Beauty of Gray

Friday, June 28, 2002

Pledging idiocy

So the evil PC liberal commie court in San Francisco has ruled the phrase "under God" violates the establishment clause. Righteous outrage in gargantuan doses has followed.

What I don't quite get about the whole issue is that there's this huge, violent backlash against the court ruling. Yet, almost without fail, part of the argument against the decision is that the phrase "under God" in the pledge "isn't a big deal." That the PC whiners should just live with this little thing, that it's not much bother to them, that they're over-reacting, etc..

But, if the PC brigade is ridiculous to take umbrage at such a little thing, then so are all those who are outraged about the decision. You can't have it both ways. Either it's no big deal, or it is a big deal. If it's no big deal, then it shouldn't bother you much that the court wants to get rid of the phrase, If it is a big deal, then the atheists are right in objecting to it.

Personally, I'm firmly in the "it's no big deal" camp, along with the Vodkapundit and Jane Galt. I do think the ruling is a bit silly and that it's overconstruing the establishment clause, but I don't think this issue (or any of the other issues that are flashpoints for outrage, like municipal Christmas trees or the Ten Commandments in courtrooms) is worth an ounce of outrage, much les the tons of it that it has generated.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 12:24 PM

Tuesday, June 25, 2002
The Marriage “Penalty”

I’d largely forgotten this particular annoying bit of sophistry, but posts on the subject here, here, and here reminded me of it. I think the analysis in those posts (that conservatives should like the penalty while liberals should be against it) is somewhat interesting, but the underlying point they identify is the correct one—it’s simply a case of cynical vote buying. And since the Republicans hit on it first, the Democrats are, by necessity, compelled to oppose it. Ideological consistency has nothing to do with it.

All of this, however, misses the underlying point that there is no marriage penalty, not really. At least, there’s no specific penalty against getting married, per se. Yes, because of the progressive tax structure a married couple will usually pay more in taxes than they did while single. But that’s because they are now a single household. They may pay slightly more in taxes, but they have much lower expenses as well. Opposing this makes political sense—you can come up with a snazzy name like the marriage penalty to outrage people and promise them money if they vote for you—but it doesn’t make philosophical sense.

The so-called marriage penalty is not simply an unwanted side-effect of a progressive tax structure, it is a fundamental consequence of such a structure, consistent with its underlying justification. Or, to put it another way, if you support a progressive tax structure, you should support the marriage “penalty.” The two are one and the same.

The underlying idea of a progressive tax structure is that those with larger amounts of disposable income should pay a higher tax rate. The amount of disposable income you have is equal to your total income minus your fixed expenditures—food, clothing, and housing. Food and clothing costs scale nearly linearly with the number of people in a household, but housing costs don’t. The cost of housing for a couple is nowhere near twice the cost of housing for an individual. Even if you need to get a bigger apartment, or a bigger house, the increase in costs compared to that paid by an individual is likely only 25% or so. Since housing is the single biggest expense paid by most people, the simple fact is that a married couple living together has substantially more disposable income than two single people making the same salaries. As such, the married couple is taxed more. And if you support a graduated tax schedule, you should support this outcome as well.

In fact, I’ll go further and say that, for most people, even including the marriage penalty, a married couple will end up with significantly more disposable income (after taxes) than two single people with the same salaries. So the whole debate about the marriage penalty is complete nonsense. It’s a debate over a non-issue; the pretense that there is a financial penalty to getting married is simply wrong. There actually is a substantial financial benefit to getting married.

Update: J Bowen over at No Watermelons Allowed thinks I'm completely wrong. He points out that the same argument could be applied to any roommates--they lower their living expense and so have more spending money. True, but I think its reasonable to treat a married couple as unique, since they have bound themselves together into a single unit, a single household, personally and economically. Roommates have not done this.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 9:28 AM

Monday, June 24, 2002
Know your enemy:
Clausewitz and the War on Terror, Part II

The first step in any fight is to properly understand your situation. It’s worth quoting the passage from Clausewitz again:

The first, the grandest, the most decisive act of judgment which the statesman and General exercises is rightly to understand the War in which he engages, not to take it for something, to wish to make of it something, which by the nature of its relations it is impossible for it to be.

I think a true apprehension of the current situation requires us to recognize, as the Islamicists do, that there is no possibility for compromise between the West and their version of Islam. Along a similar vein, there is no possibility for compromise between Israel and Palestine, until the Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist. This has been said a million times, but still the US administration pursues a policy of negotiation, of attempts at peace talks. Like the European governments, they fail to rightly understand the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and so are led into error.

Eric Raymond over at Armed and Dangerous is writing an excellent series of posts about the Islamicist mindset, Islam, and the War on Terror. Go here for the third part of that, if you haven't already read it. He is attempting to sketch out the true situation, recognizing that without a clear strategic understanding of who and what the enemy is, any attempts to fight it will be blindly flailing in the dark.

Back in Part I, Eric made the argument that Islam is a religion of Jihad, and that armed struggle and conquest are an intrinsic part of the religion, embedded in the Koran. Or, to put it another way, the Islamicists are right. What they are doing is really what the Koran teaches, which gives them great strength in their debates with more moderate strains of Islam.

I have never read the Koran, and have only had second-hand exposure to its teachings, certainly not enough to argue the point one way or the other. So I’ll assume Eric is mostly right, that as he put it:

Jihadism -- the belief that Muslims have not merely the right but the duty to smite the infidel and propagate the Faith by force -- proceeds direct from the Koran and is accepted as a core religious duty by almost all Muslims.

This may be somewhat overstating the case, but it doesn’t really matter. The question becomes, given that Jihadism is accepted by a large fraction of all Muslims, and further that it leads, in a smaller percentage, to terrorist attacks on the West as the citadel of the infidel, what can we do to fight it?

First, it must be noted at the outset that the battle takes two distinct forms. There are the terrorists themselves—those people who are actually directly taking part in attacks or their planning. Then, there is the ideology which motivates the,--the ideal of a violent jihad, nurtured by the more fundamentalist strains of Islam, Wahhabism and its ilk.

One of the keys that Clausewitz talks of is identifying the center of gravity of the opponent, the place where you can strike which will result in an immediate victory. In our current struggle, the center of gravity lies in the ideology. Attacking and killing individual terrorists is not useless—it does disrupt their operations and prevent them from organizing serious attacks—but neither can it achieve a real victory. As long as the underlying ideology remains unchanged, all terrorists are replaceable.

This is, in a sense, the ultimate in asymmetric warfare, with the battlefield almost completely removed from the military plane and into the realm of ideas. The example of Israel shows that military victory alone is not enough to suppress and defeat terrorism. I think in this context it makes sense to talk about root causes, not to try to excuse terrorism, but to better fight it. (On that topic, be sure to check out this devastating rebuttal of the claim that poverty and despair cause terrorism, in the New Republic.)

The US could destroy every terrorist camp in the world, and occupy every country in the Middle East, and it still would not prevent a suicide bomber from walking into a mall in Chicago the next week. To truly defeat the Islamicists means discrediting their ideology.

There have been some who have recalled the occupations of Japan and Germany after WWII, and spoken of the “denazification” of the Middle East. I have argued before that the parallel is not really accurate, and that such an approach is unlikely to be successful, for two reasons. First, there is the question of whether the US has the military might and will to defeat and occupy numerous countries in the Middle East. But even leaving that aside, the motivating ideologies of Japan and Germany rested on a myth of national (or racial) superiority. Because of this, their decisive military defeat in itself refuted and discredited those ideologies. The same is not true of the Islamicists. Their ideology is not tied up directly with military victory, and therefore a purely military approach to fighting them is unlikely to work.

Eric, in the pieces referenced above, says that Islam itself is permeated with the idea of Jihadism. He hasn’t yet posted his ideas about what the US should do to combat this, so I don’t want to put words in his mouth. But I would say that, even if he is right and violent Jihad is a central message of the Koran, this does not mean that Islam itself is irrevocably contaminated, nor that it would need to be destroyed as a vital religion for the threat of Islamic terrorism to be removed or at least greatly reduced.

Religions are not static, and the interpretations of even quite clear and explicit messages in their holy books can change significantly over time. For example, Christianity has an extremely strong current of asceticism and anti-materialism present in the New Testament. One of Jesus’ most consistently expressed teachings is the rejection of worldly goods and aims in order to achieve spiritual salvation. This idea is fundamentally incompatible with capitalism, yet it has not prevented the Christian West from, eventually, embracing it.

Gibbon (who probably exaggerated from his anti-clericalism) identified the huge monastic movement in the early Christian community as one of the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire. Not only was its population declining, but hundreds of thousands of its citizens in the prime of life were joining monasteries instead of the legions. This manpower shortage then weakened the Empire and forced it to rely more and more on barbarian troops for defense, with eventual disastrous consequences.

However, over time, this ascetic impulse weakened and, despite the clear and repeated condemnations of worldly things in the Bible, a teaching diametrically opposed to the spirit of capitalism, nevertheless capitalism eventually arose in the West and the people squared that circle, finessing the numerous passages in the Bible that didn’t quite seem to fit with modern life.

I don’t want to get into a big discussion of the “true” meaning of the New Testament here. My point is simply that a religion can evolve, even in the case when its founding text seems to clearly support one side or the other. And, in fact, I would argue that the same forces that led Christianity away from asceticism and towards capitalism can also work to move Islam away from Wahhabism and the impulse toward Jihad. Which I will, in the upcoming part III.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 3:23 PM

Means and Ends:
Clausewitz and the War on Terror, Part I

My current reading is J.F.C. Fuller’s The Conduct of War: 1789-1961. It’s a pretty good book. There are long sections of filler, but it’s enlivened with a number of really penetrating and challenging insights, particularly in his discussion of the Allies in WWII, which I’ll probably blog about later. However, this passage concerning relations of the West to the Soviet Empire stood out and, I believe, is important to the current struggles of the US and Israel, for reasons which should be apparent.

Therefore, since Western statesmen and politicians are so ignorant of the technique of Marxian warfare, it bears repetition to point out that to Marxists peace is an instrument of subversion—that is, of conquest—as well as a breathing space in which to prepare for war. Should peace be concluded between a Communist and a Capitalist power, it is not in order to end hostilities, but instead to shift them from the battlefield of armies to the battlefield of classes. Peace is, therefore, no more than a manoeuvre in an unbroken struggle, and should it concede anything to the non-proletarian classes, it is in order to disintegrate them.

While Fuller here is writing about the tactics of the Soviets, the underlying truth (which the Marxists understood), is that in a war between ideologies, true peace is not possible. And that is just as true in the current struggle between the Islamic terrorists and the west as it was in the Cold War. It is possible for two nations to achieve peace, but a true universalistic ideology cannot coexist with any other.

The fight against terrorism starts with this realization—that no negotiated settlement is possible. Even if there were parties to negotiate with, their universal, proselytizing ideology prevents them from ever becoming reconciled to the existence of the West. So any peace agreement they signed would be a cynical one, simply a play for time to regroup and plan further attacks against the West.

That, for them, the fight is one to the death, makes the conflict both more difficult and easier. It is frightening to know that, like the Terminator, there are folks out there who want you dead, and who will not stop until either you are or they are. On the other hand, when no negotiation is possible, it immensely simplifies the political issue. The only possible goal for the US is the extirpation of the Islamicists; despite the tired bleating of a few discredited leftists, the only real grounds for debate is about means, rather than ends.

As the Palestinians have in regards to Israel, the Islamicists have, by foreclosing the option of negotiation, brought the United States together and forced it to fight. Their religious zeal has crippled their tactics. Two things you never want to do in war are to unite your enemy and to leave him no avenue for retreat. But by making their war aims totalistic—the destruction of Israel or the US—the Palestinians and al Qaeda have forced those countries to oppose them. War, from a position of weakness, can only achieve limited aims. The Palestinians could have achieved statehood, and al Qaeda might have been able to drive the US out of Saudi Arabia. But by turning the war into an issue of survival, they have doomed their efforts from the start.

Even a brief study of WWII would have shown them that terrorist tactics cannot force an unconditional surrender. Only the complete destruction of a country can do that. Bombing, far worse than anything that the terrorists could even dream of accomplishing, had limited effect against Britain, Germany, and Japan. And this, as much as anything, is why the US and Israel will eventually prevail. Because their opponents have not given them the option of failing, and their opponents do not have the ability to win.

To close this first part, I’d like to quote two precepts that Fuller mentions in the preface to his work.

Never in war shackle yourself to the absolute. Never bind yourself with irrevocable compacts or decisions.

Brutality in war seldom pays, this is a truism with few exceptions. Another is, never drive your enemy to despair, for although it may win you the war, it will almost certainly prolong it to your disadvantage.

In part II, I will discuss the nature of the enemy, and what that knowledge says about the best means of combating them.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 12:53 PM

A Renaissance blog: Politics, sports, literature, history, and whatever else strikes my fancy.


Sneaking Suspicions
Crooked Timber
Unqualified Offerings
Asymmetrical Information
Cranky Professor
The Poorman
newsrack blog

Powered by Blogger