Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Stop Treating Me Like An Idiot

I was never convinced about Iraq. Oh, I'll never claim Iraq wasn't a problem. It was a huge one. Hussein is, was, and always will be a murderous thug. He is an arrogant bully and when he was in power he was always looking for a way to get over on anyone he perceived to be weaker or without powerful allies. Pardon me if I say so what. Thugs like this are in power all over the world and most of the time it doesn't make page 12 of the back section of any newspaper. How much do you know about Rwanda? Bosnia? Darfur? If you think they're unique then I have an interesting business proposition for you involving the Golden Gate bridge.

The American people were sold the Iraq war on two interlinked propositions: that Hussein and Bin Laden's Al Caida were inextricable linked (they hate each other), and that Hussein posed an imminent and dire threat to the safety of the United States of America because he possessed weapons of mass destruction. After September 11, 2001, the USA was only too ready to believe the worst about any penny-ante tyrant that could be plausibly painted up. But I kept waiting for the evidence. I remember being shown drawings of something that was touted as a mobile toxin factory. I waited for them to show me a real one -- not, perhaps, one of Hussein's, but something that had actually been used as one, or could plausibly be used as one. I'm not convinced by might-be, may be, could-have-been, we really think this is so wishful thinking. If this thing works, then give me more than a drawing. Give me a trail of evidence -- circumstantial will do -- that this is what you say it is. I got...an artist's rendering. A concept piece. A flappy scarecrow.

Oh, and there's this tubing over here that could possibly be used in a nuclear weapon. We have no other evidence, except for a vague report that an Iraqi official might have tried to obtain some weapons'-grade radioactive material, and some experts even dispute that this sort of tube would every be used in a nuclear weapon. Shorn of the political doublespeak and the theatrical buildup, this is all of the evidence I was ever presented with to convince me to go to war. Oh yes, and Hussein is a bad guy. He makes citizens disappear. His sons feed people into wood-chippers for amusement. This could be true (although the way this government treats things I'm not sure I'd believe them if they told me the sky was blue on their planet.) It still isn't enough to go to war with.

If I'm going to spend another person's life, I want to know the cause is worthwhile. If I'm going to be the one who must tell a family that they are now shattered beyond healing, that their loved one is never going to come home, I want the dubious comfort that those lives I've damaged and destroyed were spent on something that could have stood up to even the 9th circuit court of appeal's quixotic reasoning. My point is not that I have to see all of the evidence -- governments can't operate that way -- but I certainly have to see something convincing. I was never convinced. I wanted to scream in somebody's ear (precisely who is in charge, anyway?) that war is not playtime. It is not a sunny day at the beach where you pick up and come home when you start to get a bit sunburned. The world is irretrievably altered. Some people never come home. And sometimes home itself is remodeled in unsettling and unacceptable ways.

What was really unnerving about this war was the lack of planning for the aftermath. Yes, there is a day after victory is won -- and what are we going to do then? We were pretty much told that we would sweep up the little bit of litter that was left behind when the celebration ended, then hand the Iraqis the keys to their government building and come home. Perhaps the typical United States citizen will buy that; we've never seen civil disruption on a grand scale and we've certainly never been at ground zero for an invasion, even one purporting to be friendly. Our government and police force have never been dismantled to the point where any attempt to reassemble them has to start from a point too disorganized to be graced with the name of chaos. The average citizen of the United States had to endure an education here as well and may know history only as that class they spent an agonizing semester in back in high school. The average policymaker in position to take the country to war, however, should be a damned sight better versed in what war and its aftermath look like. They should plan for the worst-case scenario even if they're fully confident that it will never happen. They should have Sun-Tzu's Art of War tattooed on the back of their eyelids. Soldiers endure what the rest of us can only imagine, and what we can imagine is only the faintest ghost of the shadow of hard reality. They come home immutably changed from what they had to do, the lives they would still take and the ones that they wish they could bring back. Innocents get killed and atrocities happen. They cannot be avoided. They can only be minimized with proper planning -- you know, the planning that happens after you take the rosy sunglasses off.

I'm not a pacifist. Pacifism is for those souls lost in the thrall of idealism. It also helps to have a firm belief in a just god and a rosy afterlife. I, however, am a pragmatist: some times there is no other option but to take up arms and defend oneself, ones family, and those ideals which seem worth dying for. But because the lives we spend are so precious it pays to have a very clear idea of what we're doing and convincing proof that it needs to be done. I am way past the age where "Because I said so!" is enough.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

A Modest -- and Silly! -- Proposal

A certain cardiologist over at the Washington Post has one of the silliest ideas I've read in a long time. Indeed, it's tempting to compare him to Jonathan Swift, author of the original A Modest Proposal, except that it appears that John G. Sotos is completely serious when it comes to his proposal. Food calories, to quote the man, are so endemic as to warrant being called 'pollution' and treated as such. This is the first time I've heard my guacamole burger being equated with the wrapper it comes in, and it's an incredibly inept and inapt comparison.

Sotos believes that the marketplace is the key to treating obesity. If only we make the good-tasting-but-bad-for-you stuff more expensive than the good-for-you-but-blah-tasting stuff then everything will take care of itself. This is to be done through something called "calorie emission allowance" where high calorie foods couldn't be sold unless the companies producing them buy "calorie credits" from producers of low calorie food. Sotos himself isn't sure how things will turn out: "The hope, which should be tested, is that the number of calories eaten would drop, owing to the difficulty of consuming large numbers of calories from low-density foods." In other words, people will vote with their pocketbooks and become miraculously slimmer.

There are a few flaws with this theory and one need not posses a PhD to figure them out. People are paying for prepared foods because they taste good, yes, but also because they are convenient. Nuking a microwave dinner or stopping by a favorite fast-food joint will get someone a dinner that not only tastes good, but that someone else put all the prep work into. In a society where two-income families are often needed just to pay the mortgage (I live in Sunny Southern California where housing prices have not seen reasonable in quite some time and commutes are usually gawdawful), having someone else cook for you is a boon most people are willing to pay for anyway. There are low calorie alternatives even in fast food places, of course, but most of those are more difficult to eat in a moving car and they don't taste as good as their unwholesome brethren unless they're slathered in some sort of dressing or sauce that makes them just as unhealthy. Ditto for the microwaveable dinners -- ye cats, the 'lo cal' alternatives make chewing on cardboard downright attractive -- and we won't go into the hidden ingredients that often make these choices less healthy that their regular counterparts.

Here's a dirty little secret that Sotos doesn't seem to be able to wrap his brain around. Eating healthy is already cheaper than eating unhealthy. For what it would take to support my fast food choices for one day, I can eat for half a week. It won't be very exciting fare and I'll have to cook it myself, but if we're talking economics it's quite doable. Take a bag of pinto beans and a bag of rice, throw in a ham hock for taste (you may want to try something else, but hey, differences like these are what makes the world go around) and there's a dish in my fridge that is low calorie, high nutrition, plentiful, and cheap. Give me a couple of days of 'fast food allowance' and I can throw in fresh fruit and vegetables to round my diet out and stretch my staples further. Three days and I've got the cash for flour, yeast, salt, and sugar -- the primary ingredients in bread.

You see, economics is already in play but in vastly more complicated dances than Sotos and his ilk either comprehend or choose to believe. We're eating high calorie, low nutritional value foods because they're convenient and they taste good. We need this convenience because so many of us have to commute forever and three days to work, and/or once there have to spend another eternity and a half proving our worth to our bosses. Once that's over (and we endure the long slog to get back home) there are mates to reconnect with, children to ferry back and forth to their various projects, homework to go over with said offspring, and, eventually, hopefully, sleep. Our children are minus the jobs but live with a homework load that is purely insane and they are scheduled with various activities to within inches of their lives. The towns we live in have no sidewalks and nowhere to go to anyway, if perchance there happened to a half an hour that wasn't already allocated to some other task. Who has time to cook? Moreover, who has time to teach cooking, or nutrition, or to model the old-fashioned exercise that used to be known as spending time with the family? We have people graduating high school without knowing how to do a simple tax sheet or how to balance a check book -- certainly no one has ever taught them how to prepare a pot roast with root vegetables, or how to choose the ingredients that make a decent and tasty salad. Home Ec is so passe. Society gets its offspring to college with Calculus under its belt and spiderwebs in the pantry. (And for disclosure's sake, I never attended Home Ec. I did, however, have parents who were rabid on imparting survival skills -- both my brother and I can balance check books, cook, do simple clothes mending, and perform common household repairs. In fact my brother is a better cook than I am, but I'm a better welder so it all evens out.)

Given the factors already in play I don't see how raising the price of my butter is going to make me a better or thinner person. Sadly, in Sotos' eyes they amount to the same thing.