BearingPoint Afghans

Sometime around 2004 or 2005, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) contracted BearingPoint (now part of Deloitte Consulting) to recruit and mentor approximately 80 young Afghan college graduates into Afghanistan’s central bank (DAB) and Finance Ministry. These young Afghans worked in DAB and the Finance Ministry for two years while being trained and mentored by BearingPoint experts. Following these two years they were offered regular jobs in these two institutions. While some moved on to higher paying jobs elsewhere most of them stayed with DAB and the MOF. Over the years that followed they rose within these institutions, and in DAB headed many of the departments including the position of Second Deputy Governor. Working with and watching the progress of these young Afghans was one of the most enjoyable and gratifying assignments in my career with the International Monetary Fund. They were smart, honest, and dedicated to improving life in their country (including their own). They were, and I hope still are, the hope for a better future for Afghanistan.

The elected Afghan government under which these BearingPoint Afghans worked has now been toppled by the Taliban, a group that harshly ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until displaced by an American-British invasion in November 2001.  Back in 1996: “Gaining control over most of the country, the Taliban impose their rule, forbidding most women from working, banning girls from education, and carrying out punishments including beatings, amputations and public executions. Only three countries officially recognize the Taliban regime: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.”  “Afghanistan conflict timeline”

The Taliban in 1996 claimed to impose Sharia Law on Afghanistan. “Sharia” translates to ‘the way’ in Arabic and refers to a wide-ranging body of moral and ethical principles drawn from the Quran and from the sayings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad. The principles vary according to the interpretation of various scholars who established schools of thought followed by Muslims who use them to guide their day-to-day lives. Many Muslim-majority countries base their laws on their interpretation of the principles of Islamic law but, despite this, no two have identical laws.”  “Taliban and Sharia Law in Afghanistan”

The Taliban imposed a very severe version of Sharia that has not been embraced by very many Muslims. It was particularly restrictive on the activities and rights of women. Twenty years later Afghanistan is a different place, and the Taliban sounds like a different organization.

“KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban vowed Tuesday to respect women’s rights, forgive those who fought them and ensure Afghanistan does not become a haven for terrorists as part of a publicity blitz aimed at reassuring world powers and a fearful population.

“Following a lightning offensive across Afghanistan that saw many cities fall to the insurgents without a fight, the Taliban have sought to portray themselves as more moderate than when they imposed a strict form of Islamic rule in the late 1990s. But many Afghans remain skeptical — and thousands have raced to the airport, desperate to flee the country.

“Older generations remember the Taliban’s previous rule, when they largely confined women to their homes, banned television and music, and held public executions. A U.S.-led invasion drove them from power months after the 9/11 attacks, which al-Qaida had orchestrated from Afghanistan while being sheltered by the Taliban.”  “Afghanistan Taliban Kabul”

So, what should American policy be toward the forthcoming Taliban or Taliban lead government? What does the Taliban pledge to “respect women’s rights consistent with their version of Sharia Law actually mean? We should deploy every diplomatic tool possible to encourage/pressure the new government to live up to its promises. Former President Karzai, current CEO Abdullah Abdullah and others are currently in discussions with the Taliban leadership over terms for an inclusive government.

The alternative of nonrecognition, once there is a government to recognize, is to encourage and even support civil war. Or, God forbid, to send our troops back (there is not much chance that our NATO allies would be conned a second time into join us there again). And how did that work out for us last time? Our over used weapon of economic sanctions harms the public we should be trying to help. Our inhuman sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela are imposing horrible pain on the their citizens with little impact on their governments. “Evidence-costs and benefits of economic sanctions”

In a recent Washington Post oped Nikki Haley argued that we should not recognize the Taliban government no matter what. “Nikki Haley-America must not recognize Taliban” I respected Ms. Haley when she was Governor of South Carolina but I eventually got over her when she embarrassed us while Ambassador to the UN. “The future of Israel and Palestine” Her unqualified attack on the Taliban firmly ties her to those who were responsible for our Afghan disaster in the first place. The new Afghan government may turn out to be as bad as the previous Taliban government, but we should do everything possible to prevent that.

The U.S. has suspended currency shipments purchased by Afghanistan’s central bank. Afghan assets (foreign exchange reserves, etc.) deposited abroad have been frozen including “its” access to reserves at the IMF. These may appear to be rejections of a new government, but they are not. There is no new government yet and those holding Afghan assets must keep them safe until their new owners are clearly and properly identified. The situation is much like the bank in which you have deposited money, freezing your deposits when you die until the new lawful owner is determined. There is an unavoidable, awkward period of uncertainty. It is not too late to reverse our mistake in closing our Embassy and running out while at the same time accusing the Afghan Army of behaving the same way.

It is also not true that nothing was accomplished these past 20 years. Our military leaders may have failed in their task of building a reliable Afghan Army, but many others, myself included, did not waste our time by helping Afghans build better institutions (see the story of the BearingPoint Afghans I started this article with above). See the discussion of this issue by Jonathan Rauch: “The  Afghanistan war was a partial success”

No one knows what the Afghan government will look like or which way it will go, but we all (except for the war mongers) have an interest in promoting its success, especially the hopeful, new generation of Afghans. “Can US work with Taliban”    “What do Taliban’s really want?”

And we must resist the siren calls of those who think that we can and should impose our vision and institutions on the rest of the world. We must keep our Army home to defend our homeland rather than messing with other people’s business. Our defense industries have profited enough.

Trust

Trust is a critically important feature of successful relationships and of flourishing societies. Enduring trust builds on honestly and truth.  I have just finished reading Jonathan Rauch’s exposition of these truths in The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth and his enlightening exploration of how to find and defend truth in today’s challenging environment. 

How can we determine what is true and what is not? Rauch’s book explores this question. In sorting out fact from fiction we must recognize the personal and social biases through which we evaluate claims and the factors that motivate them. The task is made even more difficult by the fact that there are some who deliberately propagate falsehoods for their own purposes. Whatever else might motivate them, political and other leaders act to gain or retain their power. They often have an incentive to misrepresent facts, i.e., to lie. Former President Trump and his Big Lie (and his many, many other lies) is by no means the only President to have lied to the American public. Many other Presidents have also lied.

Ken Burn’s documentary, The Vietnam War, is a brilliant expose of such lies and yesterday I watched for the first time the 2010 Goldsmith and Ehrlich directed documentary The Most Dangerous Man in American: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon almost give Trump a run for his money as liars, though I think that they thought they were lying for the benefit of our country along with their reelection (which by no means excuses it).

Our constitution provides limited, enumerated powers to our government and checks and balances of the powers between its branches and its citizens. But the power of free speech and a free press to expose lies is an indispensable check on the lies of public officials. Our republic has been defended from foreign attacks by many brave solders. But we should also be grateful for the self-sacrifices of a few brave whistleblowers for exposing government lies and thus defending our republic and the individual liberty in which we have flourished.

Wednesday, I watched Daniel Ellsberg receive the Committee for the Republic’s Defender of Liberty award. We are still meeting virtually, but the event was a fascinating discussion of the Vietnam war decision making. The discussion included the Pentagon Papers movie directors, Goldsmith and Ehrlich; the official head of the Pentagon project that wrote the Pentagon Papers history of the war, Morton Halperin; the New York Times reporter who wrote the first article on the Papers given to him by Ellsberg; and Ellsberg himself who went on at great length. It was a riveting two-hour discussion. You can watch it here: https://youtu.be/l7L3DOhakNU

I hope that we can present this award to Edward Snowden in the future.  

Holding our government officials accountable for speaking the truth and for abiding by the law are critically important in preserving (or restoring) trust and in determining “the truth.” Each one of us contribute to (or detract from) those goals. But I am in awe at the personal sacrifices of Ellsberg and Snowden in the service of truth, which so badly needs defending. If there is hope of saving our fractured and disbelieving Republic, it will be because of the bravery of such people and the embrace by the rest of us of the wisdom expressed by writers like Rauch. It requires our individual commitment to truth and the institutions and norms that facilitate and incentivize finding it (filtering falsehood from truth). It requires an effective Constitution of Knowledge.

What to do with Social Media?

Social media is changing how we get news and debate public issues. How should its contents be regulated and by whom? The answer should reflect the fundamental importance of free and open speech for forming broadly supported public policies and social attitudes.

The quality of public discussion in the United States today has deteriorated. There are even some who wish to end debate on some issues altogether (the cancel culture). Take two recent examples:

In reaction to Georgia’s new Voting Rights Act President Biden said: “Parts of our country are backsliding into the days of Jim Crow, passing laws that harken back to the era of poll taxes — when Black people were made to guess how many beans, how many jelly beans, in a jar or count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap before they could cast their ballot.” “Biden US backsliding-Jim Crow”

Representative Maxine Waters traveled to Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, to join crowds protesting the police shooting of Duante Wright. On that occasion, “A reporter then asked, if Chauvin isn’t convicted on all charges, “What should protesters do?”

“Well, we gotta stay on the street,” Waters said. “And we’ve got to get more active. We’ve got to get more confrontational. We’ve got to make sure that they know that we mean business.”

For her complete comments see: “In her own words-Maxine Waters”

In response to Water’s words Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted:

_________________________________  

@RepMaxineWaters you don’t live in Minnesota.

You crossed state lines and incited riots, violence against police, shootings at the MN NG, and threatened a jury as a sitting US Congresswoman.@SpeakerPelosi surely you will expel this criminal from Congress and uphold the law! pic.twitter.com/twH52VwFTP

— Marjorie Taylor Greene 🇺🇸 (@mtgreenee) April 19, 2021

_________________________________ 

“Marjorie Taylor Greene says Maxine Waters incited riots calls for her expulsion from congress”

‘Maxine Waters-Kevin McCarthy Minnesota police”

President Biden’s and Representative Greene’s comments both earn four Pinocchios. Senator Ted Cruz’s comments about Waters’ statement were just as bad. But then we are used to politicians lying to us, especially in the heat of campaigns. However, they do not contribute to the constructive dialog needed over these and other pressing public issues.  

With regard to Georgia’s new Voting Law, assessments are mixed. For example: “Rather than allowing voters to request ballots six months from Election Day, the new law says voters can start requesting ballots 78 days out; counties can begin sending ballots to voters just 29 days before Election Day, rather than the previous 49 days.” “Georgia voting law explained”

This hardly strikes me as voter suppression. I grew up in Bakersfield California and our voting precinct voted in our garage. As a kid I was fascinated by it all (though not thrilled with having to clean the garage for the occasion). There was no such thing as early voting except for absentee ballets by military service men and women. No drop boxes or any of that stuff. You came to our garage on election day or you didn’t vote. But there is surely a place for serious pros and cons of each provision of the law. As the press has been overwhelmingly (almost hysterically) negative (despite Georgia’s Governor and Secretary of State’s refusal to yield to Trump’s pressure to overturn his election defeat in Georgia) here is a more measured defense of the new law: “Exclusive 21 black leaders defend Georgia voting law as proper honest reform”

The real question is why were changes in Georgia’s voting law needed in the first place? What weaknesses were being addressed? Even with this new law, Georgia’s law is more permissive than those of Biden’s Delaware. In a negative, but more balanced assessment, Derek Thompson stated that:  “Georgia’s voting rights have long been more accommodating than those of deep-blue states including not only Delaware, but also Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York.” “Georgia voting rights fiasco”

Maxine Waters didn’t, and often doesn’t, use the best judgement in where, when and what she said, but she didn’t say anything that she should not be allowed to say whether you agree with her or not.  Referring to Reps. Waters and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich, Newt Gingrich wrote that:

“House Democrats have produced two radical demagogues whose policies would endanger the lives of innocent Americans, lead to the breakdown of society, and undermine the U.S. Constitution.”  “Repudiate Tlaib and Waters promote mob rule Newt Gingrich” This is precisely the sort of name calling that impedes the serious dialogue over concrete issues and proposals that we so badly need. Demonizing opponents–turning opponents into enemies–is a tactic of the weak (think Vladimir Putin).

Rep Waters’ charge that protesters should get more confrontational did not strike me as an incitement to violence anymore (and rather less) than former President Trump’s call for his assembled supporters on January 6 to march to the Capital and “fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” The brief submitted by Trump’s lawyers for his impeachment trail stated the “his call for the crowd to ‘fight like hell,’ was not meant to be taken literally.” OK, then perhaps he should keep it to himself. This reminds me of my favorite “apology” for lying about voter fraud that kept Trump from remaining in the White House. In response to a liable suit by the voting software company Dominion Voting Systems,  Sidney Powell stated in court that “’no reasonable person would conclude’ that her accusations of Dominion being part of an election-rigging scheme with ties to Venezuela ‘were truly statements of fact.’” “Sidney Powell-Dominion-No reasonable person”  Sadly I know some very fine people who did (or do) believe her nonsense.

But what if Biden’s, Trump’s, Waters’ and Greene’s comments were suppressed–erased–rather than challenged? These were opinions, however off the mark, rather than statements of fact. What if someone (named Trump) claims that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and thus not eligible to run for President (despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary)? I will spare you the very long list of such lies. And, to finally get to my real topic, what should social media do about it?  

Unlike newspapers and magazines, which are responsible for the accuracy of their content, Facebook and Twitter and Tiktok (I am too old to be current with all of the other newer platforms) “merely” provide the vehicle by which its users (you and me) distribute our content. The government does have laws that limit speech.  “Categories of speech that are given lesser or no protection by the First Amendment (and therefore may be restricted) include obscenity, fraud, child pornography, speech integral to illegal conduct, speech that incites imminent lawless action, speech that violates intellectual property law, true threats….and defamation that causes harm to reputation….”  “United States free speech exceptions”. What is not legally allowed generally, should not be allowed on social media. But in my opinion, those are the only restrictions that should be allowed in the law.  The last thing we want is Nancy Pelosi or Ten Cruz deciding what is allowed and not allowed on Twitter.

In short, beyond speech that is already restricted by law, the government should leave social media free to set their own policies for what they permit on their platforms.  But what should those policies be? In my opinion, all opinions should be allowed, even those, and especially those, that the platform operators consider wrong or repugnant. Bad policy prescriptions should best be countered by counter arguments not by censorship. It is not possible to over emphasize the benefit to America of free and open debate. Bad ideas are best countered and refuted by good ideas.  You are not likely to find a better statement of these views and a better defense of free speech than in Jonathan Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.

But what about clearly fake news? Unfortunately, the distinction between fact and opinion is not always 100 percent clear. Tweeter should not have removed Donald Trump’s pages, though full of lies. Facebook should not have removed QAnon’s totally ridiculous conspiracy claims to take another extreme example. Many far less controversial posts have been removed as well for very unclear reasons. Facebook and other social media are working diligently to strike the right balance but are not there yet in my opinion. When Facebook or other social media platforms have good reason to doubt facts posted on their platforms, rather than remove (censure) them it would be better for Facebook to attach its warning and perhaps a link to more reliable information.

If Facebook (or any other platform) chooses to forbid hate speech, it would be better to rely on user complaints than its AI algorithm to determine what is hate speech. In an amusing, but not so amusing, example of the pitfalls of reliance on programmatic detection of disallowed speech, Facebook removed a post of a section of the Declaration of Independence because of its “nasty” reference to American Indians.  “Facebook censored a post for hate speech-it was the Declaration of Independence”

It is often argued that given the realities of network externalities (everyone wants to be where everyone else is), Facebook and Twitter are virtual monopolies and that this justifies more intrusive government regulation.  But the competition has expanded to include at the top of the list: YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter, and Pinterest. Even Trump plans to launch his own platform. Facebook and the other popular platforms must ultimately please their users or they will be replaced even if network externalities are hard to overcome. It has happened before and can happen again. Government intervention to regulate platform content beyond the restrictions already in the law would be contrary to our traditional freedom of speech and potentially dangerous.

There are measures that the government might take to make competition easier. When phone companies were required to give ownership of phone numbers to the subscriber, making them easily portable from one phone company to another, competition received an important boost. Something similar might be done with social media data of users (e.g., username, friends, pictures and posts).

A much more challenging area concerns social media algorithms for directing users to others with similar interests (or beliefs) in order to better target the advertising that pays for it all. If users only see or hear the views of the likeminded, unhealthy ego chambers can be created and promulgated. Agreeing on constructive approaches to dealing with this danger will require more public discussion.

Summary: Demonizing political opponents is bad for democracy. Opponents are not enemies. There needs to be enough common ground for most of us to stand on if we are to remain a viable country. Free speech has been a very important feature of America and its flourishing. It is best to protect free speech and counter misinformation and bad ideas with rebuttal and better ideas. No opinion should be censured. Social media should flag questionable information rather than remove.

A liberal dad complained about the one-sided liberal (in the American rather than classical sense) education his children had received in college because, he said, “they are completely unable to defend what they believe.”

Alex Jones

Alex Jones and his Infowars website have been removed and banned from YouTube, Facebook, Apple, and Spotify among the most popular social media platforms.  As of this moment, Twitter claims to be reviewing CNN claims that Jones and Infowars violate Twitter’s standards.  What should we think about this?

Jones has made many ridiculously false claims, such as the belief that Sept. 11 was an inside job, that the Sandy Hook massacre never happened and that Michelle Obama is a transgendered person with male genitalia.  “An InfoWars video posted in July 2018 falsely declared that the ‘CIA admits transgenderism is a plot to depopulate humanity.’” Twitter-Infowars-Alex Jones But accuracy and honesty haven’t been criteria for banning posts or President Trump’s tweeter account would have been closed long ago. Who is to decide whose lies can be tweeted and whose can’t?

Hate speech, which violates Twitter’s rules, is another matter, as is the promotion of violence.  Twitter’s rules state that it does “not tolerate” content “that degrades someone.”  President Trump violates this rule as well on a regular bases.

What should we do about the lies and hate that are regularly posted on the Internet?  I agree with Kimberly Ross who said that: “It is imperative that we don’t view those like Alex Jones, who peddle in fear-mongering and lies, as harmless. In fact, we should actively call out such appalling behavior….  We should never wait around for the Left to come in and clean up our side.  We should do that ourselves.  Individuals like Jones who manufacture outrage and spread falsehoods should find that the market on the Right for their wares is minuscule.”  Dont-defend-Alex-Jones-but-dont-let-the-government-get-into-censorship-either

Several important policy issues arise from this.  We should challenge what we believe to be lies and hatred ourselves.  Our First Amendment protection of free speech rightly prevents the government from deciding what is true and what is hateful and banning it.  Few of us would be happy letting Stephen Miller, a nasty minded White House Adviser, determine what could be posted on Facebook about American experience with immigrants.  Jonathan Rauch has updated his wonderful book Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought,in which he argues that the best defense against fake news and hateful speech is to exercise our free speech to challenge it.  Kindly-Inquisitors-Attacks-Free-Thought. See also his short essay on this subject:  “Who-will-regulate-hate-speech”.

Facebook and Twitter are private companies and should be free to set whatever policies for access that they want.  On the other hand they come close to being public utilities like telephone companies and Internet access providers who should not be allow to block access to the Alex Joneses of the world because they lie and spread hate.  This deserves further thought.

Turning to government to protect us from every unpleasantry we might encounter weakens us and takes us in the wrong direction.  Those who defend protecting us from hate speech with “safe zones” and “trigger warnings” reflect a paternalistic attitude toward the responsibilities of our government and of ourselves as citizens of a free society.  Like the well-meaning, but ultimately harmful, helicopter moms, we risk creating a society of wimps dependent on government for far more than is healthy for a free society.  Part of our training as we grow up and encounter a sometimes nasty world should be to stand up and challenge falsehood and hate when we encounter it.  Safe zones deprive us of such training.  It’s our job to counter lies and hate, not the government’s.