Thursday, December 31, 2009

Evolution


In writing on other topics of late, the issues of epistemology, logic, pragmatism, truth, and fairness have all led me back to the issue of evolution. After reading that only 22% of Mormons believe in evolution, and then after watching the terrible movie Expelled, I thought I’d try and tackle the topic of evolution before the New Year (when Darwin’s anniversary year ends).

Evolution is the scientific principle that populations of living things adapt and change in response to their environments. Over time, adaptive changes and mutations lead to populations that are measurably different, both from the previous, ancestor population and from the other sibling populations that adapted differently.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve posited any number of theories about how I could square my own beliefs in a creator (and literal interpretations of the Bible) with what I knew and was studying about science. I’ve toyed with the ideas that God planted fossils in the Earth to test our faith; that fossils are remnants from other planets, put here when God organized matter from other places into Earth; or that all other creatures were evolving whilst Adam and Eve waited in a post-fall Eden until God kicked them out. These theories were useful thought experiments, and are all equally likely today as they were when I first posited them, but I have since learned enough about evolution to realize that it is a much more likely explanation for biological diversity than a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Not every evolutionary pathway and claim is equally compelling. There are still many unanswered questions, many fossils we’d like to find, and the possibility that simple life was transplanted to Earth from a meteor, rather than forming here de novo. That being said, there are two critiques of evolution that I hear often that are not, in fact, weaknesses of evolution.

First: ALL fossils are transitional fossils. Even you and I are part of a transitioning species. Even if we have not found every point on every evolutionary branch, it does not mean that a link does not exist. The argument that evolutionary theory has millions of “gaps” is simply misleading and ignorant.

Second: A weakness in one theory is not proof FOR a second theory. Ben Stein tries to point to what he sees as weak links in evolutionary theory and then tries to claim that those weaknesses lend proof to I.D. Even if I were to accept such a false dichotomy, I.D. simply does not answer any of the questions it proposes to answer any better than evolutionary theory does. If Darwin is wrong, Ben Stein can be too.

I’d love to answer any questions any of you have about what evolution means, or how we can still square it with a belief in a creator. If you’ve had the unfortunate experience of watching Ben Stein’s travesty of a film, please go to expelledexposed.com, trove Wikipedia, or write me to fact check any of the manifold lies in that film.

Monday, December 28, 2009

verbosity

I’ve decided that I’m going to try and keep all of my blog posts less than 500 words from now on. Although my debate about Iraq was fun, I realized in posting it that 3000 words each is just way more than anybody really wants to read. It will probably mean that I’ll just post more often, rather than actually writing less, but setting a goal for short posts might just mean I’ll do another edit and cause me to ask whether I need to be writing anything at all. We’ll see.

Do you know how when you go into a mechanic or a dealership they are always telling you that you need to pour hundreds or thousands of dollars into preventative maintenance? Does it ever confuse you that they can say “hey, your car is in great shape, there’s nothing wrong with it whatsoever. Give me $1000 so I can replace things on your car that aren’t broken”? Well, when you’re sifting through the advice as to what to replace and what to let slide, make sure you actually replace your timing belt when they tell you it’s time. It will cost you around $400, but if you drive it until it breaks, you can apparently bend a valve, which will cost thousands to fix later on. I’m still waiting to find out how well a car with a bent valve will drive (I don’t plan on repairing it), but I’m kicking myself for not having replaced the timing belt when I should have. I’m also cursing Hyundai for not highlighting that the timing belt repair is actually necessary, unlike replacing the spark plugs, changing my tires, and flushing my radiator, none of which were actually necessary in my situation, but which were all recommended at the same time the timing belt was.

I love getting into arguments with people on-line. In my recent spats on various message boards, I’ve been called “a liberal,” “a Bush-hater,” and “a Kool-Aid drinker.” Although I realize that all of these “insults” were given to try and hurt my credibility, and were by no means a reflection of what these people think I believe, I also realize that the best course of action is to write down what I actually do believe. I’ve already written about how much it bothers me when people hypocritically change their positions to suit their arguments. Perhaps if I write down what I believe and allow my opponents to comb for inconsistencies, I’ll have more credibility to call others out for their hypocrisy and special pleadings. If nothing else, perhaps some of you will find elements of my belief system which are hypocritical and which I need to change. Whenever I debate something I really believe in, I always offer the stake that I will publicly admit that I've been wrong. If anything I write is just wrong, please let me know. If I’m wrong, we can discuss it, come to common ground, and I’ll confess my mistake.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

No longer if, but where

Two years ago I started applying to medical schools. My MCAT scores were great, my application was solid, and I was fairly confident that I would be a good doctor. I interviewed at some top schools, but I was put on waiting lists for admission, rather than accepted outright. The schools all seemed to be saying that I'd be a good medical student somewhere, but that I wasn't a good fit for their school in particular. After interviewing at the University of Illinois, I came to the conclusion that perhaps I hadn't done enough to prepare myself to be the best doctor I could be. I withdrew my applications everywhere, applied for admission to a Master's program in Neurobiology and Physiology from Northwestern, and decided to gain some more scientific bona fides before applying again.

As some of you have maybe noticed, I've largely avoided discussing my plans for the future for the last few years. I've still wanted to be a doctor, but the underwhelming responses to my application from medical school admission committees caused me to doubt my chances. I started hedging my language, saying "if I become a doctor...", and also started looking into alternative career paths if med school was unattainable. I seriously considered becoming a teacher, a lawyer, or a nurse. I'm quite certain I would have been happy and successful in those careers.

Finally, however, and after multiple tries, I'm happy to report that UIC medical school thinks as highly of my abilities as I do. I've been offered admission for the class of 2014, and will matriculate in the Fall of 2010.

There's still a chance that I'll get into the University of Chicago instead (which would be closer and, since my chances of being classified as an Illinois resident are slim, cheaper), and that means that my plans might change as to where I went to med school. Thanks to UIC, however, the question is no longer if I become a doctor, but where I get my training.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Iraq debate round 1

What follows is a 3-round debate I had over e-mail with my friend Tyler. If you're interested, please read it and give your judgment of who you think is the winner. Feel free to comment on any of the notes, write me a personal message on Facebook, or send me an e-mail if you have questions, arguments, or complaints. This debate is available on my facebook page in a public format, so if you want your arguments to be seen by a slightly wider audience, you may want to put your comments there.


Daine:

The war in Iraq has quietly left the public debate. As the violence and turmoil of Iraq has been pushed off of the front pages, there is the danger of losing sight of the importance and costs that the war represents. In this debate, I will show that the Iraq War has, on balance, been a major and costly mistake. This debate should not be seen as an attempt to Monday-morning-quarterback the Bush administration or to convince anyone that President Bush is personally culpable of any crime or purposeful malfeasance. It is my hope, however, that as we collectively acknowledge that the Iraq War was a dreadful and preventable mistake, and as we see the reasons why and how this mistake was made, that we will be able to prevent similar mistakes from being made in the future.

I propose that we should analyze whether the Iraq war was a good decision or not based on a cost-benefit analysis. In discussions about the Iraq War, it’s common practice for one half of the partisans to accuse Bush of “trading blood for oil” and the other half to accuse the first half of hating America and apple pie. Motivation surely plays an important part of the discussion, but I have no intention of accusing Bush, the Illuminati, or any of our secret supreme overlords of a conspiracy. In point of fact, the War in Iraq has largely been a tragic string of errors, miscalculations, and ad hoc justifications that don’t hold much water. How America chooses to proceed, if it learns anything from these mistakes, or whether we ever reach a consensus on how similar situations should be handled in the future are topics for another debate; no amount of discussion can undo what has been done, unspend money that’s been spent, or resurrect the thousands of American and Iraqi dead. Regardless of whether Tyler wins this debate or I do, in a very real way we’ve both already lost the important competition: the War in Iraq.

There are three basic reasons why, in hindsight, America should not have gone to war in Iraq: the war was founded on some crucial assumptions, all of which turned out to be false, the war has cost more than it could possibly be worth, and the war has uniquely caused and exacerbated a number of problems, each of which is likely more harmful than the original problem the war was meant to fix.

I. Incorrect assumptions

1. Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States. Whether or not Saddam Hussein ever had a credible nuclear weapons program, our occupation failed to recover any of it. Even our unpreparedness, our lack of a long-term plan, and our inability to immediately secure Iraq post-invasion could have been excusable lapses, had they been for the purpose of capturing a weapons program. Whether or not such a weapons program ever existed, it is not in the hands of the American military.
2. We would be greeted as liberators and would be able to hand over power to a credible political force. The naivete of this assumption makes me want to cry. To say that the Bush administration should have known better doesn’t begin to explain my disappointment in our past leaders.

2a) We have had recent experience trying to do nation building and playing with puppet governments. We assumed, however, that our current governments would somehow be more credible than the ones we set up in Iran or Vietnam, and with better results.

3. The Iraqi regime had ties to international terrorism that posed a threat to America. Although this was an implicit and explicit link that helped convince us to support this war, no evidence exists or existed that such was true, Bush officials have confirmed this fact, and we’ve all got egg on our face for believing this in the absence of any credible reasons.

II. Costs

1. Thousands of American troops have died (3477 in combat since 2001). Many thousands more (31571) have been wounded. It’s hard to put a value on the costs that our troops and their families pay. Our troops sacrifice willingly, which speaks volumes to their greatness, but makes our unpreparedness and flippancy in sending them to needlessly die all the more tragic. They deserved better.
2. PTSD. In order to keep enough combat-ready troops, the military has not done nearly enough to diagnose and treat psychological effects of the war like PTSD. The effects of this are both private tragedies within the soldier’s lives and public tragedies like the ensuing suicides and murders that are committed by afflicted troops.
3. $700 billion dollars and counting. Call me crass if you will, but I’d rather have spent that money in America.
4. The war in Iraq represents an opportunity cost on any number of policies that could have actually made us safer. I don’t want to debate the war in Afghanistan here, but for those who think that we need more troops there in order to win, the war in Iraq is uniquely preventing us from winning a war which is likely more important for our safety.

III. Results of the Iraq War

1. Knocking out Iraq has caused a power vacuum in the Middle East. Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas were all too glad to fill in that power gap.
2. We have further inflamed tensions between Muslims and the West. We no doubt helped recruit some amount of new terrorists and future enemies.
3. We made Americans easier to attack. Whereas as borders, anti-terrorist measures, and law enforcement efforts make it more difficult for terrorists to hurt and kill Americans, moving thousands of troops into a country with porous borders, embedded enemies, and a native population which includes people who hate us makes it much easier for them to inflict their revenge upon us.

Conclusion:

The war in Iraq is the unfortunate consequence of poor planning, making incorrect assumptions, and in jumping to action before all the facts were in. We could and should have been aware of the magnitude of the decision we were making, yet the rhetoric supporting the war, the results on the ground, and the fact that we still have 145,000 troops in Iraq bear witness to the fact that the action in Iraq was superbly poorly planned, devastatingly expensive, and rife with unintended consequences. In my opinion, the costs of the Iraq war far outweigh its benefits.

Tyler: How would Iraq be different today if Saddam were in power? Specifically, are you assuming he would be acting the same way he has the entire time he was Iraq's leader?

Daine: I'm not sure how to extrapolate what Saddam would be up to in 2009 had we never invaded. It's likely that he would be doing as much as we feasibly allowed him to do. More importantly, he would probably be talking a much bigger game than would actually be playing. It's important to note that there were many ways we could have handled Saddam. The choice wasn't between giving Saddam status in the WTO or invading and executing him. My argument is that, of all possible actions we could have taken with Iraq, that invading was perhaps the single worst, least intelligent option given the data.

Tyler: Without getting too specific or opening an entire Afghanistan debate, why is it a priority for us to win there? Is defeating Al Qaeda a strong priority for the United States? What is defeating Islamic terrorism worth?

Daine: I'm not exactly sure whether the war on terror was necessary or prudent. The fact remains, my candidate lost in 2000, so I must defer to the style and tactics of the Commander in Chief. While I may not have chosen the tactics that Bush did with regards to Afghanistan (I supported, at the time, a tactic similar to what Biden now advocates), I admit that there was good evidence that Al Qaeda trained in Afghanistan, that Bin Laden was living there, and that not acting could have posed a significant threat to U.S. security. What should be noted for purposes of this debate, however, is that the logic and gains from Afghanistan are completely separate from the logic and gains of going into Iraq. There may be the incorrect linking of the two wars as part of a "global war on terror," but the evidence which led us to invade Afghanistan would not have been reason to invade Iraq.

I think a fair price for defeating terrorism is anything less than we could reasonably assume we would lose by not defeating terrorism.



Tyler:

On September 12, 2001, Americans and the entire free world gasped as we tried to comprehend what had happened and how we would move forward. We faced an enemy based out of Afghanistan, a place where empires go to die. Most of all, Americans realized that we had a very real enemy in international terrorism.

On that day, if we had been told that two years later the central front of the war on terror would be moved from the mountainous wasteland and hostile population of Afghanistan to a more open and familiar terrain, I suspect we would have liked our chances.

This is exactly what happened. As side benefits, we also:

1. Removed a brutal dictator who had a long history of causing trouble for the world
2. Established a democracy in the Middle East
3. Turned most of the Arab world decidedly against Al Qaeda and Iran
4. Removed a principle financier of terrorism against Israel
5. Secured a large oil supply for the world
6. Scared Libya into giving up its nuclear ambitions
7. Exposed serious corruption and embezzlement in the United Nations



I cannot and will not argue that the Iraq war was handled perfectly – no war ever has been. However, I contend that for the above reasons, the war in Iraq has had more benefits than costs for the United States.

I will now address the benefits I listed and then answer Daine’s reasons for opposing the war.

To what extent Al Qaeda was involved in Iraq prior to our invasion is a matter for another debate; however, no one can doubt that Al Qaeda poured numerous resources and fighters into Iraq after our invasion. Osama Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders labeled Iraq a must-win and made it part of their jihad.

Unlike Afghanistan, where order has never really existed, Iraqi citizens knew stability and preferred it. So, a few years into the war, when Iraq was getting stabilized, Al Qaeda began bombing Islamic edifices in order to start a “civil war.”

Now let me make a very important distinction. Until this point, rank and file Muslims had been horrified by and mostly opposed to the actions of Al Qaeda; however, leaders of Arab nations (which, in their entirety, comprise a very small minority and relatively extreme group of Muslims) had mostly either been indifferent toward or tacitly supportive of Al Qaeda’s actions. This small minority was horrified by Al Qaeda intentionally killing Muslim civilians. They turned on Al Qaeda, and though they did not and do not love the United States, they were less willing to help Al Qaeda. This, by itself, was a huge long term step in the war against Al Qaeda.

When the United States implemented a troop surge, it gave Iraqi tribal leaders the cover to begin supporting us. The truth about “the surge” is that it won the war in Iraq largely by allowing citizens of Iraq to begin reporting Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to our soldiers, without the fear of reprisal.

The result of all this turned Iraq into a quagmire for Al Qaeda, turning the Arab world against them, and giving us a venue to fight them with the help of a population.

Now let me address the other benefits previously mentioned.

1. Nobody denies that Saddam Hussein was a problem for the world.

1. In 1981, he built a nuclear facility, which was destroyed by Israel.
2. He later used chemical weapons against the Kurds.
3. He had biological and chemical weapons programs following the Persian Gulf War. We still do not know what happened to them as he refused to account for their destruction.
4. He murdered thousands, if not millions of his own citizens, to the point that the United States was regularly flying planes over parts of his country to prevent any future attacks.

And, worst of all, he stood to leave his kingdom to his two sons – both of whom were evil enough to have caused problems for the world for years to come. What other harm Saddam would have done to the world is questionable. However, giving the kingdom to one of his psychotic sons would likely have caused serious problems in the Middle East.

2. We have also established a democracy in Iraq. While the rest of the Arab Middle East struggles under brutal dictators, Iraq now is a democracy and supports the human rights we support. There is a reason no two democracies have ever fought a war with one another. America’s greatest allies today are nations we have fought wars with. While we won’t always agree with Iraq, and they may not become as close to the United States as Japan or Germany, they certainly are not and will not be the bitter enemy they have been since the creation of Israel.

3. This was addressed throughout the initial section on Al Qaeda.

4 & 5. In addition, as a democratic nation, Iraq is less likely to clamp down on its oil supply and cause further problems for the world. They are also less likely to fund terrorism against Israel – something Saddam did often. Alan Greenspan argued at the time for the invasion purely for this reason, calling Saddam’s removal “essential.”

6. Two final benefits must quickly be addressed. The invasion of Iraq scared Gaddafi of Libya into giving up his nuclear weapons program. He was building weapons of mass destruction to oppose the west, and was frightened enough by the invasion of Iraq to stop.

7. Also, the war exposed a serious problem in our system of diplomatic sanctions. A number of world leaders, including the family of the United Nations’ Secretary General, were trading around the sanctions. This rendered them ineffective and less likely to be successful.

Now I will briefly address Daine’s arguments.

Reason 1 – Incorrect Assumptions

This is irrelevant to a cost benefit analysis of whether or not the war was worth fighting. It may serve as an indictment to Bush-Cheney and it preempts some arguments I may have chosen to make; however, none of these arguments are reasons to accept Daine’s arguments based on a cost-benefit analysis.

Let me still address some of these issues.

I will grant point 1 & 2, insofar as they do not contradict my earlier discussions of these issues

Regarding 2a.

There is no question that the government we have established in Iraq is more legitimate than those created in Vietnam & Iran. It has been legitimately elected, and the local tribes have come to embrace it. This government can and probably will be a US ally in the Middle East (a region where we really need it).

1. Granted, though Saddam was involved in terrorism against Israel, as mentioned above.

Reason 2 – Costs

Daine has me here. This is where the real debate will be decided. It is indisputable that we have spent a lot of money and lost many good soldiers fighting in Iraq. I would contend that these resources would have been lost elsewhere had we not invaded Iraq (as mentioned above).

Reason 3 – Results of the War

Responding to Daine’s arguments.

1. It is difficult to determine how much of Iran / Hamas’ ascension has been due to Saddam’s removal and how much was due to rising oil profits. Regardless, these organizations are “small potatoes” compared with Saddam and Libya. Daine’s argument presupposes that Iraq would have been an issue if it had not been removed. We removed a problem here. Will others step up? Certainly, but we still removed one problem and a prime financier of the Middle East’s problems.

2. We may have inflamed Muslims against the West, but we also inflamed them against Al Qaeda. For the first time, Arab Nations have actively opposed Al Qaeda and rank and file citizens have helped in the fight. Nobody seriously contends that Arab nations will ever like the United States so long as it supports Israel; however, they now hate our enemies as well.

3. Turn: I believe we actually made Americans less likely to be attacked for two reasons:

1. We moved much of the fight from the mountainous difficult terrain of Afghanistan to Iraq. We were going to fight Al Qaeda somewhere. We chose to fight it in a country that was easier, not harder.
2. Al Qaeda used its terrorist attacks in Iraq against our soldiers. Had they not, they would likely have spent more energy attacking civilians on our soil. Our soldiers can better defend themselves than our civilians can.

If anything, our invasion saved civilian lives and put soldiers in a more friendly environment.

Daine: What, if anything, has Iraq's contribution to the world supply of oil accomplished?

Tyler: Iraq possesses a large portion of the world's oil and could significantly influence our economy by distributing it. By invading Iraq, we secured this oil supply and protected our economy. This is what Greenspan said and I agree.

Iraq debate round 2

Daine:

Arguably the hardest part of debating someone about the war in Iraq is that its beginning was so shrouded in innuendo, half-assertions, scare-tactics, and secret information. Even in Tyler’s first speech, he alternately talks about American and Israeli interests, problems with the U.N., genocide in Iraq’s countryside, and even Democratic Peace Theory. Before I address the individual arguments Tyler has given, I will uncover the glaring and dangerous logical failings that led us into this disastrous war in the first place.

As I see it, Tyler essentially makes two broad arguments in his first speech: that Iraq has been a beneficial battlefield against international terrorism, and that the war in Iraq has brought a number of benefits, making America and her allies safer. Although I do plan on addressing all of his specific arguments individually, I would like to start by addressing the flawed notion that “we’re fighting the terrorists over there so we don’t have to fight them over here” that Tyler’s first speech is founded upon.

The argument that we can make America safer by killing people in Iraq rests upon 2 key assumptions: that those being killed would have otherwise posed a threat to America or Americans, and that fighting in Iraq imposes some opportunity cost on their operations, that killing Al Qaeda operatives in Iraq decreases Al Qaeda’s ability to perform other, more damaging operations in America.

These assumptions are verifiably and logically false for the following 7 reasons:

1. The overwhelming majority of potential terrorists (people who are committed to hurting Americans) are simply not in any position whatsoever to actually follow through on their desires. Even without any barriers of any kind, a potential terrorist would need to be able to afford a plane ticket and a weapon in order to do harm to an American in America. The more barriers that are in place (counter-intelligence operatives, visa requirements, background checks, law enforcement, etc.), the less likely it becomes for a terrorist to actually succeed in hurting an American.
2. Most, if not all of the people killed in Iraq were probably fighting for reasons other than an unquenchable hatred of American values. Other, more plausible reasons for wanting to kill American soldiers include, but are not limited to: wanting to evict imperialists, getting revenge for family members killed in either Gulf war (or by Blackwater Inc.), fighting against Christian hegemony in a Muslim nation, financial gain, or simply not believing that America was trying to be benevolent by invading. Those reasons were created by the war in Iraq. These people are not people we would have had anything to fear from in America, had we not invaded Iraq.
3. Those being killed in Iraq are largely monolingual, poor, and uneducated, all things which would make them practically incapable of striking America.
4. The Al Qaeda troops fighting in Iraq are doing so of their own-free will. Since Iraq is not their homeland, they, essentially, are “fighting the [infidel] over there, so that they don’t have to do it [in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the UAE, etc].
5. Any valuable Al Qaeda troops or leadership (Bin Laden, for example), or any troops capable of harming America are free to stay away from Iraq, leaving the fighting to the local Iraqis, the expendable troops, and the hired hands.
6. Chaos is easier to create than order. Relatively few Al Qaeda operatives could keep Iraq on the brink of chaos and civil war for decades. Guerrilla warriors always hold the trump cards.
7. We still saw numerous terrorist attacks in Europe, as well as major attempted attacks on America. These attacks happened or were attempted in spite of the war in Iraq. Excellent intelligence, coordination, and alertness on the part of Britain prevented further attacks against us, not a depletion on the part of Al Qaeda due to losses in Iraq.



On Tyler’s arguments briefly:

1) Saddam’s most egregious sins were a matter of history. Was he a war criminal? Yes. Were his sons psychotic? Probably, but there’s no reason to believe that they would have been any more of a problem than we let them be. Keep in mind, we’re not debating whether we should have allowed Saddam total free reign, just if it was necessary to invade and oust him.

2) I’m not displeased that Iraq is a nominal democracy now, but it’s important not to oversell its advantages. We’ve traded a despotic Iraq that was a useful enemy for a democratic friend that can’t check Iran, is probably little help in furthering our regional goals, and that will probably need hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds more American lives in continuing support to even have a chance of survival.

3) Al Qaeda turned the Arab world against them without our help. Although I’ll acknowledge that regional victory in Anbar came only with local help against Al Qaeda, it’s still not enough. This effect in Iraq, by the way, has not done anything to help against terrorists in Pakistan or Afghanistan, nor has it won us “The War on Terror.”

4) Israel can take care of itself (Tyler cited 1981). Furthermore, the power vacuum has only increased Iran’s influence, which poses a much greater risk to Israel than Saddam ever did.

5) Is Tyler really saying that we did trade blood for oil? Even still, it wasn’t worth it. Maybe if they give us the first $700 billion worth of oil we’ll talk parity.

6) Libya had essentially zero chance of attaining a nuke. Even if it did, they would not have posed a threat to America or our allies.

7) The war may have exposed corruption in the U.N., but it did nothing to actually solve it. Fine, I’ll agree that the French, Germans, and Russians are pricks. Happy?

I realize that the point of this debate is to show that the war in Iraq has, in hindsight, not been worth it. I never would have debated this topic, however, simply to point out that we’ve largely failed, or that Al Qaeda has irreparably damaged America’s reputation and power. I love America, and I want it to be a powerful force for good. Before this war started, I was fairly consistently harangued as being “anti-American” for questioning the rationale and wisdom of invading Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein. Rather than addressing the facts, gauging the danger of inaction, or looking for more realistic alternatives, we collectively allowed a small faction of Neo-Conservatives to question our patriotism, scare us with unrealistic threats of mushroom clouds, and rush the decision and execution of a war that has been immeasurably costly to American troops and families. In addition to showing you all that Iraq has cost us more than it’s been worth, I hope to convince all of you that this mistake could and should have been avoided. In setting the terms for this debate, I offer the following criteria: if I have failed to show you that Iraq has cost more than it was worth AND that our government could have and should have known better before hand, I urge you to vote for Tyler.

Finally, in accordance with debate tradition, I would like to extend my arguments from my first speech and bring them to your attention once more.

1. America started the Iraq war under the shockingly naïve assumptions that we would be greeted as liberators, that building a democracy in Iraq would be simple, that no significant planning had to be done, that no precautions for security needed to be taken for after the Iraqi regime was toppled, and that Saddam Hussein’s supposed WMDs would be easily found and secured. We as a public were also fooled into believing that Iraq posed a threat to America and her interests, without any credible evidence backing such assertions up. The evidence (both a close reading of the then-available evidence, as well as the more accurate evidence that exists now) shows that Iraq had essentially nothing to do with international terrorism against the United States. The fact that Tyler framed his arguments around the fear and angst we all felt on 9/12 only emphasizes the degree to which the legitimate war on terror has been (and please excuse this pun) hijacked by those who argued for an Iraqi invasion.
2. The costs of this war have been tremendous. We probably all know someone who has fought or died in Iraq. For this heroism and sacrifice, however, we have collectively paid them back by ignoring the psychological costs they’ve paid and continue to pay. The immense burden and responsibility of the war in Iraq was a blank check written to the future, on the gamble and hope that it would pay for itself eventually. For now, our expenditure represents a cost of $30,000 for each Iraqi man, woman, and child. Maybe next time we’ll just consider writing them a check?
3. The unintended consequences of the Iraq war far outweigh the possible effects of having another democratic partner in the Middle East. Iraq, if it does survive as a democracy, is much more likely to follow the democratic model of Palestine or Iran than it is Israel (as if even that were a good model!). Many in the Arab world have, for the time being, turned against Al Qaeda and its allies. To presume that our foray into the Middle East has built any bridges or made any friends, however, is simply foolish.



Tyler:

Daine makes a lot of interesting arguments, but he also concedes a number of powerful benefits to the Iraq war that I mentioned in my first “speech.” I think these benefits will definitively prove the value of the Iraq war.

Let’s address the underlying assumptions of the conflict:

There is no question that the beginnings of the Iraq conflict are a difficult discussion to have. The intelligence information presented to us was incomplete and incorrect. Many have alleged malfeasance by the Bush administration. The classified nature of the documents and dishonesty (by both sides) make it difficult for us to determine what actually happened or determine fault.

For this reason, I suggested to Daine that our debate be purely based upon a cost-benefit analysis of the Iraq war from what we know now. I appreciate that he has given himself an added burden, and I will grant that he meets it. There were flawed assumptions in the run-up to the war.

Please extend my analysis that this argument is irrelevant to the debate at hand. We are evaluating the costs and benefits of the war. There is no specific cost that Daine has identified in our false assumptions so there is no reason to evaluate this is making a decision about the debate.

Now to the benefit of changing the battlefield. Daine makes some good arguments here, but he misunderstands my point. In addition, he asserts that my rhetoric was inappropriate; however, if I demonstrate that the War in Iraq has benefited us in the war on terror, then my rhetoric is totally justified and appropriate. If not, please disregard it. Let’s get to the subject.

Al Qaeda sent a number of its top lieutenants to fight us in Iraq. Had they not come to Iraq, they would have probably fought us in Afghanistan or may have come to the United States. Which of those two options they picked is irrelevant. In either case, they would be attacking Americans (soldiers or civilians) in a setting that was more difficult for the Americans to defend themselves. Please extend my analysis that explains how Afghanistan is a more difficult terrain to fight in than Iraq. Any move to Iraq (from Afghanistan or America) is better for us because it means our troops or civilians are in a safer environment.

Daine also concedes the Arab world turned against Al Qaeda because of terrorist bombings in Iraq. Had we not invaded, this clearly would not have happened. It is hard to overstate the importance of this event. The Arab world has been the prime financier of Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist organizations. Without that money, Al Qaeda will eventually die. Seriously, they have been reduced to hiding out in the caves of Afghanistan and Pakistan. With Arab support, they would always have been able to rebuild and fight us. Without it, it is just a matter of time until they are destroyed.

Let me briefly address Daine’s 7 points:

1. This argument actually works for me. Back when Al Qaeda was able to recruit and get financing in the Arab world, Al Qaeda would provide the ability (visa, flights, etc.) for would-be terrorists to attack us. Since we’ve already demonstrated that their money supply and ability to recruit in the Arab world has been severely limited, this actually becomes an additional advantage for me.

2. Fine. Some of the people fighting us in Iraq would not have fought us in Afghanistan or in America. However, many would have. The leaders who inspired them mostly would have. The Sunni insurgency really ended long before catastrophic violence happened during 2005 and 2006.

The advantage gained against existing terrorists, the limiting of their fundraising, and the other benefits I will discuss severely outweigh any cost Daine can get from this.

3. See 1 & 2

4. This is exactly my point. It was easier for us to fight them in Iraq than it would have been in Afghanistan or in other places.

5. We have captured a number of Al Qaeda leaders in Iraq including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. They were moved in to fight that battle. Bin Laden himself called it critical to their success. While the leaders don’t strap explosives to themselves, they do need to be on the ground to direct activities. This has helped us capture them.

6. It is well acknowledged that Iraq is looking more and more stable every day. Iraq’s police have begun taking control of cities and handling things relatively well. Very few, if any, experts are saying Iraq will be chaotic decades into the future. As such, we have no reason to assume it will.

7. We don’t know what would have happened to other attacks had the Iraqi invasion not occurred. We do know that many Al Qaeda leaders were killed in Iraq. We can deduce they would have been fighting elsewhere had the invasion not occurred. Where that was is a matter of speculation, though it is doubtful that an Arab populace would have been helping us to fight them.

Next, let’s review some of the additional benefits of the invasion that I previously mentioned.

1. Saddam’s war crimes: Daine concedes that they occurred and that Saddam’s sons were crazy. There was a tangible cost for us controlling him. We frequently flew planes over Iraq, based many troops in Kuwait and were bombing Iraq every few years.

If Daine wants to assume we could control him, that is fine. But there is a cost for that in troops and finances. President Clinton nearly invaded at the end of his presidency. This cost would be an indefinite commitment of the United States, and would probably get worse when his sons took power. Also, there is a very real chance one of his descendants would be crazy enough to launch an attack on the United States. Please extend my analysis on this point.

2. Middle East Democracy: Establishing Iraq as a democracy has costs, but let’s look at the value. The last two nations we have done this with (Germany and Japan) are now two of our closest allies. Even if we don’t become this close to Iraq, it still isn’t likely to turn into the enemy that Saddam was. In addition, Iraq provides another democracy in the midst of a very totalitarian Middle East. This can be an example for other Arab nations.

This is not like Iran. The people there are voting and participating. Iran is a fake democracy with a dictator. Iraq’s government has the support of the tribal leaders and will inevitably be successful. Iraq is far more likely to look like Turkey in 10 years than it is to look like Iran. Please extend my previous analysis on this point.

3. Al Qaeda Funding: As mentioned above, Al Qaeda is now an enemy of the Arab world, which will cause its inevitable destruction. Al Qaeda is responsible for more American deaths than we have seen in Iraq. This is in addition to the huge cost of fighting a war on terror indefinitely. This, in and of itself, makes the Iraq war worth fighting.

4. Israel: There is a contradiction here. First Daine tells us that Saddam was more powerful than Iran and kept them in check; however, he then states that Iran is a bigger threat than Saddam was to Israel and the United States. But fine, I’ll drop any potential benefit to Israel discussed here because, as Daine said, they can take care of themselves.

5. Greenspan: Daine completely concedes Greenspan’s assertion that fighting the Iraq war was worth it if the only benefit we received was preventing Saddam from disrupting the oil supply. (He notes, as well, that this was not Bush’s intention.)

Our economy is incredibly dependent upon foreign oil. Saddam’s ability to cut us off from his oil could seriously shock the economy. Greenspan, probably the most respected economist in the United States by both political parties, says this alone would have made Iraq worth it. Daine concedes this benefit, which a leading expert says was worth the cost.

6. Libya: The presence of a nuclear Libya cannot have been good. They were trying, and they were certainly funding terrorism--something they stopped after our invasion.

7. UN: The corruption at the UN is a big deal because it removed the only weapon (short of war) that the world has in dealing with rogue nations. We’re currently dealing with Iran, North Korea, and Cuba. In each of these cases, we would be more likely to go to war had Chirac and Kofi Annan been trading around the sanctions.

There are many benefits of the invasion of Iraq. Whether or not you agree with President Bush or think he was correct to invade at the time is NOT the subject of this debate. Our agreed-upon criteria is a cost-benefit analysis to America based upon what we know now. Please evaluate these serious benefits and recognize that what you may believe started as a blunder has turned out to be a beneficial move for the United States.

Daine: How many American troops died between the Gulf Wars, when we were keeping Saddam in check?

Tyler: None of which I am aware. I meant this purely in terms of the financial cost, and the eventual cost if his successors became more violent.

Iraq debate round 3

Daine:

Tyler’s entire case rests on a few patently illogical and amazingly naïve assumptions. It would be wonderful to assume that what happened in Anbar province is going happen everywhere, but it’s just not real world. Even if it were, Tyler’s internal logic doesn’t show how this result would have justified our war, since neither Iraq’s government nor its civilians had anything to do with 9/11. Any theoretical reduction in terrorism relies upon believing in a threat for which there is neither proof nor precedent. It would be wonderful to believe that Iraq will be just like Japan in 20 years, and that the entire Middle East would follow suit, but we simply don’t see democracy spreading from Palestine, Israel, or Iran in any appreciable way. If all a country needed for stability were democracy, what is wrong with Palestine, Iran, and Afghanistan? If democracy wasn’t spreading before, why should we trust that it will happen now? Perhaps it’s just a bit overly-optimistic to believe that democracy alone will be enough? Finally, and most offensively, Tyler claims that waging a war to prevent Saddam from disrupting the oil supply was a good idea because Greenspan said it would be. Even if Greenspan were right, his plan didn’t work. Or was I the only schmo paying $4 for a gallon of gas last year? More importantly, the question still remains about how many barrels of oil are equal to one American troop. Did we at least get fair market value for them? All of Tyler’s benefits are specifically refuted by the continuing problems in the status quo. We still have Al Qaeda and attempted terrorist attacks, we still have conflicts with democratic countries, and we still have oil instability.

And so in summary, I give you the actual benefits of the war in Iraq. We toppled the government of maybe the 5th worst dictator in the world, even though he was already pretty well prevented from doing any real harm. We killed some of the troops that Al Qaeda sent to fight against us in Iraq. Finally, now that we’ve exposed the corruption and perfected the U.N., we’re only a baby step away from World Peace.

All of these benefits came at the cost of 3,477 American troops, 31,571 wounded, rampant untreated PTSD, the highest suicide rate among our troops ever recorded, almost a trillion dollars, tens of thousands of dead Iraqis, and chaos in the Middle East that led to an ascendant Iran and Hamas.

Is oil stability really worth sending our troops to die? I believe that our troops deserve better than to be sent on foolish mission trips for democracy. Whether out of incompetence, irrationality, or naïve optimism, George W. Bush sent our troops into a country that had no WMDs (that we captured, at least) and that posed extremely little, if any threat to Americans. Whether we’ve crippled Al Qaeda by fighting them in Iraq is something that only time will prove. What we do know, however, is that Al Qaeda was able to fight us by hiring unemployed Iraqis, angering local partisans, and inciting a civil war in Iraq that made our job harder and exposed our troops to unnecessary dangers; we gave Al Qaeda every advantage possible by fighting them in Iraq. We also know that Al Qaeda is still strong enough to keep Usama Bin Laden safe, carry out attacks in Europe, and attempt further attacks on America. On 9/11, 2,671 Americans died. In the war in Iraq, 3,477 Americans have died. All of these deaths are tragedies. All of these deaths were preventable. If we are to trust the evidence, very few, if any of these deaths has made any of us at all safer. If you believe that Iraq posed a threat to American security, you believe it on faith alone, since no evidence has ever surfaced to convince you otherwise. I urge you all to agree with me that the war in Iraq has cost us far more than it has been worth.

Tyler:

Daine set the parameters for this debate in his first speech; however, he has repeatedly gone off topic. This debate is to be judged by a cost-benefit analysis of the war. As such, his arguments about our assumptions going in are completely irrelevant. We are debating how the war has influenced our country, whether for better or worse.

Simply put, there are 2 reasons, each strong enough on its own, to justify a the Iraq war based on a cost-benefit analysis.

Daine conceded that Alan Greenspan, the United States’ most respected economist, has argued that the war was necessary to secure our oil supply. Daine finally addressed this in his rebuttal after previously conceding it. His argument; however, actually makes my position stronger.

Our $4 per gallon gasoline last year was the result of India and China increasing demand, as the Middle East (Iraq included) was pumping out oil as fast as it could. Imagine if Saddam had decided to stick it to the world by cutting off his oil for a month or two. We could have faced much higher prices. We are still feeling the ripple effects from $4. Any higher and we could have faced dire consequences. Greenspan feared this and tells us the invasion was imperative for this reason.

Next, we shifted the battlefield from Afghanistan to Iraq. Al Qaeda sent a number of lieutenants to Iraq. Zarqawi is a prime example as he fought in Afghanistan against us and then moved to Iraq after the Taliban was overthrown. There are a number who were like him. In moving the battlefield to the deserts of Iraq, we found a better battlefield for our troops to fight Al Qaeda. Zarqawi could have hidden forever in Afghanistan (like Bin Laden has), and killed many of our soldiers. The shift to Iraq’s deserts and stability-minded populace made him vulnerable. The same has been true for a number of Al Qaeda operatives. Bin Laden shifted his focus to Iraq and repeatedly called it a must-win. There we were able to fight and we have won. (If you buy his Anbar comment, read a newspaper dated later than 2007--we’ve won the country.)

The move to Iraq caused Al Qaeda to lose its funding and recruiting pool. Al Qaeda relies upon money and recruitment from the Arab world. Prior to 2006, the Arab world was happy to quietly provide support. However, Al Qaeda became desperate and tried to start a civil war by attacking mosques. This alienated the Arab world and has limited Al Qaeda’s funding and recruitment opportunities.

An organization like Al Qaeda would always have been able to regroup since guerrilla operations only require popular support and funding to be successful. When they alienated the Arabs, they signaled their own downfall. This never would have happened had the war stayed in Afghanistan. We would have been perpetually fighting a guerrilla force with regular funding and recruits arriving from the Middle East. This sounds remarkably similar to the Russians in Afghanistan and our involvement in Vietnam. It was a no-win situation.

The invasion of Iraq moved the battlefield and showed Arab nations the costs of Al Qaeda. This has saved large numbers of American lives going into the future, and allowed an indefinite war in Afghanistan to be won.

I don’t care much for the politics of our invasion, but I do know that the United States is better off for the above reasons. We have saved lives by changing the battlefield and our economy by securing the oil supply. I urge you to vote accordingly.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Coming soon...

Friends,

I am just finishing up an e-mail debate with my friend Tyler about the war in Iraq. I will be posting it here on this blog, as well as on my facebook account as a note. If any of you do read it, I would ask two favors of you: that you read the debate in the proper order (I'll post round 3 first, so that it's last on your Google Reader), and that you weigh in with who you thought won the debate.

I'm not asking you to leave your biases behind; if you already believed that the war in Iraq was worthwhile and I failed to convince you otherwise, that's still a legitimate vote for Tyler. If any of you have arguments or critiques with anything either of us (or a fellow commenter said), I also welcome any corrections or criticisms. That being said, I would appreciate it greatly if you would cast your vote before you read any other comments.

Thanks in advance.

Monday, November 2, 2009

On Snake Oil

For as little as I blog, I absolutely love reading other people’s ideas and blogs. Given that the work I do with my research is so solitary, and that I have almost 4 hours of commuting every day, I have the liberty of listening to much more media than at any time in my life. I try and get a balanced dose of many different opinions and viewpoints and think that I have a decently broad view of what is being said at any given time on the most important issues. I’ve noticed a growing trend among many news outlets, blogs, and even facebook notes I read. Simply put, I’ve been noticing a lot of hypocrisy.

I should probably start off by mentioning that I’m not intrinsically opposed to any particular viewpoint or idea. I realize that there are great arguments to be made on almost any given argument, from veganism on the left to the benefits of torture on the far right. Furthermore, I don’t believe that there is anything wrong with interpreting the world through one’s own beliefs and opinions, even when I disagree with that worldview or those opinions.

Truly, the real danger in democracies, and the trend that I have been noticing more and more, is that people are completely reversing their opinions now that a new political party is in power. Pundits who were opposed to rendition when President Bush was allowing it are suddenly actively for it now that President Obama makes the same decision. My conservative friends who wanted tax cuts and increasing deficits between the years of 2000 and 2008 are coming down hard with a convenient case of newfound fiscal conservatism since January.

Hypocrisy carries with it the exact same dangers as any other form of dishonesty. People who indulge enough in wanton paradigm shifts and partisan flip-flops are bound to either be given their own show on FOX /MSNBC or the people around them will realize that their allegiances are not to any ideals or truths, but to their own warped sense of what their political party expects them to tout.

Many people, especially the youth (and Jesus, I would point out), have a special hatred in their hearts for those they see as hypocrites and traitors; every American knows who Benedict Arnold is, but very few probably know the British generals who openly fought against the American Revolution.

Hypocrisy fundamentally comes from dishonesty about one’s actual motivations. In one of my favorite examples, John Stewart points out when Bill O’Reilly criticized Jamie Lynn Spears for having a baby out of wedlock, yet defended Bristol Palin’s pregnancy, claiming that it was nobody’s business but the family’s, since the society wouldn’t have to pay for Bristol’s baby. Now even ignoring that Jamie Lynn Spears and her family could buy and sell 100 Bristol Palins, and that that Mr. O’Reilly’s stated concerns are verifiably untrue, the important part of the coverage is that Mr. O’Reilly accomplished his goals during both shows: he raised the hackles of his largely conservative, religious audience against a safe punching bag with Ms. Spears, and stroked that same audience’s sense of forgiveness with Ms. Palin. In both cases, O’Reilly sold his audience something easy that they already wanted to feel, giving them something pleasant and boosting his own ratings in the bargain. It’s not that Bill O’Reilly is the king of the hypocrites, he’s just an entertainer and a snake-oil salesman masquerading as an intelligent person and a good citizen. Back when I considered myself a conservative (during high school) I used to watch The No Spin Zone every night. It wasn’t until I knew how to debate well that I was able to clearly see how and when Bill O’Reilly is selling what he actually believes, and when he’s simply saying what he thinks his audience wants to hear.

In the age of the internet, where archival footage and fact checking is the new standard, and where fewer and fewer people in America are willing to accept things simply because they’ve always been done that way, I’m frankly a little shocked and disgusted to see so many pundits (and even people I know) trying to pass themselves off as something they were the opposite of only 18 months ago. People can still change their minds, repenting of previous, youthful indiscretions and ignorant opinions. They are also more than welcome to see a fine distinction between the profligate spending (as I saw it) that went on during Bush’s tenure as being qualitatively different or more justified than the spending that President Obama isdoing (I think it’s a foolish proposition to lump all spending together in one category, criticizing spending on the FDA with the same brush that one would criticize spending on a bridge to nowhere). Please tell me if I’m just over-reacting or missing all of these complexities, but from where I’m sitting, the criticisms I have been hearing and reading from the poles seem rather half-baked and hypocritical. I hope that all of us can leave the asinine drivel that’s spewed on MSNBC and FOX and simply stop watching/listening to people who are not interested in building our society. Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck are not racists or demons, as they’re often portrayed in the mainstream media, they’re simply entertainers who make their money by selling uncritical people outmoded and obsolete ideologies. The same could be said of Bill Maher and Keith Olbermann.

Those who criticize Obama for the same things that they lauded Bush for doing (and vice versa) are the suicide bombers of the marketplace of ideas. Such inconsistency and partisan wrangling is always harmful and should not be tolerated by thinking people anywhere. I, of all people, see the value in having two sides to any debate. When so many voices in our media sell out their ideologies, simply to play the profitable role of devil’s advocate, however, the national debate is debased and all of us are made less capable of engaging with our democracy. Building a society, much like a building, requires a lot of energy and shared consensus. From my perspective, all that pundits like Mr. Limbaugh give us, however, is a hatred of gravity.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

G.O.B.


Here's G.O.B. and his brother Dex. G.O.B. is on the right.

I don't think there was anything G.O.B. was looking at necessarily, he was probably just contemplating the universe.



This is all of us after the Holloween party we went to. I'm on the right wearing Amanda's old modern dance uniform. We went as Sigfried and Roy and G.O.B. went as the tiger who attacked Roy. Amanda drew a bite mark on her neck and applied copious amounts of blood.


G.O.B. hated his hood. We had to give him lots of treats to get him to keep it on for any amount of time.

The Boys

video

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Change I believe in

I recently contacted two of my friends, some of the fiercest and smartest debaters I know, and challenged them to debate me on health care and a topic of their choice. I wrote the following starting essay as a beginning of our debate, but life has gotten hectic and I'm not sure if the whole debate will ever take place. If they finish a complete rebuttal, or if any of you have any thoughts, I will be glad to post them on this blog or have a public debate on things you feel strongly about. In case they never get back to me with a full rebuttal, however, I wanted my thoughts to be public as soon as possible, so that we, as Americans, can start to have the national discussion about what, if anything, needs to be done with health care.

I believe that we should pass the health care reforms that President Obama outlined in his address to Congress.

Although there are many things that could be written for or against this plan (and I have conscripted a friend to help me elucidate the other side to my arguments), I will show that overall, passing the plan advocated by President Obama would bring about substantially more benefits than costs.

When proposing a plan (or a debate platitude), the most important first step is showing that there is a problem with the status quo.

The second most insidious lie surrounding health care (behind the whole 'death panels' thing) is that “we have the best medical system in the world.” This is a pretty standard deflection in debate, make a verifiably true, but also totally unrelated point in order to support your claim. It is true that America leads the world in medical advances, new drug developments, and quality of top-tier doctors, the problem that needs addressing, however, is that a significant portion of Americans are outside the medical care system. Warren Buffett and rich foreign nationals may be able to get the best medical care in the world here in America, but their good fortune is poor reason to continue with a horribly flawed medical system, in which 46 million people have no insurance.

This leads to the question: are the 46 million uninsured going completely without health care? In point of fact, many of the uninsured in America are still getting health care when they need it. The 46 million number, although fun and effective to throw around (as I myself do all the time), does not tell the whole story. When an uninsured person gets critically sick and needs to go to the hospital they do so. Very few people, it seems, are willing to endure a gunshot wound or broken arm, simply because they don’t have the money to pay a doctor. If we were living in a purely capitalistic society, the sick poor would be kicked to the curb, made to soothe their lacerations only with the knowledge that capitalism has justly condemned them. Surely only a few generations will go by before the poor wise up, recognize that they have incentive to escape the soul-crushing poverty which they so enjoy, and get a good job which gives them health insurance.

As with any externalities, this free health care that we’re dispensing in emergency rooms all over the country needs to be paid by someone. It shouldn’t take a PhD in economics to realize that we are all paying that cost, either directly through the government, who needs to bail out failing hospitals, or in the form of higher hospital and insurance costs; just like retailers needs to raise their prices to compensate for losses to shoplifters, we are already paying for the uninsured in the status quo.

The real losers in the current system are not the uninsured poor, who can fairly easily get access to free clinics or Medicaid, or who can simply discharge their debts through bankruptcy (my plan, should I ever get seriously ill while I don’t have insurance), but the under-insured members of the middle class and those who can no longer get insurance in the market. When a middle class person gets in a serious accident or comes down with a life-threatening illness, their assets are in danger. A significant portion of bankruptcies are a direct consequence of medical bills.

We’re in the worst possible middle-ground with American health care. We’re socialist enough that there is very little incentive for people to take care of themselves or avoid expensive medical costs, since society will pay them one way or another. This is at least partially why there are so many uninsured in America. On the other hand, we’re capitalist enough to have private insurance companies in the marketplace as well. Those companies provide a service to their customers, but are free to pick and choose whom they want to cover (even sometimes utilizing recision to retroactively revoke the health care policies of customers who should have been covered), sucking the marrow from the bones, as it were, but leaving the ill to be covered by public moneys. There is a good argument to be made that we’d be better off either competing for the fees from the healthy to subsidize the risks of the poor (this is the purpose of insurance, I would point out) in a government program, or dropping government involvement in health care at all, leaving the market to solve our problems if it can make a profit, allowing the sick and aged to die off and “reduce the surplus population.”

For those of you who believe that there are better tweaks to Obama’s plan in the vapor or in the hands of the Republicans, I would ask where those ideas have been for the last decade. During the whole time that the Republicans had control of the congress and the White House, the changes made to the American health care system probably did more harm than good, funneling public money to private insurance companies without really giving benefits to their consumers. It is time to acknowledge that the market system is not only failing to fix the problems in our health care system, they are likely the very root of the problems.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The audacity of hope, the inevitability of angry old white people

This week I listened to an interview of Orley Taitz, spearhead of the “birther” movement and noted Obama detractor. Although I don’t buy her “proof” that Obama’s a bi-sexual or that he played a part in having someone killed, I really enjoyed listening to her crazy ideas, mostly because listening filled me with a guilty schadenfreude. Ms. Taitz seems to me to be a walking, talking straw-man; she says and believes things that most normal, grounded people would reject without a second thought. Given that the crazies have been dominating the news lately, however, and that unfounded rage can be contagious, I thought it might be fun to address this blog post to beating up on the right-wing extremists (I think of them as the American Taliban) and disrespect-mongers.

The news is very fun to listen to these days. As I listened to the Sotomayor confirmation hearings and the associated media blitz that the Republicans made over Ms. Sotomayor’s reverse-racist statements I had a smile on my face the whole time; Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck calling Obama and Sotomayor racists in the subtle and intelligent manors that they are known for had all the wit and persuasion that I have come to expect from such gentlemen scholars.

Now that we’re in the midst of a debate on health care policy in America I was eager to start having debates with people about the proper role of government, the ethics of medical coverage, the marginal costs of insurance, or externalities inherent in various health care plans. Instead of giving arguments, however, militant right-wingers have come out in droves to interfere with actual conversations and town halls. When persuasion and democracy failed them and delivered the congress and white house to the Democrats, some bitter Republicans have found solace in all they have left—volume. Although their plans may work and reform may indeed fail, I have to smile when a debate devolves into screaming like it has. Whenever I had arguments in high school, I would consider myself the winner as soon as the other person swore at me or threatened me with physical violence (I’m amazed that I never actually got punched). When a war of words is clearly lost and the moral high ground is ceded, there’s nowhere else to go than insulting the other person’s mother or beating them into submission.

To you screaming, angry town-hall crashers or conspiracy theorists hell-bent on getting Obama disqualified, I have some advice for the future:

Dear Ms. Taitz and co.,

First, although I’m sure you’re already aware, bringing about chaos and destruction is always easier than order and construction are, so you absolutely have the advantage right now. Although it costs billions of dollars and thousands of brilliant people to build things like the World Trade Center towers or Boeing 767s, it only took a few angry Saudi Arabians with box cutters to reduce such things to smoldering pits of carnage. Democracy, consensus, compromise, rational law, and peaceful order take a lot of patience, debate, and shared values to bring about. If you feel that you’re being left out of the conversations entirely, or that your place at the table has been unfairly taken away from you, a proportionately small wrench can destroy a complex machine when used in the right way. I don’t support your methods, even if I agreed with your cause, but I’m not so idealistic that I can’t see the elegance and wisdom of your idea.

The lurch you find yourself in, however, would have been much easier to avoid in the first place than digging yourself out is likely to be.

Contrary to what you might have heard, the world is not exclusively divided between the absolutely righteous and the pure evil, Olbermann fans and O’Reilly fans, or even jocks and geeks. In fact, most of the country and even the world is full of pretty moderate, apolitical people (just look at how many people don’t even vote). There’s a pretty significant constituency who will always vote for Republicans and another constituency who will only ever vote for Democrats no matter what. The rest of the voting public, however, is open to persuasion and decides based on their circumstances and impressions. Although I have my beefs with how and why this population sometimes decides, there really isn’t much point in arguing or complaining about the decisions they make; the swing voters, independents, and occasional voters play the largest role in tipping the balance of power in both Congress and the Executive branches. Furthermore, this group probably gives more intelligent thought to political matters than the people on the extreme poles of the spectrum, who largely only indulge in media and spin which reinforces their extant world views (this is where O’Reilly and Olbermann come in). Sure, sometimes this swing group sometimes decides based on things as asinine as which politician has the better tie, but neither political party is the exclusive victim of such flippant behavior, so neither really has much reason to complain.

In case you didn’t notice, dear Ms. Taitz, most of the moderate people in the country have decided that your brand of reality is simply not worth having. Right or wrong, these people—not some socialist conspiracy or the illuminati—simply stopped buying what you are selling. We can debate later whether they were right to do so, but priority number one should be to take a deep breath, acknowledge that something is wrong with your brand, and take steps to correct the perceptions that people have of you. It only took you one election cycle to get over Nixon, so don’t give yourself heart attacks or high blood-pressure just because you lost your power for now.

The thing to keep in mind is that most Americans support market capitalism, not because they’ve read Adam Smith or Ayn Rand, but simply because they know that America is a mostly capitalist country and they are pretty well-off, especially in comparison to the rest of the world. The paradigm that most people actually use is one of subtle negative-feedback. When their house feels too warm they crack a window or turn their A/C up a little; most people don’t have strong moral arguments about how hot or cold their house should be. The implication of this is that the Democrats picked up the seats that they did and have gotten the political mandate to try Keynesian economic fixes of the economy exclusively because Bush was considered such a disaster. After the economy utterly tanked last year under the seemingly incompetent hand of the Republicans, a good chunk of moderate and independent voters decided that maybe the Democrats might do a better job. Throwing T.E.A. parties or raging against socialist doctrines is likely a waste of time, since people don’t support Obama because they necessarily believe in his philosophy, but because the G.O.P. screwed up; the problem is not creeping socialism, but visibly failing capitalism.

It probably shows what I horrible person I am that I so revel when people I have no respect for—Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck—are so profoundly angry and scared about Obama and the democrats having power. Even though I have my own conflicts with some things the Obama government is doing or will do, I think that the tone and style that these pundits bring to the world (and have taught to the town-hall crashers) makes it an actively worse place and uniquely harms democracy. My only consolation to the anger I feel when Obama is called a racist or when medicare benefits for talking about end-of-life issues is called a “death tribunal” (which I feel is a measured, purposeful lie, told by unethical people to fool stupid people) is the knowledge that the propagators of these half-truths are decidedly out of power. I do not need to rant against or even argue with such insidious and half-baked arguments primarily because they are not working.

My parting advice to the jilted Republicans is to keep in mind that it’s probably easier to discredit your opponent than it is to actually rule well. Since few people are actually focusing on what, if anything, this crisis says about capitalism in general, there’s a good chance that all they’ll care about in 2012 is whether or not the economy has improved or if the Democrats have passed health care reform. So, even though I do think that the current financial crisis is proof that there is a critical flaw in the philosophies that the Bush government practices, you might just be more likely to win more voters in the 2010 and 2012 election with unbridled rage and incoherent screaming; if this is indeed your strategy, Limbaugh and Beck are absolutely the right people for the job.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Open Letters

Dear friends,

I’ve been applying to medical schools again lately. After getting rebuffed in my attempts at getting into med school for the past 2 years, I think I’ve been subliminally trying to sabotage my chances at getting in. I spun my wheels on my letter of intent for weeks, hiding in my other work and doing everything other than my med school application. In order to get the application in, I’ve been hiding from everything else, not answering e-mails, not reading or commenting on blogs, not even taking time to cook. Things are a little less crazy for me now that the application is done so If you’ve written me an e-mail lately I’ll get back to you when I start to empty out my account.

Dear Lina,

Thanks a ton for all the help writing my letter of intent. There’s a metric ton of pie that will be waiting for you next time you visit Chicago.

Dear Oasis,

Your song Wonderwall has been my favorite song since it first came out. Recently, however, I have decided that Lali Puna’s Faking the Books is my new favorite song. I’m not sure if I love it so much because I learned to appreciate European techno dance beats while in Germany, because of her charming pronunciation of the word “books,” or because I like the rest of Lali Puna’s music so much that it’s biasing my opinion of my favorite of her songs. By the way, with few exceptions, I think most of your other music is mediocre at best. In any case, the song makes me want to smile and cry at the same time. Give it a listen (it’s better with headphones than speakers).

Dear St. Vincent,

Amanda and I caught your concert last month at the Metro and it was fabulous. Although my favorite songs of yours are on your first album, Actor is very solid as an album, and well worth the good reviews it’s been getting. By the way, I think Amanda might like you more than me because of your music video, but I will be rather upset if you seduce her away from me. In fact, if Amanda leaves me for you, I will make an active effort to not recommend your music anymore. You’ve been warned.

Dear absentee landlord of my new apartment,

First off let me say how much I love the place; I particularly love the kitchen and Amanda is thrilled with the wood floors. That being said, your policy against dogs is absurd so I’ve decided not to follow it. Amanda and I recently bought a mini-poodle puppy and named it Gob (in honor of Will Arnett’s character from Arrested Development, although I love the homophonic parallel to the Biblical Job). Amanda’s been teaching him tricks and he’s also already litter trained, so your floors are safe. On a side note, Amanda gave him a haircut but spared the hair on his legs so that we can dye it. For now, it looks like he’s wearing a pair of really baggy pants. A-freaking-dorable if I do say so myself. If you ever decide to enforce your no dog rule—despite Gob’s adorableness—we’ll have to loan our dog to family or friends, which would be very sad for us and for Gob. If you do crack down, however, we’re pretty sure that someone on the third floor has a dog too, and it’s likely that any stray dog poop came from that dog, not Gob.

Dear messers Ensign and Sanford,

I’ll say the same thing I said while you were vehemently calling for President Clinton to step down: your sex life is none of my business and has zero determination on whether you can or should be a politician. Even still, I find irony rather funny and giggled inside when you were caught. I still feel sorry for Mrs. Ensign.

Dear Mrs. Sanford,

You are supremely ridiculous. I won’t even dignify your argument by refuting it. (Evan has pointed out that this was satire. Sorry Ms. Sanford).

Dear Ms. Palin,

I actually rather like you as a person. I think your opinions on abortion are medieval (or Italian) and your notions on science are damaging and ridiculous, but my ire for you only extends to your ability to use your crazy notions to make policy. Now that there’s no chance of you having access to a red button or the chance to slash science funding, I wish you all the best in writing books or working for FOX news. If you run for the presidency in 2012, however, we’re no longer friends.

Dear squirrel that keeps eating the tomatoes we’re growing on our back porch,

If you insist on stealing my tomatoes, is it too much to ask that you eat the whole thing, rather than just half? I have enough tomatoes on my plant that I probably won’t notice if you take a few, but I’d swear you’re taunting me by leaving an uneaten half right in front of my door. There are starving squirrels in China who would love those tomatoes, young man.

Dear Harry Potter movies,

I’m going to have to ask you to scale back the tween romance a lot. I know you might be tempted to cash in on the Twilight craze that has the kids shelling out good money to lust after rather awkward-looking heartthrobs, but Rupert Grint is actively hard to look at; ask J.K. if you couldn’t just write him out of the next few movies as much as possible. On your latest installment: although there were some things that could have been done better, the cave scene was excellent, as was Alan Rickman. I do have to say, however, that all of your movies end approximately 30 seconds too late. Please make an effort not to end on awkward anti-climaxes or freeze-frames in the future.

Dear President Obama,

Please focus; Professor Gates should not be on your radar right now. Health care is broken, nobody else is going to bother even trying to fix it, and it will not bode well for you if congress can’t get its crap together and pass a bill. Even a broken plan would probably be better than what we have got now and there will always be time to tweak later what you pass right now. Perhaps I’ll write more on the health debate later.

Dear Hyde Park Ward,

Thank you for not celebrating Pioneer Day or assigning the sacrament speakers to talk about pioneers. If I have to listen to one more person tell me that their great great grandparents were more righteous than mine because theirs were driven at gunpoint to Utah and mine weren’t I think I’m going to pitch a fit.

Dear clutch from my 2002 Hyundai Accent,

I thought we were tight. You’d been going strong for almost 100,000 miles and then you decided to try and strand me in rural Kansas, rather than lasting another 150 miles until I got to Wichita? Luckily for me I have really cool in-laws who have AAA and were able to bail us out and foil your scheme. I have a new clutch that’s apparently worth $800, so I don’t need you anymore. You’re dead to me. I hope they melt you down and turn you into something really awful and degrading like parts for public toilets or limited edition Jonas Brothers wrist watches.