Figures and Academic Rot

Numerical figures can be used to demolish an assertion, to illustrate a point, to confuse issues, or to intimidate an opponent. Figures in large numbers can also used to overwhelm, to absorb an adversary’s attention to the point of incapacitating him. Figures can be used to bully.

Raw figures never speak by themselves. They must be interpreted and placed in an intellectually appropriate context. Much mischief occurs in the course of interpretation. Even a lack of interpretation can be dishonest toward regular readers who are usually in a hurry. (Here is a fake quote: ” The rate of black grandmothers in charge of their grandchildren committing suicide went up by 100% last year” Yes, it went from one nationwide, to two!) Much of the best graduate training in the social sciences is dedicated to learning how to create and use legitimate figures and on how to interpret them in a rigorous and responsible manner.*

Recently (circa July 22nd 2015) my essay: “America’s Muslim Problem: What to Do” ( was reproduced in Notes on Liberty, a libertarian blog. A habitual left-liberal critic (but not an active contributor to the blog), Prof Terry Amburgey took exception to one or more assertions in the essay. The core assertion in the essay to which he took exception is this:

“However, we have many, many more terrorists of foreign extraction, almost all with ties to Islam.”

My assertion was not supported or illustrated by any figures for the same reason that the statement: “When the sun rises in the east…” is seldom supported by anything. I did not think it was needed, not really. Nevertheless. Prof. T is right in principle that any relevant set of figures could wreck havoc on my assertion. Prof. T proceeded to counter the assertion both with childish insults and with several seemingly figure-based statements. At my urging, he provided several links to the sources he used to – as he thought – demolish the assertion in question. He used “Comments” to my essay reproduced in Notes on Liberty. His comments, as well as those of some red-in-the-face libertarians, are also posted there. Also included is a thoughtful, civilized, unfinished exchange with a young psychologist who has a Muslim name.

I activated the first link Prof. T provided, in the order given. What I found was an oped in the Daily Beast. I perused it. Then, through sheer willpower, I made myself read it through, thinking it offered a good opportunity for a lesson in critical reading in what a contemporary academic believes persuasive. I consider below in turn:

The probable general trustworthiness of the source, the publication given;

Same for the specific author cited within the source publication;

The appropriateness of the time frame of the oped of reference to the criticism of my essay;

The relevance of the geographic frame of the oped of reference to the criticism of my essay;

The credibility of the figures given within the oped of reference;

The sanity of the interpretation of the group of figures, aside from their credibility.

The Daily Beast is an edgy on-line magazine associated with Newsweek, the dead, vaguely leftist weekly magazine. The Daily Beast was founded by Tina Brown, a successful press entrepreneur who is widely credited with the revival of Vanity Fair, an intellectually superior women’s magazine (the only one, as far as I am concerned). Ms Brown’s own personal intellectual production consists largely, or only, of a biography of Princess Diana. Early in its existence, the Daily Beast was shaken by a plagiarism scandal involving one of it main writers (who resigned). The Daily Beast takes pride in exploding myths. My own personal judgment is that it does not pay nearly enough attention to what it states, perhaps because it’s catering to the short attention span of its readers (speculating).

Here is an example: In the past six months, it has published two pieces on wage stagnation. One of them had a title expressing the view that American wages had peaked in 1973. This is ignorant, or stupid, or dishonest The issue of wages is discussed frequently in serious media. Observant people all understand that there are problems with the measurement of both inflation and deflation and thence, of the real value of wages: A “telephone” of 2015 does not provide the same services as a “telephone” of 1973! Implying otherwise is neither investigative nor analytical journalism. It’s not myth busting; it’s myth conduction. About 7/28/15, The Daily Beast accused Republican candidate Donald Trump of having raped his ex-wife. The latter immediately stood up and declared that no, he had not and furthermore, he would make a great president. And so on with the Daily Beast! (I do not believe Mr Trump should be president.)

Incidentally, the oped in Daily Beast to which Prof. Terry directed the reader to devastate me is signed by a man whose name, I am pretty sure, means “slave of Allah,” in Arabic. (OK, it’s petty and undignified of me to point this out. Sorry; I couldn’t not resist! I am already ashamed.) He is “Dean Obeidallah.”

The oped in question ranges all over time in no particular order in its review of alleged terrorism. One of its central statements concerns the period 1980 to 2005. I don’t know if Mr Obeidallah considers that periods important but Prof T. certainly does, as indicated in his own comments. I am at fault here. I should have specified in my essay that I was not (NOT) looking for remedies to threats taking place thirty-five years ago! Prof. T forces me to make the time frame of my assertion more explicit, for which I thank him. I should have stated that it covers the times more or less since 9/11 or a little before, maybe since the convenient year 2000.**

The Daily Beasts Oped does not range only all over time, it also ranges all over the place; it seems to try to evoke world-wide figures of terrorism variously undefined. Thus, when it mentions 399 acts of terrorism by Jewish settlers apparently in one year, 2013, apparently on the West Bank, I suspect that the acts of terrorism there include mostly deliberately punctured tires. If there had been even one fatality even for each three such “terrorist acts,” I trust it would have been brought to my attention by an often bumbling but nearly always anti-Zionist American media. Mr Obeidallah does not seem serious.

As usually happens when people range all over the place, they end up in unknown territory where even smart people say silly things. To shore up his demonstration that Muslims are a tiny minority of terrorists, Mr Obeid invokes the Front National de Libération de la Corse (FLNC). Between 1970 and 2014, in thirty-four years, this admittedly terrorist organization caused the death of nine people in France, including several of its own members. OK, it’s formally legitimate to include FNLC it but it’s a waste of everyone’s time. Incidentally, the organization has disarmed itself. It’s yesterday’s terrorists.

Mr Obeid gives lots of figures. I don’t believe I am obligated to check all of them. I think it’s enough to sample. The sample does not have to be a formal random sample. Convenience is good enough.

Mr Obeid asserts by way of highlighting the benign character of Muslim terrorism that:”…three women per day [are] killed by domestic violence.” (in the US), with no attribution. The figure seems a little high to me and I make the bet that domestic violence is a fashionable topic likely to be well surveyed. The only source I find on Google for the figure “three” comes from the National Network to End Domestic Violence ( Perhaps, the figure is correct although it sounds like a slogan. This obvious advocacy organization gives no source either. I lose further confidence in Mr Obeid’ s seriousness. ( That’s in addition to my coolness toward the Daily Beast in general.) More importantly, look at the implications for Prof. T’s assault on my essay: Prof. T is indirectly attacking my sourcelessness with a twice-removed instance of sourcelessness!

Here is another sample. Mr Obeid writes approvingly that the European Union’s police agency found that only two (2) of 152 terror attacks were religiously motivated in 2013. Yes, that’s a very low figure, of course. So. I take a trip to the same source armed with my lean skills. I find in a heading that seven (7) people died in incidents of terrorism in the year of record which I take to be 2013. The next year, 2014, in January alone, in Paris alone, twelve people met with their deaths in the combined terrorist acts around Charlie Hebdo. (The total number includes the deaths of the shooters themselves.) There is no doubt that the murders were committed by Islamist fanatics. Mr Obeid is not lying, precisely; rather, he does not know what he is talking about and he does not seem to care. Prof. T follows him obediently in his carelessness and points him out to me as a model to follow. ***

End of sampling, case closed. I have ascertained that Mr Obeid is not worth reading. He is just not credible enough. Here is the sorting principle I normally use since information is so abundant: One rotten apple, maybe an accident. One rotten apple in a good barrel (source) may by worth ignoring. Two rotten apples in a bad barrel, the whole barrel of apples is probably rotten. Got to go. Moving on. Keep rolling barrels of rotten apples toward me; I won’t forget.

Mr Obeid also mentions that 30 Americans die each day from “gun violence.” Does the figure include the more than half of gun deaths that are suicides? I doubt it; I don’t care enough to check. Mr Obeid does not care; Dr T does not care. Moving on.

Finally, there is the substance of what Mr Obeid – and through him Prof. T are trying to establish, or to suggest, or to intimate.

Mr Obeid points out that, for a period of his choice, Americans are more likely to be killed by a toddler ( a small child) than by a terrorist. Or, by a falling refrigerator. He also signals, that only 37 Americans died from terrorism since 9/11. Let’s assume for a minute that all his figures are correct. (We are past this.) Mr Obeid is simply trying to show that the probability of any of us, in past recent years, dying from an act of terrorism is minuscule as compared to many other dangers.

I agree without hesitation to the proposition but I believe he is changing the subject. He may be changing the subject in the vain hope that I will not notice. More likely, he hopes to induce readers to forget my coolly reasoned statements to the benefit of raw indignation.

The truth is that most deaths, most accidental deaths, most homicides even are meaningless, however desperately those left behind struggle to assign them meaning. Accordingly, the overwhelming majority of deaths, even of violent deaths, even of homicide have no discernible effect on American society. Once in a while, huge, organized publicity efforts forcefully to assign meaning to a designated category of deaths succeeds weakly and temporarily. AIDS deaths and breast cancer deaths (4% of all American women deaths) were in that situation for a while. Then, normal people regained heir skepticism, sometimes with the help or real facts.

Prof. T is radically changing the subject by assigning me the Daily Beat rant. I never claimed, suggested, allow for the claim that Americans are presently at great personal danger of death from Islamist terrorists acts. The dangers of terrorism are elsewhere. First, some threats are more or less constant over the short term while others feed on themselves – and tend to decrease or multiply of their own accord. Traffic accident deaths – and although they are in slow but steady decline (as the population ages, I suspect) – are a sort of constant in the narrow sense that each traffic fatality has not effect on the probability of traffic fatalities in the future.

Terrorist incidents, such as the Boston Marathon attack for example increase at once, both the vigilance of the authorities (more below) and the likelihood that other terrorist attacks will be attempted. Aside from straightforward copycat effect, each attack creates an effervescence in the social media that gives other potential terrorists the idea that it’s time to become real terrorists. The contagion is obvious: Videotaped, dramatic, grotesque atrocities as, well as its military successes improve Islamic State’ recruitment potential everywhere. There must be a metric here although no one seems to know it at this point: For each innocent’s head rolling on the beach, two, three, four, ten new recruits come to ISIS. The same contagion operates in connection with domestic Islamist terrorism although the relative effectiveness of police prevention makes it less clear. (If you don’t believe this to be true, just move on.)

The Daily Beast and Dr T. make the same mistake of logic: The number of domestic deaths due to Islamist terrorism since 2002 has been small, year by year. Therefore, it will be small next years and the year following. This seems to me to be a fallacy because the baseline, the normal number of terrorist-linked deaths is not known. The 9/11 attacks were superbly organized and coordinated but I have no reason to think that the organizational capacities of all those who hate us have disappeared or even decreased. They may have increased. The killing of Osama Bin Laden was a good thing but it did not end the threat. For all we know, instructed by experience, Islamist terrorists’ organizational capabilities are superior to what they were then. I keep in mind that the coordinated 9//11 attacks were cheap. (At the time, I estimated that I could almost have financed them with a second mortgage on my house.) There is room for improvement: Give it four pilots instead of three; train them a little better; choose a better time of day, and the death toll could go up to 6,000, or 10,000. (And then, would liberals still argue that this is still a relatively small number as compared to other violent deaths?)

Islamist terrorism killed a large number of people in the US in 2002; few people, have died from the same cause in the US since then; thousands more could die tomorrow. The will is there, the hatred is there, the financial resources are better than they were, a larger pool of potential terrorists to attack the US is available. It seems we have been spared only by police protection about which we know little or nothing. That’s an unhealthy situation for a democracy. And it brings me to my next and final comment on the interpretation of Daily Beast’s figures.

If there is as few as one death a year traceable to Islamist terrorism, as long as Islamist terrorism murders, decapitates, pillages, burns, enslaves abroad, Americans will still demand that we protect ourselves at home. Prof. T – accompanied by dogmatic libertarians – is telling us, in essence, by implication: “Your fault, just don’t panic. it was only one dead American after all, two died from a falling refrigerators in the same period.” There is a fault-line here: I believe, tens of millions of Americans believe that passivity before attackers invites attack. If we ignore them, they won’t go away; they will grow in numbers, in strength, and in temerity.

Our legitimate concern for our safety must of necessity erode our institutions. Two examples. The large, unusual terrorist 9/11 attacks led directly to the creation of Homeland Security, a new gigantic, expensive, intrusive, and we found out recently, wholly ineffectual bureaucracy. I and thousands of other Americans believe that each government organization exists at the expense of civil society and of individual freedom. (Prof. T does not believe this, obviously; many readers of Notes on Liberty do, also obviously.) Secondly, as reported in all the serious press, the continued (little) explosions of Islamist terrorism at home, the frequent alerts, have fed a national dispute about the extensiveness of government surveillance of citizens. In the past few months this national dispute about government electronic surveillance has been resolved largely to the detriment of personal privacy. Many Americans, even among those who normally favor small government, now welcome a level of scrutiny they would not have come close to tolerating a only a few years back. ( I am one of those, as I have said.)

In the current international context, Islamist terrorist attacks undermine our best institutions even if they are few in numbers attempted and fewer in numbers implemented.

No one should ask Americans to be more resilient, less emotional. Instead, why not try to stop the evil at its source first?

In the end, did I open the four-plus other links to sources proposed by Prof. T? Should I have? Why? What in the world for? The weather is lovely and the beach is calling. Plus, I want to go fishing. And there is that very good book on slavery I am reading. And there is this equally good cheap crime novel I am reading in parallel. And then, there is Animal Planet on TV, and spicy afternoon Mexican telenovelas. Plus, I have to catch Fox News, where I get all of my information according to apoplectic Prof. T. He has managed, on his own, with no help, to prove that his credibility is too low for me to look at anything he proposes on the subject of my essay: America’s Muslim problem.

Is this little exercise worth it? Maybe, it is. I took the trouble to expand on this because I fear Prof. T behavior toward figures is symptomatic of a rot that has spread in much of academia. His mistakes are worth pondering because I am well informed about both his training and his scholarly performance. He went through the same training I received, in a very good university. He has significant academic achievements to his credit in one of the fields I know well and where I have worked myself. He is currently a professor in a reasonably good university, as I did until I retired. (His is a Canadian university but eh, nobody is perfect!) The man is a good test subject for the experiment he involuntarily designed. And, I am not beating up on kindergarteners, at least!

The rot consist, among other things of an abandonment of conventional reasonableness that verges on delusion. Thus, Prof. T affirms that I get all my information from Fox News. Obviously, he has no way of knowing where I do obtain my information except for what I have said publicly. The list involves much more than Fox News and it’s done in two, sometimes in three languages. Would any rational person make up such a silly lie as Prof. T?

The roots of this academic rot lies in two places. First, there is the composition of the American (and Canadian) professor corps. It’s now 90% self-identified as liberal or progressive. There is a cost attached to never being contradicted in the Faculty Club. Of course, conservatives are in no danger of falling into an equivalent dreaminess, regardless of their efforts to tap variegated sources. That’s because conservatives are surrounded and daily confronted by liberal and progressive media that’s difficult to escape. ( I, for example, watch MSNBC almost an hour a day, ten months each year; it’s the only channel available at my gym.) The second root of the collective liberals’ disregard of reality is the conviction that they are forever fighting “injustice” as they endlessly define it themselves. This additional delusion seems to justify in their minds any violations of all they may otherwise hold dear in their scholarly lives narrowly defined. The resulting electric charge of self-righteousness is also powerful enough to cause a drop of forty or fifty IQ points, a strange phenomenon I explored before on this blog (“Sasquatch and Liberal Academe”

Along with the continuing tuition scandal, with this ideological uniformity and with this collective delusion, academia is committing suicide.

* I do not believe that one can make statistics (figures) say anything one wishes, as is often said. There exists a small number of rules that are widely agreed upon to determine the degree of validity of any findings couched in numbers. The rules are pretty much the same ones used by engineers to build planes that seldom fall from the sky. Nevertheless, in the social sciences broadly defined, there is often a measurement problem, for example, how does one measure inequality of wealth? To encourage vigilance on this issue (and on a few others), the social sciences try to rely on an adversarial process for judging evidence. The process resembles the adversarial process of the American justice system. The golden standard in the social sciences process is double-blind refereeing (explained at length on this blog: “What’s Peer Review….”

** A moving confession regarding the part of Prof. T’s critique that has some substance although it’s irrelevant to my essay. I agree that 1980 acts of terrorism were mostly not (NOT) committed by Islamist fanatics – who had hardly emerged on the international scene at that point although they may have existed in Afghanistan in the context of the struggle against the Soviet Union. At that time, there were still horrendous acts of terrorism committed everywhere by people with Muslim-sounding names but those were Palestinian terrorists and their sympathizers, people who were explicitly secular rather than religious fanatics like the contemporary terrorists I have in mind. In 1980 also, Irish (IRA) terrorists were still active in the UK and ETA was detonating bombs in Spain, and the Tamil nationalists were still wrecking havoc in Sri Lanka. I don’t recall any of those terrorist organizations doing much damage within the US but their activities form a backdrop to Prof. T’s  confusion in chronological perspective. Within the US, Puerto Rican nationalists, American citizens against their will, were still occasionally blowing up things.

When I say that Islamist fanatics have dominated the terrorist scene against Americans, I am staying away from the thorny theological issue of who is or is not a “real Muslim.” (I do, however, broach on this difficult topic in my essay in Liberty: “Religious bric-à-brac….”) There are Muslims with whom I see eye to eye on everything. I don’t know if they are the real thing. I suspect they often don’t know either. When someone kills others and declares that he does it in the name of his Muslim faith, I just take his word for it. When a bomb thrower declares its allegiance to the criminal religious organization Islamic State, I do the same. The first time I hear of someone assassinating innocent people in the name of Lutheranism, I will use the same identification system. I do this with a white supremacist in my essay, by the way.

*** If I had wished to lament terrorism in the world at large, I would have done so and not lacked in supporting material, if any were needed:

“According to the statistics on terrorism gathered by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism, the number of terrorist incidents worldwide quadrupled between 2006 and 2013 while the number of fatalities rose by 130%. In that period, the percentage of fatalities attributed to Muslim groups rose to 92% from 75%: (Wall Street Journal July 25-26 2015) OK, ” Muslim groups” is not synonymous with “Islamist fanatics,” of course You do the paring.

Of course, the figures from this source seem incompatible with those in the Daily Beast piece. This poses a problem. If I am a regular American working for a living, paying rent or a mortgage, rearing children, I am pretty much forced to decide which press creature to believe: The Daily Beast or the Wall Street Journal? Tough choice!

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Revolution by Tiny Steps

Now, the city council in the People’s Socialist Green Republic of Santa Cruz where I live does not do everything wrong, just many things, like making sleeping illegal. Many more of its decisions are just goofy, like red parking meters to donate to the homeless or declaring the city a “nuclear free zone.” Sometimes, however, it takes intelligent initiatives such as replacing much “ornamental” city -owned shrubbery with real plants including various kinds of attractive cabbage, artichokes and odoriferous, low maintenance plants such as lavender.

There is a restaurant downtown that offers “Mediterranean ” fare. I don’t know exactly what it is but I like the sound of it. The other day,  I am in my car and I have to stop because I see a man in a white cook’s jacket behaving strangely. He is bent over  what appears to be the sidewalk, intent on some task or other. Quickly, I park my car and approach to spy on him. It turns out he is foraging in one of the city’s mini-plantations, between two files of traffic, cutting lavender with small scissors. He is working twenty yards from the Mediterranean restaurant. Thanks to this inventive lawbreaker soon, someone is going to enjoy sherbet flavored with fresh lavender.

California is in a bad drought. The city leads by example. It has practically stopped watering its shrubbery, especially the plants located in ill-favored, non-touristy areas. Two days after catching the lavender thief in the act, I am driving by a large hardware store. Outside a crowd of day laborers – mostly Mexican, 100% illegals, I would guess – gather every day in the hope of scoring some work. Again, I see a man bent over the sidewalk. I slow down enough to also catch him in the act. He looks like a Mexican laborer. He is holding a water bottle in his hand. He uses it to water a single, tiny, unrecognizable plant in what used to be a city sidewalk lawn. He and the survivor plant may have become acquainted during the long hours of fruitless wait for a job.

I wish thousands of my fellow republicans on automatic trigger about illegal aliens had seen the guy. It would have reminded them of their shared humanity. It might have helped some recognize that yes, you are right and they have no right to be here but sometimes, you are just wrong to be right.

Little individual acts of harmless rebellion like these two give me hope.

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America’s Muslim Problem: What To Do.

There are many people in the US who possess normal common sense and who also have a liberal disposition, “liberal” in the old meaning of the word. I mean before the word came to designate a propensity to force others to do what they don’t want to do, accompanied by intellectual hypocrisy. The word used to mean something like: “well disposed toward others;” it used to refer to habits of tolerance, adding up to giving the other guy the benefit of doubt. I think I am one of those. I am lucid; I see what I see and I don’t pretend I don’t see it; I have no trouble finding something to like in others who are unlike myself. Nevertheless, I draw the line at institutionalized brutality (such as the genital mutilation of little girls) and at intentional cannibalism. The latter means that if you eat your dead to survive (as a Uruguayan rugby team plane-wrecked in the high Andes famously did about thirty years ago); it’s acceptable but if you go a-hunting humans explicitly for the table, I think it’s not cool.

Well, people like me have been struggling to hold their tongues since 9/11 in order to avoid stating the obvious about terrorism , and in order to not be forced to draw the policy consequences of what their eyes behold. We are caught between the rock and the proverbial hard place, largely, I speculate because we wish to avoid bad intellectual company. On the one side, we have paralyzing and contagious political correctness, on the other hand, there is the embarrassing torrent of abuse issuing from political allies who are both uninformed and ill-disposed, so ill-disposed that they are unable to see the obvious contributions of Islamic culture. I mean by this that you don’t have to be a Christian, or to love the Inquisition, or to believe that Christ resurrected to recognize that if Christianity had contributed nothing but Gothic cathedrals, that would still be a lot. Similarly, you don’t have to like Islam the religion to appreciate Arabic calligraphy and the Blue Mosque of Istanbul. Anyway, the pseudo-secret we have been unwilling to admit openly is this: We have a Muslim problem in this country.
We have terrorists of all inspirations in America, I know. The white murderer of black church people in Charleston was a terrorist, pure and simple. He was home bred and home grown. However, we have many, many more terrorists of foreign extraction, almost all with ties to Islam.

The man who murdered four Marines in cold blood in Chattanooga and wounded several several others was an immigrant. Somali refugees and their children have often been implicated in attempted terrorist acts in this country. The convicted and jailed underwear bomber is a Nigerian. We may not be able to do much about US-born terrorists such as Major Hassan (in prison) and preacher Al-Awlaki (pulverized by a drone in Yemen), but we can stem the flow of those with the greatest probability of slaughtering us at home. I said “probability.” It’s the concept we use, consciously or not, to approximate rational decisions in our daily lives: Select this birth clinic, rely on this baby food, travel by car, get vaccinated or not, go for this class rather than another. etc.
There is a young Muslim woman I know well and whom I love like a favorite niece. “Uncle,” she says,” Islamist terrorists are not more my problem than yours.” I disagree because I don’t believe that venomous seeds grow into poisonous plants on their own. They need water and they need good soil. No water, no plant; bad soil, no plant. The water for Islamist terrorism is provided by hundreds or thousands of preachers who preach irresponsibly, good Muslims all who don’t believe they have to be bothered about the effect of their equivocal words once they have left their mouth. (Yes, Mohammed did behead every man of a vanquished enemy tribe on the battlefield. Incidentally, they were Jews. The Prophet then “married ” their wives, he raped them, in others words. Bad example? Talk about this genuine part of Muslim tradition?)

The soil of Islamist terrorism is the passivity of otherwise blameless Muslim communities who cannot help but see fanatics grow before their eyes and decide to keep mum and to do nothing. Here is a simple example of what I mean. The killer of four Marines wore a beard, not any kind of beard, not a Hollywood-inspired beard, not a chic beard, not an old man’s beard like mine. His untrimmed, wide beard is worn only by imitators of the Prophet Mohammed. Few Muslims even wear such a beard. Muslims of all stripes know and recognize this. It take a few weeks to grow such a beard. If your son or your neighbor shows up with one, it should give you pause, if you are a Muslim. You should make a mental note that that young man bears watching. Why would anyone want to imitate the seventh century prophet in the 21st century. Who is wearing robes like Jesus? I am guessing (Guessing) that members of the particular terrorist’s community may have whispered some but just let the matter drop.

Some nation-wide reforms are obviously necessary toward domestic Islamist terrorism. Here are three.

Donald Trump is mostly a rich buffoon but once in a while, he forcefully states the obvious. As he proclaimed, it’s wrong that the people charged with our defense are not themselves allowed to be armed for their own defense. This silly policy should be reversed and all qualified military personnel (and I don’t see why a single one would be unqualified) should be allowed and encouraged to carry a personal weapon. If rural sheriffs’ deputies with three weeks training can carry a weapon, I expect members of our military to be qualified to do the same, strictly for self-defense and as a deterrent, of course. This change from current policy could be tried for a given period and its effects studied. If it were found out that members of the military fall into the habit of gunning one another, or civilians down then, the policy of a defenseless military could always be re-instated. Our society is taking worse risks every day. That was my first point.

Second, romantic libertarians (including many of my friends) have to come to terms with the need for widespread domestic electronic surveillance aimed at preventing domestic terrorism. As is usually the case, the assassin of the Marines in Chattanooga had given signals. He had spent months in Jordan and then made ominous noises on the social media. Of course, most of those who talk big on Twitter never take the next step to real mass killing. The minority who do should be discovered by monitoring the lot in a cheap, economical way because there are so many. To oppose this kind of step is like declaring that the protection of our civil liberties is worth a few massacres each year – which could easily turn into many massacres. Yes, there is a slippery slope there. And yes, such surveillance creates a precedent that might lead to the intimidation of legitimate dissent. Two responses. First, a climate of widespread insecurity also undermines our personal liberties. Witness the creation – with hardly a murmur against – of that very intrusive and yet grossly ineffective Homeland Security apparatus in the aftermath of 9/11. Second, attacks on civil liberties take many forms and are not dependent on the particular bugaboo of electronic surveillance. Witness the still unpunished persecution of conservative political organizations by the Internal Revenue Service.

Civil libertarians, including libertarians would do better and they would be more effective in the long run if they insisted on two things: real effective, strict judicial oversight of surveillance; more restrictive aiming than has prevailed in that area. This would require frank profiling. (More on profiling below.)
The third measure needed is to slow down the growth of Muslim immigration into this country. Islamist terrorists come exclusively or almost exclusively from Muslim communities. The larger the Muslim communities, roughly, the greater the number of potential Islamist terrorists on American soil. This is true both directly and demographically. Some Muslim immigrants become terrorists, others raise American children who become terrorists. Muslim communities everywhere turn a blind eye to the the transformation among some of their members in a radical direction that is the prelude to embracing terrorism. Now, we want to do this in a way that avoids stigmatizing a billion people worldwide, many of whom have a view of Islam that makes no room for social aggression, many of whom are lukewarm faithful, an unknown number of whom are frankly indifferent, no more Muslim that I am. I repeat, in passing, that Muslims globally supply most of the victims of Islamist terrorism but this is not my topic here, I am writing about improving Americans’ safety.

Yes, I know, nearly everyone knows by now that not all Muslims are terrorists (exceedingly few are) and not all terrorists are Muslims. Let’s put this behind us for good. My point is that for practical purposes almost all domestic terrorists are Muslims.

We have to develop a selective tool for keeping out of the country the narrower category of Muslims most likely to become terrorists. I am speaking here of profiling before the fact. Although “profiling” has a bad name, rational action requires it. Here is an example. Looking for car thieves in a particular area, the local police will ignore older church-going black ladies while focusing on white males in their twenties who dress in dirty t-shirts. Profiling! It turn out that one way to interpret Islam insists on its literal relevance in today’s society. The highest Muslim theological authorities including the Grand Mufti of Cairo and religious authorities from Al Azar university periodically remind the faithful that Muslim tradition must be interpreted in the context of our times. This modernizing perspective is equally rejected by ISIS, which practices slavery because it’s explicitly allowed in the Koran itself, and by the Islamic Republic of Iran, which pointedly keeps the stoning of adulterous women on its books for the same reason. (In addition, many Muslims are like their Christian counterparts: They don’t know much about their own religion and what they know is disorganized and often incoherent, what I call “religious bric-à-brac” in an article in Liberty Unbound with a title that includes this

It turns out that Islamists are also all literalists, strict constructionists, when they are not simply hoodlums. If you prevent literalist Muslims from entering the country , you have gone a long way toward reducing the number of potential terrorists in the US. One article of faith among literalist Muslims is that government must come from God. That’s why the Supreme Leader of the Shiite Islamic Republic is explicitly a cleric, couldn’t be an elected civilian or a general. This belief also explains the search for a Caliphate among Sunni jihadists, a polity where administrative and religious powers are one and the same. But, of course, separation between Church and State, between religion and government is central to our constitutional arrangements. And, there is no compelling reason to accept immigrants, or even visitors, who think of a central tenet of our constitution as anathema. We have every moral right to sift them out. This can be done at low cost and with a fair degree of effectiveness.

Few countries accept everyone without condition; the US does not, never has. It would be a simple matter to make all immigrants, all refugees seeking asylum and, I think all visitors sign a document asserting that they support all features of the US Constitution, including specifically everything that has to do with the relationship between religion and government. These comprise the non-establishment of religion (including Christianity they may be reminded) and an absolute right to blasphemy. As I said, all entrants would be asked to sign a statement to this effect, and they would be told that the list of signatories could be published at any time, anywhere and in any language. Latin-Americans would sign because their constitutions are copied largely from ours; Europeans would sign because thy are almost all religiously indifferent or lukewarm; the largest immigrant group, the Chinese wouldn’t care. The only group from which you would expect a significant reluctance to sign would be Muslims, not all Muslims, but Muslims with literalist, fundamentalist tendencies that is, precisely the category most worth excluding. Some would simply cheat, of course, and pretend to agree to what is to them anathema but the possibility of seeing their name publicized would act as a partial deterrent. In addition, such perjury would provide easy ground to prosecute those signing under false pretenses.

Some would protest that such exclusion would be “unfair.” I think that the issue of unfairness dos not arise. This immigrant believes that no one has a right to enter the US.
Arm our defenders; ferret out the wild beasts before they can bite; don’t allow the alligator swamp to become larger. It’s all obvious; it’s all doable. It’s much more than we are doing now.

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Right Back!

I have been neglecting this blog because of the wonderfully warm weather and because the ocean temperature is slightly higher than in previous years I remember. It’s sufficiently higher to induce more frequent swimming. In the unlikely event that “global warming” is to be credited, I want more of the same.

I will be back soon with a new essay on terrorism, one that avoids both hysterics and political correctness. So, don’t forsake me yet!

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Percentages that Fairly Scream and, “Catastrophe” is a Greek Word

The WSJ of 7/9/15 shows a comparative table for some European Union countries of spending on pensions as a share of GDP. This comparison denotes roughly the drag effect that payments to retirees has on the whole national economy. To no one’s surprise, Greece tops the list with 14.4%. Germany is at 9.1%. This may seem like a small difference but when it’s turned into actual, absolute figures, the difference becomes downright striking. They scream!

The 5.3 percentage points difference can be applied to both countries’ GDPs (or GDPs par capita, same thing in this case). The International Monetary Fund gives Germany’s GDP per capita for 2014 at about$46,000 and Greece’s at about $26,000*. Pensions cost Germany $4,150 annually for each man, woman and child. Pensions cost Greece $3,400 annually for each Greek. It does not look like the Greeks should be able to afford this kind of disproportionate burden.

Suppose Greece’s pensions took the same bite out of its GDP as Germany ‘s does out of its GDP, 9.1% . In this scenario, today, the Greek economy would have about $1,400 each year unspoken for for each man, woman and child. This money would still be available for spending, as it is through pensions. It would also, however, be available for both public and private investment.  That’s $1,400 each year; that’s a lot by any standard. That’s money needed to rejuvenate the Greek aging economic plant.

How realistic would such a change be, involving raising the legal age of retirement, I mean? The Germans’ and the Greeks’ life expectancies are virtually identical ( 80.44 vs 80.30, in CIA Handbook). There seems to be a little wiggle room to move there. Note that raising the age at which people can claim a pension is doubly beneficial: It reduces the number of pensioners while raising the number of workers who support the pensioners. Some will argue that raising the age of retirement is a pipe-dream in a country such as Greece where there is chronically high unemployment. I think this reasoning is wrong. Many Greeks don’t find a job because investment in Greece is insufficient. People need tools to work. What is certain is that the current dishonest Greek government policies, soundly supported by the exercise of a majority of Greeks’ votes cast, are not going to draw foreign investment. The money to improve both Greeks’ chances of employment and their productivity will have to come from within. One significant source is described above: Close the pension option for one or more years to healthy Greeks. It will provide both ready investment money and confidence abroad.

Note that raising the legal age of retirement is a purely political decision. The Greeks can do it any time they want. They can do it overnight. Perhaps, there will soon arise a political party in Greece that will proclaim the truth: It’s not the mean lenders, it’s us!

This is a fairly simplistic reasoning, I know. The general age of the population places constraints on the practicality of raising the age of legal retirement ( but an older population also makes it more desirable; think it through). I have heard leftist demagogues on National Public Radio argue that the big bite that pensions take out of the Greek economy is not the Greeks’ fault, that it results more or less directly from the fact that Greece has an old population. Sounds good but the fact is that the Germans are, on the average, quite a bit older than the Greeks (Median age of 46.5 vs 43.5 according to Wikipedia.) Don’t believe experts on NPR, not even on simple facts!

Alternatively, the Greeks could begin collecting their moderate taxes like the Germans instead of like the Italians. They might also remember that “catastrophe” is a Greek word.

*The figures are “PPP” meaning that they take differences in buying power in the two countries into account.

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Greece: Democracy in Action

The Greek people expressed themselves wit utmost clarity. In response to an incomprehensible question posed to them by their fairly elected Prime Minister, the Greeks voted by a wide margin for the precipice instead of self-discipline. They also voted consciously for blackmail because their government had explained to them that the “No” vote they gave would put pressure on the Greece’s creditors.  (Those include ordinary European Union taxpayers and, to a small extent, through the International Monetary Fund, US taxpayers as well. ) The Greek government  cynically campaigned for the same “No” vote.

Greece just joined Argentina to form a group of countries where the population deserves  what’s coming  to it because of its deliberate dishonesty articulated  through perfectly legitimate democratic channels.

As usual the urban poor in Greece – those who have no hens and no apple trees (like my parents in the fifties) – will be the ones to suffer the most as a result of irresponsible collective choices.

When was the last time anything good for the poor ever came out of an election won by any Left at all, anywhere, at any level? Please, remind me.

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Flag Burning, the Bill of Rights, and Leaving America Behind: Fourth of July Special

Yes, the American Revolution was special. It’s not yet uncool to recognize
facts. You are entitled to your mistaken and unsupported opinions, however; this is a free country. (Not thanks to you!)

First, there were no massacres. It may have been different if Britain had won, I don’t know. The Loyalists were treated harshly in many places. Many lost their property. Many became the English-speaking root of that milder version of ourselves, Canada. Americans were so generous-minded however that they even allowed Hessian (from Germany) mercenaries from the defeated British army to settle among them. Try to imagine any of the formerly occupied countries in Europe in 1945 allowing Russian SS from the German armed forces to stay behind and prosper! (Yes, there were Russian SS, thousands of them.)

Second, the US Constitution was and probably remains the most clear, exemplary embodiment of the healthy political idea of separating powers, a major step in uprooting the habit of despotism. ( I may be wrong but I think the desirability of the separation of powers my have been enunciated earliest by the French philosopher Montesquieu. The French themselves mostly made a mess of the idea.)

Third, it took an embarrassingly long time but American constitution-builders eventually produced a wise list of specifically enunciated rights. A bill of rights is a necessity to protect political, intellectual and religious minorities and, especially, individuals from the potential, and the very real threat of tyranny of the majority.

The next to try a bill of rights, the French, did it only a few months later, also in 1789. With the privilege of having Ben Franklin right there in Paris to lend a hand, with Lafayette – who understood the idea well – involved, they also screwed up that one. Most of them don’t know it to this day, I think, but the insertion of one sentence in their Bill has the potential to nullify the whole: “Art. 6. La Loi est l’expression de la volonté générale.” * “The Law, is the expression of the general will.” This general will, the will, the will of all, has the power to eradicate any of the individual rights carefully enunciated elsewhere in the same document. Correspondingly, today in France, there are concrete limitations on freedom of speech, for example although freedom of speech is specifically guaranteed by the French Bill. These limitations were imposed in a carefully legal manner via acts of parliament, and signed by the president yet, they are still a form of despotism and a slippery slope. The little sentence above makes a constitutional challenge on these restrictions on speech difficult, if not impossible.

Incidentally, and going back to the US, there have been recent episodes of US flag burning by activists protesting – somehow- the Charleston church massacre. Go ahead, burn away, it’s your right so long as you don’t accidentally set afire a neighbor’s or public property! I feel forced to link this kind of petulant, childish behavior to a poll I saw recently that describes 50% of millennials as wishing to emigrate, to leave this country.** So, after voting massively for Mr Obama seven years ago, they want to escape the massive failures of his administration instead of staying put and contributing to reverse them. One the failures imputed to Mr Obama is wage stagnation. It has frozen many thirties-something in place, economically speaking. I am not sure it’s fair to blame Mr Obama but it’s done to every administration.

I know quite a bit about emigration/immigration as you might guess. So, I will presume to give potential emigrants advice: You may move to Australia, my friends. Australia will be glad to have you. The country is an admirably successful redneck project. You will enjoy the Australians’ great pubs. Of course, there is a good chance that the first night out to one of the pubs, you will open your mouths too wide. Then you may well end up beaten to a pulp in some dark alley. I don’t wish you such a fate; I disapprove of such rowdy behavior. If it comes to my attention, in the news or in the newspaper, I will not laugh openly. There will just be a little smirk on my face.  Have a good trip.
* 1789 Déclaration universelle des droits de l’homme et du citoyen

** Ordinarily, I am the first one to point out that fewer than two convergent polls from respected sources is nothing. So, take this with two grains of salt.

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