May 5, 2006

Honest Debate?

This is an old Daily Show piece where Jon Stewart brings out a very nice point: Bush's insistence that Americans can have a debate on Iraq war, but only under the terms set by him.

The following dialogue is hilarious and also deep.

Rob Corduroy: There's not even a point to be having this debate. Jon, you can not reason with these people, they have a fixed agenda they mean to pursue no matter what.

Jon Stewart: The terrorists?

Rob Corduroy: Of course, Jon. They are radical ideologues, with a penchant for aggression, who profoundly misjudged the character of the American people.

Jon Stewart: The terrorists?

Rob Corduroy: Yes, Jon. Yes,why do you keep naming the antecedent to my pronoun, it's grammatically unnecessary.

Watch the full piece.

May 4, 2006

A Forceful New York Times Editorial.

A few days ago I wrote on the worrying habit of President Bush of nullifying the content of many laws passed by the Congress by "presidential signing statements". The New York Times addresses this issue in no uncertain terms in its editorial for tomorrow (5th May).

It mentions the curious fact that Bush is the first president since Thomas Jefferson to NOT veto any bill passed by the Congress. The reason for that is clear: if he does veto it, the Congress can override him by passing it with a two-thirds majority (not a likely eventuality anyway given Republican-controlled Congress). So he overcomes that annoyance by signing on the law, but also saying that he doesn't give a damn about following it.

Bush's personal philosophy might be alarming. But what is infinitely more alarming is the fact that he doesn't have the slightest regard for rules and norms. An illogical ideology can be fought if all the parties agree to follow rules. If one side disregards rules at will, then it's time to worry.

May 3, 2006

Sweatshops in Jordan.

This is an informative article in New York Times on the horrible conditions facing foreign workers in garment factories in Jordan.

In the last decade or so, the trade barriers between the US and Jordan have been eased, resulting in a tremendous growth of exports, particularly of textiles, from Jordan. A number of major retailers in the US, like Walmart and Target, delegate the manufacturing of their clothes to factories in Jordan. As a result, Jordanian exports to the US have increased 20 times in the last five years.

Inevitably, this led to cynical exploitation. Thousands of poor workers managed to escape the misery of unemployment as a result of this spurt in trade. Only to enter a different kind of misery, it would seem. The brunt of this exploitation is borne by the "guest" workers, coming from countries like Bangladesh and China.

Some details of this exploitation make for a depressing reading. 20-hour work days, months without being paid, confiscation of passports etc.

No sensible person will fail to sympathize with their lot. However, caution must be exercised in reaching conclusion as to the nature of and reasons for this phenomenon. It is probably natural, and rather easy, to blame it all on human greed, given wings by the forces of globalization. But such a diagnosis is not only partly incorrect, it fails to address the more basic issues.

Problem with the above reasoning is its implicit assumption that human greed is omnipotent and that the only way to contain it is to avoid any system which might encourage it. But avoiding any system that can possibly encourage greed is foolhardy and such a policy would result in stagnation.

The point is human greed is not omnipotent. There are ways to contain it. A good first step would be improving the conditions of the downtrodden. The only reason for the misery of sweatshops is the helplessness of the workers, and the resultant lack of bargaining power.

I believe that unshackling of trade, part of which is globalization, is an effective way of addressing this first step. The short term traumas notwithstanding.

May 2, 2006

Professor Seshadri Honored.

Professor Seshadri of Chennai Mathematical Institute is appointed by Government of India as a national research professor. This is a highly apt honor to one of the greatest mathematicians in India.

May 1, 2006

A Fine Point of American Democracy.

President Bush is using a quaint trick to limit the scope of hundreds of laws that the Congress passes. That is the upshot of this nice article.

In short, this is what happens.

When the Congress passes a law it goes to the President for ratification and his signature is necessary for that law to come into effect. When he signs the law, the President issues a signing statement, which is essentially his views on the law. In these statements Bush has repeatedly rejected provisions of many bills and strongly asserted his constitutional right to interpret them any way he wants.

While these statements technically do not change the content of the laws, they are a very potent weapon in two ways.

1. Presidential statements are deemed very highly by the federal bureaucrats who are charged with the implementation of the laws. Often they look at President's interpretations to resolve any ambiguity, and in such cases may be contradicting the intention of the Congress.

2. When a legal dispute arises in the implementation of the law, often courts look at the debate and testimony, and the law's history to interpret what Congress meant. When there is a presidential statement it becomes an important document in court's deliberations. Thus it is an extremely effective tool for the president to ensure the court pays attention to what he thinks.

President Bush has challenged more than 750 laws since taking office. To put this in historical context, here is what happened with his two predecessors.

George Bush Sr: 232 laws challenged in 4 years.
Bill Clinton: 140 laws challenged in 8 years.
George Bush Jr: More than 750 laws challenged in 5 years.

Here are some of the examples.

Congress: US can't torture its prisoners.
Bush: No, we can if I, as commander-in-chief, think it works.

Congress: Justice department must keep the Congress updated on how it's using the Patriot Act.
Bush: Nope, I can stop Justice dept from giving any information if I feel like it.

Congress: The Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and its contractors may not fire or otherwise punish an employee whistle-blower who tells Congress about possible wrongdoing.
Bush: Nice try. I, or my cronies, will determine whether one can give info to the Congress.

Congress: US troops can't fight rebels in Colombia.
Bush: Are you kidding me. I will say when we can or can't fight.

Congress: Defense department lawyers can't interfere with the ability of military lawyers to give independent legal advice to their commanders.
Bush: Nothing doing. All military lawyers have to follow legal conclusions reached by the administration's lawyers in the Justice Department and the Pentagon when giving advice to their commanders.

More such examples can be found here.

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