Feb 27, 2011

the Seattle Times endorses legalizing marijuana

The Seattle Times has taken up the cause of legalizing marijuana. First, in its own editorial:
Marijuana should be legalized, regulated and taxed. The push to repeal federal prohibition should come from the states, and it should begin with the state of Washington.

In 1998, Washington was one of the earliest to vote for medical marijuana. It was a leap of faith, and the right decision. In 2003, Seattle was one of the first places in America to vote to make simple marijuana possession the lowest police priority. That, too, was a leap of faith, and the right decision. A year ago, City Attorney Pete Holmes stopped all prosecutions for simple possession: the right decision.

It is time for the next step. It is a leap, yes — but not such a big one, now.
Second, in an op-ed written by Norm Stamper, a former police chief, and the anti-Kerlikowske:
A fundamental change in drug policy seems daunting, but we've done it before with the repeal of alcohol prohibition. Today, you no longer see gangs shooting each other over beer and liquor market share. And both the president and Kerlikowske have compared drug use to cigarettes, pointing to the success of public-education campaigns in reducing the number of smokers.

But have they forgotten that we have not sent one person to jail for smoking Marlboros? If we can successfully manage alcohol and tobacco under a public-health model, we can do the same for all other drugs.
Here in Washington state, talk of legalization has hit the mainstream, and has prohibitionists on the defensive.

And it's about time.

Feb 25, 2011

party fouls

Via the inimitable Dave Weigel, parliamentary procedure gets exciting in Wisconsin.

A few notes:

1. Some Americans are going to consider this the collapse of civilization, but this is pretty tame stuff by international standards.

2. If you're wearing orange shirts in the chamber as a show of solidarity, don't expect the other side to play nice.

3. Liked the guy who shouted "we love you anyways."

4. Never be the last person chanting.

Added: Weigel's diary of the scene inside the Capitol is worth a gander, too.

Feb 24, 2011

value and criterion pairs for the Private Military Firms resolution

The Private Military Firms resolution presents plenty of framework options for the Aff and Neg.
Resolved: The United States is justified in using private military firms abroad to pursue its military objectives.
The following list of Value and Criterion pairs is neither conclusive nor comprehensive. Rather, it's a set of suggestions to spark your thinking. Feel free to share your bright ideas, constructive criticism, and questions in the comments.

A work in progress.

Trending Affirmative

V: National Security
C: Pragmatism / Bolstering defense forces
We ought to value national security because the resolution concerns whether PMFs can reasonably or legitimately be used to attain military objectives. Hence the oft-used "toolbox" metaphor: to maintain security, we have to keep all the necessary tools at our disposal. Limiting our options could be expensive, counterproductive, or disastrous to our military efforts. This position will likely clash with advocacies based on freedom or human rights, since valuing security as paramount tends toward oppression.

V: National Security and/or International Stability
C: Preserving Hegemony
If PMFs help the U.S. maintain military superiority and economic clout--and thus the global balance of power via American hegemony--then they're warranted. The hegemony argument suffers from a couple pitfalls: first, it may not be true (in a multipolar world full of dangerous nonstate actors and nontraditional, asymmetrical conflict, can the U.S. even stake claim to be a hegemon?), and second, even if it's true, whether hegemony is good is another matter entirely--racism, ethnocentrism, or patriarchy, anyone? Benevolence is often solely in the eye of the benefactor.

V: Prudence (defined as carefully weighing political options; see Morgenthau)
C: Political realism
The idea here is that the US must act in its best interests, which are independent of overarching moral considerations. Rather, the U.S.'s goal is to preserve its own power, charting a careful course in a chaotic, Hobbesian world. Realists generally denounce grand state-building / democracy-spreading schemes, however, so there may be a "turn" available: that realism demands a massive scaling-back of American military activity abroad.

V: Justice or Governmental Legitimacy
C: Constitutionalism
The Constitution not only provides a justification for national defense, but seems to permit the use of Private Military Firms. So far, I have yet to see a compelling analysis that PMFs are unconstitutional; if you've found one, pass along word.

V: Societal Welfare or National Security
C: Capitalism / Free Market
PMFs, like any other business, provide jobs to hardworking Americans (and foreign nationals). Further, PMFs are constrained by market forces, which keeps them from acting too recklessly or abominably (lest they lose clients). If you're debating in a progressive region and run this type of argument, expect to face the "Cap K."

Trending Negative

V: Peace
C: Reducing "Warism," Preventing Future Conflict; Pacifism; Isolationism
Duane Cady describes warism as "the uncritical presumption that war is morally justifiable, even morally required." PMFs incentivize conflict, since they have a financial stake in providing security or goods in war zones. When the war ends, PMFs have to move on to the next opportunity. Eisenhower's warning about the "military-industrial complex" anticipated this sort of perpetual conflict machine.

V: Justice or Morality or Governmental Legitimacy
C: Social Contract
The resolution uses the phrase "is justified," which may be defined in moral terms. The moral obligation of the State is based on its contractual duties and limits--and its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Subcontracting this to PMFs is a dangerous policy, since PMFs are accountable to stakeholders who may not even be U.S. citizens or have the U.S.'s best interests in mind. In contrast, the U.S.'s citizen-soldiers have strong commitments to the U.S's military objectives; it's the focus of their recruitment, their training, their everyday life, and the entire command structure.

V: Justice or Morality
C: Just War Theory
If PMFs don't meet the criteria of jus in bello, we negate.

V: Freedom
C: Reducing the power of the state and/or corporations
The seemingly ever-expanding influence of corporations and states on individuals--and of corporations on states--means that we risk becoming a paternalistic plutocracy that defends its own interests in the guise of national security. Globalization, corporate welfare, financial bailouts... and PMFs, all in an unholy alliance.

V: Justice or Morality or Human Dignity
C: Protecting Human Rights
Thesis: If protecting human rights is essential to justice (or morality), and if PMFs (especially security firms) violate rights with impunity, then we must negate.

Could Go Either Way

V: Societal Welfare (or Morality or Life or National Security)
C: Consequentialism (or Utilitarianism, Act or Rule)
Any case predicated on a body count, a dollar figure, or any other quantifiable metric of success is essentially consequentialist (and perhaps utilitarian). Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Feb 23, 2011


Snow day good: breakfast anytime.

Snow day bad: the McDonald's parking lot is a skating rink. As much as I love McGriddles, I'm not risking life and limb. (Limb, anyway. I'm sure the saturated fat and syrup-baked crust is killing me softly.)

Snow day good: time to catch up on grading and planning and blogging.

Snow day bad: no Powerful Teaching and Learning session at LP Brown. Sub plans written in vain.

Snow day good: no need to dress up.

Snow day bad: can't show off a brand new tacky tie.

Snow day good: Netflix Instant has Arrested Development in hi def.

Snow day bad: Netflix Instant has Arrested Development in hi def.

And yeah, I'm calling it: tomorrow will be a snow day.

Update: Two-hour late start. Yes, you may thank me for this jinx when we don't have to spend an extra school day in late June.

Update Update: and then, at 7:47, the District reversed itself and canceled school. I wasn't surprised, given that I had already driven across town, including a harrying trek up the Yashiro Bridge, past the poor guy who had spun out and was now calmly smoking a stogie while awaiting help, and up the hill, thankful for front-wheel drive and traction control, and cursing myself for braving the snow and leaving earlier than I should've.

Also, for the reverse jinx: You're welcome.

Feb 13, 2011

the necessity of private military firms

Why might the U.S. be justified in employing Private Military Firms (PMFs) to attain its overseas military objectives? In "Contractors: The New Element of Military Force Structure," found in the Autumn 2008 edition of Parameters (a publication of the U.S. Army War College), Mark Cancian outlines the ways in which PMFs have become not only useful, but entirely necessary.

1. Reconstruction
Cancian dispels the myth that PMFs are mostly mercenaries; in fact, the vast majority of military contractors are unarmed support personnel involved in diverse tasks. The largest group of contractors--nearly half--are involved in reconstruction efforts, with manifold benefits. Not only does it keep troops focused on military missions, but it establishes long-term stability in the occupied territory.
Work removes the bored and unemployed from the streets. Men who might otherwise join the insurgency for ideological or economic reasons now have a stake in maintaining stability. A job also has significance in traditional societies such as Iraq and Afghanistan, a fact that is sometimes difficult for westerners to appreciate. A job means that a man can get married and leave his family's home. Traditionally in these societies, unmarried children do not move out and get apartments on their own. This transition to independent living makes a young man an adult, thereby giving him a stake in the stability of his neighborhood or town.
2. Logistics
The military's own functioning depends heavily on PMFs for logistical support.
Most of the US personnel involved in these functions are blue-collar technicians (truck drivers, electricians, maintenance specialists), the people who keep materiel flowing and bases running. They are unarmed and often highly skilled in their areas of expertise, frequently more so than their counterparts in the military who are often much younger and, in effect, apprentices in their trades. Traditionally, military personnel performed these functions, but the high cost and relative scarcity of experienced uniformed personnel in the all-volunteer force made use of contractors an attractive option. Why use military personnel for a job that a civilian is willing, able, and often better qualified to perform?
For an example, Cancian focuses on food service, an area in which private firms outshine and have largely replaced their military counterparts.

3. Interpretation
Communication makes private support an absolute necessity.
Conflicts overseas, especially counterinsurgencies, require a large number of interpreters so US forces at every level can communicate with the local populace. Although the military is expanding its number of linguists, large-scale operations require thousands of interpreters. The military will never have enough personnel skilled in any particular language (except Spanish) to cover more than a small proportion of its total requirements. Contractors will always provide the bulk of this capability.
4. Security Details and Bodyguards
Admittedly the most problematic PMFs, armed security details and bodyguards draw the most attention, despite their relative smaller scale. Regarding the former,
About three-fourths of these security contractors protect fixed facilities inside major bases and never venture outside the wire.... The main function of these security guards consists of screening personnel entering facilities by checking identity cards. The majority of this group has never fired a shot in anger. They are more akin to the security guards one sees in the United States guarding banks or shopping malls.
Bodyguards, on the other hand, have ignited the most controversy, due to their involvement in violence. Yet according to Cancian, they represent fewer than 1% of all PMF personnel. A lack of coordination with and oversight by military forces, and what Cancian calls the "bodyguard mindset," in which the bodyguard will engage in disproportionate force in order to protect the client at all costs, combined to precipitate the infamous Blackwater incident in 2007. Since then, Cancian argues, necessary changes have been made.
The Department of Defense (DOD) and the State Department finally issued new guidelines that brought contractors under military control, required State Department security officials to accompany every convoy, installed video cameras in contractor vehicles, and clarified the rules on the use of force.
The full impacts of these changes remain to be seen, but it's an exaggeration to argue that PMFs are rogue elements operating entirely outside the control of the government.

5. The Future
The evolution of conflict, which I'll discuss further in a future post, demands an expanding military.
The Army is currently expanding from 482,400 to 547,400 soldiers. This expansion could have reduced dependence on contractors by channeling all the additional personnel into support units. But it has not. Although some of this additional manpower is being integrated into support units, the majority is going to combat units. The purpose is clear-reduce stress on personnel by increasing the number of units in the rotation base. Army leaders have repeatedly cited the need to lengthen the time units spend in the continental United States. In all their testimony related to expanding the force Army leaders have never expressed a desire to reduce dependence on contractors.

The Army is developing a strategy based on a future of "persistent conflict" where every combat unit, active and reserve, deploys on a regular basis. Indeed, the Army's planned force structure does not make strategic sense without the implicit expectation of continuous deployments. As a result, the Army will continue to depend on contractors in support of deployed forces.
6. The Absence of a Realistic Alternative
What of those who would advocate replacing PMFs with military personnel? Cancian dismisses this as impractical, bordering on impossible:
Replacing the 113,000 contractors in the security and logistics arenas (excluding interpreters and all those in reconstruction) would require a minimum of 250,000 additional military personnel, and when the rotation base and training pipeline are considered the number quickly swells to more than 400,000 as a high-end estimate. With the Army struggling to meet the more modest target of its current expansion, an increase of 65,000 active-duty soldiers, such a large expansion would appear impossible without reconstituting the draft. Since a draft is opposed by the military leadership, politicians, and the American people as a whole, reinstituting conscription is infeasible, whatever its attraction for op-ed writers.
Cancian's article, which goes into much more depth regarding the legal status of military contractors, is well worth reading in full, especially for Affirmatives building the case for PMFs.

Feb 8, 2011

the greatest television audience that wasn't

Was Super Bowl XLV the most-watched television event in U.S. history?

The Nielsen Co. said Monday that an estimated 111 million people watched the Green Bay Packers outlast the Pittsburgh Steelers in professional football's ultimate game. That tops the 106.5 million who watched the 2010 game between New Orleans and Indianapolis.

The series finale of "M*A*S*H" had held the title of the most-watched TV show in the United States for 27 years. It is now No. 3.
On the other hand, not really.

You see, there's this little thing called "population growth." M*A*S*H's finale had a remarkable 105.9 million viewers in 1983--back when the U.S. held about 233 million residents--meaning that over 45% of the U.S. watched that episode. In contrast, only 36% saw yesterday's surrealist hootenanny.

Now, to be fair, it's possible that the Nielsen ratings system in 1983 lacked today's sophistication and nuance, so the estimate is overgenerous. Furthermore, in today's fragmented media landscape--where we have 500 channels instead of 5, plus an Internet that didn't even exist in 1983--simultaneously capturing a hundred million Americans' attention for longer than 15 seconds is an achievement worth celebrating.

Just not with a Fergie / Slash duet.

Feb 5, 2011

how to become a better writer

1. Care about your writing.
Everything that follows depends on this. Care so hard it hurts. In fact, if you are not in physical pain every time you pick up a pen, you don't care enough. Journalist and all-around savant Gene Fowler describes writing thusly: "All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead." If you think he was exaggerating, you are obviously a no-talent hack.

2. Endlessly revise.
Perfect your work. Keep at it until they have to drag you away from your last draft, clawing at the last adverb  that mars your masterpiece. This ensures that you will never publish anything, cementing your reputation as an unsung genius.

3. Find and keep good readers.
Treasure them, by which I mean, stuff them in a box in the back of a closet somewhere. You want them reading only your work, not anyone else's.

4. Read voraciously.
Sir Francis Bacon once said that truly great books were meant to be chewed and digested. Invest in a stomach upgrade and a set of titanium teeth and make this happen.

5. Write in different modes.
You can't just publish a novel first thing. Start small: carve a letter into a tree trunk. ("Z" isn't a bad choice, if your name is Zorro.) Move on to bathroom walls, which not only builds an audience, but develops your rhyming skills. From there, in ascending order of importance, it's Twitter, blogs, advice columns, ad copy, Atlantic short stories, New Yorker cartoons, novellas, Wikipedia updates, manifestos, horoscopes, celebrity obituaries, limericks, novels, trilogies, and ransom notes.

6. On second thought, get a disciple to do it for you.
Do what Jesus, Socrates, and the Buddha did: write nothing down yourself. The downside, of course, is that your ideas may be misunderstood, misappropriated, or pureed beyond recognition. The upside is huge, though: you'll attract groupies while maintaining plausible deniability.

Feb 3, 2011

the benefits of private military firms

Concerning the March/April 2011 resolution, what are some of the tactical and strategic advantages of private military firms? In "Reconsidering Battlefield Contractors," from the Summer 2005 edition of Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Doug Brooks and Jim Shevlin lay out some of the arguments in favor. The gist:
Private firms play an indispensable role in supporting peace and stability operations from Congo to Iraq, but sensationalization and misinformation of "battlespace contractors" has unfortunately skewed public perceptions and is having an adverse impact on policy formulation. Despite frequent claims that private firms are unprecedented, unregulated, inherently unethical and even a threat to American democracy, the private sector actually has a long history supporting U.S. military operations, is regulated by numerous domestic and international laws and statutes, plays a central role in operations critical to speedy state recovery, infrastructure reconstruction and humanitarian security, and is critical to implementing policies of democratic governments and the international community. The private sector provides policymakers, as well as those tasked to carry out the policies, with remarkably cost-effective and flexible tools, and criticisms of the industry too often have more to do with the politics behind the policies than with the performance of the companies engaged in their implementation.
Private military firms come in three main varieties:

1. Nonlethal Service Providers (NSPs)
NSPs provide logistics services, air transport, construction of military bases and refugee camps, and other specialized services such as water purification, unexploded ordinance disposal, and mobile hospitals. While NSPs face many of the same legal issues as the PSCs and PMCs when they operate in CPC regions, most concerns about NSPs focus on appropriate procurement policies, whether their services should be labeled "inherently" governmental, or whether the U.S. military is too reliant on them.

2. Private Security Companies (PSCs)
They provide armed protection for "nouns": people, places, and things. These include politicians, military leaders, buildings, organizations, convoys, etc.... While conceptually there is little difference between security guards in Iraq and in the United States, where private security outnumbers regular police three to one, PSCs in Iraq tend to have military backgrounds, be better armed, and offer a higher level of armed security capable of defending their "nouns" against attacks by heavily armed insurgents and bandits.

3. Private Military Companies (PMCs)
PMCs are firms used to alter the strategic shape of a conflict. PMCs generally work for states, international and regional organizations and provide military and police training, security sector reform, assistance in defense ministry design, and even advice on proper civil-military relations in a democracy. PMC employees are generally unarmed, though in Iraq some carry sidearms for self-defense.
Note that although Private Military Firms are involved in war zones and may tangentially be involved in combat operations, primarily their purpose is supportive and defensive.

According to Brooks and Shevlin, there are five main advantages to private military firms:
* surge capacity and speed - the ability to recruit and train personnel
* force multiplication - the ability to rapidly deploy personnel, equipment, and munitions
* specialized skills - most often in technology, security details, and training
* ease of use - the competitive market ensures that firms are highly responsive to their governmental "customers," and easily discarded if unsuccessful
* cost efficiency - on the whole, private military firms are cheaper than similarly equipped State actors

The article contains much more regarding the legal status of private firms, both in domestic and international law, too complex to summarize here. Overall, Brooks and Shevlin's analysis is well worth reading for LDers looking for affirmative arguments.

Feb 2, 2011

Wikipedia is the greatest thing ever

I totally had students do this.

I had seen the Wikipedia list of misconceptions floating around Twitter, and figured it would be an interesting exercise for my reading classes. We had previously investigated other sites' discussion pages in an activity I call "Wikipedia Behind the Scenes," and this seemed like a logical next step.

I made a preassessment, a true/false "quiz" with 12 misconceptions I thought my students might know. ("T/F: Bats are blind.") They took the quiz, we shared the results ("show of hands... how many thought #1 was true?"), and then I sent them into the computer lab to find out which of the answers were correct. (I was a little mean; all the answers were false.)

After a few minutes, in dismay and excitement, they brought back their findings. We talked about the sources of misinformation--friends, parents, teachers--and tried to figure out how wrong things get to be "common knowledge." I showed them the list, and we looked at the "discussion" page to see the disagreements over what ought to be listed. (Consider this a vote to keep it.)

In sum: Wikipedia is a marvelous teaching tool, and any educator who disagrees is a nincompoop.

definitions for the private military firms resolution

In this post, I'll look at some definitions and potential resolutional analyses / observations for the March/April 2011 resolution.
Resolved: The United States is justified in using private military firms abroad to pursue its military objectives.
First, some standard dictionary definitions of justified (excluding those that are obviously not applicable):
–verb (used with object)
1. to show (an act, claim, statement, etc.) to be just or right: The end does not always justify the means.

2. to defend or uphold as warranted or well-grounded: Don't try to justify his rudeness.

5a. (Law) to show a satisfactory reason or excuse for something done.
If "justified" means "shown to be just or right," then the Aff must provide a value of justice or morality (or somesuch), with an appropriately moral criterion. (If constitutionality or international law is employed, it's in the context that either is the correct standard for justice via a social contract, prevailing moral norms, or some other moral argument.)

If "justified" means "warranted or well-grounded," the Aff could use a purely pragmatic calculus such as necessity, effectiveness, comparative advantage, or cost/benefit analysis.

However, if "justified" merely means "excused," the bar is set rather low: legality regardless of moral or practical concerns.

All that aside, let's look at other aspects of the resolution.

1. Do "private military firms" include all private contractors operating under the aegis of the U.S. military, or only those that run security details or operations in combat zones? For instance, does it matter so much that private firms help provide logistics--if McDonalds runs the mess hall? PrivateMilitary.org defines private firms as
legally established international firms offering services that involve the potential to exercise force in a systematic way and by military or paramilitary means, as well as the enhancement, the transfer, the facilitation, the deterrence, or the defusing of this potential, or the knowledge required to implement it, to clients.
In my view, this seems to place emphasis on firms directly engaged in combat operations.

2. Is there a difference between "private military firms" and "mercenaries?" (A case built on international law might want to synonymize the terms.)

3. Note the word "pursue," which, for the Aff, might preclude notions of efficacy (or "solvency," to use the word that's been imported from CX debate).

4. How specifically must we define "military objectives?" This is a prickly question: the extent to which the Affirmative must defend the status quo may be a matter of intense debate. If the Aff tries to argue largely in principled or hypothetical terms, then the objectives may not matter so much; the intent, not the effects, would be most salient. However, the Neg may want to entirely reject the U.S.'s contemporary foreign policy (a sort of pacificist, or perhaps anarchist or anti-capitalist kritik), arguing that any U.S. military objectives, privately supported or otherwise, are completely illegitimate.

Feb 1, 2011

Resolved:The United States is justified in using private military firms abroad to pursue its military objectives.

The NFL LD topic for March / April 2011 has been released:
Resolved:The United States is justified in using private military firms abroad to pursue its military objectives.
The United States increasingly depends on private military firms to support its fighting forces around the world. However, that supporting role has become more of a solo act, as firms like Xe (formerly Blackwater) have moved beyond security details or logistics, into combat operations in everything but name--and with problematic results.

This raises several questions. Are private military firms effective, or even necessary? Are they legitimate--whether under U.S.law or under international law? Will their reach and influence continue to expand in a perpetual War on Terror, and, if so, what will be the costs? To whom are private military firms accountable? To whom are they loyal--especially when many of their employees or shareholders aren't U.S. citizens? Is this the "military industrial complex" Eisenhower warned about? Are we seeing the rise of shadowy corporate governance? Is "private security contractor" a mere euphemism for "mercenary?"

Expect security, justice, peace, international law, the social contract, Just War Theory, and corporatism to crop up in discussions. Also, expect huge criterial clash: the word "justified" isn't synonymous with "just."

Analysis and links, as always, are forthcoming--and, as always, your comments and questions are critical.

Added 2/2: A look at some definitions.

Added 2/3: Some initial Aff arguments mostly based on effectiveness considerations.

Added 2/13: More arguments and analysis for the Affirmative, based on military necessity.

Added 2/24: A formative list of value and criterion pairs.

Added 3/7: How postmodern developments change the nature of war.