Sunday, December 3, 2006

It Is All About Sex Part #2

As if on cue, this week’s New York Times Magazine has a feature article on the increased repression of gays in many Arab and Muslim countries. Many of the details are harrowing: men being beaten, tortured, and blacklisted for nothing other than their sexual orientation. Perhaps even more disturbing is that one of the reasons given for this rise in anti-gay oppression is that tolerance towards gays is associated with “Western” culture, which many in the Arab and Muslim world violently reject.

A number of points which this article brings to mind are worth emphasizing:

1. Islamic fundamentalists do hate our freedoms

President Bush has often stated that we have been targeted by Al Queda and other Muslim radicals because they hate our freedom. Many have ridiculed the president for this simplistic notion, and correctly pointed out that many jihadists state clear political goals that are only marginally related to what America does or does not stand for. But there is still considerable truth to what the president says: Muslim fundamentalists despise a culture that allows what it perceives as hedonistic and lustful behavior in the name of freedom. The Taliban is the closest we have to the ideal world of Muslim extremists, and it is so authoritarian and repressive that everything from music to dancing to kite flying is prohibited, let alone displays of sexual desire.

2. The Christian Right has much in common with Muslim fundamentalists

Only on what are considered fringe leftwing blogs is this point ever mentioned, but it simply cannot be denied. While the Christian Right’s ideal America would never go as far as the Taliban, it shares many viewpoints, not the least of which is the disdain for and hatred of homosexuals. This is impolitic to say, but it needs to be said.

It also relates directly to what has always been one of my greatest criticisms of the Bush Administration, and why I do not think it has moral legitimacy. At the same time as the Administration has been fighting Islamic fundamentalists overseas, it has been busy empowering Christian fundamentalists at home. While I would never have supported the Iraq War (because I thought it was simply bad foreign policy), I would have at least believed that Bush was sincere if he had used his political capital from 9/11 to argue for a more inclusive and less fundamentalist vision of America. Instead we have the worst of both worlds: a terribly articulated and executed foreign policy and a radical fundamentalist agenda at home.

3. The struggle is for human rights above all

As I have argued in earlier pieces, while democracy is a worthy and noble goal and essential to any long-term peace in the Middle East, the global struggle we face is more about human rights than it is about democracy. Due to many factors, not the least of which is the insecurity and rapid change brought about by globalization, we are experiencing a reactionary moment in history when people of all stripes yearn for a fictional ‘golden age’ that is characterized by what they perceive as more stability. Invariably, however, what comes with this stability is less freedom and fewer human rights. The only way to combat this is to argue for and support universal human rights on all fronts and at all times.

Whether a gay man is beaten and killed in America or executed on the streets of the Iran, at bottom it is the same oppression with the same underlying motive. Until we see all these acts as part of the same larger struggle, our efforts will be only partial and largely unsuccessful.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

It Is All About Sex

I have come to believe that the root of fundamentalism (which has spawned some of the most virulently anti-liberal and violent behavior in the world) is a dysfunctional view of sexuality. I know it seems extreme to boil one of the great geopolitical struggles down to this level, but I think the facts bear this out.

Let us begin at home. The most recent gay sex scandal involving the now-disgraced evangelical leader Ted Haggard has opened a window into a world that tens of millions of Americans belong to that most of us who live in cities, especially liberal ones, have no connection with. In this world, sexual purity, defined as no sexual experience outside of heterosexual marriage, is viewed as the ultimate virtuous behavior. Not only is homosexuality viewed as a temptation by the devil, but premarital sex and even masturbation are viewed as abhorrent in the eyes of God. Best-selling books by evangelical authors are dedicated to fighting the “evil urge” to masturbate and men with homosexual tendencies are “cured” through shock therapy. What is perhaps most sad and disturbing about this latest episode is that Mr. Haggard is so full of self-loathing for his homosexual behavior that he has committed himself to healing by none other than one of the most anti-gay bigots in the country, James Dobson of the Family Research Council (who recently said that he is too busy to counsel Ted). Mr. Haggard goes so far to deny that homosexuality even exists.

The obsession with sexuality has spilled over into the virulent anti-gay activity of many on the Christian Right and is also intimately linked with their campaigns against sex education. In addition, much of their case against abortion rests on the view that sex is strictly for procreation and nothing more. To an outsider like myself, the more I learn about the inner workings of the Christian Right, the more I realize what an unhealthy and combustible mix it is. It has established a movement with an almost singular focus on sexuality, while at the same time creating conditions in which sexual confusion and frustration thrive. By denying the genetic nature of homosexuality and associating virtually all sexual desire with shame, the Christian Right creates mandates that lead to profound cognitive dissonance. It then funnels the frustration people feel when they can’t live up to these impossible and unrealistic ideals against liberals, gays, lesbians, and Hollywood (recall, Jerry Falwell blamed the attacks of 9/11 on just these groups.)

At the other end of the spectrum, halfway across the world, we have the Muslim fundamentalists, who blow themselves up believing that they are going to be rewarded in paradise with 72 virgins. If there is anything more obviously driven by sexual dysfunction I don’t know what it is. Because of the disempowerment and distrust of women throughout much of the Arab and Muslim world, many Muslim men experience their first sexual relations with other men (and yet, in six Muslim countries homosexual acts are punishable by death). This too leads to extreme forms of shame and self-loathing. The belief that men are unable to control their wicked sexual impulses is so strong that a Muslim cleric in Australia just went on record saying that women who don’t cover themselves deserve to be raped because they have tempted men (and he is just one of many). The entire cultural phenomenon of covered women is little more than a means to control sexual impulses and achieve some unattainable and unhealthy version of sexual purity.

While I do not have statistics to back me up, I can say with some confidence that people who are comfortable with their sexuality are some of the most contented people in the world, while those who are sexually conflicted and frustrated are among the least contented. I believe this level of contentment is inversely correlated with many antisocial behaviors, including violent aggression, the need to scapegoat vulnerable groups, and the need to force others to conform to one’s own view of reality.

Where this all leads I am not sure. I do not want to downplay the problems that some people encounter when they engage in sex with numerous partners, including sexually-transmitted diseases. Nor do I want to discount the needs of children, who require loving and committed parents.

How to strike a balance between sexual freedom and acceptance of non-traditional views of sexuality with a commitment to strong relationships and family is difficult. But there is no doubt in my mind that fundamentalism at its core is driven by sexual dysfunction and that until this issue is approached head-on we can look forward to more gay-bashing, violence against women, and suicide bombers. If there really is a clash of civilizations it is between the fundamentalists and liberal society, and the most potent issue that separates these two groups is their views towards sex.

P.S. Someone read my piece and forwarded me a link to one of Bill Maher's rants that's too good to pass up. Check it out- it's hilarious and on the money!

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

A War Without End

Last year some of the top military commanders in charge of Guantanamo prison came to Monterey to brief the community on conditions at the prison and the government’s policy towards detainees (An Air Force brigadier general named Hemingway, a Naval rear admiral, and an Air Force colonel). This was part of a larger campaign to address the public’s growing unease with an unjust system that was weakening America’s credibility in the world.

During the Q&A I asked the brigadier general how we could claim war powers to hold people without charge when the “war on terror” was so ill-defined and could perhaps go on indefinitely. The general responded that this was a serious question that had yet to be addressed, but which needed to be. He said that terrorism posed a new threat that required new definitions and that the government still hadn’t fully grappled with this issue.

A year later, and five years since 9/11, we still don’t have a clear definition of what this conflict is, and what defines success. The new detainee bill that recently passed in Congress strips Guantanamo prisoners of the right of Habeas Corpus and puts them in an indefinite legal limbo.

That we are this long into the struggle and still have not come up with a sensible definition of the conflict is a disgrace to our American system and the rule of law. By this time into WW I and WW II we had prosecuted the wars and declared victory, yet today we don’t even know what “victory” means. This wouldn’t be so terrible is it weren’t for the immense extensions of executive power and the diminishment of civil liberties that have accompanied this struggle, which we are routinely told will take generations.

The contradictions of our current policy were no more evident than in a recent NPR interview with John Yoo, the primary architect of the Bush Administration’s legal strategy in the post-9/11 period. While Yoo makes a persuasive case that presidents have always had the power to hold people indefinitely who are caught on the battlefield, when pressed to say how long that power can reasonably last he reiterated what the general said last year: we don’t know since we haven’t defined victory.

But Yoo made an additional statement that demonstrated the Administration’s lack of seriousness on the definitional issue, and contradicted President Bush as well. Yoo said that perhaps a good metric for defining the end of the conflict would be when most of Al Qaeda’s top leaders are captured or killed. While this sounds reasonable, it directly contradicts Bush’s own contention that the war is much broader then Al Qaeda. Also notably absent from Yoo’s remarks was how the Iraq conflict relates to his definition, since none of the major Al Qaeda figures are in Iraq. If Yoo and the President can’t agree, it seems clear that the Administration is not really serious about defining the “war on terror”.

This should come as no surprise.

The Bush Administration does not want to define the war because then it would have to justify an entire set of policies that have specious connections to the true terrorist threats, and it would also by definition constrain its own power. The result is that we are stuck with an Orwellian “war without end” in which presidential power is virtually unchecked and anything the president deems a threat can be lumped under the general heading of the “war on terror”.

My guess is that Bush will leave office without ever articulating a definition of success in the “war on terror”. We will still have hundreds of alleged terrorists in U.S. custody, many of whom were grabbed in large sweeps and are likely not terrorists, and who will not get the chance to contest the charges against them. Recall, these are the same prisoners that are constantly referred to by Bush as “some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists”, when in fact they are alleged terrorists since little evidence has ever been brought against most of them. This is precisely why we need the checks and balances and judicial oversight that this Administration has constantly tried to supersede. (What is worse is how they have cynically implied that anyone who questions their policies is abetting the terrorists.)

It will be up to the next president to clarify this struggle and restore our system of civil rights and checks and balances (There are signs that the Democratic Congress may begin work on this). We can argue all we want about the fine points of presidential power (and reasonable people of differing political persuasions can disagree), but it is unarguable that the Founders did not intend presidential war time powers to last for decades within the confines of an ill-defined struggle. That is simply un-American.

P.S. Don't forget to check the headlines for the latest news and commentary.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Reality Bites

I have never believed that “all politics is local,” and this week’s election finally laid that myth to rest. This was a referendum on a presidency and a national GOP political culture of corruption, incompetence, and misguided priorities both domestically and abroad.

Here are a few things I take away from the midterms that you may not have already heard:

1. George Bush’s and Karl Rove’s style of conservatism was a fraud from the start

I never understood why Democrats seemed scared of their shadows for the past five years and didn’t stand up to Republicans. They somehow fell victim to the belief that they were being pulled under by some huge “conservative” tide that in fact never existed. Bush ran on a platform of moderate, “compassionate” conservatism in 2000 and lost, not only the popular vote but by all objective standards probably Florida as well.

The reason the GOP won in 2002 and 2004 is simple: 9/11. People rallied behind the president and the GOP because we were attacked in a most horrific way. If Bush and Rove had used the huge reservoir of goodwill that 9/11 gave them to promote center or even center-right, positions, they may have been able to build a formidable GOP majority. But they didn’t; they turned the government into a clearing house for special interests, cut taxes disproportionately for the rich, prosecuted a war with criminal neglect, and took numerous far-right positions such as interfering in the Teri Schiavo case and vetoing federal stem-cell research.

They blew the election because they used the cover of 9/11 as a mandate from heaven to do as they pleased even if the majority of Americans opposed it. When the history books are written these men will not be treated kindly.

2. After trying to convince people that Democrats have horns, what is the GOP to do?

I look forward to Nancy Pelosi unveiling her agenda and all of the Republicans who tried to convince people that she was going to paint the White House pink and start confiscating everybody’s property are left looking like the fear-mongers they are. Raising the minimum wage, reducing the power of drug companies to dictate prices, promoting stem-cell research, and bringing accountability to the government are things Americans want, by very large margins.

There is now only one centrist party in the country and it is the Democrats. Yes, the GOP has a dwindling few moderates in its ranks, but most were ousted because people finally realized that given our two-party political system these moderates were by default enabling the corrupt GOP Congress; sorry Senator Chafee. One only has to look at the party leaders and platforms to realize that the GOP has become an extremist party out of step with the electorate. Since it is independents and moderates who decide national elections the GOP is in big trouble. This is especially true in the West, where people are sick of a government that tries to get in their bedrooms while at the same time giving subsidies to energy companies to despoil their backyards.

3. The “big tent” Democratic Party is fine, don’t worry

All this nonsense about how difficult it will be for the Democratic Party to operate given that it has some new, more conservative Congressmen and Senators is just that; nonsense. After five years of trying to ram a far right agenda down our throats, the American people will surely have plenty of tolerance for a party that is unified on core principles, even if there is some disagreement on a few issues.

And the Democrats are smart.

On issues even as contentious as gay rights, guns, and abortion, there are some very sensible middle-ground positions they are likely to support. The few “pro-life” Democrats can work to reduce abortion rates through increased family-planning, contraceptives, and adoption services (you know, the things that actually work); the gun rights people can work on enforcing the laws on the books and helping to track illegal firearms (again, the sensible stuff), while Democrats who are opposed to gay marriage can at least promote civil unions (which most Americans agree with) and move us away from hatred and bigotry.

If you want to look for division and blood-letting, don’t look to the Democrats, look to the GOP.

4. The coming implosion of the GOP

The GOP’s rise to national power was always premised on an odd assortment of essentially contradictory movements: religious extremists & libertarians, big-business special interests & small-government fiscal conservatives, foreign policy realists & neoconservatives. It was possible to hold this coalition together (just barely) when the country was sick of almost 40 years of Democratic Congressional rule and after 9/11 when the country was united behind the president. But the fissures were going to blow eventually because so many of the positions of these coalitions are mutually exclusive: you can’t both believe in personal freedom and want to fully criminalize abortion, you can’t believe in individual liberties and want to amend the Constitution to deny gay rights, you can’t try to spend your way to popularity and call for smaller government; and you can’t try to champion opportunity and believe we should deport 12 million illegal immigrants.

I predict a major realignment within the GOP because the religious extremists in the South are simply not large enough to sustain the party; moderates and independents are necessary. Hopefully, this will mean that the GOP returns to its core principles of the 1960s and 1970s and the religious right will be marginalized. This will be much better for the country and move us all towards the center, which is where we should be (and haven’t even been close to during the Bush presidency).

A couple of last points. A few hundred votes in the other direction in either Montana or Virginia and the GOP would still hold the Senate; in our winner-take-all system, voting has become increasingly important. Probably one of the greatest successes last Tuesday was the relative lack of major voting problems or charges of fraud; our democracy is chaotic, imperfect, and the electorate sometimes reacts too slowly, but ultimately it works. And that’s a huge victory for the reality-based community.

P.S. Don't forget to check Recent Headlines for all the latest key news from around the globe.

Jason Scorse

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November 5, 2006

If We Knew What We Know Now

On “Meet the Press” Tim Russert has asked every Congressman who voted for the Iraq war resolution whether knowing what we know now, if they would still have voted for it. Almost without fail all of the Congressmen equivocate and dodge the question, often saying things like “the past is the past”.

This is crazy.

I propose that the litmus test for people who want to be taken seriously on issues of national security from here on out is that they should answer unambiguously “no, of course not” to this question. Anyone who doesn’t take this stand clearly suffers from an inability to conduct rational calculus and exercise reasonable judgment.

Here’s a partial list of the things we know now three and a half years out:

1. Iraq had no WMD and was essentially contained

2. Iran has been one of the major beneficiaries of the Iraq conflict and is continuing with its nuclear weapons program unabated

3. At minimum almost 3,000 U.S. men and women have been killed and more than 20,000 seriously injured

4. The costs of the war are nearly 400 billion and rising, with estimated costs of at least 1 trillion when future medical costs for veterans is included

5. Iraq has become the “cause celebre” for jihadists around the world and increased the threats of terrorism

6. At minimum tens of thousands of Iraq civilians have been killed (with numbers perhaps as high as many hundreds of thousands)

7. The provision of basic services in Iraq, such as electricity, water, sewage, and oil production are now lower than under Saddam’s rule (making everyday life worse)

8. Iraq is in the grip of a terrible civil war and on the verge of complete collapse

9. The Iraqi government has sided with Shiite extremists, in league with death squads, and has praised Hezbollah

10. The U.S. military is stretched thin with many servicemen and women serving their third and forth tours

12. Episodes of abuse, such as at Abu Ghraib have helped to lower the U.S. image abroad to historic lows

12. The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan because we don’t have sufficient resources in that country

13. Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld have displayed criminal incompetence at every turn and didn’t even begin plans for “winning the peace” until two months before the invasion

And the list goes on and on….

Anyone you still clings to the notion that perhaps this will all turn out well is simply in a state of denial or incapable of updating their prior beliefs based on new information.

There are two other issues, however, worth considering; whether the Iraq operation could’ve been executed better (and was therefore still sound in theory) and what to do now.

Even many of the original architects of the Iraq War now accept that given what we know now they would not have supported the invasion, but they argue that how things have played out is not their fault. They say that with a more competent administration we could’ve built a stable democracy in Iraq. Kevin Drum essentially dissects this folly, showing how the neocons never paid attention to issues of nation-building; in fact, they often disparaged it. They are not on the record having offered alternatives as to how the war could’ve been waged better and rarely did they ever mention democracy promotion.

What they are engaged in is little more than collective rationalization for a tragedy largely of their own making. To the oft-heard claim that if we had had more troops from the beginning the war would’ve been successful a report from the National Security Archives on a 1999 war game exercise for the invasion of Iraq puts this myth to rest. The games concluded that even with an invasion force of 400,000 the likelihood of stability was low.

The question of what to do now is obviously the most pressing. No matter how horribly conceived and executed this war has been, it is what we are stuck with. It appears that are only options are ‘bad’ and ‘worse’, but that “stay the course” is no longer one of them. Depending on the election results this Tuesday, we are poised to enter a new phase of the conflict, which I predict will be characterized by a slow draw-down of U.S. troops and more responsibility for the Iraqis to secure their own country and stop the bloodshed. Stay tuned; unfortunately, things could get much worse.

P.S. Don't forget to update your RSS feed if you haven't already, and also check out the new "News and Commentary" section. Thanks.

Jason Scorse

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October 29, 2006

Believe the Hype

I was obviously wrong about Mark Warner becoming the next president; so much for political predictions (but he still may be the next VP). Taking his place as the new attractive “centrist” candidate is superstar Barack Obama, who is currently on a tour promoting his new book, The Audacity of Hope. On “Meet the Press” last week Senator Obama opened the door for a possible presidential run in 2008, and since then speculation has grown about whether he will actually take the plunge after the midterm elections.

I think he should without reservation and here’s why:

1. He is one of the most articulate speakers out there. Even if policy-minded folks like me prefer substance more than style, the latter still matters a lot in American politics (which is probably why an economist has never been president). And not only is Obama articulate, he is charismatic and good looking as well.

2. He is a fresh face with no baggage. There is already a palpable fatigue with the Bush and Clinton dynasties; personally I could think of nothing worse than replaying the same battles of the past two decades if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee. Obama is the face of the future: a man of mixed race who has lived all over the world. He is cosmopolitan to the extreme. What could be more refreshing for American politics than to move beyond the old, leftover arguments from the sixties that still find expression in the political bickering of today.

3. Obama actually thinks about the issues; he is decidedly non-ideological. It is a sad testament to American politics that this isn’t a given for every president, but anyone who has watched George Bush these past six years knows that he is driven more by ideology than by reason and facts. This is always dangerous, and never more so than at a time when we are fighting battles that demand nuance, subtlety, and constant evaluation. If Obama were to become president the contrast between him and Bush would be striking in a dramatically good way.

4. He is centrist in the right ways. As my VoR piece a few weeks ago outlined, political centrism, while often viewed as weak and diluted, actually presents positions that are the most well-reasoned, take the best positions from the Left and Right, and combine them into workable policy. On matters of policy implementation Obama is a pragmatist who would work to achieve the desired outcomes, and not be bogged down by notions of whether the policies are labeled “liberal” or “conservative”.

5. He transcends easy classification. While most Democrats are easily caricatured as “too liberal,” Obama doesn’t fit into the typical frames of liberal v. conservative, which is very appealing to the growing number of independents and moderates. In addition, the old labels convey little meaningful information, and do more to obfuscate than illuminate.

6. His position on the Iraq war is consistent and sensible. Obama is the only potential Democratic nominee who argued strongly against the war and has said unequivocally that he would not have voted for it. He makes the case that it has been a terrible strategic blunder and incompetently managed. But when it comes to deciding what to do now, his tone is more measured. Many on the anti-war Left believe that he is trying to have it both ways, and are upset that he isn’t calling for immediate withdrawal. But like most Americans, Obama is genuinely torn; he knows the war was a mistake but also knows that how we end it will have serious repercussions for American security. He wants to think it through and weigh the options. Obviously, if he chooses to run he will have to clarify his position, but there is nothing wrong with being unsure of the best course at this juncture; it is in fact intellectually honest.

Will Obama run? Who knows. Some say that he is waiting to see how Harold Ford does in his senate race in Tennessee. While overt racism is no longer as prevalent in America, there is still the underlying fear that many whites would not vote for a black man for president (even if they said they would in polls).

I hope Obama runs. I think he could beat Hillary for the Democratic nomination, and beat whoever the Republicans put forth, including McCain (though I don’t think he will get the Republican nomination). I like to imagine a time a few years from now when Obama is making speeches from the Oval Office that are eloquent, inclusive, and hopeful, and we come to fully realize how this is the type of president our country deserves. We will wonder how it was that we tolerated the divisiveness, the fear-mongering and the hypocrisy of the Bush Administration for all those years.

If you have any doubts about Obama check out this interview.

Jason Scorse

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October 22, 2006

Much Less than a Christian Nation

Those who argue that the United States is a Christian nation are hard-pressed to explain why our founders went out of their way to make sure that our founding document, the U.S. Constitution, lacks any mention whatsoever of God, church, the Bible, or Jesus. It is inconceivable that men who put so much time into crafting the Constitution would so explicitly and thoroughly steer clear of religious justifications for their beliefs in any way if they wanted to convey some particularly religious status to our nation.

Perhaps even more striking, if we go back a few years before the Constitution to the Declaration of Independence, there is even greater, and much less publicized proof, that not only did the Founders reject any notion of the United States as a Christian Nation, but they explicitly rejected any notion of today’s view of the Christian god.

Many Christians like to cite this sentence in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

These Christians run into serious difficulty trying to explain why the signers of the Declaration used the ambiguous word “Creator”, which is consistent with any deistic interpretation of the origins of life and is not exclusively Christian, but even more importantly, they never quote what comes in the very first paragraph even though the word “God” is used:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. (Highlighting mine.)

Not only did the authors put the “Laws of Nature” as a justification for independence before the word “God” they explicitly state that God is subservient to Nature! When I first read this I was astonished since this is so embarrassing to the proponents of the Christian Nation myth, and I was surprised that it hadn’t gotten more press.

I could spend pages more discussing the historic views of “Natural Law” philosophy that animated and motivated many of the Founding Fathers, and how the majority of them held deistic beliefs that were more consistent with modern forms of agnosticism than anything approaching the assertions made by many modern-day Christians. And of course, some religious people could throw back a few cherry-picked religious quotes from some of the Founding Fathers that point to a greater degree of religiosity than is found in our founding documents.

None of this is necessary.

In both the U.S. Constitution, and even more strongly in the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers explicitly rejected any notion that our nation is based on the tenets of Christianity and the Bible. I can only shudder at the theocracy we would live under if the Founders had given religious literalists any opening whatsoever.

Fortunately, they didn’t and for that I am ever grateful.


P.S. Here’s a scathing critique of the Bush Administration by Pat Tilman’s brother, also in the military; it’s one of those pieces that apologists for Bush and company’s failures hate to see.

Jason Scorse

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October 25, 2006

Minds on the Prize

There has been a lot of discussion lately on a topic that often comes up in my economics classes: the use of prizes as incentives for innovation. Despite the long history of using prizes to spur technological development, the renewed interest in this tool is a good sign because it is underused and could yield tremendous global benefits.

The underlying reasons why prizes may represent one of the most effective and efficient ways to accelerate innovation are relatively straight-forward:

1. All entities, but particularly governments, are notoriously bad at picking technological winners, especially in emerging fields. For example, the energy or telecommunications technologies that may prove to be the best in the coming decades may not even be on the radar screen right now. Creating prizes for technological developments allows scientists and engineers wide latitude in figuring out the best ways to make advancements. For example, while directly supporting hybrid technology may help to increase innovation in this industry, a prize for the first group to come up with a 100 mpg car creates incentives for development within a much broader range of technologies, some of which may ultimately be superior to hybrid technology.

2. Prizes engage the broadest group of innovators possible because by their definition they don’t favor any group or industry. As we are all well aware, sometimes the best inventions come from people’s backyards or garages, or across borders and therefore, prizes are some of the most efficient generators of creative and competitive activity.

3. Prizes do not just confer money on the winners, but also prestige. Whereas direct support of industries or groups provides only a monetary reward, many scientists (who have egos just like the rest of us) may be extra-driven by a desire for the media attention and fame that accompanies winning a competition; the same amount of money spent on directly supporting given research may actually generate additional work if used instead as prize money.

The potential uses of prizes to help generate new technology are almost limitless, but there are a few areas where it would be especially beneficial to world society: new medicines and new environmental technology. Probably the best possible uses of prizes would be to encourage the development of a vaccine for AIDs or malaria or for new highly efficient and clean energy technologies.

Prize money must be sufficiently high to cover the costs of R&D by at minimum an order of magnitude; since most players have a small probability of winning they will only spend their own money to take the risk if the prize is very big. This might mean a prize of say $50-$100 billion for a major medical cure or $10 billion for new energy technology, but compared to the potential benefits to the world even such sums are a relatively small price to pay. In addition, these sums would only be paid if the desired technologies were developed, whereas most forms of subsidies don’t guarantee almost any desirable outcome.

Given the huge sums the world already spends on fighting disease and environmental regulation, I can think of almost no better way to commit resources than providing incentives for the best minds in the world to focus their attention on the world’s most pressing problems.

Jason Scorse

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October 8, 2006

In Praise of Centrism

While many voters consider themselves pragmatic centrists (perhaps even a majority), those who are deemed “centrists” are often viewed negatively among loyalists of both parties, who believe that centrism connotes intellectual weakness, excessive compromise, and a lack of strong ideals.

I want to reframe centrism as the political philosophy that takes the best ideas of all political persuasions instead of simply being viewed as either watered down liberalism or conservatism. In addition, centrism should be viewed as a philosophy of governing that is concerned primarily with societal outcomes, and less so with ideological purity. It is a more humble philosophy that allows for unintended consequences, continually updated assumptions, and the sincere desire to take into account opposing viewpoints.

The following are a few examples of centrist positions on key issues:

1. Educational opportunity

Centrists recognize that our nation is rightly focused more on providing equal opportunity than on guaranteeing equal outcomes, and that education is the key driver of opportunity in our society. Adequately providing educational opportunities requires some degree of economic redistribution, while also making sure that incentives are in place that allow for personal responsibility and choice. A system of progressive school vouchers would be an ideal centrist educational policy.

2. Health care

Centrists recognize that our system of health care is inefficient and ineffective because bureaucracy costs are exceptionally high by world standards, tens of millions of our citizens are uninsured, our businesses are at a disadvantage because in all other industrialized nations business do not have huge health care liabilities, and there is little incentive to invest in preventative care that saves lives and money when one’s insurer at a young age will likely not be the insurer during old age. Centrists also realize that an entirely state-run health system would be a disaster, but that some form of nationalized system that guarantees everyone basic health care is the direction we must move towards. Some form of mandatory coverage within a private-run system combined with health vouchers for the poor is likely the direction to go.

3. Drug policy

Centrists recognize that the “War on Drugs” is an abysmal failure based on any sensible metric, as well as an infringement of basic rights that is contrary to our democratic ideals. A centrist position on drug reform would emphasize the decriminalization of most drugs, a focus on drug use as a health and educational issue, while maintaining stiff and severe penalties for those who use drugs in situations where there is an increased chance of injuring innocent bystanders (i.e. driving while intoxicated or harming children).

4. Foreign policy

Centrists recognize that the promotion of democracy and human rights should be a centerpiece of our foreign policy, but that sometimes these goals can conflict (as in the case of Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Shiites parties in Iraq). There is simply no guarantee that majorities will choose peace or the promotion of human rights. For this reason, centrists favor a focus on clear and present dangers to the U.S. and a more gradual and decidedly less militaristic approach to the promotion of democracy abroad, since homegrown movements have a much greater chance of being sustained.

Of all the current crop of presidential candidates, Mark Warner continues to come closest to espousing a centrist philosophy; one of his slogans in fact is the “sensible center”. Hopefully, the time will soon be ripe for someone with his mindset to ascend to the presidency since the country is ill-served by ideologues of either party, particularly ones whose criminal incompetence never ceases to amaze.

Jason Scorse

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October 1, 2006

When Fighting is the Moral Thing to Do

There are times throughout history when all defenders of liberty have a moral responsibility to take up arms. World War II clearly met this standard. A genocidal maniac backed by the most powerful military machine was on the move, conquering free nation after free nation, and literally threatening civilization.

As much as I am horrified by all forms of violence and believe that military campaigns are used much more often than is justified either morally or strategically, if I believed that the world faced a threat similar to Hitler I would take up arms and fight for freedom. For example, if massive armies of Islamic radicals were invading Europe and taking over the Middle East in a power grab that threatened to turn large swaths of the free world into Taliban-style totalitarianism it would be my duty to fight.

But I see nothing even approaching this scenario on the current world stage. I believe that there are many disparate bands of Muslim radicals and jihadists, who hate each other almost as much as us, and whose desire for world domination is not matched by capabilities that are in anyway up to the task. While I believe terrorism is a serious threat, I do not fear that men in caves and the world’s most backwards societies threaten the foundations of Western civilization. Part of my confidence comes from the fact that most Muslims and Arabs hate Al Queada and want modernization and democracy as much as anyone.

But there are many on the right who disagree with me; who think my views are naïve. President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Newt Gingrich and many of the neocons such as William Kristol and Robert Kagan, all believe that we are facing foes as powerful and threatening as Hitler and Stalin. They compare the current conflicts to WW II and the threats of global communism and fascism.

What puzzles me is why we don’t see droves of people who share this view on the right (or left) lining up to fight if they believe that the threat is actually so great. There can be only two reasons for this inaction as I see it. The first is that they really don’t believe their own hype. It makes for good political rhetoric, wins elections, and is a good fear tactic to bully opponents. The other possibility is that they are cowards; if someone truly believes that we are facing a historical moment akin to 1939 then there is no excuse if one is able-bodied not to join the fight. While there are, no doubt, many cowards on the right (and left), I think most of them simply don’t believe that the threats we face are so dire. Their actions clearly are not consistent with such a belief.

When history is written many years from now I do not think that the consensus will be that the free nations of the world sat idly by and underestimated the threats from global jihadists; in fact, quite the opposite. The dominant view will be that the U.S. unwisely overreacted to a significant, but not existential threat, and by grouping all Muslim and Arab groups into one undifferentiated “war on terror” we played right into the hands of the jihadists, who used the widespread perception of war on Islam as their number one recruiting tool. By uniting many different disparate groups against us and failing to adequately prioritize the threats, we made the conflict longer and more difficult, but in the end, despite our mistakes, we ultimately prevailed because liberal-democratic values are superior to religious fanaticism in every conceivable way.

Jason Scorse

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