Monday, February 26, 2007


John Murtha's Proposal

I really like and admire John Murtha's proposal. He proposes requiring the Defense Department to provide proper equipment, including body armor; proper training, including combatting insurgency; and proper rotation schedules to provide rest and recuperation for veterans of the war. His proposal does not call for an end to the war. However, forcing the Republican Party and the public to think and talk about his proposal and, for pro-war Republicans to try to refute it, brings home to all of us the big "elephant in the room."

Regarding the question of "winning" in Iraq, examining the implications of Murtha's proposal shows us that we do not at present have the resources to "win." We don't have nearly enough troops that we can field and provide with proper facilities, training, and rest. Regarding President Bush's proposed "surge" of only 21,000 additional troops, no one believes that it will be enough. The best thing that can be said for it is, "give it a chance. It just might work."

Naturally, supporters of the administration's decision to escalate the scale of the war are aghast that Murtha's proposal might actually be passed. Bush would have to veto it. He would then become the target of accusations of "not supporting the troops." The truth is, the "surge" can be accomplished only by lengthening tours of duty in Iraq and shortening the rest and retraining time of the troops sent home. The surge will wear out our Army and degrade its effectiveness.

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Monday, February 19, 2007


Should we "Win" in Iraq?

The news this morning from Iraq is that although things are still going badly in Baghdad things are looking up in Anbar Province. It is reported that tribal leaders there have switched sides and are now cooperating with American troops and are fighting against the Al Qaeda fighters. Last night on the CBS Program 60 MINUTES one segment dealt with Kurdistan. Kurdistan, a separate region of Iraq, is peaceful and prosperous. Kurds love Americans. Soon, perhaps, trans-oceanic air flights will ply between an airport in the local capital and New York.

I believe the 60 Minutes story. I like to believe the story about Anbar Province, but I know it could also be a planted story by the Bush Administration. But, assuming that all this good news is real, I began to think about the implications. What if Bush's war turns out well for us after all? Will I be happy?

One of my conservative friends, H, accuses me of having such a strong hatred of George W. Bush that I want his adventure in Iraq to fail. At first I simply dismissed such an accusation as an example of H's intemperance and extreme partisanship. Now, I have to admit that he is at least partly right. I do want the adventure in Iraq to fail because success in Iraq would teach the American people the wrong lesson. It would teach them (us, actually) that our military might makes us able to impose our will wherever we choose to impose it. It reinforces the American myth of our moral purity. We are "always right" and we are strong enough to enforce our benevolence on any part of the world that we choose. Victory in Iraq means that it is all right for us to invade Iran and impose our will there. Victory in Iraq feeds our hubris, our sense of virtue and correctness. We will have an empire but it will be a benevolent empire, not like the British, French, and Spanish empires of recent history or the Roman, Greek, and Persian empires of antiquity. We are different from all previous people; we are virtuous, generous, benevolent, brave, powerful, and good.

If, by some miracle, we "win" in Iraq and install a government there that is friendly to us and that at least seems to be democratic, it will indicate to me, at least, that the gods are preparing for our ultimate destruction. To destroy a people, according to the ancient Greeks, the gods first make them insane. Reinforcing our belief in our own invincibility as well as our virtue will make us completely lose track of reality. We will become insane and easy pickings for the gods who would destroy us.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007


Framing the Vote in Congress

George Lakoff and Fred Luntz have explained how framing an issue, that is, giving it a special name, gives the framer an advantage in debating and voting on the issue. A classic example is to rename the "estate tax" the "death tax," as though in some way one is to be taxed simply for dying. Never mind that the tax is not paid by the person who dies, but by the heirs. If the estate is divided among many heirs so that no heir inherits more than the specified amount that is not taxed, there is no estate tax. At one time the maximum amount of an inheritance free of the estate tax was $600,000. If I have an estate of $1,500,000 and my will stipulates that my two children have equal shares, each will receive $750,000 and will pay tax on $750,000 minus $600,000, or $150,000. If I have three children and they share equally, each inherits $500,000 and pays no tax.

A more recent example of framing an issue exists in the U.S. Senate regarding the debate - or the question of having a debate - about disapproving of President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq. The minority Republicans, still showing their loyalty to a President of their party, insist on presenting their own resolution before voting on the Democrats' resolution of disapproval. The Republican resolution would require a vote on cutting off or reducing funding for the Iraq war and would be framed as a vote to "support" or "cut off support" for the troops. Aware of the psychological power of framing the issue as "support the troops" instead of "criticize the President," the Democrats have refused to accept the Republicans' alternative motion.

By framing the issue in this way, the Republicans have managed to delay any vote in the Senate on a motion to criticize the way the President has handled or mis-handled the war. They have also again exposed the cowardice and ineptness of the Democratic leadership at being placed in such a position. The federal constitution creates the President, the courts, and the Congress as three separate institutions. Unlike national leaders in many democratic countries, our President does not need the approval of Congress in conducting foreign policy or military operations. Because of the stability and rigidity of our institutions, the President also does not need the approval of the American People. If a President of any Latin American country tried to carry on a war that an overwhelming majority of the public opposed, he would soon be drummed or chased out of office.

I was taught in high school that the power of Congress is the power to appropriate or deny money to pay for a President's military forays. It is perfectly proper for Congress to debate whether to fund a military operation and to deny funding for an operation which it disapproves. Approving or denying funding is the only means available to Congress, except for impeachment, to rein in a President who is both overconfident and incompetent. The Republicans have, for the time being, managed to stifle debate and voting on a simple resolution of disapproval by framing the issue as "supporting the troops" rather than "reining in a President's overconfident plan." It's a clever ploy. It may take a long time for the public to see through it.

Monday, February 05, 2007


Copyrights vs. Public Rights

The inspiration for today's opinion is an article in the New Yorker magazine about Google. Google has undertaken to scan and present on line copies of all books in several large libraries. Some of the material to be presented is protected by copyright law. Some publishers and other owners of copyrights see Google as a "deep pocket" and are threatening to sue Google to stop the practice or to pay for the privilege of copying and displaying material protected by copyright.

Copyrights are or were intended to reward writers and artists for creating and publishing or otherwise distributing their work to the public. Copyright law was an improvement over the previous situation in which authors had to be very careful about how and when they published. During the 1600's great progress was made in celestial mechanics, the mathematics needed to analyze the motions of planets, and in other branches of physics as well. A mathematician would publish his finding or creation in the form of a cryptic message. It would take others some time to decipher the message. In the meantime the discoverer could do other things to establish his claim to priority.

In the 1700's composers had to be careful about when their musical works were published. A composer had to choose a publisher with care, because he had to trust him not to publish his work and ascribe it to a different composer or, worse, publish and keep all proceeds for himself.

I don't know where copyrights and patents were issued for the first time. Our federal constitution grants the government the power to grant patents to inventors, so the concept must have been known before the constitutional convention in 1787.

In the year 2007, 220 years later, we have the problem of the professional or amateur scholar who wishes to do a little research on a little-known subject. For example, I am interested in finding out what's known about extinct languages, such as Etruscan and Sumerian. Books about those subjects are not widely distributed. Many are out of print. I don't have the means to visit several large libraries in remote places, such as the British Museum, the Library of Congress, the large library in Moscow, etc. Besides, I don't want to take the time for such travels. I prefer to use the service provided by Google and read parts of books dealing with those strange languages.

My case does not represent any hardship. But consider a serious scholar who is looking for recent information about the cost of labor world wide. Many of the sources he needs are written by other scholars and are protected by copyrights. He prefers to work at home. However, the model for such studies in the past was that he would spend his time a library. He would read the books in the library. Other books would be available to him on inter library loan. It might take him weeks to accomplish what he can do in one day at home in front of a computer screen. There is a conflict, at least in my thinking, between the right of the author to receive just compensation for his writing and the right of the scholar or other investigator to have convenient access to the original author's work.

An analogous situation exists in patent law. Patent law protects the profit of the pharmaceutical company that invests millions of dollars in developing and testing a new drug. Patent law grants the company a monopoly on the manufacture and sale of the new drug for a number of years. Patients who would be helped by the drug but who can not afford the new drug are denied access to it. We believe that even a sick patient has a right to life. If the drug in question would save the patient's life, there is certainly a conflict between the right of the pharmaceutical company to recoup its investment in the drug and the right of the patient to continue living.

These are conflicts that our society and our courts will have to resolve.

Note Added in Proof

My conservative friends may accuse me of moral relativism. In this post I suggest that the rights of holders of copyrights and patents are not absolute, but must be balanced against the rights of users of the materials protected by copyrights and patents. Certain conservatives argue that the rights of authors, artists, and inventors are absolute, based as they are on the principle of fairness to the author, etc. They argue that we can't have innovation in medicine, technology, literature, art, or music unless the originator is guaranteed a tangible and spendable reward for his or her work. Anyway, that's a subject for another essay.

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