing the end of the recession, and the government friendly press is on board, other countries, especially India, remain unconvinced:

Gold prices continued to rise on Wednesday extending the all-time highs which followed India’s central bank bought 200 tonnes of the precious metal, swapping dollars for bullion as the country’s finance minister warned the economies of the US and Europe had “collapsed”.

India’s decision to exchange $6.7bn for gold equivalent to 8 per cent of world annual mine production sent the strongest signal yet that Asian countries were moving away from the US currency.

The purchase by New Delhi’s Reserve Bank from the International Monetary Fund pushed gold prices to a record $1,090.90 per troy ounce, up 2.6 per cent on the day, as traders bet that other central banks would also become buyers.

Granted, $6.7 billion dollars is not a lot of money for the US government anymore, so you will probably hear officials shrug this off, but it is hard to spin this one as a positive for the US. International doubts about our economy, deeper doubts about the value of our currency, and financially more stable countries moving away from the US Dollar as a monetary reserve.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Country not of Laws, But Secrets

Per the New York Times:

David D. Cole, a Georgetown law professor who argued the case on behalf of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has been representing Mr. Arar, said the decision “effectively places executive officials above the law, even when accused of a conscious conspiracy to torture.”

This is in reference to yesterday's ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Arar v. Ashcroft (.pdf), or as Glenn Greenwald of Salon put it, A court decision that reflects what type of country the U.S. is. First the basic details:

Maher Arar is both a Canadian and Syrian citizen of Syrian descent. A telecommunications engineer and graduate of Montreal's McGill University, he has lived in Canada since he's 17 years old. In 2002, he was returning home to Canada from vacation when, on a stopover at JFK Airport, he was (a) detained by U.S. officials, (b) accused of being a Terrorist, (c) held for two weeks incommunicado and without access to counsel while he was abusively interrogated, and then (d) was "rendered" -- despite his pleas that he would be tortured -- to Syria, to be interrogated and tortured. He remained in Syria for the next 10 months under the most brutal and inhumane conditions imaginable, where he was repeatedly tortured. Everyone acknowledges that Arar was never involved with Terrorism and was guilty of nothing.

Mrs. Hommes would not want to me to detail the things done to Mr. Arar both in the US and Syria in the name of security and intelligence, but I encourage you to read Greenwald's article and links to see what can be done to someone when the government gets a tip or hunch, but back to the legal case:

Yesterday, the Second Circuit -- by a vote of 7-4 -- agreed with the government and dismissed Arar's case in its entirety. It held that even if the government violated Arar's Constitutional rights as well as statutes banning participation in torture, he still has no right to sue for what was done to him. Why? Because "providing a damages remedy against senior officials who implement an extraordinary rendition policy would enmesh the courts ineluctably in an assessment of the validity of the rationale of that policy and its implementation in this particular case, matters that directly affect significant diplomatic and national security concerns" (p. 39). In other words, government officials are free to do anything they want in the national security context -- even violate the law and purposely cause someone to be tortured -- and courts should honor and defer to their actions by refusing to scrutinize them.
I want to add one principal point to all of this. This is precisely how the character of a country becomes fundamentally degraded when it becomes a state in permanent war. So continuous are the inhumane and brutal acts of government leaders that the citizens completely lose the capacity for moral outrage and horror. The permanent claims of existential threats from an endless array of enemies means that secrecy is paramount, accountability is deemed a luxury, and National Security trumps every other consideration -- even including basic liberties and the rule of law. Worst of all, the President takes on the attributes of a protector-deity who can and must never be questioned lest we prevent him from keeping us safe.

This sounds like a major story, but I could find no mention of it on the front pages of any of the major (CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, etc.) news sites. In an ironic twist, CNN has streaming video from the war crimes trial of Radovan Karadžić. I guess they don't want to rock the boat by covering the war crimes committing under our own former President and whose policies are being covered up if not continued under the current President.