Monday, August 30, 2004

Who said Bush knows nothing about nuance?

Aside from the Republican Nation Convention today, the other big political news was a few remarks that President Bush made during an interview on the Today show this morning. As reported by
Fox News:
Asked "Can we win?" Bush said, "I don't think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that the — those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world."
I believe that there is a subtlety here that explains these remarks, and the subtlety involves the definition of terror that the President has adopted. One mindset is to view terror as primarily being a tactic that groups or nations can adopt against each other. Terror as a tactic is presumably relatively inexpensive compared to the cost of a formal military campaign, but the nature of terror as a tactic of infiltration also makes it a very messy type of warfare to control. A War on Terror in this context would be a war against those groups or states that employ terrorism against their enemies. In other words, it would be a campaign to build a global coalition to eliminate terror as a weapon of warfare.

On the other hand, one can also view terror as primarily being an ideological phenomenon that has been adopted by institutions whose ideology is compatible with infiltration tactics. The neoconservative idea that the war on terror is primarily against a spectrum of Middle Eastern fundamentalist insurgent groups that can cooperate or compete with national governments is an example of defining terror along these lines. In this conception, the War on Terror is a campaign to destroy the structure of terrorist organizations, capture or kill their leaders, and deter, reform, or destroy the state sponsors of terror.

Obviously these two mindsets are not mutually exclusive and they both will eventually be limited by the fact that the psychological phenomenon of "terror" is always going to play some role in human conflicts. To me, Bush's comments are simply an acknowledgement that, within the framework of terror as a tactic of violent conflict, it may simply be impossible to prevent terror from being adopted by a sufficiently ruthless and undeterable violent group.

Yes, I know that this goes against the grain of the traditionally bellicose Republican rhetoric. If it seems a little out of character for President Bush to say something nuanced, it also seems a little ridiculous for Democrats who view terror as primarily being a law-enforcement problem to start posing as Bush-style war-hawks if it means another chance for a good Bush bashing.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)

Vacuum Energy rating: no stars
Background information about "Exorcist: The Beginning" is available at The Internet Movie Database

Anyone who has seen the infamous horror movie "The Exorcist" or the continuation of the story in "Exorcist II: The Heretic" knows that the iconic priest Father Merrin had performed two exorcisms, with the first being the exorcism of a young boy in Africa at some point prior to the exorcism of Regan MacNeil. It is this first exorcism that forms the basis of "Exorcist: The Beginning", here with Stellan Skarsgård well-cast as the Indiana Jones-style archeologist (and ex-priest) Lancaster Merrin in 1949 Europe as the modern portion of the film begins.

The storyline should also be instantly familiar to anyone acquainted with the "Raiders of the Lost Ark" genre of filmmaking or fiction writing. An ancient evil (in this case the Sumerian deity Pazuzu) long buried underground in some remote portion of the globe persists in a completely inert state, and thus has been entirely forgotten by the centuries of indigenous cultures living in the area. In the modern era, European researchers dig up some underground spooky structure, express annoyance when the superstitious natives refuse to go inside, and unleash the aforementioned ancient evil. The evil, which proceeds to gain strength by inflicting progressively worse terrors on everyone in the area, thus requires our "Indiana Jones" to venture deep into the underground structure to confront the ancient evil in its lair and defeat it. The evil also must be able to access the innermost fears of its victims to give its torments an extra punch, and a few Nazis are required for laughs, mindless cruelty, impressing Middle America with a few bizarre villains, or upping the body count.

One variation on the theme here is that this particular part of the globe is part of the British Empire in Africa, which thus gives the ancient evil the added terror of provoking a general conflict between a local tribe and the British military authorities. Unfortunately, the parallel between the British army and the Nazi army is established early, and this assessment is confirmed when we see that the commanding officer of the British forces is an avid butterfly collector who tosses a butterfly into a killing jar for us to watch perish. The same sort of modern politically-correct character emerges yet again when Merrin is assigned a Catholic priest (who has no field knowledge of archeology) to watch over his excavations. Obviously this priest has some hidden agenda, and not surprisingly it turns out that the Vatican knew about the ancient evil all along and choose to cover it up rather than do anything about it.

Despite the conventional plot, stock characters, and the inevitable deus ex machina advertised in the title, I was still entertained by this film. It's an example of what my father used to call a "Saturday afternoon" movie that would pop up on television when the Saturday afternoon baseball game got rained out.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Redesign time

After the introduction of the the new search bar at the top of the screen, a new template obviously was way past due. Hopefully the template changes will make the site a bit more user-friendly while still keeping things printer-friendly.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Inconsistencies with political rhetoric about oil

Asymmetrical Information has a new post about some of the illogical rhetoric about oil production and alternative energy that's floating around out there. Her point that there is not much that the American government can do in the short term to alter substantially the world's oil economy is a good one and worth reading in detail.

Further examples are pretty easy to find once you start looking for them. One of the recurring metaphors used by contemporary politicians is drawing a parallel between their new policy initiative and World War II to demonstrate their total commitment to the aforementioned policy initiative. Every evil dictator that the United States goes to war with is not just evil but "the next Hitler". We can't just give a lot of money to a strategic ally with deep economic problems; we have to offer them a new "Marshall Plan" instead. You get the idea.

On the topic of energy conservation, we have Senator Kerry calling for a new commitment to the environment on the scale of the Manhattan Project. The idea here is to not only associate America's energy independence and environmental stewardship with the survival of free civilization in the war against Fascism but to advance the idea that a massive government project can accomplish in the short term what the regular research and policy establishment can only achieve in the long term. The nuance that a massive new government spending project is almost certainly not going to be the most cost-effective way to achieve Senator Kerry's policy objectives has been completely ignored.

Here's another inconsistency in political rhetoric: did you ever notice that trade with China is always described as having a liberalizing effect on the Chinese government, but that trade with oil exporting arab nations is always described as making the United States more vulnerable to their evil market manipulations? Of course, there are always the protectionists who believe that trade with anybody is a bad idea and there must be plenty of capitalists who know that trade with Saudi Arabia can encourage reforms in their politics and economy. But when was the last time you've ever seen the media push for trade with Saudi Arabia the way they pushed for trade with China whenever China needed it's Most Favored Nation status reauthorized?

The Coulter-esque argument would be that liberals like trade with China because it benefits a communist State while liberals hate oil imports from Saudi Arabia because they benefit the United States. I personally don't believe anything that extreme, but I'd be interested to hear your arguments either for or against that argument in the comments section.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Baloney for President, part II

Did anyone notice that Senator Clinton is a lot like this week's Senator Kerry, but without the flip-flops? We all know where Senator Baloney is on Iraq this week, so here is a paragraph from Senator Clinton's speech to the Council on Foreign Relations:
I was one who supported giving President Bush the authority, if necessary, to use force against Saddam Hussein. I believe that that was the right vote. I have had many disputes and disagreements with the administration over how that authority has been used, but I stand by the vote to provide the authority because I think it was a necessary step in order to maximize the outcome that did occur in the Security Council with the unanimous vote to send in inspectors. And I also knew that our military forces would be successful. But what we did not appreciate fully and what the administration was unprepared for was what would happen the day after.
The question has to be asked even if it's a "Blogger for Bush" asking it. Is it too late to replace Kerry with Clinton?

Baloney for President

Is it my imagination or did Senator Kerry just shoot his presidential campaign in the foot?

As reported in today's New York Times story Stumping Bush Calls Kerry a Reluctant Ally on Iraq:
Mr. Bush and allies seized on Mr. Kerry's remark of Monday that he would have voted to grant authority for the war even if he had known no weapons of mass destruction would be found. The Republicans said the comment amounted to what they described as another shift in position by the Democratic presidential nominee and an acknowledgement that administration policy on a crucial national security matter was correct after all.
The consequences of this remark are enormously negative for the Kerry campaign. For instance, this week's Newsweek has Kerry's aides alleging that the president isn't spending enough on homeland security because "the areas facing the biggest threat—the corridors connecting Boston to Washington, Chicago to Detroit, and Seattle to San Diego—vote Democratic." Obviously, the notion that Bushitler is deliberately trying to get millions of Democratic voters destroyed by terrorist attacks is ridiculous. But would Kerry still have voted for the war on Iraq given all that he knows now about how much safer Americans would be if the monies required to prosecute the war were spent on homeland security instead? Only Senator Baloney can seriously accuse the President of willful neglect of American security by making a rush to an unnecessary war and argue that he's A-OK with giving the President that war authority because he believes it's the right authority for a president to have.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

The pertinent Pertinax

The past presidents game, which had recently morphed into the past monarchs game, has now evolved into the past emperors game. Blogger Agoraphillia has a post comparing California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to Roman Emperor Pertinax. Before explaining the rise and fall of Pertinax, Agoraphillia admits surpise that "screenwriters appear not to have mined this true-life tale of intrigue, bravery, and heartbreak."

Actually, there is a version of the reign of Pertinax as a feature film. It has an aging general sought out as the one man who can possibly come to his country's aid, unscrupulous politicians manipulating events behind the scenes, a rebellion, a noble last stand in which dignity and awe hold the rebels a bay for just a few moments, a leader's head paraded around on the end of a lance and, finally, a promise of approaching misfortunes and miseries for the victorious rebels. The title of the film: Khartoum!

Monday, August 02, 2004

Thoughts about a national sales tax

The Drudge Report is reporting that Dennis Hastert's new book reveals that some form of national sales tax, value added tax, or flat tax will be a centerpiece of President Bush's second term of office. The idea behind the national sales tax or national value added tax seems to be to tax consumption instead of wealth, while the flat tax (presumably with a cost-of-living deduction only) is simply one income tax rate for one and all.

Personally, I could never understand why some conservatives seem to be obsessed with a sales tax or a value added tax. The National Retail Sales Tax Alliance has a big list of positives that would incur by replacing the national income tax with a national sales tax, but in my mind a national sales tax would have some severe drawbacks:

  • First of all, as a good capitalist who believes that free markets are the best way to assign prices to goods and services, why would I want the federal government to exercise any power to manipulate price levels? As a good conservative, why should I believe that the government will restrict it's sales tax power to a single uniform tax rate on all goods and services? A Congress that can write all sorts of tax penalties and exemptions into the income tax code can just as easily do the same thing with a sales tax code.

  • I bet lots of foreign countries that compete economically with the United States would love for our government to make American products slighty more expensive for consumers.

  • The sixteenth amendment authorizes an income tax, not a sales tax or value added tax. If you argue that any act of selling a good or service or adding value has interstate commerce implications and thus falls under purview of the Commerce Clause, then you must explain why any act of earning income doesn't have similar interstate commerce implications (if it did, the sixteenth amendment obviously would not have been necessary).

  • Inflation is defined as a general rise in the level of prices over time. A sales tax or value added tax would make all goods and services more expensive, thus causing inflation. Giving the federal government a mechanism for producing a stealth policy of sustained inflation should be anathema to all conservatives.

  • We all know that the inability of the federal government to effectively tax wealth instead of income has been a key obstacle to the plans of the redistributionists. Conservatives, who on general principles are supposed to be against the forced redistribution of wealth, shouldn't be in support of proposals that make wealth a tax liability.

It seems to me that, of the viable alternatives to the current tax system, the flat tax holds the most promise. A flat tax would avoid all of the problems mentioned above, boost the economy by not penalizing success with progressive tax rates, and be resistant to increases since any increase affects everyone, not just the rich.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Using X for political gain

Parableman, in an entry entitled "Using X for Political Gain", recently asked the question "Why is it wrong to use something for political gain?" and has provided a few examples to illustrate what type of answers he hopes to receive. The goal here is to explain why using some things for political gain is all right, but using other things is considered shameful.

My first thought is that political gain crosses a line when it can be interpreted as personal gain. As good citizens, we all believe that politicians should be given credit for foresight and thoughtfulness in both addressing problems and anticipating problems. Just because a politician poses as wise and responsible doesn't mean that he or she isn't just as vote-mongering as any other politician. On the other hand, the voters can still give a lot of praise to a decent politician while wanting to kick him out of office.

Political gain starts becomming personal gain when a politician starts putting himself ahead of his or her responsibilities to the public. To address some of Parableman's examples:
  • John Kerry's war record: Whether he or she was drafted or volunteered, anyone who serves in the armed forces, and especially during war-time, deserves admiration for his or her patriotism and valor. A president is also expected to have good judgement in administration of the strategic military posture of the United States. If a legislator repeatly makes mistakes of judgement within his or her role in the legislative component of the military administration, the voters are entitled to know. In other words, war service is not the summum bonum of a presidential candidate's qualifications for office, and a politician that pretends otherwise is being deceptive.

  • Al Sharpton's speech at the Democratic National Convention mentions Sudan: Although I haven't seen the details of this speech, we all know that there is an enormous amount of misery and death in Sudan. Bringing a greater awareness of this enormous suffering to the American people might shorten the time and effort required to bring peace to that region again. If Al Sharpton raised the issue of doing more for the people of Sudan for politican gain, then he's entitled to it.

  • The solidier's funerals in "Fahrenheit 9/11": Would you sell someone a ticket to attend a funeral? Would you exploit a funeral to get the upper hand in a personal argument? Doing those things for political gain in a major motion picture seems a few million times worse to me