Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

30 August 2014

Dark Chickens Coming Home to Roost


Here in Yankee land, all is tranquil and peaceful now that Ferguson’s protests have subsided. Our workers are getting ready for our pleasant Labor Day holiday, which traditionally marks the end of summer and the resumption of what is now a perpetual political campaign. Soon all Yankee eyes will turn to the lies and fantasies of Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner and the attempts of pols without billionaires’ backing to refute them. The fate of the last two years of Barack Obama’s presidency will hang in the balance. The prognosis is not good.

For many of us Yanks, these campaigns of lies don’t matter much. Our economy is recovering, albeit more slowly that we like. Our stock markets are all up—way up. We Yanks still have the satisfaction of knowing that we’re “Number One!” economically, at least until the Chinese surpass us. Having fought three unnecessary decade-long wars in five decades—Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan—we are returning to the isolationism from which the last century’s two world wars jolted us. We are once again feeling the suspicion of “foreign entanglements” that Washington gave us as our birthright.

But all is not well abroad. Some very dark and dangerous chickens are coming home to roost.

The first is Vladimir Putin. I have made no secret of my admiration for his early career. When he came to national power fifteen years ago, Russia was a broken, bleeding and deluded country, battered by repeated invasions and World War, traumatized by a Cold War that very nearly exterminated our species, and duped by a fictional economic system.

Gorbachev and Yeltsin presumed to offer a cure, and Putin took it further. Russia became, in Yeltsin’s words, a “normal country.” Under Putin it joined the global economy and WTO, began to build a middle class, and dropped its Soviet trash-talking and war mongering.

But Putin has changed. The change is now self-evident.

How so? One of the worst things a parent or leader can do is lie to kids. Putin did that this week. In a highly publicized meeting with Russian youth, he likened what is going on today in Ukraine to the Nazi conquest of that nation (first battered by Soviet starvation and oppression) some eighty years ago.

It is self-evidently nothing of the kind. Ukraine today is hardly the world-conquering military machine that was Nazi Germany—which, when it annexed Austria, was the strongest military power on Earth and in human history. Ukraine is a nation still finding itself and tripping over democracy. It can hardly even defend itself. Only Putin’s complete control of Russian television could make this hapless nation seem an ogre.

Even more self-evident is the motive for Putin’s lie. At long last his actions—not his words—made clear what he has wanted all along: a land bridge to Crimea, the province he recently stole from Ukraine.

Apparently I was right when I surmised that all those big white “aid” trucks were intelligence-gathering machines. Apparently Putin has decided that taking, let alone holding and pacifying, Donyetsk and Luhansk would be a terrible task involving a whole lot of expense, risk, suffering, civilian casualties and sacrifice.

Those two provinces would have made a fine land bridge to Crimea, for the sake of military supply, economic connectedness and contiguous territory. But grabbing them would be too costly. So now Putin has opened a “new front” in Ukraine, seeking a narrow land corridor to Crimea through the Ukrainian towns of Novoazovsk and Mariupol.

Of course there are more peaceful means of reaching the same end. Look at a map. A monstrous peninsula of Russia proper juts out between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov to greet Crimea’s east cost. There’s big gap of sea, to be sure. But overcoming that gap, whether with massive bridges, ferries, or a new Russia supply port on the east side of the big gap hardly seems beyond the engineering capability of the nation that was first to orbit an artificial satellite and first to put a man in space, and whose big rockets (before Putin’s current warmongering spooked commercial interests) were once the vehicle of choice for commercial satellite launches by every country but China.

The problem is that Putin has turned to the Dark Side. A macho man who hurt his back, in his fifties, in competitive judo, he apparently prefers conquest and territorial expansion to more peaceful pursuits like engineering.

I have noted (1 and 2) how “leaders for life” like Mao and Mugabe destroyed most or all of what they built in their best years by egotistical caprice in their dotage. Russia’s current enterprise in Ukraine will some day be known as Russia’s Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution. It will produce nothing but pain and suffering for Russia’s people.

If I were Russian, this week would have turned my mind irrevocably against Putin, despite all the good he has done for Russia’s people to date. One leader of a great power (Dubya) who tries to make his own reality with propaganda and force is enough for any century.

The tragedy of Putin’s declining years is a Russian chicken coming home to roost: insufficient attention to building political parties and real democracy. But another flock of much darker and more powerful chickens is coming home to roost in another part of the world. This is the penchant for military-industrial complexes in advanced countries, including our own, Russia, China and yes, France—to build themselves up by selling advanced weaponry to nations whose economies, governments and social systems, let alone morality, give them no hope of using those weapons wisely or well.

The main problem in the Middle East today is not the so-called Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS or ISIL. Not by a long shot. Iraq’s secular, battle hardened and experienced Sunnis could crush IS in mere weeks if they had the mind. Assad could do the same with IS in Syria.

Neither is doing so now because each sees IS as a means to an important end. Iraq’s Sunnis see IS as a means to regain a share of the wealth and power they once had in Iraq. Assad keeps IS alive because it supports his “all my enemies are terrorists” narrative. This clever ploy has even duped some misguided Yanks and Europeans, who think the West should ally with a psychopath who has utterly devasted a once peaceful country, on the theory that “my enemies’ enemies are my friends.” Isn’t that quaint notion as modern and apt as the Code of Hammurabi?

No, IS’ troops are no more than twenty thousand religious fanatics, foreign and alien to the places they now control. They are mostly strangers in strange lands. Russia has more than twice that many troops on the border of Ukraine. The Sunni Baathists that we Yanks stupidly purged from Iraq’s army and government number five times as many. When the locals have a good reason to crush IS, they will. But not before.

The really big problem in the Middle East is something that came to our scattered-brained Yankee attention just this week. The entire Middle East is taking sides. The Turks and Qataris are with IS, at least as against Hezbollah, Assad and Iran. So are the Saudis. Iran is with Syria and Hezbollah and against IS. Recently Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, of all things, sent modern planes to bomb Libya.

PBS pundit Mark Shields likened the situation to the last century’s Spanish Civil War. Volunteers from all over the world came to fight in that civil war, which was a precursor to World War II.

But what’s happening in the Middle East today is nothing like the Spanish Civil War. It’s not confined to a single country. Unlike the Spanish Civil War, it’s not primarily a matter of ideology, although the Sunni/Shiite schism figures importantly in it. It’s a witches’ brew of religious schisms, ancient enmity between ethnic groups, and the ambitions of primitive nation-states. In the worst case, it threatens a monstrous, regional free-for-all, with territory and alliances up for grabs.

In fact, it’s much more like a precursor to World War I. Half formed nation-states, including the Saudis’ medieval monarchy and the Gulf sheikdoms, are striving for survival, influence and dominance using modern weapons that their present state of social, let alone scientific, development never would have allowed them to have. Many of these “nations” still live by the Code of Hammurabi and the rules of monarchy and aristocracy that Europe and England abandoned centuries ago, and that we Yanks never had.

So what the world today is facing in the Middle East and North Africa is a replay of Europe’s devastating religious wars of the eighteenth century and World War I’s pointless struggle of nascent nation-states for empire—both at the same time.

The resulting conflagration could consume most or all of the Middle East and North Africa. It could stop the flow of oil on which the global economy depends. If enough of the participants gang up on Israel, it could result in the first use of nuclear weapons in war since 1945.

So when the President says we don’t have a strategy, he’s right. We don’t even have a strategy for defeating IS without setting this tinderbox on fire. And we sure as hell don’t have a strategy for heading off what could be World War III—not a global nuclear conflagration as feared in 1962, but a regional “world” war that devastates the Middle East, interrupts the flow of oil, wrecks the global economy, and generally produces unpredictable and probably catastrophic consequences.

Until we have a good strategy to head off this third world war, we should be doing exactly what the President is now doing: no harm.

Whatever strategy we develop will have to meet two goals. First, it will have to insure Israel’s survival. Second, it should do as little harm as possible and minimize the possibility of repeating the useless religious wars in Europe or the tragedy of World War I.

The President is absolutely right to want to think before acting. We acted before thinking in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. As Sarah Palin might say, how’d that approach work out for ya?

To say that the problem is multifaceted and difficult would be understatement of Obamanian proportions. A solution will require application of the greatest minds around the globe, with the same diligence and perseverance as our containment of Soviet Communism during the Cold War. We don’t just need great thinkers like George Marshall (the father of our Marshall Plan) and George Kennan (the father of our containment policy). We need a passel of them, with expertise in all the strange countries that make up the Middle East, as well as non-countries like Libya, Syria and Iraq today.

As we devise a solution, we must involve our traditional allies. We should also try to involve Russia and China, despite the current contretemps in the Ukraine and China’s own difficulties and conflict as a rising power. A third world war in the Middle East and North Africa is in no one’s interest, although it might make Russia’s oil and gas more valuable for a time.

We should also work to involve the countries in the region that are most advanced socially, most democratic and least governed by religious fervor. Those are, in order: Turkey, and (except for their own religious fanatics) Iran and Israel.

The Saudis, who have spent most of the last half-century [link downloads a document file] supporting Islamic extremism, jihadism and terrorism around the globe, need not apply. They are part of the problem and could become part of the solution only if leopards can change their spots utterly—an extremely unlikely eventuality. As much as we need to pull the big bad Russian bear off hapless Ukraine, we need far more to contain the Saudis and close the Pandora’s box of extremism that they have unleashed upon the world.

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25 August 2014

Eastern Ukraine: No News is not Good News, Especially for Frogs


If you want to know the immediate consequences of the Internet crushing print journalism, consider Eastern Ukraine. What do we know about what’s actually going on there? Next to nothing.

We know only six things. First, a low-level civil war is going on. Second, the Russian-leaning separatist rebels are mostly holed up in enclaves; the rest of the region is loyal to Kiev, however begrudgingly. Donyetsk City (or most of it), as distinguished from the whole province, is one of the rebel enclaves.

Third, Russians are continuing to supply the rebels and rebel enclaves, how and with precisely what we don’t know. Fourth, although both sides regularly claim tactical victories, the general situation appears to be a stalemate.

Fifth, we know that Russia recently sent a large number of big white trucks into the region ostensibly carrying “humanitarian aid” for the rebels and their besieged areas. Finally, we know that the rebels control at least one Russian border crossing, in Luhansk Province, which is where the white trucks entered Ukraine without Kiev’s permission.

Almost everything else is uncertain, disputed or unknown. Even who shot down MH17 is disputed, by reports that bear at least superficial indicia of credibility and internal consistency. With all the focus naturally on the more heavily disputed and populated Donyetsk Province, Luhansk Province might as well be on the Moon.

We know much more, in much greater detail, about what is happening in Iraq, despite the higher language barrier there. Maybe that’s because we have people on the ground in Iraq. Good, professional reporting in Eastern Ukraine seems to be limited to fly-ins by freelancing Brits and high-profile reporters like Margaret Warner, who spend a couple of days running around taking video and interviewing easily available people, and then leave. Reportorial follow-through is non-existent.

One can only hope that our CIA and Europe’s spooks have more assets on the ground and more information. But the likelihood is they don’t. Ukraine has never been high on our Yankee list of priorities, and it takes a decade or so to shift our intelligence focus. (It took us almost two decades to begin to understand that Saudi oil money is behind almost every jihadist/terrorist network and cell in the world.)

So, for example, we don’t know some pretty basic things about the big white trucks. What was really in them? Were they searched and X-rayed before leaving Russia and entering Ukraine? They were supposed to have been, but were they?

And what about the second tranche of big white trucks that Ukraine claims went in today, accompanied by Russian tanks and armored vehicles? What was in them?

For all we in the global public know, some or all of those trucks could have contained ammunition and advanced weaponry, including parts or all of anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles. Russia might be arming the rebels right under our noses. Alternatively (or in addition), as I reasoned recently, the drivers and minders of those trucks might be gathering accurate intelligence for Putin, because he knows as little as we.

One thing is clear. There is a different standard of public “truth” in the Slavic world than in the West. Both Kiev and Moscow—and especially the rebels—have repeatedly promulgated “facts” that turned out not to be true. The have done so often enough to impair, if not destroy, their credibility. Statements released publicly often turn out to be little more than rumors, hopes or unconfirmed raw data.

So it seems that Kiev and Moscow are both just guessing. Is Washington, too?

Who gains from this information vacuum? Moscow does, for three reasons. First, it’s closer in both geography and culture, so it knows better what to expect and what information to trust. Second, unless Putin missed a grand opportunity (which he seldom does), the drivers and minders of those big white trucks have brought him good, current intelligence. (Most, if not all, of the drivers probably are trained intelligence agents.)

But the third reason is the clincher. Remember Al Gore’s frogs in boiling water? If the temperature goes up gradually enough, they don’t leap out until they’re fully cooked. That now appears to be Putin’s strategy in Eastern Ukraine.

Of course it’s impossible to know his mind. Even his best international friend, Chancellor Merkel, sees him as an enigma. But if Kiev’s recent claim of a new column of trucks and tanks is correct, then Putin appears to be cooking the frogs slowly. Infiltrate Eastern Ukraine gradually and subtly enough, and no one will notice. At least no one will notice enough to do anything about it.

In this way, Putin can enhance the rebels’ position and his own position in the bargaining that begins tomorrow, without causing all the hubbub and opprobrium of a massive invasion. At the same time, the 45,000 troops massed just across the border, constantly threatening such an invasion, make these small moves seem benign in comparison.

So maybe no big invasion is imminent. Maybe Putin is content to turn the heat up gradually. He is, after all, a smart man.

But what’s his goal, his end game? I wish I had a clue. Many of our Yankee analysts accuse him of purposefully destabilizing the region, on a semi-permanent basis. I have trouble believing that.

Why would he want to do that? It wouldn’t be good for peace, for Russia or for business. The Donbass, after all, is a powerhouse of mining, steelmaking and manufacturing. Why cripple its economic potential deliberately, or keep its people in a constant state of turmoil? Whom does that aid?

Besides deliberate destabilization (unlikely, in my view), only two goals appear realistic and likely: (1) partition and annexation of all or part of Eastern Ukraine, or (2) a “peace” on terms more favorable to Russia and the Russian minority in Eastern Ukraine than Kiev might like. We’ll have a better idea what Putin really wants after the talks with Poroshenko tomorrow, which presumably will have competent reporters present.

One of Poroshenko’s first questions should be just that. He should look Putin straight in the eye and ask, “What the hell do you want?” Whether he’ll get a straight answer is anyone’s guess, but the nuances of speech and body language might give him some clues.

Footnote 1: This claim is reviewed by English-language reporting in “Press TV,” an Iranian media website, and, more exhaustively, in Global Research, an apparently independent website based in Canada.

Footnote 2: For exhaustive evidence of this point, see this report, published in 2003.

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21 August 2014

Racism and Excessive Force


[For a way to combat racism here at home, click here. For a recent post on global threats to democracy, click here.]


Do Those Big White Trucks Mean War?

By now it’s abundantly clear what Putin’s big white trucks—some of which are half-empty—are doing. They are gathering intelligence or military reconnaissance for Putin.

The fact that they rolled without even a fig leaf of authorization from Kiev is the tipoff. If the mission were truly humanitarian, Moscow could have waited for permission. No one, apparently, is starving in Donyetsk or Luhansk right at the moment.

Which kind of information Putin seeks makes a big difference. If my recent speculation is correct, Putin is now aware that the rebels and/or the Russian military faction that has been supplying and supporting them has been lying to him. He’s a smart guy, and he doesn’t want to do anything rash without good information.

The big question is whether he wants intelligence to recalibrate his Ukraine policy or military reconnaissance to plan an invasion, using the 45,000 troops now massed at the border. Putin is a good tactician. He may use the mess in Iraq, and our Yankee and European preoccupation with it, as a diversion and “cover” for a blitzkrieg invasion and annexation of the provinces of Donyetsk and Luhansk, or (depending upon the intelligence he gets) only the most Russian-leaning parts of them.

Kiev’s options are limited. It can’t fire on the trucks, any more than the Soviets could fire on our Yankee Berlin Airlift. That would start a major war and provide a pretext for an immediate invasion. But Kiev can do its best to make sure that what the observers, aka truck drivers and aid workers, see is accurate and useful to Kiev’s cause.

Two points should be obvious. First, Kiev should take every possible step to hide its checkpoints, military installations and military assets from the trucks and everyone in them. Second, it should make every effort to demonstrate how much the local population supports Kiev, and how much even the Russian-speaking civilians fear a civil war.

Now would be the time to get the terrified and cowed general population out on the streets, in full sight of the white trucks, demonstrating for peace, calm and the integrity of Ukraine’s territory. Except for its military positions and assets, Kiev should make sure what the observers see is complete and accurate, as much as is possible in a few days. What they see may determine when and whether those Russian tanks and troops roll across the border.

It goes without saying that, if the US and EU have any further sanctions left, now is the time to bring them to Putin’s attention. Sanctions are useless as punishment but may be useful as a deterrent. It also might be a good time to start arming Kiev’s forces with accurate weapons. Without them, a Russian invasion might be as quick and as painless for Russia as the one in Georgia. If Putin is planning an invasion, it might be just days away.

    “Paranoia strikes deep
    Into your life it will creep
    It starts when you’re always afraid
    Step outta line, the Man come and take you away.”
      —Stephen Stills, for Buffalo Springfield (1967)
The results of the private autopsy that Michael Brown’s parents commissioned make you wonder. There were four or five shots tracing their way up Brown’s right arm. Then there were two to the head. The official police autopsy confirmed the placement of shots and their number, within one.

The private-autopsy doctors opined, but couldn’t be sure, that the head shots came last. But how could it be otherwise? Would a rational, trained police officer continue to fire carefully and methodically at an arm after putting two shots in the victim’s head, killing him?

No, those shots tell a story, clearer than any eyewitness’. Apparently the officer was a good shot. He put at least four bullets right through the victim’s right arm, splattering flesh and splintering bone. Since the victim and his clothing had no powder residue, the consequently one-armed victim must have been more than two feet from the officer at that point.

For some inexplicable reason, the officer then decided to kill him.

Up to that point, there might have been a rational excuse. Maybe the officer thought he had seen a weapon in the victim’s right hand. But now the arm was disabled, and nothing had dropped.

Maybe the victim, although over two feet away, was still advancing. Maybe the much older officer was afraid of the younger man, even with a shot-up right arm. Maybe he didn’t want any witnesses to his tragic mistake. Maybe the hard logic of shooting just led to its tragic conclusion.

Police tout the need to make fatal decisions in a split second, at great personal risk. That’s often true.

But whatever was actually in the officer’s mind at the time will remain a mystery. Whatever he tells us now will be coached by lawyers and his own conscience, and the knowledge that what he did may put him in jail for a long time. His own mind may play tricks on him.

Yet the question raised by the autopsy still burns. Why kill the victim?

There were other options, at least for a lean officer well trained and in good shape. He could have backed up or rolled to the side, putting distance between himself and the victim, and giving himself more time to think and aim. He could have shot out a leg, making it hard for the victim to keep coming. He might even have said something. But the killing shots came instead.

Was all this necessary? Was the force excessive, even if the officer’s claim of some kind of altercation holds up?

The same questions arise with respect to this week’s St. Louis killing of an apparently deranged African-American man brandishing a knife and some convenience-store sundries. How much threat does a deranged man holding groceries and a knife really present to a trained officer with a firearm?

And what about the man in New York—also an African-American—recently killed with a choke hold after being arrested for selling cigarettes without a license? Do you have to be African-American to consider that use of force excessive?

Of course there are two problems. The first is excessive force. The second is profiling, which often motivates excessive force. Which should we tackle first? Which is easiest to correct?

Police profile the public. They do so unconsciously, ever hour of every day. How could they do otherwise? Their work and lives are on the line, all day every day. People don’t come with labels saying “criminal” or “honest citizen” tattooed on their foreheads. So police have to make snap judgments, sometimes in milliseconds, on which their careers, their health and their very lives may depend.

You can order them not to profile all you want. You can give them sensitivity and diversity training. But when push comes to shove and they stand alone in the field, they are going to rely on their instincts, all instruction and training notwithstanding.

When questioned later, they are going to make up some story to justify their profiling rationally. When they must act in split seconds at risk to themselves, they are going to use every clue that their senses give them, filtered by their own prejudices. That’s human nature.

So the best way to avoid incidents like the killings in Ferguson, St. Louis and New York is not, in my opinion, to try to stamp out racism, even among the police. That’s a laudable goal, but it will take another two generations at least.

The best way is to train police hard to use a minimum of absolutely necessary force always, no matter whom they are facing. We must give them non-lethal weapons like Tasers and train them to prefer them over lethal ones. In short, we must train them to preserve the lives and health of all citizens at all times, including suspects.

And we must hold them strictly accountable when they use excessive force, regardless of the provocation. If complete accountability drives otherwise good and courageous police from our streets, that will only improve community policing and bring civil peace more quickly.

I find it astonishing how many people still fantasize that we live in a “post-racial” society, just because we have a “black” President. Where have they been the last six years?

Bill Clinton infuriated his political enemies because, as a Rhodes Scholar, he was soooo smart, and he let people know it. He also had his little affair with a White House intern and then lied about it. So at least some of the mindless opposition to him had a rational explanation.

But Barack Obama is and did nothing of the kind. He’s infinitely patient, thoughtful and courteous. He never rubs his intelligence in anyone’s face. He never raises his voice. And his family life and personal behavior are exemplary.

Yet from the day he took office, a whole bunch of people have been dead set against him and his policies, no matter what he says. And the GOP, having absolutely no program of its own, has made significant political gains by bashing everything he does, unabashedly and relentlessly. (Hint: trying fifty-plus times—all unsuccessfully—to repeal someone else’s law, and criticizing his executive orders is not a program.)

I voted for the President every time because I believed (and still believe) he was the best candidate in the entire field, in both parties. But I also voted for him because I thought he could teach us something about race.

Little did I know. With his extraordinary thoughtfulness, empathy and restraint, and in the face of mindlessly adamant opposition, he has taught us how racist our nation still is, and how far we have to go to realize Dr. King’s Dream. The recent killings in Missouri are but a brief refresher lesson.

We will get there some day, I’m sure, but probably after I’m dead. In the meantime, the President and Attorney General Holder will maintain their infinite patience and professionalism, showing us all how much better off we could be if we could just put aside our prejudices and look at facts. In the process, these two consummately moderate men will show us just how much race still matters here at home.

Excessive force is a fact of life in many, but not all, of our cities. It’s a matter of training, police culture and style. It can be fixed with legal and administrative changes, plus some judicious culling of personnel. Fixing racism is a matter of national culture that will take a lot longer.

While we try as hard as we can to fix both, let’s not confuse the two. It’s true, of course, that victims of racism are most often victims of excessive force. But you can cure the excessive force much more easily than the racism. Fixing racism and other forms of dangerous tribalism is a long-term project for our entire species, and not just here at home. Take a quick look at Syria, Iraq and Ukraine.

Curing Racism by Teaching Tolerance in our Schools

Eradicating racism in this country is not impossible. It’s just a work in progress. Far too many have assumed the job to be easy and near completion. It’s neither.

It’s a long-term project, and it begins with early education. The Catholic Church has long known how important early education is. Give me a child for the first five years, it reasoned, and the Church will have him forever.

That’s what we need to do with racism. We must inoculate our children against it from an early age. In spite of their parents’ prejudices, we must imbue them with our nation’s fundamental values.

Those values are not hard to find. “All men are created equal” is in our first Founding document. “E pluribus unum”—from many, one—is on our Great Seal and the back of every dollar bill. (It’s on the right side, in the standard around the eagle’s head.) Every time you pull out a buck, you can see our Melting Pot expressed in Latin.

How can we make sure our kids learn those values before their minds can be poisoned by bitter elders?

One organization has had an answer for years. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), headquartered in Montgomery, Alabama, has a complete curriculum entitled “Teaching Tolerance.” It’s designed by experts and has been tested in real schools, on a voluntary basis, for years. We ought to make it a mandatory part of every kid’s grammar school experience.

SPLC is better known for fighting hate in the courts. It has closed down hate groups and taken their property by bringing civil suits against them.

In so doing so, SPLC has exploited the obscure but vitally important difference between the standard of proof in civil and criminal cases: “preponderance of the evidence,” or more likely than not, versus “beyond a reasonable doubt.” When criminal prosecutions of violent haters have failed for lack of evidence, or as a result of juries’ close calls, SPLC has put hate groups out of business and found compensation for their victims and families through civil suits.

So SPLC fights racism on two levels. It crushes hate groups economically, and it has a school curriculum to root out hate long term. If you want to help, don’t just wring your hands. Send SPLC a check. (I’ve been doing so for over thirty years.) They will use your money wisely and well. And some day maybe every grammar school will be “Teaching Tolerance.”

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15 August 2014

Three Global Threats to Democracy


[For comment on Putin’s humanitarian mission to Eastern Ukraine, click here.]

Introduction
Musical chairs and term limits
Malleable Leadership
Propaganda and media control
Conclusion

Introduction

Look carefully at the world today, and you will discover two odd but contradictory things. First, the whole world appears to love democracy.

Except for China, every major power claims to have a form of it. Most minor powers do, too. Russia and Iran do. Even North Korea calls itself the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” And when we subject China’s form of government to analysis, it looks a lot like a strange kind of democracy, in which only a self-selected political elite participates.

But probe beneath the surface, and you discover the second odd thing. All is not universally well with “the people’s” self-rule. Subtle—or not so subtle—assaults on real control (even influence) by ordinary people take three forms.

The first is the game of musical chairs with high offices exemplified by Vladimir Putin, which Turkey’s Recep Tayip Erdogan is now trying to duplicate. Putin has been Russia’s supreme leader, in one office or another, for fifteen years. From all appearances he appears bent on holding that position for life, and he may well succeed. Do the Russian people really want their very own Robert Mugabe?

The second assault on democracy is more subtle. In several countries, street demonstrations and/or popular rebellions have produced relatively peaceful “regime change,” tossing duly elected leaders out of office, without further elections, when they lost the people’s trust. Examples include Egypt, Thailand, Tunisia, and, most recently, Ukraine. Even Iran got in the act: although its abortive “Green Revolution” in 2009 failed to overturn the results of an obviously rigged election, it eventually produced a 2013 election that no one has contested as unclean.

The third assault on democracy is both more subtle and much older: control of the media and propaganda. Russia under Putin has proved that you don’t have to control all of the media to manipulate most of the people most of the time. All you have to control is the media that most people use, which in Russia means television.

Lest I appear the paradigmatic Yank pointing fingers at others, I hasten to add that we have similar problems here at home. We Yanks have no constitutional means of getting rid of a sitting president just for doing an abysmal job. He or she has to be a criminal. Thus we suffered Dubya for the full and proverbial “four more years,” although the people were already fed up with him, as his party’s “thumping” in 2006 clearly attested. And as for propaganda, we have some of the most effective, and therefore the worst, in human history, right here at home.

But I get ahead of myself. This essay examines these three modern (or not so modern, in the case of propaganda) assaults on democracy and makes recommendations for corrective international norms. We are now one species on one interconnected globe, and it makes sense for us to develop and (if we can) enforce minimum norms of democracy worldwide.

Musical chairs and term limits

Of the three assaults on democracy analyzed here, a single individual’s manipulation of high offices to stay in power is the most immediately dangerous. We shall not dwell long on the methods used, for they are all variations on a single theme. A popular leader uses a perhaps transient majority to change the law, cow or subvert the legislature, or amend a written constitution. He bends the law and malleable (or fearful) rival pols to hold on to power and make his new office the highest in the land, whether or not it was before.

What’s wrong with this, if the people appear to want it, or at least to acquiesce in it?

Holding on to power like this subverts democracy in three ways. First and most important, it ruins the upcoming political class. It crushes younger rivals, no matter how talented they may be. It clots new blood. How many talented young Russians, for example, are going to opt for a life of politics after seeing what has become of Dmitri Medvedyev?

What future can they have, what dreams? A poor boy from Arkansas named Bill Clinton and an African-American from Hawaii named Barack Obama could dream of becoming president only because each knew that the office is up for grabs, in a real, contested election, every four years.

Second, long tenures in office breed sycophancy. When a single person holds supreme power for years and years, yes-men gain ascendancy. Skeptics and people with their own personal constituencies get weeded out. What happens is the political equivalent of genetic inbreeding, but much faster.

Finally, the supreme office holder inevitably deteriorates mentally and morally. Idealism and new ideas evaporate in a ceaseless battle to retain power, purge rivals and prove oneself right, over and over again. The ultimate goal becomes personal political survival, regardless of the people’s interests.

So with rare exceptions, old pols age like eggs, not wine. Look at Mao. He unified a country torn and bleeding by centuries of colonialism and a decade of world war. If he had stepped down then, as did our George Washington, all our species, and not just the Chinese, would laud him as a great leader.

But Mao became China’s last emperor in all but name, foisting disastrous politics like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution on a great nation striving to enter the twentieth century. Mao’s latter years virtually undid all the good that his unification of his nation had achieved. He was utterly ignorant of economics and other science and covered his ignorance with bon mots and fiction in his Little Red Book.

Robert Mugabe is similar. As a freedom fighter, he liberated his majority race and made his nation independent of colonial power. But then his thirst for revenge, tyranny and utter ignorance of economics turned Zimbabwe into the broken pariah state we see today.

Unfortunately, Putin is on the very same path. The man who once spoke to the Bundestag, in fluent German, about a peaceful trading zone from the Atlantic to the Urals, and who brought Russia into the WTO, is destroying Russia’s economy with needless sanctions and threatening a totally gratuitous war in Eastern Ukraine. He appears to be utterly out of ideas, besides fomenting base nationalism to keep himself in power.

We Yanks have nothing to crow about in this regard. Something similar is happening here at home, albeit on a more local scale.

Our members of Congress are getting more and more extreme, and less and less thoughtful, because some 90% of them are virtually assured of re-election. Our Constitution says House members have to run for office every two years. But gerrymandered districts, party polarization, and low turnout in primary elections gives them nearly as much longevity in office as Putin with his musical chairs. The chief difference today between Russians and us Yanks is that we have a more recently elected supreme leader tied down by 535 Lilli-Putins, 90% of whom are just as assured of “re-election” as Putin.

Like us, China has effective term limits. Its supreme leaders and those on its seven-member (once nine-member) ruling committee change every ten years. You don’t have to be Chinese to feel (or to understand) the surge of energy and optimism that accompanied last year’s peaceful transfer of power to Xi Jinping.

We won’t know for some time whether Xi’s battle against corruption is for real, or just a cover for routine internal power struggles. We also won’t know for years whether China’s greater “assertiveness” comes from Xi or would be worse if he did not try to mute it. (We do know that the most dangerous Chinese nationalist, Bo Xilai, is safely behind bars.) But it’s clear that Xi’s new ideas and new approaches have energized the whole nation and given it new global respect.

That’s what new leaders do. That’s what few if any leaders have the energy, stamina or skill to do more than once in a lifetime. And that’s why real, working term limits—uncircumvented by musical chairs or gerrymandered districts with low-turnout primaries—are the single most important earmark of true democracy. At the moment, both Russians and we Yanks are lagging on that measure.

Malleable Leadership

Every classic parliamentary democracy has a way of getting rid of a bad leader peacefully, besides natural death. It’s called a “vote of no confidence.” If the party in power loses such a vote, the government is said to “fall,” and the prime minister resigns and calls new parliamentary elections.

It’s worth emphasizing that our Yankee democracy has no such means. We can only impeach and remove a president if we can prove to our Senate that he or she is a criminal, guilty of “high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” We have no way, even in theory, of getting rid of a president just for doing a bad job, no matter how bad. Not always do stupidity and incompetence rise to the level of criminality. See Dubya.

This is a big problem for us Yanks. It’s also a big problem for any nation that copies this unfortunate feature of our Constitution. Having no easily available way to get rid of a bad leader right away—without waiting for term limits to expire—is a big structural flaw. Not only does it extend bad leadership in a rapidly accelerating global economy and polity. It also encourages bad leaders to a adopt a “siege mentality” as they try to perpetuate themselves in office. Wasn’t that precisely what Richard Nixon did?

By itself, a parliamentary system like Britain’s or India’s is no cause for complacency. Often a popular leader sweeps a significant parliamentary majority with him into office, as did Mohammed Morsi in Egypt. Then, if the popular mood shifts, as it did in Egypt, the only recourse is to persuade some partisans of the unpopular leader to change their minds, or to wait for new elections, which is not much better than waiting for term limits to expire. The people of Cairo and Alexandria, who appeared to be suffering a genuine case of buyer’s remorse, chose to do neither. A similar thing appears to have happened in Ukraine with regard to the duly-elected but clueless and tyrannical plutocrat Yanukovych.

It’s easy to cheer or boo these developments, depending on your own politics and understanding of the merits (or lack thereof) of these foreign leaders. But one fact remains: whatever the word “democracy” means, it appears to preclude a bad leader from staying in power long after he or she has utterly lost the people’s trust.

Parliamentary democracies seem now to have the best means of getting rid of such a leader, but their means are not infallible. A bad leader can stay in office by maintaining a parliamentary majority, whether corruptly, by undue influence, through patronage, or by genuine political persuasion. And when the rules of removal and succession are not clear enough, you can have a succession battle, as in the case of Al-Maliki in Iraq. Then what resort do the people have, other than the streets and/or violence?

It goes without saying that we are speaking here of extraordinary circumstances, not minor political disputes or the inevitable decline in an elected leader’s popularity after a few years in office. We are speaking of a dramatic or sudden decline in public trust, of the kind that produced Dubya’s “thumping” in 2006, or that induced hundreds of thousands of Egyptians to march into the streets and camp out.

Such a decline is not easy to measure accurately, but it’s a combination of numbers and intensity. People don’t camp in the streets and risk violence, hooliganism, rape (for women) and tear gas or worse for trivia.

The problem of removing a duly elected leader quickly, peacefully and lawfully is a question to which politicians and political scientists should devote substantial attention. Human social evolution did not end with the American Constitution, any more than it did with the Bible or the Qur’an. Written constitutions can be amended. Newly-forming states can do better than tell an impatient and suffering people, as we Yanks do our own, “wait for the end of the n-year term,” especially when a bad leader might use the intervening years to entrench himself.

Possibly effective alternatives are not hard to conceive. A substantial minority of the legislature might have the power to call an early referendum or plebiscite on a bad leader. A verified petition by a substantial fraction of the people might do the same. Or a relatively neutral figurehead, such as a constitutional monarch, might call new elections, for example, after “substantial public disorder,” as in Egypt or Thailand.

Words on paper are one thing. Investigating possible consequences in the real world are another. There is no simple solution to this problem, because making it easy to oust a “bad” leader might encourage dark forces to use the same means to harass or get rid of a good one.

But whatever the risk, the reward of a viable solution is worth the pain. In Egypt and Thailand, the army stepped into the power vacuum in a depressingly routine way. In Egypt, it looks as if the army has entrenched itself for the long haul. Neither case is self-evidently a step forward for genuine democracy. It would be better, by far, if there were prescribed and orderly legal, civil procedures to remove a leader who has lost the people’s trust without mobs in the streets or the army stepping in.

Propaganda and media control

The third assault on democracy is far less immediate but ultimately far more dangerous than either of the other two. It’s also far harder to repel. Isn’t free speech a foundation of democracy? And don’t propagandists have the right to speak freely, too?

That’s been our traditional Yankee approach. Let everyone talk. Let liars, thieves, scoundrels and the most dangerous propagandists take to the airways and run rampant on the Internet. Let the “marketplace of ideas” become a street bazar. Then the best ideas will win, as free and informed people sort truth from lies.

That’s the much-recited abstract theory here in the US. We Yanks use it to justify what is, in fact, an uncharacteristic bit of legal absolutism. Generally speaking, the only “speech” we condemn is false speech with immediate and obvious adverse consequences, such as Oliver Wendell Holmes’ example of crying “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We even tolerate provably false speech, at least about public figures, as long as it was not published “recklessly.”

Take hate speech, for example. In the United States, you can call members of your favorite bash group lazy, genetically inferior, degenerate, habitual criminals, psychopaths, and worthless human trash fit only for extermination. As long as you don’t directly advocate violence against them, or incite others to it, you are home free.

It’s worth noting that other fully democratic societies don’t see things quite the same way. Germany, for example, has strong laws against hate speech. It even has laws against denying the Holocaust, which, while reprehensible revisionist history, concerns an abstraction several steps removed from violence. And isn’t today’s Germany a model democracy?

Yet the most dangerous speech today is not hate speech, although it does appear to be on the rise. The kind of speech most dangerous to democracy today, by far, is demonization and character assassination.

Let me begin here at home, with the infamous Koch Brothers. Encouraged by our Supreme Court’s categorizing their billions as “speech,” they are using their money to influence elections for their personal benefit.

Now the Koch Brothers are fossil-fuel magnates, and there are valid arguments in favor of fossil fuels. The vast bulk of transportation, industry and agriculture worldwide runs on fossil fuels today. Should we go cold turkey while we convert to alternative energy, letting our economies, our crops and our agriculture literally rot meanwhile? Probably not.

The Koch Brothers’ interests are primarily in oil and gas. They could argue credibly that oil and gas contribute much less to pollution and global warming than coal, and that gas creates less risk of environmentally damaging spills because (being a gas) it dissipates naturally at the site of a spill or leak. They could argue that, in today’s economy, energy independence in fossil fuels is important for political strength and stability, as, for example, the EU seeks to throw off Russia’s energy hegemony.

But do the Koch Brothers make these credible and valid arguments? Not much. What they do is give their billions to propaganda mills run by the likes of Karl Rove, which specialize in character assassination. They destroy the character and reputation of politicians who don’t accept a dogmatic agenda of lower taxes and less regulation, especially of any business involving fossil fuels. So the Koch Brothers get useful influence, while the public gets lies and hate.

The Rovian propaganda mills use the same sophisticated techniques of propaganda (euphemistically known as “marketing” and “public relations”) that Madison Avenue uses to sell inferior and defective products and services. But there’s one key difference. Even the worst and most misleading product ads occasionally say something positive about the products and services they promote. The Rovian propaganda mills focus on the negative, with the goal of destroying the character of their political opponents, or at least making opposing-leaning voters disgusted enough with both sides to stay home on election day.

According to political pollsters and pundits, these negative ads and related tactics work. But are they really what our Founders had in mind in adopting our First Amendment? And are political campaigns based on them really “democracy”?

Before you answer those questions, let’s switch gears back to Vladimir Putin. He has ginned up the most treacherous kind of Russian nationalism by demonizing Ukrainian patriots, many Europeans (especially in nations with substantial Russian-speaking minorities), and even us Yanks. If you watch the constant drumbeat of demonization on Russian television (all of which today is state-controlled or state-influenced), you get the sneaking suspicion that Putin today has learned all he knows about negative advertising and demonization from the likes of Karl Rove.

Don’t get me wrong. I revere free speech as the foundation not only of democracy, but of science and civilization itself. But when free speech without restraint or moderation turns elections and international relations into demonization- and hate-fests, don’t we have an obligation to do something?

We obviously can’t have a “speech czar” making fine distinctions between legitimate speech and propaganda and censoring the latter. In addition to being dangerous and unreliable, that would put far too much power in the censor’s hands.

But there are cleverer ways of addressing the problem. Before Ronald Reagan, we had a rule for the broadcast airwaves called the “Fairness Doctrine.” Any candidate for office attacked during an election cycle had the right to respond to the attack, on the very same broadcast station, and for free.

This rule was brilliant in two ways. First, it forced the same audience that heard the attack to hear (or at least to have access to) a rebuttal. Second, by making the private broadcaster that aired the attack air the rebuttal for free, it encouraged private broadcasters to exercise a measure of moderation and discretion in what they aired, so as not to give up too much free air time. If they felt strongly about an attack (for example, in a case of obvious corruption), they could air the attack as a public service. But few of them then, except the most rabid, would have aired most or all of Karl Rove’s attack ads.

The Fairness Doctrine, which the Supreme Court had upheld, died under Ronald Reagan, hardly the deepest thinker in America, even at the time. It has never been resurrected.

Of course devising a similar doctrine today would be more difficult. The advent of cable TV, the Internet and streaming has completely revolutionized the media.

But the Fairness Doctrine’s four basic principles appear to have enduring merit. First, a new fairness doctrine would censor nothing, i.e., do no harm. Second, it would make our atomized media fairer by requiring attackers to provide responses to their attacks to the very same audience that received them.

That’s like building a “marketplace of ideas” with full comparative advertising. It could help solve one of the chief impediments to public cohesion and cooperation these days: the tendency of our ideologically polarized people to rely only on media that reinforce their initial ideological prejudices.

Third, such a rule would reduce extremism and defamation (even if legal) by putting a price on it, making a commercial information service spend time and money publishing a rebuttal to attacks. Even a non-profit blogger, like me, would have to spend time (albeit probably not money), publishing the reply, and perhaps negotiating with the submitter over its wording and grammar.

Finally, by letting no important lie go unchallenged, and by putting a price on attacks roughly proportional to their vitriol, the rule would encourage accuracy and civility in public discourse, whatever the medium used. If the Internet is indeed in the process of destroying print journalism, as it appears, without anything to replace journalism’s traditional standards of accuracy and professionalism, the least we can do is encourage online sources to adopt similar standards.

Of course, we Yanks have big obstacles to making all this happen: our First Amendment and its so far near-absolute interpretation in our courts. In order to adopt such a common-sense solution, we might have to amend it or seek a Supreme Court that has its eye on practical consequences as much as received dogma. Other nations, of course, are not so confined.

Conclusion

We live today in a multipolar world. We Yanks may think ourselves supreme, but we are not. We are falling behind increasingly, in an increasing number of areas, and not just in our mismanagement of ever-festering wars like Iraq’s.

No nation today, including our own, has a lock on good government or human social evolution. All can and must contribute, each in its own way. And each should not be ignorant of progress in the others.

Even Putin appears to know this now. An ex-KGB man, he appears to have thought that the popular yearning for decent government and an end to corruption in Ukraine was a product of Western agitation and our CIA. Now, as he looks around at his best foreign friend Angela Merkel raising her hand for sectoral sanctions, despite the pain they will cause Germany, he seems to understand better. He’s covering the tracks of his troop massing and support for civil war with overtures of peace and a humanitarian mission (as to which, see below). He looks around the world and sees few understanding faces, a lot of puzzlement and chagrin, and an eagerness on the part of China to take commercial advantage of Russia’s blunders and distress.

Our Yankee Constitution is a marvelous document. When it was written, it was absolutely brilliant. Even the parts perpetuating slavery and tending toward legislative minority rule were necessary compromises to make the whole work. But we should never forget how odious were and are those compromises, and how much human social evolution has moved on worldwide.

Now our Constitution is over two centuries old. It doesn’t represent the very latest in social thinking, and it doesn’t address all the real and current problems of democracy. In particular, it doesn’t address: (1) getting rid of a bad but non-criminal leader before his time is up, (2) lower officeholders usurping supreme power (as Dick Cheney did the powers of the presidency) and (3) the subversion of elections and government itself by deliberately obfuscatory propaganda.

The longest-lasting modern democracy is the Brits’. In fact, it may be the longest-lived in human history. If you count from Magna Carta, next year it will have lasted eight centuries.

In all that time, the Brits never had a written constitution like ours. Maybe they felt they didn’t need one. After all, they haven’t had to declare themselves independent (and different) from a pre-existing power since Rome. Maybe their dreadful weather keeps them oh-so-sensible by cooling their hot blood.

But for whatever reason, there are governments on this globe whose structure and operation are more democratic, more effective, and more sensible than ours.

Even China’s may be more effective. It has strict term limits for top leaders and even a five- or ten-year “apprenticeship” program on the top committee. And while not enjoying universal democracy, China has a certain air of democracy among its ruling elite: its Communist Party.

China’s eighty million Party members have a bigger “population” than all but thirteen countries on Earth. Collectively, they are a self-selected political elite which jockeys intimately for power and policy in a lifelong, meritocratic struggle, much as did the Mandarins during the imperial era. That’s not a bad system, even if it doesn’t give the persons in the street or the peasant in the rice field much of a voice.

But whatever you may think of China and other foreign countries, they all bear watching and, on occasion, imitating. The nation that wins for its people and enjoys consistent peace and prosperity will be the nation that copies the best ideas from others and implements them most quickly and effectively.

Human social evolution is now reaching an inflection point under the pressure of population, pollution, global warming, global communication, and increasing energy scarcity. As a species, we are going to have to grow up quickly, lest we go under. Improving our governance, without undeserved adulation for any single form or constitution, is one way of doing that.

Putin’s Humanitarian Mission: Trust but Verify

Yesterday Vladimir Putin’s humanitarian mission to the suffering separatist regions of Eastern Ukraine arrived at the Russian border near Donetsk. There are a number of long, white trucks, all blessed by an Orthodox priest.

Is this entourage a mission of mercy or a Trojan Horse? How should Kiev respond to it? The answer is easy. Let the trucks in, without Russian military escort. Once they are safely on Kiev-loyal soil, search them thoroughly before letting them through to rebel territory.

It’s unlikely that Putin would be dumb enough to try to smuggle munitions in those pure looking white trucks. It would be too easy to search them, and too embarrassing if any contraband is found.

But Kiev should take nothing for granted, not with all the feints, twists and turns in Putin’s apparent policy so far. It should search every cubic centimeter of the trucks and X-ray all crevices, conscious that in war, as in love, important things often come in small packages.

It may help to recall three essential facts about Putin. First, he’s far from stupid. Second, he’s often decisive, as he was in grabbing Crimea. Third, he’s a macho man. If he lost control of his chain of command or events, he would be the last to admit it.

The notion that all the apparent twists and turns in his Ukraine policy come from Putin himself seems untenable. More likely, he’s been misled or misinformed by the rebels and members or factions of Russia’s military. Russia hasn’t fought a real war since its Great Patriotic War (its name for World War II). (Georgia wasn’t a real war but a romp.) So its military leaders, like all military after a long period of peace, are probably unrealistic. Remember our own experiences in Vietnam and Iraq?

It’s entirely possible that Putin may now be disgusted, if not enraged, by what has happened in Eastern Ukraine. And the target of his disgust or rage may be as much or more his own underlings and the rebels in Donetsk as the new government in Kiev, which he purports to respect.

So Putin may indeed have changed policy, not due to a change of heart, but due to more accurate information and the trend of events. If so, it would be wise to welcome his trucks, let them feed and aid the battered residents of Donetsk and Luhansk, and let them accordingly cleanse Russia’s reputation just a bit. Letting a rival save face is often a cheap and effective way to discourage further blunders.

But search the trucks first, thoroughly, every cubic centimeter. And don’t let their aid or its timing become an excuse for letting the rebels regroup, resupply or advance.

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09 August 2014

Iraq Now is Neither Syria nor Libya Then


[For a recent post on simplicity and “Obamacare,” click here.]

As the President authorizes strictly limited air strikes in Iraq, hand wringing becomes a national pastime. Analogies fly about like caged birds let go without warning. We are, we are told, repeating our errors in Iraq originally, in Syria, or in Libya.

In fact, we are doing none of the above.

One of the reasons the President’s popularity is so low is that he thinks. He responds to actual events and facts, in all their nuance and complexity, every time. He doesn’t govern—let alone commit our military—under a doctrine or ideology simplistic enough to fit on a bumper sticker.

In short, he’s not Dubya. Thank God! Unfortunately, ordinary people, and even some pundits, have gotten so used to that form of “reasoning” that actually thinking strikes them as the act of an alien species.

Let’s begin with the obvious. We are not going back into Iraq with ground troops. The President doesn’t want to. Our Yankee people would practically rebel. And despite some wistfulness about our overblown Yankee power, none of the three major ethnic groups in Iraq wants us to. Their memory of our series of cretinous blunders is too recent for that.

So forget about American tanks (except those that ISIS stole from Iraq’s Army) and ground troops. They are not even a gleam in John McCain’s eye.

And that, dear reader, is the sole point of analogy between our current “intervention” in Iraq and what we tried to do in Libya and didn’t do in Syria. Let me write it again: we aren’t committing our own ground forces, apart from observers, advisors and maybe a few clandestine special forces. Period.

Now, like good lawyers, let’s look at points of distinction. Why is Iraq today completely unlike Syria when we didn’t intervene a year or two ago, and unlike Libya when did intervene to keep Qaddafi from slaughtering the rebels trapped in Benghazi?

There are two clear points of distinction. First, Iraq is not a tyranny in which a tyrant bids fair to slaughter or oppress a big minority just to maintain his tyranny. Iraq may not be an ideal democracy, and Al Maliki may be an inept leader. But Iraq today is far from a military tyranny. We Yanks spent over 4,000 dead, 30,000 wounded, and an estimated two trillion dollars to make it so.

The President and his advisors hope that Iraq is a democracy in the making, and that the challenge of ISIS, like a hangman’s noose, may focus Iraqi pols’ attention and make it so. I think, as I’ve written recently, that Iraq is an unviable chimera, a bald fiction of the British Foreign Office. If it’s lucky, it may end up being three democracies that somehow manage to get along: Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite.

But in this particular instance, who’s right on that question doesn’t really matter. Whether Iraq is really one nation or three, it has indigenous population(s) that (together or separately) vastly outnumber the jihadis, that occupy territory containing their own homes, and that have, on occasion, have been known to fight for those homes.

None of these groups is, like the most effective rebels in Syria, composed primarily terrorists. And, whether individually or together, each group is far more cohesive, traditional, and organized than the ragtag band of rebels that eventually killed Qaddafi on the streets. Whether you think of Iraq as one nation or three, it or they are already real nation(s), with unique history, governance, and even a few passable elections under their belt(s).

The second major difference between Iraq now and Syria and Libya when we were considering intervening in them is the source of the trouble. Assad and the rebels who opposed him were purely domestic forces. Foreign jihadis only came later, much later. Qaddafi and the rebels who opposed him were entirely indigenous. They were all Libyans, born and raised. Each conflict started as a classic, indigenous civil war.

What’s happening in Iraq today is completely different. The jihadis in ISIS are primarily foreign fighters, with a foreign, messianic, pan-Islamic agenda that has virtually nothing to do with longstanding domestic disputes among the three ethnic groups in Iraq. It would be hard to conceive of an agenda farther from the concerns of territory, secular power and oil riches that are driving Iraq’s three ethnic groups apart.

All the trouble, apparently, comes from (at most!) between ten and twenty thousand foreign jihadis. ISIS’ self-proclaimed leader calls himself “Al-Baghdadi.” Whether that name is legitimate or a mere military goal is something that reporters and intelligence services should quickly discover. It makes a difference, doesn’t it, whether he’s a rare indigenous leader or actually just another foreign invader?

We know what’s going on in Kurdistan and in the Shia. Each is trying to protect its territory and homes from the ISIS onslaught, with uncertain success. But what’s happening among the Sunna? Isn’t that the big question?

Anbar’s Sunni sheikhs made short work of the jihadis during the period 2006-2009. They got fed up with the jihadis’ wanton and senseless killing, and we Yanks paid them to fight. We paid to the tune of $400 million.

But whatever the reasons, the sheikhs did well. Why was that? They didn’t actually fight alone, in their fine white desert robes. Remember those 100,000-plus Baathist troops and officers that Paul Bremer purged categorically from the Iraqi Army without even vetting them? They didn’t just evaporate. And many of the older ones had vast combat experience in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.

If ISIS is winning surprising victories, including over the Kurds’ competent peshmerga, it’s not because Allah is backing ISIS. It’s not because ISIS has that much better fighters than the veterans of Saddam’s Army. And it’s not because the jihadis instantaneously became experts in using all those Yankee heavy weapons that ISIS just captured less than two weeks ago. It’s probably because a significant number of Saddam’s former army are fighting alongside them, or perhaps directing them.

So the big, big question, which every reporter and intelligence operative should be trying to answer, is why. Why are Saddam’s former army officers—who are about as secular as you can get—fighting alongside religious fanatics who want to make their country into a Caliphate unlike anything they know or grew up with?

The most likely answer is that the veterans of Saddam’s army have joined with the jihadis in a temporary military/political alliance to: (1) gain as much territory and oil as they can, as quickly as they can; and (2) scare the hell out of the Shiites and Maliki in the hope of improving their political bargaining position.

Even their military strategy supports this view. The oil fields near Kirkuk and the Kurdish city of Irbil are closer and smaller than Baghdad. Both are far closer and easier to penetrate that Basra, whose capture would require taking Baghdad first. If the Sunni jihadis were really in charge, wouldn’t they throw themselves first at Baghdad and their traditional Shiite enemies?

So the unholy alliance of ISIS and Saddam’s ghost army may be going straight for Irbil because it sees that city and the Kurds as the path of least resistance. If so, the airborne intervention on which the President has now embarked may be longer than he anticipates.

Nevertheless, our intervention is a worthwhile enterprise for two reasons. First, of all the three ethnic groups in Iraq, the Kurds are most worthy of our help. They have renounced terrorism in Turkey. They have never sought to seize or conquer territory outside their traditional domain. They have never sought to subjugate the other two groups in Iraq, despite having been gassed and slaughtered by Saddam.

In the entire volatile Middle East, the Kurds are virtually unique in having tried to build their new nation patiently, moderately and responsibly, with a minimum of violence. They deserve our help. And if we give it, they will undoubtedly be good and reliable friends in a region in which we have few.

Second, while military action is never without risk, the risk of air strikes in or near Kurdistan is low. None of the three ethnic groups has a anything like an air force that can match ours. And no neighbor, let alone Russia or Iran, is likely to give Sunni jihadis anti-aircraft missiles like the Russian Buk that shot down MH17, for fear that they would end up in terrorists’ hands. With our stealth technology, advanced avionics, and anti-missile defenses, our skilled pilots should not incur undue risk.

You may have noticed that I’ve not yet even mentioned the Yazidis. As many of ten thousand of them, unarmed civilians, are hiding on a mounting top, fearful to come down lest ISIS slaughter them just for being who they are.

Our species has a name for that: genocide. For Saddam’s ghost army, this atrocity-in-the-making may just be a feint—a diversion from the real goals, namely, Irbil and the oil fields near Kirkuk. In fact, even Irbil may be a diversion from the oil. (It goes without saying that the ghost army probably intends to take care of the jihadis later, just as it did before.)

Some may think our President a wimp for seeking to aid such a tiny, helpless minority, which doesn’t even budge the needle of our selfish national interest. But I don’t. If we can help this tiny group survive and maintain its ethnic identity, we will advance the values of our Bill of Rights and the principles of the Western Enlightenment that forged our nation. If the Turks take the Yazidis and protect them as refugees, even temporarily, they will come one step closer to deserving EU membership.

The Yazidis’ mountain and the Kurdish frontier are in the same general region, a short distance by plane, and our pilots can fly and chew gum at the same time. And the Yazidis, like the Kurds, will remember us Yanks and our President fondly for a long, long time. Isn’t is about time that we did something with our big guns that has a clear moral imperative and clear and deserving beneficiaries? If nothing else, we Yanks might feel just a little bit better about ourselves.

One more thing. The President was visibly reluctant to commit to military action, especially in Iraq. Isn’t that precisely how we want our leaders to be?

Counterpoint: the Dam and the Oil

If the foregoing analysis is correct, then the Sunni sheikhs and Saddam’s ghost army, not the jihadis, are really calling the shots in the fighting in northern Iraq. That hypothesis makes sense. Collectively, Iraq’s indigenous Sunni people, as compared to the jihadis, are far more numerous, more experienced in fighting in Iraq, and more connected to the land, the people and the culture. They are also likely better trained and more experienced with the Yankee heavy weapons just captured from Iraq’s fleeing army.

If we follow this line of thought, then the reasons for the fighting today are both more pedestrian and simpler than the jihadis’ daydreams of a global Caliphate. Iraq’s Sunna is after what it couldn’t get under Maliki: a generous share of Iraq’s power and wealth. It seeks its share whether or not Iraq holds together as a nation; hence its resort to military force.

If Iraq splits up, its Sunna wants to own a big share of Iraq’s oil. And if not, the same. So Iraq’s Sunna is trying to take and control the oil by force because politics under Maliki haven’t worked for it.

Why did it fight so hard to control the big dam near Mosul? The dam is a source of hydroelectric power and therefore wealth. And if it’s built right, it could produce revenue long after Iraq’s oil runs out. It’s a valuable renewable resource.

The jihadis may want the dam for extortion. By blowing it up, they could cut the power to a large part of northern Iraq and, in addition, flood the valley below. But the secular Iraqi Sunnis who ruled under Saddam (and, in my view, are really calling the shots) may want the dam simply because it’s something of value.

For reasons of geography, propinquity and numbers, Iraq’s Sunnis appear to have concluded that it’s easier to grab wealth from the Kurds than from the Shiites, especially if doing the latter requires fighting their way through Baghdad. And so we have a brand new phase to the now-eleven-year-old Iraqi civil war: the Kurdish-Sunni front.

Most of Iraq’s oil wealth is in the south, in the gigantic fields near Basra. Relatively speaking, the Kurds and Sunnis are fighting over scraps. But the Sunnis will likely keep fighting until they get at least a substantial share of the scraps.

This conclusion bodes ill for a quick and easy resolution of the civil war’s new phase through American air power.

So maybe the President and his advisors are right and I was wrong. Maybe the quickest and easiest end to the long-running, intermittent civil war does run through Baghdad, in a political solution to the crisis and a fair division of Iraq’s wealth by political means. That sure beats turning Iraq, or even northern Iraq, into Syria.

Iraq’s indigenous Sunnis are, for the most part, practical, secular, sensible people. They easily overcame the last wave of jihadis after we Yanks paid them to fight and promised them a fair share of the spoils. They might do the same for this new wave, if they can see their way to receiving a fair share of power and wealth in the country that, not so long ago, they once ruled absolutely.

The alternative is for us Yanks to support the Kurds in a new phase of the civil war, with the probable result that the Kurds will suffer greatly and, in the end, lose some of the oil wealth they, too, have fought for. From a moral perspective alone, that is not an attractive outcome. The Kurds have suffered enough already.

The problem with my theory of partition is that there’s not much wealth in the traditional desert homeland of Iraq’s native Sunna. So partitioning Iraq without some equitable wealth sharing might create, not resolve, conflict. Having once ruled all of Iraq, the Sunnis will not likely be content to remain paupers in their traditional homeland.

Thus the best and quickest resolution of the crisis may indeed lie in political change in Baghdad. Nevertheless, limited application of American air power may now be necessary to avoid an unfair division of northern Iraq, in which the powerful Sunnis, using captured Yankee weapons, oppress Kurds in their homeland as they once oppressed both Kurds and Shiites in all of Iraq.

It seems to me that, having made the dual blunders of marginalizing Iraq’s Sunna (under Bremer, Rumsfeld and Dubya) and now letting our heavy weapons fall into its hands, we owe what is left of the Iraqi chimera, and the dim prospects for peace in the region, at least that much. The goal is not so much a Kurdish victory and a Sunni defeat as a disincentive toward wealth acquisition by violence and an incentive for a political solution, however hard Iraqi politics may be.

An Analogy and a Strategy for Iraq Now

The essay above debunks the easy analogies to what is going on now in Iraq. It’s not like Syria or Libya. Like most current events—especially in the ever-complex Middle East—it’s sui generis.

But there is an analogy worth making. It requires going back a lot farther back than Syria’s civil war or Libya’s disintegration after Qaddafi. It requires going back a whole century.

Although the causes of World War I were hardly simple, most observers would say that the German Kaiser started it because he thought he had a lot to gain. Anyway, the German nation prosecuted the war with uncommon fierceness and vigor, even dreaming up the suigenocidal notion of “total war.”

So when the Germans ultimately lost, the victorious Allies piled on. They punished the defeated German people collectively with war reparations, enormous debt and economic isolation. The result was the Weimar Hyperinflation, the worst economic punishment ever visited upon a single nation (if you include Austria). Like rats driven into an economic and political corner, the German people bit back, with Hitler, the Holocaust and World War II, which ultimately killed 50 million people. What a bite!

Our Yankee president at the time of the first victory was Woodrow Wilson. Like our current President, he was a former professor, accustomed to thinking about consequences. He begged, pleaded and cajoled the other Allies not to punish the German people collectively, but to no avail. He didn’t live long enough to see the catastrophic consequences of their failure to heed his advice: he died in 1924.

Like the German people, Iraqi Sunnis are smart, strong and vigorous. They are no one to mess around with. Although less than a quarter of all Iraqis, they ruled the nation with an iron hand for three decades. Under Saddam’s tyranny, they gassed the Kurds. They slaughtered the Shiite Marsh Arabs, with our inexplicable acquiescence.

Now the Kurds and Shiites, with our Yankee help, have the upper hand. They want to treat the Sunnis just as the victorious World War I Allies treated the defeated Germans. They want to punish, ostracize, isolate, and impoverish them.

That strategy didn’t work out so well for the European Allies, did it?

You can already see the reactionary explosion developing. Iraqi Sunnis have made an unholy alliance with ISIS. With their 100,000-plus experienced and largely secular Baathist soldiers—which Dubya’s administration also purged and isolated for no good reason—and with the Yankee weapons recently captured from fleeing, mostly Shiite, federal soldiers, the Iraqi Sunnis and ISIS have taken over significant parts of northern Iraq. Without American intervention, they could easily take more.

So our President has intervened with air power. Ever an honest man, he tells us the intervention may take months.

But the intervention is only half of the strategy—a temporary expedient to prevent more territory and wealth falling into Sunni/ISIS hands, or a brutal, general civil war in the north. The other half of the strategy has to be stopping the reactionary explosion at its source: the Sunna of Iraq.

How can the Kurds and Shiites do that? By holding their noses and giving the Sunna a fair shake in oil wealth and local governance.

From an emotional standpoint, a thirst for retribution and revenge is all too understandable. But the Code of Hammurabi simply doesn’t work. That’s why human social evolution has left it in the dustbin of history.

It didn’t work for the World War I Allies, and it won’t work for the Kurds and Shiites of Iraq. It will only produce an interminable cycle of violence and suffering, as in Syria today, or as in Israel and Palestine.

So Iraq’s Kurds and Shiites have to do what we Yanks did after the second great explosion in Europe, which failing to heed Woodrow Wilson’s advice had caused. They have to engage with their Iraqi Sunni enemies, cooperate with them, insure their survival and minimal welfare, and give them a fair share of Iraq’s wealth—just as we Yanks did with the defeated Germans and Japanese in our occupations and our Marshall Plan.

We Yanks, of course, can’t force the Kurds and Shiites to take this absolutely essential step. All we can do is show and exhort them, and use our air power to give them breathing room, time to think.

That’s why the President said he will use our air power only to insure the continuation of existing borders and hegemonies, and will not seek a defeat or collapse of the Sunni powers in Iraq. And that’s why the President said we will likely be running air missions for months. It may take that long for the Kurdish and Shiite leadership to recognize that there is no way out of a general (and terrible!) civil war except the way that Professors and Presidents Wilson and Obama have showed.

Footnote: Besides trying to preserve as much of the status quo as possible, there’s an humanitarian reason for not trying to dislodge existing conquests. Especially in open, mostly treeless country like Iraq, air power can stop armies on the move without causing massive civilian casualties. Trying to use air power to dislodge forces entrenched in cities or towns would just make us Yanks look like Assad.

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06 August 2014

Simplicity and “Obamacare”

    ‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,
    ‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be . . .


    —Joseph Brackett, Old Shaker Hymn

Ask people what the most complex thing in human understanding is. Many might name Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. At least that’s what many would have answered during the golden age of Yankee basic science, which is now a fading memory.

But they would be wrong. Einstein’s special theory of relativity is cleverly profound or, if you like, profoundly clever. But it’s not complex. It begins with a simple assumption that anyone can understand. And it proceeds to its now well-known but odd conclusions using no more math than high-school algebra.

At the time, a few well done experiments had suggested that the speed of light in a vacuum is an absolute speed limit in Nature. Nothing can go faster.

So unlike so many pundits and pols today, Einstein decided not to deny reality just because he didn’t like it. He accepted the odd notion that Nature has an absolute speed limit, which physicists denote by the lower-case letter “c.” Then he proceeded to deduce the consequences of that assumption.

First, Einstein did a simple “thought experiment.” Suppose, he thought, A runs toward B at a speed just a tad less than c, relative to some third frame of reference. But suppose B is also running toward A, relative to that same frame, at the same speed. What speed does B see when she looks at A, or vice versa, in her own frame of reference?

Common intuition says that the two speeds are additive, and that the relative velocity of A approaching B is just about twice c (less the two tads). But that result would break the rule that no speed can exceed c.

So Einstein reasoned that, when you get close to c, velocities don’t add linearly, that is, they don’t add in any simple, intuitive arithmetic way. They have to add non-linearly in such a way that the “sum” of two velocities never exceeds c.

Einstein didn’t have to work very hard to find out how. A contemporary mathematician named Konrad Lorenz had already done the math. He had developed a series of equations using no more complex math than multiplication, division, squares and square roots.

But Lorenz wasn’t a physicist. To him, the math he had developed was just an interesting curiosity. Einstein’s brilliant contribution was understanding that Lorenz’ math describes physical reality, at least when speeds approach the speed of light in a vacuum, c. When that happens, moving rulers get shorter, moving clocks slow down, and mass increases. The latter consequence, plus some basic physics, produced Einstein’s famous (and simple!) formula E = mc2.

The essence of Einstein’s special theory of relativity is its speed-limit hypothesis and some half-dozen equations, all of which can comfortably fit on a single page. That single page encapsulates an apex of human thought: the abstract results of our puny brains’ collective effort to grasp our incomparably vaster Universe.

Einstein was not the only one to make things clear by making them simple. Our Founders did, too. The Constitution they gave us covers the structure of our government and—in the Bill of Rights—the basic values of our society. Depending on the size of the pages, the Constitution occupies, at most, only a few dozen. Our Bill of Rights, like Einstein’s special theory of relativity, fits comfortably on a single page.

So why does the “Obamacare” statute—formally known as the Affordable Care Act—reportedly fill over one thousand pages? Why indeed, when, unlike our Constitution and Bill of Rights, it covers only a single subject: health insurance? (You could ask the same about the Dodd-Frank bill, which runs some 2,300 pages and is supposed to prevent our banks from cratering the global economy again. But that’s a subject for another essay.)

Is something wrong with the length of “Obamacare”? Surely there is. At least five things.

First, a thousand pages easily exceed the patience and attention span of members of Congress and their staff, let alone the average voter. Someone should take a survey of the percentage of House and Senate members, including their senior staff, who ever actually read the whole bill, from cover to cover, whether before or after passage.

I would bet that the fraction would not exceed six percent of the 535 federal legislators (435 in the House and 100 in the Senate) then in office. That’s the same fraction of US Senators who actually read the then-recent National Intelligence Estimate before voting to go to war in Iraq. And that report was only ninety pages long.

There have been lots of jibes and jokes about the shortage of legislators who actually—even today!—have read the text of the Affordable Care Act. Should we sue all the ones who didn’t and haven’t for dereliction of duty, as John Boehner (never to be confused with Einstein!) is suing the President? Maybe. But before we hire the lawyers, read on.

The second reason to seek simplicity is that our human brains are the size of a large grapefruit. We just don’t have that much processing power. For anything complex and important, we rely on abstractions, which are fuzzy and inaccurate but all we’ve got.

Einstein relied on abstractions, too. Remember that simple assumption of a universal physical speed limit? It began his whole line of thinking about relativity.

Einstein’s thinking was deductive: discovering the consequences of that simple assumption in physical reality. Lawmakers’ thinking has to be inductive: they have to extract the most important principles of every bill and proposal and state them succinctly and clearly, as did our Founders. Otherwise, the signal gets lost in the noise.

And that’s the third reason for simplicity. Without direction as to a law’s basic principles, readers get lost, especially when the law is a thousand pages long. They are like the proverbial five old Indian blind men groping the elephant: each perceives something different. And so in the end they see different laws in the same text, because each picks out what is important, new or surprising to him or her. Then they argue at cross-purposes.

That’s human nature, and that’s one source of interminable controversy over the law, even over four years after its enactment. Different pols can’t agree on what the law says, let alone on what its consequences might be.

The fourth reason to keep things simple is simple lawyering. It doesn’t matter whether the document is a contract, a complaint or answer in a lawsuit, or a statute. The shorter and simpler it is—and the more it revolves around and states simple basic principles—the easier it becomes to avoid mistakes and inconsistencies. Conversely, the longer and less focused it is, the more mistakes are likely to arise.

And so we have the lawsuit that, unlike Boehner’s, is really important. In Halbig v. Burwell, a federal circuit court of appeals ruled that the federal government can’t legally subsidize insurance purchased on a federal exchange because part of the law says that subsidies require exchanges “established by the State.” If the Supreme Court upholds this view, a vital part of “Obamacare” will fall for nearly three-quarters of the states (36, to be exact), whose citizens get their insurance through the federal exchange.

Some anonymous drafter of the mostly unread bill—more likely an obscure and overworked staffer—failed to eliminate confusion over exchanges and subsidies, or to consider that states might default and leave the job to the federal government. And how could Congress avoid such blunders in a bill over a thousand pages long? It would take a single drafter of the caliber of Einstein to get every little detail internally consistent. Few members of Congress or their staff reach that level.

The final reason for simplicity is that complexity and the confusion it fosters distract attention from the thrust of a law—what its proponents most intended to accomplish. If the proponents of a law don’t prioritize its purposes and effects, who will?

Although nearly all the hoopla about the law has been about subsidies and getting more uninsured people insured, the most important provisions of the law, at least in the shorter term, are the ones that took effect earlier. Why are they important? Because they give applicants real insurance and, inevitably, increase its cost.

The most important of these provisions, by far, is the one that requires insurers to cover pre-existing conditions. Insurance that doesn’t really isn’t health insurance at all. Not only doesn’t it cover the full range of risks; it doesn’t cover the risks most likely to occur.

Like an old car, the human body has bad parts and good parts. Some organs and systems are weak and subject to recurring problems, while others are fine. (Whether this weakness results from bad genes, environmental challenges or lifetime abuse is the subject of ongoing research.) If an insurer excludes things that already have failed once or more, it “cherry picks” its risks by excluding those most likely to occur.

Take my case, for example. I’m a 69-year-old male in generally good health. I bicycle between twelve and twenty miles from one to three times a week. But I’ve had seven procedures on my urinary tract, and I’ve had two cancers removed from my skin and one from my bladder. If an insurer refused to cover my urinary tract or cancers because I’ve already had them, I would lack insurance for all the things most likely to happen. And the insurer would be insuring a fictional, wholly healthy 69-year-old male. What kind of insurance is that?

So when the right wing screamed that “Obamacare” would increase insurance rates, it had good reason. But the reason had nothing to do with the subsidies for poor people. It had to do with forcing the industry to offer real instead of sham insurance, i.e., covering all the risks, including the ones most likely to occur.

More risks, higher premiums. Duh. The same is true for the parts of “Obamacare” that outlawed lifetime and annual caps on insurance recoveries (within the overall policy value), and that allowed kids to stay on their parents’ policies through age 26. Those laws, too, increased insurers’ numerical risks by broadening insurance coverage. They therefore inevitably raised premiums.

The funny thing was that the insurance industry anticipated all this. Insurance rates rose precipitously, beginning in 2009, even before the law passed, and continuing up through 2013. Then, puzzlingly, they leveled off and, in some states and for some insureds, are even beginning to fall.

Why is that? Because the insurance industry covered its behind by anticipating increases needed to cover the new risks of recurrent pre-existing conditions, plus removing caps and covering up-through-26-year-olds on family policies. All those risks were calculable with existing data, while no one could (or still can) calculate the effect of subsidizing newcomers because no one could (or still can) predict who and how many will sign up.

So the entire pricing effect of “Obamacare” depended strongly on those provisions which took effect long before the federal exchange was up and running. The effect, if any, of subsidies and new patients on premiums is nascent at best, and still largely unknown.

But I digress. The subject of this essay is simplicity, which “Obamacare” lacks in the extreme. Had the proponents of this law thought harder before organizing and drafting it, they might have realized that its most important effects, at least initially, depended on its simplest and most comprehensible provisions: the ones that force insurers to provide real insurance.

Then they might have realized that subsidizing insurance for new customers would be an incredibly complex endeavor, involving at least fifty different jurisdictions with differing histories, markets and ideology. If so, they might have considered enumerating broad general principles for subsidies in the law, to be implemented by the states under federal regulation and supervision.

They might even have made explicit provision for a federal exchange in case the states failed or refused to create their own exchanges. After all, an “exchange” is just a remote or online marketplace. Isn’t a single, nationwide marketplace ipso facto more complete and more competitive than any state-limited one?

Of course, had they done that, the right wing would have screamed even harder about a new federal bureaucracy and doubled down on its lies about “death panels.” But would that be worse than where we are today, with the federal exchange at risk of being outlawed in the Supreme Court, after so much trouble and strife to set it up?

There is always a silver lining in every cloud. No matter what happens on appeal in Halbig v. Burwell, the Court will not likely strike down the provisions that make health insurance real, not sham. Nor will it likely nullify pre-existing insurance policies closed through the federal exchange, which are now solemn contracts between insureds and private insurance firms, not the government. Every insured should thank the President for that.

While we wait for the Court to deliberate, nothing prevents more uninsured people from signing up. And nothing prevents the federal exchange, the insurance companies and nonprofit groups or political actors from urging uninsured people to sign up before it might be too late. That’s free speech.

If that happens, the federal exchange’s job might be done before the Supreme Court rules. A huge cohort of new insureds might have signed up, with policy renewals offered annually by their private insurance companies. And the federal exchange might have been privatized, perhaps at a net gain to the government, and still be operating. Wouldn’t that be a sweet comeuppance for all the clueless pols, including Boeher, who have fought so hard for so long to keep more people from getting real insurance for their health?

Footnote 1: The discussion in this post addresses Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which explains the behavior of physical objects as they approach the speed of light. Einstein’s general theory of relativity is less simple; it required Einstein to develop a whole new branch of math called “tensor calculus.” But the impetus for the general theory was likewise simple: the assumption that gravity and acceleration are indistinguishable, i.e., that the properties of space-time itself, and not some hidden force, produce the effects of gravitational attraction among celestial (and other) bodies.

Footnote 2: The facts about this lawsuit come from this report in The Economist. Although a lawyer and law professor who have wrestled with long and complex statutes many times, I, too, quail at approaching the ACA’s thousand pages—a small data point that advances my general exhortation to simplicity. It’s much easier, in this case, to rely on the report of a reputable newspaper. But doesn’t that put a lot of power and responsibility in reporters’ hands? And how many, if any, reporters have actually read the whole thousand pages? I wonder.

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