Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Need to Put an End to the Republican Party's World View

The core economic values of the Republican party (lower taxes across the board, smaller government, and less regulation) flow from a rugged sense of self-reliance. Individuals should develop character, learn skills valued by the economy, and work hard developing businesses or working jobs all their adult lives.

This Republican world view fundamentally assumes that unemployment, low income, poverty, and failure to achieve a solid middle class income is the result of inadequate personal initiative, a failure of character, a lack of commitment to family and community. Teach children to fish and they can and should take care of themselves; feed them with a hand-out of fish, and they will be weak in their moral fiber and become reliant on hand-outs all their life. The problems we face are a lack of character and initiative, not a lack of opportunity.

This vision assumes a scarcity of labor in the economy. There may be temporary disruptions in the labor market--a temporary lack of alignment between labor force skills and the needs of the economy. Government may assist the labor force to re-tool with new skills, but this will always be very temporary and secondary to individual initiative. 

The problem with this Republican world view is not the value of self-reliance, or the emphasis on character and industry; the problem is we are living in an economy with a surplus of labor. There aren't enough good jobs to go around. It's not lack of initiative, it's a lack of opportunity. This has always been true in pockets and for periods at the local level: in blighted inner cities, in one industry towns when industry leaves, in industries disrupted by new technologies. 

The problem may be about to become global and permanent for the economy as a whole. A 2013 Oxford study concluded that 47% of U.S. jobs are threatened by technological automation. Consider, for example, that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2012 there were 233,000 taxi and chauffeur jobs in the U.S. What will happen to those jobs with the advent of driverless vehicles?

There have been Luddite Cassandras ever since the introduction of the power loom in the early 19th century. To date their concern has been mostly misplaced. The economy has managed to put technological productivity advances to good use and create new and better jobs to replace jobs lost. 

But this time may be different. Over the past 30 years middle-class manufacturing jobs have disappeared, in part due to outsourcing overseas, and in part due to technological advances. Machines are replacing human labor. Most jobs created of late have been in personal services and food services that require little education--but that computers cannot yet do. The concern of people who study such things is that "build good character and get an education" may not be a solution for a better paying job in future because there won't be enough such jobs to go around. 

Last Tuesday, Josh Barro of the New York Times moderated a discussion at the Milken Institute which focused on this question: Is technology destroying more jobs than it creates? If so, what will this mean for our economy, our society, and our political needs? 

I have embedded a video of the discussion below. Panelists are Brad DeLong (political economist at UC Berkeley), Jeremy Howard, CEO at Enlitic (a modern machine learning company focusing on healthcare), Amy Webb (a digital media futurist and founder of Webbmedia), and Gerald Huff (principal software engineer at Tesla Motors).  

Within the next 10-20 years, warns Amy Webb, huge swaths of jobs in banking and mortgage, telecom, legal services, journalism, customer service, transactional positions, factories, and marketing will disappear. 

Gerald Huff points out that of 535 major occupations in our economy today, most are not new. Eighty percent of jobs in today's economy existed in 1914--only 20 percent are new. However, 90 percent of the work force continues to be employed in jobs that existed in 1914.  Old Industry as Donald Rumsfeld might say. In other words, new jobs created did not pick up their share of the labor force. To the extent that a large number of traditional jobs are about to go away on account of the new technologies and automation, that's a problem. 

Gerald Huff also points out that of 23 million jobs created in the 20 year period 1993-2013, half of those positions came in food services, retail, health care, education, and people driving vehicles for a living. New industries like computers, internet, telecom, aerospace, scientific research and development account for only six percent of job growth over this time period. New industries we are inventing are not mass employers. They won't be able to pick up the slack of job losses due to automation in traditional areas--no matter how much we educate people, how industrious they are, or how good their character. 

STEM jobs (science, technology, engineering, math) or creative jobs will not be able to replace all the jobs we are about to lose to automation says Huff.  We currently have ~145 million jobs in our economy. If we count every computer job, scientific job, technician, mathematician, data scientist.... all of these STEM jobs account for only 8 percent of jobs. All of the "creative jobs" (photographers, musicians, artists, actors, writers, editors, dancers, media people, journalists, etc.) account for only one percent of jobs. The economy is simply not made up of STEM jobs or creative jobs.

Jeremy Webb says "don't look to healthcare for a solution." He is working on massively increasing productivity (and quality) of healthcare through machine learning and automation. Today, says Webb, machine learning systems are better than humans at seeing things and recognizing what they are. He  gave a TED talk last November where he said computers are now 10,000 faster and 10 times more accurate than humans. Today, he claims, this is 15X out of date: machine learning systems are another 15 times faster, more accurate, and require less power to operate than just five months ago! In healthcare, as well as in the economy as a whole, humans currently do the things that computers "can't do yet" because humans have perception, and computers don't have perception, because humans can read and computers can't read.  "But this is basically changed, or is now changing," agrees Webb. 

No matter how industrious our children will be, how good their education, or how good their character--there may not be enough jobs to go around in light of automation that is currently underway. 

"What do we do as a society," asks Gerald Huff, "if the demand for human labor begins to significantly fall off because of these new technologies?" 
That debate is about 15 to 20 years off ... but we need to start talking about it now, because it will require very radical rethinking about ... full employment,  about people surviving based on needing to have a job. And there are very interesting solutions that have been proposed to this problem, including one that has been endorsed left, right, and center, which is a basic income guarantee that gives everyone a foundation on which to build their lives, but that guarantees them an income that says they don't need to work to survive. 
This idea of government providing a basic income guarantee not tied to work may be accepted "left, right, and center," but it is anathema to the values that drive the modern Republican Party.  But if good character, education, and industry can't guarantee a middle class income for our kids and grandkids, the Republican self-reliant world view will need to change.



Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Obergefell v. Hodges--Audio

Obergefell v. Hodges, that's the lead case in the gay marriage cases argued at the Supreme Court yesterday.

USA today has done a good job making the audio available here.  It's worth a listen as you cook or do the dishes.  

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Reading the Tea Leaves in the Same Sex Marriage Cases: "Marriage is Like Beer Sales" vs. "You want us to Overturn a Thousand Year Tradition?"


Today the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in several cases from the 6th Circuit (Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee) presenting two issues for decision:

1.  Does the U.S. Constitution require that states permit same sex marriages?

2.  If states are not required to permit same sex marriages, are they nevertheless required to recognize and honor same sex marriages consummated in other states?

Over at Volokh Conspiracy [a group blog of conservative law professors] they have a podcast where Gerard Bradley, professor of law at Notre Dame, and Ilyia Somin, professor of law at George Mason School of Law in Washington D.C. previewed the arguments.  The two were in agreement that Justice Kennedy is the critical swing vote, and that Justice Kennedy will likely join the four liberal justices [Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan] to answer both questions in favor of gay marriage.

But there are no guarantees.

Gerard Bradley is strongly opposed to gay marriage. He suggested that the strongest argument in favor of "let's keep marriage between a man and a woman" is that same sex marriage will pose a threat to religious liberty.  [He did not explain what he meant by this in his opening remarks, and I can't say I get it]  However, Professor Bradley felt that in the final analysis, Justice Kennedy--and the court as a whole--would likely be swayed by the arguments on behalf of Justice, Equality, and Dignity that swing this case in the plaintiff's favor.  Essentially: Bradley says, regretabbly the pro-marriage crowd has the sexier argument.

A key issue will be what standard of review the court will adopt in its decision. How much will the court defer to the judicial process? How much will the court feel compelled to vindicate the rights of the minority under the Constitution? Both professors agreed on the range of options for analysis available to the court: there are four. However Ilyia Somin broke out a separate "Marriage is like Beer Sales" category.

Here are the different levels of scrutiny the court might adopt to uphold or strike the statutes:

  1. Traditional (hands off) "rational basis" scrutiny.  The professors agreed it is unlikely the court would grant that level of deference in these cases.
  2. A Romer/Windsor "enhanced rational scrutiny" test.  In Romer the court held that Colorado sodomy laws were unconstitutional because they were not supported by a legitimate rational legislative purpose, and in Windsor the court held that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denied spousal benefits to a same sex couple married in Canada, also failed to pass this enhanced rational scrutiny standard; the statute lacked a legitimate rational legislative purpose.  
  3. Traditional "intermediate scrutiny." The court has applied an intermediate level of scrutiny in cases where it was confronted with discrimination based on sex. 
  4. The court might not base its ruling on discrimination at all, but base its ruling on a fundamental right to marry; this would be analogous to what the court did when it found a fundamental right of privacy to underpin a right to abortion. 
  5. Enhanced scrutiny like in Romer/Windsor yes, and did you notice this is just like beer sales? Somin argues that the court should vindicate the right to same sex marriage because it presents the same issue of gender discrimination the court faced in Craig v. Boren; there the court found an Oklahoma statute that allowed the sale of 3.2% alcohol beer to males under 21, but not to females, was unconstitutional. 
Professor Somin filed an Amicus (friend of the court) brief in favor of the "marriage is like beer sales" position. Professor Somin gives an example to drive the point home: take John, Mindy and Suzy. John can marry Mindy, but Suzy may not. There is no basis other than sex for this distinction under the law. States might attempt to base their no same sex marriage laws on the grounds that procreation is the only legitimate purpose.  But this is not what they have done because infertile couples may marry, and couples having no intention to have children are allowed to marry.  The only basis for distinction is sex, and that's what makes it unconstitutional. It's just like 3.2 percent beer. 

A total of 155 briefs were filed in the case in all!  This has got to represent in excess of 3,000 pages of briefing for the Justices to take into account. 

On the same page at Volokh, there is also a Federalist society podcast link where professor John Eastman of Chapman University provided his court-house steps impressions of today's argument. Professor Eastman was favorably impressed by the arguments in favor of preserving marriage as between a man and a woman. Being a cheerleader for that position, it went better than expected he thought. He is also an experienced and smart observer of the court and his judgment that the traditional marriage folks had the better of the argument today should not be dismissed lightly.  He was encouraged by Justice Kennedy pointing out that "You want us to overturn a tradition that is older than a millennia!" He felt the pro-gay-marriage advocates did not have a convincing answer to that concern. 

Adam Liptak at the New York Times had a more positive read on Justice Kennedy (from the pro-gay marriage perspective): 
In two and a half hours of arguments over whether the Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry, Justice Kennedy sent conflicting signals. At some points, he seemed wary of moving too fast and torn about what to do. But his demeanor was more emotional and emphatic when he made the case that same-sex couples should be permitted to marry. He is also the author of three landmark opinions expanding the rights of gay Americans.
As always, it is difficult to read too much into the questions from the justices.  A decision is expected by the end of June.

Stay tuned ....


Saturday, April 25, 2015

On Killing 200,000 Without Compunction

When it comes to war, we still do not take morality seriously...

Annie Sparrow, an Assistant Professor at the Arnhold Global Health Institute at the Icahn School of ­Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, has a painful article about Syria in the May 8, 2015 issue of The New York Review of Books. In the spring of 2014, she reports, she was teaching Syrian doctors near the Turkish border when the Syrian government used chlorine gas as a chemical weapon against civilians. 
"If chlorine is not heavily diluted, inhaling it in its gaseous form causes choking and can be fatal. According to the UN Human Right Council's Commission of Inquiry for Syria and an Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical (OPCW) report of September 10, 2014, chlorine was repeatedly used in this way as a weapon in the Syrian villages of Tameness, Al Tamanah, and Kafr Zita in April 2014. ... In April alone, there were ten attacks in which chlorine was dropped on civilians in villages in northern Syria, killing eight and affecting almost nine hundred. All but one of the attacks occurred at night and involved the aerial dropping of barrels of compressed chlorine gas, which spread when they hit their target." 
The use of chlorine gas in this case is particularly grotesque because, for years leading up to the current civil war, the Syrian government denied chlorine needed for treating water contaminated with swage to areas of the country unsympathetic to the regime. This resulted in outbreaks of cholera and typhus. To date the Syrian Civil war has killed approximately 200,000 and displaced 10 million. Many of the displaced are living in unsanitary conditions lacking adequate medical care, with resultant disease and death.

Who makes decisions like withholding chlorine from drinking water systems, or dropping concentrated chlorine gas on civilians? If it's Bashar al-Assad, he's failed the test.

Meanwhile, Brad DeLong reminds us of President Harry Truman's crucible with the atomic bomb. Truman was first briefed about the Manhattan project seventy years ago on April 25, 1945, after the death of Franklin Roosevelt.  World war II was winding down. In the Pacific, the battle for Iwo Jima, a mere 760 miles SE of Tokyo, had concluded one month earlier; the battle for Okinawa was almost exhausted. In Europe Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies unconditionally on May 8. 

Two months after VE Day, in the early morning of July 16, 1945 Robert Oppenheimer successfully detonated his atomic bomb at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Truman was in Potsdam, Germany, to address post-war issues with the allies. He was advised that the test had "exceeded expectations." 

By this time Truman had no doubts that the war with Japan would end soon. His diary entry on July 17, 1945 reads: "[Russia will] be in the Jap War (sic) on August 15th. Fini Japs when that comes about." 

The next day, July 18, 1945 Truman ate privately with Churchill. Churchill advised that Stalin had received a telegram from Emperor Hirohito requesting peace. Truman's diary states: 
"Stalin had told P.M. of telegram from Jap Emperor asking for peace. Stalin also read his answer to me. It was satisfactory. Believe Japs will fold up before Russia comes in. I am sure they will when Manhattan appears over their homeland. I shall inform Stalin about it at an opportune time."
 A week later, seemingly giddy, Truman wrote in his diary as follows: 
"We … have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark.….The weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop this terrible bomb on the old capital or the new [Kyoto or Tokyo]….. We will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I'm sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance. It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler's crowd or Stalin's did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful."
The next day, on July 26, 1945 the U.S., Britain, and China sent a declaration to Japan, demanding unconditional surrender... or else. There was no mention of an atomic bomb.

Japan's navy was no more; Japan's air-force was no more. Japan had ceased to be a real threat to the world.  Hirohito was looking for peace. There was no emergency.

Truman expected Japan's surrender.  Unleashing this "most terrible bomb" could surely wait until after Russia entered the war, until Hirohito's peace overture to Stalin could be explored. Until it was necessary! Yet, President Truman authorized the deployment of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki "anytime after August 3, 1945" almost immediately after the successful atomic test--as if it were an emergency. The city was chosen, in part, because it had been spared by the conventional bombing campaign and would thus be a suitable site to measure the impact of an atomic bomb.  How did the experiment work out?  The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945,  killed ~70,000 instantly. The final death toll is reported to be about 135,000.  

Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, with a final death toll of at least 50,000.

Truman's diary leading up to the bombings shows that he was eager to use this weapon before the war was out. His announcement after the fact discloses pride in the American achievement of creating this bomb. He shows no concern for morality, no remorse for the nearly 200,000 civilians killed by these two bombs. He did, later, after the consequences of the horrible deed sank in. After it was too late.

Below is Truman proudly announcing the dropping of the first of two and only atomic bombs in history. He's a bureaucrat reporting good sales numbers. But for the fact we won the war, there would be books written about Truman and the banality of evil, about how we killed 200,000 and destroyed two cities because we were blinded by a shiny new toy.












Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Looking to Science for Help in Understanding the Modern Republican Party

"Reality has a well-known liberal bias," they say. 
Is the Republican Party in fact less rational than the Democratic Party? Indeed, the modern Republican Party is a strange beast. It's leaders deny that climate change exists, that tax cuts for the wealthy is the way to tackle income inequality, that fiscal spending at a time when interest rates are effectively zero causes inflation, that saddling students with huge college loans is the right thing to do, and that a commitment from Iran not to develop nuclear weapons and a rigorous inspection regime makes Iran more dangerous than no commitment and no inspection.  Its adherents believe that polio vaccines infringe on liberty and don't work, that the answer to school shootings is more guns in the hands of more people... that background checks for gun ownership are an affront to liberty, and that an increase in the minimum wage is a reason to vote for the other guy.  Don't get me started. 

Is there a statistical difference in the crazy-quotient between our two political parties? Are Republicans more prone than the Democrats to deny facts, make up facts, or to adopt an irrational program?

Psychobabble you say? Looking at the world through a partisan lens you say? Well, consider this. Brain scientists suggest that we are all prone to make stuff up in order to make sense of the world. They also say that we approach the world differently depending on whether we are thinking with a factual mindset or with a religious values mindset. If one party is more given to view the world through a religious values mindset, then science may help explain a statistical difference in the crazy-quotient between the parties—i.e. why Republicans seem to be less reality based.

Our left-brain observes things and then makes up a story to come up with a narrative that is coherent to us. We all do this. In order to make the story coherent our left-brain is prone to ignore facts, or make up facts, as needed in order to make sense of the world. [The right-brain, scientists say, doesn’t seem to care about providing the narrative—or at least we don’t have a good way to access its narrative] This “explainer” function of our left-brain was noticed, among others, by split brain researcher Michael Gazzaniga.

Consider a typical experiment described in Gazzaniga’s book for laypeople, “Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain.” Split-brain people have a severed corpus callosum: a broad band of neural tissue that contains more than 200 million nerve fibers and that normally connects the two halves of the brain. The corpus callosum is sometimes cut, on rare occasions, to prevent epileptic
seizures. It allows for interesting experiments. If an image is presented to only the right-brain, a split-brain patient can see and respond emotionally to the image shown, but the patient is not conscious of the image and cannot explain what the right-brain has seen. On the other hand, if an image is presented to only the left-brain, the split-brain patient is conscious of that image and can articulate it.

Here is Gazzaniga describing what happened when researchers flashed the word bell to the right-brain of a split-brain patient, and the word music to his left brain:

“[T]he patient reported that he had seen the word music. When asked to point to a picture of what he just saw, our patient chose the bell, even though there were other pictures that better depicted music. Then we asked him: ‘Why did you pick the bell?’ He replied, ‘Well, music, the last time I heard any music was the bells banging outside here.’ (He was referring to the bell tower) His speaking left brain had to concoct a story to explain why he had pointed to the bell.”  Kindle loc. 1320.

Rather than explain honestly that he did not know why he chose a picture of the bell (which was the actual fact), the patient’s left-brain readily made up a plausible story about it. See 10 min video here. In short, the left-brain engages in the human tendency to find order in chaos, and to fit everything into a neat story. It hypothesizes about the structure of the world and it will readily discard facts, or make up facts, in the service of a good story as needed. We all do this.

What does this fact say about us humans. Can this help explain why some people deny the existence of climate change, the benefits of vaccinations, or come to vote Republican in this day and age? Well, since we all do this to make sense of the world, that would not by itself seem to account for a difference between the parties.

However, there seems to be evidence that this tendency to make stuff up is exacerbated if we throw religion into the mix. Tanya Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University, has an intriguing short piece in the April 19, 2015 New York Times Sunday Review section.

A broad cross-section of scholars, she says, are demonstrating that we reason differently with a “factual mindset” than with a “religious mind-set.” 

“First … the very language people use changes when they talk about religious beings…. [T]hey think about their realness differently. You do not say, “I believe that my dog is alive.” … You simply talk in ways that presume the dog’s aliveness — you say she’s adorable or hungry or in need of a walk. But to say, “I believe that Jesus Christ is alive” signals that you know that other people might not think so. … We seem to regard religious beliefs and factual beliefs with … different “cognitive attitudes.”

Second, … the truth of a religious belief … matters more than … the facts. … If I believe that the dog is in the study but I find her in the kitchen, I change my belief. [But w]e evaluate religious beliefs more with our sense of destiny, purpose and the way we think the world should be. …

Third, … religious and factual beliefs play different roles in interpreting the same events. Religious beliefs explain why, rather than how. People who understand readily that diseases are caused by natural processes might still attribute sickness at a particular time to demons, or healing to an act of God. …. [P]eople use both natural and supernatural explanations in this interdependent way across many cultures.

Luhrmann suggests that there is some evidence that thinking about sacred values may involve different neural signatures in the brain!  She does not define “sacred values” in her article, but she suggests that rationality deteriorates when we approach the world with a religious mind-set. Considering that our brain has a fast and loose relationship with the truth to begin with, that’s a problem. The problem can be dangerous when we act on irrational beliefs, and this, suggests Luhrmann is most likely to occur when we identify with religious values in groups.

This is all a bit vague… but intriguing. We all seek a narrative and are prone to interpret things in ways to make our sense of reality coherent. But if our grounding points are more religious, this may require more fudging of the facts from our left-brain “interpreter” in order to make our reality coherent. If a religious mindset makes us less rational, and banding together with co-religionists makes us darn-right dangerous…, well, it could explain a lot about the modern Republican party.



Note:  This post has benefited from valuable input from Richard Ivry, PhD, professor focusing on cognition and action at UC Berkeley

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Jews of France: Should they Stay or Should they Go?

“I am French; I am a Jew,” said Rabbi Daniel Dahan, chief rabbi of Aix-en- Provence, at the Berkeley law school this week.  He came to deliver a lecture on the state of French Jewry, and he appended a subtext to his talk: “The end of a 2,000 year story?”  “It’s a question,” he said.

France has the world’s third largest Jewish community (~500,000). And, as you may have heard, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called on them all to pack up their bags and leave for Israel. The pitch for this is Jews aren’t safe anywhere in the world and especially not in Europe, so they should all come and join fortress Israel. Presumably, from Netanyahu’s point of view, these immigrants should take up residence in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and enlist their kids in the Israeli Defense Forces to help manage the occupation for the next 50 years.

Through the middle ages, and up to the French revolution, this call to move to fortress Israel would have been an easy choice for Jews had it been an option. France was Catholic and intolerant of minorities. Jews were massacred during the crusades and periodically expelled. They were not citizens. They were not equal in the eyes of the law. Others suffered too. For example, in August 1572, Hugenots were massacred by the thousands in an orgy of Catholic mob violence. Nevertheless, a Jewish presence persisted.  The famous Talmudic scholar, Rashi, flourished in Troyes (on the Seine southeast of Paris) in the latter half of the 11th century.

An identity as “French and Jewish” as expressed by the Grand Rabbi of Aix-en-Provence, as opposed to “Jewish and precariously living in this foreign land,” is a relatively recent development. The story of Jewish citizenship in France starts with the declaration of the rights of man, the revolution of 1791, and Napoleon’s emancipation of the approximately 40,000 Jews living there at the time--primarily in two isolated communities in Bordeaux and Metz. In exchange for equal citizenship under the law, the Jews pledged their allegiance to the state. Through a gathering of Jewish notables (the Grand Sanhedrin) the Jews of France confirmed to Napoleon that “The Israelite is required to consider the land of his birth or adoption as his fatherland, and shall love and defend it when called upon.” In other words, the Enlightenment turned diaspora Jews into citizens of the countries where they live.

Viewed in this light, the Enlightenment marked nothing less than an end of the Jewish diaspora. Not everywhere, but in France and America and other places where Enlightenment values and modern liberal democratic states took hold.

In the wake of emancipation, the 19th century saw a great flourishing of Western European Jewry, as well as American Jewry. French Jews became active in the professions, business, banking, education, and government. It gave rise to the Yiddish saying “As happy as God in France.” It resulted in assimilation, the Jewish Reform movement, and Jewish immigration to France. In 1860 French Jews formed an organization (Alliance Israelite Universelle) to carry this human rights progress forward, to foster the rights of Jews as citizens everywhere, and to combat anti-Semitism in societies all over the world.

In 1905 France passed its law of separation of church and state and formalized the principle of laïcité (French secularity). The 1905 law emphasized religious neutrality of the state, guaranteed the freedom of religious exercise, and prohibited public funding of religions. This secular identity of the state became increasingly entrenched in the fabric of French political culture during the early twentieth century, even as most French continued to identify as Catholic. It is very much in force and in evidence today.

During the great migration from Eastern Europe to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, some Jews stayed in France, resulting in a significant increase in population. By 1900 Jewish population in France had doubled to 87,000; by 1911 population was 100,000; by 1922 it was 165,000; by 1933 250,000; and by the eve of World War II, Jewish population in France was more than 300,000.

This happy story of assimilation, prosperity, progress and growth in France was certainly not without blemish. It was sorely tested by a rise in anti-Semitism at the end of the 19th century, as highlighted by the Dreyfus affair. Albert Dreyfus, a Jewish French military officer was wrongly accused of treason for divulging military secrets to the Germans. He was convicted in a miscarriage of justice by a prejudiced military court, spurred on by anti-Semitic publications and expressions of anti-Semitism in society at large. But Dreyfus also had his defenders, among them the novelist Emil Zola who published a famous letter “J’accuse” in the newspaper owned by George Clemenceau (Premier of France during World War I).

Dreyfus was not a diaspora Jew living tentatively in a hostile land, packing up his bags to go somewhere else when the going got tough. The significance of the Dreyfus affair is that Dreyfus asserted his claim as a loyal French citizen. Together with his political supporters he fought this miscarriage of justice and was able to make it right (or at least better). Dreyfus was exonerated in 1906 after spending five years in the infamous Devils Island prison in French Guiana. He resumed his military career and he and his family served his country as loyal French Jews during World War I.

World War II presented a much greater challenge still. Leading up to the war, anti-Semitism reached a fever pitch, with deadly consequences. The Vichy government of France cooperated with the Nazis and deported 76,000 Jews (nearly 25% of the Jewish population of France) to death camps.

The Jews of France bore an obscenely disproportionate percentage of the 550,000 total French casualties (25% of Jews vs. 1.3% for the country as a whole died as a result of World War II; Germany had an overall casualty rate of 10%). The Holocaust claimed a staggering 6 million Jews. Jewish world population in 2015 is still below its pre-war level.

After World War II the Jewish population of France increased with immigration of French citizens from the French colonies in North Africa: Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.  As a result, the Jewish population of France today is approximately 500,000. 

But the horrible calamity of World War II—with its 60 million to 80 million war dead overall--did not manage to destroy the Enlightenment project. After World War II, the Enlightenment project in Western Europe has been consolidated. All countries in Western Europe have working liberal democracies. Jewish citizens of all these countries have helped with this consolidation…this picking up of the pieces from World War II. In the United States, too, huge strides have been made in the realization of the Enlightenment promise since the end of World War II. In the United Sates Jews played a particularly instrumental role in the civil rights struggle in the South, and with implementation of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. The promise of the Enlightenment in France, Western Europe generally, and the United States is stronger than ever; the reasons for French Jews to stand by the promise made by the Grand Sanhedrin that “The Israelite will consider the land of his birth or adoption as his fatherland, and shall love and defend it when called upon,” are stronger than ever.

The creation of Israel in 1948, and its subsequent expansion in 1967 did not change this. The creation of Israel did not suddenly weaken the citizenship rights and commitments of French Jews to France or American Jews to America; it did not reinstate the diaspora in Western Europe and America. After the creation of Israel, Jews in France continue to be French and Jewish; Jews in America continue be American and Jewish.

It does not mean that these countries are post anti-Semitic utopias. Challenges remain and will always remain as for any minority. These challenges must be met. Netanyahu has material to work with when he attempts to persuade French Jews to abandon their Enlightenment promise to France and to pick up their bags and move to fortress Israel. Take, for example, the Kantor Center for the Study of contemporary European Jewry’s annual report on world-wide anti-Semitism. The Kantor Center focuses on “violent” incidents—although their report does not provide incident reports and the criteria they use are not clearly explained. They say that “violent incidents” in France increased from 141 (2013) to 164 (2014).  The total number of “anti-Semitic incidents” as reported by CRIF (conseils representatives des institutiones juives de France) (again no clear definition or incident reports) doubled from 423 to 851. These are numbers to be very concerned with.

Yet, the Kantor report attributes last summer’s Gaza war as the primary cause for the increase in this year’s statistics. This seems correct and is understandable when Israel’s prime minister purports to represent and speak for—and thus implicates—French Jews and American Jews as Israel assaults Gaza. There is, in fact, no substantial evidence that world-wide anti-Semitism is on the rise world wide. See, e.g. this BBC report from 8/21/14.

In his Berkeley lecture, Rabbi Dahan recounted the terrible tally of recent attacks against Jews in Europe, primarily by adherents of Islam who (whatever anti-Semitic motivations they may have) are frustrated with the utter lack of commitment by the Israeli government to work for progress in resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians: the bombing of a synagogue on rue Copernic in 1980, the bombing of a restaurant in 1982 on Rue de Roisiers, the gruesome kidnapping and torture death of Ilan Halimi in 2006, the murder of three school children and their teacher in Touluse in 2012, the shooting of three people at a Jewish museum in Belgium last May, the rape and robbery incident in Creteil (a suburb of Paris) last December, and the attacks on Charlie Hebdoe and a kosher supermarket (the Hypercacher) in January 2015.

“You can understand that a lot of communities are afraid,” said Dahan.

We’ve heard that 7,000 French Jews emigrated to Israel in 2014. Rabbi Dahan described how, on a recent flight from Marseilles to Tel Aviv, he met 20 religious families making Aliyah (emigrating to Israel). But we don’t hear reliable statistics of what happens to these people; how long they stay, what they do. “Many are also coming back,” said Dahan.

Dahan lamented that a predominant portion of French Jews who emigrate are religiously involved in French Judaism and that it’s those who are most involved, the largest donors, who leave. It presents a challenge for French Jewish communities.

Statistics indicate that French Jews tend to be secular like the French in general. Only 15% of French Jews attend synagogue. Seventy-five percent of Jewish school age children attend public schools. The majority of French Jews do not wear traditional religious clothing; they have no particular reason to shop at the Hypercacher.

Rabbi Dahan feels strongly that French Jews should not leave because they are afraid. “For Jews to leave France because they are afraid is bad,” he said. It’s giving in to terrorism. If individual Jews want to emigrate to Israel because they want to live a religious life, good for them. But Jews should not heed Netanyahu’s siren song—or abandon their citizenship commitment to help make France a better place—because they are afraid.  

For the past 15 years, ever since the rise of Islamist violence against Jews in France, the French government has gone to considerable lengths to protect its Jewish community. According to Dahan, since the Charlie Hebdo/Hypercacher attacks, the French government has been spending €1 million each day for security at Jewish schools and community centers throughout France. This is not like the 1930’s when state governments in Europe supported anti-Semitism. Just this week French Prime Minister Manuel Valls pledged to finance a plan to fight racism and anti-Semitism in France. The French government is working to keep its Enlightenment promise. French Jews should keep their citizenship commitment to fight to make France the best it can be.

Japanese Americans did not abandon the United States and return to Japan after the travesty of the Japanese-American internment during World War II. They remained loyal citizens of the country and subsequently fought for their rights. Fighting for your rights as a minority is not always pleasant and you can get hurt. But it’s something that has to be done, and the post-enlightenment liberal democratic state provides tools and opportunity to do so. The proper response of French Jews (or American Jews) to unfriendly looks on the street, political discrimination, or political violence is the same: it is not to run meekly to fortress Israel; the correct response is to stand up proud and claim your rights as a French Jew.

It’s not exactly how the Grand Rabbi of Aix-en-Provence put it, but I think this was the essence of his message.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Supercilious Smirk



Supercilious Merriam Webster: 1) Coolly and patronizingly haughty;  2) The proud and unpleasant attitude of people who think that they are better or more important than other people.

It's what makes Bill Maher not likable, even if you agree with his politics; it's what makes Ted Cruz unelectable as President, regardless of his politics.

Bill Maher genuinely thinks he's right on everything. He thinks he is very important and deserves all that money that allowed him to donate $1 million to the Obama PAC, or to offer  $1 million to Elizabeth Warren on TV.  But guess what? He's not right all the time. And he's not always as funny or as understanding of the world as his smirk would suggest. 

Ted Cruz's smirk comes from another place: he knows he's talking trash when he says global warming does not exist, or that we should abolish the Internal Revenue Service; but he thinks he's so good at spinning his yarn that truth or falsity don't matter. It's a smirk borne of a prankster's guilty conscience. He feels invincible because the Liberty University crowd doesn't notice or care, and he feels smug in his confidence that he can run circles around the San Francisco crowd that is driven crazy by what he says. And he's not entirely wrong.  He was a debating champion at Princeton. But the smirk gives him away.

Interesting tidbit: Liberty University (VA), a Christian College founded by Jerry Falwell and where Cruz announced his run for the Presidency, forced students to attend the event under threat of $10 fines.  

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Ayatollah's Twitter Feed: To Be Taken with a Huge Grain of Salt

Khamenei and Hussain Al-Montazeri, one of the good guys
of the Iranian Revolution (1978 photo) 

Sayedd Ali Khamenei, the seventy-five year old cleric and "Supreme Leader" of the Islamic Republic of Iran speaks Persian, Arabic, and Azerbaijani.  He has translated several books from Arabic into Persian and he has analyzed Persian poetry. With trivial exceptions--I heard the other day that he once was in North Korea--he has never been out of the country. He does not speak English. He is not savvy to U.S. or Western European internal politics.

Nevertheless, since 2009 there exists an English language Twitter account in Khamenei's name. The account uses the Twitter handle "Khamenei_ir"and it sports a handsome avuncular picture of the cleric. It's a sophisticated effort. There are photos, videos, and many tweets a day that display a native command of the English language, and understanding of U.S. and Western politics. The feed knows where to push our buttons.  It has 115,000 followers. It frequently talks trash about "oppressed Americans", "Black lives matter", "Native lives matter," "what Jesus would do," Zionism, the Holocaust, and Israel.  This Twitter feed plainly is not written by Khamenei.

Not only is the Khameni_ir Twitter feed not written by Khamenei, it's equally plain that he does not pass on and approve all individual tweets; they are way too numerous and diverse in what they cover. The man has a life to lead.

Yet there is a fiction carried on by the Western press that all of these tweets reflect the considered opinion of the Supreme Leader and that they are the sovereign voice of Iran. See, e.g., Michael Rubin, David Frum, The Washington Post, Hunter Walker, the Washington Free Beacon.

Take this article in The Guardian from last November:
Iran’s supreme leader has stepped into the debate over police violence and race in America, likening police shootings of black people in Ferguson and elsewhere to the Palestinian struggle in Gaza in a series of tweets using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter....  In his latest outpouring, Khamenei seeks to highlight what he sees as the hypocrisy of the US at Christmas by suggesting a link between Jesus suffering for the oppressed, and official oppression of protesters in Ferguson. ....When it comes to domestic US affairs, Khamenei is quite the regular commentator. In 2011, when Occupy protests were erupting across America, he predicted the movement would bring down the entire capitalist system. ... 
Khamenei’s English-language Twitter feed is unverified by the social media company. It is widely understood that the account is managed by the supreme leader’s personal office, though they too will neither confirm or deny it.  Its existence casts a sliver of light into the thinking of the man who has wielded ultimate power in Iran for the past 25 years, .... The Twitter feed also acts as a megaphone for official Iranian policy, with regular denunciations of the Israeli government and Zionism.
Take Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, tweeting this morning:
Iran's supreme leader has issued a series of tweets that unfortunately make it harder to sell an Iran deal in the US twitter.com/khamenei_ir/st… 
This is pure fantasy, of course. Khamenei has not "issued a series of tweets"--or at least Kristof has no clue whether Khamenei had any involvment with these tweets. Some office in Iran--perhaps akin to The Voice of America, perhaps something closer to the "Supreme Leader's personal office"--issued these tweets.  Kristof and we have no clue as to what's behind them.

Surely there is a story to be written about the creation of the Khamenei_ir Twitter feed: who within the government controls this feed, who created it, who maintains it how much oversight is there and by whom? What stock, if any, should we put in these tweets as reflective of official Iranian policy? Is this run by hardliners in the government or liberals?  Is this run by a bunch of Twitter savvy youths with a long leash? Which, if any, tweets are discussed before posting on Khamenei_ir and with whom?  Are the tweets that Kristof refers us to this morning generated by hardliners in Iran opposed to the deal? Were they discussed with and approved by Khamenei?

After looking for a morning on the internet I have found no such story--only the mindlessly repeated fiction that every tweet is the solemn word of the Supreme Leader and official policy of Iran. No one analyzing U.S. policy (in their right mind) would treat what is said on The Voice of America in that manner.

Last November Khamenei_ir posted a "9-Point Plan to Destroy Israel." It's certain that this tweet was  not created or posted by Khamenei himself.  The question is was he consulted? Did he authorize the tweet?  This is not a question that occurred, however, to Stuart Winer at the Times of Israel who blithely adopted the fiction that "Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called over the weekend for the destruction of Israel." Of course, this fiction serves the interests of forces in Israel who want to portray Khamenei and official Iranian policy as anti-semitic and crazy.  So why should they look at questions that might distract from that message?

It doesn't mean we shouldn't.

It's not like the Israeli intelligence agencies don't have an understanding of how this Twitter feed works. Surely they must. Not that we'd hear about it from Netanyahu who is fond of the crazy stuff. And it's not like the New York Times doesn't have the ability to track down and write a story that would provide some context for this Khamenei_ir Twitter feed, and what we should take away from the crazy things that are said on it. So far no one in the media appears to have chosen to research and write that story. It's easier and much more fun to take every last tweet as the literal word of the Supreme Leader and the definitive expression of Iran's sovereign policy. It helps to generate outrage...and outrage is the opiate of the masses. It sells copy.

As long as people continue not to care about what's behind this Twitter feed, or to make an effort to explain it to me, I'm going to take what is said on this Khamenei_ir with a huge grain of salt.


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

States Should Mandate the Universal Use of Police Body Cameras Now!

The murder of 50 year old Walter Scott
April 7, 2015
Approximately 300 black men are gunned down by police in the United States every year. It's way too many. It's tainted with racism. Frank Walton, who has been focusing on the issue of police violence on blacks for 30 years said: "91% of the people killed by Police in Chicago in 2012 were Black? 87% in New York? 100% in Saginaw and Rockford?" Nearly half were unarmed.

As a nation we make no effort to track statistics of what percentage of these killings are unjustified. We should. The FBI should be charged with tracking and publishing these statistics. We should do more.  Congress should charge the FBI to investigate every police shooting.  [Here is a crowd sourced effort to identify the total number of police killings/year] We employ about 47,000 people to provide airport screening--surely we can employ 1,500 to investigate police shootings to increase accountability.

On April 7, 2015 officer Michael T. Slager of North Charleston, South Carolina (pop. 100,000/47% black with a police force that is 80% white) murdered a 50 year old black man, Walter Scott.  Slager had made a routine traffic stop in broad daylight for a burned out taillight. Scott ran from the scene; he owed child support.  The officer attempted to subdue him with a stun gun, but that didn't work. Scott ran away, and officer Slager pulled his gun and shot at Scott eight times, killing him.

In case you have any question, no it's not o.k. for a police officer to shoot a suspect because he does not submit to an arrest: not unless the officer or a third person is in mortal danger. There is no justification--ever--to shoot an unarmed fleeing man in the back.

Slager supplied a false report, claiming that Scott had attempted to take his Taser ... that he was in fear of his life. He lied. He might have gotten away with it, like so many others (how many?), but for the video captured on a bystander's phone. In light of the video there is no doubt what happened: a murder. "He made a mistake," said the mayor in announcing the murder charge. Yes, a mistake like a guy who holds up a liquor store to steal cigarettes and blows away the store clerk.

There is doubt about the deterrence of the death penalty for homicides; there is doubt about the efficacy of long prison terms to deter crimes. There is no doubt that the presence of cameras deter police abuses. Let's use them.

The White House has urged local police forces to increase the use of body cameras on police, to be turned on with every encounter. To date no state has legislation that requires the use of cameras to document encounters, although legislation is pending in Iowa. There should be firm strict liability penalties for "equipment malfunctions" or for "forgetting" to activate the cameras.

Police violence on blacks is a matter of national urgency, but Congress may be prohibited from regulating local police forces directly (U.S. v. Lopez invalidated the gun-free schools Act).  Nevertheless, Congress should get involved to encourage States to act; Congress should do what it can to mandate the use of police body cameras, and to do a much better job in gathering and publishing data.

Cameras, information, and transparency deter bad conduct.

In California, the penalty for a police officer filing a false report is punishable under Penal Code Section 118.1. ["Every peace officer who files any report ... regarding the commission of any crime ..., if he or she knowingly and intentionally makes any statement regarding any material matter in the report which the officer knows to be false, ... is guilty of filing a false report punishable by imprisonment in the county jail for up to one year, or in the state prison for one, two, or three years."]  Such provisions should be vigorously enforced through routine, transparent investigations in every state and in every jurisdiction. This needs to be a priority.

Having fair-minded police forces with integrity is hugely important. We must do better.  Universal use of body cameras, vigorous prosecution of perjury by police officers, and better keeping of statistics is a good place to start.

How do we get our legislatures to act?


Monday, April 6, 2015

The Iran Nuclear Deal Framework: All Upside and no Downside Risk


Tom Friedman scored a 46 minute interview with President Obama in the Oval Office on Saturday, April 4, 2015.  The questioning is good: respectful and designed to permit Obama to make his case on why we should all support this framework for a nuclear deal with Iran. Obama rises to the occasion. He provides a deliberative exposition of his policy like we'd like to see more of.  [It would have been nice to see something like this on the health care legislation for example]  It's our President unfiltered by handlers. It's a demonstration of thoughtful competence that we should expect not just at the Presidential level, but at the Congressional level as well.  Competence matters.

Near the end of this interview[@44m55sec] Obama succinctly lays out what he feels to be the key U.S. interest in the region today.
The one thing I always tell folks in the region, whatever has happened in the past, at this point the U.S.'s core interests in the region are not oil [or] territorial strategic concerns; our core interests are that everybody is living in peace, that it is orderly, that our allies are not being attacked, that children are not having barrel bombs dropped on them, that massive displacements are not taking place. Our interests in this sense are really just making sure that the region is working, and if it's working well, then we'll do fine. That's going to be a big project, given what's taken place, but this [nuclear deal] is at least one place to start. 
This is a positive vision. Obama is not suggesting to proceed with this nuclear deal with Iran because we are cowering in fear.  No, Obama is acting for positive reasons: because the deal will potentially help to stabilize the region.

In 2003 when we invaded Iraq we acted from fear. Or at least fear is what we were sold. Although the risk of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction was slight, said Dick Cheney, George Bush and the groundswell of support in the press and professional commentariat, the potential damage of such weapons of mass destruction was so devastating that we could not afford not to act. Meanwhile the cost of war (a short inexpensive war) and the pay-off (a democratic stable regime that would magically sprout) were both oversold. We greatly misread both the risks presented (there were no weapons of mass destruction) and the potential benefits and costs of war (the war was hugely expensive, long, and the political situation was worse on account of our actions, not better). We saw no up side and much downside risk was realized.

The Iran nuclear deal also presents risk. But the risk of proceeding in this case has no down side. There is only upside risk. There is hope that by making this deal, the Iranian regime will moderate: that after 37 years they will finally begin to engage the world in a more positive manner; that outside investment in Iran will start a virtuous cycle; that the Iranian regime will become more responsive to its people; that as Iran sees the benefits of engaging with the world, the regime will recognize that it can become a regional power without supporting proxy wars in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen; that the regime will come to recognize that it can be a regional power and gain influence without being a mortal enemy of the Sunni states, or Israel; that the regime will manage sufficient self-confidence to loosen up.

The risk, of course, is that all of these hopes will be dashed, that we are being naive. But Obama argues--and he seems correct--implementing this deal comes with no downside risk. The deal will not enable Iran to get closer to having a nuclear weapon (they will be much farther away with this deal than where they presently are); the risk does not include a weakening of the relative power and influence of the U.S., or the Sunni states, or Israel.  The U.S. will maintain all military options; the U.S. will continue to assure that Israel maintains a qualitative military edge in the region. The U.S. will continue to act as a protector of its Sunni ally states, and of Israel.  The only party militarily weakened as a result of this deal will be Iran--they will give up their ability to produce nuclear weapons for at least 15 years.

Even if we believe the Iranian's can't be trusted and that they are irrevocably committed to their ideological opposition to the West, our Sunni state allies, and Israel--as Netanyahu believes--this is still the right deal.  None of the alternatives--(1) maintaining the status quo, (2) continuing and increasing sanctions, or (3) possible military action--would make us any safer.  None of these alternatives lower risk. Walking away from this deal will leave Iran approximately three months away from obtaining a bomb according to nuclear experts (and Netanyahu). Increasing sanctions or military action would empower hardliners in Iran. "See, we have no alternative but to become a nuclear power to assert our interests," they would argue. Sanction might slow progress towards Iran's goal of building a nuclear bomb, but sanctions cannot prevent the development of a bomb--as we saw with North Korea. Similarly, military action could set the program back a few months, but it cannot prevent Iran from developing a weapon.  The status quo, increased sanctions, and war all come with significant downside risk.  On the other hand, the nuclear deal that is being finalized now will prevent Iran from obtaining a bomb for 15 years, and will result in a much enhanced capacity for the international community to monitor and to detect any potential violations by the Iranians.  All upside, no downside.

Netanyahu and his Republican supporters in Congress make the argument that there is risk that this is not the best possible deal that could be obtained. That is backseat driving. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, we say. Well, abandoning the hard-won framework of Lausanne will not result in a deal that is twice as good in a few months, or years.  Abandoning the framework simply means we'll come away empty handed.  On the other hand, there is a chance that by completing this deal and moving forward with normalizing relations with Iran, we will accomplish some positive things. The only risk is that the world community will look foolish to have gotten its hopes up for peace and more stability. That's a risk well worth taking.




Friday, April 3, 2015

Best Wishes for a Meaningful Easter and Passover



Today is full moon, the 15th day of the month of Nisan. Werewolves are about; lovers swoon; rusalkas sing plaintively.  It's the date set by the sages for Passover. It's also the Friday preceding the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox, which is the date set by the Christian Church at the Council of Nicaea for Easter. 

Although the stories of Passover and Easter overlap--the Last Supper being a Passover Seder--the celebrations are tied to different calendars and so they dance around each other, roughly from late March to late April on our Gregorian calendar.  The full moon keeps them in close orbit. 

These are spring-holidays, a time of renewal and re-birth. Eggs show up as lusty fertility symbols on the Seder plate and nestled in with chocolate bunnies in garden baskets.  

Passover tells how "My father was a fugitive Aramean" who travelled to Egypt, where he and his people became enslaved, and how God redeemed this tribe and brought them out of Egypt, out of slavery.  The people followed Moses, destined to lead an exemplary communal life in a land of milk and honey. The people failed. They were expelled from the land like Adam and Eve from paradise.  The Passover holiday ends with a reading of Isaiah 10:32-12:6, a messianic vision of a future earthly kingdom where the lamb and the leopard will lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and where a little child will lead them into a new Paradise. It is an earthbound tradition, full of problematic violence and human failings.

Easter starts with Passover and transforms Jesus into the ultimate sacrificial lamb: the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  Christ was crucified, buried, and resurrected. It is a tradition that is other-worldly, full of problematic violence and human failings.   

Neither tradition has managed to make the world right. We keep trying. 

This week we'll celebrate because, despite all, these traditions continue to speak to our human condition. They provide a reference point. A literary font. Inspiration. They allow us to stay connected with the struggles, hopes, and visions of our forefathers. They provide a jumping off point for our own struggles. They mark the seasons and bind us with family and love.