Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thinking About Bomb Plots

Like other Corvallis residents, I was startled to read the headline in Saturday’s GT: “OSU student arrested in bomb plot.” Also like other Corvallis residents, I hope that people here and elsewhere will not jump to conclusions about Muslims in general from the fact that Mohamed Osman Mohamud styles himself a Muslim.

My personal experiences with Muslims have been positive. I remember with particular fondness one of my students at Adrian College who, although an American by birth, had grown up in Lebanon during the civil war there, and then returned to the U.S. with her parents. And over the years several Muslims were fine faculty colleagues in our college, which was founded by Methodists and is still affiliated with that church.

This said, I find it disturbing that even a few individuals of any faith can become so obsessed with political or religious abstractions that they take actions which are intentionally devastating to fellow human beings.

When I was a student at Willamette University in the 1950s, a political science professor told us that the only way Republicans could win Multnomah Country would be to shut down the Portland telephone system on election day. He thought that Republicans would probably vote anyhow, but Democrats needed to phone people who hadn’t voted and offer to drive them to the polling places.

Since I was a Republican back then I figured out two different ways to shut down the telephone system. I am afraid that one of them, however, was not very practical. It involved hijacking an atomic submarine from the U.S. Navy, running it up the Columbia to Portland, plugging the output from its reactor into the local phone network, and then revving the reactor up to full power and burning out all the telephone circuits.

The other approach, which I won’t disclose for fear someone might actually try it, would have been easy to do. But once I considered the side effects of shutting down the Portland phone network, the idea lost its charm for me, as I think it would for most people. It would have been nice to have the Republicans take Multnomah County. But what about people who couldn’t call the fire department about a house fire? Or those who couldn’t call an ambulance for a heart attack?

Defensible ethical generalizations are hard to come by, but I think there are two such generalizations that apply both to my own case and to Mohamed Osman Mohamud:

First, in a fully civilized world children must be brought up to think concretely about all of the consequences their actions will produce and to evaluate their actions in terms of the Golden Rule (which has analogies in many religions).

Second, no religion can be all good that tolerates any of its members bringing up children to hate people of other races, nationalities, or religions. Islam is not alone in suffering from this imperfection; it has Christian brethren.

Members of an Islamic peace group were handing out leaflets protesting terrorism to the crowd awaiting the Christmas tree lighting in Portland Friday. Ironically, if the bomb had worked, a number of Muslims would have been among the dead and injured, just as a number of Muslim workers were killed when the World Trade Center towers fell.

Clearly, the world is not yet fully civilized. We should avoid reacting to situations like that in Portland in ways that make it even less civilized.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Discussion of what to do about our government’s looming financial catastrophe has become really interesting. It is increasingly obvious that disaster cannot be avoided if we continue political business as usual.

As Rand Paul has warned, our national debt is growing so fast that the interest paid on that debt will be bigger than our annual defense budget within a handful of years. This would obviously be intolerable. But when presidential commission co-chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles pointed out the tax increases and expenditure reductions necessary to reduce the annual deficit to a manageable 2% of the GDP, politicians all over the spectrum angrily declared the proposals dead on arrival.

David Brooks probably is right: without dramatic public opinion changes, Congress won’t dare to enact the changes proposed by Simpson and Bowles. Some congressmen might be willing to save the country even though it is political suicide for them personally. But a majority would not be willing, so these individuals won’t speak up since their suicides would serve no purpose.

The only person whose political suicide could save us is, therefore, President Obama. A proposal put forward recently by David Stockman suggests how the President could save the country without any cooperation from Congress. Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, says that all of the Bush era tax reductions should be allowed to expire, not just the reductions for upper income people.

This would put taxes back where they were during the prosperous Clinton years and bring in huge amounts of extra revenue. Any short run harm to the economy, which various interests always exaggerate, would be outweighed by renewed confidence in the dollar and in the stability of our system.

Since the Bush tax cuts expire automatically on December 31, this fix would require no action by Congress. If Congress couldn’t resist extending some of the tax cuts, Obama could implement Stockman’s proposal by vetoing this legislation. He would then go on TV with a candid analysis of the disaster facing us if he didn’t veto the bill. He could point out that he is not increasing taxes in violation of his pledge, since the increase resulted from the expiration written into the law by an earlier, Republican congress. The key paragraph in his speech would be something along these lines:

“I am aware that by vetoing this bill I am probably signing my own political death warrant for 2012. But it is absolutely necessary for the general welfare. My sacrifice will be a small one compared to those made by our brave men and women serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Of course Congress might override the veto. But the President could head this off by promising that if this veto is overridden (which would require bipartisan support) he and Vice President Biden will resign. They would not be willing to assume responsibility for the financial disasters that would then be inevitable. Since this would propel House Speaker John Boehner, Republican, into the White House, this should have a calming effect on Obama’s fellow Democrats.

Stockman’s proposal does not reduce government expenditures. But it increases revenues so much that smaller reductions in expenditures than those contemplated by Simpson and Bowles could put government finances on a solid footing. Given the new Republican majority in the House such modest reductions might be politically feasible.