Monday, November 16, 2015

Joining the Dance

Without knowing exactly why ISIS undertook these attacks, we risk dancing to their tune.

-- Will McCants

This week's featured post is "A Meditation on Terrorism".

This week everybody was talking about the Paris attacks

As I've said many times, a one-man blog is poorly equipped to cover breaking news. If you want to keep track of what is known, but avoid the TV networks' often-baseless speculations and obsessive focus on the most recently revealed detail (which may turns out to be false two days later), I recommend rechecking the Wikipedia article from time to time. As new facts are established and old ones debunked, the article is updated to retell the story as currently understood.

The larger question, though, is how we should respond to attacks like this. My basic take on terrorism hasn't changed since 2004, when I wrote one of my first popular blog posts "Terrorist Strategy 101: a quiz", which I updated on its 10th anniversary with "Terrorist Strategy 101: a review". I believe you shouldn't view a terrorist attack through the same lens as military attacks, because the intention of the attacker is completely different.

The point of a military attack is to degrade a country's ability to defend itself; by destroying something of military value, the attack is an end in itself. But the point of a terrorist attack is to provoke a response. So responding out of either fear or anger might be exactly what the enemy wants.

One advantage neo-cons have had since 9-11 is that they always have their frame well prepared: Every enemy is Hitler in 1938, and every response other than all-out war is Chamberlain betraying Czechoslovakia at Munich. The whole frame is already sitting in everybody's head, and it leaps to mind the instant a neo-con uses one of its code words, like appeasement. The instant the frame is invoked, the favored response is obvious: Do whatever it takes to stop the Hitler-analog now, before he gets more powerful later.

That's a really bad frame for thinking about ISIS. A few thousand jihadis in the Syrian desert don't bear much resemblance to the nation of Germany, and less than a dozen guys in Paris with AK-47s and grenades are not General Guderian's panzer corps. But a bad frame will win out against no frame, so we need to present a better way of thinking about this. That's what I try to lay out in the extended analogy of "A Mediation on Terrorism".

People always ask, "If Muslims don't approve of terrorist attacks, why aren't they saying so?" They are. Here are a bunch and here are a bunch more. It's hard to miss them, if you want to see them. If you don't want to see them, though, they're invisible.

I haven't vetted CaspianReport to any depth. It seems to be the work of one very dedicated guy, which makes me identify with him. But I'm not sure who he is or how he views his mission, so I'm not giving my full endorsement yet. But these two videos -- one on the origins of ISIS and the other on terrorism in general seem very insightful.

And man, do I envy that logo.

and red coffee cups

Segueing from the serious to the ridiculous, I spent a chunk of Thursday morning trying to figure out whether the Christian outrage over Starbucks' seasonal red coffee cups is a real thing. I don't believe it is.

I mean, the red cups are real, and they are kind of minimalistic as holiday decorations go: just red with a green logo, rather than including a bunch of secular seasonal images of candy canes and snowmen and such, as Starbucks holiday cups usually do. But I kept feeling like I was being punked: I heard a lot more from people outraged at the ridiculous triviality of the Christian outrage than I heard from actual outraged Christians.

I think that was the point. It all started with an online rant posted by Joshua Feuerstein, a guy whose sole claim to fame is that he posts evangelistic rants. He's not the leader of any face-to-face religious group. He has an online following, but it's not clear how many of them are Christians who agree with him, as opposed to secularists who watch his stuff because his antics amuse them, aggravate them, or bolster their sense of superiority. So if he made you look, he won, and the joke was on you. (Correction: us.)

In my opinion, an even bigger joke was on the people who got counter-trolled: the Christians so upset to see people criticizing other Christians that they felt obligated to join in the original complaint, even though they never would have noticed or felt offended by the cups on their own. And then there were the people trying to pander to such people, like Donald Trump. (Loser!)

And the big winner? Starbucks, who dominated the national discussion for a day or two with no advertising expense. CNBC predicts they'll wait a decent interval, release a cup with more traditional winter themes, and benefit from another huge wave of free publicity. (See the closing for another suggestion.)

and campus protests

By drawing the football team (and implicitly, its coach -- not to mention the support of nine deans) into their protests, black activists at the University of Missouri managed to get the resignations of the university president and chancellor.

It's kind of amazing how negatively this -- and similar protests at Yale and elsewhere -- have been covered. The gist of the complaint is that the university has tolerated a hostile environment for black students and faculty, in which they're subject to racial insults and symbolic terrorism (like a swastika being drawn in human feces on a residence hall wall). No one is claiming that the administration has been actively against blacks, but it has showed no sign of regarding the hostile atmosphere as a big deal. Low points were when the president refused to talk to protesters that blocked his car during the homecoming parade, and when he defined systemic oppression by referring to what black students believe rather than anything real.

The black students have been widely characterized as whiny opponents of free speech, and yes, it's true that Jackie Robinson and other civil-rights trailblazers endured far worse. But is that really the right standard? In 2015, should an African American need to be a Jackie Robinson to make it through a state university?

I'm also not buying the threat to free speech, or that our campuses are places where "political correctness" has run amok. (I stand by my definition of political correctness: "The bizarre liberal belief that whites, men, straights, Christians, the rich, and other Americans in positions of privilege should treat less privileged people with respect, even though such people have no power to force them to.") As Sally Kohn wrote in The Atlantic:

“Political correctness” only acquired a name when, relatively recently in American history, the idea of treating others respectfully was finally extended to include how white people treat black people, how men treat women, and so on.

The last time Jonathan Chait went off on political correctness, I responded sarcastically:

it’s up to white men (like me and Chait) to decide whether your concerns deserve attention, or if you’re just being too sensitive. We’ll let you know what we decide, but until then try to keep the noise down so that you don’t disturb the neighbors.

I don't see any reason to reconsider. In reality, campuses are not free speech zones and never have been. They're more like bars. No bar would post a list of things you can't talk about. But a good bartender tries to maintain a space where a diverse set of customers feels comfortable, and will not be afraid to tell one customer to tone it down if he's chasing away some of the others. The University of Missouri -- like a lot of American universities -- has been doing a bad job of running its bar, when it comes to maintaining a good learning environment for black students. Hopefully it will improve under new management.

and another Republican debate

Until the Paris attack, the quote I was planning to lead with was Trevor Noah's:

One thing most pundits agreed on about last night's Republican debate is that it was it was much better than previous debates, partly due to the fact that it had more substance -- which is true, because bullshit is a substance.

I don't want to repeat myself, so I'll just say that what I outlined in "Three Hours in Bizarro World" still applies: Listening to a Republican presidential debate is like traveling to an alternate universe, one with its own history and facts and arithmetic. For example, it continues to be a place where you can drastically lower taxes, spend more money on the military, not cut any spending that people will notice or miss, and still balance the budget. Similar policies may have led to the greatest economic disaster since the Great Depression, but the Bush administration was a long time ago and no one remembers it any more.

If anything, Bizarro World has only gotten more bizarre since the candidates revolted against the third debate's CNBC moderators. So the Fox Business Channel moderators of the fourth debate on Tuesday were careful not to notice when candidates dodged questions or said anything obviously false. They also phrased their questions in conservative NewSpeak, as when Gerard Baker opened a question on inequality with "Many are concerned that the new wealth seems to be going only to innovators and investors" rather than using, say, the equivalent phrase preferred by both Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, malefactors of great wealth, or the more pedestrian rich greedy bastards.

But I will point out a few things that are either new or I neglected to mention in previous debate-response posts.

Syria. On Ben Carson's statement that the Chinese are in Syria, Obama's national security adviser Susan Rice says: "unless you're talking about having a diplomatic presence, I'm not sure what he's referring to". I doubt he knows either, though Carson spokesman Armstrong Williams insists Carson's claim is backed up by "our own intelligence and what Dr. Carson's been told by people who are on the ground". So I guess there's a Carson Intelligence Agency now. Maybe they're the ones who convinced him the pyramids weren't built by aliens.

BTW, if the name Armstrong Williams rings a bell, it's because of his role in the No Child Left Behind payola scandal.

The tax postcard. Ted Cruz managed to work in the two biggest applause lines from his stump speech: simplifying taxes so that you can fill out your return on a postcard, and abolishing the IRS. I'm waiting for a moderator to ask the obvious question: Who do you mail the post card to? Whoever that is, you may not call them the IRS any more, but they are the IRS. And unless they're going to take your word for how much tax you owe, they're going to have to behave a lot like the IRS does now.

Cruz' postcard is worth looking at, because as soon as you picture filling it out, you realize he hasn't made taxes that much simpler at all.

On line 1, you need to know your investment income, which means you'll need to know the basis price of any investment you sold. And if you got dividends or interest payments, you'll need to know what part represented a return of capital, and so on. Unless you expect the government to take your word about all this, you'll have to be able to show your calculations if challenged. I'd suggest you retain the old Schedules B and D and fill them out just for your own records. And if part of your income is from self-employment, that's going to be a whole different form with its own complexities.

Line 4 asks about your itemized deductions, which means you'll have to understand how those are defined. Line 6 lets you deduct for a "savings plan", so you'll need to know which plans qualify and how much you're allowed to deduct. Line 10 retains a tax credit for earned income and child care, so you'll have to know whether you qualify for those and how to claim them.

In other words, if you have only the wage income reported on your W-2, and you take the standard deduction and don't mess with the savings program or claim any tax credits, your taxes will be simple. But in that case, they're simple now: the 1040-EZ form isn't much bigger than Cruz' postcard.

Line 9 is the only place where the flatness of Cruz' tax makes a difference: you figure your tax by multiplying your taxable income (line 8) times 10%. But if he kept the progressive tax rates we have now, Line 9 could say "Look up your tax on the tax tables." So the flat tax saves you maybe thirty seconds or so, at the cost of blowing a multi-trillion-dollar hole in the ten-year federal budget.

The three-page tax code. Related to Cruz' postcard is Carly Fiorina's "three-page tax code". Fiorina is endorsing what is known as a Hall-Rabushka flat tax, named after the two economists who wrote a book describing it. CNN Money notes that the Hall-Rabushka tax code is kept short by using vague terms that would require "hundreds of pages of regulations" to define rigorously.

For instance, there might need to be more clarity around notoriously confusing areas of income and expenses, such as that for the self-employed. Where's the dividing line between personal expenses and business expenses?

"Taxpayers want to claim all sorts of costs as deductible business expenses, and a lot of [today's] rules are aimed at limiting such abuse. When is use of a car business or personal? What about meals? Can you hire your kid and pay her $100,000 for services rendered?" Burman said.

The complexity of the current tax code isn't due to the perversity of the IRS, but to the ingenious justifications people dream up for not paying taxes. If taxes are going to be anything more than a voluntary pass-the-hat system, we'll continue needing rules to disallow those schemes, even during a Fiorina administration.

The Fed. Rand Paul blamed the Federal Reserve for income inequality:

By artificially keeping interest rates below the market rate, average ordinary citizens have a tough time earning interest.

Yep, if only the people who are falling out of the middle class could get a higher interest rate on all that money they have in the bank, we'd have our inequality problem whipped. Paul also blamed the Fed for high inflation -- which is only happening in his imagination -- and claimed that  people making $20,000 a year are hurt worst by it. In the real world, the lowest inequality in American history was in the 1970s, when the annual inflation rate sometimes topped 10%.

Ads for Hillary. After Donald Trump called for a "deportation force" to track down and remove the 11 million undocumented immigrants, and cited Eisenhower's Operation Wetback as a precedent that proves it can be done, Jeb Bush observed "they’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now" -- which the Clinton campaign verified via Twitter.

Another Clinton high-five moment came when Trump and Carson both opposed raising the minimum wage. Trump cited "wages too high" as a factor making the U.S. non-competitive. (In addition to his general insensitivity, Trump is ignoring all those minimum-wage jobs that aren't subject to foreign competition. I mean, I'm not going to Cambodia for an Egg McMuffin, even if they're cheaper there. And no matter how little Honduran janitors earn, nobody's going to ship a building to Tegucigalpa for cleaning.) And Carson echoed that black teen-agers are unemployed "because of those high wages".

So if you're making the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour, the Republican front-runners think your wage is high.

and you also might be interested in ...

There was a Democratic debate in Iowa Saturday night. I haven't had time to watch it yet myself. (One debate a week is about my limit.) According to most reports, both Sanders and O'Malley were more aggressive in attacking Clinton, though no one is reporting a serious knockdown moment.

If you thought O'Malley was angling for a VP slot with Clinton, he pretty well eliminated that possibility. If he were Clinton's VP,  his assessment of the Obama/Clinton foreign policy would be in every Republican attack ad: "Libya is a mess. Syria is a mess. Iraq is a mess. Afghanistan is a mess."

If you want to understand why it's important to affirm that black lives matter, consider these two articles: Liam O'Ceallaigh looks at the bloody career of Belgium's King Leopold II in "When You Kill Ten Million Africans, You Aren't Called 'Hitler'." Nobody gets out of high school without hearing about the Holocaust, and you probably have at least some vague knowledge of the killing fields of Cambodia or the Armenian genocide. But Leopold's genocide against the Congolese goes pretty much unnoticed. He is seldom mentioned among the great monsters of history, because, well, he just killed black people, and they don't really count.

Now check out the Wikipedia article on the terrorist attack in Kenya in April. In terms of the number of deaths, it was similar to this week's attacks in Paris. But even I have a reaction of "Oh yeah. I sort of remember that." We can tell ourselves that all lives matter, but they don't. Not really, not even among people like me. We've all got work to do.

I've given up on the fantasy of reading the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty and making up my own mind. 3000 pages makes it a very boring equivalent of the entire Harry Potter series. So mostly I'm going to be relying on sources I trust on the various issues TPP affects.

So far that's not looking good for the TPP. Here's Grist's take on the environmental section.

and let's close with something subtle

Flashing back to the most virulent-but-trivial controversy on the internet this year, here's the cleverest response I've seen to the Starbucks-Christmas-cup flap: "Starbucks releases new White and Gold cups in hopes of offending less people."

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