Friday, June 17, 2011

Some events and thoughts worth pondering

Several items worthy of note have attracted my attention, though I find no common theme linking them:

1.    Medicare saves the taxpayer money. Economist Paul Krugman calculates that Medicare expenditures rose 400% between 1969 and 2009. In that same 40 year period, Krugman calculates that private healthcare insurance costs rose a whopping 750%. (Paul Krugman, “Medicare Saves Money,” New York Times, June 12, 2011) The 350% gap in cost increases represents a huge potential savings. Apparently, government run health insurance programs do some have some significant financial advantages.

2.    Debate is now raging within the Obama administration over proposed timetables for withdrawing from Afghanistan. How quickly can the U.S. withdraw its troops without destabilizing Pakistan or ceding gains to the Taliban? For one discussion of this issue, see David Ignatius, “Testing the Afghan exit ramps,” The Washington Post, June 8, 2011. From my perspective, the sooner and more rapid the withdrawal, the better it will be. Afghanistan has a corrupt government; a variety of local powers exercise the real authority in most of Afghanistan; the U.S. extending its stay another day, week, year, or decade will achieve little.

3.    Columnist Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times characterized the U.S. military as liberal (“Our Lefty Military,” June 15, 2011). Kristof rightly notes that the military has been at the forefront of social change: racial integration, gender equality, support for families (e.g., low cost childcare), etc. Forecasts of gloom and doom over full inclusion of gays in the military fail to appreciate this history. That said, the military remains an inherently conservative institution with respect to patriotism and national defense.

4.    An item in ScienceNews describes (tongue in cheek, I hope!) war as good:

War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing except cooperation. Violent conflict makes it more likely that people on the same side will sacrifice to punish uncooperative comrades and reward accommodating ones, say marketing professor Ayelet Gneezy of the University of California, San Diego and anthropologist Daniel Fessler of the University of California, Los Angeles. Israeli volunteers played two-person cooperation games for potential cash payoffs before, during and after Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah. Wartime players frequently surrendered money in order to deny payments to noncooperators and gave money to cooperators, the researchers report online June 8 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. (Bruce Bower, News In Brief: Humans,” June 13, 2011)

5.    Unfolding events in Pakistan are concerning. Pakistan has apparently arrested the Pakistani citizens who informed the CIA of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. The Pakistani Army’s Chief of Staff is under internal pressure to resign for not having prevented U.S. intrusions into Pakistan. Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons, has an ongoing conflict with India (another nuclear power) over Kashmir, lacks a stable civilian government, and elements of its military has close ties with radical Islamist elements in tribal areas that the central government has never controlled. In short, Pakistan is a likely candidate to become either the second nation to use nuclear weapons or the nation that by losing control of its nuclear weapons enables radical Islamists to obtain nuclear weapons. Continued disrespect for Pakistan by the U.S. and other western nations who expect Pakistan to act in their best interest will only exacerbate the problem. Occasional interdictions, such as the one that killed bin Laden, are, I believe, morally justifiable and probably politically tolerable within Pakistan. Frequent interdictions (e.g., numerous missile strikes launched from unmanned drones) and highly vocal political criticism and attempts to pressure Pakistan (e.g., what happened at recent Congressional hearings) will backfire.

6.    American cowardice disappoints me. Kentucky politicians, including U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and both parties’ candidates for governor, have objected to the U.S. Department of Justice planning to try two alleged foreign terrorists in Kentucky. The suspects were arrested in Kentucky and planned to carry out some of the crimes with which they are charged in Kentucky. The Justice Department is treating this case like any other and Kentucky is the most appropriate venue for the trial. The politicians and their allies want to send the suspects to Gitmo and have them tried before military tribunals. Thankfully, a group of retired military lawyers has spoken out against this move, arguing that the military does not have jurisdiction and that the military mission is national defense, not administration of justice. The politicians’ rationale for insisting on a change in venue? They are afraid that the terrorists might escape and retaliate against the people of Kentucky. Freedom is not free. The Constitution defines basic rights for all people in the U.S., including these two alleged terrorists. Choosing to apply the law and Constitution selectively turns freedom into tyranny because somebody must decide, apart from the rule of law, when the law applies and when it does not. One cost of freedom is accepting the vulnerability that is an inescapable consequence of living in a free society. Freedom, in other words, demands courage. Political leaders instead of pandering to base instincts such as cowardice should inspire us to live courageously.

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