Monday, November 29, 2010

Letter on Smoking Ban

To the editor:
I appreciate Ron Lederman's consistent advocacy for libertarian principles. However, his column on the public smoking law is, I believe, misguided.
It is indeed ironic that Mr. Lederman's argument against the public smoking ban comes only days after a study was released showing that second-hand smoke accounts for over 600,000 deaths a year, amounting to 1% of the world's deaths. Certainly property rights are important, but so is the right to life, and that right should have priority over property rights.
No right is absolute, a principle Mr. Lederman seems not to understand. In fact, we have many restrictions on property rights in this country. Zoning laws, for example. These laws dictate what you can and cannot do with your property. They have been around for almost a century, and there is a good reason for them.
Another example of restrictions on property rights would be the laws which require us to keep our properties free of trash and debris, so as to keep our neighborhoods liveable. I could cite many other examples, but I believe the point has been made.

What the TSA Needs is a Good Mathematician

There are two extremes to airport security. One is the full body cavity search of every single flier, an extreme which is so unpopular as to be unsustainable. The other is to search only those fliers who meet a particular profile, e.g., Middle Eastern man, age range 18-30, paying cash and purchasing only a one-way ticket. If this latter is used, the terorists will simply send someone who does not fit the profile.

The obvious conclusion is that an intermediate policy is needed. This is where the mathematician comes in. The mathematician can devise a middle ground between the two extermes, by devising a formula for random searches which nobody can predict. Parameters can be given to a computer, which will print out daily schedules for searches. The formula itself can be changed periodically, since apparently our government is no longer able to keep any secrets.

I say that anybody meeting the above profile should be searched 100% of the time. Little old ladies and young kids should be searched only a small fraction of the time. Those in between would be searched a certain percentage of the time based on the formula. The completeness of the search would also be randomized.

Monday, November 22, 2010

On full-body Frisks

Much controversy these days over the new rules on full-body scans or full-body frisks, take your pick as a traveler. Apparently this all stems from one unsuccessful attempt by a traveler to conceal explosives in his underwear.

I've been pondering the obvious innumeracy of all of this nonsense. What would our lives look like if there were such draconian rules governing our daily lives in an attempt to make them totally risk-free? One commentator suggested there would be a rule banning left turns. But on analysis this is way mild, as the risk from left turns is higher by several orders of magnitude than the underwear-on-the-airlines risk. Certainly there would be no two-lane highways. Many other products which we use safely every day would be banned.

Perhaps readers can come up with some other examples?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Top Ten Reasons to be Disappointed in Obama

1. Failure to end "don't ask, don't tell".

2. Failure to close Guantanamo.

3. Failure to end the Bush tax cuts for the very rich.

4. Failure to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

5. Failure to bring home U.S. troops from all around the world.

6. Failure to end the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba (and actually extending the embargo to Sept. of next year).

7. Failure to enact meaningful health care reform (the weak bill enacted leaves power in the hands of the private insurance industry).

8. Failure to enact immigration reform.

9. Failure to reform our drug laws.

10. Failure to effectively use his office as a "bully pulpit" by taking his case on the above items directly to the American people.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Keith Olbermann Gets Suspended

First Juan Williams, and now Keith Olbermann. What in the world is going on here?

MSNBC pays Olbermann big money to be an overtly partisan political commentator, and then they suspend him without pay for contributing to several campaigns. WTF?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

More Innumeracy in the Popular Culture

Just heard CNN twice say that I-Phone users will have to manually reset their times because otherwise they would be an hour *late* to work tomorrow! Uh, CNN, don't you know it's "fall back", meaning you would actually be an hour early, not an hour late??

Review of Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War

I have wanted this book ever since I first heard about it, and recently was able to purchase it from Amazon. Pat Buchanan does an amazing job of researching how the two world wars came about, and based on that he explores how they could have been avoided. The research is meticulous and exhausting--his bibliography runs to 13 pages, and there are a whopping total of 1,319 footnotes.

Buchanan starts with the run-up to WW1, and it is obvious that he sees the two world wars as basically one 30-year long war. And he also sees it as a civil war among members of the Western world, the Western world trying to commit suicide in a sense.

I will try to summarize and discuss the book in parts, as there would be no way to do justice to the material otherwise. So the first query is, how did WW1 come about?

The roots of WW1 lie in the decision of Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm to build a world-class navy. He, like other leaders of that time, was greatly influenced by the 1890 book "The Influence of Sea Power upon History", written by U.S. naval captain A.T. Mahan. This offended Britain, which for generations had had an iron-clad rule that the British navy had to be 10% stronger than the combined fleets of the next two strongest sea powers.

The British navy at this time was headed by Winston Churchill, who as we will see was primarily responsible for WW1. When asked why he was so anti-German, Churchill responded:

"British policy for 400 years has been to oppose the strongest power in Europe by weaving together a combination of other countries strong enough to face the bully. Sometimes it is Spain, sometimes the French monarchy, sometimes the French Empire, sometimes Germany. I have no doubt about who it is now. But if France set up to claim the over-lordship of Europe, I would equally endeavor to oppose them. It is thus through the centuries we have kept our liberties and maintained our life and power."

It is this policy and this attitude that got Britain into both world wars against Germany.

When the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914 and things threatened to boil over, the British cabinet met in an all-day session and only Churchill was enthusiastic about going to war. In fact, Churchill's enthusiasm reminds me very much of Patton's attitude in the movie "Patton". The movie has him looking at the movement of his troops and saying, "God, I love it so."

Churchill wrote to his wife while the deliberations were proceeding in the cabinet, saying, "Everything tends toward catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that?"

But what could be the justification for Britain's going to war against Germany? Had not Germany accepted an arrangement called the 60% plan, wherein it agreed to maintain a navy only 60% as strong as Britain's? The justification lay in the Schlieffen Plan, which was a longstanding plan in German circles that if war broke out Germany would invade France by way of Belgium. This gave Churchill the leverage to demand that Britain go to war, for Britain had signed an 1839 pact guaranteeing Belgium's neutrality. But interestingly, the pact gave Britain the *right* to go to war if Belgium's neutrality were violated, but not the *duty* to do so. In the 1870 Franco-Prussian War Germany had been careful not to bother Belgium, and Britain had stayed out of that war (as it should have done when history repeated itself in 1914).

After another all-day Cabinet session on August 2nd, PM Asquith's daughter wrote that when they broke for lunch "All those I saw looked racked with anxiety and some stricken with grief. Winston alone was buoyant." Churchill simply pressed and pressed, based on the violation of Belgium's neutrality, which all knew was coming, and eventually won over Lloyd George, who as the heir apparent to Liberal party leadership didn't want to jeopardize his political future by appearing weak.

As to who wanted war, Buchanan quotes from a wire the Kaiser sent to the Russian czar and the British King, both of whom were his cousins, all 3 being grandsons of that great British monarch, Queen Victoria. The Kaiser wrote:

"It is not I who bears responsibility for the disaster which now threatens the entire civilized world. Even at this moment the decision to stave it off lies with you. No one threatens the honour and power of Russia,. The friendship for you and your empire which I have borne from the deathbed of my grandfather has always been totally sacred to me...The peace of Europe can still be maintained by you, if Russia decides to halt the military measures which threaten Germany and Austro-Hungary."

The contrast between this and Churchill's constant demands that Britain go to war is striking. As further evidence of who the war-mongers really were, Buchanan lists the number of wars each country was involved in during the prior 100-year period: Britain--10, Russia--7, France--5, Austria--3, Germany--3.

Because Britain entered the war, it turned into a horrible catastrophe as we all know only too well. And what if Britain had declared neutrality and stayed out? Buchanan asserts the result would likely be similar to what happened in 1871. Germany would have triumphed in France, and then gone home. Germany would have become the dominant power in Europe, with Britain still dominant on the oceans. Lenin would have likely died unmourned in Geneva; but had the Bolsheviks come to power, Germany would have "marched in and made short work of them". There would have been no Hitler and no Stalin.

The Versailles Peace Conference was a complete disaster. For a nice account of the conference, I recommend "The End of Order: Versailles 1919", by Charles L. Mee, Jr. Mee gives a great day-to-day account of the conference, which gives the reader a good understanding of how the final product was arrived at. He says the mid-level professionals who accompanied the various leaders of the allied states had assumed that at some point the Germans would be brought into the negotiations. As month after month went on and no Germans, they realized to their horror and chagrin that the leaders had no intention of letting the Germans negotiate. The allies simply put together a proposed treaty, and then called the Germans in and demanded that they sign it.

The Germans looked at it and in the limited time available, they were able to go through and show that almost every provision violated President Wilson's Fourteen Points, which was the basis for their agreeing to the armistice of 11/11/18. Of course in hindsight it is easy to see what a disaster this treaty was. But many spoke out at the time, including John Maynard Keynes, one of Britain's mid-level professionals at the conference. Keynes went home in disgust and wrote a whole book about it, called "The Economic Consequences of the Peace". He demonstrated in great detail how the allied policies were sure to lead to disaster. Another leader stated that this was no peace, but merely "a 20-year armistice". How prescient!

So what did the treaty do? It stripped Germany of all of her overseas colonies. Here is the list:

--Cameroon and Togoland, mandate divided between Britain and France
--German South-West Africa, South African mandate
--German East Africa--British mandate
--Marianas, Carolines and Marshall Islands, Japanese mandate
--German Samoa, New Zealand mandate
--Nauru, British mandate
--German New Guinea and Bismarck Archipelago, Australian mandate

Not only were all of these colonies seized, but also the private property in them was seized and confiscated by the allies and divided among them as the spoils of war.

As for Germany itself, much of it was cut off and given to other countries. Here is that list:

--Northern Schliswig, to Denmark
--Eupen and Malmedy--to Belgium
--Saar--under League of Nations control until 1935
--Alsace-Lorraine, returned to France after 47 years of German rule
--Rhineland, administered by Germany, but demilitarized until 1936
--Danzig, made a free city under League of Nations control
--Polish Corridor & Poznania, transferred to Poland
--Memel, seized by Lithuania

The Austro-Hungarian empire was similarly carved up and distributed among neighboring countries.

One of the most despicable things the allies did was the "starvation blockade" of Germany. This was responsible for about 800,000 civilian deaths in Germany between 1915 and 1918. But even worse, Churchill insisted that the blockade continue even after the armistice, and he bragged in March of 1918, four months after the armistice, that "We are enforcing the blockade with rigour, and Germany is near starvation."

Buchanan details a series of blunders which Britain made in the inter-war period, leading up to the final colossal blunder. The first such blunder was Britain's failure to renew its Anglo-Japanese treaty in 1921. This was done under pressure from the U.S., which demanded that the treaty be scrapped. The U.S. won the argument, but Buchanan writes that the US diplomatic victory "would prove a disaster for the British Empire. With the termination of the Japanese alliance, Australia and New Zealand ceased to be strategic assets and became liabilities, as Britain now lacked the naval power to defend two Pacific Dominions."

Historian Arthur Herman called Britain's decision "an act of breathtaking stupidity." Now, Japan no longer had an incentive for good behavior. Treated as a pariah, Japan began to play the part.

The US also took the lead in the next blunder, which was its plan to slash the size of all the great navies of the world. This affected Britain first and foremost, since sea power was the key to Britain's survival.

I will skip over many other blunders and jump ahead to 1936, when the Germans sent troops into the Rhineland. This was a small contingent of troops and Buchanan documents that Hitler left instructions to retreat back across the border if they met any resistance. Buchanan says Hitler could have been crushed right then and there, but France did not lift a finger.

The final and fatal blunder took place on March 31, 1939, when PM Chamberlain rose in the British House of Commons and declared that Britain had committed to coming to Poland's defense if that country were to be attacked. It is easy to see the folly of this in hindsight, but many protested mightily at the time. One MP said that "This is the maddest single action this country has ever taken." Lloyd George said that if the British army general staff approved this, they "ought to be confined to a lunatic asylum."

Liddell Hart called the guarantee "foolish, futile and ill-considered gesture that placed Britain's destiny in the hands of Polish rulers, men of very dubious and unstable judgment." Hart was so disgusted with this folly that he resigned as military correspondent for the "Times".

Duff Cooper wrote in his diary that "Never before in our history have we left in the hands of one of the smaller powers the decision whether or not Britain goes to war."

With this guarantee in hand, the Poles refused to negotiate with Germany over the return of Danzig, a German city, despite reasonable proposals put forth by the Germans which would have preserved Polish influence in the region. The world war ensued.

In his last chapter Buchanan reveals why he wrote this book. He writes of how the U.S. came out of the second world war as the greatest power in the world, and through intelligent foreign policy contained the Soviet Union without going to war with the Soviets.

However, that policy was thrown overboard with George W. Bush, who Buchanan calls "a president disinterested and untutored in foreign policy". As a result, the U.S. is now repeating all the same mistakes made by Britain in losing its empire. He says that now "the world of 1989 has disappeared and America has begun to resemble the Britain of Salisbury and Balfour, a superpower past her prime, with enemies rising everywhere."

Buchanan writes: "Rather than follow the wisdom of conservative men like Kennan, Eisenhower, and Reagan, we began to emulate every folly of imperial Britain in her plunge from power." He says "we exhibited an imperial hubris the whole world came to detest".

The parallels are numerous and very depressing to anybody who cares about this country. Just as Grey and Churchill used the German violation of Belgium neutrality as an excuse to go to war, so the Bush crowd used 9/11 as an excuse to go to war in Iraq. Just as Chamberlain gave a war guarantee to Poland he could not honor, so has the U.S. handed out NATO war guarantees to six Warsaw Pact nations and the three Baltic republics.

Just as Britain had a "balance-of-power" policy not to permit any nation to become dominant in Europe, so has the U.S. adopted a policy of trying to become the dominant power on every continent. Buchanan writes that "Ours is a peculiarly American blindness. Under the Monroe Doctrine, foreign powers are to stay out of our hemisphere. Yet no other great power is permitted to have its own sphere of influence. We bellow self-righteously when foreigners funnel cash into our elections, yet intrude massively with tax dollars in the elections of other nations."

I have no doubt Buchanan is 100% correct, and in fact I have written in the past about the decline of the American empire which is going on now right before our eyes. This book was written just before the financial collapse, so Buchanan does not mention the financial hardship of all of our commitments, but it is obvious that fighting two wars, having bases all over the world, and making commitments to everybody and his uncle all over the world, will contribute heavily to the coming bankruptcy of this country.

The website discusses a study showing the U.S. has military personnel in 156 countries. We have bases in 63 countries. Do we really need 40,000 troops in South Korea, six decades after the armistice? Do we really need 40,000 troops in Japan, 65 years after WW2 ended? We should follow Buchanan's advice and bring all of these troops home.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Election

The results Tuesday were better than one feared, and about what one could expect. The worst of the "Tea Party" candidates" lost. O'Donnell in Delaware, Angle in Nevada, and Buck in Colorado all lost; the victory of any one of them would have given one cause to sink into complete depair about the future of this country.

At this writing two interesting races continue. Patty Murray in Washington is clinging to a slim lead as write-in ballots are counted. The most interesting race is in Alaska. There Lisa Murkowski appears to have won, but at this time the "winner" is simply designated as "write-in ballots". Until these write-in ballots are opened and counted, we will not know if she was able to overcome the horrible candidate Joe Miller who ousted her in the Republican primary.

An interesting sidelight of this race is the court ruling that election poll workers were ordered to do their job and assist voters in making write-in votes; in other words, a voter who wanted help writing in "Murkowski" was entitled to help doing that. As a respoonse to this, a right-wing radio talk-show host encouraged his listeners to present themselves as write-in candidates, so that their names would have to go on the list of write-in candidates which the court ordered to be made available to voters. As a result, this list was in the hundreds, and according to one commentator I heard actually in the thousands.

So, the results of the vote of write-in candidates is up in the air. One thinks of the Florida race in 2000 when the Republicans poked so much fun at the election workers holding the balltos up to the light to determine the intent of the voter. But this is precisely what election workers are supposed to do--determine the intent of the voter. So, we will likely see a big to-do about whether ballots mispelling "Murkowski" are to be counted or not. Stay tuned.