Monday, October 25, 2010

21st Century Jeffersonianism vis-a-vis Libertarianism

The libertarian ideal is that the individual should have the maximum amount of freedom, tempered only by an absolutely minimal amount of interference from government. Some libertarians go so far as to favor the abolition of the state entirely, while others believe that the only legitimate governmental institution is a minimalist judiciary to arbitrate disputes between citizens. Libertarians generally feel that the state has no business regulating the activities of citizens and that everything should be left to the free market.

In some ways, Thomas Jefferson leaned towards libertarianism. Intellectually, at least, he favored a minimalist state that interfered in the lives of its citizens as little as possible. As President, he shrank the government. In his struggles with Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson was the champion of local control against those who sought to increase and expand the power of the central government.

So, it is clear that there was a streak of libertarianism that ran through Jefferson's political philosophy. The same is true of 21st Century Jeffersonianism. We believe with the libertarians that the telos, the end towards which we strive, should be for every individual to have the greatest amount of freedom possible. To this end, we believe in a small government that intervenes in the personal lives of the people as little as possible.

But Jefferson, despite efforts by libertarians to claim him as one of their own, would never have gone nearly so far as modern libertarians do. Jefferson understood that, in addition to being a large number of individuals, society is also a collective whole that possessed collective interests, and that government is sometimes the only means to further those collective interests. As a state legislator in Virginia, Jefferson authored laws to regulate those activities of citizens which he thought needed regulation (smallpox inoculations, for example), and while he was certainly a small-government oresident, he would have seen any suggestion that the government be abolished as ludicrous.

The problem with today's libertarians is that they are, by and large, devotees of pure theory, rather than practical men and women who are willing to adjust their beliefs to the realities of the modern world. Some of them are indistinguishable from the most rabid religious fundamentalists, holding up the collected works of Ayn Rand as their Bible. And one of the lessons of history is that when devotees of pure theory are actually handed the reins of power, the results are usually disastrous. One can look at the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the economic meltdowns that have resulted in innumerable countries from religiously-strict adherence to either socialist or capitalist economic philosophies.

If you want a real-world example of what happens to a society without a government, take a look at Somalia.

And then there's the fact that strict adherence to libertarian ideas of individual freedom result in the exploitation of individuals. Consider the case of Michael Clauer of Frisco, Texas. While serving as a National Guard officer in Iraq, bravely fighting for his country, his paid-for home back in Texas was foreclosed on and sold because his wife had accidentally missed a few payments to their local home owners association. She had been suffering from depression due to her husband's absence and had allowed the mail to pile up.

In the libertarian world, this is all a matter of property rights and the sanctity of contracts, and therefore it is quite fitting and proper for Clauer and his family to be kicked out of their home. But the conscience of every decent human being finds this revolting and, more to the point, feels that the rights of the Clauer family have been grossly violated. Surely, one of the roles of government is to protect citizens from being victimized by such exploitation.

Jefferson was, above all else, a man of the Enlightenment, who believed that human reason was the ultimate guide. This freed him from blind adherence to strict ideologies and gave him the ability to adjust his beliefs as to the best courses of action in light of actual circumstances. In this, 21st Century Jeffersonians follow their namesake. While libertarianism has many useful ideas that should be warmly embraced, following its theories to their ultimate conclusions would simply drive us off a cliff. For that matter, the same is true for modern liberalism and modern conservatism.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Legalizing Marijuana Is Basic Common Sense

Sometimes, a public policy issue has an answer that is so ridiculously obvious that it astonishes a rational person that the question is even being debated. One of these issues is whether or not marijuana should be decriminalized. For 21st Century Jeffersonians, the arguments in favor of legalization are so overwhelming, and the arguments against legalization so weak, that soundness of the decriminalization is crystal clear. Policy-makers in Washington and the various states could immediately do the entire country a big favor by decriminalizing marijuana. This does not imply any particular endorsement of people using marijuana, but is merely a concession to reality and common sense.

The growth, possession, and use of marijuana was gradually made illegal in the United States via several pieces of legislation over the course of the 20th Century, culminating in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Since then, innumerable political battles have been waged over the issue of making it legal once again, often focusing on its potential medical uses. Federalism has also been an issue in the debate, with many questioning if the federal government has any right to regulate such matters, as there it is given no authority in the Constitution for doing so. All these disputes could be easily resolved if we took the simple step of legalizing marijuana altogether and just being done with the issue.

From a rational point of view, using marijuana is not much different than using alcohol. Although the potential for serious misuse obviously exists, most people who use marijuana or drink alcohol do so in a responsible manner that presents no threat to other citizens. Jefferson reminds us that the powers of the government "extend only to such acts only as are injurious to others." If a person wants to drink himself to death, that's very unfortunate but no business of the state; if a person drinks heavily and then get behind the wheel of a car, the act presents a threat to other citizens and the power of the state must then intervene. The use of marijuana should only be illegal when it presents a threat or causes damage to another citizen, and there are few cases where this occurs.

That's the constitutional and philosophical argument, and for many it is sufficient justification on its own for marijuana legalization. But even without it, we can clearly see that keeping marijuana illegal has so many negative consequences for our society that it's decriminalization should be made an urgent priority.

The so-called "War on Drugs" was declared by President Nixon in 1971. Forty years later, anyone can see that it has been an utter failure, for drug use in America has barely changed. Instead, we annually waste something like fifty billion dollars of both federal and state money and have effectively militarized many segments of our law enforcement institutions. If these financial and manpower resources were devoted to other tasks, which could easily be accomplished by decriminalizing marijuana, society would be much better off.

Even worse, roughly three-quarters of a million people are arrested every year for the nonviolent crime of merely possessing marijuana, significantly more than the number of people arrested for violent crimes. Of those arrested, tens of thousands are thrown in jail. Think of it. Tens of thousands of our fellow citizens, who have done nothing to hurt anyone at all, are languishing in prison because they committed an act that is, when you get right down to it, no more serious than holding a beer. It's something you might expect from Stalin's Russia, but not the United States of America. The moral conscience of every citizen should be outraged by this, and demand that the laws be overturned.

Beyond the moral argument is the fiscal one. It costs something like $60,000 annually to keep a single inmate in jail. We do easily do the math and discover that keeping incarcerated the nonviolent marijuana users that have already been arrested costs taxpayers something like $2.4 billion a year. Add onto that the savings marijuana decriminalization would generate from our law enforcement and criminal justice systems, and we are looking at tens of billions of dollars a year.

For that matter, if marijuana were decriminalized, it could be subject to an excise tax, just like those we already place on alcohol and tobacco products, and sellers of marijuana would have to pay income taxes on their earnings once the industry emerged from the black market. Billions of dollars a year could be raised through these means. All told, the revenue generated by a marijuana excise tax combined with easing the prison, law enforcement and criminal justice budgets would greatly ease the fiscal strain being placed on the federal government and all of the fifty state governments.

It's worth pointing out that, so long as marijuana remains illegal, the profits from its sale largely flow into the pockets of drug dealers and organized crime. Decriminalizing marijuana would not only be of great fiscal benefit to the public, but would strike a severe financial blow at such criminal elements.

To summarize, decriminalizing the use of marijuana (which, in and of itself, harms no one) would right the great moral wrong of having so many of our fellow citizens in prison from nonviolent, victimless crimes, as well as saving taxpayers massive amounts of money and generating additional revenue to ease the national fiscal crisis, while cutting off a vital source of revenue for organized crime. As far as public policy is concerned, decriminalizing marijuana is a slam dunk.

Congress should immediately pass legislation reclassifying marijuana as a non-scheduled controlled substance, putting it in the same category at alcohol and tobacco, while the various state governments pass companion legislation making it legal. The federal government and the state governments should then establish a reasonable excise tax on it. At the same time, the President should pass a blanket pardon to all prison inmates who had been incarcerated for marijuana possession. All this could be done within a matter of months, and it would make our society a much better place.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Senatos McCain and Coburn Release List of Ridiculous Uses of Stimulus Money

Ever since President Obama and the Democratic Congress attempted to jump start the economy with their stimulus package early in 2009, Republicans have launched attack after attack on the measure. In doing so, they tend to overlook the fact that the majority of the stimulus consisted of tax cuts (long a Republican priority) and focus instead on the vast injection of federal money into the economy in the form of various infrastructure projects.

21st Century Jeffersonians are not Kenysians and generally distrust any government effort to guide the economy aside from enacting common sense regulations for certain economic activities. Whether the stimulus plan was successful or not depends on which economist you talk to, but there can be no denying the Republican point that a great deal of stimulus money went to projects whose utility is dubious at best and completely nonexistent at worst.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator John Coburn (R-OK), perhaps the two biggest enemies of pork barrel spending in the entire Senate, have recently released a fasctinating report entitled Summertime Blues: 100 Stimulus Projects That Give Taxpayers the Blues. As the title suggests, it details 100 individual projects funded by stimulus dollars and raises quite obvious questions as to their usefulness for the country or their positive impact in revitalizing the economy.

Among the projects highlighted by the report:
  • $340,000 to plant plam trees in Fresno, California. If Fresno wants palm trees, shouldn't it pay for them itself?

  • $174,000 for researchers at UCLA to study whether retirement helps or hurts marriages, as if this is any business of the federal government.

  • $435,000 for MIT to develop a smartphone application designed to teach high school kids basic biology. Isn't that what biology teachers are for?

  • $1 million for artwork to be displayed at Los Angeles bus stops. We love art as much as anyone, but think there are perhaps better uses for a million dollars worth of taxpayer money.

  • $293,000 for Cornell University to study "dog domestication".

  • $713,000 for scientists at Northwestern University to invent a machine that tells jokes. If only it were a joke.

  • $1.2 million to market video games for the elderly, which isn't exactly a serious government priority.

And the list goes on...

Some of the projects are, in and of themselves, quite worthwhile and interesting. One item involved funding historical research on the legal structure of the Spanish Empire, which is certainly deserving of support but not the sort of thing that in which the federal government needs to be involved. After all, where federal money goes, federal control inevitably follows, and we should be very wary of placing our nation's humanities scholars in positions where the federal government gets to choose which research projects will get funded and which shall not.

Other projects, including various upkeep efforts at national historical sites (such as President Roosevelt's home at Hyde Park in New York) are also quite worthy of support. But shouldn't the funding for such projects be done through the regular channel of the National Park Service? Why make things more complicated than they have to be by dumping money on them through the stimulus? Similarly, there are some interesting scientific projects on the list, including one involving the study of weather patterns on Neptune. 21st Century Jeffersonians support, with certain qualifications, some government funding for scientific research projects. But again, why were these projects not funded through NASA or the National Science Foundation?

Truth be told, all this money may not amount to much more than a few drops of water in the vast ocean that is the federal budget. But that's not really the point. When we're facing a fiscal crisis that poses a far greater threat to America than any foreign enemy, every penny counts. Plus, the fact that every penny spent on these projects was either taken from a hard-working American taxpayer or, in effect, stolen from our great-grandchildren, there certainly is a moral imperative to justify its need.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Presidential War Powers Must be Clarified and Curtailed

The 55 men who created the United States Constitution, for better or worse, left us with many provisions in the document that are ambiguous and therefore can be interpreted in a variety of different ways. In a few cases, however, there are rock solid declarations in the Constitution which are so clear and concise that they are not open for discussion. One such assertion is to be found in Article One, Section Eight: "Congress shall have the power. . . to declare war."

That's as clear as can be. Under the Constitution, Congress has the right to declare war. Not the President, not the Supreme Court, not the States, but Congress, and Congress alone. Of all the provisions of the Constitution, this one has been violated on the most systematic basis, and with the gravest consequences for the country.

Technically speaking, the United States has only declared war against other nations during five conflicts since the Constitution was ratified: the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II. Each of these, of course, were serious conflicts between the United States and either another nation or an alliance of other nations, and which were ended by the signing of a peace treaty with the state or states in question. These were wars that would have been recognizable by Napoleon.

Of course, between 1788 and 1945, there were literally hundreds of small-scale military actions, such as Jefferson's own naval campaign against the Barbary pirates in North Africa or the innumerable military operations (usually misguided and often entirely self-serving) to protect American "interests" in Latin American states. But none of these amounted to a full-scale war against another sovereign state, and Congress either voted their approval of the actions of the President or considered the actions to be generally beneath their notice. If an American warship sends a detachment of Marines ashore in a small country to protect the American consulate from a civil disturbance, it's not really something that Congress needs to get worked up over, provided that previously agreed-upon protocols are followed.

Since the end of the World War II, however, things have changed. On four occasions since 1945, the United States has fought full-scale wars against sovereign states: the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the 1991 Gulf War, and the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. The congressional resolutions authorizing military action in Vietnam in 1964 and Iraq in 2002 were based entirely on false pretenses (the alleged Gulf of Tonkin incident for Vietnam and the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction for Iraq). On two other occasions, in Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989, the President ordered the military to occupy small but independent nations. In 1999, a limited war was fought against Serbia. Each of these conflicts were initiated not by Congress, but by the President, with congressional approval only coming later and often only after a deceptive propaganda effort by the executive branch.

Since the end of World War II, the war powers of the federal government have steadily shifted away from the legislative branch and into the hands of the executive branch. We have entered an age when an American President has the power to launch the nation into a unilateral war. Such power effectively being in the hands of a single individual should chill the blood of all American citizens.

In the wake of the American defeat in the Vietnam War (which, lest we forget, cost the lives of 58,000 Americans), Congress passed the War Powers Resolution. This requires the President to notify Congress within two days of the beginning of any military action that such an action is taking place, and gives a 60 day window (with an additional 30 days for a withdrawal) for combat operations to last, after which Congress must approve of any further continuation o the operation. Most Presidents have paid little attention, and many scholars believe the resolution to be unconstitutional.

In the nuclear age, it may be that old-fashioned declarations of war have become obsolete. At the very least, however, we need a much more concise and comprehensive legislative clarification of Presidential war powers, by a constitutional amendment if necessary. Firstly, except in rare cases of responded to some sort of surprise attack, the President must be absolutely prohibited from ordering the military into action without congressional approval, even under the authority of United Nations resolutions (for although treaties are part of the supreme law of the land, as specified in Article Six of the Constitution, they cannot override the congressional authority to declare war, which is enshrined in the Constitution itself).

Secondly, any congressional authorization for the use of military force must have a set time limit, after which another congressional vote would be necessary for the President to continue the operation. The alternative is an open-ended resolution that would allow the President to continue military operations indefinitely. The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was ostensibly intended to allow the President to retaliate against North Vietnam for an attack on an American warship, but it eventually was twisted into authorization for the deployment of a massive American army of half a million men, fighting in Southeast Asia for years.

Congress must reclaim its constitutional role as the branch of government responsible for deciding whether or not America goes to war. Had it not abandoned its responsibilities after 1945, tens of thousands of Americans who died in the wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East might never have perished. While this issue has been swept under the carpet after President George W. Bush left office, it is still festering within the constitutional framework, and it must be attended to as soon as possible.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Reasonable Government Regulation Is a Necessary Evil

In Jefferson's time, the everyday lives of people more closely resembled that of the ancient Greeks and Romans that modern society. It didn't really occur to them that government, on any level, should regulate much activity aside from coordinating trade, handing relations with other nations, and making sure the postal system worked. But even in Jefferson's time, the advance of scientific knowledge was beginning to raise difficult questions which, on occasion, required government to intervene.

Between the time he wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and was elected Governor of Virginia in 1779, Jefferson served as a member of the state legislature. In this capacity, he found himself authoring a bill that regulated the activities of people who were carrying out smallpox inoculations, a new and wonderful procedure that helped to greatly reduce the scourge of the dreaded disease.

The problem was that there were no rules governing who could perform smallpox inoculations or how the procedures should be done. Literally anyone could show up in a town, claim to be a doctor, and start performing the procedures, even if they had not the slightest idea of what were doing. It might be a reputable physician, it might be a well-meaning idiot, or it might be a fraudulent scoundrel who couldn't care less that his activities actually caused become to die of smallpox, so long as he got his money and left town fast.

In order for this kind of problem to be solved, society needed some sort of judge to determine who could and couldn't carry out smallpox inoculations, and how they had to be done. Ideally, individual citizens should do this themselves, but in practice this wouldn't work, because the average Virginian had not the slightest clue as to what smallpox inoculation worked or what it involved. There was only one conceivable answer, and that for the Virginia state government to regulate the practice.

Jefferson, of course, didn't like the idea of government intruding into people's lives, but in such cases as this there simply was no alternative. Failing to have the state government regulate smallpox inoculations would have allowed incompetent and fraudulent practitioners to run amok all over Virginia and cause misery. While it is obvious that the activities of government must always be carefully monitored and strictly limited, it is equally obvious that there are cases in which government intervention is both necessary and desirable.

This fact is even more true for us, as we live in a world vastly more complex than that which Jefferson inhabited. In a time of rapidly advancing science and technology, of instantaneous communications and swift transportation, we must face the question of whether to allow government to intervene much more often than Jefferson did. As the power of humanity expands to heights that would have appeared magical to people of the late 18th Century, we now have the ability to solve human problems that would have astonished our forebears. But with this power come difficult questions regarding the role of government in our lives.

In December of 2003, within less than a week, two equally powerful earthquakes, measuring roughly 6.6 on the Ritcher scale, struck on opposite sides of the world. One hit in California, where it caused some property damage and killed two people. The other struck in southern Iran, where it completely obliterated the town of Bam and killed more than 25,000 people. A major part of the reason for the difference in damage and casualties was that government regulations regarding building codes were in place in California, but were not in Iran.

Since the beginning of 2010, two events in the United States have highlighted the need for reasonable government regulation: the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in West Virginia and the Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Both were tragedies that cost human lives, and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has left the region environmentally devastated. In both cases, the disasters could have been avoided had the regulatory standards already in place been properly enforced.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill also could have been rendered much less damaging had the United States adopted a common sense regulation used by our neighbors in Canada. By law, Canadian offshore oil drillers are required to simultaneously drill relief wells to a near-complete level as they drill their main well, so that in the event of a rupture of the main well, the relief well can quickly be used to stop the damage. Because there was no such regulation in the United States, BP didn't start drilling its relief well until after the leak had begun, resulting in months of uncontrolled erupting of oil into the ocean. Only the most dogmatic members of the Libertarian Party would sincerely assert that we would not be better off had the United States adopted the same rule as Canada before BP started drilling its well.

In a complex world, a reasonable level of government regulation is a necessary evil. The trick is to choose very carefully which areas should be open to government regulation, and then choose very carefully the level of government intervention to be allowed. Certain areas should be completely off-limits to government intervention altogether, and even when we make the decision to allow a role for goverment regulation, we should keep it to the absolute minimum necessary to achieve the required aims. Once the door to government regulation is open, it must citizens must monitor it like a hawk to ensure that the regulation in question does not expand past that point, and terminate it immediately when it is no longer necessary.

The current level of federal regulations is patently ridiculous and intrudes into far too much into the ordinary lives of citizens. In particular, it expands the power of the federal government into areas that are the proper responsibility of state and local governments. Rolling back this tide will be a major task for 21st Century Jeffersonians in the 21st Century.

It would be nice to go back to Jefferson's time in which there was so little need for government intervention that a person might live their entire life without encountering the federal government, or even the state government. But that's not possible, because we no longer live in Jefferson's world. Our task, therefore, is not to abolish government, but to make government the servant, rather than the master, of the people.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Fair Elections Now Act

Common Cause is one of the most Jeffersonian organizations in the United States today, laboring against heavy odds to reduce the influence of corporate money in elections and seeking to obtain fundamental reforms in the American electoral system in order to increase democracy. If Jefferson were alive today, he would undoubtedly be a card-carrying, dues-paying member of Common Cause.

Teaming up with another excellent organization, Public Campaign, Common Cause is now pushing a national effort to get a piece of legislation called the Fair Elections Now Act enacted into law. The Fair Elections Act would create a system of public financing for federal elections, similar to programs already working with great effectiveness in many of the states. Under the envisioned law, candidates for federal office who agree to accept only donations of $100 or less (therefore eliminating the influence of massive corporate contributions of thousands of dollars) would get $400 in federal matching grants for every $100 raised.

This bill is being sponsored in the House of Representatives by Congressman John Larson (D-CT) and Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC), and in the Senate by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). These legislators are to be congraulated for their Jeffersonian efforts to limit the influence of corporate money on our electoral process.

The influence of corporate money on federal elections is an acid eating away at American democracy, and it is only going to get worse in the wake of the disastrous Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which this blog has already discussed. A Jeffersonian republic can only exist if the ideal of "one-citizen-one-vote" exists in actual fact, as opposed to being merely in theory. Technically-speaking, the richest citizen and the poorest citizen each have the same voting power on election day, but anyone who clains that the rich do not have a greater ability to influence the American political process as the poor are either deluding themselves or are outright lying (most likely the latter).

The Fair Elections Now Act would not be a silver bullet that would completely solve the problem, but it would be a big step in the right direction. All 21st Century Jeffersonians should rally around the legislation. They should communicate their strong support of it to their own representatives in the House and Senate, write letters to the editor, and do anything they can think of to help get it enacted into law.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Congress Considers Legalizing, and Taxing, Online Gambling

This New York Times story makes for some interesting reading. Many members of Congress are pushing legislation that would overturn the 2006 ban on online gambling. A major rationale for this effort is the fact that legalizing online gambling would allow the federal government to implement a tax on the activity, thus helping to alleviate the fiscal crisis our country is currently facing.

There is considerable opposition to the move, however, particularly from Republicans that have ties to the Religious Right, which traditionally supports government efforts to ban gambling. It will likely be a difficult fight to get the legislation passed. Nevertheless, lifting the ban is sound public policy and should be done as soon as possible.

Government efforts to prohibit gambling stem from a personal belief among certain groups that gambling is inherently immoral. This ignores the obvious fact that it is not the government's job to enforce public morality. Citizens can hold a wide variety of opinions about the ethics of gambling, but it should not be the government's responsibility to police such activities. We might as well speak of the government passing laws to prohibit lying or the use of profanity.

Furthermore, the 2006 ban on online gambling has been completely ineffective. It prohibits American financial institutions from transferring funds to and from online gambling establishments, but this merely resulted in driving it into the underground economy and did little or nothing to actually stop Americans from using online gambling sites. According to the article, Americans annually spend upwards of $6 billion on online gambling sites. As with the efforts to ban alcohol during Prohibition, and modern efforts to ban to the use of marijuana, such government measures are always doomed to failure.

Indeed, the only real impact such government bans have had is to deny the excise tax revenue that would otherwise be obtained from such activities. Estimates suggest that the federal government could derive $42 billion over the next decade from taxes on online gambling. This may not be all that much when set against the magnitude of the fiscal crisis, but it's $42 billion closer to a solution.

Ultimately, the long-term solution to our budget problems will involve a massive downsizing of the federal government and a less intrusive taxation system than the one which currently exists. A major aspect of a truly Jeffersonian tax policy will be the use of excise taxes on specific products and activities. Online gambling is the kind of activity crying out for an excise tax, and the first step towards obtaining it is, obviously, legalizing it in the first place.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Leo Szilard's Question

Today is the 65th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Fittingly, for the first time, the United States ambassador to Japan is participating in the memorial service being held in the city.

Leo Szilard was one of the great physicists of the 20th Century, and played a critical role in the Mahatten Project. But he strongly opposed the use of the atom bomb on Japanese cities, not only because he objected to the mass slaughter of civilians, but because he (quite correctly) predicted that the actual use of the weapon would lead to a nuclear arms race with Russia, raising the very real and disturbing possibility of the destruction of human civilization itself.

In a 1960 interview, Szilard put forward a question that every American should ask themselves whenever they consider the moral implications of our use of nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945.

"Suppose Germany had developed two bombs before we had any bombs. And suppose Germany had dropped one bomb on, say, Rochester and the other on Buffalo, and then having run out of bombs she would have lost the war. Can anyone doubt that we would have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and that we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nurnberg and hanged them?"

It's a good question.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

California's Proposition 8 Ruled Unconstitutional

In a sweeping decision that could change the landscape of the gay marriage debate, a federal judged in California has ruled that Proposition 8, the controversial initiative that had banned same-sex marriage, is unconstitutional. Finding no clear reason for same-sex couples to be denied marriage rights, U.S. District Vaughn Walker ruled that the proposition violated the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Constitution by denying gays and lesbians the same rights as other citizens.

This is a very good decision. It is true that Proposition 8 was, disappointingly, approved by a majority of the voters in California. But this is a classic case of the Enlightenment truth, which must be held sacred in a Jeffersonian republic, that the tyanny of the majority has no right under natural law to deny any minority group their basic human rights, including the right to marry whomever they want.

This decision is certain to be appealed, and may eventually go all the way to the Supreme Court. We're only in the opening stages of what will be a long and bloody judicial battle. But for now, it's time to celebrate a victory for equal rights.

New START Vote Delayed

Senator John Kerry (D-MA), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has delayed a committee vote on the New START nuclear reductions agreement with Russia, which was supposed to take place today. Although the votes were there to get the treaty out of committee, Kerry has said he wants to give his Republican colleagues more time to go over the agreement. This may help in winning skeptical Republicans over to the pro-ratification side of the table, but, it also moves the time table for the floor vote on the treaty dangerously close to the mid-terms elections, when senators are likely to be reluctant to stick their necks out.

The New START agreement is critically important. It will reduce the number of deployed American and Russian nuclear warheads by about 30% and institute a rigorous inspection and verification system. Because the last nuclear arms control treaty expired at the end of last year, there is currently no agreement legally in place between the United States and Russia governing nuclear weapons, and there won't be until this treaty is ratified.

The New START agreement is something that everyone needs to keep their eyes on for the next few months. It's a vital step in nuclear weapons reduction, and should be warmly supported by everyone.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Withdrawal From Iraq Proceeding According To Plan

Yesterday, President Obama announced that the United States is on track to officially wrap up its combat mission in Iraq on August 31. When he took office, there were 144,000 American troops in Iraq. Now, a year-and-a-half later, there are only around 50,000. These remaining troops will serve as a transition force, continuing to train Iraqi forces and protecting American faciltiies until a final, complete withdrawal takes place sometime next year.

While declaring an end to the official combat mission is something of a semantical nuance in light of the fact that 50,000 American troops will remain in Iraq, there can be no denying that this is a significant foreign policy achievement. As this blog has pointed out in the past, the Iraq War was an enormous error on the part of the United States, and ending the war was a major part of Obama's presidential campaign platform. That he has thus far succeeded is greatly to his credit.

21st Century Jeffersonians believe, as a matter of principle, that the United States should have as little to do with the Middle East as possible. It is good that we are winding up this unncessary war, which should never have happened in the first place. What happens in Iraq now is up to the Iraqis.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Thoughts on the Proposed NYC Islamic Community Center Near Ground Zero

One of the cornerstones of American life has always been religious liberty. In our country, everyone has to right to follow their own spiritual path (or none at all, if that it what they choose) and the government has absolutely no right whatsoever to interfere in the religious lives of citizens. America was the first society in the world to guarantee religious freedom for its people, and it has served as a beacon to other nations to follow in our example.

Thomas Jefferson himself was perhaps the single most important individual in creating this pillar of American life, striking one of the decisive historical blows for religious freedom with his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. This ground-breaking piece of legislation separated church and state in Virginia and served as a model for similar efforts elsewhere. It also helped inspire James Madison when he wrote the Establishment Clause to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which separated church and state throughout the nation. Fittingly, Jefferson asked in his will that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom be one of only three achievements listed on his tombstone.

Regrettably, many Americans in our time seem to believe that religious liberty should apply only to their own religion, and not to others. Many unscrupulous politicians, particularly those allied to the Religious Right, are always on the lookout for some otherwise innocuous event that they can exploit in an attempt to whip up such bigotry, and they have recently found one in the proposed construction of an Islamic community center (not a mosque, as has been frequently reported in the media) in southern New York City. Called the Cordoba House, it will not be very far from the where the World Trade Center stood before it was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks.

The Cordoba House sounds like exactly the kind of community center that southern Manhatten needs more of. It will have a performing arts center, a restaurant, a pool, and various other ammenities. All of its facilities will completely open to the public, regardless of religious affiliation (rather like a YMCA). The project's organizers have met all the construction criteria, have all the necessary licenses, have jumped through all the necessary regulatory hoops, and have received the unanimous support of the local neighborhood council.

For the past few months, several right-wing political figures, including potential presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, have been viciously attacking the proposed Islamic community center and calling upon city authorities to block its construction (Palin, for her part, calls on people to "refudiate" the plan, even though "refudiate" is not a word). They argue that the Islamic center is somehow an attack on America. In Gingrich's words, "America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy civilization." This kind of pandering to religious prejudice in order to garner political support is the most immoral sort of demagoguery and should be rejected by all Americans.

Gingrich, who apparently doesn't care much for the religious freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment, has suggested that we not allow the Islamic community center to be built until Saudi Arabia allows churches to be built in its territory. Taking his logic to its obvious conclusion, we should not allow any mosques to be built anywhere in the United States, thus making a mockery of the American ideal of religious freedom. And suggesting that we become more like the most religiously repressive nation on the planet is simply insane. We are, after all, supposed to be better than they are.

In Houston, conservative talk radio host Michael Berry stated his opinion that if the Islamic community center is built, someone should blow it up. Had any talk radio personality in the nation advocated blowing up a church or a synagogue, he would have immediately been taken off the air. Michael Berry, however, has apparently not received even the slightest reprimand for his advocacy of violence. This is all the more disturbing when we consider the fact that someone set off a powerful pipe bomb at a mosque in Jacksonville, FL, on May 10, which exploded just before people were to arrive for evening prayer; local authorities say it was only sheer luck that no one was killed.

There are some who contend that the building of the community center is somehow an insult to those who died on 9/11. These people, whatever their motives, are allowing their emotions to get the better of them and are losing their sense of perspective. Only an ignorant person would see the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks as genuinely representative of the world's one billion Muslim people. The Cordoba House project is a manifestation of the kind of moderate and inclusive Islam that stands against the terrorists and their ilk, and which we should encourage rather than reject. For what it's worth, the project will include a memorial to the people who died in the 9/11 attacks, which included, lest we forget, many innocent Muslims.

The blatant anti-Muslim bigotry the center's opponents display should have absolutely no place in America. It is a self-evident fact that religious freedom applies equally to all people without a single exception. This being the case, the construction of an Islamic community center should be no more a cause for controversy than the construction of a YMCA center or a JCC building. After all, there are well over half a million Muslims living in New York City, and they have as much right to create community centers as anybody else.

The Cordoba House (and the organization behind it, the Cordoba Initiative) is aptly-named. It is a reference to the Spanish city of Cordoba, which, during the Middle Ages, was an oasis of peace, tolerance and mutual understanding between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, each of which made up a significant portion of the city's population. At its height, which lasted centuries, Cordoba was one of the glories of human civilization, with extraordinary achievements in philosophy, science, medicine, poetry, music, architecture, and many other fields of human endeavour. The purpose of the Cordoba House seeks to reclaim this legacy of religious tolerance by encouraging understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. By doing so, it hopes to improve inter-religious harmony in New York City and beyond.

As Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf, chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, stated in an op-ed piece he published in the New York Daily News to respond to the attacks on the project:

I have been the imam at a mosque in Tribeca for 27 years. I am as much a part of this community as anyone else. Our mosque is as much a part of the neighborhood as any church, synagogue, or surrounding business. My work is to make sure mosques are not recruiting grounds for radicals.

To do that, Muslims must feel they are welcome in New York. Alienated people are open to cynicism and radicalism. Any group that believes it is under attack will breed rebellion. The proposed center is an attempt to prevent the next 9/11.

Many opponents of the project have taken to launching ad hominem attacks on Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf himself, attempting to portray him as some sort of Al Qaeda sympathizer, when in truth he is the complete opposite. Such ad hominem attacks are not only unethical and unfair, and demonstrate a shocking ignorance about Islam, but also prove that the opponents of the project have no valid arguments on which to rest their case.

It is a shame that when moderate Muslims in America step forward in a spirit of brotherhood, they are greeted with scorn and hatred. Thankfully, the Cordoba House project has received considerable support from both Christian leaders and Jewish leaders, as well as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It is planned that the center's board of directors include Christian and Jewish representatives as well as Muslims. We can only hope that the project will soon receive the full and fair approval that it deserves. If the proposal is rejected, then anti-Muslim bigotry will have won, and religious liberty in America will have suffered a setback.

Thomas Jefferson, needless to say, would had absolutely no problem with the project and would have considered its opponents immoral demagogues. He was actually interested in Islamic culture and, out of intellectual curiosity, purchased a copy of the Koran as a young man. To Jefferson, reading the Koran was an obvious part of making himself more educated about the world in which he lived. Interestingly, it was on Jefferson's copy of the Koran, borrowed from the Library of Congress for the occasion, that Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, swore his oath of office when he took his seat in early 2007.

21st Century Jeffersonians should unhesitatingly support the Cordoba House project, and all others like it. Our vision of a Jeffersonian republic is one in which all people enjoy equal religious freedom, and where no one religious viewpoint enjoys any special privileges or advantages over other viewpoints. The bigots who try to exploit religious differences among citizens purely for political advantage should be decisively rejected, and all activities that encourage deeper understanding between peoples of different religious backgrounds and traditions should be encouraged. That, clearly, is what Jefferson would want.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Why Does the First Lady Have a Staff?

Here's a very minor, almost completely unnoticed news story: Camile Johnston, the communications director for First Lady Michelle Obama, is leaving her position to pursue a job in the private sector. Johnston had also been Tipper Gore's communications director during her time as First Lady.

Not a big deal at all, but it begs a question: why does the First Lady have a communications director? For that matter, why does the First Lady need a staff of any kind? I'd have to double check, but I'm fairly certain that Abigail Adams didn't have a communications director, much less a full-time staff.

(Please note that I am not trying to pick on Michelle Obama in particular. I'm sure that Laura Bush and Nancy Reagan also had unnecessary staffs.)

As I pointed out in yesterday's post about the media circus surrounding Chelsea Clinton's wedding, it is wrong to think about the President as anything more than a public servant there to get a job done. The President's family should not be seen as any more important than any other family in the nation, and the spouse of the President should not have to fulfill any particular duties that would otherwise interefere with his or her professional or family life.

Furthermore, it doubtless costs a hefty amount of money for the annual upkeep of the First Lady's unnecessary staff, particularly in terms of the salaries of its members. While it's obviously a very small drop of water in the massive ocean that is the federal budget, in a time of fiscal crisis, every penny counts.

Cluster Munitions Treaty Enters Into Force, But America Still Not Signed On

Today is a day for celebration among those who desire a more peaceful world. Having been ratified by the required number of nations, the international treaty known as the Convention on Cluster Munitions entered into force today, marking the culmination of years of effort by activists and diplomats across the planet. The treay, negotiated in Dublin in late 2008, bans signators from using, producing, or stockpiling cluster bombs. To date, it has been signed by 107 countries, adn the ratification process has been completed in 38 countries.

Cluster bombs have been a scourge on humanity ever since they were first developed. Because they scatter small bomblets over wide areas, it is difficult and in many cases impossible to avoid civilian casualties when using them, especially when they are deployed during fighting in urban areas. Furthermore, a surprisingly high proportion of the small bomblets fail to explode on impact, leaving a lethal danger to civilians that can persist for months and even years after the fighting has ended.

Used in conflicts such as Vietnam during the 1970s, Afghanistan in the 1980s, Kosovo in 1999, Iraq in 2003, and Lebanon in 2006, among many African conflicts, cluster bombs have killed thousands of innocent civilians over the years, and continued to do so today. Indeed, cluster bombs kill significantly more noncambatants than soldiers, and four out of ten people killed by cluster bombs are children. They are barbaric weapons by any moral standard.

This issues involved in the cluster bomb debate are very similar to those of the debate over whether to ban anti-personnel landmines, which this blog has touched on in the past. Thomas Jefferson, being a man of the Enlightenment, was always in favor of doing whatever was possible to alleviate the sufferings war inflicted upon innocent people, and would have have warmly approved of these international efforts to ban the use of weapons that cause unacceptable harm to civilians.

Conspicuous on the list of countries which have thus far refused to sign the Convention is the United States of America. This fact should outrage every American. It's time for our country to join with the rest of the world and sign the treaty as well.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Public Interest in Chelsea Clinton's Wedding Misplaced

In many of the newspapers and on many of the cable news networks in recent weeks, the upcoming wedding of Chelsea Clinton has become a fairly large news story. Back in 2008, a similar minor media frenzy surrounded the wedding of Jenna Bush. This sort of thing is ridiculous and points to a decided lack of perspective in both the American media and the American public at large.

The personal lives of the President and his family are not the business of the American public, and citizens should be no more interested in the wedding of a President's daughter than they would be in the wedding of their mailman's daughter. The attention lavished on the personal lives and families of the President (which really got out of control during the Kennedy years in the early 1960s) seem more akin to monarchical sympathies one might expect to find in the United Kingdom, but should have no place in the United States. After all, we kicked out our last king in 1776.

Not only that, but there are an infinite number of other news stories that the media would be well-advised to turn bring to the attention of the public: the national debt, rampant corruption in the government, increasing corporate control over the lives of citizens, the fact that tens of thousands of children die around the world every day from preventable starvation and disease, to name just a few. The media's proper role is to educate the American people about the important issues of the day, not distract them with mindless drivel.

The American media really needs to wake up and start doing its job.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Massachusetts Legislatures Endorses National Popular Vote for President

Very good news in the struggle to abolish the Electoral College. According to this story in the Boston Globe, the Massachusetts Legislature has passed legislation bringing the state into the National Popular Vote coalition. The bill will now go to the governor, who has long expressed his support for the measure. Masschusetts thus joins Hawaii, Washington, Illinois, Maryland, and New Jersey in supporting the right of the American people to select the President by a fair vote.

The legislation passed by Massachusetts and the other states is simple, requiring that the state's representatives sent to the Electoral College vote for the candidate who has won the majority of popular votes in the election. This neatly sidesteps the undemocratic and outmoded Electoral College system without even requiring the long and difficult road of obtaining a constituitional amendment. The legislation will only take effect when a sufficient number of states representing the majority of electoral votes have passed identical laws, thus creating an effective national popular vote for President.

As this blog has pointed out in the past, the Electoral College is blatantly undemocratic and should be done away with. Massachusetts has pushed us a little further in the right direction, and 21st Century Jeffersonians should do their best to persuade their own state legislatures to follow suit.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Alaska Voters Should Kick Congressman Don Young Out Of Office

2010 is a mid-term election year, and even though we will not be choosing a President this time around, it is always vital for 21st Century Jeffersonians to follow genuine political news (as opposed to hack stories churned out by the noise machines of both the right and left) in order to best be able to make informed decisions when the time comes to cast one's ballot.

The general election isn't until November 2, but in the meantime, there are a number of primary elections that should be of interest to 21st Century Jeffersonians. One in particular will be the Republican primary for the Alaska At-Large House seat, which will take place on August 24. In this election, the voters of Alaska will have a chance to promote Jeffersonian values by removing an abjectly anti-Jeffersonian person from office.

The present incumbent in Alaska is Congressman Don Young, who is a case study for much that is currently wrong with Congress. Having held his seat since 1973, he has made a name for himself as one of the most adept representatives in funneling federal tax dollars to his state via pork barrel spending. Pork barrel spending has gotten completely out of control in Congress and is one of the reasons the federal government is in such a fiscal mess. It also undermines federalism by allowing the federal government to stick its nose into state and local issues, where it doesn't belong.

Congressman Young was one of two man (the other being disgraced former Senator Ted Stevens) behind perhaps the most infamous example of pork barrel spending in recent history, the so-called "Bridge to Nowhere". In 2005, Congressman Young attempted to insert an earmark allocating roughly a quarter of a billion dollars of taxpayer money to construct a bridge to Gravina Island in Alaska, which has a population of about fifty people. After massive public outcry against the earmark, Congress stripped it from the legislation, but only over Congressman Young's strident protests.

The Bridge to Nowhere may be Young's major claim to fame, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. In 2005, Young traveled to Florida and attended a fundraiser organized by a real estate developer named Daniel Aronoff, which raised about $40,000 for Young's campaign war chest. Almost immediately afterwards, Young inserted an earmark into a spending bill allocating $10 million for a highway extension project in Fort Meyer, Florida, from which Aronoff stood to reap handsome financial benefits. This because known as the Coconut Road scandal, and is a clear case of bribery, since there is no obviously legitimate reason for an Alaska congressman to seek to allocate money to a minor highway project in Florida. Consequently, the Justice Department has launched a bribery investigation against Young.

Young has also been the subject of corruption investigations due to his ties with the VECO Corporation, which builds oil drilling and gas pipeline equipment, and whose CEO pled guilty in 2007 for bribing members of the Alaska state legislature. VECO exectives have donated tens of thousands of dollars to Young's campaign war chest over the years, and Young inserted numerous earmarks into spending bills which directly benefited VECO Corporation. Coincidence? I think not.

All this is bad enough, but to add insult to injury, Congressman Young once had the gall to fraudulently assert in a radio ad that he had been given a "Hero of the Taxpayers" award from the organization Taxpayers for Common Sense. This came as something of a shock to Taxpayers for Common Sense, which had done no such thing and, indeed, has constantly lambasted Congressman Young for his pork barrel spending.

Congressman Young won the 2008 Republican primary by barely 300 votes, and much of the Republican establishment in Alaksa has turned against him. He is clearly vulnerable in the upcoming primary. His challenger for the Republican nomination, Sheldon Fisher, seems like a solid candidate who, refreshingly, is highlighting the national debt as a serious issue. At this point, anyone would be better than Young, who is basically a crook and exactly the kind of office-holder Jefferson would most despise. Alaska voters would do well to vote for Fisher in order to get Young kicked out of office, thereby striking a blow against corruption and for the restoration of fiscal sanity in the House of Representatives.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Daniel Schorr: 1916 - 2010

The last of the giants from the Golden Age of Journalism has passed away. Daniel Schorr, the legendary newsman whose work spanned more than half a century, has died at the age of 93.

As a young man, Schorr worked as an Army intelligence officer in Europe during World War II. His time in the service proved useful to him when he began working as a news correspondent in Europe after the war was over, working for such respected periodicals as the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times. Eventually, he went to work at CBS, being mentored by the great Edward R. Murrow himself.

Schorr covered such events as the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO, the construction of the Berlin Wall, LBJ's Great Society program, illegal activities of the CIA, and the Watergate Scandal. In the last years of his life, Schorr remained active in journalism, becoming a commentator for NPR. In this capacity, he made full use of his vast knowledge and experience to put into perspective the great events taking place in America and the world in the early 21st Century.

Schorr, like all journalists worthy of the name, never allowed the powers-that-be dictate to him what he would report. He was expelled from the USSR by the Soviet authorities for defying their censorship, and his coverage of the Watergate scandal earned him a place on President Nixon's list of enemies. Schorr, fittingly, considered these to be badges of honor he was proud to wear.

Our day and age is sadly lacking journalists with the caliber of Daniel Schorr. During the years of the Bush Administration, we saw legions of journalists quietly accept made-up claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, making little or no effort to investigate the claims for themselves. And in the 2008 election, we saw legions of journalists effectively cheering on the Obama candidacy, making a mockery of journalistic ethics. The most important stories are all but ignored, and once-respected periodicals and media outlets focus on meaningless stories about entertainment celebrities.

Even in political coverage, true journalism has been replaced almost completely by a sick combination of entertainment and partisan editorializing. Whether we're talking about liberals like Keith Olbermann, conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, or simple idiots like Glenn Beck, these shows have higher numbers of viewers, but are virtually devoid of meaningful content, completely ignore critical issues, and are so partisan as to be indistinguishable from political party broadcasts. They do absolutely nothing to advance political discourse in this country, and achieve nothing but increasing partisanship and anger in this country, making it much more difficult to address the true threats to our republic.

Daniel Schorr was the last of his kind. We may not see his like again. Considering the sorry state of journalism in modern America, this is a fact to be much lamented. He will be truly missed.

Why is the United States Involved with Indonesian Special Forces?

This story from the Associated Press is worth a quick read, not so much for what it says, as for what it doesn't say. A decade ago, the United States military severed its training relationship with the special forces of Indonesia over possible human rights abuses. Now, according to the story, the ties are being resumed. Some people are apparently objecting to this, and some sort of controversy has resulted.

The real question we should be asking is the very one the journalist apparently doesn't even think to ask: why is the American military involved with the Indonesian military at all? Indonesia is on the other side of the planet from the United States, so why is the United States involved in its defense? The national defense of Indonesia should be the responsibility of the Indonesians, and should be paid for by Indonesian taxpayers.

The United States has its military fingers in the pies of many nations. The vast majority of overseas American military deployments and training relationships with the militaries of other nations are of little or no importance to the defense of the United States, but are merely intended to expand American influence overseas.

If we are ever to realize the dream of becoming a truly Jeffersonian republic, we must abandon notions of expanding American "influence" and protecting "American interests" in parts of the world. If other countries want to trade with us, we can trade with them. We should encourage democracy, but never attempt to impose in. America is not, and should not be, an empire.

The media has been absent from this debate, which is among the most serious that should be taking place in the country today. Why did the journalist who wrote the story not question the rationale of the American assistance to Indonesian special forces? For that matter, why does it not question the rationale of keeping 80,000 American troops in Europe, which faces no conventional military threat? Why does it not question the rationale of keeping nearly 30,000 American troops in South Korea, which is perfectly capable of defending itself?

Let's bring our troops home and terminate our military's unnecessary relationships with the militaries of other nations. This will not only make our country safer by keeping us out of disputes that are no concern of ours, and vastly ease the danger of the fiscal crisis that poses a far greater threat to our country than any conceivable foreign enemy.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Hugo Chavez Seeks Control Over Last Independent Television Station in Venezeula

Venezuelan President Huge Chavez has been in office now for more than a decade. Although he was legitimately elected to his office in free and fair elections in 1998, and reelected twice in elections generally deemed to be fair by international observers, he has gradually increased his personal control over the Venezuelan state. Today, he seems little different than a classic Latin American tin pot dictator.

In his latest effort to solidify his hold over the country, Chavez's government is now trying to purchase a minority share of Globovision. This is the last independent television station in Venezeula, and the only one which broadcasts meaningful criticism of his leadership. If this takes place, then some of the last flickers of true political discourse in Venezeula will go out.

Chavez once was the darling of the world's leftists, due to the educational and healthcare programs he implemented after he was first elected, and the dramatic manner in which he thwarted a right-wing coup in 2002. But since then, everything has gone downhill. He has demonstrated a contempt for democracy and sought relentlessly to stifle the voices of the opposition. He is simply not a friend of humanity and has become obsessed merely with maintaining his own hold on power.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Terrorist Threat Shouldn't Be Overestimated

It is important to always keep in mind the seriousness of the terrorist threat. After all, on a single day less than a decade ago, they killed 3,000 people in New York and Washington. But it's even more important to avoid blowing the terrorist threat out of proportion. Since the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize, we can defeat the aims of terrorists most effectively by simply remaining calm and realizing that the genuine power of Al Qaeda and its allies is actually rather small.

Unlike the Nazis during World War II or the Soviets during the Cold War, Al Qaeda and its affiliates do not pose any threat to the survival of the American republic. Yes, they can inflict casualties and cause economic damage, but they are not the mortal danger to our country that many people, either out of paranoia or for political purposes, have made them out to be. Vastly more Americans have been killed in car accidents than by terrorists over the last decade, but you don't see the government declaring a War On Automobiles.

The greatest danger terrorism presents to America is through causing misguided leaders in Washington to make extremely illogical and damaging decisions because of their inability to keep things in perspective. The invasion of Iraq would never have happened without the attacks of 9/11, so every American life lost and taxpayer dollar wasted in that misadventure should be seen as an Al Qaeda success. Osama bin Laden was probably delighted when he heard of the American invasion of Iraq.

We've created an entirely new department of the federal government, the Department of Homeland Security, in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Unsurprisingly, it has already emerged as a massive black hole into which billions of taxpayer dollars are being spent for little benefit to the average citizen. As Gene Healy of the Cato Institute points out in an excellent column, the subsequent attempts of Al Qaeda to launch terrorist attacks on the United States have failed not because of any outstanding work on the past of the American intelligence system, but through a combination of stupidity on the part of the terrorists and some astute observation and fast acting on the part of ordinary American citizens.

The Washington Post is currently running a series of articles, called Top Secret America, documenting the mass post-9/11 expansion of federal government entities designed to deal with the terrorist threat. It makes for disturbing reading. More than 1,200 government organizations and 1,900 private companies are involved in some way in counter-terrorism work, but no one seems to know exactly how much money is being spend, how many people are involved, or who is in charge of it all. This ridiculous situation was created directly by our collective overestimation of the terrorist threat.

Hyping up the terrorist threat allows politicians in Washington to cynically wrap themselves up in the American flag and look patriotic even as they push legislation that they know is not in the best interest of average American citizens. Rather than tackle problems that actually do pose a long-term threat to the American republic, like the national debt or the ever-increasing power of corporations over the lives of citizens, it better suits our so-called "leaders" in Washington to rant on and on about the evils of terrorism. This, in truth, suits the terrorists just fine, as it simply increases their power to terrorize. The fact of the matter is that, with or without intending to do so, the terrorists and the cynical politicians in Washington feed off of each other, and neither could survive without the other.

Terrorism is one problem among many faced by the United States in the modern age. We should approach it with the same logic and rationality with which we would approach any other problem, whether it's the fiscal crisis or finding a way to reduce deaths caused by traffic accidents. Unreasonably inflating the terrorist threat gives Al Qaeda and its allies a mystique they don't deserve, which simply increases the power of the terrorists and allows unscrupulous politicians in Washington to get off the hook for failing to address more important problems.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Recent Supreme Court Decisions a Mix of the Good, the Bad, and the Very Bad

Looking back on the 2009 term of the Supreme Court (which, despite its name, took place mostly in 2010), we can look over a large number of decisions handed down by the Roberts Court. Some are good, some are bad, and one in particular is very, very bad.

First, the good.

In McDonald vs. Chicago, the Court ruled that the inability of the federal government to pass laws violating the right to bears arms, which the Court had recently solidified in the Columbia vs. Heller decision (which centered on the District of Columbia), also applied to state and local governments. This decision will greatly strengthen Second Amendment rights throughout the country, and it is something that 21st Century Jeffersonians should cheer about.

In a victory for both gay rights and the separation of church and state, the Court ruled in Christian Legal Society vs. Martinez that a Christian group at the University of California cannot deny the right of homosexual students the join their organization if it wishes to receive financial support from the university, which is supported by public funds. This decision reinforces the point that taxpayer dollars cannot be used for discriminatory purposes or to fund specifically religious activities.

In Graham vs. Florida, the Court laid down the opinion that giving juveniles life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes other than homicide. If locking as child up in prison for the rest of their natural life is not cruel and unusual punishment (and hence prohibited by the Eighth Amendment), then nothing is.

Second, the bad.

In the Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Protect, the Court ruled that even speech can be considered a provision of material support for terrorism. This outrageous decision subverts the freedoms ensured by the First Amendment, and should have been much bigger news that it actually was. Bizarrely, even advising an organization designated as a terrorist group to renounce violence can now be considered as providing material support to terrorism. This was a nonsensical decision and one we will regret.

In Berghuis vs. Thompkins, the Court made the rather illogical ruling that a person under arrest has to specifically and vocally assert his or her right to remain silent. Citizens posses constitutional protections under natural law, and they do not need to vocally assert them in order to have them. This decision undermines Miranda rights and should concern all 21st Century Jeffersonians.

And finally, the very, very bad.

The best known decision of the term, Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, was also the most disastrous. In yet another 5-4 ruling, the Court decided that laws limiting financial campaign contributions by corporations were an unconstitutional violation of free speech. In equating money with speech, the Court essentially opened the floodgates to unlimited masses of corporate dollars that will swamp elections across the country. Holding to the ideal of "one-citizen-one-vote" is critical if the dream of a truly Jeffersonian republic is ever to be achieved, and this decision was a body blow to that ideal.

Dealing with the nefarious influence of money on the American election process one of the greatest challenges our nation must deal with, through the enactment of comprehensive campaign finance reform and the implementation of a system of public financing. With this disastrous decision, the Supreme Court set back progress in that battle by decades, if not a century.

The sad truth, which has been recently reinforced by the confirmation hearings for Elena Kagan, is that the Supreme Court has long since evolved from being a constitutional judge to being a partisan tennis match. We even, without irony or outrage, refer to the Court's "liberal" wing and "conservative" wing, forgetting the fact that there should be only a single "constitutional" bloc. This term had a blend of good and bad decisions, but also highlighted continued problems with what the Supreme Court has become.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Obama's Nuclear Weapons Reduction Plan Doesn't Go Far Enough

Nuclear weapons have been in the news lately, as the United States and Russia recently signed a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The treaty will limit the number of deployed warheads to 1,550 each and the number of nuclear armed missiles and bombers to 700 each, as well as establishing a new system of inspections allowing both countries to verify that the other is fulfilling their treaty obligations. It's a good treaty, and its ratification by the Senate should be easier than the recent partisan votes on healthcare and financial reform.

However, the treaty makes no specific mention of nuclear warheads that would left left in storage rather than deployed on missiles or in bombers. This is not as major a flaw in the treaty as it may appear, since a nuclear warhead that has no missile or bomber is militarily useless, and you can't exactly build a nuclear missile or bomber overnight. But it does cost a fair amount to maintain these weapons, so it rationally makes sense to reduce the overall number of warheads.

According to this article from the Washington Post, President Obama has drawn up a plan that would reduce the total number of warheads from about 5,000 to between 3,000 and 3,500 over the course of twenty years. In and of itself, this is very good. After all, the fewer nuclear weapons, the better.

The problem is that Obama's plan does not go nearly far enough. There is no rational reason to maintain an arsenal of 3,000 warheads, as a force of only a few hundred would be more than sufficient to deter any enemy from attacking the United States, or to utterly destroy them if it came to that. This blog has previously proposed that the United States nuclear arsenal be unilaterally reduced to 300 warheads and abandon its land-based and bomber-based launch systems, relying exclusively on submarines. The arguments for this approach are as sound as ever: it would easily maintain the ability of the United States to defend itself, and save American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars a year that would otherwise be uselessly expended on weapons of mass destruction.

So, why President Obama should be warmly congratulated for making the reduction of nuclear weapons a priority, he should have the courage to go further.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ban on Broadcasting Profanity Struck Down

This is not the most important issue facing the nation, but an appeals court has struck down as unconstitutional an FCC ban on the broadcasting of profanity, which has been in place since 2004. This is an appropriate ruling. It's not the government's responsibility to regulate public morality, and there is no way in which the broadcasting of profanity, however distasteful it might be, can endanger public safety.

If you don't want your children to hear profanity on the television, then watch stations and programs which you are sure will not have such content or, better yet, don't watch television at all. A good book or a walk in the park is a much better way to spend time than watching the idiot box anyway.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Republicans Right On Unemployment Benefits

Next week, probably not long after the replacement for the late Senator Robert Byrd is sworn in, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is likely to hold a critical vote on whether to extend federal unemployment benefits. This issue has become a fairly hot button topic in the last few weeks, especially as the economic news continues to be fairly negative, making it unlikely that job creation will accelerate much in the coming months.

With the support of a few Republicans, it is likely that Senator Reid has the 60 votes he needs to get the bill passed, which will extend unemployment benefits until November. From the Democratic point of view, this is not just about helping the unemployed, but injecting federal money into the economy in order to serve as additional stimulus. The total cost of the bill will be $33 billion.

The Republicans have put up a fight on this, which is only to be expected. But they have taken a stand not in total opposition to the extension of unemployment benefits in and of itself, but on the grounds that any extension should be paid for either by dipping into the still-unused cash from last year's stimulus package (which still amounts to something like $300 billion) or by cutting some other spending elsewhere. In other words, they're okay with extending unemployment benefits, so long as it is done in such a way as to not increase the deficit.

This is the right approach, and Senator Reid should have taken them up on their offer (assuming it wasn't a bluff). In an ideal world, of course, helping the unemployed would be the purview of state and local government, or perhaps no government at all, but until we reform our society into the Jeffersonian republic it should be, we have to deal with the world as it is. The economy remains bad, and unemployed people are in trouble. No one denies that. But if the federal government is going to help, it should be done in a way that doesn't increase the deficit.

The unused stimulus money is still just sitting there. The Democrats themselves are saying that extending unemployment benefits would be great way to stimulate the economy. If they truly believe this, then why don't they dip into the unused stimulus funds? It would be a way to help the unemployed and stimulate the economy, while avoiding having to steal money from our grandchildren in the process. And the sight of Republicans and Democrats working together for a change would probably be refreshing for the American people, too.

American Attack on Iran Would Be Madness

Last week, Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Senator John McCain (R-AZ), and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) visited Israel. During their trip, all three made statements regarding the suspected covert Iranian program to develop nuclear weapons, indicating that an American military strike on Iran as a distinct possibility.

Such an attack would not only be unwise. It would be insane.

It is highly probable that Iran is, indeed, engaging in a covert nuclear weapons program, and no one can deny that Iranian nuclear capability would be a matter of grave concern both to the nations of the Persian Gulf, the United States, and the world as a whole. America should work with its allies and partners, using every diplomatic and economic means at its disposal (carrots as well as sticks) to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. But an actual military strike would lead to consequences potentially far worse than a nuclear-armed Iran.

First, there is no way of being sure that an American strike would be able to destroy Iran's nuclear program. The Iranians aren't stupid, and have doubtless studied with great interest the American air campaigns that have been waged against Iraq and Serbia in the last decade or so. Whatever nuclear facilities exist in the country are undoubtedly deep underground, dispersed over wide areas, with heavy redundancy built in. It's extremely unlikely that even the most successful air campaign would be able to destroy them all.

Second, an American attack on Iran would shatter the domestic opposition to the ruling Iranian regime and cause wavering Iranians to rally around their government. Last year, the domestic opposition within Iran came close to toppling the Iranian regime, and they are surely the best hope for those who dream of a free and democratic Iran. If America were to attack Iran, the ruling regime will be able to crush its domestic opponents by painting them as American cronies, and the reform movement's potential for ultimate success would be all but ended. The ruling Iranian regime is far more afraid of its domestic opponents than it is of the United States. If America launched a military strike, it would effectively be doing the Iranian regime a huge favor.

Third, any attack of Iran could not be limited to a mere air strike, but would immediately result in a full-scale war in the Middle East which the United State can ill afford to wage. Every Iranian missile would be fired at every American base within range, and Iranian special forces troops would doubtless be unleashed against us in Iraq and perhaps Afghanistan as well. Our present military operations leave us with few available forces to deploy against Iran, and the present fiscal crisis means that we would be unable to pay for a war that would likely be far bloodier and more costly than either the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan.

Fourth, all the progress America has made in extracting itself from the Iraqi morass and in defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan would immediately be thrown away. The Shia elements within Iraq would side with the Iranians, who have long been their allies and friends, and we could expect a massive uprising against American forces in response to the attack on Iran. Such a scenario would make the dark days of the Iraqi insurgency from 2004 to 2006 look like a picnic, and we could easily see thousands of American casualties within a very short time. Even worse, a direct attack on Iran would possibly make the Iranians ally themselves with the Taliban, with whom they have previously been on very dubious terms. The Taliban continue to resist American forces in Iran with surprising effectiveness; imagine how much more effective they might become if they began receiving shipments of Iranian money and weapons.

Fifth, an attack on Iran would instantly throw the global economy into a tailspin, as Iran can easily stop all oil shipments out of the Persian Gulf by blocking the Straits of Hormuz. Iran is well-equipped with self-produced Silkworm anti-ship missiles, which are easily transported and hard to find. With the ease of flipping a switch, Iran can cut the world off from one-third of its oil supply. It's not hard to imagine what this would do to oil prices around the world, or what effect it would have on already jittery global markets. Even the threat of this happening would be a disaster. Considering the still-fragile nature of the global economic recovery, such a disaster might be enough to plunge the world into an outright depression.

Sixth, such an attack would be a violation of both international law and American law. Article Two of the United Nations Charter, which was signed by President Truman and ratified by the Senate, clearly states that no state can attack another state except in clear cases of self-defense. Article Six of the Constitution makes it clear that treaties signed and ratified by the United States are part of the supreme law of the land. Therefore, an attack on Iran would be illegal. You can't just throw away international treaties, much less the Constitution itself, whenever you feel like it.

While America should not openly declare that military action is off the table, so as to lend necessary weight to our diplomatic efforts, it must be obvious to any rational person that attacking Iran would be the act of a madman. Another solution to the Iranian nuclear issue must be found.

I think it's also worth pointing out that American concern over this issue would be greatly reduced, it not made wholly unnecessary, if our nation adopted common sense energy policies that eliminated our dependence on foreign oil. If we did that, then we could simply say good riddance to the Middle East, leaving it to solve its own problems. From the standpoint of 21st Century Jeffersonianism, the less we have to do with the Middle East, the better. But that's a subject for another blog post.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Despite Its Flaws, the Financial Bill Should Be Passed by Congress

Second only to the much-debated healthcare bill that became law in March, the financial reform bill known as the Dood-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, now in the final stages of the legislative process in Washington, is the most significant piece of legislation to have appeared on the floor of Congress since President Obama took office. As with the healthcare bill, this legislation is ambiguous at best, with some excellent aspects side-by-side with deeply troubling ones. But despite its flaws, the proposed financial reform package is something that 21st Century Jeffersonians should get behind.

Thomas Jefferson deeply distrusted the centralizing tendancies of the federal government in Washington, and he worked tirelessly throughout his career to keep political power as localized as possible. But more than anything else, he feared the power of uncontrollable financial institutions, lead by Alexander Hamilton and his "stockjobbing" minions, which threatened the prosperity and the very way of life of the yeoman farmers whom Jefferson loved so well. If Jefferson could speak to us today, he would talk as much, if not more, about the threat posed by the unchecked greed of Wall Street executives as of the threat posed by an over-zealous government in Washington.

The economic crisis of the past few years, which continues to fester in the form of stubbornly high unemployment, was directly caused by the callous and cynical greed of a very few men and women on Wall Street, and it is imperative that the government take steps to ensure that such a travesty cannot happen again. 21st Century Jeffersonianism strictly believes in small government, but also maintains that it is the government's responsibility to intervene in certain cases where it is necessary to protect citizens from being exploited. In the case of Wall Street reform, this is certainly one of those cases.

As summarized by a write-up on the bill by the Los Angeles Times:

Its major provisions include a new council of regulators charged with protecting the financial system against large-scale threats such as the one posed by the last housing bubble; new authority for regulators to take over and dismantle financial institutions that are failing; more safeguards and transparency for financial derivatives; strict limits on how much a bank with insured deposits can invest in hedge funds and private-equity firms; and a new, independent group of regulators to protect consumers against predatory or misleading financial products.
It is undeniable that the bill will expand the power of the federal government over the financial sector of the country, and as such should give 21st Century Jeffersonians pause. But the lack of legislative action will simply give Wall Street a blank slate to continue the same activities which lead to the recent economic crisis in the first place, thus presenting the disquieting possibility that a similar situation could happen again in a few years. Weighing the question in the balance, the good provisions of this bill outweigh the bad ones. An imperfect bill is better than no bill at all.

Two of the most important provisions of this bill are the limitations placed on banks in terms of their ability to invest in hedge funds and private-equity firms and the regulations against predatory and misleading financial products. These measures will help prevent citizens from being exploited by unscrupulous Hamiltonian stockjobbers, who have been making fortunes off the backs of hard-working Americans.

The provisions of the bill will expand the power of the Federal Reserve, which is far from desirable. It is an unelected institution, which was not sanctioned by the Constitution, that wields far too much influence over the American economy and, consequently, the lives of ordinary American citizens. An unlikely alliance between two members of Congress, libertarian Ron Paul (R-TX) and liberal Alan Grayson (D-FL) was able to insert a provision into the bill that would initiate a one-time audit of the Fed, but while this is welcome, it is far from the ideal of having the Fed's books open to public scrutiny at all times.

This bill is nowhere near as good as it could have been. But the alternative to passing it would be to do nothing, and therefore to let the Wall Street villains continue lining their pockets at the expense of ordinary Americans. Politics is the art of the possible, and we often have to settle for less than what we want. 21st Century Jeffersonians should support the passage of this legislation, while readying themselves for more battles further down the road.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Korean Tensions Unnecessarily Endanger American Lives

On March 26, the South Korean warship Cheonan was sunk of the western coast of the Korean peninsula, almost certainly by a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine. Unsurprisingly, there has since been a sharp escalation in tension between South Korea and North Korea, who have been glaring at one another across the most heavily militarized border on the planet ever since the 1953 armistice that brought an end to the Korean War. Although tensions between the two enemies are a fairly routine matter, this is undoubtedly one of the most serious flare-ups on the Korean Peninsula since the end of the war.

American military personnel have been permanently stationed in South Korea since the armistice of 1953. Presently, something like 28,000 American troops remain deployed along the Korean Demilitarized Zone, and substantial American air and naval forces are also stationed in South Korea. These are part of America's security guarantee to South Korea, and would certainly be immediately drawn into any military conflict between North and South Korea.

The question is: why are American troops there at all? As Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute pointed out in a recent article on the subject, South Korea has forty times the GDP and twice the population of North Korea. Its military is qualitatively superior to that of North Korea in every category, and if its ready reserve troops are included, fully a match in terms of numbers as well. The South Koreans are perfectly capable of defending themselves in the event of a North Korean attack without American help.

As this blog has previously stated, the United States should withdraw its military forces from South Korea. The defense of South Korea is the responsibility of the South Koreans, and it should be paid for by South Korean taxpayers. There is no more reason for American troops to defend the South Korean border than there is for South Korean border guards to patrol the Rio Grande. And considering the current fiscal crisis, the billions of dollars we would annually save by withdrawing our troops from South Korea would certainly come in handy.

Indeed, North Korea would probably be very disappointed to see the American troops leave. So long as a large force of Americans remains deployed on the Korean peninsula, they present an attractive target for North Korean nuclear weapons. This gives North orea an unacceptable amount of leverage over the United States, which North Korea has often sought to use through its cosntant brinkmanship, essentially offering to back down from threat after threat if the United States buys them off. Such an intolerable situation cannot be allowed to continue.

Some will look at the Cheonan incident and the subsequent increase in tensions and claim that they are evidence that American military forces should remain in South Korea. In fact, the opposite is the case. Indeed, the very presence of American troops probably makes an ultimate peace settlement less likely, rather than more likely. While America should always be willing to use its good offices to help resolve international disputes, putting American soldiers in situations where they might get killed in disputes that have nothing to do with the United States is not only absurd, but criminally negligent.

The Founding Fathers warned us about the dangers of permanent entanging alliances. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent end of the global Communist threat, there is no compelling reason for American troops to remain in South Korea, as North Korea does not pose any sort of threat to the United States and South Korea is fully capable of defending itself. The current tensions on the peninsula merely reinforce this point. Let's bring our people home.