Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Morality and War

This afternoon I was listening to "Philosophy Talk" on KALW radio, and I heard a man ask, speaking of the war in Syria, "Is it more immoral to kill 1,500 people by gassing them with nerve gas than it is to kill them by mowing them down with machine guns?"  I didn't hear an answer in the time before I had to go do something else.

This evening I was reading this week's Economist, and the Lexington columnist was discussing the current flap in the Pentagon over whether drone pilots, and other "cyberwarriors," who never actually get shot at, should receive medals for valor.

The combination of the two leads me to answer Philosophy Talk's question - yes, I believe it is more immoral to kill someone with nerve gas than with bullets; and I believe that really good drone pilots should be recognized for their contribution but a medal for valor isn't the right award.  To explain why I feel this way, I want to do a quick review of the history of warfare.  I don't write much about this subject, but I've actually read quite a bit about it over the years; the human race being what it is, you really can't study history without studying war.  I've studied European warfare, so that's what I'll use to explain my point, which is that nerve gas is immoral because it can be used from farther away, and there is no way to fight back against it.  If a man is mowing you down with a machine gun, he has to be within machine gun range, and you can at least try to shoot back at him, if you have a gun.

It's fairly accurate to say that until roughly the 14th century, when Joe wanted to kill Ed, he had to get very close to him, and fight him hand to hand; and he had a measurable chance of losing the fight, and his life.  The invention of the bow made it possible for Joe to kill Ed from rather farther away; so did the sling.  But the bow and the sling are specialist tools; not everyone can just pick them up and kill someone.  They require training; they require a lot of practice.  It takes less practice to use a club, a spear, or a sword.  The Welsh bowmen who defeated the French army at Agincourt were masters of their trade, and they trained from childhood.

In the 14th century, European traders began reaching the Far East, and among other things they brought back gunpowder.  Gunpowder rendered the fortified castle obsolete; artillery could throw rocks through the castle walls.  Individual soldiers still fought hand-to-hand.  It took another couple of centuries to develop individual weapons like muskets and pistols, which could reliably shoot lead balls without blowing the shooter's hand off; and they fired one ball and then had to be reloaded, a task which took an expert almost a minute.  Still, by the 17th century, armies still fought hand-to-hand, but they did so after shooting several volleys of bullets at each other, from a working range of maybe 50-100 yards.

In the early 19th century, someone put two inventions together and produced a major step forward (if you call it that) in the ability to kill people from a distance:  the mass-produced gun with a rifled barrel.  Mass produced meant there were now a lot of guns relatively cheaply available; the rifled barrel meant the range was more like 300 yards.  Part of the carnage in the American Civil War was due to the fact that the tacticians on both sides were placing the ranks maybe 100 yards apart, and the troops were firing rifles at each other which were accurate up to 3 times that. 

In the Civil War, of course, hand-to-hand combat was still very common.  But the next century and a half developed weapons with greater and greater ranges - artillery pieces which could fire for miles; airplanes dropping bombs from above; short range and eventually intercontinental ballistic missiles.  The objective is to kill as many of the enemy as possible, without exposing your own warriors to their weapons.  And the more long-distance methods were developed, the less hand-to-hand combat was needed.  Poison gases were used on World War I battlefields, to such universal horror that nations produced an international agreement not to use that again, although as always, not everyone obeyed the agreement.  If you look at the war in Syria (yes, I mean you, Mr. Assad), you'll see that the government forces attempt to use the longest range killing machines they can.

With remotely controlled drones, the 21st century has produced a weapon with which a soldier can kill people on another continent, at no risk to his own life.  I've thought for some time that this is making war much too easy for the attacker.  War should be hard.   If Joe wants to kill Ed, he should risk his own life to do so.  Otherwise he shouldn't be doing that at all.  If you conclude from this that I think remote-controlled drones are immoral on a level with poison gas, you're right.  I do think that.   We have found that by spending huge amounts of money on these drones, we can kill people in Afghanistan, get in the car, and drive home to have dinner with the family.  The arrogance of remote-controlled drone attacks is appalling.  I can't even imagine what this is doing to the drone pilots.  We should be giving them their own personal psychiatrists, not medals for valor. 

And we shouldn't be conducting war like this at all.  For that matter, why are we still shooting at Afghan tribesmen with remote-controlled drones?   We are the richest, most powerful nation on earth, and we're using our riches to kill people who live in mud huts with no electricity, at no risk to ourselves.  Consider that image, if you can stand to.  And yet we have the gall to complain about Basher Assad's poison gases.



Saturday, March 29, 2014

What is the worth of a man?

I wrote the following draft in 2006, and then set it aside, because I couldn't reach a conclusion, except that this is wrong:

This has bothered me for some time now. When I was young, and more, when my dad was young, a man could do a day's physical work, and earn enough money to buy himself food, and a place to sleep. This is what Roger Miller sang about in "King of the Road": "two hours of pushin' broom Buys an eight-by-twelve four-bit room." And if you had a skill, or a college education, you could earn more than that, maybe enough to buy a house and start a family.

Sometime between then and now, it's gotten too expensive to be a working American. Now, a man doing a day's physical work doesn't make enough money to pay the rent, and if he has a family, he and his wife both have to work two jobs just to get from one end of the month to another. And the kids stay home alone after school because there's no money for child care.

What happened? I'm afraid globalization is what happened. Factory jobs went from a place where people want safe working conditions, and a break for lunch, and a pension, and maybe to buy a house - to places where people are happy to work for $5 a day or less, and don't complain about working conditions or lunch breaks. This is why the stuff at Wal-Mart is so cheap, and not just Wal-Mart.

In the case of jobs that can't be exported, like fruit and vegetable picking, we imported the people instead: that's what the illegal immigrants everyone's talking about are doing. And because they're illegal, they're doing it for less than minimum wage - how can they complain? So to keep the produce we eat cheap enough for us to buy it, we pay the pickers so little that Americans can't afford to do the work. The immigrants live four or six to a room, and send money home. And a job that Americans did seventy years ago (what do you think the Okies came to California to do, during the Dust Bowl?) is no longer an option, even if Americans wanted to do it. Some people say Americans "won't take those jobs." Well, they certainly won't at those wages.

It's not just factory jobs anymore. Eighteen years ago I became a computer programmer, because it was a good career path. Now, there are damn few entry level computer jobs; they've gone to India where they can get a kid with a college degree in computer science for $20,000 a year. I've read complaints that American kids aren't studying engineering, especially computer engineering, in college. Why should they? The jobs are in India. And senior people with long careers are told they're "not measuring up", and then replaced by a college grad for a quarter of the salary.


That was in 2006.  It's now 2014.  The intervening 8 years have made it brutally clear that the America I grew up in no longer exists.  We've reverted to the America my grandparents grew up in - historians call it "The Gilded Age."  The age where all employment was "at will," there were no work rules and no safety requirements, and if you got sick you went home to recover or die, without pay, because there was no "sick leave" and only the rich could afford doctors.  Check it out on Wikipedia - the first pre-paid health care arrangements coalesced into Blue Cross in the 1930s, and employer insurance came in during World War II because wartime regulations didn't allow salary raises (see the Wikipedia article cited above).


Income in America today is appallingly unequal.  I'd usually cite the research, but we've all read it.  The rich now own Congress - hell, the rich now are Congress.  And the Supreme Court supports them.  Justice Scalia goes duck hunting with them.  Sure the judiciary is independent.  
How can we be proud of an America where you're either Mark Zuckerberg, with more money than he knows what to do with at age 30, or you're working two jobs at $8 an hour and still can't pay the rent, like far too many people in the San Francisco Bay Area?  When did we decide that $2,500 a month was a reasonable rent for a 1 bedroom apartment?  When did it become "reasonable" to pay a few bankers millions of dollars a year for bankrupting our economy through fraud?  

What do we do about this, and how?  I wish to God I had answers.  I hope to God that the money we've saved up will last us the rest of our lives; it seems like a lot to me, who grew up with my mother making all my clothes, and canning fruit every fall; but we're still comparatively young, and we have no kids to "help us out."  Not that anybody's kids can help them out when the kids are also making $8 an hour, if they have a job at all.  

Whatever the solution is, if there is one, we have to work together to do it.  The rich have gotten where they are by scratching each other's backs, and setting less wealthy people against each other.  In case you wondered, that's where all the rhetoric about "welfare queens" and the "lazy poor" comes from.  Until the rest of us realize that we have more in common with each other than we do with "the 1%", and start collaborating on solutions, things will stay exactly as they are.  There are more of us than there are of them; but they're really good at the old "divide and conquer" routine.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Google Glass Can Now...

I've had my doubts about Google Glass for some time, and not just because I'm not one of the beta testers.  I don't think I can be - I wear actual glasses to see with, and I've never seen any explanation of how a four-eye like me could even put them on.  Over my glasses?  I don't think so.  My metaphysical objection to Google Glass is that it - they? - make it way too easy to get lost in your little digital world, and to forget that your physical body is doing something actually dangerous, like driving a car, or crossing a street.  After all, those are two of the most dangerous things you can do these days, in terms of the death rate.

Google Glass strikes me as a solution in search of a problem to solve.  It can do some very useful things - but that tiny heads-up display could all too easily be a fatal distraction.  Yes, military pilots use heads-up displays in very tough situations, but they also go through hours of intensive training.  Sooner or later Google Glass will kill someone - a man merely texting while driving just killed two people in Santa Rosa (of course, he was also high).  (Sorry, the article is behind a paywall but you can see the headline and summary.)  I'm not the only one who thinks this, either; San Francisco Chronicle columnist C. W. Nevius came to the same conclusion about 10 days ago.

It wouldn't break my heart if Google Glass never came out of beta. But it almost certainly will, and now we learn there will shortly be a video game for Google Glass.  Oh, great, a video game.  Even better, the game is "Global Food Fight."  I am not making this up.  You will now be able to walk down the street, wearing your Google Glass, weaving and bobbing your head and shoulders back and forth to control a Global Food Fight game that only you can see.  Isn't that precious?  Take a minute and imagine what it will look like. And somebody will do that - it's inevitable.

Cell phones are bad enough, useful as they are.  In the bad old days when phones lived in phone booths, if a man walked down the street gesturing and talking loudly to himself, you could assume he was crazy.  Now if a man does that (or a woman), you have to look for the Bluetooth headset before you write them off as short a couple of shingles.

I never walk down the street talking on the phone.  It's a great way to get your phone stolen.

Imagine the joy of watching a Google Glass wearer bobbing and weaving down the street, indulging in a Global Food Fight.  Now imagine them playing the game and talking to someone on the phone about it.  Since Google Glass is a Bluetooth headset, they'll be walking along, talking to themselves, moving their head back and forth and shrugging their shoulders...

After all, as the article says, a virtual food fight game "is a fun way to engage people to play with the potential of this new device."

And of course, in San Francisco, it's possible that no one would notice.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

RIP, Pete Seeger

I don't often cry when I listen to the news.  But I cried this morning when I heard that Pete Seeger had died.  He was 94, and people do die when they're that old.  I thought about his lifelong struggle to put people and music over war and conflict - his attempt to prove that the guitar is mightier than the sword - and I cried to think that he is gone.  I learned his songs fifty years ago, in college; I'm still singing them.

It is mightier, Pete.  As long as we continue to sing your songs, you will be immortal.

But I'm still crying.  Vaya con Dios, Pete.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Stop the Wars!

Recent discussions of the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty got me thinking again about something that's been on my mind.  A San Francisco Chronicle editorial on the War on Poverty claims that we've "only been able to declare a draw."  That's too positive.  With the slats kicked out of the middle class, and millions of people living paycheck to paycheck and praying for nothing to go wrong, we've lost the war on poverty.  The anti-poverty programs that started with Johnson - Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, whatever food stamps are called this week - they don't eliminate poverty.  They merely help poor people not to die starving in the street. Today they help people not to starve in the street who have full time minimum wage jobs.  If the campaign against poverty is a war, we've lost it.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Data Security Breaches - Again

The hot story today is the data security breach at Target, which is being investigated by the Secret Service.  They think data on as many as 40 million credit and debit card accounts may have been stolen.

Really makes you reconsider carrying cash, doesn't it?

What annoys me the most is that this isn't the first time.  Does anyone but me remember the stolen data from TJX Corp. (parent of T J Maxx and Marshalls) in 2006??

Friday, December 13, 2013

They Passed a Budget

I've heard a certain amount of complaining on the airwaves about the bipartisan budget that the House just passed.  I confess I was startled - I wondered what has gotten into Paul Ryan?  Apparently this summer's government shutdown scared him, or did something to him.  Most people feel the Republicans are to blame for the shutdown, and most people aren't happy about it.  He's disturbed enough that he's willing to negotiate, and even to agree on new "revenue" - although he still won't call it "taxes."  Still, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

People are annoyed because the budget doesn't extend emergency unemployment.  I agree - it would have been better if it had.  There are a lot of things it would be nice to have in the deal that aren't there.  But it gives us something we haven't had for several years:  a formal budget funding the U.S. government through this fiscal year and the next.  Remember when the sequester came into force because they couldn't agree on a budget, even though everyone agreed that the sequester was a stupid way to cut funding?

Politifact has a nice article on budget history, evaluating Ryan's January 2012 claim that Senate Democrats "have gone without any budget at all" for more than 1,000 days."  (As of January 23, 2012, that is.  Politifact called it mostly true.) 

But isn't this what we elected these people to do??  Why are they there at all if not to take care of the country's business, in a rational and organized way, working out compromises for the best deal they can cut?  Nobody likes this budget.  Good.  That means nobody got everything they wanted.  That is how politics has worked in this country for 250-plus years (with the minor exception of the War Between the States, and look how well that worked out).  I'm relieved if surprised to find Paul Ryan actually negotiating a compromise.  On past performance, I would have said he couldn't do it.  If he can learn, maybe the others can too.

We passed a Constitutional amendment in California that says legislators' pay is docked for every day they go past the annual deadline without a budget.  Now, the California constitution is hardly the shining example of the way to run an organization.  But it's just astounding how those budgets come in on time since that passed!  I don't think I'd try to amend the U.S. Constitution to do this; but I'd sure love to see Congress impose the rule on itself.  The fact that they won't is just one more of the things that are wrong with  Congress.

I still think they should have extended emergency unemployment.  But I'll take the deal they cut.