We Will Soon Regret Bombing Syria

Obama CopeI’ve managed to avoid talking about ISIS in any direct way. But I guess I cannot any longer. MSNBC has eliminated its normal evening coverage so it could talk about Obama’s Big Speech™ before and then after. I’m writing this before he has spoken, but I know what he is going to say: I have the authority to attack ISIS in Syria and I will attack ISIS in Syria because this is a Very Big Deal™. It’s interesting that everyone was rightly all over Obama for his entirely political decision to delay dealing with immigration. But in this cace no one is calling his decision political. It is.

The media have managed to work American people up into yet another of their fear and anger tantrums. And so the call has gone out. The Batman light is shining on the clouds above. “Please save us! Do something! Make our fear go away!” So Obama “reluctantly” accepts what all the “liberal” and conservative analysts always say: more bombing in more places until it becomes clear that it isn’t doing any good. And then do what these very same analysts recommend — More bombing! — because, “We can’t stop now!” See the sunk cost fallacy for more details.

The problem is that soon — maybe months or maybe years — everyone will say, “You know, that was a mistake!” Of course, the conservatives are going to complain regardless. If it goes reasonably well, they will complain that Obama didn’t act sooner. If it goes badly, they will claim that it was stupid to do what he did. But they aren’t alone. Everyone will second guess him after the fact.

The truth is that these things never go well, because war should be a last resort. But instead, with the United States, it is one of the first things in the diplomatic toolbox that we reach to. And in the current situation, we can’t forget that ISIS is the result of a previous foreign misadventure. And this decision is based on the same kind of logic. This time it is, “Sure ISIS isn’t a direct threat to the United States, but if we leave it alone, it might turn into one in the future.”

Let’s think about that. What have Democrats been screaming about for over a decade? “Preemptive war!” And what is this? Preemptive war! And the difference between this Iraq War (with a sub-war in Syria) and the last? I guess it is that the first one was a full invasion and this one isn’t. But we’ve seen mission creep in the past. And we are already seeing it in the present. The sunk cost fallacy is probably at its most intense in war.

I’ll admit, I’m almost always against war. And I’m sure there are many people who would consider my opinion less credible because of that. But if you look at the history of war from afterward, you will see that most people feel the same way. So I think what I bring to this discussion is a little emotional distance. I am not any more fearful or angry than I usually am. Unthinkable horrors are committed to Americans every sing day. Most of them are done by other Americans. Many of them are done by the American government itself. So I don’t think that there is anything new to worry about, with all due respect to James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

Now that the President has given his talk, I get to say: told ya! There were a lot of nice words. Obama has always been good with nice words. He started out with his greatest hits: withdrawal from Iraq, killing of Osama bin Laden, and those new tan suits. Then he went through the four things that the administration was going to do to crush ISIS. They all kind of got mushed together because they were mostly about saying, “We’ll do air strikes the other people in our partner countries will die!” But there was one take home of the speech, “Congress should work with us but we don’t need them because we have the power and the authority to bomb Syria.” Told ya!

Personally, I don’t care. Whether the President decides to pander to the unreasonable fear and anger of the American people or where he is joined by Congress, it doesn’t matter. An escalation of this mission is a bad idea. And before long, the American people will realize this — just like always. But it might be good for the Democrats in November. But that’s a hell of a way to manage our foreign policy. Not that I’m saying that the American voters deserve better. Because they seem to demand this kind of hopeless governance.

What Garrett Epps Learned at Constitution School

Wrong and Dangerous - Garrett EppsThe “truth” about the Constitution is this: God wrote it. He handed it down to Moses, who applied it to govern the people of Israel. This divine law was carried from ancient Israel to Northern Europe after the Assyrian Conquest in 720 BCE by the famous “lost tribes” of Israel. After much wandering, these chosen people settled in the British Isles, where they took the name “Anglo-Saxon.” They ruled their medieval kingdom by the law of Moses, but its purity was lost after the Norman Conquest in 1066 CE. The Founding Fathers of the new United States, inspired by the Lord of Hosts, wrote the Constitution to restore His Anglo-Saxon kingdom.

Since it is God’s will that Americans live like medieval Saxons, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that virtually all of modern American life and government is unconstitutional: Social Security, the Federal Reserve, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, hate crime laws — illegal inventions of a people who have been led astray by false prophets. The trouble began with the Civil War, a needless conflict in which the wrong side won. Slaves were happy and carefree in slavery. Racism was caused by pushy Northern abolitionists. State governments are not required to observe the Bill of Rights. The very idea of separation between church and state is a pernicious myth; the First Amendment’s religion clauses establish “nondenominational” Christianity as “the religion of America.”

—Garrett Epps
Wrong and Dangerous

California Leads America With Paid Sick Days

Jerry BrownIt is a historic day. The governor of California (My governor!) Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1522 (AB1522). It requires that employers provide at least three paid sick days for employees each year. It applies to pretty much all workers: anyone who works more than seven days in a calendar year. Employees must accrue at least one hour of sick pay for every 30 hours of work. It’s a very good law. But what’s pathetic is that California becomes the first state in the union to create such a law. We are not just the only advanced economy to be without such mandates — many second and even third world countries have us beat in this regard.

One thing amazes me when I talk to people of all political stripes. Most people think the forty hour work week is just a given. They may know that people in the 19th century worked really long hours, but they figure it all just worked itself out. Even worse, people think weekends have always existed — at least Sundays off. But even that is largely a myth. Regardless, we have the system we have today because workers demanded them. If we currently worked 80 hours per week and seven days per weeks, conservatives would be apoplectic if anyone argued that this was wrong. I know, because when I talk to people about reducing what we define as full time today, people treat me like I’m crazy. They just can’t understand it, even though many tribal communities worked only a couple of hours per day. Modern Americans have this idea that the forty hour work week was brought down by Moses on stone tablets.

Connecticut has a similar sounding law, but it does not apply to companies with less than 50 employees, nor does it apply to manufacturing companies. This is kind of like a law that specifically applies to no one — fine tuned to uselessness by the business community. (But I’m sure among those employees who do get it, it is much appreciated.) Not surprisingly, the business community is freaking out. They say it will be a “job killer.” But I guarantee you: this very minor requirement will not kill jobs at all. This is equivalent to raising the $9.00 California minimum wage by 30¢.

I’m glad that California brushed these concerns aside. I wonder when, as a country, we are going to get past the “job killer” claims of the business community. This is hauled out for any and every policy they don’t like. The best example of this is the business community’s claims over the last six years that environmental regulations would kill jobs. I discussed this last year, Environmentalism Good for Economy Right Now. We should never listen to businesses when they talk about creating jobs. Businesses are not interested in creating jobs. In fact, they work very hard to not create jobs, so they can maximize profits. If you have any questions, just check out Nick Hanauer’s TED talk:

Our country can’t seem to do even the smallest things for workers. And even New York is determined to elect a corrupt corporate tool as its governor. Again. It is good that we have California. In general, the states are laboratories of anti-democracy. But California continues to be an exception to that. And in 50 years, when even Fox News takes a week of sick leave as God given, remember who really gave it to you: California. And remember why: because the legislature has been overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats. And remember why: because the people voted for that. Some day the rest of the country may wake up.

Student Debt Bigger Problem Than Effective Colleges

Student DebtIn the middle of the 19th century, Horace Greeley wrote, “Go west, young man…” Had Greeley been alive a century and a half later, he would have written, “Go to college, young man…” But since he wasn’t available for the job, the rest of society took up the slack and told young Americans everywhere that the key to success was a college degree. I’m 50 years old now, and it was a crock even when I was told it. Pretty much everyone I grew up with — most of whom got college degrees — have found their middle years to be highly uncertain. If you want more details, I recommend reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bait and Switch.

Now there is much concern about the quality of higher education. And it’s appropriateness. As Robert Reich pointed out last week at Salon, students assume that a college degree is the gateway to the middle class. It’s not. Reich points out that for a lot of people, a two-year technical degree is probably a better bet. He’s right. But the problem is so much bigger than this.

We have an economic and political system designed to funnel wealth from the poor to the rich. Over time, this is a recipe for a banana republic. And indeed, that is what we are seeing: lots of poor people, a tiny middle class that depends upon catering to the small group of extremely powerful rich people. Once you reach a certain level, there really is no going back because the rich can control the system and push ever more money and power toward themselves. I fear we passed the point of no return back in the early 1990s.

Those modern Greeleys who were (And still are!) pushing young people to go to college are no less delusional than the people who wax poetic about everyone starting their own businesses. If that ever happened, no one would have their own business; each person would be an independent contractor; and that would be an extremely inefficient system. Similarly, what is the point of everyone getting a college degree? Are we all going to be middle managers?

Look at the 2013 Census data on educational attainment. If you look at people in different age categories, you see that the percentage of people over 75 years old, less than 13% have Bachelor’s degrees. That actually overstates it, because the people with backbreaking jobs generally die younger. The percentage of people my age with degrees is 19%. The percentage of people in their late 20s is 26%!

All this extra education would be a good thing if it were free. But it isn’t. Mostly, it is paid for by the students themselves. So what exactly has happened? Companies have gotten far better trained employees without having to foot the bill. And better than that: because there is such a great supply of such well trained employees, the business community can pay them less! It’s funny how policies we seemingly stumble into — like the cutting of state funding to higher education and the increased reliance on student loans — just so happen to be the policies that further enrich the rich and increase inequality.

The problem is not our educational system. The problem is that young people are desperate. Recently, John Oliver did a segment on the vile for-profit colleges. But they only exist because we have allowed our entire economic political system to get so out of whack that it only tends to the desires of the rich. What else are young people to do? Become electricians as Reich recommends? I suppose that will work for some. But I’m afraid that’s working the margins.

What we require is bold action. We need a wealth tax so that corporations and other representatives of the rich have an incentive not to sit on piles of cash. We need a massive increase in the estate tax so that America stops being the hereditary aristocracy it has become. And most of all, we need a guaranteed minimum income so that businesses have to make working worth while. Is this class warfare? Absolutely. But there’s been a class war for decades with the rich against the unaware middle and lower classes. We must not go gentle into that good night. (Note literary reference — product of a liberal education!)


Image is reduced, cropped, and rearranged from an original by John Fewings.

Arthur Compton

Arthur ComptonOn this day in 1892, the great physicist Arthur Compton was born. He was primarily interested in high energy particles and light and how they interacted with matter. For example, he showed that JJ Thomson was right and that x-rays scattered by the first 16 elements of the periodic table were polarized. He did extensive work on cosmic rays, showing that there were more at the poles than elsewhere. He correctly deduced that they were charged particles being changed by the earth’s magnetic field. He was also very important in the Manhattan Project.

Compton is most known, of course, for the Compton Effect. This is very similar to the Photoelectric Effect. What Compton noticed and explained was that x-rays scattered by free electrons change wavelengths — reducing their energy. This is notable because it showed that photons were acting like particles. Generally, light is absorbed or not. Similarly, a particle can have part of its energy reduced by a collision. The Compton effect shows that light can do the same thing.

After the war, Arthur Compton went on to head Washington University in St Louis where he oversaw the liberalization of the school. Under him, the university was desegregated in 1952. But it is unclear how much credit he should get for that. He retired at 62 and died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 69.

Like a lot of scientists of his time, he was very interested in the subject of free will. He pushed the idea of free will as a two stage process and thought that quantum indeterminacy made actions “free.” This is nonsense. I don’t believe in free will at all, and I find attempts to prove it pathetic. The two-stage model is just a fancy way to tap dance around the issue. But in this way, Compton is like Newton: outside of the confines of science, he was lost in a sea of magic thinking. This is not to put him down. The fact that he grappled with these questions at all makes him much more serious than most people — scientists especially.

Happy birthday Arthur Compton!