Apr 06

(To read the rest of our coverage on the 2016 Presidential primaries, please click here.)

Let’s imagine a hypothetical.

A President spends significant foreign policy resources--his time, his Secretary of State’s time, political capital--to build a coalition. Crafting this coalition requires cajoling, bribing, encouraging, compromising and sacrificing...on all sides. At the end of a long process, the coalition is built and decides to act.

In other words, the President is leading on the issue. Everything described above is leadership if, you know, leadership means convincing others to follow your lead. (Which it does.)

But I didn’t say what the issue was on purpose. The moment I do, well, the opposite side of the political spectrum will say it isn’t actually leadership. If the above paragraph is describing President George W. Bush building a coalition to invade Iraq--well, either President Bush building a coalition to invade Iraq--that’s leadership in the minds of Republicans. If the above paragraph described President Obama crafting a treaty on climate change or Iran’s nuclear program, that’s leadership to Democrats.

Sadly, the concept of leadership is amorphous. Imprecise. Unclear. Vague. Almost so vague as to be meaningless and unhelpful. And nothing demonstrates this better than the Republican candidates critiques of President Obama’s leadership.

John Kasich on Obama’s Leadership:

“You know, the fact of the matter is the world is desperate for our leadership. Sometimes they may -- they may make a remark here or there that we don't like, but frankly, the world needs us. And we have an opportunity now to assemble a coalition of the civilized people, those who respect civilization, the rights of women, the rights to protest, to be able to reassert our leadership all across this globe again and make sure this century is going to be the best we've ever seen.”

Rebuttal: Except that Obama has led the world on at least three major issues: Iran, climate change and free trade. And on each of those issues, he was stymied by a Republican Congress. (Or as some commentators pointed out, one half of one half of one third of America’s government prevents action for the entire world.) It turns out, the world is  desperate for American leadership, but that “leadership” fits with Democratic issues more than Republican ones.

Carly Fiorina on Obama’s Leadership:

“Ours was intended to be a citizen government. This is about more than replacing a D with an R. We need a leader who will help us take our government back....The truth is this, the big problem, we need a leader in Washington who understands how to get something done, not to talk about it, not to propose it, to get it done.”

Rebuttal: Again, it is hard not to look at Obama’s foreign policy initiatives and not see a whole lot of accomplishment. See the three issues mentioned above. But hand-in-hand with the accomplishment has been Republican intransigence. For example, the defining failure of his administration--not being able to close Guantanamo--isn’t/wasn’t his fault. Republicans refuse to close that base. You can’t adamantly oppose a sitting President on every issue, then fault him for not leading.

Jeb Bush on Obama’s Leadership:

“Serious times require strong leadership, that's what at stake right now.”

Rebuttal: We don’t have to say it again, but the times we live in aren’t that serious. They’re the greatest times in human history.

Donald Trump on Obama’s Leadership:

“No, a good deal maker will make great deals, but we'll do it the way our founders thought it should be done. People get together, they make deals.”

Rebuttal: Nonsense gibberish aside, turns out that President Obama got a deal on Iran specifically by getting people in a room together. Go to Fred Kaplan at Slate to see the specifics.

Donald Trump again on Obama’s Leadership:

"[Putin’s] running his country, and at least he's a leader. Unlike what we have in this country."

At this point, Trump is putting leadership in the same category as running roughshod over your opposition. Or dictatorship. We don’t even need to rebut that.

The issue isn’t that Obama can’t lead. It is that the definition of leadership has been warped by Republicans writ large. Saying, “We don’t like President Obama because he disagrees with us,” sounds childish and self-evident. Yes, of course the leader of the opposing party disagrees with you on most issues. “Leadership” isn’t “doing what I want”. Fred Kaplan has also covered this at Slate. Dan Drezner summed this up perfectly:

“One of the memes that political scientists like to mock to within an inch of its life is the “Why won’t the president lead?” lament that occasionally bubbles up among the pundit class. This is an easy meme to mock because, frequently, the reason the president isn’t doing the thing that the pundit wants is because of pesky structural constraints like the Constitution or pesky political constraints like the opposition party.”

Republicans usually take it as a point of pride to axiomatically oppose any policy Obama endorses. So when Obama came out in support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he was endorsing a Republican-friendly issue: free trade. That issue also required tons of leadership with other countries. So Republicans had to twist themselves in knots to somehow still insult the deal while not trying to submarine a free-trade agreement.

But it required tons of global and domestic leadership. So did keeping together a coalition of countries with competing interests to agree to stricter agreements on Iran. But Obama did it.

And he topped it off by again supporting a deal on climate change in Paris. The only thing he couldn’t control was discord at home on those same issues. But he was leading on the global stage. It may not have been the leadership Republicans wanted, but it was leadership nonetheless.

Apr 04

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In a future post, I’ll argue that some actions are on their face/a priori immoral. (Conservatives have a big issue that qualifies in their minds.) And if some things can by their Kantian/Platonic nature be immoral, it isn’t a stretch to say genocide, murder, war crimes, torture and other horrible things are also on their face immoral, regardless of their supposed benefit to society.

I would put supporting dictatorships in that category.

Some candidates (and former candidates) for President disagree with me. Former Governors Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush and others expressed support for General Sisi in Egypt. Many of the candidates have expressed support for the monarchy of Saudi Arabia (and other dictatorial Gulf states). Donald Trump has expressed admiration for Putin and Xi Jinping. Ted Cruz and Trump have even gone so far as to not express hatred for Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi.

I don’t agree for two reasons.

First, either America was founded a set of universal ideals or it wasn’t

I have a simple piece of evidence that our Founding Fathers believed our values were universal: the Declaration of Independence [emphasis mine]. From the second paragraph:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

So America was founded on a set of ideals that the Founding Fathers wrote were self-evident and universal. More than that, it is based on the consent of the governed, that can only be derived from democratic principles. Any strong man, any dictator, any monarch, or any tyrant cannot claim that consent of the governed. If Republicans or Democrats want to support dictatorships, they are either conceding that Jefferson was wrong or ignoring our ideals or both. (And I’ll get to the wrong counter-argument about this in a moment.)

Second, to be clear, dictatorships just tend to be nasty.

It turns out Plato’s philosopher-kings just don’t exist.

Crimes against humanity--genocide, murder of innocents, violence against peaceful protestors, kidnappings, torture, stealing natural resources, rape--are staples of dictatorships. Saudi Arabia crushes democratic protests. Egypt murders innocent people. Putin silences the press. All of those dictatorships use torture.

I don’t mind saying that I don’t want to support crimes against humanity. I don’t want to support dictatorships that commit crimes against humanity. So I don’t want my government to support dictatorships. (And I can hear the critics saying, “Kidnappings? Torture? What about the United States of America?” Fair point. We shouldn’t do those things. And at least we have a democratic process to stop them and release “torture reports” and investigate. And we’re not nearly as abhorrent as any of the above examples.)

So the counter-argument that people trot out: we don’t have the resources to go around the world overthrowing dictatorships. Even the Founding Fathers knew that.

True, but I’m not asking for us to overthrow every dictatorship around the globe. There is a huge ocean of difference between passively supporting dictatorships and proactively overthrowing those same dictatorships. Just because I don’t support dictatorships, doesn’t mean I think we need to go around overthrowing dictatorships Iraq-style. Clearly when a dictatorship falls--Iraq, Libya and Syria come to mind--the aftermath is devastating. We can’t afford that.

My argument is simpler. I don’t want my government to passively or actively support any dictatorships with money, military equipment or diplomatic support. We shouldn’t give Saudi Arabia tanks to crush peaceful protests in Bahrain. We shouldn’t give Egypt millions of dollars in aid to allow it to murder civilians. We shouldn’t have propped up dictatorships around the globe during the Cold War. Whatever we get back in so called “national interest” isn’t worth the moral price.

At the very least, we shouldn’t support them with our rhetoric on the campaign trail.

Feb 29

(To read the rest of our coverage on the 2016 Presidential primaries, please click here.)

President Obama is weak.

Every single Republican candidate has echoed this sentiment, including Carly Fiorina (in the fifth debate and falsely claiming American Generals retired because of Obama), Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio (here and here), Donald Trump, of course, Rick Santorum (here and here), John Kasich, Jeb Bush and Ben Carson. Even the once-possibly-still-is-isolationist Rand Paul said it. If one candidate truly represents this point of view, it’s now out-of-the-race candidate Chris Christie, who described Obama as a “feckless weakling” at the fifth Republican debate, and kept repeating this talking point.

So literally every candidate.

Dated insults aside--I mean, seriously, Christie, “feckless”? What is this the 1950s?--this claim, like far too many others in this election by Republicans, has absolutely no merit. Look at one of Republicans favorite examples of Obama’s fecklessness, the capture and detention of ten US soldiers by Iran in January. If you missed this crisis, that’s because it was over twelve hours. But the Republicans candidates knew what this meant...weakness!

"If our sailors aren't coming home yet, they need to be now. No more bargaining. Obama's humiliatingly weak Iran policy is exposed again." - Jeb Bush on Twitter

“The only reason they were seized is because of the weakness of Barack Obama.” - Ted Cruz on Fox News Sunday

"WH says our sailors are being given courtesies? This is feckless. WH is endangering our troops. Demand their return NOW!” - Rick Santorum on Twitter

“Do you think Iran would have acted so tough if they were Russian sailors? Our country was humiliated.” and “Iran humiliated the United States with the capture of our 10 sailors. Horrible pictures & images. We are weak. I will NOT forget!” - Donald Trump on Twitter

In reality, this incident represents the Obama administration's strength on the world stage, if strength means getting what you want. Which it does. Since America now has diplomatic relations with Iran, its diplomats were able to quickly and effectively negotiate a solution. Fred Kaplan at Slate explains:

“If anything, the speedy, peaceful resolution of this incident could be seen as proof that Obama’s nuclear deal, which all the Republican candidates abhor, holds some collateral benefit in addition to its inherent merits—that the diplomacy it unleashed, after 36 years of official silence (Kerry and Zarif had been scheduled to talk on the phone Tuesday afternoon anyway), was what made the rapid settlement possible.”

In other words, diplomatic relations solved the crisis. And solved it better than George W. Bush did. In 2007, the Iranians captured 15 Royal Navy sailors and it took 13 days to negotiate their release. If you do the quick math, this means George W. Bush is approximately 45 times weaker than Obama, counted in pure man hours of captivity.

Of course, this is all selective, hypocritical politics. Under a Republican President--like, say, George W. Bush--these same candidates would have praised his leadership and strength in freeing the sailors.

What’s worse, and this is where this post will take a weird turn, is that Republicans believe Obama is weak because he won’t project military power abroad. Which is odd, because the American military, under Barack Obama, has bombed more countries than any President since Nixon, possibly FDR (a list that includes Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Pakistan, Syria). And we’ve sent troops to aid the fight against Boko Haram in Nigeria. And possibly launched attacks in the Philippines.

So we disagree with the Republican’s rhetoric--Obama isn’t weak--but also still disagree with the President’s policy for being far too willing to use America’s military abroad. What’s worse, one of the most aggressive foreign policies in American history is being characterized as dove-ish-ness.

That’s truly terrifying.

Feb 22

(To read the rest of our coverage on the 2016 Presidential primaries, please click here.)

Six months ago, you could have predicted Republicans would say some crazy things about foreign policy and our military. Loosening ROE? Pretty predictable. Obama is weak! Yeah, not true but kind of predictable. We need more military spending? Of course they would say that. (More on all three topics this week and next.)

And also waterboarding.

Sure, you could have predicted that Republicans (outside of John McCain) would have defended this so-abhorrent-even-the Nazis-initially-forbid-it practice. They’ve been defending torture ever since Dick Cheney and the CIA started doing it after 9/11.

But I’m not sure anyone would have predicted that Republicans would argue waterboarding didn’t go far enough at the eighth Republican debate:

“I would bring back waterboarding and I'd bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding. “ - Donald Trump

“And so, if it were necessary to, say, prevent a city from facing an imminent terrorist attack, you can rest assured that as commander in chief, I would use whatever enhanced interrogation methods we could to keep this country safe." - Ted Cruz

So, in other words, anything is on the table. (When asked, Jeb Bush and Rubio dodged.) There’s no need to rehash this issue, since we’ve written about it so much in the past. So here’s a quick recap of why torture is wrong, morally and ethically, and some links:

1. Torture isn’t effective.

Practically, as The Atlantic sums up the Senate’s report on torture, torture doesn’t provide good intel:

“Despite their use against at least 39 detainees, there’s still no evidence that “enhanced interrogation” methods produced information useful to stopping terror attacks, while there’s plenty of evidence that those subject to torture produced false information in the hopes of ending their ordeals.”

Basically, you’ll say anything to not be tortured.

2. Torture will get Americans killed.

Trump argued that since ISIS beheads people, we have to torture them in response. If ISIS’s shocking actions anger him so much, wouldn’t our shocking actions anger extremists? Wouldn’t it inspire terrorists?

Yes, as The Atlantic, John McCain, The Daily Beast, and Slate have pointed out.

3. Our best quote ever on torture.

Which completely debunks Ted Cruz’ nightmare scenario above:

“Would the CIA have tortured Richard Jewell to find the locations of more bombs? Would Jewell have confessed if waterboarded? Would they have just killed him to stop him from attacking again?”       

4. Check out past On V posts on torture.

For whatever reason, the only times we’ve written about torture on the blog are when we’re writing about movies, like The Battle for Algiers (twice), Inglorious Basterds, Zero Dark Thirty (before the release of the Senate Torture report and called it!) and Homeland.

5. Torture is immoral.

Even if torture were effective, it doesn’t matter. It’s immoral.

And really, that’s all that matters.

Feb 15

(To read the rest of our coverage on the 2016 Presidential primaries, please click here.

And, though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

Over time, words lose their original meaning. Often, exaggeration is to blame. The most obvious (and cliched) example is “literally” which literally no longer means literally. This “misuse” isn’t new or even that wrong from a literary perspective. (James Joyce, Mark Twain and Jane Austen all used it incorrectly.) You could (debatebly) throw “decimate” into this category, a word which once meant “one-tenth” now means “all”. I’m not immune either. Over the last couple months, I (Eric C) realized I use the word “infinitely” in definitively un-infinite situations. Michael C misuses “exponential growth” to refer to non-exponential growth and hates himself for it.

I fear this may happen to the word “existential”. “Existential” is supposed to refer to existence, meaning that if something is an “existential threat”, it poses a threat to your existence.

This word is literally being decimated by delusional (or fear-mongering) politicians.

I first noticed this language abuse by John McCain in 2008 during the presidential campaign, referring to terrorism generally. Of course, he’s not the only one. Long-time readers of On V may remember us writing about this before, citing major conservative thinkers scared of radical extremists. Since then, John McCain, and once-upon-a-time Republican Presidential candidate Lindsey Graham have continued the assault on language (and logic), by claiming ISIS poses an existential threat to America and the west.

Thankfully, some major conservative thinkers have debunked this abuse of language. That, alas, was but a brief blip in conservative thinking. Despite the patently inaccurate description, the entire Republican field has pushed the fact that ISIS is an existential threat:

- Ted Cruz, in an op-ed in the Washington Examiner, wants “to fight the existential threat of the Islamic State.”

- Ben Carson at the fifth debate: “But the war that we are fighting now against radical Islamist jihadists is one that we must win. Our very existence is dependent upon that.”

- Rand Paul feels ISIS poses a “global threat”. Which is somehow less accurate than “existential”.

- Or Marco Rubio at sixth debate: “There is a war against ISIS, not just against ISIS but against radical jihadists terrorists, and it is a war that they win or we win.”

- And Marco Rubio again at the seventh debate: "ISIS is the most dangerous jihadist group in the history of mankind. ISIS is now found in affiliates in over a dozen countries. ISIS is a group that burns people alive in cages; that sells off little girls as brides...They want to trigger an apocalyptic Armageddon showdown."

From the start, Michael C and I have followed a guideline for choosing what to write about on our blog: have a good take. A good take means saying something true, but, more importantly, something novel, unique or original. You might stand out if you argue the moon is a hologram (like this guy, somehow) but the claim is so patently false as to be uninteresting. Next though, a good take needs to be original, lest we become just another blog in the “internet echo chamber”.

There’s a caveat, though. If an idea is true, but the general public doesn’t believe it, well, we need to write about it. Even if others are saying it too. This applies to ISIS.

America has fighter planes, tanks, battleships, landing craft, nuclear weapons; ISIS has some trucks and a handful of missiles. America’s military has a budget of over half a trillion dollars annually; ISIS claims they have two billion dollars. America’s military has over 1.3 million people; ISIS has soldiers in the low thousands. We have rich allies with well-funded militaries; ISIS has, somehow, managed to also piss off Russia, the Kurds, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

So obviously ISIS doesn’t represent an “existential threat” to America. Or a global threat. Or really the world more generally.

As we said earlier, others have made this point. But it still needs saying. Many people rationally understand this; millions of potential voters don’t. Obviously, it is galvanizing Republicans, both their candidates and their admirers. But worse, some Democrats have basically conceded this issue. As we wrote about before, during Obama’s final State of the Union, when Obama said that ISIS didn’t pose an existential threat, some Democrats didn’t clap at this line. Hell, watching the New Hampshire returns last week, I saw on MSNBC’s scroll that 9% of Democrats in New Hampshire ranked ISIS as their most concerning issue.

ISIS may some day launch terrorist attacks against America. (Even then, statistically, the threat they pose to Americans is tiny. Less than bee stings and bathtubs. Or fireworks.) But the chances ISIS will threaten America’s sovereignty or borders is literally infinitely small. Both politicians and the media need to make this clear.

Feb 01

(To read the rest of our coverage on the 2016 Presidential primaries, please click here.)

Let’s just start at the beginning, with the Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

That is the first line in the First Amendment to the Constitution. It’s really, really clear. If you claim to love the Constitution (and really people mean the Bill of Rights when they say they love the Constitution), it means loving the freedoms and liberties enshrined in it.

And the Founders started with religion.

The Constitution is only as strong as the people upholding its values. The Constitution can’t enforce itself. The Constitution doesn’t pass laws violating its principles; politicians do. During primary season, we’ve been reminded of this often unacknowledged fact.

So when numerous Republican candidates for president advocate unconstitutional proposals, you’d expect more protest from the party that carries mini-Constitutions, endorses original intent, and opens Congress by reading the Constitution from front to back (leaving out any sections the founders originally put in about 3/5th people).

If you had asked me before the election, I would have guessed that Republican candidates would have advocated violating the constitution when it comes to warrantless wiretapping. That’s hardly come up. Instead, candidates are advocating and proposing laws that would directly violate the First Amendment--by infringing on Muslim’s right to worship--by Republican candidates, most vocally Donald Trump followed by Ted Cruz. (This also applies to immigration, like Donald Trump’s opposition to the 14th Amendment.)

At his most extreme, Trump recommended creating a database of Muslims in America for intelligence agencies to watch/surveil/track. Summed up, simply for adhering to a religious belief (Islam), the government will track certain people. How can that not terrify anyone worried about government power or protecting civil liberties?

Other candidates called for using religion to screen immigrants. Still unconstitutional, other candidates including Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz joined Trump on this issue. Ted Cruz has also battled Donald Trump for which candidate can go the closest to outright Islamophobia, in some cases sounding like he endorses hate speech against Muslims.

In some ways, we can’t really blame Trump or Cruz, who are following the worst impulses of the people in the party they represent. As in all things politics, it’s a chicken and egg conundrum: Is the politician to blame for racist, unconstitutional views or the people showing up at his rallies? Of course, the people don’t just get riled up on their own. Conservative talk radio helps, and sometimes goes much farther than the politicians or people.

You can see this in the worst impulses of mobs of people. The first amendment says the federal and state governments cannot privilege any religion over another. So if a town allows a Catholic church and a Protestant church, it must also allow a Mosque. Yet that basic understanding of the Constitution doesn’t stop a mob of citizens in Virginia from protesting a renovation to an Islamic center. Whether through popular fiat or government regulation, they want to evict all Muslims. (This is similar to the people who wanted to ban a Mosque from opening near the World Trade Center.) This is the worst sort of populism the founders feared.

If you want absolute security, the Constitution is not for you. Too often the values that keep us free put us at risk. Civil libertarians (like myself) too often neglect this fact. Republican candidates probably do love the civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution, but it seems like they love safety more. They are reflecting the sentiment of their base. And that base is scared. Pointlessly scared--the risk of dying is almost zero from Muslim terrorism--but still scared.

And scared people overreact. These overreactions do threaten our country: they threaten the Constitution. They threaten the Bill of Rights.

Responding to Donald Trump’s surprising political success, a lot of liberals have responded with jokes, not taking him seriously. As voting begins today in Iowa, serious issues are at stake, up to and including the sanctity of the Constitution.

The Constitution is a fragile thing after all.

Jun 30

Say you’re an American who’s been alive for the last 10 years. You’re more likely to die from any of the following things than terrorism…

- Bathtubs

- Bee stings

- Being shot by a police officer

- Lightning

- Drunk drivers

- Moving heavy furniture

- Traffic accidents

And so on. Basically, terrorism is one of the least likely ways that you can die in America. But Jeffrey Goldberg doesn’t buy this argument:   

“...a bathtub death is in most ways not equivalent in impact to a death caused by terrorists. The death of someone in a bathtub accident is obviously a terrible tragedy for that person's family and friends. But unlike a death caused by terrorism, a bathtub death has few, if any, political, economic, foreign policy, societal and constitutional ramifications.”

Researching the likelihood of dying from terrorism for an upcoming "Costs of Security" post, I stumbled upon this article from a years ago. Michael C and I disagree 100% with it so much, we had to respond. Why? A few reasons...

1. The Difference Between Terrorism and Other Ways of Dying is our Over-Reaction to it.

In Goldberg’s mind, terrorism matters because it has “political, economic, foreign policy, societal and constitutional ramifications”, forcing us to take it more seriously than other ways of dying. But flip that around: because society takes terrorism more seriously than other ways of dying, it has political, economic, societal and constitutional ramifications. It’s a trap. We overreact to terrorism, and because we overreact to it, we should take it more seriously, but taking it more seriously causes us to overreact even further...

Goldberg actually makes the point for us. Which came first? The ramifications or the reaction? Goldberg, in his piece, cites the strain on the constitution caused by terrorism:

“And consider the impact of terrorism on the Constitution, and on our collective self-conception as an open and free society. Just look at the stress placed on our constitutional freedoms by 9/11. A sustained terror campaign, even one with much lower death tolls than 9/11, would inevitably lead to the curtailment of our rights.”

It’s sort of a circular argument.The impact of 9/11 and terrorism on our constitutional liberties is exactly why we should treat terrorism like other forms of dying. If society treated terrorism like we did bathtub deaths--just another hazard in the modern world--then our Constitution and civil liberties wouldn’t be threatened.

2. Terrorism Has Foreign Policy Ramifications...Because Terrorism Guides our Foreign Policy

Goldberg claims terrorism matters because it has foreign policy ramifications. Goldberg wrote a New Yorker article falsely claiming a link between al Qaeda and Iraq.

So terrorism matters...because it has foreign policy ramifications...and politicians and pundits use terrorism to endorse foreign policy decisions. You see the loop again, right?

3. The Comparison That Totally Debunks Goldberg

For most ways of dying, it is hard to directly rebut Goldberg’s point. Deaths from terrorism don’t have a direct connection to say bathtub deaths or bee stings. (Unless terrorist start arming bees...) But what if I could find an example where it does?

Like, say, car crashes.

In America, car crashes kill around 30,000 people each year. Terrorism since 9/11 has killed less than thirty people a year, and even those numbers are inflated by including the deaths of American civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Domestically, terrorism has only killed 74 people. (And white Christian extremists have killed twice as many people through terrorist attacks than Islamic extremists...without the remifications Goldberg worries about.) The evidence is clear; cars kill more Americans than terrorists.

Here’s a thorny problem for people who fear terrorism: what if a miracle cure for car crashes existed that was also a terrorist threat?

Like the self-driving car.

Self-driving cars will see better and react faster than humans ever can. Unlike humans, self-driving cars will only get safer through improved sensors and programming. And they won’t even make it on the roads until they are proven to be safer than humans. They’ll never get tired, drunk, distracted or lose their senses to old age. Some car companies are also developing vehicle to vehicle communications, which will save even more lives.

Of course, the only thing can stop the clearly safe self-driving car is the one thing that Jeffrey Goldberg fears most: terrorism! Take this headline from CNBC, “Self-driving cars—the next terrorism threat?

Let’s assume the terrorist threat is real and, when self-driving cars are adopted, terrorist use them to successfully kill Americans. Say self driving cars cut the number of car crash fatalities in half, but terrorists successfully kill ten Americans each year by hijacking self-driving cars. Would the “ramifications” of terrorism mean those ten deaths matter more than the 15,000 saved lives? Perhaps those numbers are too extreme, but at what point do the saved lives from car crash fatalities outweigh the “ramifications” of terrorist deaths?

We’re comparing two ways of dying: the current reality of humans dying in car crashes versus the potential for humans to die from terrorism in self-driving cars. And the inevitable over-reaction to terrorism by the American people. Will self-driving cars cut down the number of traffic fatalities compared to the risk they’ll be used by terrorists? Absolutely, but the terrorism deaths will get a lot more news coverage. A lot more.

And that’s why this comparison is so needed.

Jun 22

(To read the entire "The (Opportunity) Costs of Security” series, please click here.

A while back, I wrote a post on how I would have argued on America’s greatest Oxford-style debating competition, Intelligence Squared US, specifically the episode on the Arab Spring. Today, I will present the opening statement I would have delivered rebutting the motion, “Spying Keeps You Safe”.)

Before I begin, let me concede a shocking point: I agree with the motion. Spying does keep us safe. I mean, if we didn’t have any police, would we have more crime? We would. So if we didn’t have a single spy or counter-terrorist, would we have more terrorists? Yes, we would.

Of course, we don’t really mean that spying keeps us 100% safe. And we don’t really mean this motion in the abstract. The motion is really asking whether the exorbitant costs of the spying apparatus--in both fiscal and civil rights terms--keep us safer than if we spent that money elsewhere. Especially when it comes to domestic spying by our government.

Literally, by any metric--cost-benefit, lives saved, efficiency--America wastes most of the money it spends on counter-terrorism and spying.

Let me give you a thought experiment to help explain how. Last year, America’s intelligence agencies spent a collective $75 Billion with a B on intelligence. What if we had only spend $70 billion? Would the likelihood of a terrorist attack have gone up? By how much?

Unfortunately, those are all questions America’s intelligence chiefs can’t answer, and wouldn’t even know how to begin to answer. And if they can’t answer them, do we really think “spying is keeping us safe?” They can’t even tell us how!

In our contemporary times, terrorism is excessively rare. Terrorism kills less people than gun violence. Or bee stings. Or heart attacks. Or suicides. Even the year that America suffered 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in history, more Americans died in car accidents. But even making those comparisons doesn’t capture the fact that you have a better chance to win the lottery than die of terrorism.

In fact, because terrorism is so unlikely, intelligence spending actually hurts Americans because we could use it in better ways. Instead of improving economic opportunity or curing diseases, we spend money paying multiple agencies to write the same reports with the same information. We pay signal intelligence agents to spy on their ex-wives and girlfriends. Or we encourage FBI agents to ignore financial malfeasance, organized crime, drug trafficking and other crimes to entrap Muslim Americans.

So vote against the motion because spending on spying means not spending the money on other concrete ways that could save lives now. As the debate goes on, we can also discuss how the intelligence community over-hypes this threat, how the intelligence community over-estimates its effectiveness, how the intelligence community favors expensive technological solutions over low-cost, more effective human intelligence solutions, how spying on Americans hurts our civil liberties and we can also discuss the waste in the intelligence community.

But most importantly, spying doesn’t keep us safe...in fact it’s killing us.

(Unfortunately, we don’t have enough street cred to get invited on Intelligence Squared. From my listening, though, to win an Intelligence Squared debate, the best technique is often to reframe the terms of the debate. Eric C and I have tried to do this in our series, “The Costs of Security” where we have tried to reframe the debate on terrorism in the U.S.)