Yet another Iraq idea

Things just keep getting worse in Iraq; we seem to be in a rut that goes around and around, repeating the same things, never getting any closer to a conclusion. The primary argument for staying in the rut is that if we started to withdraw, things would get much worse and it would be our fault for leaving. (Never mind that most of the blame for the bad situation is already ours: the thinking here goes along the lines of "all's well that ends well".)

In fact, the plans I've seen for withdrawing all seem to be vague. The differences among them have to do with (1) the speed of the withdrawal, (2) the extent of the withdrawal, and (3) the triggers and conditions modulating the withdrawal. If you can point at any distinguishing pattern among the various proposals that have been made, if you are closely identified with the Republican Party and/or the Bush administration, then your withdrawal plan, if you have one, is (1) slow; (2) shallow (i.e., a significant American presence will be maintained indefinitely in Iraq); and (3) conditional on events that are unlikely to take place. On the other hand, if you a strongly against the Republicans and the Bush administration, then your plan for withdrawal is (1) fast (i.e., six months or so); (2) complete (i.e., no American presence will remain unless under UN mandate); (3) unconditional (i.e., seamless hand-over to Iraqi forces is desirable, but not mandatory). Other plans in between these extremes seem to be a function of the political dimension.

I have a somewhat different idea, sort of a blend of the two plus an empirical test of the assumptions of both sides.

What I propose is that a contiguous region of Iraq, preferably one whose populance reflects the ethnic, religious, and economic diversity of the country at large, be designated the "autonomous zone". That is, American-led forces will draw a line around a fairly large region of the country (probably somewhere in the mid-eastern part), and set up control points on the main entrances and exits. Then, they will withdraw from that region, and pledge to stay completely out, not entering even for humanitarian assistance, for a minimum period of time, such as three or six months. The region would be under the control of the national government, Iraqi army forces could pass freely in and out, as well as supplies and so on. The control points would restrict other traffic to people who live in the region and have a legitimate reason to travel in and out.

This region would be presented explicitly to all Iraqis and to the world as a test. If the region dissolves into bloody civil war, then the case of the Republicans and the Bush administration for a slow, shallow, and conditional withdrawal will have been strengthened; if the region is mostly calm and stable, then the case for a rapid, complete, and unconditional withdrawal would have been strengthened, and in my view, should be begun at once.

The worst possible result would be that the autonomous zone becomes a haven for those who are mounting attacks outside of the zone. That is why thorough border checks during the experiment are so important.

Also, this kind of artificial partitioning of a country is unpleasant for the people. However, if the experiment has a known duration, fairly short, and if the benefit is very clear, I believe that people would cooperate with it. In fact, one of the biggest problems would probably be keeping people out of the zone once it starts to develop some degree of stability. Again, if the time period is short, it should be fairly easy to convince people to wait.

There are many technical details that are very important. The zone must have it's own infrastructure, such as sources of water and electricity. If this is vulnerable to being damaged from outside the zone, then it should be protected to the extent possible by the American forces outside.

However, the experiment should be begun without undo delay. The Americans should supply some overall parameters such as the range of sizes of the zone, what resources must be inside the zone, and the rough population size and composition. But the Iraqi government should decide all of the details. This would be the first time that they would be making decisions regarding law and policy that would not have to be backed up by the Americans.

Either way, this would be positive action, a partial withdrawal that was both fast but measured, complete but limited to one zone, and unconditional yet would determine subsequent further withdrawal.


Some attributes of careers

These are just some random thoughts about different kinds of careers one might choose, and why some people find certain careers more interesting than other people. This is not really a very exciting blog entry, so be warned.

There are wide differences in talent and in training and experience that can be used to classify different career paths. Someone who never studied music until after college is unlikely to have a successful career as a classical musician; someone who has poor hand-eye coordination will not succeed easily as a surgeon, and so on. But that's not what I'm talking about here.

I think that there are four very general attributes that can be applied to any possible career. Some careers seem to have one of the four almost to the complete exclusion of the others, while other careers are more of a blend. Here they are:

  • Drifting.
  • Scamming.
  • Maintenance of the present.
  • Focusing on the future.
First off is drifting, which many people wouldn't call a career at all. I include in this both the Skid Row bum and the idle rich. For example, Paris Hilton's career up to now has had a strong "drifting" component. Some people fall in to this category naturally, and others are forced into it. Some ordinary jobs can attain a very large component of drifting after a time. Someone who just "puts in the hours" or "keeps the seat warm" is drifting.

Next come scamming. This kind of career is built on the exploitation of human frailty. Most of the criminal careers fall into this category, but there are others. If someone spends their time pandering or taking advantage of peoples' weaknesses, then they are scammers. Some religious figures fall into this category, as do many in the entertainment industry. People with porn websites are basically scammers, as I am using the term. Since societies and laws serve to protect citizens, it is no accident that many scams are illegal, but not all are. Politicians, for example, often scam voters by making a career of exploiting their fears and prejudices in order to keep getting elected. While reprehensible, this is far from illegal.

Next we come to the largest class, those who maintain the present. These jobs are the pillar of society. People who raise food, who prepare food, who sell food--they are in this class. People who make cars and repair cars are too, along with doctors and policemen and firemen. Our large and complex human society requires a lot of maintenance, and there are many different types of maintenance activity. Many maintenance jobs are not widely respected: picking fruit in the field and collecting the trash are two out of many examples. Yet, all maintenance jobs are important.

The final class is those who focus on the future. Research scientists, legislators, inventors, philosophers, and similar workers also play an essential role. Almost all of our technology was developed by members of this class. Virtually all of the various medical procedures, laws, and similarly important aspects of our lives were not created by drifting, scamming, or maintenance, but by individuals whose focus was a bit beyond the needs of their day.

There are a great many careers who blend these four factors. For example, entertainment frequently has both scamming and maintenance aspects. As I stated above, many careers can be directed primarily at scamming, maintenance, or the future, but can fall into drifting through boredom or constant repetition. Very often, people whose primary careers are involved with maintenance also concern themselves with the future and make contributions in that area. People can be in maintenance or future-oriented businesses, but concern themselves primarily with scamming, that is, profiteering.

I think that applying these four attributes to potential careers could be useful to young people who might be making career choices, and also to older people who may not feel satisfied with their current careers, and might be looking for some kind of change. Anyway, speaking for myself, I've found it interesting to apply them to my career.


Is it time to reshuffle the family farm?

America has a long tradition of family farms. My own ancestry includes farmers in Indiana and Illinois, as does that of millions of my fellow citizens. The land upon which this farming tradition is based was made available to families willing to farm it, many of whom immigrated to America in order to do it. It is easy to forget the connection between immigrants and the family farm, because a considerable number of generations have passed, blurring its origins.

Today, we have a situation where immigrants still perform a good deal of the farm work in America, but on very different terms. There has been a great consolidation of farms, with fewer and fewer owners running larger and larger agricultural operations, in a manner that would hardly be recognizable to the the present owners' great-great grandfathers who immigrated here, broke in the land, and raised their families on it. For example, as far as I know, I no longer have any relatives who own and operate family farms. And the immigrants aren't coming here with their families so they can have their own farms--they're coming to be farm labor on other people's farms.

A recent article pointed out an interesting side effect of the great consolidation. It seems that farmers are putting off retirement until well past age 65. In part, this is due to their long habit, and to their use of machinery that allows one man, even an old one, to run a farm. However, another important factor is that relatively few people are staying on the land. Farmers know that if they stopped farming, their land would be sold off, possibly to developers, possibly to other very large commercial operations to create even larger consolidations. But more and more often, there is no longer a connection between the family and the farm.

Now, some would say that this is perfectly desirable as an outcome. After all, the life of a farmer is one that contains a lot of drudgery, frustration, and disappointment. Why not industrialize farms? Perhaps in the end, there will be no more farm consortiums than there are automobile manufacturers or oil companies, that is, perhaps half a dozen or maybe a dozen. They will hire people to work on them using the products of their industrial peers: pesticides and fertilizers from the chemical industry; genetically engineered seed stock and live stock from the biological engineering companies; machinery from the manufacturing industries. The Calval farm corporation will compete with the Gulf farm corporation. Kismet.

On the other hand, there are at least two things that will be lost if this happens: diversity in the food marketplace, and the direct connection to the land by families or small groups that work and live on relatively small farming operations. There are somewhat abstract, and I can't really cite a lot of evidence in direct support of the idea that diversity in eating and a direct connection to the land is better than an ever-increasing consolidation and industrialization of farms, but I actually don't think I need to, It seems rather self-evident to me.

So what do we have: (1) immigrant farmers were given plots of land which they farmed and lived on, and passed on to their children, resulting in a long-lasting system of family farms; (2) over many decades, more and more families have moved on to other pursuits and their farms have been consolidated into large, semi-industrial, corporate farms; (3) the consolidation process has now reached the point to where farmers are afraid to retire, because they know that their farms will not be passed on to their families; (4) thousands of poor farmers in Mexico and other South American countries risk their lives to come to America to work in our farms. Doesn't there seem to be a rather obvious, if radical, possible solution to this developing problem?

Why not take back the land? The original land grants were motivated by the concept of the family farm. They weren't intended to create giant agricultural corporations or housing developments. If the family of a farmer who owns agricultural land no longer wants to farm it, it could be taken back--bought back, perhaps, under imminent domain--and then given away to families who will live on and farm the land. Very large farms should be broken up into manageable pieces, and given to people who will live on and work the land, under terms similar to those used in 19th century land grants. If Americans can not be found who will take up this opportunity, then the same thing will happen in the 21st century that happened more than 100 years ago: people will come into our country and meld with the land. It will become their land to an extent that most native-born Americans have never known.

Reshuffling the farmland deck like this will do two very important things: it will bring back the family farm, the backbone of the American way of life; and it will alleviate the immigration problem by providing a permanent home for a subset of the people who are sneaking under the wire to work other people's farms. A new deal for American agriculture.

Now, let's be clear: I'm not talking about all of the farmland in America. There is a trend, as mentioned in the above-cited article, for farms to be lost due to lack of interest by farming families, but this is surely a minority of the cases. I'm also not not talking about "solving the immigration problem" with this idea. There will still be a need for farm hands, just as there was 150 years ago. But at least some of the "unwanted" land ought to be made available to at least some immigrant families, just as it was to my ancestors and their families.

I believe that a rational approach to this would be to create a new designation for agricultural land that was originally granted to farmers by the government which is in danger of being lost as a family farm (or as a farm period, as for land sought by developers). The designation would be as a "family farm", and a farmer would be given this land by the government, for him or her to work and to pass on to family members in perpetuity, up until the point where no family member wanted to live on it and farm it; at that point, it would be taken back by the government and made available to some other farmer who was willing to accept it on those terms. One way to think about this would be as a kind of "family farm bank", run by the government, that would give land to farmers willing to work it in the "close up and personal" family-oriented way. If one of the products of this program was to allow former undocumented agricultural workers to become American family farmers, so much the better.