Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pure, Unadulterated Balderdash and Poison

Jack Goldsmith (who succeeded John Yoo at the Justice Department, serving in the Office of Legal Counsel from October 2003 to July 2004, and who, to his credit, rescinded the torture memos that Yoo wrote) writes today in the Washington Post, arguing that prosecution of the Bush White House for torture would be a huge mistake:

"The people in government who made mistakes or who acted in ways that seemed reasonable at the time but now seem inappropriate have been held publicly accountable by severe criticism, suffering enormous reputational and, in some instances, financial losses. Little will be achieved by further retribution."

Yes, they merely made "mistakes" or did reasonable things like torturing and indefinitely detaining innocent people by the thousands, murdering many of them and irrevocably traumatizing the rest even though it has been and is against the law to ever under any circumstances torture someone. They have been, my god, severely criticized! Their reputation's been harmed enormously, and some of them have lost some money - oh my Jesus - let my people go!

We certainly shouldn't pursue vindictive prosecutions of people who knowingly lied us into wars that have caused to date the needless and unjust deaths of 1.3 million Iraqis, combat deaths of over 4,000 American soldiers, more than 30,000 suicides by vets, the destruction of a fabled city and the forced extirpation of thousands from their homes in New Orleans, the treasonous outing of a dissident's wife's CIA cover for revenge, the destruction of habeas corpus and that silly little matter of the rule of law! Perish the very thought! We should just shake their hands, tell them how much we admire the difficulties they faced and how marvelously they have handled it all, and give them their pensions and go along our merry way.

That's the ticket!

It's amazing to me what passes muster to be published in a major American newspaper such as the Washington Post, what nonsense comes from the mouths and pens of people who lead this country, and what material the Post and other major publications refuse to publish.

Consider the following unbelievably horrid November 8 article by Michael Kinsley for the Washington Post. Kinsley used to play the "liberal" on CNN"s Crossfire:

Revisiting One Lawrence Summers Controversy

Opponents of Lawrence Summers for a second turn as Treasury secretary have, of course, brought up his 1991 memo as chief economist of the World Bank, in which he wrote that poor countries need more pollution, not less. The memo was obviously meant to stimulate thinking and not to be implemented as policy. But it also was undeniably correct. Summers's main point was that life and health are worth less in poor countries than in rich ones. He measured that worth by the earnings lost when a person is sick or dies prematurely. But another good measure, maybe clearer, would be the amount a society will spend to save a life. Treatments that are routine in the United States, although they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, are simply not available to citizens of poor countries. You get cancer and you die. Of course this shouldn't be true, but it undeniably is true, and rejecting the idea of poor countries earning a little cash by "buying" pollution from rich ones will do nothing to make it less true.

If an industrial plant that causes pollution is going to be built somewhere, it ought to be built where life is worth less. This sounds brutal, but it isn't. Or rather, it is less brutal than reality. Turn it around: If a life is worth less, it is also cheaper to save. For what we spend in the United States to save a single life, you could save dozens or hundreds of lives in poor countries. So if the plant is going to be built somewhere, building it in a poor country will enable more lives to be saved than building it in a rich one.

Summers also pointed out that the harm from pollution tends to be "non-linear," meaning that the harm goes up more than proportionately as pollution increases. A little bit of pollution may be virtually harmless, but double it or quadruple it and you more than double or quadruple the negative effects. If a city in a rich country is very polluted and a city the same size in a poor country is not, you will save lives -- in the rich country this time -- if some of that pollution can be moved from the rich country to the poor one. And the money the rich country pays the poor one can save even more lives in the poor country.

The general point is that clean air and other environmental goods are luxuries. The richer a country is, the more of them it can afford. And if rich countries like the United States had had to meet some of the standards being wished upon poor countries today, we would still be poor ourselves.

Every economic transaction has two sides. When you deny a rich country the opportunity to unload some toxic waste on a poor one, you are also denying that poor country the opportunity to get paid for taking the toxic waste. And by forbidding this deal, you are putting off the day when the poor country will no longer need to make deals like this.

In his notorious memo, Summers was doing his job and doing it well: thinking outside the box about how to help the poor countries that are supposed to be the World Bank's constituency. Plenty of outside-the-box thinking will be required from our next Treasury secretary too. Summers is famous for this, and for the abrasiveness that goes along with it. But the Obama administration won't have time, and shouldn't have the patience, for the umbrage game that dominated the recent political campaign. There is no point in making Larry Summers promise to behave himself. That just isn't his style, and if President-elect Obama can't face it, he should choose someone less likely to stir up fusses at regular intervals. That would be a pity.


Kinsley's outrageous article prompted many disgusted responses from readers. This one's my favorite:

I've decided that the Yucca mountain nuclear waste material should be buried on Mr. Kingsley's property. I come to this conclusion as a result of my proprietary Moral Calculation Process (tm) in which the relative values of various human beings' lives are assigned in proportion to their demonstrated humanity. Mr. Kingsley's humanity quotient being quite low (as demonstrated by this column), he is worth less as a human being than most of the rest of us.

I am SO glad we have come up with these snappy and elegant algorithms for calculating the relative worths of human beings' lives. Thank you, Messers Kingsley and Summers, for filling us in.

Posted by: B2O2 | November 8, 2008 5:04 PM


Does it make you wonder about your country when one of the most important and most prestigious publications in the US syndicates the comments of said Michael Kinsley and publishes the ridiculous apologia for torturers and war criminals of Jack Goldsmith? Does it make you want to radically change and overturn this system?

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