Friday, March 31, 2006

An agnostic defense of religion

You may not know it to look at me, but I am an enemy of religion.

Well, some people say that anyway, based on two simple facts: I'm agnostic, and I believe the government should stay as far away from religious speech as it can.

This seems to be a sectarian version of "if you're not with us, you're against us." To true believers even a declared neutral on religion is an adversary. By such logic, there is no such thing as neutral. "Neutrality" is simply code for "doesn't support", which of course means "opposes."

That may be helpful when trying to construct an "us against the heathen hordes" mindset, but it doesn't really comport well with reality. I send my children to Lutheran preschools; I have written frequently about Abdul Rahman, and will write about other religious freedom cases in the future; I strongly support individual religious liberty. I respect the role of religion in society. I have tossed change into Salvation Army kettles.

I just happen to think that religion is not a government concern. It's one of a whole host of things -- like, say, clothing styles -- where government should not have a role. As citizens, we all have a right to practice our religion as we see fit. What we do not have is the right to use the government to promote our religion.

An agnostic who supports religion
I was raised Presbyterian, so I have more than a passing familiarity with Christianity. But I'm an agnostic for the classic reason: I don't believe the existence or nonexistence of God can be proven, so why waste time on an unsolvable puzzle? It's fun to noodle on, but not really worth the investment of serious study. If He exists, great. If He doesn't, okay. I guess I'll find out when I'm dead.

Same thing with "Is there an afterlife?" Nobody knows, so any attempt to reason it out or "prove it" inevitably devolves into finding an explanation that is comforting to you. I sincerely hope there is an afterlife, and we all owe religion a "thank you" for coming up with the concept; but believe in it? Can't do it.

Does that mean I think believers are gullible, easily deluded saps? Hardly. Just because they cannot prove to me that God exists doesn't mean that they have not had His existence proven to their own satisfaction. Perhaps they've had a personal experience with God. Perhaps they see God's presence in the structure of the world around them. Who am I to say they're wrong?

So though I'm agnostic, I'm not hostile to religion. We discuss religious topics with our children, including the main tenets of the major religions. Why? Because I want my children to be able to make their own religious choices. As they get older we'll discuss religion in greater detail, even take them to church/synagogue/temple if they want. I see my role as providing information, not telling them what to believe.

Government, belief, and public policy
I think people should be free to worship as they please. And I respect religion's role in society. Why, then, do I think government should be studiously neutral on religion?

Two reasons: public policy must have a rational, logically defensible basis; and government is for all people, not just the adherents of any single religion or group of religions.

Public policy: Personal, untestable, unprovable beliefs have no place in formulating government policy. As an individual, I'm free to believe that redheads are agents of God's evil twin. Does that give me the right to enact anti-redhead laws? Not in a country that respects individual rights. In order to discriminate against a group or behavior, I must mount a logical public-policy case for doing so. Religious belief may inform my views as a voter or a legislator, but it cannot by itself be a basis for law.

Government for all people: If the government expresses a preference for certain religions, it is by necessity excluding those who believe differently. Our government belongs to all of us, in all our myriad beliefs or nonbeliefs; and thus it should not express a preference for any particular religion.

Blue laws -- which force businesses to close on Sundays -- are a perfect example of laws with no rational reason for existing, and which put government muscle behind one particular religion. If you don't believe in working on the Sabbath, then don't -- but don't use the government to force everyone else to take the day off, too.

Does this mean I'm trying to push religion out of the public square? No. Because individuals are free -- nay, encouraged -- to keep religion in the public square. Only the government should remain neutral and silent.

An analogy: If I don't want cars driving on the sidewalk, am I anticar? No. I just believe they belong on the road, not on the sidewalks. Similarly, religion belongs in individual discourse, not government discourse.

There are gray areas, of course. Religion should not be discriminated against, either. Religion plays a role in our society; its contribution can be recognized and acknowledged by the government just like the government recognizes the contributions of other groups. But the emphasis should be on recognizing the contribution, not the religion.

This, by the way, is why I generally support Bush's push to make faith-based organization eligible for government grants. Religious groups should be treated just like everybody else; they should receive neither favorable nor unfavorable treatment merely because they are religious.

As the above example demonstrates, trying to find the proper place for religion in a religiously diverse society is not an "attack on God." It's common sense, the accomodations that allow us to coexist peacefully with our neighbors as equal citizens.

Religious issues
Being agnostic, or defending everyone's right to believe what they want, doesn't mean I lack opinions on religious issues. I frankly enjoy religious discussions because of the big questions they raise. But these are debates about the shape of religion, not its existence.

For example, I'm not a huge fan of organized religion. Organized religion is all about claiming stewardship of the One True God. Since that's an unprovable claim on the face of it, they have to resort to secondary measures to attract and keep a following. Eventually the church's continued existence becomes an end in itself -- an end that while not totally separate from honoring God is at least distinct from it.

The whole concept of Hell is a great example. Many religions claim something along the lines of "we are the one true faith; believe in us or suffer for all eternity." This has always struck me as a transparent organizational tactic, not something that God would do. What kind of God would create a world that contains thousands of religions, and then say to each of us: "Pick wisely, because only one of them will get you into heaven"? If that is indeed the kind of God we have -- petty and sadistic -- then I for one choose not to worship Him even if He exists. No God worth the name plays shell games with people's souls.

I choose to believe that if there is an afterlife, and the entrance requirement is based on what you do on earth, then the criteria will be things like living a good, honorable life, regardless of what particular creed you subscribe to.

(To be fair, I think the common depiction of Hell is a distortion. The most reasonable definition of Hell I've come across describes it simply as "the absence of God." That's simply a truism: If I don't believe in the Christian God, then when I die I will not go to the Christian heaven. It does not imply, however, that Hell is unpleasant: fire, brimstone, devils, demons. And it leaves open the possibility of me going to a different heaven, or the Elysian Fields, or Limbo, or whatever. Or being reincarnated.)

Or you can get into a discussion of why we should worship God. Doing so voluntarily out of simple joy or gratitude makes sense. But few religions present worship as merely an option; it's the whole point, and often demanded by the God in question. Yet it seems to me that any God worth having wouldn't care a whit about being worshipped, and thus Gods that demand worship probably don't deserve it.

Is evolution opposed to God? Only if you think that God couldn't have chosen evolution as one of the mechanisms of creation. Is science opposed to God? No; science looks at the how of things, not the who or the why behind it. It's only a conflict if your faith requires belief in easily disprovable things.

The questions go on and on. They're great; they're interesting; they make us think. They are why religion exists: to try to tackle the big questions, explain the unexplainable. It's an ambitious undertaking, and it produces some first-class philosophy. And the redemptive power of religion has transformed lives and societies.

That is what religion does for us, and why it is valuable.

But religion, like any social tool, can also be used for ill. The religious wars that wracked Europe, the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch burnings, Islamic terrorism, militant Jewish settlers -- all show belief being twisted to bad ends. And it usually occurs when one religion gains undue influence in secular government and starts using that government to further its own agenda.

So let each religion compete in the public marketplace of ideas. Let us build a society that knits together fervid and disparate beliefs into a vibrant whole. But let us agree that for any of us to be free, all of us have to be free. And that means keeping the government out of religion. For the government that today promotes your religion can tomorrow suppress it -- and society will be the poorer for that.

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Global warming evidence No. 10,512

Coral reefs are dying at a record pace, as disease moves in on reefs weakened by rising ocean temperatures.

"It's an unprecedented die-off," said National Park Service fisheries biologist Jeff Miller, who last week checked 40 stations in the Virgin Islands. "The mortality that we're seeing now is of the extremely slow-growing reef-building corals. These are corals that are the foundation of the reef. ... We're talking colonies that were here when [Christopher] Columbus came by have died in the past three to four months."

I'm a scuba diver, so I've seen coral reefs up close. Besides being the basis for multibillion-dollar tourism and fishing industries, they are islands of incredible biodiversity. And large reefs help protect shorelines from storms and waves.

But most corals require relatively cool water to survive, and it takes millennia to build up the massive reefs. Once they're gone, they won't be coming back any time soon.

Take global warming seriously, because it's real. There are reasonable questions about what we can or should do about it, but simply ignoring it is no longer a responsible option.

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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Women in politics

Great Plains View, another Minnesota blog, has an informative look at female possibilities for president. Hillary Clinton may be the most powerful woman in politics right now, but Great Plains argues that she's not the most qualified, not to mention what a polarizing figure she is.

Among the names tossed out: Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

And looking to the future, keep your eye on Rep. Stephanie Herseth, D-S.D.

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Ann Coulter's legal troubles, update

We finally have an update in Ann Coulter's voter fraud case, which I posted about way back when Midtopia was barely knee-high to a grasshopper -- or perhaps a cockroach in this case.

Palm Beach County's elections supervisor has given the right wing's unofficial mouthpiece 30 days to explain why she voted in the wrong precinct.

In a registered letter scheduled to be sent to her this week, Coulter is asked to "clarify certain information as to her legal residence," elections boss Arthur Anderson said.

"We want to give her a chance," Anderson said. "She needs to tell us where she really lives."

Or else? He could refer the case to State Attorney Barry Krischer for criminal charges, Anderson said.

Remember: root for the jail term, not the fine.

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On the front lines, patience wears thin

A story from the Christian Science Monitor about U.S. troops in Mosul underscores a few points I've been making in the last couple of weeks.

"Please don't take our weapon," the mother of four pleads in Arabic when US Army Staff Sgt. Josh Clevenger comes across an AK-47. "We need it to defend ourselves. It is not safe, anything can happen."

As he stands in the living room, Sergeant Clevenger has no intention of confiscating their rifle - nor any comprehension of the woman's plea. With his platoon's lone interpreter elsewhere, he is effectively rendered speechless.

"Your weapon is filled with blanks," Clevenger, from Muncie, Ind., says to the woman, his voice unwittingly rising as he tries to convey helpful information. "These aren't real bullets - they won't protect you."

For US soldiers who don't grasp the language or the culture here, a central part of their mission - generating goodwill and support - remains far more difficult than capturing insurgent leaders.


While US soldiers are practiced in the art of firepower, the sort of counterinsurgency campaign under way at the moment has demanded a far more nuanced approach to battle. Defeating the insurgency is as much about reaching ordinary Iraqis as it is about capturing terrorists.

"The fight is really for the people and their mind-set," says Lt. Col. Richard Greene of Germantown, Md., the battalion's executive officer.

As I argued in my Reaction guest post, pacification is a totally different kind of battle than a straight up force-on-force war. And it reaches a point where our presence does more harm than good, as more people die, civilian patience wears thin, and language and cultural barriers remain.

The story also notes how unhappy many of the troops were to hear President Bush say they'd be there for at least another three years. It isn't yet dissuading them from re-enlisting, but as the headline says, patience is wearing thin.

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Abdul Rahman backlash?

In a comment on my last post on this topic, KnightErrant reports that more Christians are being harassed or arrested in Afghanistan.
US-based Christian news source, Compass Direct, reports that more Christians have been arrested for their faith in Afghanistan in the wake of the release of Abdul Rahman. Compass, a news service that tracks persecution of Christians mostly in Islamic countries, says harassment of the Christian community has been stepped up.

Compass says two more Christian converts have been arrested in other parts of the country, but further information is being withheld in the “sensitive situation” caused by the international media furor over Rahman.

Reports of beatings and police raids on the homes of Christians are filtering out of the country through local Christian ministers.

The reports are uncorroborated, and the linked site is anything but unbiased. So take it with a grain of salt. I'd put it in the category of "news to watch for".

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Tell me about yourself

The site had its 1,000th visitor last night -- not bad for a blog that launched just over a month ago. Thanks to the various sites that have linked here, and thanks especially to all the readers who chose to make Midtopia part of their day.

I get very curious, though, about who those readers are, since so few of you leave comments. So I'd like to invite all of you to add a short comment to this post telling me a little about yourself. It'll help me get a mental image of just whom I'm writing for.

Feel free to chime in on any other post, too, of course, or continue reading without commenting. And as always, if there are things you'd like to see added, removed or changed on the site, e-mail me. I hope for this to become an interactive blog that readers have a stake in. I can't do that without your comments.

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Sideshows and substance

First we had Dean Johnson "sanding off" the truth. Now we have Gil Gutknecht in "Gettygate."

During a campaign appearance last week in Mankato, Gutknecht, a Rochester Republican, told a group of college students they could play as pivotal a role in defending Republican control of Congress as the 1st Minnesota did at Gettysburg, according to a report published Tuesday in the MSU Reporter, the Minnesota State University-Mankato student newspaper.

The 1st Minnesota saved the field for the Union forces July 2, 1863, by stepping into a breach in their line and repelling a Confederate assault. The unit lost 82 percent of its men in the process, the highest casualty rate of any Union regiment in any battle.

"To compare beating Democrats to defeating the Confederate Army is either an absurd display of historical ignorance or an insult to the intelligence of Minnesota," Melendez said in a news release under the headline "Gutknecht likens DFL Party to slaveholders." David Ruth, the party's communications director issued the release.

Oh, please.

There are times when both parties try to tar the other with racist associations. The most egregious is the use of "plantation" imagery, which Republicans often use to describe Democrat domination of the black vote, and which Hillary Clinton used to describe Republican control of the Senate.

But a reference to a pivotal battle in the Civil War hardly likens DFLers to slaveholders.

Personally, if I were one of the college students so addressed, I'd be a bit concerned by that 82 percent casualty rate. I didn't realize human-wave attacks were part of the Republican electoral strategy. And don't Democrats support gun control? I had no idea Dems could do so much damage with their bare hands.

While the parties distract everyone with sideshows like this, a state House committee approved a University of Minnesota stadium plan that includes a $50-per-year fee increase for students, and both the Senate and the House are considering bills to keep the identity of University presidential candidates secret, among all the other bills awaiting action this session.

Dustups are fun, but they're not important.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Abdul Rahman, religious refugee

Abdul Rahman has turned up in Italy, which has granted him asylum.

I suppose we should be glad that he will live, instead of being executed by the Afghan government or lynched by people inspired by the bloodthirsty calls of Afghan judges, mullahs and legislators.

Of course, he now has to start his life over in a strange land. And -- coincidentally, of course -- the family members that turned him in will now get default custody of his children -- which, you may recall, is how this whole case got started.

Religious law leads to all sorts of stupid things, like this case of a man divorcing his wife while he slept. But what separates the Abdul Rahman case is the response. In the divorce case, everyone criticized the move; one Islamic scholar called the elders "totally ignorant." In the Rahman case, authority figures all across the country supported the concept of executing someone for their religious belief.

It's going to be real embarassing when the United States is forced to put Afghanistan and Iraq on its list of human rights violators.

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Hunting, with a helping of guilt

In Sunday's New York Times magazine, Michael Pollan takes what might be the most tortured excursion into hunting that I've ever read.

Pollan, who had never hunted before in his life, says he wanted to prepare a meal from the ground up: kill the food, prepare it, eat it. His goal was to experience the full karmic consequences of the food chain.

What followed was a sort of "Gomer Pyle goes hunting" escapade, infused with atavistic thrills, guilt and disgust.

Very few things, least of all hunting, lend themselves to overanalysis. And the article, while it contained some interesting points, had overanalysis in spades.

I grew up hunting squirrels and deer with my dad and brothers. I didn't always look forward to it, because it meant getting up before dawn and heading out into the cold woods to wait for first light. And during deer season there were so many other hunters that it felt a bit like a war zone. That's what made us eventually give it up: walking along just below a ridge line and listening to bullets whizzing overhead. Venison steak just wasn't worth the risk of being shot by morons.

But once the sun came out and it warmed up, hunting was full of simple pleasures. Companionship, for one; the challenge, for another: spotting game, walking quietly, sitting so still that the animals forget you're there, and of course shooting accurately. A walk in the woods on a beautiful fall day, but a walk with a purpose -- something that was very appealing to me as a teenager.

But the ultimate purpose was food, not killing. I've never understood simple sport hunting, killing things for the sake of killing things. But I've always been comfortable about my place atop the food chain. Shooting a squirrel is little different from catching a fish or buying a steak. You catch it, you gut it, you eat it. I see little moral difference between buying a roast in the supermarket and killing the roast myself.

Pollan goes on about how disgusting it was to gut the pig and see its insides, and cites some credible arguments about the evolutionary advantages of disgust. But I think he overprojects from his single experience. The first time I had to gut a fish, it was disgusting. The 50th time, it was routine. When my dad and I gutted a deer for the first time, he pointed out all the organs as we worked. It was a biology lesson, not a moral one.

I wonder if Pollan could write such a lengthy self-examination on fishing, and for some reason I think no. Shooting a pig (as Pollan does) has some moral attraction/repellant for him that catching and gutting a bass would not. But they are the same act, just with different tools. A deer rifle isn't any more or less immoral or mysterious than a fishing pole. But it seems to hold a lot more mystique for people unfamiliar with either. Which leads me to think that Pollan's discomfort has more to do with guns than hunting.

Pollan makes one good point: hunting makes you appreciate where your food comes from. You understand why ancient hunters all over the world considered hunting almost a religious experience, and gave thanks to their quarry for giving up its life so the hunter could live. Supermarkets let us take for granted what perhaps shouldn't be, both because we don't appreciate it and because the hidden nature of the modern food chain gives rise to things like factory farms -- things that produce far worse moral dilemmas than gunning down a mammal.

I haven't hunted since I became an adult, not because of any moral qualms but because of lack of opportunity or abiding interest. I still fish, though, and the reason remains the same: I am an omnivore, and nothing tastes better than fresh-caught fish, lightly breaded and cooked over a fire. And the day spent walking the shore or drowsing in a canoe, line dangling in the water with a worm or casting a lure toward likely hiding spots, is a day of relaxation and being a part of nature, not just an observer of it.

Update: Here's what another blogger thought of Pollan's piece.

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Short-term gratification, but what long-term effect?

Nigeria has bowed to demands from the United Nations and turned former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor over to a U.N. war crimes tribunal.

A plane carrying Taylor left from Maiduguri, capital of northwestern Borno state, for Liberia, a senior police official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Desmond de Silva, the top prosecutor at the U.N.-backed Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal that will try Taylor, told The Associated Press that U.N. forces in Liberia should then transfer Taylor to Freetown, Sierra Leone.

This will undoubtedly make a lot of people feel better, seeing the man responsible for so much death and destruction finally standing trial for his crimes.

But one has to wonder if the world is buying long-term trouble with this move.

Nigeria agreed to grant Taylor asylum in 2003 as part of a pact to end the civil war in Liberia, which had dragged on for 14 years and pretty thoroughly destroyed the country. By surrendering voluntarily Taylor helped ensure that his troops laid down their arms instead of continuing a destructive guerrilla war.

It's unlikely Taylor would have agreed to go into exile if he knew that three years later he would be arrested and put on trial.

Hard-edged diplomacy requires credibility. If the United States is going to threaten someone with military action, it's only effective if the target believes we're serious and not just bluffing. Similarly, offers of asylum are only effective if the recipient believes that the offer will be honored, not rescinded as soon as they've given up power.

Will future tyrants look at what happened to Taylor and reject all offers of asylum? If they do, the world will face two choices: let the tyrant remain in power or bring him down by force -- with the on-going messiness such solutions often bring.

Lasting peace often requires forgiving the unforgivable. Witness what has happened in South Africa, where the government wisely determined that exposing the truth of what happened under apartheid was more important than seeking revenge for past crimes. Such revenge-seeking might have sparked armed resistance among white groups and led to yet another civil war; at the least it would have fractured the country politically. The government recognized that they would have to forgo the satisfaction of revenge in order to forge a peaceful and unified future.

It will be a sad result indeed if indulging the satisfaction of seeing Taylor punished makes future conflicts longer and bloodier than they otherwise might have been.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Bin Laden's driver: terrorist or camp follower?

The Supreme Court hears arguments today in the case of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, who worked for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

The case bears on two points: the constitutionality of the military tribunals Bush wants to use to try Guantanamo detainees, as well as a broader question of what constitutes a terrorist -- a term thrown around all-too-freely these days.

Hamdan says he took a job with bin Laden in order to feed his family. The Bush adminstration calls him a trained terrorist who should be tried for war crimes.

Try him, by all means -- but in an impartial court, and with a definition of "terrorist" and "war crimes" that doesn't include performing menial services for the bad guys. Justice is not served by locking up anyone who ever cooked a meal for Al Qaeda.

It doesn't aid our fight against terror, either. And it's downright unhelpful when the tables are turned.

"I've never asked for more for my client than a full and fair trial," one of Hamdan's lawyers, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles D. Swift, told an audience Monday at the Cato Institute. "When our citizens are abroad and these things are done, how will we say it was wrong?"

There is only one just way to deal with the detainees. If they are terrorists, put them on trial. If we win a conviction, we can lock them up for a very long time. If they are combatants, then treat them in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, and specifically define the conflict they are being held until the end of. No one should have to spend the rest of their life in jail for the "crime" of being a Taliban foot soldier, for example.

For more on the subject of detainees, here's an essay I wrote.

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State Senate passes eminent domain bill

As part of the continuing backlash over the recent Supreme Court decision on eminent domain, the Minnesota legislature is considering bills that would limit the use of the government's property-taking power. The Senate version passed yesterday; the House version is expected to reach the floor in a week or so.

The bill would bar cities and counties from taking private property simply to increase their tax base or create jobs.

Local governments still could condemn property for "public use," such as roads, parks or school buildings. They also could use eminent domain to redevelop blighted urban and environmentally contaminated areas. But such areas would be much more tightly defined in law.

The bill is sponsored by a DFLer, Thomas Bakk, but has strong bipartisan support; it passed 64-2.

Eminent domain can be a delicate subject, because while the power is clearly needed and appropriate in most cases, it can easily be abused. The developing consensus seems to (rightly) be that taking private property simply to increase a city's tax base is an inappropriate use.

But it shouldn't be taken too far. When buying up multiple parcels of land for a project, for example, one holdout landowner with unreasonable price demands should not be able to hold the entire project hostage. Sellers should expect a premium on their property, but extortion should not be rewarded.

The first step should be attempting to build the project without the holdout property. Failing that, cities ought to be able to use eminent domain to take the property and compensate the owner with a reasonable premium over fair market value.

Bakk's bill seems to recognize the difficult balance of interests at play. It seems carefully crafted and deserving of support. It may make redevelopment more difficult for some cities, but that's just too bad; if property rights are to mean something, government will often be inconvenienced.

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Asteroid mission is a go

NASA has reversed itself, restarting the $446 million Dawn mission to orbit Ceres and Vesta, two of the largest asteroids in the solar system.

The mission is well worth the money. Besides the scientific benefits of studying two of the largest chunks left over from the creation of the solar system, it will be another test of an ion engine, and thus one more step toward bootstrapping ourselves into a more permanent and widespread presence in space.

To find out a lot more about the Dawn mission, visit the Dawn home page.

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Hands off the blogs

The Federal Election Commission yesterday decided to regulate online political advertising, but not the content of political blogs like this one.

The decision means that bloggers and online publications will not be covered by provisions of the new election law. Internet bloggers and individuals will therefore be able to use the Internet to attack or support federal candidates without running afoul of campaign spending limits.

Unsurprisingly, this was one of those rare issues that united bloggers of all stripes in opposition to any regulation of blogs.

But I don't see how the FEC could have ruled any other way. How does one measure the worth of a blog entry? Not by the money spent to post it; most bloggers work for free. Readership would have to play a part, as well as value judgements about what constitutes support for a given candidate. With millions of blogs that at least occasionally discuss politics, It would have been a nightmare.

Never mind how such a rule would deal with online discussion forums.

if bloggers are paid to support a particular candidate, as happened in South Dakota in the last election, those payments should show up in campaign reports, and the bloggers should have to disclose the payments. But absent such direct involvement, the only real option is to leave the blogosphere alone.

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Guest post at The Reaction

The ever-gracious Michael Stickings asked me to do a guest post at his blog, The Reaction, and it's up there now, a fusion of a couple of recent posts on Donald Rumsfeld. The Reaction is a moderate-to-liberal take from a Canadian, which makes for some interesting and thoughtful perspectives. You won't always agree with him, but it's worth checking out.

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Monday, March 27, 2006

The wealth gap and the estate tax

From the New York Times comes yet more evidence of the growing concentration of wealth in America, this time from an analysis of inheritances.

In 2004 median inheritances — half were bigger and half were smaller — amounted to about $29,000 in today's money, according to a Federal Reserve analysis of the Survey of Consumer Finances. That is enough for the heirs to buy a new Pontiac Coupe. But for almost all, it is hardly life-changing money.

Nor are inheritances likely to increase. According to the analysis of the Fed data by Mark Zandi of Moody's, 30 years ago the median inheritance was about $10,000 more, adjusted for inflation.

Yes, big money is being passed down. According to the Fed data, the overall pie of inheritances has grown to nearly $200 billion annually — more than three times the amount that was passed down in the mid-1970's, after accounting for inflation. ... But the typical American is seeing little of this wealth. Mr. Schervish and Mr. Havens found that most money would go to a few lucky heirs: 7 percent of the estates would account for half the aggregate bequests.

There are several reasons for shrinking inheritances, starting with basic demographic changes: parents are living longer and spending more of their money themselves, and most people do a lousy job of saving for retirement at a time when fewer and fewer people can rely on pensions and other traditional sources of retirement income. So what money they do save gets spent.

But simple demographics cannot explain the increasing concentration of wealth reflected in the statistic that 7 percent of estates account for half of the money being passed down.

The story notes that wealthy heirs are seeing more and more money:

"We are seeing bigger-sized estates," said Myra Salzer, president of the Wealth Conservancy in Boulder, Colo., which helps heirs manage their inherited wealth.

"Wealth is just exploding," said Daniel FitzPatrick, chief executive of Citigroup Trust, whose clients typically have hundreds of millions of dollars.

Add this to all the other evidence of wealth concentration in America, and other measures of disparity such as CEO pay, which now averages 500 times the wages of average workers. 15 years ago the ratio was 140 to 1; 40 years ago it was 40 to 1.

I don't believe in "punishing the rich" simply for being rich; I'd like to be rich someday, after all. But I do think that it's fair to tax someone's second $300,000 at a higher rate than everyone's first $300,000. And I think we all have an interest in the ill effects of excessive wealth concentration.

Tie up too much wealth in the hands of the few and you damage the economy, limiting opportunity and driving social unrest. For extreme examples look at France during the runup to the French Revolution, or Victorian and Edwardian England, or parts of South America today, where the wealthy live in fortresses, drive armored cars and employ bodyguards while the poor scavenge for food in city dumps. This is how revolutions are born.

Which brings us to the estate tax -- or, as Republicans like to spin it, the "death tax." Along with the Bush tax cuts that provided disproportionate relief to the wealthy, the gradual repeal of the estate tax plays a large part in increasing the concentration of wealth.

Republicans cast it as simple fairness: why should someone's money be taxed twice? It's a fair argument, but it ignores several things:

1. A lot of money is taxed twice, through sales taxes, for example. Or consider the gift tax. Give someone more than $10,000 a year and it's subject to tax. Why, then, does it make sense to exempt a gift from taxation simply because the giver has died?

2. The estate tax brings in about $70 billion a year. In a time of war and budget deficits, is it really good policy to blow another gigantic hole in the budget for a law that only benefits the very very rich?

3. What is the social benefit of allowing heirs to receive millions of unearned dollars tax-free?

4. The government taxes nearly every transfer of money. What is the rationale for refusing to tax this transfer of money? What separates it from all the other transfers of money that we do tax?

It makes no sense to worsen our budget situation in order to provide a tax benefit to the least needy -- especially when doing so actively harms society and the economy. I'll give Bush the benefit of the doubt and call it a case of following a principle out the window instead of simply pandering to wealthy supporters. But it's a move we simply cannot afford -- in any sense of the word.

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What occupation requires

Want an idea of how many troops and police it takes to provide security in Iraq?

By any measure the current troop presence is far, far too low. Most rational estimates -- rejected as inconvenient by the Bush administration prior to the war -- calculate that at least 400,000 troops are needed -- roughly what we'll have once the Iraqi Army is fully trained and effective, which will take years. And that assumes that we never pull out our troops.

But here's a real example of an attempt to pacify an Iraqi city, Tall Afar.

To prevent more violence, the streets have been blanketed with troops. Four thousand U.S. troops and 8,000 Iraqi troops as well as about 1,700 police officers are in the city of 200,000 residents, said Col. Sean MacFarland, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division.

If you do the math, that works out to one soldier or police officer for every 14.6 residents.

Apply that to the entire country of 27 million, and you could plausibly argue that we need 1.8 million troops to properly secure Iraq.

And even with that many troops, Tall Afar is not peaceful.

"Violence has increased, mortar attacks have increased, roadside bombs have increased," said Mohammed Taqi, a national legislator from the city who recently wrote to Iraq's interim president and prime minister, requesting that Tall Afar's administrative affairs be handled in Baghdad rather than the provincial capital, Mosul. The roads to that city — as well as two neighborhoods in Tall Afar — are controlled by insurgents, he said.

Let's hope we keep Tall Afar in mind when we're planning future campaigns.

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I'm shocked; shocked!

Another British memo makes even more clear that Bush was determined to invade Iraq regardless.

During a private two-hour meeting in the Oval Office on Jan. 31, 2003, he made clear to Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain that he was determined to invade Iraq without the second resolution, or even if international arms inspectors failed to find unconventional weapons, said a confidential memo about the meeting written by Mr. Blair's top foreign policy adviser and reviewed by The New York Times.

"Our diplomatic strategy had to be arranged around the military planning," David Manning, Mr. Blair's chief foreign policy adviser at the time, wrote in the memo that summarized the discussion between Mr. Bush, Mr. Blair and six of their top aides.

"The start date for the military campaign was now penciled in for 10 March," Mr. Manning wrote, paraphrasing the president. "This was when the bombing would begin."

Assuming the memo is genuine -- and it appears to be -- this would seem to be the "smoking gun" indicating that Bush was hellbent to invade Iraq, and all of his publicly stated reasons and rationales were so much window dressing. Having decided to invade, he then proceeded to develop rationales to justify the decision.

That's an indefensible way to conduct foreign policy. At the very least, he was required to level with the American people about his reasons for invading. Even better would have been to develop general criteria for pre-emptive war, then see if those criteria applied to Iraq. That way we could at least claim to be following a set of rules that other people could examine so as to know which side of the "eligible for invasion" line they fall on.

I often describe myself as something of a "baby neocon." I support the idea of America being a force for good in the world. I cheered the first Gulf War and the intervention in Kosovo. Why? Because I thought (and still think) that it's high time the world got off its butt and did something about the bad guys. Sure, the Gulf War was probably about oil, but I was able to support it because it was opposing aggression. And this was while many of my friends were active duty military and in harm's way.

I would support a doctrine that called for taking out bad guys like Saddam. However, such a doctrine requires a few key things:

1. An actual doctrine. We asserted our right to do as we wanted and not wait for U.N. approval. I have no problem with that. BUT: you have to lay down the ground rules, make it clear that *this* might get you invaded while *this* will not. Otherwise we're just throwing our weight around, knocking over whomever we feel like, and the rest of the world is justified in wondering if we're just being self-interested bullies. I think most of the world would support us taking out bad guys, as long as we had a clear and compelling definition of "bad guy".

2. At least the appearance of listening to the rest of the world. We went out of our way to anger the rest of the world in the run-up to Iraq. Sometimes that's necessary. More often, it comes back to bite us in the keister, as it did this time.

3. Capabilities that match our doctrine. The reason we haven't tried to overthrow every bad actor in the world is because we can't. Afghanistan and Iraq already have us overstretched. We either add more capability (and accept the attendant cost), or we accept that we have limits and set our doctrine accordingly. Not overstretching is another reason to have a doctrine; that way, you think about what you're going to do ahead of time.

4. The support of the American people. You can have any doctrine you want, but if the voters won't support it, it's a non-starter. The thing that most irks me about the neo-cons is they *knew* that the voters wouldn't support an attack on Iraq simply because he was a repressive dictator. So they tried to link him to terrorism and breathe life into old reports about WMDs. It's only *after* the war that they've switched mostly to talking about what a bad guy Saddam was, as if that alone were reason enough to have taken him out. I happen to agree that that should be reason enough, but that's for the voters to decide. They had no right to lie about it in the beginning. The American people had a right to decide whether this was how they wanted to spend their blood and treasure.

So without a doctrine , the Bush administration unnecessarily angered the world and misled the American public in order to prosecute a war they wanted to prosecute. They didn't have the guts to make their true case to the public; they didn't trust the public to support them. That's unforgivable.

If Bush had made a forthright case for invading Iraq as part of a new "get the bad guys" doctrine, I would have supported that case. I might still have argued that the invasion was ill-advised for several reasons, starting with "it has nothing to do with the war on terror" and seguing to the incredible cost and the fact that we had not yet built the military needed to support such a doctrine, and finishing with the fact that Saddam wasn't at the top of the bad-guy list. But I would have applauded his effort to engage the American people in a grand and worthy endeavor to make the world a better and freer place.

Instead, it increasingly appears that he misled America and the world because he didn't trust them or didn't think they had a right to weigh in on what he was doing. But laudable goals aren't good enough, especially when incompetently executed for crass reasons under cover of lies and half-truths. Because the lack of matching capability pretty much ensures the venture will flounder, and once people figure out the truth the rug gets yanked out from under the effort, leaving the soldiers hanging high and dry.

Nice work, Mr. President.

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Katherine Harris goes off the deep end

The Reaction has a nice bit on the increasingly bizarre Senate campaign of Katherine Harris. She's suddenly discovered her inner evangelical, and her campaign advisers are bailing.

Ever notice that anyone who had anything to do with the 2000 presidential election seems to be cursed? People talk about Social Security being the third rail of politics. Not even close.

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Hall of political shame

One of my least favorite things about politics is when partisans argue that they're all virtuous and the other side is entirely composed of scoundrels.

So I've decided to start a list of recent bad behavior by people all over the political spectrum. The next time someone you're arguing with comes up with a line like "Democrats are corrupt" or "Republicans are Nazis", simply refer them here. I'll post the link in the "Essays" section of the sidebar and update it regularly. If you've got someone you think should be included, let me know.

People are people. Every group has a certain number of bad apples. The "good vs. evil" trope is one of the most radicalizing forces in politics, IMO. If this list helps us move the debate away from such simplistic portrayals, good.

Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, expelled from Congress after being convicted of myriad corruption charges.
Sandy Berger,, former Clinton national security adviser, pleaded guilty to stealing and destroying classified documents from the National Archives.
Katie Barge and Lauren Weiner, aides to Sen. Charles Schumer, D.-N.Y., fired after illegally obtaining the credit report of Michael Steele, Lt. Governor of Maryland and a GOP Senate candidate.
Brett Pfeffer, former aide to Rep. William Jefferson, D-La. Pleaded guilty to demanding bribes and implicated Jefferson.
Rep. Cynthia McKinney,, D-Ga., for striking a Capitol police officer and then claiming to be the victim of racial bias.
Pennsylvania state Sen. Vincent Fumo, indicted on charges of defrauding taxpayers and charities out of $2 million by using state workers to do personal chores, including spying on his ex-wife.
Former Tennessee state Sen. John Ford (uncle of Harold Ford Jr.), convicted of bribery.
Rep. James McDermott, D-Wash., ordered to pay $700,000 for leaking an illegally obtained tape of a GOP strategy meeting in 1997.
Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., indicted on 16 counts involving bribery, money laundering and obstruction of justice.
Former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, sentenced to seven years in prison and a $230,000 fine for accepting bribes while governor.

Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif. Pleaded guilty to bribery; sentenced to eight years in prison.
Ohio Gov. Bob Taft. Pleaded no contest to charges of accepting gifts.
Ben Domenich, a conservative blogger and founder of, caught plagiarizing.
Lester Crawford, former FDA commissioner. Pleaded guilty to making false reports for concealing his ownership of stocks in companies his agency was regulating.
Claude Allen, assistant to the president for domestic policy. Pleaded guilty to making multiple fraudulent returns to a Target store.
David Safavian, chief of staff of the General Services Administration. Found guilty of lying and obstructing justice for covering up his relationship with Jack Abramoff.
Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio. Pleaded guilty to conspiracy and making false statements in the Jack Abramoff scandal. Sentenced to 30 months in prison and a $6,000 fine.
George Ryan, Republican governor of Illinois, convicted of racketeering, mail fraud, lying to the FBI and more.
Tony Rudy, former chief of staff to Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas; admitted soliciting and accepting gifts from lobbyist Jack Abramoff in exchange for influencing legislation.
James Tobin, the RNC's regional director in New England in 2002, and Charles McGee, executive director of the New Hampshire GOP; convicted for orchestrating a phone-jamming campaign to shut down a get-out-the-vote effort by the Democratic challenger to John Sununu.
Jeffrey Ray Nielsen, conservative activist in Orange County and former aide to local Republican Party chairman Scott Baugh, charged with having sex with a 14-year-old boy.
Neil Volz, former chief of staff to Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio; pleaded guilty to corruption charges for accepting expensive gifts from Jack Abramoff.
Mark Foley,, R-Fla., resigned amid charges he pursued teenage pages for sex.
Brian Doyle, former deputy press secretary for Homeland Security. Pleaded no contest to using a computer to seduce a child.
Ralph Arza, a GOP state representative in Florida. Resigned after leaving threatening, racist and profanity-laced messages on the voicemail of a fellow Republican, a Hispanic who had filed a complaint against him for using racially disparaging language.
J. Steven Griles, former Deputy Interior Secretary under Gale Norton. Pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about his relationship with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Sentenced to 10 months in prison and a $30,000 fine.
Mark Zachares, former aide to Rep. Don Young (R-AK). Pleaded guilty to conspiracy as part of the Abramoff scandal.
North Carolina state treasurer Thomas Ravenel, indicted for possessing cocaine with intent to distribute.
David Stockman, former Congressman and Reagan budget director, indicted for conspiracy and securities fraud relating to an auto-parts company.
Mark Deli Siljander, former Congressman, charged with money-laundering, conspiracy and aiding terrorism.

Rep Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), for pursuing federal funding for a shady development project while the developer paid his mom a hefty consulting fee.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), for having his home remodeled by a company embroiled in a bribery scandal.
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), for questionable real-estate dealings in partnership with a longtime friend with a checkered past.
Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), whose daughter's home was raided by the FBI amid an investigation into whether he improperly steered contracts to her consulting firm.

Armchair Subversive is a list of Republicans convicted of pedophilia.
Political Graveyard has a long list of U.S. politicians who were convicted, expelled or otherwise disgraced, going back to the birth of the republic.

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Humanity triumphs, but justice hedges

Abdul Rahman, the Afghani who faced execution because he converted from Islam to Christianity, has been freed. The court hearing the case dropped the charges, citing lack of evidence.

The relief is tempered by two facts.

The case was referred back to prosecutors, who could refile the charges if they address the court's concern. So this is a reprieve, not a victory.

In addition, the "lack of evidence" claim is a bit odd, considering Rahman confessed to the particulars.

Bottom line, there is nothing to prevent another convert from being charged and executed under the same law.

So this clearly is an effort to avoid the PR debacle of a conviction and execution, while refusing to address the underlying problem: Does the Afghan constitution rule the country, or does a particularly atavistic brand of Islamic law?

That fight will need to be fought sooner or later if Afghanistan is to become a truly free society.

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Friday, March 24, 2006

Doran and the DFL

Kelly Doran dropped out of the race for governor today, leaving three DFLers -- Attorney General Mike Hatch and state Senators Becky Lourey and Steve Kelley -- vying for the chance to take on Gov. Tim Pawlenty in November.

Doran was always a bit of a long shot but he was spending serious money, and I liked his more centrist approach. With him gone the other three can avoid spending big bucks in the primary contest and keep their powder dry for the general election.

Pawlenty hasn't been a horrible governor, but he has spent a lot of time trying to recover from various mistakes, such as his "no new taxes" pledge, his various flirtations with social conservatives and the tobacco "it's a fee, it's a tax" debacle. He also must answer for the budget gimmicks used to balance the state budget, notably taking inflation into account for revenue projections but not for spending and pushing the tax burden down to local governments, effectively financing the budget with increased property taxes.

But the DFL needs to learn from past mistakes, too.

Confession time: I voted for Jesse Ventura. I didn't really mean to; but I got into the voting booth and just couldn't bring myself to pull the lever for either the colorless Skip Humphrey or the self-serving Norm Coleman. Ventura spoke bluntly, and generally expressed common sense. "How much harm could he do?" I asked myself, and thus did my part to force the Chinese to come up with a word for "feather boa."

The problem with the DFL in that election was that they nominated a party stalwart who had "earned" the nomination through his party work -- ignoring minor matters like electability.

Four years later, they did it again. Roger Moe was a nice guy, but he really gave no reason why he should win the governor's post. With Tim Penny splitting the vote, Pawlenty won another three-way race.

The question is, will the DFL make it a trifecta? Will Mike Hatch get the nod simply because he's been the party leader by default for the last four years?

Hatch is another generally good guy, but there's not a whole lot to point to in his stint as Attorney General that makes me say "man, that guy should be governor." Lourey and Kelley have their own problems, which I will get into as the primary race heats up. But at least they quicken my pulse a little bit.

Of course, the biggest fool in the story is state GOP honcho Ron Carey:

GOP state chairman Ron Carey said "the race for governor is now between four liberals and one common-sense reformer, Governor Pawlenty. ...[The] early exit from the race further underscores how difficult it is for centrists to find a warm welcome in a DFL Party dominated by far-left activists."

What a maroon. I'm not really sure why Carey acts like a clone of former RNC chief Ed Gillespie, but it barely worked for Ed, who had dozens of red states to draw support from. Mindless labeling might play well elsewhere, but in an educated swing state it's just mindless.

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Johnson dodges censure

The state Senate ethics subcommittee dropped a complaint against Majority Leader Dean Johnson on the condition he apologize.

Members of the Senate special subcommittee on ethics said they agreed to the deal in part because they feared they would never be able to determine whether Johnson or Supreme Court justices were telling the truth without being able to question the justices. They said they considered the possibility that justices could successfully claim they were immune from testifying before the legislature.

"We wanted to avoid a potential separations of power conflict," said Sen. Thomas Neuville, R-Northfield.

The panel, which has two DFLers and two Republican members, voted unanimously in favor of the deal after a two-hour closed session attended by Johnson, his attorney and two Republican critics.

Neuville's quote echoes the argument I made earlier about both parties having an interest in not going after the judiciary. The Republicans are now free to make hay with this in the upcoming elections, and they should. Johnson and the DFL can plausibly try to put this behind them. In any case it appears sanity has prevailed, with the DFL showing humility and the GOP showing restraint.

It'll be interesting to see if this is brought up during the debate/argument over the gay marriage amendment. If it does, it will be a mistake. That battle should be fought on the merits, not personal attacks on opponents.

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Thanks for the links

In the last couple of days both the Moderate Voice and the Daou Report linked to the Debt and stimulus post, helping the site break the 100 daily visitors mark for the first time.

And I've just noticed that the Star Tribune's blog roundup, Bloghouse, mentions the Easter Bunny post. It's online already, and will appear in tomorrow's paper.

If you've come to the site from any of those sources, welcome, and thanks for checking out Midtopia.


Thursday, March 23, 2006

Comments work again!

The comments problem appears to be fixed. Thanks be to the god of random self-resolving software issues, or the anonymous Blogger tech who found the problem and solved it.

Fire away!


How nobly medieval

The judge in the Abdul Rahman case says he will resist international pressure in the case, in which Rahman faces death for the "crime" of converting from Islam to Christianity.

How nobly medieval of him. But rather than direct international pressure at that chucklehead, I'd direct it at Afghan President Hamid Karzai. And this is why:

Prosecutors have described Mr. Rahman as a "microbe" and said conversion is illegal under Islamic law. Conservative Afghan religious leaders dominate the country's courts and prosecutorial offices, but Afghanistan's American-backed constitution guarantees freedom of religion.

This seems as good a time as any to find out if the Afghan government can and will enforce its own constitution.

Karzai has been dodging the issue for quite some time:

In the past, President Karzai has defused clashes with conservative judges by failing to implement their rulings or striking closed-door compromises with them. Mr. Rahman's case has attracted far more attention than others and sparked vocal complaints from American Christian groups.

I realize Karzai is in a difficult position. And he may lack the power to force the judges to obey the real law instead of Islamic law. But real democracies don't cut deals over rights guaranteed in their constitutions.

As I wrote in my previous post, four years after the Taliban fell Karzai is still not much more than the glorified mayor of Kabul. Shouldn't he be extending his influence, both geographically and within the institutions of government? Shouldn't we have more progress to show for our efforts?

Makes you wonder what we might have achieved in Afghanistan if we hadn't bailed out to go invade Iraq.

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Comments problem

The site is having a problem with comments; people are posting them, but they're not showing up. I'm trying to fix it, but I suspect it's a Blogger problem, not something specific to my blog.


Easter Bunny gets booted in St. Paul

In what will surely be touted as yet another example of the "war" on religion, Easter decorations in the St. Paul City Council offices were taken down after questions were raised about whether it was appropriate to recognize the Christian holiday.

A toy rabbit decorating the entrance of the St. Paul City Council offices went hop-hop-hoppin' on down the bunny trail Wednesday after the city's human rights director said non-Christians might be offended by it.

The decorations — including the stuffed rabbit, Easter eggs and a handcrafted sign saying "Happy Easter," but nothing depicting the biblical account of Christ's death and resurrection — were put up this week in the office of the City Council by a council secretary.

Now before people get totally bent out of shape, let's point out that nobody complained; the city's human-rights director simply raised the question of "is this appropriate?", and they decided it was not. This is an incident of trying to be sensitive to other beliefs, not caving to pressure or litigation.

We should also acknowledge two other things:

1. This is not a constitutional issue. A bunny and a "Happy Easter" sign put up by a municipal worker without city money or approval doesn't really amount to establishment of religion.

2. The sensitivity issue was overblown, inasmuch as there was expressed concern that a non-Christian might be "offended" by the display. I'm sure someone could get offended by it, but I don't think such a person would meet the "reasonable person" standard so common in law.

All that said, taking down the display was the right thing to do. It's not a matter of law; it's a matter of simple human courtesy.

Religion is a part of society. It has no more and no fewer rights than any other form of expression. A municipal worker who is allowed to put up a "Go Vikings!" sign in their cubicle is equally allowed to put up a "Jesus Saves" sign.

But religion is unique when it comes to perceived government sponsorship. City Hall can hang a 50-foot banner out front saying "Go Vikings!"; they would be way out of line to hang a similar banner saying "Jesus saves."

Between those clear examples lies a vast gray area, where what is appropriate is open to debate, subject to context and personal preference.

Government has a right to acknowledge religion's role in society. And there's no real problem with marking religious holidays, as they are part of society, too. The problem comes when government only acknowledges a single religion, or gives clear preference to a single religion, or when they are driven by religious motivations and not a more neutral one.

In the St. Paul case, I highly doubt that non-Christian holidays get the same routine celebratory treatment that Christian holidays do. To some extent that reflects the fact that we are still a majority Christian country; but where government is involved, caution and sensitivity are called for. Not for fear of offending non-Christians, but so as to make clear that we are a government for all faiths, not just one.

Governmental units should commemorate all major holidays of major faiths, or none of them. Or come up with a religion-neutral criteria for choosing. Acknowledge religious contributions to society for their contributions, not their religion.

In our increasingly multireligious society, anything else is simply rude. The St. Paul display was absolutely minor; it was unlikely to offend anyone. But the principles that led to the decision to take it down were absolutely correct.

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Debt and stimulus

Bush supporters credit the President with cutting taxes (and, mumble mumble, boosting spending) in order to stimulate economic growth and dig us out of recession. "Works every time!" they say.

Well, duh. Borrowing $1.9 trillion and injecting it into the economy should certainly provide some stimulus. The real question is: does the extra economic growth justify the debt incurred? How long will it take to pay that debt?

To answer that question I've put together a spreadsheet that (hopefully) is downloadable via this link. It lets you input relevant variables and see the effect on the deficit, the debt Bush has incurred during his term, and the total national debt.

(If the link doesn't work, please e-mail me and I'll fix it.)

I start with FY2005. The numbers come from Treasury Department data.

For instance, Bush has incurred about $1.9 trillion in debt through the end of FY2005. If we assume that inflation averages 2.2%, revenue grows a fairly robust 2% above inflation, and spending grows a relatively restrained 1% above inflation, we see three things:
  1. It will take until 2021 to run a budget surplus;
  2. It will take until 2033 to pay off the Bush debt;
  3. It will take until 2041 to pay off the national debt.
This assumes the government uses *all* of its extra cash to pay down the deficit, rather than to pay for new programs. The history of government is, shall we say, not encouraging in that regard. When a budget surplus appears, we tend to spend it.

It is therefore doubly irresponsible to borrow huge amounts of money in order to stimulate the economy. First, because the debt will take so long to pay off; and second, because we lack the fiscal discipline to avoid spending the eventual largesse.

For those of you praising Bush for cutting taxes without cutting spending: think fondly of him in 2020, when you're still paying off the debt he rang up on your behalf.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A thoughtful perspective

Over at Centerfield, the blog of the Centrist Coalition, a thread on the "undisputed" facts about Iraq has, predictably, drawn a lot of comments disputing the facts.

But among all the thoughtful comments, one stands out, a long response by Maxtrue. I shamelessly reproduce it here, because it's well worth reading even if you disagree with parts of it.

By Maxtrue

I, too, supported removing Saddam even while Clinton was President. After all, Bill was in favor of "regime change".

The real difficulty about Iraq gets back to the re-emergence of "pre-emption". Our NSS, going back to Truman, was effected by 9/11. No longer was America to use prevention and intervention, but pre-emption as well.

Without going into the reasons for our being in the Gulf and our supporting the State of Israel (which is consistent with our historically bi-partisan NSS), our NSS for the last sixty years sets out broad centrist principles which Republicans are botching and many Democrats are now rejecting. Bush certainly did not establish a sound criteria for pre-emption. Neither did the Germans at the outbreak of WW1.

The validity of invading Iraq ultimately rests on the soundness of pre-emption. The centrists must develop a criteria for pre-emption as well as the responsibilities of the pre-emptor to the international community. This must include a reasonable intelligence basis for pre-emption as well as a policy for dealing with the consequence of pre-emption such as radiation containment or the spread of bio-weapons from a targeted terrorist sight. If Bush had to seek centrist consensus of his intelligence judgments, his post-invasion plan and diplomatic strategy BEFORE he invaded Iraq, the American people through their representitives would have favored the Clinton plan and the Powell Doctrine. That approach called for a "deal" with the Security Counsel to abstain from vetoing American force by 2004 in exchange for a final round of inspections and acceptance of constraints and monitoring both Saddm's military production and human rights abuses. It is clear Saddam was certainly more than two years away from wmd delivery. It is most probable that the Bush timetable was based on partisan politics -which might be a "high crimes and misdemeanor" given the consequence of that intentional decision.

I do think it would be suicide for the Dems to even breath the word impeachment before the 2006 elections. Yet, intelligence seems not to be either Party's inclination. The difficulty with Centrist supporting removing Saddam ala Bush was the lack of criteria and the "clear and present danger" intelligence which MUST be present in order to mitigate the effect on international consensus & law as well as the needed international commitment to the consequence of pre-emption.

Americans drift to extremes partly due to the inablility of Centrist-minded people to stand up to these political extremes and to explain that Western Hegemony is not "American domination" and is the greatest force behind the international consensus required to resist terrorism, proliferation, human rights abuses and constraint on both China and Russia.

Rove would be the other reason for domestic polarity. Hillary is under attack by her own Party which Rove has managed to back into a corner with the Far Left. To see Rove spin the Democrats to reject Wilsonian Internationalism, Bill Clinton and decry the clear merit and success of our modern NSS is almost as bad as Bush bungling. Almost...

Discussion of Iraq invariably falls into this political abyss of our NSS and pre-emption is popularly replaced with "Evil Empire" or "oil exploitation". David Duke and Harvard seem to think Iraq was an Israeli conspiracy. Does this prove Western political space is curved like the universe and extremes meet at the ends of a apparently straight line?

How the Right concludes from the transcripts of Saddam's secret cabinet discussions in the 90s that he had any real wmd ability is ludicrous. How the Left concludes Saddam was not a maniacal butcher seeking wmd and that he would not have quickly become a 100x more difficult a job to remove is equally pathetic.

Jefferson built a navy to go after pirates. Madison had General Jackson to save face in 1812 while the Federalists were swept away in a wave of nationalism. Perhaps it is the Center's roleat the moment to remind both Parties that ignorance of history and global realities often lead to repeated mistakes with increasing consequence (especially political). Today, American leadership is seriously challenged by a failure of Centrist American Leaders from gaining the power to apply non-ideological solutions to present conflicts. In this, the Dems and Repugs SHARE blame for the polarized statemate of unsound thinking and performance that marginalizes the Center. Dems respond that the Center is merely the average between extremes. Talk about marginizing! Our times require informed debate, decisive action and consistent principles. Niether Repugs or Dems have shown that much over the last six years. Another six might be too late for America to recover.

To have Bush lead the charge forward is however, a bit like Custer directing the battle. Now there was a general who had trouble understanding the difference between single shot and repeating rifles -which the government wouldn't buy because the Army didn't manufacture it directly. Unfortunately the Indians bought them on the free market and the result wasn't too good for Custer.

Perhaps, Centrists in both Parties should defect to a Centrist Party before the Dems would have us squander American leadership, security and commerce, or the Repugs leave us bankrupt, militarily broken, Constitutionally weakened and no longer invited as the defender of freedom and the system of prosperity. A wonderful outcome for the greatest generation to witness before departing.

Then America would at least have a Party that represents the majority view......

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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Dean Johnson: Lie vs. lie

The Dean Johnson blowup continues -- fanned by Republicans and gay marriage opponents, downplayed by Democrats.

Chief Justice Russell Anderson adds the latest fuel:

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Russell Anderson on Monday said flatly that no member of the court -- including former Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz -- ever spoke to Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson about the state's marriage laws.

"This just never happened," Anderson said.

If true -- and we should keep in mind that the judiciary has a selfish interest in preserving its own reputation -- then Johnson just flat-out lied when talking to pastors about gay marriage. Further, his evolving retractions of that January statement appear to contain ever-finer shades of truth.

None of this is making Johnson look good, and it shouldn't. He should be taking to heart the high price one pays for playing games with the truth.

But does this really change anything? No. No one is accusing Johnson of habitual lying, or fraud, or using his office to commit crimes or enrich himself.

He should be embarassed. He should be contrite. It should be brought up during his re-election campaign so that voters have a chance to make their views on the subject known.

But should he resign, as anti-gay-marriage groups are calling for? No. That's for voters to decide, and it speaks poorly of the marriage-amendment lobby that they would push for such an extreme sanction. Tom DeLay still has his seat -- and he's been charged with actual crimes. Only intemperate voices called for him to quit Congress.

Should Johnson resign his leadership post, as some Republicans have suggested? That is a slightly more reasonable course, but again, no. A single lie that does not involve a substantive wrong does not deserve that punishment. And Republicans should be wary about pushing for that too vigorously, lest they invite close scrutiny of every statement they've ever made to see how closely they track with reality.

I expect my politicans to tell the truth, but I also recognize that they are human. And while they need to be held to a higher standard, the punishment should fit the crime. In my book, the ongoing flogging that Johnson is getting constitutes appropriate and sufficient punishment, with voters getting the chance to render final judgement on election day.

Finally, the most interesting thing to me are the political calculations being made -- calculations that could end up forcing Johnson to fall on his sword even if it turns out that he didn't lie in January.

When it gets down to it, either Johnson or at least one justice is lying. Unfortunately for Johnson, everyone -- including Johnson -- has a strong interest in protecting the reputation of the state Supreme Court. People expect partisanship from politicians, but expect their judges to be neutral arbitrators. Faith in that concept is one of the key supports of the balance-of-powers system.

Republicans, whatever they may actually think about "activist" judges, find it convenient to treat the justices as unimpeachably honest in this case, because their real target is Johnson. Johnson and the Democrats, for their part, cannot defend themselves without either slandering the judiciary or revealing and destroying any actual sympathies that might exist between some justices and the DFL. Either course would ultimately hurt the DFL more than it would help them.

As long as they don't overplay their hand, the Republicans have a win-win situation here. But the rest of us should be aware that this is largely a minor political game. Weigh Johnson's lie against his 36 years of service and make up your own mind, without undue input from either Republican attackers or DFL defenders.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Death penalty for converting to Christianity

An Afghani man faces the death penalty. His crime: converting to Christianity from Islam.

Abdul Rahman, who is in his 40s, says he converted to Christianity 16 years ago while working as an aid worker helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Relatives denounced him as a convert during a custody battle over his children, and he was arrested last month. The prosecutor says Rahman was found with a Bible.

Sometimes you run across something so jaw-droppingly, paralyzingly stupid that commentary seems superfluous.

The State Department, to its credit, is watching this case closely, considering it a test for the Afghani government. One wonders what they will do if Afghan president Hamid Karzai fails the test. Or what happens in the vast majority of Afghanistan that is essentially outside central government control.

More than four years after we (rightly) toppled the Taliban, Karzai is still little more than mayor of Kabul, the Taliban are rebuilding and we apparently haven't even gotten around to reforming the judicial system. What the heck have we been doing there?

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Kersten returns

Another day, another intellectually lazy gay marriage column from Katherine Kersten.

This time her trope is that okaying gay marriage will turn all sorts of "ordinary Minnesotans" into official bigots.

Amendment supporters are ordinary Minnesotans: soccer moms, Twins fans, the folks next door. But some advocates of same-sex marriage apparently view them as a sinister and unsavory bunch, even comparing them to racial bigots.

Just in passing, let's point out that amendment opponents are "ordinary Minnesotans", too. Kersten's arguments often get framed as "us" vs. "them." It gets tiresome.

Also, fear of being called a "bigot" strikes me as one of the weakest possible reasons for abridging someone's rights. Next shall we imprison people because they looked at us funny?

The money quote, though, is when Kersten argues that "if same-sex marriage becomes a civil right, the belief that one-man, one-woman marriage is best for kids becomes discriminatory, and those who hold it become bigots."

This sentence fails so many rules of logic and argument that I don't know where to begin.

First, Kersten accidentally or deliberately mixes two separate ideas: what one believes, versus what limits one can place on others based on one's beliefs. Civil rights laws are based on actions, not thoughts. You can think anything you like, but you cannot abridge someone else's civil rights regardless of what you believe. The idea -- an idea fundamental to our form of government -- is that some rights trump majority opinion. That is why we are a republic and not a pure democracy. Legal compulsions and prohibitions should be something reserved for extreme cases, where the societal interest is so compelling, and the potential harm so apparent, that it demands action. The effort to prohibit gay marriage fails both tests.

Second, allowing gay marriage would not make bigots out of people simply for thinking man-woman pairings are better for kids. That's an indefensible strawman argument, and Kersten should be ashamed of herself for employing it. Plenty of people support legalized divorce, for example, while thinking that divorce is generally bad for kids and should be discouraged. Lots of people who don't drink hard liquor, or don't drink at all, nonetheless support legal access to alcohol. In both cases, people seem to recognize that their personal view on divorce or alcohol is not something that should be forced upon others who may feel differently.

The comparisons are not perfect -- divorce and drinking are choices, while sexual orientation is not . But someone who thinks divorce is harmful is not an anti-divorce bigot; someone who discriminates against divorcees is. Someone who thinks alcohol is harmful is not an anti-alcohol bigot; someone who discriminates against people who imbibe is.

In the end, society decides who will be perceived as "bigots" -- not the law, not the activists Kersten likes to quote in an attempt to paint all gay-marriage supporters with the actions of their most extreme elements. It's the "ordinary Minnesotans" who Kersten claims to speak for. So her point is either false or reflects a lack of confidence that the majority is really on her side -- which might help explain her resorting to fearmongering instead of debating gay marriage on the merits.

It's true that over time the law can shape perceptions; gender equity laws have helped dismantle the idea that a woman's place is in the home, for example. But that's hardly coercive. It's only threatening to people who have no faith in the foundation of their beliefs.

And if that's the fear, the battle has already been lost. Young people are far more accepting of gay marriage than their parents and grandparents. If that trend continues, gay marriage will have majority support within a generation.

So Kersten's fear of being branded a bigot may be well-founded, but not for the reason she claims. It has nothing to do with whether gay marriage is legalized. It has nothing to do with the words or actions of a handful of GLBT activists. It has to do with changing societal opinion on the subject, of which the gay marriage debate is but a reflection. If I were her I'd abandon the appeal to the majority, because that appeal will stop working in a few short years. If she wants to ban gay marriage, she should start articulating why gay marriage is harmful and thus prohibiting it is justified.

And if she wants to avoid being labeled a bigot, a good place to start would be by stopping the baseless fearmongering.

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Rumsfeld revisited

Retired Gen. Paul Eaton, who supports our venture in Iraq and was in charge of training Iraqi forces in 2003 and 2004, agrees with me that Rumsfeld must go.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is not competent to lead America's armed forces. First, his failure to build coalitions with U.S. allies from what he dismissively called "old Europe" has imposed far greater demands and risks on American soldiers in Iraq than necessary. Second, he alienated his allies in the U.S. military, ignoring the advice of seasoned officers and denying subordinates any chance for input.

In sum, he has shown himself incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically and is far more than anyone else responsible for what has happened to America's mission in Iraq. ... Rumsfeld has put the Pentagon at the mercy of his ego, his Cold Warrior's view of the world and his unrealistic confidence in technology to replace manpower. As a result the U.S. Army finds itself severely undermanned -- cut to 10 active divisions but asked by the administration to support a foreign policy that requires at least 12 or 14.

Rumsfeld made a rookie mistake: thinking that what helps in one type of military situation is effective in *all* military situations. His idea that technology will mean we need fewer soldiers is a classic example.

In force-on-force combat, technology offers *huge* multipliers. My Abrams tank could hit targets more than 2,000 meters away. We had great commo to coordinate our movements, and satellite technology allowed us to pinpoint and anticipate enemy movements and locations within a few meters.

A tank battle was like a live-action video game, moving the targeting reticle from target to target, firing, reloading, doing it again.

But the closer you get to your enemy, and the more you have to discriminate between friend and foe, the less technology helps. I can nuke a whole city from the continental U.S.; if I want to capture the city, I have to send in troops. If I want to minimize civilian casualties, I have to be very careful in my target selection, and send in far more troops per target. And the closer you get, and the more wind or rain or dust there is, the less difference there is between the U.S. soldier and his ragtag opponent.

That's one reason the Army *hates* urban combat. The close quarters neutralize many of our advantages; it gets down to the infantry digging people out of holes, one hole at a time. It's bloody, nasty, exhausting work that has destroyed more than one elite military force.

The U.S. military is unparalleled in its ability to destroy an enemy armored brigade. But it's effectiveness in pacification comes down to training, unit cohesion, discipline, leadership and numbers -- not technology. You don't build local support by dropping bombs from space; you do it by walking the streets every day, meeting people, shaking hands, establishing relationships. A U.S. soldier's technology is no help in that regard. They are no more effective at that -- and, due to language and cultural barriers, perhaps even *less* effective -- than Pakistanis or Bangladeshis.

Rumsfeld ignored this, and the Bush administration let him. Living in an alternate reality may be comforting, but it makes for real bloody messes when such fantasies are used as the basis for real-world policies.

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