This article presents some of the problems and some potential solutions to dealing with asymmetrical warfare. Given the current trouble in the MidEast and because this problem will continue to get worse as long as States have no effective way of dealing with it, it seemed to me important to address the issue.
The first thing to keep in mind is that there are 2 types of asymmetrical warfare (AW): defensive and offensive. These are critically different even though in places like the Gaza/Israel/Lebanon they intermingle. This difference is important because each requires different approaches.
Offensive AW continues because there are many lightweight mobile weapons, or things that can be used as weapons. Defeating offensive AW requires creating physical or psychological impotence. The advantage here is that there are no civilian casualties on either side. But by rendering the offensive warrior impotent, he1 loses the power that comes from being able to inflict damage.
It is possible to effect impotence psychologically. Stetson Kennedy used it effectively when he infiltrated the KKK after WWII and funneled Klan secrets to the “Superman” radio show, where they were used as background for a series of incompetent villians. The resulting ridicule helped discredit and dismember it2. Given the current nature of AW, with guerillas siting their weapons, headquarters, etc. in civilian areas, a campaign ridiculing them for “hiding behind women and children” could be very effective. This might be particularly effective if done in a comparative way - for example: “Usama bin Laden is willing to suffer in the uncomfortable reaches of Afghanistan for what he believes in, but Hezbollah wants to live in the comforts of Lebanon and hide behind women and children.”
Another approach that might work is to focus on what these organizations don’t actually accomplish for those they claim to represent. Hamas and Hezbollah are both political as well as military organizations3. They provide numerous social services. However, many of the people that could benefit from their services still live in refugee camps - 60 years after leaving what is now Israel. Repeatedly reminding the potential beneficiaries of these organizations what they could have already had but don’t could take the luster off of their military agendas. (Play the guns vs. butter argument against them).
Physical impotence means that military strikes become ineffective. Either passive or active means of stopping attacks, incursions, etc. could be used. For example, if Israel had a 5 mile high missile proof wall, the current missile attacks would be futile - obviously futile. Hezbollah wouldn’t seem very impressive militariliy to the Lebanese in this case. The specific ways this could be done vary according to the environment and available techonology - I won’t attempt to list them here.
Defensive AW is all about hearts and minds. Control cannot be established in a location if the population doesn’t want you there. You simply can’t build a tight enough police state to make this work unless you’re willing to spend years and be VERY brutal. The only way to really succeed in this case is to sell the population on how they will get a better deal with the new regime that they could possibly get siding with the guerillas. Again, there are both psychological and physical components to this.
Physically, you must give people something to lose. Further, they must have it long enough to become attached to it and grow to fear losing it. Exactly what they fear losing may not matter, but something that makes life a lot more comfortable/ convenient is probably a good place to start. Attempts to do this in Iraq, by building schools, fixing the electrical grid, etc. have been hampered both by a complete lack of planning on the part of the US military and, later, by guerilla activity.
Psychologically, you must have a consistent campaign that explains to the population that the guerillas are the ones keeping them from something even better. You may not need to convince them to sell out the guerillas - just stop cooperating with them. All defensive AW campaigns require domestic support for supply, etc. Lack of support in this area will gradually strangle guerilla organizations because they have to spend larger and larger parts of their time just financing their own existence - and less time on actually doing anything.
It is possible to win an asymmetric war - but it requires thinking differently.
A consistent conundrum in American politics for the last 40 years has been the perceived antithesis between being “pro-business” and being “pro-environment”. The Democrats choose the environment and the Republicans choose business. Neither seems to be able to see that it is possible to choose both. The reason for this is that businesses decry environmental regulation because they believe it will increase costs. Given this, politicians feel that they are forced to choose between something that will cost businesses more and help the environment OR cost the environment and help business. This is a false dichotomy.
There are two key reasons why:
1) The law, properly constructed, creates a level playing field for all businesses. When this is done, any costs added are added to all, which keeps the competitive environment the same as it was.
2) Every regulation must be implemented - and every solution requires a supplier. In other words, these costs, while incurred by some company, result in business for other companies.
This false dichotomy exists because politicians fail to realize that they are listening to existing businesses only. They don’t hear from new businesses - because those may not exist yet. The impact on existing businesses whose costs will change is focused - and so their reaction is strong. The positive impact on others is initially diffuse - and so that reaction is more muted.
The fact is that the entire world will have to become environmentally conscious if we are to survive. And those that solve the environmental problems first will have the solutions that everyone needs. For example, the US has the lowest CAFE1 standards in the world. Our persistence in keeping the standards low at the insistence of GM and Ford2 has probably done more harm to these companies than good. Why? Because many of the cars made to American standards cannot be sold in places like the EU, Japan or China because their standards are higher than ours. However, cars made there can be sold here. This gives companies who meet the higher standards more markets to choose from, and thus more sales possibilities to amortize those costs. Further, because those companies have already solved the problems involved in meeting these standards, they now have IP3 available for licensing to those who lag behind, which also becomes a source of revenue or a way to create a competitive advantage.
This same kind of scenario can be true in any area. With the increasing importance of IP in business, the first mover advantage becomes tremendous. Because of this, public policy should encourage the creation of IP here so that the revenue streams from it come here. And the straightforward way to do so is to create the highest standards in every area. When other countries realize the significance of the first mover advantage in IP, and the fact that all nations must become more environmentally friendly if we are to survive on this planet, we’ll see a virtuous cycle of countries competing for the highest standards possible as a way to spur innovation.
And we’ll have something that’s good for the environment AND good for business.
PS - Less waste, energy or otherwise, lowers the dependence on those who supply the materials being wasted. In aggregate, this can reduce the “strategic interests” of the US to the point where we no longer have a reason to be involved in as many world crises, which can reduce the cost of the US military, thus creating what amounts to a tax cut.
1. CAFE = Corporate Average Fuel Economy. Background on current US standards can be found on Wikipedia. Commentary on Chinese standards is here
2. Chrysler, as part of Daimler Chrysler, is no longer technically an “American” company.
3. IP = Intellectual Property
What I find disturbing about this debate is the lack of discussion about how stem cells are already being used. It is already legal to do research on stem cells. It is already legal to use stem cells. It is already possible to get Federal funding for research using non embryonic stem cells. It is even possible to get Federal funding for certain lines of embryonic stem cells. The issue here isn’t stem cell research - it’s over who is going to pay for it.
We should keep in mind that the Federal government has no obligation to pay for any kind of research. We should also keep in mind that any good businessman who sees a good investment won’t hesitate to move on it. So why do we need Federal funds for this kind of research? Because it’s risky. While some businesses have invested in this research, there appear to be scientists out there who’ve haven’t managed to convince investors to fund them, so they’re looking for money from the Feds. And yet, these same people will want to benefit financially if something does come of this research.
Even if businesses won’t invest “enough” in this research, the public still can. If the public supports research in this area, let those who support it fund it. The March of Dimes, St. Judes, the Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and many other publicly funded institutions have been funneling money into medical research for years. Organizations like this have proven that many small contributions can result in a lot of money. And with the Web, it’s now easier than ever to raise money. In fact, in the race to decode the human genome, a grass roots campaign funded much of the research, and put much of the that research in the public domain. If some of the public wants to pay for something controversial, voluntary contributions are a simple, non controversial way to proceed. By requesting Federal funding, the public is really saying that they don’t believe in the research very much because they don’t want to take the risk investing their own money.
Those clamoring for Federal funding for embryonic stem cell research should keep in mind that those opposed to embryonic stem cell research are philosophically opposed to embryonic stem cell research of all types. By continually clamoring for more, they run the risk of a backlash that would make all fetal stem cell research illegal.
There is no reason that the US taxpayer should be required to pay for this kind of research.
I would normally be hesitant to speak ill of those in authority. Not because I fear them, but because I don’t want to undermine them. However, having made several comments in some entries on this blog regarding the current Bush Administration that could be seen as negative, I owe an explanation of why I have chosen to color my comments the way I have.
Leadership is hard. Leadership in a society of “independent thinkers” is even harder. It requires the ability to clearly articulate a vision, and inspire people to strive for it. It also requires a clear understanding of values, an ability to collect, listen to, and learn from many good advisers, and an ability to see a path to an ultimate goal that doesn’t violate those values. Leadership is as much by example as by words - probably more so. Ultimately, leadership is about taking a stand even if no one stands with you.
In other words, leadership isn’t for everyone.
My comments about the current Bush Administration have been solely due to my perception that there is currently a lack of leadership in the White House. Clearly, many in the Bush Administration have management experience that should indicate leadership skills. Corporate management, however, doesn’t require true leadership (it can certainly benefit from it - it’s just not required). Why? Because in a corporation, the top down power will garner a certain amount of automatic acquiescence. That doesn’t happen in politics.
I’m sure President Bush is well intentioned. He might even be a nice guy - that’s certainly what the media reports indicate. But for some reason, at least to me, I don’t see in him those characteristics that describe true leadership. He has had flashes - the brightest one was at Ground Zero just after the 9/11 attacks. But in the day to day he only appears to be someone who avoids the slightest confrontation and seems unable to adjust to realities that don’t fit his perspective. And he’s not inspirational.
When it comes to those around him, I respect that he values loyalty. But it seems that he should value competence more.
It’s not all bad. I will credit Bush with sticking with his principles. I just wish his principles were better informed. I wish President Bush the best. I just wish he were a better leader. Our country could certainly use one.
The recent Supreme Court ruling in Hamdan vs Rumsfeld striking down the Bush Administration’s use of Administration constituted tribunals in the prosecution of potential war criminals brings to fore the issue of the limits of Presidential power. While I’m glad that this decision was finally reached, it saddens me that it took a lawsuit to make explicit something the Administration should have known long ago.
Regardless of whatever justification was used immediately after 9/11 to expand Presidential powers, that justification no longer exists. The “War on Terror”, like any struggle against non state groups, will never end. Wars against states end when the loser capitulates. Struggles against individuals end when those individuals are killed, captured or incapacitated in some way. Struggles against amorphous groups are never so clean. Dealing with them is more like squeezing a balloon - pressure in one place just causes it to expand in another. As long as a group of people is motivated by an ideology, they can replenish their ranks. Even if the quality of the constituent members varies, these groups can perpetuate themselves a long time. Consequently, if we do not find a way to operate under these conditions that reasonably approximates the way we operated before, we will have forever lost key elements to what has made our society successful and desirable.
It could be said that the reason to abandon the immediate post 9/11 approach is that intolerance and fear are antithetical to creativity. While fear might make us more creative in finding ways to create a safe environment - to specifically conquer our fears, it makes it harder for us to focus on other things. Intolerance creates mental rigidity, stifling the flow of ideas that are the core of creativity. That would be reason enough due to the long term economic cost to our society this will have.
The real reason, though, is that our law is a description of our society and its values. It creates a measure that is greater than the individual statutes and court decisions. In particular, the US, because of the system described by its laws, has been seen as a “city set on a hill”1, a beacon to others showing a better way. Others can look at the bounty of this country, and easily see that the value of the system that governs it. As long as the light shining from that hilltop is good, the beauty can be seen and admired from a distance. But if that light ever dims or turns bad, it will just as quickly be seen by others at a distance and decried.
While it may seem that the urgency of the moment dictate that some action - any action - be taken to respond to the evil of things like 9/11, public policy should dictate a stronger urge to return to normalcy as rapidly as possible. While people are forgiving of the rage of grief, they don’t expect it to last forever. A sign of maturity, in both individuals and societies, is how we deal with injustice. Will we choose to maintain our own principles in the face of stress? Or will we listen to the Emperor of Evil who tempts us: “Strike me down with all your hatred and your journey towards the Dark Side will be complete.”2. Winning isn’t the only thing - what we must do is win without sacrificing what makes this country worth saving.
Doing so won’t be easy. It could be very costly - we can be certain that the enemy won’t “play fair”. This places a tremendous burden on those who want to be leaders. They must speak honestly about the price. We must resist the urge to lower our standards in an attempt to win this war. In fact, we may well need to raise them. This may well result in the guilty going free. It may result in more losses on American soil. But as these costs mount, we are purchasing anew the moral authority we had on 9/11 that has since been squandered. As our innocence becomes clear, the evil done to us also becomes clear. Lies come from the darkness - but a single light drives the darkness away.
It saddens me that the current Administration squandered it’s moral authority by attempting to change the law in such crucial areas as justice for “enemy combatants” or the definition of torture. The pressure of the moment revealed the true values of those in charge3. But, given the current opportunity, we need to return to our roots - for our own sake. As Thomas More expressed this eloquently in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons when assailed by his son–in–law with the charge that he would give the devil the benefit of law:
MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the devil?
ROPER: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
MORE: Oh? . . . And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? . . . This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down . . . d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? . . . Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
An Administration without introspection or humility cannot learn - because it doesn’t believe it has anything to learn. There is a great deal of wisdom in the precedents of the past. Those who think that change is needed should tread lightly and consider the true cost of any changes they might make. Otherwise, those changes may well turn us into the very thing we fear and hate.
1. Matthew 5:14
2. Star Wars VI: The Return of the JedI, DVD Chapter 37, 1:45:00
3. It is easy to say we believe in something when those beliefs have no cost attached to them. What we truly believe is what we’re willing to pay a price for.
Irrespective of any legal decisions made regarding the level responsibility for the Abu Ghraib scandals, everyone in every chain of command involved with that prison should be discharged dishonorably. While this might seem drastic to some, the reasoning here is simple:
First, even in civilian prisons, multiple studies show that the extreme imbalance of power corrupts rapidly and deeply1.
In addition, rape and torture have been part of war since war began. It can’t possibly come as a surprise to the military brass that left to their own devices, some soldiers will cross the line. Further, anyone in any leadership position should understand the phenomenon of group evil - humans tend to follow whatever path is set - even if it’s a bad one. It takes intense courage to object to any stated course of action or attitude. This is particularly true in an environment where there is an extreme imbalance of power - like a prison. Given these known tendencies in human nature, everyone in the military hierarchy should be well aware of the dangers of running a prison.
From a PsyOps point of view, the top brass of the military should have been aware of public relations side of war. We’ve known since Vietnam that war against non state actors will be a guerilla war and cannot be won without winning the “hearts and minds” campaign. They should also know the PR skill of al Qaeda. al Qaeda had already made effective use of both TV and the Internet long before the war in Iraq started. And even if they hadn’t, a simple exercise in examining human nature could easily reveal that the opponent doesn’t have to “fight fair” and won’t - the smart opponent is the one who defines the battle to their advantage.
Being aware of the dangers of human behavior, and the danger of losing the “hearts and minds” part of a military campaign, the brass should have been extremely alert to the downside of military misbehavior. And they should have been prepared with means to prevent it, discover it, and deal with it immediately - both judicially and publicly.
They were not. And because they were not, they threw away the moral high ground. This kind of absolute failure to simply be prepared would result in the responsible officers being drummed out of the military if the high ground had been physical instead of psychological.
No matter what Muslim world might have believed about us before Abu Ghraib, the failure of military command at every level in this incident gave an opening to the enemy to change those beliefs for the worse in ways we still don’t understand. It was inexcusable. And that assuming that there was no policy advocating torture.
While it does appear that the situation has improved some (the rape case against the 502nd Infantry Regiment took less than 2 months to surface), this doesn’t change the fact of what happened.
Further, all we’ve seen from those at the top is a retreat to legalities. Rather than look at the moral cost of these errors, a fierce internal loyalty has caused those at the top to circle the wagons. When doctors find cancer, they cut it out - ALL OF IT. The body as a whole is more important than any one part of it.
Apparently the President doesn’t understand that.
1. A full description of the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment (with references to Abu Ghraib) can be found here.
I’ve written elsewhere (here and here) about specific instances where poorly created law can result in undesirable consequences. I attempt now to address the core issue that causes these specific instances to occur.
I’ve written before that Law is our attempt to make Morality and Economics coincide. The key thing is, how do we go about properly constructing laws? To do this, we need to understand the distinction between ends and means.
Any incentive system incents a particular behavior. The thing that it incents is the end. Unless specifically prescribed or proscribed, nothing is said about the means used to acheive that end. This is a universal truth. However, when the thing incented is really just the means to some other end, the connection between the original end and the newly defined end can be lost. When this happens, it is possible to follow the letter of the law while missing the spirit of it.
The problem with some laws is that they they confuse means and ends. This isn’t unusual. Many people don’t know how to analyze a problem to determine what the real problem is. In my essay on Smoking Bans, I pointed out how the goal is to improve public health by prevent diseases caused by second hand smoke inhalation. Instead of properly articulating and remaining focused on this key issue, various lawmakers instead wrote law that allowed for only one kind of solution. In my essay on Child Pornography, I pointed out how legislators lost sight of the goal - stopping the distribution of child pornography - and instead focused on one particular process that might help stop it. The failure here is that the chosen solutions may not acheive the desired results, and could have undesirable side effects, which, given the slow pace of change in the law, can result in needless suffering.
While focusing on the ends is critical, that is not to say that we should never have laws that deal with means. As stated previously, the state has an interest in encouraging childrearing. Even though there is a strong interest here, we don’t allow children to be raised to be slaves, nor do we allow incest as a means of procreation. Why is that? It is because we recognize that the side effects of some things are in and of themselves undesireable, even if we can’t properly or completely articulate what they all are. Given the complexities of human behavior, it can be difficult to fully describe an end that properly delineates which means are allowed and which aren’t - we humans are very creative in finding ways to push the envelope. For practical considerations, it is often simpler to proscribe swaths of behavior than attempt to articulate all the ill effects they engender.
Having said that, we shouldn’t lose sight of why we do this - we proscribe means because of a multitude of unarticulated ends. The goal should always remain to focus on the ends that matter, avoiding addressing means if at all possible. This will keep the law flexible and resilient - and able to keep up with changing times.
Attempts to pass a Federal Constitutional amendment defining marriage have caused me to think. After looking at the definition (you can see the wording and some background on Wikipedia), it leaves me with the distinct impression that such an amendment, if ratified, would only be the beginning. Here’s why:
Clearly the State has a compelling interest in the institution of marriage. Families form the basis of society. It is within a family that children learn appropriate behaviors through the words and actions of their parents. It is also within this environment that children form the emotional and moral foundations that inform decisions for the rest of their lives. Raising children that will have a net positive contribution to society is one of the best measures of a successful family. And families are typically based around a marriage.
Families have historically been based around a marriage because, until relatively recently, we humans were unable to separate the process of conception from the process of childbirth. Prior to artificial insemination, sexual intercourse was the only way to procreate. Likewise, until recently, we humans were unable to separate the process of sex from conception. While intercourse did not always result in pregnancy, it did so frequently that once we figured out the connection, we no longer viewed sex as primarily recreational (if we ever did). The strong natural tendency to connect sexually drives the survival of the species. But because maturation takes so much longer with humans than with other species, childbirth is not the end of the work in creating the next generation. It’s just the beginning. As human groups became larger and human interactions more complex, we figured out that there was tremendous value in involving both parents in the post birth maturation process of the young. And the institution of marriage was born1.
The increasing complexity of human society means that good role models are even more in demand than they used to be. In the past, even as recent as 150 years ago, humans with poorly developed social skills could still find a frontier where interactions with others were limited. This frontier was breathing room that allowed for a lack of societially approved coping mechanisms by eliminating the “society”. That is rarely the case today. The few remaining parts of the world that are without significant societies are that way because they do not provide significant resources that would be of value to humans.
Given the growing crowdedness of our world and the consequent need for training of all immature humans in social norms, the value of parents as role models continues to grow. Further, as more and more societies move from manual labor to knowledge based economies, the economic value of children at home shrinks. And with the advent of society-based safety nets, children as a retirement program becomes less common, and certainly not assumed. Children in modern societies are now viewed as luxuries rather than necessities - we raise them because we love them, not because we need another pair of hands to help harvest the crops. In other words, the economic dynamic that drove the formation of families (because it made economic sense for the parents) no longer exists. It has been replaced in modern societies by a relationship based on psychic rather than economic value.
None of this changes the effort required to raise children. Being a good parent requires effort - a lot of it - on a constant basis. It is often thankless, and you almost never get a vacation. Society as a whole banks on the assumption that most will be “decent” if not “good” parents. The cost to society when this is not the case can be significant, both in real dollars (for the costs of prisons, drug rehab, etc.) and emotional costs (for example, the damage done by violent crime can leave lifelong emotional scars). This dependence on the family is so significant that in some cases societies will punish parents for the actions of their children.
If there is to be this much responsibility, there must be a payoff. Without a payoff, some people will simply decide that the investment is not worthwhile. And given the ease with which we can now separate sexual activity from its natural consequence, it becomes fairly easy to stop having kids. While this might make sense on an individual level, it is disastrous as a national policy2. Both social safety nets as well as private economics depend on a fresh supply of workers and consumers. Population decline means economic decline. A country without a population is not a country at all - it’s just real estate that’s up for grabs.
This being the case, how does the State convince individuals to fulfill this crucial objective of having and raising stable kids? Where’s the payoff? The payoff, whatever it is or will be, is in the law. The law is the codified policy of the State, created to encourage certain behaviors while discouraging others. The “marriage” contract already has a special place in the law, with benefits that are not conferred on other contracts3. Those benefits, if properly constructed, should create an environment where individuals perceive a payoff in becoming parents. Further, done properly, those benefits can be targeted in a way where the quality of the parenting affects the value of the payoff. If we want to encourage a particular behavior, we should recognize the gradations in the quality of that behavior within our incentive system4.
The US Constitution is the highest law of this land. If we are going to address the issue of marriage at all, we should address why it’s important and what we believe should be done. Simply defining a marriage as “the union of a man and a woman” says nothing about the quality of that union. And, consequently, nothing about the quality of the family environment in which children will be raised. It equates the union of a winner of “Parents of the Year” with one of Ma and Pa Barker5. Further, it says nothing about the nurturing qualities expressed by others who, despite their lack of a traditional marriage, take it upon themselves to do the work of raising stable children. Further, it doesn’t address the temporal aspect of marriage - this country, despite it’s strong aversion to parallel polygamy, has become quite comfortable with serial polygamy6.
Raising stable children usually requires good role models - rarely do children have the internal sense and fortitude to make good in life despite the role models around them. And children benefit most from having both positive male and positive female role models from which to learn - and for the same reason. The degree to which children can adapt and “fill in the gaps” left by the role models they have is not yet predictable - some will do better than others, but there’s no easy way to predict that up front. Given that, and the State’s interest in the rearing of stable children, the State has a strong interest in encouraging the kind of family environments that produce these children. To what degree the State is willing to tolerate or encourage arrangements that are less than ideal is a matter for public policy debate.
The issue of marriage as a public policy debate should only exist to the degree that it matters to the State. Where a compelling State interest exists, that debate should be carried on fully - not in a limited fashion. Clearly the State has an interest in how children are raised. If we are going to debate the topic of marriage at all, the impact it has on childrearing must be part of that policy debate. And that goes to why marriage is, not what it is.
1. For those with a Christian bent, the charge of childrearing is central to marriage: Genesis 1:27-28 says “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the Earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the Earth”
2. Singapore has a (the only?) government run dating service, specifically to address a declining birth rate. You can see it here.
3. Whether or not those benefits are the right ones is not the topic of this essay.
4. We already do this to some degree - parents can be jailed for child abuse. Again, whether or not our incentive/ disincentive system is properly constructed is not the topic of this essay.
5. This Wikipedia entry and this give some background. I’m not trying to say that Ma Barker was a criminal. I am trying to say that she could hardly be accused of being a good parent.
6. Further, I suspect that the emotional trauma caused by serial polygamy is much worse than that of parallel polygamy because parallel polygamy, if entered into openly by all the participants, does not require the rending of relationships as does serial polygamy. The destruction of parental relationships is known to be traumatic to children.
The boom in college education in this country started as part of the GI Bill after WWII. In an effort to make reabsorbtion of demobilized troops easier to handle, the Federal Govt created subsidies for continuing education in order to motivate a percentage of the population to stay out of the work force for a time. It worked, and the economic boom that followed continued through the 60’s.
After Sputnik, the sudden jolt to our sense of world leadership reinvigorated the concept of government sponsorship of education. At the time it was seen as critical for competitiveness - and resulted in the National Defense Education Act of 19581. Since that time there has been there has been a steady increase in percentage of the population with a college education - from 4.6% in 1940 to 24.4% in 20002. We have reached the point where college degrees are as common today as high school diplomas were in 19403.
Unfortunately, in many cases, they’re also worth just about as much.
There is (at least) one major difference between the high school diploma of 1940 and the college education of today - access to public education means that you don’t have to pay for a high school education. Most people have to pay for college.
Except that many people don’t really understand the implications of that while they’re getting an education. They blithely sign the papers for student loans - at best vaguely aware of the repayment costs. And they can easily end up with debt burdens whose monthly payments exceed any salary they can hope to make from the training they received.
This presents the taxpayer with a problem, because many of these loans are guaranteed by the Federal government. While a skilled workforce is good, those skills only matter if they are the ones that employers want. Should the taxpayer be on the hook in case the educated poor can’t repay their loans? Doesn’t this punish those with the foresight to pick fields that have economic value?
My wife and I have had to deal with this issue recently. She is currently completing an MBA, some of which is covered by student loans, while I’m beginning law school. In both cases, we had to evaluate the economic potential of both degrees against the cost of obtaining them. We’ve used such resources as the Occupational Outlook Handbook to determine the expected economic value of each degree. My wife has also seen a friend of hers drop out of graduate school because the friend suddenly realized that she couldn’t afford to pay for the loans she had already accumulated, much less the new ones yet to be incurred.
You see, the question we really need to ask today is “Is getting a college education really that important?” Between libraries, bookstores, and the Web, there is more information available for free or cheap than any one person could hope to absorb on almost any topic imaginable. Learning for the sake of learning is there to be had. There is interactive media of every conceivable kind available today - so that no matter how you learn, the tools are available for you to learn. There is no need to pay college tuition if all you want to do is learn.
So then the value of an education must be in the value of the education brand - be it Harvard, State U., or the local community college. The proliferation of paid education alternatives make it possible for everyone to evaluate the price performance of the educational brand they choose to purchase. This value includes both the life cycle cost AND the life cycle income that can be produced because of a particular degree with a particular brand. If the Net Present Value of a particular education is negative, then that education must be deemed a hobby rather than an investment. And those taking on the cost of that education should seriously question what they are doing. And those asked to guarantee the debts (in this case, taxpayers) should simply refuse.
It used to be that getting TO a college education required so much effort that only those who had really thought through the value of the education bothered5. It also used to be rarer, and therefore more precious. Today, neither is the case. We as education consumers AND as taxpayers should closely evaluate the kinds of education expenditures we’re willing to make - not all of them will be good investments.
1. See History of Student Financial Aid
2. See United States Educational Attainment of the Population 25 Years and Over: 1940 to 2000
4. The Debt-for-Diploma Crunch
5. I am excluding those who don’t go into debt for the education. While this essay is primarily focused on those who pay for an education with debt, all education should be viewed as an investment - of time and money.
We’ve had smoking bans in place where I live for a while now. Currently, they’re county wide - but there’s some talk of a statewide ban just to level the playing field. While I’m interested in health, I’m not convinced this is the best approach.
The reason is this: Anytime you legislate to a particular process rather than against an outcome, you run the risk of enabling that outcome via a different, previously unimagined path. And, because techonology always moves faster than the law (at least it does in this century), this can mean that lots of harm can occur along that unintended path before the law catches up.
Let’s use smoking bans as an example. What’s the real goal here? Smoking bans are based on a public health issue. We know that smoke, either first hand or second hand, is a significant agent in the instigation of many diseases. Because of that, we want to improve public health by limiting people’s exposure to smoke. Until we legislate smoking out of existence (which is very unlikely), we must resort to other means to limit the health effects of smoking on the population.
The approach where I live is to ban smoking in a whole list of public places, including restaurants and bars. What this does is drive the smokers outside (flashback to the high school “smokehole”). This is an example of legislating a particular process. It doesn’t eliminate the second hand smoke from outdoor spaces though - we just assume that the pollution will waft away and be diluted in the atmosphere.
A better, more complete approach, would be to simply legislate the desired outcome - that enclosed spaces can contain no more than so many parts per billion of various pollutants. Then leave it to the owners/ operators of those spaces to figure out how to acheive that goal. They might choose to ban smoking on their premises. Or, they might choose to use clean room technology1 to filter the air. Similar to the way a kitchen stove top hood works, this techology can be used to vacuum up the pollutants before they circulate. The advantage of the second is that, while it is more expensive, it keeps the smokers out of public places where the pollution they create isn’t filtered.
Without an approach that looks to the real issue of airborne pollutants, we could easily end up with the creation of other nicotine transfer devices that don’t involve “smoking” and thus are not banned under currently law, but yet still create just as much of a health hazard because they create just as many airborne pollutants.
It’s easy to pass laws that address specific problems. It’s harder to really think through the issues to determine what the real problem is. But this extra work will pay off in the long run - because it will result in laws that truly express their underlying philosphy and, as a result, are durable in the face of change.
1. The technology used to keep semiconductor fabs clean enough for chip manufacturing.
Leadership in society is based on moral authority. Regardless of the law, there comes a point in which the tide of public sentiment will not be controlled by boots and guns alone. Even in authoritarian regimes, there is very often an appeal to “divine right”, “tradition” or “the danger of the enemy” in order to control a population. This is particularly true today when societal wealth is based on the ability to think. Being able to think means being able to think about anything - and a certain percentage of the population will think about the political structures that control society.
Moral authority is significant because it creates a perspective from which to view the words and actions of those who have it. Conversely, the lack of moral authority can engender cynicism against even the most benign activities. Moral authority, however, is not easy to come by. It is one of those things that is hardest to acheive when we openly seek it. Why? Because when we openly seek it, we create a higher standard. And since success and failure are defined by comparison against that standard, we can be judged as failures against a high standard even when we have exceeded the standards by which others are measured. Further, moral authority does not come from what we say - it comes from what we do. There are simply too many watchers waiting to expose any potential hypocrisy.
Given this, it’s not hard to see why the current President Bush has fallen so far in the polls. The continual string of non-existent “reasons” for the war in Iraq, the justification of torture, illegal military courts, warrantless wiretaps and now surreptitious searches of banking records have produced an ever growing skepticism1. The ability to “walk the line”2 of legality depends very heavily on trust. And trust comes from moral authority. In President Bush’s case, I doubt that many question his intent - most probably think he wants to do the right thing. However, there appears to be a growing distrust in his understanding of what the right thing is. Like many zealous to stamp out evil, he seems to have forgotten that the evil is as much in the process as in the result. And in doing, he fails to see that “fighting fire with fire” means that we all end up in Hell. And there’s no moral authority there.
It may be “unfair” that Bush is being held to this higher standard when we recall that the Taliban and al Qaeda seem to have a penchant for summary executions and terrorism. But complaining about that is crying over split milk. Bush created the standard by which he wanted to be judged - he has chosen to say that we’re in Iraq because exporting democracy is a good thing. By asking to be judged on a moral standard, he has invoked that moral standard on everything that happens in connection with Iraq and the “War on Terror”.
Bush had moral authority after 9/11 because of the suffering inflicted by the strikes. That authority evaporated as he chose paths that could not be OBVIOUSLY justified to the whole world. No one objected to the invasion of Afghanistan after repeated attempts to convince the Taliban to hand over bin Laden. The connection was clear to the entire world. The connection to Iraq was not clear - as evinced by the resistance prior to the war. The fact that Bush had to use Colin Powell’s moral authority3 because he didn’t have enough of his own should have been a wakeup call.
Moral authority can be used as a basis for war. The war in Afghanistan was not the first time the U.S. has successfully used moral authority. President Roosevelt, despite his concerns about Nazi Germany, was not able to involve the U.S. in WWII until after Pearl Harbor - because it was there he received the moral authority for war. Interestingly, had Hitler not felt bound by treaty obligations with the Japanese to declare war on the U.S., Roosevelt might not have had the authority to fight in Europe.
While moral authority is hard to obtain when we openly seek it, there are circumstances under which even the most repugnant can believably claim it - and being on the defensive is one of the easiest. This may be because all humans have an innate tendency to believe “us vs. them” constructions even when they come from the mouths of known liars. The consequence is that even innocent missteps can be radically reinterpreted in harmful ways if we don’t have the moral authority that enables others to see our intentions as good even if our actions are flawed.
Can President Bush recreate the moral authority he had after 9/11? Maybe - but it will be extremely difficult. Gandhi acheived moral authority through suffering and humility. While neither of these appear to be part of President Bush’s character, he could still attain moral authority through principled consistency. Former President Jimmy Carter was often maligned for what some perceived as naivete while in office. History has since shown him to be consistent in his commitment to the the principles he claimed at that time - he will be much better treated in retrospect than he was then. President Bush, if he can communicate how the policies and actions he has chosen are consistent with the principles he claims to believe in, could possibly regain the moral high ground. Unfortunately, White House communication so far doesn’t seem to contain much that would demonstrate that connection. Instead, it appears to be a flaccid combination of feel good messages and damage control as the ship of state springs one leak after another.
In turbulent times, moral authority is the strongest ally we have as imperfect humans. Since we aren’t perfect, we need to make it clear to all that we are doing are best to adhere to the principles we believe in. And we need to be ready to ask forgiveness when we fail. If we are the first to recognize our mistakes, we disarm our enemies. I pray the President can regain the moral authority he used to have. Much depends on it.
1. I’ve deliberately avoided incidents such as the Abu Ghraib scandals because those (so far) have no proven official policy behind them. Since the administration has attempted to distance itself from those as aberrations, they won’t be included at this time.
2. Apologies to Johnny Cash.
3. In the speech to the UN on Iraqi attempts to acquire African yellowcake.
“Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work - whereas economics represents how it actually does work”1
It could also be argued that “Law” is our attempt to make the two coincide.
The law is an incentive system we create to encourage certain behaviors and discourage others. In particular, the law is an “unnatural” system, in that it is created specifically to counter some tendency in human behavior. We don’t have laws telling us to engage in sex - we don’t need them. Humans, left to their own devices, will tend to engage in sexual activity. We do, however, have many laws telling us under what circumstances to NOT have sex (In public, with a sibling, with a child, etc.) because some percentage of the population will otherwise engage in these behaviors.
Further, we don’t just create law for no reason. Because law is unnatural, it carries a cost to enforce. It either requires internal discipline/ effort when individuals choose to voluntarily comply OR it imposes a cost on society when some part of society uses external pressure to make recalcitrant individuals comply. The reasons behind our choice of what laws to create boil down to our moral philosophy (and a certain amount of pragmatism about enforcement mechanisms and costs).
By creating law, we are saying something about our society and it’s common values. We’re saying that at some point it time, we held a set of values that we deemed important enough to put some work into. As opposed to the “philosophies” that can be debated ad infinitum around a dinner table, we have said by the creation of a law that we hold something so precious as to be willing to pay a price for it - both in the time to fight for the public statement of that belief and the ongoing cost of engendering conformance to that belief by the rest of society.
We should be careful, therefore, as to what we make law - because of what it says about us.
1. “Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything”, Levitt, Steven D. and Dubner, Stephen J, 2005, HarperCollins, New York., p.13.