The Civil War

Recently, I have been reading about and listening to lectures on the US Civil War. So I decided to watch the Ken Burns documentary about the Civil War. I have watched it off and on and in bits and pieces on TV before, but this time I was serious and borrowed the 5-DVD set from the library.

It’s a total of 11 hours. So it took me almost two weeks to watch it but it was worth it. The documentary makes the events of the Civil War alive in a way only a visual medium can.

I rate it 10/10 and recommend it to everyone interested in the United States or history.

The Dark Side

Jane Mayer’s book on the torture regime of the Bush administration is a must-read for anyone interested in politics, civil liberties, war on terror.

I guess you could figure out that I was reading The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals by my recent blogging on torture.

This is a must-read book by Jane Mayer. It follows the torture story meticulously and focuses on how the policy developed. It is clear from the book that there were some major villains in the Bush administration who pushed for torture and got their way most of the time. John Yoo, David Addington and others shut the actual officials who were supposed to make national security policy (at the subcabinet level) out. However, the cabinet principals don’t come out looking good. They were either indifferent or supportive of the euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques”, properly known as torture.

While there are several people mentioned in the book who tried to stop torture by the US government, there were also lots and lots of bad guys, lawyers who wrote or approved torture memos, military, civilian and CIA personnel who approved, condoned, supervised or actually tortured suspected or actual terrorists and intelligence, military and law enforcement who consumed the results of torture investigations. There are times when I feel like the Obama administration should release the names and deeds of all those people, anyone who was in any way involved with the torture policy. I know it’s not going to happen and isn’t really fair either.

What should be done is to release all the information about US actions and policy with regards to torture. For example, the thousands of pages of the CIA Inspector General’s May 2004 report.

The Audacity of Hope

I read Obama’s book about his political program during the election and inauguration.

I don’t usually read books by politicians, especially about current politics. However, being an Obama supporter and volunteer, I thought I should read his book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.

I had already read Dreams From My Father and loved Obama’s writing style. The Audacity of Hope is also written well. Of course, I liked Dreams From My Father better, but that’s because of its subject of autobiography and identity.

The Audacity of Hope was written when Barack Obama was a US Senator and I started reading it a bit before the election. I finished it around inauguration time. As to why I didn’t read it earlier? I got it early in 2008 but then most of my spare time was consumed by the election campaign. I started the book only when I went to Pakistan for a couple of weeks in October.

In this book, Obama explains his views and his political program. Having followed his career since his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, I was familiar with a lot of his views. But two things still stood out. One is how Obama is actually fairly moderate. The other is Obama’s tendency to give an honest airing to conservative views and even agreeing partly before arguing for his liberal viewpoint on any issue. This quality, the so-called post-partisanship, was evident throughout the book.

Torture, Prosecution, CIA and Public

Torture is what keeps me up, it’s what’s on my mind. I am afraid that it’s a policy that while discarded now will return another day as the country is almost equally divided on its use.

I have been knee deep in torture recently. No, I haven’t been tortured nor have I tortured anyone. I have been reading about torture. I recently wrote about torture in my review of Taxi to the Dark Side where I collected links to my previous writings on the subject as well. I also discussed US public opinion about torture a few months ago.

With the recent release of the OLC torture memos, the torture debate has restarted again. There have been calls for prosecuting those who carried out the torture and/or those who made the policy decisions. Obama has called for looking forward instead of backward (imagine if every criminal had the same attitude). Senator McCain is against investigating torture or prosecuting anyone.

I am generally of the opinion that if the state must fall it must fall but we should get to the truth. However, after reading a lot about torture I have a distinct feeling that there is not going to be any prosecutions and even if there are, the chances of acquittal are very high. I find myself agreeing with most of the points Tyler Cowen makes against prosecution. The public opinion just isn’t there against torture (more on this in a bit). Hence, I believe it is more important to build a consensus against torture than to prosecute, as Matt Yglesias argues.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do anything. For starters, we should make sure that the architects of the torture policy, like George Bush, Dick Cheney, David Addington, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, etc. are kept far from the levers of power. Therefore, I support efforts to impeach Jay Bybee, former head of OLC and currently a judge on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Also, we need a commission or some other mechanism to make public all the details about torture as practiced during the Bush era.

There are some who think that it was the higher echelons of the Bush administration that was responsible for torture. I think it’s clear now that this is wrong. Democratic leaders might not have ordered the torture (or “enhanced interrogation”) but some of them knew about it and some even approved. Similarly, other Western governments or their intelligence agencies were complicit, directly or indirectly, in renditions, torture, black sites, or sharing intelligence.

While there were courageous people in the military, government and civil society who opposed torture and did try to stop such practices, there were also a lot of others, lawyers, military commanders, CIA personnel and others, who were fully complicit in requesting, approving and implementing torture. I am about to finish reading Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side and it makes the case in detail. See, for example, former CIA counterterrorism official Michael Scheuer’s response or Condi Rice’s defense of imperial powers for the President.

That’s why I found the case of abolishing the CIA to be worth considering. CIA has a history of illegal activities (see Family Jewels and Church Committee Report and Iran-Contra report). Spencer Ackerman argues against abolition of CIA, but I found Quincy Adams and Matt Yglesias more convincing.

As for arguments about torture and its efficacy, I think torture is wrong regardless of whether it can yield any useful information or not. It is possible for torture to extract true information, though typically there’ll be lots of false confessions as well. However, it’s inhuman and morally wrong and that’s why we shouldn’t do it. As Obama said recently:

waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture. […] And that’s why I put an end to these practices. I am absolutely convinced that it was the right thing to do — not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees who were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways — in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are.

I agree wholeheartedly with Kevin Drum’s reasons for opposing torture.

I don’t care about the Geneva Conventions or U.S. law. I don’t care about the difference between torture and “harsh treatment.” I don’t care about the difference between uniformed combatants and terrorists. I don’t care whether it “works.” I oppose torture regardless of the current state of the law; I oppose even moderate abuse of helpless detainees; I oppose abuse of criminal suspects and religious heretics as much as I oppose it during wartime; and I oppose it even if it produces useful information.

The whole point of civilization is as much moral advancement as it is physical and technological advancement. But that moral progress comes slowly and very, very tenuously. In the United States alone, it took centuries to decide that slavery was evil, that children shouldn’t be allowed to work 12-hour days on power looms, and that police shouldn’t be allowed to beat confessions out of suspects.

On other things there’s no consensus yet. Like it or not, we still make war, and so does the rest of the world. But at least until recently, there was a consensus that torture is wrong. Full stop. It was the practice of tyrants and barbarians. But like all moral progress, the consensus on torture is tenuous, and the only way to hold on to it — the only way to expand it — is by insisting absolutely and without exception that we not allow ourselves to backslide. Human nature being what it is — savage, vengeful, and tribal — the temptations are just too great. Small exceptions will inevitably grow into big ones, big ones into routine ones, and the progress of centuries is undone in an eye blink.

Let’s look at recent polls about torture and investigation.

In the NBC/WSJ poll, 50% disapprove of Obama ordering the closing of Guantanamo detainee prison and 53% disapprove of the release of the OLC torture memos. 53% think that the Bush administration used torture while 30% say that they didn’t. 46% say that the harsh interrogation helped the US extract information while 42% think it hurt the US by undermining its moral authority. And only 33% want a criminal investigation of the Bush torture policy.

In the Washington Post/ABC News poll, 53% support Obama’s release of the torture memos. 48% think there are cases when torture should be considered and 51% support an investigation of the treatment of detainees.

In a Gallup poll, 51% favor an investigation of harsh interrogation techniques used by the Bush administration, but 55% think such treatment of terrorism suspects was justified.

30%, seem to agree with Cheney’s position that the ends justified the means and that no investigation is necessary. Nearly as many (25%), though, would appear to side with many congressional Democrats who say the techniques should not have been used and an investigation is warranted. Twenty-three percent think the techniques were warranted yet still favor an investigation, while 10% think the methods should not have been used but nevertheless oppose an official inquiry.

66% of Democrats favor an investigation while only 48% of independents and 37% of Republicans do. 39% of Democrats think use of harsh interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects were justified while 55% of independents and 80% of Republicans agree.

In the New York Times/CBS News poll, 37% say waterboarding and other aggressive techniques are sometimes justified to extract information from a suspected terrorist while 46% disagree. Interestingly, only 16% of African Americans think they are justified. Only 71% consider waterboarding to be torture. 34% want Congress to investigate torture and warrantless wiretapping. 47% want to keep the Gitmo prison while 44% want to close it.

As you can see, there is some variation in these surveys. Nate Silver and Andrew Gelman try to explain why that is. While support for torture investigation varies from 33% to 51% in the various polls, the other numbers are a bit more consistent. The country seems to be almost equally divided on whether the torture memos should have been released and whether the Gitmo prison should be closed. Those who think torture is sometimes or always justified seem to vary from 37% to 55% while opposition to torture never reaches majority status either.

Looking at my previous writing on public opinion about torture, there doesn’t seem to have been any big change in public opinion in the US.

Finally, Pew did a survey about torture breaking down the numbers by religion, attending church, political party, etc.

Often justified Sometimes justified Rarely justified Never justified
Total US 15% 34% 22% 25%
White evangelicals 18% 44% 17% 16%
White non-Hispanic Catholics 19% 32% 27% 20%
White mainline Protestants 15% 31% 22% 31%
Unaffiliated 15% 25% 29% 26%
Attend religious services at least weekly 16% 38% 19% 25%
Attend religious services monthly 18% 33% 23% 23%
Attend religious services seldom or never 12% 30% 27% 26%
Republican 15% 49% 21% 14%
Independent 19% 35% 23% 19%
Democrats 12% 24% 22% 38%

Only a quarter of Americans are against torture under all conditions. This is astounding, but even worse is that only one of six white evangelicals and one in seven Republicans thinks torture is never justified. Even if we are generous and add up the numbers for those who think torture is rarely justified to the “never justified” ones, only 47% of Americans are against the use of torture. But only one-third of white evangelicals and 35% of Republicans are opposed to torture. I guess we could call these people the American Taliban.

While the Pope has come out against torture, among his followers American White Catholics a bare majority believes torture is often or sometimes justified. I wonder if any priest will deny communion to these torture-supporters.

The only groups (among those listed) with a majority who think torture is never or rarely justified are White mainline Protestants (53%), the unaffiliated (55%), those who seldom or never attend religious services (53%) and Democrats (60%). It’s disappointing that even these numbers are so low.

It can be argued that this support of torture by the religious is not a result of their being religious but rather due to the fact that those who are more religious are more likely to be Republicans in the US. I would agree with that, however, if religion can’t even get the deeply religious to oppose such an inhuman practice as torture, what use is such religion?

Buy a House, Get a Green Card?

Some people are suggesting an immigration program “buy a house, get a green card” but I argue that their numbers are all wrong.

Last month, Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times that:

Leave it to a brainy Indian to come up with the cheapest and surest way to stimulate our economy: immigration.

“All you need to do is grant visas to two million Indians, Chinese and Koreans,” said Shekhar Gupta, editor of The Indian Express newspaper. “We will buy up all the subprime homes. We will work 18 hours a day to pay for them. We will immediately improve your savings rate — no Indian bank today has more than 2 percent nonperforming loans because not paying your mortgage is considered shameful here. And we will start new companies to create our own jobs and jobs for more Americans.”

Alex Tabarrok called it the “buy a house, get a visa” strategy and claimed that:

the multiplier on the “buy a house, get a visa” strategy would be much larger than any possible domestic multiplier since the money would come from outside the economy (and efficiency would improve as well.)

An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal has now suggested the same.

The Obama administration should seriously consider granting resident status to foreigners who buy surplus houses in this country.

[…] A better idea is to offer permanent residence status to the many foreigners who are clamoring to get into the U.S. — if they buy houses of minimal values (not shacks). They wouldn’t need to live in those houses, but in order to remove the unit from the total housing market, they couldn’t rent them. Their temporary resident status granted upon purchase would become permanent after, perhaps, five years, if they still owned the houses and maintained clean records. The mere announcement of this program might well stop the ongoing collapse in house prices, especially in cities such as Las Vegas, Miami, Phoenix and San Francisco, where prices are down 40% — but where many foreigners like to live.

Each year, 85,000 H-1B visas are granted for foreigners with advanced skills and education, and last year, 163,000 petitions were filed in the first five days after applications were accepted. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation estimates that as of Sept. 30, 2006, 500,040 residents of the U.S. and 59,915 individuals living abroad were waiting for employment-based visas. Many would buy homes if their immigration conditions were settled.

[…] The blueprint for a program to sell surplus housing to immigrants is already in place with the EB-5 visa program. Each year, 10,000 EB-5 visas for this country are available for foreigners who each invest $1 million in a new enterprise ($500,000 in economically depressed areas) that creates at least 10 full-time jobs. After two years, the entrepreneur and his family can become permanent residents.

Of course, Alex Tabarrok liked it while Matthew Yglesias says:

I don’t think this idea is nearly the panacea that Gary Shilling and Richard LeFrak seem to think it is, but nevertheless a program to offer permanent resident status to foreigners who buy American houses does seem to me like a good idea.

John Mauldin goes completely overboard:

Let’s assume one million new immigrants would buy homes. At an average price of almost $200,000, that would be $200 billion injected into the economy. And each of those homes has to be furnished, food has to be bought, clothing will be needed, local taxes will be paid. Airplane tickets to research potential areas, hotels needed during the interim period, and other related expenditures would add up. Over two years, this could easily be another $100 billion.

I am not an economist and I’ll leave it to economists to discuss the multiplier and stimulative effects of this program. However, I am an immigrant and have looked at the immigration details in the US fairly extensively.

Let’s first look at the average number of immigrants per year to the US in the period 1998-2007: 935,948. It reached a peak of 1,266,129 in 2006 but was down to 1,052,415 in 2007. When 2008 data comes out, it is expected to go down further because of the economic conditions.

Contrary to Mauldin, these one million immigrants won’t all buy houses since the number of households is less than a million. The average household size in the US is 2.61. I remember reading that immigrant household size is larger but I can’t find that data right now, so using the US number, we get only about 400,000 households.

Before you start liking the 400,000 households number, remember that a majority (621,047 in 2007) of the immigrants were adjusting status, i.e. they were already in the US. At least some of those already bought a house since they were planning to immigrate. I know lots of H-1B visa holders who bought houses and later adjusted to permanent resident status.

The Wall Street Journal op-ed mentions an already existing investor immigrant program EB-5. Let’s look at its conditions:

10,000 immigrant visas per year are available to qualified individuals seeking permanent resident status on the basis of their engagement in a new commercial enterprise.

Of the 10,000 investor visas (i.e., EB-5 visas) available annually, 5,000 are set aside for those who apply under a pilot program involving an USCIS-designated Regional Center.

In general, “eligible individuals” include those

  1. Who establish a new commercial enterprise by:
    • Creating an original business;
    • Purchasing an existing business and simultaneously or subsequently restructuring or reorganizing the business such that a new commercial enterprise results; or
    • Expanding an existing business by 140 percent of the pre-investment number of jobs or net worth, or retaining all existing jobs in a troubled business that has lost 20 percent of its net worth over the past 12 to 24 months; and
  2. Who have invested — or who are actively in the process of investing — in a new commercial enterprise:
    • At least $1,000,000, or
    • At least $500,000 where the investment is being made in a “targeted employment area,” which is an area that has experienced unemployment of at least 150 per cent of the national average rate or a rural area as designated by OMB; and
  3. Whose engagement in a new commercial enterprise will benefit the United States economy and
    • Create full-time employment for not fewer than 10 qualified individuals; or
    • Maintain the number of existing employees at no less than the pre-investment level for a period of at least two years, where the capital investment is being made in a “troubled business,” which is a business that has been in existence for at least two years and that has lost 20 percent of its net worth over the past 12 to 24 months.

Now this EB-5 might have requirements that are too onerous and it’s always possible that the optimal investment is less than a million dollars and other conditions should be relaxed as well.

However, let us look at the number of immigrants admitted to the US under this program. The average number of EB-5 visas per year in the period 1998-2007 was 375. In 2007, the number of investor visas used was 806. This is not the number of investors, but of visas which includes family too. Let’s break down the numbers for 2007.

Adjustment of Status New Arrivals Total
Total EB-5 315 491 806
Investors 116 163 279
Spouses & children 187 328 515

As you can see, 10,000 visas per year were reserved for this investor program, but in the maximum used was about 8% of that. And the actual number of investors (not including dependents) in 2007 was only 279. Assuming the buy a house, get a green card program does a level of magnitude better because median house price (for 2005-7) is only about 181,800. Still, it would attract only about 3000 investors and their families. That would not do anything to the housing market or the US economy.

PS. The immigration numbers are from the 2007 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, specifically Table 6 and Table 7.

Free At Last

Let’s hear how I got naturalized in the United States.

This is the story of one fine cold day a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

I woke up early and left home at 7:30am as I had to drive through rush hour traffic. It took me an hour to get to 2150 Parklake Dr. I went in, got through the metal detector and bag screening and took the elevator to the 2nd floor. The first thing I did there was to look for the restrooms. Then I waited.

My appointment was at 9:05am, but the interviewer came to get me at 9:35. I went to her office where I had to take an oath to tell the truth. She asked me for my driver’s license, passport and green card. Then she went over my application, asking about any changes. She also asked me if I had ever been a member of the Communist party or a terrorist organization, if I had ever been arrested, convicted, committed a crime or lied to the government. Then it was time for the test. She got the computer to print out 10 random questions about US civics, history and government. Those were real easy, but even easier were the one simple sentence she asked me to write and another that she asked me to read. She gave me a form telling me that I had passed the tests of English and US history and government and that my application has been recommended for approval. Then she asked if I wanted to be part of the oath ceremony the same day. Of course, I did. And so I was done in about 15 minutes.

I then sat in the waiting room for the oath letter for 45 minutes. When I got the letter, I realized I had time to kill as it was only 10:45 and the oath was at 2pm. I called Amber and we decided to go for lunch at Tamarind Seed Thai Bistro in Midtown. I had Spicy Lamb with Basil, which was spicy but was also very very tasty.

After lunch, I got back to the USCIS office and went to the room where the oath ceremony takes place. First, we had to check our naturalization certificates for any mistakes. Then we were all seated. Every seat had a packet which contained:

When all the prospective citizens were seated, their relatives who had come to witness the ceremony were called in.

The Field Office Director then talked a bit and told us that there were 110 people becoming citizens and they came from 44 countries. Then she called everyone to stand going by their country of origin. I couldn’t note down the list of countries represented there, but there were Afghanistan, Guyana, Iran, Ireland, Pakistan, Mexico, India, South Africa, Kampuchea, Ireland, Yugoslavia and others. Then all of us held up our right hands and repeated after the Director the oath of allegiance.

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

While we were taking the oath, the relatives who had come along were taking pictures.

And suddenly, we were all citizens of the United States. Then we recited the pledge of allegiance, which I have always liked without the words under God.

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation under God, indivisible, With Liberty and Justice for all.

Then the Director reminded us of what we needed to do: Change status with the Social Security Administration, apply for a passport and register to vote.

Finally we saw a video welcome by President George W. Bush. On our way out, we took our naturalization certificates. The employees at the front desk and the security personnel congratulated us as we were leaving the building. I have never seen anyone at INS or USCIS act so courteous before.

Let’s get back to the title of this article: Free At Last! No, that doesn’t refer to the freedoms guaranteed by the US constitution. Instead, it celebrates my freedom from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). I have never seen a worse bureaucracy.

Georgia Senate Runoff Analysis

Why did Jim Martin lose so badly in the runoff when he had done so well in the general election?

This is the last in my series analyzing the 2008 election in the state of Georgia. I looked at statewide numbers in my first article. The next article looked at county level results and also racial polarization. In the 3rd article, I analyzed the results in Fulton county and specifically the precincts in which our team of Obama volunteers worked.

Georgia has a law according to which a winning candidate needs 50% + 1 of the votes cast, otherwise there is a runoff election between the top two candidates. In the general election on November 4, incumbent Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss failed to get 50% and thus was forced into a runoff with the Democratic candidate Jim Martin. Interestingly, this was the second runoff for Jim Martin this year since he had won in a runoff election in the Democratic primary too after no one got 50% in the crowded filed of Democratic Senate candidates in the primary election.

I did not work for the Jim Martin campaign and in fact was fairly certain that he would lose the runoff because Georgia is still a Republican state and there are a lot more habitual Republican voters here than Democratic ones. The Obama campaign had done a good job of registering voters and then bringing the sporadic voters out to vote for the general election, but there was no way that could be repeated for a runoff. Also, from our voter contact when we were volunteering for the Obama campaign, we knew that Sarah Palin was quite popular among Republicans here, perhaps more than John McCain (McCain got 31.6% of the vote and came in 2nd behind Huckabee and barely ahead of Romney in the Feb 5 primary.)

Chambliss Martin Total
Votes % Votes % Votes
General 1,867,090 49.75% 1,757,419 46.83% 3,752,577
Runoff 1,226,730 57.46% 908,222 42.54% 2,134,952

As you can see, a lot less people voted in the runoff than in the general election. Let’s look at the voter retention rate, i.e. the number of votes for a candidate in the runoff as a proportion of the votes in the general election.

Chambliss Martin Total
Vote Retention 65.7% 51.7% 56.9%

While only about 57% of the voters in the general voted in the runoff, they were not evenly distributed between the parties. Democrat Jim Martin barely managed to get half of his voters to pull the lever for him again while Republican Saxby Chambliss was successful with almost two-thirds of his voters. This is why the Republican margin increased from 2.92% on November 4 to 14.92% on December 2.

Let’s plot the percentage of votes the two candidates got in each county in the general and the runoff elections. The circles represent individual counties and their area is proportional to the number of registered voters in that county.

Chambliss percent general vs runoff

Martin percent general vs runoff

Chambliss performed better in all counties and Martin performed worse in almost all in the runoff when compared with the general election.

Another way to look at the data is to compare the vote retention rates for Chambliss and Martin.

Vote retention Chambliss vs Martin

Chambliss got about 60-70% of his general election vote in most counties, especially the more populous counties while Martin only got 45-60% in most. The only counties close to parity in terms of vote retention were really small.

I was wondering whether there was any pattern to the vote retention in terms of partisanship. So I plotted the Chambliss and Martin retention rates against the percentage in that county that voted for Obama on November 4.

Martin vote retention vs Obama vote

This is a slight upward trend as the counties get more Democratic. However it is still very low.

Chambliss vote retention vs Obama vote

We see much less of a pattern here.