Monday, November 16, 2009

Thoughts on the Stupak Amendment

I've posted a bit about the Stupak amendment on facebook, and Daniel recently offered the following comments concerning it. I thought I'd respond here were I can more easily do so at length. I haven't bothered to link any articles that we've been discussing, because I don't think they're particularly necessary for understanding this comment, but Daniel can always add them later if he feels that such context is necessary. Anyway, here's what Daniel said concerning the amendment:
"So I've been thinking about this Walden Pond School of Public Finance some today. I still agree with you that if the Stupak amendment gets the votes and represents the center of gravity of American public opinion it's great. Insofar as this is what the people want, fine. But I don't know about this tendancy to opt-out of things that some people find morally reprehensible. We have pacifists in this country - that doesn't mean they can subtract the portion of funding that goes to offensive weaponry from their taxes. If we as a country decide to go to war, we accept all that that entails. We have environmentalists in this country, but that doesn't mean they can subtract the tax revenue that goes to highways. Likewise, we have pro-lifers in this country - should that mean that we whittle down what "health care" is when we decide as a country that we want to subsidize "health care"?

Or put it this way - why hasn't there been a comparbale "Stupak amendment" for the decades of tax subsidies that we've given to employer health benefits, which cover abortions? Kind of funny isn't it? When employees lucky enough to have a job that offers health benefits get a subsidy from the government, nobody says "you can't buy an abortion with that subsidy money", but as soon as low income families get subsidies people come down hard on the restrictions. When you think of it that way, the parallel with Walden seems even more relevant - the amendment itself starts to look more symbolic than substantive."

I don't know exactly where to begin with Daniel's comment. There's a lot that I would just flat out say is inapplicable to the current situation, or simply not the case, or simply confusing. I don't see how the current amendment is an "opt-out" in any relevant sense of the term. It's a restriction on federal funding, whether or not any particular person wants to use federal money for abortive procedures. No pro-life advocates are "opting-out" of paying taxes that pay for abortions. The amendment is restricting federal funds from going to abortive procedures. To carry on the pacifist analogy, this would be like a nonproliferation decision, or a troop withdrawal... not a decision to restrict funding of weapon manufacturing in wartime on the say-so of some pacifist lawmakers.

It's also quite a controversial statement in the first place that abortion constitutes a health care procedure at all- that is indeed what the fight over this amendment is largely about, isn't it? Actually, not even- in the few cases where abortion might be less controversially considered an acceptable part of healthcare (situations of endangerment to the mother), the amendment allows for it (Sec. 265 a). This is only "whittling down what health care is" given a certain stance about what abortion is. But simply assuming the conclusion about abortion doesn't seem to get us anywhere.

All that being said, I think Daniel's general point concerns the idea (and here I know I'm oversimplifying) of "legislating one's morality". Even given the importance of one's conscientious moral objection to certain things (warmaking, environmental destruction, abortion), a baseline recognition of give-and-take seems to be necessary. A liberal and morally pluralist society cannot simply constrain certain societal actions because they offend the conscience of some in the society.

But where, exactly, does that put us in the case of abortion? Is this really an argument against something like the Stupak amendment? Or rather, is it any more an argument against the Stupak amendment than it is against a healthcare bill that would fund abortion from the federal level? The choice on abortion seems to be between a public fund for a procedure deemed unjust and barbaric by millions, and a refusal of public assistance which constitutes unjust and barbaric negligence in the eyes of millions of other people. For neither alternative does the possibility of consensus appear very hopeful. Why, then, would the former (the amendment) constitute undue deference to some people's moral sensibilities in a way that the latter wouldn't? How would the argument here not be just as reasonably made against HR3962 sans Stupak?

Daniel's second paragraph is truly bizarre, and I don't know exactly what to do with it. As I understand it, there are such restrictions. The Hyde Amendment restricts HHS money from going to abortions except in situations of rape, incest, and endangerment to the mother, and there are restrictions on plans for government employees as well. So there does seem to be precedent for this. I'd agree that ESI subsidies need reform and are problematic, but that's an issue even apart from the question of subsidizing abortion, so I don't see what the problem is. Low-income families were screwed by these arrangements long before any federal subsidies for abortion were made unavailable. And in any case, the question presents itself again: who says that not providing people with abortions is "coming down hard" on them? This assumes a good deal about abortion, and a good deal that those in favor of restrictions would not grant. In the same way that pro-choice advocates have argued that these sort of restrictions disproportionately hurt low-income people, pro-life advocates have consistently argued that abortion disproportionately hurts low-income people rather than those with more resources at their disposal. Simply pointing out that our country has a problem with providing adequate health or other care to low-income groups isn't an argument against abortion restrictions- it's an argument against failing to provide proper care. But working towards a situation where abortions are no longer performed goes hand in hand with true care for people's health, and don't work against it. The restriction on funding for abortion saves lives, or at least works towards preventing federal provisions from ending them.

I might be willing to agree that the Stupak amendment is more symbolic than substantive, but I'd say that it's symbolic in a rather substantive sense of the term. It is not a compromise of real healthcare reform, but rather a good (though rather small) start to reforming our system of medical care in response to various barbaric practices that are currently in place. Substantive progressive reforms would involve making these restrictions on government funding into outright restrictions of abortive procedures. But for now, given the importance of symbolic progress for the state of the conversation on abortion, I'd be willing to say that the Stupak amendment's most important contribution is symbolic.

In the end, many advances in progressive politics come through fits and starts. Various contradictions of legislative decision making (we pay for it there, why not here?) thus seem perfectly explainable by the fact that our system is imperfect, and that not all legislative assemblies will gather up similar voting blocs given different occasions. But presumably a lack of precedent for certain reforms isn't an argument against reform itself, is it? I mean, I agree that people shouldn't think of the amendment as some wonderful pro-life work of art. It is what it is. It's small reform, but it's something.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Nidal Malik Hasan and Selective Conscientious Objection

The recent tragedy at Ft. Hood has re-introduced a number of tensions and questions to the public imagination concerning ongoing wars and religious aspects of terrorism. There has been the usual over-reaching in accusations and conclusions, but I think that on the whole a stance of "wait for more information" has been well-practiced and prevented major backlash.

One question that has been coming up for me through all of this is the possible terms for an individual to conscientiously object from military policy. One can now find a number of details about Nidal Malik Hasan's religious commitments and their posited relationship with the Ft. Hood massacre. Rather than dwell either on the narratives that make him an Islamic terrorist or, on the other hand, make him an Islamic victim of American abuse, I'd like to look at Hasan as a Muslim amongst fellow Muslims, and how he appears to have reconciled or failed to reconcile this with his military commitments.

A classmate of Hasan apparently spoke of him as "a Muslim first and an American second." I took it that the classmate thought such a prioritization was problematic, though it seems exactly the right way around to me. I'm certainly a Christian first and an American second, and it strikes me as rather dangerous for any religious person to consider their political commitments as more central than their faith commitments.

There have also been many cries of "the Army should have never let this guy in!", or "the Army should have kicked this guy out!" ...which again strikes me as odd. It seems that Hasan was trying with all his might to get out. Without at all attempting to offer a justification for the murders he committed, Hasan doesn't seem to have been an embedded violent plotter, and insofar as he was unstable or dangerous, one can't ignore the fact that he was trying his darndest to voice his concerns and leave a situation of which he disapproved.

One explanation of Hasan's objection to the Iraq War and his own pending deployment was that he did not want to have the blood of fellow Muslims on his hands, and this stands at the heart of what I want to consider. It strikes me that potential violence against co-religionists is an eminently defensible basis for selective conscientious objection to a war.

I am not especially knowledgeable of the legal aspects of objection to military service, or the current status of selective objection. John Courtney Murray spoke on the matter during the Vietnam War, and offers some good considerations of the importance of selective objection, the difficulties that are introduced by it, and its relationship to just war doctrine.

I think that the assumptions of Hasan's classmate-- that it's a matter of concern for someone to be religious first and patriotic second-- is one major reason why it's odd for us to even consider possible violence against one's religious fellows as a viable basis for objection to military service. Perhaps we are too used to military conflicts between nation states with large Christian populations on either side to think about warmaking or nation-state composition in these terms. Certainly now that we're engaged in a "war on terror," it's difficult to entertain most any reflection of religious commitment as superseding political commitment as an ordering structure for civic life. But I think this is a dangerous and limiting constraint on our political imagination. For all the talk of "radicalizing" factors in religious communities, what has probably done the most to radicalize elements of modern social life is our inability to balance different commitments as reasonable partakers in the moral life of people. While Hasan's crime is certainly not excused by his constant pleas to be excused from a commitment which was a grave moral hazard in his eyes, it is certainly worth considering whether a receptive response to these concerns might have prevented the tragedy that ended up unfolding. On a broader scale, such considerations might have helped us think through our warmaking policy, which has tended to dance rather awkwardly on the razor sharp line that winds between and across religious and secular politics.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Alexander Hamitlon Hip-Hop Tribute

Lin-Manuel Miranda does a hip-hop tribute to Alexander Hamilton. Really good. You can't grow up in Virginia and not have some critiques of Hamilton, but he gets way more crap than he deserves. I'm a fan.

What I like most about the song is that it really focuses on his life. Too many rehashes of Hamilton focus on his ideas, many of which had a great deal of merit and many of which didn't. But behind all that we forget what an extraordinary life he had, how hard he worked to achieve what he did, how hard he fought for American independence, and then for the Constitution, and how nothing in his life was just handed to him.

Mars for America's Future


"Our next generation must think boldly in terms of a goal for the space program: Mars for America's future... An American colony on a new world."- Buzz Aldrin

For some time now I've been deeply interested in the human future in space. It's not something I know about in any great detail; I'm not one of those people that knows NASA history like the back of my hand, and I'm not a Trekkie. But I am deeply inspired by the history of human space exploration that I do know. Even more central to my interest, as a social scientist I'm inspired by thinking about the prospects for human progress. Markets, political liberalism, and technological innovation have rapidly lifted humans from being sedentary, impoverished, unhealthy, short-lived (albeit quite intelligent, thoughtful, and artistic) animals to new heights of civilization, sophistication, distinction, and promise. When you are on an exponential trajectory like that your thoughts quickly turn to the future and how much better it will be tomorrow. I think Mars is going to play a large role in that future, and I want to use this post as an opportunity to sketch out a few thoughts about (1.) what is this future? (2.) why Mars? (3.) why is this so important to pursue as soon as possible?

Our Interplanetary Destiny. It's hard to provide strong evidence for a forecast like this, but I think it should be clear that the human race has an interplanetary destiny. Perhaps eventually an interstellar or even an intergalactic destiny, but for now let's just stay with interplanetary. Our population has grown at an exponential rate in the last several centuries, and population growth has been accompanied by technological development. The technological development we've experienced has two primary effects on our interplanetary prospects: (1.) we've made mass destruction of human populations more likely, and (2.) we've repealed many of the constraints on normal species population dynamics by using technology to both eliminate threats to human existence and maximize the efficiency with which we use the resources we need for survival. In other words, our technological development has made it quite possible that our exponential population growth may not level off, at the same time that we've developed the means to kill millions of people, and an industrial economy that risks turning our own planet into an environment more hostile to human habitation. Stephen Hawking has cited many of these pressures and threats in his recent call to colonize space. He suggests that "our only chance of long term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space."

Why Mars? As Robert Zubrin has remarked, "Mars is where the future is. Mars is the closest planet to the Earth that has on it all the resources necessary to support life and therefore technological civilization. It has water; it has carbon; it has nitrogens; it has a twenty four hour day; it has a complex geological history that has created mineral ore; it has sources of geothermal energy. Mars is a place we can settle." Mars also has higher gravity than the Moon, another option for a space colony that is mentioned. It provides closer access to the asteroid belt which may be an important mining resource in the future. It provides the best prospect for terraforming, which will be necessary for the development of human civilization.

Why a public initiative? John Stuart Mill, an important 19th century economist and philosopher, wrote about the necessity of the role of the state in colonial enterprises. He wrote:

"If it is desirable, as no one will deny it to be, that the planting of colonies should be conducted, not with an exclusive view to the private interests of the first founders, but with a deliberate regard to the permanent welfare of the nations afterwards to arise from these small beginnings; such regard can only be secured by placing the enterprise, from its commencement, under regulations constructed with the foresight and enlarged views of philosophical legislators; and the government alone has power either to frame such regulations, or to enforce their observance."

While private interests will certainly play a part in the colonization of Mars, the greatest benefits of a Martian colony will accrue to our descendants, generations after we are dead; generations that will build a new, permanent human civilization on the Martian surface. I have a great deal of respect for the market, but market action relies on the pursuit of self-interest, not the interest of future generations and certainly not the interest of generations in the far distant future. In this sense, the market is extremely conservative, and it will overlook and ignore the pursuit of unprecedented benefits because they are not immediate benefits. State action obviously introduces a host of new efficiency problems, but it is preferable to relying on a market that has no way internalizing the benefits of a Martian colony. There is also a moral advantage to state-led colonialism on Mars, compared to all other colonial ventures in the past. Mars, for all intents and purposes, is lifeless. We may potentially find some algae or lichen, but nothing that will introduce a great moral dilemma. Mill's insistence that "philosophical legislators" would have the "foresight and enlarged views" to prosecute a colonial venture makes us cringe now, because we know about the colonial ventures of Great Britain during Mill's lifetime. But that oversight on Mill's part isn't relevant for Mars - and the remaining portion of the argument - that the state is best suited to have "a deliberate regard to the permanent welfare of the nations afterwards to arise from these small beginnings" is still valid.

Why an American colony?
The Buzz Aldrin quote that initiated this post specifically spoke of an American colony on Mars, and I strongly agree with him. But why? Why bring 20th century nationalism into the 21st and 22nd century? To be honest, I think nationalism will inevitably be downplayed in the 21st and 22nd century anyway, but I still think that it is important for America to make the first move. The world is integrating, and I think this integration is as inevitable as our interplanetary destiny. Given our advances in transportation and communication technology, our recent embrace of the idea of universal rights, the indisputable economic benefits of openness, and the clear record of nationalism in producing horrifically bloody conflict, I think the inertia behind globalism is tremendous. But who will define this new world order? It largely depends on when you think that world order will emerge. If it happens in the next several years, it is likely that the U.S. will shape and define it. If we wait even just another decade, it will be the U.S. in partnership with Europe. Wait longer than that and China, India, Russia, or even Brazil will play a larger role. I think each of these partners - even China and Russia - will come to the table in good faith. But just because they come in good faith doesn't mean they won't have a fundamentally different view of what life on Earth should be like. The new world order must be a liberal world order, and ideally a constitutional liberal world order, and the United States must lead the effort if we want to guarantee that.

The same is true of life on Mars. The antecedents of Martian civilization will play a major role in determining the nature of Martian civilization, and an American initiation will guarantee the promotion of American values. In perhaps two centuries (closer to our time now than we are to the American Revolution), I think we'll probably have a functional society on both Mars and Earth, as well as functional communities in space stations in between the two, and we'll probably have a single federated government. It might not happen, but I think it's quite likely. We need to concern ourselves with what that civilization will be like. If Washington and Jefferson hadn't concerned themselves with what the American civilization would be like two hundred years in the future, we would not be enjoying the life we have today. This is why I'm cautiously open to ideas like a global reserve currency, and a global government, not to mention the rapid establishment of a colony on Mars. America may get a second wind, but it may not. This is our time to shape these institutions, and I think it would leave an awful legacy if we squandered that opportunity. We have something important to offer the world.

Our Earthly Future

Daniel has a lot in this post, and I won't be responding to all of it. I knew that this topic would be coming since last spring, and it's something that Daniel has talked often about. I'm a bit more skeptical, but I don't want to be so in a reactionary sense. I don't doubt our capabilities of doing something on this level, and I think Daniel is correct in pointing out the limiting factors of this initiative: it's obvious when reading about NASA and its funding that what is lacking is a near-term sense of incentive, and this has worked to prevent more far-reaching and visionary approaches to space work. I imagine Daniel is correct, that this is the direction in which we will eventually move. I don't know if that means colonies on Mars, but it certainly means more than just life on Earth.

I wonder about some characterizations of our past and possible future made by Daniel. The main concern is exponential human growth and the dangers presented by globalization and technological development. This seems reasonable enough, and I think Hawking's call to move up and move out is only natural. But the shift in argument necessary for colonization in space seems awkward to me. In other situations, Daniel (and I) have argued that human development, while creating problems, has also created the means with which to deal with these problems. A good chunk of our recent posts about agriculture has been centered around technological development that would allow for smart farming and green approaches without starting from scratch in the more primitivist sense. Colonizing Mars, while certainly making use of the best and most efficient of our technologies, seems in a more philosophical sense to be an abandonment: a starting from scratch in the more primitivist sense. Or at least this seems to be what it becomes if we justify it by means of the unsustainability of life on Earth.

If exploration and colonization of space is simply a solution to earthly problems, I don't think that it's justified. If we can establish communities on Mars, then surely we possess the resources to tackle global warming, or inadequate food distribution, or political conflict, or ecosystem destruction. If anything, what is unreasonable is to think that going to a planet where we would need to terraform, technologically adapt to atmospheric, gravitational, and temperature inadequacies, and sustain ourselves in a situation absent any other species save those we bring with us (or, sure, maybe a few as-yet-undetected Martian molds and spores)... if anything all of this strikes me as an insurmountable obstacle. I don't see how colonization would be anything more than groups of humans living in bubbles, living off of material resources transported from earth. In which case, why not direct our attention to life here?

All that said, I'm not against further space exploration and poking around on other planets, or even establishing permanent communities elsewhere. But as I see it, any colony will need an umbilical cord to Earth, which raises the question of why these resources can't be directed to Earth itself (it also raises the question of why the dangers of self-annihilation that Daniel brings up couldn't also presumably extend to Mars or elsewhere).

If we're going to colonize, that is, we shouldn't do so as if we're pilgrims, with escape as our motivation. Nor should we act as if where we're going would be some bountiful New World. It will be a barren home, and as far as I can tell we'd just be moving the bump in the rug. Not only that, we'd be directing valuable energy, technology, and effort into moving that particular bump, when such resources could be used elsewhere. Like here on Earth.