Wednesday, March 22, 2006

War in the Extranational Age

The Global War on Terror is not just a war against Usama bin Laden, al-Qa'ida, or anyone else. It's a war against an idea: the idea that one may use the threat of sabotage and fear against civilian targets to achieve a political advantage. That idea has no nation to call its own; the tools needed to fight it will at times have to ignore national boundaries and at others insist that those boundaries be observed.

Likewise, the Global War on Terror is not simply about 9/11. To say that it is would imply that the war is about petty vengeance, which would not justify the massive effort expended even thus far. It also is not merely about bringing those responsible to justice. It is for nothing less than survival, and yet it is for more than that. The Global War on Terror is an attempt to structure the shifting framework of geopolitics in a way that will allow civilization on our planet to continue.

The rise of satellite communications, the Internet, and the global economy are making changes that are fundamental to civilization. Just as city-states replaced tribes and clans, and nations replaced city-states, a new extranationalism has begun. People of all kinds, enabled by rapid international communication, are forming groups based on shared interests rather than geography or simple ethnicity.

We must recognize that across the world, loyalty to a nation is being overshadowed by loyalty to ideologies, and that the rapid growth of extranational movements may soon cause their power to rival that of geography-based government. At the same time, government is becoming more centralized and planetary. The centralization may include the intermediate step of continental coalitions, but absent some reversal in the march of technology, a single world government looks inevitable. The future appears to be a constant battle between geographical and special interest loyalties for the hearts and minds of the masses.

The world over, mobs enraged alternatively by religious and political demagogues storm the streets, demanding their way. Jihadist, socialists, and affectist posers scream and destroy in an attempt to gain by force of tantrum what they cannot by force of reason attain. Like petulant, undisciplined children demanding yet another piece of candy, these children in adult clothing surge forth insisting on their way.

Their movements take on a will that is distinct from the reason possessed by individuals, for that is the nature of mobs. Once set in motion, it will not alter its beliefs unless individuals, one by one, separate themselves from it by establishing their own identity or by identifying with another movement.

The jihadist movement will not stop until it encompasses the world. If given what it wants now, it will not be satisfied but will want more. It will kill us, our children, our friends, their children, and anyone else who will not merely tolerate but adopt its narrow religious viewpoint and become one with it. It enforces on its adherents the belief that it is not merely their right, but their sacred duty to rid the world of anyone and anything that opposes its ideology.

And the jidadist movement will, by definition, always believe that. The world is a real place, not the peaceful country herb garden in which some of us would like to spend our days, admiring each other's boldness in assigning ourselves blame. On our planet, men can convince themselves of all manner of things which seem right, but in the end lead to destruction.

The socialist movement, also, will not stop until it rules the world. If we give it what it wants now, it will not be satisfied but will want more. It does not seek necessarily to kill, but merely to enslave us, our children, our friends, their children, and anyone else. The economic Ponzi scheme that is socialism requires it.

And in that, we are not the same as they are. We do not wish to force them to accept our beliefs, except our ideal of tolerance. We do not ask that they change even their beliefs, only their actions. As Mr. Bush said, "America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish. We wish for others only what we wish for ourselves -- safety from violence, the rewards of liberty, and the hope for a better life."

Given the foregoing as backdrop, the Global War on Terror can be seen as a first battle between nations and extranational interest groups. An analogous, but hopefully less violent conflict is looming between multinational (ie, extranational) corporations, labor movements, and the nation-states that serve respectively as customers and a source of members for them. Other movements, including environmentalism and more traditional ideologies such as political ideologies and religions will also play a role in weaving the fabric of future geopolitics as rapid communication continues to negate geography's advantage.

So how does one fight an enemy that has no physical face? How does one do battle with an idea? The method chosen by U.S. President George W. Bush is to use the ephemeral nature of the enemy against it. Since the members have to live somewhere, we use our common bond with the nation-state in which they reside as leverage. An extranational movement may not be rational, but a nation is more likely to be, at least by comparison. In that regard, our method of battling terror is not simply a case of seeing a nail because all we have is a hammer.

As Wikipedia puts it in comparing the American stance in the Cold War with the Bush policy on terrorism, "the previous policy of deterrence assumes that a potential enemy is a coherent and rational state that would not launch an attack that would likely result in its own destruction...."

The tenets of the Bush Doctrine:
  • There is no distinction between terrorists and those who harbor them
  • The U.S. will engage in preemptive warfare to prevent terrorist attacks
  • The U.S. will attempt to form alliances to fight terror, but will act unilaterally to defend its interests
  • The U.S. will attempt to keep its military power sufficient to achieve these ends
Those who support terrorists with financing, technology, or in similar ways are complicit in their crimes. They must be stopped.

We hope that it isn't necessary to wipe out our enemies. We hope that it's only necessary to show them that terror has consequences, and that those consequences are a net negative for their cause. While ultimately the growth of rational and positive ideologies in extranational groups will be more effective, it is suicide not to fight the irrational and negative with whatever tools are available.

The time-honored principle in international relations is to show and tell a nation what it can and cannot do, or rather what it can expect if it tries, and then let its internal politics adjust. It can take decades, as with Germany in the past century.

Enforced national self interest is the model by which the world has operated, by and large, since before our nation was founded. The terrorist interest groups strain that model; in a transcendant stroke of genius, the Bush Doctrine brings it to bear.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Tyrant

There is a Tyrant among us. He lurks, growing his support in our nation's capitol, in the halls of academia, and in corner diners and shopping malls.

He is waiting patiently for his chance to bypass the Constitution and rule by His Will alone.

Who is this Evil One I oppose, this charming despot who will turn this once great nation into His plaything?

You already know him. His name is in the news every day.

He beams with pride whenever you hear, "the polls show that the American people ...."

When I hear those words, I brace myself for what's coming next. When the press, politicians, or pundits preface a statement with what the polls show, it is almost always because they agree with the poll but can't justify their opinion with solid reasoning. Popular opinion stands as an irrefutable argument.

Polling numbers have become the new dogma, an authority which cannot be questioned without opening oneself to the charge of autocracy. "What, you don't care what the people think?"

It may come as a shock, but the majority is not always right. No, I'm not so naive as to think the pollsters and their addicts really care what their polls say, because for the most part polls are designed to return a desired answer.

But popular opinion, if it can be guaged correctly, is as fickle as March weather. That is why our Constitution lays out layer after layer buffering the will of the majority from holding sway.

  • We elect a Congress to argue amongst each other, and not just one house but two. Senators, whose task is to "deliberate" (ie, drag their feet), have six years to let their constituents get over an unpopular action.

  • We don't elect an executive directly, but instead our States do. That's partly to keep small, populous urban areas from ruling over the vast countryside.

  • Nowhere in the Constitution is a referendum prescribed.

And yet our politicians govern by polls. Our press and pundits love to use a poll as a handy club. Leave aside your opinion of the war on terror, the Iraqi part in it, and take, for instance, Tim Russert on NBC's Meet The Press (Sunday, March 19, 2006). General George Casey, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, had just finished explaining that troop levels would continue a gradual decrease while the Iraqis continue to take on more and more responsibility for their own defense.

Showing polling numbers showing Americans thinking troop levels are too high and believing that we have little likelihood of eventual success, Russert asked General Casey, "Can you continue to conduct a war without the support of the American people?" The question, disingenous though it was, carried with it the weight of alleged popular opinion.

There are those who label incorrectly the "tyranny of the majority" any action by the majority which the minority doesn't support. That is mere self-serving hyperbole, however, meant to deny the duly elected majority its just authority to rule.

Tyranny is the mob in the street calling for the right to work badly or demanding that everyone adopt the mob's dogma or forfeit life or limb.

As John Stuart Mill wrote:

Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. -- On Liberty

The answer to Russert's question, by the way, is that yes, General Casey can continue the war without popular approval. He is not beholden to the Tyrant; his charge comes through the chain of command from the President, the Commander in Chief.

And I am made glad that we live in a republic and not a democracy, that we are governed by those we deem wise and not by our own whims. I am glad that our forebears knew not to construct a nation to be ruled by topical referenda.

For the Tyrant, of course, is us.

Decision-making made easy

Well, sort of.

A complex decision is a whole bunch of trade-offs, profit-and-loss variables. Each variable has a probability associated with it, and they can cascade together. I use a system of "expected value" summations, and it works pretty well.

For instance, in buying a car there is the price (and the 100% likelihood that you'll have to pay it), a set of features, and a set of unknown costs (maintenance), and a set of emotional value points (prestige, convenience, dependability). Each of the costs has a probability that you'll incur it, and each of the values has a probability that you'll receive it. Some of them are related, and may need to be refactored to make the math work out for you.

You multiply each of the costs and outcomes (positive and negative) with their value to you (on some scale of your choosing) and their probability of occurring, and sum them all up. That choice gets a score.

Compare the score from all of the other choices you could make, and your decision is made.

The nice thing about this system is that by breaking down the fuzzy-factor "value" for each outcome and pairing it with a probability, you see the real cost for each while simultaneously hiding the answer from yourself. Subconciously you will tend to favor the choice you want to make, but be careful that you don't fudge the probabilities.

As a simple example, consider recreational sky-diving. The value you get from jumping -- a rush, some prestige, and maybe some sex out of it somehow -- compares with a (call it) 99% probability of landing safely and a (call it) 1% probability of landing with a splat.

For me, I assign a pretty high value to keeping my skin intact. How much would I pay someone not to flatten my skull?

stay on ground = free + 0 (death from falling) + 0 (fun)
= 0
skydiving = -$50 +
.01 (death from falling) + .99 (fun)
= -$50 - 1/100 (very big number) + .99 (small number)
= (probably something negative, and I have to pay 50 bucks).

As a side note, you can see that the resultant costs of a decision and the cost to make it happen are just two labels for the same thing. That is, whether something is a cost or benefit is just the sign on the term.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

I know my rights

Do you?

I've been thinking lately about human rights. You know, the kind for which men died at Normandy, at Lexington, and Golgotha.

That kind which stem not from the lifestyle to which you are accustomed, not from your power to secure them, nor from government largesse, but those which you have by virtue of your existence.

Warning: I have made no effort to keep the following suitable for the small-minded in general nor for Hate Crimes Commissioners in particular. Others may read freely on...

...We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed....

Those familiar words are the milk on which young American minds are weaned away from innocence and into the stark world of defiant individualism. They tell us that there are universal truths, and that these truths are laid manifestly before the eyes of anyone who looks upon the human condition.

Government, it is revealed, exists to keep men from violating each other's rights.

But what are these rights? The Declaration decries violations sufficient to motivate revolt, and the Constitution, as amended, gives some more examples that are explicitly protected. But the writers of those documents seemed to deny steadfastly the urge to make a complete list. I believe they were wise in that denial, which has compelled each generation thereafter to lay claim to those which were not enumerated and by so doing to revalidate those which were.

Rather than attempt an exhaustive list myself, I will attempt only those which are axiomatic. That is, which rights are the truly fundamental ones, without which the people are enslaved to tyrants?

It seems to me that the Declaration's "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are categories of rights, rather than particular rights themselves. These categories are merely for convenience. The rights reinforce each other, each standing in the stead of the others when the wall of their protection is breeched. All people everywhere, unless they yield them by due process or temporary emergency, have the right to:

Life ...
  • to stay alive
  • to eat and drink
  • to breath air, and see the sky
  • to parental supply of food, shelter, and love
  • to practice their beliefs
  • to choose their own medical treatment
  • to mate and procreate
  • to raise children
  • to privacy
Liberty ...
  • to travel
  • to use weapons
  • to participate in government
  • to due process
  • to equal treatment under the law
  • to speak and write, and to disseminate the results
and the Pursuit of Happiness
  • to choose and direct their education, vocation, and avocations
  • to own and use property
  • to take risks
  • to assemble
People have the right to stay alive, from the moment of conception to the moment they cease to function. Minor children have a right to nurture from their parents, or in absence of parents, from the nearest adult. Parents have a corresponding right to direct their children's upbringing and instruction in the ways of the world.

Clean, breathable air is everyone's right. So is dirtying it with smoke and other pollutants, to a certain extent. I'm not smart enough to say how to balance those.

Assembly can be a powerful tool in the constant battle against overbearing government. Without Assembly, Speech loses much of its salinity and Belief may as well be lost. I still place Assembly under Pursuit of Happiness, because it is not just political, but social and recreational as well.

The right to privacy is the essence of a limited government, for if government can inspect us to any degree it desires then we are in its power to that same degree. We are only as free as we are private.

Similarly, the right to travel is as fundamental as the others. If we are not free to go, then we are not free. Without a right to travel, we can't Assemble, and we can't Pursue Happiness.

I'll conclude with one observation which I hope will serve to illustrate fully the point of the interdependence of the rights. The freedoms of Speech and Press are one side of a coin that has as its opposite face the right to own and use weapons. They are the Pen to its Sword; if government removes one, it will surely pay with the other.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Right to Keep and Bear Nuclear Arms

While I think trying to keep a lid on the Pandora's Box of nuclear technology is a worthy goal, I'd put its odds of success at about the same as someone living forever. Sooner or later, Chance will get you, and sooner or later, someone will make something so awful that it will wipe us all out. And sooner or later, someone with malice in their heart will gain control of a nuclear weapon.

What to do, what to do?

A long time ago, someone noticed that if saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur were mixed together, it burned really well. Others through the ages varied the mixture, discovering that if a 4:1:1 mixture were used, it exploded. Very quickly, in historical terms, someone used the mixture in a weapon. That made a gun, and the mixture came to be called gunpowder.

The invention of a portable weapon that could fell an armored man on a horse changed the balance of power between government and the governed, and also among nations. This new technology radically increased the leveraged power a person could wield, whether that person be a lone assassin, a ship's commander, or a king.

The men who founded the United States believed in the enlightenment of mankind. They believed that individuals could be trusted with their own governance, and moreover that they must be so trusted. It was the right and responsibility of each individual to leverage the best technology available, the gun, and so limit the abuse of that leverage that others around them would be willing or able to perform. They reasoned that the threat of forces was meaningless unless it could be present when needed, and that meant allowing individuals to arm themselves. To them, it was a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for civilization.

Allowing individuals to become part of the mechanism of order is necessary if they are to be trusted with the rights we believe they inherit from Nature (or from the Creator). There can be no right to self governance without a corresponding responsibility to come to the defense of a neighbor.

Eventually, people found other explosives, and other ways to leverage their power. Seeking a way to stop Japanese pilots from using the leverage of their airplanes to destroy ships many times their size, people created a weapon small enough to fit on a truck that could destroy a city.

I grew up in a world in which the only question was which armageddon would get us first, nuclear or Biblical. Those questions went to the back burner for a while when the Berlin Wall came down, but now we have a whole range of new threats, any one of which could figuratively or literally explode on us.

We now live in a world where the leverage a person can exert is enormous, and rapidly increasing. Nuclear bombs, jets full of people, microsubmarines, trains carrying thousands of tons steel and cars full of nasty chemical reagents, space vehicles, and the power grid are all powerful tools, especially in combination, and there are still others. The Internet and the extension of the voice network to cell and satellite phones make it possible to carry out action at a distance with these tools virtually anywhere on Earth.

This exponential increase in leverage, from being able to bring down a charging knight to being able to derail a train from a cell phone in another hemisphere, is still only a difference in magnitude. The principle remains that civilization requires individuals to have access to the same technology that others have. In particular, individuals must be able to defend themselves from tyrants, and a terrorist must believe that a swift, painful failure awaits those who abuse their leverage of technology.

Nuclear non-proliferation is a reaction to the terrifying nature of that type of weapon. The idea, of course, is to keep the technology in the hands of those responsible enough not to use it. These weapons, it is thought, pass a threshhold beyond which the principles of enlightened self-governance no longer apply. People can't be trusted with that much leverage.

However, there are many other tools available to those bent on abusing leverage. Having abandoned the historical premise that individuals have a right to leverage, we are now paying the price. We must police everyone, everywhere at once, while still trying to hold on to our own right not to be policed. Something has to give. If we continue to demand our freedoms without also demanding our responsibilites, we will eventually find ourselves with neither.

I guess I don't advocate letting everyone have nukes. But for a rogue nation or terrorist to get them is not the end of the world. Sacrificing our ideals to stop them might be.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


Maybe it's always been this way. Maybe there have always been people whose sole function is to siphon resources away from their proper use.

But along with the information economy there is developing a new species, that appears to have DNA sliced from the rat, the weasel, and the leech. They infest the seamy underworld of our electronic ecosystem, finding ways to gain advantage by playing the system.

I'm referring to those folks engaged in:
  • Search engine optimization
  • Targeted email marketing (spam, by any other name)
  • The spyware biz
  • Creation of web pages to plagiarize content
  • Selling or employing popup, flash, and other annoying ads
  • Astroturfing and 'guerrilla marketing'
  • Any other deceptive online marketing
They ruin my ability to find what I want online, they choke my email inbox with their filth and useless hype, try to use my computer against my will, and try to trick me into buying things I don't want.

They have no other skill than the art of deception, using resources that aren't theirs to make money they don't deserve. They are empty-suited parasites, "parasuits".

And there's a special corner of Hades reserved for just for them.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Religious Left and Activist Right

For many people, political activism for their causes takes on a religious role in their lives. It gives their lives meaning and makes them feel part of a larger whole in the way that religion does.

For other people, conformity to the values of their religion requires them to have certain political views, and to be active with them. Taking action displays their faith to themselves and others, because our values are shown by what we do.

Religious views become mixed up with political ones, to a greater or lesser extent. Religious values say that helping the poor is Good, that chastity is Good, or that being kind to other species is Good. Adherents then are prone to wanting those Good things put into law, or at least to have their government support their practice. And it is an affront to them for their government to fund things with which they disagree.

Like numbers brought to life, people see themselves as having a "right" or "left" sign. They belong to one side or the other, and think they have to conform to all of the beliefs associated with that side. The religious overtones for certain issues bring religious conformity to bear. It's peer pressure.

And I think without the desire to be seen positively by our peers, only the greedy and power hungry would be active.