Saturday, 30 June 2007

Gone vacationing

I'm off to the sandy beeches of Leelaau, Michigan for seven days of reading, creative writing, boating, philosophizing, and most of all, relaxing.

Be back in a week.

Political Compass

My latest Political Compass score (it fluctuates a bit every time I take the test):

Economic Left/Right: -3.12
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -5.38

Instead of using the usual but inaccurate and simple 1D left-right scale, in which either left or right can mean a number of things, the Political Compass is a 2D graph: the X-axis is one's economic views — left for collectivized/socialist and right for neo-liberal — and the Y-axis is one's social views — either libertarian or authoritarian. Thus the Y-axis covers freedom (libertarian) versus security (authoritarian) and the X-axis. America especially defines "liberals" and "conservatives" different from the rest of the world, with a more right-ward tilt. See the FAQs.

Out of all the political ideology quizzes out there, the Political Compass is actually good, in its methodology and overall results. Take the test yourself if you're interested (it's short, but think before you answer) and post your score as a comment.

The iPhone is born

The long-awaited iPhone is finally here. Will Apple's newest wonder-gizmo live up to the hype?

(Credit: Apple.)

I'd caution anyone lacking deep pockets and the spirit of an early-adopter to buy one yet. It's not good to buy the iPhone now because...
  • It's new. It is always good to wait until the price comes down, the bugs are worked out, and the features enhanced;
  • it's pricey: at $499 for a mere 4 gigabytes of space and $599 for a mere 8, unless you've got some major showing off to do and/or plenty of money it is not worth it... yet (maybe the iPhone "nano" will be better);
  • there are plenty of strings attached, namely the fact that it only works as a phone if you have the exclusive services of AT&T (formerly Cingular — long story: in short Cingular bought AT&T wireless then baby-Bell — i.e. a former subsidiary of AT&T before it had to break up its telecom monopoly years ago — SBC bought AT&T and created the "new AT&T" which bought the other mammoth baby-Bell, BellSouth, which then purchased wireless giant Cingular);
  • it has a tiny hard-drive, plenty of bugs I'm sure, and doesn't even run on the new 3G mobile data networks yet — before I purchase any new wi-fi capable devices I am waiting for 802.11n.

    How many years until the iPhone may be ripe for the picking? Give it a few. Considering all the attention it is getting Apple may indeed lower the price, implement truly visionary functions, and do sort of what it did with the iPod as it evolved. Remember it started out as an expensive, far-from-super but still mainstream tech gadget and became a functional, user-orientated product that practically 'everyone' has. However the iPhone has received far more attention than the iPod, it is mixing up the forays it is entering (PDA/handheld PC, mobile phone, multimedia player). One thing possibly new about the iPhone — besides the fact it runs the fantastic Mac OS X operating system, albeit a mobile version — is that it is operated by the finger. That's right: goodbye styluses, and good riddance.

    (Again from Apple.)

    Ultimately I will wait two or three years for the price to go down, more function to be added, and strings to be cut until I considering making an iPhone purchase of my own. I'm due to upgrade my computer (an over two years old low-end iBook) and phone (Motorola V557, maybe a year and a half old) in less than two years, so who knows. I may end up with a MacBook Pro — an already buyable, in function and price, product — and an iPhone.

    Just as Apple's iPod revolutionized the digital music player industry for consumers, will the iPhone do the same for mobile phones and pocket computers and portable media players? We'll have to see, but it sure does look nice.

    (Last one — I swear.)


  • Thursday, 28 June 2007

    Student free speech and church-state separation shot down by SCOTUS?

    Arguably, two basic tenants of American government were arguably shot down Monday the 25th by the Supreme Court.

    The first was student free speech in the case of Morse v. Fredrick (read case summary and court decision (PDF)), better known as the case involving a banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus".

    The ruling in the second case hinders 'ordinary taxpayers' from suing the Bush administration over its federal grants to religious groups. That case can be tied to the separation of church and state. In his attempts to court the tens of millions of politically-active evangelicals, aka the religious right, George W. Bush has created many faith-based initiatives that include doling out millions to religious groups in return for services. This is both ethically and constitutionally questionable.

    Both of the aforementioned cases deal with ideals — free speech and the separation of church and state — supported by the US Constitution.

    Morse v. Fredrick saw a rare alliance between liberal civil liberties groups and conservative Christian organizations in the first student free speech case the Supreme Court has heard in years. Why was the religious right joining hands with the ACLU left? Because it is worried that similar restrictions on student free speech may reach into the realm of religious expression in schools. The court ruled in favor of the school district, which was being sued by a former student who claimed his free speech was trampled upon when he held up a banner with a suggestive drug message at a school sanctioned event and the principal made him take it down and suspended him. The banner was shown when the Olympic torch relay passed through Alaska, where the case originated, in 2002. The teenager was not officially at school that day nor was he on school grounds, which made this case especially legally sticky.

    Liberal Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented on the free-speech issue and said the majority seriously harmed the First Amendment by allowing Frederick's punishment for expressing a view the school disagreed with.

    "No one seriously maintains that drug advocacy (much less Frederick's ridiculous sign) comes within the vanishingly small category of speech that can be prohibited because of its feared consequences," Stevens said.

    "Although this case began with a silly nonsensical banner, it ends with the court inventing out of whole cloth a special First Amendment rule permitting the censorship of any student speech that mentions drugs," he wrote.

    Justice Stephen Breyer said he would have decided the case without reaching the free-speech issue by ruling the principal cannot be held liable for damages.

    Breyer's opinion probably makes the most sense. Although the court ruled in 1969 that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate", which dealt with protests to the Vietnam war, it also ruled in 1986 that sexually suggestive and obscene speech at an assembly are not covered by the constitution's free speech rights. Also in 1988 the Supreme Court upheld the censoring of school newspapers.

    For some legal debate on the ruling, see here.

    Other recent cases in which the majority-conservative Supreme Court — often reaching narrow 5-4 decisions — showed its rightward tilt was another (poor) decision on free speech like the restrictions on some political advertising created in the 2002 McCain-Feingold act (although that one can be justified by a judicially conservative look at the constitution and arguably acted in favor of the First Amendment, even though the amendment has its own restrictions...). The right of free speech is waived if one waves a drug suggestive banner during a school-sanctioned event, but not if the corruption of the American politik with money and the filthy smears brought about by many political ads is at hand. The United States needs all the campaign reform it can get.

    Today the Roberts court also ruled against affirmative action in some US public high schools. (More on the issue of positive discrimination soon.)

    Chief Justice John Roberts, the protege of former conservative Chief Justice Rehnquist, was nominated to America's highest court in 2005.

    Scalia is the most right-leaning of the group, supposedly representing the side against liberal 'judicial activism' (former Chief Justice Earl Warren ushered in the civil rights era in the mid-20th century with his progressive 'activism' — when no other branch followed the basic tenants of human rights and the rules inscribed in the constitution, he made sure the Supreme Court did), but in reality picking and choosing parts of the constitution and ignoring the leniency the Founding Fathers intended to give the Supreme Court in its interpretation of the US Constitution as long as they did not rule against what is stated in the constitution itself. Is America really better off with a constitution when it can be ignored by the White House and twisted and misinterpreted by the judiciary?

    Thomas agrees with Scalia almost always — together they form a Supreme Court conservative superteam known as Thomas and Scalia! Seriously, often they are grouped together, with Thomas following Scalia.

    Stevens and Ginsberg are the most liberal of the bunch.

    SCOTUS justices' rough political leanings (more ideologically extreme come before more moderate, e.g. Scalia is more right-leaning than Kennedy)
  • Conservative

  • Liberal

  • Brown's cabinet shuffle

    The new British prime minister, Gordon Brown, has named his cabinet today. The major changes include two different education secretaries, no deputy PM, and a mix of old and new people.

    The commons leader is Harriet Harman, after being elected on 24 June to the position of deputy Labour Party leader; Alistair Darling is chancellor; the fairly young David Miliband will serve as foreign secretary (previously he was the environment minister); Jacqui Smith as home secretary; Alan Johnston for health (previously education); Jack Straw for justice (previously Commons leader; Hilary Benn for environment (previously development); and Des Browne will continue his job as defense minister in addition to a new role leading the Scotland office. There are a total of 22 in Brown's Cabinet.

    This is a pretty major revamp, although some, including the fussy Liberal Democrats, have stated they view this as not enough change.

    Miliband is not as supportive of Israel and America as Blair was; he also wants strong action to be taken on the issue of climate change. In addition, might his family's background play a role in how he serves in the Foreign Office?

    David Miliband's Jewish background will be noted particularly in the Middle East.

    Israel will welcome this - but equally it allows him the freedom to criticise Israel, as he has done, without being accused of anti-Semitism.

    The biggest issue facing him will be Iraq, with three British soldiers killed there on the day of his appointment.

    He is reckoned to be in favour of getting British troops out as soon as possible, consistent with Gordon Brown's declared policy of withdrawing when conditions allow.

    Diplomats are wondering whether, as foreign secretary, he will become a blogger - recording his thoughts in an online weblog - as he was in the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

    I liked the fact that he blogged. When officials not only show their human side but allow their constituents and others to chime in on their policy-related opinions, it assists the transparency and flow of a democracy. It also allows statements and announcements at a less official level than, say, press releases. Policymakers' blogging creates a more open, two-way line of communication between public and government. Miliband got much attention — both positive and negative — for his 'eDemocracy'.

    Wednesday, 27 June 2007

    Exit Blair, enter Brown

    As scheduled, Gordon Brown has taken over as leader of the United Kingdom. He immediately promised change in British politics — a promise we can only hope he can keep (not just in rhetoric). He has already spoken with a number of world leaders; US President Bush said he's looking forward to "working closely" with Brown government — hopefully not nearly as closely as he worked with Blair. Brown is quite the intellectual, but he will have to make up for some of his weak points, especially in comparison to his charismatic predecessor.

    Meanwhile, outgoing PM Tony Blair is to become a Middle East envoy for the Diplomatic Quartet consisting of the US, EU, UN, and Russia. Considering all the troubles of the Mid-East — Israel/Palestine, the growth of terrorism, Lebanon, Iraq's civil war, Iran's nuclear program — Blair has quite a job ahead of him. Just hours after he resigned as UK prime minister... I guess he cannot resist working with Bush on, um, helping the Middle East. The White House is sad the "special relationship" between leaders Bush and Blair has effectively come to a close. Funny how America mourns the lost of the British leader as the UK is, for the most part, glad he's leaving.

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    Tuesday, 26 June 2007

    Blair's last day

    Tomorrow, 27 June, will be the day Gordon Brown takes office as the 52nd Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He will be asked by the Queen to form a government tomorrow. Brown is currently Blair's chancellor of the exchequer and fellow Labour MP, and has been so since Blair has been Britain's leader.

    Blair handed over the party leadership to Brown a few days ago (24 June) following his promise at the Labour Party conference last fall he would step down as party leader and prime minister before the next conference. He announced his departure in May. Since the announcement there's been much analysis in retrospect of the 10 years Tony Blair, the current prime minister, has been in power.

    Considering the important position he currently fills and the even more important one he will have tomorrow, relatively little is known of Gordon Brown. We know he was actually supposed to become prime minister if Labour won the 1997 election, which it did, but the charismatic Tony Blair ended up getting the gold. Brown has been waiting years for the top job — and less than 24 hours it will be his.

    I personally am a bit excited not only because a change in leadership means a change in politics (i.e. more news coverage and more blog posts), but mainly due to the 'war on terror' and fiasco in Iraq Blair has lost his edge. His best accomplishments were helping the economy, reducing poverty, increasing education, lowering crime, continuing the good policies of his Conservative predecessor John Major on making peace in Northern Ireland and achieving that peace, including with the IRA, and helping the NHS — though that was one of his failures too. Blair's worst characteristics were his civil liberties-restricting anti-terror policies and following the necon Bush administration into Iraq.

    Expect Brown to distance himself from George Bush. The White House will likely feel the sting of a very different relationship with its English-speaking ally across the Atlantic. However on Iraq Brown is expected to roughly maintain the status quo. A cautious person from what I've read, he will not want to run the risk of pulling UK troops out immediately and being blamed for making the conflict there worse. He has spoken much on Africa and poverty, being at the forefront of aid and debt initiatives.

    Brown shares the general viewpoint of many fellow politicians on the threat of global warming — remember he was the one who commissioned the Stern report on the economic impact of climate change. He is a calculated, practical man and has shown to be tough on terrorism — is that good or bad? — and very interested in international affairs, such as the Darfur genocide in Sudan and the Israel-Palestine conflict. We can guess he'll be more 'liberal' than Blair foreign policy wise, but to what extent is not really known.

    Here are some links useful for learning more about the PM-in-waiting:
    Wikipedia article
    BBC News article on his known foreign policy views
    Prospect article (year-old) on Brown's foreign policy
    Profile by The Economist
    10 Downing Street (PM's office) homepage
    Guardian Unlimited profile
    BBC News profile

    And here's some good news to start Brown off on a positive note tomorrow:

    Britain's new prime minister, Gordon Brown, will take office this week with his Labour Party ahead of its Conservative rivals for the first time in eight months [i.e. since October], a [Ipsos-Mori] poll showed today.

    The poll, in the Observer newspaper, put support for Labour at 39 per cent and the Conservatives at 36 per cent.

    Forty per cent of voters believed Brown would make a more capable prime minister, compared to just 22 per cent who prefer his Conservative rival David Cameron.

    Still, an early election might not be the best of ideas for Brown. Spring 2009 is the expected time of the next general election. The Conservatives have been doing well for a while now, and it's only recently that the political pendulum appears to have swung in the way of Labor. The Liberal Democrats seem to be proving more stubborn towards Brown than the Tories, demanding a snap election so that Brown can prove himself legitimate.

    So who will Brown be governing with? Justice Minister Harriet Harman was elected deputy party leader on Sunday in a surprising win of 1% over Alan Johnston. From the BBC Question Time deputy leadership debate I watched, she seemed a reasonable candidate. She strongly disagrees with Blair's Iraq policies as well as his media spin — something both he and his American counterpart Bush have mastered. Even during the Blair-Brown transition has the government been accused of burying stories. Brown has expressed hopes for a cross-party cabinet, although a Lib Dem has already turned him down after being offered the position of N Ireland minister.

    The will of the people

    For the greater good, the government cannot not always follow the will of the people. This applies especially to topics requiring much education, which is why there are experts. The general public are neither experts and cannot come up with experts on every issue likely to come up in the spotlight nor are they the government they elect. The people elect politicians and that's why scholarly experts on a range of important topics exist. For example, if a majority of people in democratic country X wanted to invade country Y for no particular reason, if it is for the greater good the government can and probably should not follow the will of the people (unless the people decide by direct vote) and pay the consequences when the election comes around.


  • refusal by the government to agree with the people on an issue is fine because the people elect the government [but see the irrational electorate]; the people should be as well-rounded, however, and educated on general subjects as to be able to make the right decision not only on electing the government but for public direct votes if they so arise;
  • the state should be at the mercy of its people when election time comes, but should act in the greater good of the nation and even the world when appropriate — it's their job, not the general public's, to act on these kinds of things with the political power given to them by the people.

    I know it sounds like an idea that doesn't mix well with the principles of a liberal representative democracy, but the people don't always know best. However, since we are not talking about direct democracy, that is not an issue. They should be educated enough [see voter education], however, to vote for people who will make the correct, educated decision. In addition, when a public vote on an issue or referendum comes up the government should try to educate the people on said issue in a manner not partisan and of an objective educational nature. The politicians should not have to cave into public opinion on a specialized issue, like that relating to stem cells, let's say, but they might do so to help their political standing, especially if they are standing for reelection.

    People elect politicians, politicians consult experts and make decisions, people re-elect or un-elect those politicians on the comparative and overall measure of their performance, etc. Alternatively, in the case of a public referendum, which are usually either local or deal with multi-national issues (like EU peoples voting on the 2005 constitution), the people decide on the issue in a more direct manner and the elected officials respond to the result of the vote.

    In the end, direct democracy is usually fit only for local community governments or for large state/national issues. (In a sense, as a federal nation with a legislative direct democratic popular initiative and referendum system alongside the bicameral parliament in addition to the executive and judicial branches of government, Switzerland is an unusual modern exception.) It may be employed to let the people decide the fate of a nation, region, or province/state/governate, or local area, but for run-of-the-mill and even advanced governmental issues a more established but representative liberal democratic system works better to prevent poor decisions by the public. After all, politicians come and go as they are elected and unelected, but the electorate is there to stay, unless authoritarian rule is established — and even then the people would hold some form of collective power.

    This is a post in this blog's Ideas about Democracy series.

  • 'Family jewels' on public display

    Today the CIA released of its files on some of the more, to use Gen Hayden's phrase, the current CIA director who announced the release of the documents last week (see post for background) — although their declassification has been promised for quite some time now — "unflattering" Cold War operation. In 1973 then-CIA director Schlesinger asked for a complete report on some of the more questionable actions of the Central Intelligence Agency. The report, at nearly 700 pages, has now been declassified for public eyes along with more Cold War-era documents: 11,000 pages — over a span of 20 years (1953-1973) on Soviet and Chinese politics and the relations between the two communist superpowers. The analysis might have been used to aid American plots for internally collapsing the two governments.


  • CIA's FOIA Electronic Reading Room
  • The "family jewels"/"skeletons" collection
  • CAESAR, POLO, and ESAU page
  • Updated National Security Archive report on "family jewels"

    See also 27 June Washington Post article.

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  • Monday, 25 June 2007

    'Redouble' or bust on Darfur

    US Secretary of State Condi Rice attended a French conference on Darfur. On Sunday she urged the countries of the world to "redouble" their efforts on ending the horrendous conflict in Sudan's Darfur region.

    Ms Rice said they could not "continue to sit by", after an international conference in Paris on the violence that has left some 200,000 people dead.

    Officials from the US, Europe and the Arab League discussed how to speed up the deployment of UN troops to Darfur.

    But Sudan said the talks were premature as it had already agreed to the force.

    The Sudanese Foreign Minister, Lam Akol, told the BBC that his government was in complete agreement with the composition of the peacekeeping force, its command, the nature of its operation and its mission.

    "The ball is actually in the court of the United Nations to expedite the operation."

    As soon as the still-limited hybrid AU-UN force is created, no doubt Sudan will find another way to wrangle itself out of the situation, either by playing the 'neo-imperialism' card or another excuse. Or maybe it will just hinder any sort of peacekeeping operations like it has been doing since there has been one. In reality one of the reasons it's taking so much time is that the African Union is very short of troops. These kinds of things also take some time and planning.

    'Sanctions' was a word Rice used often at the conference:
    "Sudan has a history of agreeing to things and then trying to condition or change them or to backtrack and say, 'Well no, we didn't really agree to that,'" Rice said

    Rice is sounding hasty. If the Bush administration would have focused on Darfur earlier, instead of loosing credibility and respect fighting international terrorism in its own special way, the conflict would not have gone as far. Is it just a coincidence that the White House notices and talks about Darfur only after a Save Darfur album becomes popular earlier this year? Sounding more, well, diplomatic is Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general.

    "We have lost a lot of time while agreements have been made that have not been kept," Rice added. "We can no longer afford a situation in Darfur where agreements are made and not kept."

    The U.N. chief, Ban Ki-moon, insisted at the meeting that "slow but credible and considerable progress" has recently been made to resolve the crisis.

    This time I disagree with Ban. "Credible and considerable"? How about half-hearted and dismal. But it's his job to keep the slow process of diplomacy on track and looking as positive as it can within reason.

    French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the world must be "firm" with Sudan. "Silence is killing" is one of the better quotes from the conference.

    Sanctions may be a solution, but they are a solution China — a major business partner of Sudan — is unlikely to be happy with. China is thursty for oil and Sudan has it. China also has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, which comes with veto power. US President Bush pushed sanctions last month; and the result remains to be seen.

    So far any agreement on Darfur has come with little promise of real results; and if the international community won't get its act together, Khartoum sure as hell won't either. Sudan's government backtracks on ending the conflict in Dafur, but then when it is threatened with real action it accepts whatever meager steps are being proposed. Progress on Darfur is like running a marathon with an anvil tied to one leg (note: the Sudanese government is the leg with the anvil tied to it, the free leg represents the people who want the genocide to end).

    So why isn't more action being taken by the international justice or human rights organizations of the United Nations? To safeguard national sovereignty, the UN — not counting the Security Council — has a basic rule: don't help unless asked by the government. This just cuts the UN-phobe's 'anti-soverignity international malevolent government' argument to pieces. Individual nations, however, can take actions like, say, invading a country against the will of its government, and they can have the blessing of the UN. But the UN's meddling in a country's affairs is often limited to just-a-piece-of-paper resolutions, and every now and then sanctions or other serious actions by the Security Council.

    Up to 300,000 have been killed and 2.5 million made refugees, in addition to countless raped, since 2003. The Sudanese government is suspected — and practically confirmed — of aiding and assisting Janjaweed militias instigating the genocide. It's one of the worst human rights disasters of the still-young 21st century and receives less than 1% the attention as Paris Hilton.

    Hamas opens up? More on Sharm el-Sheikh

    This is an update on an earlier post concerning Israel's release of a number of Palestinian Fatah prisoners and other events at a diplomatic summit being held in Egypt.

    From the afore-quoted BBC News article:

    The sacked Prime Minister, Ismail Haniya of Hamas, said he was ready to engage in talks with Fatah.

    A spokesman for Mr Haniya in Gaza said Hamas was "disposed to immediately take up this dialogue" urged by Mr Mubarak.
    (Update: new article can be found here.)

    Is this a good sign of dialogue to come? Haniya's Hamas talks to Abbas' Fatah; Abbas talks to Israel? For all its turns away from freedom and democracy, I must give kudos to Egypt for time and time again playing mediator in the Palestinian conflicts — including that between Israel and Palestine. Mubarak might want to try his hand at ambassador rather than strengthening his authoritarian hold on Egypt. Along with Israeli, Palestinian, and Egyptian leaders, Jordan's King Abdullah was in attendance. Jordan is a fairly neutral player in the Middle East and, like Egypt, holds decent relations with America. I was somewhat surprised that Saudi Arabia was not at the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting. The Saudis have taken an active role in Palestinian mediation, notably cementing the short-lived Hamas-Fatah unity government earlier this year.

    Plus I just wanted to add that
    About 10,000 Palestinian prisoners are being held in Israeli jails, some without charge.

    So the release of a mere 250 Fatah prisoners "who do not have blood on their hands", as Israeli PM Olmert said, is at most a "goodwill gesture", and nothing more. No doubt there are plenty of innocents in those jails, and that their jailing serves as a rallying cry for anti-Israel forces. However if Israel were to let them all go, it would loose major leverage (not that it seems to be using it, but brute rather military force shown to worsen the situation) and appear weak. It's a lose, lose situation — much like the conflicts of the Middle East themselves.

    Blog notes

  • I have re-enabled comments for this blog. Your thoughts or suggestions are always welcome!

  • You can vote in an unofficial 2008 American election straw-poll set up by Pajamas Media at In Perspective's "precinct". If you have a favorite Republican and/or Democrat for the '08 presidential election, this is a great way to see how they're doing with the blog-reading demographic.

  • I'll be continuing my series of summer vacations with a trip lasting from this Saturday the 30th (last day of June!) to the 7th or 8th of July. I do not know if I will have internet access where I'm going and I hope to relax regardless — hence this will be my relaxation trip. I will continue on blog post series Ideas about Democracy (see here) and intend to pick up on How to Talk to a Closed-Minded Person (see here) after my vacation.

  • Israel does the right thing for peace

    Finally one Israeli-Palestinian story that does not result in blaming both sides?

    BBC News:

    Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has told Arab leaders he plans to seize a new opportunity to promote peace.
    He said Israel would free 250 prisoners from the Fatah group led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

    The meeting in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh brings together Mr Olmert, Mr Abbas, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan.
    On Sunday the Israeli cabinet decided to release the frozen tax funds to the Palestinian emergency government based in the West Bank.

    A few points:
    1. It's good that this meeting is occurring and that the parties are showing support for Abbas. Too bad he didn't get this kind of support from the Arab countries, Israel, and the West before Hamas' recent 'coup' in Gaza.
    2. Olmert has made the right decision: peace instead of hostility.
    3. Hamas should seize this opportunity — although since it's isolated in Gaza and left out of the new government, I do not know how it can react in any political manner, although militarily it can stop attacking both Israel and Palestine.
    4. This shows what diplomacy and open channels for discussion can accomplish: this move is ultimately good for the Palestinians and, in effect, the Israelis. Diplomacy and peace, however, take more time than war and aggression, which aren't instant fixes either. In the past Israel's military excursions have led to more political and security woes.
    5. Because of the aforementioned slow and steady course of diplomacy, neither the Israeli government nor the electorate should expect to see the immediate results of this progressive move.
    6. It is likely Abbas will have to eventually form a real government instead of an emergency one in the West Bank. When he does so Hamas should be peacefully welcomed and/or elections should be called when the time is right. International mediators should be called if needed and Israel and the US shouldn't object to the outcome of Palestinian democracy, further driving up Palestinian hostility to them and isolating an already angry people.

    So how did the Hamas-Fatah rift grow to such great proportions? An Economist in-depth report looks at the series of events in Palestinian politics resulting in virtually two governments — one viewing the other as illegitimate, and vice versa — in one.
    Not until last year did the Islamists feel ready to challenge Fatah in parliamentary elections. It meant, after all, tacitly accepting the Oslo accords, which had created the PA. But Fatah was by then in such a mess that it could not even unify its lists of candidates. Using its network of cells as a grassroots campaign organisation, Hamas won nearly twice as many seats as Fatah (though a small majority of votes).

    Fatah, however, never fully relinquished control. On the eve of the new parliament's swearing-in, Mr Abbas brought some of the PA's dozen-odd security forces under his own command by decree. Other forces, notionally under the new Hamas government's orders, stayed largely loyal to their Fatah commanders.

    Its power curtailed, Hamas created its own force in Gaza. America, which before Hamas's election had been helping reform the PA forces as a whole, switched to beefing up Mr Abbas's presidential guard. Hamas-Fatah clashes, exacerbated by feuds between Gaza's powerful clans, grew more frequent. Attacks by militants on Gaza's border crossings prompted frequent closures of these trade lifelines by Israel, tightening the economic chokehold imposed by the West's embargo of the PA. When the militants raided Israel and kidnapped a soldier, Israel launched an offensive that killed some 400 Gazans.

    After some arm-twisting from Saudi Arabia, Fatah and Hamas at last formed a unity government at a meeting in Mecca in February. But they could not agree on who would control the security forces.
    And when election day dawns at last, Hamas will still be there. Many Palestinians feel that for all its faults, it was robbed of the chance to govern properly. Fatah, to become electable again, needs to end its infighting and corruption.

    And we all know the story from there: more bloodshed, ceasefires, ceasefires broken, then, eventually Hamas seizes control of Gaza and Abbas sets up camp in the West Bank and forms an emergency government with the support of the West.

    By ignoring the Palestinian's choice of Hamas for government, Abbas and his Fatah party as well as the outside world that shunned the democracy it had long been self-rightously pushing for have helped create this mess. Hamas was not the only militant actor: Abbas' security power grab — whether to defend his presidency or as a show of political power — was questionable to say the least. Israel and America's support of it makes them look ever worse to a Palestinian people who are, I can safely assume, sick of all this fighting.

    Stubborn militancy (Hamas) and selfish politics (everyone else) have hurt an already scarred population. Whenever one side steps up — like Israel just did — the other refuses to rise alongside it and help their own people escape the trap of death and desolation that mark their land. Moreover America wanted democracy and free and fair election. That's what they got in Palestine and Hamas was elected. Abbas refused Hamas' government; America refused Hamas even though they were fairly elected in an election the US pushed (thus America refused democracy? only more hypocrisy in the eyes of many); Hamas refused peace and coexistence with Israel (in part because Israel did the same); the international community cut off essential aid to Palestine as Israel cut of money and utilities; and the Palestinian people were rejected by everyone. After all, it's the people who receive the full blow of all these poor policies and actions.

    An economist's view of the irrational electorate

    The first post in my Ideas about Democracy series, "A voter intelligence test", dealt with the uneducated voter and how best to fix what can best be described as the stupidity of the masses. Mind you I am a bit cynical about the voting public's ability to make good decisions, but after seeing what has happened historically — and even recently: see the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004 — I think I have a right to be that way.

    A fairly new book, "The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies", written by economics professor Bryan Caplan, analyses the ignorance of the electorate and puts forward some interesting solutions from an economic perspective. I learned about this book from a recent issue of The Economist, and it's now at the top of my Wish List. The Economist article brought up some interesting points of its own.

    The world is a complex place. Most people are inevitably ignorant about most things, which is why shows like “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?” are funny. Politics is no exception. Only 15% of Americans know who Harry Reid (the Senate majority leader) is, for example. True, more than 90% can identify Arnold Schwarzenegger. But that has a lot to do with the governor of California's previous job pretending to be a killer robot.

    Many political scientists think this does not matter because of a phenomenon called the “miracle of aggregation” or, more poetically, the “wisdom of crowds”. If ignorant voters vote randomly, the candidate who wins a majority of well-informed voters will win. The principle yields good results in other fields. On “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”, another quiz show, the answer most popular with the studio audience is correct 91% of the time. Financial markets, too, show how a huge number of guesses, aggregated, can value a stock or bond more accurately than any individual expert could. But Mr Caplan says that politics is different because ignorant voters do not vote randomly.

    Instead, he identifies four biases that prompt voters systematically to demand policies that make them worse off. First, people do not understand how the pursuit of private profits often yields public benefits: they have an anti-market bias. Second, they underestimate the benefits of interactions with foreigners: they have an anti-foreign bias. Third, they equate prosperity with employment rather than production: Mr Caplan calls this the “make-work bias”. Finally, they tend to think economic conditions are worse than they are, a bias towards pessimism.

    Mr Caplan gives a sense of how strong these biases are by comparing the general public's views on economic questions with those of economists and with those of highly educated non-economists. For example, asked why petrol prices have risen, the public mostly blames the greed of oil firms. Economists nearly all blame the law of supply and demand. ... But since everyone's vote counts equally, politicians merrily denounce ExxonMobil and pass laws against “price-gouging”.
    The public's anti-foreign bias is equally pronounced. Most Americans think the economy is seriously damaged by companies sending jobs overseas. Few economists do. ... Hence the reluctance of Democratic presidential candidates to defend free trade, even when they know it will make most voters better off, and the reluctance of their Republican counterparts to defend George Bush's liberal line on immigration.

    The make-work bias is best illustrated by a story, perhaps apocryphal, of an economist who visits China under Mao Zedong. He sees hundreds of workers building a dam with shovels. He asks: “Why don't they use a mechanical digger?” “That would put people out of work,” replies the foreman. “Oh,” says the economist, “I thought you were making a dam. If it's jobs you want, take away their shovels and give them spoons.” ... Economists, recalling that before the industrial revolution 95% of Americans were farmers, worry far less about downsizing than ordinary people do. Politicians, however, follow the lead of ordinary people. Hence, to take a more frivolous example, Oregon's ban on self-service petrol stations.

    Finally, the public's pessimism is evident in its belief that most new jobs tend to be low-paying, that our children will be worse off than we are and that society is going to hell in a variety of ways. Economists, despite their dismal reputation, tend to be cheerier. Politicians have to strike a balance. They often find it useful to inflame public fears, but they have to sound confident that things will get better if they are elected.

    We all know the American electorate, though not alone in its ignorance, is, quite frankly, very stupid when it comes to more important issues. Americans care and know more about pointless pop culture than important politics that affect their lives and the lives of those around them. The people are partly to blame, as is the education system and the celebrity- and sensation-obsessed media.

    Negative buzzwords and phrases like "cut and run", "support our troops", "freedom isn't free", "tax", "amnesty", and "terrorism" shape US politics more than what the words actually mean. The debate is limited to which side can make the other look worse. Politicians are more elected on their personality than politics. There has been more media-prompted discussion on faith within the 2008 presidential candidates than most other topics politically-relevant to the office one of the candidates will likely hold in a year and a half.

    The "liberals" are pro-choice, godless, anti-corporation, Hollywood-saturated, anti-war traitors; the "conservatives" are wealthy, neocon, ultra-religious, blind, war-mongering fascists. That is how each side is labeled, regardless of how they actually act. The apathy of the average Joe and Jane mixed with the fanatical sound-bytes of the irrational political extremes makes for the dangerous state of American democracy. And scaring the electorate after 9/11 into a 'war' mindset sure hasn't killed the apathy like Pearl Harbor and the ensuing entrance into World War II did.

    Angelina Jolie is more revered for being a caring celebrity god than the real international heroes — the diplomats, the peacekeepers, the people trying to make things right who don't get the eye of the public. This is partly because Americans know more about Jolie than Ban Ki-moon or even Zalmay Khalilzad. Celebrity activists, often knowing almost nothing about their causes, are hailed as the selfless heroes our planet needs more of. And they get plenty of news coverage too.

    Marginal Revolution also took a look at the book and pokes some holes in Caplan's argument, such as
    I'm amazed that the public is as rational and smart as it is. Few people demand that our leaders resort, say, to the tools of superstition, even though many people believe in astrology. Our political irrationality is highly selective and self-serving in a "feel good about ourselves" way, rather than indiscriminate. I don't understand what, in Bryan's theory, prevents voters from satiating in irrationality, with truly dire social consequences.
    Voters are less irrational in many northern European countries. ... What accounts for such a difference?

    I believe this is one of those facinating, relevant books that doesn't fade into scholarly abscurity but also doesn't make it into the general public's eye. However, it is — at the time of this post's writing — ranked 390 in books on Amazon.

    You can read the introduction of "The Myth of the Rational Voter" also.

    This book develops an alternative story of how democracy fails. The central idea is that voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational—and vote accordingly. Economists and cognitive psychologists usually presume that everyone “processes information” to the best of his ability.6 Yet common sense tells us that emotion and ideology—not just the facts or their “processing”—powerfully sway human judgment. Protectionist thinking is hard to uproot because it feels good. When people vote under the influence of false beliefs that feel good, democracy persistently delivers bad policies. As an old computer programming slogan goes, GIGO—Garbage in, garbage out.
    This book has three conjoined themes. The first: Doubts about the rationality of voters are empirically justified. The second: Voter irrationality is precisely what economic theory implies once we adopt introspectively plausible assumptions about human motivation. The third: Voter irrationality is the key to a realistic picture of democracy.
    In democracies the main alternative to majority rule is not dictatorship, but markets.

    ...while the general public underestimates how well markets work, even economists underestimate markets’ virtues relative to the democratic alternative.

    So is populism one of the ultimate enemies to democracy? Populists cave into what the people want — but isn't that what elected officials are supposed to do? The perplexity of the government of the people calls into question much of the conventional wisdom on democracy. The forces of populist democracy and good governance often collide, raising a number of conundrums.

    Elected officials should work towards the greater good, as well as doing what is best for their electorate even if that means not caving into some of their irrational political ways. But that may hurt come election time. Are good politicians more populist, doing what makes them look best to their electorate; or is a good politician someone who will listen but dare to act against the public's wishes? Human rights are often taken for granted by the masses. Touchy issues requiring expertise in various areas should be left to the politicians the electorate elect, not to the electorate except via referendum. Indirectly, the people vote on issues during election time, and that's democratic enough. Officials and voters both pick their issues, and I doubt a politician would lose an election over the issue of the death penalty.

    Lastly, how does the market fit into an irrational public and the conflict between populism and what makes sense? Hopefully when I get my hands on this book I'll find out, at least a bit, how market philosophy can be applied to the democracy.

    Saturday, 23 June 2007

    A voter intelligence test, and other thoughts on democracy

    This post is part of my new blog post series, Ideas about Democracy.

    Since I am likely to raise more questions than I answer in this post, let me just throw some out before hand...
    Would education for voters be found against democracy — the right to vote — or for it? Would it help or hurt? It would allow voters to make educated decisions, thus helping themselves, their government, and the system. On the other hand the education could run the possibility of being politically-charged by whomever is in power; plus might it impede with the central 'one man, one vote' pillar of democratic voting? We don't let children (people under 18, or various other ages) vote, isn't that blocking democracy as much as voter education would? There are plenty of under-18s more educated on the issues and who is running in an election or what's on the ballot than those who can vote. How do we measure who can and cannot vote? Could the voter intelligence test, if created, become the next poll tax? Could it be a tool easily manipulated by politicians against their enemies, or to help themselves? How could the change in the voting system come about? I'm sure new and future voters would be OK with it, but couldn't current voters feel oppressed in one way or another? Could the campaign for voter education turn into one of those blind-patriotism kind of programs? Could the campaign result in a nasty political battle taking the attention away from real, pressing political issues?

    Although I support the democratic system of government as the finest and most efficient form of government in this modern age, I do have a problem with the stupidity of the masses. One of the fundamental flaws of a democratic society is the voters.

    How best can we solve the problem of voter (in)education? Much of the solution is simple: education in history, civics, politics, etc., which is why American schools, for example, should teach politics — comparative, theoretical, United States, and overall historical — in secondary school especially. Here are an outline of some of the steps I've thought of so far:

  • education on government open to the public;
  • socio-economic and politics (practical and otherwise), and civics, classes in middle and high schools;
  • higher literacy rate and government-sponsored ads encouraging political education and voting;
  • a limit and non-partisan regulation of political advertisements (France has a good system on things like this, as some do other Western European countries like the UK).

    A mandatory voter education course and voter intelligence test combined are perhaps the most extreme steps, and are probably best perused by theoretical means to find other aids to educating the public.

    A more educated public — especially on politically-relevant topics — not only aids the political system and government, as I mentioned above, but also helps prepare people for the real world, especially in the case of secondary school students. Education is essential to working towards better politicians and keeping the economy running strong.

  • The all-powerful executive

    Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, said recently that Congress has no oversight authority over the executive. Has he ever even read the US Constitution? Has he ever heard of checks and balances, as described in the constitution? Many in the Bush administration have taken the unitary executive theory to the extreme.

    Signing statements have also been used in excess by the president so he can get around the law, without having to use his veto power.

    Here's what the president can do:

    The president:

    * is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces. He or she has the power to call into service the state units of the National Guard, and in times of emergency may be given the power by Congress to manage national security or the economy.
    * has the power make treaties with Senate approval. He or she can also receive ambassadors and work with leaders of other nations.
    * is responsible for nominating the heads of governmental departments, which the Senate must then approve. In addition, the president nominates judges to federal courts and justices to the United States Supreme Court.
    * can issue executive orders, which have the force of law but do not have to be approved by congress.
    * can issue pardons for federal offenses.
    * can convene Congress for special sessions.
    * can veto legislation approved by Congress. However, the veto is limited. It is not a line-item veto, meaning that he or she cannot veto only specific parts of legislation, and it can be overridden by a two-thirds vote by Congress.
    * delivers a State of the Union address annually to a joint session of Congress.

    The president cannot break American law (wiretapping, FBI Patriot Act use, etc.), international law (Geneva Conventions cum Gitmo, CIA prisons, etc.), sidestep congress whenever he pleases, lie under oath (which I do not think Bush has yet done — ?), or commit any number of obvious and stealthy offenses of the constitution and current law. Clinton lied under oath (i.e. Lewinski); Nixon broke countless laws (e.g. Watergate); Reagan broke plenty national and foreign laws and regulations too (e.g. Iran contra). Bush has done basically all of those except the oath-breaking.

    Side-note: while browsing the constitution, I found some interesting sections. I guess most people have forgotten about this one — Article II, Section 4 of the US Constitution:
    The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

    Zero presidential oversight

    This week there were revelations about how both the president and vice president of the United States have managed to remain clear of any sort of accountability or oversight.

    First Vice President Cheney's story:

    For four years, Vice President Dick Cheney has resisted routine oversight of his office’s handling of classified information, and when the National Archives unit that monitors classification in the executive branch objected, the vice president’s office suggested abolishing the oversight unit, according to documents released yesterday by a Democratic congressman.
    Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, disclosed Mr. Cheney’s effort to shut down the oversight office. Mr. Waxman, who has had a leading role in the stepped-up efforts by Democrats to investigate the Bush administration, outlined the matter in an eight-page letter sent Thursday to the vice president and posted, along with other documentation, on the committee’s Web site.

    Officials at the National Archives and the Justice Department confirmed the basic chronology of events cited in Mr. Waxman’s letter.

    The letter said that after repeatedly refusing to comply with a routine annual request from the archives for data on his staff’s classification of internal documents, the vice president’s office in 2004 blocked an on-site inspection of records that other agencies of the executive branch regularly go through.
    “I know the vice president wants to operate with unprecedented secrecy,” Mr. Waxman said in an interview. “But this is absurd. This order is designed to keep classified information safe. His argument is really that he’s not part of the executive branch, so he doesn’t have to comply.”

    Bush too has declared himself exempt:
    The White House says the president's own order on classified data does not apply to his office or the vice president's.
    The White House said Friday that, like Vice President Dick Cheney's office, President Bush's office is not allowing an independent federal watchdog to oversee its handling of classified national security information.

    An executive order that Bush issued in March 2003 — amending an existing order — requires all government agencies that are part of the executive branch to submit to oversight. Although it doesn't specifically say so, Bush's order was not meant to apply to the vice president's office or the president's office, a White House spokesman said.

    Changing the rules — even the ones you wrote — by distorting them. That's the White House's message. So does that mean it's OK if/when Congress ignores it's own laws?


    Why Bush doesn't need to veto often

    Signing statements — legal clauses the president can put on legislation exempting his office from the law — have come to the public eye more and more thanks to the Bush administration. This has been a source of worry and helplessness for those of us who do not always see eye to eye with the White House; and it makes Congress look even more impotent to the power of the executive.

    The New York Times ran an editorial on Friday about this disgrace:

    President Bush is notorious for issuing statements taking exception to hundreds of bills as he signs them. This week, we learned that in a shocking number of cases, the Bush administration has refused to enact those laws. Congress should use its powers to insist that its laws are obeyed.

    The Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan arm of Congress, investigated 19 provisions to which Mr. Bush objected. It found that six of them, or nearly a third, have not been implemented as the law requires. The G.A.O. did not investigate some of the most infamous signing statements, like the challenge to a ban on torture. But the ones it looked into are disturbing enough.

    In one case, Congress directed the Pentagon in its 2007 budget request to account separately for the cost of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a perfectly appropriate request, but Mr. Bush issued a signing statement critical of the rule, and the Pentagon withheld the information. In two other cases, federal agencies ignored laws requiring them to get permission from Congressional committees before taking particular actions.

    The Bush administration’s disregard for these laws is part of its extraordinary theory of the “unitary executive.” The administration asserts that the president has the sole authority to supervise and direct executive officers, and that Congress and the courts cannot interfere. This theory, which has no support in American history or the Constitution, is a formula for autocracy.

    Other presidents have issued signing statements, but none has issued as many, or done so with the same contemptuous attitude toward the co-equal branches of government. The G.A.O. report makes clear that Mr. Bush’s signing statements were virtually written instructions to executive agencies to flout acts of Congress. Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, has said that the report shows that Mr. Bush “is constantly grabbing for more power” and trying to push Congress “to the sidelines.”

    Members of Congress have a variety of methods available to make the administration obey the law. They should call the agency heads up to Capitol Hill to explain their intransigence. And they should use the power of the purse, the authority the founders wisely vested in the people’s branch, as a check on a runaway executive branch.

    When the Bush presidency ends, there will be a great deal of damage to repair, much of it to the Constitutional system. Congress should begin now to restore the principle that even the president and those who work for him are not above the law.

    Kudos to America's best newspaper for the great editorial. I couldn't have written it better myself, which explains why I posted it — I couldn't resist.

    EU treaty discord over for now

    Finally, last night European Union members agreed at the last minute on the EU treaty they had been bickering about for two days at the EU summit (see post).

    Double majority voting delayed until 2014
    Long-term EU president
    High Representative for foreign affairs
    Fewer national veto powers
    More powers for the European Parliament

    After much deliberation at the two-day European Union summit, an agreement on a treaty outlining the rules for the 27-member body has been reached. Many were skeptical of whether the EU's members would be able to get over their specific reservations to varying areas of the treaty. This is big news for the EU.

    The final stumbling block — Poland's reservations about the voting system — was resolved. The solution was to put that decision off until 2014, as noted in the deal outline above.

    Germany, the chair of the now-ended summit, wants a replacement for the rejected 2005 constitution. However, whatever its replacement is, there has been a decision to not use the word "constitution" (oh the language of politics...).

    One of the focuses of the summit and deal was the European Union's foreign policy. Often an EU delegate is sent to represent EU nations; as we saw in the case of the G8 summit earlier this month, the EU had a delegate in addition to the G8 countries. European foreign policy interests, it is believed, are best represented by the EU, but how exactly this diplomacy between a multi-national body and individual nations runs best is still being worked out.

    Friday, 22 June 2007

    The CIA: coming clean

    The CIA is to declassify years of documents confirming many of it's shady and illegal Cold War practices. Topics like this — knowing, or rather not knowing, what a supposedly free and democratic country as the United States was and still is doing against any measure of human rights, freedoms, and more — get me a bit fired up.

    The Washington Post reported:

    The CIA will declassify hundreds of pages of long-secret records detailing some of the intelligence agency's worst illegal abuses -- the so-called "family jewels" documenting a quarter-century of overseas assassination attempts, domestic spying, kidnapping and infiltration of leftist groups from the 1950s to the 1970s, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said yesterday.

    The documents, to be publicly released next week, also include accounts of break-ins and theft, the agency's opening of private mail to and from China and the Soviet Union, wiretaps and surveillance of journalists, and a series of "unwitting" tests on U.S. civilians, including the use of drugs.

    "Most of it is unflattering, but it is CIA's history," Hayden said in a speech to a conference of foreign policy historians. The documents have been sought for decades by historians, journalists and conspiracy theorists and have been the subject of many fruitless Freedom of Information Act requests.
    The CIA documents scheduled for release next week, Hayden said yesterday, "provide a glimpse of a very different time and a very different agency."
    Hayden's speech and some questions that followed evoked more recent criticism of the intelligence community, which has been accused of illegal wiretapping, infiltration of antiwar groups, and kidnapping and torturing of terrorism suspects.

    The BBC went further into what exactly these papers will reveal.
    The papers, to be released next week, will detail assassination plots, domestic spying and wiretapping, kidnapping and human experiments.

    Many of the incidents are already known, but the documents are expected to give more comprehensive accounts.
    Among the incidents that were said to "present legal questions" were:

    * the confinement of a Soviet defector in the mid-1960s
    * assassination plots of foreign leaders, including Cuba's Fidel Castro
    * wiretapping and surveillance of journalists
    * behaviour modification experiments on "unwitting" US citizens
    * surveillance of dissident groups between 1967 and 1971
    * opening from 1953 to 1973 of letters to and from the Soviet Union; from 1969 to 1972 of mail to and from China

    These actions are not those of an agency of a free, liberal democratic government. While not turning into a paranoid, "everyone's out to get me"-ist, a citizen should always remain aware of what his or her government is doing to prevent the removal of their own liberties. Those of us who live in America, Germany, India, and other democratic countries should protect our freedom by using the powers democratic governance gives us; those who live in unfree states should also do what they can for freedoms. Moreover, fake wars are no excuse for taking away the freedom of citizens or of others outside of the country. Doing so is counter-intuitive and, as I said before, not the actions of a free state.

    People like former secretary of state and still-foreign policy leader Henry Kissinger want skeletons like these to remain in the dark closets of the CIA, so to speak. He has fought any investigation into America's intelligence agency's misdeeds. Perhaps the reason he fights against the ugly truth is because he himself was a proponent of despicable policy, like bombing civilians in Cambodia or overthrowing democratically-elected world leaders and killing many for the sake of posturing. Why stoop to the enemy's level? Who did Kissinger turn to to commit these misdeeds? The CIA. These are no conspiracy theories.

    In 1975, CIA Director William Colby told then-President Gerald Ford that his summary of the CIA's activity had descriptions of "things [the CIA] shouldn't have done". A day later on 4 January, Secretary of State Kissinger told Ford that divulging these documents — in effect telling a nation the truth about all the horrible things its government has been doing — would result in a political disaster, like a new Watergate. Further withholding information of illegal and shady deeds from the public for your own political security is pretty sad on the part of Kissinger and the Ford administration.

    While it's good that the CIA is finally doing this (a bit late though), I wonder how exactly some of these — need I emphasize it more — horrible acts are, as Hayden calls them, "crown jewels". Moreover they are reminders of a time which I for one hope America never returns too. The Cold War was much worse than the current GWOT in how the government acted and how people's freedoms were suppressed — but that's no excuse for the Bush administration's condemnable "war on terror" actions either.

    Many of the misdeeds listed above were similar to what the unfree, authoritarian Soviet government agencies were doing, just as Bush is in some ways using similar scare tactics as the terrorists he is fighting against. See a pattern? An enemy develops, government takes advantage of people's fear, government gains power and engages in illegal and bad activities for its own power and for whatever other reasons in its 'war'.

    Nowadays the CIA is actually weak. It has lost the badge of authority it carried as it painted a picture of the Red Army marching across American soil and performed commonly operations like the ones listed above. Now the Defense Department has far more power; the CIA is underfunded and the intelligence community often thrust aside — even when it is right, like in the case of 9/11 and the failure in Iraq; and more directly under the president's political authority, the FBI is more notorious for restrictions of domestic civil liberties.

    For a bit more on the foreign policy of America during and before the Cold War, see my Monroe Doctrine essay. The National Security Archive has a page on these "family jewels".
    The Central Intelligence Agency violated its charter for 25 years until revelations of illegal wiretapping, domestic surveillance, assassination plots, and human experimentation led to official investigations and reforms in the 1970s, according to declassified documents posted today on the Web by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

    Let's just hope that chapter in the American intelligence community's history has come to a close, or is to end at least with the next president. I highly recommend checking out the archive page linked above; it also documents all the CIA's broken promises of declassification — making Hayden's announcement look less and less like a positive step forward and more like something that should have happened long ago.

    Competition troubles at the EU summit

    One of the things holding Europe back from reaping more financial successes are the restrictive anti-competition laws and practices. Outside firm A is proposing to buy European firm B, the courts or government step in, deal falls through. Though necessary at times — such as to prevent monopolies and safeguard finances — meddling protectionist measures like these muck up the free market. We are seeing this time and time again, especially as more foreign funds attempt to buy up both successful and failing European firms.

    Another issue, is bankruptcy laws in Europe. In America more liberal business bankruptcy laws have allowed new start-up firms like, say, Google and Digg to flourish in the tech entrepreneurial hotbed of Silicon Valley. Perhaps the reason Europe does not have a Silicon Valley of its own is because of its less friendly, more restrictive bankruptcy laws. The lack of new start-ups and fresh ideas indeed feeds into the lack of competition. And competition is a fuel the market economy needs.

    This is related to the European Union summit going on right now in that competition and the free markets has been a major issue. Which leads us to Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France, who received the backing of The Economist because of his reformist economical stance. The free marketers' candidate appears to have reservations about, well, free markets at this EU summit.

    HAS Nicolas Sarkozy really dealt a nasty blow to the free-market foundations of Europe? The question has caused much confusion at a European Union summit unfolding in Brussels. It emerged on Thursday June 21st that France’s new president had succeeded in removing “free and undistorted competition” from a list of the EU’s core objectives at the top of a new “reform treaty” being thrashed to replace the defunct constitution.
    During his campaign to become president he presented rival public faces: the pro-business reformer alongside the populist defender of French national interests. The elections won, it is still not clear which of these is the true Mr Sarkozy.

    The EU treaty is at the top of this summit's agenda, and is why it is receiving so much attention. Whenever most countries agree, there seems to always be one or two that have their own (selfish) reservations. And yes, for the sake of sovereignty and answering to the voting public, it is important for a country to stand up for what's best for it, but some cases aren't as clear. Sometimes diplomats and leaders should ask themselves, 'Is it worth it to fight for this when there are so many other things I may need to stand up for my country?'

    There is, however, good news. Apparently Sarkozy has been convinced to let some things go in his one-man battle against the competition law in the EU treaty. Sarkozy may have gotten "free and undistorted competition" taken out from the treaty's preamble, but
    sources in Brussels say a legally binding protocol will be added that protects existing competition law.

    So all this fuss over just a superficial word change?

    With Mr Sarkozy's change also remaining in place, he will be able to tell the French voters he has defended French jobs.
    French President Nicolas Sarkozy has already said that there are 13 references to free market competition in existing EU treaties, so the EU's powers over competition would not be changed.

    Leaders of the 27 EU states are meeting in Brussels to agree the main parameters for a new EU treaty.

    A future conference would then decide the final text.

    The treaty is designed to replace the planned European Constitution, which was rejected by both French and Dutch voters two years ago.

    France's economy is far too bogged down by regulation and government intervention. The public sector often makes the private sector look tiny. Contrary to the wishes of the old left, such a gigantic public sector isn't good for the workers either: notice how there always seems to be a giant worker's protest going on in France? Even though its government-run health system is arguably better than the United States' — and it's free — French doctors get paid one-third of what their American counterparts take home. The government cannot afford much more. While I am in favor of state-run national health services in many cases, France needs to open up and privatize many areas of its economy.

    Next bump in the path to a new EU treaty: Poland doesn't want Germany to have too much power. I can sympathize to an extent, since Poland is still being bullied (e.g. energy wise) by Germany and Russia, but playing war card isn't an acceptable move. The trouble is over a voting system of the EU; Poland wants more votes to compensate for lives lost in the Second World War. This Poland versus Germany battle looks to continue, as the United Kingdom throws it's hat into the ring too — questionably at that.

    In addition,

    draft treaty submitted for debate at the summit makes several concessions to EU member states that had opposed key parts of the planned constitution.

    Proposed changes include:

    * Removing any mention of the word "constitution"
    * Providing countries with a chance to opt out of EU policies in the area of policing and criminal law
    * New voting system to approve decisions
    * Full-time president of European Council instead of current system where members take six-month turns
    * New foreign affairs head and a smaller commission

    Correspondents say failure to reach a deal on the treaty would plunge the EU into a fresh crisis as deep as the one that followed the rejection of the constitution two years ago.
    A draft treaty submitted for debate at the summit makes several concessions to EU member states that had opposed key parts of the planned constitution.

    Proposed changes include:

    * Removing any mention of the word "constitution"
    * Providing countries with a chance to opt out of EU policies in the area of policing and criminal law
    * New voting system to approve decisions
    * Full-time president of European Council instead of current system where members take six-month turns
    * New foreign affairs head and a smaller commission

    Correspondents say failure to reach a deal on the treaty would plunge the EU into a fresh crisis as deep as the one that followed the rejection of the constitution two years ago.

    Britain has also been the target of some complaint. It has backed out of various areas, seeking special treatment, and the negotiating "has been shambolic, according to one insider", says BBC's Europe editor Mark Mardell.

    The summit, at two days long, will end today and the future of the EU and the constitution, or whatever they aim to call it, is at stake. Many quarrels deal with political language, and some are bringing up issues of long ago to their advantage.
    To see some countries' stances and what they will attempt to exempt themselves from, and more, see here. The agreement of 27 diverse nations — with political rifts between many of them — is a tough goal. However, the European Union treaty must be tackled before people loose yet more hope. leads to time lost

    I have not blogged today for the same reason I have done few other things I also do: I am addicted.

    When I first heard about the website called, I saw it as just another Q&A site. I was wrong. I am now addicted to

    You can see my profile here.

    It's time for a self-intervention. I had to do the same thing last year after I had a Wikipedia editing and writing addiction hangover from the summer into the fall.

    In the past I've had forum addictions too. This is serious stuff. I just looked at the clock and noticed I've spend hours upon hours arguably wasting time on the internet.

    I will be blogging more tomorrow!

    Wednesday, 20 June 2007

    The deja vu veto

    Every once in a while, one sees something in the news and thinks, 'Haven't I seen this before?'. That's what happened when I saw the story of President Bush's second veto on the BBC News front page.

    Today, Bush wasted his third ever veto on something very similar to the thing he vetoed a few years ago: stem cells.

    US President George W Bush has vetoed a bill that would have eased restrictions on federally-funded stem-cell research.

    He also issued an executive order encouraging scientists to focus on ways to conduct research without using stem cells from human embryos.

    Mr Bush said advances must be pursued in a way "that respects human dignity and upholds our moral values".

    The Democratic-led Congress is expected to try to override the veto but is unlikely to get enough votes.

    Last time Congress had nearly enough votes for an override — which requires 2/3 of both the House and Senate. Now that it is majority-Democrat, the legislature might — although party politics sometimes keep loyalties cemented in votes — have a shot at overriding the executive. Unlike with Iraq, voter risk for Democrats on challenging Bush is low, too. The bill flew easily through Congress up to this point, but can an override happen?
    ...the issue may provide the opportunity for the first of a wave of veto showdowns during President Bush's last 18 months in office. "The congressional Republican leadership protected the President for his first six years and kept measures that he would veto from ever getting to the White House," says Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "That time is over."

    Because his breed of extreme Christianity views anything to do with stem cells as 'immoral', Bush has courted the religious right lobby once again by restricting stem cell research and funding of such research. Back in August 2001 Bush imposed a ban on federally-funded stem cell research.

    As a reminder, this is one of the few major issues the majority of the American public actually has a good opinion about. Most Americans are pro-stem cell research, and why shouldn't they be unless they think the little 'snowflakes' — unborn embryos often frozen that are due to be discarded anyways — are some form of unborn life (hint: the unborn part cancels out the living part, they're potential at best but are bound to be destroyed anyways unless used to make babies or, more likely in this case, disposed of or researched).

    Can there be life that doesn't in fact live? Is the only way we can fight to defend our freedom to take it away? Those questions would be answered "yes" by many Bush supporters who weld great power with their narrow-minded views of policy on a number of 'moral' and security issues.

    Log of Bush vetoes — none of which are positive in my eyes even when he had the opportunity to veto poor legislation that he vowed to nix in the first place! 'The Decider' has threatened to use his veto tens of times, he's very good at instilling fear for his own political aims (think "war on terror").

  • Veto 1
    Date: 20 July 2006
    Subject: Funding for and restrictions on stem cell research
    Public opinion: For the bill
    Status: Long dead
  • Veto 2*
    Date: 1 May 2007
    Subject: War funding bill with Iraq troop withdrawal amendment
    Public opinion: Mixed, on Iraq
    Status: Successor still in the works
  • Veto 3
    Date: 20 June 2007
    Subject: Another stem cell bill easing regulations on government funding
    Public opinion: Affirmative of the legislation's proposals
    Status: Just vetoed... possibility for congressional override if partisanship doesn't rule supreme

    Thus George Bush's war on science with misguided morals continues. Considering how important science is to the modern world — especially the prospect of breakthrough in biology and medicine (see The Economist's cover this week) — this administration is moving America backwards, not forwards.

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  • Sir Rushdie the infidel

    A religious row over the knighthood of a controversial writer turns political, on an international scale.

    Salmon Rushdie — I mean Sir Salmon Rushdie — has a history of flaring the tempers of more hard-line Islamists (can you say death threats? like the fatwa against the British-Indian novelist by Iran), as well as the Muslim world as a whole. The Iraqi foreign minister has condemned the honoring of Rushdie, whose novels, namely the popular Satanic Verses, often attack Islam (it's fiction!). His knighthood has also sparked large, widespread protests in Pakistan and Malaysia, among other nations. This has even turned into a (minor) diplomatic crisis for the UK.

    Whenever any certain group feels it has been attacked at all by a book, a movie, or other works of art — e.g. Catholics and albinos for The Da Vinci Code; Muslims for Rushdie's books; Italian-Americans for The Sopranos — they blame it on mere works of fiction and get all up in arms about it. "Your [type of fiction] makes our people look bad. It is blasphemy to us [group of people]. We will [action taken by aforementioned peeved group]." Get over it people.

    Cross-posted with modification; originally from In Perspective's sister blog, In Perspectives.

    Sarkozy's UMP a winner in France

    So ends France's series of 2007 elections...
    France's new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, had a modest win in the French polls over the weekend.

    His conservative UMP party won the most seats in France's parliament, but did not live up to the high expectations placed upon it for this election. Europe seems to be continuing its turn to the moderate right, just as South and Latin America see a more populist left transformation.

    French President Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party says it will press ahead with wide-ranging reforms, after winning a majority in parliamentary elections.

    Although the centre-right UMP failed to secure a predicted landslide, it said it had a mandate to implement change.

    Its plans include tighter immigration laws, tax cuts and longer jail terms.

    Since it is a pain to write out all the election numbers, here is what the seat composition of the French National Assembly looks like by party (source: BBC News):

    Crunching the numbers
    So the Socialists gained seats, going from 141 in 2002 to 185 in this past election. Its chief rival and the only party with more seats is the center-right UMP, which had a weakened majority compared to in 2002: UMP lost 43 seats. By my tally there are 577 total seats in the parliament, and approximately 349 belong to right-leaning parties, 226 to left-leaning ones, and 2 others to spare. The two biggest parties, UMP and the Socialists, have 499 seats combined. UMP has a 54.42% majority overall.

    Royal couple split
    On another note, Sarkozy's former Socialist challenger in the presidential election election earlier this year, Segolene Royal, has revealed she is splitting with the Socialist party leader Francois Hollande for personal reasons. They were partners for 25 years and have four children. Royal also announced she is running for the position of party chair, which Hollande currently occupies. Oddly enough, this further development of the rift on the left side of French politics ousted Sarkozy's election win from the top news story. Kind of like how the announcement of Apple's iPhone (ooh, shiny and cool!) overshadowed Bush's much-awaited Iraq troop "surge" speech?

    Sarko hearts 'reform'
    Hopefully Sarkozy will reform France's restricted economy. The public sector is far too large; government intervention makes growth hard; and the economy needs to be liberalized overall. The cabinet might now be shuffled and additional aspects of the new government ironed out.

    As expected Sarkozy aligned himself with US President Bush at the G8 summit earlier this year — to an extent. He also worked with his fellow world leaders to push Bush into a wall on climate change, resulting in at least a half-hearted attempt at jabbing the issue. Apparently the French leader was also caught drunk at the G8.