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Friday, October 31, 2008

History's Worst Left Turn: Israel in Palestine.

*note: 1/6/09 - if your head has been under a rock, Israel has mortared a U.N. school in Gaza, killing 40ish, most of them civilian. Ostensibly the school was being used as a Hamas mortar base, but for lack of any reliable information (so far), I am without opinion. Israel has decided to open a "humanitarian corridor" in Gaza, whatever that means. If I were to offer advice, it would be to refrain from forming an opinion yourself until the facts are in. If Israel actively resists U.N. efforts to investigate the school incident, however, I will consider that facts enough for me. Neither side is allowing foreign reporters in, and no reporters appear to have the balls to go in anyway or sneak in from Egypt. When reporters follow the rules, investigative reporting is dead.*

I intentionally delayed this article, because I wanted Tiro’s discussion of the concept of Raman and Varelse to predate it. The concepts will weigh heavily in my discussion of the difficulties between Israel and the Palestinians, and how we should approach both groups. The downside is that the delay has resulted in the article being rather hefty, and covering rather more territory than one article should.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians comes in and out of the news in phases, and each side of the conflict has found themselves, at various times, painted as mindless, hypocritical, evil-minded terrorists who scream a lot and brainwash small children. Israel gets the paint whenever they perform a “retaliatory strike” that kills hundreds of civilians (thankfully, they’ve mostly realized that this practice is counterproductive), and the Palestinians get the paint whenever some idiot launches a rocket into an Israeli settlement.

I’ve been back and forth on the issue myself. I think both groups have been acting like ass-holes a significant portion of the last fifty years. They both do their share of crying and bitching and moaning and painting. It becomes difficult sometimes to separate the marrow out from the meat.

There’s a few bits that are easy, of course:
1. “Israelis have killed more Palestinians than Palestinians have killed Israelis” (exact estimates vary, but they all basically agree on “a lot more”). This is true, however I wouldn’t say it’s for lack of trying on the Palestinian side. Frankly, Israel is good at killing people, Palestinians more or less suck at it. Rocket strikes used to be an all-day every-day thing, but they rarely killed anyone because the weapons were difficult to aim. That doesn’t change the fact that all-day, every-day, there were Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank (though to be fair, none of Israel’s borders have ever seen many consecutive hours of peace) trying as hard as they could to kill Israelis. As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to attempted mass murder or genocide, failure to succeed does not absolve you.

2. “The Wall around the Gaza Strip is working.” The wall was a stupid idea. Statistics indicate that since the construction of the “wall” suicide bombers and rocket strikes are down, but the wall went up in a transitive period, so it’s hard to know where to apportion the credit. The wall itself (in fairness most of the wall is a fence) was expensive to build, is easily climbed, and does a better job of blocking legitimate trade (food) than it does of blocking weapons. Smugglers don’t care if they have to throw a carpet over some barbed wire or toss a ladder against a wall, and there’s a refugee camp along the southern wall that (for diplomatic reasons - Egypt refused to give up “even an inch” of Egyptian land, but also didn’t want the refugee camp and so refused to accept a gift of land from Israel) exists half on one side of the wall, and half on the other. If you want to send anything explosive from Egypt into the Gaza Strip illegally, you just send it there.

It is impossible to grow enough food in the Gaza Strip to feed everyone living in the Gaza Strip, and the trade consequences of the embargo make it impossible to feed them at all. That said, those people (I wrote a paper doing exactly this once, so I include myself) who attempt to compare the Gaza Strip and the West Bank with South African Apartheid are reaching.

Under Apartheid the intent was to force residents to leave the “Bantu-stans” to do manual labor in South Africa to pay the monetary indemnities imposed on them. The “stans” were put on the crappiest land possible, deliberately overpopulated (massively) and divided into as many small “tribal” territories as possible, separated by tracts of South Africa proper. It was slavery. There is no analogous situation in the Gaza Strip. Aside even from the fact that Israel gave the Palestinians a massive stretch of perfectly viable coastline and a sufficient amount of land to live on (let’s face it, Palestine sucks for crops everywhere if you don’t irrigate) Israel’s government would absolutely love it if the Palestinians all got together under one government and settled into a daily routine that didn’t involve suicide bombing and rockets. Governments that exist are way, way easier to negotiate with than governments that don’t exist, and Israel (quite frankly) hates fighting wars. They’re costly, both in lives and money. It’s much cheaper to settle violent matters through the intervention of Mossad. As we’re learning in Iraq, a completely decentralized enemy loses every battle, but since none of them have the authority to concede defeat, it’s basically impossible for them to lose the war. Israel would like it very much if the Palestinian areas stabilized and grew prosperous. That would solve so many of Israel’s problems that the notion of Israel actively working against this outcome is patently ridiculous.

3. “Palestinians had Palestine before the Jews came. They’re just trying to get it back.” Don’t be stupid. The term “Palestinian” wasn’t even a nationalist term before Israel came into being. The land in question was shared between Jews and Arabs. There was occasional fighting, but for the most part eking out a living on Palestine’s worthless soil was hard enough without making trouble with the neighbors. Hell, the reason the location was chosen for the formation of Israel was that there was virtually no one there to cause a ruckus (most people could think of thirty or forty places they’d rather live, and did so if it were even remotely possible), and the allies figured any local Muslims who felt uncomfortable under the new government could just up ship and move to one of the (many) neighboring Muslim territories.

Which would have worked fine, if any of the neighboring Muslim nations had been willing to take them. Jordan didn’t want them because it already felt it had too many of “those people” and none of the other nations wanted the immigration either.

Point being, of course, that Israel invented the modern cohesion of the “Palestinian people” by existing. This is a war between two recently invented peoples, one of which (the Israelis - I realize the Jews existed before Israel, but Israel is a surprisingly diverse nation with an identity independent from the founding religion) now vastly outnumbers the other.

4. “Israel controls our government.” ... I don’t even know how to argue against this one. It’d be like getting in a fist-fight with a ten-year-old cripple. The United States has every reason, logically, philosophically, and morally, to be Israel’s ally. It would be a terrible mistake, particularly now, to break down that relationship. That means we act often in their interests, because their best interest often coincides with our own. I’ll go into greater detail in a few paragraphs.


By now, you’ve probably come to the conclusion that my sympathies mostly lean towards Israel. In terms of nationalities, you are correct. However, in terms of the people, my sympathies are with the Palestinians. Most of them are innocent. Like everywhere else in the world, the greater percentage just want to get on with their lives and be left alone. This is as true in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as it is in Israel itself.

Hell, even in the Bantu-stans, most people wanted to get on with their lives. The reason the system was possible was that the South African government understood just exactly how much people would take before they went to war. (They miscalculated a bit, thankfully, and I’ll do an article later about how glad I am to see factions springing up within the ANC... a one-party system is unhealthy and I don’t believe that was ever the ANC’s intention, let alone Mandela’s.)

Even here, in America, we get wrapped up in politics about once every four years. The rest of the time we get up in the morning, go to work, make a buck, and go home to spend it on beer and pizza and toys for our kids. That’s what life is all about. Living.

So when someone comes along and twists your entire life around, makes it so the only options are “with us” or “against us,” everything goes out of whack. When you have to wave flags and march and hold up AK-47s (or stick a yellow ribbon on your SUV) or be called a traitor to “your people,” a line is drawn in the sand.

We see images of people shouting on soap boxes, screaming that they’re going to see Israel wiped off the map (it’s been all talk ever since the six-day war, of course... god damn but that was a beautiful piece of work and an article all in itself), but what we don’t see is people getting up, going to work, making a buck, going home, and spending it on beer and pizza and toys.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the point.

Raman. Varelse.

It may, in fact, be true that the Palestinian authorities and Israeli authorities cannot ever get along. They may be Varelse to each other. They may be incapable of communicating, or (as Tiro so aptly put it) incapable of coexisting culturally. But the people on both sides are not. They are people. The only battle lines drawn between one working mom and another are drawn from above.

I think it is important to remember that when you speak of defeating an entire people, what you speak of is genocide. Their army, their leaders, these are fair game. But to defeat a people, that is murder. When the Palestinian authorities rail about destroying “Israel,” they speak of genocide. Whether they “mean it” or not, or have “the capability” is irrelevant, particularly since they are speaking to a people who already went through that shit once. If Mexico started calling for the extermination of all Americans and launching rockets into Texas, how long would we put up with it? Sure, there’s no way in hell they’d ever accomplish anything, but there’s only so much of that kind of thing a government can put up with from its neighbors.

I’d give an analogous example from Israel, but there isn’t one. There have been no calls for genocide on that end, certainly not from anyone with authority. The government of Israel has been remarkably willing to make concessions of land, barring a few strategic locations from which Missiles were having unacceptable casualty-generating success. Even possessed of overwhelming military superiority, they agreed to divide Jerusalem and share the holy land. This is not South Africa. This doesn’t even resemble South Africa.

But he-said she-said doesn’t matter. What matters is you have two peoples spread out over a patch of land. All things being equal, both peoples just want to get up, go to work, make a buck and spend it on pizza, beer and toys. But certain small groups (capable of generating remarkable amounts of public drama) are unwilling to share, and they’re getting ordinary folks wrapped up in a fight they don’t want.

A professor I took a class from once whom I respect immensely (Professor Victor T. Le Vine) once told a story about a person he knows in the West Bank who expressed that they were glad of the fence surrounding them. They said the obstruction made “retaliatory raids” from Israel less frequent. They were better able to live their lives. Whether the raids are reduced because the incidents needing retaliatory action are reduced, or because the fence makes a huge, expensive obstruction if you want to move men or tanks over the border, is irrelevant.

What was important was that they could get on with their lives with less fear.

They’re not Varelse.

Hamas may be, and Al Qaida, and all those other little fringe groups that have been around since the formation of the Hash’Ashins back 1600 years ago or so. These groups (or at least their leaders) may be Varelse, and it seems likely that they are. But the people for whom they claim to fight are not, and it’s important that we remember who it is we’re fighting against, and who it is we’re fighting for.

Radicals of every tribe, nation, religion and creed are dangerous animals. They have managed to convince themselves that they have a mission more important than human life. We see it here in the hypocrites that blow up abortion clinics (abortion is murder, but not apparently the fire-bombing of an inhabited building). In Timothy McVeigh, as well, among others. We see it over there in Al’Qaida. It is important that we realize that a people cannot be held accountable for the errors-in-programming that spring up amongst them.

If your neighbor bombed an abortion clinic and someone retaliated by bombing your entire block, would you consider that justice? Of course not. That’s a ridiculous way to handle crime and punishment.

I realize it may be “hard” in the new era to separate out the Raman from the Varelse. Children walk up to helicopters and take the pins out of grenades. Mentally challenged individuals explode bomb-vests in crowded marketplaces.

I think, however, that it may be worth our while to try. To kill Varelse is arguably not a sin. The conflict is inevitable. To kill Raman though... that is troubling.

So my stand towards Israel, quite honestly, is that to take any “side” is to take the wrong side. Supporting “Palestine” is as foolish as not supporting “Palestine.” This construct exists only in the abstract, while the people exist in the actual. If you must support something, support the Palestinian people.

By this I mean to suggest that if you want to do something nice for the Palestinians, work to get them a government that works for them. Right now, their options are all demagogues who are long on power and short on common sense. Palestinians don’t need more land, they need a government capable of trade-relations and coordinated irrigation. You don’t have to look at many pictures of Israel compared with Palestinian-controlled territories to know which government is working out better for the people. And yeah, hatred is still a factor, but over time that will iron out. It always does. It just takes a hundred years or so of not killing one another and a hundred years more of getting addicted to each others’ coffee brands and textiles.

As far as the United States goes, there are a number of simple, strategic reasons why our friendship with Israel (yes, the construct, but it’s a democratic nation in the actual, so the construct is representative of the people to an acceptable degree) should be continued and enhanced.

1. We need a landing strip in the Middle-East. Anyone remember D-day? Me neither, and thanks to our bases all over the world, neither will our kids. Maintaining an effective military presence in Iraq is impractical because there isn’t a government there to legitimize us. We will constantly be fighting a war. However, should we withdraw from Iraq and need to return later, our good friend Israel will probably be more than willing to allow us to land our army on their airfields.

2. We need an intelligence agency capable of working in the Middle-East. Remember that national intelligence estimate (the N.I.E.) that said it was highly unlikely Iran was still working on nuclear weapons? That came from one man. Yes, we had (at that time) exactly one agent in Iran. Mossad, the Israeli Intelligence Agency, which has hundreds of agents there, told us he was full of shit, and I’m inclined to believe them. We just don’t know how to handle that region, but Israel does. A good working relationship between our agency and theirs is essential. We allow them to use our satellites, and they allow us to use the information generated by their spy networks. The gain is very mutual.

3. We often find it diplomatically prohibitive to take care of certain kinds of situations (assassinations and the like) but Israel does not. They can get away with it because they are not us (so we can’t be blamed) but they are under our protection (so they can’t be retaliated against). The system is pretty cool, actually. They took out the Egyptian nuclear program by assassinating half the scientists and making the remainder flee the country. They bombed the Iraqi attempt into the ground. Saddam didn’t have nukes when we got there in large part because Israel had already taken care of the problem for us.

They need us too, of course:

1. Protection. Israel is pretty tough on its own, but they are a cashew nut. We are a coconut.

2. Mossad is great, but the CIA has more toys, and Mossad benefits from these quite a bit.

3. We give them technology, often willingly, but sometimes not. They stole their first fissile material from the U.S., for instance. I’m cool with that. They got away with it because we had friendly relations and we didn’t want to mess them up. I’m cool with that too.

4. Support in the United Nations. Israel is not a member of the United Nations Security Council, so they do not have a voice there. We do.

So you see, we have with Israel the perfect diplomatic relationship. We get something, and they get something. Both the give and the take are valuable and the net trade for both parties is a profit. There is no problem here. The Israel lobby is so successful partly because they have a damned easy case to make. There’s no particularly good reason why we would want bad relations with Israel.

Oh, and I'm deliberately ignoring the whole issue with Britain making promises to everyone. Someone crossed his fingers behind his back a few too many times and suddenly the whole world's accountable and thousands have gotta die rather than deal with the reality of the situation? Not buying it, and neither should you.

That’s my ten cents for the day.

Tomorrow: Halloween. But check back Saturday and Sunday.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Marcus Tullius Tiro - Common Ground, or the Lack Thereof


"As the old proverb says, 'like readily consorts with like.'" - Cicero

In his Ender's Game series, which began as a short story published in 1977, the science fiction writer Orson Scott Card constructs a philosophical framework for understanding 'otherness,' which he termed 'The Hierarchy of Alienness.' The Hierarchy is one of those supreme examples of philosophy: something which largely unknown, or at least unnamed, before one hears it expressed, wholly self-evident after one has heard it, and largely non-trivial.

With much gratitude to Wikipedia and to card himself, I present the Hierarchy here, with some notes, first: within Ender's Game universe, the hierarchy originated in the fictional The History of Wutan in Trodheim, and, though Card describes the terms as coming from the Norwegian-derived language of Trondheim, they are (except for one) actually Swedish term. Additionally, within the Ender's Game universe, the Hierarchy uses the term 'alien' to refer to humans who are from different cultures, as well as actual aliens, in the sense of differing species. I hope you will agree with me, though, in that the hierarchy is still offers some relevent insights into relations within our own species.

The Hierarchy

Utlanning (from Swedish: "outlander" or "foreigner") - these individuals, while 'strangers' in the traditional sense, are members of a person's own species or culture. Americans from different cities, Europeans from different countries, or, say college students from different dormitories at the same school could all be considered utlanning, depending on the level of detail one is considering.

Framling ("stranger", from the Swedish främling) - this term refers to strangers who are of the same species, though from another world or culture, one who is "both substantially similar to and significantly different from ourselves." In the Ender's Game universe, this term is used to describe humans living on different worlds, but it could be used to describe the relationship between, say, natives of Britain and America, who share, for the most part, a common language and a largely common history.

Ramen (Card's original term) - these are strangers of who are of another species, and yet capable of communication and peaceful coexistence with, in Card's model, Homo sapiens sapiens -- although this does not ensure communication will take place; nor does such communication ensure peaceful coexistence. While Card uses the term to describe the relations between humans and certain species of aliens in his books, one could take this term to refer to, say, Americans and Chinese: while the majority of the members do not share a common language, and many of their customs differ significantly, there are many who can and do communicate between the cultures (and many individuals who are simultaneously members of both communities), and, obviously, peaceful coexistence is possible. From a slightly different angle, men and women (and, by this, I mean the standard, traditional Western view, which for the most part sees gender and sex as the same, etc.) might consider each other to be ramen. The two groups are certainly different in fundamental, physical ways, but there is a large body of shared culture between the groups (of course, one could make an equally strong argument for these groups viewing each other as framling, etc.).

Varelse (from Swedish: "creature") - pronouced 'var-ELSS-uh,' this term refers to strangers from another species who are simply not capable of communication with Homo sapiens sapiens. In the truest sense, they are aliens, "completely incapable of common ground with humanity." In Card's view, a meeting with true varelse must eventually, over time, lead to war.

Although I found the entire Hierarchy interesting when I first encountered it, the concept of the "ramen/varelse border," if you will, struck me as fascinating. In the Ender's Game universe, humanity is engaged in a war with a species that is deemed varelse at first, although later war is averted when the two groups manage to develop a framework for communication. Later, Card describes the differences between terms as originating not from the 'stranger' being named, but the one doing the naming. At one point, one of Card's characters remarks, somewhat cynically, that "As far as I can tell, intelligence is intelligence. Varelse is just the term Valentine invented to mean Intelligence-that-we've-
decided-to-kill, and ramen means Intelligence-that-we-haven't-decided-to-kill-yet." As a response of sorts, the character who first constructs the Hierarchy aknowledges this in one of her later works:

"The difference between ramen and varelse is not in the creature judged, but in the creature judging. When we declare an alien species to be raman, it does not mean that they have passed a threshold of moral maturity. It means that we have."

—Demosthenes, Letter to the Framlings

In terms of internal human affairs, the entire concept seemed to finally give a name to that which had constantly bothered me about the current 'war' between Western/American culture and radical Islam. What if it truly is the case that, even though we can find a collection of words and a grammatical framework that allows us to speak, we cannot communicate? Is it, therefore, not possible to even consider reconciling our differences and laying down arms until we find a common tongue - not a question of Arabic or English, but a question of ideologies?

Of course, the concept is certainly not limited to this one case. The territorial and sovreignty disputes, now and historically, in Ireland, Georgia, the Middle East, the Balkans, and so on -- many of these are between groups who often share some language or culture, but is this enough? Are there insurmountable differences in fundamental world-views that not only make peace difficult, but outright impossible?

That said, at first blush, this may not seem like (or, in fact, be) a new idea. The concept of needing some common ground, a shared framework, before conflict resolution con proceed is old news, even to those who are new to the issues. What I see as novel is the idea that it may not simply be a question of choice: the answer may not simply be that both parties should 'grow up,' make some concessions, and at least agree on some basic rules. Card's hierarchy takes this a step further and says that this may not actually be possible - that under certain circumstances, we lack even the ability to image what common ground would look like - and under these circumstances, war is inevitable.

In a sense, we see this in our daily lives, especially in the twin fields of politics and religion. Though the vast majority of us see the world in a mix of objective and subjective terms, share at least some common ground with others, and firmly believe that there are areas of grey in between the black and white, there are those who know a singular concept of Truth. This is not to say that either world-view is correct: practically by definition, the concept of 'correctness' is fundamentally intertwined with truth, and, if we allow for some common framework, I, for one, believe that practically any viewpoint can be argued. But in the discussion on, say, drug policy, there are those who hold views which are fundamentally, irreconcilibly different, for whom the basic axioms and the rules one can apply to them are in conflict.


As before, there are many things still to say, and many ideas still to examine. I hope, for now, though, you take something new away from the Hierarchy, as I did.

As always, your most humble and obedient servant,

Marcus Tullius Tiro


Tomorrow: The long-delayed article - Israel.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Namer of god

As an “agnostic,” one finds often that you are alone in the world. There are millions of you, but it’s extremely hard to set up an “agnostic” church, because most churches are religious institutions devoted to the worship of a certainty. The closest thing to an agnostic church I’ve found in this life is the Unitarian church, followed closely by the church of Satan, the latter of which has an ideology (and a stupid, intentionally confrontational and misleading name) and the former of which is broadly rooted in Christianity.

If I were required to be anything that already exists, I suppose I’d be a Unitarian, for lack of any better options.

But I’m not. So I’m not. I’m a searcher - agnostic in the true sense, I’m open-minded and looking for a path through the muck and the mire, guided by my own conscience. I love discussing religion, but most of the interested parties have already made up their mind one way or another, so the conversation tends to take the form of Preach-equivocate-preach-equivocate and essentially resembles the sensation of me banging my head against a brick wall. Eventually I get dizzy enough to make concessions, a phenomenon I think explains most of the success of organized religion.

I digress.

I don’t have a religious community, but I want a religious community, and since a proper one doesn’t exist, I’m going to make one. I’m going to start a religion.

The religion I’m forming has no particular ideology. It is quite literally a church of agnosticism. There’s a sense recently that people have started worshiping books at the expense of god, and I feel that this is problematic. God is being taken out of his/her/its own picture.

The only requisite for being a member, a “Namer of god,” is an open mind. You don’t even have to stop being a Catholic, or a Jew, or a Muslim. Keep your old faith if you want it. The only rule within the bounds of the church is toleration. You may seek converts to your old faith within the bounds of this new one, but should they choose to seek god in another manner, you may not obstruct them. If you do not believe that your current religion allows for such tolerance, then this is not the place for you. But if you’re sick of all this fighting, bickering, killing, maiming, stealing, lying, cheating, men and women who claim that their way is the only way, then maybe this is right for you.

One day, I hope to set up sanctuaries where people who are willing to listen, to try to understand, to seek truth rather than begging for revelation like a dog begging for table scraps, can gather and talk, can sermonize, can argue, can shout and cry and pray in whatever way and language they damn well please, and do it all under one roof: a statement of solidarity in their differences.

We all want to get to god. I think all this my-way-or-the-highway crap is just that. Crap. I think it detracts from the brotherhood of man. I think it detracts from god’s vision of the world. I think it causes unnecessary pain and suffering, and distracts believers from what really matters, from the greater good, and from the humanity of those around them.

So I hereby declare the formation of the Namers of god, those who seek the name of god however they might choose to. Those who are tired of being the black sheep, the lone operator. Those who are tired of being stereotyped as atheists, abused as non-believers, harassed and distrusted for their “ungodliness.” We will be a bastion for the lost, the confused, and all the various believers who, for minor differences, have begun to feel themselves estranged from their establishments. I think this is as good a time as any to make our own way in the world.

Let there be a new, less exclusive club of god, and for a symbol take whatever the hell you want and wear it out. You can borrow mine if you’d like, or wear another. It doesn’t matter, so long as when someone asks "what does that symbol mean" you reply "It means I'm a Namer of god."


In truth, I started this religion quite some time ago, but I’ve been the only member, and the idea has been refining since then, mulling about in brain-juices and being bounced off unsuspecting minds in one form or another.

My personal beliefs are ultimately irrelevant to the religion, but I feel they should be outlined nonetheless, in case anyone should feel like jumping on board for the hell of it, or just wants to know where I’m coming from:

I believe that god exists in the unknown, and is responsible for the unknown. You could say he/she/it exists in the cracks of our knowledge. As we learn more, god becomes bigger, because the cracks in our knowledge become more numerous and larger (the more complex our image of the universe becomes, the more questions we have in proportion to our answers). But god also becomes farther away and less relevant to our daily lives. One way to put it would be that as soon as we know something, it becomes our responsibility.

Metaphorically speaking, think of god as a good parent and our species as a child. That which the child cannot understand, the parent protects them from (to the best of their abilities), but that which they can understand becomes more and more their own responsibility to deal with. Laundry, Yard work, Dating, homework, one by one things that the child’s parents help with become things that they don’t. Eventually, food, lodging, clothing, and all other bucks get passed, and the child is responsible for everything. The child will ask his or her parent for advice from time to time, and receive it, and when unforeseen circumstances deal them a bad hand, the parent may bail them out. But the parent no longer intervenes directly in their daily, hourly, minutely life.

Sure, that means the child has more responsibility than he’d sometimes like, but that’s just part of growing up, and responsibility is a necessary side-effect of freedom. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of the child to grow up, even if he/she might not want to.

One could extend that principle to say that mankind may have been bound by god to rules before, but those rules are being reevaluated as we grow. Christianity in many ways envisioned itself as a growing-up from Judaism... much of the new testament is a tract of liberation, promising to mankind that a new pact has been formed with god. You get less allowance, and you’ll have to get a job, but you can own a car now and go on dates, and your curfew is midnight now, rather than ten. You get to wear cotton and eat pigs. That sort of stuff. A pretty grand idea if someone hadn’t come along and started mucking up the principle.

In short, in my estimation, it’s time for mankind to move out of the nest altogether and start taking responsibility for itself. It's time we stop justifying our actions and start understanding them.

But that’s mine. Take up the mantle of a Namer and show me yours.


Anyway, if anyone wants to take on the mantle and feels the need for some officialness (after all, the point of this whole mess is to form a community of sorts), email me at and I’ll start building a roster, just for fun. Who knows but that one day, we might graduate to having a forum!

This is the symbol I’ve taken up. Whether you take it up yourself or craft your own is your own beef.

That’s my ten cents for the day.

Tomorrow: The same thing we do every night, Pinky, try to take over the world.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Bear Necessities

I would like to begin by explaining my usage of the two major keywords you’ll see in this article today.


A state as an entity is probably best defined as a group of people who want to be considered a State. However, for the purposes of this article, which are more practical than philosophical, a State is an entity which has a monopoly on the use of force in a given region. You’ll see in a moment that this begs the question a bit, but I don’t particularly feel like arguing semantics today. As Quine put it, “'Our argument is not flatly circular, but something like it. It has the form, figuratively speaking, of a closed curve in space.”

Monopoly on use of force is the one thing that all states have in common from beginning to end, a thing which defines and in truth demarcates the beginning and end of a “State” in the sense used in this article. I am here deliberately avoiding any argument regarding exactly what a State is, because such an argument would distract from the essential purpose of this article, and for the purposes of this article the definition of “State” that I use is sufficient.


Often a part of a State, possessed of the function of creating and enforcing Laws, be they so simple as feudal taxation or as needlessly complicated as Roe vs. Wade. A government must enforce these laws, and people living under the government’s rule must obviously know the laws in order not to break them, so the government must also have a mechanism for educating the public.

A friend of mine recently put up the feudal system as an example of a system of governance in which education was not an essential component. But feudalism was a contract, in essence, between peasants and lords, lords and kings, kings and Pope. The church was a necessary component in feudalism (if nothing else, divine right of kings requires divinity) and it acted as the ultimate authority. Education was most certainly a component of the church, and it was the education passed down by the church which gave kings their authority.

Kings often ignored the pope for their own personal reasons, but excommunication was a catastrophe for a king, and such instances were more analogous to an argument on the senate floor than a laughing denial of authority. That the church had authority was not in question, because the authority of kings flowed from the church in the same manner that the authority of lords flowed from the kings.

It is meaningless to argue about whether this is actually the case. If it is not the case, then the system of which you speak is not feudal. If the system is not feudal, then the ultimate authority does not go to the church, but instead to the government. If the ultimate authority goes to the government, it must be above the church. If it is above the church, and the church teaches the laws of the land, then the church is a state institution (England). If the church is independent from the government altogether, preaches against the ruling authority and is simultaneously the sole source of education, then the government quickly loses legitimacy and its denizens cease to identify with it. Rebellion becomes inevitable.

A Government, then, is defined by its ability to enforce Law and provide Education. Education legitimizes Law, Law legitimizes internal monopoly of force. A government is a tool a State uses to maintain a monopoly on the use of force.

From that reasoning I extrapolate that the essential services provided by the kind of state under which we live, and the kind of government under which we live, include:

1. Defense
2. Education
3. Law
4. Law enforcement

Offensive capability is nice, of course, but so long as our borders are defended, waging war is not to be considered a necessary function. I say this so as to specify that when I speak of “Defense” I speak of defense, not a runaway “defense” budget.

With these four services taken care of, our government and our State (the combination of which I heretofore shall dub “S/G”) can exist as such. It wouldn’t do much, but it would exist.

This is, however, bare bones. For our government to suitably perform the function for which it is ultimately intended, the following come highly recommended as well:

1. Market Controls (Trust busting, some oversight and occasional intervention to prevent bank failures like the one we just saw averted).
2. Research Funding (I’ll lay out a priorities chart for this in a later article, the issue is large enough to merit one of its own)
3. Road building, maintenance and repair (including railroads)
4. Mail Service (this should arguably be listed under necessaries, but that category is restrictive for a reason and the inclusion of Mail in this category should serve to elevate your impression of what I mean by “highly recommended”)
5. Safety Net
6. Intelligence Network

Most of these are obviously necessary, and I seriously doubt anyone at this point would say that complete government non-intervention (which would allow monopolies, strong-arm tactics, copyright violation and patent theft) is healthy for markets, so hopefully I won’t have to waste time arguing for number 1 too much. I considered including 6 as part of “necessary” 1 (Defense) but opted not to mostly because I wanted to emphasize its importance, but also because it’s technically possible for a state to get along without one.

I do think it’s necessary to make the case for number 5 as an abstract concept. The safety net enables risk-taking, risk-taking enables capitalism. If you don’t have one, the other doesn’t work. People argue over how wide the net should be, and what it should be made of, but they shouldn’t be arguing about whether it should exist.

My overarching point, I think, is that our government does all these things, does them at least competently (mail arrives), and is probably going to continue doing these things for the foreseeable future. Everything in the highly recommended category is presently accounted for, and everything in the “necessary” category is accounted for to the minimum necessary, at least.

This frees us up to consider improvements in other areas, and to view budget cutbacks to things that do not fall into one of these categories non-fatal.

More to the point, it frees us to consider the relationship between the necessary, the highly recommended, and everything else. By this I mean to imply that When the necessaries are doing well, and the highly recommended categories are doing well, everything else is doing well. When everything else is doing poorly, something is awry in one of the categories above. Since everything not in these categories (I may have missed a few, feel free to remind me of any that come to mind) can be taken care of in the private sector, it’s safe to say that one of the best things we could be doing is diverting funds from unnecessary expenses (the war in Iraq, building bridges to islands with a population of 50, squabbling endlessly on the senate floor over the definition of “marriage,” propping up dictators and intervening in military coups in nations with gross national products that couldn’t buy a plane ticket to New York if they had the inclination) to the necessary and highly recommended ones.

You’ll notice something about the necessary and highly recommended categories as well. With the exception of HR6, they’re all domestic. This might indicate a bias on my part, but I don’t think so. A state which performs all functions expected of it at home and adopts an isolationist foreign policy is still a state. A state which performs all functions expected of it abroad and fails to do all the things necessary at home is at best an occupying force.

Right now, I think Education is our weakest link, in the long term, followed shortly by foreign oil dependency, which falls under one necessary and one HR category, Defense and Research respectively.

At present, Law enforcement, Law, Market Controls (yes, I realize the economy is crashing, but I’m in the camp that considers this a symptom, not a disease), Road repair, Mail, and Intelligence are fairly healthy. The Safety Net could use some work, but honestly I think the problems with the safety net are closely linked to the problem in Education. Solving Education should fix both the safety net and the economic issues we face. It should also help with R&D related to alternative energy, in the long run.

We don’t really have that long, however, so at present we need to shift funding, resources and attention away from non-necessary and non-HR categories and into Education and Research. Research should, in solving the energy crisis, simultaneously fix the defense issue (dependence on foreign oil means that foreign embargo can turn our lights out at will) associated with energy.

That means non-essential programs should be ready to tighten their belts for awhile. Those who can do with a little less for a time should be ready to pay higher taxes (sorry rich folks, but that doesn’t include people who get by on 20k per year in roach-infested apartments). In the short term it'll hurt a bit, but in the long term you'll get back what you lost. As the Wiccan say, threefold return for good or for ill. Really can't figure out why people have such a problem with that religion... it's full of simple ways of saying common sense.

That's my ten cents for the day.

Tomorrow: The promised Philosophical rambling.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Utilitarianism (or, a Case for Liberal Conservativism) - Marcus Tullius Tiro

The following is a guest article by Marcus Tullius Tiro:

"O tempora, o mores!" - Cicero

Greetings, all.

When Maxwell asked me to join the conversation here, I was originally going to write a piece about Orson Scott Card's 'Hierarchy of Alienness,' and how it relates to the geopolitical and military crises of the day, but, after reading the previous post, I decided to postpone that for the moment. Instead, I'd like to introduce myself, discuss the concepts of welfare and public goods, and describe a philosophical framework that has always seems obvious and natural to me, but that I have yet to see in practice.

First, myself -- I am a native-born American, in my mid-twenties, and I'm currently working towards a doctorate at a relatively prestigious American university. I certainly don't claim to be an expert on most of the matters that will be discussed here, but I do believe that my education has given me the tools to ask the right questions, at least. Most relevant for the moment, I consider myself to be a sort of 'utilitarian libertarian' -- a philosophy that I shall lay out here.

On a technical note, though, the term 'public good' has a precise meaning in the world of economics: it is a good or service that is both non-rival and non-excludable. Non-rival means that if one person uses some of the good, it does not stop another person from using it (i.e. if I uses the park, there's just as much 'park' left for Maxwell), and non-excludable means that absolutely anyone in the society can use the good (i.e. I don't need a membership card, etc., to get into the park). Under this definition, there are few things which are really public goods; traditionally 'public' goods may be rival - if 5000 people decide to use the same section of public beach on a Saturday afternoon, I may be hard pressed to find a spot for my blanket - or they may be excludable, depending on where you draw boundaries - anyone living in Townsville can use the Townsville pool, but people from New City can't. Naturally, a whole host of terms has grown up for these concepts: 'club goods' may refer to public goods that are excludable, 'collective goods' may refer to things that are actually provided by and owned by the government instead of as actual public goods, etc.

And, on to the philosophy. Permit me, if you will, to construct a thought experiment: we have a group of people. Let us not assume anything about these people other than that they will act like humans do -- some will work hard, some will be lazy; some will act 'good' out of morals or conscience, while some will take advantage of others when they can; some act charitably, some will be greedy, and so on.

While the group (let us call them 'the society') could be left alone, to form (or not form) some type of governing body, let us instead impose a system of government, one that is based on a relatively simple philosophy: there are times when, left to their own devices, people will act in ways that are not beneficial to themselves as individuals; in these cases, government should intervene. John Nash, now of Hollywood fame, thanks to A Beautiful Mind, is probably the best known researcher in the field of game theory, which deals with (among other things) these problems -- one can show, in a host of examples, that these problems occur. If there's interest, I can provide a few examples.

Now, armed with our philosophy, let us build.

Military -- This is almost trivial: if the society in the next valley decides to organize a raid, coordinated efforts will likely be required to repel them. Since everyone stands to lose from not fighting back, any particular individual could choose to avoid fighting, knowing that the other members of the society will take up arms in his place. Thus, left to their own devices, it is possible that people, on the whole, will end up acting in a way that ends up being bad for society, and for themselves, individually. Additionally, there are issues of coordination, training and the need for capital investment, and so on -- on the whole, military force ends up being something that the government should be providing.

Police -- Along very similar lines to military, one can make a relatively strong argument that government should be providing this as well.

Now, let us reflect for a moment. It is comforting to see that the one role of government that is common to practically every system of government -- protection from threats, both foreign and domestic -- derives from our basic assumptions and philosophy, rather than having to be taken as an additional assumption. In a similar vein, we can continue to build a government that takes an active role only when a solid case can be made for involvement, based on the idea that individuals, not just 'the society' as a whole, will be hurt otherwise. Fundamentally, this is a 'conservative' ideology, but it leads one to a number of conclusions that are traditionally seen as more 'liberal.'

To return to a favorite topic of Maxwell's, take education. Education - by which I mean universal, standardized intellectual training that teaches students not only what 2x4 is and who their vice president is, but also why we should care about these things, and gives them to tools to come to their own conclusions - benefits everyone. It benefits students, obviously, but it also benefits parents, it benefits people without children who live in the area, whose home values rise with education, it benefits employers, for whom it is easier to find qualified employees, and it benefits us all by giving us the tools to try and elect better leaders. As Aaron Sorkin said, speaking through the character of Sam Seaborn of The West Wing:

"Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don't need little changes. We need gigantic revolutionary changes. . . . Competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be getting six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge for its citizens, just like national defense."

I'll return to this topic later, if Maxwell will grant me another guest column!


To conclude, the past pages have laid out a philosophy, or, if you wish, an ideology. It is an ideology that clearly makes implications about what is right and wrong in government and society, but I believe that it is fundamentally better than many of the prevailing ideologies today, because it has clarity and simplicity. We can debate endlessly about how best to educate the youth of our country, and we can debate what conditions, if any, make abortion acceptable, and so on, but we mostly agree on the basis of this philosophy. And building a stable basis, and defining our terms, is, in my most humble opinion, the best way of starting a debate of any kind.

-- Marcus Tullius Tiro


Tomorrow: I will expand Tiro's idea of necessary government functions and attempt to compose a prioritized list for a government with limited economic resources.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Public Goods

A park is only a park if it is owned by a community. Without the people within it, a park is not a park. A park owned by a single person is a garden, but you do not go to the garden, or take your kids to the garden, or go play soccer in the garden.

You go to the park.

Here in St. Louis we have a park we call the “botanical gardens” but really, it’s a park. You go to the botanical gardens, you take your kids to the botanical gardens. Admittedly, they probably wouldn’t let you play soccer there, but it’s still a park. There’s people there. You’re never alone (unless you sneak in after dark. Then you are, and it’s more than a little bit creepy, too.

I bring this to your attention because today I’d like to discuss a little piece of communism that has crept into our lives, beloved by us all without our knowing. It is the public good.

A public good is something owned by a community and maintained by a community, intended for community use. It could be something as simple as a Television that all denizens of a home share between them, rather than buying a television for each person in the house. It could be something as large as a lake or as essential as a Levy. It could be something as standard, as obvious, as necessary to a community as a park. What community is a community without a park? Sure, there are rural areas where they don’t have parks, but that’s because the entire community is in a park, of sorts. They don’t have to protect a little pocket of nature, because nature is all around them. Even there, though, you find parks. You find them behind school-houses, where the enclosed green and playground equipment form a safe environment for children to run around in, free of the less friendly parts of nature, like poison ivy or rattlesnakes. You find them near government buildings, and sometimes you find them demarcated simply by a fence that says “such and such national park” but which means “The stuff on that side of this fence is nature, but the stuff on this other side is a national park.”

You may be wondering, at this juncture, what my point is. After all, who could argue that parks are bad? That would be silly. Everyone loves parks.

Which is more or less the point. People who don’t use parks, or have kids, or play soccer, or even particularly like trees, they all pay for the park. No one questions whether they should pay for the park, they just do. No one asks why they pay for the Levy, that’s obvious. No one asks why they pay the salaries of the park rangers in the national preserves, they just do. If they get upset it’s over not being able to mine for or build inside the fence. They don’t mind paying for nature preserves they just argue over where they should be.

But when someone gets an unemployment check, all the world is torn asunder.

Welfare, too, is a public good of a sort. It isn’t visible, like a park or a wildlife preserve, but it’s every bit as essential as the levy. You just don’t know how important it is to pay for welfare until the levy breaks, not to lay on the metaphor too thick. When you need it, suddenly it’s important. But it’s more than that, too. When people need it, not even you, and it isn’t there, then that’s a catastrophe for them and for you. They die, your streets are lined with dead bodies. They starve, your streets are lined with beggars. They get angry, your door is beaten down by an angry mob. They get angry and hungy?

Let’s just say that most of European history can be explained by the lack of a welfare system. When you have no safety net, you have nowhere to go but to arms. Everyone would rather have a peaceful, nonviolent way to get food, but if they don’t have it, then they’re just going to resort to the other way. We all would, given the need. Welfare isn’t only in place to protect the mob from you, it’s in place to protect you from the angry mob. It is the levy that stands between your wealth and someone realizing that they have nothing left to lose.

So no more of this talking about “doing away with” welfare. That’s stupid. Do you do away with a levy? No. Do you do away with a park? No. Welfare needs to be repaired. The system is broken, the bureaucracy is bloated, but we can’t do away with it, even if we just want it gone so we can rebuild it. It is a levy. If you want a new levy, you build it before you demolish the old one. If you want a new welfare system, the same rules apply.


The next few days may be somewhat dry. A good friend of mine is writing a guest article which should segue well into the Israel question and give us all some food for thought. I'll try to post a little something every day until he's ready though, even if it's only a photograph or a link to something entertaining.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Science has been wrong before, too

I was browsing the interwebs today, as is my wont, and I found myself in an argument with a kid who said that “science” had told someone something. It is irrelevant what it was that “science” had told her, it is the same tired argument that has for centuries assailed the scientific community. “Yes, we see the evidence, but science has been wrong sometimes too.”

No, it hasn’t.

Science cannot be wrong, because science has no opinion. The scientific community can make errors, yes, and individuals do it fairly often, if not daily. But “science” as an entity exists only in the lower-case. It is a method, a way of thinking, and membership in the scientific community is limited, objectively, only by one’s willingness to apply the method to an end. To your life. To a petri dish.

“Scientists” are only people who apply the method. It has nothing to do with their degree. If a person with a doctorate informs you that the sky is red, that the ocean is pink, that your underwear are made from rainbows, they came to that conclusion unscientifically. In that moment, they were not acting as a scientist.

To say that “science” has said something implies a complete lack of understanding regarding what science is. I believe that this may fuel most of the controversy between “science” and “religion.”

Proponents of the truths of religions, whichever religion they may be championing, find that they may assault “science” without evoking much of a counter-reaction. They cannot assault the ideology, the ideology of science is water-tight. It says nothing that common sense does not validate. Instead, they assault individual claims, and think that when they claim victories (at great cost) against those individual claims, they have won a great victory against science. But they do not evoke much of a counter-reaction because there's simply no one home when they throw the rock. Sure, if it's something being worked on all the time, something fundamental, like evolution, then there's people inside that theory all the time, applying the method, getting hit by the rocks, but the dinosaurs? Remember when that guy set up that museum to teach kids that the dinosaurs and people lived in harmony together? Not much reaction. People laughed.

That war is over. They are the insurgents now, small pockets of people who do not want to join the world as it is now. Science had already won, way back when Christians started using soap and doctors started using disinfectants to combat the unseen-but-obviously-there. It won when we started flying planes through the sky (ever flown in a plane designed by someone who didn’t believe that air was physically present?), when the lightbulb was invented, and when we started colliding electrons, too small to be seen by the naked eye, in gigantic machines covering acres of land.

Sure, religion is still around, and I’m not here to knock it. It adapts, just like everything else. It is a necessary component of human life. I myself am a Namer of god, I’m not going to knock anyone else’s beliefs. But when people are ready to watch the world end rather than admit that we’ve thrown things out of whack?

The kid I ran across was using the “science has been wrong before” argument to downplay the importance of global climate change.

Science has been wrong before.

The world is ending, but science has been wrong before, so let’s not bother doing anything about it.

That is some fucked up shit.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


I must break with my pattern for a day. Israel may come tomorrow. I wish to think out loud.

There is a phenomenon that is common to all great works of art, be they books, or paintings, or games of chess. I do not think this phenomenon has a name yet, so I will give it one. I shall call it the Detritus Phenomenon.

When the great statue stands, finished at last, so real it nearly breaths and so glorious it blots out the sun, it is surrounded by cast-off, by waste, by small pieces of rock, or clay, ground into the floorboards by the passage of uncaring boots. This cast-off material, this detritus, is endless. The weight of it grows greater until it fills the nest of the creator and he no longer bothers to throw it away. A thousand lost sentences for every one published, dried paint scraps and ruined prints, expensive ink and paper discarded because they were not good enough, were fouled by dust, or were touched by the ghost of impurity. In the end, to create greatness, we must also create detritus.

A spotless home, a swept floor, a well-organized desk, even a clean background check: These are the greatest tragedies of mankind. Does man believe that this detritus goes away when he discards it? If you move it from one place to another, does it mean you have become clean, or only that your mess becomes another’s? It takes so much energy to move detritus, so much time, that we must eventually choose between two imperfect options.

We may leave the detritus be and become mad,

Or we may move it away from us, and become less.

Let us embrace the schizophrenic dorm room, the scraps of paper covered in dust, the scattered notes, the books bent out of shape, the unmade bed, even the wastebasket overflowing with tissues, used condoms and junk mail. Let us embrace the studio apartment with more paint on the floor than on the canvas. Let us embrace the worst writing of man, left scattered across the four winds of the internet, assaulting us at every turn. There is no escape.

To create beauty, you must embrace madness.

Insanity shall be our gift to man.

Detritus defines us.

The Not-So-Inevitable Victory

The War

Here is the math.

The government we’re propping up in Iraq has an 80 billion dollar surplus. This is not being spent either to defray our costs, or to revitalize the areas that have been devastated by this conflict. It is also not being spent to stabilize the government or to build up the local military. It is not being spent. This would be understandable if there wasn’t anything in Iraq that needed doing, but there are quite a lot of things in Iraq that need doing.

Any reasonable governing body in the situation in which the Iraqi government finds itself now would be in horrendous debt. The Iraqi government isn’t. Thus, I must conclude that the Iraqi government isn’t a reasonable governing body.

Of course, the alternative is that there’s just no one with the authority to spend the dough. Since this basically amounts to the same thing, this need not alter any conclusions.

The war is costing approximately 341 million dollars per day. The United States has a population of 301 million, meaning that the war is costing each individual one dollar and thirteen cents daily, or 412 dollars per year. Bringing the 80 billion dollar surplus (annual) of the Iraqi government into play (or to put it bluntly, taking it away from them) would reduce the cost of the war to approx. 121 million dollars per day, with a cost individual of 146 dollars per year.

Most of the money spent on this war is, whether directly or indirectly, being borrowed from foreign countries, and will later need to be dealt with, either by (ideally) paying it back plus interest or (less ideally) making war on the holders of our debt. Since making war on our lenders would negate our ability to borrow our way through the war, the expense of such a war would likely have a very similar economic impact to simply paying our lenders back what we owe, and I think it’s safe to say no one wants us to be that much like France anyway.


Since the estimated population of the nation I used includes non-workers and children, It can be concluded that bringing the 80 billion dollar surplus of the Iraqi government into play would save a family of four 1164 dollars per year.

Ending the war outright would save the same family 1648 dollars per year.

To any of you making a healthy living wage, that may not seem like so much. But 137 dollars per month is a significant chunk to most families these days, and it can certainly make the difference between health insurance or no health insurance, rent or no rent, electricity or no electricity, house or no house, food or no food.

So that’s the math. Now, the philosophy.

As I mentioned two days ago in my first post, I’m of the opinion that a war without understood victory conditions is a dangerous animal. Back in the olden days, a war would end with the taking of a city, a hostage, a field, or the turn of a battle. A signed document, perhaps. Today, things are not so simple, apparently.

We crushed their army, dismantled their government, established hegemony over the bulk of their people, and still we must retreat. This is a different world than the one the makers of this war grew up in. The goals are not the same.

They told us there were WMDs, which of course there were (In a sense... Saddam had already used some forms of poison gas on “his own people” if anything is ever so simple), but there were no nukes because Israel had seen to that prospect already. We dismantled the government structure entirely, rather than simply chopping off the head, and were left attempting to construct an entire bureaucratic system from zero. No mail, no police, neighborhood security outside the “green” zone ensured only by the surprisingly earnest efforts of local gangs and/or tribal groups.

Anbar was not our success, it was a coalition of tribal leaders who opted to do our job for us.

Then, they told us we were making Iraq into a democracy. What an absurdity! A democracy is built not on majority rule but rather on the principle of minority rights, something which I cannot see taking root in the Muslim world any more than it jives with the Christian world, or the Satanists. Religious motivation is dangerous because it does not compromise. Absolute truth divides the world into good and bad, us and them, the living, and the dead.

We have lost Iraq, not merely because of money, but because we do not speak the same language. Literally, of course, this is true (at one point we had only seven Arabic translators working in Iraq, and one of them was fired because he was homosexual... irony’s a bitch), but my intended meaning is metaphorical. We say “we will make you free” and they hear “we will make you us.” The ground in the middle east is not well suited for the growth of plants like Democracy. Not yet.

Iran though... Iran speaks the language, both literally and metaphorically. It will be interesting to see how it plays out, in the end. God knows we will not be there to take part.

Whichever president takes office, we will be withdrawing from Iraq. The money is not there and our nation has jumped headlong into an economic crisis and dragged the world down with it. We have bigger fish to fry than Iraq right now.

It isn’t a matter of whether to end the war in Iraq, or even really when. It’s a matter of how.

That's my ten cents for the day.

Tomorrow: Why I "support" Israel, and why you should too.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Value of a Good Education


The word is bandied about these days in conjunction with phrases like “charter schools” and words like “vouchers.” It has become a little confusing, trying to figure out what all the gibberish means for schools. Thus, before I discuss education, it seems proper to engage in a quick summary of the terminology.

Vouchers are a system by which parents can choose where their school taxes go. In other words, in an unaltered voucher system, they may send their kids to private school and use their tax money as part of their tuition. At face value the system seems fair enough, after all, who doesn’t want control over where their money goes?

Upon closer examination, however, problems appear. First, the vouchers do not cover the whole amount of tuition to a private for-profit institution. In truth, the vouchers don’t really cover even half. This means that generally, low-income families cannot take advantage of this system because they can’t cover the rest of the tuition. Second, school taxes were never meant to be a one-family, one-tuition system. People without children pay school taxes as well, thus distributing the load around the entire community. The end result, then, is that people opting into the voucher system are effectively opting out of the shared responsibility of ensuring the education of their neighbors. Vouchers reduce funding to public schools, and for all that “throwing money at the problem” won’t fix our schools by itself, they certainly need at least enough money to maintain their buildings, pay their teachers, and buy textbooks, desks, and other equipment like overhead projectors and computers. Without that base amount of financial grounding, a school cannot rise to the occasion no matter how much it tries.

One other major problem is a social one. The history of vouchers is rather nasty - an invention of a south forced to integrate their schools. In other words, vouchers allowed white parents to take their kids and tax dollars into segregated private schools. While the intention of modern vouchers is no doubt better, the results sometimes look disturbingly similar. Black students find themselves left behind as the generally-better-off white students evacuate to better schools, taking their funds along with them, along with the investment of their parents in the public school system.

Proponents of vouchers tend to believe that they promote free-market competition among schools. I don’t see it, but this might be a failing in my education, rather than in theirs. I’ll ask an economist friend what he thinks of that, and get back to you on it.

Which brings us to Charter schools.

“Charter School” is a term bandied about often as though it has only one meaning, which it doesn’t. The only things one Charter school is guaranteed to have in common with another is the “charter” which prescribes what each school is required to produce in terms of results. They are also public institutions and thus they cannot charge tuition.

My favorite example of a charter school actually failed due to parental intervention, and I think the story is important enough to put down here at length.

There is a lot of research floating around regarding effective education, almost all of which has been ignored. Some of it is bunk, some of it isn’t, and both the bunk and the not-bunk hide under the same veneer of “science” that shields all social scientists. Some of it actually has been gathered more-or-less scientifically, much of it hasn’t, but a surprising amount of it, when actually applied, produces remarkable results.

One of these not-bunk experiments produced the surprising result that parental involvement in a school environment was counterproductive, and extremely so. The reasoning behind it is simple, thankfully. In order to function properly a school must have authority over its students, and that authority must be absolute while the students are in school. If the authority appears to be diminished, the student’s response to that authority becomes diminished. They do less homework, the attend less class. If you’re young enough you might remember the fallout from this from your own days in high-school. Teachers you respected, you skipped less, you did more homework for, and by and large you learned more from. This authority also allows the creation of an environment in which school work is prioritized over other concerns.

The problem with parental involvement in school education is that they assume their own ultimate authority over their children and the school must as well. This produces the result that the authority of the school is diminished to a level below that of the parents.


This particular charter school, like most charter schools (that I know of) was an elementary school. It put into play a great deal of the research that was being ignored, testing different principles and practices and measuring the results. The results were great. The kids were learning and their graduates went on to bigger and better things. But parents were cut out of the loop. You can understand how this might upset them, particularly with their kids being that age. There were no teachers’ conferences (again, that I know of) and Parents were not allowed to contact their kids at school unless it was an emergency. Within the school, the school was the ultimate authority.

What is less discussed, of course, is that within the school, the school was the ultimate refuge from the parents. The presumption that all parents are good parents is frankly just wrong, and charter schools of this kind put students with that kind of parent on more equal footing with students born of the other kind.

The details are unknown to me, but essentially the school buckled under parental complaints.

For me though, the more important lesson is that it was working.

See, we’re doing a really, really bad job of education at the moment. Our students receive and education which is at best second-rate and at worst incapable of retaining accreditation. What we need is a new system altogether, and the only way to get this system working is to experiment with different methods until we find one that works. We must also overcome a few well-known institutions that entrench the old system, most notably the teachers’ union. I don’t think it needs to go away, I just think it needs to be replaced with a system that has its priorities straight... or to put it more bluntly has priorities in line with the national long-term best-interest.

It is absolutely essential that we do so, for a number of reasons.

First, we’re not a manufacturing giant anymore. The economy of our future is unavoidably going to see much of that sort of work shipped overseas. It already has. Our brawn, then, has become devalued and the value of our brains is on the rise. If we fail to make those brains worth their price, the brain-jobs will be shipped overseas as well (some of them already have been), and then we will have nothing. Our economy will collapse under the sheer weight of a rising service industry dependent on our sons and daughters whoring themselves out to the inherited rich as paid (sort-of) slave-labor. I do not see this as a favorable future for any of us.

Furthermore, as we fall behind in education, we fall behind in solutions and answers. Does this seem general? It is. Sweeping, rather. In every field, we will fail to excel. Our sciences will struggle to keep up with our neighbors, including our space program and all of our medical research. Our businesses will cease to innovate, our inventors will run up against a wall. We’ll fail to keep up in alternative energy and military technology (these days it should be easy to see how the necessity of the latter relates to the former). We will not overcome the challenges posed by global climate change.

University standards for admission will by necessity drop lower and lower each year until the only requirement for going to college is having been born. High School will become middle school. Middle school will become elementary school. University education will cover the same basics High School now fails to, and ultimately a graduate education will be necessary in order to achieve the same level of erudition that was previously attainable from an undergraduate degree.

This is already happening.

Part of it is, of course, the baby boom ending. More university seats exist per student than ever before, and universities must have students paying tuition to make their bottom line. You would think, of course, that the increased demand for students would decrease tuition, but on the contrary, the only value the university sees in this new breed of students is their tuition money, without which they cannot offer competitive scholarships to the now-fewer students they really want. Regardless, the value of a degree at an American university is diminishing rapidly.

So how do we reverse this decline?

Charter schools are a good start, but they’re only part of the solution. Early-childhood education is essential, and it seems likely we’ll have a champion of it in the White House soon, so that’s another good start.

A redesign of the property-tax system would also help - at present, city schools receive less money per student than suburban schools by a wide margin.

Paying teachers more? That would increase demand for the job, and consequently increase the quality of the people in it. Certifications should be adjusted to be more demanding, and this can only happen if the pay on the far side of the flaming hoops is enough to compensate for the trouble. People are people.

Perhaps the most gripping challenge, however, will be the problem of parents. Good parents are grand, but bad ones must either be taught to become engaged with their children, or cut out of the loop. They are the single greatest influence on their kids, and should that influence be a bad one, there’s only so much the schools can do to raise students' sights.

Another problem is healthcare. Obesity, sickness, and general malnutrition are all counterproductive to education. Sickness results in missed classes (or death, in the case of missed vaccinations), malnutrition reduces attention and mental endurance, and obesity can result in social isolation of a sort difficult to overcome.

Education is, additionally, a feedback loop. The more people you educate, the more people you have that can educate. I think the largest problem we have is that education is presently producing a deficit. We need more brains than we’re making, so the ones that end up teaching in low-income districts (barring the ones who do it for the right reasons, thank god for them but they are few, I think) tend to be the bottom of the barrel. The job there is the most demanding and the pay should reflect that, but the schools lack the funds to comply. Even worse (for those of you dense enough to believe this does not involve you), if the feedback loop continues to fail to make the bar, soon teachers in high-income areas will be failures as well, and the wages necessary to attract good teachers to private schools will rise to the point where the tuition system will collapse under the weight.

In the end, the things we need to do are numerous. But High School is way, way too late. By then, the value of a student has been established, it just hasn’t been determined yet. If you have failed a student up until ninth grade, you will accomplish little with them after that point.

Whatever reform we start with, then, the proper time to start is birth.

That’s my ten cents for the day.

Tomorrow: The War

The Debate is Done. Good Day to You.

*addendum 12/31/08 - The plan outlined herein never exactly got finished... frankly, it began to feel pretentious and like it might be a waste of time. It also got boring to string everything out, and planning tomorrow's article today just isn't really how I work best. The short answer is "fix education and you fix everything," and that's why you can't find the 'final' post of this series.*


My name is not, of course, Maxwell Evans. It is a name constructed from my middle name and the street I grew up on, namely Evans Avenue, in Kirkwood, Missouri. I graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a major in History. I play and teach the Cello. I'm a photography buff.


The final debate between Barack Obama and John McCain ended several hours ago, and I would like to take this opportunity to make my first post memorable by outlining a theory of mine regarding the nature in which the issues that matter to us all are interrelated. The actual argument will unfold over several posts and terminate in a suggested priority-list for reform within American government and society.

But today, I will begin by merely outlining the theory itself.

My theory is that no single issue is breaking us down. Rather, what has torn us from our perch is that we treat issues such as healthcare reform, education, economy, the war, energy and environment as separate issues. This mind-set has permitted us to squander almost every resource we have through inefficiency, stupidity, greed, or (surprisingly rarely) malice.

As a solution I propose that we should extend the principles of “pay as you go” legislation to more than just the budget.

When we start a war, for example, we should plan in advance which domestic programs are going to have to go, and how much taxes will increase and on whom. There needs to be an acknowledgment, furthermore, that a war of aggression is a gamble. Wise gamblers go into the casino knowing exactly how much they are willing to lose. Before any war of aggression against an opponent (like Iraq) with no possible way of seriously impacting our national security, we should set a spending cap, beyond which we will admit defeat and come home. Victory conditions, furthermore, should be carefully and clearly written down, so we never again find ourselves in a mess where we can’t admit defeat, but victory is undefined.

Money given to an organization must come either from taxes or from another organization. The money cannot come from nowhere as it so often does, and it certainly shouldn’t come from a foreign country. Like a credit-card, huge balances make for huge interest payments, which increases the national debt, cuts down on our ability to fund domestic programs and forces us to increase taxes. Any dollar borrowed is two dollars spent, and when budgeting the interest from the loan should be included when considering the cost/benefit ratio.

If you don’t know exactly how much you’re going to end up paying in the end, you shouldn’t be borrowing at all.

I digress, though. Money isn’t the only impact one policy has on another, and these should be considered as well. Shafting education is a great short-term way to free up funds for something else, but the long-term cost to everything else is devastating. Healthcare reform should focus on prevention not just for cost reasons, but also because this will significantly improve the lives of average Americans, which will in turn improve their net productivity.

A spending freeze right now would be a terrible idea, because not funding certain things actually costs more than funding them. Take road repair, for instance. It is significantly cheaper to keep a bridge in good repair than it is to constantly rebuild it, not to mention the cost in lives when it collapses.

That’s my ten cents for the day.

Tomorrow: Education reform, and how it relates to the economy, the energy crisis, the environment, healthcare reform and more.