Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Habeas Corpus: Today and Yesterday

Here's a taste of the fireworks in the Supreme Court today in the Hamdan case, as told by NY Times:

Mr. Clement's position was that Congress had not in fact suspended habeas corpus, but that it might constitutionally have done so given "the exigencies of 9/11." Addressing Justice Stevens, the solicitor general said, "My view would be that if Congress sort of stumbles upon a suspension of the writ, that the preconditions are satisfied, that would still be constitutionally valid."

Justice Souter interrupted. "Isn't there a pretty good argument that suspension of the writ of habeas corpus is just about the most stupendously significant act that the Congress of the United States can take," he asked, "and therefore we ought to be at least a little slow to accept your argument that it can be done from pure inadvertence?"

When Mr. Clement began to answer, Justice Souter persisted: "You are leaving us with the position of the United States that the Congress may validly suspend it inadvertently. Is that really your position?"

The solicitor general replied, "I think at least if you're talking about the extension of the writ to enemy combatants held outside the territory of the United States —— "

"Now wait a minute!" Justice Souter interrupted, waving a finger. "The writ is the writ. There are not two writs of habeas corpus, for some cases and for other cases. The rights that may be asserted, the rights that may be vindicated, will vary with the circumstances, but jurisdiction over habeas corpus is jurisdiction over habeas corpus."

Hat tip The Moderate Voice

A group of British MPs filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court recently, offering their perspective on the legal status of the Guantanamo prisoners. For a bit of historical perspective, I highly recommend this transcript of NPR's This American Life (the middle segment). The piece nicely paints a picture of the moment when habeas corpus was last suspended in England.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Garbage Problem

A new book by Vermont author Heather Rogers looks at the post 1950s US garbage production and disposal problem. After detailing the industrial and policy choices that brought us to this mess, she concludes that no amount of virtuous consumer behavior will be enough to really fix the problem.

This observation dovetails nicely with my last post--we need to have broad-based systematic solutions to problems with so many contributing causes, rather than focusing on single endpoints like convincing towns to recycle more aluminum. In this case, I think it means strong state and federal regulations and incentives to use and manufacture reusable, not recyclable, packaging.


Monday, March 27, 2006

Fair Trade or Free Trade?

Michael Stickings, a self-described Fair Trade coffee supporter, asks whether the forseeable long-term effects of price supports for coffee farmers might become a worse cure than the problems they solve.

The problem is that these high prices will encourage new entrants into coffee production, which will lead to a glut in supply that pushes global coffee prices down. Those who are already locked into Fairtrade supply contracts will do fine, but those who do not receive the benefit of Fairtrade prices will be made even worse off.

Converting every coffee buyer in the world to the Fairtrade philosophy doesn't necessarily solve the problem either, for you still have the inducement to entry provided by high coffee prices, leading to the same glut of coffee, and to strong incentives for those selling at the lower end of the market to defect out of the Fairtrade movement and reap the benefits of lower coffee prices.

I think his observations speak to the overly reductionistic approach of fair trade proponents.

The stated goal of fair trade is to raise wages for farmers, under the assumption that profiteering businessmen are cashing in on these farmers' work. But those wages are not set in a vaccuum, and the power of multinational corporations is not the only force keeping those wages low. To think that we can affect broad-based economic justice in just one industry of a complex multinational trading system, overriding the forces of labor availability, commodity supply and demand, and political requirements is a recipe for wasted time and effort. The difficulties making fair trade universal throughout the coffee industry only highlight this point; if fair trade can't be made accessible to every farmer, is it an equitable strategy at all?

While fair trade may indeed have the potential to improve raise the income of a reasonable number of farmers, to really lift a significant fraction of people in developing countries up from poverty in a self-sustaining way will require changes at the level of national trade and economic policy. Anything more reductionistic than that is, unfortunately, mostly window dressing.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Marriage: Contract or Firm?

New Englanders are more likely to think of marriage as a contract than folks in other regions of the country, I have written, which may explain regional differences of opinion on gay marriage. Booker Rising cites William Weston on a related way of looking at marriage:

Jennifer Roback Morse, in the same essay in The Meaning of Marriage that I wrote about yesterday, goes through the argument that marriage is a contract. She makes the point that contracts are most suitable for short-term and arms-length relations. The sexual revolution, she says, has had some disastrous consequences for marriages because it changed the theory of sexual contracts. Under a marriage theory, sex is reserved for the most permanent, most intimate relations. Under the sexual revolution theory, by contrast, sex became a want best satisfied on the spot market. The most intriguing point she makes, I think, is that for the most intimate and long term economic relations, the market finds that even long-term contracts are not enough. For permanent economic relations, the market invented the 'firm.' Marriage is not a short-term contract for sex. It is not even a long-term contract for childrearing and companionship. A marriage is a firm, the most permanent, multi-faceted firm possible. In an ordinary firm or partnership, if they can no longer provide their distinctive good or service profitably, they dissolve. In a marriage, though, if the original product no longer works, they keep the firm and change what the firm produces. Marriage is the firmest firm."

If marriage is better described as a long-term firm than a short-term contract, that does not establish the more traditional idea of marriage as an 'institution,' but does meet that view halfway by granting that each individual marriage partakes in a common set of rules and expectations, just as business firms do.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Wisdom and Leaders


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream--and not make dreams your master,
If you can think--and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings--nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And--which is more--you'll be a Man, my son!

--Rudyard Kipling

Even when distinctions between personal virtue and political virtue seem blurry, wisdom's realm is all human relations. It is very easy for commentators to fill paragraphs describing the lack of wisdom in past and present leaders, but little space is devoted to showing what wisdom itself looks like. I don't mean an opinion about this or that policy--there's plenty of that--but the actual personal process of approaching a complex problem with a clear head and a conscience at peace. Maybe that's because it is easier to describe in poetry.

There are a few exceptions, but I wonder if we would see more wisdom in our leaders, if more examples of it were more prominent in our education and day-to-day lives.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Confucian Renaissance

The US cannot effectively think of China as a new Cold War adversary, writes Asia Cable. The difference is that China is not trying to export an ideology or exert military control. It is participating in a renaissance of Confucian society.

Call it the Emerging Confucian World Order, or to be more exact, the re-emergence of the Confucian World Order, since in fact Asia is simply reverting to the order of nations with China at the center that existed before the era of European colonialism.

As it did during the Ming Dynasty years, the height of the tributary system, China confers the boon of trade with the nations on its periphery and receives tribute in return. No boon was more welcome in Southeast Asia than Beijing’s decision to during the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis to maintain its currency’s peg to the dollar, resisting the temptation to snatch trade advantages from neighboring state by devaluing. Recently, it signed a free-trade agreement with the ten countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and tolerates a $20 billion trade deficit with them. Meanwhile, it gracefully accepts “tribute” from South Korea in the form of its conferring “Market Economy Status” on China, the first country with more than $100 billion in trade with China to do so.

The growing animosity between China and Japan can easily be read in Confucian terms. Ostensibly, the discord is rooted in interpretations of Asia’s modern history. In China’s view, Japan has not shown sufficient remorse for its aggression during World War II. This, it is said, is reflected in how the war is portrayed in its history books and in the regular visits that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi makes to the Yasukuni Shrine. Japan’s apologies for its wartime actions constitute a modern version of the kowtow. The Prime Minister’s regular visits to the Yasukuni Shrine are for Japan the anti-kowtow.

But then Japan never was a model vassal. The current war of words echoes sentiments going back to the 14th century when the Chinese Emperor Hung-wu addressed the Japanese sovereign as, “you stupid eastern barbarian.” To which the Japanese Ashikaga shogun replied in kind: “Heaven and earth are vast; they are not monopolized by one ruler.” China and Japan that have been rivals for hundreds of years. It should not be surprising that they are still jockeying for primacy. In Confucian terms somebody has to be “big brother” and the other has to be “little brother.”

On the other hand, Korea was a model tributary state for 500 years, stretching from the late Ming to the end of the Qing Dynasty. The Koreans paid their annual tribute even more regularly than the other tributary states, such as Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand. No other country in Asia, not even Japan, was so completely absorbed into the Confucian system. Today South Korea is moving perceptibly into China’s orbit. The only question is whether this trend is reversible. The six-party talks aimed at disarming North Korea of nuclear weapons seem to be accelerating this trend, and by clinging to them, the Bush administration may be pushing this development along. Seoul’s position in the talks is much closer to Beijing’s than it is to Washington’s.

But it is not just in international relations where old patterns of Asian social behavior are returning after two centuries of disruption by colonialism, war, and communism.

The Chinese government is explicitly promoting Confucianism, once despised as feudal ideology.

It is little surprise that Chinese leaders are seeking to rehabilitate their country’s most famous and influential thinker. In the moral void opened by the decline of Marxism and the abundance of material temptations, Confucianism can help provide the nation with a much-needed ethical anchor. And success in these endeavors would allow China’s leaders to strengthen their hold on another Confucian bequest – the “mandate of heaven,” or the right to rule.

What is the relevance of Confucianism in modern times? Which tenets have served East Asia well – and could help other nations and cultures? What are the pitfalls to be avoided? Of all the world’s great canons, Confucianism is the most practical. What concerned him most were people’s relationships with one another and with the state. He also focused on social justice and good government. Ren or benevolence was the pillar of the Master’s thought.

Another was learning. Whether or not East Asian countries include The Analects in their social curriculums, they all understand that education is the root of national strength and prosperity. The ingrained respect for knowledge – and for the teacher who imparts it – is the key factor in the outstanding academic performance of East Asians on a global basis...

In return for the loyalty of subjects, Confucius demanded that a ruler display benevolence and unstintingly serve their interests. If he didn’t, citizens had the right to remonstrate. Mencius, the second most influential Confucian philosopher later developed the concept of a “divine right of rebellion.” If an emperor became a tyrant, he would lose the mandate of heaven and people would overthrow him. Today they might simply throw the leader out of office in an election. Confucius and democracy are hardly incompatible.

Throughout history, the rigid and unthinking application of Confucian principles repeatedly produced complacent closed societies that were unable to make progress. They paid a terrible price: foreign subjugation and internal upheaval. Modern Confucians must guard against repeating such mistakes. If they succeed in adapting their time-tested heritage to contemporary challenges, Master Kong’s teaching may blossom beyond East Asia to enrich all mankind in the next century.

Before we think about events in Asia through the lens of easy analogies to our own history, it is important to step back and remember that Confucians often have radically different ideas from Westerners about how to organize society, how to communicate, and how relationships are managed. It is possible to make really big mistakes quickly.

Abortion: No Bright Line

I quote here comments I left at The Debate Link in resonse to an interesting set of thought experiments: things along the lines of 'whom would you save from a burning building--zygotes or a 4 year old? an adult or a 4 year old? a premie or a 4 year old? etc.

The structure of all the hypotheticals you give is an exaggerated choice of passively allowing one life or group of lives to end in order to save others. The first one is designed, it seems, to make visible the 'bright line' between human life and non- or proto- life. The problems that reducing the exercise to absurdity creates, I believe, demonstrate that the assumption is false: there is in fact no bright line.

Life is not a state, but a process. Human life has many shapes and forms, and is not circumscribed. Taking one aspect of humanity (consciousness, ethical reasoning, ability to feel pain, a heartbeat, etc) and artificially elevating it to The Measure of Humanity creates ethical confusion, because it is an arbitrary choice of many human attributes.

Human life is a nebulous idea. A life-form gradually approximates our idea of human life over a gestation and a lifetime.

So what does this have to do with abortion? I think we need to get comfortable with ambiguity first, than deal with it the same way we deal with any imperfectly knowable body of information. We still raise interest rates and take aspirin, even though we imperfectly understand the workings of the economy and the human body.

Then given what we know about the scientifically measurable features of fetuses, the ethical implications in terms of individual rights and predictable harms, and our inherited body of laws and political institutions, we balance our values for life and dignity to decide how we will exercise our citizenship.

There unfortunately will never be an 'answer' as to whether abortion is right and wrong, or when exceptions apply, with the certainty of a mathematical law. There cannot be, in an issue charged with values, matters of degree, and uncertainty, just as there will never be a final word on something as complex as whether US foreign policy should be isolationist or activist.

There is no absolute answer, only the evolving political/cultural landscape, and we have to decide how we shape it and react to it.

That does not mean that once we make our best guess, we should not be rigorous in convincing others of our way of thinking and exercising our political rights to bring that plan to pass. We should. But we must always have the humility to remember that it is just that--our best guess. That's the essence of centrism.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Kurdish Genocide Museum

I remain convinced that the US invasion of Iraq was a strategic blunder and morally indefensible.

But here is a powerful reminder of how evil Hussein's Baathist regime really was, lest we forget.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Town Meeting Report

Once a year since colonial times, residents of New England towns meet in a public exercise of direct democracy that provides a local stage for how messy and wonderful democracy is. These are not like the political debate events staged by the League of Women Voters, but real town meetings--unscripted loosely organized proceedings where any resident can attend and vote on town business.

This year in my town's meeting, the hot button issue as usual was the budget; the state's property value adjustment formula required continuing increases in taxes, which were not popular. Someone requested a written ballot to approve the budget rather than the usual voice vote, to everyone's chagrin. Often that meant people wanted to vote against the budget but didn't want people to know they were doing so. Anyway, the budget passed, which was the only really reasonable choice, and we moved on to 'other nonbinding business'.

An elderly gentleman was very concerned about town employees 'escorting' women from out of town, and it had something to do with a proposed dog park. I didn't quite follow.

There was another elderly man, the only African American in the hall, dressed in a suit, quietly and attentively clutching copies of the town budget and other references, and clearly taking his citizenship very seriously.

Parents of young children, including myself, staked out the back of the hall. About half a dozen toddlers played busily on the floor, occasionally ushered out by embarrassed parents when their patience ran low, which became more often as voice votes were taken on miscellaneous matters of business toward the end.

Toward the end of town meeting, the selectmen announced they were forming a committee to consider changing the town's form of government. They were concerned that of 9000 residents, only about 200 routinely came to town meeting. A well-spoken patrician-like man in a sweater and turtleneck chided the selectmen for not providing adequate education on alternative forms of government before embarking on such a project, and a less well-spoken man in plaid flannel declared that he likes town meeting just the way it is. They each got equal hearty applause.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Realpolitik Case for Darfur Intervention

The Debate Link argues that American action to stop the Darfur genocide has a long-range strategic advantage; preventing the Chinese from using their security council veto and military/economic aid as leverage to gain influence in Africa.

As long as we're assuming for the moment the stark realist view of international politics and ignoring the harm of losing American clout for humanitarian influence in the region, we must point out that our own interest there, Nigerian oil, is critical to our economy. We cannot afford to allow this vital national interest to fall under control of an unfriendly regime. Consider Darfur a domino.

Liberalism in the Age of Cartoons

How do we square a decent respect for opinions of others with the deep conviction that they are wrong? Positive Liberty writes:

Just as moral relativism does not imply an automatic cross-cultural toleration, liberalism does not imply moral relativism. Liberalism is not a set of moral conclusions at all; it is a meta-discourse: It’s a way of thinking and talking about thinking and talking themselves. Most other discourses think or talk about other things. But liberalism asks, and tries to answer, a very interesting philosophical question: Given the existence of profound disagreements on very important matters, how are people who disagree with one another to pursue a life together? All other things being equal, what rules will lead us more surely to the truth, and — in liberalism’s one leap of faith — are these not the very same rules that make for a decent and honorable argument (and a peaceful life) even in the absence of truth?

Liberalism proposes rules to keep the conversation going, and here are some of them, simply stated: It’s usually wrong, and almost always ineffective, to try changing someone’s mind with violence. If it neither picks your pocket, nor breaks your leg, do consider leaving it alone. God is strong enough to take care of His own; He does not require your help. Most political disputes can be settled without killing, and even if they can’t, the chances are that you don’t want everyone else taking up the sword as well. Contrary to what you have been told, mere words do not hurt you.

These are rules not about how to conduct our lives, but about how to try to convince others of how to conduct their lives. They are the meta-rules of the discourse of liberalism, the only discourse so far discovered that even has a reasonable set of such meta-rules. By contrast, the meta-rules of fundamentalism allow for no discussion whatsoever: We are right; you are wrong; all else may be discarded.

Our Constitution was only possible because the various factions all subscribed to this type of liberalism, despite their many differences. Pluralism demands that a differing group/viewpoint at least agree to the above principles. Some point out that folks in liberal cultures are resistant to criticizing those in illiberal ones. That need not be so--the sublimation of disagreement from violence into verbal critique is the heart of what it means to hold a liberal view. A liberal man may call an illiberal one misguided, counterproductive, dogmatic or morally bankrupt; he just can't call him wrong enough to be killed.