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Memo to the press: please stop abusing the word “militant”

A request to members of the press: please quit using “militant” as a euphemism for “terrorist”. It just doesn’t work: by the normal usage of the English language, that isn’t even remotely what “militant” means. In normal usage, one might speak, for instance, of the militant members of Churchill’s cabinet, who wanted to impose sanctions on Japan, or of the militant members of the United Auto Workers, who wanted to go on strike. In neither case are these people who blow up women and children. Members of Churchill’s cabinet might risk war, and innocents might end up getting blown up as part of that war, but blowing them up isn’t the chief tactic or even something that will necessarily happen at all. Likewise, union violence has sometimes gotten ugly, but the accusation of ugly violence is in no way implied when one talks about “militant” union members. (If you screw up the language enough, in future it might be, but it isn’t now.) Even talking about “militant Islam” doesn’t yet imply that one is talking purely about terrorists, or even just about physically violent people: some aggression is implied, but it need not be physical; it might just be “lawfare”.

I am not asking you to give up euphemisms, or even to give up being mealy-mouthed about terrorism. I know the world is a big complicated place, which contains a lot of people who will kill you (or just deny you access to information) if you don’t write euphemistically about them. To ask you to try to ignore that would be inhuman. It’s just that there are better words to use. “Insurgents” is often appropriate, particularly in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. Applying that word to Pakistan’s jihadists might be questioned, since there is often a suspicion (or more than a suspicion) that they have governmental backing, whereas “insurgents” by definition want to overthrow the government. But insurgencies have often had sympathizers and helpers inside the government, so the word still is reasonably applicable. When the government is sponsoring terrorism outside Pakistan, as in Mumbai, there’s just no good word for that but terrorism. Sometimes “bandits” is the best word, as when a group is operating mainly for profit and is just a local entity. In a more urban environment, “gangs” can be appropriate. The word “guerrillas” almost seems reserved, these days, for Communists, but it long antedates Communism, and could be used for armed struggles by other movements.

Admittedly, choosing between these sorts of words requires a bit of thought and knowledge of the language. It’s harder than just adopting the mindless policy that ‘whenever an authority says “terrorist”, replace it with “militant”’. (That often seems to be the policy — except of course in direct quotes, which aren’t supposed to be altered; thus the same article will switch from “terrorist” when directly quoting someone to “militant” when paraphrasing him.) But it’s not inappropriate to ask you to think a bit and to know the language; that is supposed to be the business you’re in.

As it is, you just look silly; perhaps the silliest thing I’ve seen was a picture of burning oil tankers in Pakistan that had been destined to supply US troops in Afghanistan, captioned as being blown up by “suspected militants”. Now, first of all, when talking about the persons who actually blew up the tankers (and that was the sentence structure of the caption), there is no need to tack on “suspected”. They did it. We don’t know who they are, but they did it. It’s only when talking about people whose identities are known but whose guilt is questionable that “suspected” is appropriate, to protect their reputations. Still, the use of the word “suspected” indicates how much, when you write “militant”, you’re really thinking “terrorist”, and expect people to read the word as “terrorist”. There would be no need to tack on “suspected” to any proper uses of “militant”: militant members of the UAW, for instance, are proud to be militant. It’s only because “militant” here means “terrorist” that anyone thinks of adding “suspected”. The dodge is too transparent to do you any good. It doesn’t even do what you might want it to do here, which is to note that blowing up military convoys is by traditional standards a legitimate operation of war, not something that deserves the label “terrorism”.

Lest it be thought that I am just asking you to be better in deceiving people: no, I don’t like to be deceived. I can tolerate attempts at deception as the price for getting even minimal information out of bad areas, but I don’t like it. And a lot of this equivocation is not forced, but comes out of things like the mantra “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. Really to be a “freedom fighter” one has to be fighting for freedom — individual freedom, that is: the “freedom” to be ruled by a dictator of one’s own race and color is not freedom; it’s “independence”, and its benefits are dubious. Modern-day terrorists usually don’t even pretend to be fighting for freedom, or have only the shallowest of pretenses (such as saying one thing in English to foreign journalists, and a very different thing in their own language).

Now, this does get complicated: some of them do pretend to be fighting for freedom; and conversely, some people who are genuinely fighting for freedom end up achieving a dictatorship. But when they’re not even really pretending, why should you pretend for them?

As for terrorism, it can be distinguished from terror, which is part of normal military tactics. Military terror is more serious: when an opposing army breaks ranks and flees in terror, it is because if they stayed they would be killed (or captured, if lucky). Tricking an opponent into fleeing does happen, but one needs a very substantial show of force to pull that off. Terrorism, in contrast, is a belief in terror as a force that can move people even when there is only a miniscule probability of them being killed or injured. A common pattern in the language is to add the suffix “-ism” to a word when people take their belief in it to a ridiculous extreme, and terrorism is no exception. Many of its tactics inherently cannot be scaled up into a more potent threat: they rely on hitting people who are unprepared, and if they were used more often people would prepare. Commandeering passenger aircraft for suicide attacks only worked for one day, and even during that day the last set of passengers knew to fight back. Even the military has found that when they try behind-enemy-lines raids too often they end up with a Blackhawk Down style debacle. The trick is to realize the limits of terrorist tactics, and not be fooled into a “they’ll kill us all” sort of mindset, which might result in surrender or in overreaction.

Of course to know the limits of any given terrorist tactic, one has to have a decent grasp of the military art, which is not something I can reasonably ask of you: it’s a full-time job for military officers, which makes it too much to ask of the average journalist. Praise is due to reporters who do have a good grasp of it, like Michael Yon and C. J. Chivers, but they spent years learning. It’s not something that is entirely beyond you, but it does take effort, and whether out of leftist pacifism or out of just not having the time, the vast majority of you haven’t exerted that effort. Still, at bottom, whether to call something “terrorist” is a substantive question: if the violence inherently can’t be scaled up — if its main effect can only be as a bloody show to shock TV viewers — then it’s terrorism; otherwise it’s something else. That’s the way the word is generally used, when it’s used sincerely. Of course it’s also abused, but that’s no excuse for completely refusing to use it. And substituting “militant” for it is just silly.


Tocqueville

The book Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville, is widely recommended to those wishing to know about the US political system. Personally, I tried to read it at one point, but found it boring, and only got through fifty pages or so. Yet I devoured from cover to cover Tocqueville’s later book The Old Regime and the Revolution, about pre-revolutionary France. It’s a much better book, in a lot of ways.

Tocqueville was a young man when he wrote Democracy in America, after spending eighteen months traveling through America and talking to the best-informed people he could find. Though probably wiser at age 26 (when he started his journey) than 99.9% of people twice that age, he was still no match for his later self; in the later book, he alludes several times to errors of youthful enthusiasm that he committed in the earlier one. Also, in the earlier book, he was writing about a foreign country, not about his own. The language and mode of expression were not his native ones; fine nuances and things that were left unsaid must have escaped him in some cases. His later book, besides being about his own country, was researched in much greater detail; he delved deeply into formerly-private government records, much as modern historical researchers do. The book is heavily footnoted.

But it’s not just that it’s a better book in the abstract; it’s a lot more relevant than the earlier book to the US political system as it is today. In writing of the old regime of France, he was writing of a formerly decentralized system that had gradually, over the century or so prior to the Revolution, turned into a centralized one — one in which bureaucrats from Paris (or answering to Paris) poked into all manner of details of people’s lives. The change had been little remarked, since the old institutions of local control had been left intact, but had been bypassed. Before Tocqueville’s book appeared, Frenchmen had been of the habit of speaking of centralization as one of the benefits of the Revolution, but he showed that that particular change was more in appearance than in reality.

That is the resemblance in the large; in details, there are also a surprising number of resemblances. The courts of the old regime, for instance, he describes as increasingly interjecting themselves into politics, yet on the other hand increasingly abandoning their role as legal arbiters to special administrative courts. (That this is a resemblance may come as a surprise to readers who are unfamiliar with the number of special court systems established in the US government today, and the number of “administrative hearings” of various sorts that are conducted. Tax courts, which resolve matters relating to the IRS, are perhaps the most widely known; but even the National Transportation Safety Board has its own courts with its own judges.) Tocqueville also describes the middle classes, in pre-revolutionary society, as being divided into squabbling groups, each trying to chisel favors out of the government in its own way, but more similar to one another than they realized.

Of course there are unsurprising resemblances too, such as that the old regime was a system that, to support itself, levied an increasing number and variety of taxes, and nevertheless was going bankrupt. But those are not what make the book interesting.

The book is long out of copyright, and thus available for free. Those who know French will of course prefer the original rather than a translation.


Against state pension funds

For all the talk, these days, of the problems that state pension funds are getting into, I haven’t seen anyone argue against their existence. But the case against them is simple and strong.

To define what is being argued against: state pension funds pay the pensions of retired employees of the state government. Without pension funds, states would be paying these pensions directly out of tax revenues. With pension funds, the government plays the markets, investing tax revenues in stocks, bonds, and such, and then later selling them and using the proceeds to pay pensions to retirees.

If you were to ask anyone of pretty much any ideological stripe whether it’d be a good idea for the government to play the market in the service of any other obligation, he’d likely ask whether you were crazy. The idea that, for instance, maintaining roads should be done by investing money in the stock market, then using the dividends to do the actual road maintenance, would be laughed at — and not just by small-government advocates who doubted the government’s ability to choose winners in the stock market; socialists, from their point of view, might question why you were giving money to the capitalists on Wall Street in the first place, and whether you really could have any hope of getting it back from those lying pigs. But somehow for pensions the political situation in the US is the opposite: at the state and local level (but at least mostly, not at the federal level), pension funds are taken for granted; there is much controversy about some of their details, but generally all parties accept that they should exist. Yet the situation that everyone would laugh at and the situation that is generally accepted are really one and the same: when state money is sent to Wall Street, the official reasons why it is sent make little difference; all that really matters is the amount and the timing. Whether the name on the account be “pensions” or “roads”, the funds used for investing come out of the same pot of money and the proceeds go into the same pot.

Plenty of private companies have pension funds; so it’s easy to think states should, too, especially in this era of much talk about how government should try to imitate the private sector. But for private companies, there is a potent rationale for pension funds: companies often fail; a pension fund is a way to promise that pensions will be safe even if the company ceases to exist. States don’t cease to exist, except via war or troubles that verge on war; and when a state disappears via such events, its pension funds are extremely unlikely to survive the tumult.

The biggest attraction of state pension funds has no doubt been the extravagant promises they make, as to returns. I’ve seen in several sources (Michael Lewis’s recent article on California’s financial troubles being one) that state pension funds generally expect returns of about 8% per year. To illustrate the impact of this, suppose that any given piece of money spends about twenty years in the pension fund. That is the length of a short government career, and also a common length of time spent in retirement, and thus is a reasonable figure for the average interval of time between when a pension obligation is incurred by employing someone, and when that obligation finally comes due and the money is withdrawn from the fund to cover it. Twenty years’ compound interest, at 8%, multiplies the initial amount of money by a factor of 4.6; or if we figure that the 8% is just in nominal dollars, and subtract 2% to adjust for inflation, the multiplying factor is 3.2. So by assuming that 8% yield, they can justify much larger pensions than could be justified if pensions were to be paid directly out of tax revenues: in particular, the pensions can be around three times larger. A modest pension of $20,000 a year can turn into $60,000.

When the market fails to deliver that 8% increase, the result is what many states have now: an “underfunded” pension plan, where even when an 8% return is assumed for the future, the fund won’t be able to meet its obligations. The conventional way of regarding this is to be horrified at it, as a harbinger of state bankruptcy. But if one regards state pensions as things that should just be paid out of tax revenues, without any resorting to Wall Street to amplify money, then the pension fund is a nice big fat asset, and the only thing its “underfunding” is a harbinger of, is a switch to a system of accounting where future pension obligations are not counted as present-day liabilities. There would be nothing dishonest about such a switch; other future obligations, such as schools and roads that will predictably need repair, are not counted as present-day liabilities. As for the promises made, both as regards returns the pension fund would make, and as regards the size of the eventual pensions that would be paid to retired state employees, those were always just fantasies that could never be delivered for long. (For how fantastic some of those pensions have gotten, see this article, as well as Michael Lewis’s above-linked article.)

If an attempt were made to reduce pensions, lawsuits would no doubt be filed; promised pensions have a certain legal standing, as contractual obligations. But it’s not enough of a standing to give them absolute priority over the basic rule of elected government that no legislature can bind its successors. To force a state government to pay pensions that bankrupted the state would be an especially bad violation of that rule. Of course there is never any guarantee that judges will see it that way, especially if the bankruptcy is several years in the future. Still, any judge who tried to enforce payment of every dollar promised would, sooner or later, run into all the usual difficulties of getting blood from a stone. Would he force taxes to be raised? Which taxes? Force cuts in other spending? Which spending? Legislatures don’t have an easy time deciding such things; and judges would find it even harder, especially with the public screaming at them for usurping the legislature’s proper role.

Indeed, to some extent, my whole argument here is merely a justification for what inevitably will be done anyway, barring economic miracles. There is little political will for levying the huge tax increases that would be necessary to restore pension funds to being fully funded, and no short-term downside to leaving them underfunded; simple neglect and inertia would leave them underfunded until they ran out completely, at which point the only things to be done would be to fire the staff administering their investments, and adjust the size of pensions to whatever could be borne out of tax revenue. But to accept that this was actually the goal, rather than just drifting along in that direction, would open up other possibilities. For one thing, the assets in the pension fund could be sold to wipe out other debts of state government, so that the government was no longer, in effect, borrowing money and using it to play the market with. For another, the pension fund administrators could stop trying for unrealistically high returns (something which David Goldman has blamed for their recent losses in mortgage-based investments). Also, the sizes of pensions paid out could be adjusted before the final crunch actually hit; the transition could be a smooth one, rather than an abrupt emergency measure.

Thus far, I’ve focused on the effects of pension funds on government finances; but that’s not all, and likely not even the most important part. When pension funds buy corporate stocks, they get an ownership interest in those companies. They can vote in corporate elections; and they control such large blocks of stock that their votes carry serious weight. Even if they were to abstain from voting, their large purchases have big effects on companies’ stock prices, and thus on how easily those companies can raise more capital. Bond purchases, too, affect what companies do: in many cases, if bonds can’t be floated for a proposed venture, it won’t be done. So for the government to own large quantities of stocks and bonds is a big step towards Marx’s dream of the “workers” (via the government) owning “the means of production”. Not that a Marxist conspiracy to take over the economy is even vaguely possible: today’s Marxists are not intelligent enough to put together a decent conspiracy. Petty corruption is more of a danger, as are politicized investments. But although pension fund scandals and politicization of investments have often made the news, in the grand scheme of things they are minor and occasional problems; the big problem is the everyday mediocrity of the oversight that government pension funds apply to their investments. I have made no particular study of the quality of that oversight; but unless state governments miraculously do it much better than they do everything else, state pension funds must be a large contributor to what might be called the Dilbert-ification of corporate America, in which companies are taken over by people who chase after management fads, while the people who can actually do useful work struggle with silly orders from above, trying to construe them into something sensible. The cartoon of course exaggerates; but the phenomena it mocks are quite common, and a tremendous problem.

Most of what has been said above applies not only to state pension funds but also to those of local governments. The exception is that local governments sometimes do cease to exist: there are plenty of ghost mining towns out West, whose population evaporated when the mine closed. In such a case, just as the mining company may want to promise pensions which will survive the closure of the mine, so may the town government want to promise pensions which will survive the abandoment of the town. But for that, explicit measures would be needed to put the pension fund in some hands that would administer it honestly after the town was defunct as a political entity — a difficult enough proposition that giving control to the payees themselves, via 401(k) plans or the like, is likely better than establishing any sort of collective pension fund. (Not that corporate pension funds are immune from getting hijacked as the company fails; far from it. But politics has a nastiness all of its own.)

There may even be a few cases like this at the state level, where it might be forseen that, due to some economic factor, the population and tax base will diminish drastically. The oil boom in North Dakota might be one such factor: at some point that oil will be exhausted, and people will leave. In such rare exceptions, state pension funds might be justified. Such a justification would, of course, involve a very different attitude from the sort of giddy optimism that assumes that an 8% return will always be available. Also, for the justification to work, the decline would have to be local rather than general; in a general decline, good investments are no more common elsewhere than they are locally — so instead of trying to pick global winners in the market (and distorting it in the process), the government can take the easier and more certain approach of just letting the local winners emerge, and taxing them. In a decline that was national but not worldwide, investments in a foreign country which still had a growing economy might seem attractive — but the catch is that that country might decide, with the newfound power that economic growth brings, that it didn’t care to pay back the money.

In any case, even considering pension funds as an evil, they’re one we’re stuck with for a while, since arguments like this never prevail quickly. Even when everyone with good sense agrees immediately, that still leaves the majority unconvinced. Even if by some miracle this argument did prevail quickly, selling off pension funds’ investments would best be done slowly, so as not to unduly depress the markets and make the sale yield less than it should. And that scenario isn’t so different from what is happening today, since when a pension fund is “underfunded”, it uses up its capital at an increasing rate. Even as regards the effects of pension funds’ oversight of corporate America, that has been a slow process, and can’t be reversed quickly. Good oversight doesn’t magically appear when lousy oversight is destroyed, but rather takes time to build. For the moment, the hope and the threat of it will have to do.

Update: Alexander Volokh, a law professor, has written a nice overview of the legal rules surrounding pension funds. It falls short of considering what might happen when things really get bad, but that’s sort of inherent in legal analyses: they cover precedents (court rulings), not situations that are unprecedented.


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