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So, the Separatists are now on the offensive in the Ukraine

2015 January 24
by Ian Welsh

Granted, I think the evidence points to significant Russian support.  Nonetheless, the Ukrainian army is just embarrassing at this point.

Back in 2008 I wrote that Crimea and the Ukraine would be the next likely flashpoint, and that Russia would never tolerate any possibility of losing Sevastapol.  The serious people who know how the world works told me how wrong I was—that the Ukraine and Europe and Russia were in a mutually beneficial arrangement.

But arrangements change, and Russia has always been a country with a clear view on what its strategic interests are.

So now we have an economic war against Russia and a shooting war in the Ukraine, encouraged by the Russians (and by the Americans: the first big Ukrainian offensive occurred after CIA chief Brennan visited.)

Sanctions did little to the Russian economy, but crashing oil prices did.  Russian currency dropped almost exactly in concert with the drop of oil.  Given the consensus that dropping oil prices so precipitously was a Saudi decision, meant in part to take out high cost unconventional oil production, but also in part to damage Russia and Iran, this can only be seen as hostile foreign action by the Russians.

Russia’s vulnerability is due to mistakes made by the Russians.  The lack of diversification of the economy, and the vast corruption made Russia a petro-state, reliant almost entirely on oil revenues.  Countries which need to import a great deal are always vulnerable to foreign economic action.

The question, then, is this: how threatened does Putin and the rest of the Russian leadership feel?  Putin is unlikely to survive a leadership change for long unless it is his hand-picked heir who takes over, and maybe not even then.  Many others in his government would similarly be in danger.

If they feel endangered, then the traditional thing to do is start a war.  This proxy-war in the Ukraine may not be enough.

Keep an eye on the security of Putin’s leadership.  If it starts looking insecure, the Americans will think they are close to getting what they want: a new leader, who will understand he rules only so long as they are kept happy.  But it will also be the point Russia becomes most dangerous.

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Yes Virginia all that money printing did show up as inflation

2015 January 22

One of the great “mysteries” of the last 7 years or so is why all the money from unconventional monetary policy hasn’t shown up as inflation.  Many analysts thought that printing that much money must surely increase prices, but inflation indices in most of the developed world are barely up, and in many cases are flirting with deflation.

The answer is obvious, but you’ll hardly see anyone point it out.

First, who was the money given to?

Rich people and corporations.

Ok then, what do rich people and corporations spend their money on?  Stocks, and real estate—high end real estate.

In America as a whole, let alone New York, housing prices have not returned to pre-financial crisis values.  But luxury apartment prices now exceed pre-financial crisis pricesReal estate prices, period, in London, are now higher than pre-financial collapse.

Meanwhile, the Dow Jones Industrial Index is up about 175% off its lows of 2009. The annualized gain is therefore about 29% a year.  GDP has not risen anything like that, neither have wages.  Corporations, however, are flush with money, and they have spent a great deal of it on stock buy-backs, while rich people, of course, have bought stocks.

Inflation has, then, shown up exactly where one would expect, in the assets bought by the people who were given money.  Ordinary people did not receive the largesse from unconventional monetary policy, rich people and corporations did.

This is not hard, this is not difficult, this is not complex.  The fact that mainstream analysts and pundits do not connect the dots on this is because they do not want to.

That inflation has not shown up in much (though not all) of the rest of the economy is simply based on the fact that no one else except the rich and corporations has received (I can’t call it “earned”) more money.  Nothing more, nothing less.

This economy is entirely artificial. It is based on giving money (in various ways) to those who already have a lot of it.  This is in no way a competitive market, certainly not a free market, and barely deserves to be called a market at all.  It is pure oligarchical abuse of the power of printing money in all its modern guises.

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People are very strange: murder edition

2015 January 20
by Ian Welsh

I have a simple question for those who read this:

Why is it not OK to kill people in the name of a religion, but it is OK to kill people in the name of a nation?

I’ve always had a great deal of trouble with the way most people run their morality and ethics.  Objectively, the Iraqi blockade of the 90s killed vastly more people than 9/11.  I once got to see an Iraki pediatrician writing in real time about all the children who died in the 90s, whom she could have saved, if she had had the medicine the West was denying Iraq.

The Vietnam war killed more people.  The Chechen war killed more people.  The (insert war here) killed more people.

I can run through the intellectual arguments, but on a fundamental level I don’t understand: why is it ok for nations to kill on a mass scale but no one else can? (Well, except some corporations.  See Bhopal, India and Union Carbide).

The true decline of religion in the West is, in fact, indicated exactly by the fact that many people think it isn’t OK to kill in the name of your religion.  The Crusades, and the religious wars of the Reformation and the Counter Reformation would like to chat with you about that.

For that matter, austerity has certainly killed more people in the West than religious-based terrorism has.  Heck, practically everything that does kill people, kills more.

Humans are just very odd.  Very, fundamentally, stupid and foolish.  Barely conscious.

Spend some time thinking about this.  Because it’s a question that is more important than it seems (and it should seem important enough as is.)

Dutch Disease

2015 January 19
by Ian Welsh

In light of the troubles the oil price collapse is causing Canada let us revisit the issue of Dutch Disease and explain how the Canadian economy worked for over a 100 years until Prime Minister Harper’s conservatives, by overly favoring resources and letting the Canadian manufacturing be terribly damaged, effectively ended the Canadian mixed economy.

It seems a lot of people don’t know what Dutch Disease is.  Here’s the short.

Dutch disease is when you sell a lot of resources and that makes your currency increase in value.  So if you discover a lot of oil, or oil becomes a lot more valuable because of a shortage so that you can produce tons of oil from the tar sands, you can experience Dutch Disease.

The consequence of your currency being worth more is that products you manufacture cost more for anyone outside your country.  So if Americans want to buy Canadian goods, it costs them more when the US and Canadian dollar are trading at about even than when the Canadian dollar cost only 80 cents American.

If something costs more, people will buy less of it, or they will stop buying from you entirely and buy from someone else who is cheaper.

What happened to the Dutch is that their manufacturing sector collapsed.  What NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, in Canada, is saying is that Canada is suffering from Dutch Disease.  That we are losing manufacturing jobs because of the higher dollar caused by all the oil from the oil sands we’re shipping out of the country, which raises the Canadian dollar.

I observed, many years ago, that the Canadian dollar had become a petro-currency.  It is now inarguable.

It is also virtually inarguable that Canada is losing manufacturing jobs due to the higher dollar.  It’s just arithmetic.  Unless you think price has no effect on sales, you can’t argue otherwise without excessive contortions.

Does this mean that Canada is suffering from Dutch Disease?  Depends where you put the margin.  One study, funded by the federal government, found that:

“We show that between 33 and 39 per cent of the manufacturing employment loss that was due to exchange rate developments between 2002 and 2007 is related to the Dutch Disease phenomenon,” says the study.

I am unaware of studies covering the period since then, and I don’t know if the study was correct.  Personally, I suspect it’s higher than that, but I haven’t run the numbers myself and I probably won’t (unless the Feds want to pay for my time.)

But, again, the argument is simple enough.  Unless you don’t believe in higher prices reducing sales, and reduced sales leading to job losses and company closures, you can’t really argue that the oil sands aren’t hurting manufacturing.  It’s just that simple.

The next question is “should we do anything about it?”

Canada has traditionally had what is known as a mixed economy.  When it comes to exports, we have manufacturing and we have the resource sector, of which oil is just one part.  Resources experience boom and bust cycles.  There is always another resource bust around the corner.  Always.  No resource has its prices stay high forever.  When resources are doing well, they support our exports.  When they’re doing badly, manufacturing takes up the slack.

As with any such oscillating economy, what should be done is that when one is booming, it subsidizes the other.  We don’t want manufacturing destroyed during high resource price periods, because there will always be low resource prices in the future.  So we tax the high resource prices and we subsidize manufacturing.  When resource prices collapse, the manufacturing sector subsidizes the resource sector.

If we allow the manufacturing sector to be badly damaged, it cannot easily be rebuilt when resource prices collapse.  Nations built entirely on resources are and will always be subject to economic collaps when the resource price collapses, and, again, it always does, the question is only when.

Mulcair has also talked about value add and that’s worth discussing.  Shipping raw oil, raw logs, unprocessed fish means you get the lowest prices possible and less jobs.  Value add means you refine the oil in Canada and sell it.  You turn the logs into paper or 2x4s in Canada.  You can or smoke the salmon, in Canada.  This provides jobs and the end goods sell for more.  It may be that processing will increase the price slightly compared to processing in the US or China, but that costs less sales than it would for the equivalent manufactured item.

Why?  Because resources are finite.  There is only so much oil in the world at any given price point.  There are only so many salmon, especially wild salmon.  There are only so many trees, especially trees that are good for construction grade timber.  Other countries will generally buy anyway, because there is nowhere else to get the product.  Sales may decline slightly, but profit often increases and so do the number of jobs in Canada.

When there is a bottleneck, as there is in oil production right now, especially, you can say “no, we’re going to process it here.”  If other nations don’t like it, tough.  They aren’t going to stop heating their houses and driving their cars to their suburban homes.  That is not happening.

So if you can extract a bit less oil, make more money overall, and have more jobs, why not do so?  That’s what Mulcair means by “value add”.

Finally, let’s move to cap and trade, which is what Mulcair wants to do with the tar sands.  Cap and Trade means you cap the amount of carbon emissions allowed by oil sands extraction, and you allow people to buy and sell the right to make those emissions.  You also tax those trades and emissions. You then use the money earned to subsidize manufacturing and research and whatever else will be the future of the country when oil prices collapse, which, again, they will, because resource booms always end, it is an existential certainty.

Once upon a time, the Canadian Maritimes were a resource boom area.  They sold fish, but more importantly they sold trees which could be made into masts, an incredibly valuable commodity.  Today, with pardon to my Maritime brethren, the Maritimes are in semi-permanent depression.

This is the future that Alberta faces.  They should want to be taxed, and they should want that money reinvested in other sectors, because those sectors are Alberta’s future long after the oil boom ends.  And the massive environmental destruction is leaving massive costs which will have to be cleaned up for generations to come, long after the boom days are gone.

Canada’s economy has worked, and we have not become Argentina (the country we would have been compared to before WWII) because of our mixed economy.  It is worth protecting, it is necessary to protect, if we want prosperity not now, but 10 years, 20 years or 50 years from now.  If we care about our children, or even ourselves 20 years from now, we must deal with the effects that massive exploitation of the oil sands is having on our economy and our environment.

Dutch disease is just arithmetic.  It is real, and it can devastate the future of a country.  Non-renewable resources are the epitome of found money, and what you do with found money is invest it in something productive, something which will support you once the found money runs out.

This is Canada, and this is our future we’re talking about.  If we actually care about the children we claim to love, we’ll acknowledge the simple arithmetic of what a high dollar does, and we’ll act to mitigate the damage.

(Update: Antonia Zerbisias had an article in February on Dutch Disease studies which is worth reading.)

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Let’s Talk Turkey About Greece

2015 January 16
by Ian Welsh

In light of the upcoming Greek elections and the possibility of a Euro exist, this article from 2012 is worth revisiting.

1) Greece is very likely to exit the Euro.

2) When Greece exits the Euro it will be punished severely by the monetary authorities.  They intend to let Greeks starve.  They will cut off food supplies, and Greeks will not be able to afford food.  Oil is also going to be a problem.  Greeks will probably not be able to flee to other countries.

3) The reason they will punish the Greeks is because they can.  They couldn’t punish the Argentinians (well, they’re working on it) or the Icelanders, because both those countries can feed themselves.  They can punish the Greeks.  They need to make an example, because they are worried about Spain, Portugal, Ireland and other countries.  (Heck, even the Dutch are having problems.  The Dutch!  If the Dutch can’t make it in the Euro, no one can.)  This isn’t, contra Lagarde about “bad Greeks”, while it is true that Greece should never have been let in to the Euro, well, everyone knew that.  Including the countries that let Greece in.

4) Greece is going to have get hardcore and creative about creating a new economy.  Since the monetary authorities intend to starve them and deprive them of oil, they must retaliate hard.  Greece has a number of options, and this is what Greece should do You don’t play nice with people who are trying to cause a famine in your country.

  • Greece has a large fleet.  Use it to strip mine the Mediterranean of all resources possible.  Yes, the Med is a fragile ecosystem.  If the other Euros don’t like it, they can not punish Greece, otherwise Greece will have to feed itself.  The Euros could send fleets, but as the British-Iceland fishing war proved, that’s prohibitively expensive.
  • Start gun-running and other black market activities up.  European gun-running currently goes through Albania.  Greece has much better ports.  If the Euros don’t like it, they can militarize Greece’s borders at a cost much higher than feeding the Greeks.
  • Become a full on black-hole for banking.  If anyone wants to store money in Greece, they can.  No questions asked, no forms needed.
  • Make deals with other “pariah” and semi-pariah nations.  Start with Iran and Russia for oil (Iran will be happy to give oil in exchange for black market help).  Make a deal with various 2nd world nations for food, start with Argentina, they have no reason to love the IMF or the European Union, which promised to “punish” them for nationalizing oil in Argentina.  In exchange Greece can offer use of their fleet, for cheap, and port rights for the Russian navy.  They’ve wanted a true warm water port for some time.  Offer them a nice island in the Med with a 30 year lease.
  • Hold on for a couple years.  Odds are that soon enough Ireland, Spain, Portugal and maybe others will leave the Euro.  They won’t be in any mood to screw Greece for their ex-Euro masters.  Heck, odds are 50/50 that there won’t be a Euro zone at all in 3 years, since Germany wants to screw everyone, including France.
  • Nationalize basically every industry.  It’s unfortunate, but it’s going to be necessary.  Hundreds of billions of dollars have fled Greece in the past 3 years, in fact that was one of the main reasons for dragging out the “bailouts” (really, bailouts of German banks), to let the money flee.  All Greek assets are going to be frozen overseas, so the Greeks will need to work with what they have.
  • No more money goes out of the country.  Slap on currency controls, to make sure what money is there doesn’t leave (this is aimed at Greece’s rich).  If any banker or anyone else circumvents them, throw them in jail, the sentence should be life, generous, since they are committing treason.
  • Seriously change the tax system, and insist on really taxing the rich.  Go to heavily progressive taxation, reduce the burden on the poor (a large number of people now), this will buy support.
  • A food rationing system, with cards and delivery to every person in the country will be necessary.  It won’t be fun, but combined with the above, you can make sure that no one starves.

Greece has been under siege for years now, and traitors within its own country (its politicians) have betrayed it.  This means Greeks are in serious danger of suffering a famine.  The response to that, by Greeks, will have to be pragmatic and severe.  If non-Greeks don’t like it, that’s too bad.  When millions of people are in danger of starving, a country does what it has to.

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A few notes on the economy

2015 January 15
by Ian Welsh

1) While job growth is decent in the US, the essential job picture remains unchanged.  The percentage of adults with jobs is still about where it was after the financial crisis, and wages are flat.  The last US job report was good, but wages dropped.  That is not an indication of a good job market.

2) The Eurozone is flirting with deflation, and commodities have heavily deflated (almost all of them, not just oil).  This is due to reduced demand.  Reduced demand is bad.  Let me repeat, bad.

3) The reason there is reduced demand is because most people are poorer than they were pre financial crisis, and governments are engaged in austerity.

4) The stock market is a ponzi scheme.  Its prices are justified by the fact that corporations are being given essentially free money by the Fed (directly or indirectly) and allowed to engage in oligopoly pricing of services which people must have (like the internet, or phone service).  This has led to high profits, and some of those profits are pumped back into the stock market, which is in executives interests, so they can cash out their options at a profit.

5) The entire gain of this business cycle has gone to the top 10%, and by the top 10% we really mean to the top 3% or so, with the .1% and .01% being the real winners.  The bottom 90% has lost ground.

6) Rich people buy securities.  The middle class and below buy goods.

7) While low oil prices are good for many countries, that they are driven by soft demand is not good.

Predicting this economy remains difficult because it is driven by the decisions of a very few people.  Less than a hundred worldwide are key.  The people who can create money, as credit, are key.  They are almost completely unhinged from the economy as a whole: money creation is fiat, and being treated as such.

The great realization of the financial crisis was “hey, we can just create money and give it to the people we approve of and no one can stop us.”  The people they approve of, unfortunately, are rich people playing ponzi games.  Giving money to bankers who don’t lend to the regular economy (and why would they, regular people aren’t getting raises and don’t have vastly inflated housing prices) does very little for the economy that most people live in.

This leads to strong relative gains: not only are the rich richer, but everyone else is poorer.  Austerity lets them buy up oligopolistic assets at fire-sale prices (see dismantling of the NHS in England for an example.)  Their money increases, their relative power increases, and these policies are a win for them.

The thing is, hardly anyone has pricing power except people who are in an oligopolistic position.  It makes no sense to loan money right now to anyone who doesn’t have pricing power, because they can’t pay it back.

There will be; there are, ways out of this. But they do require creating actual pricing power for the masses, breaking up oligopolies and dealing properly with the energy problem.  The creation of some actual competitive markets (gasp!) combined with allowing anyone but the rich to have pricing power would do wonders for the world economy.

But that isn’t something your lords and masters want.  The current situation suits them perfectly—compared to everyone else they are getting richer and more powerful.  There is no reason for them to change how they are doing things.

Or is there?  The resource barons are hurting, and they will want changes.  But I doubt they are willing to see anything like widespread prosperity as a solution, because it would lead to a long term collapse of many of their fortunes, rather than a boom and bust cycle which the smart resource barons are perfectly capable of riding and using to their advantage.

Until the calculus of the powerful is changed, or they lose their power, while there will be ups and down the basic feature of the economy of the developed world (Depression) will not change, and the rest of the world will continue to suffer through huge boom bust cycles.

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Why is Privilege the wrong word?

2015 January 14
by Ian Welsh

The lesson is not that white men should be treated like African Americans or women, but that they should be treated like white men.

Privilege is the wrong word, the wrong framework because what white males have is what everyone should have.

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The Effect of the Charlie Hebdo Attacks Will Be Less Freedom

2015 January 11
by Ian Welsh

Because the usual suspects (aka. our own governments) will use this as an excuse for more domestic surveillance and to fund the police state more.

This is the ACTUAL effect on most ordinary westerners lives.  Your odds of being killed by an “Islamic Terrorist” are very low if you live in the West (infinitesimal).  But the freedom you will lose will be real freedom.

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Charlie Hebdo and the Moral Moment

2015 January 9
by Ian Welsh

Everyone has to prove their moral rectitude by acting as horrified as possible and saying things like “there was no excuse”.


There are worse things happening around the world every day.  Mass murders, rape, torture, starvation.  A lot of these things are the result of government policy and affect far more people, systematically.

We don’t run around screaming “no excuse” about most of that, we get on with our lives: eating well, having sex, doing our jobs.

(And do we all remember when the US was targeting journalists in Iraq?  Hmmmm?)

There is no excuse for much of what happens in the world, including much graver crimes like, oh, the Iraq war, or jailing non-violent drug offenders, or systematic racism, or shoveling money to the rich causing inequality which has been proven to have devastating effects on people’s health and happiness (and which thus, for the statistically impaired, kills far more people.)

All of these things are far more serious than the Charlie Hebdo attack.  (Moral Moment disclaimer: yes, they were horrible and inexcusable.)

These moments are used to rally us around shit that is not as important as systematic injustice: more people are dying or suffering because of government policies and wars; because of corporate malfeasance, than are dying because of Jihadists in Europe, who kill hardly anyone in comparison. (If you don’t believe this, you don’t understand basic statistics.)

These moments distract people from what matters; from the people who will really kill them or impoverish them or enact policies which will see them raped or tortured: the rulers of their own countries.

As for the Charlie Hebdo attackers, while nothing excuses what they did, note that without the Iraq war (a far more inexcusable act which killed and is still killing far more people), they would probably never have been radicalized and the Charlie cartoonists would still be publishing cartoon sodomy.

(That’s a reason; and a probable cause, not an excuse. But half the people who read this won’t be able to understand the distinction.)

If you want peace, work for Justice.  – Paul VI

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In Light of Charlie Hebdo, are some lives worth more than others?

2015 January 8
by Ian Welsh

One of the most important ethical questions is what the value of life is.  Are all lives equal, or are some lives worth more?

This seems like an airy-fairy question, but it’s not.  It under-girds how we dole out punishments for crime, how we spend money on healthcare and public services and when and how we go to war.  It is at the heart of the NYPD turning their back on New York’s mayor and in their reaction to the killing of two police officers.

And it is at the heart of our societies reaction to the murders at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

If you haven’t seen any of the Charlie cartoons in question, take a moment to do so.  Or see this cover, if you’re Christian. 

What Charlie was doing was clearly political commentary.  It was also clearly intended to be offensive.

As a result three young Muslims killed twelve people.  And we are having a collective freakout over it.

I note that during the 90s hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children died, and we did not freak out this much.

More people die in car accidents, electrocution or by falling from ladders than die due to “terrorism” in Western nations.  Certainly more people die of the flu.  Police kill far far more Americans than are killed by terrorists.  (Though French policemen are far less trigger happy.)  The French led invasion of Libya killed many, and the deaths are ongoing, deaths which quite likely would not have occurred without that invasion.  In Syria the insurrection against Assad led to far more deaths than would have occurred otherwise, and that insurrection was supported materially by many Western nations.

9/11 was a huge tragedy, but the western blockade of Iraq in the 90s had killed far, far more people without anyone in the West getting nearly as worked up over it.

Some lives are clearly worth more than others.  Our lives, the lives of those we identify with are worth more than their lives, the lives of those we don’t identify with.

So one American life is worth, what, fifty Iraqi lives?  A hundred.  What’s the metric?

To the police, and most Americans, a police life is worth more than a civilian life.  Certainly a police life is worth more than an African-American’s life.  And I think it’s clear that to most whites a white life is worth more than a black one.

We are intensely tribal, and we care far more about the deaths of people “like us” than the deaths of people “not like us.”

So, in part, the deaths of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and other workers cause so much outrage because they were white and European.

We spend our time killing brown people and black people and Muslims in large numbers, using paramilitary weapons domestically, and military weapons and economic warfare internationally, killing far more of them than us, then act surprised when, deeply offended, they strike back.  (Yes, yes, this was a symbolic target and they really should have killed French politicians or military, but it’s not like we are discriminate (don’t even pretend we are.))  Somehow our outrage is valid, but we don’t grant them the right to theirs, including their vengeance.  We attacked Afghanistan and Iraq for 9/11, but bin Laden explicitly said that he attacked the US because of American killings of Muslims, including all those dead Iraqi children.

His vengeance is evil.  (It is, actually.)  Ours, not so much apparently.

So let us be clear “our lives are worth more than theirs”.  A lot more.

If you die a “wrongful death”, and the time comes for monetary compensation, how much your relatives receive will be based on what your income was.  The more you made made, the more your relatives have lost in monetary terms, and they will receive more.

People who earn more, are worth more to us, in hard monetary terms.  The life of a minimum wage worker just isn’t as big a deal as the death of someone who makes a lot of money.  This is based on our actions, not our words.

That doesn’t have anything to do with the Charlie dead, they earned virtually nothing.  Apparently the French didn’t feel like paying for the sort of satire they engaged in.  Nonetheless, the lives of those who make more money are worth more to us.

In the old days there used to be the idea of “woman and children first” — that their lives were worth more than male lives.  That may have been honored more in the breach, as with the Titanic, but one can also find occasions where captains of ships did insist that women and children went on the lifeboats first.

We see children as innocent, and we calculate that they lose more years than adults, so we value their lives more highly.  And, perhaps, it also has to do with a parental instinct which most of us have.  As for women, the biological “realists” would claim that those who can create new humans are more valuable, but whatever the reason most societies hate the idea of them being killed in war or raped far more than they dislike the idea of either of those fates happening to men.

Many feminists would argue that there are many ways we show that we value women’s lives less than mens—we certainly pay them less and for most of history we gave them less rights.

But tribalism trumps the women and children exception.  Half a million dead Iraqi children speak loud and clear on this.

Our children are precious and worth anything.  Their children.  Whatever.

Is the value of someone’s life based on what they do?  Or what they were doing?  We would certainly feel more outraged at the death of a search and rescue worker than a gangster.  Large parts of our society value police lives over civilian lives, and certainly our legal system, which almost never tries police for killing civilians does.

The Charlie Hebdo victims were engaged in “free speech”.  Satire.  They were mocking those who values they disagreed with, and doing so in a way intended to offend them as much as possible.  (Take a look at those cartoons and try and argue otherwise.)

We claim to value free speech greatly, and since the Charlie victims were engaged in mocking people who didn’t appreciate it, and since that’s “a fundamental value of Western society” we class their deaths and more tragic than those of Iraqi children who died due to lack of medicine they would have had if the West hadn’t been sanctioning and blockading their country.

One might, however, question our commitment to freedom of speech. Oh, the French themselves are pretty good on free speech these days, but Americans with their Free Speech zones and punitive whistleblower prosecutions; the British with their draconian libel law, Official Secrets Act and anti-terrorism legislation; and Australians with their obscene internet censorship laws (to highlight just a few) seem hardly to be icons of “free speech”.

So, are some lives worth more depending on what people are doing?  To be sure.  But, the French themselves aside, perhaps what the Charlie writers were doing that makes them martyrs wasn’t just “free speech” but the target of their free speech, some of whose members responded violently to the insults: Ilsam.  And that isn’t “free speech”, it is “Us vs. Them.”

And, as wonderful as France is on free speech these days, one remembers the Evo Morales incident, when France denied the Bolivian President’s plane right of way because of suspicion that Edward Snowden might be on board, so that the plane was forced down in Austria in an attempt to apprehend the famous whistleblower.

Some free speech is more important than others.  Cartoons mocking Islam and Christianity are far more important to protect than a man who has revealed wholesale spying on the citizens of
Western nations.

But perhaps it is more simple, Snowden was only going to be locked up in a maximum security American prison after a trial whose result we all know, in effective isolation, till that drove him insane.  The Charlie victims were killed.

And that leads to the final category: are some deaths worse just because of how they happen?  Is being beheaded worse than dying in a car accident? Is being shot by terrorists worse than being shot by police?  Is death from starvation worse than—oh why bother.

Yes, some deaths are clearly worse than others.  I’d rather be shot than tortured to death, or die of starvation.  But really what we mean are “deaths out of their time” or perhaps “deaths by violence”.  The Charlie victims weren’t “due” to die yet.  But then, neither were those Iraqi children, or all the Irakis who died of being shot in a war based lies (no WMD, no ties to 9/11).

But many deaths are preventable: easily preventable, and we fail to do so.  Effective public transportation in the US, reducing the use of cars, would prevent a lot of deaths. But Americans like cars, or something, and so those deaths are considered acceptable.  More effective restrictions on guns meant for killing people (as opposed to hunting rifles, say) and on ammunition would save a lot of American lives, but many Americans value their guns highly and think the deaths are a worthwhile price to pay.

All of this has been about what lives we, demonstrably, value more than others.  It hasn’t been about what lives we should value more.

Perhaps the answer is simple.  All lives have equal value, and in the event we are forced to choose between lives in a situation which doesn’t involve self-defense, we should indeed choose the young over the old.  Or maybe not even that, the old perhaps not being willing to volunteer.

I, myself, don’t know.  But I do know this.  As long as Western lives are valued at something approaching infinity to one versus Muslim lives, Muslims are going to continue to be radicalized.  John Paul VI once said that those who value peace should work for justice.  I believe that.  The Charlie killers appear to have been radicalized by the Iraq war.  No Iraq war, no radicalization, no Charlie victims.

But that’s a pragmatic argument.  The human argument is simpler: those Iraqi children’s lives were worth as much as any white child’s life.  Anyone who believes otherwise is a monster acting on tribalism.  And one day your tribe will be the weak one, because all Empires fall.  And when that day comes, members of your tribe will rail at those who kill your children and don’t care, because your skin is white and theirs isn’t, and they can and you can’t do anything about it.

The only clear justification for killing is self-defense.  More on that, perhaps, in another article.  But if you must kill, let me suggest some old-fashioned mores: kill military not civilians, kill adults not children; kill those who have actually harmed you (politicians who decided on wars which devastated your country), not those who haven’t.

If you want vengeance, shoot at the guilty and shoot at those who can shoot back.

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