Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The New York Times > Opinion > Editorial: Mr. Sharon and the Settlers

Failure to back away from the settlements now would be a self-inflicted wound far more painful and damaging in the long run than all of Arafat's attacks put together...

The New York Times > Opinion > Editorial: Mr. Sharon and the Settlers: "Mr. Sharon and the Settlers

Published: February 16, 2005

While the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is having to take on extremist groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades in the struggle for peace, the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, faces challenges of his own.

The parliamentary debate that started yesterday on Mr. Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza came with all the overwrought melodrama that usually accompanies any discussion of what most sensible Israelis know is a necessary first step on the road to peace. One legislator from the far-right National Union began reading out loud the name of every settler scheduled for 'deportation,' adding the phrase 'Jew, designated for expulsion.'
Meanwhile, extremists have issued death threats against the transport minister, who is steering the bill through Parliament. West Bank settlers protested in Jerusalem and beyond, demonstrators assaulted the police, and some of those arrested tore up their jail cells.

In addition, the housing minister, Isaac Herzog, told Reuters yesterday that the Jewish settlers to be evacuated from Gaza could move to yet another new West Bank settlement. It's no surprise that the Palestinian Authority objected. The so-called road map to peace calls for Israel to stop building settlements on land it captured in 1967.

With so much at stake, now is hardly the time for Mr. Sharon to reward Mr. Abbas's efforts for accommodation with this slap in the face. So far, Mr. Sharon has been pragmatic and bold: pragmatic in recognizing that a vast majority of Israelis don't think that hanging on to Gaza is worth the bloodshed; bold in standing up to the extremists who view Gaza as their birthright, despite the Palestinian majority living there now.

It appears that Mr. Sharon must be bolder still. Members of his Likud Party often describe the West Bank settlers as "human shields," Israel's first line of defense against Palestinian suicide bombers and terrorists. But those settlements are also one of the largest barriers to any possibility of peace.

On the radio yesterday, Israel's vice prime minister, Ehud Olmert, put the choice facing Israel starkly. "One cannot help but see that we are dealing with a Palestinian leadership which speaks differently, and, it would appear, also acts differently," he said, referring to Mr. Abbas. "We shall never forgive ourselves if we don't give a chance to a leadership which says it is opposed to terrorism."

Monday, February 14, 2005

The New York Times > Books > Between Truth and Lies, An Unprintable Ubiquity

Between Truth and Lies, An Unprintable Ubiquity: "Between Truth and Lies, An Unprintable Ubiquity

Published: February 14, 2005

Harry G. Frankfurt, 76, is a moral philosopher of international reputation and a professor emeritus at Princeton. He is also the author of a book recently published by the Princeton University Press that is the first in the publishing house's distinguished history to carry a title most newspapers, including this one, would find unfit to print. The work is called 'On Bull - - - - .'

The opening paragraph of the 67-page essay is a model of reason and composition, repeatedly disrupted by that single obscenity:
'One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much [bull]. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize [bull] and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.'
The essay goes on to lament that lack of inquiry, despite the universality of the phenomenon. 'Even the most basic and preliminary questions about [bull] remain, after all,' Mr. Frankfurt writes, 'not only unanswered but unasked.'

The balance of the work tries, with the help of Wittgenstein, Pound, St. Augustine and the spy novelist Eric Ambler, among others, to ask some of the preliminary questions - to define the nature of a thing recognized by all but understood by none.

What is [bull], after all? Mr. Frankfurt points out it is neither fish nor fowl. Those who produce it certainly aren't honest, but neither are they liars, given that the liar and the honest man are linked in their common, if not identical, regard for the truth.

"It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth," Mr. Frankfurt writes. "A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it."

The bull artist, on the other hand, cares nothing for truth or falsehood. The only thing that matters to him is "getting away with what he says," Mr. Frankfurt writes. An advertiser or a politician or talk show host given to [bull] "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it," he writes. "He pays no attention to it at all."

And this makes him, Mr. Frankfurt says, potentially more harmful than any liar, because any culture and he means this culture rife with [bull] is one in danger of rejecting "the possibility of knowing how things truly are." It follows that any form of political argument or intellectual analysis or commercial appeal is only as legitimate, and true, as it is persuasive. There is no other court of appeal.

The reader is left to imagine a culture in which institutions, leaders, events, ethics feel improvised and lacking in substance. "All that is solid," as Marx once wrote, "melts into air."

Mr. Frankfurt is an unlikely slinger of barnyard expletives. He is a courtly man, with a broad smile and a philosophic beard, and he lives in apparently decorous retirement with his wife, Joan Gilbert, in a lovely old house near the university.

On a visit there earlier this month, there was Heifetz was on the stereo, good food and wine on the table.

But appearances, in this case, are somewhat misleading. Mr. Frankfurt spent much of his childhood in Brooklyn, and still sees himself as a disputatious Brooklynite - one who still speaks of the Dodgers as "having betrayed us." And, in any event, Mr. Frankfurt is not particularly academic in the way he views his calling.

"I got interested in philosophy because of two things," he said. "One is that I was never satisfied with the answers that were given to questions, and it seemed to me that philosophy was an attempt to get down to the bottom of things."

"The other thing," he added, "was that I could never make up my mind what I was interested in, and philosophy enabled you to be interested in anything."

Those interests found expression in a small and scrupulous body of work that tries to make sense of free will, desire and love in closely reasoned but jargon-free prose, illustrated by examples of behavior (philosophers speak of the "Frankfurt example") that anyone would recognize.

He's dealing with very abstract matters," said Sarah Buss, who teaches philosophy at the University of Iowa, "but trying not to lose touch with the human condition. His work keeps faith with that condition."

Mr. Frankfurt's teaching shares with his prose a spirit Ms. Buss, who was once his graduate student, defines as, "Come in and let's struggle with something."

"He was very willing," she added, "to say, 'I just don't understand this.' "

The essay on [bull] arose from that kind of struggle. In 1986, Mr. Frankfurt was teaching at Yale, where he took part in a weekly seminar. The idea was to get people of various disciplines to listen to a paper written by one of their number, after which everyone would talk about it over lunch.

Mr. Frankfurt decided his contribution would be a paper on [bull]. "I had always been concerned about the importance of truth," he recalled, "the way in which truth is foundational to civilization and the various deformities of it that were current."

"I'd been concerned about the prevalence" of [bull], he continued, "and the lack of concern for truth and respect for truth that it represented."

"I used the title I did," he added, "because I wanted to talk about [bull] without any [bull], so I didn't use 'humbug' or 'bunkum.' "

Research was a problem. The closest analogue came from Socrates.

"He called it rhetoric or sophistry," Mr. Frankfurt said, "and regarded philosophy as the great enemy of rhetoric and sophistry."

"These were opposite, incompatible ways of persuading people," he added. "You could persuade them with rhetoric" - or [bull] - "with sophistic arguments that weren't really sound but that you could put over on people, or you could persuade them by philosophical arguments which were dedicated to rigor and clarity of thought."

Mr. Frankfurt recalled that it took him about a month to write the essay, after which he delivered it to the humanities group. "I guess I should say it was received enthusiastically," he said, "but they didn't know whether to laugh or to take it seriously."

Some months after the reading, the essay, title intact, was published by The Raritan Review, a journal then edited by Richard Poirier, a distinguished literary critic. In 1988, Mr. Frankfurt included it in "The Importance of What We Care About," a collection of his essays.

The audience for academic journals and collections of philosophical essays is limited, however, and so the essay tended to be passed along, samizdat style, from one aficionado to another.

"In the 20 years since it was published," Mr. Frankfurt said, "I don't think a year has passed in which I haven't gotten one or two letters or e-mails from people about it."

One man from Wales set some of the text to music; another who worked in the financial industry wanted to create an annual award for the worst piece of analysis published in his field (an idea apparently rejected by his superiors). G. A. Cohen, the Chichele professor of social and political theory at All Souls College, Oxford University, has written two papers on the subject.

"Harry has a unique capacity to take a simple truth and draw from it very consequential implications," Mr. Cohen said. "He is very good at identifying the potent elementary fact."

It was Ian Malcolm, the Princeton University Press editor responsible for philosophy, who approached Mr. Frankfurt about publishing the essay as a stand-alone volume. "The only way the essay would get the audience it deserved was to publish it as a small book," he said. "I had a feeling it would sell, but we weren't quite prepared for the interest it got."

For Mr. Frankfurt, who says it has always been his ambition to move philosophy "back to what most people think of as philosophy, which is a concern with the problems of life and with understanding the world," the book might be considered a successful achievement. But he finds he is still trying to get to the bottom of things, and hasn't arrived.

"When I reread it recently," he said at home, "I was sort of disappointed. It wasn't as good as I'd thought it was. It was a fairly superficial and incomplete treatment of the subject."

"Why," he wondered, "do we respond to [bull] in such a different way than we respond to lies? When we find somebody lying, we get angry, we feel we've been betrayed or violated or insulted in some way, and the liar is regarded as deceptive, deficient, morally at fault."

Why we are more tolerant of [bull] than lying is something Mr. Frankfurt believes would be worth considering.

"Why is lying regarded almost as a criminal act?" he asked, while bull "is sort of cuddly and warm? It's outside the realm of serious moral criticism. Why is that?"

Thursday, February 10, 2005

FAA Had Dozens of Pre-9/11 Warnings

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Federal Aviation Administration received repeated warnings in the months prior to Sept. 11, 2001, about al-Qaida and its desire to attack airlines, according to a previously undisclosed report by the commission that investigated the terror attacks.

The report by the 9/11 commission that investigated the suicide airliner attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon detailed 52 such warnings given to FAA leaders from April to Sept. 10, 2001, about the radical Islamic terrorist group and its leader, Osama bin Laden.

The commission report, written last August, said five security warnings mentioned al-Qaida's training for hijackings and two reports concerned suicide operations not connected to aviation. However, none of the warnings pinpointed what would happen on Sept. 11.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency received intelligence from other agencies, which it passed on to airlines and airports.

But, she said, "We had no specific information about means or methods that would have enabled us to tailor any countermeasures."

Brown also said the FAA was in the process of tightening security at the time of the attacks.

"We were spending $100 million a year to deploy explosive detection equipment at the airports," she said. The agency was also close to issuing a regulation that would have set higher standards for screeners and, for the first time, give it direct control over the screening work force."

... and how close to doing something useful like putting bars on the cockpit doors? Not very, I suppose.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Steve Kangas, RIP with so many others

It's been six years but we shouldn't forget Old #5...

(1) J. Clifford Baxter Found dead in his car, shot in the head. Mr. Baxter was vice chairman of Enron Corp. when he resigned in May 2001. Enron had been hot copy with the revelation that they were the largest campaign contributors for George W. Bush. Was J. Clifford Baxter a potential witness to Bush foreknowledge of their wrongdoings? His death was ruled a suicide.

(2)Charles Dana Rice He was the senior vice president and treasurer of El Paso Corp., an energy corporation swept up in the recent energy scandal. Two months after the "suicide" of Enron executive Clifford Baxter, in the midst of questions about the accounting practices of El Paso Corp., Charles Rice was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head. His death was ruled a suicide.

(3)James Daniel Watkins His body was found on December 1, 2001 in the Pike National Forest in Colorado, a gunshot wound to the head. Mr. Watkins was a consultant for Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm for Enron. He disappeared on November 13, 2001 after he left work. He was described as a devoted family man who always called home if he were going to be late. Officials initially said that the death was suspicious, but have changed their tune and have ruled his death a suicide.

(4) Jake Horton He was the senior vice-president of Gulf Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company, a cohort of Enron in the energy industry, and a major contributer to the Bush agenda. According to reporter Gregory Palast, Horton knew of the company's appalling accounting practices, and "... had no doubt about its illegal campaign contributions to Florida politicans - he'd made the payments himself. In April of 1989 Horton decided to come clean with state officials, and reserved the company jet to go confront company officials. Ten minutes after takeoff the jet exploded

(5)Steve Kangas His web site, Liberalism Resurgent, was meticulously researched and presented such a problem to the "real boss" of George Bush, Richard Scaife, that he hired a private detective to look into Kangas' past (a not infrequent practice of Scaife's). In February 1999, Steve Kangas was found in a 39th-floor bathroom outside of Scaife's offices at One Oxford Centre, in Pittsburgh, an apparent suicide.

Mr. Kangas, a very prolific writer, left no note. He had brought a fully-packed suitcase of clothes with him to Pittsburgh. He bought a burglar alarm shortly before he left for Pittsburgh. Why did he need a burglar alarm if he was going to commit suicide? An avowed advocate of gun control, he nevertheless bought a gun. What was he afraid of? Why did he go to Pittsburgh? After his death, his computer was sold for $150 and its hard drive wiped clean. Everything in his apartment was thrown away.

(6) Danny Casolaro He was working on a book that tied together the scandals surrounding the presidency of George H. W. Bush. He told his friends he was going to "bring back" the head of the Octopus. Instead, his body was found in a hotel in Martinsburg, West Virginia, on August 10, 1991, an apparent suicide.

(7) Mark Lombardi He was an accomplished conceptual artist who, while chatting on the phone with a banker friend about the Bush savings and loan scandal, started doodling a diagram and was inspired to create a complex series of drawings and sketches that charted the details of the scandal. According to the New York Times, "He was soon charting the complex matrices of personal and professional relationships, conflict of interest, malfeasance and fraud uncovered by investigations into the major financial and political scandals of the day; to keep facts and sources straight, he created a handwritten database that now includes around 12,000 3-by-5-inch cards." On the evening of March 22, 2000, Mark Lombardi was found hanging in his loft, an apparent suicide.

(8) James Hatfield Mr. Hatfield was the author of Fortunate Son, an unauthorized biography of George W. Bush. The book detailed Bush's cocaine use and cover up of a cocaine arrest. He was found dead in a motel room, an apparent suicide, in July 2001.

Taking on Farm Subsidies

'The Bush administration is going to take on farm subsidies, the NYT reports. If they thought Social Security was tough, wait till this firestorm hits. Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Thad Cochrane says he'll "work as hard as I can to oppose any changes." Will other Republicans stand up for fiscal responsibility and market principles? Will conservative pundits make a big deal of this issue? Will the libertarians and liberals who've scored the Bush administration for its earlier fiscal (and trade) foolishness? In other words, is there any kind of vocal, principled coalition to balance the concentrated interests of subsidized agriculture? A few environmental groups can't do it alone.'

... and the Coalition of the Conniving and the Clueless can't quite figure out how to form a circular firing squad.

Monday, February 07, 2005

A body blow to the self-esteem movement

A teacher named James in New York responding to This Is True article on the dumbing down of scholastics in the name of self-esteem: "Finally, it
happened. You offended me. In your latest dispatch someone with very
little insight wrote a piece about teachers trying to shove their
students into the same mold. This professional educator, along with
many, feel our hands tied by ADMINISTRATORS who, like the spineless
cretins they are, worry about such things as if we hurt the feelings of
a child when we tell them the answer they gave is wrong. They are the
ones with parents breathing down their backs. The administrators also
know that Johnny can't read. That's because Mom and dad will buy a 65
inch HDTV plasma television before they buy a book to put into their
kids hands. Don't forgot that in mommy and daddy's eyes Johnny can't do
any wrong. When he doesn't study because there are no rules at home and
Johnny is up later than the teacher. It is always the teacher's fault
why Johnny can't read. I don't teach in an affluent part of town, nor
do I teach in the heart of a crime infested city. I have several 13
year olds in my classes who have rap sheets longer than my tie. They
are found wandering the streets at three or four in the morning when
there is school the next day. Mom and dad didn't even know they were
out. Of course when the blame is unrefutably the parents, they just
throw up their hands and say, 'I just don't know what to do any more.'
But somewhere along the lines an administrator is telling us from their
ivory tower, how to fix the world and make everything all better for
the kid. What does the administrator do? Worry about the self esteem of
the child. Teachers seem to be the scapegoat in your little blurb. Walk
a mile in my shoes and you'll run screaming the other way. Is it the
teacher who pushes the child with a single digit average on? NO! We
know better. We know skills and lessons were not learned. But heaven
forbid the school district should look bad. Currently in New York State
the Commissioner of Education (the head administrator) is thinking of
tying student performance to State aid. So if the kids do poorly they
suffer with less tools like books, papers, and pencils (do you really
think everyone brings them to school)? Teaching positions are cut
because the aid is no long flowing in and the classes get crowded and
little Johnny is lucky to get the attention of one teacher for four
minutes a week. Don't get me wrong, not all administrators are like
this. So I'm not sure who wrote that piece but obviously someone who is
ill informed. If you would pass it on to them, I would appreciate it."

... How's that teaching gig working for ya, James?

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Spend. Lie. Stick your kids with the bill

"How Washington tackles the thorny issue of Social Security reform.

By Jim Jubak

Recently my 87-year-old father asked me a question that many other elderly are asking as politicians in Washington begin talking about "reforming" Social Security: "Am I going to get less in my Social Security?"

He's fine. And at 55, so am I. Right now, the average worker gets a Social Security benefit equal to 42% of earnings when he or she retires at 65. Over the next two decades, as the retirement age slowly moves up to 67, that contribution from Social Security is set to shrink to 36%.

But if my 9-year-old son or my 21-year-old friend Sam had asked the same question, I would tell them their benefits are going to get cut -- and cut deep -- and that their generations will be saddled with $2 trillion in debt to fund those "private retirement accounts" that are now getting so much attention.

These younger workers will pay into Social Security at the same tax rate as someone who retired in my generation or my father's, but they'll get back nearly 50% less in benefits, according to current proposals.Social Security.
Are you worried, too?
Our special report.

Why am I so sure? It's not because I've got some secret source. Or because I think the current system works so well. Or because I think the proposed changes will fix the problem.

No, my predictions are based on my understanding of how our government in Washington works. As I explained in my last column, "Uncle Sam gets an 'F' in money management," our government (and we as voters) are addicted to a set of financial rules that I'd summarize as: Spend now. Lie about the cost. And pay later. Much, much later.

Best of all, of course, would be Never. But if the day of reckoning is unavoidable then "Let the kids pay."

We've done it before
If you need a primer on how this works, you don't have to look any further than the Medicare drug benefit that President Bush championed and that Congress voted into law in 2003.

Spend now. Paying for prescription drugs is a big financial burden for many seniors, and the problem is getting worse day by day because drug costs are rising at a rate that far outstrips the rate of inflation. By creating a prescription drug benefit for seniors, the president and his party got the enthusiastic political backing of the 36-million-member AARP. That support was crucial to getting the bill through Congress.

Lie about the cost. Even so, Congress might not have passed the bill if the Bush administration hadn't pulled out the Washington accounting handbook to make the cost of the drug benefit look as small as possible. Fiscally conservative members of Congress were willing to spend $400 billion over 10 years, but no more, on the program. So all the president's men, including the chief actuary at Medicare, said this bill would cost -- surprise! -- $400 billion over 10 years. Medicare's chief actuary actually had calculated that the cost of the bill over 10 years was more like $500 billion to $600 billion. But he'd been warned not to tell Congress of the true cost before it voted.

Pay later. Even $500 billion to $600 billion isn't the true bill handed to future taxpayers. Because drug costs, along with other health-care costs, are climbing at a rate well above inflation, and because the huge baby boom generation is just starting to become eligible for this drug benefit, the 10-year costs of this program are just a fraction of the long-term bill. If you measured total present value of the total future obligations created by the Medicare drug benefit plan, according to the trustees of the Medicare Trust fund, the cost would be $16.6 trillion. Since that's an unsustainable sum, future generations of taxpayers will likely have to eliminate this benefit for themselves after paying for the drugs consumed by previous generations.

Think that calculating the cost of the Medicare drug benefit plan that way is unfair? Well, it's exactly the calculation that the Bush administration has used to come up with its figure of a $10.4 trillion shortfall in Social Security. But then, of course, the Bush administration wants to make the Social Security gap into a crisis. For that purpose, the bigger number is more useful. (The standard way to measure the shortfall is to look at the next 75 years. Measured that way, the Social Security shortfall is a smaller but still a very large $3.7 trillion, according to the Social Security Administration.)

Do the math
Now apply these same three steps to predict the most likely outcome of the Social Security debate.

Spend now I. Look at the demographics of AARP, certainly the most powerful lobbying group representing seniors and maybe the most powerful lobbying group in the country. AARP is fully mobilized for the fight over Social Security. The organization's goal is clear: to save Social Security for its members. President Bush has already conceded that he won't cut benefits for anyone who is retired or close to retirement. The battle now will be over how to define "close to retirement." AARP, I'm sure, will push hard toward 50.

Spend now II. "Saving" Social Security isn't much of a "sweetener" to offer younger workers, who are sufficiently cynical or realistic to doubt that the program will be around to pay them much of anything. The major new sweetener for these workers is private accounts, valuable to workers for whom retirement is a long, long way off. The sweetener is targeted at younger workers who already don't have much faith that they'll ever collect from Social Security. Hey, who under the age of 50 doesn't think they could invest their money better than the old fogies who run the Social Security trust fund? And don't forget that this sweetener will be funded by borrowing $2 trillion. Get the private accounts now and pay for them later.

Lie about the cost. All the debate about the cost of fixing Social Security has focused on how much it would cost to set up the new private accounts. Because money going into the accounts wouldn't be available for paying current Social Security benefits, the government would have to borrow something like $2 trillion to make up for the shortfall in pay-as-you-go Social Security benefits.

But that's not the cost number to watch. The true cost is buried so deep in the details of these proposals that we're all likely to fall asleep before we get to the bottom line.

Nobody in Congress wants to come right out and propose a tax hike or a benefit cut: that could be political suicide. So the current idea is to change the way that Social Security benefits are calculated.

The change sounds very simple. Right now, Social Security payments are indexed to increases in wages. As wages go up, Social Security benefit checks get larger so that retirees get a constant percentage of the average current wage in their checks. The proposal is to change the index to a ratio of the increase in the Consumer Price Index (commonly called price inflation) to the increase in wages beginning in 2009. Since wages climb more rapidly than prices, this would lower the rate at which benefits increase over time.

The change doesn't seem radical. But over time, the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration estimates, this one change would close the entire Social Security shortfall within 75 years. Make this one change and there is no Social Security crisis. (If you want to read all the details about how Social Security benefits are calculated and how indexing works now and would work under these proposals, follow this link to "How benefits are calculated.")

Pay later. Look at the size of bill to younger workers and children yet unborn that this one very-hard-to-understand change creates. The chief actuary of Social Security estimates that, under these rules, a worker born in 1977 who retires at 65 in 2042 would get 26% less than under the current rules. Instead of replacing 42% of average earnings, as Social Security does now, or the 36% as current benefit reductions phase in, this worker would see just 27% of his earnings replaced. For the worker retiring in 2075 -- a worker not yet born -- the benefits are 46% lower than under the current system: Social Security would replace just 20% of earnings.

Bad policy and bad karma
How did we get to this proposal? The Social Security Commission put them on the table in 2001 after it was charged by President Bush to "fix" the system but told that it could not consider any alternative that would increase revenue from the Social Security payroll tax, that it couldn't consider rolling back the 2001 tax cut to fund Social Security from general tax revenue, and that it couldn't dedicate some other tax, such as part of the estate tax, to Social Security. In other words, the only solution it could look at was to cut benefits. At the same time, it was to consider a proposal for private accounts that would increase the size of the Social Security gap and lead to larger benefit cuts.

I think trading this kind of certain reduction in the Social Security safety net -- it's insurance, not an investment account, which is precisely what makes it worth keeping --for the uncertain benefits of private investment accounts is a bad deal that I'd reject for myself.

But beyond that, there's something that sticks in my craw about maintaining my benefits at the cost of cutting those of young workers, of children not yet in the workforce, and of workers not yet born.

Would you feel good about explaining Spend Now, Pay Later to your kids? I know I wouldn't."