Rationalizing the ratio

Often, as we’ve noted before, columnists eschew careful argument altogether preferring textbook rhetoric to assert and bolster a basic claim. Krauthammer’s column today fits this bill. “Disproportionate in What Moral Universe? rejects the claims that the Israeli response to the recent Hezbollah initiated conflict is “disproportionate.”

In just war theory it is a proportionality between the use of force and the end that is being achieved by the use of force (and not “tit for tat”). It’s not clear that Krauthammer has this notion in mind. He seems to equivocate on the notion of proportionality throughout his column. Generally he suggests that the Israeli response is not out of proportion to the Hezbollah attacks:

In perhaps the most blatant terror campaign from the air since the London Blitz, Hezbollah is raining rockets on Israeli cities and villages. These rockets are packed with ball bearings that can penetrate automobiles and shred human flesh. They are meant to kill and maim. And they do.

Israel’s response to Hezbollah has been to use the most precise weaponry and targeting it can. It has no interest, no desire to kill Lebanese civilians. Does anyone imagine that it could not have leveled south Lebanon, to say nothing of Beirut

But, the notion of proportionality should be sought between the end and the means:

On Wednesday CNN cameras showed destruction in Tyre. What does Israel have against Tyre and its inhabitants? Nothing. But the long-range Hezbollah rockets that have been raining terror on Haifa are based in Tyre. What is Israel to do? Leave untouched the launch sites that are deliberately placed in built-up areas?

The end that the Israeli government offers is the safety of its citizens achieved by disarming/weakening Hezbollah and creating a buffer zone in southern Lebanon. Proportionality thus requires that the force used is in proportion to the effect desired. Another way of expressing this would be to say that the military means should be enough to effect this goal without causing additional destruction or damage. If they destroy more than is needed to effect the goal, then the case that their war is just will be undermined.

The claims of “disproportionate” response arise because it seems very likely that Israel is targeting sites outside of southern lebanon and with not obvious connections to Hezbollah (relief trucks, Lebanese military bases, UN observer posts, communication resources, infrastructure, etc.) In addition they are targeting areas where there is “support” for Hezbollah resulting in civilian casualties. The Israeli government would claim that Hezbollah is using civilian populations as “human shields.” (Salon has an interesting piece claiming that Hezbollah militants mistrust civilian populations here).

But while granting that the Israeli government has the right to respond to the attacks and eliminate the threat of future attacks by Hezbollah, critics are arguing that many of the targets are spurious for these goals. We can’t evaluate the truth of that claim here. But the burden of proof lies with the perpetrator of the acts and such proof is not provided by Krauthammer’s vague and unsupported claims about legimate targets and military necessities.

Nevertheless, whether this is true or not, Krauthammer does not address the real question of whether targeting Lebanese army bases and relief trucks is justified by the proportionality requirement. Instead he equivocates between two senses of proportionality, with an excessive rhetoric that would justify virtually any act of violence committed in the Israeli attack.

Not even counting the dichotomy. . ..

We’ve left David Brooks alone for a while now, ever since the NYT decided that their op-ed columnists could generate revenue. But I’ll return to Brooks, with apologies for the impossibility of linking to the whole editorial.

As our readers know, Brooks has probably never thought up an over-simplifying sociological dichotomy that he wasn’t impressed with and convinced contained profound insights into politics and society.

In the world of public policy, there are ecologists and engineers. The ecologists believe human beings are formed amid a web of relationships. Behavior is shaped by the weave of expectations and motivations that we pick up from the people around us every day.

In contrast there are “engineers” who believe that rational behavior can be effected through offering incentives. This dichotomy like most of Brooks’ simplifications conceals more than it reveals. One suspects that most people are more like ecological engineers. But, we won’t even count the irrelevant dichotomy in his column.

Nevertheless, the object of Brook’s column is a Democratic Leadership Council plan to increase the financial resources available for College. This he claims ignores the ecology of college graduation.

A case in point: Over the past three decades there has been a gigantic effort to increase the share of Americans who graduate from college. The federal government has spent roughly $750 billion on financial aid. Yet the percentage of Americans who graduate has barely budged. The number of Americans who drop out of college leaps from year to year.

So, according to Brooks the percentage of students who graduate has barely budged and the number of College drop outs has increased, despite spending three quarters of a trillion dollars! What’s going on here?

For one thing, the number of college graduates has increased dramatically over the “past three decades.” (US Department of Education claims 5.8 million full time students in 1970 and around 10 million in 2005). So the really significant number is not the graduation rate but the number of college graduates. Thirty years ago only 47% of high school graduates attended college. In the mid-90’s it was around 66%. In addition the percentage of Americans in the workforce with a Bachelor’s degree has increased in the past ten years from 26% to 33%.

Brooks seems to be doing some fairly standard manipulation of statistics to suggest that 750 billion of tax payer money has not had any significant benefit. He may be correct. But the picture is far more complicated than he admits and his argument for this conclusion is extremely weak. We would probably call this “suppressed evidence.”

Second, it isn’t entirely clear that financial aid is thought to have such a simple relationship to graduation rates. Financial resources are obviously a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition of college graduation. The question that we would need to ask is not whether financial aid has increased the graduation rate, but whether it is affected the graduation rate. Perhaps, and indeed, quite plausibliy, without that 750 billion in financial aid many more students would not have considered attending college, or the drop-out rate might have increased.

The only evidence that Brooks offers against this is the claim that only 8% of students are “driven away by purely financial reasons.” I’m not familiar with this research, but it strikes me that “financial reasons” are rarely “purely” the cause, since struggling with finances have many other effects for students.

But as an “ecologist,” Brooks thinks that providing financial assistance for college is a insufficient condition for affecting college graduation rates.

You have to promote two-parent stable homes so children can develop the self-control they need for school success. You have to fundamentally reform schools. You have to expand church- and university-sponsored mentoring programs and support groups. As Caroline Hoxby of Harvard notes, you have to surround students with people who will help them make informed decisions so they can attend a college they find useful.

Perhaps that is so. But the impression that the only thing the DLC’s proposal amounts to is throwing money at the middle class to buy votes is a gross oversimplification of the problems of rising costs of higher education.

A little analysis is a dangerous thing

**Vacation is upon us, so this will be the last post until sometime after August 5th.**

That said, let’s have some fun with some academic style strawmanning. What’s that? Well, that’s when you are purposely obtuse in reconstructing someone’s argument. I found this, by the way, when I directed to the National Review Online. Kids, if you want to see grown persons reason like children, go there.

But this argument appears in First Things. Here goes. First, the author cites a comment on Bush’s stem cell veto:

>In vetoing the bill that would have funded stem-cell research, President Bush invoked what he termed a “conflict between science and ethics.” But what, exactly, is the “ethical” side of this conflict? … What the president describes neutrally as “ethics” is simply his own, sectarian religious belief. … [I]n what sense is it “ethical” for Mr. Bush—acting as president of the United States—to place his own sectarian, religious belief above the convictions of a majority of the American people and a substantial majority of both the House of Representatives and the Senate? In my judgment, this is no different from the president vetoing a law providing a subsidy to pork producers because eating pork offends his religious faith. Such a veto is an unethical and illegitimate usurpation of state authority designed to impose on all of society a particular religious faith.

That’s Geoffrey Stone, professor of law at the University of Chicago. Read the rest here. Before we look at the comment, it’s fairly obvious that Stone is puzzled over Bush’s assertion that there’s a conflict between science and ethics. Stone does not claim that no such conflict exists, he just wonders what *Bush* means by “ethics” in this particular circumstance. The burden is on Bush to specify, he made the claim. If he did so somewhere in his veto statement, then Stone ought to find out. But that’s not the claim of the commenter.

He writes:

>There are a different ways to make this argument work logically, and Stone doesn’t specify the one on which he relies. One version might look like this:

>(1) There can exist no purely rational basis for rejecting the federal financing of embryonic stem-cell research, and

>(2) Ethics is by its nature a rational process. Therefore,

>(3) When the president used the word ethics, he was either ignorant of the word’s meaning or disingenuous, since

>(4) Lacking any ethical—which is to say, rational—grounds for rejecting the federal funding of this research, the president must have been relying on nonrational motives. Perhaps not all nonrational motives are constitutionally impermissible for a public official, but

>(5) Religious motives are an explicitly prohibited form of nonrationality, and

>(6) President Bush is known to be a strong believer in a religion that rejects the destruction of embryos for scientific research, which leads to the reasonable inference that his particular nonrational motives were, in this case, at least “unethical and illegitimate,” and probably unconstitutional.

It’s obvious that Stone doesn’t assert (1), he puzzles over Bush’s “rational basis” as he has offered none (that Stone has noticed). But it only gets worse: (2) isn’t claimed at all, and then it just gets snide. What we have here is obtuse reconstruction. Sure it looks nice–all layed out analytic style with numbers–but in its pseudo rigor it completely misses Stone’s point.

Stone asks the President to assert a justification beyond simple assertion of his own particular religious ethical prejudice for his veto. The principle of charity would tell you that Stone isn’t asserting bald majority rule in ethics (and besides, he clearly isn’t). He is asserting that one’s own religious feelings *alone* do not constitute sufficient grounds for exercising legal force over a majority in democracy.

So, Stone is not arguing for the following:

>Either way, Stone’s argument demands that religious believers prove, far beyond any other public actors, that their public acts derive from rational motives—and when their actions match the result that their faith seems to require, the result is, on its face, constitutionally suspect.

>The various pieces of this argument are odd, but it seems to me that one runs across them more and more: the assumption, for instance, that religion is inherently irrational, and the assertion that religious reasoning is incapable of arriving at an extra-religious result, and the postulate that a sectarian motive is inherently illegitimate in a democracy.

Stone’s argument asks that religious believers *who are public officials* not inflict without argument their beliefs on others without an argument. He is not claiming that religious belief is irrational. Or the extreme case that anything sectarian have no place in a democracy. It’s just not *sufficiently* rational to say “do this because I believe it’s right.”

New Rights

A new law makes it a federal crime to cross state lines to avoid abortion parental consent laws. In describing the motivation of his support of the bill, Mitch McConnell, republican senator from Kentucky, said:

>”No parent wants anyone to take their children across state lines or even across the street without their permission,” Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, a Republican of Kentucky, said. “*This is a fundamental right*, and the Congress is right to uphold it in law.”

As I read the Constitution of the United States of America, it doesn’t say anything about parental rights, or parents, or even children. So, I wonder such a fan of “strict constructionists” justifiies this strange new *fundamental* right. Is it perhaps penumbral? Is it somehow emboddied in the other explicitly enumerated rights of the Constitution?

A game of pong

In today’s Washington Post, Richard Cohen aligns himself with such bellicose pundits as Victor Davis Hanson as he argues for unhinged and indiscriminate violence against any and all associated (if only geographically) with Hezbollah terrorists. To suggest otherwise, as he *imagines* serious people have done, is pernicious anti-semitism:

>It also includes a whole bunch of European newspapers whose editorial pages call for Israel to respond, *it seems*, with only one missile for every one tossed its way. Such neat proportion is a recipe for doom.

>The dire consequences of proportionality are so clear that *it makes you wonder* if it is a fig leaf for anti-Israel sentiment in general. [emphasis mine]

Two points. First, those who have urged restraint have not suggested (and even Cohen admits as much with “it seems”) Israel engage in a game of missile pong–one for one. Proportionality is a principle of just war–of *jus in bello* to be exact. Those who urge it have rightly suggested that Israel not obliterate innocent civilians who are no more capable of controlling Hezbollah than Israel is. This argument is made on two independent grounds. First, it’s morally wrong to kill civilians. Second, as a matter of prudence, Israel cannot achieve its goal of eliminating Hezbollah by advertising for it’s most extravagant claims–that Israel engages in terrorism.

Second, to criticize Isreal’s reaction to the kidnapping of two soldiers (remember that) is not anti-semitic:

>These calls for proportionality rankle. They fall on my ears not as genteel expressions of fairness, some ditsy Marquess of Queensberry idea of war, *but as ugly sentiments pregnant with antipathy toward the only democratic state in the Middle East.* After the Holocaust, after 1,000 years of mayhem and murder, the only proportionality that counts is zero for zero. If Israel’s enemies want that, they can have it in a moment. [emphasis mine].

First, no one seriously urges the kind of silly military policy Cohen suggests; second, sometimes, believe it or not, Israel can be in the wrong–not because it’s *Israel*, but just because, like anyone or anything human, it errs.

So, Cohen, show how Israel is not wrong this time, not how anyone who criticizes them secretly wishes its annihilation.


It’s hard to say the author of the following in today’s Washington Post has in mind a straw man: we have seen in recent days on this site various iterations of the argument he attacks. Read the whole thing, but especially:

>Unfortunately — as the United States itself discovered during World War II and Vietnam, to cite just two examples — strategic bombing has almost never worked. Far from bringing about the intended softening of the opposition, bombing tends to rally people behind their own leaders and cause them to dig in against outsiders who, whatever the justification, are destroying their homeland.

While this point had already been made by Mr.Grey in a comment a few days ago, it’s worth repeating.

The Horror

Howard Kurtz of the *Washington Post* offers a perplexing translation of the dissatisfaction of “the left” with the Mainstream media. Take a peak:

>Trust me when I say that many liberals are really ticked off at the MSM, even though the nature of their criticism is very different from their rivals on the right. The anger that liberals feel over media coverage of President Bush and the war is tinged with deep disappointment over journalistic shortcomings and a hope, however vain, that things can be improved. *Why aren’t you on our side?*

The odd thing about Kurtz’s otherwise shallow two-party analysis (e.g., on the right they scream journalists and supreme court justices should be hanged until dead, but on the left, there is also criticism of journalists) is the partisan translation of the left complaint. But that translation hardly follows from Kurtz’s own description of the left complaint. The problem, according to Kurtz’s imaginary lefty, is journalistic shortcomings.

Here’s an example. Last week, for instance, a reporter for the *New York Times* claimed Hilary Clinton said democrats were “wasting time” with their obsession with gay marriage and so forth. The only problem, as you can read for yourself in detail here, is that Clinton wasn’t talking about democrats at all, she was talking about republicans. The clueless but famous journalist completely misrepresented Clinton’s words. That’s a journalistic failing.

So, back to Kurtz’s wacky claim. The argument of the left is that such journalistic failings constitute a problem. How he derives “why aren’t you on our side” from that is a mystery. The question, rather, should be, why don’t report the truth to the best of your knowledge (i.e., do your job)?

Dulce Bellum Inexpertis

V.D.Hanson, professor of ancient history and conservative pundit (and fellow of the conservative Hoover institute) ought to know what the title of this post means–more on that later. Considering our recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan and the amount of terrorism that has inspired (rather than deterred), we were mystified to see such belligerent opining:

What then would be the new Western approach to terrorism? Hard and quick retaliation–but without our past concern for nation-building, or offering a democratic alternative to theocracy and autocracy, or even worrying about whether other Muslims are unfairly lumped in with Islamists who operate freely in their midst.

This reminds me of something I urge upon my students. If the answer feels easy, gratifying, or is strangely in line with how you wanted it to come out, or how you have always thought, then there’s probably something wrong with it. In this case the obvious thing is that terrorism asks us to retaliate massively. Isn’t that just what terrorists–these in particular–want? Since war is politics by other, mostly violent, means, the terrorists means of violence are some of his own, and much of ours in response. That’s why they attack us. Our massive air attacks–however precise–fill their ranks faster than they could ever dream:

Any new policy of retaliation–in light of Sept. 11, 2001, and the messy efforts to birth democracies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and the West Bank–would be something of an exasperated return to the old cruise-missile payback. Yet in the new world of Iranian nukes and Hezbollah missiles, the West would hit back with something far greater than a cruise missile.

They dream about ever more violent war with the US. And clueless hacks like Hanson would give it to them. The most surprising thing, however, is this:

If they are not careful, a Syria or Iran really will earn a conventional war–not more futile diplomacy or limited responses to terrorism. And history shows that massive attacks from the air are something that the West does well.

Massive assaults on Hezbollah from the air have not resolved the crisis as it stands. How would these assaults on other countries change attitudes towards Israel? How have the so far changed attitudes towards the US? Did massive air assaults bring about an end to terrorism in Afghanistan? In Iraq? To repeat the same belligerent opining that has achieved every aim the terrorists had boggles the mind.

It’s easy–pleasing as the Daily Howlermight say–to think these things about our the only weapons we seem to have in our arsenal. And, of course, (warning graphic images): Dulce bellum inexpertis.

Chicken soup for the argument

Though I have no doubt David Brooks is unaware of us–especially since we almost never comment on him as he is firewalled–I was surprised to see that something of the idea of whom to ask critical questions about people places and things has crossed his mind:

>It happened just over a year ago in Key West, of all places. We’d come down for a conference organized by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and one afternoon two friends, Reuel Gerecht and Jeffrey Goldberg, squared off for a debate on the prospects for democracy in the Middle East.

>Gerecht and Goldberg are Americans whose fascination with Islam has taken them to *ridiculous places.* Gerecht, a former member of the C.I.A. clandestine service, spends an astonishing amount of time in spare rooms in Middle East backwaters talking fatwas in klatches with bearded fundamentalists.

>Goldberg has lived in a madrasa in Pakistan. His pieces from inside Hezbollah won a National Magazine Award for The New Yorker. In the fall he has a book, “Prisoners,” coming out about his time as a prison guard in the Israeli Army, and his friendships with the Palestinian detainees.

You read that right–“ridiculous places”–as if to foreshadow where we are going in this piece.

Believe it or not, these two individuals “disagree utterly about the path to Arab democracy.” But which *one* of them will be right? The Middle East is such a *ridiculous* place, so how better to resolve the dispute about its future between two ridiculously adventurous westerners (they actually went to the Middle East and talked to those people? That’s ridiculous!) than with a ridiculous analogy:

>The only way to reform the Middle East, Gerecht concluded, is by changing political institutions and enduring as the spirit of democratic self-government slowly changes society. *There will be a period of fever, but the fever will break the disease.*

What a fitting analogy! But wait:

>When it was Goldberg’s turn (the transcript is available online at pewforum.org), his first observation was that *sometimes fevers break the disease but sometimes they kill the patient*.

Zing! Excellent point Dr.Goldberg! How will the moderator resolve it?

>What this debate is really about is *the mother of all chicken-and-egg problems.* Can we use political reform *to spark* cultural change, or do we have to wait for cultural reformation before *we* can change politics?

The concept of agency at work in this piece is so 19th Century: why bother asking people from the land of the ridiculous to participate? (maybe, and this is admittedly a ridiculous suggestion, they have another view, or views). Surely they couldn’t have come up with the chicken and egg metaphor for their predicament–that’s why they’re ridiculous.

Trust me

The other week or day I don’t remember which we mentioned some of the basic qualifications for meaningful participation in a discussion of the future of the middle east (and by extension and by analogy, anywhere else). We were again reminded of these when we saw this to our mind a set of important questions concerning a recent roundtable at the journal Foreign Affairs. I quote:

>Got a few questions for you:

>1. Are you Muslim? It doesn’t appear that any of you are.

>2. If you’re not, do any of you speak fluent Arabic, ie, well enough to hold a conversation, listen to al Jazeera, and read the newspapers?

>3. If not, how many of you have read the entire Qu’ran and most of the Hadith in translation? If not, how many of you have participated more than once in worship at a mosque? Sh’ia or Sunni – and can you quickly define the difference?

>4. If not, how many of you have travelled to Iraq since the occupation, how long did you stay, and where did you go?

>5. How many of you publicly opposed the invasion prior to the launch of the New Product – as the Bush administration termed the invasion and occupation – long before it was politically safe to do so, say, prior to the passage of the Senate resolution in fall of 2002? Before January, 2003?

>6. If you are not Muslim, don’t speak Arabic well, haven’t read the basic texts of Islam or participated in services, haven’t been to Iraq, and/or believed – for whatever reason – prior to the invasion that it was a smart, or at least reasonable, idea to invade Iraq – that is, if you can’t answer “yes” to a decent number of my first five questions – then why should I bother to take seriously anything you might think to say?

>I’m not saying you’re stupid or uninformed, I know you’re not. I’m asking: upon what is your expertise based, besides attending conferences, reading a lot of thick books by non-Islamic Americans, reading American newspapers and official government reports?

>Just asking.



It’s wise I believe to keep such qualifications in mind before one takes seriously commentary from persons such as these:

>In the last few days there have been a lot of rumors of impending ceasefires and diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East. Condoleezza Rice, to the cheers of many, is reportedly heading to the region to head off further escalation. I hope she doesn’t go, and if she does, I hope her success is measured in photo-ops and nothing more, because Israel has a moral and strategic obligation to invade southern Lebanon.

I would add one question to Tristero’s list: do you have any experience with the realities of ground combat?

UPDATE (7/20/06): Tristero writes an apology:

>In a previous post, I questioned the credentials of the members of the Foreign Affairs roundtable on “What to do in Iraq.” Some members of that panel clearly are qualified, eminently so, to have an opinion appear under the auspices of the journal that promotes itself, by way of a quote, as “The Bible of Foreign Policy Thinking.”

>In particular, Marc Lynch of Abu Aardvark wrote to Hullabaloo: “…in addition to being a liberal blogger (www.abuaardvark.com), I do speak and read Arabic, write about al-Jazeera and the Arab media all the time, and published an op- ed opposing war with Iraq in the Christian Science Monitor in July 2002.” Marc’s clearly one of the Serious People who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to Iraq; his opinions on the mess in Iraq are invaluable. Marc, a full and complete apology. I haven’t read your blog in anthing resembling a regular fashion and that has been truly my serious loss.

>And I’d like to apologize to other panel members who have garnered high-level credentials similar to Marc’s. Your comments, too, were helpful, even if I disagreed with them…no especially if I disagreed with them.

That’s good–we’re moving in the right direction for an informed discussion. But I think Tristero should ask whether any of them live in the region.

Honest Abe made me do it

The art of historical analogy is tricky and as such subject to dishonest manipulation. On that score, historian Victor Davis Hanson writes:

>The Bush administration can also use history to show that, despite what detractors say, its techniques aren’t so unreasonable. It’s worth reminding the American public that Abe Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and shut down newspapers; that Woodrow Wilson imprisoned prominent dissenters like Eugene Debs; and that Franklin Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese-American citizens and secret military tribunals for German saboteurs (six of whom were executed) and allowed the coverup of military catastrophes (such as the hundreds killed during training exercises for the Normandy landings).

>In other words, there’s an advantage to providing historical perspective by engaging one’s critics and answering their charges.

There’s a causal and analogical argument here. While Hanson does not say that the above mentioned things relate causally to the various military victories, he certainly suggests as much. While sorting out the causuality of these various claims might merit more serious attention, I think it’s plain to most mildly historically minded people that these claims are false. Interning Japanese and other Axis-related americans didn’t advance us militarily nor did executing German saboteurs (they were already captured). Covering up military disasters such as the one mentioned were done for purposes of concealing our plans (not our foolishness). Such things are obvious from even the most superficial History Channel surfing.

More pernicious is the suggestion that these situations are analogous to the present day. They’re not. Since they didn’t advance the cause then, analogous actions don’t advance it now.

One final point. Coming from a professor, such straw man arguments are shameful:

>The public, for example, should be informed that the accusation that the U.S. went into Iraq for oil (“no blood for oil,” as the slogan goes) is not merely inaccurate, but crazy. For starters, gas prices skyrocketed once we induced risky change in the Middle East. How does that benefit the American people? Meanwhile, because of the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s energy sector has been purged of corruption (such as the UN’s scandal-plagued oil-for-food program).

Such sloganeering inflames the passions but doesn’t constitute argument. Everyone knows that. The real arguments against attacking Iraq (not the protest march slogans) at the time were legion. It turns out, in fact, that many of those arguments were correct.

But while we’re on the subject of oil, at least one administration official (but certainly more) suggested–I think it was Paul Wolfowitz–that Iraqi oil revenues would pay for the reconstruction. How are we to have interpreted that? The consequences to the Iraqi oil industry which Hanson mentions were clearly not the ones offered to the American public when the administration rolled out its new September 2003 product line. It is false to suggest otherwise.