Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Me and Michael Fix Civilization Up

(see photo) gave a talk before signing books at Black Oak Books tonight. I hadn’t seen him for twenty years or so, though I had met some students who have worked with him. He’s emeritus too, and I gather he lives in an , I think in Marin County. He is adviser for a at UC exactly like mine . In his speech he mentioned the changes that took place during the sixteenth century that made explode into worldwide dominance. But that is at an end, he said. We have to stop it.

During the question period after his speech, I felt compelled to introduce myself and announce that the argument of my own new book is almost exactly the opposite of his. He greeted me warmly, and we debated for about ten minutes about two issues. My main objection was to his categorical dismissing of the . Michael believes that all the world’s looming calamities result from one single cause: the “” that his friend also locates at the root of all our troubles. And this spiritual crisis is caused by the mass media. He believes, therefore, that the only solution is to “abstain” from the mass media, with its advertising, which inevitably makes one materialistic, greedy, and ready to use violence against others. Only by avoiding it can we gain the opportunity to create culture of

I said that the mass media do not rot the brain. No medium is inherently either good or bad, for everything depends on its content. Nor do we need to fear “fantasies,” for fiction is a great way of transmitting great new ideas. Almost all television is dreadful — we agree on that – but the point is to figure out how to fix it, for it is the most under-used and yet most powerful resource in the world for getting new messages out. Today there was an article in the newspaper demonstrating that does not harm the of children overall. In fact, the performance was slightly higher among children who had been exposed early to television. But the article refers to a critic of this research who pointed out its undiscriminating nature. The truth is that television may be good or bad. does influence children to be more aggressive, but very good programming has extremely beneficial effects. It’s not the medium itself but rather its contents that matter. And, as I pointed out to Nagler, his top priority is to spread the practice of nonviolence, and the best example of that is the all around the world in 1989. That was largely influenced by the film Gandhi. The leaders of those movements studied it closely to learn ’s nonviolent methods of resistance. Michael conceded the point.

There wasn’t time for me to critique his other point, but I mentioned the fact that he is critical of ’s approach to nonviolence because it does not require any prerequisites. I agree with Sharp. I’m not sure that spirituality is required to be effective in nonviolent resistance. Training and strategic savvy are required, but one can do that from a purely pragmatic perspective. I knew that this dispute will have to be carried on over coffee, not in the Black Oak bookstore, so I just bought one of his new books and agreed to meet him on a Tuesday or Thursday after class. I'll take some copies of to give him when we meet. It was a useful and friendly exchange of views.

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Dollar Value of a Green Imagination

Suppose you’re hunting for a new house. What is going to attract you more: the marble countertops or the weatherstripping? Exactly. It takes a different kind of mind to pay attention to a house’s heating system or solar panels or duct insulation instead of its appearance and purchasing price. If you have that peculiar cast of mind, you have a “” — an attentiveness to sources of value that may not be visible. And it’s a way of thinking that will pay off, both for your own pocketbook and for the planet.

A green imagination is, in large part, the ability to use common sense — which, it turns out, is pretty uncommon. I mean, it’s only common sense that a which saves is economically beneficial, no? But the (notably the vice president) has long insisted that Americans cannot afford to refit their transportation and manufacturing systems to make them more efficient. But of course, s are affordable because they create jobs.

This kind of wacky reasoning has a superficial plausibility because of the way certain economic indicators such as the are calculated. When someone pulls the last fish out of the ocean, that’s going to be recorded in Washington as a contribution to the economy, just as presumably the government economists of Easter Island must have counted it as a contribution to their GDP when someone cut down their last tree. Washington will consider it a good thing that someone had been employed that day and got a good price for his fish. Only a freakish person with a green imagination will object to this reasoning.

And, lo and behold! A green person named at the Hewlett Foundation (www.hewlett.org) has been studying the actual costs and benefits of that reduce energy expenditures, reaching the remarkable conclusion that they make good economic sense. His op ed article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on February 21. By his reckoning, Californians seem greener than the average American, apparently, for this state now “uses half as much energy per capita as the nation as a whole, saving the average household $1,000 each year, with total savings now more than $56 billion.” This does not happen because individuals have the imagination to seek these savings on their own. Instead, it has resulted mostly from changes in building codes and higher standards of energy efficiency imposed by state for refrigerators, electric motors, lighting, and even cars. If we waited for individuals to demand these changes,, they would never happen in time.

Detroit auto companies are laying off workers because their cars are too inefficient for consumers to afford, in these days of high oil prices. But oil prices will go higher yet. For the sake of keeping their market share, the carmakers had better give up the fight against higher fuel economy standards. According to one study that Harvey cites, “higher mileage standards could create 15,000 new jobs by 2020, while cutting what we pay at the pump by 10 percent, which would save consumers an estimated $35 billion annually.”

Our problem arises from the goofy way that economic goods and bads are calculated. That’s reflected in the famous “” whereby it is economically rational for each farmer to let his cows eat as much grass as possible from the village common for his private individual gain. Never mind that the depletion of the commons grass will bring him, and the whole community, to ruin. The value of the global commons, our shared resource, does not enter into our calculations. So long as the depletion of the – oil, fish, grass, and all the rest – does not count as a loss, it will be perfectly rational for people to act stupidly.

The real costs of a particular economic activity often extend beyond the parties to the transaction. This is a matter of "" imposed on the whole community or some individuals who cannot defend their rights. is one of those “externalities.” If you get sick because of inhaling toxic fumes emitted from industrial machinery, your do not figure into the profit and losses of the industries – or at least the managers of those firms will try to fob those costs off onto someone else.

All this makes it difficult to estimate the true costs of a technology. Certainly the price of is vastly under-estimated, for it does not include the costs of radiation leakage into the environment nor the long-term expense of de-commissioning nuclear power plants and storing the contaminated substances for a million years underground. How much would a kilowatt hour of electricity cost if you included those future and currently overlooked externalities?

Oddly, it is that may change the conventional economic calculations by introducing a green imagination into their official decisionmaking. Its national assembly will debate openly on the adoption of a “.” According to’s Stratfor report of February 23, the effect of such a change would be that the

“nation’s buying habits and manufacturing priorities likely would shift in ways that reward efficiency, the reduction of pollution and improved land-use practices. It is not clear exactly what this might mean for the world economy as a whole, but certainly the manufacturers of efficient and lower-polluting of ‘clean’ technologies would reap rewards…. Traditional GDP measures one side of the equation — production — but fails to consider the benefits gained versus the resources used up or destroyed in the process of production.”

I called China’s pioneering move “odd” because it has not been, so far, a stellar country when it comes to management of the environment. (See photo.) Other nations might have been expected to take the lead here. Back in 1990, Senator promoted the notion of a “green GDP” in a book, Earth in the Balance, and Norway has been offering green economic measures for several years.

One outcome of these new green calculations may be that China will face some painful choices about its use of fossil fuels. A great part of Chinese manufacturing depends on that cause smog, lung disease, and water pollution. If these costs are brought into the equations that guide public policy, there will be newly apparent reasons for the country to develop renewable, non-polluting sources of energy.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

I Hate “The Russians,” “The Americans,” and “The Canadians”

Yes, I know it’s just built into the language, but the way international relations are discussed drives me nuts. Even nice people – friends of mine – write easily in language that I try to edit out of Peace Magazine as offensive stereotypes. My friend Joanna, in an excellent article, wrote about how “the Americans” got angry at some multilateral meeting where they didn’t get their way. I changed her term to “the officials,” and she never even noticed it.

I loathe the great majority of Bush Administration decisions, and so do almost all of the Americans I know. Hell, “” didn’t even elect him! (In my opinion, probably neither in 2000 nor in 2004, but I admit that nobody can prove that conclusively anymore.) I am an American and also a Canadian. If I could pick up easily, I’d also be a Russian, an Israeli, and a Cuban, though I despise the majority of the of those countries’ regimes.

Look, we learned ages ago to be more sensitive than to talk with about Jews and Blacks. You can even get into legal trouble in Canada for creating “” against those or any other groups. But the same people who would be horrified by remarks will utter, in my presence, even in my living room where they are invited guests, really offensive generalizations about “Americans,” as if we were all a flock of sheep. I am also a Canadian, and I have to be careful not to make such remarks about “,” though most of the Anglophone Canadians whom I know do not seem to mind at all. Some do.

I just had a conversation with , an American friend (here the word is appropriate because I’m referring to his citizenship, not his political ideology) who lives in Southern California but studies in the US and . He used to live in Canada and he says he refuses to use the word “American” to refer only to the United States population. Partly it’s because he thinks Canadians are also American. I would say instead that they are also North American, which is perfectly accurate. Most Anglophone Canadians whom I know would dislike being called “Americans,” though, for their so-called identity involves distancing themselves from the dominant United States culture and especially from those holding office in Washington.

Part of Les’s objection to “American” and “Mexican” as social categories derives from his research and the finer distinctions that it requires. He says that there is a “border culture” that exists for a few hundred miles into both countries. For example, he mentioned “” as a “border” cultural item. I thought he was referring to the new fashion in , which expose about three inches of belly, but that idea puzzled me, since can be seen all around the world these days. No, it seems that “lowriders” are cars that have been customized with extra furnishings and lowered on the wheel base. (Se photo.) I don’t think I’ve ever seen one, probably because I don’t live in San Diego or Tijuana.

However, throughout California, the population of Spanish-speaking origin is now approaching half. I don’t hear much Spanish spoken in Berkeley (though more than I hear French in Toronto) but there is an ongoing issue about instruction in the schools. Today’s paper notes that, although a law was enacted requiring all instruction to be in English, there is no evidence that it has improved the fluency of Mexican-American children’s English, as compared with . I gather that the issue is a closed matter, though.

Anyway, I will continue to campaign against the sloppy use of the term “American” to apply to government policies and officials, or to a culture that is as diverse, even polarized, as the one prevailing in the United States. It’s an uphill campaign, though, because of the historical development of language and of .

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Taming the Corporate Beast

I went to ’s book signing tonight at Cody’s. I was easily won over to the argument of The Left Hand of God, and I was captivated by the dynamic rabbi. He’s an extraordinarily articulate and spiritually challenging speaker, though I won’t try to summarize his whole political agenda here. One proposal, however, caught my attention and I asked about it later in the Q and A. He wants to transform the big , which now is governed by a board of directors whose members are legally obligated to place the of the in the highest priority. They are not legally allowed to vote in favor of resolutions that would, say, institute environmental protection or workers’ rights if those innovations can be shown to have a negative impact on the “bottom line.”

Lerner wants to change that. His proposal is to issue charters to companies for no more than five years. At that time, every corporation with an annual revenue of $50 million or more would have to come before a of ordinary citizens who would review its performance and decide whether it is in the public interest to extend the charter another five years. If they decide otherwise, some other group would be given a chance to take over the management of the corporation.

That’s an even more radical proposal than I have been suggesting myself, and mine has always been viewed as nearly crazy. So in the question period I outlined my own alternative: (a) complete of all holdings and plans by the company, so that their doings can be tracked by anyone wishing to do so, and (b) all large corporations – say of about the size that Lerner had established as his own cutting point – should be required to appoint directors representing a variety of constituencies besides the shareholders: environmentalists, consumers, employees, and human rights NGOs, at a minimum.

Lerner responded with two arguments. First, he believes that the representatives of these other interests will become absorbed into the culture of the existing boards, so that they would shortly become compromised, adopting the “profit-seeking” motive that they see in all the meetings. Oddly, he referred to as an instance of this process. It seems that Lerner had been active in the Free Speech Movement, which Searle initially supported. He was then appointed to some official position to represent the students’ point of view. Three years later he wrote a book about how to contain and manage student movements. Maybe it did happen; I don’t recall, though I certainly do recall Searle vividly in the classroom. Anyhow, that could not happen if the representatives of these interest groups were actually elected democratically and held accountable to their constituencies for their votes. I think that is the kind of structure that has proposed. Its advantage is that it allows for reformist movements to become democratic and powerful. However, there was no opportunity to pursue the question at length in a conversation with Lerner. His second argument was that the corporate executives will fight every single liberalizing measure fiercely, and one might therefore go for something truly radical, such as his “jury-judged” model of charter certification.

But I am still convinced that my way is better, and I’m even more convinced after having read a Stratfor Intelligence report by that came yesterday. I had assumed that the reforms could only happen as a result of legislation, requiring the boards to appoint members with diverse social concerns. Not so. It is already happening, and apparently on a remarkable scale. Mongoven calls it a “perfect storm” brewing on the corporate horizon, challenging CEOs and senior managers. He predicts that the usual relationship between shareholders and corporations may change fundamentally in the next few years.

One of the factors behind this is the increasing demand for election of the directors by a majority vote of shareholders. At present, the votes of shareholders in elections of board members are considered only advisory’ they can be ignored. Of course, this means that the managers and directors are not properly accountable. Large that control substantial funds as shareholders are leading the demands for change. Not surprisingly, the executives generally try to block such innovations, arguing that it will “politicize” the election of board members.

But from the other side there is another movement led by shareholder activists whose agendas cover such issues as climate change, executive compensation, and diversity among board members. These activist reformers lately have been introducing resolutions that win more than 10 percent of votes. One weapon that these social critics are beginning to use effectively is a SEC ruling of 2003 that requires mutual and pension funds to publish their . Since other companies and often hold those proxies, it is now possible to identify particularly powerful interests and lobby them. Often such shareholders proposed are introduced by religious groups or NGOs such as Friends of the Earth. They must be phrased in such a way as to question the financial implications of, for example, not following the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but this is mere rhetoric; everyone understands that financial improvements are not the real purpose of the resolution.

Mongoven shows that as the number of votes for social reforms increase, there is also a strong impetus to compromise with the groups behind the resolutions. And the votes are increasing; especially as pension funds have become politically active. The California Public Employees Retirement System is the single largest stockholder in the United States. If you add in the support of churches and state and city government, socially responsible investors can get up to 20 percent of the total shareholder vote – definitely enough to win concessions.

I am greatly encouraged by these changes. We’re going to get some radical improvements in the corporate world faster than Michael Lerner could possibly imagine – and without even enacting legislation to force it to happen. It’s will happen through the moral of ordinary citizens. Hooray for them.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Exchange or Justice?

Berkeley is a great place to find people who care about improving the quality of life for the least fortunate. Yesterday and the day before I had three meetings about that issue – all with wonderful, caring intellectuals. I can’t do justice to their concerns, which overlapped a lot, but it’s a privilege to witness them.

One was lunch with my dear friend , who is preparing a paper to present in Europe about her ongoing research. She’s been writing a book about the commercialization of and we used to talk about it every week or two by phone. It seems that her argument has advanced since our last conversation. Nowadays the process that she’s describing has become more abstract and general. She sees the ongoing social change as reflecting the tendency of the to take over some of the mechanisms that were formerly carried out by itself. This does not sit well with her as a substitute for . Now she’s trying to analyze just what this “governance” is that is being taken over by the commercialization that she abhors. (Personally, I’ve never shared her horror of the market system, which I think has improved the quality of life for billions of people, enabling them to live longer and more comfortably – but I’m glad to join mentally in her project, not only out of personal affection, but also because I admire her quest for a freer and more just society.)

My second meeting was a book signing lecture given by on Wednesday evening. (See her photo.) What a fabulously interesting, wise, beautiful, and kind human being! I’ve been influenced a lot by her books. I think I’ve read eight of them so far, and none of them are easy. The new work, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, is her effort to advance beyond the proposed by her late friend and, indeed, the whole philosophical approach based on the notion of a . Rawls’s views were superior to many preceding contract theories in his insistence that, contrary to , one criterion of justice is that a proposed arrangement must improve the condition of the person(s) in the society. It is not enough to benefit the greatest number of people if that improvement is accomplished at the price of harming the . In a word, it’s not fair to progress on the backs of the poor.

However, as Nussbaum points out, the whole social contract model assumes that the participants forming the initial social compact should be roughly at the outset. In reality, there are several ways in which this condition does not apply. In her book she explores three such exceptions: the question of justice for the , for , and for whole impoverished . You can’t just suppose they enter into some kind of free contract with others, for the lack the capacity to do so fairly. How, she asks, can one determine what social arrangements are just when their welfare is at stake?

Her answer develops Rawls’s notion further, after agreeing with him that those who are worst off must benefit from the proposed contract. Her criterion, however, specifies the nature of such a benefit: it must favor the development of their , enhancing their ability to choose freely for themselves. She wants to support the real flourishing of everyone, not accepting the minimal survival of some. And, like Arlie, she sees the whole exchange model as a limited conception of how to achieve goodness in society. She questions whether the pursuit of mutual private gain will, by itself, improve the overall flourishing of the whole community. Something like altruism is required – a larger sense of “we-ness.”

Finally, the third speaker on what I’m construing as the same topic was , a Berkeley political science professor who came to the sociology department and discussed progressive approaches to in Western Europe. His argument casts doubt on Arlie’s issue as a genuine reason for concern. It is not that he’s willing to turn everything over to the neo-liberal economists and let them privatize everything, surrendering to the power of the market. Yet he would claim to be a liberalizer himself – just one without the “neo” prefix. He claims that there are many different kinds of , some of which actually benefit the worst-off in society instead of increasing inequality. For example, taxes can be cut with good effect, so long as it is the taxes of the poor and not the rich that are cut. Levy explored a number of changes that would have all the beneficial effects that the neo-liberals adduce as justification for their policies, but which would benefit the disadvantaged more than the privileged. In the question and answer period, no one disputed his conclusions.

What did have to be addressed was not whether these were good ideas, but rather how they could be accomplished. Levy’s advice was straightforward. Don’t blame the supposedly inevitable economic pressures for these decisions. Alternatives are possible. The economy (or, in Arlie’s terms, the market) is not running everything, taking our options away from us. These decisions are the result of politics, politics, politics.

I find that a hopeful conclusion. We just have to get smarter about what to do – and then do it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Recycling Sub-Launched Ballistic Missiles

Not known for frugality, uncharacteristically has proposed a thrifty new way of recycling some old military hardware: the . These devices were designed to carry , as presumably they all still actually do. However, there’s no probable use for nuclear missiles these days, whereas any self-respecting gunslinger will want a weapon or two for use against terrorists, wherever on earth they may be lurking. Hence, President Bush recently wanted to go shopping for some more usable nuclear for that purpose, but was thwarted by a more skeptical Congress. Now he has a new plan: to spend $2.5 billion to fit conventional warheads on a few of the submarine-based missiles. There’s no certainty that will go for this plan either, and one may fervently hope they don’t.

On first glance, the proposal doesn’t sound too bad. Why not put those old missiles to work in a worthy cause? Most people who don’t like nuclear weapons a bit concede that the US ought to keep a suitable arsenal of conventional weapons for retaliating against or deterring organizations that may be planning God knows what awful deeds. This refitting program would seem to lend itself admirably to such a prudent plan.

But hold on. In today’s New York Times, offers a moderate, understated op ed piece that reveals the perils that will arise if the subs’ ballistic missiles are converted to this seemingly less dangerous type of weapon. He argues against the plan on two grounds. First, it will undermine the American effort to prevent the of nuclear weapons. Second, it will increase the likelihood of a nuclear war launched by mistake. Both of these arguments are compelling.

The proliferation question goes like this: Some other countries besides the US also have sub-launched nuclear missiles right now: Russia and China, most notably. They will probably follow the US precedent and convert all or some of theirs to conventional weapons in turn. So then who could object if some other nations such as North Korea, Iran, India, and Pakistan build their own submarine launched ballistic weapons, armed with ? Naturally, any such missiles easily could be restyled as nuclear missiles. Hence this American initiative, which seems to be a reduction in lethality, could open opportunities for a vastly more dangerous situation than at present.

That argument ought to be enough to stop the momentum toward adopting the new Bush administration proposal. But that’s not all; the second argument is even scarier. It contemplates the outcome if any such missile is ever used.

Since the early cold war period, the nuclear-armed nations have possessed detection systems of to keep from being caught unaware in an attack by incoming nuclear ICBMs. Unfortunately, those wretched warning systems keep making mistakes on a regular basis. Nothing is more hazardous than the possibility of responding in kind to what was thought, mistakenly, to be an attack but was not. In previous blog entries I have pleaded for the whole system to be suspended and replaced, as and propose, by a system of launch on actual detonation (R-LOAD) of a nuclear bomb. Such a change would reduce the probability of inadvertently starting a nuclear war.

So far, no nuclear-armed state has adopted this sensible, modest change. The greatest danger to the future of humankind may still be, therefore, the prospect of and President Bush’s proposal would increase that risk substantially. Suppose one of those new “conventional” SLBMs is launched, for whatever reason. The early warning surveillance will be unable to tell whether it is a conventional or a nuclear weapon. As things stand, the rule is that the military must anticipate the worst and retaliate before the missile’s impact. The current logic behind launch-on-warning will still be valid, so we must expect that the military will continue to operate by it, despite the heightened risk of causing a nuclear retaliation by mistake.

So President Bush – or at least Congress – should prevent this hare-brained scheme from happening. In fact, that’s not good enough. They should go further and actually fulfill the pledge made by the United States government when it signed the : Disarm those weapons. It’s not just terrorists who are dangerous in this world. It’s not even primarily terrorists. It’s the government of the United States of America.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Only a Fool Learns From His Own Mistakes

That ancient Russian proverb is wiser than many theorists were — at least until a generation ago. Until the 1960s, the prevailing theory had been based on “stimulus and response” whereby one learned from the pleasant or unpleasant consequences of one’s own behavior. Touch a hot stove and you’ll learn not to do that again. And of course that’s perfectly true but, thank God, there are also other, better ways to learn, such as seeing someone else touch a hot stove. Or hearing someone recount the various possible outcomes of touching hot stoves. Or even seeing actors touch imaginary stoves and hop around yelling in pretend-pain.

Then along came , a social psychologist at Stanford University who pointed out what should have been obvious: We often learn vicariously by empathizing with others and imaginatively feeling their pain – or pleasure, as the case may be. Bandura (see photo) named his insight “,” though later he started calling it “social cognitive theory,” to emphasize the fact that the personal changes resulting from these are not just a monkey-see, monkey-do phenomenon, but are cognitively mediated.

Indeed, we don’t learn from the experiences of everyone we see. We’re choosey. We empathize with certain people more than others – specifically with people who are, we believe, similar to ourselves and whom we like. and “identification” are closely connected. Intensely identifying with someone can be a powerful, life-changing experience, for we are likely to emulate such persons and seek to increase our perceived similarity to them. Indeed, we , not only their responses, but also their tastes and preferences.

caught onto this fact quicker than the rest of us. They recognized the value of having people observe an attractive or likeable person using their product and praising its marvelous effects. Nevertheless, we ordinarily still distinguish clearly between paid advertising and “regular entertainment,” when such influences on the audience are not thought to take place.

But of course, they do take place. Viewers continue learning after the ads stop and the drama resumes — and fortunately so, for that means that well-written dramas can help solve the world’s problems. are advertisers, whether or not they intend to be. They may as well try to be good ones, advertising wise solutions to human predicaments.

The solution of most social problems requires an increase of public awareness, and the most powerful medium of public enlightenment is popular entertainment — especially episodic . Such shows present a regular cast of characters who interact, often over a period of years — long enough for viewers to form strong relationships with some of them. Such social bonds with fictional characters can be as significant as those with real friends and lovers. Hence a viewer is apt to change her opinions to match those of the characters with whom she identifies.

This should not be news to anyone. For decades the effectiveness of the radio or television dramatic medium has been proved repeatedly in underdeveloped countries, where it is widely used to inform and inspire village housewives and their families. In India today, for example, one televised is regularly watched by 150 million viewers — as contrasted to about 18 million for the most popular American TV shows such as CSI or American Idol. In China another show also reaches audiences of about 150 million. These shows are produced with the advice of experts who have ascertained what sort of stories work best in educating viewers, and they are specifically designed to get certain across concerning such topics as child marriage, adult literacy, household sanitation, and the prevention of HIV transmission. They are immensely effective. No other medium can match the impact of such shows. By contrast, such programs as public service announcements on HIV have little or no impact on the awareness or behavior of the populations.

But viewers in affluent societies are also influenced by the content of the stories in their social environment. Every story inevitably conveys messages, just as every person inevitably speaks prose, but writers rarely recognize how much power they are exercising. Therefore, their impact is less beneficial than it might be. We in the West have our own problems to address. Popular television shows, in which we come to care about the characters, can inform and inspire us in a thousand different ways. I am happy to report that an increasing number of good dramatic series do offer plots that deal with significant . I have seen, for example, one show about the epidemiology of Mad Cow disease and another about the erosion of personal privacy through the exchange of information by employers, credit card companies and medical insurers.

This is progress. It’s also brilliant entertainment.

Friday, February 10, 2006

A Smart Leader at the World Court

Oh frabjous day, callooh, callay! We have a swell new president of the : Dame (see photo). As are all “dames” (except those in Broadway musicals) she is a Brit. She has been a judge on the 15-member court since 1995 – the first female to occupy a seat on that august bench – and now has been elevated to its presidency for a three-year term.

One of the first cases the court will hear during her leadership is a real lulu: the case brought by Bosnia against Serbia. Plenty of cases involving genocide have been heard in the (ICC), also based in The Hague. However, those have been charges laid against individuals who perpetrated foul actions in the former – especially in the four-year-long trial of . The International Court of Justice (ICJ or “World Court”) on the other hand, only hears cases against states, not individuals or non-state groups. In a Tribunal Report (IWPR'S Tribunal Update No. 439, February 10) Helen Warrell and Janet Anderson describe the particular challenge that this genocide case will pose. In 1994, they note,

“when the court unanimously agreed that and Montenegro had no grounds to bring a case before the ICJ against eight NATO states accused of implementing a campaign in the former Yugoslavia in 1999 - she was one of a large minority of judges that objected to majority's reasoning.

“According to the judges' objection, the court's line showed a lack of
consistency with former ICJ case law and had potential ‘implications’ for
other pending cases, in particular the upcoming case.

“If Serbia is outside the ICJ's to the extent that it could not
bring a case of its own, then Serbian lawyers could also argue that it is
not liable to be sued by Bosnia either.

“Higgins told IWPR that the court strives to keep its prior decision-making
in mind, and ‘certainly [tries] to be consistent.’

It seems, then, that a previous decision of the court has created a pickle for the case involving Bosnia’s charges against Serbia. Of course, one can imagine why the judges dodged that 1994 case, since if they had found the NATO countries guilty in the bombing of Serbia, those nations would have yanked the legitimacy rug out from under their feet pretty damn quickly. (Naturally, we’ll never hear any of the justices admit that this was a consideration in their deliberations.) But Rosalyn Higgins evidently took a gutsy position on that matter, bless her heart. (It is not clear, however, how the court “unanimously” agreed on their verdict when Higgins was “one of a large minority of judges that objected to majority’s reasoning.” I suppose that term “unanimously” was a mistake, so I’ll let it pass.)

The reason why I’m such a fan of Rosalyn Higgins is not her position on the Yugoslav Wars, but rather her position on . I edited a book several years ago (Separatism: Democracy and Disintegration) in which I took a strong position against the legitimacy of as a general principle. And in the course of my research I read a 1994 book by Higgins (Problems and Process : International Law and How We Use It) that clarified a lot. It is probably not the predominant view among specialists in , but if it were, it would settle quite a few disputes. And since her book was published only shortly before her appointment to the ICJ, it is a good sign that her strong views are at least regarded as credible, if not overwhelmingly convincing.

Separatists always frame their demands in terms of a general principle in the UN Charter requiring that “peoples” have the right to “.” The questions are, what does “self-determination” mean? And what is "a "? As de-colonization proceeded, meanings changed. The General Assembly adopted resolutions favoring the right of "peoples" (and not only those subject to colonial rule) to self-determination. However, this did not entail a right to independence or secession but simply meant the right to decide freely. In all cases where the population enjoys , Higgins argues that it has no legal right of secession. (Some legal experts, on the other hand, regard self-determination as justifiable in such instances if the minority nevertheless faces severe human rights violations.)

In any case, the UN has consistently indicated that the principle of self-determination must never disrupt the and territorial integrity of a country. Nevertheless, nationalists have continued to demand separate states in a number of areas, and their claims are widely considered legitimate — including in , where I live.

But who is the “self” that is entitled to “self-determination”? According to Higgins, the ICJ regards a “people,” not as a minority but rather as everyone living within the inherited international boundaries of a given state. Naturally, this definition does not satisfy many separatist groups, but she indicates that it does not jeopardize their rights.

“Of course, all members of distinct minority groups are part of the peoples of the territory. In that sense they too, as individuals, are the holders of the right of self-determination. But minorities as such do not have a right of self-determination. That means, in effect, that they have no right to secession, to independence, or to join with comparable groups in other states...

"Individual members of minorities who consider their human rights to have been violated may bring complaints against states that are party to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights -- but they may do so only as individuals, not as a class action on behalf of a group."

I was pleased with her point of view, though it does not dispose of all separatist movements. It means that legally no state has to accept the demand of a minority group to secede or form a new state — but it does not forbid that outcome if the existing state agrees to do so. If all the parties agree to separate the states, then the rest of the world will accept that outcome. In effect, this means that Higgins does not specify the circumstances under which secession is a legitimate aspiration. Still, it is a wise move in that direction and, if it were accepted, would resolve many conflicts and prevent civil wars such as those that broke Yugoslavia apart and the ongoing one in
So let’s celebrate the elevation of Rosalyn Higgins to her new role.

Journalism the World Needs

There were many causal factors behind the downfall of communism in 1989; certainly personally deserves much of the credit, though he was actually trying to reform his government so radically that the might survive.

I used to go to the Soviet Union about once a year, where I always met with some dissidents who opposed the regime at great personal risk. They all told me that the main reason why public opinion in their country turned against Communism was the enormous impact made by from abroad, especially by the BBC, the (Radio Free Europe/ (RFE/RL). It was illegal to listen to these broadcasts, but millions of people did so anyway. For example, the physicist (see photo) had been subjected to internal exile in . He told me that the men in his village there would go out fishing on the lake with their radios, where it was safe to listen to foreign broadcasts. Until 1988 the regime kept trying to jam the programs, but they never fully succeeded, so the Russian people became aware of the ' movement.

One day Orlov went to a house to borrow a tool and struck up a conversation with the woman there, who recognized his name. She recounted that when she had been in high school in Novosibirsk, she and the other girls would go to the washroom to listen to the BBC, which always kept them up to date with the dissidents’ activities.

The reason they listened was that these stations told the truth about matters that the Communist dictatorship preferred to hide. Broadcasting by , they acquired enormous credibility.

For many years, the United States and the Soviet Union were both “courting” Yugoslavia’s President . In order to avoid offending him, RFE/RL refrained from broadcasting into his country. Some observers have suggested that the reason Yugoslavia did not break away from Communism when the other European states did in 1989 was because public opinion had not been exposed the foreign short wave programming.

When it comes to making an impact on public opinion around the world today, there are still broadcasts beaming out to almost every country, but the reportage now lacks credibility. This decline can be blamed directly on the US government – which is a pity because a great deal depends today on spreading democratic values, especially in Islamic societies.

In 1942 when the Voice of America went on the air for the first time in German, it made this promise: “The news may be good. The news may be bad. We shall tell you the truth." That promise of truthfulness is no longer being kept. The Voice of America instead is broadcasting messages that are clearly , and its content is accountable to Congress. (Mark Hopkins, http://archives.cjr.org/year/99/4/voa.asp)

Besides VOA, Congress pays some $400 million per year to broadcast Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, plus numerous newer services such as Radio Free Asia in local languages.

RFE was originally the broadcaster for the National Committee for a Free Europe, which was founded in 1949 to transmit short-wave programs from Munich into Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Until 1971, its funding came through the , though this was not acknowledged. Thereafter it became a non-profit-making corporation funded openly by Congress and overseen by the International Broadcasting Bureau. In 1975 RFE merged with Radio Liberty, a similar US-funded organization that had been founded in 1951.

In 1993, with the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, some American politicians believed that RFE/RL was no longer needed and should be disbanded. Instead, its headquarters was moved to Prague from Munich at the invitation of the Czech president, who had been a dissident himself and remained grateful for its work. Its bureaus now exist in all the Eastern European countries that used to try to jam its programs.

In 1999, these services were transferred to the control of the US State Department, overseen by a nine-member board of governors, who oversee all U.S. global radio and television programming. The board is accountable to the president and Congress.

Unfortunately, the board members lack experience in , and they do not agree about the proper responsibility for broadcasting. In theory, their “arms-length” relationship to Congress protects the broadcasters from censorship and political pressure. In reality, however, the board’s terms of reference require them to make US broadcasting promote the government’s foreign policies. In one annual report, for example, the mandate is expressed this way: "Our broadcasts promote democracy, encourage trade and investment, educate about health, expose human rights abuses and set an example of the power of a free press for the world."

But the question is: Just how “free” is the press under this arrangement? Not very. The content is biased. The most promising way of fostering democracy from abroad in dictatorships is by means of fair, balanced overseas broadcasting. Some other societies now recognize the importance of this approach. Norway, in particular, is broadcasting into such countries as Burma, allowing for the dissdemination of all points of view. At a time when democratic societies are engaged in a "war against terrorism,' one essential objective must be to persuade Islamic populations in particular to think critically and recognize the value of free speech. American radio and TV shows should encourage a wide diversity of content. Anyone who wishes to criticize the United States should be encouraged to do so. There is nothing wrong with having commentators who also defend the official government policies – so long as there is balance, truth, and fairness. Other points of view should be expressed freely. Only programming of this nature can regain the credibility that was once accorded to the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, and that is still enjoyed by the BBC World Service.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Who's REALLY Violating the NPT?

If I have passed on disinformation, I apologize. I think I stated that the Iranians had removed from their nuclear installations. I may have been taken in by the bad journalism in which I – and all the rest of us – swim. However, Kermit Roosevelt has pointed me toward an article by “The Coming War in Iran,” which denies that Iran has violated its obligations as a signatory of the . According to Roberts,

“The only ‘evidence’ that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons is mere assertion by members of the Bush administration and the neoconservative press. Iran says it is not pursuing nuclear weapons, and the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors say there is no evidence of a weapons program.

“Iran is a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Under the treaty, signatories have the right to develop nuclear energy. All they are required to do is to make reports to the IAEA and keep their facilities open to inspection. Iran complies with these requirements.

“There is no Iranian "defiance." When news media report 'defiance,' they purvey . The 'seals' on Iranian facilities were placed there voluntarily by the Iranians while they attempted to resolve the false charges brought by the Bush administration. The 'Iran crisis' is entirely the product of the Bush administration's determination to deprive Iran of its rights as a signatory of the non-proliferation treaty.”

In my opinion, the problem lies right inside the NPT document itself, which promised non-nuclear weapons states the right to gain , provided they refrain from developing nuclear weapons. The other half of the bargain was that the nuclear weapon states were to begin disarming their own nuclear arsenals, so that in time there would be none of these abominable devices left. In fact, the real violations are those of the nuclear states – especially the United States – which have no foreseeable plan to give up their nuclear weapons, come what may. In fact, the non-nuclear states did not get such a great bargain either. By now, only foolish, misguided souls believe that wonderful new sources of energy or medical cures will come from owning the “peaceful atom.” The forthcoming oil crisis cannot be solved by building nuclear power plants. But the desire to do so can hardly be reversed by rewriting the treaty now.

What is significant is , both in the United States and in . Both populations are deluded to a remarkable degree. Kermit Roosevelt is trying to disabuse me of any false hope that a nonviolent student movement (see photo) may occur in Iran. He writes:

“Metta, Iran is NOT ripe for a student uprising, in my opinion. The are exaggerated by Iranian dissidents in the US and their supporters who want the US to invade and presumably install a Pahlavi as leader. Yes, these students are courageous, but if I had to generalize I would say that young Iranians are interested in one thing: money. After that they are interested in Dokhtar-bazi (chasing girls), motorcycles, football and loud electronic music. They have developed a remarkable level of apathy and cynicism about the possibility of real change…”

But students are not the whole population. The whole Iranian electorate picked a president recently who is either genuinely loony or smart enough to pretend to be loonier than his al Qaeda rivals, who stole from Iran its revolutionary preeminence, after Ayatollah Khomeini’s era. I cannot judge his inner mental condition, but he was elected. Were the elections fair? The US government says no but some other observers say yes. In any case, has a considerable following. Moreover, Roosevelt himself believes that the vast majority of Iranians fully support their country’s acquisition of nuclear power. (For additional support of this opinion, see the piece by Karl Vick in the Washington Post, Monday, January 23, 2006; Page A09.) If the Iranian public is misguided, their beliefs are no worse than those of Americans. Paul Craig Roberts cites a , noting that,

“Despite the clear and unambiguous facts, the Fox/Opinion Dynamics poll reports that 60% of Republicans, 41% of Independents, and 36% of Democrats support using air strikes and ground troops against Iran in order to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. This poll indicates an appalling extent of ignorance and misinformation among the American public. The Bush administration will take advantage of this ignorance to initiate another war in the Middle East.”

Unlike Roberts, I doubt that the Bush administration will even try such a thing. If they cannot win in Iraq against the Sunni uprising, they know they cannot win in Iran. Nevertheless, the acceptance of this prospect by 57 percent of the American public shows the power of . Evidently we cannot count on democracy alone to prevent disastrous decisions. We need help from some astute diplomats.

So what remains to hope for? If the students are not going to rebel, what other possibilities remain alive? There seem to be two. First, the increasingly open declaration by other Middle Eastern states that Iran must not acquire nuclear weapons means that some of them – probably – will play a constructive role. And, second, there is an offer by Russia to process nuclear fuel for the Iranians, so that they need not do so themselves. These offers are still lively possibilities.

In any case, it is sobering to realize that the neoconservatives have been so able to convince the American public not only that Iraq was getting but now that Iran also may be doing so. Fool me once, shame on you! Fool me twice, shame on me!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Comparing Two "State of the Union" Speeches

I was waiting eagerly to read President Bush's "" address, so I could compare it to the one proposed last week by the New York Times columnist (see photo). This is a comparison that Friedman himself invited by writing the kind of speech that he virtually dared Bush to make -- one styled after the inspiring speech by John F. Kennedy when he announced plans for Americans to go to the moon. If Friedman were president, his speech would go like this:

"I am here to tell you that if we don't move away from our and shift to , it will change our way of life for the worse -- and soon -- much, much more than communism ever could have. Making this transition is the calling of our era....

"With all this in mind, I am sending Congress the Bush Energy Freedom Act. It is based on ideas first offered by the energy expert Philip Verleger and it argues the following:

"Transportation accounts for most of our oil consumption. And many Americans have purchased big cars and SUVs, expecting gasoline to remain cheap. That is no longer the case. Therefore, I propose creating a government agency that will buy up any or truck in America at the original new or used price, and crush it. This national buy-back program will be financed by a $2-a-gallon that will be phased in by 10 cents a month beginning in 2008 -- so people know what is coming and start buying fuel-efficient cars right now.

"By removing so many gas guzzlers, we will quickly reduce our oil consumption and create a huge demand for new energy-efficient cars from , which will rescue our auto industry....[B]y sharply raising the gasoline tax, we'll also make sure that Detroit shifts its fleet to energy-saving plug-in and hydrogen- and ethanol-fueled vehicles, which will force Detroit to out-innovate Toyota. And by sharply raising the gasoline tax, we will be able to give gas-tax rebates to lower-income folks and have plenty left over to pay for new investment in education and scientific research."

Now that would really be a speech! Of course, it didn't happen. President Bush did, for almost the first time, acknowledge that Americans need to overcome our "." That's a rhetorical advance for him. However, apart from stating that the solution would come from technology, he did not spell out any steps that must be taken in that direction. It's up to the rest of us to publicize the Friedman- specifics.

And -- hallelujah -- the rest of us are getting engaged. An hour ago I was accosted on the street by two young men who were asking me to join their organization, , which is working to promote awareness of these issues among legislators. I joined. They say that there's a bill in Congress now, , the "Save Our Energy For Our Future Act" that will require greater efficiency in autos. Apparently it was only introduced a short while ago and has not been publicized much yet. But hang on: We'll have a chance to start lobbying for this initiative when Congress gets in gear with it.

But Thomas L. Friedman is still on the case. Today he addressed quite a different aspect of the oil addiction -- one that should make even President Bush pay attention, since Bush has justified his Iraq war on the argument that we need to help .

I agree with him on that point. (Lots of my friends don't, since they don't believe that democracy can be exported.) Well, it has been assisted abroad before, and there is no reason why it cannot be again -- except, probably, in "" economies: those based on extractive industries (especially mining) that can be seized by a small elite. The in Africa have enabled a tyranny to exist, since there is no separate, independent middle class.

But by far the most conspicuous rentier economies are based on oil. As Friedman points out in his column of today, that's why the Middle Eastern countries have fallen under the sway of hard-line Islamic fundamentalists in every oil-producing Arab country that has adopted democracy. This happens because the of these countries have based their power on oil, and as soon as they are swept away, there is no other centre of power to take their place. Friedman writes,

"How so? Let's start with Iron Rule No. 1 of Arab-Muslim political life today: You cannot go from Saddam to Jefferson without going through Khomeini -- without going through a phase of mosque-led politics....

'There is nothing between the ruling palace and the mosque. ...The mosque became an alternative power center because it was the only place the government's iron fist could not fully penetrate."

Friedman's observation is familiar to me, since I read my friend 's excellent book, Petrotyranny, which explained the remarkable correlation between dictatorship and an economy enriched by oil. ( is almost the only exception. It was already democratic when the North Sea oil money started to flow in, and it has been an exemplary state since then, helping resolve conflicts abroad --e.g. Sri Lanka and Burma -- and contributing more than one percent of its GDP to development assistance.)

The failure to spread democracy cannot be blamed on the advice of the experts who went to help put together new constitutions. On Monday I am going to Stanford to interview , who went to Iraq to work on their new post-Saddam constitution. I've been reading his book, Squandered Victory, which reveals the careful attention that he and the Iraqi experts gave to its details. They worried about every little possible shortcoming in the document that might allow a new dictator to gain power.

But of course they could not change the society. As Friedman observes, the splits between factions of that society reflect the religious splits. Independent institutions were never allowed to grow up between Saddam and the mullahs. Pluralistic democracy depends on the existence of contending centres of power in the society. The best constitution in the world cannot prevail in that situation. They probably cannot go from Saddam to Jefferson without going through Khomenei.