Saturday, August 28, 2010

Has New York Mayor Bloomberg shown integrity over the Ground Zero Mosque?

Has New York Mayor Bloomberg shown integrity over how he has handled the alleged Ground Zero Mosque? I watched the video for his speech, made on Governor's Island with the Statue of Liberty in the background. It was a great speech, from my point of view, but you can never tell a politician's true beliefs or true intentions from their words. I think he is sincere, but who can ever be sure. He has so far been consistent in his words since then. Personally, I would definitely say that Bloomberg "has integrity." What does that mean? In this case, in this situation, it means standing up for principle (freedom of religion, et al) and being consistent about it with words and deeds. Bloomberg is very concerned about "community", but with an emphasis on encouraging the "good" forces in the community rather than trying to appease and bow to the ugly voices of mob behavior, cynicism, and ignorance. The fact that some people may be displeased or even angry with his "position" is not an indicator of lack of integrity. The fact that Sarah Palin and Glen Beck are unhappy about his position is not an indicator of a lack of integrity. So called "sensitivity" is not an indicator of lack of integrity. In fact, I would say that the willingness of a politician to take an unpopular position (judging from the polls, both locally and nationally) is a really good indicator that he has a strong sense of integrity, a will to "do what's right" even if it is unpopular.

All of that said, Bloomberg is being very pragmatic, or "merely" pragmatic if your wish. New York is suffering greatly in this weak economy, especially downtown. Despite the "health" of "Wall Street", much of downtown is not doing so well, including areas not so far from the World Trade Center site. If you were to walk by the proposed site of the Islamic community center, you would see how run-down the building is and ask yourself why it isn't being condemned and torn down. ANYBODY who intends to replace that dilapidated building with ANYTHING new should be applauded. ANY new building there would be a benefit to the economic future of downtown. As it has turned out, NOBODY else wanted the building, NOBODY else has wanted to build there, and NOBODY else has stepped up and proposed an alternative project for spending a big pile of money on that location which would benefit the downtown economy. From a practical economic perspective the mayor would be an IDIOT for turning down or in any way discouraging ANY economic development of that location, regardless of the purpose. My point is simply that Mayor Bloomberg does have "practical" reasons for support the project, even if he is also taking a principled stand. But... either way, he is exhibiting integrity. Helping to rebuild the economy of New York is a difficult effort and dedication to that effort is also something that requires... integrity.

In short, Mayor Bloomberg has shown significant integrity over the Grand Zero Mosque issue. In fact, I can't think of a single politician who has shown more integrity over this issue. He was right there, front and center, from the get-go, and his position was as solid as a rock.

-- Jack Krupansky

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Just say "No" to right-wing bullying when rights are at stake

The "debate" over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque continues, with rationales flying on both sides, but the real bottom line is that the driving force here is an attempt by right-wingers to bully the rest of America into giving up its civil rights in favor of right-wing views on what our rights should be. This is bullying by the right-wingers, plain and simple. Our response should not be to try to reason rationally with them, but to simply call them out and say "No", that we won't allow them to bully us into giving up our rights. When rights are at stake, so-called "sensitivity" is a non-issue, plain and simple.

-- Jack Krupansky

How does one go about calculating the right size for government?

There is plenty of chatter about whether and how to cut the federal budget to reduce if not eliminate the federal budget deficit, but nobody is raising, let alone addressing the key question of how exactly should we be calculating the optimal size for the federal budget or even the size of the federal government itself. And this is just a fraction of the overall problem of grappling with overall government, including state and local government. I think most people are willing to accept that during a crisis, economic or otherwise, it is temporarily okay to run a federal budget deficit, even a significant budget deficit, until the crisis passes to moderate the crisis itself, to moderate the impact of the effects of the crisis and to help accelerate recovery from the crisis. Judging the acceptable size of a short-term budget overrun is hard enough, but at the same time we need to remain cognizant of managing the underlying non-crisis bulk of the budget and size of government itself so that once the crisis passes we will find ourselves back "on budget."

One key problem is that a good fraction of the growth of the economy over the previous decade was basically "fake" in the sense of based on unsustainable finance and business practices which led to the recent crisis, such as companies that would not even exist if credit hadn't been so cheap and readily available. Government itself grew in response to the economy growing, but now that we have "reset" the economy to be more sustainable (with more work still to do), we need to consider how to "reset" government itself. This means we need an extensive and open debate in two areas: 1) how much and how to shrink the baseline size of the federal government to reflect a sustainable growth rate (once all current artificial stimulus is removed), and 2) what areas of government actually need to be beefed up and by how much to assure "good governance" that will avoid a repeat of the difficulties of the past decade.

Ultimately, the key question is what level of "services" does the government need to provide to society to assure that public safety, civil rights, and economic security are "protected." This depends on also answering the questions of what roles and responsibilities should be played by individuals, families, local and state governments, businesses, and private organizations. And of course we have the issue of what the federal government needs to do as opposed to state and local governments.

Maintaining the status quo is always a bad answer, especially in a society and economic system that is growing and as dynamic as ours. As a trivial question, if population grows by X% and GDP grows by Y%, what Z% should government grow by? I have seen nobody even begin to address these types of questions.

I am not ready to propose answers here because to me the first step is that we have to get the questions right. If we as a society cannot even agree on what the "right" questions, agreement on the answers is moot.

To put the question simply, if you didn't know the size of the federal government and its budget, how would you go about calculating what size both should be?

-- Jack Krupansky

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Is the so-called Ground Zero mosque really "insensitive"?

There has been quite a bit of chatter that somehow the location of an Islamic community center two blocks from the World Trade Center site is "insensitive" to the families of those killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Congressional Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. on CNN's State of The Union addressed that issue squarely, as reported by USA Today:

As much as I respect the sensitivities of people, there is a fundamental mistake behind it ... The fallacy is that Al Qaida attacked us -- Islam did not attack us ... It is only insensitive if you regard Islam as the culprit, as opposed to Al Qaida as the culprit..

My point exactly.

Somehow, a lot of people out there have misguidedly confused themselves into believing that Islam and the Islamic world attacked us on 9/11. There is no compelling factual basis for such a belief. So, we are faced with the fact that those who rant about "insensitivity" are in fact more interested in promoting and inciting a crusade against Islam than being honest about who perpetrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Or, in some cases, they are mere opportunists who have latched onto a wedge issue that they can exploit for personal gain.

The 9/11 attacks were almost nine years ago, so there has been more than ample passage of time for the families of the victims to grieve and get over their loss and move on with their lives. Sure, in the first couple of years after the event it was quite appropriate to give them space and cut them some slack, but what we are seeing now is raw, naked exploitation by some of these people and the people who pander to them. 9/11 is now a page of history, not a current event that people should be obsessing over. It really is time for these people to move on with their lives. Those who continue to obsess after all of these years are dysfunctional or opportunists and either need professional counseling or simply need to be called out for their misguided actions.

In short, there was in fact a time for sensitivity, but that time is long past and everybody should be moving on with their lives. The only sensitivity needed now is to be sensitive to trying to creative a new and better future for all. We need to call out and say "No" to any and all pandering of or to those misguided individuals and groups who see Islam as the culprit, especially those seeking to hide their anti-Islamic agenda behind alleged "sensitivities" of families of the victims.

So, superficially the location of the Islamic community center may appear to be insensitive when framed improperly as some are doing, below the surface there is no significant issue of insensitivity that any of us needs to be beholding to.

-- Jack Krupansky

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Is the so-called Ground Zero mosque really such a bad thing?

The so-called "Ground Zero mosque" is not at all "on" or "at" or even next to the World Trade Center site. It's two blocks northeast of the site and not even visible from most of the site. The vicinity of the WTC site is not a "cemetery" (although there is an old cemetery and Church to the east of the site.) Sure, it's fine to have a memorial to 9/11, and the site design includes such a memorial (the two tower footprints), but it is too much of a stretch to consider the entire WTC site, let alone the surrounding blocks as so-called "hallowed ground." It It has been almost nine years since 9/11, so I think the time for grieving is long past and it is time for everyone, including families of the victims of 9/11 to move on and get on with their own lives. There is no non-political benefit to obsessing on 9/11 or the lives lost any further. Sure, there are plenty of politicians and special interest groups and fear-mongerers of all stripes who will seek to milk the event for as long as they can, but we do need to say No to all of them, including the families of 9/11 victims, but especially to the fear-mongerers. The proposed Islamic community center and mosque in downtown Manhattan is a perfectly reasonable effort to bridge religious and cultural gaps.

Besides, the entire downtown area of Manhattan is still suffering from economic decline, so every dollar of incoming investment should be welcomed. The site of the proposed center, formerly the Burlington Coat Factory, has been unused for quite some time. Rehabilitation of that block would be most welcome by New Yorkers who frequent the downtown area, including myself.

I surmise that there may in fact be a few 9/11 families that may be hurt by the center, but there is no evidence presented that any great harm would result, while there is every reason to believe that such a center would be a net positive for society.

The fact that the Landmark Commission voted 9-0 (yes, that's a zero) to allow the project to go forward even in such a politically-charged environment is a good sign that maybe New York City is finally able to "turn the page" and move on from 9/11 and not have 9/11 hung around its neck like an albatross.

The sad thing about this episode is that it highlights the extent to which there is a sizable number of people who are really on a passionate anti-Islam crusade. Some are sleazy and hide behind the veil of protecting 9/11 families, but many are outright public about their fear and hatred of Islam and a belief that only harm can come from any accommodation of Islam. We do need to say No to them, and quite strongly.

It is a big relief to see some public officials finally saying No to the fear-mongerers. Kudos to Mayor Bloomberg for saying Yes to the proposed center.

-- Jack Krupansky

Monday, August 02, 2010

Should we lose any sleep worrying about the nuclear ambitions of Iran?

The "official" position of the U.S. government and various European governments is that Iran is "intent" on developing nuclear weapons, notwithstanding the simple fact that they have only a circumstantial case and little in the way of hard evidence that Iran's "nuclear ambitions" extend to developing nuclear weapons. In fact, other than the fact that Iran has a uranium enrichment capability, the U.S. and friends have something close to zero in the way of hard evidence of a credible Iranian nuclear weapons program. The "case" against Iran smacks of the case that the U.S. had against Iraq, or thought they had, or claimed they had. You'd think they would have learned. Or, maybe they did. Maybe the case against Iraq was really just a stalking horse, an indirect casus belli (cause for war) that didn't have to be true, just emotionally believable and viable as a means to get to war rather than a desire for enlightenment and a path to truth. Maybe that is exactly what is happening here with Iran as well. Sure, we don't have Neo-conservative Republicans leading the charge, but you still have a lot of politicians financially beholding to the so-called Pro-Israel lobby (Hillary and Barack among them.) In any case, the bottom line remains, as with Iraq, that there is no clear-cut case for believing that Iran is on a path to developing nuclear weapons. Yes, you can sleep well at night.

The first big problem is that the fear-mongerers have a field day by exploiting the ambiguity of the term "nuclear ambitions". The term includes both peaceful non-weapons programs and military weapons programs. By raising the term based on the fact of Iran's nuclear energy efforts, the fear-mongerers exploit the ambiguity and use it to allude to weapons when the facts do not support a weapons program.

Some argue that Iran has oil so it has no need for nuclear energy, but regardless of whether you believe in Peak Oil and Global Warming, oil is still a non-viable option for betting the energy future of any country, including Iran. Besides, crude oil is a great source of foreign exchange, so burning oil internally is not a preferable economic alternative.

Some argue that Iran should accept limits on uranium enrichment and contract out enrichment to other countries. That is fine as far as it goes, but violates Iran's sovereignty and puts Iran at risk of being subject to the whim of foreign powers, which is a non-starter given the record of Europe and the U.S. in the region. There is nothing a priori evil or sinister with Iran wanting to do its own enrichment and being in full control of the nuclear fuel cycle.

Some argue that once you get to 20% enrichment of uranium that it is "easy" to go all the way to 90% weapons-grade, but there is no factual basis for that claim. And, most important, no evidence of any Iranian intention to do so.

The most recent National Intelligence Estimate for Iran and its nuclear ambitions back in 2007 pulled the rug out from under the fear-mongerers by concluding that "we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons." Since the resultant firestorm of criticism by the fear-mongerers, the U.S. government has adopted a political conclusion rather than an intelligence assessment conclusion that Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons, despite the fact that they lack hard evidence. Earlier this year people were awaiting the imminent release of a revised intelligence estimate that was expected to come down on Iran more harshly, but here we are six months later and still no new assessment. So, the 2007 assessment still holds, despite the political calculation.

So, despite the fact that there is no imminent threat from Iran on the nuclear weapons front, the U.S. politically "needs" to act as if there were. In other words there is a "gap" between reality and the political view espoused by the fear-mongerers who hold the politicians and hence the government captive.

As far as I can tell the real focus of these nuclear fear-mongering efforts is a belief that Iran will attack Israel or give nukes to terrorists. There is zero evidence to support either misguided belief.

Although much gets made of the animosity between Israel and Iran, including alleged quotes about "wipe Israel off the map" and "death to Israel", all of this need to be put in the context of the fact that Israel is still not recognized by a number of countries in the region and heated rhetoric is rarely indicative of true intentions. Iran has indicated that they would intend to retaliate if attacked first by Israel, but that is hardly the same as a direct threat against Israel. The reference to wiping off the map is more a matter of who nominally occupies Jerusalem, which is a matter of international dispute even absent Iran. In short, the fear-mongerers are over-reading a few rhetorical flourishes. Absent their over-reading, there is zero evidence that Iran seeks to attack Israel in a forceful manner with or without nuclear weapons.

Fear-mongerers also make too big a deal of Iran's support for Hamas and Hezbollah and their lame efforts to attack Israel with rockets. Those attacks amount to little more than harassment, with damage to property and loss of life still rather limited compared to a vigorous military campaign. To suggest that they somehow represent what Iran would do if they had nuclear weapons is a very unwarranted extrapolation based on zero evidence. The fear of the fear-mongerers is nothing but conjecture, fiction, fantasy, and fabrication.

In truth, Iran is a sovereign nation and every sovereign nation has the right to decide for itself whether it wishes to develop a nuclear weapons capability. That includes Iran. They do have a right to develop nuclear weapons if they should so choose. They do have various international treaty obligations, but those are essentially technical details rather than an obstacle in principle.

Even if Iran did pursue and fulfill a full-blown nuclear weapons development program, there is still little in the way of hard evidence that Iran would use those weapons. That is no accident since nuclear weapons are primarily a deterrent. The fear-mongerers have no significant evidence on their side to support their claim that Iran would "use" nuclear weapons if they had them. Use as a deterrent, yes, but use to strike at Israel or the U.S. or whoever, no. But, as the lack of evidence shows, we are not even remotely closely to being there yet.

I am still waiting for the fear-mongerers to drag out the Goldwater/Rice argument that we shouldn't wait for the evidence of a mushroom cloud. That is fear-mongering and paranoia at its worst. Emotion rarely leads to a rational decision. Stick with facts, evidence, and reason.

In short, there is no good reason for any American citizen to lose even a single moment of sleep worrying about Iran and nuclear weapons. Just say No to the fearmongerers.

-- Jack Krupansky

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Should we lose any sleep worrying about terrorists with nuclear weapons and dirty bombs?

Since 9/11 there has been a lot of chatter about the risks of terrorists getting hold of nuclear weapons and so-called dirty bombs. Should we lose any sleep worrying such risks? In short, the answer is a very clear No. Yes, the government should and does take such risks seriously and should and has programs in place to minimize such risks, but there are three simple and compelling facts: 1) No terrorist has ever obtained let alone used a nuclear weapon or dirty bomb, 2) the technical complexity of do so is far greater than pundits and the media suggest, and 3) there is no evidence whatsoever that terrorists are making any progress on either front. Sure, terrorists may certainly want to obtain and use such weapons, but desire rarely leads to capability when dealing with such technical complexity. Yes, we expect our government to continue to be vigilant on this front, so there is no good reason for any American citizen to lose even a single moment of sleep worrying about terrorists and nuclear weapons and so-called dirty bombs. Just say No to the fearmongerers.

There has also been a lot of chatter suggesting that Iran would give nuclear weapons to terrorists if they had them. That is a ridiculous assertion. First there is no evidence to suggest that the assertion might be valid. Even North Korea has not given or sold nuclear technology to terrorists. It is extremely unlikely, virtually certainly unlikely that Iran would give nuclear weapons to terrorists. Sure, Iran finds Hamas and Hezbollah useful tools of foreign policy, but there would be no possible benefit to Iran of risking the wrath of the U.S. or Israel with the clumsy use of a nuclear weapon by a typical terrorist group. The "mullahs" of Iran may seem inscrutable to many naive people in the U.S., but they are certainly not as mindless and stupid as the fearmongerers are suggesting. In fact, the available evidence indicates that they are quite pragmatic. Finally, there is zero evidence that Iran has even ever contemplated taking such an action. Is is fiction and fantasy and fabrication of those who seek to incite conflict with Iran. Once again, there is no good reason for any American citizen to lose even a single moment of sleep worrying about Iran providing terrorists with nuclear weapons and so-called dirty bombs. Again, just say No to the fearmongerers.

Is it hypothetically possible that terrorists could obtain nuclear weapons or dirty bombs? Yes, it is hypothetically possible, but extremely unlikely. Those of us who are pragmatic base our thinking and decisions on what is likely, not what is hypothetically possible in the extreme case. That is one of the purposes of government in the pragmatic worldview, to design and implement pragmatic programs to cover extreme cases so that citizens need not worry about them and can sleep at night. How effective are such government programs? Well, the available evidence is that they are extremely effective, with a failure rate to-date of... zero.

-- Jack Krupansky