Mike Kueber's Blog

May 4, 2011


The killing of Osama Bin Laden has revived the controversy over waterboarding.  Conservatives are asserting that information obtained from waterboarding was essential to locating and killing Bin Laden, while liberals are suggesting that waterboarding had been ineffective. 

Last night, FOX News covered the story from Bill O’Reilly at 7pm to Sean Hannity at 8pm to Greta Van Susteren at 9pm.  This morning the NY Times had an article that describes the controversy. 

As is his wont, Sean Hannity went the most overboard by not only trumpeting the success of waterboarding, but also criticizing America for being too concerned about Muslim sensibilities when burying Bin Laden at sea.  According to Hannity, Osama didn’t deserve a respectful burial because many of his 9/11 victims had been denied the same.  Because Hannity isn’t subjected to questions, he wasn’t asked whether a murderer-rapist should be raped and murdered by the government instead of being executed. 

Two segments on the Hannity show revealed him as the demagogue he is.  The first was S.C. Senator Lindsey Graham.  When Hannity told Lindsey Graham that waterboarding was invaluable and should be reinstated, Graham responded by suggesting that waterboarding was not consistent with American values, but that other enhanced interrogation techniques should be classified and authorized.

The second segment was called Hannity’s Great American Panel, which last night consisted of a curmudgeonly retired Marine colonel (Bill Cowan) and two Navy Seal authors (Howard Wasdin and Eric Greitens).  Although the colonel went along with Hannity’s hard-nosed approach, both Wasdin and Greitens rejected waterboarding as contrary to American values and even contrary to their warrior values. 

Later in the night, Greta Van Susteren asked Michelle Bachman about waterboarding.  Michelle seemed to have received a talking-points memo from Graham because she side-stepped the waterboarding question by saying that enhanced interrogation techniques are essential and should be utilized.  When Greta specifically asked about waterboarding, Michelle repeated that enhanced interrogation technique should be authorized.  I hate it when politicians refuse to answer a simple question and instead answer the question they wanted to be asked.

Several months ago I blogged about waterboarding after reading a book on torture called Because It Is Wrong.  In the posting, I also discussed Bush’43’s explanation in his book Decision Points for why he authorized waterboarding to be used with three terrorists. 

Since then, I have talked to several friends about waterboarding, and they invariable characterize it as torture.  They are not persuaded by Bush-43’s explanation that it doesn’t create excruciating physical pain and doesn’t leave any permanent mental or physical damage. 

I wonder if their opinion has changed since the killing of Osama.  The killing changes the question from an abstract one to a more practical question of “means vs. ends” or “costs vs. benefits.”  For most people, it is hard to place such a high value on a nebulous concept like decency that they are willing to give up a highly desirable end/benefit like the killing of Obama.

Isn’t it ironic that Bush-43 chose the more practical path of waterboarding, and he was excoriated for it, whereas Obama choose the more idealistic path of banning waterboarding, yet his administration was able to reap the benefit of Bush’43’s decision?

March 19, 2011

Sunday book review #20 – Decisions Points by George W. Bush

Last December, I suggested that there was so much interesting material in Decision Points that I would break my review into three parts, with the first part reviewing the five pre-9/11 chapters and the second and third parts on the chapters dealing with post-9/11 foreign policy and post-9/11 domestic policy.   After reviewing the first part of Decision Points, I was detoured by a series of books that became available at the SA Public Library.  One of those library books, Because It Is Wrong, critiqued Bush’s post-9/11 handling of surveillance and interrogation issues, which are precisely the issues that Bush discusses in Chapter Six of Decision Points – War Footing.  I review both Because It is Wrong and the War Footing chapter in a subsequent blog entry.   

After reading the library books, as well as a few others that squeezed ahead of it in my reading queue, I finally returned this week to Decision Points and found the remaining chapters to be even better than the early chapters.  The War Footing chapter is followed by separate chapters on Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Chapter Seven is titled “Afghanistan.”  Shortly after 9/11, Bush was briefed on three options for dealing with al Qaeda in Afghanistan – (1) cruise missile strikes, (2) cruise missiles and manned-bomber attacks, and (3) missiles, bombers, and boots on the ground against al Qaeda and the Taliban.  During the briefings, some advisors suggested dealing with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction at the same time.  Ultimately, Bush decided on option #3 (America would not be, as bin Laden suggested, “paper tigers who would run in less than 24 hours”), but he declined to take action against Iraq – “We would fight the war on terror on the offense, and the first battleground would be Afghanistan….  Unless I received definitive evidence typing Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 plot, I would work to resolve the Iraq problem diplomatically.”

In his 2000 campaign, Bush had said, “I would be very careful about using our troops as nation builders.”  Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and 9/11 changed his opinion.  But America was not prepared for nation-building, and Bush concedes that helping the Afghan people to build a functioning democracy has been more daunting that he anticipated.  He is confident, however, that we will ultimately succeed, especially since President Obama has apparently shares the same objective.

Chapter Eight, titled “Iraq,” describes the drawn-out process of going to war against Iraq.  Bush details (a) the evidence of weapons of mass destruction and (b) the diplomatic efforts to avoid war.  When those efforts failed, General Tommy Franks started war-planning.  He had been impressed by the ability of the military to destroy the Taliban and close al Qaeda camps without using a lot of troops.  The key to this so-called “light footprint” was that America was not viewed as invaders or occupies, and General Franks decided to apply the same strategy in Iraq.  Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested to General Franks that he would be better served applying the so-called Powell Doctrine (deploying massive, decisive force), but Franks chose not to adopt it and Bush decided to defer to his military advisors.  The Iraq chapter ends in 2004 after the successful invasion, but the story of the war will be picked up in a later chapter titled, “Surge.”

In Chapter Nine, titled “Leading,” Bush describes his leadership style.  He describes how he worked with Ted Kennedy to pass the No Child Left Behind law and how a variety of compromises resulted in the flawed Medicare prescription-drug benefit.  But he laments his inability to reform Social Security and immigration laws.  In hindsight, he wishes he had attempted immigration reform early in his second term instead of going first for Social Security reform because the former had more bipartisan support.

Incidentally, I was happy to learn that Bush’s five-part proposed immigration reform was very similar to the proposal on which I ran for Congress: (1) hardened border security, (2) temporary-worker program, (3) enhanced enforcement with employers, (4) improved assimilation by requiring immigrants to learn English, and (5) a path to citizenship for long-term, working residents.

Also incidentally, Bush closed the Leading chapter by urging that Congressional districts be drawn by nonpartisan panels instead of legislatures.  He reasoned that legislatures tend to draw polarized districts, which result in polarized politicians, which result in dysfunctional government.  Although this is an excellent argument, talk is cheap – I don’t remember Bush speaking up on this issue when he was in a position to do something about it.

Chapter Ten is titled “Katrina,” which was the costliest national disaster in America’s history.  Bush does not do a lot of finger pointing (he never mentions the poor performance of the citizenry) and takes responsibility for government letting down its citizens – “Serious mistakes came at all levels, from the failure to order a timely evacuation of New Orleans to the disintegration of local security forces to the dreadful communications and coordination.  As the leader of the federal government, I should have recognized the deficiencies sooner and intervened faster.  I prided myself on my ability to make crisp and effective decisions.  Yet in the days after Katrina, that didn’t happen.  The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions.  It was that I took too long to decide.”  

Bush gives a detailed discussion of four important events:

  1. He pushed hard for Mayor Nagin to order a mandatory evacuation of the city.  The order came less than 24 hours before Katrina landed.
  2. His decision against visiting New Orleans shortly after the flood was correct because he would have interfered with the rescue efforts, but he should have landed in Baton Rouge to meet with the governor and show his concern.
  3. He pushed hard for Governor Blanco to authorize the federal government to take charge of security in New Orleans, but she never agreed.  Eventually, Bush sent in federal troops and General Honore, but because of Blanco’s resistance they had no law-enforcement authority.  Yet they succeeded in bringing order to the city.  “Had I known he could be so effective without the authority I assumed he needed, I would have cut off the legal debate and sent troops in without law enforcement powers several days earlier.”
  4. Although he had encouraged FEMA’s Mike Brown with, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” he eventually replaced Brown because Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff said Brown had frozen under pressure and became insubordinate.

Chapter Eleven, titled “Lazarus Effect,” describes Bush’s fight to secure funding for fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa.  Although Bush’s efforts are commendable, there really wasn’t a lot of opposition to overcome.  Getting Congress to spend money does not require superhuman efforts.

Chapter Twelve, titled “Surge,” brings us back to the war in Iraq.  By 2006, sectarian violence had caused the Iraq situation to deteriorate.  Even Republican whip Mitch McConnell was lobbying Bush to bring the troops home.  After the Democrats took control of both houses of Congress, new Speaker Pelosi declared, “The American people have spoken….  We must begin the responsible redeployment of our troops outside of Iraq.”  But Bush remained committed to prevailing in Iraq, and eventually he concluded that the “light footprint” strategy espoused by Rumsfeld and Generals Casey and Abizaid was the problem.  In its stead, he adopted a “surge” strategy developed by National Security Advisor Steve Hadley and General Petraeus.  At the close of one preliminary meeting with General Petraeus, Bush used the gambling expression that America was “doubling down,” and Petraeus one-upped him by responding that “we were all in.”  

Opposition to the surge was immense, with notable exceptions like Senators McCain, Graham, and Lieberman.  The House passed a nonbinding resolution disapproving the surge.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared, “The war is lost, the surge is not accomplishing anything.”  According to Bush, this declaration “was one of the most irresponsible acts I witnessed in my eight years in Washington.”  I agree that, for a leader in Congress, Reid’s statement was contemptible.        

Eventually, the surge succeeded, and it is enabling President Obama to conduct an orderly withdrawal.

Chapter Thirteen, titled “Freedom Agenda,” describes Bush’s efforts to implement the fourth prong of the Bush Doctrine throughout the world.  For those of you, like Sarah Palin, who aren’t familiar with the Bush Doctrine, it means:

  1. Make no distinction between terrorists and nations that harbor them.  We will hold both to account.
  2. Take the fight against terrorists to the enemy overseas before they can attack us at home.
  3. Confront threats before they fully materialize.
  4. Advance liberty and hope as an alternative to the enemy’s ideology of repression and fear.

The Freedom Agenda was implemented in several ways:

  • Supporting fledgling democracies in the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Georgia, and the Ukraine.
  • Encouraging dissidents and democratic reformers in repressive regimes like Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Venezuela.
  • Advocate for freedom while maintaining strategic relations with nations like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia, and China.

Bush says that in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, he placed much focus on the Middle East because “the great tide of freedom that swept much of the world during the second half of the twentieth century had largely bypassed one region: the Middle East.”

After describing successes in his Freedom Agenda, Bush concedes disappointment with Russia, Egypt, and Venezuela – “Still, given what I’d hoped Putin and I could accomplish in moving past the Cold War, Russia stands out as a disappointment in the freedom agenda.  Russia was not the only one.  I was hopeful that Egypt would be a leader for freedom and reform in the Arab world, just as it had been a leader for peace under Anwar Sadat a generation before.  Unfortunately, after a promising presidential election in 2005 that included opposition candidates, the government cracked down during the legislative elections later that year, jailing dissidents and bloggers who advocated a democratic alternative.  Venezuela also slid back from democracy.”

Chapter Fourteen, titled “Financial Crisis,” is the last chapter.  Bush said that Bernanke and Paulson, two of his best appointments, warned him that the crisis could be as bad as the Great Depression.  Bush’s great response – “If we’re really looking at another Great Depression, you can be damn sure I’m going to be Roosevelt, not Hoover.”  His actions reflected that sentiment – he bailed out the banks, AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and two auto manufacturers.

Also in this chapter, Bush responded to a couple of common criticisms relating to his role in causing the financial crisis:

  1. He failed to ask Americans to sacrifice while we were fighting two wars.  Bush counters that this wasn’t like World War Two where we had to convert to a war-based economy.  “I’ve always believed that the critics who alleged I wasn’t asking people to sacrifice were really complaining that I hadn’t raised taxes….  I am convinced that raising taxes after the devastation of 9/11 would have hurt our economy.”
  2. He squandered the massive surplus that he inherited.  “Much of the surplus was an illusion, based on the mistaken assumption that the 1990s boom would continue.  Once the recession and 9/11 hit, there was little surplus left.

Decision Points concludes with a short Epilogue, in which Bush reveals complete serenity about his presidency.  He believes that the central challenge of his presidency was to keep America safe and that mission was accomplished.  He “pursued his convictions without wavering, but changed course when necessary…trusted individuals to make choices in their lives… used America’s influence to advance freedom.”

I remember back in the 80s when I would defend Reagan against those who thought he was a dunce or a Neanderthal.  In my mind, Reagan was a national asset, and that’s how I’ve felt about George W. Bush.  After reading Decision Points, I believe that America was fortunate to have him as president from 2001-2009.

January 31, 2011

Sunday book review #12 – Because It Is Wrong by Charles & Gregory Fried

I was planning to publish this review yesterday, but was distracted.  Lo siento.

Although the issue of torture received a lot of publicity in the past few years, I thought the reporting was superficial and the issue was left unresolved.  That is why I was pleased to stumble across a new book on the subject at my local library.  By reading the book, I hoped to gain a better understanding, while incidentally answering two questions that the extensive reporting never managed to accomplish:

  1. What is torture? 
  2. The U.S. apparently used several questionable “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  Waterboarding was the example always mentioned; what are some other examples?

Because It Is Wrong is subtitled, “Torture, Privacy, and Presidential Power in the Age of Terror.”  As the sub-title suggests, it discusses the threats to America posed by Bush-43 using torture and “warrantless surveillance of cyberspace” to fight the post 9/11 war against terror. 

As luck would have it, Bush-43 discusses both torture and privacy in a chapter titled “War Footing” in his new book, Decision Points, which was published late in 2010.  Because Because It Is Wrong was published in early 2010, the Frieds did not have the opportunity to address Bush’s contentions in Decision Points, but I got the impression that Bush did not make any new arguments in his book.

The Frieds are a father-son team.  Father Charles teaches constitutional law at Harvard, while son Gregory teaches philosophy at Suffolk University.  I like Charles because, just as I did, he initially supported McCain, but later felt compelled to shift to Obama because of McCain’s selection of Palin as his running mate. 

Not surprisingly, Charles is the conservative in this tandem and Gregory is the liberal – you know the saying about a young conservative has no heart and an old liberal has no brain.  Surprisingly, the tandem was able to write as a single unit until the final chapter, where they finally noted an issue on which they disagreed.

In the preface to Because It Is Wrong, the authors discuss a philosophy called deontology, which they describe as a belief that some acts are bad or good, regardless of their consequences.  They call the contrasting philosophy utilitarianism – i.e., “no act is inherently right or wrong in itself and the standard of the right action must always be the net good produced or the net evil avoided.”  The authors also admitted that they generally support the deontological position.  You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to predict that their support for deontology would probably affect their analysis of torture.

Absolutely Wrong

 The first chapter in the Frieds’ book is titled, “Absolutely Wrong.”  As this suggests, it is essentially an application of deontology to torture.  The authors note that very few philosophers are willing to hold that torture is absolutely wrong, often citing “ticking time-bomb” and kidnapper justifications.  Through several pages of tortured reasoning, the authors ineffectively explain why the damage done to the human race by sanctioning torture in even those extreme situations is worse than the damage done by the time-bomb or kidnapper.  “Survival is not the ultimate value, but how we survive, what we survive as, is.” 

Initially, I found it impossible to consider anything to be “absolutely wrong.”  Rather, I felt that the benefits could always justify the means.  Then I thought about my congressional campaign and my position that it is always wrong to accept big campaign contributions.  That seemed like a perfect example of a situation where I would rather lose than be compromised by the big contribution.  Based on that example, I learned to appreciate deontology to be more practical and less abstract.  

Bordering on Torture

The second chapter is titled, “Bordering on Torture.”  Speaking of torture – what exactly is it?  According to the authors, torture is worse than killing a person because torture can never be justified, whereas killing can – in self-defense, in war, and in capital punishment. 

In defining torture, the authors first look to the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Army Field Manual, which distinguishes permissible and impermissible interrogation techniques.  A key requirement in the Field Manual is that prisoners and their guards must be treated the same way with respect to food, shelter, clothing, rest, and exercise.  Permissible techniques seek to influence a person’s will, whereas torture seeks to destroy it.  Examples of possible torture include:

  • Water boarding;
  • Walling;
  • Stress positions;
  • Electric shocks;
  • Sleep deprivation; and
  • Sexual humiliation.

The Bush-43 administration relied on memos from CIA lawyers to assert that cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment was equivalent to conduct that shocks the conscience.  Furthermore, “shocks the conscience” is a highly context-specific and fact-dependent question, and the Supreme Court has been unable to set forth a specific test.  Inflicting pain amounts to torture only if it is “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”  Dictum in one Supreme Court case referred to “exercise of power without any reasonable justification in the service of a legitimate government objection.”  That sounds like utilitarianism, not deontology.

Regarding waterboarding, which the Bush-43 administration felt was by far the most severe of the enhanced interrogation techniques, it was authorized only when there was credible evidence that a terrorist attack is imminent and the suspect can help to defeat the attack.  It has been used on only three terrorists and not since March 2003. 

Regarding enhanced interrogation techniques, there are three categories:

  1. Conditioning techniques – control over basic human needs, such as clothing, food, sleep deprivation in shackles w/ diapers
  2. Corrective techniques – mild physical interaction, such as facial slap, ab slap, facial hold
  3. Coercive techniques – water dousing, stress positions, wall standing, and cramped confinement.

The Big Ear

The third chapter in the book is titled, “The Big Ear,” and it concerns the post-9/11 invasion of privacy.  The authors noted that there has been more resistance to these efforts because: 

  • The cynic might say that there is a privacy panic but not torture panic because ordinary citizens do not expect that they or anyone they know is likely to be tortured.  But we all fear that the government’s big ear may be listening in on even our most intimate whispered conversations, ferreting out our smallest indiscretions, most trivial peccadilloes….  After 9/11, the government, in its desperate search for knowledge, both tortured and eavesdropped in violation of the law, but it is grotesque to equate the two and to agitate more against eavesdropping than against torture.”

Although some of us aren’t very worried about our privacy being invaded, the authors forcefully argue that people in general throughout history have held dear the right to have many parts of their lives shielded from public inspection – kind of like saying that we all have huge dark sides that need to be kept from the world.

Each society must find a balance between enabling government to prevent and detect evil and leaving individuals “some substantial domain somewhere to which he can safely withdraw, free from unsought intrusions….  Political wisdom guides how we adjust those boundaries given changes in customs and technology, but the touchstone must always be a determination to balance the state’s need to know with the state’s inability to know perfectly and so its potential to do injustice.”

No Beginning or No End

The fourth chapter is titled, “No Beginning or No End.”  The authors noted that Bush-43 came into office with no sense of personal risk – only the risk of failure of “an amiable domestic project.”  But because of 9/11, he suddenly faced great “moral danger for him, his officers, and the American people.”  The authors equated the moral danger confronting Bush-43 with a similar danger faced by Jefferson in 1807 (the Chesapeake incident) and Lincoln in 1861 (suspending habeas corpus).  Jefferson and Lincoln intentionally broke the law, just as surely as Bush-43 did with his approval of “harsh interrogation and ubiquitous electronic surveillance.” 

Learning Not To Be Good

In the fifth chapter, titled “Learning Not To Be Good,” the authors place Bush-43’s illegal surveillance in the same categories as Jefferson’s and Lincoln’s law-breaking – i.e., acts that are not inherently bad, but which could have been authorized by Congress.  In fact, Congress did retro-actively approve all of the actions.  Thus, the acts were not dangerous to American government because the executive realized he was making an exception that was necessitated by an unforeseen emergency.  This type of conduct, according to the authors, is analogous to the best tradition of civil disobedience.  

By way of contrast, Bush-43’s authorization of torture has not been authorized by Congress, and there was no attempt to justify it.  Rather, it was hidden from the public.  Furthermore, it can never be authorized because it is inherently bad.   

I noted earlier that the authors parted company only at the end of the book.  The issue that separated them was the potential prosecution of the Bush-43 administration for the torture committed on its behalf.  Author Gregory said unequivocally, yes, to restore America’s moral integrity.  Author Charles said he wasn’t sure.  Although he would not issue a pardon, he was very reluctant to create a precedent for “the criminal prosecution of the defeated administration.”  (This seems to overlook the fact that Bush-43 was never defeated.)  Charles thinks that such a decision, based on prudence, discretion, and Aristotle’s epieikeia, should be modeled, not after Cheney, but Nelson Mandela.

War Footing

Bush-43’s perspective concerning torture and surveillance was addressed in a single chapter titled, “War Footing.”  His primary defense for his actions, especially the warrantless surveillance, was the congressional war resolution passed on 9/14, which authorized him to use all necessary force against persons and organizations that were involved in 9/11 to prevent any future acts of terrorism.  He decided against going to Congress for timely approval of the surveillance because legislative debate would have exposed our methods to the enemy.  Eventually, in 2006, Bush-43 started pushing for modernization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to conform to the actions he had already taken, and this modernization was finally secured in the summer of 2008. 

Congress also authorized extensive government snooping in the USA Patriot Act.  Although Attorney General Ashcroft took the lead in drafting the bill, people in Congress titled it, and Bush opposed the title because he didn’t want to suggest that those in Congress who opposed the act were unpatriotic.  That viewpoint runs counter to the caricature of Bush as someone who uses patriotism as a divisive issue.

Regarding torture, Bush-43 doesn’t spend any time on legalities other than to declare that DOJ and CIA lawyers conducted careful legal reviews and concluded that the enhanced interrogation techniques were legal.  In fact, Bush-43 says that he disapproved of two CIA techniques “that went too far,” even though the CIA counsel had concluded they were legal.  I wonder what those techniques were. 

Bush-43 humanized his decision on torture by noting that, when he personally authorized the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed:

  • “I thought about my meeting with Danny Pearl’s widow, who was pregnant with his son when he was murdered.  I thought about the 2,973 people stolen from their families by al Qaeda on 9/11.  And I thought about my duty to protect the country from another act of terror.”

Although the Frieds may have thought that 9/11 had placed Bush-43 in a position of great moral danger, it seems that Bush-43, like Harry Truman with the atomic-bomb decision, is not losing any sleep over his decision to waterboard Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

January 11, 2011

Slippery slopes shouldn’t prevent us from doing the right thing

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 1:15 pm
Tags: , , ,

In his book Decision Points, George W. Bush used the “slippery slope” rationale for his decision to prohibit federal research on embryonic stem cells:

  • I worried that sanctioning the destruction of human embryos for research would be a step down the slippery slope from science fiction to medical reality.  I envisioned researchers cloning fetuses to grow spare body parts in a laboratory.”

Although I had always intuitively accepted that slippery-slope rationale, Bush’s usage of it prompted me to start thinking about whether the rationale was sometimes used to defend an otherwise indefensible position.  When I reflected on situations where the slippery-slope rationale has been applied, I thought of the following:

  1. The federal income tax and Social Security started small, but once the concepts were implemented, they grew into today’s behemoths.
  2. Gun registration is opposed on the basis that registration will eventually lead to confiscation of guns.
  3. Sending civilian advisors to a country will eventually lead to military involvement. 
  4. Federal government involvement in establishing national education standards will lead to unconstitutional interference with state and local responsibilities.
  5. Marijuana usage will lead to the abuse of heroin and cocaine.
  6. Censorship of anything will lead to abusive censorship.

The more I though about slippery slopes, the more I thought that the rationale was suspect because ideas that start small and then grow big are just as likely to grow because they are good ideas as they are because they are on a slippery slope. 

Based on my initial conclusion, I decided to do some research and was surprised to find that many experts have come to a similar conclusion.  In fact, the slippery slope – also known as the thin edge of a wedge, the camel’s nose, the boiling frog, foot in the door, inch/mile, or the domino effect – is sometimes categorized as an informal fallacy.  The fallacious sense of “slippery slope” is that it ignores the possibility of middle ground. 

There are, however, arguments that the slippery-slope rationale is accurate in certain situations.  Eugene Volokh has provided the following sophisticated slippery-slope explanation of gun registration leading to gun confiscation:

  1. Cost-lowering: Once all gun-owners have registered their firearms, the government will know exactly from whom to confiscate them.
  2. Legal rule combination: Previously the government might need to search every house to confiscate guns, and such a search would violate the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Registration would eliminate that problem.
  3. Attitude altering: People may begin to think of gun ownership as a privilege rather than a right, and thus regard gun confiscation less seriously.
  4. Small change tolerance, colloquially referred to as the “boiling frog”:  People may ignore gun registration because it constitutes just a small change, but when combined with other small changes, it could lead to the equivalent of confiscation.
  5. Political power: The hassle of registration may reduce the number of gun owners, and thus the political power of the gun-ownership bloc.
  6. Political momentum: Once the government has passed this gun law it becomes easier to pass other gun laws, including laws like confiscation.

Although I accept Volokh’s model, I think America is better served when its public-policy decisions are based on the merits of the specific pending issues without worrying about more difficult decisions that might need to be confronted later.

December 18, 2010

Abortion on a slippery slope – embryonic stem-cell research and partial-birth abortion

In his Decision Points book, George W. Bush described the decision-making process he used early in his presidency to deal with the issue of embryonic stem-cell research.  Ultimately, Bush decided to oppose federal funding of the research (except for research on a few already-existing stem cells), and part of his rationale for reaching this extreme pro-life position was that he was “worried that sanctioning the destruction of human embryos for research would be a step down a slippery slope from science fiction to medical reality.”

I wonder if the concept of a slippery slope is just an excuse for refusing to compromise and find a middle ground, with the result that America veers from one extreme position to another.

I can’t think of two more extreme positions than two abortion-related issues:

  1. Prohibiting embryonic stem-cell research; and
  2. Allowing partial-birth abortions.

Embryonic stem-cell research

Because of Bush’s pro-life position, his concern for the destruction of human embryos to further medical research might seem reasonable on the surface, but the devil is in the details.  The oft-overlooked detail is that the embryonic stem cells would be obtained from frozen embryos that were left over to die from in vitro fertilization (IVF) efforts.

To his credit, Bush acknowledged this detail by quoting a bioethicist, Dr. Louis Guenin, “If we spurn [embryonic stem cell research], not one more baby is likely to be born.”  But Bush decided to reject this eminently reasonable counsel from Dr. Guenin and instead chose to accept unintelligible advice from the National Right to Life and other bioethicists:

  • “[The National Right to Life] pointed out that each tiny cell cluster had the potential to grow into a person.  In fact, each of us had started our lives in this early stage.  As evidence, they pointed to a new program run by Nightlife Christian Adoptions.  The agency secured permission from IVF participants to place their unused frozen embryos up for adoption.  Loving mothers had the embryos implanted in them and carried the babies – known as snowflakes – to term.  The message was unmistakable: Within every frozen embryo were the beginnings of a child.”  My response to that is – Tell us something we didn’t already know.  Yes, embryos can become babies, but these embryos are destined to die.
  • Many of the bioethicists I met took the same position.  They acknowledged that most embryos frozen in IVF clinics would not become children.  Yet they argued that there was a moral difference between allowing embryos to die naturally and proactively ending their life.  Sanctioning the destruction of life to save life, they argued, crossed into dangerous moral territory.”  My response to that is – You are begging the question.  What is the moral difference between allowing a frozen embryo to die vs. using the discarded embryo to save life.

Because of Bush’s unwillingness to engage in actual reasoning that compares the interests of the embryos against the benefits to society, Bush issued a controversial executive order in 2001 that prohibited federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells.  Eight years later in 2009, Barack H. Obama uncontroversially reversed this order and authorized federal funding for stem-cell research.  Although George W. Bush thought he was avoiding a slippery slope, I suspect he was futilely trying to hold back the tide.

Partial-birth abortion.

Pro-life conservatives don’t have a monopoly on extreme positions.  Pro-choice liberals have for years waged a battle against common-sense Americans on the issue of partial-birth abortion, a/k/a intact dilation and extraction.  As most people know, a partial-birth abortion means that part of a fetus is extracted before the fetus is killed, often by suctioning the brain from the skull.  In the 1990s, Congress passed laws prohibiting partial-birth abortions, but President Clinton vetoed them.  This was a classic case of the Democratic Party being forced by special-interest politics to defend the indefensible.  Like pro-life conservatives refusing to budge on stem-cell research, the pro-choice liberals refused to budge on partial-birth abortions.  Their thinking – Let’s avoid the slippery slope of concessions and appeasement – compromise and the common sense of the American people be damned.

Of course, the ultimate result is the same – i.e., liberals were not avoiding the slippery slope, but instead were futilely trying to hold back the tide.  When Clinton was replaced by George W. Bush, Congress in 2003 again passed a law prohibiting partial-birth abortion, and President Bush signed it into law.  Although several federal courts concluded the law was unconstitutional, it was eventually upheld in 2007 by the U.S. Supreme Court – Gonzales v. Carhart.

Lesson learned

Special interests in Washington pressure politicians to take extreme positions, with the result that government policy veers erratically from one extreme to the other.  If politicians were more responsive to their constituents instead of being indebted to special interests, government policy would be more reasonable and consistent.  Special interests are likely to more powerful following the recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, so something has to be done to reduce that power.  I suggest a movement toward public financing of campaigns, but that movement has to be bottom-up grassroots, not top-down astroturf.

December 11, 2010

Sunday book review #4 – Decision Points by George W. Bush

George W. Bush is my favorite contemporary politician.  When I was going door-to-door during my Congressional campaign, the 2nd-most common question was what I thought of Bush-43.  (The most common question was what I thought of Roe v. Wade.)  Although I realized I would be more successful in my door-to-door discussions if I distanced myself from Bush, or at least gave a more nuanced opinion, I responded truthfully that I admired the man.

With that disclosure, I begin this review of Decision Points.  Unlike most presidential books, Decision Points is not a chronological narrative of the Bush presidency.  Instead, it is a review of how Bush made the important decisions in his life.  Because there is so much interesting material in the book, I have decided to break the review into three parts – the pre-9/11 stuff, post-9/11 foreign policy, and post-9/11 domestic policy and conclusions.  I will review the first part this week and the other two parts, I hope, on succeeding Sundays. 

The pre-9/11 stuff

The pre-9/11 stuff comprises four chapters – Quitting (about drinking), Running (deciding to run for president), Personnel (hiring and firing), and Stem Cells (government research with stem cells).  In the course of explaining those decisions, Bush reveals a lot about his character and personality, which is the diametric opposite of my all-time favorite politician, Richard Nixon.  I supported Nixon because I related to a lot of his background, values, ambitions, and insecurities.  He was the perfect foil for John Kennedy.  My preference for Nixon seems inconsistent with my admiration of Bush-43, who background and personality is more Kennedy-esque and Nixonian.  What’s so special about Bush-43?


 Maybe it’s his love of sports.  Bush and I share the love of sports, and I think we share some of the fundamental values that sports teaches, the most important being sportsmanship.  Bush described with admiration the sportsmanship displayed by his dad in losing to Bill Clinton in 1992: 

  • Dad handled the defeat with characteristic grace.  He called early in the evening to congratulate Bill, laying the foundation for one of the more unlikely friendships in American political history.  Dad had been raised to be a good sport.  He blamed no one; he was not bitter.” 

Later in 2000, early in the evening, after the critical state of Florida had been called for Gore, Bush showed his own sportsmanship – “I was ready to accept the people’s verdict and repeat Mother’s words from 1992: ‘It’s time to move on.’” 

I love this attitude.  Defeat is not a failure or a personal rejection.  Politicians offer their services, but someone has to lose.  I disagree completely with those politicians who assert that their first obligation to their supporters is to win the election.  Their supporters have no right to insist that a candidate doing anything more than campaign hard and smart.  The voters will decide who can represent them best.



There’s an old protest song from Vietnam days with the lyrics, “You can’t even run your own life; I’ll be damned if you run mine.”  (Sunshine by Jonathan Edwards.)  I thought of those when I read about Bush-43 deciding whether to leave Austin and the Texas governorship to run for president.  Surprisingly, Laura was quickly on board, but his daughters weren’t.  Finally, one night George sat down with Jenna (who was soon graduating from high school) on the patio of the Governor’s Mansion and said, “I know you think that I’m ruining your life by running for president.  But actually your mom and I are living our lives – just like we raised you and Barbara to do.”  

That is so refreshing and politically incorrect.  Yes, parents need to put their children first, but there needs to be consideration for the parents, too. 

Growing up

Bush has a reputation as a slacker, which he denies “My philosophy in college was the old cliché: work hard, play hard.  I upheld the former and excelled at the latter.”

Something I share with Bush is his dislike of campus politicians – “I had no interest in being a campus politician.”  When describing a young Karl Rove, “I assumed he would be another one of the campus politician types who had turned me off at Yale.  I soon recognized that Karl was different.  He wasn’t smug or self-righteous, and he sure wasn’t the typical suave campaign operator.”

Bush has a reputation as a young boozer, and he accepts that – “In reality, I was a boozy kid and [Dad] was an understandably irritated father.”  Even after marrying, this happened – “As we were eating, I turned to a beautiful friend of Mother and Father and asked a boozy question: ‘So, what is sex like after fifty?’….  Years later, when I turned fifty, the good-natured woman sent me a note to the Texas Governor’s Mansion: ‘Well, George, how is it?’  Laura saw a pattern developing, too.  What seemed hilarious or clever to my friends and me was repetitive and childish to her.” 

Although Bush graduated from Harvard Business School, he never bought into those people – “I knew what I did not want to do.  I had no desire to go to Wall Street.  While I knew decent and honorable people who had worked on Wall Street, including my grandfather Prescott Bush, I was suspicious of the financial industry.  I used to tell friends that Wall Street is the kind of place where they will buy you and sell you, but they don’t really give a hoot about you so long as they can make money off you.”


Many believed that Bush was unqualified to run for governor, but he persuasively disagrees – “My experiences on Dad’s campaigns and running the Rangers had sharpened my political, management, and communication skills.  Marriage and family had broadened my perspective.”  That makes perfect sense. 

In the final days of the campaign, this so-called lightweight was ready for a broadside from Ann Richards – “She did her best to set me off.  She called me ‘some jerk’ and ‘shrub,’ but I refused to spark….  On debate night, Karen and I were in the elevator when Ann Richards entered.  I shook her hand and said, ‘Good luck, Governor.’  In her toughest growl, she said, ‘This is going to be rough on you, boy.’”


An entire chapter in the book is devoted to Bush’s philosophy regarding personnel.  I think the following encapsulates that philosophy – “I was looking for integrity, competence, selflessness, and an ability to handle pressure.  I always liked people with a sense of humor, a sign of modesty and self-awareness.” 

I couldn’t agree more with those qualities, including the sense of humor. 

This chapter also contains a comment ostensibly on the selection of Cheney, but it seems more applicable to McClain’s selection of Palin – “The vice presidential selection provides voters with a window into a candidate’s decision-making style.  It reveals how careful and thorough he or she will be.” 

Stem-cell research

Another chapter in the book is devoted to Bush’s decision to deny federal spending for stem-cell research except for already existing stem-cell lines.  I have read other book reviewers commend Bush’s thorough and open-minded research prior to making this decision.  I disagree.  Bush may have conducted thorough research, but I’m not sure about it being open-minded.  To describe his pro-life position, Bush quoted from former PA governor Bob Casey, “When we look to the unborn child, the real issue is not when life begins, but when love begins.”  As a committed, staunch, pro-lifer, this was really a no-brainer for George Bush.  


Any warts?  Yes, I noticed three – one substantive, one personal, and one trivial:

  1. Mental illness.  I’ve always resented that the federal government required employer-provided health insurance to cover treatment of mental illness as generously as it covered treatment of physical illness.  I think that one is more essential than the other.  Imagine my surprise at reading about Bush’s pride in signing the law that required this.  His pride was based on his relationship with a Texas Ranger partner Rusty Rose, who suffered from a chemical imbalance that caused anxiety.  My question (and probably Rick Perry’s) to George Bush would be, “Did you think about federalism and whether you and the federal government had any business telling businesses what to do regarding this?”

  3. Silver spoon.  Bush was considered by many to be an aristocrat because of his family and connections.  Ann Richards famously commented about his dad being born on third-base and thinking he hit a triple.  One of the charges of aristocracy against Bush-43 was that he used connections to avoid Vietnam service by getting in the National Guard.  Bush’s description of this incident included a quote that sounded aristocratic to me:
    • I informed the Alabama National Guard commanders that I would have to miss several meetings during the campaign.  They told me I could make them up after the election, which I did.  I didn’t think much about it for another few decades.”

I don’t think most of us would “inform the commanders”; rather, we would humbly ask for permission.  Maybe it’s just me, but that quote was jarring.   

          3.   UT law school.  Before going to Harvard Business School, Bush tried unsuccessfully to get into the University of Texas Law School.  I think he should have mentioned that fact somewhere in this book because it makes the UT Law School look good and it makes me look good.  Only in America would I be able to go to a graduate-level school that George W. Bush could not get into.  Of course, it also reveals UT to be more of a meritocracy that admits a Kueber, whereas Harvard admits the Bushes, Obamas, and Castros of the world

Based on what I’ve read thus far, Bush has not disappointed me.  Despite the aristocratic trappings, Bush is more Texas than Connecticut.  His self-deprecation is frequent; his hubris is rare.  Of course, much of this is due to his mom and dad.  A perfect description of their parenting style occurred at Mile 19 of his first marathon.  He was running at an 8:33 pace as his parents cheered him on.  Dad – “That’s my boy.”  Mom – “Keep moving, George. There are some fat people ahead of you.”

A person’s most important quality, in my opinion, is that they be comfortable in their own skin.  They need to like and respect themselves.  The insecure and egoists do neither.  People who are comfortable in their own skin are better able to deal issues and challenges.  I look forward to reading about W. dealing with 9/11.

September 1, 2010

A preliminary evaluation of Bush-43

George W. Bush has always been my type of man.  He is openly proud of his Texas heritage and is a bit of a Philistine regarding high-brow culture.  He loves following sports and staying in shape.  His highly successful terms as governor of Texas solidified my belief that he had the right stuff.  Imagine my surprise when one a my best friends, an Austin lawyer who is studying for his Masters in History at UT, told me early in Bush’s second term as president that many historians considered Bush to be the worst president ever. 

As it turned out, my friend made his comments at the high point of Bush’s presidency.  At that time, I was able to argue that, although the mission in Iraq was not quite accomplished, the American Misery Index (unemployment rate plus inflation rate) was at historic lows.  But it was all downhill from there.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan deteriorated and the economy imploded.  Now it is generally accepted that the Bush presidency was an abject failure.  I disagree. 

I concede that Bush assumed the presidency at the time of peace and prosperity.  Through no fault of his, peace ended on 9/11.  Obama and the Democrats argue that 9/11 may have thrust America into war in Afghanistan, but the war in Iraq was a war of choice.  That may be true, by American’s ultimately ratified that choice by reelecting Bush to a 2nd term.  I think country-western singer Darryl Worley in the song “Have Your Forgotten” best explained why America went to war against Iraq:

They took all the footage off my T.V.
Said it’s too disturbing for you and me
It’ll just breed anger that’s what the experts say
If it was up to me I’d show it everyday
Some say this country’s just out looking for a fight
Well, after 9/11 man I’d have to say that’s right 

Regardless of the rationale for waging war against Iraq, Bush has been severely criticized for his handling of the war after Saddam was defeated.  Everyone agrees now that more troops were needed, but Bush showed that he wasn’t “stuck on stupid” and eventually his surge proved to be what was needed to successfully conclude the war.  By comparison, Senator Obama was the most vocal opponent of this strategy.

Bush successfully managed America’s economy during most of his presidency.  As I noted, the Misery Index was at historic lows.  And it is not surprising that a conservative would reduce taxes when government was running a surplus.  My biggest complaint against Bush is that he didn’t require Americans to pay for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  He may have thought that cutting taxes would increase revenues, but he was wrong, and I think that is the most critical mistake that most Republicans are making today.  Reducing taxes stimulate the economy and in some situations may actually increase revenue, but as a general practice, a government has to increase taxes to increase revenue.  As Henry Butler said in Economic Analysis for Lawyers, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

Bush’s first post-presidency book – called Decision Points – is due in the next few weeks, and I’m looking forward to explanations for his actions.  All great leaders have common sense and good judgment, and I expect to see a lot of that.  But there is an argument that leaders don’t make a difference.  According to George Friedman in The Next 100 Years:

Geopolitics and economics both assume that the players are rational, at least in the sense of knowing their own short-term self-interest.  As rational actors, reality provides them with limited choices….  I am not suggesting that political leaders are geniuses, scholars, or even gentlemen and ladies.  Simply, political leaders know how to be leaders or they wouldn’t have emerged as such.  It is the delight of all societies to belittle their political leaders, and leaders surely do make mistakes.  But the mistakes they make, when carefully examined, are rarely stupid.  Most likely, mistakes are forced on them by circumstances….  Geopolitics therefore does not take individual leaders very seriously, any more than economics takes the individual businessman too seriously.  Both are players who know how to manage a process but are not free to break the very rigid rules of their professions.”  

I think Friedman’s theory is supported by comparing the actions of Bush, a moderate conservative, and his successor, Barack Obama, an extreme liberal.  Although Bush was broadly attacked for his actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has deviated only slightly from the course set out by Bush, including the maintenance of Guantanamo.  Although Bush was broadly attacked for his bank and car bailout, Obama has maintained that course with an extravagant stimulus.  Although Bush was attacked for his tax cuts, Obama is currently leaning toward extending the cuts.  Bush enacted No Child Left Behind and Obama is continuing essentially the same program.  Bush unsuccessfully proposed comprehensive immigration reform, and Obama appears to be in complete agreement with Bush’s proposal but has been too timid to actively pursue it.  Probably the only significant difference between Bush-43 and Obama has been ObamaCare, and there are indications that that may cost Obama a second term.

I suggest that a major component in judging the success of a president is whether he is re-elected.  In my time, Bush-43, Clinton, Reagan, Nixon, and Eisenhower were reelected; Bush-41, Carter, Ford, and Johnson were not.  Obama’s reelection is certainly in doubt.  The ultimate successor is Reagan because he was the only two-term president in my time to have his party’s heir prevail in the next election.