2007/12/20

Proper punishments

Interesting comment:

"The Senate late yesterday delayed until next month its consideration of a vote on a new government eavesdropping bill.
"Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) delayed the bill because more than a dozen amendments were planned, with not enough time on the legislative calendar to manage them.
--------
"Senate leaders are trying to decide whether to shield the companies from the roughly 40 pending lawsuits alleging violations of communications and wiretapping laws. The White House says that if the cases go forward, they could reveal information that would compromise national security. If they succeed, the companies could be bankrupted."
(emphasis added)

I don't think compromising national security is a reasonable objection to holding telecom companies accountable for having knowingly violated the law and having assisted the government in spying on their customers. But the idea that going ahead with lawsuits could bankrupt the companies is worth some serious thought.

I was in Boston in the late 1970s when the Bottle Bill was discussed. There were far too many bottles littering the landscape and the $100 fine for littering wasn't doing the job of getting people to toss their empty bottles into the trash. The thought behind the bill was that a small punishment, consistently applied, would be more effective. When a litterer threw away a used soda or beer bottle, the litterer only lost $0.05, but it was a punishment that was consistent. A litterer lost the $0.05 every time a bottle was carelessly discarded. If the original litterer didn't care about the money, there were plenty of people who did and who would pick up the bottle and turn it in for that $0.05.

In June 1969, an aircraft carrier collided with a destroyer, the destroyer was sliced in two and 74 crewmembers were killed. Now obviously, had a lone bomber or gunman killed 74 persons, the punishment would be swift and terrible. In this case, "A court-martial and the inquiry that followed found Captain Stevenson not at fault, yet his career was doomed from the moment his crew readied [US Destroyer] Evans to take up plane guard/rescue position, as [Australian aircraft carrier] Melbourne prepared for night-flying operations." I saw a Navy training film in 1991 that made it clear that a junior officer was in charge of the destroyer at the time and that both Stevenson, the destroyer's captain, and the junior officer were court-martialed. Their careers were effectively dead. Now, the collision had the same real-world effect as a mass murder, but to treat the collision as equivalent to a mass murder would have had a significant "chilling" effect on the officers of the Navy. Officers would have been terrified of making an error and would have checked and double-checked every decision and would have tried to "pass the buck" as much as possible. I remember reading that General (Who later became a Field-Marshal) Erwin Rommel was complaining in 1943 that his superiors were happy to order anything done as long as it was done under someone else's signature, i.e. as long as it wasn't their responsibility. Rommel felt that this attitude was the result of excessive punishments.

A Petty Officer First Class (PO1) on my ship had been promoted to Chief Petty Officer (CPO) and had to go through a few months of training and indoctrination before he could put his new uniform on. He was in my office, speaking with my CPO. My CPO hollered at a Seaman "Shipmate! Get over here!" Hearing in his voice that our CPO was neither angry nor impatient, the Seaman got up and walked reasonably quickly over to where the CPO and PO1 were talking and stood awaiting further instructions. "Now, you see, [a female CPO who worked down in Engineering] would have asked very gently and politely and, oh, you can go now Seaman, would have gotten the same result. Her authority as a Chief would have been enough to get the Seaman to report over here. I yell just because I like yelling."

What has been the result of the Bush Administration's use of torture to force captured personnel to tell their interrogators what the interrogators want to hear? According to Dan Froomkin of the WaPo

"But it all boils down to the fact that, so far, no one from Bush on down has come up with a single documented example of American lives saved thanks to torture."

While simply putting someone like Charles Manson away for life can be justified on the basis of "He's permanently dangerous and we know of no way to really cure him," there is simply zero evidence that going really, really tough on a bad person is going to produce meaningfully positive results. There's a good deal of evidence, some of which I've cited above, that small punishments, consistently applied, can be effective. Accordingly, I'm very sour on the idea of tossing executives of telecom companies who have collaborated with the Bush Administration's spying on American citizens into jail for lengthy periods (I'm extremely skeptical as to the usefulness of purely financial punishments as I suspect the guilty executives would just find a way to pass on the pain without suffering any themselves), but I think that the "hate and discontent" (A phrase we used a lot to describe near-mutinous conditions) that they and their companions feel can be maximized by tossing them into jail for relatively short periods of time. Six months should do it. If we allow them a limited amount of time per day to communicate with the outside world, then the executive will not be cut off in such a way that the company will simply learn to get along without. As the executive will, given the opportunity, try as hard as possible to stay "in the game" and relevant, the lines of authority are likely to end up bollixed up and confused.

Obviously, if customers are aware that guilty executives are still exercising limited control over their departments, this can only hurt the company. For junior executives to take their positions for limited periods of time and to then have to give them back will cause further friction and annoyance. For the executive to feel obliged to quit the company after just six months in prison will cause still further "hate and discontent."

All in all, it would be a very jolly punishment, causing maximum friction, annoyance and aggravation while minimizing any real damage to the telecommunications company. Guilty executives would still be available to head off crises and solve any serious problems, but they wouldn't be available to start up any new projects or initiatives.

2007/12/07

Response to Rick Santorum's proposal to spark revolution in Iran

I attended college in Washington DC from 1978 to 1982, the last two years of the Carter Administration and the first two years of the Reagan Administration. I was absolutely appalled to hear members of the Reagan Administration blaming the troubles in Central America (El Salvador's 12-year civil war began in 1979, as did the Sandinista takeover of Nicaragua) on "outside agitators," as though one could simply create revolutions at will wherever they were tactically necessary. One item that was made quite clear by books like Washington's War on Nicaragua and David and Goliath was that the sparsely-populated NorthEast of Nicaragua was an area where the Contras could operate pretty much at will, but in the heavily-populated SouthWest area, they were a negligible presence.
Well, just as with the ABM/Star Wars/Missile Defense/etc program, bad ideas never really die, they just hibernate for awhile and then rise yet again from the dead. So I was appalled, but not particularly surprised, to see Rick Santorum produce pretty much the same "We can gin up revolutions wherever and whenever we please" idea resurrected yet again in the pages of the Inky. A buddy of mine sent the Inky a good letter and I sent them the following:

Rick Santorum describes Iran as being an extremely important component of the two armed political parties Hezbollah and Hamas. He also states that "support for pro-democracy groups can be effective" in forcing Iran to adopt policies it currently resists.

I would notice that the US has tried and failed miserably to create indigenous resistance movements in other countries. Back during the 1960s, the US failed so miserably to create an indigenous resistance movement in North Vietnam that the effort was abandoned long before the US lost South Vietnam. During the 1980s, the indigenous resistance movement created for Nicaragua did so poorly that the Contras would have been completely ineffective had it not been for other policy tools (Primarily trade sanctions) being used in concert with them. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there was no indigenous resistance movement to help US troops conquer the country, there was no "Fifth Column" to work behind enemy lines, despite the fact that US agencies had over a decade to create one.

Is Iran just smarter than the US at doing this sort of thing? My suspicion is that they're not. My suspicion instead, is that Hezbollah and Hamas serve genuine political needs within their home countries. After all, they were both successful at electoral politics there. If the US succeeds in "cutting off the head" (i.e., invading and occupying Iran), will Hezbollah and Hamas shrivel up and die? They might be weakened by the loss of Iran, but I seriously doubt their influence would end.

Santorum declares, not that Iran is a serious threat in its own right, but that "a nuclear-armed Iran would be our greatest national security challenge since the end of the Cold War." In other words, it's a comparative threat, not a threat per se. Personally, I consider Global Warming to be a vastly greater threat than Iran, but Santorum is speaking specifically of "national security" challenges.

Let's not "Put aside politics to confront Iran," let's instead see if we can work out some sort of workable solution for us all. We've had quite enough of the US showing its fangs and rattling its sabre. Those policies have gone nowhere. It's time for more serious and more sensible policies.

2007/12/04

Joe Klein's lies and insubordination

Speaking as a military veteran (PN3, USN, 1991-2001, as a Third-Class Petty Officer, I was the Navy equivalent of an Army Corporal), when I experienced, witnessed or even heard about an act of insubordination, my fists would clench and my eyes would narrow and I'd ask "They/he/she did WHAT?!?!?" Writer/artist Donna Barr very clearly had the same attitude towards insubordination that I did when in an issue of Desert Peach (About General Erwin Rommel's fictional gay brother, who was the Colonel for the 469th Halftrack and Grave-Digging Battalion) a group of junior personnel engaged in a silly series of highjinks and were punished by having to dig up and then move the entire camp one foot to the East.

Now, did Time Magazine commit an act of insubordination by refusing to print the letters of Senate Intelligence Committee Senator Russ Feingold, House Intelligence Committee Representative Rush Holt, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, all of whom wrote to correct Joe Klein's false smear about the Democrats and their proposed FISA bill?

No.

Magazines are not and hopefully never will be, required to print the letters of anyone, even Congresspeople. Still, hearing about this gave me the same ol' feeling. I tightened my fists and narrowed my eyes and wondered "Those people did WHAT?!?!?" It is further relayed to us that over a hundred persons cc'ed Glenn Greenwald, the author of the initial posting on their letters to Time and over a dozen cc'ed him on questions concerning the issue that were posed to Howard Kurtz, the person assigned to be "media critic" for Time Magazine.

Words fail to convey how infuriating this is. These are the people's representatives trying to correct an obvious lie in a magazine that goes to four million readers.

2007/12/01

Why does the left blogosphere exist? Reasons #2,143,657 thru #2,143,659

In Media Matters, newsperson Cooper Anderson praises presidential candidate Mike Huckabee for giving a nonresponsive answer to a question that goes to the very raison d'etre (Reason for being) of his candidacy. Huckabee's justification for running is that he's a devout Christian. The question asked was how Jesus would feel about the fact that, as Governor of Arkansas, Huckabee approved quite a number of executions, a practice which is approved of in the Old Testament, but a practice that Jesus came down firmly in opposition to. Huckabee gave an answer which completely avoided this central problem.

The left blogosphere exists precisely because of events like this. Anderson praised Huckabee's non-answer. Anderson made the presumption that Huckabee is a devout Christian and that the death penalty question is just some silly complication that shouldn't prevent people from seeing Huckabee in the same fashion. But why should anybody get a free pass on questions of faith, especially when their alleged faith is so central to their presidential candidacy? Shouldn't a newsperson insist that Huckabee justify how his alleged faith is consistent with his worldly actions?

Now, one can be excessively skeptical of someone's faith. Witness the recent page one WaPo article questioning whether presidential candidate Barack Obama is "truly" a Christian or is, in fact, a Muslim. Problem with this question is that Obama has not performed any public actions or taken any public positions that one could argue are more Muslim-inspired than they are Christian-inspired. The Muslim world does not have any equivalent to the Soviet Union's Comintern (1919-1943, initiated to try and consolidate all the Communist movements and to bring down Capitalism), they are nowhere near as centralized as the Communist movements were and do not appear to have any designs on countries outside their borders. One could perhaps argue that a Muslim might oppose Israel, but the Israeli paper Haaretz has been unequivocal about that. "Obama supports Israel. Period." So even if Obama were a Muslim, it's not at all clear what that would mean. Fortunately, the WaPo has quite justifiably taken lots and lots of criticism over this article.

Another event which has also resulted in lots of criticism for the traditional media has been Time Magazine's Joe Klein (Author of Primary Colors) opining ignorantly on FISA. From immediately after publication of Klein's article on 21 Nov to 30 Nov, when The Center for Citizen Media published another piece on the controversy, lawyer and blogger Glenn Greenwald hammered away at Klein's failure to read the original bill as opposed to just listening to GOP Rep. Pete Hoekstra and rushing off to scribble his story, stopping just long enough to put in a quick "Democrats disagree" without indicating the substantive nature of the Democratic disagreement or that disagreement was not confined to Democrats. Klein's quote is:

"Unfortunately, Speaker Nancy Pelosi quashed the House Intelligence Committee's bipartisan effort and supported a Democratic bill that — Limbaugh is salivating — House Republicans believe would require the surveillance of every foreign-terrorist target's calls to be approved by the FISA court, an institution founded to protect the rights of U.S. citizens only. (Democrats dispute this interpretation.) In the lethal shorthand of political advertising, it would give terrorists the same legal protections as Americans. That is well beyond stupid."

Never identified was the "bipartisan effort" that was quashed. At no point since the original FISA bill was composed in the late 1970s have foreigners been covered under its protections. Yes Republicans could advertise that the Democratic FISA bill would "give terrorists the same legal protections as Americans," but, and this is an important point, ONLY if the Republicans were LYING!!! Was "Limbaugh...salivating"? I'm sure he was, because he knew he had a idiot like Klein covering for him. As Harper's Scott Horton points out (In a piece that's a very good summary of the whole dispute)

"Not only was the substance of this description factually inaccurate in almost every respect, it was the very core of the piece. Moreover, what Time ran was a shameless mouthing of talking points that had been circulating on Capitol Hill by Republican spinmeisters through the prior week."

Eventually, as Wired's Ryan Singel points out, Time put out two corrections, neither of which truly addressed the central fallacy, the ludicrous charge that Democrats were trying to grant new rights to foreigners.

Why does the left blogosphere exist? Because our media is broken. Because our traditional media figures are incapable of doing their jobs. Because they've lost their way and have become lazy and inattentive and search for shortcuts where they can pop off their opinions without being truly responsible for those opinions.