Thursday, April 23, 2009

Moral Limits

Jesus never condemned torture. Search the Bible all you like, there is not a single instance where the Messiah pointed out an instance of torture and rebuked it. The opposite case can be made, actually, as Jesus several times described the torments of hell in a manner which implied He thought the suffering was just, if terrible. Even faced with His own crucifixion, Jesus neither condemned His killers nor the method. When He spoke with the thief on the cross, Jesus made no mention that the suffering they endured was wrong or unjust.

That’s not to say, of course, that Christ approved of torture. It merely notes an absence of specific denunciation. One might wonder why. In the end, consideration of the matter leads people to one of only two valid conclusions:

1. Torture is so heinous that denouncing it is not necessary; it is evil on its face.
2. The specific moral quality of an action sometimes depends on details which may not be available or clear; what is torture from one perspective may be valid behavior from another.

Obviously, the first answer is clear and simple, while the second answer risks being used to justify atrocities. Few people indeed would accept the second answer as reasonable, yet in the end it must be included in any honest evaluation.

Consider Khalid Sheihk Mohammed. This is a man who, beyond any dispute by now, masterminded the 9/11 attacks, and if anything was disappointed he could not kill more innocents than he did. KSM was a monster’s mentor, guiding Osama bin Laden in the ways of murder and pain, a man greatly experienced in his vocation of making people suffer. KSM was hardened to police interrogation, and he knew how to play the system. I mention this for the simple obvious reason that this is how terrorists operate – they perform asynchronous combat, using rules which protect themselves to attack their victims with protection from their own enemies. When the terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in 1993 they failed, but they used the U.S. court system to collect and transfer critical data about the target which they incorporated into the successful 2001 attack. There’s no way around the fact that granting legal protections and privileges to the 1993 attackers helped them murder thousands more.

People who demand that terrorists be tried as criminals and given the legal rights and protections granted to any ordinary suspect, must accept that in doing so they are contributing to the suffering and death of innocent people. Terrorists are by their nature sub-human, not a lower class of person because of race or creed, but because of a choice of action which requires commensurate consequences. Throughout history the actions of terrorists, whether they are called hashashin, thuggees, the Black Hand, or any other name, have been ended only by the use of force to whatever degree is needed. Terrorists deal in fear and brutality, and know only that language. They stop at nothing, and are only stopped by greater force than they possess themselves.

This may appear to condone torture as a matter of practical realpolitik a ‘do whatever it takes’ approach which allows someone to do whatever they please, provided the proper argument is made. But if those who wish to protect terrorists must understand that by doing so they are helping harm and murder uncounted numbers of innocents in later attacks, those who are willing to use torture to defeat terrorists must accept that we are condoning torture. Waterboarding is torture. Not in the legal sense, for reasons I am not bringing up here because this is not the legal argument. But waterboarding someone is to cause deliberate suffering to that person, for the purpose of coercion. The question can be asked as to whether the torture is appropriate or necessary or defensible, but there can be no question that the line is crossed, and for a clear purpose – the terrorist believes that the western system of rights protects him from serious harm, and that belief must be obliterated. So the decision to act in a manner beyond what the terrorist considers possible is the lever by which his resolve may be undone and produce cooperation with the authorities. It would be false to pretend, however, that such a step can be taken without jeopardizing the precepts on which this nation and culture were built. And if the scale on which such actions are taken is large enough, the use of torture on innocents becomes increasingly likely to occur, which is unacceptable to the great majority of Americans. It’s one thing to torture Khalid Sheihk Mohammed, but quite another to – even accidentally – torture an ordinary person guilty of no crime.

Back in 1949, Justice Robert Jackson issued a dissenting decision in the case of Terminiello v. City of Chicago, in which he stated There is danger that, if the court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact. And in 1963, in the case of Kennedy v. Mendoza-Martinez, Justice Goldberg wrote that while the Constitution protects against invasions of individual rights, it is not a suicide pact.

These judges clearly stated that moral arguments have practical limits. This truth can also be seen in the way war is now waged. Some people argue that the use of torture would sully our nation, making us equal to the terrorists, but this is plainly false. That is, a person who takes pleasure in the suffering of others, who carries out violence and chaos for the principal reason of causing pain and misery, would be the same as a terrorist, but this is not the character or spirit of the American soldier or intelligence agent, no matter how the media and the enemy may claim. The men who carry out the nation’s missions can and do maintain personal standards of morality while performing violent actions, even the deliberate harm to the enemy. The liars in the media seem to be able to honor our military only when they are dead, and our intelligence agents only when they attack their President. In actual fact, many honorable actions involve doing great harm to the enemy. In the old days we honored men like Sergeant York and Audie Murphy, who were able to fight a long, violent war then return home and live decent, quiet lives. Those men still exist and we still depend on them, although it’s no longer acceptable in some quarters to honor them for taking on the duties and costs of modern warfare. We are not obliged to play by the terms dictated by those who would murder our children, although far too few people today are willing to pay the price.

If you started reading this article expecting or hoping for a clear argument for or against the use of torture, you will be unsatisfied by this piece. My point for here, is that we all have the moral obligation to consider that our comfortable personal moralities all have boundaries, and those boundaries are protected by those who do what we cannot or will not do for ourselves. We all, whatever our opinion, have the duty to think carefully about this issue, to respect the limits of our knowledge and personal authority, and to consider the debt we owe those who have endured those burdens we were unwilling to carry ourselves.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Lie of Magic Budgets

Government taxes people to support itself. This is a basic, undeniable fact of life going back as far as there have ever been governments. Call it fees, patronage, tribute, whatever you will, it always comes down to the fact that if you have a group of people representing the city, state or nation, you will be paying taxes to support them.

People do not like taxes. Sometimes people resent paying for government at all, but more often people resent paying for things they find morally wrong. Politicians using public money to build monuments to themselves, to advance agendas that the public never voted to support, or to pursue personal interests that conflict with their duty to the nation and the limits of their constitutional powers, are likely to be opposed as autocrats and crooks.

So, government lies to the public about taxes and spending. Useless and selfish acts that are likely to get called out, instead get linked to unrelated acts which have broad public support, are given misleading names like ‘stimulus’ to hide their porcine nature, or are otherwise hidden or mislabeled. The problems are these; first, for all the belief that government officials have that they have fooled the public, over time the public begins to sense that they have been lied to, and this degrades trust in the government as an honest steward of the public’s welfare, which mistrust builds cumulatively through time. The politicians who do this lying, however, generally face no consequences in the short term, and so expand the practice in scope and quantity, especially when the politician in question believes his political seat is secure, especially when his party is in power.

This brings us to the magic budget. Moving money around to hide fraud is an old and popular practice, and to prevent this and make detection of crime easier, accountants created what are called Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, or GAAP. The US Government has enacted laws which require public businesses to operate by GAAP, as defined by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which in turn requests guidance from the Financial Accounting Standards Board, or FASB. GAAP can seem complex, but it is determined on the basis of nine fundamental principles:

• Principle of regularity: Conformity to enforced rules and laws.

• Principle of consistency: Apply the same methods and procedures from period to period.

• Principle of sincerity: The accounting unit should reflect in good faith the reality of the company's financial status.

• Principle of the permanence of methods: Aims at allowing the coherence and comparison of the financial information published by the company.

• Principle of non-compensation: Show the full details of the financial information and not seek to compensate a debt with an asset, a revenue with an expense, etc.

• Principle of prudence: Show the reality "as is" Typically, a revenue should be recorded only when it is certain and a provision should be entered for an expense which is probable.

• Principle of continuity: When stating financial information, one should assume that the business will not be interrupted. This principle mitigates the principle of prudence: assets do not have to be accounted at their disposable value, but it is accepted that they are at their historical value (see depreciation).

• Principle of periodicity: Each accounting entry should be allocated to a given period, and split accordingly if it covers several periods. If a client pre-pays a subscription (or lease, etc.), the given revenue should be split to the entire time-span and not counted for entirely on the date of the transaction.

• Principle of Full Disclosure/Materiality: All information and values pertaining to the financial position of a business must be disclosed in the records.

(principles outline courtesy of wikipedia)

The major provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, for example, are built on these principles. The Congress of the United States, however, does not use GAAP in its budget determination. Presidents, Congressmen and Senators regular play fast and loose with the numbers to say whatever they want to say. I must emphasize that this is neither a Republican nor Democrat ploy, the practice going back for almost two centuries. Explaining difficult transactions and getting around statutory limits is a common motive for politicians to play games with the facts. Thomas Jefferson did as much in justifying the Louisiana Purchase, and every President since has done the same to justify his actions or just hide the cost when he thought it would be hard to explain. World Wars 1 and 2 cost a lot more than the government admitted while fighting them, as did Social Security and Medicare – take a look sometime at what the government projected their costs to be, and compare those numbers with later reports once those entitlements were in place. And remember that “surplus” from the Clinton Administration? While certain liars like to claim that the subsequent administration spent or wasted that ‘surplus’, in actual fact no such surplus ever existed, the numbers were created by manipulating projections of future revenue and spending to project an optimal budgetary condition which had in fact never existed in the history of the United States, about as realistic as a personal budget that assumes no discretionary spending of any kind for four years. That’s not to say the Bush Administration did not also play budget games; many costs of the Iraq War were buried in non-related department budgets to conceal the costs. The government demands that public corporations comply with GAAP, but the government has never even tried to do so much, let alone hold itself accountable.

So along comes Barack Obama, a man whose resume was built on snake oil and manipulation. Is it really any wonder that this guy actually believes he could load the taxpayer with trillions of dollars in new spending, yet pretend that his plan will somehow reduce the deficit? That he can payoff special interest buddies with tax money, yet claim that it’s all to restart the economy? That he could load up his cabinet with tax cheats and paranoid radicals, yet imagine he could sell it as a model of ethical propriety? Obama is simply a savvier version of Blagojevich, a crook who thinks he knows what he can and cannot get away with, and he plays his cards accordingly.

Republicans imagine that they can catch out President Obama, but they forget that the public is tired of the game by both sides. The Democrats are the party of William Jefferson and Barney Frank, but the Republicans are the party of Larry Craig and Arlen Specter. And where the deficits, pork, and slime are concerned, the GOP is delusional if they believe they can claim moral high ground on this matter. The time is perfect for a genuine leader, someone with the moral honesty and intellectual capacity to understand when a point of no return is approaching. That’s not to say that some kind of violent revolution is coming. Rather, something of the opposite is already underway, a response of non-compliance in an expanding variety of ways. At some point, government officials need to understand that control is an illusion if the people do not accept their leadership, that the principles under which an official is entrusted with an office require accountability and honesty, without which the officials’ authority is as fictitious as the accounting of his spending.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Not Much Posting, I Know

Sorry, case competition is in 18 days, much to do much to do, no time for posting ...

but I will try to have something soon anyway.