What About Terrorism?

Thoughts on terrorism from “The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom” by Michael Shermer (Holt, 2015).

I may be doing more quoting here than is allowed under “fair use” but here goes.  I will paraphrase his seven myths about terrorism.

  1. Terrorists are pure evil. This was what Bush said after 9/11, but studies show they are typically motivated by outrage at U.S. foreign policy.
  2. Terrorists are organized. There is no top-down, central organization directing terrorism.
  3. Terrorists are diabolical geniuses. The shoe bomber and others following 9/11 were incompetent.
  4. Terrorists are poor and uneducated. They are typically higher-income, better-educated individuals.
  5. Terrorism is a deadly problem. Compare 13,700 homicides per year with 3,000 from 9/11 and an average of 70 terrorist deaths per year, or 7.8 per year excluding 9/11.
  6. Terrorists will acquire and use a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb. A real danger, but nuclear weapons require a lot of scarce material and sophisticated engineering.
  7. Terrorism works. Terrorists usually wait until after their deed is done and then proclaim that whatever outcome happened was in fact their goal.

Please read the book yourself.  The section I have paraphrased (pp. 80-86) is a response to objections to his thesis that the over-arching trend of recent decades is toward a safer, more peaceful world.

I’ll add some thoughts of my own:

  1. Groups based on violence and hatred will eventually self-destruct as they splinter into factions and devour one another.  But “eventually” leaves time for a lot of damage.
  2. This seems like a great opportunity for Western governments to cooperate with Russia and perhaps China because Islamic terrorism is a threat to all those parties.

Leaders of all the Western nations have expressed outrage, as has Putin.  Radio silence thusfar from leaders of Islamic nations which, one presumes, have a lot to gain by distancing themselves from terrorism.

Republican Tax Plans are Misguided

Predictably, Republican candidates are showcasing tax plans offering goodies for everybody. When some spoilsport has the nerve to point out the worsening deficit that would result, the most common retort is that the tax cut will spur economic growth enough to overcome the higher deficit. Some day. Somehow.

Of course lower tax rates will spur growth so that the loss in tax revenue will be less than proportional to the cut in tax rates. But it is foolish to think that we’re ensconced on the far side of the Laffer curve, for those who know that phrase, which simply means that tax rates are so high that cuts will produce higher revenue.

What about the claim that a flat tax is fairer than the graduated rates we have now? Perhaps, but how does one judge the fairness of any tax? The usual answer is that taxes should be based on the taxpayer’s ability to pay. But that is a nebulous concept at best. It means that somehow we figure out how much income is necessary and how much is up for grabs by politicians  Do we need a cell phone, cable TV, air conditioning? Who’s to say?

At least a flat tax would treat everybody alike. Or would it? Under a flat tax, where everybody hands over the same percentage of their income, those who earn a lot pay more money than those who don’t. Why? Do the high earners consume more government services? Are high earners bad people who deserve punishment?

I concede that some tax schemes could be fairer than others. For example, much as I might like the idea of complete tax exemption for septuagenarian European-American males, I’ll grant that would be a bit unfair. But in the end no tax can be entirely fair because taxation is coercive activity: stealing if you like.

Don’t get me wrong: I like tax cuts, preferably across the board, but targeted cuts are fine with me too. But the focus on the tax code is misplaced. The root problem is the amounts of real goods and services that are consumed by politicians and bureaucrats. Whether they are financed by taxation or borrowing is a secondary issue.

Republicans should be drawing up lists of programs to reduce or eliminate. “Defense” spending should be at the top of the list. The list should be broad enough that everybody’s ox is gored. Who knows, this approach might actually gain some traction with the fed-up electorate.

Assisted Suicide and the Catholic Church

News item: the California legislature has passed a bill loosening prohibition of assisted suicide. No word from the governor as to whether he’ll sign the bill. I expect he will. I certainly hope so.

I trust no one on this site favors drug prohibition. To be consistent, we must oppose restrictions on medicinal drugs (commonly called “ethical”), not just recreational drugs. As things stand, the government forcefully suppresses purchases of certain drugs. We in the U.S. are forbidden from buying any medicinal drug that is deemed to require FDA approval but has not yet gotten it. Approved drugs are available only if prescribed by a licensed physician. And of course some drugs are freely available over the counter.

Our opposition to drug prohibition is grounded in the most basic human right: control of our own bodies. As competent adults, our choice of what we ingest is nobody else’s business, period. It matters not whether we take drugs to counter illness, enjoy a high, or indeed, to end it all.

Of course, suicide is not something to take lightly. If someone close to us is contemplating suicide, we have an ethical duty to reach out to them and help them find alternatives, if they exist. But we have no right to use violence to restrain them, nor do government agents.

The Catholic Church is leading the opposition to this bill, and has shown its seamiest side in doing so. They are perfectly happy to see terminally ill people forced to endure agony. This is Exhibit A for Ayn Rand’s characterization of the Catholic Church as profoundly anti-life.

Marriage Licenses Should Not Be Granted to Gay Couples

Marriage licenses should not be granted to gay couples nor to straight couples. Marriages should be private consensual agreements between any two competent, consenting adults. Or three or more, for that matter. Governments should not be involved: no licenses, no special privileges, and no special obligations for married couples.

However, the fact that an action is legitimate and non-coercive does not mean any term can be used to describe it. Gay couples should not call their agreements “marriage” because that term is taken. For centuries, it has stood for heterosexual unions in almost all cultures. Marriage might be called a “trade mark.”

Kim Davis is a hero. She is the county clerk in Kentucky who was jailed for contempt because she refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

She bases her stand on her religious beliefs, but that’s not why she is a hero. If she were acting on secular philosophical grounds, her case would be just as strong. She is a hero for standing up to a central government that is smothering civil society, reaching its tentacles into all areas of life and strangling spontaneous freely evolved social order.

Of course, she is guilty of contempt. That’s only right, because the process that has led to her imprisonment is in fact contemptible. She is following a course of civil disobedience that I must admire, and I wish her well.

Don’t Let Me Design Your Retaining Wall!

The State of California says I’m qualified to practice civil engineering. That means you can trust me to design structures that achieve a high degree of safety, economy, reliability, and maintainability. I even have an official rubber stamp that I can apply to drawings or calculations. It is supposed to guarantee that I know what I’m doing and that I follow generally accepted best practices.

But I haven’t practiced engineering in decades. I used my license perhaps half a dozen times in the 1970s. My rubber stamp has sat idle ever since.   More …

Confederate Flag Hysteria

So the Stars and Bars is coming down from the South Carolina statehouse to the accompaniment of whooping and hollering by breast-beating politicians. If you have the stomach, you can watch some of it here. Now, sure as clockwork, politicians are tripping all over each other to get on the bandwagon. Flags are coming down all throughout the South. You can no longer buy them on Amazon or at Walmart, although at this writing they’re still seen on eBay. Statues of Confederate heroes are in danger of being ground up for use as concrete aggregate.

What’s the meaning of the Confederate flag, anyway? It depends whom you ask. It means nothing to me. To some white Southerners, it’s a reminder of their brave forbears’ fight for their honor. To many blacks, perhaps most, it’s a symbol of hate. Who’s right? All of the above; none of the above—it’s whatever you want to make of it. What’s disturbing is the widespread ignorance of what the Civil War was about. It was about secession, first and foremost, and only secondarily about slavery. Lincoln freed the slaves as a tactical matter, and only in the re-conquered Southern states, and not until two years into the war. Before the war he made it quite clear that his goal was to preserve the union, and if freeing the slaves would further that goal, he would free them, and if not, not.

It is the height of oversimplification to cast the rebels as bad guys and the yankees as good guys. There were many acts of kindness between whites and blacks on both sides of the line and of course, many atrocities on both sides. This doesn’t justify slavery the least little bit. But the war was the wrong way to end it. If the South had been allowed to go its way, 600,000 lives plus uncounted misery and destruction would have been averted. Slavery would not have lasted much longer in the South for economic and moral reasons. One economic reason is that the best slaves would have escaped to the North where they would no longer fear being deported. The gradual mechanization of farms is another. On the moral front, although ideas moved more slowly in those days, thoughtful Southerners would gradually come to see slavery as abominable and indefensible. (Highly recommended: Jeff Hummel’s groundbreaking revisionist treatment of the war, “Freeing the Slaves, Enslaving Free Men.”)

I take their word for it that blacks see the flag as a symbol of oppression. Given that, I would have to agree with the action in South Carolina notwithstanding the insult to Southern pride. But I’m not so naïve as to believe race relations will improve as a result. In fact, I fear they’ll get worse. If the flag wasn’t a symbol of racial animosity before, it is now. Positions will be hardened. White Southern conservatives, having recently taken a beating on gay marriage, will be further marginalized and polarized. The “progressives,” having smelled blood, will be on the warpath (oops—is that word racially insensitive?). They’ll be out on search-and-destroy missions, hunting down vestiges of Southernism.

My humble suggestion: let’s not get so worked up about symbols, whether they’re flags, crosses, Mohammed cartoons, or even the dollar sign on the last page of Atlas Shrugged.

Threesome Liberation

Defenders of traditional marriage have lost, alas. Rather than just sulk, I suggest that conservatives, especially those from Utah, respond by promoting legalization of polygamous marriage. This will put “progressives” in a lovely bind.

They will have a hard time opposing the idea because it is supported by the same arguments they used to support gay marriage. Why is love among threesomes any less valid than love of couples? Surely it’s past time for threesomes to come out of the shadows and break free of the yoke of suppression! End triophobia!

They will also have a hard time supporting it because almost all plural marriages, whether among Mormons in times past or in Islamic countries currently, feature one man with multiple wives. Clearly these are exploitative sexist unions! Most un-progressive!

Conservatives, don’t get mad, get even! Put it out there and watch ‘em squirm.