Archive for August, 2021

Biden Was Right

I’ve always been annoyed by back-seat drivers and Monday morning quarterbacks, who always KNOW how they could have “done it better” than someone who was under pressure and didn’t meet their standards, whether that someone was a quarterback or a politician. Very occasionally, the armchair strategists are right, but mostly they couldn’t have done it better… or even as well, with the possible exception of doing it better than Trump.

Hindsight’s a great predictor after the fact.

Getting out of Afghanistan would ALWAYS have turned into a scramble. The basic structural system was a recipe for disaster. Take a partly semi-modernized capital, propped up and supported almost entirely by the United States, with a “government” that was often governing in name only and only in places where Afghan troops, with American backing, could hold back the Taliban. Add a culture that, outside of Kabul and a handful of other places, hadn’t changed significantly in at least a thousand years, and a “country” that has no truly “national” identity and is split into tribal factions based on brutal fundamentalist versions of faith. Outside of Kabul, there’s essentially no modern infrastructure except that supplied and maintained by American and other allied military.

What was holding the entity named Afghanistan together was the military and associated contractor presence spearheaded by American soldiers and technocrats, a presence resented by the majority of the population outside Kabul, and even by many within the city.

When you start removing those soldiers and technocrats, the areas they leave lapse back into previous patterns – except for Kabul, which lapsed into chaos, because a significant percentage of the population there doesn’t want to return to the culture of a thousand years previous, but can’t escape.

The only way to stave off what happened would have been to continually increase the U.S. military presence there. Those who argue that maintaining a small U.S. presence in Afghanistan would have stabilized the situation can’t or won’t read maps. As the U.S. military presence receded, the areas controlled by the Taliban increased.

To get out of Afghanistan required reducing the U.S. and allied presence… and the Taliban moved in. Even if the withdrawal had started earlier or lasted longer, the results would have been similar because neither the U.S. nor its allies would have been able politically to remove and assimilate the hundreds of thousands of Afghans and their families who are vulnerable to Taliban abuse and possible atrocities. There are already difficulties in dealing with a “mere” hundred thousand or so.

Blaming Biden for the mess is just a simplistic response to twenty years of wasting huge amounts of money and thousands of American lives, and it also ignores the fact that he was opposed to remaining in Afghanistan in the beginning.

But it’s so much more satisfying to blame someone who’s stopped the years of bleeding money and lives, if not perfectly, than to admit that it was a misguided mess all along.


Some Republican legislatures and governors have acted to forbid mask and vaccination requirements, usually giving one of several rationales: requiring masks and/or vaccination infringes on personal freedoms; people will do what’s best for them; local authorities know what’s best [except when they disagree with Republican state officials].

These reasons all ignore the very basics of government. ALL working governments place restrictions on their citizens in order to maintain the common good.

Those legal requirements are necessary because, without them, and often despite them, there is always a significant percentage of the population that will act against the common good and/or their fellow-citizens individually, either through ignorance, stupidity, greed, self-interest, or malice, or some combination thereof.

Despite the considerable rhetoric against masks and vaccinations, there is NO statistical credible evidence that masks impose harm on healthy individuals or children over a certain young age, and no evidence that vaccination harms healthy adults or children.

There is considerable evidence that mask-wearing dramatically reduces the spread of COVID and that vaccination virtually eliminates hospitalization and death from COVID, with the exception of immuno-compromised individuals (a very small percentage of the population).

So… why are all these Republicans opposing public health measures that would benefit their constituents and save the lives of many? Even as emergency rooms and ICUs are filled to overflowing in largely Republican-led states?

Could it be that those Republicans have forgotten that government exists for the protection of everyone? Or is it that they’re also suffering from an associated malignant mental condition that only appears to strike Republicans – Covidiocy?


One of the reasons given for the rapid collapse of the Afghan government is corruption, which most people take to mean the illegal diversion or theft of materials, goods, weapons, and cash. All of that happened, according to a wide range of reports, but corruption goes far beyond that.

When incompetent individuals are appointed to positions that control resources, either in return for payoffs or in anticipation of some form of ill-gotten gain, much more is lost than just resources. There are at least scattered reports that Afghan soldiers often didn’t get paid, although accounts indicated they had been paid. And when such events occur continually, soldiers become less and less willing to fight for superiors whom the soldiers perceive as getting rich off them while ordering them into danger under officers more likely to get them killed.

All effective organizations require some form of trust, and trust has many components, ranging from belief in the organization and its leaders, to the understanding that good performance is rewarded, and poor performance is not. Effective organizations pay people in some fixed ratio to responsibility and results. Less effective organizations do not. In corrupt organizations, power and resources are siphoned off with little or no relation to organizational priorities, needs, or results.

At times, some effective organizations are based on a negative form of trust – if you don’t get results and aren’t loyal, you’ll get fired or even killed. In that respect, there’s a certain similarity between the old-style Mafia and certain high pressure consulting firms.

Corruption in any institution destroys loyalty and trust, and if the corruption is extensive it will destroy the institution – or government – directly or indirectly.

In a democratically governed nation, such as the United States, the appearance of corruption can be as deadly as actual corruption. The poorer and/or more liberal segments of society see great income inequality in a nation, corporation, or institution as a sign of corruption, even if the methods that cause those inequalities are legal under existing laws. Corporation officers and conservatives often seem to be either unaware of this feeling or believe that it is totally unwarranted because the inequality is “legal.”

On the other side, social liberals and disadvantaged individuals support baseline economic support programs for those who are unable to work or involuntarily unemployed, but many right wing conservatives see those programs, since they’re financed from taxes on working individuals, as a form of corrupt government seizure of income.

Both extremes view these programs/systems valued by the other as “corrupt.” Such perceptions undermine the support of government, despite the fact that these programs/systems were legally established, unlike the widespread corruption in Afghanistan.

That raises the question, of course, of whether there is such a thing as “legal corruption” and, if so, how one can effectively define it.

The Afghanistan Illusion

Way back right after 9/11, when the Bush Administration decided to go into Afghanistan, my wife the music and opera professor said, “It’s going to end up like Vietnam.” I didn’t disagree. We weren’t alone, but I’d hoped that the Bush Administration would get Osama Bin Laden and bow out.

Getting Bin Laden didn’t happen until much later because, as I understand it, when Bin Laden crossed the border into neighboring Pakistan, the Administration didn’t want to invade two countries simultaneously, and back then drones weren’t quite as far advanced as they are now, or if they were, the Bush Administration was leery of using them, at least if they could be discovered. Even before Bin Laden’s death, too many U.S. politicians and policymakers endorsed the continued idiocy of the idea that the U.S. could create a democratic nation in a land split by ideology and tribalism where the concept of national identity had never really existed.

My wife has had a rare perspective on the war in Afghanistan because a number of her students were National Guard and Army Reservists who were deployed there [interrupting their schooling considerably] who kept in touch with her, admittedly, often sporadically, but all of them were of the opinion that (1) the country was too “tribal” to successfully unite against the Taliban and (2) the Taliban could and would wait us out. One spent his deployments in forward area intelligence, and his comments were more than a little eye-opening.

This understanding of Afghanistan certainly wasn’t rare among U.S. troops – and their junior officers – serving in the Afghanistan or even in other Middle East locales. So why didn’t it ever filter into upper levels of U.S. policy [and if it did, why was it ignored]?

Based on my own experiences, both as a Navy helicopter pilot with two deployments to Vietnam and as a political staffer in Washington, D.C., in the last years of South Vietnam and later, and from what I’ve learned from others, realistic assessments of the situation were continually discarded by upper level politicians… or ignored for “political” considerations

When I was a junior pilot being briefed on the Vietnamese government and social structure in 1969, instructors laid out the point that the government was almost entirely from French influenced Catholic families, as were most of the senior military officers, that the wealth was held by a minority that came from Buddhist-related families, and that more than 80% of the population was comparatively poor and held folk beliefs or beliefs in various combinations of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Those were broad-stroke generalizations, but essentially true. Yet I never saw any public or policy acknowledgement of those factors.

The same lack of cultural and belief understanding has been repeated in Afghanistan, and, not so strangely, even here in the U.S. Too many of those on the far right simply do not or cannot understand the cultural and political concerns of even moderates, let alone liberals, and the same is true for the liberals who fail to understand those on the far right, whose beliefs are, in effect, who they are.

Yet policy-makers who don’t understand much of their own culture and have trouble working out legislation to benefit all Americans continued to believe that they could create a democratic nation in a culture that has no history of or understanding of democracy?

And now, everyone is shocked that the Afghan government folded so quickly? I strongly doubt that most of the front-line U.S. military members who served there are. So why is it all such a surprise? Because too many were wedded to an impossible illusion?

The Most Dangerous Addiction?

A certain percentage of human beings have addictive personalities. They may be addicted to substances or behaviors. Thrill-seekers are often addicted to the adrenaline rush that comes with successfully surviving dangerous sports or activities. Substance abusers may become addicted to smoking, to alcohol, or to more dangerous drugs or substances.

But there are other addictions that are also dangerous and destructive, such as excessive gambling. In recent years, there’s also been recognition of so-called sex addicts.

In the end, a percentage of these addicts will overdose. They may seek too much danger, or the ultimate high of some sort, and many die every single year. Not only can overdosing destroy the addict, but the costs to family and others, and to society, can be enormous.

But there’s one kind of addiction that we as a society have been unwilling to recognize as an actual addiction – and that’s the addiction to power.

Seeking power for the sake of power is indeed an addiction, but there are also those who seek power to do good or for some cause or another and subsequently become addicted to power itself. We see this most often in politics and on the national level, most recently with a President so addicted to power that he attempted what amounted to coup in order to stay in office.

But it happens in other areas as well – the corporation president who bends laws and customs and stacks the corporate board room to maintain power, or the one who micromanages everything. Perhaps it’s even the head of local arts or cultural organization who ends up running the organization into the ground rather than give up that position, all the time insisting that no one else could possibly do it as well.

Unlike more personal addiction overdosing, where the results affect a limited number of individuals in each instance and where the ultimate price is the one paid by the overdoser, those who overdose on power ruin more people and can destroy large organizations and even governments, all the while lying and rationalizing their actions with misleading statements and statistics, as well as often with blatant lies.

Yet today no one seems to recognize, directly, this most deadly of addictions, although the Founding Fathers did. Isn’t it about time we do?

Looking in the Wrong Place

Today, in the United States, we have a tremendous amount of anger, most of it because people feel disenfranchised in some way or another, but despite this anger, and the efforts of people on both sides – often misguided and sometimes merely oppositional – almost nothing significant in a structural sense is being accomplished, and when something is, it takes much longer.

There’s a fundamental reason why, as illustrated by an old anecdote. A drunken man keeps circling around a street light on a dark night, muttering, “Not here… not here.” A police officer arrives and asks what the man is looking for. The man replies, “My keys. I can’t find them.” “Have you looked anywhere else?” asks the officer. “What’s the point?” replies the man. “I can’t see anything where there’s no light.”

Every statistic about the U.S. education system indicates that it’s failing the majority of high school graduates. Yet a huge amount of rhetoric and funding is devoted to increasing the number of high school graduates, as well as the number of college students and graduates. The numbers of graduates aren’t the problem, despite all the “light” focused in this area. The most important problem is that the majority of those graduates aren’t learning what they need to know. While study after study shows that basic learning patterns and abilities are acquired in early childhood and primary school, the emphasis remains on high school and college, despite the fact that, if solid basic reading, writing, and mathematical skills aren’t learned before puberty, the vast majority of students who don’t acquire those skills by then will be handicapped permanently for the rest of their lives.

Immigration is another significant problem, but history has shown that walls don’t work, not when the immigrants face near-certain death in their own country and not unless every foot of your wall is manned with armed soldiers who will shoot to kill. That’s enormously expensive, in more than a few ways, and it doesn’t work over long periods of time. If you’re willing to shoot, it would be more effective to remove corrupt governments in the countries from where the immigrants are coming. If you don’t want to do either, then you’d better find a way to teach and employ those immigrants, because the solution to the problem doesn’t lie in all the “light” at the border.

The current COVID situation illustrates the same pattern. We know who is getting vaccinated and why, but we avoid truly shining any light on the unvaccinated, under the rationale that they have the right to remain in the darkness, even though that darkness is where 97% of the new cases are occurring.

In all these instances, as well as others, we spent too much time in the existing light, rather than lighting the darkness.

Unexamined Assumptions

Even the best logic in the world can result in terrible outcomes if the basic premises or the assumptions behind those premises are incorrect or not factually accurate.

The biggest flaws behind “libertarian” ideals lie in certain underlying assumptions. The first is that we all have equal power. The second assumption is that those with power and ability earned it. The third assumption is that, even if we don’t have power, we have no right to band together to stop the abuse of power by others through government because it restricts the freedom of those with more power and/or ability. The fourth unspoken assumption is that life is unfair, but that all those without power and resources are personally responsible for their situation, and that it is entirely up to them to improve their situation. The fifth assumption is that society bears no or limited responsibility for providing opportunities for those with less power or ability.

But Libertarians aren’t the only ones with unexamined assumptions. Liberals have more than a few as well. There’s the assumption that more government funding will solve every problem. The assumption that more regulation is better, when it’s clear, just by examining California, that there’s a definite limit to what regulation can do, and that overregulation creates more problems than it solves. There’s also the assumption that government mandates can create economic processes. Or that you can change economics and government by forcing cultural mores on people, when all historical evidence suggests that economics drive culture, rather than the other way around.

Conservatives generally assume that a largely unregulated marketplace provides the best economic outcomes, even though history has consistently shown this is not so, but conservatives still tend to persist in making that assumption.

A huge percentage of Americans from all groups are making the assumption that a college education is an automatic passport to economic success because it has been in the past, but they ignore the facts that a diploma no longer necessarily equals an education and that we’re already creating more college graduates than there are jobs for them.

The states of the U.S. west and southwest made the assumption that the water flows of western rivers, especially the Colorado River, would remain as they were in the early years of the twentieth century, and planned on that basis – except geological and ecologic studies have shown that the water flows during that period were the highest in the last several thousand years. Now, western cities and states are facing drought and crisis because that assumption wasn’t questioned early enough or rigorously enough.

History is littered with assumptions that should have been examined… and weren’t, and we’re continuing to make that mistake.

Stupidity of the Extremes

Civilizations are built on cities, not on small isolated or rural communities. Even the word “civilization” is based on the Roman word for city, not the Greek, possibly because the Greeks never built a true unified civilization – only cities and a semi-shared culture. Given human nature, cities require rules, as do large cultures and civilizations.

Some of those rules have to be authoritarian, or cities and civilizations will collapse. The idea behind this is the public good, often expressed as the maximum good for the most people, without creating actual physical harm to the minority. We don’t allow the “freedom” to shoot people you don’t like, or to dump garbage anywhere or force people to breathe toxins or drink poisoned water [or at least we didn’t].

Because rules for the maximum good infringe on everyone’s behavior, such rules should be applied to preventing those actions which could harm the most people. That’s why laws against murder and theft or requiring clean air and water and vaccinations against diseases that could kill millions are a good idea.

It’s also why zoning laws that prohibit modest dwellings anywhere in a municipality or town are a very bad idea – simply because most people aren’t well-off and that includes most of the people who provide basic services. So, as could have been predicted, such zoning increases homelessness, imposes huge burdens on low income earners, and increases the costs of doing business.

As in everything, a middle course works better. If you over-regulate, you get less progress, less innovation, higher costs, and, in the end, a lower standard of living for everyone but the very wealthy. If you under-regulate, you get more deaths, more monopolies, less progress, less innovation, higher costs, and, in the end, a lower standard of living for all but the rich.

Neither extreme freedom nor extreme regulation works well. History shows this fairly convincingly… if one bothers to look closely and carefully.

And yet, today, the United States seems polarized into the extremes, neither of which provides the maximum good for the greatest number.

Personal Freedom To Do What?

The reason for prohibiting smoking in confined spaces is simple. Study after study has shown that smoking is hazardous to the health of smokers and those nearby who inhale secondhand smoke. The tobacco industry fought against public dissemination of those findings for decades as well as against regulations restricting smoking.

The public generally accepts the rationale that bystanders in enclosed spaces shouldn’t be forced to inhale toxic substances, yet a significant percentage of the American people refuse to accept the idea that innocent bystanders shouldn’t be forced to inhale air potentially filled with COVID droplets and aerosols from people who refuse to get vaccinated.

This isn’t even a new issue. Governments have required vaccination against other diseases for decades in the interest of public health. So why, all of a sudden, is there this sudden push for “freedom to infect others,” albeit disguised as the personal freedom to reject government public health requirements?

Here in Utah, the legislature has prohibited the state government and public schools and colleges from imposing vaccine mandates. In short, the only institutions who could, on a wide-scale basis, significantly reduce the spread of the Delta strain of COVID are forbidden to do so. That means more people will be exposed, and more will die, in the name of “personal freedom,” particularly children too young to be vaccinated and people with compromised immune systems.

If this idiocy had been adopted in the 1950s or 1960s, millions more Americans would have died, but too many Americans born in 1970s and later have no experience with the ravages of infectious diseases, nor do they apparently understand history, epidemiology, public health, or common sense.

It’s a mindset on a par with the states’ rights arguments of the Confederacy, who claimed that the government was infringing on their rights to enslave others, except this latest incarnation says that no one can infringe on someone’s rights to infect others.