Friday, March 30, 2012

"Stand Your Ground" Laws: A Brief Look at Self-Defense in American Law

A "stand your ground" law gives one the ability to use deadly force in self-defense without having to retreat if faced with a reasonably discernible threat to one's life, and does not include a "duty to retreat" like self-defense laws that adhere to the Castle Doctrine. The law has sparked much controversy due to the Trayvon Martin case. I don't want to get into the particulars of the case since the investigation is in its discovery phase, and as such, I don't want to rush to judgement. If this is a case of vigilantism, especially if racially motivated, I'm going to be angry. If it's a legitimate case of self-defense and certain individuals are making George Zimmerman a target [with the intention] to heighten racial tensions, I will also be angry. Either case, the jury is still out, and I would much rather focus on the concept behind the "stand your ground" laws, mainly that of self-defense.

The notion of self-defense is not one that is only grounded in Jewish law, but also in common law. The concept of self-defense in secular law has been influenced by such works as Hobbes' The Leviathan and Locke's Two Treatises of Government. Although the case is more than a century old, the most recent case law in the Supreme Court specifically dealing with "stand your ground laws" is Beard v. United States, which stated that even though the law views life as sacred and worth protecting, a life can be taken out of necessity if the threat of life is imminent.

Critics of such laws find issue with it because it can cultivate a mentality of "shoot first and ask questions later" that would cause society to regress back to the "lawlessness of the Wild West." As I pointed out a while back, if this were the case in practice, we wouldn't see more states pass concealed carry legislation and other laws that favor self-defense and the Second Amendment. A recently published Cato Institute study not only illustrates that defensive gun use has prevented thousands of crimes per annum, but it also makes a strong case for self-defense.

Why Florida's legislatures crafted the "stand your ground" laws in a way that it makes prosecution of the suspect exceedingly difficult to the point where the case can be thrown out when a suspect cries "self-defense" is beyond me. The death of Trayvon Martin should certainly be investigated, and Zimmerman should at least be charged. "Stand your ground" laws or the Castle Doctrine are not created with the intent to give people a carte blanche to murder people.  If it turns out that Zimmerman did not kill Martin out of self-defense, he should be charged with murder and get a strong dose of justice. However, none of this negates the fact that individuals have the de jure right, as well as the natural right, to defend [one's] life if imminently threatened.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Spiritual Realism and Passover Cleaning

It's one of my least favorite times of the year: Passover cleaning. You had to clean your abode so thoroughly that there is not a crumb of chametz (חמץ‎‎) left (Exodus 12:19, Deuteronomy 16:4). What is חמץ‎‎? It is the leavened food derived from the five grains (wheat, barley, oat, rye, and spelt) that are forbidden to own or even eat on Passover. 

I am captivated by the comparison between חמץ and מצה (matzah, or unleavened bread). מצה is made of flour and water; so is חמץ. Chemically speaking, the only difference between the two is that the latter is fermented, which puffs the dough into bonafide bread. In slightly different terms, the Jewish tradition compares חמץ to the ego. We are supposed to realize that much like חמץ, our egos create puffed-up illusions. It distorts our sense of humility, and thus our sense of reality. By partaking in the seemingly mundane act of removing חמץ, we remind ourselves to remove the inflated aspects of our ego and to live life based on who we are, nothing more and nothing less.

While I commenced the cleaning process this afternoon, I thought to myself, "Is it possible to fulfill this law to the letter? Can you really get rid of every last crumb of חמץ?" You might think to yourself that there is a theoretical possibility of cleaning your home in its entirety. More than not, guess what gets in the way of a good theory? Putting the theory into practice. 

Think for a moment the level of diligence that would have to be involved to make sure you have completely rid yourself of חמץ. It's not simply a matter of vacuuming the floor once in hopes you sucked up all the crumbs. You have to clean out your cabinets, stove, sinks, oven, and fridge. You have to move your couch and clean behind the couch to make sure nothing fell behind it. You have to clean your dishes and silverware to make sure that there is not a crumb on them. Not only that, but you have to check your clothes to make sure you're clean. Take it a step further: if you want to be that strict, you have to go through every page of every book to make sure there are no crumbs between the pages. 

This level of meticulousness is enough to drive a person crazy, or to put it into Yiddish parlance, משוגע. You might not have the proper lighting to see some חמץ between a certain crevasse. There might be a certain spot in your house that is literally unreachable. Some crumbs might blend into the carpet all too well. The חמץ might come in some form you didn't think or conceive of, such as ethyl alcohol. You might have forgotten to clean a certain area. There might have been a place where you would have not even thought to search for חמץ, such as between book pages. You might have gotten so fed up with the insanely high standards of the project that you abandon the endeavor altogether. 

Translate the previous paragraph into the spiritual realm and try to translate it into our quotidian, spiritual lives. G-d didn't create us as angels. We are human, and as King Solomon (שלמה המלך) reminds us in Ecclesiastes 7:20, "there is no man is so righteous that he doesn't sin." There is going to be something that we don't see, can't see, or have become so discontented that we don't even care to see when dealing with ourselves and the extent to which our egos have become overinflated. 

Does that mean we stop trying? Absolutely not! G-d sets the bar so high not because He wants us to fail, but because He wants us to treat a relationship with Him as a journey, not a destination. At the end of the fifth chapter of Pirke Avot, it says that "according to the effort is the reward." Regardless of where we are in life, we are meant to put in the effort to improve upon our character development. We are meant to get rid of as much spiritual distortions in our lives as possible. 

Much like with our Passover cleaning, our character development will never be 100% perfect. That much should be discerned from common sense. However, by having us clean our houses for חמץ, we are reminded to do our utmost not only in performing ritualistic mitzvot for Him, but also in our relations with others.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Obamacare is Heading to the Supreme Court

Obamacare, also known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, is being argued before the Supreme Court this week (Florida v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). Not only have more than half of the states decided to sue the federal government over Obamacare, but SCOTUS is hearing six hours of argumentation, which we haven't seen since SCOTUS established Miranda rights back in the 1960s.

It should be no secret that I dislike Obamacare. It's merely another instance in which the government can be highly intrusive in the lives of the American people. Rather than make an unsubstantiated statement about this government program, let me provide a bit of reasoning as to why I hope the justices on the Supreme Court are swayed to do away the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in its entirety.

Although Obama has claimed enough reasons as to why Obamacare will be great for America, there are two that I specifically recall. The first is that no one will have to forego their current insurance. The second is that it would only cost $900 billion over ten years. As if I were at all surprised, Obama was 0 for 2 on those promises. You can look at the recently published CBO report for yourself. According to the CBO (p. 4), "because of the ACA, about 3 million to 5 million fewer people, on net, will obtain coverage through their employer." So much for "everyone can keep their plan." Another interesting thing about the CBO report was on Table 4, the table that projects scenarios about the costs (a.k.a. the "gross cost of coverage pensions"). The best-case scenario was $1,541B, whereas the worst-case projection was $2,134B. If my math skills serve me correctly, 1,541 > 900. So much for cost-controlling. And knowing the government's prognosticating skills, I am going to take an educated guess that in hindsight, the figures will be on the higher end. Based on common sense, I knew back in 2010 that $900B was such a low figure. Did the president honestly think that he could provide more benefits to more citizens and not expect the price tag to be higher? It defies the most basic concepts of supply and demand. If this actually gets passed by the Supreme Court, expect tax hikes and new taxes because the government needs to find a source of revenue to fund this monstrosity.

The price tag of Obamacare is not the only thing that has me on edge. The individual mandate, which is the highlight of these proceedings, is such an encroachment on individual liberty. Why? This is such a basic violation of contract law that it's not even funny. Government has regulated activity throughout American history, but never has regulated inactivity, which is another way of saying "the American government has never forced an individual to buy something against their will." The Supreme Court has never granted Congress the ability to regulate inactivity under the Commerce Clause. If SCOTUS does manage to grant that power through the individual mandate (Section 1501), we might as well start digging the grave for contract law because the message that would be sent through a ruling not in favor of liberty would be that the federal government is unbounded in what it can regulated, which would unleash further regulations.

Individuals are not the only ones who get coerced into paying health insurance. There is also an employer mandate. According to Sections 1513 and 2980H of the legislation, any employer with over 50 employees who opts to not provide their employees with health care will also be fined. I'd imagine that it is a safe assumption this mandate hurts small businesses much more than it does large businesses. Just another reason for small-to-medium business to not hire more workers during this recession.

I have only covered some of the basics on Obamacare. This bill constitutes multiple pages of health care regulation that the predominantly Democratic Congress shoved down the throats of the American people before anybody, including Congress, had ample time to read it. After two years of analyzing the implications of such a bill, it has only become more and more evident that implementation would have averse effects. As far as I'm concerned, the whole bill should be scrapped. You might be able to pick out a good provisions that are good ideas, like covering those individuals with pre-existing conditions or extending family health care to individuals up to the age of 26, but you shouldn't use those provisions as a red herring in order to justify a bill that will increase health care costs while doing nothing to improve health care quality. I am going to be attentive of this SCOTUS case because it would be great to tell future generations that this was the juncture in which we avoided disaster.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Parsha Vayikra: The Value of Property Rights & Business Ethics

This week's Torah portion deals primarily with the offerings given at the Temple. Leviticus comes with a series of sins and the proper atonement under the sacrificial system that existed. In the fifth chapter of Leviticus, specifically with verses 21 and 22, we come across an intriguing passage because it is unlike the other ones in the chapter. It starts off with "If you have someone who sins and trespasses against the L-rd," or נפש כי תחטא, ומעלה מעל ביהוה. What initially threw me off was the list of sins. You have deceitful dealings with a neighbor in a deposit or pledge, robbery, fraud, or lying about finding a lost object.

First, I want to deal with why this is "trespassing against the L-rd." After all, it wasn't G-d that was shortchanged; it was the individual within a given transaction, thereby making it בין אדם לחברו. I would have expected it to say that "you are trespassing against your fellow man," but it doesn't. The message trying to be conveyed here is that violating a divine decree, regardless of whether it is בין אדם לחברו, is still a  breach of Jewish law. 

You might have thought that G-d forgot about the individual who was wronged. However, that is not the case. A guilt-offering of a ram is brought (Leviticus 5:25-26) because, as previously mentioned, the individual trespassed against G-d. However, the situation has to be squared between the individual who wronged and who was wronged. That is why G-d also demands that the sinner monetarily compensates the individual for the loss (ibid 5:23-24). 

We obviously don't have the sacrificial system instituted, and at least in my humble opinion, for good reason. Even without a guilt offering, I opine that we can still derive something from this passage. The first is that when you harm others, you are not only harming one of G-d's creations "created in His Image," but you are, for a lack of a better term, also giving the proverbial middle finger to G-d, which is highly insulting. As a result, any violation of a mitzvah that is ethical/interpersonal (בין אדם לחברו) acts as a double-whammy. 

Second is that we are observing an extension of the Eighth Commandment, the one that tells us not to steal. If you find lost property, return it to its owner. Don't commit fraud. Don't be deceitful in your day-to-day dealings. With something as seemingly mundane as property and business, we are taught to hold ourselves to a higher standard. By acting honestly in business dealings and recognizing another individual's right to property, we treat others like human beings, which is the sort of behavior that G-d expects from us.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Will India Become a Superpower?

A recent study by the London School of Economics inquires about India's current status in world politics. Let's just say that their findings were not flattering. It is true that India is currently not a superpower. Although India is one of the BRIC countries, China's rise is much more visible than any Indian progress being made. Does this mean that China's overshadowing automatically excludes the possibility of India's rise? I divide my analysis into arguments for and against India's rise to superpower status, followed by concluding thoughts.

Arguments for India's Rise
The first argument I would make is linguistic. India is the country with the second-largest English-speaking (as opposed to English-using) population. Since English is already established as a world language, language is one significant barrier that India will not have to overcome. Free press is another important factor for development. Freedom House ranks the Indian press as "partly free," even though it is not too far from being considered "free" under their rubric. Their press is the freest in the region, and as long as there is a trend towards civil liberties, it can only get better for India. Fertility rate is also in India's favor. To sustain a population, you need to maintain at least a 2.1. India has a fertility rate of 2.6, which is more encouraging than China's demographic disaster of 1.6. India's soft power will also play to its advantage. Indian food, cuisine, and films (i.e., Bollywood) will not only attract future business, but also make India seem less menacing than China. India also has a more individualist, entrepreneurial spirit that relies more heavily on its private sector. The biggest advantage India has [over China], however, is that it has maintained its democratic institutions since its inception. A good number of political theorists hypothesize that sound institutions lead to long-term growth. If that is the case, then India should ascend in due time.

Arguments Against India's Rise
Although it might seem that India's rise will be inevitable, the Indian government has a myriad of issues it needs to resolve. These problems are in no particular order since they are all troubling. The first I would point out is India's economic freedom. India started off as a socialist nation and made failed attempts throughout time to have a mixed economy. In spite of India's high GDP growth in percentage, what worries me is a lack of market-oriented reform that perpetuates the status quo in economic freedom ranking. Corruption is also rampant in India, so much that it actually ranks lower than China in the Corruption Perceptions Index (complete data here). Much like a lack of liberalization in the economy, corruption also hinders growth of a country. India also has to contend with a major rural poverty issue (see 2011 Global Hunger Index). I had earlier mentioned about the amount of English speakers in India. To counter that, India has the largest amount of illiterates in the world. Literacy is a sound indicator of an educated populace. Since education leads to progress, a 74% literacy rate is not exactly promising. India also has been experiencing an overall decrease in foreign direct investment (FDI). And think what happens when you mix politics with the Hindu caste system: actual class warfare.

Concluding Thoughts
Will India have rising influence in international politics? Undoubtedly. Will it arrive to superpower status? India has a lot of structural problems that it needs to resolve. Because of the magnitude of the issues, I am very skeptical as to whether they can clean up the mess and go beyond being just a regional power. However, if India were able to succeed, the institutions in place would ensure that its superpower status would be enduring.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Let's Accept the Fact that Israel Is Not an Apartheid State

There is a certain point where you get fed up with the hyperbolic, inaccurate slogan of "Israel is an apartheid state" and the ridiculous Israel Apartheid Week events held on college campuses. With such tomfoolery, I have to begin to wonder if these anti-Israel activists actually know what the definition of apartheid is.

What is apartheid? According to the Rome Statute of International Criminal Court of 1998 (Article 7, Section 2h), apartheid is defined as "inhumane acts of a character similar to those referred to in paragraph 1, committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime." The 1973 United Nations General Assembly defined it as "inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them."

In short, apartheid is a de jure racial discrimination that segregates one race from another. That would mean such policies as denying a certain race to vote, making interracial marriage illegal, or barring the oppressed race from holding public office, all of which took place in South Africa. 

To say the least, comparing Israel to South Africa's past policies is intellectually dishonest to the point where it can be defined as slander. Arabs in Israel can vote, own property, be members in the Knesset (Israel's legislative branch), serve on the Israeli Supreme Court (e.g., Salim Joubran), share the same public facilities, receive health care and assistance from other state-sponsored programs, and what's more, Arabic is an official language of Israel. Judge Richard Goldstone, who was infamous for the Goldstone Commission, points out in his New York Times op-ed entitled Israel and the Apartheid Slander that much of the de facto separation amongst communities is primarily chosen by the communities themselves, and continues to say "In Israel, equal rights are the law, the aspiration and the ideal; inequities are often successfully challenged in court."   

Israeli Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, an Israeli that is critical of the Israeli government, like so many other Israelis, said "to say that Israel is an apartheid state is a big exaggeration" and "I would rather live in Israel as a second-class citizen than as a first-class citizen in Cairo, Gaza, Amman, or Ramallah." The South African Interior Minister realizes that Israel is not an apartheid state. Looking at a recent poll brought to my attention by the Brookings Institute, a centrist think-tank, only 36% of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs analogizes Israel's policies to apartheid. You had a majority that were worried about discrimination in some form, which given the political climate, is to be expected. However, you couldn't even get a majority of Israeli Arabs, a people who are not happy with Israel by any means, to say that Israel is an apartheid state. 

Why can't these rabidly anti-Israeli activists in the West realize that although Israel has its own societal and institutional issues that it needs to get through, just like any other nation-state, Israel is still a liberal democracy with a free press, independent judiciary, religious freedoms, and civil and political liberties? 

I'll leave that question as a rhetorical one, at least for now. If you have issues with Israel's policies, I ask two things. First, if you are going to hold Israel to such high standards (which you shouldn't do in the first place because they are of mythical proportions), be consistent and apply those standards to every nation. Don't single out Israel because doing so reeks of anti-Semitic overtones. Second, keep Israel's policies in context, not simply in terms of the tumultuous situation in the Middle East, but in terms of what apartheid actually is. I don't mind a healthy dose of criticism, but leave the fallacious emotionalism of out the discussion; it only serves as a counterproductive force.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

A Jewish Perspective on Constructive Humility

I recently came across an intriguing quote about humility that is attributed to Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook from his book Middot HaRa'aya:

"It is impossible to achieve clarity of understanding except through humility. Humility which brings out a person's sadness is improper humility, but when it is proper, it engenders happiness, inner strength, and self-respect."

Wait a moment, I thought that humility had to do with being low and meek, especially considering that a) the word "humility" comes from the Latin word humilitas, and b) the word is associated with "humiliation" in English. For many, the word "humility" has almost a negative connotation, where people who are humble let people walk all over them like a doormat. But the Torah (Numbers 12:3) says that Moses "very humble," or ענו מאד. Moses was a great leader who had to tend to the needs of thousands of Jews. He even stood up to G-d on no less than two occasions! We don't associate great leaders with meekness, so something has to be awry with this view of humility.

Meekness leads to self-debasement, which is an extreme I am sure we would all rather avoid. Arrogance is also an extreme because such conceit leads to a narcissistic, hyper-inflated ego that is not based on reality. Both self-debasement and arrogance are extremes. The former is an extreme of modesty, whereas the latter is an extreme of pride.

So what is humility?

As Alan Morinis points out in his book Everyday Holiness (p. 50), "Humility is not an extreme quality, but rather a balanced, moderate accurate understanding of yourself that you act on in your life. That's why humility and self-esteem go in hand." Humility is a balancing act between one's modesty and one's pride. 

With this definition, connecting humility to something such as happiness considerably makes more sense. Humility brings you self-knowledge, which brings about self-awareness. By being self-aware, you have a healthy, intact ego. You know who you are, from where you came, and to where you are going. Knowing yourself and being honest with yourself means you are not prone to having distorted views about yourself or others. Things such as flattery or other people's approval will have no power because you already know where you are, which means you are less dependent on what others think of you because again, you are already aware. 

A practice I have found to be effective in cultivating such humility is from Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshischa. He carried two notes, one in either pocket. The first said "I am dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27)." The second said "For my sake alone was the world was created (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5)." We balance ourselves between knowing that in comparison to G-d, who is Infinite Oneness, we will not be here that long, and knowing that because we are created in His Image, our lives have meaning because we have purpose to fulfill. This near-paradoxical concept is what keeps me more balanced. I know that I should not pretend to be greater than I am, but not deny that I my self-worth. It is the sort of self-truth that we can all cultivate in order to lead more constructive lives. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Using Economic Indicators to Assess Obama on the Economy

It's no secret. I'm not what you would call an Obama fan. I don't like his Keynesian "spend and tax" policies. I don't think he should be bailing out banks or auto companies. It would be nice to objectively quantify what sort of job that Obama has done since in office. That is what the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) endeavored to do in a recently published article, "The economic case against Obamanomics in 13 charts." Although AEI is a right-leaning think-tank, and thus has not been pro-Obama, I think that looking at economic indicators to assess Obama's economic progress is a worthy undertaking.

The first chart that AEI shows is one showing the change in unemployment from the start of recovery. My main issue with their chart they have is when they show the recovery from the 1981 recession. The people at AEI seemed to have forgotten that the 1980 recession was a double-dip recession. Whether it was intentional or not, only including the second dip is misleading. I modified the chart (see below) to reflect the change of the 1980 recession. Not only was the 1980 recession a slow recovery, but heck, even the 2001 recession, which was not that deep in comparison, took a while to recover when considering unemployment.

The second chart used is the U-6 unemployment, which accounts for underemployment in addition to unemployment. In the beginning of 2008, the amount was 9.2%. Currently, it's at 15.1%. However, these numbers do not adjust for the AEI's fifth chart, which is the percentage of citizens in the labor force (see below).

Although some people might have retired, the most probable explanation is that most people have given up on finding employment, which makes sense given the increased average duration of unemployment (see below).

Even if you look back at the beginning of when such data were collected, we are experiencing an unprecedentedly high mean. What has caused people to be unemployed for longer? The most probable answer is that businesses are hesitant to take on new labor. There can be multiple causes of such hesitation: ObamaCare, uncertainties created by the government (e.g., temporary, as opposed to permanent, tax cuts), the unease that business owners feel because the perception that Obama is anti-business, businesses have learned to do more with less, more manufacturing jobs being shipped overseas. Who knows? Causation is not clear here, which means as much as I'd rather not say it, this increased unemployment mean is not automatically Obama's fault.

But let's not just look at unemployment rates. How about GDP growth? It is clear that GDP growth is lower on average in comparison to other recessions in the past sixty-some-odd years. Let's take the data at face value. You still run into the issue that the GDP has enough components to complicate establishing causation. 

Debt as a percent of GDP is another big issue, one that has me worried. White House projections have the debt as percent of GDP rising ever higher (p. 58). As tempting as it might be to "blame Obama first," is that fair to Obama? In this instance, no. The two biggest programs that are only going to grow over time are Social Security and Medicare. These two programs were a well-established part of the American entitlement system long before Obama became president. While it is true that Obama is ideologically disinclined to eliminate or downsize on either program, would it matter even if he were? He'd still have to get past the political obstacles (i.e., the senior citizens that want these programs and the politicians that pander to this ever-growing demographic). 

The final chart, which I can blame on Obama, is the one that shows what would have happened if we hadn't passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan (ARRP), which was Obama's most infamous stimulus package. Didn't he say that if we passed ARRP, unemployment wouldn't exceed 8%? Oh yeah, he did. Whoops! That clearly didn't happen. Keynesian economists will gripe that either the stimulus was not large enough or that it has yet to fully come into fruition. Being a libertarian, it shouldn't be a surprise that I view both of those explanations as lousy excuses to explain failed Keynesian economics. It would be nice for Obama to try something a little more free-market oriented in lieu of stimulus packages, but I won't hold my breath.

Concluding Thoughts: The economy is an extremely complicated organism. So many factors go into it that causation is anything but simple to discern. Let's face it. Obama inherited a mess. To blame Obama for the 2007 recession is like blaming Bush for the 2001 recession or crediting Clinton with the Internet bubble. Obama did not cause the recession to take place, but his policies do affect how quickly of a recovery the economy has. 

We forget all too easily that Congress is the branch that legislates, hence why it's called the legislative branch. Congress enacted ARRP, Dodd-Frank, and unemployment benefits into law. I do also keep in mind that Obama is the head of the executive branch and did sign off on these laws, so it's not as if he's off the hook. 

Obama should be blamed for what he did or didn't do, nothing more and nothing less. And it's hard to quantify the percentage of blame that Obama deserves. There is no doubt in my mind that he has done enough damage to slow down economic growth. However, I ultimately have to conclude that a) some of these indicators have nothing to do with Obama, but b) even the ones in which Obama did play a role, he certainly was not the only actor to impede economic growth.