Thursday, September 30, 2010

Nuclear Arms Reduction—in Perspective

The Obama administration signed a treaty with Russia to limit the number of nuclear warheads to 1550 each. The treaty must be ratified by a two-thirds vote in the Senate before it can go into effect. Ratification is not a sure thing. Who would vote against eliminating thousands of useless nuclear weapons? Why do we even need 1550 weapons? These are excellent questions with seemingly obvious answers. Unfortunately, the world of nuclear weapons has arrived at a system of logic that only makes sense to those who live in that world where the potential use of such weapons is a given. One cannot understand the issues facing disarmament negotiators unless one has some familiarity with the history of the U.S.-Soviet Union nuclear confrontation.

Fred Kaplan has authored a nice historical introduction in the September 27, 2010 edition of Time Magazine. He points out that at their peaks, the Soviets had about 40,000 nuclear weapons, while the most we had was about 31,000. Just from those numbers, 1550 looks like a tremendous amount of progress. The sheer numbers of dismantled warheads makes it clear why Obama gave so much priority to agreements concerning the control of nuclear materials

Of greatest importance is the understanding of how we arrived at a point where we thought we needed 31,000 weapons. According to Kaplan the beginning of the nuclear arms race began with a decision by President Eisenhower.
“The U.S. strategy (enshrined in Eisenhower’s ‘massive retaliation’ policy) was this: If the Soviets attacked the U.S. or Western Europe, even if no nukes were fired in the process, the U.S. would launch all of its nuclear weapons against every target in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and communist China. (The U.S. had little ability to defend Western Europe with conventional arms at the time, and it was widely believed that the U.S.S.R. and China formed a monolithic alliance.)”
Given this sort of mandate it is easy to see how military planners suddenly shifted into a regime where thousands of warheads were required. When the Soviets began building bombers and missile systems that could target the U.S. mainland, the only “logical” next step had to be “mutually assured destruction,” fittingly referred to as M.A.D. The reasoning was that one side could only be prevented from contemplating a first strike if that side realized that the response would lead to their annihilation. Kaplan puts this mindset into perspective by describing an actual plan for a U.S. first strike, as well as a planned response to a Soviet first strike launch.
“If the U.S. launched its entire arsenal in a pre-emptive first strike....the attack would involve 3,423 nuclear weapons totaling 7,847 megatons, killing 285 million communist subjects and injuring 40 million more.”
If the Soviets initiated the action:
“....the U.S. would shoot all of its nuclear weapons on alert—1459 nuclear bombs totaling 2,164 megatons—against 654 targets....killing 175 million people who happened to live under communist rule.”
One should keep in mind that these were only the prompt deaths. People who did not die immediately were viewed as remaining a threat. Throughout this M.A.D. phase each side tried to destabilize this standoff in their favor by making weapon systems harder to destroy. This would force the other side to demand more, bigger, and more accurate weapons in response.

It is surprisingly easy to plan, plot, and analyze in a world of megadeaths and “nuclear winters” while maintaining one’s sanity—provided you were surrounded by colleagues who were playing the same games. Kaplan presents an interesting quote from one of the participants in this arena, William Kaufmann.
“’It was easy to get caught up in the whole nuclear business. You could eat and breath the stuff....Then you’d move away from it for a while, look at it from a distance and think, God, that’s a crazy world.’”
Currently, as of September, 2009, the U.S. has 5,113 nuclear warheads. The Russians control about 8,000. The other nuclear powers are estimated to have, at most, a few hundred warheads each.

With that as preamble, let us move on to an article in the journal Foreign Affairs entitled Smaller and Safer; A New Plan for Nuclear Postures By Bruce Blair, Victor Esin, Matthew McKinzie, Valery Yarynich, and Pavel Zolotarev. The authors provide background on the issues that drive the negotiators. It turns out that M.A.D. is still the policy. What has changed is the perspective on what constitutes “destruction.”
“A stable nuclear deterrent exists between the United States and Russia when neither country would choose to launch a nuclear attack against the other regardless of the level of tension that may arise between them. Deterrence would become unstable if either country acquired a credible first-strike capability -- the ability to attack without fear of reprisal. The stability of deterrence, then, comes down to an assessment of the viability of both sides' retaliatory capacities.”

“Such a metric of stability was applied by nuclear planners in coming up with warhead limits for the New START treaty. After calculating the damage from a first strike against nuclear forces, they determined how many surviving nuclear weapons could be used in a retaliatory attack against targets of value -- economic and administrative centers. The planners assumed that in order for deterrence to be stable and predictable, a country had to be able to retaliate against 150 to 300 urban targets. These judgments played a key role in setting the warhead limit of 1,550 for each side in the New START treaty.”
The authors believe that a capability to retaliate against as few as ten cities would be sufficient deterrent in the current environment. Given that premise the number of warheads could be decreased much more, but then other issues would begin to be important.
“Dropping to 1,000 total warheads is the low-hanging fruit when it comes to arms control. To make further progress toward a nuclear-free world, it will be necessary to pursue even deeper cuts. These will depend on the state of relations between the United States and Russia, on the worldwide deployment of missile defense systems, on the precision of long-range weapons, and on the prospects of involving other nuclear states in the process of reducing and limiting nuclear weapons. It is hard to imagine, for example, that the United States and Russia would go below 1,000 total nuclear weapons if China was increasing its nuclear capacity.”
“Further strides toward nuclear disarmament will be possible only if the other nuclear powers freeze their arsenals and join in the negotiation process to reduce their forces proportionately. For this stage, the United States and Russia could cut their arsenals to 500 nuclear warheads each in exchange for 50 percent reductions by the other nuclear weapons countries.”
Missile defense has always been a troubling issue.
“That is why strategic missile defenses have to be kept from reaching a point where they can prevent retaliation by knocking out strategic offensive missiles. The results of our modeling for the 1,000-warhead level suggest that advanced missile defense systems, such as the SM-3 Block 2 that the U.S. Navy is testing, would not upset deterrence stability if their numbers do not exceed 100 interceptors deployed by each side. An attacking country could not expect to protect itself from retaliation against its cities if it possessed only 100 or fewer such interceptors. Under current plans, the United States will deploy fewer than 100 interceptors. Russia will strongly oppose expansion above this level.”
The authors are hopeful that further reductions will be attained.
“Once the New START agreement is approved by the U.S. Senate, the arms control process between the United States and Russia needs to continue moving forward. Washington and Moscow could easily reduce their nuclear forces to just 1,000 warheads apiece without any adverse consequences. They could also de-alert their nuclear forces, diminishing the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch. Eventually, in concert with other nuclear states and after progress has been made on missile defense cooperation, they should be able to reduce their arsenals to 500 weapons each. Even after these deep cuts, hundreds of cities would still remain at risk of catastrophic destruction in the event of a nuclear war.”
Clinging to the notion of “mutually assured destruction” precludes reducing the number of weapons much further. Replacing a concept that has dominated planning for fifty years will not be easy. It may require another generation to take charge. Perhaps we need leaders who never lived in a time when nuclear weapons seemed to make sense.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Yet More on For-Profit Schools: The Empire Strikes Back

One can find here another article addressing the economics of these for-profit institutions. It will serve to remind us why they are of concern.

“Hedge funds have been circling for new carrion to devour in the next economic slowdown and have found a big fat target in the for-profit educational sector. The industry is ripe for the taking. For two decades, for-profit schools have lured gullible students with inflated promises of impressive sounding degrees which they pay exorbitant tuition to obtain.”

“In education's version of the subprime crisis, creative financial aid departments obtain government loans to finance the entire program. There are now over 2 million attending these institutions, accounting for 10% of all higher education in the US, and the profits that have poured in have been absolutely massive.” “Early investors rode the IPO train all the way to the bank. The problem arises when few students ever achieve these laudable goals. According to government statistics, 55% of US college students obtain a degree within six years. At the University of Phoenix, with 400,000 students, the largest for-profit university, only 18% meet this deadline, only 6% at some campuses, and a mere 4% of online students. Dropouts end up defaulting on loans that can amount to as much as $100,000 for incomplete bachelor's degrees and up to $200,000 for advanced degrees.”
When last we addressed the issue, the Department of education was going to shut down some of the most egregious offenders by eliminating government loans to programs that granted degrees in areas where the salary potential was too low to justify the cost of the degree. That seemed to be a good idea. Now lawmakers, fueled with election contributions and threats from lobbyists have gone over to the dark side. There is also a report being prepared by a Robert Shapiro that appears to use some specious arguments to counter the administrations regulatory thrust.

This article describes the current state of affairs. The arguments against implementation of the regulation are apparently being spearheaded by members of the Florida congressional delegation. They have transmitted a letter containing the claim:
“In Florida, more than 300,000 students attended proprietary colleges and universities in 2009, an increase of 63 percent over 2004, according to the Commission for Independent Education,” the letter goes on to say. “These colleges and universities provide a unique educational option for students who are not well-served by traditional higher education. Proprietary colleges and universities offer customization and flexibility to students who are single parents, have a lower income, work at a full-time job while pursuing an education, or are otherwise at-risk for successful completion. The department’s proposed rule will single out these students, despite the fact that degreed graduates of these institutions have highly marketable skills that enable them to improve their lives.”
Granting them the accuracy of that statement, it is irrelevant to the proposed action. Successful schools and programs will be untouched. The administration is trying to limit these schools from luring students into expensive degree programs where the salaries available to graduates are too low to enable them to payoff loans for the cost of the degree. That sounds like protection of students from being ripped off rather than discrimination against students with special circumstances.

Why would congressional representatives (of both parties) write a letter that so transparently casts them as tools of the lobbyists?
“’Collectively, members who signed the letters received nearly $94,000 from the for-profit college sector between the beginning of 2010 and late July, according to the most recent available campaign finance data reviewed by ProPublica. Most of the donations flowed after March 22 — the date the first letter was written to Duncan,’ reports ProPublica.”
The report being prepared by this Robert Shapiro is titled “The Public Costs of Higher Education: A Comparison of Public, Private Not-for-Profit, And Private For-Profit Institutions.” Shapiro apparently makes an apples and oranges comparison between private for-profit schools and traditional non-profit and public schools and claims that the for-profits receive a lot less in public funding than the traditional schools. One would have to wait to see the report, but this appears to be deceptive accounting. The traditional schools are all large enterprises with much more at play than student tuition. The for-profits depend almost entirely on student fees, much of which is provided by the tax payers in the form of student loans. The two types of institutions are not comparable in this way.

Shapiro is also quoted as saying that if there is abuse in the system then market principles will take care of it. If students are not getting what they need they will stop attending the schools and programs that are not delivering. To this I can only paraphrase someone much better with words than I. “Market principles are the last refuge of scoundrels.”

We will have to wait and see if the Department of Education can ignore the pressure and do the right thing.

Why Are Professors So Liberal? And What Are They Doing to Our Students?

There is an interesting new book out by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus: Higher Education? : How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It. The focus is on college education leading up to a bachelor’s degree. There is much of interest here—probably enough for several discussions.

The authors provide, almost as an aside, a discussion of the noted liberal bent of university professors and the possible effect that might have on their students. This is an interesting topic worthy of more consideration.

The authors make the following statement.
“A study of professors’ party registrations at the Berkeley and Stanford campuses found that Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a ratio of nine to one. Among philosophers there was a fourteen-to-one tilt; for sociologists it was almost double that. Only economists, with a three-to-one Democratic edge, came within shouting distance of a bipartisan balance. (Nor do we think the results would have been discernibly different at the University of Kansas.)”
They then quote a study which indicates that college graduates have significantly more liberal (moderate, by my reckoning) views on the issues of abortion and homosexuality. This result leads them to make the following statement.
“The knotty question remains whether influences they encountered at college were what led graduates to their more liberal views on abortion and homosexuality. We must confess we don’t know. They may have been swayed by professors, or by a campus ambiance that places a premium on being open-minded and up to date. Or it’s possible that young people who choose college are already in the liberal camp or are readier to embrace that posture.”
The authors paint an image of sly professors planting their views in the fertile but malleable minds of our young students. They then proceed to say “We don’t know if it is true.” That is an unfortunate journalistic construct that is not worthy, or typical, of the authors. It is particularly out of synch with their frequent complaint that undergraduates rarely see a professor, with most of their teaching coming from contingent staff.

Their second explanation, based on “campus ambiance” would seem to imply that liberals are “open-minded and up to date.” The conclusion that follows is that conservatives are closed-minded and out of date. I am not sure that is what they intended, but it is a good set-up for some liberal chuckling.

I think their third possible explanation is closest to the truth. People who emerge from high school with minds that are an empty slate do not go on to college. Students show up at college with a set of opinions. Any one who has studied brain function will tell you that the immediate response to hearing one say something counter to your opinion will be to try to defend your position—not to throw it into the trash can. Changing opinions is hard, and it is not likely to occur from a random comment by a lofty professor.

My thought on the liberalism ascribed to college graduates can be stated simply. The more one knows about complex topics and about the world in general, the more unlikely it is for one to believe in absolute truths or absolute certainties. This leaves liberals relatively hesitant to be aggressive in imposing their agendas on the personal lives of others. Such a perspective leads to decisions favoring choice on abortion and personal freedom with respect to homosexuals. The less one knows about complex issues and the world in general, the more likely it is that one will be absolutely certain about one’s views. This “certainty” can provide justification for almost any act that propagates their viewpoint. Such a perspective leads to a willingness to restrict the freedoms of others and to impose a set of values upon others.

In other words, the most highly educated high school graduates go on to college. People who graduate from college are more highly educated (on average) than people who do not go to college. Therefore college graduates are more disposed to be liberals. Note that this is not said as an absolute truth or with absolute certainty. The comments refer to cultural matters. Liberals and conservatives battle it out on many fronts—driven by an array of concerns.

Is there any justification for the claim made above? Well—some—but not much. There is a study by Benjamin Highton, Revisiting the Relationship between Educational Attainment and Political Sophistication, which supports the notion that entering college freshmen are not fragile reeds to be blown in any direction by the college experience. Unfortunately, it treats political awareness but not political evolution during the college years. My favorite set of data was one that was quite popular after the 2004 presidential election. This article includes a table ranking the states by the level of educational attainment—defined as the number of people with postgraduate or professional degrees per capita. Of the top twenty-five ranked states, seven voted for Bush. Of the bottom twenty-six ranked states twenty-four voted for Bush. This data alone does not provide a conclusive relationship between education and liberalism, but it is suggestive—and it sure is fun to quote.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

James K. Galbraith on Income Inequality

In his book, The Predator State, James K. Galbraith addresses—and often destroys—a number of conservative economic assumptions. One of his more interesting and provocative discussions is on the issue of income inequality.

Discussions of income inequality will generally produce references to the response of the “labor market.” Explanations generally focus on blaming either a “skill gap” or a “trade effect” to explain the increasing separation between the top and bottom rungs of the economic ladder. Either we do not have the right skill mix for the jobs being produced, or low-wage competition from overseas is eliminating jobs and driving wages down. In each case, the conclusion is that any attempt to directly counter these effects would create inefficiencies in the economy and be counterproductive.

Galbraith believes the issue is more complicated. While each of the above concerns is part of the problem, both together are insufficient to explain what has been observed over the past few decades. He points out that inequality is a social choice that a country makes, and the country may be guided by a false premise.
“Does the supposed trade-off between efficiency and equality really exist? Is there really a price, in terms of efficiency, output, and growth to be paid for creating a society where work is more equally paid? Is the moral argument therefore the only tenable and correct objection to high pay inequality? Or is it perhaps instead the case that more equal societies are more efficient?....Indeed we may have the makings of an entirely different story in which stable distributions, held in place by institutional, social, and political norms, come to drive the evolution of technology and the patterns of trade.”
The author’s fondness for Scandinavian methods leads him to propose Denmark as an example of the point he is trying to make.
“Denmark also lacks major industry, and….it is not a major technological power…And yet Denmark today is the third wealthiest country of Europe, evidence of strong, consistent, stable economic growth over the decades. It is roughly the most equal country in Europe and perhaps in the world. And it enjoys roughly the lowest unemployment rate in Europe, alongside one of the highest ratios of employment to active population. If Denmark’s celebrated egalitarianism has forced it to sacrifice prosperity, the evidence for this is quite hard to find.”
Galbraith reports that Denmark is not a unique case—it is merely the standard setter.
“The strong welfare states of North Europe have higher employment rates and lower unemployment rates than the relatively unequal countries of the South. These rules apply across all of Europe.”
Galbraith then goes on to suggest that this is not a fluke or a cultural phenomenon, but rather an economic law.
“In the United States, unemployment and pay inequality rise and fall together, month by month and year by year.”
He provides as evidence to support this “law” the fact that raising the minimum wage has tended to lower unemployment rates rather than raise them.

In order to understand why this “law” is valid he provides this explanation.
“When a society is very unequal, there are, necessarily, just a few “good” jobs and many “poor” ones. That is what being highly unequal means. And when this situation holds, it is normal for large numbers of people to go hunting for the few available good jobs. Long queues are the inevitable result. That is unemployment. Thus, other things equal, inequality produces unemployment, and unemployment produces waste: people who are not working do not contribute to the production from which ultimately everyone consumes.”

“But in a fairly equal society, those relatively low-skill, low-productivity workers are already being paid pretty well. They are within economic shouting range of their more productive compatriots. They therefore have much less incentive to leave their job, even to migrate, and join the search for a better one. Furthermore, highly equal societies subsidize many of the amenities of life, from education to health care to housing: they indulge in the efficient provision of public goods. That being so, who cares to leave?”
And finally he concludes:
“The resulting society may lack excitement. Pushed too far it can completely lack dynamism….But if the right balance is struck, it is capable of producing high levels of output and economic well-being simply because the full use of human resources is efficient. This is the Scandinavian principle, and it is not an accident that Denmark is both egalitarian and rich.”
Galbraith’s explanation for why inequality and unemployment move together seems reasonable, but still arguable. So why don’t we start arguing about it? This country needs a revolution. If Galbraith is correct, then perhaps we have our call to arms.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Exports: Data and Myths

We hear much about our balance of payments deficit, and how we no longer compete in manufacturing, and how we are locked in some kind of economic death spiral. Bruce Katz and Jonathan Rothwell recently published an article, Five Myths about U.S. Exports, in the Washington Post. It presented a refreshingly positive look at our economic interactions with the rest of the world.

1. Exports have been a shrinking share of the economy.
“Given our sizable trade deficit, many people assume that we must be selling less to the rest of the world than we once did. This is not true. Despite the drop in June, U.S. exports grew 14.1 percent from the second quarter of 2009 to the second quarter of 2010, a pace far outstripping the 3 percent growth of the economy overall. In fact, the share of our economy devoted to exports has been growing continuously since its modern low during the Great Depression. Exports now account for roughly 12 percent of GDP, up from 3 percent in the 1930s.”

“And compared with other countries, our exports make up a small segment of our economy. Moreover, recent census data show that most U.S. businesses are focused solely on the domestic market: Only 1 percent of them are exporters.”

2. Exports come only in boxes.
“In 2008, the United States exported more than $500 billion in commercial services. The largest segment of these -- $113 billion worth -- was business, professional and technical services, including management and consulting, research and development, and computer services. Our other service exports include travel and tourism (the services we sell to international tourists, from restaurant meals to hotel stays, count as exports, even though they are enjoyed on U.S. soil), financial services, and Hollywood films.”

3. U.S. exports are no longer internationally competitive.
“With so much emphasis on the decline of American manufacturing (we were once the world's top exporter), many people don't realize that the United States ranks third in the world in merchandise exports, just behind Germany and China, according to the World Trade Organization. Certain industries that specialize in high-value exports (integrated circuits, say, or other electronic components) are particularly strong. Exports of transportation equipment, to take another example, grew by 10.6 percent between 2003 and 2008, outpacing the growth in transportation imports.”

“Once services are added to the calculation, the United States exports a higher value of products than any other country in the world -- $1.5 trillion in 2009, compared with Germany's $1.3 trillion and China's $1.3 trillion.”

4. Trade with developing countries eliminates jobs for U.S. workers.

Trade has positive and negative effects when dealing with developing countries. Low wage manufacturing does tend to drive down wages and eliminate jobs in this country. However, that is balanced by the developing country increasing its imports from the U.S. The authors see the real issue being that our country has no mechanism to deal with this economic dislocation. They suggest “more aggressive and comprehensive unemployment insurance and retraining programs.” I am not sure what that means exactly.

5. U.S. exports won't increase until other countries "play by the rules."

The authors say, basically, other countries are doing what other countries do. Certainly they try to stack the deck in their favor. We aren’t even smart enough to have a policy that would encourage more exports from our business community, so how can we complain. The potential is there to participate in world trade more effectively. We just have to take advantage of it.

The administration does have an initiative to encourage more exports, with the goal of doubling them in the next five years and creating two million jobs in the process. The plan reportedly contains the following activities.
“The President’s Export Council issued a report Thursday that called for a variety of steps to boost US companies' ability to sell abroad. Recommendations included a campaign to raise awareness about export opportunities for small and medium-size firms; bringing more international buyers to US trade shows; boosting the number of US trade missions going abroad; and providing more funding to help finance exports.”

That is not exactly awe inspiring, but it is a start.

For those interested in actual numbers, the BEA (Bureau of Economic Analysis) provides here a spreadsheet with imports and exports and balances, for both goods and services, by month and by year from 1992 to the present. In 2009 our exports of goods were $1.07 T while our exports of services were valued at $0.502 T. Roughly, a third of our exports were services and we ran a positive balance of $132 B in that category versus a negative balance in goods of $507 B. We also currently ship about $30 B a month overseas for oil imports. That is a large chunk of our deficit.

If we are supposedly out of the manufacturing business, then what are we exporting? I found this nice graphic in Businessweek magazine.  This will be hard to read unless you zoom in.  The data presented is for 2009 and 2010 through July. Notice that exports seem to be growing at a healthy rate. 

I feel a bit better after reading this article and seeing the data. I will assume a better future is ahead of us—at least until the next bout of bad news.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Time to Rethink Afghanistan? Cracks in the Jihad by Thomas Rid

Thomas Rid has written an article in the “Wilson Quarterly” entitled Cracks in the Jihad. In it he provides a useful summary of how the world of Islamist jihadists has evolved in recent years. In the period prior to and immediately after 9/11, Al Qaeda could be viewed as a dominating force in organizing and driving jihadist actions around the world. If that was once true, it is no longer true today.

“In the years since late 2001, when U.S. and coalition forces toppled the Taliban regime and all but destroyed Al Qaeda’s core organization in Afghanistan, the bin Laden brand has been bleeding popularity across the Muslim world. The global jihad, as a result, has been torn by mounting internal tensions. Today, the holy war is set to slip into three distinct ideological and organizational niches. The U.S. surge in Afghanistan, whether successful or not, is likely to affect this development only marginally.”

“The first niche is occupied by local Islamist insurgencies, fueled by grievances against ‘apostate’ regimes that are authoritarian, corrupt, or backed by ‘infidel’ outside powers (or any combination of the three).”
These locally formed and motivated groups have had to walk a fine line with regard to allying themselves with Al Qaeda. The rigid ideology and the violent actions demanded by Al Qaeda bring the groups prominence, but they also invite retribution from the authorities and often cost them the support of the local people. The author uses the “awakening” among the Sunnis in Iraq as an example. He also points out that in multiple locations a number of previously sympathetic conservative religious leaders have begun criticizing Bin laden for damaging the faith with his violent tactics and his emphasis on global jihad.
“Filling the second niche is terrorism-cum–organized crime, most visible in Afghanistan and Indonesia but also seen in Europe, fueled by narcotics, extortion, and other ordinary illicit activities.”
Rid presents typical scenarios for local extremist groups. They start with a cause and a mission, but they need funds to operate. The easiest source of funds is crime. They have a period in which they need to sell their cause and methods to the populace. If they are successful they become a political force. If they do not succeed they lose favor and are left with only the criminal activities.
“Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb funds itself through the drug trade, smuggling, extortion, and kidnappings in southern Algeria and northern Mali. Indonesia’s Abu Sayyaf Group and the Philippines’ Jamiyah Islamiyah engage in a variety of criminal activities, including credit card fraud. The terrorist cell behind the 2004 Madrid bombings earned most of its money from criminal activities; when Spanish police raided the home of one of the plotters, they seized close to $2 million in drugs and cash, including more than 125,000 Ecstasy tablets, according to U.S. News and World Report. The Madrid bombings had cost the terrorists just $50,000.”
While Al Qaeda’s influence and popularity may be on the wane, it is still able to attract recruits although some of them are more trouble than they are worth.
“In the final niche are people who barely qualify as a group: young second- and third-generation Muslims in the diaspora who are engaged in a more amateurish but persistent holy war, fueled by their own complex personal discontents.”
Second or third generation Muslim immigrants often face an identity crisis, feeling like outsiders in their inherited countries. They often find some feeling of “belonging” in a religiously driven mission like international jihad. These people often come from well-off families and are mainly driven by individual motives that produce erratic behavior and results.
“The grievances and motivations of European extremists and the rare American militants tend to be idiosyncratic, the product of unstable individual personalities and a history of personal discrimination. Many take the initiative to join the movement themselves, and because they are not recruited by a member of the existing organization, their ties to it may remain loose. In 2008 alone, 190 individuals were sentenced for Islamist terrorist activities in Europe, most of them in Britain, France, and Spain. ‘A majority of the arrested individuals belonged to small autonomous cells rather than to known terrorist organizations,’ EUROPOL reports.”
There are other indications of displeasure with Al Qaeda and their methods. The author points out that when an Al Qaeda group tried to set itself up in Gaza, the Hamas leaders had members executed. Polling indicates that Al Qaeda is losing favor throughout the Islamic world.
“Eight years after 9/11, support for Islamic extremism in the Muslim world is at its lowest point. Support for Al Qaeda has slipped most dramatically in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Jordan. In 2003, more than 50 percent of those surveyed in these countries agreed that bin Laden would “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” the Pew Global Attitudes Project found. By 2009 the overall level of support had dropped by half, to about 25 percent. In Pakistan, traditionally a stronghold of extremism, only nine percent of Muslims have a favorable view of Al Qaeda, down from 25 percent in 2008. Even an American failure to stabilize Afghanistan and its terror-ridden neighborhood would be unlikely to ease Al Qaeda’s crisis of legitimacy.”
The author provides us with an image of Al Qaeda as an organization set back on its heels. The author points out that it has trouble recruiting adherents from countries where there is a local jihadist movement. Al Qaeda’s recruits seem to come from locations where there is no option for an effective local group such as Muslim states like Saudi Arabia and Syria, or from Europe. Its capability to plan and execute major actions seems diminished, along with its ability to influence the actions of other groups. Al Qaeda’s dream of a united war of the Islamic people is being superseded by a collection of mostly locally-oriented groups with their own motives and little need for Al Qaeda direction or association. These groups are definitely a danger in their own neighborhoods. Some still pursue international terror goals, and while a danger to us and others, they are less of a threat to instigate something on a massive scale like 9/11.

How does this information inform us on the issue of our policy with respect to Afghanistan?

The first question to consider is: “Is Al Qaeda still a threat.” The answer would have to be a definite yes. Al Qaeda remains the organization most intent on doing direct harm to the western nations. It does not take many people or a lot of money to do great damage. Most important is the will to do such acts. That is still Al Qaeda’s intention.

The administration says we are in Afghanistan to make sure that Al Qaeda cannot recover its safe haven in that country. Critics counter by saying there are only a few Al Qaeda in the country, so, on that basis, how can our actions be worth the cost? One of the reasons there are few Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is because it is dangerous to be in Afghanistan. It is still safer for Al Qaeda’s people to reside over the hill in Pakistan. If the day comes when the Taliban takes over the country, I would expect Bin Laden to erect barracks for the troops and a guest hotel for visiting dignitaries. He still must wait a while for that day.

Rid introduces the notion that change is occurring in the Islamic world. This introduces the notion of timescale. Besides Al Qaeda gradually falling out of favor, he mentions the increased tendency to justify jihad as a local activity.
“Classical Islamic legal doctrine sees armed jihad as a defensive struggle against persecution, oppression and incursions into Muslim lands.”
If Islamic sentiment is trending in this direction then time is working in our favor. Local groups can be contained and local issues can be changed or negotiated. A universal caliphate is not negotiable.

What is our timescale in Afghanistan? The administration wants to start removing troops next year. I think the correct interpretation of that timeline is that in at least one location where we now have troops stationed, the Afghans will be able to maintain order and our troops there will come home. This should be an easy goal, but do not expect many soldiers to be headed out. A more reasonable timeframe is five years. I have heard that figure quoted as the time when we can reasonably expect to have most of the troops out.

People criticize timescales for working to the benefit of the Taliban. The argument is that the Taliban can just sit back and wait for us to leave and then come roaring into action. That is a specious argument. We are in a struggle to help stand up an Afghan government that can function and defend itself. The Taliban have to make sure that does not happen. If they want stand down and relax for five years while we do our thing, then that would be fantastic. No, the Taliban has to keep fighting, and five years of fighting is a long time for anyone.

The real issue with regard to the Taliban is deciphering their current goals, and predicting what their goals might be after a few more years of stalemate. Everyone seems to agree that by numbers most of the Taliban are driven by local concerns and loyalties. The ultimate intentions of the leaders are less clear. They now profess to be nationalists dedicated to Afghan issues. If so, that is promising. But that was not always the case. They did provide a home for Bin Laden. I doubt if that was because he had a long-term lease and paid the rent on time.

If the Taliban has international ambitions their potential to cause havoc is unlimited. That is why it is so important to bring them under control in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan is not a robust democratic state. It would be at risk if an insurgent group could have a safe haven in neighboring Afghanistan. The fates of the two countries are tightly coupled. The notion of a Taliban-led Pakistan in possession of nuclear weapons is not one I wish to consider. An aggressive Islamist regime could cause trouble throughout Asia. It would not be difficult to see India being drawn into conflict with Pakistan. Russia is already having trouble with terrorists, and China, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan all have their own jihadi insurgencies. The Taliban is also causing trouble by pouring their narcotics into neighboring Iran and Russia.

There is a lot at stake here. It has to be done right. There are no quick or easy solutions. Time may or may not be on our side.

I believe we also have humanitarian issues to consider. If the Taliban were to retake control, everyone who collaborated with the NATO forces would be at risk. All women would see what few rights they have eliminated. The Afghan author, Tamim Ansary, described such an outcome more eloquently.
“Afghanistan is largely conservative, rural and tribal, but it does have urban modernists who long to leave their country's medieval themes behind, city folks who embrace modern science and struggle to reform Afghan social norms, artists who dream of their art being taken seriously abroad, young people aching to participate in global pop culture.”

“Shortly after U.S. forces leave the country, a lot of these people will be dead.”
When can we in good conscience leave? The minimum goal would be to leave when the Afghan government is strong enough to defend itself against the Taliban if that is necessary. The desired goal would be a situation somewhat like Iraq faces: current stability, but with an uncertain future. We all have uncertain futures.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Bible Unearthed: Archeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman

Finkelstein and Silberman are archeologists who have summarized the archeological evidence that relates to the history of the people of Israel in their book: The Bible Unearthed: Archeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. The authors present the history as provided by the books of the Hebrew Bible and compare it with the history deduced from archeological studies. The comparison allows them to pinpoint the time when the various books were written and to make conclusions about who wrote them and why.

To understand the history of the Israelites one must know the history—both military and economic—of the territory stretching from Egypt to Persia. It is surprisingly rich and complex. The territory of the Israelites was often dominated, and occasionally overrun by whoever had the most power at the time. These other kingdoms often provided records of historical events that could be used either to corroborate or to discredit the accounts contained in the books of the Bible. When the Israelis regained control of the Biblical lands the opportunities for archeological investigations exploded. For centuries investigators had assumed the authenticity of the biblical accounts and tuned their studies to providing verification of the writings. Eventually enough information became available that one could take the approach of determining a history based solely on the data. At that point the story became quite interesting.

The authors go into considerable detail in tracking the historical twists and turns from the time of the first known reference to Israel up to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the return of the exiles around 538 BCE. It is all interesting reading. Here we will only touch on the major events.

The authors provide a concise Biblical history as well as a detailed one.
"The Bible’s tale begins in the garden of Eden and continues through the stories of Cain and Able and the flood of Noah, finally focusing on the fate of a single family—that of Abraham. Abraham was chosen by God to be the father of a great nation, and faithfully followed God’s commands. He traveled with his family from his original home in Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan where, in the course of a long life....begot a son, Isaac, who would inherit the divine promises first given to Abraham. It was Isaac’s son Jacob—the third generation patriarch—who became the father of twelve distinct tribes....Jacob wrestled with an angel and received the name Israel (meaning ‘He who struggled with God’), by which all his descendents would be known. The Bible relates how Jacob’s twelve sons left their homeland to seek shelter in Egypt at the time of a great famine. And the patriarch Jacob declared in his last will and testament that the tribe of his son Judah would rule over them all."

"The children of Israel had grown into a great nation, but they were enslaved as a despised minority....God’s intention to make himself known to the world came through his selection of Moses as an intermediary....The God of Israel led the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the wilderness. At Sinai God revealed to the nation his true identity as YHWH (the Sacred Name composed of four Hebrew letters and gave them a code of law...The holy terms of Israel’s covenant with YHWH, written on stone tablets and contained in the Ark of the Covenant, became their sacred battle standard....The great triumphs of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, King David’s establishment of a great empire, and Solomon’s construction of the Jerusalem Temple were followed by schism, repeated lapses into idolatry, and, ultimately exile."
That is the story presented in the Bible. Let us now march through this history as informed by the archeological data.

The authors begin with the story of Abraham. They state that it is difficult to arrive at a precise chronology and determine when Abraham would have lived from the Biblical tales (one estimate would place him around 2100 BCE). In any event, no one has been able to find any evidence to corroborate the tale at any of the possible times. Instead, researchers discovered that the Biblical narrative was consistent with what was known of the world and the surrounding peoples around the seventh century BCE. Some of the details presented would not have been consistent with the times presented in the narrative. The conclusion was that the Biblical description was created by someone around the seventh century BCE and it was based on the known world at that time. The authors view the Abraham tale as an attempt to demonstrate the primacy of Judah as far back in history as possible. That does not preclude some legendary input into the story, but there was also a clear political motive.

The earliest known reference to the word "Israel outside of the Bible is on an Egyptian stele describing an Egyptian campaign in Canaan at the very end of the thirteenth century BCE. The exodus of the Israelites from Egypt would have had to have occurred in the fourteenth or fifteenth century BCE. The Egyptians apparently were prodigious record keepers. They had never even heard of the Israelites, let alone held hundreds of thousands of them captive. They also had possession of the desert region in which the Israelites were supposed to have wandered (all 600,000 of them) for forty years. This area was dotted with closely spaced fortifications intended to detect activity from an enemy to the east. Not a word was recorded about anyone wandering around. One has to conclude that the events of the Exodus never happened.

The creation of such a tale is probably linked to the history of the Canaanites. There was a large population of Canaanites working in Egypt in the sixteenth century BCE. For some reason they were expelled and presumably returned to their homeland. The authors present evidence that the Israelites were in fact Canaanites themselves.
"The discovery of the remains of a dense network of highland villages—all established within the span of a few generations—indicated that a dramatic social transformation had taken place in the central hill country of Canaan around 1200 BCE. There was no sign of violent invasion or even the infiltration of a clearly defined ethnic group. Instead it seemed to be a revolution in lifestyle."These were the people who would come to be called Israelites. Joshua and the tumbling walls of Jericho never happened. Jericho never had any walls to begin with. Egyptian records again describe Canaanite towns as small and unfortified. However, there was a victory, in a sense, because the Canaanites were in decline and the Israelites were on the rise. Perhaps this decline became a military defeat in legends that evolved over the centuries. Or perhaps it just made for an inspirational story to stir up a little patriotism.

An interesting fact comes out about these early settlements in the highlands. There were no pigs. Bones of pigs are found in lowland settlements and in earlier eras in the highlands but not in these early Israelite villages.
"Half a millennium before the composition of the Biblical text, with its detailed laws and dietary regulations, the Israelites chose—for reasons that are not entirely clear—not to eat pork. When modern Jews do the same, they are continuing the oldest archeologically attested cultural practice of the people of Israel."The era of David and Solomon is thought to be around 1005-930 BCE. The Bible says that God told David he would be king of the Israelites and he and his heirs would rule forever over the Israelite homeland. Solomon was his son. Both men are invested with glorious accomplishments in the Biblical literature.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that there was ever a large wealthy kingdom, and no evidence of David’s conquests. There is also no evidence Jerusalem was other than a small village at the time. No evidence of a monumental Temple of Solomon or any other significant architecture has ever been discovered. On the other hand, there is an inscription on an artifact that has the King of Damascus referring to the "House of David." This leads the authors to believe that there was a figure known as David who was probably a local chieftain who for some reason developed legendary qualities.

Given that so many of the Biblical tales were either false or wildly embellished—who produced them, and for what reason? The authors suggest that the books of the Bible were assembled in essentially their final form just before or during the reign of King Josiah (649-609 BCE). At the time the Israelites had spent centuries divided into a relatively wealthy northern kingdom, Israel, and a much poorer kingdom to the south, Judah. Much of the Bible is devoted to detailing the ups and downs of these kingdoms. Whenever something bad happened it was attributed to God’s anger at some offense, and conversely, good things happened when you behaved and pleased God.

Josiah was a descendent of David. He was intensely religious and wanted to impose his form of religion on the remainder of the Israelites. He needed documents that would support his concept of religion, would legitimize him as a powerful king, and prove inspirational to the people. That is what he needed and that is what someone provided him. A prophecy supposedly issued at the time of David predicted that three hundred years later a King named Josiah would appear and do great and wondrous things. That might have made one a bit suspicious.

Josiah was programmed to be the Messiah. Everything was in place except fate. Josiah went to meet Pharaoh Necho for what was to be a non-threatening meeting, but, for some reason, Josiah was slain. The Israelites were stunned. Josiah had done everything correctly. He was perceived to have been the perfect servant of the Lord—and suddenly he was dead before any of his grand goals could be accomplished.

Things went from bad to worse afterword. Josiah’s successors sought protection through an alliance to the west with Egypt. Meanwhile the Babylonians were growing stronger and on the move. The Babylonians arrived in an angry mood. They destroyed as much of Judah as they could, including Jerusalem and the temple, and carried much of the population into exile. The priests and the Davidic ancestors were all removed. Roughly a century later the Persians took control of the region and allowed the Israelites to return home and rebuild their temple.

This period of disappointment and exile forced the priests to make one last major change to the sacred scriptures. Effectively, the Davidic line no longer existed in spite of God’s covenant with David. Therefore God’s covenant had to be made conditional with a specific condition that had not been met. Basically, they made one of the earlier kings, one who they did not like, to be the transgressor. The beloved Josiah was only "good" enough to delay the destruction of Jerusalem, not to prevent it. And then the writers did a clever thing. They redefined God’s covenant to be not with David, but with all the Israelites—a much more powerful and compelling religious message.

This brings the story to an end. The sacred documents are essentially in final form and the subsequent history is well known from a variety of sources. The authors have succeeded in demolishing the Bible as an historical chronicle, but they are quite proud of it as a document detailing the hopes and aspirations of a small and poor people who dreamed mightily. As to the religious significance of their findings—they are silent. Perhaps they realize that all matters of faith, ultimately, are neither provable nor disprovable. A devout Jew is not likely to have his faith shattered by these revelations.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What Do Hospitals and Universities Have in Common?

What do hospitals and universities have in common? They both have core businesses that do not turn a profit. That means they must have other sources of income to break even or turn a profit, and their business plans must have multiple sources of income and expenditures. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but hospitals and universities are a huge part of our economy and we would like them to be lean and efficient entities. The issue then is: are there aspects of the way they manage their activities that are not beneficial to us as consumers?

I have already written at some length about the economics of universities in the post, So Why Are Colleges So Expensive? In their case the income from student expenses is a small part of their cash flow. There is no motivation to cut costs, so they might as well charge as much as they can get away with. Any extra money they bring in can be fed into the other business activities.

Schools will tell you that they lose money on students because the tuition doesn’t even cover salary expense. Don’t but it for a minute. Professors at major universities are not hired to teach. They are hired to bring in either money through grants, or fame through publications and high profile activities. If they spend more than 10% of their time on teaching duties it usually means they have gone into semi-retirement and plan to die of old age at their desks. In other words, the salary expenses have very little to do with students.

The issues with hospitals are both similar and different. The cover article in the August 2, 2010 issue of Modern Healthcare, with the heading: Bad for Business, pointed out that over the past few decades hospitals have been treating patients at a loss and covering it or turning a profit from other business activities—predominately investments. The author was concerned that this was an unusual and surprising way to run a business. If your profits do not come from your core activity then what kind of incentives do you have to run that part of your business efficiently.

In our fee-for-service world the incentives are perverse. The easiest way to save expenses is to eliminate unnecessary procedures, but that doesn’t save the hospital money. Rather, it diminishes its income. There is not much incentive there. Cutting costs associated with specific procedures should increase the potential for profit, but the motivation for making difficult decision perhaps dissipates when you can make a healthy profit without taking the trouble.

There is one definite problem with this business model that was pointed out by the author. What do you do when your investments take a downturn and lose money? You raise the cost of your hospital services. What do you do when your investments do well and you realize a large profit? You keep you hospital costs high unless someone forces you to lower them. This is not good.

Neither hospitals nor universities can be said to dwell in a market economy. Markets are for others. A good capitalist will do his best to avoid them.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch has written an interesting and timely book: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. The author certainly has the background to write a book about the ills of our education system. She currently is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She was an Assistant secretary of Education during the first Bush administration and has written extensively on subjects related to education.

She inveighs against "pedagogical fads, enthusiasms and movements" that have introduced the emphasis on testing and choice that she says is undermining education. Her assignment of blame in the subtitle is a bit misleading. She readily admits there is a role for testing and choice, so it is really the implementation of testing and choice that she sees as the problem. That is an important distinction to keep in mind.

Ravitch describes the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, as "the all-time blockbuster of education reports." She agrees with that report in concluding that the nation’s educational process had seriously deteriorated and was in dire need of reform. Her only criticism was that the report focused on high schools and ignored the difficulties that were already apparent in the lower grades.

Just to read the author’s title one might conclude that education reformers are "undermining" a healthy system. A more sympathetic voice might claim that many have tried in vain to fix our broken system. Ravitch is so determined to demonstrate that many programs like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) are inherently misguided and counterproductive that she tends to impugn the motives of those with whom she disagrees, and she misses, or chooses to ignore, the few encouraging signs that have appeared. There are two areas that she discusses in which I would have claimed some prior familiarity: KIPP charter schools and the activities of the Gates Foundation. I found her treatment of these two subjects to be confused and misleading. I wrote separately about her position on those two topics. Those essays can be found by following the links. I did not feel motivated to check any of her other claims.

The type of testing she refers to is the standardized testing of students in math and English that are used to evaluate teacher performance and overall school performance. She views this form of testing as counterproductive. The necessity of scoring well produces too much emphasis on preparing for these specific tests, and takes away from time that could be spent on developing a broader knowledge base. She also points out that judging a teacher’s performance solely on students’ scores is inaccurate and unfair to the teachers. She believes that peer review, complemented with student performance measures is the proper path to follow.

These are all excellent points. Teacher evaluation has probably been too lax in the past, but many of the attempts to insert measures of performance have been poorly conceived and implemented. Ravitch often falls into the mode of insisting that everyone wants to evaluate teachers solely on the basis of test scores. That may have happened, but that does not appear to be the current policy of anyone in a position to matter. Peer review is seen to be at least as important. The emphasis on math and reading skills, while limited, is not necessarily bad. Yes one should also be concerned with performance in science, history, social studies and civics, but try learning those topics with poor reading comprehension. There is also the political expediency associated with avoiding standardized tests in controversial subjects such as science. Sigh!

Choice once meant vouchers, but that concept has been replaced by the implementation of charter schools. The author believes that charter schools have a role to play if they are viewed as experimental platforms where techniques and approaches are tried to see how they work. The approaches that improve performance should be fed back into the traditional public school (TPS) system and be made available to all. Unfortunately, the implementation of charter schools was rather haphazard and many were put in place for the sole reason of competing with the public schools. However, there are successful approaches that have been demonstrated.

Ravitch quotes a study that finds that the performance of 37% of the charter schools was below the level of TPS, for 46% there was not significant difference with TPS performance, and 17% of the charter schools produced significantly better results than TPS. The author concludes from this that charters are a failure and they are undermining TPS. I conclude that this is a story of success. Now let us get rid of the bad schools and take advantage of what we have learned from the 17% that were successful.

Ravitch tries to maintain the purity of her narrative by claiming that the charters that perform well are gaming the system. She claims they take the best students, avoid students with learning disabilities and send back to TPS any student who is an academic or a behavioral problem. She may be correct in some instances. Most charters are aimed at economically disadvantaged children and one gains entry by participating in a lottery. Clearly a student who enters the lottery is motivated, but it does not follow that the motivated students are the best students. One can find here a study that indicates that the claims of the author with respect to KIPP schools are incorrect. The only assertion that has validity is associated with the paucity of students with physical or educational disabilities. It is not too surprising that these students would not be seeking entry into an even more challenging environment than their current one.

Diane Ravitch has written an important and thought-provoking book. In spite of the fact that I have here emphasized our disagreements, it is a book I highly recommend. Her repeated emphasis on the necessity of providing our students with a robust and well-rounded education is tremendously important. The summary of the evolution of public policy with regard to education should be read by anyone who claims an interest in the subject.

The author believes that
"The most durable way to improve schools is to improve curriculum and instruction and to improve the conditions in which teachers work and children learn, rather than endlessly squabbling over how school systems should be organized, managed and controlled. It is not the organization of the schools that is at fault for the ignorance we deplore, but the lack of sound educational values."That description is hard to argue with—but does it constitute a way forward? What does she mean when she suggests ‘improving the conditions in which teachers work and children learn?" Does that involve eliminating poverty and discrimination? Do we have to grow the economy faster so we can invest in more modern facilities? I am afraid that there is no viable path forward other than the one we are presumably beginning to pursue: use Race to the Top and charter schools to perform experiments and feed the best results back into the traditional system.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Peace in the Middle East: An Israeli Perspective

Walter Reich has written an interesting article, The Despair of Zion, in the current issue of The Wilson Quarterly. He presents personal observations based on conversations with a variety of Israelis. With serious negotiations underway between Israeli and Palestinian authorities it seems a good time to feed some perspective into the discussion.

Reich finds the Israelis in a somber mood. He begins by detailing a conversation with an old friend who he describes as "one of the giants of Israel’s academic and intellectual life." The friend admits that right now what he would most like to have happen is for his children to emigrate, to leave Israel. He is obviously despairing over his country’s future.
"My friend’s despair is shared, in one way or another, by many of the Israelis with whom I’ve spoken. It’s a despair based largely on what they believe is a realistic assessment of Israel’s situation in the world and of the ultimate intentions of many, and probably most, Palestinians."

"To be sure, lots of Israelis don’t share this despair, don’t talk about it, or use every coping mechanism they can to set it aside and live a normal life. Yet it’s a feeling that, at some level and to some degree, permeates all things in much of the population, and that has frequently emerged in the many conversations I’ve had in recent years with Israelis."
The Israelis feel they are being compelled to negotiate a settlement with a people who still views them as an enemy that should and can be destroyed. There are only two possible outcomes from these negotiations and both are seen as bad for Israel.

The motives of the Palestinians are highly suspect. In the past they have rejected offers that the Israelis viewed as the best they could provide. They fear that the Palestinians believe that time is now on their side.
"Increasingly, Israelis are convinced that no concessions they make to the Palestinians will ever be enough—that each concession will be followed by another demand, that each new demand that isn’t conceded will be a pretext for more violence, and that each response to that violence will provoke international condemnations of Israel for using disproportionate force....Israelis might feel reassured that peace is possible if it were promoted in the Palestinian Authority’s education system; even if the current Palestinian generation isn’t ready to accept the Jewish state, maybe a future one will. But they know that Palestinian students study maps in their textbooks on which Israel doesn’t exist and watch television programs aimed at young people that identify cities in Israel as being part of Palestine."A two-state solution is the only viable one for most Israelis, but they fear it will only leave them more vulnerable and limit their options for defending themselves.
"This question keeps many Israelis awake at night. The main peace plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict aims at a "two-state solution"—an Israel behind its pre-1967 borders alongside a Palestinian state in what is now the West Bank and, if Hamas can somehow be converted or defeated, Gaza. But, Israelis ask, why would any sane person, Israeli or otherwise, believe that, two weeks or two months after a Palestinian state were to come into being—a state that would abut the length of Israel’s narrow waist as well as Jerusalem—rockets wouldn’t be flying over its border and blowing up in every Israeli city and airport?"

"And why not? Even if Hamas were to retain control of Gaza and refuse to participate in a treaty with Israel, meaning that the Palestinian state would consist only of what is now the West Bank, and even if that state’s leaders wanted peace at least as long as it would take to establish their country, wouldn’t there also be, in that state, Hamas members and others who didn’t want peace, who had never wanted it, and who would use it as a springboard for launching attacks so as to achieve the ultimate objective of eliminating Israel?"

"With tens of thousands of rockets and missiles flying out of the Palestinian state and Lebanon—and, in this nightmare, from Gaza as well—it might be impossible for Israelis to live anywhere other than in bomb shelters, and the devastation would be immense. But if Israel were to respond by attacking the sources of those rockets in the newly declared Palestine, this time they would be attacking not a territory or a faction but a sovereign member of the UN, one that would call on—and instantly receive—the support not only of its fellow Muslim states but also the world at large, including most of Europe."
In a one-state solution the Palestinians would certainly demand equal rights for Palestinian citizens and attempt to impose right of return for Palestinian refugees. Either way, the Jewish citizens would lose control of their country politically, and it would no longer be what they set out to create: a Jewish homeland. Trying to form a stable state by mixing together two peoples who essentially despise each other, is, has been, and always will be a recipe for disaster. The country exists currently in a version of a one state solution. The status quo is not considered sustainable.
"And Israelis understand that an endless status quo could result in a one-state solution—a state in which they would be politically dominant but demographically a minority. The Zionist dream of a democracy of Jews in the land of their people’s birth would be destroyed. The vast majority of Israelis I know don’t want to have power over the lives of Palestinians. But deeper than their empathy with the Palestinians is their desperate hope to survive. What Israelis see before them is a choice between the physical destruction wrought by war and the moral destruction wrought by forever dominating a people that, if allowed, would destroy them. For these Israelis, it’s a choiceless choice."We have two sides moving forward, each with the feeling that they will have to give up more than is fair in any settlement. Each side knows that those who are doing the negotiating are risking not only their political futures, but their very lives. Each side possesses a significant minority of people who are expected to resort to violence to ensure failure of the process. It is really hard to be optimistic, but times do change. The Palestinians have begun to lose their political backing from the other Arab states. Israel can no longer depend on the United States to cover their back in any action they might take. The only way this will work is if all the nations interested in the peace talks convince both sides that failure to reach an agreement will have dire consequences.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Half the Sky: What You Can Do Right Now: Kristof and WuDunn

In their book, Half the Sky, Kristof and WuDunn present many tales of women who suffer, but still manage—with a little help—to succeed. They end their book with suggestions on how the reader can contribute to making women’s lives a bit better.
"Go to Global Giving or Kiva and open an account. Both sites are people-to-people (P2P), meaning they link you directly to a person in need overseas, and this makes them an excellent way to dip your toe in. Global Giving lets you choose a grass roots project to which to give money in education, health, disaster relief, or more than a dozen other areas around the developing world. Kiva lets you do the same for microlending to entrepreneurs."I tried the Kiva site and it was about as easy as ordering a book from Amazon. I contributed a small amount and joined with almost 100 others to fund a fish-selling business owned by a group of women in Senegal. It felt good!

The authors support these activities with stories of how women have been helped. One they include in the book involves a Pakistani woman named Saima. She was a typical Pakistani wife in that she was expected to leave the house only with her husband’s permission and in the company of a relative. Her husband was unemployed and they were going deeper into debt. She had to send her first daughter to live with a relative because they cold not afford to feed her. Then to everyone’s horror, she gave birth to another girl. She did not have a good life. Her husband and anyone in his family had the right to beat her for any purpose, and now he was being encouraged to take a second wife so that he might have a chance to have a son. She decided that was too much and knew she had to do something.
"It was at that point that Saima joined a women’s solidarity group affiliated with a Pakistani microfinance organization called Kashf Foundation. Saima took out a $65 loan and used the money to buy beads and cloth, which she transformed into beautiful embroidery to sell in the markets of Lahore. She used the profit to buy more beads and cloth, and soon she had an embroidery business and was earning a solid income—the only one in her household to do so. Saima brought her eldest daughter back from the aunt and began paying off her husband’s debt."

"When merchants wanted more embroidery from Saima than she could produce, she paid neighbors to work for her. Eventually thirty families were working for Saima, and she put her husband to work as well—‘under my direction,’ she explained with a twinkle in her eye. Saima became the tycoon of the neighborhood, and she was able to pay off her husband’s entire debt, keep her daughters in school, renovate the house, connect running water to the house, and buy a television."
That was a nice success story. It may also be an example of a case where the subjugation of women is also a burden on men. Women are assumed to be incapable of accomplishing anything so they are never given an opportunity. Consequently, they do not accomplish anything. This of course supports the masculine narrative. But it also sets a pretty low bar for men who have a need to feel superior. A nagging wife who cannot be beaten into silence—or a wife who is allowed to compete economically—can be a great motivator.

As soon as Saima demonstrated that she could earn significant amounts of money the beatings stopped and her husband decided having daughters was not such a bad thing. Economics triumphs over culture again!
"Sponsor a girl or a woman through Plan International, Women for Women International, World Vision, or American Jewish World Service. We ourselves are sponsors through Plan, and we exchange letters and have visited our children in the Phillippines, Sudan, and the Dominican Republic. Sponsorship is also a way to teach your children that not all kids have iPods."The authors tell of Murvelene Clark a woman from Brooklyn who felt a need to reach out and help someone. She came across Women for Women International. She agreed to contribute $27 a month to support a woman from Rwanda. She was paired with Claudine Mukakarisa a twenty-seven-year-old genocide survivor from Rwanda. This is Claudine’s story as related by the authors.
"Extremist Hutus had targeted her family, which was Tutsi, and she was the only survivor. Claudine had been kidnapped at the age of thirteen, along with her older sister, and had been taken to a Hutu rape house. ‘They started sexually violating both of us,’ Claudine explained in a shy, pained monotone when we talked with her, ‘and then they started beating us’."

"Large number of militia members came to the house, patiently lining up to rape the women. This went on for days, and of course there was no medical attention. ‘We had started rotting in our reproductive organs, and maggots were coming out of our bodies,’ Claudine said. ‘Walking was almost impossible. So we crawled on our knees.’ When Kagame’s army defeated the genocidaires, the Hutu militia fled to Congo—but took Claudine and her sister along as well. Militia members killed her sister but finally let Claudine go."

"’I don’t know why I was released and my sister killed,’ she said shrugging. Probably it was because she was pregnant. Claudine was puzzled by her swelling belly, as she still had no idea about the facts of life. ‘I had thought I could not get pregnant, because I had been told that a girl becomes pregnant only if she has been kissed on the cheek. And I had never been kissed’."

"Still only thirteen years old and very pregnant, Claudine trekked around the country trying to find help. She gave birth by herself in a parking lot. Unable to see how she could ever feed the baby, and hating its unknown father for having raped her, Claudine abandoned it to die."

"’But my heart wouldn’t allow me to do that,’ she said. ‘So I went back and picked up my baby.’ Claudine begged for food in the streets, and she and the baby barely survived. ‘Many people would chase me away,’ she said, ‘because I was stinking’...."

"After several years of this, an uncle took Claudine in, but he demanded sex from her in exchange for shelter. When she became pregnant again he kicked her out. Over time, Claudine found that she could get jobs gardening or washing clothes, typically earning about a dollar for a day’s work. She managed to send her two children to school, but only barely: the fees were $7 per child per term, and so she and her children lived from day to day."
The $27 per month that Murvelene’s sponsorship provided is a significant amount—enough to change the recipient’s life. The Women for Women people work with Claudine over the year providing vocational training and helping her develop healthy money-managing habits. Claudine is learning beadwork so she can make embroidery to sell and provide herself an adequate income after the program is over. She also attends classes on health, literacy and human rights and is encouraged to be confident and assertive.

Murvelene and Claudine continue to exchange letters. Murvelene is happy that she has been able to help someone so in need of and deserving of help.

It is the authors’ fond hope that many others will get to experience Murvelene’s satisfaction.

Friday, September 10, 2010

So Why Is College So Expensive?

This seems to be an appropriate time of the year to ask why it costs so much to go to college. A pair of articles has appeared trying to make sense of it. I don’t think either hit the mark. The first article appeared in Forbes magazine. It basically says college is expensive for fundamental reasons that can not be avoided. Education is a highly labor intensive proposition with no appropriate savings of scale. Productivity is relatively flat and advanced technologies only bring higher costs not higher productivity.
"Our technology story rests on three strong pillars. First, like many personal services, including much of health care, the law and banking, higher education remains essentially an artisanal industry. These are industries in which technological progress has not reduced the number of labor hours needed to "produce" the service. By contrast, labor productivity in basic manufacturing has soared, and this is why the cost of a year of college has gone up compared with the purchase price of a basic car or a basket of groceries."

"Students interacting directly with professors and other students in small groups remain a benchmark of quality in education. Ask any family if they want their son or daughter to learn in small group seminars taught by tenured professors, or if they prefer giant impersonal lectures or online chat rooms monitored by adjunct teachers who answer lots of e-mail questions."
"Secondly, higher education shares with many other personal services a reliance on an extremely highly educated labor force. Starting in the late 1970s, the cost of hiring highly educated people began a sustained rise. This has driven up costs in any industry that cannot easily shed expensive labor."

"Lastly, technological change affects higher education directly. But unlike steel or autos, where the primary impact of new techniques is to reduce the amount of labor or energy it takes to make the product, new technology in higher education tends to change what we do and how we do it. Colleges must offer an education that gives students the tools they need to succeed in the modern economy. The contemporary chemistry student, for instance, needs to be familiar with current laboratory tools, and they are more expensive than the chalk-and-test-tube world of the past. As in modern medicine, there is a standard of care that higher education must meet, and that standard is set in the labor market that hires our graduates."
Surprisingly, for an article in a conservative magazine, there is no mention of market forces. That is probably because there are none.

The second article appeared in The Economist. The author was concerned not only with excessive costs, but also with a perceived decline in quality of the product. He might say that all the problems are mainly caused by a lack of market forces.
"As costs soar, diligence is tumbling. In 1961 full-time students in four-year colleges spent 24 hours a week studying; that has fallen to 14, estimates the AEI. Drop-out and deferment rates are also hair-curling: only 40% of students graduate in four years."

"The most plausible explanation is that professors are not particularly interested in students’ welfare. Promotion and tenure depend on published research, not good teaching. Professors strike an implicit bargain with their students: we will give you light workloads and inflated grades so long as you leave us alone to do our research. Mr Hacker and Ms Dreifus point out that senior professors in Ivy League universities now get sabbaticals every third year rather than every seventh. This year 20 of Harvard’s 48 history professors will be on leave."

"Given the size and competitiveness of America’s higher-education system, you might expect these problems to be self-correcting. Why don’t some universities compete by hiring teaching superstars? And why don’t others slash prices? The big problem is that high-status institutions such as universities tend to compete with each other on academic reputation (which is enhanced by star professors) and bling (luxurious dormitories and fancy sports stadiums) rather than value for money. This starts at the top: Yale would never dream of competing with Harvard on price. But it also extends to second-division universities: George Washington University has made itself fashionable by charging students more and spending lavishly on its facilities."
These are more good and relevant points. However, both articles fail to discuss the economics of a modern university.

Let us consider Stanford and Harvard. They are of similar size and budget and they represent the class of universities that can charge whatever they want and get away with it. Other schools will see their costs not as something to beat, but as something to emulate in assuming a public perception that cost and value go together. Stanford’s finances are briefly but conveniently summarized here. The total budget for 2009-2010 was $3.7 billion. The sources of funds for that year were:

30% sponsored research

22% endowment income

 2% other investment income

17% student income

13% health care services income

  6% expendable gifts and net assets released

10% other income

Only 17% of its cash flow comes from students. One would think it could halve the student tuition and hardly notice the difference—but they won’t. The figure of 17% translates to $629 million. Here is another interesting figure: in 2008-2009 Stanford raised $640.1 million from donors. The school receives gifts in excess of what they take in from tuition. The data from Harvard are mirror images of these.

There is no market for a university education because income from students is not a driver in the operation of the institution. A cynic might say that the students, at least the undergraduates, are merely props to allow the school to pursue its money-making endeavors like sponsored research and investment income. What is the greatest contribution a student can make to his school? He can become a happy and nostalgic alumnus who will give and give for the rest of his life. How do you make happy and nostalgic alumni? You let them cross paths with famous people every once in a while. You provide them with spectacles in the form of sporting events. You give them the impression that they are going first class and they will leave proud of how much their education cost. None of this has anything to do with saving money.

The sad part is that other universities, including state-sponsored institutions, have to compete for these other sources of income, such as sponsored research. If Stanford pays top dollar to its professors, then there will be pressure on others to follow suit. If Harvard builds a new research facility, others will feel a need to try and match it. If the tuition is increased at these schools, others will wish to match the rise in order to be perceived as being "just as good."

It has a lot to do with economics, but it has little to do with a market place.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Words Matter: Misquoting Gods and Prophets

I have always been interested in the history associated with whatever happened in the Middle East several thousand years ago that led to Judaism and the spin off of Christianity and Islam and culminated in the multifaceted versions of the three religions that we view today. If you believe that one or all these religions are divinely inspired, then this history should be of interest to you. If you do not believe in divine inspiration, then this history should be of even greater interest to you. The notion that a great fraction of people on earth might be living under the sway of such a man-made construct would truly provide the greatest story ever told—the most interesting history of all.

Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has written a book entitled Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. Critical to an understanding of Christianity is being able to trace the path from whatever occurred in Jesus’ life to the beginnings of an organized religion, and then on to the canonization of sacred texts and the development of the complicated face of Christianity that exists today. Ehrman’s book, with its provocative title, offers to shed some light on part of this evolution. The book should be able to provide guidance on the issue of whether or not the texts we have available today can be tied with any certainty to the texts produced by the authors presumed to be divinely inspired.

The author’s main interest is in the area of textual criticism, which he describes as
"...a technical term for the science of restoring the "original" words of a text from the manuscripts that have altered them."If one considers that the four canonical gospels are believed to have been written around the end of the first century CE, while the oldest existing copies of manuscripts of the gospels usually date from a few centuries later in time, one has the insoluble problem of verifying the validity of those copies. The best one can do is hope for consistency with the earliest existing copies, or with what is known from other sources about what was contained in those early versions. Ehrman provides an interesting description of the processes by which changes enter into the manuscripts—some intentional and some accidental. He also describes the approaches used by scholars to assess the validity of the text of a document. Most might find that section a bit more detailed than they needed.

The earliest texts were in Greek. If a copy was to be made, it had to be made laboriously by hand. In the earliest days the copies were made by church members desirous of producing another copy for local consumption. In later years professional scribes were employed and presumably the number of unintended errors decreased. Most troubling, or troublesome, were the intended alterations. It would be very tempting for a scribe to read something to be copied and think "He couldn’t have meant that, it makes no sense." There was a tendency to evolve the copied text with the changing conventional wisdom of the church. It took a while for people to decide that Jesus was God. That conclusion left a trail of alterations aimed at making scriptures more consistent with that notion. When the church decided that Jews were no longer brethren, but enemies, changes had to be made to make statements more unfavorable to Jews. Even the gospel writers themselves felt free to change each other’s stories. Scholars say the gospel attributed to Mark was the first written and was used as a source by the writers of Matthew and Luke, who did not hesitate to put their own spin on events presented in Mark.

If one is expecting startling revelations they will probably be disappointed. The skeptical will find plenty of material to support their skepticism, and the faithful might be a little disconcerted, but not sufficiently to question their basic faith. Those who believe in a literal interpretation where every word of the Bible is divinely inspired will find a way to re-rationalize their beliefs and go on about their life.

Ehrman provided several fascinating details that are worth noting. The first involves Irenaeus, the second century bishop who had so much influence on the early church. In this quote from one of his documents he justifies selecting four of the many available gospels to become the basis for the New Testament.
" is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout the world, and the pillar and the ground of the Church is the is fitting that we should have four pillars...."Here is an example where the sentiment "It’s Greek to me" is taken to new heights.
"One of the problems with ancient Greek texts (which would include all the earliest Christian writings, including those of the New Testament) is that when they were copied, no marks of punctuation were used, no distinction between lowercase and uppercase letters, and, even more bizarre to modern readers, no spaces used to separate words. This kind of continuous writing is called scriptuo continua, and it obviously could make it difficult at times to read, let alone understand, a text."Ehrman notes a number of gospel passages that were added or modified making them inconsistent with the original text. The following was added to the Gospel of Mark by an unknown scribe, probably after a night of too much partying. Hallucinogens must have been around for a long time.
"And these are the signs that will accompany those who believe: they will cast out demons in my name; they will speak in new tongues; and they will take up snakes in their hands; and if they drink any poison it will not harm them; they will place their hands upon the sick and heal them."The author also deals a back of the hand to the popular King James Version of the Bible.
"The King James Version is filled with places in which the translators rendered a Greek text derived ultimately from Erasmus’s edition, which was based on a single twelfth-century manuscript that is one of the worst of the manuscripts that we now have available to us! It’s no wonder that modern translations often differ from the King James, and no wonder that some Bible-believing Christians prefer to pretend there has never been a problem, since God inspired the King James Bible instead of the original Greek!"Amid all the back and forth about whether or not this or that particular statement should be part of the original manuscript, the author made a number of interesting comments about language, and the difficulties of communicating via language, that almost completely diverted my interest. This one is obvious, but demands some emphasis.
"I came to see early on that the full meaning and nuance of the Greek text of the New Testament can be grasped only when it is read and studied in the original language (the same thing applies to the Old Testament as I later learned when I acquired Hebrew)....What good does it do to say that the words are inspired by God if most people have no access to these words, but only to more or less clumsy renderings of those words into a language such as English, that has nothing to do with the original words?"I have spent some time trying to become fluid in reading the French language. One of my early experiences was to read a French translation of a novel written in English. I soon discovered that this was not the best approach unless you specifically wanted to study the difficulties of translation. The author of the English soon used the word "redneck." It occurred to me that I could not explain the meaning of that word in less than half of a page, and that would only cover some of the contexts in which it might be used. The poor translator decided to use the word reactionnaire which translates into reactionary in English, although it might have other connotations. That is not a bad try, and it may fit in a few instances, but consider the poor Frenchman who might have attempted to understand the meaning of redneck by assuming it was equivalent to reactionnaire. There is no way to make the word redneck, with all of its connotations, understood in French via a simple translation.

Ehrman takes issue with our ability to understand an author’s written words even if we use the same language.
"The only way to make sense of a text is to read it, and the only way to read it is by putting it into other words, and the only way to put it into other words is by having other words to put it into, and the only way to have other words to put it into is that you have a life, and the only way to have a life is by being filled with desires, longings, needs, wants, beliefs, perspectives, worldviews, opinions, likes, dislikes—and all the other things that make human beings human. And so to read a text is, necessarily, to change a text."That may strike one as being a bit convoluted, but merely consider that we have nine highly-educated lawyers who like to wear black dresses and interpret the words of the constitution in ways that are always consistent with their personal biases. The author further points out:
"But interpretations of texts abound....This is obviously true of the texts of scripture: simply look at the hundreds, or even thousands, of ways that people interpret the book of Revelation, or consider all the different Christian denominations, filled with intelligent and well meaning people who base their views of how the church should be organized and function on the Bible, yet all of them come to radically different conclusions...."Long ago I read Will Durant’s book, The Reformation. I remembered him saying that John Calvin based his belief in predestination on a saying attributed to Paul.
"God the Father has chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and without blame before him in love; having predestined us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ unto Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will."I read that then and I read that now and conclude that I have not the vaguest idea what it means. Calvin read it and was ready to consign the majority of mankind to the flames of hell, and, as was the custom of the time, burn as a heretic anyone who disagreed. Since Paul did not compose in English, but rather in Greek, one has to wonder if Calvin based his interpretation on the Greek version, or on the Latin, or the French, or the German, or perhaps on this English version. I would agree with Durant on his summary of Calvin’s contribution to mankind.
"But we shall always find it hard to love the man who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense."Now those are words that you will not have any trouble interpreting.

Consideration of these language issues reminded me that Muslims insist that the only true Koran is the Koran written in Arabic. After all these considerations about the complexities of language that sounds like a smart idea.

The Koran also benefits from having been created at a time recent enough that its sources should be on a firmer foundation. Christopher Hitchens begs to differ. In his book, god is not Great, he has this to say.
"No serious attempt has been made to catalogue the discrepancies between its various editions and manuscripts, and even the most tentative efforts to do so have been met with almost Inquisitional rage. A critical case in point is the work of Christopher Luxenburg, The Syriac-Aramaic Version of the Koran, published in Berlin in the year 2000. Luxenburg coolly proposes that, far from being a monoglot screed, the Koran is far better understood once it is conceded that many of its words are Syriac-Aramaic rather than Arabic. (His most celebrated example concerns the rewards of a ‘martyr’ in paradise: when retranslated and redacted the heavenly offering consists of sweet white raisons rather than virgins.)"Seventy sweet white raisons! I don’t know if Hitchens ever cackles, but I choose to picture him hunched over his keyboard and cackling as he writes that paragraph.

Yes, words matter—too bad we can’t agree on what they mean.
Lets Talk Books And Politics - Blogged