Saturday, September 10, 2011

National Security and the American People — "Boiling the Frog"

At his 1933 inauguration, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke about fear, a declaration that bears repeating in these times: "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear... is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance".

FDR was referring to economic problems, and may have slightly overstated his point, but he was mostly correct. Nowadays, his words might well be applied, with equal accuracy, to the issue of terrorism. We've come a long way since September 11, 2001; unfortunately the journey has been very much in the wrong direction. Since 9/11, Americans have made fear into an art form, and dangerously incorporated it into our political, legal, economic, and social systems. We've begged our government to protect us from terrorism risks that are not only quite small by absolute metrics but also completely dwarfed by other dangers. Consider: In the ten years since 9/11, approximately 380,000 Americans have died in motor vehicle accidents, more than 125 times as many as were killed by those airline terrorists. During the past ten years, heart disease has claimed over 6 million American lives, more than 2,000 times as many as were lost on 9/11. Even as I type this, perhaps a fatal obstruction is forming in one of my arteries — or yours. Irrespective of terrorism, our lives are finite, as are our resources. Reason suggests that efforts and expenditures should be at least roughly related to risk and benefit, but that basic principle is grossly violated by most of our terrorism-rationalized security actions (including our current Afghanistan presence). Despite their grandiose aspirations and occasional tragic impacts, terrorists are unlikely to be more than a small pit in the windshield of history for most Americans, and in the grand scheme of things. But as we continue to pour a fortune down the anti-terrorism rat-hole, the opportunity costs mount, and this nation slips further into decline. A deteriorated infrastructure, a priority on military and security spending, the off-shoring of manufacturing (unless the product is missiles or warplanes), a blank check for the financial manipulators, free rein for corporations, indifference to human needs and planetary ecological woes — what an embarrassing legacy this nation seems intent on leaving.

An even larger indirect danger exists, one entirely of our own making. Establishing a multitude of so-called "security" measures during the past ten years, both Republican and Democratic politicians together with enabling judges and the security-industrial complex have been all too eager to shred more than 200 years of Constitutional safeguards. Seeking absolute safety from terrorism, we are building an infrastructure for tyranny. And make no mistake, tyranny is by far the greater danger, clearly demonstrated by history. The three major totalitarian states of the 20th century are estimated to be collectively responsible for over 100 million deaths, many of them their own citizens. (See Matthew White's detailed compilation of casualties at for a sobering perspective on risk).

In many ways the issue of airline security is emblematic of what is wrong — and perhaps indicative of a broad solution. Beyond the danger from their contribution to the developing surveillance infrastructure and the way they condition us to accept totalitarian-style control, the airline "security" measures that have been imposed are also absurd, for they are neither likely to stop a knowledgeable determined terrorist, nor particularly effective compared to alternate methods, nor warranted by the actual threat level (which, even including 9/11, is statistically less than the risk of choking to death on a piece of food). Between the airlines which already treat their customers like livestock and the security apparatchiki who treat them like criminals, the situation for sentient commercial airline passengers has become intolerable. Yet, like sheep, so many passengers put up with it, applaud it, even bleat for more.

Several years ago, I decided that I would not fly until the treatment of passengers improved substantially. I haven't flown since. If enough people simultaneously boycotted the airlines for a sufficiently long time — one year of serious boycott should get their attention — we might see the necessary improvement. Some believe that we should tolerate absurdity and abuse; I suggest that the next twelve months be a self-imposed no-fly year for anyone who wishes to retain any self-respect (and actually see "change we can believe in"). Supplement that with a determination not to patronize stores, malls, cities, counties, and states where either rent-a-cops or official law enforcement violate common decency and infringe civil liberties — and inform management, government, and news media in those locations of the reason you are withholding spending. The boycott is a non-violent tactic with a long and largely honorable history, and some notable successes such as during the struggle for desegregation. It is broadly applicable across a wide range of corporate-governmental policies, and it may be the only tactic that corporate America and its governmental lackeys cannot easily dismiss.

As a closing note, I recommend that current politicians, would-be politicians, and security policy-makers and enforcers, whether they fly or not, all undergo mandatory full body searches and scans — but with particular focus on the cranium, to determine whether they have any common sense, any comprehension of relative risk, any appreciation of opportunity costs and the need for moral uses of capital, any understanding of historical paths to tyranny, and any belief in the value of liberty. What I fear is that they do not.

Fred Drumlevitch

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A "Handicap Principle" for Electoral Politics

Periodically, the idea of term limits for political office gains traction. I have some feelings of support for term limits, but I also have some reservations. While there are crooks and incompetents who have been in office for extended periods, there is no shortage of newly-elected ones. Conversely, some long-time office-holders have demonstrated genuine leadership beneficial to the nation. A separate but related issue is that the electorate is frequently given no good choices.

Here I make a procedural suggestion that differs from strict term limits, and which permits genuinely good leaders to continue to serve while making it progressively harder for bad ones to continue.

There would be an incrementing threshold for re-election; for Congress, the percentage of the cast votes required for election/reelection would equal 50 plus the number of years served in that office. Thus a Senator seeking re-election after one term, for example, would be required to get 56% of votes cast. A Representative seeking re-election after one term would be required to get 52%. In order to be realistic regarding margins achievable for the legislative branch, we might choose to cap the total required at somewhere between 62% and 68%. As for a President, given the extraordinary power and responsibility of the office, and the nearly four years he/she will have had to demonstrate competence (or lack thereof), the reelection threshold should be at least 60% of votes cast. That is not outlandish; a 60% grade on an exam is barely a "D".

Under this system, both the challenger and the incumbent might fail to reach their respective thresholds for election or reelection. In such a case, a new election would be held, with all previous general election candidates barred from participating. (Actually, irrespective of the presence of a differential threshold for new candidates and incumbents, all elections should present the option of a "no" vote, which, if chosen with greater frequency than every candidate for that office, should necessitate a new election with fresh candidates).

My proposal should increase the average level of competence and honesty by three mechanisms: First, the aforementioned bar to continued participation by general election candidates with previously-demonstrated mediocre performance would promote the rise of new and hopefully better choices. Second, the "incumbent handicap" would encourage inadequate current officeholders to retire rather than seek reelection. Third, that handicap would incentivize the party structure and/or primary voters to replace an inadequate incumbent for the next election, to increase the likelihood of a party candidate winning.

The "handicap principle" appears to apply in biology. Perhaps it's time to apply it to electoral politics.