Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Money in America

I was saddened by two op-eds in the NYT on Friday.  David Brooks said that the only way to measure success in America is money.  Paul Krugman said that technology will mean that fewer and fewer people will have more and more of that money.

I don't disagree with Brooks that in today's America financial success is the main way to measure success, but I think there are still people, religious or not, who have other values, and who may value some form of personal goodness, loving your neighbor, or doing good for society in general as a higher value than financial success.  It's interesting that although Brooks column talks a lot about religion, it does not mention the "Protestant work ethic" which is probably the most well-known description of the moral system that he says is now dead.

By Brooks' measure, no doctor should aspire to be a family physician, keeping regular people well over time.  All doctors should aspire to be neurosurgeons, cardiac surgeons, or orthopedic surgeons, where the money is.  Everyone should be a specialist.  I suppose you could argue that the best doctors become specialists in high-paying fields, while the worse doctors have to settle for family practices.  But I think at least a few of those actually choose to be general practice doctors because they actually want to make people well and keep them that way, not just make money.

Similarly, no lawyer would ever become a judge.  Judges' salaries are nothing compared to corporate lawyers' or plaintiffs' lawyers.  But somebody has to make decisions that keep society functioning.  Many judges do it, because they feel that it is a higher calling than litigating or finding tax dodges for multi-billion dollar companies.  There are lots of claims that today judges are being bought or influenced by the enormous financial power of big corporations and super-rich individuals, but there are still some honest judges.

But Brooks is right that in today's society a good judge or family doctor no longer has the social status that he would have had a generation or two ago.  The military is another victim.  It's pinnacle was probably after World War II, because almost everybody served, the US won, and the US was relatively unscathed by the war, compared to Europe or Asia.  The nadir was probably post-Vietnam.  9-11 helped restore some luster to the military, but still no one from a "nice" family would serve.  We have developed something of a military caste, with an officer corps drawn from military families or families not connected to the American power structure, and enlisted men drawn from the under-classes of the country, again people who are somewhat alienated from "good" society before they enlist.  They get lots of thanks, but you don't get many people from good universities or wealthy families joining the military.  Because of the relatively small base from which to draw soldiers and the high volume and long duration of the wars they are called to fight, the military is constantly under stress.  In addition, it is now becoming a social experiment by integrating women and gays into the force.  Integration worked pretty well for blacks in the military, but that was a more democratic military with a broader cross-section of soldiers than today's.  We will see whether that makes the social experiment easier or harder.  But Brooks is right that the relatively low pay for the military reduces its stature in American society.  many people who sing the National Anthem or America the Beautiful at sporting events think they are doing just as much to show their love for America as soldiers facing bullets in Afghanistan or some other foreign war.

In the other column, Paul Krugman says that we are going through a change in the economy and the nature of work as great that of the industrial revolution.  It is changing the whole balance of power between labor and capital with capital far outstripping labor in importance.  Manual labor is no longer being outsourced to poorer countries, it is being eliminated by technology.  A CEO can almost run an industrial empire from a computer on his desk.  Thus he reaps almost all of the profit from his factories' production because there are no laborer with whom he has to share it.  For the last generation or so, the technological revolution created jobs in the tech industry, writing code for all the new computers, but Krugman adds that today even those jobs are disappearing.  Education is no longer a guarantee of a decent job.  Furthermore, he says we are duping our young people into going into huge debt to finance their education, which may turn out to be useless in the job market.

If they are both right, we doom the majority of Americans to a life of poverty and low self-esteem.  Neither of them addresses the issue of "celebrity," which is a relatively new American phenomenon.  It often includes people with no special or socially useful skills who make tons of money by playing themselves of some made-up version of themselves on television and the Internet.  If money is really the indicator of social value, we find these people with almost no real value given the highest social value under the new standards.

The histories of the Roman Empire and French Revolution show similar trends, as societies abandoned the values which made them great, in both cases yielding to corruption and income inequality that eventually destroyed them.  The demonstrations yesterday in Brazil, the day before in Turkey, and perhaps last year's Occupy Wall Street, and the Arab spring show that there may be a growing perception among the masses that the super-rich 1% is saying "Let them eat cake," while the masses want jobs and salaries that allow them to buy bread and veggies.

Friday, June 14, 2013

What Next for Syria?

It is odd that the administration has sort of anonymously announced that Syria has crossed the "red line" of using chemical weapons.  Nothing new has happened in the last few days, except that Susan Rice and Samantha Power have been named to new foreign policy positions.  Both of them are activists for using power to right humanitarian wrongs.  I think the new announcement is in some way linked to their joining the administration.

Apparently the finding is that the Assad regime used chemical weapons to kill 100-150 people.  No word on specifically when and where.  Why is it worse to kill 100 people with sarin, than to kill 93,000 (a recent estimate of deaths from the war) by conventional means?  Why would Syria purposefully cross Obama's red line by using sarin to kill 100 people, when the whole idea of WMD and the red line is mass casualties.  There is no "mass destruction" alleged.  It only makes sense if think Assad purposefully wanted to stick his finger in Obama's eye.  That's possible, but unlikely, unless it got Assad some reward from the Iranians or the Russians.

I would not discount the possibility that the rebels got some small quantity of sarin gas and used it to frame Assad.  Until we know more about when, where and how the sarin was used, I think that is a possibility.  I would not put is past the rebels to use sarin gas on a few of their own people if it meant that they would get Patriot missiles from the US.

So now we are going to arm the rebels.  The best justification I have heard was from David Ignatius on "Morning Joe," who said that we are not arming them for the fight against Assad, but for the war after Assad falls.  The rebels purportedly have some good guys interspersed with the al-Qaeda linked terrorists who are fighting Assad.  Presumably we would arm the non-terrorists to fight the terrorists after Assad falls.  However, most of the radical Sunni countries in the Middle East side with the terrorist-linked rebels, or at best don't care who they are as long as they fight the Shias and the Alawites.  The idea that that we can produce a good outcome from the Syrian civil war is preposterous.  You only have to look at the most successful of our recent interventions -- Libya -- to see that a good outcome is very unlikely.  The first thing that happened after we killed Qaddafi was that the Libyans killed our ambassador.  Libya is less of a mess that Iraq or Afghanistan, but it's still a mess.  Meanwhile, the Iraq war ended up strengthening our enemy in Iran, and the war in Afghanistan has failed to stop the Taliban, but has destabilized Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons, possibly facilitating the transfer of nuclear weapons to terrorists around the world.

On this issue, as on most foreign policy issues, the two best commentators are Fareed Zakaria and Zbigniew Brzezinski, possibly joined by David Ignatius.  Meanwhile, the Republican lynch mob in Congress, led by John McCain, and now aided by Rice and Power, cries for more blood.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

NSA Spying on Americans

So far the biggest problem with NSA's collection of meta-data from various American phone companies is that it is spying on Americans.  NSA, Obama, and Congress argue that collecting just the phone numbers, locations, times, etc., in not an infringement of Fourth Amendment protection against searches and seizures.  However, it is collecting information about Americans that can be used for intelligence purposes, and the fact that it is stored by NSA means that it is already treated as intelligence data.  This data can be mined for many types of information by NSA, some legitimate and permitted under the Fourth Amendment, and some not.  It's sort of like saying that the government has the right to set up microphones and cameras in your house to record your every move, but it doesn't have the right to look at it, unless it gets a court order.  Maybe NSA is being law abiding, and maybe they are not.  Maybe they are being law abiding now, but won't be in ten years, but they will still have the data to mine for inappropriate information.

If the US faced a clear and present danger to its survival, then this program might be justifiable, but I don't think that it does.  The terrorism threats we face are low-level and usually amateurish.  If you weigh the threat against the loss of civil liberties, I think that loss of civil liberties far outweighs the threat.  The threat does not justify spying on Americans, even if this spying is just recorded and not looked at.  This is exactly the kind of thing that Hitler would have used against the Jews.  In today's world, he probably could have found out where Ann Frank was hiding within hours by collecting and analyzing the meta-data of the electronic footprint of the family hiding her.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Massive Intelligence Collection Threatens Liberty

The collection of metadata about the telephone calling habits of ordinary Americans is ust the sort of thing that an authoritarian government would need to keep its population under control.  By using location and numbers called, you can tell who is white, black, Hispanic, who is Muslim catholic, or Jewish, who is rich or poor, who is politically active as a liberal or conservative.  The information is all there in the big data that NSA is collecting, but NSA promises they won't mine the data for that information.  Maybe it won't today, but what about tomorrow.

Today the system targets Muslims who don't like America.  Tomorrow it could be Jews who belong to the ACLU, or Christians who belong to the NRA, depending on ho is in charge.  The information is all there in NSA's computers; it just depends on who is processing it, and what they do with the results.