DITCH'S POINT OF VIEW 2

 

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The views expressed on this page belong to the Ditch. They reflect the opinion of this website as a whole, 'cause I own it. Comments of any sort are encouraged. The Ditch, editor.

 

Contact the Ditch at LdBeaumont@aol.com

 

Point of View 2, February 9, 2007: International Short Shots

Afghanistan

A situation that’s much more FUBAR than Iraq. It’s poorer and we’re never going to sink enough money in to change that significantly. The terrain is harder, which means 100% security requires more soldiers per square mile to hold the border. Most importantly, the enemy isn’t based in the center of the country like it is in Iraq; it’s based across a border that is protected by both tribal militias and nuclear weapons. Pakistan won’t allow what would amount to a US invasion because that would arouse anti-government radicals, and there’s only so much pressure that can be brought to bear on the government by the US because said radicals are well-positioned to seize power. There is no good solution. More troops would be nice but they have no chance of completing the job as long as Pakistan gives the Taliban protection. At least current troop levels are enough to keep the Taliban and Bin Ladin pinned down along the border. I see exactly zero major politicians and pundits proposing serious solutions for this.

North Korea

Another bad situation that manages to show the best and worst of multilateralism simultaneously. Containment would be great if China was fully on-board, but it isn’t, and North Korea is able to share its deadly wares with nations like Iran. Lovely. With China and South Korea doing all they can to coddle Kim Jong Il, the six-way talks struggle for progress. Straight US/NK negotiating can only solve so much because the US is only part of the regional puzzle, and a partial solution isn’t good when nuclear weapons are involved along with conventional weapons capable of leveling Seoul (which is why ‘strategic bombing’ is pretty much ruled out). There is no obvious answer, but again neither party seems to be digging for one.

Iran

A ground invasion is unthinkable. International sanctions are hard to put in effect with Russia and China running interference. Air strikes would lead to war, which even in limited for would be costly, and it isn’t assured that bombing alone can do the job. There’s a strong pro-western sentiment among the Iranian populace, but there’s little indication that it will be enough to change the government in time to prevent the creation of a nuclear terrorist state. What Iran wants most in negotiations is a security guarantee from the US, which would in essence give Iran carte blanche to fund and arm terrorist groups as it does today.

It seems to me that between its nuclear program malfeasance, its vital role in the instability in Iraq and Lebanon, its known harboring of several big Al Qaeda names, its human rights records and its repeated statements about turning Israel into ash, there ought to be more global momentum towards serious sanctions. ‘Serious’ does not mean ‘starving the populace’, because there is a difference between brute-force sanctions and ones that would actually inconvenience the government. Unfortunately those are exactly the type of sanctions that would inconvenience Russia and China. Another bad situation and, hey, nobody seems to have any idea what to do with it. The administration is starting to show signs of no longer being passive, but it’s far from clear what action will be taken and whether said action will have any effect.

Darfur

You want ‘blood for oil’? China is blocking action because they get precious resources from Sudan. No Western nation is going to lose a single life where they don’t see any national interest, and Sudan won’t tolerate an African peacekeeping force (to say nothing of whether such a force could do anything). Notice how there isn’t any controversy when Western leaders talk about doing something? That’s because they never actually propose anything. And nobody’s going to change their vote come election time based on which party did the most to stop the latest bloodbath in Africa.


Point of View 2, February 2, 2007: Domestic Short Shots

Energy

Pollution is bad. Sending cash to third-world dictators is bad. Government regulations and local politics have put the kibosh on things that would take a big chunk out of those problems (nuclear energy, oil drilling and oil refineries). Don’t like those? How about big-time tariffs on oil from undemocratic nations that act against our national interest. The worst offenders get the biggest hit. This would increase the price of oil and gas (making alternative fuels more viable), raise tax revenue, and make it harder for Saudi Arabia and Venezuela to spread radical ideologies on our dime. It wouldn’t be a full solution but it’s certainly better than just taxing all gas and hurting Canada and Mexico just as much as the rest.

Say, what about ethanol? It works for Brazil, right? Yeah! And Americans will pay more than Brazilians for it so why aren’t we getting tons of Brazilian ethanol? Well, it goes like this: we have tariffs in place to protect US farmers (aka. politically-protected corporations in the Midwest) from the eeeeevils of things like foreign sugar. Huge tariffs. The kind we don’t put on oil. To be more specific, while Big Corn gets a 50 cent per gallon subsidy from the government, foreign ethanol gets a 50 cent per gallon tariff.

If we’re going to suffer under the harmful, jingonistic burden of protectionism, can we at least protect ourselves more from actual enemies than poor South American farmers? Oh well, at least this idiocy is bipartisan, so we don’t need to worry about it come election time.

Immigration

If you’re a Democratic politician, you favor lots of immigration to help the poor, huddled masses south of the border (who will vote Democrat). If you’re a Republican politician, you favor lots of immigration because it means cheap labor for businesses (who give campaign contributions).

If either party was serious, they would realize that the current immigration system is retarded on every level. It punishes legal immigrants, it distorts wages, it creates a large class of people who don’t feel secure in their situation, and it harms both national security and crime prevention. Nobody is talking about a long-term fix, just half-ass solutions that sound good to constituencies.

The INS is completely broken. This brokenness was a significant contributing factor in the 9/11 attacks. If the INS were expanded to process more people and process them faster, there would be less reason to sneak across the border and less ability for criminals and terrorists to exploit the system and hide under the radar. Legal immigrants, with more confidence in their situation, are less likely to commit crimes and less likely to accept substandard wages. A functional INS would have a better grasp of the status of all immigrants, meaning less harassment for the law-abiding and actual enforcement against those who deserve it.

What to do at the border? Well, a system in which people can sneak across at will is not a sound one. I don’t see how in an age of terrorism and multinational mega-gangs, that the current border situation is tolerable. That doesn’t equate to ‘wall it all off’. It does mean ‘do something already’.

Corporate Welfare

This takes on a variety of forms. Sometimes, specific companies and industries get aid, for instance food production corporations that receive farm subsidies that are politically viable due to sympathy for struggling small family farms. Other times, specific companies receive sweetheart tax breaks to bring in jobs (often called ‘tax competition’). Still other times, especially in cities, specific areas will be awash in cash as the government tries to make certain neighborhoods popular. Last but not least, some politically connected industries and corporations are able to wrangle special tax breaks for themselves.

What’s the harm? One is more spending, which necessitates more taxation, which in turn stifles job creation, which is the entire point. Another is adding reams to the tax code, which is so complex that compliance costs are in the tens of billions every year. There’s the lost tax revenue, which more often than not comes from companies of sufficient profitability that the end result is nothing more than shifting the burden to others.

Corporate welfare sustains the inefficient, fattens the wallets of those who pamper politicians, breaks budgets… and is done by both parties at every level of government. If they were really concerned with the economy they’d just lower taxes so that all businesses would have an equal chance, rather than favoring the few with political juice.

Trade Policy

I’m generally a believer in free trade, but there are some caveats. For one thing, when a foreign government subsidizes a business, that isn’t free trade and tariffs should be attached. Although the pure libertarian point of view would be to just take the other government’s charity (lower prices) and smile, the long-term effect is that native businesses shut down because they can’t compete. Businesses that would be competitive shouldn’t be choked from overseas.

Another issue is that of environmental regulations. If a company in southeast Asia uses labor conditions that aren’t up to ‘western’ snuff, one must keep in mind that the agricultural work those people would do otherwise isn’t either; labor standards are apples and oranges. The environment is something else entirely, because pollution has global implications regardless of one’s stance on climate change. I’m in favor of at least some pollution control because pollution has a societal cost that industries are responsible for. Accordingly, since said native industries are paying the price, industry overseas shouldn’t be able to enter our market without at least some regulations of their own. Otherwise, what’s the point of regulations?

Where I get a headache is trade restrictions that are imposed to protect a handful of industries from legitimate foreign competition. If a product from another country is just flat-out better/cheaper, the public is better off choosing said product and in the long run economic activity will adjust so that we’re doing what we’re most competitive at. The clothing industry is a perfect example. Americans spend much less on clothing than we used to, and from what my elders tell me we’re getting better quality in general. Millions of jobs were lost as production moved overseas, but the money that used to be spent on clothing is spent elsewhere and has led to the creation of new jobs and an increase in the standard of living.

As with everything else, both parties are to blame for trade policies that skew in favor of some businesses and against others. It’s an incoherent hodgepodge and it makes it hard for other nations to take the US seriously when we campaign for global free trade.


Point of View 2, January 29, 2007: Restart, Iraq

In late 2003 I didn’t believe a sustained insurgency was possible because I didn’t think the US would allow armed factions a chance to organize. As it turns out, and as very few people in the spotlight were able to clearly demonstrate over the following years, there was never a large enough US presence to enforce security in Anbar and Baghdad. The point at which the US deposed Saddam is the point at which that US became responsible for Iraq. That responsibility does have limits, yes, but when the insurgency kicked into gear less than a year into the war the only sensible thing to do was to send in enough troops to protect the Iraqi populace from Al Qaeda and the Baathist holdovers.

As 2004 went on, those who opposed the war used the lack of WMDs to build a case against the administration’s decision to go to war. Since Saddam wasn’t a threat, then we shouldn’t have ever been in Iraq, and thus should leave. What a spectacularly flawed line of reasoning. The administration screwed up, so screw the Iraqis? Sunni terrorists of one brand or another were and are violently opposed to the Shia of Iraq holding political power, a fact that is wholly independent of US presence. Unless one takes the selfish mindset of ‘oh well, too bad for them’, the only argument for the US leaving would be that it would have a positive security effect. As of 2004 this was childishly wrong. It was also too popular an opinion to be ignored, and because variants of it formed the basis for the Democrats’ 2004 campaign there was not a significant group pushing Bush towards the kind of war policy that would actually meet our obligations towards the Iraqis. Bush decided to aim for a ‘status quo’ because anything more would be too risky.

Yes, I’m being a tad simplistic. That doesn’t change the real-world effect of ‘phased withdrawal’, ‘redeployment’, ‘timetables’ and other such things at a time when the US hadn’t even been in Iraq for 20 months. The Iraqi army was in no position to secure the country because it takes years to create a modern and humane armed force from scratch. There was no possibility of an effective UN peacekeeping force, let alone peacemaking. The only reason why Americans wanted out of Iraq in the first place is that soldiers were dying. Those deaths were to protect the civilian population. Americans leave, and the deaths shift all the more to the Iraqis who actually want to build a decent country for themselves.

This isn’t Darfur or Rwanda, where massive amounts of violence have no appreciable impact in global strategic interests. This is in the heart of the Middle East. The enemy is exactly the Sunni/Wahhabi global terrorist network that needs to be eradicated, and which is vastly more complicated than just nailing Bin Ladin and his cronies. Leaving Iraq unsecured without a true good-faith effort to secure it would be staggeringly irresponsible, callous and short-sighted for the United States of America.

After the 2004 election, the US increased the total number of troops in order to ‘increase security for the Iraqi elections’. What actually happened was a series of offensive against insurgent-held towns and cities west/north of Baghdad, dealing heavy blows to the terrorists and making more progress in a matter of months than had been made in the first year of counterinsurgency. However there still weren’t enough troops to secure Baghdad, and the increased troops levels went away just in time for the rise in sectarian violence. That should have been reason enough to do what was necessary in Baghdad, but 2006 was the year of ‘stay the course’ versus ‘redeploy’. Neither option was a realistic solution. By not having enough troops in Baghdad, Shia leaders allied with radical militias for protection and Sunni terrorists were able to continue attacks. By not telling those Shia leaders that they needed to get in line if they expected US help, the Bush administration guaranteed failure for the summer operations in Baghdad. Oh, and let’s not forget that the administration hasn’t even made a move for so much as sanctions on Syria and Iran for aiding and abetting terrorists and death squads.

Democrats have pushed for leaving as the top priority. Republicans were largely stuck defending Bush, who in turn didn’t have the gumption to do what needed to be done as soon as it needed doing. Everybody got it wrong. Everybody is still getting it wrong. Rhetoric associated with ‘the surge’ seems to finally be bringing the Maliki government around, and with Sunni tribes cooperating more and more in Anbar there’s a much better chance for progress in 2007 than there was in 2006. That said my hope lies mostly with courageous US and Iraqi troops finding ways to win rather than either party getting its act together.


Point of View 2, January 26, 2007: Restart

I get asked, “Why don’t you talk about politics anymore?”

There are plenty of reasons. For one thing, with each passing year I have more and more dislike for both political parties. I have more and more dislike for essentially every government in the world except for maybe Australia and Japan. I see doublespeak, I see incompetence, I see pandering, I see well-intentioned wrongness, I see deception, I see partisan hacks spouting off half-assed talking points, I see very little positive leadership and I see no new alternatives.

Every day I’m online following the news. I go through pontificators from the left and right on realclearpolitics.com. I keep up with blogs that actually know what’s going on, good and bad, in global hotspots. On occasion I see things that make me hopeful, such as people I disagree with offering reasonable viewpoints and people I agree with finding new and better ways to explain my beliefs. More often I see regurgitation of talking points, writers who ignore vital and well-known flaws in their arguments, and empty blather. The hard questions are ignored because answers are harder to come up with than criticisms. Subtleties that have major ramifications aren’t analyzed because they don’t neatly fit into Red vs Blue bickering.

Every major politician I can think of has very serious problems with at least several of my fundamental beliefs. This wouldn’t be so serious if the federal government was closer to the size it ought to be, but it is what it is and it won’t change any time soon. Between those whose beliefs are opposed to mine, those who shift with the polls and become opportunists, those who triangulate for the sake of re-election, and those who have no coherent belief system, I have nobody to defend.

In a series of posts I’m going to go over some pressing issues of the day and point out how both political parties suck. I realize that a large number of you disagree heavily with my previous political pontifications, but give me a chance because one of my goals is not to engage in the same tired one-sided partisan bloviating we’re all sick to death of. Let’s kick it off on the domestic side, shall we?

Healthcare

Americans pay more for healthcare than anyone in the history of mankind. Obviously there is some optimum government policy in regards to this situation. What that policy is depends on a number of different factors.

1. What current policy is. Does current government spending tend to inflate or suppress prices? Are there significant regulations that get in the way of consumer choice and thus make it harder to afford medical care? Do current government programs give its recipients full coverage or narrow but cheaper coverage?

2. What the current health situation in the country is. Not every country needs the same things. Some need more, some need less. Access to treatments can vary, and that effects spending as well.

3. How is the private sector handling its end of the bargain? Are there inefficiencies in the fundamental way care is provided?

4. What other intangibles are there that could be effecting health spending?

The issues on hand are too large for any one person to completely grasp, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try. Unfortunately the debate revolves around ‘too many people are uninsured’ versus ‘socialized medicine will cost too much and hurt innovation’, and neither side realizes the number of important things left out of the debate because those things don’t neatly fit into partisan attacks.

A. Americans are fat. Fat, fat, fat. I’m 200 pounds and I don’t stick out here at all, but in Japan I felt like a lardball because my man-boobs were more prominent than most women-boobs (but that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax). Obesity is tied to everything under the sun, and it means that Americans don’t live as long and are more likely to run into an expensive medical problem. Fat is caused by culture, work habits, eating habits, food prices and who knows what all else. Other Western nations are running into the same problem but right now the US is on the cutting edge of blubber, so we’re going to pay the price. If the government is going to be in the business of lowering national health expenditures, it will have to address this. No politician is seriously doing so.

B. The legal system in the US is lawsuit-friendly. Malpractice suits and insurance are one of the single biggest costs in the healthcare industry, a cost that is higher in the US than any other (to my knowledge). There needs to be a balance between checks on bad doctors and lawyers who see lawsuits as a lotto stacked in their favor. Right now the balance is tilted towards the latter, and that means once again Americans pay more.

C. Inefficient non-computerized information systems are so prevalent that the US spends more on administration/paperwork than anyone else, and from what I’ve seen it’s by a fair amount. I think it was worthwhile for the federal government to spend money on vital infrastructure like highways, and given the amount we sink into Medicare and Medicaid every year the same can be said for Information Technology infrastructure.

D. I’m usually a “states rights” kinda guy, but having 50 sets of rules on health insurance and no ability to buy insurance from out-of-state (meaning there’s no national market) is grossly inefficient. It costs more for insurance companies to follow the rules, it costs more for the governments to operate, and it limits the amount of choices for consumers. More competition means lower prices, lower profit margins and better service.

E. The tax code makes it more expensive to have insurance for some people and less expensive for others. Bush has started making a move on this, and the usual responses amount to ‘Bush sucks and everything he says must be bad’ or ‘this isn’t a full fix so let’s not do it’. Bah! How about ‘Bush isn’t doing enough to close tax loopholes for corporations and the rich’? It’s TRUE, it’s fiscally conservative and it’s populist all at the same time. Oh but it would step on the toes of too many donors, which is why neither party is taking a serious whack at it. Bottom line: the tax code should be at least neutral/flat when it comes to healthcare, and right now it’s regressive, leading to some wasteful spending.

F. Current entitlement programs aren’t rationed, or at the very least aren’t as rationed as similar programs in other Western countries. All the talk about waiting lists and so forth has to do with the intersection of supply and demand. Under socialized medicine, government budgets create a limit on demand for many treatments. That limits supply. The real demand, of course, is how many people need treatment. Supply is less than demand, and people have to wait. But don’t people in countries with socialized medicine have longer overall life expectancies? Overall, yes; for people with many chronic conditions no. I blame fatness for why Americans die younger. Anyway, if US government programs were to limit care the way others do, spending would decrease and thus prices would decrease.

There. Six reasons why Americans spend more but get less. Sometimes the solution is more government, sometimes the solution is less government, sometimes there is no solution. How many politicians are talking about ANY of this? I’m shooting from the hip based on articles I’ve read from both the left and the right, so I’m certainly not an expert, but at least I’m trying to get at the roots of the issue rather than speaking in partisan, base-friendly bromides with little actual substance. There are so many things that can be done to make the system better for everyone that have nothing to do with the great left vs right or debate, but because they don’t score points for one side or the other they gather dust. There’s no passion where there’s no partisan gain to be had.



Point of View 2, December 11, 2004: Election aftermath, gay marriage

-Zogby and Gallup sucked, and sucked quite a lot, in the state-by-state polling. Despite that, "the polls" were correct in every battleground state where one of them had a clear advantage. Further, Bush never lost his national polling lead. Those who say polls are meaningless just don't want to consider the possibility.

-Bush won. If you seriously think the piddling accusations floating around in Florida and Ohio tally up to hundreds of thousands of votes, you're nuts. If you think Kerry actually won, despite Bush dominating the polls in both states and winning the nation decisively, you're nuts. If you think Bush's margin of victory means there was no fraud or irregularities on the part of either candidates, you're just as nuts. Fixing the voting flaws shouldn't be a fishing expidition for Kerry votes; it should be an expected part of the system. Neither side has handled it well.

-Those of you freaking out over a second Bush term need to chill. Domestically, he's going to stick with what he ran on, as he did in the first term. Internationally, there won't be another invasion for the simple reason that we're stuck in Iraq and no other war would be politically viable. My main problem with Bush is that he's a politician, but that does provide a degree of predictability. The Iraq war had over 50% approval at the time, due to the ease of Gulf War 1 and ligering antagonism towards Saddam. Now that the occupation as been so hard, the public won't want another war. North Korea, Iran and Syria lack a villian as despised in the public as Saddam. Oh, and most of all, there isn't going to be a draft, no matter how many times Democrats create draft bills in congress to dredge up the issue.

-I don't care that much about gay marriage, much like I don't care much about stem cells, 'assault' weapons, marijuana's legality, or WWE's current product. However, my take on it is one I simply don't see expressed that often. I oppose government-sanctioned gay marriage. I also oppose government-sponsored straight marriage.

The reason? Marriage is a *religious institution*; thus Christians freaking out over gay marriage. The government has no reason to be in the marriage business, which is why we have civil unions. What in the blue hell does the government know about holy matrimony, gay or straight? Get the government out of marriage, and let the gay/straight debate take place on a smaller, spiritual level in individual churches.


Point of View 2, September 7, 2004: The electoral college, swing states and the decisive three

I sympathize with Gore voters. Gore won the national vote by a considerably greater margin than, for instance, JFK had over Nixon (0.51% for Gore vs 0.17% for JFK). Even if Bush had won Florida by a comfortable margin, say 50,000 votes, you still have a situation where it's the electoral system deciding the vote. We hadn't seen such a thing since 1876. You might say that it's undemocratic. You'd be wrong.

We are a federal union of states. As I mentioned at length in my last column, it's important that we focus more on the state than the federal/national level. The electoral college, much like the senate, is designed to prevent a consolidation of power among the big states or a single region. Unless a president is popular enough over a large enough swath of the country, he (or she, but don't hold your breath on that) won't be elected president.

Because of this, an election platform must be constructed that can not only hold the solidly partisan states (which represent well over half the electoral votes) but also appeal to the middle. This means states such as Arizona, Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky and West Virginia can decide elections and thus attract campaign attention despite being smaller combined than California. And it's not exactly a simple thing to match the preferences of a majority of Arizonans and West Virginians.

Do the big states get neglected in the process? California, New York and Texas will receive relatively little attention from the candidates because they're in the bag for one or the other. Yet Texas went for Carter in '76, New York went for Reagan in '84, and California went for Bush in '88. It's very possible for a party to lose its grip on a state based on shifting beliefs and weaker candidates. Compare the platforms of Bush and Kerry with the corresponding beliefs of the pre-determined states and you'll see exactly why they go the way they do.At it stands there are over a hundred electoral votes up for grabs, meaning that both campaigns will be very active in dozens of states.

There can be turnovers from the last election, with states like Florida, Ohio and Nevada potentially switching to Kerry while New Mexico and Pennsylvania could go Bush. It's entirely possible (though unlikely) that we'll see a repeat of 2000, with the nationwide vote and electoral vote going to different candidates. Seeing so much on the line places the parties in a position where they have to address the concerns of voters in every swing state, as any one could be decisive.

Which reminds me; those of you in swing states have no excuse to say that your vote doesn't count. Fractionally higher turnout among Democrats in the huge state of Florida would have changed the last election. Of the ten closest states in 2000 (the swingers), both won five; Bush got 55 electoral votes from these to Gore's 40. Six of these had margins of 7,000 votes or less. Not only could it have gone either way, but a slight shift in these states could have created a *decisive* victory either way. I mean, literally, the quantity of people reading these words right here is large enough to have altered the course of history, and this is a tiny tiny website. VOTE DAMN YOU, OR I WILL PERSONALLY DEVOUR A NEWBORN KITTEN.

Ahem.

Here are the three states that I believe decide presidential elections: Illinois, Missouri and Florida. From 1904 on, the candidate who won at least two of these went on to win the election. Missouri in particular has no loyalty, as they went Republican 11 times, Democrat 14 times, and the presidential winner a staggering 24 out of 25 times- with the sole exception being Ike in '56, who lost the state by just 4,000 votes. And in '56, Ike won both Florida and Illinois. These three states don't go in lock-step with a particular region. Between the last four elections they've had at least one party switch. This year, Kerry has Illinois locked up. On election night keep an eye on Florida and Missouri, because as they go, so goes America. Not only are they important for electoral votes, but they're also a good indicator of how the moderates are leaning overall.

When it gets close to election time I'll offer my analysis of both nationwide and state polls in order to try and predict who wins. This election will go to the wire barring any huge news, and either man could win. There's every reason to vote and campaign for your man, especially in the swing states.


Point of View 2, August 13, 2004: Collectivism, representation, and how layered government is worse for America than other nations

Long and loaded with a combination of theory, anecdote and wishful thinking. Indulge me, it's my birthday.

Rochester, NY isn't considered much of a sports town. The AHL's Amerks are a very successful club historically, the Rhinos of soccer are one of the nation's most profitable teams, and the area is one of the tops for lacrosse... but there's no Division 1 colleges and there's no team in the big four sports. Thus when it comes to getting money from Albany for sporting endeavors, we're passed up in favor of other places on a regular basis. It took years before we got a new baseball stadium, and even then it was a miniscule fraction of the proposed cash that the Yankees will get for their new field.

What's wrong with the above situation? Well, the locals blame our state congressmen for not getting enough per capita for Rochester compared with Buffalo and Syracuse. And they're right; there is a disparity in more than just sports. But that's not the disease at the heart of the issue. The real disease is collectivism and buck-passing. Say we have a $30,000,000 project. If Rochester pays for it, that's $30 per person. If the state does, it's under $2 per person. And so we wait for Albany to do it because it's easier for Albany to justify such a big expense than it is for Rochester to.

The same thing happens all the time with far larger issues and dollar sums. The federal government spends hundreds of billions a year on medical entitlements and financing the national debt, when similar per capita spending on a local level would be balked at by voters just as much- or more- than school budgets. Thousands of pork projects which enable incumbents to get re-elected are only feasible because nobody misses a couple million (or billion) here and there as long as it's buried in an omnibus spending bill and paid for by 300 million Americans.

Don't get me wrong, the federal government is needed for countless things, most importantly foreign policy and the military where the US needs unity for leverage abroad. At the same time, because the federal government is so far removed from the local level and because it covers so many people, it's next to impossible for politicians to resist the urge to spread out the cost of their pet issues when they have the opportunity. And when they do, they're blasted at home because the district isn't getting enough back.

Most of the founding fathers wanted a decentralized government so that the states would be largely autonomous. Amendment 10 of the constitution makes it clear: powers that aren't specifically named should be left to the states. And maybe they would have. But then a funny thing called manifest destiny happened, the North won the civil war, and the population and land area covered by the federal government made temptation stronger than the 10th amendment.

Now there's no question that if congress decides government is going to spend money on, say, a museum in Iowa, that it's going to be constitutional to make Missouri and New York pay for it. If every government spending decision that specifically effects a single state was debated at a state level, and every state decision specifically effecting a county/region was similarly passed down, people would be less and less likely to support said spending unless it was really needed.

In addition, issues are decided upon in a much more representative fashion when done at smaller levels. Making one choice to cover the nation means the chances are high that a nine-digit number of them will be left unhappy. Fifty choices that can be different will only ever see a larger number of satisfied people; each choice will be that of the state's majority, where federal decisions see only a majority of some states. Federal decisions are least likely to represent America. Most presidents are hated due to a 'coalition of minorities'; practically everyone opposes several policies of a president because next to nothing is uniformally accepted. The only beloved presidents are the ones with a ton of charisma to make people forget disagreements.

That's part of why it makes so little sense to have two political parties. How can you apply a party platform to even thirty, let alone a hundred and thirty million people? Europe, with far smaller populations of uniform ethnicity and culture (at least relative to the US), has multi-party systems as the norm. Granted that European governments are even more collectivist despite being smaller, but that has more to do with culture; I believe that Americans would choose to eliminate much spending if government were more representative. Still, the typical European setup does a much better job of giving everyone a voice, as shifting voting blocs have the ability to change on an issue-by-issue basis where a single US party can't.

I'd like to think that someday, Americans will wake up and realize that we can fundamentally do better for ourselves. A streamlined federal government that leaves more issues up to the local and state level, along with voting reforms needed to facilitate additional parties, would create a surge in participation and interest in democracy. A single vote does next to nothing to effect a national level, but that power grows if the local elections decide the big issues. It grows even more if we have additional, real choices on the ballot. Don't look for the parties to provide that leadership, because it's in their interests that they keep the decision-making power for themselves.

The greatest thing would be to see just how much more different left and right leaning states become under their own power. California wants gay marriages? Let's see what happens. Kansas wants to ban abortion? Let's see what happens. Vermont goes for universal healthcare while Oklahoma cuts medicare altogether, which one makes out better in the long run? The muddling, mediocre, first-one-to-the-middle politics of the US is what causes so many issues to drag on forever. Let's find out who's right, who's wrong, and how much better the system works when it's dynamic rather than dinosauric.


Point of View 2, July 7, 2004: Iraqis determine their own fate.

The coalition removed Saddam Hussein from power. The traditional war didn't even last two months. Meanwhile, the less traditional 'war of the reconstruction' will still be going on months for now. It's mostly Iraqis who are doing the attacking. It's mostly Iraqis who are dying. And while the coalition still plays a major role in making Iraq stable and democratic, in the end it is the Iraqis themselves who will determine their fate. Here are several facets of that, both on the theoretical and current levels.

1. Uprising. Iraqis, from jihadists under Sadr-type clerics to Hussein loyalist to punk kids with nothing better to do, are the heart and soul of ongoing violence. While flashy attacks like car bombings are mostly done by foreign groups like Al Qaeda, the dozens of daily gun battles that go unreported (because it's only news if a white person dies) are first and foremost involving Iraqis. That steady flow of violence is what really keeps Iraq unstable. Israel easily survived similar levels of bombings, but they didn't have the gunfights on top of it. If the current insurgents lay down their arms... or see their numbers swell... that will have a direct effect on whether the reconstruction remains a war.

Thankfully, there is not a significant (re: over 1%) population of insurgents. The two big groups in Fallujah and the Najaf region have been mostly subdued, and no other sustained large-scale violence has happened in the last year despite several moments that could have prompted it (Saddam's capture, the prison scandal, the power handover last week). Most Iraqis are worried first and foremost about getting their lives in order, not with committing themselves to jihad.

2. Sectional squabbling. The Kurds, the Sunnis, the Shiites, etc. Groups that were forced together by the now-historic Iraq border when they should have been kept separate. It could break down Yugoslavia-style if the sects aren't happy with how power is distributed. If Iraqis feel loyal to the new government, then hopefully their status as Iraqis will come first. If not it could get ten times bloodier than the height of the invasion last March. Thankfully we haven't seen this yet.

3. Indirect assistance and non-cooperation. While few outright participate in insurgent activity, many more keep silent about what they know. Is it fear that they'll be attacked as traitors to the religion/country? Is it because they're okay with people dying as long as it's Americans? Whatever the reason, an increase in cooperation from civilians would go a long way towards quashing rebel groups and preventing new ones. I think that the growth of an Iraqi-staffed police and military force will be very important here, as Iraqis trust their countrymen more than outsiders and will be more likely to help.

Another part of that is the underlying public opinion. The extent to which Iraqis trust or don't trust coalition troops, the new Iraqi government, and insurgent groups, influences all of them. If a majority of the population in an area embraces rebels, then cooperation among civilians will be non-existent. Likewise, if rebels are shunned as they should be, then civilians would receive positive pressure. As foreign troops move out of sight, attacks will be seen more as terrorism rather than legitimate resistance. One hopeful sign is the level of support for the transitional government; it's far above the support given to the puppet Provisional Authority.

4. Prosperity. Right now Iraq is too unstable for just about any reconstruction efforts to get underway. Things like electricity remain below pre-war levels. If that reconstruction gets into gear and the Iraqi economy booms, the desire to fight will ebb. An unemployed ex-soldier is far more likely to pick up his rifle than one with a steady job. Here, it will depend on how much Iraqis are willing to invest in their own future. Will they assist western contractors, or turn up their noses? Will they take up the entrepreneurial spirit, or wait for government-run industries to spring up as was the norm under Saddam?

A lot will have happened by this time next year in Iraq. I remain hopeful that the Iraqis will make the right choices to earn and maintain their democracy.


Point of View 2, May 3, 2004: Paying tribute?

Among the many fresh controversies that have been dredged up over the last month involving Iraq, one of the most poignant centers around the amount of attention being paid to the death toll on US troops. Specifically, Ted Koppel reading a list of the names of the dead on Nightline. I take issue with how the press has reported the news from Iraq, in that it has erred time and again on the side of making the effort look bad as opposed to just reporting the situation.

'Will there be a draft?' No, there won't be a draft. There really, really, REALLY won't be a draft. I'll add more really's if that doesn't sink in. When we've still got tens of thousands of troops in heavily threatened regions like Germany, there are still troops to spare. Also, should we need more soldiers, we can increase pay by a couple grand apiece, thus rewarding those serving now and increasing the number of those who enlist. Volunteers are far more effective than forced labor. Even then, congress and the white house wouldn't approve such an unpopular measure.

How's it being reported? Well, when a congressman or senator from either party so much as says the word 'draft' (this is attached to anti-war grandstanding), it gets headlines. The media seizes on the story every chance it gets, because it's sensational. The fact of the matter is, anyone with even a tiny bit of knowledge knows that the army doesn't want a draft, both political parties don't want a draft, and thus even if we *do* run out of troops, other options will be used to increase our fighting forces. That this information is so rarely presented along with draft stories shows that there is a subtle agenda among the media to make it seem like a draft is imminent. Why? Maybe it's just to whet the public's appetite for more stories on the draft. But no matter what the real reason is, the more the draft is referenced, the more anxious the US will be about staying the course.

'It's Vietnam; It's a quagmire.' Like hell it's Vietnam. Vietnam was fighting a larger foreign-based army fueled by global powers in jungle terrain with drafted troops for a decade. Iraq is fighting pockets of guerrillas armed with machine guns and crude explosives in towns and cities with loyal troops for what is now 14 whole months. Fallujah was a center of malcontents before the war, just after the war, and still is today. Al Sadr was a rabble-rouser from the moment Saddam was deposed, and he's been in the army's sights for much longer than he's been in the media's. Fallujah and Najaf are the focal points of unrest, and neither is much of a surprise when placed in context. It isn't like the entire country is about to combust. Right now we're dealing with elements that have been resisting in one form or another ever since the occupation began, and they're easier to stamp out by several orders of magnitude than the Viet Cong were.

How's it being reported? Well, when troops were caught in a sandstorm for 24 hours before reaching Baghdad, that got some 'nam references. When Fallujah and Najaf took a turn for the worse, that brought in even more. Even though the level of casualties and deaths is so low as to have little real impact on our ability to hold the country, even though the vast majority of Iraq sees no more violence than a major US city, and even though we're doing a better and better job of finding Iraqi leaders (former Ba'ath members are being allowed to prove their loyalty to Iraq), the picture we're given from Iraq is one of violence with no end in sight. I'll grant that we still have at least a year or two of having a large presence in the nation and a steady trickle of attacks. I'll grant that we haven't taken care of Fallujah and Najaf yet. But comparing the current problems to Vietnam is like comparing the Korean war to World War II; size, scope, and relative capabilities really do matter.

'We must honor the troops.' Really. So, the way we honor them is to put a spotlight on every single incidence of death while ignoring the accomplishments? This is easily the trickiest of the media problems, but it's no less real. First off, in a perfect world there wouldn't be a problem with giving a lot of time to the troop death stories. In the real world, it lessens the resolve of the public. They love the soldiers, and after Vietnam they're wary of any extended conflict against a guerrilla-type army. Hearing about deaths and seeing the upward-ticking death toll every single night on the news gets old, especially with today's 24 hour news cycle with cable news, talk radio and the internet. The worst thing we can do in terms of honoring the dead is to abandon Iraq prematurely.

We've stayed with Iraq to make sure that it's left better off than it was before the war... to pay back for any errant destruction caused in the removal of the Ba'ath government. If left to its own devises, Iraq could fall under the sway of a dictator or a theocracy, or it could collapse into a multi-tiered civil war. A country with so many problems and no history of democracy would be hard-pressed to find a solid solution without major assistance. And if you think the UN and its absurd rules of engagement could take care of insurgents, I've got a bridge to sell you. Leaving before the job is done means that hundreds of coalition lives, thousands of Iraqi lives and billions upon billions of dollars will have gone in vain. I can't think of a worse tribute.

How's it being reported? Well, since the public is so sensitive about the deaths, they get reported. And reported. And reported. And meanwhile the big picture, which hardly ever produces the large events that drive the news, gets swept aside. What's the status of Iraq's schools? How are their oil and electricity production? What plans are underway to introduce democracy, and how is the prospect of democracy being met? How often do troops come under fire without being hit? What of Iraq's economy, police force, crime rates, etc? These are the true measures of the reconstruction's success, whether positive or negative. Instead we're inundated with every single major failure to secure the peace. Sadly, soldier fatalities are a form of failure.

Of course security is important. But is the whole rest of the picture that insignificant? Why must the failures of the troops be waved around as the news of the day when the rest of the story doesn't just get pushed out of the limelight, but gets ignored altogether? The situation is as clear as day: the media cares about headlines, not 'honoring the troops' or reporting the truth. Let's hear about the hundreds of the dead, but let's hear *more* about the hundreds of thousands who aren't. Let's hear about the thousands of insurgent Iraqis, but let's hear more about the millions of peaceful civilians who thanklessly try to put their lives and country back together. Something tells me that a properly reported Iraq would receive more support from all corners of the globe.