19 December 2007

Iraq War: Round #5

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 14, 2007

The Theist's powerful and interesting arguments for continuing to pour money and lives into the Iraq are worth close consideration. He provides three arguments for continuing the war. First, we want to demoralize the Middle Eastern terrorists. Second, we destroyed Iraq's country (their internal security forces and infrastructure) and thus owe it to the Iraqi citizens to leave the country on firm footing. Third, it is in our economic interests because further terrorist attacks will cripple our economy. Seeing why these arguments fail highlights what's wrong with the view that we should fight on no matter what the costs.

Consider The Theist's first argument: the war demoralizes Islamic terrorist organizations. The Theist concedes that the purpose of the war is not to defeat Al Qaeda. He likely does so because continuing the war will at most set them back. It probably won't eliminate them in Iraq and has little to do with their presence elsewhere. Even General David Petraeus, the commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq and leading proponent of continued U.S. effort there, admitted in his report to Congress that rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces would not result in Al Qaeda-Iraq regaining lost ground. It's also worth noting that as of this past August, violence in Iraq was at an all-time high (measured in terms of average daily attacks against coalition, Iraqi security forces, and civilians). Any gains are very recent and probably don't reflect the terrorist organizations' death throes.

Consider how unsuccessful the demoralization strategy has been against other terrorist groups. Most of Israel's recent gains against Palestinian terrorist groups didn't come about by demoralizing them. They came about when Israel withdrew from the occupied territories and built a wall to isolate itself from them. Great Britain didn't defeat the Irish Republican Army by breaking their morale. Ditto for the Soviet Union against the mujahadin and the United States against the Viet Cong. If a strategy has repeatedly proven itself to be a loser, we shouldn't adopt it.

I issue two challenges to the pro-war side.

1) Provide a list of more than a few or handful of ethnic or religious terrorist attacks when the target wasn't occupying or helping to occupy the terrorist's homeland.

2) Provide historical examples when ethnic or religious terrorist groups have been defeated by demoralizing them, as opposed to killing them or negotiating an agreement.

Answer or admit defeat.

The Theist's second reason is that because we destroyed their country, we should rebuild it for them. This is a version of the Pottery Barn slogan, "You break it, you buy it." This rests on a mistake about the duty to compensate those we've injured. If you defend innocent victims against an unjust attacker, you need not compensate those indirectly harmed by the defensive action. For example, if a rapist attacks a woman in a parking lot and you club him into submission, you don't owe compensation to his children for the income and support they lost as their dad lay in the hospital. Similarly, if Saddam Hussein was indeed an unjust and cruel tyrant, and this is uncontroversial, and the U.S. removed him using proportionate defensive force, then it doesn't owe compensation to those who were indirectly harmed by the defensive violence.

The Theist might respond that it is still be a nice gesture to hand over another trillion dollars (another $14,000 per working couple) and spend a thousand more lives to help out the Iraqis. The notion that taxpayers' wallets should be drained and the U.S. military turned into an international charity is an expansive view of our government that is distasteful for anyone who thinks that the military should only be used to defend Americans against attack and who doesn't think that Washington should show compassion by shoveling dollars to foreigners.

The Theist's third argument is that ongoing war is economically prudent because it will prevent a future attack that would cripple our economy. This is a mistake for a couple of reasons. Nothing wrecks an economy like high taxes and this war is a massive source of increased spending that helps to maintain anti-competitive tax rates. The U.S. already has some of the highest corporate income-tax rates in the world. Only Germany and Japan have higher corporate-tax rates and only Japan has a higher inheritance-tax rate. If we continue to have an atmosphere that is hostile to business, our economy will suffer. Politically, the war has helped put taxpayer-haters like Charles Rangel (D-NY) into the driver's seat. They then spend their days figuring how to jack up capital-gains and dividend-tax rates. Also, if our continuing presence in Iraq makes terrorists attacks more likely (see above challenges), then The Theist's argument doesn't even get off the ground. Also, if it leads to a war in Iran, even he would have to admit that this war has generated an unbelievably expensive mess.

One related argument is that if we leave Iraq, the terrorists will turn their attention to Israel and we will be drawn into defending them, which will be far more expensive. Israel has no problem defending itself. They have the best military in the Middle East and a well-known and potent nuclear arsenal. Terrorist groups and especially their state sponsors know full well that starting a fight with Israel leads to certain death and destruction. Even if that weren't the case, we give Israel more than $2.5 billion in welfare a year. Even if this were justified, and I don't see why it is, this is more than generous enough.

The Theist's arguments are unconvincing. They rest on misconceptions about stopping terrorist attacks, our responsibility for economic harm that resulted from our removal of Saddam Hussein, and the war's continuing costs. Dumping another trillion dollars and a thousand more lives into Iraq is just not prudent.

06 December 2007

Gays and Sloppy Thinkers

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 14, 2007

In the last couple years, there have been a slew of laws banning gay marriage or hindering interstate recognition of it. Same-sex marriage is recognized only in Massachusetts. Because of the Defense of Marriage Act (passed in 1996) no state need recognize another state’s marriage of a same-sex couple and the federal government is banned from recognizing it. The motivation for these laws is that gay sexuality is wrong or bad. There are three main arguments for this claim: it is unnatural, harmful, or God prohibits it. These arguments fail and this failure speaks volumes about the irrationality of far too many Americans.

An act is wrong only when it wrongs someone or causes great harm. One person wrongs a second only if he violates the second person’s right or exploits her. If a lesbian couple has gay sex, no one’s right is violated because both participants voluntarily consent. Nor does it involve exploitation. Exploitation occurs when one person uses his superior position to get another person to agree to a terrible deal. For example, if during a winter storm tow truck operators charged $1,000 per tow to desperate and freezing motorists, the operators would exploit the motorists. Nothing like that is true of gay sex. And ordinarily such sex doesn’t cause great harm. I haven’t asked them, but I’m guessing that the gay students and faculty would probably claim that it’s more fun than reading my columns.

One argument against gay sexuality is that it is wrong because it’s unnatural. This is usually followed up with the claim that sex is natural only if it’s for the purpose of reproduction in the context of heterosexual marriage. Now this obviously takes the fun away from infertile couples or couples in which the wife is already pregnant. This is ridiculous.

Furthermore, when we ask what makes an act natural, we shouldn’t be surprised if the critics of gay sex sweat as much as the ladies in Richard Simmons’s videos. By “natural,” they can’t mean what’s morally right since this is what’s at issue. Nor do they mean that natural acts are statistically common ones because some rare acts (for example, acts of battlefield courage) are clearly permissible. By “natural,” the critics probably don’t mean that it was widespread during most of the time in which human beings evolved. This is because there is a good chance that human evolution took place in the context of polygamy and I doubt the critics believe that monogamy is unnatural. Opponents of gay sex might think that natural acts are ones that are in line with human beings’ purpose, although they then have the daunting task of identifying what that purpose is. If you think that human beings came about via evolution, and you should, they don’t have a purpose.

It’s not even clear why unnatural activities are wrong. It’s not clear to me that doing chemistry experiments, running ultra-marathons (some are 50 or 100 miles long), or performing ballet is natural. We certainly didn’t evolve to do them, nor are they closely tied to our special purpose.

A second argument against it is that it’s wrong because it’s bad for the participants. A critic of gay sex might claim that it leads to sexually transmitted diseases or makes participants less eligible for marriage and parenthood. Now it’s not obvious that acts that hinder the agent’s interest are wrong. Tailgating and watching the Bills might also make a person less eligible for marriage in so far as it makes him fat and bitter, but that doesn’t make it wrong. In any case, the critic must provide data in support of the claim that gay sex makes gays’ lives go worse than they otherwise would have gone. I haven’t seen any such data. Perhaps I missed it.

Religious folk often claim that homosexuality is wrong because God prohibits it. In some cases, this is linked to the Divine Command Theory. This theory says that some acts are morally obligatory because God commands that we do them; others are wrong because he forbids them. This is silly. If it were true, then God would have no reason for forbidding certain acts (for example, rape and battery) rather than requiring them. If God has an independent reason for forbidding such acts, then it must be because they are wrong independent of what he commands. Hence, Divine Command Theory isn’t much help here.

Alternatively, the critics might claim that God has clearly told us that it’s wrong and so we need not reason for ourselves on this question. Here are some quotes that support this claim.
· “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” Leviticus 18:22.
· “And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.” Romans 1:27.

However, using the Bible as the sole guide to morality leads to absurdity. Consider the following helpful pieces of advice.
· Pig Eating: “[Swine] shall be even an abomination of you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcasses in abomination.” Leviticus 11:7-8
· Money Lending: Anyone who engages in money-lending “he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon him.” Ezekiel 18:13.
· Slave Owning: “[Y]ou may acquire male and female slaves … You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property.” Leviticus 25:44-46.

These examples show that we should not use the Bible as a substitute for independent thought.

I've never understood why various groups are opposed to the activities of our gay brethren. Regardless of the explanation, it’s time for them to drop their anti-gay claims and laws and think like adults.

28 November 2007

For Voting

The Theist
Durkirk-Fredonia Observer

The Objectivist argues that voting is, for most people, and at least in national elections, a waste of time. He should be commended for his bravery – after all, he’s risking a serious caning from the civic-minded senior citizens who staff our local voting stations! If he changes his mind and goes out to vote next November, he’d better show up dressed like a baseball catcher.

His main line of argument is as follows. In most elections, unless I have a large throng of followers who will vote as I do, the probability of my vote being the deciding vote is mind-bogglingly small. Hence, unless voting gives me some pleasure or fulfills some deep desire of mine (which it usually doesn’t), going to the polls is a waste of time.

It seems to me there’s a fallacy here, one which could make kindergardeners cry. Suppose that one day, The Objectivist hears a knock on his office door. Answering, he finds a group of bright-faced kindergarden students, accompanied by their teacher. One holds out a coffee can with a slit cut in the top, marked “NIAGARA FALLS.”

“Please, mister,” says the little girl with the can, “we need to raise $50 to go to see the Falls tomorrow. Can you help us? We only have $40 so far.”

The Objectivist, fingering the dollar in his pants pocket, replies, “Sorry, little missy, but I only contribute when I’m the ‘deciding contributor’ - when the thing I’m contributing most likely won’t happen unless I pitch in. But I can see that you’re near your goal, and there are many willing contributors on this campus, especially with your goal being so near. You’ll get your $50 even if I don’t give you this buck. Further, I don’t particularly enjoy encouraging juvenile panhandling, so be gone!” He closes his office door, and feeling a surge of pride in his own rationality, he returns to his work, ignoring the sobbing sounds emanating from the hallway.

Let’s suppose that The Objectivist does little harm in all this – the students get their last $10 at the next door – and that he has no moral obligation to fork over the buck in his pocket. Still, it seems to me that there was a failure of rationality on his part. From the fact that he was unlikely to be the deciding contributor, he inferred that he stood to gain or lose nothing in the matter. But to the contrary, he had an opportunity to be one of the people who sent the kindergardeners on a field trip. This opportunity, in my example, he turns down. The trip may have been inevitable, but what was up to him was whether or not it would happen partly due to him.

It must be admitted that in many elections, your vote is incredibly unlikely to be the scale-tipping one. That doesn’t seem too relevant, though, to the value of voting. Every presidential election cycle, pundits gas about the current election being the most important one in memory. But suppose that our country took a sharp xenophobic turn, and that an openly racist and fascist political party became the heavy favorite to win the presidency and congress. (Hey Democrats – pipe down out there – I’m talking about a merely hypothetical case here.) What would you, the non-racist, non-fascist voter do on election day? You have only three options. Let’s suppose that the evil Nationalist party is destined to win no matter how you vote, as they’re riding a tidal-wave of support.

Option 1: You show up, and vote Nationalist. If you do this, you take measure of responsibility for the resulting administration. It is with your will and support that they take power. Jerk.

Option 2: You show up, and vote against the Nationalists. And they proceed to win anyway. In voting against them, you accomplish at least three things. First, you publicly make a (tiny) statement against them – your vote is one among millions of others which constitute a repudiation of Nationalist policies. Maybe this will in some small way contribute to an effective anti-Nationalist movement, or maybe it won’t. Second, you make yourself the kind of person who stands up against significant evil when given the opportunity. While in this election, your efforts fail, this character trait of yours that you’re forming or reinforcing may greatly matter later, in other situations. Finally, you’re absolving yourself of (part of the) responsibility for the ensuing administration – they do what they do not because of your vote, but despite it. God approves of this action, and even if you’re an atheist, at least you, your friends and relations will be proud of your anti-evil stance and action later on.

Option 3: You stay at home, declining to vote because yours won’t be the ‘deciding’, balance-tipping one. Here, you decline to have any influence – you stand aside, squandering the opportunities spelled out in Option 2 above. You don’t help to put them in power, but you do nothing to oppose their rise. God says, “Sheesh... I should’ve made this guy be born in Stalin’s regime. Democracy is wasted on him.” And it is.

The consequences of your taking Option 2 may vary greatly. You may be a part of a mass movement which quickly votes down or even overthrows the Nationalists, or you may simply be killed by the new regime. But lay the consequences aside - I think it’s a mistake to evaluate actions solely in terms of their consequences. It just seems fitting that I should “speak out” for justice and against injustice, as I see them, in the act of voting. If my actions would matter in the imagined Nationalist scenario, they seem to also matter in real life, even though, it seems, less is at stake. What is at stake is a lot – the policies of the two major parties differ quite a bit.

The Objectivist mentions an interesting, and I imagine fairly common case, where a couple, say Republican Ron and Democrat Dana decide not to vote, as their votes will “cancel each other out”. In truth, neither vote is canceled out – both contribute equally to the final tally, and both Ron and Dana act admirably when they vote thoughtfully and according to their consciences. The Objectivist asserts that “most of us don’t enjoy voting.” To the contrary, both Ron and Dana enjoy exercising the valuable right to vote in a fair election, in which each vote counts. I hope to see them both at the polls. And also, The Objectivist in a catcher’s get-up.

24 November 2007

Against Voting

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 21, 2007

It makes no sense for an individual to vote in national elections. In fact, voting in national elections often makes the world worse. Voting is not valuable in itself. Rather, it is valuable only if it makes the world a better place. This observation is common to every couple with different preferences who agree to skip voting because they will just cancel each other out.

In national elections the chance of one person’s vote affecting the outcome or sending a message that a leader notices is infinitesimally small. Steven Landsburg of Slate points out that in the last election 6.5 million votes were cast for major party candidates in New York and 63% went to Al Gore. Assuming an electorate of similar size with a similar bias, he notes that the chance of casting the deciding vote in New York is about one in 10 to the 200,708th power. He notes that an individual would be more likely to win the Powerball jackpot 7,400 times in a row than determine who wins the election.

The problem arises in that most of us don’t enjoy voting. In Fredonia, it is quick and convenient but in plenty of places, for example Detroit, it is a real pain. If a person votes he makes his life go worse and doesn’t make anyone else’s go better. If an action makes at least one person’s life go worse and no one else’s life go better then it makes the world worse. It is hard to see why someone would have a duty to make things worse.

This does not hold for those who enjoy voting. However, it’s hard to see what they could enjoy about it that doesn’t rest on the mistaken assumption that they can affect the outcome. The case is something like a person watching a field goal attempt on television who tries to affect the outcome by leaning his body in one direction or waving his hands. Also, this argument doesn’t hold for local elections or voters who have many followers. Here it is more likely that a person’s vote will affect the outcome.

A frequent comment is that voting for a third party, for example the Libertarian Party or Green Party, rather than a major party is wasting your vote. This comment is mystifying. A vote in a national election is a waste regardless of the party for whom it is cast.

There are several arguments given in support of voting in national elections. One common argument is that a person can complain only if he voted. This makes no sense. If an individual voter can’t affect the outcome, it is hard to see why his voting should be necessary in order for him to complain. In addition, it is hard to see why a person needs control over something in order to have permission to complain. I wrong no one if I complain about the Bills’s passing game even though I have no say in the matter.

A second argument is that this is selfish because soldiers died for our right to vote. This is a mistake. Because an individual’s vote makes no difference, dying for it makes even less sense. It’s just a tragic waste of life.

A third argument is that because we enjoy the benefits of democracy, it is only fair that we shoulder the burdens of it. The background idea is that voting in one of those burdens; serving in the military might be another. However, it is hard to see how an individual’s casting a vote supports democracy. In addition, it is not clear why the enjoyment of the benefits of some institution entails a duty to support it. For example, imagine someone who benefited from going to Cornell University, it doesn’t follow that he has a duty to support it.

A fourth argument comes from Immanuel Kant, an 18th Century German philosopher. He argues that we should only act according to a principle on which everyone could act. For example, as a way of getting money, Alice shouldn’t make a false promise to pay it back, because if everyone did this then no one would accept such promises. If this happened, Alice would then be unable to get money via this route. It might be argued that this concern for universal application applies to the following principle: if I am in a democracy, then I will not vote. If everyone did this, then there would be no democracy. However, Kant’s idea (an act is right only if it is universally applicable) is dubious. There are many things an individual may do that we would not want everyone doing (for example, marrying Pam Anderson). In addition, if we narrow the principle, then it is possible that everyone could do it. This is true if we adopt the following principle: if I live in a democracy and my voting affects no one else but me, then I should not vote.

The irrationality of voting is in stark contrast to the free market. Here when an individual purchases something he can register his vote and affect the distribution of goods, because firms can offer different goods for different consumers. Also, in purchasing large amounts of goods, he can register the intensity of his preferences. Voting does not allow for this.

Voting in national elections is not merely a waste of time, it often makes the world a worse place. That’s why when I see the “I voted” red sticker, I chuckle about whether it would look good on a dunce cap.

14 November 2007

Iraq War: Round #4

The Theist
How to Choose Peace in Iraq
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

A war is an event in which two or more political entities duke it out, employing their military might, their economies, and most fundamentally, their unyielding wills against one another, until one of them gives. In the normal sense of the word, we are not at war in Iraq. Rather, we have won the war in Iraq. We quickly destroyed Saddam Hussein's tyrannical government and rendered its military forces non-existent. If you think there's a war in Iraq, just ask yourself what the chance is of us being beaten there, of our military actually suffering defeat on the battlefield. The answer, so long as our enemy is a rag-tag bunch of foreign-funded bomb-and-run-like-heck jihadis, is zero.

Of course, there is considerable violent resistance in Iraq, and it sure feels like a war to the brave men who must run the gauntlet of roadside bombs and patrol the dangerous neighborhoods of Baghdad. Getting killed or maimed is very bad, whether one is in a true "war" or not. But this violence is a last-ditch attempt by the losers of the real war to break our will to stay and, as they say in the military, mop them up. Amazingly, due to relentless media propaganda, they have a chance of succeeding at this. Images have an amazing power to produce emotion and to obscure the all-important context of these countless small-scale tragedies. Consequently, the will of the American people as whole has been broken, or nearly so, although the will of our administration and the military remains firm.

This get-out-of-Iraq-mania sweeping our culture is terribly short-sighted. The real question isn't "Should we end this war?" but rather, "Should we stop our military occupation of this conquered country before it has been stabilized?" The clear answer is no. We have a moral duty to the civilians of Iraq, to not abandon them in a hopeless chaos after literally wrecking their country. They are still learning how to self-police and how to avoid civil war.

Further, as many commentators have noted, President Bush's troop surge is working, and violence is sharply down in Iraq. People are starting to pay attention to these facts, although not all people. Many of us, as Joe Lieberman recently said about the Democratic congressional leadership, remain "emotionally invested in a narrative of defeat and retreat in Iraq, [and are] reluctant to acknowledge the progress we are now achieving." People, handing Bush a defeat isn't worth a disastrous premature withdrawal from Iraq. Just grit your teeth for another year, until Bush's successor takes office. If it makes you feel better, repeat the words "President Obama" until your blood pressure returns to normal.

Our goal is not to defeat Al Qaeda, but rather to demoralize the global America-hating and West-hating jihadi movement as a whole, by means of an unequivocal and complete defeat, mop-up included. The Objectivist continues to inhabit a fantasy-land, also inhabited by Democratic presidential candidates, in which the bad guys are attacking us simply because we trespassed on their soil, and if we just go away, they'll leave us alone. For us to hightail it out of Iraq is for jihadis everywhere to win. That is how they see it, and it doesn't matter if we don't see it that way, patting ourselves on the back as we run, while singing a round of "All we are saying, is give peace a chance." The consequences will be the same no matter how we choose to think about it.

If you think a hasty withdrawal would take the wind out of their sails, then you have a poor understanding of how they think. A likely outcome is that they'd turn their attention from Iraq towards us, and put more energy into a WMD attack on American soil, which if it occurred would have catastrophic consequences for our economy and culture. But suppose, as The Objectivist fantasizes, they would lose interest in us. The jihadi crowd, along with their enablers in Iran and Syria, would nonetheless turn their attention to the Israel-Palestine issue, their prime example of how the West is allegedly viciously persecuting Muslims. That fire has died down to some warm coals, due to the resolve of our ally Israel. It may not remain so, should gasoline be poured on it.

The Objectivist argues that winning isn't worth it in terms of federal spending. I'm sure you all have noticed how this war has impoverished you.... oh, wait -- it hasn't. True, this is increasing our national debt at an alarming rate, and this will have to be paid in one way or the other. But try paying it with a crippled economy resulting from a terrorist attack, or from a multi-sided mideast war in which we're drawn into heavily supporting or fighting alongside Israel.

In sum, it isn't solely up to us what our available options are -- our enemies have a lot to say about it. We would all, if we could, simply choose peace. But as it stands, we must choose (our best chance at) peace, by first choosing to make our win in Iraq permanent.

07 November 2007

Iraq War: Round #3

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 4, 2007

The Theist presents a clear case for continuing the Iraq War. He notes that even if our initial reasons for going to war were mistaken, we should still continue the war because doing so is now in our interests. He argues that the incredible costs should not dissuade us from continuing the war because we need to destroy Al Qaeda. If we don’t, he claims, we make it more likely that we’ll be hit with future terrorist attacks, particular catastrophic nuclear ones. The Theist probably would broaden this claim to include attacks involving other weapons of mass destruction, but for simplicity we’ll focus on a nuclear attack.

Continuing the Iraq War actually makes such an attack more likely. Occupying an ethnic-terrorist organization’s homeland (view homeland broadly here) makes it more likely that the organization will attack you. By “ethnic-terrorist organization,” I mean a terrorist organization that is tied to an ethnic or religious group rather than pure ideology. A Marxist terrorist group is an example of an ideological one. Don’t believe me? Try to come up with more than a handful ethnic-terrorist attacks when the target wasn’t occupying or helping to occupy the terrorist’s homeland. If you can’t, you haven’t thought this through.

This pattern has certainly characterized recent Middle Eastern terrorism against the U.S. Al Qaeda’s various attacks included its attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia in 1995, the U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, the USS Cole in 2000, and the 9-11 attacks. All occurred when we had a major military presence in Saudi Arabia and vast influence in Iraq. An earlier attack, a suicide bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 resulted in the deaths of 241 American servicemen. Again, there was a significant U.S. military presence in Lebanon. Thankfully, in roughly four months, President Reagan withdrew the Marines from Lebanon.

In addition, the war makes Al Qaeda’s continuing existence more likely. The war continues to poison our relations with Iran and Syria and strains it with Pakistan. All this makes it more likely that other countries will tolerate Al Qaeda as a means of putting pressure on us to get out of the Middle East and playing to crowds who are increasingly hostile to the U.S. As a side note, we need not even stop giving Israel $2.5 billion plus a year in welfare because by itself this is unlikely to trigger a catastrophic terrorist attack. Whether there are other reasons to do so is a discussion for another time.

Even if continuing the war lessened the risk of attack, although only to a small degree, the expected benefits are swamped by the costs. A recent Congressional Budget Office estimate puts the costs of the Iraq war at roughly $1.92 trillion dollars. Remember that in this country the poor and lower middle class suckle on others’ taxes. In 2005, the bottom 50% of taxpayers paid roughly 3% of the income taxes. That is not a typo. In 2004 the bottom fifth of households got roughly $31,000 in benefits above what they paid in taxes and the next fifth got roughly $18,000. As a result, if the war is paid for by 50% of the citizens, then it costs each of these taxpayers $13,000. It costs dual-income couples $26,000. Would you vote for a plan in which Bush and company lessened the chance of a catastrophic attack, although only to a small degree, if you had to write a check for $26,000 to pay for it? Even if the check is less because some of the bill has already been paid, the cost is still outrageous.

In addition, The Theist ignores other dangers that the continuing war poses. Money spent on the war might be better spent securing our borders against illegal aliens and tracking down the roughly 20 million already here. Given that four of the 9-11 terrorists were illegal aliens, one might think this is a good step.

In addition, our continuing presence makes it likely that we’ll get caught between the Shiites and Sunnis and perhaps also between the Turks and Kurds. If we use a heavy hand to stop these conflicts, we’ll create fertile grounds for terrorist groups to recruit. In addition, the combination of Iranian support for terrorists in Iraq and their attempt to develop a nuclear weapon results in our creeping ever closer to a bloody and expensive war against them. Our withdrawal reduces these various risks.

The decision to pour money and lives into Iraq makes us less safe. Even if the war made us slightly safer, the expected benefit is swamped by the massive costs. The war also runs the risk of getting us caught between sides in a civil war and a war between neighbors. It also makes a bloody and expensive war with Iran more likely.

01 November 2007

Iraq War: Round #2

The Theist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 23, 2007

Shouldn’t we leave Iraq as soon as possible? The Objectivist presents a litany of familiar reasons – in short, it costs too much, and we allegedly get too little for this cost. Here I’ll only address a couple of his central points. He forgets the terrible price we paid on and after 9/11. Lay aside the fact that we lost more people than at the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. 9/11 was an effective piece of terrorism, as a tidal wave of terror swept over us. Remember? That terror alone took a large chunk out of our economy over the next several years. It has since rebounded, and no further attacks have occurred. (Think President Bush’s policies had anything to do with that? If not, partisan hatred may be blinding you to the obvious.)

The Objectivist is thinking too small; he imagines that further attacks on our soil would be lesser than, or about the same size as that on 9/11. Al Qaeda has bigger plans. If Al Qaeda had access to a nuclear device which they could get into our country, they would gladly use it. They are drunk with the delusion that the U.S. is on some kind of global crusade against the religion of Islam, and if they got a nuclear device, they’d feel sure that God Almighty had delivered us into their hands for a severe beating. And it would be severe. Again, lay aside the immediate losses, the thousands or tens of thousands of deaths. Can you imagine the wave of terror that would sweep over us, if, say, Baltimore were nuked, even with a very small device? It would probably cripple our economy for years, as well as ramp up our military and intelligence spending. And Patriot Act III would be a real doozie. When we spend an unimaginable sum of money on the Iraq war now, we have to compare it to the costs of losing the fight there.

What? You don’t think a withdrawal would be a loss? That’s not how our enemies view it. As we wear them down, they’re just hanging on and fighting what amounts to a propaganda battle, through miscellaneous roadside bombs, civilian massacres (e.g. bombing police recruits or crowded markets) and, most importantly, the media, from Al Jazeera to National Public Radio news. A war is essentially a battle of wills. Who will lose the will to fight first? Either we break theirs, or they break ours. Many of us have lost the will already. This killing and being killed seems worse than pointless. Doesn’t violence only beget violence?

To the contrary, everyone knows that slogan is false. Ever heard of Germany and Japan? Decisive, victorious violence which removes the other side’s will to fight, is a major cause of lasting peace, not of unending war. Of course, before the will to fight is broken, violence stirs up the hornet’s nest. Now let’s grant for the sake of argument that we never should have gone to war in Iraq. Doesn’t that mean we should end this wrong-headed war immediately? No.

Someone comes up to little Billy on the playground, and tells him that bully Bob has just punched Billy’s little sister Becky. Billy proceeds to punch Bob in the nose. Soon thereafter, Billy finds out that it wasn’t Bob at all, but rather Ben who punched little Becky. Now, what should Billy do next? I submit, it depends on how rational Bob (the kid with the bloody nose) currently is. If he’s in a rage, and out for blood, Billy had better fight him, unless he wants to lose his teeth. Of course, we’d all like to see Billy apologize to Bob, explain his mistake, and shake hands with him. But Billy has to deal with reality. He can have all the good intentions in the world, but if Bob is hell bent on hurting him, he had better fight. It would be delusional, when Bob’s in fighting mode, for Billy to declare his love of peace, and try to present him with a flower. It may be that if Billy had never punched bully Bob, Bob would have left Billy and Becky alone. But that’s simply irrelevant after the punch has been thrown.

The Objectivist is not a Democrat, but like most in the current Democratic Party, he’s under the delusion that quitting the fight would likely result in Al Qaeda and a host of would be jihadis losing interest in fighting us. This is delusional; it supposes that these Islamo-Fascists are like Americans, just waiting for the war to go away so they can get back to t.v. watching unimpeded by unpleasant war images. To the contrary, an American retreat would only embolden them in their dream of bringing down America. They’re in the grip of a warped view of the world, and nothing will shake them out of it short of being beaten. Unlike a punched bully, they’re not simply mad. Waiting for their anger to cool won’t accomplish much. They’re nursing a bunch of long-term grudges, resulting in a white-hot self-righteous zeal to fight us all by all available means. Only the heartbreak of unequivocal defeat will convince them that God doesn’t endorse their murderous zeal.

We’ve seen this kind of isolationist ignorance before. Hitler wrote three books in the 1920s detailing his loony view of the world, complete with “the Jewish peril” and his plans to lead Germany to world domination. Few paid attention, until Hitler’s bloody plans actually came to fruition. Back in 1998, when he was much less famous, Osama bin Laden was interviewed by Time magazine. When asked if he was seeking chemical and nuclear weapons, he replied “Acquiring weapons for the defense of Muslims is a religious duty. If I have indeed acquired these weapons, then I thank God for enabling me to do so. And if I seek to acquire these weapons, I am carrying out a duty. It would be a sin for Muslims not to try to possess the weapons that would prevent the infidels from inflicting harm on Muslims.” Don’t be fooled by his poisonous rhetoric – peaceful Muslims worldwide will celebrate with us whenever the Islamo-fascist movement breathes its last. As things stand, though, it’s neither dead nor mortally wounded. It’s hurt, but has plenty of fight left in its eager teeth and bloody claws. Will we make the mistake of turning away from it?

24 October 2007

Iraq War: Round #1

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 21, 2007

The Bush administration’s path to the Iraq War was twisted. It gave three main reasons for going to war: Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, there was a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and war would help establish a beachhead for democracy in the Middle East. On the first justification, Stephen Hadley, Bush’s National Security Advisor, eventually had to admit that "Turns out, we were wrong." On the second reason Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld eventually conceded about there was no strong evidence of the connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. The third goal has been largely forgotten.

The Bush administration’s conduct of the war has been amateurish. The administration vastly underestimated the cost of the war. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz claimed that Iraq would "finance its own reconstruction." In addition, the administration went in with inadequate troop levels, sub par protection for troops, and inadequate post-invasion plans.

However, in deciding what to do now, past incompetence is irrelevant. So is the fact that the U.S. has already dumped vast amounts of blood and treasure into the war. This is because sunk costs (costs that have already been paid for and that cannot be recovered) are irrelevant in deciding what will bring about the best results.

We should probably get out of Iraq as soon as possible. The costs of the war are mounting at an incredible pace. On one estimate, as of September 2007 the U.S. had already directly spent at least $454 billion on the war. According to the Guardian, the U.S. is spending about $10 billion a week on it and this number is going up. According to Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, and Linda Bilmes of Harvard University, if the troops are withdrawn by 2010 the total war costs will likely be at least $1 trillion and stand a good chance of being more than $2 trillion. The two researchers claim that a quarter of the $2 trillion could have put social security on firm ground for the next seventy-five years.

The human costs, which are part of the above costs, are also significant. There have been 3,834 U.S. military deaths in Iraq, 28,276 physically wounded, and almost 50,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition, according to one controversial study by Johns Hopkins University researchers, by June 2006 over 600,000 Iraqis have been violently killed because of the war. While it is not clear whether this should be considered part of the U.S.’s cost-benefit analysis, the large amount of killing is troubling nonetheless.

The benefits of the war are less clear and stand a good chance of evaporating. Christopher Hitchens points out that the U.S. has had some success in defeating Al Qaeda. This was done in part in part by going on the offensive against them and in part politically isolating them from the Sunni tribes that might have otherwise supported them. However, the problem here is that the gains are temporary and can be reversed. Even General David Petraeus, the commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq and proponent of continued U.S. effort there, in his report to Congress indicated that rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces would result in Al Qaeda-Iraq regaining lost ground.

Nor is it clear that Al Qaeda would continue to target the U.S. if we withdrew from the Middle East. Al Qaeda previously attacked the World Trade Center in 1993, a U.S. embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 1995, the U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, and a warship (the USS Cole) in 2000, but there is good reason to think that these attacks were in part motivated by the U.S. military presence in the Middle East following the previous war against Iraq.

On the other hand, the civil war between the Sunnis and Shiites will likely lead to the country dividing, with different regions falling under the influence of Saudi Arabia and Iran and the Kurds getting autonomy. It is not clear if this is bad because the former countries might not tolerate the presence of Al Qaeda and because this fits in with basic principles of self-determination. The United States Government Accountability Office also takes a dim view of the Iraqi government we are propping up. In its September 1, 2007 report on the government, the GAO reports that it failed eleven out of eighteen benchmarks of progress. Among the alarming failings was its inability to reduce the level of sectarian violence and eliminate militia control of local security forces. The GAO report also indicates that the violence level continues to skyrocket with 2007 being the most violent year yet (measured in terms of total average daily attacks).

There is a real question to whether preventing the looming civil war is a wise use of our resources. There is a real debate as to whether continuing the Iraq war weakens terrorism. War critics claim that it galvanized Al Qaeda, inspired insurgent violence, and provided terrorists with an opportunity for recruitment and training. For example, a 2006 National Intelligence Estimate (summarizing the findings of a number of intelligence agencies) stated that "The Iraq conflict has become the 'cause celebre' for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement." In addition, it is not clear that we have made long-term gains. General Petraeus admitted as much when he noted rapid withdrawal of American forces now would result in the disintegration of the Iraqi Security Forces and an increase in sectarian violence.

In addition, our presence in Iraq moves us closer to war with Iran. General Petraeus noted that Iran’s actions promote violence in Iraq. Members of the Bush administration and Congress have also stated that Iran is helping terrorists attack U.S. troops. The longer we are there, the more we ratchet up our anger at Iran and strengthen our claim to strike out against it in self-defense. Such a war would probably be more expensive and bloody than the one in Iraq.

In the end the costs of the war are clear and massive. The benefits are less clear because the gains against Al Qaeda are temporary and subject to reversal and because our presence might be galvanizing Islamic terrorists. In addition, Iraq stands a good chance of splitting apart and it is not clear if we want to get caught between warring neighbors. Our presence is also ratcheting up tension with Iran. Even if our presence in Iraq prevented a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, it is unclear whether an attack, especially if conventional, would be more expensive than the fortune we are spending there.

13 October 2007

Democratic Politicians and Black Children

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 7, 2007

America’s two foremost race-hustlers have in effect labeled Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) an Uncle Tom. Reverend Al Sharpton, in a thinly veiled reference, said of Obama “just because you’re our color doesn’t make you our kind.” Reverend Jesse Jackson said of Obama that he was "acting like he's white.” Now it’s hard to know what the hustlers mean, but their comments inadvertently point out an ugly truth which is that when it comes to education, the Democratic Party sells out blacks. Despite this fact, blacks continue to vote in droves for Democratic candidates. This is a case study in self-destruction.

While there are many talented black students, as a group they do poorly. A standard measure of academic performance is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which was created by Congress in 1969 in order to assess how well American students perform in the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades. Performance is grouped under four categories: below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced. “Basic” means that the students lack “[even] partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work” at their grade level. “Proficient” means that students display “solid academic performance” and demonstrate “competency over challenging subject matter.”

In No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning (2003), Manhattan Institute member Abigail Thernstrom and her husband Stephan, a Harvard professor, point out that NAEP assessment of black performance (1998-2001) is alarming. Except for reading and writing, more than half of black students were below basic on every category: math, science, U.S. history, civics, and geography. This includes a painfully bad level of performance in math and science. Almost 70% are below basic in math and almost 80% in science. Even reading and writing are disappointing with more than a third below basic. On the high end of achievement, the results are also abysmal. Less than 5% of black students are proficient or advanced in math, science, and geography, and only slightly more than 5% are in history. White and Asian performance is not great, but nothing like this complete meltdown.

The race differences are stark. Using 1998-2001 NAEP data, the Thernstroms point out that the average black high school graduate performs a little worse than white eighth-graders in reading and U.S. history and a lot worse in math and geography. In those topics, they know no more than whites in the seventh grade. As a side note, Asian performance is roughly the same as whites.

When it comes to graduation rates, the pattern repeats itself. In a 2002 study, Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute argues that the 1998 national high-school graduation rate for white students was 78% and for black students was 56%. The numbers are controversial. The Economic Policy Institute reports that 74% of blacks get a regular diploma (for example, not a GED). However, even if the latter number is true, this is nothing to write home about.

These test results matter. The Thernstroms point out that in the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 eighth-graders an identical number of whites and blacks have gone on to some form of college (76.5%) and yet there was a significant difference in graduation rates. Roughly, 36% of whites and 16% of blacks end up with a four-year degree. In college, the poor level of public education wrecks havoc on what courses these students take. At the California State University system, which is designed for students who were in the top third of the state’s high school classes, more than 50% of black students had to take a remedial course in English and more than 78% had to do so in math.

The test results are also likely reflected in income. Whites at every level of education make more money on graduation and this is likely due to differences in ability rather than discrimination. This can be seen in that two researchers, George Farkas and Keven Vicknair, report that when incomes were adjusted for test scores in reading and mathematics, blacks earn more.

These K-12 differences might explain why at Fredonia State the black-white difference in graduation rates and grade-point average is significant. The yearly average of the six-year graduation rate from 1994-2000 is 38% for blacks and 61% for whites. There also was a significant difference in grade-point average. As of February 2006, the average undergraduate GPA for blacks at Fredonia was 2.3 (C-) and for white students 2.9 (C+).

The differences cannot be accounted for by the usual liberal bogeymen. The spending difference between those districts with more minority students and those without is small ($286 in 1989-1990 when adjustments were made for price-levels and students with special needs). Nor can they be accounted for by differences in class size or self-esteem. There is some debate as to whether having a same-race teacher affects performance, but even if there is such an effect it’s probably swamped by the fact that on average, black teachers have worse academic skills than do whites.

The Thernstroms argue that cultural effects and teacher quality make a significant difference. That there are strong cultural effects can be seen in that roughly two-thirds of the black-white performance gap remains even after researchers control for poverty, parental education, and urban residence. There seem to be cultural differences in factors such as low birth-weight, single-parent households, birth to a young mother, and differences in parenting practices (intellectual stimulation and emotional support). Teacher quality also has an effect. A number of studies on the other hand have found that teachers who attended more selective or prestigious colleges improve the scores of their students. The Thernstroms claim that a famous federal study (the 1966 Coleman report) and subsequent studies indicate that teachers with the strongest academic skills are better.

This is different from how teacher quality is ordinarily rewarded, which is on the basis of experience and having a graduate degree. In a 1990-1996 NAEP study, experience beyond the first two years and degrees beyond a bachelor’s showed no effect on teaching effectiveness. This is also interesting given that individuals and schools spend nearly $2 billion a year on master’s degrees in education.

The teachers’ unions own Democratic candidates. For example, a large percentage of Democratic delegates come from the teachers’ unions (for example, 11% in 1996) and the latter lavishes money on the party. The unions oppose reforms that will likely increase student performance, especially among black students. In particular, they can be counted on to oppose market-based competition such as vouchers, merit-based hiring and pay, standardized testing that spotlights problems, and a district’s ability to fire poor teachers. Not only do the Democratic candidates fail to back these reforms, they also are largely silent on the destructive aspects of black culture. Given the unions’ political clout, we know why Democratic candidates chose entrenched and well-funded educators over black children. Why blacks reward this choice is harder to explain.

26 September 2007

President Bush: A Leftist Failure

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
September 24, 2007

President George W. Bush has been a miserable failure. Bush failed because of his enthusiastic support for government spending and his tireless push to increase the federal juggernaut at the expense of the states and citizens. In fact, given Bush’s love of government power, Congressional Republicans should have openly opposed him years ago.

In general, Bush spent like a drunken sailor. According to Stephen Slivinski of the Cato Institute, Bush increased federal spending in his first term by 33% and during this period increased the federal budget as a share of the economy from 18.5% when he took office to 20.3%. The real increase in spending was second only to drunker sailor Lyndon Johnson and Bush increased spending more in non-defense areas. In fact, between 2001 and 2005 non-defense spending by Bush rose by 23% (inflation-adjusted), which is larger than the rise in the whole Clinton presidency. From 200-2005, he increased welfare spending (payments to individuals) by 26% (again inflation-adjusted). The parts of the government that are symbols of the governmental overreaching also got fat under Bush. For example, largely under his watch, the education department budget grew by a whopping 115% (2000-2005). This occurred despite the fact that education is largely a state function and that there is little correlation between spending and educational success.

Bush’s accomplishments almost all involve an explosion in the size and scope of government. Among his biggest domestic triumphs was getting the government to pay for drugs for the elderly (Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act, 2003). Bush could have limited this program to the poor. Instead, the big spender generously included the middle class and wealthy. In 2003, the bill barely passed Congress. A month after it passed, the administration changed its ten-year cost estimate to $534 billion, which is more than $100 billion over what the administration claimed it would cost when Congress considered it. Had the administration not lied, the bill probably would not have passed. Eric Boehlert of Salon.com claimed that the administration covered up the higher cost and threatened to fire government analyst Richard Foster if he provided the real cost to Congress. By 2005, Washington Post reporters noted that the White House Budget had increased the estimate to $1.2 trillion. While Bush was running up the tab to take a Democratic issue off the table, he did little to solve the oncoming deficits in Social Security and Medicare, deficits that will wreak havoc in the near future.

Another of his accomplishments was to increase federal involvement in education and jacked up the size of the Education Department in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (Public Law 107-110). This program increased federal spending and instituted a series of testing requirements in return for federal funding. Despite the fact that America’s schools are the most expensive in the world and have mediocre to poor results when compared to other advanced countries, Bush did little to remedy these failings. In particular, he took a pass on encouraging market mechanisms and removing mediocre teachers from the classrooms.

Bush also didn’t keep his promises to protect American liberty. Despite his earlier promise to veto the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, he signed it. Again, he did so to eliminate an issue that was thought to support Democrats. The bill regulated soft money (money given to national parties) and limited spending on issue ads that name a federal candidate and that run close to primaries and elections. In some areas, the bill went even further and banned such ads paid by the corporate or union funds. Apparently, Bush decided that they should just shut up.

In limiting the amount of money that citizens could donate toward a candidate’s campaign, it sharply limited free speech. To see this, imagine that the Bush and company had limited the amount of money that a newspaper (for example, the New York Times) could spend in putting out its paper and ask yourself whether that limit would restrict free speech. Of course it would and the same is true for limits on money sent to get out a message through the political parties. It also made it even more difficult to dislodge incumbents because it disarmed candidates who might challenge them. This protection of incumbents ensures that political hacks like Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Ted Stevens (R-AK), and Robert Byrd (D-WV) stay in office for decades.

Bush could have tried to achieve real reform by fighting for term limits. Instead, he chose the easy way and signed off on a plan to regulate and equalize speech. Luckily, the Supreme Court has recognized that the Constitution protects speech by private political groups (527 tax-exempt political organizations). This exception will probably make the bill ineffective.

As if McCain-Feingold weren’t enough, Bush declared war on the Constitution. As part of his drug-prohibition efforts, the Bush administration argued that the Supreme Court should interpret the Constitution as providing almost no limit on federal power. The Commerce Clause ("The Congress shall have Power ...To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes," Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 of the Constitution) is part of a list of specific powers that the founders intended to exhaust what powers the federal government has. They intended that all other powers would reside with the states and the people. A narrow reading of the clause is essential if the federal government is to be hemmed in the way that the Constitution requires. In 1996, California voters passed a referendum that legalized the medical use of Marijuana. The federal government prohibited marijuana in 1937 and challenged this law. The Supreme Court backed by the liberal justices and Justice Scalia backed the federal government, asserting that the federal ban on such marijuana was Constitutional despite the fact that it was grown, sold, and used in California and was not plausibly part of interstate business.

Persons might differ with regard to the justice and success of the Iraq war but the notion that this was a defensive war doesn’t pass the laugh test. Small-government proponents don’t support interventionist wars (whether in Vietnam, Serbia, or Iraq) because U.S. security is not at stake. Administration officials justified attacking Iraq because it allegedly had weapons of mass destruction, connections to Al-Qaeda, and was the lynchpin for promoting democracy throughout the Middle East. None of these claims have panned out. The war has also turned out to be prohibitively expensive. The Congressional Research Service estimated that the total expenditures have exceeded $500 billion and cost almost $2 billion spent per week. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winning economist, estimates that the war’s total costs will be greater than $1 trillion and stand a good chance of being greater than $2 trillion. The war has also resulted in roughly 3,800 American troops dying and 28,000 injured.

In short, President George W. Bush has been very successful in expanding federal power. He has shot spending through the roof, carved out chunks from the Constitution, and poured money and lives into an interventionist war that that had a weak connection to U.S. interests. It’s just a shame that he didn’t campaign on his plan to pursue the policies of the American left.

12 September 2007

Serving Mankind: The Rich Do More

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
September 11, 2007

In the world of politics, there are a lot of politicians and intellectuals who are convinced that they can pick out fair wages better than the market. Politicians and commentators constantly bemoan the high salaries of CEOs (S&P 500 CEOs averaged $14.78 million in 2006), baseball players (averaging $2.94 million in 2007), physicians (several types of cardiologists and orthopedic surgeons averaged over $400,000 even after expenses), and high-end attorneys (some law firms now charge clients more than $1,000 per hour for their best attorneys). At the low end of salaries, the AFL-CIO and other leftist organizations often criticize third-world sweatshops because they pay wages that are too low.

Even if these politicians and intellectuals could identify a fair wages, it doesn’t follow that employers should be made to pay them. In general, high prices for scarce things (whether labor or goods) usually bring about the best results by increasing supply and better distributing them. Economist John Lott in Freedomnomics uses the example of the rise in gas prices related to the Hurricane Katrina to illustrate this. Katrina disrupted oil production in the Gulf of Mexico. The restricted supply caused gas prices to rise. This rise gave companies the incentive to store gas in anticipation of the storm and then rush it to the area once the storm hit. It also reduced demand thereby making more gas available to those who really needed it. In contrast, government price control causes demand to outstrip supply, which inevitably produces shortages and waiting lines. An example of this was the obnoxious gas lines in the 1970’s that followed President Carter’s price controls.

As a general rule, free market wages are the height of fairness. A free-market wage is the wage that a person gets in a competitive sector of the economy. Generally, this reflects the degree to a worker contributes to lives of other people. This is because a worker’s salary reflects the degree to which others value his goods or services and the degree to which others value his goods and services reflects the degree to which these things make their lives go better. As Walter Williams has pointed out, such a system in effect rewards persons on the basis of what they’ve done for their fellow man.

For example, consider a day-care worker (median wage $7.90 per hour in 2003). There are lots of people willing to do this job and, at least according to consumers’ needs, the performance of one worker is not substantially better than her likely replacement. At least this is what consumers seem to think. Hence, any one day-care worker probably does not provide a service that is substantially better than her likely replacement. In contrast, other workers (e.g., Hollywood stars, CEOs, and sports stars) contribute far more to others’ lives than their likely replacement, which is why they get paid a lot more.

None of this applies to government employees because political considerations, rather than the market, set their wages. Thus in deciding whether veteran professors at state colleges contribute to their fellow man, their salaries are not a reliable guide (in 2003-2005, full professors at public colleges and universities averaged $88,500).

One objection to this claim about fairness is simple outrage. A critic might say that she hopes she didn’t just hear me say that some relatively low paid workers (e.g., day-care workers) really do less for humanity than highly paid but superfluous individuals like NFL running backs and well-known porn stars. But it’s hard to see why she thinks this. The reason the latter make so much more money is that while consumers value the latter’s services only a little bit, they serve millions of people. Oftentimes doing a little for millions of persons does more for the world than doing a lot for a few.

A second objection is that some low-paid workers (e.g., nurses) do far more for persons than others (e.g., Hollywood stars) because the former provide more important goods (health care versus entertainment). This, however, is to confuse what an industry provides versus what a particular worker provides. It is the latter that determines what an individual contributes to the world since she only can provide or withhold her own labor.

A third objection is that the low-paid workers often work from altruistic motives and care for their clients, whereas the highly paid CEOs and all-pro quarterbacks are in it for themselves. Even if true, this is irrelevant. Remember the issue here is the degree to which an individual makes others better off, not why he does it. Caring about others may be a good thing, but this doesn’t make others better off. Rather others are made better off when their wants and needs are satisfied and is what wages measure.

Other theories of fair wages are invariably confused or wrong. For example, various intellectuals think that wages should track the degree to which persons sacrifice themselves for a job or work hard at it. However, plenty of people work very hard at jobs that don’t contribute much to anyone’s benefit. For example, consider restaurant owners who work like dogs and put in incredibly long hours only to have no one show up. It doesn’t seem that fairness would dictate that they be well paid despite their efforts and sacrifices. Physicians often yell that they deserve high wages because they invested so much in their education, but again restaurant owners might have invested their whole life savings and it doesn’t follow from this that they deserve anything.

Other fair-wage intellectuals cite things like a living wage suggesting that persons who work full-time jobs should be able to escape poverty, afford medical care and decent housing, buy a house, etc. The problem is that such goals have nothing to do with whether the worker has served his fellow man. We might want to give all American workers such goods, perhaps in the form of various welfare benefits, but labeling these benefits fair wages hides what is being done.
In a reasonably competitive sector of the economy, wages are a pretty good indication of what workers contribute to others’ lives. Poor people do less for others; rich people do more. It’s a distasteful conclusion, but true nonetheless.

15 August 2007

Religious Discrimination Against Candidates

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
August 7, 2007

GOP Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney has made it clear that he does not think that his being a Mormon should be held against him. This is a contemporary version of President John F. Kennedy’s earlier assertion that his Catholicism should not be held against him. Contra Romney, I think that a candidate’s irrational religious beliefs can and should be held against him.

Curiously, Romney said, “We need to have a person of faith lead the country,” which suggests that the country should not be led by an atheist. Let’s leave aside the issue of whether his claims are consistent.

If a person has irrational religious beliefs, then he is less likely than others to make reliable judgments. This is because irrational religious beliefs tend to weaken one’s judgments about rights and liberties in the same way that doctored numbers make it less likely that an accountant will make reliable judgments about a client’s finances. If a person is less likely to make reliable judgments, then he is less likely to make good decisions, and this is not what we want in a leader.

According to Mormon critics such as Richard Packham, http://www.exmormon.org/tract2.htm and those summarized in Wikipedia, Mormons accept the following.

* God has a flesh-and-bone body and lives on a planet near the star Kolob.

* God was once a man and human beings are literally his children.

* Individuals like you and me can become like God and rule over our own worlds.

* Before living on this earth, we were spirits in “pre-existence,” during which we were tested. How we live in this life depends in part on our reward or punishment for our acts in the previous life.

* Jesus and Satan are brothers.

If a person who is not a Mormon becomes Mormon, the Holy Ghost takes out his blood and replaces it with Israelite blood.
These sound irrational to me.

There is nothing new here. We often use a person’s past membership in a group or past behavior as an indicator of how he would perform as a legislator. For example, we would hesitate to vote for someone who was a recruiter and local leader of the Klu Klux Klan or abandoned a woman trapped in an underwater car. This did not stop voters from West Virginia and Massachusetts from electing Senators Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA), but it probably did give them pause.

One objection here is that even if a candidate’s beliefs support our not voting for him, he might still be the lesser of two evils. This is correct. For example, we might still prefer a candidate who has irrational religious beliefs to one who voted for the Iraq war, for restricting free speech on political matters, for amnestying illegal aliens, and against tax cuts, because we are confident that his opponent will make worse decisions. This might occur, for example, if Romney ran against Hilary Clinton.

A second objection is that holding someone’s religion against him violates the separation of church and state. The separation between church and state is often misunderstood. It is a narrow thesis that holds that a person’s legal rights and duties should not depend on his religious beliefs or practices. This is a distinct from the issue of who govern our country. A person’s membership in a private group (for example, the Klu Klux Klan) should also not affect his legal rights and duties, but that is independent of whether we should hold a candidate’s membership against him when we enter the voting booth.

A third objection is that religion is a personal matter and as such it should not be considered. The distinction between personal and public behavior is unclear and in any case irrelevant. For example, it’s unclear whether participation in corrupt business practices is a personal matter, but nothing rests on this issue. What matters is whether this indicates how a person will govern.

A fourth objection is that Mormonism is no more irrational than other religions. For example, consider the following.

* The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are truly distinct persons from one another and yet there are not three Gods but one.

* There are exactly nine orders of Angels.

* If a priest blesses bread and wine, then it becomes the body of Jesus. Actually does, not metaphorically.

It is not clear that these claims are as irrational as Mormon ones, although to be fair I haven’t turned on my irrationality-meter. However, if these beliefs or ones connected to them reliably lead candidates to reject evolution, deny parental rights to gays, or ignore data on sex education, then we should be less enthusiastic about candidates who accept them.

A fifth objection is that membership in religious organizations is not a reliable indicator of poor reasoning or judgment. The objector might claim that because there are almost no atheists in high office and because we can’t determine which people join religions merely for cultural reasons, religious membership doesn’t reliably indicate anything. Because there aren’t any studies on this topic that I’m aware of, this objection might be fatal. However, it is worth noting that we regularly make predictions based on commonsense connections. For example, we predict that former members of the NAACP will favor African-Americans no matter what. Similarly, we (leaving out West Virginia voters) judge former members of the Klan as likely to have too much animosity toward minorities to trust in office. When it comes to predicting how politicians will rule on things like abortion funding, stem-cell research, and euthanasia, I don’t see why we can’t rely on similar commonsense connections.

02 August 2007

Class Warfare

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
July 8, 2007

We are once again being treated to class-warfare politics. Presidential candidate John Edwards declares, "Our tax system has been rewritten by George Bush to favor the wealthy and shift the burden to working families. That is simply wrong." In 1992, Presidential candidate Bill Clinton claimed that it was time to make “the rich pay their fair share again.” Congressional Democrats constantly bemoan tax cuts for the rich. These demagogues keep trying to further the lie that the rich don’t pay their fair share.

A little background is in order. The government is engaged in an all-out war against your wallet. According to a Tax Foundation study, the average U.S. household in 2004 paid $26,738 in taxes. This consists of $17,338 to the federal government and $9,400 to state and local governments. Since average households (middle 20% of households by income) make between $42,305 and $65,000 this is an ungodly sum.

The reason you don’t remember paying that much is that the attack is dispersed and largely hidden. The voracious federal government imposes payroll taxes (Social Security and Medicare), income taxes, corporate taxes (Who do you think pays them?), gasoline taxes, airplane taxes, telephone taxes, alcohol taxes, etc. The greedy state and local governments impose taxes on many of the same things, plus some new and creative assaults such as property, utility, and insurance taxes.

The rich pay through the nose. In 2004, the top fifth of households paid on average $81,933 in federal, state, and local taxes. In contrast, the bottom 20% of households paid on average $4,325 in taxes.

As a side note, it doesn’t take much to get into the top fifth. Any household making more than $99,502 made it. In 2006, for example, 21 Fredonia State administrators and faculty made more than $100,000 by themselves and many have working spouses. I would be surprised if they considered themselves rich.

Despite paying a small fraction of what the “rich” paid, the lowest fifth of taxpayers made out like bandits. They were on average given $31,185 in government benefits above and beyond the taxes they paid. Another way to look at it is that they received $8.21 for every $1 paid in taxes. The lower middle class (second fifth) also did well. On average, they received $18,067 in government benefits above and beyond the taxes they paid. They got $2.51 for every $1 paid. Predictably, the top fifth took it in the shorts. They paid $48,449 in taxes compared to benefits received and only got 41 cents for every $1 paid.

Consider the different ways we could tax citizens. We could tax at a flat fee, a flat income-tax rate, or a progressive rate (where those making more money pay a higher percentage of their income). There is nothing fair or just about a flat rate, let alone a progressive one. We don’t think that McDonalds should charge more to richer customers. Instead we think that people should pay for what they receive. The same should be true for government goods and services. This conclusion becomes more obvious when we remember that the poor and lower middle class get more benefits. It’s as if a poor family ate three more hamburgers than a rich one and then angrily demanded that McDonalds charge them less.

A flat tax still allows for income redistribution, although this is unfortunate. It is arguably unjust to force the rich to work for the poor. Consider the Christmas Carol and whether you think that Bob Cratchit may force Scrooge to give money to Tiny Tim. Clearly not. Nor does this change if Cratchit’s neighbors get in on the act. The same is true even if the neighbors schedule a friendly neighborhood vote on the matter. It’s not their money. Forced redistribution of wealth is just the systematic taking of stuff from Scrooge and people like him. Democracy doesn’t justify such a taking any more than it would justify the outcome when two foxes and a hen vote on what’s for dinner.

It’s worth noting that the rich didn’t cause the state of the poor. Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation points out that in the context of poor children, two major causes of poverty have little to do with the rich. Rector points out that poor households with children are on average supported by an average of 16 hours of work per week. In addition, nearly two-thirds of poor children reside in single parent homes. If people in the household worked a combined 40 hours a week or poor mothers married the fathers of their children almost 75% of currently poor children would no longer be poor.

One solution to ease the burden on the rich is to adopt a flat fee or, if this is not politically viable, a flat income-tax rate. Another solution is to cut overall welfare liabilities. One example of going in the wrong direction was the recently defeated Kennedy-McCain immigration bill. The bill attempted to amnesty 12 to 20 million illegal aliens. The costs of this bill were staggering. Robert Rector, continuing his yeoman work, estimates that each low-skilled immigrant household costs taxpayers $19,588 per year (benefits minus taxes) and $1.2 million total and well over half of illegal aliens are low skilled. 50-60% lack even a high school degree. That this bill was even considered should tell the rich all they need to know about who the President and Senate want to have for dinner.

19 July 2007

National Service

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
Monday, June 25, 2007

Democratic presidential candidate and Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) recently called for mandatory community service for all high school students. Senator and Republican Presidential Candidate John McCain (R-AZ) has called for a mandatory draft of young adults for a similar purpose. The emphasis on service can also be seen in John F. Kennedy widely quoted claim that you should “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” and in the notion that the successful should give back to their community. It’s time to ask whether we have a duty of service and whether government-enforced servitude satisfies it.

I doubt persons have a duty to be charitable. Consider a rich person who lives in Connecticut and the poor in Sudan. It’s hard to see how poor Sudanese can have a moral claim to the rich Yankee’s money given that the latter isn’t related to them by blood or friendship and didn’t cause their plight. Nor is it clear why the situation changes when the poor live in Detroit or Los Angeles rather than Sudan. However, in what follows let’s ignore this doubt.

It’s hard to see why those with higher incomes haven’t already satisfied the duty. According to 2004 IRS data, the top 5% of income earners paid 57% of the income taxes. The same is likely true of corporate income taxes since the upper class owns a large portion of corporate stock. Income and corporate taxes comprise more than half of the federal government’s total revenue (56% in 2005) and so, like overworked oxen, the upper class does far more than it’s share in pulling the government wagon. They probably pay more than 40% of their income to the different levels of government and most of that gets paid out in welfare (goods and services for others rather than public goods like defense) to groups such as the poor, elderly, and farmers. In a sane world, when one group is forced to work at least two days a week for others (40% of a five-day workweek), this is enough giving. The notion that the upper class doesn’t give enough is as distasteful as if Scrooge were forced to work two days every week for Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit then stomped into his office and angrily demanded that he give more.

Even if the weighty tax burden didn’t satisfy the duty of charity, economist Walter Williams notes that it’s hard to see why anyone would think that it’s the upper class who should have to “give back” to the community. After all, they are less likely to hit up the taxpayers for public school costs (roughly $15,000 per pupil in Fredonia and Dunkirk) and to need them to pick up their family’s medical and prison costs. More specifically, the Tax Foundation reports that the bottom 60% of households receive more in government spending than they pay in taxes. If anyone should have to give something back to the community, it should be those who sucked long and hard on the government teat.

In addition, does anyone seriously think that mandatory service for the youth is an efficient way to help the poor? Given the usual government efficiency, it’s clear that if the goal is to actually help the downtrodden, and not a new age goal like Sen. Dodd’s “shared experiences,” then we should use taxpayer dollars to hire firms that specialize in providing needed goods and services. Rebuilding New Orleans will go a lot slower if we grab students still hung over from Spring Break rather than hiring veteran construction workers.

A peacetime draft also doesn’t save money. Consider the analogous case of the military draft. If the country wants to put more men and women in arms, there are two ways it can do it. It can pay what is necessary to induce them to join or it can force them to join. The second doesn’t eliminate the costs (lost income and frustrated preferences) but merely hides them from public view. The costs are now borne by those unfortunate enough to be dragooned into the military. More specifically, their losses are at least as great as the minimum amount of money necessary to induce them to serve.

A draft is morally noxious since we have in effect instituted enslavement, albeit for a limited time. Even if supreme emergencies like war warrant doing so, and I doubt it, only a liberty-hating politician would propose that this should be done for poorly defined and politically correct goals like those McCain and Dodd cite.

The mistaken weight given to service can also be seen in the claims that we should be eternally grateful to members of the police and military and that working for the government is a higher calling. It’s hard to see what supports these claims. The individuals who took police and military jobs judged the package of benefits (including pay, prestige, and excitement) and costs (risk of death and injury) to be better than their other alternatives. Sometimes when you take a risk you lose and in the case of police officers they lose their lives less frequently than do such commonplace jobs as farmer, construction worker, and truck driver. Roughly 12 per 100,000 of police officers die on the job compared to 33 farmers, 28 construction workers, and 28 truck drivers per 100,000 (2000 figure) – and these weren’t even the most dangerous jobs. In some cases the financial benefits can be significant. New York state troopers, for example, make $65,357 after one year and can retire after 20 years. I would never ask persons to take jobs that they don’t want to do and I doubt my neighbors would either. Given this, it’s hard to see why they are owed gratitude for doing a job they willingly took. It’s even harder to see what other than wishful thinking justifies the closely related claim that working for the government is a higher calling than working in the private sector.

Instead of all of this Kennedyesque mumbo-jumbo, we should ask of our country the following, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but merely that it not trample you.” Hmmm, maybe my slogan needs some tweaking.

11 July 2007

Abortion #4: The Infanticide Argument for Pro-Life

The Theist
Abortion and Barn Burning
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
July 2, 2007

My colleague The Objectivist is an expert on the morality and legality of abortion, and people would do well to follow his arguments closely. His main point is really this: it is the moral status of abortions which is the fundamental issue. People are prone to operating solely on emotions: pity for the mother with the unwanted pregnancy, anger at men for meanly and unreasonably insisting that women let their fetuses develop and emerge. Around this issue has developed a cult of female autonomy. How dare anyone even think of interfering in such a personal choice? The mother getting what she wants is all-important, and her feelings are sacred. The father’s wishes and feelings, possible effects on society, and any other seemingly relevant concerns are angrily – and thoughtlessly - pushed aside. Foremost among these seemingly relevant issues is this: in destroying this little organism in the womb, are we doing anything morally wrong? Moral concerns should trump practical and political concerns, if we’re moral beings at all.

We are moral beings. It is impossible for us to ignore moral concerns, in how we deal with each other, with non-human animals, and with the environment. So The Objectivist is right; forget about culture wars, legal creativity, and politics - the most important issue is, in aborting, are we doing anything morally wrong, or not? Or perhaps, in some circumstances abortion is morally permissible and in others not. The Objectivist has a consistent perspective on this, but most people, and above all abortion moderates do not. They go with feelings, with what their peers say, and with anything but clearheaded moral reasoning.

What’s his view? He holds that only “persons” - beings with the kind of complex mental life that a normal human adult has - have moral rights. For other things, at least if no one else owns them, we can do with them whatever we please. If you decide you don’t want your kitten any more, in his view, you may simply crush it with a brick – you do nothing morally wrong thereby. If you don’t want your new-born infant – perhaps you wanted a boy, not a girl – you may re-use that same bloody brick, without doing anything morally wrong. Fetuses are no different – they are not “persons” any more than newborns or kittens, so you may abort at will, for any time or reason. You’re not violating anyone’s rights any more than when you cut into the apple in your lunch box. He has a backup argument: granting that the fetus is a human, a person, and whatever else you like, he argues that it has no rights at all to be in its mother. It’s like a little invader or trespasser, and may be ejected at will, even if the ejection kills the fetus.

What’s that you say? That theory is crazy? Yes, I agree. But it’s consistent and principled. The question is: what do you say? Do you hold that infanticide is morally wrong? Yes? And that many or all abortions are not wrong? OK. Now what is the morally relevant difference between a fetus and a newborn?

While you’re pondering that, I’ll briefly give you my take on this issue. Consider why we all (but The Objectivist) think infanticide is morally wrong. What precisely is wrong with disposing of unwanted infants? Lot of societies have done it. But it seems that if we did that, we’d be doing great harm to the little victim. We’d be depriving her of the rest of her life – of a vast, unimaginably valuable treasure-house of potentials. As she sits there, she has potentials to be (suppose) a great artist, a best friend, heroic rescuer of endangered species, a mother of six, or a prime minister of a great nation. But we decide, perhaps for what we think are good reasons, to deprive her of these innumerable potentials. That seems wrong, for the potential lives we’re ripping away from her have immense value.

Now consider the full term fetus, still inside her mother. All the same considerations apply to her. The only difference is that she’s still inside and hooked up to her biological mom. Now how far back does her life go? That is, when did this thing of amazing potential come into existence? I don’t know, and I’ll bet you don’t either. Some believe that she comes into being at conception, or at two weeks, or just somewhere within the first trimester, or maybe the second. Well, the moral thing to do seems to be assume that she begins to exist at the earliest possible date – at conception.

Suppose you have a farmer friend named Will, who owns a crusty, rusty old barn. You visit him one day, and he tells you that he’s sick of looking at that old barn, and he’s going to burn the thing down. You ask him if he’s sure it’s unoccupied. Maybe it’s full of baby bunnies, or raccoons, or maybe even the neighborhood children are playing in it, or a homeless person is taking shelter in it. Will says “You shut up. This barn bothers me, and you’ll never understand how much, ‘cause you ain’t me. You can’t tell me what to do. I want it down, dadgummit.” Will then torches it. What does Will later find in the ashes – human bones, or just charred wood? It doesn’t matter. He’s done something morally wrong. He ought not torch it when he can’t rule out that children (etc.) are in the barn.

We all believe that we used to be babies. Did you also used to be a fetus? How old a fetus? You don’t know? Me either. But since we don’t know how far back we existed, the moral thing to do is to not abort at all, except in self-defense (when the pregnancy is likely to kill both mother and child). That is a consistent and principled way of thinking about abortion, and it’s far more plausible than The Objectivist's.

Suppose human bones turn up in the barn’s ashes. Will we charge Will with first-degree murder? Of course not. He’ll be charged with involuntary homicide. So The Objectivist is simply wrong in holding that if abortion is morally wrong, aborting mothers and abortion providers will all be charged with first-degree murder. We’d blame Will for acting irresponsibly, but more than that, we’d pity him because he would have unwittingly inflicted such great harm. We’ll grieve with Will. We wouldn’t look on him as we do on cold-blooded killers, or even hot-blooded (i.e. crime of passion) killers. He’d be a fool, by the way, to use The Objectivist's defense – that he has right to kill any trespassers on his property. As to the abortion industry, they’re not like Nazi gassers, but more like workers at a negligent chemical company, whose products wrought great harm on health and environment, because they were sold in ignorance of their inherent dangers. Blameable and legally liable yes, but not murderers – at least not most of them. And the abortion-doctor killers? They’re more like environmental terrorists who gun down the chemical company executives in the parking lot.

08 July 2007

Abortion #3: Moderates on Abortion

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
Friday, June 22, 2007

Moderates on abortion don’t support the state always criminalizing abortion (the pro-life position) or always allowing it (the pro-choice position). Instead moderates assert that the state should sometimes permit abortion and sometimes not, depending on factors such as fetal development, the reason for an abortion, or the method by which an abortion is performed. Despite its popularity, this position makes about as much sense as driving in the middle of the road.

Some moderates think that abortion should be permitted only up to a certain point in fetal development. Despite the fact that the Constitution doesn’t mention viability (the point at which the fetus can survive outside the woman), the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the Constitution protects a woman’s right to an abortion until viability, which occurs somewhere between 20-29 weeks. However, it is unclear why the fetus’s ability to survive outside the woman’s body with the help of sophisticated medical technology makes the fetus suddenly become important or abruptly gain the right to be inside a woman’s body. Viability is simply a political compromise that Court members wrote into the Constitution.

Other development points that are sometimes cited are when the embryo can no longer split into twins (2 weeks), when various organs appear (for example, the heart appears at 2 weeks and lungs at 5 weeks), the onset of brain waves (8 weeks), and when the woman can first feel the fetus move (18 weeks). None of these are relevant. The onset of brain waves, movement, and organs is not relevant because they don’t signal the creation of the individual in question. The body and the life it contains begin sometime after fertilization. The capacity to twin is relevant from a religious perspective because only after that point is there a specific soul that enters the human body. But this capacity is beside the point. Imagine that persons reproduced not by the sperm-and-egg method but by amoeba-like splitting. It would still be wrong to shoot a person who might have split on the basis that we wouldn’t know which of the resulting two persons she would have become.

Other moderates think that abortion should be permitted only for some types of pregnancies. These moderates usually say that abortion should be permitted only in cases in which the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, involves a defective fetus (for example, it will develop into a neurologically impaired or retarded child), or threatens the woman’s life. This moderate position is seen in the widely held view that abortion should not be used as birth control.

The issue is whether the fetus has a right to be inside the woman. If the fetus has this right, then abortion is wrong, at least in those cases in which it doesn’t threaten a woman’s life or health. If the fetus does not have this right, then the woman is free to forcibly remove it just as she may forcibly remove a trespasser. Usually, we think that someone has a right to be in a woman’s body only if she was invited in (by analogy, consider when a male has a right to be inside a woman). In many cases of pregnancy, the fetus was not invited in. For example, when pregnancy results from failed contraception, the fetus was no more invited into the body than was a burglar who breaks into a woman’s house through a defective lock.

Some sloppy thinkers respond that the woman took the risk of the fetus coming in by having sex, but taking a risk that something will happen does not mean that a person consents to it. Anyone jogging at midnight in Detroit risks getting beaten up or worse, but the jogger surely has not consented to it.

In addition, that a fetus is defective is relevant only if you think that mildly retarded or neurologically impaired human beings have less demanding rights than the rest of us.

A third type of moderate focuses on the abortion method. On this account, methods in which the physicians kill the fetus are wrong, whereas methods in which the physicians merely remove the fetus and allow it to die are permissible. Killing would include methods like D&C and D&E whereby physicians cut up or tear apart fetuses; letting die might include RU-486 (the abortion pill) whereby the embryo is detached from the woman. Again, it’s hard to see how this is relevant. If abortion removes a fetus that has no right to be inside the woman and that inevitably results in the fetus’s death, the method by which this is done seems beside the point.

There are then only two respectable positions on abortion: the state should always permit it or should always ban it (perhaps with an exception for when the fetus endangers the woman’s life). It’s worth noting that the latter position has some startling implications.

First, if the pro-life position is correct, then the law should be changed so that women who pay for abortions and physicians who perform them should be charged with first-degree murder. After all, they purposely killed an innocent human being and lack any standard defense (for example, they weren’t insane and didn’t act defensively). Physicians who currently perform abortions might be guilty of crimes against humanity and the fact that they thought what they were doing was right and were following the law is no more a defense than were similar claims by Nazi defendants at Nuremberg. With 1.3 million abortions a year, roughly 20% of pregnancies being aborted, and 2% of women 15-44 having had an abortion (2000 and 2002 figures), the pro-life position sees the U.S. as awash in murderers.

Second, the pro-life position entails that persons like James Kopp who assassinate abortion-doctors are heroes. After all, they took out those who were making a living killing innocent human lives. On the pro-life account, such assassins are similar to World War II resistance members who shot Nazi executioners who made a living slaughtering Jews and others in death camps like Auschwitz.

If you think these implications are absurd, then you’re pro-choice.